The Scottish Companion
by Karen Ranney, historical (2007)
Avon, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-06-125237-2
Poor Grant Roberson. The Earl of Straithern lost both his brothers to a mysterious - and in 1850, incurable - "blood disease" within six months and now he fears that he will also succumb to the same disease. Death took his brothers within a short time after they showed symptoms of the disease, so Grant has no idea how much time he has before he end up in the family mausoleum.
When Dr Ezra Fenton suggests that Grant treat each day as if his last and look towards getting married and producing an heir to secure the family line, Grant decides that he may as well take an easy way out and marry Dr Fenton's daughter Arabella. After all, he is interested in scientific matters and from the good doctor's account, Arabella is keen on medical matters. They'd make a decent match. So what's not to love about his plan, right? Well, Grant doesn't realize at that time that he will eventually fall for Arabella's companion, Gillian Cameron, when the two women show up at his home Rosemoor a month later so that Arabella can become better acquainted with her future husband.
There are other complications. Grant doesn't believe that there is a hereditary disease killing off the Rosemoor men one by one - he believes instead that someone is poisoning them and he intends to find out who once he's settled down with his new wife. Grant is actually a pretty emotional man, but he believes that he has to keep every emotion locked inside him as he has to take care of the family and the lands that come along with his title. Amusingly enough, he is more intrigued by Arabella's beauty when he first meets the women, but he will soon change his mind.
Gillian, on the other hand, is a woman who is forced by circumstances to become selfish. You see, her parents banished her about three years ago, not caring where she ends up in, because she was ruined by an unwise affair and therefore was no longer fit to be in the company of "decent people", as her own father put it. Gillian still nurses understandable anger towards her parents who would cast aside their own daughter just to keep up with appearances. Should Arabella marry Grant, Gillian will no longer be needed as Arabella's companion and she will therefore lose any security and stability that she has found with the Fentons. She also envies Arabella, again understandably, because that woman doesn't want to get married but she will end up getting the kind of life that Gillian would love to have for herself. She accepts the fact that her indiscretion has made certain that she will never regain the old life that she had in the past. She has to control herself even if it's already too late, but oh, she still doesn't understand why she has to pay so dearly for her indiscretion by losing everything that she had. The following illustrates perfectly Gillian's feelings, I believe:
"You should not hold your cup in such a manner," Gillian said gently. "Hold it by the handle, like this." She demonstrated, hoping that Arabella would cease planting both elbows on the table and glaring at her.
Had the girl always been so sullen? Or was her attitude somehow emphasized by the strangeness of their surroundings? Either way, Gillian was growing increasingly impatient with Arabella.
"Do not lecture me, Gillian. I do not care one whit about the manners of the gentry at the moment."
"They are not simply the manners of the gentry, Arabella," Gillian said. "Holding your cup with both hands is not polite. Which you would know if you ever bothered to look around you."
"I don't care."
"You should," Gillian said, annoyance slipping into her voice. Let Dr. Fenton lecture her on patience if he must. "You're to be the Countess of Straithern in less than a month."
"Not because I wish it." Arabella stood and walked to the window.
"Yes, yes, I know," Gillian said. "You wish to save yourself for your studies. Medicine calls to you. Life beckons to you as a healer. You are meant for better things. God save us if you have to be a wife or mother when there's a boil to be lanced or a bedsore to be treated."
She stood and circled the table, intent for her own room.
For a moment, Arabella didn't speak. Finally, she said, "Why are you so irritated, Gillian?"
"Because you are irritating," Gillian answered. "You may not wish to be married, but such is the way of the world. You should thank God you're to be married to an earl, a man who can give you anything you desire."
"Money does not influence me."
"Because you've never been without it. Or protection," Gillian said bitingly. "You've never known what it was to have to choose between dignity and survival, Arabella."
What an unlikable, selfish, mercenary wretch Gillian is, eh, not understanding one bit poor Arabella's plight? Doesn't that immoral whore realize that the worst thing in life is a marriage without love? On a serious note, I believe Gillian's accurate summation of Arabella's naïveté is required reading for romance heroines everywhere.
