My review contains spoilers and they're mostly my thoughts as I went with the book...
Trust SJ to give us a new series that began with a charming read, What the Duke Desires. It was fun-filled and action packed, along with some mystery that needed to be resolved. The H, Max, was sweet even if sometimes he was being a little obnoxious about things. Yet, I was glad to put him in my lists of sexy betas. The h, Lisette was a force to reckon with. She was strong and brave, qualities I admire in the h of a novel.
The Duke’s Men series is somewhat of a spinoff the Hellions of Hallstead Hall. Duke of Lyons, or Maximilian was a minor secondary character, being Lord Gabriel’s close friend. We were hinted at a family curse that made Max’s life difficult to bear, something that he always had to fight while mixing with his peers. They’re always waiting and watching for him to do something… irrational. Max seemed the reserved sort, the perfect Duke with his solid character and commanding presence. He also seemed distant and a little cold. Lisette was not introduced in that series but if you take a look at the nice family diagram at the beginning of the book, it’ll explain to you much. You might remember this; with the reference from Jackson Pinter, now retired detective extraordinaire, Dominic Manton helped Pierce sort out some things at the end of book 6 of the Hellions series. Dominic’s elder brother, George (who is now a viscount) was Pierce’s schoolmate. He has always been the mean sort and Pierce stayed away from him. But Dominic is nothing like George. He was thorough and quick to solve Pierce’s request, proving himself an able detective.
In this book, we come to learn that Dominic’s father, Viscount Rathmoor had a longtime faithful mistress; a French actress whom, it’s rumored, that he loved. She was pretty much established as his mistress when Dominic or Dom’s mother died giving birth to him. Lisette is Rathmoor’s illegitimate daughter, born to that actress. She has an elder brother who is a few years younger than Dom, named Tristan. I was not fond of the backstory since cheating always makes my skin itch. But Lisette’s mother, who went as ‘Mrs. Bonnaud’ was the trusting sort. She believed that Rathmoor will eventually marry her when they have the opportunity. And apparently, she loved the man enough to leave her own family and country to journey to England. But that marriage never took place as we find in the beginning scene. Rathmoor kept this off with various excuses... and then, he was killed. It was heartbreaking. Lisette was around 14 at that time. Just after Rathmoor’s death, Tristan, the wildest of the siblings, takes a horse his father gave him and sells it for some money.
Dom is the one breaks the news to the family as he was closer to his father’s other family. He accepted them while George hated them. After that shattering news, when they learn of what Tristan did, there was no doubt that he’d be in big trouble because there was no proof that the horse belonged to Tristan. George destroyed whatever evidence their father left in acknowledgement of his other family. Tristan was there but couldn’t stop George from doing it. In a nutshell, to save Tristan from hanging, they hastily pack him off to France as there was no other option. George comes by to threaten them. To their distress, Lisette and her mother learn that they don’t even have that small cottage they had lived in for so long. With Dom’s interference, and to save her family, Mrs. Bonnaud promises to leave England. Otherwise George would hound and humiliate them to his heart’s content. For his trouble, George denies Dom his rightful share from his father’s legacy. There was still the matter of Tristan, and George makes it known that he’ll find him and see that he’s hanged for his so-called ‘offense’.
Many years have passed since then. Lisette’s mother passed away in France. You can imagine how well she was welcomed to the bosom of her family as she left them to become mistress to some English lord, to their utter shame. Mrs. Bonnaud went back to the stage and did her best to support her family. They kept in touch with Dom, who finished his studies and eventually established his own investigation agency. Dom loves them very much, as they’re now his only family. He grew up playing with Tristan, so Mrs. Bonnaud always treated him as one of her own. Seems like, somehow, Tristan started working for the Sûreté Nationale, a matter only Dom, Lisette and Tristan’s mentor, Eugène Vidocq know about. (FYI: reading Vidocq’s life-story made me realize just how SJ connected him and Tristan so well, as Vidocq was also known to be a criminal before he became such a famous criminologist. Who else can read the workings of another criminal mind better, right?)
Recently, Lisette has returned to London to help Dom organizing his office. She has grown up to be a smart girl, even if a little on the impulsive side. Vidocq, it seemed, has trained her well for some tasks, as she helped him with his own office, sorting out the cards containing the criminal records etc. She’s doing the same for Dom. But what Lisette actually wants is to become a female agent and work for Vidocq, who welcomed the idea. But Tristan was vehemently opposed to it, forcing Lisette to back out of her plan. Lisette is unhappy about men interfering in her life this way. She didn’t trust any men of her life, or at least didn’t want to trust them. She hated that her father never married her mother, even though he kept her waiting for years. She hated how Dom or Tristan tries to ‘take care’ of her even now. She is perfectly capable of taking care of herself, so why would they not trust her with something more... adventurous?
