The True Pretender
After her strange companion made his unorthodox exit, Epione stood in the doorway for a confused moment, trying to regain her bearings. The man who had hailed them approached cautiously, with his pistol at the ready. He was tall and blond, dressed like a gentleman, and she gauged he was a few years older than she. “Where is he?”
“Oh—he has left.” She indicated, rather inadequately. “Through the door.”
The young man pocketed his weapon, and then offered his hand to her. “Are you all right, Miss d’Amberre? Shall I find you a place to sit?”
Tiens, thought Epione with surprised annoyance; another one who knows my name. “No—no need. But who are you? Who was he?”
Her hand in his, he helped her step from the doorway, and then faced her with a small bow. “I am your cousin, Robert Tremaine. I was waiting outside your residence, hoping to speak with you about my letter. I confess I became alarmed when you were late, and so I came to the millinery, to look in on you.”
Except that she wasn’t late, she was early, and his story did not ring true—not to mention he hadn’t yet relinquished her hand. Gently removing it from his grasp, she asked with some puzzlement, “Mr. Tremaine—I beg your pardon; did I forget we were to meet, this evening?”
He stood before her in the fading light, and she noted that he seemed in no hurry to begin the journey to her Soho rooms. With a self-conscious smile, he confessed. “No; when you didn’t answer my letter, I thought it might be best to meet with you in person. Forgive me if I have overstepped—although it was a good thing I was here, it seems.”
But Epione could not take this rescue at face value, particularly since her rescuer seemed suspiciously inclined to stall. If the startling revelations she’d just heard were true—if the British authorities were indeed searching her rooms—then this fellow must be in league with them, which would cast his unexpected tale of kinship in a more ominous light. Trying to decide what was best to do, she asked, “Who was the other gentleman? Are you acquainted?”
“I do not know him—did he offer you insult?” He met her eyes, the expression in his own sincerely concerned.
For whatever reason, she decided that this was not the truth, and that the two were, in fact, acquainted—that, and her so-called cousin certainly didn’t seem very French. “No—I didn’t have much opportunity to discover what it was he wanted.” This was, in turn, an untruth, but she found she had a perverse desire to protect the handsome, dark-haired man. I am undoubtedly one of many, she thought with a touch of humor; it is the reason handsome, dark-haired men never have to answer for their sins. “You are very persistent, Mr. Tremaine.”
She began to move toward the street—she wanted to test him, and in any event, it seemed best to be away from the alley, with its unexpected hazards. Perhaps she should indeed obtain a more formidable weapon; the trimming shears—with hindsight—seemed wholly inadequate.
In response to her movement, her escort promptly fell into step beside her and offered his arm. “Forgive my eagerness to meet you, Miss d’Amberre. I acted with such haste because I wanted to speak with you before you left the country.”
She glanced up at him in bewilderment. “Left? Left for where?” Apparently she’d traded one incomprehensible conversation for another.
His blue-eyed gaze guileless, he paused, and turned to her in surprise. “You had no plans to travel? I was mistaken, then.”
But Epione was determined not to allow yet another strange gentleman evade explanation, and so she kept walking, despite his best efforts to slow her down. “I don’t understand; what is so urgent, Mr. Tremaine? You indicated that your claim to my father’s estate has already been verified.” Then, so he wouldn’t believe she harbored a grudge, she lifted her face to add, “Please allow me to offer my sincere congratulations; I am relieved to hear it will be turned over to the rightful heir, after all these years.” At the time of the French Revolution, many aristocratic estates had been seized by the Jacobins as biens nationaux—belonging to the state. She’d no memory of her father or the lands, since her father had fallen victim to the Revolution when she was an infant. But now that France was trying to restore the monarchy, some efforts had been made to return the seized properties back to the original owners—or, more properly, those relatives of the original owners who had managed to avoid the guillotine. Still, when Epione had heard the older émigrés discuss the matter, they were cynically doubtful that much of value would be returned—the monarchy would be no more generous than the Jacobins, when it came to wealthy estates.
Therefore, it was with some surprise that Epione beheld the surprising news in Tremaine’s letter; her father’s estate—Desclaires—was slated to be returned back to his family, even though by all accounts it was a premiere property.
