Read If I Fall Online

Authors: Kate Noble

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General

If I Fall (10 page)

BOOK: If I Fall
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And being as Whigby had been second lieutenant to his first for so long, he replied with a hearty, “Yes, Mr. Fletcher,”
practically clicking his heels. “Just let me go tell my aunt,” he said, scanning the crowd for the commanding diminutive presence of Mrs. Whigby. “Er, not to tell her that I’m going to a hell of course, but that I’m…”

“Yes, Mr. Whigby,” Jack smirked, dismissing his friend from having to explain the obvious. As Whigby squeezed his way into the crowd to find his aunt, Jack decided it was good manners that he tell the Forresters of his plans as well.

Not that he was going to a hell, of course … just getting the hell out of here. And maybe, finally, having some fun.

Five

T
WO
things happened, delaying Jackson Fletcher’s departure from the Whitford banquet. One could easily be interpreted (at least by the newspaper coverage of it the next day) as a disaster of epic proportions. The other, a simple kindness propelling it.

As Jack looked around the party for a Forrester to inform of his departure, he was beset upon by Lord Forrester, who intended to make good on his promise to Jack and introduce him to any military men of his acquaintance. And so, instead of leaving, Jack was gratified to be introduced to Lord Fieldstone, the director of the War Department, a man easily as tall as he was wide, and Sir Marcus Worth, head of the security section within the War Department—who was actually an acquaintance of Sarah’s.

“My wife Phillippa has taken very much to Sarah,” Sir Marcus said by way of explanation. “She very much enjoys befriending young ladies in society … mostly because of the number of sons she has at home.” He was an alarmingly tall man, who wore spectacles and a pleasant affable demeanor. Other than the gray coming in at his temples, and the lines of age at the corners of his eyes, one might mistake him for a man many years younger, and of less importance.

Jack instinctively liked him.

His wife … less so.

Oh, that wasn’t fair. The truth was, Jack found himself terribly critical of everyone Sarah chose to keep company with.

From what he could tell, Lady Phillippa was a pleasant enough woman, if one measured up to her standards—and since he was a friend of the Forresters, he luckily met this criteria. But absolutely everyone else, the flatterers, the fawners … why, the Sarah of old would have been utterly bewildered by them, then laughed when she figured it out. But one flatterer in particular stood out, if only because he had his own retinue of fawners: the Comte de Le Bon.

Without meaning it, Jack’s gaze roamed over the crowds and found Sarah, in her shining golden gown, amidst her crowd of admirers … which included the Comte.

“So, Lieutenant Fletcher, I understand the
Amorata
took some heavy pounding around the Cape,” Lord Fieldstone was saying.

“Hmm?” Jack turned his attention back to the men in front of him. “Oh yes. Unfortunate. But I have every hope that the navy will decide to let her sail again.”

“Yes, you should,” Lord Fieldstone replied, laughing. “What with the state of the navy these days, you’d be hard-pressed to find another ship to take on a sailor even with the most sterling of reputations, like yourself.”

Jack’s mouth pressed tight. It was a subconscious action, as of course he meant no disrespect toward the head of the War Department. But the wide man seemed to catch his own faux pas, as he reddened slightly and changed the subject. “Right … well, uh, Forrester, tell me about this Holbein you’ve acquired.”

As Fieldstone and Forrester turned away, Sir Marcus stepped in and filled the void.

“You were off the coast of India before that, correct?” Sir Marcus asked, and at Jack’s nod, he continued. “Then you must have heard a great deal about him.”

Sir Marcus nodded in the direction of the mass of people surrounding Sarah—but Jack knew exactly which one he was talking about.

Jack had heard a great deal about the Comte de Le Bon in
the past few days. Because England had heard a great deal about the Comte de Le Bon in the last few months. For that was when he arrived in London, to bring out his stepsister.

While the sister, Miss Georgina Thompson, was shy and retiring, the Comte certainly was not. He cast himself the hero in one hell of a story … and brought a witness to it, to boot.

