Author Julia Quinn is well known for her witty dialogue and exciting romps through Regency England. An excellent storyteller, she has enthralled readers with the many tales of the Bridgerton family. When He Was Wicked is book six in this series, but is a departure from the author’s usual style. This novel is much more serious in tone right from the very beginning, and although it is indeed a love story, it is a painful and often tragic journey to reach that point.
At twenty, Francesca Bridgerton is happily married to John Stirling, Earl of Kilmartin. From the moment they’d met, she’d known that he was the love of her life and that they were meant to be together. More reserved and quiet than the rest of her boisterous family, Francesca finds her more serene existence with John everything she could have ever wanted or hoped for.
Michael Stirling is a handsome flirt and a rake of the first order. His reputation for seducing women is legendary. After decommissioning from the army, he continues his reckless and frivolous ways. The only piece of property Michael has is a comfortable manor house and twenty acres given to him by John in hopes that he would settle down and obtain a sense of purpose in life.
John and Michael are more like brothers than cousins, as John’s family raised him after his own father died when he was a boy. The difference was that John was the heir to the earldom and inherited the title and wealth even though he was a year younger than Michael. But Michael loves his cousin and never once has begrudged John any of the advantages and blessings in his life. That is, until his cousin’s wedding.
In a stroke of irony, Michael, a confirmed scoundrel and womanizer, falls head over heels in love from the first moment he meets a woman there. Unfortunately for him, it is his cousin’s bride-to-be, and from that moment on his life is changed forever. Not by word, look, or deed does he ever betray his forbidden love to either Francesca or John. He knows they are deeply in love and is happy for them both even as he fights his feelings for Francesca. Instead, he becomes friend to them both even though at times it is almost more than he can bear.
Francesca and John are married almost two years when the unthinkable happens. John, who has been plagued with recurring headaches, lies down for a nap after supper so he can be refreshed for a meeting he has later that evening. Michael and Francesca take a short walk, and when they return home, she goes upstairs to wake John so that he will not be late. Michael decides to wait so that he can catch a ride home in John’s carriage. Francesca’s screams send him racing upstairs, only to find her desperately trying to rouse her husband. John is dead.
Michael is consumed by pain and guilt. In that one moment, he is now the Earl of Kilmartin and owns everything that was once John’s. His demons torment him as he fights his attraction to Francesca. At a time when she needs him most, he is not able to comfort her, as he tortures himself for having wanted his cousin’s wife. All he wants is for John to be alive, and when Francesca turns to him for guidance and comfort, he flees to India.
He exiles himself for four long years, finding a strength of purpose by working with the government in India. In his absence, he has left the running of the estates in Francesca’s capable hands and she has thrived in her way, finding her own purpose in life. Michael returns to England to find that both she and himself are changed, but the love he has for her still burns inside him, and she remains totally oblivious to that fact.
Francesca has decided that she wants to have children, and to achieve her goal she must remarry. It is a hard choice for her to make, but after four years alone she wants a family of her own. Michael’s sudden reappearance in her life brings up many old feelings and memories. As they spend time together, Francesca is confused and afraid of the feelings she has toward Michael. Suddenly everything is changed, and he is no longer her friend, but a desirable man.
This is a deeply moving story of two people whose love grows out of tragedy. They both have issues of guilt to deal with if they are ever to have a chance at happiness. It is almost painful at times to watch them interact as Michael tries desperately to hide his feelings for Francesca behind his devil-may-care façade. Michael’s anger grows as Francesca looks for a husband and they are often at odds with each other without really knowing why.
Finally, Michael must decide if he can watch her marry another man or if he can find the courage to claim her for his own. For that to happen, both Michael and Francesca must delve deep within their souls and wrestle with their demons. The power of love is an amazing thing, but it can also be an agonizing torture as well. When He Was Wicked is a dark and often depressing tale, and it is only Quinn’s considerable writing skill that saves it from being totally morose. Instead, it is a tale of redemption and second chances that allows the characters to grow and change when life’s tragedies strike at them all.