April 1811, The Coast of France
The words were a litany inside her head. Arianne de Vouvret hurried across the uneven ground beside her husband, Jean-Paul, and her father, François Chiasson. The chill night breeze cut across the empty landscape around them. She hugged her cloak close and was glad for the woolen stockings she had donned. The clouds, running before the wind and scudding across the moon, created shadows that helped to hide them in their flight. She was thankful for those, too.
Dislodged pebbles clattered behind her. She halted and turned, searching the dark. Was someone there? Or had it only been her imagination? All she could hear was the wind, toying with the branches of trees and sending loose leaves into giddy flights. She could see nothing but moonlight and shadows as the silent, swift clouds sailed far above them in their nighttime game.
“Arianne, what is it?” Jean-Paul stopped and turned back to her.
She listened a moment longer, then shook her head. “It is nothing.” She smiled reassuringly at her husband, even though he probably could not see her in the dark. “Hurry along with Papa. I am coming.”
She watched Jean-Paul take her father by the arm once more to guide him across the uneven ground. Papa had been ill and was still weak, but they’d had to flee. Their hiding spot, a tiny farm not far from the northern coast, had been discovered. And so they had run.
Only a little farther, she thought, and they would reach the beach where the boat waited to take them to safety.
“Hurry, chérie,” Jean-Paul urged.
She picked up her skirts and hastened after the two men in her life who were more dear to her than anything on earth. They wended their way through the copse of trees that curved back from the shore. Beyond that was a narrow strip of open grass, a small sandy cliff, and then the beach below and the sea. As they cleared the woods, Arianne knew they were the most vulnerable, for then they were silhouetted against the expanse of water. Her spine tingled with the touch of imagined eyes watching. She linked her arm through her father’s.
“Just a little farther, Papa,” she encouraged.
His labored breathing told her how much of a toll this flight had taken on him. He did not waste breath on an answer, but patted her hand reassuringly. She worried about his strength.
On her father’s other side, Jean-Paul slowed and turned his head to listen. His hurried footsteps faltered. “We’re being followed! Quickly! To the boat!”
As they broke into a run, the explosion of a gunshot swept to them on the night wind. Jean-Paul grunted and stumbled. Arianne cast a worried glance at him. He took four more steps, then collapsed to one knee.
“Jean-Paul!” she screamed and reached out to help him.
“Go on,” he urged, pain lacing his voice. “Take your father and run.”
Fear clutched at her as she knelt beside him. “I won’t leave you.”
“Arianne, you promised you would stay safe,” Jean-Paul scolded gently, his words weaker than normal.
“You promised the same,” she said, then turned to her father. “Papa, take the boat, cross La Manche to England. I will come to you when I can.”
“What kind of father abandons his children?” Her father waved away her suggestion. “Come, we will cross the water together.” He took Jean-Paul’s arm and tried to help him to his feet.
After an unsuccessful attempt to stand, Jean-Paul shook his head. As he coughed up blood, Arianne and her father carefully laid him on the cold, rocky ground. She felt the warm wetness on his back and the rough-edged hole in his coat. The shot had found its mark in her husband. She tried to staunch the flow of blood with her hand and fought the terror that erupted in her chest.
“I can’t go on,” he struggled to tell them. “You must leave while…you have…the chance.”
“I’m not leaving you.” Her arms tightened around him.
She looked up, across her husband’s prone body, to the edge of the woods where five dark figures emerged. Too late, she thought. Too late for escape. They would be taken together. She would plead for help for Jean-Paul.
Turning back to her husband, she smoothed his brow. “I will get help for you. They don’t want your death, only our lives.”
With a smile, he touched her cheek. “You are dearer to me than life, ma chérie,” he whispered. A gurgling cough twisted his face in pain. A dark line of blood dribbled from the corner of his mouth. Delicately, Arianne wiped it away with her skirt. Again his words came, tortured and barely audible. “Run, my flower. Run and live. I love you.”
His breath ended with his words. His eyes stared beyond her at something only he could see. He was gone.
“No!” she denied. “No, no, no, no!” Arianne bent over him, hugged him, tried to love some life back into his body.
