Sarah MacLean’s Rules of Scoundrels series is a highly entertaining series of four books about each of the four owners of the Fallen Angel, a gaming hell in London. An exclusive establishment trading in sin and secrets, it’s the location of choice for aristocrats to gamble away their wealth and holdings, where they’re held accountable by the scandalous information they must reveal about themselves or other members in order to gain membership in the first place.
The four owners, each aristocrats themselves, have a tarnished or scandalous past, and the power afforded by running the Angel has been their redemption. Still technically seen as scoundrels by Society, they’re nonetheless respected and feared.
All of the novels have, essentially, the same formula: the hero protagonist, burdened by his dark past, meets his unexpected match in the heroine, who herself is tainted in some way. So much lust. An almost-but-not-quite. “You can’t love me; I’ll ruin you!” “I’m already [35-100]%* ruined, so what does it matter?” Angel Co-Owner’s love interest takes a daring stand, proving their allegiance to Co-Owner and demonstrating that they work flawlessly as a team. Marriage, babies, blissful wedded union.
*This estimate is entirely made up by me, using a careful mathematical formula taking into account a weighted scale of Societal transgressions against title, breeding, and income, divided by the hero/ine’s DGAF factor.
A Rogue by Any Other Name is the story of the Marquess of Bourne, who as a young man lost his fortune and a great deal of his land holdings in a card game. Vowing revenge, he disappeared from Society for several years to concoct a plan, and upon his return, the first piece of putting the plan in motion is the abduction and forced marriage by ruination of Miss Penelope Marbury. Does this summary make the hero sound like a piece of work? Well, he kind of is. But he and Penelope aren’t exactly strangers; in fact, they knew each other growing up and Penelope has always carried something of a torch for him. So when he comes to abduct her and she realizes who he is, she’s not *entirely* unwilling, and has all of the patience in the world in trying to draw the man she knew before the scandal out from behind his mask of ruthlessness. Penelope, herself, has a fun awakening as she transitions from playing the part of the perfect aristocratic daughter to wife of a scoundrel, including clandestine trips to the gambling floor of the Fallen Angel and other such forbidden temptations. This story really shouldn’t have worked for me — coercion isn’t my bag, even when the heroine kind of plays along. But the two had such great physical chemistry, and while in real life I’d advise any woman to run screaming from this guy, in the fantasy world of romance, Penelope’s taming of Bourne was very romantic indeed.
One Good Earl Deserves a Lover is lucky to have as its heroine Philippa (Pippa) Marbury, younger sister of Penelope and unabashed geek. Bespectacled, socially challenged, and willing to do anything in the name of science, Pippa propositions Cross (Angel Owner #2) for ruination. Kind of — she doesn’t want to be actually, physically ruined, but she’s engaged to be married in two weeks and has no idea how sex works. She understands the literal mechanics, but she’d like someone who she understands to be experienced — Cross — to instruct her on some of the finer points. Cross immediately recognizes this as playing with fire, but Pippa, armed with her lab notebook and ready to take notes, is undeterred, and stubbornly insists that if he won’t help her, she’ll find someone who will!
I’ll admit, of all four books, the initial premise of this one to me was the silliest. Pippa’s insistence on this request seemed to require a particular balance of curiosity and foolishness, and while she’s certainly the former, she’s definitely not the latter. I also got a slight sense that, underneath her poised, rational exterior, Pippa was rather hungry for attention. Not in an obnoxious teenager-acting-out kind of way, but in the sense that her family has kind of written her off, and even her current fiance — a perfectly nice man — has little to offer her either in intellectual or physical stimulation. Cross, on the other hand, noticed her and appreciated her, and plainly stated his attraction to her. So with that in mind, I was not as convinced that she was exactly in love with Cross, the person, as she was attracted to him and also grateful for his attention. Additionally, the reveal of Cross’ dramatic past came not with a bang, but a whimper. To avoid spoilers, I won’t get specific, but it comes down to a spoiled and lethargic young aristocrat receiving a harsh lesson and having to grow up and make amends. So Cross does all of this posturing with Pippa about how he isn’t worthy of her, because of this Thing He Did. It’s not that I doubt his remorse, but this kind of angst just does nothing for me in romances, especially when the dirty deed in question is as juicy as an overcooked steak. All of that said, the two of them make a formidable pair, intellectually speaking, and the way Pippa proves her dedication to Cross by taking down his nemesis is brilliant. So even considering my initial cynicism, I do believe this is a pair that will work. Whatever the initial reason for their mutual admiration, that they work together so well can only mean good things for their longevity.
