You came all the way from my home in Whitehaven to see me?” Rachel Lockhart peered across the winding gravel path outside her cousin’s townhouse in Mayfair, an exclusive and stylish residential district in London. Vadoma, an aged Gypsy woman and her best friend, hobbled toward her. After an extended spell of rain and being confined indoors, Rachel had decided on a walk and fresh air. Nature always invigorated her. The evening breeze was cool, typical for late April, and she tugged her silken blue cape closer about her shoulders. “’Tis a two-day trip by horseback to London.” Vadoma took another labored step, leaning weightily on her cane. Her springy grey hair, never tamed, flowed riotously about her weathered face. Rachel raced to the woman and embraced her. Mysterious scents of black pepper and wood smoke brought a flood of childhood recollections. Why had she ever agreed to leave the peaceful countryside of her home? Memories of idyllic days, giggling and splashing by a stream, running through the grass with the Gypsies and their broods, whispered through her thoughts. Her heart ached for those happier times. But hopes and dreams were demolished long ago. “Sastimos, my sweet child who runs like the wind, good health to you,” Vadoma said. Rachel blinked back tears.
“And to you.” “Be brave.” Vadoma’s walnut-brown eyes narrowed in her weather-beaten face. “A woman doesn’t shed tears like an infant.” Chagrined, Rachel wiped her eyes with her fingers. “’Tis difficult being all alone in such a big city. London is overridden with people.” “You’re not all alone. You’re with your cousin, Charlotte. Furthermore, I’m here now.
” “For how long?” “A minute, an hour. It depends.” “Depends on what?” “You’ll see.” Rachel cocked her head, waiting for an explanation that never came. Vadoma always did this—imparting secret knowledge and then awaiting—The fates? Destiny? Rachel could never be sure. “When did you arrive?” she asked. “A while ago.” “You rode a horse from Whitehaven?” “’Tis not the summer. My tribe isn’t camped near Whitehaven yet.” “As usual, you explain little, Vadoma.
” Rachel viewed the full moon lighting the flawlessly landscaped gardens and shining down on her friend’s olive complexion. “Where is the tribe, then, if not in Whitehaven?” “Here and there.” “And so you walked here.” Vadoma shot her a smug smirk. “Perhaps I didn’t walk.” “You didn’t walk. You didn’t ride. Then how—” “How else?” With a conspiratorial wink, Vadoma set her ever-present wooden cane on the grass by an enormous fountain. “Gypsy magic.” Rachel burst out laughing.
“And somehow you knew I’d be walking behind this wrought-iron fencing that surrounds my cousin’s townhouse?” “’Tis quite posh, where you’re living.” Vadoma goggled the stately multi-storied buildings alongside the park. “Just like you—the perfect example of English landed gentry.” “Correction. The example of impoverished gentry.” “Fancy all the same.” Rachel smiled and eyed the woman’s varicolored orange and red shawl. A strong scent of smoke came from a tobacco pipe Vadoma had extinguished and stuffed into the folds of her flamingo-pink skirt. “The gate is locked to anyone who isn’t a resident.” Rachel fished into her embroidered reticule hanging from a gold chain on her shoulder.
“Where is your key? Mine is right here.” “Gypsies don’t need keys.” Mysterious and free, Vadoma exhibited the Romany traits that Rachel loved—dancing in the rain, riding without a groom in attendance, roaming the countryside in search of … In search of … Certainly not material possessions, nor a stationary home. The Romany wandered, as if drifting from place to place was the core of who they were. Fondly, Rachel regarded the hunched-over woman. Every year since she’d been a toddler, a Gypsy tribe had camped near her home. She’d joined them in the grassy fields, spending her days enraptured by tales of far-off places. She’d witnessed spell-binding customs and a high-spiritedness entirely different from her own English culture. Each summer when the tribe packed their wagons in readiness to depart, she begged to travel with them. They repeatedly refused, gently encouraging her to hold fast to her English ways.
“Read books and study, so you will be learned,” Pulko, the youthful leader, would say to her. “Knowledge opens doors barred to the rest of us.” And so she’d studied Latin and mathematics and her beloved Bible, which gave her peace and optimism. I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you. Silently, she recited John 14:18. The verse brought consolation, enabling her to cope with the loneliness of being without siblings to confide in. She was a forgotten child. She’d been a girl with no mother, only a father who took to drink to assuage his sadness, coupled with dice and unlucky card-playing when the opportunity arose. He’d retired from the navy years before and was fond of telling stories about the French ships his crewmen had taken prisoner. He had never explained how her mother had died, nor any facts about her.
