The Stone Maiden

Kissing the Countess
by Susan King
(Signet, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-451-21062-X
Susan King has finished her trilogy with Kissing the Countess, a story that stands on its own. It is a story that pleases in one sense, while leaving one feeling just a little off balance at the same time.

The setting is the remote Highlands, particularly the mountain called Beinn Shee, the Fairy Mountain, and the Glen Shee in the 1850’s. The Earl of Kildonan, Evan MacKenzie, has returned to his home following the death of his father. His father was not revered, but hated because he had sent many families away from their homes in the glen to make room for sheep and paid workers. Now Evan has to decide what to do with the land he has not visited for many years, but which he remembers fondly.

He is here to mountain climb and show the property in order to determine if he can sell it. He plans to use the money to pay off a debt he feels he owes to the children of some men killed when a bridge which Evan designed, collapsed when they were building it. On the climb, he is separated from his partner and stranded. He falls unconscious only to be found by Catriona MacConn.

Catriona is a spinster, the youngest sister in a large family, who has been left to care for her father and unmarried brother. It is assumed she will give up her chance for love and marriage. Catriona’s father is a minister and she watched the people being forced to leave many years before. Now she and her brother (who was retained as the Earl’s factor) have been finding the displaced workers in the ghettos and bringing them home to live their lives tending the Earl’s sheep.

Catriona finds Evan and takes him to a crude shelter to get out of the storm. Circumstances being what they are, they share the only blanket, then their warmth and succumb to their natural urges. Catriona surrenders her virginity, assuming it will be her only chance to experience love in her life.

After a forced marriage, Catriona and Evan have to determine if and how they can live together as man and wife. They must fight through all their past beliefs and experience their love for each other. They must fight the prejudices against the Earl as they find their way to love.

There are many secondary characters that add to the story such as Catriona’s friends Morag and Flora, along with her brother. There are others that are stereotypical that add little to the tale, such as the friends of Evan who are thinking of buying the glen. The villain is a nice guy in disguise and yet was easy to pick out of the bunch.

The strength of the story is the beauty of the Highlands and Catriona’s love for her valley. The interplay between Evan and Catriona is engaging, yet is nothing out of the ordinary. I enjoyed Evan’s journey to find himself and admit he loves the Highlands, while watching with pleasure as Catriona finally sees what love really is.

Yet, the pacing is off and the various rocks in their path seem contrived and unnecessary. There is a threat against Catriona that I feared would be the cause of a big misunderstanding. Yet, not only did that not come true, but the threat was eliminated before it even really became a problem. This left me feeling there was no reason for this in the story.

There are about three or four plot lines that are thrown in like that to keep the story moving but either never developed or are resolved with so little fanfare that it left me wanting more.

Kissing the Countess is a fine romance with the magic of the highlands shining through. But it had the potential for so much more.

--Shirley Lyons

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