The Present Page 7

She sighed. "I suppose you have a plan, Gran? Please tell me that you do."

The old woman patted her hand with a smile. "Of course I do, and a very simple one at that. You must bewitch a Gap into asking to marry you. Then you must convince the band that you love him. Love makes the difference on how this will be viewed. One can betray one's people and all that one believes in, for love. This is understandable, acceptable. You must be convincing, though. If it is thought that you do this just to avoid marrying Nicolai, then the Lautarus are insulted. You will do as your mother did. For her it was real. She really did love her Gajo. For you it will be a lie, but one used to escape the future you say you cannot accept. And perhaps, if you are lucky, it will not remain a lie."

Do as her mother had done? Maria's daughter, Anastasia's mother, had fallen in love with a Russian boyar, one of the princeling nobles in that land. She had died giving birth to his child, a child he would have kept if it had been a son. But he had no use for a daughter, and so Maria had been allowed to take her granddaughter and raise her.

Anastasia had never met her father, nor had she ever had the desire to. She didn't even know if he still lived. She didn't care. A man who had found no value in her was nothing to her. And if she carried a small bit of bitterness in her heart over his rejection of her, she kept it to herself.

Maria knew how she felt, of course. Maria knew everything. She could look into people's eyes and know exactly what was in their heart. Nothing could be hidden from Maria. But Maria did not always have the answers to the questions that went against the natural philosophies of their people, which was when she would conveniently use the Russian as an excuse.

She did this now, reminding Anastasia, "You are different from the rest of us. Your father's blood shows in this. But that is not a bad thing. You have never stolen, never told a Gap a lie to fleece him of a few coins. These are natural things for us to do, and to brag of, making fools of Gaps, yet you scorn such behavior. In that you are your father's daughter, too noble of blood to belittle yourself in what you would deem dishonorable ways. I never tried to break this in you or teach you any differently. It is a good thing to have qualities from both parents, if both parents had good qualities for you to inherit."

"I never wanted to be different."

"I know," Maria said softly. "But one cannot help what one is born to be."

"But won't Ivan threaten to kill me if I leave, as he did my mother?"

"No, not this time. I will convince him that if he keeps you from your love, your broken heart will more likely bring him disaster, rather than good fortune. I will also remind him that you could divorce your Gap at any time and return to the band. This is something you can do,

Anna, so keep that in mind if you find yourself unhappy in your choice. And if you do return, you will not have to worry about Nicolai ever again. Your marriage to a Gajo will break your contract with the Lautarus. You can then do as you please, marry whom you please, marry no one if you please. The choice will once again be yours to be made at your leisure."

"But I know nothing of bewitching men. How can I do this? You expect too much of me."

"Do not doubt yourself, child. Look at you. This band has never seen a prettier woman. You have your mother's glorious black hair with just enough curl to look wanton. You have your father's purest blue eyes, his fair skin. You have your mother's insight, her compassion. Many was the fight she got into with the band, to protect some Gajo she felt sorry for. You have done the same. You bewitch every man who looks at you. You just do not notice, because until now, you have not cared."

"I just do not see how this can be done, in so short a time. Two months—"

"One week," Maria cut in adamantly.


"One week, Anna, no longer. Go to that town near here tomorrow. Look carefully at every man you see. Speak to those who interest you. Use your talent to help you. But make a choice, then bring him to me. I will know if he is a good choice."

"But do I want a good choice?"

A question like that might have caused confusion in another, but not Maria. "You think to just use this man for a short time, then divorce him so you can return to the band? Only you can answer, child, if you can live with using a man this way. I would have no difficulty doing so, but I am not you. I think you would prefer to be happy in your choice, to make your first marriage be your only marriage."

Maria was right, of course. Going from marriage to marriage was not much different than going from man to man. Anastasia, at least, didn't see much difference in the two. She saw love as lasting forever. Anything less could not really be love.

Unfortunately, she didn't see how, under the time constraint Maria was giving her, she could possibly find a man, an Englishman at that, whom she would want to stay married to. She was about to question the time constraint again when Maria's expression, for the second time, turned very serious, and her hand was once again gripped by those gnarled fingers.

"There is something else that I must tell you, that 1 have also delayed too long in the telling. I will not be leaving this place."

Anastasia frowned, thinking Maria meant to stay here with her and the English husband she was to find. But as much as she would love that to be possible, she knew Ivan would never permit it.

Hating to do so, she had to point that out. "You have told me countless times that Ivan will not let you leave, that he would kill you first."

Maria smiled ironically. "There is nothing he can do to prevent my leaving this time, Anna. The privilege of age will not be denied a final resting place, and I have chosen this place. My time has come."


"Shush, daughter of my heart. This is not something that can be debated or bargained aside. And I have no desire to prolong the inevitable. I welcome this gladly, to end the pains that have burdened my body these last few years. I just must see you settled first, or I will not go in peace . . . Now, stop that. There is no need for tears, for something that is so natural as the death of a very old woman."

Anastasia threw her arms around her grandmother, hiding her face against her shoulder so she would no longer see the tears that were absolutely impossible to stop. Maria had predicted distress. Distress was not exactly what Anastasia was feeling just now, with her world falling apart around her. This was much too much to withstand all at once.

But for Maria's sake, she said, "I will do whatever is necessary to give you your peace."

"I knew you would, child," Maria said, patting her back soothingly. 'And you see now why you must be married first? If you are all that Ivan has left, then he won't let you go no matter the reasoning. As long as he thinks he still has me, then he will let you go. Now take yourself to bed. You need a good night's sleep so you will have all your wits about you tomorrow, for tomorrow you search for your fate."

