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Review: The Highlander by Kerrigan Byrne

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Victorian Rebels series

Can the fiercest master of battle conquer a woman’s heart?

They call him the Demon Highlander. The fearsome Lieutenant Colonel Liam MacKenzie is known for his superhuman strength, towering presence, and fiery passion in the heat of battle. As Laird to the MacKenzie clan, the undefeated Marquess has vanquished his foes with all rage and wrath of his barbaric Highland ancestors. But when an English governess arrives to care for his children, the master of war finds himself up against his greatest opponent... in the game of love.

Defying all expectations, Miss Philomena is no plain-faced spinster but a ravishing beauty with voluptuous curves and haughty full lips that rattle the Laird to his core. Unintimidated by her master’s raw masculinity and savage ways, the headstrong lass manages to tame not only his wild children but the beast in his soul. With each passing day, Liam grows fonder of Miss Mena—and more suspicious. What secret is she hiding behind those emerald eyes? What darkness brought her to his keep? And how can he conquer this magnificent woman’s heart... without surrendering his own?
 

3.5 STARS

 

The Highlander is a sweet and romantic escape! Byrne delivers a historical romance that has a little bit of everything. Mysterious haunting pasts, and looming dangers, give this story an extra air of excitement. The story's ending didn't captivate me as much as the beginning, I felt as if it were
missing something.   I plan on reading the first books in the series, curiously after being introduced to previous characters in the series. I appreciated the characters,especially Liam.
The cover of this book was amazing, the colors captivating.




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 Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

London, September, 1878


Twenty Years Later


Take off your clothes. It wasn’t the first time Lady Philomena St. Vincent, Viscountess Benchley, had heard the command. She was the wife of a violent libertine, after all. But as she stared in wide-eyed incomprehension at the jowly Dr. Percival Rosenblatt, she was at a momentary loss for words. Surely he couldn’t mean that she was to disrobe in front of him. Only female nurses oversaw the ice bath therapy here at Belle Glen Asylum. To have a male doctor in attendance was all but unheard of.


“But, Doctor, I—I’ve been well behaved.” She took an involuntary step back, trepidation flaring in her stomach when she saw the tub, jagged chunks of ice bobbing on the surface as horrifically as shards of broken glass. “Surely I’ve done nothing to warrant this—this treatment.”


Treatment. A peculiar word. One with many meanings in a place like this.


“You’ve been at yourself again.” Nurse Greta Schopf, her self-proclaimed nemesis here at Belle Glen, stepped forward and grasped her wrist, strong fingers sinking into her flesh, yanking the loose sleeves to her elbow. The large German woman, clad in a uniform, a high-necked, somber gown with a white apron and hat, held up the fresh scratches on Mena’s forearm for the doctor’s inspection. “She’s also been at herself in … other ways, Doctor. We’ve had to strap her to the bed at night to stop her from her amoral compulsions.”


Mena gaped at the nurse in sheer disbelief.


“That simply isn’t true,” she gasped, then turned to entreat the doctor. “Please, she’s mistaken, Dr. Rosenblatt; it was another patient, Charlotte Pendergast, who scored my arm with her nails. And I swear I’ve never—” She didn’t want to say it, didn’t want the heat to flare in his wrinkled, murky eyes at the thought of her touching herself. Though, at this point, she’d do most anything to avoid the ice bath. “I’ve never once done myself harm … and I’ve likewise refrained from … any … amoral compulsions.”


She’d informed the doctor of this before, of course, in their initial sessions together. She’d confessed that her bruises and scrapes were not, in fact, self-inflicted, but inflicted upon her by her sadistic husband, Lord Gordon St. Vincent, the Viscount Benchley. In her first days as an involuntary patient here, she’d done all she could to emphatically deny any madness or lunacy or sexual misconduct, because it was the absolute truth.


In fact, she’d frantically confessed everything about herself upon her arrival here at Belle Glen Asylum, as she’d been frightened and utterly alone.


