The Craigsmuir Affair
By Jen Black
https://tinyurl.com/gwck9ph for the UK
https://tinyurl.com/yaycvju8 for the US
https://tinyurl.com/y7r3wcqm for Australia
Clennell Castle, Northumberland, 1893
Daisy Charlton swept the sheaf of papers into her arms, cast a final, satisfied glance around the small room that had been her work place for the last week and then closed the door behind her with a triumphant flourish. She hurried along the gallery toward the stairs, swung one-handed around the newel post and scampered down the first steps into the main body of the library. Now she had time to relax and enjoy herself.
Someone below snapped a newspaper straight.
Diverted, she looked down. A gentleman’s sun-browned hands held a newspaper open. She could see nothing of him but legs clad in riding breeches and brown leather riding boots. Her feet tangled in the folds of her long skirt. Her stomach lurched; she stumbled, missed the shallow tread of the stair and turned her ankle on the edge of the next.
She grabbed for the banister, missed and pitched forward. Her precious papers sprang into the air and fluttered around her like a cloud of newly released doves. Her hip and shoulder collided painfully with the shallow riser and she yelped as she bounced and rolled down the stairs.
‘Good God!’ The sound of crushed newspaper followed the exclamation.
Daisy struck something hard. Dazed and breathless, she inhaled the mixed scents of smoky sandalwood, starched linen and something spicy like black pepper. She lay unmoving for a long moment and registered a steady, rhythmic thud against her ear. She opened her eyes and stared at the fawn moleskin and engraved silver buttons of a gentleman’s waistcoat. Her right hand clutched the rough tweed of his sleeve. Her left trailed on the parquet floor.
As she drew a deep, shivery breath, his fingers clutched her ribcage and something she guessed might be his knee jabbed her spine. She made an undignified wriggle to gain her feet but his grip prevented her. How could she have been so stupid as to fall downstairs? Uncomfortable and embarrassed, Daisy tilted her head and nudged the pale silk of his cravat. ‘I cannot move.’
‘I beg your pardon; but if I let go, you will fall to the floor.’ His voice was deep and held something she suspected was amusement. In all likelihood he thought it all a great joke, but was too kind to show outright laughter. ‘I do not know you, sir. What if someone were to come into the library and find us?’
‘I suppose I should have to marry you.’ His swift smile held mischief. ‘Are you sure you have no injuries?’
‘Until you release me I cannot tell.’ Good Lord, she had all but snapped at him! The heat of embarrassment rose in her cheeks. He must think her rude as well as a clumsy fool.
At that moment he raised both hands in the air. Daisy slid from his grasp and landed with an undignified grunt on the polished wood floor.
A chirrup of sound, hastily smothered, betrayed his laughter. ‘Such determination.’ He shook his head. ‘I did warn you.’
Daisy glared at him as he towered over her and extended his hand. ‘Now, will you let me help you to your feet?’
More of her was on display than was proper. Hastily she flipped her tweed skirt down over her knees, raised her hand and allowed him to pull her smoothly to her feet. A sharp pain stabbed through her hip. ‘Oh!’
Suddenly dizzy, she swayed.
‘Perhaps you should sit for a moment.’ The gentleman’s hand hovered at her elbow. ‘You look rather pale.’
Daisy turned on him, her heart beating as if she had run down the lane. ‘I would not have fallen had you not rattled your newspaper at me.’
His eyebrows rose. ‘Ungrateful, too.’ He clasped his hands behind his back and surveyed her from the advantage of his greater height. ‘If you will charge about like a brigade of cavalry, I don’t see how your fall could be put to my account. Next time, I might decide not to catch you. Far too much exertion required.’
Daisy thinned her lips. ‘Hell’s bells and buckets of blood!’ The curse rang only in her head. Growing up with seven brothers had added an interesting slant to her vocabulary, but she never dared curse aloud. She wanted to blame the stranger for her recent mishap, but whoever he was, she could see from the tilt of his head and the frosty look in his eye that he was not the foppish sort who would allow or forgive a temper tantrum.
One hand massaging the pain in her hip, she became aware of the sheets of paper scattered around her on the shiny parquet floor. She clapped one hand to her head. ‘They were all in order,’ she wailed.
She stooped to gather the scattered sheets and stifled an exclamation as bruised muscles complained. She recognised his discarded newspaper, The Racing Times and sniffed in disdain. The last page of her inventory lay close by his polished brown boot and she hesitated over retrieving it. He retrieved the sheet for her with an easy, graceful gesture and glanced over the content as he handed it to her. ‘An inventory of Clennell’s art work?’
