Maximilian Westwood is one of England’s best code-breakers, and Vivienne Le Fleur is a notorious spy known as a the Flower, though she is anything but delicate.
The Flower and Maximilian had their HEA in A DANCE WITH SEDUCTION, but it certainly wasn’t all champagne and roses. After winning a skirmish with a French spy, the Flower weds Maximilian and her younger sister comes to live with them.
Flames leapt in the fireplace, dancing about as if they understood the significance of the evening. Christmas came but once a year, and Maximilian knew there would never be another year such as this one.
His fingers dug into the cleft between whiskers and cravat to tug the starched linen away from his throat. He stopped, sighed, and slowly moved his hand away from the neckcloth. The Flower had skillfully tied it not an hour before, and her exasperation would know no bounds if he ruined it before she arrived.
She had more important matters to see to at present.
“It is two minutes past the hour,” Maximilian muttered. “Two minutes.” Confounded woman. This was an important day. “She indicated she would arrive in the family salon at six o’clock.”
He surveyed the room at a glance to ensure everything was set as he planned. A decanter of brandy, teacakes with warm milk so Vivienne could dunk them as she liked, the plum pudding they’d saved from Christmas dinner because she’d had to leave early.
“Vivienne will be here soon, I’m sure.” His sister-in-law, Anne, lifted her gaze from the cypher she had been studying.
He blinked, just to be certain the young woman seated at the escritoire was Anne. Somehow, Maximilian expected her to look as she had when he’d married the Flower—a thin girl with dark eyes like her sister’s. Instead, her hair was piled high atop her head and threaded with a yellow ribbon to match her gown. Her eyes were the same, however, though no longer wide with fear.
“This is a troublesome bit of code you’ve assigned.” She tapped an ink-stained finger on the paper before her, and he was pleased to note she’d aligned it with the edge of the desktop as he’d recommended.
“You should put the exercise away, Anne.” Maximilian coughed to clear the gruff tones out of his voice. “It is Christmas Eve. I did not intend for you to still be working.”
He reached for the paper, but her hand slapped over it. He snagged a corner. Tugged.
She refused to let go, her gaze narrowing over the cypher he’d penned that morning. “No,” she said shortly.
“For pity’s sake.” Maximilian tugged again, but Anne’s fingers held as if made of steel. “If the Flower arrives, she’ll scold us both for working on Christmas Eve.”
“My sister is accustomed to it.” Anne’s chin jutted out, as if doggedness could be converted to a facial feature. “She will not care.”
“I will care.” Maximilian pulled again, harder, and felt foolish arguing over a scrap of paper. Scowling, he ground out, “I want today to be special for Vivienne. For all of us—as a family. No more work.”
“I see.” Anne smiled slowly, her face softening, feature by feature, until even her chin had lost its determined shape.
She let go of the paper suddenly, so his hand jerked back.
“Yes. Well.” Maximilian cleared his throat brusquely and tucked the paper in his pocket. “I will return the challenge later and provide ample time before I score it. If you have any questions, we can work on it together.”
“I think you might be busy.” Anne’s smile widened as she lifted her chin toward something behind him.
But Maximilian already knew she was there.
The Flower had not changed her soap in the years they’d been married, even though he could buy her any number of perfumed concoctions. Instead, she still used the simple, clean soap of her childhood.
He spun on his heel, took a single look at the doorway—and stopped breathing. Simply stopped. There was nothing left to say or to do, because everything he wanted was right there. Just there.
“Did I surprise you, Maximilian?” the Flower asked softly.
* * *
Vivienne La Fleur—Vivienne Westwood when she was not on stage or engaging in espionage—smiled at her husband and cradled the bundle in her arms a bit closer. It mattered that her gift to Maximilian was carried close to her heart.
“Do you need to sit?” The words blurted from her handsome Maximilian, as if he just now remembered he had the ability to speak. “Are your arms sore? Your back?”
“No.” Laughter welled up as he swung around and searched the room, running one hand through his hair and tugging at it. She had learned to laugh with Maximilian, something she had not thought possible. “I am well, I promise. And so is she.”
Vivienne tipped her gift forward, just enough that Maximilian would be able to see his daughter’s face amid the clouds of knitted blanket surrounding her. He sucked in a breath, then his full lips curved up in wide, delighted grin.
“Wait.” That smile faded suddenly, and he blanched. “Is she too hot, do you think? Too cold?”
“I do not believe so.” Vivienne looked down into the tiny face she’d loved before she had seen it. “If she were hot, I would think her cheeks would be pink. And if she were cold, we would feel it in her fingers, no?”
“I don’t know.” Maximilian stepped forward and gently stroked the babe’s face with one finger. “It’s the first time she has been out of the nursery, Vivienne. I built up the fire, as it’s her first Christmas, but if she’s too warm—” He broke off.
