ibooksonline

Chapter I

Matthias was rudely awakened by a woman's bloodcurdling

scream.

A second female voice, this one as crisp as the green apples of

ancient Zamar, interrupted the horrified cry.

For heaven's sake, Bess," the apple-tart voice admonished.

Must you screech at the sight of every cobweb? It is extremely

irritating. I am trying to accomplish a great deal this morning and

I can hardly do so if you shriek at every turn."

Matthias opened his eyes, stretched, and sat up slowly in the

sarcophagus. He glanced at the open door of the bedchamber just

in time to see a young maid crumple to the floor in a deep swoon.

The weak sunlight that seeped down the hall behind her told

Matthias that it was late morning. He raked his fingers through his

hair and then tested the stubble of his beard. He was not surprised

that he'd scared the maid into a faint.

Bess?" Crisp, fresh apples again. Light footsteps in the hall.

Bess, what on earth is wrong with you?"

Matthias rested one arm on the edge of the stone coffin and

watched with interest as a second figure appeared in the doorway.

She did not see him at first. Her full attention was focused on the

fallen maid.

There was no mistaking the fact that the second female was a

lady. The long apron that she wore over her serviceable gray

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bombazine gown could not disguise the elegant line of her spine

or the high, gently rounded curve of her breasts. The determined

set of her shoulders bespoke an innate pride and a purposeful air

that had been bred into her very bones.

Matthias contemplated the lady in growing fascination as she

hovered above her maid. He swept a critical eye over her, cataloguing the various parts of her form

much as he would assess the

carving of a Zamarian statue.

She had made a valiant attempt to confine a voluminous mass

of tawny brown hair beneath a practical little white cap. Several

tendrils had escaped imprisonment, however, and bounced

around her fine-boned face. That face was turned partially away

from Matthias's view, but he could make out high cheekbones,

long lashes, and a distinctive, arrogant nose.

A strong, striking face, he concluded. It conveyed the essence of

the forceful spirit that obviously animated it.

The lady was no young chit fresh out of the schoolroom, but on

the other hand, she was not nearly so ancient as himself. Then

again, few people were. In truth he was thirty-four, but he felt

centuries older. He estimated that Imogen was five and twenty.

He watched as she dropped a leather-bound journal onto the

carpet and knelt impatiently beside her maid. There was no sign of

a wedding ring on her hand. For some reason that fact pleased

him. He suspected that the apple-tart voice and the commanding

manner had had a great deal to do with her apparent status as a

spinster.

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It was a matter of taste, of course. Most of Matthias's male

acquaintances preferred honey and chocolate. He, however, had

always favored something with a bit of a bite when it came to

after-dinner delicacies.

Bess, that is quite enough. Open your eyes at once, do you hear

me?" Imogen produced a vinaigrette and waved it briskly under

the maid's nose. I really cannot have you screaming and swoon

ing every time you open a door in this house. I warned you that

my uncle was a very odd man and that we were quite likely to

come across some rather strange items when we inventoried his

collection of sepulchral antiquities."

Bess moaned and rolled her head on the carpet. She did not

open her eyes. I seen it, ma'am. I swear it on me mother's grave."

What did you see, Bess?"

A ghost. Or maybe it were a vampire. I'm not sure which."

Nonsense," Imogen said.

What was that earsplitting noise?" another woman called from

the top of the stairs. Is something amiss down there, Imogen?"

Bess has fainted, Aunt Horatia. It is really too much."

Bess? Not like her." More footsteps in the hallway announced

the impending arrival of the woman who had been addressed as

Aunt Horatia. Bess is a sturdy girl. Not at all prone to fainting

spells."

If she has not fainted, she is doing an excellent imitation of a

lady suffering an attack of the vapors."

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Bess's lashes fluttered. Oh, Miss Imogen, it was dreadful. A

body in a stone coffin. It moved."

Don't be ridiculous, Bess."

But I seen it." Bess groaned again, raised her head, and glanced

anxiously past Imogen into the shadows of the bedchamber.

Matthias winced as she caught sight of him and screamed again.

Bess flopped back down onto the carpet with all the grace of a

beached fish.

The third woman arrived in the hall outside the doorway. She

was dressed in the same practical fashion as Imogen, a plain gown,

apron, and cap. She was an inch or two shorter than her companion and considerably broader about the

waist and hips. Her gray

ing hair was pinned beneath her cap. She studied Bess through a

pair of spectacles. What on earth is upsetting the girl?"

