"According to Squire Jones' reports, the old woman is the one we should talk to," Harry said, pointing to a large group in the middle of the camp by the fire. Seated in prominence at the center of a wide circle, the old woman in question spoke with a loud, compelling voice. The ring of dark little heads followed the motion of her arms as she signaled the end of her tale with a flourish of her hands-hands peppered with age spots and wrinkles.
"She had better be the one." Logan drew his lips into a thin line when the old woman caught sight of them. Spearing him with her sharp gaze, she rose with slow, purposeful movements, and advanced toward them, the wall of children splitting to allow her passage.
Like Moses and the Red Sea.
After a long minute, the short, grey-haired woman stood before him, taking stock of his stature, his features, and even the air surrounding him. She was looking for something. Seeking.
Long moments of silence passed. Each ticking second grated against his patience.
"You look for Esmae." When she finally spoke, he lifted an eyebrow. That wasn't a question.
"We would like to talk about the sheep that have gone missing from the pastures east of here. We hope you have some information we need."
The old woman lifted her chin a notch and grabbed his pristine cravat. Taken aback, but not intimidated, he stood his ground. Despite how little and frail she appeared, she had a tight grip. Tilting her head, she leveled her gaze with his, and dared him to look away.
Pulling her hands back, she rested them on her walking stick, standing tall, straight, and proud.
She looked briefly at his face, and then peered into the darkness behind him. Her eyes followed the swirling breeze as if she could decipher the murmuring wind. "You have strong aura...you come, seek Esmae not for sheep." She grinned.
Blinking, he swallowed. "I have no idea what you mean."
Say what needs to be said, and be done.
"Someone is stealing my sheep. Now, I know it is unfair to blame your people, but the thefts did not start until your caravan set up camp near my pastures." The hairs on the back of his neck rose. He glanced up. From all corners of the camp, dark, curious eyes watched them. He cleared his throat. When had the chill night air grown warm? He pulled at his collar.
"We mean no disrespect. If you have any information regarding who might be stealing the sheep, we will reward you." Despite his desire to expedite matters, he knew angering the large group of proud nomads would be detrimental to his future peace.
The woman's expression darkened at the mention of reward. "You gadje, and you money. You not buy everything." She turned to the group behind her and said something in Romany. Ominous gasps feathered the silence.
"We no need you money. But I tell you what you come to ask." Looking from side to side conspiratorially, she motioned him forward with a vigorous wave of her gnarled hand.
Already regretting his decision to visit the Romany camp, he leaned forward, eager to know what the old woman had to say if only to get away faster.
"Past is dead. Future come soon."
Taken aback, he lifted his head to peer down at the woman.
Is she crazy?
The old woman's eyes glimmered with mirth. "No, Esmae not crazy."
His heart skipped a beat.
Is she a mind reader? He shook his head, and clamped his jaw.
She stepped closer, her withered, sunbaked face set in a grimace. "The spirits are awake. They choose you for challenge," she whispered.
"What challenge? I haven't challenged anyone." He must be a fool for continuing this ridiculous conversation.
The old woman sighed heavily, and tilted her head. "Spirits hear heart."
That isn't an answer.
Stretching to her full height, just reaching his third button, she leaned in and lifted her hands to catch his face. Shocked, he held his breath. Her glare raked over him, exposing him, laying his soul open for her examination. Dissection. He cleared his throat, and made to step back but she held him in place.
"Yes, chosen and unprepared." She dropped her calloused hands, hissing as if she'd been burned.
He liked a challenge as much as the next red-blooded male, but he wasn't keen on being challenged by the spirits. He'd heard enough. The woman knew nothing.
He left the clearing. Harry followed.
Mounting his horse, Logan spurred into motion, leaving the old woman behind. Relief washed over him. Despite his resolve to put her maniacal words out of his mind, they echoed in his ears, leaving trails of chills in his blood.
"Chosen and unprepared..." What did she mean?
The old Romany woman's shrill cackle interrupted the echoes in his head. A tremor of trepidation raced uninvited up his spine.
