Sinful Scottish Laird
Julia London returns to the Scottish Highlands in the region of Balhaire for Sinful Scottish Laird, the second book in her Highland Grooms series. Like the previous book, Wild Wicked Scot, the story takes place during a time of great unrest, with the Jacobites who are loyal to the deposed Stuart kings still actively trying to topple the Hanoverian monarchy installed just over three decades earlier. Unlike that book, however, the political background here is much more low key, even though there is the ever present discontent among the Highland population at their treatment by the English, especially when it concerns the ridiculously high taxes that are being levied on the basic goods that are needed to survive.
Shortages and high taxation rates naturally encourage the growth of “Free Trade” – smuggling – and Cailean Mackenzie, oldest son and heir of Laird Arran Mackenzie (hero of Wild Wicked Scot) and his brother Aulay frequently cross the seas to France in order to bring in cargoes of necessities as well as the finest French wines and brandies that can be sold at a tidy profit.
When he isn’t engaged in piracy, Cailean spends most of his time at his estate, Arrandale, working upon the house he is building for himself there. A youthful romance-gone-wrong has left him shy of emotional involvement and preferring to keep his relations with women informal and short-lived. At thirty-five, he has decided that love and marriage isn’t for him; he has grown to like his own company and solitary pursuits and is content to leave it to his brothers Aulay and Rabbie to secure the Mackenzie succession.
Daisy Bristol, the widow of Viscount Chatwick, has travelled to the Highlands to hide out at the hunting lodge of Auchenard, which is part of her late husband’s estate and now belongs to her nine-year-old son, Ellis. In his will, the late viscount stipulated that Daisy must marry within three years of his death, or her son’s inheritance will be forfeit – meaning Ellis will inherit the estate, but not the money to support it. Naturally, Daisy is furious; her husband actually told her to her face that he believed she would mismanage their son’s finances, which is why he added that claue to his will AND instructed Bishop Craig to help find Daisy a suitable second husband. Not wishing to subject herself to the control of another man – at least, not straight away – Daisy has put off marrying again for the past two years, but now realises the error of her ways as her time is running out. But then, out of the blue, news reaches her that she thinks will solve her problems. Before her parents made the match with Chatwick, Daisy had fallen in love with a young naval officer, Robert Spivey, but because he was not of her rank, was not allowed to marry him and he went away to sea. But now he has returned, and Daisy hopes that perhaps they can rekindle their romance with a happier outcome this time. But the bishop is eager to arrange a betrothal for her, and because her situation is widely known and there is no shortage of men eager to marry her money, Daisy decides it will be safer for her to get away from London and all those fortune-hunting potential suitors in order to await Rob’s return.
She, her son and their entourage are not far from their destination, when their carriage wheel breaks and they are stuck in the middle of nowhere. A group of riders approaches and offers help, but the English party is suspicious and believes they are about to be set upon – all except Daisy, who keeps a clear head and engages the leader of the men in conversation. Inside, however, she’s anything but calm. The big, handsome Scotsman with the piercing blue eyes stirs her blood and steals her breath, and it’s all she can do to politely send him on his way. But she can’t stop thinking about him, and the strength of her reaction; she’s been a widow for two years, and even when her husband was in good health, she’s never experienced such intense desire.
Over the next days and weeks, Daisy and Cailean encounter each other frequently, and while he is initially grumpy and downright hostile towards her, he gradually begins to admire her spirit and to enjoy spending time with Ellis, a quiet, but friendly boy who, Cailean realises, has had no proper male role model in his life. I liked that it’s Daisy who makes no secret of her admiration of Caliean and her attraction to him, while he’s adamant that he isn’t interested in her flirtation and doesn’t want to be “trifled with” – although as he comes to know her, he certainly does flirt back a little, and shows that beneath his guarded exterior is a man possessed of considerable warmth, charm and humour.
Of course, Cailean eventually discovers that Daisy has laid waste to all the barriers he’d erected around his heart, but there is more separating them than the fact that he’s a Scot and she’s English. It’s true that the English are not looked upon kindly by the Scots – and vice-versa – but there’s also the fact that with Ellis holding an English title, he needs to be educated and brought up in England so that he can make the connections he will need later in life. And complicating things still further, there’s the unexpected appearance in Scotland of Robert Spivey, formerly Captain Spivey of the Royal Navy – and the man who has been trying to apprehend Cailean and Aulay for more than a year.
I confess that I’m not the greatest fan of books with the words Highland or Scot in the title, as many of those I’ve read seem to have recycled the same plots and characters, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by this series so far. Sinful Scottish Laird is an extremely readable, character-driven romance in which the relationship between Cailean and Daisy remains front and centre throughout. The obstacles they have to face are very real, and although they are perhaps overcome a little too conveniently by the end, the journey on which the author takes us in order to get there is well put-together and contains moments of poignancy and heartbreak. There is a well-drawn secondary cast, and the background of hardship and political instability against which the tale is set permeates the story without being intrusive or detracting from the main storyline. The romance is lovely, the central characters are likeable, and the writing is infused with warmth and humour, making this a book I’d certainly recommend to others.