There was nothing left for Henrietta to do but run away with the gypsies--if they would take her.
Crouching in the overgrown brush at the edge of the Gypsy camp, she watched, waited ... and wavered. Tonight would be her last opportunity to join the small band that had been camped on the outskirts of Bath for the past fortnight. In the morning they would move on. Still, the courage to step out and declare herself eluded Henrietta.
The dusk had deepened to a hazy, gray darkness and a biting chill nipped the early spring air. Hunched and shivering, she studied the wide circle of gaily decorated vans that formed the outer perimeter of the camp. Crackling fires, in varying degrees of intensity, burned before the canvas tents arranged within the circle, illuminating the isolated area, promising warmth--and casting fearful shadows.
"Are you lost, son?"
The gruff question accompanied by a sharp tap on Henrietta's shoulder caught her by surprise.
"Ayyyyye!" She let out a high-pitched wail and spun around toward the deep baritone voice.
The sudden movement, in league with her weighty, oversized boots threw her off-balance. With all the grace of an upended elephant, she fell back into the dirt and briars with a resounding crunch. When the dust settled, the forbidding voice spoke again.
"Apparently, I've frightened you."
Straining her neck back in order to see, Henrietta looked up to find an exceptionally tall man glowering down at her. From the billowing white sleeves of his shirt to the snug-fitting black satin breeches and the knife sheathed in leather at his waist, he cut an ominous--but captivating--figure.
The gold hoop earring circling his left lobe might have appeared silly or foppish on another male, but the ornament lent this man's towering form a riveting elegance.
Her heart thumped heavily against her chest; she could barely catch her breath. Although she did not believe that gypsies swallowed children whole, Henrietta had heard many other rumors about them, some frightening, some intriguing.
He fixed a fierce scowl at her.
She eyed him nervously. He might well be a thief or a murderer--or both.
Her breath came in shallow gasps. She had no doubt he was dangerous. From his swaggering stance to his narrow-eyed scrutiny of her, she knew she had never come across such a man before. Furthermore, to be discovered spying by the Gypsy giant was certainly a disquieting turn of events.
Fearing she might soon swoon, Henrietta bit down on the inside of her cheek.
His frown deepened. "What are you doing here?"
"I ... I have come to be with you," she replied with a boldness she did not feel, in a voice several octaves deeper than normal. "I mean, I wish to leave Bath and travel with this Gypsy caravan."
Henrietta thought she heard him growl, a sound uttered deep in the throat, like one might hear from an enraged wild beast.
"Show yourself," he ordered. "I do not deal with shadows."
Dressed in garments discarded long ago by her cousin Phillip, she picked herself up, straightened her shoulders and stepped hesitantly from the broken branches. She tugged nervously at the cap hiding her mop of thick curls and brushed away the dirt from her tumble. Swallowing hard, she attempted to restore the moisture to her bone-dry throat, to no avail.
Finally, head lifted high, undoubtedly bedraggled, Henrietta stood silently before the fearsome Goliath with the golden earring. His hard gaze swept the length of her. In the tense silence she counted the feathery beats of her racing heart. And then she hiccupped.
The menacing Gypsy's frown deepened. His dark brows very nearly met in the middle.
A flood of hot embarrassment swept through Henrietta's body, settling on her cheeks, but she stood her ground. Retreating was not an option; she could only go forward. Any fate was preferable to that of marrying the doddering Earl of Oster.
Forcing the timbre of her voice deeper once again, she achieved a strained, raspy tone. "As ... as you can see I am but a boy. I stand before you most humbly--a boy in need of work."
She'd rushed to finish her practiced entreaty before another hiccup came.
And come it did. Any form of distress triggered her hiccups.
"Are you now?" The Gypsy's tone dripped with sarcasm.
In the dim light his dark complexion and hawk-like features were both striking and alarming, his height and breadth seemed overpowering. A tingle of fear or pleasure--she could not be sure which-- skipped down Henrietta's spine.
"Yes, sir. Are you not headed north?"
With one stride he moved up to her. Folding his arms across his massive chest he looked her over as if she were a sack of flour or a plump goose at market.
"We leave at first light," he replied.
Encouraged by the fact he had not struck her down or threatened her in any way--as yet--she pressed on. "I would like to leave with you. Will you show me to your Gypsy King?"
