By Maureen Lee Lenker
October 24, 2019 at 10:00 AM EDT

It’s coming time for Sarah MacLean to say goodbye to another series.

Next summer she’ll release Daring and the Duke, the final novel in her Covent Garden-set Bareknuckle Bastards series, for which EW is exclusively debuting the cover and step-back (below). Though as MacLean points out, when it comes to her novels, she has her own MCU. “You’ll see them again in future books,” she promises. “It’s like a MacLean Cinematic Universe; everybody comes back around.”

Courtesy Sarah MacLean

Though the previous two novels have spent time with Devil and Beast, the rulers of a Covent Garden underworld of their own making, Daring and the Duke will bring everything to a head while focusing on the mysterious Grace, the queen of the Bareknuckle Bastards and most mysterious of the trio.

As children, the Bastards were betrayed by their brother Ewan, the Duke of Marwick — but for decades he’s nursed a childhood love for the red-haired woman he once believed to be dead. Grace has been hiding in plain sight as the queen of the underworld, honing the instincts she learned as a child on the street after her love’s betrayal. Grace has vowed to seek revenge against Ewan, but that requires keeping him close, something that may test the feelings she thought were long-since dormant and the life she’s so carefully built.

Daring and the Duke isn’t out until June 30, 2020, but with a delicious first look at these images featuring Grace and Ewan, we couldn’t resist calling up MacLean to get the details on everything from the cover design to how Magic Mike XXL inspired Grace’s career path.

Avon Books
Avon Books

Grace seems like a return to what you did with Never Judge a Lady By Her Cover, in that you have a businesswoman who we’ve only seen in brief, secret glimpses throughout the series. Do you feel back in a similar space?
SARAH MACLEAN: Partially, yes. Aside from the obvious last book in the series about the woman who is part of the brotherhood, there is also this piece where Grace is kind of the queen. She’s been running the show from the beginning, and it’s been seeded over the course of the books that she’s always been the most powerful of the three of them. But also, just like Never Judge a Lady, this book is very much about identity and who we are in the world versus who we are privately versus who we are with the people that we love versus who we allow ourselves to be in our most private moments. There’s nothing really new about that for me. That seems to be the story I come back to over and over again as a writer, and I don’t know what that says about my own identity. I’m particularly interested in identity for women and for heroines because I’m fascinated by the many faces women have to wear in the world. I feel like every heroine of mine has to do this public/private identity work. We’re all doing that work all the time in life. And right now, it feels like women are doing it all the time.

Redeeming Ewan is a tall order, and it’s a challenge you’ve tweeted about openly. How’s that going? And what is the key to redeeming characters you’ve written into pretty despicable corners?
Aghhhhhhh. Ewan [has been] teed up as the villain of this story from the beginning of the series. The trick when you’re writing a series like this is you don’t want to pull your punches in the early books. If I’m going to establish him as a villain, he has to be villainous on the page. The problem is when you get to his book, he’s done all this despicable stuff on the page. I can’t wave it away. I can’t be like, “Oh, forget he did all that stuff, it happened off-scene and it wasn’t really what everybody thought happened.” No, you all saw it. Believe women. Readers saw it. So, now it’s really about motivation. I’m very grateful to past me for having truly thought through what actually went down when they were children, why he did the things that he did when they were adults, and how he redeems himself over the course of this book. This is basically a grovel novel. It has to be. He has been despicable. He has done despicable things. And Grace is too strong a heroine to just accept an apology and move forward. She is very angry, going back to feminine rage. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t an uphill battle for me, but I think it’s working out and I think readers will be very happy with the way that it turns out. Because ultimately it’s my favorite trope, which is childhood love to enemies to lovers. They cared deeply for each other and never really stopped caring for each other, except the whole world went haywire around them.

Among her many empires, Grace runs a pleasure house and has a space specifically for women looking to have their needs met. Where did the idea for that come from?
It’s Jada Pinkett Smith’s Magic Mike XXL pleasure house. [Laughs]. Magic Mike XXL is the greatest feminist text of our day. Honestly, I watched that three or four years ago and I was like, “This seems like it’d be really fun to write in a historical, and it would translate really well into historical.” A historical that has women who work, women who are competent and run business, and women who know what they want and go for it. I hope that’s my brand. It just felt right if somebody was going to write this brothel but for women, it would be me, so I knew that from the start. Ultimately, I think the brothel will become a standing set piece in future series. I really love this idea of a place where women can explore their sexual fantasies safely and privately. It’s the brothel as metaphor for romance novels.

