Excerpt: Counterfeit Lady

Chapter 1

IN JUNE OF 1794, THE ROSES WERE IN FULL FLOWER and the lawns were of a green lushness that is known only in England. In the county of Sussex stood a small, square, two-story house, a plain house surrounded by a short iron fence. The house once had been part of a greater estate, an outbuilding for a gardener’s or gamekeeper’s family, but the rest of the estate had been subdivided long ago and sold to pay off the Maleson family’s debts. All that was left of this once great family was this small, neglected house, Jacob Maleson, and his daughter Bianca.

Jacob Maleson now sat before the empty fireplace in the parlor on the ground floor—a short, corpulent man, the lower buttons of his vest unbuttoned over the expanse of his large stomach, his coat carelessly tossed over another chair. His plump legs were encased in broadcloth breeches, reaching to just past his knees where they were fastened with brass buckles, his calves were covered with cotton stockings, his feet were bulging from thin leather pumps. A large, sleepy Irish setter leaned against one arm of the old wing chair, and Jacob idly fondled the dog’s ears.

Jacob had grown used to his simple country life. Truthfully, he rather liked having a smaller house, fewer servants, and less responsibility. He remembered the big house of his childhood as a place of wasted space, a place that took up too much of his parents’ time and energy. Now he had his dogs, a good joint of meat for dinner, enough income to keep his stables going, and he was content.

His daughter was not.

Bianca stood before the tall mirror in her second floor bedroom and smoothed the long muslin dress over her tall, plump body. Every time she looked at herself in the new French fashions, she felt a touch of disgust. The French peasants had revolted against the aristocracy, and now, because those weak Frenchmen could not control their underlings, all the world had to pay. Every country looked at France and worried that the same thing could happen to them. In France, everyone wanted to look as if they were part of the commoners; therefore, satins and silks were practically banned. The new fashions were of muslins, calicos, lawns, and percale.

Bianca studied herself in the mirror. Of course, the new gowns suited her perfectly. She was just worried about other women less fortunately endowed than herself. The gown was cut very low, with a deep scoop across her large breasts, hiding very little of their shape and whiteness. The pale blue India gauze was tied with a wide ribbon of blue satin just under her breasts, the gown falling straight down from the ribbon to the floor where a row of fringe ran along the hem. Her dark blond hair was pulled back from her face and held with a ribbon, and fat sausage curls hung over her bare shoulder. Her face was fashionably round, with pale blue eyes like her dress, light brows and lashes, her little pink mouth forming a perfect rosebud, and when she smiled there was a tiny dimple in her left cheek.

Bianca moved away from the tall mirror to her dressing table. It, like nearly everything else in the room, was decorated with pale pink tulle. She liked pastels around her. She liked anything that was gentle, delicate, and romantic. There was a large box of chocolates on the dressing table, the top layer almost empty. Peering into the box, she wrinkled her nose prettily. The horrible French war had stopped the manufacture of the best chocolates, and now she had to make do with second-rate English chocolate. She chose one piece of candy, then another. When she was on her fourth piece and licking her dimpled fingers, she saw Nicole Courtalain enter the room.

The inferior chocolates, the thin fabric of the dress, and Nicole’s presence were all a result of the Revolu­tion in France. Bianca chose another chocolate and watched the young Frenchwoman as she moved quietly about the room, putting away the gowns Bianca had strewn across the floor. Nicole made Bianca realize how very generous she and all the English were. When the French had been thrown out of their own country, the English had taken them in. Of course, most of the French had supported themselves economically; in fact, they had even introduced a new thing called a restaurant to England. But then there were people like Nicole—no money, no relatives, no occupation. That’s when the English had shown their true generosity. One by one, they’d taken these waifs into their homes.

Bianca had gone to a port on the eastern coast of England and met a shipload of the refugees. She had not been in a good mood. Her father had just informed her that he could no longer afford to pay for her personal maid. There’d been an awful row between the two until Bianca had remembered the emigres. She had dutifully gone to help the poor, homeless Frenchmen and to see if she could extend her charity to one of them.

When she saw Nicole, she knew she’d found what she wanted. She was small, her black hair hidden under a straw bonnet, her face heart-shaped with enormous brown eyes shaded by short, thick, dark lashes. And in those eyes was a great deal of sadness. She looked as if she didn’t care whether she lived or died. Bianca knew that a woman who looked like that would be very grateful for Bianca’s generosity.

Now, three months later, Bianca almost regretted all that she had given Nicole. It wasn’t that the girl was incompetent; actually, she was almost too competent. But sometimes her graceful, easy movements made Bianca feel almost clumsy.

