From the diary of Michael Hurst, famous explorer and Egyptologist:
Finally, I have the entire treasure map in my possession—the one that will lead us to the lost Hurst Amulet, which was taken from my family so many centuries ago. I was certain the map revealed the final clue to the amulet’s location and I was ready to proceed thus. Or I was until my blasted assistant, the redoubtable Miss Jane Smythe-Haughton, made a completely unrequested observation that I was “anything but well versed in this particular form of cartography” and I should have an expert examine the bloody thing.
Her distrust in my knowledge is as large as it is abiding. However, I’m now forced to prove myself, so I’m having the map reviewed by a renowned expert. Once I receive confirmation that my theory is correct, we will begin the final quest for the amulet. After, of course, I finish mocking Jane to hell and back for her disbelief in my profound and infallible map-reading abilities.
October 12, 1822
Michael Hurst ignored the stir of excitement that flowed across the ballroom at his entrance. “Damn fools,” he muttered, tugging on his cravat.
His sister Mary sent him an exasperated glance. “Leave that alone.”
“It’s choking me.”
“It’s fashionable and you must look presentable.” At his annoyed glare, she added in an earnest tone, “Michael, this ballroom is full of potential investors for your expeditions.”
Potential headaches were what they were. “I’m here, aren’t I?” he asked irritably. “Where’s that damned refreshment table? If I’m going to face these monkeys, I’ll need a drink.”
“They’re not monkeys, but lovely women who—” She caught his expression and grimaced. “Perhaps a drink will improve your spirits. Lady Bellforth usually sets the refreshment table by the library doors.”
He nodded and stepped in that direction. As if in answer to that one step, fans and lashes fluttered, seemingly hoping to trap him in a gossamer hold. “For the love of Ra,” he said through gritted teeth, “don’t they have anything better to do than stare?”
“You’re famous,” Mary said calmly.
“I don’t wish to be famous.”
“But you are, so you’ll just have to live with it.” She placed a hand on his arm. “Just smile and nod and we’ll make our way through this crowd in no time at all.”
“Smiling won’t work, but this will.” He scowled instead, noticing with glee that several of the flowery fans stopped fluttering.
“Michael, you can’t—”
He placed his hand firmly under her elbow and led her into the crowd, scowling at first one hopeful-looking miss and then another. They blushed, then sagged, as if he’d stabbed their empty little hearts.
Mary made an impatient noise and then said in a low voice, “We’ll never get another sponsor if you keep that up. These women are the daughters and sisters of wealthy men who could aid your expeditions greatly!”
“They are cotton-headed bits of fluff, and I refuse to pander to them.” He almost stopped when one of them boldly winked at him. “Good God, what happened to female modesty while I was in the wilds of Egypt?”
“More to the point, what happened to gentlemanly manners?”
“I left those worthless skills on the reedy shores of the Nile,” he retorted. “Good riddance, too.”
She gave him a sour look. “Our brothers are right: you have turned into a barbarian.”
“Why? Because I do and say what must be said?”
“No, because you barrel through life and never stop to consider the consequences of your words and actions. I—”
A young woman stepped into their path, almost thrust into place by the girls who circled behind her.
Tall, with a large nose and auburn curls, decorated with pearl pins, she appeared to be all of seventeen. “Mr. Hurst! How nice to see you again.” She dipped a grand curtsy, her smirk letting him know that she expected a welcome greeting.
Michael lifted a brow but said nothing.
Her cheeks bloomed red, her lips pressed in swift irritation, though she hid it almost immediately behind a forced smile. “I’m Miss Lydia Latham. We met at Lady MacLean’s soiree.”
Michael stared as Miss Latham held out her hand expectantly.
“Ooof!” He rubbed his side and glared at his sister, who’d just elbowed him. “Must you?”
“Yes.” She leaned closer and said through her gritted smile in a voice only he could hear, “I will stomp on your foot right here and now, in front of the entire world, if you don’t take her hand and at least pretend you are a gentleman.”
Michael suddenly remembered when, as a child, Mary’d once tossed him head over heels into an icy pond for nothing more than laughing at her new hairstyle. Of course, she’d been younger then, and less prone to care what others thought of her public deportment. He wondered for a bare second if she would really cause a scene, but the icy gleam in her eye made him think better of finding out.