"And whose bed was she found in this week?"

"Lord Maldon's. Really thought he had more sense. He must realize she's got the pox by now, in her vain attempt to outdo the last great court Delilah."

"And what makes you think he don't already have it himself?"

"Hmmm, yes, I suppose it wouldn't matter then, would it? Ah, well, there's not much to be said for variety these days. Stick with a mistress that you keep to yourself, like I do. Might live longer that way."

"Why don't you just get married, then, if you want to stick with just one woman?"

"Gads, no. Nothing will put you in the grave quicker than a nagging wife. Do bite your tongue next time, before you make such an outlandish suggestion. 'Sides, what's marriage got to do with keeping to just one woman?"

Christopher Malory was only vaguely listening to his friends' gossip. He shouldn't have brought them with him. They would expect to be entertained, were already showing signs of boredom as they sprawled in their chairs in his estate office, gossiping about old gossip. But he didn't come to Haverston to entertain. He came twice a year to go over the account books, which he was trying to do this evening, then leave as quickly as possible.

It was not that he had any business or social engagements in London to draw him back in haste. It was that he never felt comfortable in Haverston, felt actually oppressed if he stayed too long.

It was a dark, gloomy place, with outdated furnishings, ugly grays and dull tans in the wall coverings throughout, even dour-looking servants who never said a word to him other than "Yes, m'lord," or "No, m'lord." He supposed he could redecorate it, but why bother, when he had no desire to remain in Haverston any longer than it took to go over the books and listen to his estate manager's complaints?

It was a fine enough estate in size and income, but he hadn't wanted or needed it. He'd already possessed a very nice estate in Ryding that he rarely visited either—he just didn't care for the quiet of country living—as well as the title of viscount. But Haverston had been given to him in gratitude, along with a lofty new title, for having unwittingly saved the king's life.

It hadn't been intentional, his helping the king. It had occurred purely by accident when he'd stepped out of his mired coach into the road at just the moment that a runaway horse was tearing past. He happened to startle the horse into stopping, whereupon the horse had dumped its rider more or less into Christopher's lap, as it were; at least Christopher had ended up flattened on the ground with a hefty weight on top of him.

As queer circumstances would have it, the rider turned out to be his king, who had been hunting in the nearby woods when his horse had been spooked by a small animal. King George, of course, had been exceedingly grateful for the interference which he swore had saved his life. And there'd been no talking him out of being quite generous in his gratitude.

His manager, Artemus Whipple, was sitting across the desk from him and avidly listening to the gossip, rather than the business at hand. Christopher had to say his name twice to draw his attention back to his last question, and repeat it once again.

Whipple was a portly, middle-aged man who had come with the estate, and Christopher had found no reason, really, to replace him. As long as the estate produced an income, which it did, he could hardly fault him, even if some of the expenses he incurred could boggle the mind. He did always have a ready excuse for them. But some were so outlandish, they demanded questioning.

"Fifty pounds for laborers to plow and plant the home farm? Did you ship them in from the Americas?"

Whipple noted the sarcasm and blushed uncomfortably.

"They were outrageously overpriced, yes, but it's getting increasingly more difficult to find farmers to work here. There's a silly rumor that Haverston is haunted and that's why you won't stay in residence."

Christopher rolled his eyes. "What rubbish."

"Oh, I say," Walter Keats interjected. "First interesting thing I've heard since we got here. Who's the haunter supposed to be?"

Walter, the youngest of the three friends at twenty-eight, was the one who abhorred the thought of marriage. His powdered wig was askew at the moment, after an itch had been scratched absentmindedly. Though wigs, and powered ones at that, were mostly worn only on formal occasions these days, Walter took his cue from the older aristocracy and didn't leave his dressing room without one. Fact was, it was vanity and nothing more, since his dull brown hair didn't give him quite the flair that a perfectly powered wig did, coupled with his vivid green eyes.

"Who?" Whipple asked the young lord with a blank look, as if he hadn't expected his reason to be dissected, and in fact, Christopher rarely did question him further on any of his given excuses.

"Yes, who?" Walter persisted, putting the manager on the spot. "If a place is haunted, stands to reason someone is doing the haunting, now don't it?"

Whipple's blush increased as he said stiffly, "I really wouldn't know, Lord Keats. I don't give much credence to peasant superstition."

"Nor does it matter," Christopher added. "There are no ghosts here."

Walter sighed. "You're such a stick, Kit. If my home had history, as in the blood and gore type, I'd bloody well want to know it."

"I don't consider this my home, Walter."

"Whyever not?"

Christopher gave a careless shrug. "The town house in London has always been my home. This place is just a place—a chore."

David Rutherford, not as plump in the pockets as his two friends, shook his head. "Who but Kit would consider a place like this just a place. It does look a bit drab, I'll allow, but it's got such potential."

David, at thirty, wasn't quite as bored yet with life as Christopher was at thirty-two. He was handsome by any standards with his black hair and very light blue eyes, and most of his interests these days were centered around women, though he was game to try anything new, and especially anything that sounded the least bit adventurous or dangerous.

Christopher wished he felt the same, but he had developed a strange ennui this last year and couldn't seem to find any interest in anything. He had come to realize that he was bored with all aspects of his life. It was a boredom that was beginning to weigh heavily on his mind.

With his parents dying when he was quite young, and having no other relatives, he had been raised by the family solicitor and servants, who perhaps gave him a different outlook on things. He did not find amusing what his friends did. Actually, he found very little about his life amusing anymore, which was why his boredom had become so noticeable.

"Whatever potential Haverston has would depend on time and inclination," Christopher replied tiredly.

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