Anne here, interviewing Mary Jo about her new book, ONCE A SOLDIER, the first in a new series, “Rogues Redeemed” which is a spin-off of her wonderful Lost Lords Series.
First a few accolades for the book: Library Journal gave it a starred review, and said, “Exquisitely developed characters, a stunning setting, and the perfect amount of history and engineering detail make this an excellent start to what promises to be another of Putney’s insightful, riveting series.”
Romantic Times gave it a Top Pick and said, “Filled with action, danger and passion, her latest engages the readers’ emotions with a deeply touching and marvelously crafted love story. A keeper.”
Anne: Mary Jo, congratulations on the release of ONCE A SOLDIER. I loved the beginning, where the hero and several other men are locked in a wine cellar, preparing themselves to face a firing squad at dawn. Each man reflects briefly on his life and ponders the unlikely possibility of redemption — which gives us the theme for the new series, “Rogues Redeemed.”
Our hero, Will Masterson, is the one who works out their escape, and it’s a clever engineer's solution, rather than the more usual biff, bam, wallop! kind of escape. Tell us about Will.
MJP: Will has always been a favorite of mine —a big, powerful guy who is laid back and kind. He ended up at the Westerfield Academy for "boys of good birth and bad behavior" because when he was a small boy, his even smaller illegitimate half brother, Damian Mackenzie, was deposited at the family estate after the death of his actress mother. Will was motherless and lonely, and he immediately bonded with this new brother and refused to let Mac be sent away.
Will was a responsible young man who became Lord Masterson early and married young, but after the death of his wife, he said to hell with his responsibilities and joined the army, half hoping to die honorably in combat. Besides being an infantry officer, he was also sometimes seconded to the Royal Engineers, who were always short of engineering officers. Will is good at both building and blowing things up. *G*
But he didn't get killed by the French, so when the wars ended with Napoleon's abdication in the spring of 1814, Will is ready to sell out and go home and resume his responsibilities as a peer of the realm. And then, as so often happens in romance, his plans all go sideways. *G*
Anne: I have to say, I really liked Will. The heroine of this story is an unusual woman, brave in some ways, vulnerable in others. I hope it isn’t a spoiler to say that when I first saw the reference to ‘a tall nun’ I went, “aha!” And though she isn’t a nun, Athena is very complex and appealing.
MJP: Will needed a special woman, and that turned out to be Athena, who equally needed a special man. She was the illegitimate child of a flamboyant, high-born courtesan who went from one high profile lover to another, sweeping her only daughter along in her wake. Quiet, intelligent Athena learned a lot of unusual things along the way and she and her mother were devoted to each other, but after her mother's death when Athena was in her early teens, she's sent to her father, a British aristocrat who despises her very existence. Not surprisingly, Athena has felt like an outcast her entire life. She can't imagine ever becoming part of the society she was born to, but which had no place for her.
Anne: Most of the story takes place after Napoleon's abdication and exile to Elba (Waterloo is still a year in the future), in the aftermath of war, and it’s as much about rebuilding a country —generating hope—as about the romance between Will and Athena. There are universal themes here, about the cost of war to families, about redemption and about second chances. I got quite choked up in some places.
MJP: Happy to have choked you up, Anne! Indeed, rebuilding in the aftermath of war is one of the principal themes. My small fictional kingdom of San Gabriel has always been a happy place, situated in the mountains between Spain and Portugal and welcoming refugees from both countries. The country's isolation had kept it safe, until a French army marched through while fleeing Allied victories in Northern Portugal. Infrastructure was destroyed, the king and crown prince were captured and probably killed, and it's left to the very young princess and her friend and chief aide, Athena Markham, to keep the country going and rebuild. Then along comes a handsome British engineer…. *G*
Anne: Even though the small kingdom of San Gabriel is fictional, it seems very real. As we discussed in a blog a few weeks back, a lot of the smaller countries and principalities of Europe were swallowed up in the Napoleonic wars and the treaties that followed. What was the inspiration for San Gabriel? (NOTE: the photo above of the lovely bridge over the Douro River is shown courtesy of Tony Page of Travel Sign Posts. All the others are MJP's own photos. Click on them for a larger image.)
