This is one of the first adult romances I ever read, and it is still one of my favorites. Yes, it is dated (published in 1974), and many of its components would not be used today. But in some ways, it is a more accurate portrayal of the time than some more modern works.
The story opens in 1066 as William the Conqueror fights his way to the throne of England. He prefers to offer the Saxons the option of surrendering and living to have to kill them and lose their potential as subjects. Some of his knights agree with him, but others do not. Wulfgar is one of his knights, charged with securing the lands of Darkenwald and Cregan. Wulfgar split his force and went to Cregan himself and sent one of his knights, Ragnor, to secure Darkenwald. Ragnor had precise instructions on the terms to offer but ignored them for his own goals. Instead, he used every means available to goad the lord of Darkenwald into fighting and then killed him and many others. He then took the lord's daughter, Aislinn, captive, with conquest on his mind.
Aislinn is an eighteen-year-old beauty with red hair and a temper to match. She watched her father struck down, her mother beaten, and life as she knew it crumble around her. But there was no way that she would give in to her father's murderer. I loved her spirit and determination, though it seemed a bit reckless to bait Ragnor the way she did, as the later events proved. Aislinn is also incredibly loyal and loving. Rather than flee the next morning while Ragnor slept, she tarried to bury her father. There she was discovered by Wulfgar when he arrived at Darkenwald.
Wulfgar is a knight with a fearsome reputation as a warrior. He was furious at the carnage he found, and his confrontation with Ragnor was blunt and to the point. But for all that fearsomeness, it is immediately apparent that he is neither unreasonable nor cruel. Aislinn expects the worst from him and is surprised at the fairness with which he treats her defeated countrymen. He also removes her from Ragnor's possession and takes her for himself. She's not happy about that but counts herself lucky to be away from Ragnor.
I loved the development of the relationship between Wulfgar and Aislinn. The sparks are there from the beginning, though initially, they were sparks of antagonism. Aislinn has no problem standing up to Wulfgar, hiding her fears behind anger. Instead of reacting with anger of his own, Wulfgar seems mostly amused by her. Aislinn is confused by his treatment of her and the way he makes her feel. Over the next days and weeks, Wulfgar works to bring order to his new lands, while Aislinn does her best to intercede for her people. I liked watching the tension build between them as the sparks of antagonism turned to sparks of attraction, with the inevitable result. Aislinn struggles with being a mistress when she was raised to be a wife.
Meanwhile, Wulfar has his own struggles. He has always been able to move from woman to woman, forgetting each one quickly. But when William sends for him to come to London for the coronation, Wulfar discovers that he misses Aislinn - her voice, her scent, the way she feels in his arms. So he sends for her to join him there. I thoroughly enjoyed the London section. Aislinn realizes that she has fallen in love with Wulfgar, but doesn't know if she'll ever reach his heart. Some things give her hope, such as his kind actions and his distinct pleasure in her company. When Ragnor does his best to stir up trouble, Wulfgar begins to understand just how much she means to him, but still resists admitting to his feelings. I really felt for Aislinn at this point because she began to lose hope that she will ever win against his stubborn refusal to see what they could have. I laughed to see her use her intelligence as well as her appeal to make her point. Wulfgar suffered through some miserable days and nights as he fought against himself but eventually saw the light. I loved the following scenes as a much happier Wulfgar spread that happiness around.
But all does not run smoothly for the happy couple. Wulfgar's half-sister and her father had arrived some months earlier, seeking refuge after losing their lands. While Bolsgar is a good man (despite the past between him and Wulfgar), Gwyneth is a spoiled, vindictive brat. She treated everyone, especially Aislinn as if they were far beneath her. She takes up with Ragnor, who uses her for his own ends while leading her on. Darkenwald is also plagued by thieves, bent on destroying everything that Wulfgar tries to build. I enjoyed seeing Wulfgar's efforts to bring an end to the raids, including the unexpected help he got from Aislinn.
But there was more behind the raids than Wulfgar knew. Someone was out for revenge, and there was a traitor within his walls. Even though I have read this book many times before, I was still on the edge of my seat during the pursuit. The final confrontation was intense with an unexpected resolution and a surprise revelation that changed Wulfgar's life. The ending was terrific, with the return to Darkenwald and the surprise waiting there.
All the books that Woodiwiss writes are very good and with much detail, however a little bit too long. She starts all her books right to the point. I enjoyed it.
All Kathleen Woodiwiss books are wonderful.