The Highwayman

The Highwayman - Kerrigan Byrne

My review contains spoilers and they're mostly my thoughts as I went with the book...

I’m a big fan of Kerrigan’s Highland Historical novellas so I wasn’t surprised to find that she was getting a full-length novel published by a publisher. She’s good at what she does; her stories are intriguing, heroes hot, heroines smart and strong, smexy times superb. The Highwayman had everything and more. It was also a lot darker read than my expectation but it was an interesting read nonetheless.

The Highwayman is the first book in the brand new Victorian Rebels series. It’s not connected to her Highland Historical novellas in any way. The prologue sets up a dark yet magical tone to the story that only makes you wanna turn the pages to know what happened next. Two young children– a boy of 12 and a girl of around 8– meeting in a long-forgotten abbey, which also served as an orphanage for the illegitimate children of the high-ranking families. Dougan and Farah’s first meeting was quite haunting, especially when a tragedy was waiting to happen soon and force them apart...

Dougan is the illegitimate son of one Laird MacKenzie, who hated his bastard; just how much is revealed much later in the story. Dougan hasn’t known anything close to affection since his mother’s passing when he was young. And this orphanage is the last place a child should expect any. Corrupt priest and sisters run this place; who not only keep the children hungry and dirty, but prey on them as well. Dougan’s life was no exception. Being the rebel he was receiving beating was a daily thing for him. His life though, changes one day when a beautiful blonde girl sidles her way in. She not only finds out his hiding place where he went to vent his tears of anger and frustration, but also, gradually, claims his heart.  Farah isn’t scared of his scowls and rudeness. Even at that tender age, tending to the wounded seemed to be her thing. Soon, the secret meetings turn into be something different. A strong bond out of love and necessity forges between them. Dougan even ends up handfasting himself with Farah. I know they were very young even to know what marriage or handfasting was, but Dougan felt an almost inhumane urge to protect Farah from any danger even then. He knew the corrupt priests and what they can do to the unsuspecting young children. He had to grow up early. Farah was so beautiful even at that age that it was a given that she’d be preyed upon sooner or later unless something was done. That apprehension soon becomes reality, and though Farah manages to escape, they get entangled into a mire of tragedies which saw the priest murdered, Dougan to prison and Farah somewhere else.

Almost 2 decades later, we meet Farah MacKenzie; a widow who now works at the Scotland Yard as a clerk to the famous inspector Carlton Morley. Farah is popular here, not only for her wit and beauty but also for her widow status. Unfortunately for the interested peeps, she seems to be happy in her widowed state, not wanting to welcome anybody else’s attentions. Her past has always been the stuff of mystery since Farah had never confided in anyone about her past. When she got separated from Dougan, and left Applecross, Farah had grown up with a kindly family who thought her a distant relative of the MacKenzies. They weren’t very prosperous so she also had to work to earn her living. Someone taught her to read and write, and then, in the passing years, her education paid off and she ended up where she is today.

Farah has been working here for the past 10 or so years. She keeps to herself mostly, though recently, she’d been thinking about starting anew. Carlton has shown an interest in her. There was an attraction, and though she didn’t love him, Farah couldn’t bear to live alone anymore. She missed Dougan but he died in prison quite a few years ago, as far as she knew there’s no hope for them any longer. What she didn’t know was that in the next few days, her life would alter in so many ways that it’d seem like a dream. But for better or for worse? That was something to be seen.

It all starts after Farah’s meeting with a man who is the nightmare of many... On a day that was supposed to like any, Farah comes face to face with the blight of Scotland Yard’s existence, the most notorious (and revered) criminals of all; Dorian Blackwell. It seemed that the whole Scotland Yard is abuzz over his arrest, when no one has ever been able to accomplish this deed before. Carton, it seemed, has earned the bragging rights. I mean, a catch like this could make someone’s career; create a legend of Scotland Yard! Farah is called down to the basement questioning room to take notes. Yet when she steps into the room, she finds Dorian Blackwell, bound in a chair, with an angry Carlton hovering over him. Both men looked quite worse for the wear, with Blackwell obviously been beaten for information, yet none wanting to back off. It was a scene where you can practically smell the male hormones raging. Dorian taunting Carlton, a complete English gentleman, transforming him into someone Farah has never seen before. Both alpha males, wanting to have their own way. Carlton wants information, Dorian won’t give any.

And both males, together, notice Farah’s entrance, making her feel like a prey to a set of predators; both giving her a look of genuine appreciation mingled with a healthy dose of lust. Farah has no idea how to handle that kinda attention from two hot males (pun intended ;p) so she just goes behind the desk to work on the notes, quite dazed by it all. Yet she can’t help stealing glances at Blackwell more times than she should. Not particularly handsome, Blackwell oozes masculinity. His tall frame, that well-muscled body, the breadth of his immense shoulders. The dark hair and eyes... well, one eye. The other is an otherworldly blue. An old injury goes through it, which has certainly blinded him, leaving a watery blue eye that would give anyone the chills. Yet what Farah feels is a pull she should never feel for such a blackguard; a criminal mastermind who has committed untold crimes, his reputation well-deserved. Farah should know since all her career she had followed Blackwell’s rise to notoriety and different people trying to catch him.

