To the Duke, With Love by Amelia Grey

I really wanted to like this book. The description made it sound like a battle of wits would occur, which I love due to the intellectual tension and often coded dialogue present in such stories.

Alas, the first chapter was infuriating and the hero even more so, and I stopped reading a few pages into chapter two. I think DNF reviews are very illuminating as they can highlight what makes a reader stop, or keep going – and maybe this duo are all of your catnip. That’s always possible. But either way, strap in because I have a lot of examples and it’s about to get ranty.

This is the cover copy that caused me Such Great Temptation:

Sloane Knox, the Duke of Hawksthorn is guardian for his sweet, younger sister. Due to his misguided past as one of the infamous Rakes of St James, Hawk is hoping to avoid the Season by securing a match for her before it begins. He has the perfect gentleman in mind, but for one infuriating—and unexpectedly intoxicating—obstacle: the intended groom’s own sister, Miss Loretta Quick.

Having narrowly avoided her own arranged marriage to an unacceptable nobleman, Loretta is determined that her dear brother—a gentle, good-natured soul—should marry for love. Matching wits with Hawk may be her greatest challenge yet. . .until she realizes it may also be her greatest pleasure. For the young duke’s irresistible charm has not only begun to crumble her stubborn resolve, it has claimed her heart in true love as well in To the Duke, With Love.

After reading that, I was so on board. She doesn’t want him to arrange a marriage between her brother and his sister; he wants to arrange said marriage – and they were likely going to argue about it a lot. Plus, there were pages from a fake gossip sheet in the beginning, and pieces of advice from some book called A Proper Gentleman’s Guide to Wooing the Perfect Lady at the start of each chapter. So much potential sardonic dialogue, so much possibility for intelligent humor. Sign me up, please!

The first chapter opens with a cold, wet duke walking his horse to some distant property and he’s pretty miserable. He decided to go alone on horseback, the horse he hired has gone lame, and it’s raining. To quote the duke meditating on his misery:

That his current situation was his own impulsive fault didn’t help his grumbling spirit.

Wet duke is wet. And cold. But doing all that walking gives Wet Duke Hawk (of course his name in the story is Hawk) a substantial amount of time to ruminate why he is in this wet position.

Wet Duke Hawk is looking for a suitable husband for his sister and has settled on Loretta Quick’s brother for very specific reasons. Gossip pages, such as the one quoted at the beginning of the chapter, were already talking about his sister Adele’s debut, and Duke Hawk has decided that he needs to set up Adele’s engagement prior to the start of the season. Why?

…there would be no opportunities for mischief from anyone who might be seeking to exact revenge on Hawk by pursuing his sister with less-than-honorable intentions.

Duke Hawk is worried that his terrible reputation and very sordid recent past will cause someone to seek revenge on him by ruining his sister.

My first question: Duke Hawk, what the hell did you do?

So Duke Hawk walks up to the country manor of the Quicks, known as Mammoth House (yup, it’s big) and is greeted at the door by a servant whose reaction contains a  portion of “Wtf are you doing here, Wet Duke Hawk?”

He’s led to a drafty, sparsely furnished room with a fire that’s mostly embers, so he adds wood to the fire. This caught my attention because despite noticing that the house is shabby and run down, he tosses wood in and stokes the fire. He’s a cold Wet Duke Hawk so of course he’s going to toss the wood in the fire without thinking about whether they’re in somewhat dire straits with regard to firewood.

I’m ok with the idea that this guy is due for a hell of a wake up call regarding his presumption. It’s very possible that this change of character would make for some of the internal tension. There are also a few hints that Duke Hawk’s habit of making decisions for his sister will go sideways as a way for his character’s journey to move from condescending Wet Duke Hawk to something else.

For example, Mr. Quick is assessed during Wet Duke Hawk’s Wet Walk as follows:

Quick was the nephew of an earl, more than average height, and even though Hawk considered him on the lean side, he assumed most young ladies would consider the man handsome enough. And the fellow seemed to always have a smile on his face and a bounce to his step.

What more could his sister want in a husband?

What more indeed? He’s bouncy and lean! If this were modern times, surely Lady Adele would swipe right. (Lady Adele Swipes Right would be a very fun title for a book, now that I think about it.)

The problem here, and one of the main reasons I DNF’d this book, was that while I was tempted by the possibility of this guy learning to change his heavy-handed ways, he was already firmly stuck in a very repellant portrayal of toxic masculinity with regards to Loretta, and I had no interest in being in his point of view again (the chapters seem to switch POV between the two of them). Nor did I wish to spend more time listening to any of his repulsive thoughts about Loretta. He has to protect his sister from people seeking revenge on him based on his behavior, but that behavior continues.

Let me explain what I mean. Loretta walks into the room, and things go straight to awful.

At the sound of the soft feminine voice, Hawk rose to his full height and turned. A tall, slender young lady was standing near the entrance to the room. She curtsied when their eyes met. She looked pure, sweet, and completely untouched by masculine hands. A sudden deep rush of desire flamed through him, and the rhythm of his heartbeat changed.

My comment: “Ew.”

