The Virgin’s Secret

 

CHAPTER ONE

London, 1885

“It appears the natives are particularly restless this year.” Nathanial Harrington gazed over the crowd below from his vantage point on the mezzanine balcony.

“It is spring after all,” his older brother, Quinton, said, an amused note in his voice. “The mating rituals have begun.”

“I daresay the cream of London society would not be at all pleased at your referring to the season’s festivities as mating rituals,” Nate said wryly.

“As accurate as the observation might be.”

“Accuracy has never played a significant role in the activities of society.” Nate glanced at his brother. “Nor, fortunately for you, has punctuality.”

Quint shrugged. “I am merely fashionably late.”

“You left Egypt a full fortnight before I did and yet I’ve been back in London for five days now.” Nate eyed his brother. “What kept you? Where have you been?”

“Here and there. As for what kept me, it’s remarkable the number of,” Quint grinned in the wicked manner that had been the downfall of more than one unsuspecting woman, “diversions a man without the accompaniment of his conscience might encounter.”

Nate raised a brow. “When you say conscience, are you referring to me?”

“Absolutely, little brother.” Quint chuckled. “You are my conscience, the custodian of my morals, the guardian of my virtue, the–”

Nate laughed. “I don’t seem to do a very good job of it.”

“And for that I am eternally grateful.”

“As am I.” As much as he hated to admit it, given that trouble seemed to nip incessantly at Quint’s heels, Nate’s life would be extraordinarily dull were it not for his brother’s penchant for adventure.

When Nate had finished his studies, it had been Quint who had suggested his younger brother join him on his travels and quests for the lost treasures of the ages. Together they had been to lands and places Nate had never dreamed he’d see with his own eyes. The day might find them in Egypt or Persia or Asia Minor, where the Nile or the Tigris or the Euphrates flowed. Wherever men had once lived ad built cities and aspired to forever.

If truth were told, he’d rather expected he’d spend his days in the dusty bowels of museum libraries or the hallowed halls of one university or another. He had anticipated his life would consist of merely searching for the knowledge of the ancients. Instead, he now studied yellowed manuscripts and carved stone fragments for clues to finding the tangibles left behind by history. For Nate, the artifacts and antiquities he and his brother found breathed life into long dead civilizations and made them real. Quint was more concerned with the fine price they would bring from museums or collectors. Yet despite their differences in philosophies, or perhaps because of them, they made an excellent and accomplished team.

“Did you…” Quint paused, the question unasked but then it didn’t need to be said aloud.

Nate cast his brother a resigned look. “The fines were paid, the permits arranged for the appropriate—if fictitious—dates to avoid further fines, all necessary authorities received the usual, and in a few cases more generous than usual, bribes. And the French counsel is now certain it was not you seen leaving his wife’s rooms. Attention was diverted toward one of the Americans.” Nate shook his head. “It’s a pity really. I rather liked them.”

“I daresay their morals in matters of this nature are no better than mine. And certainly no better than the French Counsel’s wife.” Quint flashed him an unrepentant smile. “Your help is most appreciated, you know.”

“I do.” Nate sighed. “However, you should be prepared for Mother’s ire. I can’t help you there. She was concerned that you wouldn’t make it home at all.”

“Come now, I would never miss our little sister’s coming out ball.” Quint adjusted the cuffs at his wrists. He had the look of a man who had dressed in a hurry, as he no doubt had. “Reggie would cut my heart out as would Mother and, probably, Sterling as well.”

“It does seem a requirement to have all family members present when launching a sister on the seas of society.” Nate gazed over the crowd below them. “When did you finally arrive in London?”

“What time is it now?” Quint grinned. “Obviously, I haven’t missed anything of importance nor does it sound as if I missed anything of interest in Alexandria.”

“Not really.” Nate paused. “Oh, there was someone asking about you.”

Quint’s grin widened. “Someone is always asking about me.”

“Yes, well, this was not a suspicious husband or outraged father. Do you recall Enrico Montini?”

