This is a retelling of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, as is the movie Pretty Woman, so many readers will recognize the plot. Desperate for grandchildren, the Duchess of Halford kidnaps her grown son, Griff (the Duke) and brings him to Spindle Cove to pick a bride amidst the aristocratic spinsters there. Planning to foil his mother, Griff chooses Pauline, the serving girl at the local tavern. She is plain and unpolished, the clumsy daughter of a brutish farmer. She has no accomplishments, no formal education, her figure is boyish, her elocution is atrocious, and her sister is a developmentally delayed "simpleton" (which, in that era, suggested a taint in the bloodline). She is entirely inappropriate for the role of duchess, which was, of course, Griff's point.
Based on that premise, I was prepared not to like the book. After all, it's a pretty crappy thing for the Duke and Duchess Halford to do: walk into a tea shop/tavern, loudly announce to all of the women there (many of them spinsters who themselves long for success in the marriage mart) that Griff is to pick a bride, and then for him to choose Pauline just because she is so very unsuitable (which is so cutting because of course she knows she's unsuitable). Luckily, Griff quickly realizes the asshattery of his ways, and offers to make it worth Pauline's while by paying her 1,000 pounds just to let his mother spend a week trying to polish her, even though no one expects success. Pauline has big dreams for a country girl, and the money would get her dreams off the ground, so she swallows her pride and agrees.
Pauline is a wonderful heroine. She is smart and funny without being mean-spirited, vulnerable without being weak, naive without being foolish, kind without being saintly. I love that her background allows her to be more sexually liberated than most Regency heroines: she is not a virgin, and she does not have the same obsessive care for her reputation that gentlewomen have (though she's far from being easy).
Though at first glance, Griff appears to fall within the stereotypical mold of the reformed rake hero, he, too, is an original. He is reformed not through the love of a good woman, but by a crisis of conscience that takes place before the story begins, and Dare's treatment of this tragedy and its fallout is sympathetic, nuanced, and entirely believable. I adore that Griff is not perfect: he is damaged, but it isn't up to Pauline to fix him; they both know he needs to fix himself before he can be a good partner to anyone.
I also think the class divisions highlighted by this plot were very well done. Rags-to-riches stories in Regency romance tend to strain credulity because that society was too rigidly hierarchical for nobility to get together with the servant class without serious fallout for both parties, yet so many books employing this trope sweep those realities aside with pat, unlikely solutions. This story doesn't try to raise Pauline to the standing of a duchess, but recognizes for their romance to have any hope of success, she must come up in the world, but Griff must also sink quite a bit.
Another example of the realistic way that the class divisions are addressed have to do with the evolution of Griff's behavior toward Pauline. He was initially very high handed and arrogant, and then as he got to know her, he became more sympathetic to the issues dividing them, but was still unintentionally insensitive on occasion, such as when Pauline says she must leave his bed and get back to her own before the servants see her, and he says, "So what? They're servants," (to the mortification of them both). People don't shrug off the trappings of privilege overnight: consciousness raising is a process, and even well-intentioned people screw it up sometimes.