Robert Sinclair Dovenby is my kind of hero. In a word: deliciously sublime. Yes, I know that's two words. But still, he deserves each one. The Wicked Lover by Julia Ross just about checked all my boxes. Well, except for the last 70 pages or so. I did lift an eyebrow or two at the way things shook out, and I wished Dove had been a little more colorful in his wardrobe colors, but, alas, he is nicknamed "Dove" after all. In the end, those were small things and not enough to ruin all the wonderful bits in The Wicked Lover. Georgian England? Check. Delicious hero? Check. Lush sensual romance? Check and check. Plus, there's a wonderfully sensual, erotic first kiss that just about curled my hair even more than it normally is. There are secondary characters almost as finely drawn as the two main characters with kaboodles of lovely Georgian atmosphere, a genuine sense of the time and setting. Oh and there might be a heroine posing as a young man. I loved it.
The opening chapter of The Wicked Lover is one of the best I've read in a long time. The banter and badinage between Meg, Lady Grenham, and Robert Sinclair Dovenby, or Dove, sparkled with wit and acerbic hilarity, a "kind of merry war" along the lines of verbal jousting like that of Petruchio and Kate or, a better example, the parry and thrust, verbally of course, between Benedick and Beatrice. Dove returns home, riding a half-trained stallion, to find his mistress, Meg, burning his clothes in the street in front of his townhouse with a captivated audience awaiting just how it will all play out. Meg fires the first shot after feeding a coat of dark-gray cut velvet into her bonfire:
Meg glanced up, her face, lovely, intelligent, bright with anger. "So what do you make of my bonfire, sir? A pretty enough blaze, don't you think?"
Dove bowed from the saddle and spoke, as he must if he was going to survive this, not only for her. "Indeed, Lady Grenham. A perfect funeral pyre to our friendship, so well represented by these few gaudy trappings. Let them burn!" (2)
His boots and shoes are added to her fire as Dove and the crowd watch silver buckles melting even as Meg accuses him of infidelity, not valuing her. They are both playing to the crowd but there is an undercurrent of of love and loss on both sides here as well. Dove assures her she's is a diamond among pearls, "more brilliant, more valuable, more magnificent - and with a sharper cutting edge, of course." And the crowd loves it.
"Yet you would allow your cheap strumpet -"
"I' faith, ma'am, to which strumpet do you refer? London breeds strumpets faster than your bonfire consumes shirts."
Billowing silk hit the fire. "But do they all burn as furiously-"
"As you did for me? Hard to say, ma'am." (3)
Dove is the master of the grand gesture, laughing in the face of disaster. Nothing better exemplifies this as when the crowd's raucous laughter causes Dove's horse to come dangerously close to pitching him to the ground. He gains control of Abdiel and then begins to empty his pockets, shrugging out of his coat.
"Pray, burn this jacket, ma'am. I never cared for the cut." He flung her his full-skirted coat, then winked as he swept off his tricorn. "And this hat has gone quite out of style." (3)
Meg catches his hat, acknowledging the humor in what they are both doing, calls out to Dove:
"You will spend a cold winter, sir!"
"Without you, or without my coat, ma'am? It's a damned paltry comparison." On the knife edge of chaos he stripped off his waistcoat and held up the ivory satin, examining the silver-thread roses with deliberate gravity. 'Though this? Alas, I always rather liked it. But let it burn, by all means!" (3)
The crowd is roaring with laughter, the fire is burning brighter and brighter, and Meg is concerned that Abdiel will unseat Dove at last, as the horse rears up once again, controlled by one hand only, with Dove moments away from relinquishing even that small amount in order to toss his shirt into the flame.
"You're mad, sir! Insane! That stallion will kill you!"
"What will you wager on it, ma'am? One last exquisite night?"
"My nights aren't up for wager, sir, though your death will be, if you don't dismount this instant."
"But I never abandon any creature, once mounted, ma'am, unless by my own choice." (4)
He-he. Yes, indeed. His horse. He means his horse, I'm sure. Meg concedes Dove wins the round with his outrageous behavior but not without her own final parting shot. Though their exchanges are insultingly personal, and meant to nick, neither one has the heart to truly wound. Mostly it was repartee at its finest, a blend of familiarity and wicked humor with just a pinch of acid.
