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Thief of Hearts

by Becky L. Meadows

CHAPTER ONE

 "OK. Now, you remember what to do?" Carlos' black eyes squinted in the
sunlight beaming in humid rays on the array of street vendors fashioned in
straight rows along the sides of the cobblestone street. His dark brows drew
down in a frown of fury as he saw laughter dance in the green eyes of the
young woman beside him.

 "Please, Carlos," she said, her voice lilting with humor. She raised her
slender hand, her long fingers pressed to her full lips to keep from laughing
aloud. "Don't take this so seriously. How many times have we done this?"

 "It doesn't matter how many times we've done this," the black-haired young
man beside her hissed. "It only takes a minute to get caught!" He put his
large, dark-skinned hand on her arm and leaned closer to her, his voice a
murmur in her ear. "OK. Remember, Victoria. Just get in and get out. After
you get it, pass it on to me. I'll be right behind you. Whatever you do,
don't keep it in your hand."

 "Yes, Carlos."

Carlos leaned back against one side of a building in the alley, his eyes scan
ning the crowd milling around the vendors. His black pupils darted here and
there, scoping his surroundings as he watched the reddish-blonde young woman
make her way through the cluster of people in 1862 London. Her low-cut, white
dress and ample bosom caught the eye of many of the men walking around the
vendors; the crowd seemed to naturally part to make way for her. Carlos gave
a rueful smile as a tall, raven-haired man bowed to Victoria and stepped out
of her path. "Idiot," Carlos murmured, his inflected Spanish accent
assaulting the English words. "This is the first time I've ever seen an
English man bow to a Gypsy!"

A man dressed in the red, green and yellow striped costume of a court
magician made his way through the crowd, opening his mouth to swallow a long,
burning stick. A gasp of amazement floated over the throng of people, who
turned their backs on the row of vendors, their attention seized by the performer.
Seventeen-year-old Victoria eased her way toward one of the tables, her eyes
catching the sunlight sparkling off a golden broach. She glanced around,
turning her head this way and that, her eyes scanning the crowd for anyone
watching her. In a flash the necklace vanished from the table. Victoria began
picking her way back through the crowd. Her eyes scanned the group for
Carlos, but her partner in crime was nowhere to be seen. Her light brows
lowered in a fierce frown, her jade eyes shooting daggers as she clutched the
broach in her hand.

"I've been robbed! Stop, thief!" The cry put the speed of Achilles on
Victoria's heels and she began running, her long, reddish-blonde curls waving
behind her. Her lips parted, her white teeth shined, her eyes burned on the
people she shoved past. Carlos had disappeared. The thought made her want to
flee the area as panic welled in her breast, but her mind took over for her
heart and she slowed to a walk, her eyes focused straight ahead, her clenched
fingers hiding the necklace tucked neatly in the palm of her hand.

In moments she was back in the dead-end alley where she and Carlos had
discussed their plan. She stood, her foot tapping the ground, her fists on
her hips, her lips pursed as a deep, puzzled frown formed between her
glittering eyes. She scanned the rubble and dirt strewn about the alley,
visions of Carlos' dark, smiling face sweeping before her eyes. Her eyes flew
open, her lips parted, her breath came in sharp rasps as a cold voice cut
past her bewildered thoughts.

"That was quite clever."

Victoria swallowed the lump in her throat and focused on slowing her
breathing to calm the rhythmic pounding of her heart in her ears. She turned
and stared straight into the coldest blue eyes she had ever seen. She
concentrated on wiping the consternation from her face, replacing it with
blank nothingness. "What was quite clever?" she replied, her tone even, her
voice level.

"Your ruse back there. It worked quite well." The man before her shook his
head, the sun beaming in blue streaks across his tussled, wavy black hair.
Victoria chewed her bottom lip as she allowed herself a moment to study his
austere face, his high cheekbones, the soft curve of his biceps under the
white shirt tucked into a pair of black trousers. She caught her breath as
her heart leaped in her breast. He was stunning. She watched, stone-faced, as
his appreciative gaze wandered from her  eyes, down her body, then back up.
His stare stopped on the emerald rings that circled her pupils. "Your partner
disappeared, right?"

