ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

A Death in Sheffield

Chapter 7

 

The following morning, Artemis was on pins and needles, worried that some unlooked-for calamity would prevent her promised ride with Droughm.  A glance out the window showed the weather was cooperating, and the new riding habit fit her slim figure perfectly, being only a bit too long so that she would have to gather up her skirts in a hand whilst she managed the stairs.

“It’s a lovely thing, miss—I didn’t know you had it packed away.” Katy was apparently innocent of her grandfather’s machinations.

“Can you dress my hair again, Katy? Or do you think it best to wear a plait, so that it doesn’t come down?”

After serious consideration, they compromised by securing Artemis’ thick mane into a soft knot at the back of her head, and Artemis observed her reflection in the mirror with no small satisfaction, turning from side to side and admiring the finest piece of clothing she’d ever owned.

“You look a rare treat, miss—the color brings out your lovely eyes.”

“Yes,” said Artemis in a neutral tone. “I believe that was the intention.”

Katy crossed over to the armoire, and rummaged at the foot. “Me grand-dad—I mean, my grand-dad—unpacked your riding boots for you.”

The man is like a magician, thought Artemis; conjuring up items out of thin air.

With great reverence, Katy produced lady’s riding boots, of butter-soft leather and polished to a glossy sheen.  Artemis pulled them on and concluded that the fit had not been left to chance; Hooks must have measured another pair of shoes. She admired the boots, flexing and pointing her feet and thinking she’d never had boots so fine—the Colonel had such a pair, once, until he’d lost them at cards. 

“Pray give your grand-dad a kiss for me, Katy—he is a trump.”

“Yes, miss.” Reminded, she warned, “Torville’s back.”

“That he is,” agreed Artemis absently, wishing she had a decent pair of gloves—her gloves were in sorry shape.

“Cook thinks he’s had a set-to, and did not come out the better.”

“I think Cook is nobody’s fool.” Artemis regarded herself one last time in the mirror and then resolutely turned to descend to the drawing room. “Come, put mine armor on; give me my staff.”

“As you say, miss—don’t fall off the horse.”  Katy was perhaps worried that Artemis could ride no better than she could dance. “And try not to shake your hair down.”

Although Artemis felt she could handle her aunt, her cousin Torville, or any combination thereof, she’d waited until the last minute to come downstairs so as to avoid waiting for Droughm in their disapproving company. To her surprise, however, Droughm himself stood at the foot of the stairs, looking up at her as she descended with the tail of her skirt in her hand. The sight of him was as unexpected as it was welcome, and she could not suppress a smile. “Sir,” she teased; “you are very prompt.”   

  “Artemis,” he returned, using her Christian name without compunction. “You look very fine.”

“A new riding habit has turned up.” She made a gesture, encompassing it. “It must have come from mine uncle.”

Droughm produced his quizzing glass and reviewed her form, head to foot. “He has very good taste.”

“I confess this would be the first evidence of it.” 

Hooks—who’d been attending the entry door—unbent enough to issue a dry smile at this exchange, and then opened the door for them; apparently, they were to bypass taking leave of her aunt, a bold strategy which Artemis could only admire.

As she passed before Droughm to head out the door, she was close enough to breathe in his now-familiar scent, and to observe the dark stubble on his chin—he must have a heavy beard. She felt almost intoxicated with the nearness of him, and had to firmly remind herself to stay sharp.

This resolution did not last long, however, because as Artemis emerged on the front steps she beheld a groom, holding a grey stallion and a bay Arab mare, the mare sidling with impatience.

“Oh,” she breathed, and approached in awe to run a hand down the mare’s glossy neck. “She is perfect, Droughm.”

He was quiet, and she glanced up to see him watching her, the expression in his eyes very warm. Artemis had never been shy a moment in her life, but found that she had to look away for a moment, afraid that she would suffocate from this feeling in her breast.  “Is she from your stable?”

He laid a hand on the mare’s flank. “No—but I will stable her, and you have a fortnight to decide whether she suits you.  If she does, she is yours.”

She twisted her mouth whilst stroking the mare’s soft nose. “I should try to bring myself to tell you that I cannot accept such a gift.”

“Don’t bother—it would be very tiresome.”

There was no explanation offered of what would happen to the mare when he returned to wherever-it-was that he came from, those events being the unspoken footnote to this exchange. Apparently, I’m to be spoiled, she thought; it was a very strange and unfamiliar sensation.

Although the groom stepped forward, Droughm himself helped her mount; his hands cupped for her boot. “I have a million things to tell you,” she offered as she took up the reins. “I hope I don’t gabble.” 

“Wait a bit, until you have her in hand,” he suggested, mounting his grey but keeping his gaze upon her, assessing.

She settled into the side-saddle, and accepted a crop from the groom, arranging her skirts whilst the horse paced in a tight circle. Artemis was a good rider, and had to resist the urge to jump the wrought-iron border fence, so as to demonstrate this. “What is her name?”

“Her name is your choice.”

She thought about it; there was little doubt such a creature would be swift of foot. “Callisto, I think.”

“Another goddess, then. Are you ready, you and Callisto?”

“Lay on.” 

They stepped out in the direction of the park, and Artemis was quiet for a few moments, adjusting to the horse’s movements and relishing the welcome sensation of riding again, mounted on this very agreeable horse and side-by-side with this very agreeable man. 

Apparently, however, the very agreeable man had decided he’d controlled his blunt nature long enough. “I’ll have some answers from you, Artemis.”

Thinking of the ladies who’d visited her aunt’s drawing room, she responded with mock-severity, “I don’t believe I’ve given you permission to address me thus.”

