ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The True Pretender

Chapter 34

 

     “I forgot my slippers.”  Epione realized a bit belatedly. “I took them off because they pinched.”

     “Up on me, then.”  De Gilles handed her the bottle, then hoisted her onto his back, so that she wrapped her legs around him, and clasped her arms around his neck, giggling.   Despite these uncertain events, she was very happy to be thus with him, and pleased that he wished to be alone with her again. She shifted the pearl necklaces to the side, so they did not press against her, and then squeezed his neck in affection.

     The silent, dark château stretched above them as her escort began to mount the sweeping stairway. Epione asked a bit dubiously, “Can you see where we are going? Do we need a candle?”  Faint moonlight was the only illumination, and she wasn’t certain how steady he was, after the excesses of the evening.

     “I can see well enough, ma belle. The maidservant did not offer to accompany us, did you notice?”

     “She’s a bit simple, Alexis. She may not have realized that she should.”  Surprising that he was not aware of the poor girl’s failings; Luci did the best she could, and in any event, it was clear that she’d been hired because of those very failings.

     He said nothing, and she had the impression that his thoughts were rather serious, as he ascended the stairs. She ventured, “Did you learn whatever it was you wished to learn?” It seemed evident to her that the shooting match was a pretext, of sorts. 

     He did not attempt to disclaim, which she thought a rare compliment.  “I did.  Do you think you could shoot a person, if the need arose, ma belle?”

     The question was sobering to the point that as she considered it, she lifted the bottle and took a drink—apparently, the reason he wanted to be alone with her was to discuss battle strategy.  “I—I suppose, if it is necessary. Is that why we held a shooting match, so that you could show me how?”

     “We held a shooting match to discover who is on the premises—to draw them out.” 

     “I see. Very few, it appears.” With a gesture, she offered the bottle and he nodded, then paused to lean his head back, so that she could tilt it up to his mouth, and let him swallow.

     “Yes; very few. Although there is a cook, who was not at all curious about the noise.”

     “Oh—now that you mention it, it does seem a bit strange.”

      He squeezed her legs against him, gently, and began climbing the stairs again.  “Can you swim?”

     They’d arrived at the next landing. “I can, but not very well, I’m afraid.  Are we to be driven into the sea?”

     “I confess I do not know—not as yet.”  He paused to share another pull from the bottle, and she wondered if perhaps they should have taken two bottles, instead of the just the one.

     Thinking there was no time like the present, she leaned her cheek against his head and offered, “At least you have a counter-plan—you’ve swayed the Comte’s loyalty, I think. Do you think you can tell me what you are about, Alexis? I promise I will help you, but I think I would be of better use if I knew your aim.”

     He cocked his head, and ran a thumb over her calf, where it was exposed beneath her ruched-up skirts. “My aim is clear, is it not? I will marry you, and in the process, wean the Comte away from the enemy.  He is the only one who can pose as Louis Philippe, and the Josiah plot—whatever its aim—will be in ruins.”

     But Epione ventured, “I think that you are deliberately trying to provoke, with this talk of marriage to me, and of—of new pretenders, which may already be on the way.  Is it Lisabetta, you are baiting? Or Monsieur Chauvelin, perhaps? He was not best pleased to see you—and you claim a prior acquaintanceship.”

     Rather than answer, he tilted his head to rest it against hers.  “Tell me what you know of him, if you please.”

     She shifted the bottle to her other hand, as the first was getting cold. “He was the tailor from the shop next door, and very much kept to himself.  We never spoke, although I rather thought he admired me, because he always seemed to be watching my comings and goings.  Now I am humbled to realize he was only monitoring me for the purposes of this plot.”

     This realization compelled her to take another fortifying sip, although she leaned so far back she lost her balance, and had to clutch at his shoulders, making his lose his own balance, and stagger. 

     “Yes. They have gone to great lengths—although we still do not know their aim, in having the Comte take the throne.”

     She sighed into the side of his face, as she tilted the bottle for him—now almost empty. “It is like blind man’s bluff, with neither side certain what the other knows.”

     “Very similar.”  Again, he stroked a thumb across her calf where he held it; it seemed he could not resist touching her—for all his sangfroid—and she hid a smile at this hint of pleasures to come. Blind man’s bluff rather described her relationship with this man; as events unfolded, she was coming to the rather unsettling conclusion that his true motives—at least when it came to her—were unclear.

     With this in mind—and fortified by the champagne—she continued to press him gently. “You sought me out to discover how I was connected to the mysterious Josiah; I understand this.  But what is your purpose now, in making it apparent that you mean to marry me and that we have already—we have already shared a bed? Can you tell me?  If it is a ruse, I would like to know my part.”

     He was surprised, and lifted his head.  “It is no ruse. My purpose is to marry you, Epione, and abide with you all my days.” 

     She could swear he was sincere—although she was not very adept at discerning the truth, as late events had thoroughly demonstrated.