"Partner? I have no idea what you are talking about, sir." She moved to
brush past him. A shiver made her tremble as his fingers closed around her
arm like searing pieces of hot steel, bringing her steps to an immediate
halt.

"Oh, I believe you do." He took hold of her clenched hand and turned it
palm-up, his long, wiry fingers surprisingly gentle as he pried hers loose.
The golden broach glittered at her mockingly, as did the eyes of the imposing
man before her. "I must say you have excellent taste in jewelry, mademoiselle."

Victoria spotted the large shadow of a man behind him. Her eyes widened. The
stranger flinched his muscles as he prepared to whirl around, but a huge
wooden board put a stop to his movements and words. It crashed down,
full-force, on his raven hair. He crumbled in a silent mass to the ground.
Victoria stared into Carlos' black eyes.

She suddenly found it difficult to breathe. "Oh my God, you've killed him!"
she shrieked, the sound of her voice echoing in her own ears. Carlos jumped
to her side, his large hand clamping across her full red lips.

"Hush, Victoria! There are bobbies all around!" Carlos removed his hand from
Victoria's mouth, his eyes searching her face for signs of panic. Her green
eyes had narrowed to thin slits, her breast rising and falling rapidly as
anger welled in her chest. "Besides, I haven't killed him. I only knocked him
out."

"Where have you been, Carlos? I could've been arrested!" White hot anger
rose from her breast and painted a red flush across her pale cheeks. Her hand
snaked out toward Carlos' face, but his dark, muscular arm wrenched it down.
Victoria gasped, her eyes growing round as a finger of pain shot through her
arm.

"I was right behind you, you little fool!" Carlos' voice trembled with fury.
"You didn't look behind you, like I told you to! Don't you ever listen,
Victoria? It's a wonder you haven't been killed before now!" His black eyes
withered her fighting spirit. "If you weren't Papa's favorite, I would've
made you pay for your sharp tongue long ago!"

The sound of voices and police whistles came closer. Their eyes met and
widened. A smile edged its way onto Carlos' harsh countenance as he looked at
the disheveled young woman standing before him, her eyes glassy with raw fury
and fear. He took hold of her arm. "Come, Victoria. We must go!"

"Wait!" Victoria stepped around Carlos to the side of the stranger lying at
her feet in the alley. She stooped and shoved him so he was face-up. Her eyes
roved over his face, his dark brows, his full lips that seemed to smile even
when he was sleeping. She took hold of his hand and pulled his fingers loose.
The golden broach glistened in his palm.

"Wonderful," Carlos said, with a sigh of relief. He took the necklace from
the stranger's hand. "Now come, Victoria. We must be on our way."
Carlos paused at the end of the alley, peering around the sides of the
buildings that framed it, but he saw no one approaching. The whistles and yells
were still coming closer, however, so he took hold of Victoria's arm and led her
out of the alley, down winding side streets to a deserted, run-down brick
building far from the busy carnival atmosphere. The nicker of horses greeted
them. Victoria mounted a large horse the color of her hair, while Carlos
threw himself on the back of a brown steed. Their eyes met, then Carlos
prodded his horse with his heels and the animal leaped forward. Victoria
followed.

They made their way down a rocky road, large trees shading the hot sun from
their backs. The English countryside swept past them, horses grazing, an
occasional small farmhouse dotting the landscape. They turned on an even
smaller dirt road, and the sleepy countryside disappeared in favor of vast
forests. Victoria sighed, her hand sweeping a few drops of sweat from her
forehead. The cool shade of the forest felt almost cold after being in the
heat all day.

Soon a series of tents appeared to the side of the small road. People milled
around, some bending over large iron pots, others sitting in groups clutching
mugs in their hands. A large deer lay to one side, and several robust women
hovered over it, their voices rising as they discussed who would prepare it
for the night's meal. The sound of hoof beats brought several men in the
group to their feet, their black eyes flashing daggers as they reached for
knives at their sides. One man stepped forward, his face cold; his mouth
curved in a smile when he saw the faces of the riders.

"It's Carlos and Victoria." The words brought an audible sigh of relief from
the Gypsy encampment. Two young boys ran to meet the horses, taking hold of
Victoria's reigns and holding her horse steady while she slid down from its
back. She smiled and patted the top of their black heads.

Carlos walked toward the group of men holding mugs, and one man reached
behind him and handed a mug to him. Carlos raised it to his lips, resting his
foot on a large log beside him.

