The Present Page 15

Christopher didn't mince words, asking right off, "Why have you claimed Anastasia as your niece?"

William didn't answer immediately. He glanced away from Christopher to stare again at the large group in the center of the room, his expression thoughtful. He took a sip from the cup of tea he held.

Christopher didn't get the impression that he was grappling to find an answer. He suspected he was being kept waiting deliberately. To prod his impatience? To punish him? No, that was too ulterior. Perhaps the old man simply hadn't heard him, a distinct possibility considering his age, which was likely in the seventies.

But then Sir William said in a mild tone that could have been discussing any mundane thing, rather than what was likely painful memories, "My sister disappeared some forty-two years ago, Lord Malory. I never forgave myself, at least not until very recently, for my part in it, for not taking her side when she fought with my parents over whom she was to marry. She chose to run away, rather than accept their choice for her, and we never saw her again, nor ever heard from her again. She had lovely black hair, you know. It's not inconceivable that Anastasia could be her daughter, not hard to believe a'tall, actually."

"But she's not, is she?"

William glanced at him again now. He seemed somewhat amused when he said, "Does it matter? When the society that you allow to dictate your actions thinks she is? You want to hear facts, my lord?"

"That would be wonderfully helpful," Christopher said dryly.

Sir William smiled at his tone. "Very well, it's a fact that I was traveling with those Gypsies myself. The reason isn't important, but I was in that camp when you arrived to tell them to leave. You wouldn't have noticed me, though. The truth is, you noticed nothing and no one else, once you set eyes on the lass."

The heated flush came swiftly, the truth of those words embarrassing, though undeniable. "She's uncommonly attractive," Christopher said in his defense.

"Oh, she is that, indeed, but what has that to do with anything, my lord? No, you have only to consider. There is love that takes a long while to grow, then there is love that is immediate. I never wondered at your interest in the lass. It was blatantly apparent."

Love her? Christopher started to snort, then nearly choked on his own derision. Good God, why hadn't he considered that? He had thought he was obsessed with her. He'd thought he was losing control of his own emotions. He'd thought he was letting lust get the better of him. Yet thinking back on it, he recalled how incredibly happy he'd been, waking up to find Anastasia in his bed that morning. He hadn't thought that he might be in love.

"The question, Lord Malory," William continued, "is what are you going to do about it?"

He'd come to her. Anastasia hadn't had to go out and be "seen" in places that Christopher might frequent, hoping to run into him. It wasn't going to take weeks, as she'd suspected it would. He'd come to her, and the very next day after her official "launching."

She shouldn't read anything into it, other than that Elizabeth's prior rumor-spreading had paid off, yet Anastasia couldn't help doing so. He was here, and so soon. And she discounted that he was staring green daggers at her. She had expected him to seriously disapprove of what she'd done, considering how he felt about commoners and nobles mixing socially, let alone more permanently.

She was doing a bit more than that, she was pretending to be something she wasn't, not her idea, but she certainly hadn't balked at it. It would be in line with Christopher's rigid beliefs to denounce her for it. But he didn't, at least not immediately. He spoke with Victoria. Now he was speaking with William. And all the while she was kept in suspense, waiting to see what he would do.

It was impossible to continue to carry on conversations with her admirers when her heart was slamming in anticipation, when her every thought was centered on the large, handsome man across the room, rather than on what was being said to her. If she'd said one word since he walked into the room, she'd certainly never recall it.

She was about to excuse herself and approach Christopher, unable to wait a moment longer when her future happiness was at stake here. But she didn't have to. He began walking directly to her, and his expression had only changed slightly. It was decidedly determined, implacable, and somewhat menacing, a combination that didn't bode too well for Anastasia's hopes.

She held her breath. It wasn't hard to tell that her attention was utterly transfixed, which had the men around her all glancing toward Christopher as well.

She anticipated an embarrassing scene at that point. What she didn't expect was a very calm, "You'll have to excuse Anastasia, gentlemen. I have a matter to discuss with her that requires privacy."

That, of course, was not met with agreeably, considering the men around her had been almost fighting to retain her attention. It was Adam Sheffield who pretty much summed up, or tried to sum up, their general reaction with, "Now see here, Malory, you can't just—"

Christopher cut that off curtly. "Can't I? Beg to differ, dear boy. A husband has rather pertinent rights, some of which even come in quite handy."

"Husband?"

That was twice more repeated in the shocked silence Christopher left behind him. He didn't stay to elaborate, had no intention of explaining himself. He simply took Anastasia's hand and led her out of the parlor.

She was too shocked herself to have protested, not that she wanted to protest. He stopped out in the hall to merely say, "Your room will do, lead on."

She did, up the stairs, down another hall, another, then one more. It was a large house. He said nothing else on the way. She was too nervous to speak herself.

Her room was cluttered. The maids didn't get that far in their cleaning until the afternoon. The bed was unmade. The dancing costume she had worn last night was draped over a chair. Several of her new gowns covered another chair—she'd had trouble deciding what to wear this morning, not used to all her choices being so fancy.

He took a moment to survey the room, after closing the door. His eyes would linger on that bright gold skirt with the bangled hem. When his glance came back to her, it was distinctly questioning.

"I wore it last night at Victoria's masquerade," she explained.

"Did you? How—apropos."

His tone was just too dry for her frazzled nerves, making her reply stiffly, "Wasn't it? Nothing like presenting the truth and having no one believe it. But then most fools are made, they aren't grown."

He actually chuckled. "How true, and something I've become rather adept at myself lately."

"Making fools?"

"No."

