England, 1811. Delia Somerset despises the privileged ton, but her young sister, Lily, is desperate to escape their family’s scandalous past and join high society. Unwilling to upset her sister, Delia reluctantly agrees to attend a party at the Sutherland estate—and avoid the gossip at all costs.
Alec Sutherland is known as a hot-headed scoundrel, but nothing gets a rise out of him as much as the news that his brother desires Delia’s hand in marriage. She is, after all, the daughter of the London belle who soiled their family name. He’s determined to ruin her reputation as well, in the most delicious way possible. It’s only a matter of time before he can woo her with his irresistible advances.
As Delia devilishly plays along in Alec’s game, determined to prove the joke is on him, they inch ever closer to repeating history. And in this game of seductive glances, scandalous whispers, and old debts, the outcome might be much more than either of them anticipated…
Even though there are a couple of things about the motivations of the two protagonists that bothered me, A Wicked Way to Win an Earl is a well-written and enjoyable début from Anna Bradley. The storyline isn’t an especially original one, but the writing is solid, the heroine is spirited without being overly outrageous, the hero is darkly brooding and there is plenty of heat between the couple, all of which contribute to its being an entertaining read overall.
As this is the first book in a series about the Sutherland family, the prologue sets the stage for the conflict between the Sutherlands and the Somersets, caused when Millicent Chase ran away from her arranged marriage to Hart Sutherland, the Earl of Carlisle, and eloped with the man she loved, Henry Somerset.
A massive scandal ensued, and the Somersets never returned to society, but they were happy living quietly, with each other and eventually their family of five daughters. But some months before this book opens, the Somersets were tragically killed in an accident, turning the lives of their children upside down. The eldest two daughters, Delia (short for Delphinium!) and Lily (and yes, they all have flowery names) have been befriended by Charlotte and Eleanor Sutherland, whose eldest brother, Alexander, came into the title following the death of their harsh autocratic father three years previously.
The Sutherland sisters have invited Delia and Lily to the house-party being held at Bellwood, the country seat of the Earls of Carlisle. On the way, their carriage axle breaks and the coachman is injured, leaving the ladies with no choice but for Delia to attempt to find help. Following the directions she has been given, she is making for the nearest inn when she comes across a man and a woman beneath the trees who are clearly about to do something completely improper with each other. Alerted to Delia’s presence, the woman quickly runs off, leaving the man – a large, imposing and angry specimen – to confront the unwelcome intruder. With dismay, Delia realises that the half-undressed, dishevelled and undeniably fascinating man is none other than her host, the Earl of Carlisle, who promptly takes charge of the situation, escorting her to the inn and making arrangements to retrieve her sister and the coachman and take them to Bellwood.
Alec Sutherland hasn’t found life to be terribly easy since the death of his father. The family finances had been badly mismanaged and he has had to work hard in order to turn things around. In doing so, he is worried he is becoming more and more like his father, a cold, stern man who had little time for his family. Alec acutely feels the distance that has sprung up between him and his younger brother in the past year and is at a loss as to what to do to heal the rift between them. Robyn Sutherland is rather wild; a young man on the town enjoying all its dissolute pleasures, much as Alec did before he was encumbered by title and responsibilities. To make matters worse, Alec learns that Robyn is smitten with Delia, and that it was at his behest that Charlotte and Eleanor extended the invitation to the house-party. Not only is he worried about Robyn’s intentions toward a gently bred young lady, but is also concerned that any close association between their two families will only dig up all the old scandal when he has worked hard to restore the family name along with its fortune.
[As an aside, I found the use of the name Robyn for a man to be a distraction. Robyn with a Y is a girl’s name – well, it is in the UK – so I had to keep reminding myself that this particular Robyn was a bloke, which was annoying and disrupted my reading.]
Back to the story. Alec decides that the best thing to do is to keep his brother and Miss Somerset apart, and comes up with a fool-proof – and underhand – way to send her packing back to Surrey. If he appears to be pursuing her and spending time alone with her, she will become the subject of gossip, which can only be amplified as people recall the old scandal. At the same time, Delia makes the assumption – and this is one of the quibbles I mentioned at the beginning of this review – that Alec is going to try to seduce her simply because he’s bored and because it will “put the Somerset family in their place once and for all.” While Alec has unquestionably been flirting with her and is – he tells himself – trying to be rid of her, Delia has no way of knowing anything for certain with the result that she appears to be jumping to conclusions with no real foundation for them. The author also makes use of the cliché of the rich-bitch fiancée who is so clearly wrong for Alec that she is never any real threat to the burgeoning romance between him and Delia.
Apart from that, however, the story is well-executed, and the central romance is well-developed. Alec and Delia strike sparks off each other from the outset and are obviously deeply attracted to each other, but Ms Bradley takes the time to allow them to talk to each other and get to know each other so that the reader is left in no doubt that they are in love and not simply in the grips of infatuation or lust. She has the knack for creating and building sexual and romantic tension by means of looks, touches and near-kisses that lead to some nicely heated moments between the couple, and the sex scenes are passionate and well-written. Both protagonists are attractive characters, although Alec does come across as rather harsh at times, and Delia, for all her sensible-ness does something a bit daft near the end.
In spite of the criticisms I have expressed, I enjoyed reading A Wicked Way to Win an Earl and will certainly be on the lookout for more by Anna Bradley. (The next book is about Lily and Robyn, I think, and as there are three more sisters, there is plenty of sequel fodder!) Her writing is deft and intelligent with a nice touch of humour, and she has taken a well-used plotline and made good use of it by peopling it with distinctive characters and strongly-written relationships. It’s a strong start and she’s definitely an author to watch for fans of historical romance.