My review contains spoilers and they're mostly my thoughts as I went with the book...
Disciplining the Duchess was my second Annabel Joseph novel. I’m a sucker for Erotic Historicals but BDSM stories always make me a little uncomfortable, not knowing how far ‘things’ will go etc. But I must admit I enjoyed this much better than the author’s other EHR, Lily Mine. Got me hooked right from the beginning and I felt the need to know what’s going to happen next. This book also made me very emotional at the most unexpected moments. Why, I’ll try to explain in the following...
At the beginning of the story, our h, Harmony, a spinster almost on the shelf, is attending the country house-party of a prominent family, the Darlingtons. She’s rumored to be ‘odd’. Harmony is not from a very rich family, being the daughter of a shy baron who was never very good at socializing himself. But it’s mainly because Harmony doesn’t know the practiced coyness and ‘arts’ of banters that young ladies her age or the debutantes are so good at. Moreover, she rather smart! Harmony can’t stand the girls with whom she is forced to act as ‘friends’. Most of them aren’t kind to her, with veiled barbs and sweetly-packed jabs coming her way at every opportunity. All Harmony can do is roll her eyes at their activities and try to stay away whenever she can.
I liked Harmony right from the start because she was, indeed, smart... for the first couple of chapters anyway. She had pale blonde hair, blue eyes and a curvy body, yet she thought she’s not beautiful enough to catch a suitor. Her elder brother, Stephen, is also attending the party. He’s a good-looking young rake but very insensitive. He’s selfish and isn’t kind to Harmony most of the times. He’s also determined to marry her off with this old, fat guy who has been sniffing about her for a while now. Well, that man is titled, so that worked for Stephen no doubt! But Harmony will not have it. She’s determined to dodge these attempts, which is how she was introduced to our hero, Court or the young Duke of Courtland.
The girls have been twittering about Court since day one. There are rumors about his ‘uncomfortable habits’ all through the Ton parlors, spoken behind the fans with giggles and blushes. The rumors are outrageous and Harmony didn’t believe a single thing. Yet it was obvious that the girls were also very intrigued by this young Duke who doesn’t mingle with many. The gossips about him joining the house-party also have been abound, and when he does step into the parlor one day, Harmony can’t take his eyes off of him. The Duke of Courtland is exceptionally tall, broad-shouldered with dark hair and a pair of eyes of undeterminable color; blue or green or blue-green, changing always. Those eyes seemed kind, not the types the gossips talk about. Before that though, Harmony and Court meet at the Darlington’s library for the first time, not knowing each-other’s identity. It was an awkward meeting both didn’t forget. But Harmony captured Court’s attention and interest on spot. It was only funny to realize later that she is that same ‘odd Barrett girl’ his mother has been trying to warn him about. Not that Court cares. He cares about his responsibilities and knows he must marry soon but his mother can be too much sometimes, always talking about keeping the noble blood intact by marrying an heiress of their standard. Court is tired of her nagging, and so, maybe just to rile her up even more, he begins to pursue Harmony... Or maybe not!
It was also obvious that the girls are now very interested in him now that they’ve seen him in person, but that doesn’t deter them from saying bad things about Court. Harmony, whom Court very unexpectedly (to her) saved from one of Stephen’s reproaches, has been having this odd notion about defending him. After their ‘official’ meeting, Court and Harmony begin to meet at outings and walks together, one including a visit to the Darlington’s art gallery. Her knowledge on various arts instantly impresses Court. He can imagine that a well-read girl would have trouble getting suitors. But he can’t stop imagining lurid things about Honorable Miss Barrett that just might include his fetish; the discipline and spanking he’d so love to mete out on her lovely backside.
Court’s own life hasn’t been a sweet little story either. His father was a controlling, ill-tempered man who loved doing whatever he wished. He was horrible to everyone, including his own wife, treating her badly and cheating on her often. This a$$hole wanted his only son and heir to be molded into his own lofty sense of perfection. As a result, a young Court grew up under staunch discipline that included caning whenever he displeased his father and without any close friends whatsoever. He doesn’t even know how to express intense feeling without... well, his ‘unmentionable habits’. He has been discreet so far in his carnal endeavors but the gossips about him are horrendous. Even Court is embarrassed by those. He’s bad, oh yes, but not as bad as they make him out to be. He is obviously not very close to his mother either, and so, after meeting Harmony, the feelings Court begin to have for her were not very unexpected. It was obvious that he felt at ease with Harmony.
