With a title like Once Wicked, I was expecting something along the lines of a Susan Johnson historical. Luckily, it didn’t turn out to be that kind of a book, but I still found it a disappointing read. This is another historical that sounds and feels too much like a contemporary at a costume party, and I never felt the emotional connect between the characters and the reader.
Heiress Amelia Benedict is returning from her weekly visit to her uncle Patrick’s orphanage when a highwayman holds up her carriage. In addition to making off with a ring that belonged to her dead mother, the rascal also manages to steal a kiss, leaving Amelia breathless, as well as curious: who was that masked man?
He’s Dylan Marlow, who left Oxford years ago and was disowned by his uncle. He hasn’t been heard from since; the only thing he has to show for himself is an empty warehouse and one un-seaworthy vessel. He’ll do anything to get the ship back in shape, including resorting to robbery – but only from those who can well afford it. One look at Amelia convinces Dylan that what he ought to do, instead of robbing her, is to woo her. That way he can get her money without risking his neck. But he never thought he’d be risking his heart, until it’s too late. And with his reputation, how’s he going to enter the rarified circles of the haut ton, anyway?
Meanwhile, Amelia has found a man she thinks she can marry and maybe even come to love. He’s Lord Chadworth, who exemplifies everything Amelia hates about the ton, but he seems to care for her. She soon finds, however, that the reality of Chad pales in comparison to the memory of her highwayman and that kiss. If only she could forget him! And if only that pesky newcomer Mr. Marlow would leave her alone, too. Who is he, and where did he come from? Why is he being so forward with her? She suspects he doesn’t have a feather to fly with, so he must be just the latest in a string of fortune hunters who’ve plagued her. Where’s her hero in the mask when she needs him?
The word that describes the best parts of this book for me is “adequate.” The story was adequate and there was the requisite amount of attraction and sexual tension between Dylan and Amelia. But nothing sparkled. And there was enough to jar me out of the story repeatedly.
The biggest technical objection I had was the lack of a period feel. Sure, there are allusions to Almack’s and Prinny, and Lady Melbourne and Caroline Lamb, a couple of real historical figures, are secondary characters. But these people don’t think or sound like early-nineteenth-century Englishmen/women. Amelia reflects that her maid would like for her and Dylan to “get together;” one character would do anything “to get a rise out of” another; others speak of an “Almack’s event.” Not quite Regency-speak, to my ear.
More than that, though, was the lack of sympathetic response the hero and heroine evoked in me. Dylan goes from wanting Amelia’s money, to wanting Amelia, to wanting her and her money, to only wanting her and not her money, to. . .you get the picture. His motivations jumped around so much it was hard to keep track of where he was in his emotional contortions at any given point in the story. As for Amelia, while she’s far from a complete gudgeon, her willingness to solicit donations from polite society while being so disdainful of them struck me as shallow and calculating, even if her motivation was selfless.
None of the secondary characters stands out; I was even a bit put off by the (fictitious) actions of one of the historical personages. Yet there’s a certain Garwoodesque air to the book; if you enjoy the sort of story with a slightly breathless, bordering-on-silly heroine who nevertheless manages to pull everything together, and a hero who’s knocked for a loop when he meets her, you’ll probably like Once Wicked more than I did.