After being presumed dead at Waterloo, Viola Caroll is now living a new life as a companion to her sister-in-law, Louise. Viola lives in her former home, having lost her title and the wealth and power that came with it. But for all Viola may have had to give up in a material sense, it is more than worth it to be happy and content in her own skin. For all that Viola is settling into herself, however, she is still not completely comfortable out in society and has seen almost no one from her old life, including her oldest and closest friend, Justin de Vere, the Duke of Gracewood.
Gracewood thinks Viola dead on the battlefield, and Viola hasn’t been able to bring herself to tell him the truth. Gracewood was such an integral part of her life for so many years; they practically lived in each other’s pockets. But he is also so connected to her old life, and Viola has changed so much since the war. Yet when Gracewood’s sister writes to them about the state of affairs in their home, the letter concerns Viola and Louise enough that they have no choice to travel to Gracewood’s estate. When they get there, the situation is even worse than they imagined; the home is dark and dreary, most of the servants are gone, and Gracewood himself is almost immobilized by his laudanum addiction. When Viola sees her old friend, she can’t help but want to reach out to him and help.
Gracewood has been lost in grief since the war. He misses his old friend, feels guilt for surviving when others did not, and has a permanent leg injury that makes moving difficult. He masks his pain with laudanum and has pretty much retreated from the world. When he meets Viola, he is so taken with her. Viola has a way of understanding him, of reaching him and giving him a light that helps lead him out of his depression and grief. When Gracewood learns the truth about Viola’s past, it is a shock. But Gracewood also realizes he has grown to care deeply about Viola and the person that she is now, a woman he is beginning to want with all his heart.
While feelings are growing between Viola and Gracewood, their situation is complicated. He is a duke and she is a lady’s companion (and later a chaperone for Gracewood’s sister). Their stations are so unequal as to seem impossible to Viola. She also knows that her inability to bear children means an end to the very long de Vere line. Gracewood knows that Viola is the woman for him, and he is willing to do whatever it takes to show her how much he loves her and how little he cares about what society thinks. Viola and Gracewood have fallen completely in love. Now they must take a chance to reach for their happiness together.
A Lady for a Duke is such a lovely story and I was captivated from the very beginning. There is such a great friend-to-lovers theme here, but with a twist, as it is clear that as close as these two were, there are fundamental parts of each of them that the other never really knew. So we get that sense of two people who have this important past, who shared so much of their lives, but who are also getting to know one another again in new and different ways. I appreciated that there is never a sense that Gracewood still sees Viola as the friend he once knew; she is always and completely Viola to him and their romantic relationship is forged on who the two of them are now, not who they used to be. I think this sense of seeing the present versus the past applies for Gracewood too. He was raised by his father to hold back his emotions, to be closed off, stoic, and focused on duty. As Viola gets to know him again, she starts to see some of the burden Gracewood carries that she never really understood before. So I really like the way there is this thread of connection and shared experiences between them, but also this pair is definitely not living in their past, but forging a new relationship going forward.
The set up here works well, as Viola’s concern for Gracewood’s sister leads her to have to see him before she is quite ready. And Viola is shocked when she sees the state of him. Her affection for Gracewood means that she can’t help but reach out to try to help him find his way again. But of course, much of what weighs on him is Viola’s own presumed death. I think Alexis Hall gets the balance right here in terms of how long Gracewood is unaware of who Viola is, and how it is eventually revealed. I also appreciated that while Gracewood needs a beat to come to terms with it all, there isn’t some huge conflict that results of him learning that Viola is his old friend. Gracewood thought she was dead, has grieved her death, and his first instinct is to think about how it has impacted him and his own sense of loss that could have been avoided. But it doesn’t take long before Gracewood is able to recognize that this isn’t about him, that Viola had to do what she needed to do for her own life, her own sense of self, and he is nothing but supportive going forward.
The story is primarily focused on Viola and Gracewood making their way together and moving forward from their past relationship, but the conflicts really move beyond that. Gracewood is clear he is in love with Viola and he wants her with him, but she is struggling with the idea. Viola had accepted that she would lose things to gain the life and sense of self she needed, and she never imagined love or marriage could be possible for her. So I think she has some fears, as well as needing time to reimagine her life and believe she can have everything she wants. The other conflict deals with Gracewood’s sister, who is 17 and just coming out into society. I don’t want to get into too much detail into how things play out with this conflict, but it gives a chance for Gracewood and Viola to work together and really recognize that they can make their relationship be anything they want for their own happiness. It ties in well with that larger theme of looking past society’s rules and reaching for your own happiness. Viola did it after Waterloo; Gracewood learns he can be more than his title and the expectations it puts upon him; and Viola comes to accept that she can have everything she wants without having to trade one happiness for the other.
One thing I particularly liked here was getting Viola’s narration as someone who has had others view her as a man for most of her life. She has a unique perspective on so many of the gender roles and expectations, knowing how people’s perceptions of her gender change the way they treat her and interact with her. This is a time when gender roles defined nearly everything about your life, at least for the upper crust of society. So it was interesting to see that dichotomy for her as she gets used to others recognizing her as a woman and how that changes how they see her and what she is capable of. It gives an interesting spin on the historical romance and I really liked that perspective.
My only tiny quibble with this story is that it is quite long (close to 500 pages). While I never found myself bored, I also think there is some time in the middle where things lagged a teensy bit.
Overall, I found this story incredibly well done. I loved Viola and Gracewood and loved the tenderness between them. Viola is able to help Gracewood find his way out of that darkness and addiction, and he is able to show her that she can have all that she wants out of life without giving anything up. It is so rewarding seeing them find that happiness together and both being able to create the futures that bring them joy. I truly enjoyed this book and can highly recommend it.