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The Secret of Flirting by Sabrina Jeffries (1)

Prologue

Dieppe, France

1827

Gregory Vyse, Baron of Fulkham, sipped a glass of fine brandy, savoring its smoky bite. Drinking decent spirits was one advantage of passing through France on his travels. And the taproom of this particular Dieppe inn provided the best, even if he had to pay far too much for his room to get it.

Not that his companion, Captain Lord Hartley Corry, seemed to appreciate the liquor. Hart knocked the brandy back as if it were cheap ale. As if he were nervous, actually.

Hmm. What was that about? This was supposed to be a simple delivery.

Hart pushed a package wrapped in string across the table. “Here are the letters, Fulkham. You will be able to get them to my cousin soon, won’t you?”

Gregory slipped them into his greatcoat pocket. “It shouldn’t take more than a few days if the weather holds. Corunna isn’t far by boat. And Niall is expecting me.”

When Hart said nothing more, Gregory asked, “Have you no messages for me from Gibraltar? From John?”

Hart blinked. “Were you expecting any?”

“I suppose not.”

Though he’d rather hoped . . . His younger brother, John, and Hart were best friends, and had both been posted to Gibraltar with their respective regiments until recently, when Hart’s regiment was sent home briefly in anticipation of their new posting. John could at least have sent him an update; Gregory should have received a report days ago. The next time he saw John, he’d give his feckless brother another lecture about the importance of reports.

Hart called for another brandy, and Gregory raised an eyebrow. He’d never heard that the marquess’s son was a heavy drinker, soldier or no. Clearly something was on the man’s mind. Gregory could tell by the tense line of Hart’s lips, the drumming of his fingers . . . his darting gaze.

So Gregory waited him out. Because that was the best way to elicit the truth, something at which he excelled.

It didn’t take long. Hart drank some brandy, then settled back in his chair. “Speaking of John, he told me that you sometimes . . . er . . . pay for information.”

Damn John and his big mouth. “Did he?”

Hart’s gaze shot to him. “John says you like having eyes everywhere.”

“I do when they belong to someone I can trust. Which is clearly not the case with my little brother.”

John ought to know better. But despite his marriage a year ago, the bloody fool was apparently as reckless as ever. That was precisely why Gregory hadn’t wanted to use him in this work. Gregory had only agreed when it became clear that if he didn’t dictate his brother’s actions to some degree, John would get himself killed on his own.

Hart leaned forward. “Don’t blame John for speaking of it. When he offered to get you to deliver letters to Niall in Spain, I badgered him until he explained your connection to my cousin. I mean, given that Niall . . . well . . .”

“Killed a man?”

“Yes. I was worried you wanted to capture him and carry him back to England. You are with the government, after all.”

“True.” The foreign office, to be exact. But although officially Gregory served as undersecretary of state for war and the colonies, his unofficial position was a trifle . . . murkier.

With another glance about the taproom, Hart lowered his voice. “But John explained that Niall sometimes provides you with information from Corunna, which is why you overlook that he’s in exile for dueling, and I was thinking—”

“That you could do the same, now that you’ll be posted elsewhere than Gibraltar.”

“Exactly.”

Gregory didn’t answer right away. He took his time sipping his brandy, letting the silence stretch out and gauging Hart’s reaction.

To his credit, Hart didn’t fidget or frown. Most people would.

“Why exactly would that be an advantage to me?” Gregory finally asked.

“Because you don’t have eyes at Fort Bullen on James Island.” Hart paused. “Wait, do you?”

“No. But then, there’s little reason for that. The soldiers are posted there to keep slave ships from operating. Not much political intrigue.”

A sigh escaped Hart. Apparently, he’d been banking on the alternative source of income he’d hoped to get from spying. As a second son to a marquess, Hart probably found that his allowance and army pay didn’t go quite far enough to support such lordly entertainments as gambling and wenching.

Bloody hell. Undoubtedly Gregory would regret this, but the man was John’s friend, after all. “I tell you what,” he said. “I’m planning on attending Le mariage de Figaro at the new theater after this. Why don’t we go together? Afterward, I’ll ask you questions and see how much you noticed. If you answer to my satisfaction, I’ll consider you the next time you’re in a position to help me.”

It never hurt to have more spies. If Hart was as observant as John claimed he was sharp-witted, the man might prove useful one day.

Hart brightened. “Excellent! I’m told that Mademoiselle Servais is in tonight’s performance, so you’ll be glad you went. I swear she’s as good as Mrs. Siddons ever was.”