As the glow from the campfire gave way to the night, the Sixth Duke of Caspire raced hell-bent across the moonlit pasture, unaware something dark, sensual, ageless, and relentless in its hunger was in heated and gleeful pursuit.
The shadows cast by the darting flames danced across the ceiling above the bed: harem dancers moving seductively, desperate to appease their wrathful master. Though the fire in the hearth roared, a chilling breeze skittered along the floorboards and slid over his feet. Despite the chill making its way up his legs, Logan couldn't stop the compulsion to go somewhere, do something-but what?
The drink in his hand forgotten, he paced between the foot of his towering four-poster bed and the back of the chairs facing the fireplace. The floor, covered in expensive handmade Moroccan rugs, was soft, plush, and utterly unwelcome beneath his feet. He didn't want soft. He wanted to pound on a surface that wouldn't give under his blows. Clenching his jaw, he growled.
The force of his grip on the glass of brandy made his knuckles ache, but even that didn't stop his pacing. The invasive chill made its way over his chest. A violent shiver hit him, and the glass slipped from his grasp.
"Damn." He recovered it and replaced it on the table beside him. Dizziness overwhelmed him. He stumbled to the back of the chair and closed his eyes to aide in the fight to keep the brandy from revisiting his throat. His shadowed room, black shapes, blurry faces, bright cascading stars, and swirling blue lines flashed and spun within his vision.
Grimacing against the flittering images, he took a deep, calming breath before he straightened, and turned in the direction of his bed. One foot in front of the other. Slow and methodical, unwilling to fall and let the haze overtake him. After long, groaning minutes, the hard edge of the bed pressed against the front of his thighs. Heaving a breath of relief, he let the surging darkness swallow him.
He was unconscious before he hit the bed.
Her eyes captivated him. Brilliant jade stones, burning bright beneath slashing blue-black brows. Above her brows cascaded a crown of hair so luxurious his palms tingled in anticipation of swimming in the lush black locks. He couldn't see her face clearly; a churning, smoke-like mist danced between them, throwing most of her into silhouette. Behind the smoky veil, she wore nothing but a seductive playful look in her eye. Between swirls of mist, her hand emerged and her fingers crooked in a motion to 'come closer.'
He didn't understand, but he didn't want to. It was a dream, but the mist sliding along his naked chest teased his hairs, and coaxed tingling bumps from his heated skin.
Before he could take a step forward and touch her as he ached to do, the smoky veil closed around her like a grey silken sheet. He groaned in protest and struggled to move closer, but the mist at his feet bound him like steel manacles. His own dream held him prisoner, but he didn't care. As long as the sheet parted again and he could catch one more glimpse of those glorious jade eyes, he would gladly stay bound for eternity.
He stared into the haze, praying she would reappear. "Please, come back! I need to know who you are." Need didn't come close to the depth of emotion.
The veil parted at his words, and her silhouette moved. She danced, her arms strumming the air above her, playing the swirling haze like a harp. Her head turned one way and the other, telling him no, then yes, teasing him with her indecision.
The captivating motion of her head didn't compare to the luscious, sensual movements of her hips. Desire became flesh and twisted, thrust, and undulated its way into his blood.
From the distant echoes of this erotic world, a slow and stirring beat teased him. She moved her arms, head, and body-not in response to the beat, but as part of it. His breath quickened. She molded the mist around her into a haven of deep and aching desires...alive and real.
The tempo quickened and she moved, enticed.
He didn't want this dream to end. He had to-needed to-know her, this woman behind the veil, this woman who drew him from real life and made him ache for a living dream.
As suddenly as it began the beat faded, and the silhouette withdrew into the swirling gray.
"No, come back!"
As if to toss him a thin safety line in a sea of anguish, she turned, cast him a sultry look, and disappeared.
He awoke, but, by God, he didn't want to. He pushed up from the bed, and turned to squint at the golden morning sun as it spilled across the horizon. The fire smoldered in the hearth, the brandy glass still sat on the table; nothing had changed-except him.
He would never be the same again. Whenever he closed his eyes, the memory of a green-eyed seductress captured his soul.