Her father knelt beside her and placed a comforting arm around her shoulders.
A heel grinding against stone announced the arrival of their pursuers. Their footsteps had been hidden by the wind and her own wailing. She knew who they were—one of them even by name.
“Madame de Vouvret, Chavalier Chiasson,” Henri Pinard greeted them amiably. The black patch over his left eye gave him a rakish appearance, but beneath his debonair exterior lay a heart as cold as Hades. His single-eyed gaze swept over them. He smiled with chilly satisfaction. “We are well met. Were you planning a midnight sail, perhaps?”
Arianne heard the mocking words, and her grief turned into a cold, hard rage. Immediately, her tears dried up. Her lips drew back in a feral snarl.
“You killed him.” Her low tone was more deadly than any screech of anger. “You killed him when he had done nothing more than try to save his family.”
“A pity,” Pinard acknowledged as if he were lamenting the lack of wine at a picnic. “A tragic accident, but then, he was of little use to us.”
“Pig! Snake! Monster!” The words erupted in a growl from her deep, visceral hatred of the man. She would have gone on with her name-calling, but grief choked her and made her thoughts spin off into a void.
Arianne’s father rose to his feet. “You will leave my daughter out of your scheming, Pinard. Take me and let her go.”
Pinard crossed his arms. “I will certainly take you, François, but I have found that the lovely Madame de Vouvret has become rather valuable.”
“You are vile, Pinard.” Arianne spat onto his shiny boots.
Pinard’s mouth twisted in distaste. “Fortunately, madame, I am not easily insulted, and both you and your papa are too valuable for me to do more than admonish you to mind your manners and keep a civil tongue.”
A furtive movement from Arianne’s father made Pinard’s henchmen swing pistols and swords around in his direction.
“You are too wise to do something so foolish, Chavalier Chiasson.” Pinard nodded at the knife in the man’s hand. “And you should know after our long association that I do not tolerate insubordination from those in my employ.” At his gesture, one of his men wrenched the knife away.
Arianne’s father stiffened his spine. “I am not in your employ any longer, Pinard.”
Pinard glared with his single eye. “You are in no position to refuse, François, unless you would care to see your daughter come to harm.” The pistols and swords swung in Arianne’s direction.
“No!” Chavalier Chiasson’s shoulders drooped. “I will go with you.”
“Good. Now,” Pinard went on, “presuming that neither one of you has any more objections or trinkets to show us, we’ll be off. I do wish to be back at the inn by morning for croissants and hot chocolate.” He spun away as he motioned for his henchmen to bring the prisoners.
“But my husband—” Arianne tried to twist free of the two men who had pulled her to her feet. “You cannot just leave him here!”
Pinard turned back to her with an annoyed scowl. “Of course I can.” One of his men whispered something to him. Pinard sighed with irritation. “Well, perhaps you are right. Questions are bound to be asked.” He pointed at two of his men. “You and you. Bury him. The rest of us will be off.”
Arianne realized it was useless to protest as she was hauled after Pinard. When she glanced at her father, he gave her an imperceptible shake of his head in warning. Pinard could turn cruel at the slightest provocation.
Too late, she thought again with a longing glance back at the dear form of Jean-Paul, now an indistinct, dark shape on the ground. Her heart twisted painfully. Too late to tell him her secret, the one she herself had just discovered. Instinctively, she placed her hand over her womb, then realized she should not make such an obvious, protective movement. She turned the motion into a nervous gesture. If she were very careful and very lucky, she would be able to keep her secret to herself, and Pinard would never discover it.
She went quietly with her captors. Her husband’s blood-stained her hands and she wiped them on her skirt. But she would never wipe his memory from her heart, nor forget the evil man who so casually stole her dear husband’s life. She stumbled along, passive now in Pinard’s custody, an icy stream of tears flowing down her cheeks. She vowed that someday she would wreak her revenge. Glancing up at the sky, she called on the moon and clouds and the heavens themselves to witness what had occurred in their presence, and allowed the wind to entwine her heart in its cold embrace.
