ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The True Pretender

Chapter 16

 

     Epione was awakened by de Gilles’ mouth on hers, which was enough to awaken even the deepest sleeper. After she’d been dressed in boy’s clothes—her hair ruthlessly braided and pinned—they’d shared their impromptu meal, and then he’d suggested that she try to sleep for an hour, which only confirmed that this extraordinary day was far from over. As she was indeed tired, she’d willingly lain down on the coats, and had promptly fallen asleep.  Now, however, she was wide awake, as de Gilles’ fingertips traced her rigid braids, and his mouth made a leisurely progress across her face.

     “You do not make a very good boy, Epione,” he whispered, and gently kissed her again, his breath warm against her cheek, and the stubble of his beard rough against her skin.  With a causal hand, he cradled the back of her neck.  “No one will be fooled.”

     “Not if you behave thusly,” she teased, then lifted her fingers to his hair and sought out his mouth with her own.  She had little experience in lovemaking, but she didn’t wish him to think her a laggard—and she definitely didn’t want him to stop.

      He kissed her again, then his mouth moved to the side of her face as his thumb brushed her lips. “It is time to be married, Epione; you must awaken.”

     “You have succeeded; I am very much awake.”

     “Are you? I am not so certain.” 

     He kissed her mouth again, and she twined her arms around his neck and drew him to her, willingly surrendering to the sensations evoked by the lean, masculine body pressed against hers.  It was a relief to discover that he was obviously intending a true marriage—his constrained behavior had made it unclear, thus far—and she’d entertained a small qualm that he intended to tuck her away someplace dull so that he could go off sea-captaining, again. Now it seemed thankfully obvious that he was avid for her. 

     With a sigh of regret, he drew away. “Come; Darton will soon return with the priest.”

     Smiling, she teased, “I hope someone has informed him that the bride will be dressed as a boy. He may balk, and excommunicate the both of us.”

      With a chuckle, he propped himself on an elbow, and ran a languid hand along her hip, encased in the boy’s breeches. “It is a situation déplorable, Epione; you should be courted—with flowers, and dancing, and settlements.”

     She made a wry mouth.  “I am reconciled.”  This was surprisingly true—a mere week ago, she’d dreamed of a quiet wedding to a widower; now it seemed a lifetime ago.

     Watching her, he leaned in to bestow another lingering kiss on her mouth.   “We will manage well together, I think.”

     “Yes.”  It was as yet unclear where they would abide, or whether it meant more wild chases like the one today, but she knew that she would willingly follow—come what may, and however rough the road.  Her comfortable existence had all been a façade, anyway, and in a strange way, she and de Gilles shared a common history; as children, their lives had been irrevocably disrupted by the failed, desperate plan to rescue a doomed prince, and nothing had been the same, ever since. 

     Epione had not known her father—her mother had rarely spoken of him—but she felt these latest revelations gave her new insight into the character of a man who had risked everything—his fortune, his life, and the life of his only son—in an attempt to save the French monarchy.  But her mother could only see the wreckage of the failed gamble, and think of what had been lost.  Perhaps if she’d let her daughters know of their father’s loyalty and courage, Marie would not have been tempted to betray everything he’d stood for; perhaps she would not have been killed, and the factions that were now fighting over the carcass of post-war France would not have sought out Marie’s younger sister, for reasons as yet unknown.     

     But Epione was not one to dwell upon useless what-ifs, and apparently the fact that she did not ponder the cruelties of fate made her attractive to this man, whose warm hands were now tracing the contours of her hips with an urgency that she did not quite understand.

     “Ah—we are just in time, I think.”

     Darton appeared in the doorway, the haberdasher beside him, as Epione scrambled to sit up, blushing, while her companion drew himself up in a more leisurely fashion, resting his hands upon his knees and regarding the newcomer. “Well?”

     Darton cocked his head. “Mais c’est infâme; while you dally with this beautiful girl, I have been running like a fox from the hounds. They are very unhappy with you, mon Capitaine.”

     “I can grant them no sympathy; I am just as unhappy with them.”

     Darton offered his hands to Epione, and after pulling her upright, kissed both of her cheeks, with an insouciant glance at de Gilles.  “So, you have tamed our friend, here, Mademoiselle.”

     “She did stab me, once,” de Gilles admitted, as he rose to his feet.

     Darton was impressed, and raised his brows at her.  “C’est vrai? Have you indeed stabbed him? I have never been given the smallest opportunity to stab him.”

     De Gilles obligingly pushed up his sleeve. “You see? You must never cross Mademoiselle.”

     “It was an accident,” she laughingly protested.  “I am not so menacing.”

     Darton shook his head. “Au contraire, I must respectfully disagree.  You are definitely menacing to someone; I have spent a long and wet afternoon, as a result.”

