The Present Page 13

Anastasia swung around in surprise at the Englishman's unexpected remark. "I would not ask you to speak with him, William."

"Nor would I be so presumptuous," he said in his stiff English way. "He is a marquis, after all, while I'm merely a lowly knight."

"Then how would you go about nudging a marquis?" Maria questioned.

William grinned, somewhat conspiratorially. "I could take her to London, dress her in fine gowns, introduce her as my niece. It would show that young pup that appearances and origins mean very little in the end, that happiness is all that really matters."

"You would do that for us?"

"I would do anything for you, Maria," William replied softly.

She reached for his hand, brought it to her leathery cheek. "Perhaps I will ignore those handsome young angels after all, Gap."

He beamed at her. "I will fend them off when I get there, if you forget."

She made a semblance of a smile. Her eyes closed slowly, the light gone out of them.

Her voice was but a whisper now. "I leave her in your care, then. Guard well this treasure of mine. And thank you . . . for letting me go in peace."

Her breathing stopped, as did her heartbeat. Anastasia stared at her in shocked silence, yet inside she wailed, she keened, she futilely beat her breast, and it changed nothing. Her grandmother was dead.

"Maria wouldn't want you to cry, lass, but sometimes that is the only way to get the pain out."

This was said kindly and with a catch; William was crying silently himself. Yet he was right, on both counts. Maria wouldn't want her to grieve, wouldn't want either of them to grieve. She'd said as much.

Anastasia began to cry, not for her grandmother, who had found peace from her pain, who really wouldn't want tears shed for her after she'd lived such a full life, but for her own loneliness . . .

Sir William helped her dig the grave. She had had many offers from the stronger of the men to do this, but had refused all but the Englishman's help. The others had respected Maria, were in awe of her, but they hadn't loved her.

By custom, everything that Maria had owned was buried with her or destroyed. Even the old wagon was put to the torch. But Anastasia defied Gypsy tradition in two things. She let Maria's horses go free, rather than slaughter them as was usually done whenever it was assured the legal authorities wouldn't interfere. And she kept the ring that had been given to Maria by her first husband.

"The first was the one I most loved," Maria had said often, when they sat before the campfire at night and she spoke of the many men she had known and married over the years. "He also gave me your mother."

The ring had little value, was a cheap trinket really, yet it had been valued by both of her grandparents, and for that alone, she would keep it.

William had wanted to go to Havers to order a stone marker for the grave. Anastasia had to explain her grandmother's last wishes on the matter.

"My body will rest here, my memory will rest with you, child," Maria had told her that same night she confessed she was dying. "But my name, I wish to keep to myself. If I must rest here, rather than in my own homeland, let there be no evidence of it."

"I will put a marker here someday," Anastasia told Sir William. "But it will not bear her name."

Everyone in the camp placed food on the grave that night. It was the duty of the family of the deceased to do so. Dead ones had been known to come and berate their family if this hadn't been done, or so the tales at campfires would relate. This was not the responsibility of friends or mere acquaintances, only family members. Yet everyone in the band honored Maria in this way.

"This is going to be so much fun! We can't thank you enough, Will, for thinking of us and letting us share in this endeavor of yours."

Sir William blushed and did a little mumbling that bad the three old women giggling to themselves. Anastasia, watching them, hid a smile.

She had heard much about these ladies on the way to London. They were dear friends of William's whom he had known since childhood. Near his age and still quite socially active. His sisters by choice, he fondly called them, and they apparently felt the same way about him.

Victoria Siddons was a widow—for the fourth time, her last husband having left her exceedingly rich and plumply titled, so that for many years she had been one of the more prominent London hostesses, and still was. She entertained frequently in one manner or another, and invitations to her gatherings were quite "the thing" to have.

Rachel Besborough was also a widow, though not so repeatedly as Victoria, having been married to the same marquis for some fifty years before he passed on. She had quite a large family in her children and their offspring, though none still lived with her, so she was more often than not a guest of one of her friends.

