The Allure of Attraction
Chapter One London, sixteen years later
ANDREW COLTER WAS tired. Exhausted. Fatigued. Done through. Twenty years of sailing would do that to a man. Journey after journey, he’d worked his way up from messboy to able seaman to first mate before finally becoming the captain of the Endeavor, a fast ship that had transported everything from gold to silk to rum at a healthy profit for company, captain, and crew. Now, however, as he gazed out over the docks of London from the Endeavor’s bridge, an incredible calm settled around him. That, he supposed, was what the promise of retirement did to a man.
Andrew knew he was young to be giving up his captaincy, but then, most men hadn’t seen the things he’d seen or done what he’d done to survive. He was a living myth among sailors, whispered about when he walked into taverns in far-flung trading ports. He’d stood down pirates and enemy ships. With a good wind behind him, he’d broken records, sailing from port to port and winning hefty bonuses in gold for his troubles. But it was the shipwreck in the thrashing waters of a storm off of South
America that had solidified his legend.
Now he was finished. The young sailors would have to find another man to watch with wide eyes over their grog in every anonymous tavern from here to Tortuga.
He pushed back from the balustrade and rolled his shoulders. The shipping company he sailed under had already been informed of his decision to go to shore, but there was one last thing he had to do. One last i to dot before he could settle into an easy life with a little sailing dinghy he could take out during the day before ending his night in front of a roaring fire, a book in his hand, and a loyal dog at his feet.
The scrape of wooden clogs on the deck brought his attention to the stairs leading up to the bridge. A small boy with a bleached white straw hat jammed on unruly black hair waited and watched.
“Yes?” Andrew asked.
The boy scrambled up the rest of the way, a letter gripped in his hand. There was hardly any dirt under his blunt, short-clipped nails. Whoever employed him must demand a degree of personal hygiene not often seen on the docks.
“A letter for you, Captain Colter, sir,” the boy said.
He took it and retrieved a coin from deep inside his jacket pocket. “For your troubles.”
The boy bobbed a bow, gripping the coin as though it were as precious as a Tahitian pearl.
Andrew flipped the envelope over and cracked the plain circle of stamped wax with a creeping sense of dread. Scribbled on the paper was no salutation or signature, just the words Eleven o’clock at Home.
Andrew crumpled the paper into a tight ball and dropped it over the side of the ship, watching the water soak it before
dragging it down into the Thames along with the rest of London’s refuse. He’d been summoned and, even though Home was exactly where he needed to go to finish the last of his business, it grated. They were reminding him that no matter how many steps ahead he thought himself, they were always better informed, faster, cannier.
Well, he’d be damned if he was going to be their pawn any longer.
After a word to his first mate, he mounted the gangway and strode onto the docks. Smatterings of Cantonese, Portuguese, and Dutch mixed with English as people streamed around him, some hauling cargo to be loaded onto ships and other, hawking their wares. The chaotic bustle of a working port had once excited him, but now he just put his head down and walked.
This is good, he reasoned as he wove his way out into Freemasons Road and waved down a passing hansom cab. If they were to meet at Home, Rickman would be there and likely so would Admiral Perry. He’d hear them out, refuse whatever insane mission they wanted him to execute, and then tender his resignation. Home had never been filled with reasonable men, as a rule, but now that he had no ship under his command they could have very little use for him any longer.
The cab jostled along through the dirty streets of Whitechapel, the City, and Covent Garden before coming to the broad boulevards of St. James’s. On Pall Mall, in front of an imposingly grand and suitably somber building, the driver pulled the horse up short. Andrew paid the man, tugged on the edge of the coat that made up his best suit of shore clothes, and steeled himself before mounting the steps up to Cumberland House.
Inside, the marble hallways were cool and quiet. It had been eighteen months since he’d been here last—before he and the
Endeavor had been dispatched to Constantinople to support the British blockade keeping the Russians out of the city during the fighting with Turkey—but nothing had changed. There was still a preternatural calm about the place that belied the hum of activity behind heavy oaken doors, for while London might sleep, the War Office never did.
Up two flights of stairs and down a twisting maze of corridors, Andrew found the small, unmarked door that was Home. He let himself in and nodded to the reedy young man sitting behind a broad desk before pushing open the door to the back office.
