Kim and Kelly’s Review of The Stud Club Trilogy by Tessa Dare

onedanceMy buddy Kelly from Reading With Analysis and I are always reading works with delightfully wonderful scandals and sizzling love stories (see our epic dueling review of Gabriel’s Inferno and Gabriel’s Rapture).  Tessa Dare’s Stud Club trilogy fit right in with this genre, as it is filled with all this and more.  As Kelly is the queen of book analysis (no pun intended), I’m excited to dive into the twists and turns of Dare’s trilogy with her expert opinion intertwined with mine.

Book one is One Dance With a Duke

From Goodreads: In One Dance with a Duke—the first novel in Tessa Dare’s delightful new trilogy—secrets and scandals tempt the irresistible rogues of the Stud Club to gamble everything for love.

A handsome and reclusive horse breeder, Spencer Dumarque, the fourth Duke of Morland, is a member of the exclusive Stud Club, an organization so select it has only ten members—yet membership is attainable to anyone with luck. And Spencer has plenty of it, along with an obsession with a prize horse, a dark secret, and, now, a reputation as the dashing “Duke of Midnight.” Each evening he selects one lady for a breathtaking midnight waltz. But none of the women catch his interest, and nobody ever bests the duke—until Lady Amelia d’Orsay tries her luck.

In a moment of desperation, the unconventional beauty claims the duke’s dance and unwittingly steals his heart. When Amelia demands that Spencer forgive her scapegrace brother’s debts, she never imagines that her game of wits and words will lead to breathless passion and a steamy proposal. Still, Spencer is a man of mystery, perhaps connected to the shocking murder of the Stud Club’s founder. Will Amelia lose her heart in this reckless wager or win everlasting love?

Kelly:  Plot wise, this book starts out the mystery that ties all three books in the series together: who killed Lily Chatwick’s brother?  One Dance with a Duke raises the question, but not much progress is made throughout the course of this first book, largely because so much of the book is taken up with the rather silly question: did Spencer do it?  Everyone (including the reader) knows he didn’t  but a lot of time is still spent chasing after that question.  I suspect these characters would have had a much stronger story together if they had not drawn the short lot–if they had not been assigned to start out the series.  Kim and I talk later on about how rare it is to find a decent third book in a trilogy, but I also think that series’ first books often suffer, as they are burdened with a lot of backstory that is necessary for the subsequent books, and they often do not get to have clean endings (Hunger Games, I’m looking at you.).

Kim: Definitely agree with you on the stock thoughts on trilogies.  I also at times felt weighed down by the “did Spencer do it?” question.  It’s so obvious to all of the characters (except Julian) that he didn’t do it, yet the plot keeps spinning around that main thought. Did he? Didn’t he? Did he? Didn’t he? (You get the picture).  I think that my annoyance with the plot led me to become annoyed with Spencer and Amelia.  Spencer just seemed like an arrogant ass to me and Amelia was a bit shrewish.

Spencer is pretty much an ass to everyone.  He’s rude and has complete tunnel vision.  All he cares about is being the 100% owner of Osiris and is willing to go to whatever lengths he has to.  I think I was all set with him when he offered Lily 20,000 pounds for Leo’s share of the horse, shortly after she finds out about the murder.  Totally rude, uncaring, and unfeeling in my eyes.  That incident overshadowed his “transformation” for me.  He doesn’t really ever seem to get “nicer” to Amelia because he WANTS to be nice.  He seems to act nice because he’s lusting after her.  I never felt the switch from lust to love.

Kelly:  I know, he’s pretty awful in the beginning.  Amelia seems at first to be a fairly typical heroine (which makes her a fairly atypical Dare heroine), but she’s got some quirks in store for the reader, too.  Like many romance heroines, Amelia is a little older than a typical debutante.  She embroiders.  She attends parties.  She plans menus and finds a huge amount of satisfaction in domestic successes.  But she’s strong and warm and infinitely loving.  She cast herself in the role of protector for her family, and that’s a bit unusual.  In fact, most of the conflicts between Amelia and Spencer relate to her attempts to protect her brothers, especially the wastrel brother (everyone has one of those, right?).

