The True Pretender
“Higher, Luci—hold your fingers here, while I pin.” Madame Reyne was attempting to adjust the décolletage of the gown that was to serve as Epione’s wedding dress, as the bodice was a bit too tight. Epione had decided on the blue silk brocade, which seemed most appropriate of all the gowns, with its gossamer silver overlay.
Luci’s assistance was making Epione nervous, since the servant tended to put her fingertips in harm’s way. So—as to prevent potential bloodstains—Epione suggested, “If we pick out the seam at the waist—where the darting crosses it—it will save a great deal of trouble, and no one will notice because it will lie beneath the sash. It is a common trick, when time is short. Please; allow me to show you.”
Madame Reyne’s hands stilled, but she nevertheless demurred with no real conviction, “You should not have to sew your own wedding dress, Mademoiselle.”
“Have her make a hat, instead; it is only fitting.” Lisabetta was in a sour mood as she reclined on the settee, eating almonds and watching the proceedings.
Gently, Epione put a hand on Luci’s to stay her before further damage was done. “I truly would not mind—and as I am more accustomed, it will go that much faster. You have other tasks to perform, after all.”
With a relieved expression, the housekeeper relinquished the sewing basket and signaled to Luci. “As you wish, Mademoiselle.” The two then escaped out the door without a backward glance.
Epione concealed her own relief as she carefully stepped out of the dress; neither the housekeeper nor Luci had anything more than rudimentary skill, and it had been difficult to stand patiently by. That, and she was finally armed with her sewing basket, complete with shears and good, strong lace—although her potential victim was now Lisabetta, who seemed as though she’d be more of a challenge than the housekeeper.
Eying her sullen companion, Epione began ripping the bodice seam with quick, precise movements. “Tell me why you are out of sorts, Lisabetta.”
With a languid gesture, the girl popped another almond in her mouth. “I am weary of this place.”
Epione glanced up, as she bit off a thread. “Oh? Is Darton not enslaved?”
Lisabetta shrugged. “Darton amuses himself, as do I.”
It seemed evident that her companion was not inclined to converse, so instead Epione speculated aloud, “I wonder if Monsieur Darton will want to remain here, at Desclaires.” She had not considered this aspect before, but thought it may well be the case, since the other man had traveled with de Gilles for so long—assuming they all survived the Josiah plot, of course. All in all, it was just as well that Lisabetta was not smitten; Epione could not look with favor on the possibility that she’d be constantly underfoot.
But apparently Lisabetta’s mind was not on Darton, as she lifted her head to regard Epione with a frown. “I think le Capitaine truly means to marry you.”
Epione smiled as she plied her needle. “Yes, I believe he does.” It had certainly seemed so, sunk into the soft bed last night.
The other girl leaned forward with a hint of exasperation. “But why? Why would he do something so provoking?”
Thoughtfully, Epione sewed another stitch, and debated how much to relate to the other girl, who had—after all—abducted her so as to bring this wretched plot to fruition. “I think that is the point; he is looking to provoke.”
Lisabetta eyed her thoughtfully, then sank back to pick up a ribbon from the basket, and draw it through her fingers. “He is reckless, then. Who will sell the slaves, if he is killed?”
Epione did not react to the barb, and instead suggested, “You, perhaps? I imagine you’d make a formidable pirate, Lisabetta.”
“C’est vrai; I would make a good pirate.” The girl nodded, as though this was a shrewd insight. “But I am too busy, just now.”
“Busy doing what? Causing trouble for the British?” Epione casually tied off a thread, and hoped she’d hear something she could report to de Gilles, although it seemed unlikely—Lisabetta was not one to give anything away.
“I am not the trouble-causer,” the girl replied, brushing crumbs from her skirts. “Le Capitaine is the trouble-causer.”
“I suppose it depends upon one’s point of view.” Epione paused, and then decided she may as well ask. “Are you a danger to him, Lisabetta?” It had occurred to Epione—as the undercurrents had swirled around her in the ballroom last night—that Lisabetta’s invitation to run away to Algiers may have been an attempt to draw de Gilles away; or a warning, perhaps.
“Fah; I am a danger to no one.” The girl examined her nails.
Epione could not allow such an out-and-out falsehood to stand, and replied with heavy irony, “I beg to disagree.”
But the girl only threw her a superior look. “You are ungrateful, then.”
This seemed a provocative remark, as it seemed clear that de Gilles was correct, and they would all be killed as soon as the Comte outlived his usefulness. Unless—unless Lisabetta was not what she seemed; after all, de Gilles had hinted that the British would smuggle her out, if his campaign was a failure.
Eying the girl, Epione ventured, “Are you working with the British, Lisabetta?”
Thoroughly affronted, Lisabetta viewed her with all scorn. “Peste; bite your tongue.”
They were interrupted by a cursory knock on the door before it was flung open to reveal de Gilles, followed by the Comte deFabry, both gentlemen dressed in their outdoor clothes.
“Les bonhommes—milles mercis,” exclaimed Lisabetta with relief. “I am sick of playing the nursemaid.”
“Come, Mademoiselle d’Amberre.” De Gilles rested a boot on Epione’s footstool, and leaned in on his knee. “We will go shooting.”
Epione laughingly stated the obvious. “I am dressed in my shift, Monsieur.”
“Come as you are,” suggested the Comte, with a gleam at de Gilles. “We will not demur.”
“Take me, instead,” suggested Lisabetta with heavy innuendo, the request directed to the Comte.
“Hélas, I am—for all intents and purposes—a celibate,” the man disclaimed with a small bow that nonetheless expressed his appreciation. “Many regrets, belle Mademoiselle.”
But de Gilles was impatient with the flirtation, and said with finality, “You are not invited, Lisabetta. Mademoiselle; if you please.”
As he hadn’t attempted to signal by touching his nose, Epione willingly stood, and allowed de Gilles to take the blue dress from her hands, and then negligently lay it over the back of the settee. “You mustn’t see my wedding dress,” she warned. “It is bad luck.”
“Yes, of all things, we must avoid the bad luck,” Lisabetta groused.
De Gilles ignored the other girl, and lifted Epione’s day dress from the armoire. “I will not look, then—although the blue is très belle, Mademoiselle.”
“You must be patient, Seigneur; you will see your bride—in all her adornment—this very evening,” pronounced the Comte, his voice rich with suppressed emotion. “Merci le bon Dieu; I can scarce believe it.”
“It looks to rain,” Lisabetta offered sourly.
“Come, now,” the Comte rallied her, “Your turn will come, Mademoiselle.” With an arch look, he teased, “Monsieur Chauvelin is unattached, I believe.”
As de Gilles helped Epione into her day dress, he threw a laughing glance at Lisabetta. “Eh bien; you could do much worse, I think. You could be his helpmeet, and hand him his tailoring tools.”
“Fah; I’ll not touch his tools.” This said with heavy innuendo, and the Comte threw back his head and laughed aloud.
“Shall we go?” de Gilles held out his arm, and Epione took it, hoping that de Gilles’ plan—whatever it was—was a good one.