Wicked Angel by Shirl Henke
(Leisure, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-8439-4854-X
****
Calling all authors, agents, and editors: cast all do-gooder heroines into publishing purgatory! Resist righteousness in its treacherous female guise! Or if not, then dare to tell the tale of an amoral woman and the handsome social reformer who saves her soul!

Not going to happen, you laugh?

Well, at least goodness now comes with a sense of humor. The daughter of a well-born Methodist preacher whose ministrations to London’s poor have ostracized him from society, Jocelyn “Joss” Woodbridge is bright, brave, and funny to boot. Unfortunately, she’s also unattractive, overly tall, and terribly astigmatic. However, when her father’s sermon in the seedy London slums provokes a violent riot, her eyes do not fail to note the extraordinary beauty of her personal savior-even if he is an uncouth American.

Not only American, Alexander Blackthorne is also part Native American, a novelty that endears him to jaded London society. Sent abroad by his parents in the hopes that a stay with the English side of the family will reform his wild, womanizing ways, Alexander quickly defeats their goal, ensconcing himself in the debauched circuit of the rich and titled. Conceited he is not, however, and his initial encounter with Joss begins a deep friendship-marked on his side by affection and admiration, and on hers by a hopeless infatuation bordering, despite her best efforts, on love.

Resigned to his platonic regard, Joss occupies and consoles herself with long-standing charitable pursuits. But when her father dies and her new guardian, the Earl of Suthington, demands that she cease her charity work, Joss rebels. Enraged, Suthington arranges her marriage to an ancient, syphilis-ridden peer-a death sentence that Alex cannot bear to contemplate. Besieged by his own parents’ demands that he settle down, he strikes a deal with his beloved friend: a marriage of convenience that will preserve her liberty and his hedonistic lifestyle. Despite her foreboding regarding their mismatched affections, Joss has little choice but to accept.

Familiarity, though, does not always breed contempt, and Alex quickly questions the nature of his feelings for his new wife. As their friendship begins to crumble under their mutual uncertainty and the muted tensions of longing, war calls them back to Alex’s homeland and his Indian tribe, where they discover that the courage to reveal themselves does not come easily amidst circumstances that promise only heartbreak…

True, developed friendship between hero and heroine is a rare commodity in a genre whose average page count seemingly decreases every month. Admirably, Henke flouts convention in this respect, developing the bond between Joss and Alex at a gradual and masterful pace. Both are delightfully interesting characters conjured from wearied clichés (an interesting feat in itself), and the vibrancy of their platonic relationship makes the wait for the ensuing romance utterly compelling.

Unfortunately, the romance itself, while satisfactory, seems to capture little of the unique magic that previously existed between these two characters. To be sure, love turns mature adults into nervous wrecks, and the romantic trials suffered by Joss and Alex ring true. However, one cannot help but miss the teasing camaraderie-and the delightful originality-they displayed as friends.

Also, the novel’s second half is set in an Indian village in the American south, one jarringly reminiscent of Heather Graham’s Floridian Civil War sagas. After the former chapters’ vivid and leisurely recreation of Regency England, the plot skates along too quickly to allow this setting to establish a counterbalancing presence in the reader’s mind. Perhaps the sudden turn to action-packed narrative is for a reason, since events, more than the lovers themselves, engineer the happy ending.

However, the reader’s loyalties to Joss and Alex, formed firmly in the initial chapters, ensure some measure of contentment at the book’s closure. The first hundred pages alone make Wicked Angel a worthwhile read. A do-gooder did good, after all.

--Meredith McGuire


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