At first, Dr. Rosenblatt had reminded Mena of her father, doling out the milk of human kindness from behind his stately office desk. Possessed of a pleasant round face complete with chops and an extra chin, jolly red cheeks, and a portly belly, Dr. Rosenblatt seemed to be a mild-mannered, middle-aged professional gentleman.


She should have known never to trust her instincts when it came to others, especially men. Somehow she was always wrong.


Dr. Rosenblatt snapped open her file, reading it as though he weren’t the sole author of the lies contained within its depths. “You’re getting agitated, Lady Benchley,” he said in that soft voice, the one people usually saved for crying children and the insane.


“No!” she cried, louder than she’d meant to, as Nurse Schopf tugged her toward the bath. “No.” She schooled her voice into something more pleasant, more ladylike, even though she dug her feet against the tile floor. “Doctor, I’m not at all agitated, but I would very much prefer not to take the ice bath. Please. I—isn’t there something else? The electrodes, perhaps—or just put the mittens on me and send me to bed.” She didn’t want to consider the alternatives she’d just suggested. She dreaded the electrodes, abhorred the chafing little prisons locked about her wrists, rendering her hands useless for anything at all.


But she feared nothing so much as the ice baths.


“Please,” she entreated again, frightened tears welling behind her eyes.


“You beg so prettily, Lady Benchley.” His gaze never touched hers, but drifted lower, to her mouth and then to her breasts that tested the seams of her tight and uncomfortable black frock. “But, you see, I am your doctor and my first obligation is the treatment of your illness. Now, if you please, remove your clothing without further incident, or they will be removed for you.”


Nurse Schopf’s grip tightened on Mena’s wrist with bruising strength unusual for a woman. She pulled Mena toward the tub, securing her other hand around Mena’s upper arm. “Are you going to fight me today, Countess Fire Quim, or will you behave for once?”


Countess Fire Quim, it was a name one of the patients had given her that first awful day in Belle Glen. They’d been stripped bare in a room full of fifteen or so women, poked, prodded, deloused, and then doused with buckets of cold water. Someone had remarked on the uncommon shade of her red hair, and then on the darker shade of auburn between her legs. Mena had been called many cruel things in her life, most often by her family, the St. Vincents, and generally pertaining to her uncommon height or her wide hips and shoulders, but “Countess Fire Quim” was somehow the most humiliating. Especially when used by the nurses or the staff at Belle Glen.


“I’ve done nothing wrong.” Mena sent one more panicked, entreating stare to Dr. Rosenblatt, who quietly shuffled the papers in her file without even glancing down at them. “Don’t put me in there!”


“You’re being hysterical,” he said softly. “Which only proves to me the extent of your madness.”


The nurses, one on either side of her now, dragged her by the arms. Once she was close enough, Mena kicked out at the tub with both feet, hoping to upset it. The sturdy tub didn’t move, but as Mena was not a small woman, her struggles were enough to free her from the grasp of the nurses.


“Wot’s this ’ere?” The cheerful voice of Mr. Leopold Burns could have brightened any room that he entered. But to the patients of Belle Glen Asylum, his arrival always brought darkness. The ogre-sized orderly was closer to his twenties than his forties, but an unfortunate potato-shaped nose and thinning blond hair belied his youth. “You’re no’ makin’ any trouble, are you, Lady Benchley?” A fist of dread squeezed Mena’s lungs as Nurse Schopf’s grip was traded for Mr. Burns’s. “Now let’s take those clothes off.”


Mena fought them this time. She’d tried being prim and obedient. All her life, she’d been timid, pliant, and gentle, and it only served to produce the same result. At least this once, she was not a willing participant in her own humiliating tragedy.


She struggled and jerked as the nurse’s deft fingers undid the buttons of her coarse frock, yanking it down her waist and over her hips and legs. She cried and pleaded, kicked and stomped when they ripped her chemise away—no one in an asylum bothered with a corset—exposing her breasts to Mr. Burns’s and Dr. Rosenblatt’s greedy eyes.


