Wicked and the Wallflower
I was predisposed to like Wicked and the Wallflower: I love a great wallflower, especially if she’s also smart, feisty, curious and passionate and wicked, anti-heroes are my romance catnip – the naughtier the better. Do your worst romance authors, I’ll love him anyway; and, I’m a fan of Ms. MacLean’s style of historical romance. So, Wicked and the Wallflower should have been an easy A.
Much to my regret, though, it isn’t. Parts of it are excellent, but not good enough to overcome gaps in the storytelling. The romance is intensely passionate, the heroine is clever and perceptive (although a trifle too insecure about her own attractions), and the hero is the wickedest in his corner of the world (dark, dirty, post-Regency London). He’s also the perfect antidote to the ton – the world in which our heroine lives. When these opposites attract, the chemistry is combustible. Folks, the romance works. Unfortunately, after establishing her very intriguing (and complicated) premise for the Bareknuckle Bastards series, Ms. MacLean largely ignores it unless it conveniently advances the romance. Secondary characters are underdeveloped and underutilized (I assume she’s saving these stories for future books), and although I enjoyed Wicked and the Wallflower, I was left unsatisfied.
The story hits the ground running and much to my dismay, it takes a bit too long to figure out what the hell is going on – who is who, and why they are conspiring against the Duke of Marwick. I’ll save you the frustration: In a prologue, we’re introduced to Devil (Devon) who’s terrified of being taken from the only home he knows (an orphanage) and sent to a workhouse. Hearing footsteps outside his room, he flees but is caught. His pursuer laughs at his terror and informs him his destination isn’t a workhouse, it’s the ancestral home of the Duke of Marwick. His relief is short lived. With his current wife unable to provide him an heir, the duke locates his three bastard sons, and brings them to his home, where he pits them against one other to win his affection and the title. The bastards refuse to make it easy for him and band together, vowing none will ever provide him with an heir. It’s unclear what caused them to split, but now Ewan is the current Duke of Marwick, Devil and Beast are collectively known as the Bareknuckle Bastards – rulers of the London underworld.
As Wicked and the Wallflower begins, Devil and Beast are hidden away in the shadows outside of a busy ballroom, deep in discussion about how to prevent Ewan from finding a wife and producing an heir. Their conversation is interrupted by a female guest who abruptly steps out onto the terrace above them. Devil is captivated. He quietly approaches her on the terrace and asks why she’s hidden herself away. The lady is nervous about the dark devil on the terrace, but answers him honestly and when he finally slips away, she’s left curious about him and his intentions.
You might remember Lady Felicity Faircloth from The Day of the Duchess. She was one of the group of women vying to become the next Duchess of Haven. That (obviously) didn’t work out, and although Felicity longs for love and passion, she knows her chances of landing an eligible bachelor have faded. Former friends have dropped her and she painfully endures their wicked teasing and snide comments. Eavesdropping on their conversation this night, she listens to them discussing the recently arrived Duke of Marwick. When they spot her, Felicity can’t bear their insults, and loudly informs them:
“You are too late for the duke,” she repeated, knowing even as she spoke, that she must stop the words from coming. Except they were a runaway horse – loosed and free and wild. “Because I’ve already landed him.”
Um, Felicity hasn’t actually met the duke. Realizing the embarrassing repercussions of her spontaneous declaration, she flees – but not before her words give Devil an idea. He’ll help Felicity transform into a seductress capable of convincing Ewan to ACTUALLY offer for her, and then he’ll ruin her before the wedding can take place. Beast warns him off – he can see his brother is attracted to Felicity – but Devil ignores him. It’s all very intriguingly machiavellian and Ms. Maclean totally sucked me in – Devil is utterly believable as a seducing devil and a vulnerable Felicity is desperate… only, the rest of the story proves it a lie.
Why? Because Devil is utterly enchanted by Felicity and she’s not quite who he expected her to be. He pays a late night visit to her bedroom, and convinces Felicity to accept his help, but his pesky conscience begins acting up almost immediately. Felicity is beautiful, funny, and a bit of a lock picking badass who (inconveniently) has a mind of her own. She agrees to his plan – but she’s curious about Devil and his relationship to the Duke of Marwick, and she can’t help wondering if she’s trying to seduce the wrong man. I loved the interplay between Felicity and Devil and how their partnership reveals, layer by layer, the goodness and protective instincts in both, and the loneliness they both mask. Devil makes it his mission to show Felicity how smart and lovely and deserving of love she is, and Felicity, once she gets to know him, begins to see the vulnerable, generous and protective – passionate – man he is. Their chemistry is electric, and their ‘working’ relationship is a delicious slow tease as Felicity chases and Devil tries to keep her at arm’s length – even as he can’t imagine her with anyone but himself. Their dialogue is snappy and sharp, the intimate scenes are tender and sexy, and I was totally sold on them as a couple.
Unfortunately, Ms. Maclean doesn’t do enough with her secondary characters – especially Devil’s siblings – or their intriguing origin story. She drops hints about the events that split them; the flashbacks are unsettling and appropriately dark and sinister, but even after we find out why Ewan is their enemy, too much of their combined history remains vague. I assume it’s because each of the siblings is meant to get their own story, but with the Duke of Marwick playing such a significant role in this book, his role could and should have been more prominent and meaty. He’s the villain of the piece, but his character is underutilized. The author similarly can’t decide whether Devil is good or bad – the Bareknuckle Bastards ruthlessly suppress dissent and rule with an iron fist… except, they’re also a force for good in their community and they take care of their own. I liked the dichotomy, but I wish Ms. Maclean had done a better job of committing to one or the other.
Wicked and the Wallflower is a bit of a mixed bag. The romance between the principal characters is wonderfully realized and the premise of the series is strangely fascinating/ugly. And although I like the idea of the overarching storyline, readers deserved a bit more secondary character and backstory development. But I will be back for more, and I’m looking forward reading each of the siblings’ stories.