ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

A Death in Sheffield

Chapter 24

   

The coupling was duly accomplished, but the experience had been, truth to tell, more painful than Artemis had anticipated. On the other hand, there was no denying the extreme pleasure he had taken in the act, and any amount of discomfort was well worth it; there’d been such a depth of feeling in the movement of his body against hers, and in the sweet, sweet words he’d whispered to her.

Afterward, Droughm had assured her the marriage bed would become easier for her, and she had assured him in turn that no such assurances were necessary. But she had been a bit taken aback, truth to tell.

The moment that lingered in her memory, however, was as she lay awake in his arms— she was unused to sharing a bed, and it felt so strange—with his chest rising and falling beneath her cheek as he slept. He’d murmured something unintelligible as he ran a light palm across her back, and she’d been overcome with a wave of affection so powerful it brought tears to her eyes. As she lay against him, she thought, I have more than I could ever ask for—he makes up for every hardship, every desertion; I am fortunate beyond measuring.  Drifting into sleep, she moved her fingertips over his ribs and relished the masculine feel of his coarse chest hair against her face.  

The next morning, she awoke to see Droughm dressed and seated on the bed, watching her as he’d done the morning before. He was an early riser, then—this was to the good; she was also an early riser—that was, when she wasn’t recovering from her first brush with being drugged, or being bedded.

“Good morning,” he said, the warmth in his eyes a remnant of said bedding.

Sitting up, she stretched, rather enjoying the novelty of being naked before another person—this one in particular. “Good morning. What evasive maneuvers are in store for today?”

  He dragged his gaze from her body. “More of the same, I’m afraid.  Shall I call for tea and toast before we go? You look a bit pulled.”

“And pushed,” she teased, leaning over to run her fingers down his shirt front.  

But he resisted, and stayed her hand by catching and kissing it. “We should be away, and quickly.”

She leaned forward to kiss him lingeringly on the mouth and felt him respond, his hand reaching up to cradle her face. “Just yet?” she whispered against his mouth.

  Gently, he said, “Let’s allow you some time to recover before we try it again, Artemis.”

She could hear the thread of remorse behind his words, and thought, this will not do at all. With a gesture, she directed his gaze to her naked breasts.  “Look, Pen; I believe I am permanently scarred from whisker-burn.”

  “I know exactly what you are about, you know,” he said with a smile, but she could see that he was weakening.

“Please, Pen.” She kissed the corner of his mouth, and then slowly planted more soft kisses along his jaw line. “I do need to practice.”

They then engaged in a mock-argument about whether they should or shouldn’t, with so many kisses interspersed amongst the words that the outcome was never truly in doubt.

Afterward, she lay with him, watching the early morning light play on the opposite wall as he lightly moved his fingers along her back.  Better, she thought with satisfaction as she rubbed her face affectionately against him—or at least, not as bad. And his own delight was deep and unfeigned; small wonder it is such a weakness for men, if they all took such pleasure in it.

“We truly must go.”

“I can decamp in a trice,” she assured him, swinging her legs over the side. “Give me five minutes.”

Frowning, he pulled on his coat. “I must find some spectacles.  The innkeeper had none to spare, but there’s a rectory down the way—I will see if the Vicar is awake, and then meet you at the stable.”

After washing and dressing, Artemis descended the stairs and made her way out to the stable. As she lifted Callisto’s bridle from the hook in her stall, she saw a stable boy, half-hidden behind the wooden partition, and watching her with a wary expression.

He was perhaps ten year old—the same age as the drummers who’d beaten out the march-pace, mile after mile, and Artemis couldn’t help but smile at him in a friendly fashion. “Hallo, there.”

The boy nodded, but offered no response, and seemed half-inclined to flee.

“Thank you for seeing to Callisto,” Artemis continued, patting her mare’s neck and buckling the bridle. “Isn’t she a beauty?”

The boy swallowed. “Ter were a man, lookin’ through yer bags.”

“Yes, my—my uncle,” Artemis agreed, securing her pistol in the saddlebag.

“Not ʼim—summan else. A furriner.”

Artemis’ hand closed around her pistol. Turning her head, she whispered to the boy, “Fetch mine uncle—quickly.”

The boy stared at her, unmoving, and then Artemis heard a heavily accented voice from behind her issue an ominous command. “Come away from the horse—now.”

