My review contains spoilers and they're mostly my thoughts as I went with the book...
My Highland Spy, book 1 of the Highland Spies series by Victoria Roberts was an overall fun read of the fluffy kind, especially if you harbor the love of all things Highland and Highlanders like me. ;) This is a completely new series which talks about a family of Spies, who have been working for the Crown for some generations.
The family in question is the Walsinghams. Even though Lord and Lady Walsingham have passed away, their 4 daughters remain; the eldest Ravenna, the next, Grace, then Elizabeth and Katherine. Lord Walsingham was a spy for Queen Elizabeth, so is Ravenna’s Uncle Walter, Lord Mildmay. Their mother initially didn’t know about this. She was proud nonetheless when she had finally been told everything. Since Ravenna has no brothers, she was chosen to follow her father’s footsteps by the Queen’s people.
At somewhere in her mid 20s and without any prospect of ever marrying due to her secret life, Ravenna considers herself a spinster. She has been busy with her ‘job’ for a while now, though, unsurprisingly, none of her sisters know anything. She’d like to keep it that way as long as possible, fear of danger following from such discussions. It also maybe the fact that her sister Grace, an 18 yr old, is rather annoyingly nosy. She never takes the hint and doesn’t know when to shut up, jumping into conclusions... wrong conclusions if I might add. Personally, I didn’t care for her much. Ravenna loves all her sisters and would do anything to protect them as the proverbial ‘mother hen’ but even she gets exasperated by Grace’s constant prodding about her whereabouts, especially if she’s out late. Ravenna has to go out at nights, often in disguise. Grace, who obviously has been spying on her big sister, would go on a tirade because she wouldn’t get any straight answer from her. *eyeroll*
All Ravenna’s missions are brought to her by Lord Mildmay. He’s the one who gives her instructions etc. on behalf of the Crown. So it was no wonder that one day, he drops by with a new one; this time Ravenna has to travel to the Highlands of Scotland to gather information. For that, she has to be ‘set up’ at a particular Laird’s residence. These Highlanders, as he’d say, are ‘barbarians’ and the Crown would like to know what they’re plotting inside. Besides, Laird Sutherland was summoned to the court by King James, yet he has never made an appearance, citing his wife’s illness. The King wants his son to learn English, and apparently, Laird Sutherland is neither fond of the language, nor the people who call themselves ‘English’ and has no intentions as of yet to comply with the King’s wishes. So Ravenna will masquerade as a governess to his young son, the best way to gain entry inside her ‘destination’.
Ravenna is not that happy to be traveling so far away, leaving her sisters behind for... not sure how long. Her uncle is all but adamant she has no option but to do as it is commanded. When she imparts the news of her impending journey to her sisters, Grace is unhappy and starts making crazy assumptions as to where Ravenna is headed, which almost always comes down to a secret lover and her being pregnant. Don’t even ask. Ravenna can only shake her head at Grace’s antics. She knows their uncle will have his hands full taking care of the girls, but she must be one her way. And so, Ravenna finds herself on the way to the proverbial ‘unknown’ masquerading as Mistress Denny, governess to Laird Sutherland’s son, Torquil.
Upon reaching the Sutherland keep, despite her fear and other doubts, Ravenna can only think how beautiful the Highlands look. Soon, she’d learn that everything she has heard about these ‘barbarians’ are not true either. She meets the Laird upon her arrival and immediately is struck down by his... er, manly beauty. He’s tall, good looking, sporting that skirt-like thing she knows as ‘the kilt’... and he’s scowling at her as if he’d like nothing better than to throw her out. Hmm, this certainly doesn’t bode well in an unknown territory, for Ravenna knows no one here but her trustworthy coachman, whom she brought with her as... what can you say, protection?
Then there is another man with him, obviously someone close to the Laird. He introduces himself as Fagan, Laird’s right-hand man and the head of his army. Fagan seems friendlier, with a perpetual smile that promises all sorts of deviltry. He’s handsome too in his own way. As he warmly welcomes her in the Sutherland keep, in English, Ravenna thinks she has found a friend here already. Too bad that the Laird himself doesn’t speak English. How is she going to gather any information if she can’t understand what they’re saying?
