I am not so much a reader of romance, but of course I had to read this one because Madeline Martin is a wonderful person I know in actual real life and this is her first published novel! I know first-hand how hard she worked on this (really hard), and I was more than happy to read and review the pre-release.
Mariel Brandon is a quick-witted English beauty who has seen more than her fair share of heartache: her parents died in the plague and she used all her wits and strength to keep herself and her little brother Jack alive. Unfortunately, she can’t stay out of the web of the truly un-likeable Aaron, a master manipulator who does other people’s dirty business–or rather, has his debtors, people like Mariel, do other people’s dirty business while keeping himself (and his fresh manicure, I’d imagine) clean.
Mariel is daring, brave, and devoted to her brother, but she’s stuck in Aaron’s employ (“employ”) until her debt is paid. Aaron finally promises to release Jack if she completes one more mission: find two people in a castle on the Isle of Skye, clan Macdonald’s fortress. Mariel has a few months to seduce Kieran, the head of the clan, to gain information and access and provide Aaron’s client with the location of the two refugees. If she succeeds, Aaron promises to release both Jack and Mariel from his clutches. If she fails, her brother will die. Mariel’s never failed…yet.
But–and you saw this coming–Kieran turns out to be a gorgeous be-kilted man she just can’t help falling in lust/love with. Fortunately for her, the feeling is mutual. Unfortunately for her, the stakes are absurdly high. One poor decision, one secret whispered in the wrong ear, could mean death for her, Jack, and Kieran. As you might imagine, people who hire assassins don’t have many qualms about killing their hired help and/or reneging on promises, and, too, head clansmen don’t like being deceived.
(Some spoilers ahead, I guess, but nothing that will give it all away.)
I enjoyed this book far more than I thought I would–not because I doubted Martin’s writing ability, but because like I said, I am not so much a romance reader. The first few chapters, I’ll be honest, I rolled my eyes once or twice–how convenient, I thought, that Kieran is literally the first person Mariel meets at a party after getting her assignment. Of course he is more taken with her than with the rich blonde all the other men are drooling over; of course he is a beautiful specimen of ripply-muscled manhood.
But this is not all rippling muscles, although there are plenty for those who are interested: very quickly after Mariel meets Kieran, things get real. Despite the lust, they don’t/can’t trust each other; she outwits him; they’ve each got some painful scars, literal and otherwise; the journey to Skye is arduous and the welcome less than friendly. They are constantly aware of and aroused by each other, but it’s like playing near the edge of the high-dive: each knows that it can get far too deep, far too fast. And that was one of the best parts of this story, I thought. It’s fast-paced, and there are twists and turns, and surprises, and it is for sure action-packed, but the resolution of their sexual tension is (mostly) a slow burn. So there were two main contrasts: the strains of lust vs. responsibility, and the fast-paced action scenes vs. the slow work of trust-building. Both are well-written.
Two other things I enjoyed were the development throughout the story of Mariel’s strength and Kieran’s, well, upstandingness. Mariel is a “strong female character” to be sure, but she has a fully developed back story (that’s unveiled over the course of the book with some very disciplined pacing on the part of the author) to explain her strength. I worried at the beginning that she would veer too much into a stereotype–gorgeous woman, haunted by her past, turns into badass–but she’s drawn tenderly and has real scenes of weakness, indecision, and hurt, and her yearning to be free of Aaron is overwhelming and palpable. She is the driver of this story, and she is good at it.
In the same way, Kieran isn’t a stereotypical brawny specimen, long-haired, brutal in battle, etc. I mean, he is that. But he is also a new, wounded leader struggling with what that means, and he is thoughtful in more ways than one, and he values Mariel’s boundaries and consent (a turn-on if ever there was one), and he sometimes makes regrettable decisions but learns to live and forgive.
Great debut novel, and I am looking forward to see what Martin does next.