‘Yes.’ Daisy snatched the sheet from him and waited. A witticism was sure to come. Young men, even more than old ones, always thought girls had less brain-power than the family dog.
‘I would have thought the task rather a bore for a young lady.’ His tone was mild, even conversational. ‘Especially when there are so many other diversions available.’
‘The inventory better occupies one’s time than drivel such as that.’ She nodded towards The Racing Times.
His eyebrows rose toward his thick black hair. ‘Ah, but you could say I prefer the artistry of horseflesh in action. Better by far, in my estimation, than the dull, inanimate work of men long dead.’ His eyes crinkled at the corners but she was aware he was not inviting her agreement; oh, no. He dared her to retaliate.
‘Horses are creatures of great beauty,’ she admitted, flustered by the challenge in his eyes. ‘But I don’t know how you can dismiss the work of artists as dull.’
The shock of her fall was receding, but tiredness took its place. Sighing, she knew what must be done. ‘I am sorry,’ she said meekly, clutching her inventory to her bosom. ‘My first thought should have been to thank you for saving me from the worst of the impact.’
‘Indeed.’ His attractive smile took the sting out of the rebuke. ‘But I am sure the fall shocked you out of your normal composure.’
She looked up doubtfully, but saw no ridicule in his quiet expression. He had been kind and she had behaved like a silly schoolgirl. Suddenly it was all too much. Backing away from him, she offered a trembling smile and hurried from the library.
Once in the hall, she breathed a sigh of relief and then jumped as a voice hailed her.
‘Daisy, where have you been?’ Seventeen-year-old Lady Victoria Barwood, graceful and delicate as a cornflower in the wind, stood halfway up the wide staircase. ‘I looked for you everywhere.’
‘Oh, Vicky.’ Relief flooded Daisy at the sight of her cousin. ‘I’ve just been most dreadfully rude.’ She limped across the shining parquet floor, grasped her cousin’s arm and hurried them both up the stairs and along the corridor to her bedchamber. ‘Who is he?’ she asked as she closed the door and leaned back against it. ‘Do you know him?’
‘Let me see.’ Vicky lounged against the pillows on Daisy’s bed. ‘Tall, broad shouldered, square jaw and black hair that curls over his collar? Would that describe him?’
‘He has wonderful eyes, too.’ Daisy recalled his powerful stare. ‘Black flecks in the grey and thick, heavy eyebrows.’
‘And you blamed him for your fall?’ Vicky giggled behind her hand. ‘I wish I’d seen his face at that moment. It must be Adam Grey and I assure you, he will have forgotten the whole thing by now.’
Daisy’s mouth fell open. ‘You don’t mean Adam Grey of Ovingham? The hated mine owner?’
‘The very same.’
‘Oh.’ Daisy collapsed into the nearest chair. ‘He has a terrible reputation as a brutal man amongst local people in Wylam.’
‘Adam is Papa’s friend, I’ve known him all my life and he’s a very nice man. If I were you, I wouldn’t believe a single derogatory word. I’m glad you’ve met him.’ Vicky glanced at Daisy from the corner of her eyes. ‘I should be especially pleased if you and he take to each other because should you marry, you could be my step-god mother.’ A puzzled frown overtook her face. ‘Is it possible to have such a thing?’
Daisy shrugged. ‘I doubt he’ll ever speak to me again.’
‘But you want him to speak to you again! You do, don’t you?’
Daisy got up with a groan, wandered to her dressing table and gazed into the mirror. ‘Don’t be silly, Vicky. I would rather not make an enemy, that’s all.’
Vicky laughed and threw a small satin cushion in the air. ‘Depend upon it; he will make someone a very good husband one day.’ She caught the cushion as it came down. ‘It may as well be you.’
‘I am not here to meet young men.’ Daisy picked up her hairbrush and plucked a few stray hairs from the bristles. ‘You know very well I am here to earn money so I can go to art school.’
Vicky rolled over on the bed and propped her chin in her hands. ‘But you would never choose art over love? I know I should not.’
Daisy regarded her with solemn eyes. ‘Then we are very different. Art is the love of my life.’
Adam Grey breathed deep of the leather and woodsmoke that always permeated the air of his host’s study. The shelves were crammed with books, plus an untidy clutter of boxes, account books, files and papers related to estate business. A large desk took up the space before the window and two comfortable, much scratched leather armchairs waited on either side of the carved stone hearth. A sleepy spaniel occupied the dog basket by the small fire glowing red in the iron basket.
Adam regarded his host. ‘Is the cottage beyond repair?’
