Theresa Romain's latest historical romance follows in the footsteps of others, with characters outside the aristocracy and a bit of a mystery. It's charming but not quite what I'd hoped for, in fact it took me a couple of weeks to finish. There's still a lot to love, however, so let's get into it!
LADY ROGUE is loosely connected to Romain's previous two "Royal Rewards" novels, which focus on the theft of a great sum of newly minted gold coins and the search for the coins and the thieves. The book opens with Callum Jenks, an Office of the Police (Bow Street Runner) finding out that one of the masterminds of the theft, Sir Frederic Chapple, is going to get away with the crime. This wouldn't be so bad except that Callum's brother was killed in the line of duty. Callum's family, as we learn, is closely knit, and between his work and helping his family grocery, he doesn't have much room in his life for anything else. Romance readers will know that he does, of course, have room for love. *wink*
Lady Isabel Morrow was widowed over a year earlier, but has recently discovered a secret room in the home she shared with her late husband. It's not a spoiler to tell you that Andrew Morrow hired a talented painter to make copies of great works and sell those to the wealthy, while keeping the originals for himself, in the secret room. Who knows what she would have done if not for the Duke of Ardmore's decision to sell one of his paintings (a fake) to a notorious crime lord to settle his debts. Would Angelus know the painting was a fake, revealing Morrow's crimes? Complicating matters, Isabel is taking care of Andrew's young ward, Lucy, who is ready to enter society and hopefully marry. So now Isabel hatches a plan to swap out the fake painting with the real one, thus saving Andrew's reputation and avoiding a scandal that would ruin Lucy's chances to make a good match.
Isabel met Callum when he was investigating her late husband's "accidental" death, so naturally she asks the Officer of the Police whom she banged in Vauxhall one night to help her break into a duke's house. Who wouldn't?
That's the basic set-up, but the plot meanders around a bit. The heist takes place in around the middle of the book, and I'll admit to not knowing at that point why there was another 50% to go. Don't worry, you soon find out. The romance was, dare I say, too realistic to be compelling. The two of them are friends, but the central barrier to their relationship is their class discrepancy. There's a lovely discussion near the resolution of the book about the various amounts of privilege they each possess, one as a wealthy woman, one as a man. The general consensus seems to be that they can each try to make each other happy and maybe that would be enough.
One of my favorite parts of the book is Jenks & Sons Grocers. Romain clearly spent time researching, and I could smell the onions hanging from the ceiling, could hear the dry beans in their bins, could imagine the odd newness of tinned meat. These scenes, as well as the time Callum and Isabel spend walking the city and talking about life and police work made the book something different and fresh.
However... there's a reveal at the end of the book that yanked me out of my happy place and pushed me into "why is this necessary" territory. We know from the beginning that Andrew Morrow most likely committed suicide, but we don't know why.
If you're stopping here, I'll give you the content warnings: murder, child/sexual abuse, racism (not from any of the central characters, but directed at a secondary character).
SERIOUSLY DON'T READ FURTHER IF YOU DON'T WANT TO BE SPOILED
SORRY I WILL WORK ON FIGURING OUT SPOILER TAGS BUT NOT TODAY
Morrow had been forcing Lucy to sit naked, posed like his secret stolen paintings, while he masturbated. Lucy had been abused by her parents prior to becoming Morrow's ward... and she shot them both. Morrow took her in and decided that he could get away with abusing her further. Then she threatened to tell Isabel and he killed himself. None of this was necessary to the plot, and it was, frankly, startling to read at 95% of the way through the story. It's immediately, I mean IMMEDIATELY, followed up with Isabel and Callum's big joyous reunion and professions of love and so on. I had whiplash.
Anyway, I still enjoy Romain's books for a number of reasons, but that ending left a sour taste in my mouth and I don't want other readers to go into the book without knowing what to expect.