Lady Eleanor Ramsay is the only one who knows the truth about Hart Mackenzie. Once his fiancee, she is the sole woman to whom he could ever pour out his heart.
Hart has it all--a dukedom, wealth, power, influence, whatever he desires. Every woman wants him--his seductive skills are legendary. But Hart has sacrificed much to keep his brothers safe, first from their brutal father, and then from the world. He's also suffered loss--his wife, his infant son, and the woman he loved with all his heart though he realized it too late.
Now, Eleanor has reappeared on Hart's doorstep, with scandalous nude photographs of Hart taken long ago. Intrigued by the challenge in her blue eyes--and aroused by her charming, no-nonsense determination--Hart wonders if his young love has come to ruin him . . . or save him.
SPOLIER Note: One paragraph may contain SPOILERS about Hart's dark proclivities. I have marked the beginning of this paragraph with ***
Wow! Reading Jennifer Ashley’s “The Duke’s Perfect Wife” put me through the emotional ringer. This was one of my most highly anticipated reads of 2012, and I dropped everything to read it when the ARC arrived on my doorstep. After all, I’ve been waiting for Hart’s story for years, ever since we met in him “The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie.” He is the ultimate alpha hero – a duke who is used to telling everyone what to do. The reality of Hart’s story both delighted and frustrated, but was one I could not put down and one that rarely left my thoughts for days after I finished reading.
Hart and Eleanor were engaged once upon a time. However, a visit from Hart’s long-time mistress, Mrs. Palmer, caused Eleanor to break the engagement. In the subsequent years, Hart married, had a son, buried his wife and son, returned to his mistress, buried her as well and became a prominent politician. Eleanor, on the other hand, lived quietly with her father in genteel poverty. At the start of the book, she is driven to seek out Hart after someone sends her nude photographs of him. She offers to work for Hart to determine the source of the pictures which could be used to blackmail Hart and hurt his political career.
Hart, the Duke of Kilmorgan, is quite pleased to have Eleanor back in his grasp. He has been scheming to get her to agree to marry him again. Yet, he is adamant that she not ever know the full extent of his relationship with Mrs. Palmer – despite the fact that his sexual proclivities played a major role in the failure of their original engagement. Complications arise because of Hart’s political machinations, and he becomes the target of assassins fighting for Irish home rule. The book is filled with political maneuvering as Hart draws close to his dream of becoming prime minister.
One of the best parts of this book is Hart and Eleanor’s romance. Hart had the woman he loved, but lost her because of his arrogance and unwillingness to compromise. On the other hand, Eleanor’s willingness to believe Mrs. Palmer unconditionally, demonstrated a lack of confidence that indicated to me she wasn’t mature enough to handle Hart’s dominant (and dominating) personality. Both needed to grow up, and Hart needed to experience and be humbled by deep loss.
The other part of the book that stands out is Ian Mackenzie (he is really the stand out character of the series), who is one of my favorite romance heroes of all time. Ian has Asperger’s Syndrome, or something similar. He can’t deal with social situations or social nuances. He got his happily ever after in the first book in the series, “The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie,” and has been instrumental in helping his brothers find their true loves. I particularly love how Hart feels a deep connection to Ian and feels he must watch over his youngest brother. But Ian is much more capable than anyone believes – and he sees it as his duty to watch over those he loves. He does what he thinks is right regardless of others’ opinions. I cheered out loud when Ian, behind Hart’s back, took Eleanor to the house in which Mrs. Palmer once lived. Ian Mackenzie is one of the most unique characters in romance and has added so much to this series.
Now for the things that frustrated me. From the beginning of the series, Jennifer Ashley has alluded to Hart’s dark sexual needs. Mrs. Palmer was Hart’s partner in these games and put up with his rough demands that included sexual asphyxia (revealed in “The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie). Mrs. Palmer hinted at these things when she warned Eleanor off Hart. Hart himself worries about sullying Eleanor with his unseemly desires and is afraid to tell her the whole truth – even while Ian keeps urging him to do so. Hart doesn’t want any of it to touch Eleanor despite the fact that he dreams about engaging in these activities with her.
***POSSIBLE SPOILERS: So, I expected Hart’s darker desires to be a bigger issue. But Ashley almost sweeps it all under the rug. Hart doesn’t ever confess to Eleanor. Eventually, Eleanor forces a discussion. She asks if his “dark proclivities” have to do with riding crops or manacles. Hart says no. He tells her that “It is all about trust. Complete trust. Absolute surrender” (p.281). This conversation takes place with 20 pages left at the end of the book. My reaction was “REALLY?????????? All of these years, all of his concerns and all he wants is for her not to ask any confounded questions?” I was frustrated by this because this resolution made light of a part of Hart that had previously been given extreme importance. Ashley doesn’t entirely neuter this part of Hart. She leaves the door open for Hart and Eleanor to explore his darkness, but definitely marginalizes this part of Hart.
The second thing that I found a bit frustrating was Hart’s reaction to the last attempt on his life. After being hurt, Hart makes some whacky decisions which I thought cruel. His time away from his life does bring him some clarity about his political and life ambitions. Yet, the way he finds his own peace shows that maybe he hasn’t grown as much as she should have – maybe he hasn’t learned to temper his arrogance. I was hoping that Eleanor and Ian would read him the riot act once he returned home.
Even with these frustrations, this book impressed me mightily. Hart is a character who is larger than life. He has sacrificed so much for his family, but as a result, has always been a bit removed from them. The responsibilities of the dukedom and Parliament, along with his hidden life with Mrs. Palmer, added to his burdens. Eleanor is an excellent foil for this. She fits him so well, challenging him to open himself up. She softens his hard edges, makes him a better brother, and makes him a better man.
“The Duke’s Perfect Wife” was a wild ride for me. It drew me in, captivated me at times, and annoyed me at others. However, it made me feel, made me think and made me fall in love. The entire series has done this as well. Ashley has successfully crafted a family that cannot be shoved aside or forgotten. These Mackenzies are an impressive lot, imperfect yet endearing. I doubt I will forget any of the brothers. They all epitomize my favorite type of romance hero – the agonizingly tortured one – and while Ian may be their heart and soul, Hart is their leader. (Note: Ashley is continuing this series with extended family members.)
Fans of the Mackenzies will not want to miss “The Duke’s Perfect Wife.” It may not be what readers expect, but the romance shines with both shimmering sexual tension and tender emotion. In fact, the moments that Hart actually shows his emotions are among my favorite moments of the book.
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Book Disclosure: A book was provided by the publisher.