The Marquess of Steyne has figured in all of his cousins' stories, always there, but always a distant figure: standing in the background, passively and quietly observing the events of his cousins' lives unfolding. When it was revealed that Steyne was already married and that his wife has been "missing" for eight years, I was instantly intrigued by their story and about the woman who had married the most impenetrable of the Westruthers.
Finally, finally, finally, it is time for Xavier's story.
Lizzie Albright's life in Little Thurston began eight years ago, before that, she lived in fear for seventeen years as Lady Alexandra Simmons, only daughter of the very abusive and villainous Earl of Bute. The culmination of her former life is her secret marriage to the Marquess of Steyne, who wedded and bedded her and then left her. She had thought to continue living her life as Lizzie, but, when the Marquess of Steyne arrives at Little Thurston, Lizzie knew that her life would change forever.
Choice is the central theme of this story and the seeming lack of it. "I have no choice." is something Lizzie says quite a bit in this story, and it leads us to believe that Xavier is holding all the cards, and calling all the shots, but Xavier doesn't have a lot of choices left to him either: given the chance, he was happy to let his wife live quietly in Little Thurston. Unfortunately, Xavier lost both his heirs and now has to impose on a woman who was forced to marry him (and whom he was forced to marry as well).
He'd taken a blameless girl's virginity and left her. What a prince. What a prize. What a damnable villain.
* * *
Humiliation throbbed inside her. She sank into a curtsy with lowered eyes. "I will be there, my lord. But only because I have no choice."
- Chapter 10
His cousin, Jonathon's book is about reforming the rake, and Beckenham's book was about reuniting with a lost love -- Steyne's book is a little harder to peg down.
At 316 pages, this is full-length novel, but I really think this could've been a longer story, and I wouldn't mind reading more: Xavier's backstory is so complex that it really needs a lot of sorting through. Instead, many aspects of his "wild" life are glossed over, and it felt a bit odd because this is the gentleman who hosted an orgy in Beckenham's book and who was planning an orgy in the early part of his own story.
I think even Lizzie's expectations we're let down: Xavier promised her a courtship and a seduction at the Duke of Montford's party ... Lizzie didn't really get the courtship and the seduction wasn't as enticing as Xavier promised it to be. Considering the superlative used in reference to Xavier in the title, I didn't really read much wickedness in this story. There were some exchanges between him and Lizzie that were meant to scandalise her, but that's about it. Granted, there is a reason for this urgency: Xavier's evil mother has returned to England and he becomes a target of several assassination attempts, so he must do what he must in order to secure the succession.
There is chemistry between our hero and heroine -- it sparks now and then, but fails to completely catch fire. I felt there was a big gap between the start of the house party and Lizzie's realisation that she loves Xavier. I guess when you have a force as evil as Xavier's mother, all else just flies out the window. I thought this part was especially well done, and neatly ties together Rosamund's story with her brother's. In this way, the author was able to show the very indelible reason why Xavier is so cold and so unfeeling: he never saw himself as worthy of anyone's love. His mother sees him as nothing more than a means to further her own end, and has never shown him or his sister any love.
"...Damn it, Rosie, what woman could be happy with someone like me? Lizzie was condemned to wed me, and that was her tragedy. The only thing we can do now is try to make the best of it, ensure the sacrifice wasn't in vain."
- Chapter 15
From Alexandra to Lizzie. From Steyne to Xavier. Both our hero and heroine believed they could not escape their family history and their blood, but, when Lizzie took matters into her own hands, she was able to change the shape of her future -- and help Xavier along the way. While Lizzie seemed focused on her lack of choices, Xavier seemed too (dis)interested in the idea of love and made bold proclamations about how fanciful and impractical it was. In the end, I'm glad to see the two of them come to an understanding about all these things that bothered them so.
It was nice to see the rest of the Westruthers again, and a lot of focus was given to Andrew, Viscount Lydgate -- perhaps to set up his character and story?