Thick, gray clouds drifted across the sky in a spectrum of black and gray hues the like of which she’d yet to discover on any artist’s palette. Celeste longed to stay and indulge her passion, if not her talent, but she’d been gone far too long already. She gazed down at the stepping-stones bridging the fast moving stream and tightened her fingers about the sketchbook cradled protectively against her bosom. The water wasn’t very deep. She wouldn’t drown if she fell in, although that was the least of her worries.
She’d feigned a headache and begged off attending Reverend Twisse’s sermon that morning. She’d expected a lecture from her father about the value of the Puritan family, the virtue of leading a godly life and the importance of having a clear understanding of the main tenets of their Christian faith. The principles of which, her father once berated, she was yet to learn. But she’d received neither acknowledgment nor censure from him. Instead, it’d been left to their servant, Abigail, to convey her father’s parting instruction that she complete her chores before his return.
It’d been Abigail who’d ushered her—sketchbook and black chalk in hand—out the door the moment her parents’ carriage trundled from sight.
“Now, don’t you worry, Miss,” Abigail had said. “The animals will be fed and the rushes seen to. I’ll make sure of it. It’ll do you good to get out and about but mind you’re back before the evening meal or you’ll miss your supper. Again.”
Celeste had kissed the old servant fondly on the cheek and solemnly promised to return in good time.
She flicked a guilty gaze to the rumbling sky.
She hadn’t kept her word but it’d hardly been her fault. She loved the early Spring—she loved being out in the open with only her thoughts to contend with. And despite the impending storm, Spring had definitely returned to Chichester creating a veritable feast for her eyes and imagination. She glanced at the sketchbook. Her modest talent didn’t do justice to the South Downs but she’d found diversion and pleasure in the attempt nonetheless. And freedom. Freedom to cast off her coif and discard the lace ruff at her throat.
She dragged the fingers of her free hand through her loosened hair. There was nothing of her mother’s sobriety in her character. Her mother wouldn’t have allowed the objectionable beads of perspiration to cover her brow or her hair to escape its coif in a mass of unruly tangles. Or race across fields climbing stiles and tors.
She had tried to be a good daughter—a dutiful one. But she’d profited little from her mother’s instruction or the Protestant sermons she’d been required to attend.
“It’s most unfortunate, Mistress Darwent,” Reverend Twisse had remarked a week earlier to her mother but in earshot of the entire Puritan congregation. “There’s nothing to be done for a child so utterly disobedient to the Lord and disordered to her parents.”
Celeste grimaced and blinked back the tears pricking at the corner of her eyes. She wasn’t deliberately disobedient or disorderly but needlework and prayer hadn’t suited her temperament anymore than her countenance lent credence to such pious pursuits. The Puritan children called her Gypsy. Whenever she would go to town they would stop playing and either surround her and stare at her or prepare to hurl mud at her. Reverend Twisse’s words had merely served to fuel their antipathy.
The rumble of thunder came again, this time a little closer. Celeste glanced at the looming sky. She wouldn’t make it to Milldon House before the rain after all. She released a deep breath and clutching at the skirt of her dark blue dress started across the smooth stones.
She cleared the remaining span of water with a final leap and landed without a sound on the opposite bank. A bolt of lightning split the darkening horizon. It flashed again across the remote landscape, illuminating the immense oak tree that marked the boundary of her father’s estate. She gathered her skirts and took off at a run through the wide, verdant field toward the distant tor.
Her breath escaped in quick, shallow rasps and her heart pounded against her ribs. She scrambled the rock-strewn slope to the top of the hill and collapsed against the gnarled trunk. The roughened bark pricked through her dress into her back and shoulders but she didn’t care. She closed her eyes.
“Good evening, Elina.”
She jerked forward with a soundless cry and dropped the sketchbook pressed to her heaving chest. Her startled gaze locked on an old hag bent almost double by the large bundle of faggots strapped to her back and who’d appeared out of the blue. Celeste inched backward and found her voice.
“Wh-Who are you? What do you want?”
Calm, dark eyes peered at her without fear or apology from a wrinkled face beneath a broad-brimmed straw hat tied down with a striped handkerchief and fastened under the chin. Celeste shifted uneasily.
Gypsies had long lived in the woods on the outskirts of her father’s estate but constant reminders from her mother of the consequences should she venture near the gypsy camp had kept Celeste from seeking them out.
The gypsy stepped forward with surprising alacrity. She reached out and grasped Celeste’s hands firmly within her own.
“Don’t be alarmed, little one. I’ve been waiting for you for sometime,” she said.
