Desert Isle Keeper
“Richness” is the word that comes to mind when I think of By Design. This is what happens when an author comes along and takes something familiar – the medieval setting – and brings it to the next level.
A proud young woman stands selling her crafted pottery and statues, her poise setting her apart from the other merchants around her. Rhys, a freemason, is intrigued enough to purchase a statue from her and advises her to raise her prices, because her craft is worth it. When he sees her later, however, it’s a whole different situation. Joan is in the stocks for the day, because she’s been found guilty of making inferior tiles, although the person who really made them is the man she works for. All Rhys can do is stand by Joan to make sure that no one else throws things at her or rips at her clothes, and to help her withstand the unrelenting heat. When her punishment is over, Rhys takes Joan to his home to care for her, against her protests. As much as Joan accepts Rhys’ kindness, she can’t help but resent him and distrust him. He is, after all, a supporter of Roger Mortimer, the man who made Joan’s life a living hell and left her and her brother Mark no other choice but to pass for dead in order to escape that hell.
Roger Mortimer, the power-mad lover of Queen Isabella (mother of the young King Edward III), has the power to elevate Rhys to the top of his craft. Although he is not interested in the the political web Mortimer is spinning, Rhys has to abide by Roger’s orders to spy for him as he works on one of the young king’s homes. Rhys walks carefully, knowing he must feed enough information to Roger to keep him happy and yet not give him too much. Another problem is that Mortimer’s suspicions are pointed at Addis de Valance (from By Possession). Addis may not be Rhys’ friend exactly, but he has married Moira, a woman that Rhys cares for very much, and Rhys doesn’t want her to suffer for her marriage. Joan finally gets her revenge when Rhys and Addis join others who support young King Edward against Mortimer, but is it a hollow victory when she is finally restored to her rightful position as noblewoman – someone too high up for a simple freemason?
Aside from well-crafted characters and an emotionally satisfying story, one of the keys of By Design is the pace of the book. Just as the love between Rhys and Joan develops at a believable pace, so does the action and conflict, with well timed, apparently insurmountable obstacles that must be dealt with before the Happily Ever After, but without often-used twists of plot or contrivances. Historical characters, like King Edward III, and his infamous mother and her lover, are not abused for the sake of plot, nor is the setting undefined – we are in the late Middle Ages, the danger palpable at every turn.
Joan has been at the mercy of a man before, and it’s landed her lower than she’s ever been, materially and emotionally. However, she is torn between the attraction she feels for Rhys and her desire to avenge the wrong that was done to her, and which has become the goal of her life. Joan’s devotion to her brother Mark is laudible and she understands too well Mark’s thirst for revenge, but she needs to be tempered by another hand. Her love for Rhys is heartbreaking when she realizes she must keep him safe from her own need for revenge, and her love is healing when he seems destined for a lifetime without his craft.
The more Rhys learns about Joan, the more he respects her. He never hides his desire for her, but there is so much more to his feelings for her than simple desire. He understands that even though he offers her a life far from all she has suffered, she will never be at peace until she faces her demons. A vivid picture is painted when we see how far Rhys has fallen for Joan – this clear-headed man who manages to walk the fine line between politics and mortal danger becomes completely blinded by her rejection.
I’d heard a lot about the previous two books in this trilogy, By Arrangement and By Possession, but little did that prepare me for the experience that was reading this book. Whether you’ve already enjoyed Ms. Hunter’s books or she is a new-to-you author, this is a wonderful, sensual, masterfully written tale of love overcoming odds, and one I heartily recommend.