In The Day of the Duchess, Sarah MacLean gives us a beautiful but heartbreaking story where readers must confront the possibility that true love isn’t enough.
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
[For Mature Audiences; Some Spoilers]
This is the third book I’m reading by Sarah MacLean. Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake is one of my fave historical romances of all time. The Day of the Duchess is different from Nine Rules, but still pretty fantastic. This novel is a heartbreaking story that considers what happens when love just isn’t enough to sustain a relationship. As we move between past and present, we learn the main characters’ stories, fall in love right with them, and experience the very deep angst of watching the hero and heroine hurt each other and struggle to understand how to fix it.
Lord Malcolm Bevinstoke, Duke of Haven, hasn’t seen his wife in two years and seven months. So he and the rest of London are completely shocked when Lady Seraphina shows up during the last parliamentary session of the House of Lords to demand they grant her a divorce. Over time (and in a nonlinear fashion) we learn that three years ago Mal and Sera had a whirlwind romance. They meet by chance at ball (debating women’s motives in marriage and true love) and then, almost at first sight, fall head over heels. In their first month together, Mal and Sera try to keep their trysts secret, but the heat of their chemistry is hard to ignore. Sera’s mother grows increasingly concerned that the Duke has no intention of marrying her daughter. The Talbot family is looked down upon by much of the aristocracy–their father (a coal magnate) literally wins his earldom in a game of cards. Ever since, Sera and her four sisters (known as the Soiled S’s) have a difficult time in society. The Countess warns Sera that if she doesn’t stop whatever she’s doing with the Duke of Haven, she will not only ruin her chances, but also those of her sisters. So, in a moment of desperation, Sera makes a decision to force Mal’s hand… and despite his love for her, Mal refuses to forgive Sera for the betrayal. In fact, he spends the first nine months of their marriage deriding Sera and her family, publicly mocking them, and makes some serious betrayals of Sera too. After a horrific loss, for the sake of self-preservation, Sera leaves London without telling anyone where she’s going. Almost immediately, Mal realizes his mistake and wants to badly to start again with Sera, if only he can find her…
…Now that Sera is back in London, Mal sees this as his chance to win his wife back. He makes a deal with her: Sera can have her divorce if she’ll come to the country estate and help Mal find her replacement. That way, Mal can have time with Sera to make his case. This is very unorthodox, but Sera agrees. She wants her freedom, the chance to make her own life and find whatever joy she can wring out of the rest of her life. Sera takes her task to find the next Duchess of Haven very seriously, and even brings her four sisters as reinforcements. She enjoys having the time to reconnect with her sisters, plus it’s nice to have them as a barrier between her and Malcolm. But Mal means to woo his wife, even if he has the Soiled S’s, plus four debutantes and their families running around. Despite Sera’s avoidance, Mal is able to sneak in times to remind her of their chemistry, intellectually and in the bedroom. Still, Mal and Sera are forced to confront the possibility that, in this case, true love might not be enough to sustain their marriage.
Truth be told, I began this book thinking that I would totally despise Malcolm. And there are times I want to smack him over the head. Mal is so hurtful and mean-spirited when he’s first married to Sera. Even though I really dislike the lengths Mal goes to in order to toy with his wife and punish her, I do understand his initial feeling of betrayal. When we learn about Mal’s family history and the relationship with his parents, it even makes more sense. But goodness, Mal can be a jerk. I am glad that that the bulk of the book focusses on him trying to open himself up to Sera. She has definitely changed, but he has too. And Mal is confident that they new people they are now would have wonderful lives together.
I haven’t read the previous two books in the Scandal & Scoundrel Series, but I know that we meet Sera (and Mal) in The Rogue Not Taken, Sophie Talbot’s book. We know that the first months of Sera’s marriage are just devastating for her. She’s so in love and wants so badly to mend things with her reluctant husband. And even thinking about the extent of Sera’s loss breaks my heart. But almost three years later, she’s back in London and is clearly in a better place. Sera is confident, independent, and fierce. She’s determined to make a new life for herself and damn anyone that gets in the way, especially Malcolm. Sera is strong, but she’s also vulnerable. Mal is the love of her life, even if that love has caused so much pain:
“You left me—”
“You sent me away!” she said, unable to keep her voice from rising. “You stood in the house where we might have built a home, our wedding breakfast barely over, and you told me to leave you.”
When he opened his mouth to reply, she found she was not through.
“And do you know what is the great irony of it? The whole world thinks you ruined me before you married me, when the truth is that I was not ruined until after the fact. You ruined my hopes. My dreams. My future. You ruined my life. And I’ve had enough of that. I am here for one reason only, Your Grace. I want my life back. The one you stole.”
She was breathing heavily, full of anger that she rarely allowed release. And damned if it didn’t feel good. Even as she met his gaze and recognized his frustration. His anger. Good. She preferred him angry. Preferred to see her enemy. And they were enemies, were they not?
“If I stole your life, what did you do to mine? You disappeared, leaving all the world wondering where you’d gone. Imagining that I might have driven you away.”
