Vivienne Le Fleur is one of London’s most sought after opera dancer and one of England’s best weapons: the spy known as the Flower. When a French agent pressures her to change allegiance by abducting her sister, Vivienne is forced to seek the help of the only man in London who doesn’t want her.
Maximilian Westwood, retired code breaker, doesn’t like surprises or mysteries and The Flower is both. When she sneaks into his study in the middle of the night with a coded message, he’s ready to push her out whatever window she arrived through. Except Maximilian is unable to turn away a woman in trouble. Determined to rescue Vivienne’s sister, they engage in a game of cat and mouse with French spies that requires all of Vivienne’s training and Maximilian’s abilities. Bound together by secrecy, they discover there is more between them than politics and hidden codes, but love has no place among the secrets of espionage…
It’s been a few years since I’ve seen a new novel from Alyssa Alexander, so I eagerly pounced on A Dance with Seduction, which, while released by a different publisher, is a continuation of her A Spy in the Ton series. I enjoyed her last book, a tightly written, sexy historical thriller and looked forward to more of the same. The plot – which pairs a female British spy with a bookish former code-breaker (I do love a nerdy hero!) – is intriguing and well put-together, and sees our intrepid heroine trying to thwart the attempts of a dangerous French spy to turn her into a double agent and involve her in a treasonous assassination plot. It’s a good read, but didn’t quite meet my expectations which, I admit, were high based on how much I’d enjoyed her previous book, In Bed with a Spy.
Vivienne La Fleur – the Flower – was recruited to a life of espionage when she was little more than a girl, and even though the Napoleonic Wars have ended, she continues to work for the British government at the direction of her ‘commander’ or handler, Lord Wycomb. Her public persona is that of one of London’s finest opera dancers, and as Wycomb’s mistress, but while she does live as a kept woman, he does not share her bed – although she suspects he would like to.
During the war, Vivienne was frequently in contact with Maximillian Westwood, the country’s top code-breaker. When the war ended, he retired from government service and now puts his facility with something like eleven different languages to use by working as a translator. He might be the scion of an aristocratic family, but as a younger son, he has to make his own way and his own living, which he does by translating documents, books and whatever else comes his way. He’s done with secret codes and espionage but it seems that secret codes and espionage aren’t done with him when the Flower pays him a late night visit and asks him to decode a short message for her.
Maximillian – who thinks Max is a ridiculous appellation – has no desire to become entangled with secrets and intrigue once again, and points out that he no longer works for government spymasters. But Vivienne explains that this is something personal, and clearly, the message is of some importance to her, so he agrees and tells her to come back in the morning.
The code is complicated, but presents no real problem for Maximillian apart from the final symbol, which is something like an Egyptian hieroglyph but isn’t – and which is oddly familiar. Disgruntled because he can’t place it, he tells Vivienne that he hasn’t been able to completely finish the work, but she isn’t concerned. The message is clear, and while she doesn’t care to enlighten Maximillian as to the signatory, she knows all too well who it’s from – an elusive, ruthless French agent known as the Vulture – and the instructions contained in the note are telling her to steal a document from an Englishman… and deliver it to a Frenchman.
Vivienne is chilled to the bone, because she knows what this means. The Vulture wants her to work against the British, probably to become a double agent, but she is determined to resist – until her younger sister, Anne, is abducted, which changes everything. Vivienne had kept the existence of her sibling a secret, making it seem as though she was nothing more than a maid in her household to try to prevent Anne being used as leverage against her. Somehow, the Vulture has discovered the truth and Vivienne is distraught. Frantic to discover her sister’s whereabouts, Vivienne risks everything, walking a tightrope between espionage and treason; between trying to make it seem as though she is co-operating with the enemy while at the same time scheming to bring him down. She has become so used to relying on herself and herself alone, that Vivienne doesn’t even tell Maximillian the whole truth. She lets him believe she is concerned for a girl in her employ who has gone missing, his insistence on helping her, standing by her and trusting her to know what she’s doing just adding to the burden of guilt she already carries for failing to keep her sister safe.
I enjoyed the pairing of the resourceful spy with the rather grumpy scholar. Maximillian is an endearing beta hero who really steps up to the plate when he realises Vivienne is in trouble, despite the fact that he’s unfamiliar with her world of shady characters, late night break-ins and shadowy double-dealing. He never talks down to her or treats her as anything less than the highly competent operative that she is; in fact, he’s the only man who really sees Vivienne as anything other than the exquisitely beautiful dancer, the delicate ‘flower’ she pretends to be. It’s obvious from the start that he is attracted to Vivienne, but also that he has firmly quashed those feelings because he believes her to be under the protection of another man, while Vivienne has to maintain the appearance of being another man’s mistress and also feels that she can’t allow herself to be distracted by her growing attachment to Maximillian, no matter that he’s handsome, kind and honourable – and that he refuses to let her to push him away.
Vivienne has long believed that her line of work is incompatible with relationships, and continues to think that, but she’s never wanted a man as much as she wants Maximillian and decides at last that while there’s no ‘forever’ in their future, they can at least enjoy each other for a while. There’s a nice frisson of sexual tension between the pair which eventually translates into some sensual kisses and love scenes, but reality intrudes when the Vulture attempts to force Vivienne’s hand and Maximillian realises how little she has trusted him.
Ms. Alexander has penned an entertaining story and created a couple of attractive protagonists and a strongly drawn secondary cast, but Vivienne’s failure to confide in Maximillian – who repeatedly shows himself to be trustworthy and to have her best interests at heart – goes on for too long. This becomes frustrating and sometimes makes her difficult to like, although her inner conflicts – her need to protect her sister, and her doubts as to who the real person is beneath the spy – are well expressed. The writing is strong, although I can’t help feeling that the editor should have picked up and eliminated the majority of the constant references to Vivienne’s ‘lithe dancer’s body’ or ‘strong dancer’s legs’ or ‘dancer’s grace’ – honestly, it got to the stage when it seemed there was mention of her profession on every page and it became very distracting. I also hope that ‘Carleton House’ will have been corrected to ‘Carlton House’ in the finished product (I read an advance copy), an error which jumped out at me every time I read it.
Overall however, I’m happy to recommend A Dance with Seduction to others. It’s well-written and well-conceived and I’m pleased that Ms. Alexander has re-surfaced and am looking forward to reading more of her work.