As Gayle Feyrer:

The Thief's Mistress

Heart of Deception by Taylor Chase
(Harper, $5.99, R) ISBN 0-06-101289-0
This must be my month for compelling heroines. First, there was Kim Headlee’s unique characterization of Guineviere in Dawnflight and now there’s Taylor Chase’s Vivian Swift, one of most unusual heroines I have come across in a long, long time. If you like strong women who succeed in a man’s world in a completely believable manner, then you’ll appreciate Vivian. And, oh yes, the hero is perfectly marvelous as well.

The year is 1586 and Rafe Fletcher has returned from the war in the Netherlands because his grandfather and cousin have been accused of treason. The guns that the family company have provided to the English forces prove to be defective. In the poisonous atmosphere of the day -- the Babington plot against Elizabeth has just been uncovered -- neither Rafe’s grandfather’s noble title nor Puritan beliefs are any proof against the charge that the Earl of Exeter has conspired with the queen’s enemies.

Rafe seeks the assistance of his best friend, Sir Gabriel Darren, an agent working for Sir Francis Walsingham, the queen’s intelligence chief. Gabriel believes that the secret of who has framed the earl lies among the denizens of London’s underworld. But before he can reveal the evidence he has uncovered, Gabriel is murdered. So Rafe joins Walsingham’s forces, charged with infiltrating the organization of Nicholas and Vivian Swift, who control crime in the area of Southwark called the Klink.

The Swifts were forced into lives of crime because they murdered their guardian, the Earl of Mortmain, who was abusing Nicholas and proposed to turn his attention to the then fourteen-year-old Vivian. In the fifteen years since they fled their beloved home, they had, through intelligence, guile and daring, risen to the top of the London underworld.

Rafe manages to catch Vivian’s attention, both because of his skills as a fighter and because of his imposing person. Vivian is drawn to her new bodyguard, partly because she is losing her brother to his lover, the actor, Ambrose Piper. Vivian senses that there is more depth to Rafe than the men she has previously known. For his part, Rafe is fascinated by Vivian, by her passion, courage, bravery and beauty. The sexual tension sizzles and the love scenes fully warrant the R rating. (I seriously considered an NC-17.)

Obviously, the conflict is real and telling. To save his family and his queen, Rafe must betray the woman he is coming to love. Is Vivian in fact caught up in treason, or is someone setting her up just as they set up Rafe’s family?

Vivian may not be every reader’s cup of tea. No virginal innocent, she has had to be ruthless to survive. As “Queen of the Klink,” she has no hesitation about shedding blood to protect her kingdom. She is used to being in control, both in life and in love.

Rafe is a true match for this strong woman. He can accept her past, yet maintain his own values. He will do what is right, even at great personal cost.

Chase has also provided a cast of strong secondary characters, both real and fictional. We meet the queen herself as well as Walsingham, Christopher Marlowe, and even, if briefly, a play maker named Will. (In fact, we see where the idea for Hamlet comes from.) We get to know the denizens of Vivian’s kingdom, cutpurses, thieves, bawds, and others who live on the wrong side of the law. And, Chase has created truly villainous villains who, motivated by greed and fanaticism, seek to murder the queen and throw the kingdom into turmoil.

The romance plays out against a rich historical tapestry. Chase recreates Elizabethan England with a sure touch. From the corridors of Whitehall to the theaters and brothels of Southwark, the author vividly paints a portrait of this colorful era. She effectively uses the politically charged atmosphere of the day to enrich her tale.

Heart of Deception has everything a fan of fast-paced historical romance could want. There are brawls, swordfights, murders, betrayals, revenge, treason, last-minute rescues -- and a marvelous romance between two strong people whose love must surmount daunting barriers.

I have often wondered why there are not more romances set in Elizabethan England. This is a richly romantic era, an exciting and colorful time with lots of potential for the romance author. Chase has captured it brilliantly. Heart of Deception is a fascinating and absorbing romance, one that I will want to revisit more than once.

--Jean Mason

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