Sex positivity has always been a crucial part of your brand, but would you say this is next level with your heroine in charge of numerous sex workers?
I am very interested in sex workers and sex worker rights, especially in New York City. I think whenever you take this on, especially in historicals — the courtesan, the prostitute, the whore — these are all things that are really codified in historical romance, and in the world, as being a very specific kind of work. On the one hand, it makes it slightly easier when you twist the whole thing and flip the gender of the whole thing. But also there’s a lot about choice in these books, who the employees are in these books, and how they are protected or not protected or how they have agency within the context of these books. It is not a job I’ve taken lightly, and I hope I do it justice.

The Duke of Marwick has been the primary antagonist for Devil and Beast in the previous books, so can we expect to see them? Is it too much to hope for one big happy family reunion?
I joke that what I really want to do is write a Christmas novella where they’re all sitting around wearing Christmas sweaters and Whit is just reading feminist texts out loud. [Laughs] Pure fanfic. Absolutely. You will see all of the Bastards, a lot. Because it’s not enough for Ewan to be forgiven by Grace; Ewan has to be forgiven by the whole family. Because Grace and Beast and Devil have been a trio, and they’ve leaned on each other and cared for each other. The fact that they aren’t blood-related doesn’t matter. They are a family. And when you get one, you get all of them, for better or worse in Devil’s case. I love those guys. I love their wives. There have been other series where I’ve written a character, and I’m like, “I’m ready to put that guy away for a book,” but these two, I really love them. They’re just decent, good guys, so I’m always happy to bring them back.

You’ve had pink and blue, now this cover features our heroine in a bright yellow dress. Was that your choice, and if so, why?
I knew I wanted it to be yellow. There’s a running thing through the whole series that when they were children, Ewan promised Grace threads made of gold. So I knew that yellow or gold was going to be a thing that kept coming back in this book. You’ll see that it’s immediately present everywhere in this book. I knew yellow was going to happen. Harper Collins is so long-suffering with me. They sent me eight different shades of yellow. I had said, “I want it to be in the same family of color as the pink and the blue,” but yellow is a really tough color. It’s very garish if it’s wrong. The model is a former Miss New York, April Rose Catherine Maroshick. I don’t think I’ve ever seen two more beautiful people. I got to go to the cover shoot, which is always really fun because you basically get to play Barbies with real people.

Did they have like eight different yellow dresses on hand?
No, no, no. It’s a white dress, and then they do everything in post. Sometimes you go and the chemistry just isn’t really there, and there’s a lot of magic that comes in at the end with the artist and the photographer. The reality is there’s usually a lot of magic anyway. But these two, their chemistry was just so perfect and they were so hot together. We went around and around because I’ve never had a clinch on the cover, but if ever there was going to be a book that would have a clinch, it would be this because they both have a really important story to tell.

With her being more of a working-class heroine, was there any discussion of having her in something not a ballgown on the cover?
Grace wears trousers through most of the book. When you see her in all the other books, it’s very Assassin’s Creed-style. In Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, there’s this heroine who wears pants and leather boots over the knee and these beautiful tailored coats, and that was the aesthetic that I was going for [with] Grace from the beginning. It’s interesting because he’s a duke and he lives this very different life. So the question is, “How will these two people who frankly should not work together at all end up together?” A ballgown, for readers, will be a really interesting question for them. We talked about it a lot, and we landed on ballgown. I hope it will leave a question in readers’ minds, like “What is the story going to be?” and maybe it’s a little bit of a misdirect.

This step-back is stunning, and it looks like Grace and Ewan are in a garden. Can we expect some garden-variety hanky-panky?
[Laughs] That’s really awful, but yes, you absolutely can. They’re in a very specific garden. That scene is written.

People fell in love with the supporting characters Nik and Nora in Brazen and the Beast. Might you grant them a novella or something along those lines?
Absolutely. Nik and Nora is the Christmas story I would like to do. Probably not a novella because I’m a very slow writer, but a Christmas story that gives people a little bit of a look at how Nik and Nora came to be. In the background of Brazen and then again in Daring and the Duke, you’ll see them living their lives. I love them and I know how they fell in love, and I want to show people that too. My hope is in the not-too-distant future, there will be a little gift for readers about them. It’ll be small, and it’ll be a present.

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