The True Pretender
The breath having been knocked out of her, Epione gasped for air as the rider hoisted her before him on the saddle and skittered around the corner, the horse’s hooves sliding on the wet cobblestones, and Epione holding the certain fear that they were going down.
They didn’t, and Darton muttered in her ear, “Hold on, if you please,” as they made another careening turn down an alleyway at full speed—the causeway empty, due to the rain. Mud and water splashed up as the horse dashed, pell-mell, toward the end of the alley. Yet again, an impossibly sharp turn was negotiated, but the rate of speed slowed, and Epione was able to keep herself upright, clutching the saddle with her bare hands as Darton suddenly wheeled the horse at a right angle, so that they passed into a narrow throughway, between the mews.
It seemed to Epione that they were circling back from whence they’d come, but she didn’t have time to think about it, because with another burst of speed, they turned another corner and darted between two buildings where they stood for a moment, more protected from the rain, as Epione’s breast heaved in unison with the horse’s sides. Darton appeared to be listening, and so Epione strained to listen also, not certain whether she should be hoping for a rescue, or dreading one. All she could hear was the sound of the rain, however, until Darton made a small sound of satisfaction, and began to move forward.
Wiping her eyes with a wet palm, Epione perceived another horse approaching directly before them—indeed, it would be difficult to pass abreast, in the narrow space—and then she recognized Blue Fly, and realized the rider was no other than de Gilles, removing his coat as his horse walked quickly toward them.
When they brushed up against each other, Epione was almost unsurprised to discover she was once more to be handed over, whilst the horses paused for just a moment, shoulder to shoulder. Darton lifted her to sit behind de Gilles, who swung his coat to cover both of them as he walked away, the two men saying not a word to each other.
With a clatter of hooves, Epione heard Darton start up the mad chase again, behind them, while Blue Fly stepped along without any exigency.
“Pull up your skirts under the coat, and keep your head down,” de Gilles said softly. “We are almost there.”
“And where is there?” Despite the coat, she was having a hard time controlling her shivering, pressed against his back.
“Hush,” he warned, and they stepped out into the mews behind a row of shops, walking along as the rain came down, until he turned the horse down yet another breezeway between two buildings, where a man stood waiting for them, the rain dripping off his hat brim. After a quick glance around, de Gilles shrugged out of his coat and pulled Epione down off the horse, as the other man smoothly put a foot in the stirrup and mounted in their place, pulling on de Gilles’ coat as he did so. As Blue Fly walked away, de Gilles shepherded her through a doorway in the side of the building, and quietly shut it behind them.
Once inside, he put an ear to the door, listening, whilst she tried to control her chattering teeth in the dim interior. Apparently satisfied, he turned to her and whispered, “Are you all right, ma belle?”
“No,” she replied in all honesty. “I am not.”
He seemed to find the situation amusing, however, and his teeth flashed white in the dimness as with gentle fingers, he touched a tendril of hair that had escaped her pins—she was hatless, and her hair was wet. “The rain makes your hair curl.”
Unable to resist returning his smile with her own, she nonetheless shook her head. “I believe I am going to go mad, Alexis.”
With his smile still in evidence, he tilted his head in a show of sympathy. “We must hide quietly for a while—they will be desperate to find you. This way.” Taking her elbow, he steered her to a small storeroom, and in the dim light, she recognized men’s clothing—coats hanging in rows on a rack, hats lined up on a shelf—they must be in one of the haberdashery shops, in the district. Her companion tugged a coat from a hanger and wrapped it around her, whilst she shivered mightily from a combination of reaction and cold.
“Perhaps I should allow them to find me,” she ventured, as he donned his own coat. “It doesn’t feel right—evading the British.”
But he would not hear of it, and enfolded her in his arms as he spoke over her head. “You are not British, Epione. And do not think for a moment that they would protect you over their own interests—they would regret your sacrifice, but sacrifice you they would.”
Tentative footsteps could be heard coming from the shop’s interior, and Epione paused, meeting her companion’s gaze in alarm, but he nodded in reassurance, and looked up expectantly as he set her away from him. In the dim light, a man appeared in the doorway to the storeroom, bespectacled and in shirtsleeves, with a measuring tape draped over his shoulders. His gaze rested for the briefest moment on Epione, and then he turned respectfully to de Gilles and bowed. “Mademoiselle; Seigneur.”
De Giles had taken out his pistol, and was inspecting the flint, as he spoke in French. “We must warm Mademoiselle d’Amberre; coffee or tea—with a shot of spirits, if you have it. I expect they will make a search, store to store—you will be warned when they are coming. Monsieur Darton will return when it is safe, and he will bring a visitor.”
The haberdasher gravely bowed yet again. “Oui, Seigneur.” He then turned and walked away.
De Gilles sheathed his pistol. “We wait—Monsieur Darton is laying a false trail; he will circle back when he deems it safe, and bring a priest to marry us.”
