The Present Page 9

Generally they were thought to be thieves and exotic prostitutes, but were also possessed of the legitimate skills of tinkering, horse-trading, music, and dancing. They were considered a very happy, carefree people who abhorred the thought of settling down in any one place. To keep a Gypsy from wandering was to whither his soul, or so he had heard.

This band did indeed seem harmless enough. Their camp was orderly, clean. Their music and laughter were not overly loud. They were mostly dark-skinned and very exotic looking. They were all dressed colorfully in bright skirts and kerchiefs, with pale blouses, the men wearing bright sashes. There was much flashing of cheap jewelry, in long, dangling earrings and many rings, chains, and bracelets.

The wench who had caught his interest so thoroughly seemed different from the others, though. She had the long earrings, the many bracelets and rings. Her clothes were just as colorful, her full skirt a bright yellow and blue, her short-sleeved blouse a pale yellow. She had no kerchief tying back her hair, though, which flowed in free, curly abandon down her back and over her shoulders.

It was her eyes, however, that made her so different. They were tilted at a slight, exotic slant, but were of a brilliant cobalt blue. Her skin, too, was much lighter in color, very fair, smooth as ivory.

She was not very tall. Her head would probably not even reach the top of his shoulders. She was slim of build, petite, yet very nicely shaped. Ample br**sts pushed against the thin cotton of her blouse. He had seen women more beautiful, but never one as alluring as this one. He had wanted her the moment he clapped eyes on her. That in itself he found utterly amazing, since it had never happened to him before.

She hadn't answered his question yet. Watching her, enjoying doing so, he nearly forget it, until she said, "I am a healer, a seer, a diviner of dreams." Then with a grin, "You do not look sickly, Lord Englishman."

He chuckled at her. "No, I'm hardly that. Nor do I dream often enough to remember any dream in particular for you to divine. As for seeing into my future, you'll have to excuse me, pretty one, but I'm not about to throw money away on something that cannot be proven until some future date when you are long gone from here."

"A smart man." She smiled, clearly not offended. "But I don't see into the future."

"No?" He raised a golden brow at her. "Then what do you see, to be a seer?"

"I see people for what they are, and perhaps help them to see themselves in a clearer light, so that they can correct their own faults and be happier with their lot."

He was amused by such fanciful claims. "I know myself well enough."

"Do you?"

She asked it with such meaning that it gave him pause. But he shook off the immediate curiosity that her insinuation aroused. He was not fooled. These people made their living by taking advantage of the ignorant and superstitious. He was neither. And besides, what he wanted from her, she had not mentioned yet.

"I have coins to spend," he told her matter-of-factly. "Surely you must have something else to sell—that I would find of interest?"

That his eyes moved down her body as he said it could leave little doubt of what he wanted from her. A look like that would have insulted a lady. The wench didn't take offense, though, not even a little. She actually smiled, as if she were delighted he was being so blatant in his desire. Which was why her answer confounded him.

"I am not for sale."

He felt poleaxed. That he couldn't have her had never occurred to him. His emotions rioted; he refused to accept a no where she was concerned.

He had been rendered speechless, which was perhaps why, after a few moments, she thought to add, "Which does not mean you cannot have me—"

"Excellent!'' he jumped in, only to have her hold a hand up so she could finish.

"However, you would not like the condition, so it is not worth discussing."

For someone whose emotions had been pretty much dead for a very long time now, Christopher didn't know quite how to handle these extreme ups and downs the Gypsy was dealing him at the moment.

He ended up frowning and his tone was less than pleasant as he demanded, "What condition?"

She sighed. "Why mention it, when you would never agree to it?"

She turned away from him, started to rise, as if to leave. He grabbed her arm to detain her. He would have her. But he was suddenly very angry, that she obviously thought teasing him would up the price.

"How much will it cost me?" he bit out.

She blinked at his tone, yet she didn't try to placate his obvious anger, asked merely, "Why must everything have a price, Lord Englishman? You have made a mistake in thinking I am like these other women. Lying with a Gajo means nothing to them, is just another means to put food in the kettle."

"And what makes you different?"

"I am only half Gypsy. My father was as noble as yours, if not more so, a princeling in his own country. From him I have different ideals, one of which is that no man will touch me without benefit of marriage. Now do you understand why I say this is not worth discussing? You would not only have to agree to marry me, you would have to convince my grandmother that you are worthy of me, and I do not foresee either occurring. Now, if you will excuse me . . ."

He was not willing to let her go. Marriage to her was absurd, of course, just as she realized it was. A princeling father indeed. Such an outrageous lie. Yet he still wanted her. There had to be another way to have her. He just needed to figure out how, and needed to keep her here and talking to do that.

Which was why he said, "Tell me more about this 'seeing' thing you do."

She did not mince words with him. "Why, when you doubt me?"

He gave her an earnest smile that he hoped would put her at ease again. "So convince me."

She bit her lip for a moment in indecision. It was a luscious-looking lip. She stirred the kettle again. She stirred things in him as well, with each of her sensuous movements. She appeared deep in thought. Then she sat back and looked into his eyes, just stared, for the longest time, and so intently. He got the strangest, fanciful notion that she really was seeing into the darkest reaches of his soul. The suspense almost had him ready to shout.

At last she said in a mild tone, "Very well. You are not a happy man. It is not that anything has made you unhappy. Actually, there is much in your life that could make you happy, it just doesn't."

His ennui was apparently easy to discern. His friends had remarked on it as well, so he was not surprised that she would pretend to "see" this as his problem.

Annoyed that she called "seeing" what was so obvious that anyone could "see" it, he put her on the spot. "Perhaps you know why?"

