The Secret of Flirting
The Secret of Flirting
The moment spymaster Baron Fulkham meets the stunning Princess Aurore of Chanay, he’s positive her royal persona is a ruse and that she’s actually Monique Servais, the mysterious actress he met three years before in Dieppe. But as he pursues his suspicions, he uncovers a plot of attempted assassination and betrayal that could very well destroy his career, expose his own secrets…and ruin the woman he’s rapidly coming to love.
The theater in Dieppe had a box fitted out for the theater’s patroness, the Duchess of Berry, which Gregory had been offered for his own use. Gregory had to admit that the performance of Beaumarchais’s The Marriage of Figaro had a certain charm. As did Mademoiselle Monique Servais, the actress lauded by his companion Hart.
“What did I tell you?” Hart said as the music came up for the interlude. “She’s astounding.”
Gregory hated exaggeration. “If you mean that she’s a particularly pretty French chit with a superior speaking voice and an unaffected manner that enhances her credibility as Suzanne, you’d be right. But other than that—”
“Other than that, what? Admit it, man. She has the curves of Aphrodite, the face of Helen of Troy, the voice of . . . of—”
“A siren? As long as you’re making comparisons with mythical beings, you might as well throw that one in. And you’re speaking only of her physical attributes.”
Which were uncommonly attractive, though he wasn’t about to admit that to Hart. Despite wearing a massive powdered wig, she managed to walk with a sensual grace that made him wonder what she looked like beneath that ridiculous costume from his grandmother’s era.
Then again, even Frenchwomen with modest features had a talent for projecting beauty to the world. And Mademoiselle Servais’s features, as best he could tell from this distance, weren’t remotely modest. What’s more, her voice was melodic without being singsong, and she enunciated every word of dialogue. She captivated the audience—and him—each time she stepped on stage.
“Tell the truth,” Hart said, “she’s better than you imagined.”
“I’ll concede that. But then, my expectations were low.”
Before Hart could retort, a knock came at the door to the box. It was the porter. “Is everything to your satisfaction this evening, gentlemen?” Duval asked.
“It is, thank you,” Gregory said dismissively.
Then Hart chimed in. “Could you arrange for us to meet Miss Servais after the play?”
As Gregory stifled a groan, the porter’s face clouded. “I’m afraid not, sir. She usually hurries home.”
“She has a husband and children to attend to, I suppose,” Gregory said.
“An aging grandmother, sir. Miss Servais is unmarried.”
Interesting. And unexpected. Since the French always referred to their actresses as Mademoiselle, one could never know for certain if they had husbands. But he’d assumed that a woman of such unparalleled attractions would. So he felt an oddly powerful satisfaction at hearing that she didn’t.
He could easily imagine her in his bed. She was exactly his sort—sensuous but graceful, an elegant siren.
Siren, bah. He was as bad as Hart, waxing poetic about her. He had no time for women right now, certainly no time to dally with a French actress. That would hardly be wise for his career. And his career trumped everything.
Hart stood. “You may not know this, Duval, but I’m a marquess’s son and my companion is an English baron of high rank in the British government. If you can manage a meeting, we’ll make it worth your while. We won’t keep her long.”
The porter nodded. “I will see what I can do, gentlemen.”
After he left, Gregory said, “What are you up to now, Hart?”
“I’ve been wanting to make the ‘French chit’s’ acquaintance, and I figure two men of consequence are more likely to interest her than one. Besides, how often do you get to meet a woman of such stellar talent?”
“Often enough for me to be cynical about it. Performers belong in the golden light of the stage. In my experience, once they climb down from their lofty perch to become ordinary people, they prove either boring or flighty or both.”
Hart laughed. “Come now, I doubt she’ll be boring, and if she’s flighty, who cares? A little flirting never hurt anyone.”
In an instant, the voice of Gregory’s late, unlamented father leapt into his head. Come now, boy, who cares if I tipple? A little drinking never hurt anyone.
True. Except when it was followed by the back of a hand. Or a fist.
He dropped that thought back into the well of secrets it came from. “I prefer my flirting to be with a woman who can further my interests, frankly.”
Hart shook his head. “Good God. You should live a little. You’re entirely too focused on work, you know.”
His brother and mother had often made that accusation. Gregory found it ludicrous. Work was what kept him sane. Work was what drove out the memories and banished the cold sweats at night. Work was a godsend.
