The Present Page 12

He sighed at that point. "Those are my closest friends, Anastasia. Do you think I wouldn't be proud to show you off to them?"

"Show me off? I am not a toy. You didn't purchase me. And I am not your mistress!"

"The devil you aren't," he snapped, but then ho paused and frowned. "Don't tell me I forgot to ask you last night. That's why I went back to your camp. Why else would you be here, unless I asked you and you accepted?"

"Oh, you asked me," she said in a soft, furious whisper. "And this was my answer."

For the second time, she slapped him. His face turned quite red this time, and not just from the slap. Now he was angry.

"Do not hit me again, Anna. It was a natural assumption for me to make, that you had agreed to be my mistress, particularly since I woke up to find you lying na**d in my bed. Blister it, you even said you agreed. I distinctly remember you saying so this morning. What the devil did you agree to, if not that?"

"You have only to recall what I told you was the only way you could have me, and you'd have your answer. I'm not your mistress, I'm your wife!"

"The devil you are!"

It was probably because he looked so horrified that she shoved her way past him and out the door. That he was utterly horrified was why he stood there in complete bemusement, rather than try to stop her. He just couldn't believe that, drunk or not, he would so totally ignore the strictures of his class. A marquis did not marry a common Gypsy, well, not so common, but still a Gypsy, well, half Gypsy, but still ... it just wasn't done.

She was obviously lying, a ruse to trick him into thinking that he'd married her, and she'd been able to do it because he got so sotted with drink last night that he couldn't remember what he'd done. Of all the bloody nerve, and especially when he only had to demand some proof and she'd have to fess up that she'd lied, since there wouldn't be any proof. He would have thought she was more intelligent than that, to think she could get away with it. Some of his fast-rising rage stemmed from disappointment in her.

He went after her. She'd already left the house. He just barely spotted that bright skirt disappearing into the woods quite some distance away. It was too far for him to catch up to her on foot, though, so he ran to his stable.

She was no more than halfway to her camp when his stallion came galloping up behind her and was yanked to a rearing stop a bit in front of her. She ignored him and the beast and continued her march, merely veering around him. It was an easy matter to move the horse in front of her again, and again, until she got the idea and stopped.

He extended a hand to her, to lift her up. When she just stared at it, he explained, "I took you away from your camp last night, I'll return you to it today. It's the gentlemanly thing to do."

She snorted. "How convenient, to play the gentleman only when it suits you."

That was a serious insult that had him retaliating in kind. "I wouldn't expect a Gypsy to grasp the intricacies of the nobility."

She raised a brow at him. "Is that a roundabout way of saying that the intricacies of common courtesy are beyond the grasp of the nobility?"

He blinked. "I beg your pardon?"

"Don't bother. I already mentioned that you won't be forgiven, didn't I?"

He gritted his teeth. "That's a blasted phrase that requests an explanation when delivered in that tone, not a request for forgiveness!"

"Is it indeed? When a simple 'what' would have gotten the point across without causing confusion? Another one of those subtle 'intricacies' understood only by you lordly types, I suppose?"

He rolled his eyes and said in a weary tone, "You are being obtuse, Anastasia."

She matched his tone and added a sigh. "And you are being dense, Lord Englishman, or have you not grasped yet that I have nothing further to say to you?"

He stiffened. "Very well, but before we part, I would like to know how you thought you could possibly convince me that I had married you."

"Convince you?" She laughed unpleasantly. "There is probably a paper in your coat pocket with our signatures on it, unless you managed to lose it last night. But then you could always ask the Reverend Biggs—I believe that was the name he supplied. You threatened to beat him to within an inch of his life if he didn't marry us, and poor man, he quite believed you. So do whatever needs doing to unmarry us. There will be no need to inform me when it is done, since I have no doubt whatsoever that you will see to it posthaste."

She was able to walk away from him again, because again, she'd rendered him quite beyond speech.

She wasn't going to cry. He was an insensitive beast, an arrogant wretch, and as he might put it, a "bloody" snob. But she wasn't going to cry. She had seen his confusion and wanted to help him. She had seen his pain and wanted to heal it. She had seen his emptiness and wanted to fill him with happiness instead. But she hadn't seen that he could be so foolish as to put the opinions of others before his own needs. She hadn't seen that he would sacrifice his own happiness because "it just wasn't done."

It was appalling, to have been so wrong about him, and worse, to let her own emotions take over. Her heart wasn't supposed to get so involved—yet. She shouldn't be devastated that he couldn't stand the thought of being married to her, when she'd known from the start that he felt that way—when he wasn't drunk. Drunk, he let his heart guide him. Drunk, nothing was going to stand in the way of what he wanted, certainly not his silly "it just wasn't done."

Anastasia entered the camp blindly, her mind too filled with misery to notice Nicolai until he caught her arm and painfully jerked her around to face him. His fingers would leave bruises. She was always left with bruises whenever he touched her.

"Where did you spend the night?" he demanded.

She should have been wise enough to lie, especially since he looked quite furious, but with her emotions in such turmoil already, it was defiance that reared its ugly head. Chin raised, she answered, "With my husband."

The slap was not unexpected. Even the brutality of it that sent her to the ground was no more than typical of Nicolai. Anastasia tossed her hair out of the way and glared up at him balefully.

"Perhaps you did not hear me correctly, Nico. I was with my husband, the Gajo I married last night, the Gajo who will see you end up in an English prison if you ever lay a hand on me again."

He looked suitably uncertain, as she had hoped he would. He even paled slightly at the mention of prison, since most Gypsies would rather die than be locked up for any length of time. Yet he still doubted her, and with good reason.

"You are promised to me!" he reminded her. "You would not dare marry another."

