by Carolyn Jewel, historical (2012)
Berkley, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-24660-3
Carolyn Jewel's Not Wicked Enough is the first book in a series called Reforming The Scoundrels. I don't know why.
Okay, I know why, since appending titles with hot keywords like "scoundrel", "rogue", "mistress", and "seduction" are all the rage among the kids in the marketing department of publishing houses, but the hero of this book, the Duke of Mountjoy, hardly qualifies as a scoundrel. He broke up amicably with his mistress about two months before this story begins, and from what I can tell, he is hardly the oversexed hedonistic type. He has a good track record with women, but if that makes him a scoundrel, then pretty much every other romance hero in the universe must be some kind of love buddha in comparison.
Oh yes, the story. Not Wicked Enough is almost quaintly old school in its unabashed focus on the romance without the inclusion of pyrotechnics like French spy plots and undercover heroines gone wild. In fact, where there is the inevitable set-up for the next book in the series, the sequel baiting is smoothly incorporated as an organic part of the story. There is also no band of brothers practically thrusting their crotches out at me from the pages while screaming that I need to buy their books. Like I've said, this one is almost old school in how the author just wants to tell a love story without resorting too obviously to marketing gimmicks.
And what a nice love story it is. Mountjoy, our hero, was once a farmer. It was only because everyone else who stood to inherit the title died off that he found himself in his current lofty position in Society. While he was initially disdainful of the superficial nature of the Ton, he has since mellowed into his role. He runs his holdings well, ensuring that everything is profitable and he will have a fine legacy to leave behind to his kids once he marries. As I've said, Mountjoy seems more like a hardworking fellow with good business sense instead of some sex-mad dweeb who spends his time chasing after women and getting drunk like the word "scoundrel" typically means.
Our heroine is Lily Wellstone. She's 25 and is resigned to remain a spinster for life because she has once loved and, ah, that love of her life died while gunning down enemies of the Crown in the name of patriotism and duty. She arrives at Bitterward, Mountjoy's country estate, to catch up with her good friend, Mountjoy's widowed sister Eugenia. Lily also takes this opportunity to take a break from her overbearing father, who'd disowned her and currently has moved in with her only because he has nowhere else to go. You see, Lily's mother was disowned by her family for marrying Lily's father. Unknown to the proud old man, both Lily and her mother had been secretly corresponding with Lily's aunt. When Lily's aunt died, she left Lily her house and her fortune. Lily's father felt betrayed by his daughter playing nice with the enemies, and who knows whether they will ever put this matter behind them.
There is instant chemistry between Lily and Mountjoy, but they both believe that they shouldn't submit to their desires. Everyone else is convinced that he will marry the fair Jane Kirk, and apart from the fact that he's hopelessly infatuated with Lily, he doesn't see why he shouldn't settle down with Jane. Except that she's not Lily. And he wants Lily. Oh, damn it all. Lily doesn't want to be anyone's side chick, and she doesn't believe that she can ever fall in love with another man after the death of her first love. The thing is, the more she spends time with Mountjoy, the more she begins to wonder about things. Beautiful things, of that she has no doubt. Amazing, explosive, insane, and wonderful... things.
The best thing about Not Wicked Enough is the chemistry between Mountjoy and Lily. They just sizzle the moment they meet, and Ms Jewel does an incredible job in making me sense all these sparks coming from those two. These two flirt, exchange mildly naughty banter, and surreptitiously eye the other person's impressive charms... so much so that when they first kiss, the pages could have electrocuted me because the build-up of the sexual tension in this story is just plain incredible. The later third or so of the book sees these two having to take a step back and work out their feelings for each part. This part is just sublime too - the hero goes from a rather dorky if self-assured guy with bad fashion sense to a reluctantly romantic fellow who makes my breath catch. Lily is also a nice heroine in that she defies stereotypes while coming off as wonderfully sane and normal, with none of the weird neurotic tendency to martyr herself typical of too many romance heroines. She's not a gasping paragon of naïveté but she's not a raging hellion with demons in her closet either. She's just a likable heroine who does her own thing without becoming silly or insipid. All in all, Lily's a good match for Mountjoy - they play each other off beautifully.
The secondary characters are also likable types. Those most susceptible to bad stereotyping, such as Jane Kirk, turn out to be anything but caricatures. They do have their own stories to sell, but they are also part of this story. They complement the hero and the heroine instead of chewing scenery and advertising their books.
But this book also suffers from one large flaw: the uninteresting middle. It's not exactly a sagging middle, as the middle part of the story is still pretty readable. It's just that this part focuses on external conflicts that are nowhere as interesting as the initial sexual tension between Lily and Mountjoy earlier in the story or their emotional epiphany at the later part. In fact, the sexual tension actually dissipates quickly after the first kiss, when it becomes apparent that these two have very little intention of holding back for long. It is only when they have to examine their feelings for each other that things pick up again.
Not Wicked Enough is a fun read that delivers both emotional punches and great humor, but somehow, it never hits hard enough to knock me off my feet. It's good, but perhaps not good enough to tempt me to give it a keeper grade. Don't let me stop you from reading this one, though. I think the early and late parts of the story are good enough to make up for the not-too-exciting middle.
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