The Siren's Captain
French singer and spy Marie-Louise Fortier has spent her life protecting idealistic men like her father, who died trying to wrest France back from Napoleon. So when the British War Office asks her to safeguard a former naval captain in the little spa village of Grace-by-the-Sea from the emperor's threats, she doesn't hesitate, even if it means pretending to be engaged to the legendary Captain St. Claire to remain at his side.
Quillan St. Claire has been taking care of himself since he was a foundling. He's fought Napoleon in battle and now smuggles the tyrant's secrets from France to aid England's cause. He's certainly not willing to trust the pretty soprano with his life, yet her siren's voice seems to call to him. As danger draws closer, Marie and Quill must work together to protect the friendly little village that welcomed them, only to discover that protecting each other may mean risking their hearts for a real chance at love.
This sweet, clean Regency is the sequel to The Lady's Second-Chance Suitor. Grace-by-the-Sea: Where romance and adventure come home.
Grace-by-the-Sea, Dorset, England, October 1804
Quillan St. Claire, formerly of His Majesty's Navy, leaned against the pale blue wall of the assembly rooms and scanned the well-dressed attendees at the annual Autumn Serenade. Row upon row of chairs crossed the polished wood floor, all aimed at a dais that had been erected under the musicians' alcove at the head of the room. He applauded politely as Mrs. Marjorie Howland, mother of his friend James, finished a sweet melody on her harp. That was the eighth act of local talent since he'd walked in the door, and at least a few had gone before he'd arrived fashionably late.
Arriving at all had been his first mistake. He enjoyed good music as much as the next fellow, and it was nice to see his neighbors show off skills they generally reserved for family. But he had no family here. He was the outsider, the stranger. Oh, he had no doubt the people of Grace-by-the-Sea would welcome him into their homes. He'd been invited enough times when he made his rare appearances at church services, the assemblies, or the spa that formed the backbone of the local economy. It was better to remain aloof. Safer for his work. And he certainly didn't want anyone guessing who was behind the rumors of a Lord of the Smugglers plying his trade hereabouts.
He almost left then, but he gave the room one last scan. His appearance would be worth the effort if he located the latest French agent to infiltrate the little village. They had been arriving with alarming regularity since Napoleon had begun massing his troops across the Channel with the intention of invading England: French spies masquerading as spa visitors, smuggling rings intent on taking England's secrets to France. He knew the smuggling trade. He had enough friends among the Royalists hiding in France that he could bring back information England badly needed to stop the tyrant.
So long as no one suspected that was his true motive for sailing out at night.
But everywhere he looked, he saw faces he'd been seeing since he'd come to live in Dove Cottage at the top of the village three years ago. He could rule out anyone associated with the vaunted Spa Corporation Council. The members and their families were located near the front, right behind the row of Regulars, those visitors who could not seem to pry themselves from the elegant spa. He recognized the silver-haired mane of Lord Featherstone and the auburn tresses of Mrs. Harding, who had recently returned to their shores with her betrothed, Mr. Warfield Crabapple.
Nearby were the ranking members of the area-Lord Peverell, his sister, and his betrothed, the widow Mrs. Todd, as well as the dowager Countess of Howland, her recently wed son, and his bride. Only the last gave him any twinge of concern, and not because he suspected her of spying. The former Rosemary Denby had once made it apparent she would have liked him to pursue her acquaintance. He'd rebuffed her, soundly. A mistake that. There weren't many ladies with her intellect, wit, and courage.
Not that he was looking to further his acquaintance with any lady. Though he had been interested any number of times, the all-consuming love that had claimed so many of the eligible bachelors of Grace-by-the-Sea had never overtaken him. He began to think himself immune. Sadly.
He kept his gaze moving over the merchants near the back, the servants standing along the walls, waiting to be of assistance to their mistresses and masters, the Inchley family, who managed the rooms. No one looked particularly out of place.
He puffed out a sigh. He prided himself on being a particularly keen observer. He had subscribed to Lord Nelson's approach before he'd even heard of Britain's Naval leader. Knowing what a person wanted and supplying it or threatening to deny it had seen him through his earliest years at the foundling home in London, his short tenure at Eton, and his rise through the ranks of the navy.
His skills had failed when it came to the French spies that continued to sneak into the area. Indeed, the villains had been largely uncovered through the agency of the ladies of Grace-by-the-Sea, who had proven themselves a savvy lot.
Dignified in his evening black, James stepped up onto the dais then, as he had for all the previous performers. "Thank you, Mother."
As the lady moved off the dais and Mr. Inchley came to position her harp to one side, James faced the audience. He might never have served on the deck of a frigate, but that short-cropped blond hair, features that ought to have been carved in stone, and muscular build lent him an air of command.
"We are fortunate to have such a generous group of friends and neighbors willing to share their talents with us," he told the audience. "Another round of applause, if you please."
The soft thud of gloved hands clapping filled the room with quiet thunder.
"And another, if I may," he continued, "for Lord Peverell, who graciously funded the event."
More applause. Peverell inclined his tawny head in acknowledgment while his sister, bride-to-be, and her mother beamed at him.
