ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The True Pretender

Chapter 8

 

     That night, Epione heard a tapping on the shop’s front door, and stood to draw the bolt, rather surprised that the handsome man would come in through the front instead of the back door.  It was dark, and the shop had closed an hour ago, but she’d stayed and waited for her appointed meeting, using the time to catch up on her projects—her recent interactions with gentlemen-who-issued-dire-warnings had put her behind schedule.

     To her surprise, however, the face she saw through the glass was that of Madame Del Valle, who was accompanied by a footman.  Upon coming through the door, the older woman apologized for the intrusion. “I saw your candle on my way home, Mademoiselle, and I wondered if my hat was ready.  I am to attend a breakfast fête tomorrow, and it would be just the thing.”

     “Of course, Madame; come in, and allow me to box it up for you.”   Epione withheld her opinion of wearing such a hat in the daytime—one did not gainsay the customers—and went to fetch the silken confection, quietly thanking heaven she’d managed to finish it in time.  As she was in the process of carefully tucking the hat into the pink-striped box, however, she was suddenly seized from behind, the footman’s hand over her mouth, and his arms pinning both of hers.

     Horrified, she began to struggle as he lifted her bodily from the floor, but the woman’s face appeared before her, speaking out with palpable concern.  “Please do not fear, Mademoiselle; you will not be harmed—my promise on it.”

     Wild-eyed, Epione began to furiously kick her feet, bringing her heels against her captor’s shins as he shifted his hold to avoid the assault. 

     “Bring her,” the woman directed her cohort, and they moved to the back of the shop, the footman holding the struggling Epione as he wrestled her through the narrow hallway.

     “Please, Mademoiselle; you must not distress yourself—you will be shown every comfort.”  Sidling along the wall to avoid the kicks directed her way, Madame Del Valle opened the back door, and peered out into the alley. “Keep her quiet—allons.”

     But as it turned out, they were not to go, because when they emerged into the back alley, the footman suddenly grunted and loosened his hold, stumbling so that Epione’s feet touched the ground and she scrambled away.  In the darkness, she saw the handsome man close on the footman, his arm squeezing the man’s throat in a chokehold as his victim attempted to throw him off, wrenching violently from side to side and making strangled sounds.

     With a smothered exclamation, Madame Del Valle turned to flee up the alley, and Epione’s rescuer directed her, “Return to the shop, Mademoiselle—lock the door.”

     Backing up against the door, Epione frantically fumbled for the knob, and then decided that she shouldn’t flee like a craven.  “I have my shears,” she offered, her hand closing around them as she took a tentative step toward the grappling men.

     At the sound of her voice, the footman made a mighty effort to lunge toward her, a hand outstretched, and belatedly aware she shouldn’t be near enough to allow him to seize her, Epione took the shears and stabbed at his arm. Unfortunately, the handsome man already had the matter well in hand, and had swung the attacker away from her with the result that the arm she stabbed was that of her protector.

     “Oh—oh, I am so sorry—”

     “No matter.” Her rescuer jerked rather savagely on the other’s throat, causing the man to stagger.  “Inside, please.”  

      With no further prompting, Epione flung open the door and retreated back into the shop, throwing the bolt behind her and then holding her breath, straining to listen.  The door was stout, and she heard nothing to indicate what was happening without.  After taking a few deep breaths, she tried to decide what was best to do, chastened by the fact she had already made a tactical mistake, in her efforts to help. She could run out the front, and attempt to call the Watch, but she had a shrewd suspicion her rescuer would not wish the authorities involved; indeed, the contretemps outside was a silent one, neither side wishing to draw attention.

     After a tense few minutes whilst she stood frozen behind the door, a tapping indicated the matter had been resolved. “Allow me in, s’il vous plait.”

     Cautiously, she unlocked the door and he came through, dragging the inert body of the footman as Epione hurried out of the way.  “Oh—is he dead?” 

     “No—bring me something to bind him, if you please.”

     As there were materials aplenty which were suitable for such a task, Epione considered this. “Alençon lace,” she decided. “It is finely-tatted, so it is very strong.” She hurried to produce a length of the lace trimming, and in short order, the unconscious man was bound, gagged and laid out on the floor of the back hallway.

      Her companion had removed his coat for this procedure, and a streak of blood showed red against his white sleeve.  Overcome with remorse, Epione could stay silent no longer.   “I am so, so miserably sorry.  Do you think you should see a doctor?”

      He lifted his gaze to hers, amused. “No.”

      “Then allow me to clean it, and bind it with a handkerchief.”  Truly, it seemed the least she could do—she was obviously not good in a fight.

      He straightened, and carefully rolled his sleeve up from where it had stuck to his forearm, the gash oozing dark blood. “A stitch or two is needed, I think. Have you needle and thread?”

     Fortunately, this was something at which Epione excelled. “Yes—come to the work table, and let me fetch my packet of needles.”  She had never stitched a person before, but it could not be so very different from taffeta, surely.

     He moved to the work table, pulling up a stool. “Voyons, we’ll need a candle—and spirits; is there anything at hand?”