With that simple answer, the stiffness went out of her, leaving only the nervousness. And she wasn't going to ask how he thought he'd made a fool of himself. She could name several times that she felt he had, but wouldn't.

Instead, she suggested reasonably, "Shall we discuss why you're here?"

"You mean you weren't expecting me, after launching yourself among the very people I socialize with?" He accepted her blush in answer, but still explained, "I'd heard the niece of a nobleman was calling herself by your name. I came here to find out why. Imagine my surprise ..."

She had expected his surprise, and his anger. She'd seen the anger, but it wasn't present at the moment. Why it wasn't was what concerned her.

So she asked pointedly, "Why aren't you angry?"

"What makes you think I'm not?"

"You conceal it well, Gajo. Very well, what exactly have I done that you object to? Present myself as a lady when you feel I don't have that right?"

"Actually, what I'd like to know is why you've taken on this identity that isn't yours."

"It was not my idea to do, Christoph. I was hurt and angry enough to go about my way, never to see you again. But my grandmother—"

"Your grandmother," he cut in. "I saw the grave, Anna. Was it hers?"

"Yes."

"I'm sorry."

"There is no need to be. It was her time to go, and she was pleased to rest there in that lovely clearing of yours within sight of a road—symbolic of a Gypsy's existence. The worst of my grief is gone. She had long suffered with pain, you see, which made her welcome an end to it, so I can't begrudge her that."

"I'll put a marker—"

"No," she cut in now. "No, it was her wish to keep her name to herself, to have no evidence of it left behind. But as I was saying, Christoph, she still insisted you and I were fated to be. And William, who was traveling with us and heard her, thought you might benefit by being shown that appearances and origins don't mean that much, that— other things—are more important."

"Other things?"

She was not going to spell it out for him, so she shrugged. "To each his own. Some think power is the most important thing in life, some think wealth, some might say happiness, some might say—well, as I said, to each his own."

"You were going to mention love, weren't you?" he asked casually. "Isn't that what you feel is most important in one's life?"

She stared at him hard. He could be mocking her, but she didn't think so.

"No, love by itself is not enough. You can love and be miserable." Something she had been sure she was going to find out firsthand, but she refrained from saying so, merely added, "Love and happiness is what is most important. If they go hand in hand, there is no need to ask for more. But to get both, love must be given and returned."

"I agree."

Those two simple words started her heart slamming again. Yet she was reading too much into it. He might have claimed her in front of those men downstairs, might have given the impression that he was her husband, but of course, it was merely an impression. He hadn't told them that he was her husband, merely mentioned a "husband's rights." Cleverly done, and easy enough to back out of— unless he really had intended to make the claim in such a public manner . . .

She knew she was leaving herself wide open for devastation, yet couldn't seem to help it, wanting, needing, clarification. "What—do you agree with?"

"That love must be returned if given, for happiness to occur."

"But this is not what you, personally, consider most important, is it?"

"When my life was empty, or 'something was seriously lacking' in it, as you so aptly put it, I had no idea what that something could be any more than you did."

"I knew," she said softly.

"Did you? Yes, I suppose you did, and simply telling me what it was would have been met with skepticism at that point, as you probably realized."

"At that point?"

He smiled. "If a foolish man is lucky, he remains the fool for only so long, Anna, before he sees how to redeem himself and does so—if it isn't too late. I thought it might be too late, which is why I'm so grateful to Sir William."

"Grateful? For making me acceptable in your social circles?"

"No, for making it possible for me to find you again. I have tried, you know. I still have men out searching for your caravan."

"Why?" she asked breathlessly.

He came closer, stopped in front of her, lifted her chin. "For the same reason I have no intention of divorcing you. I want you in my life, Anna, any way I can have you. I know that now. It just took me a few days to realize that marriage, with its permanence, is indeed preferable. The scandal is so very insignificant in comparison."

She wrapped her arms around his neck. What she felt was in her eyes, which drew his lips to hers. There was no passion in his kiss, just a wealth of love and tenderness that sealed their fate more thoroughly than any words could.

Christopher took Anastasia straightaway to his London town house, but they didn't stay there long. Within the week he ordered his servants to pack up all of his personal belongings to be moved to Haverston. Much as he might prefer city life, he quickly realized that his wife didn't, and he was much more concerned with making up for what a complete ass he'd been, about the matter of their man than he was with his preferences at the moment.

He would have taken her to Ryding instead. At least it was a much more cheerful house. But she had expressed a desire to be near her grandmother, and so to Haverston they went. He had, of course, remarked on the doumess of the place, to which she'd laughed and told him that could be easily corrected.

"I will hire an army of laborers," he promised her.

"It won't take much time a'tall to make that mausoleum habitable, I suppose."

"You'll do no such thing," she told him. "We will effect the improvements ourselves, so that when it's finished, it will be our home."

Wield a paintbrush himself? Hold a hammer? Christopher was beginning to realize already just how much his Gypsy was going to change his life. And he was looking forward to every bit of it.

IT WAS THEIR FIRST CHRISTMAS AT HAVERSTON. CHRISTOPHER had always spent the holidays in London—after all, it was a prime social season. He had no desire to this year. Actually, he had no desire to return to London for any reason. Everything he wanted, everything he loved, was at Haverston.

The house was coming along splendidly, though it was far from finished, since they'd had to slow down their remodeling when Anastasia became pregnant. The main rooms were done, however, and now hold a cheerful warmth that had nothing to do with the season, though it was nicely decorated for the season as well.

For Anastasia, it was her first English Christmas as well, and so a new, wonderful experience for her. For her people,

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