The Trouble With Being a Duke by Sophie Barnes, book one in the At the Kingsborough Ball series, is a Regency Cinderella story. I enjoyed the premise—I love the Cinderella trope—but my reaction to the book was lukewarm.
Isabella Chilcott is a young woman of marriageable age from a poor family. Her father works for a carriage manufacturer, and money is always tight. Her father’s employer, Mr. Roberts, has taken an interest in Isabella, and after a year of courting, her family is optimistic he’ll propose soon. Isabella needs to make the match for financial reasons, and to ensure her younger sister has better opportunities for her own marriage. Unfortunately, Mr. Roberts doesn’t interest her in the least; it will be a loveless marriage on both sides.
Before she becomes Mrs. Roberts, Isabella decides she needs one night of excitement. For years she’s watched the fireworks from the annual Kingsborough masquerade ball from afar. This year, likely her last as a single woman, she decides to sneak in. Isabella and her sister found a beautiful ballgown in a trunk upstairs—one her mother refuses to talk about—so she sneaks out of the house wearing it and goes to the ball.
Anthony Hurst is just learning how to be the Duke of Kingsborough. He was a carefree rake until his father became ill with cancer. His father’s death cast a shadow on the family, especially his mother, and he’s hoping that by hosting the annual ball he’ll be able to pull his family from their depression. He has very little interest in being a duke, and he’s afraid of public speaking, so he’s been prolonging accepting his ducal duties (such as taking his seat in Parliament). The ball is his way of dipping his toe in the ducal waters.
When he sees Isabella in her gorgeous yellow gown from across the ballroom he’s immediately smitten. I think part of my issue with this book was how strong the case of insta-love was for Anthony. He introduces himself to her, and they dance a waltz. Then there’s a walk in the gardens, and at one point he secrets her away for a stolen kiss.
Since this is a Cinderella story, the ball scene was integral to the book. So much was happening during those chapters, though, that I lost the focus on Isabella and Anthony. Barnes introduces a lot of secondary characters during the ball, some intended for future books in the series. I quickly lost track of who was who. Some characters reappear later in the book, some don’t, and I didn’t feel that Isabella’s introduction to and conversation with all of the secondary characters was necessary.
So by now they’ve waltzed and kissed, which by Regency standards, means Anthony and Isabella are practically married. Isabella is smitten, particularly because Anthony stirs feelings in her that Mr. Roberts does not. Kissing Anthony makes her realize just how much she’s giving up in her marriage. She’s also panicking that Anthony wants to know more about her. She’s convinced that if he finds out she’s a poor girl from Moxley, he’ll be furious and her family will be shamed.
During the fireworks Isabella makes her escape. As the fireworks are going off, a shot rings out and a guest is wounded. Turns out the wounded guest is the supposedly crazy daughter of an earl, and she also snuck in. This creates quite a circus, and Isabella slips out.
This was the part that bothered me the most. The woman who was shot is the heroine of the next book in the series. After she’s shot there’s some flailing about—then it’s promptly forgotten. Anthony wakes up the next day determined to find Isabella, and nary a thought is given to the woman who was clipped on the front lawn. I get that this ties in with book two, but it was strange that such a significant event was of little concern to Anthony. A woman was shot on his property, for the love of God. You’d think he’d be a little involved in resolving that shit.
Anyway, Anthony is determined to find Isabella. She divulged that she was almost engaged, and he doesn’t want her to follow through and marry another man. He’s convinced she might be the next Duchess of Kingsborough.
When Anthony eventually finds Isabella, and learns she’s not from a noble family, he’s still determined to make her his. Isabella’s parents aren’t too keen on this. They know of Anthony’s reputation as a rake and assume he’s just going to ruin her and then renege on his offer to court her. Isabella’s mother in particular has a real hatred of the aristocracy. Also Isabella is almost engaged to Mr. Roberts, her dad’s boss, so if she dumps him for Anthony it could ruin the family. It's a big risk to be courted by a duke who has a reputation for going through women like Kleenex.
Isabella is also suitably freaked by Anthony’s interest in her. They just met, and he’s a duke, and she’s poor, etc, etc.
I really wanted Anthony to win Isabella, partially to save her from Mr. Roberts, who is an incredible douche. It’s like Mr. Roberts read Pride and Prejudice, and is trying to out-douche Mr. Collins. Example:
Isabella reached for the pie. She’d already had one piece, but she felt the need to occupy herself with something, and eating pie…felt like a useful way to accomplish this. But just as she picked up the knife, Mr. Roberts said, “Not that I mean to pass judgment, Miss Chilcott, but I do wish you would have a care for your figure.”