Kim:  I found myself surprised at how “normal” Amelia was too.  I’m used to Dare’s heroines that buck the normal heroine formula.  I did enjoy how Amelia was the “matriarch” of her family (not that her brothers really “listen” to her). Even so, I enjoyed how she made the sacrifice of marrying Spencer to benefit her family and raise their name in society.

Kelly:  Amelia spent so many years putting her family first that it’s a bit difficult for her to transition from being a sister to being a wife.  Spencer doesn’t really help her out at all (quite the opposite), and significant marital distress ensues.  That’s another thing that’s interesting about this book… it’s a story wherein the characters marry early and then wrestle with all the problems that would normally come up in a courtship… but they’re married, so they’re kind of stuck with each other.  Anyway, Spencer is utterly jealous of Amelia’s love for her family, and that jealousy prompts him to lash out and makes him seem like even more of a jerk than he would have seemed otherwise.

Kim: That jealousy helped show a vulnerable side of Spencer I think.  While that vulnerable side helped soften Spencer (slightly) it still didn’t help me get over his abrupt nature towards everyone..

Kelly:  I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I really found Spencer endearing, even though he has more rough edges than a [something that has rough edges].  I love that he is socially awkward and never, ever says the right thing.  Smooth and suave this man is not.  He reminded me of Darcy, if Darcy had grown up in Canada with sublime nature as a companion rather than other human beings; if Darcy had a hot temper as well as a resentful one.  The vulnerability and awkwardness Spencer tries so desperately to cover with arrogance and rudeness are, to me, just as compelling as Darcy’s loneliness and longing.  Spencer has one further claim on my affections: he loves animals (horses in particular) and feels more comfortable with them than with other humans.  I totally feel his pain there.  It’s so strange, but I wasn’t bothered at all by his awkwardness (read: frequent rudeness and always saying the wrong thing-ness) with Amelia.  Spencer is like Mr. Palmer from Sense and Sensibility (actually, so is my husband, so maybe that’s why I liked Spencer so well…)… some folk will find him offensive and rude, but others will find him to be a charming fuzz-ball who just can’t help himself.  He’s got to say the rudest thing possible in any situation, but he isn’t trying to be rude or mean…  Things just fly out of his mouth, you know?

Kim: I did feel a SLIGHT affection for Spencer with the whole loving animals thing.  His comfort with animals over humans did show a different side of him, but still didn’t help me figure out when he switched from lusting after Amelia to loving her.  I know I said Amelia is shrewish (and she is at times) but I did see a good heart in her.  She’s totally devoted to wanting to help her brothers and Spencer’s ward, Claudia, with the woes of their life.

Kelly:  See, I think he loved her the whole time, from the very beginning.  The lusting after her stuff was just a smoke screen.

Kim: You think it was from the beginning, really? Even during my re-read I felt like all he thought about was “oh hey she has a curvy body.” Or “oh I love that freckle on her boob.” I never felt like he was attracted to her mind or the activities she devoted herself to.

Kelly:  Nothing says love like noticing boob freckles.  Let’s talk needlepoint.  Amelia spends a lot of time working on needlepoint (I have no idea why, but hey, everybody’s got to have a hobby), and she takes a real delight in doing it well.  At the very beginning, she lends him a handkerchief that she embroidered, and he notices the care that she took with it (and hoards that damn handkerchief, because it means a lot to him).  Later on, he watches her making some sort of needlepoint landscape, and he steals the completed project in order to frame it and hang it on the wall because she threatens to make a seat cushion out of it.  He’s horrified that she considers her art only worthy enough for people to put their butts on.  However rude he is, he sees and values her as her own person.  Also, he loves her boobs.

