Lady Sarah Frampton may be the daughter of a duke with a sizable dowry, but she's known as the Watching Wallflower and is on her way to be firmly on the shelf. No one knows that behind her impeccable manners, the quiet and ever-observant Lady Sarah is in fact the author of a series of highly successful erotic novels. As The Lady of Dubious Quality, the virginal Lady Sarah uses the knowledge she's acquired from illicit French novels to write out all her sexual fantasies while her mother believes her to be deeply devoted to journal writing and keeping up her correspondence. When her publisher tells her that someone is trying to unmask the identity of the Lady of Dubious Quality, she starts to consider whether marriage might not be prudent to protect her from prying. What better candidate than the handsome and intelligent country vicar she's been growing closer to?
The vicar in question, Jeremy Cleland, is in London because his father, the deeply moralistic Earl of Hutton, has tasked him with tracking down and unmasking, you guessed it, The Lady of Dubious Quality. Jeremy didn't even want to take holy orders and become a vicar, but as the third son, he doesn't really have the finances or independence to go his own way, even though he's quite miserable with his vocation and struggles daily to control his desires. A while back, his cousin, the scandalous Vicount Marwood gave him one of the Lady's recent books, and Jeremy has in fact been reading all of them and appreciating them rather a lot. He doesn't really see what harm the books do, but with the treat of losing his allowance entirely, he sets about trying to figure out who the author of the erotica is. He feels an immediate affinity with the clever Lady Sarah Frampton, but knows that as the only daughter of a duke, she's much too far above him in rank to ever settle for a lowly country vicar, son of an earl or not.
Not realising that the man she's decided to marry for protection is in fact the same man who's been tasked with unmasking her and who could absolutely ruin her in the eyes of society, Lady Sarah proposes to Jeremy. They get married by special licence and while Lady Sarah's parents are none to happy, Jeremy's father is delighted that his son snared a lady with such an impressive family connection and dowry. The couple, after some initial difficulty, discover that they are in fact extremely compatible both in the bedroom and out of it. While a duke's daughter, Sarah isn't at all sorry to give up the luxuries of her father's house or the mindless pleasures of London's high society. Being useful as a vicar's wife, while still able to lock herself away to write in secret works very well for her. While Jeremy's father allows him a few weeks to enjoy his new marriage, he's not going to let his son give up his quest for long, however. What will happen when Jeremy discovers that the woman he's trying to track down is in fact his own wife?
In the previous two books in The Wicked Quills of London, an Earl and a Viscount married women of a much lower social standing to themselves. In this, it's Lady Sarah who is the one of higher social rank, who chooses to marry down, so to speak. While Jeremy may be the third son of an earl, he's also a lowly country vicar with only a small living, mostly wholly dependent on whatever allowance his tyrannous father chooses to give him. Even as they grow closer to one another and their attraction grows, they both know it's a bad match. It's only when Sarah is worried about the scandal that will ensue if she's unmasked that she decides that she doesn't care about her parents' possible disapproval or the risk of her dowry (she's of age and doesn't actually need their permission to marry). She proposes to Jeremy and while he initially refuses her, a conversation with his now happily married cousin changes his mind.
Of course, Sarah doesn't realise that the man she marries is the same man who's been hunting down her secret identity. Writing is the only thing that's ever made her truly happy, and while she discovers that Jeremy has in fact read all of the works by The Lady of Dubious Quality (and uses the tips he's learned from the books to satisfy both himself and his new wife thoroughly sexually), she doubts that he'd be pleased to discover that said Lady was in fact his own wife. So she keeps lying to him by omission, and all hell breaks loose once Jeremy (who really is both clever and determined, even though he hates the job his father has set him to do) finally pieces all the clues together and discovers the truth.
There's so much good stuff in this novel - two intelligent outsiders who fall for each other and ignore social conventions to be together. Sarah is a virgin, but reads a lot of smutty French erotica to be able to accurately describe the sex acts in her best-selling novels. Jeremy has only had sex once, but has read all of Sarah's books and is ready and willing to try put all the things he's only read about in practise after their first sexual encounter is less than thrilling for her. Because they are both enthusiastic beginners who are willing to communicate clearly about what they want, both in the bedroom department and outside it, they quickly settle into marital felicity. If only there wasn't that big ol' secret constantly threatening to ruin their happiness.
Sarah doesn't write her books just because she's bored and has nothing better to do. She genuinely finds the work incredibly fulfilling and is happy that her books seem to have found such an enthusiastic audience. She hates that she has to keep lying to Jeremy, but also honestly doesn't know if she'd be able to stop writing even if scandal struck. She loves what she does in a way that Jeremy frankly doesn't. He does his very best as a vicar, because he is a decent and responsible man, but only went into the church because his father pressured him, and given the financial independence, he'd devote his life to something different. Yet even when he marries Sarah and has her dowry at his disposal, he's reluctant to take advantage of her money, wanting to be his own man.
As the previous two books in the series, this featured two very engaging protagonists and explores a lot of feminist themes while also throwing in some believable relationship hurdles and plenty of smexy times. That the hero is apparently modelled physically on Tom Hiddleston certainly doesn't hurt either. There are cameo appearances by characters from the previous two books and as far as I'm aware, this is the final book in this series. It's not a perfect book, by any means, but Eva Leigh is absolutely becoming an author whose books I will absolutely be looking out for, and her new series seems very interesting indeed. She's not quite auto-buy or the most coveted of spots - pre-order - but a few more enjoyable books and this may happen.
Rating a book by its cover: This sure has a lot of pastel. I'm also not sure if the lady on the cover (whose hair is much darker than Lady Sarah's is described as in the actual novel) is reclining on a bed (which would be appropriate, given the contents of this book) or sinking into some sort of pink and lilac void. Once more we have an example of the lady from the back with her dress coming undone. As the lady in question appears to be wearing a nightgown, her lack of undergarments can probably be forgiven this time. I've yet to see pictures of any Regency-era nightie that opened that low in the back, though, especially without any evidence of buttons or lacing. I don't like this cover at all, which is a shame, because the cover of Scandal Takes the Stage is so gorgeous, with such lush details.