I’ve enjoyed the previous two books in Julia London’s Highland Grooms series in spite of my general aversion to Scottish/Highland set romances; both books are strongly character driven with, in the case of the first book, Wild Wicked Scot, a dash of politics and intrigue thrown in to add an extra layer of interest. So I’ve been looking forward to this third book, in which the hero is Rabbie Mackenzie, younger son of Laird Arran and his English wife, Margot. But I’m afraid I can’t say that I enjoyed Hard Hearted Highlander as much as the other books, mostly because the eponymous hero is such a miserable bastard for well over half of the story, and it’s difficult to find any vestige of sympathy or liking for a man who is so ill-mannered and self-centred.
That’s not to say that Rabbie doesn’t have grounds for what is immediately apparent is a case of severe depression. The book is set in 1750, five years after the Battle of Culloden, and takes place in a very different world to the previous novel. Many families and clans were wiped out on the battlefield and after, and of those who weren’t many have fled – to the cities, or overseas – and the landscape has been forever changed. Even the powerful Mackenzie clan is struggling to look after its own; their neutrality in the conflict did not protect them from the widely wrought devastation and times are hard.
Like many of his countrymen, Rabbie is frustrated and bitter about the huge change the battle has wrought in the Highlander way of life, but he is also mired in grief for the woman he loved, Seona MacBee, who was killed, along with her family, either during or after the uprising. It’s been years since her death, but Rabbie mourns her every day, and continues to scowl and growl his way through life, much to the consternation of his family. They love him dearly and hate to see him so melancholy, but don’t know what to do to help – and know that he would probably reject it if they tried.
As the Mackenzies struggle to rebuild their fortunes after the rebellion, it becomes necessary for Laird Mackenzie to broker a match between Rabbie and the young daughter of Lord Kent, an English nobleman who has purchased the nearby estate of Kileaven and looks set to buy up other lands around Balhaire. If that happens, there won’t be enough land to sustain even the small number of Mackenzies who are left, and a this arrangement is the only way to protect Balhaire and its dependents. Rabbie recognises the importance of this marriage to his family and agrees to marry the girl. He doesn’t care – he’s dead inside anyway.
When the Kents arrive, it’s immediately apparent that the two families are not a match made in heaven. Lord Kent is an abrasive boor who is more often drunk than not and his wife and daughter live in fear of him. Aveline Kent is only seventeen; she’s pretty and sweet, but her excessive timidity and utter lack of individuality and spirit irritate Rabbie intensely and he finds himself unable to say a civil word to her. His complete lack of consideration for the young woman, and for the difficult situation she has been pushed into similarly irritate Aveline’s maid and companion, Bernadette Holly, who makes very clear her disdain for Rabbie and dislike of the way he is treating her friend.
Of course, this is a romance novel, so I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that that disdain leads to some harsh words and eventually to verbal sparring that sends the sparks flying between Rabbie and Bernadette. For the first time in years, he finds himself attracted to a woman, but things are moving quickly, and with the wedding just days away and the fate of his clan at stake, how can they have a future together?
Like Rabbie, Bernadette has a heart-breaking tragedy in her past, but unlike him, she doesn’t allow it to colour her every thought and move. As a younger woman, she fell in love and eloped with a man her father thought beneath her. He had her followed and brought home, the marriage was annulled and the young man sent away, never to be seen again. Bernadette later learned he had died at sea – but even worse, after the separation she discovered she was expecting his child only to lose the baby when she was several months along, and is now unable to have children of her own. Ruined and with her reputation in shreds, Bernadette is now employed by the Kents as a maid-cum-companion, and it’s to her that Lord Kent looks to prepare Aveline for her upcoming marriage. It’s an impossible task however; the dour Highlander shows no inclination whatsoever to even try to get to know his bride, and doesn’t care that Aveline has no alternative but to obey her brutish father.
I liked Bernadette; she’s come through her tragedy and emerged as a stronger person who isn’t easily cowed by anyone. She goes toe-to-toe with Rabbie and calls him on his crap, hinting to him that he’s not the only person to ever have been hurt and telling him outright that he needs to stop acting like a spoiled child, man up and deal with it. In the absence of treatments for depression, it’s fortunate for Rabbie that his interest is piqued by Bernadette’s spirit and he is not a little inspired by the way she has managed to pull herself out of the despair she experienced upon her own losses.
The biggest problem with Hard-Hearted Highlander is that about two thirds of it is Rabbie being a rude, unfeeling and discourteous dickhead to his poor fiancée – who isn’t to blame for anything other than being an empty-headed seventeen-year-old – and Rabbie and Bernadette pondering their losses during a number of lengthy inner monologues. I liked the author’s overall message about the need to let go and move on, but the romance is rushed, there’s an odd subplot that made me a little uncomfortable, and the various flashbacks to Rabbie’s life with Seona are out of place; we already know he’s heartbroken, and these reinforcements add nothing to the overall story.
I understand that there are to be more books in this series, and I certainly intend to read them, but I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this one. It’s well-written and Ms. London has once again made good use of her research into the period to create a suitably subdued atmosphere that reflects the political situation of the time. But ultimately, the romance falls flat; the hero is too unappealing for most of the book, and his turn-about, when it comes, is too fast and too late. Hard-Hearted Highlander is certainly not the place to start with the Highland Grooms, and even if you’re following the series, you might want to give it a miss.