As heir to a title and great wealth, Will Masterson should have stayed home and tended his responsibilities. Instead he went to war. Now, after perilous years fighting the French, he intends his current mission to be his last. But all his plans are forgotten when he arrives in the small mountain stronghold of San Gabriel and meets her.
Knowing herself to be too tall, strong, and unconventional to appeal to a man, Athena Markham has always gloried in her independence. But for the first time in her life, she finds a man who might be her match.
Two of a kind, too brave for their own good, Athena and Will vow to do whatever it takes to vanquish San Gabriel's enemies. For neither will back down from death, and only together can they find happiness and a love deeper than any they'd dared imagine. . .
Praise for New York Times Bestselling Author
Mary Jo Putney's Lost Lords series
"Exquisitely and sensitively written." --Library Journal, starred review
"Rich with historical detail and multifaceted characters." --Publishers Weekly, starred review
"Intoxicating and not-to-be missed."--RT Book Reviews (4 ½ Stars, Top Pick)
"Classic Putney--engaging characters, entertaining story, a delightful read!" --Stephanie Laurens
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Once a Soldier
By Mary Jo Putney
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Mary Jo Putney, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Chaos, the screams of women and children floundering desperately in the water. An absurdly tall nun with a rifle slung over her back as she tried to save a gaggle of schoolgirls. Brutal French soldiers closing in....
"Is he dead?"
Hard fingers pressed into Will's throat. He tried to shake them off, and was rewarded with stabbing agony in his head. The pain cleared his wits a little and he realized that someone was checking his pulse.
"Not yet," a vaguely familiar voice responded. The fingers disappeared. "Bashed on the head. Not sure how serious it is. I recognize him, though. The name's Masterson."
"Let him sleep," another voice said gruffly. "If he's not awake, he won't want a share of this deplorable brandy."
Thinking he had a fierce-enough headache without drinking bad brandy, Will opened his eyes to find that he was in a damp, dark place, a cellar maybe, with cluttered racks covering most of the stone walls. A lantern hanging from a ceiling beam cast enough light to show the face of the man leaning over him. Tangled blond hair and a scruffy beard several shades darker. Shabbily dressed, but alert, wary eyes.
Will squinted at him. "I know you, don't I?"
"The name's Gordon. We went to the same school long, long ago. How is your head? You took quite a blow."
Will touched his aching temple, wincing at the pain. There was sticky blood, too. But his brain seemed to be working. He now recognized Gordon, though that wasn't the name the fellow had used when they were students at the Westerfield Academy. Given his bad behavior then, it wasn't surprising if he'd decided to change identities.
"Where am I?" Will's voice was rusty.
Gordon sat back on his heels. "Vila Nova de Gaia, in the cellar of a house overlooking the Douro River," he replied. "Do you remember the bridge of boats? People drowning as they tried to escape from Porto to Gaia and the improvised bridge breaking up under them?" His voice turned dry. "You were very heroic. Led the charge to rescue a group of nuns and schoolgirls from being raped and possibly murdered."
The tall nun. Frantic, wide-eyed girls. Remembering now, Will asked, "Did they escape?"
"Yes, at least for the moment." The reply came from a dark-haired, hard-featured man who leaned wearily against the opposite wall, his arms crossed over his chest. "No idea what happened once they were out of sight."
Hoping that at least one group of innocents had managed to survive the carnage, Will shakily tried to push himself up. Wordlessly Gordon helped him sit against the damp stone wall. Every inch of Will's body ached, but he didn't seem to have any major injuries.
No uniform. He was dressed like a Portuguese man of modest means. Since he was fluent in Portuguese, Spanish, and French and he'd spent time in Porto, his commanding officer had sent him to learn what was going on in the city. Nothing good, he'd discovered.
He surveyed the shadowy room, which contained three men besides himself and Gordon. All looked as battered as he was.
Gordon made a courtly gesture. "Allow me to introduce our fellow English spies. That's Chantry against the wall, Hawkins swigging from the bottle of brandy, and Duval to the left."