"Well?"

"Excellent," Carlos replied. He smiled, a gesture that showed his crooked
white teeth to the onlookers. "And now, I have something to show you." He
reached into his pocket. The golden broach caught the rays of sun peeping
through the thick leaves of the trees around them. A gasp of awe erupted from
the group of men gathered around Carlos.

"Mon dieu!" one Gypsy man gasped. "Carlos! Where did you get this?"

"It doesn't matter," Carlos replied as he shrugged his shoulders. His teeth
flashed in a full grin. "It's ours now. It should feed us for a few months.
Let's just say Victoria and I found it." He turned and peered through the
onlookers for the green eyes of his sister. She was nowhere to be found.
Carlos' black eyes sparkled. "See? She has disappeared, just like she made
this broach disappear!" Guffaws and hearty laughter shook the air around the
camp.

Victoria had swept past the group of men and walked toward a tent near the
center of the Gypsy encampment. She brushed the folds of the front of the
tent back with her arm, then stepped through, blinking to adjust her eyes to
the change of light. Inside the tent an older man, his gray hair shining in
the light from a candle on a table before him, bent over a small piece of
wood, his fingers flaying about it.

He looked up when a brief patch of sunlight invaded his concentration, his
gray eyes landing on the smiling face of the young woman who had entered.
 "Thank God!" the man muttered. He rose and extended his arms to her.
"Victoria! I thought you would never return. Are you all right?"

"Yes, Papa," Victoria replied as she threw herself into his arms. He pulled
her tight against him, his withered hand caressing the back of her downy
hair.

"You'll be the death of me, Victoria. All I've done is worry about you ever
since you were born. Where is Carlos?"

"He's outside."

"And he is all right as well?"

"Yes, Papa."

Giovanni Petrocchi released his hold on Victoria, then resumed his seat at
the small wooden table. Victoria sat down opposite him and studied his tired,
wind-swept face. "How are you feeling, Papa?"

"I'm much better now that I know you're safe." Giovanni's round, red face
smiled, the candlelight fading the age lines that had come to mar his dark
complexion. "You must always keep yourself safe, Victoria. You are very
special to me."

"And you are to me, Papa." Victoria reached across the wooden table to clasp
Giovanni's cold, wrinkled hands. "It makes me happy to hear you are feeling
better." She frowned, her light brows drawn tight, her lips pursing as she
remembered days when her father had been too weak to even stir from his bed.
She had made him soup, and read stories to him to pass the long hours. The
sickness that had nearly stolen his life still threatened his existence; from
time to time Giovanni would pause as he chopped wood, or walked with the
other hunters, his hand clasped to his chest. The ache would begin in his arm, and
increase in severity until he felt like a vise was gripping his heart. The pain had
always subdued in time, but he would be weak for days after.

"Where have you been, Victoria?" Giovanni's words brought Victoria out of
her trance. Her eyes swept to her father's face. Giovanni leaned closer to
her over the table, delight fading from his face as somberness overtook his
features. "Where have you been?"

Victoria lowered her emerald gaze to the wooden table, her elongated fingers
clasped in front of her. "Carlos and I have been in London, Papa," she
replied, her words halting at first, then speeding up as she proceeded.

"What were you doing there?"

"We went to a street carnival. That was all, Papa."

"Don't lie to me, child." His words were light, but a harsh tone rang in his
voice. His tone made Victoria raise her eyes to his.

"I would never lie to you, Papa. We went to a street carnival. That's all."
She lowered her eyes again, and Giovanni reached across the table and put his
aged finger under her chin, urging her to look up.

"I can read your thoughts, Victoria. You show them in your eyes." He sighed,
a long, heavy, weary expression that made Victoria's heart pound in her
chest, her eyes glazing over with concern. Giovanni moved his finger from
under her chin to gently caress her pale, velvety cheek. His brows lowered in
an intense frown as Victoria turned her face away from his hand.

"Please, Papa, don't ask me any more questions." Victoria's heart jumped in
her throat as she looked into the sadness that permeated his gray pupils. She
licked her suddenly dry lips.

