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Portrait of My Love

Isabella cleared her throat and turned around to face Lord Dorset. “Even if your suspicions are correct, my lord — which I doubt — why am I to be involved in searching for the necessary proof? I am but a humble lady, merely one of Her Majesty’s royal portrait painters. Surely there are other, more appropriate choices.” Isabella shrugged. “Furthermore, I know naught of spying and fear that I would foul your careful planning.” She gave Lord Dorset an apologetic smile to emphasize how certain she was of her careless ways. Dorset didn’t buy it for an instant.

“A noble effort indeed, Lady Isabella,” he laughed, “but you’d require quite a few lessons from the stage in order to convince me that you are a bumbling ninny.” Dorset extended one hand toward the settle. “If you would but indulge me, my lady, and sit back down, I shall explain everything in detail.”

Realizing that she had no choice in the matter, Isabella complied with his request.

“Now then, I presume you are aware that Lord Stockton was once a sea captain for Her Majesty?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“And that at present he oversees various business interests in northern England, including an extensive importing operation.”

“I am aware of that.”

“Are you indeed?” Dorset stared at Isabella through narrowed slits. “Tell me, Lady Isabella, exactly how much do you know about Rafe Dumont?”

“I know what Lucy has told me.”

“But you have not personally met him?”

“No.”

“So ’twould be fair to say that you truly know nothing about him at all?”

“In fact I do not see that as a fair statement whatsoever,” Isabella countered. “I am very close with Lord Stockton’s sister, and through her I have come to know her brother. Our lack of a personal encounter does not in any way indicate that I know nothing of Rafe Dumont.”

Her stubborn nature refused to allow Dorset to unnerve her. It was a trait she’d inherited from her father, the 2nd Earl of Preston. Father had been admired by the court for his staunch sense of loyalty, and it was obvious that the characteristic lived on in his Isabella. Not for a moment did she allow the least bit of doubt to creep into her convictions about Lucy’s brother, despite Dorset’s implication that she may not know as much as she assumed.

“Thus, as far as you know, Lord Stockton resides up north for no other reason than to run an importation business?”

The sneer in his voice prompted Isabella to note that there was nothing illegal about importation.

“That all depends upon the cargo being imported,” Dorset insisted. “And whether or not one has the proper license and documentation with which to do the importing. In fact, my lady, imported Spanish cargo is one of the things you need to be looking for in Lord Stockton’s residence. While working as a captain for Her Majesty’s royal fleet, any goods he obtained were to be turned over to the crown. I suspect Lord Stockton conveniently bypassed those rules, especially since he was rarely seen at court.”

Lord Dorset raised a knowing eyebrow in Isabella’s direction, as if allowing her the opportunity to concur with his accusations. She ignored his offer. It incensed her that Lucy’s brother was being placed on trial with no opportunity to defend himself.

“My lord, should you not simply bring your concerns directly to Lord Stockton and let him speak for himself? I fail to understand the reasons behind all this covert spying and shameless finger pointing. Lucy Dumont is a dear friend of mine, and I am certain her brother is an upstanding, law-abiding man. Indeed, Lord Stockton was employed by Her Majesty for defense measures only, to protect England’s waters. He had no taste for plunder like Sir Francis Drake, so how would he have obtained Spanish cargo in the first place? Begging your pardon, my lord, but I am certain you are mistaken about the man upon whom you place this treacherous blame.”

She rose to leave, thoroughly convinced that she had changed Lord Dorset’s mind about the inane assignment he was to have given her. As she smoothed her skirts, however, she was roughly shoved back into the chair by a furious Lord Dorset.

“God’s pestilence!” he shouted. “You shall dispense with that high-minded pragmatism for one moment and listen to me, Lady Isabella. I care not for your opinions on the merits of Lord Stockton. The truth of the matter is that you know nothing whatsoever about him. Someone is betraying naval defense secrets to the Spanish, and Lord Stockton is the prime suspect. As you just pointed out, he was employed by Her Majesty to defend English waters, so who more than he would be privy to defense secrets? He is also said to have had close relationships with the Spanish, which continue to this day. He oversees an importing business, which would be a clever way for him to hide the hoards of goods given to him in exchange for betraying the crown.”

When Isabella stayed silent, shocked by Dorset’s rage, he pressed his case even further. “And pray forgive me for impinging upon your delicate constitution, my lady, but there is still more you need to know.”

With resignation, Isabella prompted him. “Which is . . . ?”

Dorset lowered his eyes as if ashamed of the information he was about to impart. “Lord Stockton is said to have a streak of evil in him.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“He is a violent, malicious man with a temper that cowers the very souls of the gods. ’Tis said that he slaughters his enemies with the ruthlessness of a bear striking down a stag. His crew may have admired him, but it is only because they feared dire consequence if they did not. You need to be aware of the kind of man you will be facing, Lady Isabella, so that you will take the utmost care of yourself when you are prowling within his castle.”

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with my webmaster, Alla. {photo credits: Alessandro Bologna}