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Sunday, April 8, 2012

'The Duke's Perfect Wife' Highland Pleasures #4 by Jennifer Ashley

 From the BLURB:

Lady Eleanor Ramsay is the only one who knows the truth about Hart Mackenzie. Once his fiancée, she is the sole woman to whom he could ever pour out his heart.

Hart has it all--a dukedom, wealth, power, influence, whatever he desires. Every woman wants him--his seductive skills are legendary. But Hart has sacrificed much to keep his brothers safe, first from their brutal father, and then from the world. He's also suffered loss--his wife, his infant son, and the woman he loved with all his heart though he realized it too late.

Now, Eleanor has reappeared on Hart's doorstep, with scandalous nude photographs of Hart taken long ago. Intrigued by the challenge in her blue eyes--and aroused by her charming, no-nonsense determination--Hart wonders if his young love has come to ruin him . . . or save him.

Hart is the notorious eldest Mackenzie brother. He is a ruthless politician in the House of Commons, currently with his sights on becoming Prime Minister. But Hart has a reputation outside of Parliament too… a reputation that has stalked him since his youth when it was the worst kept secret that he kept a house on High Holborn for his mistress, Mrs Palmer, where they practiced dark delights.

Rumours of Hart’s notoriety followed him into his marriage with Lady Sarah Graham (a duke’s daughter), who died in childbirth, along with Hart’s son. Rumours swirled that Lady Sarah was fragile and timid, scared-to-death of her overbearing husband and too weak for childbirth.

But even before Lady Sarah, there were rumours about Hart’s first cancelled engagement to Lady Eleanor Ramsay, a woman of noble Highland birth. Nobody outside of the tight-knit and tight-lipped Mackenzie clan quite knows what happened between Hart and Eleanor, to have her jilt him and live the next eight years a spinster… but there are rumours, always rumours.

Tongues are set to wag yet again where Hart is concerned, since it is reported that he has taken Lady Eleanor into his home (for “secretarial work”). Curious that she would re-enter his life, right when he is challenging Prime Minister Gladstone on the Irish Home Rule Bill, and incurring the wrath of Irish nationalists as Hart is set to force a vote that could see him become Prime Minister. Even more curious is that Hart recently announced to his family that he was looking to take a wife. Could Hart be returning to the woman who jilted him eight years ago? And if so, does he think he can hold onto her this time?

‘The Dukes Perfect Wife’ is the fourth book in Jennifer Ashley’s ‘Highland Pleasures’ historical romance series.

This is the one I have been waiting for since I first read Ashley’s delicious highlander series. Hart Mackenzie, eldest of the clan, was presented as a dark and foreboding man, not to be trifled with. Readers have gleaned bits and pieces about Hart over the course of the series . . .  from rumours about his timid and dearly-departed wife, Sarah, to his mistress, Mrs Palmer, whose jealousy drove her to violence. And we slowly pieced together Hart’s romantic past that included a Lady Eleanor Ramsay, who jilted him years ago (for reasons unknown) and chose a life of spinsterhood instead. Jennifer Ashley did a wonderful job of enticing fans to Hart’s story . . .  stringing us along with his sad past and bull-headed personality (not to mention rumours of his particular bedroom activities!). It’s safe to say that Hart’s story is one of the most anticipated of all the Mackenzie males – but, dare I say?, there was more enjoyment in the build-up than the delivery.

Ashley set Hart and Eleanor’s story in motion at the end of Cameron’s book, ‘The Many Sins of Lord Cameron’. Eleanor Ramsay was introduced to us in that book, as a close friend of Cameron’s wife, Ainsley. We met Eleanor when Ainsley came to her seeking advice on how to deal with Mackenzie men, and received some curious words of wisdom from a woman who jilted one of them eight years ago; “They entice you, these Mackenzies, first with their wickedness and then with all that is heartbreaking.” Eleanor appeared again towards the end of that book . . .  when she approached Hart with a small conundrum. Knowing full well that Hart was in the race to be Prime Minister, Eleanor broke the delicate news that she had received some potentially-damning photographs of Hart, taken in his youth – photographs in which he is gloriously unkilted and naked as a jaybird.

