Damask Rose

Dangerous Gifts

Secrets in Satin

Border Lord by Haywood Smith
(St. Martin’s, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-312-97859-6
It is the year 1590. Catherine Armstrong sails to Cornwall in the company of Charles, the older of her two stepbrothers. A plain, thirty-year-old spinster, she has left her home to her step-family and is taking a position as a companion for the purpose of sparing her beloved stepfather and younger stepbrother the discord from the conflict between herself and Charles and her stepmother Willa.

Things go amiss when the ship is hit by a fierce storm at sea and is blown north to Solway Firth near the Scottish-English border. While on deck, Catherine is suddenly attacked from behind and tossed overboard. The ship is flung against the rocks and wrecked. Catherine struggles to swim to the surface and then to shore.

Duncan Maxwell is the leader of a small group of Scots who live an economically precarious life. They harvest salt to sell to buy needed supplies; someone has stolen their precious supply of salt. Duncan fears that they cannot survive the winter if they cannot buy sufficient stores.

He is informed that there’s been a shipwreck and a woman has washed up on shore. He goes to investigate. From the quality of her clothing and the jewels in her hair, he concludes she’s an Englisher and a lady. This is his chance to recoup the loss of the salt; he decides to hold her as a hostage for ransom.

Catherine is horrified when she awakens to discover that she’s in Scotland and has been captured by the notorious reiver, the Black Bastard. She knows that her stepfather has no wealth to ransom her. She pretends to be mute so that Duncan cannot learn the name of her family and demand ransom.

Catherine is bed-ridden as she recuperates from her ordeal, but visits from Duncan’s family members including his aging aunt and seven children give her hints that his ruthless reputation may be an exaggeration.

When she finally emerges from her bedchamber and begins to assume some of the household management, everyone’s preconceived notions will undergo some significant change - including those of the plain Englisher spinster who had long believed she would never have her own husband and family. Meanwhile, outside forces are conspiring to endanger their lives.

Border Lord turned out to be an unexpected delight. The initial introduction of Catherine and Duncan seemed to indicate that this would be another of those feisty heroine/tough hero captive/captor books where the hero’s actions border on abusive and the heroine pulls one foolish stunt after another.

Catherine, however, is no frail, delicate flower of femininity who is overwhelmed by the hero’s manly physique and powerful masculinity. She’s a strong woman who has been accustomed to being in charge. Similarly, behind his rough exterior Duncan is a soft-hearted family man rather than the brutal outlaw of his reputation. This is the story of two strong-minded characters who at heart are right for each other even as external circumstances put them in opposition. Their verbal sparring is more entertaining than many of the more traditional courtships featured in romance novels.

Catherine is a particularly appealing character. She is not a raving beauty who has been the object of many suitors’ flirtations. She has resigned herself to spinsterhood long ago but has not let it embitter her. She loves children, and her loyalties are soon divided. She is troubled that her beloved stepfather believes she’s died in the shipwreck as well as touched by the plight of Duncan’s family and people.

Catherine and Duncan are engaging characters, and they’re not alone. There are numerous secondary characters many of whom are well-developed and multi-dimensional.

I urge readers to persevere through the less interesting opening chapters because Border Lord soon becomes a book I couldn’t put down. I thoroughly enjoyed it and believe other readers will too.

--Lesley Dunlap

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