Secret Vows by Mary Reed McCall
(Avon, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-380-81785-3
Secret Vows is quite an admirable debut novel. This early medieval is filled with emotion, and it has one of the best endings I’ve read in ages. Historical romance lovers are going to rejoice.

The story open with a first-person prologue. Lady Catherine of Somerset tells us in her own words how she came to marry an abusive man, give birth to twins, and lose them to fostering when they were only seven. Her cruel husband’s subsequent death from the ague should have been time for rejoicing. But then Eduard de Montfort, her husband’s brother, arrived with his pale sister, Elise. Shortly thereafter, Elise is found dead in her bedchamber. And Catherine learns what drove Elise to take her own life: a deep, ugly treachery that Catherine will not be able to escape. Eduard coldly informs her that Catherine will pretend to be Elise and will marry Baron Grayson de Camville, then murder him, If she refuses, he, Eduard, will murder Catherine’s children.

Terrified for her children, Catherine agrees and the novel opens with her marriage to Grayson, a man who is rumored to have killed his own sister nearly twenty years before. The tall, brown-haired Catherine is not at all what Gray expected his sources had described Lady Elise as petite and fair-haired. Catherine frantically searches for a way to allay his suspicions, finally telling him that her loyal servants were only trying to help her by making her seem more lovely than she is. Gray isn’t quite sure. “Elise” seems more than lovely to him, and he has never cared for the court fashion of tiny women anyway.

Gray and Catherine cautiously begin to care about one another as Catherine’s deception weighs ever more heavily on her. When Eduard is called away to attend to King Henry, Gray decides to teach his wife to handle a sword for her own protection. His guilt over his sister’s death makes Gray want to protect Catherine even more, especially since he’s losing his heart to her. The knight who has kept his feelings under wraps is finally falling in love, and he relishes it. Catherine, starved for love, is drawn to the gentle, handsome knight who is so unlike the other men in her life.

Catherine and Gray are wonderful, rich characters. Catherine’s desperation is palpable, and readers will empathise with her agonizing decision to betray an innocent man in order to spare her innocent children. Eduard is suitably slimy. Gray has unexpected flashes of vulnerability that are touching he truly wants to experience the joy of loving “Elise”, and when he finds out she’s really Catherine, he’s quickly undeterred. And, joy of joys, he actually listens to her side of the story. No storming off in a huff. How rare is that?

The story drags a bit as Catherine almost manages to tell Gray the truth a couple of times, but is interrupted. When the eventual unmasking occurs, though, the author chooses a straightforward (and welcome) path. The rest of the book will be a joining of forces rather than a tiresome tale of forced misunderstandings.

And the ending, a showdown with King Henry, is simply lovely. Poignant and romantic, it’s inventive and shows both characters at their best. It will linger in your mind long after you’ve closed the book.

Secret Vows marks the debut of an immensely talented author with a real gift for creative storytelling. This is a tale that’s as romantic as it is absorbing, and Mary Reed McCall is going to end up on many a keeper shelf. If you enjoy historical romance, don’t miss this one.

--Cathy Sova

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