“Si khohaimo may patshivalo sar o tshatshim.”
“There are lies more believable than the truth.”
-Old Romany saying
“Bury me standing, for I have been on my knees all my life.”
Valentina Rupa bowed her head to hear her beloved mother’s last words, to see the twitch of her eyes beneath her eyelids, the rise and fall of her chest beneath the thin blankets.
Her mother’s breath faded, already settling into the bleak night, already gone.
Unearthly quiet filled their makeshift canopy. The dwindling light from the nearby campfires of their Romany tribe seeped through the canvas.
“Daj, Mother . . . don’t stop speaking.” Tears blinded Valentina’s eyes, defeated her voice. She focused on her mother’s lips, willing her to speak once more. What good did it do to be a drabardi, a powerful fortuneteller and healer, if she couldn’t save her own mother?
Valentina’s younger sister, Yolanda, stood beside her. Yolanda coughed violently, then wheezed.
“Please, daj, it’s not your time.” Yolanda’s hoarse voice faded to a whisper. “Her lips, she’s breathing . . .”
“Nay, it’s the north wind.” Valentina peered at the oak tree branches bending against a biting gust, threatening to collapse their crude canopy. Wagon wheels creaked, groaning into the dirt, familiar sounds, yet so distant. Their mother had lived her entire life in the caravan, traveling from village to village. There was no other way for her. Only the way of the Romany.
The air hung thick and heavy, warning of a hailstorm, stinging Valentina’s damp cheeks. She didn’t care, didn’t bother to wipe them. She hated the weakness of crying. Crying meant loss and loneliness and defeat.
She glanced at Yolanda’s ashen face and slight shoulders. “Try to rest for a while.”
“I’m not tired.” Yolanda rubbed her temples. “Now that both mother and father are dead, we’re orphans.”
“I’ll not abandon you.” Valentina choked back her fears and crushing uncertainties. She was the older sister. She always took care of Yolanda.
With shaking fingers, Valentina tucked the threadbare blankets around her mother’s feeble body, smoothed the wrinkled fabric, and folded the ends back. Neatly, the way her mother liked it done. Tucked, smoothed, folded. Tucked, smoothed, folded.
“Daj, you starved yourself so that we could eat. We’d have found the food we needed somehow.” Her hands glided purposefully. “Why do the English treat the Rom as if they’re animals?”
“Because this is the land of the English,” Yolanda said. “They make their own rules.”
Long shivers rippled through Valentina’s body, a cadence of trepidation and doubt. In a single, deliberate breath, she blew them out.
The friends who’d discreetly stayed out of the way melted in now, coming from their wagons to gather around the deathbed. The sad cries of the caravan penetrated the dusk. Purple-lipped, the elderly, ragged tribe huddled together, stamping their feet to keep away the chill.
With the sleeve of her frayed gown, Valentina wiped her eyes. Her hands were still wet from retrieving water from the river. Earlier, she’d used the water to bathe her mother, an ironic Romany custom relying on her mother’s willingness to go to her death.
Yolanda helped her gather their mother’s personal belongings and carried them to the campfire. The flames rose against the night sky and consumed the remnants of their mother’s life—a well-worn apron, a silky-fringed sash. Their people burned most possessions of the dead, believing the possessions were unclean and defiled the living.
Valentina skimmed her index finger across her mother’s double-edged dagger and accidentally drew blood. Grimacing, she licked her finger. She didn’t have the heart to destroy the weapon, so she thrust the dagger into its sheath and tied it on a cord along her gown’s seam. Then she slid her palm across the last treasure, her mother’s yellow scarf, her diklo. Bringing it to her face, Valentina closed her eyes and inhaled. A whiff of oak and jasmine, exotic and mysterious, flooded through her. She remembered her mother jauntily tying the diklo around her greying hair each morning.
Valentina knew she was only supposed to take one small token before burial, although she took two. She’d never been one to obey rules. She folded the yellow scarf into a perfect triangle and tied it loosely around her throat. It didn’t match her faded scarlet gown, and it didn’t matter.
Nothing mattered now except her sister.
Yolanda’s pretty, round face contorted in grief as she placed small, multi-colored stones around their mother’s body. Valentina inserted pearls in her mother’s nose to keep out all wickedness. Her hands wavered, and she avoided touching the body for fear of contamination.
