A Gypsy's Vow
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by Bonnie Dee
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: A proper, level-headed woman. A handsome, wandering rogue. Sparks fly between them, but does the innkeeper's daughter dare leave behind all that's familiar to run away with a gypsy? After managing her drunken father's inn for most of her adult life, Bess is presented with an offer of marriage from a member of the local gentry. She should be thrilled at the proposed match with a man so far above her station, but knows Lord Wallace is more interested in the income from her successful business than he is in her. One day while shopping in the market, she meets a charming stranger who shakes up her world. She's unprepared for the onslaught of powerful feelings Alexi rouses in her as he woos her with passionate intensity. Now Bess must decide what she truly wants from life and how she chooses to live her future.
eBook Publisher: Atlantic Bridge/Liquid Silver Books, 2009
eBookwise Release Date: August 2009
7 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [100 KB]
Reading time: 62-86 min.
A gypsy rover came over the hill, bound for the valley so shady.
He whistled and he sang 'til the greenwoods rang
And he won the heart of a lady.
The Whistling Gypsy, English folk ballad.
* * * *
1902, Dorset, England
Sunlight sent fragments of light winking and dancing, catching Bess's attention. Following the sparkles to the source, she discovered a small gold hoop in a man's earlobe framed against glossy black curls. The man's face was tan, thin and sharp-featured. He stood by a cart displaying leather goods to a prospective customer. Over his white shirt he wore an embroidered waistcoat that set him apart from the local tradesmen and farmers. From the ring in his ear and the flamboyant vest, she guessed the stranger was a gypsy.
Her breath caught as he looked at her from across the crowded marketplace with an expression so intimate it seemed he knew all her secret thoughts and frustrated wishes. His dark eyes were too knowing and too disturbing. A flash of white teeth rivaling the earring's glitter illuminated his face and, without thinking, Bess smiled back. Then she blushed and quickly dropped her gaze to the raspberries she was sorting through.
"Buy the basket and I'll throw in an extra pound. It's nearly the end of the day and they're going soft." Sarah Pickett always had a deal for Bess. "You know I'd be happy to stop by the inn. There's no need for you to come all the way to the market."
"Thank you, but I don't mind." She didn't mention that shopping trips were a welcome respite in her busy day, a chance to get away from the Thorn and Thistle.
She paid for the berries and was about to pick up the basket when a small body barreled into her. Bess bent toward the dark-haired child who'd fallen on his backside on the ground. "Are you all right?" Grasping his hand, she helped him to his feet and gazed into his black eyes. She smiled and ruffled his hair. "Where's your mother?"
The boy pulled away from her and started to run again, only to be stopped by a hand clamping down on his shoulder. "Radge chav!" a low voice barked.
Bess lifted her gaze to the face of the gypsy man, scowling now as he lightly shook the boy and spoke harshly.
She reached out her hand. "It's all right. He didn't mean to run into me. I'm fine."
"No, it's not all right. Here." He reached into the boy's shirtfront, and when he removed his hand her purse dangled from it, strings cut. The man clicked his tongue as he rapped the boy on the back of the head and sent him on his way.
"Oh." Bess was stunned. She hadn't even felt the boy take it. The stranger offered her the purse, and their fingers brushed as she accepted it.
"I apologize for the little animal. I'll let his parents know and make sure he's punished." Despite the disapproving words, his tone was mild. A foreign intonation accented his English. "But let me make it up to you. I'll carry your basket."
Her pulse raced as if he'd suggested something else. "No, thank you."
"I promise I won't steal it. Roma aren't all thieves."
Both of them had grasped the basket handle. Bess didn't want to have a tug of war that might draw attention and end in spilled fruit, so she conceded with a small nod.
"Don't you have a stall to mind?" She glanced at the cart he'd abandoned where another dark-haired boy who resembled the one who'd run into her was hawking belts, purses and shoes.
"Marius can manage without me. Where am I escorting you?"
"The Thorn and Thistle Inn." Pulling her shawl tighter around her shoulders, she walked briskly through the crowd, aware of many pairs of eyes watching her and the stranger.
"Is the innkeeper's daughter as prickly as the establishment's name, Miss Andrews?"
She flicked a glance at him. "How do you know who I am?"
"I asked someone before I came over to speak to you." His smile was even more overwhelming close up. Its brilliance stole her breath and made her heart skip a beat. No wonder gypsies were rumored to have magic powers. His sheer magnetism made her dizzy and had her consenting to things she never meant to, such as letting him carry her basket for everyone to see.
The man strode alongside her, moving gracefully and with an erect posture that suggested arrogance, or at least, self-assuredness. She was intrigued by the contrast between his obvious poverty--scuffed boots, darned patches in the colorful waistcoat and a rip in the shoulder seam of his shirt--and his almost regal bearing, as if he were royalty rather than an itinerant traveler.
