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The ominous drip, drip of water echoed against the rough-hewn walls of the hidden chamber. It was true; the idol was here. It sat enthroned on its pedestal, bathed in a mysterious light that set its ruby eyes to glowing. Nikolas reached for it. Almost he had it, but something gave him pause. The glow of the eyes had become more intense. The idol was staring at him, through him, into him. He shook off the notion that the thing could see every stain ever etched into his soul. He reached again, but
'Excuse me, lass.' Neither the impatient tones nor the broad Highland accent belonged to brave Nikolas.
With a reluctant sigh, Chione Latimer abandoned her rich inner world and slid back into her only slightly more mundane life. She set down her pen and turned towards the housekeeper. 'Mrs Ferguson, I am quite busy. I thought I had asked to be left undisturbed.' She had to suppress a flash of impatience. She had pages to write. There would be no payment from her publisher until the latest installment of Nikolas's adventures was in his hands.
'That ye did, and so I told the gentleman, but bless me if some of us dinna act as high and mighty as the day is long.'
A strangled sound came from behind her. The squat, solid figure of Hugh Hamlyn, Viscount Renhurst, stood right on Mrs Ferguson's heels.
'Lord Renhurst,' Chione said in surprise. 'Are you back from town so soon?' A quick surge of hope had her instantly on her feet, her heart pounding. 'Have you heard something then? Has there been word of Mervyn?'
'No, no, nothing like that.' He waved an impatient hand. 'My steward wrote me in a panic, some sort of blight got into the corn. I had to purchase all new seed for the upper fields, and since nothing momentous was happening in the Lords, I decided to bring it out myself.' His habitually harsh expression softened a bit. 'I'm afraid your grandfather's whereabouts are still a mystery, Chione. I'm sorry.'
Chione smiled and struggled to hide her disappointment. 'Well, of course, a visit from you is the next best thing, my lord.' She filed her papers away, then stood. 'Will you bring tea, please, Mrs Ferguson?'
The housekeeper nodded and, with a sharp look for the nobleman, departed.
'Now what have I ever done to earn her displeasure?' Lord Renhurst asked in amused exasperation.
Chione waved a hand in dismissal. 'Oh, you know how Mrs Ferguson's moods are, my lord.' She shot him a conspiratorial smile. 'I know the perfect way for you to get back into her good graces, though.' She led her visitor over to a massive desk centered at one end of the room. 'You know how she loves it when people make themselves useful.'
She indicated the large bottom drawer of the desk. It was wedged tightly askew and impossible to open. 'Could you please, my lord?' Only with a long-time family friend like the viscount could she ask such a thing. 'All the sealing wax is in there and I've desperate need of it.'
He rolled his eyes. 'I come bearing news and get set to servants' work!' Yet he gamely folded back his sleeve and bent over the drawer. He pulled. He pounded. He heaved. 'Why haven't you had Eli in to take care of this?'
Eli was the ancient groom, the only manservant she had left, and also the one-legged former captain of the Fortune-Hunter, her grandfather's first merchant ship. 'He does not come in the house,' Chione explained. 'He claims his peg will scuff the floor, but I think he is afraid of Mrs Ferguson.'
'Oh, for God's sake,' Renhurst huffed in disgust. His fashionably tight coat was straining at the seams, and a sheen of perspiration shone on his brow. 'We're all afraid of Ferguson,' he grunted. 'And you still have not told me what I did to end up in her bad graces.'
Chione smiled. 'It appears that Mrs Ferguson was, at one time, of the opinion that you were on the verge of marrying again.'
The viscount was startled into losing his grip. 'Good God. Marrying whom?' he asked, applying himself and pulling harder.
With a last mighty heave, the drawer came loose. Chione hid her grin as both the sealing wax and the viscount ended up on the library floor. He gaped up at her, and Chione could not help but laugh.
'Oh, if you could only see your expression, sir! I never thought so, you may rest assured.' He wisely refrained from comment and she helped him rise and motioned him to a chair before she continued. 'Can you imagine the speculation you would be subject to, should you take a bride of three and twenty? And though society's gossip is nothing to me, I could never be comfortable marrying a man I have always regarded as an honorary uncle.'
