The True Pretender
Apparently, the Comte was as astonished as Epione, and he stood as though transfixed, dropping his napkin on his chair and then belatedly bowing. “Seigneur—why, what brings you—”
In response to his host’s bafflement, de Gilles smiled his charming smile, and flicked his gloves on the chair back. “Come, come; it is Alexis, Etienne—we will not stand on ceremony. We stole away to go eeling together at Chambord—or have you forgotten?”
Still bemused, the Comte shook his head slightly. “No—no, I have not forgotten. We were thoroughly wetted, but caught no eels, as I recall.”
“And I was berated by my bear-leader, for slipping my leash.”
Enrapt, the Comte nodded slowly. “Landrieu—a pinch-face; I remember. You could charm the birds from the trees, though; I had no fears for you.”
There was a pause while the two men contemplated the memory; de Gilles standing at his ease, his expression benign in the firelight. Recalled to his surroundings, the Comte made a deprecatory gesture. “You—I must beg your pardon for my disarray; I confess I am astonished to behold you.” He indicated Epione. “Allow me to present Mademoiselle d’Amberre—”
With an easy movement, de Gilles bowed. “I have had the pleasure of making Mademoiselle’s acquaintance in London. Comment tallez-vous, Mademoiselle?”
“I am well, thank you.” Epione responded in what she considered a remarkably level tone, all things considered. She was perfectly willing to follow his lead, if only she knew where she was being led.
“Please, please—join us, I insist.” With a hurried gesture, deFabry snapped his fingers at the sandy-haired footman, who promptly moved to set another place at the table.
With a careless gesture, de Gilles handed his hat and coat to the footman, and then seated himself next to the Comte. “With pleasure, my old friend. May I beg a room for the night? My manservant can attend me; I can see you are understaffed, and I will not disrupt your household.”
“Why—by all means,” offered the Comte, with extreme gratification. He appeared to be recovering from his initial shock, as he signaled to the footman. “We will be en famille, then, which is much more comfortable. “How—how did you know I was in residence, if I may ask? We are staying very quietly, and made no announcement.”
De Gilles sighed and lowered his voice. “I am staying quietly myself—you must not mention it to Pere Tallyrand.”
The reference to Napoleon’s former Minister caused their host to look grave for a moment, and apparently he didn’t notice that his original question went unanswered. “No—no, of course not.” He then added diffidently, “If you will forgive my impertinence—it may be best if you used a nom de guerre while you are here; there are some visitors who may be alarmed by your presence. I am assured that you will understand.”
De Gilles nodded easily. “I do understand, and I thank you for the warning, Etienne. I travel as Capitaine de Gilles.”
“Very good, Seigneur—”
With a smile, de Gilles tilted his head over his glass of wine. “It is Alexis, Etienne—I beg of you.”
The Comte turned slightly pink, and stammered in his gratification. “Alexis. Of course.”
De Gilles turned his warm gaze upon Epione. “You must forgive two old friends, Mademoiselle; we neglect you.”
“Not at all,” she demurred in a mild tone. “I am very much entertained, I assure you.”
Thus reminded, deFabry leaned forward, and indicated Epione with a gesture of his head. “You may not be aware that I was—acquainted—with Mademoiselle’s sister, while I lived in London.” He then met the other’s gaze for a significant moment, and Epione was given to understand the men were acknowledging a relationship that was too shocking to reveal in front of her.
“Is that so? But Marie does not visit, also?”
“No—no.” The man sobered for a moment, and then with a visible effort, drew himself up. “She has—sadly—died; and as Mademoiselle d’Amberre’s family has been taken from her—this regrettable business!—she is now here, and will be held safe.”
“Indeed?” De Gilles allowed his gaze to rest upon Epione, a great deal of warmth in his expression. “You left London before we could further our acquaintance, Mademoiselle—I was dévastée.”
Epione found she was having trouble keeping her countenance, and so took refuge in sipping from her wine glass. “I am afraid I was called away unexpectedly, Monsieur.” And although Epione entertained a qualm that her host would not appreciate this rather heavy-handed flirtation by his guest, it appeared the Comte could not have been more pleased to observe his visitor’s interest, and he added with a meaningful arch of his brow, “In point of fact, Mademoiselle d’Amberre now holds title to this château, Alexis. Perhaps she can be persuaded to give you a—a private tour.”
