After Dark With the Duke

“Miss Wylde in the sitting room feels like . . . when you open up a window on a spring day, and in comes a breeze and birds tra-la-la’ing their heads off. And the duke . . . I suppose he’s like the first frost, ain’t he? And the first frost ain’t a bad thing. It’s just a very different thing. So I don’t know what kind of weather we have in the sitting room at night.”

Five Hallelujah Stars. I have now read it 8 times cover to cover.

He’s an icon and a hero. He’s revered and feted and admired. He has the gratitude of the entire British Empire.

But he’s also a man. No one seems to remember that. He wants human connection and sincerity and to be seen for his heart – not just his duty and his accomplishments.

She has clawed her way to a place in the world with drive and ambition, she is self-made. But her world has just crumbled beneath her and she is now the object of society’s derision and gossip. Her career is at an end.

What happens when the iron control that dominates every aspect of your life is finally breached? What happens when all of the emotions you have buried beneath a mask of implacability finally clamor to the surface? What happens when all of the hopes you surrendered finally stir once more? James and Mariana are about to find out.

He is as immovable and impacable as the sun- all of his admiring minions bask in his orbit like flies. He bears the standard against which all other men are measured. He has built his life as a leader of men, and, if his countrymen are to be believed, his fortitude, cunning and honor singlehandedly won the war. He was bestowed land, wealth and a ducal title for his bravery.

She is a woman trying to survive in a world built on innuendo and gossip. She has ascended through the ranks of the entertainment world by virtue of her voice and her beauty. But they are not enough to save her from the malicious nature of the aristocracy. She has become the scapegoat for their ridiculous foibles and insecurities, and lands at the Palace of Rogues with nothing to show for her glittering success.

But the Grand Palace on the Thames works its own miracles. It burrowes beneath the skin of its residents. It makes them aware of their vulnerabilities and opens their eyes to truths long denied.

James is the one man who seems impervious to her. He treats her as if she is beneath his notice, something to be scraped from the bottom of his shoe and then ignored. But Mariana craves his acknowledgment. A sly parlor game sparks emnity between them, and he deliberately wounds her feelings – using her naïve bravery against her. His attack is beneath him- and unforgivable in the eyes of his hostesses. They demand he make amends.

Mariana has always wanted to learn the meaning behind the arias she has memorized. When the glacial duke offers to teach her Italian as an apology for his abominable behavior, she accepts. The daily lessons become a very different sort of battle.

He battles the urge to absorb the impact of her beauty every time she crosses his threshold. She battles the urge to steal glances at his rugged profile while he is focused on his correspondence. They tiptoe over coals with one another. Coals that are precariously suspended above a shimmering, simmering, treacherous pool of molten lava. Lava that will forever alter their essence and purpose if they dare to take the plunge.

When they finally kiss it renders their foundations into nothing but dust and rubble. When they finally begin to see each other clearly – beyond masks and cloaks and the judgment and opinions of others – there is no turning back.

This is a love story about second chances and conquering heartbreak. It is a love story about two people so contained in their aloneness, they cannot fail to recognize the stark heart of isolation in each other. It is a story about self-acceptance, self-forgiveness and finally laying down one’s guard enough to realize that contentment is not enough. It is ultimately about the realization that we are all entitled to, and deserving of, happiness.

Some of my favorite quotes:

“Then again, he was still a man. Wasn’t he? Even if he was orders of magnitude more potent in real life than other men? She had not yet met one she couldn’t ultimately decipher. They’d all thus far regrettably proved the same beneath the skin, even if this one’s skin was made of battered steel plate, granite, and meanness.”

“He liked having people about, even if he didn’t necessarily want to talk to them. Strangers were often too deferential or too fawning or too mutely rapt. His own tendency to abbreviation—some might call it abruptness—born of being accustomed to barking orders, and a sense that time and life were so precious one ought not spend them listening to nattering—didn’t help.”

“Knights, queen, king, bishops . . . why are no pieces named for dukes?” “It does seem an oversight,” Mariana mused. “I think because dukes would ruin the fun for all the other pieces. You see, dukes could only go in very straight, narrow lines, so they would disapprove greatly of the bishop for having the nerve to do anything so original as move diagonally.” Dot laughed. “What else?” “And then . . . the duke would be able to tell all the pieces on the board what to do, because only the duke would know, of course. And no one would ever win a game. Let alone enjoy one.”

“Miss Wylde in the sitting room feels like . . . when you open up a window on a spring day, and in comes a breeze and birds tra-la-la’ing their heads off. And the duke . . . I suppose he’s like the first frost, ain’t he? And the first frost ain’t a bad thing. It’s just a very different thing. So I don’t know what kind of weather we have in the sitting room at night.”

“Very well. We have established I am a castle and you are in a fortress surrounded by free-roaming sheep. We have a sense of each other now, I believe.”

“I should think life is operatic enough without introducing an additional element of absurd drama, let alone a drama one pays to see. I keep a box at the opera but I do not use it. My son does.” “Fair point, your Grace. It’s just that one person’s absurd drama, as you put it, might be another person’s matter of life or death. And not everyone prefers their waking lives to their dreams.”

