When spymaster Baron Fulkham meets the stunning Princess Aurore of Chanay, he’s sure he’s met her before . . . in Dieppe . . . where she was an actress. As he pursues his suspicions, he uncovers a plot of attempted assassination and betrayals that could very well destroy his career, expose his own dark secrets . . . and ruin the woman he’s rapidly falling for.
Forced by her great-uncle to cover for a cousin she’s never met, stage actress Monique Servais is playing the role of a lifetime as Princess Aurore. If the handsome but arrogant Lord Fulkham recognizes her, he could ruin everything. Will the curtain be drawn on this charade before she can convince Fulkham to keep her secret? Or will they both find a love to transcend the truth about their carefully guarded pasts?
Although The Secret of Flirting is the fifth instalment in Sabrina Jeffries’ Sinful Suitors series, it can easily be read as a standalone, as none of its storylines is related to the other books. Previous heroes and heroines make appearances within its pages, but they are brief cameos and no prior knowledge of their stories is required in order to make sense of this one. Gregory Vyse, Lord Fulkham, undersecretary of state for war and the colonies – and unofficially one of England’s most successful spymasters – appeared as an important secondary character in the previous book (The Pleasures of Passion), and now takes centre stage in a story of international politics and intrigue.
Gregory is driven, astute and ambitious, and hopes for a prestigious appointment in the new government that will shortly be formed under Lord Grey. He is currently heavily involved in the conference that has been convened in London in order to select a ruler for the new country of Belgium, formed when it was granted independence from the Netherlands. In fact, with the Foreign Secretary indisposed, the organisation of the conference and the endorsement of the chosen candidate falls wholly on Gregory’s shoulders, and he is a man who takes his responsibilities very seriously indeed.
Princess Aurore of Chanay is one of the front runners for the monarchy, but has been suddenly taken ill at Calais and is unable to travel to London – which is potentially disastrous. But all is not lost – in a stroke worthy of Alexandre Dumas or Anthony Hope, the princess’ great uncle, the Count de Beaumonde, comes up with a plan to have Aurore’s second cousin, actress Monique Servais, impersonate the princess in London until she recovers and can resume her royal position and duties.
Monique Servais has trod the boards for some years at theatres in Dieppe, where she lives with her elderly and infirm grandmother Solange, a princess of the house of Chanay who was cut off by her family when she scandalously ran away with an actor. Neither Monique nor her grandmother has had any contact with the family since, and with Solange’s health deteriorating, Monique is her sole support. When Beaumonde appears and proposes that Monique should take the place of the princess for the duration of the London conference, Monique is wary – until he explains that in exchange for her co-operation, she and Solange will be welcomed back to Chanay, the old lady will be taken care of and Monique need never worry about her – or anything else – again. The promise of care for her grandmother is too much of a temptation to resist, so in spite of her misgivings, Monique agrees to the plan.
Over the next few says, she prepares herself to nod and smile and say the right things, act the part of a princess and do her best to show Aurore to be worthy of the crown of Belgium. The masquerade begins well – until she arrives at a banquet in London and comes face to face with the handsome but cynical Lord Fulkham, whom she’d met three years earlier in Dieppe when he’d come to visit her, at the behest of a friend, after a performance. Even though they haven’t seen each other in the intervening years, Monique has never forgotten his snide remarks about comedy and the theatre and she gets angry just remembering how he’d looked down his nose at her. He could expose her and the whole charade if she lets slip even for the merest instant that she is not who she says she is – which means the discovery that he is just as handsome and far more charming than she remembers poses a danger to her. She cannot allow herself to be distracted from her role, no matter how attractive the distraction.
Even though her resemblance to the princess (of whom he has only seen a portrait) is uncanny, Gregory recognises Monique immediately. Suspicion gnaws at him, and he determines to expose her, trying to trip her up whenever they converse – but she’s as good at dissembling as he is and he realises it’s not going to be easy. Also not easy is the strong desire he feels for her, which, for a man who prides himself on his self-control, is inconvenient and unwelcome. But he has never forgotten Monique, the way her beauty and intelligence had caught him by surprise or the way she had managed to ruffle his normally un-rufflable emotions and respond so archly to his unflattering remarks.
The attraction between Gregory and Monique intensifies over the next few days as they carefully circle each other, sizing up and second-guessing one another all the time. But the stakes are raised when, on a drive through Hyde Park, shots are fired at Monique, bringing home to Gregory that it doesn’t matter if she is an actress or a princess – whoever she is, the thought of her being hurt is unbearable and he is determined to protect her at all costs.
Sabrina Jeffries often includes a mystery as a secondary plotline in her historical romances, and I confess that not all of the ones I’ve read have worked for me, but this one did. The political backdrop is interesting (the author’s note at the end is worth reading) and Gregory and Monique are a well-matched couple. The chemistry between them sizzles right from the start, their verbal sparring is witty and spry and I was pleased with the way the author addressed the issue of consent and the power imbalance between them. Both are well-drawn and likeable, and although Gregory comes from the my-father-was-a-total-git-and-my-parents-were-miserable-so-I-am-emotionally-stunted school of romance heroes, the author puts a slightly different spin on his background which turns out to have an important part to play in the story, and I was glad to see that he was prepared to go all out for what he wanted (once he’d admitted to himself what that was!). The romantic conflict is born largely of the difference in station between Monique and Gregory – a man of his political ambitions cannot possibly expect to advance in his career if he marries a woman deemed ‘unsuitable’ – and is not overplayed; both parties accept it as the way things have to be, until Gregory swings into politician/spymaster mode and solves his Monique-shaped problems at a single stroke.
My main criticisms of the book are twofold; the pacing starts to flag a little early in the second half of the novel and the first sex scene feels oddly out of place, almost as though the author thought it was about time to include one rather than because that was where it actually needed to be. And the other is that the climactic scene where all is revealed is rather overblown and whiffs of weeks old camembert.
Those criticisms apart, The Secret of Flirting is an undemanding, quick read featuring two attractive principal characters, a well-drawn secondary cast and an intriguing plot. It’s a solid addition to the Sinful Suitors series and I enjoyed it in spite of my reservations.