The Present Page 8

"You've got the time," Walter pointed out. "So it must be lack of inclination."

"Exactly," Christopher said with a pointed look that he hoped would end the discussion, but just to be sure, he added, "Now, if you two don't mind, I do have work to do here. I'd like to return to London before autumn."

Since that season was a good month away, his sarcasm was duly noted and the two younger gentlemen exchanged aggrieved looks and got back to their gossiping. But Christopher no sooner glanced down at the next entry in the estate books when the butler arrived to announce some unexpected visitors from Havers Town.

The mayor, the Reverend Biggs, and Mr. Stanley, oldest member of Havers's town council, had each shown up to welcome Christopher to the "neighborhood" on his first trip to Haverston several years ago. He had seen none of these men again, however, since there had been no occasion to visit the nearby town when he was in residence, and he couldn't imagine what would bring them to Haverston again, particularly so late of an evening. They didn't leave him guessing, though, got right to the point of their visit.

"We were invaded today, Lord Malory."

"By a bunch of ungodly thieves and sellers of sin," Reverend Biggs said most indignantly.

Walter latched on to the word "ungodly," asking, "These are different from Godly thieves, I take it?"

He was being sarcastic, but the good reverend took him seriously instead, answering stiffly, "Heathens usually are, m'lord."

David, however, had perked up considerably at the mention of sin. "What kind of sin were they selling?"

But Christopher, annoyed at yet another interruption to his chore, wanted to know, "Why do you bring this matter to me? Why didn't you just have these criminals arrested?"

"Because they weren't caught stealing. They are very clever, these heathens."

Christopher impatiently waved that aside, since his question still hadn't been answered. "As mayor, you can just ask them to leave your good town, so I repeat, why do you bring this matter to me?"

"Because the Gypsies aren't staying in our town, Lord Malory, they are camping on your property, where we have no jurisdiction."

"Gypsies? Oh, that kind of sin," David said with a chuckle that earned him a disapproving frown from the reverend.

"So I take it you want me to ask them to leave?" Christopher said.

"Course he does, Kit. And Walter and I will come along to assist you. Couldn't let you go alone, now could we? Never think it."

Christopher rolled his eyes. His friends had found something to entertain themselves, after all, and by the look of them both, were quite looking forward to it.

"I've never seen so many married men in one place," Anastasia said in complete disgust as she joined her grandmother at their campfire that night. "For such a nice-sized town, it was sadly lacking for our purpose, Gran. I couldn't find a single man who wasn't either too old, too young, or too—unacceptable.

"Not one?" Maria said in surprise.

"None."

Maria frowned thoughtfully before asking, "What kind of 'unacceptable'?"

 "The kind that it would never be believed that I would fall in love with."

Maria sighed with a nod. "No, that kind won't do. Very well, I will tell Ivan tonight that we must leave. He will not question why. You can try the next town."

"I thought you said you wanted to stay here, that you find this clearing a peaceful place to rest."

"So I will look for a peaceful place down the road. Do not worry about me, child. I have the will to last until you wed—as long as you wed within the week."

Anastasia's shoulders drooped upon hearing that. She had promised herself that she wouldn't cry again. If her grandmother really was suffering in her old age, then she would be truly selfish to wish her to remain with the living just because she knew she was going to be utterly lost without her love and guidance.

So little time left. So much she wanted to say to this woman who had raised her. So many things she wanted to thank her for. But she could think of nothing adequate enough to express it all, except . . .

"I love you, Gran."

Maria's face lit up with a smile and she reached over and squeezed Anastasia's hand. "You will do fine, daughter of my heart. Your instincts will guide you, your insight will aid you; these things I predict for you. But if you or yours ever need my help, you will have it."

It was a fanciful claim, to offer help from the beyond, yet it still gave Anastasia immense comfort. She returned the squeeze and, to take the edge off their seriousness, teased, "You will be too busy, fending off all those handsome angels that have been waiting for you."

"Pshaw! What do I want with more choices to make, when it's peace I'm looking for?"

"Excellent point," Sir William said as he joined them at the fire. "And besides, she will be waiting for me, so there won't be any choices to make between those handsome angels, who, alas, will be infinitely disappointed." He bowed to Maria, then dumped a handful of wildflowers into her lap. "Good evening, m'dear."

Anastasia smiled as she observed Maria's slight blush and the adoring look that the Englishman gave her. Another reason she liked William so much—he was good for her grandmother, was adding pleasure to her last days. She would always be grateful to him for that.

He didn't stay long, though, since the food Maria was cooking wasn't ready yet, and he took it upon himself to tend to her wagon horses several times each day. But no sooner did he move off toward the horses than some unexpected visitors arrived in the camp.

It was quite an entrance, three riders galloping in, stopping abruptly, one of the horses a large brown stallion that looked annoyed to have his brisk ride curtailed, if his tossing head, stomping feet, and, finally, rearing up on his back legs were any indication.

His rider controlled him admirably, though, and got him to settle down after a few moments. Anastasia looked at this man who could so easily handle such a powerful horse, and looked no further, was for the first time actually mesmerized by the sight of someone.

He was big, very big and broad of shoulder, thick of chest. His hair was blond, unpowdered. Half the English people she came across wore wigs, men and women alike, and half of those wore them powdered. But if that thick, tied-back golden mane was a wig, it was superbly made and lacking the tightly rolled curls at the temples that the English found so fashionable.

He was amazingly handsome, at least Anastasia found him to be so, which was why she was so mesmerized, and why Maria, watching her stare at him, said, "So you have found one today after all."

"He could be married," Anastasia said in a small, awed voice.

