My review contains spoilers and they're mostly my thoughts as I went with the book...
I was so impressed with JMillier’s debut novel, Highlander Claimed, I was quite impatient to read the next in the series. I loved her writing, her intense hero and sweet heroine in book 1. But, sadly, Highlander Taken was a big disappointment for me, even though JMiller’s writing was as beautiful as ever. Maybe I had really high expectation, I don’t know but I liked neither the characters, nor the storyline.
In book 1, we meet the Mackenzie clan. Three brothers, Knox, Kade and Wilkie are introduced. Knox is the broody laird, Wilkie is the most beautiful of the siblings. They also have two sisters, the eldest Ailie and youngest, Christie. But Kade was said to have his own quirk. He likes to armed himself to teeth and that is how he has been since he was a child. Knox’s wife died in childbirth some years before, and he still hasn’t re-married. It seems like he has given up on finding love again because his wife was that to him. As the story begins, Wilkie suddenly meets Roses, who was running away from the laird of her adoptive clan, where she was nothing but a servant. Roses’s fair, ethereal beauty stole Wilkie’s heart on spot. He becomes obsessed with her as the story progressed, which blossomed into love. Clan Ogilvie, where Roses has resided so far, was no home to her. Yet she gradually becomes a part of the Mackenzie clan, more so when she saves Wilkie from a near fatal injury and the subsequent fever. Wilkie stakes his claim on her from the beginning. Even though his brothers thought Roses will be one of his conquests, Wilkie proves that Roses means more to him. He even breaks off his unofficial engagement to one of Laird Morrison’s five daughters, Maisie. The union with the Morrisons was necessary for the Mackenzies to fight against the Campbells. It was hinted that Wilkie had slept with her, maybe on Maisie’s encouragement and would’ve married her if he hadn’t met Roses. In the middle of the story, the whole Morrison clan comes for a visit, also to make plans for Wilkie and Maisie’s marriage.
Maisie shows quite the possessive streak where Wilkie is concerned. She’s a brash, somewhat outspoken girl who would resort to meanness to get her way. Of course she noticed Wilkie’s obsession over Roses, which made her extremely unhappy. Logic, what girl would be happy to find her almost betrothed pining away for another? It was also hinted that no love was lost between Maisie and Wilkie, but because of Wilkie’s manly beauty she wanted to have him. Wilkie had no particular feelings for her either. Anyway, Maisie is mean to Roses, calling her ‘whore’ (something I couldn’t condone, no matter) etc. in front of everyone. Then Knox is determined that Wilkie will be marrying Maisie or another Morrison girl because Roses is nothing but a kitchen servant. Who would take her seriously? But Wilkie defies it all because they were in love. He saves Roses more than once when the laird of the Ogilvie tries to kidnap her to marry her. Why exactly he was so crazed for that, is revealed at the end. No one knew Roses’s real identity before this revelation.
Stella is the second eldest Morrison daughter. She’s said to be the beauty of the lot. Stella is reserved, maybe a little timid. It’s said that she was in love with someone beneath her station, something her father the laird prohibited, breaking her heart in the process. It was interesting, if not unexpected, to find Kade stepping forward to marry her to solidify the union. But surprisingly enough, it’s revealed that Kade has seen Stella before. He has wanted her from afar, and now that the fate has given him a change, he’s going to take the full advantage of it.
Book 2 starts in the midst of the same gathering given by the Mackenzies in honor of the Morrison’s visit. We find Stella’s side of the story as this is narrated first person POV, much as book 1. She’s feeling depressed, missing Caleb, her lost love who used to be the blacksmith’s apprentice. She knows she will be forced to marry one of the Morrisons. Feeling restless, Stella goes out the garden to take fresh air. Someone follows her, and she feels that man’s presence in the dark. She doesn’t recognize his voice, as it was low and when he kisses her at one point, she is dumbstruck. She never felt anything that can be called ‘desire’ for Caleb. He was a solace of sort from her abusive father’s dictatorship. She ran to Caleb when she needed comfort, nothing sexual, but talk and touch. But this man set her blood on fire, she doesn’t understand what’s happening until he murmurs that he will make her his.
So yes, the starting was promising. Stella runs back in but can’t pinpoint the stranger on anyone there. The stranger becomes her ‘garden phantom lover’ and she begins dreaming of him at night. Then she finds out that she’s to marry Kade Mackenzie, the brother everyone is afraid of for his weapons and his savage beauty. He looks like a brute... Stella is plain horrified of him. I could sympathize with some of it because all her life Stella and her sisters, along with two female cousins have been under her father’s bad reign. The man blamed his girls for his wife’s death, couldn’t stand them at all. Stella bore the brunt of his anger every time because she looked the most like their mother. I was like wtf?? Morrison is ofttimes drunk and unable (also insane no doubt!). In his stead, the head of the Morrison army, Aleck, runs everything. This man is ambitious, cruel; the perfect person, it seems, to step into her father’s shoes after he passes. Aleck also has strong hatred for Stella because when they were young, she taunted him and then rejected his kisses. He apparently still held the grudge and would act on it on any given chance. Morrison prefers beating his daughters up for the slightest of reasons and many-a-time, Aleck has done the deed on his behalf. And he particularly enjoys beating Stella. He also has lascivious intents, after all Stella is beautiful. He asked for her hand in marriage, which was spurned by the laird for a higher bidder. So Aleck can beat up his girls but he’s not good enough for marriage. Wow!
