Francesca Bridgerton is not like the rest of her siblings - she's quiet where they're loud, sly where they're exuberant and generally a more private person. She is also a widow.
At the age of twenty she met and married John Stirling, Earl of Kilmartin, and even if she hadn't loved him so much she would have been grateful to him for rescuing her from her family. Not that she doesn't love them, she just prefers not to have to deal with them all the time. But in John she's found her match. They share everything - including their sense of humour - and as a bonus, marriage to John includes friendship with Michael, John's delightfully wicked cousin.
For two years Francesca's life is perfect, but then John is gone, and Michael - the one person who knew John as she knew him and can fully understand her loss - is avoiding her.
Michael Stirling has a secret: for all his wicked ways he's actually in love. The most wicked thing of all is that Francesca is the object of his affections. But he loved John as a brother and never wished him dead, not even for Francesca. Now the world expects him to take his cousin's place, but he doesn't want it. He doesn't want any of it. Except Francesca. And she is the one thing he can never, ever have. Tormented by grief and guilt, and unable to face her, he flees to India.
Four years on Francesca still misses John, but she knows it's time to stop mourning him. She wants children of her own, but the last thing she expects to find in London is Michael.
Ready to take up his responsibilities at last, Michael is home. The ton buzzes with joy over the return of the 'Merry Rake', now a highly eligible earl, but he's soon feeling far from merry. Francesca wants to marry, and since he can't have her for himself the last thing he wants to watch is some undeserving idiot court and win her.
Until a chat with Colin Bridgerton puts an idea into his head, one he has never permitted himself to even dream of before - what if he asks Francesca to marry him?
This tale is different from the rest of the Bridgertons, different, in fact, from JQ's usual style, but no less enjoyable. This is no lighthearted romp, full of sharp, witty scenes and farcical moments. Such things aren't in Francesca's nature and wouldn't suit. Instead we have a much more thoughtful, emotional tale of love, grief and coping with loss to the point of freeing oneself to love again.
Oh, and wickedness. Well, you can't have a hero known as the 'Merry Rake' without raising the temperature by a few saucy degrees.
But Michael's about more than seduction and sex, though things were much simpler when that's all he was. In order to win Francesca he first has to deal with his own doubts and demons, before tackling hers. Love is far from a sweet, gentle emotion for him.
For me one of the delights of this book comes from the chapter openers, which JQ has perfected throughout the Bridgerton novels. Here they're made up of extracts of letters between characters, some even to the deceased John. I think they're beautifully executed and add another dimension to the tale. And once more JQ delivers a gorgeous epilogue - the last line of which almost brings me to tears.
Hmm... perhaps I'm sentimental, but whether you are or not, this tale adds a new depth to the Bridgerton series, and is yet another winner from JQ.