Chapter 16

Had she offended him with her comments about his wife? And bedsheets?

The elegantly gowned throng closed about Jaouen, half a dozen people clamoring for his attention.

Laura looked down at her own soot-colored skirts. Or was it simply that he had used up the time allotted for being kind to the governess? It had been too easy, for those few moments, to forget the nature of her position in his household.

Both her positions in his household.

She had overheard something in that green marble anteroom, something she hadn’t been meant to hear, something that had made both Daubier and Jaouen visibly uncomfortable, each in his own way. She hadn’t heard enough to decipher it, only the merest fragment of a phrase. She had been left only with an impression of something left undone.

If Jaouen’s intention had been to distract her, he had succeeded admirably.

They had ended their tour of the rooms in a room lined with easels, depicting various new works by emerging artists. Laura moved at random to the first easel, feigning interest.

Someone moved to stand beside her. Laura instinctively moved aside, making room.

There was a whisper of muslin as the lady followed, sidestepping as Laura sidestepped.

Laura moved again.

The lady moved with her.

Frowning, Laura glanced sideways, prepared to glare down the person intruding upon her space. She might be plainly garbed, but art was for everyone, and she didn’t mean to be rushed.

She encountered an elegant, classical profile and one dangling blue enamel and seed pearl earring. The lady continued to gaze straight ahead, ostensibly examining the painting on the easel in front of them.

“An intriguing composition, is it not?” said the Pink Carnation.

Who in the blazes had invited Gaston Delaroche?

Andr? twisted his way through the throng in the music room, hoping he was mistaken, but knowing he was not. Among the ladies’ pale muslins and the flamboyant garb of the gentlemen, that rusty black coat was unmistakable. Delaroche stood out like a raven in a dovecote.

Delaroche was already setting the pigeons’ feathers fluttering; Andr? could hear the rustle of fabric and snapping of fans as people hastened to get out of his way. Everyone knew about Gaston Delaroche. He was as well known as the Black Death and just about as popular.

“Gaston!” Andr? hailed him from across the room. The former fourth-most-feared man in France hadn’t bothered to remove his hat or cloak. Because they gave him extra height and bulk? Or for other reasons? Andr? felt his blood quicken with apprehension, but he took pains not to show it. “How kind of you to patronize my humble gathering! I don’t recall inviting you.”

“The Ministry of Police needs no invitation.” Delaroche’s voice was pitched to carry.

A crash punctuated the statement. A lady had dropped her champagne glass.

Andr? nodded to a waiter to clear it up. “I hadn’t thought you cared for art, Gaston. Broadening your horizons?”

Delaroche frowned. “I have no time for fripperies. I am here on official business.”

Andr? couldn’t quite bring himself to take the other man’s arm, so he dealt him a comradely smack on the back instead. “Well, now that you’re here, you might as well take advantage of the opportunity. I believe you know the First Consul’s daughter, Madame Bonaparte?”

Hortense Bonaparte was nowhere to be seen, but Andr? was counting on Delaroche’s snobbery to override whatever mischief he had planned. For all his supposed egalitarian principles, the man was determined to regain his standing with the First Consul. Andr? was gambling that he wouldn’t make a scene in front of the First Consul’s beloved stepdaughter.

The dice wobbled and fell off the table. Delaroche’s thin lips twisted into a smile. “This concerns Madame Bonaparte, as it must all good citizens who have the welfare of the First Consul at heart.”

Trepidation settled like a block of ice in Andr?’s chest. “As does everyone here,” he said with forced bonhomie.

Delaroche’s smile never wavered. A bad sign. A very bad sign. “Not quite everyone.”

Right. Enough of the indirect approach. Taking the other man by the arm, Andr? turned him to the side. “This is a private party, Delaroche. Whatever it is can wait until tomorrow.”

Delaroche’s expression was dangerously smug.

“No, Jaouen. I don’t believe that it can.”

Laura concentrated on the painting in front of her, keeping her eyes squarely on the canvas.

Next to her, the Pink Carnation tilted her head, scrutinizing the painting on the easel. “A very bold use of color,” she commented, as if to herself.

It was a historical allegory, commemorating some significant Roman moment or other. It was the sort of painting Julie Beniet had become famous for, but it had been executed without her skill. The painted figures’ limbs looked stiff and unnatural, their togas like—well, like bedsheets.

“I find it overdone,” said Laura stiffly. “There’s no life to it.”

Were they speaking in code? If so, Laura wasn’t sure what the code was meant to be. She didn’t know what to make of the fact that they were speaking at all.

The Pink Carnation nodded thoughtfully, setting her earrings swaying.

It would be very easy to hate her, thought Laura. Miss Jane Wooliston was the very image of the style currently in vogue—tall and slender, with a face that might have been modeled off an antique cameo. Her jewelry was muted, only a small gold locket on a blue silk ribbon and a pair of blue enamel earrings decorated with seed pearls, but it made the toilettes of the other women look overdone and gaudy. No wonder she was an ornament of Bonaparte’s court. Nature had given her so much. Not only beauty, but the wit to employ it to good purpose.

It would have been easier to tolerate her if she had been beautiful but dim; or clever and plain. One could respect clever and plain. But to be beautiful and clever seemed like an oversight on the part of the gods.

