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British Occupied Manhattan, 1777. With her witty comedies, American actress Jennifer Leighton has been packing the John Street Theater, but she longs to escape the provincial circuit for the glamour of the London stage. When the playwright General John Burgoyne visits the city, fresh from a recent success in the capitol, she seizes the opportunity to court his patronage. But her plan is foiled by British intelligence officer Severin Devere.
Severin’s mission is to keep the pleasure-loving general focused on the war effort…and away from pretty young actresses. But the tables are turned when Severin himself can’t resist Jennifer Leighton…
Months later, Jenny has abandoned her dreams of stage glory and begun writing seditious plays for the Rebels under the pen name “Cornelia,” ridiculing “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne and his army—and undermining the crown’s campaign to take Albany. By the time Severin meets up with Jenny once again, she is on a British hanging list, and Severin is ordered to find her—and deliver her to certain death. Soon, the two are launched on a desperate journey through the wilderness, toward a future shaped by the revolution—and their passion for each other…
Manhattan Island, December 1775
John Burgoyne was in New York.
Jenny overheard the wine merchant telling the tavern keeper in hushed tones. She knew better than to look up when she felt their eyes on her. Two years in a city buffeted by mob violence and political intrigue had honed her instinct for self-preservation. She kept her head down and studied her mother’s letter from home.
Seated beside one of the tall windows in the elegant taproom at the Fraunces Tavern, with its lofty ceilings and fine painted paneling, she nursed her single cup of chocolate and tried to concentrate on the words on the page, but her mind kept returning to Burgoyne. For the wine seller and the publican, Burgoyne’s presence meant a business opportunity, and one that must be kept secret from the Liberty Boys, who had abducted a loyalist judge, an Anglican clergyman, and a British physician from their homes only the week before. Politics, the two merchants agreed, were terrible for trade.
They were also murder on the Muses. Isaac Sears and his rabble had stormed the theater, broken all the benches in the pit, and would have beaten the players as well if the company had been performing. Congress had closed all the other theaters in the colonies. Only New York’s John Street remained open, performing without a license, and at the mercy of the Rebel mob, which saw it as a British institution and an instrument of tyranny.
There was no future for a playwright in North America.
Jenny’s mother tried to tell her as much in her weekly reports from New Brunswick. The newsy letters arrived every
Tuesday like clockwork, carried by the dishearteningly efficient Rebel post, threaded with the subtle message that, in such trying times, Jenny would be wise to come home.
But even her mother could not claim that New Brunswick was untouched by the current troubles. It had taken eight men a whole day, she wrote, to raise the new church bell, which had been cast in Holland from six hundred pounds of silver donated by the first families of the parish, into the steeple. It had been rung only once before word reached the town that the British were abroad—hunting for caches of weapons and confiscating church bells along the way so that the Rebels could not raise the countryside with their alarms.
Whatever their individual political leanings, the faithful of New Brunswick had denuded their tables and donated their plate for the glory of God, not King George. The church consistory voted unanimously, her mother wrote with obvious satisfaction, to take the bell down and bury it in the orchard across the lane.
If Jenny did not do something about it, she would end up like the bell, buried in New Brunswick until the Rebels were routed. Teased and tormented by four loving brothers who had followed her father into the brick-making trade and could not understand why a pretty girl bothered herself with scribbling for players.
There was no future for a playwright . . . in North America. That was why Jenny wanted, needed to meet Burgoyne.
The general was said to be a personal friend of David Garrick. Burgoyne’s plays had been performed at Drury Lane in London.
“The Boyne will be a week at least refitting,” murmured Andries Van Dam, who was arranging to send a crate of his best Madeira aboard the ship. “The general also asks for six quarts of Spanish olives, twelve pounds of Jordan almonds”—the tavern keeper began writing it all down, eyes alight—“two dozen doilies, one box of citron, six jars of pickles, and one Parmesan cheese.”
Jenny waited until they disappeared into the storeroom—all furtive glances and quiet whispers—before dashing out of the tavern. Samuel Fraunces, publican—Black Sam, to his friends—was a notorious Rebel, but evidently not a man to let that get in the way of trade. Jenny had never cared for politics. She liked them even less now that the royal governor and the garrison had retreated to their gun ships in the harbor and left ordinary New Yorkers like herself to the pity of the rabble, who had none.
