One Wicked Night by Shelley Bradley
(Zebra, $4.99, R) ISBN 0-8217-6467-5
****
One Wicked Night is a complicated tale with several unusual twists. Lady Serena Boyce desperately wants a child -- not only to assure her elderly husband of an heir, but also because she longs to be a mother. In her three years of marriage, however, those arms have remained empty, and nothing is likely to change. Cyrus Boyce, Duke of Warrington has no heir, and Serena has no child. The Duke is impotent.

In a move that stuns Serena, Cyrus proposes that she take a lover and get herself with child. Serena is aghast at this idea, but as the duke explains his fear of dying without an heir and what his greedy nephew, Alastair, might do, Serena reluctantly agrees. One night in Vauxhall Gardens, where she has gone with a friend, Serena is accosted by thieves and narrowly avoids being raped by the intervention of a stranger. Lucien Clayborne, Marquess of Daneridge, insists on helping Serena home n his carriage. Once inside, the two are swept up in an immediate attraction and end up spending the night together.

To the pious Serena, this is an unforgivable sin. Surely she must appear to be as wanton as her mother was, flitting from lover to lover. Lucien is unwillingly dragged from his own sorrow over the death of his daughter by thoughts of the golden-haired woman he rescued. But who is she? Another lady of the ton looking for adventure outside her husband's bed? Just like his former wife, no doubt. Lucien is already somewhat of a pariah among polite society for having obtained a divorce.

Serena and Lucien are thrown together again after Cyrus is murdered -- and names Lucien in his will. Having left all his money to Serena, he reaches out from the grave to ensure her safety from Alistair. And the child she now carries will make or break their relationship for good, once Lucien finds out what Serena was really up to the night she came to his room.

The premise of this story was intriguing. The author takes care to spend time with Cyrus and Serena at the outset, with the result that the reader actually wants Serena to find a lover and ease both their pain. Serena, caught between her desire for a child and her fear of behaving like her scandalous mother, is a sympathetic character. Lucien is sufficiently tortured over the death of his little girl -- a death he might have prevented -- and his unwilling attraction to Serena burns white-hot.

The author was also careful not to trivialize Lucien's divorce -- it's presented as a difficult, unusual, and expensive proposition, which it surely was at that time.

The story does stumble over a few well-worn ruts, though. Serena, for all that she's fully aware of Alistair's perfidy, and for all her professed love for her unborn child, acts remarkably foolishly on several occasions. She wanders out alone, unaccompanied, and then defends herself with weak protestations of "I can take care of myself!" Lucien, wallowing in his ex-wife's betrayal, goes a bit overboard with his "she's just a scheming witch like every other woman" routine. At one point I was fast losing patience with them both. There's the ubiquitous "note-that-says-to-meet-somewhere-and-don't-bring-anyone", at which point I was hoping the book might live up to its promise and have Serena do something other than the tired and obvious. No such luck.

The plotting may have fumbled a bit, but one can't deny that the initial premise was one not often seen in romance, and that deserves applause. Readers looking for something a bit different in a historical romance will likely enjoy One Wicked Night.

--Cathy Sova


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