2.5 starsI'm being a bit harsh on this book, because it has the germ of a good story. But it seems to meander and wander and then wallow. I'm not sure if it's a page-requirement or just in need of a better editor.This book sets up the background for all 3 books in the series. It tells the tale of McClairen's Isle - a fortress in Scotland built by a McClairen on an island, so that he and his clan can see any and all who come to their lands. While the McClairens survived a lot of history, they weren't so fortunate with the Stuart Risings; and they joined in with Bonnie Prince Charlie and were ruined at Culloden. A McClairen daughter, Janet, married an Englishman - Carr Merrick. Janet was desperately in love with Carr, and her clan indulged her, even though Carr was an indolent, no-good Englishman. In fact, Carr ratted out the McClairens to the Hanovers as Jacobites, removing the last of them to the Tower, while Carr received McClairen's Isle as his reward. His wife, Janet, couldn't bring herself to believe that her husband would do such a thing; but on the day she confronted him, Carr either murdered her himself or had her murdered. Although no one knows for sure; Carr put it about that she either threw herself off the sea cliff or simply fell. Janet and Carr had three children: Ash (about 9 or 10), Rayne (6 or so), and Fia (an infant or toddler). Carr had no use for his children. Why he didn't like Ash isn't quite made clear. But Rayne looks too much like Janet, his mother; Rayne suffered the most at Carr's hands. Fia, a beautiful girl, was kept closer to Carr's side; he "taught" her according to his own standards, which means that when this story takes place, Fia, at 15, is almost as corrupt as her father.There is a story that Rayne raped a young novice who was about to take her vows as a nun. Depending on who you believe, the girl was anywhere from 10 to 14 years old. Rayne was caught by some of the remaining McClairen clan, who took revenge upon Carr by beating Rayne within an inch of his life. Ash fought his way through the men, killing many with his sword to get to Rayne. You see, Janet charged Ash with taking care of his brother, and Ash takes that charge seriously. There was no proof that Rayne raped the girl, but the McClairen clan decided to sell Ash and Rayne to the French, who then tried to ransom them back to their father, Carr. Carr paid the ransom for Ash, but he refused to pay for Rayne. Knowing Ash's determination to set his brother free, Carr used that against Ash, forcing him to pay off his own ransom in service to Carr - that means doing whatever dirty work Carr deems necessary. But Carr also holds the carrot for Ash, in the form of payment, which Carr knows Ash will save to pay Rayne's ransom.So, as this story truly begins, we see Ash going to Fair Badden, England in search of Rhiannon Russell. Rhiannon was orphaned by Culloden, and she suffered the horrors of the aftermath - watching her mother and siblings brutally murdered by English soldiers, hiding from the soldiers on the moor - starving and freezing. Rhiannon and her nurse managed to walk to London to Carr's door, knowing that Carr was a kinsmen, through marriage, to the McClairen clan. But they were turned away without even a bite of food. So Rhiannon ended up in Fair Badden, with distant cousins, the Fraisers, who took her in. Mr. Fraiser has been gone for a couple of years, but he set up Mrs. Fraiser well. She and Rhiannon have been doing just fine -- in fact, Rhiannon is to be wed to Philip Watt, the younger son of a baronet. Philip's father chose Rhiannon for his son, because she's beautiful, but penniless; the elder Watt figures that she won't be too particular and will do as she's told. So the elder Watt has settled some money on Philip to make their lives easier.Rhiannon is satisfied with Philip Watt. She sees her life stretching before her as safe, sound, and comfortable in the country. Rhiannon has occasional nightmares, still, about her flight from Scotland; she pushes down any Scottish part of her heritage, herself, or her memories to be as English as she possibly can be.And then Ash Merrick rides into town... Ash is there at his father's bidding. Seems Carr has decided that he must take on Rhiannon's guardianship. Ash suspects that after 4 rich wives, Carr must be after Rhiannon as his 5th rich wife. Carr has turned McClairen's Isle into a Hellfire Club (or Eden, depending upon perspective), and that requires lots and lots of money; Carr's life revolves around money, and he doesn't countenance winners much.Rhiannon and Mrs. Fraiser balk at Ash's claim that Rhiannon must return with Ash to Scotland. They persuade Ash to remain until May Day, because Rhiannon wishes to once again be the Virgin Queen of May Day, and then 2 days past that is her wedding day to Philip Watt, whereby Rhiannon will no longer be under Carr's guardianship. Ash decides that he'd like to see his father's plans thwarted, so he sticks around. Rhiannon intrigues him - Ash recognizes that she's trying too hard to restrain her true nature, he doesn't trust Philip Watt, and then there's the matter of the "accidents" that keep happening to Rhiannon. First, she's set upon by highwaymen, escaping, but a bullet grazes her cheek. Then, during a masquerade party that Ash is attending, a knife barely misses Rhiannon's heart. Ash asks a "friend", Thomas Donne, about who might want to kill Rhiannon. Donne's not sure, but his reply makes it clear to Ash that Rhiannon is in danger.For her part, Rhiannon is drawn to Ash as no man before. Ash teases her with a few kisses, but on May Day, when she's drunk and gathering flowers in the forest at night, alone (Philip, May Day King, has broken his ankle), Ash goes in search of her, worried for her safety. But when he finds Rhiannon, she pleads for him to stretch his kisses into making love to her... something Ash has been trying to avoid. He feels the tension between them, too. And Ash can't withstand her pleading, so he deflowers Rhiannon. Rhiannon looks upon Ash as a tragic hero of some kind, and their "love" as a doomed romance. She sadly bids Ash goodbye the next day, asking him not to tell Philip - that she, Rhiannon, will not tell Philip, either. But that day is the hunt, and Ash discovers that Rhiannon's beloved dog has been lured into a deer trap, to lure Rhiannon to her death. When Philip unexpectedly shows up in a cart to take the dog and Rhiannon home, Ash believes that Philip set up the entire incident, wondering if Philip's sexual preferences lean more towards his "friends" than towards women, and perhaps Philip is trying to rid himself of Rhiannon.So Ash kidnaps Rhiannon and takes her to McClairen's Isle - an eye-opening experience for them both. Ash discovers his father, Carr, never expected to see Rhiannon alive - but what does that mean? Rhiannon discovers she loves Ash, but how much? Fia, jaded at 15, discovers her father has lied, even to her, about so much, not the least of which is the "extra" money he's been getting quarterly... from whom? Are the rumors of Rhiannon's brother still being alive true? Who has been trying to murder Rhiannon? And will he succeed, since Philip and his "friends" show up to kidnap Rhiannon back to England?---------------There's so much promise in this book, but it gets lost in pages and pages of STUFF. It's never made clear to us whether Philip is gay or not; perhaps Philip, himself, doesn't know. And while we do learn what's behind the "accidents" that have been happening to Rhiannon, it's been so obvious for so long, it hardly seems to matter any longer. The pieces that are put together take so long to reveal, that the reader is lost in the details of all the swirling sub-plots, thoughts from Ash, Rhiannon, Carr, and Fia, that it just doesn't matter. The debauchery of McClairen's Isle is brought to full-color life, but it springs up 2/3 of the way through the tale, and it seems only to be a diversion - a page filler.Even the ending, leaving us hanging as Ash goes to France to ransom his brother, only to find his brother is missing from the gaol, seems only a device to try to suck us into the next book. At almost 400 pages, no thank you! There's too much unhappiness, too many manipulations, too much hatred... while Carr probably gets what's coming to him in the end, I don't really want to be on that horror-fest for 2 more books to see it come.