Gervaise Conway, the Earl of Braithwaite, gazed down on the gypsy encampment. Despite the blistering cold of the January evening, there was something cozy and jolly about the gathering. He had granted the gypsy family use of the old cottage to sleep in, but they had flung up a couple of tents outside and built a fire nearby for cooking. It still burned, casting a warm glow over the scene.
A young man played the fiddle, causing those seated about the fire to stamp their feet in time to the music. A few of the women, busy about tasks that took them in and out of the cottage, danced their way past the fire with laughter.
Gervaise halted to watch them for a little. He, with his brother-in-law, Lord Tamar, was on his way home from a convivial evening spent with friends in Blackhaven, but he found the alien scene in the valley below strangely spellbinding.
“Did you ever want to run away with gypsies, Tamar?” he asked.
“God, yes. Did it once, too.”
Gervaise spared him an amused glance. “Of course you did. What did you think of the experience?”
Tamar shrugged. “They were kind enough to me. I think they always meant to take me back home, in expectation of a large present from my father…who hadn’t even noticed I was gone, and if he had, I imagine he’d have lacked both will and means to give them a reward! In any case, I found I’d only exchanged one set of rules for another, so I left them again and went home on my own.”
Gervaise felt his brother-in-law’s curious gaze on his face but kept his own attention on a girl who danced past the fiddler with what seemed to be a mocking curtsey. She was well-wrapped up against the cold, her bulky garments at odds with her grace of movement.
“Feeling the urge to escape your responsibilities at last?” Tamar suggested.
“Is it so obvious?” Gervaise asked ruefully.
“Staring with envy at freezing cold gypsies in mid-winter? It’s a big hint.”
Gervaise shrugged impatiently, reluctant to lose his last sight of the girl, whose face he couldn’t even see, as she danced through the door into the cottage. There was nothing in it to add to her comfort, to anyone’s, just an empty shell.
“It isn’t envy,” he insisted. “And I don’t truly dislike my responsibilities as you call them—”
“You perform them very well,” Tamar interrupted. “You always have, by what I hear, and always with a light touch and perfect good nature. No one could blame you for tiring of it occasionally.”
Gervaise sighed. “I’m not even tired of it,” he confided. “I just wish it meant something.”
“Trust me, what you do means a great deal to many people.” Tamar sounded almost startled.
Gervaise cast him a wry glance. “Perhaps. But what difference does any of it actually make? For all I work and struggle, what have I actually achieved, Tamar? Nothing,”
Tamar blinked. “You’re not yet twenty-seven years old. You have several well-run, profitable estates with largely happy tenants. You’ve taken your seat in Parliament and spoken for reform. Your paper advocating changes in poor relief—”
Gervaise laughed. “Which convinced absolutely no one, even among my own party. Especially after that cur Gardyn took it upon himself to pour scorn and derision upon it before he’d even read it!”
“Is that what’s cast you down?”
“I am not cast down,” Braithwaite insisted.
“Seem pretty blue-devilled to me, though you’ve been hiding it well.”
Gervaise drew in his breath. He had bottled this up for so long, it had to spill out at some point. Who better to hear it than the amiable brother-in-law he had once expected to despise?
“I can’t understand men who deliberately destroy things—ideas, people, movements for good—just to make themselves look witty or strongminded or gain some fool’s approval for personal advancement. These people should not be making laws, deciding the fate of our country or those who live in it.”
“I agree,” Tamar said at once. “Julius Gardyn and all his ilk are a waste of air. Let’s drink to that.” Tamar clapped him on the back and took the flask from his overcoat pocket. “Damn, it’s empty.”
Gervaise laughed. “Well, let’s see if the gypsies will share.”
Veering off the road to Braithwaite Castle, he made his way down the grassy hill into the little valley. Tamar, who rarely passed up a party of any kind, or a picturesque scene, went with him. If the gypsies did not at once notice their approach, the camp dogs quickly gave warning, growling as they got up from the fire and advanced menacingly on the newcomers.
A middle-aged man and a younger one got up from their places by the fire. One spoke sharply to the dogs who subsided but stayed on guard.
