The True Pretender
“You do me great honor, sir,” Epione said with as much sincerity as she could muster, “but I’m afraid I must decline your offer.”
She sat beside Tremaine on a park bench in the misty morning light, listening to her first proposal of marriage and wishing it were a bit more meaningful. As it was, she could only wonder why the British authorities would go to such lengths, and why her father’s estate played such an important part in this charade.
Her unexpected suitor smiled at her, his posture relaxed. “I suppose I’m not surprised—you are not the sort of girl who is going to jump at such an offer—but I must beg you to think it over. I know it sounds—well, almost medieval; but you must admit it would be the fairest and most expedient solution.”
“You are very generous, Mr. Tremaine.” She tried to keep a note of irony from her voice, but was not certain she was entirely successful. This extraordinary turn of events should have been a balm to her bruised heart, but as it was, she could only be wary, and a bit bewildered by all the sudden interest—particularly that shown by the nameless handsome man who spoke in vague warnings, and picked a fine lock.
Tremaine didn’t seem to notice her tone, and continued in his earnest manner, “It just seems so unfair—you are the only remaining linear descendant, but because you are female, I inherit the estate, even though I am but a distant relation. I think a marriage between us is worth considering; it would not be the first marriage of convenience, contracted to maintain a legacy.”
She watched the ducks swim in the quiet pond, thinking over what she knew, and what she did not, and wondering what he knew, in turn. “What is the relationship between us, sir? I confess I never heard my mother speak of you.”
“I am your second cousin, once removed.” He shot her an amused look. “Or so I am told. Apparently, our family is lacking in male heirs.”
“As are all the others,” she conceded. “It is an unfortunate consequence of these terrible times.” Thinking she may as well try to obtain some answers on these strange and convergent matters, Epione pointed out almost apologetically, “You do not seem French, Mr. Tremaine.”
“No—I have little memory of France,” he answered readily. “After the Bastille, my father sent my mother and me to England, as a temporary measure. Then, when he was imprisoned, she returned in an attempt to bribe him out, but the Jacobins were in full cry, and instead they were both guillotined.”
She nodded in commiseration. It was a common tale amongst the émigré community; many had died due to the sheer incomprehensibility of what was unfolding—the belief that surely, matters could not be so far gone—until it was brought home with the crash of a blade that indeed, they were. Epione had lost her father and her older brother to that blade, leaving her mother—wholly unsuited to the task—to flee to a strange country with two small daughters, a heart filled with bitterness, and no funds; it had not turned out well. And although Epione was inclined to be sympathetic to Tremaine’s story, she was almost certain that none of it was true. Perhaps the British authorities thought she’d be so dazzled that she wouldn’t ask questions, but Epione was not one to be dazzled; not after all she’d been through.
Tremaine continued his recital, as his gaze rested on the far shore. “I was adopted out to an older couple in Cornwall—both dead, now. I suppose I should take back the old name—d’Amberre.” With an amused glance at her, he concluded, “And here I thought I was slated to live a quiet and uneventful life in Cornwall.”
Delicately, she probed, “It seems very strange; Desclaires was awarded to a high-ranking Jacobin. At least, that is what my mother always said—she was very bitter about it, and there seemed little hope of a restoration.”
But he was too clever to be caught up in the particulars of his implausible story, and shrugged to indicate a puzzlement equal to hers. “Then it seems there has been a change of heart; the Congress in Vienna may be making an attempt to redress past sins.”
She nodded as though this explanation was sufficient, even though it wasn’t. Perhaps he was hoping that she was ignorant of the true situation, but the close-knit émigré community was intensely interested in the doings across the channel, now that Napoleon had been defeated and was exiled on the island of Elba. The victorious allied countries had convened the Congress of Vienna to determine how best to restructure Europe, with England determined to restore the French monarchy, even though many were unhappy with such a plan. Even with the best of intentions, however, the Congress was unlikely to return valuable land to disinterested heirs; not in these turbulent times, when all the various factions were grasping for any advantage.
