The Secret of Flirting
Monique Servais sat alone in her dressing room, reapplying face paint between acts. Once again, the Dieppe theater was performing Le mariage de Figaro, but this time she was playing the Countess and not Suzanne.
She grimaced. Of course she was playing the older woman these days. Some ingénue had the role of Suzanne now that Monique had reached the advanced age of twenty-four.
No, that wasn’t fair. It was her peaked appearance and her lapses in remembering her lines that had relegated her to the lesser role. She got little sleep anymore, with her grandmother Solange wandering outside the apartment at all hours.
So it was just as well that Monique had an easier part. She would soon have to hire a servant to keep watch even at night. And how was she to pay for that? It wasn’t as if the theater would
give her more money, especially in her current state.
A knock came at the door, and Mr. Duval poked his head inside. “There is a gentleman who wishes to meet you after the performance.”
“Another?” She waved her hand dismissively. “You know I don’t do that.”
“I think you may want to speak to this particular man, my dear. He says—”
“I don’t care what he says or how much he pays you.” She swiveled on her chair to look at Mr. Duval. “I can’t linger after the performance these days—you know that. Grand-maman is getting worse. Besides, I hate all those leering fellows. There was that merchant who thought he could convince me to become his mistress by giving me a fur tippet. And that . . . that vile Dutchman who wanted to suck my toes.”
So far she’d avoided taking a protector. But if Grand-maman got worse, she might have no choice.
She shuddered. “Not to mention the baker with the admittedly delicious cakes who also stank of fish. Even you said it wasn’t worth the money he paid you for an audience with me.”
“And let’s not forget that British lord, the one who annoyed you so thoroughly.”
Gregory Vyse, Baron Fulkham. Even after three years, she remembered his name. And his faintly accented French and the way the room had seemed to shrink to fit him when he walked
in. Not to mention his eyes, so starkly blue in his handsome face, and his wealth of wavy hair, black as a starless night.
Curse him. Turning back to her mirror, she resumed touching up her face paint. “British lord?” she said with forced nonchalance. “I don’t remember any British lord.”
Mr. Duval chuckled. “You rage about him every time anyone mentions the virtues of tragedy over comedy.”
“He was arrogant and insufferable in his opinions,” she snapped. “Of course I rage about him.”
“So you do remember him,” Mr. Duval said smugly.
She glared at Mr. Duval in the mirror. “I remember that you forced the man on me and that I regretted it. Just as, no doubt, I will regret the one you are trying to make me see tonight.”
“This one is different.”
“You always say that,” she muttered.
“He’s from Chanay.”
She paused with her powder brush in midair. Grand-maman was also from Chanay, in Belgium. “What’s his name?”
“The Count de Beaumonde. He says he’s your great-uncle. Your grandmother’s brother-in-law.”
She recognized the name. Grand-maman had spoken of the count many times, and with great affection, too.
Monique’s hand began to shake so much she dropped the brush. “He’s here. In the theater.”
“Who’s with him?”
“Only a servant. But the count says he traveled from Calais today to speak with you and your grandmother.”
She could scarcely believe it. After all these years of Grand-maman’s exile from her family, one of them had finally come to see her. Before this, not a single person from the Chanay branch had bothered.
What was she to think? What did it mean? “Did he say why he’d come?”
“No. But he said it was most important. Shall I tell him he can meet with you?”
She had to say yes. These days Grand-maman spoke of nothing but her childhood in Chanay. The count might be able to cheer her. Besides, Monique was curious to meet one of the relatives her grandmother had seemed so amazingly fond of.
“Set it up,” she said, “but not here. At the apartment. Tell him to come at eleven.”
That would give her an hour after the play to make herself presentable. To make Grand-maman presentable and prepare her for seeing her long-lost relation. They must both make a good impression. Monique didn’t know why the man was here or what he wanted, but she was not going to let him see her looking like an overpainted harlot in this cramped dressing room. Or pitying Grand-maman for having such a granddaughter.
After all, it wasn’t every day that one got an
audience with a member of the royal family of Chanay.
Unable to sit still, Monique paced the small parlor of their comfy apartment as her grandmother sat on the sofa doing embroidery. Ever since Grand-maman’s mind had begun to fail her, she’d reverted to old habits from her girlhood—embroidering reticules, speaking like a royal, and expecting luxuries that Monique could never afford.
“Who is this visitor we are expecting?” Grand-maman asked.