"I dislike being grouped with you English spies," Duval said in a languid voice with a faint accent. "I'm a French royalist."
"But a spy?" Will asked.
"I might be considered that by narrow-minded French officers," the Frenchman admitted. "In truth, I'm merely an irredeemable rogue."
"Irredeemable? This is a good time to talk about redemption," Hawkins said thoughtfully. He was the man with the gruff voice whose shaggy brown hair half obscured his face. "If we weren't going to die in the morning, would we attempt to make up for our past sins? Or shrug and return to them?"
Gordon frowned. "I think I'd try to be better. I've always assumed that there would be time to become an honorable man. I didn't expect to run out of time so soon." He took the brandy bottle from Hawkins and swallowed deeply, then passed it to Will.
"I don't know how to be good," Chantry said, his voice edged. "I'll go to hell no matter when I die. Which is going to be in a few hours."
Will wondered if he'd misheard. "What's this about dying?"
"We're all to be shot at dawn," Duval explained. "So say your prayers and hope that le bon Dieu is in a merciful mood." His mouth twisted. "I expect no such mercy. But given the chill of this cellar, roasting in hell is not without appeal."
Will tasted the brandy warily. Wretched indeed, but he welcomed the throat-scorching kick as he tried to absorb the knowledge that he was about to die in front of a firing squad. He'd faced death in battle often enough, but the cold-bloodedness of an execution was ... disturbing.
After a second swallow of brandy, he handed the bottle back to Gordon. "There's no way out of this cellar?"
"We searched. At the least, we hoped to find more drink on one of the racks, but there was nothing useful, and the only way out is that door." Hawkins gestured. "That very heavy door, which is locked and barred from the other side."
"There are also two armed guards out there," Duval added. "Not such bad fellows. They gave us two bottles of brandy because they thought a man shouldn't go to his death sober." He smiled crookedly and reached for the bottle. "They apologized for the quality of the brandy, but, in truth, I no longer care. We finished the first bottle while you were unconscious, so we're all ahead of you in drunkenness."
"'In vino veritas,'" Hawkins murmured. "As I look at the rapidly diminishing moments of my life, I think of all the people I hurt being careless or selfish." He retrieved the brandy from Duval and took a swig. "If by some miracle I survive this sentence of death, I vow to do better. To pay more attention. To ... to be more kind."
"That's a good vow." Gordon frowned. "If I survive, I swear not to sleep with any more married women. They're nothing but trouble."
That produced a couple of chuckles. "If you're not going to sleep with married women, you might as well be dead," Chantry pronounced. After a few moments' thought, he continued, saying slowly, "But if I chance to survive, I vow to take up the responsibilities I've been avoiding. A safe promise that allows me to greet the firing squad gladly."
"What about you, Masterson?" Gordon asked. "Unless you've changed greatly, your soul shouldn't be imperiled by death in the morning. At school, you were damnably well behaved and good-natured."
"Don't confuse good manners with blameless behavior," Will said dryly. "I've been working on redemption for my sins for years, and I'm nowhere near balancing the scales in my favor." He wasn't sure if redemption was even possible.
Hawkins sighed gustily. "Unfortunate that the guards didn't give us more brandy. A bottle each would have been welcome. Even with only two bottles, we'd have had half a bottle each if you hadn't woken up, Masterson."
"Sorry to deprive you," Will said apologetically.
Hawkins regarded the bottle solemnly, then leaned over to give it to Will. "In fairness, you should finish this bottle, since we all had a head start."
Dreadful though the brandy was, Will accepted the bottle and emptied it with one long swallow. There was nowhere near enough to become drunk, alas.
He hoped again that the nuns and schoolgirls had escaped to safety. That would give some meaning to his death. God knew he'd seen enough meaningless deaths.
In a burst of fury at the brutality of war, he hurled the empty bottle across the cellar. He meant to strike a section of plain stone wall, but instead the heavy bottle crunched into a rickety upright supporting one of the wall racks. The rack collapsed with a dusty crash as shelves of old crockery and unidentifiable objects pitched to the floor.
