My review contains spoilers and they're mostly my thoughts as I went with the book...
The Hunter, book 2 of the Victorian Rebels series was another awesome installment from Kerrigan Byrne. I’ve loved her stories since her Highland Historicals series, and IMO, this series is soon proving to be as awesome as the other one. Then again, there was no doubt in my mind that Kerrigan is a very talented author.
Note that Victorian Rebels has NO ties to Highland Historicals whatsoever. This series has no paranormal or time travel elements in it, just a few Victorian-era bad boys of the underworld getting their HEAs with women who bring them down to their knees, quite literally. More than once I’m happy to add. :D
The Highwayman is the first book which tells the story of the first bad boy, the reigning king of London’s underworld, Dorian Blackwell. It’s a great take on the beauty and the beast theme where Dorian was portrayed as someone dark and hulking, with one wounded eye and enough scars on his body to tell of a life spend in utter despair, while Farah, his “fairy” was just that, a beautiful soul inside and out. A fairy who looked like one too. The prologue set up a magical yet haunting tone, the narratives of Dorian and Farah’ first meeting as two orphans. It also gives you that shiver of premonition that you can’t quite shake off. Fate brought them together when they were children, it tore them apart quite brutally too. And when, at last, they’re reunited after 20 long years, no one could tell what fate would bring for them this time. Farah thought her “Dougan” died in the prison that held him on the charge of murdering a priest. A priest who was also the caretaker of the orphanage they were in; a priest who had a monster hidden behind his robes. But things were not as Farah thought they were. Dorian storms back into her life and turns it completely upside down. And he wasn’t the Dougan Farah used to know. This man was so tortured and haunted by his mistreatment (for the lack of better word) in prison that she didn’t know if she can ever save his already dying soul. She wanted to be his savior but will the man himself accept her help? He who thought he’s beyond saving?
I have to say theirs was a treacherous journey. The story was dark and addictive, with some hot, hot sex scenes. Dorian/Dougan was crazy possessive, often grumpy and Farah was his equal match with a mixture of beguiling innocence and a strong personality. You just know she’s the one who can handle a volatile man like Dorian; the one to also transform his dreary world into something much, much better—which she does by the end of the story.
Now, we met Christopher Argent, assassin extraordinaire working for Dorian for a long time, in The Highwayman. Both Dorian and Christopher and some other secondary characters we met became allies when they were still in prison. Some of them met as children and had to stick together to fend off the dangers. Even though none were spared the cruelty and abuse of the prison, their experiences made them tougher, stronger... deadlier. They had caught on very early that it’s a world where only the fittest survive. And to survive, you must learn to do whatever it takes. Both Dorian and Christopher did what they had to, which in turn made them the man they were today. And though Dorian thought he’d found the salvation he’d been looking for all those years, what about Christopher, the cold-eyed assassin with a long dead heart?
The prologue of The Hunter, quite similarly, sets the tone of the story that’d send chills down your spine. Christopher was born in Newgate where his mother had been incarcerated for a long time when we get the glimpse of his childhood. He’d grown up there, knowing and seeing things no child should ever be privy of, including his mother’s prostitution as a bargain with the prison guards for simplest of things; so that her son have one more slice of bread, so that they have one more blanket, however ragged and flea-ridden that was. Christine has done it all for her little boy and though she was a whore and a thief serving 15 yrs., she loved Christopher. She made herself carry on his sake, hoping that someday she’d be out in the sun once again; that her son would know what the sun looks like outside of the prison building for the very first time. He’d experience what freedom tastes like… But that hope was dashed one violent night when she was raped and murdered, in front of Christopher no less, who could do nothing because, much like his mother, he couldn’t fight off the men holding him down. His scream for help went unheard. After spending the rest of the night in that dank prison cell, drenched in his mother’s blood, Christopher surrendered his innocence and his humanity to the desolation of his situation. Something snapped in him and it changed him irrevocably.
Christopher was taking kung fu training from another Chinese prisoner, Master Wu Ping, who taught him to accept things like the water, Its fluidity and its depth. It strengthened Christopher’s ability to contain his emotions without feeling anything as one would feel surrounded by water. That sense of surrealism. This training held him enough so Christopher didn’t went mad. Instead, he became the last face his victims would see. The assassin who has ruled the underworld working side by side with Dorian. Dorian maybe called the King, Christopher is his right hand man. He’s the best in what he does. And though he’s an assassin for hire, Christopher doesn’t kill for pleasure, to relish. Christopher sees his “job” as that... a job and strictly adheres to some codes of conduct. One would be his vow to never to kill children no matter what, something that’d ultimately lead him to his latest would-be victim, the alluringly beautiful actress, the darling of the theaters of London, Millie LeCour.
