The Allure of Attraction – Julia Kelly

LAVINIA LAY IN her bed, her secret keeping her warm against the night’s chill. She giggled but quickly bit her tongue, even though there was no conceivable way Mamma or Papa could hear her all the way on the opposite side of the thick-walled vicarage. The old house she’d lived in for all of her sixteen years had its quirks—some helpful, like the secret passage oА the library where she and her brother, Caleb, had played hide-and-seek as children, and others annoying, like the insistence of the third stair on the first flight on creaking no matter how she tried to fix it. Tonight, however, she would avoid that stair altogether and opt for an altogether more inventive method ofescape. Three whistled notes, so soft they might have been a trick of the wind, sounded in the night. It was time. Slipping out from between the covers fully dressed, she collected the black leather boots she’d hidden under her bed earlier that day, shoved her feet into them, and laced them up. Then she crept to the window and lifted the sash. It glided up on its track with nary a sound—coaxed by many applications of oil she’d stolen from the gardener’s shed. With a grin, she slung her leg over the sill and began her descent. Really, if Mamma and Papa hadn’t wanted her to climb out the window at all hours, they shouldn’t have ordered the installation of the trellis that stretched so conveniently to her window. The ball of her foot hit the ground, and her grin widened. The evening was going exactly as planned, and it would only improve. She’d make sure of that. A layer of frost crunched under her feet as she slipped out through the garden gate and pulled her thick woolen shawl closer around her shoulders.

She probably should’ve donned a coat, but she hadn’t wanted to risk the bulk weighing her down as she climbed. Besides, her anticipation would keep her warm. When she was almost to the end of the street, a Йgure stepped out from behind a dark hedge, and Lavinia broke into a run toward the man. It had been a struggle convincing him to agree to meet her at night, and she wasn’t going to waste a moment of it. “Andrew!” Her arms looped around his neck and she was kissing him—right here in the lane. His lips were softand warm, and when they moved over hers, she shivered with delight. Lavinia was sixteen and in love with the best man she knew. There was nothing better. “Shh, you’ll wake the entire town.” Andrew tried to scowl, but when she arched a brow, he kissed her again swiftly, his lips curving into a smile against hers.

“You made it out without being caught?” “It was nothing,” she said, waving her hand dismissively. “What of Caleb?” he asked. Her younger brother—Йfteen to her sixteen—was Andrew’s friend, but that didn’t mean he would approve of her sneaking out of the window at night. It was fortunate, then, that what Caleb didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. “He’s fastasleep. He only justarrived home from school last night. Come along and stop stalling,” she said, tugging Andrew’sarm. “This will be such fun.” StiМing giggles, they raced down the street and took a left to the footpath that led to the edge of town. The night was silent save for their quick breaths and fast footsteps, and the sound of waves crashing against the shore.

When they were clear of the last house, the path became narrower, and Andrew hugged Lavinia to his side to make sure she didn’t stumble on the hard, frozen dirt. This close, the scent of him was intoxicating. Andrew always had the comforting smell of the sea on him, Йtting for a boy who’d been sailing merchant vessels since the age of twelve. Today, however, he wore an ocean spray earned while working with his father, ferrying people back and forth between Edinburgh and Eyemouth. It clung to his hair and had dried on his skin—hair she could touch, skin she could lick, if only she dared. That night she’d dare. “There it is,” Andrew murmured, lipsagainst her ear. Atop the hill above them a huge house rose up out of the darkness. “It’s beautiful,” she said. Andrew chuckled.

“Only you would look ata house that’s been abandoned twenty yearsand think it’s beautiful.” “But it is. And one day it’ll be ours.” “That it will,” he said, his voice a little less sure than hers. No matter. She could dream enough for both of them. Veering oА the path, they pushed their way through the overgrown bushes that surrounded the oncegrand merchant’s house. The grounds had been left to go wild for as long as Lavinia could remember, and a few years ago she, Andrew, and Caleb had found a gap in the hedge next to a side gate they could squeeze through. It had become their own personal playground until Caleb had been sent to school in Edinburgh in anticipation of his reading law, and Andrew had sailed out. Since then it had become the place where Andrew and Lavinia met for quiet moments alone in those blissful weeks when he was at home, waiting for his next voyage.

Tonight it would become so much more. After pushing through the weed-choked lawn that might once have been the site of teas and games of croquet, Andrew shouldered the rotted drawing room door open. As soon as she shut the door, Lavinia slipped her armsaround his waistand pressed a kiss to the hollow where his throatand collarbone met. “This isall I’ve been able to think aboutall week,” she whispered against his pulse. A low rumble sounded in Andrew’s throat, but he deliberately took a step back, putting her at arm’s length. “You’re sure of this?” “As sure as I’ve ever been ofanything.” His hand slipped down her arm to tangle his fingers with hers. “Then come this way.” He led her through the house, avoiding the broken boards in the corridor between the drawing room and the morning room. When they reached the double doors leading to what had once been a dining room large enough to hold a table for sixteen, he stopped.