Five years later, August, 1816, Bath, England
Cameron West, Duke of Lythmore, stepped down from the coach and surveyed the building before him. It was a grand sweep of a crescent, housing numerous political figures and society people when they made their summer sojourn to Bath, this fashionable watering hole of the ton. He had secured a luxurious townhouse here for his stay in the city. But he had not come to Bath for the curative powers of its waters, nor to mingle with society during their summer escape from London. He had come to seek out the person who had destroyed his younger brother.
“Darling,” a sultry voice beckoned from behind him. “Are you going to stand there all day, or will you hand me down from the coach?”
Cameron turned with a grin to his former mistress, Sally Turner, and held out his hand. “My apologies, sweetling.”
In a flurry of striped muslin, its severity alleviated by a multitude of bows down the front, a young woman with bright blonde curls stepped daintily down to the street. Opening her parasol with a snap and holding it just so above her head, she turned her perfect profile to Cameron and gazed up at the building before her.
“Gaw,” she breathed, “that’s a bit of all right now, ain’t it?”
Cameron chuckled as Sally reverted back to the gutter accent of her childhood. Very few people realized her origins, but Cameron had been her first protector. That had been long ago, before she had become an actress at the Drury Lane Theater where she appeared on a regular basis.
Reverting back to the cultured English that was now her habit, Sally went on, “I never knew Bath could be so grand. I will no doubt embarrass you with all my gawking.”
“You may gawk all you wish,” Cameron told her fondly. “I brought you on holiday just for that reason.”
“Oh, darling, is that the only reason?” Sally turned her winsome blue eyes on him and outrageously fluttered her lashes.
Cameron chuckled, knowing she only played a part, but he enjoyed the attention of this attractive woman nevertheless. Besides being his former mistress, Sally had also become one of his most talented spies, able to pry secrets from the most reluctant sources.
“Do you know,” Sally commented as her attention wandered from Cameron to the city around them, “I believe I will avail myself of several new frocks while I am here. I have heard there is an outstanding modiste who runs a shop in the city. I do wonder why she does not move to London. Now, what is her name? Villards? No, that’s not it. Villiers? No, that’s not it either. Hmm. I know! Vouvret! Madame de Vouvret! That’s it!” She cuddled against Cameron’s arm. “You must open an account for me at her establishment, darling. I simply must have new gowns before I am seen anywhere in this place.”
Cameron’s brows rose. “New gowns? I don’t remember mentioning a new wardrobe in my invitation to you.”
Sally’s pink little mouth pouted. “Your invitation was more like a command, darling.” Then she dimpled attractively. “Consider the purchase as costumes for the part I must play as your cousin, the woeful widow, just emerging from her mourning.” She cuddled even closer.
“You will make a pauper of me,” Cameron complained good-naturedly.
“Hardly that, darling.” Sally’s tone was dry. “I’ve seen your grand Lythmore Manor in Surrey. You could support three mistresses and still not know what to do with the rest of your income.”
With a smile, Cameron escorted her through the doorway and into the dim interior of the building. A grim excitement took hold of him as he realized he was moving ever closer to his quarry. Soon, he promised himself, the monster who had destroyed his brother would be in his grip—begging for mercy.
Arianne let out a sigh of relief at seeing the last of her guests leave. Her regular Tuesday afternoon salon was interesting, but always a drain on her energy. Glad that it was over for another week, she was about to close the door when a gentleman stopped on the walkway and tipped his hat.
“Pardon me,” he said. “Is this the establishment of Madame de Vouvret, the modiste?”
Arianne was too tired to entertain any business. “It is, monsieur, but Madame de Vouvret is closing for the day. You may come back tomorrow if you wish. Madame will see you then.” It amused her to speak of herself as another person when dealing with unknown customers. The confusion could always be cleared up later with a charming apology.
The man stepped closer. “I’m afraid that’s impossible. You see, I will be unavailable tomorrow, and my cousin is determined to engage Madame de Vouvret for several gowns. She is just coming out of mourning for her late husband. All I wish to do is establish credit.”
“I see.” Arianne studied him a moment as she wondered if indulging him would be worth the effort.
