The True Pretender
They continued their leisurely progress toward the center of London, and Epione began to entertain a suspicion that her companion was in no hurry to deliver her home. Hopefully, he was not bent on abduction, as she didn’t know if she had the wherewithal to stage yet another escape.
After a small space of time, he broke the companionable silence. “Tomorrow night I would like to search the milliner’s shop, s’il vous plait.”
She digested this request in silence. “I don’t think I should allow such a search, Monsieur. Someone once told me I was naïve, and that would seem the height of naiveté.”
He thought about it for a moment, and appeared to concede her point. “Then allow me to explain; our mutual enemy Napoleon is looking to bring about another war.”
Assessing this blunt statement, she admitted, “I have heard rumors, but surely it is unlikely? After all, he is a dangerous prisoner, and closely guarded.”
“It is almost a surety,” her companion advised her, as though they spoke of nothing more pressing than the weather. “And I believe the woman in your shop—and others—are working to aid him in this aim.”
Epione caught her breath in shocked dismay. “Madame? Tiens—can it be true? Is this why you say they know who I am?” A few short months ago, her sister Marie had been shot to death in her back garden, and the rumor quickly spread that she was passing British state secrets to Napoleon’s supporters. The combination of Marie’s death and the resulting scandal had caused Epione’s mother—never a strong woman—to take to her sickbed, and succumb to grief. Shortly afterward, her stepfather met his own demise, after being attacked outside a low tavern—some said by those seeking a measure of revenge for Marie’s treachery. Epione had thus been left wholly alone, to make her own way in the hope no one would ever wonder what had become of Marie’s younger sister.
“Can it be true?” she repeated in wonder, her brows knit. It was astonishing, but on the other hand, it would explain why she’d been treated so well by the otherwise rather cold shopowner. If Madame was a Napoleonite, she would honor Marie’s service to their nefarious cause. “But if that is the case, why didn’t they make an attempt to recruit me, thinking that I’d be willing to follow in Marie’s footsteps?”
He cocked his head. “No such attempt was made?”
“None—never a mention of politics.” She paused, thinking this over. “Which is rather strange, when you think of it—given Napoleon’s abdication, and the Congress of Vienna. Everyone else was talking of it.”
Idly flicking the reins, he offered, “It is my belief they wish to keep you close for some reason; their purpose is not yet clear to me.”
“A misunderstanding?” she prompted, reminded that this was his theory.
“Perhaps. It makes little sense; you are ignorant of these events, yet you are at the center of them, for some reason. How did you come to work there—was your sister involved?”
“No—it was after Marie died. Madame came to my door, one day.” Epione shifted, and subtly tucked her skirt beneath a knee, where it was rubbing against the horse. “I trimmed hats to supplement the stipend—to supplement my income, and she offered me the position in her shop. It seemed a godsend, at the time.” She paused, then admitted, “I suppose I should have been more suspicious; she was very generous.”
He nodded, as though this confirmed his suspicions. “Why would Napoleon’s people wish to keep you close, in such a way?”
“I’ve no idea,” she admitted. “It is difficult for me to believe that this is truly their aim.” Reminded, she added, “And if it is, then what was their object tonight, in trying to abduct me? There was no need—I come in to work at the shop every day. It makes little sense.”
But he had a ready explanation. “They are aware that your cousin courts you.”
Epione thought of Madame’s probing questions, and could only agree. “And that makes them nervous?”
“So it appears.”
Having come to her own tentative conclusion, she ventured, “My faux cousin is a spy for the British, perhaps?”
“I would rather not say; the less you know, the better for you.”
She made a soft sound of derision, and then caught herself before she rested her chin on his shoulder. “A bit late for that, I think. And you? Why are you watching me?”
With a twitch of his wrist, he flicked the reins in amusement. “You are indeed naïve, if you think you can trick me into telling you.”
She leaned to address the side of his face, and pointed out reasonably, “Unfair; I am not trying to trick you, I am asking you, straight out. You are French, I think.”
“I am French,” he agreed. “As are you.”
“I don’t feel very French,” she admitted, leaning back to her place behind him. “And I am ashamed of my family.”
He placed a sympathetic hand briefly on hers again. “An unfortunate legacy. Throw them off, and find yourself another family.”
Yes, she thought a bit sadly; that had been the plan—even though she’d done little to pursue it. She’d just assumed that Sir Lucien would come to see how she did—after an appropriate mourning period—and it would all work out from there. To the good, though, she’d hadn’t had much time to bewail the failure of this plan since yesterday, when she’d noticed that a man was watching her through the workshop window.
When they were a few blocks from her building, he indicated they should dismount so as to walk the remainder of the way, which was greatly appreciated by Epione, who was worried about the appearance of impropriety. “Allow me to braid my hair, if you please. I’ve lost too many pins to keep it up, and that way it won’t look quite so bedraggled.”
