Once a Rake
Forever / October 29, 2013 / $8.00 print, $7.99 digital
Colonel Ian Ferguson may be a rake, but he's no traitor. Accused of trying to kill the Duke of Wellington, the disgraced Scotsman is now a fugitive-from the law, the army, and the cunning assassin who hunts him. Wounded and miles from his allies, Ian finds himself at the mercy of an impoverished country wife. The spirited woman is achingly beautiful . . . and hiding some dangerous secrets of her own.
She was a child nobody wanted. Now for Lady Sarah Clarke, holding on to her vanished husband's crumbling estate is her final chance to earn respectability. She knows that hiding the devastatingly handsome Ferguson will jeopardize her home. Common sense demands that she turn him in. But a single, delirious kiss shatters her resolve . . . and awakens a passion that neither of them can escape.
The framework for Eileen Dreyer's Once a Rake is built around Col. Ian Ferguson's struggle to clear his name after an assassination attempt is made on Wellington's life. He is wounded and on the run when he is discovered hiding out at Sarah's farm. But the story really belongs to Sarah and her life-long search for a home and acceptance.
An illegitimate child of a wealthy peer, Sarah is married to Sir Boswell, who has not yet come home from Waterloo four months after the battle. She refuses admit the possibility of his death, for when that happens, she loses her farm, making her and Boswell's female relations homeless.
Inevitably, Sarah's gaze swept over to the arbor. Oh Boswell. How did it come to this? She had worked herself raw to hold on to Fairbourne, She had cobbled this place together with her calloused fingers, her wits and her determination to finally belong somewhere. She would do anything to protect it. She had done anything, and the secrets weighed on her like grief.
How then, could she think of risking it all for one man? All Martin Clarke had to do was discover Ian Ferguson crouching in her potting shed, and Fairbourne would be emptied like a plague house. The family Boswell had asked Sarah to protect would be destroyed, and the only real home she'd ever had lost.
She believes Ian's story of innocence and agrees to treat his wounds, the better to get him off her farm and on his way to London. They find common ground over the next weeks and she is irrevocably on his side when he saves her from an attack by a mercenary soldier.
But the attack alone wasn't what was still provoking the shivery, liquid feeling that beset her. The rescue was. She couldn't remember ever experiencing such an intense rush of terror, relief, and gratitude in her life. Nothing could compare with the feel of Ian's arms around her, of his gentle comfort. She wasn't used to being held. No one had ever thought to do it. No one but Ian had ever offered her safe haven.
The sexual pull between them is strong, even though Ian is engaged and Sarah is waiting for an estranged husband to return from war. However, Ian, while a nice guy, is also a man so he can't help trying to get what he wants any way he can.
Pulling her hand away, she stepped back. “Are you mad? I can't leave here.”
Ian didn't move. “Yes, lass,” he said, lifting his hands. “You can. What do you have here? A life of drudgery without relief or support. George told me the old woman won't even address you by your proper name.”
Did everyone need to remind her of how unwanted she was? “What does that have to do with anything? This is the only real home I have ever had, Ian. I won't give it up.”
“I can give you a new home. Change your name, find a little place for you to live, so that if Boswell is found, no one will hurt you. I owe you that at least.”
“I'm sure the offer is generous,” she said, her voice as icy as her heart. “But I'll have to decline it all the same.”
“Why?” he demanded. “What holds you here?”
Self-respect. Pride. The only wholly owned treasure of a bastard child. The only possessions she would never give away.
Eventually they have to hit the road to prove Ian's innocence and Sarah is compelled to accompany him and forced to face some truths.
What was beginning to frighten her was that plodding through the unending darkness, she finally began to understand what it was her friends had felt. The sense of it had sparked the minute Ian wrapped himself around her, and over the hours it kept growing. Warmth, deep in her soul; comfort, a sense of unshakeable stability and certainty, as if instead of Ian's coat she was tucked inside the time-soothed stones of an old house that had withstood centuries of storms. She recognized every one of the emotions her friends had named: comfort, safety, affection, acceptance, stability.
She had spent her life looking for a home. And all along it had been waiting in this man's arms.
The desire for acceptance, for belonging, for love, for a home, is a primal need, and Dreyer does a nice job of conveying these feelings through Sarah's journey.
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Cheryl Sneed reviews for Rakehell.com.