Bianca looked back at the mirror. What an absurd thought! Her figure was majestic, stately—everyone said so. She gave Nicole a nasty look in the mirror and pulled the ribbon out of her hair.

“I don’t like the way you did my hair this morning,” Bianca said, leaning back in the chair and helping herself to two more pieces of candy.

Silently, Nicole went to the dressing table and took a comb to Bianca’s rather thin hair. “You haven’t yet opened the letter from Mr. Armstrong.” Her voice was quiet, with no accent, except that each word was pronounced carefully.

Bianca gave a little wave of her hand. “I know what he has to say. He wants to know when I’ll be coming to America, when I’ll marry him.”

Nicole combed one of the curls over her finger. “I would think you’d want to set a date. I know you’d like to marry.”

Bianca looked up in the mirror. “How little you know! But, of course, I couldn’t expect a Frenchwoman to understand the pride and sensibilities of the English. Clayton Armstrong is an American! How could I, a descendant of the peers of England, marry an Ameri­can?”

Carefully, Nicole tied the ribbon around Bianca’s head. “But I do not understand. I thought your engage­ment was announced.”

Bianca tossed the empty first layer of the candy box onto the floor and took a large piece from the second layer. Caramel was her favorite. With her mouth full, she began to explain. “Men! Who can understand them? I must marry if I am to escape this.” Waving her hand, she indicated the small room. “But the man I marry will be far removed from Clayton. I’ve heard that some of the Colonials are close to being gentle­men, like that Mr. Jefferson. But Clayton is far from being a gentleman. Do you know that he wore his boots in the parlor? When I suggested that he purchase some silk stockings, he laughed at me—said he couldn’t deal with a cotton field in silk hose.” Bianca shuddered. “Cotton! He is a farmer, a boorish, overbearing, American farmer!”

Nicole straightened the last curl. “And yet you accepted his proposal?”

“Of course! A girl cannot have too many proposals; that only makes the bait more enticing. When I am at a party and I see a man I do not like, I say I am engaged. When I see a man I know is suitable for a woman of my class, I tell him I am considering breaking my engage­ment.”

Nicole turned away from Bianca and picked up the empty candy papers. She knew she shouldn’t say any­thing, but she couldn’t help herself. “But what of Mr. Armstrong? Is this fair to him?”

Bianca walked across the room to a chest of drawers and tossed three shawls to the floor before she chose a paisley one from Scotland. “What does an American know of fairness? They’re an ungrateful lot to declare themselves independent of us after we’d done so much for them. Besides, it was insulting to me that he thought I’d ever marry a man like him. He was a bit frightening in his tall boots with his arrogant ways. He looked more at home on a horse than in a drawing room. How could I marry someone like that? And he asked me after I’d known him only two days. He received a letter that his brother and sister-in-law had been killed, and suddenly he asked me to marry him. What an insensitive man! He wanted me to return right then to America with him. Of course I declined.”

Not allowing Bianca to see her face, Nicole began folding the discarded shawls. She knew that what she felt too often showed in her face, that her eyes mirrored her thoughts and feelings. When she’d first come to the Maleson household, she’d been too numb to listen to Bianca’s tirades about the ignorant, weak French or the crude, ungrateful Americans. Then, all that occupied her thoughts was the red horror of the Revolution—her parents dragged away, her grandfather . . .No! She wasn’t ready to remember that stormy night yet. Maybe Bianca had explained before about her fiancé, and Nicole hadn’t heard. It was highly likely. Only in the last few weeks had she seemed to awaken from her sleepwalking.

Three weeks ago, she’d met a cousin of hers in a shop while she waited for Bianca to have a dress fitted. Nicole’s cousin was opening a little dress shop in two months, and she’d offered to let Nicole buy into it. For the first time, Nicole had seen a way to become independent, a way to become something more than an object of charity.

When she’d left France, she’d escaped with a gold locket and three emeralds sewn into the hem of her dress. After seeing her cousin, she sold the emeralds. The price she’d received was very low, for the English market was flooded with French jewels and the hungry refugees were often too desperate to quibble about price. At night, Nicole stayed up late in her little attic room in Bianca’s house and sewed pieces for her cousin, trying to earn more money. Now she almost had enough, carefully hidden inside a chest in her room.

“Can’t you hurry?” Bianca said impatiently. “You’re always daydreaming. No wonder your country is at war with itself, when it’s populated by people as lazy as you are!” Nicole straightened her back and lifted her chin. Just a few more weeks, she told herself. Then she’d be free.