“I received a summons—”
Andrew stopped short, for while the admiral and Rickman were there, so was another man. One he’d never seen before.
“Captain, good of you to join us,” said Rickman, gesturing to an empty chair facing the three seated men.
Andrew lowered himself into the chair, unable to shake the feeling that he was a prisoner about to face the judges who would sentence him to hang.
“You haven’t met Sir Newton Fitzgerald,” Rickman continued. Andrew noticed it wasn’t a question.
“A pleasure to meet one of our finest intelligence officers,” said Sir Newton with a nod.
Andrew stared hard at the man with the rounded, ruddy face. Although Newton was sitting with Andrew’s direct superiors in the War Office and the Royal Navy’s intelligence branch, respectively, Andrew didn’t know who the man was.
“It’s all right, Captain,” said the admiral with a laugh. “You can speak freely in front of Sir Newton.”
“Who are you?” Andrew asked, the instincts that had kept him alive for years firing fast. He didn’t like manufactured surprises. They tended to come with unpleasant consequences.
“I report directly to Sir Newton,” said Rickman with a significant look.
Andrew’s shoulders tensed. He’d never learned the chain of command at Home. Civilian or military, none of the field agents did. Thus, if an agent was ever captured or compromised, it would be impossible to uncover the depths of the most secretive unit of the War Office’s intelligence branch.
“I’ve been watching your career with great interest for many years,” said Sir Newton, assessing Andrew from over the top of a pair of half-moon spectacles attached to his waistcoat by a silver chain. “Your work in Constantinople was appreciated.”
Andrew fought the urge to rub at the itchy new scar on his upper arm. It had been delivered to him by a sword-wielding Russian scout who would now be sporting a wicked scar of his own across his belly—if the man had survived the encounter and the plunge off the docks and into the Bosporus . . .
“Anything for Queen and country,” he said, biting down on the increasing bitterness he knew had begun to creep into his voice over the last few years.
The three men looked at each other.
“That’s why we called you here today,” said the admiral.
“We have a new mission for you,” said Rickman.
The oppressive weight of obligation pressed down on Andrew’s throat, but he threw up a hand to stop the men before his resolve softened. “No.”
“I beg your pardon?” Admiral Perry asked with a frown.
“I have the privilege of deciding when I retire. That was part of the agreement. Work for Home and I can leave whenever I choose. I choose now.”
“Your bloody agreement can go hang!” Rickman nearly roared, but a look from Sir Newton sent the man’s mouth
“Let’s be reasonable, Rickman. If the captain wishes to retire, that’s his choice,” said Sir Newton in the same easy tone a man might use to try to talk reason into two drunks intent on brawling in the street.
“I’m a civilian. Not a naval man,” Andrew said, crossing his arms.
“Quite right,” said Sir Newton, “but I believe this assignment will be of particular interest to you.”
Andrew’s eyes narrowed. “I doubt it, sir.”
Sir Newton reached over and plucked a dossier up from the desk behind which Rickman usually ruled. “Would you like to know what it is?”
Of course he would. He’d been on countless missions, but even he didn’t entirely understand how they all fit together. Every bit of information was another piece of the puzzle that was Home’s operations.
“If you read me in, will it be seen as an implicit agreement that I’ll take the mission?” he asked.
Sir Newton chuckled. “Spoken like a true skeptic.”
“Or a man who likes to know all of his options,” Andrew said.
“No, you listening won’t be taken as an agreement to go on with it. Although I’d be surprised if it doesn’t at least intrigue you,” said Sir Newton.
Andrew nodded once, and the man snapped open the file.
“We have need of a skilled handler to run an operation in Edinburgh. Your hometown.”
“I’m from Eyemouth, not Edinburgh,” he said.
Sir Newton glanced up but then shrugged. “It’s Scotland, the same general part of the world. We’ve received concerning
reports from a field office there.”
“There are always concerning reports out of every field office. It’s how they manage to keep themselves from being closed. They never amount to much,” Andrew said.
“Not like these,” said Rickman. “A constable chasing a robber through one of the warehouses at the edge of the city knocked over a box. When it fell, the lid dislodged, revealing a crate of guns. Rifles, incendiary devices, all manner of nasty things.”
