Taken by the Rake – Shana Galen

Paris terrified her. The daily executions, the violence in the streets, the National Guard, who ransacked houses nightly in search of royalist sympathizers. Honoria Blake hated Paris. And yet, she was still here. She had no one but herself to blame for the fact that she wasn’t tucked in safe under the roof of her flat in London. No one but herself to blame that she was stuffing feathers back into a mattress that had been bayoneted and all but destroyed by the Guard not once but three times in the past month she’d been here. No one to blame but herself that she was tired and on edge. No but herself and, perhaps in part, Monsieur Palomer. Hiding three men of the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel under the floorboards in her bedchamber for half the night would make any person nervous and exhausted. Especially when Lord Anthony Dewhurst, Lord Edward Hastings, and Sir Andrew Ffoulkes were among Robespierre and his Committee of Public Safety’s most wanted. No one suspected two women—herself and Alexandra Martin—of being in league with the Pimpernel. The soldiers searched the safe house—could she call it a safe house when it had been searched three times in thirty days?—never pausing to consider that two members of the League they sought stood directly before them. Honoria could not have said precisely what Alexandra did for the Pimpernel. She suspected Alex ferried aristos through Paris and into the countryside so they could be taken to safety in England. Alex was also in charge of disguises, and she had a remarkable talent there.

She could make a large, dark man like Dewhurst look old and decrepit. She could make the burly Scot Mackenzie look like a woman—not an attractive woman, but not an ugly one either. And when Alex wasn’t leading aristos through the catacombs running under the city of Paris, she was performing on the stage. She had a small part in a production of Le Jugement dernier des rois at the People’s Theater. If they’d been in London, Alex and Honoria would not have been acquainted. Honoria was one of only a handful of women who worked for the British Museum. She was an expert in Roman antiquities and spent much of her day identifying and cataloguing pieces acquired by or for the museum. She enjoyed working for the museum in Montagu House. It was quiet and peaceful and her little chamber was hidden away from the prying eyes of most men. Honoria had realized early on that she was unusually attractive.

Had she been the daughter of a duke or some other titled gentleman, her beauty might have worked to her advantage. But she had no lofty connections and, after the age of fifteen, no one to protect her. She’d done all she could to hide her stunning beauty, but nothing worked so well as locking herself in a dusty office with the bust of a long-dead emperor. Honoria sneezed as she stuffed the last feather into the mattress. It had taken all morning, but the room was finally put to rights. She didn’t even want to think about the mess awaiting her in the drawing room. Thank God all the papers and correspondence the League needed were hidden in a false panel in the dining room wall. Not only would it have doomed them if the soldiers had discovered the documents, she would be the one cleaning up the shredded foolscap before she, too, was dragged to prison. Honoria’s work for the Pimpernel was neither as exciting nor as dangerous as that of the others. Not only was she knowledgeable about Roman artifacts.

She possessed the ability to duplicate almost any handwriting. It was a talent she had realized purely by mistake when, after she annoyed him once too often, her father had given her the tedious task of copying old manuscripts. She’d made it more interesting by imitating the penmanship of the author. Her skill had impressed her father, so she’d honed it to perfection. Now the League needed her for her skills in forgery and document creation. She could sign Robespierre’s name better than he could, and the papers she made for the aristos escaping Paris looked as authentic as any issued by the Committee for Public Safety. She could duplicate the stamp, the embossing, and every other minute detail. The nature of her work meant she rarely left the safe house. For the most part, she did not mind. The safe house was, as the name would suggest, relatively safe.

But in the back of her mind one small point niggled. She hadn’t begged the Pimpernel to bring her to Paris so she could be safe. She had been safe in her little room in the back of Montagu House. She could have continued making false passports for him there. Honoria had begun forging papers for the Pimpernel because she wanted adventure. She’d wanted to make a difference. She’d wanted to experience life. She’d been hiding from the age of fifteen. Now, at the age of six and twenty, she wasn’t afraid any longer. But she was still hiding behind severe hairstyles, drab shapeless dresses, and enormous spectacles that did nothing to improve her already perfect vision.

