ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

A Death in Sheffield

Chapter 23

 

They paused for a moment, whilst Droughm took a long look around the immediate area, twisting in his saddle to do so. Artemis could see nothing of interest; Tremaine, whoever he was, was nowhere in sight. 

With a nod to Artemis, he moved forward, and she moved in beside him, breathing in lungfuls of the cold air—she felt much better, but was not yet fully recovered. An opiate, Droughm has said; that others would willingly take such a thing seemed incomprehensible—she’d hated the feeling of helpless lethargy.

Quietly, he said without preamble, “Carena was alarmed that you twigged the Investigator.  She doesn’t know—as I do—that you twigged Miss Valdez just as easily.”

“I must be sensitive to deception,” Artemis replied in an even tone.

He did not pretend to misunderstand.  “I cannot reveal very much, I’m afraid. Not as yet.”

In a steady voice, she ventured, “When I realized that you and the Investigator were allied, I wondered if perhaps your—your interest in me was mere playacting.”

His head snapped around. “What?”

At his professed incredulity, she had to chuckle.  “It was a weak moment, and passed quickly.”

“Weak indeed.  Good God, Artemis, I can hardly keep my hands from you.”

“Or from my silver mines.”

But he only replied, “I’ll remind you that the silver mines are not yours in the first place.”

“You ease my mind, then. Where do we flee?”

“Scotland,” he said bluntly. “I will have the honor of marrying the Countess of Droughm over the anvil.”

“I don’t know what that means, Pen,” she confessed. “But I don’t think your vaunted ancestors would approve.”

They were traveling down the dirt track toward the road, and she noted that he kept a sharp eye on their surroundings. “We’ve little choice. You need only be sixteen to marry in Scotland, and anyone can perform the ceremony; all that is necessary is the requisite number of witnesses. And my ancestors may be damned.”

“A good riddance to them,” she agreed.

He gave a bark of laughter.  “Thank God you are back—don’t ever do that to me again.”

“Tell it to my poor head, Pen—as if I am at fault in this.  What has happened to Torville?”     

He flicked his riding crop on the toe of his boot.  “I did not remain behind to find out.”

“Hooks offered to take a whip to him.”

“Hooks is a good man.”

She glanced at him sidelong, but then desisted because it made her head ache. “Who put Torville up to it? Lady Stanhope couldn’t force him to do such a drastic thing—not after you’d given him a taste of what-for.”

He thought about how to answer this, and finally said, “There are some very unpleasant people who are involved in your uncle’s mining operations.  I imagine they applied some pressure on Torville, and on the heels of Stanhope’s murder, very little pressure was needed—indeed, it may have been the entire reason for the man’s murder. They are ruthless people, and desperate to keep the mines under their own control.”

“And the Portuguese?  Why do they take an interest?”

He tilted his head in apology. “I will tell you, but not just yet, I’m afraid. How far do you think you can ride today? I’d like to go cross-country most of the time, and avoid the roads.”

She took an inventory of herself. “A good ways, I think—I’ve done my share of rough riding. What is our goal?”

“That depends on your stamina, and how determined the pursuit is.”

This seemed ominous; Artemis had assumed that the changed-clothes feint with Lady Tallyer and Tremaine would solve all problems. “Do you think there will be a pursuit?”

“Almost certainly—much is at stake.  Stay close to me, if you please—you have your pistol?  Do not hesitate to use it, if circumstances warrant.”

She nodded, hiding her concern. Although her knowledge of geography was hazy, she was aware that the Scottish border was not lengthy—it would not be the same as evading pursuit in Spain, where there was a vast expanse available to take cover from the enemy.  No wonder Droughm wanted to move quickly—their best chance was to race to the goal before the enemy had a chance to establish a position and block them.

Up ahead, she could see a variety of travelers on the road, all heading in the same direction and drawing wagons, pushing wheelbarrows or even driving dog carts to bring goods to the market fair.   Artemis looked about her covertly so as not to show her face, and decided that—except for the appearance of the people—it was very similar to any other market fair she’d seen on the Continent. The destination appeared to be a town, visible in the distance, with the tall spire of a church marking its center.  Artemis also noted that the sun seemed to be in the wrong place.  “Isn’t Scotland to the north?”

“Carena and Tremaine will head north to draw the pursuit; we will take a less direct route. Stay with me; here we go.”

