Once a Rake
By Eileen Dreyer
Publisher: Grand Central Forever
October 29, 2013
Circumstances make it appear that Earl Hawes, heir to the Marquess of Kendall, better known as Colonel Ian Ferguson, who had once saved the life of the Duke of Wellington, has experienced a change of loyalties and attempted to assassinate England’s most revered contemporary hero. Branded a traitor, Ian is on the run. Wounded and feverish, he is painfully making his way to the group of men he literally trusts with his life, Drake’s Rakes, confident that they will help him save Wellington from the true assassins and save Ian’s life and reputation as well. Taking shelter where he can and surviving off the land, Ian is fully aware of his danger and of the importance of the evidence he carries, evidence that can prove the truth of his story.
Lady Sarah Clarke’s (née Sarah Tregallan’s) life has been a struggle to survive physically and emotionally. The bastard daughter of a duke, saved by her father’s wife and adopted by a vicar and his wife who viewed her as a stained product of sin, Sarah thought of herself as nameless and homeless. The closest she came to finding real family was with her closest friends at the Last Chance Academy—Fiona Ferguson, Pippin Knight, and Lizzie Ripton, her unacknowledged half-sister. Sarah left Last Chance when her half-brother, the new Duke of Dorchester, arranged her marriage to Boswell Clark, a baron in need of her dowry in exchange for the closest to respectability Sarah is likely to achieve.
When her husband used the last of her dowry to buy his commission in the army, Sarah was left to keep Fairbourne, the Clarke estate, running and to provide for his family, who resent her and think themselves superior to her. Despite the hard work, Sarah has found a kind of contentment at Fairbourne, and, with the help of the stud fees of Willoughby, a 600-pound pig, she manages to keep herself and her household from outright poverty. But the war is over, and there has been no word from Boswell. His heir, a greedy man without an iota of integrity, is eager to claim the estate. Her mother-in-law feels entitled to indulge herself in the expensive paints she needs to pursue her painting, and her sister-in-law is miserable over being forced to leave school due to the family’s lack of funds. As if all these problems were not enough, Sarah finds the most wanted man in Britain hiding in one of her outbuildings.
Sarah can’t bring herself to refuse food and first aid to a wounded man, but she knows that helping him places all she is desperately trying to save in jeopardy. When she learns that he is the brother of her friends Fiona and Mairead Ferguson and a hero of her schooldays, the situation becomes more complicated. Ian is reluctant to involve Sarah, but the stakes are higher than personal safety. And he realizes he needs her help to reach his goal. Soon they are both up to their necks in adventure and danger, but the greatest risk may be the hearts they are giving away and a love that reason says can never be.
Eileen Dreyer is dividing her Drake’s Rakes series into trilogies. Once a Rake introduces the second trilogy, the Last Chance Academy series, which was introduced by a novella, It Begins with a Kiss (July 2012). Readers who have followed the series will recognize Ian Ferguson and his plight. I confess to a weakness for red-haired heroes. I was already fascinated by Ian, and I have been looking forward to his story. It does not disappoint. Ian has all the necessary qualities for a romance hero—intelligence, honor, strength, a sense of humor, a capacity for tenderness, and sufficient biography and personality to make him an individual rather than a type with a name.
Sarah broke my heart from the beginning with her blend of quiet strength and aching vulnerability. She is one of the loneliest characters I have encountered. Early in the book, Dreyer describes her: “She had spent her entire life seeking inclusion. Envying her four friends that they were wanted for no other reason than their existence. A feeling Sarah couldn’t comprehend. emotionally” Once she is separated from her school friends, her closest tie is to a pig. But despite the emotional deprivation she has known, Sarah is a woman of grace and generosity. She treats those who see her as inferior because of her birth with kindness and understanding, and yet she is human enough to admit her longing to exact revenge. Plus, how can anyone resist a heroine who dreams of Oxford and names a pig Willoughby? Sarah and Ian not only have incredible chemistry but they also share their status as outsiders who know what it is to fight for survival.
Readers who prefer romances that focus on the hero and heroine and keep them together for most of the story will appreciate Once a Rake. And yet Dreyer accomplishes this and still creates substantial contexts with a host of characters whom she sketches in sufficient detail to give them all—from the absent Bromwell to the substantially present pig--individual reality. The assassin Minette Ferrar frightens me beyond description and her heinous behavior lingers in my mind far too long for comfort.
I’m a reader who generally prefers quiet books with the focus on relationships, but I have discovered a few authors who write what I term “romantic adventure” whose books unfailingly engage me fully. They create characters in whom I believe wholly and plots that keep my heart in my throat. Mary Jo Putney is the historical romance author who has best exemplified these qualities for me for decades, and Eileen Dreyer’s skills rival those of MJP. I am also intrigued by the way Dreyer is creating a heroine-centric series on the foundation of a male-bonded society.
If you are already a Drake’s Rakes fan, you will be pleased to know that tendrils of the overarching plot of treason continue to entangle even as other tendrils are severed and the romance is as satisfying as it was in the first trilogy. If you have never read Eileen Dreyer’s historical romances, Once a Rake is a great starting point. Or if you want a brief sample of her style first, the digital edition of the prequel novella, It Begins with a Kiss, is available for $.99. I’ve been recommending this writer since I first read her Kathleen Korbel categories years ago. I’m delighted that I can recommend her historicals with as much enthusiasm.
While I loved the hero and heroine of Once a Rake, the most vividly memorable character may be the villainess. Who is your candidate for the most believably scary villain/villainess in romance fiction?