What is the matter with her? How can she feel anything for him? Farah had no idea. If only she knew that she was the central element of a much bigger, ongoing plan which was about to unfold.

Unsurprisingly, Blackwell escapes right afterwards. No prison can hold him obviously. Carlton is not happy but he makes a note of leaving it all behind for now and work on the proposal he’s been trying to bring up. He wants Farah to be his wife if she’d have him. Again, unfortunately, that doesn’t come to pass. The next day, they find Farah gone; kidnapped from her rooms on a café where she has been living all these years.

It’s going to be difficult for me to speak from Dorian’s POV. His life has been such a mess of misery, yet from the ashes he rose like a phoenix. Sounds corny but that’s only how I can describe him after reading of his ordeals. Much of it were kept vague, but for good reasons. Yes, he’s a criminal but he’s also a survivor. He’d done things to survive. Things were done to him that he wouldn’t even wish on anyone. He used to know Dougan in the prison and promised to him before his death that he’d take care of his ‘Fairy’. It’s where Farah MacKenzie came in, because Dorian knew she’s the one he’s been looking for since Dougan’s death. I had a feeling that there’s a bigger twist here........ but I kept on reading.

When Farah regains consciousness and found herself in a castle far away from London, she suddenly realizes who has done this to her. Dorian Blackwell has not only kidnapped her, but also brought her to his infamous Ben More castle! She’s been treated like a queen no less, even if she’s a captive. Farah could see neither hide nor hair of the owner of the castle, who seems be deftly avoiding her at daytime. Yet each night, Farah would find a chair in front of her bed, as if someone has been watching her while she slept. At first, Farah thought it was her imagination, but soon she found that, indeed, Blackwell has been doing exactly that. It should’ve been creepy but for Farah, somehow it wasn’t. Either way, she demands to know what was going on. Why is he so bend on ruining her life? What does he want?

What Dorian wanted was to keep Farah safe because there was a price on her head. And he deemed the only way she’d ever agree to come with him would be... well, kidnapping. But the fact would surprise even Farah because she’d almost forgotten that she’d been the daughter of an Earl once upon a time and her original name was Farah Leigh Townsend. Now, her family was dead and someone else has taken over the title and family money. They have taken advantage of 1.) Farah’s youth (when she became an orphan) and 2.) her subsequent “disappearance” for a long time. She knew a replacement has been found who calls herself the Countess of Northwalk. Yet, Farah can’t do anything because she has no tangible evidence to prove her real identity. So she thought she’d never be able to regain what rightfully was hers. Turns out, one man can help her and he’s willing to— for a price of course.

Dorian informs Farah that his father’s steward Warrington, who was quite a bit older than her, is after her life. She remembers him vaguely, but what she expressly remembers is that she neither liked him, nor his presence near her. Warrington has married the so-called newly found (and minted) Countess as per her father’s wish. However, she, and now it seems Blackwell, know that it’s all falsehood. Dorian proposes a deal; he’d help her gain her rightful title and inheritance, but she has to marry him before that to give him the status of a peer and access to all that comes with that privilege. Farah is not impressed with this at first. Is this guy crazy? But then, the more she begins to think about it, the more it begins to look tempting. What if........? After all, Dorian has that reputation to see things done, no matter what. Then there was the fact that she was quite illogically attracted to the Blackheart of Ben More. That strange pull, and the intensity he exudes whenever he’s with her, eyes always stalking her every move, Farah wanted it all. Even if it made her uneasy. And so, she ends up agreeing to the plan.

But there was a twist here; Blackwell tells her that this would be a white marriage. In name only, no consummation... like ever! Now what a min.? WHAT? Farah is angry as hell, and I can see why. She absolutely wanted Blackwell in her bed. She was insanely attracted to him, so marrying him yet not having him there... Nope, it was simply not done! But Blackwell is so stubborn and so used to have his way that she didn’t know how to handle this. Especially when he won’t really explain why he’s not willing to have sex with her. Is it her? Or is it touching anyone in general? Even his loyal servants, who became Farah’s champion in no time, won’t make a peep about whatever was Dorian’s problem but Farah knew instinctively that it was something so dark and deep that it’d give anyone nightmares. The memories certainly gave Dorian nightmares!

Dorian can’t abide by human touch. So far, he’d only touched Farah with gloves on and tried his best to stay away from her, even though his body craved hers like a moth to a flame. He’s had this permanent hard on, but....... Well, it was plain to see that whatever happened to him in the prison ended up in PTSD and a deep-seated feeling of worthlessness. He felt dirty, disgusted with his body. Farah was everything that was good in his bleak world and he wouldn’t “sully” her body with his. He simply would not! He tries to tell her in bits and pieces about his past to make her understand but Farah is adamant of having a normal marriage, as normal as possible. And she wants children, there’s no arguing about it. So when she twists it a bit (I didn’t find it mean, Dorian needed that push... a shove, really) by telling him that she must have a child, his child, Dorian gives into it. But for one night only. And everything has to be his way or not at all.