"So, I know your name, Bess Andrews. Can you guess mine?" He flashed another grin that made him look like the very devil his question implied. Folk stories claimed Satan couldn't say his own name, and one way he could gain power over a person was by getting them to say it. Bess understood the joke and couldn't resist a smart retort.
His hearty laughter invited her to join in. "My name is Alexi Cosmescu."
"Pleased to meet you," she replied automatically, but walked even faster, anxious to be rid of his company and safely back at the inn. Common wisdom claimed gypsies were an illiterate, thieving, feckless lot, but this man was clever and well spoken and he made her nervous.
As though catching the drift of her thoughts, he said, "Do I make you uncomfortable? Perhaps you fear I'm damaging your reputation simply by talking to you? That's a sad commentary on the world." He sighed. "My people are slandered at every turn. Isn't there a saying about letting God judge who's righteous and who isn't?"
They were almost to the edge of the square and the street that led to the inn. She should relieve him of the burden and send him on his way. "I don't mean to be rude, Mr. Cosmescu, but I really would prefer to walk alone. May I have my basket back?"
He faced her, looking deeply into her eyes. "I guess I was wrong. I saw you and thought something about you was different--that you wouldn't be like them." He nodded at the people buying and selling in the marketplace behind them. "Small-minded."
"Just because I don't wish to walk with you doesn't make me small-minded." His accusation upset her. She'd always considered herself more insightful than most of the people in this rural community. Books had opened her mind to the world beyond Framingham.
"No. I suppose not." He extended the basket toward her. "But it makes you a fool, because now you have to carry this heavy basket all by yourself." He winked, daring her to hang convention and take a chance.
She considered his challenging look and the fact that there was no one watching them any longer. What was the point in refusing his help now? "All right. Carry it for me, and thank you." She walked on, acutely aware of his presence by her side.
"My people are camped in the hollow by Old Ford Road. You should come there this evening. You'll see we aren't the demons people make us out to be."
She didn't dignify his invitation with a reply. He had to know there was no possibility of her ever setting foot in a gypsy camp.
"You think I'm teasing, but I'm not. I like the way you look, Bess Andrews, and not just because you're beautiful. There's something about the set of your chin or perhaps your eyes that tells me you're a strong woman and someone I'd care to know better. We won't be here long so I can't afford the time to court you properly."
"Court me?" She stopped walking and gaped at him. "Is that what you imagine this is?"
He shook his head, setting his black curls and the small hoop in his ear swaying. "Perhaps 'court' isn't the right word. My English is not always perfect."
"Oh, I think your English is fine and that you said exactly what you meant. But this is flirting, not courting, and whichever it is, I'm not interested. At the inn I'm often approached by traveling salesmen. I'm not naïve. I know what men like you want."
"What is it you think I want, Miss Andrews? To ravage you? I'm no barbarian. I only want to spend a little time with you."
"Excuse me for doubting your intentions, but you insisted on accompanying me home. What should I think you want?"
"Simply to have a real conversation. One about something other than the weather or how the crops are doing. I imagine you going through your days accomplishing tasks you don't care about and making small talk with the people who come and go from the inn. Meanwhile, you dream about traveling to all of the places they're going and seeing something other than this same countryside and the same people you've always known. Am I right?"
He was so exactly right it sent a stab of fear through her. Perhaps he was the devil to be able to read her unspoken desires so clearly. Again, she resumed walking. "You don't know me, sir. You don't know me at all."
"Maybe you're more conventional than you think and you've reined yourself so tight for so long that you wouldn't run free even if someone opened the paddock gate." The stream of challenging words flowed from his mouth. Was this man ever silent?
Anger heated the blood rushing through her veins and it wasn't all directed at the stranger. There was pent-up frustration at her drunkard father, who left the inn's management to her, mingled with the many petty annoyances she dealt with every day. When it was topped off with disappointment in herself for not daring to pursue her dreams, the recipe created a stew of emotion which abruptly boiled over.
"How dare you speak to me in such a manner?" She turned on her companion abruptly, braced her hands against his chest, and pushed.
He stumbled backward, arms flailing as he tried to catch his balance. The basket went flying, showering him and the pavement with raspberries. The fruit landed with soft, pulpy splats on the pavement and his shirt, leaving red smears everywhere.
Bess gasped and covered her mouth with her hand.
Her tormentor looked down at the carnage of fruit and the ruin of his threadbare clothes. When he met her gaze, she expected to see anger in his eyes, but instead he burst out laughing. The warm, rich chuckle rolled over her like hot tea on a chilly day and she couldn't resist smiling back at him. Then suddenly, she was laughing along with him, a body-shaking laughter that brought tears to her eyes. She realized she hadn't really laughed in a very long time. Wiping tear-tracks from her flushed cheeks, she fought to get her giggles under control.