Giovanni stood, his heavy form casting a long shadow that bathed Victoria in
darkness. "I have tried to raise you right, Victoria," he began, his voice
soft. "I know living with the Gypsies has not been the best upbringing for
you. Gypsies lie, cheat and steal, but we have always had to because people
look down their noses at us. They pay us less than other people. They think we
are animals. They don't realize we have hearts, too." He walked away from Victoria's
questioning jade gaze, then turned to face her, his arms crossed over his chest.
"You have been raised as a Gypsy, Victoria, but you are not a Gypsy."

Victoria's eyes widened in shocked surprise. Her full lips opened, her teeth
shining in the candlelight. "What? What are you saying, Papa?"

"Victoria, your mother was not a Gypsy." Giovanni stepped toward his
daughter, his eyes beaming with warmth. "She was very beautiful and very
English. You look like her, Victoria. You have her hair and her eyes, and her
skin." He reached down, the back of his withered hand rubbing across her
cheek just before he took hold of her wrist and turned it over. The blue of
several veins jumped out in the candlelight. "You also have her blood in your
veins, as much of her blood as mine. Don't you hear it speaking to you?"

"I don't know what you mean," Victoria mumbled. She stood and faced her
father, her breath coming faster as fear mounted in her heart. "What are you
saying, Papa?"

"I have heard Carlos boast about your escapades," Giovanni muttered, his
face darkening with anger. "I have an idea why you went to London with him."
He put his large hands on Victoria's slim shoulders. "Victoria, it is your
mother's blood that makes you shiver. It is calling to you, telling you that
what you did in London today was wrong." He sighed and shook his head, his
eyes closed as he broke into a furious frown. "It is my blood, and the
influence of your brother, that make you do otherwise."

He opened his eyes to see a tear drift down Victoria's cheek, and he reached
to wipe it away. "I know what battles you fight in your heart, my daughter,"
he said, his voice barely above a whisper. "Don't let your heart stop fighting, and
one day, good will triumph."

Charles Worthington's red brows drew down in a tight line across his fiery
green eyes. His face quickly became the color of the bright red strands mixed
with the blonde curls atop his head. His lips drew in a thin line of intense
displeasure.

"Where in the bloody hell could he be?" eighteen-year-old Charles asked
nobody in particular. His eyes roved over the crowd of people gathered around
the street vendors on the busy London street. He marched his short, stocky
form up to one of the merchants, who turned his greasy face toward the young
aristocrat.

"Have you seen a man about six foot tall, black hair, blue eyes, pass this
way?" Charles asked.

His answer was a black grin and the mumbled words, "Now,
sonny, do you know how many such men I have seen today?" Charles whirled away
from the merchant, his cheeks now a flaming red. He walked down the street,
away from the vendors and crowd of people, his eyes darting here and there.

"For Christ's sake, Erik, how far away could you roam in just a few minutes?"
he exclaimed, his arms raised to the heavens, exasperation coloring the tone
of his voice. He approached a rundown part of the street, and his step slowed.
Surely Erik would not have wandered into this part of the city. Even Erik, a Paris
native, knew the rough parts of London. Charles frowned again as visions of
his tall, dashing, debonair cousin passed before his eyes. His expression changed
from anger to fear, his eyes growing wider, his lips parted. What if something had
happened to Erik?

A gasp of surprise spurted from Charles' lips as his eyes landed on a figure
lying on the pavement at the entrance to an old alley. Charles ran over to it
and found himself staring, dumbfounded, into Erik's pale face.

CHAPTER TWO

 Erik's raven hair danced as Charles shook the shoulders of his taller, more
robust cousin. Charles' cool demeanor did not reflect the panic behind his
green eyes as he searched his cousin's face for signs of life. Erik's chest
rose and fell in rhythm, and Charles sat back on his heels as he released his
breath in one long sigh of relief. In a few moments Erik's long, dark lashes
flickered, and Charles stared into his cousin's blue eyes. "Erik! For
Christ's sake, are you all right?" Charles shook Erik's shoulders again.

Twenty-year-old Erik Garnier put his hands on Charles and pushed him away.
"Charles," he mumbled as he sat upright. The hot stone street bit through the
legs of his black pants, sending a brief shiver through his body. He blinked
as his surroundings gradually stopped swaying. "Yes, I think I'm fine." Erik
frowned as he raised his hand to the back of his head where a spot of blood
had flowed through his thick, wavy hair.

