The Rose and the Shield by Sara Bennett
The second book in a duo, The Rose and the Shield takes place in England shortly after the Norman William the Conquerer takes over and tells the story of Lady Rose, who became mistress of Somerford when her elderly husband died. Although she is determined to make Somerford successful and safe while still maintaining control when her village is continually attacked by the merepeople- people who live on the mere- she decides to call in mercenaries. She does not want to bother her overlord, Lord Radulf whose wife Lilly is a friend of Rose's, for fear that he will think her weak and take Somerford away from her. Enter Viking warrior Gunnar Olafson and his gang of rough and tumble fighters who promise protection in exchange for money but make it clear that they go wherever the money is highest. From the beginning the reader is aware that Gunnar has actually been sent by Lord Radulf who intercepted Rose's message to Lord Fitzwilliam, a fierce and bitter enemy of Radulf's who wants to take over in this area of England. Lord Radulf sends Gunnar and his gang to Somerford to keep an eye on Lady Rose, get proof of her treachery with Fitzwilliam, bring it back to Radulf, and then Radulf plans to reward Gunnar by giving him Somerford. Gunnar is getting tired of his mercenary lifestyle and thinks settling down on his own land is just what he needs in his "old" age.
Right away Gunnar is entranced by Lady Rose and finds himself conflicted about his simultaneous desire to protect and possess her and his need to find proof of her deceit so he can take over at Somerford. Rose is being helped by her husbands loyal vassal, Arno, who swore allegiance to Rose at her husband's request as he lay dying. Gunnar immediately senses that something is not right with Arno, but Rose is convinced of his loyalty. When the village is burned to the ground and a dead Norman is found the entire community goes into a panic. The penalty for killing a Norman is death and although no one can figure out what the man was doing in the village on the night it was attacked, Rose knows something must be done. Working for Rose and doing his utmost to protect her Rose begins to fall in love with a man whom she believes she can trust- an important thing for Rose whose father was physically and mentally abusive. And Gunnar begins to fall in love with Rose's compassion for her people, her fierce independence and even the way she has to control everything. But when it is revealed that the dead Norman was a member of Lord Fitzwilliam's garrison the truth about Gunnar's purpose there comes to light, to a degree, and Rose has to learn that there are some people she has misplaced her trust in, and others that she has needs to trust now.
I haven't read any midieval romance novels in quite awhile and I much before Julie Garwood's Norman-era writings and Sara Bennett's regency writings. I got this book from the library because it was one of two Sara Bennett books they had which is definitely a good thing as I would never have picked this book up in the bookstore if I had gotten a look at the cover- it is dreadful and reminds me of those '80's Joanna Lindsey books that featured Fabio and lots of raping going on. The whole bad boy warrior turned into meltingly charming softy with the love of a good beautiful woman is a little overdone and when it comes to reforming a Viking warrior it just seems especially awkward. He's spent his entire life killing people for money, although of course we are informed that he doesn't like to kill women and children, and we're supposed to just accept that he's reformed and really has a good heart. I liked the character Rose quite a bit, but I had a hard time getting over how naive and stupid she could sometimes be. I kind of understand why she didn't go to Radulf, but I really didn't understand her blind support of Arno, even when he was so quick to turn the villager who'd killed the Norman over to Lord Fitzwilliam. It literally took a brick over the head to get her to admit that he wasn't an angel.
One of the things I really like about this book was how both characters were "dominant" human beings who liked to be in control of the world around them. In many cases the male in the book is dominant and even though the heroine is always independent, sassy, and at least thinks she's in control, everyone knows the man is in charge. In this book though both really do seem to be equal partners in the relationship; Gunnar rescues her and helps her quite a bit, but it never really seems as though there isn't even a hint of inequality. There was a decent amount of steam in the book, although none of it was exactly hot and if I had to describe it in two words I would choose forgettable and weird. Seriously. There was a nice amount of angst as Gunnar worried about Rose finding out the truth of his mission and Rose worries about losing control to Gunnar. The book was plenty exciting with a lot of build up to a surprise discovery and a very interesting and intriguing plot over treachery and betrayal and attacks and murders. There was also a side romance involving the miller's daughter and another one of Gunnar's men that I would have LOVED to have gotten a lot more information on as it was pretty interesting.
Rating: It was interesting and I liked the characters and the plot but the whole thing just seemed unremakable and average to me.