Oftentimes, he softened his curt replies to her questions with a sad smile. Through the years his smile had dimmed, becoming haunted, and she’d learned not to ask anymore. “You’ve grown up in a few short months and have become a gorgeous young woman.” Vadoma leaned back, her squint running the length of Rachel’s slim, long-limbed frame. “Your cousin was wise to hire you as governess for her daughter. ’Tis a fortunate and desirable position, aye?” “Charlotte had no choice. My father persuaded her. He said I’d complement the ladylike polish she required for her daughter’s upbringing.” Self-consciously, Rachel reached up a hand to be certain her hair was properly bound in a neat coil beneath her bonnet. She preferred wearing her hair wild and free, but those days were over.
“Fortunately, Jemimi is delightful.” “I’ve known you from the time you first toddled across the meadow. Since then, I’ve followed your relationship with both your father and your aunt Julianne.” “My father and I always struggled to get along.” “Even before you started your schooling, you eased the ill will I harbored for the English whenever you smiled. I often told our tribe leader that your parents had borne a lovely, animated, and bewildered child who proved quite smart.” “I give my aunt credit for visiting often. She tutored me and taught me how to serve a proper tea.” “Her instruction served you well.” Sagely, Vadoma nodded.
“Coupled with your year at finishing school.” “That didn’t go as planned, did it? I learned little.” Since Rachel hadn’t been interested in an education based primarily on becoming a social asset for a future husband, she’d spent every waking hour reading books, instead. She sighed. “’Tis all trivial—serving tea and being versed in the proper spoon to use, or sillier rules such as not wearing pearls in the morning, as if anyone might care. I’d rather sit in a circle around a campfire, the sky sprinkled with stars, wearing whichever jewelry I chose.” “You may yearn for youthful memories, but wrestling with things and places you can no longer have will only leave you wistful. Sadly, your father didn’t understand you as well as he might when he insisted you move to London.” Vadoma picked up her cane and began walking again, her chest heaving when they topped a steep rise. “You prefer splendid sunsets and sparkling streams over a crowded city.
” “Aye. Unfortunately, my cousin echoed your sentiments, but not for the reasons you cite.” “Your sunny disposition lightens any day.” “A bit too much, I fear.” Rachel attempted a flippant laugh, but it rang hollow. “Recently, I overheard Charlotte tell her husband that Jemimi and I are ‘cheek-to-cheek.’ The little girl receives scant attention from either of her parents, so I devote many hours to her.” “Your cousin is jealous and sees you as a threat. I feel it in my bones. She is a mean woman.
” Prompted by the night’s breeze, Vadoma gathered her goatshair shawl to her chest. “I’ve heard her lash out at you.” When? Rachel wondered, but didn’t express her question aloud. “Oh, Vadoma, you’re wrong. Charlotte had difficulty conceiving, and she received Jemimi with great happiness.” Rachel felt a rosy tint color her cheeks. Topics of an intimate kind, including childbirth, weren’t to be discussed openly. Vadoma clucked, apparently reading Rachel’s mind. She paid English rules no heed. “Yet Charlotte doesn’t spend much time with her daughter.
” “How have you learned this?” “The Romany see things.” “My cousin’s sole aspiration is to gain entry into prominent social circles.” Rachel folded her hands together. “I cannot tell you how much it saddens me to be leaving Jemimi. Each day I spend with her is a joy. Of course, I understand Charlotte is protective of her only child.” Since Rachel liked everyone and believed they reciprocated the feeling, she refused to believe anything otherwise. “Overly protective, if you ask me.” Rachel shrugged. “Either way, I’ve officially been ordered to leave my post when the Season ends.
” ’Twas for the best. Her governess role was neither fortunate nor desirable. The wage was meagre, consisting of little more than a bed and board. Coupled with her dismal circumstances, she was isolated and lonesome. The servants believed her to be above them, and her cousin made it clear that Rachel was well below Charlotte’s station. “The upper classes spout too many rules,” Rachel said to Vadoma, “which I casually remarked to Jemimi one afternoon. Unfortunately, Charlotte overheard me.” “Which led to your dismissal.” “Aye.” Vadoma raised a grizzled eyebrow.
“And rules are obviously meant to be broken.” “I didn’t say those precise words to the child.” Rachel paused. “Well, not exactly. I used the word occasionally. Rules are occasionally meant to be broken.” They stopped beneath an oil lantern fixed at the top of an arched fence. Vadoma’s craggy face, creased with sufferings, was illuminated in the soft light. “You stated opinions of a similar nature to the tribe.” She subjected Rachel to an intense probe.
