Nathan Stone is a Tennessee gentleman whose world was ravaged by the Civil War. Embittered by violence, he turned to outlawry and narrowly escaped being hanged before he attempted to turn his life around. Now he’s masquerading as a preacher with a wagon train full of good Christians, headed for Oregon and hoping for a new start.
Cassidy McAllister is a nice girl, but because her sister Lila is the proprietor of the town whorehouse, she’s not accepted by virtuous society. The family business has fed and clothed Cass, but she longs to be a wife and mother, to go to church and quilting bees, and to respectable and respected. When she and Lila’s ladies get run out of town, they join a wagon train headed for Oregon, where Cass, too, hopes they will be able to start anew.
Cass meets Nathan, who is calling himself Reverend Homer Pernell, and falls in love with him. After all, he’s handsome, gentlemanly, intelligent, and a preacher – what more could a woman longing for respectability want?
This book gets to a rip-roaring start with Nathan’s almost-hanging and transformation into Homer Pernell, and continues to gather steam with every encounter between Nathan and Cass. I don’t mean sensual steam – the book’s few love scenes are quite sweet and subtle. But there’s chemistry, suspense, and wit here to spare. As the miles fall behind the wagon train, both Nathan and Cass fall prey to their assumptions about each other (he thinks she’s a hooker, she thinks he’s a preacher), and by the time they both learn the truth about each other, they’ve done some things that are irrevocable.
Although Jezebel’s Sister has a delightful beginning, it also suffers from a sagging middle. Once all secrets are revealed, there’s a lengthy period in which Cass and Nathan spend a lot of time being angry with each other and not talking. It gets a little dull, and is a serious let-down after the exciting previous chapters.
Still, I like these characters a lot. I love Nathan. He’s the type of hero I most adore: a scoundrel with a heart of gold. He’s a liar, a thief, and has been a killer, but “as low as he’d sunk, three rules of that gentleman’s code he’d never broken: he’d never back-talked his mother, he’d never abused his horse, and he’d never dishonored an innocent girl.” Did I mention that I love him?
I sympathized with Cass’s desire to be accepted by society as what she is – a respectable woman. But though I liked Cass, she suffered the common fate of heroines with spectacular heroes: she paled in comparison. I also thought she spent far too long not forgiving Nathan, not talking to him, and not believing his explanations.
The story is peppered with lots of entertaining secondary characters. The clashes between Lila’s girls and the God-fearing folk of the wagon train are endlessly entertaining. There are several passages, though, when Carmichael gets sidetracked with these characters’ stories, sometimes using their point-of-view. This steals energy away from the central romance and makes the sagging middle sag all the more.
If Jezebel’s Sister had maintained the tension and excitement it started out with, it would have been a great book. Even with that long slow middle, it’s still pretty good. Carmichael lets her story be driven by her strong, likable characters. And if you’re like me and enjoy a hero who’s a loveable liar, you won’t want to miss it.