She turned away again. “You did drive me away.” It was a lie, but she said it anyway, hoping it would hurt him.
“Mal,” she whispered.
“What is it, Angel?” His whisper tempted her like nothing she’d ever experienced as he leaned closer. “I shall give you anything you ask. I have never been able to refuse you.”
It wasn’t true. There had been a time when she’d begged him to forgive her. When she’d ached for him to believe her. And he had refused. But she was no longer that girl, and he was not that boy. And now, he promised not to refuse her, and she found she could not refuse him, either. It was her turn to lift her hand. Her turn to set palm to cheek. Her turn to ravage. And she did, feeling more powerful than ever when he exhaled, loving the edge of breath that whipped over lips like memory. As though she’d burned him. And she might have. They’d always been oil and flame. Why not let it happen? Just once? Just for a moment? Just to see if the combustion remained. She leaned up to him. Or he leaned down. It did not matter. He was whispering at her lips, and she did not know if he spoke to her or to a higher power.
“Forgive me,” he said. Whom was he asking? For what? She found she did not care.
The kiss unlocked her, breaking her open, letting light and air into the dark, dank places in her. It thieved the protection she had built over months and years, casting it out and leaving her with nothing to keep him away. And still, she did not care. Just as long as he did not stop. She was not ready for him to stop. It had been years since he’d touched her, and longer still since he’d touched her like this—with desire and passion and a commitment to nothing but pleasure. She sighed into the kiss, and he, too, was unlocked, moving, his strong, warm hand sliding back, fingers threading into her hair, pulling her closer as he pressed his mouth to hers, somehow turning the clock back to another time, when all that was between them was this—nothing.
He tasted the same, like some mysterious, tempting spice, and she could not stop herself from wrapping her arms about his neck and pressing closer. Licking across his lips, bold and desperate to relive him. He growled at the sensation, the sound low and wicked, and then his arms were around her waist and he was lifting her, turning her, pressing her up against the closed door—thank God it was closed—and she was his. As though years had never passed, and they were here, in love, once more…
…At her ear, he said wicked, wonderful things. The kinds of things she would not let herself remember in dark, lonely nights.
“I remember how pleasure finds you, Angel . . .” Long, deft fingers found their way into her bodice, sliding like a delicious promise. “I remember how you reach for it.”
He stopped just beyond one straining nipple—making her want to scream. “I remember how you hem and haw, doing everything you can to avoid telling me what you want.” The words shot through her, reminding her of the woman she had been even as he took the soft lobe of her ear between his teeth and bit gently, threatening to destroy her with pleasure…
…“Sera,” he said, disbelief and desire at war in the word. She brushed her lips over his cheek as he lifted one breast, testing its weight.
“I remember how pleasure finds you, Duke,” she repeated his words. “I remember how you reach for it. Shall I tell you what I want this time?”
He cursed, low and wicked, and she took that as a yes.
“I want your touch.” He gave it to her, a long slow slide of his thumb.
“I want your kiss.” He did not hesitate, leaning down and taking the tip of one breast into his mouth. Working it with lips and tongue until she thought she might perish from the pleasure of it. Sucking until she was gasping and writhing against him, one leg wrapped around him as he pressed her into the door. When his hand came to her ankle and he slid to his knees, she knew she should stop him, but it had been so long—so long since she’d been touched. So long since he’d touched her. And then her skirts were raised and her leg was over his shoulder, and her fingers were in his hair and his mouth was on her with glorious certainty. She cried out at the touch, at the force and pleasure of it, at its promise, not just in the moment, but for all the moments that were to come. Her cry was punctuated by his groan there, against the soft, wet center of her, where she was so tender, so ready, so desperate. His tongue—how many times had she lay in the dark and thought of his tongue?—stroked, sure and firm over her, finding all the places that had ached for him, and her fingers tightened in his hair…
…She opened her eyes. Fairly begged. “Mal.”
“I’ll give you everything you want, love. But you give me what I want.” He moved again, and she lifted toward him.
“You keep your eyes open,” he said. “I want to watch. I want a new memory.”
He shook his head. “I loved you. I never stopped loving you.”S
he looked away, at the summer breeze rustling the meadow beyond. “Then it seems that love is not enough.”
He loathed the words, because he could see where she was headed. A runaway carriage that would not stop.
Sera gave a little huff of humorless laughter and looked to the manor house in the distance, rising on the horizon like a lie.
“It’s not, though. You still do not know me well enough to see the truth, Mal. You still see the same girl from a thousand years ago. The one who thought she loved you enough to win you. Who thought she could convince you to forgive her.”
“I did forgive you,” he said.
“No, you punished me,” she said. “You refused to free me, even when I came to you, offering you freedom, as well. Offering you a future. Even when I offered to get down on my knees and beg you for it.”
Of all the things he’d ever done to her, that one was still the most shameful. “And all that before you meted out the worst of your punishments.”…
…Christ, how they had ruined each other… “Sera, if I could take it all back . . .”
