Pandora's Box

Wicked Wager

Julia Justiss
2003, European Historical Romance (Regency England)
Harl Historicals, $5.99, 304 pages, Amazon ASIN 0373835914

Grade: N/A
Sensuality: N/A

There is a staff review of this book as well

Upon returning home from Waterloo, Lord Anthony Nelthorpe discovers his estate in shambles, his wastrel father chasing doxies down the front stairs, and determines to set his estate to rights. Coincidentally, he happens upon Jenna Fairchild, a woman he gravely offended in the past when he tried to compromise her and force her into marriage. Jenna saved his life at Waterloo, but became a widow as well. Now Jenna appears to be in trouble, and Nelthorpe seems uniquely qualified to come to her aid. However, gaining her good opinion after his earlier behavior will prove an uphill battle.

Blythe:  I had a narrow escape with this book. I brought it with me to work to read on my break, and I set it down on a counter when I bought a cookie. By the time my break rolled around and I realized it was gone, it was missing from the Mrs. Fields store. I spent the next several hours fuming, because I was really enjoying the book. Fortunately I checked back again and they had found it. I felt like I had dodged a bullet. Perhaps my near miss made me appreciate this book even more, because it was one of the better historicals I've read this year.

Linda:  Well, this is going to be one of those rare months when you like a book and I had all I could do to finish it. To top it off I didn't like the hero from the get-go - which is also usually your situation, perhaps I am channeling you this month? <g>

Blythe:  That's so funny, Linda - I absolutely adored this hero. I liked everything about him. I found him to be practical (he was in a difficult financial situation, but he didn't whine about it), honorable (sorry for mistakes he had made in the past), and just a little outrageous with his behavior (in a good way). I also liked Jenna, and especially liked that she had had a loving, passionate relationship with her first husband.

Linda:  LOL, I thought Jenna bordered on TSTL and from Nelthorpe's first description of how he tried to coerce Jenna into marrying him, I just didn't like him at all. I will admit he showed growth during the book, but I didn't like his methods at times. But the biggest problem for me was the villain.

Blythe:  I liked that he had made such a huge blunder in the past, because it set up such a good conflict. For me the sign of a good conflict is when you spot the set-up but can't immediately figure out how it will be resolved. In this case, we have a hero who did something really dishonorable; he tried to compromise the heroine and force her to marry him, partly because he was so attracted to her, but partly because she was an heiress and he needed the cash. Then we have a heroine who is grieving for her dead husband and really wants nothing to do with the hero. How will she eventually change her mind? You know that she will change her mind, but you don't know exactly how she's going to do it, or what will happen to cause that change. This is the type of stuff I just eat up.

Linda:  The biggest problem for me was the villain.

Blythe:  I am a little more with you on the villain. The suspense plot of the book was more hackneyed and not terribly interesting to me, and I spotted the villain right off the bat.

Linda:  Well, I am glad to know it wasn't just me - the guy hadn't had four lines of dialogue and I knew he was the villain. Since the villain was so obvious to me, it made Jenna seem really stupid to trust him. Also, her first accident was soooooo obviously a ploy it made both hero and heroine seem like dummies to me. Frankly where you saw great conflict being set up, I saw a Regency-by-the-numbers. I have read similar stories of a rake's redemption and the thawing of a grief-stricken (fill in the blanks for what's wrong) heroine a thousand times and I didn't find this re-telling of an oft-told tale particularly compelling.

Blythe:  Well, the hero at least did figure out that something was up right away, and I really didn't have trouble believing that the heroine would be automatically trust her husband's relatives until they had proven themselves untrustworthy. I do think she should have left their house sooner, especially since they all ticked her off and she had no compelling reason to stay there.

I too have read many stories about redeemed rakes and grieving widows, but I didn't see this book in that particular light. Usually the redeemed rake is just vaguely introduced as a gambler/womanizer, and the virtuous widow has just heard that he's to be avoided. I saw this as very different. Nelthorpe had directly tried to compromise her, and she really didn't like him. I saw him as one of those quietly competent Carla Kelly type heroes who gets a lot done but doesn't take the credit and thus gets dismissed by others. In this case, it's because he's made mistakes in his past, and because his father is a first rate jerk .

Linda:  His father truly was a complete reprobate and I liked the opening with him running naked after an equally unclad doxy. You put your finger on my problem when you mention Carla Kelly, I just didn't feel that Nelthorpe lived up to the equally tortured hero of the Kelly book we read for a past Pandora, One Good Turn. I think part of that was I simply didn't like him very much. It's true he was suspicious of the accident, but then he brushed it aside. Perhaps it was understandable that Jenna would trust her husband's relatives but, when the villain is so obvious it really spoils the story for me and makes the hero and heroine look stupid.

