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Velvet Undercover
 

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Velvet Undercover


  DEDICATION

  This book is for my children, Ethan and Megan, who always believed in me,

  and my hubby, Alan, who has both my heart and my back.

  CONTENTS

  Dedication

  Part I: Asset One

  Two

  Three

  Part II: Spy Craft Four

  Five

  Six

  Seven

  Eight

  Nine

  Ten

  Part III: Operations Eleven

  Twelve

  Thirteen

  Fourteen

  Fifteen

  Sixteen

  Seventeen

  Part IV: Master Eighteen

  Nineteen

  Twenty

  Twenty-One

  Twenty-Two

  Part V: Debriefing Epilogue

  Acknowledgments

  Back Ad

  About the Author

  Books by Teri Brown

  Credits

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  PART I

  Asset

  ONE

  RQH

  Talent Spotter: Someone who brings potential agents to the attention of recruiters.

  I stand at the podium, ramrod straight, awaiting the challenge questions. The Lenard Auditorium, which is more a dingy neighborhood dance hall than an actual auditorium, is filled mostly with Girl Guides and their parents. To my right is pretty, droll Sarah Wheeler, whose dimples hide a sharp mind. To my left is painfully shy Evangeline Green, who has already had a book of poetry published.

  I barely hold back a dismissive snort.

  Poetry!

  Dame Richards, the leader of England’s Girl Guides, paces in front of us, a sheaf of papers in her hand. The Girl Guides are England’s answer to all the exclusionary boys’ clubs popping up all over Britain. Since girls certainly couldn’t join the boys—at least according to the powers that be—a group was created just for us.

  From the solemn look on Dame Richards’s face, she takes her job very seriously. “How are you girls doing? Ready for the challenge?”

  Like marionettes, the three of us bob our heads and smile blindly at the people in the front row.

  “Samantha Donaldson.”

  I straighten. Every year, Dame Richards asks the final three girls about themselves to increase the excitement of the competition.

  “Yes, ma’am?”

  “Now that you’re graduating from the Girl Guides, what are your plans for the future?”

  Smiling brightly, I give the answer I’d been rehearsing. “Currently, I’m working for the government until the war is over, and then I plan on specializing in mathematics at the University of London.”

  “Mathematics! How very ambitious of you! Your parents must be very proud.”

  I nod as she moves on. Automatically, I glance over to where my mother is sitting, her posture so perfectly upright that her shoulder bones barely skim the back of the chair. My chest tightens at the empty seat beside her. We’d reserved the seats months ago, before my father’s disappearance on a sudden trip to the Arabian Peninsula.

  Don’t worry about that now. Focus on the task at hand.

  My throat tightens at the familiar sound of my father’s voice in my ear. Intellectually, I know it’s not truly my father, that my brain is just playing tricks on me because I miss him so much. Nonetheless, his voice is comforting, and I follow his instructions now by returning my attention to the left of the stage, where the Markel Cup sits, a giant gold chalice etched with the Girl Guides’ clover symbol.

  I’ve had my eye on the Markel Cup ever since my mother made me join the Guides six years ago. I’d been half-afraid the war would disrupt the competition—after all, how important is a Girl Guide contest when young men are dying in the bloodiest conflict the world has ever seen?

  I’m rather ashamed at how relieved I was when it was announced that the competition would commence as usual.

  Dame Richards finishes up her questions and then turns to us, a small smile on her face. “The next challenge is in language. Each of you will be given a stanza of poetry in French. You must translate it into English and then into the language of your choice. You’ll have five minutes to do so.”

  I pick up my pencil and wait as she hands me the slip of paper. The contest consists of five tasks, in five different disciplines—math, science, history, geography, and languages. Each answer is judged and given a certain number of points. Whoever receives the most points wins.

  My lips curve slightly as I’m handed the paper. I may not know as much about poetry as Evangeline Green, but very few people my age can say they’ve mastered four languages, with a smattering of several more.

  When Dame Richards rings the bell, I turn the paper over and read the lines. I recognize the poem, “Autumn,” by Alphonse de Lamartine.

  I scan the original French before translating it into English. Translation is somewhat of an art. If I convert it word for word from one language to the next, it’ll be gibberish. I have to take into consideration subtle differences in meaning and subtext.

  Earth, sun, valleys, sweet and beautiful nature

  As I am nearing death, I owe you one last tear

  The air is so fragrant, and the light is so pure

  The sun is so beautiful when death is so near

  I pause a moment, wondering whether or not I should translate the poem into German. From my years in Berlin as a child, the German language is second nature to me, but because of the war, anti-German sentiment is high right now. I glance over at the judges, wondering if they’d mark me down because of it. I could always do Portuguese. . . . I shake my head. No. I know German even better than I do French or Dutch.

  German it is, then.

  Erde, Sonne, Täler, schöne und liebe Natur,

  Ich schulde dir Tränen am Rande meines Grabes!

  Die Luft ist süß! Das Licht ist rein!

  Für den Sterbenden ist die Sonne was wunderbares!

  I finish the translation and hand the paper back to Dame Richards. The judges go over our answers while we’re given another challenge.