Inhaling a drop of frankincense, Valentina smoothed the spicy, golden oil along her arms to protect herself against evil spirits. A shadow of skepticism, and her hands stopped. Maybe spirits didn’t exist at all. They certainly demanded endless rituals, and in return granted . . . nothing. Glancing around at the eerie silhouettes dancing in the firelight, she dabbed a few more drops of oil on her wrists, just in case.
The men of their tribe sat in the grassy clearing on the forest’s edge, the scent of sweet blackberry brandy filling the brisk October air. They’d stolen it from an unsuspecting Englishman in town. Several grizzled dogs lie listless at their feet.
Luca, the caravan’s young, sinewy leader, was the only man who stood. His baggy green pants fitted at the ankle and billowed in the wind. He mourned in a plaintive cadence and guided the elders in solemn chants. Although all the other young men had gone off in search of food and never returned, Luca hadn’t deserted the tribe.
“I’ll get more hot water, Yolanda, before we prepare for daj’s burial.” Valentina retrieved her wool cloak, then hoisted a pot of water off a smoky campfire. With her free hand, she brushed a strand of hair behind her ear, longing for a warm bath. However, custom prevented her from washing until after her mother’s burial.
She made her way past the lamenters to the small tent the women shared. An afternoon rain had washed soggy leaves over the ground. One of the dogs sniffed, its furred neck bristled. A sudden crackle—somewhere a tree branch snapped.
Her senses sharpened. The last few nights she’d dozed while nursing her mother and had dreamt about a man. A rich man. A powerful man.
Scanning the dense woods, she sensed someone watching. She had the gift of second sight, her mother had said, but Valentina shook the thought away. Besides, her tribe was far too secluded to be found.
* * *
Yolanda labored through the night with a deep, raspy cough, while Valentina brewed a mixture of vegetable matter and barley water and fed it to her. Still, the cough persisted.
Yolanda’s breathing came rapid; her skin so pale. Curing Yolanda’s chronic cough had been beyond their mother’s skill, and Valentina’s, also. With each day, Yolanda ‘s condition had steadily worsened. Perhaps she had an infection.
Luca entered the tent. His brows furrowed in concern as he studied Yolanda’s sweaty face. “There’s a gentleman who owns an estate in Ipswich and a physician may live nearby,” he said.
Valentina caught Luca’s worried look and stood, deliberating.
“Perhaps the physician can prescribe a tonic medicine.” Valentina squeezed Yolanda’s chilly hands reassuringly. “If we leave now, we’ll be back at the camp before nightfall. Daj’s burial isn’t until tomorrow. Are you well enough for the walk to Ipswich, Yolanda?”
“Aye, of course.” If Yolanda wanted to look strong, the effect was spoiled because her deep-brown eyes were huge with worry. She hesitated, then coughed violently.
A midday sun loomed by the time Luca led Valentina and Yolanda to the outskirts of a grand country estate, a vast two-story home made of stone, the surrounding land dotted with tenant farmer cottages. Tall boxwood hedges screened the threesome from view. As they increased their pace, a thin boy wearing a tight blue jacket and high-waisted trousers skipped stones on the banks of a slow-flowing stream.
The refreshing autumn breeze renewed Valentina’s spirits. Soon, her sister would receive the care she needed to recover.
Luca stepped over a fallen stump. “The walk has done us all good.” He noted the color returning to Yolanda’s pale cheeks.
Valentina smiled, knowing he was attempting to encourage them.
“After your mother’s burial,” he continued, “we’ll head south toward the coast.”
“Before the winter, hopefully,” Valentina answered, guiding Yolanda past a low wooden fence. From the corner of her eye, Valentina thought she’d caught sight of two pairs of shiny English boots. For a moment, she froze.
“Luca—” Her alarmed gaze riveted on two men as they raced toward them from a thickly wooded rise.
“What are you Gypsies doing here?” one of the men shouted. His hair was silver-white and numerous lines creased his forehead.
Valentina’s hands flew to her chest. “We’re—”
Yolanda lips quivered as she pressed her elbows to her sides. “Please. We’re not doing anything wrong.” She coughed so hard her face flushed crimson.
“Are you trying to steal from us? You’ll answer to Mr. Colchester.” The silver-haired man nodded toward the other man. “Aye, Roland?”
