Her fiance was tall, dark and handsome. A pity! When she wanted someone witty, kind and gentle.
–Cover Blurb, The Wicked Cousin
Byrony de Beaufre adores her cousin, Sir Lucas Bardine. Growing up on neighboring properties, they spent hours playing in their “castle,” an abandoned hermitage they discovered as children. Even now that Byrony is an adult and an Incomparable, she still regards Lucas as her closest friend–nevermind that he is grossly obese, chronically short of breath, and a figure of fun in society. He remains her kind, dear Lucas, whose generosity is unparalleled. He even rescued their charming, charismatic cousin Stephen from the slums and launched him in society. Then, Lucas vanishes without a trace. . .
Lucas loves Byrony, of course, and he hopes that she reciprocates, despite his ever-expanding girth. Then, suddenly, his kindess catches up with him. In an ambush, his cousin Stephen knocks him out, has him tattooed like a sailor and impressed on a ship. Considering Lucas’s timid nature, his physical condition, and his deathly fear of water, Stephen assumes that he has cleared the path to inherit Lucas’s fortune–and Byrony’s hand and inheritance.
Four years later, the newly dubbed “Sir Stephen” has almost attained his goals. When Byrony comes out of mourning for her mother, she must keep her deathbed promise and wed him. Then, Stephen returns to the countryside to find a stranger working as a librarian in Byrony’s home.
Unrecognizable after years of hard labor, beatings, and war, the towering Mr. Bidewell (Lucas, of course) is determined to avenge himself on the man he once trusted. Byrony, his childhood love, has also betrayed him by getting engaged to his nemesis. Since his tattoos, changed appearance, and his usurper’s dismissal of all Lucas’s former servants makes proving his identity impossible, only Stephen’s death will apease Lucas’s rage. His resolve for vengance is weakened, however, by his unexpected, lingering feelings for Byrony.
Meanwhile, the miserable heroine has been pining for her childhood friend. She is revolted by her fiancé and drawn to Mr. Bidewell, whom she instinctively trusts. The mysterious librarian even encourages her in her literary aspirations and helps her rescue an injured owlet! Suddenly, she starts thinking of her dear Lucas more and more, and she knows that Mr. Bidewell is kind beneath his rough exterior. There is just something about the tall, thin, rough-handed gentleman that brings Lucas to mind . . .
Unlike Zabrina Faire’s disappointing Lady Blue, The Wicked Cousin is excellent. Although Sir Stephen and his ally are over-the-top, Lucas and Byrony are nuanced protagonists.
Faire’s heroine tortures herself because of the ill-considered words she’d spoken to her cousin on the day he vanished–just before she realized she loved him. In the years since, she has withdrawn from society and faded like a plucked flower. She’s become a solitary woman, determined to become an authoress like Jane Austin–and even more determined to escape marrying Sir Stephen. Unconventional and quick-thinking, Byrony is only overshadowed by the figure of Mr. Bidewell/Lucas Bardine.
At the beginning of the book, Lucas’s generosity, wit, and charm–as well as his un-heroic appearance–make him especially interesting. No matter how he is mocked, he retains his equinimity. However, by the time he returns from sea, he is so filled with rage that he, too, could be the “wicked cousin” of the title. Has Lucas been damaged beyond repair? Or does he retain some vestige of his kind heart?
Although The Wicked Cousin is at times repetitive and I would have liked to have seen a more gradual evolution of Byrony and “Mr. Bidewell’s” relationship, the characters have chemistry. One particularly excellent sequence in the middle of the slim volume offers surprises about the couple and deeper insight into their characters.
My quibble with Faire’s book would be this: that Lucas was more appealing in the earlier portions of the book, when he was extraordinarily kind and extraordinarily obese. In a way, I was disappointed that Faire returned him to Byrony thin and hard-bodied. Although I appreciate that his transformation is necessary to make Lucas unrecognizable, I feel that it pandered to the reader. The virginal, kind, and heavy Lucas is simply more appealing than the hard, experienced sailor who is willing to sleep with prostitutes. Early-Lucas’s friendship and self-doubt created more tension with Byrony than transformed-Lucas’s more jaded persona.
As a lover of books that defy convention, I had hoped that The Wicked Cousin would be in the mould of Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion, one of my favorite Regency romances. In that book, the foppish and seemingly-dull hero grows by discovering his own ingenuity, without ever changing his affected speech or affected wardrobe. The heroine falls for him–instead of her wicked cousin–as she realizes that character matters more than image.
Fortunately, Byrony, like Heyer’s heroine, is sensitive to the inner qualities of her cousins. That–as much as Lucas’s sexy new body–attracts her to “Mr. Bidewell.” I only wish that Faire had restrained herself from fixating so much on Lucas’s “grotesque” physique and its transformation.
Nevertheless, The Wicked Cousin is a quick, entertaining read. I recommend it, even if I did like the hero better at the beginning of the book than at the end.