With a grimace, Michael turned to the waiting girl, took her proffered hand, and held it the minimal time required by politeness before releasing it. “Miss Latham,” he intoned with as little enthusiasm as possible.
Miss Latham beamed as if he’d just conferred a cask of gold coins upon her. “I knew you’d remember me. We spoke at length about the Rosetta stone.”
“Did we?” he asked in a bored tone.
“Oh, yes! I’ve read every word you’ve ever written.”
“I doubt that, unless you’ve managed to sneak into my bedchamber and procure my diaries. I’m fairly sure no one has read those but me.”
Mary murmured a protest under her breath, but he ignored her.
Miss Latham’s face turned several shades pinker and she tittered nervously. “Oh, no! I would never, ever sneak into a man’s bedchamber.”
“More’s the pit—”
“Michael,” Mary interjected hurriedly, shooting him a dagger glance before she offered a kind smile to the sublimely unaware Miss Latham. “What my brother means to say is that The Morning Post serial is but a small portion of his writings. He’s the author of many scientific treatises on various artifacts and ruins that he’s unearthed, and—”
“My diaries,” he said smoothly.
One of the other girls—they could hardly be called women, as they were gazing at him as if he were a sweet cake and they were ready to devour him—clasped her hands together and said in a soulful tone, “I’ve never known a man to keep a diary.”
“And just how many men do you know?” Michael asked, irritated to be placed upon a pedestal for the most mundane of things.
Mary glared at him as if she were fighting the urge to toss him back into a pond. She said under her breath, “No one will invite you anywhere if you continue like that.”
“Nonsense,” he assured her en sotto. “They are too silly to know any better.”
As if to prove his point, yet another girl, this one with brown hair and a protruding chin, said brazenly, as if every word were a challenge that he wouldn’t be able to resist, “Mr. Hurst, I daresay our petty little parties bore you to death.”
“Yes, they do.”
Not realizing he found their party boring because of inane comments like hers, she sent her companions a triumphant glance. “I knew it! A ball is too tame for him after wrestling crocodiles and—”
“Hold!” Michael frowned. “Did you say ‘wrestling crocodiles’?”
“Why, yes.” When his brow creased, she added in a helpful tone, “You wrote about it in the The Morning Post just last month.”
Mary’s hand slipped from where it had been resting on his arm.
“Pray excuse me for just one moment,” Michael told the vapid ingénue before he turned.
His sister was two steps away, looking for a way to escape, but the crowd—trying to get closer to hear him speak—pressed too closely.
He grasped her elbow and pulled her back to his side. “There’s never a trapdoor about when you most need one, is there?”
Face red, she glanced at their interested audience. With obvious effort, she fixed a frozen smile on her face. “Pardon me, but my poor brother is famished and needs nourishment.” With that, she locked her arm through his, turned on her heel, put down her head, and burrowed her way through the crowd.
Michael allowed her to tug him along, glad to be rid of the pests in laces who stared after them.
They reached the refreshment table, where Mary quickly selected two half-filled cups and grabbed a small plate upon which sat a tiny piece of stale cake. Then, with an air of determination, she found an alcove hidden from prying eyes. Once there, she let out a huge sigh and dropped wearily upon the small settee provided for those fatigued from dancing.
“A crocodile?” Michael asked. “What—”
“Shush!” She gestured for him to take a cup. “Give me a moment to rest before you quiz me. I vow but I was holding my breath during that entire conversation. I just knew you’d be rude and ruin all of our efforts.”
Michael sniffed his cup and then took an exploratory sip. He choked. “Bloody hell, what is this stuff?”
“Orgeat, which you’d know if you’d throw your mind back to the few dances Mother and I dragged you to as a youth.”
“It’s vile.” Michael dumped the contents of his cup into a nearby plant, and then reached into his pocket and pulled out a small silver flask.
Mary paused, her own cup halfway to her lips. “Scotch?”
“Yes. And damned good Scotch, too. Our beloved brother-in-law Hugh sent it to me.” Michael filled his cup from his flask. “I admired the MacLean stock while visiting Hugh and our sister Triona several years ago, and he sent me a case. I’m almost to the end of it, so I may need to visit them again.”
“Perhaps I need to visit them.” Mary wistfully eyed his cup. “Triona was sad not to join us here in London.”
