The Duke's Double
by Anita Mills, historical (2000)
Signet, $3.99, ISBN 0-451-19954-5

It has been a long, long time since a book actually throws me off-balance. When upon finishing The Duke's Double for the first time only to start rereading again, I knew this book is headed right to my special keeper shelf. The passion and tumultuous emotions resonated by the characters in this book simply singes. This is romance. This is what makes romance reading worth the time and effort.

Once upon a time, Joanna Sherwood is a woman with dreams. She has two men who love her (and she they), and she marries the one who asks first, Adrian Delancourt. In just one year, she is accused by her husband and mother-in-law of adultery with her husband's best friend (and former suitor) Gareth. Divorce causes her to flee to Capri where she marries Gareth and lives in peace.

When the story opens, it is six years later and Gareth has died in a boating accident a month before. Joanna reluctantly allows herself to be persuaded by Gareth's mother to return to England for Gareth's burial. And perhaps her mother-in-law is right - her children deserve to know the birthright that is theirs. And before you know it, guess who bumps into Joanna.

Adrian has never forgotten Joanna, and it only fuels his love/hate feelings for her to see her again. And when he realizes that Joanna's oldest son is his, he decides to file for custody. Not if Joanna has her way.

This is not a cheap "Oh I love him all along!" cop-out romance. Joanna has been wronged truly by her ex-husband and she knows it. And she never hesitates to let Adrian know it. I love the fact that the author has Joanna really loving and mourning Gareth who is a good man, and her rekindling affections for Adrian is real and convincing. Adrian has to work to get back into her good graces, and work he does.

TDD is a complex, rich romance with three-dimensional characters. No clichés in abundance here - Joanna's friend and potential suitor John Barrasford is a kind man who reminds her of Gareth, hence the attraction. And the final scene when she tells Barrasford goodbye has me moved to tears. I don't know whom I root for - Adrian or Barrasford, but I would love to see Barrasford's story expanded in a novel of his own.

And Joanna, what a heroine to savor! This is a woman who has to be stronger than she ever dreamed possible, and she never lets me down by selling herself short. Adrian wronged her badly, and no, she would never succumb to him until she has time to think and make up her mind. Should one let the past be - Adrian is bitterly remorseful at the end and he begs her forgiveness, but how much should one forgive? How can one let go of so much hurt? These are issues that Joanna faces ultimately, and how she resolves them make her a truly wonderful and memorable heroine.

A romance with strong, passionate people whose love is challenged by real, non-contrived issues, with no easy resolution in sight, TDD keeps me turning the pages in bated breath. I find myself hanging on to every word, cheering Joanna on, cheering Adrian on, and wishing Barrasford the happiness he deserves. And Gareth too is always thought of, the wonderful man who was there when Joanna needed him and hence was loved more by all for that.

I can only wish more romances make me smile, cry, and feel like TDD did. If only more books could portray love as convincingly as Ms Mills did in this book, if only, if only, if only. It is books like this that makes wading through lousy bad books worthwhile. For that really wonderful, unforgettable few hours with Joanna, Adrian, Gareth, and Barrasford, I am utterly grateful to Anita Mills.

Rating: 98

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