Read Catch Me If You Can Online

Authors: Juliette Cosway

Catch Me If You Can

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prologue

 

France, 1893

 

“Are you ready for your adventure,
Mademoiselle
?”

Eleanor Craven nodded at her gentleman escort, delighted by his question. “Indeed I am.”

Monsieur
Redon, her fencing master – and her illicit companion for the evening – put his hand under her elbow and ushered her along the moonlit lane to the spot where the carriage would collect them. Eleanor trembled with excitement. They were about to escape the school grounds for the evening. In but an hour they would be in their seats for the Russian ballet.

Organizing the forbidden outing had been no small feat. First, Eleanor wagered the fencing instructor she could beat him in a fencing match. The nature of his forfeit had been kept a secret until she’d won. To have been beaten by a protégée was difficult enough for him. When she revealed the dangerous nature of his forfeit he’d told her he had doubts about her sanity – which amused Eleanor immensely.

The crunch of cartwheels approaching on the gravel made Eleanor’s heart race ever faster. They were about to alight when a figure emerged from the nearby building, a lantern swinging wildly from their hand.

Monsieur Redon stopped in his tracks, halting Eleanor as he did so.

The person darted toward them with the lantern held aloft.

Eleanor’s heart sank when she saw who it was.
Madame
de Oublette, the arithmetic teacher had caught them leaving. Alas, there would be no trip to the Russian ballet.

“Beatrice,” her gentleman companion declared, recoiling when he caught sight of Madame – her haughty features skewed, yet unmistakable – beneath the swinging lantern.

“Oh dear,” Eleanor mumbled into her gloved hand, forcing back the urge to giggle when she saw the Madame’s outraged expression, her thin lips pursed in a disapproving scowl.

“You will regret this, you shameless girl,” snapped the Madame. “Evening excursions are forbidden, especially unchaperoned.”

Eleanor dug her heels in, her dream of attending the ballet still luring her. She grappled for a reasonable argument. “But, Madame, Monsieur Redon is my chaperone.”

Her comment appeared to annoy Madame de Oublette all the more. “Silence! This is behavior is grounds for expulsion, as you well know. What will your poor Papa think of you, the daughter of an English nobleman, sent home in shame?”

He’ll be most amused
.

Madame turned her attention to Monsieur Redon. “Ari, what were you thinking of?” she hissed. “Eleanor is barely fifteen years old. If the school governors hear about this you would be forced to leave, or worse still to marry the chit. If that were to happen, what would
we
do?”

“We?” Ari queried, confused

Eleanor was astonished. She had no idea Madame had feelings for the fencing tutor. Was this the reason the evening had been ruined? Whatever the cause, Eleanor found it difficult to keep her disappointment in check. Besides, she rankled against the strict rules of the finishing school for young ladies.

“Excuse me, Madame, but you are wrong. I’ll be sixteen years old in two weeks time.”

The Madame glared at her. “Recall your manners. Speak only when you are spoken to.” 

“Beatrice…” the man implored.

“Ari, I advise you to keep quiet.”

He clamped his mouth shut.

“You,” she pointed at Eleanor. “Go to your room, I’ll deal with you in the morning.”

Eleanor quashed down her disappointment. “Why, thank you for your kind consideration, Madame. I should indeed retire.” She pretended to stifle a yawn, determined not to let The Dragon – as many of the girls called her – know how upset she was. She turned to her escort. “Thank you, kind sir. I enjoyed your company immensely and hope to enjoy it again.” 

She turned on her heel and walked slowly, and with the utmost dignity, toward the side entrance of the school.

It was hard not to be upset though. Madame would see to her expulsion, and although Eleanor didn’t mind returning to her home in England, she felt thwarted. The French, who considered themselves liberal in their attitudes, had restricted her movements since she’d arrived at the finishing school for young ladies six months earlier than at any point in her life. Her father had always encouraged her to be independent and previously her schooling had been at home. He’d only sent her to the French establishment while he was in America dealing with his deceased brother’s estate.

Moreover, she didn’t wish to bring trouble on Monsieur Redon. He’d been forced to agree to the outing as a matter of honor. She could only hope the Madame’s obvious affection for him would work in his favor.

She maintained her composure until the door shut behind her.

Taking flight, she ran up the stairs and along the gloomy corridors of the dormitory floors, her cloak billowing out behind her. When she reached her room she quickly pushed the door open and closed it quietly behind her, leaning her back against it, her eyes closed as she caught her breath.

“Eleanor, are you well?” 

She jumped at the sound of the voice. The embers from the fireplace were the only illumination in the bedchamber and she hadn’t noticed her friend, Miette, reclining upon the bed, awaiting her return.

“Yes, you startled me.” She untied the ribbon on her cloak and hung it over a chair. Pulling off her long evening gloves, she bent down to the fireplace, lifted the poker and nudged the drowsy embers into life.

Miette leaned over with the bedside candle and lit it from the fresh flame. “I’m sorry,
Cherie
, I wanted to hear about your evening. I dozed here while I awaited your return.”

