After a youthful, whirlwind affair, Lady Madeleine Bessett eloped with the dashing Merrick MacLachlan with dreams of a love that would last a lifetime. Their run for Gretna Green succeeded, but mere days after their wedding, her father showed up and dragged her back home. He plied her with stories of how Merrick had only married her for money, and that when presented with a bribe, he'd promptly tossed her aside and had the marriage annulled. Heartbroken, Maddie waited for weeks, hoping that Merrick would come for her, but when he didn't and she found herself pregnant with his child, she had no other choice but to marry someone else. For the past twelve years, she's lived a comfortable life, although one devoid of the passion she once felt with Merrick, and now that her husband is dead, she's looking forward to finally being an independent woman and raising her troubled son in peace. But fate has other plans in store when she's reunited with the man she's never quite forgotten and who still makes her heart pound.
Merrick fell head over heels for Maddie in his youth, but he was basically a nobody while she was the daughter of an earl. They decided to elope and he had every intention of honoring his vows. But when her father came calling, he left Merrick beaten nearly to death. When Merrick finally recovered weeks later, it was to discover that Maddie had already remarried and gone off to the Continent. Ever since, he's lived a life filled with bitterness toward the woman he thinks fickly changed her mind and left him for another man. He has spent the past twelve years cultivating an empire, building homes and infrastructure, that has made him a wealthy man, but his successes ring hollow without the only woman he's ever loved to share it with. Then fate unexpectedly brings her back into his life. When he tells her she's still legally his wife, Maddie doesn't believe him at first, leaving the two acrimoniously at odds. Both of them have good reasons to distrust one another, yet beneath the surface, their passion still burns hot. Can they find their way back to trusting in each other once more and discover a peaceful new beginning to a love that never died?
Three Little Secrets wraps up a trilogy of stories about three men who receive an ominous prediction from a seer that leads to each of them finally finding true love. In this one, our hero, Merrick, is the younger brother of Alasdair (One Little Sin). As the second son of a minor Scottish baronet, he was a virtual nobody who loved to build things and chose to work for a living as an architect. As a very young man, he fell for Madeleine, the daughter of an English Earl with strong political ambitions. After a short whirlwind affair, they decided to elope to Gretna Green and actually succeeded in marrying there, but her father caught up to them and beat Merrick nearly to death, stealing Madeleine back home with lies and deceit. When she found herself pregnant and believed that Merrick had abandoned her, she reluctantly married a much older relative of her mother's and lived a reasonably comfortable life, traveling the world, for the next thirteen years. But after her husband's death, she returned to England to make a home for her son and is looking forward to finally being able to make her own decisions. However, her son is a very troubled young lad, and she has no idea how to help him. Then she chances to meet Merrick again when she discovers that he is the architect who built the house she is eager to purchase. But a huge misunderstanding, based on lies of the past that both of them believe, stands in the way of them getting back together and finally having the relationship they always wanted. This story perhaps wasn't quite as strong as some of Liz Carlyle's other works, but I did generally enjoy it with only a few misgivings.
At the age of twenty-two, Merrick fell hard and fast for seventeen-year-old Madeleine. Despite only spending a short time together, he knew she was the one for him, and that's why he took a chance on a run to Gretna Green. Once married, he was in a haze of bliss until Maddie's father showed up with several men who beat him to pulp. He fought tooth and nail, but when Maddie's maid told him that Maddie had changed her mind, he started to doubt their love. Knocked unconscious, he spent weeks recovering, and once he was finally better, he went searching for his wife only to find that she'd married someone else and headed for the Continent. Ever since, Merrick has lived in a state of bitter discontentment, not quite able to forget Maddie and not entirely able to move on. He has, however, built a very lucrative business in various forms of construction. One day, while visiting one of the new houses he built that his agent had sold to a widow, he discovers Maddie there and his whole world turns on its ear. He'd thought never to see her again, and he's still very angry with her, blaming her for the failure of their marriage and believing that she turned fickle and left him. But something deep inside him still calls out for her. Merrick can be a hard and difficult man who earned his nickname, the Black MacLachlan, for his rather ruthless business dealings. Maddie is still legally his wife and a part of him still wants her, but he can't trust her. However, when he gets to know her son and finds out about his issues, Merrick calls a truce in an effort to help the boy. Overall, Merrick was a pretty good hero. I felt that he had good reason to distrust Maddie, but he can be a bit too stubborn about it, having difficulty giving Maddie a chance to explain and still holding a grudge even after certain things are out in the open.
