Team May McGoldrick has settled into a beautiful rhythm when it comes to their historical romances. Well-researched pieces involving dering-do and hidden treasures and love that grows slowly between two equals are hallmarks of their work, and Highland Crown is no exception.
You have to love a romance novel that starts with an emotional tribute to the heroine from Sir Walter Scott, who, on his deathbed, reminisces about meeting Isabella Murray Drummond. A surgeon and a marvel of the ages trained as such among the best of her peers at Wurzburg (where her father held a directorial chair), Isabella was stuck in a marriage of convenience to an older man whom she admired and liked but had no romantic or sexual chemistry with. Isabella saved Scott’s life after he was in a carriage accident, and he never forgot her. When her husband is murdered and Isabella is targeted by both the British government and Scottish rebels, Scott gives Isabella, her sister Maisie and stepdaughter Morrigan money for passage on a ship to Canada, and as the three women wait for transport from the Scottish coast to North America, there begins the tale.
So far, arms smuggler Cinaed Mackintosh’s true love is his ship, and now that’s been lost to him. The Highland Crown has run aground on the Scottish coast in a storm, and now he must destroy it to protect himself and what’s left of his crew. An orphan cast out by his clan with no other attachments in life beyond the sea and loyalty to his crew, Cinead has no idea what will happen to them when they reach the hostile shore they row towards. The result is more violence – Cinead is shot by one of the villagers seeking to loot any cargo floating free from his explosion.
While waiting to take passage to Canada, Isabella and her companions are staying with Jean, a family friend. Wakened by the noise of the blast, Isabella rushes to the shoreline against the protests of her host rescues Cinaed from the waves and he – insensible from pain and nearly drowning and not knowing what he’s doing – tries to choke her. Jean saves her life with a well-placed rock, and on Isabella’s insistence they take the man to her home so that she can treat his wounds. Cinead lives – restoring some of the faith in her skills Isabella had lost when she proved unable to save her late husband – and Isabella and Jean find themselves nursing him back to health. Soon, Cinead applies himself to protecting the women against one of Jean’s mercenary neighbors – killing him when he threatens their lives.
A strong mutual respect develops between Cinead and Isabella as they run together from the law with Jean in tow, forcing them to eventually pose as a married couple in front of his grudgingly welcoming relatives. Gradually, their respect turns into love. But can they outrun the past and make it into a brighter future?
Highland Crown is a rip-roaring little bit of action-adventure. Isabella is stalwart and unshrinking, tough for much of the novel’s running time and quite practical, if self-conscious about her age; I love that she was a lady doctor. Cinead – once he surfaces from a more mercenary state that reminded me of a misplaced Stallone hero from an eighties movie – proves to be sensual and humorous as well as skilled at deadly violence. Jean, with her immediate suspicion of Cinead’s occupation and her generally tough demeanor made a good foil for them both – Jean, Cinead and Isabella make a great comedy team, and actually, and I wished more of the novel was dedicated to their road trip to the home of Cinead’s relatives. The romance is a very slow burner; it takes around a hundred pages of banter and fleeing from the law for these two to have a minute of quiet to speak about their feelings. I loved how immediately Cinead brushed away Isabella’s worries about being older than him by four years, how he approved of her learning self-defense, and that he was fascinated by but not threatened by her medical career.
I had three problems with the book that meant I couldn’t award as high a grade as I’d hoped. The romance takes around a third of the book to really kick in; much as I enjoy a slow burner, that was pushing things just a bit too far. And although the central characters are nicely rounded, the overall tone of super-duper pro-Scottish patriotism doesn’t allow for anything beyond one-note red-coated English villains; to be fair though, there are some mercenary Scots to balance that picture out. And then there’s the fact that the novel has one of McGoldrick’s classic unsolved plots that won’t reach its climax until Maisie and Morrigan find their heroes, so although our two leads find their HEA together, there’s still more story to be told.
Nonetheless, Highland Crown works because of its winning hero and heroine and their rather adorable relationship.