I have no notion." Imogen busied herself with the vinaigrette.

Bess has an imagination that is easily overheated."

I warned you about the dangers of teaching her to read."

I know you did, Aunt Horatia, but I cannot bear to see a sound

mind go uneducated."

You're just like your parents." Horatia shook her head. Well,

she's not going to be of much use if she continues to start at every

unusual sight in this house. My brother's collection of funereal

oddities is enough to give anyone a fit of the vapors."

Nonsense. Uncle Selwyn's collection is a bit morbid, I admit,

but rather fascinating in its way."

This house is a mausoleum and well you know it," Horatia

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retorted. Perhaps we ought to send Bess back downstairs. This

was Selwyn's bedchamber. She was no doubt startled by the sight

of the sarcophagus. Why my brother insisted on sleeping in that

old Roman coffin is beyond me."

It is a rather unusual sort of bed."

Unusual? It would inspire nightmares in anyone possessed of

normal sensibilities." Horatia turned to peer into the shadows of

the darkened bedchamber.

Matthias decided that it was time to rise from the coffin. He

stepped over the edge of the sarcophagus and pushed aside the

thin black draperies. His greatcoat swirled around him, concealing

the breeches and badly wrinkled shirt in which he had slept. He

watched with amused resignation as Horatia's eyes widened in

horror.

Sweet God in heaven, Bess was right." Horatia's voice rose to a

shriek. There is something in Selwyn's coffin." She staggered back

a step. Run, Imogen, run."

Imogen leaped to her feet. Not you, too, Aunt Horatia." She

whirled to glower into the darkened bedchamber. When she

caught sight of Matthias standing in front of the coffin, her lips

parted in amazement.

Good heavens. There is someone in there."

Told ye so, ma'am," Bess whispered hoarsely.

Matthias waited with keen curiosity to see if Imogen would

scream or succumb to the vapors.

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She did neither. Instead, she narrowed her eyes in unmistakable

disapproval. Who are you, sir, and what do you mean by frighten

ing my aunt and my maid in this nasty fashion?"

Vampire," Bess muttered weakly. I heard tell of em, ma'am.

Suck yer blood, he will. Run. Run while ye still can. Save yerself."

There is no such thing as a vampire," Imogen announced with

out bothering to glance down at the stricken maid.

A ghost, then. Flee for yer life, ma'am."

She's right." Horatia plucked at Imogen's sleeve. We must get

away from here."

Don't be ridiculous." Imogen drew herself up and regarded

Matthias down the length of her very fine nose. Well, sir? What

have you to say for yourself? Speak up, or I shall summon the

local magistrate and have you clapped in irons."

Matthias walked slowly toward her, his eyes fixed on her face.

She did not retreat. Instead, she fitted her hands to her waist and

began to tap the toe of one half-boot.

An odd but unmistakable sense of awareness, almost a thrill of

recognition, went through him. Impossible. But when he was close

enough to see the intense clarity of Imogen's wide blue-green

eyes, eyes the color of the seas that surrounded the lost island

kingdom of Zamar, he suddenly understood. For some whimsical

reason he could not explain, she made him think of Anizamara,

the legendary Zamarian Goddess of the Day. The mythical lady

dominated much of the lore of ancient Zamar and a great deal of

its art. She was a creature of warmth, life, truth, energy. Her power

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had been equaled only by Zamaris, the Lord of the Night. Only

Zamaris could embrace her brilliant spirit.

Good day to you, madam." Matthias pulled his fanciful

thoughts back under control and inclined his head. I am

Colchester."

Colchester." Horatia took another startled step back and came

up against the wall. Her eyes went to his hair. She swallowed heavily. Cold-blooded Colchester?"

Matthias knew that she was staring at the icy white streak that

lanced through his black hair. Most people recognized it immediately. It had identified the men of his

family for four generations.

As I said, I am Colchester, madam."

He had been Viscount Colchester when he had earned the

appellation of Cold-blooded. The fact that both of the family titles

went by the same name, Colchester, had made things convenient

for the gossips in the ton, he thought bitterly. There had been no

need to lose the alliteration.

Horatia's mouth worked. What are you doing here in Upper

Stickleford, sir?"

He is here because I sent for him." Imogen favored him with a

blindingly bright smile. I must say, it's high time you arrived, my

lord. I dispatched my message more than a month ago. What kept

you?"

My father died several months ago, but I was delayed return

ing to England. When I arrived, there were a number of matters

pertaining to his estate that required my attention."

