I picked up a few Elizabeth Hoyt strips out of curiosity and found myself buying and immersed in the Maiden Lane series.
Book 1, Wicked Intentions, opens with widowed Temperance Dews returning home after rescuing an orphaned baby girl in the stews of St. Giles. She finds the dissolute Lazarus Huntington, Lord Caire, waiting in her sitting room. He is investigating the murder of his sometime mistress in St. Giles and needs Mrs. Dews to show him around the neighborhood; Mrs. Dews makes a counter-offer, she will help him if he will introduce her to likely patrons for the foundling home she runs with her brother Winter. Thus agreed, the pair embark on the hunt for a murderer who predates Jack the Ripper by nearly 150 years and is just as brutal. Temperance comes to learn more about Caire's strange proclivities - he prefers to bind his women, which intrigues her, and physical human contact causes him pain - while Caire finds that he can't leave the respectable widow alone. Intertwined with this story is that of Temperance's younger sister, Silence Hollingbrook, who makes a drastic decision to save her husband but wrecks her marriage in the process. Meanwhile, the Ghost of St. Giles - a masked vigilante in a Harlequin costume - roams the area saving innocents and meting out street justice.
I find that I really like Hoyt's writing style. It isn't as flowery as other romance writers which really works in the setting of a London slum. It seems a pity, then that this is considered "Romance" and not "Historical Fiction" because it could be enjoyed by a wider audience. There are some anachronisms, though, most notably the purchase of a piano for Temperance by Lord Caire (the novel is set in 1737; Bartolomeo Cristofori had only likely developed a pianoforte of some type by 1700 - extant examples date from 1720 - and the instruments were extremely expensive making it extremely unlikely that Temperance's family ever owned one in her childhood; Bach dissed on the pianoforte until about 1750; it would have been more likely for Caire to order a clavichord or harpsichord in 1737 London). The only major issue I had with this first book was the treatment of Caire's pain/bondage fetish; rather than have the couple enjoy a little kink, the bondage was treated as something to "get past" which diminished that aspect of the couple's relationship. I liked all the secondary characters (Winter, Silence, Charming Mickey, St. John, Lady Hero) so the rest of the books in the series are potentially very interesting.
The second book in the series is Notorious Pleasures and follows Lady Hero, sister to the Duke of Wakefield. She is now a patroness of the St. Giles foundling home and engaged to the perfectly respectable, upstanding Marquis of Mandeville. Her first encounter with his brother, Lord Griffin Reading, is not so respectable: she catches Griffin shtupping a married lady in a salon during Hero's engagement ball. Lord Shameless, indeed. Griffin doesn't take to Hero either, nicknaming her Lady Perfect. The two war and squabble their way into an acquaintance since they both inhabit the drawing rooms of Society and Maiden Lane in St. Giles - Hero to oversee the building of the foundling home's new building and Griffin his gin distillery. Said distillery is illegal - the proceeds from the gin trade support the Mandeville estate even as the marquis pushes for more stringent legislation and enforcement of the law (even given that the two brothers don't get along and Mandeville is a financial dolt, I find it ridiculous that Mandeville has no idea how Griffen has made the estate profitable). Griffin is also involved in a turf war with the Vicar of Whitechapel (not a real vicar, obviously) and the Ghost of St. Giles and Silence Hollingbrook also continue their appearances. A very endearing character is Hero's younger sister, Phoebe.
While I liked Hero and Griffin, I didn't get much in the way of attraction aside from the insta-lust; she did have a point when she noted they didn't have much in common. The gin turf war and prosecution plot is actually a big selling point for the book. Those sections are very interesting with the romance in the background.
The third book, Scandalous Desires, brings Silence's plot to the forefront. At the end of Wicked Intentions Silence finds a baby girl left on her doorstep with a note reading "Darling"; Silence and Mary Darling live in the foundling home during Notorious Pleasures when she learns that her estranged husband is dead, lost at sea. Now the nearly year-old Mary Darling has disappeared. Silence traces her to the "palace" of river pirate "Charming" Mickey O'Connor and demands he return the little girl. She loathes Charming Mickey; it is his fault her marriage crumbled - if he hadn't stolen the cargo which caused her husband to be arrested, she wouldn't have had to agree to Charming Mickey's request to stay the night in his bed (alone, he sat at the hearth and talked to her though the entire world believed they had sex) in exchange for the return of the cargo. Mickey refuses to return the child - Mary Darling is his daughter and given that his old nemesis the Vicar of Whitechapel has moved into the area she needs better protection than the foundling home. If Silence wishes to care for the little girl she must move into the palace with her. Silence very, very reluctantly agrees.
Mickey's courtship of Silence is very like the Beauty and the Beast fairy-tale. She is repulsed by the "ugliness" of Mickey's opulent lifestyle: robbery, extortion, use of prostitutes. He is determined to win Silence's good opinion - and, it seems, her love because he sees the love she lavishes on his daughter. Mickey goes to great lengths to both win Silence and assure her safety, even revealing a hidden side of himself that is surprising, to say the least. The cat-and-mouse game with the Vicar is very well-plotted and requires an interviention by the Ghost of St. Giles at a crucial moment.
Which brings me to the most recently published book, Thief of Shadows. If you don't like spoilers, stop reading now. The action picks up right where Scandalous Desires left off - with the wounded Ghost of St. Giles falling unconscious in the street. Lady Isabel Beckinhall (recruited as a patron of the foundling home by Lady Hero back in Notorious Pleasures), returning from a meeting of the patrons of the Maiden Lane foundling home comes across the fallen Harlequin and whisks him away from the mob. Winter Makepeace wakes in Isabel's townhouse, just in time to prevent her from unmasking him if not undressing him to tend his wounds. He has been working as the Ghost of St. Giles for several years, having been trained to the task by his former tutor - by day, he serves as ascetic headmaster of the foundling home his family founded and by night he defends the residents St. Giles. Though weak, he manages to leave Isabel's house before dawn, leaving her no hint as to his identity. Meanwhile, a newer, snobbier, rather more flush patron of the foundling home has decided that unless Winter can be presented as a gentleman (i.e. the Society version of a gentleman who can dance, flirt, and generally be insincere) he'll have to go; Isabel is chosen (as an older widow) to be Winter's tutor.
Though the two have a little war of wills - Winter really can't see the use of social niceties when he has hungry children to feed, clothe, and teach, Isabel doesn't understand why he's so stubborn and restrained - they grow closer during the tutoring sessions. Winter feels the pull of sexual attraction, something he avoids because a relationship would interfere with both the home and his vigilanteism (especially when he must find the "lassie snatchers" who are stealing little girls before they can make it to the foundling home). Isabel has her own secrets and very painful personal issues. When Winter and Isabel finally make love it is rendered very sweetly - Winter is a virgin, and had previously told Isabel that when he finally found a woman he wanted to make love to it would be a woman worth marrying, so there is a great deal of reverence and love baked into Winter's character at that point. They make a wonderful, unconventional couple - an older, more experienced woman and younger, inexperienced man. I was a little irritated that the identity of the Ghost of St. Giles was blown in the cover copy (and that Temperance, Hero, and Lady Caire are all out of town during the Season leaving Winter at the mercy of the snobby Lady Penelope) but it all worked out in the end - even with a little surprise!
The fifth book in the series, Lord of Darkness, is due out at the end of February 2013 - I'll definitely be reading that!