Night in Eden by Candice Proctor
(Ivy Books, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-8041-1758-6
There's been a lot of buzz on the Internet about Candice Proctor's first romance novel, all of it good. And the cover blurbs from Catherine Coulter and Penelope Williamson are glowing. (OK, she is Williamson's sister!) But it sure looks as if there is a gene for romance writing, because this book is an out and out winner.

This is not a light, frivolous romance. The heroine, Byrony Wentworth, is a victim of the British penal system in the early 19th century, a system whose harshness and inhumanity has seldom been equaled. When her husband stumbles over a cliff into the sea during an argument (she had found him with another woman), Byrony is convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to transportation to Australia. Her three-year old daughter is torn from her arms and placed in the care of her cold uncle and Byrony, pregnant with her second child, begins a journey into hell.

In New South Wales, women convicts are assigned to any free man and they have no rights whatsoever. They can be raped, abused, whipped, or even whored. Thus, when Byrony is dragged into the muddy courtyard of the Female Factory to meet her new master, she can only imagine what her fate will be. But Byrony is almost past caring for that very day she buried her infant son.

Hayden St. John has a somewhat unusual requirement for his new servant.

He needs the nourishment she can provide for his four month old son. St. John's beloved wife Laura had died in childbirth, and now his child is likely to follow his mother unless Byrony's milk can sustain him. The last thing he expects is to be attracted his son's wetnurse.

Proctor has done a marvelous job of portraying the developing relationship between Hayden and Byrony. She hates and fears him at first until she discovers that unlike many of the ruthless men who were willing to profit from the misfortunes of others, Hayden is a fair and just master. He will not use his power to coerce her and she rejects the role of convict mistress as she attempts to hold onto some part of her former self. And yet the spark between them threatens to burst into flame.

The relationship between Hayden and Byrony remains central to the book and she has created a great hero and a grand heroine. But Proctor also provides a realistic setting for her romance. The harshness and danger of life in New South Wales in 1808 is compellingly detailed. This was a raw and violent land where only the strong and daring could survive and prosper. And Hayden and Byrony are both strong and daring.

Five hearts means keeper and keeper implies a book that will be read and reread with pleasure. Night in Eden is such a book. Not even an almost too pat ending detracted from my enjoyment of this moving and exciting novel. Get thee to a bookstore; buy a copy for a friend. We will all want more books from Candice Proctor, so make sure that Night in Eden is a huge success.

--Jean Mason

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