Hester Daniels is recovering from an engagement gone awry by summering at her brother’s holding in the Highlands, and looking after her brother’s young step-daughter, Fiona.
Tiberius Flynn, heir to the English Marquis of Quinworth, appears on Hester’s doorstep claiming he’s Fee’s paternal uncle, and he’s been sent by her English relations to make the girl’s acquaintance.
Tye believes his brother’s dying wishes compel him to take Fee south with him, but he doesn’t plan on Hester capturing his heart, even as she fights him tooth and nail for custody of Fiona.
In Once Upon a Tartan we renew our acquaintance with the MacGregors of Balfour, previously seen in The Bridegroom Wore Plaid, which was one of my favourite books of last year. (And which figured on my recent AAR Top Ten list).
Unlike many authors embarking upon trilogies featuring siblings, Grace Burrowes chose not to allocate one book to each of the MacGregor brothers (Ian, Connor and Gil), opting instead to suit each brother with his bride of choice in the first book, although Ian and Augusta’s story was the principal focus.
I admit, that left me scratching my head as to which characters would feature in the two remaining books in the series, and I was surprised to discover that the heroine of this one would be Hester Daniels who had a fairly small role in the previous book. She is related to the MacGregors through her sister Genie, who is married to the middle brother, Gilgallon.
But Hester has changed much since we last encountered her. In Bridegroom she had all the vivacity and confidence of youth, but a year later, it’s like she’s had the stuffing knocked out of her, and she’s a very different young woman.
Having been the subject of scandal in London where she jilted a man who had manipulated her into an engagement she hadn’t wanted in the first place, Hester’s mother has sent her away in disgrace to Scotland, where Hester has decided to take on the role of spinster aunt. She feels used and unwanted and is ashamed of her stupidity in allowing herself to fall victim to a charming man who wanted only her money and ruined her in order to force her into marriage. Rather than allow herself to be trapped, however, Hester he broke off the engagement and has suffered social ruin as a result.
Her brother, Matthew, has married Mary-Frances Flynn (née MacGregor), and while they are on an extended honeymoon, Hester has agreed to look after Mary-Fran’s young daughter, Fiona. We learned in the first book that Mary-Fran had been handfasted (an archaic form of marriage in Scotland) to an English soldier and that Fiona was the result of their union. Fiona is a very precocious eight or nine year old in this story, and while I’m not normally a fan of children in romantic novels, I think that Grace Burrowes has a real talent for writing children realistically. Fiona comes across as a living, breathing person rather than a sugar-coated moppet who gets into scrapes and charms her way out of them with a gap-toothed smile. By turns she’s cute, annoying, vulnerable and extremely crafty – a description I’m sure any parent will recognise instantly!
The real star of the show, however, is the hero, Tiberius Flynn, Earl of Spathfoy, elder brother of Mary-Fran’s late husband and therefore another of Fiona’s big, strapping uncles. At first glance, he appears to be rather austere and terribly proper; handsome, charming and a perfect gentleman as befits an Earl and heir to a marquisate. I particularly enjoyed his manner of speech and the way he delighted in language, all so very correct and aristocratic – sometimes to the point of pomposity – but which could also make him seem somewhat childlike and incredibly charming. He has a lovely sense of humour and a sharp wit when he lets himself unbend a little, and his interactions with Fiona are delightful and ring very true.
One of my particular favourites was:
”Tell me some big words in French. You have to spell them.” “Here.” He passed her a pencil. “Spell this: pestilentiel.” “What does it mean?” “It’s French for niece.”
But underneath a seemingly unruffleable exterior, Tye is conflicted and harbours a great deal of resentment towards his family and his fate as heir to a grand title. His family has fractured – his father has grown increasingly dictatorial over the years and his mother was so devastated by the death of her younger son that she left Quinworth and refuses to see or correspond with him. Gordie appears to have been the favoured son, allowed to run wild while Tye did what was expected of him and made sure that his family was safe and secure and the family estates well-managed. In addition to his taking on an increasing number of his father’s duties, the departure of Tye’s mother has left his sisters to his care, responsibilities he takes very seriously – which is what allows the marquis to manoeuvre him into an uncomfortable and distasteful position.
Even though he has taken no interest in her since her birth, the Marquis of Quinsworth has sent Tye into Scotland in order to bring Fiona to England to live. Not having a great deal of experience with children, he regards his ‘mission’ with distaste, and expects to be back in England within a few days. But the Marquis has misled him. Tye arrives expecting to find Fiona neglected and in straightened circumstances, whereas what he finds is a happy, well-cared for child who is surrounded by the love and affection of her uncles and aunts. Hester immediately suspects the truth behind the reasons for his visit and is naturally distrustful of him – but she also finds him incredibly attractive, even as she is telling herself she doesn’t trust him or like him very much.
Tye is similarly smitten, but knowing what he has come to do, feels that responding to Hester’s obvious interest in him would be dishonourable and that he must keep his distance. But he has reckoned without Hester’s determination to seduce him – and somehow realising that she needs reassurance and affection, he finds himself incapable of resisting her and they embark upon a passionate – and incredibly tender – affair.
It’s not long afterwards that Tye finally admits to himself the depth of his feelings for Hester and proposes to her, even while he also acknowledges that having her as his fiancée will undoubtedly be of help when it comes to removing Fiona from the rest of her family.
While Ian does his best to delay Fiona’s departure, he knows he cannot prevent it entirely, as it seems that Gordie Flynn appointed his father as his daughter’s guardian. It may seem that Ian gives in to Quinworth’s demands too easily, but he knows that if what the marquis has told Tye about the will is true, then they don’t have a legal leg to stand on. But that doesn’t mean Ian won’t fight for his niece – he’s just biding his time.
But he can’t hold off forever, and the time comes when Tye has to depart, taking Fiona with him. Hester is furious, believing Tye’s offer of marriage to have been made simply to keep Fiona sweet. While he cannot deny that he thought having someone she loved near would have helped Fiona to adjust to her new life, Hester cannot help but feel betrayed – and that Tye is yet another man who wanted to use her for his own ends.
It’s not until after they’ve been at Quinworth for a few days that Hester learns the real reason for Tye’s actions with regard to Fiona. Despite his feelings for her and his conviction that Fiona belongs with the MacGregors, Tye has too much honour and loyalty to his family to have revealed his reasons for acting as he did, but when one of his sisters tells her the truth, Hester finally comes to realise what a terrible position he was forced into.
Ultimately, it’s Tye’s feelings for Hester that enable him to finally stand up to his father and send Fiona home. It’s not that Tye is a weak man –far from it. As Hester observes, his problem is that he “loves too well” and that he tries too hard to do the right thing for everybody. So much so that he often forgets to do the right thing for himself.
One of the things I enjoyed most about the novel was the fact that, unlike many series books, the reappearance of characters from previous stories wasn’t limited to tiny cameos. Ian MacGregor plays a strong secondary role and he his wife Augusta are shown to be very happy in their marriage one year down the line. I adored Ian’s thoughts and pronouncements about “His Wee Bairnship” and watching as he and his wife adjusted to parenthood. I also thought that the relationship that was beginning to develop between Ian and Tye was a very promising one, and as Tye and Hester were to settle in Scotland, I’d love to see more of that in the next book.
Once again, Grace Burrowes captivated me with a wonderful story and a tender romance featuring a thoroughly engaging central couple. I felt that Tye was the more strongly drawn of the two, seeming to be a fairly straightforward prospect at first, but turning out to be one of her most complex heroes to date. She captures familial relationships so beautifully that they feel completely natural and her characterisation is consistently strong and well-developed.
I’m chalking her up yet another winner.