Conquest of the Heart by Michele Stegman

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Her people conquered his country. How can they overcome the distrust they feel to find love?
Madeline wants a big, brash, never-defeated-in-battle, Norman knight. What she gets, by order of the king, is a wiry Saxon who once studied for the priesthood instead of warfare. But is this gentle man she has fallen in love with entangled in the rebellion now sweeping the land?

Ranulf wants to marry the girl next door. What he gets, by order of the king, is a lush, strong Norman woman who just might be a spy reporting his every move. He wants her in every way a man can possibly want a woman. But can he trust his heart to a woman who might have been sent to root out the struggle for freedom his people are engaged in?

Publisher and Release Date: Breathless Press, 14 June 2013

RHL Classifications
Time and Setting: 11th Century England
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2.5
Reviewer rating: 5 stars

Review by Patrice

Lately, there’s been an influx of Regency historical romances, with the occasional Edwardian, Georgian or Victorian period piece to add variation. Then dozens of Scottish Highlanders, Vikings and Gladiators, storm the stores and reading shelves until I find myself wondering: What happened to the Cavaliers of the Restoration? Or the Privateers heroically sailing the seas while swimming oceans of political intrigue? And yes, please don’t forget those Knights who jousted on fields for sport, fought and died in battle for their liege, and wooed ladies with courtly love?

It was a pleasure to review Conquest of the Heart, a novel that takes place one year on from 1066AD and the Battle of Hastings. What makes this novel unique? Let’s just say that Madeline and Ranulf are not in the usual style. Oh no, you won’t find any bodice ripping and chest-beating misogynistic frenzy in this book. Each man is male in his own unique way, and all the women are spirited enough to give them the right amount of trouble. For where there is fire, there is passion, and where there is passion, romance is de rigueur in the traditional love story regardless of era.

Trained for the priesthood, Ranulf becomes Lord of Etherby after the deaths of his father and brothers. He is not too proud to pledge his fealty to King William to save his land and people. King William is impressed by his honest bearing and accepts his allegiance with the stipulation that he wed a Norman lady. Stunned, Ranulf accepts, aware that The Conqueror is shrewd and determined to secure England by binding the Saxon nobles to him through marriage. Ranulf is also ordered to build a castle despite the fact that he is a man of peace.

Lady Madeline is escorted from Calais to her new home. Yes, her betrothed is a Saxon noble but she hopes he proves to be a strong, tall and honorable warrior. Perhaps she can find mutual respect and contentment where there is no possibility for love.

Upon her arrival, Madeline’s new husband is far from her ideal. Ranulf is average height, lean, and an intellectual. His hair is long and he wears a beard in the Saxon style. He is very different from the brash, rowdy knights of the Norman court. There’s gentleness in his mannerisms but there is also masculine strength. His confidence draws her in from the moment she gazes into his fierce, deep eyes.

Ranulf is stunned by his tall, voluptuous bride and is understandably suspicious of her intentions. She is independent, solidly built, yet lush. He is staggered by his fierce desire for her. He hoped to wed a delicate flower of England. Now he must make the best of this arrangement.

What impressed me most was how the author gets down to business from chapter one to the finale. I appreciate how all the characters are introduced and the way in which she uses characterization within the structure of the storyline so that we get to know Madeline and Ranulf. Ms. Stegman understands the newlyweds’ insecurities and uses the precarious, post-war tightrope they are walking to create dimension and friction as they struggle against their burgeoning attraction. The relationships in this story, forged after the tragedy of Hastings, become part of the never ending battle of the sexes. At one point, everyone is infected with the love bug. I smiled and cheered until the last hurdle.

I realized Ranulf represents a man who would not be valued for his wits in a time where prowess on the battlefield was revered. This was an age of war and violence. Men who did not fit the warrior standard, or were second or third sons, joined the priesthood or a courtly office.
As a 21st Century woman, I could appreciate Ranulf. He’s an introvert attuned to the feelings of others, a champion for the weak and defenseless. This means he has respect and reverence for women, unheard of in a period where men were quick to beat their wives and children. Yes, I know he sounds like a paragon, but he isn’t. He knows how to fight and has his hang-ups. He’s got Madonna/Whore complex issues which add dynamic tension to his inner conflict — and poor Madeline’s.

Ranulf is no courtier, having spent years on his family estate in the middle of nowhere and aboard. Yet his character has been forged under the harsh lessons of dealing with a father and brothers who were all hulking *ahem* bullies, uh – warriors. I was impressed by his honor, his instinct for self preservation and strategy in combating challenges. His chivalry is a part of his composition. He and Madeline are matched in that they are both loyal, natural leaders and steel-willed.

Today, there are women who look a lot like Madeline and have her insecurities. She worries about not being petite and slender, the kind of woman men flock to and take care of. That is why she feels that she needs a big, strapping warrior to make her feel dainty and womanly. There’s a turning point and a lesson that deals with how sometimes what we see as the perfect woman is not so perfect. Perfection is who we are once we come to appreciate all that entails. Madeline and Ranulf reach self acceptance and it makes it possible for them to love one another later with no walls.

Madeline becomes the perfect chatelaine when she takes up her duties in her new home. She proves she is not just Ranulf’s wife but his willing partner. I liked her even more when she became competitive and challenged a would-be rival and later fights off an aggressive suitor. She fends for herself, and does not need anyone to save her. Except Ranulf. She needs him in ways she never imagined.

When Madeline accepts her feelings for Ranulf, she does not back down from the challenge of winning his heart. This proper Norman lady whips out her bag of tricks to unload them onto the inexperienced Ranulf who is no match for the seductive skills she learned at court. How modern is that? She proves how love can make you fearless and willing to sacrifice all to win.

The racy chemistry between the couple, engaging dialogue and spicy humor, along with everyday details of living la vida loca in 11th Century Englan, is why I personally nominate this novel for Medieval Romance Perfection. Yes, I believe I just made up that award. An excellent story deserves its very own award.

Conquest of the Heart reflects some of the best qualities of the genre’s formula: romance + love=life. I want to roll around in a field of all those wonderful, mushy quotes and clichés. Love is stronger than death; it can overcome hate. Most important, I want to reread this novel and revisit the romance and love between two people who learn to love and overcome social and cultural differences in turbulent times. That’s a story that is timeless and universal.

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