Author: Marsha Canham
Read copy: Mass Market Paperback
Published: October 6, 1997
THEY WERE TORN BETWEEN PRIDE AND PASSION ...
It was a boastful wager, a bold flirtation meant to win a proposal from the most eligible officer in His Majesty's Royal Dragoons. How was the spoiled and pampered Catherine Augustine Ashbrooke to know the handsome stranger with the brooding midnight eyes would see through her plot and make her the pawn in a dangerous game of his own?
UNITED BY A RECKLESS GAME OF CHANCE ...
Alexander Cameron may have won the highborn English beauty in a duel, but not even the lure of long-forgotten desires could keep him from his meeting with destiny. He had no choice but to carry his reluctant bride off to the Highlands, to a world of ancient blood feuds and a brewing rebellion --- a world where fiery passion and breathtaking courage would prove that even legendary warriors could lose their hearts.
Sometimes books purchased in the spur of the moment leave you with a sour taste in your mouth after you read them, but sometimes (very few times, for me), they turn out to be truly remarkable stories with gripping plots, wonderful characters, great dialogue, and even greater chemistry – both between the leading couple and other characters. The first two books in Marsha Canham's Highlands trilogy, The Pride of Lions and The Blood of Roses, turned out to be one of those rare gems with a firmly ingrained spot on my keeper shelf, that despite knowing them almost by heart, I never mind picking them up again and again.
In the first book we're introduced to the spoiled and self-centered Derby beauty, Catherine Augustine Ashbrooke. She's riding through the forest on the day of her eighteenth birthday only to encounter a tall, dark, and handsome stranger who quickly teaches her an important lesson that the world does not revolve around her. With her pride still chafed from the "ordeal" Catherine is dismayed to see the same stranger, her brother's acquaintance, Raefer Montgomery, at the ball in her honor that same evening, but being the spoiled brat that she is, she somehow overcomes her adversity and decides to shamelessly use him to her advantage—making the man she wants to marry insanely jealous.
Unfortunately her plan backfires. She is pleasantly—and passionately—surprised by Montgomery's kiss on the shadowed terrace, and her jealous would-be-suitor, instead of being normally jealous as she intended, throws a fit and challenges Montgomery to a duel. The dark stranger, though pressed for time, agrees and wins the duel...And Catherine’s hand in the process.
Despite the unwillingness of both bride and groom, Catherine and Raefer are joined in holy matrimony in her father's study.
The next evening, having stopped for the night in a seedy tavern, Catherine learns the shocking truth about her husband. He's not a wealthy English merchant by the name of Raefer Montgomery, but in fact a Scot, a Jacobite spy, Alexander Cameron, returning to his homeland after fifteen years in exile.
Scared half to death by the towering Highlander promising swift demise for her, her brother who comes to collect her, and her maid, Catherine flees the tavern, but is quickly apprehended by her husband, and, after a few more threats to her brother's life, bundled up in a carriage and whisked away to Scotland as hostage and cover for the long trek to the north, evading English troops.
Reluctant to admit it, Catherine is quickly taken by the rugged beauty of the country, and more and more intrigued with Alexander Cameron and his mercurial disposition. As she gradually lowers her defenses and pushes aside her pride, so does he, and the two slowly, but surely shift from enemies to something else entirely, just as Scotland is on the verge of the war that will change its history forever.
Though this first book concentrates on the characters, especially Catherine as she grows and matures, and the budding romance between them, the imminent threat of danger is palpable and always on the outskirts of the story, there to see, but not yet ready to be grasped.
Marsha Canham wove history and romance into a captivating love story, full of passion, devotion, and courage, against the backdrop of the (final) Jacobite rebellion.
Catherine's spoiled ways took some time to digest (on the first read), but through the course of the book her character evolves from a spoiled child to a strong, passionate woman. Her growth and maturing is evident in each scene, each dialogue, and inner monologue. It is true what they say, that a change of scenery can do miracles for somebody. In Catherine's case her change started when her heart first pounded in earnest as she set her eyes on Alexander and it was him and his homeland that made her see her (previous) life for what it really was—a shallow excuse for an existence—and made her reevaluate her priorities, her true desires, and her true self.
For that reason, the cliffy ending was so much more heartbreaking, just when she realized what she wanted, it was snatched away, and no manner of tantrums and fits could give her what she wanted. It was proof of her growth and change that she didn't revert to her childish ways and instead took all she was delivered with quiet dignity and hidden hopes for the future.
Alexander Cameron was the quintessential leading man. One that makes your heart pound and wish they still made men like him. Tall, dark, devilishly handsome, devoted and dedicated, with a strict code of honor that he doesn't break even in most dire of times. I loved how he also changed as the story progressed, how he was brought to his knees by something utterly and completely beyond his control—the love for a woman. His inner struggles against the attraction, against wanting her, even liking her, were completely futile (he fell down that proverbial cliff like a lemming), and wonderful to read.
In a way, Catherine and Alexander were the same, both lonely, she having grown up with indifferent parents, he for the fifteen years spend in hating-the-world exile. They both had one true friend, their respective brothers, Damien and Aluinn. And they were both determined to show the world a brave face, building defensive walls behind which to hide their emotions, their desires, and their fears.
And Kismet (or whatever you want to call it) brought them together, to lean on each other, learn from each other, love each other. He turned her into a woman (in more ways than the basic one), she showed him it was safe to feel again, without betraying his personal ghost.
Their struggle against their feelings was almost comical in its bitter sweetness and the moment they finally accept these feeling is both heart-warming and sad at the same time, because here they are, two people finally ready to give their hearts to each other, yet with the constant whisper of imminent danger threatening to tear them apart forever.
This sweeping saga takes us from the glittering ballrooms full of hypocrisy and false smiles, to the primal, honest, wind-swept Highlands as a spoiled, selfish brat turns into a proud and determined young woman and a icy-cold, cynical soldier of fortune is humbled and changed by his love for her. All this happens in real time, in front of our very eyes, and that’s what makes this such a remarkable read.
Reviewer Note: I've read this book eight times already and I cannot get tired of it. I might know it by heart already, but there's always that giddy excitement present each time I pick it up, that curiosity as to what might happen, the wonder of (re)discovering the Scottish highlands, the quickening of a heartbeat whenever Catherine and Alex are on the 'page' at the same time, the tugging at the heartstrings toward the end...I absolutely love this book and the next one, the finale of this epic (yes, it's epic!) love story.