This Wicked Gift is, I believe, Courtney Milan’s first published work, and is an introductory novella to her Carhart books. In it, Miss Lavinia Spencer is caring for her sick father and her younger brother as well as running their family business, a circulating library. Money is incredibly tight, but Lavinia has been scrupulously saving pennies here and there, because she wants her family to have a wonderful Christmas complete with a goose, spices for mulled wine and the few other trimmings they can afford.
But the money she has worked so hard to scrape together is lost when her younger brother James uses it to buy into a fraudulent business venture – and even worse, he owes ten pounds to the man who has cheated him.
The conversation in which James confesses his predicament is overheard by one of the library’s regular customers, Mr William White, who has, unbeknownst to her, been hankering after Lavinia for the last year. William has come down in the world – an inheritance he had hoped for seems farther away than ever, and he makes a pittance working as a clerk in the offices of the curmudgeonly Marquess of Blakely. He’s tired and he’s bitter, and when he sees the chance to have something he desperately wants, the chance to have one bright memory amid the drudgery of his daily existence, he grabs it, no matter that it’s completely underhand and dishonourable. He finds out to whom James’ debt is owed, buys up the note of hand, even though it practically beggars him to do it, and then proceeds to – he thinks – blackmail Lavinia into his bed.
He has no idea that Lavinia is just as smitten with him as he is with her, or that she has other options for paying the debt. Even as he seduces her with a great deal of care and tenderness, he hates himself, telling himself that what he is doing is despicable – but he does it anyway. I’m sure this is a bone of contention for many, the hero of a romance forcing the heroine to have sex with him, but the point is that Lavinia is not coerced or forced – she wants to make love with William, and also to show him the value of those things that can’t be bought with money. The fact that he’s a despairing and bitter man who has lost his way in life – and who loathes himself so thoroughly for what he does – that it’s almost impossible not to feel sorry for him.
Lavinia is perhaps just a little too good to be true. I felt that she should at least have bawled William out about his intentions, even if the act was something she desired as much as he did. But then, she’s capable of tremendous insight, realising he’s beating himself up about it more than she ever could, and it’s her loving forgiveness that sets William back on the right path and enables him to find the decent man buried under the layers of bitterness and resentment.
There aren’t many authors who could take a story that deals with people living on the bread-line and turn it into an uplifting story, or who could make a hero out of a man who stoops to blackmail the heroine into sleeping with him, but Courtney Milan manages it. This Wicked Gift is perhaps not Ms Milan’s best novella (that honour belongs to either The Governess Affair or A Kiss For Midwinter) but it’s nonetheless extremely well-written and unusual story, and is defnintely recommended.
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