“Mr. Ezra Boswell?” Gervaise said easily.
“And if I am?” came the suspicious, slightly insolent response.
“Then I believe you spoke to my man earlier. I’m Braithwaite.”
The man’s attitude changed at once. He even smiled ingratiatingly. “Ah! My lord, welcome to our humble camp. Accept our thanks for your kind generosity.”
“Generosity?” Gervaise repeated with a faint, deprecating grimace. “The cottage is empty and disused. It is hardly a major sacrifice.”
“Perhaps not to you, but it means a lot to my family to have shelter on this cold night. Especially for the child.” He snapped his finger and a girl—surely the graceful dancer—materialized by his side, a small, well-swaddled baby in her arms to show him.
Gervaise, who knew nothing about infants, regarded it dubiously. “So this is the child to be baptized tomorrow?” he managed.
“John Boswell,” the girl said lovingly. Gervaise lifted his gaze to her face and found that much more interesting. Perhaps it was the flickering glow from the firelight, but she seemed to him incredibly beautiful with her fine, almost delicate features and large, lustrous eyes. He imagined her skin was paler than that of most of her race, and her smile was both tender and humorous as she raised her eyes from the child to Braithwaite’s face. As though she recognized his disinterest in her beloved bundle.
Lust caught him by surprise, catching at his breath and his sanity. A gypsy girl to warm his bed, just for this night of passion, and in the morning, she would be on her way, waving as happy a goodbye as he.
The baby squawked, interrupting his foolish fantasy. A girl who had so recently given birth was unlikely to welcome anyone’s attention. And presumably her husband would have something to say about the matter.
Gervaise laughed, which clearly startled the girl.
Ezra Boswell cleared his throat. “My grandson.”
“And a very fine boy he is,” Gervaise said hastily.
“Take him to his mother,” Ezra commanded, and the girl at once turned toward the cottage. But she smiled at Braithwaite over her shoulder, and he couldn’t help smiling back. Stupidly, he was glad she was not the child’s mother.
“My younger daughter,” Ezra said, following his gaze. “Beauty, ain’t she? And not just in the common way.”
“You are a lucky man to have such a family,” Gervaise said hastily. “Is there anything you need?”
“No, my lord, you have already been most generous. Is there anything you need?”
Gervaise met his wily gaze coolly. “What did you have in mind?”
Ezra shrugged. “Horses? Got some excellent fast thoroughbreds…though perhaps daylight would be a better time to look at ’em! Same for the baskets and household items my girls make. But we can play and dance for you, tell your fortune.”
“Go on, Braithwaite,” Tamar encouraged. He stood well back, sketching the scene in his ubiquitous notebook. “Get your fortune told—it might cheer you up! And besides, I want to draw it.”
Braithwaite curled his lip. “I have a better idea. I’ll sketch you having your fortune told.”
Tamar emitted a crack of laughter. “What would be the point of that?
“It might make me laugh.”
“His lordship would like his fortune told,” Tamar told Ezra, strolling nearer while his pencil still darted over the page.
“You won’t regret it, my lord,” Ezra assured him. “My daughter is very skilled, better even than her late and much-lamented mother, my wife.” He clapped his hands, issuing orders in his own tongue and two more young women—possibly more of Ezra’s daughters or his nieces—appeared, ushering Gervaise and Tamar to one of the tents.
Gervaise shrugged and went along with it. He had nothing better to do, and his soul craved something new, something out of the ordinary. Not that he was in any danger of believing whatever nonsense he was told. He was a profound skeptic and enlightened scholar. He believed nothing without proof and was not easily bamboozled.
The girls lit several lamps in the tent, allowing Gervaise to appreciate the hangings and cushion covers of velvet and silk. It smelled of sweet, exotic herbs, and was surprisingly warm. He sat on cushions on one side of the low table as the young women had invited him to do, while Tamar sprawled at the far end with his sketchbook open on his knee.
The women poured wine into two silver goblets and then departed. Apparently neither of them would be telling Braithwaite’s fortune.
Braithwaite picked up his goblet, admiring it before he drank. “Remind me why I’m here? So you can make an exotic painting?”