Her grip on the knife tightened. Would it be so terrible if she stabbed the man to death right there on the sofa?
No, no it wouldn’t. And then you should eat your pie off his cold, dead, corpse.
Mr. Roberts is incredibly condescending about Isabella’s appearance. He even tries to pick out her clothing so she looks “right” because he can’t trust her to do it properly. Isabella knows he wants a trophy wife, that she must look and act a certain way when she’s married to him. Also she needs to cut out all that pesky reading, which he dismisses as a waste of time.
“I cannot imagine a life without books in it,” she muttered, more to herself than him.
He heard her anyway for he gently patted her hand with his and said, “You’ll adjust soon enough, for I do believe your chores will keep you much too busy to even consider lazing about with a book—at least not with those kind of books [novels]. If you wish to read the ledgers, then that’s another matter.”
Yep, no time for reading. You got chores, woman! When Isabella isn’t being paraded around town like a show pony, Mr. Roberts intends for her to earn her keep. He knows Anthony (he sold him a carriage) and he tells the duke:
“The sooner we marry, the sooner I can tell Mrs. Jenkins she’s free to retire.”
“Mrs. Jenkins?” Anthony asked, frowning.
“My housekeeper. She’s a lovely woman but too old for all that’s required of her. Miss Chilcott is young and spirited—she’ll do marvelously well, I’m sure.”
What a catch. Hang on to your bonnets, ladies! Mr. Roberts is single and on the prowl! Fatties, blue-stockings, and women who can’t get down on all fours to scrub floors need not apply!
Truth be told, Anthony isn’t doing a stellar job of courting Isabella either. They have a physical connection, but she still doesn’t trust his motives. He’s also kind of an ass about the duke thing. One minute he’s super egalitarian, reflecting on the fact that he doesn’t care if Society won’t accept Isabella as his wife because she’s not Quality. The next he’s perplexed that her parents won’t let him court her because he’s a duke, and any family would trip over themselves to have a duke show interest in their daughter.
At one point he and Isabella share some heavy petting in a barn. Isabella is momentarily carried away by lust, but then thinks better of it. She knows her family is counting on her to do the right thing and marry Mr. Douchebag. If she gets busy with Anthony in the hay, then she’s destroyed her chances of a good marriage, and no matter what Anthony says, she’s not convinced he isn’t still a shameless rake. This is a long quote, but an important one , I think:
She turned back to face him, the anger she felt coiling around her until she feared she might explode. “No, I cannot forget. That is the problem, you idiot. I will forever know what I am missing now.”
He looked back at her in disbelief. “You’re still going to marry him,” he said as if it was the most absurd thing he could think of.
“Of course I am. My parents won’t let me marry you, and even if they did, I’m not entirely sure I’d be willing to subject my father to the sort of humiliation he’d face at the prospect of telling Mr. Roberts that his suit is no longer wanted. And that is without considering the fact that you just tried to force my hand by turning by body against me.”
He came toward her in one brisk stride, grabbing her by the arms before she had a chance to pull away. Startled, she met his fiery gaze. “Don’t you dare pretend as if you didn’t like it,” he ground out.
Because that’s not at all rapey.
A few paragraphs later:
“I should have compromised you completely,” he muttered, taking what little calm she’d retained, and snapping it in two.
To be fair, I think this was Anthony’s black moment. This is where he realizes he can’t depend on his title and his magic hands to get him what he wants in life. He does turn around, pulls his head out of his ass, and starts taking courting Isabella seriously. All the same, I wanted to smack him so hard in this section of the book that he was competing with Mr. Roberts for my wrath.
I also struggled with how much Isabella’s parents were opposed to Anthony. They were totally willing to believe his reputation as a rake without any firsthand knowledge (that would be weird anyway, I guess), but Mr. Roberts is an asshole right in front of them, and they still don’t believe he’s going to treat Isabella like crap after they’re married.
And remember the mysterious yellow dress upstairs in the attic? The ballgown Mom won’t discuss? All of that ties into her hatred of the aristocracy, and a little convenient resolution at the end.
I enjoyed The Trouble With Being a Duke as a Cinderella story. I wanted Anthony to win Isabella because I love the idea of the poor girl from Moxley getting the handsome prince. That prince was irritating as shit sometimes though, and sometimes the characters made choices that baffled me. I don’t want to spoil anything for potential readers regarding the end, but I want to let all you breathless ladies out there know that Mr. Roberts does end the book the bachelor. I know it’s hard to believe no one snapped him up, but there you go. Maybe he’ll get his own book in the series: At the Kingsborough Ball: The D-bag and the Duchess. Fingers crossed.