“She wanted another one of those smiles the way she’d wanted another sip of champagne that fateful night. And what did that say about her? Both were potent. Neither was wise.”

“Every one of those smiles were like a swift peek through a crack into the earth at something molten.”

“Because this space began to fill with an awareness that felt anything but safe. She supposed that was all her own doing. He sank into her imagination the way the sun from the window warmed her skin. She memorized the interesting cragginess of his face. She estimated that his shoulders were about twice the width of her own. And when she thought about it, the entirety of her skin seemed to hum with restlessness, imagining how it might feel . . . be to covered with the entirety of him.”

“How difficult would it be to find and keep one’s bearings in life when the road wasn’t at all defined? When life came at you as though you were a moving target? When one was falling, the reflex was to flail out for any steadying handhold, he supposed.”

“If it helps at all . . . given that I’ve been so helpful thus far . . . life is cheap and fragile, but ultimately it’s all we’ve got, isn’t it, when we have nothing else? And that makes it such an outrageously precious thing that we’ll do anything to preserve it. It’s quite the paradox. It’s a wonder we’re entrusted with it at all, given how easy it is to lose. And fate can make ridiculous rag dolls of us at any time, even the wisest of us. Even kings and dukes. But when you realize no one is exempt from the caprices of fate, well, that’s the greatest gift of all, I think. A good humbling early on is marvelous for building character.”

“Losing men never became rote, for me, Miss Wylde. Every one of them, I think, is scored somewhere on my soul. Assuming I still possess one.” He tipped the corner of his mouth. It was yet another thing he’d never said aloud to anyone. Her face suffused with that ache again, which she quickly disguised. “Just as some women are made to hold an audience captive with their voices, some men are built to withstand war. The more you endure, the more you can endure. Until one can easily bear weights—troubles, responsibilities, grievances, deaths, triumphs—that look to someone on the outside inconceivable. It happens over time. I was the one able to do it.” He paused. And said, quietly, “So I did it.” He had not ended that sentence with, until all you’re doing is enduring.”

“He had never before felt so full of things that he could not form into words. And he supposed that was the point of operas and sex, so that you could feel and communicate things you could never say.”

“If they could only see the way Mariana looked at him at night. That welcoming, fiercely joyous, tender, almost too-open generosity. Take all you need, she seemed to say. He hadn’t known. He hadn’t known what he’d needed. Or that he’d needed so much.”

“There was a part of him that battled the pleasure, and she understood. To be so wholly owned by it, to abandon yourself to the mercy of desire, to another person’s mercy—it wasn’t in his nature to surrender. But the deep and molten seam of passion was in his nature. And the primal hunger was. And the gift he had for giving pleasure was. He understood pleasure the way he understood war.”

“He felt ferociously protective of this small, lush, velvety, feral, gentle, generous person. How dangerous, in some ways, it felt to just hold her.”

“As he lay there in that empty room, he had a much better understanding of loneliness, because with her he had, for perhaps the first time ever, been so blessedly, blissfully not alone.”

“Though, like a feature of a landscape, say, a mountain, she could always feel his presence even when he was nowhere within her line of vision. She had a terrible suspicion that he would be a feature of her landscape for the rest of her life.”

“The truth lay in the contrasts. If what approached at the thought of losing her was desolation, then whatever he felt for her was precisely the opposite of that. He had known more than one defeat in battle, but defeat was just a tool he’d used to learn to become victorious. He would never be accused of being an optimist, but he was indomitable. He’d experienced grievous losses and blows and struggled to his feet again. It was what a warrior did. But nothing in his experience was of use to him here. Desolation was not an enemy army. It was more like a looming shadow, or a creeping mist. He couldn’t grasp hold of it with logic. He couldn’t conquer it with strategy. His power and influence were as nothing in the face of its inexorable approach.”

“Some types of loneliness had only one cure. He was hers. She was his.”

“Funny isn’t it?” She sniffed. “You’re a bloody hero and you’re used to ordering legions what to do. And your reward for that is that you’re at the mercy of legions now. Brave, brave, stupid man who can’t make himself happy. And can’t you see that? Can’t you see you’re a man?”

“He wrapped his arms around her, because he didn’t know what else to do. Holding her was the only comfort he’d truly known. Possibly the only peace he’d truly known. Because peace was being known.”

SO……. if you need a book right now that will remind you why none of us are an island, why we all need the acceptance and welcome that comes when you feel comfortable laying your burdens on the shoulders of someone else, this book is for you. If you need a book right now about the bravery it takes to scale the walls of what looks like an impenetrable fortress when your standing on the periphery, but is actually a carefully constructed disguise to shelter a vulnerable heart, this book is for you.

And last but not least. If you need a book with a stern brunch daddy hero who is implacable, impermeable, irresistible and impossible, THIS BOOK IS FOR YOU.

My eternal gratitude to the publisher, the author and Netgalley for sending me an ARC of this extraordinary, unforgettable book in exchange for an honest review.

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