You know what they say — leave no stone unturned, no Tessa Dare unread. With this noble goal occupying valued space at the top of my priorities, every book that comes off hold at the library is a step closer to enlightenment. After my barely coherent fangirling over the second book in the Castles Ever After series, I was really looking forward to working backward to this one before #3 is released later this year (squee!) And I was not disappointed — Romancing the Duke (4.5 stars, tbh) is a whimsical, charming, and very sweet story that’s refreshingly light on angst.
Izzy Goodnight’s father, when he was alive, wrote a widely-beloved series of fantasy stories called “The Goodnight Tales,” featuring a young, fictional Izzy and a host of other traditionally pure and romantic characters in what I imagine was a very Princess Bride-like setup. Now, as an adult with barely a penny to her name, Izzy discovers that she’s somehow inherited a castle. With no marriage prospects on the horizon and conveniently needing a place to live, she spends her last monies on the trip to her castle, only to discover that it’s very nearly ruins, and on top of that it’s actually still inhabited by a crotchety duke who wants her gone. See, Ransom, the Duke of Rothbury, may be brooding in deep seclusion following an injury that left him mostly blind and very scarred, but he’s certain he did not sell the castle.
After some basic first-round attempts by Ransom to scare Izzy out of the castle, e.g. positioning her to take a swarm of bats directly to the face, the two reach a cautious deal that she will stay as long as is needed to perform some secretarial work and deal with the huge pile of unread papers on his desk, possibly locating evidence of the castle sale. Show of hands: where might this arrangement lead?
Three cheers for Izzy, who is a savvy and persistent woman in the face of adversity. She’s optimistic in the face of her spinsterhood and even seems to be looking forward to it, as it uncouples her somewhat from expectations of being pure for her eventual husband. That said, she still has some interest in presenting a facade of wide-eyed innocence, because fans of the Goodnight Tales tend to still idealize her as the young girl from the stories, and she can trade in their adulation for favors. When she has no other money or prospects, that option represents a valuable currency for her. So while as an adult woman, she’s very interested in exploring the sexual tension (and boy howdy!) with the duke, she’s canny enough to keep that side of herself private, in the event that she does need to leave the castle eventually and turn to the fans for help.
Ransom is a loveable grouch who is a bit too morose to do everything right, but as a reader I was charmed by how he took to Izzy almost instantly, recognizing her as a source of warming light that was going to melt the ice around his heart whether he had any say in it or not. His crankiness toward her is less him being cranky for its own sake, and more of her being the unfortunate implication that his solicitors are mismanaging his funds and estates behind his back. It’s patently uncool that he’s taking that out on her, but at least he’s not selectively blunt to be cruel or to push her away; he’s blunt in all aspects, including the fact that he wants her. For Izzy, this means that he’s a fairly open book in terms of what she’s likely to expect from him, so she has full agency to go into whatever manner of relationship she chooses with eyes open.
Not only is the romance done well, but Dare also gave Izzy a supportive female friend. Fortunately I’m seeing this more often in romance, but it’s still worthy of praise, when so many authors still feel the need to set up all female non-relatives as bitchy potential competition. I’m so glad Tessa Dare is above that.
My only minor (and it’s super minor) quibble is that there is a traveling band of Goodnight Tales cosplayers that tended toward the overly-twee, but even with that said, I wasn’t really annoyed by them as much as I was bemused by their not-at-all coincidental arrival at the castle.
TL;DR — alwaysanswerb is recommending another Tessa Dare book.