Roland, a rough-looking man with huge shoulders, nodded. “Gypsies aren’t wanted here.”
There was no time to explain. Valentina whirled and grabbed her sister’s hand. Frantically, she looked around. Where was Luca?
Trembling, shaking, gasping, she tugged Yolanda toward the forest. The undergrowth whipped at her ankles. Her lungs burned.
“We should’ve stayed at the camp. I don’t need a physician.” Yolanda’s cough was incessant. “If they catch us …” She slipped and jutted both arms out to catch her fall, landing on the ground. She gritted her teeth and hissed. Her head went down.
“Valentina, I hurt my arm. I can’t run!”
Absorbed in her sister, Valentina allowed herself one gasping breath and risked a look over her shoulder. Geoffrey and Roland were dashing straight toward the women.
Valentina assisted Yolanda first to a kneeling position, then gently assisted her to her feet.
The trees rustled and Valentina peered upward. Luca had launched himself into the heavy branches of a tall, mossy pine. The limbs cracked under his weight as he braced his bare feet on either side of the trunk and balanced with ease. Raw-boned and dark, he coiled and yanked a carving knife from his boot.
Valentina tried not to glance at him, fearful she might shout and ruin his ambush, hoping the Englishmen would underestimate his agility.
Luca’s dark eyes glittered. He vaulted to the ground and his muscled arm locked around Roland’s throat. “Romany men don’t share and no one takes our drabardi.” His blade glinted in the dying embers of the sun.
Roland struck a heavy jab to Luca’s chest and threw Luca into the muddy grass. Then he scooped up a sobbing Yolanda and lumbered toward the stone house.
Valentina took judicious note of Luca. He was breathing steadily, although his face was covered in mud.
Geoffrey extended his hand to her. “Come with us. Your sister is hurt.”
Valentina ignored it. “Is there a physician on the estate?”
“Nay, although he lives close by. In the morning, he can tend to her arm. I fear it might be fractured.”
In the morning. Valentina scraped a hand through her heavy, tangled hair.
They’d planned to return to the camp by nightfall.
Briefly, she squeezed her eyes shut. Her mother’s body required a proper burial ritual. However, her sister needed to be seen by a physician. She glanced over her shoulder. Her conflicting reflections were interrupted by a quick, reassuring nod from Luca.
Pushing up the sleeves of her scarlet gown, she strode swiftly with Geoffrey, concentrating on her sister and the wide front steps of the grand house beyond.
Daj would have wanted Valentina to focus on Yolanda’s care, she assured herself. Come the morrow, they would return to their caravan.
“Devlesa araklam tum.”
“It is with God that we found you.”
-Old Romany saying
James Colchester rubbed his eyes, struggling with the fatigue of several sleepless nights. He’d fought another senseless battle in Spain for King George’s name. Time he would’ve preferred to spend near his son. Once the Battle of Vitoria had ended, he’d quickly returned home.
His son’s excited squeals of laughter as he ran into his father’s arms rewarded him for his efforts. Warmth moved his heart, lifted his spirit. Now, with the boy finally asleep on his lap, he forced his shoulders to relax and lifted a prayer.
“Thank you, Lord, for watching over my son and keeping him safe.”
James shifted in the straight-backed chair, pressed unyielding against his sore muscles, barely able to contain his long form and his little son’s, too. Despite his prosperity, he favored the simplicity of his sparse chamber—an unadorned fireplace, a clean bed, a wooden table beneath a woven tablecloth. He shook back an errant strand of hair, grown long from neglect. He’d haphazardly tied it back with a leather thong.
Geoffrey, James’ steward, strode into the room.
“Trouble, I hear?” James reached for his goblet of port wine on the carved rosewood side table
beside him. “A Gypsy woman on the estate?”
“Two Gypsy women, sir. They’re sisters. And one Gypsy man, who would’ve been more than happy to slit Roland’s throat. When we confronted them, they tried to run off. The younger sister injured her arm and it might be fractured.”
“And the Gypsy man?”
“He’s no threat.” Geoffrey peered at James. “The women look ragged and starving, so I brought them back here.”
“I’ll care for them both and we can call for a physician come the morrow.”
“I assumed you would do so.” Geoffrey squinted at the sleeping child in James’ lap and shook his head. “How is your son? Poor boy.”
