Never Judge a Lady By Her Cover (Rules of Scoundrels #4) by Sarah MacLean

NEVER JUDGE A LADY BY HER COVER

By day, she is Lady Georgiana, sister to a Duke, ruined before her first season in the worst kind of scandal. But the truth is far more shocking—in London’s darkest corners, she is Chase, the mysterious, unknown founder of the city’s most legendary gaming hell. For years, her double identity has gone undiscovered . . . until now.

Brilliant, driven, handsome-as-sin Duncan West is intrigued by the beautiful, ruined woman who is somehow connected to a world of darkness and sin. He knows she is more than she seems and he vows to uncover all of Georgiana’s secrets, laying bare her past, threatening her present, and risking all she holds dear . . . including her heart.

Rating: A

I have thoroughly enjoyed each of the books in Ms MacLean’s Rules of Scoundrels series, but I think Never Judge a Lady By Her Cover is quite possibly the best of the lot!

The author has very cleverly kept her readers on tenterhooks regarding the identity of the mysterious and enigmatic Chase, the founder of and fourth partner in London’s premier gambling establishment, The Fallen Angel – and I’m sure it’s no exaggeration to say that we were shocked, awed and excited when, at the end of the previous book in the series, Chase was revealed to be a woman.

In fact, she is none other than Lady Georgiana Pearson, sister of the Duke of Leighton, whom readers met in the author’s earlier Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord. Aged seventeen and pregnant, Georgiana had fled to Minerva House in Yorkshire in order to escape the censure of her family and the pressure they would bring to bear on her to force her to give up her child.

That was almost a decade ago, and in the intervening time, Georgiana devised the perfect revenge on the society whose double standards make a whore of a young woman who dares to bear a child out of wedlock while slapping a man on the back for sowing his wild oats. Recruiting partners with as much to gain and little to lose as she had, she established the Angel, membership to which has become one of the most sought after invitations in all of society.

Georgiana’s daughter, Caroline, is now nine years old, and when in London, resides with the Duke of Leighton and his family in an attempt to distance the girl from her mother’s sins. Georgiana keeps a fairly low profile, venturing out on the odd shopping trip or excursion, but not attending society events. When a rather nasty cartoon appears in one of the London scandal sheets, it’s brought home forcibly to Georgiana that her daughter is growing up, and will soon need to assume a position in society – but what position? As the child of an unwed mother, Caroline will face censure and social ostracism if Georgiana doesn’t do something to secure her respectability, and there is only one way she can do that – marry a man with a title. Her three partners – Bourne, Cross and Temple – are all living proof of the fact that having a title goes a long way towards crushing gossip, so Georgiana sets her sights on an impoverished viscount of impeccable lineage and reputation – and one she knows will be amenable to a white marriage.

If Georgiana is to make such a match, however, she is going to have to return to society. At one of the first balls she attends in London, she is not surprised to find herself the subject of much behind-fan-tittering, hushed whispers and cruel gossip. Having faced down a group of bitchy debutantes, she then finds herself alone with newspaper baron Duncan West, whose close association with the Fallen Angel and its owners has made him into a kind of honorary “fifth partner”, and with whom she has had a number of professional dealings over the past few years – but as Chase, not as Georgiana.

In fact, Chase and West have never met face-to-face. Their business has all been conducted through an intermediary in the form of Anna, the madam at the Angel, Chase’s (presumed) lover – and Georgiana’s public persona. In the years of their association there has been an unacknowledged attraction between them, but it’s only now that Georgiana starts to feel the real force of that attraction. West is dazzlingly handsome, shrewdly intelligent and almost indecently wealthy, and it’s clear from the outset that he’s one of the few men in society able to equal her in intellect and power.

For his part, West is immediately drawn to this beautiful but fiercely clever woman and impressed by her determination to give her daughter the life she herself was denied. Given that one of his newspapers is responsible for circulating some of the most recent gossip about her, West offers to help to restore Georgiana’s standing in society and pave the way for the respectable marriage she aims to make.

But Georgiana is not the only one keeping secrets. West, too has something to hide, something way back in his past that has the potential to destroy him completely, something which the one man beyond Chase’s influence will not hesitate to use to bring him down if West refuses to do as he is told.

The relationship that builds between the couple as they circle around one another is utterly delicious and the chemistry between them is scorching. There are layer upon layer of secrets lying between them, yet even as they become closer – both emotionally and physically – they continue to find it difficult to give their trust completely to the other. Eventually, Georgiana’s reluctance to trust Duncan with her ultimate secret sets in motion a chain of events which threatens her safety and his very existence.

Much as I’ve fallen for Bourne, Cross and Temple, Duncan West is my favourite hero of the series. Perceptive, clever, deeply honourable and utterly gorgeous, he is, quite simply, sex-on-legs and a perfect match for Georgiana who is one of the most strongly characterised and admirable heroines I’ve come across in the pages of historical romance. She’s pragmatic and clear-sighted, and unlike so many “unconventional” heroines, knows that she has to function within society’s rules, rather than constantly chafing against them. Of course, gets her own back on society in a deliciously unusual manner, her choice of weapon a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer.

In Never Judge a Lady By Her Cover, Sarah MacLean has crafted an intelligent and compelling story with an intricate plot and a strongly characterised central couple. Along the way, she also manages to include several very pertinent observations relating to the place of women in the society of the time, and to remind the reader that there was often a much seedier and darker side to its denizens hidden beneath the surface veneer of propriety and politesse.

But this is at its heart, a beautiful, poignant and wonderfully written love story, as well as an absolutely superb ending to one of the most captivating series of books I’ve read in recent years. I will miss Ms MacLean’s Scoundrels, but am delighted to be able to report that Bourne, Cross, Temple – and Chase – have left us on a real high and to say that I have enjoyed every minute I’ve spent with them.

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