The True Pretender
Epione thought that perhaps she hadn’t heard him aright. “What?”
He leaned forward, and rested his arms on the table, so that his face was now illuminated by the single candle. “You have no protectors, Epione. And until I discover why you have been sought out, I cannot rest easy.”
“Oh.” She gazed at him in the quiet darkness, unable to come up with a coherent thought.
He studied her for a moment, and then his lips curved. “There is someone else, yes? Shall I challenge him to a swordfight?”
The light words broke the spell, so that she teased him in return, “Any and all suitors have turned up in the past two days, and as each has suspect motivations, it is all a bit deflating.”
He cocked his head. “My motivations are pure, but I am not so certain you have been honest with me.”
“I think I’d be better off if I weren’t so honest,” she protested. “Truly.”
Her companion’s level gaze rested thoughtfully on her face. “If I tell you something, you must not think me vain beyond measure.”
“I do not think you are vain,” she assured him. “It is more as though you wear yourself like a cloak.”
He raised his brows at this. “Like a cloak?”
Fearing she had offered insult, she equivocated, “Perhaps I didn’t put that very well—”
He halted her with a hand over hers. “No—I understand what you meant, and it is very apt. But women are rarely indifferent to me; if they are indifferent, usually it is because they have a man.”
“I am not indifferent,” she protested with all sincerity. “I think you are very attractive—indeed, I thought so right from the first.”
He tilted his head in skepticism. “Yet you have not tried to attach me—even when I offer marriage. Why is this?”
The light mood vanished, and she struggled to explain, mesmerized by his gaze upon hers, and by the alarming realization that she was very much tempted to do whatever he asked. “I cannot marry anyone—after Marie—”
He rejected this excuse with a dismissive gesture. “Yours is an ancient and honorable name, ma belle; you could look to the greatest houses in Europe for a husband.”
“Perhaps when I was born that was true, but since then, everything has changed,” she protested softly. “The Revolution, the war, Marie—surely you must see that.”
“Everything has changed,” he agreed. “But some things remain.” He was silent for a long moment, and she had the brief impression his mind was elsewhere, and the memory not a pleasant one.
After a moment’s hesitation, she offered, “And in a way, you are correct. I did admire a man, but I have discovered he is unavailable.”
He lifted his gaze to hers, the dark brows raised in incredulity. “He chose another?”
His reaction was a balm to her wounds, and she found that she could smile and shake her head. “No; he did not know of my regard.”
“He sounds like a fool, this man.”
It was so wonderful to have a champion that she found she could not resist further confession, there in the dark workroom, with the single candle flickering. “You won’t tell anyone? It’s rather a dreadful secret.”
“No.” The dark, fathomless eyes were fixed on hers.
“He was my sister’s husband. Completely wrong, of course—he was Marie’s husband, for heaven’s sake. But he was so—so loyal. And true.” She dropped her gaze and drew a soft breath. “With everything that has happened, it is a rarity, nowadays, to be true.” She paused, and ducked her head to contemplate her hands. “My family—my family was horrible, and I think he regretted marrying Marie almost immediately, but he never faltered; he was always so courteous to her. He paid for everything—although my mother and Marie were contemptuous of him because he was a baronet, and my father had been a vicomte. And—and he was unfailingly kind to me. When Marie was killed, my first thought—” Struggling, she could not complete the sentence.
“That he was now free. Of course.”
She made a wry mouth, and looked up at him again, finding a warmth of sympathy in his eyes. “I was so foolish—to yearn after him.”
“And now you have discovered that he has re-married.”
She fixed her gaze upon him in dawning amazement. “Yes, he has re-married—do you know him, then? Oh, grand Dieu, I should not have said—”
He covered her hand with his own. “No—no, your secret is safe with me. I know of him, but we have never met.”
She hovered on the edge of asking him what he knew of Sir Lucien’s unexpected marriage, but he leaned in to lift her chin gently with his finger. “You must not ask me of him—it deflates me, to think that I hold no allure; that I have so much ground to gain.”
But she shook her head in amused denial. “You don’t need me to tell you that you are alluring, Monsieur—or at least you are when you wish to be. And you cannot be a credible suitor until you tell me who you are.”
“I am Alexis de Gilles.”
The sea captain, then. Encouraged, because she was finally getting some answers, she persisted, “And who do you represent, in this puzzle?”
He seemed amused by the very idea. “I represent no one but myself. I seek that which is best for la belle France.”
“I imagine everyone feels the same way,” she ventured. “And that is the nub of the problem.”