Even in her numb state, Nicole had learned one thing about Bianca—her dislike of the physical presence of men. She would allow no man to touch her in any way if she could help it. She said she found them crude, loud, insensitive beings. Only once had Nicole seen her smile with genuine warmth at a man, and he was a delicately boned young man with abundant lace at his cuffs and a jeweled snuff box in his hand. For once, Bianca had not seemed afraid of a man, and she had even allowed him to kiss her hand. Nicole was awed by Bianca, who was willing to overlook her aversion to the male touch and to marry in order to better her social status. Or maybe Bianca had no idea what went on between a husband and a wife.

The two women left the small house, walking down the narrow central stairs with its worn carpet. Behind the house was a small stable and carriage house, which Jacob Maleson kept in much better repair than the house. Every day at half past one, Nicole and Bianca rode together through the park in an elegant little two-seat, one-horse carriage. The parkland had once belonged to the Maleson family but was now owned by people Bianca considered upstarts and commoners. She’d never asked if she could ride through the wooded park, yet no one had challenged her. During this time of day, she could imagine herself the lady of the manor as her grandmother once was.

Her father refused to hire a driver for her, and Bianca would not ride in the same carriage as the smelly stablemen, nor would she drive her own car­riage. The only thing left to do was have Nicole drive the thing. She certainly didn’t seem afraid of the horse.

Nicole liked driving the little carriage. Sometimes in the early morning, after a few hours of sewing and before Bianca awoke, she’d go to the stables and pet the beautiful chestnut gelding. In France, before the Revolution had destroyed her home and her family’s way of life, she’d often ridden for hours before break­fast. These quiet early mornings almost made her forget the death and the fire she’d seen since then.

The park was especially beautiful in June, the trees hanging over the graveled paths, shading them, making lovely little dappled patches of sunlight across the women’s dresses. Bianca held a ruffled parasol at an angle over her head, working hard at keeping her pale skin that way. Glancing at Nicole, she snorted. The silly girl had put her straw bonnet on the seat between them, and the air was blowing through her glossy black hair. The sunlight made her eyes sparkle, and her arms holding the reins were slim and curved in places. Bianca looked away in disgust. Her own arms were exceptionally white and softly plump, as a woman’s should be.

“Nicole!” Bianca snapped. “Could you for once act like a lady? Or at least remember that I am one? It is bad enough that I must be seen with a half-undressed woman, but now you have us nearly flying in this thing.”

Nicole gathered the thin cotton shawl over her bare arms, but she did not put on her bonnet. Dutifully, she clucked to the horse and slowed it down. Just a little more time, she thought, and she would no longer be at Bianca’s beck and call.

Suddenly, the quiet afternoon tranquility was shat­tered by four men on horseback. They rode large, big-footed horses, more suited for pulling a wagon than for riding. It was unusual to see anyone else on the path, especially men who were obviously not gentle­men. Their clothes were tattered, their corduroy trou­sers stained. One of the men wore a long-sleeved cotton shirt with large red and white stripes.

For a solid year in France, Nicole had lived in terror. When the furious mob had stormed her parents’ cha­teau, she and her grandfather had hidden inside a clothes chest and later escaped under the cover of the black smoke that came from their burning home. Now, her reactions were swift. Recognizing the menace of the men, she used her long whip to flick the gelding’s rump and urge the horse to a trot.

Bianca slammed against the horsehair carriage cush­ion, giving a soft grunt before screaming at Nicole. “Just what do you think you’re doing? I will not be treated like this!”

Nicole ignored her as she glanced over her shoulder at the four men who had reached the path where the carriage had been. She realized they were quite far from any house, dead center in the park, and she doubted if anyone would even hear a scream.

Bianca, holding tightly onto her parasol handle, managed to twist around and look at what Nicole kept glancing at, but the four men did not frighten her. Her first thought was how dare such a rabble enter a gentleman’s park. One of the men waved his arm, motioning for the others to follow him as he pursued the fleeing carriage. The men were awkward on their horses, holding onto the saddles as well as the reins, and they did not lift themselves in the posting manner but hit the saddle again and again with teeth-jarring hardness.

Looking back at Nicole, Bianca began to be fright­ened, too, finally realizing the men were after them. “Can’t you make that nag go any faster?” she screamed, holding onto the sides of the carriage. But it wasn’t made for speed.

The men, hanging on for dear life atop their slow, clumsy horses, realized the women were getting away. The one in the striped shirt drew a pistol from his wide belt and fired a shot that sailed over the carriage and went right past the horse’s left ear.

