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London, Summer 1816
On an ordinary day, Michael Keswick, the Duke of Cameron, would enjoy strolling Bullock's Museum at his leisure to study the rare Egyptian artifacts on display. He preferred being alone and disliked the foolish topics of conversation that often arose among his peers. He'd made an exception today at the request of a friend. But Henry, it seemed, had little interest in the museum, and had asked Michael to accompany him for an entirely different reason.
"What do you think of her, Your Grace?"
Michael frowned at the young man by his side. Henry may have recently inherited an earldom, but he was more than ten years his junior and lacked judgment when it came to the fair sex. He was also Michael's responsibility.
"Which one is she?" Michael said, his eyes scanning the crowded entrance.
The popular museum in Piccadilly, also known as Egyptian Hall, was renowned for its stunning architecture inspired by an Egyptian temple and vast array of curiosities from the South Seas. But Henry's gaze was not on the impressive grand hall with its pillars engraved with hieroglyphics and Egyptian symbols. Rather he was focused on two women who were admiring a reproduction of a sphinx.
"Miss Chloe Somerton is the fair-haired lady," Henry pointed out.
The women had their backs to them. Only one possessed golden hair, the object of young Henry's obsession.
"Well, then. We don't want to keep the ladies waiting, do we?" Michael started forward.
Henry placed a hand on his sleeve. "Wait. They are not expecting us."
Michael halted and narrowed his gaze at the young man. "What do you mean?"
Henry had the good sense to look uneasy. "I overheard Miss Chloe mention at Lady Holloway's ball that she would be attending the museum today with her sister, Lady Huntingdon."
Michael arched an eyebrow. "That's a bit conniving, even for you, Henry."
"I want you to meet her. Your approval is important to me, Your Grace." Henry looked at him with a mixture of admiration and hope that never failed to prick Michael's conscience.
"You shouldn't rush it, Henry. You're too young to be shackled with a wife." Michael's voice sounded harsh to his own ears.
Henry's gaze returned to the blond woman, and a lovesick look flickered in his brown eyes. "What does it matter when the lady is so fair?"
Don't let your balls rule your brains! Michael wanted to shout at Henry and shake some sense into him, right here in the middle of the museum's vestibule. How the hell was he supposed to look after the young man anyway?
The women had left the sphinx and moved on to a curiosity cabinet. From this distance, they appeared to be studying an array of Egyptian jewelry. The blonde wasn't as tall as he preferred his women, but even in the demure pink gown she wore, any man could see she was generously curved. Her golden hair was piled in an elegant style atop her head. He squinted but couldn't make out the color of her eyes. Something was vaguely familiar about her. Perhaps it was the way she walked. Head held high, almost regally, her steps fluid and graceful.
"I'll go along with your ruse," Michael said. "I know Lord Huntingdon from White's. It's an excuse to speak with his wife. Stay here until I motion for you."
Michael wove through the crowd and headed for the two women. He passed statues of Egyptian gods and goddesses, similar to the statues of Isis and Osiris that flanked the exterior of the museum. A glass dome in the ceiling cast sunlight on a temple on the Nile. But just as he neared, Lady Huntingdon wandered off to study a gold-tinted statue of a pharaoh. Chloe Somerton remained by the curiosity cabinet.
His step slowed. Should he first approach the blonde or her chaperone? He knew which was proper, but this was a strategic decision — similar to a battle plan — and he always went with his gut.
He'd been right about the cabinet's contents. Gold necklaces and earrings nestled on black velvet were displayed behind the glass. The young woman was gazing at the jewelry and didn't turn when he approached. Once again, the nagging feeling that he'd seen her before rose within him.
Michael glanced at the jewelry, then back at the lady. He cleared his throat. "Stunning."
She nodded, her attention still focused on the artifacts.
"Which is your favorite?" he asked.
She sighed. "The necklace with the turquoise scarab beetle amulet."
"Not the gold wide-collar necklace?"
"No. The workmanship of the talisman beetle is exquisite." She turned to him and smiled. "Don't you agree?" Michael stiffened, his gaze riveted on her face.
He had seen her before.
A few loose tendrils of golden hair had escaped her pins and brushed the slender column of her throat. Her facial bones were delicately carved, and her lips temptingly plump. But it was the sapphire eyes — exotically slanted like the pharaohs surrounding them — that made his breath hitch.
Chloe Somerton was the picture of beauty, grace, and innocence.
She was also a fraud.
He must have taken too long to answer her question. She met his gaze, and for a brief second her smile faltered, but it was back in place so quickly he imagined it a quirk of the sunlight reflecting off the glass cabinets.
A dark-haired lady wearing a blue gown rushed forward with Henry in tow. "I'm Lady Huntingdon, Your Grace. I believe you are acquainted with my husband."
Michael bowed. "Of course. Huntingdon is an old friend." He glanced at Henry. "I'd make the introductions, but I see you've already met Lord Sefton."
