The True Pretender
“I will go out for a bit, Epione; you must mind the desk, if any customers come in.”
“Yes, Madame.” Epione looked up from her workbench, where she was bent over the Del Valle project—a hat which was not getting the undivided attention it deserved, unfortunately—and felt as though she were a player in a farce, although it wasn’t a very amusing farce. The handsome man had been correct; when she’d arrived at work that morning, nervously turning over plausible tales in her mind, Madame had gone white about the lips and had made no inquiries whatsoever. Then, after walking around the shop with barely-concealed agitation for a half-hour, the proprietress decided to leave on an undisclosed errand. This behavior only seemed to verify her role in these mysterious events, and therefore Epione could muster no sympathy as she watched Madame hurry down the street; the wretched woman deserved the full measure of whatever anxiety she was experiencing.
Distracted, Epione pricked a finger and put it to her mouth, annoyed that Madame knew more about whatever was going forward than she did. It was no simple thing for Epione to sit at her worktable and behave as though she were not installed in a nest of traitors for purposes which were as yet unclear—tiens, she did not have the aptitude for this.
Out of habit, her eyes strayed once again to the doorway across the way, even though he said he’d come after the shop closed. With a sigh, she absently fingered the nearly-completed hat and listened to the clock tick in the corner, thinking over the events of the night before. I need to be firm with him tonight, she resolved, and discover who he is, and what-is-what; it does seem that his recalcitrant attitude is softening, just a little bit.
The bell rang as two matrons—regular customers—entered the shop, and Epione willingly relinquished her neglected project to greet them, and explain that Madame was currently away from the premises.
The first woman warned, “She must be careful, if she is walking alone. They haven’t caught the murderer and the latest victim was a woman—did you hear?”
“I did—it is deplorable.” Epione decided she needed more information, herself; Madame wasn’t very interested in discussing the murders, but no doubt these two would be all too happy to give her details—the murders were the latest on dit, as well they should be. “I confess I know very little of the matter—who were the other victims?”
Pleased to be the bearer of important gossip, the first woman counted off on her fingers while the other lifted a hat from its stand. “The latest was an instructress from l’Academie. Before that, a man in Fitzrovia who had been a retired valet to Comte—who was it?”
“Redessite,” the other supplied, as she exchanged one hat for another. “The Comte himself died some years ago.”
“Yes. And before that, a stabler from Portman Square, and the very first one—that they know of—was the Baron Dey.”
Epione nodded, and agreed that it all seemed entirely random and unfathomable. She was aware that the Baron had been murdered; he was fairly well-known in her own circle—indeed, he’d been an occasional visitor at her mother’s house. An outspoken loyalist, if she remembered correctly, and with his death, many assumed that the Napoleonites had taken a measure of revenge; passions still ran high between the competing sides, even with Napoleon now defeated. “Were all the victims loyalists?” It occurred to her that this might be a common thread.
The first matron was quick to answer, as she moved to join her companion at the display rack. “No—and that is what makes it so perplexing. At first, a political connection was assumed, but the latest—the instructress—was raised in Quebec, and had no connection to France at all.”
Epione thought this over, as she lifted a capote hat from the woman’s hands and invited her to sit before the gilded mirror. “How can the authorities be certain the murders are connected, then?”
“They were lured out-of-doors, and then their throats were cut,” the woman recited with gruesome relish, as Epione pinned the handsome creation on her curls. “There was no robbery, so it appeared the aim was solely to kill them.” She shifted her gaze from the hat to meet Epione’s in the gilt mirror. “You must have a care, Mademoiselle; it appears the killer is not averse to taking a female victim.” This said with the slight, superior tone of one who went home to hearth and husband.
“I will, and I thank you for your concern.” Epione was to have a surfeit of warnings, it seemed, and from a variety of sources. I cannot imagine I am supposed to continue my work here, and pretend ignorance, she thought in exasperation—surely no one can expect it of me. For a moment, she entertained an impulse to flee this place, but had little doubt that the handsome man would track her down and drag her back to her post.
The bell rang again, and Epione glanced up in surprise to see Tremaine, taking off his hat and smiling at her from the entryway. “Good morning, Miss d’Amberre.”
“Why, Mr. Tremaine—how nice to see you again.” Epione felt her color rise, as the two other women exchanged amused, knowing glances. Quickly, Epione excused herself and approached him, so that their conversation would not be overhead.
He bent his head toward hers, his smile warm and his manner proprietary. “I thought we could take another walk, when you have a few moments to spare. Perhaps we could have a pastry—there is an excellent shop around the corner.”
“I am afraid Madame is away on an errand, and I do not know when she will return.” Epione turned to smile at the two women, who were openly observing them and whispering behind their hands. “You are going to get me in trouble,” she whispered to him in an exasperated undertone. “And I do not use my old name.”
“Ladies,” Tremaine announced with a grin, and tossed his hat on the purchase desk. “Do you require a male opinion?”
The next half-hour was spent with Tremaine lounging against the wall, and rendering a thoughtful critique on nearly every hat in the store, while the two women laughed, preened and discarded those he deemed too ‘fubsy’. In the end, Tremaine helped the women load up a dozen boxes, and then insisted that he’d earned an hour’s break with Epione.