Alexi crouched to pick up the basket and check the remaining fruit. His eyes were still merry as he looked up at her. "You have enough for about a quarter of a pie or a few tarts. I'm sorry."
"It was my fault. I shouldn't have pushed you. I'm not usually so bad-tempered."
He smiled again. "I don't believe that. I think you have a fiery spirit which you usually keep leashed. But that doesn't frighten me. I come from a family of terrifying women, my sisters, my mother, cousins and aunts. The men in our clan hardly dare draw breath without checking with the womenfolk first."
Bess laughed harder. How could she not? He was so good-natured after she'd practically knocked him to the ground. She crouched and gathered some of the berries that had rolled across the cobblestones.
"I'm dreadfully sorry," she apologized again. "I should buy you another shirt. The stains won't come out of that one."
He flicked a bit of pulp from his sleeve. "It's no loss. I do own more than one shirt." He looked at her. "If you come tonight, you can see me in my best one. We're having a celebration. My grandmother's seventy-eighth birthday. There will be singing and dancing. You would enjoy it."
Bess realized as she looked into his eyes that she wanted to go. Imagine attending the birthday party of a gypsy matriarch, seeing celebrations outsiders never witnessed. But of course it was impossible. She daren't go among these strangers. Heaven knew what they might do to her.
Afraid he'd see the drift of her suspicious thoughts, she smiled at Alexi. "I'll consider it."
"Good." He rose and offered her his hand. "You don't have to be afraid. I'd be with you."
That's what I'm afraid of. She hesitated then took his hand, feeling the rough calluses as he pulled her to her feet. He held on, the warmth of his skin seeping into hers.
Bess gazed into those midnight eyes that seemed able to see the parts of her she kept hidden from the world and she gripped his hard hand.
"I want to give you something." His hushed voice made the hair on her nape rise.
From his pocket he drew a length of wide, pink ribbon with a center panel of embroidered white daisies. "It's not enough to trim a dress, but it would look beautiful in your hair or perhaps worn around your neck." He stood too near her. She smelled wood smoke on his clothing and beneath that a scent that reminded her of mulled cider and honey fresh from the comb. The smell made her hungry.
She stared at the ribbon and then reached out, not for the ribbon but for her basket. "I'm sorry. I can't accept your gift. I appreciate the thought, but I really can't."
"Alexi!" a youthful voice broke the tense moment.
Bess glanced over her shoulder to see the youth from the cart running toward them. He was red-faced and panting by the time he reached them and unleashed a torrent of foreign words.
Alexi frowned and answered before turning back to her. "I'm sorry. There's something I must tend to. Will I see you later?"
"I don't know." She gave an honest answer. "I'll think about it."
He nodded, and then as swiftly as a hawk descending on a rabbit, he seized her free hand and kissed it, not a polite peck, but a soft, warm kiss on the center of her palm.
She felt the impression of his lips after he released her and walked away. Her skin vibrated and wild feelings swirled inside her. She felt she'd just escaped being eaten alive by a dangerous carnivore. There was no way she would ever intentionally meet this man in the dark of night. The idea was mad.
At last she tore her gaze away from the corner around which the man and boy had disappeared and resumed her walk to the inn.
* * * *
As Bess reached the Thorn and Thistle, her heart dropped at the sight of a green Smith motor car parked in the courtyard near a few tethered horses. Only one person in the county indulged in the outrageous extravagance of an automobile. Lord Harvey Wallace had come to pester her again.
She went to the back of the inn where she could hide in the kitchen for a while, before she eventually had to go into the great room and talk to him. She set the basket of raspberries on the kitchen counter.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Stover, I dropped the basket on the way home. You'll have to come up with something other than pie for dessert. One of your delicious cakes would be just as good."
Flattery went a long way toward soothing the cook's temper. She glanced into the basket and waved a floury hand. "No time for making pie crust anyway. Mary can mix up a couple of cakes. By the way, your gentleman has been waiting for you in the taproom. You should tidy your hair and go see him."
Whatever distance there should be between Bess and the cook had long since evaporated, since Mrs. Stover treated her more as a daughter than an employer.
Mary, the scullery maid, stopped peeling potatoes to stare wide-eyed at her mistress. "He's got his fancy motor car, Miss Andrews. Maybe he'll take you for a ride!"
"I haven't time for such foolishness. I have a business to run." Bess took the back staircase to her room where she splashed her face at the wash basin and combed the wings of her brown hair without rearranging the pile of curls on top. She would go down to the pub and politely but firmly resist the persistent Lord Wallace.
He was everything a woman in her position should aspire to. His title and land placed him far above her station and most women would seize the opportunity. But Bess knew Wallace was land rich and cash poor. He wasted his money on expensive toys such as that new motor vehicle and probably wanted the steady income from her business more than he desired her. She didn't want to lose control over her life and she wasn't attracted to the man. They were at a stalemate, yet still he kept coming around.