He lifted a hand to stroke the damp tendril back from her temple, whilst Epione stared at him in utter bemusement, the scent of wool from the surrounding coats enveloping her. “Will he indeed? I don’t recall agreeing to marry you.”
He cocked his head, teasing. “You didn’t? Do I misremember?”
Tiens, she thought; I have no defense against this onslaught of charm, and I will be lucky to survive it, I think. “You do. And I would rather speak English.”
But his expression became serious, and he continued gently in French, “You have been a refugee all your life, watching the turmoil in France from afar—and living amongst those who do not always respect her as they ought. But you are French, Epione; and from an old and worthy bloodline that has stood fast for centuries. You must learn to be French again, because you cannot ignore who you are. None of us can.”
“And who—exactly—are you, Seigneur?” She placed a slight emphasis on the formal address used by the haberdasher. “Come—if I agree to marry you, I am entitled to know.”
He did not immediately respond, and so she prompted, “You are no sea captain, I think. The British authorities would not be so deferential to a mere sea captain.”
“Ma belle, you wound me; I am a sea captain par excellence,” he protested in mock-insult.
Ignoring him, she perservered, “I wondered—I wondered if perhaps you are the Duc d’Orleans.” This actually made some sense to her; the Duc d’Orleans was the pretender to the throne from the less-royal Bourbon line, and had lived most of his life wandering in exile. She would not have been at all surprised to discover that de Gilles was the reclusive Duc—and it would explain Tremaine’s cryptic remark about which of the pretenders de Gilles supported; the British—who were bound and determined that Louis the Eighteenth should rule as king—would be very unhappy if the Duc d’Orleans suddenly showed up, and made a claim.
In mild reproach, he tilted his head at her. “Le Duc is much older than I, ma belle.”
“Oh—oh, I suppose I am betraying my ignorance on the subject.”
But he took her hand in his, and smiled. “It was a good guess, Epione. But the British authorities are deferential because there are those who persist in believing that I am the Dauphin.”
Epione stared, thinking that of all the nonsensical things she had been told, this seemed by far the most nonsensical. “The Dauphin? The Dauphin who was the heir to the throne?”
He raised a brow and nodded, as though surprised she needed this clarification. “Yes.”
She gazed up at him, finding it difficult to muster a coherent thought. “The—the Dauphin who died in prison, when he was a boy?”
“Yes.” He turned his head to listen for a moment, then glanced at her again, this time with a gleam of amusement.
She drew her brows together, utterly confounded. “Then—then they think you are the rightful King of France.”
“Yes, they do.” He lifted her hand, and kissed it. “You must marry me; you would be her rightful Queen.”
He did not let go of her hand, but held it clasped in his warm one, which made it a bit difficult to concentrate. “But it is nonsense—isn’t it?” May as well seek clarification—she was fast coming to the conclusion that nothing would ever surprise her again.
He answered readily, “Yes, it is nonsense. But there are those who persist in believing it, nevertheless.”
She started to laugh, unable to help it. “I don’t know whether to believe a word you say—it is all so—so fantastic.”
“It is,” he agreed. “But nonetheless, it is useful. If we are married, the British would not dare make another attempt to seize you.”
“Who are you, in truth?” It occurred to her that she was indeed willing to marry this near-stranger, and she should do her best to pretend it was not an utterly mad course to take. After all, she was the surprising heiress to a wealthy estate in France, and it was probably advisable to be wary of his sudden interest. Unless he was the true King of France, of course, which would put an entirely different light on the situation.
At this point, the haberdasher came in, bearing a cup of tea which he handed to Epione. “I made only the one, Seigneur,” he explained apologetically to de Gilles. “If we are searched, I did not wish to raise a suspicion.”
Epione sipped the hot tea laced with brandy, and then offered the cup to de Gilles as a warming sensation spread through her veins—brandy was more potent than apricot cordial, it seemed.
The haberdasher continued, “With your permission, when the danger has passed I will send for my wife, who will bring the new clothes.”
Merci le bon Dieu, thought Epione in relief. Her dress was sodden and muddy, and she was dripping rainwater where she stood, carefully avoiding the row of fine leather boots that lined the wall.
“Can your wife be discreet?” De Gilles fixed the man with a measuring glance, as he handed the cup back to Epione.
“Yes—my life on it.”
De Gilles flashed his engaging smile. “It may come to that, my friend.”
Unable to resist the charm of that smile, the man returned his own dry little smile. “As you say, Seigneur.”
De Gilles made a gesture with his head. “Go back; I expect them soon.”
The haberdasher bowed again, held out a hand for the now-empty cup, and with a measured tread, left for the storefront.
Epione gathered her coat tighter around her. “Are you certain they will come? I believe you neatly outfoxed them.”
“I am—the man who commands them is no fool.”
“De vrai—I know this.” Epione was grateful to impart something useful. “He came to speak with me this morning, and pretended to be a Bow Street investigator. He asked a great many questions.”
Her companion regarded her thoughtfully. “Is that so? Tell me of what he spoke.”
But they were interrupted by the haberdasher’s voice, calling out softly, “They come, Seigneur.”