My review contains spoilers and they're mostly my thoughts...
So happy to say that I’ve been following the long running, much loved Maiden Lane series by Elizabeth Hoyt almost since the beginning! I discovered Ms. Hoyt’s books back in 2011 and haven’t looked back ever since. And we’ve certainly come a long way with this one! Duke of Pleasure is the 11th installment and I have to say it was, uhh, not what I was hoping for. Actually not sure what I was looking for since Alf, the h of this story, was not a character I thought would have a book of her own, let alone a full-length one. I mean she’s ‘Alf’, the little urchin who masqueraded as a beggar boy to live in the dark and filthy St. Giles where she grew up. No one knew who she was, or even, that she was a girl. She had no family to speak of. Had no life beyond St. Giles... she didn’t even have a full name FGS! I totally thought that Hippolyta Royle, the richest heiress of England, was going to have a full-length novel; instead she got a novella. :/
Anyway, now that that’s outta my chest.......... Personally, this is probably the only long-running series of which I’ve been a part of almost since the beginning, so I’m a little overwhelmed here. I don’t think a recap of all the other 10 installments is possible so I’d ask that you start from the beginning, Wicked Intentions. Besides, if you haven’t read the series from the beginning, you really shouldn’t be reading this review. The installments connect each-other with ongoing events, or characters, or an event that was hinted at on one installment and you will find it taking shape in another. So yes, true to Ms. Hoyt’s style, it’s a very interconnected series and you may find information confusing at times.
Maiden Lane originally was based in Georgian-era St. Giles and revolved around a shadowy character with Harlequin costume and a mask to protect his identity; the famous Ghost of St. Giles. He was a legend among the locals; some thought him a friend, while others thought him the bad guy. But no one really knew who he was and what the hell he was doing, running in the dark alleyways of St. Giles every night, evading the law enforcement send out to catch him. The series also originally started with 4 Makepeace siblings—Temperance, Asa, Silence and Winter, with 2 other Concord and Verity already married and living separately with their families. The siblings used to run an orphanage badly in need of financial help, passed down to them by their deceased sire. The Makepeace siblings had their stories told in the first installments—Wicked Intentions (Temperance and Lazarus, Lord Caire - #1), Scandalous Desires (Silence and Charming Mickey, the river pirate - #3) and Thief of Shadows (Winter and Lady Isabella - #4). Concord and Verity weren’t around much; the few times, they were included largely by mention. Asa had made a few cameos here and there but he was always the mysterious one, until things started getting unraveled by book 6, with Asa having his own story, FINALLY, in book 9 Sweetest Scoundrel, with Eve Dinwoody as his match.
The middle books center around various secondary characters still connected to this series some way or the other; whom you will still see even after their HEAs. Book 10, Duke of Sin, tells us the story of the whimsical (some beg to differ and calls him ‘insane’) Duke of Montgomery AKA Dear Val (as I called him :P), one of those peeps. He used to be quite the shadowy character until the revelations in Eve’s book, who also happens to be his half-sister. Val’s also connected to Asa, which is how he was introduced in this series.
Now Alf has been around, like REALLY around for a long time, ever since book 4 I think. But it wasn’t until book 5, Lord of Darkness, Godrick St. John’s story, where Alf made her mark as a secondary character helping him find a kidnapper of children. St. John is also Lord Caire’s closest friend, and now married to Margaret, who is the sister of Lord Griffin Reading, hero of book 2. You get my drift? How this series and its characters are entwined?
I also have to mention this: contrary to what we first thought, there were 3 Ghost of St. Giles; one taking over when the previous retired. And they didn’t know each-other either at first. The full story of how these ‘Ghosts’ came to be in St. Giles, their backstory with the original mentor (since long passed) and their motto is revealed in their own books. The first Ghost was Winter Makepeace, the next being Godric St. John, a revelation that surprised us all. Apparently he wasn’t just a lonely, grief-stricken widower we thought him to be all along! But after his hasty marriage to Margaret, he also put away his Harlequin mask. Around that time, a third Ghost came into the spotlight, who turned out to be The Duke of Wakefield, Maximus Batten. Max is also Lady Hero’s elder brother (Lady Hero is the love of Lord Griffin’s life and now happily married to him). I can’t tell you the amount of excitement came with these revelations because we were always waiting with bated breath to find out if our guesses were correct or not. I definitely did! :D
Anyway, back to my review... It wasn’t until Val’s book (#10) that Alf was reintroduced in this series. We find her snooping on his behalf, gaining information in and around St. Giles, which she did like a pro. She was quite the prominent part of that book. Val, with his shrewd observational skill, had already deduced that Alf was no boy, but he let the girl continue on with her masquerade as long as it helped his own endeavor.
