Despite a disastrous first meeting, sparks eventually fly between a grumpy duke and a scandalous opera singer in Julie Anne Long’s After Dark with the Duke.
When Miss Mariana Wylde meets James Duncan Blackmore, the Duke of Valkirk, it’s disdain at first sight. Mariana’s bad reputation precedes her: A disastrous duel was fought over her favor, and she was lambasted in the press as the “Harlot of Haywood Street.” Although Mariana didn’t encourage the duel or welcome the media attention that followed, this is 19th century England, and women are usually blamed for men’s bad behavior. James, an upright former general who places a great deal of importance on reputation, needs no further information to judge her harshly.
The Grand Palace on the Thames, a somewhat pretentiously named but very cozy boarding house, is a safe haven for Mariana, but her presence there doesn’t sit well with the duke, a fellow boarder. He cannot abide Mariana’s supposed recklessness, having lost too many men to foolish actions during the Napoleonic wars. The dislike between them is instant, but the duke takes it too far by lording his education over Mariana and making her the object of ridicule. Having violated the house rules of harmony among guests, James is in danger of being kicked off the premises entirely, until the house’s proprietors strike a deal: He can stay if he apologizes and helps Mariana learn Italian so she can understand the words she sings.
Long has a gift for language and razor-sharp descriptions that pinpoint a character’s essence. In After Dark with the Duke, she offers a master class in characterization, even by her high standards. Mariana’s vibrance and sparkle contrast strongly with James’ uncompromising virtue, which Long describes as being “as stark and strange as if an obelisk had been dropped into the sitting room.” But Long takes care to make sure that readers know exactly why James’ respectability means so much to him. He rose from humble beginnings to the aristocracy on his own merit and is thus painfully aware of all the rules he must follow to keep his reputation intact.
Mariana and James should make no sense together, but their interactions are delightfully chaotic and charged with an explosive sexual chemistry that shakes them to their bones. The more time they spend together, the more they see past each other’s outward appearances. The combustible chemistry of opposites breaks down their defenses, leading to mutual respect, support and love in this sublime and steamy historical romance.