Having read a number of romance authors, and following them around on the Internet (sorry), I kept hearing about Sarah MacLean. She wrote great dialogue, had strong women as heroines. Ok, I thought, I'll give her a shot.
So I started with the Love by Numbers trilogy, Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake. Quite a mouthful, that title, but such a great opening chapter. Lady Calpurnia Hartwell is not having a good debut season - she's the opposite of willowy beauty (i.e. generously endowed) and is saddled with a mother who has a decidedly atrocious fashion sense ("looks like a furry banana" is one of the funniest lines). At yet another disappointing ball Callie runs out to the garden - only to encounter the Marquess of Ralston, Gabriel St. John. Rake, womanizer, good for no young lady's reputation, but Ralston provides Callie with an interlude to fill her dreams for years and a nickname: Empress. Which is why Callie, when she decides to push the boundaries with a list of nine things "forbidden to ladies" she wants to try (fence, shoot, smoke a cheroot, drink whiskey, dance every dance at a ball, gamble, attend a duel, etc.), Ralston makes a bargain with her: he will help her complete her list as long as she provides guidance in the ton for his half-sister (actually, he blackmails her into it once he unmasks her at the fencing club but it leads to a delicious scene in his club).
A fun read - perhaps the wager plot was a bit much but it served a function. Fictional Callie is much like many modern young women who believe that just because they aren't thin or ascribe to the current fashion (and others re-inforce those ideas) they have no sexual appeal. Combined with the rigid rules of Regency society it creates a mindset that just about says "death" to self-esteem. MacLean gives Callie a "to do" list that is just this side of random - it's not just about breaking rules, it's about seeing how the other half lives. I did miss Ralston playing the piano again - he's playing when Callie goes to his house the first time and it's mentioned that he plays well, but he doesn't play again for her in the novel. It would have been nice as a sense of closure at the end of the book.
Book two, Ten Ways to be Adored When Landing a Lord, belongs to Lord Nicholas St. John, Ralston's twin brother. Poor man, he's been named London's most eligible bachelor and it's driving him mad. When his friend the Duke of Leighton asks him to look into the disappearance of his sister Nick jumps at the chance to get the heck out of Dodge. The trail leads him to York, a collection of priceless marbles, and the prickly, fiercely independent mistress of Minerva House, Lady Isabel Townsend. Lady Isabel is in a pickle - her wastrel father has just died, has wagered her hand for one hundred pounds (and lost), and she is desperately in need of money to take care of her little brother and keep her dream alive (Minerva House is the Regency version of a women's shelter). Conveniently for the plot, Leighton's sister turns up at Minerva House, determined to stay hidden from her brother and Nick.
This plot is much more tangled than Nine Rules and Isabel is a much less automatically-likeable heroine. I just wanted to shake her until her teeth chattered. Not all men are like her shitty father and all those other fathers and husbands who drive their battered women to seek shelter at Minerva House. And certainly not Nick. He keeps at it until Isabel realizes her mistake and wins him back.
Now the third book, Eleven Scandals to Start to Win a Duke's Heart, is not my favorite book of the trilogy and, for this reason, ends the series on a weak note. The Duke of Leighton, one Simon Peason, lives in fear of scandal. The only thing that counts is reputation - which is why he essentially abandons his sister at the end of the previous book for a) being pregnant and unmarried and b) refusing to name her baby-daddy so he could force her into some horrible marriage to save face. Leighton's nickname is the Duke of Disdain. Catchy...and not endearing. He's irresistibly drawn to Juliana Fiori, Ralston and Nick's half-sister, who is a walking "scandal" by simply being a commoner and the daughter of a fallen woman (and she's borderline legitimate, since there is some question as to whether her parents were actually married or if dear Mummie was a bigamist). Therefore, Leighton behaves like a total dirtbag toward Juliana even if simultaneously he'd like to have his way with her. For a good portion of the book. He gets engaged to the perfectly respectable, titled, monied marquess's daughter his mother chooses while kissing Juliana senseless. Repeat ad nauseum. When Leighton's dirty laundry is aired in public (thanks to his sister), he suddenly develops the need to express his love for Juliana publically. Luckily, his perfectly lovely fiancee - who conveniently doesn't love him - breaks the engagement to allow him his happy ending. It's a pretty miraculous emotional one-eighty. And, sad to say, it was far too late for the change to endear me to him. Juliana I quite liked (she reminded me of Ziva from NCIS with her language barrier) but Leighton...no way.spoiler) (Side note: what did Ralston do with their prodigal mother? Last we saw her she was waiting judgement at Nicholas's townhouse but I never could find anything regarding what he decided to do with her. I'd have parked her on the first boat back to the Continent.)
MacLean's next book is A Rogue by Any Other Name and, despite Eleven's issues, I look forward to reading it.