Yes, of course." Imogen was acutely embarrassed. Forgive me,

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my lord. My condolences on the death of your parent."

Thank you," Matthias said. But we were not close. Is there

anything to eat in the kitchens? I am feeling quite famished."

The first thing one noticed about the Earl of Colchester, Imogen

decided, was the swath of silver in his midnight-dark hair. It

burned in a cold white flame through the unfashionably long

black mane.

The second thing one noticed was his gaze. His eyes were colder

than the icy silver in his hair.

The fourth Earl of Colchester was magnificent, she thought as

she waved him to a chair in the library. He would have been altogether perfect had it not been for those

eyes. They glittered in his

hard, ascetic face with the chillingly emotionless light of an intelligent and very dangerous ghost.

With the exception of those spectral gray eyes, Colchester was

exactly as she had envisioned. His brilliant articles in the

Zamarian Review had accurately reflected his intellect as well as

a character forged by years of harsh travel in strange lands.

Any man who could calmly lie down to sleep in a sarcophagus

was a man who possessed nerves of iron. Just what she needed,

Imogen thought ebulliently.

Allow me to introduce myself and my aunt properly, my lord."

Imogen seized the teapot and prepared to pour. She was so

excited to have Colchester at hand that she could scarcely contain

herself. Wistfully she toyed with the notion of blurting out the

whole truth concerning her identity. But caution prevailed. She

could not, after all, be entirely certain how he would react, and at

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the moment she needed his willing cooperation. As you have no

doubt concluded, I am Imogen Waterstone. This is misses Horatia

Elibank, my late uncle's sister. She was recently widowed and has

kindly consented to become my companion."

misses Elibank." Matthias nodded once to acknowledge the

introduction.

Your lordship." Horatia, perched stiffly on the edge of her

chair, darted an uneasy, decidedly disapproving glance at Imogen.

Imogen frowned. Now that the initial fright had passed and

proper introductions had been made, there was no reason for

Horatia to look so anxious. Colchester was an earl, after all. More

significantly, at least so far as Imogen was concerned, he was

Colchester of Zamar; the distinguished discoverer of that ancient,

long-lost island kingdom, founder of the Zamarian Institution and

the prestigious Zamarian Review, and trustee of the Zamarian

Society. Even by Horatia's high standards, he should have been

eminently acceptable.

For her part, it was all Imogen could do not to stare at him. She

still could not quite bring herself to believe that Colchester of

Zamar was sitting there in the library, taking tea as though he

were an ordinary man.

But not much else was ordinary about him, she thought.

Tall, lean, and powerfully built, Colchester was imbued with a

sinewy masculine grace. The years of arduous travel in search of

Zamar had no doubt honed his physique to its present admirable

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state, Imogen reasoned.

She reminded herself that Colchester's impressive physical

attributes were hardly unique. She had seen any number of well

muscled men. She lived in the country, after all. Most of her neighbors were farmers who worked in their

own fields. Many of them

had developed broad shoulders and strong legs. In addition, she

was not entirely without experience when it came to the male of

the species. First, there had been Philippe D'Artois, her dancing

instructor. Philippe had been as graceful as a bird in flight. And

then there had been Alastair Drake. Athletic and handsome, he

had certainly not required any help from his tailor in order to do

justice to his attire.

But Colchester was as different from those men as night was

from day. The strength that emanated from him had nothing to do

with his sleekly muscled shoulders and thighs. It radiated from

some inner core of inflexible steel. The force of his will was palpable.

There was also a great stillness about him that belonged more

properly to the shadows than to the daylight. It was the patient

stillness of the predator. Imogen tried to imagine him as he must

have looked on that fateful day when he finally mastered the

labyrinth beneath the ruined city of Zamar and discovered the

hidden library. She would have sold her soul to have been with

him on that memorable occasion.

Colchester turned his head at that moment and gave her an

inquiring, slightly amused glance. It was as though he had read her

thoughts. Imogen felt a wave of embarrassed warmth go through

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her. The teacup she was holding rattled on its saucer.

The dark library was chilly, but Colchester had obligingly built

a fire on the hearth. The room, which was crowded with a variety

of bizarre sepulchral artifacts, would soon warm.

Once she had been assured that Colchester was not a ghost or

a vampire, Bess had recovered sufficiently to retreat to the

deserted kitchens. There she had prepared a pot of tea and a cold

collation. The simple meal consisted only of leftover salmon pie,

some bread pudding, and a bit of ham, but Colchester seemed

content with it.

