A Scot in the Dark
Lillian “Lily” Hargrove agreed to pose naked for a painter she loved. When he betrays her by winning a contest with the private work, she is both brokenhearted and ruined. Lily’s absentee guardian, Alec Stuart, Duke of Warnick, comes to save her by marrying her off to anybody but him.
Putting a catastrophic bad choice in the heroine’s past is a bold move by the author. Unfortunately, however, everything that happens in the book’s present is contrived, and the marriage plot and “I’m not worthy” separation device are frustrating and unsuccessful.
As a character, Lily doesn’t work for me. The artist she modeled for is so blatantly and aggressively awful that you question her intelligence for having believed them in love. She alternates between insecurity and boldness according to the needs of the plot, and she is often juvenile and foot-stomping in the manner of “adorable” and “feisty” nineties heroines. For instance, when Alec insists on taking her to a ball, she wears a hideous dog dress because… I don’t know. He’ll change his mind? Because her looking stupid will teach him a lesson? Each chapter starts with a content summary written in faux tabloid style, jammed with alliteration. These get old very quickly, and one, “‘LOVELY’ LILY STARTS SEASON WITH SPECIOUS STYLE,” doesn’t even make sense. “Specious” means false or misleading. She wears an ugly dog dress. “Grotesque gown?” “Canine catastrophe?” Get creative!
Nicknamed “the Scottish Brute,” Alec is insecure about his Scottishness (which in this book means “primitive barbarity,” in a fetishizing sort of way) and his nearly seven foot, nearly 300 pound size. He covers this with hostility towards England and all the drawing room conventions which literally don’t fit him. I liked him much better than I liked Lily, but unfortunately he had a bad case of the “I’m Not Worthy”s. Like a hypochondriac aunt who swans about declaring her imminent demise, he becomes more annoying than sympathetic with his endless wallowing (“I am… so far beneath her it is obscene.”) At one point, he is willing to have sex with Lily but not to talk to her about his past, which shows poor prioritization in a relationship. Plus, Alec’s “secret” involves at least a half dozen society men and women, and I got the impression that it was many more. That nobody around Lily knows, reveals it, or hints at it once again shows decisions made for the sake of plot rather than internal cohesion.
The author does come up with a secret that could screw up a man’s head so badly that he could still see himself, a phenomenally wealthy duke, as unworthy of a woman dumb enough to pose naked for the biggest asshole in London. (My pet theory, that he broke somebody in half during sex, alas is not the secret). That being said, the author proceeds to treat this deep trauma as something that could be healed by beautiful Lily and her luurrrve.
The artist enters the painting in the contest, but he doesn’t show the painting the day the winners are announced. That reveal will happen at the exhibition. So while everyone knows that Lily has posed naked, nobody but she and the artist have seen the painting yet. All the characters buy into the idea that marrying Lily off before the painting is revealed will save her, which makes no sense. Despite all of London knowing that she posed nude, there are still titled, eligible men willing to marry her for her large dowry. Why would those men all vanish the moment the painting is revealed?
But okay, let’s assume that the reveal is a big deal. The characters should focus their energies on the painting, not Lily’s ring finger. Alec tries to buy it and is refused, but it takes another two thirds of the book before it occurs to them to steal it. I’m also sure a duke who can throw around sums of money like Alec can could have come up with other ways force an impoverished artist to withdraw the painting. Blackmail? Lawsuits? Schmoozing the sponsors of the painting competition, and/or applying said lawsuits, blackmail, or bribes to them? Anything makes more sense than this harebrained marriage scheme, which exposes it for what it is: a plot device.
The book is riddled with such problems:
- Alec neglected to sponsor Lily for a season, and despite dreaming of a family and hating her life, she didn’t try hard to contact him. The assertive, marriage-minded way Lily is written, she should have turned up on his doorstep in Scotland. That she didn’t is, again, a plot device.
- Lily and Alec attempt two burglaries. The first time, they have a deep emotional conversation in the middle. The second time, they make out. Tip for Alec and Lily: if you guys go bankrupt, don’t turn to crime.
- The artist (who is also, for some reason, a stage actor) threatens Alec by pressing the tip of a broadsword against his chest in the close confines of the theater offices. Nobody, including broadsword experienced Alec, points out that this is not how a broadsword is used.
- A lot of the Scottish references ring false. Alec says Lily’s lips “taste of peppermint,” then tells her, a few lines later, that “your lips taste like Scotland.” On a sexy Scottish flavor scale, I’d take “whisky” or “heather honey” over “peppermint,” but I guess it’s better than, say, “cilantro.” Alec’s kilt and revealed knees are scandalous, but the novel is set twelve years after the King was painted wearing a kilt. Lily wraps herself in “the Stuart plaid,” which was not a thing in 1834 (you can look up the fake tartan guide from 1842, the Vestiarium Scoticum, to learn more).
- I searched the text, and Alec thinks about murder at least nine times, for offenses such as “placing a hand at Lily’s elbow” and hypothetically “seeing Lily’s knees.” Some people find such possessiveness in a hero sexy; I find it worrisome.
- During sex, Alec’s “lips [are] at her ear, his tongue stroking there.” Alec is seven feet tall. If he can put his lips on Lily’s ear while his penis is inside her, he has severe scoliosis.
I want to give the author credit for what goes right. I want more heroines who have made bad choices. I want more heroes with body issues. I want more conversation about sexual double standards. They aren’t done well here, but at least they’re happening.
I’ll leave you with this last thought from Lily, which encapsulates why this book, with all its facepalm moments, is still a C for me:
“It is a great fallacy, you know. The idea that first is most meaningful. That second is. That any that follow are. That the circumstances of those early encounters somehow mean more than the one we choose forever.”
That’s a sentiment we could do with more of in romance novels, and in real life.