This led to a funny scene with Ravenna and Ruairi, when he decides to show her around the keep, a bit reluctantly admitting that she’s staying after all. It’s obvious he doesn’t want trouble with his King, however much he despises the idea of an English governess for his son. At one point of the tour, Ravenna couldn’t help her horny thoughts on his sexy, kilt-clad body. The Laird answers her in perfect English, laced with that sexy accent, that leaves her embarrassed as hell. Lord, I was laughing so hard, imagining Ravenna’s face at that time. :p
So, the truth was out! Ruairi didn’t want the governess to know that he can understand her perfectly but after hearing her ‘thoughts’ on him, he had to. It was imperative that she knew he appreciates that she finds him so appealing, for Ruariri has been having the same kinds of thoughts about her. Mistress Denny, though English, is a beauty. Ruairi can’t help but be attracted to her grace and charm, and her quick wit. Also, the fact that he made her blush like a young girl with his reply. He’s still weary of her arrival though, not knowing what to think of his King’s intentions but she has to stay for the time being and teach Torquil English.
Ruairi also doesn’t tell Ravenna that his wife, Anne, has been dead for over two years, when he finds that she’s under the impression that it’s more of a recent incident. Her sympathy burns him for he didn’t mourn her loss. Anne was the daughter of the power hungry Laird of Gordon. I still don’t know why Ruairi married her in the first place but that woman, who has always taken her father’s side in everything, nothing short of ruined his life. Gordon is an idiot, and as empty as they come, as we see soon enough. He wanted the Sutherland forces joined with his for more power over the Highlands. But Ruairi wants peace and prosper for his people, not blood and gore. Obviously, both father and daughter were very disappointed not being able to manipulate him in any way. Moreover, Gordon never shed a tear for his daughter, always blaming Ruairi for Anne’s demise, which is simply out of spite and not based on fact.
Ruairi’s marriage was rather a sham too. After Torquil was born soon after their marriage, he stopped sharing his wife’s bed. But I think he was true to his marriage vows. Not sure if he has been with anyone after Anne’s death but it was obvious that Ruairi is rather disappointed and heartbroken. The women in his life, apparently, always caused him grief, rather than love and peace. It was also becoming rather clear that he’s essentially a good man who wanted to have a family of his own. Right now, Torquil is his world and would be his heir once he passes away. Before that, through right plans and determination, he’d see that his clan prospers without a war or wars to destroy it all. Now, this new governess might pose a threat to what little peace of mind he has as Ruairi would like to get to know her better, no doubt!
Ravenna’s best moment had to be her meeting with Torquil. The motherless boy takes to her instantly. Though he doesn’t like to study as any kid who’d rather run around and play, he otherwise loves spending time with her. There was another of Ravenna’s ‘fans’, if you can say so, that she could do without. Torquil’s, or rather the clan’s pet wolf Angus. When she first ‘met’ the wolf, she thought he was attacking Torquil. Though that confusion was cleared up later by the Laird himself, Ravenna doesn’t want the special attention from that creature. Because of a childhood trauma, Ravenna doesn’t like anything that resembles a dog... or a wolf. But Angus has decided to become her ‘Unwanted Protector’ and there’s no stopping the beast. It was kinda funny to see Ravenna trying to shoo it off when it’s near her or waiting to catch her, more often than not unawares.
It doesn’t take long for Ruairi to become smitten with Ravenna and work on their mutual attraction. The outings with or without Torquil brings them even closer. It was Ruairi who begins to open up to Ravenna because he was already beginning to trust her. On the other hand, though Ravenna feels attracted to him, she’s pretty much determined to finish her duty here and return to England. For a long time, it didn’t feel that she has any genuine feelings for Ruairi, even knowing what a splendid Laird and father he was. Her thoughts were always on her ‘duty to the Crown’. For some reason, I didn’t like it much. I knew heartbreak was ahead, probably for Ruairi, when her secrets are finally revealed.