He leaned against Blue Fly, and watched without comment as she raked her fingers through her thick, dark hair, and firmly pulled it into a single braid down her back. She’d lost her bonnet when she took her tumble on the road—a shame, as it was one of her favorites. “I wish I could take off my shoes; I’m nursing a blister.”
“Take them off,” he suggested. “It is dark, and your skirts will hide your feet.”
“I cannot spare the stockings,” she confessed. “Stockings are very dear.”
He moved to place his hands at her waist. “Then we will put you on the horse, and if anyone asks, we will say you have twisted your ankle.”
She looked up at him, meeting his eyes as the shadows from the street lanterns flickered across the planes of his face. Oh, she thought; oh—he is breathtaking, and very mysterious, which only makes him all the more appealing. I must remember I know nothing about him, and keep my wits about me.
He lifted her rather easily whilst she braced her hands against his shoulders, and then he guided her foot into the stirrup since she wasn’t certain what to do, having never been on a horse before this night.
“Hold on, here.” He guided her hand to the pommel, then lifted his face to hers, tilting his head back so he could see her from beneath the brim of his hat. “Ready? We will go slowly.”
“I am, thank you.”
He turned, and led the horse along the street for the remaining distance. She held on and watched him as he walked, having the impression that he was preoccupied, for some reason—although a pensive state of mind was to be expected, considering the grave matters they’d discussed. She wondered if he was a spy, like Tremaine—although he certainly wasn’t trying to feed her a false tale; instead, he wasn’t telling her anything at all. And his aim in coming to her aid was still not clear.
She thought about it, as she watched him, and decided that he reminded her—he rather reminded her of the young men who had gathered in the salons when she was growing up, to drink and play cards and draw their swords at the slightest provocation; confident young aristos who adopted a negligent air, and openly mocked their bitter elders. She would not be at all surprised to discover that he was one of them, although apparently it was not something he wished to discuss.
He halted the horse before her building, and then came around to lift her down. “Stay late at work tomorrow, if you would; I will come after the woman has gone.”
She met his eyes in amusement, as he set her on her feet. “Why do you need me? You are a picker-of-locks par excellence.”
“I would like to ask you questions about how the work is done.”
She nodded, aware that this raised the alarming possibility that the milliner’s shop was a false front, serving an ulterior purpose—truly, an astonishing thought. “Until tomorrow then. You should go; if you come to my door, my neighbors will gossip.”
But this was the wrong thing to say to him, and he grinned and swung her up easily into his arms. “You forget, ma belle, that you are injured.”
She laughed, as he carried her up the steps. “I suppose it is a lost cause, anyway. I’ve no hat, and no ready explanation for my state of disrepair.”
“Then tell them nothing, and let them draw their own conclusions.”
“As you do,” she teased.
“As I do.” He set her on the threshold, and then bent to insert a small tool into the lock, which opened the door with a small click.
Epione was all admiration. “How does it work? It seems a very useful thing.”
Willingly, he handed it to her, and then held his hand upon hers, as he indicated how she should manipulate the tool, which was rather like a darning needle. He bent beside her, as he gave instruction, his face very close to hers. “You must pull the tumblers down—can you feel? It takes a bit of practice.”
She was so intent on the task that she didn’t notice that her landlady had approached from the other side of the door, and now opened it with with some astonishment. “Mademoiselle?”
With a guilty start, Epione straightened up. “Oh—Madame Reyne. Allow me to introduce—” belatedly, she realized she didn’t know her companion’s name.
She needn’t have worried, however, as he took the woman’s hand and smiled his engaging smile. “I came to Mademoiselle’s aid when she fell, and injured her ankle.” Tilting his head, he pressed the hand between both of his. “Once I see her inside, I will leave her to your capable care, Madame.”
The plump, middle-aged woman was no match for the full force of charm levied upon her, and stared up into his face whilst Epione arched a brow at him from behind the woman’s back. “Oh—oh I see; well, then—as long as Mademoiselle is unharmed.”
“Perhaps you would be so kind as to make tea, Madame.”
“Oh—oh of course; it will take but a moment.” Tearing her gaze away, the woman retreated down the hallway with palpable reluctance.
Once they were upstairs in her rooms, the gentleman’s manner reverted to the one with which Epione was familiar, and she watched in bemusement as he took a careful look around her rooms. She noted in a wry tone, “That is a powerful gift you have; it is almost as useful as your lock-picking tool.”
He didn’t pretend to misunderstand, and replied in a mild tone, “It does open doors.”
She hoped he wasn’t making an improper reference to his dealings with the fair sex, and was suddenly aware that she was entertaining a strange and unnamed man in her rooms. She needn’t have worried, however; he made to leave, after giving careful instruction to lock the door, and go nowhere other than the shop tomorrow. “We will have someone watching you, but it is best to be careful.”
Epione teased him, “Ah—I learn that there is a ‘we’. I think you have given something away—you must be tired.”
With his flashing smile, he said only, “Au revoir, Mademoiselle,” and bowed his way out the door.