A Death in Sheffield
Having decided that the ball was not going to be as unpleasant as she’d first feared, Artemis scanned the crowded room, waiting to spy a certain tall figure. The orchestra was preparing for the next set, and the candlelit room was filled with fashionable members of the ton, the men dressed in understated black in contrast to the sumptuous silks and satins worn by the women. Because she was not yet “out,” Artemis was unfortunately dressed in white, and—even though she paid little attention to such things—she knew she did not look well in white, considering the fairness of her skin. She hoped that it had not been quite so obvious, in the torch-lit garden.
“Whatever has happened to the Ambassador, Artemis; what did he say to you?” It seemed that Artemis’ aunt trusted her partner-in-crime as little as the man trusted her in turn, and small blame to either of them, since they were both facing the wrath of England’s Minister of the Treasury. And it had come as no surprise when Droughm had hinted that her relatives had engaged with unspecified “dangerous people”; after all, someone had set up an elaborate counterfeiting operation, and Artemis would bet her teeth that the Portuguese Ambassador wasn’t up to the task—the man was incapable of seeing to a simple abduction, for heaven’s sake.
“He asked if I had heard from mine uncle,” Artemis answered. “And I explained that I had not.”
Making an impatient sound, her aunt allowed a rare display of frustrated emotion. “It is very like Thaddeus—to disappear and leave us with no clue as to whether he yet lives.”
In the event his fond sister was unaware, Artemis offered, “He was mad, you know.”
“Fie, Artemis,” her aunt reproached her. “We do not yet know that he is dead.”
“As you say.” Artemis made an equivocal response, as she had first-hand knowledge that her great-uncle Thaddeus no longer walked the earth. She duly noted that her aunt had made no attempt to refute her brother’s madness, and decided that the Colonel had done her no favors when he’d sent her off to his wretched relatives. I have been ill-used, she thought, and then felt a stab of guilt for thinking badly of the Colonel—he could not possibly have known, she assured herself; not possibly.
Artemis could feel her aunt’s reaction even before Droughm approached; the woman stiffened and turned to grasp hold of Artemis’s elbow. “Come with me, Artemis—”
But before they could make a strategic retreat, the enemy had blocked their path. “Lady Stanhope; I am Droughm.” He bowed.
“Lord Droughm.” With palpable reluctance, her aunt bowed.
“I understand Lord Stanhope is from home.”
If it was possible, her aunt’s expression grew more guarded. “Indeed; he will be sorry to have missed making your acquaintance, my lord.”
“He is already acquainted with my nephew Wentworth, I understand.”
Artemis watched the byplay with some admiration, having never had the opportunity to hold the whip-hand over her aunt. She wondered who Wentworth was, and why his name had been thrown down like a challenge.
Lady Stanhope paused, wary, and debating what to say. “I believe there is an acquaintanceship, yes.”
He has her back on her heels, thought Artemis with satisfaction. I indeed have an ally—and a formidable one, at that; I have no doubt he will hold his position under fire.
“May I beg an introduction to your charming companion, Lady Stanhope?” Droughm turned to Artemis and rendered a small bow as she belatedly remembered to sink into a curtesy.
Green, she thought with surprise; his eyes were a pale green—which was unexpected, as he’d seemed so dark, outside in the garden. His hair was very brown, with a slight sprinkling of grey at the temples.
“May I present Miss Merryfield?” offered her aunt in a reluctant tone. “Lately visiting from Sheffield.”
Droughm lifted his quizzing glass and regarded Artemis through it. “Miss Merryfield, would you care to dance?”
“Lay on,” said Artemis easily.
But her aunt disclaimed in alarm, “I am afraid she is not yet ‘out’, my lord.”
Ignoring her, Droughm offered his arm, and Artemis took it, thinking he had been forewarned, and thus any potential disgrace was wholly his own.
“But—but my lord, I must protest,” Lady Stanhope continued in an undertone, as it was apparent the interaction was inviting unwelcome attention from those who stood nearby. “Miss Merryfield awaits her cousin.”
“My abject apologies to him,” said Droughm, his tone bordering on rudeness, and he led Artemis away as her aunt stood, speechless.
Rolled up; foot and guns, thought Artemis with extreme satisfaction—I can only admire his technique. She could not dwell on the skirmish for long, however, because their movement toward the dance floor was attracting a great deal of attention, with women whispering behind their fans and a buzzing undercurrent erupting in their wake as they passed by. Artemis knew she was not such a curiosity in her own right, and so she surmised that her escort must be an object of great interest.
And while it was one thing to attempt one’s first public dance in a quiet corner of the ballroom, it was quite another to be the cynosure of attention, and Artemis felt a small qualm that was very uncharacteristic for her. If this is one of those complicated dances where there is a great deal of crossing about and bowing, she thought, I am dead.
As though reading her mind, her companion leaned in and said in an undertone, “It is a waltz—very simple.”