“Untouched by masculine hands?” That’s his first thought about her? That she’s pure, sweet, and completely untouched?

How exactly does Duke Hawk or any person recognize such a trait? HOLD UP. Does desire give people some kind of heat mapping ability with their vision to detect such things? Or is it a scent?

And the idea that “pure, sweet, and untouched by masculine hands” is followed by “a sudden deep rush of desire” is not an endorsement for me in the slightest.

Let’s move on.

She wore a modest dress of pale-blue wool, void of bows, lace, or any of the embellishments usually sewn on to enhance the common fabric. No jewelry hung around her neck or dangled from her ears. Her light-blond hair was pulled up on each side, but he couldn’t see…if there were satin ribbons or fancy combs to hold it in place. What struck him instantly about her was that he’d never seen such a beautiful young lady so unadorned by frivolous accessories meant to enhance her beauty.

What strikes me instantly is that combined with the absence of wood in the fire before he tossed it in, the drafty shabbiness of the room, and the absence of fabric embellishments and jewelry combines to tell me that she and her household are in somewhat difficult financial straits.

But at this point, I was still on board. Maybe he was going to wake the hell up and realize that his needs are not first and foremost, that maybe he’d become more aware of how other families fare financially, but then, we’re talking about Duke Hawk, emphasis on Duke, and he’s not very savvy, it seems.

Miss Quick presumes that because Duke Hawk is there to see her brother without an appointment, her brother must be in some kind of trouble. Duke Hawk is Most Put Out that his letter announcing his intention to visit them was not received, but it seems that Mammoth House only has four horses, they are all in use, and the post is only picked up once a week. Her brother has received letters, but he isn’t home and hasn’t been for several days, so of course his sister doesn’t open his mail.

Loretta seems to know things about boundaries and whatnot, whereas Duke Hawk is increasingly pouty that his plans are increasingly gone awry. Duke Hawk also does not like that Miss Quick is not intimidated by him. She demands to know why he’s there, and says that the fact that they were not expecting him and therefore unprepared for his arrival is his problem. It totally is his problem.

But of course his problems are really her problems, and also her burden to manage.

Duke Hawk reminds himself why he’s there:

As the nephew of the Earl of Switchingham, Quick was a socially acceptable husband for Adele. Quick always wore a friendly smile and kept a cheerful attitude, which might become obnoxious to Hawk if he had to spend a good deal of time with the man, but he thought Adele would love it.

While Hawk had no idea what kind of allowance the earl had bestowed on Quick, it really didn’t matter. Adele had a generous dowry…. She wouldn’t have to reside in Mammoth House if she preferred not to, which he was fairly certain would be the case.

At least his sister doesn’t need to worry about shabby, drafty rooms and estates with four total horses! Thank goodness.

Then Miss Quick moves fully into the room, and the whole story went straight to hell for me.

He could see clearly the tempting shape of her inviting lips and her smooth, delicate-looking complexion, which enticed him to want to reach up and caress her cheek with the tips of his fingers.

You just met her, Duke Hawk. Calm the hell down.

“Tempting? “Inviting?” “Enticed?” Again, my comment: “Ew.”

They argue a bit more, identifying the source of Duke Hawk’s problem with the timing of his visit, and Miss Quick offers to help:

“Maybe I can help with whatever it is you wanted with Paxton.”

“That would be quite unlikely, Miss Quick.”

She dropped her arms by her side and assumed an air of authority. “I am quite capable of handling many things, Your Grace, and take care of most things here at Mammoth House.”

He wasn’t indifferent to her assertion. He believed her. She was strong and seductive, and he hadn’t seen an ounce of fear in her.

She’s “strong and seductive?” She hasn’t given any indication that she’s interested in him, or even remotely thinking of seducing him. She’s still at the “WTF is Wet Duke doing in the house?” stage, trying to figure out why there’s a duke in her home, and what he wants with her brother. And Wet Duke Hawk is over here thinking she’s strong and seductive?

Wet Duke Hawk asks where Paxton (aka Mr. Quick) is, and Miss Quick replies that she won’t tell him if she doesn’t know why Wet Duke wants to see him in the first place.

So Wet Duke Hawk reminds himself of his purpose:

If she thought to discourage him, she was mistaken. If Hawk could arrange a betrothal for Adele before the Season began, her future would be settled. He wouldn’t have to worry about her falling victim to a prankster or any bachelor hoping to get even with him for his past misdeeds.

Again, Duke Hawk, what exactly did you do in said past misdeeds?! Are you sure you’re the hero here? Absolutely positively sure? Like, your role said, “Romance hero?” Are you certain? Maybe check again?

Duke Hawk continues to evade her questions, and acknowledges that her defiance takes a fair amount of courage, as she’s clearly trying to protect or at least run interference for her brother. Much as he is for his sister Adele, but when the genders are switched and the interfering party is a Wet Duke, the power differential stays on his side.

So finally Wet Duke Hawk tells Miss Quick why he’s actually there, and Miss Quick is like, “Well, then. How about no?”