“I must disagree—many seek only that which is best for themselves.”
She nodded in concession, as this observation seemed more accurate, in light of recent events in the battered country across the channel that claimed her as a citizen, but to which she was a stranger. “Are you indeed a sea captain?”
A flash of annoyance crossed his face—so; he was not best pleased that she knew of this. “I am many things, and you must not believe what you hear from others; you must trust me, Epione.”
She pointed out, “I do—I told you my terrible secret, although I confess it doesn’t seem so very terrible, in light of all the other terrible secrets which seem to surround me.”
There was a small pause, and when next he spoke, his tone was uncharacteristically grave. “I will tell you a secret in turn, Epione. Under my cloak, I am not always good, and true, and honorable. Mainly, I am angry.”
The words were palpably true, and she searched his eyes in sympathy. “I am sorry for it. You hide it very well.”
“I have much experience.”
At a loss, she offered, “Is there anything I can do to help?”
He smiled suddenly, the pensive moment gone. “Yes. You can marry me, and as soon as may be. But first you must show me how the hats are constructed.”
Although she was aware she should scotch his rather high-handed assumption, there was no question that an awareness resonated between them, unmistakable and compelling. On the other hand, his attitude toward her was one of almost complacent intimacy—as though they were already well past a courtship. Indeed, he’d made no attempt even to kiss her, although there had been plenty of opportunities; it was only one more perplexing piece to the puzzle that was her current existence.
She cast a glance at the hats on display. “Do you think something is being smuggled in the hats?” This actually made some sense, what with the mythical comtesse having ordered piles of them, willy-nilly.
“I do not know, but it seems a possibility. Could you show me?”
For the next twenty minutes, she explained how the hats were assembled, using some of the samples at hand, whilst he listened and asked questions, carefully inspecting her handiwork. “And you are the only one who assembles them? You know of no one else?”
“No—there are no other milliners, here.” She paused. “I once suggested that another girl could be hired to make-up the straw foundations, but Madame said she was not interested in quantity, only quality.”
His thoughtful gaze rested on hers for a moment. “Were you known to have made hats, before—when you lived with your family?”
On realizing what he implied, she faltered, “Yes, but surely this—this entire enterprise was not set up just for me? Why, that is absurd.”
“Perhaps, perhaps not. But there is a reason they wish to keep you close, and whatever it is, it is very important to them.”
They sat together in silence for a moment, whilst she considered this alarming suggestion. “Are you concerned that Madame Del Valle will return with reinforcements?” The thought had certainly crossed her own uneasy mind.
He rose, and carefully pulled on his coat over his wounded arm. “No—everyone seeks their own ends, but no one can afford to openly challenge the others.”
This seemed to make little sense. “Why is that?”
He donned his hat. “Everyone has different interests, ma belle, and allegiances are constantly shifting, depending upon events. Come, I will see you home.”
“Do I return to work tomorrow?” There was almost no point in asking; she was reconciled to yet another anxiety-wracked day.
He smiled at her tone, and went to fetch her pelisse off the hook. “You do. I will come to visit you so that you are not uneasy—and I will make certain we are not caught unready again, as we were this night.”
But this plan seemed fraught with peril. “Mr. Tremaine will no doubt visit tomorrow, and the two of you are on shooting terms.”
But he would only say enigmatically, “You need not worry; he will not challenge me.”
She eyed him doubtfully. “If you say so.”
He bent his head close to hers, as he helped her into her pelisse. “You must not listen to Tremaine, Epione—he wears his own cloak.”
With a wry smile, she assured him, “Oh—I do not believe him, but we are friends, I think. If he weren’t trying so hard to pull the wool over my eyes, I imagine we would laugh about it together.”
But this disclosure did not seem to reassure him. “Quand même, you mustn’t tell him anything that I tell you.”
“Isn’t that strange?” she replied lightly, rather enjoying this very satisfactory display of jealousy. “That is exactly what he said about you.”
But her companion was somber, for a moment, and met her eyes. “You must remember that you are French, Epione. Despite everything.”
Matching his serious mood, she nodded, unsure of his meaning, but sensing it was important, for some reason.
He turned and indicated the back door. “Come; we go.”
With his assistance, she stepped over the inert body in the hallway. “And what will happen with this one?”
“He will be gone in the morning—you need not be concerned.”
But she had one last question. “Who is ‘Josiah’?”
He opened the back door, and listened to the silence, for a moment, before taking her hand. “That is what I am trying to find out.”