The Prize (A LLB favorite) By Julie Garwood, 1991, Medieval Romance
Pocket, ISBN #0-671-70251-3

Sensuality: Hot

The first book I ever read by Julie Garwood was The Bride. Well, I loved it so much that subsequent couples paled when compared to Jamie and Alec. Until now . . .

It’s England, 1066, and by now you know what that means. Lady Nicholaa, a Saxon, is defending her home against Baron Royce, a Norman. Automatic Conflict. But, in the hands of Julie Garwood, so many charming elements come into play – and the conflict is so enjoyable to watch unfold – that what might have been trite, has instead become endearing and even a little enchanting.

At their first meeting, Nicholaa knocks Royce off his feet (literally, with the help of her trusty slingshot: “I never miss.”). Royce is the 4th Norman invader to try to get a foot-hold on her strong-hold (she successfully repelled his three predecessors so efficiently, Nicholaa has become the stuff of legend and song). But Royce is not so easily defeated. Aware of the Lady’s reputation, he is determined to be the one to capture “the prize” and escort her to London so King William can wed her one of his most deserving knights. But, Nicholaa has other plans and effects a crafty escape to the nearest convent, where her younger brother, Justin, struggles to recover from his battlefield wounds. Even those despicable Norman brutes know better to invade the hallowed grounds of a convent, so Nicholaa considers herself, and what remains of her family, safe.

Entranced by her beauty, awed by her courage, exasperated by her escape, irritated by her resistance, Royce cleverly conceives a plan to get Nicholaa to come out of the nunnery voluntarily. King William’s most honored and respected baron, Royce is the one man who can out-maneuver Nicholaa, and he knows it. He senses where she’s most vulnerable, and shrewdly uses it to lure her out of the convent (and into his arms). While the ensuing trip to London heightens the sizzle of an unacknowledged mutual attraction, Nicholaa nevertheless relentlessly continues to try to outwit and escape from Royce every step of the way.

Once in London, King William and his queen are captivated by Nicholaa, and, due to an act of selfless heroism on her part, turn the tables on their own plan, thus allowing Nicholaa to choose the husband she would have, rather than the reverse. The long trip to London in close proximity to Royce fresh in her mind, and sensing that inside his warrior’s broad chest beats the heart of a kind and loving man, Nicholaa chooses Royce without hesitation. But, all is not well. Prior to their wedding night, Nicholaa is accosted by an intruder and ordered to kill Royce before dawn. If she refuses, she and Royce could both pay with their lives.

As the story continues to unfold, it’s plain to see that Nicholaa has a few – totally endearing – flaws. She is prone to telling lies (but only to preserve the good, or to put off making decisions some might find hurtful). She has a brilliant mind, but often employs highly convoluted logic in her approach to problems. Watch as she plans to get Royce so intoxicated with ale that the next morning he won’t remember anything she confesses to him, thereby allowing her to comply with his wishes she be truthful, yet to hopefully avoid the wrath she anticipates from him as she enumerates her many deceptions. This was a very sweet and very funny scene.

Royce, strapping warrior and trainer of the king’s finest soldiers, is totally enamored of his young wife, but does not believe himself worthy of her. He feels himself ugly, due to a disfiguring scar down his cheek, and incapable of loving such a gentle lady, never having experienced the emotion before. He’s smart, infinitely patient, courageous and honorable, has “silver flecks” in his beautiful gray eyes, and is wonderfully tender with his lady wife.

There are some funny devices Ms. Garwood uses to bring these two closer together. Nicholaa hates being lectured; lecturing is how Royce gets the job done. Nicholaa wants to leave room in her life for surprises; Royce hates surprises. Royce prides himself on being an excellent chess player; Nicholaa can beat him (and everyone else foolish enough to challenge her).

There is familiar sentiment here, too, that tugs at the heart:

    Nicholaa’s father’s hand-crafted legacy
    The ultimate fate of baby Ulric
    How Nicholaa hopes to “help” Royce realize he loves her, and
    Her tormented confusion at how to deal with her brothers, Thurston and Justin

Justin’s transformation from victim to victor, with Royce’s crafty guidance, is another typical, and enjoyable, Garwood trait.

And, let us not overlook the love scenes . . . plenty of ’em, and plenty steamy. Once Royce decides he can’t keep his hands off his wife, well, he can’t (and how!). Nicholaa and Royce may have trouble coming to agreement using words, but behind bedchamber doors, their passion levels the playing field.

Now, I’m thinking . . . if I had read The Prize first, before I read The Bride, maybe it would be Jamie and Alec who would have had to measure up to Nicholaa and Royce. Hmmmm. Maybe you’d better read them both, just to make sure.

— Marianne Stillings

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