"Could you ever find them again, if you wished?"
"Given enough time." Casually he fastened his waistcoat and rolled down his sleeves, concealing the heathen symbol. "I remember my grandmother telling me about the pooka. She encouraged me to believe it was real—I think she half believed it herself. She practiced the old magic."
"What is that? Do you mean fortune-telling?"
Rohan shook his head and slid his hands into the pockets of his trousers. "No," he said, looking amused, "although she did tell fortunes to gadjos at times. The old magic is a belief that all of nature is connected and equal. Everything is alive. Even the trees have souls."
Amelia was fascinated. It had always been impossible to coax Merripen to say anything about his past or his Romany beliefs, and here was a man who seemed willing to discuss anything. "Do you believe in the old magic?"
"No. But I like the idea of it." Rohan reached for her elbow to guide her around a rough patch of ground. Before she could object to the gentle touch, it was gone. "The pooka isn't always wicked," he said. "Sometimes it acts out of mischief. Playfulness."
She gave him a skeptical glance. "You call it playful for a creature to toss you on its back, fly up to the sky, and drop you into a ditch or bog?"
"That's one of the stories," Rohan admitted with a grin. "But in other accounts, the pooka only wants to take you on an adventure… fly you to places you can only see in dreams. And then he returns you home."
"But the legends say that after the horse takes you on his midnight travels, you're never the same."
"No," he said softly. "How could you be?"
Without realizing it, Amelia had slowed their pace to a relaxed amble. It seemed impossible to walk with brisk efficiency on a day like this, with so much sun and soft air. And with this unusual man beside her, dark and dangerous and charming.
"Of all the places to see you again," she said, "I would never have expected Lord Westcliff 's estate. How did you come to be acquainted? He's a member of the gaming club, I suppose."
"Yes. And friends with the owner."
"Are Lord Westcliff's other guests accepting of your presence at Stony Cross Manor?"
"You mean because I'm a Roma?" A sly smile touched his lips. "I'm afraid they have no choice but to be polite. First, out of respect for the earl. And then there's the fact that most of them are obliged to come to me for credit at the club—which means I have access to their private financial information."
"Not to mention private scandals," Amelia said, remembering the alley fight.
His smile lingered. "A few of those, too."
"Nevertheless, you must feel like an outsider at times.
"Always," he said in a matter-of-fact tone. "I'm an outsider to my people, as well. You see, I'm a half-breed?poshram, they call it—born of a Gypsy mother and an Irish gadjo father. And since the family's lineage goes through the father, I'm not even considered Roma. It's the worst violation of the code for one of our women to marry a gadjo."
"Is that why you don't live with your tribe?"
"One of the reasons."
Amelia wondered what it must be like for him, caught between two cultures, belonging to neither. No hope of ever being fully accepted. And yet there was no trace of self-pity in his tone.
"The Hathaways are outsiders, as well," she said. "It's obvious we're not suited to a position in polite society. None of us have the education or breeding to carry it off. Supper at Stony Cross Manor should be a spectacle—I'm sure it will end with us being tossed out on our ears."
"You may be surprised. Lord and Lady Westcliff don't usually stand on formality. And their table includes a great variety of guests."
Amelia was not reassured. To her, upper society resembled the ornamental tanks used for exotic fish-keeping in fashionable parlors, filled with glittering creatures who darted and circled in patterns she had no hope of understanding. The Hathaways might as well attempt to live underwater as to belong in such elevated company. And yet they had no choice but to try.
Spying a heavy growth of watercress on the bank of a wet meadow, Amelia went to examine it. Grasping a bunch, she pulled until the delicate stems snapped. "Watercress is plentiful here, isn't it? I've heard it can be made into a fine salad or sauce."
"It's also a medicinal herb. The Rom call it panishok. My grandmother used to put it in poultices for sprains or injuries. And it's a powerful love tonic. For women, especially."
"A what?" The delicate greenery fell from her nerveless fingers.
"If a man wishes to reawaken his lover's interest, he feeds her watercress. It's a stimulant of the?
"Don't tell me! Don't!"
Rohan laughed, a mocking gleam in his eyes.
Giving him a warning glance, Amelia brushed a few stray watercress leaves from her palms and continued on her way.
Her companion followed readily. "Tell me about your family," he coaxed. "How many of you are there?"
"Five in all. Leo—that is, Lord Ramsay—is the oldest, and I am the next, followed by Winnifred, Poppy, and Beatrix."
"Which sister is the frail one?"
"Has she always been that way?"
"No, Win was quite healthy until a year ago, when she nearly died from scarlet fever." A long hesitation, while her throat tightened a little. "She survived, thank God, but her lungs are weak. She has little strength, and she tires easily. The doctor says Win may never improve, and in all likelihood she won't be able to marry or have children." Amelia's jaw hardened. "We will prove him wrong, of course. Win will be completely well again."