When the imperious Duke of Strathrannock suddenly summons his eight-year-old, orphaned niece to be raised as his heiress and the future leader of his Clan, her guardian, Fiona Windham, is filled with indignation. How dare the man who had–along with his bigoted father–disinherited her brother-in-law for marrying an Englishwoman try to separate Fiona from her ward?
Poised for battle, Fiona accompanies Mary-Rose to Rannock Castle in Scotland, where she finds an implacable foe, an unsolved murder, and an unexpected admirer.
Any reader of Victorian-era Gothic romances will recognize Cartland’s well-worn plot: this slim volume leaves little room for red herrings or false clues. Consequently, from Fiona’s first dinner at the Castle, there is no doubt about who was responsible for the unexpected disappearance of Duke’s unhinged wife several years earlier. Nevertheless, Fiona and Aiden’s opposing nationalism, complicated family histories, and mutual prejudices–combined with the complication of the Duke’s marital status–provide sufficient obstacles to heighten the tension between them.
The Duchess Disappeared has several weaknesses: Cartland’s tendency to leap over possibly significant amounts of time between chapters at the expense of scenes or exposition that could develop the relationships of the hero, heroine, and secondary characters (I still cannot figure out whether many months or a few weeks passed between Fiona’s arrival at Rannock Castle and the book’s climax); her irritating overuse of elipses in Fiona’s dialogue after she experiences the first stirring of love (an affectation that makes her seem more “post-marathon” than breathlessly aroused); and the too-too-telegraphed villain.
However, despite its flaws, The Duchess Disappeared is a surprisingly engaging read.
The book’s greatest strength is the character of Fiona, who has more backbone, brains, and initiative than the standard-issue Victorian/Gothic heroine. From the first pages of the book, she is established as unusually resilient: despite her youth, she has taken over running a household and raising her niece after her sister and brother-in-law’s sudden deaths. She is a gifted herbalist, famous throughout her county for her medical treatments, and saves at least two lives in Scotland, earning herself a reputation as a white witch. Unlike most heroines in Gothic romances, Fiona is not “inexplicably drawn” to the “dangerous, dark, powerful man”–indeed, she is quite willing to tear him to shreds verbally for his past behavior. Instead, her estimation of him evolves as she discovers his true character. Best of all, once she realizes that only the unsolved disappearance of the Duchess stands between her and Aiden’s ultimate happiness, Fiona initiates a murder investigation to facilitate their union.
Aiden, too, is given more depth than one might expect, though to describe his character in detail would spoil the story.
The Duchess Disappeared is pretty PG, but although Fiona and Aiden have few love scenes, their first kiss and subsequent interactions are surprisingly erotic. Cartland’s description of Fiona’s sexual awakening is sensitively portrayed, and the pivotal scene between her and the Duke crackles with honesty and repressed longing. Cartland maintains this tension though the end of the book. At times, the scenes gave me goosebumps.
If The Duchess Disappeared is formulaic, then at least the formula works. I read the book in half a day, not wanting to put it down, despite its flaws.