by Jillian Hunter, historical (2008)
Ballantine, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-345-50393-0
Wicked As Sin is an uneven story that suffers from some considerable pacing issues. However, the hero and the heroine are two really adorable characters. The thing is, the author has put these two through a most uninspired conflict in order to prolong the story a little bit more.
While there are only three words in the title, this is still a Borcastle book. In this one, we have yet another walking wounded woobie Borcastle, Gabriel, who is yet another ex-soldier. Having won a house in his childhood home Einfield, he decides to pay his new place a visit, if only to spend some time to brood on his past (where he stayed to protect his mother from his abusive stepfather even as his brothers fled the coop one by one) and hopefully put some of his ghosts to rest. As luck would have it, his neighbor is Alethea Claridge, his teenage crush who has naturally grown into a hot woman. As Gabriel begins to fall under Alethea's spell and postpones his plans to go back to London just for her, she has a secret that may come between them.
It's not really a spoiler, since anyone browsing this book at the bookstore will learn of it as it is revealed early in the story, so I'll just state Alethea's secret. Her fiancé, who had since died in the war against France and was canonized as a hero, raped her on the night their engagement was announced and since then, Alethea prefers to stay in her brother's house and find some peace in her life at the countryside.
This is not to say that she is some tortured heroine withdrawing into her shell and wailing that she is no longer worthy of a man's touch, though. Alethea is a smart heroine with an actually pretty healthy outlook in life. She refuses to feel sorry for herself and she even applies that principle to the hero, with her often dragging Gabriel out of his pity party for one whenever he threatens to get carried away with his emo act.
If Alethea seems unnaturally sanguine about her ordeal at her fiancés hands, however, it's... well, this is one aspect of her that could have been dealt better by Ms Hunter. On one hand, I can see from this story that Alethea is a pretty sheltered woman where sex is concerned. She doesn't even know that her lack of hymen would lead Gabriel to conclude that she is not a virgin, for example, so perhaps I can deduce that she doesn't know how badly her fiancé treated her. And yet, contradicting the suggestion that she is ignorant about sex is the fact that Alethea does know that she was raped. It is also rather hard to believe that Alethea will go from thinking that sex is unpleasant into becoming an eager randy woman who can't get enough of it from Gabriel.
Still, her issues with sex aside, Alethea is a really fun heroine because while she is on the surface a typical countrified miss of a heroine that is pretty much everywhere in this type of historical romances, she doesn't take any nonsense from the hero and she also has a pretty good self-esteem. She and Gabriel hit off like fireworks on the Fourth of July and their chemistry is obvious as well as infectious. Gabriel can be a problematic character in that he often insists that he is damaged goods, et cetera, but I am never really shown why he would believe that this is the case. Oh, I know, he has a lousy childhood, but how does that make him unworthy of love? Fortunately, once he decides that he's in love with Alethea, he turns into one of the most charming and romantic rascal that I have come across in my romance novels.
For a while, that is. But still, during those moments, he and Alethea have a relationship that is so cute and fun to read about that I can't help adoring those two to pieces. Unfortunately, because a full-length novel cannot stop after 200 pages, Ms Hunter proceeds to introduce a really clichéd and tedious conflict where Gabriel goes mad and presumes that he has been fooled by Alethea because she knows a famous courtesan. Is he really that stupid to believe that Alethea, shortly after the death of her fiancé, would take up a career of prostitution? When she has a brother who supports her and a place to stay in the countryside? And even if she did become a prostitute, what happens to his declaration of true love? This is a man who stuck it to every woman that breathes, or so it seems, before he met Alethea, so shouldn't he be overjoyed as he seems excessively fond of prostitutes?
Fortunately, Gabriel's insanity doesn't last long but even then, this conflict lasts long enough to make me look at his feelings for Alethea in a more cynical light. Ms Hunter has an inkling of how the conflict will reflect on her characters as she has Alethea giving Gabriel some mild heat for putting her on an unrealistic pedestal and falling in love with his fantasy version of her. That still doesn't make Gabriel's protests that he really does love her come off as real though. This conflict has really undermined the romance in this story.
Even worse, the story continues on and on despite the fact that the main characters have reconciled. This time around, there is some truly lame and boring subplot involving some thief that is nothing more than a transparent set-up for the next book as well as the opportunity for the author to trot out some Borcastle males like gigolos in a meat market for my perusal. These boring padded chapters feel like an interminable commercial break before the last chapter, where the two characters finally get married.
Gabriel and Alethea, when they aren't doing stupid things in the name of padded conflict, are easily the best things about this story as they are smart people who are so good together. They easily make me believe that they are best of friends as well as the most compatible of lovers. I really adore them. However, the rest of the story suffers from pointless padding, silly conflicts, and chunky paragraphs after paragraphs of exposition. Wicked As Sin is an uneven book, and if I didn't adore the main characters so much, I'd have given this book the shredding it truly deserves.
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