The Rogue Not Taken
In The Rogue Not Taken, the first in a new series from Sarah MacLean, she introduces us to the five Talbot sisters, daughters of a recently ennobled Earl who made his fortune in trade. Needless to say, given their origins, the family is tolerated rather than accepted by the ton, but instead of cowering in the face of society’s displeasure, the young ladies thumb their noses at convention, behaving in a manner which regularly sees their names gracing the pages of the scandal sheets. Well, four of them do, anyway.
Sophie, the youngest, doesn’t want to live in London, doesn’t want to be a part of society and doesn’t regard it as her sole purpose in life to snare herself a husband. She feels as though she doesn’t belong and wishes to return to the simpler life she led before; but her mother and sisters adore the round of parties, balls and society events to which they are invited and even thrive on the gossip, so Sophie just trails along in their wake, tarred with the same brush as her sisters even though she has never done anything remotely scandalous.
That is, until she catches her brother-in-law in a compromising position with an unknown woman and is so incensed at his behaviour towards his pregnant wife (her eldest sister) that she insults him within the hearing of everybody who is anybody and then promptly pushes him into a fishpond. Not wanting to bear her mother’s disappointment or the censure of the ton, Sophie ends up disguising herself as a footman and stowing away on the Marquess of Eversley’s carriage, believing it to be heading towards Mayfair and home.
Unfortunately for her, this is not the case, and a series of mishaps and mishaps sees Sophie travelling with the handsome, rakish marquess to Cumbria – he going to his father’s ducal seat, and she to the village of Mossband where she grew up and lived until a decade ago. She thinks to set up a small bookshop there, and make a quiet life for herself away from the prying eyes and gleeful gossip of the ton.
Eversley has no wish to become entangled with one of the Dangerous Daughters (as society has named the Talbot sisters), and is adamant that he will not be trapped into marriage, in spite of Sophie’s protestations that she has no intention of doing such a thing. In fact, she doesn’t even like him and wouldn’t marry him if he were the last man on earth; and her feelings are entirely reciprocated. Except… as their journey continues and Eversley, in spite of his frequent insults and cutting remarks, shows Sophie an unexpected kindness and understanding, she finds herself unable to maintain that dislike. And he, faced with Sophie’s strange mixture of gumption and vulnerability discovers that he likes her, too – is desperately attracted to her, in fact, but no matter how far Sophie worms her under his skin, he is determined there can be nothing lasting between them. Like so many heroes in historical romance, he is a confirmed bachelor with absolutely no intention of ever getting married. Some years earlier, he fell deeply in love with a young woman not of his class – but she died in tragic circumstances, and he has no wish to open his heart to that sort of pain ever again. An added bonus – for him – of his determination never to wed is that it affords him his revenge on his father, whom he holds ultimately responsible for the death of his beloved. The only son of the Duke of Lyne, Eversley is determined that he will be the last to bear the title; as he keeps telling his father, “the line dies with me.”
The Rogue Not Taken is a road-trip romance, and Ms MacLean makes the most of the setting, which forces her protagonists to spend time together in which they can talk and come to know each other. The sexual tension between the couple builds slowly but deliciously as the attraction between them deepens, but there’s more to it than that; Sophie and Eversley come to understand each other and to realise that there is more to the other than a walking scandal and a roguish womaniser.
The principals are likeable characters, although it takes a while to warm to Eversely who is downright unpleasant to Sophie during the earliest stages of the story. Ultimately, though, he is revealed to be a troubled man who can’t help caring for Sophie and wanting to help her, in spite of his avowed intention to eschew love. Sophie is gutsy without being stupid (regardless of her ill-advised decision to dress up as a footman in order to get home!), and is desperately trying to make a place for herself and find somewhere to belong. At first, she thinks that going back to Mossband will be what she needs, but it quickly becomes clear to her that that isn’t the answer; that she is stuck “between worlds” – no longer a member of the tradesman class but not belonging among high society, either.
While I enjoyed the book and Ms MacLean certainly hit all the right emotional notes in some of the later scenes, tugging at the heartstrings and bringing a lump to the throat, the final section of the story is somewhat problematic. Eversley acts despicably towards Sophie in order to further his desire for revenge upon his father, and then there’s a plot twist involving Sophie’s family which forces her to do something equally underhand. In fact, this particular plot point is wholly unnecessary, as the couple already has enough issues to sort through and it seemed to me that it was included only to provide yet another way for Eversley to get mad at Sophie and then to cruelly reject her.
It didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the novel as a whole, but it did string out the ending unnecessarily; and while I am someone who likes a good dollop of angst in my romances, I don’t like when it’s overly contrived, as is the case here.
But all in all, this is an engrossing read, and one I enjoyed very much. One of the best things about it is the snappy dialogue, which is witty and often very funny; the romance is well developed and the central couple has plenty of chemistry. Even with the reservations I’ve expressed, I’m recommending The Rogue Not Taken to fans of this author and of historical romance in general.