Even with her ornaments, Dewhurst had described her as “too demmed pretty to go out alone,” and Ffoulkes had said she might go out at night but “in the daylight you’d draw too much attention.” Considering the curfew in effect after dark, the dictate meant Honoria almost never went out. Once, Alex had worked her magic, making Honoria look sallow and pock-marked with missing teeth. She’d been able to go out then, but she’d been terrified someone might discover her disguise and begin asking questions. And so she stayed inside and hid herself away. Now she was scheduled to return to London as soon as transport was available. What would she have to show for her efforts in Paris? Ink stains on her fingers and bags under her eyes. How was that any different from London? She’d been forging passports and papers to be used in France for the last few years. Not on a daily or even a weekly basis, but a couple one month and a few more several months later. And then Monsieur Palomer had walked into her cramped chamber at the British Museum.

He’d been a friend of her father’s and knew she had a talent for forgery. She hadn’t wanted to hear his tales of the horrors in Paris. She’d read of them in the papers and that had been enough. But she hadn’t been able to make him stop talking, and something about listening to him recount what he’d seen was so much worse than merely reading about it. His eyes had been haunted. He didn’t want to go back to France, but he felt he must. He had family and friends trapped in Paris, and he could not leave them to their fate. He wasn’t a noble but a drapery merchant to the nobility. His curtains had hung at Versailles. His factory had been burned and looted, many of his workers killed, and his family threatened.

He’d been in England for business and was afraid to go back using his real name. He wanted to save his family and as many others as he could. Honoria had made him the necessary papers and watched him walk out the door. She’d never seen or heard of him again, and she had looked for mentions of him or his family. Had he died? Had he lived? Had he saved his family? Did anyone care about all the innocent people trapped in the senseless violence of Paris? And if she did, what was she doing about it? Monsieur Palomer had told others in the community of French exiles about her, and the next time an émigré had come to her with a request for false papers she’d made it known she wanted to work for the Scarlet Pimpernel. She didn’t even know if he was real, but if she was to go to France and help, she knew he was her best hope. It hadn’t taken long for the Pimpernel to find her. “Miss Blake!” Honoria wiped her brow and rose to go to the door of the tiny room she shared with Alex. That had to be Dewhurst yelling. He would have bellowed prayers in church, and despite the fact that he was one of the sons of the Duke of Exeter, he had the worst manners of the lot of them.

“Yes?” She added my lord mentally, because even though they had no servants in the house and never any guests, they were careful as to how they addressed each other. They had false names, of course. French names, but though Ffoulkes was always reminding them to use the false names at all times, they rarely did when at home alone. “We are for the market. A little shopping.” She no longer believed they were actually walking to the market. The first few times she’d been told this, she’d asked after their missing packages when they’d returned. Now she understood shopping meant a mission. She moved to the landing at the top of the stairs so she could see Dewhurst. He stood at the bottom dressed in the rough clothes of a revolutionary, complete with a carmagnole jacket, a tricolor cockade, and a Phrygian cap on his inky black hair.

He’d wound a red and white striped sash about his waist, where the handle of a pistol peeked out. His face had a light layer of dirt and grime on it, and if he looked a little too healthy, too well-fed to have stepped out of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, no one would question him too closely. The dangerous glint in his eye tended to discourage questions. That and the bloody pike he liked to carry. “I do hope you find a bargain,” she answered. It was the accepted way for her to wish them good luck. “Lock the doors and stay inside.” “I will.” She kept her gaze on his face and not on the pike. “Work in the dining room with the panel open.

