Sunday, July 16, 2023

The Duke's Wager by Edith Layton


So I think I can say that this is the first five-star recommendation I've gotten off TikTok! HUZZAH!

THE DUKE'S WAGER is such a good book, and what makes it even more amazing is that it doesn't actually have any sex scenes in it. This is a traditional regency with everything alluded to or off-page, but that doesn't mean it's "clean" in any sense of the word. You couldn't have a clean romance about two dissolute rakes, as we see with the characters of the Marquis of Beccassar and the Duke of Torquay.

Our story opens with the heroine, Regina, accidentally going to the opera on the day that all the courtesans go to see and be seen. Naturally, since no one has ever seen her before, everyone is like, "Ooh, who's that and how much?" The Duke of Torquay is one of these men, and he is intrigued when the girl gets infuriated and flees after he casually propositions her. And by intrigued, I mean, he parks his carriage in front of her house and then tries-- and actually succeeds-- in kidnapping her.

Rather than ending in rape, however, the Duke actually listens to Regina when she begs him not to do whatever he's going to do and ruin her honor. Further. Because in order to make her his, he does some super shady stuff to make her totally isolated and vulnerable to his attentions. But because he's a "sporting" man, he makes her a wager that she has X amount of time to secure an honorable position for herself, either in employment or in marriage, and if she can't, she has to be his mistress.

While this is going on, the Marquis de Beccassar is brooding around, sleeping with woman after woman while secretly hating the Duke he admires/resents in equal breath. I swear, these two have such a Rattigan/Basil dynamic, in that they act like jealous ex-boyfriends. The Marquis is annoyed because he's had to stoop to doing some not-so-honorable things to inflate his estate and prevent his title from just being an empty shell, and those things have actually put him in the prime position to pretend to be a friend to Regina while he also connives to steal her from the Duke before the wager's end.

I don't want to spoil the book but despite being slow to start and having some flowery prose, this is actually a brilliant character portrait about honesty, morality, sanctimony, and redemption. All three characters learn some pretty harsh truths about themselves: the Duke has deep wounds that he covers in sheets of ice; the Marquis has an inferiority complex that he masks with gilt; and Regina has been raised in such a way that she doesn't really fit in with the merchant or noble classes, so doing right is very important to her... until, suddenly, it isn't.

This book reminded me a lot of some of Charlotte Lamb's books. Layton's heroine is a lot like a Charlotte Lamb heroine, and in many ways, this was like a historical fiction version of my favorite CL book, SAVAGE SURRENDER, with a dash of Les Liaisons Dangereuses thrown in for funsies. I would recommend this to anyone who loves a good villain romance where the villain gets a redemption arc.

4.5 out of 5 stars

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