ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

A Death in Sheffield

Chapter 27

 

  “You are not to succumb to her wiles,” Artemis cautioned, “Or else I will climb out the window in truth.”

“I am sorely tempted,” Droughm replied.  “Give me your hand.” They were having a whispered conversation after they’d retired for the night, Artemis on the ancient bed, and Droughm on a trundle pulled alongside, so as to keep a weather eye on her.

Lying on her stomach, she dropped a hand over the side and he held it clasped against his chest. With her cheek against the edge of the lumpy mattress, Artemis looked down on him in the dim moonlight.  “I’m a bit shocked, I must say. Where is her husband?”

“Elsewhere.  Can you blame him?”  

She smiled. “I imagine you are always being propositioned—and by far more appealing women.”

“Now, how am I to answer that, without sounding like a coxcomb?” He lifted her hand to kiss her knuckles, his lips soft on her skin. “I will be a married man, by this time tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow,” she said in wonder. “I’d almost forgotten.”

“There’s a bit of a disappointment.”

“No—no, Pen; I suppose—well, I suppose I feel as though we are already married.”

“No; we are merely behaving as though we are already married. For God’s sake, don’t tell our hostess, or we’ll have to hear another ‘crying by the wayside’ speech.”

“I don’t think she should be lecturing anyone about morals,” Artemis observed in a tart tone.

There was a small pause, as he brushed his thumb across the back of her hand. “You needn’t, you know.”

“Needn’t what?” she asked, a bit sleepy.

“Marry me.  It has occurred to me that I haven’t given you much choice in the matter.”

Leaning her face over the side of the bed, she peered down at him. “What nonsense is this?  You will marry me, if I have to force you at gunpoint.”

He chuckled, which made his chest vibrate beneath her hand. “I beg your pardon; I thought I should at least pretend to give you a right to renege.”

Laying her head down again, she warned, “I’ve half a mind to renege, just to teach you a lesson.”

“Pray do not; I am armed, also.”

She smiled. “I’ve no idea how to be a Countess, Pen.”

“You will make an excellent Countess. None better.”

“You will help me, when I don’t know how to go on?”

He turned her hand and kissed the palm. “There is only one task required of a Countess, and I can already assure you that you excel.”

“I need practice,” she admitted.

“God willing.”

Laughing softly, she squeezed his hand. “We are having such an adventure, Pen—I wish I could enjoy it more.”

He pressed her hand against his chest again. “I confess I will be relieved when the deed is done, and this mad flight is over; I lack your experience in covering ground, pell-mell.”

“You are doing very well,” she told him kindly, which elicited another chuckle.

There was a contented pause, and Artemis closed her eyes, thinking that perhaps the conversation was over, when he asked, “How did you twig Miss Valdez?”

“Are you worried that I truly am a French spy?” she teased, then realized she shouldn’t tease—not with the Colonel’s ambiguous involvement in these schemes raising that very possibility.

But he said merely, “I am impressed by your instincts.”

“Not to mention that Lady Tallyer is alarmed.”

“Small blame to her,” he noted in a neutral tone.

Artemis wondered if perhaps he did have a doubt, somewhere in the back of his mind, and so she hastened to reassure him. “Miss Valdez lapsed into French, once, without being aware of it. But it is more than that—she just didn’t seem Portuguese to me, so I said some things about the peninsular campaign, and she was tricked into betraying her ignorance.” 

Mulling it over, she tried to explain. “I am constantly on alert, I suppose, from how my life has been lived.  And since I’ve come to England, nothing is what it seems—even you.”  She waited, to see if he would say anything about his own role in these events.

He did not pretend to misunderstand her meaning. “I’m afraid I am unable to tell you very much—things being how they are.”

“Even after we are married?”

“Even then.”

She sighed philosophically. “I never really thought much about it—the spies are looked down upon as being rather dishonorable, you know—but I can see that  it is important.”

