My review contains spoilers and they're mostly my thoughts as I went with the book...
Holly Bush’s Charming The Duke was my first book by her, with a heroine after my own heart. I always find a book more enjoyable when I can connect the characters and Matilda was pretty much the type I love to read about. There were some major fun characters in the book too who just doubled my enjoyment overall.
Matilda, the second daughter of the Earl of Bisset is nothing like an Earl’s daughter. She’s book-ish and reserved. She’s also, undoubtedly, the most intelligent of her family members. The Sheldon family is a big family full of fluffy characters. Apart from Matilda and her grandmother, Ethel, her mother Frances, father Francis (don’t ask!), sisters, the eldest Juliet and the youngest Alexandra are all... well, imagine the Pleinsworth family in Julia Quinn’s Smythe-Smith books. After you’re through with one of their conversations, you’ll be left to imagine if what you read, indeed, makes any sense. It’s just so utterly confusing, yet super entertaining in its entirety. Generally, Matilda and Ethel’s remarks make any sense in any family conversations.
But let me tell you that no matter what, the Sheldon’s are a very tight-knit family. Their affection for each-other just pours forth from the pages. There are plenty of examples of that, through words or deeds that only made me smile. While Juliet and Alexandra are very much into clothes and fashion, shopping, balls and gatherings, Matilda is planning to open an orphanage. Juliet is the most beautiful of the sisters, followed by Alexandra. Both, I assume, are blondes and take after their mother. Both have high hopes of making good matches, though Alexandra has just turned 18. But Matilda, she’s a different matter entirely. She’s considered plain, with brown hair, a wallflower who loves blend in the background. Generally that’s what happens with the eligible bachelors. When her two sisters are present, it’s painfully obvious that no one really notices Matilda.
It was also, very obvious, that though she liked to think that she didn’t care, dressing in drab gowns, sporting a severed bun, Matilda had her moments of doubts. Oh she knew of her intelligence. After all, she has helped her father with the estate matters for a long time now. But when it came to the matter of beauty, well, Matilda never passed the ‘standard’ of the society. And so, she sort of resigned in becoming a spinster, her plan of opening taking shape from that idea.
When Matilda broaches her wish to open an orphanage to Ethel, she’s supportive of her. But Matilda is not yet sure of her family’s reaction, which is why she secretly starts looking for a suitable house, hiring whatever help she can. At that point, it’s announced that there’s going to be a house-party and she has to attend. Matilda detests these parties and balls because... well, she just doesn’t enjoy the inane activities that inevitably follow. She’d rather be at home, doing something worthwhile. But this time, the Duke of Thornsby, alongside some other prestigious guests is due to arrive, and so, like it or not, Matilda is stuck for good.
We meet Frederick, the Duke, as he’s pondering this big quandary he’s in. Just thinking of it sours his mood. You see, Freddy needs to marry soon or else he can kiss his inheritance goodbye. So far, Freddy has always lived a Duke’s lifestyle. Though not entirely vain or addicted to excess, he’s just what the Ton wants him to be; a fast-paced, worldly young man who loves his luxuries, be it premium horseflesh or beautiful women. While Freddy is handsome, he’s not really sought by the marriage mamas. Beautiful widows, oh yes, but because of some past scandals, marriage mamas drag their daughters away from him. I wasn’t sure what this guy did to garner that but Freddy didn’t bother about this until now. He attended parties and balls, affecting his usual stance of boredom with a healthy dose of aloofness. He had had his share of dalliances... Now, none of those will work. He needs to decide what to do, and soon.
Then Freddy’s elder sister, Athena, is introduced. She is somewhat like Matilda in her appearance and intelligence. Athena has been the backbone of Freddy’s household ever since she took charge of it after their parents’ passing. Freddy and she share a very strong bond. There’s nothing can deter or stop Athena from being assertive, maybe, except for one- her looks. She thinks she’s unattractive, so much so that she has not been able to acquire any male attentions over the years. Now that she’s nearing 30, there’s no chance left. But Athena is smart as a whip, also very opinionated. Though Freddy tries his best not to do anything rash and suffer her wrath, this can’t be said about his childhood best friend Andrew.
