Tempting the Laird
Julia London’s Highland Grooms series has taken readers from the union of Clan Mackenzie’s mother and father (Wild, Wicked Scot) all the way to the romantic pursuits of their children, and in this book, their youngest daughter – the independent Catriona – meets her match in a salt-of-the-earth but dour duke.
Hearty Catriona – Cat – Mackenzie is the latest in a long line of proudly independent women. Her mother, Margot, was a British spy who rebelled by falling in love with Catriona’s highlander father, and she has raised her sons and daughters to be similarly fearless. But the relative Cat patterns herself after most closely has recently passed; her long lived spinster great Aunt Griselda – Zelda – who became both a family figurehead and the head of a rundown abbey that acts as a refuge for abused, ‘fallen’ and abandoned women and children. Catriona has inherited Kishorn and plans to take up the reins there and remain unmarried in spite of her family’s urgings; but when agents of the crown appear at the fiele (wake) for Zelda, a tipsy Cat learns that Kishorn was used to house Jacobite rebels after the battle of Culloden, which means it’s been forfeited and is thus now the property of the crown.
In the family’s opinion, Cat’s only hope of seeing justice is to hie to Crieff immediately and seek out her British Uncle Knox, who is well-connected politically, and deliver Zelda’s last letter to him while making a plea for Kishorn’s restoration to the family. Along the way, her family hopes she will begin to live for herself, perhaps even find a husband, and that she will keep away from the spirits that give her the only reprieve from her lonely life.
Cat’s gregarious Uncle immediately sweeps her up into his lively, socially complex life, and while they are making merry at an inn his mysterious neighbor, the Duke of Montrose, arrives and quickly disappears, present just long enough to pique Cat’s curiosity and leave her with an impression of his handsomeness.
Said Duke of Montrose, Hamlin Graham, has been dogged for years by rumors that he murdered his wife Glenna when she disappeared after hosting a very fancy party. Beloved by the tenants, her beauty and grace was widely renowned, but the truth of being married to her was much more complex, and far more bitter for Hamlin. He’s responded to the controversy by cloistering himself away in the imposing Blackthorn Hall with ten year old Eula, his wife’s orphaned cousin, whom he cares for like a parent. Under those layers of brooding, Hamlin is the kind of salt-of-the-earth type who fixes his own roof but also the sort who doesn’t indulge in merrymaking or have any friends. His attempt at rehabilitating his reputation has thus far been strained, and it seems his yearning for a seat in the House of Lords will go unfulfilled.
Cat is hopelessly intrigued by the mystery of Glenna, and is just as hopelessly intrigued by the Duke’s glowering, dark good looks. She recognizes that Eula, who’s running wild, needs a motherly influence, and the two of them work together to convince Hamlin to lower his defenses.
Hamlin, meanwhile, is just as hopelessly intrigued by Cat’s laughing quick wit and blonde beauty, while despairing of the influence she has on his rebellious niece. Slowly, Cat and Hamlin grow closer, but soon she must deal with the question of Hamlin’s devotion – and the mystery of Glenna’s death – while trying to save Kishorn from closure.
This is one of those books that works well as a character study but which doesn’t work so well as a romance. Ms. London does a beautiful job creating great character drama – I liked all of the Mackenzies without having read the previous volumes in the series, and I very much liked Cat and Hamlin themselves. But as a unit, their connection is pretty stereotypical, and some of the notions the book tries to pass off as romantic are troubling.
I liked Cat’s independence of mind and her fierceness of opinion, but the narrative’s insistence that only by having a family and busying herself with ‘living her life’ could solve Cat’s lonely alcohol abuse is ludicrous. This weak premise contributes to the unevenness of her personality in the novel proper; her character is part hellion archer, commanding horses and riding astraddle, part bitter, and neither side meets up, with the alcoholic side conveniently evaporating whenever Hamlin is nearby. Only her forceful personality and general impudence rescue her from being unlikeable.
Hamlin’s character is less ‘brooding’ than it is rightfully insular after the way idle gossip has treated him. He is gentle and protective of his cousin and a fine employer, but his insistence on a closed-off life for himself and Eula makes no sense when posed against the fact of his political ambitions. The book’s eventual revelation as to why he decided to keep so tight lipped about his wife’s fate proves ludicrous.
Tragically, the romance is the weakest part of the novel. Cat appreciates Hamlin’s lack of airs, and Hamlin appreciates Cat’s direct fearlessness, but they don’t get to really know one another until they sleep together, and then – after commonalities are formed between them in off-page discussions – we see them mostly as romping puppies, giddily having picnics and yearning to be together while privately angsting in internal monologues about how their ambitions are tearing them apart. Far too much happens off the page for these two, and the bits we’re treated to – the classic chess-as-seduction scene, and horseback riding as foreplay, the impish orphaned moppet who acts as their interceding angel – have been done in a million books already.
There are some fun secondary characters, like the Orlovs, and Eula with her simple wish for friends, as cheesy and clichéd as can be; and it’s impossible not to love Cat’s lively, plain talking Uncle Knox. I actually want to read whole novels about the women mentioned to be living at the abbey, who have experiences at the fuzzy end of life’s lollipop and who deserve their own rescues; the resolution to their chunk of the story is frustrating.
Tempting the Laird isn’t quite the breathless delight that Wild Wicked Scot was, and the third act collapses a bit around the edges as it tries to solve all of its plot points. But unfortunately, interesting characters don’t outweigh the book’s strange plot choices and the rushed romance. Love can cure many things, but boredom-induced alcoholism isn’t one of them.