If anyone comes to the door—” “I know what to do.” “If he is one of ours, he’ll know the signal or have the mark.” Dewhurst narrowed his eyes, waiting until she nodded. “Even then, be careful.” “Of course.” She’d heard it all so many times, but she didn’t blame him for reminding her. The Pimpernel himself might be in Paris right now. If he came to the door, she wouldn’t know him. She’d corresponded with him, even spoken to him on half a dozen occasions, but she’d never seen his face, and the few times she’d caught a glimpse of him, he’d been in disguise. “What if something goes wrong?” she asked.

Dewhurst had been about to turn and walk away, but now he paused and gave her a long look. He had dark eyes, and they looked even darker in the enclosed space of the stairwell. “It won’t. Au revoir.” “Au revoir. Bonne chance.” She heard a rumble of voices, the sound of the door, and then she was alone. Left behind, as usual. She started back up the steps and made the mistake of peeking into the drawing room. Left behind to clean up the mess.

With a sigh, she bent to pick up a fallen pillow. LAURENT LOOKED UP THROUGH a haze of sweat and blood and into the face of the devil. The devil was not a horned red creature with a forked tail, as the painters made him out to be. Neither was he the golden angel fallen from heaven. The devil was the frenzied mob butchering the helpless inmates of La Force. The devil was the peasants of France. He’d closed his eyes then, giving in to the peace that would come with death. If hell had come to earth, certainly death could be no worse. The shrieks and groans faded away, and he felt only the warmth of the sun and the cool of the breeze on his face. “Citoyen Bourgogne.

” Something sharp prodded his ribs. “Open your eyes. Citoyen, wake up.” “He’s dead. Leave him.” The voices crashed over him, rousing him from the only peace he’d known in months. “He’s awake.” Laurent opened his eyes and scowled at the men looking down at him. He struggled to sit. One glance beyond them told him he was no longer in the prison courtyard.

Where was he? Where was the mob? Perhaps this was the mob. Perhaps they’d saved him for last. “Well,” he rasped. “Go ahead and kill me.” “It’s tempting,” said a tall man with dark hair, who was dressed in the revolutionary garb of the sansculottes, in simple trousers and carmagnole. He was larger and healthier than most peasants. His shoulders strained his dingy brown shirt, hinting at muscles and power beneath. His size and strength meant he wielded more authority. That and he had a pistol. At one time in his life, Laurent would have given his right hand for a pistol.

Laurent stared at the pistol. “Can you shoot straight, citoyen?” “As an arrow,” the man answered, his accent not that of the poorer faubourgs like Saint-Antoine, but not that of Versailles either. Laurent squared his shoulders. “Then do it. Right between the eyes or through the heart is preferred, though I doubt you care for my wishes.” “Not particularly, no. You deserved to die at the hands of those lunatics, but I saved you.” “For the guillotine?” Laurent asked. It was a stupid question, but clearly some peasant had damaged his head. Laurent’s temple throbbed, and he had a vague memory of a wooden axe handle coming down on him.

He’d lost too much blood. Why else would he believe this revolutionary had come to save him? “I saved you for him.” The man grabbed Laurent’s hand and pressed what felt like foolscap into it. “Now stand.” He roughly yanked Laurent to his knees. The world rushed at him, green and brown and red, but he managed to rise and stay on his feet. He was no longer inside the gates of La Force. He was free and weaving along an alley. If the muted sounds of violence in the distance were any indication, he was not far from La Force and the mob carnage being wrought there. At the end of the alleyway, the big revolutionary pushed Laurent toward two men standing at the corner of the courtyard wall.

One had auburn hair peeking out from under a rag on his head and the other blond hair under a cocked hat. Three men. Laurent thought he might have a chance to escape them…except for that pistol. Just then a fourth man ran full tilt from the adjoining street. He was dressed in sansculottes and carmagnole like the first. “Lads! This wye. We hae a problem.” Laurent couldn’t place the accent at first—French tinged with Scottish? A Scot? “You too!” The Scot pointed to the revolutionary pushing Laurent. “Leave him.” “We need him and what he knows,” the revolutionary argued.