Andrew has been in love with Athena since he started coming over with Freddy. It never mattered that Athena is a few years older than him. Andrew is considered a ‘catch’ because of his blonde good looks and a sizeable inheritance, even though he doesn’t possess any title. He has loved her secretly, and we come to learn that Athena has harbored a secret tendre for him too, yet never dared to voice her appreciation. On the outside, if you see them together, you’d never believe it! And that’s where was the fun of their relationship. They’d fight like an old couple, argue in everything… until one day, when Freddy’s inheritance and need for marriage came into the spotlight, the discussion of it prompting Andrew and Athena having this awareness of each-other. When he heard of Athena’s vulnerabilities regarding her looks, Andrew could do nothing but confess what has been on his mind all these years. It was just the right time. Athena didn’t know what to believe, but Andrew is so handsome… Somehow knowing each-other for almost a lifetime made things easier for them. Their coming together and professing of love didn’t feel odd or awkward to me. Honestly, from the first moment I met these two, I knew something is going on. Oh how I wish that Andrew and Athena had their own book cause they were so good together, even after they eloped to Scotland and married.
This left Freddy with a problem. Apart from his usual ‘dukely’ activities, two things were constant in his life; Athena on the one side, Andrew on the other. Now it seemed things were going to change. Then, Athena confessed that, though the world didn’t see it often, their parents also secretly loved each-other, making Freddy wish that he could have the same.
In between, before Athena-Andrew eloped for Scotland, all three attend the Sheldon house-party in hopes for Freddy catching a bride. It’s ironical that it wouldn’t be him but his two close confidantes would fall instead. Freddy is a bit of a pompous a$$, what you can expect from a Duke and the very first day, he makes the mistake of confusing Matilda as a maid when she comes forward to greet them. It was... I don’t know. TBH, for the first 30 pages I wasn’t even sure if I’d like this story cause Freddy’s words and activities were coming off as callous. After he makes the mistake, as admonished by Athena who knew Matilda from before, he casually throws in a ‘sorry’. What’s he supposed to do? The girl is rather plain to look at, and dresses abysmally!
Also, I was thinking, would Matilda live up to my expectations? Or would she be one of those heroines who is ‘said’ to be strong but actually is an air-headed idiot. I’m glad to say that she lived up to my expectations and more. Matilda was NOT impressed with Freddy’s activities, just as I wasn’t. She definitely saw the handsomeness, the suave and sexy Duke. But apart from it, the man didn’t seem to possess one ounce of sense or intelligence. This ticked Matilda in a wrong way. Moreover, it seems like he lives and breathes to make her life miserable by making all sorts of wrong assumptions about her. The last bit about her having an affair with some workman, and expecting, was just too much. She’s angry as well as exasperated at Freddy.
This is when the story begins to become much more interesting! Freddy’s wrong assumptions about her when he spied on her at the home that she was considering for her orphanage was the last straw. Though he had good intentions and informs Matilda’s father right away, by the end of her confession, he was made to look like a fool. It also made Freddy come to the conclusion; that this Ms. Sheldon is not for him. No matter that Athena seems to think that she’s the smartest of her sisters... No matter how much she interests him...
Though she was still fuming at the Duke, Matilda announces her decision to her family in hopes of some help and support. To her surprise, they’re so interested in her endeavor that her father starts planning on the food supply, while her mother and sisters start planning on the dresses and whatnot. Matilda is overwhelmed by this and the work on the orphanage starts in full swing.