"Yes. Lord Sefton and I were discussing the uniqueness of the pharaohs." She motioned to her sister. "May I introduce my sister, Miss Chloe Somerton."
The object of young Henry's interest curtsied. Chloe's bodice was trimmed with lace; just enough to display the creamy swell of her breasts. She wore no necklace, and the ivory skin at her throat was temptingly smooth. Her lips curled in a smile, revealing a dimple in her cheek, before she turned her blue gaze to meet Henry's.
Michael's protégé looked as if he would bow down to kiss her slippers.
"Lord Sefton and I previously met at Lady Holloway's ball," Chloe said. "How nice to see you again."
Something in her tone aroused Michael's suspicions. Had she known they would come? Had she devised for Henry to overhear her when she said she would be at the museum today?
The last time Michael had seen Chloe she wasn't wearing a fine gown or touring a museum. She also wasn't flirting with a young eligible gentleman who'd recently inherited an earldom.
What was her game?
"Do you have an interest in ancient Egyptian artifacts, my lord?" Chloe asked.
Henry emphatically bobbed his head. "Oh, yes. Both of us do."
"Splendid!" Lady Huntingdon clasped her hands to her chest. "I've arranged for a private tour from Mr. Bullock, the founder of the museum himself. He's a fascinating man who began as a jeweler and goldsmith before forming his collection during seventeen years of research. No one knows the museum better. Please join us."
Henry's eyes lit up as if she'd offered him all the gold in Egypt. "We'd be delighted." He glanced at Michael with a hopeful and excited expression.
Michael forced a smile. "Thank you for the gracious offer." It wasn't what he'd expected for the day, but at least he'd have a reason to observe the little charlatan and figure out her game. If she'd set her sights on Henry, then it was Michael's responsibility to look after the lad and his newly inherited fortune and title.
"We've been meaning to visit the museum since our return from Hampshire two weeks ago," Lady Huntingdon said. "But Chloe has been quite busy. She volunteers at the orphanage every Tuesday and Thursday."
"What admirable, charitable work," Henry said.
Chloe smiled sweetly. "I enjoy the children."
Michael doubted she'd know what an orphan looked like if she stumbled over one in the street. How could someone so fraudulent appear so angelic?
Mr. Bullock, the museum's founder and their guide for the afternoon, approached. A short, middle-aged man, he had a dark complexion more like a Spaniard than an Englishman. "Good day. Are you ready for your tour?"
The foursome were ushered out of the great hall, past pyramids and papyrus columns, and down a long corridor. Henry was quick to offer Chloe his arm, and his chest appeared to puff in his waistcoat when she placed the tips of her gloved fingers on his sleeve.
Michael's frown deepened. It was worse than he'd thought. The boy was already ensnared by her feminine wiles.
Mr. Bullock stopped outside an open doorway and waited for the group to enter. "This is our African room," he said, motioning to a dioramic taxidermy display of an elephant, zebra, lion, and other animals behind a roped-off section. Tall trees were also part of the display. The room was of an impressive size, and a long bench with a red cushion sat in front of the scene so one could sit and admire the animals.
"Oh my! I've never seen anything quite like this," Chloe said, her tone filled with awe. Her gaze traveled over the huge elephant with its wrinkled gray skin and ivory tusk, the zebra with its distinctive black and white stripes, and the lion with its razor-sharp teeth. She leaned across the rope to get closer. "They appear alive. I want to reach out and pet the zebra."
The look of wonder on her lovely face was genuine, and Michael found it hard to tear his gaze away. Her breathing was rapid and her breasts rose and fell temptingly against the neckline of her gown. Her blue eyes shone with excitement and eagerness. He felt the stirrings of desire, and annoyance rose within him.
Bloody hell. He was here to protect Henry from her scheming, not lust after the chit. But something about Chloe Somerton was exotic as well. Just like the animals behind the rope, she possessed a rare, wild beauty.
Mr. Bullock prodded them onward. "Come along. There's much more to see."
The group toured rooms with historical arms and armor as well as a room with more Egyptian rarities, including a sarcophagus. Michael stayed a step behind the group, where he could observe Chloe and Henry. The pair chatted about the displays. Anyone who saw her would swear she was a proper lady. Her gown was of the highest quality, her posture straight, and even the movements of her hands were elegant and graceful in her gloves. A picture arose in his mind of her nimble fingers slipping inside a man's waistcoat. The vision was arousing and infuriating at once.
He had to do something about this, but what? He had no intention of telling young Henry the truth. He'd have to deal with the lying lady on his own.
"Miss Chloe," Henry said, interrupting Michael's thoughts. "Since you've recently returned from Hampshire, would you like to see more of London? Hyde Park is lovely this time of year. I'd be honored to take you for a ride in my barouche." Henry glanced at Lady Huntingdon. "With your sister's approval, of course."
A blush tinged Chloe's cheeks. "A ride in the park sounds wonderful."