Little One? Only in the confines of her dreams did a young woman come to her speaking those very words that gave her untold comfort. How could this curious old gypsy know that? She drew back and pulled her hands free. This could be nothing more than some strange and unwelcome coincidence.
The gypsy closed the distance again.
“It’s time, Elina. Your mother wished for us to become acquainted at the right moment. And that moment is now.”
Celeste’s disbelief resounded in her mind. It was unreasonable. Irrational. Absurd. How could there be such familiarity in the utterance of a name wholly not her own? She studied the black eyes staring at her with such conviction and frowned.
“You’re mistaken. My mother would never approve our meeting.”
The gypsy smiled and grabbed Celeste’s hands a second time. An aura of recognition illuminated the brown-black countenance and sparked the depths of her old eyes.
“Come. Take tea with me. It should be ready now. Besides, we have much to talk about.”
Celeste attempted to free her hands from those black as crock but found to her annoyance her fingers were caught within the gypsy’s vice-like grip.
“Why do you call me Elina? My name is not Elina—”
A sudden gust of wind swept through her mounting tirade. With a deafening howl it swirled about her booted feet and lifted the heavy swathe of skirt about her legs with effortless ease. It blustered through the spiraling, serrated leaves dangling from the branches above and toyed with her loosened curls. Then as quickly as it had appeared, the wind died down.
Relieved the gypsy had finally released her hold Celeste hastily brushed back the strands of hair blown across her face. She had to get home.
She spun quickly about. She stood quite alone. The old woman had vanished leaving the pile of kindling lying neatly at her feet.
Celeste gasped as she became aware of a small, cold object in her left hand. She shifted her gaze to her balled fist and slowly unfurled her fingers. Her eyes widened at the delicate gold locket lying on her palm. Why would the gypsy leave her something so priceless?
She raised her head and stared into the distance at the surrounding woods. Her mother wouldn’t be pleased but she couldn’t, in all conscience, take advantage of an old woman’s mistaken memories.
Silent shadows darted between the faint shafts of evening light trickling down to the forest floor. The patter of rain was a steady companion, although the heavy drops barely penetrated the thick canopy above. Celeste pushed on through the undergrowth. She oughtn’t know this place or have any thought or memory or feeling. Yet the dense surroundings pricked with relentless familiarity at her senses, coaxing her further and deeper through the labyrinth of trees.
Determination, however, soon waned to hope. And hope, in turn, had all but weakened to despair before she stumbled beyond the maze of trees onto a clearing lustrous in the soft glow of an enchanting white light. There were neither moon nor stars in the sky and apart from a flickering tallow flame burning in the small window of a ramshackle, bow-top wagon half-hidden among the trees, Celeste couldn’t readily discern its source.
She exhaled forcibly and tried to ignore the intense feeling of return tightening her stomach and swelling her heart. She crossed the empty clearing moving past the piebald mare grazing tirelessly on the damp grass and approached the gypsy wagon. She reached out and trailed her fingers over the dry wood.
The once pristine colors and vibrant images had long faded to nothing. Yet vivid scenes of floral designs and gamboling hares came alive beneath her touch. She frowned her incomprehension, confused by such familiar knowledge.
Awareness pricked at her skin and raised the fine hairs on the back of her neck. She whirled about, her eyes searching the darkness for those she’d sensed. She slowly backed away from the wagon and cautiously held out her hand, letting the gold locket dangle from her fingers. It glistened brightly in the iridescent light.
“I merely wish to return what isn’t mine,” she said aloud. “I desire nothing more.”
“Don’t be afraid, Elina. You’re quite welcome here.”
Celeste pivoted at the sound of the familiar voice and then gasped in surprise. The gypsy she’d encountered beneath the oak tree stood atop the wagon’s wooden steps but she was no longer bent or haggard or particularly old.
The woman nodded with an amused smile, her eyes lambent in the luminous light. “Come,” she said. “I won’t hurt you.”
She turned on her heel and disappeared into the weather-beaten wagon not waiting to see if Celeste would follow.
Celeste took a deep breath. She climbed the steps to the open doorway and hesitated briefly before pushing past the flimsy gossamer curtain hanging there.
A swirl of thick, fragrant smoke penetrated her lungs, although it gave her no great discomfort. The gypsy beckoned her closer. Celeste stepped forward, blinking until her eyes grew accustomed to the dim light.
“You’re so very much like your mother, Elina. Beautiful.”
Celeste pressed her lips tightly together. The gypsy was lacking in her senses, she was certain of it now. No one had ever complimented her on her resemblance to her mother. In fact, if anything was said, it was more often than not the painful truth of there being no remarkable similarities whatsoever. She released a weary sigh. She refused to be mystified by this gypsy or give credibility to her imaginations.