“But keep in mind you are English, not Romany, and must appear well-bred and composed. Or, at the age of four and twenty, you may soon be a spinster.” “Is that so bad?” “It depends on the life you choose to lead.” “I want to be independent—but I’d also like my own home, a good, caring husband, and children. Don’t forget, every suitor my father brought round for me was either aged or boring. He was fearful I’d be put on the shelf, which is why he shipped me off to London in the first place. Believe me, the eligible men in Whitehaven are rare indeed.” Rachel recalled the sagging belly fat of one particularly persistent gentleman and shivered. He’d carried an open-faced watch in his fob pocket and constantly checked the time, as if he had somewhere more important to be than courting Rachel. Nevertheless, she knew she should marry, and soon.
The situation was dire if Vadoma was concerned. In her bedchamber on late summer evenings, she had fantasized about her ideal hero. All male, but also thoughtful and humorous. He loved to laugh, embraced the outdoors, and was genuinely interested in her. He disdained the pomp and circumstance of the rich and privileged. And he was wildly handsome, with thick dark hair curling at the nape and steady grey eyes. Of course, such a man didn’t exist. “You are too choosy.” Vadoma’s shrill words cut into Rachel’s thoughts. “I’ll try harder, but I will not lower my standards.
” Well aware of the copious lack of desirable suitors, Rachel spread out her hands in a pleading gesture. “I certainly don’t intend to become a financial burden to my father.” “Is there any opportunity to attend a grand London ball before you depart?” Vadoma asked. “Mayhap you’ll meet a desirable young man there.” “My cousin was generous in hiring me, but she’d never put forth the expense of sponsoring me.” Rachel recoiled at the thought of returning home to Whitehaven in defeat, but what choice did she have? She blew out a breath. “Oftentimes, I believe I should never have agreed to come here. I should have refused Father—” She checked herself, for in truth, she had craved a grand adventure, and London had appealed to her restless spirit. Obviously, the adventure hadn’t evolved in the manner she’d imagined. Wasn’t that invariably the way of things? Oftentimes, daydreams and planning surpassed the actual event.
She swallowed the dry taste in her mouth. It mattered naught if she lived alone. She was appallingly clumsy when acting out intricate social graces, anyway. “Moreover,” she went on, “Charlotte prefers to partake of the frenetic whirl of parties with her husband, not with me tagging along.” “Oh, does she now?” Vadoma fisted her hands on her plump hips. “Then, at your age, how will you ever meet—” “Soon, the family will give up their rented townhouse here in Mayfair and repair to Bucklesham.” Rachel bowed her head. “I’ll find work somewhere. Furthermore, I’m certain my father has missed me.” But he wouldn’t have, and she knew it.
She’d arrive home beaten, although she didn’t say the words aloud. She imagined her stern father, icily silent, hands folded behind his back, standing rigid in the parlor. Her aunt Julianne had cautioned that Rachel might disgrace herself in London. Look what she had done in Whitehaven, traipsing barefoot with Gypsies. But traipsing barefoot had passed long ago, Rachel had reminded her aunt. Just the same, she doubted she could compete with the demure blondes and vivacious redheads who conversed easily with eligible men. Men who wore their woolen tailcoats and white cravats to perfection. Vadoma continued her stilted walk to a bench near a rose trellis, where she collapsed abruptly. Visualizing the splendor of the pleasant weather to come, Rachel envisioned the trellis laden with rich pink blooms, the air fragrant with the flowers’ fine, spicy sweetness. “Do you recall I like to sing?” Vadoma gestured for Rachel to settle beside her.
Rachel laughed. “I’ve hardly been gone a few months. How could I forget?” She sat beside the elderly woman and arranged her worn cape neatly around her. She’d whiled away many lonely hours with the tribe, hooting and telling jokes and singing. With the Gypsies, she was never alone, never sad. When unhappiness expanded, they assured her ’twould pass. In the beginning, they were correct. But as childhood ended and adulthood weighed heavy burdens on her shoulders, she doubted herself. Would she ever be able to make her own way in this prim, respectable world with no dowry? She scanned the formidable townhouses across the path. Fear was an emotion she despised.
She vowed to meet the next chapter in her life with the good Lord’s presence by her side. “My aunt said we should sing only in church,” Rachel reminded Vadoma. “I am familiar with your God. ’Twould please Him for people to sing everywhere.” She shifted her large body. “Singing is my favorite pastime.” In a low voice, she warbled a tale about trickery and jests and fooling the gadje. Despite the shocking lyrics, Rachel giggled and encouraged Vadoma to sing louder. She’d been around the Romany long enough to understand the distrust they entertained for anyone who wasn’t one of them—most notably the English. Excluding Rachel, of course.
