When He Was Wicked, by Julia Quinn, was published in 2004 by Avon. It is book six of nine in the Bridgerton Family Series of Regency era romances. The story works well enough as a stand alone, though from the reviews of others familiar with the series, it seems the other books have more humour.
Micheal has loved Francesca since meeting her shortly before her marriage to his cousin and close companion John, an Earl. After two years of marriage, Micheal and Francesca are good friends. Micheal is one of the idle rich, with a well deserved reputation as a merry rake. Then John dies. Micheal inherits the wealth, title, and estate, and realizes Francesca is now available too. Overwhelmed, and feeling guilty, he flees to India, leaving Francesca to manage the earldom.
Four years later, Michael returns, ready to take on some of his responsibilities. Meanwhile, Francesca is starting to think longingly of having a child. They meet immediately and accidentally at the official London residence of the earl, where both have a right to live. After much mutual guilty smoldering, she flees to the country seat, and he follows, where their passion is repeatedly consummated, followed by a quickie wedding.
The book is well written, with lots of period detail and some realism. Micheal, for example, occasionally has bouts of malarial fever, which is used a couple of times for narrative tension. The constant reminder of John’s untimely death, and also a miscarriage, darken the tone. However, there does not seem to be much at stake for either character. Francesca will presumably lose her title and some status should Micheal marry someone else, but this does not seem to be a concern for her.
The only obstacle to their relationship is their own guilt, especially for Michael, since he was attracted to Francesca while John was alive. However, the reason for his attraction is a vague love at first sight thing, and we are repeatedly reminded of his sexual adventuring, so both the attraction and the guilt are a little hard to accept. He may have been wicked in the past, but he does not show much inclination towards wickedness when it comes to Francesca.
The cover includes a reviewer noting “Quinn is truly our contemporary Jane Austen.” I do not agree, at least not on the basis of this book. When I think of Austen, I think of attractions based on conversation, and concerns about money. I don’t think of detailed multi-page sex scenes. That said, Quinn has done some clever work with the letters than open each chapter.
Despite some disappointment with the plot and character, the writing, background and secondary characters are rich enough that I’ll try another in the series, hoping it has more humour and more challenge to the relationship.