Having already answered the question twice, Monique said, a trifle impatiently, “Your brother-in-law, the count. You remember.”
Her grandmother lit up, just as she had twice before. “Oh yes! A lovely man. How kind of him to visit! I shall be very happy to see him.” She rose. “Shall I call for wine?”
Monique hastened to her side. “No need.” Especially since their one servant had left long ago. She gestured to the bottle of red Burgundy sitting on the tea table with three glasses and a little pile of petits fours. “We are all ready for him.”
“Good, good. He must have the best.”
A knock came at the door.
Wiping her clammy hands on the skirt of her best gown, Monique stiffened her spine and walked calmly to the door.
She opened it to find a white-haired gentleman who looked even older than her sixty-five-year-old grandmother. Dressed in a costly opera cloak of black satin, a suit of black silk, an ivory cravat, and a subtly patterned waistcoat, the darkly attractive fellow was the very picture of discreet elegance. Oddly enough, he reminded her of her late grandfather, who was of no relation to him whatsoever.
The servant behind him was elderly, too, but he wore a soft smile that seemed to say he was glad to be there.
Not the count, who nodded to her with great formality. “Miss Servais, I presume?”
Sketching a curtsy, she said, “Good evening, sir.” She refused to show him more deference than that. The family had ignored her and Grand-maman for decades, after all.
“You’re right, my lord,” the count’s servant murmured to him. “She could easily be the princess’s sister.”
Which princess? she wanted to ask, but before she could, Grand-maman rose to eye the count uncertainly.
“Who is this ancient fellow, Monique?” she asked with the bluntness she’d developed of late.
Ignoring the way the man flinched, Monique said, “This is the Count de Beaumonde. Your eldest sister’s husband.”
“It cannot be.” Grand-maman peered at him as she came near. “He is much too old.”
The count bristled and scowled at Monique. “Did you not tell her I was coming to visit this evening?”
“I did,” Monique said in a low voice. “But she doesn’t remember. In her mind, you are still as young as when she last saw you.”
As he took her meaning, his features softened profoundly. “Ah.” He stepped into the room to approach Grand-maman. “Princess Solange, it is a great pleasure to meet with you again. You’re looking very well.”
Her grandmother preened. “Oh, Count, you always were such a flatterer.”
The rare moment of remembrance made Monique feel momentarily grateful to the man. Until she reminded herself that he and the rest of the family had exiled Grand-maman from Chanay for eloping with a common actor without her father’s permission.
Monique tamped down her anger. Grand-maman felt no resentment and never had. She’d always said she’d made her choice while fully knowing and accepting the consequences. That she would do it again, given the chance.
A thickness formed in Monique’s throat. Her grandparents had been very much in love. Still, Grand-maman’s choice had cost her time and again. Monique had learned from her example never to be so foolish as to choose romantic love over one’s family.
The servant followed his master into the
room. “Do you remember me, Princess?” the man said hopefully to Solange. “You used to call me Chanceux, because of my luck at cards. We had some merry times when you were a girl.”
Grand-maman’s blank look showed that her rare moment of clarity was gone. “I—I . . . yes . . . of course. Chanceux.” Abruptly she turned to Monique. “I’m very tired. It is late for visiting, no?”
“It is, Grand-maman.” The lump in Monique’s throat thickened even more. The old Solange would have exulted to have the royal family and retinue call on her after all these years. The new Solange barely knew who they were. “Would you like to retire now?”
“Yes.” Grand-maman flashed the two men a vague smile. “Forgive me, sirs, but I am not so young anymore, you know.”
What looked like regret crossed the count’s features. “Of course. You must rest. Sleep well, my beautiful lady.”
Solange brightened. “Thank you. I shall.”
Then she went out into the hall. Monique was torn between going after her and remaining with their guests, but Grand-maman was still capable of preparing herself for bed alone, so Monique preferred to leave her with her dignity.
As soon as the elderly woman had vanished, the count said in grave tones, “How long has she been this way?”
Monique sighed. “About five years now. It’s
why we stopped touring with Grandpapa’s old acting troupe. But it’s worsened dramatically in the past year.”
He shook his head. “How sad to see such a wonderful woman brought low.”
She stiffened. How dared he? “Your concern comes a little late, sir. Where were you when her father cut her off from her family just because she chose to marry for love? Or when my mother was born, and the doctor said Grand-maman dared not have more children? Where were you when my father abandoned my mother, with me in her belly, shortly after being forced to marry her? Or when Grandpapa and Mother died of consumption, leaving Grand-maman to raise me alone?”
