Authors: Kate Noble
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
“Lady Forrester,” he murmured, as he broke the wax seal.
The letter was dated a little over a month ago—which to a man at sea was practically of the moment.
My Dear Jackson
—it began, sounding in Jack’s head the exact same way Lady Forrester would pronounce it, with the sugar and starch she reserved for her own children.
My dear Lord Forrester and I send you greetings. We are well here, as are the girls…
The letter continued on in this manner for a few paragraphs, speaking of nothing beyond the everyday life of a family about town, undergoing the rigors of the social Season. Pleasant as it was to hear of his friends, Jack’s brow did not pick up until he read down the page, to the heart of the letter:
We read in the
sad circumstances. I also understand that you will be docking in London while the ship awaits word of her fate.
(Jack took some small hope at that—even with the British navy being reduced at an alarming rate, the fact that the
was not pronounced dead in the
was good news, surely.)
As we are in London as well, I would invite you to pass your time with us. I may know little of the modern navy officer’s preferences, but I do know that you, Jack, would much prefer Cook’s currant scones to that any boarding house could supply. Add to that, I know my dear Lord Forrester suffers mightily from what he has termed “feminiaphobia”—that is, a fear of being overrun by all the females in his household. He would welcome your presence as readily as I.
Also, it would be of the utmost kindness to me—I hesitate to mention this, but you will come to know the circumstances at any rate: our dear Sarah has lately suffered a severe disappointment, and I am at a loss as to how to distract her from it. I saw the notice of your ship in the paper, and thought it fate. You always managed to keep her in good spirits as a child, and I can
only hope that some stories of adventure on the high seas can do the trick again. Do come to us at your earliest convenience. Not only would you be allowing us to keep a promise made to your father (wherein he made us swear to look after you), but you would be doing us a great service.
Jack stared at the neatly written pages for a full minute before he snapped back to the present. He had been lost in a sea of memory, of school holidays spent in the company of the Forresters at Primrose.
But then his mind began racing with questions: It had been years since he had seen the Forresters. Would it be awkward? What was the nature of Sarah’s disappointment? And lastly…
What would they think of what he had become?
Jack was, admittedly, a proud man. But that pride had never been unfounded. He had been a top student at the Naval College, a person upon whom expectations were placed, and met. The bright future of the British navy. He remembered the pride and joy in Lord and Lady Forrester’s eyes when he first boarded the
more than he remembered his own parents’. They had, for a brief period of time, become a second family to him, and now…
Now he was a first lieutenant of a sixth-rate post ship that was about to be decommissioned. Much like he himself was.
Too many officers. Not enough ships.
No. He would not let them look on him with pity. He would not allow himself to do so, either.
But while he worried about the long weeks ahead, awaiting his ship’s fate, all of that took a secondary position to one central tenant:
Here, was a place for him to go.
And something for him to focus on.
Something for him to do while awaiting word of the
At the very least, he had the answer to his initial question. He knew what he was going to do next.
hell,” Whigby breathed, as their hired hack pulled up to the address that had been written on Lady Forrester’s note. “Are you sure this is it?”
The town house on Upper Grosvenor Street was much the same as the others that surrounded it—pristine white, four stories above level with columns that lined the doorway and supported the upper-level balconies. Wrought iron fencing lined the property along the more public sidewalk, protecting the pansies and tulips that sprung up in wide Grecian urns that sat as centurions guarding the steps up to the heavy front door.
The main difference between this town house and the others that surrounded it was the half-dozen gentlemen in their best black coats that bickered with the butler for entrance.
number sixteen,” Jack said, his eyes flicking automatically to the letter in his hand, checking once again.
“Maybe it was written ill?” Whigby asked, but Jack shook his head. No, there was no mistake, this was the house.
“Maybe someone died and they’re paying respects!” Whigby cried.
Jack shot his friend a look.
“Of course, that would be terrible,” Whigby was quick to amend.
“I suppose we best find out what’s going on,” Jack said, opening the door to the hack and letting himself down, while the coachman disembarked from his seat and helped unload Jack’s trunk. Whigby alighted as well.
“Do you want me come with you?” Whigby asked. “You know … to pay my respects?”
“No one has died, Mr. Whigby.” Jack assured his friend (at least, he hoped no one had died). “Go on to your uncle’s, I’ll be fine.”
“You have my direction if you need it,” Whigby extended his hand, and Jack shook it.
Then Whigby, in a show of emotion not uncommon to that larger fellow, pulled Jack into a fairly rib-cracking hug. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Mr. Whigby…” Jack wheezed, “It’s not a funeral … And you’re crushing me.”
“That’s right!” Whigby replied, releasing Jack so quickly that the air rushed back into his lungs. “Keep hope!”
And then, Whigby turned to reenter the hack to convey him to his uncle’s, a few spare blocks away. But perhaps he should not have been so free with his condolences, because the hack had already started to rumble down the block, with Whigby’s trunk still up on the back.