"Jesus, Masterson!" Chantry said indignantly as he dodged back, his head clipping the lantern so that it swung wildly. "Are you trying to kill us prematurely?"
The dust sent Will into a coughing fit before he managed to choke out, "Sorry. My aim was off."
As he looked at the dust rising from the collapsed rack, the erratic light of the swinging lantern briefly illuminated straight lines gouged in one of the stones that had been concealed by the shelving. The lines were very faint, but the pattern looked familiar. Frowning, he levered himself up and lurched across the cellar. "Does anyone know who owns this house?"
Duval shrugged. "I heard that it belongs to British wine shippers who've operated in Gaia for a couple of generations, but I don't know the name. Does it matter? The current owner and his household fled when the French confiscated the house."
"It appears that a Freemason built the house." Will reached the wall and traced the angular lines with his fingertip, confirming his guess. "Freemasonry evolved from medieval stonemasons' guilds, so their symbols are based on the tools of a mason. This is a compass overlaying a square, a Masonic symbol."
"So?" That was Hawkins's gruff voice.
"Freemasons aren't always popular. Some have been known to build escape routes from their homes in case rioters came after them. Maybe that's what this one did."
The dusty mortar around the block looked like all the other mortar in the foundation, but the side seams were a little wider. If Will's guess was right ... On a hunch, he looked at the collapsed rack. It made sense for the builders to have the necessary tools convenient if the escape route was needed.
Yes! One of the uprights had separated into two pieces, and both looked like hardened metal. He lifted a length that tapered to the shape of a narrow chisel. Perfect for gouging. He dug into the mortar on the right side of the stone, and it crumbled away like sugar icing.
"The devil you say!" someone exclaimed as the other men scrambled to their feet and gathered behind him. The tension was palpable.
Silently Hawkins picked up the other piece of the broken upright and started gouging on the left side of the block. Gordon bent over and began clearing away the wreckage of the collapsed rack so the area under the work space was open.
Duval asked, "Are you a Freemason to know so much about them?"
"I'm a part-time engineer," Will explained. "The Royal Engineers corps never had enough men, so line officers like me are sometimes seconded to work with them if we have engineering experience. Very educational."
"If there is an escape tunnel ..." Hawkins's voice broke for a moment. "Do you have any idea where it might lead? This house is full of French soldiers and there are guards all around."
"My guess is the tunnel comes out among outbuildings where it won't be obvious," Will replied. "There's no point in going to this much trouble just to be captured outside."
With most of the mortar chipped away, Will said to Hawkins, "Step back." Then he carefully shoved the wider end of his tool into the gap he'd made between the stones. The temptation was to use full force, but he didn't want to damage his lever.
The stone shifted. Releasing the breath he didn't realize he'd been holding, Will worked at the block until it was far enough out from its neighbors to get a grip on. He tugged and the stone moved toward him. Hawkins grasped the other end and they both pulled. Abruptly the stone jerked free and crashed heavily to the dirt floor of the cellar, narrowly missing Will's left foot.
And behind it was a tunnel large enough for a man to crawl into.
"Well, hallelujah!" Chantry breathed.
The tunnel was lined with damp stones and the part Will could see in the dim light slanted upward with horizontal grooves on the bottom to provide traction to anyone crawling through. His eyes narrowed as he evaluated it. An average-sized man could fit in there, but Will was broader than average. Keeping that thought to himself, he said, "Now it's time to discover if this goes all the way to the surface."
"And if there are rats, scorpions, or dead bodies," Duval said dryly. "I'll go first. I'm not so large as you great hulking Englishmen, plus I speak the French of a native if I emerge outside and encounter a soldier."
"Those are good reasons." Will gestured at the tunnel. "Good luck!"
"I don't envy you going blind into that tunnel," Gordon said as he offered the Frenchman a curved, broken piece of pottery. "This isn't much, but it might be useful against those rats or guards."
