|When He Was Wicked is what I call a “pure romance,” a romance that concentrates on the dance that potential lovers do, without adding in mysteries, threats, disasters, or even strong secondary characters with their own subplots. For a pure romance to work, however, the characters and their dance have to be complex enough to carry the story by themselves. I am happy to say that Michael Stirling and Francesca Bridgerton are just such characters.
When she was twenty, Francesca Bridgerton met and married John Stirling, Earl of Kilmartin. It was a love match. Francesca thought, when she met John, that she was “a jagged puzzle piece finally finding its mate.” Two years later, they were becoming a settled married couple and were still very much in love. However, one day, right before their second anniversary, John lay down with a fierce headache and never got up again.
Michael Stirling was John Stirling’s cousin, one year older than John, who had been raised by John’s father when his own father died. He and John were closer than brothers. Consequently, falling in love with Francesca Bridgerton two days before her wedding to John was a huge disaster. Michael found himself deeply, irrevocably in love with the one woman he could not have. Adding to the torture was the fact that Michael was John’s – and subsequently Francesca’s – best friend, so that he was frequently in their company. When he was not, he continued the wicked ways that had earned him a sobriquet he disliked: the Merry Rake.
John’s death overwhelmed both Francesca and Michael. Francesca’s loss was agonizing but straightforward; she was devastated by Michael’s unpreventable death but without suffering feelings of guilt or remorse. Michael, on the other hand, had not only lost his best friend but, as his heir, had become the ninth Earl of Kilmartin. Michael had always assumed that he would never inherit – that John, not yet thirty when he died, would have children – so the title, and the wealth and estates that went with it, were an unexpected and painful legacy.
He didn’t want an earldom. He wanted his cousin back. And nobody seemed to understand that.
As her best friend, Francesca looked to Michael for solace but, of all people, Francesca was the last person Michael could comfort. His love for Francesca combined with his grief to place her beyond the pale. Since being near her was torture, he avoided her, even when she asked for him and needed him. The few times they met, they quarreled painfully. Finally, Michael realized he had to take action, and he left for India.
Four years later, he came home, still in love with Francesca and still believing that to declare his love would be a betrayal of John. In his absence and with his authorization, Francesca had been running his Scottish estates. The responsibility had given purpose to her life, and it is only now – finally – that she is ready to leave off her half-mourning and come to London for the Season. Francesca wants children, and before she can have children, she must find a husband. Francesca and Michael’s courtship dance is about to begin in earnest.
Ms. Quinn keeps the story’s focus narrowly on Francesca and Michael, alternating lengthy scenes, or even whole chapters, from the point-of-view of one or the other. The method allows the tension to build, as we, the omniscient readers, understand why Francesca and Michael act as they do while they are mutually baffled. Both of these exceptionally conflicted lovers need a powerful jolt before they can acknowledge their feelings.
The result is an engaging story, although I found the bedroom (or wherever) scenes somewhat too graphic to be truly romantic. Paradoxically, a little less explicitness sometimes generates more heat. On the plus side, Ms. Quinn convinced me that, even though the encounters were steamy, more was happening than just simple lust. A romance should be about finding love…and When He Was Wicked is.
--Nancy J. Silberstein