Imogen certainly hoped he was satisfied. The food had not

come from the mansion's empty cupboards. It had been packed in

a hamper early that morning and brought along to sustain the

women as they went about the business of cataloguing Selwyn

Waterstone's collection. Judging by the efficient manner in which

Colchester was demolishing the repast, Imogen doubted that

there would be much left over for Horatia, Bess, or herself.

I am, of course, delighted to make your acquaintance,"

Matthias said.

Imogen suddenly realized that his voice had an extremely odd

effect on her senses. There was a dark, subtle power in it that

threatened to envelop her. It made her think of mysterious seas

and strange lands.

More tea, my lord?" Imogen asked quickly.

Thank you." His long, elegant fingers brushed hers as he

accepted the cup.

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A curious sensation began at the point where he had touched

her. It traveled along Imogen's hand, rendering her skin unac

countably warm. It was as though she sat too close to the fire.

Imogen hastily set the pot down before she dropped it.

I am very sorry that there was no one here to greet you when

you arrived last night, sir," she said. I sent the servants to their

own homes for a few days while my aunt and I conduct the inven

tory." She frowned as a thought struck her. I was quite certain that

I directed you to come to Waterstone Cottage, not Waterstone

Manor."

No doubt you did," Matthias said softly. But then, there were a

great many instructions in your letter. I may have forgotten one or

two along the way."

Horatia glared at Imogen. Letter? What letter? Really,

Imogen, I must have an explanation."

I shall explain everything," Imogen assured her aunt. She eyed

Matthias warily. The cool mockery in his eyes was unmistakable.

It cut her to the quick. My lord, I fail to see anything amusing

about the contents of my letter."

I was not particularly amused by it last night," Matthias admit

ted. The hour was late. It was raining. My horse was exhausted. I

saw no point wasting time in an attempt to locate a small cottage,

when I had this vast house at my disposal."

I see." Imogen gave him a determined smile. I must say, you

appear remarkably unruffled by a night spent in a sarcophagus.

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My aunt and I have often remarked that Uncle Selwyn's notion of

a proper bed was certainly not to everyone's taste."

I have slept in worse places." Matthias helped himself to the

last of the ham and surveyed his surroundings with a considering

expression. I had heard tales of Selwyn Waterstone's collection.

The reality is even more unexpected than the rumors implied."

Briefly distracted, Horatia peered at him over the rims of her

spectacles. I expect you are aware that my brother had an abiding

interest in sepulchral art and tomb antiquities, sir."

Matthias's arresting eyes lingered thoughtfully on an Egyptian

mummy case propped in the corner. Yes."

It is all mine now," Imogen told him proudly. Uncle Selwyn left

his entire collection to me along with the house."

Matthias gave her a speculative glance. You are interested in

sepulchral art?"

Only that which is Zamarian," she said. Uncle Selwyn claimed

that he owned a few Zamarian artifacts and I have every hope

that he did. But it will take time to find them." She gestured to

indicate the heap of antiquities and funereal oddities that littered

the library. As you can see, my uncle had no sense of organization.

He never bothered to catalogue the items in his collection. There

may be any number of rare treasures waiting to be unearthed in

this house."

It will certainly take a great deal of work to find them,"

Matthias said.

Yes, it will. As I said, I plan to keep any antiquities that I can

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positively identify as Zamarian in origin. I shall offer the remain

der to other collectors or perhaps give them to a museum."

I see." Matthias sipped tea and studied the library more closely.

Imogen followed his gaze. There was no denying that her eccen

tric uncle had possessed a very strange taste for artifacts associ

ated with death.

Ancient swords and armor taken from Roman and Etruscan

burial chambers were strewn about in a careless fashion. Sphinxes,

chimeras, and crocodile motifs copied from Egyptian tombs

adorned the furniture. Bits of statuary and cloudy glass bottles

that had been discovered in antique sepulchral monuments

reposed in the cupboards. Grim death masks stared down from

walls.

The bookcases were stuffed with dozens of worn volumes that

dealt with ancient entombment practices and the embalming arts.

Several large crates were stacked on the far side of the room.

Imogen had not yet opened them. She had no idea what was

inside.

The situation was no better in the upstairs chambers, all of

which were crammed with the tomb antiquities that Selwyn

Waterstone had spent his life acquiring.

Matthias finished his brief survey and looked at Imogen. What

you choose to do with Waterstone's oddities is your affair, of

course. Let us return to the business at hand. Would you mind

telling me why you sent for me?"

