The Present Page 10

"I'm looking for your granddaughter, madame," he said without preamble.

She looked up at him, her eyes crinkling as she smiled. "Of course you are. Here, sit, and give me your hand," she said, patting the pillow next to her.

He sat, but he wasn't sure why he gave her his hand. She held it loosely in her gnarled fingers; there was no strength in her grip. Her eyes closed briefly, then opened to stare into his. It was the strangest sensation, feeling as if your soul were being touched.

Fanciful. He shouldn't have drunk so much today, shouldn't have brought a full bottle of rum with him either, as if he needed extra courage to ask the Gypsy to be his mistress. Actually, he wasn't at all sure what her answer would be, and really just wanted his senses deadened somewhat, in case she turned him down.

"You are a very fortunate man," the old woman said to him at last. "What I give to you will bring you happiness for the rest of your life."

"And what is that?"

She was smiling at him again. "You will know when the time is right."

More nonsense. These people thrived on being mysterious. He supposed it was part of their allure. But he was impatient to see the girl again.

"Where is your granddaughter?"

"She has been asked to dance. She is preparing herself now. It won't be long."

Even another minute was too long as far as he was concerned. His impatience was incredible. After forcing himself to stay away all day, he refused to be put off, now that he was here.

' 'Yes, but where is she preparing? I merely wish to speak with her."

The old Gypsy chuckled. "And so you shall, but after she dances. She doesn't need the distraction you present, when the dance requires her full concentration. Patience, Gap, you will get what you want."

"Will I? When what I want is her?"

He shouldn't have said that to her grandmother, of all people. It was beyond tactless. The one pitfall of too much drink was a loose tongue, and he'd just stumbled over it. But it was too late to take it back now. Fortunately, she didn't appear offended.

She merely nodded and asked in her heavily accented English, "You have one of your religious men ready to give his blessing, then?"

That nonsense again? "Preposterous. I'm an English lord, madame."

"So? She's a Romany princess, as noble in her birth-land as you are in yours. And if you want her, you will have to marry her."

"I have come up with an acceptable alternative," he told her stiffly.

"Have you indeed? One she will find more favorable than marrying that Gypsy there, whose father is our baros-san and has already paid her bride-price?"

Christopher tensed, filling with a rage the likes of which he'd never felt before. "Which Gypsy?"

"The handsome one there leaning against that tree— who will be dancing the tanana with her tonight. It is very, very rare for a Gap to ever witness the tanana. You are blessed, English, to have come at the right time to see it."

That "dancing with her" seemed to have some significant meaning that he couldn't figure out in his drink-befuddled state. He did find the man she had waved toward, and saw him leaving the tree. Following the direction he headed, he saw the girl who'd been haunting his mind and drew in his breath at her sensual beauty.

She wore a low-cut, off-the-shoulder white blouse, the deep scoop of it bordered with a lacy ruffle, dotted with tiny gold sequins. Her full skirt was a shiny gold, and glittered even more with large gold bangles sewn about the hem. Her only jewelry was the long earrings that flashed and tinkled with her slightest movement. A shawl-like white scarf, also dotted with gold sequins, draped over her gleaming black hair and down her sides.

She was shining from head to toe. She was beautiful. She didn't notice that Christopher was there. She was staring at the Gypsy as her arms lifted, beginning the dance . . .

The young man was indeed handsome, tall, slim, graceful in his leaps and movements. Christopher felt too big and utterly clumsy in comparison. The dance was mesmerizing. They never lost eye contact with each other, no matter how frenzied the tempo and movements became. It was a dance of passion, of temptation, of two lovers flirting, teasing, denying, offering, promising . . .

"He can't have her. I forbid it," Christopher said adamantly, proving just how intoxicated he was.

Not surprisingly, the old woman laughed at him. "You can't forbid it, English. All you can do is prevent it by marrying her yourself."

"I can't marry her, madame."

A long, drawn-out sigh. "Then stop thinking you can have her, enjoy the dance, and go home. We will move on in the morning."

He hadn't taken his eyes off of the girl since she had appeared, nor did he now. But the old woman's words caused an unexpected panic he couldn't quite control. They'd leave—she would leave? He'd never see her again? Unacceptable. She would agree to be his mistress. He'd buy her anything she wanted, give her anything—short of a marriage license. How could she not agree?

Yet as much as he wanted to believe that money would solve this for him, that couldn't be depended on when dealing with a people so different from his own. He was out of his element. Who but foreigners would think that he could just marry her, just like that, ignoring the fact that he was a titled lord and she was a common vagrant? Well, not so common. Well, utterly beautiful, utterly desirable, but that was beside the point. It simply couldn't be done.

Why not?

The question startled him. He needed another drink. That, at least, was easily done, and he pulled the bottle of rum out of his wide coat pocket, opened it, and tipped it to his lips, still without taking his eyes from her.

She was desire. She was passion. She danced like an angel. She danced like a wanton. God, he wanted her. He had never wanted anything as much as he wanted her. She made him feel again. It had been so long since his emotions had been this alive. He had to have her. No matter the cost, he had to have her . . .

The groan woke him. Christopher couldn't figure out where it had come from until he heard it again and realized he was the one groaning. His head was splitting apart. A bloody hangover, and no more than he deserved, he supposed, for drinking rum, of all things. It certainly wasn't his normal libation, but he'd wanted something strong yesterday, and there had been nothing else left in the house— which he would see about rectifying first thing today.

"I can fix that for you."

The voice was lightly accented, soft as a whisper. He turned to see who it belonged to. He wasn't surprised to see that it was her, lying on the pillow next to him, smiling at him. Ann, Anna, no, Anastasia, yes, that was the name he had finally got from her at some point last night, though he couldn't remember just when.

