Liam MacKenzie, Lord Ravencroft, is a man of action. When we first meet him, he’s pulling the rotting skeleton of a bawdy woman he once knew out of a bog, a woman the local gossip accuses him of murdering. He has, in response to his father’s cruel teachings, become a soldier for the crown and a killer supreme so legendary that people whisper he made a deal with a demon to gain his fearsome skills. He’s returned to Scotland to assume the mantle of laird and try to return justice and order to his clan after years of his father’s misrule.
Philomena “Mena” St. Vincent, Viscountess Benchley, is a woman of great determination. Locked away in an asylum by her libertine husband who claims that she has debauched tastes when in fact he’s the abusive one and has run through her inheritance, she is abused sexually and spiritually day and night by the staff. She is saved from being raped by her doctor by the intervention of the police, alerted by a friend of hers, Countess Blackwell (the heroine of books one of this series, The Highwayman), and is taken in by the Blackwells while she recuperates. Christopher Argent, fiancé of her friend Millie (hero and heroine of book two, The Hunter), is the one to suggest Mena leave the country before her husband discovers she’s been sprung from the snake pit.
This is how our main plots collide. The new Laird MacKenzie needs a governess for his unruly children, so Christopher arranges for Liam to hire Philomena under an assumed identity. Philomena is frightened by the size and might of Liam’s men, and Liam is perplexed by the sense of lust he feels on seeing Philomena, who irritates him with her lack of compliance. He thinks her unqualified. Philomena defies his expectations and manages to relate to and tame both his children – the incongruously-named sourpuss Rihanna and the formal Andrew – and forms a bond with his kinsmen and his servants. Her very presence vexes Liam, and when his caddish brother Thorne shows an interest in her, the brothers’ long-simmering rivalry threatens to reemerge and boil over as they compete for her hand. All the while, the attraction between Liam and Mena simmers. But can their love survive the revelation of her past life? And will Liam ever forgive himself for the death of his wife and allow himself to love again? And what of the body sunk into the moors?
The Highlander is a book that stirs up conflicting emotions for me. Have you ever read a romance novel that feels like it was spliced together from two different ideas into a single super-story? This is a lot like that. We open with the death-by-whipping of a prostitute that occurs in front of the main male character and his brothers; and segue to the heroine being violently dunked in an ice bath while she screams for mercy and gets drooled over by the evil doctors and orderlies at the asylum. Then, thirty pages in, the heroine is suddenly in a Disney movie underpinned with dark carnal urges. The book swings wildly between extremes: bloody-minded gothic passion and plot twists, to Disney-like comedy and warmhearted character building. It reminded me of early Kimberly Cates in a lot of ways, though I know she never had a character nickname one of her heroines “Countess Fire Quim”.
Everything starts out so luridly, so hilariously grotesque that it’s hard to follow its transition to warm family comedy and slow-boiling, tender, passionate romance. It’s the characters, not the plot, that do the saving here. Mena has a core of admirable steel to her, and Liam, while tormented, is the classic beast-with-a-thorn-in-his-paw just waiting for Mena to come pluck it out. Together they begin with a fight-slap-kiss dynamic that becomes a tender retelling of Beauty and the Beast tropes, gradually growing into a sense of mutual tenderness and affection mixed with lust. He respects her fears and the author does not shy away from portraying the heroine’s sensitivity to her past abuse, making their eventual coupling a sweet, rewarding victory. Their relationship is, in fact, why this novel gets a recommendation from me. Most of the characters are excellent and their well-done interaction actually fights against the melodramatic plot, which keeps throwing unnecessary complications in the way. Some examples: we get ghosts in chapter five, murder attempts in chapter eight, and the hero’s fears that the heroine is a pederast interested in his son in chapter eleven. The first and second plot elements dovetail into a does-this-need-to-happen-when-we-already-have-a-villain-out-there? development that makes little sense but at least solves one of the main plot points. It leads to a resolution of the main conflict, but even then, unnecessary plot twists haunt the piece. The native purpleness of the action clashes vibrantly with moments of domestic fluff and the novel goes in two polar directions, yet the characters make everything worth reading and following.
The Highlander isn’t perfect, but the romance between the hero and heroine is worth fighting for, even when the biggest obstacle standing in their way is overwriting.