My Lord Protector by Deborah Hale
(Harl. Historical #452, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-373-29052-7
****
My Lord Protector is Deborah Hale's debut novel, and while I liked the book, I get the feeling that this author is not going to be everyone's cup of tea. Readers who cherish careful attention to detail, thorough historical research, and characters and stories that unfold slowly, by deliberate degrees, will likely regard this new author as a gift from the romance novel gods. On the other hand, readers who prefer fast-paced, gripping stories that leap into the heart of the action and sustain a page-turning pace throughout might find Hale's style a little ponderous.

It's like with fruit. Sometimes you're in the mood for an orange, which takes time to peel and break into sections. Other times, you want a fruit you can just bite right into like a good old straightforward apple. Hale's book is definitely an orange, but I suspect that many readers will find all that "peeling" to be worth the effort.

As the story opens, Julianna Ramsay has recently been orphaned by the death of her beloved father, leaving her the helpless ward of her vile, much-despised stepbrother, Jerome. Even though Julianna is already engaged to be married, Jerome insists that she marry another namely, the highest bidder, and as soon as possible. Since her father died bankrupt, Jerome is anxious to recoup some funds.

Julianna's betrothed, Crispin Bayard, has set to sea for two years. He's out of reach, unable to help Julianna, completely unaware of her suddenly desperate position. And if she doesn't comply with Jerome's plans, he'll declare her insane and have her tossed into an asylum.

As a last stab at controlling her own destiny, Julianna sends her cousin out to find a suitable "bidder." She's hoping he'll find her an old, decrepit man to marry one who at least will be too feeble to consummate the marriage, thus leaving her with the possibility of annulment upon Crispin's return. On her wedding day, she realizes that her cousin has failed. Her husband-to-be, Sir Edmund Fitzhugh, is anything but feeble. Oh, he's certainly a good deal older than she is about twenty years older, to be specific. But since that makes him roughly forty, he's hardly decrepit. Disconsolate, Julianna gives up her last hope.

Until her wedding night, when she finds that her new husband is not a disinterested party. In fact, he's Crispin's uncle, persuaded by Julianna's cousin to rescue her from her desperate situation. The plan is even better than Julianna had hoped the two will engage in a marriage in name only until Crispin's return, then obtain an annulment so Julianna can marry her true love.

An agreeable arrangement, certainly, but also a lonely one. Julianna soon finds that Edmund's main interest is to live his life as though she had never entered it. A former sea captain and adventurer, Edmund is a terse, studious, solitary man, soured on matrimony by a brief, disastrous first marriage that left him a rather relieved widower. For the sake of his beloved nephew, he's come to Julianna's rescue, but he sincerely hopes that will be the limit of his sacrifice. He's married the girl, after all, and provided her with a safe haven, a luxurious house, servants, and money to spend as she pleases. Is he now expected to entertain the girl for two solid years, disrupting his entire way of life?

Well, yes, or so Julianna feels. If not exactly entertain her, he might try a bit of simple conversation once in a while. She's anxious to form a relationship with her beloved's favorite uncle, and besides, the two share many common interests. They both love books, chess, music, and the theater, for starters Julianna is extremely well-educated for a woman of her time.

Their relationship begins to take a new turn, a turn that could prove disastrous. Over the space of almost a year, their gradually developing relationship is experienced by the reader in all its stages. It's easy to see why these two would develop strong feelings for each other, but also easy to see why they can't imagine betraying Crispin, a man they both care for. Thus, the conflict begins as both try to fight their feelings and hide their attraction and emotion for one another.

I liked both of these characters, and I liked getting to know them slowly, as they got to know each other. I've read lots of novels where the author cuts to the chase, so to speak, by telling the reader that the hero and heroine in question "talked through the night, sharing their deepest feelings," or something similar. In My Lord Protector, the reader is actually in on those conversations, and the reward is an intimate knowledge of two people who, the reader believes without doubt, belong together.

All in all, this is a unique read with well-developed characters including the secondary ones and a rich, textured feel. Literary quotes abound, and Ms. Hale certainly made good use of her thesaurus (I had to look up "peregrinations," for instance). Although even I detected one historical error (and I'm no historian), it seems clear that she's done her research on most counts, covering not only how her characters would have spoken, dressed, and behaved, but also their political opinions, what literature they would have been familiar with, and what music they might have heard performed. She generally does a good job of sprinkling all this information unobtrusively into the book, but more action-oriented readers might find all the extraneous matter a little tedious. However, if you're in the mood for an orange, I think you'll find this one sweet.

-- Ellen Hestand


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