Turning his horse, he casually walked off the road into a copse of trees, and began threading his way through them, glancing to see that Artemis followed, and that no one had taken note of their departure from the crowd. Quickening his pace, he trotted through the stand of trees and after coming out the other side onto a spinney, began to gallop in earnest. Nothing loath, she spurred her own horse and the next few hours were spent covering a great deal of ground, headed in what seemed to Artemis a north-west direction. 

Callisto had a smooth stride, and after the horse jumped the first hedge without hesitation, Artemis relaxed and enjoyed herself.  It was wonderful to be freed from all burdens—at least for the time being—and to have only one object, keeping up with Droughm.

They stopped only briefly, to water the horses and partake of the cheese and bread that Lady Tallyer had packed in the saddlebags. As they ate, Droughm pulled a map from the saddlebags and muttered to himself as he studied it closely, his compass in hand.

“You forgot your quizzing glass,” Artemis concluded.

He brought the map over to her and pointed to an area. “Can you read to me any of the letters, here?”

She followed his fingertip and tried her best, but could not offer any meaningful assistance. “The letters are all looped together—although I think this is an ‘M’.”  Shaking her head, she smiled at him. “We are a sorry pair.”

“No matter—I have a good guess. The horses will need to rest, so we will stay in one of the villages that come up along the river.  A small, out-of-the-way Inn should be safe enough, and you need a good night’s sleep.”

And so, after a long day’s riding, they cleared a final rise to look down upon a cluster of lights that marked a small village in the lengthening shadows. As the horses picked their way down the hill, Droughm turned in his saddle to face her. “I will reconnoiter to see if there is a place to stay—if nothing is suitable, we’ll head on to the next village, or perhaps pay to stay in a farmhouse.”

“Lay on,” she agreed. 

They came to the road, and as they warily approached the village, he said in his abrupt manner, “I have a question for you, but I fear you will take your crop to me again.”

Hiding a smile, she responded gravely, “I make no promises.”

“Have you already been with a man—in a bed?”

This was plain speaking—even for him—and she could feel her color rise. “No; the Colonel was very strict about such things.”

He looked away and nodded. “I will pose as your uncle, then; best take your ring off.”

Interpreting these remarks, Artemis eyed him with a smile. “So; we are going to wait until we are married?”

“Yes,” he said firmly. “We are.  I can be just as strict as the Colonel.”

“If you say so,” she responded, and kept her own counsel on the subject.

After they’d found a room in a suitably obscure inn, Artemis washed herself in blessedly hot water, and then sponged the dirt from her riding habit as best she could.  She was hanging it up to dry before the fire when Droughm gave a perfunctory knock and entered the room, dressed in his shirtsleeves. After observing Artemis in her shift—made transparent by the fire behind her—he paused on the threshold, completely still.

“You may close your mouth.” Smiling, she spread the habit’s skirts out.

“Good God—you are beautiful.” Stepping forward, he drew a hand through the dark, thick hair that fell nearly to her waist, and she willingly lifted her face as his mouth descended upon hers.  The kiss deepened, and his mouth moved to her throat and neck as she pressed against him, feeling for his buttons.

Impatient, he pulled his shirt over his head and then lifted her in his arms to lay her down on the bed, whilst she ran her hands over the thick patch of dark hair on his chest.  In a haze of anticipation, she relished the weight of him along the length of her body, and reached to kiss whatever part of him was nearest, as he impatiently worked off her shift, and flung it aside.

Ten minutes later, matters didn’t seem to be going well, and the worse it went, the more tense she became—if Lady Tallyer and Miss Valdez had experienced no such difficulties, the problem must be wholly hers, and Droughm was surely going to regret taking on a young and inexperienced bride.

“Whiskey,” he pronounced, and rolled out of bed to fetch the flask.

She sat up, mortified and holding the coverlet against her breasts. “I am so sorry, Pen.”

“Not your fault.” He took a healthy pull from the flask, and handed it to her to do likewise.  “I’m too impatient.  You’ve never done this before, and I’ve never been with someone who’s never done this before, and it’s not a good combination.” He sat beside her and bent his head to look into her face as he took her hand in his.  “We will come about—we have all the time we need.”

“I hope we have enough whiskey.” In some distress, she took another pull.

He chuckled, resting his head against hers, and she chuckled in response, and soon they were both laughing as he pulled her back to lie within his arms. “I love you,” he said easily, without constraint. As he began to idly stoke her body, the liquor began having an effect, and Artemis nuzzled him as his wandering hands created a sensation of pleasure wherever they went.

Slightly breathless, she warned, “You should probably lock the door—else the chambermaid will think you a very odd sort of uncle.”

“In a minute,” he murmured, and began to kiss her with more urgency.