True to her ‘duty’, Ravenna begins to eavesdrop and follow Ruairi secretly, sometimes getting nothing, something coming up with useful, if a bit hazy, information. Even though she loves here in the Highlands, the Clan and Torquil, she doesn’t think her life is here. Then again, I couldn’t blame her entirely. She had 3 orphaned younger sisters to think of after all. But that doesn’t mean she can’t indulge herself in an affair with the Laird in the meantime, right? She’s no virgin (no clarification on that), so they end up in bed soon. Ruairi is only too happy to have the beautiful Ravenna in his bed, and I was thinking, Poor Guy, will have another shock when he learns of her true motivation, because Ravenna sure wasn’t gonna talk about it herself. *sigh*
The Gordon stops by, again, to pinch poor Ruairi about a new revolution around the Highlands, where he and his so-called allies mean to rule. As usual, he wants Ruairi to join forces with them. They plan an upheaval but Ruairi has no interest in blood and gore, definitely not when Gordon and his cronies are involved in that. He knows better than to trust that creep. Ruairi already suspected that the dead cows from his land and that of Ian Munro’s that were turning up were Gordon’s ploy to force them to join. Killing of the valuable livestock seemed to be the right kind of ‘push’. Rest assured, neither Ruairi nor Munro is happy about any of this.
Ian is Ruiari and Fagan’s childhood friend. When he stops by, he zooms in on Ravenna for a flirtation but soon gets the hint from his friend that she’s off limits. Then the friends talk and Ian is none too happy about the developments. Besides, they catch two men who confessed that it was the Gordon that paid them to dress in Munro’s color, then kill the cattle, obviously to create trouble between the two allies. But the idiot should’ve known better, for Ruairi would never believe that Ian was trying to harm him, just as Ian wouldn’t.
This time, after the Gordon and his vengeful younger daughter’s latest visit, when Ravenna snoops around, she finds the interesting information she has been looking for. She gets an idea of the upheaval and what the Gordon has been planning. Maybe this was what her uncle asked her to look for here! Though Ravenna was happy about her success, I was rather unhappy that she didn’t seem to feel any remorse for doing what she was doing (or about to do); playing with Ruairi’s trust, for he was still in the dark about her ‘secret’. When he asked of her life, Ravenna would become vague, not giving him any real answer. Ruairi also didn’t force her, though he has, by now, opened up a lot about himself.
When it seemed that the war between him and the Gordon’s are apparent, Ruairi asks Ravenna to leave for her own safety. He wouldn’t want her harmed in a feud that has nothing to do with her. Ravenna’ doesn’t want to, but she has no other choice. She sends word at home and asks Grace to be in Edinburgh soon, so that they can journey together towards England.
Unfortunately, at the same time, Torquil is gravely injured in an accident. The boy remains unconscious for long. This breaks Ruairi’s heart. No... that’s not even close to what he was feeling I gather. It’s like his world was coming apart, as we find him thinking to himself, would he never have a little peace in his life? He tries to stay calm and strong as the Laird of his clan, but in secrecy of Torquil’s chamber, Ruairi can’t hold back his tears. This time though, Ravenna seems much affected by the developments. She instantly cancels her journey to be with him and Torquil, and for that, Ruairi is grateful to her. Ravenna feels helpless just as anyone, not knowing how to help the boy regain his consciousness, because the more days passed, the less likely he’d ever wake up. So sad and depressing! I really felt sad for Ruairi. Not only he had this happening to his son, but also he had to suffer through Gordon and his loony daughter’s ravings in trying to avoid any bloodshed. :( To make matters worse, Ravenna goes to snoop in on the daughter in search of some blasted information, against Ruairi’s wishes if I might add, a step she later regrets. She finds that the woman is crazy and mean to harm the Sutherlands. I would give her a point for backing away in time and relaying whatever she got from that woman to Ruairi.
At last, after torturing his father and the whole clan for a while, when Torquil opens his eyes, it felt that the heaviness was lifted off the environment! Everybody is exuberated, happy to have the little guy back. At the same time, Angus, who was doing poor, starts getting better too. Later it was found that he was poisoned by the Gordon men. Damn those creeps!