"Please, allow me to speak with your king," she pleaded. "I know I can convince him to take me along. I am stronger than I look and will gladly work for my meals."
Henrietta thought she detected a slight droll smile.
"Perhaps you might be of use."
"Of great use, I can assure you."
"Do you have experience working with bears, lad?"
"No." She swallowed and blinked simultaneously. "But I am willing to learn."
She was willing to do practically anything.
"There may be a need for someone to clean bear cages."
"Would there be another need?"
She had hesitated for only a heartbeat. Surely, there must be something else she could do to earn her way. She knew this band of Gypsies were performers. The colorful group of fortune-tellers, dancers, magicians and animal trainers entertained at villages across Great Britain. Every year the same band traveled from south to north, and from east to west, crisscrossing the country. Henrietta had seen them from her carriage when they stopped in Bath last year. She had learned of their ways from her lady-in-waiting.
"Come with me," the Gypsy barked, brusquely turning away. "We shall see."
Henrietta followed, finding it difficult to keep step with his long strides. She trailed behind him as he made his way through the suddenly quiet camp. Keeping her head up, she focused on her ill-mannered escort's back. His shoulders were wider than the Earl of Oster's coach.
She took great bolstering swallows of the chilly evening air as a means of staying calm, denying the unsettling skip of her pulse. Her racing mind warned her to show no fear.
Scents of pungent spices, roasting hens and wood burning fires flavored the air as she passed through the makeshift village of tents.
Henrietta felt the curious stares of the men, women and children upon her as she followed her giant guide. Dark eyes appraised her every foot of the way. Even the mongrel dogs paused from their rooting for food scraps to watch her pass.
Finally, her Gypsy captor slowed as he approached a large tent in the center of the encampment. It could only be the king's tent. Although she placed a calming hand over the nervous fluttering in the pit of her stomach, the upheaval continued.
A young boy chewing on a chicken leg jumped to attention, pulling back the flap of the tent to allow them instant entry.
The king camped well, she noted. A fine Persian carpet covered the ground. Warmth was provided by a fire burning in a shallow pit at the center of the tent. The air smelled faintly of whale oil and melting beeswax, and the many candles and lanterns shed a bright light.
In a quick, darting inspection, Henrietta glimpsed layers of cashmere blankets and velvet pillows, a silver tray bearing wine goblets and a platter of fruit. The stacks of books and a writing desk struck her as odd--and unexpected.
Evidently the Gypsy King was not at home. Never having been in the presence of Gypsy royalty, Henrietta did not know whether to bow, speak, or remain silent when he arrived. Avoiding eye contact with the Goliath who had brought her here, she waited for the man who could save her from marriage to the Earl of Oster, a fate she regarded as unconscionable.
With his hands clasped behind his back, the tall, dark Gypsy circled her. "Running away, boy?"
She wished he would go away. His piercing study made her excessively nervous. She feared she might come undone. If she could wait alone for the Gypsy King, she might better regain her composure. "Yes, sir. For good reason."
"There is always good reason," he replied perfunctorily. Silver flecks of suspicion flashed in his black-as-night eyes. "What is your name?"
Henrietta hiccupped. "Phillip."
She had chosen her cousin's name for this masquerade--only fitting since she was dressed in his cast-off clothes. And though she quaked in Phillip's impossibly uncomfortable boots, she reminded herself to stay close to the truth. It was said the Gypsies possessed magical powers and could easily look into the eyes of an unsuspecting man--or woman--and read their thoughts. With her host's penetrating eyes upon her, she believed.
"Why does your voice change in pitch from syllable to syllable, Phillip?"
She forced her voice as low as it could go before answering. " 'Tis because I am becoming a man."
"I should have guessed." He grinned--a disarming, crooked grin that took Henrietta off-guard and served to further weaken her wobbly knees.
She looked away, seeking to distract herself, and him. "Is this the tent of your Gypsy King?"
"Will he see me soon?"
"He has seen you from the start."
A terrible feeling washed over Henrietta. Her heart sank, her pulse slowed. She raised her eyes to his. "Is it... is it you?"
He nodded slowly. "I am the man you seek. Lucien Augustus Vaslav."