“Then that is to the good.” She tried to maintain an attitude of calm as they took up their position on the dance floor, and hoped for the best. Fortunately, the ʼtweenie at Stanhope House was enthralled with the new dance, and—as Artemis had stood in as her practice partner on several occasions—at least she knew the basic steps.
This is as nothing, she assured herself stoutly, whilst the speculative whispering rose in volume. Facing down Massola when the Prussians were delayed—now, that was something. To change the direction of her thoughts, she turned her gaze to her partner, and decided that he was rather handsome in a rugged sort of way—capable, and no-nonsense.
For his part, he’d negligently lifted his quizzing-glass so as to study her, and she bore this scrutiny without a flinch. “You’ll not discomfit me by wielding your quizzing-glass, you know. I am made of sterner stuff.”
“I beg your pardon.” He dropped it so that it fell on its ribbon to his chest. “The truth is I do not see up close as well as I was used.”
“The wages of age,” she commiserated. “Next, you will require an ear-trumpet.”
A half smile tugged at his mouth. “Minx—small wonder you are pronounced impertinent.”
“Hush,” she begged, hearing the music start up. “I must concentrate.”
He moved to her, lifting her right hand in his left, and placing his other hand at her waist. Artemis suddenly found that she was close enough to see the pulse beating in his throat, and then she caught the scent of sandalwood, very subtle, as he began the dance, keeping his movements simple, and his steps short.
After a few moments, Artemis felt she was responding passably well to the rhythm of the music and the guiding pressure at her waist, and thus could relax a bit. He said near her ear, “May I speak, or will you enjoin me to ‘hush’ again?”
Resisting the urge to count aloud—as she had done with the ʼtweenie—Artemis said in a distracted fashion, “You may do as you wish; I don’t have the ordering of you.”
He was amused again—she could tell by the way he squeezed her hand slightly. “We must have a private conversation, you and I. Do you ride?”
This welcome question inspired her to take her gaze off her feet for a moment and meet his with a flare of hope. “Yes. But I have no mount, and no riding habit.”
“Ah. How well do you ride?”
“Well.” Her gaze returned to her feet, although she was gaining confidence—it was not so difficult, truly; once one got past the proximity of the gentleman, and the warm hand at one’s waist.
“You were well-named, then; Artemis, the goddess of the hunt.”
Feeling that she was comfortable enough to focus again on his face, she confessed, “It is a wretched thing to be saddled with—one can never quite live up to it.”
He met her eyes with a small smile. “I completely understand; my own surname is St. John.”
“That is nearly as wretched,” she agreed. “But not quite.”
She made a misstep, but then managed to make a recovery whilst he waited a few beats to allow her to regain the rhythm. Smiling, she looked up to him. “This is rather enjoyable, isn’t it?”
“I have never enjoyed myself more.”
“I doubt that,” she said dryly. “I think you very much enjoyed setting mine aunt back on her heels.”
“Where is your chamber at Stanhope House?”
This was unexpected, and she shot him a look. “You are too old to be climbing vines, I think.”
His eyes gleaming, he squeezed her hand again. “I’ve half a mind to prove you wrong, but I am asking because I will post a man to watch the house.”
“Oh—oh, I am on the third floor over the mews; the next thing to a miserable garret, I’m afraid.”
He offered quite seriously, “If you are in distress, you have only to signal.”
She frowned. “I do keep my pistol with me.”
Carefully, he executed a quarter-turn. “It would be best to hold your powder until the situation is resolved.”
“And what is the situation, exactly? Where is Lord Stanhope, and who is Wentworth?” She felt she may as well ask him; she very much doubted he would tell her, and he didn’t.
“We will discuss it at some other time,” he replied as the strains of the music concluded. “Prepare yourself; I am going to court you.”
“Lay on,” she said agreeably, finding his abruptness rather endearing, in an odd way. The warm hand was removed from her waist, and she had to resist an impulse to take it in her own.
“And damn’d be him who first cries, hold, enough.”
Smiling with delight, she recited, “So great a day as this is cheaply bought.”
Pleased, he took her arm to escort her back to her aunt, the buzzing undertone slightly louder as they passed through the crowd. “You are well-versed in Shakespeare.”
Disclaiming, she shook her head. “No—not truly. But my mad uncle was well-versed in Macbeth.”
He cast her a keen glance. “He was mad?”
“Oh yes; quite mad.”
Again, she could see that assorted spectators were openly watching them in their progress across the room, and so she strove mightily to appear unconcerned with her role as a freakish curiosity.
The green eyes sharp upon her, her escort asked, “Does your uncle yet live?”
“We will discuss it at some other time,” she parroted his own words back at him. The Four Terrible Things, she thought; I will have to confess them to him and hope for the best; I have little other choice.
“Fair enough.” With a bow, he delivered her back to her aunt.