REVIEW: The Price of Innocence by Susan Sizemore
Dear Ms. Sizemore,
I loved The Price of Innocence. And, I expect to get grief from a few for doing so. The relationship between your leads, Jack and Sherrie, begins with what could be called at best forced seduction and what will be seen by some as rape. This trope makes many crazy. Before I began writing this review, I read a great Smart Bitch column about rape in romance and marveled at all the ways readers see this dynamic. I thought about how I see it and why. The truth is I often like forced seduction in my romances. As I’ve written elsewhere at Dear Author, I spent much of my teenage years in the 1970’s reading bodice rippers—I still have my well-thumbed copies of Sweet Savage Love and The Wolf and the Dove. For me, there can be a sensual power when one’s control is taken away. Not all forced seduction stories work for me, but, many do. I found the bond between Jack and Sherrie to be blazing—I am deeply fond of blazing—and I was truly drawn into their story.
The book is set in 1880’s Victorian England. Sherrie Hamilton has come to England from America where she’s been living with her eight-year old daughter, Minnie. Sherrie is a young, wealthy widow who has no interest in marrying again. She’s come to London with her aunt and her two younger cousins, Faith and Daisy, the latter of whom are looking for titled Brits to wed. At a party, Sherrie is introduced to Jack, the Earl of PenMartyn. When she sees him, she is instantly, powerfully drawn to him. He reminds of her of someone she’s sure he can’t be, Cullum Rourke, the pirate who, nine years ago, saved her from Malaysian slavers only to take her for himself.
Jack, though, knows instantly that Sherrie Hamilton is his Scheherazade, the eighteen year old girl (he was twenty-four) he had to have from the moment he saw her and whom he kept for three months. Jack’s and Sherrie’s past is shown in flashbacks and each and every one of them is infused with desire and pure passion. Here’s the scene when they first speak. Jack has just freed Sherrie from a cage where she’d been imprisoned by slavers who planned to sell her white-skinned virginity for a great price.
His men gathered around as he pulled the girl out for a closer look.
“Thank you!” she said.
Their gazes met, locked, then she looked away, her cheeks bright red. He knew what she’d seen in his eyes. After a long moment she laughed, the tone musical, as clear and sharp as the salt wind that caught the sound and blew it out to sea. It was a brave laugh, slightly mad, defiant, yet reflecting the fear he’d seen in her blue eyes. Beautiful eyes set in a perfect oval face. It had been a long time since he’d seen a blue-eyed woman. Longer still since he’d had one.
He moved closer as he touched her cheek. He breathed in the scent of her as he ran his thumb across the ugly blue-green bruise that marked where someone had hit her. Her skin was warm, soft, flawless. Only a fool would mar it. He wanted to touch it, taste it everywhere, possess it.
“You’re not here to rescue me, are you?”
She laughed again. The bright, bitter sound enchanted him. This was not a weak, hysterical spirit. There was nothing fragile to her beauty, despite the exquisite perfection of form and face. She laughed in hell, and that made her priceless to him.
He ran his fingers through her hair. “The price of innocence,” he said, “is what someone is willing to pay to destroy it.”
Jack makes a devil’s bargain with Sherrie. He won’t sell her himself in exchange for her being his willing slave for a month. He takes her to his cabin, she demands they both bathe, they do, and then he begins to touch her.
“You’ll grow to crave it.” Their bodies were perfectly fitted together, skin on skin, but he rose to his knees as he spoke so he could look at her. He hadn’t had her yet. He hadn’t even begun to have her yet, though he’d spent a long time touching her, tasting her, before laying her down on the bed. He’d never waited so long to take a woman before, never wanted to savor like this, to wait and make the roaring need grow into consuming fire. It was agonizing.
He wanted to see the agony and the fire in her eyes before granting them both any release.
So, instead of burying himself inside her, he made himself wait, watch, speak. Her hair was spread out in heavy gold waves across the pillows. Her creamy skin gleamed with a faint sheen of sweat, pale against the black silk bed coverings. He cupped her breasts, smiled as the peaks rose at the soft brush of his thumbs. Her breasts were full and so very soft. He watched avidly as her hands curled at her sides, bunching the black silk in her fists. The triumph of making her want him shot through him, hot as lust, almost as satisfying. “You crave me already.”