"That's a nasty spot you have there," Charles mumbled as he parted Erik's
hair to examine the wound. "It's not all that big, though." He put his arm
around Erik and pulled until his cousin was on his feet. "What happened?"

"I met the most engaging young lady," Erik said, a sarcastic smile edging
its way onto his full lips. He brushed some specks of dirt from the front of
his billowy white shirt. "Apparently she decided she wanted a golden broach,
so she stole one from that street merchant. She didn't think anyone saw her,
but I did. I followed her here." He paused, pursing his lips thoughtfully as
he rubbed his wounded head. "Then something hit me. That's all I remember."

"Hmm." Charles' green eyes clouded with concern. "Do you feel all right? Are
you well enough to travel home?"

"Oh, I'm sure I can ride. I've had worse head wounds than this." Erik turned and
looked down, his blue eyes widening as a flicker of green, red and golden
lights caught his attention. He stooped and picked up a small diamond beside
his black riding boot, his mouth widening in a contented smile. "I'm sure the
mademoiselle will be quite disappointed to see she has lost part of her
treasure. This diamond was at the center of the broach."

"Come, then," Charles said, waving his arm for his cousin to follow him.
"Grandfather is expecting us home."

The hot summer wind bit at Erik's cheeks as his black horse cut through the
sweltering heat during the romping ride to Worthington Manor. Charles bent
over the muscular neck of his brown horse, trying in vain to keep up with his
cousin; although he prodded and pleaded with his mount to run faster, his
horse was always at the heels of the black one before him.

They passed fields speckled with brown and white cows and an occasional
group of cottony sheep, fields lined with rows of stone fences, until they
came to a dirt lane. They galloped down the lane and passed the familiar
white stables, a group of horses grazing to the side.

The dry summer grass crackled under their feet as they made their way to
the large, red brick manor house on a small hill above the stables. The
polished, wooden front doors creaked as Charles opened them. Erik stepped
through first, his eyes blinking in the dimly lit hallway. Charles was on his
heels. He had just placed his foot on the bottom stair when he stopped and
cringed. A deep voice had wound its way from a room down the hallway to their
ears.

"Charles! I want to see you in the study now!"

Erik turned to see Charles' face fall. "It's Grandfather," Charles whispered. "You
know how he is. Something must be wrong, or he wouldn't want to see me."

"Nonsense," Erik replied. He hoped his air would help calm Charles, who had
the look of a frightened animal. "You go see what he wants. I'll be upstairs
trying to wash this blood out of my hair." Erik's warm smile echoed in his
voice, and Charles smiled bravely. Erik took two at a time the stairs of a
winding, red-rugged staircase to their side, then Charles pursed his lips in
a thin, grim line and plodded down the hallway.

Charles peeped around the edge of the two large doors of the study of
Worthington Manor, his eyes scanning the room. They landed on the tall, lanky
figure of an elderly man standing behind a large desk. His gray hair was
highlighted with reddish strands, strands that matched the color of his
cheeks as he looked up and caught Charles staring at him.

"Enough, boy!" Phillip Worthington barked, his grating words making Charles
jump. Charles stepped through the study doors and crept toward his
grandfather, who moved from behind the desk, his hand floating toward a gold
chain in his pocket. He pulled on the chain and a gold pocket watch appeared.
He stared at the watch, then leveled his gray eyes on the cowering young
Charles.

"What time is it, boy?"

"I believe it should be around six o'clock, Grandfather."

"Yes. It is almost exactly six o'clock." Phillip towered over Charles. "I
find it remarkable that you have so quickly regained your sense of time. You
obviously lost it at some point today. You have returned two hours past when I
said you should!"

Charles lowered his gaze to the green rug under his feet. "I apologize,
Grandfather. We ran into some difficulty in London."

"What type of difficulty?"

"Someone hit Erik over the head. He wasn't injured badly, though, sir."

"I'm surprised somebody hasn't killed him by now." Phillip Worthington
coughed. The sound made Charles quiver and raise his eyes to meet his
grandfather's. "You know, Charles, I'm not sure allowing Erik to come here
was a good idea."

"What do you mean?" Charles tilted his head to the side, his cheeks flushed,
the raw fear melting from his eyes.

