Theresa Romain has the wonderful capacity to sustain a delightfully funny, rompish feel to her romances while underlying them with seriousness. Her latest, Lady Notorious, 4th in the Royal Rewards series and one of her strongest novels yet, exhibits this balance. It’s heartfelt romance, adorable hero, loveable heroine, compelling suspense plot, thematically underlined with the idea that love coupled with purpose make for contented lives. Romain brings together her cross-class heir-to-a-dukedom hero, George Godwin, Lord Northbrook, and Bow-Street-Runner heroine, Cassandra Benton, via the mystery surrounding George’s father’s, Lord Armore’s, involvement in a “tontine”, a monetary agreement whereby a set amount increases on interest and is “won” by the last person left living. But many of the tontine’s members are dying under mysterious circumstances. George fears for his father’s and godfather’s lives and sets Cassandra Benton the task of helping him both protect and discover who’s threatening them. Cassandra joins the Ardmore household disguised as a notorious cousin, hence, how the “notorious” made it to the eponymous “lady”.
Romain’s George is adorably droll and humble. He’s a bit of a bumbler, but his heart is always in the right place and he recognizes Casssandra’s worth from the moment he meets her. He is, endearingly prone to blurting awkward phrases, his tongue moving faster than his sense. When the novel opens, he and Cassandra are at his godfather’s household, where Cass and her twin brother, Bow Street Runner Charles, are investigating the tontine nasty’s potential victims. It is obvious that George is attracted to Cass for her intelligence and frightening adeptness: “She was the most damnably capable person he’d ever met … She was so capable that she made chivalry seem like self-indulgence.” George, though big and handsome, isn’t of the uber-masculine, great at weaponry alpha-male-dom, au contraire, he’s a reader, “the gothic novels he sometimes enjoyed,” and artist, carrying on a variety of “dark room” experiments, working to capturing images (what we recognize as nascent photography).
In contrast to Cass’s frightening competence, George feels helpless before his family’s dysfunction: “He couldn’t make the duchess discard her laudanum bottle, just as he couldn’t keep the duke away from cards. He was powerless in the face of their compulsions.” His mother is an opium addict and his father, a gambler. While he can’t heal them of their “compulsions,” he hopes that, at the very least, with the marvelous Cassandra as investigator, he can keep them safe.
Cass arrives at Ardmore House, even disguised, aware of her inferior status. But, she comes to realize that status doesn’t protect you from heartache: “As a guest under the Ardmore roof, Cass had quickly seen that not even the privileged and titled were spared from ordinary human heartaches. The duchess was ill, the duke was lonely, the dogs were afraid, the servants were weary … ” How does Romain bring George and Cass together, beyond mutual attraction? They’re compatible, Romain seems to say, because they care. They care about justice, about keeping people safe, about doing good in the world. As attracted as they are to each other, as compatible in conversation and opinion, they also work well together. I thought this made them sexy as heck and likeable as a hero and heroine can be. George and Cass were humble and had a good dose of being able to laugh at themselves. They could also laugh together and that only added to their adorable sexiness.
Cass comes to George with a deep sense of what she’s learned her entire orphaned life, no matter how wonderful George may be, no matter how much he doesn’t see class lines, she is bound by work, the need to survive in a world that’s done very little to ensure she does: “She wanted to take him to bed because she liked him. His words, his laughter, his curiosity. The gentle way he treated her and the burning way he looked at her. She liked it all. But liking something, wanting something, had never been reason enough for Cassandra Benton to pursue it.” I loved this reversal of stereotypical male-female notions of who’s the emotional one. George is all the feelz (hence, his love of gothic novels!) while Cass is all the withholding of them.
George wants Cassandra to recognise her worth and he goes about showing her by putting himself in the background – with humour and by giving her a wide berth of choice. I adored how he made sure to accompany her on an investigative mission: ” ‘Would you like company?’ ‘I can go on my own.’ ‘I never doubted it. You’re the investigator, and you don’t need my presence. But I’m very handsome and you might like having me around to look at.’ ” Isn’t that a hoot? George’s poke at his self-importance is wonderfully rendered by endowing himself with the “pretty face” attributed to women. Cassandra is the smart, capable, and action-driven one, the one who gets things done. As George notes, watching her in investigative action: “Cass was splendid, with her pockets and her weapons and her matter-of-fact ways.” Her pockets, ladies, her pockets!
No matter how loving, sexy, unassuming, and considerate a lover, Cass has a journey to allowing herself to need another person. She wears her “capabilities” like armour, but in the face of George, his care, respect, and desire to be with her for herself alone, it’s too much for a spinster to bear, too uncertain, too alien, too frightening to give up necessary autonomy for free partnership. Cass struggles with what comes easily to George: “He had got used to leaning on her, to having her lean right back. They held each other up, and if she was gone, he felt he would topple again into wasted days and half-hearted hopes.” Like George, Cass loves easily and like Cass, George finds his worth in loving others. Romain doesn’t do heart-rending betrayal for Cass and George, only a running-away from giving up the familiar: “And in the end? There was a reason, a purpose to it all. Life itself. And the truth, and knowing it, and seeing wrongs righted.” When George and Cass win their HEA, it is to a life of love, laughter, hearty desire, and purpose. The epilogue is perfect. With Miss Austen, we say Lady Notorious is proof “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Theresa Romain’s Lady Notorious is published by Zebra Books (Kensington Publishing). It was released on February 26th and may be found at your preferred vendors. I am grateful to Zebra Books for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.