Those eyes drank their fill, and Mena dimly wondered how the nurses, as women, could be a part of this obvious deviancy.


The tears streaming down her cheeks were not only caused by humiliation and fear, but by the acrid, unbearable stench of Mr. Burns’s breath. He pulled her back against his body, and secured her in a bearlike grip under the guise of immobilizing her so the nurses could relieve her of her drawers. His hands groped and grasped painfully at her breasts, and he lowered his offensive mouth to press against her ear. “The more ya struggle, Countess Fire Quim, the harder it is to keep me ’ands proper.”


“Your hands have never been proper,” she accused. The frigid air against her flesh told her she was fully naked now. She became less worried about that than the press of Mr. Burns’s growing arousal against her back.


He squeezed her with his meaty arms, cutting off her breath. Sharp pain stabbed at her breasts, and a more worrisome twinge lanced her as she felt something like a rib shift in her side, stealing her ability to draw the breath to cry out.


“Wot senseless things these loonies say,” Mr. Burns tsked as he lifted her momentarily paralyzed form over the rim of the tub while each of her legs were secured by a nurse.


Mena watched in horror as the ice water came at her slowly. At this juncture, she could do nothing but brace for the impact.


The shards of ice hit her with the puncturing and sudden affliction of a cat’s sharp claw, evoking the reflex to snatch back the offended limb. Except her entire body suffered the sensation and when she breached from the original submersion, she was shocked to see that none of her skin had been perforated.


Out of desperation, she flailed for the edge of the tub, her lungs emitting little spasms of shock that escaped her with desperate mewls. Dragging her naked body up, she managed to gain her feet and nearly hop back out of the tub before three sets of strong hands forced her back down.


Her head went under along with the rest of her.


And stayed.


She thrashed and flailed at her captors, but their hands were everywhere, subduing her limbs. After a time, the initial panic subsided and she stilled. Was this to be how it ended, then? Imprisoned along with the empire’s forgotten naturals and unfortunates, a Cockney pervert sneaking a squeeze of her breasts, and a sadistic nurse holding her down while a coldhearted doctor looked on?


She wondered if Lady Farah Blackwell, Countess Northwalk, had ever received her letter. Had the countess done anything on her behalf, or merely ignored her pleas for help. Judging by the burning in her lungs, Mena doubted she’d ever find out.


Perhaps it was for the best. She’d leave this world surrounded by cold and merciless shards of suffocating ice. The literal manifestation of what her life had been these past five years.


Could hell really be worse than this? Was there a chance she’d already served some penance for her sins here on this cruel plane? Perhaps the Lord was not such a vengeful God, merely an indifferent one. Be that the case, maybe she could persuade him to let her have a tiny, insignificant corner of heaven. Even the part no one else wanted. An isolated place at the end of a long lane where she could exist in quietude and seclusion. Away from the malevolence of expectation and the judgment of her many failures. Somewhere the clouds hovered low like a canopy and the sun filtered through them on a late summer’s day like the pillars thrown down on the southern moors, as majestic and warm as divine forgiveness.


Closing her eyes, Mena found the bravery to draw in a breath of icy water just as the hands holding her under tightened to pull her up. She surfaced and heaved what little of the liquid had made it into her lungs in a series of soul-racking coughs.


Once the spasms had passed, she focused on filling her lungs with air. The moment was gone, that glimpse of peace she’d found beneath the ice. She knew she was too much of a coward to take her own life.


So she sat and shivered, surrendering to her misery, drawing her knees up to her chest in the bath before the cold stole mobility from her limbs.


“See that she’s cleaned and then we’ll begin,” Rosenblatt directed.


The nurses scrubbed her skin with harsh soap and efficient brutality, remarking as they did so that this would account for her weekly bath.


Five minutes had passed once they’d finished, and Mena’s skin felt as though a thousand needles pricked it with simultaneous persecution. But she set her jaw, deciding to do what she must to escape the cold now seeping into her bones.


