Between a Highlander and a Hard Place
Mary Wine’s Highland Weddings series continues with Between a Highlander and a Hard Place.
Brenda Grant and her cousin Symon are best friends; both widowed young and childless, they’re worried about being left alone and have been spouse hunting, an effort that’s proven fruitless for both of them. There is a man, Bothan Gunn, who has intrigued Brenda, but she continues to refuse him. Symon, meanwhile, is reluctant to take another woman to wed after losing his young wife in childbirth, at least in part due to the prophecy lain upon him – that he will marry once more but his second wife will die in childbed as well.
Athena Trappes is planning on wedding Galwell Scrope (yes, really. I know, just… go with it), the son of a baron, as soon as spring sets in. An innocent romantic, Athena yearns to be with Galwell, to be taken into the exciting world of Queen Elizabeth’s court, and live an honorable life after her parent’s scandalous cross-class marriage resulted in Athena’s father abandoning her mother when she wasn’t born a boy and her mother dying of a broken heart. Her kindly uncle Henry (a goldsmith), who raised Athena after her mother’s death, has been working out an arrangement with Galwell – who has concealed the truth of his interest in Athena, wanting her as his mistress while he makes a blue-blooded marriage elsewhere. After sneaking away to a clandestine dinner with Galwell, he threatens her Uncle’s life and her reputation if she won’t sleep with him, so she does the only thing she can think to do – upturn the table and run from his apartments. Unfortunately, her gambit sets the house on fire, and Galwell demands satisfaction. But Henry is just as wily, and demands a meeting with the lord of London to prove who was at fault. Until then he sends Athena beyond Scrope’s reach by planting her with a merchant named Myles and his apprentice Will, who’re traveling to Scotland seeking to make their name and fortune by trade. Athena will be traveling under additional protection by posing as a boy named Alex.
Plans naturally go awry; Symon peeps upon Athena skinny-dipping sans bindings during the merchant’s trip to his castle; he’s intrigued by her beauty, and in him she finds the means for healing her Galwell-broken heart. They begin to flirt but Athena avoids Symon’s wooing – though not his kisses. Unfortunately, Will sees Athena returning from an assignation, realizes she’s a woman and plans to take her for his own. Symon rescues Athena and keeps her at his castle until he can contact her uncle and pass her along into safety. Will romance bloom? Or will Athena’s vow never to submit to another man, and Symon’s fear of producing another heir rule the day?
Between and Earl and a Hard Place is caught somewhere between an old school and new school mindset; Athena’s struggles against the forces of men that batter her about constantly are mostly treated as a bawdy joke by the story. And the book recycles a lot of very routine tropes, with only a few interesting ideas sprinkled into the brew.
Athena is as strong as a woman of her era can be, but the author cannot resist allowing her to make foolish mistakes that continuously result in her needing to be rescued. This is relieved exactly once late in the book, where her cleverness pays off. Symon is a decent enough fellow but he does all but steal Athena from her new life and plunge her into his out of hunger and lust.
Their connection is almost entirely based on sexual attraction, with nothing that feels really romantic about it. For a large hunk of the novel the pas-de-deux between them feels like mutual sexual curiosity which might have been settled best with a roll in the hay; and that Athena’s constant comparison of Symon’s handsomeness/intelligence/kindness to Galwell’s selfishness and cruelty just feels like she’s using him instead of enjoying him for what and who he truly is.
The people of the castle seem to like Athena well enough, but there’s not enough focus on who she is outside of her relationships with Galwell and Symon. There is an almost creepy over-focus on Athena’s fertility by all of the people in Symon’s home due to the whole line-dying-out part of our story; the castle’s McClintock!ian shrew-tamey point of view is a lot less fun when you consider how much Athena has suffered from her parent’s crappy, gland-based decisions. Considering her level of innocence and Galwell’s similar interest in her as a fun thing to fuck, I desperately wanted someone to enjoy her for her singing voice, or her embroidery skills – anything but the breadth of her hips. When the Moment Arrives and the author describes “…fluid seeping from [Athena’s] passage” I cringed.
I liked Brenda a lot – as a supporting character she’s a lot of fun, and is strong and feisty in ways that Athena was supposed to be but never managed to be. Her romance with Bothan will clearly be the focus of the next book, and it’s frustrating that her story is left half-finished. But the book suffers from Extreme Scottish Romance Character Syndrome – our characters are brawling and letching and leaning on the soothsaid prophecies and The Olden Pagan Ways left and right. None of the rest of the supporting characters feel like actual people except for wonderful Uncle Henry.
The historical research is excellent; though it suffers from the typical pro-James/anti-Elizabeth sentiments you’d expect from a Scottish romance of the era. Otherwise though, Between a Highlander and a Hard Place doesn’t really work well enough as a romance to feel worthwhile.