He reminded her, “You said the Colonel was warned about an ambush, in the north of Spain.”

“Yes—and many lives were saved. And then there is this business about the money to finance the war, which I’d never considered. It is as though there is an entirely separate war going on behind the actual war, and this one is just as hard-fought.” 

“That is a very good way of describing it.”  Idly, he began playing with her fingers.

Artemis thought she may as well ask. “What do you mean to do about my doll?”

He let out a breath which she could feel, warm on her hand. “First things first.  We will marry, then head to Sheffield to reconnoiter.  It’s a delicate situation, because we can’t just put a stop to all production; the Treasury needs the new schilling, and we don’t want to expose the French counterfeiting scheme to the public—the fewer people who know the truth, the better.” 

Seeing the wisdom of this, she added, “And I suppose we can’t just charge in like the cavalry, because you would like to find out who is involved in the plot, first.”

“Yes, although I imagine once it is known that you have married me, those involved will simply melt away—there is little reason to risk capture.”

Reminded, she asked, “Why is Portugal interested?”

“It is not Portugal as much as the Ambassador himself.  Again, the French needed someone on the inside—this time in diplomatic circles; someone who has the protection of diplomatic immunity.”

Puzzled, she could not decipher what was meant. “Immunity for what?”

“Abducting the heiress springs to mind.”

Amazed, Artemis leaned over the edge of the bed to look at him. “Nothing would have been done, if they’d seized me at the Ballantine ball?”

“No—the Ambassador and his staff are protected by diplomatic immunity.”

She stared in dismay. “Why, it is almost unbelievable, Pen—that the enemy would go to such lengths.”

“Napoleon’s spymaster is a mastermind, and should never be underestimated.”

She leaned back, thinking over what he had told her. “What hold do they have over the Portuguese Ambassador, that he would aid the French in such a scheme?”

“He lost his estates to the Spanish, and has been promised that they will be returned in exchange for his cooperation.”

Incredulous, Artemis frowned at the low-beamed ceiling. “And that is all it takes? To do such a thing, out of nothing more than greed?” She thought about the Colonel, and her mad uncle, and the Stanhopes and Torville—all motivated by the promise of riches. “There is nothing the French could offer me that would convince me to help them.”

Droughm pointed out reasonably, “On the other hand—unlike the Ambassador—you have no land that has been in your family for generations before it was stolen.”

“Would you do it to save Somerhurst?” she countered.

“Not a chance in hell.”

“Well, then,” she concluded, justified. “What is wrong with everyone, that greed seems to trump integrity?”

“I think good men have been asking that same question since the beginning of time.”

“Despicable,” she declared with some heat. “And people like me—and Wentworth—are moved about like pawns, to be used as they wish.”

“Wentworth, perhaps,” he corrected her. “You, on the other hand, are no one’s pawn.” He kissed her knuckles again, to emphasize the point.

But she had to disagree with this assessment. “I was the Colonel’s pawn.  I suppose he was my weakness, rather than hereditary estates.”

“But you did not deliver the plates.  It must be driving them mad, wondering what happened to them; they are not easily replicated.”

“Yes; I know Miss Valdez was threatening the Stanhopes about them—perhaps she thought they were double-crossing her.  I can draw some comfort from the falling-out amongst thieves, I suppose.”

There was a small pause, and then the tenor of the conversation changed, as he said quietly, “It has been a miserable business. But it brought you to me.”

“I love you,” she whispered into the darkness.  “Truly, Pen.”

“And I love you,” he replied softly.  “I won’t keep you awake; tomorrow will come early.” He turned over her hand to kiss her wrist at the pulse, sending a frisson of pleasure up her arm. 

“Oh, Pen—should I practice, do you think?”  She wanted to make up for the scare she’d given him today, and she found—rather to her surprise—that she missed having him next to her, his big body taking up the bed.

“Tomorrow,” he promised. “Our wedding night.” 

With a contented smile, she drifted off to sleep, her hand in his.