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Midsummer's Knight by Tori Phillips
(Harlequin Hist. #415, $4.99, PG) ISBN: 0-373-29015-2
***
In the midst of his tennis game with Sir Brandon Cavendish, King Henry VIII announces that Brandon's father, the Earl of Thornbury has begged the king to arrange a marriage for his son and heir. Henry, much concerned with the legality of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, is more than happy to settle the matrimony of one of his gentleman. To that end, he has decided Brandon will marry the wealthy, twice-widowed Katherine Fitzhugh. Despite his annoyance and reluctance, Brandon realizes he has no choice but to obey the king's command. Will he, nill he, he is to be a bridegroom.

When the King's messenger arrives to announce the plans for her third marriage, Katherine is horrified. After two unhappy marriages one in which she was no more than a nursemaid, another in which she endured physical abuse Katherine has no desire to ever marry again. She is more than happy managing her own estate and wealth without the interference of any man, content in the company of her beloved cousin, Miranda. However, she is wise enough to know she cannot flout the king. Will she, nill she, she is to be a bride.

Brandon's unwillingness to marry Katherine is only deepened when Katherine's nephew, Sir Fenton Scantling, warns him that Lady Katherine is as old and wizened a crone as any in England. Brandon decides to visit his soon-to-be wife, only he will not go as himself. He convinces his best friend, Jack Stafford, to trade places with him. Jack will go as the putative bridegroom, while Brandon himself will journey as the bridegroom's friend. This way he will be able to see Lady Katherine for himself, without her being the wiser.

Katherine's disgust at being coerced into marriage intensifies when a letter from her nephew Fenton warns her that Brandon Cavendish is as depraved a stripling as has ever cut a swathe through the ladies of the court. Though barely bearded, he has bedded nearly every woman he has met and spent whole fortunes in games of chance. When Katherine receives word that the boy bridegroom means to visit her, she convinces her cousin Miranda to act the part of lady of the manor. Disguised as Miranda, Katherine will be able to determine the worth of Sir Brandon without revealing herself.

Katherine is not a crone. Sir Brandon is not a beardless boy. No one is who he or she seems to be, setting in motion a comedy of identity that leads to "He knows that I know that he knows." How will Brandon marry Katherine when it is her cousin he wants? How could anyone want Brandon when his friend outshines him in every way? How will this end?

Midsummer's Knight began as a light and lively near-farce, its dialogue sparkling with the pun-rich language of the 16th century. The shifts that Brandon and Katherine are forced into in order to sustain their deceptions added to the tension and the fun. I read the first half of this book with an amused smile on my face, delight curling my toes in my shoes. To create a flavor of Tudor England mainly through the use of dialogue is no mean feat and one that Tori Phillips should be proud of.

Somewhere around the middle, however, the book started to lose me. The conflicts turned ordinary, misunderstandings coming between one couple or another. Brandon and Katherine discover the truth about one another, but decide to hold their tongues to let the burgeoning romance between Jack and Miranda continue to bloom. An accident makes Jack and Miranda too embarrassed to face one another. Katherine falls victim to "I'll believe the worst interpretation of the conversation I overheard, despite experience that contradicts that interpretation," syndrome and spends too much time feeling sorry for herself. Since she had shown herself to be resilient and creative in overcoming obstacles thrown in her path, her willingness to mope seemed uncharacteristic. Offsetting this was Brandon's determination to win his ladylove in the face of danger and opposition.

Given the charm and originality of the beginning of this novel, I was disappointed by the mundane middle and end. Another reader might find the entire experience delightful.

--Katy Cooper


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