Quint shrugged. “Vaguely.”

“Surely you remember him. He claimed to have discovered a seal, ancient, Akkadian if I remember, that made reference to the Virgin’s Secret, the lost city of Ambropia. He was very cautious and wouldn’t show us the seal itself only the clay impression made by the seal.” Nate stared at his brother. Quint had worked with the professor who was the leading authority on Ambropia years ago. “You can’t possibly have forgotten. It was a remarkable find.”

“Yes, of course.”

“Apparently he died rather suddenly a few months ago.”

“How unfortunate,” Quint murmured.

“Indeed. His brother, odd little fellow, accosted me a few days after you left. He was quite irate and accused us, really you—”

“Me?”

“Your reputation precedes you.” Nate grimaced. While he worked hard to keep their activities legitimate, there had been incidents before Nate had joined Quint that had been, at the very least, questionable. “Montini’s brother suspects someone substituted a seal of lesser quality and age for his which he then unknowingly presented to the Antiquities Society Validation committee. Needless to say they were not amused.”

“Very little does amuse them,” Quint said under his breath.

“Montini was discredited. His brother claims the shattering of his reputation somehow led to his death and he wants to find those responsible.”

The Validation and Allocation Committee of the London Antiquities Society was charged with determining the significance of the finds of those of its members who hunted for artifacts in the far corners of the world as well as evaluating proposals for future work. The Society’s board used the committee’s decisions to determine whether or not to lend support to an expedition. Support which might be as minimal as the use of the Society’s influential name or as consequential as financial backing.

“You should know I told his brother you had left Egypt for Turkey. I suspect he intended to follow you.”

“Most appreciated.”

“One does what one can for one’s brother.” Nate shook his head. “Pity about Montini though.”

“No doubt he simply made a mistake,” Quint said.

“Still, if I recall the impressions he showed us—”

“Such things happen all the time. You and I have on occasion believed a find to be more significant than it was.” Quint paused, nodded at the gathering below them and abruptly changed the subject. Not that it really mattered. “Whose idea was it to have this ball out of doors?”

Nate chuckled. “Who do you think?”

“And Mother allowed it?”

“She fretted all week about the possibility of rain and what would we do then? But you know how Reggie is when she sets her mind on something.” Nate shrugged. “And this is, after all, her party.”

Even at age eighteen, Regina Harrington had a strength of character that would be some poor man’s undoing one day. Their sister was the youngest child and only girl and neither her mother nor her brothers had ever managed to say no to her. Reggie had gotten it into her head that it would be a grand idea to have dancing on the terrace under the stars and reserve the ballroom for tables for dinner and conversation. She had ignored Mother’s concerns with the blithe confidence known only to young women in their first season. Besides it wouldn’t dare rain on Lady Regina Harrington’s coming out ball and it hadn’t. It was a perfect spring night.

Nate leaned on the balustrade and studied the crowd. “When was the last time we were in England in the spring?”

“I’m not sure.” Quint thought for a moment. “This time last year we were in Persia and the year before that Egypt, I think, or perhaps Turkey. I really can’t say but it’s been a long time.”

It had been at least six years by Nate’s estimation since he and his brother had resided for more than a handful of months at a time in England, at their family’s London home or their country estate. They were more likely to be found searching for a lost city in Turkey or a pharaoh’s vanished tomb in Egypt or a forgotten temple in Persia and the treasure that would surely accompany such a find. These days they were more at home sleeping under the stars than dancing under them. Nate tugged at the scratchy, starched collar imprisoning his neck. And they’d be far more comfortable as well. Still, it was good to be home.

“As much as I hate to admit it, I have rather missed the London season,” Quint said thoughtfully.

Nate scoffed. “I find that hard to believe. I thought you hated all this.”

“Nonsense, brother dear.” Quint scanned the crowd below them. “I’ve never especially liked the unrelenting rules governing it all. The ‘you must do this’ and ‘you absolutely cannot do that’. But the array of English beauty on display during the season is unmatched. It’s a grand feast and well worth the effort.”

