The Desperate Duchesses series continues with Duchess by Night, the story of Harriet, the widowed Duchess of Berrow. When I started this series, I was sucked in by Jemma, the Duchess of Beaumont and her story, but James has never seemed to get around to the most intriguing Duchess. However, Harriet doesn't disappoint by any means.
Harriet has a long and complicated back story, including the suicide of her husband, Benjamin, the Duke of Berrow, over a lost game of chess. Throughout the Duchess series, chess is a continual theme, but not so much in this installment. Harriet has made herself into a dowdy widow at only 27, and she is convinced there is no happiness left in her life, and her only distraction is helping preside over the local court while the judge drinks himself into a drunken stupor. Harriet realizes she needs some excitement in her life, so along with Isidore, the Duchess of Cosway, and the Duke of Villiers, she joins them at a house party given by the scandalous Lord Strange....dressed as a man!
Lord Strange is literally the richest man in England, and holds continuous house parties where actors, actresses, dancers and singers from his Covent Garden theater come to practice their shows, along with some other entertainments. In the midst of all this, Lord Strange is raising his highly intelligent daughter, Eugenia, while hosting scholars and the kingdom's most powerful politicians. Lord Strange is....well, strange. He his fascinated with engineering and has a replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa attached to his house. As a favor to the Duke of Villiers, he agrees to take "Harry" under his wing and teach him how to be a man, despite is weird attraction to the "boy" and his feminine looks. His lessons include riding very early in the morning, rare beef and beer for breakfast, and fencing lessons afterwards. Needless to say, a duchess is not used to such activity, and poor Harriet does her best to keep up, while finding a freedom she has never known before, and has always desired. Strange does figure out she is a woman, beginning an affair that painfully ends when Strange learns she is a duchess, and believes she is toying with him, as aristocrats sometimes do with the lesser classes. All ends well, don't worry, but I won't go into detail here.
While not my favorite Duchess book, this one does have its moments. Harriet's transformation into a confident woman is funny and sad at times, and Lord Strange's change from eccentric to responsible father is touching as well. This is a light-hearted book, and a nice, quick read.
If you are interested in the Duchess series, the next installment, When the Duke Returns, hits stores November 25.