If the thought of one more Aye canna ken spoken by a man in a skirt to a red-headed, feisty female makes you groan, but you still love Scottish historicals, give the latest from Sara Bennett a try. There are clichés (the accent, the skirt, the red hair), but also plenty of new twists on some old, familiar plotlines. By the end of the book, Bennett has taken a formulaic premise and made it sing and, even though the book has its flaws, it’s also one you can remember after you’ve read the last page.
Lady Margaret Mackintosh is in desperate need of a man – specifically, Gregor Grant, the displaced laird whose father lost his lands during the Jacobite uprising 12 years before. Margaret, or Meg as she is called, has been unwillingly betrothed to her neighbor (whom she discovers probably did away with his first wife) when her father, once a strong man now ill and blind, barters away his daughter’s hand. Realizing the dreadful mistake he’s made, Meg’s father, who once saved Gregor’s life and bought his home after it was reclaimed by the crown, sends his daughter to hunt for Gregor.
Red-haired and freckled Meg is tall and ungainly, and has a gap between her teeth – in short, she’s not one of those really-stunning-but-with-an-insecurity-complex heroines. Meg really isn’t a raving beauty. She hunts Gregor down, only to find him blind-drunk in a tavern after a duel. After this inauspicious start, however, he agrees to return with Meg to see how he can help. Meg is immediately attracted to the large, muscular man with topaz eyes, but discounts his apparent return of her attraction. She is too accustomed to being courted for her land and her fortune to think anyone would ever possibly want her for herself.
Both the hero and heroine are interesting, flawed characters. Though Meg is insecure, she’s also not shy about taking charge and saying what she thinks, often to devastating effect. She is sharp-tongued and practical, but falling in love with Gregor allows her to reveal her passionate nature. Gregor has sexual experience, but he’s never fallen in love despite the fact that he has a tendency to fall prey to ladies in distress (hence that duel). He keeps his artistic side locked away, only allowing it to show after he begins to trust Meg. He truly believes her to be absolutely beautiful and lusts after her madly, even down to the gap between her teeth.
The secondary characters are standard issue, but they also have a few twists that lend them distinction: The minion who claims Italian heritage but seems to be from Southern Scotland, the commander of the local militia who is also sweet on Meg, and the maidservant with a tongue as sharp as that of her mistress. The history and descriptions of the lands and the life are satisfyingly complete – not too much as to overwhelm, but not so little as to seem as if the background is just a plain canvas on which to paint the story.
At times Beloved Highlander reads as though the author is writing to formula but is unable to put her square characters into the round plot hole. One of the surprises of the plot was completely expected, but the fallout from it was not. The result is a mixture of the tried-and-true with some interesting variations. Bennett has written a good book, albeit a flawed one, but its flaws are commendable for their ambition.