Epione turned to Tremaine with an apologetic smile. “I should go, before Madame wonders what has become of me—she worries, if I am late.”
She made to rise, and her companion did not demur, but offered his hand to assist her. “I just thought I’d raise the idea. I can’t feel right about it—I’d never even heard of your father’s estate, and yet I’m to be awarded it for no better reason than my gender. Since we are both unattached, I thought I’d do right by you—and as an added incentive, we would leave our very uninteresting lives and hold sway over some fine vineyards, on the coast of Normandy.”
Teasing, she raised a brow at him, as they began to stroll toward the street. “Speak for yourself, Mr. Tremaine; I lead a fascinating life.”
He laughed, appreciating the irony in her tone. “My interest has always been in mining, rather than agriculture, so it would be quite the turnabout. Still, I imagine I could pick up the reins, if I put my mind to it.”
Thinking to bring the conversation around to the politics of it—which must be the motivation, as otherwise the charade made no sense—she noted with some doubt, “Does it concern you that you may travel to France only to be caught up in yet another war?”
She had the impression he was suddenly wary. “About the French succession, you mean?”
Glancing at him with a hint of surprise, she shook her head. “No—I meant that Napoleon might escape, and make another attempt at conquest. He is not one to give up so easily, and the quarreling about the succession only gives him an opening.”
This was not a far-fetched fear; there had been persistent rumblings in the émigré community that shadowy interests were working to aid Napoleon in an escape—although it was almost unthinkable that he would be able to raise another army, after the misery of the past eight years. The possiblility persisted, however, because there was no clear concurrence as to who should rule France. The last king and queen had been executed during the Revolution, and the direct heir—the young dauphin—had died in a French prison, many years ago. As a result, there were a plentitude of “pretenders”—those who held a claim to the throne due to the ancient and convoluted relationships that connected the peerage in Europe.
The British and the Catholic Church—who wielded the most power at the Congress— were intent upon establishing the closest relative in the royal Bourbon line as Louis the Eighteenth—even though he’d been but an uncle to the dauphin, and much of the populace was well-sick of the Bourbons. The British, however, were given enormous help in this aim by Tallyrand—a French bishop who was Napoleon’s former minister. The crafty Tallyrand was now working to aid the British, in the hope of becoming Louis the Eighteenth’s new prime minister.
Other factions—less inclined to allow the monarchy and the Church to regain their former power—argued that Napoleon’s young son should rule, under the regency of his mother. And yet another faction championed Louis Philippe, the Duc d’Orleans from the junior branch of the royal Bourbon family, who’d spent most of his life traveling in exile. Due to all the fractured divisions, there seemed little hope that France would unite behind Louis the Eighteenth—the dead dauphin’s uncle—and the circumstances were ripe for a tyrant like Napoleon to rise again. Sadly, Epione reflected that despite the turmoil and horror of the recent past, many lessons remained unlearned—plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
“Promise me you’ll think about it—we would do well together, I believe.” Tremaine bent his head so that she could feel the full force of his engaging smile from beneath the brim of her hat—one of her best creations, as she’d suspected that matrimony would be proposed—and Epione reflected that she was half inclined to marry him out-of-hand, just to discover what it was all about. Instead, she shook her head in bemusement. “It does seem medieval, to marry someone for such a reason. And I cannot imagine that you are as unattached as you claim, Mr. Tremaine; I would feel badly, were I to cut out some hopeful Cornishwoman.”
He hesitated, weighing what to say, then admitted, “I have recently suffered a disappointment; it only strengthens my desire to build a relationship on good-will, and mutual trust.”
Intrigued, she sensed this was perhaps the truth—for once—and offered, “I am sorry for it; indeed, I have suffered the same.”
He raised his brows at her, and she caught a flash of surprise in his eyes. “Is that so? Then I suppose we could find a measure of solace in each other.”
As the morning mists had now cleared, she unfurled her parasol against the sunshine and asked with real curiosity, “Can you speak of her? Or is the wound too fresh?”
