The True Pretender
“Ah, my dear,” the Comte said, lifting her hand to bestow a light kiss on its back. “I cannot describe my happiness at seeing you here. We will dine and speak of Marie—no one knew her as well as you did.”
“I imagine not,” Epione agreed, hiding her dismay, as the sandy-haired footman began to serve them. Apparently she would be required to construct some flattering depictions of her vain and unlikable sister to feed the Comte’s infatuation—she was not good at subterfuge, but had best come up with a tale or two.
The great hall table featured three elaborate golden candelabras placed along its center to provide illumination, and the candlelight flickered off the planes of her host’s face as he waved the footman aside, and stood to serve Epione the soup course with his own hands.
Epione absently agreed that the bisque was delicious, all the while striving mightily to puzzle out this extraordinary turn of events. Apparently, deFabry had some sort of power that allowed him to demand that his beloved Marie’s sister be given a valuable estate—which made little sense, since it was hard to imagine a less likely power-broker than the man who sat across from her. She’d paid little attention to the Comte’s history—her mother and Marie had been more interested in the émigré gossip—but as far as she knew, he was only one more in the lengthy list of impoverished noblemen who had been displaced by the French Revolution. Of course, he was cousin to Louis Philippe—one of the pretenders—but the Comte himself had no credible claim to the throne of France, and certainly in the last twenty years there’d been no indication that powerful forces were willing to support him; he’d been just another impoverished aristo, scratching out an existence in a foreign land.
Thinking to—delicately—explore what was expected of her, Epione smiled at him. “Are we to marry, Louis?”
This amused him, and he shook his head gently, as though denying a treat to a small child. “No, my dear; marriage would be impossible, under the circumstances. But rest assured you will want for nothing.” He paused, and with a resolute expression, met her eyes. “And you have my solemn promise that your sister’s killer will be brought to justice.”
Rather taken aback by this reference, she thought it best to make an attempt to shield Sir Lucien. “I—I do not believe the authorities know who shot her—they cannot be certain.”
“The bâtard,” he spat out in a low voice, then tilted his head in apology. “I must beg your pardon for my language, Epione, but to think that her own husband could be so cold-blooded, so unnatural—”
In abject dismay, Epione tried to deflect his simmering rage. “Oh—Monsieur le Comte, you mustn’t say such a thing; Sir Lucien—”
But her companion only clenched his fists on the table and pronounced, “I was there, Epione; I saw him. Indeed, I was lucky he did not shoot me, also.”
As Epione was unable to muster a response, her companion added with emphasis, “It is well you should be shocked; you have been shielded from the truth. Sir Lucien was a foul spy, and Marie was—heroically!—attempting to stem his efforts when he cut her down, as though she was—was nothing more than une chienne.” He paused for a moment, gazing into the fire with a lowered brow. “He will pay. I have been promised this.”
Thinking that she may as well ask, Epione gently touched his hand. “By whom, Louis? Who has made you these promises?”
But the fit of fury had passed, and her companion bent his head to address the fish course. “I’m afraid I cannot tell you, my dear. And you must not ask too many questions—it is dangerous to know too much.”
Pulling herself together, Epione nodded calmly in agreement. “Of course—I’d rather not be killed, along with all the others.”
“Exactly.” He smiled and indicated her plate. “You do not care for the sauce?”
After assuring him that it was delicious, Epione ate for a moment in silence, trying to come to grips with what she had learned. It appeared that the common thread between the murders was that the victims had been familiar with the Comte deFabry—including her mother and stepfather, although the grey-eyed spymaster was apparently unaware that her parents had been victims, too. And the only reason she’d been allowed to survive was because—for reasons only the mad Comte could explain—he wanted to honor Marie’s little sister. Therefore, it behooved her to play up this angle to maximum advantage.
Rendering her best dimpled smile, she said with as much enthusiasm as she could muster, “Desclaires is so lovely, Louis; I am truly, truly grateful to be here.”
His gaze wandered about the tapestried walls. “Yes. I intend to have Marie interred here, in the chapel.” He paused for a moment, thinking about it with great satisfaction.
Epione nodded in encouragement. “I am certain she would appreciate it—we could all be together, then.”
With some regret, he shook his head, and signaled for the sweetmeats tray. “I’m afraid I will be forced to spend much of my time at Versailles. It is a shame, but it cannot be helped; again, sacrifices must be made.”
Epione blinked in surprise, trying to decide why the Comte would be installed at the former royal palace. “Because of your cousin? Do you believe Louis Philippe will become King of France?”
Smiling, the Comte met her eyes, his own alight with some undefined emotion. “Yes; yes—imagine it.”
There was no question that her idle comment had inspired a less-than idle reaction, and so Epione probed, “Do you know him well, your cousin?”
The Comte’s smile faded, and he lowered his gaze to his plate. “No; not at all. He has lived in exile for twenty years, and although for the past few years he’s lived in England, he never deigned to seek me out.”
There was an edge of bitterness to his tone, and so she asked with sympathy, “Was there a falling out in the family, then?” She’d known her own share of family strife, and in these turbulent times, political loyalties often were the source of deep-seated disagreements.
“He did not seek me out,” he repeated. “But your sister did—thank le bon Dieu for her.”
They were wandering back into saintly Marie territory, and so Epione valiantly sought to steer the conversation elsewhere. “It was accommodating of the British, to grant us all a refuge.”
But this apparently touched a nerve, and he exclaimed with low heat, “Living in a country of inferiors—crétins!—was the most bitter blow of The Terror. Marie understood this as few others did.”
A bit taken aback, Epione temporized, “Yes, well—I suppose it was not an easy thing, to assimilate to life in England.”
“Now she abides in heaven,” he pronounced firmly, “and will yet see my revenge—and my greatest glory.”
Epione managed to conceal her increasing alarm. “I am certain she will. And what glory would that be, Louis?”
But his attitude changed abruptly, and he playfully shook a finger. “I’m afraid I am not to tell you yet—the others, they are concerned you will not be reconciled.” He paused to take her hand, and to add with all sincerity, “But I know you will—Marie always said you were a biddable girl.”
“Yes—yes, I suppose that is true.” Biddable, until she had been swept up in these extraordinary events, that was; events which reeked of treason, and espionage, and—and slave-trading, and the latest exigent need to warn the unknowing Sir Lucien that he was slated to be killed. Truly; when one toted it up, it was quite overwhelming.
But succor was to come from an unlikely source, as a familiar voice could be heard from the great hall’s entry way. “Etienne; pray forgive my intrusion, but there were no servants at the door.”
In utter astonishment, Epione stared open-mouthed at the figure posed in the doorway; de Gilles, leaning negligently on a Malacca cane, and dressed point de vice in the first stare of elegance. With casual grace, he took off his gloves and bowed, sweeping his hat before him.
For a few long seconds there was absolutely no sound. “Seigneur,” breathed the Comte in disbelief, as he slowly rose to his feet. “Seigneur—welcome.”