She was young, too, this Pink Carnation. So close, Laura could see the smoothness of her skin, none of the creases in her forehead or lines down the side of her mouth that Laura saw every time she looked in her own mirror.

How old was the Pink Carnation? Twenty-two? Twenty-three? A good decade younger than Laura in any event. It made Laura feel tired and more than a little depressed that this debutante, this marble creature in white muslin, should have achieved so much with so seeming little effort, while Laura, with all her struggle and strife, had managed so little.

The Pink Carnation tilted her head, examining the painting as if weighing Laura’s opinion. “I agree,” she said at last. “This one may be more in the current style, but I prefer that one.”

She gestured to the next easel over, which held a much smaller painting in tones of green and brown, depicting a stretch of woods on a cloudy day.

Laura obediently moved to stand in front of it. “It’s very . . . pastoral.”

What in heaven’s name was she trying to tell her?

The Pink Carnation gazed at the painting, her elegant profile serene. “Sometimes, among the bustle of town, it can be pleasant to lose yourself in a bit of greenery. It’s so peaceful among the trees. So quiet.” Without any change of inflection, she continued, “I often go walking in the Jardins du Luxembourg. I like to go in the morning, while the mist is still fresh on the ground. So refreshing, wouldn’t you agree?”

Without waiting for an answer, she turned away, flapping a hand in the direction of the American woman.

“Emma!” The American looked around, caught in the middle of haranguing Augustus Whittlesby. “Emma! Do come here and give me your opinion of this painting.”

She had been dismissed, Laura realized, neatly and decisively. Anyone watching would have seen Miss Wooliston making the minimum of polite conversation with the awkward odd woman out, and then, as any of them would, calling for reinforcements.

The American complied, cheerfully enough. Whittlesby looked distinctly relieved.

“You know I’m hopeless at painting,” the American said, squeezing her way in between Laura and the Pink Carnation.

Miss Wooliston rolled her eyes at her friend. “I’m not asking you to paint it, merely to critique it. Tell me if I’m about to waste my pin money.”

The American eyed the first easel without favor. “Please tell me you’re not planning to buy Caesar’s Last Stand.”

“No, not that one. The forest scene. It’s like a walk in the woods at ten in the morning.”

Emma examined it critically. “I would have said afternoon, but it’s so overcast it’s hard to tell. Wouldn’t you prefer something a little . . . brighter?”

“Really?” The Pink Carnation slid an arm through her friend’s, drawing her away, away from Laura. “I would have called it atmospheric, like something out of a novel by Mrs. Radcliffe.”

“Hmm.” The American was unimpressed. “Come see this one.”

Laura drifted to an easel at the other side of the room, staring without seeing. She had a vague impression of color, but she couldn’t have said with any authority exactly what it was she was looking at.

The Pink Carnation’s message had been clear enough. The Jardins du Luxembourg, tomorrow morning at ten. There must be something important in hand, something very important if the Pink Carnation was concerned enough to break protocol and speak to Laura herself.

“Laura, my dear.” She started as Daubier placed a fatherly hand on her shoulder and squeezed. There was reddish paint on his fingers, the marks that no amount of turpentine could scrub off. In Laura’s uneasy frame of mind, it looked uncomfortably like blood. “Has Andr? abandoned you already?”

“He was more than generous with his time.” Laura forced herself into a lightness she didn’t feel. “And with his vol-au-vent.”

“I’ll say that much for Andr?,” agreed Daubier. “He doesn’t stint on the buffet. So, my girl, what do you think of this lot?”

He gestured expansively at the easels lining the room.

Laura’s mouth settled into wry lines. With all the people asking her that this evening, she might as well hang out her shingle as an art critic. Everyone seemed so eager for her assessment.

She was spared answering by a disturbance at the doorway. Someone was forcing his way into the room, boots clomping against the time-dulled parquet floor. People scattered at his approach, like birds startled from their bread crumbs, hastily taking wing.

The crowd cleared, and Laura saw who it was. It was that man from the Ministry of Police, the one who had stopped them on the bridge. The one who had pretended to know her.

For an awful moment, she thought he was making for her, her subterfuge discovered, her death warrant signed. But his eyes passed right by her. He wasn’t on the trail of the Pink Carnation. Laura could see one last swish of her skirt as she strolled easily through the far door, her arm twined through that of her American friend, seemingly oblivious to the commotion being created, as if she were merely the society lady she pretended to be.

Laura’s relief turned to alarm as Delaroche stopped directly in front of Monsieur Daubier.

Everyone, including Laura, stepped back, giving the two men a wide berth. They stood alone in their circle of floor, people clustering around at a safe distance, like spectators at the Roman Coliseum.

“Antoine Daubier?”

“Yes?” Daubier’s expression was politely quizzical, but there was something beneath it that made Laura’s stomach twist.

She could hear his voice, from a very long way away, saying, Do you think he—

Whatever this was about, Daubier knew about it. He knew and he was bracing himself for the blow.

Delaroche seemed to grow taller. His sallow face blazed with triumph.

“Antoine Daubier, I arrest you in the name of the Ministry of Police.”