Sharon Page sparkles in this poignant and irresistibly entertaining follow-up to her breakout novel, An American Duchess.
Lady Julia Hazelton is the most dazzling among 1920s England’s bright young things. But rather than choosing the thrill of wanton adventure like so many of her contemporaries, Julia shocks society with her bold business aspirations. Determined to usher the cursed Worthington estate into a prosperous, modern new era, and thus preserve her beloved late fiancé’s legacy, the willful Julia tackles her wildest, most unexpected adventure in Cal Carstairs, the reluctant new Earl of Worthington.
The unconventional American artist threatens everything Julia seeks to protect while stirring desires she thought had died in the war. For reasons of his own, Cal has designed the ultimate revenge. Rather than see the estate prosper, he intends to destroy it. But their impulsive marriage—one that secures Julia’s plans as well as Cal’s secrets—proves that passion is ambition’s greatest rival. Unless Cal ends his quest to satisfy his darkest vendetta, he stands to ruin his Worthington wife and all her glittering dreams.
Lady Julia Hazelton is feeling somewhat adrift. Having lost her first love to the Great War and her second love to the chasm between their social standings, she needs a sense of purpose. Her family is pressuring her to marry, but she's seen what a marriage without love can do to people, and she's vowed to marry for love or not at all. So she throws herself into a startup charity to help destitute war widows and their children. She also spends much of her time tending to the tenants on her family's estate and on the neighboring estate, Worthington, which she would have been mistress of had her fiance not been killed in the war. But Worthington is in a state of chaos. The new heir to the estate is a long-lost relative, a bohemian American whose arrival disrupts the staid order of English nobility. With her best friend, Diana, in the scandalous position of being pregnant with a married man's child, and terrified that the new earl is going to throw them all out on the street, Julia vows to do all she can to see the estate maintained. Getting close to the new earl is no hardship--he's gorgeous, progressive, and enigmatic--but getting to the heart of him and convincing him he has a place in her world is going to take some work.
Cal Carstairs bears a grudge, and he's finally in a position to do something about it. As heir to the estate of the family he holds responsible for his parents' deaths, he arrives at Worthington intent on revenge. But his plans to sell the estate piece by piece and see the family brought low are called into question when Lady Julia captures his attention. Nothing like the aristocracy he's come to hate, Julia challenges all of his preconceptions and shows him how many lives would be affected if he ruined the estate. Over the course of their visits to the estate's villages and business interests, Cal discovers that several young women have gone missing over the years, and, with a soft spot for misused and forgotten women, Cal vows to uncover the truth of what happened to them. But when the clues start adding up and point toward the Worthington estate, he must decide if revealing the truth and gaining justice for the girls is worth destroying the fragile new peace he's established and his relationship with Julia. And when a new threat sets its sights on Julia, Cal will have to come clean about his unsavory past and face the fight of his life to hold on to everything he loves.
I have mixed feelings on The Worthington Wife. I loved the main characters. Julia is an admirable heroine whose desire to have it all--a loving marriage, children, and a greater purpose in life, a feeling of making a difference--is something most women can relate to, and her work with war widows and her compassion for the tenants of the estate are noble and heartfelt. Cal's carefree attitude and his struggle to reconcile his thirst for vengeance with the responsibilities of owning an estate and his growing feelings for Julia won me over, along with the tale of his rise from a childhood of crime with the Five Points Gang. And who doesn't love a man who creates art? I also loved the depiction of the time period and the sense of newness of it all--short dresses, motor cars, jazz clubs. There's very much a sense of living in the moment and pushing boundaries in the aftermath of a harrowing war. I did not read An American Duchess first and found that this sequel stands alone just fine, though I probably would have had a better appreciation for the supporting characters and Julia's family had I read it.
The story is engaging from the first page, and I could not put this book down. Lush descriptions, the glitz and glamour of the Roaring Twenties underscored by a current of lingering gravity from the Great War, a mature, tender love story, and a touch of mystery and danger had me burning through the pages. I really thought this was headed for at least 4-star territory, but instead the final pages let me down. So much time was spent in the first half acquainting Cal--and the reader--with the ins and outs of Worthington and the society they inhabit that many aspects of the plot were shortchanged in the second half as the story raced to a hasty and rather superficial conclusion.The payoff I had been waiting for--Julia and Cal as a couple--is so rushed that we hardly get to spend any time with them, and some of their actions seem to come out of nowhere. The resolutions of the mystery and Diana's pregnancy dilemma are rushed, and we learn about many things that happened after the fact. I could also have done without the "downstairs" scenes from a kitchen maid's point of view that played a minimal role in the overall story.
And yet, in spite of the shortcomings of the latter portion of the story, I still thought it was a gripping, transporting, and very romantic read. When I wasn't reading it, I couldn't wait to get back to it. And I've thought about it often in the days since I finished it. Just an FYI: though this seems to be marketed as romantic historical fiction, it is really historical romance. I love romance, so that's fine by me, but I point it out for those of you who aren't normally fans of the genre. But if you do love romance, and you're looking for a change of pace, The Worthington Wife provides a passionate story with a lot of heart and deeper exploration of social issues in an underrepresented and exciting era when Western civilization was transitioning from the old age into the new.
My Rating: 3.5 Stars out of 5
The Worthington Wife is on a blog tour!