Authors: Brenda Joyce
The Perfect Bride
“Joyce's seventh de Warenne novel is another first-rate Regency, featuring multidimensional protagonists and sweeping dramaâ¦. Entirely fluff-free, Joyce's tight plot and vivid cast combine for a romance that's just about perfect.”
“Joyce's latest is a piece of perfection as she meticulously crafts a tender and emotionally powerful love story. Passion and pain erupt from the pages and flow straight into your heart. You won't forget this beautifully rendered love story of lost souls and redemption.”
Romantic Times BOOKreviews
A Lady at Last
“A passionate, swashbuckling voyage. Romance veteran Joyce brings her keen sense of humor and storytelling prowess to bear on her witty, fully formed characters.”
“A classic Pygmalion tale with an extra soupÃ§on of eroticism.”
“A warm, wonderfully sensual feast about the joys and pains of falling in love. Joyce breathes life into extraordinary charactersâfrom her sprightly Cinderella heroine and roguish hero to everyone in betweenâthen sets them in the glittering Regency, where anything can happen.”
Romantic Times BOOKreviews
The Stolen Bride
“A powerfully executed romance overflowing with the strength of prose, high degree of sensuality and emotional intensity we expect from Joyce. A âkeeper' for sure.”
Romantic Times BOOKreviews
“Joyce's characters carry considerable emotional weight, which keeps this hefty entry absorbing, and her fast-paced story keeps the pages turning.”
The de Warenne Dynasty
The Perfect Bride
A Lady at Last
The Stolen Bride
The Masters of Time
IS AGITATION KNEW
no bounds. What the hell was taking the runner so long? He'd received Smith's letter the day before, but it had been brief, stating only that the runner would arrive on the morrow. Damn it! Had Smith succeeded in finding his son?
Edmund St Xavier paced the length of his great hall. It was a large room, centuries old like the house itself, but sparsely furnished and in need of a great deal of repair. The damask on the single sofa was badly faded and torn, a scarred trestle table demanded far more than wax and a shine, and the gold and ivory brocade that covered the chairs had long since turned that unpleasant shade of yellow that indicated aging and a serious lack of economy. Once, Woodland had been a great estate, compromising ten thousand acres, when Edmund's ancestors had proudly borne the title of viscount and had kept another splendid home in London. Now a thousand acres remained, and of the fifteen tenant farms scattered about, half were vacant. His stable consisted of four carriage horses and two hacks. His staff had dwindled to two manservants and a single housemaid. His wife had died in childbirth five years ago, and last winter, a terrible flu had taken their only child. There was only an impoverished estate, an empty house and the prestigious title, which was now in jeopardy.
Edmund's younger brother stared at him from across the hall, as smug and cocksure as always. John was certain the title would soon pass to him and his son, but Edmund was as determined that it would not. For there was another child, a bastard.
Surely Smith had found him.
Edmund turned stiffly away. They'd been rivals growing up and they remained rivals now. His damned brother had made a small fortune in trade and owned a fine estate in Kent. He regularly appeared at Woodland in his six-in-hand, his wife awash in jewels. Every visit was the same. He would walk around the house, inspecting each crack in the wooden floors, each peeling patch of paint, every musty drapery and dusty portrait, his disgust clear. And then he would offer to pay his debtsâwith a sizable interest rate. Edmund could not wait until John departedâleaving behind his high-interest note, which he'd signed, having no other choice.
He'd die before seeing John's young son, Robert, inherit Woodland. But dear God, it wasn't going to come to that.
“Are you certain Mr. Smith found the boy?” John inquired, his words dripping condescension. “I cannot imagine how a Bow Street runner could locate a particular Gypsy tribe, much less the particular woman.”
He bristled. John was enjoying himself. He scorned Edmund's affair with a Gypsy and believed the boy would be a savage. “They winter by the Glasgow shipyards,” Edmund said. “In the spring they journey into the Borders to work in the fields. I doubt it was all that hard to find this caravan.”
John walked to his wife, who sat sewing by the fire, and put his hand on her arm, as if to say,
I know this is a distressful topic for you. No lady should have to comprehend that my brother had a Gypsy lover.
His perfect, pretty wife smiled at him and continued to sew.
Edmund couldn't help thinking of Raiza now. Ten years ago she'd appeared at Woodland with their son, her eyes ablaze with the pride and passion he still vividly remembered. He had been shocked to look at the child and see his own gray eyes reflected in that darkly complexioned face. The boy's hair had been a dark gold, while Raiza was as dark as the night. Edmund himself was fair. His wife, Catherine, was in the house, pregnant with their child. He'd insisted the bastard was not hisâhating himself for doing so. But his affair with Raiza had been brief and he loved his wife. He could not ever let her know about the boy. He had offered Raiza what little coin he could, but she had cursed him and left.
As if reading his mind, John said, “How can you be certain the boy is even yours, no matter what the wench claimed?”
Edmund ignored him. He'd been at a house party in the Borders, hunting with a group of bachelor friends, when the Gypsies had first appeared, camping not far from the local village. He'd walked past Raiza in the town and when their eyes had met, he'd been so stricken that he had reversed direction, following her as if she were the Pied Piper. She had laughed at him, flirting. Smitten, he had eagerly pursued her. Their affair had begun that night. He'd stayed in the Borders for two weeks, spending most of that time in her bed.
He'd wanted to stay with her even longer, but he had a floundering estate to run. With tears of regret in her eyes, Raiza had whispered,
He didn't understand her, but he thought she was in love with him, and he wasn't sure that he didn't love her, too. Not that it mattered, for they were from two completely different worlds. He hadn't expected to ever see her again.