“I’m going to interview you now, Lady Benchley.” Dr. Rosenblatt stepped to the foot of the tub. “I want you to tell me how the following information affects you. If I feel you’ve answered honestly, we’ll get you out of the tub. Do you understand?”


Mena nodded.


“Good.” He shuffled some of his paperwork, and finding the one he searched for, he placed it on the top of her open file and read. “First we’ll dispense with the generals. Do you hear voices in your rooms at night, Lady Benchley? Ones that keep you awake or torment you?”


Mena remained staring straight ahead and answered honestly. “Only the screams of the patients. And the nurses who mock them.”


Greta Schopf pinched her shoulder painfully, but Mena didn’t so much as wince.


“Quite so.” The doctor never looked up from his notes. “Do you ever see things, strange things, apparitions, ghosts, or hallucinations?”


Mena answered this very carefully, as she knew that hallucinations were the mark of true madness. “Never.” She shook her head.


“A few questions for statistical purposes, due to your diagnosis,” Rosenblatt continued.


The cold had begun to muddle Mena’s thoughts. The blood in her veins slowed to a drip and she’d begun to shiver so violently, she had to force her words through teeth clacking together. But she knew which questions were forthcoming. The diagnosis her husband and his mother had paid their family doctor to make was psychosexual hysteria and amoral insanity, and the good Dr. Rosenblatt simplydelighted in inquiring about it.


“Tell me, again, how often you and Lord Benchley engaged in marital relations.”


Mena refused to answer the question in front of an audience. “I’ve t-told you already.”


“Yes, you’ve told me he used to come to you five times a week at first, and then hardly ever toward the end. That once he realized you could not bear him children, he sought the company of other women.” Dr. Rosenblatt leaned forward, capturing her gaze that was beginning to blur due to the cold. “Except when you would ask him to force you. He told me you disgusted him, especially when you would request that he fulfill your violent sexual fantasies, isn’t that right, Lady Benchley?”


Mena learned that even in the ice bath she could burn with shame. “He … lied. I. Never. W-wanted…” The cold leached into her chest, robbing her of her voice.


“I’ve warned you, only the truth will liberate you from your current state,” Rosenblatt reminded her.


The truth. The truth was that her husband was as much a sadist as Dr. Rosenblatt. Gordon St. Vincent enthusiastically tried to figure out what made people cringe. What they truly feared. What they hated about themselves. And he exploited this information to his advantage.


It had started gradually, her hell within the St. Vincent household. And before long, when Gordon had thought her broken, when his jibes and torments no longer seemed to affect her, her husband became violent. Acts that would land a man in prison should he enact them out on the streets were all perfectly legal if he perpetrated them on his wife.


In the span of time and space, a quarter hour is nothing. A grain of sand on an endless beach. But in that tub, it became an eternity, stretching away from the warm rays of the sun. Until there was nothing but cold. Nothing but this white, white room and suffering.


After that, Mena lost the ability to see the arms on the clock. Her joints seized and her muscles contracted with such violent pain, she let out an involuntary wail.


Lord, but she truly did sound mad.


Her hands contorted into strange and painful angles against her chest, and odd convulsions seemed to rack her spine, even as she felt her heart slow to a plodding amble, nearly losing its rhythm.


She was tired. So tired.


It was then they dragged her from the bath, lifting her by the elbows drawn stiff enough to hold her weight. She’d become like the ice, truly frozen. She couldn’t even summon the strength to care anymore as Dr. Rosenblatt and Mr. Burns watched while she was toweled dry and a rough cotton shift yanked over her head.


An alarming numbness had begun to spread from Mena’s muscles and limbs inward to her organs. She’d never spent more than ten minutes in the ice baths before. She hardly noticed as a comb was jerked through her long hair. She tried to stumble away, but her knees refused to hold her as the cold had leached all strength from her muscles. Mr. Burns caught her in time to prevent injury, but she’d rather have fallen to the floor.


“She’s too heavy for us to carry. You’ll have to get her back to her rooms, Mr. Burns,” Nurse Schopf ordered.


