I found this to be a thoroughly engaging book, filled with humour and warmth. Set towards the end of the 19th Century, The Importance of Being Wicked tells the story of how Winfield Elliot, Lord Stillwell finally makes it to the altar after the three failed attempts detailed in Lord Stillwell's Excellent Engagements (Millworth Manor).
Our heroine is Lady Miranda Garret, a twenty-eight year-old widow who, though ostensibly just the owner of her late husband's architectural business is actually running the business as well as being its chief architect. But this is the 1880s, and were these facts known, the business would quickly fail due to the reluctance of men to hire a woman to do such a job.
Miranda is sensible though, and knows she cannot keep up the charade indefinitely, and has therefore already made provision for taking care of her small staff when this happens.
She is forthright and independent - without being labelled `feisty' (which often denotes a modicum of stupidity as well!) - and one of the things I really liked about her was the way in which she was gradually brought to realise how much she had changed since the death of her husband.
When she and Winfield meet, the sparks start flying immediately, and in fact, for the first part of their relationship, they are often barely civil to each other and eager to score points off each other. Winfield often comes off the worse in these encounters - in fact I rather liked the way he was thrown off balance by Miranda and became rather endearingly bewildered when in her presence.
The real heart of the book however is Winfield himself. I'd already developed a soft spot for him while reading "Lord Stillwell's Excellent Engagements" - he's handsome, charming, funny and caring, but beneath the witticisms is revealed a man who, despite his many attractive qualities and his ability to laugh at himself, is just a bit insecure about himself and wants to be loved for who he is rather than what he has. While he comes to realise he has finally fallen in love, he is - given that he has already been engaged three time - naturally cautious about becoming involved again.
I always enjoy stories with plenty of good verbal sparring between the hero and heroine, and there's no shortage of that here. I also particularly enjoyed Winfield's relationship with his cousin Gray (whose story was told in What Happens at Christmas); there is lots of affection beneath the constant teasing and the depth of feeling between them is evident.
There is also a very slender secondary plot thread surrounding the mysterious Mr Tempest, the investor in Miranda's firm, although anyone with a passing acquaintance with Shakespeare will have worked it out by the time all is revealed.
I do have one niggle with the story, however, which was the continual mention of Winfield's reputation for `wickedness' - which was then countered by someone saying ` you can't believe everything you hear' or pointing out that he was no better or worse than any other wealthy young man in his position.
Young men at that time were expected to sow their wild oats before they settled down (and many continued to do so afterwards as well) so the fact that Winfield was sexually experienced shouldn't really have been made into such an issue. In fact, I don't think he was wicked at all - just an incredibly charming and appealing man who didn't have any problems attracting women - and I'm sure there could have been a less repetitive way of conveying both that, and the fact that Miranda is looking for something more than the sort of placid and civilised relationship she had with her late husband.
This book delivered exactly what I've been missing in some of the other historical romances I've read recently - engaging characters and the development of an actual relationship based on friendship and affection rather than the insta-lust and immediate bed-hopping which is such a poor substitute and which is sadly occurring in so many HRs at the moment.
With thanks to Kensington Books and NetGalley for the review copy.