"Fix what?"

"The pain you're experiencing from your overindulgence last night."

"Oh, that?" He winced as another pain shot through his temples. "Think nothing of it. If you'll just come a little closer and let me hold you, the pleasure of that will make me forget all about my aching head."

She touched his brow gently. "No it won't, but it's sweet of you to say so."

She moved closer anyway, pressing to his side and resting her head on his chest. He sighed blissfully as he realized she was quite na**d under the sheet. Whatever had happened last night between them—why the deuce couldn't he remember?—he had little doubt that he had enjoyed it.

"So you agreed?" he said with a good deal of male satisfaction as he ran a hand through her soft hair. "Knew you would, though I'm damned if I can remember it."

"You insisted, if you must know."

"I did? Well, good for me."

She chuckled. It was a husky sound that provoked a quick response in his lower regions. Amazing, how easily she could make him want her.

"Not recalling the best part of the evening leaves me feeling distinctly—unsatisfied," he told her with some chagrin. "But I'm ready to have a go at it again, so I can remember it this time."

Her head lifted so she could look at him. Her lovely eyes held humor, but tenderness as well. "Again? I hate to disappoint you, Christoph, but the moment your head touched that pillow last night, you were fast asleep. You didn't even stir once when I undressed you, and that was no easy task, as big and heavy as you are. A cannon could have gone off in this room, and you wouldn't have—"

"I get the idea," he grouched. "Bloody hell, I drank that much?"

She nodded with a grin. "You really are quite funny deep in your cups. You don't slur your speech. You don't stagger or sway in your movements. You don't appear intoxicated at all. But the things you say—I really doubt you would say them if you had a clear mind."

"Such as?"

"Oh, such as when you told me I would never dance again. So silly, of course I will—whenever you ask me to. And when you tossed me up onto your horse and told me to stay there while you killed Nicolai."

His eyes widened. "I didn't, did I?"

''No, you got distracted, trying to find a weapon in one of your pockets, then finally couldn't remember what you were looking for."

He grimaced. "Never again. If I ever see another bottle of rum, I'll—"

"Yes, I know, you'll break it over your head before you drink it."

"I wouldn't go that far."

She chuckled. "I didn't think so, but that is what you said last night."

The sound of her humor again stirred him. He pulled her farther up his chest, so that her mouth was within reach of his. His eyes locked with hers. He had no doubt she would recognize the desire she could see in his.

"So we haven't made love yet?" he said huskily.

"No, nor will we," she said matter-of-factly, "not until I rid you of that awful headache I know you are suffering. When I make love to you, Christoph, I want you to feel only pleasure. I did not exaggerate when I told you I was skilled at healing. The knowledge of herb lore has been in my family for many generations. This will not take long."

He was beset by several different emotions at once, hotter desire when she spoke of making love to him, acute disappointment when she left the bed, abrupt awe as he was treated to a full view of her na**dness.

She behaved as if it were a perfectly normal thing to do, to walk about unclothed. Not a bit of self-consciousness or embarrassment did she show. Nor was she proudly flaunting that luscious body before him, though she certainly had reason to. She simply went to a cloth satchel that was hers, rummaged through it until she found what she was looking for, then looked about the room until she spotted what else she needed—glasses and several decanters, one that was replenished with fresh water each day.

She opened each decanter to sniff it, then, surprising, chose the brandy to sprinkle some crushed herbs into. Stirring it briskly with her finger, which she then sucked clean, much to Christopher's horror—what that did to his already stiff condition was quite painful—she came back to the bed and handed him the glass.

There was barely a half inch of the golden spirits in the glass, made murky, though, by the powdered herb, which had him staring at it with a frown. "Why the brandy rather than the water?"

"Because the cure isn't very pleasant tasting, and the brandy will mask the taste. Drink it. You will feel much better in only, oh, fifteen minutes or so. Just enough time for me to take a quick bath."

The thought of her in his large tub had him gulping down her concoction to set it aside. "I'll join you—if you don't mind."

"I don't mind." She smiled down at him. "If you will promise to keep your hands to yourself until you are feeling no more pain."

He sighed. "Never mind, I'll suffer here—er, wait here for you."

She nodded, leaned over to kiss his brow, then paused to whisper by his ear, "Good things come to those who wait, Christoph."

It was on the tip of his tongue to point out to her that his name wasn't that foreign-sounding Christoph, but he chose instead to savor the sight of those magnificent br**sts that had come so close to his mouth when she leaned over him. He heard the door to the bathroom close and sighed again. But it wasn't long before he was fantasizing about her in that decadent bathroom.

It was the only room in the entire house that didn't fit the current decor and had been a complete surprise to him, on his first inspection of the estate. It was as if some puritan of the last century had decorated the house, but that single room had been hidden from them and so left intact. It was ancient Roman in design, huge, with a sunken tub that could easily fit six adults, entered by marble steps, surrounded by Grecian columns. Naked gold cherubs formed the waterspouts on the tub and the ornate sink.

He would bathe with her in there, and before they left for London. London . . . which reminded him, where the deuce was he going to keep her until he could find a suitable place for her? The servants in his town house couldn't be trusted not to gossip about her. Here in the country it hardly mattered; servant gossip didn't travel that far. But in London it certainly did, and he didn't care to have it run through the mills that he'd been bewitched by a Gypsy, despite the fact that it was absolutely true.

The door opened. She came back into the room as na**d as when she'd left it. She came straight to the bed. She kneeled on it, threw back the sheet, then kneeled over him. He sucked in his breath at her boldness as she settled herself to sit on his loins. Her hip-length hair, which had graced her sides, curled on his belly in front of her.

"How is your headache?" she asked matter-of-factly, as if he weren't mesmerized by her actions.

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