“Of course. And it should be something quite out of the ordinary.” Tamar examined his own goblet. “Not poor people, are they?”
Gervaise shrugged. “Probably tools of their trade. Like the silk cushions. It’s impressed you, hasn’t it?”
“Well, something’s impressed you, too, or you wouldn’t be here.”
“Curiosity,” Gervaise confessed, “as to what kind of drivel they’ll come out with.”
At that moment, the tent flap lifted and a girl came in and sank onto the cushions opposite Gervaise. It was the graceful dancer, the girl who had shown him the baby. He regarded her with interest as she took off her cloak and woolen gloves and unwound the blanket-like garment from her head and shoulders, revealing long, smooth hair that hung loose. Unexpectedly, she was not dark but blonde…though not quite. A rather gorgeous reddish tinge added rarity to her beauty and struck a distant chord of memory in Gervaise. She wore a seductive, low-necked gown of dark blue velvet, an embroidered shawl about her shoulders that might have been to preserve her modesty or keep out the cold.
Already very aware of her charms, he allowed his gaze to rest on her too long. She responded boldly, with a frank curiosity of her own. It entered his head that she had been sent to seduce him—and no doubt part him from a little more blunt. He didn’t mind that at all. Perhaps she read the fact in his heated eyes, for, to his surprise, a blush rose up over her neck and face, and she looked hastily away. Her fingers curled convulsively, twisting together before she withdrew them from the table.
“Forgive me for staring,” Gervaise said, instantly sorry for her discomfort, although it intrigued him at the same time. “You remind me of someone, though that’s no excuse for rudeness.”
She inclined her head, apparently accepting his apology, though she stole a quick glance at him as though to be sure before she allowed herself to relax once more.
“My father tells me you would like your fortune told,” she said prosaically, her voice low and pleasant, despite its accent. “I’ll read what I can from your palm.”
“Feel free,” he said skeptically, placing his hand on the table, palm upward.
She did not look at it but glanced back at Tamar. “Are you happy for this gentleman to be present during the reading?” she asked unexpectedly.
“I doubt we’d be able to eject him without a regiment of soldiers behind us. He’s an artist, fascinated by everything he sees here.”
“I am,” Tamar confirmed, shifting position so that he could see the girl’s face as well as Braithwaite’s.
“Nevertheless,” the girl said firmly, “the reading is private, for you alone, and if you don’t want him here, he must leave.”
“I couldn’t be so unkind,” Gervaise said with a hint of mockery.
This time, it was her eyes which held his. “You won’t believe whatever I say,” she said. “Why do you waste your money?”
“I don’t consider it a waste. How much do you want?”
“For the privilege of wasting my time and your coin? Any piece of silver will do.”
She had spirit and very little reverence for his position, which she had to be aware of. Gervaise, used to toadies and blind reverence, rather liked her.
He extracted a loose crown from his pocket and placed it in her outstretched hand. Her fingers curled around it for a moment. He wondered if she would make it disappear, for he thought her breathing changed.
But then she merely set it on the table beside her. “Give me your hand.”
Gervaise stretched out his hand once more, and she took it in both of hers, turning it palm upward. Her own hands were small and slender, with long, tapering fingers of the shape most ladies of his world would envy. They would not, however, envy the roughness of her skin. These hands were used to hard work in all weathers. He liked that contrast in her touch.
Her finger flexed, almost like a spasm and she fell back, still clutching his hand as her gaze flew from his palm to his eyes.
“What?” he asked lazily. “Have you foreseen my doom already?”
Apparently recovering, she curled her lip. “Afraid you’ll be poisoned by gypsies?”
“Why no, the wine is very decent.”
To his delight, a spark of humor lit her beautiful green eyes and a sudden smile curved her lips before she deliberately straightened them and in a business-like manner, turned her attention to his palm.
“You are a great man in the world,” she observed. “A noble lord.”
“Not as noble as he is,” Gervaise said, jerking his head toward Tamar. “He’s a marquis. I am merely an earl.”
“I am not reading his palm.”
“You’re not reading mine, either. You know perfectly well who I am.”
“I’m not describing who you are,” she said tartly, “but who you will be.”
