On the cusp of her first London season, Miss Madeline Gracechurch was shyly pretty and talented with a drawing pencil, but hopelessly awkward with gentlemen. She was certain to be a dismal failure on the London marriage mart. So Maddie did what generations of shy, awkward young ladies have done: she invented a sweetheart.
A Scottish sweetheart. One who was handsome and honorable and devoted to her, but conveniently never around. Maddie poured her heart into writing the imaginary Captain MacKenzie letter after letter … and by pretending to be devastated when he was (not really) killed in battle, she managed to avoid the pressures of London society entirely.
Until years later, when this kilted Highland lover of her imaginings shows up in the flesh. The real Captain Logan MacKenzie arrives on her doorstep—handsome as anything, but not entirely honorable. He’s wounded, jaded, in possession of her letters… and ready to make good on every promise Maddie never expected to keep.
This is the third in Ms Dare’s current series Castles Ever After, which are loosely linked by virtue of the fact that each of the heroines inherits a castle from a godfather she barely knows. A Fairy Godfather, perhaps 😉 I’m a fan of epistolary novels, so the fact that the storyline of When a Scot Ties the Knot hinges upon letter-writing was a big draw, but unfortunately, I came away from it feeling somewhat let down.
The story revolves around Miss Madeleine Eloise Gracechurch, who, at sixteen, is so desperate to avoid having a London Season that she invents a sweetheart and tells her family that he is away in the army but that they have an understanding that one day they will marry. Maddie’s desperation is born not of an innate reluctance to marry or desire to Do Something With Her Life – although she does want to do that – but because she has a terror of large crowds, and thus the usual round of balls and parties just isn’t an option for her.
When her – obviously very indulgent – father learns of her “understanding” with Captain Logan MacKenzie, he allows Maddie to sit out this and subsequent seasons; after all, if she is already betrothed, there is no need for her to go to London to make a brilliant match. And here’s the first point at which I stopped reading and scratched my head, because I found it really difficult to accept that a father would simply accept the word of his sixteen-year-old daughter that she was engaged. At the time the story is set, the done thing was for the suitor to gain the father’s permission for the match, often before approaching the woman herself; and not only that, but the idea of a parent being so negligent as to not make any further enquiries just doesn’t wash. True, we’re told that ‘Papa’ has recently remarried and is besotted with his new bride, but that still isn’t enough to excuse his disinterest.
Yet Maddie’s explanation is accepted and, In order to keep up the deception, she writes a series of letters to her fictional captain over the next decade, while she also develops her talent as an illustrator. When she is informed of the bequest left her by her godfather of a remote Scottish castle, she realises that she has allowed the deception to continue for too long and, regretfully, allots Logan a glorious death in battle.
So naturally, she is stunned when Captain Logan MacKenzie arrives at Lannair Castle one day, hale, hearty, handsome – and very much alive.
And quietly furious. He’s led his raggle-taggle band of men back from war and now wants to settle back in the Highlands. But times have changed; lands have been cleared, entire villages have been wiped out, and the life the men knew before is no longer possible. However, Logan isn’t about to let them down, and, having learned of the bequest of a Highland castle to his “fiancée”, decides that this is the ideal solution. He will marry the lady and the castle and its lands will thus belong to him. He threatens to reveal all to Maddie’s father unless she goes along with the plan; so that very night, they go through a traditional handfasting. But that isn’t a marriage until it’s consummated, and once Maddie has time to think, she decides that perhaps she would rather not be married after all. She has spent a number of years working as an illustrator for books written by eminent naturalists, and is on the verge of being asked to work on a very prestigious project – which would be hampered should she be married with all the duties of a wife and –eventually – mother. (*sigh* It’s sad to realise that there are still employers out there today who operate within the same mindset).
What the story boils down to is Logan’s determination to consummate his marriage without forming any emotional ties, and Maddie’s insistence that it’s not just sex for her and that she wants more time to get to know Logan before going to bed with him. It’s as well-written as one would expect from such an experienced and well-respected author, and there is plenty of her trademark humour humour along the way. I know exactly what I’m going to get when I pick up a book by Ms Dare; something light-hearted and funny, where I’m going to have to turn off my “historical accuracy-o-meter” and sit back and enjoy the ride. I like well-written fluff as much as the next person, but while I certainly didn’t dislike When a Scot Ties the Knot, there are so many inconsistencies within the story that I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it.
I’ve already mentioned my inability to believe that a father would so easily accept his daughter’s engagement to a man he’s never seen. I also kept wondering how nobody (well, nobody apart from her aunt) ever realised that Maddie had been practicing this deception for more a decade, and, more to the point, couldn’t actually understand why she wrote the letters in the first place. If she wrote them for her family to read in order to convince them, then she couldn’t have written them as they are in the book because the deception would have been apparent. I could have understood it if she’d written letters to herself as though from HIM, but it doesn’t make sense that a decade’s worth of letters was necessary in order to prove his existence to her family. And THEN – late on in the book, we learn that Maddie DID actually write Logan’s replies to her letters; but there’s no mention of disguised handwriting or even of anyone else having actually read them. The epistolary basis for the book was what initially attracted me to it, but even given my predisposition to like that aspect of the storyline, there are so many holes in the reasoning that I’m hard pressed to understand it!
The characterisation of the protagonists is inconsistent as well. Logan is meant to be nasty and bitter, but he’s a quite obviously a teddy bear from the outset, and Maddie is alternately a vixenish seductress with a turn for innuendo and a quivering mess who wouldn’t say “boo” to a goose. I know a fear of crowds doesn’t necessarily mean a person is timid in all aspects of their life, but I couldn’t reconcile these two different sides of Maddie. I couldn’t understand why she jumped to the conclusions she did about the previous owner of the brooch Logan gave her upon their handfasting, and ultimately, while I bought into the attraction between them, I couldn’t quite believe they were truly in love by the end of the book.
But the biggest problem I had with it was in the way it seems that Ms Dare has crossed into the realm of self-parody with her frequent knowing winks to her audience and the way her humour has become almost … calculating. My favourite of her books, A Week to Be Wicked has many of the same ingredients found here, yet it’s got an emotional depth and heart to it that just isn’t present in this story.
When a Scot Ties the Knot is slick, funny and sexy, and I’m sure Ms Dare’s many fans will be delighted with it. It has all the things one expects from this author, but it’s too modern in tone and there are too many holes in the plot for me to be able to recommend it to any but her most die-hard fans.