Millie’s story is not much different than Christopher’s, though her life was far less miserable than Christopher’s. As a Polish immigrant, she’d lived in poverty until luck smiled down upon her and her childhood friend, Agnes. Both of them didn’t have family to speak of and when they got the acting job at the theater, it was like one of their longstanding dreams coming true. Whereas Millie loved the stage and to be in the spotlight, Agnes was more of an introvert. And though Millie liked flirting yet keeping men at bay, Agnes found the man of her dream soon enough... or so they thought he was. But when Agnes is gruesomely murdered one day while she was supposed to be visiting her lover, Millie knew her life won’t ever be the same. She had to be the mother to Agnes’s little boy who didn’t even know what he’d lost. Since then, for the past 7 yrs. Millie had established herself as a mother to Jakub, her every single thing revolving around the boy. Thanks to her, Jakub never had a scope to realize what he’d lost and Millie won’t exchange it for anything in the world. But ever since Agnes’s death, she also knew Jakub isn’t safe. That that murder has to be a link to something much more sinister. Millie had spent the days working and nights hoping and praying that her son is safe from whoever it is. She had an inclination that it maybe Jakub’s father, whose identity Agnes never divulged. She only knew that the man was married and a peer of the realm. That little info there should’ve been the warning sign for Agnes, who had since paid the price with her life. As Millie kept mulling over her options, she meets this tall, auburn haired man with ice-blue eyes who took her breath away on their first meeting. Only she didn’t know he’s her would-be assassin.
At first though, Millie was quite fond of the “stranger” who has been present everyday to watch her latest production. It was one of her whims that she’d choose someone from the audience to bestow her undivided attention even as she acts on stage. This night, it was that mysterious man she’s noticed, lurking in the shadows, who is so tall that there’s no way he could hide himself away. He seemed to be a part of that shadow too. Millie wanted to make him a part of her fantasy world, not knowing he was going to become a magnanimous part of her reality pretty soon.
As it happens, Christopher was enchanted by Millie right from the start, when her eyes met his while she’s on the stage. Something shifted between them right then and there, which also changes the course of their lives. For the first time Christopher finds out that he’s indeed capable of failing his “assignment”. Three times he tries and all 3 times, he ends up kissing the daylights out of his would-be victim. Each time, nothing in his body would co-operate for a kill. The only thing it wanted was Millie LeCour, alive and well, bent over for him......... Christopher’s favorite position (or not, but it’s what he preferred anyway because of what’s he’d witnessed in the past). Simultaneously, Millie finds out that she’s gone quite mad to be insanely attracted to a man who has been contracted by unknown sources to kill her. Is she going insane because every time he’s near, all she wants is to kiss him senseless… and do something more.
So after quite a few chapters of failed attempts and thorough kisses, some word exchange and intense moments, Christopher finally decides that if he’s going to be batsh!t crazy, he’s going to do it the right way. He wanted Millie, so be it. Since it’s been confirmed that she’s in danger, he knew she’d need protection from whoever it was. There would be another contract out soon and someone would pick it up even if Christopher didn’t. In the meantime, there was this new series of murders of women while their little boys disappearing, pointing fingers at another cold-blooded killer at work. Someone Christopher knew all too well. And he also knew that whereas he tried his best to detach himself from his “job”, this particular individual relished it. He liked torturing his victims before killing them. Literally, there was no better time for Christopher to convert into Millie’s protector instead. He says as much to Millie, who, at this point, would’ve done anything to keep Jakub safe. She also believed it when Christopher said he was the best in the business, so there is no one in this world who can surpass him to get to her and Jakub. Christopher would be their protector until the danger had passed… for a price of course. He wants Millie for one night, in his bed.