The sudden hiccup she emitted jolted her body.
Oh, no. The largest, most fearsome looking man she'd ever encountered was the man she must charm. She forced a shaky smile.
"I am called Lucien," he said softly, hiking one dark brow.
Her stomach quaked. By name, too close to the devil, Lucifer. Nevertheless, she could not turn back now. She had nowhere to go. Her only hope lay with Lucifer.
Schooled in court manners, but uncertain of Gypsy protocol, she executed a slight, boyish bow from the waist. She could hardly take off her cap. "King Lucien."
He gave a woeful wag of his head. "You are not in the royal court. Save your bowing and scraping."
Henrietta snapped up straight, standing as stiff as a dandy's collar. "Yes, sir."
"Why should we take you with us, boy?"
His stern demand earned another hiccup. She blushed. Her cheeks could not have been warmer had she the fever. "Forgive me."
The Gypsy King rolled his eyes.
Through a dark stubble of beard, Henrietta detected a strong square jaw. Lucien Vaslav exuded the power and authority of royalty. Yet in appearance, he did not resemble the man Henrietta expected to meet. Instead of being old and wizened as she had imagined, he did not appear many years older than her. He was a young Gypsy King, an imposing man.
The slight, enigmatic smile on his lips seemed to mock her. She raised her eyes to his blue-black hair. Shining, raven waves fell to his shoulders and begged her to straighten the slight disarray. The shining flecks of light in his eyes contrasted dramatically with his dark, swarthy complexion. His gaze locked with hers and in that instant she knew with utter certainty he intended to send her back. She could not allow that to happen.
"There are many reasons why you should take me with you. For one, I can offer you this token in payment for passage."
Henrietta reached into her trousers pocket and withdrew a ruby broach. The sparkling stone set in gold and surrounded by pearls and diamond chips had belonged to her mother.
The Gypsy King raised a questioning brow as he took the broach from her hand. "Where would a boy be coming by a bauble such as this?"
"I ... found it." She'd often heard gypsies were thieves, and that they actually trained their youngsters to pick pockets. She expected her explanation to be acceptable.
But once again, Lucien's eyes narrowed on her in a most threatening manner. "Are you a thief, boy?"
"Are you a boy, thief?"
She hiccupped. "Yes!"
She sucked in her breath. Prickly goose bumps broke out along her arms, the hairs on the nape of her neck stood on end. What had she said or done to give herself away?
It must be true, she thought wildly, the Gypsies possess magical powers. Could it be possible that Lucien Vaslav's sharp gaze was capable of seeing straight through her costume to her bare body? The idea brought a fresh flush to her cheeks. The powerful shudder that swept down her spine caused even her toes to tremble.
"I will take your broach for safekeeping," he told her, closing a strong fist around her mother's ruby.
The broach had been the only item belonging to her mother that she had managed to keep--until now.
The victim of an arranged marriage, Henrietta's mother had never managed to conceal her unhappiness. She lived in the depths of melancholy until the day she died, when Henrietta was just six years old.
Henrietta fought back tears as the precious broach disappeared from her sight. Boys did not cry--neither would she. She could not allow herself a moment to mourn for the lost heirloom.
Goliath circled her again, his hands clasped behind his back. "Your build is slight for a lad."
"Sickness early in my childhood stunted my growth."
Once more the king's keen gaze traveled the length of her. "There is a simple way to discover if you speak the truth."
Lucien's mouth turned up at the corner in a mocking half smile. "Remove your trousers and jacket."
Henrietta's stomach rolled over. "I beg your pardon?"
"Remove all of your clothes," he ordered. His eyes glittered like the devil's own might.
Speechless, she could only shake her head, and hiccup loudly. The sound resounded through the tent.
"Why are you reluctant?" he asked, cocking his head to one side. "What have you to hide?"
"I have nothing to hide. It is too cold to remove my garments."
"Are you a weakling, boy?"
"Why is it necessary to prove myself when all I ask is to join your tribe and work until the caravan reaches Liverpool?"
He folded his arms across his chest and planted his feet wide apart in a most intimidating fashion. "What do you plan to do in Liverpool?"
Henrietta answered truthfully, in part: "I will take a ship to North America. My cousin is living there and he has promised me a new life ... far from the streets of London."
