The Virgin Spring by Debra Lee Brown
(Harl. Historical #506, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-373-29106-X
The Virgin Spring, Debra Lee Brown's debut novel, is a respectable Scottish historical romance. The somewhat standard plot devices (scarred hero betrayed by former fiancée, amnesiac heroine) are offset by enough plot twists to keep the reader interested. Readers who like Scottish medieval romances and aren't too picky about historical tone will likely find this an enjoyable read.

Gilchrist Mackintosh is the new laird of Clan Davidson, a position he's inherited after the death of the old laird in a fire -- a fire that scarred Gilchrist and left him with a crippled hand. His fiancée left him for another man after the fire, so he is embittered toward all women. His close friends, Alex and Hugh, urge him to take a Davidson wife and get on with the business of being a laird. Gilchrist reluctantly agrees that such a plan might be for the best. Alex and Hugh, meanwhile, view each other with deep suspicion.

A visit to the Virgin Spring, reputed to have healing powers, might help soothe his scarred flesh, but little does Gilchrist expect to find a woman there. An unconscious woman, at that. When she revives, at first she is mute. Gilchrist takes her back to the castle, which is still being constructed, and orders her to be taken care of. He wants to wash his hands of her, no matter how pretty she is. When the woman, Rachel, regains her voice the clansfolk are horrified to discover that she is English.

What was this woman doing at the spring? Is she a whore, as some claim, or an innocent? Gilchrist tries to convince himself that he doesn't care, even as they fall in love. Rachel has flashes of memory, and soon tells Gilchrist that she was planning to go to Craig Mur, a rocky hilltop on rival Macphearson land. She was to meet a man there. For what purpose, she cannot say. In the meantime, her skills as a healer come to the fore. Will the truth heal them both? Or drive them apart?

Gilchrist manages to do just that several times, all by his pigheaded self. His emotional see-sawing was exasperating. Rachel is an innocent. No, she's a whore. No, she's innocent. Nope, whore. All women are faithless. When Hugh finally forces Gilchrist to admit a few home truths about his former fiancée, it was long overdue and something Gilchrist should have admitted to himself much earlier.

While Gilchrist struggles with his injured hand and machismo, Rachel takes over the story. Good thing she's a strong and admirable character. This is not a woman to take "no" for an answer, and if Gilchrist is going to insist that he cares nothing for her, she's by golly going to show him how wrong he is. I thoroughly enjoyed her attempts to get Gilchrist to see the light, and the fact that she's willing to use their mutual physical attraction to get him to admit his errors was an enjoyable aspect of the story.

Savvy readers will figure out the villain long before the end of the story, but there are a few plot twists at the end that make things interesting. The setting didn't fare as well. This is generic Scottish historical, and could as easily have been 1820 as the stated 1208. The on-again, off-again Scottish dialect probably contributed to this somewhat. But the pacing was brisk enough to carry the story forward.

The Virgin Spring is a decent first effort. While I can't give it an enthusiastic thumbs-up, I can encourage you to take a look for yourself.

--Cathy Sova

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