Miss Bates is a fan of Gifford’s medieval-set romances. Rumors is set among the machinations and intrigue of Edward III’s court. One of Gifford’s many appeals is her hero’s and heroine’s place among royalty and aristocracy. Though not of peasant descent, they are always subject to the whims of the royals they serve. Decisions are made for them, even by benign lords and masters such as the ones featured in Rumors.
The romance opens as John of Gaunt, Edward III’s third son, marries Constance of Castile and becomes, in potentia, King of Castile (once he wins it back from the present king). Gifford’s hero, Sir Gilbert Wolford is a man of war who yearns to return to Castile, retake the kingdom, and make his life there. Gifford’s heroine is the widowed Lady Valerie Scargill. John decides one of his greatest warriors, Gilbert, should marry, and who better than the genteel Lady Valerie. Valerie and Gilbert both have reasons for being averse to this marriage, but the royal’s word is law and their lives not their own. They agree to marry, despite the emotional impediments to their marriage becoming a love-match.
Rumors At Court is a slow-moving, melancholic romance, yet one Miss Bates enjoyed. Valerie and Gilbert are unhappy; their HEA, quietly happy, but hard-won and worthy of celebration. Valerie’s sadness doesn’t stem from her recent widowhood, but from lack of sorrow for her husband’s death. Sir Ralph Scargill was an abusive cheat. Valerie’s barren state only brought on more of his contempt and abuse. Her solace was her land, inherited from her mother, and tended with love and knowledge until she is summoned to tend John’s new wife and “queen”, Constance of Castile. Gilbert’s unhappiness originates in his mother’s family’s criminal, blasphemous reputation. He has worked, in the royals’ military service, to make up for it his whole life and works equally hard to maintain the chivalric code. When he and Valerie are affianced and eventually married, her fear and close-mouthed stiffness clash with his private shame, “his tainted past,” and wish to honour and protect Valerie of the “sad, dark eyes.” Gifford beautifully renders the unfolding of their mutual care and understanding.
Gifford is a fine writer, subtly and gently developping Gilbert and Valerie’s blossoming relationship. Rumors At Court is not a sexy romance, where hero and heroine connect emotionally via physical congress. The love scenes are few and closed-door; Valerie, after Scargill’s abuse, is a puzzling, reluctant lover. Valerie and Gil’s love is established with conversation, where they seek to understand each other to enable them to build a life together; one of the loveliest, this exchange:
“So, again, what do you like to do?” He hoped, desperately, that it would be something he knew something of … Puzzlement. As if no one had ever asked her the question. And then, she paused, thinking, taking his question as genuine.
“I like to grow things,” she said, finally, with a nod of her head.
“Grow?” She had already spoken of crops. What could she mean now? “Like herbs?” Her cheeks reddened.
“Flowers” A smile. Soft, involuntary. “I like to grow flowers.”
“Flowers.” The word lay before him like a weapon he did not know how to wield … “And why do you like flowers?” How witless he sounded. But at his interest, the dreamy smile on her face turned to joy.
“It seems God created them only to make us glad.”
Gifford’s concise, simple language encompasses much. We witness a light of mutual understanding, Valerie’s sadness turn to joy at Gil’s attention and interest, and, most beautifully at the end, the medieval consideration of God in all things.
Gifford’s Rumors At Court will not rock your romance world. It is a tale of two mature, wounded souls finding love and a sense of belonging, making their way to healing and a happy home. It is, in turn, cognizant of their lives’ precariousness at the whim of war and royal privilege. Whether by class or gender, or both, Gifford tells of a time where even the luckiest, those with position, land, and comfort, had very little choice. Yet, she creates, in this historical context, a couple who freely choose each other. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates finds in Rumors At Court, “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Blythe Gifford’s Rumors At Court is published by Harlequin Books. It was released in April and may be procured from your preferred vendor. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Harlequin Books, via Netgalley.