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The Highwayman by Judith James

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Highwayman
Rakes and Rogues of the Restoration #3

Judith James
Historical Romance
Published in 2014

H/h - John "Swift Nick" Nevison/Arabella Hamilton, The Countess of Saye
Setting: England, 1680.

Read in February, 2015.
My rating:

                                                  [spoiler alert]
“The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight, over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.”
Much like the book itself, I’d like to start by quoting Alfred Noyes’s famous and hauntingly beautiful poetry “The Highwayman”, though I’ll have to give the credit to Loreena McKennitt and her equally hauntingly beautiful rendition of this poem for introducing it to me. Though I’ve read romance novels with a highwaymen hero before, ever since I’ve read this poem, I’ve come to have a different sort of perspective about them. Previously I don’t remember having any particular fondness for highwaymen heroes but somehow Judith James’ story made me think differently, be it the poem itself, the storyline or the fact that her novels are almost always rich with history.

I’ve been waiting for The Highwayman, book 3 of Rakes and Rogues of the Restoration, for over 3 yrs. now, right after I finished reading Libertine’s Kiss (book 1) and The King’s Courtesan (book 2). Both books 1 and 2 have since gone under some changes with new covers and titles but I’d like refer to the original as I’ve read them. These books were rich in historical aspects, as it’s common for this series. It’s also very clear that the author likes to base her characters on real life personalities that lived in that long gone era. The H of book 1, William’s character was loosely based on John Wilmot; a poet and a close friend of Charles II, while the h of book 2, Hope, was loosely based on Nell Gwyn, Charles II’s longtime mistress. The author doesn’t disappoint here as our highwayman hero is based on famous John Nevison or “Swift Nick”; a real life highwayman whose tale has become the stuff of legends, much like Claude Duvall or Dick Turpin.

The Highwayman can be read as a complete stand alone IMO. There are no direct link between this book and the previous ones, so you won’t feel left out.

In Libertine’s Kiss, we found William and Lizzy as childhood friends. But fate played a cruel trick and kept them apart for years. It still hurts to think if they were never apart, so many heartaches could’ve been avoided. Both were lost, lonely souls; William, the jaded rakehell and lauded poet of Charles’ court, while Lizzy becomes a young widow without any prospects in life. It also still makes me shiver to think the way they come together years later and it never felt as if they were apart in the first place! William, who never gave love a second thought (he had valid reasons) and never hoped to find someone to love, becomes overwhelmed, then obsessed with Lizzy after that. Because you see, she was never far from his mind, though he’d given up hope of ever seeing her again. There are some twists and turns in the story regarding their relationship, that were woven so perfectly, that even I, who is always leery about rakes, couldn’t help fall for William in the end. He needed salvation so bad, and no one was more perfect for him than Lizzy. She was a great character too. Nothing in this story felt out of place, though I didn’t like reading the portrayal of William’s jaded lifestyle. It comes to haunt him later when he was trying his best to win Lizzy over. She loved him too, but wasn’t happy about his reckless, womanizing existence. Without giving out too much, I loved this book and would recommend in a heartbeat to anyone interested in rakish heroes, courtly drama, angst but most of all, a tale of unwavering love and devotion.

Robert, the H of The King’s Courtesan, was a family friend of Lizzy, who wanted to marry her at one point in book 1. But Lizzy didn’t agree because, though she was fond of him, she never had any such feelings for him. A war veteran, Robert came home as a wounded, broken man. He also had another secret that included his sister’s death and a need for revenge on the individual who murdered her; Harris. When he was trying to figure out his life hiding away in his country estate, Charles calls him up urgently. Turns out, he wants Richard to marry his longtime mistress, Hope because he’s getting married himself and can’t keep her around at the moment. When the time is ‘right’, he’d reclaim her once again. Yep, she’d be married to Robert, but she’d continue to ‘serve’ her a$$hole king (sorry, I have no liking for this guy, even though that’s how things were then). This one was a disappointment, as Charles was an inevitable fun killer for me. I resented his continued presence, with or without a body. Hope was forever daydreaming about him as if he’s the courtly lover would someday ask for her hand. *SMH* This created a lot of tension between her and Robert throughout their marriage. Hope had to return to Charles when the summons came, and Robert, though was forced to marry her, just couldn’t sit back and take it. Moreover, though he never wanted a sham marriage, he wanted to work it out with Hope. So yah, it wasn’t fun.

Now, at one point, Robert does find and exact revenge on Harris, who was a mean, disgusting piece of crap. That guy had a ‘wife’, though most thought he never married her. He mistreated her to such an extent that it was unbelievable. Their relationship wasn’t explored to a great extent but they had a son together, who was never named but made a very brief appearance at the end. When he was left alone in the world, Robert makes sure that he has a place to stay, with good people who’ll take care of him as their own.