I wasn’t sure what to do about all these revelations but at times those felt a bit overblown. When, after an incident, Aleck tried to put his rough hands on Stella while at the Mackenzies, Kade caught him and warned him never to try that ever again. Stella is stunned by his words. She somewhat begins feeling comfortable with Kade, yet she’s always haunted by the thoughts; what if Kade turns out to be the same. Could she endure a lifetime of abuse and beating? The deal is, Kade would live with the Morrisons as the laird-in-waiting. Since Stella’s eldest sister Clementine is going to the convent (she’s plain looking and has been unable to find a husband thus far, been left behind by two men... poor girl!), Kade will be the laird after Morrison’s passing. Kade concedes to it all because basically, all he wants is Stella for himself.
Now, I didn’t know all these at the beginning. It seemed like a MOC. Stella is resigned to her fate. After a few weeks, we find her on the morn of her wedding; with her sisters (including Maisie) and cousins. And they were ANNOYING. SO VERY ANNOYING. They had NO care for Stella’s feeling, like she’s a puppet. So they kept on chattering about stuff, aka Kade and I wanted to slap each of them hard. According to the gossip Kade is a... beast. They are all scared of him and so, they keep saying things to scare the sh!t out of Stella too, their main concern the marriage bed. About this Stella had no one to talk to and Maisie tries to give her some information as the ‘experienced’ sister. She kept mentioning Wilkie. Every f*cking time sex and her experience came up in the story, she would mention Wilkie. OMG I absolutely HATED it!!! She was obsessed with Wilkie, just to what extent I’ll tell you soon enough.
On the way to the church, the marriage bed conversation kept going. One of the cousins mentions some gossip about Kade. Apparently he’s been to the Buchanans (who are known to be the wild bunch) a few months ago and slept with one of their cousins. He also did some ‘unspeakable things’ to her that needed ‘binding her to the bed’. That he did ‘those things’ to her ‘all night’, which she obviously bragged about to everyone. That the experience was ‘spiritual’... huh? Seriously, why would the author think that a girl would be thrilled to know such information about her would-be husband on her wedding day? WHY? While I was fuming at all these, Stella started cowering. She got the picture that Kade is a mean brute, and ‘binding to bed’ meant he’s going to do some horrible things to her. She’s sure Kade would turn out to be just like Aleck or her father. And her sisters DO NOT help. They kept chattering away about this particular thing all the way.
So, I was VERY pissed, the first bad taste of the story. I wish it ended there, but sadly it didn’t. It got pretty bad as the story progressed. Stella and Kade’s marriage goes uneventful. Even though Stella finds him very handsome in a rugged way, she’s still terrified of what he might do to her. She kept thinking of the things her sisters told her and the ‘incidents’ etc. This also left a bad impression on me because she kept on comparing herself with that woman and came off lacking, self-doubting every step of the way. This showed because she’d act as a scared doe whenever Kade tried to get closer to her. He notices it, which in turn makes him uncomfortable. Kade decides not to consummate the marriage. He needs to figure out what has happened to Stella before they have sex. He was also aware of his so-called competition, her ‘love of life’ and jealous of the unseen man. Yet, Kade was thoughtful enough to make sure everyone thinks their marriage is consummated.
Kade also starts taking inventory of things. He can see that the clan isn’t faring well and that Morrison isn’t an able laird. The men don’t listen to him, and Kade had to take steps to show them who’s the boss because he realized unless it’s made clear, he’d have a difficult time with his lairdship. Kade is enthusiastic about it all, but his wife particularly isn’t making him happy. She still stays away from him. One of the reasons was, Maisie putting doubts in Stella’s mind about her ‘abilities’ to pleasure Kade, Kade’s so-called brutishness. After a few incidents such as this, I decided that Stella lacks a strong personality. She’s too wishy-washy, too easily manipulated by the words of others. But Kade was good to her no doubt. He was sweet in his way. If I wasn’t reminded of the first revelation that should’ve never been mentioned or at the very least, repeated more than half of the story, I’d find him superb.