“Leave him!” “Bloody hell,” the revolutionary growled in English. Then he reached into his bloodstained vest and pulled out a slip of paper. “This is a house where you’ll be safe,” he said in French. “Go now, but stay off the main avenues.” Laurent took the paper. “And if I don’t go to this house?” The revolutionary gave him a hard look before running after his compatriots. “Then don’t expect to survive until tomorrow,” he called over his shoulder. And he was gone. Laurent leaned against the wall of the alley, his head throbbing even worse now, and opened the paper. 6 Rue du Jour Laurent did not move.

One moment he had been inside the prison courtyard, fighting the mob climbing over the walls and crashing through what should have been a locked gate. The next moment he was free and being told to go to a house on the Rue du Jour. He had the urge to return to the prison. Perhaps he could save some of the women and children, and when he died, take a few of the revolutionaries with him. But he remembered the last images of the courtyard before he’d closed his eyes. He’d watched as two women tore at the dress and hair of Camille. She was covered in blood, and he’d hoped she was no longer alive. Once, in another life, when he’d been the Marquis de Montagne and she the Vicomtesse de la Chapelle, they’d danced in the gardens of Versailles and sipped champagne. He’d kissed her once, her lips as sweet with the wine as the strings of the violins. There was no sweetness in France any longer.

It was too late to save the prisoners who’d been in the courtyard. Laurent had a choice. He could lie down here and die or he could try to make it to 6 Rue du Jour. Whatever lay in store for him there, he did not think it was death. Laurent stumbled out of the alleyway and tried to orient himself. It took a few minutes before he knew where he was and could start off in the right direction. He passed men and women hurrying along the streets. Most looked at him, then looked away. They knew what was happening in the prison of La Force, but they’d do nothing to stop it. Oh, the good people of Paris.

Laurent continued on, stumbling through the narrow streets, keeping his head down, ignoring the drops of scarlet that fell from his temple. He almost ran into the man who stepped in front of him, blocking his path. Laurent fell back as the man hefted a cudgel. “And what do we have here?” The man was a revolutionary from the tricolor cockade he wore to his striped trousers. It would have been easy enough to stay down, to close his eyes, and allow this peasant to do his worst. But now that his head was clear, he remembered he couldn’t die. He had made a promise, and he had to live to fulfill it. Laurent climbed back to his feet. “Get out of my way.” “A noble,” the man said with a grin.

“I’ve just come from La Force, and I’ll wager you did too.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m on my way home.” “You are on your way to the devil. Mort à l’aristocratie!” the man screamed. His face, already marred with blood and dirt from the sweat of his labors, turned red. He raised his cudgel with a malevolent grin, showing his broken teeth. This was not the way Laurent had thought he would die. He’d imagined he’d die from a drunken tumble into the Seine or from a wild horseback ride or falling out of the gondola of a globe aérostatique all his friends had been so keen to try. Death during a balloon flight would have been far more romantic than death from bludgeoning at the hands of a peasant with no care for dental hygiene.

Laurent simply couldn’t allow it. The peasant swung the cudgel, and Laurent caught the man’s wrist, stopping the weapon’s progress. The peasant’s eyes widened, and Laurent squeezed his wrist until he heard the bones crunch. With a cry, the man released the weapon, and it fell to the ground with a clink. But Laurent’s victory was short-lived. Windows opened and a woman screamed for the guard. Laurent was no match for armed soldiers, and he began to run. He ran without looking where he was going, and by the time he realized he had outpaced the peasants, he was lost. He was thirsty and hot, yet shivering uncontrollably. He knew Paris as he knew the body of a lover, but when he looked about now, he had no idea where he was.

And then his eyes locked on the sign. Rue du Jour. Somehow, even in the chaos, his feet had known which path to take. Staggering with weariness, Laurent pushed himself toward the house at number six.

.

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