She faced him down. “My grandmother is a wonderful woman. She deserved better from the Rocheforts.”
The count looked momentarily taken aback by her bitter words. They surprised her, too. She’d never felt the loss of her royal relations to any great degree. But Grand-maman had. Not enough to leave the man she loved, but still . . .
“Why have you come here?” she demanded. “What do you want from us?”
He pulled into himself as she’d seen her grandmother do when faced with abject impudence. Usually from Monique. “I have come to ask a favor of you.”
“You have the gall to—”
“I would make it well worth your while. And your grandmother’s.”
That gave Monique pause. More money would make things so much easier. She could hire staff to look after Grand-maman around the clock. Then she could work more, which would enable her to save more to make Grand-maman’s final days comfortable.
It had been just the two of them since Monique turned eleven. Without Grand-maman to raise her, who knew what would have become of her? Monique owed her everything. So if she had it within her means to give it to her . . .
Monique swallowed her pride. “What sort of favor?”
He exchanged a glance with his servant. “Do you mind if we sit down?”
“Of course not.” She gestured to the sofa and to the wine in front of it. “Forgive me. I am not used to hosting royalty.”
As her great-uncle took his seat, the servant said, “Except for your grandmother, of course. She is still a princess.”
“Is she? You wouldn’t know it to judge from how her family has treated her.” When the count began to frown again, she added hastily, “And she doesn’t consider herself one.” Monique sat down in the other chair and began to pour the wine. “That life is behind her.”
Not entirely, though. Memory played tricks on Solange these days. Sometimes it was as if the
past decades had never happened and she was a girl again, frolicking in the gardens of Chanay.
“It doesn’t have to be behind her.” The count took the glass from her.
Monique narrowed her gaze on him. “What do you mean?”
“If you will do this one favor for us, we can take her home to the palace, care for her there, and make sure she is comfortable for the rest of her life.” When Monique tensed, he added hastily, “You would of course come with her. You would be welcomed back into the family. You are, after all, granddaughter to a princess and second cousin to the reigning Princess de Chanay.”
Monique could hardly catch her breath. Her main worry would vanish. Grand-maman would be taken care of. And Monique would at last have family when Grand-maman was gone.
A family who had not given her a thought until now.
She glanced away. “I suppose I would have to give up the stage.” Her home, the only place she’d ever felt entirely at ease.
His gaze hardened. “Of course. No member of the royal family can be an actress.”
It would be as if her past life vanished, swept away by the hand of Chanay royalty as if it had never occurred. It was a great price to pay. She loved acting; it was all she knew.
Then again, Grand-maman’s condition worsened by the day.
“Forgive me, my dear,” the count added, “but you must see that living as a royal in Chanay is vastly preferable to being on the stage, for both you and your grandmother. I’ll admit that you are an excellent actress, one of the reasons we have come to ask this favor, but—”
“Yes, what exactly is it that you want of me that would wipe away the years when you wanted nothing to do with us?”
With a sigh, he sipped some wine, then set the glass down. “We want you to play your finest role yet. That of my great-niece Aurore, the reigning Princess de Chanay.”
Two days later, the count ushered her into a lavish hotel suite in Calais. So the two of them could come here unencumbered, he had left his servant, Chanceux, in Dieppe to stay with Grand-maman. It was the first time Monique had been away from the woman who had mostly raised her, and that made her nervous.
But not nearly as nervous as the prospect of meeting her cousin Aurore.
She shouldn’t have worried. The count had not lied about Aurore’s situation. The princess lay insensible in her enormous bed, with three other ladies keeping watch over her.
But even with the young woman’s cheeks flushed with fever and her eyes closed, Monique
felt as if she were looking at her twin. Aurore had the same pale skin, the same full lips, the same ignominious bump on the end of her nose. Her cedar-brown hair was the same wildly disordered mass as Monique’s. It too could probably only be tamed by scraping it up into a heavy chignon that threatened to escape its confines with her every motion.
They did have different chins—Monique had the cursed prominent one, while the princess’s was small and delicate. The princess’s cheeks were also marginally fuller and her neck a bit thicker, although illness might soon slim all of that, depending on how long she remained ill.
“Aurore has been this way for days now,” the count said. “We dare not move her. But she was expected in London yesterday for the conference, and we can’t put the delegates off much longer. We must either present her or take her out of the running for ruler of Belgium.”
