Thursday 4 December 2014

#CBR6 Book 132: "Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover" by Sarah Maclean

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Spoiler warning! It is actually IMPOSSIBLE for me to write about this book without spoiling some pretty major developments that involve all three former Rules for Scoundrels books. If you haven't already read No Good Duke Goes Unpunished, PLEASE stay away from this review and return once you're caught up. You'll enjoy this book so much more if you heed my advice.

The previous three books in the Rules for Scoundrels series told the story of the disgraced noblemen who opened The Fallen Angel, an exclusive and scandalous gambling club in the middle of Mayfair. All deferring to the founder, the mysterious and reclusive, Chase, three other notorious aristocrats are the public face of the club. The Marquess of Bourne lost his entire fortune in one card game and swore revenge on the man who cheated him of his inheritance. Cross, the Earl of Harlow (driven to destruction by the death of his brother) and Temple, the Duke of Lamont (accused of murdering his father's fiancee the night before her wedding) were rescued by Chase when about to be beaten and possibly killed by a London gangs for their rigged games. Over the course of the series, all three men have found redemption of a sorts in the eyes of society and are happily married to the women of their dreams.

Frequently, the final book in a romance series is saved for the darkest, most complicated and emotionally messed up characters, more often than not the hero, as romance heroines seem to be less prone to extremely emo behaviour. There are exceptions, of course Chase is certainly the most mysterious, and a fascinating and complex individual. What is revealed at the end of book three in this series, however, is that the founder of The Fallen Angel, the mysterious mastermind who controls three other powerful men, the reclusive genius who possesses all the secrets and blackmail material worth knowing, is in fact a woman. Both the daughter of and sister of a Duke, Lady Georgina Pearson lived a sheltered life, desperate for affection, until she believed herself in love with a handsome stable hand and became a scandal. An unwed mother at sixteen, she became a cautionary tale to others in "polite" society, gossipped about and shunned. Liberated from the strictures of the same society, Georgina didn't particularly mind so much until the gossip started hurting her beloved daughter. Motivated initially by a desire for revenge, she acquired the funds to start the club, recruited partners who had been as unfairly cast out and judged by the aristocracy as herself and over the course of six years, positioned herself to become possibly the most powerful influence in London.

In addition to her secret identity as Chase, Georgiana has a more public persona in the club, as Anna, the courtesan believed to be Chase's mistress, and a prostitute with very exclusive tastes. Hiding in plain sight, wearing bright colours, wigs, flashy makeup and flirting with the patrons, Georgiana is able to move about the club and interact with its members, who all believe her to be Chase's emissary. No one becomes a member of The Fallen Angel except by invitation and the only way to gain membership is with secrets. Georgiana and her partners have files on all the powerful and influential men and women in London and won't hesitate to use their secrets to devastating effects if the debts owed to the club are not paid promptly. They release juicy tidbits to Duncan West, newspaper magnate and self-made man, who increases his circulation because of the choice gossip.

After a malicious cartoon was published in The Scandal Sheet, the gossip magazine owned by West, Georgiana is forced to rethink her priorities. Caroline, her daughter, is nearly ten and Georgiana is worried that her scandalous past is going to keep her child from the life and opportunities that said daughter deserves. Whether it's being raised in the country by relatives or kept locked up in a London Casino, neither situation is ideal for a child. Every time they go out into Society, there is gossip, and people are rarely kind enough to shield the child from snide remarks. Even other children judge and condescend. As a result, Georgina has decided to find a titled husband. One whose influence will shield Caroline and give her the future she deserves. It needs to be a man satisfied with a marriage of convenience, as Georgiana has no intention of letting herself fall under the power of another man, ever again.

At a ball early in the season, after verbally eviscerating a young lady who not only dared insult Georgiana herself, but Caroline, Georgiana runs into Duncan, who apologises for the cartoon and wants to make amends by using his influence and his newspapers to make her a big hit in Society. He promises to help her land the husband she wants, because while he's instantly drawn to her, he knows he could never be a suitable match for her. Duncan West has secrets in his past he cannot reveal, and understands Georgiana's protective instincts because he too possesses them in spades. When he figures out that Georgiana and Anna are in fact the same person, he's convinced that the reason she lives this double life is because Chase must have a hold over her, and he becomes determined to free this fascinating woman from Chase's nefarious influence. If he can't have her, he wants to make sure she is married to a good man who will protect her and Caroline.

