Shaken from sleep during the night and bundled off to the Highlands by a burly Scot, Riona is at first terrified, then livid. Hugh McCallum insists they were promised to each other as children to ensure peace between their clans. The stubborn laird refuses to believe he’s kidnapped the wrong Catriona Duff. Instead, he embarks on a campaign of slow-burning seduction.
At first, Hugh cares only what their marriage can do for his people. Now he’s starting to crave Riona for her own sake, but her true identity jeopardizes his clan’s contract. And unless she chooses to risk all to be his bride, he’ll lose the only thing he prizes more than the lands he’s fought so hard to save—the passionate marriage they could have together.
The Wrong Bride, the first in a new series from Gayle Callen, is one of those books that’s hard to grade. It’s well-written, the author allows time for her romance to develop and there’s a nicely sensual undercurrent to many of the interactions between the central couple; but it’s the sort of book I had no problem putting down when I had to, rather than one that compelled me to keep reading and ignore everything else around me while I did.
We jump right into the story on the opening page, as Catriona (Riona) Duff is rudely awakened in the middle of the night by a hand over her mouth and an intruder in her bedroom telling her that she’s his betrothed and must go with him. She quickly realises that struggling will be to no avail and tries to talk the man out of his intent, insisting that she’s nobody’s intended bride – but he will have none of it. Once they are underway, the man introduces himself as Hugh McCallum, chief of Clan McCallum and informs her that her father, the Earl of Aberfoyle, had betrothed her to him when she was just a baby, as a way of putting an end to the enmity between their clans, and that her dowry is payment for the shared land rights which were agreed at the time of their betrothal. But when Hugh had called on the earl in London, the man had tried to renege on the deal, leaving Hugh little alternative but to resort to desperate measures.
Riona is stunned, and tells Hugh that she is not the earl’s daughter but his niece, and that his betrothed is her cousin, whose name is also Catriona Duff – but of course, he doesn’t believe her, thinking her just as duplicitous as Aberfoyle.
The journey from London to the Highlands is long and arduous, and even though Riona is constantly on the look-out for a means to escape, she eventually realises it’s not going to happen, contenting herself instead by throwing sharp-tongued remarks at Hugh whenever she can. Once arrived at Larig Castle, however, Riona begins to see a different side to her abductor. His reception by the clan after an absence of ten years is not an especially cordial one, and there are many among the men who appear to distrust him. At first Riona sees this as an opportunity – if she can win one of the powerful clansmen to her side, then perhaps he will help her to escape. But the longer she resides at Larig, the more she comes to realise just what the revelation of her true identity will mean for Hugh and for his clan; no peace with the Clan Duff, no influx of cash from her dowry… and Hugh will be blamed for the resulting hardship.
The love-story unfolds at a leisurely pace, but that makes sense considering the fact that Hugh and Riona’s relationship gets off to such a terrible start. It’s not surprising that Riona resents Hugh and insists on insulting and needling him whenever she can, and one of the best things about the book is the way in which the author slowly reveals the truth about him. The romance is sweetly sensual, and there is a real sense of Riona’s slowly falling in love at the same time as she is coming to know Hugh for the caring, honourable man he is. He cares deeply for his clan and his family, and will do whatever it takes to keep them safe and happy, even if it means appearing in a less than favourable light himself.
The early eighteenth century setting allows the author to explore some of the political and social issues of the time; the continuing support for “the King over the Water”; the disrespect shown to Scottish MPs in parliament (of which Hugh was one); the problems Hugh encounters in persuading his tenants to adopt more modern farming methods – and I always appreciate that in an historical romance. It doesn’t have to be a history lesson; I just like to feel that the word “historical” is justified.
Ms Callen is also able to make use of a number of traditions that surround marriage in Scotland, one of which is that of “bundling” – whereby a betrothed couple could sleep in the same bed and spend time talking and getting to know each other, but they remained clothed and the woman’s legs would be tied together so as to prevent them having intercourse. Hugh has to spend so much of his days working hard, training with his men and looking over his lands that the only time he can spend with Riona is at night – and as he has promised not to take her before she consents to the marriage, he avails himself of this particular custom. That doesn’t prevent them doing a bit more than just talking, however, showing Riona how close she is to succumbing to Hugh’s gentle seduction.
While I don’t normally like stories built on misunderstandings, the premise does work, and the author has set up Hugh’s initial distrust of Riona so that his refusals to believe her protestations that she’s not his betrothed are plausible. The central characters are likeable and well-drawn, although Riona’s insistence on sniping at Hugh goes on for a little too long, and the revelation that leads to Hugh’s being finally accepted by all is a little too pat for my taste. The resolution to the problem created by the fact that Hugh has fallen for the wrong woman is also a little too easily come by, and the ending does feel somewhat rushed. Overall, though,The Wrong Bride is a solid and enjoyable read, and I certainly appreciated the use of an historical setting that’s slightly different to the norm.