Highland Promise by Alyson McLayne

Warning that the book does include violence and harsh language against women both on and off the page.

Did Amanda just read and enjoy a historical romance? Hell yes, she did. For readers who have been around the Bitchery for while, you might know that I’ve had a complicated relationship with historical romances. I just can’t get into them much anymore. It’s not historical romance’s fault! However, every so often, I’ll pick one up, and I will either give up fifty pages in or, in a rare case, I will devour it like a hangry honey badger.

Highland Promise falls into the latter and I was utterly surprised because it has some elements of which I’m normally leery. But they worked because they made sense within the narrative, instead of seeming more like a personality quirk thrown in for the hell of it. I swear this will all make sense and seem less mysterious once we get into the nitty gritty.

Highland Promise is the first book in The Sons of Gregor MacLeod series. It opens with the prologue, where a highland laird is demanding his clansmen pay for their treachery. Either they give up one of their sons to be raised by him or he kills them and takes their sons anyway. This also sets up plenty of sequel bait and, while the five men all make an appearance, none of the others overshadow the hero and his romance. The five men also have distinctive personality traits and it made me feel a lot like I was playing Highland Pokemon: I desperately want to catch them all.

Fast forward from the prologue: one of the sons, Darach MacKenzie, has a tentative truce with Clan Fraser. But when he sees an unconscious and obviously beaten woman thrown over the back of a Fraser horse, he jeopardizes the truce to attack the men and save the woman.

The woman is Caitlin MacInnes, a woman who has been given to the Frasers by her uncle as part of deal for gold. So it’s like a weird reverse dowry, I guess. Caitlin’s uncle gets riches if he gives her away to the leader of the Fraser Clan.

There’s no love lost between Darach and the Frasers. He was originally betrothed to Moire, Laird Fraser’s sister. Things did not end well and it’s revealed that Moire had plotted to kill Darach. Because of that, Darach is wary of being blinded by love again. He’s a serious man, but he avoids making the kind of decisions that would have made me closing the book. For example, he overhears Caitlin calling his name while she slept. Now, I’m sure we’ve all read romances where the hero takes the heroine’s sleepy murmurings as consent. Instead, Darach leaves her bedroom without so much as touching her. Most of the physical affection is also initiated by the heroine, which is very important because while Caitlin is twenty, she has lived an incredibly sheltered life. It’s a little sad that I get excited when a hero doesn’t take advantage of the heroine, but that’s where we’re at.

Caitlin’s family home burned down when she was around fourteen and she had lived with her uncle since then. He kept her under lock and key during her time in his home, until she was pretty much sold to Laird Fraser. I found Caitlin to be rather childlike, but it never bordered on annoying or infantilizing. She had no women with whom to talk and no additional education save for religious teachings from ages fourteen to nineteen. She was also abused while in her uncle’s care and adopts a willing-to-please, impulsive manner with Darach. She’s so desperate to be in his good graces and to try and demonstrate that she can be helpful because she fears Darach will send her away. To realize the deeper implications of her behavior and how they originated was an a-ha moment for me. Caitlin seems younger and more naive than her actual age, but it stems from years of a toxic, unhealthy upbringing where her worth was equated with money.

The only real issue I took with Caitlin’s traits was how pious she was. I’m not a religious person by nature and I would not classify this as an inspirational romance, but Caitlin is a firm believer in modeling one’s life after religious tenets. Her chastising about how Darach and his brothers would go to hell for blaspheming was a little much at times.

But despite the piety, Caitlin is what kept me reading because I was enthralled by how much I liked how. She was earnest and sweet, and I related to her people-pleasing tendencies. The fact that I understood her as a character and why she acted the way she did made all the difference in me finishing the book versus chucking it into the DNF pile. Caitlin also has a penchant for getting into trouble with her good intentions, which balanced out perfect she could have been.

Yes, she helps raise a litter of kittens back to health and many of the secondary characters adore her, but it’s clear she’s trying to find her place. Caitlin offers to help in the kitchen and the cook kicks her out for screwing things up. She wants to learn swordsmanship in an effort to show she’d be useful in defending the keep, but nearly lops off a limb in the process. Not everything she touched was magically fixed and she didn’t have an endless list of talents to be revealed. Honestly, I’m still surprised how McLayne won me over, since I tend to prefer my heroines angst-ridden and with a chip on their shoulder.

As I mentioned before, Darach has four other foster brothers who will be the heroes of subsequent books. All make an appearance toward the second half of this story, but McLayne does a great job in mentioning them without taking away too much time away from Darach and Caitlin. There’s also a really sweet moment when Darach is telling his family about Caitlin and they’re all happy sighing as Darach recounts his moments with Caitlin.

“Caitlin sounds like a wonderful lass.”

“She is…when she’s not digging up my baileys or drowning in the river”

“God’s blood,” Gregor exclaimed, eyes wide. “You will recount everything.”

They did, Lachlan telling most of it while Darach added to or protested Lachlan’s debatable remembrances. His brothers laughed themselves hoarse over Darach’s numerous trips to the loch, Lachlan losing all his coin, and Caitlin branding herself a besom, then claiming Darach was an innocent victim of her lewd advances. They listened with quiet dread as he related saving her from the river and the subsequent ill heath that befell them both. They erupted in anger upon the telling of her parents’ murder and Caitlin’s treatment by Fraser and her uncle. Then they sighed like women when Darach finally made her his bride.

Now tell me that isn’t a cute picture – five burly Highlanders along with their foster father sitting around a fire, rapt in attention regarding Darach’s relationship.

There are a few shortcomings to Highland Promise. The book seems to be split with the courtship and romance happening in the first half and the action regarding the book’s villains occurring in the second half. And, as mentioned earlier, Caitlin’s frequent religious quoting grew tiresome. The book also has the “scorned ex turned villain” trope that only lasts a matter of pages, so it seems like an empty element. I’m not a huge fan of that trope to begin with and it came and went so quickly, the book probably didn’t need to include it at all.

However, if you love a Disney princess, in all their saccharine, animal-loving, pure-of-heart glory, you’ll love Caitlin. If you have a weakness for kilted heroes, there’s plenty of plaid to go around. It’s a pretty pleasing start to a new series and worth a shot, especially since the cover model has some Sam Heughan vibes, don’t you think?

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