Her companion bent his head in a self-deprecating gesture and smiled, so as to invite her to share in his discomfiture. “I confess I am almost embarrassed—my claim is so attenuated that I didn’t even know of it.” He took another glance around at their surroundings, and it occurred to her he was very watchful, despite his casual air. “Have you ever seen it—Desclaires, I mean?”
“No; I left as a baby, when my mother had to flee The Terror.”
“Never visited, then?”
His friendly gaze rested on her, but she had the impression he was watching her reaction carefully—although she had nothing to hide. “No—I’m afraid I’ve never been outside of London.” Best not mention her newly-formed plan to depart to an obscure corner of the country and find a husband; despite his amiable mien, her so-called cousin made her wary.
He nodded, and was seen to gather his thoughts. “I wanted to meet with you, Miss d’Amberre, because I have a proposition which may benefit the both of us.”
For whatever reason, Epione was suddenly of the opinion that she shouldn’t trust anyone on this strange day, no matter how appealing they might appear, and so she allowed her skepticism to be revealed in her tone. “What sort of proposition?”
Almost imperceptibly, she could sense him re-assess, and after a moment’s hesitation, he met her eyes in a frank manner. “Look—you’ve had a scare; it can wait until tomorrow, and I shouldn’t have imposed myself on you in this way. May I beg you to spare me a half-hour in the morning, perhaps?”
They began to walk again, and Epione knew it was no coincidence that she’d been suddenly sought out by these two gentlemen, who were apparently working at cross-purposes. Neither one had raised any undue alarm within her breast, but on the other hand, she should take no chances until she discovered what was afoot—not to mention that French émigrés were being murdered, one after the other. “I am certain I can be excused for a half-hour, if you come by the shop tomorrow—my employer is very accommodating.” Although this may not be the case in this instance; on those occasions when a visiting gentleman had shown an interest in the pretty milliner’s assistant, Madame had ruthlessly interrupted to send Epione on an errand.
In the end, it didn’t matter because her cousin proposed an alternate plan. “Perhaps I could escort you to work in the morning? That way you won’t have to impose upon your employer.”
“I shall look forward to it, Mr. Tremaine.” Then, because he hadn’t mentioned it again—which seemed a little strange—she asked, “Will you report the other gentleman to the authorities? He could have hurt you.”
There was a small pause. “Yes—I should do so. It wouldn’t do, to allow such lawlessness to go unpunished. I will see to it, after I escort you safely home.”
They walked to her rooms, which were located in a modest row of buildings and had been chosen by Epione for two reasons; first, that they cost little, and second, hopefully no one in the working-class French neighborhood would recognize her.
She lived one floor up from her landlady, which was both a bane and a blessing in that the older woman was a bit intrusive, in the best tradition of lonely widows. At present, Madame Reyne was engaged in her favorite pastime of sweeping the front steps, which was merely a subterfuge to disguise her intense interest in who was coming and going. Upon viewing Epione’s approach with a personable gentleman, the broom paused, and the woman raised her brows in an arch manner, the implication making Epione blush.
Her companion gave no sign of self-consciousness, however, and instead nodded in a friendly fashion to the woman before bowing over Epione’s hand. “Until tomorrow, cousin.” He waited while she let herself into the front door, and then walked away with a wave of his hand.
Rather than parry Madame Reyne’s inevitable questions, Epione hurried up the stairs to her rooms and turned the bolt, standing for a moment to listen to the silence. Satisfied that she was alone, she quickly crossed to pull out a drawer in her writing desk, then another, and another. Letting out a breath, she sank slowly into the chair. The desk had indeed been searched, although if she hadn’t known to look for it, no doubt she wouldn’t have noticed.
“Josiah,” he’d said, but she did not understand the reference. And if it was indeed the British authorities who’d done the searching, then her “cousin” was working with them—there was something about his manner; about the way he’d reacted so quickly and deftly to whatever she’d said.
The clock ticked quietly on the mantle, and Epione considered the unhappy fact that her past had come back to haunt her with a vengeance. It was the only rational explanation; they must know who she was, and think her a traitor, like her sister. With a heavy heart, she lit a candle against the gathering darkness, and would have been grateful for a cat, even though it would not have been of the least use.