A Death in Sheffield
Artemis arrived at the house’s main floor, dressed in her ivory gown and wishing she’d slept better the night before—she was not used to such late nights, and there had been much to think about.
Hooks met her at the foot of the stairs with a small bow. “Flowers have arrived for you, miss; I took the liberty of placing them on the entry table.” As always, his manner was dry and correct, and Artemis was hard-pressed to imagine him wielding a whip.
“I thank you, Hooks.” Artemis wandered into the foyer to observe an impressive bouquet of lilacs on display, with a card propped up against the vase that containing a single-word signature in a heavy scrawl—there was no mistaking the sender. Leaning in to breathe the scent, Artemis could not suppress a smile; perhaps it was only a shot across the bow aimed at her aunt, but it was also a deft compliment, and much appreciated.
The sound of murmured voices told her that her aunt was already entertaining visitors in the drawing room, and so—with an inward sigh—she dutifully went in to take up her post; Artemis was not well-versed in the making of polite conversation, having spent little of her life thus far in polite company.
She was soon to discover the reason for the prompt assemblage in her aunt’s drawing room, and her aunt addressed her from the settee with a brittle smile that was not reflected in her eyes. “Artemis,” she said. “You are much sought after—come sit beside me, if you please.”
As Artemis settled into the silk-lined seat, the three other ladies present scrutinized her with unveiled curiosity. One of them leaned forward to ask without preamble, “Had you a previous acquaintanceship with Lord Droughm, Miss Merryfield? Was he a friend to your father, perhaps?”
Folding her hands in her lap, Artemis decided this pointed questioning may actually be enjoyable, since her aunt’s rigid posture made it clear she found no joy in it whatsoever. “No ma’am—I hadn’t met him, before.” Artemis was not about to mention the lilac-scented meeting in the garden, preferring to keep the memory to herself.
The three visitors assimilated this surprising information, alert and motionless as though they were hounds at the point. A second woman asked, “And yet he asked you to waltz on your first encounter?”
“Yes,” Artemis confirmed. “I believe he thought it would be simpler than something more complicated—I do not dance well.” There seemed to be no harm to making the confession; the fact being self-evident to anyone who had witnessed the event.
There was a stunned silence, and the first woman gently informed her, “But, my dear—you are not allowed to waltz, if you are not yet ‘out’.”
“Oh.” Artemis reviewed the slightly scandalized faces focused upon hers. “I did not know this.” And little mind my lord Droughm would pay to such strictures—Artemis had the distinct impression that he was a force unto himself.
Daringly, the third visitor cut to the nub of the matter. “Did Lord Droughm say anything that would indicate his intentions, Miss Merryfield?”
If I told them the truth, they would all fall off their chairs, thought Artemis, and mine aunt would probably suffer an apoplexy. Therefore, it was with sincere regret that she temporized, “He did say he admired my name.”
“Your Christian name?” ventured the second lady in disbelief. “Are you saying he asked for permission to use your Christian name?”
I am in a minefield, thought Artemis, and I have no idea of my bearings. “I suppose so,” she equivocated.
This revelation appeared to be the clincher, as no one present could find her voice for a moment. “He is courting her,” her interrogator breathed.
“Nonsense,” interjected Artemis’ aunt, who’d lost all patience. “He was kind to the daughter of a war-hero—nothing more.”
“Lord Droughm is not renowned for his kindness,” the second lady observed with a titter, and the others exchanged arch glances that promised a thorough dissection of these events as soon as they were away from the premises.
“I wonder who will inform Lady Tallyer?” The first woman asked the question with an edge of malice in her tone, but one of her companions gave her an admonishing look, and so she subsided.
Ah, thought Artemis—so the gentleman has a mistress. This was unsurprising to her, as a bachelor of his stamp had probably maintained more than a few, throughout his career. She had seen many such arrangements amongst the officers in the Peninsula, where the wives back home were beloved, but nevertheless not close enough to hand.
“You may not be aware,” announced Lady Stanhope in icy tones, “that an understanding has been reached between Miss Merryfield and my nephew Torville.”
This was news to Artemis, but she did not refute the falsehood, certain that Droughm would not allow a paltry “understanding” to dissuade him from his goal—whatever that goal was. Hopefully, it was to include more dancing.
With varying degrees of open skepticism, those assembled digested the news that the House of Stanhope hoped to secure the heiress’ fortune despite Lord Droughm’s superior rank. Seeing this, Artemis’s aunt added with some defiance, “And I cannot credit that the gentleman meant anything by his attentions last night. Why, Artemis is not yet out of the schoolroom.”