“Then arrest the warehouse owner and have done with it,” Andrew said.
“It isn’t that simple,” said Rickman.
“We left the weapons where they were found because we also intercepted a missive from the owner’s home that we believe is a coded directive, but we’ve struggled to work out what it means save a set of dates,” said Sir Newton.
“And you want to trace the weapons and find out where they’ll lead you,” Andrew said.
Sir Newton nodded. “It could be one of any number of groups. The anti-unionists, the anarchists—”
“Anarchists?” he interrupted. “Doesn’t the degree of planning necessary to secure and store a cache of weapons imply a greater degree of organization than their philosophy allows?”
“Your commentary is not appreciated, Colter,” Rickman nearly growled.
“With all due respect, sir, I don’t know why I’m here. I suggest you deal with the problem in whatever manner Home usually does. This is not my area of expertise,” he said with a shrug. It wasn’t as though the British government was afraid of exerting its power, even over its own people.
“It’s not quite that simple. The dates we were able to
discern from the intercepted message coincide with the Prince of Wales’s visit,” said Sir Newton.
Andrew sucked in a breath. He’d been at sea and dodging Russian sabers and hadn’t had time to keep up with his reading. He’d missed the news of the prince’s visit to Edinburgh, but he knew what it would mean for the city. Thousands of people out in the streets, all vulnerable to attack, not to mention the heir to the throne and his entire traveling party. It was a nightmare scenario.
“The prince will be in the city for five days. You can imagine the logistical challenge this creates. There’s no possible chance that the Queen’s Guard and the local constabulary can cover an event of this size and protect everyone,” said Sir Newton.
Home had to try to figure out what the threat was and shut it down.
“We’ve identified a civilian who we believe is in direct contact with the man who owns the warehouse where the guns were found,” Rickman said. “We’re confident she can be turned and enlisted to ferry information to us. We want you to recruit her.”
His brow furrowed. “Her?” He knew some of the most valuable intelligence assets in British intelligence were women, but they were usually highly trained women. He’d never heard of a handler being asked to recruit a female civilian and put her directly into contact with a target so quickly.
The admiral folded his hands and leaned forward in his chair. “Her name is Mrs. Lavinia Parkem, though you might’ve known her once as Lavinia Malcolm.”
Andrew’s stomach fell three stories to the street, and he shot to his feet. “No.”
“Stop, Captain,” Admiral Perry ordered.
Years of sailing and its strict hierarchy onboard brought
Andrew up short three feet from the door, and he cursed under his breath. Clenching his fists, he slowly turned to face the men.
“I understand that you and Mrs. Parkem were once engaged,” said Sir Newton, looking up from the files.
His mouth went dry as the memories he kept as neatly packed away as his ship’s chest came loose. “Yes.”
“What happened?” the man asked.
“I was shipwrecked and declared dead, but I didn’t die. It took me months of recovery and four ships to get home, and when I arrived I found out she was another man’s bride. Lavinia Malcolm didn’t even give me the courtesy of a full year of mourning before she married Parkem.”
His sweetheart from the day her brother had hauled him into the kitchen of their family home to steal the plate of biscuits she was helping the cook make, she’d been his heart, his rock, his everything. When a storm had destroyed the ship he was sailing on, the memory of her had been what’d kept him clinging to a broken door as he was battered by the sea. Returning to her had been everything, yet when he’d finally laid eyes on her again—blissfully happy to return to his beacon—she’d looked at him with an uncomfortable mixture of horror and pity. That was when he’d learned the truth. She’d been married two days before. She’d moved on. He didn’t even know if she’d mourned him.
It doesn’t matter, he thought with clenched fists. She’d made her choices, and so he’d gone and made his, leaving her and everything he’d worked his entire life for behind.
“That’s a very sad story, Captain, but we need you to remember your duty,” said Rickman, pulling him back to the oppressive room, where three pairs of eyes watched him with interest.
“Our main source in Edinburgh, who would be your
operational liaison, believes that Mrs. Parkem has caught the attention of the suspected ringleader, Mr. Harold Wark. He’s her landlord, and his mother is a customer of hers,” said Sir Newton.