Duval accepted the impromptu weapon with a nod of thanks. "I shall return to tell you what I find."
Will was sure that he wasn't the only one praying for success as Duval climbed into the tunnel and began to crawl forward on his belly. The four remaining men waited in silence, listening to the faint sounds of Duval inching upward. He muttered a French curse or two at different times, and then the sounds faded away completely.
"It must be a long tunnel," Gordon said. His gaze was on the floor, concealing his expression.
"The longer it is, the better chance we have of leaving safely." Chantry rubbed at his side. "I've cracked a rib or two. I didn't think it was worth binding them when I was going to be shot, but I'd better do something or I won't be able to crawl."
Gordon stripped off the shabby greatcoat he was wearing. "I'll cut this up for the binding." He used another piece of broken pottery to saw the heavy fabric into strips.
They all worked together to bind Chantry's ribs, the activity a welcome distraction. Will had just tied off the last bandage when they heard sounds in the tunnel.
A few moments later, Duval's head emerged. "We are saved!" he said jubilantly. "The tunnel ends in an old stone shed that is one of a cluster of outbuildings. When I looked out, I saw no soldiers near. It is raining, so wise men stay inside."
As Will helped the muddy Frenchman get his feet safely on the ground, Hawkins said tersely, "Then it's time we made our escape. Chantry, will you be able to make it up there with your cracked ribs?"
"What's a little pain compared to fast-approaching dawn?" Chantry replied with a twisted smile. "I'll make it."
"The rest of you go first," Will said. "If the tunnel is too narrow for me, I don't want to block anyone else from getting away."
Duval frowned as he studied the width of Will's shoulders. "It will be difficult but not, I think, impossible. Perhaps you should remove your coat and shirt. A small difference might be enough. I will carry your garments up the tunnel for you."
"Good idea." By the time Will had removed his coat and shirt, Gordon, Chantry, and Hawkins were crawling toward escape. Chantry gasped with pain as Hawkins helped him up into the tunnel, but he didn't complain, just started inching doggedly upward.
Duval wrapped Will's garments in a tight, flat bundle, then used his cravat to tie them to his lower back. "The tunnel is tight and somewhat damaged in places, but I do think you will be able to get through. I will not be far ahead. If you get into trouble, call. We will find a way to bring you to freedom."
Will had his doubts that would be possible, but he appreciated the sentiment. "If I become impossibly stuck, for God's sake, get away! There's no point in all of us dying."
"I am not so easily dismissed, Masterson," Duval retorted. "I shall see you on the surface." He climbed into the tunnel and began working his way up again.
Will took a deep breath, then followed. He was not fond of confined spaces at the best of times, and the climb out through stifling blackness would haunt his dreams for years, assuming he made it out. Even without his coat and with his bare torso slick with water and mud from the damp, there were times he thought he was lethally stuck. He learned how tightly his shoulders and chest could be compressed, and it was barely enough.
The tightest place was the very end, where the tunnel opened into the shed. After two attempts, Will grimly accepted his fate. "I can't make it," he said flatly. "Leave without me."
"You damn well will make it!" Gordon retorted. "Back up a couple of yards and cover your head while we widen this hole."
Will summoned enough strength to back down a few feet and wrap his arms over his head before debris began falling on him. It took only minutes before Gordon said, "All clear!" Then he extended a hand into the tunnel.
Grateful for the help, Will managed to crawl the short distance out onto a cold, muddy floor. He lurched to his feet, then pulled on the shirt and coat Duval had carried for him, grateful for any slight warmth.
"Quickly now," Chantry said. "The night is almost over and we must get away. We're in luck. The building to our right is a stable and Hawkins has liberated five horses. I know roughly where we are and can lead us to open country. As soon as we step outside, we must be swift and silent. Ready, Masterson?"
After Will nodded, Chantry opened the door of the shed. The heavy rain made the darkness almost impenetrable, but Will could make out the shapes of the horses just outside. Hawkins had managed to bridle and saddle the animals, after stealing them.