He glanced up, to consider the street ahead for a moment. “Our differences were too much to overcome.” He paused. “She is foreign-born.”
But this touched a nerve with Epione, who retorted with exasperation, “Tiens; what happens to rational men, when they meet foreign women? What is so alluring? I cannot understand it.”
“You lost a suitor to a foreign woman?” He seemed genuinely surprised, as though she had gone off-script, although why he would know of such things was unclear.
With a sigh, she shifted the parasol to the other shoulder, and confessed, “No—not truly; he was ineligible, and never a suitor in the first place. Mainly I was hovering in the background, hoping.”
He tilted his head in an expression of sympathy. “Bad luck.”
“Yes—at least you were able to put it to the touch. Is there no hope, then?”
He glanced at her in amusement. “You are not supposed to be championing her, you know; I am doing my best to secure your consent.”
“I do not know what it is you are endeavoring to do, Mr. Tremaine.” She allowed her tone to hint at her disbelief.
But his next words were thoughtful, and held a measure of wistfulness that was–as far as she could tell—authentic. “No; I wouldn’t mind marrying, upon my word. Several of my friends have married—all at once, it seems. I envy them their happiness.”
Since it seemed they had wandered into being more-or-less honest with each other, she ventured, “Is there any chance you can you tell me what this is truly about?”
But she was to be disappointed, as the blue eyes turned to meet hers, utterly sincere. “I know it seems far-fetched, but believe me, I am hoping to share your father’s honors with his only remaining daughter.” He made a self-deprecatory gesture. “And I have other motives, also; you must admit it will be easier to establish myself as the next Vicomte d’Amberre with you by my side. I am alive to the delicacy of the situation, and how I would be considered a mushroom of the first order, over there. If you were my wife, I would have instant credibility.”
This, of course, was true, and she hadn’t considered this aspect of his unlooked-for proposal. On the off-chance that he was telling her the truth, she mentally steeled herself. “I have to confess that my reputation would not help you, in this aim. I’m afraid a cloud of scandal hangs over me, and I would not be welcomed by any self-respecting Frenchman.”
“Your sister; yes, I know.”
Astonished, she stared at him. “You—you know of Marie?”
He nodded. “Yes; I researched the family in order to find you, of course, and—well, there was no missing the newspaper accounts.” In a sympathetic gesture, he touched her hand with his own. “You cannot be held to blame for her actions, certainly.”
This was unexpected, and made her think that perhaps something else was at play— something other than her sister’s unholy scandal. Still off-balance from his casual disclosure, she shook her head. “You do not realize how important such things are to the aristos. My family is tainted—my sister was an infamous traitoress, who met a very bad end; they believe such things run in the bloodline.”
But her companion was unfazed, and offered with all sincerity, “Then I give you a chance to leave it all behind, and create a new identity in a new place.”
This gave her pause, because up to now, she had considered the whole matter as contrived, and almost laughable. Now, however, he’d mentioned the one thing that could tempt her—well, aside from the other one thing, and Sir Lucien was no longer in play. She could leave this place of shame and misery and return to France, to start anew.
With a mental shake, she reminded herself that the whole tale was in doubt; the handsome dark-haired man had spoken of a misunderstanding—one that brought danger to her—and he’d correctly predicted that her rooms would be searched. Therefore, she should proceed on the assumption that nothing this man told her was true, and that indeed, she may be at risk.
Matching him in guilelessness, she smiled apologetically. “I wish I knew what to say; you offer me a fairy-tale ending, and it all seems too good to be true.”
Her companion shrugged his shoulders in a disclaimer, and then bent over her hand to take his leave. “I am no prince, but—as I said—marriages of convenience have been arranged for far less.”
“I will think on it, then.”
He offered his disarming smile. “The sooner the better, if you don’t mind—can’t let them give the land to anyone else, can I?”
“No, I imagine not,” she agreed, and wondered to whom he referred.