Authors: Brenda Joyce
Praise for Brenda Joyce
“Joyce’s characters carry considerable emotional weight,
which keeps this hefty entry absorbing, and her fast-
paced story keeps the pages turning.”
The Stolen Bride
“An emotionally sweeping tale of heartache,
redemption, and rebirth,
The Stolen Bride
lives up to this
reader’s high expectations for a Perfect 10 read.”
Romance Reviews Today
“dances on slippered feet, belying
its heft with spellbinding dips, spins and twists. Jane
Austen aficionados will delve happily into heroine
Elizabeth “Lizzie” Fitzgerald’s family… Joyce’s tale of
the dangers and delights of passion fulfilled will
enchant those who like their reads long and rich.”
“Joyce brilliantly delivers an intensely emotional and
engrossing romance where love overcomes deceit,
scandal and pride… An intelligent love story with smart,
appealing and strong characters. Readers will savour
this latest from a grand mistress of the genre.”
“The latest from Joyce offers readers a passionate,
swashbuckling voyage in her newest addition to the de
Warenne dynasty series. Joyce brings her keen sense
of humour and storytelling prowess to bear on
her witty fully formed characters.”
A Lady at Last
“The latest in the de Warenne series is a warm
wonderfully sensual feast about the joys and pains
following in love. Joyce breathes life into extraordinary
characters – from her sprightly Cinderella heroine and
roguish hero to everyone in between – then sets them in
the glittering Regency, where anything can happen.”
Romantic Times BOOKclub
A Lady at Last
“I knew you would come back!”
“You’re engaged,” he said. He spoke in a whisper that was barely audible and his voice was hoarse. He was looking at her with such shattering intensity that she hesitated.
“What?” she began, confused.
But he was not looking into her eyes now. His gaze had slipped to her mouth and then it veered abruptly to her chest. In that instant she felt immodest, indecent, naked.
Her body hollowed.
For the first time in her life, Eleanor understood desire. For the space inside her was so empty that she ached, and in that instant, she understood the necessity of taking him inside so he could fill it.
“The wedding –” he paused, as if it was hard to speak “– is in two days.”
She reached out to him, brushing his hand. “It’s been so long! Everyone thinks you’re dead, Sean. I almost believed it, too. But you promised. You promised me you would come back and you did!”
is the bestselling author of more than thirty novels and novellas. She wrote her first novella when she was sixteen years old and her first novel when she was twenty-five – and was published shortly thereafter. She has won many awards and her first novel,
, won the Best Western Romance Award. She has also won the highly coveted Best Historical Romance award for
and the Lifetime Achievement Award from
. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Deadly series, which is set in turn-of-the-century New York and features amateur sleuth Francesca Cahill. There are over eleven million copies of her novels in print and she is published in over a dozen countries. A native New Yorker, she now lives in southern Arizona with her husband, son, dogs, cat and numerous Arabian and half-Arabian reining horses. For more information about Brenda and her upcoming novels, please visit her website at www.brendajoyce.com.
Available from Brenda Joyce
and Mills &
A LADY AT LAST
I want to thank Lucy Childs once again for reading everything I write and always being so enthusiastic and supportive while offering really helpful criticism. I want to thank my editor, Miranda Stecyk, for being as enthusiastic, as supportive and a great editor (keep on cutting!) as well as being willing to work with me on an insane and manic schedule. I also want to thank Cissy Hartley at Writerspace for her support, patience and utter diplomacy, time and again, and the great job she has done taking care of my websites. I want to thank Theresa Myers for her enthusiasm and brilliance and always taking on copywriting at the last moment! And I want to welcome two new members to my team, designers of dewarennedynasty.com and mastersoftimebooks.com! Thank you, Laurel Letherby and Dorie Hensley, for such wonderful support, unflagging enthusiasm and unfailing creativity!
This one is for the new team! Cissy Hartley,
Laurel Letherby, Dorie Hensley, Theresa Myers
and Miranda Stecyk. I couldn’t do it all without
you guys. Thank you so much!
Askeaton, Ireland, June, 1814
HE CALL OF THE UNKNOWN
. It was there, around him, inside him, an urgent restlessness, the call to adventure. It had never been stronger, and it was impossible to ignore for a single moment longer.
Sean O’Neill paused in the courtyard of the manor home that had been in his family for almost four hundred years. With his own hands, he had rebuilt the stone walls he faced. With his own hands, he had helped the town craftsmen replace the empty husks where the windows had once been gorgeously colored stained glass. He had knelt on the ancient floors inside, carefully replacing the broken stones alongside the Limerick masons. With an army of housemaids, he had carefully salvaged every burned sword in the front hall, all family heirlooms. The huge tapestry there had been burned beyond repair, however.