All these incidents had Ravenna thinking about ‘confessing’ but then, she’d be change her mind. I’m not sure what she would’ve done or if she’d ever tell Ruiari, if Grace, the airhead, didn’t bumble in to ‘rescue her sister’ from the barbarians. Oh the drama of her entrance, had me rolling my eyes all the way! And it doesn’t end there. Because of her, Fagan, who accosts her before anyone else, realizes that Ravenna is not who she made everyone think. I was so annoyed at Grace that I wanted to slap her real hard. This shouldn’t have been how Ravenna’s cover would’ve blown. Ruairi, IMO, deserved the confession from her mouth without these added ‘incentives’.
After that, there was only one thing left for Ravenna to do, to tell Grace and Ruairi about her secret life.
Grace, well, at first, shows some signs of remorse, maybe for the first time in her life, for mucking things up for her big sister. Then she’s determined she’s also going to follow Ravenna’s footstep (about which I shudder to think of, just as Ravenna). And when Grace makes up her mind... let’s say, it’s difficult to sway her from her decision. Ravenna certainly doesn’t want her sister in the spy business, as this was one of the reasons why she kept her life secret from Grace even though she was old enough to know the ‘family tradition’. Fagan, on the other hand, is clearly feeling betrayed because everybody in this keep liked Ravenna and welcomed her with open arms. While I could understand the anger coming off of Fagan, I was more concerned about Ruairi’s reaction.
Ruairi, have to say, fared better than I thought. He is mad and disappointed, asking Ravenna to leave this place right away, which she does. Before that, she promises never to speak about any information she gathered from here. I wonder how Ruairi even trusted her to let her go. But it was more because he couldn’t stand her to be near him anymore. Poor guy is heartbroken. Right after Torquil recovered, Ruairi expressed his love to Ravenna, who thought it was better to nip it in the bud because she was very sure that they had no future together. So you can say that Ruairi was hurt all over again, by another woman. What a mess! To surmise, when Ravenna leaves, she leaves behind a tail of broken hearts, which not only includes Ruairi’s but also Torquil and Angus’s. I must say that though I expected this outcome, it still made me unhappy. To me, trust can only be gained with trust and Ravenna betrayed Ruairi’s.
The last few chapters were kinda dragging. There is a war of sort with the Gordons, where Ruairi is able to ‘deliver’ his message to them; that he’d never make any kind of deal with the Gordons.
After months of a rather downcast existence, Ruairi finally has had enough. He decides to find Ravenna, and if possible, win her back because for good or for bad, his heart is hers. To him, it’s worth a try. So when Ruairi goes to London, he didn’t journey with a lot of expectations. Thankfully, Ravenna, in the space of these few months, has come to realize that she has fallen for the Laird too. But because of the way things were when she left, she figured she won’t be welcomed back. It felt like she rather gave up on Ruairi ever coming for her, which was disappointing IMO. I thought she’d fight for her love, if she, indeed, loved him. It was probably a good thing that she didn’t have to wait for long, right? Imagine her surprise when her uncle brings in a stranger to meet her, alone, in the garden, who turns out to be the man she has been thinking of constantly, day and night! The rest was rather easy, for I knew if Ravenna possessed an ounce of common sense, this time she’d not turn him away. And she didn’t. 4 stars.
My Highland Spy has me intrigued enough to look forward to the next installment. I’m pretty sure Grace and Fagan would be paired off, which is most unfortunate (or can be fun, depending on how Fagan ‘handles’ that idiot) because I like him. When I last saw them together, they were facing off, literally. Grace was determined to show off that she can ‘defend herself against a barbarian’, while Fagan was praying for patience so that he doesn’t end up beating her for being so annoying. You get the picture. I wish Fagan all the luck in the world on that one.
PS: I never knew why everyone seems to be ‘smirking’ so much throughout the story. Believe me, someone or the other was smirking in each paragraph, so much so that I actually begin to notice the word. Pretty weird, considering all the drama and the heartbreaks. Hmmm.
This ARC was provided to me by Sourcebooks Casablanca via netgalley which didn’t influence my review and rating in any way.