"You have a lot to learn about your cousin. There were rumors that Erik was
lost to his family in France for a good number of years when he was very
young, and that he was raised by a Gypsy family. His father had a good deal
of trouble from him when he was younger."

"Erik raised by Gypsies? But Grandfather, Erik is a perfect gentleman."

"Yes. That's what scares me." Phillip put his hand on Charles' shoulder, his
hard features softening as he looked at his grandson. "Promise me, Charles,
you won't let Erik become too much of an influence on you. If I see it, I
will send him back to France immediately." Charles' red hair bobbed as he
nodded his head in ferocious agreement. Phillip put his hand in the pocket of
his black suitcoat and pulled out a paper; his eyes moved over it, then he
peered at Charles.

"What do you think of Gypsies, Charles?"

"You've always told me they are liars and thieves, Grandfather."

"And so they are. I have here a request by a Gypsy family to come here and
be sharecroppers on Worthington Manor property. What would be your advice to me,
Charles? One day you will be the Lord of Worthington Manor, and you will have
to make such decisions."

"I'm not sure," Charles mumbled. His grandfather motioned for him to sit on
a small divan, then sat beside him. Charles rubbed the toe of one of his
black riding boots on the green rug. "I'm not sure I would trust a Gypsy family on our
property, Grandfather."

 "Those are my thoughts exactly, my boy," Phillip said as he rubbed his
weathered hand across Charles' red hair. "Nevertheless, I told this man I
would see him and let him make his case. It's much more fun to tell a Gypsy
no to his face." Phillip stood, his gray eyes leveling on Charles. "Now, go
and make sure Erik is down tonight in time for dinner. If he's late, he will
not eat this time."

Giovanni sat back, the wooden rocking chair creaking under him. His eyes,
glazed with memories, stared at a small object in his hand. He closed his
eyes, a tear cutting a wet path down his wrinkled cheek. When he opened his
eyes a few moments later, they were filled with tears mirroring the ache deep
in his soul. He put the small wooden object in the pocket of his long coat,
then walked to the front of the tent. The sound of hoof beats signaled his
departure from the Gypsy encampment.

It did not take long for Giovanni to be within sight of the large red brick
manor house. His heart thumped in his neck and his breathing accelerated as
he rode up to the two shiny wooden front doors. A man in a long, dark
suitcoat took his horse's reigns as Giovanni slid from the animal's back.
Giovanni stepped through the front doors, his eyes blinking to adjust to the
dim light. A man in a dark suit approached him. "I will escort you to the study, sir,"
the man mumbled, but Giovanni held up his hand to silence him.

"There is no need," Giovanni replied. "I know my way."
 Phillip Worthington did not rise from his seat behind the desk of the study
when he heard a man's footsteps enter the room. Giovanni walked with firm and
sure step to stand in front of the desk. Phillip's gray eyes rose to meet
those of the man standing in front of him.

"Ah, I assume you are the Gypsy who has sent me this letter." Phillip leaned
back in his chair and reached into a front pocket of his suitcoat to retrieve
a tattered piece of paper. "You make an interesting proposition. Please, tell
me again why you want to be a sharecropper on my land."

"I want to provide for my family," Giovanni said, his face as cold and
emotionless as a piece of stone. "I have a young daughter and a son, and I
want to build a life for them before I die."

"You are approaching death, then?" Phillip peered up into a pair of black
eyes surrounded by wrinkles painted by many hot summer suns. Giovanni was
fifteen years younger than the aristocrat who questioned him, but years of
worry and hard work had stolen his youth.

"I believe I am."

"That is unfortunate," Phillip replied. He rose and stood a full head taller
than Giovanni. "I extend you my greatest sympathies, but I have no need for
any more sharecroppers. I have enough."

"Perhaps this will help you change your mind." Giovanni reached into the
pocket of his coat and withdrew the object he had fumbled with earlier. He
placed the carved wooden heart on the desk in front of Phillip.

Phillip's eyes widened as his gasp echoed around the walls of the study. He
stared at the heart, the color draining from his face, then sank back into
the chair behind the desk. "Where did you get this?" he whispered, his voice
a tribute to his utter astonishment.

