Title: When He Was Wicked (Bridgertons, #6)
Author: Julia Quinn
Publication date: 2004
Length: 426 pages
In every life there is a turning point . . .
A moment so tremendous, so sharp and breathtaking, that one knows one’s life will never be the same. For Michael Stirling, London’s most infamous rake, that moment came the first time he laid eyes on Francesca Bridgerton.
After a lifetime of chasing women, of smiling slyly as they chased him, of allowing himself to be caught but never permitting his heart to become engaged, he took one look at Francesca Bridgerton and fell so fast and hard into love it was a wonder he managed to remain standing. Unfortunately for Michael, however, Francesca’s surname was to remain Bridgerton for only a mere thirty-six hours longer—the occasion of their meeting was, lamentably, a supper celebrating her imminent wedding to his cousin.
But that was then . . . Now Michael is the earl and Francesca is free, but still she thinks of him as nothing other than her dear friend and confidant. Michael dares not speak to her of his love . . . until one dangerous night, when she steps innocently into his arms and passion proves stronger than even the most wicked of secrets . . .
Another flight, another Bridgerton book! Book #6, When He Was Wicked, tells the story of the 6th Bridgerton child, Francesca — who spends much of the book series (as well as practically all of season 1 of the Netflix series) off-screen.
We’ve heard about Francesca from afar during the previous couple of books. A year younger than her sister Eloise, Francesca is largely absent from the goings-on in the earlier books, at first being too young to be out in society, and later, already away from London.
We learn in book #4 (I believe) that Francesca is already a young widow at age 24. We hear of her through other family members, and know that she was married to an earl and lives at their estate in Scotland. That’s pretty much all we know, other than that she seems to never be around for family gatherings.
“It’s as if I don’t exist,” she said…
Finally, in When He Was Wicked, Frannie’s story takes center stage.
We start the book, however, not with Francesca, but with her husband’s cousin. Michael Stirling is first cousin to John Stirling, Earl of Kilmartin. Michael has a reputation as a terribly wicked rake (of course! don’t all the attractive men?), but he’s also loyal and devoted to John, who is more brother to him than cousin. Michael also has the bad luck and bad timing to fall head over heels in love with Francesca at first sight — which happens to be only a day and a half before John marries her.
Michael hides his feelings, and becomes a true friend to Francesca. The three — Michael, John, and Francesca — are inseparable, and best of friends. But two years later, when the unthinkable happens and John dies suddenly, Michael and Francesca are torn apart as well. Michael, as John’s heir, will step into his role as Earl. He feels horrible guilt over living what should have been John’s life, and cannot bear the idea of being close to Frannie and being her main support while knowing the guilty truth of his secret love for her. Michael flees to India as soon after John’s death as he can, and Francesca is left widowed, in mourning, suffering, and feeling abandoned by the person she most counted on.
Years pass, and Francesca realizes that she wants a baby. And of course, the only way to get a baby is to marry — so she leaves the estate in Scotland to spend the season in London and look for a suitable husband. Michael shows up as well, ready to fully assume his duties as Earl, which also means finding a wife.
As the widowed Countess of Kilmartin, Francesca takes up residence in the Kilmartin home in London, and so does Michael, where the two soon find themselves too close for comfort. After a series of misunderstandings and confrontations, there’s finally a kiss, and Francesca is shocked and embarrassed to realize that she feels attracted to Michael. And, as such things go in romance novels, she assumes it’s one-sided and flees back to the Scottish estate, only to be pursued by Michael, where things quickly become hot and heavy… and as the title lets us know, very, very wicked.
I enjoyed the storytelling very much in this book, and felt quite sorry for poor Frannie, widowed too young, facing a lifetime on her own, and longing so much for a family that she’s even willing to consider marriage without love if it’ll allow her to have babies. There are some very sweet moments between her and her mother Violet, in which they share thoughts on widowhood, losing the love of one’s life, and how to move on. Violet is open to Francesca in a way which we haven’t seen with her daughters in other books, probably because none have been as vulnerable as Francesca, and it’s lovely.
Michael is given equal time with Francesca as a point-of-view character, and I found his outlook refreshing and insightful. As is typical in romances set in this period, his sexual conquests aren’t seen as shameful (only women can be ruined by inappropriate conduct, not men), but at least we get to hear his perspective on all the women he’s been with and how they were all really just stand-ins for Francesca. Michael’s sorrow and guilt regarding his cousin seem genuine and heartfelt, so that as he and Francesca start to explore their attraction and growing feelings, it makes sense that Michael would be held back by his inner doubts even while yearning to be with the woman of his dreams.
I’m not sure that I loved Michael’s ultimate gambit for tying Francesca to him. He can’t make progress by words or wooing, so he sets out to seduce her, figuring he’ll make her want him even if she doesn’t love him. (Spoiler alert — she does love him!) The sexual advances and hot-and-heavy scenes are all entirely consensual — he asks her every step of the way — but I still felt a little uncomfortable with the idea of his using her arousal to push her into a relationship she might not otherwise be ready for.
He’d awakened the wanton within her, and she wanted her revenge.
It’s not a surprise that true love and a wedding and babies are the end game here — in that sense, When He Was Wicked is no different from the other books in the series. Still, the plot here is quite good, and I liked getting to know Francesca, and seeing a very different view of the social pressures of Regency society. Francesca is no virginal debutante — she’s a widow of means who has the social and economic power to remain unmarried and independent for the rest of her life, if she so chooses. In When He Was Wicked, we see marriage and courtship through a practical lens — if a young widow wants a baby, then how else is she to get what she wants but to find a suitable husband and make it happen?
I also found the chronology of When He Was Wicked interesting, as it overlaps with events from the previous two books, and I thought author Julia Quinn pulled off the interwoven events and details very well! Overall, this is another delightful addition to a series that becomes more and more addictive as it goes along. This many books into the series, it’s hard to stop.
That’s six Bridgerton children happily married, two more to go!