She does indeed and the two spend—shown in flashbacks—three months as obsessive lovers. Then, one night, Jack sends Sherrie away. She doesn’t know why he makes her leave; he doesn’t know she’s pregnant with his child. Nine years later, Sherrie hates Cullum, not because he raped her but because he abandoned her. Because of Cullum, she married another man—fortunately he managed to get himself shot in a card game early in their marriage—in order to give her daughter legitimacy. Because of Cullum, she’s lost all desire for men—she’s felt nothing from a man’s touch since the day Cullum sent her away.
Sherrie doesn’t recognize Jack the first time she sees him in London—she won’t let herself believe he could be Cullum. But the second time they meet, she realizes the civilized, handsome, wealthy, socially feted Earl of PenMartyn is indeed the pirate from her past, the only man she’s ever loved, and the father of her child. She’s undone, full of rage and need, and determined to never let him ruin her life again. For his part, Jack’s mood becomes so black he considers suicide. His guilt for what he did to her is overwhelming. He can think of nothing but making love to her again and that makes him loathe himself even more. Both are miserable and very much need the other in order to heal.
The two are brought together, most appropriately, by their daughter. Sherrie, unbeknownst to her, talks in her sleep and Minnie, after seeing Jack slipping out of her mother’s window one night—he has snuck in there to watch her sleep—realizes the man her mother speaks of in her dreams is Jack. Minnie, a very self-possessed young lady, seeks out her father who then has no choice but to return her to her Sherrie’s home. Once Jack realizes he is Minnie’s father, he and Sherrie embark on a new relationship, one in which they slowly overcome the damage of their shared past as they, unable to stay away from one another, again become lovers.
Jack and Sherrie see their history very differently. What Jack defines as criminal, Sherrie defines as bliss. My favorite scene in the book is when Sherrie sneaks into Jack’s bedroom, determined to banish their past once and for all. He tells her she’s unable to see him for the monster he was.
“I raped you,” he reminded her. “Repeatedly.”
“No, you didn’t.”
How could she sound so calm, so certain? “I was there,” he recalled, sounding as calm as she did when he was screaming inside. “I know what I did.”
“I was there, too,” she reminded him. “And you never forced me. Never hurt me. You gave me unimaginable pleasure.”
“I coerced you. Threatened you. Forced your compliance. That is rape. And if I thought falling down on my knees and begging your forgiveness would do any good, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment.” Sherrie considered his words for a moment, before shaking her head. “I don’t want you begging my forgiveness. I just want you to forgive yourself.”
Sherrie not only wants Jack to forgive himself—she wants him to feel worthy to love her. She is his and he is hers. She thinks,
He was all she’d desired, ever. Even from her first sight of the filthy, cruel pirate who’d demanded a devil’s bargain from her, the connection had been there. Maybe they should have started out better, differently, but she knew that even if their first meeting had been in a ballroom, even if their courtship had been tame and proper, they would have still ended up here, in bed, making passionate, possessive love. They were meant to be, mated, dark and light halves combined to make a whole. Each held the completing part of the other’s soul. Karma. Fate. Destiny.
I found their story riveting. I admired the way the past and the present meld in the book—the pacing of the love story is perfect. I also enjoyed the non-romance plot in the novel. Jack—who was a spy for England when he met Sherrie in Malaysia—has been asked by Scotland Yard to help investigate Sherrie’s next door neighbor, the wily Lord Gordon Summers. Summers, a self-styled expert on all things Asian, is creating a cult full of mindless followers all of whom think he’s interested in their spiritual betterment. Summers, a very bad man, is far more interested in power and controlling those who have it. This element of the novel is compelling and shows an interesting time in Victorian society.
I really liked this book. I see Jack and Sherrie as Sherrie does. She believes she fell in love with him from the moment he freed her from the slavers’ cage. He may have had all the power and he did indeed take her. He didn’t tell her the truth about whom he was or why he was in Malaysia. But when he tells her, he acted as he did because,
“I didn’t tell you because if I had I couldn’t keep you. Jack wouldn’t have been able to make love to you, and I desperately needed to make love to you from the first moment I saw you.”
Sherrie (and I) believe he loved her from the start as well. What Jack—and others—see as an unforgivable abuse of sexual control, Sherrie (and I) see as the start of a beautiful love affair. For me, this book was a lovely A- read.