They’d teased her because she fit right in. Rachel sat back against the iron bench, her toes keeping time in her brown kid leather boots to the pulsating rhythm of Vadoma’s song. On her wrists jingled numerous silver bracelets—a gift from the Gypsies just before she’d departed for London. Abruptly, the tempo slowed. Vadoma’s melancholy lyrics now described a lovely young woman who met a dashing young man. The man fell utterly in love with her and proposed on bended knee. “If he is wealthy and idle, I’m not interested,” Rachel broke in, singing her protests. “He’s exactly the sort of man I disdain.” “But this man is different.” Vadoma ended the song with the word destiny and gave Rachel a knowing smile.
“Destiny?” Rachel frowned in bewilderment. “Whatever do you mean?” “You will see. Blame it on the night.” “Blame what?” “You will see,” Vadoma repeated. Before Rachel could react to the absurdity of predicting someone’s fate, Vadoma began another song, switching the language from English to Romany. For some reason, although Rachel didn’t understand all the lyrics, the melody prompted tears. She’d been particularly wistful all evening, longing for a home and children of her own, then telling herself it didn’t matter. ’Twas a life that would never be. Please God, she prayed silently. Grant me the strength to understand my circumstances and make peace within myself.
’Tis little use to while away my hours dreaming of love. “Sing with me,” Vadoma encouraged. “The Romany words elude me.” Vadoma tapped on her flamboyant skirt and chanted rhythmically. Not quite a song anymore, the throbbing beat prompted Rachel’s heart to speed up. She forgot her worries, losing herself in the plaintive melodies. “Who will take your place as a governess for the child?” Vadoma paused to inquire. “My cousin wouldn’t say.” At the mention of Jemimi, her cherubic face and silky blond hair, Rachel smiled, although sadness tinged her voice. “Are you worried you might not get another position?” “Aye, sometimes.
” Oftentimes. “Life always works out the way it’s supposed to.” Vadoma squeezed Rachel’s hand. The old woman had consistently provided a mother’s touch, and the two had forged a resilient bond through the years. “Now mimic me and hum the melody.” Rachel did as instructed. She closed her eyes and contrasted Vadoma’s soothingly low chant with her clear soprano voice. When the song finished, silence reigned for a beat. Followed by the sudden snap of a tree branch. Rachel’s eyes flew open.
To her right, a tall man stood just outside the shadows. He wore immaculately tailored evening attire, a crisp white shirt and a cravat. Black silk breeches fit his long, muscular legs to perfection. Rachel drew a sharp breath and surged to her feet. Their gazes met, and she stared directly into a pair of expressive grey eyes. And ’twas then that the most unforeseen thing occurred. Her pulse beat double time, and, for the life of her, she couldn’t imagine why. Aye, she’d been disconcerted. He was an outsider, skulking about, intruding on the song with her friend. But she couldn’t stop staring at him.
Everything about him shouted privileged—from his gleaming black boots to the woolen fabric of his tailcoat straining across his broad shoulders. “Excuse me, miss,” he said. “Are you all right?” “Aye. You just startled me.” She glanced at Vadoma. “Us.” “’Twas not my intention.” He took in the scene, then scrutinized her face. “What are you doing?” “Singing. We were singing.
” “I realize that. What I meant was—” Vadoma slowly stood and observed the man with heightened interest. Her cane clattered to the walkway. “Stanki nashti chi arakenpe manushen shai,” she chanted. The man tread nearer, his rigid jaw set with a purpose. “What gibberish are you spouting?” His demanding tone snapped Rachel out of her stunned state. “Sir, you ask a lot of questions.” “And I demand answers.” “Demand? Surely you’re joking.” His dark eyebrows pinched together.
Rachel considered stepping backward, but held her ground. “I’ll translate the Romany proverb. ‘Mountains do not meet, but people do.’” Aunt Julianne had instructed that exchanging even a glance with an unfamiliar man compromised a woman’s morality. Not only had Rachel exchanged glances, she was conversing and translating Romany for him. Heat rushed to her face, and she scurried beneath the safety of a torch light. And then, a new realization took hold. She whirled on Vadoma. “What’s all this about mountains and—” “Destiny.” The old woman spoke so softly, Rachel thought she’d imagined the word.
“Blame it on the night.” “Blame what?” Vadoma was silent, and the man strode forward, his eyebrows still drawn together. He was obviously displeased about something. Was it a crime to sing aloud in England? Rachel’s mind scrambled for understanding. Perhaps ’twas true what her aunt had admonished, and no singing was allowed in public except in church. Intending to beat a swift retreat, Rachel picked up her skirts and whirled toward her cousin’s townhouse. She wasn’t certain what was proper or improper anymore and didn’t intend to pause a moment longer to find out. When she spun back around to bid Vadoma a hasty farewell, the woman had vanished. All that remained was a crooked cane and the scent of a wooden pipe.