A well-built, stocky man in his late thirties, Charles Barwood, Lord Bardon, still wore the tweed jacket and breeches from his ride to an estate cottage damaged by last night’s high winds. At Adam’s question, his worried frown eased. ‘The work crew will be able to patch the roof and make it watertight. But I am sorry we missed our trip to Holystone, Adam. We’ll visit the horse sale tomorrow morning, if that is agreeable to you.’
‘An excellent suggestion.’
Adam sank into one of the armchairs while his host turned to the silver tray on a corner of his desk. Their friendship had begun as rivals at a bloodstock sale for a young colt with excellent blood lines; they had lost to a higher bid from the south of England and decided to commiserate over a whisky.
Charles brought a glass filled with amber liquid to Adam and raised his own in salute. ‘I have another problem besides the cottage. What is it the playwright said? When sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions? A painting has gone astray.’
Adam hesitated with the rim of the glass at his lips. ‘Astray as in stolen?’
Charles nodded. ‘I have to think so.’
‘Have you reported it? Informed the police?
‘The nearest policeman lives a day’s ride away. No, I thought we might keep the matter between ourselves.’
‘Certainly, if you wish.’ Adam inhaled the aroma of the whisky in his glass and could not help a smile at the thought that filled his mind. ‘We are to turn detective?’ He would be the last person to complain if a simple visit to a horse sale became something much more interesting. ‘It should be easy enough to catch the culprit.’
‘I’m glad you think so. It puzzles me to know where to start. It also worries me that the thief may be a guest.’
Adam took the first sip of whisky and savoured it. ‘Where was it hung? When did it disappear?’
‘A corridor on the third floor. Housemaid noticed a blank space and reported it this morning at breakfast.’
‘A search has been made? Important to ensure it has not been misplaced.’
Charles nodded. ‘The housekeeper informed me a few minutes ago that housemaids and footmen have searched all day. She is certain it is not in the house.’
‘I suppose the picture is valuable?’
‘Never had it valued.’ Charles frowned at the fire and then said slowly, ‘Daisy has been here all week. Her catalogue should be complete by now and unless it was stolen weeks ago, should list the picture.’
Adam stretched long legs toward the warmth of the fire as an image of a young woman with her precious papers all over the library floor darted into his mind. Hadn’t she listed works of art? ‘Who is Daisy?’
Charles eyed him curiously. ‘You haven’t met her? My elder sister Anne married Claude Charlton of Wylam. Daisy is their eldest daughter, in fact, their only daughter among an abundance of sons. She’s of age with Victoria and they get on well, so she visits frequently.’
‘The father’s name sounds familiar. Didn’t he lose a good deal of money over a mine venture a few years ago?’
‘Claude has the luck of the devil. No sooner did Clara Rise close than another mine hit a rich vein. He is comfortable, but not wealthy. Seven sons to educate and feed prove a drain on his purse. But Adam, an investigation of this sort will not be as easy as you seem to think.’
Adam tilted his glass and watched the whisky swirl. ‘I’ve engaged a new manager to run the mine up at Alston, which means that for the first time in thirteen years I am surplus to requirements.’ He looked up. ‘To tell the truth I’m at a bit of a loose end. Not used to all this free time. So, I volunteer myself. It is exactly the diversion I need. What do you say?’
‘Agreed.’ Charles looked at the gilt clock on his desk. ‘We must change for dinner. Let’s wait until afterwards to speak with Daisy.’
Clennell Castle bore its scars with dignity. Its foundations sank deep into the grassy knoll on which it had stood for several centuries guarding one of the main routes into Scotland, so that Adam felt safe and secure within its thick stone walls as he approached the withdrawing room where the family and their guests drank coffee after dinner.
He blinked at the sudden blaze of light within. The slight draught from the open door shivered the candles in the glass chandelier but the gas jets in the wall lamps glowed steadily in each corner of the room. Gold curtains, drawn against the darkness, made a backdrop for the person he sought.
Vicky sat on a white and gold sofa next to her cousin. Both girls had red hair, but Vicky had inherited the pale gold and marmalade shades of the Barwood family. Daisy Charlton’s hair, coiled and piled at the back of her head, was dark red as beech leaves in October. When she smiled at something Vicky said, Adam thought she was a very handsome girl.
He crossed the faded Persian carpet, placed his palms on the high back of the sofa and stooped over both girls. ‘Miss Charlton, I should be obliged if you would accompany me to Bardon’s study.’
Daisy jumped at the interruption and almost spilled her coffee.
‘I’m sorry. I did not mean to startle you.’ Adam took the cup and saucer from her and placed them on a small rosewood table behind him.