When Athena and Andrew returns happily married, Freddy was still embarrassed by his blunder at the Sheldon’s, and with no solution to his dilemma in sight. Moreover, his best friend and his sister are now flaunting off their blissful state on his face. At this point, something else comes up— two orphans at Freddy’s doorstep, from a maid of his house who recently passed away. She made him their guardian (father unknown, if you were thinking the worst of Freddy), and Freddy finds himself in another quandary. What the hell is he going to do with these young kids? In fact, what the hell does he know of taking care of children? Athena has already gone traipsing off to her honeymoon so he expects no help from that quarter right now. The only solution comes to mind is one Miss Sheldon and her newly furnished, about-to-be-opened, orphanage.
Oh boy, I knew fun was coming! Freddy, whatever else he has thought of Matilda, was very aware that Matilda was goodness, and Jonah and Alice would do well in her orphanage. But when she refuses to let the children in (she had valid reasons), Freddy stomps away in annoyance. It was so funny to read their banters, and heart-warming to find Matilda’s family coming to her support, even if they were twittering away while doing it. Juliet and Alexandra even start calling Freddy ‘Thorny’ instead of Thornsby, all thanks to his blunder that made him somewhat infamous among the Sheldons. LOL
It’s then Freddy realizes rather well that he has not been handling things well, including the kids. But when the 5 yrs. old Jonah begins giving him those worshipful looks of beguiling trust, Freddy gives in. He decides to take the siblings in his home. Alice, who is a bit older than Jonah, is more cautious of his intentions. Within a few days though, both the kids and Freddy find that they suit each-other just fine. He start enjoying their companionship, many-a-times these little moments making him want a family of his own in earnest. Worse still, he keeps thinking of Ms. Matilda Sheldon while doing it!
It was at a ball that they finally end up kissing and things start rolling for Freddy and Matilda. She dresses up a little, thanks to her sisters and instantly catches Freddy’s eyes with her becoming dress-up and hairstyle. And though, in the mix-up, somehow they get caught, with Matilda’s family demanding marriage, it was she who refuses to marry him. To Matilda, they don’t really suit. To Freddy, well, he wants her now but he becomes totally grumpy when she refuses to marry him outright. I was so enjoying this because it was apparent Matilda was no ninny. I liked the way she thought things out, just as she kept thinking if she’s ready to spend the next 40 years of her life with this man or not. Truth was, though she was definitely attracted to Freddy, she didn’t know what to do. On the one hand, she was oh-so-tempted, on the other, she was scared that she’d be a let-down and eventually, he’ll stray. At least, that’s what I thought.
I also found Matilda’s grandmother Ethel a total hoot! She was there, urging them on cause her shrewd eyes already knew that these two are meant to be together. Even Matilda’s airheaded mother saw it when Freddy and Matilda argued. Ethel made me laugh so many times with her wisdoms earned with years of experience and her spicy innuendoes on marriage and the marriage bed. She is the one who uttered this innuendo ‘charming’, which later came to be a private joke for Matilda. I just LOVED those scenes.
As I was reading, what I found truly charming, was the fact how the author was always answering my questions or doubts in a way throughout the story that I felt she knew what I might feel. If that line even makes any sense. :p I already mentioned how I glad I was about Matilda. Then, Freddy, as a hero, I wasn’t really warming up to him... But the moment he started having those doubts and self-reflections, things started changing, proving to me that he wasn’t just another arrogant, douchebag Duke.
The trouble, for Freddy and Matilda, arrives as the form of Freddy’s ex-mistress; a sly, arrogant and ambitious widow. Yes, didn’t like reading about her and Freddy but she was also a reason why Freddy’s self-reflections about his life took a center stage, when at one point of the story, she hurts Matilda in a ball by insinuating stuff about her time with him. Ethel was there to give the widow a taste of her own medicine (I expected nothing less from her) to shut her up. I would feel the same as Matilda did; hurt and so confused. She just dressed up for the first time to look nice for Freddy and his past comes to strike back at her. At a public place no less. Matilda is left to contemplate the result of such confrontation and what this might mean if Freddy and she are to marry.