"And now," James said, magistrate's voice echoing in the room, "I have the pleasure of introducing you to our most prestigious performer, Mademoiselle Marie-Louise Fortier, fresh from her triumph at Drury Lane in London and her performance before the king and his court at Kew."
He held out his hand, and a woman took it to climb onto the dais. Hair blacker than Quill's swept back from a face with a wide brow and a delicate mouth, as if she thought more than spoke. The fitted crimson velvet of her bodice, edged with gold braid, called attention to her considerable curves.
Applause rang out again.
In the alcove, the quartet that generally accompanied all assembly dances began playing. With a polite smile all around, the professional soprano launched into her repertoire.
"Adieu, adieu my only life.
My duty calls me from thee.
Remember thou'rt a soldier's wife.
Those tears but ill become thee.
What though by duty I am call'd where thund'ring cannons rattle,
Where valor's self might stand appal'd, where valor's self might stand appal'd,
When on the wings of thy dear love to heav'n above thy fervent orifons
Had flown the tender pray'r thou put up there
Shall call a guardian angel down,
Shall call a guardian angel down to watch me in the battle."
He could almost hear the call to arms, smell the gunpowder of the cannon. Moisture dimmed his gaze. He would not wipe at his eyes. Small wonder ancient mariners claimed that the singing of Sirens led sailors to their deaths. He'd have followed that sound.
He managed to keep his composure, and she finished the remaining verses to applause that lasted almost as long as her song. She curtsied, and James hopped back up to join her.
"That is only a taste of Mademoiselle Fortier's abilities. Please stop by the spa at three in the afternoon for the next week, where she will be regaling us. See Mr. Lawrence for subscriptions. This concludes our program for the evening."
The final round of applause waned as attendees rose and began speaking to family and friends. Time to go before anyone attempted closer association. Quill pushed off the wall and turned for the door.
"Captain St. Claire, wait."
He stopped and looked back. Amazing how James could use his magistrate's voice to effect. His friend was shouldering his way through the crowd, the soprano sweeping along beside him.
"Mademoiselle Fortier desired to make your acquaintance," James explained as he and the lady joined Quill. "Mademoiselle, allow me to present Captain Quillan St. Claire."
It wasn't the first time he'd been one of the village's attractions. "Mademoiselle," Quill said with a bow. As he straightened, he glanced to James, who shrugged, though his mouth hinted of a smile. So, his friend saw no underlying reason for the woman to seek Quill, for all she at least pretended a French name.
"Captain," she said with a warm smile, her speaking voice betraying no more of an accent than her singing. She came just under his chin, and her eyes were the color of the sea at dawn, deep blue and not a little mysterious. She knew what to do with those thick, black lashes, for their fluttering beckoned him closer.
"I wanted to thank one of the heroes of the Battle of the Nile," she said. "I have already met many of Lord Nelson's Band of Brothers-Rear Admiral Darby, Rear Admiral Peyton, Captain Berry."
"Then I am indeed in good company," Quill said. "They are excellent commanders. England is fortunate to have them."
"And you as well," she assured him. "I would love to hear more of your exploits. Perhaps we could chat."
That smile implied alone. He had had women make such suggestions in the past. The gilt-frogged uniform of a naval officer tended to turn heads, and never more so than after he'd become known for having fought at one of Britain's greatest naval triumphs over the French.
"You are too kind," he said. "But I fear my wound is encouraging me to decamp this evening."
She made a moue. "So tragic, to be wounded in the service of one's country. Perhaps I could accompany you, provide some comfort."
He shot James another look. His friend was frowning at her, as if he too knew the insistence was far too forward.
"I wouldn't dream of depriving the citizens of Grace-by-the-Sea of your company," Quill said. "And now, I should return you to your adoring audience."
"But of course." She took a step back, then faltered, hand fluttering to her brow. Quill caught her as her knees buckled.
"Mademoiselle?" James asked, taking a step closer. "Are you all right?"
A warm bundle in Quill's arms, she fastened her gaze onto his and refused to look away, even as her fingers dug into his arm. "The performing, it takes a toll."
James stepped back. "I'll fetch our spa physician, Doctor Bennett."
She waved a hand. "No, no. I need no physician. Please, mon cher capitaine, would you escort me back to my inn, the Swan?"
Why this insistence on his company? She had to be playing some game beyond a momentary flirtation. The only way to discover the truth was to play along.
"Of course," Quill said, setting her gently on her feet. "Did you bring a cloak, a wrap?"
"No," she said, gazing up at him soulfully. "I need only you."
He refused to believe it. "Then we'll be off. James, be so good as to ask Mr. Drummond to assist us."
"Drummond?" she asked, frown gathering, as James strode for the short corridor that led to the door. "I have not been introduced to a Drummond."
"Likely not," Quill explained, leading her toward the door. "He's the local lamplighter. He lost an arm in Flanders. I'm sure you'll want to praise his service as well."
"Of course." Her voice was all flowery sweetness, but, for once, he thought he felt the sting of a bee beneath the words.