She wanted nothing better than to dash directly home to John Street and Aunt Frances with her news, but she still had errands to run for the theater’s manager: costumes to pick up from the mantua maker, canvas to fetch for repairing the scenery, playbills waiting at the printer. This, though, gave her the opportunity to make discreet inquiries about the Boyne with the sailmakers and victuallers. By the time Jenny reached the little blue house next door to the theater, wrapped in her plain wool cloak and laden with packages, she had acquired a box of oranges, and knew that the Boyne was anchored off the Battery undergoing repairs.
Aunt Frances was upstairs in the little parlor at her desk working on a manuscript. She looked effortlessly stylish—as always—in a simple blue silk gown with her hair teased and tinted to match. Her arrival in New Brunswick, after fleeing her London creditors, had changed Jenny’s life. Aunt Frances was old enough—just—to be her mother, but unlike the matrons of Jenny’s acquaintance she had not rushed headlong into the trappings of domesticity or middle age. She wore no frumpy caps or homely aprons. She neither baked nor sewed. She wrote a little, acted a great deal, and charmed the patrons in the greenroom, always.
Without raising her head, she said, “How is your mother and everyone in New Bumpkin?”
“New Brunswick,” Jenny corrected. “They are fine. And Burgoyne is in New York.”
Publisher and Release Date: NAL, 3 March 2015
Time and Setting: Manhattan, America, 1775
Genre: Romantic Historical Fiction
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 4 Stars
Review by Jill
At the outbreak of the American War of Independence, actress and playwright, Jennifer Leighton knows there’s no future for her as a playwright in America. England, however, is a different matter. But she is in need of a patron to sponsor her. General John Burgoyne, British Army officer and dramatist has just arrived in Manhattan, so all she has to do is arrange an introduction. When Burgoyne receives Jenny’s note, knowing she’s an actress he mistakenly believes her to also be a doxy, and is keen to meet her. But his intelligence officer, Severin Devere has other ideas. Sent to America to bring home John Burgoyne discreetly and safely, he instead meets Jenny on Burgoyne’s behalf.
Mistress Firebrand is the third book in the Renegades of the Revolution series but can be read as a standalone. As with her previous titles, Donna Thorland provides rich historical detail. This book and series is more romantic historical fiction than historical romance, with the romantic relationship between Severin and Jenny playing a role, but not being the sole focus of the story.
Set in 1775, Ms Thorland cleverly inserts this fictional story into the Revolutionary War. One of the most intriguing and previously unknown facts was the role of theatre in the cause of independence, the power of plays, not just as entertainment, but as propaganda. Using this as a plotline is an original and fresh idea, and one I have never read before.
Severin Devere, bastard son of Lord Devere, half-white, half-Mohawk, is a dangerous man. Brought to England as a boy, he has never been fully accepted into British society, and he in turn has never felt completely at home. As a spy for the British, but with his American ancestry, Severin’s allegiance is tested. Jenny is an independent and strong character. She starts out as a person more interested in her own career than the politics of the coming war. But the evolution of both Severin’s and Jenny’s views on the American cause for independence is as absorbing to watch as the action and romance.
There’s only one complaint I have in this otherwise enjoyable story. Unfortunately, some of the sex scenes – especially the first oddly-placed sexual encounter – detract from this well-written novel, losing it some of the credibility it deserves as a work of historical fiction.
Well-researched, original, steeped in historical facts, Mistress Firebrand is a very entertaining novel overall. Combine that with an exciting plot, a romance between two interesting, complex and likable characters, and there’s a lot here to enjoy. It’s a real pleasure to find a novel set in the American Revolution, an underused setting in romantic historical fiction.
Mistress Firebrand and the previous two titles in the Renegades of the Revolution series are well worth reading, and would suit readers who enjoy romantic historical fiction and historical romance.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A native of Bergenfield, New Jersey, Donna graduated from Yale with a degree in Classics and Art History. For many years she managed architecture and interpretation at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, and wrote and directed the Witch City’s most popular Halloween theater festival, Eerie Events. She later earned an MFA in film production from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Donna has been a sorority house mother, a Disney/ABC Television Writing Fellow, a WGA Writer’s Access Project Honoree, and a writer on the ABC primetime drama, Cupid. Her screenwriting credits include episodes of the animated series, Tron: Uprising. Her short fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Albedo One. The director of several award-winning short films, her most recent project, The Night Caller, aired on WNET Channel 13 and was featured on Ain’t It Cool News. Currently she is a writer on the WGN drama SALEM. She is married with one cat and divides her time between the real Salem and Los Angeles.