Elizabeth Jennings, now, having never married, was quite likely the oldest "old maid" in existence, or so she said with a chuckle about herself. Not that she seemed to mind. She was Rachel's older sister, and so had never lacked having a large family to dote on.

This morning they were all gathered in Lady Victoria's large sitting room in her house on Bennet Street, where William and Anastasia had been staying since they'd arrived in London last week. Anastasia was standing up on a chair, undergoing her second and hopefully last fitting by Victoria's personal seamstress, the wardrobe of fancy gowns that William had promised her almost complete.

Those clothes were all that the ladies were waiting for to "launch" Anastasia on London society. Lady Rachel was keeping a written record, added to daily, of all the fashionable places Anastasia needed to be "seen at." Lady Elizabeth had formed a list of her own, of well-known gossips whom she had already begun visiting.

"Nothing like setting the stage in advance," she had said after returning from her first gossipy visit. "Lady Bascomb is just dying to meet you now, gel, and by tomorrow, so will be most of her friends. I swear, she can manage to call upon at least forty different members of the ton in a single day. Do not ask me how, but she can."

They had decided a little confusion would be just the thing to spark curiosity, and so each gossip Elizabeth paid a visit to was told something entirely different about Anastasia's history. With her mother supposedly being William's younger sister, who really had run off in her youth and had never returned to England, any and every background they created for Anastasia would be completely plausible.

The three ladies had in fact stayed up very late one night having a great good time designing some pretty outlandish scenarios, from her being the daughter of an illegitimate heir to a throne in Eastern Europe, to the daughter of a rich Turkey slave trader, to the truth, that her father was a Russian Prince. All of which got confided, in absolute secrecy, of course, to the many known gossips on Elizabeth's list.

It became William's task to find out when the marquis arrived in London, and to discover his habits, or at least his normal haunts. After all, this whole scheme was for his benefit, and wouldn't do much good if he didn't hear the gossip, or have a chance to see Anastasia in her new finery.

Once they'd set the scene, the invitations began pouring in. Anastasia, who had yet to make her first "public" appearance, was already in great demand by every hostess in town, thanks to Elizabeth's gossip-spreading talents. Her first appearance, though, would be at the costume party that Lady Victoria planned for the coming weekend.

Christopher would not be receiving an invite to this. It remained to be seen if he'd show up anyway, to denounce her, just to see what she was up to, or to claim her as his wife. Anything was possible—which was why the ladies were so excited. They could merely set things in motion. They couldn't predict the outcome.

The activity, the in-depth planning, it all helped Anastasia to get beyond the worst of her grief. And she didn't just have the loss of her grandmother and "husband for a night" to deal with, but also of the Gypsies, the people she'd grown up with, people she cared about and who cared about her. She'd said good-bye to them all, though she didn't expect it to be forever. Gypsies never parted for good except in death. They always expected to see old friends and acquaintances again in their travels.

The day of the costume party finally arrived. Anastasia began to feel a certain anticipation, even though she didn't expect to see Christopher tonight, when he had been excluded from the guest list deliberately. After all, it wouldn't do to appear obvious in what they were doing. The whole purpose was to intrigue him, to make him regret her loss, to make him want her back, and to make it easy for him to ignore that "it just isn't done" by showing him just how it was done—by keeping the truth to themselves.

Ironically, the first impression she gave to his rules-rigid society was that of herself, the truth, because the costume she wore was no costume but her own clothes, her gold dancing outfit. To those gathered, avidly waiting to meet her, she appeared costumed as a Gypsy, and they loved it! She was a smashing success.

Although she did insist on beginning this "farce" with the truth, or a semblance of the truth, she still evaded most questions. The "mystery" is all-important, her new friends had reminded her repeatedly as they prepared for this debut. "Keep them guessing, keep them wondering, never reveal the real truth, except in jest."

Which was easy enough to do. Gypsies were masters of mystery and evasion, after all, an art she had been raised to know, despite the fact that she had rarely ever made use of such talents before now.