     He tilted his head, to press his cheek against hers as they headed down the hallway.  “Will you have me?”

     “I will.  I think we are well-suited—although unlike you, it appears I am far too trusting.”

     He chuckled, the sound reverberating in a very pleasing way against her breast, and she chuckled in response.  She’d wanted him to be aware that if she was merely a pawn in this battle of shadows, then she was a willing pawn, and he needn’t worry about her feelings. Apparently, however, she was truly to be a bride—the bride of the true pretender, which was going to make for a very interesting life.  If they survived this first week, that was.

     His voice broke into her thoughts. “I have discovered that I would very much like to have children—I had never thought to, before.”

     “As an act of defiance?” she teased. 

     “As an act of faith.”

     “Then we should have a dozen, Alexis; after all that has happened to us, it would be a fine thing to have an overabundance of faith.”  She dropped the empty bottle down, and found the idea very agreeable; she had never thought to have children, either.

     They arrived at the entry to her suite in the silent hall, and he swung her down to the floor, steadying her when she staggered a bit from an excess of champagne.  He drew his pistol, and carefully opened the door, listening.  When he deemed it clear, they entered the darkened suite, and he took a quick look around as she began to pull at the lacings of the much-abused dinner dress.  “I will need your help with these when you have a moment, Alexis.”

     “Ah—willingly.”  He walked over and began kissing her neck, as he pulled at the strings.

     She leaned back into him with a sigh, wanting nothing more than to feel his weight upon her again and forget, for a few moments, the miserable succession to the miserable throne of France.  “I hope Darton does not intrude again,” she teased breathlessly.

     “No—Darton is concerned with other things.”  He shrugged off his coat, and began unbuttoning his buttons with her help, all the while leaning in to plant lingering kisses on her mouth. Once the shirt was off, she was soon beneath him with the bed to her back, and his warm body against hers.  She used her hands with more confidence, this time—he was beautiful, but she knew instinctively that she shouldn’t remark upon it; she felt as though she was beginning to penetrate his formidable defenses, and his appearance was only another aspect of the cloak he wore. 

     Hard on this thought, he murmured into her throat, “You are so beautiful, Epione,” which made her smile as she gave in to the mindless pleasure with more enthusiasm this time, now that she knew how it all went.

      Afterward, she lay with her face against his chest and breathed in his scent, thinking that—despite the grim talk of gunplay, and escape by ocean—she was finally alive, and it was an improvement over her past life in every conceivable way.   

     His voice broke into her thoughts. “Tomorrow I must spend some time with the Comte.   I may decide to pick a quarrel with you, Epione. Do you think you could feign heartbreak?”

    “Easily; I will think of Sir Lucien,” she teased.

     But this, apparently, was the wrong thing to say, and her companion was distracted from whatever instructions he was going to give, as he shifted his head to meet her eyes. “Tell me the truth, Epione; if he were free, and stood before you now, offering his hand, would you take him?”

     She pretended to consider this question. “Is he is the true King of England?”

     With heavy irony, he replied, “I think not.”

     “Then no, I would not have him.”

     He shook his head slightly, smiling, but she knew he was not best pleased, so she pressed her fingers against his chest in contrition.  “Please, Alexis; I told you that I had a foolish tendre because he was—oh, he was kind to me. And I thought him heroic—until I discovered that he’d murdered his wife.”

     He covered the hand on his chest with his own. “Then you should have me; I will not murder you, Epione, my promise on it.”

     She raised herself on her elbows to look into his face—so compelling, in the moonlight—and said with all sincerity, “I have already married you, if you will remember.  Indeed, if it was necessary to have a wedding once a week for the rest of our lives, I will continue to have you—my own promise on it.”

     This assurance earned her a heart-felt embrace, which soon developed into another heated session of lovemaking—apparently, the process could be repeated multiple times, which was a very pleasant surprise. 

     Finally, the mixture of satiation, champagne, and lack of sleep caught up to her, and she lay in his arms, drowsy and fading. Unfortunately, it seemed that her companion was not yet ready to concede, and squeezed her slightly.  “Are you awake, ma belle?”

     “Barely.”  Again? she thought.

     But his thoughts were apparently not of a carnal nature. “I may desire to be alone with the Comte; if this is the case, I will touch my nose.”

     Epione knit her sleepy brow, trying to keep up. “Is this after we quarrel?”

     “We may not quarrel; I will gauge which I think will be more effective. Follow my lead, if you will.”

      She nodded. “Will you have enough time to sway him, do you think?”

      He sighed. “There is little choice—we have no time left.  And I act in his own interests; I imagine he will not be allowed to live very long, once their object is obtained.”  He paused. “If it does not go well, Epione, you will be smuggled out to the British.”

      It was not a surprise that the British were lurking somewhere without; after all, de Gilles had collaborated in this plan with the spymaster. “I’d rather stay with you,” she protested.

     “You will do as I ask, Epione.”

     She had forgotten that she was no match for him in authoritative tone, and found she could muster no further protest.