Monique nodded. He’d explained everything earlier, but she still found it a bit of a muddle. Politics. This was about political machinations involving the new independence of Belgium.
Apparently, the province of Belgium had broken off from the Netherlands and demanded to be its own country. Championed by the other major powers, who liked the idea of a buffer state between the powerful French and the equally powerful Dutch, Belgium had been granted its wish over the protests of the Dutch.
All that remained was to set out the terms of the agreement and to select a ruler for the new country.
That was the sticking point. Princess Aurore was the one most favored for the position. Firstly, Chanay lay in the middle of Belgium, and its royal line went back for centuries. Secondly, any other candidate would shift the balance of power.
The French wanted one of their dukes, and the Dutch wanted one of their princes. The English had proposed Prince Leopold of Hanover for his connections to the English royal family and his neutrality, but that had not gone over well with the French. So, the Princess of Chanay was everyone’s first choice.
That was why the count wanted Monique to play Princess Aurore. Her Highness would remain in Calais in secret, being tended by her retinue and her mother at a secluded location, while Monique made an appearance in London to soothe all the delegates’ concerns and show that Princess Aurore was worthy of the crown of Belgium.
“Will you step in for her?” he asked now. “As you can see, she is in no condition to do what she must.”
Stalling for time, Monique said, “What is wrong with her?”
A pretty woman of about thirty rose from beside the bed, her face wrought with worry. “We aren’t sure. She fell ill shortly after we arrived
here and were preparing to make the crossing to England. We fear she has cholera, though no one else in the hotel seems to be suffering. The surgeon has bled her twice, to no good effect.”
The count grew angry. “You bled her despite my instructions? Bleeding is foolish, especially given her symptoms.”
An older woman stood to stare him down. “Do not blame Lady Ursula. I gave the order. I will not risk my daughter’s life simply because you have these wild ideas about doctors.”
Privately, Monique agreed with the count. Cholera was serious enough as it was, but if the use of an outdated “cure” like bleeding weakened the princess even more, it could prove fatal. No wonder her cousin looked so pale.
The count’s lips thinned. He turned to Monique, his eyes hollow in his face. “You can see we need you. It will probably be some time before the princess has recovered enough to make public appearances.”
If ever, Monique thought but didn’t dare say it. The rest of them already seemed anxious about Princess Aurore’s condition. “I’ll admit that she and I do look somewhat alike, but surely people who have met her before—”
“No one has met her before, outside of the court of Chanay. Certainly no one attending the London Conference. The princess has never traveled much—she preferred to remain at home. And the only image of her is a court painting that few have
seen. Besides, you even look well enough like her to match that.”
“Yes, but looks aren’t the only thing,” Monique said. “The princess has had years of training and education in the royal family. I only know what Grand-maman has taught me and what I gleaned from my years in the theater.”
The princess’s mother snorted at that and excused herself. Clearly she did not approve of the count’s plan.
After casting the woman a foul glance as she hurried out, the count turned back to Monique. “You won’t have to appear in public often, and when you do, one of us will be always at your side to make sure you behave appropriately. It will take us a few days to journey across the English Channel in the private yacht, during which Lady Ursula, Aurore’s lady-in-waiting, will be able to instruct you in—”
“Me!” Lady Ursula cried, clearly distressed. “But I had hoped to stay here with the princess.”
The count’s blue eyes sleeted over. “You’re needed elsewhere. Aurore’s mother and the servants will remain with her. Thankfully, the English are providing us with a fully staffed residence in London, so we won’t require our own servants during our stay. But you, my dear, must go with us.”
Lady Ursula’s lips trembled, though she merely bowed her head and said, “As you wish, my lord.”
Sparing her a dismissive nod, the count smiled
warmly at Monique. “Lady Ursula and I shall instruct you regarding the most important rules for proper behavior, but the delegates probably won’t care if you make a mistake. They’ll assume it results from your living isolated in Chanay all these years.”
“But what if they do care? What if I stumble so badly that I ruin her chance at the throne? Or even worse, accidentally expose your scheme?”
“First of all, Aurore has no chance at the throne unless this succeeds. And if something goes wrong, we will simply proclaim you to be ill, whisk you back to the Continent, and take her home from Calais.”
“Her.” She curled her fingernails into her palm. “But not me. Or Grand-maman.”