He was quite handsome. His eyes were an unusual blue, so dark they were nearly black. His nose was straight, and his chin square. His mouth was chiseled perfection. When he tipped his hat, Arianne saw dark hair with bright highlights, barbered and neat. His clothes were fashionable, well-cut, but not ostentatious. Obviously, he was prosperous, perhaps even wealthy. Something about him was vaguely familiar, but she could not pinpoint what it was.
When he smiled, two deep dimples appeared in his cheeks and transformed his face from handsome to beautiful. Arianne found herself dazzled. Forcing herself not to swoon like some love-smitten young lady in her first season, she stepped back and opened the door wider. “Come in, monsieur, and I will see what I can do.”
As she led him through the front room and stepped around the servants cleaning up after the departure of her guests, that vague familiarity nagged at her. For some reason, it made her apprehensive, that perhaps she was in some danger. But the gentleman certainly did not appear threatening in any way. Nonetheless, she should have remained firm and had the gentleman return the next day as she had first told him. Then she would have had time to figure out why his appearance unnerved her. She castigated herself for allowing a dazzling smile to make up her mind.
Entering the tiny room that served as her office, she waved to a small, comfortable chair in front of the desk. “Please, have a seat, monsieur, while I have some refreshment brought. Tea, perhaps, or would you prefer something stronger, such as port?”
“Tea will be fine,” he answered.
After ringing for a maid to bring the tea, Arianne seated herself behind the desk and picked up her pen. “Now, then, monsieur, how may Madame de Vouvret be of service to you?”
The gentleman smiled, again taking Arianne’s breath away. “Let us not play games, shall we? You are Madame de Vouvret, the famous modiste. Am I not correct?”
Arianne bowed her head to hide her blush, and a guilty smile pulled at her lips. “You are quite correct, monsieur. Forgive me for my little charade. How did you guess?”
“You have the air of a woman who knows her own mind, someone who has been in control of her life and must be in control of others,” he answered truthfully. “It was a natural assumption, madame.”
If only she were in control of her own life. If only—Arianne halted that thought immediately. No good could come of wishing for something that might never happen. The maid arrived at that moment with the tea tray, and Arianne was grateful for the distraction. Pouring for the gentleman, she handed him a cup. “You seem to have me at a disadvantage, monsieur, since you know my name but have not yet revealed yours.”
It was the gentleman’s turn to be embarrassed. Standing swiftly, he bowed and said, “Forgive me, madame, for my rudeness. I am Cameron, Duke of Lythmore. I have taken up residence in the Royal Crescent while my newly acquired property is refurbished. Perhaps you know something about it? Shipley Hall. It…”
Shipley Hall! Arianne heard nothing after those words and felt the blood drain from her face. No! It could not be! She thought she would never again hear the name of the place that made guilt twist within her like some writhing serpent.
“Madame! Madame de Vouvret!” The man’s voice seemed to come from a great distance. “Madame, are you unwell?”
A touch on her arm made her jump, but it also brought her back to her senses. Arianne drew a deep breath and forced herself to smile up at the Duke as he stood over her in concern. “I must apologize, monsieur. I have had a long day, and I suffered a bit of faintness. It is gone now, and we may conclude this matter.”
The duke bowed. “Forgive me, madame. I have been rude for forcing my business upon you at this hour. I will rearrange my schedule and return tomorrow.”
He started for the door. Arianne was tempted to let him go, to allow herself time to recover from the shock she had just received, but her curiosity was too strong for that. “Wait, please, monsieur,” she said as he reached the doorway. He turned back to her and she waved to the chair before her. “Please, your grace, let us conclude our business now. I could not forgive myself for forcing you to return because of my silliness. The tea will refresh me.” To prove her words, she smiled and sipped from her cup.
“As you wish.” He nodded and returned to his chair. Before seating himself again, he passed a letter across to her. “This is a letter of introduction from my London banker. I trust that will be sufficient for your needs.”
