By Meredith Duran
Publisher: Pocket Books
Release Date: January 29, 2013
Despite his reputation as a ladies’ man, Michael de Gray, younger brother of the Duke of Marwick, is not the stereotypical dissolute younger son but a physician who has spent the last decade as head of a charity hospital that serves London’s poorest. Funded by his brother, the hospital is as important to Michael emotionally as it is professionally. He is blindsided when Marwick threatens to cut off all funding for the hospital and Michael’s personal fortune as well unless Michael marries a woman who meets the duke’s approval within the year. Marwick has been Michael’s defender, champion, and substitute parent since they were children, but in the wake of the death of his duchess seven months ago and the ongoing revelations of her opium addiction, infidelities, and political betrayals, Merwick has turned into a man Michael no longer knows, a man disturbingly like the father the brothers hated. Refusing to be controlled by Merwick, Michael leaves London for Cornwall to become Michael Gray, country doctor.
Elizabeth Chudderley--infamous widow, professional beauty, and darling of London society’s fast crowd, has also retreated to Cornwall. The news delivered by her solicitors that bad investments and careless spending have left her unable to support the lifestyle she has enjoyed soon followed by the man she expected to marry abandoning her for an heiress led her to close her town house and return to her estate near the village of Brosbea for the summer. Her only choice is to use her beauty to find a wealthy husband as quickly as possible.
Michael and Elizabeth meet one early morning when he finds her drunk, snoring in his rose bushes. An immediate awareness develops between them, but Michael determines to keep his distance. He knows Mrs. Chudderley’s reputation because she is part of the circle to which an old schoolmate, Viscount Sanburne (Bound by Your Touch), belongs, a group too rich and too wild for Michael. Elizabeth, unaccustomed to men who do not respond to her invitations, thinks a flirtation with Michael, her social inferior as a country doctor, may be just the distraction she needs. Time will prove the decisions of both futile. Michael cannot say no to the beautiful widow, and Elizabeth’s feelings for Michael will prove to be far more disturbing than the light flirtation she planned. But the obstacles separating them increase with every discovery that intensifies their feelings for one another.
Duran has used the device of deceptive appearances before, and she deftly employs it again in That Scandalous Summer. There is situational irony in the deception since the reader from the book’s beginning knows that Michael is not the humble country doctor he appears to be, and the reader also knows that Michael’s dedication to the patients his hospital serves is central to who he is. Merwick responds to Michael’s rejection of the marriage scheme with this acknowledgment:
“But forgive me if I’m not persuaded. You see, I think here of your precious patients. In the end, you’ll concede—for their sake, if not your own.”
A few chapters later, the reader learns that Elizabeth’s decision to marry money is not that of the shallow, self-absorbed beauty that she seems to be.
What choice did she have? It wasn’t simply her own welfare that hung in the balance. Everyone who worked her land—though the value of their crops kept falling; everyone whom she employed—and the children whose educations she funded, and the parish, and the village school—
They are both complex characters who enlist the reader’s sympathies and keep the reader hoping for them to find happiness together even when that outcome appears impossible. The connection between them consists of genuine liking and shared humor as well as healthy lust. Michael is handsome, strong, and noble in character, but I was most impressed by his trust in Elizabeth even when the evidence of his own senses suggests she is betraying him. Elizabeth is intelligent, generous, and refreshingly appreciative of her looks without being vain.
She would miss, when she was older, the way her approach could make a man’s shoulders square, his chin lift, as though he strove to present his tallest and best self to her. Such a delicious sense of power it gave her!
The cast of secondary characters is strong. Fans of Bound by Your Touch will be pleased to see Lydia’s unconventionality and scholarship are undiminished, and Sanburne is a suitably doting spouse. Alistair, the fifth Duke of Merwick, evokes a complicated mix of anger and pity, and the mysterious Mather, Elizabeth’s secretary, is appealing, loyal, intriguing, and, at times, funny. I will be disappointed if we fail to see more of both these characters.
As always, the precision, lucidity, and sometimes lyricism of Duran’s prose make reading her books a joy. One of my favorite passages occurs when Elizabeth, having admitted her love for Michael, considers how different her feelings for him are from those she entertained for the perfidious Nello. The changing rhythm of the prose here, moving from the question to the tumble of recognitions to the contemplative conclusion is a wonderful example of sound and sense working together.
How had she ever imagined herself in love with Nello? The jokes between them had been malicious, and always at somebody else’s expense. He had excited her, of course—and angered and annoyed her; every moment with him had been tumultuous, and in the interludes between their meetings, she had fretted, parsing every moment of their past interactions. But that was not love. Love, she saw now, did not feel at all the same.
Love was more than passion. It was built on intimacy, a history woven of private moments, knowing looks, and silent smiles.
Such marked enthusiasm may seem inconsistent with the 4.5 stars I gave this book, but as much as I loved these characters and their story, I had a problem with elements in the final chapter. The writer who chooses plots that arc over books has to strike a perfect balance: the ending of the first book must maintain the reader’s interest without leaving her frustrated by a lack of resolution. In the case of the relationship between Michael and Merwick, I wanted more resolution. I was left eager for Mather’s story, but frustrated because I needed a more definite reconciliation between the brothers. Readers who are not bothered by conclusions with question marks will likely have a different reaction.
If you are a fan of Duran’s intense, distinctive romances, you will not want to miss this one. It is lighter than last year’s At Your Pleasure, but it is still a powerful story with ample emotional punch. If you’ve never read Duran, this first book in the Rules for the Reckless series is a good place to begin. There is even a novella prequel, “Your Wicked Heart,” available for $.99, although it is slighter in substance as well as length than Duran’s full-length works and should not be used as a taste test. Also, be warned that the description of That Scandalous Summer that is all over the Internet is misleading. The novel is not a Regency; it is set in 1885, and it is considerably more complicated than the summary suggests.