Miss Lillian "Lily" Hargrove, is the orphaned daughter of a land steward and unwilling ward to the Duke of Warnick. Due to an odd and unbelievable series of events, her guardian, and then the next seventeen heirs to the title die in the course of about a fortnight, leaving a very distant claimant to the title, Alec Stuart, a belligerent Scotsman as the new Duke. He doesn't like England, and stays in Scotland for the next five years, not even aware that Lillian exists.
As such, Lily lives a comfortable, if extremely isolated and lonely life in one of the ducal residences in London. She's not of the aristocracy, nor is she a servant. She has no friends or family to support her, and so, when unscrupulous actor and artist Derek Hawkins encounters her walking in the park, woos her and flatters her and makes her feel special, it doesn't take all that much persuasion for him to get her to pose for a nude portrait. Of course, Lily believed no one would see the portrait but them. She also foolishly believed Hawkins would propose marriage to her. Instead, he announces at the opening of the Royal Exhibition that his masterpiece will be displayed to the public on the closing day of the exhibition. Lily, distraught and shocked, makes a very public scene, and what little respectable reputation she may have had, is ruined.
Alec Stuart, reluctant twenty-first Duke of Warnick, known in the gossip pages as "the diluted duke" arrives in London two weeks after his solicitor informs him that 1) he has a young lady as a ward and 2) said lady is the object of a huge scandal. Alec has a number of reasons for disliking England and the English and he also has a massive distrust for all beautiful women. Lily announces that the painting will be unveiled to all the world in ten days' time. She wants the money promised to her by her initial guardian, so she can go far away and reinvent herself, somewhere no one knows who Lillian Hargrove is.
Alec refuses to let her run and hide, and believes the solution is to get her married off to someone respectable, as soon as humanly possible. He bestows a massive dowry on her, and sets about trying to match her up with a suitable gentleman. Of course, he is fiercely jealous of any other man so much as looking in Lillian's general direction. Yet when everyone around him, Lily included, suggests that he may be the best candidate for the job, all his fears and insecurities rise to the surface. Lily may have given herself to an unscrupulous artist and is about to have her naked body displayed for all of London to see, but Alec still believes that he is unworthy of her hand and needs to find her someone better.
In her newest series, Scandal and Scoundrel, Sarah Maclean basically takes contemporary celebrity gossip scandals and interprets them through a historical lens. The first book in the series, The Rogue Not Taken, was seemingly her take on a Kardashian-like family of sisters hugely popular in the scandal press, whilst this book is her response to various leaked nude photos in recent years. Sadly, this isn't as interesting as Ms Maclean seems to think it is. I liked the previous book a lot more than a lot of my romance reading friends on the internet, even though the hero was a complete tool for most of the book. Alec Stuart, the Scotsman hero of this one, appeared briefly towards the end of said book, and both Sophie and her new husband, the Marquess of Eversley, appear in this book, along with Sophie's many Scandalous Talbot-sisters. There are also appearances by Duncan West from Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover, as well as his wife, who becomes one of Lily's new friends. I found most of the Talbot sisters annoying in the first book and didn't really like them all that much here (nor can I tell them apart), although it is nice that Lily finally makes some friends and gets to go out in society.
While the previous book in the series had some issues, this is even more of a hot mess. There are absolutely things I liked, Maclean excels at writing witty banter and the book made me laugh more than once. I genuinely like the title, which is certainly not always the case with Maclean's books. It discusses important feminist themes such as the nature of consent, victim blaming, slut shaming and how men in society are judged by a completely different standard to women. The eventual reveal of why Alec is so damned convinced that he's an uncivilised and uncouth brute, his dislike of the English, his distrust of beautiful women and his sense of unworthiness was an interesting twist on a common trope.
It still didn't make up for the fact that it got boring really quickly that Alec was bullheadedly determined to get Lily married off, yet insanely jealous of any other man so much as breathing in her vicinity. Starting with his mother, he's been told by women his entire life that he is too large, coarse, brutish and uncivilised. His mother eventually ran away from Scotland, and it seems more than one woman has treated Alec mostly like a glorified sex toy, good for nothing but a quick affair, but never anything more lasting. His internal monologue about how precious and exquisite she was, while he was brutish and unworthy still got on my nerves. I'm not really surprised that society at large sees him as a brute, when he literally tears doors of hinges and rampages around like a jealous madman for much of the book.
Lily keeps being described as devastatingly beautiful, but it has clearly not brought her any happiness and living holed up, isolated from polite society, without any chance to experience the world or make friends makes her a far too easy victim for Derek Hawkins. While waiting for the Diluted Duke to acknowledge her existence, she has dreamed of a season, of balls, dancing, marriage and children, and she has no wish to be forced into marriage in less than two weeks just to quell the gossip. Some of the behaviour she exhibits to drive suitors off is just bizarre, though, and the various madcap schemes that she and/or Alec devise to try to stop the painting from being displayed seem strange and out of place.
There is also an aspect of insta-love here, a trope I'm less than fond of. From figuratively hissing and spitting at each other during their first encounter, fewer than ten days pass before Lily and Alec are madly besotted with one another, ready to elope for Scotland to spend the rest of their days together. Would it really have hurt to have the story take place over a slightly longer span of time, say a month? It would have made the romance more believable, certainly.
I think there is only one more book left in this series, which seems to be going for celebrity divorce proceedings, with the eldest Talbot-sister, Seraphina, petitioning the House of Lords for divorce from her husband, the Duke of Haven (I severely doubt they'll end the book divorced). I desperately hope that it is better than the first two in the series, which keep going down in my estimation the more I think about them. Sarah Maclean has been removed from my auto-buy list and is quickly moving into the "only on sale" category, which is a shame, because I really love some of her earlier books.
Judging a book by its cover: Here we have another example of that baffling new romance cover trend, with the dresses with fabric that go on for miles and mile, but still inexplicably show most of the heroine's naked legs. Just in case you didn't figure out from the title of the book that it's about a Scotsman, the cover designer has helpfully added some tartan to the floor. I like the colour of the dress, it's pretty, but it is otherwise in no way period appropriate (for any period, really, this is made up historical clothing). I highly recommend you go to Goodreads to see the splashback cover though, where this exact romance cover is shown (presumably) as the scandalous painting (Worst. Nude. Portrait. Ever) in question, while the hero and heroine sort of smooch. It's hilarious.