So—Portuguese.  Artemis whirled around to face the man who held a pistol on her, and hissed in his language, “Fool! Not me—the man!”

If it were another situation, the man’s surprise would have been comical. “Que?” he asked, his pistol unwavering.

Artemis cast a furtive glance toward the stable door, and then advanced toward him, furiously emphasizing her point with a slashing finger, and hoping the boy was using the distraction to fetch reinforcements. She continued in Portuguese, “Idiot! You do not take me! I am here on orders from the senhorita—who has told you otherwise?”

“Come no closer,” the man warned, but he’d stepped back, and it was clear he was confused.

Gesturing for him to stay silent, Artemis moved toward the stable door, as though to look out, but her true intent was to require him to face the morning sun as she hid her pistol in the folds of her riding skirt.  She’d learned battle-tactics at the feet of a master, and the Colonel had always taught that a sun-blinded enemy was a helpless enemy. 

“Come away from there,” the man insisted in Portuguese, and just as Artemis was considering the possibility that she may indeed have to shoot him, he was suddenly struck down from behind by Droughm.

“Well done,” she exclaimed in relief. “I didn’t want to fire, and draw attention.”

“Are there others?” he asked quietly, dragging the man toward the back stall.

“I don’t think so—not here, leastways. He must be a scout.” She watched him bind the man, and then tear off one of the man’s shirt sleeves so as to fashion a gag.

“We must be away, and quickly.” Droughm quickly covered the man with a horse blanket.

But Artemis had inspected her saddlebags, and had a more pressing problem. “My doll is missing.  Does he have it?”

Droughm checked, briefly. “No.”

Frantic, Artemis searched around the stalls.  “She must be here, somewhere.”

“Artemis,” said Droughm as he tightened their horses’ girths with deft hands. “We must be away; I promise I will buy you a new one, exactly the same.”

“The stable boy,” she insisted. “Perhaps he saw what happened—let me find him.”

Droughm stopped her with a hand on her arm. “I am sorry for it; but if this fellow’s a scout, he will soon be missed and we cannot tarry—I will leave instruction that the doll is to be sent ahead to Sheffield, with a substantial reward. Now, mount up.”

Utterly wretched, she faced him, her lips pressed together.  “We must find her, Pen. The minting plates are hidden inside her.”

He stared at her, thunderstruck.

Into the ominous silence, she ventured, “I was working up the courage to tell you—I swear it, Pen.”

“Who are you delivering them to?” This asked in a grim tone.

“No one—well, mine uncle, originally, but I thought it all too smoky by half—please, Pen, you must believe me.”  The look in his eyes made her writhe in an agony of remorse—she’d been a fool to put it off.

Droughm indicated the unconscious man with an abrupt gesture. “Did he know where the plates were?”

“No—no one knows, save me.”

He ducked his chin to his chest and swore softly. “I don’t know if I can believe you.”

“You see—” she paused, and then whispered in anguish, “—you see, the Colonel is the one who gave them to me.”

This caused him to raise his gaze to her again, considering. “We will save this discussion for later. Where is the stable boy?”

They discovered him lurking along the exterior of the building, the picture of guilt; unable to face them, and unable to flee. With a friendly gesture, Droughm summoned him over.  “I believe you may know what has happened to my wife’s—”

“—niece’s—” Artemis corrected him.

“—niece’s rag doll. If you would return it to me, I will give you a guinea.”

But Artemis found this unacceptable, and protested hotly, “You cannot reward him for stealing, Pen.”

“Artemis,” said Droughm in an ominous tone. “Give over.”

“You shouldn’t have stolen my doll,” Artemis accused the boy stubbornly. “It was wrong.”

“I sees it when t’ furriner was lookin’,” the boy admitted, nervously clasping his hands behind his back. “I has a new baby sister.”

Droughm crouched down, so that he was on a level with the boy, and spoke in a friendly fashion. “We will have an agreement, then.  You will return the doll to my niece, and I will give you a guinea; but I must have your word of honor—as a gentleman—that you will give the guinea to your new sister.”

The boy nodded, relieved, and the two solemnly shook hands. 

We are going to have children, Artemis realized as she watched them; he will be the father to my children—that is, if he will still have me, after this latest disaster.

“Let’s go.” Droughm strode toward the horses with the doll under his arm, and she leapt to comply, giving him no opportunity to find further fault.