It was one of Harmony’s jaunts that led them to a disaster of sort. You see, Harmony wanted to see this Roman Wall that can be visited much more easily from Darlingtons’ country house than London. Stephen never took her there, she’s not allowed to do it on her own. The History geek in her wouldn’t let it be, so she gathers now is her chance! Once, Harmony expressed her wishes to Court but even Court never thought she’d take it up on herself to set out all alone. When he finds out, something inside him forces him to go look for her. No one yet knew of her absence, but Court knew that the journey back and forth will take at least a day, which means they’ll have to spend the night at an inn. It also means words will go out and they’ll have to marry... But Court couldn’t let something bad happen to Harmony because, by now, he knows her brother wouldn’t really bother. He finds Harmony on her way, walking alone and on the verge of tear. She’s left by the man she hired to take her there. Court is exasperated but Harmony is determined to go, on foot if that is what it takes! I felt that Harmony needed to feel a little self-worth, to prove that she can do it on her own. But the world is not a safe place for a lone woman, and so, Court has little choice but to give into her demand.
It was a little immature of Harmony to think that they wouldn’t require marriage once everyone found out. She thought she’d never marry, and she certainly didn’t think Court would offer for her at any case. The ‘jaunt’, if you can call it that, didn’t turn out entirely bad. Harmony got to see the Roman Wall and their conversation spoke of budding intimacy, with a lot more on Court’s side. He was already thinking of asking for her hands.
It was at the inn where Harmony got her first experience of Court’s ‘uncomfortable habits’ aka a sound spanking because she was being so stubborn, without any discipline and made Court run after her. I would’ve been a little, um, uncomfortable but apparently, Harmony was not. She’s convinced, even thru her embarrassments, that she needed this to curb her ‘wild’ behavior. You’ll find this throughout the story, as if all was Harmony’s fault and Court wasn’t being a jerk at all. *sigh*
Even though Harmony tried to deter the inevitable, Court proposes and they’re married very soon, to Court’s mother, the Dowager Duchess’s utter dismay and horror! She’s forever whining that Court just sullied their aristocratic blood by marrying the likes of ‘that Barrett girl’. But Court is more than satisfied; after all he wanted Harmony since the day he saw her. The first few weeks are blissful, even with Court introducing her to sex and smaller dosages of spanking; first by hand, then using switches. Harmony is intrigued, and it turns her on to be spanked by her husband. Some of the so-called punishments were mainly for very frivolous (to me) ‘wild, undisciplined’ deeds and Court, of course, needed to ‘punish’ her to rightness.
I enjoyed those because those had a quality of playfulness and nothing over the top. Even though I don’t care for switches, normal spanking by hand is fine with me. However, as the story progressed, I saw things I didn’t feel entirely OK with. But what surprised me the most was Court being very disappointed in Harmony and her so-called ‘undisciplined’ ways. The things that bugged him were the very same things that enchanted him before marriage! He didn’t like her conversing as if she’s actually intelligent, anything that relates to her knowledge of History and Art, her frank words and straightforward ways. He wanted to mold her in a ‘perfect Duchess’ with perfect deportment, which I thought was hypocritical. I could also see that marriage had somewhat addled Harmony’s brain. She became clumsier and, I don’t know, stopped using her brain somewhat. It was emphasized that she liked her ‘punishments’ so much (since those were followed by intense lovemaking) that she did crazy stuff intentionally.
My reaction: eyeroll.
But things went genuinely downhill when the Dowager announced that the yearly Courtland ball is going to be cancelled because, obviously, the new Duchess is not nearly as able to carry it through as a real Duchess. But Court is not going to hear any of this. He’s determined. He’ll hire people to train Harmony and she’ll be The Duchess everyone, including him and his mother, would be proud of! Harmony WILL do it! I was so annoyed by Court’s presumptuous a$$ that I begin to shake my head at his lofty ‘announcements’, which obviously addled Harmony’s brain even more. She was obviously in love with Court and wanted to make him happy, proud of her. She was always made aware by him (before that, was her brother) that she’s no good in anything related to graceful comportment or charming manners. She knew she can’t really achieve this lofty goal and forcing her to do so didn’t sit well with me. I mean dude, you saw her before, she even warned you about how she’s not lived a life like that, why did you marry her if she’s not the type of Duchess you so obviously wanted? But Court says it’ll be done, so it’ll be done, no matter what! Ugh.
Harmony begins to train but... Well, nothing was really going as planned. Her punishments were now talking place weekly. Things were a bit shaky in their relationship, but not yet that bad. In the meanwhile, Harmony forms a friendship with an elderly scholar through letters. She knew Court wouldn’t be happy to know about it, after all the man is not even a family member. And she’s doing it without his permission. But Harmony wanted an outlet for her scholarly persona and those letters provided her with some sort of solace.