Michael gritted his teeth. He didn't like this turn of events. They had barely been in the museum for an hour and already Henry was making plans with her. At this rate, the reading of the banns would be arranged before they left the damned museum.
Mr. Bullock's heels clicked on the marble floor as he led the group. "The next room holds a special surprise."
They found themselves back in the corridor, following their guide until they came to another arched doorway. Mr. Bullock opened a door and motioned for the group to enter.
Michael was the last one inside, his narrowed gaze intently focused on Henry and Chloe. Henry lowered his head to speak in Chloe's ear and she laughed. Not an annoying, high-pitched giggle of the sort he'd heard from many debutantes at the countless balls he'd been obligated to attend since his brother's and father's deaths, but a rich, throaty laugh. His skin heated at the sound.
"Look!" Lady Huntingdon said.
Michael's attention snapped to his surroundings. The room was empty save for a large carriage that sat upon a wooden dais. He stopped short as his gaze homed in on the distinctive Imperial Arms emblazoned on the paneled door.
It can't be ...
His jaw stiffened. "What —"
"It's Napoleon's private traveling carriage captured by the Prussian Major von Keller as Napoleon fled the Battle of Waterloo." Mr. Bullock's voice rose an octave. He motioned to the dark blue conveyance embellished with gold frieze.
"Fascinating! May we sit inside?" Lady Huntingdon asked.
All at once, the group chattered excitedly as they approached the carriage.
Michael stiffened as a low buzzing started in his ears. His vision tunneled to pinpoints of light, the gilded edges of the crest on the door shimmering into a thousand shards. He wavered on his feet, then reached out for the doorjamb for support. The walls felt as if they were closing in like the bars of a prison. Despite every ounce of effort, his temperature swiftly began to rise and sweat beaded on his brow.
Christ, not here.
He fought the panic. Fought the escalating rise of his heartbeat and the icy fear that clawed at his innards, but he knew he would fail. He watched as the group circled the golden carriage. Henry opened the door, and Lady Huntingdon stepped inside. Her laugh echoed and rattled inside his skull. He watched, his body immobile, as she reached out to shut the carriage door. The click of the latch sounded as loud as a gunshot, and he jerked.
Voices vaguely registered through a tunnel in his brain.
"Thousands of visitors have come to see it," Mr. Bullock said. "Napoleon himself approved the design. It's rumored to resist bullets."
"It was initially sent as a present to the Prince Regent," Henry said.
"The spacious interior can be adapted to a bedroom, dressing room, and even an eating room," Mr. Bullock spoke again.
Michael sagged against the doorframe. He had to leave. Extract himself. But his hessians felt filled with lead, and his body failed to cooperate. His gaze was riveted on the curve of the crest, the shining gold facets of the carriage.
The last time he'd seen the conveyance, amid smoke and deafening cannon fire, bodies had littered the battlefield, and he'd cradled his friend's lifeless body in his arms.
Get out. Now.
With sheer force of will, he staggered out of the room and leaned heavily against the outside wall. Breathing deeply, he clenched and unclenched his fists and counted. He reached one hundred and eight before his vision returned to normal and the panic began to dissipate.
He pulled a handkerchief from his coat pocket and wiped his damp brow. He wandered aimlessly down the hall and paced back and forth until his heartbeat slowed and his body temperature returned to normal.
He'd lost track of time. Had it been ten or twenty minutes since he'd left? He could hear voices. The group was still enjoying Napoleon's carriage and they were asking to take turns sitting on the plush, red velvet cushions. He straightened and reached up to ensure his cravat was in place. He could do this. He could return and no one would be the wiser.
Still, he hated that he'd been completely helpless to prevent the episode, and anger and frustration roiled in his gut at his weakness. The triggers were different each time, but the fits were always the same, sudden and shocking, throwing him off balance and sending him back to past events, shadowy and gruesome battlefields that he wanted to forget. How long would this last? He'd been home for months and the fits continued — even seemed to worsen. Was this his fate? To become the mad duke?
No. He owed his friend and he had a duty to carry out.
He returned to stand outside the room. Taking one more deep breath, he took a step forward and collided with Chloe Somerton.
"Oh!" she cried out, stumbling back.
Instinctively, he reached out to grasp her arms.
Her blue eyes widened. "Pardon, Your Grace. I didn't see you."
Up close, she was even more striking. The top of her head reached his shoulder, and she tipped her face up to look at him. Her skin was flawless and smooth, and her blue eyes were fringed with thick lashes. The scent of lemongrass filled his nostrils. Fresh and pure.
He understood how Henry was besotted.
"I'm fine now. You can let go," she said.
He realized he was staring. His fingers flexed and he reluctantly released his hold.
A tiny crease formed between her brows. "Are you well, Your Grace?"
Of course she could tell something was wrong with him. One fraud could recognize another.
Excerpted from "The Duke Meets His Match"
Copyright © 2017 Tina Sickler.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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