"The scandal sheets cannot give you the triumph, sir, for the trump is still mine. Far more heat is being generated by my bonfire than could ever be found in your glacial bed."
Faces swiveled, waiting for Dove to deliver the deathblow.
Yet he bowed. "I' faith, in affairs of the heart, ma'am, the lady is always right. If I could not love you as you deserved, it is my loss. As it is my failing that I was not rid of such an unsightly wardrobe a long time ago. My homage is yours, Lady Grenham, along with my undying gratitude." He took her fingers and kissed them. "Even for Abdiel, though he came deuced close to making a bloody fool out of me." (4-5)
I thoroughly enjoyed these first few pages. As openings go, it set up the rest of the book perfectly, cluing me in to the fun and frolic to follow (Well, mostly fun though there are some dark parts), all while subtly underscoring the genuine feeling between Dove and Meg as well as imbuing a sense of the notoriously flamboyant and naughty nature of Georgian society.
In the hands of Julia Ross, figurative language takes on an entirely new depth, adding color in infinitesimal ways to the backdrop for Dove and Sylvie. In attempting to calm his stallion, Abdiel, Dove didn't merely exert control but "wove a cocoon of persuasion with legs, back, and rein" while sporting a "corrosive" smile. The lords and ladies outside his townhouse were not simply the the cream of the crop of Georgian society, but were "like a field of daisies honoring the sun, every powdered head turned in anticipation as the stallion cleaved through the crowd." The hallway in Dove's house "yawned empty and silent, an absurd vacuum of servants." Mist around chimneys does not do something so prosaic as cover like a blanket. Oh no, this mist "lays on stone and wrought iron like fresh paint." All the various forms of London weather are as much a part of the story as Dove, Lady Meg, the Duke of Yveshire, and George White/Sylvie. Here, ice is a "lacy fringe", fog settles on cobbles "like a broody hen sheltering chicks", "snow serpents swirled", mist opens "like a sheet to reveal" the legs of a horse, windows are decorated with "frost flowers", and cold drizzle "soaked the pavements and hissed around the street lamps." I quite enjoyed this flamboyant description for the most part, but found it a little distracting toward the end as I tried to make sense of what was happening. Not to denigrate Ms. Ross's talent in anyway, but rather my own inability to stay focused on the action when I became distracted by a pretty phrase or three. Mea culpa.
If you prefer your couple to hop into bed right away, this is not the book for you. As a matter of fact, The Wicked Lover should go into the Guinness Book of World Records for having one of the most extended examples of foreplay, if not the longest, in ANY romance novel ever, coming in (pardon me, I couldn't resist!)) at a little over 200 pages of it. It begins with George White (aka Sylvie, Countess of Montevrain) tied to Dove's bed and escalates with each and every encounter thereafter - from Sylvie's discovery that Dove is fully aware (and has been almost from the start) she is a "she", not a he, to the stolen kiss at the masquerade ball to the ice skating adventure on the Thames. And then there are those scenes in which Dove tutors Sylvie on how to act more like a man: how to throw (from the shoulder and back), the library a battlefield littered with lumps of sealing wax, a brass paperweight, a spill holder, books, an inkwell and a variety of broken china. How to bow ("A good bow commands a room. It makes ladies swoon and other men furious.")
Lithe as a cat he walked toward her. A snuffbox appeared in one hand. He stopped to take one elegant pinch. As if the candles had suddenly dimmed, a chill permeated the room.
His hazel eyes narrowed.
"Good evening, sir," he said. "Terrible weather!"
The box disappeared, as if by magic. He bent at the hips, one foot in front of the other, and bowed. A wave of lethal force swept from the gesture, as if he might straighten with a dagger aimed for her heart. Her pulse hammered. Ladies swoon! (160)
For Dove, a bow is not merely a "gesture," it is "effrontery mixed with contempt." The threat, the desire and intent to seduce conveyed in a simple bow is totally dependent upon state of mind. Taking snuff is "all a bluff, a chimera (...). Gesture is everything. Substance nothing."
