Any Duchess Will Do by Tessa Dare
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When the Duke of Halford's overbearing mother forces him to pick a bride at "Spinster Cove," Griffin bribes a lowly barmaid, Pauline, to deliberately fail at her public debut.
Griffin makes his mother a deal: if she can make the woman of his choice the toast of London in one week, he will happily marry her. If she fails, Griffin would be free to continue his bachelor existence. But of course, he gets more than he bargains for in Pauline. She may be a barmaid, but she's every bit as intelligent and fiery as he is, and she agrees to play along for the sake of securing her own future. Griffin finds himself falling for her, but a secret loss threatens to keep them apart. Longing looks, tests of character, misunderstandings, and a bit of tupping ensue, but all for the best. It's a twist on the Pygmalion story that's not annoyingly sexist, but still a bit far-fetched.
The setting is London, and the era is unspecific late Regency or early Victorian. The characters have a few anachronistic attitudes and ways of speaking, but this book is much less about the scenery and setting: it's really about watching two people fall in love. There isn't much action or mystery here.
I don't care much for the protective male trope that creeps into Any Duchess a few times, and some of the sentimental moments about orphans and babies isn't quite to my taste, but everything else was a delight and made me understand why historical romance's popularity doesn't wane.
This is the fourth in the Spindle Cove series, which features fiery spinsters and the dissolute rakes who love them. A few more high-quality Regency romances you may want to try are Eileen Dryer's Barely a Lady (Drake's Rakes series) or The Duchess War (Brothers Sinister series) by Courtney Milan. For those new to the genre who only want to dip a toe in, you would be wise to start with the grand dame of Regency romance, Georgette Heyer. I suggest The Grand Sophy for a first outing.