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.”...