Desert Isle Keeper
Bride of the MacHugh
Jan Cox Speas’s writing is like a wondrous time machine. If you accept the invitation to step in, she will pick you up, whirl you away and set you gently down in another time and another place, and when your journey has ended, you’ll know you’ve visited somewhere out of the ordinary.
In Bride of the MacHugh, Speas transports you to the Scotland of James I and his Lieutenant in the Highlands, Archibald Campbell, Earl of Argyll. There was an adage in the Highlands, “From the greed of the Campbells, Good Lord, deliver us!” and Argyll was the archetypal Campbell – a brilliant practitioner of deceit and intrigue. In his unholy pursuit of power, he has already destroyed the Clan McGregor, has begun subduing the MacDonalds, and is laying plans for the MacHugh and Lamont holdings. In the midst of this intrigue, Argyll’s ward, Elspeth Lamont, comes to the Highlands from Queen Anne’s Court to fulfill a promise made to her dying mother that she would visit the father she has never known. Elspeth is the daughter of a failed hand-fasting between Robert Lamont and Louise Campbell. Her ship is blown off course, and the MacHughs arrive to escort her to her Campbell relative.
It doesn’t take long, however, for Elspeth to realize that something is terribly wrong. The darkly handsome and enigmatic Laird, Alexander MacHugh, takes her on a mad, exhausting journey to her father’s home. There she finds she has a half-sister who is to marry Alexander’s younger brother, a father whose welcome is cordial but not warm, and unexpected ally and friend in Alexander’s younger brother, Gavin. As events unfold, Elspeth is aware of a “…strange sense of mystery, of ominous affairs just beyond the circle of her knowledge.” She discovers a secret which makes her question her much-loved mother, and at the center of the all the mysteries is The MacHugh, who seems to lead and direct events even in her father’s castle, but who seeks her out to tantalize and tease.
Elspeth knows and accepts that her powerful guardian, Argyll, will arrange a rich and influential marriage for her when she returns to England, but Alexander is determined that she defy this craven plan for her future. She, in turn, worries that if she succumbs to these blandishments, the MacHugh and Lamont clans will be the ones to pay the price through “sword and fire.” In the midst of secrets and clan warfare, Elspeth must learn to trust Alexander and her own heart. Their course of love is littered with barriers, including a scheming beauty who wants Alexander for herself, daring escapes, a valiant but hopeless war against Argyll, an unexpected betrayal, and finally when the secrets are revealed, by Elspeth’s own courage and sense of responsibility.
I could categorize this book as a “swashbuckler,” but that would be misleading since the action never overshadows the romance. And the romance? It’s not explicit, but it’s sufficiently romantic to curl your toes, set butterflies fluttering in your stomach, and place a silly grin on your face. Subtlety is almost a lost art, so when a masterful hand cooks it up, it’s a rare treat and a morsel to be savored.
Elsepth and Alexander are entirely likable and believable, and even though he seems bigger than life, she is assuredly his match. Sparks fly between these two, but their disagreements never disintegrate into the kind of petty meanness that wounds. Alexander is arrogant, but it’s arrogance born of self-confidence and along with his sword, he uses wit, wisdom and a good dose of humor to lead and to woo. In other words, he’s an alpha type, but he’s not an ass – daringly dashing, but not delusional. Elspeth is spirited and sassy, but not stupid, plus she’s lovely, but not staggeringly or conceitedly so. When life presents her with challenges and lessons, she meets them and learns, and thus grows as an individual and a woman.
The supporting cast in this book is also worthy of note. The characters act according to their time and their own character. There are issues to resolve, but they are not petty, but rather deal with conundrums worth the effort, like loyalty, friendship, integrity and commitment. Speas never preaches, but she explores values and challenges her characters with immutable truths and hard lessons.
One of the foremost delights in reading Speas are the details that set the scene and bring the whole to life and you never doubt her grasp of time and place. With the deftness of a master weaver, the descriptions are intertwined in the story. They are like the warp or woof of a cloth, and so much a part of the whole of the pattern, you never notice the individual threads unless you take the time to examine it closely. You know what the characters look like, you know what they’re wearing and what the rooms and the places look like, and how the weather feels, and all this without recourse to a travelogue or undue information about underwear and body parts. Her dialogue is also a treat. With the simple devices of cadence and syntax, she captures the essence of a Scottish brogue and dialect without using twenty apostrophes per sentence.
I have many favorite authors, but when I’m forced to choose, like cream, Jan Cox Speas continues to rise to the top. In The Bride of the MacHugh, she took me on a journey to the Highlands. I felt the mists and the rain, smelled the earthy cleanliness of Heather and peat, and touched and learned something of the Highlander’s soul. It’s a fierce and unforgiving land, which directs and shapes its sons and daughters, but as Alex MacHugh observed, “…once a man has known either Scotland or the sea, there will always be something about them to tempt him back.”