On their wedding night, Anice’s husband Sandy MacKendimen brutally rapes and beats her. She barely escapes with her life. His father Struan, laird of the MacKendimen clan, knows he has to exile him from Scotland. He promises Anice she will be safe.
Anice is with child, but she is terrified of men and being touched. She no longer wants to be addressed as ‘my lady.’ In order to maintain her poise, she has taken over the duties of Dougal Mathieson, the clan steward who is sick and dying, but the work is too much for her with her difficult pregnancy. Struan sends for Robert Mathieson who was fostered to the laird of the clan MacKillop and has risen high in his esteem. Robert is believed to be Dougal’s son, but he is actually Struan’s natural son. Struan has been adamant that he will never acknowledge Robert.
Robert is struck by Anice, by her beauty and her fragility. Although no one will tell him anything, he knows there must be a mystery here: why is Anice so fearful of being touched and why is her husband in far-away England? Robert envies Sandy - his position as legitimate, acknowledged son and heir and now his beautiful wife. Gradually Robert begins to desire Anice for herself.
Anice grows increasingly fearful. Sandy is returning for the birth of her child. Struan promised she would be safe, but Sandy is returning. Anice gives birth to a son Craig. On his way to her lying-in, Sandy is killed by an unknown assassin. Anice believes she is now safe - no man can claim her as wife. Even though she is now widowed, Robert knows that as his half-brother’s wife Anice is forever unattainable.
When her father sends word to Struan that he has arranged a second marriage for her, Anice’s worst fears are realized. Can Robert protect her?
Set in the mid-fourteenth century Scotland, this book is a sequel to A Love Through Time and A Matter of Time, but unlike those stories, it is not a time-travel. There are some slight allusions to events in the previous books (one reason Sandy is so violent with Anice is that she demonstrated interest in the hero of A Love Through Time), but they do not interfere with the course of this story and Once Forbidden stands alone successfully.
This is not a book to read if you’re bothered by historical inaccuracies. Readers who are familiar with things Scot such as Scottish customs and traditional dress will pick up on some details in Once Forbidden. Here’s one example: Robert tells baby Craig, “*Tis much easier to lift yer kilt and piss on the ground,” nearly two hundred years before the kilt was introduced.
The plot in Once Forbidden does not run smoothly. After a powerful prologue, the pace of the story slows to a series of repetitious scenes. Anice is afraid. She’s so afraid. Really, really afraid. The episodes of action that advance the plot are sporadic and too infrequent.
My strongest objection to Once Forbidden, however, is the over-long Big Conflict set-up which comes to nothing. For the first third of the novel, Anice is terrified that her vicious wife-beater husband will return. She implores her father-in-law to protect her. But how can anyone keep a husband away from his lawful wife? Will the hero figure out why she’s so terrified of men? Will the clan rally behind the poor battered heroine? Will the heroine develop some backbone?
We’ll never know because thanks to the god of deus ex machina the nasty brute gets bumped off somewhere else. No confrontation. No resolution. Just - poof! - problem solved. The title appears to be a reference to the impossibility of romance and marriage between the hero and heroine because she was married to his half-brother, but that too is resolved with surprising ease. If an author devotes considerable time to foreshadowing climactic events in her story, then she’s got to deliver.
Once Forbidden doesn’t deliver, and that makes it less than satisfactory.