“Customer?” he asked.
“Mrs. Parkem is now the proprietress of one of Edinburgh’s finest dress shops,” said Sir Newton.
He laughed in disbelief. “There must be a mistake.”
“No, no mistake,” said Sir Newton, checking over his notes.
“She was a vicar’s daughter. She married a merchant. She’s not a dressmaker.”
“It appears that Parkem made some imprudent investments in shipments, and one of his ships was eventually sunk off the Cape of Good Hope, ruining him. When he died, he left his wife about five hundred pounds. She took that money and invested it in opening a shop in Edinburgh,” said Rickman, reading off a dossier. “Our liaison in there, who I assure you is one of the best working today, says that Mrs. Parkem’s shop has grown in popularity over the last few years and now boasts quite the clientele.”
He slumped back in his chair, stunned. Lavinia, the woman he’d striven all his youth to deserve, had come down in the world. What irony.
“We also believe that Wark has been trying for some time to convince Mrs. Parkem to become his mistress.” The bluntness of Sir Newton’s words struck him square in the chest.
“She’d never do it,” he said automatically, but then stopped. How did he know that? It had been more than a decade since they’d seen each other. She could’ve changed.
He nearly snorted at the thought. A leopard couldn’t change its spots any more than Lavinia could stop being the woman she’d grown into—feckless, faithless, a liar.
“We need you to persuade her to let Wark in. If she can achieve a certain level of intimacy, she can observe his comings and goings and find out who his associates are,” said Sir Newton.
“You want me to convince my former fiancée, whom I hate, to prostitute herself in the name of the British government?” He’d done a lot of things he wasn’t particularly proud of for Home, but this was a step too far.
The admiral sputtered a protest, but the expressions of the two men of the War Office stayed dead serious.
“There will be no prostitution necessary,” said Sir Newton.
“All Mrs. Parkem needs to do is coax a man who’s already expressed interest in her into giving her a little bit more of his time,” said Rickman with a nod. “If she could collect the names of the men associated with Wark or gain access to his personal papers, all the better.”
He studied them with a wary eye sharpened by years of fielding Rickman and Perry’s orders. “No. My intention when I returned to London was to retire. I’ve given up my ship, and I have no intention of becoming involved in schemes to meddle with other people’s lives. Please excuse me, gentlemen.”
For the second time he made to leave, and for the second time one of those bloody puppet masters arrested him with a single sentence.
“If you don’t go, we’ll send McKenzie to do the job,” said Sir Newton in a voice that cut with the precision of a rapier blade.
Andrew scowled. “You can’t send McKenzie.”
Sir Newton lifted his chin in challenge, piercing eyes holding Andrew in place. “He’s the best handler we have north of the Scottish border at the moment.”
“He’s a drunk and a womanizer. He can’t be trusted to care
for a flea let alone an operation that requires this degree of delicacy,” he said.
“Without you, we’re left with very little choice,” said Rickman, folding his hands across his prodigious stomach with a smug smile.
“She’d be going in unprepared and without the support she needs if something goes wrong.”
“It’s a risk we’re willing to take. We need someone in there,” said Sir Newton.
Andrew’s knuckles cracked as he flexed his hands to keep from punching a wall. He shouldn’t care—he didn’t—but he knew how dangerous even the simplest operation could be. Asking a woman who had no previous training to manipulate a man who might be at the center of an attack or an assassination plot? It was ludicrous.
“Guide her. Be the one to show her what needs to be done,” said Sir Newton.
His teeth ground against one another. One had to reason with spymasters because they couldn’t be threatened. They always knew someone more deadly than you.
“Your plan has a major flaw. Lavinia Malcolm hasn’t seen me in twelve years.”
“Lavinia Parkem,” said Sir Newton.
“Malcolm, Parkem, it doesn’t matter. She won’t trust me,” he said.
Nor do I trust her.
Over the course of his career he’d been nearly drowned, whipped, starved, and beaten several times over. None of those experiences came close to the sheer agony of returning home unannounced to the gaping expression of the citizens of Eyemouth only to find out that their shock lay not in his survival,
but in the fact that he would shortly learn the truth: that his bride-to-be had wedded another.
