One of my Goodreads friends commented on an update I made while reading this book and asked me: “Why do you carry on doing Scottish books to yourself?” I responded to the effect that, in my eternal optimism, I pick up a Scottish-set historical every so often in the hope that I’ll find a good one with a plotline that isn’t a repeat of 97% of the other books in the genre. While I’ll admit that Highland Flame doesn’t offer the standard boy-meets-girl-from-opposing-clan-and-has-to-tame-her plotline or stereotypical stubborn, growling laird and feisty, flame-haired curl-tosser, it nonetheless suffers from a weak plot and a heroine whose motivations don’t always make a great deal of sense.
Diocail Gordan, newly minted laird of the Gordon clan, has inherited a crumbling castle and a poorly disciplined household thanks to the previous laird (his uncle), a miser who never provided properly for those who were dependent upon him. Diocail’s second in command suggests Diocail needs to find a wife quickly, one who is high-born enough that she will have been trained in household management, most importantly the running of the kitchens so that everyone will have enough food. Given the state of the place, Diocail doubts he will be besieged by eligible maidens seeking to take on the task – and he’s right. But for now, it’s time to go abroad to collect the rents, and he’ll have to wait until that’s done to give due consideration to the prospect of matrimony.
Jane Stanley journeyed with her husband into Scotland and now finds herself a widow because he has been killed in a fight over non-payment of the gambling debts he ran up. The innkeeper has thrown her out in nothing but her shift, insisting on keeping the rest of her goods in part payment of his bill after Jane turns down his offer to allow her to work off his fees on her back. She has no alternative but to return to England and her stepmother’s house, even though the woman has no love for Jane and is not likely to receive her with open arms. Nonetheless, she sets off, with no real idea of which way to go, and dressed only in her shift.
I’ll say that again. She is wearing a shift. No shoes. No petticoats. No warm clothing. In the Scottish Highlands. But okay, I’ll buy it, because I know that any minute, she’s going to fall in with the hero’s rent-collection party. Which she does. Except that it’s not any minute, it’s ALMOST A WEEK LATER. Even in the height of summer the weather in the UK is incredibly unpredictable – we get rain, fog, wind and cold – and Scotland is colder than it is further south. Yet Jane, who I am asked to believe is intelligent and resourceful has been wandering about in the Highlands dressed in a nothing but a nightie for a week, with no idea of where she is going.
*Insert eye-roll here*
Luckily for her, the men she stumbles across are decent sorts, and while her being English and their being Scottish is good enough reason for suspicion on both sides, she is fed and made warm. The man in charge – whom she realises is a laird – says that she must travel with them back to his castle, ignoring her protests that she wants to go back to England and telling her that the last thing he needs on his land is a dead Englishwoman, as will undoubtedly be her fate if she keeps on as she is.
Jane is sensible of the kindness being shown her but also feels guilty as she cannot repay it. The best thing she can do, she thinks, is to leave as soon as she can to relieve Diocail of the responsibility he has taken upon himself to protect her. She takes the first opportunity afforded her to run – but her plan goes spectacularly wrong and she and Diocail end up having to get married.
I normally love forced-marriage plotlines, but this one… not so much. There’s little chemistry between the characters, and Jane’s dithering got on my nerves. She fancies the kilt off Diocail of course, but her experience of marriage was so horrible that she doesn’t ever want to do it again. Ever. So instead of being married to a hot Scot who clearly respects, admires and desires her, and can offer her a decent home, she’d much rather go back to live with her cold, stern cow of a stepmother. Yeah, right.
Diocail is more strongly drawn and a far more sympathetic character than Jane. He is determined to do his best by his dependents and to be a good laird, but he is also well aware that there are those who are not happy at his accession and would stick a knife in his back at the blink of an eye. He’s got a lot on his plate, but also wants to do right by Jane, who has suggested they get an annulment so she can go back to England. By this time, he wants her to stay; she’s already shown herself to be more than equal to the task of whipping the servants into shape and things are improving… but he also wants her for herself and he wants her to actually choose to be with him rather than just accept her fate, so he sets about wooing her (and indulging in a bit of naughtiness to show her what she’s missing!).
Speaking of naughtiness… I really didn’t need to read about Jane’s throbbing clitoris so many times, and I had to roll my eyes at the scene in which Diocail’s inner circle discuss the fact that he’s not done the deed with his new wife yet. Not only do they know this, they know it because they heard the newlyweds bumping and grinding the night before but knew that Diocail didn’t “take his own pleasure”. Seriously? They could tell from somewhere outside? And then, they decide it’s up to them to “do something about it”. When did they turn into the Highland version of the Seven Dwarves?
There’s a last minute attempt to introduce some tension in the story with an attempted coup, but it’s too little too late; and while the author includes a few passages that are clearly setting up the couple who will feature in the next book, I didn’t find them sufficiently engaging as to make me want to read it. If all you want from a Highland romance is a braw, bonnie chap who looks good in a kilt, Highland Flame might work for you. But if you also want a decent plot, strong characterisations and a heroine you can like and root for, I’d suggest you look elsewhere.