“My son was born deaf. Rest assured, he isn’t poor.” James clenched his jaw and slammed down his goblet with more force than he intended.
Geoffrey yanked off his waistcoat and threaded a wrinkled hand through his white hair. He perused the sideboard before selecting a ripe pear. “May I sit?”
Geoffrey’s heavy profile cast a stooped shadow along the candle-lit room. He angled his chair near the fireplace and grabbed a glass of ale from a side table, taking a lengthy swill. He’d been James’ loyal steward since James had inherited the estate from his parents six years earlier.
“Several servants were conversing and said that one of the women you brought here is a fortuneteller?” James asked.
“The older sister, I believe.”
“Perhaps she’s the woman who once read my late wife’s fortune. That would be a coincidence, aye?” James stroked the stubble on his chin and stretched his legs toward the warm fire in the fireplace. He was still chilled from the battle. Anxiety threaded his words, despite his attempt to disguise it.
Geoffrey stared at his tankard and didn’t meet James’ gaze. “After your wife’s death, the entire manor fears another outbreak of influenza.”
“May I remind you, Geoffrey, that living here in the country, we’re much removed from this latest epidemic.”
“I trust you’ll make the right decision, Mr. Colchester, and settle our departure. Wales is your birthplace and you must be anxious to return.” Geoffrey tugged off his worn gloves. “My advice is to remove Jeremy from the memories of his sister and mother.”
“Don’t mention my beautiful daughter and my late wife in the same breath.” Absently, James stroked Jeremy’s pale cheek with his thumb. “’Tis not easy to travel with a son who isn’t healthy. He might not be able to withstand such an arduous journey.”
“We must depart.”
James took a long breath and crossed his booted foot over his knee. “Where did you say you found the Gypsies?” The chair prodded and poked into his back, refused to bend. He shifted. Changing position didn’t help. Nothing helped.
“At the edge of the property past the boxwood hedges. Roland and I were collecting rent from one of the tenants and spotted them. They mentioned breaking camp and heading south toward the coast.”
The coast. The sea. Beatrix. James closed his eyes against the sharp ache that clenched his stomach whenever he thought of his daughter. He could still hear her sweet babbling voice echoing through the hallways. He shook his head to silence the gnawing despair. What parent could ever recover from the death of their child?
He should’ve heeded the fortuneteller’s warning those few short years ago instead of disregarding it. He should’ve heeded it. If he had, perhaps Beatrix would still be alive.
Nay. The Bible warned about fortunetellers.
He swallowed, tasting an agonizing thought. God hadn’t listened to his prayers in a long, long time.
As he stood, he lifted Jeremy. The boy wrapped his small arms around James’ neck and his chest swelled at the love he felt for his son, constant and fierce.
“I may request a reading from this fortuneteller,” he said quietly.
Geoffrey lowered his thick white brows and shook his head in an emphatic ‘nay’. “Mr. Colchester, may I remind you, sir, that we are Christians. ‘Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them: I am the Lord your God.’”
“Leviticus 19:31. I’m well aware of that particular Bible verse, Geoffrey.” Cradling his son, James strode into the oil-lit hallway and nodded to the nurse. “Elspeth, it’s hours past Jeremy’s bedtime.” He placed the child into her outstretched arms.
Jeremy opened his greyish-blue eyes and sobbed. Tears pooled in the dark circles beneath. James gazed at the boy’s innocent expression, and a stab of pain pierced his insides. His sweet face looked so much like his twin sister, Beatrix.
“You’ll be safe, son, I promise,” James murmured.
“He’s fine, Mr. Colchester.” Elspeth’s polite smile didn’t go any further than her mouth. The servants had been on edge for months, ever since James’ wife had died.
Elspeth turned to leave, rocking Jeremy’s slight body back and forth. “When your son realized you were gone, he dreamt those terrible nightmares again.”
James lingered over Jeremy’s tranquil face and smoothed the fine brown hair from his forehead. A deep gentleness surged, mingling with desperation. “Let’s pray that Jeremy’s dreams will soon return to happier times.” With a nod, James quickly strode across the pale blue carpeted balcony and down the sweeping staircase.
