The Best Gifts are the Unexpected Ones . . .
To escape a scandal, Lady Joan Flynn flees to her family’s estate in the Scottish Highlands. She needs a husband by Christmas, or the holidays will ring in nothing but ruin. Practical, ambitious mill owner Dante Hartwell offers to marry Joan, because a wellborn wife is his best chance of gaining access to aristocratic investors. As Christmas—and trouble—draw nearer, Dante and Joan’s marriage of convenience blossoms into unexpected intimacy, for true love often hides beneath the most unassuming holiday wrapping . . .
Publisher and Release Date: Sourcebooks Casablanca, October 2014
Location and Setting: Victorian Era Scotland
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 5 Stars
Review by Lady Wesley
In What a Lady Needs for Christmas, the fourth novel in Grace Burrowes’ consistently excellent MacGregors series, Lady Joan Flynn (a minor character in Once Upon a Tartan (MacGregors #2)) finds her dream life with the unlikeliest of men – the decidedly unaristocratic mill owner Dante Hartwell.
As the daughter of an marquess, Joan is expected to marry well and have children, but she has a passion for designing clothes and is determined to find a way of pursuing it. To that end, she pays a call upon an aristocratic French lady and her son, Viscount Valmonte, who own a salon in Edinburgh, but Valmonte gets her alone, plies her with absinthe and assaults her. Joan’s memory is hazy, but she is certain that scandal is about to break. She flees the city and boards a train for the Highlands. Her family is gathering at Balfour House to join her brother Tiberius Flynn, Earl of Spathfoy, his wife, Hester, and their extended family for Christmas.
At a small rural station, Joan, who never has traveled alone, finds herself stranded without sufficient funds to complete her journey when a precocious young girl insists to her father, “But, Papa, we should help the lady.” The father is Dante Hartwell, and after reluctantly allowing him to assist, Joan is surprised to find that he and his children are traveling in not one but two private cars. Dante is the son of a miner, and a former miner himself, who married a mill owner’s daughter and inherited the business after her death. He is quite wealthy, and recently spent time in Edinburgh looking for a suitable wife. Joan had danced with him once, and found that he had none of the “attributes she associated with a proper gentleman. He neither gossiped nor flattered nor took surreptitious liberties in triple meter. In short, despite his many detractors — some called him Hard-Hearted Hartwell — she’d liked him.”
Now, he is traveling with his two children, Charlie and Phillip, and their Aunt Margs to Ballator, where they are joining a house party of people who, according to Dante, are “too wellborn to dirty their hands in trade where anybody might notice, and because they cannot abide the notion I might raise such a topic where polite ears could overhear, I’m enduring the fiction that I’m a guest at a house party.” Dante is in hopes that they will invest in his mills.
During the long hours of their trip, Joan and Dante share tea and chocolates and whiskey and become better acquainted, when Joan is surprised to find herself confessing her indiscretion to Dante. For his part, Dante is surprised to find himself proposing marriage to her. I really enjoyed this train trip, as the couple talk to one another so candidly about marriage, sex, children, and class. Their discussions are quite realistic, without their sounding too much like modern characters.
When they arrive at their destination, Dante’s host, the Earl of Balfour mistakes Lady Joan for Dante’s wife, whereupon Joan’s imperious brother Tiberius, Earl of Spathfoy, appears to correct his assumption. After enduring endless introductions to a huge group of titled ladies and gentlemen, Dante launches into protection mode and ensures that Joan is hustled off to her chamber without being interrogated by her brother. (On a side note: I will not attempt to explain the family tree. Suffice it to say that Ms Burrowes could not resist including virtually every major and minor character from the previous books in the series, even though most of them contribute little to the plot. She has helpfully posted a family tree on her website, however, for curious readers.)
At breakfast the next morning, Tiberius rudely cross-examines Dante, who gives as good as he gets. In a Grace Burrowes novel, this antagonism augurs well for the two to eventually become best friends, but at this point Tye is determined to keep Dante away from his sister, whom he mistakenly believes is nursing a broken heart over Viscount Valmonte’s engagement to another lady.
Without explaining exactly how it came about, Joan and Dante announce their betrothal, and the entire stunned family gets in on wedding preparations. And the Christmas preparations. I would not call this a particularly “Christmasy” sort of book. The holiday simply presents a excuse for this vast extended family to gather under one roof and sneak kisses under the countless mistletoe balls decorating the house. At some point everybody troops off to Aberdeen, for that’s where Joan and Dante get married. And who should show up here but Gayle and Anna Windham, now the Duke and Duchess of Moreland from Ms Burrowes’ ten-volume Windham Series, as well as the malevolent Valmonte and his dim-witted but wealthy fiancée, Dorcas.
Despite the many entertaining distractions, the story of Dante and Joan falling in love is dominant. Because they are (mostly) honest with one another, their relationship is built on trust, as well as simmering attraction. Joan is an aristocrat but not a snob; she accepts and indeed admires Dante’s ability to succeed in business. Dante is rather growly but adorable underneath. He is truly working class; he doesn’t know how to address an earl or which spoon to use, but he doesn’t care. He is proud not to be a gentleman. He is devoted to his children and his sister, and as usual, Ms Burrowes creates believable juvenile characters who are important to the story.
I said earlier that the plethora of secondary characters contribute little to the plot, but that was not exactly correct, for besides the beautiful romance, this is a story of family love, and there are many heart-warming and humorous scenes between parent and child and siblings. This is Grace Burrowes’ great strength; she creates a world populated with people that you feel you know, as they bring a tear to your eye and put a smile on your face at the same time.