Authors: Anna Randol
A Secret in Her Kiss
To my husband,
who is more awesome than any hero
I could imagine.
he last of the supply barrels thudded into the weathered rowboat.
The leather-faced sailor tugged at the edge of his knit cap. “Be back for ye and yers in a few ticks, sir.”
Major Bennett Prestwood nodded, and the man cast off the thick rope securing the boat to the dock. The oars scraped along the side of the boat, then dipped into the water, trailing ripples behind as the sailor rowed the supplies toward the navy frigate anchored in the bay.
Bennett flicked his hand, scattering two seagulls who’d settled on his trunk. It was perhaps a bit lowering to be loaded after the salted beef, but if it meant passage back to England, he’d be content to be loaded after the wharf rats.
He drew a deep breath. The docks of Ostend stank. They stank of fish and filth. He inhaled again. But the breeze didn’t reek of decaying human flesh covered in lye. And it didn’t carry the screams of the wounded.
For a few hours, he was on leave from hell. No graves to dig. No armies to scout. No enemies to kill.
But when he reached England, his respite would be over.
Bennett growled to himself, frightening an old beggar woman seeking alms or pockets to pick or perhaps both. He tossed the remainder of his money into her chipped clay cup. He’d be home soon enough.
Then he’d kill his brother-in-law.
Bennett’s hand tightened on the smooth leather hilt of his sword, worn down until he could feel the cool metal underneath. He was supposed to be finished with this. He’d intended to leave death buried with the corpses of his fallen men in the muddy fields of Waterloo.
But then his mother had sent him a letter.
He rubbed the grit from his face and withdrew the creased paper from his pocket. His mother had chatted on in her charming way about the normal family gossip. His younger brother had been sent down from Eton again. His cousins were leaving on a Grand Tour. His sister, Sophia, had reconciled with her husband and returned to his estate. Bennett’s jaw clenched as he read that final line for the hundredth time. He crumpled the paper and threw it into the harbor. He no longer needed it. The sentence had burned itself into his mind.
Damnation, why hadn’t he sent her farther away? She’d be better off in the wilds of India than with the bastard she’d married.
How had her husband forced her back? Another broken rib? A promise he would keep only until he was in his cups again?
If she couldn’t stay away from him, Bennett would see to it that her husband stayed away from her.
A large ebony coach rattled to a halt in front of him, blocking his view of the ship. Bennett tensed, his hand again sliding to the sword at his waist.
The coach door opened. “Join me a moment, Prestwood.”
Bennett’s jaw locked at that nasal voice. Curse it all, not now. “What do you want, General?”
“A simple word with you.”
A lie. General Caruthers was army intelligence; nothing was ever simple with him.
“That’s an order, Prestwood.”
Bennett climbed into the dimness of the coach. Caruthers smiled at him, the expression stretching the soft, pasty dough of his face. “Care for a drink, Major?” He pulled two glasses from a compartment in the wall of the coach.
Caruthers poured some brandy into his glass from a silver flask. “This is why I never stole you away from your regiment. No skill for putting others at ease.”
He didn’t want to be at ease. He needed to be on that ship.
“But you always follow orders, and that’s a trait I find useful.”
Dread settled in Bennett’s gut as the general removed a sheet of paper from a folio next to him and smoothed it on his lap with near reverence. He handed it to Bennett.
Bennett held the page at arm’s length, loath to involve himself with more of Caruthers’s nonsense. Yet the sheet caught his attention regardless. The paper didn’t contain orders. “It’s a butterfly.”
The general nodded and his jowls bounced enthusiastically. “Exactly! That’s the genius of it. Look closer.”
A pounding ache built at the base of Bennett’s skull. He wanted nothing more to do with secrets and lies. Yet since the man outranked him, he peered intently.
Nothing changed. The butterfly was still just a glorified insect, albeit skillfully wrought in ink. In fact, more than skillfully. Bennett held the drawing up in the hazy square of afternoon light that filtered through the thick glass windows. The delicate creature poised on a branch and looked, for all the world, as if it would flutter away at any moment. How had the artist done it? Bennett twisted the paper from side to side and still couldn’t discover the artist’s trick.