“’Appy to, madam,” Mr. Burns said cheerfully.


“I’ll assist. The bath has seemed to calm her hysteria, and she should be docile for quite some time.” Dr. Rosenblatt pushed away from the wall and snapped her file closed. “See that this gets back to my office, Nurse Schopf, and make certain that we aren’t disturbed.”


Mena’s useless feet made terrible noises on the long, uncarpteted floor as the two men “ushered” her down the corridor, scrubbed and painted with that peculiar whiteness that must be reserved for such institutions. Gas lamps spaced precisely between the doors did nothing to warm the glaring emptiness of the place. Even the beams and bolts and the padlocks on the iron doors had been whitewashed. Sterile, like their bedrooms, devoid of warmth, light, or color. Pure, like their nightgowns, high-necked, binding, and modest, but for the fact one could see the shape beneath.


Little shivering whimpers escaped Mena’s chest and throat, unbidden and unwanted, but somehow she couldn’t stop them. Her jaw ached from the clenching and clacking of her teeth. The asylum night noises grated on her skin. She felt each wail of insanity as though they were nails scoring her flesh. At the sound of heavy boots, some women pressed their faces against the three bars that comprised their tiny windows to the hall. Their stares pricked her like needles. Some were mad, mocking, and terrible. Others, like her, those who did not belong behind these walls, were full of pity and sometimes tears. Mena could acknowledge none of them. At the moment, she couldn’t even manage to turn her neck.


“I like that she’s clean and meek,” Mr. Burns stated. “But I don’t relish the idea of sticking my prick into an ice block.”


His words speared a sharp clench of panic through Mena. She’d often wondered if rape was their aim. She knew that the doctor and the orderly had used Belle Glen as their own personal playground. She’d listened to the screams of more than one longtime resident as she’d given birth in the middle of the night. She’d cried with them, and thanked her stars for the first time in her life that she was too tall and too round to be considered truly desirable.


“She’ll be warm enough on the inside,” the doctor replied shortly. “And the muscle convulsions will make things … more interesting.”


Dread seized hold of her with a grip tighter than either of their cruel, groping hands.


“P-please. Don’t,” she stuttered, before her jaw clenched shut on another wave of chills. If only she could struggle. It wouldn’t help her, she knew that, but at least she wouldn’t have this feeling of being bound by her own sinew and skin. Of all the hopeless anger she felt at the moment, most of it was directed at her own useless limbs.


“That’s right, milady, we’ll be making ya beg for it,” Mr. Burns said with apparent relish before addressing the doctor on the other side of her. “I’ve been wanting to get me ’ands on those tits for months, why’d you make us wait so long?”


“This is no government-run institution, Burns, with poor oversight and crowding. Also, this isn’t just any woman. She’s a viscountess. I had to make certain her family wouldn’t make a fuss about her. That they wouldn’t soften or change their minds and take her home. But the Viscount Benchley has just recently assured me that she’s well and truly abandoned to our tender mercies.”


Mr. Burns made a noise of anticipation that roiled what little food Mena had in her belly. There had been a spider baked into her bread that evening for dinner, so she’d only drunk the rancid broth.


“Never shagged nobili’iy before,” he observed.


“Indeed.” Dr. Rosenblatt turned to address Mena. “It may please you to know, Lady Benchley, that your husband has parceled off Birch Haven Place and sold it to make a generous contribution to the institution here at Belle Glen. You’ll be a guest here … indefinitely.”


At that terrible news, a sob escaped her, though, sadly, tears never came. It was as though she were incapable of producing any.


Birch Haven Place had been her home. Her only refuge. And now she’d well and truly lost everything.


The portly Dr. Rosenblatt was audibly short of breath by the time they reached her room, and her weight was primarily supported by the orderly.


“Not a dainty bird, are ya?” Burns remarked. “Well, that’s awright, I s’pose. You’re not like to see tits like those ’uns on a delicate lady.”


