Captivating the Captain
Scandals and Spies: Book 6
Charlotte Vale isn’t just a pretty debutante like London society thinks she is. Behind her golden curls and blue eyes is a soul that craves adventure. She won’t be happy living a sedate and safe life with some Duke or Earl like her friends-she needs more. So when she is presented with the opportunity to take part in an undercover mission for England, she jumps at the chance. Even better, it involves finding her father who has been acting as a double spy in France.
Anthony Graylocke takes his career in the Royal Navy seriously. The adventurous life of sailing the high seas suits him. There’s plenty of time to settle down later with a demure, refined lady like his mother, right now he enjoys the freedom and excitement that commanding his own ship offers. The last thing he wants to do is accompany and protect the offensive disagreeable and unladylike Charlotte Vale on an undercover mission to France. Too bad his orders state that he must do just that.
But when a startling secret that will shock the core of the Graylocke family is revealed, Charlotte and Anthony must set their differences aside and work together in a race against time to stop a sinister plan that could destroy everything they hold dear.
Midway between Britain and France
“Arm yourselves! At the ready!”
The British sea captain howled out orders over the roar of the wind. Rain lashed against the wood of the captain’s quarters, where Charlotte Vale and her mother were residing during the crossing to France. The ship bucked, the shouts outside the captain rising to a crescendo as gunshots rang out.
Charlie’s heart galloped as she searched for a weapon, any weapon. What was happening? Where was Mama? The closest thing she found to a weapon in the captain’s quarters was a letter opener in the writing desk bolted to the floor. Crack! The breath knocked out of Charlie’s lungs as the ship shuddered. Her heart beat painfully against her ribcage. She palmed the makeshift weapon and skidded out into the main deck.
Something had struck the mast, nearly severing it. The second mast leaned against the first, a chunk taken out of the middle. Was the ship going to sink?
Cold rain stung her cheeks, matting her blond hair and throwing it across her eyes. She shoved the tangled strands back behind her ear. Her heart galloped and her mouth gaped as she stared at the colossal ship alongside them. It had three masts, not the two that their ship had, and must have held at least a dozen more people.
A dozen more French soldiers, if the flag waving from the tallest mast was any indication. Long planks hooked from the enemy ship onto theirs as soldiers armed with sabers and rifles boarded the British vessel.
No. We have to get off. Charlie battled a twinge of guilt at leaving the sailors to their own fate, but her and Mama’s mission was more important. They had to reach the continent at all costs.
Where was Mama? There, huddled in the shadow of the broken mast, out of the way and looking fierce. She was armed too, with a kitchen knife that looked far more deadly than the little letter opener in Charlie’s hand.
Charlie skidded on the wooden deck, slick with rain and sea spray, as she dashed to Mama. The ship pitched on the waves and she nearly introduced herself face-first to the planks. She threw out her arms for balance and managed to navigate the rolling deck.
“Mama,” she shouted over the wind as she got close.
Her mother, in her mid-forties and still a beauty with hair as blond as Charlie’s with only a touch of gray that seemed to blend in with the pale color, looked over. She met Charlie halfway across the deck. They clutched each other’s arms for balance.
“We have to get off the ship,” Charlie shouted.
“We can’t! The French will blow anyone who tries out of the water.”
Charlie’s heart pounded like an executioner’s drum beat. This isn’t adventure. She thrust the thought away. It didn’t matter what she’d thought this journey would be like when she’d pledged to undertake it. Now she had to see it through.
“Then what? If we don’t…” Charlie’s throat closed. She couldn’t finish the sentence.
If they didn’t get to land, they would never find Papa. Charlie hadn’t seen her father in years—in fact, until last year, she hadn’t even known he was still alive. Not only was he not in the marked grave in London where the family had buried his coffin, but he was a Crown spy. And now, after alerting the network that he had vital information, he had disappeared. Although her brother-in-law, Tristan Graylocke, and his brothers believed her to be as motivated as they were to uncover the information Papa had disappeared with, Charlie had an ulterior motive. All she wanted was to see her father again.
One way or another, she was going to see that happen.
“Go below deck. Trust the navy men to handle this.”
Charlie balked. From the way they were being overrun, they needed all the help they could get. If they had any hope of making it out of this scrape alive…
Another gunshot rang out, making her flinch and duck.