Chione tilted her head and smiled upon her grandfather's closest friend. 'And yet, although I've said as much to Mrs Ferguson, I'm afraid that, since you have no intention of marrying me, she has no further use for you.'
The viscount still stared. 'I confess, such a solution has never occurred to me! I know I've told you more than once that a marriage might solve your problems, but to be wedded to an old dog like me?' He shuddered. 'What if, against all odds, you are right and Mervyn does come back after being missing all these months? He'd skin me alive!'
Chione smiled. 'Mervyn himself married a younger woman, but he did so out of love. He'd skin us both if we married for any other reason.'
'You are doubtless right.' He sat back. 'Not every man in his dotage has the energy that your grandfather possessed, my dear. There is not another man in a hundred that would contemplate a second family at such an age.' He smiled wryly. 'So sorry to disrupt Mrs Ferguson's plans. I suppose now it will be stale bread on the tea tray instead of fresh bannocks and honey.'
'Perhaps not.' Chione chuckled now. 'But I would not put it past her.'
'Actually, I did have a bit of news for you, but before we settle to it, I must askwhere are the children?'
'Olivia is napping.' She smiled and answered the question she knew he was truly asking. 'Will has gone fishing and taken the dog with him. You are safe enough.'
The viscount visibly relaxed. 'Thank heavens. The pair of them is all it takes to make me feel my own age. Leave it to Mervyn to spawn such a duo and then leave them to someone else to raise!' He smiled to take the sting from his words. 'When you throw that hell-hound into the mix, it is more than my nerves can handle.'
Mrs Ferguson re-entered the library with a clatter. She placed the tea tray down with a bit more force than necessary. 'Will ye be needing anything else, miss?'
'No, thank you, Mrs Ferguson.'
'Fine, then. I'll be close enough to hear,' she said with emphasis, 'should ye require anything at all.' She left, pointedly leaving the door wide open.
Lord Renhurst was morose. 'I knew it. Tea with bread and butter.'
Chione poured him a dish of tea. 'I do apologise, my lord. It may not be you at all. Honey is more difficult than butter for us to obtain these days.'
He set his dish down abruptly. 'Tell me things are not so bad as that, Chione.'
She gazed calmly back at him. 'Things are not so bad as that.'
'I damned well expect you to tell me if they are not.'
Chione merely passed him the tray of buttered bread.
He glared at her. 'Damn the Latimer men and their recklessness!' He raised a hand as she started to object. 'No, I've been friends with Mervyn for more than twenty years, I've earned the right to throw a curse or two his way.' He shook his head. 'Disappeared to parts unknown. No good explanation to a living soul, just muttering about something vital that needed to be done! Now he's been missing for whatnear a year and half again? Then Richard is killed five months ago in some godforsaken desert and here you are left alone. With two children and this mausoleum of a house to look after, and no funds with which to do so.' He lowered his voice a little. 'No one respects your strength and fortitude more than I, my dear, but if it has become too much for you to handle alone, I want you to come to me.'
Chione sighed. The longer Mervyn stayed missing, the worse her situation grew, but still, this was a conversation she never wished to have. It was true, her life was a mess, and her family's circumstances were hopelessly entangled. It was universally known, and tacitly ignored, at least in their insular little village and along the rugged coast of Devonshire. Chione coped as best she could, but she did not discuss it. She was a Latimer.
She winced a little at the untruth of that statement. All the world knew her as a Latimer, in any case, and in her heart she was truly a part of this family. She would prevail, as Latimers always had, no matter how difficult the situation they found themselves in.
She stiffened her spine and cast a false smile at Lord Renhurst. 'We are fine, my lord. We have learned to practise economies. Now come, what news have you?'
'Economies!' he snorted. 'Mervyn built Latimer Shipping with his own two hands. If he ever found out what a mess it's become and how his family has been obliged to live ' He shook his head. 'I've spoken with the banks again, but they refuse to budge. They will not release Mervyn's funds until some definitive word is had of him.'
'Thank you for trying, in any case.' She sighed.
'Least I could do,' he mumbled. 'Wanted to tell you, too, that I went to the Antiquarian Society, as you asked.'
