The Wickedest Lord Alive
To quote Charlie Brown – “Oh, Good Grief!” Here’s yet another of The Stupidest Titles Around attached to an historical romance. Is there some sort of competition for The Crappiest Title Ever of which I’m unaware?
Fortunately, the book is rather more readable than the title might suggest, although a better one might be The Worst Mother in the World, as it’s more indicative of something that actually happens in the book; try as I might, I couldn’t find the slightest bit of evidence to support the claim of Xavier Westruther, Marquess of Steyne to the epithet of Wickedest Lord Alive. Oh, we were told that he has a terrible reputation, holds orgies and keeps a string of mistresses…we just never see any of them (well, there’s a mistress) in this book.
The story opens with the twenty-one-year-old marquess being forced into marriage with the daughter of the vicious Earl of Bute in order to pay off his mother’s gambling debts. Young Xavier is furious at having been manoeuvred into such an invidious situation, but he nonetheless goes through with the marriage, consummates it and leaves. When he returns shortly afterwards to fetch his bride, she is nowhere to be found.
Eight years pass and we discover that Lady Alexandra-that-was is now living in the village of Little Thurston where she was taken in by the kindly vicar and his late wife. Professing to have lost her memory, she calls herself Lizzie Allbright and has built herself a new and comfortable life in the village.
Until, that is, the Marquess of Steyne arrives unexpectedly and tells her it’s time she resumed her role as his marchioness, particularly with reference to the begetting of an heir. Lizzie is naturally astonished – not only at her husband’s sudden appearance, but at the fact that he had actually known where she was but decided to leave her be to live her own life. She is annoyed at that – somewhat irrationally given she was the one who ran away in the first place, but Steyne believed he was doing the right thing by keeping away.
Of more importance, however, are his reasons for re-entering Lizzie’s life and demanding they get down to the business of making babies without delay. His current heir is his indolent and greedy uncle Bernard, who is far too in thrall to Xavier’s despicable and manipulative mother for comfort. Xavier has good reason to suspect that his life is in danger and wants to secure the succession in case the worst happens.
Lizzie is worried that Steyne will expose her falsehoods, but to her surprise he is not inclined to do so. Instead he offers her an alternative – he will court her for a few weeks, after which they will announce their engagement, elope, travel for a bit and then return home once the gossip has died down. Lizzie knows she doesn’t really have an alternative – Steyne is her husband and she is subject to him. To tell the truth, she’s not totally against the idea; he’s sexy, handsome, and rich, she’s got the hots for him, and he’s obviously attracted to her, too. But she is wary, having realised that he is rather a cold fish and that while she could easily lose her heart to him, he is unlikely to return the favour. She wants to know him, and, sensing it’s not something he’s known much of, to be allowed to love him – although she knows that loving him without return will destroy her.
Steyne is a fascinating character, and it’s this that lifts this book out of the realms of the average. I haven’t read all the other books in this series and Ms Brooke’s previous Ministry of Marriage novels, but I gather that Steyne has been an enigmatic background presence in many of the books. It’s always a treat when that kind of character finally gets their own story and the reader gets to see what makes them tick. He’s complex and haunted by an irrational belief in his own failures and by the simple longing for the maternal affection denied him. He is frequently referred to as “cold” or “icy” – which, as we learn more of his backstory, is not at all surprising, as he has clearly thrown up these defences around his emotions as a form of self-preservation.
Lizzie is a likeable character from the start, even though she is somewhat inconsistent in her behaviour towards Steyne. (Not that he is completely consistent either, but he has his reasons). And there’s a moment towards the end where she strays too far into TSTL territory for my liking.
In the last section of the book there were a number of inconsistencies which took me out of the story. I read a printed ARC which may since have been corrected, but there were some jumps and holes in the plotline which made me feel as though I’d missed a page or two; Lizzie has apparently written to Xavier’s mother, but there is no mention of it until Lizzie is preparing to attend an arranged meeting at a nearby inn. At one point, the death of a minor character is referenced in Xavier’s presence about twenty pages or so before he learns of it.
The pacing is generally good, although I felt that once the action moved to the house party at Harcourt, things started to gallop away a bit, and what had been a nicely developing romance turned into a quickly-get-them-into-bed. I accepted this as necessary because of the demands of the plot, but it’s a bit of a let-down, nonetheless. There is, however, plenty of sizzle between the leads, and at least Xavier gets the chance to live up to his “Wicked” moniker between the sheets.
All in all, I enjoyed reading The Wickedest Lord Alive, in spite of the dumb title and its swerve into the melodramatic. What with Lizzie’s abusive father and Steyne’s total bitch of a mother, the forced, secret marriage, the need for an heir, pretend-amnesia, attempted murder – it’s like the plot of a Victorian Sensation novel! But Ms Brooke brings it all together and makes it work, turning a story that could have been unbelievably cheesy into a very readable page-turner.