Arianne scanned the letter and hoped it might give her a bit more information about the man before her. She was disappointed to discover it did not. The urge to question him about how and why he had come to acquire Shipley Hall expanded within her until she thought she might burst. With an effort, she repressed the impulse. She could not reveal that she had any knowledge concerning the place or its former residents. That would be far too dangerous.
As she forced a smile, she handed his letter back to him. “That is quite acceptable, your grace. May I make an appointment for your cousin?” She scanned her appointment book. “Tomorrow seems to be filled, but the next day I am free in the morning.”
“That would be fine.” He took a sip of tea. As he placed his cup back in its saucer, he said, “And Shipley Hall? Do you have any knowledge of the place?”
“Unfortunately, I know very little about it,” she glibly lied, as she wrote down the appointment in her book.
She wondered why she had never heard of the Duke of Lythmore. And why he had suddenly shown up on her doorstep. And the coincidence of his purchase of Shipley Hall. That guilty serpent in her gut writhed as she considered the only possibility she could think of—he knew what had occurred at Shipley Hall almost two years before. His question about the estate could have been a ruse to discover what she knew. Perhaps, he suspected she had some connection to it. Improbable, yet not impossible. But how could he possibly know what had taken place? Why would he care? And how could he know she had been involved? She could not dwell on that now. She had done what she had to at the time. It was over. Done. Finished.
Forcing herself to remain calm and business-like, she decided she would make inquiries of her customers to see if she could gain any more information about him. When she had finished entering the appointment in her book, she escorted the duke back through the front room, deserted now and put back to rights, to the door. As she offered her hand, she said, “Thank you for your patronage, your grace. I look forward to meeting your cousin.”
Bowing gallantly over her hand, he smiled. “Until we meet again, madame.”
Arianne coolly disengaged her fingers from his grasp as she steeled herself against the dazzle of that smile. “Au revoir, monsieur.” Forcing her lips to curve up at the corners, she nodded and closed the door. She pulled the drape across the front window to indicate that her establishment was now closed for the day.
Stepping back from the door, she drew a deep, calming breath. A coincidence, she told herself. Lythmore said he had only recently purchased Shipley Hall. The tragedy had occurred two years ago, and the property had been vacant since then. It was merely coincidence that the Duke of Lythmore had purchased the property and turned up on her doorstep. She was, after all, the foremost modiste in Bath, and Bath was a favorite retreat of the ton. It was only logical that he should come to her to have gowns made for his cousin.
After reassuring herself, the serpent in her gut was silenced. She turned her thoughts to the duke. He was by far the most charming, unnerving man she had ever met. Never had she been so disturbed by the attention of a gentleman. His smile alone could cause a woman to dissolve into a puddle of quivering jelly, and the gentle grasp of his hand on her fingers had done odd, jittery things to her insides. She closed one hand about the other and stared down at those appendages as if they had betrayed her somehow.
If she were any ordinary single woman, she could have been smitten by him immediately. But she was no ordinary, single woman. She was Madame de Vouvret, modiste, with an obligation to perform and a terrible secret to hide. She had no time for the silliness of infatuation. Jean-Paul still resided in her heart. He always would. There was no room for any other man. She had other, more pressing matters to which she must attend. She dropped her hands to her sides.
With a determined step, she returned to her office, sat down at her desk, and pulled out a piece of foolscap and a stick of charcoal. Using swift, sure strokes, she sketched out a dress design. When she had finished the basic outline, she created shadings and shadows, darkening certain aspects of the design with curving lines and curlicues. Holding up the completed drawing, she scrutinized it, finally nodding in satisfaction. She placed it flat once more, wrote a list of materials and colors across the bottom, then signed it with a flourish.
Putting down the stick of charcoal, she stared at the foolscap. All the information—social gossip, political rumors, financial deals and enterprises—that she had learned from her weekly salon had been condensed down to the sketch that lay before her. Yet, she had neglected to include one bit of information—the fact that the new owner of Shipley Hall had arrived on her doorstep. A coincidence, she told herself again. She did not need to pass that along to Henri Pinard until she could discover more about His Grace, the Duke of Lythmore. For some reason, she wanted to shield him from her oppressor’s gaze.
