His Last Best Hope

On a Long Ago Night

One of These Nights

The Price of Innocence

The Price of Passion

Stranger by Her Side

 
Too Wicked to Marry
by Susan Sizemore
(Avon, $5.99, R) ISBN 0-380-81652-0
****
I almost never reread a book before writing a review. Usually, by the time I finish the last page, I am pretty clear about what I think of the plot, the characters, the love story, and all the other components that make up a novel. I am an “intuitive” rather than an “analytical” reviewer; after all, I’m reading genre fiction, not philosophy. What matters is the entertainment value of the book.

Still, I found myself rereading Too Wicked to Marry before I felt comfortable reviewing and rating it. I had whipped through the story, always a good sign. Yet when I tried to decide how I felt about the book, I was indecisive and I’m almost never indecisive. Hence the rereading. In the end, I’ve decided that the good points outweigh my niggling problems with some of the behavior exhibited by the characters.

One of the best parts of the story is the underlying premise: a family of secret agents who operate in Victorian England. Harriet MacLeod is one of the family’s daughters. For four years, under the alias Abigail Perry, she has been the governess in the household of Lord Martin Kestrel, an important asset in the crown’s diplomatic service. She was assigned to Lord Martin to protect him and to make sure that no one else was spying on him.

Lord Martin, a widower, is one of society’s best catches. Since his wife abandoned him for her lover - she subsequently died - he has cut quite a swatch through the willing women of much of Europe. Now his father has told him its time to marry again. He has accepted an invitation to a most respectable yachting party where there will be a plethora of eligible young women. But as listens to their insipid conversation, all he can think is what Abigail would say about their foolishness. Suddenly he realizes that this woman who has shared his life, his travels and his daughter’s upbringing for the past four years is the only woman he can imagine marrying.

Martin rushes back to London and impetuously proposes to his governess. Abigail/Harriet is appalled. She tries to dissuade him and he asks if she thinks he is “too wicked to marry.” When he refuses to take no for an answer, she flees his house and disappears. Martin is devastated but by good fortune, manages to discover where she has gone. He follows her to her family home on the Isle of Skye.

Obviously, Abigail/Harriet has fallen in love with her employer but she believes her profession makes her unsuitable to marry anyone. Martin’s reaction when she tells him the truth bears out her belief; he is appalled and angry that he has been deceived. However, their relationship is not over. Harriet needs him to gain entry into a scandalous house party. She suggests that she pose as his mistress. Martin will agree only if Harriet makes the pretense real. A desperate Harriet agrees, perhaps unconsciously believing that this will be her only chance to know love.

I think that sage readers will already perceive one “niggling problem” already: Martin’s reaction to Harriet’s confession. I suppose his violent sense of betrayal is necessary to “justify” his subsequent behavior. But for me it didn’t quite ring true. Another more serious problem is the unheroic nature of his forcing Harriet into bed. He does grovel almost enough subsequently, but it’s harder for me to forgive him than it was for Harriet.

Despite the above, I have to admit that there is much to like about Martin. Harriet is actually a less successful creation. This intrepid secret agent should have come across as a strong-minded woman. She doesn’t and I’m not sure why. Her conviction that she is not worthy to marry Martin and her unwillingness to fight for the man she loves make her seem somehow less compelling. The “Abigail” who protected Martin and kept him on his toes and fascinated him and the Harriet who comes across on the pages almost don’t seem like the same person.

As is usually the case, the intrigue takes second place to the romance, although it is well enough done. Now when it comes to the love scenes, well these are first rate. Martin and Harriet sure burn up the sheets. Most interesting is Harriet’s unusual family. I would like to know her parents’ story and hope that Sizemore tells it sometime. And I imagine that there may well be other books about the MacLeod siblings and their unusual family business.

When all is said and done, Too Wicked to Marry entertained me, both times I dipped into its pages. That’s what I look for in a romance novel.

--Jean Mason


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