Nate chuckled. “A feast?”

“Absolutely.” Quint rested his forearms on the balustrade, clasped his hands together and scanned the gathering. He nodded toward a group of fresh faced, hopeful young females in white gowns. Nate followed his brother’s gaze but his eye caught on a dark haired young woman. She wore a dress the deep color of ripe apricots and casually circled the terrace as if she were looking for something or someone.

“There you have the debutantes, those in their first season. They are a first course, light and teasing to the appetite. No more than a suggestion of the offerings to come.”

“And the second course?” The woman carried herself with the self-assurance borne of beauty but Nate had the most absurd notion that she was somehow out of place. It was a silly thought. He didn’t know half the guests in attendance and wouldn’t know who belonged here and who didn’t. Nor did he care.

“There.” Quint indicated another group of pastel clad young ladies. “This is no doubt their second or third season or more. They are somewhat more substantial to the palate but again nothing more than a prelude. As for the main course…” He narrowed his gaze thoughtfully. “Presentation of a plate, its appeal to the eye, is as important as flavor. One wouldn’t be tempted by an offering that did not whet one’s appetite.” Quint studied the crowd. “Those in more vibrant colors are married or widows. Here, brother, you must make your selection of which dish to sample carefully. While an unhappily married woman makes an excellent main course, an outraged husband does tend to produce unpleasant aftereffects.”

“Indigestion?” Nate said absently, still watching the unknown lady meander around the perimeters of the terrace. He couldn’t clearly make out her features but he had the oddest sense of familiarity. Had he met her before? Years ago perhaps? Or on one of his rare visits home? Nonsense, from the balcony he couldn’t clearly see her face.

“At the very least. But a widow who is content in her widowhood and has no desire to become a wife again can be a most substantial and satisfying—” Quint grinned—”dining experience.”

“Very tasty,” Nate murmured.

Quint slanted him a suspicious glance. “Are you listening to me?”

“What? Yes, of course,” Nate said quickly and straightened. “I am hanging on every word. I believe you have come to,” he cleared his throat, “dessert.”

“A most important and delightful addition to a meal.” Quint shrugged. “Although dessert is entirely dependent upon one’s taste. A light and frothy confection of spun sugar and air—”

“Similar to the first course?”

Quint nodded. “Quite. While tasty upon the tongue, such a sweet can lead to a permanent diet which I personally prefer to avoid. And a heavier offering, say a pudding, can be thoroughly enjoyable as long as one is careful not to develop a taste for it.”

“Or one might find oneself eating pudding for the rest of one’s life?”

“Exactly. And as much as I might like pudding I can’t imagine having it every day until I breathe my last.”

“Nor can I.” Although Nate suspected he would be ready for a steady diet of pudding long before his brother was. Not that he was ready for pudding—or rather marriage—as of yet. Still, the idea was not nearly as repugnant to him as it was to Quint. Nate was confident he would know the right woman when she stepped into his life. Until then, he was more than willing to try whatever desserts were offered.

“It appears Sterling has noted my arrival,” Quint said out of the corner of his mouth, directing a smile and a brief wave to their brother who stood off to one side of the terrace beside their mother. The Earl of Wyldwood’s annoyed glare was as unyielding as the legendary beacon from the long vanished Pharos of Alexandria. “Shall we join the others?”

“I don’t think we can avoid it.” Nate chuckled.

Quint stepped through the door onto the mezzanine that overlooked the ballroom. Nate cast a last glance over the crowd below then followed his brother. He had lost the woman in the apricot dress but he had no doubt he would find her. He smiled to himself, noting the same sense of anticipation he always had at the start of any quest, be it for the lost treasures of an ancient people or an intriguing female. Would this be a find of great importance? Or like that poor wretch Montini, would it be nothing more than a dreadful mistake?

Regardless, he had always been fond of apricots.

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