“Artemis,” he repeated, unrepentant, and swinging his crop along his horse’s side. “It is quite the best name I have ever heard.”

“I am fond of it myself,” she confessed with a smile. “Although I pretend otherwise, because it is expected of me.”

He casually flicked his crop on the toe of his boot as the horses clip-clopped along the cobblestone street. “How did it come about?”

“I am informed there was a full moon, the night I was born.”

He glanced at her. “Fortune’s omen.”

She felt compelled to look away. “No—not in truth. I was born on the second day of the Battle of Mantua.”

But he had moved on to the next topic. “There is no record that Colonel William Merryfield ever married.”

“No,” she agreed in an even tone.  “He never spoke of it to me, leastways.”

He brought his grey up close beside her, and continued in a low voice, “Was he your father, nonetheless?”

“No.” With a conscious effort, she tried to relax her hands on the reins.  “I never knew my father.”

There was a slight pause.  “I see; you were Merryfield’s convenient, then.”

It took her a moment to understand what he meant, and then her reaction was swift and furious, as she stood in her stirrups and slashed her crop at him.

With a swift movement, he grasped the crop in his hand and thwarted her, his expression startled as they stared at each other for a long moment.

Horrified by her loss of composure in such a public place, she took hold of herself and said steadily, “You will recant that statement, sir.”

His surprise still evident, he released her crop. “I do recant. I beg your pardon.”

They walked forward, Artemis acutely dismayed and keeping her gaze fixed on her horse’s ears. “I must beg your pardon, in turn. Is everyone staring?”

Droughm’s voice held a trace of amusement. “Of course not—why the devil would anyone take the slightest interest in the two of us?” 

Turning to him, she smiled brightly, hoping any observers would think her actions had been in play, and not serious.  “I am so very sorry.”

“The fault is mine,” he responded, and offered nothing further.

After a moment or two of silence, she took a steadying breath. “My mother was killed seven years ago—by the Spanish, not the French. It was during the Spanish retreat, and part of our regiment was cut off and captured near San Sebastian.  The Spanish didn’t know who to trust, and in their panic, they slaughtered everyone the next morning.”

“But you survived?”

She pressed her lips together. “I was not there, actually—not there with my mother. I was traveling with the other women in the regiment. My father had already been killed at Salamanca.”

“I am sorry for it,” he offered quietly.

She continued, “Colonel Merryfield was our commanding officer, and had always been fond of me.  When my mother died, he took me under his wing; I was ten at the time.”

Unbidden, she had a clear memory of the Colonel on that terrible, terrible day; speaking kindly to her in his bluff manner, and handing her a rag doll—heaven only knew where he’d come across it. She’d decided, then and there, that the Colonel was the most wonderful human being who’d ever trod the earth. 

Striving for a light tone, she concluded, “The Colonel may have had his faults, but he was not a debaucher of children.”      

“I should never have leapt to such a conclusion—forgive me.” They walked together for a few moments, the horses hooves making their rhythmic sound on the pavement as the park came into view.  “Did he adopt you?”

“I do not know,” she answered, and then—because there was nothing for it—looked over at him. “I rather doubt it.”

He frowned, considering for a moment. “I would ask that you say nothing of this to anyone.”

This was of interest; she had revealed that she was not, in true fact, the heiress to the mines, but he was apparently not dissuaded from his plan to stymie all evildoers by marrying her out-of-hand. She couldn’t decide if she was relieved or alarmed, and so instead asked, “Who is the rightful heir to the mines, if I am not?”

“That is unclear; I believe the Merryfield line would extinguish with your uncle’s death. We will say nothing of this—and in any event, even if your claim were to be contested, you have no legal guardian to represent you.  It is just as well—any delay is useful.”

She corrected him, “I have no guardian as yet, although I believe Lord Stanhope has applied to the Court of Chancery to be my guardian.” There was a great deal to be said for listening at doors.

“It will not come to that,” he assured her, idly flicking his crop on his boot again.

So; he indeed planned to marry her out-of-hand, and it did seem the best potential solution; eighteen was a long ways off, she was caught up in some sort of treasonous plot, and—as she’d said to Cook—it was far better that Droughm lay claim to the mines than the odious Torville.

On the other hand, a hasty marriage to a near-stranger seemed a bit desperate, and Artemis had to remind herself that it was best to be cautious; she must not allow herself to be beguiled by him—however tempting the prospect.  Although I would like to see anyone try to take this fine mare away from me, she thought with some defiance; and I would very much enjoy being kissed—just once—by this fine man.

“It is a damnable situation,” he pronounced, and made no apology for his language, which she took in good part.  “Tell me of your mad uncle.”

She protested in a mild tone, “Why is it that I must tell you all my secrets, but you are as close as the sphinx?”

But he was unyielding, and shook his head slightly. “I must ask that you trust me, Artemis.”

She made no immediate reply, but looked ahead, thoughtful. “Because I am unseasoned.”

He flicked his crop on his boot for emphasis. “No; because you are too shrewd by half.”

This was of interest; and she wondered what it was that he didn’t want her to unearth.  “And you cannot trust me to behave as I ought, once I know your secrets?”

He answered carefully, “You are not so seasoned as to be able to judge what is for the best, perhaps.”

“Perhaps,” she agreed. Artemis did not express her own opinion—that she was indeed a fair judge of such things, despite her youth. It came from having so few supporters that she could rely upon.

With this in mind, she waited until they had passed through the gates that led into the park before she said matter-of-factly, “I met Wentworth’s betrothed—I believe she is a spy.”

The green eyes were suddenly sharp upon hers, and she could sense his extreme surprise. Hiding a smile, she thought—there; that will teach him to think me unseasoned.