Portrait of My Love

“That is correct. Sir Francis Drake has sacked some of those Spanish ships and brought back the treasure to England’s Queen. He has been hailed as a hero by Her Majesty, and I dare say his ventures have made Lord Stockton jealous, thus prompting his treachery.”

A flash of outrage ignited Isabella’s spirit. “But that’s absurd! Are you truly suggesting, my lord, that because Lord Stockton chose not to sack and plunder Spanish galleons that he would instead foul his good name by turning traitor to the country and Queen he loves?”

“That’s exactly what has been suggested, Lady Isabella, and you’d do well to remember from whom those suggestions came. Or shall I inform Her Majesty that you beg to differ with her opinions? That perhaps you have a more probable idea as to who the traitor might be?”

Isabella knew she was treading a thin line, but she refused to be bullied. “My apologies for any misunderstanding I may have caused, my lord. I would never presume Her Majesty to be anything but the most intelligent and fair Queen England has ever known. But unless you were telling me falsehoods earlier, the presumption that Rafe Dumont is the traitor is yours, and not the Queen’s.”

“And I am acting on behalf of the Queen!” Dorset strode across the room to face Isabella squarely, his lower jaw trembling with rage. “Remember your place, Lady Isabella. You are a court portrait artist; I am your superior. This assignment comes directly from the Queen, who has charged me with the responsibility of finding out who’s leaking defense secrets to Philip. I am under the certain belief that the traitor is Rafe Dumont, and you are now obligated to carry out my orders. Is that perfectly clear?” Brushing away the beads of sweat that had formed on his brow, Dorset waited with clenched fists for Isabella to answer him.

Though her own temper had risen as Lord Dorset asserted his superiority, Isabella knew that she’d been backed into a corner.

“I shall always be loyal to the Queen,” she answered simply.

“As I would presume.” A touch of mockery laced Dorset’s voice. He took a seat opposite her and completed his instructions.

“Now then, once you are at the castle, begin looking for evidence of Spanish treasure. Not only will you seek out goods from Spain itself, but look for luxuries from the Spanish empire. Peruvian gold and silver. Emeralds from Colombia. Amethysts from Brazil and Mexico. In addition you must look for letters, notes, scraps of paper, anything which reveals correspondence between Lord Stockton and agents in Spain with whom he would have worked.”

Dorset nodded to Isabella with a conspiratorial look upon his face, as if they were crime fighters in tandem working to uncloak Rafe’s treacherous deeds. Isabella refused the bait. She would follow Dorset’s orders because she had no choice, but her cooperation ended there. He would have to look elsewhere for his allies.

“Spanish horseflesh is also prized, so check Stockton’s stables and note the breeds he keeps. Remember, my lady, that everything you observe will need to be documented to present to the Queen, so I’ll require you to keep a journal of all the Spanish treasure that you see.”

Isabella acknowledged his statement with a cool nod of her head. “Is there anything else?”

Prompted by her question, Lord Dorset leaned forward and pushed his face close to Isabella’s. “In fact, there is one item in particular that I want you to look out for, as it will confirm beyond anything else that Rafe Dumont is in league with Spain.”

Despite her skepticism, Isabella curiosity was piqued. “And that is?”

Dorset took another swallow of his claret and cleared his throat before continuing. “There is a necklace, a very expensive necklace, made from the purest silver that Mexican mines offer. It is composed of chain links so fine and delicate it is said they appear to be floating around the wearer’s neck. At the very pinnacle of the necklace hangs a flawless Colombian emerald. Though the stone is large, it is balanced beautifully against the delicate silver chain. It is a priceless necklace, Lady Isabella, not only because of the jewels it contains but because of its significant origins.”

“Which are?”

“It was a gift from Ferdinand of Spain to his bride on the occasion of his accession as King of Aragon in 1479, the same year in which she succeeded in securing the throne of Castile. It was a momentous year for the royal couple, and Ferdinand marked it by presenting his Queen with the necklace I have just described to you.”

Isabella knew what was coming next and said so before Lord Dorset could utter another word.

“And you believe Rafe Dumont now owns that necklace.”

A smile of smug contentment crept across the planes of Milton Vance’s pallid face. “I have always thought of you as a perceptive woman.”

Isabella shook her head. “But how is it possible that Rafe would have it? If the piece is as valuable as you say it is, my lord, then it is surely not something the Spanish crown would ever relinquish.”

Dorset leaned back in his chair, satisfied that he had planted a grain of suspicion about Rafe Dumont in Isabella’s stubborn mind. “The necklace was rumored to have been stolen around the time Philip came into power. Obviously English naval defense secrets eclipse the value of even royal jewels.”

“You do not know that to be true, my lord,” Isabella bristled.

“Neither do you know that it is not, my lady,” Dorset shot back, weary of their verbal sparring. “But someone has that necklace, and I would not be at all surprised if Rafe Dumont is its new owner. Regardless, you have your assignment and will do as I have ordered. Or should I say, as the Queen has ordered.”

A sickness descended in the pit of Isabella’s stomach like a fistful of lead shot. How was it possible that she was thrust into such a contemptible dilemma? Only this morning she had risen and gone about her duties in court as one of the Queen’s royal portrait painters, much like any other day in the past four years of her life. Then before she knew it, Isabella’s loyalty to the Queen was put to the ultimate test as she was forced to spy on the brother of her dearest childhood friend. Worst of all, if Rafe was truly guilty of Lord Dorset’s accusations, Isabella would be responsible for ensuring that he was turned over to the crown to face charges of treason. Which would mean . . .

Isabella’s face drained of color, and she swallowed a hot lump of fear in her throat. “My lord, if Rafe Dumont is guilty of treason, will Her Majesty . . . that is, will she have him . . . ”  She could not bear to utter the words.

“Will he be executed? Is that what you mean to ask?”

Isabella nodded, eyes wide with trepidation. Dorset paused before responding, as if considering his answer. When his words finally came, Isabella wondered whether they were the truth.

“As you know, my lady, Her Majesty has complete authority to handle traitors in any way she sees fit. But unlike her sister, Mary, Elizabeth does not care for executions, and she has assured me that this case will be no exception. Whomever has betrayed the crown will, of course, see time in prison, but his head will remain intact.”

He smiled indulgently as he stated this last, as if to convey that he, too, wished no harm to come to Rafe Dumont. The effect was lost upon Isabella, whose quick mind had moved on to yet another question.

“If Lord Dumont is the malicious evildoer that you suggest, my lord, exactly how do you suppose I shall engage him in revealing conversation?”

Dorset swallowed the last of his claret. “The details are left up to you, my lady,” he replied. “But one way or another, you will return home with proof of his betrayal.” He placed the glass on the walnut table and gave a nod toward Isabella, then turned and regally walked out of the room.

Isabella watched him go, pleased to have a moment of silence to herself. She was mentally exhausted, feeling as though she’d been on the losing end of a jousting tournament. Was it even remotely possible that Lucy’s brother was the treacherous blackguard Lord Dorset had described? Even if he were, how could Isabella look her best friend in the eye, knowing her visit was for the sole purpose of gathering evidence against Rafe?

And what of Rafe? What kind of man was he? Isabella felt tiny pricks of fear crawl along her skin as she remembered what Lord Dorset had said about him. “A violent, malicious man with a temper that cowers the very souls of the gods.” By the saints, what if it was true?

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