Tales of vengeance, a love-hate relationship between the two main characters, and a dark, angsty story are usually a pretty good formula for me to enjoy a book. But, I just didn't/couldn't connect with the heroine in this book, and I think because of that I found the hero's fascination with the heroine inexplicable. Overall, this is a hard review because I've liked Temple so much and Mara is such an intriguing character. But I was frustrated and disappointed with how the story unfolds. Mara isn't an unlikable character but she is flawed and complicated. That complexity makes for an interesting character arc, but the execution of this story fell short when the resolution was artificially dragged out over what amounts to a really stupid misunderstanding.
At 16, Mara seduced (almost), drugged, and inadvertently framed Temple for her murder to escape a marriage to his father. It wasn't a well-thought out plan, but there were mitigating circumstances, of course, like her age, the fact that she didn't know Temple was the old Duke's son, and too much pig blood. She meant only for the young man on the eve of her wedding to the old Duke of Lamont to have appeared to "ruin" her for an honorable marriage, but she miscalculated how much laudanum to knock him out, wiping his memory of that night completely. Instead, Temple awakens the morning after covered in blood, having no memory of what transpired, and accused of murdering his father's bride-to-be. Mara freely admits it was a stupid plan, perhaps formulated out of desperation to escape an even worse fate than her present existence with an abusive father.
Mara grew up with a father who was cruel and physically abusive. He physically abused both Mara and her brother Kit, and was responsible for their mother's death. I understood why she wanted to escape. I even understood and applauded the way she attempted to leave that abusive environment. What I didn't understand and never connected with is why she never came forward after the deaths of the old Duke of Lamont and her father. For years even after the deaths of her father and his very good friend the old Duke, she allowed everyone to believe she had been murdered by Wiiliam Harrow, the heir of the Duke of Lamont.
To make matters worse, she appeared so very unapologetic for everything she did to Temple, and, in fact, seemed to feel he deserved what happened to him. While parts of her backstory make her more sympathetic, I still found it difficult to connect with her because of this. I understand this occurred when she was 16, lived in fear ever single day, had witnessed horrible physical abuse as well as been the victim of that abuse, and she admittedly was very stupid when she concocted her plan to escape marriage to Temple's father. I understand that her father was abusive to both her and her brother. I got that their father essentially killed their mother. I saw that Mara had very few choices and no control over what happens in her life. But . . .
There are big holes in what happened to her in those twelve years, and hints and veiled glimpses of her abusive past with her father are all that's offered. That lack of information contributed, I think, to my disconnect. There was the frightened 16-year old and then poof... A 28-year old woman who is strong, crafty, cunning, and determined. How did she get to this point - headmistress of an orphanage that was clearly her way to make amends in some small way for her lies and devastation? It was like being presented with a half-finished portrait, parts of her character seemed fully fleshed out (her interaction with the boys at the orphanage, for example) while other parts were just the barest outline. These holes made it hard for me to forgive the almost callus way she dismissed what she had done to an innocent man. How did she get from a scared 16-year old girl to that woman of 28 who was able to stand toe-to-toe with London's most fearsome bare knuckle fighter?
It was incomprehensible to me why Mara continues to hide even after her father and Temple's father died. There was no justifiable, credible reason for her not to do everything in her power to right that wrong she and Kit perpetrated after these men died. Why not come forward then to clear up Temple's name? Fear, by itself, just didn't seem enough of a justification for what she put Temple through.
Even worse than that was her stubborn refusal to tell him what happened that night even after she confronts Temple the first time. She withholds that information and extorts money from him in exchange for dribs and drabs of information. Remember that Temple was drugged by Mara that night and has absolutely no memory due to her miscalculation of how much laudanum to give him. But even as she admits she wronged him, she still doesn't make it right.
"The thought whispered through her on a thread of guilt. She'd chosen this life. Chosen to change everything. He hadn't. He'd been the casualty of a child's stupid, silly plan."
