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Do people prove their self-worth by strength, or by character?
A Romany leader confronts the English heritage he has denied when he lands, beaten and powerless, in the path of a high-spirited young widow. Will the prim countess agree to hide the charismatic rogue in her home and jeopardize her safety while her stepson accuses her of murdering her elderly husband?
Patience Blakwell is not beautiful. As a dutiful young countess in Regency England, she endures her husband’s cruelty. She struggles with her faith, trying to understand why God is not following the plan she had for her life—to be loved and cherished by her husband. After her husband’s unexpected death, her grown stepson charges her with her late husband’s murder.
Luca Boldor, more Gypsy than English, is determined to prove that he is strong and capable and doesn’t need anyone. But once he is forced to depend on Lady Patience Blakwell, a woman who represents all he loathes, he must decide whether he should turn away when she needs him, or risk his most vulnerable, forgiving self to keep her safe. By denying his English heritage, has he denied a part of himself?
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Luca Boldor had made a mistake—a big mistake.
“May God strike you all,” he whispered under his breath at the murderous band of rival Roma tribesmen gaining on him, ready to attack. He’d merely been looking for food for his tribe.
He pulled his ragged overcoat around his shoulders and made his getaway through the snow. Snowflakes fell thick and heavy, twice as fast as earlier that evening. Wind carried the drifts in wayward, wispy circles and thankfully concealed his tracks.
He could escape unseen. He’d become good at that.
Slipping on a patch of ice, he stumbled and hit the ground face first.
His voice broke in agony. A scream he stifled, because a man never screamed. Certainly not a Roma man.
Relying on sheer muscle to raise the lower half of his body, he dug his elbows into the gritty, wet snow and crawled forward. Aye, a man did not crawl, either.
But sometimes a man made exceptions to his own rules.
Advancing shadows split the stretches of dull white snow. Desperately, he searched his surroundings, knowing he was too easy to find. His body shimmered with the pain of a cruel beating. His breath, so cold a moment ago, burned in his chest.
But the thought was inconceivable and Luca pushed it from his mind.
Instead, he envisioned the elders of his tribe foraging for food. They would starve without his hunting skills and perish in a sennight. Long ago, he’d taught himself not to think of anything except their desperation, to protect the tribe no matter the danger. If he could only get them through another winter, he could improve their lot by moving them to the coast. Food was more plentiful by the sea, and they wouldn’t need to steal to survive.
Heavy footsteps crunched through the snow and Luca risked a swift glance over his shoulder. Marko, the leader of the rival tribe, and his men drew closer. Blind panic rushed through Luca’s limbs.
Past a swell of blackthorn trees, he spotted a ravine. He dropped to his knees and burrowed into the snow. Faster. Deeper. His nerves pinched in short, silent spasms.
Curse the frost for numbing his fingers. Curse his senses for deserting him.
Snapping off brittle tree limbs, he lowered himself into the hole and threw the branches on top. Then he peered through the branches and waited.
The bleary figures of Marko and his tribesmen approached. A glimmer of moonlight lit the darkness and threatened to expose Luca’s meager covering.
A persistent voice whispered in his mind. Run. There is time. They will not see you.
Run. He grimaced. His restless body shifted. His battered leg stiffened, a reminder of his helplessness.
“Luca shall not escape me.” Marko’s rough tone severed the cold night air. “He claims he disappears like a spirit, but he is just a man.”
A few men spoke uneasily and Luca recognized their voices. Killing was a sport for them.
Despite the numbness consuming him, tiny hairs on his nape stood on end. He was obviously their intended sport this harsh January night.
Marko’s booted toes stopped within a few feet of Luca’s makeshift hole. The stench of his unwashed body filled Luca’s nostrils. He held his breath until he thought his lungs would burst. His eyes watered from the cold, but he kept his gaze on Marko.
“Luca wants everything of mine, but I had her first. Nadya learned her lesson and so shall Luca.” Marko didn’t speak, he growled. He wiped his sweaty face with dirty gloves, then kicked the blackthorn trees, rustling the branches of Luca’s covering.
In silent rage, Luca squeezed his eyes shut to blot the unsettling images racing through his mind. Marko’s cold-blooded beating had crushed Nadya’s body. The woman he had once thought he loved.
Although she betrayed him by luring him into a trap by promising food for his tribe, he had tried to protect her. She didn’t deserve to be beaten so harshly by Marko. But Luca’s strength was no match for a tribe of enraged, jealous Roma.
He tightened his fists, defying the impulse to shake off the burdensome branches and pummel the rival lord’s head into the snow. He would not allow Marko to escape punishment for senselessly abusing a woman.
Nay. Not now. He swallowed to quell the pain feeding his anger.
He was a half-breed—half-English, half-Romany. But when his strength returned, he would seek justice the Romany way—swift and sure.
At thirty years old, he chose his way of life. A leader. A legend to fear.
It suited him.
“Nanosh,” Marko shouted to one of his men, “I will rejoin you at sunrise. Keep searching.” Marko’s footsteps receded. His men obeyed without complaint.
Luca waited an interminable minute before he pushed the branches off his snowy covering. He heaved his body out of the hole and sucked in a sharp groan at the needle-like pain piercing his leg. Then he crawled away from Marko’s men like a helpless, despicable cripple.
If he did not find shelter soon, he might lose his leg. Then he would no longer command the respect of his tribe. Then he’d sink deeper in his English father’s eyes—if such
a thing were possible.
Every few feet, Luca stopped to catch his ragged breath and control the shivers wracking his limbs. He tried to flex his fingers but they had no feeling, stiff and frozen sticks that hardly moved. Wryly, he thought about the leather hawking gloves, an unexpected treasure he had found on a dirt road months before. The English dandy who dropped the gloves in a busy London marketplace never missed a step, never bent to search for them. Just kept walking, probably to Bond Street where he could spend more coin, whilst his rich, ruby cloak billowed behind him.
Those precious gloves. All smooth black leather and cream silk lining.
Luca had left the gloves back at his camp for an elderly tribesman to wear. He’d assured the tribesman he would not need them. But foresight had never been his forte.
Throughout the night, he pondered the ironic joke the fates had played on him as he blew on his cold hands, though it had stopped amusing him many hours ago.
He crawled, then limped through the snow, grabbing a tree branch to steady his gait. Beyond, a large, ungated manor house loomed. He focused on the flicker of oil lamps in the windows, the tall chimneys standing as sentinels on either side of the house.