But the same pendulum-swing that brought him down so low he was toying with his hair color and considering going back to school (economics or environmental studies? Hmmm) has now begun its upward arc at last, and suddenly the feral confidence we all saw many months ago on the cover of our very first entry in this epic series. Suddenly, the Romance world knows that Paul Marron is synonymous with scandal, and it can't get enough.
A fairly sedate start to this up-tick, then, in the decorous confines of Julia London's A Courtesan's Scandal, in which Paul goes by the name of Grayson Christopher, the Duke of Darlington. In London's fast-paced story, the Prince of Wales wants his good friend Paul to act as a kind of decoy, pretending to squire and conquer the beautiful Kate Bergeron so that polite society doesn't realize the Prince himself is visiting her in the off-hours. Even here, in 1806, Paul is that classic male model combination of haughty and naughty as he accepts the arrangement and begins to lock horns - and other applicable parts - with the lady in question. Kate prides herself on her self-control, but which of us could count on much self-control around our boy Paul in a snug silk vest? Pretty soon, they're both fogging up the windows:
Kate had never felt anything more than tolerance at the prospect of physical relations with a man, but tonight ... tonight she felt urgency, a strong and natural flow of desire for Grayson. She sought his body, her hands beneath his shirt, raking down his chest and back. Her mouth was open beneath his, her tongue twirling around his. She pressed her breasts against him, and when he pushed her hands away to unbutton his shirt, she boldly moved her hand to the front of his trousers and slid her palm down his erection.
Grayson lifted his head as if he meant to say something, but he didn't speak at first. He could only look at her with eyes darkened by his longing. She cupped him, rubbed her hand against him.
"Kate," he said hoarsely.
Fans of well-done romance can't go wrong with London, but fans of Paul will know that an arrangement such as the one cooked up here by the Prince of Wales is simply impossible - our molten little model masquerading as somebody else's love-dupe? Hardly! Paul doesn't feather his hair in the morning in order to have it tousled as some kind of consolation prize. There can only be one cock of this walk.
Paulie moves forward a generation - to 1848 - but appears to change very little in Liz Carlyle's A Touch of Scandal, where he calls himself Adrian Forsythe, Lord Ruthveyn, he of the 'impossibly' black hair and eyebrows, a stern and sultry man very much in the Duke of Darlington mode, a hard, private man who's spent a good deal of his life "Haring about Hindustan risking life and limb in the service of Her Majesty's government and its well-shod bootheel, the East India Company." Carlyle's distressed heroine Grace Gauthier (whose shipping-magnate employer has just been brutally murdered, a crime of which the police believe she might not be entirely innocent) has a decidedly mixed first impression of our brooding hero:
The man - Ruthveyn - seemed disinclined to say more, and Grace resisted the impulse to ask anything. Save for his thick raven hair, sun-bronzed skin, and a nose that was perhaps a tad too strong, he could perhaps have been an Englishman - or Satan in a pair of Bond Street boots.
Naturally, that first impression isn't quite mixed enough to stop them from flinging each other's clothes off, but to her credit, Carlyle serves up a more complicated story than the simple fireball of lust we've all experienced with Paul so many times by now. Nothing is quite what it seems in One Touch of Scandal, and beneath his rough exterior, our hero is a haunted man:
"Do you see those shadows, Grace?" He was staring at the row of houses beyond the glass. "They come creeping relentlessly across the street, every day, without fail, ever destined to shroud us as the sun sets. That is what fate is like to me. Like an impending shadow that cannot be evaded. And we know that it is coming. Sometimes, just before the veil falls, we can even glimpse what lies within. And sometimes what we see is but a chimera - or the reflection of our fears."
Since Barbara Cartland first put quill to parchment, the crux of all romance novels has been a fairly simple trade-off: the hero saves the heroine from some incipient danger (brigands, blackmailers, bad husbands, or all three), and in exchange, the heroine saves the hero from just that kind of creeping darkness. Carlyle stays true to this pattern, but she stocks her novel full of twists and turns - and even a slight element of the supernatural - so that the reader can't comfortably predict where the happy ending will come from.
One thing readers can certainly predict - especially if they're loyal Stevereads fans! - is that the pattern shown on One Touch of Scandal's covers is the one that will win the day. In the book's inset, we see our boy sprawled on a red velvet couch, frilly shirt parted to reveal his V-neck and collarbone - an almost monkish arrangement that feels like a throwback to the timidity we know Paul has discarded like some clinging turtleneck. And so it is - on the book's front cover, we see two of the essential Paul Marron elements on full display: nakedness, and indifference to whatever female happens to be sharing the frame. Those elements have never let our hero down, and they're now carrying him to greatness.
They carry him one crucial step further, in our next chapter!