“That was masterful,” Epione laughed, as she locked the shop door behind them, and turned the sign around. “And you have very good taste.”
“Not at all,” he disclaimed and offered his arm. “I could see which ones found favor, and allowed them to follow their own inclinations.”
Smiling in agreement, she reminded herself that it was his business to be observant, and that she must be very circumspect in her dealings with him. “You’d best be careful, or Madame will hire you to come to the store and do the same, every day.”
“I’d rather be persuading you.”
She sighed with a small smile, and hoisted her parasol over her head. “We are back to the subject at hand, I see. I’d hoped you would ply me with pastries, first.”
He shrugged his shoulders, apologetic. “I am sorry for it, but the sooner it is settled, the better.”
“Who owned the land until now?” It occurred to her that this may offer a clue as to why it was so desperately sought by the various unnamed factions.
Shaking his head slightly, he steered her across the busy street. “I am not certain—I believe Napoleon bestowed the estate on a favorite, and now that he has been deposed, the true heirs are being traced. I imagine it is the same for many estates in France—it would be intolerable to allow Napoleon’s supporters to retain them.”
As usual, Epione did not know whether to believe this explanation, but kept her doubts to herself. “Are you certain there will be no challenge by another? What if you married me and it was all for naught?”
But he had no such doubts, and touched the hand tucked into his elbow. “Believe me; I have looked into it very thoroughly. I will inherit—there is literally no one else on your father’s side. We will battle no interlopers, when we make our claim.”
She gave him an amused glance from beneath the brim of her chip bonnet. “You do paint a fairy tale—except that I’m making hats, rather than sweeping the hearth.”
“If Salic law didn’t prevent daughters from inheriting, the château would be yours,” he pointed out fairly. “And—as I am repeatedly forced to confess—I am no prince. I can buy you a pastry, however.”
They entered the confectioner’s shop, and had a pleasant, desultory conversation on a variety of subjects whilst they shared a tart. Epione realized that she was very comfortable with him, despite the fact he was apparently some sort of spy, attempting to deceive her for purposes which were unclear. She’d never known her brother, who had been executed along with her father, but decided this must be what it felt like—this sense of easy compatibility. Until the conversation took a turn, that was.
“How many children would you like to have?” He smiled and covered her hand on the table with his own. “Assuming we marry.”
“I—I hadn’t thought about it,” she stammered.
He moved his thumb gently over the back of her hand. “I thought every girl thought about it.”
“Not this one,” she lied. Of course she’d thought about it, but had concluded Sir Lucien probably could not have children, since he hadn’t any with Marie. She suddenly remembered the handsome man’s warning about seduction, and decided she should make it clear this was not in the offing. “If you don’t mind, Mr. Tremaine, I should probably return to my post.”
He made no demur, and withdrew his hand, saying easily, “Think about it—no more working at the shop. You can’t convince me you’d miss it.” He rose, and stood close to her as he escorted her out into the street again, his fingertips on the small of her back.
“I don’t mind it—I like to feel useful,” she admitted. “But I suppose I could find something else useful to do.”
“How did you determine upon making hats, as your livelihood? It is clear you have a talent.”
The romancer was now to be replaced with the flatterer—he was very adept at responding to her reactions. “I am self-taught, I suppose. There wasn’t much money, when Marie and I were growing up, and it was a simple way to change the look of a well-worn ensemble.”
“Well then; perhaps the women of Normandy are craving a new designer of hats. Come—it would be an adventure.”
They strolled down the pavement, his grin infectious, and she marveled at the variety of inducements he’d presented in such a short time—a family, riches, an escape from drudgery and finally—reading her very shrewdly—an adventure. He was very good at this spying business, and she wondered why the foreign girl was so reluctant to have him.
“We are well-suited,” he pronounced. “Allow me to escort you to dinner tonight, so that we may further our acquaintance.”
Aside from the fact she wished to avoid any further abductions, Epione already had a clandestine meeting on her schedule and so she politely declined. “I truly need to get my work done; your visit—as welcome as it was—has set me back.”
“Let’s elope, and bid a good riddance to your work.” He was only half-teasing.
“If I had to elope with anyone, it would be you,” she assured him. “But not just yet.”
He smiled into her eyes as they paused at the shop’s threshold. “Right, then—I’ll try to be patient—although dangling a pretty girl and a lucrative estate in front of me is quite the distraction.” He paused, for a moment, then continued, “Try not to speak of it with anyone, though—the land, I mean. That fellow—the one who was speaking with you in the alley—he may approach you about it.” His intent gaze watched her reaction.
Epione assumed an air of idle curiosity. “Oh? Does he seek to claim it, too?”
“No—he’s a sea captain, in a manner of speaking. His name is de Gilles.”
This was a revelation to Epione, who had the impression that the handsome man wasn’t anything remotely resembling a sea captain. Perhaps Tremaine was mistaken.
He continued, “Just be wary, and let me know if he approaches you.” He shot her another quick, assessing glance.
She smiled, teasing him. “You are asking me to repulse a tall, dark, and handsome sea captain?”
Laughing, he took her hand and bowed over it. “I can see I shouldn’t have raised the subject. Until tomorrow, Miss d’Amberre.”
Nom de Dieu, she thought, repeating the handsome man’s oath as she retreated into the shop; heaven only knows what will happen between now and tomorrow.