by Karen Ranney, historical (2008)
Avon, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-06-125242-6
Karen Ranney's The Devil Wears Tartan has a very deceptively simple plot on the surface. Resigned to being a spinster, Davina McLaren yearned for affection, kids, and the usual, so she allowed herself to be swept away by the seductive attentions of a rake. Alas, what was supposed to be a brief moment of forbidden pleasure became a public shame when she and the fellow were caught red-handed in the act. When the story opens, Davina is considered hopelessly soiled goods so her aunt hastily arranges for her to be married to Marshall Ross, the Earl of Lorne. Marshall needs a bride ASAP, and Davina doesn't have much of a future in the polite circles, so this is a pretty good match all things considered.
Except, when she finally meets her husband, she soon discovers why he is called the Devil of Ambrose. (Ambrose is the name of her husband's holding, by the way.) A former can't-care-less rake who thought a jaunt to China would be fun, he eventually found himself tortured in the prisons of that country. This was due to an unfortunate association with a family member whose business activities weren't approved by the authorities in China. Now Marshall is tormented not just by the guilt but also by the possibility that he is going mad from his ordeals in China. Davina has an uphill battle ahead of her if she wants to win her husband's affection and convince him that he is whole enough in spirit as well as body for her.
You may be tempted to imagine that this may be something like Laura Kinsale's Flowers From The Storm, but this story isn't that dark really and the hero isn't that damaged. In fact, my biggest complaint about this story is how at the end the author has the hero become whole and functional again in a way that I find a little too clean and neat considering all the angst the hero has demonstrated in the story. I feel quite cheated, really, because the way the hero and heroine are allowed a happily ever after that is too sunny and rather out of place compared to the tone of the rest of the story. I also find that the motives and identities of the bad guys are too transparent - I manage to deduce these correctly long before the author drops the revelations.
But apart from that those bumps, I don't have any significant issue with this story. This is a solid example of an above average story by this author, with the added bonus of not one but two solidly intelligent and strong female characters. One is the secondary character of Davina's aunt, Theresa Rowle, but I'd not say anymore about her because that would be spoiling the story, heh. Davina is a strong-willed heroine that tries to make the best of her circumstances. She's pragmatic but she also has a romantic side of her that yearns for a husband and a family. Here, she is the one who comes to the hero's rescue, and watching her come to her own to the point that she finally steps up to save the day is a pleasure indeed. As for Marshall, he is a pleasant woobie hero, angst-ridden and moody while clearly pining for the heroine. It helps that he has a very good reason here to believe that he is no good for the heroine. This is one of those stories where the hero's attempts to drive the heroine away from him do come off as a sign that he cares too much for her and therefore he would rather set her free than to chain her into caring after a mad man.
As for their romance... well, I've said before and I'll say it again: I don't think there are many authors out there who write romantic quiet scenes as well as Karen Ranney. This is one reason I keep reading her stories. She can easily make a simple conversation between the hero and the heroine in this story sing with unspoken yearnings and sexual tension, so when she pulls out all stops for some really melodramatic moments, the result is delicious goosebumps on my flesh.
While I wish that some aspects of The Devil Wears Tartan have been plotted better, I find this a most tender and sometimes even haunting love story indeed.
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