Kim: I can see the correlation between the needlepoint and his valuing her, but honestly I felt like it was a ploy to get in her pants. I mean dress, since women didn’t wear pants.  She finds out he framed her landscape and all but falls at his feet for the sentimental value.  Is that really enough to show that his lust is no longer lust, but love?  Like she asks him to hold her one evening and all he can think about when she’s in his arm is grinding up on her.

Kelly:  [dithering]… He is a dude, so there’s that.  I think it might be difficult for him (for any man, possibly) to separate out the physical aspect of his feelings for Amelia from the purely emotional, especially since he’s so socially awkward that it’s difficult for him to comprehend having anything like feelings for her, but both times I read the story, I paid more attention to his feelings than his libido.  I do have a huge bias in favor of Spencer, but there is a lot of sweetness there, underneath all the prickly behavior.

Kim: I guess at the end of the day I wished he was able to show Amelia the same affection and care he had for his horses.  I would have instantaneously fallen head over heels for THAT man.  Instead I was left with what felt like a Jekyll and Hyde type personality.

Kelly: So there you have it.  If you’re married to someone who reminds you of Austen’s Mr. Palmer, you’ll probably love Spencer and find this story a very sweet romance that verges on the atypical — because romance heroes usually have some sort of charm, and Spencer is completely lacking in that department — (and is just a tad unsatisfying because many of the story elements remain unresolved at the end and are passed on to the next two books).  However, if you’re a normal person, you’ll probably be a tad put off by Spencer’s prickly ways.

Kelly: 3.5 out of 5 Stars (I’m keen on decimals)
Kim: 3 out of 5 Stars

One Dance With A Duke by Tessa Dare
Random House (2010)
eBook 312 pages
ISBN: 9780345518866

twicetemptedBook two is Twice Tempted By A Rogue

From Goodreads: The daring members of the Stud Club are reckless gamblers and no strangers to risk—until love raises the stakes in Twice Tempted by a Rogue.

Luck is a double-edged sword for brooding war hero Rhys St. Maur. His death wish went unanswered on the battlefield, while fate allowed the murder of his good friend in the elite gentlemen’s society known as the Stud Club. Out of options, Rhys returns to his ancestral home on the moors of Devonshire, expecting anything but a chance at redemption in the arms of a beautiful innkeeper who dares him to take on the demons of his past—and the sweet temptation of a woman’s love.

Meredith Maddox believes in hard work, not fate, and romance isn’t part of her plan. But when Rhys returns, battle-scarred, world-weary, and more dangerously attractive than ever, the lovely widow is torn between determination and desire. As a deep mystery and dangerous smugglers threaten much more than their passionate reckoning, Meredith discovers that she must trust everything to a wager her heart placed long ago.

Kim: Of all three of the Stud Club heroes, Rhys has the privilege of being my favorite.  He’s the most vulnerable of all the men, I believe, due in large part to his childhood.  His time in the army has given him the ability to mask his feelings extremely well.  He’s wanted his life to end so many times before, only to have life deal him the “living” card over and over.  He feels undeserving of “life” for a multitude of reasons; the strongest reason, however, stems from the abuse he dealt with from his father.  He also blames himself for the struggles his home village faced when his family left.  He truly does have the weight of the world on his shoulders and suffers from an insane amount of guilt as well.  Guilt for the soldiers who died when he survived.  Guilt for the people of his village turning to smuggling as their way of living.  Guilt that Meredith’s father was crippled in the fire that destroyed his family’s estate.  The list goes on and on.  Something about Meredith though makes him want to live.  Even with all this guilt and the suppressed anger he feels over the abuses of his childhood, Meredith makes him feel ALIVE.  And Rhys wanting to be alive is just…..sigh….wonderful.

Kelly:  Yes!!!  I really liked the first book in this series, but within two chapters of Twice Tempted, I knew I was absolutely going to love this story.  Rhys is my favorite type of hero (and Meredith is pretty much my favorite type of heroine), and I’m a serious sucker for redemption stories.  Rhys’ internal journey throughout this book from something stunningly close to nihilism to an embrace of life and love is beautiful.  Meredith’s internal journey is not as remarkable, but she does evolve.

