A Death in Sheffield
Into the silence, Artemis explained, “I met a spy once, in the hills of Spain—a woman who came to warn the Colonel of an ambush, up ahead. It was extraordinary—how she could change who she was, depending upon what she needed, and from whom she needed it. Miss Valdez—or whoever she is—reminds me of her.”
The crop began hitting Droughm’s boot again. “When was this?”
“Yesterday—I caught her rifling through the writing desk in the drawing room. What was she looking for?”
He had the grace to give her a glance of regret, after she’d just chastised him for being so secretive. “It is a sensitive matter, and cannot be bandied about, I’m afraid.”
“You don’t trust me,” she concluded. “I understand.” This said in a tone making it very clear she did not understand at all.
His gaze meeting hers, he said in his brusque way, “I confess I have to fight an inclination to trust you completely, and thank God that you have been thrown my way.”
While this was a very welcome profession of tender feelings, it did not alter the fact that he was changing the subject. Making a sound of extreme impatience, she refused to look at him. “If I am at the center of this mystery, it is only fair that I know what is afoot.”
“Plates,” he relented. “She was looking for minting plates, the kind that are used for the pressing of coins. They are not very large.” He indicated with his fingers.
Artemis frowned, thinking this over. “The Stanhopes are involved in counterfeiting coins?”
“I’m afraid it is much worse than that.”
Counterfeiting was a form of treason, and punishable by hanging; it was hard to imagine how it could be much worse. Trying to decide what she should ask next, Artemis was forestalled by the approach of a gentleman, who doffed his hat to Droughm.
In his negligent manner, Droughm introduced Artemis, and offered no explanation for her presence beside him. As a result, Artemis could perceive a gleam of speculation in the gentleman’s eye as he said all that was proper to her. I am to be put on display, yet again, she thought with resignation, and was somewhat comforted by the fact that she could ride much better than she could dance.
When they continued on their way, Artemis observed, “Your grey is voice-trained, I think.”
“Trajan.” Droughm laid a fond hand on his horse’s neck. “We have been together a long time, now—he knows what I wish to do before I do.”
“There is nothing so fine as a good horse.” Artemis had been horse-mad from the day she was born.
He tilted his head slightly, as they walked along. “I may have to disagree.”
Even though he did not look at her, Artemis felt herself grow a bit warm as they continued into the heart of the park, navigating through the press of visitors who were present at this fashionable hour. She did her best to appear unfazed by the covert scrutiny she attracted, whilst Droughm remained close-at-hand, pointing out an occasional landmark in his careless manner, and apparently oblivious to the attention they garnered.
The carriages along the pathways moved along at a snail’s pace as occupants greeted each other, the ladies deftly wielding their decorated parasols and fans as the gentlemen drew up to engage in the fine art of flirtation.
“Where do we go to gallop?” asked Artemis, who was heartily bored.
Amused, her companion shook his head. “There is no galloping, I’m afraid; at least, not at this hour.”
Perplexed, she looked about her. “You gave me this wonderful little mare for this?”
“Patience,” he advised. “There are some strictures that we dare not flout—I cannot let it be thought that you are anything other than the gently-bred daughter of a war-hero, and as an added incentive, the heiress to a mining fortune.”
She ventured candidly, “It hardly matters; it would still be a huge mismatch, no matter what tale was spun.”
“Nonsense; it all depends on the size of the heiress’ fortune.”
Smiling at his cynicism, she could only agree. “I suppose that is true—how many thousand pounds’ inheritance can be bartered for a barony?”
He tilted his head and confessed, “I am afraid that I am an Earl.”
Staring at him in acute dismay, she faltered, “Oh; oh, Droughm—”
“Pen,” he interrupted.
“Pen?” she asked, confused, and struggling with this latest revelation.
“Penderton,” he explained. “My name—please use it, when it is just the two of us.”
“Pen,” Artemis addressed him, very seriously. “I truly cannot marry you—it would be beyond a mismatch.” With a pang of regret, she wondered if she would indeed have to relinquish this fine mare, after all.
“Nonsense,” he replied in his off-hand manner. “I think we are well-suited.”
“You don’t know the worst,” she confessed. “I am afraid to even tell you.”
Turning his head, he met her gaze with his own frank one. “There could be nothing worse than losing you, now that I have finally found you.”
The thing was, she could swear he was completely sincere. Mesmerized, she could think of nothing to say whilst they regarded each other for a long moment. Hell and damnation, she thought yet again.
The spell was broken by a low, feminine voice that laughingly called out, “Droughm—do pay attention, I pray you.”
The woman who addressed them was lovely; honey-blond with an admirable figure. Her riding habit was dashing without being showy, cut in the military style and highlighted with a mock shako, placed aslant on her curls. And—as if being a vision of loveliness weren’t enough—she sat on a very fine-boned black gelding.
I cannot bring myself to be uneasy, Artemis decided; if we were indeed competing, I would have no choice but to concede the field.
“I’d no idea you were back in town; what a happy surprise.” The other’s twinkling gaze took in Artemis and her companion with all evidence of good will, but Artemis was not fooled, and awaited events.
For his part, Droughm greeted the woman in his easy manner. “Carena; it is a pleasure to see you again.”