This isn't the first book that I have had this problem with, Garwood's otherwise enjoyable The Wedding, sequel to my favorite "comfort book," The Bride, was marred by the same problem. The first description of the villainess made me picture the old crone witch in Disney's Snow White and the complete blindness of the couple to her actions made them seem so stupid that it totally ruined a book with an otherwise fun couple in it. But, since Jenna and Nelthorpe are hardly a "fun" couple, Wicked Wager didn't even have that going for it.

Blythe:  Well, I don't think that just because a villain is obvious to the reader it necessarily follows that he or she would be obvious to the hero and heroine. I thought they figured out who he was and what he was up to in a reasonable amount of time, so I didn't hold anything against them for not recognizing him immediately (even though, as I said, I agree that any reader will spot him immediately.)

I'm struggling a bit with the term "fun couple." I don't know that I would necessarily categorize Nelthorpe and Jenna as a fun couple either. But I did find them interesting, likable, and compelling.

Linda:  I guess this is my month to be the grinch. I will admit that I admired Jenna, even if I thought she was a little to easily snowed by the villain - perhaps if Justiss had made him a trace less smarmy I wouldn't have immediately targeted him as the villain. I did understand why she didn't leave her beloved husband's family home too. After all, setting up a women-led household in Regency England was not a socially easy thing to do.

I tend to immediately bond and root for "fun couples," maybe because they are not often at odds with one another throughout the book, which fits in with the fact that I prefer couples to realize they are made for each other earlier rather than later. But because Jenna was considering other suitors nearly to the end of the book, this was also a problem for me. As the book was a romance, I knew she would ultimately select the hero, but I'd have liked to have seem them work together more and not have had the superfluous suitor trying to warn off Nelthorpe.

Blythe:  The other suitor didn't bother me much, as I think he provided a nice contrast to Nelthorpe. I kind of like when a heroine has a couple of guys after her and knows she should choose one of them - even though she's attracted to the other. I also really liked that she had genuinely loved her husband and had a satisfying sex life with him. I find that more realistic than the ubiquitous widow who has never had an orgasm (or worse, never actually had sex). To be fair, I have a friend who never had an orgasm with her first husband, so it does happen. But I don't think it happens all that often.

Another comment about "couple not being at odds" - I like them to be at odds, as long as the conflict is an interesting one. If it's just "I love you. No, I hate you!" Or "Hmmm...I like this man/woman, but I'm just not ready to commit for some vague and stupid reason" then I am not all that enthusiastic either.

Linda:  LOL, I sometimes laugh my head off at the contortions that my favorite guilty pleasure, Diana Palmer, goes through to keep the heroine a virgin even if she was married. In one of her latest books, Beloved, the heroine had been married to the hero's best friend - but the friend was gay! The hero, who was also Texas' Attorney General, was totally clueless that his best friend was gay - I thought it was hysterical.

Okay - I'm amend. A couple can be a bit at odds but I prefer them to basically trust each other from the start, although I will admit that Jenna had good reason not to trust Nelthorpe or easily be taken in by his "reformation." But this couple and the story just never caught fire for me and I found myself slogging along rather then losing myself in the story.

Blythe:  How do you not know your best friend is gay? It sounds like the SNL skit, "The Girl with no Gaydar."

Well, I guess we are destined to disagree on this one. I have to admit it is kind of fun to be the "good guy" for a change. I'd recommend Wicked Wager to anyone looking for a good juicy conflict and multi-faceted hero.

Linda:  I am sure that a lot of my friends who like darker books would like Wicked Wager better then I did, but it would be hard to recommend something that I found hard to get through.

Blythe:  Have you read anything this month that struck your fancy?

Linda:  I loved Off Limits, which had my requisite fun couple. It's the sequel to Michelle Albert's Getting Her Man, which features a divine hero.

Perhaps it is just because of Halloween, but I feel like the Wicked Witch of the West this month. We are in Las Vegas this week for a convention and are staying at the Rio. I had never seen so many adults in so many strange costumes as on the casino floor last night.

Blythe:  I have Off Limits tbr. I'll have to give it a try.

It was freezing and snowing here in Colorado for Halloween (as usual), so all I really saw were kids in winter coats. Well, maybe next month you'll fare better. What are we reading?

Linda:  We are reading Jennifer Greene's second single title - Where Is He Now?. I'm looking forward to it because after having loved her category books for years, I'm glad she's getting the chance to write single titles. It will give more people a chance to enter Jennifer's world where people "shoulder off" or "toe off" their clothing and no one is just cold - they are "witch-tit-freezing cold." It'll be interesting to see your reaction to Greene's idiosyncratic writing.

Blythe:  Yes, Greene is a new-to-me author, and I've heard she's a little quirky. It should be fun to give her a try. See you next month, and happy reading!

--Blythe Barnhill and Linda Hurst, for

-- Pandora's Box

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