The Comte, a Frenchman by birth but having lived in British India since a lad, had apparently been a member of an expeditionary team of explorers, who wished to traverse the mountainous Bengal region of East India. As a longtime resident of India, the Comte was naturally versed in the local language and culture, and set about making himself useful.

“But then I became ill, and I’ll spare the ladies in the room the gorier details of my tropical illness,” he’d smiled at them when retelling the tale of his exploits (again) one day when he came to call on the Forresters. The sight of his white teeth and the way his eyes crinkled set off no small amount of titters and sighs from the preponderance of women making their calls. “So they went on without me, and when I moved to join them days later—I’m afraid I became a bit lost, and ended up just over the border in Burma!”

Apparently, Burma’s expansionist ideals were rivaled only by Britain’s, and this threw them often into contention with their British Indian neighbor. Seeing he was white, they took him captive. Learning that he was not British, but instead French, they took him to Rangoon.

“There I am, sitting in my little cell, so I do my best to make friends with the guards, with the neighbors, practicing my Burmese. And suddenly, I am called up to see King Bagyidaw himself,” the Comte continued, and everyone oohed and aahed at this point in the story.

Conversely, right about now Jack usually got very bored and stopped listening. But if he were to continue paying attention, he would hear (again) about how the Comte talked his way into the King letting him live another day and, with the help of another prisoner, managed to escape. That other prisoner was now at his side constantly, a tall, silent, utterly enigmatic man who looked incongruous squeezed into Western dress. Whether he insisted on the grave and dark Mr. Ashin Pha attending him at every event because, like he claimed, the
man insisted on staying by his side until his lifesaving debt was repaid, or if he was just an excellent visual reminder of the Comte’s wildest exploit, was unknown. But no one seemed to care.

When this story was made known to parliament, and the papers, it turned the Comte into the instant toast of the town. Now, generally, when he and his dark friend were not speaking with various men of political importance and women of social status, he was at Almack’s, or Tattersall’s, or at any event one could name. And lately, he had been doing so with the Golden Lady, Sarah Forrester, on his arm.

Everyone took notice. Every pair of eyes was drawn to them like light. Only one was set to a scowl.

“I have made his acquaintance,” Jack looked askance in the Comte de Le Bon’s direction. Indeed, Sarah made certain to show the man off to her entire retinue when he (finally) came to call. “He seems to have recovered from his harrowing travels well enough.”

His flat tone must have revealed his true feelings, because Sir Marcus’s mouth turned up at the corner. “I take it you don’t think him the hero the rest of London takes him for?”

“I think he’s far more lucky than heroic,” Jack replied. At Sir Marcus’s upturned brow, he explained. “When he came to call on Miss Forrester the other day, I mentioned that I had spent some time off the coast of Burma, and saw the city of Rangoon from the sea. He said he wished he’d known, as he would have run a flag up so we could come rescue him.” Sir Marcus remained silent, his brow perched high. “You can’t see Rangoon from the sea. It’s thirty miles up the Rangoon River.” Jack explained. “Considering he had no knowledge of the geography of Burma, I doubt he should have been on that expedition in the first place. Now he goes around town as if he is the expert on that contentious region.”

Then, without realizing it, Jack grumbled under his breath. “And that’s who she chooses to spend her time with.”

Sir Marcus’s gaze followed Jack’s to where the Comte was standing, his hand ever present on Sarah’s elbow, his lips always precariously close to her ear. And she always giggled when he spoke.

It was galling.

“Well,” Sir Marcus said blithely, “one man’s luck is another man’s heroism. Whether on the battlefield or the dance floor.” When Jack looked up at him quizzically, Sir Marcus simply shrugged. “I think I shall leave you with that enigmatic statement to go fetch my wife a punch. She looks thirsty.”

As Sir Marcus whistled and walked away, Jack let his eyes fall from Sarah to Lady Worth, who was seated on her other side. She looked no more or less thirsty than at any other time, but who was Jack to contradict? After all, Sir Marcus likely knew his wife better than Jack did.

