Never Judge a Lady By Her Cover by Sarah MacLean (2014)
When Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover opens, we meet Georgiana, also known as Anna, also known as Chase. Ruined at the age of sixteen, she used her outcast status to become an extremely powerful woman. The major spoiler from earlier books in the series is that she is the secret identity of a mysterious businessman named Chase. Along with three other men, he owns a gentleman's club called The Fallen Angel. When Georgiana isn't pretending to be Chase, she is playing the part of Anna, a gussied-up worldly madam who hangs out at The Fallen Angel. But her carefully-crafted set of personas is now threatened as she attempts to enter back into aristocratic society (as Georgiana) to finally marry and lend some respectability to her 9-year-old daughter, Caroline. Most of the threat comes from her newfound flirtation with Duncan West, a newspaperman who initially embarrasses her with a scandalous cartoon about her return, but soon promises to help her win over the hearts of London society. But not before she wins over his heart as well.
I never have high hopes for romance; they are just for a bit of fun. The story lines are often weak and contrived. But I was pleasantly surprised and rather impressed with this plot. MacLean put together a story that was both well-crafted and compelling, and then filled it with characters I found quite appealing.
Georgiana is, quite simply, a badass. What made me so interested in this book in the first place was the idea that she had this secret identity as a man and another as a prostitute, and was so incredibly successful. She's smart and resourceful and fearless, and isn't easily swayed by the handsome Duncan West either. She's learned a few things in her years and knows not to fall for any guy who sweet talks her (she won't forget that early mistake.)
In romance novels, a great deal tends to hinge on the characters' neuroses, and they make things far more difficult for themselves than necessary. There is always a point at which one character is holding back information that would explain so much, and they stubbornly refuse to reveal it for reasons which are rather paltry. Here, Georgiana definitely held back information from Duncan West, but it was easy to understand her motivations. He also had good reasons for holding back. I bought it all.
I should mention the romance itself, since that's the heart of it all. Duncan was easy to like and could be quite charming. When he finally asks Georgiana about her past, he inquires "What happened? To bring you Caroline?" Georgiana fairly swooned at the lovely way he asked her about the story of her ruin. Because of his own secrets, Duncan was not one to judge others and he held a distaste for aristocracy very similar to Georgiana's. They both struggled with the need to be accepted by the people they most loathed. They were evenly matched in many ways, both having crawled upward to success from bad situations, and of course they both had secrets. He was a little possessive, but after all he thought she was a prostitute, so that can be forgiven. The tension between the two was pretty delicious, and was only heightened by their mutual mistrust. And there were some sexytimes, which were rather creative - Duncan has a swimming pool, unusual for the time period, but very useful for the purposes of the novel. Thankfully the sex was a bit more realistic than in so many novels. For instance, Georgiana takes note of her "oddly shaped, strangely stretched bits" (she has had a baby after all) but it's still sexy, without being ridiculously over-the-top.
The only thing I kept wondering about was if people ever actually saw Chase. Georgiana wears trousers during this novel, but never disguises herself as a man so I didn't know if she had ever done so. After finishing, I listened to this episode of the DBSA podcast, from which I learned that Chase appeared in earlier novels in the series, but MacLean carefully constructed those scenes to avoid pronouns. From this I gather that nobody outside of the close-knit group of owners has actually seen Chase. Also, now I really want to read the earlier books. I do own a copy of the third book (No Good Duke Goes Unpunished) thanks to the library book sale, so I may just read this all in reverse chronological order.
I've only read a handful or so of romance novels, but this is definitely one of the best and the next time I want this sort of escape I'll definitely look to Sarah MacLean again. On the podcast I referenced earlier, she noted that her next Regency series will be based on modern celebrity scandals, complete with TMZ-style headlines as chapter headings. This I gotta see.