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Horatia uttered a small, faint gasp. She whirled to confront

Imogen. I cannot believe that you have done this. Why on earth

didn't you tell me?"

Imogen gave her a placating smile. The thing is, I sent for his

lordship a few days before you arrived here in Upper Stickleford.

I was not entirely certain he would put in an appearance, so I saw

no reason to mention it."

This is folly," Horatia snapped. Now that the initial shock had

passed, she was apparently regaining her usual spirits. Do you

realize who this is, Imogen?"

Of course I know who he is." Imogen lowered her voice to a

properly reverential tone. He is Colchester of Zamar."

Matthias raised his brows but made no comment.

As you said, my lord," Imogen continued, it is time to get to the

heart of the matter. You were a good friend of Uncle Selwyn's, I

believe."

Was I?" Matthias asked. That is certainly news to me. I was not

aware that Selwyn Waterstone had any friends."

Alarm shot through Imogen. But I was led to believe that you

owed him a great favor. He claimed that you had vowed to repay

him if it were ever possible to do so."

Matthias regarded her in silence for a moment. Yes."

Imogen was vastly relieved. Excellent. For a second there I

thought I might have made a dreadful mistake."

Do you make many such mistakes, Miss Waterstone?" Matthias

asked gently.

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Almost never," she assured him. My parents were great believ

ers in education, you see. I was trained in logic and philosophy,

among other subjects, from the cradle. My father always said that

when one thinks clearly, one rarely makes mistakes."

Indeed," Matthias murmured. As to your uncle, it's true that I

considered myself to have been in his debt."

Something to do with an ancient text, was it not?"

Years ago he came across a very old Greek volume in the

course of his travels," Matthias said. It contained some oblique

references to a lost island kingdom. Those references, together

with others I had discovered, gave me some of the clues I needed

to locate Zamar."

That is just what Uncle Selwyn told me."

I regret that he died before I could repay him," Matthias said.

You are in luck, sir." Imogen smiled. As it happens, there is a

way for you to fulfill your promise."

Matthias regarded her with an unreadable expression. I fear

that I do not entirely grasp your meaning, Miss Waterstone. You

have just told me that your uncle is dead."

He is. But in addition to his collection of tomb artifacts, my

uncle also left me a respectable inheritance and the promise that

you owed him."

There was a heartbeat of silence. Horatia stared at Imogen as if

she had gone mad.

Matthias watched her with enigmatic eyes. I beg your pardon?"

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Imogen cleared her throat delicately. Uncle Selwyn

bequeathed me the promise that he claimed you made to him. It

is quite clear in his will."

It is?"

This was not going as smoothly as she had hoped, Imogen

reflected. She braced herself. I wish to collect on that promise."

Oh, dear," Horatia whispered. She sounded resigned to a

dreadful fate.

Just how do you propose to collect the debt that I owed to your

uncle, Miss Waterstone?" Matthias finally asked.

Well, as to that," Imogen said, it is somewhat complicated."

Somehow that does not surprise me."

Imogen pretended not to hear that unencouraging remark. Are

you acquainted with Lord Vanneck, sir?"

Matthias hesitated. Cold disdain appeared briefly in his gaze.

He is a collector of Zamarian antiquities."

He was also the husband of my good friend Lucy Haconby."

Lady Vanneck died some time ago, did she not?"

Yes, my lord. Three years ago, to be precise. And I am

convinced that she was murdered."

Murdered?" For the first time, Matthias actually showed a trace

of surprise.

Oh, Imogen, surely you do not intend Horatia broke off and

closed her eyes in dismay.

I believe she was murdered by her husband, Lord Vanneck,"

Imogen said forcefully. But there is no way to prove it. With your

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help, sir, I intend to see that justice is done."

Matthias said nothing. He did not take his eyes off Imogen's

face.

Horatia rallied. My lord, surely you will talk her out of this wild

scheme."

Imogen scowled at Horatia. I dare not wait. An acquaintance

has written to tell me that Vanneck is preparing to marry again.

He has apparently suffered some serious financial reverses."

Matthias shrugged. That much is true. A few months ago

Vanneck was forced to sell his large town house and move into a

much smaller residence. But he still manages to keep up appearances."

I suspect that he is even now prowling the ballrooms and draw

ing rooms of London in search of a wealthy young heiress,"

Imogen said. He might very well murder her too, once he has his

hands on her fortune."