The jangle of the keys the doctor pulled from the pocket of his overcoat finally produced a spurt of panic strong enough to slam her heart against her ribs. A trickle of fire started in her scalp and dripped down her spine until her entire body seemed dipped in acid.


Dr. Rosenblatt’s fat fingers seemed clumsy with excitement, his cheeks flushed beneath his gray beard. “I’m going to go first,” he said. “I don’t know where else you’ve put that dirty cod.”


“And ya don’t want to know, neither,” Burns joked, and they shared a masculine chuckle.


Hot tears finally managed to gather behind her eyes and they felt more substantial than the rough hands clamped about her numb arms and waist. Mena wished that she had led the kind of life in which their vulgarity still shocked her. That she’d never known what it was to have a man inside her after she’d said no. Or while she’d cried. Or while she’d struggled and fought. Her husband had taken care of that, hadn’t he?


By the time the heavy door to her room swung open, Mena was able to twitch her fingers. Her strength and blood flow was returning in terrible increments.


Which meant she might be able to struggle—but could she fend them both off?


She doubted it. They were brutes. Two men who mocked her for her height and size when Mr. Burns’s muscle was covered with a layer of softness and Dr. Rosenblatt was simply fat.


They would win, they would overpower her, and then—a gag she was unable to suppress stole her breath.


“Dr. Rosenblatt!” Nurse Schopf’s voice echoed down the hallway like a cannon blast. “Doctor, you must come now!”


A cacophony of madness erupted as other patients were roused, the more unstable of them screeching and making their horrid noises.


“We are being invaded!” the nurse screeched.


“Invaded?” Dr. Rosenblatt visibly blanched. “By whom?”


“The police!”


Lip curling in disgust, Rosenblatt made a nasty comment and then tossed the keys to Mr. Burns. “Put this one in her quarters and use the restraints while I deal with this.”


“With pleasure!” Burns gathered Mena to him and forced her into the unlocked room that had become the stage for her nightly battles with the abyss.


“Not the restraints,” she rasped out, desperation helping her to regain her voice somewhat. “You don’t have to do this. Please just leave me be.” There was a special kind of fear in not being able to move one’s limbs in the night; the fear created its own sort of lunacy as the mind worked while the body could not. Mena imagined all sorts of horrors to combat the chill of being manacled, spread-eagled, on her hard plank bed. An errant fire that she could do nothing about but lie in wait until it consumed her slowly, or London rats chewing on her feet, or spiders crawling on her with no way to brush them off.


And here a new terror was introduced. A man, two men, with unadulterated access to her body and no way for her to struggle, or strain, or even shift to alleviate the pain that came with intercourse.


Some strength began to return to Mena’s hips and shoulders, working its way slowly out from the torso. Everywhere he touched it felt like his skin was made of razors and hers of silk. The ripping sensation was almost audible.


Panic flared as mobility began to return, and Mena tugged against Mr. Burns’s unyielding grip. She struggled to wrench and yank away from him, but knew her movements were weak. “Don’t tie me up, I implore you!” When one of his arms released her to reach for the first buckled leather manacle, Mena’s arm flailed out, her elbow catching him in the chin.


He bared his filthy teeth as he whirled her around and smashed the back of his ham-sized knuckles into her face. He released her as his blow connected, sending her crashing to the hard floor in a pile of weak limbs. Pain exploded into Mena’s cheek and radiated to her eyes, ears, and down her neck, but she caught herself with trembling hands before her head cracked against the floor. The taste of brine and copper trickled into her mouth from where her teeth had cut into her cheek.


Mr. Burns crouched down, the pleasant, unassuming look fixed back on his unfortunate features. “Let me remind ya of something out of the kindness of me ’eart, Countess Fire Quim.” The foul stench of his breath assailed her, causing her already watering eyes to overflow. “Out there, you’re a noble lady expecting everyone to lick your boots and kiss your arse. But in ’ere, you’re nothing but another loony cunt, locked away because no one can stand ya. I’ll tell ya what I tell the others here. If ya make me ’appy, I can make your life easier. If you’re difficult, then life will be difficult, and no one will believe that the bruises I leave on ya weren’t inflicted by your own self.”