She comes forward only to bargain with Temple in order to get her brother's fortune and the small portion of her funds Kit lost at gaming that was to be used for the orphanage. If she were wracked with guilt, it doesn't show here at all. Most of the time, she, in fact, appears to believe that it was perfectly acceptable that Temple was exiled from his home, that his father disowned him, that everyone believed he was a murderer despite the lack of a body, that he was labelled the "Killer Duke", and treated as a pariah. Her motives did not appear to be altruistic or stemming from an overwhelming sense of guilt but entirely self-serving despite her claim to be withholding information in exchange for money to keep the orphanage afloat. She acknowledges the wrong she did him, but dismisses it as being "too late for apologies". Mara believes this "was not about his forgiveness or his understanding. This was about her future." (emphasis added)
Temple lost everything - his name, his title, his land. He is understandably angry with her. And still she sets a condition on telling the truth: forgiveness of her brother's debt. I know, I know. The money was for the orphanage and the twelve or so boys who have been dumped there by aristocratic fathers who don't want the ton to know about their illegitimate sons. I understand the orphans/orphanage were supposed to make Mara more sympathetic, but it felt a tad bit too convenient to garner a lot of sympathy from me. Worse, all of the events are dragged out for such a long time because in the heat of the moment of her return, Temple says there's no explanation she could offer to gain his sympathy and understanding. She comes close to complete honesty several times and each time she backs away because of that one statement. What did she expect from him anyway? That he wouldn't be angry? That he wouldn't want to extract a little revenge for himself? News flash, Mara: he was branded a murderer. He lost everything. So it wasn't surprising that his animosity level toward her was way up in the stratosphere while his patience and understanding was nonexistent. Especially in the beginning. It was clear as the book progresses that Temple would have listened with more sympathy had she come clean about her true reasons for needing the money. He wasn't an ogre or an abusive man like her father or his, and that made her actions more cruel to me.
The repercussions of Mara's plan were more insidious than just Temple's loss of standing in the ton. Because he had no memories of that night, Temple was never entirely sure he hadn't killed her. He had vague recollections of too much scotch and a young woman with odd eyes. He freely admits he was not blameless, nor an innocent. He may have lived life in the fast lane, drinking too much, gaming too much, seducing lots of women, but for twelve years he has lived with the possibility that he was a killer. It was as devastating to him as Mara's abusive home life was to her.
The bargain they reach is puzzling. He will parade her through the ton as his mistress in name only, masked, until such time that he chooses to reveal she is, in fact, the dead heiress raised from the grave, proven to be a liar, a thief, and ruined just as she ruined his life. And still she places conditions on telling the truth - if he treats her like a whore, she says, he'll pay her like one - £10 for a visit to the dressmaker, and on and on. Temple tells her she owes him the truth. He has no idea if they were intimate, if he hurt her, if she became pregnant, or if one of the boys at the orphanage is his son. But Mara coldly refuses, telling him:
"We negotiated the terms of our agreement, Your Grace. You get your vengeance, and I get my money. If you would like the truth, I am happy to discuss its cost."
There's a point in which she becomes enraged when Temple actually calls her a whore. But why the outrage? It's not like she didn't refer to herself as such, and she is placing a monetary value on every bit of information she gives him and every moment spent in his company. Her actions afterward are really hard for me to understand and result in a bloody almost deadly confrontation between Temple and Kit, Mara's worthless brother. And there's the expected "death bed deal" in which she promises to tell all if only Temple pulls through.
Then there's Temple, aka William Harrow, aka the "Killer Duke" and his weird I-hate-Mara-but-I-want-to-kiss-her-senseless seesaw almost from the start. Why was he intrigued by Mara? I understood his anger with her completely, but then he is sidetracked by her remarkable eyes or auburn hair or long legs. It was nonsensical to see how quickly that anger turned to lust and to love because she was just playing a game still, jockeying for power and control in a situation that was all wrong for power struggles. Was it supposed to make her look assertive and bold and fearless to continually withhold the truth from Temple? It didn't. It made her appear cold, calculating, and cruel. Temple doesn't trust her and with good reason, because even after she is fully aware of how her actions affected his life, she threatens to run and hide again several times, taking the truth of that night with her. She practically charges him for conversation. She has no remorse and offers no apology. Yet he admires her, is drawn to her, is attracted to her "strength", and eventually gives up his plan to ruin her. This was puzzling to me.
I have enjoyed reading the other books in this series, and Temple was a a story I really looked forward to, but No Good Duke Goes Unpunished fell flat for me. There is a surprising twist at the end in regard to Chase's upcoming story, but I'm not sure I'll be racing to read this as soon as it's released.