Despite a grand manor home with working, income-generating farms, what money the land manages to bring in goes to pay Sir Evan Penhart’s sparse staff and all the rest is poured into the endless repairs the crumbling estate requires. Each new leak in the roof is a source of anxiety and Evan knows it’s only a matter of time before the whole decrepit building comes crashing down around his ears. The man will stop at nothing to prevent his filial legacy from going up in so much dust and debris…and things have become so bad, he now has to turn to highway robbery to repay a loan from his neighbor. When Evan’s very first attempt ends with him winning an extra mouth to feed rather than the desired valuables, Evan is left at loose ends…yet he can’t deny his erstwhile guest awakens long dormant feelings.
Having his carriage overtaken by a bandit might have been an enormous inconvenience to Julian Reece, youngest son of a wealthy fabric maker. That is, if said carriage had been destined to take him anywhere else other than to his future bride. Loathe to marry any woman lest she hamper his creative nature and ability to write his fantastic stories, Julian seized the opportunity of a lifetime—joining forces with the tall, dark highwayman to extort a handsome ransom from Julian’s father.
When Julian’s father very publicly and very thoroughly disavows any further association with his own son, these two strange bedfellows thrown together by great opportunity are stuck with each other. When Evan misreads some of Julian’s cues, their tenuous relationship takes a giant step back. Yet when Evan retreats to give Julian what little freedom he can, Julian finds himself missing Evan’s company. It’s two steps forward, one step back until finally these two learn to trust one another with their friendship…and eventually their hearts.
New love isn’t enough to save Evan’s estate, however. The pair once again pushes forth with plans to commit highway robbery. Despite a limited success against a man very deserving of being taken down a notch, the money they gather only lasts so long. With the town talking of a formidable new threat roaming the highways, the local constable is ever vigilant and itching for a way to settle an old score with Evan. Even with the danger mounting, Evan and Julian are forced to continue more strikes against bigger fish.
Until they get caught…Evan manages to secret Julian away from the long arm of the law at the cost of his own freedom. Julian, however, is determined to save his lover if not his own tarnished name. With a plan in place, all he has to do is wait for the right time to pounce and save Evan. But there are no guarantees this considerable act of bravado and lawlessness will be enough, not when a revenge-hungry constable is out for blood.
First up, to be clear, this is very much a historical book. It’s set in the late 18th century in England. I don’t want to say the world building was absent, because I certainly had enough verbal clues to place the story (lots of period-appropriate clothing terms, people tooling around on horseback and/or in carriages, people being mindful of class/rank, use of titles, etc.). For reference, my personal default “historical” mindset is Downton Abbey—which is why I definitely appreciated the lone shout out in the first pages of the book when Julian’s father reprimands him for not wearing a wig like a respectable person. We’re in the time of powdered wigs! There were a few other brief mentions of this, but on the whole…I was a bit disappointed there wasn’t more imagery/context to further place the action in a distinct period.
The blurry historical period did not, however, detract from the main event: the relationship that unfolds between Evan and Julian. They meet in a flurry of desperate swaggering activity, but when the dust settles, Evan’s insistence on treating Julian not like a willing accomplice in blackmail but as an actual captive, friction starts. This creates a flavor of enemies to lovers in their dynamic and makes the point when they overcome their differences that much sweeter. Watching the whole thing unfold is both fascinating and, truth be told, a bit uncomfortable at times. That uncomfortableness stems from the fact that Evan is straight up gay and that Julian has only ever considered himself straight (even if, from the first page, it’s clear he is not currently interested in pursing any women and is actively running away from arranged marriage).
These excerpts I think illustrate well Julian’s unique attitude towards sex, the first one explains why he’s got no desire to enter into any marriage and the second one shows his surprisingly rational take on waking up the first night of being Evan’s prisoner:
These days, Julian had neither the overwhelming desire nor patience to handle a cunt, no matter how lovely the lady it was attached to. He still enjoyed having a drink with the harlots, and no card table within twenty miles was as lively last he one at Madame Carnard’s, but at twenty-five, he’d must rather handle needs of the flesh in solitude.