"You plan to travel to North America by yourself?" Lucien repeated, in a tone that strongly suggested she was mad.
Throwing his head back, he roared with laughter. The deep tones filled the tent, the ground beneath Henrietta seemed to vibrate.
His obvious amusement vexed her. Pressing her lips together, she bit back a sharp reply and inquired stiffly, "Why do you laugh?"
"You will not last a day, a boy of your size."
"I do not understand."
"If you do not understand, I warn you not to go."
But she must. She was willing to risk anything to travel to the new United States and join Phillip. Life in England held no promise for her. "Please take me to Liverpool," she pleaded. "I am not afraid."
"You should be." Turning, he sauntered toward the fire.
"I promise to be no trouble. Please allow me to join-"
His back was to her when he declared. "I cannot."
Henrietta hastened to his side. "Why not?"
"It is not that I distrust you, boy, but if it happens you should belong to the aristocracy, my tribe and I will be accused of kidnapping and held accountable."
"No one is looking for me," she told him, believing it to be true for the moment. If luck were with her, she would not be discovered missing until mid-morning tomorrow. By then, the Gypsy caravan would be long gone. "You have nothing to fear."
"But I do. I have much to fear and much to lose. I am attempting to improve my tribe's reputation. The rumor is already widespread throughout the land that we Gypsies sell young women for the sexual pleasure of sheikhs and such."
"I had not heard that rumor." Henrietta felt the blood drain from her cheeks. She stepped back. Her heart fluttered like a newborn bird as she contemplated such an appalling end.
Her knowledge of the Gypsies came from her young lady-in-waiting and she realized now, too late, the information was sorely limited and perhaps prejudicial.
Lucien advanced on her, stopping only inches away. His all-seeing, all-knowing eyes locked on hers. "Who are you and why are you running away?"
"Bring this person water," he barked, obviously irritated by the distressing disorder Henrietta could not control.
In a matter of moments, a shadowy woman swathed in a heavy dark shawl from her head to her ankles, entered the tent.
"Give it to the ... boy," he ordered.
With a nod to Lucien, she gave the goblet to Henrietta and left as quickly and quietly as she'd entered.
Lucien continued to study Henrietta in the same penetrating, and exceedingly disconcerting manner. She knew he waited for her to speak.
"I have told you who I am," she said quietly.
"Do not lie to me."
Knowing the water would do no good to still her hiccups, but anxious to please the glowering king, she sipped from the silver goblet. "I am not in the habit of lying."
It was the truth and explained, perhaps, why Henrietta felt she told a falsehood so poorly--she had little practice.
"You look like a girl."
"My appearance is the bane of my life."
"We hang liars by their toes."
She choked on the water. Sputtering, she wiped her chin with her fingertips. Lucien's ink black eyes glittered in quite an unsettling manner as they met hers. In a purely instinctive reaction, her toes curled tightly within Cousin Phillip's big boots.
"By the toes?" she repeated.
"Occasionally by the thumbs."
Rather than risk either fate, Henrietta decided to tell the truth, plead for understanding and throw herself at the Gypsy King's mercy. She hoped Lucien Vaslav possessed a particle of compassion, a modicum of mercy.
"Very well, you shall have the truth." She raised her chin. "My name is Lady Henrietta Elizabeth Hadley and I am running away rather than marry the man my guardian has chosen for me."
With a groan, the glowering king slapped the heel of his hand against his forehead. "Worse than I thought!"
"If you will not take me with you, I will find another way to flee. But I will not, cannot, marry the Earl of Oster," she declared.
"How old are you?"
"I am eighteen, sir."
"Is it true you have a cousin in America?"
"Yes, Phillip Markham. We have corresponded for these past two years. He tells me wonderful things about life in the new country. He has invited me many times to come live there with him and his wife."
"Why do you choose to sail from Liverpool when there are ports much closer?"
"I fear my guardian. Lord Edward, will have the ports near to Bath and London watched. And Liverpool is the port where the Black Ball line departs for North America. The Abigail sails four weeks from now."
"You have thought this through?"
"I am not impulsive by nature." Indeed she was inclined to be impulsive, but in this case she had rather thoughtfully planned her escape.