A year later he had met Catherine, a woman as different from Raiza as night and day. The niece of his rector, she was proper, demure and impossibly sweet. She would never dance wildly to Gypsy music beneath a full moon, but he didn't care. He had fallen in love with her, married her and become her dearest friend. He missed her even now.
He intended to remarry, of course, because he hoped for more heirs. He could not risk the estate. But he had learned firsthand how capricious life was, how uncertain. And that was why he had decided to find his bastard son.
Edmund heard the sound of horses arriving outside in the rutted dirt drive.
He rushed to the front door, aware of John following him, and flung it open. The heavyset runner was alighting from the carriage, a single-horse curricle. The damned shades were pulled down. “Have you found him?” Edmund cried, aware of his desperation. “Have you found my son?”
Smith was a big man who clearly did not like to shave on a daily basis. He spit tobacco at him and grinned. “Aye, me lord, but ye might not want to thank me yet.”
He had found the boy.
John came to stand beside him. He murmured, “I don't trust the Gypsy wench at all.”
His gaze glued to the carriage, Edmund retorted, “I don't care what you think.”
Smith strode to the carriage, pulling open the door. He reached inside and Edmund saw a lean boy in patched brown trousers and a loose, dirty shirt. Smith jerked him out and to the ground. “Come meet yer father, boy.”
Horrified, Edmund saw that the boy's wrists were tightly bound with rope. “Untie him,” he began, when he saw the chain and shackle on his ankle.
The boy jerked free of Smith, hatred on his pinched face. He spat at him.
Smith wiped the spittle from his cheek and glanced at Edmund. “He needs a whippingâbut then, he's a Gypsy, ain't he? Flogging's what they understand, just like a rotten horse.”
Edmund began to shake with outrage. “Why is he bound and shackled like a felon?”
“'Cause he's treacherous, he is. He's tried to escape a dozen times since I found him in the north, an' I don't feel like being stabbed to death in me sleep,” Smith said. He seized the boy by the shoulder and shook him. “Yer father,” he said, gesturing at Edmund.
There was murderous rage in the boy's eyes, but he remained silent.
“He speaks English, just as good as you an' me.” Smith spit more tobacco, this time on the boy's dirty bare feet. “Understands every word.”
“Untie him, damn it,” Edmund said, feeling helpless. He wanted to hold his son and tell him he was sorry, but this boy looked as dangerous as Smith claimed. He looked as if he hated Smithâand Edmund. “Son, welcome to Woodland. I am your father.”
Cool gray eyes held his, filled with condescension. They belonged to an older man, a worldly man, not a young boy.
Smith said, “She gave him up without too much of a fuss.”
Edmund could not look away from his son. “Did you give her my letter?”
Smith said, “Gypsies can't read, but I gave her the letter.”
Had Raiza agreed that his raising their son was for the best? As an Englishman, a world of opportunity was open to him. And he was entitled to this estate, his title and all the privilege that came with it.
“But she wept like a woman dying,” Smith said, unlocking the shackle on the boy's ankle. “I couldn't understand their Gypsy speech, but I didn't have to. She wanted him to goâand he didn't want to leave. He'll run off.” Smith looked at Edmund in warning. “Ye'd better lock him up at night an' keep a guard on him by day.” He seized his arm. “Boy, show respect to yer fatherâa great lord. If he speaks, ye answer.”
“It's all right. This is a shock.” Edmund smiled at his son. God, he was a beautiful boyâexcept for his eyes and coloring, he looked exactly like Raiza. So much warmth began, flooding his chest. He should have never turned Raiza away so many years ago, he thought. But surely they could get past what he had done. Surely they could get past this terrible beginning and their differences. “Emilian,” he smiled. “Long ago, your mother brought you here and introduced us. I am Lord Edmund St Xavier.”
The boy's expression did not change. He reminded Edmund of a deadly, darkly golden tiger, waiting for the precise moment to leap and maim.
Taken aback, Edmund reached for the ropes on his wrists. “Give me a knife,” he said to Smith.
“Ye'll be sorry,” Smith said, handing him a huge blade.
John murmured, “The boy is as feral as I expected.”
Edmund ignored both comments, cutting the ties. “That must feel better.” But the boy's wrists were lacerated. He was furious with the runner now.
The boy stared coldly. If his wrists hurt, he gave no signâand Edmund knew he wouldn't.
“Better guard your horses,” John murmured from behind them, a snicker in his tone.
Edmund did not need his smug brother's presence now. Getting past his son's hostility was going to be difficult enough. He couldn't begin to imagine how he'd turn him into an Englishman, much less become a real father to him.
The boy had become still, staring closely, his expression wary. Edmund almost felt as if he were looking at a wild animal, but John was wrong, because Gypsies weren't beasts and thievesâhe knew that firsthand. “Can you speak English? Your mother could.”
If the boy understood, he gave no sign.
“This is your life now,” Edmund tried with a smile. “Long ago, your mother brought you here. I was a fool. I was afraid of what my wife would say, do. I turned you awayâand for that, I will always be sorry. But Catherine is gone, God bless her. My son Edmundâyour brotherâis gone. Emilian, this is your home now. I am your father. I intend to give you the life you deserve. You are an Englishman, too. And one day, Woodland will be yours.”
The boy made a harsh sound. He looked Edmund up and down with scorn and shook his head. “No. I have no fatherâand this is not my home.”
His English was accented, but he could speak. “I know you need some time,” Edmund cried, thrilled they were finally speaking. “But I am your father. I loved your mother, once.”
Emilian stared at him, his face twisted as if with hatred.
“This has to be a difficult moment, meeting your father and accepting that you are my son. But Emilian, you are as much an Englishman as I am.”
“No!” Emilian snarled. And he said proudly, head high, “No. I am