“Close your eyes,” he said. “Do you have a surprise for me?” she asked. “You won’t find out unless you close your eyes, will you?” he teased. Lavinia shut her eyes tight. A door in front of her creaked on its hinges. Squeezing her hand, he helped her take a few faltering steps forward. “Right here,” he said, his hands on her shoulders to steady her. “Now you may open your eyes.” The room was lit up with lanterns, and she blinked against the sudden infusion of light. The room wasexactly as she remembered it, except for the addition ofa straw-stuffed mattressand a pile of blankets.

“It’s not much . ” Andrew started. “It’s perfect,” she said. This time it was Lavinia who grabbed him by the hand and led him over to the blankets. They’d argued about this. She knew he’d been as horriЙed as he was intrigued when she’d told him that she wanted him to make love to her before he left Eyemouth once again, but she’d been persistent. She trusted him. They were in love. They’d kissed and touched and done so many things that everyone said a young couple mustn’t do before they were married. Except this.

Her skirts pooled around her as she sank down onto the mattress. She patted the spot next to her. “Come.” But Andrew hesitated. “You’re really and truly sure?” “I’ve never been uncertain ofanything when it comes to you, Andrew.” He nodded stiЖy and then bent on his knees. But he didn’t kiss her. Instead he stuАed his hands into his pockets. “I’ve been thinking,” he began. “Alwaysa dangerous prospect,” she said with mock solemnity.

A slight smile touched his lips. “I have two weeks before I sail again.” “Two weeks we have to make the most of,” she said. “I love you. I would understand if you didn’t want to wait for me but”—he pulled his closed right hand out of his pocket—“Lavinia Malcolm, would you do me the very great honor of becoming my wife?” Her hand covered her mouth as her heart pumped so fast it threatened to burst. “Oh my.” He opened his hand. In the center of his palm lay a small gold ring. “It isn’t much—” “It’s perfect,” she breathed. “Oh, Andrew, yes.

” She launched herself into hisarms, kissing him over and over again until he pulled back, laughing. “I’d hoped you’d say yes.” “How could I say anything else?” she asked, watching the glint of gold in the lantern light. “I know I should’ve asked your father’s permission Йrst, but it didn’t feel right. You should be the Йrst person I ask.” He also knew, as she did, that her father would never say yes. “I’ll buy you a new one in a few years. I’ll even buy you this house if you like. When I’ve made my fortune,” he added. She bit her lip.

His fortune. She’d been telling him for the last year whenever he was home and in the letters she wrote that she didn’t care what money he made or that he had to work for it. She’d rather have him here with her, a ferryman’s son, than out on the dangerous seas, risking his life in the pursuit of a mythic wealth. Andrew, however, would not be deterred. “This one is beautiful. I won’t wanta new ring, all I want is you,” she said, kissing him lightly. “Your parents won’t be happy, especially your mother,” he warned. It was true. Her mother had been trying for months to place her in front ofall the “eligible” bachelors of Eyemouth. Andrew, Mamma never ceased telling Lavinia, did not rank in their numbers.

Not for a gentleman’s daughter. “You should never have allowed her to run around half-wild with that Colter boy,” she’d overheard Mamma scold her father. “There are already rumorsabout the two of them.” “Rumors?” her father had said sharply, in a way that made Lavinia even more determined than ever not to give Andrew up. Her mother, however, was proving to be equally as determined. The day after Lavinia had turned sixteen, Mamma had begun to talk about taking her to Edinburgh to give her a proper season—a prospect that horriЙed her. She didn’t want a season. The man she loved might be gone for months at a time, but she wanted to be in Eyemouth whenever he returned. “I’ll weather the rumors,” she said, cupping his face with her hand. “Just promise me you’ll come back to me.

” “I promise. I love you.” He kissed her then, slowly untying the shawl from around her shouldersas she pushed his jacket down hisarms, and they lost themselves in a tangle of clothesand love and promises of the future. A few hours later, Lavinia fell back into her bed with a smile on her face. There were few things certain in life, but she knew that she could rely on the ocean’s tides, the rising of the sun, and the simple fact that Andrew Colter would always come back to her. 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 Йrst mate before Йnally becoming the captain of the Endeavor, a fast ship that had transported everything from gold to silk to rum at a healthy proЙt 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 wasa living myth among sailors, whispered about when he walked into taverns in far-Мung trading ports. He’d stood down piratesand 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 oА 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 ofa 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 itand 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 preciousasa 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 Thamesalong with the rest of London’s refuse. He’d been summoned and, even though Home wasexactly where he needed to go to Йnish 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 Йrst 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 Йlled 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 Йghting 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 Мights 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 wasanother 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 wasa 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’ta 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 OГce and the Royal Navy’s intelligence branch, respectively, Andrew didn’t know who the man was. “It’sall 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 Йring 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 Йeld agents did. Thus, ifan agent wasever 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 wasappreciated.” 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 docksand 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 ateach 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 snapping shut.

“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. Nota naval man,” Andrew said, crossing hisarms. “Quite right,” said Sir Newton, “but I believe thisassignment will be of particular interest to you.” Andrew’seyes 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 wasanother piece of the puzzle that was Home’s operations. “If you read me in, will it be seen asan implicitagreement 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’tat least intrigue you,” said Sir Newton. Andrew nodded once, and the man snapped open the file. “We have need ofa 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 Йeld oГce. 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.

RiМes, 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.

.

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