Today's Reading

CHAPTER ONE
London, February 1815

Even though Suzanne was working under the small window in her room to get the best light, it was now too dark to continue sewing. England was much farther north than where she'd been living, and in midwinter the days were short and often rainy or overcast. She might have to buy candles to finish these alterations by the end of the week.

She set aside the gown and stood to stretch. Perhaps she should go for a short walk. The day was raw and her old cloak barely adequate, but she loved having the freedom to go outside whenever she wished.

Solid steps sounded on the stairs outside her room and she recognized the dignified approach of her landlord, Mr. Potter. He knocked on the door and announced, "Madame Duval, there's a fellow here who says he's your cousin, Colonel Duval. He's down in the sitting room. Do you have a cousin who is a colonel?"

Suzanne opened her door, surprised. After the last tumultuous years, she had no idea what relatives might still be alive, or what they had been doing. "I might, but I'll have to see him to be sure. I assume he looks respectable or you wouldn't have allowed him in."

"He has the look of a soldier, not that being one would make him a saint," her landlord said dourly. "I'll go down with you in case you want me to send him away."

She nodded her thanks. Mr. Potter was very protective of the female tenants in his boardinghouse. It was one of the reasons she'd chosen to live here.

She peeled off the fingerless gloves she wore to keep her hands warm while sewing, brushed a casual hand over her dark hair, and straightened her knit shawl over her shoulders, glad that her appearance was no longer a matter of life and death. Then she followed her landlord down the narrow stairs.

When she opened the door to the small sitting room, the dim light revealed a man gazing out the window, his hands clasped behind his back as he studied the shabby neighborhood. Lean and powerful, he did indeed have the bearing of a soldier. His wavy dark hair was in need of cutting and he had a familiar grace as he turned at her entrance. His searching gaze met hers and he became very still.

She froze, paralyzed with shock. Jean-Louis!

But her husband was dead—she'd seen him murdered with her own eyes. Also, Jean-Louis had been twice her age when they married. This man was younger.

When she saw his cool, light gray eyes, she remembered a young second cousin of her husband. Simon Duval had been a boy, only a couple of years older than she'd been as a very young bride, but he'd shared a strong family resemblance to her husband. The years had emphasized subtle differences in his features and she guessed that he was a shade taller and more broad-shouldered than Jean-Louis had been.

Realizing she wasn't breathing, she inhaled slowly. "Well met, Simon. Or should I call you Monsieur le Comte?"

"So it really is you, my cousin Suzanne," her visitor said with soft amazement. "The name is not uncommon and Hawkins didn't say you were the Comtesse de Chambron. But though you are a countess, I am no count. Merely a distant cousin by marriage who is very glad to see that you are alive."

He spoke English with no hint of French accent and she remembered that his mother had been English. "Though I no longer think myself a countess, you might be the Comte de Chambron if enough members of my husband's family have died." Which was true, but even more true was that the world where French courtly titles mattered seemed very far away. She extended her hand. "Mr. Potter announced you as a colonel. Which army? British, French royalist, or French imperial?"

"So many possibilities! The British army, though I'm going to sell out now that the emperor has abdicated." He smiled a little as he took her hand and bent over it, a gesture wholly French. "I'm glad to see you well and more beautiful than ever. I'd heard you were dead."

His hand was warm and strong and competent. She released it with reluctance. "You flatter like a Frenchman, Simon," she replied, returning his smile. "I am no longer a dewy young bride and I was very nearly dead several times over. But yes, I have survived."

Her landlord cleared his throat and she realized that he'd been monitoring this meeting from the doorway. "Madame Duval, I imagine you and the colonel have much to discuss, so I'll bring you some tea."

"That would be lovely, Mr. Potter." After he left, she knelt on the hearth and added a small scoop of coals to the embers of the fire. "Indeed, we have much to catch up on, cousin. It's been a dozen years or more."
...

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