“I don’t know what you see, but you’re mistaken.”
She dangled the gold locket in the feeble light. It spun and glinted between them. “I truly can’t accept this.”
The gypsy stepped forward and, without looking at the locket, sidestepped Celeste and left the wagon once more. Celeste listened a moment to the articulate voice drifting in through the open door. She didn't understand or recognize the spoken dialect, but the charming vernacular kindled in her the strangest and strongest feeling of belonging that she’d ever known.
She moved through the cramped, colorful interior heeding her curiosity and the burgeoning sense of familiarity gripping her brain.
Her fingers brushed the beautiful tiled area behind the black iron potbelly stove and she peeked into lockers and drawers concealed beneath carved seats. She tested the richly adorned chest-high feather bed with her hands and rummaged through the cupboards beneath it. She didn’t hear the gypsy return.
“If there’s something you wish to know, Elina, you need only ask.”
Celeste quickly pushed herself to her feet. Her mortification at having been caught prying heated her cheeks.
“Forgive me,” she stammered. “I…I didn’t mean to…but I—”
The gypsy held up a placating hand. “You’re most welcome to look around…Miss Darwent.”
Celeste was mystified. “You know who I am?”
“Yes. I know who you are, who you were and who you will become.”
“Now, you speak in riddles.”
“Do I? I believe I know exactly what I’m saying.”
“I mean…I don’t understand.”
“Yet,” the gypsy supplied.
She stepped further into the wagon and removed two large teacups from the cupboard above the iron stove and placed them on a small table near the bed. Celeste licked her lips nervously.
“Why did you call me, Elina, if you knew my name? Who is Elina? Do I bear her some resemblance, perhaps?”
She frowned at the gypsy’s continuing silence and firmly held out the locket. “At least tell me, did this belong to her? To Elina?”
The gypsy took the large teapot from the stove and poured the golden liquid into the cups. She replaced the pot and then graced Celeste with a gentle look.
“You have Lalita’s eyes,” she said.
“Lalita?” Celeste queried.
“Open the locket,” the gypsy instructed.
Hesitant, yet eager to understand, Celeste pulled open the locket and stared at the beautiful image of the woman painted within. The likeness was unmistakable—the same long dark hair and sun-kissed complexion. She sank back against the bed and expelled a sharp breath. Dare she believe what her heart already knew? Her voice was barely above an incredulous whisper.
“Yes,” the gypsy said. “Lalita is my daughter.”
Celeste studied the woman, who was her grandmother, through a haze of tears. She opened her mouth to speak but the words refused to come.
The gypsy nodded in confirmation. “I am Rafat, your grandmother.”
The candlelight flickered in the window. It disturbed the shadows on the wall, catching Celeste’s eye. She stared into the sputtering flame not knowing what to say, not knowing how to respond, not knowing where to be begin. A single tear trailed down her cheek.
“Why didn’t I ever know this?”
“You weren’t ready, but you’re ready now, Elina, and you’re strong. You must stay strong.”
Celeste thought to hear a slight warning in her grandmother’s voice but her mind did little to hold on to it.
“Elina…” She pondered the name.
“Lalita chose this name for you,” Rafat explained. “But with a new life comes a new name.”
Her gaze fluttered upward to her grandmother’s face and then down to the portrait in the locket. “You mean Mistress Darwent. Now I understand the disparity in our characters and complexion.”
She took a breath. “What happened to my mother, and where is my father?”
“Your father loved your mother very much. It pained him to go to war leaving Lalita alone and with child.”
Rafat covered the small distance between them. “He returned five years later to find Lalita had died from a fever. Your father never recovered from his loss. Lalita’s death broke his heart and mine.”
“Is my father dead, too?”
Celeste raised her eyes at her grandmother’s silence. “Is my father dead?” she asked again.
Rafat shook her head. “No. Your father is very much alive.”
Fresh, hot tears formed against Celeste’s lower lashes. “If he’s not dead, then where is he? Why must I suffer the will of people who despise me when my own father is alive and well?”
“Your father knew nothing of raising a child alone, Elina. He’s a soldier and the king’s courtier—”
Her eyes widened. “A courtier? And he would leave me here?”
Her grandmother nodded. “I believe your father thought of nothing other than your welfare, Elina. He couldn’t give you the love and attention you deserved.”
“So, he left me in the care of Mistress Darwent,” Celeste scathed.
