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When You Wish

The Widow’s Kiss by Jane Feather
(Bantam, $19.95, R) ISBN 0-553-80181-3
I well remember leaving the theater after seeing the movie Apollo 13 several years ago. I was in absolute awe of the director’s ability to keep me on the edge of my seat, in fear and trembling, even though I knew that the astronauts were going to make it back safely. Well, Jane Feather’s new historical romance had the exact same effect on me. Although I knew I was going to have my happy ending, my stomach was in knots as the heroine and hero tried to navigate the dangerous waters of Henry VIII’s court. In both instances, my reactions can be attributed to brilliant storytelling.

The Widow’s Kiss begins in the Derbyshire home of Lord and Lady Mallory. Drunk and infuriated, Lord Mallory rushes at his wife, only to trip over her foot and fall out the window to his death. Thinking quickly, her ladyship pretends she was in the garderobe when the accident happened. She does not mourn her brutal husband. Rather, she settles down to enjoy the property she inherits from him.

Perhaps Lord Mallory’s untimely death would have passed without notice, except for two factors. First, Hugh of Beaucaire, one of the king’s men, has an interest in her ladyship, or rather in one of her ladyship’s properties. Secondly, this is the fourth husband who has suffered an untimely death, leaving his widow richer than she was before.

The king, and especially his Lord Privy Seal, Thomas Cromwell, become suspicious of these convenient deaths. More to the point, they see in the downfall of Lady Mallory a way to enrich the always strapped treasury and, in Cromwell’s case, his own wealth. So they send Hugh to Mallory Hall to escort Lady Guinevere to London for interrogation. The potential charges include not only murder, but also witchcraft. How else to explain that four men would have signed marriage contracts that left their widow in possession of all their wealth?

Hugh arrives in far Derbyshire to discover that Lady Mallory is surpassingly beautiful. She is also shrewd and intelligent, as learned in law as any lawyer. She knows why he has come and she knows what her likely fate will be. Hugh had had little compunction about bringing a probable murderess to justice. But when he meets Guinevere, when he sees her as a loving mother to her two daughters, Pen and Pippa, when he discovers her charm and intelligence, and, yes, when he experiences the frisson of attraction that springs up between the two antagonists, he is less sure. Yet, there are inconsistencies in the story of what happened that night. She may well have killed Lord Mallory. In the end, Hugh has no choice; the king has ordered him to bring Guinevere to London.

The Widow’s Kiss excels in everything that makes a compelling historical romance. The setting is marvelously drawn as Feather recreates the world of 1537 with a sure hand. The descriptions of the customs, of the houses, of the clothing, of the attitudes, of the behavior, all bring this past time to life.

The characters are equally well done. Lady Guinevere is no modern miss set down in the 16th century. She may be unusual in her intellectual attainments (although not as much as one might think; this was an era when the upper classes educated their womenfolk), but she fully understands the real position of women in her world. Lord Hugh is an equally interesting and complex man. A soldier by profession, he has a soldier’s straightforward approach. Yet he also comprehends the devious and dangerous times in which he lives.

Particularly impressive is Feather’s take on the king around whom this world revolved. Her Henry is the Henry VIII I have come to know from history: larger than life, mercurial, manipulative, charming, selfish and ultimately treacherous. If I feel that her portrayal of Cromwell is a wee bit unfair, well, every story needs a villain.

The plot is likewise first-rate. All of what happens here is completely plausible. When Guinevere faces Cromwell, when she is sent to the Tower, when she is brought before the Court of the Star Chamber where she must stand alone and try to defend herself, the tension is palpable.

Last, but not least, Feather gives us a wonderful romance. Guinevere and Hugh are both antagonists and lovers. The passion that ignites between them surprises them both. They need each other, but it will take some doing for them to trust each other.

There are too few romances that use the 16th century as a setting. This was a fascinating era, filled with great characters and great events. I gather that Feather is planning to revisit this period, that she plans to write about Guinevere’s daughters and Hugh’s sons. I can hardly wait.

The Widow’s Kiss is an absolutely gripping historical romance. It is certainly going on my keeper shelf.

--Jean Mason

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