The True Pretender
By the time they’d assembled in the workroom, Lisabetta had apparently taken control of her temper and addressed Epione with constrained contrition. “I am sorry I called you banal. I met your sister, once—she was très courageuse.”
But this was the wrong thing to say to Epione, who lost her own temper, and retorted angrily, “She was a traitoress, and I would rather speak English.”
This, in turn, infuriated Lisabetta. “Yes—English because of Robert. It does not matter; he will not marry you.”
Stung, Epione countered, “He will marry me and he will be glad to do so.”
Tremaine held up his hands. “Ladies, please.”
After coming to the conclusion that no good came of drinking cordial in the morning, Epione held a hand to her forehead. “I beg your pardon—I am out of sorts.”
“Then let’s go for a walk, to clear your head,” Tremaine suggested with a smile, which invoked a sound of extreme dismay from Lisabetta.
Epione lowered her hand, and eyed him in amused exasperation. “I cannot go for a walk, Mr. Tremaine. I am getting no work done, Madame is missing, and I expect a pitched battle to erupt at any moment.” Not to mention it was steadily raining—the man must be desperate to get her away from the others.
But this observation did not seem to faze him. “The other two ladies will watch the shop in your absence—and we won’t be gone long, I promise.”
That the two women were allied with Tremaine came as no surprise, but Epione warned, “There is nothing here—there is no point in making a search.”
Tremaine grinned at this plain speaking, and shrugged. “Then there can be no objection to a refreshing walk.”
Darton poked his head into the doorway to the workroom, as he pulled on his gloves. “Mademoiselle, I thank you for your kind assistance.”
“At the very least, you should purchase a hat, Monsieur.” Epione pretended amused vexation, although in truth, she was secretly grateful that matters appeared to be de-escalating.
“Next time,” the gentleman assured her with his bold smile. He nodded to Lisabetta as he donned his hat. “Mademoiselle.”
The girl turned an indifferent shoulder to him, which invoked another impudent gleam toward Epione, as the visitor left through the door.
“Who is he?” asked Epione, watching him walk away through the window. That Darton had some role to play in these matters was obvious—the others all knew him—but he didn’t seem to be cut from the same cloth, and apparently had no qualms about relinquishing the field to the others.
“He is un bâtard,” pronounced Lisabetta, who scowled as she watched him walk down the street.
Tremaine turned to the young Frenchwoman, and placed a conciliatory hand on her arm. “I must speak with Miss d’Amberre, Lisabetta, but I will meet up with you later; my promise on it.”
Apparently recognizing that a dignified retreat was the best that could be hoped for, Lisabetta confiscated Tremaine’s umbrella and—with a final glance of feminine warning at Epione—departed out the front door, her humiliated head held high.
Interesting, thought Epione; she did not ask where she was to meet Tremaine, and he did not feel the need to inform her.
Her wary interest piqued—honestly, one needed a programme, to keep track of it all—Epione decided to venture, “If Lisabetta is working for the enemy, Mr. Tremaine, it would appear to be a significant obstacle on your path to happiness.”
“And not the only one; it is clear you are very much on her mind.” He seemed rather amused, as he glanced out the window.
“She seems a bit vexing.” This was, of course, a politic understatement because Epione had long ago noted that men seemed to be drawn to vexing women for reasons that were unfathomable.
The smile still played around his mouth, as Tremaine faced her again. “You did not see her at her best. But let me in turn question your loyalty to Captain de Gilles.”
This was said in a neutral tone, but she rushed to defend herself. “I didn’t know who he was when you asked me—and he didn’t strike me as a sea captain.”
He allowed this rather lame explanation to pass. “What is his interest?”
She considered this, seriously, as the now-sporadic rain pattered on the window, and the two women spoke in low voices in the other room. “I think he doesn’t want you to have whatever it is you want.”
But Tremaine met her gaze with all sincerity. “I want to keep you safe—and that’s what I’d like to speak with you about. Come, let’s take our walk.”
It seemed evident he had spoken to his spymaster; his former role as an earnest suitor had disappeared, to be replaced by what appeared to be the role of a trusted friend. Either way, Epione was not to be taken-in; she had been abducted too many times not to be wary of everyone—with one exception, apparently. “Why is everyone watching me, and what does it have to do with the pretenders to the French throne?”
He weighed what to say for a moment. “Some information has surfaced—although it was kept very quiet—”
“The land,” Epione interrupted a bit impatiently—maddening, that no one ever spoke forthrightly. “Desclaires was given to me, not to you.”
After a small pause, he lowered his chin and met her eyes. “You are very well informed.”
“But not by you.” Epione refused to be cowed. “What do you know of this?”
“What do you know of this?” he countered, and crossed his arms.
She shook her head, exasperated. “In truth, I have no idea what is happening, nor why.”
He searched her eyes, a grave expression in his own. “No—and neither does anyone else, apparently, so that all we can do is watch, and react.” There was a small pause. “Which of the pretenders does de Gilles support?”
This question seemed rather a non sequitur, and she glanced up at him in surprise. “He has not said; why?”
