ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The True Pretender

Chapter 29

 

     “Lisabetta is here—somewhere,” Epione warned Darton, as they wandered down the hallway of the third floor. “I’m afraid she escaped from the British, but I suppose they already know this.”

     “They do.” Her escort lit a passage candle, and held it aloft as he stopped to systematically open the doors along the hallway, the candlelight flickering off the white walls, in the still and silent rooms.  He kept a hand on his pistol hilt, and seemed to have little to say, as his sharp gaze swept each interior.

     “She is not happy with you, and would like her lock of hair back.”  Although unhappy was perhaps not the best description—Epione was curious to see his reaction, and wondered if they were all as ruthless as they seemed.

     Unsurprisingly, he did not give her one.  “Quelle dommage; she will not get it.” He opened a door to reveal another neglected room, the furniture shapes dimly visible under their Holland covers. 

     Although he seemed bent on reticence, she was equally bent on discussing this very strange situation with someone who—finally—could be considered an ally.  “There is some secret plot afoot; there are very few servants, and we entered by stealth, through a sea grotto.”

     This seemed to catch his diverted attention, and he paused to regard her with interest. “There is a sea grotto? Where?”

     Belatedly alive to the various double-crossings experienced thus far, Epione hesitated, and confessed, “I am not certain how much I should tell you.”

     With an amused gleam in his eye, he considered her for a moment, then said with all sincerity, “You can trust me, Mademoiselle; and you can trust le Capitaine.”

      But she remembered that it was Darton who’d brought the false priest to the haberdasher, and decided to keep her own counsel. “I’m very much inclined to trust no one, just now. You can hardly blame me, Monsieur.”

     With a small bow he conceded, “As you wish, Mademoiselle.” 

     Further discussion was curtailed as they finally found her suite of rooms, illuminated by the moonlight, which dimly shone in through the windows.  Wary, Darton lifted the candle and entered, his pistol drawn. Epione peered over his shoulder and offered, “I don’t think anyone is here—there are very few people about.”

     The words were no sooner said when with a loud crack, a pistol discharged from the darkness within. Darton pushed Epione against the wall, as a musket ball lodged in the plaster over her head, and Lisabetta’s voice rang out. “Bâtard.”

     “Stand down, vixene.”   Mainly, Darton sounded amused, which inspired a faint hissing sound, emanating from the darkness within.

     “What is your business here, crétin? I should kill you where you stand.”

     “Lisabetta—for heaven’s sake, mind the plaster,” cautioned Epione.  This place may be an oversized tomb, but it was her oversized tomb.

     Apparently the Frenchwoman’s threat had little effect, because Darton stepped forward in a casual fashion to place the candle on the side table, illuminating Lisabetta’s flushed face as she leaned back on the settee, glowering at him from behind her cocked pistol. With a cautionary gesture, Darton straightened again. “Stay quiet, ma chérie. You will bring the other one down upon us.”

     “I do not take direction from you, bâtard.”

     Epione asked anxiously, “Who is ‘the other one’?” All it needed was more players; she was having trouble keeping track of them as it was. “Is it Mr. Tremaine?”

     “Robert is here?”  Lisabetta’s incredulous gaze turned to Epione.

     “I am the last person to know anything.” Epione retorted, “But you are not to cause the poor man any more misery, Lisabetta.”

     Darton interjected in a reasonable tone, “You ask too much, Mademoiselle; this one, she deals only in misery.”

     With a furious gesture, Lisabetta sprang to her feet to hurl a knife, which Darton adeptly sidestepped before it lodged, with a thud, in the silk-covered wall behind him. As though it were nothing out of the ordinary, Darton pulled the protruding handle from the wall, and promptly crossed the room to return it to the Frenchwoman, presenting it over his arm, hilt first, with a small bow. 