His steady gaze wasn't intrusive. His eyes didn't speak openly of kisses or seduction. Yet small flames of delight danced in their hazel depths, as if she and Dove shared some intimate, lovely, hilarious joke - as if she were already seduced, long ago, and was replete and satisfied in a way she'd never known. (181)
I've never associated taking snuff as being seductive, but both Sylvie and I were breathless with anticipation of ...something as he flicks open the gold snuffbox, his eyes never leaving hers, setting just a few grains "on the curve below" his thumb, and inhaling.
She took back the box and tried to copy his gesture exactly. "Since you won't risk more naked contact, I'm trying to imagine what it would really be like to become a man like you, to be inside your skin."
"What an exhilarating, if unsettling, thought - it certainly is whenever I imagine being inside yours!"
The snuffbox tipped and spilled half its contents onto the carpet as she laughed. "Faith! I suppose I asked for that!"
"You begged for it, ma'am. But if you would really like more naked contact, I put myself at your disposal." (182)
Pretty good, no? These scenes really compliment the verbal sparring showing perfectly how both are engaged emotionally and physically with the other.
Someone smarter than me said that a kiss can be a comma, a period, or an exclamation point. Kisses convey so much of the emotional and physical tension and are a pretty good barometer of whether I'll be savoring a romance or skipping and skimming. Though a good kiss doesn't necessarily have to involve tongues or sucking or even lips in some instances for me to fall in love with a couple who are falling in love. Bear with me while I give you a few examples of my favorite "kissing" scenes.
Take Eleanor & Park, for example. Their first kiss is preceded by a gradual exploration that begins first with a mere touching of hands as they sit side-by-side on the bus to school:
He didn't look up. He wound the scarf around his fingers until her hand was hanging in the space between them. Then he slid the silk and his fingers into her open palm.
And Eleanor disintegrated." (70-71, Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell)
Me, too, Eleanor. It reminded me of Romeo and Juliet the first time I read it. Neither one is looking at the other; their only contact is their hands. I just knew this was to be a grand passion for both, and it was the lead up to THE KISS that made me long for that moment and savor it when it happened.
Or, a kiss can be tenderly romantic and poignant as this one for David and Balfour in Joanna Chambers' Provoked:
“I’ll be going back to London tomorrow,” Balfour added in a flat voice. “So this is good-bye.”
“Good-bye?” David wished he could bite back the word as soon as it was out. It seemed to him his voice rang with disappointment.
“I don’t expect I’ll be in Scotland again for a while.”
“I see. Well, I’ll wish you all the best, then.” David thrust out his hand.
For a moment, Balfour simply stared at his outstretched hand, till David felt so uncomfortable he wanted to draw it back. But then Balfour took it, and in one swift movement, turned David’s hand over, palm down, and lowered his head to press a kiss to the back of it.
Balfour’s lips were soft and warm, but the fingers holding David’s hand were strong and determined. The gesture made David feel supremely off-balance. It was typically Balfour: challenging and humorous at once. Making a woman of David with his queer courtliness. It was…romantic. (2493-2500, Provoked, Joanna Chambers)
Sometimes less really is more. Romantic? Oh yes. Definitely. And also poignant because this is a parting for these two lovers. But also challenging because kisses for David are associated with shame and humiliation, forbidden for David. The power of this kiss is in how it turns something "forbidden" into "romantic", something shameful into a celebration, a treasure. Pretty powerful. It kind of breaks my heart when kisses in romance novels are given short shrift because they communicate so much of the emotional connection between the two main characters.