Feeling better that she was able to be Pinard’s conscience, at least for a little while, she wiped the charcoal off her fingers. Tomorrow she would transpose the sketch into a watercolor on parchment that would hold up better to the grasp of many hands. Until then, she placed it carefully within a portfolio containing several other sketches and drawings. Her job was finished for now. In a few days, it would find its way to its final destination where her father would decipher her shadings and curlicues back into the information she had learned. And then he would hand that to his jailer, Henri Pinard.
With a tired sigh, she sat back in her chair and allowed her thoughts to dwell once again on the Duke of Lythmore. She wondered why she had never heard any rumors or gossip about him. He was a very charming gentleman and probably had every young lady in London swooning at his feet. No doubt those in Bath would follow suit. His dazzling smile would guarantee that.
Her lips curled up into her own smile, one of cynical detachment. She had no time to indulge in daydreams about the handsome duke. But she would like to discover more about him, particularly his connection to Shipley Hall. Perhaps his cousin, who had an appointment in two days, might divulge more information about His Grace, the Duke of Lythmore.
As she stood to change for the concert and supper she was to attend that evening, she wondered what the duke’s cousin looked like. She decided the woman was most likely beautiful. Not like her. She stopped before the small looking glass in the front room and nodded approval at what she saw. As a modiste, she wanted to be inconspicuous, for her goal was to make her customer the most attractive one in the room. Feeling more secure, she climbed the stairs to her rooms and called her lady’s maid to attend her.
Two days later, Cameron handed Sally out of the carriage before the establishment of Madame de Vouvret. His decision to accompany her this morning had been an impulse of the moment. In truth, the idea of sitting with her while she chose her ensembles, while she considered this voile over that lawn, this color blue over that rose, bored him silly. The true reason he was walking beside her into the establishment of the modiste was because something about Madame de Vouvret fascinated him.
They entered the front room, decorated in pale green and ivory, with an Aubusson carpet spread across the floor and comfortable chairs scattered about. Gauzy curtains covered the bottom half of the windows, allowing in light but preventing the prying eyes of those passing on the street to see anything. He had seen the room before when he had come to arrange credit for Sally, but he had not really paid attention as he had been whisked through by the modiste. Surveying his surroundings, he was impressed with the quiet elegance of the decor, a reflection of the owner of the establishment. A young girl, obviously an apprentice, greeted them and informed them Madame de Vouvret would be with them shortly. After only a very short wait, the woman herself entered the room.
Cameron studied her as she greeted them and he introduced her to Sally. She was a very striking woman, lovely in fact, perhaps a year or two younger than himself, making her a score and four or five. Her hair, a rich coppery color, was pulled up into a topknot and only tiny love locks before her ears relieved the severity of the style. He wondered what that hair would look like if it were let loose from its confines and allowed to tumble in abandon about her shoulders. Her eyes, as changeable in different light as jewels, were sometimes blue, sometimes green, sometimes smoky gray, and were surrounded by a thick layer of dark lashes. Her nose was straight and sat well between her high cheekbones. He watched her lips, smiling now with professional courtesy at Sally, and saw beyond the practiced exterior to the woman beneath, for her mouth was full and rosy and promised passion to a man who could unlock its fire. He wondered what man, if any, had done that, for women who took up the trade of modiste were usually widows or spinsters. The title Madame, implying her wedded state, could be merely artifice to protect herself. He wondered if she had a man in her life. Settling himself in a chair, he sat back and contented himself with observing the intriguing Madame de Vouvret.
After an hour of remembering to nod and comment in all the correct places, Cameron found himself engaging in flights of fancy concerning Madame de Vouvret, of how she would look in a low-cut evening gown of filmy, flowing material the color of old gold instead of the prim, high-necked, long-sleeved charcoal-colored gown she wore at present, of how she would look in only her corset and petticoats with her hair disheveled, of how she would look in the moonlight, naked and passionate. Realizing he was being absurd, he attempted to pay more attention to Sally.