“I am curious, is all. He obviously has an interest.”
As this seemed a good opportunity to do some probing about her erstwhile suitor, she did not hesitate to take it. “Who is he, exactly?”
“He is—he’s rather a rogue player; well-connected, politically.” Tremaine chose his words carefully, as he gazed out toward the street. The rain had started up again in earnest, and it was gusting against the window. “Look, let me be frank; he is undoubtedly manipulating you—he’s a good-looking devil—and his own role in these matters is not clear. You must not allow him to turn your head.”
At this exhortation, she couldn’t help but smile. “It would be amusing, if it weren’t so alarming; he gave me the exact same advice about you.”
“Don’t heed him.”
Epione felt she should give him fair warning. “Promise you will be civil; I expect him at any minute, and I’d rather you didn’t shoot each other.”
But Tremaine only shrugged a shoulder. “It is unlikely that he will make an appearance any time soon; he does not like to go about by daylight.”
The words held a nuance she could not quite like, and so she was compelled to observe, “You know something to his detriment, it seems.”
Her companion rested his gaze on the worktable for a moment, obviously debating, and then met her eyes and said bluntly, “I’d rather not give you the particulars, but you must trust me on this. He plies a questionable trade, and there is absolutely no chance he means right by you. Be sure to hold him at arm’s length—he may seek to compromise you.”
A bit taken aback, she considered this rather dire warning in the context of her dealings with de Gilles, who had been granted more than one opportunity to compromise her, and had consistently refrained—in fact, had behaved rather chivalrously, instead. She decided to turn the subject from this paradox to the more urgent matters at hand. “He seems to think there may have been some sort of misunderstanding—about the transfer of the land to me. Do you know what he meant?”
But he shook his head slightly, a frown between his eyes. “No, the land is indeed yours. But there is no doubt that something unusual is at play.”
This seemed self-evident. “I don’t understand; how could the land be transferred to a daughter, under Salic law?”
He glanced out the window once again. “Those who collect information believe the land in Normandy is secretly being used for some purpose, by those who would have Napoleon rise to power again.”
But this seemed to make little sense—not that anything made any sense, lately. “But then—if the land is important, in some way, why would it be given to me?” Uneasily, she was reminded of what de Gilles had hinted; that the milliner’s shop served no purpose other than to give her an occupation that would keep her close at hand, for purposes unknown. This theory seemed incredible; what would be the point of going to such lengths? It was on a par with the equally incredible tale that Declaires had been suddenly transferred to her name. Why; it almost looked as though she were being rewarded—
Struck by this thought, she lifted her head. That was indeed how it appeared; small wonder the authorities had converged upon her in wary confusion. Her sister was a notorious traitoress who’d met a bad end, and suddenly Epione was the beneficiary of unexplained largesse from the enemy.
She turned to him, and protested with all sincerity, “I’m not one of Napoleon’s supporters; you must believe me. I have no idea why this is happening.”
He replied in a grave tone, “These people don’t make mistakes, I’m afraid. Are you certain your sister gave you no information—no maps, or other articles that could be valuable?”
“Nothing,” she assured him. “I barely saw her for months at a time. Indeed, I saw Sir Lucien more often.”
This remark diverted her companion from the topic at hand, and he leaned against the work table. “Sir Lucien has re-married—have you heard?”
“Yes—I believe it was rather unexpected.” Strange to think she was so unhappy about it two short days ago; it seemed of little importance, now.
Tremaine made a masculine sound of appreciation. “You can hardly blame him—the new Lady Tyneburne is very beautiful.”
“Oh—oh is she?” Epione paused, and then watched him from under her lashes, as she asked in a casual tone, “Do you know Sir Lucien well?”
He cocked his head, and peered up at the sky through the window, as though gauging the forecast. “I’ve met him. He’s an importer, and spent much of the war trying to keep his shirt. War is the devil for merchant traders.”
“War is the devil for everyone.” She knew of what she spoke; she’d lost home, country, father, and brother. She also was made aware, by Tremaine’s overly-vague answer, that Sir Lucien—of all people—must be another one of them; another agent, working for the Crown. The thought was astonishing; she’d never even heard a breath of a whisper that her brother-in-law was aligned in some way with the Home Office, but on the other hand, she was not one to be on the receiving end of vital secrets. Until now, that was.
He straightened, and met her eyes again with his own frank gaze. “Then let’s try to prevent the next war. The rain’s letting up—shall we continue this discussion over another pastry?”
Epione noted that the rain had not let up at all, and pointed out, “Lisabetta stole your umbrella.”
He smiled his charming smile, and urged, “We can keep to the canopies along the way—it is only a short distance.”
For reasons unexplained, Epione was reluctant to venture outside the shop with him, in the pouring rain and with so much to think over, but was saved from having to rebuff him outright by the bell over the door, which announced yet another customer. Epione almost leapt up in her relief, and moved into the shop’s salon only to be brought up short by the sight of de Gilles, shrugging out of his wet greatcoat.