She huddled, sleepy-eyed, inside a large woolen blanket, the delicate embroidery of her nightgown at odds with the heavier garment. Her hair tumbled heavily over her shoulders, her petite form made to look even more delicate by the profusion of lustrous russet hair.

“Our seats at the ballet will remain empty, alas.”

“Ari did not fulfill his part of the wager?”

“Oh yes, Monsieur Redon secured tickets and organized a carriage. He fully intended to escort me.”  She sat on the bed alongside her friend. The two of them had quickly forged a strong friendship for they shared a rebellious nature. Where Eleanor was headstrong and blatant, Miette was cautious and guarded. Miette covered her tracks more thoroughly, thus avoiding the disreputable reputation Eleanor had with her tutors.

“I cannot believe you made him live up to the deal,” Miette said. She’d been most impressed by the daring wager.

“I believe Monsieur Redon was under the impression I am a dizzy debutant who simply wanted to be alone with him.”  Eleanor couldn’t help smiling. She recalled the moment she’d informed him his task was to organize an evening out in nearby Toulouse, including seats at the Russian ballet, recently arrived in town for the week. “Alas, the outing was curtailed and I fear I’ve brought trouble on Ari.”

She sighed and set about undoing the buttons at the wrists of her green velvet evening gown.

Miette assisted, removing the clips from her friend’s hair. “Whatever do you mean?”

“The Dragon, she descended on us.” 

Miette grimaced at the mention of Madame de Oublette.

“She actually suggested Monsieur Redon might have to marry me, if there were a scandal.” Eleanor bristled with indignation.

“Oh, no,” Miette responded, her eyes widening. “Ari Redon is not the sort for marriage, he’s the sort for dallying with.” She laughed, tickled at her own comment.

“She threatened to have me sent home,” Eleanor continued, “and of course she can ensure it happens.” She paused, the nature of her current predicament finally sinking in. “If it happens I’ll miss you, my dear friend.”

Miette nodded her agreement, sadly. “We will be friends whatever happens, won’t we, and we’ll visit each other, often?” Miette looked anxious. “Promise me, Eleanor.”

“Yes, of course we will.” Eleanor reassured. “Oh, it is ridiculous,” she declared. “If this is a school for young ladies who will teach us the skills of dining out with suitors if we are to be locked up in these rooms at night, as if we are prisoners?”  She gave a dismissive wave around the small, sparsely furnished room her father paid an exorbitant fee for her to abide in.

Miette chuckled and undid the tiny buttons down the back of Eleanor’s gown. “Oh, you have to be safely married, my dearest, before you can go dining out with suitors.” 

Eleanor glanced over her shoulder, confused by the contradictory remark. “I don’t understand.”

“A woman must first attach herself to a man in marriage before she can be truly independent,” Miette stated, with all the confidence of a mature coquette. She unlaced Eleanor’s corset. “Once you have the security of a husband you are free and safe to dally as you wish.” 

Eleanor’s frown didn’t lift, for she didn’t agree with her friend’s sentiments. She stepped out of her starched cotton petticoats as she turned the idea over in her mind. “Why must we have a man to account for our actions?” 

Miette snorted at her English friend’s naivety, shrugging her response.

Eleanor’s frown deepened. She stood in her chemise and drawers, hands on hips, hair tumbling down. “Both you and I will have an independent income. I do not understand why we cannot live as men do, choose our companions and yet remain free?” 

Miette chuckled again. “It is the way of the world, Cherie. You truly are an innocent” 

Eleanor didn’t agree. “I’m no innocent. I’ve traveled.”

Her ambition was to work alongside her father, overseeing their estates and perhaps even developing her own business with the money she’d inherited from her mother’s estate as an infant. Her father had encouraged her in this and treated her no different than he would have a son. Friends and neighbors often commented and whispered about it, but thankfully James Craven took no heed.

“You are lucky, Eleanor, not every young lady has been given the chance to live the way you have.” 

Eleanor shrugged. Her upbringing had not been conventional. However, she saw no reason for her independence to end, nor the need to marry merely to gain security and some distorted sense of freedom, as Miette suggested. The only circumstances she could possibly marry under was for the sake of an heir for her father’s estate, and as far as she was concerned that was a long way off. “You wait and see. I shan’t need a man to give me security, nor independence.”

Miette rose and kissed her friends cheek, smiling all the while. “
Peut-être
,
Cherie
. We’ll see.”

She went to leave. Her gaze sidled back, her expression growing curious yet guarded. “Did The Dragon give you any idea how she found out?”

Eleanor stared at her friend, uncomprehending.

“That you had left the premises?” Miette added.

Eleanor shook her head. “Perhaps someone informed her, someone who wants Monsieur Redon’s attentions for herself.” 

Miette nodded, her eyelids lowered, her expression subdued. An uneasy silence descended and Miette went to the door.

“Wait,” Eleanor declared.

Miette stopped, frozen to the spot.

Eleanor put her hand out. “My blanket, thief!”

Miette’s expression relaxed and she chuckled, handing back the blanket she’d stolen from her friend’s bed.

Eleanor smiled. “A husband I can do without, the blanket I might need.”

 

 

 

 

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