And he had plowed the charred and blackened fields alongside the O’Neill tenants, day after day and week after week, until the earth was brown and fertile again. He had overseen the selection, purchase and transport of the cattle and sheep that had replaced the herds and flocks destroyed by the British troops in that fateful summer of 1798. Now, as he stood by his mount, the saddlebags full, a small satchel attached to the saddle horn, lambs frolicked with their dams in the hills behind the house, beneath the blush of first light.
He had rebuilt the estate with his sweat, his blood and even at times, his tears. He had rebuilt Askeaton for his older brother in the years Devlin had been at sea, a captain in the royal navy, engaged in war with the French. Devlin had returned home a few days earlier with his American bride and their daughter. He had resigned his commission and was, Sean knew, at Askeaton to stay. And that was how it should be.
The restlessness overcame him then. He wasn’t sure what it was that he wanted, but he knew that his task here was done. Something was out there waiting for him, something huge, calling to him the ways the sirens did the sailors lost at sea. He was only twenty-four years old and he smiled at the rising sun, exhilarated and ready for whatever adventure Fate thought to hand him.
He was briefly incredulous at the sound of Eleanor de Warenne’s voice. But then, he should have known she would be up at this hour and that she would catch him as he prepared to leave. She had been his shadow since the day his mother had married her father, when she was a demanding and irrepressible toddler of two and he was a somber boy of eight. As a child, she followed him around like a puppy its new master, at times amusing him and at other times annoying him. And when he had begun the restoration of his family lands, she had been at his side on her knees, chipping out broken stones with him. When she had turned sixteen, she had been sent to England. Since then, she didn’t really seem like little Elle anymore. Uncomfortable, he turned to face her.
She hurried toward him. She had always had a long aggressive stride, never the graceful gait of a proper lady. That hadn’t changed, but everything else had. He stiffened, because she rushed toward him barefoot and clad only in a white cotton nightgown.
And in that heartbeat, he simply did not know the woman who was calling out to him. The nightgown caressed her body like a silk glove, indicating curves he could not recognize, flattened against her by the dawn breeze.
“Where are you going? Why didn’t you wake me? I’ll ride with you! We can race to the chapel and back.” She halted abruptly, her eyes going wide, staring at the saddlebags and the satchel. Her smile had vanished.
He saw her shock, followed by comprehension, but he was still struggling with his own surprise. He would always think of Elle as an awkward child, tall and skinny no matter her age, her face thin and angular, with her hair in waist-length braids. What had happened to her in the past two years? He wasn’t sure when her body had developed such immodest and feminine curves or when her face had filled out, making it a perfect oval.
He looked away from the neckline of her gown, which he decided was indecent. Then he looked away from the swell of her hips, hips that simply could not belong to her. His cheeks were warm. “You can’t walk around in nightclothes. Someone might see you!” he exclaimed. He had sat across from her at supper last night. But he had been uncomfortable then, too, especially because every time he glanced at her, she had smiled at him, trying to hold his gaze. He had done his best to avoid eye contact.
“You’ve seen me in my nightclothes a hundred times,” she said slowly. “Where are you going?”
He dragged his gaze directly to hers. Her eyes hadn’t changed, and for that, he was relieved. Amber in hue, almond in shape, he had always been able to look at her eyes and read her every mood, her every thought, her every expression and emotion. He saw that she was afraid. His reaction was immediate, and he smiled reassuringly at her. Somehow his duty had always been to ease her fears, whenever she had them. “I need to go,” he said quietly. “But I’ll be back.”
“What do you mean?” she gasped in disbelief.
The Elle of his childhood had always been able to read his every thought and mood, too. She had grown up, but she still understood him, even without his having to elaborate. Carefully, he said, “Elle, something is out there and I need to find it.”
” Her eyes were filled with growing horror. “No! Nothing is out there—I am
He became still, their gazes locked. He knew, as did everyone in their two families, that she had harbored a wild and foolish infatuation for him for as long as anyone could remember. No one knew precisely when, but as a child she had decided she loved him and that she would marry him one day. Sean had been amused by her claims. He had always known that she would outgrow such nonsense. They didn’t share a drop of blood, but he considered her a sister.
She was the daughter of an earl—she would marry a title or wealth, or both. “Elle.” He spoke calmly now. He chose to ignore that remark. Surely she no longer clung to such beliefs. “Askeaton belongs to Devlin. He’s home now. I have this feeling that there is something more out there for me. I need to go. I want to go.”