De Gilles smiled his flashing white smile. “I quite look forward to such a tour. It is above all things fortunate that I am given this chance to renew our acquaintance, Mademoiselle.”
But Epione could not resist throwing out a small dart. “I am not certain that fortune is to be thanked, Monsieur.”
“Now, Mademoiselle—” the Comte hastily interjected, clearly alarmed that she would reveal too much of her experiences, thus far. “You are perhaps unaware that it is your very great fortune.” He then gave her a warning look that promised edification at a later time, and Epione willingly subsided, so as to allow him to think her biddable, which was important for some unexplained reason.
As Epione and deFabry had already finished their meal, they conversed with the visitor while Luci served him, standing at the side board in attendance. For some reason, Epione had the impression that the servant girl was suddenly wary—although her rather bovine expression never changed. Perhaps she was made nervous, by having another guest to serve.
The Comte spread his hands. “I must apologize that we haven’t more than two covers—the cook is new-hired—”
But his companion held up a hand with an easy grace. “You must not apologize to me, Etienne; I confess I feel as though I have been granted an unexpected boon.” He allowed his gaze to flick to Epione for a quick and meaningful moment.
Epione could feel the color flood her cheeks as she pretended not to understand the byplay—it seemed evident that de Gilles was laying the groundwork to steal into her room, and it would be of all things a welcome relief, to relinquish this strange situation into hands that were far more capable than hers.
Reminded, she decided she should immediately inform de Gilles of what she’d learned, and so she smiled at the Comte. “Perhaps le Capitaine could join our dinner party, two days hence, and we can better entertain him at that time.”
Clearly nonplussed by the reference, deFabry stammered, “Yes—yes, of course.”
There was an awkward pause, which de Gilles smoothly filled. “I cannot stay, I’m afraid; I have pressing matters to attend, and there are those—” he paused to give the Comte a knowing look “—there are those who very much desire that I not abide in la belle France, just now.”
“Of course; and I am sorry for it,” deFabry agreed, with angry emphasis. “When I think of what has happened to our poor country—how la racaille holds her in their grip—”
But de Gilles interrupted, “We mustn’t distress Mademoiselle d’Amberre with politics, my friend. Later, we will share a fine bottle, and rail against fortune’s wheel.”
Their host’s brow cleared, and again, he turned a bit pink with pleasure. “I could desire nothing more, Alexis.”
Reacting to the message in de Gilles’ eye, Epione offered, “As I am rather weary, I will retire, then, and leave you gentlemen to your wine.”
The men rose, and as her host escorted her over to the stairway, he bent down to instruct her in a low voice, “You must not—you should encourage his attentions, Epione; he is a great man.”
Epione thought she should probably make a show of reluctance, which hopefully would serve the purpose of eliciting more information on this all-important subject. “Is he? I think in London it was generally understood that he is a sea captain, of some sort.”
Her host hovered on the brink of revealing the truth—or at least what he thought was the truth—but drew back. “I’m afraid I cannot speak out of school; but I assure you, if you could engage his interest, you could look no higher for a benefactor.”
Here was blunt speech, and Epione met it with her own. “But I thought I was slated to be your mistress, Louis.”
He met her eyes, clearly startled. “No, oh—I beg your pardon if I have given you the wrong impression. Not that you are not lovely,” he hastened to assure her. “But you are Marie’s sister, and it would not be right. I doubt I will ever marry, although—” here he looked into the distance for a moment, and sighed. “Although perhaps I will have little choice, and must do so, quand même.”
The tête-à-tête was interrupted by the appearance of Darton, playing the part of de Gilles’ manservant. With a small bow which featured a knowing glance at the Comte, he offered, “I have been instructed to escort the lady to her chambers, Monsieur.”
Lifting a significant brow to Epione at this obvious subterfuge to discover the location of her bedroom, the Comte took her hand, and said with some meaning, “Bonne nuit, Mademoiselle.”
“Yes, bonne nuit.” Epione turned to follow the waiting Darton up the stairs, while the Comte hurried back into the dining room. When she deemed it safe, she said in a low voice, “I am very gratified to see you again, I must say.”
Darton turned to her, and grinned. “It is a surprise, is it not?”
“Do you know where my rooms are?”
Shrugging in amusement, the man shook his head. “I do not.”
Epione looked up the stairway, in the cavernous and silent château. “I am not certain I do, either. The third floor, I believe.”
“We shall find them, sans doute.” With a smile, he offered his arm.