Lady Sophie Talbot is the youngest daughter of a coal miner who it's rumoured won his Earldom in a card game with the Prince Rengent. Sophie was quite happy growing up in a little village in Cumbria, dreaming of marrying the baker's boy and one day running her own bookshop. Moving to London and becoming part of the ton was never her dream, and unlike her sisters, who seem to clamber to outdo each other with regards to being seen and being scandalous, she'd rather stay in the background and read. While she hates that the gossip papers have dubbed them all "the soiled S's" (all their names start with S) and the way they speculate about how her eldest sister landed a duke, she's also fiercely loyal to her family and when she finds her ducal brother-in-law in a compromising situation with a woman most certainly not her pregnant sister, she loses her temper and shoves him in a fish pond. In front of everyone in polite society. Lady Sophie, the quiet one, just caused the biggest scandal of the season.
Wanting to get away as quickly as possible, she tries to persuade the scoundrelly Marquess of Eversley, popularly known as "King" to let her ride along in his carriage back to the city. She believes she may be able to blackmail him, as she caught him climbing out a window and holds his boot hostage, but he just abandons it and her, rushing away. Desperate to be gone, Sophie instead bribes his footman into giving her his livery and stows away on his carriage, only to realise far too late that it's not going back to London, it's going north. Eversley has recieved news that his father may be at death's door and cannot resist a final chance to tell his father he is never getting married and fathering heirs.
Strangely, despite being in ill-fitting livery, barely anyone but King actually recognises that Sophie isn't a boy, despite the fact that she's still wearing silk slippers (the footman's boots didn't fit). He's convinced she's trying to snare herself a husband by being caught in a compromising position with him, but she denies this vehemently and does her best to get far away from him as quickly as possible. Using undeniable cleverness to best Eversley, she manages to get coach fare north, she's decided to go back to her home village of Mossband to realise her dreams, never to return to the capital. But the coach is stopped by highwaymen, Sophie throws herself in front of a pistol shot to rescue a young urchin, and despite telling himself repeatedly that he wants nothing to do with Sophie Talbot, King has to go searching for a doctor so he's not left with a dead earl's daughter on his hands.
Sophie and King (the reveal of his real name is excellent) pretty much loathe each other at first sight. He believes her to be a title-hunting social climber, she thinks he embodies all the things she hates most about the aristocracy. He can seduce soon to be married women and escape half-dressed out a window without anyone raising so much as an eyebrow while she was publically shunned for trying to defend her sister's honour. He's rich, handsome, arrogant and keeps saying exactly the wrong thing, sometimes directly insulting Sophie, but much of the time doing so without even meaning to. They both keep trying to remind themselves how annoying they find the other person, as they are clearly extremely attracted to one another.
In many ways, this book reminded me of A Week to Be Wicked, probably my favourite Tessa Dare novels, and one of my favourite romances ever. There's a road trip element, there is a lot of spirited banter, the couple have sizzling chemistry and they keep having mishap after mishap, while stuck on the road together. Both the heroes are uncomfortable travelling in small, dark, enclosed coaches. Both the heroines are highly intelligent, bookish, overlooked by everone and clearly super awesome. This book has daddy issues, gunshot wounds, occasional plot moppets (who were mostly sweet rather than annoying), assumed names, a pretend engagement, some pretty sexy times in both a carriage and a hedge maze, allusions to Greek mythology and hero, who while incredibly skilled at putting his foot in his mouth, eventually fully acknowledges what a first class idiot he's been and grovels very satisfyingly. He's not wrong about Sophie being far too good for him, but he shows signs of improvement towards the end and he's certainly not selfish in the bedroom department, which is an definite plus in a romance hero.
At least until I re-read One Good Earl Deserves a Lover, this is totally my new favourite Sarah Maclean and Sophie is certainly one of my favourite heroines. I do have niggles about the plot (King could have been slightly less insulting all the time, the conflict with his father could have been very easily solved if they actually just had a CONVERSATION), but they are not enough to ruin the happy glow of such a fun romance. After the most recent Milan was a let-down, I'm glad that I got to end the year on such a high note, making this the book that completed my triple Cannonball.