The Master of Strathburn
The Master of Strathburn starts off with a very interesting event in Scottish history, the last Jacobite Rebellion of 1746. Unfortunately, other than serving as a plot device to provide the hero with a backstory, the historical background barely factors into the rest of the book. The result is a wallpaper romance with little historical authenticity and even less in the way of a convincing romance.
Robert Grant, the eldest son of the Earl of Strathburn, has returned to Scotland. Ten years earlier, his participation in the Jacobite uprising at Culloden resulted in the death of twenty-six clansmen. His brother Simon tried to turn him over to the authorities so he can be tried for treason, but with the help of his father and a clansman, he was able to escape. Now, with rumors that his brother has gambled away half of the family fortune, Robert has decided to return home to Lochrose Castle, seek a pardon for his part in the uprising and assume his rightful place as the heir to the Strathburn title. But first, he needs to wait until dark so he can enter the castle undetected lest his brother tries to turn him in to the authorities again. As he travels towards his family’s hunting lodge where he plans to wait the day out, he witnesses his brother and a beautiful redhead in a passionate embrace by the lake. Disgusted that anyone would take up with his brother, Robert turns away, resolving not to give the breathtakingly beautiful woman another thought.
Jessie Munroe’s father is the younger brother of the Laird of Dunraven. With their family fortune in a decline, Jessie’s father is forced to work as a factor at Lochrose Castle. When Simon follows her to the lake one day and forcibly kisses her, Jessie decides to travel to Edinburgh to stay with a cousin. Since the only stagecoach to Edinburgh does not leave for two days, and her staying under the same roof with Simon until then is unthinkable, Jessie seeks shelter at Lord Strathburn’s hunting lodge. On her way there, she sprains her ankle and sits down next to a tree to rest; and the next thing she knows, she has been shot in the arm by a blue-eyed stranger.
Any romance reader worth her salt will surely be able to guess what happens next. After Robert accidentally shoots Jessie while hunting, he takes Jessie back to his father’s hunting lodge. Just like the first time he laid eyes on her, he is smitten but at the same time dare not trust her because he believes her to be his brother’s mistress. Jessie, on the other hand, is aware of Robert’s misconception but chooses initially not to contradict it. Not knowing much about Robert, she theorizes that he will be less likely to do her harm if he believes her to be someone well-connected and less disposable. Thus begins the dance of two people who are clearly attracted to each other but are held back by mutual distrust. Will Jessie and Robert find their way to true love? And will Robert be able to clear his name and reclaim his heritage?
Right off the bat, I knew I was in trouble when the book opened with not one but two of my biggest pet peeves: Lust at First Sight and the Big Misunderstanding. Hampered by the need to keep their identities secret, the pair spends most of their time together ogling each other in various states of undress instead of engaging in any kind of meaningful conversation that would allow them to get to know each other. The first half of the book can pretty much be summed up with the following approximation of Jessie’s internal monologue:
I need to tell Robert that there is nothing going on between me and Simon. But wait. Robert has taken his shirt off! I can’t possibly put a coherent sentence together when I am so distracted by the sight of all that beautiful male flesh. Oh, why am I so wanton? I guess it will have to wait…
(A couple of hours later)
I think now’s the time. Robert, there is something I must…But he is so angry! He will never believe me and what if he still intends to hurt me? I know! I will tell him that I am hand-fasted to his brother so he won’t be tempted to kill me.
(A couple of hours later)
I should never have told Robert that Simon and I are engaged. I need to clear the air. Robert, please listen…Oh no, it’s starting to rain. Will I never get a break?
(A couple of hours later)
Robert, I need to… But he’s drunk! And he just kissed me! I am so ashamed about what happened between me and Simon. I can’t possibly tell him now…
By the time the Big Misunderstanding is finally cleared up, Jessie and Robert are already madly in love after spending two whole days together. Since there is not much to their relationship other than that they find each other extremely hot, I did not find their romance at all convincing. And while Jessie is not exactly unlikable, she often comes across as a little too helpless and naïve for my taste. Robert is constantly thinking about how beautiful and brave Jessie is, but there is little evidence of her bravery as all Jessie is required to do during most of the book is to stand around helplessly while Robert or someone else bails her out of difficult situations. As for Robert, he is a likable but bland hero. This is especially disappointing considering the interesting background he is given. What was his motivation for becoming a Jacobite, and how much does the death of the twenty six clansmen weigh on his conscience? None of this is explored. And aside from mentioning how much he regretted his actions once near the beginning of the book, once he and Jessie got together, the death of those clansmen is never mentioned again. Throughout the rest of the book, Robert pretty much behaves as if this tragic event never occurred.
Once the only conflict between Jessie and Robert is resolved, there is really nowhere for the story to go, but there are still twelve chapters left. So we get a couple of subplots involving Robert and Jessie traveling to Edinburgh to exonerate Robert of the treason charges and Simon’s attempt to get rid of Robert. I found the latter thread at least somewhat interesting, as it represents the first time since I started reading the book that I could not predict what was going to happen next. Robert’s legal status, however, is resolved in such a perfunctory and unbelievable manner that it really added nothing to the story except to pad out the length.
If you are simply looking for a romance that is set in a different period than your typical Regency England, you may want to give this book a try. But if you require that your romance features a believable relationship built on a solid foundation – the entire book takes place over a seven day period – you will be better advised to look elsewhere.