After a whirlwind affair and elopement with one of her father's officers, Lady Alexandra Marshall, daughter and sole heir of the Earl of Ware, watched helplessly as her husband was shipped off. An annulment followed, and though she waited with packed bags, Christopher never returned for her. Now, 10 years later, she can't help but wonder if fate is giving them a second chance at love .
"Have you lost your senses, Lady Alexandra?" Professor Atler dropped her report on the desk as if the papers Alexandra had given him held the plague wrapped in black ink.
"Someone in the museum is a thief, Professor," Alexandra Marshall managed without clearing the hoarseness from her throat. "I have done my research and stand by my findings, sir. This is not a case of misidentification."
"You are out of line with an accusation of this magnitude. Bloody Christ . . . "
Professor Atler's unexpected blasphemy made her flinch, and Alexandra knew in that instant what it must feel like to face the gallows. Kill the messenger had taken on new meaning.
A dim whale-oil lantern provided the only light in a room filled with priceless relics. Mummified corpses lay in wooden boxes beneath glass away from sunlight. She'd long since become accustomed to the unpleasant musty scent that pervaded this paneled chamber, and drew courage from the next breath. But as surely as her gaze dropped to the Mogul decanter in her hand, she knew that she'd sealed her fate.
Her appalling discovery would set the elite academia back on its heels if word of the thievery ever leaked to the wrong people. Someone had tampered with priceless treasures. Someone intimately familiar with the museum's routine and with antiquities.
"It is not my intention to harm the museum." She set the once-priceless artifact on the desk. "But I am the one who checked the antiquities in question when they arrived. Someone has replaced the jewels with replicas. Very good synthetics, but fakes nonetheless. Whoever replaced those jewels did so with skill."
"Some will accuse you of trying to cover up your mistakes with this manner of accusation. Perhaps you erred in your earlier assessment. Have you considered that?"
"I . . . did not err, sir." But Professor Atler's observation had done what he'd meant to do. What if she had erred in identifying the pieces upon their arrival? Folding her hands in her skirts, she kept them from clasping. "I made no mistake."
"But you are not sure."
"Every emerald and ruby on that sixteenth century decanter is a fake. The prongs have been tampered with or replaced." She pointed to the other examples she'd laid out on the desk. "So I went back and looked at more. The emerald elephants from China are perfect replicas of the originals. There is much more that I have not brought here. Someone has gone to a great deal of effort to make sure none of us ever found out."
"And yet, you alone discovered the deception."
The inference sent a skein of alarm down her spine. "The light, sir," she explained. "Synthetic jewels, even those grown in a dish, do not possess the same light spectrum. Behind glass, the differences aren't as apparent. I'm positive the switch has only recently taken place."
A bushy brow lifted. "How do you know this?"
"As you know, those displays are changed every three months. When I was preparing the vase for moving, I noted first the prongs, then the gems. I cross-checked that vase with my research and the inventory index." When he didn't reply, Alexandra added, "I wrote a report on my findings and wish to begin a full-scale investigation."
A pair of bronze griffins crouched on each end of the desk. Professor Atler had not looked away from the papers, a decided slump to his thin shoulders. His brown woolen jacket was wrinkled where he'd been hunched over the desk when she'd arrived earlier. Heavy sideburns the color of his graying hair framed his tired face. Alexandra felt pity for him. As the director of this museum, he faced professional annihilation. A scandal of this magnitude would ruin him. Something she'd not considered until this moment....