MISS HELEN CORBYN WAS GRATEFUL for the full skirts that hid her tapping foot. It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate Lord Thorsby’s account of his latest mummy acquisition, but she’d much rather be reading ancient texts than debating mummification techniques. But texts were dull by all standards but hers, and not likely to garner any interest at the Trustees’ annual ball. And so, she tapped impatiently while the crowd in the Egyptian-Saloon-turned-ballroom made all the appropriate noises of awe and delighted disgust.
She’d once considered Lord Thorsby a potential suitor, but any thoughts she’d had in that direction had been effectively quashed tonight. He’d just returned from six months in Egypt, and she’d taken extra care with her hair in anticipation of meeting him again. But then the baron’s first words on seeing her had been, “Miss Corbyn, I’m curious to know what you make of the inscription on a shabti I found in the tomb of a Late Dynasty queen.”
Helen wasn’t a lady who required flowery compliments or professions of undying affection. As a rule, she preferred a well-informed discussion of ancient artifacts to empty platitudes, but an inquiry about her general well-being would not have gone amiss. The man had been gone for six months, after all. It was then that she realized her unique knowledge of ancient languages attracted Lord Thorsby far more than any softer sentiment ever would.
She found she wished for a bit more romance. A bit more dash. She wished, quite simply, for a bit more. Their interaction had left her feeling curiously disappointed and mildly irritated. What she’d not felt was pain in the area of her heart.
When Lord Thorsby turned to address a question from one of the Trustees, she excused herself and slipped into the museum’s dimly lit corridors. She strode purposefully, tugging the elbow-length gloves from her hands as she walked. Her crimson taffeta skirts gave a satisfactory swish with each step.
While many of Lord Thorsby’s recent crates had yet to be unpacked, she’d discovered to her delight some text fragments in one of his earlier shipments. She’d spent much of the past week engrossed in the fragile bits. They offered oblique hints toward the elusive Pharaoh’s Trinity, a three-piece amulet said to contain an alchemist’s recipe for an immortality elixir. She didn’t believe in such things, but the Trinity was legendary. It was the stuff of archaeologists’ bedtime stories, and the notion that the fabled amulet might actually exist caused energy to trip along her spine.
She would embark soon for her own journey to Egypt, and she meant to have another peek at the texts before she left. She aimed herself in the direction of the small workroom where they were kept. As she traveled the long corridor behind the museum’s public rooms, the light of the Egyptian Saloon’s gas sconces grew fainter, and the strains of the Trustees’ string quartet faded.
This portion of the museum was a warren of passages and storage rooms, and she was thankful for the long afternoons she’d spent translating for Professor Tyndale—afternoons that afforded her more than a passing knowledge of the museum’s back corridors. Despite that distinct advantage, her sense of direction wasn’t her most stellar quality. It was a fact of which her siblings were forever reminding her, and she paused once, then again, before turning down another corridor.
She must be behind the Memphis fist by now. Cool, inky blackness shrouded the corridor, and she knew the rooms to either side were crowded with coffins and long-dead kings. The mummified remains of children and their leather-skinned mothers. Helen wasn’t a squeamish sort of female—her brother Edmund had long since seen to that—and the dead didn’t normally unsettle her. But here, alone in the midnight stillness of the museum’s dark passageways, she could almost imagine their whispers against her neck. She rubbed the tops of her arms and hurried toward the workroom. It should be just down the next corridor. Or was it two halls over?
Faint squares of light slowly emerged from the blackness ahead—not enough to see by, but enough to hint at the windows that looked onto the museum’s rear garden. Had she come too far then?
She turned the next corner and—“Ooof!”
Helen lifted her hands to steady herself, certain she’d run into one of the Egyptian stone sarcophagi. Her gloves fell unheeded to the floor as she felt the coolness of smooth linen draping the stone and beneath that, a curious warmth.
Sarcophagi were not warm.
She quickly pulled her hands away, but not before the warmth moved on an inhale. She stumbled back a step. There weren’t supposed to be any guests in this part of the museum, and she felt certain the watch would have carried lanterns. This was no member of the museum’s staff.
She opened and closed her mouth. Finally, she forced out with more authority than she felt, “Who goes there?” Stiffening her carriage to give her courage, she added, “You should know the watch are on their way.”
“Stand aside.” The low whisper rasped along Helen’s spine, lifting the hairs at her nape. The softly spoken command had the opposite effect as its speaker intended, though, for her feet became lead weights that refused to move.
She drew a breath to call out, but large hands gripped her, startling an ineffectual squeak from her corseted lungs. One hand covered her mouth while the other spun her around. A heavy arm pressed her ribs, holding her firmly against a man’s chest.
Her heart raced at the familiarity, and her hands grew damp. With a considerable effort that left dents in her palms, she stilled their shaking. Why had she left the Trustees’ ball again? She was moments from certain death, or worse, and she couldn’t recall why she’d felt such an impatience to wander the museum’s back corridors.