The consummation would’ve been oddest considering Farah’s innocence but it seemed she was game about Dorian tying her up so that she can’t touch him, or reach for him. Both a big no-no. And she loved every moment of it. But tell that to the big oaf who won’t touch her again after that. I mean, seriously? You can’t just introduce someone to such pleasure, and then abandon them this way! Farah is frustrated, annoyed. But knowing Dorian’s problems, she knows she has to tread lightly here. She tries to seduce Dorian back in her bed, but he keeps pushing her away, staunchly telling her there’d be no repetition. But one time can’t always confirm her pregnancy, can it? So Farah keeps trying to convince him about this part of their marriage, though Dorian is a wall of denial when he wants to be like that. He’d be cold and distant, stew in his miserable existence, not wanting Farah to be a part of it. But she was already a part of it the moment he’d kidnapped her. Worse part was, Dorian knew it well. And he’s such a jealous bastard, he won’t even let anyone else touch her. So where does this marriage stand now?

What started as a business deal of sort, soon turns into something extremely complicated. Farah trying to penetrate Dorian’s impenetrable wall of misery–sometimes successful, oftimes failing–while Dorian trying to come to terms with the fact that his life has turned upside down. And it was all his making. He doesn’t regret that he’d married Farah one bit, yet his own demons are making things so difficult for him that at times it felt smothering. In the meantime, they travel to London to make arrangements for Farah to appear in Queen’s Court to present herself as the true Countess Northwalk. Dorian also saves a prostitute that Farah used to know from before when she was working in Scotland Yard. That’s where we meet the elusive Christopher Argent, one of Dorian’s oldest friends from prison; who is also a cold-blooded assassin. He’d do anything for Dorian and do it swiftly, without remorse. Dorian returns the favor as best as he can. While trying to save the girl from her pimp, Dorian, their footman Murdoch, also actually another of Dorian’s former prison-mates and Farah, all get caught by the Scotland Yard.

At the Scotland Yard office, some truths are revealed, one being the real identity of the fake Countess. Now they have enough evidence to evict her. Dorian will make sure of that. However, when they finally present their case and win, Farah is astounded to know that Dorian has always known that he’d never have a title or access to her wealth because he’s not a peer. In actuality, he doesn’t really gain anything from this marriage but only Farah herself. Then why would he do it? What is the reason behind the Blackheart of Ben More’s obsessive need to marry her? When Farah confronts him about it, Dorian won’t budge, trying to deflate it with other excuses. One thing leads to another and with Farah’s demands for truth, her frustration about not having Dorian in her bed sort of blows up into a messy, rough and hot sex (FINALLY) that leaves her completely drained. Ooh lala!

But the passion and intensity of their coupling also unlocks the final key to the whole puzzle, and rocks Dorian Blackwell’s thinly veneered sanity where Farah Leigh was concerned. His Farah Leigh. His Fairy. Hearing it as a whisper from Dorian’s mouth Farah couldn’t believe that she hadn’t realized what was right in front of her! She’d known that Dougan, her precious protector, the love of her life, had died in prison. Well, in a way, that Dougan had died after what he’d gone thorough, and Dorian Blackwell came to be. The next scenes of the gentle yet intent confrontation from Farah, ironically almost in the same setting of their first meeting as children, would give you an eerie chill. Goosebumps. Farah was in tears knowing her Dougan has lived; who is now her husband in every sense of the word. She wanted more; she wanted to help him heal. But Dougan, the blasted oaf, wasn’t ready. He was still miserable. Still drenched in the shame and humiliation of his abuse in prison. Still haunted by PTSD, having no idea how to handle it around her. And he didn’t want his Fairy anywhere near him when things go downhill for him sooner or later. What really annoyed me was how he pushes her away next very rudely and hurts her; something that forces Farah to leave, this time for her father’s estate. To be away from Dougan’s rejection that stung more than anything else in the world.

Can Dorian/Dougan fight against his demons and win Farah back into his life? The biggest question was, he knew Farah loved him, and rejected her love… does he even want to fight back?

The Highwayman had some great moments in all. Intriguing storyline loosely based on beauty and the beast theme, had a Gothic setting to boots. I loved watching how Farah and Dorian/Dougan’s relationship unfolded, and unraveled, over pages after pages of angst and drama. There were those moments, though, where I felt that something missing. The dialogues were, at times, quite melodramatic. Dorian’s mood swings were frustrating to read but I didn’t lose hope. Another great thing about this book was that, even though it was the first in a new series, Kerrigan was very adept at keeping me centered on Dorian and Farah’s trials and tribulations, rather than setting up the whole series as some first installments wont to do, in the process veering the readers away from the main couple. She was also able to make me quite intrigued about the next installment.

Right now, I only know that Dorian’s friend Christopher Argent is getting the next book. I don’t even know who his heroine is. There was no hint in this one (did I miss anything?). Either way, I’m excited to find out in The Hunter! 4 stars and recommended.