Gray Sinclair wakes up in a Scottish prison cell to discover that he is charged with the knifing murder of a tavern keeper’s daughter. Gray admits to picking up the bloody knife and checking to see if the girl still lived but denies he killed her. Bonnie MacTavish, the laird’s daughter and sister of four bumbling, oversized brothers, is strangely drawn to the prisoner even though she saw him with the knife in his hand.
After a perfunctory trial, Gray is found guilty and sentenced to hang. With his ship Revenge off-shore, Gray is planning to elude the hangman. When Bonnie seems him escaping, she tries to stop him but is overpowered. On impulse, Gray throws her over his shoulder and carries her aboard his ship.
Bonnie, however, is not the kind of heroine to go meekly along. She behaves in an unladylike manner designed to make Gray regret abducting her and generally provoke everyone aboard ship. Gray knows he should set the virago ashore and let her go but is strangely unwilling to do so. In spite of her behavior, Gray and his men are charmed by the spirited beauty. Bonnie, meanwhile, is irresistibly drawn to the virile captain. She wants to detest him, but she cannot ignore his raw masculinity. “She despised him, yet he haunted her. He was forbidden, yet he tempted her to be reckless.” Both Gray and Bonnie fight against their overwhelming attraction, and their clashes erect barriers between them.
Gray is on a mission to restore his family’s fortune (one wonders how destitute the family can be if the youngest son owns his own ship) by discovering the legendary jewel, the sacred heart. His cruel, heartless mother told him he was illegitimate, but Gray had been devoted to his late father Niles Sinclair. It’s this devotion that is his motivation to locate the jewel. Prophet O’Brien, Gray’s friend and first mate, believes that Bonnie will be one to heal the scars caused by Gray’s mother, but Bonnie doubts this even though her heart aches for the young boy who was treated so by his hard-hearted mother.
There’s a long sea voyage to provide lots of opportunities for Gray and Bonnie to reconcile their feelings for each other, and even more surprises await them on the island where the jewel is thought to be hidden.
Set in the late 1880's, the story seems more properly set a century earlier or later - primarily because the language and actions of the characters seem decidedly non-Victorian era. Gray has “the mother of all headaches.” When he discovers he’s accused of murder, he exclaims, “You’ve got to be kidding.” And Bonnie is dressed in tight-fitting pants and a shirt knotted at her waist which allows “glimpses of a tantalizing belly button.” Queen Victoria would be horrified!
There’s also a 1970's Kathleen Woodiwiss feel to the writing. I found myself frequently distracted from the narrative by the over-flowery writing style. Bonnie thinks Gray is “difficult yet soothing, unfathomable yet sincere, abounding with an inner violence and outward restraint, his world taut with dark, tormented passions.” Gray is inspired to equally melodramatic reflections. “Her indomitable spirit routed him; somewhere along the way, she had become an incandescent flame in the frozen chaos of his life, inexorably tugging him from his self-imposed exile.” With an excess of similar passages, I was more inexorably tugged towards laughter.
But there’s nothing funny about the plot of The Devil’s Due. This one is all over the place. It’s easy to believe that the author had the idea for several different stories and decided to use them all in a single book as the plot goes off in one unlikely direction after another - some of them positively ridiculous. (Would you believe a virgin sacrifice to a volcano?) There’s a framing device where the hero is telling his grandchildren this story thirty years later so there’s a hint it may actually be a tall tale, but that doesn’t rescue it from being possibly the least cohesive and most implausible plot I’ve ever read.
Over the years I have read countless romance novels, but The Devil’s Due has one feature I’d never encountered before: a pet vulture. (That’s right: vulture!) If the reader is meant to be intrigued by this unusual pet, I’ll confess I wasn’t. But there’s also a cute, adorable puppy around for those of us who are more conventional in our tastes. I’ve noticed that usually the introduction of pets means that the story’s in need of some additional interest, and this story fits that pattern. It adds little to the course of the narrative but distraction.
But then this is a narrative characterized by distractions. I wasn’t even halfway through the book before I wanted to jump ship and continued to stick with it only in order to review it. Since this is the third in a series about the Sinclair brothers (Devil May Care and Handsome Devil), a few readers may want to check it out for that reason, but my advice to readers is to sail right on past.