“Arthur Darwent is your father’s cousin and only living relative. It was Arthur who persuaded your father to relinquish you into his wife’s care for the sake of propriety—”
Celeste half-smiled. “I see. Propriety.”
“Yes. Propriety. Your father had no wife and you needed a mother.”
“Yet, they don’t care for me.”
She touched pensive fingers to her face and leveled her gaze on the benign eyes watching her. “You are my grandmother,” she said. “Didn’t you want me?”
A faint smile tugged at Rafat’s lips. “You are the daughter of a courtier and you have grown into the fine young lady Lalita would’ve wanted. Perhaps not under the ideal of circumstances but this life—”
Rafat opened her arms, sweeping them upward to the bowed ceiling.
“This Romany life isn’t what your mother wanted for you, Elina.”
“Didn’t my mother want me to be happy? All this time I had a family—”
Celeste hung her head, fighting back the bitter taste of regret rising in her throat. Her grandmother placed a finger beneath her chin and compelled Celeste’s eyes back to hers.
“I’ve watched you these many years roam the hills for hours, paint your landscapes and put your thoughts to paper. You have been happy here among the flowers.”
“Yes, but my home has never felt like my home—until now. I’ve never felt I belonged anywhere—until now.”
She exhaled slowly. “Will you tell me the name of my father?”
Rafat shook her head. “This is a journey you must make alone, Elina. I must not interfere in the way things must be.”
“What do you mean by that?”
Rafat wiped the tears from Celeste’s face. “I mean, for now, it’s enough. It’s time to rejoice for you have come back to me.”
Celeste stepped into her grandmother’s waiting arms. The soothing warmth of familiar scent engulfed her and she closed her eyes. She was finally home.
A fiery rhythm filled the night.
She stood by the small doorway of her grandmother’s horse-drawn dwelling and peeked out onto the clearing. The inhabitants of the camp had appeared and gathered around a large fire. They stamped the ground and clapped their hands in tempo with the rapid rhythm of the strummed guitarra. Their laughing faces bathed in golden firelight.
A handsome gypsy man, spine held proudly with shoulders back and feet moving in a series of intricate steps, spun breathlessly about the incandescent flames. Firelight danced off his knee-length lacquered boots and his dark hair whipped this way and that, tangling against the glistening dampness of his bare chest.
Celeste stepped forward enthralled by his spirited performance. She marveled at the overwhelming depth of expression etched on his burnished features.
She belonged here among the gypsies whose array of sun-kissed complexions mirrored her own. They were her family. Her people. Even her hair spilling down her back didn’t look out of place among the rich flow of waist length tresses, although she was unsure if her conviction had anything at all to do with the handsome man dancing in their midst. She curled her fingers tighter about the teacup between her hands in vain attempt to still the unfamiliar ache spiraling through her body.
The music abruptly stilled and the exulted cries died down.
Celeste raised her gaze and caught the sudden dark flash of the dancer’s eyes. With his body poised and his strong chest rising and falling in quick succession from his exertion, he held out a hand and silently beckoned her. She shrank back into the shadows, her startled breath locked in her throat.
Rafat murmured close to her ear. “His name is Zev. He waits for you. Go, Elina. It’s time to dance.”
Celeste whipped about, spluttering her protest. “I don’t know how to dance. I can’t!”
Rafat ignored her remonstration and took the teacup from between her tensed fingers. “When you dance, you must also forget the dance, Elina.”
Her grandmother spoke again in riddles. How could she forget to dance when she didn’t even know how? But she didn’t have time to argue the point. Rafat steered her gently through the gossamer curtain and into the bright night.
Celeste emerged from the steps of the old wagon more than conscious of her new attire. The red flowing skirt caressed the entire length of her legs and she couldn’t help but take inward pleasure from the strange feel of the exotic fabric fluttering against her bare skin. About her ankle a delicate chain laden with small charms—a gift from her grandmother—chimed with every step. She drew closer to the expectant faces and curious gazes resisting the urge to raise her arms and shield her naked shoulders.
Dark, glittering eyes shone with pleasure and approval as she entered their circle and wended her way to the edge of the fire. She fidgeted with the small, gold locket about her neck, her chest rising and falling with nervous excitement. The faintest of smiles touched his lips.
Zev gave a curt nod and the guitarra strummed once more. His feet took up the powerful rhythm, beating time with controlled, authoritative steps while his hands tapped out an altogether faster cadence. He neared her, sucking her into his aura. She kept her eyes fixed on his unable to break the spell.
