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Brussels, BelgiumMay 1815
Gabe's heart pounded when he caught a glimpse of the woman from whom he'd parted three years before. Carrying a package, she walked briskly through the narrow Brussels streets. It was Emmaline Mableau, he was convinced.
Or very nearly convinced.
He'd always imagined her back in France, living in some small village, with parents or a new husband.
But here she was, in Belgium.
Brussels had many French people, so it was certainly possible for her to reside here. Twenty years of French rule had only ended the year before when Napoleon was defeated.
Defeated for the first time, Gabe meant. L'Empereur had escaped from his exile on Elba. He'd raised an army and was now on the march to regain his empire. Gabe's regiment, the Royal Scots, was part of Wellington's
Allied Army and would soon cross swords with Napoleon's forces again.
Many of the English aristocracy had poured into Brussels after the treaty, fleeing the high prices in England, looking for elegant living at little cost. Even so, Brussels remained primed for French rule, as if the inhabitants expected Napoleon to walk its streets any day. Nearly everyone in the city spoke French. Shop signs were in French. The hotel where Gabe was billeted had a French name. Hotel de Flandre.
Gabe had risen early to stretch his legs in the brisk morning air. He had few official duties at present, so spent his days exploring the city beyond the Parc de Brussels and the cathedral. Perhaps there was more of the cloth merchant's son in him than he'd realised, because he liked best to walk the narrow streets lined with shops.
He'd spied Emmaline Mableau as he descended the hill to reach that part of Brussels. She'd been rushing past shopkeepers who were just raising their shutters and opening their doors. Gabe bolted down the hill to follow her, getting only quick glimpses of her as he tried to catch up to her.
He might be mistaken about her being Emmaline Mableau. It might have been a mere trick of the eye and the fact that he often thought of her that made him believe the Belgian woman was she.
But he was determined to know for certain.
She turned a corner and he picked up his pace, fearing he'd lose sight of her. Near the end of the row of shops he glimpsed a flutter of skirts, a woman entering a doorway. His heart beat faster. That had to have been her. No one left on the street looked like her.
He slowed his pace as he approached where she had disappeared, carefully determining which store she'd entered. The sign above the door read Magasin de Lacet. The shutters were open and pieces of lace draped over tables could be seen though the windows. A lace shop.
He opened the door and crossed the threshold, removing his shako as he entered the shop.
He was surrounded by white. White lace ribbons of various widths and patterns draped over lines strung across the length of the shop. Tables stacked with white lace cloth, laceedged handkerchiefs and lace caps. White lace curtains covering the walls. The distinct scent of lavender mixed with the scent of linen, a scent that took him back in time to hefting huge bolts of cloth in his father's warehouse.
Through the gently fluttering lace ribbons, he spied the woman emerging from a room at the back of the shop, her face still obscured. With her back to him, she folded squares of intricate lace that must have taken some woman countless hours to tat.
Taking a deep breath, he walked slowly towards her. "Madame Mableau?"
Still holding the lace in her fingers and startled at the sound of a man's voice, Emmaline turned. And gasped.
She recognised him instantly, the capitaine whose presence in Badajoz had kept her sane when all seemed lost. She'd tried to forget those desolate days in the Spanish city, although she'd never entirely banished the memory of Gabriel Deane. His brown eyes, watchful then, were now reticent, but his jaw remained as strong, his lips expressive, his hair as dark and unruly.
"Madame." He bowed. "Do you remember me? I saw you from afar. I was not certain it was you."
She could only stare. He seemed to fill the space, his scarlet coat a splash of vibrancy in the white lacefilled room. It seemed as if no mere shop could be large enough to contain his presence. He'd likewise commanded space in Badajoz, just as he commanded everything else. Tall and powerfully built, he had filled those terrible, despairing days, keeping them safe. Giving them hope.
"Pardon," he said. "I forgot. You speak only a little English. Un peu Anglais."
She smiled. She'd spoken those words to him in Badajoz.
She held up a hand. "I do remember you, naturellement" She had never dreamed she would see him again, however. "II speak a little more English now. It is necessary. So many English people in Brussels." She snapped her mouth closed. She'd been babbling.