The night went splendidly well, surpassing her friends' expectations. Three quite legitimate, if impulsive, proposals of marriage, eight proposals of a less savory sort, one young man making a complete fool of himself by getting down on his knees in the middle of the dancers to propose to her at the top of his lungs, two other gentlemen coming to blows while vying for her attention.

Christopher didn't show up. Though it had been confirmed that he was in London, they couldn't be sure whether he had heard about her yet. But new gossip would be making the rounds tomorrow. He would hear about her eventually. It was only a matter of time . . .

Christopher couldn't manage to get back into the swing of things, now that he had returned to London. He had finished his business at Haverston in haste, then shocked his factor by firing him. Yet he made no effort to find a new factor. He made no effort to do much of anything other than staring into a lot of fires while analyzing the things he should or shouldn't have done concerning Anastasia Stephanoff.

He could not get her out of his mind. It had been nearly two weeks since he'd last seen her, yet he could still picture her as if she stood before him. Naked, enraged, under him in bed, the images haunted him like vengeful ghosts that wouldn't go away.

He had gone back to her camp. He had sworn that he wouldn't, knew that seeing her again would serve no purpose under the circumstances, yet two days after their final parting, he had ridden there again. He wasn't at all sure what he would have said to her at that point, yet he didn't get the chance to find out.

He was incredulous to find the Gypsies gone. He hadn't expected that. Rage quickly followed his amazement, enough that he'd had every intention of sending the law after them. They had claimed his property would be left as they'd found it, after all, yet they had left a grave behind, as well as a large pile of charred wood and metal that indicated one of their wagons had been burned.

Yet he'd no sooner ridden into Havers Town to find the sheriff than his rage was gone. Realizing who that grave might have belonged to was responsible for that. Anastasia's grandmother. And if that was true, then she must be grieving. Oddly, he wanted only to comfort her now. He had to find her first, though.

This he tried to do, sending runners to the closest towns. It was hard to believe they could find no trace whatsoever of the Gypsies. Vanished. Completely. And that was when he began to suspect that he might never see her again.

He was staring into the fire in the parlor at Haverston when he first realized that, and promptly punched a hole in the wall next to the mantel. Walter and David, both there to witness this, wisely said not a word, though they exchanged raised brows.

The next day they returned to London, where his friends quickly abandoned him to his foul mood. He barely noticed their absence, so little had he paid attention to their attempts to cheer him up.

It was their usual habit, though, to prowl one or more of London's many pleasure gardens or spas on a weekend, when they had no specific engagements to attend, and so that first weekend back in London, David and Walter both showed up at Christopher's town house again, to have another go at getting their "old" Kit back.

Some of the gardens could be reached only by river barge, having no land access. The gardens were so popular that many a Londoner kept a barge for the express purpose of visiting them with friends, rather than endure a delay in having to rent one. In their group, David had done the honors, simply because he owned property on the river where a barge could be easily docked.

They were fine places of entertainment, and not just for the aristocracy, but for all of London. Some, like the New Wells, near the London Spa, even housed strange animals, rattlesnakes, imported flying squirrels, becoming something of a Zoological Garden. Some had theaters. Most all had restaurants, coffee shops, or teahouses, arbors, shaded lanes, vendors, music and dancing, booths and raffing shops for cardplayers and gamblers.

The older of the gardens, Cuper's, Marybone Gardens, Ranelagh, and Vauxhall Gardens, were famed for their evening concerts, masquerades, and innumerable illuminations that made them so lovely at night, and most new gardens were mere imitations of these four.

For tonight, Walter suggested The House of Entertainment at Pacras Wells in northern London. Christopher agreed, though he couldn't say why, since he simply didn't care one way or the other. However, upon arriving, they went not to see the entertainment, but straight to the Pump Room, where his friends insisted he try the "waters" advertised as being a powerful antidote against rising of the vapors, also against the stone and gravel, and likewise, cleansed the body and sweetened the blood.

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