By day, I'm a domestic violence prosecutor. By night, I read romance to restore my faith in love, relationships, and humanity in general.
BEWARE: It is impossible to talk about the heroine of this book without revealing a fairly major spoiler from the previous books in the Rule of Scoundrels series. You have been warned.
I'd been looking forward to this final book in Sarah MacLean's Rule of Scoundrels series all year, since I loved the previous book, No Good Duke Goes Unpunished, including the shocker epilogue which reveals a HUGE surprise and sets the stage for this book. Unfortunately, Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover did not live up to my hopes. It started strong, but in the end, I just couldn't get over my prejudice against the Big Misunderstanding trope.
First things first, the big spoiler: Chase, the mysterious fourth partner in the Fallen Angel casino that is the tie that binds this series (the three other partners all starred in the three previous books), is a SHE. I have to give MacLean kudos for setting up this surprise so perfectly, not just keeping the secret through the three prior books in this series, but first introducing Chase's alter-ego in the last two books of the series before that, Ten Ways to be Adored While Landing a Lord and Eleven Scandals to Start to Win a Duke's Heart. Chase is in fact Georgiana Pearson, the sister of the Duke of Leighton, who was thoroughly ruined at sixteen when she got knocked up by a stablehand and had a bastard child.
Georgiana disappeared from society for obvious reasons, but now that her daughter is getting older (nearly ten), the barbs of public opinion are beginning to sting not only Georgiana herself (which doesn't bother her), but her child, Caroline (which bothers Georgiana very much). Georgiana decides that she needs to marry a titled gentleman in order to insulate Caroline from censure, and that means returning to society and restoring her own tattered reputation.
However, in the years she was absent from the ton, Georgiana built not one but two alternate identities for herself, neither of them respectable. First, she is Chase, the shadowy overlord of the Fallen Angel and the most powerful man in London, who knows the most closely-held secrets of all of the Angel's aristocratic members. Second, and more visibly, she is Anna, the celebrated courtesan who holds sway on the casino floor every night.
Duncan West is another of the most powerful men in London, because he owns the city's newspapers. For years, he has been a patron of the Fallen Angel and has traded secrets with Chase, always using Anna as an emissary. When he learns that Anna and Georgiana are the same dame, he agrees to help Georgiana restore her reputation and land her titled lord. Of course, as their mutual attraction grows, Duncan regrets the promise, but he can't have Georgiana because 1) he is not titled, 2) he has secrets that would lead to his ruin (and his future bride's) if discovered, and so he will not risk exposing Georgiana to ruin a second time, and 3) he knows Georgiana is Anna, but not that she is also Chase, and he assumes Anna and Chase are lovers and burns with jealousy.
I just could not make myself buy into the premise of this book on so many levels. Most obviously, Georgiana/Anna/Chase is too intelligent to think that marrying a lord will stop society's gossip about her past or insulate Caroline from scandal: at best, it will just make people more sneaky about talking being their backs, but nothing can change the fact that everyone knows Caroline is a bastard.
Second, the lord Georgiana settles on is an earl who needs a wife to act as a beard because he's gay. It's fine with Georgiana to marry a man who doesn't love her and isn't sexually attracted to her, because she's not looking for sex, just respectability. The problem is that she plans to blackmail the earl into marrying her by threatening to out him. (She doesn't actually do it: outing him is Plan B; Plan A--manipulating him into offering for her on his own initiative, with a little nudge from West--thankfully works.) Still, the fact that the story doesn't come to that point doesn't change the fact that Georgiana is totally willing to do something so completely reprehensible to serve her own ends, which frankly disgusted me and kept me from warming up to her character.
Third, Georgiana and West decide that, until she settles into her loveless marriage with the gay earl, there's no reason they can't have an affair with each other. Georgiana decides that if this affair lasts only two weeks, it will be "safe." For the life of me, I do not know how a gal who got knocked up in a hay mow the first time she had sex could possibly believe a two-week long sex-fest could be "safe" on any level!
More than my problems with the book's premise, though, I was annoyed by the secrets between Georgiana and Duncan. Each has good reasons to keep their secrets, but I didn't care: if I'm going to believe in a couple's romance, they need to be honest with each other. Georgiana and Duncan both wove a tangled web of secrets and lies, which created distance, anger, and jealousy between them. Every time they get together romantically, the scene blows up because of all of the lies and misunderstandings between them, and that got tedious. Also, when Duncan gets frustrated or angry, he acts like a total asshat... which also gets tedious.
By the time the complicated plot resolved and the secrets were revealed, I was so annoyed with both Duncan and Georgiana that I couldn't take much pleasure in their happy ever after, which made this book a real disappointment in the end.