Welcome to a world of reckless sensuality and glittering sophistication . . . of dangerously handsome gentlemen and young ladies longing to gain a title . . . of games played for high stakes, including—on occasion—a lady's virtue. A marquess's sheltered only daughter, Lady Roberta St. Giles falls in love with a man she glimpses across a crowded ballroom: a duke, a game player of consummate skill, a notorious rakehell who shows no interest in marriage—until he lays eyes on Roberta. Yet the Earl of Gryffyn knows too well that the price required to gain a coronet is often too high. Damon Reeve, the earl, is determined to protect the exquisite Roberta from chasing after the wrong destiny. Can Damon entice her into a high-stakes game of his own, even if his heart is likely to be lost in the venture?I struggle with Eloisa James. I know that I should love her books but a lot of the time I just don't. I have commented on this before so I guess the question that needs to be asked is just why do I keep reading her books. The short answer is that there are lots of things I do like about her writing, but then there are times that she just overcomplicates matters and loses me. As a result I hadn't read one of her books for nearly 18 months, but then I was sitting here the other day I was thinking why haven't I read any of the Desperate Duchesses books. Now I remember why!
In this book, the main couple are almost bit players as opposed to the main focus. There seems to be more focus on Jemma, Duchess of Beaumont. She has just returned from a self-imposed exile in France, much to the apprehension of her husband - a hard working politician who cannot afford a whif of scandal. He knows that Jemma lives a life filled with scandal. Also problematic is the fact that Jemma's brother has come to stay, bringing with him his illegitimate child.
With a house filling up rapidly with all sorts of barely acceptable characters, when Roberta turns up to stay uninvited because she wants to come out into society, the Duke warns his wife that there must be no more scandal. Roberta is a cousin to the Duchess and her brother (although somewhat distant! If my cousin five times removed (or seven...whichever it was) turned up and wanted to stay for a while I am not sure that I would be quite so pleased as Jemma appeared to be.
Roberta has decided that she wants to marry, and luckily she already know exactly who she wants to marry - the notorious Duke of Villiers. Much is made about the Duke's detachment so it is likely that Roberta may have chosen a very difficult target indeed. Jemma is though, a master at manipulating, so with her help perhaps it is not unattainable.
What gives this book a point of difference is the use of parlour games like chess and dominoes to help heighten the tension (sexual and otherwise) between our characters. It seems surprising today but in the Georgian era, playing chess was one of few ways for males and females to be together in an intimate setting without causing a scandal. Jemma loves chess and soon finds herself playing games with both her husband and Villiers.
It is obvious that the story of Jemma and her husband is going to be a story that arcs throughout the series in the same way as the story of Sebastian and Esme did in the Duchess Quartet. In that series, Sebastian and Esme's story was the one that I wanted most and the main couples in the books were there, but not as compelling, and so I do wonder though if James will manage to manage the balance between the individual romances in each book and the overarcing storyline.
I guess that part of the reason that this book didn't work as well as I would have liked for me was in the fact that I never felt like I understood exactly when Roberta fell in love with Damon. His attraction was more obvious than hers, but even whilst she is fooling around with Damon, she is still determined that she is in love with Villiers - goodness only knows why, but she had declared this on having spied the man across a crowded room once!
There are definitely some good things about this book - it is funny and there are some great individual scenes, but once again I put down the book thinking that I am not clever enough to GET this author.