Duke Hawk makes his case:

“I’ve put a good deal of thought into this Miss Quick, and your brother is the husband I want for Adele. I’ve never seen him too deep in his cups, and he never gambles more than a handful of dollars at the tables. I’ve never heard a harsh rumor about him at White’s; nor have I heard Mr. Quick complain about anyone else. By all accounts he’s a fine gentleman who prefers books over swords, poetry over carousing, and tea over brandy.”

A soft, sweet smile came easily to her lips and she politely said, “In other words, he’s nothing like the man you are.”

SHOTS FIRED ACROSS THE WET DUKE’S BOW.

I’m so far 100% on Team Miss Quick. She’s completely unimpressed by this tool. He tells her she has unquestionable courage to speak so, and she tells him he has undoubtable arrogance to think he can order her brother to take Lady Adele as his bride.

TEAM MISS QUICK will have tshirts and keychains and a secret handshake and maybe even some custom letterpress stationery for our secret missives…. It’s going to be great.

Then Team Wet Duke Hawk ruined the book for me. He makes a passive aggressive request for port, wine, or brandy (He looked around the sparsely furnished room. “If you have it.”) (All the sideye. NOW you notice, Wet Duke? Now?) (Seriously, TEAM DFTG.)

She turned away, and the tug of arousal tightened Hawk’s lower body again. Waves of rich, shimmering blond hair that looked as if it could have been spun from moonlight cascaded down her back. For a moment, he envisioned her sitting astride him with all those glorious tresses falling delicately around her bare shoulders, and tickling his chest as she bent to kiss him.

OH MY GOD.

He’s a Duke Bro.

A Wet Duke Bro.

HIS interpretation of their meeting is so different from MY interpretation, I am more than a little nauseated.

She’s protecting her brother and herself from the vast impropriety of her speaking to him alone in a room, not to mention her vulnerability after disclosing how many servants and horses they keep.

Meanwhile he’s all, “Her hair is pretty. I’ll imagine her naked on top of me.”

Because of Duke Hawk’s repellant starting point, specifically because of that line, I was pretty much ready to drop this and move on. I didn’t much care if he was subject to a battle of wits that changed him. His thoughts about Loretta were so repulsive for me that I didn’t think he’d ever be worthy of her, or redeemed sufficiently, because I couldn’t believe that he’d be able to recognize his own behavior as the problem. There isn’t any respect in his interest in her. He goes from “She’s really annoying to challenge my questions and not tell me what I want to know” to “Hair pretty let’s imagine sex now.”

Miss Quick glances back at him:

Hawk had little doubt Miss Quick suspected in her innocent way what he’d been thinking, but more important, at that moment he saw that she was attracted to him, too.

BASED ON WHAT, EXACTLY?

She was still trying to get rid of him.

Well, yes. Her reputation will suffer impossible damage if you’re alone in the house with her, save for a handful of servants and zero horses.

It was admirable. And it was probably best if he did go soon, but…the rogue in him couldn’t bend to her wishes.

He’s a Duke Bro with a Toxic Masculinity Werewolf. Can’t control himself.

Again, EW. Also, Loretta, GTFO. NOW.

They verbally dance around the fact that he needs a place to stay and it’s very improper for him to stay in the house.

He should offer to bed down in the stable. A true gentleman would not leave the virtuous Miss Quick open to any hint of scandal. But the cold, damp stable was as appealing as a sickbed, and the last place Hawk wanted to stay this night.

So should he do the right thing, be a gentleman and stay in the stable, or – as he had so often done in the past – do the wrong thing and continue to be a rake?

Guess which one he chooses.

Yup. He takes advantage of the power and rank differential and stays in the house.

And that brings us to the end of chapter one. I don’t have any interest in reading any more about him, nor any hero who sizes up the heroine with “does she look like a virgin y/n?” and “what would she look like naked on me?” Reducing Miss Quick to a sexual object in the first moment of meeting her and presuming her own interest in him was enough of a turn off that I was happy for Duke Bro to remain wet and outside, alone with his horse so he could think about why he was in the position he was in. I’m not interested in watching him figure himself out and learn…anything. I want to set him on fire so Miss Quick’s house can be warmer.

In a roundabout way, I owe some gratitude to Hawk the Wet Duke Bro. I can identify much more clearly a major character turn off, and I can avoid it in the future. I’m not interested in heroes who are mentally predatory, who objectify the heroine into narrow categories such as “virgin” and “naked.” I’ve never enjoyed overbearing, “I know your body better than you do” or “I want to bang you now especially because you’re a virgin” types of heroes in any genre. With all the predatory men toppling one after the other, this type of character is particularly repulsive to me right now.

I still love battle of wits stories. Alas, you can’t have a battle of wits with an unarmed Duke Bro. In order for there to be a battle of wits, both parties must be equally astute. Duke Bro brought toxic masculinity and an overly confident estimation of his own imagination boner to this fight, and he is woefully outclassed. While I might find the comeuppance of an overconfident character fun to read, this character’s overconfidence tipped far too much into toxicity and objectification. I wanted Miss Quick to get the hell away from him.

Nothing was going to redeem Wet Duke Bro, and so I stopped reading.

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To the Duke, With Love by Amelia Grey

December 5, 2017

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