All he wants is her help . . .
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.
All she needs is his heart . . .
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
Once a Rake is the fourth book in Ms Dreyer’s Drake’s Rakes series, in which the titular rakes are in fact a group of English gentlemen-spies who are working to root out traitors and wrong-doers as part of Britain’s fight against Bonaparte. I haven’t read the previous books in the series, and although this one can be enjoyed as a standalone, there were a couple of times I found myself wishing I had a bit more background information. But that wasn’t often, and it didn’t cause me any major problems in following the storyline.
The thing that hooked me in straight away was the quality of the writing, which had great warmth and depth to it. Our heroine, Lady Sarah Clarke, is working herself into the ground trying to run her small estate with very little help, and to cope with her self-centred mother-in-law and frequently petulant fifteen year-old sister-in-law. Sarah’s husband is in the army and has not been heard from for months and his smarmy cousin, Martin, is his heir. Martin is convinced his cousin is dead, so wants the ladies out of the house and off the land – and isn’t above employing underhand tactics to get what he wants.
Sarah is the illegitimate child of a duke who disowned her, constantly slighted her, and reminded her of her status as a “nobody”. Since his death, her brother has taken the same position, and even arranged for her to be married off, using a dowry as a bribe – a dowry which was then spent by her husband in purchasing his commission.
Money is scarce, and Sarah works hard on the farm and to keep her little family together, even though Lady Clarke the elder shows her little real consideration. Even so, because Sarah has never really had anywhere she can call home, or anywhere she feels she has ever belonged, this is the closest thing to family she has ever had. Still, the intensity of her feelings of isolation and loneliness leap off the page.
Given the struggle she has to keep things on a reasonably even keel, the last thing Sarah needs is to find a wounded man hiding out in one of her barns.
Colonel Ian Ferguson, an officer in the Black Watch, is on the run, having been accused of making an attempt on the life of the Duke of Wellington. Badly wounded as he made his escape, Ian needs to travel to London to meet with Lord Marcus Drake, so that he can both exonerate himself and impart the information he has gained as to the identity of the would-be assassin, but he is too weak to undertake such a journey. Torn between wanting to help an injured man and the knowledge that his discovery could bring serious repercussions for her family, Sarah reluctantly agrees to let him remain at Fairbourne until he is recovered enough to move.
There’s an immediate current of attraction between Ian and Sarah – even though they both realise that nothing can come of it. For one thing, Sarah has a husband, and for another, Ian is betrothed to a society lady, one who shares his reformist views and who he believes will be the perfect partner to help him navigate his way through political society. Then there’s the fact that he’s a wanted man and she’s illegitimate, poor and insignificant.
Sarah is tired of the weight of the burdens she carries – which we soon discover consist of more than just trying to support her small family – and tries to tell herself that she’s so strongly drawn to Ian because she is lonely and he’s the first man who has seen that or offered her a shoulder to lean on.
When Ian is well again, he begins making preparations to leave. Sarah knows this has always been his intention, but she can’t lie to herself and deny that his leaving won’t also leave a big hole in her life and in her heart. Ian finds himself similarly affected – and asks Sarah to accompany him, both for her own safety and to act as a guide. They have discovered that several of the Rakes will be at a house-party at nearby Ripton Hall, the seat of Sarah’s half-brother. Ian can meet them there, pass on his information and clear his name.
Although reluctant to accompany Ian, Sarah travels with him as a guide and they make their way to Ripton. A rendezvous has been arranged and their goal is within sight – but there are still dangers ahead in the form of the beautiful but deadly Minette Ferrar, a French spy and assassin who surely owes much to Dumas’ Milady deWinter.
Sometimes, in books which feature an adventure story alongside the romance, I find that one (sometimes both) of those elements is underdeveloped. That isn’t the case here, however, because I thought the balance between the spy-story and the romance was just about right. The emphasis is firmly on the romance, but the secondary plotline feels just as well thought-out, possibly because it has been running through several books already and will obviously continue in future stories.
The characterisation throughout is strong, and is particularly so in the case of the two protagonists. Both have had to overcome adversity, but they don’t mope or dwell on it; they have got on with their lives as best they could, doing what needs to be done. Sarah is a particularly engaging heroine, someone who has been continually put down and cast aside, yet has the strength to keep going from day to day. She is innately kind and selfless without being priggish – she asks only for the strength to keep her small family together. Ian is an attractive hero, a strong, honourable man who is trying to do the best for his sisters (who were at school with Sarah) and to keep the promises he has made to the grandfather who barely tolerates him (and that only because Ian is his heir).
I had a couple of minor issues with the book – such as the author’s preoccupation with the description of Ian as a “beserker”, and the fact that his unseen fiancée existed only as a road-block to the romance – but overall Once a Rake was entertaining, well written and emotionally satisfying. There’s a teaser at the end for the next book in the series, and I’m certainly intrigued and impressed enough to want to read it.