As a young girl barely out of the schoolroom, Madeleine was utterly charmed by the roguish Merrick, which is why she didn't hesitate to agree to an elopement. She was looking forward to a life with her new husband when her father ended it all by telling her that Merrick only married her for money and that he'd signed an annulment in exchange for a bribe just days after their wedding. Heartbroken, she returned home with her father, never suspecting foul play on his part, and hoped against hope that Merrick would come for her. But when week after week passed with no word from him, she began to despair, and then she found herself pregnant. With few other options, she agreed to marry an older cousin of her mother's. He treated her well and she was reasonably content, but a part of her never forgot her first love, which is why, when she sees him again, her heart still longs for him. But because she believes he betrayed her, she can't quite trust him. Madeleine is a loving and devoted mother to her son, Geoffrey, and would do just about anything to help him overcome the issues that are weighing him down, so she agrees to allow Merrick to take them to Scotland to visit his grandmother who he believes can help. Just like with Merrick, I felt that Madeleine had good reasons for her mistrust of him, although she, too, can be a bit stubborn at times. She was very young and naive when she married him, so in her uncertainties, she was easily duped by her father. However, since he wasn't exactly a stellar parent, I maybe wasn't 100% convinced that she could so easily believe his lies, and felt that she might have had at least a few doubts or misgivings.
Three Little Secrets had a number of notable supporting characters, including some that were drawn in from other stories in Liz Carlyle's vast interconnected character web. Probably most prominent is Geoffrey, who could be said to have a bit of the fey in him. I felt very deeply for him, because he's so guilt-ridden over knowing things and feeling that he's somehow responsible for bad things happening. Much later on, after he's grown, he is paired with Anais de Rohan in the book, The Bride Wore Scarlet. We get to see the wedding of Alasdair and Esmee (One Little Sin) and visit with them a bit more when Merrick and Maddie go to Scotland. Quin (Two Little Lies) pops up a couple of times offering Merrick support when his wife resurfaces after all these years. It was wonderful to see Cam and Helene (Beauty Like the Night) again after such a long time, along with their daughter, Ariane, who is nearly full-grown now. Maddie seeks out Helene's help with Geoff, while Cam engages in business dealings with Merrick. They've always been one of my favorite of this author's couples, and speaking of favorites, Cam's brother, Bentley (The Devil You Know), shows up in a pivotal scene as well. I believe it was the first time he's been seen since his own book, which greatly excited me.
Three Little Secrets got off to an excellent start, and I really thought it was going to earn keeper status from me. The opening prologue which shows what happened to Merrick when Maddie's father showed up was heart-wrenching, and from there, I was very invested in the two of them finally reuniting after so long apart. Things were going along at a pretty good clip, but then the story seemed to slow down when it reached the middle portion and never quite fully recovered. I think this was due to the conflict between Merrick and Maddie dragging out a bit too long. Just when I thought they'd turned a corner, things kind of fell apart for them again, and it took until the end before everything was finally resolved. The ending is sweet and emotional, and left me feeling pretty good about their HEA. However, I couldn't help feeling that perhaps additional external conflict, perhaps a villain or something that Merrick and Maddie could team up to fight against, might have helped with these issues. Instead, they more or less spend the majority of the story at odds and not quite trusting each other, which kind of put a damper on their rekindling love for me. But overall, it wasn't too bad, and for the most part, I enjoyed the story. I look forward to reading more from the MacLachlan Family & Friends series, which appears that from here will jump a bit into the future to follow the next generation.
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