The gelding reared, and the carriage rammed into its legs as it stopped abruptly, with Nicole pulling back hard on the reins. Bianca screamed once again and cowered in the corner of the carriage with her arm thrown over her face, as Nicole stood up in the carriage, her legs wide apart as she steadied herself, one hand on each rein. “Quiet, boy!” she commanded, and the horse gradually calmed, but its eyes were wild. Tying the reins to the front rail of the carriage, Nicole stepped down and went to the horse, running her hands along its neck, speaking softly in French as she placed her cheek against its nose.

“Look at that, mate. She ain’t scared of the bleedin’ animal at all.”

Nicole looked up at the four men surrounding the carriage.

“You sure can handle a horse, little lady,” said one of the other men. “I ain’t never seen nothin’ like it.”

“And her just a little thing, too. It’s gonna be a real pleasure to take you with us.”

“Wait a minute,” commanded the man in the striped shirt, obviously the leader. “How do we know it’s her? What about that one?” He pointed to Bianca, who still cowered in a corner of the carriage, making an unsuc­cessful attempt to disappear into the cushion. Her face was white, terror draining the blood away.

Nicole stood quietly, holding the horse’s head in her hands. To her, this was all a repeat of the horror she had known in France, and she knew enough to be quiet and look for a way to escape.

“That’s her,” said one of the men, pointing at Nicole. “I can tell a lady when I see one.” “Which one of you is Bianca Maleson?” demanded the man in the striped shirt. He had a strong jaw covered with several days’ growth of beard.

So it was a kidnapping, Nicole thought. All the women had to do was prove that Bianca’s father was not wealthy enough to pay a ransom.

“She is,” Bianca said and sat up straight, her plump arm pointing rigidly at Nicole. “She’s the bleedin’ lady. I just works for her.”

“What’d I tell you?” said one of the men. “She don’t talk like no lady. I told you this one here’s the lady.”

Nicole stood very still, her back straight, her chin high, watching Bianca, whose eyes danced with tri­umph. She knew there was nothing she could do or say now; the men would take her away. Of course, when they learned she was a penniless French refugee, they would release her, since they would have no hope of obtaining a ransom.

“That’s it, then, little lady,” one of the men said. “You’re to come with us. And I hope you got more sense than to give us any trouble.”

Nicole could only shake her head mutely.

The man extended his hand down to her, and she took it, slipped her foot into the stirrup beside his, and was quickly in the saddle in front of him, with both of her feet hanging down one side of the horse.

“She’s a looker, ain’t she?” the man said. “No wonder he wants her brought to him. You know, I knew she was a lady as soon as I seen her. You can always tell a lady by the way she moves.” He smiled in satisfaction at his knowledge. He held one hairy arm around Nicole’s waist and awkwardly reined the horse away from the still carriage.

Bianca sat perfectly still for several minutes, staring after them. She was glad, of course, that her sharp wit had let her escape from the men, but it made her angry that the stupid men couldn’t see that she was the lady. When the park was silent again, she began to look about her. She was stranded, alone. She could not drive the carriage, so how was she to get home? The only way was to walk. As her heel touched the gravel and the rocks bit into her flesh through the thin leather slippers, she cursed Nicole for causing her such pain. On the long, painful walk home, she cursed Nicole repeatedly and was so angry when she finally arrived home that she completely forgot about the kidnapping. Only later, after she and her father had shared a seven-course supper, did she mention the abduction to him. Jacob Maleson, half asleep, said they’d release the girl, but he’d talk to the authorities in the morning. Bianca made her way up to her bedroom, dreading having to find another maid. They were such an ungrateful lot.

The ground floor of the inn was one long room with stone walls that made it cool and dark inside. There were several long trestle tables set about the room. The four kidnappers sat on the benches at one table. Before them were thick stoneware bowls filled with a coarsely chopped beef stew and tall mugs of cool ale. The men sat gingerly on the hard benches. A day spent on horseback was a new experience, and they were paying for it now with their soreness.

“I don’t trust her, that’s all I’m sayin’,” said one of the men. “She’s too bleedin’ quiet. She looks all innocence with them big eyes, but I say she’s plannin’ somethin’. And that somethin’ is gonna get us in trouble.”

The other three men listened to him, frowns on their faces.

The first man continued. “You know what he’s like. I ain’t gonna risk losin’ her. All I want is to get her to America, to him, just like he ordered, and I don’t want nothin’ goin’ wrong.”