The servants of the Morrison keep don’t take the girls seriously, neither do they respect them. Of course, after seeing how they’re treated by own father, why would they? The girls have basically been put away, couldn’t even go out on their own, let alone doing anything else. When Kade asks Stella to take hold of the situation, starting with the kitchen that produces horrible meals, she’s in a fix. Stella is humiliated by the servants there. Later we find Kade very tactically handling the servants, guessing that they haven’t also been rewarded well enough for their work. The servants soon start doing their chore because of the rewards announced by Kade. Stella was once manhandled by some staff when she goes to pick some vegetables. Aleck and her father come in to take her away... to punish her for going out alone. Kade hears of the news later and though, Stella wasn’t punished, Kade makes sure Aleck knows that anything happening to Stella will result in something bloody. He was beginning to see the picture and why exactly Stella was scared of him. Kade was incensed on her behalf.
In between, Maisie makes her move. And whatta move it was! First, after Caleb returns, she tries to manipulate Stella to cheat on Kade with him. Then She actually had the nerves (or idiocy, whatever you call it) to proposition Kade. She already guessed that Stella and he weren’t having sex. I was SO grossed out by this. How could she have done that to her own sister, I don’t know. I found it really creepy when Maisie mentioned, more than once, that she did this because Kade resembles Wilkie. What.the.f*ck?! Stella was at first incensed by this, but she NEVER once speaks a piece of her mind, forgiving Maisie too easily; after all, they’re sisters, right? How nice (Not)! That was another thing about Stella I thoroughly disliked. In later parts of the story, there were lame attempts to show that Maisie is not as bad as she was said to be. Also that she was indeed in love with Wilkie. So what am I supposed to think now? Maisie is basically a good girl, only misunderstood? She’s been unfairly treated by Wilkie and that Wilkie is a BIG JERK? Or Maisie is as bad as she has been narrated? Honestly, I only felt a gradual dislike for Wilkie and thought Maisie needed to be kicked out of the story.
Back to the story, thankfully Kade thwarts Maisie’s advances. Later on, when Stella is mad at him, he takes initiative to show her that he only wants her. Kade does that a lot in the entire story, up until the end. He’s aware of Caleb’s return too and becomes quite scary when Caleb so much as comes near Stella, let alone touching her. Kade starts writing to Knox, to keep him updated about situation here. One day, Stella finds one of his letters and reads it. It was full of her praise, which made Stella look at Kade in an all new light. She begins realizing that her sisters basically know nothing about Kade and starts softening up towards him. She begins daydreaming of what it might be like to have Kade touching her and doing those ‘unspeakable’ things to her. *eyeroll*
Kade soon gives in but he won’t have sex. Just kissing, fondling. I already was aware what Kade might be up to: light bondage, spanking etc. Let me tell you, those scenes were hot. I would’ve enjoyed them more if I wasn’t already starting to slip away from the story, but also, those went on for too long. Because when Kade promises something, he keeps it. At all cost. He’d decided on a few months of waiting so that Stella can adjust to his presence, and he’ll uphold it. Much help it did since not consummating their marriage made a whole new trouble for them at the end of the story. So I thought the entire point of waiting, even when Stella was mad for consummation, was really idiotic. And frustrating. All tease, without the finish; certainly didn’t make me happy!
Then, Stella starts falling for Kade (or was it his sexual expertise? Can’t tell since I never believed in her thought process). She begins convincing herself that Caleb pales in comparison to Kade, that she has never really loved Caleb that way. So why was she putting up the drama in the beginning about her ‘lost love’? Bah!
I could go on and on and on but the fact of the matter is, the rest of the story was as much frustrating. Now, I have to mention something about Aleck that kept niggling in my mind. Somehow, I didn’t find him to be a justifiable villain. Yes, he betrays Morrison because he always wanted to be the laird but knew he’ll never even be considered for that position. Aleck was treated unfairly and terribly all his life. It takes toll on a man’s psyche at some point. He may have handled things badly, and has done some nasty stuff in the story, even then his ghastly death in Stella’s hand was a pure horror to read. Yah, she does that unthinkable! That whole scene plain made me gag. Glad that Stella turned out to be some long-lost ‘warrior princess’ and doesn’t even blink after that, straight running to save Kade from the Campbell men who raided the Morrison keep earlier. And she takes Maisie’s help who was trying to make amends for her bad behavior. La-di-da! Not that I cared. I just hope I don’t have to read her book at some point.
My most favorite part of this whole book must’ve been the epilogue because it was beautiful. There was something about it that I couldn’t deny.
Finally, I’m intrigued about Knox’s story. Not much is mentioned about that but some hints at the end about a mysterious red-head. Knox is a broody guy, a type I generally like. I’m hoping that his story will be a fun read. I also want to know more about Ailie and Christie, so there are plenty of characters who may have their own stories told. It was also great to see Clementine not sent off to the convent. I still have hopes for her having a man of her own. I just want to see her happy, that’s all. 3.5 stars.
This ARC was provided to me by Harlequin/HQN via netgalley which didn’t influence my review and rating in any way.