Portrait of My Love

For the first time since their conversation began, Isabella felt a trickle of uncertainty about Rafe Dumont burrow under her skin like a tiny glass shard. She’d been a staunch supporter of the Dumont name, including Rafe’s, but she had to admit that Lord Dorset’s description was disconcerting. What if even some of it were true? And if that were indeed the case, what kind of situation was Lord Dorset getting her into? A cloud of anger suddenly darkened Isabella’s normal good humor.

“My lord, if everything you have just told me is true, pray tell why are you asking a woman to become involved? Is that not akin to sending a lamb to the lion’s den?”

A sneered curled one corner of Dorset’s lips.

“It is partly because you are a woman that you are perfect for this assignment,” he informed her. “In spite of his reputation, Dumont is not in the habit of harming ladies. In fact,” —  Dorset’s voice became noticeably cool — “ ’tis said that some women even find him rather charming. So fear not, my lady, you shall be safe from his wrath.”

“Such soothing reassurance,” Isabella murmured.

Ignoring her comment, Dorset cast her a leering eye. “No doubt Dumont will find you a comely lass, so take advantage of it. Spend as much time as possible speaking with him. You fancy yourself as an artist with keen skills of observation. Use that talent to learn all you can about him. Be meticulous in recording every detail, Lady Isabella, for although certain things may not be apparent to you, rest assured that myself and the Queen will find them useful indeed.”

His sarcasm toward her artistic merits, his insinuation that Isabella was nothing more than a winsome, witless chit were like tinder to a fire, raising her temper with each insulting word. But above it all Isabella wanted to quit the room and Dorset’s lecherous gaze, so with practiced restraint born from genteel breeding, she cast a lid on her ire and made no response.

“In addition, I am aware of your friendship with Lucy Dumont, and I have chosen you for this assignment because you have the perfect excuse for being in the castle. You shall be paying your beloved friend Lucy a visit.”

“Visiting Lucy? But that is absurd. Lucy is aware of my obligations to the court, which is why I have not seen her in years. Indeed, she would think it quite odd if I were to contact her now with no explanation other than a sudden urge to venture north and come calling.”

As if having anticipated Isabella’s need for details, Dorset was quick with an answer.

“You will tell Lucy that you must travel north to pay a visit to a dear cousin who is ill. Thereafter ’tis but a short journey to Berwick, where Lucy and Dumont live in Stockton Hall, the castle he inherited from their parents, the Marquis and Marchioness of Holcroft. ’Twould be a shame not to call on her when you are so close. Naturally Lucy will receive you, and during your stay you shall gather the evidence we need to prove that Rafe Dumont is in league with Spain.”

“I have no kin of any kind in the north country, as Lucy well knows. The story is not believable.”

“So think of one that is.”

“And how am I to spy if I am supposed to be paying a call? I cannot spend long hours away from Lucy.”

“Then prowl about at night.” Dorset’s voice grew brittle with annoyance. “I care not what excuses you use, Lady Isabella, nor the reasons you give for spending time away from Lucy. But make no mistake, you will go north to Stockton Hall, and you will return with the information I require.”

Isabella sighed, deeply, hating everything about the situation. Nevertheless, despite her objections, Lord Dorset had made it clear that there was no way out.

“What exactly do you want me to look for, my lord?” she asked, anxious to end the conversation.

Dorset stood before answering and strolled over to the sidebar. He poured himself another claret, this time taking a few moments to savor the liquid rather than tossing it down his throat in an agitated rush as before.

“You are no doubt aware that the Spanish empire is vast, covering Central America, South America, the West Indies, and the Philippines. And that is why Philip’s coffers overflow, for his galleons bring back hoards of unimaginable treasure.”

“Such as what Captain Drake has captured.”

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