Hart slanted a glance at him. “Unless you’re afraid that the ‘French chit’ won’t take to you.”
“Don’t attempt to manipulate me with insults, old chap. It won’t work. I perfected the strategy when you were still a cadet.”
A heavy breath escaped Hart. “Damn it, Fulkham. Just half an hour to spend with an actress. I might not get even that if you don’t come along. She’ll be nervous if it’s just one of us.”
The man was like a dog with a bone. “Oh, very well. If she’ll see us.” Not that Gregory doubted it. His rank and the promise of money generally got him whatever he wanted, and Hart’s rank alone would do that.
But after the last act ended and a servant brought them backstage, they could hear the porter arguing with a woman in French. There was no mistaking the dulcet tones of Mademoiselle Servais, who was clearly annoyed.
“I don’t care how important these men are,” she said. “Cursed Englishmen, always expecting to get their way. I have to get back to my grandmother. If she should wake and become confused—”
The porter said something Gregory couldn’t make out, and the woman released a drawn-out sigh. “Oh, very well then. If you must. I know you need the funds.” Her voice hardened. “But don’t expect me to fawn over them. I have no patience for men who are arrogant, usually with no reason.”
No reason? Apparently, my lady actress had her own delusions of grandeur. And he didn’t have time for such nonsense, damn it.
Then the servant who’d fetched them showed them into a room little bigger than the coat closet in Gregory’s London town house, with scarcely space enough for her and the porter, much less him and Hart.
With a nod at Gregory, the porter slid past them into the hall, leaving them alone with the actress. Too late to escape the connection now. She stared them down unrepentantly, though she had to know they’d overheard her insults.
She was still in costume, but he noticed things about her that his distance from the stage had obscured—like her voluptuous bosom and surprising height. Her prominent chin gave her the look of a woman of purpose. And up close, she looked younger than she had on stage. Even the heavy theatrical makeup couldn’t disguise the tight skin of her neck, her youthful hands, and the lack of lines about her mouth and eyes.
Her gorgeous mouth and eyes. Her coral-pink lips were unexpectedly full, the kind that made a man want to taste and tongue and suck. Her stunning green eyes shone iridescent in the lamp light from between long, lustrous lashes. They enticed him, and that put him on his guard.
Those eyes seemed to be assessing him, too—weighing his worth, character, and proclivities in the same way he often did other people. It disturbed him to be on the receiving end. Who was this chit, anyway?
“Good evening, gentlemen,” she said in excellent English. “What may I do for you?”
Hart offered her a courtly bow. “We came to express our admiration for the performance.”
“Did you?” She met Gregory’s gaze coolly. “I don’t think your companion has the same purpose.”
Had he been scowling at her? Probably. The woman had thrown him off his game. Forcing a smile, he dipped his head. “On the contrary, I found your acting quite proficient.”
“What effusive praise,” she said dryly, surprising him with her knowledge of English vocabulary. “I shall try not to let it go to my head.”
“What he meant to say was—” Hart began.
“I can speak for myself,” Gregory said irritably. He wasn’t going to be chided by some French actress. Nor was he going to “fawn over her,” to use her words. “You’re clearly an adept performer, at least in a comedic role.”
“What’s wrong with a comedic role?” she asked in a voice smooth as buttered honey. But her gaze sliced into him like a blade of carved jade.
It unsettled him. “Surely you will admit that such roles lack the deep feeling of dramatic ones. So, of course they are easier to perform.”
To his surprise, that garnered him a light, tinkling laugh that thrummed along his every nerve. “If you think that, sir, you have never been on the stage.”
Hart stepped forward. “He didn’t mean to insult—”
“Of course not.” The gleam in her eyes mocked Gregory. “He is merely stating the usual opinion of an English lord—that great literature should always be tres tragique.”
The word usual arrested him. “It isn’t merely English lords who hold that opinion, but arbiters of culture of every rank.” Damn it, he sounded as arrogant as she’d assumed, the opposite of what he wanted.
That seemed to sober her. “Every rank? Truly? Because I generally find that such opinions come from those who have never lived with tragedy, whose moated castles protect them from poverty and violence.”
“Poverty? Yes.” The image of his mother’s battered features swam into his memory. “But no one escapes violence in this age, regardless of their rank.”