His smile no longer held any warmth. “Forgive me, my dear, but this contract of ours depends on your succeeding. If you don’t, things will go back to how they were.” When the pure ruthlessness of that made her suck in a breath, he softened his features. “And in any case, you will be successful. You’re an excellent actress—surely you are accustomed to adapting to roles. Have you not played royalty before?”
“Well, yes, but all I had to do was act out someone else’s script. What if I blunder? Use the wrong word for something?”
“I cannot see that happening. You speak English very well. To be truthful, you speak it better than the princess herself, which is a boon to us.”
“Grandpapa was half-English,” Monique reminded him. “He made sure I was fluent in it. Though I know I have an accent.”
“The delegates will expect that.”
“But it’s not my facility with the language that I’m talking about. There are so many rules of deportment and—”
“We will teach you all that. And I swear that in most instances, one or the other of us will be around to steer you right or cover your errors.”
That wasn’t exactly encouraging.
Something else occurred to her. “Aren’t you the least worried that someone who’s seen me on the stage in Dieppe might recognize me?”
He waved that concern off with a flick of his bejeweled hand. “You wear wigs, costumes, and stage cosmetics—no one could discern the real you beneath all that. If my spies hadn’t already told me of your resemblance to Aurore, I would never have recognized you from your work on the stage.”
She blinked. “Spies?”
His mirthless laugh chilled her. “Come now, girl, did you really think the royal court forgot your branch of the family entirely? We did not, I assure you. One never knows when the heirs to the throne might perish, leaving some distant relation to inherit. As the oldest member of the family, I thought it important to keep track. That’s why I could meet with you so quickly after the princess fell ill. I’ve always known exactly where your family was.”
Because of his spies. She shivered. All this time, he’d had people watching them!
Though it seemed rather silly of him, to be honest. She was probably far down the line of succession, given that Grand-maman had been one of four children, all of whom must have had children themselves.
That actually relieved her. She had no desire to be a Princess of Chanay, forced to marry whomever the family deemed appropriate. She didn’t trust love, but she didn’t trust royal families either. There had to be some balance between marrying for love and marrying whomever was thrust upon you by political convenience.
“Even if someone could recognize you from Dieppe,” the count went on, “it wouldn’t be anyone you’d encounter at the few public affairs we’ll be attending. Only those of the highest rank or political consequence will be there, and they aren’t the sort to attend a provincial theater.”
Though she bristled at his condescending tone, he had a point. Most of the foreigners at the theater were merchants and sailors, with the occasional courier thrown in. The highest-ranking gentleman she’d ever met in Dieppe had been . . .
Then again, he’d been only a baron. She knew enough about English peerages to know that a baron was nothing to a duke or a marquess or even an earl.
She struggled to remember what more Duval had said about the fellow’s connections—and those of his friend—but that had been three years ago, and she’d been too irritated to pay attention. Still, a mere baron couldn’t be anyone of consequence. And as the count had pointed out, her costume, wig, and makeup would have disguised her. Besides, their encounter had been brief.
Yet you remember him.
Yes. But that was different. He’d annoyed her. While she had probably barely raised any notice in his arrogant brain.
“So you will play Princess Aurore for us, then?” Calculation glinted in his eyes. “It’s the role of a lifetime, you realize. If you succeed, it will be a tour de force.”
True. She could never tell anyone, but still she would know. What actress worth her salt could resist attempting such a daring thing?
She did have one more concern. “What about when it’s done and you replace me with the princess, assuming she recovers? Surely the people I meet in London will notice the difference between us once she becomes queen of Belgium.”
“Once she becomes queen, she will be too busy ruling to meet with anyone you might have met through the conference. And I can manage that—only allow access to her for those people I know she didn’t encounter. After a few years, it won’t matter—they’ll assume that any small
differences they notice are due to age. And to her being married and having children, one hopes.”
Poor Princess Aurore. They were already plotting out her future while she lay near death’s door. But that couldn’t concern Monique. She had her own family and future to think of.
“It will only be a couple of weeks at most,” he went on, obviously sensing her weaken, “and Chanceux is more than happy to look after your grandmother in the meantime. Once it’s done, you and Princess Solange can both travel back to Chanay with us to begin your new life.”
Her new life. Bound to the royal family. Expected to behave appropriately, marry appropriately, live appropriately.
Her new life free of worry about Grand-maman.
That was the important part. Once Grand-maman passed on, Monique could choose to leave, to go back to her old life and do as she pleased. But for now . . .
“I’ll do it,” she said.