Caruthers smiled smugly. “You’ll never find it.”
Bennett lowered the paper, grateful for the general’s misinterpretation of his prolonged study.
Caruthers’s fingers dug indents into his pudgy legs and his eyes gleamed.
Bennett sighed and ventured into the noose. “Very well. Tell me what is special about this particular butterfly.” He laid the drawing flat on his knee.
The general traced a small section of lines near the tip of the wing. “It’s in the wings. Here.” He reached under his seat, pulled out a large glass magnifier, and held it over the drawing.
“Bloody hell.” Under the enlargement of the glass, minuscule lines came into focus, lines that unmistakably outlined the specifications and defenses of a military fortification. “Where is this?”
“A new Ottoman fort near the Greek border city of Ainos on the Mediterranean.”
“How did he get this information?”
Discomfort marred the general’s face and he cleared his throat. “Not a he. A she. It’s recently come to our attention that the artist is, in fact, a woman.”
Bennett folded his arms. “How exactly did His Majesty’s government succeed in missing that small detail?”
General Caruthers coughed twice. “Well, it appears that the government’s man in Constantinople assumed the woman delivering the drawings to be the artist’s servant rather than the artist.”
“Who is she? A Greek patriot?”
The general’s face sank into annoyed lines and he plucked at a brass button on his sleeve. “As a matter of fact, it has recently come to light that she is British. One Mari Sinclair.”
An Englishwoman? Why wasn’t she safe in England where she belonged? “What is she doing in the heart of the Ottoman Empire?” The Turks weren’t kind to spies. And the tortures they could inflict on a female spy were infinitely worse.
“Her father is an archaeologist of minor renown, a Sir Reginald Sinclair. He excavates in the area.”
Bennett tried to recall anything of the family but didn’t recognize the name. He studied the drawing again. “If you don’t mind my asking, sir, why are you showing me this?”
The general smiled. “You have done missions for us before.”
Yes, he’d been assigned missions before, but those had been to eliminate enemies. The picture crinkled in Bennett’s fist. “I do not kill women.”
The general glared and retrieved the drawing before further damage befell it. “No, no. The opposite, in fact. Keep Miss Sinclair alive.”
Definitely not Bennett’s area of expertise. “Isn’t this something better left to the Foreign Office? She’s one of their agents, is she not?” The rowboat had begun its passage back to the dock, and he intended to be on it when it left. He needed to shake some sense into Sophia and, failing that, put a bullet through her husband’s head.
“Actually, no. She’s a naturalist who studies plants and insects and the like.”
“She refused to work for them?” Perhaps the woman had an ounce of sense after all.
“She’s a bit . . . independent. She just delivers the pictures when she desires.” The general continued, “The Foreign Office has been providing a man to keep watch over her, but his protection is spotty at best. The army has interest in the drawings, so we informed the Foreign Office that we’ve arranged for her to work for us.” He leaned in, a confidential tone coloring his words. “The Ottomans are falling apart from the inside. They’re scrambling to build forts to hold on to Greece and their other territories, but they lack the funds to do so. Russia is kindly attempting to assist them.”
Splendid. The fool woman had placed herself in the center of some political power struggle. “To what end?”
“Russia has long wanted a foothold in the Mediterranean. This arrangement leaves them perfectly poised if the Ottomans fall. We, of course, don’t want to see this cozy little friendship succeed.”
One thing still didn’t make sense. “If she won’t work for the Foreign Office, why has she agreed to work for us?”
Caruthers returned the glass to the box under his seat. “We’ve assured her that cooperation will be to her benefit.”
Ah, benefit no doubt translated into gold. “Find someone else.” He didn’t have time to waste protecting a woman who thought money more important than safety.
Irritation leeched onto the general’s face. “Impossible. You have something no one else does. A perfect cover.”
Bennett raised his eyebrow.
“Your cousin is the ambassador assigned to Constantinople.”
Damnation. Lord Henry Daller. The man was a dozen years older than Bennett. Bennett knew very little of him. “We don’t have more than a passing acquaintance.”
Caruthers shrugged. “But neither the Turks nor the Russians will question it when you arrive. A young gentleman out to see the Continent now that the war is finally over.”
