Our fave Alyssa Cole’s latest novel, A Duke by Default, is out today and does a fabulous job of weaving the swoons of royal romance with the realities of difficult family relationships and contemporary politics.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
[For Mature Audiences; Some Spoilers]
The last time we saw Portia Hobbes, she was in the process of getting her relationship with best friend Ledi Smith (now Ledi Moshoeshoe, Princess of Thesolo!!!!!!) back on track. Portia has been a self-proclaimed “hot mess”, moving from school to school, job to job, spending her nights drowning in drunken hookups. But Portia is determined to make a change. Project New Portia is all about getting serious and building a life for herself. This is how she finds herself in Edinburgh, Scotland on her way to a sword-making apprenticeship. The way Portia sees it, this is an opportunity to learn a skill she has always been fascinated with. She can also hone her social media, marketing, and business skills by helping to get the Bodtria Armory back on track. Plus, her adventure also allows her to contribute to her twin sister Reggie’s hit site GirlsWithGlasses.com. It’s a win-win all around.
However, Portia’s optimism takes a huge nosedive when, on day one, she ends up macing the Armory’s master (and her BOSS), Tavish Mackenzie. It gets even more complicated when Portia realizes she’s attracted to the silver fox. She’s not here to have a fling–this time needs to be focussed on Portia investing in herself and a crush on her boss is so against Project New Portia.
As for Tav, despite the mace to the face, he’s attracted to Portia from the beginning. But Tav isn’t into doing the relationship thing. Besides, he’s not about to sexually harass his younger, female employee. At first, Tav takes his avoidance to the extreme, discounting Portia’s abilities. However, she doesn’t take this lying down. Portia totally revamps Bodtria’s Armory’s website and social media presence, and demonstrates how knowledgeable she is about sword making and the history.
Just when Portia and Tav get on the same page, her research into the Armory uncovers a huge family secret. Tavish Mckenzie is a duke. WOWSA. Their growing attraction is made even more complex by the new responsibilities and scrutiny Tav faces. Besides, Portia’s apprenticeship must come to an end sometime…
I need to be honest. When we first meet Portia in A Princess in Theory, I couldn’t quite understand what Ledi would see in her. However, I’m quickly disabused of this notion in A Duke by Default! Portia cares so deeply about people. Her instinct is to help however she can, whenever she can, and to give all of herself. Portia has such a beautiful soul and it’s painful to see her wrestle with her insecurities.
Similarly. Tav is also a protector, of his family and his community. With that said, both Portia and Tav are dealing with family resentments–Portia is trying to get past her parents’ perpetual disappointment in her. Tavish resents the secrets his parents kept from him.
Interestingly, both also find comfort in the artistry and history behind sword making. I love seeing Portia and Tav bond over this:
While she did stop to take a photo every now and again, she was a diligent student, asking question after question, not because she didn’t understand but because she wanted to know everything. He hadn’t been wrong about that hunger in her. He’d expected to have to show her things multiple times, as he would with any student, but she was quick, picking up the subtleties in his motions and incorporating them into her work. When she finally held up the finished product, Tav felt real pride in her work, that had nothing to do with his attraction to her. She was on her way to becoming a fantastic swordmaker.
“Wow,” she said, and the reverence in her voice pierced through the metaphorical armor he’d donned before they’d begun that morning. She was his apprentice, but if he was honest, she was something else, too. There had been a part of him that kept waiting for her to laugh, to call his work silly…
Some part of Tav hadn’t gotten past the fact that Portia—prim, proper, stylish Portia—could really respect what he did. But her face made clear that he’d been wrong about her, yet again. He’d been wrong about so much when it came to her. The way she was looking at the sword was enough to start the stirrings of desire in him, despite the fact that he’d deck the next person who pointed out the weapon’s phallic connotations to him.
“You were brilliant today,” he said. “You’re gonna make a fine swordsmith, aye?”
“Probably not, but at least we made this one nice thing,” she replied breezily, looking up at him with those wide brown eyes that skewered him with want.