     Snatching it from his hand, Lisabetta pressed the tip to his throat, her breast heaving with suppressed fury.  While Epione caught her breath in alarm, Darton spread his hands to each side, and made no attempt to escape as his gaze locked on Lisabetta’s.  For a few seconds they stood in a tense tableau, then matters took a surprising turn, as Darton leaned in to bring his mouth down to Lisabetta’s. Unresisting, the woman allowed him to grasp the wrist which held the dagger, and twist it behind her until she dropped it.  Then his arm drew her body against him, and the kiss deepened until, with his mouth still on hers, Darton swung her up in his arms to carry her out of the room.

     Epione stood in surprised silence for a few moments, before deciding that perhaps she should lock the door.  Then, rather belatedly, she took the candle and made a careful search of the rooms, although she couldn’t imagine what she would do if she found anyone within—hit them with the candle, perhaps, and start yet another diversionary blaze. 

     After her search, she perched on the edge of the bed to stare out the window, and think over what she had learned, as the candle stub burned down.  It was rather surprising that Luci did not come to attend her, but perhaps she felt it more important that she attend the gentlemen, at their brandy.  This moment of solitude was a bit strange, actually; heretofore she had been the focus of everyone’s intense attention, but now that the venue had changed—or perhaps more accurately, now that the focus had changed to the Comte—apparently all interest in her had been abandoned.  Except for one person’s interest, that was; hopefully she had not mistaken the message in his eyes at the dinner table. 

     She’d been sitting alone for over an hour when she heard his tool at the lock, and then de Gilles appeared in the doorway to the bedchamber, pausing for a moment to behold her with a sound of satisfaction. “Ah, that is a very pretty dress, ma belle. Ravissante.”

     He approached to hold out his hands and draw her up so as to review her, head to foot. “Ravissante,” he repeated, and bent to kiss her thoroughly, his hands moving to her waist to pull her against him.

     Breathless, she twined her arms around his neck—he tasted of wine, and she was oh, so pleased to be back in his arms again.  Truth to tell, she had entertained a doubt or two, despite her bravado, but he had indeed come for her, and she was more than happy to turn over all counter-scheming into his capable hands.  He paused for breath, and bent to kiss her neck, which gave her an opportunity to observe, “I am beginning to believe nothing can surprise me, anymore. Do the British know you are here?”

     He lifted his head to face her, and begin pulling the pins out of her hair with gentle fingers. “The British are aware of the situation, although they are guarding their plans—and in turn, we would be wise not to trust them.”  He framed her face with his hands. “You have not been mistreated?”

     “No; quite the contrary—although I am running out of candle, and there are no others in the candle drawer.”

     With a chuckle, he released her to shrug out of his coat, and toss it negligently on the foot of the bed. “This place is not well-appointed, Madame de Gilles; but we will make do.  And where is Monsieur Darton?”   

     She made a wry mouth. “I believe he and Lisabetta are—are having relations, somewhere.”

     He made a sound of amusement mixed with exasperation, as he undid his cravat, pulling at the long cloth and tossing it onto his coat. “Good luck to him; she’d as soon slit his throat.”

     “I do have her knife.” She made a gesture toward it, on the side table.

     “I see this.”  As he unbuttoned the top button of his shirt, he leaned down to kiss her again. “Well done, Madame.” 

     As he seemed bent on disrobing, there was nothing for it, and she sighed with regret. “I’m afraid I must inform you that we are not truly wed.”

     Without bothering with the other buttons, he pulled his shirt over his head, and then paused to stare at her. “Why is this? Were you already married, ma belle?”

     “No—the priest who married us was a faux-priest.”

     He stood for a moment, this shirt in his hands and his expression skeptical.  “Who told you this?” 

     She was having a difficult time keeping her gaze on his face—as opposed to his impressive chest—but she persevered. “The gentleman himself, I’m afraid. He is aligned with Lisabetta and Monsieur Chauvelin, the tailor—who is another villain, and seems to be the kingpin. And the faux-priest is not here, but has instead left for Bengal.”

     He stared at her, frowning in surprise, and she reflected that it truly was a shame she’d confessed this to him before he’d demanded his marital rights—he did seem inclined, and frankly, so did she, after witnessing Darton sweep Lisabetta away.

