A Death in Sheffield
After Droughm’s departure, the morning visitors hastily made their farewells, no doubt in a fever to be the first to spread this extraordinary tale to others—which was probably Droughm’s intention all along, in making such a public visit. After this, any hasty attempt to secure Artemis for Torville would be looked upon with grave suspicion, if my lord Droughm were indeed in the running as a potential suitor. It was very well done, and Artemis would have been all admiration if she weren’t convinced the gentleman was just as ably cooking her own goose.
Artemis’s aunt wasted no time in leaving Stanhope House for an undisclosed location, and Artemis was torn between a desire to discover who she went to meet, and an equally strong desire to retreat to her chamber and wring her hands for the first time in her life.
Droughm had unearthed at least one of her secrets in a twinkling, which was ominous and impressive at the same time. It seemed clear that he had access to information few others had, and this gave her pause; her inclination was to trust him, but there must be good reason that all the other players held him in dread, and she should proceed with caution.
On the other hand, the Stanhopes held some means to keep him in check; her eavesdropping had revealed their conviction that Droughm could not report their counterfeiting operations to the authorities for some undisclosed reason.
In light of this stalemate, the immediate and logical solution for either side was to be the first to marry Artemis, and thus lay a husband’s claim to the silver mines. It was a race to see who would succeed in this aim, but matters were further complicated by the fact that Artemis was underage and without a legal guardian, and—as yet—it had not been proved that her great-uncle was, in fact, dead.
Taking a breath, Artemis mounted the steps to her room, somewhat consoled. That some horrific scandal was brewing seemed evident, but whatever-it-was, it tainted Droughm, also, so it was very unlikely that he would hand her over to the authorities as an imposter—not to mention he didn’t wish the Stanhopes to discover that she was not what she seemed. Instead, she need only await her next encounter with him, and try to come up with an explanation—although this appeared to be a tall order, as he was not one who was easily fooled. Hell and damnation, she swore to herself; but I am in a fix.
There was a soft knock at the door, and Artemis squared her shoulders before opening it, but it was revealed to be only Hooks, who informed her with a correct bow of his head that she had a visitor, downstairs. “A Miss Valdez.”
Artemis brought to mind the very short list of her acquaintances in London. “I haven’t a clue, Hooks—friend or foe?”
Hicks considered. “I believe the young lady hails from Spain.”
Brightening, Artemis declared, “Friend, then—it must be someone I knew from the war.”
She descended into the drawing room to observe a pretty dark-haired woman, bent over the writing cabinet as she quickly rifled through the drawers. Artemis watched her for a moment, knowing they’d never met, and thinking this a very interesting development, indeed.
Approaching in a brisk manner, she bent to join in the search alongside the young woman. “What is it that are we looking for?”
Startled, the visitor turned and held out a hand, her smile bright and disarming. “Fah; it is my terrible curiosity—I do beg your pardon.”
“No need to beg my pardon, it is not my house; but I’m afraid there isn’t anything of interest hidden anywhere—I’ve already looked.”
The woman regarded her with frank curiosity. “Deus, you are a strange one.”
So; not Spanish but Portuguese, thought Artemis, who was suddenly wary. “You must forgive me; I’ve forgotten where we met.”
Her visitor trilled a laugh, and reached to take Artemis’ hands in her own, her manner vivacious and charming. “I am not surprised; it was at the Ballantine House ball—we met very briefly. I was in attendance with my father, Ambassador Valdez.”
“Your father is the Portuguese Ambassador?” For whatever reason, Artemis knew this was not, in fact, the truth.
Drawing her mouth down, the young woman tilted her head in contrition. “My poor father sends me with his apologies—Marcos insulted you, he believes.”
“Not at all,” Artemis demurred, gently retrieving her hands from the other’s grasp. “More like I insulted Marcos.”
Artemis saw a flash of recalibration in the girl’s eyes, quickly extinguished. “Then there is nothing to forgive, and we are friends, yes? My father tells me you do not know many people in town—I thought perhaps we could become good companions.”
“That would be excellent—I am always on the lookout for good companions.” Artemis did not invite her visitor to sit.
