RETRO REVIEW: Lady Fortune by Anne Stuart

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Is he a half-mad court jester or a brilliant spy for the king?

Lady Julianna knows this much for certain: He is no fool when it comes to the art of seduction.

Nicholas Strangefellow is a scoundrel prized by King Henry himself–a court jester. Now sent to the wedding of the Earl of Fordham to entertain, but secretly under orders from the King to bring back a legendary chalice, Nicholas is a man on a mission that could easily be bollixed. Suddenly the chances of bollixing increase merrily when he meets irresistible Julianna, the widowed daughter of the bride-to-be.

After a loveless arranged marriage, Julianna plans to join a convent. Yet she finds herself in wickedly provocative conversation with, of all men, the king’s mocking, ribald “wedding present” to the Earl. Nicholas–the jester, the fool, and a mere commoner, who immediately decides to seduce her while procuring the chalice for King Henry.

What follows is a rollicking comedy, an intrigue spiced with villains and danger, but most of all, a tender and sexy romance. Nicholas is hardly the husband a noblewoman should choose, and when he’s faced with a choice between desire and betrayal, or loyalty to King and a comfortable life, he’ll have to confront the shocking truth. That he’s become a fool for love.

Publisher and Release Date: Belle Bridge Books, March 2014

Time and Setting: Medieval England
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Rating: 2
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Caz

Originally published in 2004, Lady Fortune is a thoroughly enjoyable medieval romp featuring one of those oh-so-charming, deliciously wicked heroes which have become Anne Stuart’s authorial trademark.

Nicholas Strangefellow, fool at the court of King Henry, is a man who amuses and annoys in equal measure. He is quick witted and sharp-tongued, possessed of a loose-limbed grace, an inordinate amount of charm and golden good-looks that ensure he is never without female companionship whenever he wants it. He is also clever, shrewd and utterly ruthless – qualities very few around him perceive, which is exactly as he likes it to be.

His king, however, is one of the few who has an inkling of Nicholas’ true talents – and of his identity as the son of a once noble house from the north of England who fell foul of a king’s temper and lost everything. A youth of fifteen, Nicholas survived by becoming a thief and then a fool – a profession which perfectly suits him, as he can say or do whatever he likes, mixing with nobility and commoner alike.

Henry charges Nicholas with the retrieval of a holy relic that the king insists belongs to the crown by rights – the Blessed Chalice of the Martyred Saint Hugelina the Dragon – currently in the possession of Hugh, Earl of Fortham whose family can trace its bloodlines directly back to Hugelina herself. The earl is shortly to be remarried – to the lady Isabeau of Peckham – and Henry decides to send Nicholas to the happy couple as a wedding gift in order “to make their first few months of married life particularly entertaining” – until Christmastide. Not that either Henry or Nicholas expects it will take that long for the latter to find the chalice and ‘return’ it to Henry’s keeping.

Lady Julianna of Moncrieff is twenty-one and recently – and most gratefully – widowed. She has never forgiven her mother, the lady Isabeau, for allowing her to be sent to Moncrieff as a child bride, and cannot forget the indignities and humiliations she was forced to suffer at her husband’s hands. With his death, however, Juliana is all but destitute. She hopes to be allowed to retire to a convent, but as a distant relation to the king, it is more likely he will want to marry her off to a man of his choice in order to cement an alliance.

Julianna has not seen her mother in ten years, but is ordered by the king to join her household until such time as he makes a decision about her future. She is not pleased at the prospect, but must submit to the king’s commands. He has sent an escort to take her to Fortham – the same retinue that is escorting his wedding gift to the bridal couple.

She is equally displeased at the prospect of being forced to travel with the “gift”, whom her escort describes as a babbling fool and a madman. Unlike most of the women he meets, the Lady Julianna is not disposed to dalliance, meeting Nicholas’ bawdy suggestions and rhymes with cool aloofness.

At Fortham, Nicholas begins the search for the Chalice, keen to complete his mission, return to court and at last receive the king’s reward, which will consist of a small manor and parcel of land. But he is increasingly distracted from his task by the Lady Julianna, who is the first woman who has ever failed to fall victim to his charm. Still, Nicholas has never been one to resist a challenge, and determines to make his way under her skirts before too long. But the more he gets to know her, the more he finds himself in danger of falling for her, something he can’t possibly allow to happen.

And Julianna, one of the few people able to discern the truth beneath Nicholas’ disguise is similarly drawn to this intriguing, frustrating man, wondering for the first time what it would be like to be properly kissed and held by a man in kindness and without shame.

I’m not normally a huge fan of medieval romances, but this one really worked for me. Anne Stuart has a gift for creating amoral, disreputable male leads who are nonetheless wonderful romantic heroes as soon as they set eyes on the women to whom they finally lose their hearts. Nicholas is perhaps not in the same mould as her Rohan men or Christian Montcalm, but he’s still wickedly sexy and has a questionable moral code when it comes to serving his own ends. He’s also perceptive, capable of great tenderness and maintains his own code of honour.

Lady Fortune is a relatively quick read, yet in addition to the story of Nicholas and Julianna, Ms Stuart finds time to effect a reconciliation between Julianna and her mother, and to craft a sweet secondary romance between Isabeau and her new husband. There is plenty of humour and some superb, snappy dialogue between the principals, but Ms Stuart also never loses sight of just how precarious was the position of women in the society of the time. The horrible prejudice against women preached by Abbot Paulus is, sadly, all too accurate for the time period.

As one would expect of such an experienced author, the writing flows well, and all the characters are very well drawn. The chemistry between Nicholas and Julianna is potent, the sparks flying between them from their very first meeting, and they make an engaging and well-matched couple. My one complaint is that the sense of period is not particularly strong in the book; for instance, there is no indication of exactly which King Henry is reigning, and no mention of any historical events which would allow the reader to pinpoint the book’s setting. That said however, the lack of historical reference points didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the story, which is well-told, entertaining and most definitely recommended.

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