"Victoria carved it one afternoon." Giovanni leaned forward, his hands
braced on the top of the wooden desk, his face closing the distance between
himself and Phillip. "She gave it to you for your birthday. Tell me, Lord
Worthington, do you not recognize my face? Surely you haven't forgotten me,
even after all these years?"

"Snake! Vermin!" Phillip hissed, his eyes narrowing to reflect the poison he
held in his heart. He rose from the chair, pushing himself closer to Giovanni
over the top of the desk. "No, I haven't forgotten you! How I would love to
kill you, even now! You took the one thing that meant more to me than
anything else in this world! You took my daughter's life!"

"No," Giovanni muttered, his face contorting with sorrow. "I would never
have hurt Victoria. I was in love with your daughter. She was my soul, and
when she died she took my soul with her. I have lived all these years without
touching another woman, because Victoria took my heart. I have nothing left
to offer another woman."

"I watched her die," Phillip said, the rage in his tone gone in favor of an
icy coldness. "I held her hand when she died. You did kill her, Giovanni. You
left her with child, and it was the birth that killed her!"

"I have lived with that torment all these years," Giovanni muttered. He
shook his head, the sadness in his heart coming forth as a tear running down
his cheek. "I apologize, not to you, Lord Worthington, but to Victoria's
spirit. We were young and foolish, but we were in love." He wandered over to
one of the tall windows at the side of the study and stared out, his eyes moving over the
rolling green hills of Worthington Manor. "Our love was not wrong, but
Victoria's death was wrong. I have come here today to try to right some of
that wrong."

"What do you mean?" Phillip rose from the chair and advanced toward
Giovanni, his body tense with residual anger.
"I raised the child."
"The child?" Phillip stopped and blinked, the red rage melting from his
face. "The child lives?"

"Yes, the child lived," Giovanni said. He turned to face Phillip. "She was
not healthy at birth, but she has grown to be a beautiful young woman, much
like her mother." He took a step toward Phillip, his hands clenching into
fists at his side. "It is time for Victoria's daughter to take her rightful
place at Worthington Manor. She is your granddaughter, Lord Worthington."

"She is a Gypsy!" Phillip muttered between clenched teeth. "She is not a
Worthington! If this child lives as you say, she has no claim to Worthington
Manor. She is a bastard child, a half-breed Gypsy!"

The muscles in Giovanni's jaws began to move back and forth as he ground his
teeth in rage. "Victoria would have wanted her daughter to be here," he said.
"It is time for you to put your hate behind you, for the good of Victoria's
child."

Phillip crossed his arms over his chest and leveled his cold gray eyes on
Giovanni's weathered face. "So, you think by becoming a sharecropper on
Worthington Manor property that you will be bringing Victoria's child back to
her ancestral home."

"I do," Giovanni replied. "I am no stranger to hard work. I don't fear it. I
am willing to do whatever I must to see Victoria's daughter take her rightful
place. Perhaps after you see her daughter you will change your mind, and
decide to bring her on into your household."

"I have no desire to see this child." Phillip's words were cold, a flat
statement of fact. "I have no bond with her, and I will not form one now. She
is as much to blame for my daughter's death as you are, Gypsy."

"I'm sure I can't melt the hatred from your heart, even after all these
years," Giovanni said. He walked toward the doors of the study, then turned
to face Phillip. "Victoria's daughter is no longer a child. She has grown to
be a lovely, spirited young woman. Although she has been raised among the
Gypsies, she has her mother's blood in her veins." He paused and stared at
Phillip, his eyes clouded with thought. "Now, may I return home and tell my
daughter she is to leave her Gypsy life behind?"

"You may return home and tell your daughter you have been granted permission
to be a sharecropper on Worthington Manor," Phillip said. "You may tell her
how hard the life of a sharecropper is, and then you may expect it to be
twice as hard for you." He moved toward Giovanni, his eyes glittering with
anger. "You see, Giovanni, I have yet to make you pay for my daughter's
death. If you become a sharecropper on my land, I can see you repay that debt
to me."

"I am not afraid of what you may do to me," Giovanni said, his voice tainted
with weariness. "My only fear is what will become of mine and Victoria's
daughter. Perhaps if she returns to the place she was born, I will have a
chance to save her soul." Giovanni turned and strode out the study doors,
leaving Phillip Worthington thoughtfully scratching his reddish-gray beard.

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