Medieval romances aren’t usually my favorite sub-genre, but for one reason or another I have found myself reading more of them than usual this year. Secret Vows appealed to me because I found the conflict interesting: The heroine is forced by her evil brother-in-law to marry his sworn enemy. Not only does the heroine have to lie about her identity; she also must help her brother-in-law kill her husband. If she refuses to comply, he will kill her children. This is the type of moral dilemma I enjoy mulling over, and for the most part I enjoyed the way the author handled it here.
The heroine is Catherine, who until recently was married to a cruel man who beat her. The only joy of her life are her twin children, Ian and Isabel. When Catherine’s abusive husband dies, her life only gets worse. Her brother-in-law Eduard takes up residence and beats her even more than her husband beat her. When King Henry proposes that Eduard marry his sister off to his enemy in order to keep the peace, Eduard sees it as an opportunity to exact revenge upon his adversary. Eduard’s sister has just died, but he doesn’t let that stop him; he simply decides to pass Catherine off as his sister. Catherine knows Eduard will make good on his threat to hurt her children if she doesn’t comply, so she feels she has no choice but to do as Eduard says. He wants her to gain her new husband’s trust, and then betray him.
Grayson de Camville has no particular desire to marry. Ever since his sister’s death years ago, he has sought only to fight valiantly for the king and dispense justice fairly. He doesn’t know what to make of his timid wife, who is covered with bruises but refuses to let him hurt her “brother.” Still he finds himself intrigued by his strange new bride, and he starts going out of his way to please her. He decides not to consummate the marriage until his wife’s bruises heal, so he spends time with her in other ways, teaching her to use a sword to protect herself.
When Catherine arrives at Gray’s castle, she doesn’t know what to think or who to trust. The evil Eduard has warned her that he has spies everywhere, and that one false move will result in a quick death for her children. Almost immediately, she can tell that Gray is not like the other men she’s had in her life. Still, it takes her some time to trust him. All her life she has been mistreated by men, beginning with her father and continuing with her husband and brother-in-law. She has no desire to kill Gray and is determined not to help Eduard, but she also doesn’t know if she can depend on Gray to protect her children, and she’s also afraid that Eduard’s spies will overhear if she tells Gray the truth.
The title of this book lets you know up front that secrets are involved here. And this one’s a doozy. The reader is fully aware that Catherine is not who Gray thinks she is, and it’s clear that as soon as they make love Gray will discover that Catherine isn’t the virgin he thought he married. I had horrific visions of what could happen when Gray found out. I visualized Gray calling Catherine a whore and asking just how many men she’d slept with. In such scenarios, the heroine often gets so mad that she lets the hero believe she’s bedded everyone in the keep. Fortunately, this isn’t that kind of book. Gray doesn’t suddenly forget his previous regard when all is revealed. When Gray shows himself to be a hero rather than a pompous jackass I couldn’t help cheering.
The interesting conflict is complimented by a well-drawn setting with lots of interesting little details. This doesn’t have quite the “you are there” feeling you get from, say, a Madeline Hunter book. Every now and then the characters would say something that would pull me out of the story a bit. But it’s not like the author just slapped a few rushes on the floor and called it a day either. There are lots of tidbits about castle life and even medieval law. They help give the book a good historical feeling and really add a lot to the story.
Both main characters are likable, but Catherine has more depth to her than Gray. Catherine has a lot of thinking to do and a lot of choices to make. We get insight into her childhood and her feelings about her appearance. We suffer with her when she agonizes over her dishonesty. We do learn about Gray’s guilt over the death of his sister, but I still would have liked a little more insight into his character. He isn’t really faced with any agonizing moral struggles like Catherine is, so mostly he just seems perfect. Catherine certainly deserves an understanding, thoughtful hero after everything she’s been through, but because Gray’s inner demons are glossed over, he almost seems too perfect and ideal.
That niggle aside, I found Secret Vows to be a promising debut for author McCall. It has an intriguing conflict, well-crafted setting, and best of all, a Big Secret that doesn’t deteriorate into a stupid misunderstanding. It’s worth a shot, especially if you’re a fan of medieval romance.