With her parents long gone, one brother off fighting in the Crusades, and the other brother dedicated to the church, Anya of Winterbourne is left to manage the family holding alone. Facing starvation, due to a poor harvest, she has no idea how she's going to feed all the people under her care throughout the remaining winter and spring until new crops can be planted. On top of that, she's been betrayed and humiliated by nearly every man she knows and is weathering through a long-standing feud with the church over her giving birth to a child who was the result of rape and who was ripped from her arms as a newborn. Now her own brother is determined to take Winterborne, the only home she's ever know, from her for the selfish purpose of furthering his own position within the church. Into this chaos comes a beaten and bloody knight, whom Anya rescues from the forest outside the castle and nurses back to health. While he is under her care, she begins to feel things for the knight that she's never felt for a man before and begins to wonder if he might be her one chance to experience a romantic relationship on her own terms.
Christian de Morcerx is weary of his life as a warrior and would like to settle down, but with his father's evil plans following him everywhere he goes, there will be no rest anytime soon. As the bastard son of a cardinal who is rumored to be next in line to become pope, Christian knows there's a lot at stake for his father, but for reasons he cannot begin to fathom, the man wants him dead. At his father's order, a band of brigands are sent to assassinate Christian. They attack, leaving him for dead in the freezing cold forest, where the lovely Lady Anya finds him. As he recovers from his wounds, he learns of Anya's plight and would like nothing more than to stay at Winterborne indefinitely and champion her against the forces that would do her harm, but he fears his presence may only bring more trouble to her gates. Together, they find solace in each other's arms. But can they find a way to defeat each of their enemies, without losing their lives in the process, so that they can finally live out a love about which ballads will be sung?
After barely reading any medieval romances for a very long time, I've inexplicably picked up three in the past month and a half, all of which have been excellent reads. The latest one was A Winter Ballad by a favorite author of mine, who I also coincidentally hadn't read in years. I was reminded of all the reasons why I love Barbara Samuel's writing. She knows how to create deeply emotional love stories that are equal parts sweet and sensual. In this one, an emotionally wounded heroine who has long had to stand on her own rescues a physically wounded knight who's at death's door and nurses him back to health. Throughout their time together, they find themselves more and more attracted to one another and eventually falling in love. When our heroine needs someone to champion her against her brother's schemes and help her save the peasants under her care, her newfound knight is up to the challenge. I was drawn in by the emotion of the story, but I was kept engaged while wondering how our intrepid heroine was ever going to win against her brother and the power of the church that long ago failed her and why the hero's father sent assassins after him. Because of that, A Winter Ballad has now become yet another keeper for me from this very talented author.
Years ago, as a young girl, Anya was raped by the same brigands who murdered her parents and left her oldest brother for dead. In the aftermath, she bravely walked a long distance to seek help for him, and that same fortitude has kept her going through all the troubles and challenges in the ensuing years. Three years after the incident, John, the brother who was nearly killed, went to the Holy Land to fight in the Crusades, while William, her other brother became a monk, leaving Anya to care for Winterbourne, the family holding, and all the people of the nearby village alone. Her father always said he only had one child who truly had the heart of a knight and that was Anya. That definitely shows through in her courage and strength in the face of adversity. After a lean harvest, she's scrimping to make sure everyone has enough to eat throughout the winter and spring until new crops can be planted, but her meager stores are running extremely low. John has been gone for five years without a word, leaving everyone wondering if he's dead, and William won't release funds to help the peasants unless Anya declares John dead, gives Winterbourne to the church, and enters a nunnery. Of course, he's only doing this to get ahead in his own career, which Anya knows, so she keeps fighting to stay afloat on her own.Anya also harbors disdain for the church and with good reason. When she became pregnant as a result of the rape, the church declared her a fallen woman, because in their ignorance, church rules dictated that a woman couldn't get pregnant unless pleasure was involved. Then her newborn child was ripped from her arms and taken away. Ever since, Anya has been meeting God on her own terms, while turning her back on the church as a whole, so she receives no help or comfort from that quarter either.
At this very difficult point in life, she finds a gravely wounded knight in the woods. Once she nurses him back to health, he willingly becomes her champion, helping her in any way he can and showing her what true love is. I really liked Anya because she's a very strong heroine who's been through hell, but still holds her head high. She manages Winterbourne quite ably and cares deeply for all under her care, never putting herself above them but instead suffering right along with them. Although she fights Christian a bit when he offers her marriage, it's only because she thinks he's doing it out of a sense of gratitude rather than genuine love or affection, but at the same time, she's not too proud to accept his help when offered. She also longs to know what it can truly be like between a man and a woman, and she discovers that and more in Christian's arms.
Christian has had a rather rough life of his own. He's the only bastard son of a cardinal who had a long-standing affair with Christian's mother. He left home as a youth and became a vaunted knight, but is beginning to tire of the life of a warrior. Now, for reasons not entirely clear to him, his own father is trying to kill him. This is how Anya came to find him wounded in the forest near her home, where assassins sent by his father had beaten him senseless and left him for dead. As Christian recovers under the lady's tender care, he begins to fall in love with her and sees how difficult her life is. He longs to help her and does everything he can for her while slowly building his strength again, but he believes that to stay with her will only visit more trouble and danger upon her until he can settle things with his father. Knowing that he will have to leave at some point, he tries not to touch her, but her charms prove too hard to resist. Christian is a very tender and passionate lover, who treats Anya like a precious jewel. Given his experiences with his father, who is a man of God (and I use that term very loosely), he fully understands her feud with the church. He's also sympathetic when he learns of her past and would like to go after the bastard who hurt her if not for it having been so long ago. So instead he does what he can in the present to support her and make life easier for her. From an emotional standpoint and in the way that he treats Anya like an equal, Christian exhibits some beta characteristics, but he's also very confident in his own skin and with his own abilities, which is more an alpha trait. In any case, he's a wonderful champion for his lady, showing her that she doesn't have to stand alone anymore.
For the most part, the secondary characters don't particularly stand out aside from a few notable exceptions. Anya's brother, William aka Brother Simon, is a real piece of work. He cares for no one but himself and his own selfish ambitions, and would even stoop to do harm to others in hopes of driving Anya from the only home she's ever known. Anya's page, Geoffrey, is a sweet boy with a great talent for music and a deeper tie to Anya than seen at first glance, but his future is placed in jeopardy by William's schemes. Then there are the animal characters, who I loved: Christian's dog, Ysengrin, who is loyal to a fault, Anya's cat, Esmeralda, who is a comfort to the recovering Christian and who is apparently a horse whisperer as well since it's her unlikely friendship with the wild beast, Remus, that makes him more manageable. I adore well-written animal characters and this trio was a delight.
Overall, A Winter Ballad was a joy to read. It's a nice, gentle love story that's sweet and easy to read with a little adventure and suspense on the side. Christian and Anya most definitely deserved their happy ending after everything they went through to get there. I can't think of anything I would have changed about it, and I definitely look forward to reading more of Barbara Samuel's work. Hopefully I won't let so much time pass by between her books next time.
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