That boy went to grow up as a strapping, handsome young man, thanks to the generous innkeeper and his wife. He also started riding along the wooded paths at night, looking for travelling coaches and robbing the rich off their valuables. But he also was known for his gentlemanly ways. Some called him Swift Nick, but then he was pardoned by the King and ‘retired’. Then, a new highwayman rose, and soon was known as ‘Gentleman Jack’; a handsome highwayman so suave and charming that the ladies are left breathless when he relives them off their valuables. The legend of John Nevison, Swift Nick, Gentleman Jack was born and continued on but we all know he was that lost little boy who refused to claim any relation with his disgraceful father. Who is still haunted by the miserable life he’d led while with Harris and by the sad, broken face of his mother, who once loved that monster and left her own noble family to be with him. She paid for that mistake with her life.

Unsurprisingly, Arabella’s character was also based on a 15th c female traveler named  Celia Fiennes. Even though the real life Celia and Swift Nick probably never knew one another, Arabella here meets Jack when she was kidnapped by her evil cousin, who wanted her inheritance. She’s the Countess of Saye with a big income and properties, without any other siblings to share it with her. Jack was given the task to ‘deliver’ her to the cousin from the kidnapper. What Jack thought would be something he can do in a trice, and earn some extra coin along the way, turns out to be a completely life altering experience for him. He soon understands that the cousin means grievous harm to Arabella, if his threats were any indication. He didn’t even bother that Jack was standing there while he was at it. But Jack understood that Arabella, all the while, told him the truth. He didn’t want to get involved but he couldn’t just leave her there to wait for her doom.

Arabella recognized Jack as ‘Gentleman Jack’, the famous highwayman. She thought he might be chivalrous enough to help her but was sorely disappointed when he declined. But then, one night at her tower (she was kept in one as a prisoner, literally), Arabella finds Jack coming through the window to save her. This becomes sort of a ritual in the story as we find out later. Jack, the charming rogue, soon has the clear, practical minded Arabella in his thrall. Arabella thought she’d spend her life as a spinster, as she considered herself rather plain. Besides she loved her independence a bit too much. But believe it or not, on their journey to a safer abode, her courage and determination had already roped Jack in the way no woman ever did. Whereas Arabella really wasn’t any highly sought after beauty, she was smart and lovely in her own way. And though Jack was as handsome as the very devil, he wasn’t a womanizer either. Yes, he’s had his share of ladies who wanted the thrill of an ‘adventure’ with a famous highwayman but nowhere in the story did he give the impression that he took advantage of every invitation that came his way. Soon he just fell for Arabella so deeply that it scared even him. So, after rescuing and leaving her with friends, Jack disappears for a long time, mainly because he didn’t want Arabella’s reputation ruined by any association with him.

Arabella had a very mixed reaction about Jack’s disappearance. On one hand, she misses him terribly, yet on the other, she’s angry that he’s taken her mother’s locket; the only thing of memory she’d had. She tries to tell herself that once a thief, always a thief but that doesn’t work. Either way, she’s heartsick. But at Jack’s request, his friends are around her to provide her with safety. Arabella had the suspicion about the new men being Jack’s recruits but she lets them stay on. When they meet again, Arabella can’t help but fall for Jack, especially when he confesses that he took her locket as a token to remember her by. When she makes it known that she wants to take this to a new level, Jack reminds her of the dangers. But Arabella is willing to throw all cautions in the wind because she knew he cared. A Lot. Jack asks her to keep her window open so that he can come to her at night. Though he initially didn’t want to give into the temptation, regardless Jack finds himself on the ledge of Arabella’s window, trying to get in. That was a marvelous scene. Jack doesn’t take her innocence because he knew the dangers. Arabella nonetheless spends a memorable night in his arms, exploring each-other.

After that, Jack disappears again for a loooong stretch of time. Arabella kept waiting for him at first, then when days passed by without his presence, she’s completely heartbroken. She again tries to console herself, saying this is for the best, but her wretched heart won’t listen. After a month, Arabella decides it’s time to take up on traveling the countryside once again. This would keep her occupied with something other than the hurt and the confusing thoughts about a certain highwayman. Maybe, in time, the sting of rejection would fade. Thus, over the course of the story, Arabella and Jack were kept apart several times.

Arabella finds her journeys to the different counties of England exhilarating, even though her lady’s maid would beg to differ. But Jack is never far away from her mind. When she thinks she has almost gotten over him, something or someone would inevitably remind her of him (i.e. Nevison’s Leap, which exists in reality). Arabella even goes to visit the place, to imagine Jack and Bess accomplishing such a leap over that gorge. It brought back bitter memories, though Arabella couldn’t regret the times she spend with him.