All of the large muscles in Mena’s body quivered and twitched with returning blood. Her skin burned, yet she was freezing. Despite all that, she was only aware of the raw black emotion swirling in her soul. Something dark and self-destructive, as though one of the many demons she’d fought in her lifetime had finally been set free.


“It’s Viscountess Fire Quim, you hateful brute,” she snapped, surprising herself as much or more than Mr. Burns. “If you all insist on calling me that ridiculous moniker, the very least you can do is affix the correct title.” To seal her fate, she spat blood in his repulsive face.


He acted just like she’d expected him to, and his next vicious blow granted her the oblivion she craved.


*   *   *


To Mena, heaven was a difficult notion to comprehend. And, somehow, whenever she pictured it in her mind, she merely conjured an image of home. Her realhome. Not Benchley Court, the stately, opulent mansion where she’d resided with her husband these five soul-crushing years. Nor Belle Glen Asylum, where she lay now on the stone floor in a puddle of her blood and grief.


But home. Birch Haven Place, an idyllic country baronetcy in Hampshire. A place as much a paradise as this asylum had become her purgatory.


Floating in the dark folds of her unconscious, Mena could feel the sunshine of southern England on her face. Could close her eyes and still see the light and shadow playing to her in the shade of her favorite copse of birch trees where she used to picnic and read of a summer’s day. She’d gaze over the fields to where the manor house settled, a cozy Georgian structure, too big to be called a cottage and too small for a mansion, with red stone, white windows, and entirely too many chimneys. Her father had once told her he thought the roof rather cluttered. But Mena had loved each seemingly random gable and smokestack right where it was.


When she was growing up, the gardens had been her fairyland, a place to let her imagination roam. The stables, her adolescent refuge, as she was allowed to explore the countryside on horseback until the fields ran into the sea. The grand fireplace in the meager great hall was a warm corner of comfort, where she and her beloved father had huddled their heads together every winter over countless books and shut out the world.


Her father, lovely as he was, had been too low for high society, too gentle for the merchant class, too eccentric to fit in much of anywhere, but too wealthy to ignore. Her mother had died of scarlet fever before Mena could even walk, and Baron Phillip Houghton had protected and pampered his only daughter. Educated her like a man. Treated her like a treasure. And instilled a love of all things intellectual and agricultural.


When the St. Vincents purchased the stately manor of Grandfield bordering Birch Haven, the baron had seen a chance to save his only child from encroaching spinsterhood.


A disease had been eating at his bones, one he’d kept hidden from Philomena until he succumbed to it mere months after her marriage, leaving her alone in this world but for a cruel husband and his hateful family.


Now Birch Haven was gone. Her father, years dead. And there was no sunshine or warmth in this world.


The cold pierced Mena before consciousness fully returned, and she knew for a fact she was not in heaven. Even before she blinked open her eyes and saw the face of the devil calling her name, an eye patch affixed over a grim, scowling, but satirically handsome face.


“Don’t move, Lady Benchley,” the black-haired, black-eyed devil was saying as he tucked something around her shivering body, something with warmth in its heavy folds. His cloak, perhaps? “Don’t look,” he softly ordered.


There was a man yelling, not far from her. Mr. Burns? The voice made her skin crawl. Her face throbbed with pain. Screams of madness and cries of joy echoed from women among the chaos of authoritative male voices out in the hall.


A sickening crunch sounded, and despite the devil’s orders—despite her own dismay—Mena looked.


Mr. Burns dropped from the grip of a familiar auburn-haired mercenary. The orderly’s neck crooked at an impossible angle and his eyes stared sightlessly at the cold, white walls.


Mr. Burns had been terrified in his last moments, and Mena was glad of it.


“He shouldn’t have put his hands on you,” the killer stated in that toneless, stony way of his.