“I somehow doubt that. I had the privilege of seeing Sarah Siddons in her last role on the stage. Very impressive. And I’d be shocked if a theater in a town the size of Dieppe has an actress of any great ability in its employ.”

The sudden twinkle in Hart’s eye gave him pause. “Then prepare to be shocked, old man.”

The theater in Dieppe had two rows of boxes. Thanks to his position, Gregory had been offered the finest one for his own use on this visit, a fact that overjoyed Hart. Gregory had to admit that the small but new venue had a certain charm, as did the performance. He’d always preferred the original play by Beaumarchais to the opera by Mozart.

As for Mademoiselle Monique Servais, Gregory had to stifle his irritation at discovering how magnificent she really was. He hated being proved wrong.

Well, not wrong, exactly. A comedic role like that of Suzanne lacked the gravitas of any of Mrs. Siddons’s great dramatic personae, so comparisons between them would be apples versus oranges. But still . . .

“What did I tell you?” Hart said as the music came up for the interlude. “She’s astounding.”

Gregory disliked exaggeration. “If by ‘astounding’ 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 speak only of her physical attributes.”

Which were uncommonly attractive. 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 onstage.

“You’re just a sore loser,” Hart said in a moment of keen perception. “Tell the truth—she’s better than you imagined.”

“I will concede that. But then, my expectations were low.” When Hart scowled, he added, “And you’re supposed to be paying attention to more than just the actress, remember? This is a test, after all.”

“Right.” Hart crossed his arms over his chest. “Ask me anything.”

“What was the name of the porter who took our tickets?”

“Mr. Duval,” Hart said readily enough.

Not bad. No one generally noticed such people. “His given name?”

Hart thrust out his chin. “He didn’t say.”

“Actually, someone else did when they greeted him, but you may not have heard.” Gregory settled back in his seat. “Describe him, starting with his hair and ending with his shoes.” When Hart did a creditable job of that, Gregory nodded. “Now tell me what you think his life at home is like.”

That seemed to startle Hart. “His life at home?”

“One can tell a great deal about a man’s circumstances from how he behaves, dresses, speaks. But for now, just give me your impressions.”

Before Hart could begin, a knock came at the door to the box. When Gregory bade the person enter, it was none other than the porter himself. “Is everything to your satisfaction this evening, gentlemen?” Duval asked in French.

“It is, thank you,” Gregory said dismissively.

Then Hart chimed in, obviously trying to keep the man there longer so he could better answer Gregory’s question. “Could you arrange for us to meet Mademoiselle 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. Mademoiselle 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. 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, but I am a marquess’s son and my companion is a baron of high rank in the British government. If you can manage a meeting, we’ll make it well worth your while. We won’t keep her long.”

Gregory lifted an eyebrow at Hart. What was the man up to?

The porter nodded. “I will see what I can do, gentlemen.”

After he left, Gregory said, “If you’re hoping that your maneuver will distract me from my questions—”

“Actually, 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.”

Ah, yes. John had described Hart as a bit of a lothario. “And we will make it ‘well worth’ the porter’s while?”

“You can take my part out of my first payment as a spy.”

Gregory snorted. “You certainly are sure of yourself.”

“A useful ability for a spy, don’t you think?” Hart said with a grin.

It was. But that didn’t mean Gregory would let the fellow lead him about like a mule. “For tonight, you can practice those skills without me. I intend to return to my room after the play is over. I’ve got reports to write.”

“Surely those can wait until later. How often do you get to meet a woman of such stellar talent as Mademoiselle Servais?”

“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.

Except when it was followed by the back of a hand. Or a fist.

He pushed that thought down into the well of secrets it had come from. “I prefer my flirting to be with a woman who can further my interests, frankly.”

Hart shook his head. “Good God, for a fellow in his thirties you act like an old man. Live a little. You’re too focused on work, you know.”

His brother and mother often made that accusation. Gregory found it ludicrous. Work kept him sane. Work 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 cornet.”

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. Which would actually make him very good as an informer. And it never hurt to stay on the good side of a marquess’s son. “Fine. If she’ll see us.” Not that Gregory doubted she would. His own 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, he began to think he’d been proved wrong in that, too. For as they wended their way through a warren of dressing rooms, 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.

But before the porter could even answer her, the servant who’d fetched them from the box 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 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 onstage. 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 scarlet-painted 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 lamplight 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 those of 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. He’d spent years schooling his emotions into calm, and it vexed him that she had managed to ruffle it.

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 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, mademoiselle, at least in a comedic role.”

“What exactly does that mean? What’s wrong with a comedic role?” she asked in a voice smooth as butter. But her gaze sliced into him like a blade of carved jade.

