by Christina Boyd
You can’t throw a dart at the historical romance lists without hitting a book these days with “duke” or “Darcy” in the title. When I saw that Syrie James’s third in her “Dare to Defy” series was titled Duke Darcy’s Castle, I shrugged, assumed marketing schtick, and vowed I would not allow any preconceived prejudices against this latest title. A fan of James’s stellar backlist (The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen, The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, et al.), as well as having read the first two “standalone” novels from this series, I was confident my time would not be wasted.
When the dashing Captain Lancelot Granville succeeds to the title of Tenth Duke of Darcy, he reluctantly relinquishes his naval career to return to his family’s moldering castle in Cornwall, only to discover he has also inherited a mountain of debt and unfinished schemes. Despite the state of an outstanding bank balance, he learns his recently deceased brother had also hired a London architect for renovations to the castle—and an architect was to arrive straight away.
Miss Kathryn Atherton, youngest of the Atherton heiresses—and American—is a graduate of Vassar, as well as the first woman to complete her studies at the London School of Art and Architecture. Unlike her sisters who made celebrated matches within the British peerage, she has no intention to marry or give up her dreams as an architect—never mind that her father might cut her off. She knows the road for a woman to succeed in such employment will be met with mockery and disdain, nevertheless, she is confident in her abilities and hopeful that her talent will pave the way.
Once she arrives on the castle steps, and after Kathryn and Lance muddle the introductions—she did not know he was not the Ninth Duke of Darcy but the Tenth, and he did not know that this comely young lady was, in fact, the London architect—they do a quick assessment of one another:
“…I do not see myself embarking just now on such a project with you.”
With you. His last two words seemed to vibrate in the air, a testament to the true reason behind his disinclination. Kathryn held back a sigh. Struggling to sound matter-of-fact, she raised her eyes to meet his. “Is it me you object to, then? Do you not wish to work on the project because I’m a woman?”
That appeared to catch him off guard. His cheeks flushed and he looked uncomfortable. “I . . . no . . . I didn’t mean . . . that is to say . . . well, in all honesty . . . I have never heard of a female architect. And even if I did wish to renovate, I’m not certain I would feel comfortable . . .” pp. 28
As it happens, Kathryn is a talented architect, and Lance is impressed with her vision—and he can’t help but speculate why this curious (and fetching) woman is so keen to work—so he reckons what harm could come by having her stay the scheduled three weeks to draw up some plans. In fairness, she has traveled all the way from London, and the castle would require improvements should he need to sell, right? Kathryn is expecting a professional level of discourse (and why would she expect anything else?), but pre-dinner wine and then all the refilling of wine glasses throughout dinner lead to after-dinner drinks, resulting in some hot and heavy action atop the billiards table.
He was definitely attracted to her, and he wasn’t trying to hide it. She felt the same stir of attraction for him. Heat rose from Kathryn’s chest to her face and spread downward to her nether regions. Heat that had nothing to do with the wine or the whiskey. pp. 57
But she passes out before any more such discourse progresses to sexual intercourse! In the morning, suffering from the consequence of too much drink and a smarting pride for her own shocking behavior, Kathryn vows to restrict her interaction with the rakishly handsome Duke Darcy and continue doing what architects do…design. And not behave as if she has designs on the duke. Because she couldn’t possibly have designs on such a man, could she?
Set in the prim and proper Victorian England, this daring story defies convention to offer a sensual “coming into one’s own” romance. Somehow Kathryn and Duke Darcy agree to set boundaries and overcome their blunders (even as he bungles about, redolent of the unfortunate Hunsford proposal from Pride & Prejudice). Yet, as they profess to remain sweetly platonic, both are consumed with sexual tension, as well as rational meditations, marveling their own nascent feelings. Further, Lance doesn’t know Kathryn is from a wildly wealthy family (and he must marry for money), and she doesn’t know his estate is impecunious. As the days tick by, they become even more infatuated with the other—mind, body, and soul—while the anticipation of what might transpire when their secrets are revealed kept me flipping pages!
“We cannot help who we love,” she heard herself say. Time seemed to stand still as her words hung in the air between them. Kathryn felt a blush heat her cheeks. It was an innocent comment, but she’d said it with such a depth of emotion it almost sounded as if she were admitting that she loved him. Which was not the case. Was it? pp. 219
Titillating love scenes are peppered throughout and are enriched by alternating exposition through these likable protagonists’ third person limited point-of-view. Though the fresh twist on the familiar “secret billionaire” trope was welcome, I responded most to the basic romantic sensations thrusting the story forward. Duke Darcy’s Castle often reads like a bodice ripper romance set in a Victorian backdrop, so some readers familiar with author Syrie James’s backlist of more chaste Jane Austen-inspired “what ifs” might poo-poo all the pulsing and throbbing as the duke aches for his lady-architect. And yet, I suspect others, like me, will delight in the pandemonium of events and how Lance and Kathryn finally climax to their well-deserved, if predictable, happily-ever-after.