A Dance With Seduction – Vivienne

Impossible man, that one. Maximilian Westwood was all that was ordered and controlled. Sitting there in his coat and waistcoat, though it was nearly midnight and he was alone. Ah, but he was not so proper. Stubble ranged over his squared jaw, which he surely would have shaved had he known it was there.

Also, a man ought not to have such an agreeable shape to his face, nor eyes that focused on every detail of a woman.

Pitiful locks on his windows, however. Vivienne slid between the sash and the pane to drop onto the grass at the rear of his town house. She shut the window, satisfied not a single squeak could be heard inside. Her town house was close enough to Monsieur Westwood’s home that she chose to walk, even late at night. As a kept woman, she did not live in as respectable an area as the monsieur’s, but she was not in danger.

And then, of course, there were her knives.

She slipped through her own back door and into the comfort of the kitchen a scant quarter hour later. The fire was out, and a late-night chill hung in the air. Curled in a chair beside the cold fireplace was Anne. The housekeeper’s daughter.

Or so it was said.

Thirteen now, and oh, how fast her sister had grown this year. It was all Vivienne could do to keep her in gowns that didn’t show her ankles.

“Anne.” She shook a narrow, girlish shoulder. All angles and points as she grew, Vivienne thought Anne would be as tall as their mother. Certainly taller than herself, but that did not require much growth.

“Vivienne?” The girl’s eyes fluttered open to reveal two dark pools of sleep befuddlement.

“Hush, ma minette. Bed now, yes? Come.”

Anne was limp as a sack of potatoes, and as useless. Vivienne prodded the girl until she was walking, such as it was, with Vivienne’s supporting arm around her waist. When they reached the servants’ quarters, Vivienne stripped off her gown. Anne had become thin in the middle and would need proper stays soon. Nearly ready to be a woman, this daughter of her heart.

Vivienne swallowed the lump in her throat as she settled a nightgown over Anne’s head. “Into bed. It was much too late for you to wait for me.”

“I wanted to say good night.” Anne covered a yawn with work-roughened hands. “Did you see Mr. Westwood about the note?”

“I did.” With a gentle touch, she guided the girl to the bed.

“You could have managed any of the short words I taught you for your work,” Anne said, slipping into the small bed. “I would have read the remainder for you, but for the code.”

“I know.” She could only be grateful Anne worked so hard to learn her letters. Vivienne had never learned more than what was necessary. No time when one was fighting for survival as a girl. Later, when she had become a spy, to tell her spymaster she could not read would have meant being turned away from espionage—toward prison or death instead, given her past.

Vivienne drew the coverlet up, tucking the edges around Anne’s shoulders as she liked. “Monsieur Westwood will have the translation in the morning. I will soon find out what it means. What I must do.”

“No one can hurt us, can they?” Big, brown eyes watched Vivienne over the edge of the coverlet. Anne’s fingers clutched at faded seams, her knuckles white.

Memories of their father had faded, but not enough.

“No. Of course not.” A lie. Truth would only cause fear. She smoothed the hair across Anne’s brow, tucked a lock behind her ears. “It is nothing to worry over now. Until Mr. Westwood translates it, we can do nothing. So we must wait and take action later. Now, sleep again.”

“Good night.” Anne turned over, burrowing beneath the coverlet.

Vivienne blew out the candle on the bedside table and let her eyes adjust to the dark. She waited, listening to Anne’s breathing. Did everyone tell lies to children? She supposed they did, as sometimes one must pretend there were no villains in the world.

But there were such men, as Vivienne knew.

As Anne knew.

It was a short walk to her room a floor below. Vivienne drew the drapes but did not light a candle. Instead, she let her eyes adjust once again to the dark before moving to the wardrobe. She pushed aside the silk and lace nightclothes provided by her commander and spymaster until she found a well-worn cotton shift. She shrugged out of her coat, removed the knife hidden beneath, then stripped off the other tied around her thigh. A third was hidden in her boots, which she pulled off before slipping out of her breeches.

The first knife she slid beneath her pillow. The second was set beside it on the mattress. She laid the last one on the bedside table, hilt toward her so she could easily grasp it. The shift was soft against her skin and fell to midthigh, freeing her legs for the next part of her nightly ritual.

Plié, deep enough so her bottom met her heels. Count two, three, four. Stand again. First position, fifth position, spin, another plié. She continued the routine, her arms working as she lifted them over her head. The muscles and sinews of her legs would strengthen, fiber by fiber, to assist in her work. Dancer, spy, thief. All required her to stay strong.

A body was no different than a pistol or a knife. She had long ago learned to care for her weapons. In those days she had loved the familiarity of the training rooms, the routine, the comfort of knowing that space was both home and sanctuary. That town house, empty now but for the spies Angel and Jones, was still home.

Jones, too, had been a comfort and refuge. Training beside her with his quiet strength. She had given him her body in their youth, when they both understood that spies could never have love.

Those days seemed very far away.

When she was breathing hard, she strode to the washstand in the corner of the room. The pitcher stood sentinel over the matching basin, their white porcelain sides painted with a floral pattern. She despised the ornate and fussy rosebuds painted across the base of the vessels, but she had not been allowed to pick the decor of the room.

Splashing water into the basin, she dunked her hands into the cold water. The plain, homespun soap lying on the washstand barely lathered, but she used it each day, washing, rinsing, then patting herself dry with a strip of soft linen.

Once she had hung the linen over a rack to dry, she sat down on the end of the bed to let her heartbeat return to normal. Her hands lay limp in her lap, palms up. They were delicate, with fine, narrow fingers. Competent hands, skillful fingers—unmoving and quiescent, at the moment. It would not last, of course. Even in sleep she could not find respite. She must listen for intruders, for soft sounds that were not the house shifting or a carriage beyond the windows.

For Henri.

Lord Wycomb was inclined to arrive in the middle of the night with an assignment, and though he had never touched her beyond a caress or stroke, he sometimes looked at her in a most disturbing manner. He had not done so at first, when she was young. In these last years, she had found his eyes on her more often.

Each night she listened for him.

She slid into the bed, repositioned her knives just so, and mentally listed her tasks for the morning. Breakfast with Henri, as he demanded. Rehearsal—she would enjoy that. Burglary into the house belonging to a member of the House of Lords suspected of turning traitor—she would enjoy that also.

First, before breakfast, Maximilian Westwood. She would have broken the code herself, if she could. Instead, she must rely upon the most proper, reclusive, damnably attractive man she had ever met. She needed an expert, however. Mr. Westwood had been England’s best code breaker during the war. More, he was no longer used by the government. He was only a translator now, with his own private business.

Which meant he was her best chance at remaining undiscovered.

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