At that point, some new guests are invited for dinner, main reason is to introduce the new Duchess to them. One of them was Court’s ex-fiancée with whom he was engaged for a long time. But she left him hearing those gossips of his ‘uncomfortable habits’ and married another. Harmony knew of her and this woman was another of her vulnerabilities. After meeting her once on a walk, she was misguided into thinking that this woman is what Court obviously wanted in a wife. And he probably was in love with her. Harmony knows she’d never be as graceful and charming like her but she wants to try, just to make Court happy. This is what I meant by Harmony’s addled brain, she had a very swift personality transformation and I didn’t know if I liked it or not, not to mention Court’s own behavior.
On the day of the dinner is when disaster happened. I don’t even know why Harmony would chase an injured dog herself after being pinned up for the dinner, when there were plenty of servants to do so. But she does, and shames Court and the Dowager in front of the guests when the dog barges into the house, followed by a muddy, dirty Harmony in a torn gown. That was a disaster, yes, but Court loses his temper. And what he does to her in the cold, dark study of his late father, a place of his own humiliation, was NOT disciplining her. He beat her a$$ sore with a cane, I have no other subtle way to explain it. It was so awful to read, I begin reconsidering my rating.
This also creates a big gap in their relationship. Harmony becomes subdued, sort of a puppet, not as lively and spontaneous as before. She didn’t know if she can endure another of those ‘sessions’ if she does something wrong. They also stop sleeping together. I, for once, was happy that she didn’t just lie there and let Court ‘have his way’. Harmony was avoiding Court as much as it could be done politely. I enjoyed reading Court’s own tormented thoughts because he understood that this time he went too far, which mattered to me. I thought he was an arrogant and abusive boor but his own musings were enough. Court was very unhappy about not being able to undo this wrong because he had no idea what to do to. It was plain that he was missing the Harmony before this unfortunate change. He tries his best to take her out on walks, to museums but Harmony is largely listless, without enthusiasm. Can’t blame her dude. After what you did to her, I probably would’ve broke the cane on your head!
One of the best things happens at this point between Harmony and her MIL, who has been the bane of her existence since she came into Court’s life. Then, there was her injured arm, a result of Harmony’s less-than-graceful entry on that fateful dinner. Harmony thought all hopes for any support from this area were forever lost. But one day, while writing letters for the Dowager (one of the things Court made her promise while caning her) things change. The Dowager, it seems, has softened towards Harmony after spending time with her for the last couple of weeks. I loved how the whole thing started. How it’s revealed that the Dowager knew exactly the type of Harmony’s misery, only her own pain was much more intense that her DIL’s. We get a glimpse of the Dowager’s past with an abusive, cheating husband who never cared for her, ever. Worse was, she loved him anyway. I couldn’t even imagine what she went through, but all her blustering was a part of self-preservation, nothing else. The Dowager asks Harmony to not let go of whatever feelings she and Court shared, until it’s too late. I almost cried when I read that part and I was really happy when she found her own HEA too. This improved things between them because now Harmony and her MIL shared a common ground. Now she could understand where all those bitterness came from.
Even though, after sometimes, things change a little and Court is able to convince her that he was wrong and wants this to end, the next day, finding her letters with that scholar, Court is angry... again. He wouldn’t let her explain, being as pompous and assumptive as ever, dumping all the blame on her. How dare she exchange letter with another man not her husband or relative? Court was forever riddled with what’ll people think if they see/hear. He begins acting like a jealous douche. After another bout of word-exchange, Harmony is dragged back to that room... again, for another sound beating. OMG. I was SO MAD. WOW! I wanted to kill Court. That was NOT DONE jerk!! These two scenes marred quite a bit of my impression of Court, though initially I thought he’s just a misunderstood guy with a fetish not many understood, let alone talked about.
It was the way he later on sort of desperately works to mend things between him and Harmony that surprised me. It was quite well-written as if I could practically feel Court’s desperation to win his wife back because in his loco way, he loved Harmony. And he wanted to hear Harmony say the words back. He realized, ashamed, that he has done very wrong, the echo of his a$$ of a father’s actions haunting him. I certainly wasn’t expecting him to offer her to give up his spanking just so things are not that bad again. But, I’m not sure I agree with the kind of ‘middle ground’ they reached so that Court didn’t have to give up his spanking and Harmony can enjoy it too, with consent if I might add. I didn’t really like that chapter before the epilogue all that much. Ginger, really? That was just............. *blinks and shakes her head*
In the end, all I can say that this book made me feel things; emotions, good or bad doesn’t matter. And I like to feel. Personally, I’d only recommend this book to someone who isn’t bothered by the things I mentioned in my review. 4 stars.