The kiss between Sylvie and Dove occurs at Lady Grenham's masquerade ball. Sylvie is in her "George" persona, smugly believing her disguise has continued to fool Dove and yet frustrated by that fact because she is fighting her growing attraction to him as well as struggling to reconcile/justify Dove's part in the death of the Duke of Yveshire's brother. The country estate looks like a naughty fairyland, lights and music "streamed out across the shrouded gardens and outlying fields, frost diamonds sparkling on the snow, arpeggios tinkling in the icy air", charcoal braziers hidden within statues of nymphs and satyrs. In the distance an ice palace constructed from blocks of ice, its frozen turrets lit up, alcoves within lined with fur, is "just private enough to be sinful, just public enough to be naughty." Food and drink flow like a veritable Bacchanalian feast, couples mingle, and a pathway lit with paper lanterns points to "the dark yew hedges of a maze." Sylvie escapes to the maze while Dove looks for drink and "female" company, specifically Meg, his former mistress. Sylvie makes her way through the maze to the center and takes a seat in the shadows on an iron bench next to a statue of Aphrodite. After some time she hears footsteps; Dove has followed her into the maze. He appears startled to find someone else deep at the center of the maze and more than just a little drunk.
"Ah, ma'am," he said. "What is a man to do when his mistress abandons him?"
Lud, he thought she was a woman? Sylvie kept her silence, thinking fast.
She pulled farther back into the shadows and spoke softly, seductively, while her heart hammered at the risk.
"I don't know, sir," she said. "Find himself another mistress?"
"Heartless advice, ma'am," he replied. "You would have me kiss a stranger?"
The quiet was absolute, as if they both held their breath, a cocoon of silence among the dark hedges. She had only to open the domino and step into the moonlight to let him know. Yet a moment like this might never come again.
Sylvie stood, keeping the fabric wrapped tightly over her betraying clothes and man's wig. She was a wraith, lost in cold darkness. With her back to the moon, the hood must completely shadow her face.
"Isn't kissing strangers the purpose," she asked, keeping her voice breathy, insubstantial, "of a masquerade?" (69-70)
Dove is leaning and listing as if very drunk indeed. With one hand he lifts her chin while the other hand grips Aphrodite's robes. The hand under her chin slowly moves down her neck to her shoulder to her arm, and finally to her hand. They are standing close, but their bodies are not touching. Only the palms of their hands and their lips.
She felt the shock of it - at the brilliance, at the exquisite sensitivity - before sensation invaded, blazing through her blood. Forgetting restraint, letting desire meet desire, she kissed back.
He tasted of wine and wickedness, forged by skill into genius. Sensation shivered, pooling heat in the groin. Palm pressed against naked palm. Mouth pressed to open mouth. Tongue touched tongue.
Hunger roared. She was enveloped in the glorious heat of his body. Her fingers clung to the hard length of his. Their palms pressed together, rubbing, twisting. His tongue played with hers, sucking, plunging. His lips teased, demanded, insisted, sparking a tumult of longing." (71)
I don't know about you, but my tumult is certainly longing right about now. Ahem. Yes. Well. The connection of "doves" with the goddess Aphrodite and the way Dove clutches the robes of Aphrodite adds yet another layer to this scene. Sylvie and Dove are fully clothed, their physical contact is minimal, and yet this kiss conveys so much more about the state of their hearts, their feelings for each other, than just naked, writhing bodies or any dull insert Tab A into Slot B sex scene could ever do. Here, there is romance, lust, seduction tempered with restraint, a strong emotional connection, an electricity, genuine longing, and a question. What I loved most is the mutually overwhelming, overpowering desire for intimacy, to know the other completely, that magical moment when "lips do what hands do."
The Wicked Lover is a book I savored. There is so much to love and appreciate about this book. I loved that Dove is such an fascinating blend of confident male and kindness, that Sylvie makes no apologies for her past. I loved that Dove's tutelage of Sylvie had nothing to do with a visit to a brothel (wink wink), that he had no desire to interfere with her experiencing freedom in a way she had never known, that there was none of that tired, recycled horrified alpha hero babble when he believes he's inexplicably attracted to another man, that Dove is not elevated in social position by Fate or Luck at the end in order to even the class differences between him and Sylvie. He's a foundling and a scoundrel at the beginning and he's still very much so at the end. I loved that Meg, Lady Grenham and the Duke of Yveshire are as fully realized as Dove and Sylvie. I love the pictures painted of Georgian England, and the atmosphere created by a race across London's roofs or an ice skating adventure on the Thames. Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing tells Beatrice "I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes." That's the kind of romance here, one I love reading - an alchemical formula of love, passion, and a bit of the soul that turns mercury into gold. Magic.