* * *
The hour was well past midnight. Despite the fire burning in the parlor’s fireplace, Valentina rubbed her arms, chasing away the chill, her rings sparkling in the candlelight. She yanked her multilayered scarlet gown around her feet as she sat stiffly on a settee with scrolled ends and lion-carved legs. Her once vibrant clothes were now muted, matching her unwashed body and soiled appearance.
She leaned back, studying the tall, good-looking man who’d stepped in and shut the door behind him. His features were chiseled, his build muscular, and he strode with a quiet authority. Beneath strong arched brows, his piercing grey eyes observed her with frank interest.
Her chin went up as she proudly returned his gaze. “Bury me standing. Prohasar man opre pirend.” She repeated her mother’s words in her native Romany tongue.
“I don’t understand.” He stopped abruptly and folded his strong arms over his high-collared waistcoat. His face stayed hidden in the shadows, although the aristocratic lines were apparent. His masculine profile, dark against the light from the fireplace, reflected back, firm yet quiet. He was lean with broad shoulders, and she had to admit that he was very handsome.
“I speak the language of the Romany. My language.” She wiped her palms along her gown, taken aback at the sweat despite the coldness in the air.
“I’m James. James Colchester.”
She blinked, taken aback that he’d used his given name. Her dream came back in a rush. A rich man. A powerful man. He’d whispered to her when her sleep deepened and disappeared before she could reach him.
He stepped forward, his compelling gaze studying her face. “And you are?”
“Valentina Rupa.” She stood, grimacing at the shooting cramp in her legs, turned numb from the earlier hours she’d spent on her knees at her mother’s gravesite, and hoped they wouldn’t buckle and betray her weakness.
He reached out and grasped her elbow to assist her. “My men mistakenly assumed you were trying to steal something—although I’m not certain what. In the confusion, you tried to run and your sister’s arm was injured. Correct?”
She shook off his hand and didn’t answer.
Annoyance flickered across his face. “Correct?”
“Aye. We came here seeking a physician for my sister’s cough, and now she may have two reasons to see the physician.”
“I’m sorry she was hurt. We’ll know more come the morrow after Richard, the physician, examines her.”
Valentina gave a cool nod, framed in steel. “Where is Yolanda?”
“She is resting comfortably in one of the upstairs bedchambers and a servant is tending to her.”
“She is safe?”
“Aye, of course.” His smoky gaze surveyed her. “I believe you’re the fortuneteller I’d seen at a fair in Ipswich some years back.”
“How would you remember me?”
“I remember your eyes. They glow like polished emeralds.”
“I don’t remember you.” She surveyed his wealth of black hair, his self-commanding presence. “All Englishmen look alike.”
Moonlight winked through the panes of the leaded windows giving an eerie golden glow to the room. “I want to see my sister.”
“Let her rest.”
Would he hurt Yolanda? Nay. His eyes were warm, his manner gentle. Still, she didn’t know anything about him, except he was an Englishman and a gadje.
Her gaze darted to the doorway. She should find Yolanda and leave.
Before she took two steps, James caught her from behind. He wrapped his arms around her waist and gave a slight squeeze. The warm fabric of his muslin shirt slid against her bare arms. “Please. You have nothing to fear.”
She turned to face him and shrugged off his hands. “Good, because we’ve committed no crime.”
His lips twitched, so subtle she might’ve imagined it.
“Yolanda and I need to finish placing stones around our mother’s deathbed. I must be assured that we leave at first light.”
“I’m unaware of your Gypsy ways and I’m sorry about your mother’s death. ’Tis up to the physician, not me.” He removed his waistcoat and placed it on the settee. “Do you know why I wanted to see you tonight, before you were brought to a guest bedchamber?”
“Because your needs are more important than ours?
He frowned. “Of course not.”
Men like him were only interested in themselves. Perhaps he had no intention of calling a physician. Perhaps …
Panicking, she ripped her mother’s double-edged dagger from the cord along her gown’s seam, tore off the sheath and raised the weapon.
In the shocked hush, he held her wrist at arm’s length. “Give the dagger to me, Valentina.
“Te na khutshos perdal tsho ushali.”
“Try not to jump over your own shadow.”
-Old Romany saying
Valentina’s hands wouldn’t stop shaking. She’d never used her dagger before. Sweat broke out on her skin, dampening her gown.
James grabbed her other wrist with his free hand. His hard thighs intruded on hers. “Valentina, drop the blade.”