The other trilled a merry little laugh. “Wonderful! I am to be wed, soon, and I have need of someone to help me with my wedding arrangements—there is much shopping to be done, and a new trousseau to purchase.”
“My best wishes,” Artemis congratulated her with a small smile. “That sounds very exciting.”
Pausing, the girl glanced at her sidelong, perhaps thinking that Artemis’ reaction was not what was expected for such a proffered treat from her older, more dashing visitor.
“When do you wed?” asked Artemis, thinking she may as well show an interest so as to move this gambit along—whatever this gambit was.
“The end of summer—although my betrothed must discuss the settlements with his family.” Her full, ripe mouth sobered, and she leaned in to say in a confiding manner, “They are unhappy because I am not English.”
“If his affections are sincere, I am certain it will all work out.” Privately, Artemis was not so optimistic—she had seen many a soldier marry a foreign bride, only to contend with the headaches that went along with such a match.
The other lifted her pretty chin in a determined fashion. “My darling has pledged to put his ring on my finger, even if his family does not approve—his family is very rich,” she added candidly, “but it means nothing to him if he cannot marry me.”
“He seems a worthy suitor, then.”
Her visitor waited a beat, then hinted, “Indeed, he is; I will have an English title.”
“Will you? Then everything will be worth it.”
There was another small pause. I am going to drive her mad, thought Artemis, hiding a smile, because I will not ask.
With barely-concealed impatience, her visitor broached the subject herself. “My father tells me you are acquainted with the family—Lord Droughm.”
“Ah,” said Artemis with polite interest. “You are going to marry Lord Droughm?”
“No, no—” the girl trilled her pretty laugh again, but there was an edge of annoyance, this time. “I will marry his heir, Lord Wentworth.”
“I wish you very happy,” said Artemis, thinking this all very interesting. “Will you live in London, once you are wed?”
The girl tilted her head with regret. “That depends on his prospects—we may have to defy his family.”
“I am certain it will all work out,” Artemis offered.
The girl took Artemis’s hands again, clearly hiding her frustration that the young Artemis had not leapt to be involved in any clandestine plan that might be put forward. “I am Lisabetta; may I call you Artemis?”
“Of course you may,” agreed Artemis. “Whenever you wish.”
“I cannot stay,” the woman said, as though she had been invited to stay. “But I wanted to convey my father’s apologies, and leave a letter for your aunt from my father—they have a common interest.” This said with a sidelong glance that hinted of mysteries, and deep secrets.
Artemis took the letter only to leave it negligently on the tea table. “I will see that she reads it upon her return.”
The girl flashed her pretty smile as Hooks saw her out the door, and Artemis had to admire her self-control—if their roles had been reversed, she would have been stamping her foot in frustration long before now.
But she wasn’t allowed any time to dwell on the motivation behind this unlooked-for visitor, because as he closed the door, Hooks announced, “I hope you don’t mind, miss; I took the liberty of having your riding habit pressed.”
As Artemis did not own a riding habit, this was unexpected news. “I thank you.”
The butler bowed, his expression wooden, and retreated into the kitchen.
Artemis quickened her pace up the stairs and once in her room, flung open the armoire doors. Hanging amongst the other offerings was an elegant riding habit, conservatively cut, in a midnight blue velvet that exactly matched her eyes. With a reverent hand, she reached up to stroke the sleeve, and found that she had a wild variety of emotions roiling within her breast. A wonder, that he had managed to have it made up on such short notice; it was a grand gesture, and much appreciated. Apparently, he was willing to forgive her for her deceptions—or at least those of which he knew. I am longing to see him again, she thought honestly—and it is so unlike me that I scarce recognize myself.
Slowly, she closed the armoire door and leaned her forehead against the smooth wood. I have to sort out what I can tell him, and what I must not, and above all, I cannot be tempted to cast all my cares upon his capable shoulders—at least not until I find out how he fits into all this.
Reluctantly acknowledging that she had no choice but to possess her soul in patience, she closed the curtains and lay down to sleep; she had a feeling the next few days would be eventful, and she was in sore need of rest.