“Who are you?” The raspy whisper sounded in her ear again, close enough to flutter the hair at her temple.
Her eyes widened as gooseflesh rose along her bare arms. She considered biting the hand at her mouth. The man was much too large, though, and she’d never do enough damage to escape before he caught her again.
“Miss”—she cleared the mouse from her throat—“Miss Helen Corbyn." She couldn’t see his face from the way he was holding her, and his hand muffled her words. When he loosened his grip, she added, “My father is Horatio Corbyn, president of the Royal Astronomical Society. My grandfather is Lord Ashford. He’s an earl with vast holdings. If it’s money you want—”
“Love,” he said, his low voice vibrating against her back, “you can rest easy. There’s nothing you have that I want.”
She snapped her mouth closed as her pulse thrummed in her ears.
“If I release you, can I trust you to count to one hundred before you sound the alarm?”
Helen frowned. He was letting her go? She nodded slowly, detecting the barest trace of sandalwood soap in the warm air between them. It was the oddest sort of thing to notice, but truly, what sort of criminal carried such a pleasing scent? Shouldn’t he smell of… oh, she didn’t know… brimstone and sweat?
The arm at her waist relaxed its hold and slowly fell away. Cool air replaced the heat that had been there. “I’m going to remove my hand from your mouth,” he whispered into her ear, and she shivered. “Begin counting and don’t move. Do you understand?”
She nodded again, and his hand eased from her mouth. She considered screaming then thought better of it. The intruder seemed inclined to leave her, and it would be best not to upset that plan.
“Count,” he ordered.
She inhaled a shaky breath and licked her lips. “One. Two…”
Something soft brushed her arm, and her breath hitched until she realized it was naught but her own glove, retrieved from the floor and pressed into her keeping. The man moved past her in the corridor then, and as he did, a thread of light from the garden window caught his profile. A dark cloth draped his head and lower face in the Arab style, and pale eyes shimmered silver in the moonlight.
RHYS EVELYN NEVER WOULD HAVE confessed the words aloud but… he missed balls. Cotillions and routs and interminable midnight suppers. Mindless social events where he’d nothing with which to concern himself but watered punch and the occasional aggressive female.
It wasn’t that he missed dancing, although he’d never complained about the feel of a lady’s waist beneath his hand as they turned in a waltz. No, he missed the normalcy of the life he’d made for himself and Fiona.
Who knew the sudden appearance of the inconvenient lady before him, with her crisp taffeta and carefully styled tresses, would prompt such wistful longing? But more than dancing for his own enjoyment, he yearned to see Fiona twirling once again. His jaw firmed on that thought, and he was reminded of his purpose.
“You should know the watch are on their way.” The taffeta lady’s voice was soft and cultured, richer than he would have expected from one so petite. She was bluffing, he was certain of it, but he’d not survived this long by underestimating his adversary.
When she moved as if to sound the alarm, he quickly pressed a hand to her mouth. Her skirts rustled against his rougher linen clothing, and he felt the stiff bones of her stays beneath the hand he held to her middle.
Of all the nights for him to retrieve the amulet… The museum was normally tucked up by this time, hushed and still beneath the weight of history filling its halls. He’d certainly not expected to encounter anyone. It should have been a simple enough task to slip in and out the back, but then nothing about the past weeks had been simple.
The lady shifted in his arms, and he caught the faintest scent of flowers rising from her hair. The fragrance was at once sweet and exotic, spicy and completely at odds with the refined, silk-clad Englishwoman pressed against him. Night jasmine, he thought, bright and wild. It put him in mind of lush hanging gardens in Persia, but he’d have sworn the lady before him was more the English-holly-and-boxwood sort.
He’d been too long in the desert. The sun had turned his brains to dust, but the feel of cool silk beneath his fingertips nearly undid him. He closed his eyes and when she agreed to count, he slowly lowered his hand from her mouth.
“One, two,” she whispered. He was pleased and not a little relieved when she obeyed his command. He’d thought this life far behind him—had worked hard, in fact, to put distance between himself and the hangman’s noose. To be caught now by a tiny slip of a woman was the height of irony. Despite that, he couldn’t deny the unexpected current that flashed through his veins. It was fear, of course. Fear for Fiona if he failed in his mission. It had nothing to do with the warm weight of the woman in his arms, and it most definitely was not the thrill of adventure.
When he was confident the lady wouldn’t scream, at least for as long as it took him to escape, he pressed her fallen gloves into her soft hands and edged past her. Miss Helen Corbyn, daughter of the president of the Royal Astronomical Society, granddaughter of Earl Something-or-Other, continued counting into the darkness.
He found the window he’d left open—the museum’s locks had been laughable—and checked his pocket once more. Satisfied to feel the smooth edge of the amulet inside, he climbed through the opening. As he went, he chanced one more look over his shoulder, unsurprised to see Miss Corbyn angling for a glimpse of him.