William Harrow, Marquess of Chapin, appears briefly and appealingly in the first two books of Sarah MacLean’s “Rule of Scoundrels” series. But in the third book, No Good Duke Goes Unpunished, he strides to the fore as Temple, the Killer Duke who was accused of murdering 16-year-old Mara Lowe before her wedding to his father a dozen years ago and now an indestructible fighter at a London gaming hell. Shockingly, though, Mara staged her death to escape an intolerable situation and suddenly reappears with an offer to redeem Temple’s good name by unmasking herself. The resulting tale of revenge sought and love and honor gained can be profoundly unsettling. But that, says its author, is what makes for the best romance.
“Part of the joy of a really good romance is wondering, How are these two ever going to get together?” explained MacLean in a phone interview. “You know there will be a happily ever after, but the journey can be so emotionally frustrating and challenging.” To add more bumps, MacLean wanted a really big conflict—“and what bigger conflict could you come up with than a man’s being framed for a murder?” She also wanted to investigate what happens when someone’s life is predicated on something he cannot remember. (Mara’s plan included drugging Temple.) Not imprisoned for lack of evidence, Temple had a choice: “he could either embrace the violence or resist at every turn. He’s a good man but at war with himself,” and his choosing violence only heightens the atmosphere when Mara’s deception is revealed.
Mara, too, made a choice—a truly idiotic one, as both she and her creator concede, but one that’s understandable in light of her youth and her era, when women had few rights and were often brutalized. Like Temple, Mara finds herself completely defined by one headlong decision. “You have your choices to make and bear,” says MacLean. “Choices close doors. But what if you could return to that door?” Mara does return, determined to reveal her deception both for herself and for Temple; as MacLean notes, she always wants her heroine to save the day. Temple, meanwhile, abandons his plans for revenge. Heroine and hero make new choices that move them forward and lead to mutual love.
If, as the author acknowledges, No Good Duke Goes Unpunished proves to be her darkest book yet, with her most tortured characters, it also answers that age-old question of what women really want. Is it hot sex? Security? A bad boy with a heart of gold? Actually, as Mara clarifies in her most heated exchanges with Temple, it’s control—not dominance but “balance and equality,” says MacLean. “That may not sound sexy, but Mara’s been out of control her whole life, and she’s tired of being beholden.” Creating a lively give-and-take in and out of bed matters to Mara—and to her readers. Observes MacLean, “Why is romance so popular with women? It gives us permission to make serious demand in our relationships.”
As MacLean points out, in romance the heroine is actually the hero—the protagonist at the book’s heart—while the hero often represents repressive society but ultimately comes around. The heroes in the “Rule of Scoundrels” series, wrapping with next spring’s Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover, “each has his own darkness needing to be fixed or lightened.” Her next series will connect three women, but the casino at the heart of her current series will stand. It was too much fun to build, and its dark and seedy fascination reminds us that romance works best with a hint of danger.