The Wicked Cousin
The Wicked Cousin starts off on a high note with a superb prologue that’s both gripping and moving, and introduces us to the book’s eponymous hero, Sebastian Audley. The story loses steam somewhat after the principals fall in love, but fortunately, Ms. Riley’s terrific writing elevates this rather basic love story from ordinary to extraordinary. Although our handsome hero isn’t so very wicked after all, he’s still sublime and delicious and awesome. His love interest, Cassie Delahaye (whom we’ve glimpsed in earlier Rockliffe books) is similarly appealing and likeable, and The Wicked Cousin is an entertaining addition to the series. I wouldn’t recommend it as a standalone – characters from all the previous books appear prominently in this one – although you can probably still enjoy it if you do a bit of homework .
At the age of eight, Sebastian discovered his twin brother missing from their room and the door locked from the outside. He knew instinctively something was wrong, but his cries went unanswered and freedom, when it arrived, came at a cost. Theo was dead (from diphtheria), and Sebastian’s life would never be the same. His parents, heartbroken and unwilling to lose their only son and heir, isolated and suffocated him in an overprotective reaction to Theo’s death. Frustrated and resentful, Sebastian departed for the continent the moment he was free of their control and has spent past seven years making up for lost time – earning the sobriquet “wicked”.
When word reaches him that his father has suffered an apoplexy and he’s needed at home, Sebastian rapidly departs for England. The timing is fortuitous – he’s begun to tire of his wild lifestyle and has forgiven his father for his suffocating childhood. He’s anxious to form a new relationship with Lord Wingham – if he’s still alive when he finally makes it back. Twenty-two days later Sebastian arrives home only to discover the letter exaggerated his father’s illness. But the apoplexy, though not as serious as his sister insinuated, provides just the catalyst necessary for the men to reconcile formally, and the visit marks a change in their relationship.
For years, rumors about Sebastian’s exploits, duels and romantic liaisons have provided fodder for the scandal sheets, and on his arrival in London, speculation is rampant and frenzied. Women are attracted to him, and men are eager to challenge him to newer, ever more daring wagers. Cassandra – Cassie – Delahaye, however, isn’t. Wicked (distant) cousin Sebastian sounds more like a fool than a catch, and despite her younger sister Olivia’s eagerness to gossip about him, Cassie is more interested in one of the gentlemen currently currying her favor, the handsome Richard Penhaligon. Intelligent, practical and pragmatic about her prospects, Cassie longs to be swept off her feet and isn’t willing to settle. Yet.
After visiting his father, Sebastian makes plans to visit London, well aware of the fact that his wicked past won’t be as easy to leave behind as he hoped. A wager between him and his close friend Adrian Devereux, Earl of Sarre (The Player) paves the way for Sebastian’s return and he makes his re-entrance into London society at the Cavendish ball where he’s immediately besieged by single females eager for his attention. Anxious to escape the hordes, he ducks into the library. When he’s followed by a trio of chits barely out of the schoolroom, Sebastian admonishes them for their inappropriate behavior and shames them into leaving him alone. Only he isn’t. Hidden behind a couch is Cassie – who took refuge there to avoid a particularly eager suitor.
When Cassie reveals herself, Sebastian is quick to think the worst and lumps her in with all the other ladies angling for his attention, but Cassie quickly sets him straight. Sparks fly – until a knock on the door interrupts them and sends Cassie back to her hiding place. She listens as Sebastian’s former mistress, Miranda Silvarez, enters, and tells him she’s now widowed and free to remarry. Alarm bells start ringing, but right now, Sebastian knows he can’t afford for Miranda to discover Cassie’s presence, so he distracts her, kisses her and urges her out of the library. She’s confused but goes and Cassie escapes – but the die is cast. Cassie is intrigued by Sebastian; Sebastian is attracted to his feisty library companion. When he sends her violets the following day, signed Y.W.C.S. (Your Wicked Cousin Sebastian), Cassie is similarly smitten.
Up until this first unorthodox meeting, and even for a bit after it, I loved everything about The Wicked Cousin. The premise, the characters, the lead up – it’s all wonderful. But from here on out, the story doesn’t quite live up to its potential. Sparks fly between Sebastian and Cassie from the moment they meet, and when Sebastian is folded into Cassie’s circle of friends (the Rockliffe set – featured in the previous books), they find themselves often in each other’s company. Lust quickly becomes love, and before long Sebastian is asking Cassie’s father’s permission to court her. Unfortunately, Miranda Silvarez continues to plague Sebastian, and with help from Richard Penhaligon, who’s currently enjoying her favors, she’s doing a bang-up job. The mistress side-plot adds a bit of intrigue, but aside from a few delicious stolen kisses and a terrifically sexy scene at a masquerade when Sebastian spots Cassie in a risqué costume and can’t believe it’s her… there isn’t a whole lot more to the story.
If you opened this book hoping for a wicked hero, Sebastian is a bit of a disappointment. This story is about his redemption, and he goes from naughty hottie to just plain hottie in short order. I loved him and his brilliant red hair, and those moments when he loses his cool over Cassie (they’re terrific, and too few and far between), but after that prologue, the ‘new’ Sebastian is a bit too good. Which leads me to my other major problem – Cassie, though likeable, dulls in comparison to him, and I’m not sure Ms. Riley does enough to convince me she’s the one to finally bring him to his knees.
A hallmark of the Rockliffe series, and Ms. Riley’s books in general, is her wonderful casts of secondary characters. Featuring a diverse cast of friends and acquaintances, all of whom orbit the Duke of Rockliffe’s world, it’s an interesting mix of single and married men and women. The group are fiercely loyal to one another and while I do love the interplay between them (I do! I promise!), by the end of the book, perhaps I’m a cynic, but they all begin to read as a bit too good to be true. Rockliffe is omniscient (he’s so yummy!), the friends are always ready and willing to help each other, and there’s no circumstance the group can’t overcome. It’s awesome – but it’s also overkill. Cassie’s family gets a similar treatment. I’m reluctant to criticize them because they’re so damned great and it’s a nice change from the standard overbearing parents featured in historical romance, but is it realistic? Sir Charles quickly accepts Sebastian’s explanations for his past and current contretemps with Mistress Silvarez, but I’m not convinced his response is typical or appropriate. Cassie, his pride and joy, has fallen in love with a man with a tarnished reputation. I like that he was willing to give Sebastian the benefit of the doubt, but it smacked a bit too strongly of the good ‘ol boys club for my tastes.
Quibbles aside, I liked Sebastian and Cassie, and I enjoyed revisiting old friends from the earlier Rockliffe books. It’s a treat to spend time in Ms. Riley’s world – she’s a gifted writer and storyteller. Although The Wicked Cousin isn’t quite as clever or compelling as the earlier stories, it’s still rich with vibrant and appealing principals, interesting secondary characters and wonderful period details. It might not be her best – but it’s still a lot better than most.