     “Oh—do you need a drink?” She glanced at him with concern, as she moved the candle closer.

      His lips curved. “No—to prevent festering.”

     “I see. I’m afraid I am at a loss, in this type of situation.”  Madame kept bottles of apricot cordial in the cupboard for those occasions when refreshments were offered, and Epione hurried to fetch one. Watching her, her companion removed his hat, and Epione was acutely aware that yet again, her hair was falling out of its pins and she did not appear to advantage. “Who were they—Napoleon’s people?”

      He shrugged slightly. “Perhaps, perhaps not.” 

      This answer surprised her, and with a glance of alarm, she set her materials on the table, and pulled up another stool. “Never say there is yet another faction plotting to abduct me—I will be tempted to flee to China.”

     The candle flame’s reflection flickered in his eyes. “Were you familiar with either of them—had you seen them before?”

     She pulled a length of thread off the spool and decided she probably shouldn’t bite it with her teeth. “Madame Del Valle is a frequent customer—I wouldn’t have opened the door, otherwise.” She may have no aptitude for this business, but she didn’t want him to think her a complete fool.   

     He arranged a length of cheesecloth on the table and laid his muscular forearm upon it. “They were Napoleon’s people, then.”

     “Who else could it possibly be?” She chose a fine needle, thinking it wouldn’t be as painful, and threaded it while he watched without responding.  Lowering the needle, she prompted, “Come, I should know who my enemies are—it is only fair.”

      Apparently he had indeed softened on his recalcitrant attitude, because he explained slowly, “It is not that you have other enemies; instead, the British may tire of waiting for you to accept their suitor.”

     She stared at him in astonishment. “You believe the British authorities may—may seize me?”

      He nodded. “Much is at stake, with the Congress in session, and Napoleon rattling his saber.”  He met her eyes, the expression in his own thoughtful. “There was a recent report—kept very quiet—that you have been awarded your father’s estate in Normandy. It appears this is of great interest to the British.”

     Belatedly recalled to her task, Epione lifted her needle again and leaned over his forearm. “It all makes little sense—what is to be served by giving the land to me? Especially if I am unaware of it?”

     He took her hand in his own and raised it, holding it so that the needle was engulfed in the candle flame for a moment.  He then poured the cordial on the wound, and blotted it with the tail of the cheesecloth.  “Yes; it makes little sense. So I thought perhaps the report was a false one, meant to mislead.  The British, however, seem to take it very seriously.” 

     She carefully stitched the edges of the wound together with several fine, even stitches, and glanced up at him in sympathy. “Does it hurt?”

     “Yes.” His eyes were amused upon hers.

      “I am so very sorry,” she repeated, mortified.

      A smile played around his lips. “Next time, you will be pleased to do as I ask, yes?”

     “I would rather there weren’t a next time.” She clipped the thread. “Although I suppose I cannot rest easy; it seems unlikely that a mere misunderstanding would inspire two abduction attempts in two days.”

     He leaned to scrutinize the stitches, and flex his fist. “It is not yet clear. Remember, Napoleon’s people are reacting to the British, who are reacting to the rumor.”

      “Then it’s all a May dance?”  Leaning back, she thought it over. “I don’t think so; the British would not go to such lengths, based on nothing more than a rumor.”

      He held her gaze, and leaned forward with quiet intensity.  “Yes. It does seem unlikely. So you must think very carefully, and try to guess why the British would act as they do.”

      The candlelight flickered in the quiet room, and Epione decided that it was past time to address that which needed to be addressed.  “You don’t care for the British very much, I think.”

     “That is true,” he admitted without a qualm.

     Epione continued, “I—I am not certain of your interest in all this, and why I should believe what you tell me. I am not certain that I should trust you more than I should trust the British authorities.”

      But he shook his head slightly. “It is the British who are trying to mislead you, Epione; not I.”

      She bent her head to brush at the table top, feeling her color rise at his use of her name and hoping it was not obvious in the dim light.

     With his other hand, he splashed more cordial over the wound, the pungent scent of apricots filling the small room. “Did your sister tell you anything before she was killed?  Give you anything to hide away for her?”

     Shaking her head, Epione lifted the cheesecloth and blotted his arm with it, as he had done. “No—I had no knowledge of what was going forward. I didn’t know about it until she died, and then I heard the whispers.” She bent her head, remembering. “It was so very terrible.”

     Apparently he believed her, because he leaned back, and seemed to be deep in thought. 

     Reminded,  she lifted her head and offered, “Tonight Madame Del Valle—or whoever she was—kept saying they were not going to hurt me; she was adamant, and it seemed a little odd, considering what was going forward.”

      He nodded, his face in the shadows. “No; they do not wish to harm you—you would be an easy target, if that were the case.  Instead, they wish something from you.”

     She met his gaze in all sincerity. “If I knew, I would tell you.”  She realized that this may not be the best course—being as he’d never really answered her question—but it was the truth.

     He nodded. “En conséquence, I think it is best that we marry.”