Zebadiah “Zeb” Kaine can’t believe his good fortunate in finding a teaching position that allows his more progressive attitudes and hands on approach to engaging young minds in a place full of flora and fauna for him to study. The only cloud on his horizon is the cynical, foppish, too pretty for his own good bookkeeper, René Wellington—the kind of sophisticated, cultured man that makes Zeb uncomfortably aware of his countrified, farming roots. While René’s self-assurance, polished looks, and mocking delivery rile Zeb’s normally placid temper and make him want to punch the man as much as kiss him, René is alternately delighted, agitated, and intrigued by Zeb’s naïve, innocent nature.
As Zeb and René run into each other, Zeb’s annoyance with René gives way to his attraction for the man, especially after he realizes that René isn’t actually disdainful of, nor ridiculing, him. While René is open in his flirtations and interest, Zeb’s shyness and inexperience keep him from trusting the clues, especially as Zeb’s one relationship was with his closeted minister who stressed the immorality of what they were doing (after the hand-jobs, of course). Eventually, Zeb and René begin a liaison filled with all the uncertainty inherent in a situation where openness about their affection and relationship isn’t possible. Moreover, René, having had a string of lovers after leaving the brothels and being a restless spirit, doesn’t think of his sexual encounters as more than temporary dalliances, while Zeb is unused to being with someone who treats sex between two men as normal and healthy. As the two navigate unexpected feelings and social expectations, the solace and companionship they have found with one another is threatened by a secret from René’s past that goes against everything Zeb believes in and in the man he thought René was.
Refuge for a Rogue is a sweet, low-angst story with very likeable characters, which is good as the story is solely focused on their day to day lives and their eventual courtship. The only antagonist creates some tension here and there, but it seems mostly so the ineffectual bully isn’t forgotten, as he is absent for large swaths of the narrative until his last gambit—which is swiftly dealt with. The story is also interestingly progressive, yet has a more realistic small-town vibe than I believe a lot of historical books portray. As a progressive and an idealist, Zeb treats all his students as equals and is encouraging in ways that may seem too modern for some readers, but I think are appropriate. Additionally, there is no rampant homophobia, no frothing man’s man villains, and although it’s mentioned how the townsfolk like to gossip, it’s apparent that as long as you keep a low profile, most people mind their own business. Yes, René and Zeb have to be cautious, but there is at least one other same-sex couple, an unconditional friendship for Zeb, and a courtship that isn’t bogged down with the overt hostility drama commonly found in historicals; it’s refreshing.
Stories like Refuge only work if you buy into the characters as their relationship progression is the only real plot mover, so I’m glad I enjoyed Zeb and René’. Socially awkward, shy, and introverted, Zeb initially finds René’s smirking visage and sardonic air mocking and infuriating, while René is simply taking delight in teasing blushes out of the virtuous redhead. For although René has the polished clothes, looks, and mannerisms of an entitled gentleman from monied stock, he learned the power of these tools from wealthy older men who traded a decent meal and a warm bed for the night for sex with a starving orphaned guttersnipe. Now at 34 years old, René has made a career and home for himself and takes pride in being able to choose his bed partners, and he makes clear his choice of the gentle schoolteacher he seems to offend whenever they meet.
While René isn’t normally inclined towards longevity in his relationships, the conversations and quiet times he spends with Zeb, watching the man come out of his shell to enthusiastically discuss everything from butterfly species to teaching techniques, pulls at heartstrings he didn’t know he had. Seeing Zeb’s warmth and goodness and having that affection directed his way makes René feel secure in a way he hasn’t since his mother died, and leaves him desperately afraid that when Zeb finds out all his secrets, Zeb won’t want to have anything to do with street trash like him. The major drama between the two stems from this fear as, though René’s eventually confides in Zeb about working in a brothel, he omits some of his other background. The ensuing fight between them after Zeb finds out about René’s past is predictable, with Zeb feeling he’s been lied to and upset by what he sees as a less understandable way to make a living than sex work and René hiding his hurt and fear of losing Zeb behind a dismissive attitude. However, it felt believable to the characters. I’m still on the fence about Zeb’s acceptance of René chosen method to begin rebuilding trust and atonement. It’s the first time in the story that the man René teasingly calls “Preacher” actually feels a bit holier-than-thou, but I can say I appreciate it as an interesting and unexpected gesture.
If you are looking for an enemies to lovers, slow burn romance between an idealist, scholarly farm boy turned teacher and a cynical street kid turned unrepentant hedonist who loves blushing gingers and prefers Whitman or Byronic verse to dirty talk, then I recommend Refuge for a Rogue.