It unsettled him, made him impatient to be done with this. “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 très 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 or read 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 comédienne?” 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 condescending remarks. He wished to see more of that Mademoiselle Servais.

Allowing his gaze to skim down 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 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? No, that was ridiculous. He’d just met the woman. What did he care if Hart got the benefit of her smiles? She was playing them off against each other. That was 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.”

Turning on his heel, he left the dressing room, angry at her and angry at himself. She’d made him lose control, and he never lost control. But the damned chit had essentially given him the cut direct! No one ever dared.

Footsteps sounded behind him. “That went well,” Hart grumbled.

Gregory bit back the impulse to say something snide. He’d already revealed too much of himself to Mademoiselle Servais in front of Hart as it was; he damned well wasn’t going to add insult to injury.

He fought to make his voice sound bored. “You were the one who wanted to dally with an actress. You should have stayed.”

“She didn’t want me there.” Hart’s tone sharpened. “She ignored me completely, except when she was trying to goad you. She was only interested in you.”

Was the man mad? “If she was interested in me, it was merely as a razor strop for her sharp tongue. Nothing more.”

“Didn’t seem that way to me.”

Gregory was in no mood to argue with him.

“I suppose this means I’ve failed the test,” Hart added.

What test? Gregory nearly asked before he remembered what Hart meant. “Don’t be ridiculous.” He wasn’t about to reveal how she’d rattled him. “Some actress’s poor attempts at insult have naught to do with whether I can use you as an informant. So if you come across anything you think I might use, let me know.”

It was an idle promise, after all. What could the man possibly learn out on James Island?

“Oh! Well. Thank you, then,” Hart said jovially. “Good of you to offer.”

They walked out of the theater together.

Hart cleared his throat. “The night is still young. Would you want to—”

“Sorry, old chap, but as I said before, I have reports to write. Have a good trip.”

He left Hart gaping after him. Gregory didn’t care. Much as he liked the fellow, he’d had enough of company for one night. He had work to do.

So why was he still seething about the actress’s responses as he entered the inn? She was no less impudent than any other Frenchwoman to an Englishman. He ought not be annoyed, but he was.

Because she was sharp. Observant. Quick-witted. All things he admired in a woman. He wasn’t used to having such a woman not admire those things in him.

Except that there had been the one moment when she’d blushed and he’d thought perhaps she . . .

God, he didn’t care! Absurd that he should even think he might.

He stalked up the stairs, so lost in replaying their conversation that he didn’t at first hear the innkeeper hail him, and when he did, he rounded on the fellow, snapping, “What is it?” in French.

The man paled. With a shaky hand, he held out a small envelope. “Th-this message just came for you, my lord. I was told to put it right in your hand.”

Gregory spotted the seal belonging to one of his informants from Gibraltar and muttered, “It’s about damned time.” At last, word from someone concerning John’s mission. He would rather it had come from John, of course, but . . .

That gave him pause. Why hadn’t it come from John? As he hastily opened the letter and scanned its contents, his stomach began to roil.

My lord, our mission was compromised. You were right to advise caution, but I’m afraid it did no good. I regret to inform you that your brother is dead. He decided to . . .

A description of what had gone wrong followed, but the words swam before his eyes. His knees buckled beneath him and he sat down hard on the stairs.

His brother was dead? It couldn’t be. How could it be? Impossible.

But clearly it was true. There was no reason for the man to lie.

Gregory stared sightlessly past the innkeeper to the taproom below, crowded with men drinking and carousing. And to think that only a few hours ago, he too had been . . .

Grief clogged his throat with tears he couldn’t shed. How was he to go on without John? How was Mother?

Oh, God, Mother. This would destroy her.

“John, you reckless fool,” Gregory hissed.

Despite his cautions, the lad had gone and gotten himself killed. And it was all Gregory’s fault—for using him in the first place, for not reining him in. For not being more of a father to him once their own father was gone.

Gregory stiffened. Not gone. Murdered. Best never to forget that, or he would truly lose his soul. Or at least the part of it that still had a conscience.

What had that actress said? I generally find that such opinions come from those who have never lived with tragedy, whose moated castles protect them from poverty and violence.

Anger flashed through him, tangled up in his sorrow and guilt and pain. Damn her to hell. She had no idea what she was talking about. A moated castle kept things in as well as out. It could hide shame and heartache, neglect and abuse, blood and gore and death.

Especially death. And now John was dead. Dead. Gregory must get that through his head or how was he to continue?

So as he let his grief overtake him, let himself sink into its madness, he put all thoughts of Mademoiselle Monique Servais from his head for good.

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