Judith Law is on her way to a life of a poor relation and near servitude with her aunt and uncle. Judith is the second daughter of four. Her only brother Branwell’s improvident debts have nearly ruined their father, the rector of a modest living. Her father’s sister has offered to take one of her nieces into her household to relieve the strain on the family finances. Judith knows she has no choice but too plainly sees the life of drudgery she will soon endure.
The stagecoach in which she’s riding overturns. Lord Rannulf Bedwyn rides up and offers to take one of the passengers with him to the next inn where he’ll send assistance back to the others. Judith agrees to go with him and gives him the name of Claire Campbell and her profession as actress.
Lord Rannulf also conceals his true identity, telling her he is Raif Bedard. He is actually on a journey to his grandmother’s. The second brother of the Duke of Bewcastle (and the younger brother of the hero of Slightly Married), he is her heir, and she is anxious to see him wed while she still lives. She thinks Julianne Effingham, the daughter of a neighboring baronet, may make him a suitable wife.
Rannulf and Judith indulge in a brief, passionate affair. When Rannulf suggests she become his mistress and they have a lengthier relationship, she pretends to agree then leaves when he is absent. Judith continues to her aunt’s house where she learns that all her fears about her status are confirmed. Her vivid red hair is to be covered at all times; her clothes are to be shapeless and matronly. Her main duty is to be companion to her elderly grandmother, but she will also be expected to relieve her aunt and cousin of many obligations.
It isn’t until Rannulf meets Julianne’s cousin that he discovers Claire Campbell’s true identity. The attraction is still strong between them but so are the tensions. The theft of Judith’s grandmother’s jewels will lead to more complications.
This regency-era romance is a classic Mary Balogh tale. The hero and heroine come at each other from very different perspectives - over the course of the story they’ll change and grow because of their connection. And they’ve got character! I’ve read far too many romances where I’ve wondered why any right-thinking heroine would want to spend the rest of the evening, much less her life, with this jerk. Or how long before the hero notices that the heroine has the depth of a sheet of cellophane.
I want my heroes and heroines to have some complexity, some resolution, some strength of character. They don’t have to be perfect (in fact, I dislike the preternaturally perfect heroine - I can’t identify with her!), but I want there to be some solid character development that explains why they’re acting the way they are.
In other words, I want my heroes and heroines to be just like Mary Balogh writes them.
Countless romance heroes and heroines have fallen into bed together shortly after first meeting for practically no reason. In contrast, Judith and Rannulf’s actions and reactions are absolutely believable. Judith has been raised to believe she’s ugly (her hair is “the devil’s own color”), and her active imagination has conjured up romantic adventures. She knows that this one interlude with Raif Bedard is likely to be the only one in a long, drab lifetime. She cannot avoid the life her brother’s recklessness has ordained for her, but she can have one moment of passion in a drab life.
Rannulf doesn’t fall in love with Judith during their brief affair. It’s not until he compares her with her vain, self-absorbed cousin that he begins to recognize the kind of woman he wants for a wife. The gradual progression of their love is far more convincing than the stereotypical love at first sight story line.
Mary Balogh is without any doubt one of the best romance authors ever. When she wrote short Regency romances for Signet, she was one of the stars of the subgenre, and since she left to write full-length romances exclusively, no one has stepped in to take her place. When I pick up a new Mary Balogh book, I know that it’s going to deliver a good reading experience and there’s a good possibility it’ll be a keeper. Other authors may deliver an occasional clunker. Not Mary Balogh.
While Slightly Wicked does not hold the record as my favorite book by this author (Longing is probably the leading contender for that distinction), there is no question that it’s going to go on a keeper shelf with many other of her books. I strongly recommend it to readers who have enjoyed her works in the past and most especially to those who have yet to discover this talented author.
A final comment: There’s a certain Waiting for Rothgar feeling (from Jo Beverley’s Malloren series) to this new Bedwyn series of Mary Balogh’s. Eventually we’ll get Bewcastle’s story - every dedicated romance reader knows that his icy demeanor is really a safeguard for his intensely passionate nature. He may have fooled his family, but he can’t fool us! I won’t miss a single installment in this family saga, but I’m really Waiting for Bewcastle.