Fate gives her the opportunity to ‘explore’ her adventurous side soon enough, in the form of the Duke of Lyons. One day, after Dom is gone to Scotland, making her promise that she won’t get herself into trouble, Lisette goes and does that; get herself into trouble. Well, she didn’t have a lot of other options and she did want to test her limits. The Duke comes in search of Dom, wanting information on Tristan. He tells her something so out of place, like Tristan is in London, and wanted to meet him to give Max some information about his long-lost, thought to be dead, elder brother Peter! Max waited for him but he never showed up. Now he thinks Tristan is a fraud trying to filch his money. For one, Lisette doesn’t believe that Tristan would be such an idiot to return to England. But then, as she views the note, she recognizes her brother’s handwriting that sends a chill down her spine. How could he be so careless? Apparently, now that the ‘Lofty Lyons’ (as Max is known through the peerage) is on to Tristan’s arse to see him punished (and ruin his life), even if it means by traveling to France, it’s up to Lisette to save the day. Or at least, save Tristan’s very troublesome arse!
Their first meeting was funny. Max thought Lisette was Dom’s mistress, seeing her coming out of bed in her nightdress. Lisette did her best to talk back, never mind she was talking to a Duke. Her straightforward and bold stance, not to mention her protectiveness towards her family intrigues Max from the beginning since he’s the unfortunate sort who hasn’t known close family ties in that sense. Max’s family secret was mostly assumption and a result of wrong information. He was scared of going mad like his father and his great uncle. He stood by and witnessed his mother suffer through his father’s condition and it made an awful impression on him. This is the reason Max decided a long time ago that he’d never marry a woman he might fall in love with. Moreover, his brother’s kidnapping by his great uncle and his subsequent death in abroad cast a dark shadow over Max’s family that his parents never recovered from. Max had to bear the brunt because it sounded as though they preferred ‘the heir’ more than ‘the spare’. His parents’ obvious preference and repeated mention of it hurt Max (and it’s so understandable, really), yet he never stopped loving any of them. Max worshipped his mother and loved his father before both of them passed on.
So he saw a lot in Lisette that start attracting him like a moth to a flame. It was not only her inner strength, but also her French-English grace and beauty. The journey to France was something Max would’ve gladly done alone, but on Lisette’s insistent, he had to take her along. Then he had to come up with an instant plan to appear as husband and wife. Another funny scene, since Lisette had lost her tongue when faced with that force of nature, aka the gossipy woman at the station. Later Max doesn’t forget to needle Lisette about it, making her realize (to her utter annoyance) that she’d never make a good agent. Lol
On that journey their intimacy grew. Already mentioned that I really enjoyed Lisette and Max’s banters, how Max always appeared so cool and ‘dukely’ while Lisette would fumble along with her various attempts of acting in her role. She’d be greatly annoyed by him, but more often than not, it stemmed from her unwavering attraction to the tall and handsome Duke. She knew nothing good could come of it, and she will NOT repeat her mother’s mistake. This is something I admired in Lisette. But I grew a little impatient because I wanted the book to pick up its pace. More of their banters, fact exchange, coming clean of information that Lisette kept from Max, yes, but other than that, the story slowed down quite a bit. Lisette didn’t trust Max for a long, long time and she was very reluctant to come forward with information. This frustrated Max because in his life, he has been lied to by people many-a-times, starting from his parents. And he absolutely abhorred it! This caused trouble in their budding relationship quite a few times. Lisette didn’t trust that Max won’t ruin Tristan, and Max would be kind of cold in his assessment of what should be done etc., leaving her confused about his intentions.
On that largely uneventful journey, Lisette finds out Hucker, one of George’s right-hand man, following them. This is when Lisette knew that she needed Max’s cool head, logical thinking and ‘dukely’ behavior to evade Hucker. But Max won’t help without the truth. Even though her natural impulsiveness tries to take over, Lisette admits that Max needed to know all about Tristan.
After a successful escape, when they reach France, Max finally meets the brilliant yet elusive Eugène Vidocq. He was jealous of the man because Vidocq seemed so close to Lisette, suspecting he might’ve been her lover or something. But it was very much apparent that Vidocq’s affection for Lisette was that of a father. It does calm Max’s mind a little, though he still can’t help feeling a little bereft. By now, Max has realized that Lisette was the kind of woman he can fall in love with... and in his dictionary that means she’s a big NO NO. Someone he can never be with. Oh goodness, Max would be so obnoxious about this thing that at times I wanted to smash something on his thick head! He was quite adorable, which is why I probably didn’t, much like Lisette because she knew she was already falling.