Julian clenched his teeth, trying to calm his breath, to not awaken his captor. Gently, he tugged at his hands, but they were still securely fastened to the headboard…When the arm on top of Julian’s chest shifted, he held is breaths o hard it felt as if his chest was about to implode. [Evan] pulled him closer, and wrapped his leg over Julian’s, making him freeze in the heat of the embrace. It felt nothing like the legs of women. Muscular and thick with prickly hairs. But it was something else that had Julian exhale just as violently as he inhaled.
A hot stiff prick pushed against his hip….He could call [Evan] out on the impropriety and make him stop this nonsense, but the man’s breathing was clam and steady. Julian’s cock stiffened in his sleep just like any other fellow’s, so this was not anything out of the ordinary, and so he was on the fence about whether it should even be mentioned.
And here is a condensed version of what I found uncomfortable about the early stages of their partnership. This happens all in the same scene (though I’ve taken liberty of editing for brevity’s sake), after the excerpts above and after they both know Julian’s family will pay no ransom for their son’s return (remember that Julian and Evan are both complicit in the plan to ransom Julian for money and that Evan meets Julian as he’s trying to rob Julian’s carriage).
“If even your family refuses to ever see you again, what worth can you possibly have to me now?”
“I am not worthless…I will repay you, but you need to let me go.”
“Oh, do I? So you can run away without paying off this debt? Remember, you owe me half of the sum we demanded [from your father].”
“I will repay you. You have my word.”
Evan’s breath quickened, his gaze licking Julian from head to toes. “There’s only one value you have for me.”
Cold air wheezed at the back of Julian’s throat, but he fought through the sudden fear and spoke, “And what value is that?”
“Strip, and bend over the bed.”
And the scene culminates with Evan having sex with Julian and Julian not exactly participating, but not exactly thrashing around and being utterly unhappy. To be fair, there are a couple of scenes prior to this exchange that clearly establish 1) Evan is definitely sexually interested in Julian; 2) Julian grows fond of Evan and even appreciates the man’s physical form even if he doesn’t call it “desire.” These are good, character building scenes that helped me, at least, not be 110% turned off by Evan’s demand that Julian pay for half the ransom with sex. Still, for me with my 2017 sensibilities about consensual sex…this definitely took me a while to get over.
In the end, Evan and Julian end up beating themselves up for the hard feelings generated by this night of almost-stolen passion. I liked the punched up angst this generates later on when Julian starts to realize that he is, in fact, both definitely attracted to men in general and specifically falling in love with Evan.
One big bonus of the story is how, even with all the focus on developing the dynamic between Julian and Evan, the story doesn’t just wrap right up after they’ve fallen hard and fast for one another. From the get go, Julian has his heart set on establishing himself in Italy so he can be a writer. The reader gets little reminders about this from both Julian’s words and Evan’s fears about losing his new-found lover. There’s also the thread with the constable, who ends up playing a much larger role that I initially anticipated.
In fact, the main climax of the story heats up well after Evan and Julian are established as a couple and they get caught trying to rob a carriage. The resolution really heats up when Evan is heading towards the gallows and Julian stages a daring escape. The authors did a fantastic job of spinning this action out and taking it in unexpected directions that, despite how dramatically busy the action becomes, doesn’t feel like overkill.
Overall, I quite enjoyed this book. It’s not a lot of different themes and definitely some that challenged me as a reader. There is plenty of intimacy between our MCs even without the sex and some of their exchanges even before they fall in as lovers felt tender. Towards the end, their characterizations felt a bit canned in an Evan-as-protector and Julian-as-eye-candy sort of way, but after so much time with just feeling them out as characters, I wasn’t too bothered by this. If you enjoy historical stories with opposite characters finding true love, you’d enjoy this.