     Ruthlessly putting her thoughts in order, she lifted her chin. “I am not certain you weren’t already aware of this.”

     “Epione,” he remonstrated, and moved to gently pull her down beside him on the bed, and take her hands in his.  “Acquit me; I would not do such a thing to you.” 

     She trusted him, of course. She had from the start, and this left one other potential candidate in the deception. “How well do you know Monsieur Darton?”

     Immediately, he understood why the question was asked, but slowly shook his head in denial. “He has sailed with me for years, and if he wished to betray me—suffice it to say he has had many opportunities.”

     She nodded, thinking this only made sense; someone like de Gilles, who preferred to haunt the far corners of the world so as to avoid scrutiny, would not be someone who gave his trust easily, and he was certainly no fool. “I see. It just seems an extraordinary coincidence that the nearest priest at hand was a false one, ready to aid in my abduction.  And another thing; just now Darton kept referring to me as ‘Mademoiselle’, as though he knew I was not married.”

     “Did he?” He bent his head forward, absently running his thumbs over the back of her hands, but in the end he shook his head. “I cannot explain it; but I cannot believe he is aligned with anyone other than myself.” 

     She eyed his bent head, and decided there was no time like the present. “And I am given to understand that you are aligned with slave-traders.”

     He lifted his head, and met her eyes very seriously. “It is not the truth, Epione. But unfortunately, I cannot deny such a thing to others—many lives are at stake.”

      Rather taken aback, she stared at him. “Then it is true you are smuggling young girls?”

     “It is not what it appears, but more I cannot say. I am sorry, Epione.”

     As his tone indicated she would learn no more on this subject, she introduced a different but equally distressing one. “There is a plot afoot to murder Sir Lucien.”

      With a mock-rueful sigh, he bent his head again, and caressed her hands, his own very warm. “Nom de Dieu; this night is not going at all how I had hoped.”

     She couldn’t help but smile. “No—I suppose it is not; it is only that I have learned so many distressing things, since last I saw you.”

     Her breath caught as he lifted his eyes and looked into hers, the awareness between them electric, and compelling.  “Could we discuss it later, perhaps? After I have helped you out of this very pretty dress, ma belle?”

     Here it was—the moment of truth; either she would allow this slave-trader to ruin her, or she would trust her instinct that he was indeed true—an instinct sharpened by long exposure to people who were, in fact, not true.  That, and she was going to absolutely die if she didn’t press herself against him like a wanton within the next few minutes—she was only flesh and blood, and his bare chest was a thing of beauty.  “Yes, you may.  And in any event, the Comte is practically pushing me into your bed, being as he believes you are the true King of France, and that such a move would cover me in glory.”

     With gentle hands, he pushed her gown off her shoulders—an easy task, as the décolletage was so low—and leaned in to kiss the side of her neck. “Yes; that is why we must make it evident that we share a bed.”

    “We must?” Honestly, she didn’t care; the world was upside-down anyway, and it was hard to concentrate, with his warm breath on her neck.

     His mouth moved to work its magic on her shoulder. “Indeed. Then we will surprise them, by marrying in truth.” 

     “We will?”  This was welcome news, although she was fast becoming aware of why girls allowed themselves to be ruined—truly, she had no willpower to resist him, and she tilted her head to grant him access to the base of her throat.

     “Certamente.” His nimble fingers moved to loosen her lacings.  “Our enemy has gone to great lengths to ensure that I do not marry the only surviving daughter of the House d’Amberre; therefore, we must confound him.”

     As the sumptuous dress fell in a billowing heap on the floor, he gently pushed her back into the feather bed, and she breathlessly teased, “That is not very romantic, Alexis; that you take me to bed to confound the enemy.”

     His hands on either side of her, he moved, cat-like, to hover over her, as he bent his head to kiss a breast. “I have already confounded the enemy, ma belle. Now, I will claim my prize.”

    Sighing, she happily allowed the weight of the hard-muscled man to sink her into the bliss of the soft bed. “Better you, than Napoleon.”