Cynric "Cyn" Malloren, one of the younger brothers of the extremely powerful and influential Marquess of Rothgar, is on his way back to his regiment after a convalescence and is bored and looking for adventure, when his coach is held up by a couple of highwaymen. Noticing that there is something strange about the pair, Cyn refuses to comply with their orders and ends up "kidnapped" and taken to a small cabin in the woods. He quickly figures out that his captors are in fact a pair of young women, one of whom has had her hair cropped short like a boy's. The women are clearly desperate for some reason, and Cyn wants to figure out why they've taken to robbing passers-by to alleviate his tedium.
Lady Chastity Ware needs money to help her recently widowed sister and her baby nephew. The ladies' father (I can't be bothered to look up his title or name) pretty much forced his eldest daughter into marriage with a cruel and callous man and when Chastity refused to marry said man's younger brother, her father arranged for him to be found naked in her bed, causing a huge scandal. When Chastity still refused to marry him, he had her beaten and cut off all her hair, exiling her to the countryside with only ugly, shapeless dresses to wear. Chastity solved the problem by stealing some of her brother's clothes, disguising herself as a boy, and masquerading as "Charles". She wants to help her sister reunite with the man she loves but was not allowed to marry, and they encounter Cyn when they attempt to rob his coach.
Cyn decides not to let on that he knows "Charles" is in fact a woman, and convinces the ladies to let him help them in their quest. They go off on a road trip, pursued not only by the ladies' father's men, but also their unscrupulous brother-in-law, who wants to get his hands on Chastity's sister and the baby. Chastity falls for the charming and roguish Cyn pretty fast, but is known in society now as "notorious" and knows that a powerful Malloren would never be allowed to marry a fallen woman like herself. While Cyn finds Chastity attractive, he's not really looking for a wife, being a dedicated soldier and all, but as their journey continues, he becomes determined to make her his, no matter what the cost.
When Jo Beverley died in May this year, there were a lot of very touching obituaries for her, and I had to look through Goodreads to check if I'd ever read one of her books. It turns out that, yes, I had, but I had very little recollection of the book. She wrote more than forty novels and a number of novellas during her career and it felt like a suitable tribute to read one of her novels in memory of her. Most romance sites seemed to highlight My Lady Notorious as a good place to start and one of her best works.
Now, the book was originally published in 1993, which means that there will probably be tropes that may feel dated or troubling to the modern romance reader. The Ware girls father was just unrepentantly bad and awful, really, there was absolutely nothing redeeming about him at all. Now, in the late 1700s, it was perfectly allowed for men to teach their female relatives like chattel, but a lot of romance writers still don't strive for quite such realistic assholery in the menfolk. Chastity spends most of the book in one disguise or another, and there is a truly troubling section where she dresses up as a masked courtesan at a raucous house party/orgy and in short order is siezed and kissed by her own brother (ew!), semi-molested by another party goer, seduced by Cyn and later also full on snogged by his older brother Rothgar (who later totally recognises her and seems totally fine with the fact that he's been pawing his younger brother's intended - just no). That whole bit - not cool.
While a lot of this book is very entertaining, and I always like a good cross-dressing story, Chastity's refusal to reveal her true identity (or Cyn's refusal to just tell her he's known that she's a woman all along) goes on for far too long. In the latter half of the book, Cyn is also sort of pushed to the side, while Rothgar sort of takes over everything and is the one who actually sorts everything to a satisfying end, while Cyn is sent off on various errands, absolutely playing second fiddle rather than being particularly heroic. I get that Beverley probably wanted to set Rothgar up as incredibly formidable, but when he spends more time with the heroine in the latter half of the book than the hero himself does, the reader might get confused about who the lady is actually meant to end up with.
As there are so many other enjoyable romance series out there, I'm not entirely sure that I will be seeking out more of the Malloren books. It's fun to read something from the Georgian period rather than the more common Regency era of historical romance, but some of the romances written in the 90s just have too many tropes I don't particularly enjoy. I don't regret reading this one, but may wait to seek out more of the late Ms. Beverley's books.
Judging a book by its cover: I'm assuming this is the original cover for the e-book version and as romance covers go, it's neither particularly remarkable or hilarious, like many of the classic romance covers are. Plain background, fancy velvet pillow, golden masquerade mask. As masks and fancy dress features in the book more than once, I can't fault the publishers for this decision. It's certainly a lot better than the original cover of the mass market paperback, where none of the protagonists look as described and I think Chastity may be part mermaid.