She breathed quick, thin gasps of air and met his furious stare. With a low groan, she released the dagger. It clattered to the floor and spun out of reach.
“I haven’t hurt you nor your sister, nor do I intend to.” He picked the dagger off the floor and set it atop the wooden mantel. Then he lit a candle in an iron spiked candle holder and placed it beside the dagger.
“Please come here.” He turned toward a slim ornate table in the corner of the room.
With a hard swallow, he eyed the fireplace mantel. Then, with a lift of her head, she purposely walked ahead of him. She insulted him by doing so, although he wasn’t aware of it. In the Romany culture, a woman never walked in front of a man.
He pulled out a heavy mahogany chair beside the table and beckoned her to sit. “I’d like you to read my fortune.”
Her hands dropped to her sides. For a moment, she was at a loss for words. “You English think the Rom ways are mere superstitions,” she countered.
“Aye, and my Christian beliefs forbid fortunetelling.”
“So why ask me?”
“At the fair, you demonstrated an astonishing ability to foresee the future.” He dragged up another chair and sat across from her. His muscular legs brushed against hers.
“So that’s why I’ve been waiting in your parlor for an hour?”
“Aye.” He reached out his hands to her across the table.
Valentina had gotten used to the gadjes’ unfamiliar smells and filthy palms. She breathed the nearness of him—a manly scent of earth and leather. His palms were clean.
“And if I refuse?” She focused on the chandelier hanging from the ceiling to distance herself from his stare.
His masculine fingers stroked her hands. “I’m hoping you won’t.”
Valentina jerked her hands away and smoothed her heavy, dark hair away from her face, suddenly self-conscious of her soiled appearance.
Her thoughts scrambled to understand. Perhaps she’d misunderstood him. Perhaps she hadn’t.
He stood and retrieved his waistcoat, an intricate black design woven into rich wool, off the settee. So beautiful, the garment could fetch enough money in the marketplace to feed her tribe for months.
He draped the soft fabric around her shoulders. “You must be cold.”
She glided the coat between her fingers and opened her mouth to protest.
His mouth quirked and he shook his head. He rolled up the stark white sleeves of his shirt, revealing the solid strength of his arms. He had a rugged face, his features perfect. His gaze was steadfast and single-minded.
Valentina sighed. “Let me see your hands.”
He set both hands on the table and she bent her head to examine them.
“Does it matter which hand you read first?” he asked.
His nearness created a disconcerting tingle in her chest. The heat emanated from his body and melted on her skin.
“Give me the hand you write with.”
Even if she were in the proper frame of mind to read his palm, ’twould be done under her terms and conditions. She preferred to do readings in her own setting—among the tribe or at a makeshift table set alongside a dirt road. Either way, she needed to be in control, not him.
He placed his right palm up. He gave her no choice about the setting for his reading. Out of sheer habit she traced his lifeline, the most important crease on the palm. As she guided her thumb against the firm line, an unexpected flow of heat passed between them.
She dropped his hand. His fingers fell against her outstretched leg and scorched through the fabric of her skirt. She grabbed the table to steady her nerves.
His eyebrows rose. “Try again?”
She picked up his hand. Complex and extensive lines shown on his palm, representing a wealthy and successful life. Very likely, considering his pampered lifestyle. She retraced the outer edge of his palm. “These tiny lines are your worries.”
He lowered his head, examined his palms and frowned. “They are many.”
A star shape embedded across his travel line indicated a crisis. Still to come? She hadn’t seen a star on anyone’s palm in years.
She bent her head. Aye. Deeply embedded in his right palm. Danger. Sadness.
The head line began above the life line and spanned horizontal. Both lines were joined, signifying a strong sense of mind ruling over body. But the angle of luck, the space between the life line and head line, was small. The smaller the space, the smaller the luck. She glanced at his unreadable face and swallowed.
His voice interrupted her thoughts. “I might need to move my entire household to the family estate in Wales to escape the influenza epidemic, although I prefer to remain here.”
“Someone very dear to me is frail, and ’twould be difficult for him to travel long distances. Because of the danger of contracting influenza, we’d need to avoid main roads and larger villages, thus doubling the length of our journey. Is it safe to remain here until the spring? Or should we risk the journey?”
His urgent voice distracted her.