Chione was brought to instant attention. 'Oh, my lord, thank you! Did you speak with the gentleman I mentioned? Did Mr Bartlett know anything of use?'
'He offers you his sincerest condolences, but could only tell me that, yes, Richard did indeed spend a great deal of time in their collection before he left for Egypt.'
'Could he not tell you specifically what Richard was looking for?'
'He could not.'
She closed her eyes in disappointment. Chione knew that Richard had been hiding something; something about her grandfather's disappearance, she suspected. Now his secrets had died along with her brother. Trying to ferret out the one kept her from dwelling on the other. But it was more than that. She needed to find her grandfather, and the sooner the better. She refused to consider what the rest of the world believed: that he was most likely dead as well.
'Bartlett did say that he spent a great deal of time with a Mr Alden. Scholar of some sort. He recommended that you speak with him if you wished to know what was occupying your brother's interest.'
Chione brightened immediately. 'Alden,' she mused. 'The name is familiar. Yes, I believe I have read something of his. I shall look through Mervyn's journals.' She turned to Lord Renhurst and smiled. 'Thank you so much. You are a very great friend, to all of us.'
The viscount blinked, and then sat a moment, silently contemplating her. 'You think this is something to do with the Lost Jewel, don't you?' he asked.
'I fear so,' she answered simply. 'But I hope not.'
'I hope not, as well.' His disapproval was clear. 'You are in a devil of a fix already, my dear, without adding in a lot of nonsense about pharaohs and mysterious lost treasures.'
'We might think it a parcel of nonsense, but you know that Richard believed in it. As does Mervyn.' To put it simply, they had wanted to believe. The men in Chione's family were adventurers in heart and deed. They craved travel and excitement as fervently as the débutantes of the ton craved young and single heirs to a dukedom, as constantly as the opium eaters of her mother's country craved their drug.
Chione cast her gaze down at her tea. What she craved were far simpler things: food for the table, a warmer coat for Will, the ability to pay her remaining servants' wages. But she would achieve none of those by drinking tea with Lord Renhurst.
'Do try not to worry, my lord. We shall muddle through.' Strategically, she paused and cocked her head. 'Listen, do you hear barking?'
The viscount's manner abruptly changed. He set down his dish of tea. 'Well, then,' he said briskly, 'we will scheme together to bring you about, but another time. I cannot stay longer today.'
Chione had to hide her smile at his sudden eagerness to be gone. 'Of course. Thank you so much for talking with Mr Bartlett for me.'
'Certainly.' He paused and a stern expression settled once more over his features. 'I've let you have your way so far, Chione, but I'm watching you closely. If I need to step in, I will.'
'I appreciate your concern, sir.'
He offered his arm, listening intently. 'Will you walk me out? I must be off.'
Chione resisted the impish urge to drag her feet. They stepped outside and she wrapped her shawl tighter about her shoulders. She breathed deep of the sea scent blowing strong on the wind. It was the kind of wind that brought change, her grandfather had always said. She closed her eyes and hoped it would bring change. She hoped it would bring him home again.
'Good day to you, Chione. We will speak again soon.' Lord Renhurst's groom pulled his phaeton up to the house and he hurried towards it. He skidded to a stop, however, when a horse and rider suddenly emerged from the wooded section of the drive.
The sun obscured her view, and Chione caught her breath, believing for an instant that she had indeed wished Mervyn Latimer home. The rider approached, and stopped in front of the house, allowing her to see that it was not the imposing form of her missing grandfather, but that of a younger man instead.
A man, indeed, and a specimen of the species like she had never seen.
Most of the men in the village were fishermen, gnarled from their constant battle against wind and sea. Lord Renhurst and her grandfather were older, and stout with good living. Her brother had always looked exactly what he had beena rumpled, slightly grubby scholar. But this man She gave a little sigh. He dismounted and she could not look away. He stood tall, broad and powerful. He looked, in fact, as if he could have ridden straight from the pages of one of her adventure novels.
As if he had heard her thoughts, he strode boldly towards the house. The closer he came, the faster her heart began to trip. He stopped and the skin on Chione's nape prickled, every tiny hair there standing at quivering attention.