Publisher: Avon (June 29, 2004)
A moment so tremendous, so sharp and breathtaking, that one knows one's life will never be the same. For Michael Stirling, London's most infamous rake, that moment came the first time he laid eyes on Francesca Bridgerton.
After a lifetime of chasing women, of smiling slyly as they chased him, of allowing himself to be caught but never permitting his heart to become engaged, he took one look at Francesca Bridgerton and fell so fast and hard into love it was a wonder he managed to remain standing. Unfortunately for Michael, however, Francesca's surname was to remain Bridgerton for only a mere thirty-six hours longer -- the occasion of their meeting was, lamentably, a supper celebrating her imminent wedding to his cousin. But that was then . . .
Julia Quinn is a auto-buy author of mine, and out of all her books, this one is tied with "The Viscount Who Loved Me" for my absolute favorite book by her. You hear me drone on and on about how I love emotional stories, and this one is brimming with it. It also has one of my favorite themes: unrequited love. After talking about it recently, and getting the chance to meet Julia here in Illinois, I definitely felt the need for a re-read, and yet again, it pulled me in and kept me under its spell until the very last page, with the words still echoing in my mind. That is how a grand romance should be.
Michael Stirling is the kind of guy women go gaa-gaa over; he's gorgeous, funny, charismatic, charming, and he loves the ladies. Being a "Mr." versus a titled gentleman kept the pressure off, and he truly cared for his cousin John, who had the title instead, so this let Michael pretty much live the life he's always wanted. But then he sets eyes on Francesca Bridgerton, and for no other explanation other than the fact that absolutely everything about her called out to him, Michael fell deeply and irrevocably in love with the woman his dear cousin was about to marry.
Yet Michael did not pursue Francesca and try to steal her away from John. He loved his cousin too much for that. Instead he became the Merry Rake, a man content with having numerous liasions and seemingly not having a care in the world. Underneath it all, however, he suffered the pain of waiting a woman he could never have. Never. Michael knew this in his bones. He saw how much in love John and Francesca were, how well-suited and happy together, and because he cared for them both so deeply, he was their friend and companion, spending time with them but living with the guilt of knowing how strongly he longed for Francesca. He would tell them wicked tales of his exploits, always leaving out the more intimate details, and he saw how much this fascinated them, especially Francesca, who was content to lead a stable, married life but understood the thrill of the very naughty.
After two years of marriage, on a night like any other, John passes away very unexpectedly, and Francesca is devastated. Michael is equally desolate, having lost the one family member he cares for beyond all others. But Michael tries to hide his pain and help Francesca through her loss. Only when she needs him the most does he realize that he cannot be there for her, and takes off for India. He must put some distance away from his new life and the old life he wants back. At every turn, his new life is turning more and more into the one once occupied by John, and Michael cannot bear it. His grief is too strong to continue in such a manner, so he runs.
It's now four years later, and Francesca has been living the life of a widow, not once thinking of taking a lover or moving on. But as she's gotten older, she longs more and more for the child she never had with John. She realizes that if she ever wishes to be a mother, she must throw away the comfort of her widows' weeds and consider marriage. But not for love. No, this time Francesca isn't a starry-eyed maiden with romantic dreams. This time she wants to find a good man to wed and start a family. It's time to start living again.
Just as she's making this decision, Michael has returned to England, to the earl's home, as he became the earl with John's passing. In the dead of night the two come upon each other; Francesca shocked to see him suddenly in front of her after so many years, and Michael not realizing that she's still been living there, though it only makes sense. As they become reacquainted over the next several days, Michael learns of Francesca's desire to have a child. This realization starts a slow burn in Michael, who cannot fathom her with another man. But he feels guilty about wanting her so badly, believing that making her his would truly erase John's memory, leaving the living, breathing Michael in its place.
Francesca comes to notice that the Michael who left England so many years ago is not the same man before her now. No longer the Merry Rake, he is a bit hardened, cynical, and doesn't always appear to like her so affectionately as he once did. And to her horror, she begins to notice him as a man, and not just as the friend he was to her and John. She recognizes his handsomeness, his masculinity, and it unsettles her. One evening, the two have a bit of a clash, and their mutual attraction gives way to an explosive kiss. One so devastating, it sends Francesca packing the next day for Scotland. Now it is her turn to run.
Michael feels he pushed her too hard and regrets his actions, but with the advice of an unlikely source, he pursues her to Scotland and finally confronts the woman he has loved for so long. Will Francesca ever be able to accept him as a man she can love as more than just a friend?
"When He Was Wicked" is the 6th book in the Bridgerton series (for those of you who like to read in order), and it is definitely one of the best. I love the glimpses we get of the other siblings, and I also liked how this story was not quite as light as most of the other stories are. This one had darker tones, dealing with death and tragedy and guilt, but I felt the wealth of emotion strengthened the story considerably.
I felt so strongly for both Michael - in love with a woman he never could hope to have - and Francesca - mourning the lose of her beloved spouse and feeling the guilt of caring for his living cousin. Michael's bitterness and dislike of Francesca at times completely made sense with his feelings, especially because despite everything, she had no idea how he felt about her, and he resented how she didn't really "see" him. Inevitably their feelings culminated into physical passion, and Francesca became almost paralyzed when it came to making any kind of decision about her and Michael's future. It was like she wanted the world to stand still, and for awhile it seemed to, in Scotland.
But Michael was just so tired of pretending and wishing, and if he couldn't have all of her, he didn't want any part of her. This forced her to make a decision, but even still, it took more time for her to realize that these feelings she harbored for Michael - the incredible passion and affection - were actually love. Not the same kind she shared with John, as they were two different men, but just as real and beautiful and completely unique to them.
Of course I was all happy for Michael when she finally said the words. It was just that simple. That's all he wanted - her love. She didn't have to plan a big bash and announce it to the world, she just needed to say the words to him. That's all he really wanted, and it was wonderful when he finally got his most deepest wish. Everytime I read that scene, my eyes tear up, but it's happiness coming out, so it's all good.
If there was anything that marred the story, it was that Francesca was rather hard to like. Not because she's mean or selfish or stupid, but because she's very much an internal character and you don't always know what she's thinking or feeling, so it makes her rather difficult to get to know. Yet for Michael, she was enough. She was everything. In her mind she probably puzzled why she was so fortunate to have found love with two such incredible men, but sometimes you can't question the good things in your life, you just have to remember never to take them for granted, to cherish and nurture them. And that's exactly what she did.
This one is on my keeper shelf - is it on yours?
Rating: ***** out of *****