More accurately, I’ve never been in a schoolroom, Artemis thought, but any correction of the record would have to wait because—as if on cue—Hooks bowed at the entrance to the drawing room and announced, “Lord Droughm, madam.”
The effect of the announcement on those assembled in the drawing room was immediate; everyone froze in a room so silent that Artemis was worried they could hear her heightened pulse.
“Pray send him in, Hooks.”
Droughm entered, and suddenly Artemis was aware that she’d been waiting for this moment, marking time, since they’d parted last night. He met her eyes for the merest instant, and then looked to her aunt and bowed.
“Lord Droughm; a very pleasant surprise. I believe you are acquainted with my niece, Miss Merryfield.”
After greetings were exchanged all around, the other women in the room decided they could not very well sit and stare, and so a murmuring conversation resumed among them, even though Artemis was fully aware that all ears were on the stretch.
Droughm seated himself across from Artemis and negligently asked, “How does your Uncle Thaddeus, Miss Merryfield? I have not heard from him of late.”
Wretched man, thought Artemis, struggling to control her countenance in the face of this direct attack on her aunt; I do not know my lines. She was saved from making a reply by Lady Stanhope, who observed with hooded eyes, “I did not know you were acquainted with Artemis’ uncle, my lord.”
“Great-uncle,” he corrected her.
Oh-ho, thought Artemis; someone has been doing some sleuthing.
But her aunt was not to be deflected. “And the nature of your acquaintanceship?”
Matching her stare for stare, Droughm answered, “I am an investor in the mines, madam.”
This disclosure did indeed seem to quell her aunt, who made no reply.
Artemis was not one to sit quietly by whilst silent warfare was going forward, and so she offered, “I believe mine uncle mentioned your visit, and spoke very fondly of you, sir.”
“My lord,” corrected her aunt, embarrassed by the lapse.
“My lord,” Artemis repeated dutifully, and had the pleasure of seeing a gleam of amusement in the gentleman’s eye.
Droughm replied, “Indeed, we toured the refining sites together; I was very interested in the details of the operation.” This said with an edge to his tone.
“I do not believe there are refining sites at the mines,” noted her aunt sharply.
“They are in Buxton, which is very near,” Artemis corrected her aunt gently. “And I am afraid I have not heard from mine uncle since I arrived in London, sir.”
She heard her aunt sigh with impatience at her repeated use of the wrong honorific, but Artemis cared only for smile that tugged at her visitor’s mouth. “I imagine Uncle Thaddeus misses me sorely, but he is sadly disorganized, and unlikely to write.”
“Has he sent your horse to town?”
“Not as yet, I am afraid.” Artemis did not bat an eyelash at the mention of this phantom beast. “I do miss her.”
“Then allow me to arrange for the use of a lady’s mount until she arrives.”
“We cannot stable an additional horse, my lord,” Lady Stanhope interrupted with some impatience. “We have hardly room for the carriage horses.”
“No matter—I shall provide a mount from my stables.” Droughm stood, and added in a careless manner, “I will bring a mare by tomorrow, with your permission.”
There was a slight pause, but Lady Stanhope had no choice, and bowed her head slightly. “Splendid.”
Masterful, thought Artemis in all admiration; another direct hit.
Their exalted guest said his farewells, and as all the ladies rose, he met Artemis’ eye with a message that compelled her to accompany him to the foyer. As he walked beside her, he asked in an undertone, “Are there indeed refining sites in Buxton?”
“I’ve no idea, but neither does mine aunt. You should warn me before you make things up out of whole cloth.”
But the pale green eyes were sharp upon hers. “You are quite capable of telling a fish tale, yourself. How old are you—give me the unbarked truth.”
Discomfited by this question, she answered steadily, “I’m afraid I am seventeen, barked or unbarked.”
He scrutinized her face, and made no move to leave. “I thought perhaps you were undercounting, so as to keep them from forcing you into an unwanted alliance.”
Hooks entered the foyer, and stood at a discreet distance.
“No,” she said only.
He lowered his gaze and thought for a moment. “Torville will return, but you have nothing to fear from him.”
“I am glad to hear it; thank you.”
“You are welcome, Artemis—or whatever your true name is.”
With an effort, she maintained her poise. “It is indeed Artemis,” she whispered. Of the Four Terrible Things, it appeared he was now aware of at least one.
Hooks took a reluctant step forward. “I am afraid I have been asked to fetch the young lady, my lord.”
“I will call to take you riding tomorrow.” With a final, unreadable glance, Droughm donned his hat, and left.