Michael paused in taking a drink. “I’m surprised she hasn’t yet been to town.”
“Mam told her not to.”
“What’s our grandmother to do with Triona’s travel plans?”
“Triona’s hoping to have a child and Mam specifically told her she should stay home just now and—”
“Hold. Triona’s following Mam’s advice?”
“Our grandmother is a healer. A noted healer.”
“Noted by a village full of uneducated fools.”
Mary’s gaze narrowed. “She’s helped many people.”
“Many people think she’s helped them.”
“Isn’t that the same?”
“No. Mam’s tendencies toward the flamboyant would have served her well upon the stage but do little to recommend her as a healer. If Triona and Hugh wish for a child, they would do better to come to London and see a physician.”
“Triona’s already been to every physician in London and Edinburgh. She and Hugh even went to Italy to see someone and—” Mary frowned. “I’ve already told you all of this in my letters. Didn’t you read them?”
“Of course I did.”
“Then what did I say about Triona and Hugh’s efforts to have a child?”
He swirled the whiskey in his cup.
“You didn’t read a single one of my letters, did you?”
“I read them all; I just didn’t read them closely.”
“Michael!” From where she sat on the low settee, Mary stomped her foot, her skirts fluttering. “You’re a— I can’t believe you— Oh!”
“I can’t read every damn word of every letter I get! I have five brothers and sisters, and then there’s Father, who cannot let a day go by without sending me some preachy epistle, and Mother, who is determined to discover who I’m to wed before I even know it myself. I didn’t yet mention Mam, who writes such damned cryptic stuff that it’s harder to slog through than a stone scratched over with hieroglyphs, and—”
“Stop complaining. You enjoy our letters and we know it.”
She was right. Though he may not have read the letters from his family closely each and every time he received one, he loved getting the missives. He traveled so much that they connected him to his home and kept him grounded.
Truth be told, he owed his siblings a lot. If not for their efforts, he would still be trapped in a sulfi’s prison. He shrugged and then smiled at Mary. “You’re right; there were days your letters were my only light.” More than you’ll ever know.
Mary eyed his flask. “I don’t suppose you’re thankful enough to share a sip, are you?”
He handed her the flask, noting how she eagerly poured a liberal splash into her own cup. “Now, that’s the sister I know and love,” he said with fondness as he replaced the flask in his pocket.
She took a sip and then sighed blissfully. “It’s wonderful. But you, Michael, are not. If you’d read my letters you’d know that Triona agreed to drink Mam’s potions for one year, and if there is no child by that time, then Triona’ll give up.”
Michael curled his lip. “Potions. There is no such thing as magic.”
“Then why are you so determined to get your hands on the Hurst Amulet? You’ve seen written accounts that say it’s magical.”
“I’ve also seen written accounts vowing that the earth is flat.”
Mary held out her empty cup and gestured for Michael to refill it. “There’s no harm in our sister drinking Mam’s potions. They give Triona hope.”
“Which is better than none,” Mary replied in a spritely tone, pointing at her waiting cup.
Michael removed the flask from his pocket, unscrewed the top, and tipped it over her cup, before saying in a resigned tone, “But I suppose Triona wouldn’t listen to anyone else. Plus, there are benefits to keeping Mam preoccupied, for she’ll be far too busy with our sister’s business to interfere in our lives.”
Mary frowned. “You’ve become very self-absorbed. Robert says it comes from being in charge of so many people for so long, and having your every wish seen to.”
“Our brother is a fool. He makes it sound as if I had servant girls following me around, waving palm fronds and feeding me grapes.”
Mary’s eyes widened. “Michael, you didn’t—”
“No, I didn’t. Bloody hell, I’ve been on an expedition, not a holiday. Instead of nattering on about something he knows nothing about, Robert should accompany me on my next expedition to Egypt. I’d like to see his soft, lace-bedecked self sleeping upon a pallet under a mosquito net, working from dawn to sundown in stifling heat, and digging in the dirt for hours upon end.”
“I thought you hired men to dig for you.”
“I can’t let them dig without supervision. Besides, if it’s a rich find, it’s better to dig myself so that fewer artifacts are broken by careless shovels and picks.” He cocked a brow at her. “Speaking of carelessness . . .” Michael tossed back the rest of his whiskey and refilled his cup. “We really should discuss this crocodile I supposedly wrestled. You’ve been wielding your pen far too artfully in ‘my’ serial for The Morning Post.”