Then, considering everything, Freddy also begins having doubts. Does he really want to propose to Matilda? Would Matilda even want him after this? He definitely had fallen, yet couldn’t come to terms with his feelings. As a desperate act, Freddy ends up proposing to that widow. In his mind, Freddy thought he’d have the kind of marriage the Ton would expect of him; cold, distant, ‘wait for an heir and a spare, then live their own life’- type. Respect, adoration, devotion but most of all, love won’t come to play a part in it. Only that Freddy wasn’t sure he wants to face the scandal when questions arise about the actual paternity of his heirs. His new fiancée is not really known for her fidelity.
When, only after a week, that woman starts taking his household matters ‘in her hands’, that included booting Alice and Jonah of the house and plans of changing the entire household staff, Freddy decides enough is enough. Does he want that type of cold and shallow lifestyle with her? The answer comes as a reverberating ‘no’. He immediately breaks off the engagement and goes in search of Alice and Jonah, not knowing that the children are now with Matilda at her orphanage.
The widow doesn’t take this well. After the broken engagement, she threats Freddy. Threats that Freddy doesn’t take seriously, though he should’ve.
Meanwhile, Matilda had just heard of Freddy’s engagement... She tells herself that she has no business to be unhappy, yet she is. She was also coming to realize that she feels something for him after all. Long ago, Matilda decided that marriage is not meant for her. Freddy was a temptation, a risk she couldn’t take on her poor heart. Yet the next time, when Freddy comes to her orphanage to take Alice and Jonah home, Matilda can’t keep herself distant. This time, Freddy too, was sure he’s going to get a ‘yes’ out of his Matilda... but then, things go wrong for them... again.
The widow strikes with vengeance at a vulnerable time, blackmailing Matilda with a secret knowledge of something regarding Alexandra and a certain viscount, also an heir to an Earldom, a fact that might also come to play in marring Juliet’s future. It was already known that an heir to a Marquisate has made his intentions quite clear for her and Juliet returns his affections. Matilda is torn, heartbroken, yet decides to do what the woman asks of her just to save her sisters’ reputations. She rejects Freddy once again.
But fortunately, though Freddy is heartbroken too over her rejection and drinks himself into a stupor, Ethel doesn’t give up. She barges in, demanding an explanation for her favorite granddaughter’s depressed state. She then urges Freddy to find some logical explanations, giving him some news that she came by rather recently. Freddy, Athena and Andrew could only bow down to her superiority… Freddy, specifically, is angered to know who is behind this treachery. They all come together to form a plan to help Matilda, who had no idea about any of this. Unaware, Matilda finds herself half scared to go to this particular house-party thrown by Juliet’s would-be affianced’s parents.
You gotta read the book to find out how things play out in the end. For me, I absolutely adored it. Honest, heart-warming and hilarious, Charming The Duke will be in my mind for a long time to come. I’d most certainly be checking out Holly Bush’s backlist! 4.25 stars.
Before I conclude, I believe I will give you a sample of Ethel’s wicked sense of humor. Trust me there are plenty of those in this book. ;)
Matilda shrugged. “I told Mrs. Smithly I would consider his court.”
Frances edged on her seat. Ethel leaned forward.
“Did you, dear?” Frances said with a look to her mother-in-law.
“Good. I believe you two are suited. The two of you will be fighting mad and arguing all the while dragging each other to the bedroom,” Ethel said.
“Mother Sheldon, really,” Frances said.
Ethel pulled her shawl about her. “High time you had this conversation with your other two daughters, Frances. Juliet will undoubtedly tie a bow about her husband’s rod the first time she sees it.”
Frances jumped from her chair, red-faced and sputtering. She closed her mouth and squared her shoulders. “Good day, Mother Sheldon,” Frances said and hurried to the door.
I received a review copy from Goddess Fish Promotions in exchange of an honest review as a part of a blog tour, April 2014, which didn't influence my review and rating in anyway.