     Epione spread her hands. “I beg your pardon—and acquit me of any knowledge of these matters, Monsieur.”

     De Gilles, it seemed, had tired of the topic. “Have you managed a priest?”

     With a bow, Darton confirmed. “I have. We mustn’t tarry, though; he has a ship to catch, which is just as well—one less to tell the tale.”

     “It will not be a secret,” de Gilles disagreed in a mild tone, as he adjusted his cuffs. “I will marry the only remaining daughter of the House d’Amberre in plain sight of all.  Let them make of it what they will.”

     Darton’s smile flashed in the dim light, and he seemed very much amused. “You will throw the cat among the pigeons, mon Capitaine.  They will beat their wings, in a panic.”

     “We shall see.”

      Epione could not quite like this characterization—as though she was but a pawn in a game of chess—but then she consoled herself with the fact that the man seemed unable to keep his hands from her, so there was that.

     De Gilles offered his arm. “Mademoiselle?”

     Epione took it, and allowed him to lead her to the fitting room, where the haberdasher and his wife flanked a priest, who seemed a bit taken aback to behold her disguise, but asked no questions—which was just as well, as Epione was not certain why she was dressed as a boy, herself.  All in all, it seemed that the haberdasher’s wife was more in need of support than the bride, as Epione was married to a man she’d met three days ago—and what she knew of him wouldn’t fill a thimble. 

     It is less than ideal, she admitted to herself, as she listened to him speak his vows; but try as I might, I cannot muster a qualm, whether he is the true King of France or merely a sea captain with an eye on my estate.  She held her bridegroom’s hand and made her responses whilst wondering what was to happen next—despite the heated interlude in the storeroom, it seemed unlikely that a blissful honeymoon was in the offing.

     In this she was correct.  After the others offered their congratulations, Darton placed his own broad-brimmed hat on Epione, and stood back to observe the effect. “If she pulls the collar up on her coat, she’d not be easily recognizable—especially in the rain.”

     “Where do we go? And please tell me it does not involve the setting of more fires.” Epione tilted her head back to peer at her new husband from under the brim.

     “Fires?” asked the haberdasher’s wife in a faint tone, and the woman’s husband discreetly hustled her out of the room.

     De Gilles stepped forward to hold Epione’s coat as she slipped her arms into it. “There is a man in a tavern, over in Fitzrovia. I would like you to look at him through the window as we pass by, to see if you recognize him.”

     She looked at him with interest. “The ‘Josiah’, do you think?” 

     “We shall see.”

     The priest stepped forward to interrupt them, saying regretfully, “I’m afraid I must leave to catch a ship.” He bowed with a smile. “My best wishes, Madame de Gilles.”

     “Thank you,” said Epione, who was not certain whether she should bow in response.  Although she was the daughter of a vicomte, her husband may-or-may-not hold a title, and it seemed as though he did not feel it necessary to enlighten her.

     As Darton escorted the priest out the back, she took the opportunity to ask de Gilles, “What does it mean—the ‘Josiah’, and why do you think this man in Fitzrovia may be he? Can you tell me?”

     He gently pulled her to him by her lapels, and bent to kiss her, ducking his head under the broad brim. “I believe it is a reference to the Old Testament king.”

    “Oh,” she replied, and decided she shouldn’t betray her ignorance.

     He was not fooled, however, and playfully tugged on her too-large hat so that it came down over her forehead. “He was the King of Judah, and wore a disguise so that he could participate in a battle.”

     Pushing the hat back, she puzzled over this. “What can it mean—how is that story connected to all this?”

     He shrugged. “I am not certain.  But it is the code name for an assignment given by Napoleon’s spymaster—something very important, and kept very secret. I came across the name only by chance.”

     With a knit brow, she ventured, “One of the pretenders is disguised, perhaps? Or I suppose it could even refer to you, and the confusion over your true identity.”

     But he shook his head. “I do not think that is it; I have not lived in Europe for many years, and no one was expecting me to make a reappearance.”

     She buttoned the boy’s coat, feeling its unnatural weight. “Perhaps it has to do with me; perhaps the Josiah is the one who decided to give Desclaires to me.”

     “Perhaps.”

     Reminded, Epione asked, “Could it refer to the murderer?”

     “I do not know, but I believe there is a connection between the Josiah and your work at the millenery, Epione.”

     She stared at him in bewilderment. “What could the connection possibly be?  Between the pretenders, and me, and Madame, and these random victims—”

     “And Desclaires.”

     “—and Declaires.  Truly, it all makes little sense.”

     “It makes sense to Napoleon,” he replied, a bit grimly. “Allons, now.”

     No honeymoon anytime soon, she thought with a mental sigh, and hoped he would at least kiss her again, before Darton returned.