Whereas this was supposed to be a business arrangement, and Millie was supposed to feel the proverbial martyr sacrificing herself for her child, she was surprised by her emotions where this man was concerned. Being with Christopher didn’t feel that way at all! And she wanted it, craved it. It’s not like they were going at it like the bunnies, nah-uh! It was one night, when it was revealed that Millie had never ever carried a child, much less birthed one. She was unquestionably a virgin. I found it a little unbelievable that never, once, she entangled herself with a man but maybe Agnes’s brutal death warned her off of men. And then, she’d had Jakub to think of since... Millie also acknowledges that no man has ever made her feel so unhinged with want, especially someone so cold and distant like that ice-blue eyed assassin she’s gotten entangled with. He’s supposed to be the most dangerous man of all, yet with him, she felt the safest. And she wanted him whenever he was close even though he held himself apart from her. But Millie didn’t know that Christopher was going through a big whirlwind of emotions, ranging from going insane with wanting, to guilt, to the age old self-hatred and an immeasurable amount of self-doubt and pity. He was a mess inside. All the emotions he’d held in check for so long were bursting forth. Being like water wasn’t working so well for him anymore. Poor guy had no clue how to handle any of it and it made him grouchy, and when not that, cold.
Christopher was already thinking that he had done what was done with his mother, something unforgivable in his eyes (for valid reasons). He’d bargained with sex, he’d taken the innocence of a woman when she deserved better. Definitely someone far more deserving than him. Yet a part of his mind was also becoming very possessive about her, something that never happened to him before. Christopher had viewed sex as another bodily function. He’d never slept with the same woman, be it a prostitute or a high born lady seeking thrill. He liked using them, but keeping himself as distant as possible from the experience. It was necessary for someone in his “profession” to never entangle with anyone emotionally, particularly the female kind. For one, it’d pose threat to anyone he cared for... and then, the whole thing becomes a threat to his own sanity, whatever was left of it. If anything was left of it, for can he consider himself sane after all that he’d gone through in his miserable life? Thoughts like this would also plague him— who’d care for someone so far gone into the darkness, so irredeemable, so ugly and unwanted? Certainly it can’t be someone so beautiful, alluring and undoubtedly kind and caring like Millie! Christopher can dream but this would never happen, would it?
After some close encounters with the presumed killer, the investigation led them to believe that it was Jakub’s father who was after Millie. The one that Christopher assumed was, indeed, the man now contracted to kill his Millie. The cruel, vicious and vile Charles Dorshaw, who’s been caught only once so far but the prisons can’t hold him either. Worse yet, his victims are never found, but their body parts. To tell you the truth (and it may sound cautionary), this story has a lot of descriptions, including the prologue, that may turn your stomach but I found it realistic seeing our hero is an assassin himself and how we’re dealing with a psycho too. I applauded Kerrigan’s efforts on going in depth without being overly repulsive and not gloss everything over just for the sake of it. She took a challenge and she meted it out too. I loved it about this story. I cringed, I wanted to gag, I felt sad for Christopher and the countless nameless victims of Dorshaw but in the end, it all felt like an experience to me.
I also loved how patient Millie was with Christopher even when he was being a jerk, a dumba$$ and hurt her. Even for such a big guy and a cold-blooded assassin, he was immensely caring about Jakub. He has shown a side of him that Millie knew he totally hid away from the rest of the world. In her heart she knew he’s SO worth a shot. And she was willing to be his salvation if he’d let her. However, Christopher wasn’t going to let that happen so easily when his old vulnerabilities crowded him over and cowed him out of what could’ve been the first ever meaningful relationship of his life. Any relationship for that matter. In the end though, Christopher made it up and more, as the realization finally struck him hard when Millie is kidnapped by Dorshaw. He knew what his regenerated heart already knew; that he can’t live without her. Even Millie knew that she was so precious to him that if something happened, this just might snap Christopher Argent into absolute insanity.
Surprisingly enough, that wasn’t the final twist of the story, but I’ll leave you to discover that bit on your own. All I can say that even though there were some things left unanswered and vague, I extremely enjoyed the dynamics of Millie and Christopher’s complex relationship. It was as intense as I expected it to be, by no means easy and a ‘bed of roses’ but so totally worth it! The story itself was well-written, though I still think the dialogues were, at times, a bit too dramatic from my liking. But that didn’t hinder anything. Overall, I enjoyed The Hunter.
Now I’m waiting impatiently for Dorian’s half-brother Liam’s book, The Highlander, which is the next in the series. Liam has never been introduced unless only by mention, so I’m curious to know more about him. And I think his heroine is going to be purrrr-fect! She has already been introduced— a grossly neglected and abused wife of a ne’er-do-well peer who taunted her for her plumpness and plain appearance, among other things at every chance he got. The pig! I think Christopher relieved the world off that piece of filth.
Anyway, I can hardly wait! Meanwhile, 4.5 stars for The Hunter and highly recommended!!