"Unfortunately for you, we are not traveling to Liverpool and I cannot delay our arrival in York. I am to be married there."
Henrietta laid trembling fingertips on his arm. "Please, King Lucien--"
He backed away as if her touch had singed straight through his shirt to his flesh. "Lucien. Address me as Lucien."
"Begging your pardon." She lowered her eyes. "Lucien."
"You shall return to your home in the morning."
"No! The Earl of Oster is old enough to be my grandfather. Hair sprouts from his ancient ears and his eyes run as if they have sprung a leak. It is only my inheritance he cares for. If I am locked away in his manor, I will surely die. Have mercy."
"Many women have met your fate and lived."
"I would rather live free and poor than in slavery to a sick, wicked old man," she argued. "Please help me reach Liverpool."
"We are not traveling that way."
"Then take me with you for a portion of the journey."
""What you are asking is impossible."
"I shall not be a bother. I will help the women with the chores--if they will show me what to do."
He gave a short grunt. "Ironic, that we are both in motion, you and I. You run from a marriage while I hasten toward one."
"But is your bride an aged crone? A curmudgeon of the first order?"
Lucien studied the top of the tent. "No, but Romani women are not known for fine, delicate features." A slight sardonic smile hovered on his mouth when he returned his attention to Henrietta. "It is entirely possible Sabina's characteristics include canine teeth and more unflattering moles than I can count."
Henrietta seized on his similar predicament as a means of persuasion. "Have you ever thought of beginning your life anew in North America?"
"No." His eyes dulled to a flat cold shade of black. "I shall fulfill my duty, although I have never seen my bride to be. Some twenty years ago our parents arranged that the first daughter of the King of the Romi, who is Sabina, would wed the King of Britain's Gypsy tribe. Her age and appearance make no matter."
"A noble decision to be sure. I, however, would rather die than marry the Earl of Oster," Henrietta declared. "I have not your sense of duty."
"Are you threatening to do yourself in if I do not relent and take you along with us?"
She did not hesitate in her reply. Another lie. "Yes."
He heaved the deep rumbling sigh of a man much put upon. "Lady Henrietta, you should be on the stage. You are far too melodramatic."
"I will cure myself if it is annoying to you. I will avoid your presence during the journey so you will not be vexed by my melodramatic ways."
"Like the plague."
He drifted away to pour a goblet of wine. "Can you not come to an understanding with your guardian? A frank discussion might lead to a more suitable solution than running away."
She followed. "I have tried. He cares not for my feelings. He only desires to be rid of me."
"Is there no one else who can intercede in your behalf?"
"My dear Aunt Beatrice passed on but a month ago." The loss of her aunt remained fresh and painful in many respects. She was alone in the world now. Except for cousin Phillip, an ocean away, she had no one to turn to.
"With her passing, do I understand you lost an ally?"
She nodded. "My guardian. Lord Edward, is a distant cousin but a close friend to the earl."
"You say the earl is old?"
"Ancient. Fifty and five, at least."
"In your culture, as in mine, many women marry older men. Marriage is an arrangement, a business arrangement." His cool practical tone showed he neither understood the matter nor sympathized with her feelings. "My advice to you is to marry Oster and take a young lover on the side."
"Although I have considered the same solution, such deception will not do for me. If I cannot marry for love, I shall not marry at all."
"An idealist," Lucien muttered, as if that were a sad thing to be.
"I am a woman with strong convictions," Henrietta declared. At least that is how she preferred to think of herself, despite the fact Aunt Beatrice had often scolded her for having a strong will, unbecoming in a woman.
"Is that so?" Lucien leveled a cold hard gaze that caused Henrietta's stomach to knot.
"Please sir, I shall not be any trouble."
"My people do not quarrel with me."
"I am throwing myself on your mercy." She made a deep curtsy.
"No trouble at all."
After an endless silence, the Gypsy King spoke--or grumbled, was more to the mark. "Very well. We will take you as far as Stoke-on-Trent."
A burst of happiness, a shower of sunshine swept through Henrietta. Smiling broadly, she resisted the urge to throw her arms around his great shoulders. Instead, she held herself back and sought to reassure him. "You will not regret your decision."
But Lucien had a bad feeling. Had he just endangered his tribe for a pair of luminous crystal-blue eyes?