No Good Duke Goes Unpunished started off really well for me, then seriously annoyed me, and then mostly redeemed itself. It’s Temple’s book, the third of the Angel’s owners, and he’s a scandalized Duke. Everyone believes that over a decade ago, he killed his father’s soon-to-be wife. And speaking of the not-dead not-wife, guess who the heroine is? Mara Lowe resorted to drastic measures back then to run away and start her life over, but she didn’t mean for the Duke to be quite as tangled in her mess as he became. So she has returned, finally, to try to make things right. Listen: I liked both Mara and Temple a lot. I completely bought both their initial attraction, and the little nudges along the road that led them to falling in love. I liked their careful initial alliance, where neither completely trusted the other, but that they recognized how they could help each other. I understand that in the rebuilding of trust, there will be a lot of sharp growing pains, even some that feel like betrayal. But I feel like this book relied on several contrivances to keep Mara and Temple’s trust in flux. For instance: part of their initial agreement involves Temple agreeing to pay Mara cash in exchange for her clearing his name. Temple doesn’t exactly ask what the cash is for, but he assumes it’s for her brother, who is in debt to the Angel. On the other hand, he also knows Mara runs a boys’ orphanage, and he ALSO knows the orphanage is in debt. But he doesn’t make the connection that this is perhaps why she wants the money. So, at one point, when Mara’s brother arrives to make a mess of things, Temple and the other Owners assume Mara is in league with him and is trying to scam the Angel. It’s not the weirdest assumption in the world, but there’s also plenty of evidence to indicate otherwise, and Mara doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt. In general, I felt like the plot had to work extra hard to keep them apart, which was frustrating. So, when they finally got together, it was certainly rewarding, but not quite enough so to completely wash away the taste of my frustration.
Never Judge a Lady By Her Cover — THERE WILL BE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW! The rest of the series sets up for a major reveal in Chase, the fourth Angel owner (and original Angel founder) and if you’re interested in this series, I highly recommend putting this review on the backburner.
Miss Georgiana Pearson is one of the most blue-blooded aristocrats around: daughter and sister to Dukes, and raised in Society, she should be highly sought after as a bride. But at sixteen, she thought she was in love, and she made the cardinal mistake of trading in her V-card for a literal tumble in the hay with a stable boy who basically hit it and quit it. Finding herself ruined and pregnant on top of it, she sees the opportunity to disappear and start a new life. So she does: with capital from her brother, she adopts the mysterious persona of Chase and opens the Fallen Angel. Ten years later, she is loving her life — the power, the money, and the veil she wears. But she also wants to secure a decent future for her daughter, and the best way she can see to do that is by marrying a man with a title, who can pass on that legacy (along with her money from the Angel) to her daughter when it comes time for her to marry. So, she re-enters Society with a target husband in mind, only to find herself increasingly infatuated with Duncan West, the newspaper magnate who has agreed to give her a little positive press in the society pages.
Readers, I am sorry to say I also had problems with this one. The reveal that Chase is a woman gave me crazy high expectations to start the book, and while in theory she and Duncan are a perfect match, the tortured tango of their initial coupling made me want to tear my hair out at times. The first problem, before Duncan, is that Georgiana has a bit of cognitive dissonance going on about what’s best for her daughter. She hates Society, shuns it as it has shunned her, and leads a much happier life outside of it. At the same time, she’s clamoring to get back in so that her daughter can be a part of it. She thinks this is the life her daughter should have, when by her own experience, Society is brutal toward women who don’t behave exactly a certain way. And based on what we see of Caroline, Georgiana’s daughter, she’s not exactly a demure, elegant society type, even if she did have two aristocratic parents to claim her. So Georgiana herself should maybe see that getting Caroline into Society isn’t the ultimate goal, especially considering that Georgiana is plenty wealthy and could provide a very secure life for Caroline, whether she marries or not.
Georgiana and Duncan’s Main Obstacle is that she requires a titled man for her plan and Duncan, while wealthy and powerful, does not have a title. They acknowledge their feelings for each other, but know it Cannot Be. This, alone, I have no problem with. What I do have a problem with is that Duncan, not knowing that Georgiana is Chase, labors under the impression that she is Chase’s kept woman. While Georgiana doesn’t, for obvious reasons, tell him exactly what the nature of her relationship with Chase is, she tells him enough that if he ever bothered to take her at her word, he’d know that a) he has nothing to be jealous about and b) Georgiana is doing just fine. Instead, he threatens to unmask Chase partially out of spite (he has another more valid motive, but he only pulls the trigger on the threat when he’s especially furious about Georgiana’s defense of Chase) and harps on to Georgiana about how Chase is dangerous and she needs to be out from under his thumb and how much she needs Duncan to protect her. It’s very frustrating, because in one breath, he acknowledges her strength at coming back from her scandal, but in the next, he treats her like a dove with two broken wings. And this conversation, and ones like it, go on and on in circles for two-thirds of the book. It’s irritating and repetitive, and is only partially redeemed at the last minute when Duncan finds a way to circumvent Georgiana being exposed after his rash move.
While in each individual book summary I mentioned problems, I still overall give the series 3.5-4 stars. Why? Well, there are certain things I want out of a romance, and very high on the list of those things are smoulder and steamy love scenes. And these, Sarah MacLean does REALLY WELL. Each of the heroes, for all of their faults, seem devilishly attractive and singularly devoted to their women in a very swoonworthy fashion. For all that these are the bad boys of London Society, their hearts grow three sizes when they’re in love, and it’s great fun to watch tigers purr under the touch of the right handler.