Highland Scandal by Julia London
Jack, the Earl of Lambourne, is on the run from the Prince of Wales over an alleged affair with Princess Caroling and attempts to escape to the Scottish Highlands. Instead he is found by Laird Carson Beal who makes him a deal; agree to an old-fashioned handfasting where the couple agrees to live together as man and wife for a year and a day, or be turned over to the authorities. Fearing the worst Jack agrees to the handfasting and while pleasantly surprised by his new bride's beauty he is horrified at her temper. Lizzie Beal is equally horrified that her uncle Carson has kidnapped her from her home at Thorntree and forced her into a marriage with a rake. She cannot understand why her uncle is so set against her marriage to Mr. Gordon, a neighbor she has "an agreement" with, all because of an ancient family feud. Neither Lizzie or Jack are thrilled with the illegal marriage but Jack has no other choice (excpet be handed over for a hanging) and with her uncle and his guards all around her she has no choice but to wait for Mr. Gordon to come rescue her. When Jack and Lizzie move to Thorntree, Jack too begins to wonder quite why Carson is reluctant to let Thorntree go to a Gordon.
As the two begin to spend more and more time at Thorntree Lizzie is forced to admit that Jack may not be quite the wastrel she has believed him to be as he fixes the roof, works in the hothouse and generally helps out around the house. And Jack realizes exactly why Lizzie had been so angry and unappealing as he discovers the massive responsibilities she shoulders running an estate that has no source of income and takes care of a sister who was left crippled in a horse-riding accident. They have a very difficult time ignoring the attraction they feel for each other; Jack fights it at first because he does not want to be stuck in the handfasting and later because he does not want to limit Lizzie's future and Lizzie because she can never believe that Jack will ever truly love her. When Gordon shows up he is furious over the handfasting but believes that Lizzie is truthful when she claims nothing has happened between them. When Gordon, Jack, and Lizzie pore over Lizzie's father's documents they discover the possibility that Carson wants Thorntree to stay in the family because of an old slate mine that he has been poaching from. Jack determines that the only way to ensure Lizzie is free from her controlling uncle is to enlist the hope of the king and so the three journey to London despite the threat to Jack's freedom. He is determined to save the woman he has grown to love even if that means giving her up and she is terrified that the man she has grown to love might hang because of her.
I liked the way London brought the whole "Why does Carson want Throntree/ slate mine" mystery kind of came out of nowhere. It wasn't a huge part of the story and it was a surprise from the very beginning and I wasn't really expecting anything more to come from it than that Carson just didn't like the Gordon's. So she did a great job with the small/ easily palatable side plot. One of my favorite parts of the novel and one of my biggest complaints was the side romance between Newton, the guard Carson set up at Thorntree, and Charlotte, Lizzie's sister. It was super sweet as Newton showed Charlotte that her life hasn't ended just because she's in a wheelchair. Unfortunately it took up far too little of the book- there was enough there for us to fall in love with it and want it, but it probably took up less than 7 pages all told and I could definitely have used more. There was an odd bit of angst in the book as neither of them wants to admit that they love the other, Lizzie because she thinks Jack is a rake that will never love her, but Jack because he is worried that he will turn out to be just like his cruel father and end up hurting Lizzie. I'm not really a big fan of the heroe's with cruel father's they are terrified of turning into. If a grown man hasn't realized that he is not his father than that's just a little sad.
The sex between Lizzie and Jack wasn't exactly what I would call HOT, but it was seductive- if saying such a thing makes sense. It was often long and drawn up, but definitely sexy and is best illustrated during the scene where Jack teaches Lizzie the waltz and the two proceed to waltz in front of the other inhabitants of Thorntree. It's romantic, sexy, seductive, and sedate at the same time. It did turn into a funny moment though when it was revealed that the waltz apparently reignited the passion between Mr. and Mrs. Kincaid, the two elderly, and rather austere, servants of Thorntree. Another interesting aspect of the story was how such a large portion of it was told from Jack's point of view. The first half seems to be more from his point of view than hers and while London does an excellent job of it, and I know that I have often complained of author's not given enough time to the male perspective, it did get a little odd and I wanted more from Lizzie. The end result was that Jack seemed a more well developed character than Lizzie- although that is not to say that Lizzie wasn't an entirely likable and sympathetic character. It was especially amazing as she was obviously so strong and independent, and not in the heroine way of being strong but really really needing a man to make everything all better.
Rating: London did a great job with the arranged marriage plot by bringing in two completely different protagonists who have excellent chemistry and are just a ton of fun to read about.