Once a Mistress by Debra Mullins
(Avon, $5.99, R) ISBN 0-380-80444-1
Once a Mistress is the debut book from Debra Mullins, and historical romance lovers who enjoy pirate stories may find it much to their liking. A few first-book flaws are balanced by a likable hero and an exuberant overall tone which indicates the author had a lot of fun writing this story.

The story opens in Jamaica in the year 1680. Henry Morgan, ex-pirate, is now the lieutenant-governor of the colony and has vowed to put an end to piracy in the Caribbean. Diana Covington is the spoiled daughter of Frederick Covington, wealthy businessman. Readers first meet Diana as she attempts to fend off the unwanted advances of one Lord Chilton, who is determined to ravish her in order to force a marriage. Alex Rawnsley, Earl of Rothstone, who is disguising himself as the pirate El Moreno in order to trap his brother's murderer, rescues Diana. He steals a kiss and sets her free.

When Diana is kidnapped by the pirate Marcus, the very man Alex seeks, Alex saves her once more. Marcus has in mind a torture-rape scenario, and in grand Hollywood fashion, Alex attacks his ship just as he's within seconds of doing the deed. Diana quickly dresses in men's clothing and attempts to escape. Marcus grabs her on deck, Alex comes to the rescue, and Marcus ends up in the sea (but not out of the story).

Now Alex is faced with the problem of what to do with Diana. After announcing to the crew that Diana is his as captains' share of the bounty, he decides to take her to Besosa, an island where she will be safe from Marcus until Alex can find him and finish him off. And soon Alex does not want to let Diana go - he wants to keep her, for real. Diana is just as attracted to Alex.

Okay, it's all light entertainment an Earl disguised as a pirate, continually coming to the rescue in the nick of time but it's done with a spirit of fun. Alex is a fine hero. He's charming, honorable, intelligent, and determined to treat Diana with respect at least until she throws herself at him and he's unable to resist. His character remains constant throughout the book, which makes it easy to get to know him and cheer for him.

I didn't feel the same connection to Diana. In fact, I got the feeling that the author didn't completely define Diana's character, because she kept changing. When the story opens, she's all arrogant, head-tossing brat, stomping and slamming and demanding, much in the way a sixteen-year-old would think is high-spirited but really is just tiresome. She doesn't improve on Marcus' ship. In fact, after her near-rape and subsequent rescue, she refuses to go with Alex, insisting that she can take care of herself and he is probably just as bad as Marcus. This after he's saved her butt twice. I was really itching to slap her, and it reduced Alex's attraction to her to something superficial she looks great.

Diana takes on a different tone when they reach Besosa, and manages to conduct herself with a bit more maturity. Then, near the end of the story, she reverts into "I want to do what I want, and nobody is going to tell me otherwise" mode, making a decision that puts herself and Alex into needless danger. It keeps the plot moving forward, but at a sacrifice. I no longer particularly cared if Alex got the heroine, because at this point, it didn't look like he was getting much beyond a head of red hair and a great body. There was character growth and regression.

Far more interesting to me was that the style of writing did mature throughout the story. The first several chapters have a heavy hint of "Romance Overwrought," with lots of exaggerated description and actions as the characters toss and slam and stomp and pain pierces their hearts and their eyes shoot daggers and such, but after a while, the author forgets about that and concentrates on telling the story, and it's much more enjoyable. Based on the second half of the book, Debra Mullins looks like she has a talent for lighter, faster-paced historical romance.

Finally, a word about the sensuality rating. Mullins has this aspect down pat. The scenes between Alex and Diana are hot, and readers who prefer their romance a bit on the sensual side will definitely enjoy it.

For a first book, there's a lot to like in Once a Mistress. Keep an eye out for Debra Mullins. It will interesting to see what she has up her sleeve.

--Cathy Sova

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