She was pale. “No! You can’t leave! There is nothing out there—what are you speaking of? Your life is here! We are here—your family, me! And Askeaton is yours as much as Devlin’s!”
He decided not to refute that, as Devlin had actually purchased Askeaton from the earl eight years ago. He hesitated, trying to find the right words, words she might understand. “I have to go. Besides, you don’t need me now. You’ve grown-up.” His smile failed him. “You’ll be sent back to England soon and you won’t be thinking of me then. Not with all your suitors.” He found that notion odd and unpleasant. “Go back to bed.”
A look of pure determination crossed her face and he tensed. When Elle had an objective, nothing could stop her from attaining it. “I am coming with you,” she declared.
“Don’t you dare leave without me! I am going to
get dressed. Have a horse saddled for me!” she cried, whirling to race back inside.
He seized her arm, pulling her back around. The moment he felt her soft full body against his, his brain failed him. He instantly jerked away from her. “I know you have always gotten your way with everyone, including me. But not this time.”
“You have been acting like an idiot ever since I came over last night! You’ve been avoiding me! And don’t you dare try and deny it. You won’t even look at me,” she exclaimed. “Now you say you’re leaving me?” She was so distressed and angry that she was breathing hard.
He folded his arms across his chest, his gaze dropping to the bodice of her nightgown, where he could clearly see the shape of her full breasts. He was shocked with himself. He lifted his eyes instantly to her face. “I’m leaving—not
, I’m just leaving.”
“I don’t understand,” she said, tears coming to her eyes. “Just take me with you!”
“You’re going back to England.”
“I hate it there!”
Of course she did. She was a wildflower, not a hothouse rose. Elle had been raised amongst five boys, and she had been born to ride the Irish hills on her horse, not to dance the quadrille in a London
ballroom. She stood there, looking devastated, and in that moment time fell away and she appeared all of eight years old, not eighteen, crushed with disappointment and hugely vulnerable. Tears tracked down her cheeks.
And instantly he took her in his arms, as he’d done a thousand times before. “It’s all right,” he began. But the moment he felt her breasts between them, instead of her bony chest, he pushed away. He felt his cheeks flame.
“Are you ever coming back?” she demanded, clinging to his arms.
“Of course I am,” he said tersely, trying to back up.
“I’m not sure. A year or two.”
“A year or two?” She began to cry. “How can you do this? How can you leave me for so long? I already miss you! You’re my best friend! I’m your best friend! Won’t you miss me?”
He gave in and reached for her hand. “Of course I’ll miss you,” he said quietly. It was the truth.
Their gazes locked. “Promise me. Promise me that you are coming back for me.”
“I promise,” he said.
And he realized as they stared at each other, as the tears rolled down her face, their hands remained tightly
clasped. Gently he pried himself loose. It was time to go. He faced his mount, reaching for the stirrup.
He half turned and before he could react, she threw her arms around him and pressed her mouth to his.
He realized what was happening. Elle, little Elle, tall and skinny, fearless enough to leap off the old ruined stone tower behind the manor and laugh while doing it, was kissing him on the mouth. But that was impossible, because there was a woman in his arms, her body soft and warm, and her lips open and hot.
He jumped away, aghast. “What was that?”
“That was a kiss, you fool!” she shouted at him.
He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, still stunned.
“You didn’t like it?” she said in disbelief.
“No, I didn’t like it,” he almost shouted. Furious now, with her and with himself, he leaped astride his horse. Then he looked down at her. She was sobbing, but soundlessly, covering her mouth with her hands.
He could not stand it when she cried. “Don’t cry,” he said. “Please.”
She nodded, ashen, fighting the tears until they stopped. “Promise me again.”
He inhaled. “I promise.”
She smiled tearfully at him.
He smiled back, and it felt oddly tearful, as well. Then he lifted the reins and spurred his horse into a gallop. He hadn’t meant to leave at a madcap pace, but her distress, which he had caused, was far too much to bear. When it felt safe to do so, he finally glanced back.
She hadn’t moved. She stood by the iron courtyard gates in the white nightgown, watching him leave. She raised her hand, and even from a distance, he felt her sadness and fear.
He raised his hand in return. Maybe this was for the best, he thought, shaken to the core of his being. Then he turned away, cantering down the roadway, not toward Limerick, but to the east.
When he topped the first hill he paused a final time. His heart beat hard and fast, disturbingly. He turned his mount to look down on his home. The manor was as small as a toy house. A small figure in white posed by the front gates. Elle hadn’t moved.
And he wondered if what he was looking for was already within his grasp.