He laughed. “Nicely done. Go on.”
“You will have a long life.” Her finger lightly traced one of the creases of his palm, smoothing it as though to see better. His skin tingled. “Although it will not always be easy. You strive and strive, and you will despair at times, but you will succeed. You will win respect, even awe from all, not for your birth but for your actions.”
It was so much what he wanted to hear, that he grinned somewhat ruefully. He doubted she had seen it in his hand, but she had read him only too well. He could not fault her perception.
“What a man I shall be,” he said flippantly.
She ignored him. “Although not without tragedy, your life will be largely happy. You will have sons to carry on your name and daughters. In matters of love…” She broke off, gasping, dropping his hand as though it burned her.
Gervaise regarded her with tolerant amusement. He appreciated the show. “Unlucky?” he guessed.
“Unexpected,” she managed She let out a hiss that might have been laughter. It sounded almost…shocked. She touched his hand again, this time almost gingerly, and smoothed his palm with her thumb. “There is one long-lasting love in your life,” she observed and frowned. “But the line is faint.”
“Meaning what?” Gervaise drawled.
“Meaning…” Her finger glided across his palm, almost as far as his wrist. Her focus, her touch, delicate despite the roughness of her skin, created a peculiar intimacy. As though her own people weren’t skulking nearby, as though Tamar weren’t sitting a couple of feet away, immortalizing the scene in pencil. She frowned over his hand. “Meaning…it is not yet certain. The future depends on the choices we make. The choices you make in the very near future will determine the happiness of your love.”
“A nice touch,” Gervaise observed.
“I also see danger for you,” she said with rather more satisfaction, “at various points in your life. You appear to overcome them, but you should never ignore the signs.”
“I won’t,” he assured her.
“You are a rich man,” she observed. “There are those who would take that from you.”
“Oh, I know.”
From the other side of the tent, Tamar waved cheerfully.
“Not you, you idiot,” Gervaise said.
He had lent Tamar a considerable amount of money to begin repairs on his mortgaged and all but ruined house and estates, but he begrudged none of it and certainly did not want it cast up in Tamar’s face. Which was odd, considering that when they had first met, Gervaise had refused to let Tamar even see his sister Serena again. But Tamar, beneath his careless, fun-loving exterior, was not remotely the feckless fortune-hunter he had once believed him. He had become a friend, and Gervaise would have rather died than make him feel beholden.
The girl’s gaze flickered between them with undisguised curiosity, then returned to his hand. “You have an enemy,” she observed.
Gervaise laughed. “Damned right, I do!” he said with feeling. “I beg your pardon,” he added.
The girl’s eyebrows twitched, as though surprised by the courtesy. “You will have others,” she said, “though none so…relentless. His enmity derives not from injury or even disagreement but from…fear. Envy.”
More words he wanted to hear, he supposed wryly, words that most men could apply to their lives with whatever truth or delusion. A lock of her hair fell forward over his hand as she bent closer, and he knew an urge to capture it, run the tresses between his fingers. She pushed her hair back almost at once, and again the lamplight caught the hint of red, like a joyous sunrise. And with a jolt, he remembered where he had seen that color before.
Julius Gardyn himself, the very enemy to whom he was applying the girl’s words. And not only Julius, but several portraits in Haven Hall, some in the attic now that the Benedicts rented it. But Gervaise remembered the Gardyns of Haven Hall from when he was a child. Robert Gardyn had had that color of hair, and so had his tiny daughter toddling about the castle’s reception room and formal garden…
“What is it?” the girl said with a hint of nervousness.
He blinked. “I’m sorry. I have just remembered who it is you remind me of. What is your name?”
Almost mechanically, Gervaise raised the wine goblet to his lips and drained it while a thousand thoughts and images flashed through his brain. He laughed aloud. A look of alarm entered the girl’s face.
Even Tamar dropped his pencil and peered at him. “Braithwaite?”
“Ezra is your father?” Gervaise pursued.
The girl nodded.
Gervaise reached for the bottle the other women had left behind and distractedly refilled his goblet, “Do you suppose,” he suggested, “that your father would lend you to me for a few weeks?”