The man in the striped shirt took a long drink of ale. “Joe’s right. Any lady can handle a horse like she did ain’t gonna be afraid of tryin’ to escape. Anybody want to volunteer to watch her all night?”

The men groaned, feeling their sore muscles. They would have considered tying up their prisoner, but their orders about that had been very strict. They were not to harm her in any way.

“Joe, you remember that time the doc took them stitches in your chest?”

Joe nodded, puzzled.

“Remember that white stuff he gave you to make you sleep? Think you could get some?”

Joe looked around at the other patrons of the inn. They ranged from a couple of gutter rats to a well-heeled gentleman alone in a corner. Joe knew he could buy anything from such a group. “I think I can get some,” he said.

Sitting quietly on the edge of the bed in the dirty little upstairs room, Nicole looked at her surroundings. She’d already been to the window and had discovered there was a drainpipe outside and a storage shed roof just below the window. Later, when it was darker and the yard was quieter, maybe she could risk trying to escape. Of course, she could tell the men her true identity, but it was a little early yet as they were only a few hours away from Bianca’s home. She wondered how Bianca had gotten home, how many hours it had taken her if she’d had to walk. Then it would take Mr. Maleson some time to get to the county sheriff and send out alarms and searches for her. No, it was too soon yet to reveal herself to the men. Tonight she would try to escape, and if that failed she would tell them in the morning of their mistake. Then they would release her. Please, God, she prayed, let them not be angry.

As the door opened, she looked up at the four men entering the little room. “We brought you somethin’ to drink. Real chocolate from South America. You know, one of us could of been on the voyage what brought this here.”

Sailors! she thought as she took the mug. Why hadn’t she realized it before? That’s why they were so awk­ward on the horses, why their clothes smelled so strange.

As she drank the delicious chocolate, she began to relax, the warmth and creaminess seeping through her and making her realize how tired she was. Trying to concentrate on her plan of escape, her thoughts kept drifting, floating away. She looked up at the men as they hovered over her, watching her anxiously like giant, grizzled babysitters, and she wanted to reassure them for some reason. Smiling, she closed her eyes and let herself drift away into sleep.

The next twenty-four hours were lost to Nicole. She was vaguely aware of being carried about, handled as if she were a baby. Sometimes, she sensed someone was worried about her, and she tried to smile and say she was fine, but the words just wouldn’t seem to surface. She dreamed constantly, remembering her parents’ chateau, her swing under the willow tree in the garden, smiling at some of the happy times spent at the miller’s house with her grandfather. She lay quietly in a ham­mock, gently swaying on a hot, close day.

When she slowly opened her eyes, the swaying hammock of the dream did not go away. But instead of the trees above her was a row of slats. Odd, she thought, someone must have built a platform above the hammock, and she idly wondered what it was for.

“So, you’re awake! I told those sailors they gave you too much of the opium. It’s a wonder you ever woke up at all. Trust a man to do everything wrong. Here, I’ve made you some coffee. It’s good and hot.”

Turning, Nicole looked up as a woman placed a large hand behind her back and practically lifted her from the bed. She wasn’t in a garden at all but in a bare little room. Perhaps the drug made it seem to sway. No wonder she had dreamed she was in a hammock. “Where are we? Who are you?” she managed to ask as she gulped the hot, strong coffee.

“You’re still groggy, aren’t you? I’m Janie, and I was hired by Mr. Armstrong to take care of you.”

Nicole looked up sharply. The name Armstrong meant something to her, but she couldn’t remember what. As the black coffee began to clear her senses, she looked at Janie. She was a tall, big-boned woman with a broad face, her cheeks looking to be permanently pink, reminding Nicole of a nursemaid she’d once had. Janie exuded an air of confidence and common sense, a feeling of safety and serenity.

“Who is Mr. Armstrong?”

Janie took the empty cup away and refilled it. “They surely did give you too much of that sleeping stuff. Mr. Armstrong. Clayton Armstrong. Remember now? The man you’re supposed to marry.”

Nicole blinked rapidly, drank more coffee from the pot set on a little brass charcoal brazier, and began to remember everything. “I’m afraid there’s been a mis­take. I’m not Bianca Maleson, nor am I engaged to Mr. Armstrong.”

“You’re not—” Janie began, sitting down on the lower bed of the bunk beds. “Honey, I think you’d better tell me the whole story.”

When Nicole had finished, she laughed. “So, you see, I’m sure the men will release me once they hear the whole story.”

Janie was silent.

“Won’t they?”

“There’s more to this than you know,” Janie said. “For one thing, we’re twelve hours out to sea, on our way to America.”