Charles Stirling, Earl of Everingham, is sure he’s caught the dangerous rabble-rouser, Captain Spindleshanks. The person who comes before him, however, is a very upset Hollie Finch, who is unhappy about being in chains, having her livelihood as a printer being disrupted and - worst of all - being put under house arrest at the Earl’s estate. The Earl is distracted by the lovely Hollie but knows he has important business to tend to. First he needs to rid himself of the real troublemaker who is railing against his Commission which looking into the latest uprising at Peterloo. Second, he has to figure out what to do with the young son who has just been unexpectedly thrust upon him.
Charles makes this story. He starts as an arrogant, bullying nobleman but even at the beginning he shows traces of confusion and an unexpected desire to do the right thing. He’s not sure he’s up to the job but he means to try. As the story unfolds, Charles is revealed as less a bully and more of a man who has managed to deal with many unexpected difficulties for which he is ill-prepared.
Hollie isn’t as delightful. She is a firebrand who is prepared to do anything to expose injustice but comes across as someone who is either thoughtless about the consequences or ruthless in obtaining her brand of justice. She begins by lying to Charles and telling him she is married to the man he believes is Captain Spindleshanks. Admittedly there is little other choice for her then unless she wants to be arrested since she is actually Captain Spindleshanks, of course. However, she continues her deception even when she and the reader feels uncomfortable with her false role. This is particularly hurtful because Charles comes to trust her completely and feels guilty because he is fantasizing about a married woman.
Hollie is meant to be admirable. Certainly she manages to form a bond with Charles’ young son and to ease Charles into the role of good parent - a role he never had shown to him by his own father. Little Chip learns to love and trust both adults. By the end the reader can accept Hollie, but her original attitude is grating - it’s a mix of smugness over righting wrongs and shock when she realizes she could be truly punished for breaking the law. In contrast, possibly the best scene in the book is when she discovers Charles’ most painful secret and confronts him over how it has affected his whole life. His shame, which he struggles with because of this secret, is very moving. Her acceptance is important to them both.
My Wicked Earl has a delightful hero and an acceptable heroine. If Hollie’s attractiveness as a heroine had been ratcheted up a few notches, this could have been a five hearter. As it is, reading about Charles’ growth and his love for Hollie is still definitely worth the effort.