Unraveled by the Rebel by Michelle Willingham is the second book in her Secrets In Silk series. I had a mixed reaction to the first in the series, but I tend to like Willingham's books and the promise that at least a couple of the sisters would end up with "non-titled" heroes propelled me into trying this story. I'm glad I did. Not only did it explode the mercury in my Angst Thermometer, it was a really good read.
Juliette Andrews is the daughter of a baron. For the last several years the family has been at their Scottish home while Daddy has been busy fighting Napoleon on the continent. The family finances have fallen into disrepair leading the eldest daughter, Victoria, to secretly sew and sell sexy lingerie (the corsets are flying off the shelves in London!). This enterprise is, obviously, held as a closely guarded secret because if the truth came out? The family would be ruined. Juliette helps this enterprise by keeping the books and tinkering with her father's ledgers so their mother is none the wiser. She is also in love with local boy, Paul Fraser. She's above him in station, but it doesn't stop from young love blossoming. That is, until Paul's father is lynched by the villain, an earl whose lands border the Andrews' property. Paul is sent away to live with his uncle in Edinburgh and starts medical school. While he's away, he and Juliette write each other. Until one day, Juliette's letters simply stop coming.
Juliette stops writing Paul because she's ruined. That dastardly earl? Yeah, becomes obsessed with her in hopes of securing her family's lands. He manages to get Juliette alone and rapes her (this event takes place before the start of the book - so readers are saved from actually reading about it as it happens). Not only that, but there were "complications" from the brutality. Juliette believes she is unfit to be any man's wife, let alone Paul's wife - a man she does desperately care about. And now Paul is back home, putting on the full court press. He's proposed. Repeatedly. She's said no. Repeatedly. He's determined to find out why Juliette is pushing him away. He thought she cared about him. Will he be able to convince her? And more importantly, what will happen when he finds out that the man who murdered his father also brutalized the woman he's always loved?
Oh the angst! The glorious angst! Willingham has never been shy about writing gut-wrenching, soul-crushing angst and she really slathers it on in this book. Juliette has an epic Big Secret and Paul is the very definition of a Hero In Pursuit. These two are perfect for each other, they love each other, but given Juliette's trauma and complicated life - it's easy to see why she would feel the need to push Paul away for his own good. Lucky for her, and the reader, that Paul doesn't give up easily. There's also a bit of a Dickensian twist to Paul's back-story, and while I probably should have been annoyed about it - I wasn't. Juliette needs protecting, and time to recover her sense of personal strength, and this twist to Paul's story achieves that goal.
If I had one quibble about this story it's that I'm not sure it stands alone perfectly well. I think it can be read without any knowledge of the first book, but I don't think readers will get the same experience. The first book really lays the groundwork for the family lingerie business, and also delves more deeply into the absence of the girls' father. What this book accomplishes that I'm not sure the first book did? It really cements the series. While I finished the first book merely vaguely curious about the other sisters, I finished this story anxious to get my hands on the final two books in the series. Willingham has created four sisters who all have distinct personalities, but yet still read like four women who really could be sisters. They're not just playing "types." They're sisters. As the reader, you understand their differences, but totally buy into the idea that they all could have sprung from the same womb, and been raised in the same environment.
It's a really good, angst-filled, emotionally-draining read. Now I just need to wait for Amelia's book.
Final Grade = B