The Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare is a fairytale Regency that blends Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella and Batman.
Seriously. And it’s amazing.
I actually read it twice. The first time I was at home on a Friday night, enjoying a few rum and Cokes and unwinding. Apparently I can have exactly two drinks before I start loving everything and then forgetting I loved it.
I woke up the next morning surprised to see that Drunk Elyse gave it five stars on Goodreads because I didn’t remember the end. I opened it up to a random chapter and was like, “Who the fuck is Trevor?”
So I read it again. But Drunk Elyse was right the first time. The Duchess Deal is full of Feels, and a hero who has his head up his ass, but is not completely oblivious to it. And it’s laugh-out-loud funny.
Emma Gladstone was kicked out of the house by her vicar father when she was found having sex with a young man. She walked all the way to London on a frozen winter night (losing a toe in the process) and pieced her life back together as a seamstress.
When the book opens she’s just completed the wedding dress for the Duke of Ashbury’s bride-to-be; unfortunately the wedding was canceled and Emma shows up at the Duke’s door to demand payment for the dress she spent so much time on.
Ash pays her, and offers her another deal as well. He was horribly wounded when a rocket went off near him at Waterloo, and as a result one side of his body and face is badly scarred. His fiancée broke their engagement off when she saw his injuries, and now he’s torn between wanting to spend his time brooding in the dark and knowing that he still needs an heir.
So he proposes to Emma. Sort of.
He sets the rules:
- They will have sex at night – no lights, no kissing – until she produces an heir.
- She and said heir will then go live in the country completely apart from Ash.
- She will not ask about his scars or touch them or even think about them too hard.
Emma agrees because she doesn’t feel like dying in poverty when she gets old and her eyesight fails and she can’t sew anymore, but she immediately goes about making their marriage an actual partnership rather than the nonsense he’s proposing.
I love it when a hero is being all broody and struggling with his man-feels and the heroine is like, “Right, you can go sulk in the corner if you want, but I’ve got stuff to do.”
He’s all like “Look at my horrible, monstrous visage!” and she’s all, “They’re scars dude, chill the fuck out. You’re upsetting the cat.”
Emma is never appalled or frightened by Ash’s appearance. She accepts it almost immediately and as she begins to fall in love with him, it barely registers. It’s Ash who can’t move past the way he looks.
And while Ash does spend time sulking, he’s still pretty upbeat all the things considered. I got the impression that he liked the idea of being a monster rather than actually being one.
Like the rest of Dare’s books, The Duchess Deal is full of snappy banter and teasing and moments of utter and delightful silliness.
Such as feline interuptus. Emma and Ash are about to consummate their marriage when Ash senses an intruder in the room:
How the devil had someone slipped in?
Never mind, he told himself. That question could wait. The more pressing inquiry at hand was this: How was he going to kill the bastard? He mentally ran through the available weapons in the room. The fireplace poker would be most effective, but was out of reach. The sash of his dressing gown could make a decent garrote, in a pinch.
If needed, he’d fight hand-to-hand. His only concern was keeping Emma safe.
He rolled to his side and came to his knees, putting his body between her and the threat. “You have three seconds to leave the way you came,” he ordered. “Or I vow to you, I will snap your craven, knavish neck.”
The intruder struck first, leaping forward with a fiendish yowl.
Something that felt like a dozen razor-sharp barbs pierced straight through his nightshirt, digging into his shoulder and arm. He gave a stunned shout of pain.
Emma flung back the bedclothes. “Breeches! Breeches, no!”
Claws. Teeth. Hissing.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a romance novel yet where the hero and heroine have been interrupted by their pet, which is wild because I’m pretty sure everyone with a cat or dog has experienced this delight.
I also liked the fact that even though Ash spends a fair amount of time having a pity party for himself, he’s still pretty aware of the people around him and he’s never intentionally hurtful.
In this scene he and Emma are preparing to go to the theatre (a huge step for him):
She remained at the top of the staircase, hesitant. Well, and why wouldn’t she be. She was about to go out in public accompanied by a hideous monster in evening attire. One who flung hats and walking sticks about at random intervals.
“If you’d rather not,” he said, “it’s all the same to me. I’ve a report from the Yorkshire estate to look over.”
“Would you prefer to stay home?”
“Only if you prefer it.”
“I want to go. I should say, I’d hate to waste Mary’s efforts.” She touched a gloved hand to her hair.
What a horse’s ass he was. She wasn’t hesitating because she was concerned about his appearance. She was waiting for him to compliment hers.
A moment later:
Ash offered her his arm, and she took it. He escorted her down the staircase and out to the waiting carriage, mindful of her voluminous skirts, but never pausing. He refused to give any appearance of reluctance.
Tonight, it didn’t matter that he was scarred and hideous and would prefer to hide from society.
Emma deserved to be seen. And this night was for her.
I also liked that there was a really solid foundation for Ash’s Wounded Feels that didn’t come entirely from Ash being self-conscious regarding his scars.
And because we’re not done with the awesomeness, Emma becomes friends with some amazing (slightly eccentric) ladies who live nearby and are clearly sequel-bait. Female friendships FTW.
Now, I bet you’re thinking “But Elyse, you mentioned Batman earlier. Please explain.” When he’s brooding Ash walks the streets at night and, after chasing off some thugs who are robbing a woman, gets named the Monster of Mayfair by the press. The Monster’s nightly appearances get either exaggerated or entirely made up, and earn Ash the affection of a boy who is determined to be Robin to his Batman. It’s all adorable.
So I totally recommend reading The Duchess Deal, but preferably while sober so you can really appreciate all of it. It’s the perfect blend of two of my favorite fairytale tropes, it’s got a hero who never an alpha-hole, it’s funny, and it’s got female friendship. What more could you want?