Thus, ‘The Duke’s Perfect Wife’ starts where ‘Many Sins’ left off – with Hart having recently declared to his family that he intends to remarry, and with Eleanor approaching him with a problem that conveniently places her in his household, when she insists on searching for the origin of the photos.

Accompanying Eleanor to London is her doddering academic father, Lord Ramsay. Also staying at Hart’s townhouse (to keep scandal at bay while Eleanor resides there too) is his brother Mac, his wife Isabella and their children. Of course, it’s not long before more Mackenzie’s invade Hart’s home – partly out of curiosity over Eleanor’s stay.

Eleanor and Hart were engaged eight years ago. They were very much in love, and Eleanor lost her virginity to the delectable eldest Mackenzie . . .  but then something went wrong. Mrs Palmer, Hart’s mistress of seven years at the time, revealed herself to Eleanor and warned her off marrying Hart (making mention of his bedroom antics). Throughout a lot of ‘Perfect Wife’, Hart reflects on his broken engagement with Eleanor and regrets harsh words he flung at her when she left him . . . but Hart curiously maintains that Eleanor was not jealous of Mrs. Palmer (especially since Hart had not been with his mistress since he started courting Eleanor).

Part of this book is about Hart and Eleanor reopening old wounds from their past, so that they may heal . . .  and this was a bit of a problem for me. Eleanor’s reasoning behind leaving Hart eight years ago didn’t quite sit right. I won’t give anything away, but it seemed an unlikely response from a woman who had recently learned that her fiancée and love of her life not only kept a house for his mistress . . .  but filled it with other women too. Even more frustrating was the fact that in present time, Eleanor and Hart don’t really talk about Mrs. Palmer in the context of her being Hart’s mistress and companion. Indeed, Eleanor just seems to accept that, despite Mrs. Palmer’s callous nature, Hart was with her for a little over a decade. Hart admits that the naked photos of him were in fact taken by Mrs. Palmer, during the early days of their relationship. I thought then, that it was especially curious Eleanor didn’t poke and prod at Hart’s old relationship with Mrs. Palmer – because she mentions many times how happy Hart looks in these photos. The photos, though erotic, also capture a care-free and genuinely happy Hart in his youth. Coupled with the fact that Mrs. Palmer was part of the reason behind their break-up . . .  I couldn’t believe that Eleanor didn’t want to know more about Hart’s feelings for his old mistress. I can’t believe she didn’t want to know if he was at his happiest with her, as those captured smiles in the photos would suggest? The most Eleanor mentions of Mrs. Palmer and Hart’s relationship in this context is when she points out that he went back to her, after their engagement was broken off. Even that would have surely rankled? Especially if he was as furious with Mrs. Palmer as he seemed to be, for speaking with his fiancée behind his back? And yet, he stayed with her? Eleanor seems reluctant to speak too much about Hart’s deeper feelings for Mrs. Palmer, since she did turn out to be a villain and is now dead . . .  but I read a humungous pink elephant in the book that was never addressed.

I would also have liked Eleanor to poke more at Hart’s bedroom proclivities because so much is made of them being naughty and nasty, something done hush-hush and under the deepest of secrecies. Yet, once Hart and Eleanor re-heat their romance, it’s all pretty tepid . . .  Honestly, the way Jennifer Ashley built up the mystery and danger around Hart and his tastes, I was expecting some 18th century BDSM, at the very least. Alas, it’s all very 18th century vanilla. Don’t get me wrong, Hart is still a Mackenzie and therefore breathtaking . . .  but this isn’t the dark, brooding and tormented Hart I had built up in my mind. Actually, and curiously, I found Cameron Mackenzie to be a far darker protagonist. I thought Cameron had more skeletons in his closet than Hart, and was more interesting for it.

