Wicked as Sin
I met Jillian Hunter at the 1996 national RWA conference through her friendship with Kathryn Lynn Davis, who wrote my favorite novel (Too Deep for Tears). Because she wasn’t online until fairly recently, I’ve not really kept in touch, but she became an auto-buy author for me after 1997’s Fairytale and 2000’s Indiscretion. Many of her books in the intervening years remain TBR, but two of her Boscastle series stand out in my mind: The Seduction of an English Scoundrel and The Sinful Nights of a Nobleman. Wicked as Sin held a great deal of promise, but the story’s main conflict dragged on too long and a significant sub-plot lost impact as it played out.
Sir Gabriel Boscastle is a black sheep Boscastle cousin who earned his wicked reputation in youth as a result of his cruel step-father’s punishments. Though he served valiantly at Waterloo, he returned to his wicked ways after the war, and won Helbourne Hall – a ramshackle country manor with smart-alecky servants and bats in residence – in a card game. Right before he arrives, drunk, at his new property one night, he is met by Lady Alethea Claridge, who lives next door in her brother’s country residence. The two knew each other as youths, and he’s held her on a pedestal since the day she tried to help him after he was pilloried by his step-father. Though she knows of his rakish reputation, she’s always known his bad boy rep is not…entirely…deserved.
Lady Alethea essentially became a war widow when her fiance was killed in the war. What society doesn’t know is that on the night of her engagement to the man who has since become known as a hero, he hurt her badly and left her with a sense of shame so strong she once visited the same madam many of the Boscastle wives have turned to for advice throughout the series. It is this visit that is the basis for the main conflict between her and Gabriel; he defends her honor against the man who tells him about it, but has trouble handling the idea that Alethea might have sold her favors.
It’s not as though Gabriel turns into an insufferable idiot, though, because he and Alethea quickly build upon the relationship they had as children. It doesn’t take long before both are madly in love with the other. Gabriel becomes domesticated – but remains oh-so-sexy – and they make plans to marry. But the couple are interrupted and the story moves to London, which is where it loses its momentum. Oh, I enjoyed the scenes with Alethea and her sisters-in-law-to-be and those moments when the Boscastle men take Gabriel under their wing. But the combination of Alethea’s secret, a sub-plot involving a man who looks like Gabriel breaking into the houses of members of the ton, and what eventually becomes annoying male Boscastle interference, nearly destroys the fairy tale-like feeling the story engenders in the first part. It doesn’t completely ruin it, though, because other than a short period when Alethea’s secret leads to a small Big Misunderstanding, their feelings for each other remain strong, considerate, and nearly worshipful. That Gabriel believes he can never be the hero Alethea’s fiance was supposed to have been wonderfully contrasts with her knowledge that Gabriel is the true hero and her now-dead betrothed truly the wicked one. This is a strong bit of writing.
Hunter’s trademark humor, which works wonderfully through much of the book, feels a little forced, though, mainly when it comes to Helbourne Hall. Snarky servants and bats? And the sensuality of her writing in recent years continues here; each may put the other on a pedestal, but when it comes to the physical act, they’re as playful as other Boscastle couples.
I’m no romance writer, but my guess is that another draft might have improved Wicked as Sin. Had a ruthless editor slashed four chapters preceding Gabriel’s uncovering Alethea’s secret, I’d not have felt the need to skim and jump ahead. And had the mysterious sub-plot been less mysterious, and therefore less about setting up the next book in the series, my frustration at yet another reason to keep this couple apart for a few more chapters would not have occurred.