Kim: Kelly and I loves us some tortured hero, so it’s really not a huge surprise that we like him so much.  He wants so much to give but at times is totally clueless in how to do it.

Kelly:  I loved that Rhys holds himself to such a high standard and has to learn how to forgive himself and let go of all his guilt.  In many ways, Rhys has to learn moderation in order to achieve his HEA — he swings from his bruiser/fighting past to an extreme, self-imposed pacifism, and then has to work to find the middle ground (essentially, to find an identity other than “mindless fighter” or whatever he determines the opposite of that to be.).

Kim: Good point! His life has always been a battle of extremes.  He was either wishing for death or wishing for life.  He’s either fighting in the army/brawling or trying to build a home.  He’s either escaping his past or building a future.  His life has never had a “calm” period, it’s always been in some sort of tumultuous state.

Kelly:  Rhys is an incredibly compelling character, and when I think back on the book, I tend to remember stuff about him a lot more than I do about Meredith, but she’s an excellent character, too.  Meredith is strong, independent, and does not suffer malarkey from herself or others.  She and Rhys work together well, I think, because he has a tendency to want to take responsibility for ALL THE THINGS, and she’s no-nonsense about nipping that crazy in the bud.

Kim: I too loved Meredith! I loved how she would need a drink to deal with the stress of the inn and how Rhys was like, “hey, you need to cut back on that shit.”  Her focus on making the inn reputable for the gentry was a source of comedy for me.  The first scene you meet Meredith in, she’s sassing a group of men who are fighting and destroying the furniture and brick-a-brack.  She commands the room and puts all of the men in their place, yelling about blood on tablecloths etc.  The scene did 2 things – 1. It showed us that Meredith has a backbone of steel and refuses to allow anyone to mess with her dreams and 2. it gave us a hint of the comedy to come.

Kelly:  I love that scene!  And I totally agree with you that this book features a hefty dose of comedy, considerably more so than the first book in the series.  Maybe it’s because I read this series after I read a few of Dare’s other series, but when I read this book, I felt like I was returning to Dare’s voice.  One Dance is a tiny bit more melodramatic than I’ve come to expect from Dare’s writing, but Twice Tempted is sparkling while still not being a romp (I’m not keen on romps.).

Kim: I think there needed to be comedy to help deal with the all the tortured hero talk.  It got deep and dark for a while.  The comedy helped ease in and out of that darkness without becoming depressed.  The comedy was a great surprise, but I also enjoyed the role reversal that took place.  Before Rhys’s return to the village, Meredith is forced into a more masculine role.  Her father is injured and unable to care for her.  She in turn marries an older man to financially support her father.  Her husband dies and she is left the inn to do with as she sees fit.  She sees an opportunity to take care of the whole village and begins to.  When Rhys comes to town she’s at first threatened by him (I think).  Rhys tells her his plans for rebuilding the estate to begin supporting the village.  She tells him that nobody will support him and that he should just give up.  I find that she does this for several reasons.  First – She’s TERRIFIED he’ll leave and abandon her and the village again.  She’s so afraid of making herself vulnerable and opening her heart to him only to have it thrown back in her face.  The second reason I find for her dissuading Rhys is that she’s frightened of not being “needed” anymore.  She’s nervous that if he can rebuild the estate and win over the villagers that there will be no need for her or the inn she has worked tirelessly on.  Her sacrifices will have all been for nothing.  I found these parts of her character incredibly endearing.  Her need for reassurance and stability humanize her and take her from just another character in a novel to one that you can actually relate to.

Kelly:  Meredith is such a fantastically complex character — starkly and strongly independent and resilient (because she’s had to be) but also brittle with vulnerability.  In a way, the main journey that Meredith takes is the one that any feminist does, at some point, especially if one has been independent for a while and is suddenly given an opportunity to lean on someone else for a change.  How can one be an independent woman who is self-reliant AND be in a relationship that requires a certain degree of interdependence?  It takes Meredith a while to realize that she can be in a long-term relationship with Rhys and still be her own person, still keep the inn, still obsess about fixtures and curtains, etc.  Essentially, she realizes that they can both save the village together, and it will be better for everyone.  In order to get to that point, though, she has to learn how to trust Rhys, to stop allowing fear to rule her life.

