The manager of a Regency London sex club and one of her patrons mix business and pleasure only to be blindsided by an unusual inheritance that threatens to expose them to public censure.
The action in Leigh's (Counting on the Countess, 2018, etc.) third London Underground novel centers around the Orchid Club, which appeared briefly in the first two books. Its overseer, Lucia Marini—known as Amina—is a former prostitute with dreams of establishing a residential school for indigent girls. To that end, she’s determined to run her business impeccably and suppress her attraction to a masked guest. Thomas Powell has abided by her rule, but the day he becomes the Duke of Northfield, he asks for one night of passion before he must assume the mantle of propriety and responsibility that the title entails. But the late duke had a secret that soon throws Tom and Lucia together in a more permanent way. Now they have to confront their feelings, and Tom must also choose between toeing the line of his conservative heritage in Parliament or breaking free for the sake of his progressive conscience—and heart. Leigh paints a picture of an Italian street urchin–turned–immigrant sex worker–turned would-be philanthropist with her heroine. She also gives us a half-Irish nobleman whose carousing bent has suddenly given way to awareness of colonial slavery and the domestic wealth gap. Both portraits, and the presence of a lesbian couple as well as a fleeting glimpse of a black businessman, show some limited questioning of Regency romance’s fetishizing of straight Anglo one-percenters. The characters are interesting beyond their didactic functions, and the social justice theme feels true to our moment.
The upstairs-downstairs plot stretches believability, especially in its hasty commedia dell’arte conclusion, but this novel is still stronger than its predecessors, bucking the tendency of series to lose steam over time.