Mr. Drummond was waiting as they came out of the assembly rooms. He held his brass lantern high on a pole above his grizzled head to light their way down the street. Some of the other attendees were making their way home, voices soft in the night.
"I have rarely had such a distinguished escort," she told the older man.
Drummond bobbed his head, beard brushing his neckcloth. "The honor is all mine, milady."
"And such a lovely village," she said, glancing at the elegant columns of the spa as they passed it on the right. "I am so glad my schedule allowed me to take part in your musical week. What would you suggest I see while I am here?"
Drummond droned on about the various attractions of the area. She kept her hand on Quill's arm and nodded along, asking a question here, smiling at a quip there. In fact, she gazed at the lamplighter as if he were the most fascinating fellow she'd ever met. She must have them all eating out of the palm of her hand.
"And here we are," she sang out as they reached the inn, a two-story rambling structure not far from the spa. "I will not detain you further. Thank you again for seeing me safely back."
"My pleasure," Drummond assured her, beaming. He made no move to leave them.
Mademoiselle Fortier sagged against Quill. "Alas, I find myself overcome by the walk. Perhaps you could see me up to my room, Captain."
She smelled of roses, rich and heady. Her curves brushed his arm. Easy enough to give in, to follow her inside and see if what she offered was as sweet as it seemed.
"I know the owners, the Truants," he said. "I'm sure they can assist you better than I can."
She glanced up at him, and, for one moment, he thought she would call him something vile. Then she seized his lapels, reared up, and pressed her lips against his.
Like silk against his skin, honey on his lips. His hands were coming around her waist before he thought better of it. He was vaguely aware of Drummond leaving them with a chuckle.
In the shadow that dropped as the lantern moved away, she shoved Quill back. "What is wrong with you? I've been trying to get your attention for the last hour. I have a message for you, from Napoleon."
He stared at her, this legend. The pride of His Majesty's Navy, dressed all in black tonight. How the breeze must caress that thick, dark hair as his hooded eyes gazed out at the sea. He had ordered sailors into battle, handed her countrymen one of their most decisive defeats, thwarted Napoleon's plans again and again.
Why was he so dense?
Or was it merely his arrogance that had kept him from taking her lead? She'd certainly faced that before. No one had ever claimed King Louis' brother, the Comte d'Artois, was a humble man. Neither were his followers, like her father and his friends. They had all been idealists with no idea of the true cost of things, in time, money, or lives. Why had she thought Quillan St. Claire would be any different?
His hands were still on the waist of her performance gown, fingers tangled in the gold braid. All at once, he pivoted, pulling her around and pinning her against the white-washed wall of the inn. It happened so fast, she lost her breath, she, who had been trained to control it.
"Who are you to speak for Napoleon?" he demanded.
Moonlight sparkled on eyes gone dangerous. Now, that was the legend she had been told to expect.
"One, like you, who wishes to pry out his secrets," she promised him. "I am no pawn of the court. I left Paris with my family during the atrocities. Now I do favors on occasion for the War Office. I was asked to tell you that they have received information about you. The emperor is sending someone to kill you."
He released her and stepped back. "Why should I believe you?"
Marie shrugged, finding breath easier with him a few feet away. "Why not?"
"Because one side of the War Office doesn't speak to the other," he said with disgust. "I have someone I trust there. I don't know you."
"But I know him," she explained. "Markus Dorland, also formerly of His Majesty's Navy."
He stilled. "Prove that you know Captain Dorland."
She put her hand up next to his ear. "About this tall, sandy hair, vivid blue eyes that can hold you in place with one look."
"Anyone might have noticed that on short acquaintance," he pointed out.
She leaned closer, until she thought for one moment she smelled the sea. "He also was injured at the Battle of the Nile, a blow that took out a chunk of his right calf. He wears padding under his sock to hide the mark."
He crossed his arms over his chest, forcing her to straighten or collide with him anew. "I don't suppose he gave you a letter of introduction."
She tsked. "Certainly not."
He nodded slowly. "Very well. You have delivered your message. You may tell the War Office I will take my usual care."
Which meant none at all. Oh, men!
"That is insufficient," Marie told him. "The information you have been bringing the War Office from France is too important to lose you to chance. I will protect you."
He dropped his arms and laughed.
Anger, humiliation, oh, those were old foes. But this time, she did not try to master them. This time, she used them. With one movement, she yanked out a long hairpin and brought it under his chin. "I know how to protect myself, Captain. I can keep you safe too."
With one movement, he thrust her hand across her body, away from him, and brought himself within inches, holding her in place.
"I can protect myself," he said.
Marie smiled up at him. "You're bleeding. If that pin had been poisoned, you'd be dead shortly."
He released her to step back and touch his neck. As his hand came away, a few drops of blood, black in the moonlight, dotted his glove from the scratch he'd given himself blocking her.
"I've seen enough men die at the tyrant's hand," Marie told him, returning the pin to the coil of her hair. "I won't see another fall because I stood by and did nothing. So, I will cling to you like a tailored coat until we find this Frenchman. Do not try me, Captain. Like you, I do not taste defeat willingly."