Kim: Twice Tempted by a Rogue was definitely a strong enough book to make up for the deficiencies that Kelly and I found in book one.  It reinvigorated our faith in Dare’s novels and had us eager to continue on with this trilogy. (Even though the third book in trilogies scare us)

Kelly: 4.5 out of 5 Stars
Kim: 4 out of 5 Stars

Twice Tempted By A Rogue by Tessa Dare
Random House (2010)
eBook 296 pages
ISBN: 9780345518880

threenightsBook three is Three Nights With a Scoundrel

From Goodreads: In Tessa Dare’s dazzling new trilogy, the men of the Stud Club live and play by their own rules—until passion changes the game.

The bastard son of a nobleman, Julian Bellamy is now polished to perfection, enthralling the ton with wit and charm while clandestinely plotting to ruin the lords, ravish the ladies, and have the last laugh on a society that once spurned him. But after meeting Leo Chatwick, a decent man and founder of an elite gentlemen’s club, and Lily, Leo’s enchanting sister, Julian reconsiders his wild ways. And when Leo’s tragic murder demands that Julian hunt for justice, he vows to see the woman he secretly loves married to a man of her own class.

Lily, however, has a very different husband in mind.  She’s loved Julian forever, adores the man beneath the rakish façade, and wants to savor the delicious attraction they share—as his wife. His insistence on marrying her off only reinforces her intent to prove that he is the only man for her. Obsessed with catching a killer, Julian sinks back to the gutters of his youth, forcing Lily to reach out with a sweet, reckless passion Julian can’t resist. Can her desire for a scoundrel save them both—or will dangerous secrets threaten more than their tender love?

Kim: So normally I find the third books in trilogies to be the worst.  I find that stories are dragged out and the characters are no longer fresh and/or interesting.  Tessa Dare’s proven my thoughts wrong with Three Nights With a Scoundrel.  I was SO blown away by all the twists and turns that took place in book three.

Kelly:  I’m totally with Kim on third books in trilogies… It’s so common for them to fall apart (or to be basically the same book three times over, and somehow it’s fine for the first two, but by the third I’m done, you know?)  Anyway, the third book of this series is my favorite, partly because the characters are wonderful and partly because the other two books of the series build to this one.  I think it’s possible to read this third book as a stand-alone, but a much fuller, richer experience is available to the reader who invests in the entire series.  That’s always a tricky thing, and (having read the whole series) it’s difficult to say whether a reader could actually enjoy book 3 on its own, but I think that it could work on its own.  But I liked all three, so I’m always going to recommend folk read all three.  Why not, right?  Dare’s writing is good, her characters interesting, and even a book that is comparatively weak (only when compared to the rest of her canon) is still amazing compared to much of what’s out there in the romance world.

Kim:  Agreed! The other two books are good in their own rights, but they are really both building to tell Lily and Julian’s story.  To get the full understanding of how rich these two characters are (in-depth, not financially) you need to see where they’ve been and how they grow.  Julian especially is the character (of all three novels) that grows the most.  His unfortunate roots lead him to constantly doubt himself and his value, especially when it comes to whether he is worthy of loving Lily or not.  His vulnerability when he reveals his past to Lily is just incredible.  The scene is written to perfection.  His anguish over his need to find Leo’s killer and his need to follow his heart is written so well that I honestly felt like I was Julian.  I’d find myself so lost in his story and so in his head that I forgot I was even reading a story.  THIS is the reason I read everything that Dare writes.  You become lost in her writings and can’t help but become deeply emotionally invested in her characters.

Kelly: And how.  I really hated Julian in the first two books, and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to accept him as a hero, but I totally fell in love with him, and his apparent douchebaggery from the first two books just made him more endearing (in a weird way), especially as you begin to piece together the reasons for all that douchebaggery.

