Connie Brockway’s latest historical romance, Highlander Undone, boasts a dash of intrigue, a strong period feel, witty dialogue, a secondary romance (that cries out for its own book!) and a couple of engaging protagonists. It’s a well-crafted and enjoyable read, even though there are a few things that felt a bit rough around the edges and the set-up is a little weak.
John (Jack) Cameron, Captain of Her Majesty’s Cormack Highlanders is serving in the Sudan when he is badly wounded and sent back to England to recover and convalesce. He spends several months confined to bed in the quiet of the dower house on his great-uncle’s estate, and because he is bedridden, is an unintentional eavesdropper on the conversations that take place on the terrace outside his open bedroom window. The participants are most usually his aunt’s protégé, Ted Phyfe, a popular portraitist, and his sister, Addie Hoodless, the widow of an officer in the Black Dragoons.
Unaware they have an audience, Addie and Ted often speak of personal matters pertaining to Addie’s unhappy marriage to a man who consistently abused her and who injured Ted when the latter tried to intervene. Addie, once a vivacious, extrovert young woman has had the life literally beaten out of her; and even though she is now a widow, she is uncomfortable with men in general and with soldiers in particular, believing them to be as cruel and brutish as her late husband.
As Jack regains his health and strength, he recalls that in the moments before he was injured, he had received some truly shocking information. An officer in the Black Dragoons regiment was abusing his position in order to make enormous profits from the slave trade and, to protect those profits, had delayed important orders which ultimately caused the death of hundreds of soldiers. Jack has vowed to find the man responsible and have him brought to justice, but he can’t do anything openly. Alerting his superiors will bring the lumbering machinery of Whitehall into play, and that risks bringing any investigation out into the open and giving the culprit time to cover his tracks.
Overhearing that Ted has been commissioned to paint the portraits of a number of the officers in that very regiment, Jack realises that he has been given the ideal opportunity to gather information unobtrusively. His great-aunt is Ted’s patron, so Jack will easily be able to gain access to the artist’s studio and hang around to take advantage of the loosened tongues that the boredom of long sittings is bound to produce in Ted’s subjects.
The one possible stumbling block is Addie, who will certainly not welcome a former soldier into their circle. So Jack adopts the effete, unthreatening persona and flamboyant clothes of a dilettante, and, in spite of Ted’s initial caution, is made welcome. Addie is pleasantly surprised at her reaction to this attractive, seemingly gauche young man, recognising her feelings as attraction, something she hadn’t thought to feel ever again.
Jack is a wonderful hero – compassionate, clever and intuitive, with a biting wit which he wields as effectively as a rapier when called upon to do so. Even before he sets eyes on Addie, he is falling for her, and the reality of her only goes to strengthen his already strong attraction. That the attraction is reciprocated, he can’t doubt – but knowing of her hatred of military men, he daren’t hope for anything more between them once she knows the truth of his identity and of his mission to find the traitor. Yes, Jack lies to Addie by omission, but the author maintains the reader’s sympathy for him by leaving the reader in no doubt that he is deeply torn between his growing love for her and by his need to see justice done for his fallen comrades.
Although the reader never sees the abuse Addie endured at first-hand, Ms Brockway very cleverly shows us how badly she has been traumatised by the way she reacts to the men she meets. She withdraws into herself, almost trying to become invisible and Jack, knowing something of her history, is torn apart from just watching it. Gradually, however, with Jack’s friendship and support, Addie begins to re-invent herself and to rediscover the mischievous, lively young woman she used to be – and this is one of the strongest and most memorable elements of the book. There are a couple of wonderful moments when, believing Jack to be in danger, she actually forgets to be afraid and stands up for him, and it’s this instinct that lights the spark and shows her that she is perhaps stronger than she believed herself to be. The romance is well-developed and the couple has great chemistry, although I would have liked them to have spent a little more time alone.
I mentioned that there are some rough edges, and these are principally to do with the secondary storyline of the search for the villain – whose identity is never in question – so the story is more a “how do we catch him?” than a “whodunnit?”. I don’t have a problem with that, but the plotline doesn’t quite hang together and isn’t as well thought-out as the rest of the novel. Also, Ted’s just happening to be painting soldiers in the very regiment that Jack wanted to investigate, and Jack’s just happening to hear about it was too contrived for my taste. I realise fiction is often based on fortunate happenstance, but that was a convenience too far.
Those quibbles apart, however, Highlander Undone is worth reading for the central relationship alone, and for Jack, who is pretty much the perfect romantic hero.