Tuesday 10 December 2013

#CBR5 Book 142. "No Good Duke Goes Unpunished" by Sarah Maclean

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is the third book in a series, and while romance novels are normally fine to read out of sequence, some of the really awesome developments in this book lose a lot if you haven't read the rest of the series. These books are top notch romance, so just do yourself a favour and start at the beginning with A Rogue by Any Other Name. And yes, I know the titles are spectacularly cheesy. I recently discovered in a podcast that these are MacLean's own puns, not anything imposed on her by the publishers. I don't know whether to be impressed or slightly worried about her.

The great hulking brute known as Temple also goes The Killer Duke. He is one of four disgraced members of the aristocracy who own luxury gambling club The Fallen Angel. When the rich and foolish have lost too much, and have no other recourse, they can fight Temple in the Angel's boxing ring. Should they win, all their losses will be restored. Not that anyone ever has, but it never stops them from trying. William Harrow, the Duke of Lamont, shunned by most of polite society because he is suspected of having killed his father's fiancee, is more than happy to take every beating coming, because he's honestly not entirely sure he doesn't deserve his moniker.

Twelve years earlier, he awoke with only the haziest memories of the night before, to discover that the bewitching beauty who'd invited him up to her room was Miss Mara Lowe, his father's sixteen-year-old child bride and soon to be the Duke's third wife. There was no sign of the bride, only him, naked in sheets soaked in blood. Never convicted as there wasn't a body, Temple was nonetheless driven from polite society, and survived in the less prosperous parts of town because of his boxing prowess. After a while, he teamed up with Michael Lawler, the Marquess of Bourne (hero of book one) to run dice games, until the two were nearly killed by street thugs not too happy with their business venture. They were saved by Chase, the mysterious founder of the Fallen Angel, and became part-owners in the club.

Now Christopher Lowe, Mara's brother keeps challenging Temple, wanting to fight him for the chance to reclaim his squandered fortunes. Temple keeps refusing, not wanting anything to do with anyone named Lowe. Walking home one evening, he is approached by a woman revealing herself to be Mara Lowe, who, desperate to escape her wedding, did an incredibly foolish thing twelve years ago, and has been in hiding ever since. She promises to come forward and tell the world that Temple is innocent, as long as he restores her brother's funds. Temple has been tormented for over a decade, because Mara made everyone believe he killed her. He's not going to be satisfied with mere absolution, he wants revenge.

Sarah MacLean keeps amazing me, with each new book, she does something new and exciting. Mara genuinely ruined Temple's life. For twelve years, she hid under an assumed name and let everyone keep on believing that the Marquess of Chapin, later Duke of Lamont, had brutally killed her and disposed of the body. Because she drugged him to carry out her disappearance, Temple has never really had a clear recollection of the evening in question himself, and with his brute strength and capacity for anger, occasionally doubted his own innocence. So he's quite righteously furious when she returns, not even particularly remorseful, trying to negotiate with him. Temple doesn't just want her to clear his name, he wants to humiliate her and make her suffer, as much as possible. We're entirely on Temple's side. Mara is clearly the villain of the piece here.

So how in the world do these two find their happy ending. There was clearly attraction between them, that fateful night twelve years ago, when Mara set her foolish escape plan in motion. Even through the anger Temple feels, he can't help but feel drawn towards her. It's also made clear, over the course of the story, that while Mara doesn't feel like she had a choice, and initially seems quite unconcerned for the immense suffering she's caused, she changes her mind the more time she spends with Temple. The fact that she was sixteen, inexperienced and desperate, and completely unaware of Temple's real identity when she set her plan in motion is also made obvious. In what may seem like a terrible cliche, she now runs an orphanage for young by-blows of the aristocracy, and the reason she needs her brother's debts cleared is because she gave her brother the orphanage's funds to manage, and he carelessly lost them too. If she can't get the money back, the young boys in her care will starve. She can't tell Temple the truth as he makes it very clear that nothing she says or does will sway him from his plan to see her utterly humiliated in the eyes of society.

Temple's business partners and their wives do make cameo appearances in the book, and while they are also deeply furious with Mara to begin with, they start changing their attitudes towards her when they realise that she seems to actually care for Temple, and wants to atone for her past actions. It's more common in romance that the hero is the dislikable scoundrel who needs to win the forgiveness of the heroine and her circle. Here it's the other way around, and it's a brave choice by MacLean. Mara has clearly been sticking her head in the sand, desperately trying not to think about the consequences her actions had. Temple is still a Duke after all, and wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. She's been constantly looking over her shoulder, terrified that someone would find her and unravel her secrets. She has to face ugly facts about herself, and her actions, and show herself to be a worthy partner to Temple. Over the course of the book, she's also able to make him see that while his reputation is not what it used to be, he has a lot of good things in his new life to be thankful for, and maybe polite society isn't all that great to be a welcome part of, after all.

Courtney Milan still has the edge, but Sarah MacLean is now neck and neck with her for the title of best historical romance writer out there right now. It's a well-known tradition that in series of romances, the most interesting character is saved for last. Here it's the founder of the Fallen Angel, Chase, who is left until the end, and after the final two pages of this book (which made my jaw figuratively fall to the floor and swear out loud into an empty living room, I was so blown away), I can honestly say that I will be on tenter-hook. It doesn't look like it'll be out until August of next year, but if the first three books in this series are anything to go by, Courtney Milan may have to kiss her crown good-bye.

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