“You don’t have to find a reason to get down on yourself after you do something grand, lass,” he said. He didn’t know where the words came from, but he was certain he was right. It wasn’t that Portia wasn’t proud of her accomplishments—she certainly knew her strengths—it was that she had a way of blowing her failures up like a shield to block anyone from getting at the successes. “That isn’t what I was doing, ”she said. Her tone was annoyed, but her breath was coming fast and when his hand slid up the side of her neck, he could feel her pulse racing. Her hand came up and that grip of hers wrapped around his forearm.
“What are you doing?”
Tav had no idea. “Making sure there are no cracks,” he murmured. Her throat worked beneath his palm…
The UST between Portia and Swordbae escalates and escalates until these two have no choice but to scratch that itch. And mercy, it is HOTTTTTTTT:
“I can feel you trembling. Are you close, love?” He slowed the motion down so he was moving his fingers in deep, torturous circles over her sleek nub.
“Yes, Tav,” she choked out. So close. She reached out to grip the length of him where he bulged against his boxer briefs. He grunted a curse as she pulled him through the flap. She stroked him as he stroked her, and watching the muscles in his jaw tense and his eyes squeeze shut almost pushed her over the edge completely. His gaze was intense as it rested on her face and he pumped into her hand. She picked up the rhythm of his touch between her legs, matching the slide of her hand against his cock. Portia was overcome with sensation, she was so close but she couldn’t…
Then Tavish’s hand slipped from her shoulder to her neck, his fingers loosely encircling it, palm resting on her collarbones. His brows raised and she nodded, and then he increased the pressure just the slightest bit. It wasn’t enough to impede her breathing, but the weight of it paired with the two fingers he slid inside of her at the same moment were enough.
“Oh, fuck! Tavish!” Her back arched and she grabbed on to his forearm with both hands as she clamped around his fingers and rode out the impossible sensation flowing through her. Sparks from an anvil, fireworks—all of that good shit—flashed behind her tightly squeezed eyes as her orgasm crested over her. She didn’t know how long she writhed and bucked—and how long he held her down through it—but when she finally opened her eyes, panting and short of breath, he was staring at her hard.
Towards the end of the book, we see that Portia is able to have resolution with her sister Reggie. Portia is able to let go of her guilt about not being able to protect Reggie from her illness; and Reggie is able to clarify that she doesn’t resent Portia. Truth be told, I really wish we could have gotten something similar, or at least a little bit more with Portia’s parents. So, does Portia just accept that her parents will always underestimate her? Life is complicated, so perhaps it’s beyond the bounds of the book to tease out the complexity of Portia’s relationship with her parents and pursue a resolution, but I so wanted Portia to stand up for herself. Or at least give us an epilogue where Tavish gives Portia’s parents an epic set-down for assuming that their daughter is simply a pretty face, nothing more.
Similarly, the situation with the novel’s villain-like character isn’t very resolved. This person gets away with some very serious things, including personally violating Portia. However, I can also understanding wanting to pivot to solidifying the romance between Portia and Tav.
I have to say that I’m particularly impressed with how Alyssa Cole deftly explores contemporary anti-immigrant sentiments in Scotland and Europe. We’re no strangers to those racist views in the U.S., and it’s so imperative to depict how the rhetoric and policies have awful impacts on children, families, and the social fabric that should bind our communities together. In this book, Alyssa also shows us the ways we can fight against this hate and stand up to protect vulnerable people. It’s beautiful and hopeful, and I salute you, Alyssa!
And I can’t end this review without saying how thoroughly excited I am for Johan’s story in A Prince on Paper. You all know how much Meghan’s and Prince Harry’s romance swooned me. So I’m 100% HERE for Alyssa bringing us a Prince Harry-like character (bad boy and tabloid favorite for his insane escapades), his redemption story, and his falling for a Black-AFRICAN woman. COME TO ME!!!
A Duke by Default is MUSTREAD for fans of contemporary romance and royal romance stories, especially in terms of weaving the swoons of royal romance with the realities of difficult family relationships and contemporary politics. Grab your copy today, friends!
*Many thanks to the author and publisher for an advanced review copy.