Oddly enough, the book I set aside to read Susan Sizemore's The Price of Innocence was the non-fiction To Marry an English Lord, a perfect historical backdrop to this tale of an American widow in London in the late 1800s. "Sherrie" Hamilton, mother of eight-year-old Minnie and cousin to Faith and Daisy, is a woman of great wealth. American heiresses are all the rage in London, where the three women and Aunt Dora are attempting to find matches for Daisy and Faith. They attend a ball given by society matriarch Lady Anne Beaumont, and Sherrie comes face to face with her past.
Her past is Jack, Earl of PenMartyn. Only he wasn't known as Jack nine years earlier, when he rescued Sherrie from the hands of evil in the South China Sea and embarked upon a passionate three-month affair with her. Sherrie lost her heart to the pirate "Cullum," as Jack called himself, and was brokenhearted when he sent her home. Their daughter was born some months later, and a brief, loveless marriage to legitimize the girl ended in untimely death. Sherrie has been a widow for eight years. She has loved no other since Cullum, and here he is, back in her life.
Jack is astounded to find Scheherazade, the woman he's never forgotten and the one who ruined him for anyone else. Celibate for nine years, he is at first struck dumb at the sight of her, then enraged as he realizes she didn't seem to recognize him. How could this maddening, beautiful firebrand forget their time together? When Minnie spies Jack and decides he must be her father, then takes matters into her own small hands, Jack's and Sherrie's fates are about to intertwine again.
What a gorgeous, intelligent read this was. It's far more complex than I have described it here, with an intriguing subplot involving a mysterious nobleman charming London with suspicious Eastern philosophy, but the main focus is Jack and Sherrie. Their longing for each other is palpable, and when they do come together, these two nearly set the pages afire. And the conflict – can Sherrie learn to trust Jack, and can Jack finally be honest about his past and allow himself to love – is beautifully played out against a backdrop of late-Victorian London and the rush of American girls seeking a title in exchange for their fortunes.
The introduction of secondary characters is somewhat rushed, as though the reader is expected to recognize them from a former book. There were places where I needed to re-read passages just to understand who was who, especially in the case of May, a Chinese woman, and her husband Ira. The backstory of Sherrie and Jack is interspersed through the book and unfolds with the main plot, which may be harder for some readers to follow as it jumps back and forth. But all is revealed at the end, and the journey is engrossing.
There is one scene toward the end that was so good I re-read it several times just to savor it. Without giving away the details, let me say that when Sherrie finally decides to shake the truth out of Jack and force him to look his past in the eye, she does it with a style that alone is worth the price of the book.
Susan Sizemore made a name for herself as an author of witty time-travels, but I think she's been hiding her true light under a bushel. We romance readers appear to have an outstanding historical talent to put on our "Watch for" lists. Don't miss The Price of Innocence.