His relationship with Sally was a comfortable friendship. They had explored the avenues of passion when they had both been much younger and had developed a mutual trust. Having moved in separate directions in their amours, they had retained their friendship and established a fruitful working relationship. Sally wanted a husband and children when she tired of her career in the theater, and Cameron was perfectly content to remain single and work as a spy for His Majesty’s government. Sally was presently looking about for a man who would offer her a more permanent position as his wife. Until she found that man, they would enjoy each other’s company. And she would continue to gather secrets for Cameron.
“I believe I have just the gown for you,” Madame de Vouvret said. She turned to the young apprentice who had first greeted them. “Marie, please fetch the portfolio on my desk.” The young woman vanished and Madame de Vouvret turned back to Sally. “This is a new design of mine, and I have not yet made a sample.” The girl returned and handed the portfolio to the modiste. She opened it and shuffled several papers. “Voilà,” she said, handing the watercolor to Sally. As she pulled it out, another design fluttered to the floor at Sally’s feet. Both women bent down to retrieve it, but Sally’s fingers grasped it first.
“Oh, this is divine!” she exclaimed. “Look, Cameron, don’t you think this will be perfect for my first ball of the season?”
He had a quick glance at a watercolor sketch of a fanciful gown of flowing lines decorated with flowers and lace. At the same time, he sensed Madame de Vouvret stiffen with some sort of emotion entirely out of place in the situation. He did not know why, but he thought it might be fear.
“I am sorry.” She eased the piece of parchment out of Sally’s fingers. “I designed that specifically for someone else.”
“Someone else?” Sally echoed. “No, I must have it.”
“That is quite impossible.” Madame de Vouvret put the design back inside the portfolio and closed it decisively.
Sally turned beseeching eyes on Cameron. “Darling, I must have this gown. Please, convince Madame de Vouvret I must have it. It is perfect for me.”
Cameron smiled indulgently at Sally. “If Madame de Vouvret says she has designed it for someone else, then it is not for you, dear cuz.”
“Oh, Cameron, please?” she begged. “You can always change anyone’s mind.”
He knew he could offer the modiste a staggering sum for the gown, and she would more than likely capitulate, but for some reason he did not wish to force her to give the design to Sally. The odd emotion that had shown in the woman’s eyes and her strange behavior hinted at something more than unease at giving a design to one customer that she had created for another. Perhaps he was being overly suspicious, perhaps his vendetta made him too cynical, perhaps his years as a spy had colored his perception. Yet, he wanted to discover more about this design, and the only way to do that was to allow the modiste to keep it.
“No, not this time,” he said. “Perhaps Madame de Vouvret can design something else for your first ball here in Bath.” He watched relief flicker across the face of the modiste. His suspicions might be correct.
“Of course,” the modiste agreed. “I would be delighted to design something for this event.” She tilted her head to one side as she studied Sally. “I have an idea. It will be perfect. This other… Bah.” She waved her hand in dismissal at the design. “It is not for you. No, it is too young, too innocent, not at all right for you. You are a woman of refined taste and elegance, a woman who has seen a bit of the world and knows what she wants, n’est-çe pas?” The modiste slanted a teasing peek in Cameron’s direction.
“Yes, madame.” Sally nodded decisively, making her bright curls jump. “That is true.”
“There, you see?” Madame de Vouvret smiled. “I will draw the design for this gown and show it to you when you come back for a fitting. Now, come, we must take your measurements.”
She stood and led Sally toward the back of the establishment. Before she disappeared, the jingling of the bell over the door announced a new arrival. Glancing with impatience over her shoulder, she sent Sally off with one of her assistants and went to greet the customer.
“You are early,” Cameron heard her accuse the man who had entered.
The man shrugged. “It couldn’t be helped. I couldn’t wait any longer.”
The modiste sent a glance in Cameron’s direction and covered her quick scrutiny with a smile. “Pardon, monsieur, my messenger,” she murmured in explanation, then she led the man out of earshot.