“Mr. Argent.” A fair-haired man in a perfectly pressed suit leaned into her cell from the doorway, his light brows drawn down his forehead with somewhat paternal disapproval. Though he couldn’t have been much older than either Dorian Blackwell or Christopher Argent. “Did you just murder that man?”


Argent toed at Burns’s limp shoulder, his chilling features a smooth, blank mask of innocence. “No, Chief Inspector Morley, I—found him like this.”


The chief inspector glanced from Christopher Argent down at Mena, his blue eyes full of compassion, and then to the devil crouched over her. The director of Scotland Yard was no idiot, and Mena could tell that he ascertained the situation within a matter of seconds.


“Blackwell?”


“Bastard must have slipped whilst accosting the lady.” Dorian Blackwell, the Blackheart of Ben More, shrugged as he touched gazes with Argent, and then slid his notice back to Morley.


A tense and silent conversation passed between the three men, and after a moment where even Mena forgot to breathe, the chief inspector dropped his shoulders and nodded. “I’ll send for a doctor for the viscountess,” he muttered through clenched teeth. “A real doctor, as I intend to see the one running this institution hanged.”


“I’ll dispense with this heap of rubbish.” Taking Burns by the ankle, Argent dragged the limp and dirty orderly away as though he weighed no more than a gunnysack.


Turning back to Mena, Dorian tilted his head so he was regarding her solely out of his good eye. “Stay still a while longer, Lady Benchley,” he said with a gentleness Mena hadn’t known such a villain capable of. “My wife, Lady Northwalk, is waiting in the carriage. Once the doctor says it’s all right to move you, we’re taking you away from here.”


Mena fainted again, this time from profound relief.


 Copyright © 2016 by Kerrigan Byrne


Publisher: St. Martin
Pub Date: Aug. 2, 2016
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Spotlight: A Highlander in Vegas by Jennae Vale

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A Highlander In Vegas
by Jennae Vale

Blurb
Braeden MacDonald believes he’s died and gone to a place his very wise Grannie called ‘the meadows.’  In fact, he’s actually been transported through time to present day Las Vegas, Nevada and the Grand Opening of The Albannach Hotel, where the strange sights and sounds have him wondering - has he arrived in heaven… or hell?

Tessa McTavish doesn’t believe she needs a bodyguard following her around day and night, but her father has insisted and abiding by his wishes she finds herself both intrigued and irritated by the tall, dark and handsome Scotsman her father has hired to do the job.

Dueling Las Vegas sorcerers, a charmed pocket watch and magick spells will either destroy the Albannach and the McTavish name, or save it, but only time and Braeden MacDonald will tell.


Available for purchase at 



Excerpt



The doors slid open and Tessa walked into a very small room. Braeden followed and jumped when the doors closed behind him. He didn’t like being out of his element and he certainly didn’t want Tessa to think him frightened or unsure of himself. She hadn’t seemed to notice. He stood with his back to the closed doors and Tessa stood facing him. Lifting a single eyebrow in apparent disbelief, she twirled her finger in the air, confusing him even further when she then ignored him, looking just above his head. He spun in place and gazed upwards, but saw nothing. Was he doing something wrong? Before he could ask her, the doors slid open again and she brushed past him as she left. He followed and was surprised to be in an entirely different place than when he’d first entered the wee space. Why had they gone in there? He had so many questions. He’d have to ask the boss when he met him. He didn’t wish to antagonize the angelic lass any more than he already had.



About The Author

Jennae Vale is an author of romance with a touch of magic. Her Scottish Medieval time travel series The Thistle & Hive, Books One through Four, is available in print and ebook versions from Amazon. The first book in her new series, The Mackalls of Dunnet Head has been released, with more to come throughout 2016.

Jennae started life in Massachusetts as part of a large extended Irish and Italian family of imaginative story tellers, but now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, her dog, two cats and four chickens. Storytelling is her passion, but Jennae also loves to quilt,  cook, read and indulge in her crafting obsession when she’s not writing.

You can find Jennae at 

              







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