A Death in Sheffield
After luncheon, Artemis felt she could no longer postpone the shopping expedition if she wished to remain clad, and so she sent Katy to inquire as to Lady Tallyer’s availability. “Unless you’d like to accompany me,” she asked Droughm with little hope—she gauged that he was not the sort of man to endure such an activity.
He was reading the newspaper, and held it aside for a moment. “I will regretfully decline; surprise me.”
Self-consciously, she ventured, “How does one go about paying for things?”
The level look he gave her from over the top of his spectacles held a trace of amusement. “You explain that you are the Countess of Droughm, and that you are staying here at the Green Goose Inn. You will encounter no difficulties.”
“I see.” It was quite the turnabout; oftentimes the Colonel’s credit was disdained.
“Carena will help you go on.”
This was the wrong thing to say to Artemis, but she was not going to make a childish retort, and so she nodded without comment. Unexpectedly, however, her husband rose and crossed the room to take her into his arms. “Now, that was clumsy of me. You will do whatever you think right; you have better instincts than anyone I know.”
Mollified, she admitted, “Lady Tallyer does have excellent taste.”
Placing a finger under her chin, he lifted her face to kiss her gently. “I intend to take an inventory at the refinery, and I will look forward to seeing your new finery this evening.”
She mustered a smile, ashamed that she’d allowed him to see her pique. “Yes, sir.”
Although Artemis didn’t look forward to spending the afternoon with Lady Tallyer, she was nevertheless determined to be civil, and so with Katy and another servant in tow, the two women strolled into the first dress shop that presented itself. To alleviate the awkwardness, Artemis cast about for a topic of conversation. “Is Tremaine here in Sheffield, also?” Tremaine was the unknown donor of the whiskey flask the morning this mad adventure began—when he and Lady Tallyer had posed as Artemis and Droughm, to confuse the enemy.
“I shouldn’t be surprised,” Lady Tallyer said, as she paused to finger a length of light weight wool. “Let me ask if the proprietress has anything ready-made.”
So, thought Artemis, we are not going to refer to the mysterious business she shares with Droughm; fair enough—I won’t refer to what he shares with me on a nightly basis.
The shopkeeper was only too willing to take them into the back room so as to display her collection of dresses already made up, which would need only limited tailoring. “There’s a blue,” said Lady Tallyer, indicating a deep blue frock. “Best seize it.”
Artemis concurred, and then added a black, thinking that no one could fault her, after the grim news at the mine today. As she stood before the cheval mirror, waiting to be pinned, she asked, “How long do you suppose we’ll stay in Sheffield?”
“I’ve no clue,” the woman responded, watching with an unreadable expression as the modiste clucked her tongue, trying to decide the most expedient way to accommodate the splint. “I suppose it depends upon how long it takes to resolve the situation with the mines.”
Artemis raised her good arm as directed, and then stood still as the seam was pinned. “I hope it’s not very long; there is so little to do, here.”
“Droughm controls the mines,” the other woman reminded her. “I imagine he will have to travel here often, even after the current problem is resolved.”
As Droughm was the last person to tolerate such a task—not to mention he’d already indicated that they were to leave this place as soon as possible—Artemis could only surmise that her companion was trying to paint a grim picture of an oft-absent husband. Hoping to avoid any further petty sniping, she changed the subject. “Where do you hail from, Carena?”
With a small smile, the other answered, “Shanghai.”
Surprised, Artemis returned her smile. “That is quite a distance.”
“My parents were missionaries,” the other explained briefly. “Perhaps we should go to the glover’s before we head back; your poor gloves are threadbare.”
So; any discussion about the lady’s life history was apparently to be turned aside, also, and Artemis resigned herself to long silences; making polite conversation would be heavy going, and in truth, she was not interested enough to make the effort.
They consigned their packages to the servant for delivery to the Inn, and then resumed their shopping journey along the boardwalk, looking in the windows and stopping to enter an occasional shop, if the wares were of interest. They passed a small hotel that fronted the boardwalk, and the gilt lettering on the windows advertised a tea room. Lady Tallyer paused, and began pulling off her gloves in anticipation. “Perfect; we should take tea.”
There seemed little point in demurring to this plan, and they were soon seated at a small table, with Artemis reconciled to another tedious half-hour of Lady Tallyer’s company. Since Droughm was scouting-out the refinery, she needed to fill her time anyway, and the other woman had been kind enough to take her out on this expedition—certainly Artemis could be civil, if she put her mind to it.
After they’d placed an order, Artemis looked around the hotel’s interior in a desultory fashion, thinking that it was perhaps not Sheffield’s finest establishment. She’d been seated facing the narrow hallway that led into the kitchens, and so she saw a maid emerge from the servant’s stairwell, just a few feet away. That the girl was unhappy seemed evident, and she whirled to speak intently to the companion who’d also emerged from the stairwell, and who followed her out toward the kitchen door. In an instant, Artemis recognized Droughm. Even before she’d processed the implications of this, she realized—with a jolt of abject shock—that the maid who’d briefly appeared was Miss Valdez, the enemy spy.
The two paused with the kitchen door ajar, engaged in a low-voiced, intense conversation; Droughm’s hands on the girl’s elbows. She made a gesture that cautioned him to be quiet, and then they both exited out the door, his hand on her back.
If someone had asked Artemis what her reaction would be, were she to witness such a hypothetical scene, she would have assured them that Miss Valdez would immediately be on the receiving end of yet another take-down. The reality, however, was completely different; Artemis could hardly breathe through the frozen feeling in her breast, and she had to stifle an intense desire to flee—to hide away somewhere, and curl up in utter misery.
Turning to Lady Tallyer, she said though stiff lips, “I am afraid I feel ill. I must return to the Inn.”
“What?” The lady lifted her brows in surprise. “Now?”
“Katy can take me—I am so sorry; please continue on without me.”
But the lady insisted on escorting her outside, making excuses to the proprietor as she did so, and signaling for Katy. Supported by her maid, Artemis stood on the wooden boardwalk as the carriage came around, and began to regain her equilibrium. Steady—she thought, steady. The reason you are shocked to the core is because it makes no sense at all.
“Do you need to sit, miss? You’re that pale.”
“No, Katy—I’ll lie down once we’re back at the Inn.” But her mind—functioning once again—could not stay silent. He is consorting with the enemy—what to do? Had they shared a room? She made an involuntarily sound in her throat that prompted Katy to put an arm under hers for support. It cannot be true. They were arguing—or not exactly arguing. She furrowed her brow, trying to remember. He was trying to persuade her of something—and she was unhappy. But they were definitely not angry with each other—he kept touching her, and she did not recoil. Why was Miss Valdez not in prison? Because she had some hold over Droughm?
Grasping at this faint hope with eagerness, she thought it over. Miss Valdez was in disguise, and they were meeting secretly—perhaps without the knowledge of his people; thank heaven she’d said nothing of it to Lady Tallyer. Was he still protecting Wentworth? Perhaps—here she paused, struck—perhaps Miss Valdez truly was pregnant with Wentworth’s child.
Analyzing this possible explanation, she had to reluctantly discard it. Droughm was not behaving as though the woman was pregnant with his great-nephew’s child; there was an intimacy between them—an intenseness.
Taking a deep breath, she climbed into the carriage, and sat quietly during the journey back to the Inn. There is nothing for it, she thought, staring out the window with unseeing eyes. I must speak to him about it, and hear whatever answers he will give me.