I was underwhelmed by the first book in this series when it was published in 2015, and to be honest, I was a little underwhelmed by this one, although it’s a definite improvement. My main complaint with Once Upon a Marquess was that it was too scattered, and the main characters individually and as a couple suffered for it. I also thought their chemistry was a little forced. Both of those complaints were non-existent for me, here. And where I found little sister Theresa an annoyance in the first book, honestly she was my favorite part of this one. (I am very much looking forward to the further adventures of Theresa and SPOILERS the dowager marchioness as they traipse all over creation looking for lost Worth siblings, and I hope that her book (six) is great when we forever from now get it END SPOILERS.
At first I was really into this book, which follows Camilla Worth, who at the age of twelve left her siblings after the dramatic events that shattered their family to go live with their uncle, because she didn’t want to starve, and she liked the promises he was making to her (pretty gowns and lemon tarts and such). Despite her sister’s warnings that he didn’t love her and wouldn’t care for her, Camilla went. Said uncle was worthless, and soon shuffled her off to a cousin, not passing on letters from or to Camilla, and as she kept getting shuffled, she fell further down the social ladder, losing track of her family and they of her, which is where we find her, working as a maid in a rectory on half wages, at the sufferance of the asshat Rector Miles. Actually, the book opens as Rector Miles performs a wedding ceremony for Camilla and her prospective husband, Adrian Hunter, at literal gunpoint. It’s shenanigans.
Adrian Hunter is a biracial man in a very white England. He does have some advantages, though, which he is very aware of. His mother is the daughter of a duke (disinherited. of course, after she married that black abolitionist; how disgraceful), and his father a wealthy tradesman, who inherited a business from his uncles, who now live in America (see the novella: In Pursuit Of . . .). Adrian is one of only two surviving brothers, the others having died in the American Civil War. His mother tasked him at fifteen to stay behind and shepherd the family business, which he now runs successfully. But an uncle on his mother’s side, who is a Bishop in the Church of England, has tasked him with gaining information to discredit a rival. Adrian has always hoped that his uncle’s professed private love for Adrian will become public some day, when the old man will acknowledge Adrian and his family as his relatives, something he holds over Adrian’s head. But Adrian is naïve and hopeful, and continues to believe the best of his uncle, so he agrees to disguise himself as a valet in order to get dirt on the rival.
Then, Adrian and Camilla meet. Camilla and Adrian flirt. Camilla and Adrian are locked in a room together, and then forced to marry at gunpoint, a status to which Adrian vehemently objects. They go about trying to get an annulment.
Intellectually, this book works very well for me. Camilla is starved for affection and human kindness, and sees this wedding as gift. She almost wishes Adrian would just accept it, and even though he may never really love her, at least she would have a home, and some stability. But Adrian is adamant; he will not have a wife who he did not consent to marry. If he has a wife, he will choose her, and she will choose him. They become partners in trying not to be married anymore.
Ms. Milan had a hard time writing this book. It took her almost three years. A lot of that had to do with some real life circumstances. I can’t find the link right now, but a couple months back she shared some of her struggles to write during all of this, and realized she was blocked because she had changed and her writing hadn’t. She was used to writing about people who had secrets from one another, and she didn’t want to do that anymore. There was a moment in this book where I thought, this, this was the moment that had to change. At every possible moment in this book where your usual romance novel characters would conceal something from one another, to be revealed at some future cathartic moment, but in the meantime causing angst and confusion, they instead are open and tell one another everything. Camilla straight out tells Adrian she would prefer to stay married, and she knows she has the power to make it happen–all she need do is say a couple of words to the right people and an annulment would become impossible–but she won’t, because she respects Adrian’s wishes. The two have good chemistry, and see each other for who they are. It is the circumstances clashing with their beliefs and feelings that make for the conflict here.
My problem here, and why I’m not giving this a full four stars, or even four and a half, is Camilla. Half the time, I found her delightful. When she was talking to Adrian or other people, or learning about ecclesiastical law (don’t ask), or making jokes or flirting, or basically doing anything at all, she was fun. But whenever the story retreated into her head, and it was just Camilla thinking about things, I found myself irritated by her inner monologue. It was so repetitive! The word “hope” is used approximately 6,000 times, and it was nice the first couple times, but after that it lost all its power. She kept saying the same things over and over as well, the same phrases, the same vague memories. It was basically a terrible case of show don’t tell failing. But I think Ms. Milan wrote herself into a corner, and this was the result. Part of Camilla’s problem is that she refuses to look back on her past and really remember what has happened to her, out of self-preservation. Instead, we just get small flashes of it, over and over. I would have gladly traded the plot point of Camilla learning to look back if it meant we didn’t get all that vague, emotionally overwrought POV. Adrian and Theresa also get POVs, and the story just flew along when I was in their heads.
Hopefully now Ms. Milan has found her writing groove again, we’ll have the third book sooner than we had this one. It’s going to be about Adrian’s brother, Grayson, who is a bit of a firecracker.
[3.5 stars, rounded up]