With no show of purpose, the woman nevertheless managed to fall in beside him and, as a result, Artemis was necessarily forced to follow, filled with admiration for the subtle piece of maneuvering. She’d make a good tactical officer, thought Artemis, and prepared to listen and learn.
The newcomer spoke to Droughm in a vivacious manner for a few minutes, but when they reached a broader pathway, the woman turned with a friendly gesture to Artemis. “Pray come up beside me—I am unpardonably rude to interrupt your outing.”
Artemis smiled in return and did as she was bid, awaiting an introduction.
“Lady Tallyer, allow me to introduce Miss Merryfield,” said Droughm. Again, he made no attempt to offer an explanation for Artemis’ presence at his side.
“Is this your first visit to town, Miss Merryfield?” Lady Tallyer appeared genuinely interested, which was kind of her, particularly since Artemis was fully aware the lady was actually making a shrewd assessment of enemy terrain.
“It is indeed,” Artemis admitted. “I am enjoying it very much.” This for the benefit of the gentleman who knew that but for him, her circumstances were otherwise not at all enjoyable.
“Such an exciting time for you,” the lady exclaimed in the manner of an indulgent adult to a small child. “Will you have a season?”
“No,” confessed Artemis. “I am unseasoned.”
Lady Tallyer turned to Droughm with delight. “Your young friend is a wit, Droughm.”
“So it would seem,” he agreed, and Artemis arched a brow at him behind the lady’s back. I am wicked, she thought; and I should not seek to discomfit him whilst he speaks with his admirer.
The lady adjusted her reins in a manner that drew attention to her graceful hands. “Are you lately arrived from Somerhurst, Droughm?”
“Algiers, instead; I’ve not yet had an opportunity to visit Somerhurst.”
Kindly including Artemis in the conversation, the lady disclosed, “The formal gardens at Somerhurst are breathtaking, this time of year.”
A fusillade, thought Artemis with appreciation. But sadly, it is only a pyrrhic victory; poor Lady Tallyer is not slated to be the person who will tend the gardens at Somerhurst, wherever they are.
“I had the pleasure of visiting the formal gardens at the Ballantine House ball,” Artemis reminisced for the gentleman’s benefit. “It quite took my breath away.”
“One should fondly remember one’s first ball,” the lady agreed indulgently. “No doubt once you are old enough to be out, you will attend many more.” The glance she gave to the gentleman deftly conveyed a willingness to support and encourage a young girl on the cusp of adulthood.
Artemis decided it was past time to fire off a round, herself. “I confess I was coerced into waltzing when I had no business even making the attempt.”
But the lady was not shaken, and responded with a smile. “Lord Droughm can be most persuasive.”
She then slid the gentleman a knowing look from beneath her lashes that made Artemis feel all of ten years old. Best retreat, she cautioned herself, and present no more openings for a double entendre.
After a few more minutes of conversation, Lady Tallyer indicated she would return to her group. “Do you make an appearance at Montagu’s card party tonight, Droughm? I believe we have need of a fourth.”
But the gentleman was not one to be coerced by good manners. “I must first review my calendar, Carena.”
The lady did not press, and instead smiled at Artemis. “I hope to meet you again soon, Miss Merryfield.” With a cheerful little wave, she turned back, and even in retreat, her figure was impressive.
Her eyes alight, Artemis turned her gaze to Droughm, awaiting his reaction. He did not deign to give her one, although she could see that he was amused. She prompted, “A beauty, Pen—it is a shame she has no silver mines, lying about.”
To his credit, he did not attempt to disclaim. “I will inform her that we will not resume our relationship.”
“The Colonel always gave them a bracelet,” Artemis suggested helpfully.
Although there was a small smile playing about his lips, he chided, “You should not be speaking of such things, Artemis.”
But Artemis wanted him to know she was not missish about such subjects, and shook her head slightly. “I’ve grown up amongst soldiers, Pen. I am not shocked by much of anything.”
“Nevertheless, you must try to be circumspect. We cannot allow anyone to entertain a suspicion about your antecedents.”
This was a good point, and with a wry smile, she acknowledged, “Then I’m afraid you’ll be more of a Dutch Aunt than a suitor, if you are going to try to steer me through London society. I am foundering in unfamiliar terrain.”
He assured her, “Not much longer, Artemis—my promise on it. And speaking of which, can you tell me your dreaded confession? I may need to create a plausible tale.”
Suddenly sober, she advised him, “There are actually four secrets—all of them equally horrifying. Perhaps you will want to reconsider giving Lady Tallyer her parting bracelet.”
“In for a penny, in for a pound,” he replied in a philosophical manner. “Tell me, if you please.”
Looking ahead, she nodded, and tried to sort out her thoughts, finding that it was surprisingly difficult to know where to begin.
Suddenly, she felt his hand on her arm, and looked at him in surprise.
“No,” he said softly, his expression concerned. “Not in such a public place—forgive me for being a clumsy fool.”
“I need to gather my courage,” she confessed.
“And I need to offer comfort—which I cannot do here.”
“Soon,” she pleaded. “I must tell you soon.”
“You will,” he assured her, and they turned for home.