"You are well, I hope?" His thick, dark brows knit and his gaze swept over her.
"I am very well." Except she could not breathe at the moment and her legs seemed too weak to hold her upright, but that was his effect on her, not malaise.
His features relaxed. "And your son?"
She lowered her eyes. "Claude was well last I saw him."
He fell silent, as if he realised her answer hid something she did not wish to disclose. Finally he spoke again. "I thought you would be in France."
She shrugged. "My aunt lives here. This is her shop. She needed help and we needed a home. Vraiment, Belgium is a better place tohow do you say?to rear Claude."
She'd believed living in Belgium would insulate Claude from the patriotic fervour Napoleon had generated, especially in her own family.
She'd been wrong.
Gabriel gazed into her eyes. "I see." A concerned look came over his face. "I hope your journey from Spain was not too difficult."
It was all so long ago and fraught with fear at every step, but there had been no more attacks on her person, no need for Claude to risk his life for her.
She shivered. "We were taken to Lisbon. From there we gained passage on a ship to San Sebastian and then another to France."
She'd had money stitched into her clothing, but without the capitaine's purse she would not have had enough for both the passage and the bribes required to secure the passage. What would have been their fate without his money?
Emmaline suddenly understood why the captain had come to her shop. "I will pay you back the money. If you return tomorrow, I will give it to you." It would take all her savings, but she owed him more than that.
"The money means nothing to me." His eyes flashed with pain.
She'd offended him. Her cheeks burned. "I beg your pardon, Gabriel."
He almost smiled. "You remembered my name."
She could not help but smile back at him. "You remembered mine."
"I could not forget you, Emmaline Mableau." His voice turned low and seemed to reach inside her and wrap itself around her heart.
Everything blurred except him. His visage was so clear to her she fancied she could see every whisker on his face, although he must have shaved that morning. Her mind flashed back to those three days in Badajoz, his unshaven skin giving him the appearance of a rogue, a pirate, a libertine. Even in her despair she'd wondered how his beard would feel against her fingertips. Against her cheek.
But in those few days she'd welcomed any thought that strayed from the horror of seeing her husband killed and hearing her son's anguished cry as his father fell on to the hard stones of the cobbled street.
He blinked and averted his gaze. "Perhaps I should not have come here."
Impulsively she touched his arm. "Non, non, Gabriel. I am happy to see you. It is a surprise, no?"
The shop door opened and two ladies entered. One loudly declared in English, "Oh, what a lovely shop. I've never seen so much lace!"
These were precisely the sort of customers for whom Emmaline had improved her English. The numbers of English ladies coming to Brussels to spend their money kept increasing since the war had ended.
If it had ended.
The English soldiers were in Brussels because it was said there would be a big battle with Napoleon. No doubt Gabriel had come to fight in it.
The English ladies cast curious glances towards the tall, handsome officer who must have been an incongruous sight amidst all the delicate lace.
"I should leave," he murmured to Emmaline.
His voice made her knees weaken again. She did not wish to lose him again so soon.
He nodded curtly. "I am pleased to know you are well." He stepped back.
He was going to leave!
"Un moment, Gabriel," she said hurriedly. "II would ask you to eat dinner with me, but I have nothing to serve you. Only bread and cheese."
His eyes captured hers and her chest ached as if all the breath was squeezed out of her. "I am fond of bread and cheese."
She felt almost giddy. "I will close the shop at seven. Will you come back and eat bread and cheese with me?"
Her aunt would have the apoplexie if she knew Emmaline intended to entertain a British officer. But with any luck Tante Voletta would never know.
"Will you come, Gabriel?" she breathed.
His expression remained solemn. "I will return at seven." He bowed and quickly strode out of the shop, the English ladies following him with their eyes.
When the door closed behind him, both ladies turned to stare at Emmaline.
She forced herself to smile at them and behave as though nothing of great importance had happened.
"Good morning, mesdames" She curtsied. "Please tell me if I may offer assistance."
They nodded, still gaping, before they turned their backs and whispered to each other while they pretended to examine the lace caps on a nearby table.
