It was not a fashionable night to be seen in the streets of London.
—The Duke’s Wager
Although not as striking as the opening lines of Jane Austin’s Northanger Abbey or Pride and Prejudice, with this sentence author Edith Layton introduces a side of the Ton to which we are rarely exposed. No, this is not White’s or Almack’s. This is London’s demi-monde, where aristocrats hunt for new courtesans and trade those they’ve tired of to less prestigious and attractive friends. It is also a side where innocents can get themselves into a great deal of trouble. Regina Berryman, who has just arrived from the country to live with her new guardian, is determined to spend a night at the Opera, even if her uncle is away on a business trip. Little does she know that she’s picked the wrong night–and caught the eyes of London’s two most profligate rakes.
St. John, Marquis of Bessacarr, and Jason, the Duke of Torquay, have been in competition for years. The former values his reputation and resents it when Torquay, The Black Duke, taunts him that in a few years, Bessacarr will be just as notorious. Both want to possess Regina.
Neither man can conceive of her as out of their reach. She is, after all, a poor schoolteacher’s daughter, the niece of a merchant, and quickly orphaned for a second time due to her uncle’s untimely death. Moreover, she showed herself at the Opera on a night when no women but wannabe courtesans would dare appear. She’s fair game, and Torquay vows to have her.
Before long, he’s using every trick in the book to secure Regina as his mistress. When she evades the coach lurking at her door, he resorts to drastic measures, convincing her uncle’s heirs that Regina is his discarded mistress–and pregnant to boot. Cast into the street with nothing but her grip and a bit of pin-money, Regina is quickly pulled into Torquay’s waiting carriage. The Duke’s Wager appears to have established its villain.
However, the articulate, educated, and upstanding Reginia acts differently than Torquay expects. The young lady has unbridled faith in finding good in others and is convinced she could never sell herself, no matter how poor or friendless she may become. Something stirs in the rake. Could it be a sense of honor? Nonesense. It must be the love of a game . . .
Whatever the reason, he makes a wager with Regina: If she can find a way to get along, alone and impoverished, without succumbing to selling herself, then he will leave her alone. If she fails, he will be waiting, watching, and will claim his prize. Certain of success, Regina accepts–and seeks out the man her uncle had recommended, should she ever need help.
When the beautiful woman that Torquay had been pursuing shows up on St. John’s doorstep, he can hardly believe his luck. Finally, he can beat his enemy. A second wager is quickly made: who will win Regina, Bessacarr or Torquay?
The former–tall, dark and handsome–plays the gallant protector, bustling Regina off to his country home with his sister and cousin. The latter–slender, blond, and strangely angelic-looking–pursues her, watching from a distance and occasionally conversing with his query.
I read The Duke’s Wager (which could as accurately be called The Dukes’ Wagers) twice. The first time through, I struggled with it. I am not a fan of the “Reformed Rake” trope. On my second read, I was fascinated by the dark setting, bourgeois heroine, and carefully-rendered characters. All three leads have their flaws. Torquay has closed off his heart. Bessacarr hides his actions behind a facade of piety. Regina is out of touch with the harshness of the world and believes herself immune to compromising herself in any way. Layton tests all three, bringing them to their breaking points.
The main questions become “Which characters can truly learn?”; “Who gains insight into themselves?”; “Who is the better man?”; and “Can any person predict their actions if they’ve never faced true adversity?”
Preparing to review The Duke’s Wager, I marked many pages for discussion. However, there is just too much material to cover. Instead, I will share the bit that saved the book from being tarnished by the “Reformed Rake” trope. Torquay’s childhood governess, Pickett, has asked if his change in behavior comes from having met ‘another person’:
“Another person?” [Torquay] said quizically, “Oh how full of tact you are my quaint Pickett [. . .] You hope that the ‘person’ is a female one, and a pure, honest, well-bred one at that, for somewhere in that reasonable breast lurks the unreasonable belief that your nursling will be saved by the love of a good woman.” [. . .]
“Nonsense, arrant nonsense, Jason.[” she responded,”] The love of a good woman would roll off your back like water off a duck’s. I make no doubt you’ve enjoyed the love of a good many women and some of them good women at that, but that would not change you in the least.”
“So glad,” he bowed, “to see you have not [. . .] been spending your retirement wallowing through reams of bad romances.”
“But,” she said succinctly as she rose to leave, “the love for a good woman . . . ah, that, my lad, would make all the difference in the world” (130).
In this brief exchange, Layton skewers the time-worn trope (“reams of bad romances”) while exposing the only true path for a rake’s redemption: his own choices, actions, and generosity.
At this point, I’ve spent almost a thousand words analyzing The Duke’s Wager, and my admiration for the book must be perfectly clear. I will only add a few more points in its favor: one or two strong secondary characters, a vivid setting, steamy scenes between the protagonists, and a truly satisfactory, tear-jerking ending.
Don’t miss The Duke’s Wager.