Joachim Cockburn is preparing to become a professor and his research involves studying people with delusions. A friend from the war connects Joachim with his brother, Dr. Ainsley Graham, a once-prominent academic who ruined his reputation by claiming he is able to speak to ghosts. Joachim figures talking to Ainsley and learning more about why he thinks he hears ghosts will be the last piece he needs for his thesis. So he travels north from England to Ainsley’s home in Scotland, hoping to learn more about the man. After the pair get past a rocky beginning, Ainsley offers to show Joachim around some of Scotland’s famously haunted sites. He figures this may be his chance to prove to Joachim that ghosts are real and to therefore regain his academic standing.
As the men travel around Scotland, they begin to act on their attraction to one another. In bed, they are more than compatible. But outside of it, neither man can admit to wanting more, and both are sure the other isn’t interested in anything aside from a fling. On top of that, Joachim is only there for a week and, living so far south, the chances he’d ever see Ainsley after he leaves are slim. Not to mention there is the matter of Joachim’s research. While he is able to see and hear the ghosts himself, admitting it would lead to his ruin. Joachim and Ainsley have fallen hard for one another, but so much lies in their way. Now they have to figure out if there is a chance for something lasting between them.
Best Laid Plaids is the debut work for author Ella Stainton and kicks off the Kilty Pleasures series. The standout for me in this book is the wonderful sense of time and place Stainton conveys. The book takes place in 1928 Scotland and, as the men travel the country, there are wonderful descriptions about the places they visit. Stainton really manages to make the country come to life, giving us great details without overwhelming the story. There is also a lovely sense of the time period woven in, with details on fashion, style, politics, and more. It was interesting to see the way the time period in Scotland had similarities and differences to that era in the U.S. So there is some really nice development here of setting that enhances the story quite nicely.
One of the things that really grabbed me from the blurb is the crux of the conflict between Ainsley and Joachim. Ainsley speaks to ghosts, and Joachim is studying delusional thinking. Joachim needs to show Ainsley is imagining the ghosts in order to finish the paper that will see him to his goal of becoming a psychology professor. So there is this built in conflict right from the start that I found really intriguing, particularly as the men moved to becoming friends and lovers. It doesn’t take long for Joachim to see the ghosts for himself, leaving him with this conflict between telling the truth and seeing himself as discredited as Ainsley, or pretending he doesn’t believe in ghosts and further harming the man he has come to care about. I think this worked for me in the early stages of the book, but there never ended up being the resulting sense of tension and conflict I was expecting from the set up. Joachim quickly sees ghosts and comes to accept they are real. While he notes that this is going to cause trouble for his paper, he pushes this concern aside for most of the book and doesn’t really think much about it. So it just made that potential tension really fizzle for me because it barely seems to register with Joachim. The issue does get raised again toward the end, but I felt like Stainton didn’t make nearly enough of this conflict that is at the root of the story.
I also found the world building a little confusing in the paranormal area. Presumably not everyone can see or hear ghosts, even at these well-known haunted sites. So what are the odds that Joachim just happens to be someone who not only can hear ghosts, but see them as well? (Ainsley can only hear them.) I also wanted to know why some ghosts appear as terrifying specters, while others look like regular people who hang around and chat and appear corporeal. I just felt like there was a lot of potential built into the paranormal side that just didn’t get enough development. That said, the ghostly sightings do add a nice element to the book, as several of the ghosts have connections to Ainsley and add an emotional element to the story that I enjoyed.
The main focus of the book is the relationship between Joachim and Ainsley and it is an interesting sort of opposites attract dynamic between them. I am not sure quite how to describe Ainsley, but I’ll say he reminded me of someone with severe ADHD. He can’t focus for long and often his mind ends up drifting off. He has trouble following a card game, for example, losing track of the rules and what he is doing because his focus wanders. He says whatever comes to mind and behaves outrageously, leaning in to his eccentric reputation. There is a nice dynamic here where Joachim figures out how to calm Ainsley, how to help him to focus and settle his mind. It gives Ainsley a peace and centering he really needs. For his part, Ainsley gives a bit of spice to Joachim’s more staid life. There is a fun juxtaposition between the wilder Ainsley and the more straight-laced Joachim, and they make for a really interesting couple. The men also burn up the sheets and the story is plenty sexy with Joachim a bit bossy in bed in a way that totally works for Ainsley. So there is a fun dynamic here I really enjoyed. (However, I’ll note that early on Ainsley pushes his flirting really hard with Joachim to the point that makes the other man really uncomfortable, which bothered me.) However, the place where I really struggled is the near constant miscommunication. All throughout the book, the men are misinterpreting or misunderstanding the other’s words or actions. It happens over and over (and over) again, to the point where I was frustrated as a reader. It isn’t even one big thing, but a series of things where at almost every turn, large or small, the men misread the situation and jump to the wrong conclusions, often ending up in bed together instead of talking.
I will also say that I felt like the story could have used some tightening up. The issue with Joachim believing in ghosts is settled fairly early, along with the attraction between the men. The book then moves into a more meandering storyline where the men are hanging out with friends, going to parties, etc. There is also a side thread where Ainsley gets involved with trying to seduce a man to see if he is gay (and therefore interested in Ainsley’s friend). So there are a bunch of scenes (as well as more miscommunication) focused on this side plot that really didn’t add anything to the main story for me. I just felt like things were sort of wandering in the second half and the book could have been a lot tighter and more focused. I’ll also note that the story uses both men’s first and last names, as well as nicknames, to refer to them at different points (and for the men to refer to each other) and, at times I had to focus to remember who was who.
Overall, I did enjoy this one, particularly the setting and the time period. Ainsley and Joachim are such interesting characters and Stainton does a great job developing the dynamic between them. It looks like the next book features them as leads once again, so I am interested to see what else is in store for them.