Emmaline returned to folding the square of lace she'd held since Gabriel first spoke to her.
It was absurd to experience a frisson of excitement at merely speaking to a man. It certainly had not happened with any other. In fact, since her husband's death she'd made it a point to avoid such attention.
She buried her face in the piece of lace and remembered that terrible night. The shouts and screams and roar of buildings afire sounded in her ears again. Her body trembled as once again she smelled the blood and smoke and the sweat of men.
She lifted her head from that dark place to the bright, clean white of the shop. She ought to have forgiven her husband for taking her and their son to Spain, but such generosity of spirit eluded her. Remy's selfishness had led them into the trauma and horror that was Badajoz.
Emmaline shook her head. No, it was not Remy she could not forgive, but herself. She should have defied him. She should have refused when he insisted, I will not be separated from my son.
She should have taken his yelling, raging and threatening. She should have risked the back of his hand and defied him. If she had refused to accompany him, Remy might still be alive and Claude would have no reason to be consumed with hatred.
How would Claude feel about his mother inviting a British officer to sup with her? To even speak to Gabriel Deane would be a betrayal in Claude's eyes. Claude's hatred encompassed everything Anglais, and would even include the man who'd protected them and brought them to safety.
But neither her aunt nor Claude would know of her sharing dinner with Gabriel Deane, so she was determined not to worry over it.
She was merely paying him back for his kindness to them, Emmaline told herself. That was the reason she'd invited him to dinner.
The only reason.
The evening was fine, warm and clear as befitted late May. Gabe breathed in the fresh air and walked at a pace as rapid as when he'd followed Emmaline that morning. He was too excited, too full of an anticipation he had no right to feel.
He'd had his share of women, as a soldier might, shortlived trysts, pleasant, but meaning very little to him. For any of those women, he could not remember feeling this acute sense of expectancy.
He forced himself to slow down, to calm himself and become more reasonable. It was curiosity about how she'd fared since Badajoz that had led him to accept her invitation. The time they'd shared made him feel attached to her and to her son. He merely wanted to ensure that Emmaline was happy.
Gabriel groaned. He ought not think of her as Emmaline. It conveyed an intimacy he had no right to assume.
Except she had called him by his given name, he remembered. To hear her say Gabriel was like listening to music.
He increased his pace again.
As he approached the shop door, he halted, damping down his emotions one more time. When his head was as steady as his hand he turned the knob and opened the shop door.
Emmaline stood with a customer where the ribbons of lace hung on a line. She glanced over at him when he entered.
The customer was another English lady, like the two who had come to the shop that morning. This lady, very prosperously dressed, loudly haggled over the price of a piece of lace. The difference between Emmaline's price and what the woman wanted to pay was a mere pittance.
Give her the full price, Gabe wanted to say to the customer. He suspected Emmaline needed the money more than the lady did.
"Tres bien, madame," Emmaline said with a resigned air. She accepted the lower price.
Gabe moved to a corner to wait while Emmaline wrapped the lace in paper and tied it with string. As the lady bustled out she gave him a quick assessing glance, pursing her lips at him.
Had that been a look of disapproval? She knew nothing of his reasons for being in the shop. Could a soldier not be in a woman's shop without censure? This lady's London notions had no place here.
Gabe stepped forwards.
Emmaline smiled, but averted her gaze. "I will be ready in a minute. I need to close up the shop."
"Tell me what to do and I'll assist you." Better for him to be occupied than merely watching her every move.
"Close the shutters on the windows, if you please?" She straightened the items on the tables.
When Gabe secured the shutters, the light in the shop turned dim, lit only by a small lamp in the back of the store. The white lace, so bright in the morning sun, now took on soft shades of lavender and grey. He watched Emmaline glide from table to table, refolding the items, and felt as if they were in a dream.
She worked her way to the shop door, taking a key from her pocket and turning it in the lock. "C 'est fait!" she said. "I am finished. Come with me."
She led him to the back of the shop, picking up her cash box and tucking it under her arm. She lit a candle from the lamp before extinguishing it. "We go out the back door."
Gabe took the cash box from her. "I will carry it for you."