When Marcelline Noirot tracks down the Duke of Clevedon in Paris, it's with a particular purpose in mind. But that purpose isn't seduction or to task him with supporting an illegitimate child-it's to persuade him to make his future countess patronize her dress shop. But her way of getting his attention is to make herself unforgettable. She shows up at the same balls and parties that he does, and makes sure that she attracts every eye-including Clevedon's. And as soon as he takes her off for a tete-a-tete, where they make a wager: his diamond stickpin for her pearl brooch. She wins that wager, and Clevedon finds himself inexplicably attracted to her.
Marcelline, for her part, finds herself equally attracted, and even as she cold-bloodedly schemes to keep his interest because she wants to dress the woman who is to be his countess, Clara Fairfax. But when he realizes that his patronage is all she wants, Clevedon becomes both dismissive and incensed. He wants to bed her for the deception she has wrought on him, and Marcelline is savvy enough to realize it. She attempts to flee Paris for London, bluffing her way onto the earliest ship leaving for England, but Clevedon follows her and her maid and confidante and boards the same ship for a trip across the channel.
Unfortunately for them both, the ship is caught in a bad storm, and both Marcelline and her maid are taken sick during the voyage. Though he wants nothing more right then than to strangle her, he nurses her through the affliction and insists on conveying them both back to her shop in his carriage. And there he makes another discovery: her shop is no mere hole in the wall, but a respectable shop in a modestly respectable area of London.
It is not without its problems, however. Marcelline and her sisters are locked in battle with another modiste, a Mrs. Downes, who has been in business longer, and who caters to all the patrons of high status. But Marcelline and her sisters are much better designers, and want to cater to the same crowd, which is why Marcelline wants the business of Clara Fairfax. But even as Clevedon makes the introduction and shows off the dress she wore to a most important ball in Paris, Clevedon has made another conquest in the Noiret shop- Marcelline's daughter, Erroll, who is most interested in the Duke and knows just the right way to cozen her way into his heart.
But as Mrs. Downes bribes one of Marcelline's seamstresses into stealing Marcelline's book of designs, and thus, her business, the Seamstress is nearly caught and ends up starting a fire that burns down the shop. Clevedon, who had caught Marcelline in the back and was in the process of making love to her, is caught in the fire and rescues Erroll from being burned alive. Knowing that he is in some small way responsible for the fire, he takes Marcelline and her family into his home and helps her salvage her business, allowing his maids to help her finish the gown she is making for Clara in an effort to show off her best sides, and then helps her find a new shop to set up her business in, one in an even better, more fashionable area of town, in a property that he owns, and helps her set it up and decorate it.
This makes Marcelline break down and take him as her lover, if only for a night, but Clara's brother is not happy with Clevedon's actions, and they get into a public brawl in the street over what Clevedon has done in taking Marcelline as his lover. But Marcelline won't marry him, and she goads him into the perfect marriage proposal to Clara. But Clara is feeling the lack in Clevedon's treatment of her, and she turns down his marriage proposal in front of a full ballroom of people despite Clevedon finally doing everything right. But with that plan scotched, and with Marcelline having won Clara's patronage, and those of others of the Ton for the change she's made in Clara's appearance, can Clevedon convince Marcelline to become more than his lover or mistress, but his wife?
And will Marcelline, who comes, along with her sisters, from parents who were both schemers and confidence people, tell Clevedon of her background without having him reject her for that? Can there be a truly happy ending for this mismatched couple who truly do feel something for each other? Or will the forces of duty and propriety tear them apart for good?
It took me a bit to get into this novel, and that was mostly because of Clevedon, who basically got on his high horse fairly early on in the novel and spent so much of the time in high dudgeon that I just wanted to slap his face and tell him to "grow up already, stupid!" Perhaps it was meant to signal that his emotions were already engaged far too much with Marcelline, but it just seemed like incessant whining to me, and I'm of the "Cry me a river, build a bridge and get over it!" feeling, myself. It didn't endear me to his character much, to be honest.
But Marcelline definitely came across as the more adult, and yes, more scheming member of the couple. She attempts to go through with her cold-blooded scheme with a clear head, but as soon as she starts falling for Clevedon, her plans are hampered by her suddenly feminine heart, who would like to dream about being with Clevedon, even if her head knows such dreams are impossible. But as the novel moved along, Clevedon showed honor even as he worked through his emotional confusion over what he really wanted, and the ending made me happy that the two had found a way to be together, even as one of Marcelline's sisters and Clara's brother were sequel-baited.
In the end, I did end up enjoying the book's ending, but much of the early and middle were merely "meh" material. My annoyance with Clevedon's character made me not care about him much for a lot of the book, and while the ending redeemed those feelings wonderfully, I felt the book was slightly uneven because of it. Slightly recommended.