The Last Outlaw
Beloved writer of western romances Rosanne Bittner returns to her famous Outlaw Hearts series with a gripping and heartbreaking but imperfect continuation of Jake and Miranda’s story.
Jake Harkner was once an infamous outlaw – one of the best in the west, as a matter of fact – until the widowed Miranda “Randy” Hayes stepped into his life and they found a fresh start in each other. Now a longtime law-abiding ex-US Marshal, Jake and Randy have settled into retirement on a large, peaceful ranch in Colorado. Times are quiet even as the once-barren open land around them begins to grow more crowded and filled with modern contraptions like mechanical buggies and electric lights, and they’re surrounded by their children, friends, in-laws and grandchildren. But all isn’t perfectly well; Randy’s heart is filled with pain – scarred by a violent rape and abduction the previous winter, she’s stopped eating and has become emotionally fragile and skittish. Jake tries to stay strong for her and bite back the anger that haunted his youth – the sort that demands a quenching by violence – to be a present partner for his wife and avoid trouble.
After Jake foils a bank robbery, Gretta, a friend of the family and a prostitute with whom he has a platonic friendship, calls him into action to rescue her distantly-and-primly raised fifteen-year-old daughter Annie from the man who wooed her into going to Mexico with promises of marriage and instead took her to his brothel. Jake must rise to the occasion once more, and finally face down his demons when he returns to his old hometown to complete the task. Meanwhile, Randy has to overcome her fears while regaining her inner strength and rediscovering her inner tigress.
One warning for readers – this isn’t a book that works very well out of chronological order or as a solo read. While it’s possible to pick up The Last Outlaw without feeling too confused and you could probably make your way through it without too much trouble, there’s definitely the feeling that you’re missing out by not having experienced the three previous books in the series. Fortunately I’ve read them and can confirm this one does beautiful credit to the previous three. The author has to deliver a lot of backstory and generally does a graceful job of setting the scene, with occasional indulgence in “as you know, Bob” style writing.
If you like Rosemary Rogers but can’t stand her domineering heroes or old school forced seduction scenes, then Bittner’s heroes are just as venturesome and the adventures they live out just as rich – with the added bonus of their being moral, just and true. Jake is your classic rogue with a heart of gold, deeply affectionate and loving with the people in his life but unafraid of killing those who would dare hurt them.
Sadly, Randy is far less vibrant in this novel than she was in previous volumes of the series. This is understandable as she’s battling through PTSD, but she feels less present and more like a talked-about object for a good chunk of the novel, unless she’s interacting with Gretta or Jake. The upside to this is that the romance between her and Jake remains tender and sweet and passionate. It’s also wonderful to see two characters past forty displaying as much passion and desire for each other as they did in their twenties.
It’s enjoyable to see the family interact; I liked Lloyd and Evie’s brother/sister relationship a lot, specifically, and Jake’s relationship with his young granddaughter is playful and funny.
The book does have several weaknesses though. The Last Outlaw splits the narrative point of view between Randy and Jake, and in that aspect the story suffers, as the majority of its plotline lies with Jake, his pain and his backstory. Randy’s PTSD is handled through her reactions to Jake’s trauma; she reaches no real resolution over her pain and fear by herself. Things happen to her while Jake makes things happen. It’s truly frustrating to see, and makes the reader yearn for her to do something proactive besides anxiously worry after him.
In terms of the writing, Bittner remains solid if workmanlike in her approach, and while some of the scenes linger a bit too long, most of them have a zippy, punchy way about them. It’s worth noting that the novel’s level of violence is rather explicit and there is much discussion of rape.
The Last Outlaw has a beautiful sense of self and of its characters. It could have used a bit of sharpening and a bit of stronger editing, but overall it combines romance, action and character study into a highly readable package.