She shook her head. “Don’t. You can’t take it back, and even if you could.. If we’d stayed together, something else would have driven us apart. Don’t you see?”
No. He didn’t see, dammit. “That’s the point,” she continued. “I’ve never not wanted to kiss you, Mal. I’ve never not been willing to beg for your touch. And it’s never been enough.”
Ultimately, Mal and Sera have to decide how to confront the old adage: “If you love something set it free. If it comes back it’s yours. If not, it was never meant to be.”
What I enjoy most about this book is that, even in the context of historical romance, the reader must confront the possibility that true love might not be enough. Mal and Sera love each other to distraction. At the same time, their lack of communication, lack of trust, inserting other people into their relationship (like their mothers), and quest for revenge have been destructive. I love seeing the intimacy between Mal and Sera, past and present, but oddly enough, I find the angst of their relationship struggles to be real and refreshing.
I adore the Talbot Sisters! The love and loyalty between them is really something to behold. At the same time, no one can tell it like it is the way a sister can, and Sera definitely has that type of relationship with Seleste, Sesily, Seline, and Sophie. They are unconventional, brazen, outspoken, and I love every moment we spend with them. They get into some pretty hilarious antics while at Mal’s country estate. Yah, they make his life difficult (mocking him, siccing their pets on him), but Mal deserves it. And the moment they learn of Mal’s true intentions towards their sister, and the possibility that Sera might reciprocate, the Dangerous Sisters nudge Sera and Mal in the right direction, which leads to some pretty great grand gestures!
[***MAJOR SPOILER, PLEASE SKIP AHEAD TO AVOID***]
“I love you.” A chorus of irritated harrumphs sounded around the room as peers from across Britain realized what they were in for, but Sera found she did not care a bit. She stood, clutching the rail of the observation gallery for support, wanting to be as close to him as possible for whatever was about to come. Especially when he pressed on.
“I have known I wanted to marry you since the moment I met you, when you gave me a dressing down for insulting women’s motives in marriage. You were magnificent…Do you remember what I said to you that night?”
“You said that love is a great fallacy.” Several of the men assembled seemed to agree.
Mal nodded. “I did. And less than ten minutes later, I had tumbled into it…”
…He stilled, staring up at her, his gaze tracking every inch of her face as she did the same, wishing he were closer. He must have wished the same, because he moved then, climbing up onto the heavy benches below, caring neither for the venerable furnishings, nor the venerated aristocrats who had to lean out of the way or find themselves trampled by the Duke of Haven. He seemed to care only for getting closer to her…Sera leaned over to watch him as he reached for the inlaid pillars in the wall beneath and, without hesitation, began to scale the wall…And then he was standing in front of her, breath coming harsh from the exertion of—Dear God. He’d scaled the wall.
He reached for her, his fingers trembling as he pushed a curl behind her ear, leaving a trail of fire in the wake of his touch. When he spoke, his voice was thick with emotion…
“I know you think we failed, my love, but we did not. I failed. I failed you.”
She shook her head, tears coming hard and fast. “No.” It wasn’t true, of course. They had both failed, and they had both succeeded. They were better for their losses, for their risks, for the world they had left behind and the new ones they had built. They had not failed. They had loved. Did love. He lifted his other hand, holding her face firmly in his grasp, speaking as though the whole world weren’t watching.
“I thought that if I chased you long enough and far enough, and held you close enough, I could convince you that I had changed. That we could start anew. But I can’t do that and give you your freedom, which is all you’ve ever asked me for, and all I’ve ever refused you. Because I’ve been a bastard from the start. Never once deserving of you.”
“Yes, love. I’m through chasing you. I shall have to be happy with finding you in the stars, at night.”***END OF MAJOR SPOILER***
I’m particularly interested in Sesily (the last unmarried Talbot sister, supposedly the most scandalous of them all) and Caleb Calhoun, Sera’s American business partner. The chemistry between them gets pretty heated, no matter how much Caleb tries to push back. Sarah MacLean promises more with these two is forthcoming and I really can’t wait.
If I’m to offer critique, I would say that, at times, it’s difficult to follow the nonlinear timeline. I appreciate not wanting to dump all the details and history at once. But moving back and forth in time, especially in the initial chapters when we’re still not 100% sure who is who, makes it tough to keep tabs on the major characters and plot points.
I don’t know that you want me to tell you whether or not there’s an HEA… I can say that the ending is very satisfying. By the end, I feel confident that both Mal and Sera are stronger: they will be able to heal and move forward in healthy ways. Even with the level of angst, The Day of the Duchess still brings the swoons and romance. HistRom fans across the board will like this, BUT make sure you’re in the mood to weather serious drama and heartache.
The Day of the Duchess is out TODAY, so make sure to add it to your TBR list of Goodreads and pick up your copy today! You can also go to Sarah MacLean’s website to read an excerpt from the first chapter HERE.
Many thanks to the publisher for an advanced review copy.