Beware - there are lots and lots of spoilers below. I couldn't seem to help myself.
This book is set primarily in London in the early 1800s.
Michael has been in love with Francesca for years. Unfortunately, she is happily married to Michael's beloved cousin John, so all Michael can do is hide his feelings as best he can by cultivating a reputation as a rake. Then, quite suddenly, John dies.
As long as Francesca is not found to be pregnant with his child and does not give birth to it if she is, Michael is the new Earl of Kilmartin in his place. Michael doesn't want any of it. He may have been in love with Francesca, but he never wanted John to die, and he doesn't want to be made to take John's place. Francesca does turn out to be pregnant, but she miscarries. All Francesca wants is for Michael, her friend and a person she knows loved John as much as she did, to comfort her and share her pain. Instead, Michael withdraws from her, and it only gets worse when she tells him that, had she not miscarried, she would have wanted Michael to help her raise John's child. This is the last straw for Michael, and he goes to India to escape. He doesn't come back for 4 years.
When he does come back, both his and Francesca's grief have softened. They both still miss John, but the feelings aren't as raw. Francesca still doesn't know that Michael loves her (for 6 years now), and it's like rubbing salt on the wound when she tells Michael that she would like a baby and plans to find a husband in order to accomplish this goal. Francesca doesn't expect to love the person she marries, but marriage is the only socially acceptable way for her to get the baby she wants.
Michael had planned to just stand by while Francesca found someone new. Although he didn't really want to, he even tried to help out a little, because he didn't want Francesca to end up with someone terrible. Eventually, however, it all gets to be too much. During a moment when Francesca finally sees Michael as a man, and not just as a friend, Michael kisses her. Horrified at having enjoyed it, Francesca runs off, and Michael eventually pursues her, seduces her (giving her ample opportunity to tell him to back off, which she never does, which just adds to her feelings of guilt later), and asks her to marry him. Francesca, whose feelings are a muddled mix of guilt, passion, and confusion, can't bring herself to say yes, even as she can't bring herself to turn him away.
Michael has already had his epiphany and moved beyond the guilt he's felt for years. For things to really work out between the two of them, Francesca somehow has to sort out her feelings as well.
This book took me ages to finish - I got stuck at the point where Francesca finally starts seeing Michael as a man and the two have sex for the first time. For a while after that, the book was a serious slog for me. I alternated between hating Michael and hating Francesca. And then it got better, I loved them both again, I forgave them for the things they did, and the ending made me teary-eyed.
I've read several romance novels where at least one of the main characters has had a spouse die, but usually that spouse was a terrible person who is in no way missed. I do think I've read a few books where this is not the case, and I've usually hated those books. Grieving widows/widowers, even if that grief is not fresh, are not the kind of romance heroes/heroines I usually enjoy. The dead spouse baggage has a tendency to get in the way, in my opinion.
The "John would have been okay with this" moments didn't always sit well with me, but I didn't have nearly as many problems with this book as I usually do with romance novels featuring widows/widowers. The beginning of the book grabbed me right away. I loved the dialogue between Michael, Francesca, and John (an unusual aspect of this book may be that the dead spouse is, in fact, a living character at the beginning of the book, rather than dead before the book even starts). Behind everything Michael said and did around Francesca and John was a mountain of private torture. It contrasted wonderfully with the pleasant, ordinary, and relatively comfortable feel of the relationship these characters had together.
Quinn gives readers just enough time to see the threesome's relationship dynamics and understand that Michael loves John and in no way begrudges him his marriage to Francesca, and then she kills John off. Michael and Francesca's grief is devastating, made even more so by her later miscarriage. I could feel for both of the characters: Francesca, who just lost her husband and the baby that was all she had left of him, who knows nothing of Michael's true feelings for her and therefore doesn't understand the full extent of what he's going through, and Michael, whose best friend just died and who is too swamped with guilt to feel comfortable with the idea of comforting Francesca. John's death has technically made it possible for Michael to have what he has wanted for two years, and, even though he never wanted John to die, Michael can't help but feel guilty.
So, while on the one hand I was cursing Michael for going off to India for four years when he should have been helping Francesca deal with John's death and her own miscarriage, I could understand. Grief is bad enough. Grief mixed with guilt is a hideous thing.
I was grateful that Quinn gave readers what is essentially an emotional break. Readers are not forced to deal with the characters' fresh grief for long. After the four-year time jump, I was still hooked, and I liked reading about Michael coming back, still doing his best to hide his feelings for Francesca. Francesca and Michael's conversations could never be quite as light as they were in the beginning of the book, before John's death, but it was still fun reading about the things going on in their heads that they didn't dare tell each other. I held my breath when Francesca finally told Michael that she planned on finding a husband because she really wanted a baby.
The book is "so far, so good," up until the point where sex enters the picture. At that point, the passion skyrockets, but, for me at least, the fun plummets. Michael and Francesca's relationship becomes something like a power play. Michael may have overcome his feelings of guilt, but Francesca hasn't had years of guilt-processing time. Michael makes sure Francesca has plenty of opportunities to turn sex with him down, opportunities she never takes, but it didn't feel to me like Francesca is really in control of the situation. When she does try to get some control back, by taking control of half of one sex scene, she really only makes it worse for herself later. Not only does she feel guilty about enjoying sex with another man, she gets to feel guilty about having fully participated in the sex and not stopping it when she could have. On top of all of that is her confusion about Michael being the man she's having sex with - she never viewed him as anything other than a friend before.
