A Death in Sheffield
Very early the following morning, Artemis opened sleepy eyes to behold Katy, illuminated by a single candle that she shielded with her hand. “Miss,” she whispered, “My grand-dad would like to speak with you.”
Startled, Artemis propped up on an elbow and attempted to draw together her scattered wits. “What’s amiss, Hooks?” Artemis noted that the staid retainer stood behind Katy, his hands folded before him.
“There is no emergency, Miss Merryfield,” he assured her with a small bow. “Lord Droughm is out front, and explains he requested your presence for an early ride this morning, but apparently the invitation went astray.”
Artemis sat up, fully awake. “Did it indeed?”
“Apparently,” the retainer repeated smoothly. “And as the other inhabitants are abed, I am at a loss.”
“Hooks,” Artemis declared, as she swung her legs over the side of the bed. “You are worth your weight in gold. I’ll be down in five minutes.”
“His lordship is accompanied by a groom.” Hooks did not want her to think he was completely lost to all propriety as he bowed, and left her to Katy’s ministrations.
A few minutes later, Artemis gathered her gloves and crept downstairs, dressed in her blue velvet habit. Awaiting her approach, Hooks quietly opened the door and then Artemis was outside in the weak morning light, Droughm and his groom waiting at the curb with the horses. Droughm helped her to mount Callisto, and then they were away, not speaking until they were a goodly distance from the house.
Artemis grinned at him, the cold air making her cheeks tingle. “You are the most complete hand.”
“Sleepy-sides,” he teased. “Don’t fall off your horse.”
She laughed with sheer pleasure. “Oh, I have taken many a tumble, I assure you—it comes of being a neck-or-nothing rider.”
“Not to be confused with your good-for–nothing cousin, whom I ask that you avoid in the future.”
So; he was unhappy with her, and she quickly looked over to him in apology. “I am sorry; I thought now that Torville’s been defanged, I would ply him with some questions.”
“No more,” he said only. “And you are to equally avoid those who ruined your evening at Ballantine House, including Miss Valdez.”
With a teasing smile, she offered, “I don’t know, Pen; I regard the Ballantine House ball as the best night of my short life, thus far.”
Apparently, she’d succeeded in putting herself back in his good graces, because he gave her a very meaningful look. “There will be better nights, I promise you.”
Feeling a bit warm despite the chill, she contemplated her horse’s ears for a moment. “Where do we go?”
He flicked his crop on the toe of his boot. “Rotten Row. It is a good place for a run, this early—there should be no one about.”
“That is excellent, Pen—I would love a good run.” She hoped he hadn’t noticed that it was starting to drizzle.
The park was indeed deserted, as they came to the long, sandy track. “Can we truly let them go?” She did not want to have him unhappy with her again.
“Careful—it is a bit wet,” he cautioned.
With a serious expression, Artemis contemplated the stretch ahead. “Perhaps I should get off, then, and lead her.”
With a half-smile, he bent his head in acknowledgment. “Your pardon—I cannot seem to help myself.”
Artemis smiled to show she took it in good heart—it was rather nice, after all, to have someone worried about her. “I should take a tumble, my Dutch Aunt, just to set your mind at rest.”
He gathered up his reins. “Pray resist the impulse. Let’s see how she goes, then.”
They moved into a gallop that went on for an exhilarating half-mile, until he finally signaled they should come to a stop. Artemis pulled in her mare, laughing in delight, and wheeled around to see that Droughm had already dismounted. With several long strides, he pulled her from her horse and into his arms, so as to kiss her rather roughly.
The reality was so much better than the imagining, as he lowered her to the ground, his arm unyielding across her back. I shall never forget this as long as I live, she thought, and tried to match his urgency.
After kissing her very thoroughly for a blissful space of time, he gentled his actions and kissed the edge of her lower lip, her cheek, and then her mouth again. When he finally ceased, he kept his face close to hers, stroking the hair back from her temples with light fingertips.
Closing her eyes, she leaned into him, overcome with the sensation of his nearness, and unable to speak.
“If it starts to rain in earnest, we will have to go back, I’m afraid.”
She managed to find her voice. “Must we?”
“Let’s take cover, and wait a bit.” He indicated a pathway sheltered by leafy trees, and they retreated to stand beneath the broad-spread branches. Thankfully, the rain was only sporadic, and the gray morning mists were beginning to dissipate in the strengthening sunlight.