His breath caressed her cheek. His hands ceased their accompaniment and settled about her waist. She wasn’t versed in the art of love or pleasing a man, yet her body needed no instruction. Something carnal, something bold flared through her veins when propriety demanded she be offended and find fault with his impudence. Censure him. Deny him. Anything but willingly crave the touch of his hands on her skin. He slipped his palm to her lower back and drew her closer, molding her to his length and holding her there.
The sheer fabric of her bodice proved to be neither hindrance nor barrier between them. Her breasts pillowed against the muscular contour of his sweat-covered chest. She breathed in his feral scent and wondered if he would taste as intoxicating. Her cheeks heated at the thought and again the faintest of smiles hovered about his lips.
Wrapped in his gaze and caught up in the rhythm of her heart, she lifted her arms, locking her hands about his neck. Zev ran his fingers up the length of her body and then down, trailing his palms along the outer curves of her breasts and returning them to covet the lower curves of her hips. He moved her body in time with his and she arched closer.
She didn’t know if it was wisdom coursing through her veins or the inherent legacy of an age-old tradition. Or the thought of her mother’s shoes upon her feet but her soul sprang to life and knowledge flowed from her heart. She pulled from the sanctuary of his arms and found the courage to hold his gaze. She curled her lips into a confident smile and swept her leg through the air in a flourishing arc. Her skirt swished between them, challenging and flirtatious like the red apron of a bullfighter’s muleta.
She tapped time with her heel and posed her arms above her head, drawing her fingers and wrists in tight circular movements through the air. Instinct guided her as music channeled through her feet, unleashing a mysterious force that permeated her spirit and freed her soul. Graceful and lithe, proud and impassioned she danced in wild, fiery abandon.
Zev followed her about the fire, matching her quick, light steps with his powerful ones. The yellow sash tied about her waist fluttered between them, tempting him to capture it between his fingers and pull her back within his embrace. At the final crescendo she stood aquiver in his arms.
Her skirt had ridden high above her thighs, revealing the naked limb wrapped provocatively about his waist and imprisoning his hips against her chaste but willing body. Her fingers curled in the thick, silky feel of his hair. His hand intimately explored her smooth, exposed flesh. He bent her back over his arm, coaxing her nearer until the center of her desire pulsed against the hardened bulge between his thighs. She held on for dear life, his torso her only support.
Their movements stilled.
The laughter and cheers faded to a distant sprinkling of sound. She tightened her fingers in his hair overwhelmed by the raw sensations swelling her breasts and the unaccustomed warmth radiating through her body. His mouth hovered above hers. She closed her eyes and tried to control her breathing.
Just one taste. Just one kiss.
“She’s not for you, Zev.”
Celeste’s eyes flew open. Her grandmother’s quiet voice had found its way through the vacuum surrounding them.
Zev’s eyes glazed with regret. He released Celeste from his embrace and, acknowledging her with a brief nod and a soft murmur in his native tongue, turned on his heel leaving her feeling suddenly cold and empty. She stared at the rigid, powerful back disappearing with leisurely strides into the shadows and trembled.
“Why isn’t he for me?”
Rafat bowed toward the fire and lit the thin cigarro she held between her fingers. “You have your mother in you,” she said. “No one else understood the Zapateado like she did.”
Celeste didn’t answer. She couldn’t. But a sudden panicked shout put paid to her shameful thoughts. Her grandmother listened with grave attentiveness to the young boy who’d burst through the startled crowd toward them.
“There are men from Milldon House in search of you in the woods,” Rafat translated.
Celeste gasped and threw her hands to her cheeks. “What have I done? If they should find me here—” She dared not think of the consequences.
“They won’t,” her grandmother assured. “Come, Elina. You must hurry. Go with Taaresh. He’ll show you the way home.”
The young boy nodded his understanding.
Celeste looked across the clearing to the tall, handsome man still watching her.
“You mustn’t be sad,” Rafat soothed. “It must be so. Besides, it’s not written you must love the first man you meet.”
She brushed a gentle hand down Celeste’s face, wiping away her tears. “I can tell you this. There’s one man whom you’re destined to love and call husband. And he’ll share you with no one.”
“How can my destiny lie with another?” Celeste murmured. “Is my heart so easily swayed?”
“There’s no more time to explain. You must go, and go now.”
Celeste bit her bottom lip, willing it to cease trembling. There was so much more to say and so much more to know. She flew into Rafat’s arms.
“Goodbye, Grandmother. Tell Zev—” Her voice faltered. She tried desperately not to cry but her disappointment was too great.
Her grandmother hugged her close and murmured in her native tongue. “Elina, sat sri akaal. Your journey begins tonight. You must be strong.”