Review by Kayleigh

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“He found himself watching them more than the performance, and when it was over and they broke into happy applause, he let himself be carried along with them. And when Dani turned to him, smiled, and mouthed, “Thank you,” and he whispered, “You’re welcome,” he found he had never meant anything more.”

This is a cozy holiday adjacent read that filled my heart with joy and a yearning to find a man who will practice the Dirty Dancing lift with me after drinking too many negronis. 

There’s a royal wedding on, and things are about to get interesting.

Meet the man of honor

Maximillian von Hansburg, Baron of Laudon and heir to the Duke of Aquilla, is not having a merry Christmas. He’s been dumped by a princess, he’s unemployed, and his domineering father has sent him to New York to meet a prospective bride he has no interest in. In the city, he meets Dani Martinez, a smart (and gorgeous) professor he’s determined to befriend before their best friends marry in the Eldovian wedding of the century.

Meet the best woman

Newly single, no-nonsense New Yorker Dani is done with love—she even has a list entitled “Things I Will Never Again Do for a Man”—which is why she hits it off with notorious rake Max. He’s the perfect partner for snow angels in Central Park and deep conversations about the futility of love.

It’s all fun and games until their friendship deepens into attraction and, oops…

Falling in love was never part of the plan.

Duke, Actually is the sequel to Jenny’s spicy hallmark Christmas-style book A Princess for Christmas. And while I enjoyed A Princess for Christmas, I loved Duke, Actually even more. We first meet Dani and Max in a Princess for Christmas, and I have to say that for me, these secondary characters stole the show and delighted me from the get-go. I was absolutely thrilled when I saw they were getting the main character treatment in her next book.

I love the slow-burn relationship building which happens between two Christmases. And I absolutely adored the chemistry and banter between Max and Dani. Max is, on the surface, a privileged and superficial man whiling the time away until his father dies and he becomes Duke. His time is seemingly spent on chasing women and not much else. Dani is a serious and loyal professor who’s coming off heartbreak and disappointment after her husband leaves her for a student. Seemingly, Max and Dani have nothing in common, but like an onion, they both have many layers. And like an onion, Jenny peels back their layers to help them get to the good stuff.

Early on in the book, there is a scene where Max takes Dani and her mom to see The Nutcracker because she mentioned how they always used to do it but hadn’t for a long time (partially thanks to her snobby ex-husband). Max, at this point, is interested in Dani because she doesn’t give a flying pig about his title or his money. And he wants her around him more. I loved getting to see his playboy mask slip and to see the big-hearted, kind and playful man beneath. He brings spontaneity back into her life through small acts like making snow angels in freshly fallen snow or practicing the Dirty Dancing lift because Dani loves that scene. Dani helps Max see that he can become so much more than the playboy he pretends to be: he can find meaningful work, make a difference in his world and use his brain while still being himself.

The book flips between New York and Eldovia over the course of one year. And during that year, Max and Dani become important in each other’s lives leading up to the royal wedding they are both playing roles in. When Max and Dani finalllllly get together, it’s explosive (duh) but quickly tempered by heartbreak because Dani isn’t ready to trust her heart completely.

There is a major plot twist near the end of the book (no spoilers), which happens suddenly and was perhaps the only jarring plot point in the whole book. While I know why Jenny had to do it for the sake of the novel, it was a sad point in the book.

Jenny doesn’t forget to include an incredible cast of secondary characters, including Dani’s adorable dog, Max, who falls head over heels for human Max in the way only dogs can. I personally was cheering as I watched human Max make amends with his younger brother Sebastien, whose relationship was strained over some family secrets the two had been keeping from each other.

I loved watching Dani, a strong independent woman, fall in love without losing her independence. She’s a smart woman who is building her career, and she doesn’t give it up just so she can find the man. It was a compelling plot point that had me cheering for her the whole way through the book. As an English professor, her job helps Jenny introduce some interesting backstory and a little bit of historical fiction for Max and Dani to discover and works to show how much more depth the two of them have together.

And finally, as you may glean from the title, the movie Love, Actually plays a small role in this book. The movie is divisive and a wee bit problematic, as Dani explains to Max, who has never seen it. But the theme that she always takes from watching it is: At Christmas, you tell the truth. And both Dani and Max return to that same main theme throughout the novel as they grapple with family relations, duty, responsibility and love.  

If you want a warm, funny and intelligent holiday romance, then you must read Jenny Holiday’s Duke, Actually.

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