“Go,” Mama insisted. “Find the letter!”
They couldn’t leave without it. Two British women in France would cause a stir that might get them imprisoned or worse, even with their cover story. After all, if anyone looked into the tale, they would find that Charlie didn’t have a groom-to-be. Nor would she, not any time soon. She had a much more important reason for venturing into enemy territory.
And Lady Graylocke, her brother-in-law’s mother and the woman who had been like a second mother to Charlie over the past year, had been kind enough to direct them to a friend in France. If the French found the letter of introduction that Lady Graylocke had entrusted to Mama when they left, not only would their lives be in jeopardy, but so would Madame Renault’s.
Still, Charlie balked at leaving her mother alone on deck in the middle of the battle. “What about you?”
“I am trained for this. You are not! Go below deck, Charlie. Now!”
The urgency in Mama’s voice and snapping in her gaze made Charlie take an instinctive step back. Another gunshot rang out and she fought the urge to make herself smaller by curling into a ball. What if Mama got shot? She couldn’t fight against that.
Mama turned her back on Charlie. Swallowing, Charlie turned and skidded toward the hatch leading to the hold below. The captain’s quarters were tight, especially when shared between both women. There hadn’t been enough room to keep their valises with them.
The latch slipped from her trembling fingers as she fought to get the cold metal open. The trapdoor fought against the wind as she shoved it high enough to squeeze beneath. The moment she released it, it slammed back into place.
“Please let the latch not have sealed itself too…” She didn’t mean to stay down here, not while there was trouble above. But if she and Mama found a way to safely leave the ship, they needed that letter of introduction. Mme. Renault might be their only point of refuge once they reached France.
A thin light, crossed with shadows as footsteps crossed overhead, seeped from the grate in the ceiling of the hold. The rain wasn’t heavy enough to warrant the captain calling to batten down the hatches—not to mention, it undoubtedly wasn’t the first thing on his mind at the moment. Charlie searched for her valise in the hold among the jumble of crates, chests, and barrels. She found it wedged into a corner next to her mother’s.
Taking the small key she kept on a chain around her neck, Charlie unlocked the lock on her mother’s valise. She opened it, groping until she found the hidden pocket with the letter as well as their orders from Lord Strickland, Commander of Spies. Aha! She gripped the letters between her teeth as she replaced the lock and stuffed the valise out of sight once more.
The hatch leading to the deck blew open with a crash. Charlie flinched. She stuffed the envelopes down her bodice, between her chemise and stays.
A man dropped into the hold, bypassing the ladder. Charlie whirled, letter opener at the ready as she shakily stood. She spread her feet to compensate for the roll of the ship.
Charlie had never seen a French navy uniform up close, and if she had her druthers, she would rather not be able to describe it in so much detail. No doubt her closest friend, Lucy Graylocke-Douglass, would find the experience titillating. Adventure, to Charlie, meant seeing new places—not the lecherous grin of the French soldier who had cornered her in the hold.
Charlie buried her fear into the farthest knot she could manage. She refused to show it. Hefting her letter opener, she said in shaky French, “Leave this ship or I’ll see you thrown overboard.”
Her threat sounded weak and watery. Especially when the soldier countered it by drawing his saber. Hell and damnation, she’d done nothing but make him angry!
“Trouble ahead, sir. Twenty degrees starboard.”
Captain Anthony Graylocke accepted the spyglass and aimed it in the direction his second-in-command, Lieutenant Lawrence Stills, indicated. Two vessels were locked in combat. One flew the British flag—the other, French.
“Ready yourselves! Man the guns! We’ve got an ally in distress.”
One of the nearest sailors muttered to his friend, “I hope a damsel in distress, too.”
Gray and his ship had been in and out of port all year, sailing up and down the English Channel on a mission to prevent any French ships from catching the mainland unawares. Even when stopped in port—usually Dover or Brighton—the crew weren’t given much leave, if any. And they wouldn’t be granted the time to chase a woman now, either. This was war.
Not to mention, the vessel looked to Anthony to be a small navy ship, the type used as a courier between larger vessels and built for speed. If not for the unlucky shot that had clipped the mast and rendered the ship dead in the water, it might have outrun the larger French barque with ease. The only crew aboard would be men, British soldiers.
