The Warrior's Damsel

 
My Lady’s Temptation
by Denise Hampton
(Avon, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-380-81548-6
****
I enjoyed reading My Lady’s Temptation and although there’s quite a good romance in it, I’m not sure I’d exactly categorize this book as a “romance.” Energetic and richly detailed, it was more like a medieval action movie with page numbers.

Josce FitzBaldwin is the bastard son of the late Lord Haydon. He had a warm relationship with his father and was a trusted knight in his household. His father’s wife Beatrice, who produced four daughters, loathes Josce because his existence is a constant reminder of her failure to give her husband a male heir.

The two are currently united in one purpose, however, to see the bandits who murdered Lord Haydon and two of his young daughters caught and punished. They arrive in Knabwell, furious with the incompetent Sheriff who allowed the crime to happen and determined to force him to serve justice.

Elianne du Hommet, the Sheriff’s third daughter, is tall, 24, plain and dowerless. This, combined with the fact that her father finds it convenient to abuse her as an unpaid servant, makes it unlikely she’ll ever marry. Her only chance to avoid starvation, or worse, when her father dies is to be accepted into the nearby priory.

Elianne is intelligent and virtuous, so it’s humiliating when her father throws her at Sir Josce like a juicy bone before a big dog. Even if nothing happens, she knows that proximity to the knight could compromise her future as a nun. In fact, while du Hommet would be satisfied if she distracted Josce from his purpose, his real hope is that she’ll kill him when he tries to rape her.

You see, unbeknownst to Elianne, the Sheriff and his own bastard son, Adelm, are up to their necks in the situation that got Lord Haydon killed. Catching and punishing anybody is going to be a very neat trick.

At first, it seems as though the Sheriff’s scheme might work. Josce finds Elianne’s height and mettle very much to his taste, so the prospect of seducing her is not an unpleasant one, although at first his objective is to obtain information about her father.

Fortunately, in spite of his low birth, Josce learned honor at his sire’s knee and he’s no slouch in the brain department. He soon begins to doubt that Elianne is involved in the Shire’s nefarious activities. For her part, far from wanting to kill him, Elianne finds herself fascinated by the big knight who actually finds her attractive.

Elianne and Josce are likeable and admirable characters. Their romance is a pleasing element of the plot, although it does not dominate it. Equally important is the intricate murder mystery and its complex cast of individuals, each with their own agenda. In fact, the secondary characters are both one of the great strengths, and one of the weaknesses, of the story.

All are distinct individuals with powerful motivations. They include, among others, a mother who is literally insane with grief, a villain staggering under a burden of guilt, scheming nuns, and an unnatural father willing to sacrifice his children to his ambition. Each of them jumps off the page.

So much so that Josce and Elianne sometimes seem a bit bland in comparison. I like my heroes and heroines to be good people, and I liked the contrast, but in this challenging company I thought they could have used some sharper edges to keep them from fading beside their keenly rendered neighbors.

Overall, though, I found the story involving and the writing compelling. There’s lots of action, both mental and physical, from psychological intrigue to breakneck chases to furious sword fights. If you like your historical romance plot-driven, My Lady’s Temptation is an entertaining read.

By the way, you’re not seeing double if you think the cover of this book looks familiar. Avon used the same couple illustration on Gayle Callen’s My Lady’s Guardian, published about a year and a half ago. Not, I find to my enormous relief, a new cover strategy; just an unfortunate mistake.

--Judi McKee


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