Suddenly, standing alone, Jack realized he had let Lord Forrester walk off with Lord Fieldstone, likely still talking about that Holbein painting, or the Historical Society in general (Fieldstone was a member), without fulfilling his purpose. Surely Whigby had found his aunt by now, and Jack still had to find a Forrester to tell of his impending departure.

And there was Sarah. The epicenter of all activity.

One man’s luck is another man’s heroism—on the battlefield or the dance floor.

What had Sir Marcus meant by that? Did that mean that he … ? Did the man think like Whigby did, that since he was in the same house with her he had an advantage?

Jack’s brow came down in its now perpetual scowl, and his feet, without taking any direction from him, started to cross the dance floor to where she was.

After all, he had to tell some Forrester that he was taking off, didn’t he? And she was the one he saw.

And so, with Sir Marcus’s words, and Whigby’s assertions echoing in his brain, Jack made his way across the room. He only intended to put a quick word in her ear (and maybe give her neck a break from being breathed on by the ridiculous Comte de Le Bon) and make his escape. But as Jack was quickly learning, when it came to Sarah Forrester, he would always get more than he bargained for.

It was, in Sarah’s opinion, a very successful evening. She was fairly giddy with it. And thanks to Lady Phillippa, the scale by which she determined success had shifted dramatically.

As her hand was kissed good-bye by her most recent dance
partner, and she took her seat in the midst of her courtiers on a raised landing that lead to the Whitfords’ balcony—affording her the best view in the room (and, as Phillippa pointed out, everyone in the room would have the best view of her)—a happy realization settled over Sarah: It had been weeks since anyone had dared called her the “Girl Who Lost a Duke.”

Instead, tonight, at the Whitford banquet, she was the Incomparable Sarah Forrester. The most desired woman in London.

The Golden Lady.

It was part of the strategy. Between the two of them, she and Phillippa had decided that gold would become her signature color. After all, someone wearing gold could not be mistaken either for being in mourning (as heavy dark fabrics would) nor prone to fainting (as washed-out pastels would).

Her mother originally did not understand the need for an entire new wardrobe—especially when they had just had one made a few months before—but when Phillippa took Lady Forrester aside and whispered in her ear, Sarah suddenly had leave to purchase two dozen new frocks.

Tonight, her evening gown was an original Madame LeTrois, and she had paid extra to have the most famous seamstress in London burn the dress pattern after she was done with it. It was heavy off-white silk, shot with the pattern of golden palm trees, in a Portuguese style. The small puffed sleeves and high waist allowed for a marvelous train to come down the back, which swirled delightfully when she danced. In this gown, Sarah was undeniably, universally admired.

And she could not have loved it more.

Not just the gown, but the way people had taken to looking at her. The way they smiled, in awe, in respect, when she glanced their way or even deigned to speak to them. All because she had followed Phillippa’s advice to the letter. Always someone who obeyed readily, and did everything right, it took no time at all to fall into that pattern with Lady Worth instead of her parents. When Phillippa told Sarah to smile and chatter, she did. When Phillippa told her to lose her hat while riding, so the beautiful, interesting Comte could fetch it for her, she did.

Success did not arrive immediately, of course. It took a few days for people to change from thinking pityingly of Sarah to admiringly, and to turn their notice from other delicious scandals. Phillippa and Sarah were rather afraid in that first week that a Miss Felicity Grove, wearing a silver Madame LeTrois creation, would become a sensation over Sarah—but luckily that child quit town shortly after wearing the gown. Apparently, Miss Grove’s guardian was not pleased with her. But, as Phillippa said, such prudishness was Sarah’s gain, as the field was then clear for her to sweep the hearts of the ton.

And as the weeks passed, as her popularity grew and grew, Sarah found herself feeling
almost
as happy as she pretended to be. And if her mind, in the dark of night, happened to turn to what might have been … or if she happened to see a shock of red hair or saw a smile that reminded her of Jason’s … she kept it to herself. And Phillippa had again been proven right: The less she gave those thoughts reign, the less they came to her.

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