There are some books written to be savored and pondered, thought about and argued over long after the final words have been read. There are others that do not aspire to such lofty heights. Instead they seek to momentarily entertain, asking only that the reader step into their pages and go along for the ride. Most of romance is the momentary variety; disposable even. Read it once, enjoy it or not, and then there isn’t a need to think on it again. Cheryl Holt’s newest historical romance, Too Wicked to Wed, should be of the fleeting sort. The romance is engineered to be light reading, the plot is not complicated enough to inspire deep thought. The result is strongly crafted diversionary entertainment. On that front, Too Wicked to Wed succeeds at what it sets out to do. On the whole, however, it is not as ephemeral as it should be. Holt makes story choices that feel uncomfortably like moral judgments and the discomfort generated lingers beyond the fiction and ultimately overshadow the romance.
Too Wicked to Wed is based on a conceit that readers will have to choose to go along with – and happily follow to its conclusion – or not go along with and rile against at every step of the way. The heroine, Helen Mansfield, is offered up to the hero, Capitan Lucas Westmoreland, during a game of cards. Or, more precisely, her virginity is offered up. As scenarios for two people meeting and falling in love go, this one isn’t very likely. But, for the reader willing to suspend their disbelief and ride out the fantasy, the possible outcomes of this scenario are delicious.
Holt’s storytelling takes surprising turns as it doesn’t always follow the path set forth by the romance novels with similar plots that have come before Too Wicked to Wed. The most surprising, or perhaps most odd, is that Holt relies on her secondary characters to propel the story and provide several of the needed turning points. It is Archie Mansfield, Helen’s younger brother, who first gambles away their home, Mansfield Abbey, then compounds that atrocity by offering up Helen’s body in lieu of the property; the combination of which sets the story in motion. It is then Archie and Adrian’s (Archie’s lover) plot to wrestle Mansfield Abbey back which brings about the story’s climax.
The main characters’ role is simply to fall in love while doing light battle against their inner demons. Helen and Lucas’ introduction comes via Archie’s bet, but their relationship begins when Lucas takes possession of Mansfield Abby. It’s rather predictable that a hero, even one as notorious a reprobate as Lucas, finds a shred of decency in himself that doesn’t allow him to have sex with the heroine on the conditions of a bet (but would he really be a hero otherwise?). Once the estate belongs to Lucas, he allows Helen to stay on – with him – under the guise of teaching him the finer points of society life. The lessons are simply an excuse for Lucas to keep Helen around (his shred of decency can only hold his lust for her at bay for so long) and the time Lucas and Helen spend together at Mansfield is a bit of an idly. Their love blossoms with Helen knowing that Lucas will leave and Lucas intent on doing just that.
Helen, Lucas, and the secondary love story characters, Robert and Pat, are all surprisingly self aware and are often intelligent. But, they just as often make unintelligent choices, and the motivation for those choices doesn’t always bear a lot of scrutiny. Lucas is the illegitimate son of a Duke. At the time of Lucas’ conception, Lucas’ mother was a ward of Helen’s father. Lucas blames the elder Mansfield for his mother’s ruination which is why Lucas feel justified in taking Helen’s home. That doesn’t exactly follow a logical pattern. Why not go after the Duke directly? While Lucas loathes his father’s actions towards his mother, he enters a relationship with Helen – one just as likely to bear illegitimate fruit as the one that produced Lucas – and in doing so becomes exactly what he loathes. Here it might be easy to argue that unlike the Duke and his mother, Lucas falls in love with Helen – and knows it on some subconscious level – but Lucas seems a bit too self aware to rant about sins, when he commits the same himself. For her part Helen is remarkably clearheaded in knowing that her time with Lucas has a shelf life, but then, as soon as she has the opportunity, that clearheadedness vanishes in favor of actions that lead to her needing rescue.
Holt’s reliance on Archie and Adrian becomes perplexing for her lack of clarity with those characters. This is where the element that loiters longer than the romance comes into play. The men serve not simply as the bad guys, but the bad and downright evil guys. They are also in a gay relationship. What is uncomfortable about this is that Holt isn’t terribly clear in defining that they are evil characters who happen to be gay – or at least engaged in homosexual activities – as opposed to their gayness falling under the umbrella of their evilness. These characters don’t need to be gay to succeed in their roles as villains and the fact that Holt tacks being gay onto all of Archie and Adrian’s crimes (which range from Archie’s plots to rape Helen, to the murder committed by Adrian) is distasteful.
The romance aspect of Too Wicked to Wed is enjoyable and worth the price of admission. Helen and Lucas generate heat on the page and Lucas is flawed enough to add interest. It’s the book’s familial subplot that creates lingering questions that are remembered longer than the story itself. If Holt had eliminated Archie and Adrian’s gayness or made clear that being malevolent is not a function of being gay, this book would be possible to read, enjoy, and leave it at that. As is, it’s difficult to separate the romance from a view point that feels hopelessly out of date and unneeded.
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