I loved everything about Mimi Matthew’s Gentleman Jim – the set-up, the principal characters, the pacing and tension, the swoony, second chance romance (le sigh) – and I was prepared to give it a DIK. But then I read the epilogue. Oh dear. Ms. Matthews makes casual reference to the happy ever after of a villainous secondary character, and it nearly ruins the pleasure of this wonderful book. I found this wholly unnecessary plot point deeply disturbing, and because of it, I’m unwilling to give Gentleman Jim the A grade it otherwise deserves.
In a prologue we meet a bloodied and beaten Nicholas Seaton, a groom, locked in a loose box in the stables at Beasley Park. Accused of stealing three pieces of heirloom jewelry, Nicholas is convinced no one will believe he’s innocent.
Before his accuser, Frederick Burton-Smythe, horsewhipped him into the loose box, Nicholas had spent the afternoon happily whiling away the day with his best friend in the whole world, Margaret Honeywell. He laughed when Maggie told Fred to piss off after he happened upon them laughing and dancing in each other’s arms, but knew Freddy would later find a way to make him pay for the insult. Instead of worrying, he spent the afternoon lying in the sun, laughing and talking to Maggie. Nicholas knew Squire Honeywell and his neighbor, Sir Rodrick (Fred’s father), had hopes Maggie and Fred would one day marry and join their two great estates (as did Fred!), but Maggie belonged with Nicholas.
A blood oath taken years ago had bound them together forever . . . But he needed no ritual to bind himself to Maggie Honeywell. She was everything to him.
Hearing a noise outside the locked box, Nicholas fears Fred has returned with the local magistrate. But it’s Margaret. After unlocking the door and explaining how she found him, she tries to convince him to stay. Her efforts are in vain; when the prologue ends, Nicholas has fled Beasley Park and the love of his life, vowing to find his father and someday return to her.
When Gentleman Jim picks up ten years later, Margaret has only recently come out of mourning after the death of her father and then her aunt, and she’s still recovering from a near-death bout of influenza she caught while nursing a dying Jenny Seaton. She’s en route to visit a close friend in London, and lamenting the quick passage of time. Her father died hoping she would one day marry Fred, and left Fred executor of the estate in his will. Fred holds her money and property in trust until she marries, but Margaret knows he’ll never approve of a marriage to anyone but him. She’s waited for ten long years for Nicholas, but with only six months of the allotted time left to marry before the estate automatically reverts to Fred, Margaret is finally, painfully, reconciling herself to a future at Beasley Park as Fred’s wife.
When Margaret finally arrives in London, she’s exhausted but happy to see her good friend Jane Trumball. When Jane suggests they go shopping for new clothes, Margaret reluctantly confesses why she’s wearing such a dowdy dress (she hates asking Fred for money). But then Jane remarks that Fred is due for a comeuppance of his own, revealing that he’s challenged another man to a duel the following morning. The news scares Margaret. If Fred were to die, she isn’t sure who would control her trust or Beasley Park. She sends a note requesting Fred pay her a visit, but he refuses to discuss the duel or what will happen should he die. The visit does nothing to assuage her fears and so, with help from Jane, she makes plans to pay a late night visit to the man he’s challenged, John Beresford, Viscount St. Clare, grandson of the Earl of Allendale.
Oh friends! You know who he is don’t you? Well, Margaret thinks she does, too – but when he steps forward to greet her, she promptly faints in surprise. When she awakens in his arms, Margaret is confused. Is it Nicholas? She’s no longer sure. He acts as if she’s a stranger but is visibly startled when she finally confesses her true name, although he quickly masks his reaction. He appears amused by her request not to kill Fred, but agrees not to kill him in return for three forfeits to be collected at a time of his own choosing. Still reeling from her certainty that Lord St. Clare is in fact Nicholas Seaton, Margaret agrees to the deal.
Much to my surprise, despite knowing John is Nicholas, I enjoyed watching this deceit play out in Gentleman Jim. In Ms. Matthew’s clever hands, John’s deception makes sense, and I empathized with his struggle to keep himself at a remove from Maggie, while remaining true to his grandfather and his commitment to Allendale as the only heir to the estate. And anyway, from the moment they’re reunited in his home, it’s clear their love for each other has only grown more intense with the passage of time, and that it’s only a matter of time before they’re confessing it. I was willing to wait. Ms. Matthews slowly and irrevocably winds up the tension between them, and the wait is delicious torture. Maggie only sees Nicholas – the boy she loved as a young girl, when they’re together. John, a ruthlessly controlled aristocrat, is a stranger to her; but by the time we meet up with Nicholas again, he’s shed his past and its shackles, and he no longer sees himself as Nicholas, a lowly stable boy. He’s John Beresford, only heir to the Earl of Allendale, and he’s spent a decade abroad under his grandfather’s stewardship, refining this new role in life. Margaret’s visit comes at a precipitous time for him – a distant relation has cast doubts on his legitimacy and threatens to strip him of his title; he has much to lose if his origins are revealed. But his love for Maggie is all-consuming; her love derails all his good intentions, and fills him with a happiness he can’t resist. We know she feels the same, and it’s a treat watching and waiting for them to finally confess it to each other.
While I loved Maggie and Nicholas/John from the moment we met them in the prologue, who, you might be asking, is Gentleman Jim, and why does he matter to this story? That, my friends, is for you to discover! Although Gentleman Jim is primarily a second chance love story, it also features an engrossing parallel plot related to St. Clare’s origins – and that story is equally engrossing. The secondary characters – Fred, and the treacherous Beresford relations – make for wonderful villains, and their shenanigans kept me turning pages, waiting for their well deserved comeuppance. Yes, the love story is swoony and wonderful, full of lovely sexual tension, but the secondary plot is excellent, too.
If not for the misstep in the epilogue, I would recommend this story without reservation. As written, Gentleman Jim is worth your time. But maybe skip the epilogue…