If you love The Big Grovel, this is your book. Because it is ALL grovel. Spectacular, well done grovel.
Loretta Chase is a titan in romance and for good reason. Even in the ’90s, she was writing romance with men that weren’t rapists and women with a personality more complex than “gentle and sweet”. It seems like one of her favourite tropes is the himbo and the sharp tongued, intensely smart woman with zero fucks that the himbo just wants to support while she tears the world a new asshole. This is a prime example of that narrative.
Plot: Cassandra has been in love with Lucius since they were kids, since he stood up for her one time when she was being bullied. She’s an unnatural woman with Opinions who wants to Do Things other than knit. Like promote women’s rights and help people keep out of workhouses. Of course, the now Duke, whose drunken behaviour was the inciting incident of the first book in this series, has grown up to be a spoiled asshole whose life is really little more than getting into fights, pranking people (even the King won’t be near him), and boning down. The man has not heard the word “no” in his life. He’s only not reviled because understanding what a drag he is, anytime he or his loser friends hurt anyone or damage anything, they pay to fix things so generously that people end up better off than they were before. Which would put anyone in a forgiving mood. Only he meets Cassandra again, who has long since given up her crush and who he has pretty much entirely forgotten, when having gotten hammered after the events of the first book (it involves a duel with a friend, the details aren’t essential), scares her horse and seriously injures her mentor in the process. This means that to put things right, which is his one virtue when he’s screwed up, he has to work a lot harder than usual. A lot harder.
The thing with Loretta Chase is that you can have the most maudlin set up, and this certainly has the sound of a pretty depressing book about class disparities, the callousness of the “ruling” class, and of course, the rampant sexism, but Chase never lets a depressing thought linger too long. She makes her point, and then she gives you a joke about goats or explosions or bad poetry. The dialogue is a perfect blend of important plot progression, character development, and just pleasurable conversation between people far more equally matched than they realize.
It’s an unusual story because the heroine fell in love with the hero twenty years before the start of the book and the hero basically falls in love with her the first time she yells at him. Or maybe it’s the first time she shoves him off a bridge. The story isn’t about them falling in love, but working together to figure out if that love can be the foundation of a functional relationship. It’s about trust, and the fact that everything Lucius has ever done as an adult has made him an unreliable partner, especially in a society where the wife doesn’t even own her own body once she’s married.
So to his great dismay, he has to start using his brain. Mostly, what we see is that he does have a kind soul buried under drink and bad impulse control, he just needed a reason to want to be that person. And once he decides that he wants to, he makes all the moves to do it.
This book could have easily become a Woman Fixes Man story, but it isn’t. Cassandra doesn’t tell him what to do. She doesn’t give him a list of things he needs to do to prove himself to her. There are no ultimatums. She just refuses to marry him because she doesn’t trust him and tells him so. He does all the work of self improvement himself, including the decision to try, and in trying to reform himself for her learns a lot about himself and about women too. He reads Mary Wollstonecraft and is utterly undone by what he learns. He takes an interest in politics more broadly, including taking on legislation that unfairly targets the poor. He starts listening to ALL the women in his life, not just the one he wants to marry.
This book is so, so satisfying. Chase is one of my favourite authors and this book is a perfect example of why.