The characters in Wicked Wager are ones I love. Tony, Viscount Nelthorpe, is a rake, trying to live down his past. Jenna, Lady Fairchild, is an intelligent, mature woman. They know each other from the past, and Jenna has always despised him. But times and circumstances have changed for both of them.
Had Tony not joined the Army, he would have ended up in debtor’s prison. While serving under Wellington, Tony realized that he was not a total wastrel. No, he never became a hero, but he was a good soldier whose men respected him. While in the army, he met Jenna Montague, an officer’s daughter. He was attracted to her, but she thought him a boor and married Garrett, Lord Fairchild. Now they are both back in England, Tony with a crippled leg and no money at all, and Jenna, a pregnant widow.
Tony’s financial problems ease a bit when he gets financing from a wealthy cit whose son served under him. Now it’s Jenna who has problems. Her husband’s relatives alternately coddle her and throw eligible men at her; an independent woman, Jenna finds herself stifled by them. Then one morning her horse throws her and she loses her unborn child. It’s Tony who rescues her, Tony who comes by to ask about her, and Tony who offers her an outlet for her grief. He asks Jenna to help him in a project to aid former soldiers and their families, and also asks her to reform him.
Jenna really doesn’t have much chance to reform Tony. Pretty soon she’s seriously considering an offer of marriage from a former officer while Tony takes off to solve a mystery. There is something about Jenna’s accident that is disquieting and he means to get to the bottom of it.
I liked this book immediately. I am a total pushover for a reformed rake/wounded hero who is trying to live down his past, and Tony was a prime specimen. From glimpses of his past, we know that he was not a nice man at all. But his experiences in war and his love for Jenna have brought out all the goodness that makes up the real Tony. I cheered him every step along the way on his double quest: to uncover Jenna’s would-be murderer, and to make himself into a man worthy of her.
It’s hard to make a Regency heroine with sensibilities that reasonate with a modern reader and not have her come across as anachronistic. Jenna was everything I love in a heroine: smart, brave, independent, loving, and toughminded. But she never seemed like a 21st-century woman sent back in time. As an officer’s daughter and then an officer’s wife, she was used to behaving independently, and her impatience with tonnish behavior rang true. I also loved seeing that her first marriage was a happy, loving one – I get so tired of the clichéd evil first husband.
The mystery was not all that mysterious. I had figured out who was behind the attempt on Jenna very early on. Tony’s sleuthing took him away from her for a longish portion of the book, and since I normally am not too fond of separations I probably ought to fuss, but I won’t because I liked Tony so much, and I enjoyed seeing how his sleuthing brought him closure with his past.
I’ve read some books that were hard to get into and left me cold and unmoved. Wicked Wager drew me in immediately and kept me happily engaged till the end. Tony and Jenna are a wonderful pair and will be on my list of favorite couples for 2003. I’ve read all of Julia Justiss’s books now, and count her as one of my favorite authors of historical romance. Anyone who enjoys historical romances with intelligent, passionate characters will definitely enjoy this book.