And, my final complaint about ‘Perfect Wife’ was Ashley’s preoccupation with Hart’s political side-story. I think Ashley really veered off course when she wrote so much about Prime Minister William Gladstone and the Irish Home Rule Bill, the basis behind Hart calling out Gladstone for a vote in parliament and the brown-nosing he had to do to win seats . . .  y’know what? I get that Hart had to be a legitimate politician and be playing a crucial political game. But I could have done without the factoids about Irish Home Rule and the House of Commons. In an historical romance, I'd rather not be given a parliamentary history lesson cause it’s not really conducive to sexy times.

A few things did work for me. Lady Eleanor Ramsay is indeed a formidable love interest for Hart. She’s lovely and charismatic, a chatter-box and stubborn as an ox. I rather loved her, and Ashley has indeed written another fiery ferocious lady for one her Mackenzie men;
“Aye, you’ve got a fire in you, lass, that is true. A temper.” The delicious Highland accent broadened as more whiskey went into him. “And a fire of another kind. I’ve not forgotten that.”
Surrender. That was what Hart Mackenzie always wanted, she realized. For others to surrender to him, to let him be their master. Not because he wanted to punish them, or to have his own way, but for their own good, because he wanted to take care of them. Those who didn’t understand that dashed themselves to bits on him.

I also really loved that another focus of this book is on Hart’s relationship with Ian. Hart feels particularly protective of his youngest brother, and has done ever since he took beatings from their beast of a father to protect Ian. Furthermore, Hart was there when their tyrannical father sent Ian to the insane asylum. He was the one who freed Ian, and promised he would never suffer ever again.
A hand reached out of a dark passage and landed on Hart’s shoulder. Eyes the color of Mackenzie single-malt regarded Hart in the dim light of Reeve’s lantern. Hart looked back at Ian Mackenzie, face smudged and bearing lines of exhaustion. Ian put both hands on Hart’s shoulder, and his fingers dug through Hart’s coat.
“I found you,” Ian said, his voice low and fierce. “I found you.” He put his arms around Hart, and Hart for a moment sank into the strength that was his youngest brother. “I always find you,” Ian whispered.

I got quite choked-up at the brotherly bonding between Ian and Hart in this book, and it was my favourite aspect of the whole story. I really felt like it was Ian’s story coming full circle – the fact that throughout a lot of the book he was given the opportunity to return the favour, and save Hart for once. And I especially liked Ian’s role because there were plenty of scenes with him and Beth and their children. Eleanor hasn’t seen Ian for a long time (she was there when he was in the asylum) so it was nice to understand what a transformation Ian has undergone, from someone who knew him before Beth.

I will admit that I had high expectations for Hart’s book, and unfortunately ‘The Duke’s Perfect Wife’ just didn’t live up to those expectations. Hart wasn’t the brooding, scarred Duke I had hoped to see redeemed . . .  and as disappointing as his supposedly ‘dark bedroom antics’ were, even more frustrating was Eleanor’s lack of prodding into his past relationship with the duplicitous Mistress Palmer. I did like Eleanor, and was happy to read such a fine woman paired with Hart. And I especially loved the focus on Ian and Hart’s brotherly bond in this book. But overall, I would say ‘The Duke’s Perfect Wife’ gets a resounding “meh”.

I am now most looking forward to Daniel’s book, titled ‘The Wicked Deeds of Daniel Mackenzie’ (now *that’s* a promising title!) which is scheduled for October 2013. Before that we have ‘The Seduction of Elliot McBride’ coming in January 2013 . . .  although, I don’t know how I feel about Elliot’s book coming at all. He’s not a Mackenzie, he’s Aisnley’s brother (Cameron’s brother-in-law). I can’t help but wish Ashley would write a spin-off McBride series, and bump up Daniel’s much-anticipated Mackenzie finale. But I shall reserve judgement, and suitably lower my expectations (lesson learned!) . . .


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