Dear Ms. Carlyle,
I’m a fan of many of your early historicals, but in recent years I have found most of your books more miss than hit. Nonetheless, I’ve always enjoyed your writing style and when I saw that In Love With a Wicked Man apparently features a new cast of characters and no paranormal elements or secret societies, I was happy to give it a shot. In doing so, I somehow missed the fact that it includes an amnesia plot, but having liked some romance novels that included amnesia plots, I was not too concerned.
Kate Wentworth has been the Baroness d’Allenay for several years, since the title can be inherited by a woman. She has always been considered the “sensible one” in her family, while her late brother James was the beautiful one and her eighteen year old sister Nancy is the charming one. After a London season and a broken betrothal, Kate now manages Bellecombe, the family’s ancestral home, and does not wish to marry and cede control of it:
“No one will look at me and see a plain woman with a good heart. They will see only the heiress of Bellecombe. But my father and my brother nearly bled this place dry, and I’ll be damned before I’ll let another man do it.”
When Kate and another rider almost collide, he is thrown off his horse and suffers a head injury and subsequent amnesia. The man, known only as “Edward”, is taken to Bellecombe to recover. Edward is actually Ned Quartermaine, the illegitimate son of a gaming hell owner who now operates his own club; he was in the neighborhood to look at a property he had taken in payment of debt. Kate and Edward get to know one another while he tries to regain his memory, and begin to develop a relationship. Edward is impressed with Kate from the beginning, trying to decide which goddess she might be (he settles on Vesta):
“… her eyes were keen with intelligence and wry humor; one got the feeling Lady d’Allenay laughed often—and frequently at herself. Yes, there was a vast deal of color inside her. And her hair—though it appeared not to have so much as a wave in it, and despite the fact that she had dressed it as severely and plainly as was possible—it had suited her; it had looked efficient and practical.”
The first part of In Love with a Wicked Man is somewhat slow paced and reminded me a bit of your first novel, My False Heart, which also featured a jaded man who stumbles onto the country home of a very capable and independent woman. In addition to Kate and Edward’s relationship, there is also the matter of running Bellecombe, the anticipated visit of Kate’s mother Aurélie and her wild friends, and Nancy’s desire to marry the local rector, whom Kate approves of but Nancy’s guardian does not. Edward is concerned that he himself may not be a good man and warns Kate, but the two nonetheless become more involved and spend one night together.
Shortly afterward, Edward regains his memory (helped by a servant with a very good memory regarding the peerage): he is the second son of a Duke who was actually born from the Duchess’s extramarital affair, and was expelled from his home at the age of ten, when the Duke found out the truth. Kate is more concerned about his choice of career than his family background, but both conclude that they cannot be together. Almost immediately following this revelation, Aurélie and her friends descend upon Bellecombe, and the plot changes rather abruptly into something of a house party romp. Aurélie, who refuses to be called Mamma by her daughters, is rather unconventional and is happy to engage in behavior that generates much gossip in society. She is also considerably cleverer than she lets on and is able to achieve her goals – mostly to do with the romantic relationships of herself and others – very effectively.
I really liked Kate, who is capable and smart, and not afraid to stand up to others and go after what she wants. The secondary female characters are also very good – Nancy, who is much more than just a pretty face and whose chief aspiration is to marry the rector and work together for the benefit of the community; the clever Aurélie and her entertaining schemes; and even the housekeeper, Mrs. Peppin. I was disappointed when Nancy’s subplot resulted in her essentially being written out of the final third or so of the book.
The men did not hold my interest to the same extent. Edward has an interesting background, but he is unaware of it for a long time, during which he seems a fairly standard romance hero, handsome and honorable. Even when he regains his memory there’s not as much depth to his characterization as I would have liked. There’s also Bellecombe’s steward, who is practically a member of the family, and Aurélie’s friends and acquaintances, not all of whom have the Wentworth women’s best interests at heart.
While I enjoyed many of the characters and your writing style remains engaging, I wasn’t so enthusiastic about the plotting. As I noted, there was a fairly abrupt transition in the middle between what felt two completely different books. In addition, neither part really worked all that well on its own: the first half could have done with a lot less internal monologues and rumination from both Kate and Edward, while the second half seemed a bit too farcical at times, with a rather predictable ending and an overlong epilogue.
Ultimately, I very much enjoyed many of the characters and their interactions, but didn’t find the story strong enough to justify a higher grade. I still hope that one day I might enjoy one of your books as much as I liked the earlier ones, but my grade for In Love with a Wicked Man is a C+.