Once a Rebel
By Mary Jo Putney
Callista Brooke is only sixteen when she and her best friend, Lord George Gordon Richard Audley, who is a year older, elope to save Callista from being forced into marriage to a wealthy planter decades older than she. The youthful pair is caught by their fathers, and, to save her friend’s life, Callista agrees to the marriage her father has arranged. She is married to her father’s friend and moves with him to his home in Jamaica. Richard, as Callista calls him, is charged with theft and kidnapping and transported to Botany Bay. Callista is told that he died on the prison ship en route to New South Wales.
Callista’s husband proves to be a better man than her father. He treats her well, and she takes an interest in his illegitimate children by his slave mistress. She also encourages him to free his slaves. When her husband dies, his revised will conveniently disappears. Fearful of her eldest stepson, a greedy, villainous man, Callista flees Jamaica with her stepchildren and their grandparents, carrying with her documents to prove that the children and their relatives have been freed. She settles with her made family in the United States, in the young nation’s capital, a city familiar to her through visits there with her husband. Within three years, she becomes “the best dressmaker in Washington.”
Lord George Audley did not die. With the help of a friendly captain, he escaped when the ship docked in Sydney Harbor. He went on to live a life of adventure, including a narrow escape from execution in Portugal and, most recently, work as an operative under the direction of spymaster, Lord Kirkland, a former classmate at the Westerfield Academy. It is Kirkland who gives him the assignment to rescue an English-born widow living in Washington. Certain family members in England have grown anxious about her safety as Washington has become a war zone. Captain Gordon, as Audley is now known, is commissioned to escort her to England, or, if she refuses to return, to see that she is safe and has ample funds.
Captain Gordon is surprised to find that the English widow is his old friend and almost-bride, Callie Brooke. Callie is shocked when the man she thought was dead appears to save her from an angry group of British soldiers who have torched her house and are threatening her person. Callie and her Richard reestablish their old pattern of close friendship with remarkable ease. They escape Washington as the British invade and rejoin Callie’s stepchildren and their grandparents in Baltimore, only to face the bombardment of that city. Their feelings for one another deepen as they spend time together, but Callie must decide if she will return to England as the wife of Captain Gordon or remain in America with a family that is changing and growing less dependent on her every day.
Once a Rebel is the second book in Putney’s Rogues Redeemed series, but it is linked through the hero’s history as Lady Agnes Westerfield’s “one failure” and through his association with Kirkland to the Lost Lords books. Fans of the Lost Lords and those eager to hear more of the five “rogues” introduced in Once a Soldier will doubtless be pleased with the connections, but this book stands on its own quite well. It is rare among English historical romances in its setting, the War of 1812. It is even rarer in the perspective from which the story is told, the view of a civilian observer of battles. The reader sees less of the gore and horrors that soldiers go through and more of the effects of war on non-participants. Putney captures the tension, the fear, and the ordinary concerns of this population without sacrificing the central romance. History and fiction blend seamlessly as Callie, Richard, and Callie’s family watch the bombing of Fort McHenry and later pay a visit to Callie’s lawyer, Francis Scott Key, who shares with them the poem he penned during that anxious night.
I like these characters. Callie and Richard had cruel fathers whose treatment of them certainly shaped the adults they became, but neither protagonist broods over his/her wrongs or withdraws from commitment. I believe in them as individuals and as a couple, and that belief is based in large part on the growth the characters experience. The connection between them endures, but the adults who meet in 1814 have been tested and tempered. They are not the impetuous young people who eloped fifteen years earlier. Molly, Trey, Sarah, and Joshua--the freed slaves who make up Callie’s family--are also credible and interesting, and their roles in the story add dimension and poignancy. I also loved seeing more of Kirkland and Laurel. They are one of my favorite MJP couples. And Callie and Richard’s visit to Lady Agnes was delightful.
I read a Mary Jo Putney book with high expectations. Nobody combines adventure and romance better than she does. Her characters always face danger and find the resources to survive. They risk their hearts and often their lives with high courage. Putney calls her heroes “warrior poets” who are “brave and protective, vulnerable and kind . . . wounded by life, but not broken.” I find such heroes irresistible. Her heroines are strong and resilient, capable of toughness and tenderness, but they remain women of their time. They are practical enough to understand conventions and the price of defying them. I have been falling in love with MJP’s books for nearly three decades, and Once a Rebel (and I love the layers of meaning in that title) is another Putney keeper.
A couple of caveats: the business of the hero’s name changes can become confusing, and the last bit of the book that takes place in England is less powerful than the American-set section. But I found these minor niggles in an overall excellent novel. If you are a Putney fan, you will certainly want to add this one to your TBR list. If you like historical romance with the spice of danger and a romance with an HEA that is earned and believable, you should read this book.