by Courtney Milan
Series: Worth Saga #2
Also in this series: The Pursuit Of..., Mrs. Martin's Incomparable Adventure
Publication Date: April 24, 2018
I received an advance review copy of this book from Publisher. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
The only thing more inconvenient than Camilla's marriage at gunpoint is falling in love with her unwilling groom...
Adrian Hunter, the son of a duke's daughter and a black abolitionist, is determined to do whatever his family needs-even posing as a valet to gather information. But his mission spirals out of control when he's accused of dastardly intentions and is forced to marry a woman he's barely had time to flirt with.
Camilla Worth has always dreamed of getting married, but a marriage where a pistol substitutes for "I do" is not the relationship she hoped for. Her unwilling groom insists they need to seek an annulment, and she's not cruel enough to ruin a man's life just because she yearns for one person to care about her.
As Camilla and Adrian work to prove their marriage wasn't consensual, they become first allies, then friends. But the closer they grow, the more Camilla's heart aches. If they consummate the marriage, he'll be stuck with her forever. The only way to show that she cares is to make sure he can walk away for good…
Trigger warnings: trauma, shame, racism, depression, anxiety
Mad spoilers ahead for Once Upon a Marquess, the first book in the series. This book can be read as a standalone, though you’ll miss some of the background of Camilla’s family. I’ll also apologize ahead of time for this muddle of a review. This book was deeply personal for me, and at times it felt like Camilla was speaking my own thoughts, just much more eloquently, and not being Courtney Milan, it’s been hard for me to condense everything into a review that’s actually helpful, as opposed to just the following quote:
“I don’t know a thing about art. I couldn’t give you any advice at all.” Her eyes shimmered.
“Did you like it?”
“It gave me feelings.” She tapped her chest. “Here.”
To me, both of the novels in the Worth Saga have dealt with responses to trauma – I haven’t read the novellas (but plan to rectify that soon!) so I can’t comment on those. In Once Upon a Marquess, Judith is left to care for her two younger sisters and brother after her father commits suicide after being convicted of treason and her older brother is transported and presumed dead. Her 12-year-old sister Camilla chooses to go live with an uncle, so Judith is left with her quirky younger sister, Theresa, and her young brother, Benedict. Judith is the quintessential strong survivor – she does what she must to take care of her younger siblings, papering over harsh reality with some desperate attempts at humor. She’s focused on recreating what they’ve lost – coming-outs for the sisters and schooling at Eton for her brother – irregardless of if that’s what they themselves want or the cost to her. Judith is proud of what she’s accomplished, though it’s bittersweet – without their fall from grace, she would never have been given the chance to become the strong woman she is. What she’s forgotten – what her partner, Christian, teaches her, in their book – is that to be a survivor, one also has to be a victim – the two are intertwined, and acknowledging that she is hurt and vulnerable doesn’t make her any less strong or cheapen her accomplishments.
“Uncouth, forward, impatient—everyone always counseled Camilla to hide what she was. She’d never been able to do it properly.”
And so we come to the next-oldest sister, Camilla. I’ve been told by therapists that many girls who experience trauma in their early teen years (Camilla was 12 when her father died) internalize it as shame, as a feeling of being so worthless and broken that you’re utterly undeserving of love. Take that predisposition and add it to being passed around from family to family for years, each time looking for and being denied love and a place to belong, and I think you can guess what her mental state is at the start of the book. Through the machinations of a particularly evil man, she ends up wed at gunpoint to Adrian, who she thinks is just a valet. Nothing is quite what it seems, though, least of all her new “husband.”
“Adrian had been lucky—so lucky. He had lived. He’d been deemed too young to go to war. He’d had every advantage. Every time he thought maybe I shouldn’t, or maybe I don’t have the time, he reminded himself how much he had. He always asked himself if maybe, he could take on a little more.
He always came to the same conclusion—yes, he could manage more.”
Adrian has been keeping secrets and has troubles of his own – not that he’d admit that! Adrian minimizes his own pain and instead uses it to push himself harder. He allows others to trample all over his boundaries and he’s hesitant to ask for help, unwilling to burden others – even his brother – when they’re obviously so much worse off than he is. He runs a business, but constantly downplays his work in its success – he sees himself as merely trying to wrangle his employees in a direction when in reality it’s him who’s leading the way. So here we end up with two main characters who are both convinced that they are more undeserving of love than the other, which you’d think would end up with a giant mess but instead turns into them both lifting the other up.
“I have no reason for hope, so I hope beyond reason. I keep hoping, that someday, someone will care. I believe that I deserve it, even though I know I cannot. I have known for years that it cannot be, and yet I refuse to stop hoping. You are the only person in the world who has ever told me that I should keep on hoping.”
The romance is very slow burn – they don’t even have sex until very close to the end of the book, for good reason, as it would’ve invalidated their chances for an annulment, though there are also two masturbation scenes that were pretty fun. It’s not particularly steamy, either. What does make the relationship work is their banter and how much they obviously care for and understand each other. It reminded me, a bit, of the kind of relationship you’d expect from a couple who’s been happily together for much longer. Camilla sees Adrian’s tendency to always take on “one more thing,” so she simply steps in and takes things off his plate. Adrian reinforces to Camilla that she is deserving of love, of being chosen for being herself. It didn’t bother me that there wasn’t much sexual content because I thought their emotional connection more than made up for it, but if you prefer steamier books or for characters to work out their relationship through sex, it may be frustrating.
“And just because the thing she wanted was impossible…
That didn’t mean she needed to give up hope.”
While waiting around at Adrian’s china-works, Camilla works through her own trauma by reading church law about two other women who had sought annulments. Eventually, she’s able to process it, and then sieve through her past, cherishing the good bits and discarding everything else. In the end, as she returns to and confronts the places in her past, it’s not just her walking away from her trauma – she brings other women along with her. I think this was my favorite part of the book, that she uses her vulnerability to help others in the same situation. It’s not just that she’s “healed,” but that she’s accepted that the things she thought were weaknesses – her friendliness, her trustful nature – are actually her strengths, and powerful ones. There’s also some sweet and painful scenes of reconciliation between Camilla and Judith, who said some pretty hurtful things to her when she chose her uncle over staying with them, as only family can, and also between Adrian and his brother Grayson. I appreciated that these relationships were also considered, as sometimes it seems like the romantic relationship eclipses everything else in the hero/heroine’s lives.
“Let them call you whatever they want, the dowager marchioness had told Theresa. Just keep the truth in your head, and you don’t need to tell them they’re wrong.”
So, overall – I loved this book because it really spoke to me. Also, it’s witty and fun, as you’d expect from anything by Courtney Milan, not to mention a giant middle finger to anyone who thinks a good historical romance has to be white bread Regency England. The hero is black, the heroine is bi, and there’s at least one other lesbian couple, plus it doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable truth of England’s colonialism. This book definitely set up the next few books in the series, and I’m very impatiently waiting for Theresa’s book (though I think Grayson, Adrian’s brother, is next). I’ve had some inklings about her from the first book and while at least one was confirmed in this one, I’m very much looking forward to seeing her get her HEA. But, in the meantime, I would highly recommend you grab a box of tissues and then go read this book!