Aaron frowned. “There was a fire? How long ago did that happen?”
The old man sucked on his lips for a moment before replying. “I’d say it’s been about eight years now. This is all that’s left of the Artemus estate. And I’d know. I’m the last of them.”
“You… you’re Abraham, Lord Artemus?” Aaron asked the old man, unable to keep his mouth from falling open.
Squinting up at Aaron as if the sun were in his eyes, the old man chuckled. “Don’t know nothing about being a lord, but I’m Abraham Artemus.Mr.Abraham Artemus.” He stressed the title. “My family once owned everything as far as the eye can see. And more. But they sold it off piece by piece over the years. The title died, too, when my great-grandmother couldn’t birth any sons. My great-grandfather…” He paused and crinkled his brow in thought. “No, guess it would’ve been his father, the man I’m named after, was the last to have an heir. He was named after a lord, though. An ancestor, oh, three centuries or so gone now. The rest of us, well, we’ve had to make do without the title, but it’s not always easy. Especially now that the money’s gone, too.” He frowned at Aaron. “Who told you there was a castle here? Someone swindle you, did they, young man?”
The old man’s laugh made Aaron’s hands clench. What a fool he had been! That letter had to have been a forgery. A schoolgirl had tricked him! How had he not seen this coming? It was now so obvious! Somehow, Miss Dunston had learned about the meeting he had scheduled with Mr. Barker. How could Aaron not have recognized the young lady’s underhanded attempt to get him to leave Chatsworth? Attempt? This was no attempt. She had been successful in her trickery! After all, why was this meeting scheduled at the exact time and on the very day as the one at the theater?
Well, that recalcitrant schoolgirl had gone too far this time. Not only would he chastise her for her chicanery, but he would also speak to Mrs. Rutley about the girl. Let her headmistress deal with her punishment. If Mrs. Rutley was anything like the headmaster of the school he had attended, the punishment would be a lesson well learned.
“My apologies for bothering you, sir,” Aaron said. “It appears I’ve been misinformed.” He looked around at the land that surrounded them. “And as to your bad fortune, may you see a better future ahead.”
Mr. Artemus frowned. “Bad fortune? I have a roof over my head, food on my table, and want for nothing. Well, nothing except Gladys, my wife. She died eleven years ago this March.”
Aaron glanced longingly at the waiting carriage. He did not have the heart to listen to an old man’s recollections of his life. Even an important knight could only bear so many sad tales.
“Ah, I see now,” Mr. Artemus said, tapping the side of his nose.
Now it was Aaron’s turn to frown. “And what is it you see?”
“You’re young. I’d bet my little cottage here that you’re hoping to add more to your coffers. Isn’t that why you were so quick to come in search of Lord Artemus?”
Aaron did not reply. How could he refute the statement?
“Well, you should watch your step. The Artemuses believed their destiny lay in becoming the most prominent family in all of England. Look where it got them. Greed begets loss in the end.”
“Just because your family failed does not mean I shall,” Aaron said.
The old man leaned on his cane. “And what constitutes success, do you think? How much land must one man own? How many horses must he stable? How full should his coffers be?” His squint deepened until his eyes were mere slits. “How much is enough?”
“What difference does it make?” Aaron snapped.
Mr. Artemus pointed a gnarled finger at him. “You’ve been bested by a woman, haven’t you?” he asked with a low chuckle. “Don’t deny it. It’s written all over your face. Ah, lad, just know that it happens to the best of us.”
Aaron turned on his heels, the old man’s choking laughter following after him like a wolf pursuing a hare.
“Take me straight to the theater in Chatsworth,” Aaron hissed at Claremont. He pulled out his pocket watch. It was a quarter past twelve, which meant he would not arrive until three. Half past two if Claremont made haste. “And be quick about it. Don’t stop for any reason.”
He leapt into the carriage, and the door slammed behind him. His temper flared at Mr. Artemus’s continued laughter.
“You’ve got too much pride,” the old man shouted, cackling as the carriage pulled away. “Your fall will be mighty if you don’t take care!” Leaning back into the bench, Aaron worked his tight jaw. Much to his annoyance, Mr. Artemus did have a point. Aaron’s pride had gotten the best of him. The letter, assumed to be written by Mrs. Rutley, had heaped undue praise on him. That should have been the first warning sign. Why had he not seen it?
By the time he arrived in Chatsworth, with too many hours to allow his thoughts to simmer, Aaron’s anger had reached its boiling point. He leapt from the carriage before it stopped and stormed into the theater. Miss Lockhart stood leaning against a wall, and when she caught sight of him, her eyes bulged in her face.
“Sir Aaron,” she began, but he spoke over her.
“Is she here?” he hissed.
Miss Lockhart did not respond but instead turned on her heel and fled through the door that led to the auditorium.
Aaron followed after her, doing all he could to keep his rage from erupting. It would do him no good to strangle the woman who had set the fire.
“He’s here!” he heard Miss Lockhart shout. “And I’ve never seen a man so angry!”
* * *