"Perhaps I do," she replied, and for a moment, compassion filled her eyes, making him distinctly uncomfortable. "It is because you have lost interest in what you used to be interested in, and have found nothing new to take the place. Because of this you have become—disillusioned? Bored? I'm not quite sure, just that something is seriously lacking in your life. Only recently has it begun to bother you. Perhaps it is merely that you have been alone too long, without family. Everyone benefits from the caring involved in family, yet you have been deprived of this. Perhaps it is merely that you have not found a purpose to your life yet."

He knew it was no more than guessing on her part, and yet her guessing was so bloody accurate, it was frightening. He wanted to hear more, and yet he didn't. Actually, what he really wanted to hear was something that would leave no doubt in his mind that she was a charlatan.

"What else do you see?"

She shrugged carelessly. "Minor things that have nothing to do with your well-being and state of mind."

"Such as?"

"Such as, you could be rich, but you don't really care to pursue great wealth."

He raised a brow. "Excuse me? What makes you think I'm not rich?"

"By my standards, you are. By your standards, you are merely comfortably secure. Even your estate manager earns more than you do from what he manages for you."

Christopher went very still. "That is a slanderous remark, wench, that you had better explain this instant. How could you possibly know that?"

She didn't seem even a little alarmed that she had gained his full ire. "I couldn't," she replied simply. "But I could not help but hear a lot about you when I was in Havers today. Because you come here only rarely, when you do come, you are the subject on everyone's lips. Often was your manager mentioned, and how he has been gulling you ever since you first arrived. For some, the opinion is that it is no more than a lord deserves. For others, they have dealt personally with the man and despise him. Two different motives for saying the same thing usually discounts motive and just speaks the truth. And if it was not true, Lord Englishman, you would have laughed it off. Instead, your anger shows that I merely confirm your own suspicions about the man."

"Anything else?" he asked tightly.

She grinned at him. "Yes, but I think I have made you angry enough for one night. Would you care to share our meager dinner?"

"I've eaten, thank you. And I would prefer to get all of the anger out of the way now, to leave room for—other emotions. So do continue dissecting me."

She blushed at mention of those "other" emotions, understanding very well what he meant. This took the edge off his anger, reminding him that he was sitting there in a state of need because of her, and had yet to figure out a way to take care of that need.

"You do not like to draw attention to yourself," she said, "which is why you do not dress foppishly. It's not because you don't like foppish, it's because you know very well how handsome you are, and this already draws more attention than you are comfortable with."

He laughed. He couldn't help it. "How the devil do you come by that conclusion?"

"That you know very well how handsome you are? Any mirror would show you that. That you might like to dress more fashionably, but don't? I see your companions wearing their expensive jewels, their much brighter colors, their patches and wigs, all very stylish. Yet you dress more sedately, wear no jewelry, not even a velvet ribbon around your neck. You hope that eyes will be drawn to them rather than you. This is a futile hope, though. You are simply an extraordinary-looking man."

He blushed. He was thrilled. He was in pain, her words firing his desire even more.

His hand went to her cheek. He couldn't stop himself, he had to touch her. And she didn't try to prevent his doing so. She merely stared at him, yet with such a swirl of emotion in those startling blue eyes that he almost forgot that they were sitting in the open at her campfire, and pulled her into his arms.

"Come home with me tonight, Gypsy," he said huskily. "You won't regret it."

"You have a Gajo priest in residence, then, to give his blessing?"

His hand dropped from her. Frustration filled his eyes. "You are saying you would marry me?"

"I am saying I want you, too, Lord Englishman, but without the priest's words, I can't have you. It does not get more simple than that."

"Simple?" he all but snorted. "You must know that is impossible, that people from my social stature only marry within their class."

"Yes, I know very well how nobles are governed by the opinions of their peers, which does not leave them free to do as they please. A shame you aren't a common man, Lord Englishman. They have more freedom than you."

"And how free are you, to not do as you want?" he shot back in a frustrated tone. "Or did you not just tell me that you want me?"

"I can't deny that. Yet I am restricted by my own morals, rather than the opinions of others. If you must know, my own people would be scandalized if I were to marry you. Ironically, you would not be an acceptable mate for me, for you are not one of us. Would I let that influence me? No. Only one's heart should matter in these things.

Yet mine will not let me go to a man who will not be mine to keep. I do not hold myself that cheaply."

"Then we have nothing further to say." He stood up and tossed a few coins into her lap. "For your insight," he said with a measure of derision. "Too bad you couldn't 'see' a way for us to be together."

"But I did," she replied sadly. "Too bad you don't want me enough to keep me."

Too bad you don’t want me enough to keep me.

Oddly enough, Christopher did want her that much. He realized it about noon the next day, when she simply would not get out of his mind. He couldn't get any work done for thinking of her. He rudely ignored his friends as well. They'd had a very good time last evening, a good time that included getting from the other Gypsy wenches what he'd been denied himself. Not that he begrudged them that. It was just driving him crazy, that he hadn't been as lucky.

He started drinking in the early afternoon, in an effort to dull his disappointment. It didn't really help. What it did do was make it much easier for him to decide to make the Gypsy his mistress. Surely that would satisfy her "mine to keep" morals, wouldn't it?

It was just barely dark when he rode to the Gypsy camp again. He didn't bring David or Walter with him this time, didn't even tell them where he was going, since he had every intention of bringing the Gypsy home with him, yet he didn't want his friends to know how completely she had bewitched him, to the point of wanting to set her up in London where she would always be available to him.

She wasn't at the campfire where he had left her last night. The old woman was there, though. He tethered his horse near her. No one came to question what he was doing there, probably because they didn't want to know if he was there to evict them again.

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