"Promised to you, but not by me, never by me. You were never my choice, Nico, nor would I have ever agreed to marry you. I would have chosen anyone other than you, whom we both know I hate. Yet I chose for love instead, yes, love, a concept you know nothing about!"

He would have hit her again if she weren't lying on the ground, out of his immediate reach. And they had gathered an audience, not close, but just about everyone in the camp was listening and watching, including his father—including Maria, who was approaching them as fast as her old bones allowed. She did not usually witness Anastasia's confrontations with Nicolai. This one had her enraged.

Nicolai saw her coming and stiffened. There wasn't a one among them, even his father, who wasn't just a little afraid of Maria. Her insights were too accurate, as were her curses. And she was their luck. You did not take chances with guaranteed luck.

Yet he was too furious to consider any of that for more than a moment, and raised a hand to ward her oil. "This does not concern you, old woman."

Her answer was to throw gold coins at him. Each one hit him squarely, each hit a different spot, each stung worse than it should have, coming from such a weak-armed throw.

"There is your bride-price," Maria spat contemptuously. "My granddaughter is now nothing to you, a stranger, and you will treat her as such, keeping your eyes off her, keeping your hands off her."

"You can't do this!" he growled.

"It is done. Even if she wanted you, I would not let you have her. You are not worthy of a dog, much less a woman. Your father is to be pitied, having such a son as you."

"Your words are worse than harsh, Maria," Ivan blustered, coming to stand next to them. "I understand anger prompts them, but—"

"Not anger, Ivan, but the unfortunate truth," Maria interrupted. "No one else dares to speak it to you, but I do. The dying know no fear."

He had heard enough before he joined them to pale at the significance of those last words. "No! We cannot lose you both."

"You have no choice this time. You cannot keep Anna when her heart leads her elsewhere. To try would bring no benefit, would instead bring disaster. But you have no one to blame but yourself, Ivan. Had you taught Nicolai better, had you curbed his cruel tendencies, she might have come to love him, instead of hating him."

Ivan was blushing furiously after that, yet he couldn't dispute such brutal truths, when Nicolai was indeed a disappointment to him. Yet their good fortune was at stake here, their incredibly long reign of luck, which he could not bear to see ended.

"Does it mean nothing, that we have always taken care of you Stephanoffs, that you have always had your home with us?" he said, trying to use guilt to reach her. "Where has your loyalty gone?"

"Loyalty?" Maria scoffed. "You lost mine years ago when you threatened me, Ivan, over my daughter's leaving. Or did you think this old woman would ever forget that? What you have had since then is mere apathy on my part, since there is no other band that I cared to join. But we come again to the crossroads, of one of mine needing to go her own way, and she will not be hindered in this."

"Maria—"

"No!" she cut in sharply. "There is no more to say, except this. I have given my life in service to you and yours, but it is over. If you don't want me dying with a curse on my lips that will follow you until the end of your days, you will bid your farewells to my granddaughter and wish her happiness in the path she has chosen. Good fortune will still be yours as long as you are wise enough not to interfere with love."

It was a sop for him to salvage his pride and walk away with dignity. This he did with a curt nod to first her, then Anastasia. His son had no dignity to begin with, however, so it was not surprising that he spat on the ground at Maria's feet before he stalked off.

Anastasia had gotten to her feet when Maria arrived. She put her arm around her shoulders now to help her back to their wagon. She could feel her weakness, hear her labored breath, now that the confrontation was over.

"You strained yourself," she scolded. "I thought we agreed that I would handle that."

"You would deny me my last great fury?"

Anastasia sighed. "No, of course not. Did you at least enjoy it?"

"Immensely, child, immensely. Now, where is this husband of yours? Why isn't he with you?"

At which point, considering what she must answer, Anastasia promptly burst into tears.

It was still morning, but Anastasia had put her grandmother to bed. There was very little life's essence left in Maria now. Anastasia could feel none as she sat there and held her cold hand.

A death vigil. She knew that was what this was. Sir William shared it with her, standing silently behind her, his hand on her shoulder. It was all she could do to assure Maria that she would be fine, when she had no idea if that would be so, when she was trying to deal with her grief as well. Yet it all needed saying.

"He holds himself unaccountable for what he did while he was drunk last night," Anastasia said in answer to why the marquis wasn't there with her. "He thought I agreed to be his mistress, and he was delighted with that assumption. He refused to believe he'd married me instead. He actually thought I would lie about such a thing."

"So you think he didn't really want you?" Maria asked. "After meeting him, I know this isn't so."

"He wants me, just not for his wife. Which is fine. I aspired too high, apparently, to the likes of him. I will be wiser next time."

"Next time?" Maria chuckled softly. "There will be no next time."

Anastasia misunderstood. "Then I will remain without a husband. It makes no difference to me," she tried to assure Maria. "The English lord, he served the purpose we needed. I am no longer promised to Nicolai because of him. For that, I am grateful."

The old woman smiled. "You have a husband. You will keep that husband."

"I don't want him now," Anastasia tried to insist, though she was never very good at lying, and particularly to Maria, who could unravel a lie so easily.

"You do."

"Really, Gran, I don't. And besides, as soon as he finds proof that we married, other than my word, which he would not believe, he'll have the marriage dissolved quicker than it takes to blink."

"He won't."

Anastasia sighed, but then chuckled wryly. "Very well, I am sure you have good reason to be so stubborn about this. Why won't he divorce me?"

"Because you showed him light, daughter of my heart. He won't go back to the darkness that was his before he met you. He is not a complete fool, though it may seem otherwise to you just now. It may take him a while to figure this out. You need only wait, and be prepared to forgive him when he comes to his senses."

"Or nudge him a bit, to hurry him along," Sir William suggested.

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