We’re also introduced to Hugh, the H of Duke of Pleasure, for the first time as one of the acknowledged bastard of the King. He’d just suffered a tragedy; his wife died a few months ago leaving 2 young boys to care for. Hugh is also one of the few men the King trusted with the uglier secrets of the Crown. Tasks were given to him to get rid of people and things, equally. In short, Hugh had taken care of many of the Crown’s dirty secrets on behalf of his exalted father, whom he’d met only a handful of times. Lately though, Hugh had been thinking of retiring to take care of his sons. His plan was going in the right direction too but when another ugly situation reared its head, he was, again, summoned to take care of it much to Hugh’s utter dislike. But an order from the King can’t be ignored, no matter how he was related to him. While investigating this particular case, Hugh meets this young boy ‘Alf’. Alf, it was rumored, knew a lot about St. Giles, where Hugh’s investigation led him to.
In a way, book 11 is very connected to book 10 because the case I’m taking about actually first came into the light in there. Val’s father was the member of a secret club with all sorts of disgusting and perverted goings on. The club was so secret that the members didn’t always know each-other. They met under robes and masks to do their ‘ritual’s, which involved alcohol, orgies and more often than not, children. I’m not even going to try and explain the latter. Val wanted that club destroyed since he hated his father and every single POS who was the part of that club, which is how he got entangled in this mess. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to eliminate all the members. When news reached the King that someone close to him is a part of that club which can return to bite their collective asses, it falls onto Hugh to investigate it further in hopes to destroy it totally. This is how Hugh started keeping an eye on Val. It’s also how he tracked down Alf, who was seen leaving Val’s house quite frequently. Alf and his first meeting didn’t go well but Hugh was determined to bring the boy to his side for garnering more information.
I mentioned The Ghost of St. Giles because, in the beginning of Duke of Pleasure, Hugh is attacked by a band of goons, obviously sent to murder him. He’s a big man, well trained in boxing, yet he probably couldn’t have taken care of that many against one unless The Ghost of St. Giles made an appearance. It was rumored that the Ghost was back after a hiatus but Hugh wouldn’t have believed it until he saw with his very own eyes! That ‘him’ turned out to be a very shocking ‘her’ the moment Hugh is thrown against the Ghost in the fray and he very deftly discovered a pair of... breasts. :P Oh boy! But the best surprise was yet to come—a kiss, directly from the Ghost, after they were safe. WOW!! Now THAT’s something Hugh wasn’t expecting, more so the fact that the Ghost’s kiss could actually arouse him to a point that he couldn’t stop thinking of her. Yes, it’s been a while since he’d had a woman but still. Wtf??! :/
Hugh became the butt of joke among his men when he cracked the news, but that didn’t make that female Ghost any less mysterious or enthralling to him. The fate of his ongoing investigation was also hanging heavy on his mind. It seemed now he was also in danger, which I suspect, is expected when you’re dealing with a club like the one he was investigating. But Hugh’s main concern was his little boys. Both were still dealing with their mother’s passing, which has been ruled out as a riding accident. Everything happened so quickly, it was too hard for the 8yrs. old Christopher or 5 yrs. old Peter to understand any of it. While his eldest boy was sullen and moody most of the times, Peter was becoming quite difficult to manage with his temper tantrums. His mood was going downhill with each passing day and Hugh would often wake up in the middle of the night hearing him scream blue murder. He’d rush in to offer comfort but it wasn’t helping. The worse was the fact that Hugh knew he was still a stranger to his boys because he left to fight for the Crown when they were both babies. His marriage to Katharine was already over by then.
Hugh thought he was in love with Katherine. It was a very passionate relationship, which turned into barbs and jibes, regular fights even before their honeymoon was over. Katherine’s mood was mercurial and she soon found comfort in other men’s arms, a betrayal Hugh could never forget or forgive. When he figured out Peter wasn’t his, he simply left and didn’t return until her passing. But for all her faults, Katherine apparently doted on her sons and always kept Hugh up-to-date about their life. Even so, Hugh was largely a stranger to them. Christopher hated his guts because he thought his errant father will leave them again, while Peter didn’t really understand or knew what to do since his mother wasn’t there to comfort him any longer. Hugh had since adopted Peter as his own. He loved him as much as he loved Christopher, so much so that no one suspected anything until much later in the story. At this point though, he had no idea how to handle his boys and improve their strained relationship.