  My confidence ebbs as the competition moves into geography. Despite traveling extensively as a child, topography has never held the same appeal for me as math or languages, and my knowledge of capitals and landforms is sketchy at best.

  Even though I’m unsure of myself, I quickly mark down answers as if I’m a geographical genius. Once, as a child, I upended a chessboard, scattering the pieces across the floor when I realized I couldn’t win. Instead of punishing me, my father took me on his lap and explained why such behavior was unacceptable. One should exude assurance, he said, even in the face of sure defeat. When I asked why, he told me that confident bluffing can triumph over seemingly impossible odds, whereas showing your hand with temper or despair never does. “Don’t give up until you’re well and truly checkmated,” he would tell me.

  Remembering his words, I keep a smile pasted on my face as I answer Dame Richards’s rapid-fire questions:

  “The Great Victoria Desert is located in which country?”

  “What are the intersecting lines on maps and globes called?”

  “What is a cyclonic depression?”

  Sweat trickles down my back as I write. What would Father say if I lost?

  I take in a relieved breath as geography wraps up. Science and math whiz by. History is trickier, mostly because the question about the colonization of Queensland is subjective in nature. But I still finish confidently.

  “Thank you, girls.” Dame Richards takes the papers. “You’ve done a wonderful job and have made us all proud. You may take your seats until the judges tally up the points.”

  I take a se
at on a bench on one side of the stage. Next to me, Evangeline looks as if she’s going to faint, and even pretty Sarah Wheeler looks tense. The Markel Cup is a feather in any Girl Guide’s cap and I know they must want it as badly as I do.

  I watch as the judges confer with one another. Every year they bring in guests to referee the competition—usually officials from different universities or members of the government. I bite my lip as Captain Parker, assistant to the head of Military Intelligence 5, frowns at the papers. Like many of the older Girl Guides in London, I’m employed as a messenger girl for the government and actually work in the same building as Captain Parker, though he didn’t give any sign of recognition when I was introduced. He probably doesn’t even know who I am.

  My gaze returns to my mother. She must be as aware of the empty seat beside her as I am, but her pretty face is composed as she catches my eye and gives me an encouraging smile. The past few months have been difficult for her, but you’d barely know it. Only the clouded sadness in her blue eyes and the lines etched around her mouth betray her grief and worry.

  I’m so lost in thought that I don’t even notice Dame Richards standing in front of the podium until she begins to speak to the audience.

  “Ladies and gentlemen. Thank you so much for coming. As many of you know, the board of directors and I were of two minds as to whether holding the Markel Cup Competition was appropriate or not, given the circumstances. But our young women have studied so diligently that it would be wrong not to reward them for their hard work. The Girl Guides you see before you”—she motions for us to join her—“exemplify the values that Girl Guides stand for and that our young men are fighting for. These include honor, integrity, and intelligence. All have had a distinguished career in the Girl Guides and we will miss them as they graduate from our organization.”

  One of the judges hands her the envelope.

  “Now for the results that you’ve all been waiting for.”

  My heart pounds with excitement. All the hours I spent studying with my father and tutors are about to bear fruit.

  If only he were here to witness this.

  Dame Richards casts a stern eye over us. “Now remember, girls, that you should all be very proud of yourselves. And with that, here are the results.”

  My mouth dries as she unfolds the slip of paper.

  She stares at it, her brows rising ever so slightly as if she’s surprised. On my left, Sarah grabs my hand in a show of solidarity. I’d look ungracious if I snatched it back, so I leave it, even though her hand is as limp and damp as a day-old oyster.

  “In third place is Sarah Wheeler!” Sarah smiles and waves halfheartedly at the polite clapping of the crowd. She drops my hand and I surreptitiously wipe it on my skirt as she walks off the stage. Evangeline glances at me, her face a stiff mask, and I know we won’t be holding hands. Which is fine—I’m not really the hand-holding type.

  I stare at the cup, wishing with all my heart that my father were here to see this.

  “And the winner of this year’s Markel Cup is . . .”

  Dame Richards pauses dramatically and I hold my breath. Why doesn’t she just say my name!

  “Evangeline Green!”

  I step forward with a smile before her words fully reach my brain. My lips stiffen and I do a half turn to give the stunned Evangeline an awkward hug before walking off the stage. My stomach somersaults and I’m very much afraid I’m going to be sick before I can reach the water closet. Instead of taking a seat in the front row, I turn and slip out a side door. I can hear Evangeline’s family and friends whooping as I hurry down a narrow hallway toward the bathroom.

  I was just beaten by a poet!

  Hot, humiliated tears run down my face as I lock the door, and I don’t care that I look like a sore loser for running off.

  I am a sore loser.

  I should be the one holding the Markel Cup in front of everyone, getting my photograph taken for all the news stories. I pace the small room, overwhelmed with hurt and anger.

  I want my father so badly it’s like a physical ache. Just the thought of him makes me cry more—hard, ugly sobs that rip furiously out of my chest. Father would know what to say to make me feel better. I love my mother, but for most of my life she only existed on the edges of the studies, codes, and puzzles my father and I shared.

