I had no idea what I was getting into when I picked up this book. I enjoy the author’s writing and took a brief glance at the synopsis. This was deep, dark, gritty, engaging, heartwarming, humorous and heartwrenching all in one. It is the story of two people who were tortured by those they were captive to and then had the courage to survive, thrive and be happy. There were echoes of Edmond Dantes of The Count of Monte Cristo fame to this story. This is a tough read and yet so worth it.
The story opens when Christian Severin, the Duke of Mercia, resides in a French dungeon where he is tortured for information. The only thing that keeps him from breaking is the thought of revenge against his captors. After a year of torture, he is freed when the French lose the war. Being a freed man after enduring what he did is almost as tough as trying to stay alive in captivity. His wife and his son die while he was gone and most people have no idea how to treat him and no one can help with his recovery.
After eight years, Gillian is blessedly free of her sadistic husband and then barely gets through an inquiry into his death. She is at loose ends, but she is given her mission when she learns of the return of her dead cousin’s husband, the duke, to England. His surviving child who hasn’t spoken since the deaths of her mother and brother needs him and Gilly will make him see this. Gillian is only vaguely aware that he was captured in the war, but it is seeing the result that makes her realize that there are two people who need her help.
Christian doesn’t know what to make of the strong, assertive woman who rushes into his study and demands that he decamp to his country estate to take care of his daughter. Not only that, she breaks through his emotionless and desensitized state. He proposes a deal in that he will go along with her idea if she will go with him and take over his household and hold the world outside at bay for him. He is also very determined to keep her as a companion and friend even as he starts to sense that he’s not the only one who suffered greatly.
As both Christian and Gilly give each other their trust and their secrets and as their friendship becomes something more, someone else is plotting in the shadows. Gilly starts experiencing deadly ‘accidents’. Christian is determined to protect her even as he is determined to hunt down his captors and exact revenge.
The plot on this one has several threads going on that are neatly bound together so that it was cohesive. There is the romance, the paths of healing for both Christian and Gilly, and the dangerous suspense. I confess that the suspense wasn’t that challenging for me when it came to the ‘who’ and ‘why’s, but it kept me on my toes with the ‘how’ and ‘when’. Much of the book is gently paced and centered around Christian and Gillian growing into a relationship that is partly romance and partly healing. They share the narration of the story along with a few minor characters at times. At first, it seems that Christian is the fragile one and the one who is like a wounded animal, but once the secrets start coming, its obvious that Gilly is possible more fragile and more skittish. My stomach was in knots as they confessed to each other what they endured particularly Gilly. I seriously hated it that her husband died of natural causes and yes, that makes me bloodthirsty.
With that in mind, the romance takes its time. The attraction is there early on, then they become physically intimate and then Christian spends a long time coaxing and working on Gilly to get past her fears that her dead husband gave her about marriage. Her head knows the truth that with Christian it would be different, but the evil beast did a number on her and she can’t work past the anger and fear. The reader has to be as patient as Christian through this part of the story and it was hard because I just wanted them to be happy together after all they had been through.
On a side note, this book and the series are part of the same world as her other series the Windhams. In fact, one of the strong secondary characters in this story is Devlin St. Just prior to the events of The Heir and the rest of the Windham series. I loved seeing my favorite Windham and hope to see more of him with this trilogy. And speaking of the trilogy, I was vastly intrigued when I saw who the heroes of the other two books are. Just for that knowledge alone I would read them.
All in all, this was a magnificent start to a new series. What a deep story this was addressing themes of prisoners of war, torture, domestic abuse, greed, and oh yes, love and hope. Those who enjoy a bit more substance and a spicier relationship to their historical romances should pick this one up.
My thanks to Sourcebooks Casablanca and Net Galley for the opportunity to read this one in exchange for my honest review.