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Chapter One

 

 

Off the coast of England, 1817

 

England was exactly the sort of place that didn’t realize how small it truly was. Colin Smith gave the spyglass a turn and looked again. The green jewel jutting from the gray ocean waves came sharply into focus. He grunted.

Still small.

“We should dock within the hour,” Debananda Mukherjee, his business partner, remarked. “You must be happy to see England again, after seven years away.” He commandeered the spyglass and peered through it. “Your home is very green. I like it.”

Home.

Colin grimaced at the word. England was not his home. He had left it behind at the age of sixteen, after discovering that London was appallingly short on opportunities for the bastard son of a viscount and a lady’s maid. Since then, he had travelled extensively through Egypt and India, making his living as a guide and interpreter. He had no home, and that was how he preferred it.

Adventure, after all, could never be found when one was standing still.

“India is green, in parts,” he reminded his friend.

“Yes, and they are beautiful. I greatly miss the mangrove forests of Bangladesh, with the exception of pythons.” Deb lowered the spyglass abruptly. “But you said pythons are not found in England.”

“How can you doubt my word, Deb?” Colin placed a hand over his heart. “You wound me.”

“Because you said the same about Egypt, and that was a damned lie.”

“What would have been the point in telling you the truth? You would have spent the entire voyage miserable with nightmares. Instead, you had a pleasant journey with the peace of mind my lie provided you. You should thank me.”

Deb narrowed his ungrateful eyes. “Thank you? Had you told me, I would have spent the voyage preparing, not worrying. I would have sharpened my knife. At least my fear of pythons is rational. You are afraid of goats.”

“Only because they are not afraid of me, despite that I enjoy eating them. I find it deeply unsettling. They must know something I do not.”

“A great many things, no doubt. Are there pythons in England, Colin?”

“No pythons, but you will find a great many vipers in the ton.” He spoke from experience. Not that he had ever been one of that crowd, thank God. He had been beneath their notice, for which he was eternally grateful, having seen firsthand what happened to those who weren’t. Like his mother.

“Those snakes are everywhere,” Deb said dismissively. “So long as their pocketbooks are full, their fangs don’t bother me.”

That was the plan. The beau monde had gone mad for all things Egyptian. The Marquess of Chatwell, in particular, was fond of vases and jewelry and anything else that had been buried with a body. With any luck, the marquess would be convinced to purchase Colin’s antiquities for an exorbitant sum...and perhaps he would fund their next adventure, as well.

“I’ve always wanted to see London,” Deb remarked, turning again to the spyglass.

Ah.

They had meant to arrive at the height of the Season, but storms had thwarted their travel. Now it was August, and the Season had ended. Thankfully, Colin’s old friend, Nicholas Eastwood, had informed him before leaving Cairo eight months ago where Chatwell would be, if not in London. How Nick could predict the marquess’s movements was a mystery—as was how he had known Colin’s whereabouts to receive the letter in the first place.

It was better not to ask too many questions of Nick.

Colin cleared his throat. “About that. There’s been a slight change in plans. Chatwell is no longer in London. He’s taking the waters at Bath.”

“Taking the waters?” Deb asked blankly. “Taking them where?”

“Down his throat, more’s the pity. The water tastes and smells awful, but it’s thought to cure a whole host of ailments.”

“Well,” Deb said cheerfully, because Deb was always cheerful—unless a python was about. “Bath sounds like a fine place. It must be fine, for the marquess to stay. Have you been there?”

Colin shook his head. Why go to Bath? He imagined it was exactly like London, but smaller. Likely it was dirtier, too, despite the name.

Deb grinned. “It will be an adventure, then.”

“An adventure? In England?” Colin snorted derisively. “I promise you, there is no such thing.”