Sabrina Jeffries’ Stormswept is a revised reissue of a novel initially published in 1995 under the name of Deborah Martin. According to the publisher’s blurb, the novel has been newly revised for today’s audience; I haven’t read the original, so I can’t make comparisons, but I can say that there is definitely an “old skool” feel to many of the hero’s actions (nothing rape-y, I hasten to add) which is often extremely frustrating and there are a couple of minor plot points I didn’t particularly care for. That said, however, the book as a whole proved to be surprisingly readable, and while I can’t say that I loved it, I also can’t say that I feel I wasted the time I spent reading it.
When Lady Juliana St. Albans, daughter of the Earl of Northcliffe, meets Rhys Vaughan, it’s love – or at the very least, lust – at first sight. But she is the daughter of an English peer and Rhys is Welsh, a race whose culture and language are looked down upon by the English and seen by them as little more than barbaric. Then there’s the fact that Rhys’ father lost his estate, Llynwydd, in a card game – to the earl – depriving Rhys of his birthright. Even so, and with young love being what it is, the couple meets secretly for a couple of weeks, at the end of which Rhys proposes and asks Juliana to run away with him. Juliana never finds the right time to tell Rhys that his father lost Llynwydd to hers and that her father has given the estate to her, but then figures it doesn’t matter anyway; they love each other and things will all come right. Unfortunately, however, her idyll is shattered almost immediately after the highly enjoyable consummation of her marriage when Rhys suddenly disappears and her brothers show up, telling her that her husband got what he wanted – Llynwydd – and has abandoned her. The truth is that her eldest brother, Darcy, whose political ambitions will be ruined should it be discovered his brother-in-law is a Welsh activist, has sold both Rhys and Rhys’ closest friend to a press-gang, but not before telling Rhys that Juliana changed her mind about her hasty marriage and begged her brothers to get her out of it.
Dejected, Juliana allows herself to be taken home, but she refuses to be brow-beaten into submission by her father or brothers, who are pushing her to get her marriage annulled. Having discovered that Rhys has been impressed and knowing there is little prospect of escape for him, she agrees to keep her marriage a secret while she waits for him to return, but only if her family allows her to live independently at Llynwydd. The years pass and she hears nothing from Rhys, until some five years after his disappearance, she is told of his death.
One year later, at the party being held to announce her betrothal to a marquess, an unexpected guest turns all her plans upside down and inside out. Three years at sea followed by three years as a privateer and fighting as a mercenary in America have made Rhys a rich man and gained him some influential friends. And now, an older, harder and furious Rhys is determined to claim back what is his – and that includes the wife who betrayed him.
I enjoy second chance romances, and the premise of Stormswept is a good one that provides an excellent opportunity for the development of a romance between two people who have spent years apart and who have undergone significant character growth in those years. That is certainly true of Juliana; she begins the book as a somewhat immature twenty-one year-old who gets herself into situations from which she needs rescuing, but when we meet her again, she has become a confident young woman and proved herself to be a very able manager, renovating and restoring Llanwydd and bringing it into profit once again. Rhys is a different matter, however, and that’s the big sticking point. When he reappears at the beginning of the story, he confronts Juliana in front of her brothers and throws her betrayal in her face. Juliana naturally insists she did no such thing, but even in the face of her denials and Darcy’s blatant lies, Rhys persists in believing the worst of her, which he does for practically the entire book. It’s true that he was thrust into life-threatening circumstances and forced to endure some truly horrific treatment, and this makes his anger and his almost overwhelming desire for revenge understandable. But what isn’t understandable is the way he directs that anger in completely the wrong direction time and time again, even given what he knows about Darcy’s propensity for underhandedness and in the face of his closest friend’s belief in Juliana’s innocence.
Rhys’ refusal to listen or to admit the possibility that Juliana is telling the truth is what I meant when I said there is an “old skool” feel to the book; he’s intractable, goes out of his way to be unpleasant and quickly deprives Juliana of her responsibilities and the freedoms she has enjoyed, insisting that until she does exactly what he wants, she will have no say in what goes on at Llanwydd. Fortunately, Juliana’s quiet dignity and her determination to prove him wrong and regain his trust provide a balance in terms of the story; she’s no doormat, but she is prepared to fight to save her marriage and to wait for Rhys to realise that he is wrong about her. Yet it’s difficult at times to see anything in Rhys – other than his hotness, of course – that would make Juliana want to remain with a man who insists on thinking the worst of her. I don’t think it’s giving away too much to say that he does eventually see the error of his ways and that the realisation is handled well, but if you’re someone who likes heroes of his type to grovel big-time, then you’re going to be disappointed.
There are a couple of secondary plotlines in the book that kind of fizzle out part way through, and which would perhaps have benefitted from a little more attention during the revision process; but on a positive note, I liked the Welsh setting and the glimpses we are given of the uneasy political situation between England and Wales at this point in history.
The overall tone of Stormswept is rather different to that of the author’s recent books, but the writing is strong and while Juliana is perhaps a little too good to be true, I really liked her level-headedness and strength of character. There is a raw quality to the emotion that works in the context of this particular story, but there is less humour and a definite emphasis on angst which might not be to all tastes. Yet in spite of my reservations, I was engaged enough to want to keep reading to see how everything was going to work out, which is probably testament to Ms. Jeffries’ ability to tell a good story and to create an interesting conflict between her characters.