ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The True Pretender

Chapter 11

 

     After the investigator had left, Epione leaned on her hands against the door for a moment and thought about what she had learned, and what she still needed to know.  It seemed clear that Tremaine and the grey-eyed investigator were allied together, working for the British to fight the scheming Napoleonites.  Indeed, perhaps the investigator had killed her sister himself—she thought she discerned a small but noticeable reaction, when she’d asked if the Comte had killed Marie, and he never answered the question.

     That he was Tremaine’s superior seemed evident; he had an air of authority about him. A spymaster, then; she hoped she’d said nothing to bring down further trouble—it was rather tiresome, to feel one had to weigh everything one said—and it was true she did not have the aptitude for this business, even though she was half-inclined to marry into it. 

     She walked over to the bow window, and, after a moment’s hesitation, turned the sign over to indicate the shop was now open.   The Epione from three days ago would have found the idea of marrying de Gilles absurd, but the new Epione—who was at the center of some mysterious controversy—was grateful for an ally. Besides, there was something about his understated manner that struck a responsive chord within her own breast; they were similar creatures, despite everything. 

     I like him very much, she thought, and I believe he likes me very much, too.  And so perhaps—in light of the exigent circumstances—I should throw caution to the winds.  In any event, it certainly doesn’t seem to occur to him that I might refuse.

     The clouds were threatening rain, and Epione watched the street for a few moments as the cart sellers and trades people hurried to their posts.  The weather was not helping to alleviate her sense of foreboding, particularly now that she’d the strong sense that Madame may have been added to the tally of murder victims.

     Epione paused for a moment, as she was suddenly struck by the strangeness of this.  Madame was a Napoleonite, and obviously had been involved in the dressing maid’s abduction plot.  It seemed unlikely that the murderer would want to kill her, if the murders where connected to whatever Napoleonic plot was going forward—Madame was on their side, after all. 

     It made no sense, and she wished de Gilles would come soon, so that she could consult with him on this development.  Last night, when they’d parted at her doorstep, she’d dawdled for a few minutes, wondering if he would try to kiss her.  He didn’t, and she had the lowering conviction that he knew exactly what she was about, and was amused, as he tipped his hat and left. Not much of a suitor, certainly, despite the fact that he threw out the subject of marriage in such a negligent manner.  

     Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a movement in the tailor’s window, and saw that he was preparing for opening.  If he saw himself in the role of another suitor, he’d best look lively—he could not be pleased to observe someone like Tremaine hanging about, let alone what he would think if he saw de Gilles come to the door, in all his glory.  

     I have a surplus of handsome suitors, she thought in bemusement.  Matters have taken quite a turn, since last week—I should be grateful, I suppose, and I would be, if only someone could assure me that I am not slated to be murdered.

     With a sigh, she retreated to her workroom, wondering if it was even worth the effort to fill orders for clients who may or may not exist—not to mention an employer who may no longer walk the earth.

      Almost immediately, the bell rang, and two young women—new customers—entered and greeted her, chatting happily with each other as they began trying on bonnets.  After inquiry, they admitted to having no particular style in mind, and so Epione entertained them as best she could, judging it too early to bring out the apricot cordial—although she wouldn’t have minded a fortifying glass, herself.

     The bell rang, yet again—tiens, it was busy, for such an early hour—and Epione turned to greet a gentleman of about forty years, rather tall and lean, with a neatly trimmed goatee; his hair pulled back into a queue in the old fashion, and an impressive pearl pin resting in the folds of his cravat.  Removing his hat, he bowed to Epione. “I look to purchase a gift for my sweetheart, Mademoiselle.”     

     “Of course, sir; do you seek a formal, or a day hat?” In the sudden silence, Epione became aware that the two women behind her had ceased all conversation, and glancing their way, she saw that they were observing the newcomer like two hounds on the point. Oh, thought Epione in surprise; oh—I believe we have some sort of standoff, here.

     “A formal hat, I think.” The gentleman’s gaze rested upon the women with a touch of amusement. “Something expensive, as I am in need of forgiveness.”

      Epione stepped to the display, and tried to maintain her poise even though the tension was thick in the room. “I can show you several ready-made, or if you have sufficient time, I can make one up to your specifications.  Allow me to show you, Mr.—”

     “Monsieur Darton,” he offered with a small bow.  He then stepped aside, so that she could fetch a hat from the window display, but she noted that he didn’t turn his back to the other two, who’d resumed chatting, but were trying on the same hats they had previously discarded.

     Epione removed a silken prie-cap from its stand, and the gentleman leaned back slightly, stroking his beard. “How does it go? Is this the front, or the back?”

     “If you’d like, I can model it,” Epione offered. This was often done for clueless husbands, and Madame would point out it was also a sign that a more expensive hat should be immediately put forth.

     But the gentleman was not to be so manipulated, it seemed, and shook his head with regret. “Helas, my sweetheart is blonde, and I am not certain I have such an imagination.” His gaze shifted to the women—who’d gone silent once again—and he indicated the one who was blonde. “Perhaps if you would be so kind, Madame?”

     There was a tense moment, whilst Epione could not help but admire his brazenness, and it seemed as though the blonde woman felt the same way. With a small shrug and a smile, she acquiesced, “By all means, sir.” 

     As Epione carefully pinned the silken confection on the other’s head, she noted that the woman’s gaze met the gentleman’s in the mirror, instead of her own.  “Très chic,” the woman pronounced in an admiring tone. “Is your sweetheart an Englishwoman?” 

      “From Algiers, instead,” the gentleman replied softly, with a gleam.