The men swiftly mounted, Hawkins helping the injured Chantry into his saddle. They saved the largest horse for Will. Chantry led and set the pace, a slow walk so as not to attract attention. Will was sure the other men shared his desire to gallop away at full speed, but he knew Chantry was right to be cautious.
Excerpted from Once a Soldier by Mary Jo Putney. Copyright © 2016 Mary Jo Putney, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A story that highlights the conflict between desire and duty, and just how emotional decisions can sway your destiny. Will Masterson, heir to a title was grieving at the loss of his wife and daughter. Turning his back on England and his responsibilities, he purchased a commission to fight Napoleon. Seeing the surrender, a later skirmish had him facing a hanging with four other men, a somehow fitting end to his journey. But, destiny, fate and a bottle intervened and the five men escaped, vowing to stay in contact through letters to a pre-determined location. However, Will has been tasked with accompanying a small group of men back to their homeland of San Gabriel, to shore up the tiny municipality after the French army’s destruction. Athena Markham has been serving as Princess Sophia’s aid and confidante. With the regent aging out, the next in line nowhere to be found and Sophia as next in line, safety and security for the princess is tantamount. Not to mention that Athena’s cool confidence, independent streak and desire to be ‘useful’ works to everyone’s advantage. Illegitimate daughter of a lord and his courtesan, Athena’s childhood was tumultuous and full of bullying and behind the hand comments. She’s fled to find her place and leave the past behind, and her ability to think logically and see what needs to be done are hugely advantageous. Together Will and Athena are a unique couple, their attraction is instant. Will has never met such a tall and hard to intimidate woman before, nor one that is so interested in what he has to say. Not in a flirtatious way, but with helpful and insightful comments, and a calmness that surrounds her decisions to help Sophia. Although Will intrigues Athena, and she won’t deny their chemistry, she won’t risk his name or her heart with a short term affair, preferring friendship and a camaraderie that is tinged with sexual tension. She finds that she can trust Will with her big secret past, yet it matters not to Will. He wants to marry this woman and take her home. A wonderful story full of heart, tension, duty and the sort of ‘all for you’ dedication from the hero that just makes him irresistible. I can’t wait for the next in the series. I received an eArc copy of the title from the publisher via NetGalley for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.
After fighting with the French ended, Major Will Masterton is tasked with leading the soldiers from San Gabriel across Spain to their homes. Arriving in the small country of San Gabriel, he is fascinated by the tall and beautiful woman he meets. Athena Markham is English but has lived in San Gabriel for several years as a companion to Princess Sophia. Attraction grows between them but is stopped when Athena learns that Will is an aristocrat. She is the illegitimate daughter of a courtesan and knows she would never be accepted into society. Will has to change her mind.
I really enjoyed this story. It was not your typical storyline for this genre and I enjoyed that very much. I really liked Will and Athena both. Athena was definitely not your typical 'lady' of this time period and that made for many interesting events in the story. Will was her perfect match! I'm really looking forward to the next book in the series!
This was a very good book and I highly recommend it. I enjoyed this story very much and will look for the others in this series!
Will had a horrible when he opened his eyes he recognized a man named Gordon. They had went to school together a long time ago. Will was a soldier/spy who knew three other languages’ His commander had sent him to learn what was going on in the city. He found out nothing good. There are other men/spies with him and they are to be killed at dawn. Will found this house had been owned by a free mason at one time he found the symbol. The symbol when dug out had a lever that lead to a tunnel leading outside to some outsheds. He thought he might be to big to make it through but the other spies widened the exit so he could get out. The men felt a connection to each other and decided to try and meet up if they survived the war. The named their group The Brotherhood Of Rogues Redeemed. Eventually Will was ready to face the world as a civilian There was some soldiers who wanted to go home to San Gabriel and Will’s commander asked if he would lead them if their commander agreed. The ride through Portugal and Spain would give will a chance to say goodbye to the Army way if life. Athena had nothing left in England and went to San Gabriel she had been there five years and was a definite help to princess Sofie and the even more important the whole community. When Will gets to San Gabriel there is a strong attraction between himself and Athena. Athena had found she could trust Will and told him of her past. A,so Will’s friend Justin and the Princess Sofie appear to have just as strong an attraction. I liked the story but didn’t love it. The saving of San Gabriel seem to switch the plot some from the main characters. I also felt Justine’s and the princess really had attraction and romance not so much with Will and Athena. Maybe if it was two separate novellas it would have worked better for me. This story was okay just didn’t WOW me. I received an AEC of this story for an honest review.
