Romancelandia is awash in dukes behaving badly, and the hero in Never Kiss a Duke by Megan Frampton, Sebastian de Silva, was a wonderful departure from that trope. Sebastian handles conflict with maturity and faces adversity with a sense of positivity. It was such a relief to see a duke wearing his grownup breeches for once. Even with a hero I adored, the conflict fizzled at the end and I struggled with the heroine, affecting my ability to immerse myself in the book.
When the novel opens, Sebastian has been thrown quite the curveball; he’s spent his whole life as the Duke of Hasford with plenty of wealth and privilege. Now Sebastian finds that he’s no longer a duke and is a bastard to boot. With his cousin assuming the title, Sebastian needs to figure out his life.
There are plenty of books where, at this point, the hero would decide to drown his sorrows in a bottle, enact a convoluted plan to seduce a female innocent related to whoever he felt wronged him, or slink off somewhere Gothic to brood about his wealth and privilege being stripped away. Sebastian does none of those things. He decides he should probably get a job and get on with his new, non-ducal life.
That’s not to say he’s not thrown by this sudden change in circumstance, he just manages it without wailing or gnashing his teeth or banging his head against a tree while yelling, “Cathy!”
Sebastian had previously frequented a gaming house called Miss Ivy’s, a den that admits all regardless of status, provided they can pay their debts. After he stops a burglary there, Miss Ivy offers him a job. Sebastian, in exchange for a salary, room and board, will help her expand the club and draw in more members from his former social circle. In one of the funnier parts of the novel, Sebastian crashes in Ivy’s spare room which contains a number of horrifying old dolls that stare down at him while he sleeps.
Ivy was once a lady, but her fathered gambled away the family’s fortune. When he wagered Ivy’s hand in marriage to a much older man, she took her fate into her own hands. Ivy made enough money from gambling that she was able to open her own gaming den and provide for herself and her younger sister, Octavia. Ivy is all business, knowing how far she and Octavia have fallen, and how much farther they could fall if her business fails.
As I said earlier, I really loved that Sebastian handles his crisis with maturity, and not by taking out his emotions on other people. He is occasionally depressed and feels unmoored by his change in fortune, but he doesn’t punish anyone else for it. Even when he’s provoked by another lord and customer of Miss Ivy’s, and called a bastard, he handles himself with restraint:
Sebastian squelched his urge to punch young Lord Linehan in the jaw.
Not that it wouldn’t feel good; it would.
Not that he didn’t deserve it; he did.
But he could see what would happen if he did, and none of the results would make it worth the satisfaction. Sebastian would get reputation as a bitter hothead, Miss Ivy’s would be known as a refuge for said hotheads, and the aristocracy would chatter amongst themselves that Miss Ivy’s was not a safe place for people like them.
So no, he couldn’t punch him.
“My lord,” he began, taking deep breaths in an attempt to calm himself, “it is true that I have recently suffered a change of circumstance.”
The club had quieted, and it seemed as though most everyone there–patrons and staff–were waiting to hear what he was going to say.
For that matter he was waiting to hear what he was going to say. He didn’t have the slightest idea, since telling Lord Linehan he had decided not to punch him in the jaw was probably not a winning diplomatic strategy.
Lord Linehan wobbled before replying, “A change of circumstance?” Only, because he was slurring, it sounded like, “A shange of shirmcumstance?” Sebastian looked at him, shaking his head.
“My lord,” [Sebastian] began, pulling a chair from a nearby table and dragging it toward Lord Linehan, “you are so fortunate.” He nudged the swaying gentleman into the chair. “You can go anywhere and be admitted because of who you are.” He gestured to one of the members of the staff, who walked over to him. “Coffee, please,” he said. The staff member nodded, then walked off toward the kitchen.
Sebastian dragged another chair over to where Lord Linehan sat, straddling it backwards to face him. Lord Linehan was blinking heavily, and Sebastian thought it was just a matter of time before he fell asleep. “I know you did not mean to be rude in Miss Ivy’s establishment. An establishment that welcomes all regardless of who they are.” The patrons who were listening nodded, and Sebastian knew that at least some of them felt as he did. “I would urge you not to take anything for granted–not your position, not your wealth, not anything. You never know when it will be taken away.”
“Don’t want it to be taken away,” Lord Linehan mumbled, his head swaying forward.
Sebastian gestured to Henry, who strode toward him. “Can we get Lord Linehan a hansom home? And pay the driver in advance so he won’t have to?”
I love this passage because it shows Sebastian diffusing a tense situation that was hurtful to him without violence. He also considers how his actions would reflect on his boss before moving forward, acknowledging that the things he says and does impact other people.
Think before you speak (or punch) is pretty sexy.
As they continue to work together, Sebastian and Ivy develop feelings for each other. The external conflict arises from the fact that Sebastian is still uncertain about his identity after being stripped of his title, Ivy is his boss (which makes things a little weird), and that his friends are trying to find a workaround to make him a duke once more.
The internal conflict was less apparent, and I thought fairly weak. As Octavia suggests early on, Ivy and Sebastian could get married and run the club together. There’s really nothing keeping them apart.
I think the weakness of that conflict came from the fact that Ivy was not nearly as well-developed a character as Sebastian. We know she is a disgraced lady, an entrepreneur and a sister, but it seemed that all of Ivy’s identity came in the context of who she was to other people. She’s Octavia’s protector. She’s Sebastian’s boss. She’s the owner of the gaming den.
Octavia worries that her sister is too consumed with taking care of everything and not enough with her own enjoyment of life, and there are a few scenes where Sebastian tries to get her to have some fun, but they sort of fizzled. I think Ivy’s conflict was meant to be that she’s too busy and doesn’t take time for herself, but that conflict never actually resolved. In one scene, for example, when she and Sebastian visit a bookstore, she only buys a gift for Octavia, not considering what she might like. She hedges toward the direction of prioritizing herself, but never really completes the journey. If anything, that plotline is interrupted by some external conflict that felt squeezed in. And when I got to the black moment, I still wasn’t sure what was keeping Ivy and Sebastian apart, which is a pretty big deal.
So while I want more heroes like Sebastian, who are mature, considerate, and not very punch-y, I needed a heroine who had more agency and a stronger conflict to sustain my enjoyment of the novel. Portions of Never Kiss a Duke worked really well for me, but overall there were too many elements that didn’t quite hit their mark.