When she reached the great room, she was pleased to see it full of customers, some spending the night at the inn, but also plenty of locals who'd stopped at the taproom for their pints. She wasn't so pleased to see her father drinking with Wallace. The men leaned toward each other, plotting her future, no doubt.
Wallace rose when he saw her, "Good afternoon, Miss Andrews. I've been waiting for you and having a pleasant visit with your father."
"Lord Wallace." She inclined her head. "Father."
"My dear, there's no need for you to go to the market yourself. You can send one of the servants to perform such errands." The slur in her father's voice let her know the level of his inebriation, not too far gone yet, but about par for late afternoon.
"I enjoy the walk and the fresh air." And the illusion of freedom. She would've loved to continue on her way. She had far too many tasks to accomplish, but politeness demanded she sit with the men for at least a few minutes.
Lord Wallace pulled out a chair for her and she sat, smoothing her skirts and folding her hands on her lap.
He returned to his seat across from her. "I was hoping to take you for a ride in my automobile. Your father approves." Harvey's moustache was nearly as thin as his lips which curved in a smile. He was a polished, handsome man with courteous manners, but there was something about his teeth that reminded Bess of a rat.
She managed to return his smile. "A lovely offer, sir, but I must admit the contraption frightens me."
"Nothing to fear, madam. I have the beast firmly under control. Automobile driving is rather exciting, and I think you would enjoy it."
He was probably right. While the vehicle couldn't achieve the speed of a cantering horse, it would be rather thrilling to take a ride, but she didn't want to encourage his attention.
"Bess, Lord Wallace and I were just discussing the future." Her father abruptly changed the subject. "He's expressed his intentions to me and I've given him my blessing in asking for your hand in marriage."
Bess nearly gasped. She hadn't expected such a discussion. "Do you think this is the time and place to talk about this, Father?"
"Mr. Andrews, I didn't intend to present the proposition so bluntly," Wallace said. "But since you've mentioned the subject..." He addressed Bess. "I believe you've known of my interest for some time now. By speaking to your father, I wanted to prove to you I'm quite serious in my courtship."
There was that word again, spoken twice in one day by two vastly different men. What did they see in her and why couldn't they leave her alone?
"Miss Andrews ... Bess, I can offer you fine homes both here and in London, entrée into society, travel on the Continent."
"Who would run the inn? I'm needed here."
Her father's hand slapped the table, making her jump. "Damnation, Bess, I can manage my own business. I won't have you martyr yourself and become a spinster on my behalf. This is your chance for a better life."
On the surface it sounded as if she'd be mad not to seize the opportunity. But Bess felt dark currents swirling beneath the gold-gilded offer. "I'm sorry, Lord Wallace. I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but I'll need some time to consider this unexpected proposal."
"Time is running short, girl. You're twenty-three," her father said with all the tact of a bull in a china shop. Why had he suddenly chosen now to play the concerned father and take an interest in her future? "I will see this match take place. It's what your dear mother would have wanted."
Ah, the belligerent and maudlin stages of drunkenness in quick succession.
"Please excuse me. I have a number of things to attend to." Bess pushed back her chair and stood, anxious to leave before the pair of them continued to promote their cause. "I will consider your offer, Lord Wallace."
He rose and took her hand, forcing her to look into his eyes. A strong scent of bay rum aftershave wafted from him. "I'm sorry too. This isn't the time or place I would've chosen to make my proposal, but now that the subject has been broached, I will anxiously await your response."
She smiled weakly, wishing he'd release her from his moist grip, which felt like a trap gripping her hand. At last he let her go. Bess walked away, knowing everyone in the room would spread rumors about what they'd seen. Coupled with the gossip about her walking with a strange man in the marketplace, there would be plenty of fodder to entertain people for some time to come.
It felt as if her life was slipping out of her control. The tension inside her grew as day turned to evening and a myriad of problems required her attention. The taproom ran out of ale due to a delayed shipment. Mary burned herself on the stove, and tending to her wound put Mrs. Stover's dinner preparations behind schedule. One of the upstairs maids gave notice, and after she left, a guest found items missing so the constable had to be summoned.
It was nearly eleven o'clock by the time he'd left and things had settled down. Bess was exhausted, but too edgy to relax. The desire to flee the building surged inside her. Somewhere out there, strangers danced and sang around smoky campfires. These were people who lived in wagons, never settling in one place, roaming the world as free as the wind. How would it feel to live without people requiring her to solve their problems or fit into the life they deemed appropriate for her?
She had an invitation to take a peek at the mysterious life of gypsies just for one night if she dared. She walked through the empty kitchen and slipped out the side door into the night.