The Wicked Lover is a Georgian romance. A kick-off-your-shoes-and- sink-your-teeth-into-it Georgian romance. I read it slowly during a busy period and every time I opened the book I savored the experience.
Ross’s latest opens with a terrific, attention-grabbing scene. The hero, Robert Sinclair Dovenby (known as Dove) returns home to find a giant bonfire in the street in front of his house. Presiding over the fire is his mistress, who is merrily burning all his clothes. Dove can’t really afford the loss of his clothes or his mistress: he’s a self-made man who depended on her patronage to make his way in society and business. Besides, he’s genuinely fond of her. Nonetheless, Dove manages to handle the scene with considerable aplomb, and when he finally enters his home he finds the reason for the whole debacle: a woman sits inside his bedroom, and a young man is tied to his bed. His mistress believed him to be unfaithful.
Dove can tell instantly that the man tied to his bed is actually a woman, but he doesn’t tell her that. Instead he lets her tell her story. She claims to be a young man named George White who had made a wager to steal one of Dove’s cravats. Dove doesn’t buy it, but he makes George promise to work out his debt (the destruction of Dove’s wardrobe) by becoming his secretary.
Obtaining employment from Dove was actually “George’s” real goal. George is Sylvie Georgiana, Countess of Montevrain, a very successful spy just returning to England for the first time since her childhood. She works for the Duke of Yveshire, a man who despises Dove and wants to see him ruined. Sylvie is charged with collecting evidence that will contribute to Dove’s downfall, but she can’t find any. The more she works for Dove, the more impressed she becomes. Meanwhile, Dove seems to delight in taking her places and showing her the ways of the world. Coffee houses and masquerade balls are on the agenda, but not (thankfully) brothels. Eventually Sylvie finds out that Dove knows she’s a woman, and that’s when their mutual seduction begins in earnest. But though Sylvie is very attracted to Dove, she still isn’t sure where to place her loyalties. The Duke of Yveshire is not only her long-term employer, he is also her friend. His evidence against Dove seems incontrovertible, yet every instinct tells her that Dove is a good man. Meanwhile, Dove is aware that he’s seducing an enemy who could very well destroy him. He decides to put his faith in her and hope that she will trust him, but he can’t help but wonder if his trust in her is misplaced.
The Wicked Lover has the type of set-up I just love – a really juicy conflict whose solution is not immediately apparent. All of it is more complicated than it seems, and both characters have compelling reasons to keep secrets from each other. Sylvie and Dove fall in love with each other even before they truly understand each other’s motives. It all makes the final moment when all is revealed that much sweeter.
Oddly enough, this book has features that would drive me crazy elsewhere. I can’t stand characters with dorky animal or bird nicknames. You know, like Hawk, Wolf, Tiger – or Dove. I did find Dove’s name distracting at first, but I soon got so involved in the story that I just didn’t care. I also tend to avoid cross-dressing romances as a rule, mostly because I have trouble believing them. In this case, the whole plotline works. Sylvie truly enjoys the freedom of being a man, and Dove knows she really isn’t one. There are no silly scenes where he finds himself appalled because of his attraction to a person he thinks is male. It also works because Ross goes beyond the hackneyed “take the ‘boy’ to the brothel” scenes. Instead, there is a scene, practically sizzling with energy, where Dove teaches George to bow like a man.
The book is full of just such details. The Georgian period comes to life vividly here, with detailed descriptions of clothing and atmosphere. Not only is there a sense of place and time; there is also a sense of season. Ross’s writing goes far beyond the workmanlike prose of many novels; each scene is carefully crafted to paint a vivid picture. The book takes place in winter, and there’s no way you could forget that for a moment – the cold is almost a character in the book. This is something you can appreciate if you’ve ever read a book where characters wear sweaters in August in New Orleans. I can pinpoint the exact moment when I realized I was reading something beyond the ordinary. It’s in the middle of the book, when Sylvie and Dove are discussing their pasts and their feelings about love. Sylvie keeps noticing the frost patterns on the study window, and keeps returning to the window to touch it, melting the frost with the warmth of her hand. The picture is so well-crafted that I felt like I was actually there.
Dove is simply delicious. He’s confident, kind, and fascinating. Sylvie is also a rare creature – a guarded, quiet, experienced woman who makes no apologies for her past. The two other main characters – Dove’s mistress and the Duke of Yveshire – are every bit as fascinating. You’re probably wondering at this point what kept the book from being a DIK. It very nearly was, but the ending had some small problems which made it feel a bit forced. Enumerating these quibbles would definitely be spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that a couple of events didn’t quite work for me. However, in the grand scheme of things they hardly detract from what is otherwise a marvelous read. I highly recommend The Wicked Lover to anyone seeking a romance with rich details, intriguing characters, and a fabulous conflict.