MJP: Several years ago, we took a riverboat cruise along the Douro River in Northern Portugal. The Douro river runs pretty much due east from the port of Porto into Spain, and its valley is one of the great wine producing regions of Europe, particularly known for port wine. It was also an area that was fought over repeatedly by the French and the Anglo-Portuguese army. The country and the history fascinated me and I've wanted to set a book in that area ever since. My San Gabriel is part of the Douro watershed, and that plays a significant part in Once a Soldier.
Anne: And your photos of it are gorgeous. As well as the main romance, and several minor romances, there’s fighting, engineering detail, winemaking, and wine selling. Clearly there was a lot of research involved in this book. What most intrigued you?
MJP: It was all fascinating! I'm not actually very fond of port wine, but the history and development of the port industry is really interesting, and some of that is reflected in my story. I also have files on army engineers and building bridges and the operation of gristmills and Portuguese and Spanish naming conventions and other fun topics. *G* There actually was a very small country called Couto Misto in the mountains between Spain and Portugal, and I used a bit of its legendary history for my San Gabriel.
Anne: Can you give us a taste of ONCE A SOLDIER, please?
MJP: Will and Athena are becoming acquainted. He is very interested in her, and while she is attracted to him, she knows that's a bad idea, and is trying to maintain distance between them.
His gaze held hers, his gray eyes turning serious. "Though I yearn for my home, some things are more important. Becoming better acquainted with you is one such thing."
She stared at him. "You're a most unusual man, Major Masterson."
"I've been told that before," he said sadly. "It's never a compliment."
She had to smile. "Now I know you're teasing."
"Possibly," he agreed, his expression sober but his eyes amused. "If I'm forgiven for the kiss, will you call me Will again? I prefer to be on first name terms with you."
"Very well, Will." She preferred that as well. "For whatever time you're here, we can be friends. After you leave…" She shrugged. "In my experience, men are not such good letter writers as women, and it's a long way from San Gabriel to Oxfordshire."
"I'm a rather decent letter writer, actually." His gaze intensified. "Friends. And who knows? Perhaps we can become more than friends."
She felt as if the breath had been knocked out of her. He could not possibly mean what he seemed to be implying. Returning to irony, she said, "What are the relationship possibilities?" She held up her left hand and ticked off one finger. "Friendship is the broadest category and can range from mild acquaintance to deep, enduring loyalty. I think we are already mild friends?"
"If we weren't more than mild friends already, we wouldn't be having this extremely interesting discussion," he agreed.
She ticked off another finger. "We could become enemies."
"I will not allow that," he said firmly. "I have had enough of enemies."
"One does not always have a choice." She tapped her middle finger. "The opposite of love or hate, which is indifference."
"It is much too late for indifference," Will said seriously. "I believe I mentioned my immediate interest in kissing you."
"Do you always want to kiss women who aim rifles at you?" she asked curiously.
"No, you're the only one," he said. "Though if the truth be known, women seldom greet me with weaponry."
"I'm glad to hear that." She studied her hand. "Two fingers left for listing relationships, and those remaining are deeply implausible."
"But these are the most interesting possibilities!" he exclaimed.
"Interesting doesn't mean good." She ticked her ring finger. "We could have an affair. That will not happen for any number of reasons, most of which you can imagine."
"Which leaves another possibility," he said, his voice soft.
Read another excerpt here — the first meeting between Will and Athena.
Anne: Sigh. It's a lovely book, Mary Jo. Here's the link to Mary Jo's website.
MJP: Thanks so much for the interview, Anne! I'm looking forward to returning the favor next week, when we'll discuss your wonderful The Spring Bride!
Leave a comment or answer this question to be in the draw for a copy of ONCE A SOLDIER. In which Lost Lords books did Will Masterson make a significant appearance?
*Anne here. We have a winner — Karlene B, Mary Jo will be contacting you.
Thanks everyone for joining in.