Imogen, really," Horatia said weakly. You must not make such

accusations. You have absolutely no proof."

I know that Lucy feared Vanneck," Imogen insisted. And I

know that Vanneck was frequently cruel to her. When I visited

Lucy in London just before her death, she confided to me that she

was afraid he might someday murder her. She said that he was

insanely jealous."

Matthias set his cup down and rested his elbows on his thighs.

He loosely clasped his hands between his knees and regarded

Imogen with an expression of reluctant interest. Just how do you

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intend to carry out your scheme, Miss Waterstone?"

Horatia was horrified. Good heavens, you must not encourage

her, my lord."

I find myself somewhat curious," Matthias said dryly. I would

like to hear the details of this plan."

Then all is lost," Horatia muttered. Imogen has a way of

sweeping others up into her schemes."

I promise you that I am not easily swept along by much of

anything unless I so choose," Matthias assured her.

I pray you will remember those bold words later, sir," Horatia

muttered.

My aunt is inclined to be overanxious at times, my lord,"

Imogen said. Do not worry, I have planned this out very carefully.

I know what I am doing. Now then, as you just observed, Lord

Vanneck is an extremely zealous collector of all things Zamarian."

So?" Matthias's mouth twisted humorlessly. Vanneck may

fancy himself an expert, but in truth he would not know a genuine

Zamarian artifact from the hindquarters of a horse. Even

I. A. Stone displays more perception."

Horatia set her cup down with a small crash. Her eyes darted

from Matthias to Imogen and back again.

Imogen took a very deep breath and composed herself. You

have frequently argued with I A. Stone's conclusions in the pages

of the Zamarian Review, I believe."

Matthias was politely amused. You have kept up with our little

squabbles?"

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Oh, yes. I have maintained a subscription to the Review for

several years, my lord. I always find your articles extremely

enlightening."

Thank you."

But I also find I. A. Stone's writings to be quite thought

provoking," she added with what she hoped was a bland smile.

Horatia frowned in warning. Imogen, we seem to be straying

from the subject. Not that I am particularly desirous of returning

to that other topic, however"

I A. Stone has never even been to Zamar," Matthias said

through his teeth. A flare of genuine emotion lit his ghostly eyes

for the first time that morning. He has no firsthand knowledge of

his subject, yet he feels free to make observations and reach

conclusions based upon my work."

And the work of Mister Rutledge," Imogen pointed out hastily.

The warm emotion died in Matthias's eyes as swiftly as it had

appeared. Rutledge died four years ago on his last trip to Zamar.

Everyone knows that. His old writings are sadly out of date. I A.

Stone should know better than to use them in his researches."

I was under the impression that I. A. Stone's papers were quite

well received by the members of the Zamarian Society," Imogen

said tentatively.

I will admit that Stone has a certain superficial familiarity with

Zamar," Matthias allowed with gracious arrogance. But it is the

sort of knowledge one gleans from studying the work of a more

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informed expert."

Such as yourself, my lord?" Imogen asked politely.

Precisely. It is obvious that Stone has read virtually everything

I've written on Zamar. And then he has the incredible gall to

disagree with me on any number of points."

Horatia coughed discreetly. Er, Imogen?"

Imogen resisted the urge to pursue the matter. Horatia was

right. She had other priorities. Yes, well, back to Vanneck.

Regardless of his intellectual limitations, you must admit that he

is known to be consumed with a passion for Zamarian artifacts."

Matthias looked as though he would have preferred to continue

the heated discussion of I. A. Stone's lack of expertise. But he

allowed himself to be drawn back to the subject of Vanneck. He

covets anything said to be from ancient Zamar."

Imogen steeled herself. I shall be blunt, sir. Rumor has it that

you are of a like-minded nature. The difference between the two

of you is that you are the undisputed authority on Zamarian

antiquities. I'm sure you collect with exquisite taste and discretion."

I allow only the finest, rarest, and most interesting Zamarian

artifacts under my roof." Matthias watched Imogen with an

unblinking gaze. In other words, only those that I personally

unearthed. What of it?"

Imogen was astonished by the tiny chill that went down her

spine. There were very few things that could unsettle her nerves,

but some quality in Matthias's voice did just that on occasion. She

took a deep breath. As I told you, I have no proof with which to

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accuse Vanneck of murder. But I owe Lucy too much to allow her

killer to go entirely unpunished. For three years I have tried to

devise a plan to accomplish my goal, but it was not until Uncle

Selwyn died that I finally saw a way to avenge Lucy."