“You asked me to write the serial for you,” she protested halfheartedly.
“Only because I didn’t have the time to do it myself, not because I wished someone to fabricate stories that make me appear ridiculous.”
She bit her lip, though she peeped at him through her lashes. “I let you win.”
“Thank you,” he returned sarcastically. “When I first arrived in town, people spoke enthusiastically about my expeditions and I mistakenly thought they were beginning to warm to true scientific discovery. Now I see that they were merely amazed at your preposterous tales.”
“People are interested in your research. Just last week Lord Harken-Styles said he wishes to invest even more in your adventures.”
“Lord Harken-Styles waylaid me in White’s last night and asked if he could see the arrowhead from the savage who shot me through the neck.”
Mary bit her lip again. “Oh. That.”
“Yes, that. The real indignity was that he believed me to be such a sapskull as to keep the arrowhead tied about my neck as a good luck talisman.”
Her lips twitched. “I thought that was a very romantic touch.”
“And thoroughly untruthful,” he replied sternly, wondering at the depth of his sister’s imagination. He shuddered to think of what other stories she’d concocted.
“I’m surprised Lord Harken-Styles didn’t offer to purchase it; he’s a notorious gambler and could use a lucky talisman.”
“I would have sold him an arrowhead had I one on my person, which—not being forewarned—I did not. I meant to ask about that tale in the coach on the way here, but I was distracted by this damned cravat, which is about to throttle me even now.” He tugged at the cravat again. “I shall burn this damned thing the second I’m able.”
“You’re just not used to it. Once you’ve been home for a few more weeks, you’ll hardly notice it.”
“I won’t be here that long.”
Mary’s mouth dropped open. “But . . . we only just rescued you!”
“For which I’m eternally grateful. But that does not turn me from my original intent of finding the Hurst Amulet, a feat that cannot be accomplished in London.” Excitement warmed him even now at the thought of his next adventure. For years he’d pursued a number of ancient artifacts, but only one object had kept his interest—their lost family heirloom, the elusive Hurst Amulet.
It was supposedly quite a beautiful piece, made of amber and precious metals. But, of more interest, the amulet held a mystery. It had been lost from their family hundreds of years before, given to Queen Elizabeth, who—from the references he’d found—had grown to fear it for some reason, and so had gifted it to a foreign emissary. The trouble was, they didn’t know which emissary or which foreign land.
Finally, after years of following every lead he could find, the amulet was nearly within his grasp. “If all goes well, I’ll have that damned amulet before the month’s out.”
Mary sighed. “Robert said you were about to fly, but you’ve only been here a week. Surely you can wait until—”
“I can’t wait. I have the map, and now I must finish this quest.”
“But you need more funds to proceed! You must either court support from the wealthier members of the ton, or”—her gaze narrowed on him—“accept funding from others.”
Michael frowned. “I am not taking Erroll’s money.”
“Why not? It’s not as if my husband doesn’t have the money! It’s rude to admit it, but he is fabulously wealthy.”
“I don’t care. I won’t have my own brother-in-law interfering with my work.”
“He wouldn’t interfere.”
“Fustian. I knew Erroll for years before you did, sister-mine. He would interfere, and you know it.”
She hesitated, then sighed. “Fine. He might interfere a little, but no more than that. He’s opinionated, as are you.”
“Which is why I won’t have him as a partner.” At her stubborn look, Michael added in a milder tone, “Erroll’s a good man and I’m very happy for the both of you. But we’re too much the same. Besides, it’s bad to mix family and business.”
“And yet you allow me to write your articles, and our brothers to assist you even more. Robert sells your artifacts here in London, while William’s ships ferry you and your expeditions all over the world.”
“Hiring your relatives is different from borrowing from them.”
“No one said anything about a loan. Erroll and I would expect a return, so it’s more of an investment.”
“Which is even worse. When I hire my relatives, the situation is based on services rendered, which is simple and straightforward. An investment, meanwhile, is based upon the luck of the venture, over which I have no control.”
She sniffed. “Fine. Then get used to wearing a cravat and attending every ball and soiree in London as you groom your next investor.”
“Mary, don’t get in a miff. Erroll didn’t seem upset when I turned him down, so why should you?”
