The sixth book in the Border Chronicles series, published October 4, 2011.
Bertrice Small's breathless Border Chronicles continues as a mysterious nobleman and his bartered new bride untangle a plot of illicit seduction, daring betrayal, and deadly royal intrigue...
Called the handsomest man in the Borders, Angus Ferguson, earl of Duin, lives a quiet life avoiding the constant political intrigues of his neighbors in order to keep his small clan safe. Now in exchange for a piece of land he has long coveted he has taken a wife. Annabella Baird, the plain-faced daughter of the laird of Rath.
Reluctant at first to bed the unassuming Annabella, Angus finally accepts his duty as a husband only to discover that beneath his bride's modest demeanour is a wildcat with a spark waiting to be ignited. When, however, they accept an invitation to the court of Scotland's Queen Mary they find themselves caught up in royal intrigue.
Mary's unfortunate marriage to her cousin, Lord Darnley, has proven a disaster. Worse it has driven her into the arms of another man, James Hepburn, the dashing, powerful earl of Bothwell. When Darnley is murdered in spectacular fashion, and his body barely cold Mary and Bothwell wed, the queen's adversaries retaliate with a war that divides Scotland, and tries the long friendship between the earl of Duin and James Hepburn even as it tests the bond of passion between Angus and Annabella in ways they never expected.
Annabella Rath is the oldest daughter of a small borderlord. Unlike her beautiful mother and three younger sister, Annabella is a very plain girl. She is twenty, and still unwed, and has no prospects for marriage either. She has little dowry, and no beauty, so the men prefer her beautiful but mostly empty headed sisters. They just see their faces, and not Annabella’s good character and kindness and intelligence.
But then the Earl of Duin, Angus Ferguson, wants to buy some land belonging to her father, which her father won’t sell to him. The distant family he inherited it from, has been feuding with the Ferguson’s for ages, so that just doesn’t feel right. But then Angus’ best friend, James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell, suggests he asks for it as a dowry to wed Lord Rath’s oldest daughter, even though she is plain faced. Angus is interested in that, he is over 30, and has been deceived by a beautiful lass before. So that Annabella is no beauty doesn’t interest him. If she is sweet of nature and obedient, he will agree. And so the bargain is struck. Annabella is to marry the very rich Earl of Dune, and her sisters are a bit envious about that. Why couldn’t he have chosen one of them? But now the way is open for them to marry whom they wish of their suitors, so everyone is happy.
Annabella’s father was not a poor man, but not rich either. The whole family and some servants lived together in a tower house, a room each floor, and the four sisters shared a bedroom and a big bed. And now for the first time in her life, she is to travel, as the Earl has sent his brother (a priest) and his halfbrother Matthew (who is also his steward) to wed her by proxy. It will take a week to reach Duin, but Annabella enjoys every minute of it. And when she finally sees Duin, she is very impressed. And with her handsome husband!
They take the time to get to know each other, before their marriage is consummated, and to their own surprises, fall in lust and eventually love with each other. Life is quiet at Dune, but busy and simple. The care of the estate and the various enterprises her husband has keeps them occupied, and the villagers and servants soon come to love their new gentle countess. The steward is not so enamoured with her though. Her only job is to give his brother some bairns, what use is it to teach the village children how to read and write? But the earl completely agrees with her plans, as he does see the good for the future.
But all good things come to an end, when their comes an invitation from the Queen (Mary of Scotland) to come to court. As Bothwell’s best friend, Angus and Annabella cannot refuse, though they would much rather stay under the radar and not get involved in court politics. And tragedy soon happens to them.
I loved this book, as I love almost all of Bertrice Small’s books. The love story of the main couple is set against the political background of the time. The life of Queen Mary, and how her Earls dethroned her after her hasty second marriage. Her young son was crowned James the Sixth, a boy the Earls can mold after their own wishes. The turmoil when the Catholic faith was made illegal, and everyone had to convert.
Things that have happened in the past are explained in a personal way, and it is really not as boring as a history lesson, it all comes to life. Bit by bit. The story takes place over a couple of years, and not just days or weeks as most (historical) romances.
I liked Annabella. She knows she is not pretty, and doesn’t care. And her husband soon doesn’t either. He sees the beauty inside of her. Matthew, the steward does not. He cannot get used to her, he wanted his brother to have a beautiful wife, a rich heiress. He doesn’t like her, or her acting like the equal of his brother. He keeps insulting her. Which is something Angus is really mad about when he finally finds out.
Annabella is a good woman. She loves her husband and Duin, and nothing is more important to her. She is very intelligent, and grasps the political consequences of the situation immediately. She was good to Queen Mary, but not sentimental enough to keep supporting her against all odds. The loyalty of the Fergusons of Duin has always been to Scotland, and King James is now the King, and not his poor mother.
And Angus, well, he is great. He gives them both time to know each other, but he soon falls in love with his wife because of her character, and of course her passion in the bedchamber (and beyond). He was hurt badly as a young man by the woman he wanted to marry, so he was careful not to give away his feelings. But after the birth of their children, he admitted it (very sweet scene). He is the most beautiful man in the Highlands so people keep staring at this uneven pair.
And for those who like smexy scenes: there are more than enough hot love scenes between Annabella and Angus, and not only in the bedroom.
The adventure in the second half of the book (which I won’t tell you about!) was great. Lots of intrigue and travelling, and some tears as well.
I did dislike the constant reminding of how plain Annabella is though. That was a bit too much. I did like that for once, Annabella did not have to face a lot of disasters, or multiple husbands and such like in most books by Bertrice Small. Not that I mind that, cause she writes really strong and realistic heroines. But it was a nice change.
The secondary characters really played their part well. There is Jean, Angus half-sister, and Annabella’s personal servant/maid. Matthew of course, the steward, whom I just didn’t like. Agnes, Annabella’s youngest sister, who came over for a visit, and stayed for ever. And Bothwell and Queen Mary, and everything that happens to them.
The ending of the epilogue was especially sweet and unusual, but I liked it.
If you like historical romances, try this series. If you just like history novels, you could read it for that. I am not an historian, so no idea how much truth there is in Bertrice Small’s books, but I do believe she does a lot of research.