Beyond Temptation

The Maiden Warrior

Secret Vows

Sinful Pleasures
by Mary Reed McCall
(Avon, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-06-059374-1
Sinful Pleasures is second in a series about four Templar knights fleeing persecution as heretics. Damien de Ashby doesn't completely escape the sadistic French inquisition, but even under torture he doesn't renounce his vows. He believes all is lost when a priest arranges his escape in exchange for agreeing to a proxy marriage. Once in England Damien learns the woman in question is Lady Alissende de Montague. The recently widowed noblewoman needs this marriage to protect her from the unwanted attentions of her violent cousin, whose suit is sanctioned by King Edward himself.

Damien and Alissende have a history together. Four years earlier, he was certain she would overlook their social differences and agree to marry him. Instead she publicly spurned him, an act which resulted in his joining the Templars. Despite the shock of finding himself face to face with the only woman he has ever loved, Damien agrees to stand by Alissende. He has his own conditions: the marriage will be short term and will remain unconsummated. At the same time, he accepts that he has to share a room and even a bed with her, lest suspicions about the marriage's authenticity reach the court. No prizes for guessing what happens when you put a man, a woman and a bed in a room together.

Indeed, both Alissende and Damien soon realize they are still very much in love, and the agreement they made quickly goes out the window to make place for the sinful pleasures of the title. Yet, Damien remains adamant that they can have no long-term future. I'm not sure I understand why. It can't be because of his scarred body: she's seen it. Nor is it because of his scarred soul: he isn't the kind to agonize over his past. Small wonder I felt his hesitations were little more than a transparent plot device to maintain the romantic tension.

Similarly, much is made of Alissande's reasons for spurning Damien. I appreciate the fact that there are no big family secrets or complicated royal manipulations involved. Alissande's hesitations derive from her personal insecurities, a fact which gives her character more depth than the average medieval miss. Still, when Damien dismisses them as insignificant, I couldn't help feeling had.

The real threat to Damien and Alissende's happiness comes from Hugh, her cousin, who is determined to make her his (I'm not really sure why - lust? money? land? keeping the story moving?). His successive attacks are effectively countered, but he comes back with more threats. The escalation of violence sets an ever-quickening pace to the novel, and the final confrontation is not disappointing.

Despite the absence of credible romantic conflict, there are several well-written love scenes of both the playful and the emotional kind. And for all my doubts about Damien's and Alissende's motivations, I did warm to them. He doesn't brood about women's wicked ways. She doesn't lament her sorry state.

I am new to Reed McCall, and see why she comes so highly recommended. Her proactive characters, her intriguing appropriation of history, and her prose, so charged with emotion, don't disappoint. The watered- down conflict and transparent devices of this book are but a small stain on her reputed high standards.

--Mary Benn

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