     At this, the woman’s eyes narrowed in anger, and Epione hurriedly interrupted, “A jeweled pin could be placed at the base of the feather, just here—”

      But the gentleman demurred, “I prefer pearls, Mademoiselle.”  His mocking gaze slid to the woman who was modeling the hat.

      Epione said nothing, as it was evident there was an unspoken conversation going forward, and not a friendly one—not to mention one generally didn’t wear pearls on a formal hat.  Fortunately, she was spared having to participate any further in this rather tense sale—truly, she should never have turned the “open” sign over—because the bell rang, and with unmixed relief, she turned to greet the next customer.

     This turned out to be a woman about her own age, dark-haired and attractive, and laboring under what appeared to be a strong emotion as she reviewed the other persons assembled with open disapproval. “Peste. This is a hat shop très macabre.” 

     “May I help you?” offered Epione, without any real conviction. Another one, she thought with resignation; and it is starting to rain, in keeping with this miserable day.

     The woman’s gaze rested upon her with unmitigated dismay. “You are Mademoiselle d’Amberre?”

     “Well—yes; although in truth, I am known by another name—”

     “You are très jolie,” the other accused, her dark eyes flashing. “No one told me this.”

     This was unexpected, and Epione wondered, for a moment, if the girl’s mental faculties were disordered.  “May I offer cordial?”  A distraction seemed needful, no matter the early hour.

     “What sort of cordial?” asked Darton with interest.

      But the new visitor was not to be distracted, and said to the gentleman, “You will not interfere.”

     In response, he bowed low, sweeping his hat before him with a quizzical look. “Pardon, Mademoiselle; are we acquainted?” 

     “No,” the other answered shortly, and turned a shoulder to him.  “I have private business with Mademoiselle d’Amberre.”

      The light dawned, and Epione realized why she was the object of the girl’s hostility. This must be Tremaine’s foreign girl—although the girl seemed French, which meant that Tremaine was not French, which actually came as no surprise whatsoever.  “I imagine you would like to speak with Mr. Tremaine.  If you would like to wait, he is expected to make a visit this morning.”  Let Tremaine sort through the various personnel who were present; Epione had decided she was having a glass of cordial.

     In speculation, the girl’s narrowed eyes rested upon the two women, who were unabashedly listening to the conversation. “My Robert will come here? Eh bien, I will wait for him.” This said with an air of stoicism, and she began to wander around the salon, fingering the various wares.

      Epione fetched the refreshments, half-expecting a brawl to break out, but then remembered what de Gilles had said—the various factions could not antagonize each other in the event their allegiances were suddenly required to shift.  That the two women were aligned with the British seemed apparent; what was not apparent was whom Monsieur Darton served—or why the Englishwomen were so wary of him.

      Lifting her wrist and nodding, Epione politely returned Darton’s elegant toast, and then sipped on her cordial, trying not to think about the murders, or how no one here had asked where the shop’s proprietor was.  The two women no longer made a pretense of hat-shopping, but instead held their position, one watching out the window and one warily watching the other two visitors.

     Darton leaned negligently against the door jamb of the workroom, but Epione noted he kept a hand on his hip, so that his coat was brushed back from the pistol at his side. The dark-haired, foreign girl seemed the least concerned, and was frowning into the mirror as she held a spray of artificial cherries to the side of her own hat to gauge the effect.  The clock ticked, the rain pattered on the window, and no one spoke.  No one wants to leave, thought Epione in exasperation—save me, of course.

     Into the silence, the ringing of the bell signaled yet another visitor, and Epione glanced over the rim of her glass to behold Tremaine, crossing the threshold, and casting a wary eye at Darton, who bowed his head in mock-acknowledgment.

     The dark-haired woman sprang to her feet. “Robert,” she exclaimed in agitation.  “J’insiste—I insist that I speak with you.”

     “Lisabetta,” Tremaine shook out his umbrella in surprise. “What the devil are you doing here?”

     “You must not marry this—this banal shop girl.”

     “I am not banal,” retorted Epione, much affronted.

     “Not at all,” offered Darton, very gallantly. “En effet, I would marry her myself.”

     The Frenchwoman whirled upon him in a fury. “You will mind your own business.”

     “As you say,” the other conceded in a meek tone, his laughing glance meeting Epione’s.

     Lisabetta turned upon Tremaine once again, her pretty mouth pressed into a thin line. “I will hear your explanation, Robert.”

     Epione listened for his reply with interest, to see how staunchly he would follow the grey-eyed man’s orders when confronted with his agitated sweetheart.

     But Tremaine was not about to allow himself to be so trapped. “Lisabetta—you must not embarrass Miss—” here he paused for a moment, “Miss Valois.” 

     “Everyone already knows,” Epione conceded. “It may as well be d’Amberre.”

     Lisabetta stamped a foot. “Fah—it doesn’t matter what her name is, you must not marry her.”

     But an unexpected intervention was to come from Darton, who spread his hands in a Gallic gesture.   “Come, Mademoiselle; if Mr. Tremaine marries Mademoiselle d’Amberre, he will be a rich man, and live an easy life. If you care for him, you must be generous.”

     To no one’s surprise, this remark only infuriated the girl, who whirled on him, her face flushed.  Tremaine placed a warning hand on her arm, and suggested, “Lisabetta, Miss d’Amberre—shall we continue this conversation in private?” With a level glance at Darton, Tremaine indicated that they should move past the other man, and into the workroom.

     With a flounce of her skirts, Lisabetta turned on her heel and obeyed.  Epione, who was feeling a bit de trop, asked Tremaine in a low tone, “Wouldn’t you rather speak with her alone?”

     “Lord, no,” he replied fervently, and took her elbow.