Closer to Sin
Elizabeth Squire’s Closer to Sin is an enjoyable début novel which sees a young woman becoming embroiled in the search for a missing spy as she travels to France to fulfil her father’s last wish. With a dashing hero, the emergence of a secret society dedicated to the revival of the French Jacobins, and even a marriage of convenience –my favourite trope – the story promised much, and, to be fair, delivered in many areas. But things lose focus somewhat in the second half when the ongoing espionage plot gets bogged down in the overly contrived drama that ensues when the protagonists discover that neither of them is who they claimed to be.
Liliane Desailly is twenty-five, the niece of a duke, and expected to conform to expectations by marrying the man chosen for her. This is the fate of all well-bred young women, and Liliane does not expect to escape it, but before she resigns herself to a conventional life, she wants to do something for herself, to have a moment of freedom where she can make her own decisions and stand on her own two feet. At the behest of her cousin, Solange Beaumont, Liliane manages to contrive an excuse for her absence from home and travels to France to meet with Solange, a British agent, who has arranged for Liliane to travel to Boulogne in order to deliver a family heirloom to an old friend of her late father’s. She will have to masquerade as a spy and courier and travel with of one of Solange’s contacts, a Monsieur St. Clair.
St. Clair is not impressed when Solange puts forward the suggestion that Liliane takes her place on his current mission. The substitution goes against protocol, he doesn’t like the idea of being saddled with an inexperienced agent and Liliane is far too distractingly lovely for his peace of mind. But his need to get the information he carries to his superiors is urgent and there is no time to make other arrangements, so he has no alternative but to agree to take Liliane with him.
Monsieur St. Clair, a Frenchman who is part of a network of agents working behind the scenes to bring down Napoléon is in fact Sinclair Charlcroft, Marquess of Essleton, who has been detailed by the Admiralty to discover the whereabouts of a missing agent and return him – or the information he was carrying – to London without delay. With the Grande Armée ready to invade, it seems a traitor has infiltrated British Intelligence, so it’s imperative that Sin’s investigations are both fast and discreet, and the prospect of being slowed-down by an unknown agent frustrates him. But Liliane soon shows herself to be a valuable asset; quick-witted, courageous and able to grasp the complexities of the political and military landscape; and as they travel, they find they enjoy each other’s company and begin to form a bond of comradeship.
(One small niggle. Sin is supposed to be passing convincingly as a Frenchman, yet makes a very basic mistake when he continually refers to Liliane as “mon fleur”, when it should be “MA fleur”. It’s a small thing, but it happens often and I found it distracting.)
Both Sin and Liliane are aware of the strength of the attraction that has simmered between them since the moment they met, but both also realise that taking things further is not a good idea. Liliane will be betrothed when she returns to England and in any case, as the relative of a duke, she can’t possibly have a future with a French partisan. And a French spy is no fit mate for an English marquess, no matter that Sin has no desire to remarry following the disaster that was his first marriage. But everything goes to hell in a handbasket when the lieutenant of a Hussar regiment becomes suspicious of them and, in an attempt to throw him off the scent, Liliane claims that she and Sin are engaged and on their way to Boulogne to be wed. Unfortunately for them, the officer refuses to accept this explanation for their movements around the countryside and insists that his company travels with them to ensure that the wedding takes place.
Forced to marry so they can continue their mission, Sin and Liliane agree to defer doing anything about their unwanted marriage until later in the year, at which point they will meet again and quietly arrange an annulment. But for Liliane, the prospect of accepting a proposal from another man while she is married to Sin fills her with dread, for she has realised that the one man she wants is one she cannot have. And Sin is floored by the realisation that in Liliane, he has found a woman who has come to know him better in a matter of weeks than his late wife ever did over the three years of their marriage. The intensity of their mutual attraction soon becomes too much for either of them to resist, but that can’t change anything. As they draw closer to discovering the truth about the missing spy, the stakes become higher when it appears that a double-agent is at work, and the mysterious Cousin’s Legacy takes on a previously unsuspected importance … but once the sensitive information is delivered, their mission ends and Sin and Liliane part, intending to meet again as previously agreed.
Neither of them knows that their next meeting will take place much sooner than that.
The first half of the book is fast-paced and packed with plenty of action; and the author does a good job of evoking an atmosphere of peril and showing the degree of danger faced by the protagonists right from the beginning. The one criticism I have is to do with the insta-lust and frequent mental drooling that goes on by both Sin and Liliane; at their very first meeting, Liliane is practically panting with lust, which seemed very out of place considering that she has absconded from home and family and is in a potentially dangerous situation. Even so, it doesn’t really get in the way of the story and there’s no denying that the couple has great chemistry. However, when things move to England and Sin and Liliane discover that they were both lying about their identities, the story gets bogged down in a continual repetition of “I want an annulment because you lied to me” and “No – you’re my wife and staying that way.” The problem is that there IS no problem, other than the fact that Liliane’s formidable Great-Aunt doesn’t like Sin and wants her to marry a chinless wonder by the name of Freddy Parkes. As Sin himself points out helpfully:
“As one of the very few unattached marquises who can also boast being under the age of thirty, having a full head of hair and all of my own teeth, I am considered to be quite the eligible catch.”
– so I couldn’t see why Liliane was so insistent on the annulment, other than that she has the idea that Sin doesn’t really want to be married to her in spite of his insistence that he does.
Fortunately for the book as a whole, the espionage storyline isn’t quite finished as there is still a double-agent to be unmasked, and Ms. Squire skilfully draws her threads together and throws in a few more twists and turns before she wraps things up. Or rather, doesn’t wrap them up, because while Sin and Liliane’s story is concluded here, there is obviously more to be discovered about the Cousin’s Legacy in future books in the series.
I enjoyed Closer to Sin in spite of the issues I had with the second half and would certainly be open to reading more books by this author. If you enjoy a strongly-written, complex espionage story featuring a well-matched central couple, then you might consider checking it out.