CW: drug abuse, dead-naming, kidnapping, violence, suicidal ideation
Midway through A Lady for a DukeI started to panic.
I was so in love with this historical romance and I worried that something would come along and ruin it. So I sighed with relief at the end of the last page. This book is pretty damn close to perfection, bitches. It works on so many levels. This is an exceptionally satisfying friends to lovers story, a queer fairy tale filled with longing and Big Feelings, and a book about two people who learn to stop caring about the expectations of others.
Viola Caroll, the well-behaved companion–and secret sister-in-law–of Lady Marleigh, spends her days trying to forget her past. She’d been injured as a soldier, saved by a trans French dude, and once she was presumed dead, was finally able to slough off her ill-fitting title and return to the English countryside as herself. Viola’s sweetly supportive brother, now the new Lord Marleigh, was happy to have her back home, but no one outside the family knows she’s alive. And to live her true life as a woman, Viola had to give up her longest, closest friend, Justin de Vere.
In the two years since the war Justin, the Duke of Gracewood, has been tortured by grief over how he failed to save his best friend. He spends his days in an opium haze, avoiding the pain of a leg injured in battle. When Lady Marleigh receives a letter from Greenwood’s worried teenage sister, she convinces an apprehensive Viola to tag along on her intervention. In his dreary Northumberland castle, Gracewood seems unreachable to everyone, until this compellingly beautiful woman appears who seems able to calm him when no one else can. In his grief, everyone looks a little like his lost friend, and Viola is no exception. As Gracewood recovers, they grow closer every day, but Viola can’t escape her fear that Gracewood will recognize her. And what will happen when he does?
This is the best version of the friends-to-lovers trope that I’ve ever read. With friends to lovers tales, it’s hard to avoid at least one of the main characters being incredibly obtuse, uncommunicative, or clueless at some point in their past. A Lady for a Duke Avoids this by giving a compelling past obstacle–Gracewood and Viola were BFFs, but neither ever considered the possibility of a romantic relationship before Viola’s transition. Gracewood is only attracted to women; Viola was too uncomfortable with her gender to be attracted to anyone.
I loved the way the book gently unfurls the depth of Viola and Gracewood’s connection, but fits the pieces of their friendship into a new romantic form. Viola initially resists, because she’d assumed that she needs to remain a spinster to be safe. She’s drawn to Gracewood, but also desperate to limit his opportunity to reject her. The tension made me bite my lip in anticipation. I love a romance on the moors, by the sea, or in bad weather, and A Lady for a Duke gave me all of the above. Gracewood and Viola’s flirtation is incredibly sexy, even though they barely touch one another.
Cue almost kissing
Viola feels guilty as she learns the extent of his grief, realizes she’d underestimated the depth of their friendship, and can’t imagine how he’ll ever forgive her. One of my favorite parts of the book is witnessing Viola marvel at how finally being seen as a woman allows her to absorb a new side to her old friend.
There was a strangeness, sometimes, in being able to see all the pieces of him. The wounded man and her laughing friend, her generous lover and the formidable duke. Yet there were also moments, like tonight, where they coalesced, seeming no flaws, nor weakness, nor contradictions, and she saw only his strength.
I was sucked into the story, and couldn’t wait to see what would happen when Gracewood figured out who Viola was. And that scene was worth waiting for; it managed to surprise me, thrill me, and leave me wanting more.
I can’t speak to the accuracy of the trans representation, but as a queer-friendly historical romance, this book is so beautiful it made me want to cry from happiness. A Lady for a Duke deftly avoids every potential minefield that would have tipped the book from pleasurably angsty to traumatic for me, while still feeling emotionally realistic.
There were many moments in the story where I held my breath, only to relax giddily. I loved that when Gracewood recognizes Viola, that recognition is based on their friendship, not her gender presentation. Gracewood is understandably pissed that she would let him believe that she was dead, but he eventually respects that she had to make sacrifices for her freedom. That respect made me fall head over heels for him, even when he’s a tad arrogant for my taste.
Gracewood treats Viola with a mix of chivalry, reverence, and respect that made me want to squeal with joy. Viola deserves to be cared for, even when she doesn’t see how a relationship between them could work because of his need for an heir, her unwillingness to be his mistress, and the scrutiny their marriage would place on her. But Gracewood pursues her openly and Viola is the one who hesitates.
Throughout the book, Viola’s womanhood is never challenged, and she passes as a cisgender whenever she chooses to. While there’s a villain who’s an asshole to her, it’s because they’re a jerk, not because they misgender her.
I should also mention that the sex is very hot, my loves. We have to wait for it, but if you like pegging, you will like this book. The contrast between prim, etiquette-focused Viola and her glee at taking Gracewood apart in the bedroom made me grin.
The second half of the story shifts to London for Miranda/Mira, Gracewood’s sister’s coming out, with Lady Marleigh and Viola chaperoning. Most Regency Dukes have a (dead) Domineering Dad™ and Miranda and Greenwood are no exception. Gracewood tries to model his relationship with his sister after their father’s messed-up parental style. Even though Miranda has been running his life since he returned from Waterloo, Greenwood thinks being head of the family means he can order Miranda around, telling her who to spend time with and who to avoid.
It doesn’t go well.
No thank you
Mira was one of my favorite characters in the book, and offers some comic relief. She’s vulnerable because she’s been sheltered in Northumberland and struggles to navigate the poisonous social scene in London, but she’s also a badass who has trouble pretending to care about men and marriage.
“How do you feel about Viscount Stirling?”
“Feel about him?” Mira blinked. “Well…I mean. He’s handsome, I think? And…there?”
Viola gave a wry smile. “I’m sure there is exactly how a gentleman would wish himself thought of.”
“Everyone speaks well of him.”
“I’m not persuaded”—Viola snipped her thread and reached for a darker shade of pink—“exists and is broadly considered acceptable are good selection criteria.”
In addition to Miranda, we’re treated to the feminist antics of opinionated Lady Marleigh and her rakish lesbian friend, Lady Lillimere. If you like meddling families who think a hero and heroine should get a clue and get together, you may like A Lady for a Duke.
Along the way, Viola learns that staying within social expectations for women may make her feel safe, but bending them to suit her makes her truly happy.
Reader sensitive to violence, be aware that at one point
Viola and Gracewood have a brutal fight with an evil dude. Sexual assault is vaguely threatened but doesn’t happen.
Those looking for a critique of class privilege should know that Gracewood wields his ducal privilege with pride, and Viola finds it thrilling for nearly the entire book. For the most part, he sticks to terrifying bullies, like…
a teenage girl who is cruel to Miranda. And at one point he tells a bouncer that he’ll hang if he strikes a Duke. At the same time, Gracewood learns there are limitations to ducal power when Miranda flatly refuses to listen to his “guidance.”
In another book, this behavior might have annoyed me. Here, Gracewood’s acceptance of his social status felt like part of his journey to feeling fully himself again. And it’s hard to be unhappy about the degree of protection being a Duke offers to both of them.
The pace of this story was perfect for me because there were plenty of subplots to keep me absorbed, but the love story felt luxuriously unrushed. Viola and Gracewood both start the book feeling unlovable, and watching them find their way back to one another was incredibly satisfying. Many of the book’s themes are around friendship–loving a friend but hiding parts of yourself, learning to connect with other women, and the perils of competitive friendships. I loved A Lady for a Dukeit’s a must-read for historical romance fans looking for a new take on Regency friends-to-lovers.