His heart may be the last thing she ever steals . . .
Marlowe is a pickpocket, a housebreaker—and a better actress than any professional on the stage. She runs with the Covent Garden Cubs, a gang of thieves living in the slums of London’s Seven Dials. It’s a fierce life, and Marlowe has a hard outer shell. But when she’s alone, she allows herself to think of a time before—a dimly remembered life when she was called Elizabeth.
Maxwell, Lord Dane, is intrigued when his brother, a hired investigator, ropes him into his investigation of the fiercely beautiful hellion. He teaches her to navigate the social morass of the town while his brother attempts to confirm her true identity. But Marlowe will not escape so easily. Instead, Dane is drawn into her world of danger and violence, where the student becomes the teacher and love is the greatest risk of all.
Shana Galen’s new Covent Garden Cubs series gets off to a terrific start with Earls Just Want to Have Fun which is – fortunately – a book with much more emotional depth than it’s overly cutesy title would seem to suggest.
The story is, at first glance, a simple cross-class romance with a bit of Pygmalion thrown in as her Eliza – Marlowe, a thief from Seven Dials – gets to see how the other half lives when she is abducted from the streets by an investigator hired to trace the whereabouts of a girl who went missing fifteen years earlier.
Marlowe belongs to one of the many gangs of thieves that inhabit that area of London – the Covent Garden Cubs – and is one of the best pickpockets and housebreakers in the gang. She has a very dim recollection of once being called by a different name and of living a different life, but has learned to dismiss them as mere dreams. The only life she’s really ever known is the one she lives now – harsh and grim, living in the slums with the gang and in fear of their brutal leader, Satin.
Maxwell Derring, the Earl of Dane, is a young man who takes his responsibilities to his title and his country very seriously. He’s active in parliament and is feeling rather pleased with himself at having just helped to squash a bill which would have allocated funds to help the poor; he believes they’re poor because they are lazy. He’s not a bad person – he just thinks that it’s more important to concentrate on improving the lot of farmers to increase food production or to focus on the defence of the realm, so the plight of the poor is not something with which he concern himself.
Dane had no idea that allowing his brother, Sir Brooke, to make use of his carriage would end up in the abduction of a street-urchin, so he is naturally not at all pleased at finding himself suddenly charged with keeping the smelly, dirty, foul-mouthed creature at his London home until Brooke can contact his clients with the news that he thinks he has found their long-lost daughter.
The first part of the story is delightfully fluffy as these two characters from different worlds provoke, irritate and strike sparks off each other. As far as Dane is concerned, Marlowe is a menace to society and he can’t wait to be rid of her; Marlowe thinks Dane is a stuck-up prig and wants nothing more than to get away. Yet even as they are chafing under the necessity of sharing a roof, they are unable to ignore the stirrings of attraction that are starting to simmer between them. Their verbal sparring is sharp and funny, and Ms. Galen does a terrific job in developing their slow-burn romance.
Even though Marlowe eventually decides that she will remain at Derring House of her own free will to await the arrival of the couple who may or may not be her parents, she knows it’s only a matter of time before Satin locates her and either snatches her away and returns her to the slums or forces her to injure the Derrings in some way. She realises there’s only one thing to do – she has to free herself from him once and for all, but doing that won’t be easy and is fraught with danger.
What could have been a fairly fun-of-the-mill story is elevated to something much more by the quality of the writing and characterisation, and by the way in which the author interweaves what is essentially a light-hearted, Cinderella-like tale together with a serious look at the conditions endured by the poorest in society. In those sections of the book which take place in Seven Dials, she immerses the reader in the sights, sounds and smells of the area, bringing home to both reader and hero just how hard life is for these slum-dwellers as they eke out a meagre and miserable existence. Crime and disease are rife, life is held cheaply, and there is no hope of anything better. And Marlowe’s reaction to the opulence and luxury surrounding her at Derring House firmly brings home the massive gap between rich and poor – she has never slept in a real bed and never had enough to eat, yet here she is in a house where there is more food than anyone could possibly eat (although she tries!) and a single room is bigger than the “flash ken” she inhabited in Seven Dials.
The two principals are strongly characterised and well-written, although Marlowe is probably the more fully fleshed-out of the two. She’s gutsy and clever with a great sense of humour, but Ms. Galen never allows the reader to forget the fact that hers is a dangerous way of life, and that in spite of her courageous spirit, Marlowe is afraid of Satin and what he might do to her and to the man she loves. Dane begins the story as upright and uptight, an old head on young shoulders who comes to see that he’s bored with his ordered existence and surprised to find himself enjoying the company of a most unusual young woman. I appreciated the fact that he’s not a playboy as so many of the titled gentlemen inhabiting the pages of historical romances are; he’s a complete gentleman, sweet, tender, kind – and most definitely sexy. Through his association with Marlowe, Dane comes to understand that he has been badly mistaken in his views, and to want to do something to help. His volte-face might seem rather fast, but it works because of the matter-of-fact way in which Marlowe talks about the things she and others have endured and will continue to endure because of the way they are forced to live.
Ms. Galen’s writing style is immediately engaging and pulled me into the story straight away. There’s plenty of warmth and humour – Dane’s relationship with his siblings is clearly a very affectionate one, and I very much enjoyed his interactions with Crawford, his very proper and all-knowing butler. My one complaint is that the ending is a little rushed, but otherwise Earls Just Want to Have Fun is an enjoyable and emotionally satisfying story, and Marlowe and Dane make a likeable, well-matched couple. I’m eagerly looking forward to the next book in the series.