This was an okay historical read for me. I liked the characters as well as the story, was just a bit slow for my liking.
I enjoyed this story. Athena's past rules her head. Will has managed to survive the war only to find himself in a small country trying to recover from the ravages of war. The two find an instant attraction and get to know each other as they rebuild. They face danger, coming close to death before committing to each other. There are a couple other happily ever afters within this story. For a story so steeped in violence, there are a lot of uplifting and touching moments. I recommend this story. I received this story from Netgalley for an honest review.
Once a Soldier had a slow-ish start--one we need to understand the premise of the series, and which will undoubtedly have more umph to it now that I know Will so much better--but once we were introduced to both our hero and heroine and their story truly began, it was all but unputdownable! (Note to self: read more Mary Jo Putney. I'm not sure why I haven't before, but thank goodness for long backlists!) I loved Athena and Will (and Justin and Sofia, and Tom and Maria Cristina)--such fun and admirable characters! The theme of love which cannot be is a heart-wrenching one, and I was hoping against hope that Ms. Putney would be able to find a way for all three couples to end up together despite their barriers. The setting of the small kingdom of San Gabriel is wonderful, though I was almost as anxious as Will and Athena to see them return to England at last. (And apprehensive! Talk about being on pins and needles...) Watching as they helped to return San Gabriel to its previous strength first, though, was delightful. Plus, it had the added bonus of sweaty, muscular men in wet, white shirts (after repairing the mill)--you just can't go wrong, am I right? ;) Once a Soldier is the first in a new series, Rogues Redeemed, so it's a great place to start reading the author if you haven't yet. Apparently Will's been a side character in other series books--specifically the Lost Lords, which I'm obviously adding to my TBR ASAP--so if you've read that series, you will see some familiar faces here. Rating: 4 stars / A- I received a complimentary copy in exchange for an honest review.
What a wonderful historical romance! It captured me and kept me enthralled from beginning to end. I felt I was back in the early 1800’s with all of the characters and what well-crafted, delightful people they were! There were many that I would have enjoyed spending time with or having as friends. Will Masterson and Athena Markham make a splendid couple. Both were multi-faceted people formed by their circumstances to become almost bigger than life though still humble. Not wanting to give the story away I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed their romance and how it all played out. Throw in Princess Sofia and Justin Ballard who fall in love at first sight but had little chance of having a happily ever after since one was royalty and the other a Scottish merchant and you have two romances for the price of one. I loved the setting, the well-crafted characters, the slow build of the story, the fast-paced war scenes, the supporting characters and…well…I really enjoyed this story and found it had everything I look for in a historical romance. This is the first book I have read by this author and it will not be my last. I am eager to find books she has written already as well as read more of the Rogues Redeemed series as it comes out. Thank you to NetGalley and Kensington Books for the eARC in exchange for my honest review.
Athena is who I aspire to be. Not the conventional beauty, she focused on her strengths: character, smarts and the freedom to make her own way and decide for herself what direction her life took. I applaud Ms. Putney for creating a character that was inspirational and not a victim. She was not a damsel in distress, did not need to be rescued. That was not who she was she thrived on the element of surprise and her sense of adventure. Will was harder to figure out. He was a loner through and through. Ms. Putney is an author that marches to the beat of her own drum. Her characters are full of fire and her stories are built on suspense. That sometimes makes me wary of her work but Once a Soldier is a story that has intense spirit and will be an asset to any book shelf.