This novel opens with an impossibly arrogant, tall, lean, and nonchalant Regency Duke preparing to enter into a duel in Hyde Park, London.
Just as the duel begins, a girl, a milliner's assistant, yells at both parties to shop. The Duke of Tresham does, but his challenger doesn't and wounds the Duke in the leg. Tresham fires into the air. Verbal sparring ensues almost immediately between the injured Duke and the girl, Jane.
She ends up late for work and is fired, which infuriates her. She goes to the Duke's house to get either an apology or a signed note that he made her late for work, and is hired as his nurse for the three week's bedrest his doctor prescribed. This is the fun, dialogue-rich part of the book. He tries to intimidate her with his icy arrogance, and she tells him he doesn't know how to be polite to his staff. She stands up to him over and over again. Soon Tresham realizes that she couldn't possibly be a working class girl--she's literate, opinionated, plays the piano, and sings. Jane insists she was raised in a an orphanage.
Jane is hiding the fact that she is also Lady Sara Illingsworth, daughter of an Earl, lately of Cornwall, who has fled to London because she was accused of murdering an Earl's son (not her brother; another Earl).
I love dialogue--strained sentences, rushed declarations, verbal hits and misses. Mary Balogh does this well and builds the tension between these characters. Tresham enjoys needling Jane, and Jane enjoys calling Tresham on his tricks. Brothers and sisters flit through the drawing rooms too, so we see Tresham display his public patter as well. One night Jane stumbles across Tresham playing piano in the library; she begins to cultivate the artistic Tresham that he is embarrassed to acknowledge.
At the end of three weeks, Tresham asks Jane to become his mistress in his own separate house. She does not want to be seen publicly, and cannot find a job with an assumed name and no references, so she drafts a contract with Tresham, and agrees.
Tresham asks Jane to call him by his first name, Jocelyn, which is a poignant piece, since he's never heard anyone call him by his first name. He begins to paint again, and talks to her about his past. (Unfortunately there's some jarringly modern discussion in here about letting his feminine side come out. I think it's possible to talk about artistic urges without falling into a masculine vs feminine argument, but perhaps not.) She however, does not tell him who she is or why she's running.
He eventually discovers who she is and why she won't be seen in public. Tempers flare, but he still protects her from public scandal (by removing her from his house) and from the evil-doers (by threats and intimidations).
Loose ends are satisfyingly wrapped up, and we can envision Jocelyn and Jane's future life together, since they already played house when she was his mistress. Regency rules come into play--now that she's titled, she can no longer be his mistress, and that former role must be maintained as a secret, so she must become his wife. HEA
I liked this book for its charcterization of the fuming, arrogant, rude, and intelligent Duke who is able to intimidate anyone by glaring at him. I liked the sexual tension which grew through the dialogue. I was disappointed by the use (sparingly) of modern psychology to discuss feminine artistic traits and masculine adherance to a code of conduct and honor. (Why are they labelled as masculine? Women doen't have a code of behavior too?)
I also have No Man's Mistress which I am looking forward too.