October 2012, European Historical Romance (Regency England)
Berkley Sensation, $7.99, 328 pages, Amazon ASIN 0425258033 Part of a series
I still remember the first time I read Georgette Heyer's Venetia. I loved that story because the intelligent characters made me want, more than anything, for them to fall in love and live happily ever after. I found myself having similar feelings as I read Practically Wicked by Alissa Johnson. The characters utterly charmed me, and the dialogue just sparkled as I flew through the pages of a book I didn't want to end.
Readers in Romancelandia have grown accustomed to rakes as heroes, but in this novel, both Maximilian (Max) Dane and Anna Rees have notorious reputations. Max is a rake with little care for society's opinions and Anna has the questionable luck of being daughter to one of the most infamous courtesans in London. The two meet one night at the home of Anna's mother when a drunken Max wanders away from the party and finds himself in Anna's old nursery. The morosely intoxicated Max and unusually sheltered Anna find themselves quite taken with one another as they sit talking, and Max vows to call on her properly.
Four years pass, but Anna never sees Max again after that evening encounter. She assumes he forgot her, and as the illegitimate daughter of a courtesan, Anna is hardly good ton and certainly not likely to be courted respectably by a viscount such as Max. For years, Anna has accepted her lot in life, living with the whims of her selfish and unstable mother. However, when her mother is laid up with a broken leg, Anna and her former governess Mrs. Culpepper search through her mother's secret papers and find not only the name of Anna's father, but the contract for her support that he signed with her mother. In dire financial straits and practically a prisoner in her mother's home, Anna contacts her father's heirs, hoping for enough money to make good her escape. Instead, to her great surprise, her father's children prove not only honorable but genuinely interested in meeting their half-sister, inviting Anna to visit the family at their country estate.
As it turns out, Anna's half-siblings and Max Dane are very close friends. Max, protective of his friends and suspicious of Anna's motives, comes to the estate as well. After some initial tension, a great friendship and achingly sweet romance ensue. Far from forgetting Anna, this is one of those romances where we see all manner of gestures on Max's part showing just how much he thinks of her. The story hits on flirtation and physical attraction and then goes beyond to show how the characters connect on an emotional level. Realizing that Max is not only a very witty flirt, but that he also listens to and cares about Anna's dreams makes him well nigh irresistible.
It's not all easy, though. Anna is acutely aware of Max's position in society and she knows that while her half-siblings accept her readily, the ton most certainly will not. She has a horror of entering society as an object of scorn and ridicule, or of bringing scandal to someone she loves. Anna craves quiet respectability almost as much as Max proclaims to crave the wild life of the demimonde. Their struggles over competing goals go on long enough to make readers see the problem, but not long enough to tire of it, a trick of timing that certainly takes skill on the author's part.
Is Anna's family a bit too good to be true? Perhaps, but the characters are so enticingly drawn that I really didn't care. As I read this book, I wanted these people and their world to be real because they were so very fun and likable. Anna's mother is a bit much, but she's also not around for most of the story - a wise plotting decision on the author's part. The reader spends most of her time immersed in Anna and Max's world, and the very realistic tensions related to class and social standing combine with witty exchanges and joint plotting between hero and heroine to create a near perfect balance.
Fans of stark realism may not find Practically Wicked their cup of tea, but I loved every minute of it. It's a fun and sentimental tale filled with romance and even though it touches serious subjects, it also has plenty of good-humored moments to make one smile. The sensuality in this one is on the milder side of "warm," so I suspect lovers of Regency trads and people who enjoy sweet romances in general would like this book, too. This is my first time reading Alissa Johnson, but it definitely won't be my last.
-- Lynn Spencer
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