Kim: I totally understand what you mean here.  His was SUCH a jerk in the first two books I found myself wondering how Dare was going to “sell” him to the audience.

Kelly:  I shouldn’t have worried (but I did).  I fell in love with Lily in the first book, and being able to watch Julian pine and long and love from a distance was really all it took… I was a goner from the first sentence.  How can you dislike someone who loves Lily, who really sees her for who and what she is, values and appreciates everything about her?  Answer: you can’t.  Julian is beautiful and loveable because he loves her.

Kim: We should probably mention that Lily is deaf.  Not that it’s an important characteristic in our minds, but she isn’t the “normal” heroine of romance novels.  I LOVE that Tessa Dare writes characters that buck the norm.  I appreciate that Dare doesn’t make Lily’s deafness the “problem” keeps them apart.  Even though Lily is deaf, it’s not what defines her, or why Julian loves her.  It’s simply just a part of her.

Kelly: Yes!  I adored how Lily and Julian explore Deaf and hearing culture in their relationship, and that Lily’s deafness never once appears as a disability.  It’s a fact about her, a trait she has, but the novel is very careful in its stance on Lily’s deafness.  The novel is also able to illuminate some of the problems with hearing vs. Deaf throughout history.  Lily has a truly terrible aunt who gets to play the part of historically correct awfulness to demonstrate how marginalized the deaf community was (a fun little “look how far we’ve come… but we still have a ways to go!” bit of social commentary dropped in the middle of a romance novel.).  It’s subversion at its finest.

Kim: I think it was also an interesting touch that Dare had Lily’s brother in on the marginalizing of the deaf routine.  When Lily begins learning sign-language (after Leo’s death), she’s asked why she never learned before.  Her response is that her brother never picked it up, and with him being her main source of companionship, what was the point?  To me, this struck me as super odd but also really sad.  There’s a show on TV right now, Switched at Birth, that is also delving into this plot line.  (One of the characters on the show is deaf and his family has never bothered to learn how to sign)  I guess I come from a mindset that if a loved one of mine was deaf and started learning to sign, I would do anything and everything I could do to also learn to sign.

Kelly:  It’s actually the most common thing in the world for the families of deaf/hard of hearing folk to resist putting in the effort to ease the way for a deaf family member.  The hearing world accommodates the hearing, and with Cochlear ear implants, hearing aids, surgeries, lip-reading, etc., the hearing community often can’t understand why the deaf don’t automatically do whatever is necessary to remain in the hearing world.  It’s heartbreaking, but there it is.  I totally agree with Kim, by the way.  I have a friend who is deaf and skirts the hearing/deaf communities.  She can pass either way, but for the longest time her family forced her to pretend to be hearing (because deafness is shameful, they thought)… She did her doctoral work on identity issues among children with invisible traits (deaf and LGBT), and her findings were generally that families cling to norms at the expense of their loved ones.  Thus I absolutely loved Dare’s stance and, even more, loved that a romance novel used this social issue as a theme.

Kim: I think that this is why I keep reading Dare’s novels.  She takes the romance genre and adds depth to it.  She creates characters that would NEVER be the heroes and heroines of other “normal” romance novels.  She writes for the underdogs and gives those with no voice a platform to preach their uniqueness.  She advocates being different. Couldn’t we use more authors like this?

Kelly:  Preach it, sister!  Further, her ‘unique’ characters are actually unique.  It isn’t just another way of advocating the norm (like those stories where a nerdy girl is transformed into a beauty because *gasp* she was beautiful all along.).  Dare finds beauty in unexpected people and showcases it.

Kim: So I think maybe the biggest thing to take away from our thoughts on Three Nights With A Scoundrel is that this book is marketed as a romance novel, yeah? Now go look at all the things we pulled out of it and tell me that the love story is the only reason to read it.

Kelly: 5 out of 5 Stars
Kim: 5 out of 5 Stars

Random House (2010)
eBook 289 pages
ISBN: 9780345518903