"Ways to Be Wicked" is the second book in Julie Anne Long's Regency era trilogy about three sisters who were separated in early childhood when their mother was (unjustly) accused of murdering her lover, their father. In the first book, "Beauty and the Spy", the *real* murderer was exposed and brought to justice by Sister Number 1 (Susannah) and her former British spy hero (Kit, Viscount Grantham.) At the end of that book, Susannah embarks on a quest to find her lost sisters, having discovered that Sylvie was adopted by a French opera dancer and Sabrina by a English country vicar.
"Ways To Be Wicked" is the story of Sister Number 2, Sylvie Lamoureaux, who through natural talent, determination and hard work has risen from her humble beginnings to become a prima ballerina on the stages of Europe. The story begins when Sylvie intercepts a letter to her adopted mother from Susannah asking for information about her long-lost sister. Sylvie realizes that she has a sister that she has never met and whose existence has been kept a secret from her. Tempestuous, dauntless and determined, Sylvie decides to leave her high-born lover, Etienne, with a brief note of explanation and travel alone to meet her sister in England. It is clear from the onset that Sylvie has mixed feelings about Etienne when she hides from someone that looks like him on her arrival in England by jumping into the lap of Tom Shaughnessy, a handsome fellow traveler on the mail coach, and embraces him. When the coach later is set upon by highwaymen, Tom and Sylvie manage to limit the losses of the other passengers, but Sylvie in the process loses her reticule and all her money. She arrives in London penniless and (nearly) friendless, only to find her sister out of town and her sister's servants unhelpful. With nowhere else to turn, she takes Tom Shaughnessy up on his offer of assistance and ends up employed as a dancer in his bawdy house theater. It is a measure of how smooth a storyteller Julie Anne Long is that such a contrived plot seems almost plausible in her hands (...a famous ballerina dancing in a bawdy theater chorus line...OK...I'll go along with that...)
The reason that this story works is that Tom is such a delightful charmer and Sylvie is a good foil for him. Their dialogue is bright, witty and frequently tinged with naughty innuendo of the sort that Regency heroines usually have to pretend not to understand. Born dirt-poor and illegitimate, Tom is the self-made man variety of historical romance hero (raised in the rookery, thieving for his meals, etc.) By virtue of hard work combined with his fabulous good looks, irresistible personal charm and his natural talent for showmanship, he has risen to become the owner and artist director of a popular "theater for gentlemen". Tom is a very appealing and interesting character; he is a breath of fresh air in a genre that is clogged with heroes who are members of the upper echelon of the peerage. Sylvie is an entertaining heroine--proud, ambitious and passionate with a volatile temper and quick wit. Her lover in France really was her lover (no virgin mistress story here!), yet despite their mutual attraction and both of their histories of previous sexual experience, the romance between Tom and Sylvie unfolds very slowly (as befits two emotionally wary, independent individuals) and with a lot of charm.
The secondary characters in the story are well-drawn and memorable, particularly The General, the theater's dwarf-size choreographer, director and set designer, and Daisy, the proud, aging star of the theater's extravaganzas. There are some hilarious descriptions of the theater's productions. A lot of the story is ridiculous fluff, but it is very entertaining fluff.
Setting aside the whole premise of the plot (famous ballerina working as a dancer in a bawdy theater...), I had only a few quibbles with the story. The subplot involving the toddler was a snoozer for me and the ending seemed a little flat and too pat--both less original and less authentic than the rest of the story. But Long's prose is very fluid and fresh and her dialogue a delight to read. The major love scene comes relatively late in the story but was worth waiting for (IMO).
In summary, "Ways To Be Wicked" is an entertaining, well-written Regency romance with a refreshingly different hero and heroine and sparkling dialogue.
Highly recommended for historical romance lovers, particularly those who prefer a lighter tone.