Obviously Max needed Lisette to set him straight, something Lisette proved to be good about. Hehe As they were searching in Tristan’s quarters for any clue, Lisette finally asks Max to show her what he feels for her. I liked that scene so much; her teasing, his groaning because he wanted to resist, yet for the love of him, he couldn’t. Afterwards though, Max had to go and ruin it by saying he can’t marry her... because... because it’s not even her illegitimacy but that he can’t bear it when she’d watch him go mad inevitably, suffering alongside him. So he’d marry someone cold and calculating, who’d leave him in his insane state! Or, they can get married, ONLY IF Lisette leaves Max be (preferably with servants) when his supposed madness takes him over! *sigh* This angers Lisette much and she vows that she’d make him see reason; that she’d never leave him no matter what, only if he’d let her in.
Later that day, Vidocq confirms that Tristan is not in France. He also divulges some information on Max’s great-uncle and Peter. It seemed like both went to a small Belgian town called Gheel, which harbors mad people for treatment. It only confirmed that Max’s great-uncle was indeed going mad. But what actually happened? What about that fire they died in? Was it an accident or a case of arson? Vidocq remembers the case as he was one of the people Max’s father contacted with. That is how he also recognized Max even before Lisette had a chance to introduce him. And Vidocq, once a ladies’ man, totally understood that Max wanted Lisette, a feeling she returned. He’s duly concerned about this situation, for it seemed likely that Lisette would end up hurt. So he and Max have some word exchange on the whole mess they were in at that moment. Their so-called plan of Lisette acting as a widow when she returns to England doesn’t really sound concrete, not to mention what Dom’s reaction would be once he’s aware of the whole situation!
I was glad that Lisette could see and acknowledged (even if to herself) that she has mucked up badly. Right now, they don’t even know where Tristan is, or if this news of Max’s brother being alive true or false. At some point though, they come to the decision that Tristan’s ship might’ve passed a diseased town before reaching England. And that means the ship would be on quarantine. Quarantined ships sat on the dock for a period of time, hoisting a yellow flag, to determine if there was any infected man abroad and needed to be taken care of. Until the quarantine officers were satisfied and gave permission to move, no one could go out of that ship; be it weeks or months of waiting. When this is confirmed, Max and Lisette decide to return to England pronto and look for the ship which Tristan has boarded. Max could definitely use his influences in higher places to do something about it.
In between, there was the push and pull in their relationship and the proposed marriage. Lisette doesn’t care for Max’s conditions of their marriage and Max won’t relent. This was kinda frustrating I tell you. Anyway, when they return to England, Max finds out that the ship indeed is under quarantine. That means Tristan had to find a way to get the news to Max. What did he do to pull it off? Is Max’s brother really on that ship? Could this mean that he is no longer the Duke of Lyons? Thoughts like this swirl around Max’s head. He wants Lisette to stay in safety but she won’t listen. Throughout their journey together, Lisette has had this insatiable urge to help Max find his way back, and she’d see it through. She also needed to see Tristan, to make sure that her lover and her brother don’t kill each-other off... or something.
Inside the ship, it was another matter entirely. It was like they stepped into a different world; a dark, dank and dirty world to be precise. Max then finds Tristan when he’s led to the place where they’re holding the sick man, who turns out to be Victor Cale. Oh God, would Max lose his brother when he’s come so close to have him back in his life? But why is he using a different name? Max is anxious... even scared, learning that Victor is not doing very well. The young Dr. Worth is trying his best to keep him alive. As Max steps inside the room... that was a moment that should’ve changed his life entirely. Yet it doesn’t. Not in that sense. Max doesn’t know what to think of this thin, gaunt man, who exceptionally resembles his own father. Since Max was very young when Peter was taken, he had no memories of him but in his mind, Max decides that this must be his long lost brother.
This part of the story was pretty intense. I loved how Lisette would take Max’s hand and try to show her support to him. I also had my own suspicions about Victor’s real identity, which hit the mark at the end. But the suspense in which SJ kept me was pretty good, and neat. While discussing this madness shared by Max’s father and great-uncle, which was not shared by any the other male members of Max’s family, some plausible dirty family secret comes to light. Secrets that were made out of lies... and those Max still hated the most. When he felt cornered by those revelations and unable to face them, Max botch things up a little. Poor guy, I felt so sad for him. :( I wasn’t angry with him, mind you but he did hurt Lisette with his words. Then I totally appreciated Lisette’s steady support of Max, even though she probably should’ve kicked on his nuts hard. Lol Either way, I was simply glad that finally Max had people to call ‘family’ again; a blood relation no less, alongside Lisette, to lighten up his days.
Overall, it was a sweet read, the usual SJ delivery; well researched and entertaining. This was also a good start to a new series. Now that Manton’s Investigation is known as The Duke’s Men (thanks to the media attention because of Max’s brilliant handling of the George problem), we’ll be getting the stories of more secondary characters. Already the pairing of Dom and George’s wife’s cousin, Jane was hinted at the end. I’m also looking forward to Victor, Tristan... even Dr. Worth’s book (if SJ ever decides something for him). For What the Duke Desires, 4.25 stars.
I was auto-approved for this ARC by Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster via edelweiss which didn’t influence my review and rating in any way.