The Brides of Christmas
by Jo Beverley, Margaret Moore & Deborah Simmons
(Harlequin, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-83417-9
****
It’s always a delightful surprise when one can comfortably recommend all the stories in an anthology. Such is the case with The Brides of Christmas which gives us three novellas set at Christmastide in medieval England. If one of the stories is better than the others -- yes, the Beverley -- the other two are quite enjoyable.

“The Wise Virgin” by Jo Beverley captures the flavor of life in medieval England. The de Montalon family have a long-lived custom on Christmas Eve. The youngest virgin of the family dresses up as the Virgin Mary and rides into the castle where she is warmly greeted. But this Christmas the unthinkable happens. The virgin is kidnapped. The only culprits can be the hated de Graves!

For four generations the two families have been feuding over a banner their ancestors carried on a crusade. This “Bethlehem banner” is in the custody of the de Graves, but the de Montalons believe that they are the rightful owners of this valuable relic. So for a century, these neighbors have been at loggerheads and the simmering feud has frequently led to bloodshed.

Indeed, the head of the de Graves’ family is the kidnapper. But Lord Edmund de Graves has seized Nicolette, the daughter of Baron de Montalon. But Nicolette had convinced her cousin and companion Joan of Hawes to take her place as the Virgin. It seems that Nicolette no longer met the requirements for the role, having fallen in love with Lord Edmund’s brother. Edmund thought he was bringing the two star-crossed lovers together. Instead, he has made the situation worse.

And instead of the sweet and gentle Nicolette, he finds himself confronting tart-tounged, strong-willed Joan tells him what she thinks of his actions and what she thinks of the silly feud. She shows him none of the deference Edmund is accustomed to, and he finds himself liking her warmth and passion very much indeed. But how can their newly discovered love prevail over ancient hatreds? Read “The Wise Virgin” and find out.

Margaret Moore offers a story of two people whose barren lives are healed by an unexpected love. “The Vagabond Knight” is Sir Rafe Bracton. One of the many knights who, as younger sons, has no real place in the world, he has reached his mid-thirties with nothing but his old destrier Cassius and his armor to show for a life of knightly service and tournament battles. His irreverence has lost him more than one place, and now, he is struggling through the snowy English countryside, looking for shelter.

He comes upon a well-tended manor and begs for lodging for the night. The owner of the house is Lady Katherine du Monde and she is not at all hospitable. But she does allow Rafe to shelter in her stable.

Katherine is lovely but austere. She has been sorely treated by the men in her life, her first love having seduced and abandoned her and her elderly husband leaving her penniless. She has made a place for herself by educating the daughters of knights and barons in the duties of household management. She has no time for an irreverent knight errant.

Yet these two seemingly ill-matched people share a deep need for love and warmth. How they find it is the essence of the story. I found myself imagining Rafe’s and Katherine’s future after I finished the story, a sure sign that the characters and their situation had caught me up.

The hero of Deborah Simmons novella, “The Unexpected Guest” is Fawke de Burgh, Earl of Campion, the patriarch of the de Burgh family whose lives she has chronicled in a number of books. It is Christmas and the earl is lonely. Bad weather has kept most of his family away. Thus the unexpected arrival of a party of travelers who seek shelter from the vile weather is a welcome surprise. The lovely widow, Joy, Lady Warwick, attracts the earl’s interest from the start.

For her part, Joy is strangely attracted to the earl. I say strangely, because Joy has spent years avoiding men and trying to keep herself from their control. She has no intention of marrying again and certainly does not aspire to be Campion’s wife. But she finds herself willing -- nay eager -- to sample the delights of a relationship with this powerful, older man.

There were some anachronisms in this story that bothered me and I felt that Joy’s character and motivations were not as clearly drawn as I would have liked. But despite these caveats, the story was quite acceptable.

Thus, I feel no hesitation in recommending The Brides of Christmas. All of these experienced authors know how to tell an enjoyable story and their talents are clearly on display in this anthology. Not a disappointing story among the lot.

--Jean Mason


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