What, exactly, do you intend to do to Vanneck?"

I have hit upon a way to destroy him in the eyes of the ton.

When I have finished, Vanneck will be in no position to prey on

innocent women such as Lucy."

You are quite serious about this, are you not?"

Yes, my lord." Imogen lifted her chin and met his eyes without

flinching. I am extremely serious. I intend to set a trap for

Vanneck, one that will ruin him financially and socially."

A trap requires bait," Matthias pointed out softly.

Quite right, my lord. The lure I intend to use is the Great Seal

of the Queen of Zamar."

Matthias stared at her. Are you claiming to possess the Queen's

Seal?"

Imogen frowned. Of course not. You of all people should know

that the seal has never been found. But shortly before he disappeared, Rutledge sent a letter to the

Zamarian Review informing

the editors that he believed he was on the trail of the seal. The

rumors that he died in the underground labyrinth while searching

for the thing inspired the Rutledge Curse."

Which is rubbish." Matthias lifted one shoulder in an elegant

shrug. That damned notion of a curse persists only because the

seal was said to be extremely valuable. Legends always abound

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concerning objects of great worth."

Your own researches claim that the seal is fashioned of a very

pure gold and encrusted with valuable gems," Imogen reminded

him. You wrote that you had seen inscriptions that described it."

Matthias's jaw tightened. The true value of the seal lies in the

fact that it is an object fashioned by the finest artisans of a

vanished people. If the seal exists, it is priceless, not because it is

made of jewels and gold but because of the tales it can tell us of

ancient Zamar."

Imogen smiled. I comprehend your feelings, sir. I would expect

you to take just such a scholarly view of the seal. But I can assure

you that a man of Vanneck's base nature will be far more

intrigued by the financial value of the thing. Especially in his

present reduced circumstances."

Matthias's smile was unpleasant. You are no doubt correct.

What has that to do with your scheme?"

My plan is simple. I shall travel to London with Aunt Horatia

and work my way into Vanneck's social circles. Thanks to Uncle

Selwyn, I have the money to do so. And thanks to Aunt Horatia, I

also have the proper connections."

Horatia stirred uneasily in her chair. She gave Matthias an

apologetic glance. I am distantly related to the Marquess of

Blanchford on my mother's side."

Matthias frowned. Blanchford is traveling abroad, is he not?"

I believe so," Horatia admitted. He usually is. It is no secret

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that he cannot abide Society."

He and I have something in common on that point," Matthias

said.

Imogen ignored that. Blanchford rarely puts in an appearance

during the Season. But that is no reason Aunt Horatia and I

should not do so."

In other words," Matthias said, you are going to trade on your

aunt's connections in order to carry out this mad scheme."

Horatia rolled her eyes toward the heavens and made a tut

tutting sound.

Imogen glowered at Matthias. It is not a mad scheme. It is very

clever. I have been working on it for weeks. Once I am in the

proper social circles, I shall drop little hints concerning the

Queen's Seal."

Matthias raised laconic brows. What sort of hints?"

I shall let it be known that while conducting an inventory of my

uncle's collection, I happened across a map that contains clues to

the location of the seal."

Hell's teeth," Matthias muttered. You intend to convince

Vanneck that this nonexistent map can lead him to a fabulous arti

fact?"

Precisely."

I do not believe what I am hearing." Matthias finally looked at

Heratia for support.

I did try to warn you, my lord," she murmured.

Imogen leaned forward eagerly. I shall convince Vanneck that

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I intend to share the clues to the seal with whoever will help

finance an expedition to retrieve it."

Matthias gave her a quizzical look. What good will that do?"

Isn't it obvious? Vanneck will be unable to resist the notion of

going after the seal. But as his finances are in a bad way at the

moment, and he has not yet found himself an heiress, he lacks the

funds to underwrite an expedition himself. I shall encourage him

to form a consortium of investors."

Matthias eyed her thoughtfully. Allow me to hazard a guess.

You intend to draw Vanneck out on a financial limb and then cut

off the limb, do you not?"

I knew you would understand." Imogen was pleased that he

was finally beginning to perceive the true genius of the plan. That

is exactly what I intend. It should be no great trick to convince

Vanneck to put together a consortium to finance the expedition."

And when he has spent the consortium's money to hire a ship

and a crew and to purchase the expensive equipment needed for

the expedition, you will provide him with a useless map."

