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 Putneyengaging characters, entertaining story, a delightful read!" Stephanie Laurens
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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..
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