Fiction: “A Scot in the Dark” by Sarah MacLean

Scot in the DarkFirst: this is not a remake of the classic Peter Sellers – Inspector Clouseau romp, A Shot in the Dark. But if you haven’t watched that movie, you should. (It stars George Sanders! He’s fantastic in everything!) This is the next book in Ms. MacLean’s Scandal & Scoundrel series, the first of which was The Rogue Not Taken. The link between the two books is Alec Stuart, Duke of Warnick. Alec was the Scottish rogue who would race King and I think may be the one who performed the ceremony where King married Sophie? He wasn’t in Rogue much, but he’s the main character here.

Alec is actually like, the 17th Duke of Warnick, the previous line of Warnick Dukes expiring in quick succession. As part of his inheritance, Alec learns he is the guardian of a maid who is living in one of the ducal apartments in London. And she’s just gotten herself into a spot of trouble.

(Not an unwanted pregnancy; Ms. MacLean doesn’t truck with that type of historical romance — at least, not that I’ve read.)

Lillian Hargrove had an affair with an artist, Derek Hawkins, who is, to put it bluntly and in terms that both of my Dear Friends Emily and Sarah will immediately recognize and laugh about: a dipshit. (shit, what the fuck was Derek’s last name …. oh thank god it wasn’t Hawkins)

(for a second I thought College!Derek’s last name may have been the same as the character in the book, but it wasn’t! Hooray, I’m not telling tales on the internet!)

Anyways. Derek Hawkins asked Lillian (Lily, to her friends, of which there are few) to pose nude for a painting that would only be displayed for Derek’s eyes. And, because Lily thought they were in love, she disrobed. And then he told her that not only was it going to be displayed in a museum, but also, it was going to be the Primary Work at the London Art Exhibition (or whatever, the book is literally by my side on the couch, but I’m not going to bother looking up the proper terms for both of those things; you get the jist).

Now, in 1834, Proper Ladies did not Pose Nude for Artists. It was Simply Not Done. And especially not single, unwed Ladies. If the painting is displayed, Lily will be ruined, because no eligible man would dare marry a maid who had all her bits* displayed in a painting.

*I don’t think it’s all the bits. If I remember the description correctly, she was laying on a couch with her backside to the artist. I think.

So Alec has to come to London to get Lily married off before the painting is displayed. Well, first he tries to get Derek to marry Lily, and because Derek is a dipshit, he absolutely refuses. Then Alec pulls rank and says that Lily can only receive her funds or dowry or whatever if she finds someone willing to marry her before she turns 24, which is in nine days, and also the day the painting is displayed. Lily hoped to run out the clock, earn her pension, and move to the Continent and escape London completely.

Alec and Lily are now in a race against time, and also a battle of wits. Lily wishes to remain independent, as she’s still raw after learning how badly Derek treated her. Alec just wants to be rid of his problem so he can return to Scotland. But, as typically happens in these types of novels, they develop an attraction to each other.

I like Sarah MacLean’s novels because her characters have personality. Lily is a MASTER at passive-aggression. To wit, her choice of dress to wear when Alec tells her she needs to make a good impression at this fancy ball where there will be tons of eligible dudes:

He was not a man who noticed fashion, but this particular dress would not be unnoticed. It was a gold and bronze monstrosity, with skirts that filled the staircase and sleeves that dwarfed her. […] As though that weren’t enough, gold and bronze seed pearls were sewn into the skirts, arranged in little echoes of the canine form, and the bodice — impressively fitted despite Lily having had mere hours to adjust it to her form — was covered in ornate gold fastenings, each a different dog — spaniels and terriers and bulldogs and dachshunds. [p. 110]

And Alec’s equally canny, because he forces her to go to the ball like that. Ha!

Lily is also a very lonely person, in that she didn’t have many friends growing up. Even during this crazy time, she doesn’t have anyone to turn to. In the house where she was living when Alec first came to London, she had her room put closer to the servant’s quarters so she could hear other people in the house have conversations. So when she meets Seleste, one of the Soiled S’s (and Sophie’s sister) at the ball she’s almost surprised that Seleste wants to be her friend. But as the novel continues, Seleste becomes someone Lily can rely on, and it’s great! Women being friends!

Having said that, I doubt their friendship passes the Bechdel test, but you know what, I don’t care. I’m going to imagine all of the conversations they have after the book ends and just be happy about it.

The romance between Alec and Lily is contentious and bantery – just the way I like it. He keeps trying to convince her (and himself) that London sucks and Scotland rules. He even attempts to convince her that Burns is a better poet than Shakespeare – which, whatever dude, Burns has his place, but it’s behind Shakespeare.

This leads to a scene that has been popping up in a surprising number of romance novels I’ve been reading lately – the Oral Sex In A Carriage Scene.

… there has got to be a better euphemism for that. Please hold.

Road Canoeing. Giving The Driver a Tongue-Wagging. Buttering an English Muffin. Taking the Crumpet For a Drive.

… … … I am so sorry.

ANYWAY. That happens, but leading up to it, this exchange occurs:

He stroked her hand, his palm running over hers, his fingers tracing the dips and valleys of her fingers, until only their fingertips touched, before he once again took her hand, lacing their fingers together tightly.

“Palm to palm,” she whispered, and he heard the barely-there teasing in her words. The reference to their earlier discussion of Romeo and Juliet.

He should let her go. He meant to.

He didn’t mean to say, “The only part of the play that’s worth anything.”

He didn’t mean to look at her, to find her too close and still infernally far away. He willed himself to move. To sit back. To release her.

And then she whispered, “Let lips do as hands do.

“Fucking Shakespeare,” he cursed. [p. 172-173]

Firstly: the meeting between Romeo and Juliet is not the only part of the play that’s worth anything. Mercutio is the best character and his Queen Mab and death speeches are quite good and excellent vehicles for acting. Secondly, Romeo and Juliet is only “romantic” until, like, Act III.

And thirdly, that’s pretty hot, using Shakespeare to flirt. And so we come to another #ProTipForDudes:

If you’re in a relationship with someone who loves Shakespeare, and your normal, everyday conversation tends towards the bantery, pop-culture reference-ey type, and one day your girl is talking a lot and while she’s cute about it, you need her to shut up for a second, all you need to do is say, “Peace! I will stop your mouth!” and then kiss her. I can’t speak from personal experience, but I do know it works for Benedick and Beatrice, and they have one of the greatest relationships of all time, so …

Anyway. I liked the book, and will continue to read pretty much everything Sarah MacLean puts out. If you like romance novels that take place in the 1800s with women with agency and personalities, please give Ms. MacLean a try.

Grade for A Scot in the Dark: 3.5 stars

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