Ignoring the flippant comment from his subordinate, Gray shouted to the helmsman at the wheel. “Turn us starboard, twenty degrees!” He searched the crew milling on the deck below until he found the midshipman he sought. “Cooper! When we get close, see that the men fire a warning shot. Let’s see if we can scare these French vultures off.”
“If not?” Stills asked, appearing at Gray’s elbow. The shorter man was slight of build, his expression serious for once.
Gray grimaced. “We’ll have to board.”
The warning shot had no effect, and he couldn’t fire a full volley at the French ship without risking doing more damage to their ally. His ship, The King’s Grace, pulled alongside the damsel in distress as his crewman had put it. His riflemen knelt along the port side of the ship, picking their targets and firing at their commander’s behest. As their comrades started to drop, the French soldiers scurried like the rats they were.
“Hold her steady and drop the plank!”
His men obeyed, hooking the plank onto the friendly vessel for Gray and a small group of his men to board. He checked his pistol, then turned to his second-in-command. “Pull up the plank the moment I’m boarded and come ’round to cut off their escape.”
Stills knew better than to protest Gray’s boarding instead of the second-in-command. Although it put him, the captain, in jeopardy, Gray’s blood sang with the danger. He wasn’t the type to hide behind his ship and let his men do all the work. If there was adventure at his fingertips, he grabbed it.
Drawing his pistol, Gray followed the first wave of his men onto the friendly vessel and into the thick of the battle. Allies grappled with the enemy, too close together to safely shoot. Steel clanged as saber met saber. Men yelped as they were cut or grunted if caught by an unexpected fist. The French bolted for their ship, shooting blindly behind them to cover their retreat. Gray returned fire, then stepped into the shadow of the quarterdeck to reload.
The shadow of the King’s Grace loomed behind the French barque as it pulled alongside. Stills’ voice rang as he directed the men to trim the sails and lower the plank. He and most of the men boarded the French vessel, cutting off the enemy’s escape. Pinned between two forces, the Frenchmen dropped their weapons and surrendered.
“Check every nook and cranny,” Gray bellowed. “I want every last cur rounded up and at our disposal.”
As his men shouted acknowledgement, Gray turned toward the open door of the hold. Sounds of a struggle drifted from inside. A man’s curse in French. A woman responded in the same language, albeit with a British accent, “It’s no less than you deserve, you dog!”
A woman? Gray cursed under his breath. Pistol at the ready, he sheathed his dirk and dropped into the hold, gripping the lip of the entrance to slow his descent. He landed lightly just as the enemy soldier sliced into the back of the woman’s hand. She hissed, dropping the letter opener she wielded and clutching her bleeding hand to her stomach. It left a red line on her pale blue dress.
The French blackguard leveled his blade at her. “Up against the wall.”
The beautiful woman’s face contorted as she sneered. “Or you’ll do what?” Her eyes shone with inner fire. Her expression might have cut glass.
The enemy pulled out his pistol and leveled it at the woman. Her pink cheeks paled but she showed no other outward sign of being afraid. In fact, she glanced toward the letter opener on the ground, her damp blond hair falling across her face. If she leapt for it, the fiendish Frenchman might shoot. Simply the fact that he’d cornered the woman was proof that he had no morals.
Gray aimed his pistol and shot. The blackguard howled in pain and buckled forward. Drawing his dirk, Gray advanced on the enemy and planted his boot in the middle of the man’s back. He rested the tip of his blade next to the open, bleeding wound in the soldier’s shoulder, a silent warning.
“Are you hurt other than your hand?”
Her gaze snapping with anger, the young woman bent to snatch the letter opener off the floor with her uninjured hand. The tip was red with blood. “I’d be better if you hadn’t come. I had him perfectly well in hand before you startled him.”
The enemy hadn’t bloody well noticed Gray’s arrival! “A fine way to treat the man who just saved your life,” he snapped. The hum of the battle was soured by her demeanor. A beauty she might be on the outside, but she was savage underneath.
“I am not some weeping damsel in distress. I didn’t ask for or need your help.” Without another word—certainly no mention of the thanks he was due—she balled her skirt and stomped to the ladder leading out of the hold.
Gray gritted his teeth and tied his captive’s hands in front of him with perhaps a bit more force than was necessary.