Book Review: Practically Wicked
Berkley Publishing Grou, 2012
Like so many of the best Regency romances, Alissa Johnson’s sparkling new book, Practically Wicked, opens with a party in full swing. The London house of the disreputable courtesan Mrs. Wrayburn is often the setting for these loud, lewd gatherings of the demi-monde of which she’s such a dubious celebrity. They feature gaming, gambling – and drinking, which on this particular evening Maximilian Dane has been doing to elaborate excess. Dane is young, handsome, muscular, and miserable – he’s just become Viscount, on the unexpected death of his brother, and the elevation (mixed unevenly with a complicated sibling grief) has thrown him into the darkest of moods.
Drunk, he staggers on a landing and is helped into a room by a lovely young woman, who closes the door in order to give the young lord (who’s slurring his words and struggling to stay awake) time to recover. The young woman is Anna Rees, the socially stand-offish daughter of Mrs. Wrayburn (her surname comes from a grandparent; her nickname – the Ice Maiden of Anover House – comes from the fact that she’s never bothered to hide her disdain for her mother’s lifestyle), and when she learns from the addled Dane that he’s now Viscount, she offers her congratulations and her sympathies. She’s a little dazzled by his beauty, and she’s a little taken aback when he asks her point-blank what she wants out of life. She spontaneously confesses that she’d like a peaceful little cottage in the country and a great big hound dog for a companion, but by this point the young lord is face-down on the table, seemingly asleep.
Then – in another tradition of Regency plots (or is it all plots?), our heroine takes a chance. Calling Dane’s name and getting no answer (and perhaps just a touch envious of all those parties she’s been ignoring her whole life), she bends down and kisses him. Or a rough approximation thereof:
And then she was kissing him. Or, more accurately, she was holding her lips lightly against his. Whether or not this constituted a real kiss was unclear. It rather seemed as though one or both of them ought to be moving.
An instant later, he does indeed move – her kiss has half-woken him, and when he kisses her back, she realizes how wrong she’d been to consider merely touching lips to be kissing. For the first time in her self-sheltered life, she feels the heady rush of sexual infatuation – and maybe more. Impulsively, she asks the still-drunk lord if he’ll promise to come back and see her in a week (when his sad duties to his brother have been discharged), and he says yes.
But he doesn’t come back. Four years pass – increasingly bitter and bleak years for Anna, living in the shadow of her mother’s desperate social exploits. One such exploit lands Mrs. Wrayburn with a broken leg, and under the influence of laudanum, she Anna that she’s the daughter of a nobleman, and that there’s a binding contract buried in the mountains of paperwork Mrs. Wrayburn hoards. Once her mother is passed out, Anna and her trusty governess conduct a search and find a contract linking Anna to great Engsly family – and not just linking her to them butobliging them to her, at least in terms of financial support. Dreaming of her cottage in the country, she decides to seek out her new relatives.
In a wonderful turn of plot (Johnson is particularly adept at wonderful turns of plot), Anna’s surprised to find that she likes them, and they like her. In their palatial home she encounters a library so vast and beautiful that she’s momentarily entranced enough not to notice she’s got company:
“Oh, to have a library like this,” she murmured, and he grinned. He liked knowing she was the sort of woman who laughed and murmured to herself.
“Is that really what you want?” he asked softly.
Anna started and spun around. And then, just like that, the Ice Maiden returned. Her expression became closed, her eyes shuttered. The transformation was so swift and so complete, it left Max wondering if she was fully aware of the change, or if it had become automatic to her.
This leads to a second surprise: Lord Dane didn’t forget his promise of four years earlier – he was kept away by the lies of Anna’s mother, who was intent on hoarding her daughter as she’s hoarded everything else she’s acquired in her life. Anna finds Dane in the Engsly house because he’s a good friend of the family, and just like that, the two of them are thrown together again.
Romance fans will hardly need a street map for what follows. The key is that Johnson infuses all of it with a rare whimsical charm and intelligence that keeps the pages turning. This is an author to put on your short list of reliables.