Cameron was intrigued. The messenger was dressed according to his station, with clothes well-used and cut poorly. Yet, his attitude suggested something far different than that of a lowly servant. As Cameron wandered to the window to gaze out at the scene on the street beyond, he strained to listen to the conversation being conducted in hushed but urgent tones. Only a word now and then reached his ears, and those were in French. When he took a peek in their direction, he saw Madame de Vouvret pull the disputed dress design from the portfolio, the design Sally so much desired for her “first ball.” He watched the modiste roll it up and give it to the messenger. The man left immediately.
Cameron very much wanted to follow him to discover where this man was delivering the dress design, but he could not leave without seeming to be a complete boor for abandoning Sally. In frustration, he watched the man hurry away down the street. Appearing to be indifferent, he absently strolled about the room to observe the paintings on the wall and hummed a tuneless melody. He heard the swish of skirts as Madame de Vouvret hurried to the fitting rooms where Sally was being measured.
As soon as he was alone, he strode back to the window and gazed out. The man had disappeared. Cameron allowed his thoughts and suspicions free rein as he contemplated the scene he had just witnessed. He had come to the city to discover the identity of the person responsible for his brother’s death. Perhaps, he had inadvertently done just that. He turned over the possibility in his mind.
No, he decided, that would be too easy, too much of a coincidence. Madame de Vouvret was a well-respected citizen of the city. Sally had told him she served all the great ladies of Bath—the wives and mistresses of the members of Parliament, of all arms of government, of the nobility and gentry, even, she had heard, those connected with the Prince Regent. A woman with such a clientele would not be a favorite if she conducted scandalous affairs. Yet, a woman had been involved in the scandalous affair surrounding his brother. Could that woman have been the cool, aloof Madame de Vouvret?
Inwardly, he cringed at what he was thinking. The prospect of Madame de Vouvret being the Jezebel did not sit well on his conscience. She was too lovely to be involved in something so ugly. But if she were not involved in treachery, why had she acted so strangely about the dress design? Was it some sort of message to her accomplice about his arrival in Bath? Was the man merely a messenger, or something more sinister? And how could she have put information into the design? That seemed impossible.
With a frown of disgust at his wild imaginings, he turned back to his chair and sat down. The man was probably only a simple messenger, as Madame de Vouvret had stated, and she was more than likely only sending the design to someone for approval before she actually began to create the gown. Cameron’s purpose in Bath was making him distrust even the most innocent situations.
Sally and Madame de Vouvret emerged from the fitting room at that moment and interrupted his brooding. “You must come to my salon, Mrs. Turner,” Madame de Vouvret was saying. “It is every Tuesday afternoon, and it is for the women only.” She winked at Sally and turned a mischievous smile on Cameron.
“Oh, yes, that would be delightful,” Sally said, then turned to Cameron. “You don’t mind, do you, cuz? You know how you enjoy your game of cards in the afternoon.”
“Whatever you wish, sweetling,” Cameron concurred lazily as he hid his excitement at the invitation to Sally, a perfect way for her to become better acquainted with the modiste.
They left after Madame de Vouvret made an appointment with Sally to return for her first fitting. As they rode in the carriage back to the Royal Crescent, Cameron gave Sally a pleased smile.
“Why are you smiling like the cat who just ate the sparrow?” she demanded.
“Because I am with one of the most beautiful women in England,” he lied glibly. He was thinking instead about the invitation she had received.
Sally made a tiny moue with her perfect little mouth. “You are not thinking about me at all. You are thinking about the lovely Madame de Vouvret.”
“Hmm,” Cameron responded vaguely.
“She must have had a husband, you know.”
“Who must have had a husband?” He was brought back from his musings.
“Madame de Vouvret, silly.” Sally slapped him playfully on the arm. “She is addressed as Madame. She is probably a widow who dearly loved her husband and will never love again.” She sighed dramatically.
Cameron smiled at Sally’s romantic imagination. “I’m sure you’ll discover the truth for me, won’t you?” His gaze turned stern. “I want to know everything. After all, I am giving you a new wardrobe.”
Sally grumbled something but agreed to discover all she could about the woman. Cameron only half-listened as he thanked whatever impulse had made him bring Sally to Bath. With her attending Madame de Vouvret’s salon, he would be able to find out more about the mysterious woman, who might very well be hiding a dark, dangerous secret.