I had a period where I hated Michael for being upset with Francesca for not agreeing to marry him after they'd had sex. Then I hated Francesca for running every single time her feelings for and reaction to Michael made her panic, and for not knowing her own mind. Then I hated Michael for telling Francesca, again, that he would just have to have sex with her as often as possible until she conceived, if that was what it took for her to really be his. This book was published in 2004, but that felt so very '80s. Need a quote? Here it is:
"'If I want to tie you to the bed, and keep you there until you're heavy with child, I'll do it,' he vowed." (322)And she doesn't slap him. I was so close to finishing the book, but it was so very hard to read this kind of thing without growling.
The book thankfully gets better. It's like finally being married to Francesca relaxes some part of Michael, so he stops acting like a bastard. I loved when he dismisses Francesca's fears that 6 years of behaving like a rake means he might want to sleep around by saying, "'For God's sake. They [the women he'd slept with] were all just to get you out of my mind, anyway'" (332).
And it gets even better. Although I can't quite believe that Michael really would have been okay with it if his marriage with Francesca were only a content one (filled, of course, with lots of sex) and Francesca never felt for him what he felt for her, I couldn't help but feel a thrill when thought to himself that "He could live without her love, but not without her happiness" (356). It's a great line.
Better still is the grave site scene after that, when Francesca tells John that she loves Michael, and Michael overhears it. I was actually tearing up during this scene. Less than 100 pages earlier, I was alternating between hating Michael and hating Francesca, and Quinn somehow managed to make me forgive both of them for what the way they'd acted during their passionate but rocky romance. Awesome.
I don't know that I will ever necessarily want to reread this book, but I think I can at least count it as the best romance I've ever read featuring a widow/widower. Michael's private love and guilt was fun, and Michael and Francesca's grief was believable and their process of getting past it engrossing. Really, the only thing I didn't like was how negative things started to feel between them once they became lovers. I'm glad the book redeemed itself in the end, and I'm glad I stuck with it until things got better.
Just to wrap things up, I'll mention mention one last thing that didn't seem to fit in anywhere else in this post. There's this minor character, Colin Bridgerton. He's the first and only person to tell Michael that he should marry Francesca, and he plays a big part in convincing Michael that the idea may not be as off-the-wall as Michael thinks. Colin may not have been around much, but he was around enough for me to decide he's completely fantastic. His book is called Romancing Mr. Bridgerton. I haven't read it yet, and I don't own it, but I now must read it, and I am thankful that Ms. Quinn included the Briderton family tree, complete with the titles of the books the people in the tree star in, at the beginning of this book.
One book not mentioned on the family tree page, because it doesn't star any of the Bridgertons, even though one of When He Was Wicked's characters does make an appearance in this book: How to Marry a Marquis. I've read it but haven't written about it yet. It was good, though.
Oh, and one last thing before I really do wrap things up with a read-alikes list. For those of you who latch onto the unusual in romance novels, Michael had malaria. Yes, a romance hero with malaria, and the author's note at the end explains more about it.
Like I said, I don't read a lot of romance novels featuring grieving widows/widowers who find love again. This read-alikes list was mild self-torture to put together.
- When He Was Wicked: The Epilogue II (e-book) by Julia Quinn - Am I allowed to be a little annoyed about this not being available in print form? Then again, it's probably so short that I wouldn't be willing to pay what the publishers would ask for it. This takes place 3 years after Francesca and Michael's marriage, and they are still childless. The author's note in When He Was Wicked makes me wonder if Michael's malaria comes up in this.
- When Dreams Begin (book) by Lisa Kleypas - Those who'd like another Regency romance starring a widow who loved her deceased husband and learns to love again might want to try this. Lady Holly Taylor (this book's widow) decides to help Zachary Bronson learn to be a proper gentleman, but she never expected she'd also fall in love with him.
- Magic's Price (book) by Mercedes Lackey - Didn't I say I had problems coming up with a read-alikes list? It's very bad of me to put this on the list, for several reasons. One, it's actually the third book is a trilogy - you really, really should start with the first book, Magic's Pawn, or you'll miss out on a lot of the relationship angst, not to mention learning some of the basics of the world the books are set in. Two, the "grieving widow" in this case is actually a man who grieves for his male lover (the physical aspects of their relationship could in no way be described as graphic, however). Three, the trilogy does not end happily ever after, although it's also not what I would call "soul crushing." It's just that romance readers moving from Julia Quinn's book to Lackey's probably would not be pleased with how the romance turns out. I loved this trilogy when I was a teen. Now, as an adult, the angst seems a little thick, but I still own all three books. This book is fantasy, not romance, so the romance isn't the main focus, but the main character does learn to love again after the death of his first lover many years prior. Another possible red flag for some people is that the person he finds love with again is 20 years younger than he is. The age difference is one of several romantic conflicts.
- The Initiation (book) by L.J. Smith - This is basically a paranormal YA romance. The main character, Cassie, has moved to New Salem with her mother in order to take care of her grandmother. The local high school is dominated by a small group of teens who turn out to actually be witches. Cassie soon becomes part of the group, and finds she has to deal with one particularly power-hungry girl. I'm really reaching here, actually - I put this one on the list because the guy Cassie falls in love with right away happens to be the boyfriend of one of the girls in the group of witches. The girl is really nice, so Cassie does her best to squash her feelings, but it doesn't work out so well, leading to lots of guilty feelings but, if I remember right, no actual cheating. If you liked the "person who's in love with someone who's already involved with a likable someone else" aspect of Quinn's book, it's possible you might like this one.
- A Whole New Light (book) by Sandra Brown - Another one in which a widow who actually loved her late husband finds new love. This one is a contemporary romance, and the woman ends up falling in love with her late husband's business partner. Were the hero in this one starring in a Regency romance rather than a contemporary, it sounds like he might have been called a rake - he's the love 'em and leave 'em type who never has lasting relationships. However, he's also the one who helps the heroine deal with her grief after her husband's death, so his relationship with her is deeper than the ones he usually has with women.