Then one day, Jack returns, as sudden as he’d disappeared months ago. It was on the highway, full of drama; the typical Jack entry. Arabella doesn’t know how to react. A part of her heart is ecstatic seeing his dear face, while another part is angry at his abandonment. Her brain tells her she can’t trust him but her heart, as usual, won’t listen. Then Jack tells her the real reason why he couldn’t contact with her. He took a risk and was arrested for it. He spent months in the prison before he got a ‘break’ of sort to escape. Upon looking closely, Arabella could see the marks of prison on him; the haggard face and the shallow coloring. In the end, her heart wins over and Arabella gives into that happiness of seeing her Jack once again, no matter the circumstances. They have some worry over her lady’s maid speaking out of turn, but she too was charmed by Jack and would never speak a word of his meeting with her mistress.

In the middle of the story, Jack did something to ‘take care’ of Robert, the evil cousin. He wanted that creep out of her way. Unfortunately, the prison couldn’t hold him for too long, and soon, the charges against him were cleared. At that time, they didn’t know that Robert is in pursuit of Arabella to ‘teach her a lesson’. When she proposes that they go out on the way, Jack instantly becomes Arabella’s escort. He’d love to show her his favorite haunts; places where his own people live, introduce her to people he calls ‘family’. Not blood related, but family nonetheless. They have a great time together, until one day, a silly misunderstanding over a tavern girl again make things problematic for them. I could see both were confused, but both were also rash and melodramatic. If only they’d talk openly, this wouldn’t even happen. Arabella thought she’s too plain to keep someone like Jack enthralled for long, while Jack thought he’s not good enough to be anything to her. Anything at all. And instead of talking, after Jack’s rude comments, Arabella just leaves him, resolving to return to her townhouse in London. I wasn’t happy about this misunderstanding at all.

As soon as she reaches London, Arabella gets entangled in Robert’s web. But thankfully, Jack, from his reliable sources, already had the news and was able to save her in the nick of time. Though Robert’s henchman gets away, this only serves to remind them both that they’re only wasting time over silly misunderstandings. And even though it was driving him insane, Jack previously didn’t sleep with Arabella in fear of sullying her reputation, not to mention other troubles that might follow suit if words get out. Now, nothing was going to stop them from being together in every sense of the way. Not that I was surprised. This dance of seduction had been going on for long. The chemistry between Jack and Arabella was so good that their repeated separation was frustrating as hell, as was the misunderstandings. The chapters seemed to drag on without anything significant happening. TBH I was bored for a while because I kept grasping for a clear plotline... until Jack’s return, once again proving that he’s the heart of this story.

After such close call on Arabella’s life, Jack wouldn’t take any more chances so he resolves to take her with him to meet some of his folks until they can decide what’s to be done about Robert and their own situation. They form a close bond, yet their vulnerabilities still eat at them. When Jack proposes marriage, Arabella can’t seem to shake off the feeling that it’s more to do with saving her reputation, whatever would be left of it anyway, rather than love. And she wanted his love, because she loved him beyond anything. She also pleads with Jack to give up his dangerous ‘on the leap’ lifestyle. Again, this causes a rift between them as Jack thought she’s not ready to accept him as he is. To say that I was frustrated would be an understatement. It was a rather double-edged situation but I could’ve done without so many misunderstandings.

The last chapters were much more exciting than the rest as we find Arabella in danger again, no thanks to Robert; an incident that finally helps made up their mind about their relationship. Jack does something nearly fatal to keep Arabella’s reputation intact, still believing she’d be better off without him. Though it seemed like a token of love, Arabella had no intentions of losing him, even if it meant losing her reputation. She’s smart and would do anything to save him...

Personally, as characters, I adored Jack and really liked Arabella. I even enjoyed the storyline but couldn’t shake off the feeling that somehow, the potential of the story and its characters were not fully realized, to say nothing about the typos all over the book. I generally don’t mention anything if it’s an ARC or a few here and there for published books, but the typos in this book were rather extensive. Because of all these, rating this book had been a tough call for me. 3.5 stars.

I don’t know if any of the other secondary characters would get their own books (no character really stood out for me in that regard) or if The Highwayman draws an end to this series. But I’ll gladly wait to find out.

PS: The author note very eloquently explains many of these connections I mentioned in my review. I found it strange that very little information is found on John Nevison’s life. He existed, yes, but that’s all pretty much was there to it. Even the stories regarding his death are open to debate. While reading, I kept thinking ‘that’s how someone becomes the stuff of legends’; thru the tales told by people over the centuries. I had this intense curiosity of knowing more about this illusive highwayman; what he was like in life and what really happened to him. But alas! The truth (about John Nevison) is now a thing of the past too.


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