Wicked Wager
by Julia Justiss, historical (2003)
Harlequin, $5.99, ISBN 0-373-83591-4


Don't be fooled by the back blurb into thinking that the hero Lord Anthony Nelthorpe is an unrepentant rake. I'm starting to believe that Julia Justiss, like Mary Balogh and other Regency historical Emily Post authors, cannot write a "bad" hero in any sense of the word.

In this story, Anthony is back in England after some eye-opening epiphany-ridden sojourn in Waterloo and now he is repentant, ashamed of his licentious past, and wanting to restore the family name. Along the way, the author wants me to love Anthony and be so sympathetic to him - after all, my genteel Regency reader's heart will surely expire if I read a book where the hero behaves in any way like a rake he is described as at the back blurb! - that she gives Anthony an over-the-top wastrel father but also with servants and other people that love Anthony. So, in a sense, Anthony's atonement and repentance aside, his "I'm such a bad guy, oh, oh, oh!" views are limited mostly to himself and a few other people; these people portrayed as unlikeable or snobby people so it's clear where the author wants my allegiance to lie.

A few years ago, he tried to kidnap Jenna Fairchild to force her to marry him. She escaped and married a soldier, Garrett, that she has loved for a long time. Alas, Garrett died and now the pregnant Jenna returns to Garrett's family in London to prepare for her baby. Anthony has never gotten over her despite his usual "I'm not worthy" blues, and when he helps her after she falls from a horse and miscarries her child, he wagers with her that she can reform his wicked ways by the end of the book. I snort - what wicked ways? If Anthony wanting to restore his family honor is "wicked", I hate to live in Ms Justiss' fictitious world because I have a feeling that I will be cast as the wicked harlot that turns around to look at the fireworks of Sodom and Gomorrah and is transformed as a result into a statue in a pose with my tongue sticking out.

I don't mind Anthony - despite his tendency to flagellate himself over his past licentious ways, he still has a sense of humor that makes him a bearable character. Jenna, on the other hand, tends to drive me absolutely crazy. She has no sense of humor, her nerves are constantly on a high-strung mode, she is either casting her eyes downwards or running away from confrontations, and best of all, the only proactive stance she takes in this book is her actively finding ways to feel even more miserable about herself. She holds herself to ridiculous bargains and wagers. She finds ways to make herself bound by favors and gratitude that are blown way out of proportion. The last straw is when she feels ashamed in a scene where Tony's old army buddy remembers him, for reasons I am not privy to. It's a pattern with Jenna - often Ms Justiss tells me how Jenna feels ashamed, guilty, miserable, trapped, and what not that I want to scream at Jenna to either get over herself or kill herself and be done with it instead of dragging me down with her. Yes, I am evil, but I have no patience for people that spend their leisure time beating themselves up over their past or finding trivial reasons to feel miserable and blue.

Thankfully during the second half of the story the heroine is in danger and so she, for once, starts sobbing or heaving her chest for all the right reasons. Here, the characters are forced to start looking outside their limited sphere of self-absorption and that's when Wicked Wager becomes very readable indeed. This only shows that the author is doing herself no favors by exaggerating her main characters' actually trivial issues and these characters' reactions to their self-esteem issues.

Still, let's look at the bright side: compared to the author's last few painfully unoriginal books, Wicked Wager is a much better book. Now if she can lose the starch in her characters' underwear and have them throw a happy party once in a while, then we'll be talking about good books and good times. I don't want to be mean or anything, but there is probably a very good reason why Mary Balogh isn't exactly a bestselling superstar yet despite having written zillions of books on martyr manners and exaggerated etiquettes.

Rating: 74


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