  A knock sounds on the door. “Sam, open up. It’s me.”

  Cousin Rose’s voice reaches me and, with a sob, I throw open the door. If I can’t have my father, then Rose is the next best thing.

  Her skinny arms embrace me and she pats my back as if comforting a child. “I know, I know,” she croons as I cry against her shoulder.

  “Now then. That’s enough,” she says after a minute. “Donaldsons must sally forth, no matter what!”

  Rose’s voice mimics our deceased grandfather’s so perfectly that I giggle through my tears. We’re the best of friends even though she’s two years younger than me and all sunshine and frolic, while I’m more solemn and studious. We balance each other perfectly.

  She helps me splash water on my face and tilts her head to look at me critically. “You rather look like hell. All this over a stupid cup!” She shakes her head, setting her curls to bouncing.

  “It’s not stupid.” I sniff. “I really wanted to win.” I well up again and she pinches my arm.

  “Stop that. And I know you wanted to, but it’s not like you needed the scholarship money that comes with the cup. Perhaps Miss Snooty Poetess does. Think of that. Come on. Let’s go keep up appearances.”

  I take a shuddering breath and dry my hands and face on the towel provided before following her down the hall.

  I paste a smile on my face and we rejoin the others. The chairs have been cleared away and someone is playing records on the Victrola.

  My mother joins us. “I am so proud of you, darling. You did splendidly.”

  Even though my mother knows how deep my disappointment must be, she doesn’t betray that knowledge with a single look or action. To do so would make my pain cut even deeper. We’re alike in that way.

  “Thank you, Mother.” I take a casual sip from the cup she offers as if I hadn’t just gone to pieces in the restroom.

  Rose links her arm in mine. “I don’t care who won that ugly cup. Sam is still the smartest person I know.”

  I give her a grateful smile, even though the loss burns in my stomach.

  “Congratulations, Miss Donaldson. That was a spectacular showing. I’m gratified you work for MI5.”

  Startled, I turn to see Captain Parker behind me.

  And I thought he didn’t know who I was.

  Then I realize that standing next to him, blinking rapidly behind thick glasses, is none other than my flighty boss. “Miss Tickford! I didn’t know you were coming!”

  She takes my hand and gives it a warm squeeze. “I wouldn’t have missed it.” She clears her throat before lapsing back into her customary silence.

  Then I remember that the captain just spoke to me and I’m practically ignoring him. “Thank you, sir,” I say, and make introductions.

  “You should be very proud, Mrs. Donaldson,” Captain Parker says. “Your daughter has an extraordinary mind.”

  Miss Tickford makes a little noise of acknowledgment before dropping her eyes again.

  My mother smiles. “I agree, Captain Parker. Her father and I have always been proud of her.”

  Like that of most military men, Captain Parker’s bearing is stiff, and though I suppose many women would think him handsome, with his strong jaw and dark eyes, I find him intimidating. I wonder if Miss Tickford came with him or on her own. Surely such a mousy little woman wouldn’t attract a man like the captain. But then she is in charge of the Girl Guide contingent at MI5. It makes sense that she would attend the Markel Cup.

  “I was sorry to hear about your husband. He was a very good man,” Captain Parker says.

  A jolt runs through me. He knows me and my father?

  My mother’
s expression remains tranquil, but there’s a tremor in her voice as she answers him. “Is a good man, Captain. My daughter and I are very sure that George will be returning to us soon.”

  “Of course,” Captain Parker says smoothly before moving on. “I’m glad I ran into you, Miss Donaldson. I’d love to speak to you sometime about your position at MI5. I was very impressed with your performance today, and I’m sure your skills could be better utilized than for just delivering messages.”

  Miss Tickford blinks. “Delivering messages is very important,” she says, her hands fluttering. “Communication is the lifeblood of the realm.”

  “Of course it is, Letty. You know I didn’t mean that.”

  Letty? I look from one to the other. How very interesting.

  “I just feel that Samantha’s talents could be of better use to the cause elsewhere,” the captain continues.

  Miss Tickford’s mouth droops and even the severe bun at the back of her head seems to wilt. “You’re right, of course.”

  My pulse kicks up a notch. I’ve often thought that I could be of more use elsewhere—someplace where I could utilize my brain rather than just my legs—but Miss Tickford never seemed amenable to the idea.

  I straighten. “I’d like that very much, Captain Parker.” I bet Evangeline Green won’t be offered a promotion in such an important organization.

  Next to me, Rose fidgets, bored with the conversation. “Oh, there’s Priscilla. I must go say hello. Excuse me.” She shoots me a sly smile as she makes her escape.

  Dame Richards taps me on the shoulder. “You’re needed at the prize table, Samantha, to receive your certificate of achievement.”

  “I’ll be right there.” I turn to Captain Parker. “It was nice meeting you, sir. I’ll see you in the morning, Miss Tickford.”

  He glances at his watch. “Yes, I must be going, as well. We’ll talk soon, Miss Donaldson. Are you ready to go, Letty?”

  She nods and turns to me. “Captain Parker was kind enough to give me a lift after we finished work. Congratulations on your performance, Samantha.”

 
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