Lady In White
by Denise Domning, historical (1999)
Signet, $3.99, ISBN 0-451-40772-5
Okay, I'm cheap, I admit it. I saw the $3.99 price tag and I grabbed this book with nary a second thought. But this is a perfect find. Lady In White is a brilliant story with fascinating and well-developed characters. The author doesn't rely on cheap stereotypes or easy plotting, and the result is absolutely amazing.
Lady Arabella Purfoy is ordered by Queen Elizabeth to marry Squire Nicholas Hollier. In doing so, Belle would be spared of the fate of her mother - the Tower, and Hollier will finally see his title and lands reinstated to him. There's a catch: Belle's Protestant and Hollier's Catholic. This marriage is to be an ultimate test of loyalty for Belle and a way to curb Hollier's potential support for Mary, Queen of Scots.
But Belle doesn't fall in love with Holier, she falls for Hollier's man of affairs, Master James Wyatt.
Now, I'm sure we all expect Hollier to be a beast of the nth degree, fat, ugly, and intent on rapine and abuse, right? Wrong. Nick is very human, a gentle man who hides his awfully scarred face behind a mask, and a man who is torn between his love for the local witch and his duty to his title and lands. Likewise, Belle tries her best to make the marriage work, fighting her attraction to James. James, too, is horrified at his attraction and calls himself the lowest of low to desire his best friend and employer's wife.
Nick is also dying, which explains his desperation to get his title reinstated - he wants to leave his brother and heir a decent inheritance. It is only in a desperate attempt to protect Nick's lands and prevent an annulment that Belle and James finally consummated their attraction.
This is a complex story where everything is in shades of gray. No one is stock character. Belle is well-portrayed as a woman trying her best to adjust to a life where situation is slowly spiraling out of her control. She has to protect her daughter's best interest too, and she isn't too obtuse to recognize that her marriage isn't without benefits. She is truly willing to make the marriage work with Nick, but like Nick, her heart belongs somewhere else. Nick and Belle are actually friends brought together by shared miseries. Then there's James, who is wonderfully noble and a gentleman in every meaning of the word. When he loves, he loves utterly and completely, and his devotion to both Nick and Belle is simply heartwarming. There's nothing better than a really good man as a romantic hero, I always say, and James fit the tag Hero perfectly.
But it is Nick's story, his tragic romance with the local witch Cecily that moves me to tears and has me bawling. Nick and Cecily cannot marry, of course, as Nick is never free to choose his bride. Yet he loves her more than anything, and it is heartbreaking to see his reaction to his forced marriage to Belle. Even James notice his increasing desperation as the wedding day looms nearer and his losing of Cecily becomes more possible. Nick's story is absolutely poignant, painful, and yet bittersweet. I weep for both he and Cecily, for the love they share that is truly stronger than the anything. I consider Lady In White his story, his and Cecily's, and yes, I wouldn't want their story to end any other way.
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