“Come now, sir,” she said coldly, “if that were true, men of your sort wouldn’t find tragedy entertaining. But those of us who toil daily in the darkness prefer to be taken away from it, if only for a short while. We prefer to laugh. And I truly believe that making people laugh is a noble endeavor far superior to making people cry.”
Impossible woman. What did she know? “You are, of course, entitled to your opinion. But I would point out that Shakespeare is lauded for his tragedies more than his comedies.”
“By whom? I like his comedies very well. Though I confess I prefer Beaumarchais’s farces. Or, in your language, the excellent work of Oliver Goldsmith. She Stoops to Conquer comes to mind.”
She was beautiful and well-read. He began to regret his caustic words earlier, which had put her on her guard.
“That’s my favorite of Goldsmith’s, too,” Hart put in, clearly determined to be part of the conversation.
“I have never seen it,” Gregory said bluntly.
Humor lit her face. “Of course not. But you should. You would approve of the hero, I daresay.”
Hart laughed. “Touché.”
Not knowing anything of the play put him at a disadvantage. Gregory hated that. “And I assume that you, mademoiselle, approve of the title, since the woman gets to ‘conquer.’”
“I do indeed enjoy that, but mostly because of how she conquers—by revealing to the hero his little snobberies and hypocrisies.”
Gregory stiffened. “An intriguing assessment coming from a woman who’s—”
“A mere comedienne?” she said archly.
“So young.” Damn, he’d really put her back up with his ill-considered remarks earlier. “How old are you, anyway? Twenty-one? Twenty-two?”
When she blinked, he knew he’d guessed correctly. Then she attempted to mask her surprise by fluttering a fan before her face. “You should know by now, monsieur, that a woman never tells her age. It dulls her mystique.”
The coy remark made him scoff. “Only if she’s old and losing her attractions. Clearly you are neither. I would say you have mystique to spare.”
Amusement sparkled in her eyes. “Ah, so the haughty English gentleman can exert himself to be charming when he wishes.”
In that moment, he glimpsed the real Mademoiselle Servais—flirtatious and full of joie de vivre beneath the prickliness he’d brought on with his arrogant remarks. He wished to see more of that Mademoiselle Servais.
Allowing his gaze to skim her lush form, he drawled, “It is no exertion at all with you, mademoiselle. Forgive me if I gave you the idea that it was.”
When the faintest tinge of color pinkened her pretty cheeks, Hart cut in to say, “To be fair, my companion spends his days in the somber profession of politics. He has little opportunity to perfect his ability to charm women.”
Just as Gregory bristled at that characterization of him as some sort of bumbler in the art of flirtation, she added lightly, “And probably little inclination, either. He relies on his rank and riches to charm them.”
Gregory fixed her with a steady look. “I would never be so foolish. Women of any worth generally see past such trappings.”
She met his gaze with an unnerving intensity. “Ah, but I suspect that you find few women of such worth in your circles, eh, monsieur?”
“I certainly don’t find them very often in theaters.”
He’d meant the words as a compliment to her—an implication that she was the exception to the rule.
But his tone must have resisted translation because she blanched, then nodded regally to them both. “In that case, you will not mind if I excuse myself. It is long past time I returned home.”
Devil take it. What was it about her that made him speak so clumsily?
“I’m sure his lordship didn’t mean—” Hart began.
“I know what he meant,” she said. “I have more experience with his kind than he thinks.”
This was the point where he should apologize, should explain what he’d been trying to say. But he’d be damned if he’d curry the favor of some French actress who thought him beneath her contempt. He was the bloody undersecretary of the foreign office, for God’s sake. He didn’t cower before anyone.
Hart glared at him, but Gregory ignored the man. “Well then, mademoiselle, perhaps we shall see you when you are more at your leisure.”
Her green eyes glittered. “Oh, I don’t think I shall ever be at my leisure for you, sir.” As Gregory tensed, she turned to cast a dazzling smile at Hart. “Though your charming companion is always welcome.”
Hart started to return the smile, then caught himself with a nervous glance at Gregory, and an unfamiliar sensation tightened the muscles of Gregory’s belly. Jealousy? That was ridiculous. He’d just met the chit. What did he care if Hart got the benefit of her smiles? She was playing them off against each other, that’s all.
Though Gregory knew that game, he’d never been the loser in it. “Good. Then he can stay and entertain you with his charm.”
And turning on his heel, he left the dressing room.