He didn’t believe in fortunetelling, yet he seemed to need assurance his household would be safe. Instinct told her to be careful. Born an English landed gentry, he was dangerous.
She grazed her fingers over his calloused hands. Webs of jagged scars traced up his arms, reddened against his dark skin. He must’ve been in frequent battles. England was always either signing a peace treaty or fighting someone.
The length of his forefinger reached the bottom nail of the middle finger. This meant confidence and ambition.
His brows furrowed. “Explain as you read.”
Valentina shrugged and moved back to his palms. She ran her finger along his heart line. His heart, intense and deep, swaddled her like a blanket.
“You’re not explaining,” he said.
“I’ll speak when there’s something to say.” With a light touch, her fingers drew a path down his palms. Several smaller lines showed death. She tried to keep her face calm, her manner subdued. Might this loss be from his past, or his future?
His travel line was more intriguing. A vivid square appeared, a sign telling her it would be safe for him to travel. The danger reflected in the smaller lines meant any peril might occur in England.
She kept her eyes lowered. Despite his assurances, if he knew it was safe to travel to Wales, he might insist on taking her and Yolanda with him, perhaps to entertain him with more fortunetelling along the way. Then it would be months before they returned to their mother’s gravesite and the caravan.
Once, Valentina had told Yolanda she judged a person’s character and secret desires by the lines she read on their palms.
Briefly, she closed her eyes.
Her mother had taught Valentina the code of honor she lived by—reveal what might be
probable and say nothing more. Of course, Valentina embellished her readings to please the customer and make more money. So as not to distress them, she might omit a disturbing truth. That was all.
A wealthy man sat across from her. Not a customer. And she would make no money.
The memory of his nonchalant words crowded her indecision. “I’m unaware of your Gypsy ways and I’m sorry about your mother’s death.”
Hollow words. Did he truly care about daj, or Yolanda’s health and injuries?
“Si khohaimo may patshivalo sar o tshatshim,” Valentina half-whispered.
He studied her, ever watchful. “Speak in English.”
There are lies more believable than the truth.
Her mother’s gentle guidance intruded. ‘Respect your gifts. Use them wisely.’
Valentina focused on the magnificent velvet painting of a horse hanging on the opposite wall. “Then all I can tell you from the lines I can see on your palm, is that I’m uncertain.”
“Nothing else?” he prompted.
She fingered his waistcoat draped around her. A bitter taste lingered in her mouth. By not explaining everything she’d seen, she was betraying the ancient gift passed down to her for safekeeping by her beloved mother and generations of Romany women before her.
His face stayed thoughtful. “Thank you, Valentina.” The warmth of his smile reflected in his tone. His white teeth contrasted with his wind-burned skin. Minute lines crinkled around his mouth and the small freckle above his lips.
Firelight flickered across his proud face. The shadow of a dark stubble outlined his firm chin. “Thank you,” he repeated.
Valentina heard the desperation in his voice and unexpected tears welled. He looked exhausted. While they’d walked to the stone house, Geoffrey had told her that Mr. Colchester had recently returned from battle.
James Colchester needed time to recuperate, she assured herself. There was no need to alarm him, because her readings were seldom accurate.
Besides, there hadn’t been an outbreak of influenza in months.
* * *
James exhaled, quiet and slow. His hands trembled, ever so faintly, unable to hide his relief. Jeremy would be unable to fight influenza if it struck. However, they need not endure the difficult journey.
He closed his eyes and whispered a grateful prayer to God, along with a request to forgive him. ‘And when they say to you, “Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,” should not a people inquire of their God?’ The beginning of the Bible verse, Isaiah 8:19, insistently nagged at him.
This was different, he told himself. With painful accuracy, Valentina had foretold Beatrix’s death.
The early spring morning had been clear and cold, still fresh in his memory. Despite his objections, his late wife had insisted on having her palm read by a young Gypsy woman at a nearby traveling fair. The reading had disturbed her—their daughter was in grave danger. He’d dismissed his wife’s concerns with a skeptical laugh, but then he’d locked gazes with the green-eyed Gypsy. He’d always remember her, and those green eyes, and those words which had predicted his daughter’s death. Could fate have brought her to him a second time?
Valentina had given him a quiet nod to confirm her prediction of his wife’s reading. Then she’d turned toward her next customer’s outstretched palm.