“What makes you think Miss Sinclair needs protection?”
The general struggled upright. “Her identity has been compromised.”
“And she still insists on gathering information?” Bennett frowned. Then the woman was either addled or had a death wish—neither of which boded well for her survival.
“As I said, we’ve ensured her cooperation.”
How much was the Crown paying her? But surely if her identity was known, the operation was as much at risk as her life. “Why not send another agent in her place?”
Caruthers rubbed his hands together eagerly. “She’s been able to access places we’ve only dreamed of before. We can’t give her up.”
“So we put her in danger.”
“She’s put herself in danger. Regardless, it’s not for long. We only need two last areas.”
Bennett stiffened. “This is ridiculous. I won’t play with Miss Sinclair’s life.”
“You have no choice.”
He already bore the guilt for failing to notice what was happening to Sophia; he wouldn’t fling Miss Sinclair into further danger. He’d sacrificed most of his soul in the service of King and Country. He refused to surrender the rest. “I do have a choice. I resign my commission.” He’d never expected to utter those words, but he would not let himself regret them.
Caruthers’s lips puckered. “Unfortunate. I do regret that, although not as much as I regret what will befall Everston and O’Neil.”
Bennett stilled. “What do my men have to do with this?”
“Everston lost a leg, did he not? And O’Neil an arm?”
Bennett swallowed the bile in his throat.
“It will be difficult for them to find work, I think. And poor O’Neil has three young children at home, too.”
“What are you threatening?”
Caruthers rubbed his chin. “Threats? Tsk, tsk, Major. I’m merely stating how essential a pension will be for those injured men, and you know how fickle Parliament is. If for some reason your regiment were left off the list the army sends to Parliament for funding, it would be a great tragedy. It could take years to correct. How many in the Ninety-fifth Rifles are going to be relying on pensions?”
Too many. The rigorous dual roles of scout and sharpshooter had decimated his men. Perhaps he could find positions for O’Neil and Everston on his estate, but what of the rest? He couldn’t leave them to starve in the gutters. Caruthers would carry out his threat, too, and not lose a night’s sleep.
“How long?” The question burned like acid on his lips.
Caruthers leaned back, the leather bench creaking under his weight. “I’m not asking for something unreasonable. We need Miss Sinclair to draw the two forts within the month. Then you are free to return to England.”
A month. Bennett cast another glance at the dock. The sailor waited in the rowboat, his wrinkled face collapsed in confusion.
Curse it, Sophia
. Why had he buckled under her sobbed pleas for secrecy? He’d given his word not to reveal the vile treatment she’d received at the hands of her husband. Now for another month, that promise left her at the mercy of the sadistic bastard.
“What are my orders?”
“Quite simple. Keep Miss Sinclair alive long enough to draw what I need.”
The general’s expression sank into displeasure. “This is not a request, Major. You sail within the hour.”
Bennett straightened and flung open the door to the coach. “Aye, sir.”
ennett studied the woman before him—or at least what little he could see—a grand total of two brown eyes. Not even her eyebrows showed under the garish golden silk that swathed her entire form. Her native garb stood in awkward contrast to the traditional English decor of the ambassador’s parlor, clashing horribly with the pink embroidered flowers on the chair beneath her. A dandelion in one of his mother’s rose beds. “So you agree to the conditions?”
Miss Sinclair dipped her head, shrinking even further into the overstuffed chair. “Yes.” her words fluttered the fabric of her veil.
“I know it might be a bother to write out an hour-by-hour itinerary every morning, but it is for your safety.”
“Yes, sir.” She darted an anxious glance at the closed door.
Bennett paced in front of the large marble fireplace, then tapped his fingers on the mantel. Both of his sisters would’ve laughed in his face if he’d dared to make such a suggestion to one of them. He’d expected at least some protest. The sum the government was paying her must be substantial indeed.
Silence hung awkwardly in the stifling room. He eyed the shut windows. He still couldn’t think of words to adequately describe the city of Constantinople spread out beneath them. The city resembled nothing so much as an aging courtesan’s dressing room table overflowing with rouge pots and cream jars and a few candlesticks interspersed throughout.