"No," Maria said adamantly. "It is your time to be lucky, child. Now, go take control of your fate, before one of the other women gains his attention and you must wrest him from her. They would be all over him already, if not for that dangerous animal he sits. But do not fear his beast, he will not let it hurt you."

Anastasia didn't doubt what Maria said, she never did. She nodded absently and moved toward the middle of the camp, where the strangers had stopped—next to the largest campfire. Ivan sat there and had come to his feet at the intrusion, which was why the blond Englishman was addressing him in his demands, which she heard as she approached.

"You people are trespassing on my land. I will allow that you might not have been aware of this, but now that you are, you will have to leave—"

Ivan was quick to interrupt him before his insistence became irreversible, saying, "We have an old woman who is very ill. She cannot travel just yet."

It was an excuse used many times when they had been asked to move on. Little did Ivan know how true it was this time. But the landowner didn't look convinced. He looked about, ready to repeat his demand.

So Anastasia stepped forward to add her plea. "It is my grandmother who is ill, Lord Englishman. She just needs a few days to rest. We will leave your property as we found it, without harm. Please, you must allow us a day or two, so she can recover her strength."

He almost didn't even turn to glance at her, he was frowning so sternly at Ivan, but when he did, his eyes widened slightly, for the barest moment, giving her an indication that he was as surprised by what he saw as she was. His eyes were very green, very intense. She could not look away from them, recognizing the heated emotion that slowly filled them, delighted by it, for it was what she could work with, this passion he did not think to hide.

When he continued to just stare at her, she added, "Come, meet her. Share a bottle of fine Russian vodka or French wine with us. You will see that we are a harmless people with a few unique services that we offer in our travels, some you might even be interested in."

She knew she was being blatantly provocative, knew what service he would think she was offering, knew that was why he nodded and dismounted to follow her, none of which mattered in the greater scheme of things. She had to get him to herself so they could talk, had to make it seem that they were both fascinated with each other so it would be believed that they had instantly fallen in love with each other, and this was the easiest way.

She led him back to her campfire. Maria had risen, was starting to walk away. Anastasia hadn't thought how she might not appear sick at all to the stranger, yet she needn't have worried. She was too used to seeing Maria daily, which was why she hadn't guessed herself how ill she was. But looking at her through a stranger's eyes, she appeared ancient, pale, feeble—tired of living. It wrenched her heart, to see her that way.

"Gran, I have someone for you to meet."

"Not tonight, child, I need to rest."

Anastasia hadn't expected that, especially since she knew Maria hadn't heard what had been said by Ivan's campfire. Yet she realized quick enough that Maria was attempting to give her some needed time alone with the Englishman. She would have stopped her, though, wanted her opinion of the man, which Maria couldn't formulate if she didn't speak to him herself. He changed her mind.

"Let her go," he said abruptly. "I can see she is not well."

Anastasia nodded and indicated one of the plump canvas pillows on the ground for him to sit on. "I will fetch you something to drink—"

"That won't be necessary," he cut in as he hobbled his horse a few feet away, then joined her. "Sit. I am intoxicated enough by the sight of you."

She couldn't have asked for a better response from him. She still blushed. She simply wasn't used to this game of enticement, wasn't sure how to play it. But she knew it was her only option, the only way that she could possibly get him to marry her.

She joined him by the fire. Close up, he was even more handsome than she had thought. Everything about him, in fact, was pleasing to the eye.

His clothes were elegant, rather than gaudy as some lords favored. The brown coat that came to his knees was embroidered only on the flaps of the pockets and the large cuffs; the wide skirt of it flared around him as he sat. His knee breeches fit snugly and, with one knee raised to rest his arm on, showed how thickly muscled his thighs were.

The gartered stockings were white silk, as was his shirt, though the only evidence of the shirt was in the ruffles that appeared below his wide, turned-back coat cuffs, and the frills of lace down the front of the shirt that formed his jabot. His body-conforming waistcoat was beige brocade, fastened with a long row of gold buttons, left open from hip to thigh to facilitate easy movement.

Many men wore corsets to improve the fit of these long, slim waistcoats—it was quite fashionable to do so— yet she didn't think this one needed to. He was simply too tightly made, too physically fit—too big, but in a muscular way. She didn't think he would allow any excess flesh to get in the way of his superbly tailored look.

He was staring at her again. She was guilty of the same, actually, couldn't seem to help herself. Yet she knew they were being avidly watched. His two companions had been descended upon by the other women. Music had begun to play. One of the women was dancing one of their more provocative dances to entertain them.

But Anastasia was only barely aware of these things occurring in the camp, so thoroughly did the man next to her hold her attention. So she was a bit startled to finally hear his deep voice again.

"You mentioned services. I am interested in what service you, in particular, offer, pretty one."

She knew what he was expecting to hear, knew that he would be disappointed if she told him merely the truth instead, yet she wasn't going to lie to him any more than was absolutely necessary. Actually, she hoped she wouldn't have to lie to him at all, for that wasn't how she wanted their relationship to start. And she knew, suddenly, with the perfect insight that she was gifted with, that they would marry. She just wasn't at all sure yet how she was going to bring it about.

The aroma of Maria's stew was very pleasant. Anastasia stirred it for a moment as she considered what to say to the Englishman. The full truth? A partial truth?

She did not want him to think she was a sorceress with magical powers, as some Gypsies were thought to be. Magic frightened some people. Even things that seemed like magic but weren't frightened some people. She was not possessed of any kind of true magic, just a talent that seemed somewhat magical in nature because it was so accurate. The dilemma was, how to explain that to him.

Christopher had seen Gypsies before, though never this close. Large bands of them came to camp on the outskirts of London occasionally, to ply their numerous trades and entertain those Londoners daring enough to venture into their camps, but he had never gone himself. He had heard many stories, though, about them. Most not so nice.

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