‘What does Papa want with Daisy?’ Vicky demanded.
‘A trivial matter; nothing to alarm either of you.’
Vicky looked at her cousin. ‘Shall I come too?’
‘Absolutely no need,’ Adam said and gestured Miss Charlton toward the door.
Daisy regarded him steadily, drew in a deep breath as if to prepare for unpleasantness and rose from the sofa. ‘If I do not return shortly,’ she said to Vicky, ‘come and rescue me.’ Then she walked gracefully toward the door.
Adam raised an eyebrow. Unless she was guilty of theft, she could have no idea why her uncle wanted to see her. She glanced over her shoulder. ‘I am not about to bolt, sir.’
He had unthinkingly placed his hand at the small of her back and at her tart comment hastily withdrew it. ‘Of course not.’ At the study door he paused. ‘Please go in, Miss Charlton.’
Daisy stalked by him with her nose in the air as if she were a Grand Duchess and he the newest footman. Once in her uncle’s study, lamplight revealed her rosy flush.
‘Ah, yes. Daisy.’ Charles greeted her with an affectionate smile. ‘Thank you for coming. You and Adam will have been introduced before dinner?’ At her nod, he offered her his desk chair. ‘Please, take a seat. A small matter has arisen in which I hope you will be able to help me. Have you completed your inventory of the art collection?’
Adam rested one shoulder on the varnished wood of the closed door and studied the two people before him. Barwood was naturally inclined to believe the girl, for he was related to her and had known her all her life. Adam admired her posture; the way her head sat atop a long, slender neck and merged with her spine and shoulders at a beautiful angle. As with horses, good looks and conformation always caught his eye, but he knew from bitter experience that they could hide a lack of moral fibre.
‘Why, yes, uncle,’ she said brightly. ‘I finished at lunchtime.’ She darted a swift glance at Adam. ‘The sheets are rough and I need to make a fair copy but the work is complete.’
‘And could you tell me where a certain painting is at this precise moment?’
She uttered a brief laugh. ‘If not, I have wasted my time this last week.’
Her response sounded honest. Or was she a good actress? Adam reminded himself he must consider everyone a suspect until their innocence was proved beyond doubt. After all, who had better opportunity to steal a painting than someone who wandered alone through the castle as she compiled an inventory of art work?
‘Then I wonder if we might consult it?’
A faint frown marred her forehead. ‘I can have it ready for you tomorrow, uncle. They aren’t the neatest lists in the world,’ she added apologetically. ‘I should not like you to see them as they are at present.’
‘Now would be preferable.’
She glanced at the gold clock on the mantelpiece which showed almost ten o’ clock. ‘Really?’
Charles clasped his hands behind his back. ‘If you please, Daisy.’
Adam opened the door for her. ‘I shall accompany you, Miss Charlton.’
Her head turned on the neck he had so recently admired. ‘There is no need, Mr Grey.’ Her smile flickered briefly to her uncle before she jumped to her feet and headed for the door. Adam received a scowl as she passed by him.
He followed her out into the corridor. Immediately Daisy turned to him. ‘There is no need for you to follow me. What is all the fuss about? What has happened? I shall not move until you tell me.’ She planted her feet on the carpet and clasped her hands at her waist.
‘We suspect a painting has been stolen.’
In the dim light of the corridor, her eyes widened and her lips parted. ‘Which one?’
‘Let’s get the lists first, shall we?’ He refused to be diverted by a pair of big brown eyes.
She set her jaw at his refusal, but moved at a brisk pace along the corridor and headed for the central staircase, her spine as stiff as that of a guardsman on duty. It wasn’t all down to corsetry either, Adam thought as he eyed her back view.
He kept his gaze on the hem of her blue silk gown as it slid across the worn carpet. She glanced over her shoulder, then halted in mid-step and laid a graceful hand on the newel post at the foot of the stairs. ‘You don’t suspect I stole the wretched picture, do you? Is that why I am not allowed to go alone to my chamber?’
She was clever, too. It had not taken long for her to make the connection. Adam’s momentum carried him two steps up the staircase before he looked down into her wide eyes and saw the flash of temper there.
‘Oh!’ Her fingers tightened on the post. ‘Once in my room I shall tamper with the evidence. Is that what you think? What a silly idea!’
He looked down from his vantage point. With every breath she took, her breasts rose against the deep blue silk of her gown. His body tightened in response, startling him. Was he mistaken, or did the faint thrum of lust hang in the air?
‘Damn it all,’ he said softly. ‘Can we just collect the wretched lists and be done with it?’