Once I finished No Good Duke Goes Unpunished back in November of last year, with what I'm quite sure was an audible gasp and some creative swearing, I went back and pored over the first three book in the Rules for Scoundrels series, checking every single scene where Chase appears, to see if Maclean even once slipped up with her use of pronouns. But cleverly, in every scene with Chase, no pronouns are used at all. There are only a select few characters in all the books that know that Chase is a woman, and as most of Society believe Chase to be male, they obviously use male pronouns. Once I went back and reread the books for clues, it became obvious to me that Anna was also clearly Chase, but it wasn't until the opening pages of this book that it was revealed that she was actually Lady Georgiana, first introduced in Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord, as a minor, but rather significant supporting characters in the final two books of the Love by Numbers trilogy. Maclean has clearly been planning this for a long time.

Georgiana, or Chase, is absolutely badass. She realises very quickly that having her reputation effectively demolished by her impulsive tryst is actually more a benefit to her, than a burden. She's not actually particularly bothered by all the malicious and often hypocritical things she overhears about herself. When it comes to her daughter, she's a lioness, however, and shows no mercy when it comes to wreaking her revenge. Chase has files on everyone, is owed favours by everyone worth knowing and knows exactly how to wield her influence to inflict the most damage. Georgiana doesn't actually want a husband, but feels that this is the only possible solution to ensure the appropriate future for her daughter. She never once stops to reflect on how happy she herself was to escape the strictures of being a Duke's coddled but emotionally ignored daughter. Behind the scenes as Chase, Georgiana is the most powerful person in London. She gets to enjoy the everyday life of her gambling club as Anna, protected from too many unpleasant advances both by the belief of most patrons that she "belongs" to Chase and because Bourne, Cross and Temple make very sure that men know that Anna is off limits. Marrying, even purely for convenience and to protect her child means she will have to cut down on the time she spends running her business empire. The thought doesn't sit well with Georgiana.

While she's convinced herself that she has to have a titled husband to secure Caroline's future, her bargain with Duncan West means she suddenly spends a lot more time around a man she's long found dangerously attractive. Having occasionally met with West in the guise of Anna, Georgiana has forced herself to stay professional around him, sometimes flirting, but going no further. Now, as she's set on marrying, she convinces herself that she may be permitted a brief fling before she actually settles down into her new life as an aristocrat's wife.

Duncan, who always found Anna alluring, but Georgiana irresistible is powerless to refuse her advances. He's furious because he believes Chase has a sexual and emotional hold over her, deeply jealous that she intends to marry another, yet his past and the secrets he hides makes it impossible for him to offer for her as he would wish. West is a suitable match for the formidable Georgiana. She's strong, fiercely intelligent, observant, driven and logical. West brings out her irrational, passionate side. He too is extremely smart and known as the "hardest working man in London". He was given a lucky break with his first gossip rag and made himself the most influential newspaper magnate in the city. He attends society functions, but always observes from the sidelines. He's deeply aware that he's not a gentleman and will never become one. He doesn't dance. He's as protective of his eccentric spinster sister as Georgiana is of her daughter. His drive to keep those he loves safe makes him blind to some of the truths he would have realised about Georgiana/Anna and everything she tells him about Chase, if he'd only been able to stay cool and objective. Chase is an alpha heroine, and could never settle for a man that was less than her. West is a very good partner for her, but they both share both admirable and annoying qualities. I'm glad Duncan figured out very early on that Georgiana and Anna were the same, but it takes a frustratingly long time for the full truth about Chase to be revealed to him (against the express advice and wishes of all of Chase's three business partners).

This book was very good and I laughed several times while reading it. There were absolutely steamy scenes and I enjoyed that while Georgiana and Duncan both have a wealth of secrets they are keeping from each other and the world, they are generally not all that emotionally messed up. I wasn't a big fan of the villain in this book and the final act of the story got a bit farcical. Parts of the resolution wrapped up a little bit too conveniently without any wider repercussions for the characters, but Maclean's endings are frequently the weakest parts of her stories. This is still a great romance and I suspect I will have to go back and read all six books that involve Georgiana to fully get an idea of how long a game Maclean has been playing. I'm also very much looking forward to her book The Rogue Not Taken, out sometime in the New Year.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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