And off he will go on a fool's voyage," Imogen concluded with

a satisfaction she did not bother to conceal. Vanneck will never

find the Queen's Seal. The expedition will collapse when the

money runs out. The members of the consortium will be furious.

There will be rumors that it was all a great fraud perpetrated upon

innocent investors. Another South Seas Bubble. Vanneck will not

dare to return to London. His creditors will hound him for years.

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If and when he does come back, he will certainly not be able to

take his previous place in the ton. His chances of recouping his

fortunes with an heiress will be thin indeed."

Matthias looked bemused. I do not know what to say, Miss

Waterstone. You take my breath."

There was a certain satisfaction to be derived from having such

an electrifying effect on Colchester of Zamar, Imogen thought. It

is a clever plan, is it not? And you are a perfect partner for me, sir."

Horatia appealed to Matthias. My lord, pray tell her that it is a

mad, dangerous, reckless, foolish plan."

Matthias glanced briefly at Horatia and then returned his cold

gaze to Imogen. Your aunt is quite right. It is all of those things

and more."

Imogen was stunned. Nonsense. It will work. I am sure of it."

I know that I shall regret asking, Miss Waterstone, but morbid

curiosity compels me. What role have you created for me in this

grand scheme?"

Isn't it obvious, my lord? You are the acknowledged authority

on all things Zamarian. With the possible exception of I. A. Stone,

there is no finer scholar on the subject."

There is no exception," Matthias corrected her grimly.

Especially not I. A. Stone."

If you insist, my lord," Imogen murmured. Every member of

the Zamarian Society is aware of your qualifications."

Matthias brushed aside the obvious. So?

I would have thought it self-evident, sir. The simplest and most

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effective way to convince Vanneck that I have a genuine map to

the Queen's Seal is for you to indicate that you believe I possess

such a map."

A short, sharp silence gripped the library.

Damnation." Matthias sounded almost awed. You want me to

persuade Vanneck and the rest of the ton that I believe your uncle

left you a map of ancient Zamar that shows the location of the

seal?"

Yes, my lord." Imogen was relieved that he had finally grasped

the essentials of the scheme. Your interest in the map will lend the

necessary credibility to my tale."

And just how am I expected to display this interest?"

That is the easy part, my lord. You will pretend to seduce me."

Matthias said nothing.

Oh, dear," Horatia whispered. I believe I feel a trifle faint."

Matthias gazed at Imogen with expressionless eyes. I am to

seduce you?"

It will be a pretence, of course," she assured him. All of Society

will notice that you are pursuing me. Vanneck will conclude that

there is only one reason you would do so."

He will think that I am after the Queen's Seal," Matthias said.

Precisely."

Horatia heaved another heartfelt sigh. We are doomed."

Matthias tapped one finger very gently against the rim of his

teacup. Why should Vanneck or anyone else conclude that I am

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intent only on seduction? Everyone knows that I have recently

returned to England in order to assume my responsibilities to the

title. Society will expect me to be hunting a wife this Season, not a

mistress."

Imogen sputtered on a swallow of tea. Do not concern yourself,

my lord. You run no risk of finding yourself inadvertently engaged

to me. No one will expect you to make me an offer."

Matthias searched her face. What of your reputation?"

Imogen set her cup down with great precision. I see you do not

know who I am. Not surprising, I suppose. You have been out of

the country a good deal of the time during the past few years."

Perhaps you will enlighten me as to your true identity?"

Matthias growled.

Three years ago when I visited my friend Lucy in London, I

powerpoint to dvd

acquired the nickname Immodest Imogen." She hesitated. My

reputation was compromised beyond repair."

Matthias's brows came together in a dark line. He glanced at

Horatia.

It's quite true, my lord," Horatia said quietly.

Matthias looked at Imogen. Who was the man?"

Lord Vanneck," Imogen said.

Bloody hell," he said softly. No wonder you want revenge."

Imogen straightened. That incident has nothing to do with this.

I do not give a fig for my own reputation. It is Lucy's murder that

must be avenged. I told you the story because I want you to under

stand that Society does not consider me a suitable candidate for

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marriage. No one would expect a man of your position to pursue

me for anything other than a brief affair or the opportunity to

acquire something valuable."

Such as the Queen's Seal." Matthias shook his head. Bloody

hell."

Imogen stood up briskly and gave him an encouraging smile. I

believe you have the gist of the thing now, my lord. We can go over

the details of my plan this evening at supper. In the meantime, we

have an inventory to complete. As you are here, and there is really

nothing else for you to do, perhaps you would care to assist us?"

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