“Take her yourself, Maximilian. You will be able to feel if she is too hot.” Though Vivienne realized she couldn’t tell herself. Were there ever two people so ill-suited to being parents? A spy and a code-breaker. Surely the fates would not have gifted them with a child if they could not care for it.
“Yes.” Maximilian rubbed his palms on his trousers. Perhaps he worried about the ink staining his fingers. “Yes. I will.”
Vivienne leaned toward him, as terrified as Maximilian to transfer their daughter lest she dropped their precious miracle. They fumbled, not sure where best to put their hands to make sure her head was supported properly and her tiny arms were tucked safely inside the blanket.
But they managed to transfer their daughter from her arms to his, both releasing a sigh of relief when the task was done.
“Oh, you two.” Anne giggled, setting her hands to her mouth as if to keep something louder from escaping.
The wonder on Maximilian’s face was worth every bit of fear. Large, male hands with blunt fingers cradled their baby with such precision. Fingers here, palm there so her head would not wobble, forearm beneath to provide solid support. The hours he’d spent translating texts and codes had made those fingers nimble—she should know.
It was not the first time Maximilian had held their daughter, and yet the moment was new. The babe was older than she’d been just a few hours ago, the strong hands holding her just a little steadier.
“Jane.” Maximilian breathed her name, the whisper softer than the bit of snow falling beyond the townhouse windows. “Jane. Such a simple name, but it means so much.”
It had been his choice. Perhaps, she thought, to honor her past. Yet it was his way as well. Simplicity in the face of all the complexity of their lives.
“She has your lips, I think, Maximilian.” Full, curved just so.
“But Jane has your eyes, Flower. As if they could see my soul.” He cleared his throat, then turned toward the fire. “See, Jane? Your first Christmas fire. And up there, on the chandelier, is mistletoe. You’re not allowed to stand beneath it, is that understood? Ever. Over there, now, we have presents. Just a token or two, to celebrate your first Christmas with us.”
Vivienne suppressed her laughter as their babe’s eyes drifted closed. Perhaps she was unimpressed by the presents her father had picked out while Vivienne labored to bring Jane into the world.
“Anne?” Maximilian did not set down his daughter, but cradled her close to his chest and nodded toward a small box near the fireplace. “I have something for you.”
With a half-smile, Anne moved toward the hearth and lifted the lid of the little box. “Oh. Oh.” Inside was a set of quills and two ink bottles. “They are lovely!”
“I had your name engraved on them, so you would not forget who you are at the heart no matter what life sends your way.” He looked once to Vivienne and her throat constricted. For many years she could not decide who she was. It had been so muddled.
“Maximilian,” she murmured.
“Also, Anne,” he added, though he’d clearly heard Vivienne’s choked words. “You’ve been using my quills for the last few years and I never seem have enough. Now you can use up your own for a bit.”
“Oh, Maximilian. Thank you.” Anne swung around, joy transforming her face from the young lady she was to the girl they’d once rescued from a French spymaster. “They are lovely.”
Anne crossed to Maximilian and kissed his cheek. He might have blushed, but the delighted grin spreading across his face hid it. He even bounced Jane a little.
“Do you hear that, little girl? I have excellent taste in inkwells. I shall give you a set for Christmas, too, one once you have mastered your letters.” Maximilian looked up at Anne, winked. “Your auntie had to learn to break French codes before she earned an inkwell.”
“But what of this year?” Anne tapped the lid of a second box set near the hearth. “Is that Jane’s?”
“Yes, and it is most important.” He stepped toward it, stopped and turned to Vivienne. “Do you want to open it for Jane?”
The box was made of dark wood, the grain wavering in the bright firelight. It was no larger than Anne’s, though of a different dimension. Vivienne lifted the lid and resisted laughing aloud. Oh, it was so Maximilian.
And she would not trade him for all men the world.
There was only one man for her. One that could make her blood boil with anger and heat with passion, turn liquid with need and soften with love.
“Encyclopædia Britannica, or, A Dictionary of Arts and Sciences…Oh, Maximilian.” Vivienne held up the tome. Firelight played over a smooth, unmarked leather cover. “She cannot read it yet.”
“I will read it to her as she grows, so she will know the great strides society is making—” He trailed off, looking down at the young face held so gently in his arms. “What if she is not interested?”
“She will appreciate that her father loves her enough to share his interests with her. Some fathers do not.” Vivienne strode toward them, cursing the skirt she’d chosen to wear for the occasion. Her breeches would be more comfortable.
“I supposed neither of us have much experience with family.” Maximilian looked down at Jane, eyes softening. “What if we do it wrong?”
“We won’t.” Vivienne spoke the words firmly, because she knew it as truth. No one could love more than they. “Love can’t be wrong if you’re gentle with it. We know the type of love that hurts. That love does not live here.”
Vivienne looked over at her sister, still marveling over her name engraved on the inkbottles.
She looked again at Maximilian, gazing enchantedly at Jane, who slept contentedly and without fear.
Everything in Vivienne soared.
“Don’t you see, Maximilian? We’ve made our own family.”