But Hugh must push on and put an end to this club, and the case altogether, if he has to concentrate on his family. He wanted nothing more to do with espionage and Crown’s secret. He wanted to build a strong relationship with his sons. And to do that, first he has to find Alf and convince that brat to start working for him now that he’s not working for the Duke of Montgomery anymore. In a few days, his men find Alf, who pays him a visit and agrees to help. Hugh becomes rather protective of the boy but the street urchin wouldn’t take any charity from him so he let Alf work the way he did best; alone.
So, our Alf was, as I mentioned earlier, always alone. Her last, vague recollection was of her mother who just abandoned her on the sidewalk, ordering her to not to follow her because she was unable to take care of Alf. How heartbreaking! :( After that, an older boy found her and took her in his own gang. Ned not only taught her how to survive in the hostile environment of St. Giles, but also trained her in many other things. He was the one who insisted she dressed like a boy because that was the only way to ensure she was relatively safe from grabbing hands, consign to a fate much worse. Alf has been eternally grateful to Ned, who had, like many other St. Giles kids, disappeared one day without a trace. Alf still remembered him fondly and liked to think he just found sudden good luck and moved away, even though she knew that the likelihood of that was very faint.
Alf had done what she had to to survive, but she hadn’t ever counted on feeling things that she shouldn’t be feeling dressed and acting as she was. A boy. That Duke of Kyle had thrown her world in a complete disarray. Since that kiss, all Alf can think of is something she’s yet to know and learn; how to be a woman. Her body is now giving the signs and she wanted to discover that hidden part of herself. Though her small figure without much curve still makes her look like a young boy, Alf is in her early 20s. But nothing changes the fact that she’s insanely attracted to the Duke of Kyle, been so the moment she laid her eyes on him. But Alf knows nothing will ever come of that type of longing. He’s still a Duke, she’s still a street urchin who doesn’t even have a surname, let alone anything else... and he still thinks she’s a boy. Heartbreak is what’s waiting for her if she ever gives into that longing.
But easier said than done. When Alf is attacked, wounded, she somehow finds Hugh’s home. Hugh takes one look and brings her in, ordering that she won’t be going anywhere until she’s completely recovered. It gives Alf an opportunity to know about the man she’s fallen for. She also meets Hugh’s sons and strikes an instant friendship that only grew stronger each day. Alf meets Iris Jordan, a young widow, who used to be Katherine’s close friend and didn’t like her much at first (jealousy, psst! :P). But that changed soon enough. Iris is a beautiful, elegant woman and I liked her a lot! She didn’t have a great first marriage but was expecting to marry Hugh to take care of Christopher and Peter, whom she already loved and adored.
Along the way things change dramatically for them all, right after Alf’s true sex is revealed to Hugh quite unexpectedly. Of course, at first Hugh is mad, but then he realizes why Alf had to masquerade as a boy all her life. Iris was so observant that she noticed Hugh and Alf’s chemistry even before they were ready to acknowledge it. She never tried to be a barrier there in the whole story.
At this point, the investigation starts turning in new information, which leads them to revise their plan of attack on that disgusting club. I liked how Iris took the whole thing in and even being a lady in every sense of the word, expresses a wish to help them in the investigation. Part of it included training Alf into a woman who can carry on in the polite society. At first, it was for the investigation. But Alf really, truly wanted to start behaving like a woman. We can only imagine why. ;) She and Hugh were already getting hot and heavy, but Alf had a world of baggage (and self-consciousness because of her attraction to Hugh) that needed to resolve. Iris knew she wanted a better marriage than her first, and no matter how good a man Hugh is, they don’t have that chemistry. So she steps aside to give Hugh and Alf their HEA.
But don’t worry friends! Iris will have her HEA if the excerpt in the next pages is any indication. The hero is a brooding ‘bad’ guy who has zoomed in on his target; Iris. We also don’t know if that club was destroyed completely or if something new will arise from there. I can hardly to wait to find out what happens next!
Overall, I liked this story, no doubt about it. Thought Hugh was absolutely HOT! But I had a problem with Alf. I was unable to visualize her anything other than a street urchin, a boy at that. *cringes* And it ruined my fun throughout. It was disappointing that even in her own book there was little backstory on Alf. I was expecting something about her past would be revealed, where we’ll finally know who she is or at least get a FULL NAME! Unfortunately, nada. So in that regard, she, as a character, never evolved in my mind. I don’t know if I was able to explain it but I wasn’t sure about her and Hugh’s relationship. Just knowing she was of an age to be intimate with a man didn’t help. I needed more on her, at least, more time knowing her as a woman, rather than the Alf we’ve seen in this series.
I’m still rounding up on 4 stars cause damn, I need Iris’s story right now (it’s still some months away *sigh*)!!!
I guess, with Alf getting her HEA, the story of the Ghost of St. Giles is finally at an end. Or is it? :|