Lady Emily Carroll is in a bind: her family needs her to marry well to repair the family fortunes, but she suffers from a debilitating shyness that makes attending balls, dancing and talking to gentlemen a torture, earning her the nickname "Ice Princess." She attended a house party at the Duke of Manning's country home last summer and, while she found him attractive, his boisterous family frightened her. She fears she will be left with no choice but to marry a wealthy cit whose leering attention skeeves her out.
Nicholas, the Duke, is also looking for a spouse and was drawn to Emily as well, but was confused when she seemed to withdraw from him whenever he spoke to her, and so he has mentally crossed her off his list. However, this Season they have a few encounters that go fairly well and which all comes to a head at a Vauxhall masquerade.
Emily feels safe behind her mask and, sure that Nicholas doesn't recognize her, tries her hand at flirting. Nicholas, who knows perfectly well who he is ushering down the Dark Walk, reciprocates and soon they are enmeshed in some passionate necking, both feeling safe within their supposed anonymity. Soon, another embrace at a ball has them discovered and hastily engaged. Emily is feeling less shy by the minute.
Nicholas and Emily are both endearing characters who complement each other. Nicholas helps Emily come out of her shell and Emily affords Nicholas a quiet, calm respite from his rowdy family. Both confess their Vauxhall ruse fairly quickly, which made the big secrets that they decided to keep to themselves a bit frustrating and unnecessary. Emily secretly helps teach at her former governess's school for "Disadvantaged Females" (aka, ex-prostitutes) while Nicholas is hiding a secret previous marriage, contracted during a continental tour, which ended with the death of his wife and child in childbirth. He blames himself for the deaths and is desperate to not get Emily pregnant and so put her in danger. This doesn't quite mesh with his acceptance and willingness to marry, for, as the duke, why else would he feel compelled to marry, if not to produce an heir? These secrets didn't quite make sense to me, but were my only real problem with the book.
The Shy Duchess is a sweet book with some very nice moments. It also has my favorite night-before-the-wedding advice from the bride's mother:
"There are ways to make it easier. I used to close my eyes and plan a party. Yes. I would choose the china and the silver, and design flower arrangements and guest lists. Then I would devise a menu, and decide on my gown. By the time I knew what to serve for dessert, it was all over and I scarcely felt a thing!"
Reviewed by Cheryl Sneed, March 2, 2011