And the things he’d said to her . . . He shifted on his feet, ashamed even now of the vitriol he’d spat when he saw her betrayal for himself. Even if it had been justified, he couldn’t shake the memory of her face crumpling before him. It had haunted his nights for longer than he wished to admit.
“Captain Colter,” said Sir Newton, taking off his spectacles and leaning heavily on the arm of his chair, “you are a valued asset to naval intelligence. You have been trained by the very best, and your experience in the field is unparalleled, if your reports are anything to judge by. I should think you would be able to persuade one widowed dressmaker to follow your lead, no matter what’s come between you in the past.”
“Find her pressure point. Every recruit has one,” said Rickman.
“What’ll it be, Captain?” asked Sir Newton. “You or McKenzie?”
He wanted so badly to tell the three of them to go do unspeakable things to themselves in fourteen different languages. He could just refuse to cooperate, walk out the door, and let them take care of their Scottish problem. Yet the idea of sending any untested civilian out into a potentially dangerous situation with McKenzie as her handler was untenable. No one deserved that. Not even Lavinia.
“When is the prince’s visit?” he asked.
A glint caught Sir Newton’s eye. “In less than three weeks.”
“If she hasn’t made any headway by then, I’m pulling the whole operation. No exceptions,” he ground out.
Sir Newton snapped the dossier shut. “Excellent. I believe you’ll find there’s a sleeper train to Edinburgh leaving tonight
that will get you in Sunday morning. Our Scottish liaison, Gibson, has been instructed to make arrangements for you in the way of a new identity and rooms. The address for the operation headquarters is in the dossier.”
“What is it?” he asked with a sigh, scrubbing his hand over his face.
“A notions shop,” said Rickman with a grin. “You offer the finest buttons to be had in Edinburgh.”
He raised his brows. He looked like many things, with his sunburned face and sun-bleached hair, but a notions shop owner wasn’t one of them. Still, at least it would give a good cover and explain away why he and Lavinia would have to be in direct communication.
“With some persuading, I’m certain Mrs. Parkem will see fit to switch her loyalty from her current supplier,” Rickman continued. “Plan to make contact with Mrs. Parkem on Monday morning. There’s no time like the present, Captain Colter,” said Rickman. “If you see my clerk, you can pick up your ticket for the journey. And you’ll be wanting to see a tailor. I’m given to understand that dressmakers have an astute eye for the fashions of both the sexes.”
Andrew looked down at his shore clothes. It had been eighteen months since he’d spent any significant time in Britain, and while his current attire had been good enough for ports across the world, it apparently wouldn’t do for Edinburgh.
“Thank you, sir.” He clicked his heels together and bowed reluctantly to the lot of them.
He strode past the clerk’s desk, slowing only long enough to snatch the train ticket that waited on the corner for him. He stuffed it into his jacket pocket, ready to roar at the next person who looked at him the wrong way. Except no one did. He
must’ve looked like such a bear that everyone steered clear of him all the way out into the street in front of Cumberland House.
That was not how that was supposed to have gone. He wasn’t supposed to have been pulled in for one last assignment, and he was definitely not supposed to be barreling toward the one woman he loathed more than the doldrums, scurvy, and the last batch of hardtack after a hundred days at sea. Combined.
It had been years since he’d let himself think of Lavinia, and he’d happily have gone years longer if those three geniuses hadn’t come up with this idiotic scheme. Who was to say that just because Wark flirted a bit with one of his tenants, he’d fall for a woman’s sudden change of heart and begin spilling all his secrets about weapons caches and plots? The War Office must be desperate to stage an operation with as little to go on as this.
Three blocks from Cumberland House, his heart stopped trying to pound out of his chest. He pulled up on the side against a building and breathed deep. It wasn’t just that he’d intended never to run another mission or that Lavinia would be his recruit. It was that her safety would be in his hands. He had to be able to think clearly and assess the mission with the cold, rational mind of a trained spymaster. If he couldn’t do that because their past blinded him, it could be her blood on his hands.
She’s only an asset. Just like all the others.
He set his jaw. She might’ve once been Lavinia Malcolm, but that had been years ago. She’d changed, but so had he. No longer a love-blind boy, he could do this. No. He would do this and he’d do it well.
Her life depended upon it.