Undone By The Duke by Michelle Willingham, the first book in a Regency quartet for Amazon Montlake. For a long time this book was a pleasant read that was a little too easy for me to put down and walk away from. It wasn't until the final third of the story when things picked up for me, and by then I wasn't terribly happy with the hero.
Victoria Andrews is the oldest of four sisters and for the last five years has been a recluse at her family's home in Scotland. When the family moved from England, Victoria became separated from them, having spent several days lost in the Scottish wilderness. It's an episode that has effected her so deeply that she simply cannot leave the house. In the 19th century this affliction is kept a secret, for fear that she'll be committed to some god-awful institution, but as the 21st century reader we know that Victoria suffers from anxiety, panic attacks, and agoraphobia.
Her father is on the continent fighting in the war, which leaves her mother as head of the household. Things are very precarious financially, so much so that Victoria has secretly been sewing gowns and selling them to a dressmaker in London through a middleman (a family "friend" of sorts). While sewing a dress for her younger sister, Victoria hits on the idea that dagnabit - corsets are made out of really uncomfortable materials! Using some scraps she has lying around, she makes up a sample and imagine her shock when it brings in a lot more money than any of her gowns ever did. With her mother packing up her three sisters for a visit to London (to hopefully find husbands for two of them), Victoria uses the time alone to work on her new ideas. Then a gravely wounded man shows up on her doorstep and spins her orderly world into chaos.
The man in question is Jonathan Nottoway, who is in Scotland to look over some property he got from the odious Earl of Strathland in exchange for settling a gambling debt. Unlucky for Jonathan is the fact that the Earl has made a habit of terrorizing the locals, evicting them from the land. So when an obviously English guy shows up on what is known to be the Earl's land? A boy thinks he's Strathland and shoots him in the leg. He makes his way to Victoria's house where, even though she's terrified and unchaperoned, she stitches him up and nurses him back to health. All the while not knowing he's a Duke, with a capital D.
What follows is Jonathan becoming smitten - in part because he has a White Knight Complex (two words = Daddy Issues) and Victoria's vulnerability plucks at his heart-strings. Also for once in his life here's a woman who has no clue who he is. She thinks he's just some ordinary guy. They get to know each other without the Duke thing hanging over either of their heads, and Jonathan, who is used to females and their mothers practically stripping naked in front of him, this is a welcome respite indeed.
There are several things about this book I really enjoyed. I liked that Victoria's enterprise for making money for the struggling family isn't just carelessly tossed off. It's a big hairy deal that a gently born woman, even if she's the daughter of a lowly baron (and a newly minted one at that!), would sew and sell anything - let alone women's unmentionables! The threat of scandal! The family would be completely ruined! I also liked that Willingham sets a nice stage, giving us moments told in points-of-view of Victoria's sisters and, especially, her mother, Beatrice. While her husband has been fighting in Spain, it's been up to Beatrice to keep the family and finances together....and it has not been going well. On top of that, while they weren't a love match, her husband and her did grow fond of each other and had a happy marriage - until recently. The cracks are forming, the distance has grown, and she's trying to hide the fact from everybody that she's completely overwhelmed.
What didn't work so well is that we have a Hot And Cold Running Duke. The first half of this novel, when he's hiding his Dukedom, he's a lighter person. Teasing Victoria, working to help her overcome her fears. In the latter half? Yeah, he's kind of an asshole. Especially since he blatantly ends up railroading Victoria. Interestingly enough, I found I liked this asshole-ish Duke a bit better. He's got darker edges, the Daddy Issues come completely to the forefront, and it spurs Victoria forward to conquering her own fears. Our girl might start out a mouse, but she begins to grow a backbone.
So yeah, it's a bit of a mixed bag here. There's nothing in this story that annoyed or made my angry - but it never really elevated itself above pleasantness either. I'll likely read the follow-up books featuring Victoria's sisters, especially since I suspect two of them are going to get non-titled heroes. However I'm not so impatient for them that I'm performing animal sacrifices and dancing naked under a full moon in the hopes that will make the author write them faster.
(Dear PETA: totally kidding about the animals. Dear Innocent Eyeballs: totally kidding about the dancing naked thing too.)
Final Grade = C+