They stood together, Droughm’s hand around her waist whilst Artemis leaned into him, noting that the groom was nowhere to be seen. Good man, she thought; although no doubt he is operating under strict instructions—that kiss had the feel of pent-up anticipation.
It was very quiet, the only sound being the horses, as they cropped the long grass. Whilst she fingered the sleeve of his coat, Artemis pressed her lips together for a moment, and then began: “My mother was married to an infantryman; her husband’s regiment was called up to hold the Po Valley during the First Coalition. They had to move quickly, and so the camp followers—like my mother—were often left to join up as best they could. It was the way of it.”
He bent his head to her, listening, as she gazed out over the sun-dappled landscape.
“An enemy brigade came in from the flank, and our camp was raided. My mother was raped, as were many of the women.”
With a hand, he drew her head to rest against his cheek.
“The others tried to convince my mother that her husband could just as easily be the father, and that she shouldn’t dwell on it, but my eyes—” She paused. “My mother found it difficult to look upon me, and so the other women helped to raise me.”
“Artemis,” he said quietly, so that it resonated against the bones of her face.
Heartened, she drew breath, and continued, “I told you about what happened at San Sebastian but I didn’t tell you everything. At San Sebastian she was raped again, and became pregnant again. She was unable to face it, and killed herself.” There, she thought, I have done it—I have told him.
“A sorry excuse for a mother,” she could hear the suppressed anger in his voice, “to even allow you to know of your heritage.”
Leaning back in surprise, she gazed up at him. “Why—why that is what I’ve always thought, privately; but then I felt guilty for thinking it. The truth is the truth, after all.”
But he disagreed, and pulled her firmly against his side. “Some things are more important than the truth; and if you think I am going to shy away from discussing your beautiful eyes—and at length—you have misjudged your man.”
“Yes, sir.” She used the wrong honorific, so as to lighten her next remark. “But you mustn’t marry me, given the circumstances.”
His immediate response was to say, “I’ll have no more of your nonsense,” and kiss her again. As she was now becoming accustomed, she moved her hands to his shoulders and responded with enthusiasm when he pulled her closer for further intimacies; caressing her in a way that was a clear precursor to an anticipated coupling.
His mouth finally broke away, and she could feel his chest rise and fall as he held her against him for a moment. For her part, she clung to him, trying to catch her breath and unable to step away. Years ago, when she’d puzzled out the events that took place in the marriage bed, she was a bit skeptical—it all seemed so awkward, and almost absurdly intimate. Now—now she was a convert, and yearned to run her hands across his bare chest. There will be hair on his chest, she thought, a bit dazed; he has quite a heavy beard.
“Do not look at me in such a way, Artemis. Your task is to keep me in check.”
“I don’t know if that is the best plan, Pen,” she admitted in a thick voice.
He kissed her quickly. “Enough, now.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “Enough.” Neither moved. Then they both began to laugh, and the perilous moment had passed. This is exactly why they go on and on nattering about chaperones, she thought—it would be hard to control this inclination, if we were someplace truly private. She put a finger up to trace his mouth, and he kissed the tip and cupped her face in his hand.
“Pen—exactly how long am I to keep you in check?”
He smiled, and from this proximity, she could see the network of crinkles at the corners of his eyes. “Not long.” He gently touched an earlobe. “Your ears are unpierced—I could not remember.”
Bemused, she regarded him. “Is it important?”
“I purchased a set of sapphires for you.” He placed two fingers at the hollow of her throat and traced where the necklace would be. “Nothing ostentatious; very simple.” He met her gaze and added, “To match your beautiful eyes.”
Blushing with pleasure, she nevertheless reminded him, “You know that I’ll not be old enough to wear proper jewels for some years, Pen.”
He leaned in to place his cheek against her temple so that he spoke into her ear. “I thought you could wear them for me, when we are in private.” Unspoken was the understanding that she would be wearing nothing else.
With a smile, she rubbed her face in his coat. “I am amazed you can sleep at night, Pen, weaving such strategies.”
He chuckled again near her ear, and then stepped back. “Give me your foot and let’s put you up before I lose my resolve.” Suiting deed to word, they were underway again, and began heading back.