Gillian, however, doesn't realize that Arabella's reluctance to marry Grant goes deeper than her devotion to her study of medicine. Arabella nurses a dark secret that is closely linked to Grant's family. Let's just say that she isn't afraid of getting married as much as she is terrified of what goes on in the wedding bed. She is cynical enough to believe that she will be married off to Grant no matter what she says, but she's afraid. As a result, she behaves in ways that really test Gillian's patience, especially when Dr Fenton threatens to expose Gillian's past to everyone and therefore ruin Gillian's chances of obtaining decent employment in the future should she fail to persuade Arabella to smile and treat Grant nicely.
I have my doubts about Grant's plan to marry before beginning his investigation about the deaths of his brothers because bringing the women over to his place only puts them in danger. Won't it make sense to investigate the case first before dragging other people into the mess?
Still, I really like the fact that the three principle characters in this story are well-developed characters with layers of depths that allow them to come off as vividly real people. Arabella behaves like a petulant and very socially-inept child but she has her reasons and I understand them. Gillian is often frustrated with Arabella but she too has her reasons and I can definitely see where she is coming from, especially when she understandably believes that she has much more to lose than Arabella should the wedding plans get called off. Grant is a nice fellow, but still, I question the wisdom of continuously chatting with and even asking his future wife's companion to aid him in his laboratory when he should be charming and wooing the wife-to-be. Okay, Arabella makes it very painful for anyone other than a saint to even spend five minutes in her company and Grant is certainly no saint, so I suppose I can definitely understand why he does what he does with Gillian. I just don't think it's a smart thing to do, heh. Grant is a pretty complicated fellow in his own right. He has his own demons to deal with, just like everyone else in this story.
The developing relationship between Gillian and Grant is exactly what I'd expect from this author: plenty of convincing intellectual and emotional connection to flourish between the characters through nuanced conversations and hesitant little glances and maybe even touches. These two don't jump into bed from the get go, instead they both try to go with what they believe is the right course - the wedding between Grant and Arabella - but it's just that sometimes the heart demands pleasure first and overrides the brain.
Still, my favorite scene takes place on page 114 to page 116 in a conversation between Gillian and Grant's mother Dorothea where both women inadvertently reveal how much they both have in common. I especially like this part:
"A very careful answer, Miss Cameron." The countess kept stirring. "I'm awake because I find it sinful to be sleeping while my children are dead. I will, no doubt, awake in the morning, greet God's dawn once again, be refreshed, and without care for a matter of seconds. While I am gradually coming awake, I will hear the birds singing in the tree outside my chamber and I will glory in the sound of morning."
"And then it will strike you as a hideous thing that you've done," Gillian said, "to awake when what you love, what you care about, is dead. For a moment you close your eyes, and wonder if you can will yourself to death."
There are so many things about The Scottish Companion that make it an often troubling read. The villain is beyond saving but my heart can't help but to break when the villain is unveiled. Okay, the identity of the villain becomes obvious as the story progresses and the hints become more and more blatant, but still, it doesn't make me feel any better because the villain is as much as victim as the poor fellow is a lunatic. Between the heartbreaking denouement and the beautifully nuanced romance, I feel as if my emotions have been given a thorough workout by Ms Ranney. This is one of those rare romance novels that get me feeling a wide array of emotions from start to finish, so it is without any doubt or hesitation that I have to consider The Scottish Companion a keeper.
Let me leave you with this lovely passage from the story:
If someone, a sage of the world, perhaps the oldest living man, or the wisest one, would come and ask her one question: what would she like to be now, right this moment, she would be forced to answer with the truth. Free, she'd say, an economy of speech, but a largesse of thought.
Perhaps she'd dress in a style reminiscent of twenty years ago, a long column of fabric gathered beneath her bosom and trailing to the floor. She'd adorn her hair with a simple ribbon to keep it from blowing in her face, and she'd dispense with a sun shade or parasol or bonnet. Her shoes would be supple leather, something that conformed well to her feet. Beneath her dress she would wear only a soft chemise. No corset, no stays, no itchy garments. She would have nothing to do but what she wished. She'd sketch the plants God created, or marvel at the passing of a day, from the brilliance of dawn to the subtle nuances of nightfall. With her new freedom she would go forth into the world and scandalize everyone who knew her. She would sing at the top of her lungs if the spirit moved her to do so. She'd eat what she liked, and drink sherry in the mornings and tea at midnight. She'd ridicule others if she felt cruel and petty. Or she'd be generous with her praise and her money.
Most of all, she'd love with abandon and dance to the sound of the wind.
She would be that most glorious of creatures, a human being with failings and flaws, and accepting of them.
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