The Wife Test
Though I enjoy medieval romance, I’d never read Betina Krahn before. The possibility of reading a complete unknown (to me) is an exciting prospect. A whole world of possibilities awaits. Once I had the book in hand I became a little wary. The description on the back of the book suggested a too good to be true heroine in a fluffy story, both things I’m not necessarily looking for in a medieval. I want meat. I want depth. I want the tensions that are inherent to the time period. There’s just so much to work with. Instead I read a description of a heroine who impulsively defies the abbess to pose as a nun and steals into a delegation headed for England with four maidens. The level of anticipation I’d been feeling dropped a bit, but prematurely so. The historical aspects were lightly applied, but there was enough depth of characterization to keep this reader interested.
Chloe of Guibray was abandoned as an infant into the care of the Convent of the Brides of Virtue in France. For most of her orphaned life she has had two goals: She is determined to find out something about her parentage and once she has that information, marry and have children to form a family of her own. Sudden events make both of her wishes possible. The convent receives word from their long-time patron and protector, the Duke of Avalon, that he is claiming four of her maidens as his daughters and they must be sent to King Edward’s court in England as brides for the nobles of Edward’s choosing. Though these young women are not any kin of his, he has claimed them and they will each now have the opportunity to wed well. Once they arrive and are deemed acceptable, the Duke’s ransom will have been met and he will be allowed to return to France. When Chloe hears of the plan, she disguises herself in a habit and joins the entourage on their trek to England.
Leading the group of men assigned to escort the maids is Sir Hugh of Sennet. Like Chloe his was a religious upbringing. Unlike her, all he can think of is the day he finishes his duties to the King and can return to his celibate life in the monastery. He dreads his mission. To his mind women are “a plague upon mankind. Fickle, flighty, irrational, undisciplined, faithless, carnality embodied, smoldering heaps of burning desire.” And once he meets Chloe, Hugh realizes that he’s in much deeper trouble than he could have previously imagined. Everything about Chloe fascinates Hugh, and he has to fight with every bit of training he’s had to resist the temptation of her.
Once in England, Chloe convinces the King that she has been charged by the abbess to see that the maids’ potential bridegrooms will suit them. On the spur of the moment she creates the wife test. The men and women will participate in activities together and Chloe will be able to judge which young woman will fit with each of the men. King Edward allows Chloe the time needed, but stipulates that Hugh must be the one to administer the test to her. She cannot pick her own husband. The two must work in tandem and present the King with results he’ll accept.
Hugh’s battles with his own spirituality and morality intrigued me. Here is a man who was raised with every expectation of one day becoming a monk. The things he was taught are not just phrases to mouth, they are the things he believes and knows to be true. Coming up against a powerful attraction for a woman, a creature who will lead him into sin, is just not something he’s prepared for. To complicate matters, it’s not only his emotions in turmoil. Chloe is a woman who has had just as much religious education as he has and can argue the tenets of their faith with just as much authority. Suddenly the matters of faith and religion he believed to be black and white are developing disturbing shades of gray.
Hugh and Chloe’s forced proximity is what makes any of this believable. The interactions they share and the relationship they slowly build makes all the sense in the world. The conflict that arises from Hugh’s background and Chloe’s own uncertainties about what and who she is works completely. The depth in this story comes from these very realistic conflicts. The less interesting aspects revolve around the titular test. That the King of England would allow an unmarried young woman to arrange such weighty matters stretches credulity a bit. Yes, Ms. Krahn makes some attempt to draw Edward as amused by Chloe and willing to give her some leeway in the hopes of further entertainment, but it wasn’t quite enough. And the danger plot (of course there is one) is not only unnecessary, but also far-fetched and overly complicated.
Plot problems aside, I was thoroughly engrossed in the actual relationship between Hugh and Chloe, enough so that I could truly enjoy my first foray into Krahn’s writing. I’ll be interested in seeing what she does with her next book.