“I thought it would be a way to help.”
“You’ve helped enough as it is, perhaps too much. Are there any other surprise adventures that I supposedly participated in other than wrestling a crocodile? A long-lost civilization found at the bottom of a dry lake? A duel over an Arabian princess in the desert? A fall from a cliff into an icy sea? Any missing limbs I should know about?”
She ruined any appearance of contrition by giggling. “It is all your fault, you know. You are such a horrid correspondent that I was forced to make up things. If you would write more often, I wouldn’t need to resort to such stratagems.”
“Nonsense. I’ve written home plenty of times.”
“To issue orders like a general, but you never tell us anything. One letter from you was only two sentences long and was merely a request to find a book you’d left at Mother’s and send it to you as soon as possible.”
“Unlike others in my family, I only write when I have something to say.”
“You only write when you need something. Worse, when you do drop hints about your adventures, you scatter them here and there like a bread crumb trail. You’ll send a brief letter to Robert one month, a short note to Caitlyn the next month, and on it goes. None of us would know anything about you at all if we didn’t share what few crumbs of information you toss us.”
“If I didn’t have so damn many siblings, you’d get more letters from me. But my lack of correspondence doesn’t give you permission to fictionalize my expeditions. Really, Mary—an arrow through the neck?”
She bit her lip, though her eyes danced merrily. “That was a bit dramatic, wasn’t it?”
“Very. Had I known Jane back then, I would have had her write those damn articles instead of you. She wouldn’t have made such a romanticized botch of it.”
“Jane? Do you mean Miss Smythe-Haughton, your assistant?”
“Who the hell else would I mean?” He disliked the interested note in his sister’s voice. “Jane is her name; what else should I call her?”
“I would think you’d call her Miss Smythe-Haughton.”
“My tongue would be exhausted if I had to say that every time I needed a fresh pair of socks or couldn’t find one of my notebooks. Speaking of which”—he frowned and pulled out his pocket watch, flicking it open with his thumb—“she should be here by now.”
“Miss Smythe-Haughton is coming here? But—” Mary blinked. “Michael, she wasn’t included on our invitation.”
“Which is why I wrote our hostess a letter this afternoon and asked her to send another invitation for Jane.”
“You didn’t! Michael, you’re hopeless! You can’t ask a hostess to include another guest—someone she doesn’t even know—at the last minute like that. It’s unheard-of.”
“Why not? It worked. Our hostess sent the invitation, and I passed it on to Jane, who sent word that she’d be here. Though she said it would be before ten and here it is, fifteen after, and—”
A commotion roiled across the ballroom like a hot wind blowing through a field of wheat.
Mary hopped to her feet, lifted on her tiptoes, and craned her neck. “Has the king arrived? Blast it, I cannot see a thing. Michael, you’re taller. Look for me, please. Is it the king? They said he might come.”
Michael shrugged, uninterested. “I don’t know. Everyone has turned toward the door and— Ah! It’s not the king at all, but Jane.”
Mary dropped back on her heels and frowned at her brother. “Why would Miss Smythe-Haughton’s arrival cause such a stir? No one knows her, do they?”
Michael had already turned his attention back to his cup of Scotch. “I can’t imagine they would.”
Mary waited, but her brother offered no more. Impatient, she snapped, “Well? Is Miss Smythe-Haughton from London?”
“No.” He took a drink. “At least, I don’t think so. I’ve never asked her.”
Mary closed her eyes and counted to ten. When Michael had first returned from his imprisonment, she’d been so happy to see him that she’d thought she’d never feel angry or upset with him again. That had lasted less than a week. Her brother was a brilliant explorer and historian. His essays and treatises were prized the world over, and he was beyond intelligent in a number of areas.
But his skills in dealing with society had greatly deteriorated from years of living abroad in the wildest and most untamed circumstances. “Michael, who is Miss Smythe-Haughton? She must be someone to cause such interest.”
The wave of excited murmurs wafted closer.
Mary leaned this way and that, trying to peer through the crowd. “I can’t imagine people are so excited over Miss Smythe-Haughton’s arrival that—” The crowd parted and Mary was afforded a direct view of her brother’s assistant.
Mary’s eyes widened.
She looked once.
Then she clapped a hand over her eyes and fell back upon the settee with a groan. “Oh, Michael, what have you done?”