“Oy!” Whigby yelled after the coachman, breaking into a run. “Wait for me!”
Jack, shaking his head, turned to the front door of number sixteen. And the men there that blocked his path.
They were a variety of ages, from just down from school to those with white hair. But all the men wore their money: Jackson saw at least three gold cravat stickpins and seven watch fobs. They eyed his rumpled naval uniform with severe distaste.
Jackson narrowed his eyes, and stepped into the gauntlet.
“They come fresh off the boats now?” one man murmured to a friend. “I’m amazed they get the gossip sheets out at sea.”
“What’s amazing is that he thinks he stands a chance,” his friend replied, sniggering.
Jackson kept his eyes straight ahead, ignoring these men.
Their talk made no sense to him, but their manners did. They didn’t think much of him. Well, the feeling was mutual.
Jack reached the butler, who stood guard at the door with a hulking giant of a footman. Normally, the door would be opened with the butler standing inside, but here, they had gone so far as to stand outside the door, keeping it barred.
“I’m sorry sir, but the Forresters are not receiving today,” the supercilious man said, his nose in the air.
“Then why is everyone else here?” Jack asked before he could think better of it.
He was met by chuckles from the peanut gallery behind him.
“We are staking our place in line!” one of the younger ones cried.
“Making sure people see us here,” one of the others drawled.
“Besides, they have to come home sometime,” another—the sniggering one—said, clamping his hand on Jack’s shoulder, trying to pull him back.
One look from Jack had that man removing his hand forthwith.
“I have an invitation,” Jack said, directing himself only to the butler.
But that sentence elicited raucous laughter from the men behind him.
“Of course he does!”
“And I’ve a recommendation from Prinny himself!”
“We all do!”
Jack reached into his pocket and produced the letter from Lady Forrester—as he did, the men behind him grew quiet for the first time.
The butler perused the letter with an unseemly amount of leisure. (Jack felt certain that the old servant took no small amount of pleasure in the power he wielded.) Then, with a curt nod to the burly footman beside him, he handed the missive back.
“If you’ll follow me, sir,” the butler said, as the door behind him opened with silent efficiency.
Cries of outrage came from the assembly.
And … “You can’t mean to admit him! I’m a viscount!”
And the deferentially desperate … “Er, I’m with him! We came together!”
But of course, these were ignored and shortly silenced by one flex of the footman’s muscles, as he took up the central position, while Jack, hauling his own trunk, followed the butler inside.
“Wait here,” the butler intoned, leaving him to go seek out his mistress, Jack assumed.
Jack removed his tricorn, shaking out his sandy hair into something resembling neatness. He pulled at his cuffs, straightened his coat, like the nervous schoolboy he used to be.
Alone in the foyer of the Forresters’ London home, he was immediately struck by a sense of remembrance. He had never been in this house before, but he had been in this position before, long ago.
There is little more frightening to a thirteen-year-old boy than being removed from all you know, he thought, letting himself drift into memory. Even the horrific, tantalizing prospect of thirteen-year-old girls compares little to no longer being in the daily presence of your parents, the paths you know to the village where everyone knows you. Even when one begs their father to let him go to sea seeking adventure beyond those well-trod paths, those faces fading away makes a thirteen-year-old boy feel like nothing so much as a thirteen-year-old man, but without any means by which to handle the transition.
Luckily, Jack’s father knew something of being alone in the world, and wrote a friend for help.
He tugged nervously at his cuffs again. They were already beginning to come up short, even though his mother had sewn his Naval College uniform not three months ago. He was already a tall boy, as a first-year cadet towering over most of the second years and even some of the thirds … and in a career where he was constantly told to stand up straight, he could do little to hide it.
When Jack crossed the entrance of Primrose Manor, the
Forresters’ country residence not five miles from Portsmouth, he had been expecting an inspection. Therefore, for the whole week leading up to this moment, he had been very careful with his uniform. His white pantaloons were spotless—a feat in and of itself for any thirteen-year-old boy, let alone one who had grown so increasingly nervous over the course of the week that he had spilled his food not once, but twice, at mealtimes. But somehow he had managed to keep everything from the top of his hat to the heel of his shoes in good order. Which was of the utmost importance, as he was to meet his possible future patron today.
Jack did not know what a future patron might want to know of him. He only knew that when he finally convinced his parents to allow him to attend the Royal Naval College—a compromise, as it would keep him on land until he was sixteen instead of a midshipman at thirteen—Jackson’s father had written to his old school friend Lord Forrester, and asked him to look in on the boy every once in a while, as he was unable to do so in Lincolnshire. As Jack’s father was always writing to great men asking for patronage for any one of his and Mrs. Fletcher’s charitable causes (for Mr. Fletcher refused to yield to expectation of being a retiring country vicar, instead choosing to involve himself vigorously in the cause of war orphans and widows), Jack thought nothing of it.
He’d expected, at most, a letter from Lord Forrester. Instead, he had received an invitation.
As he was admitted to the hall, he tried very hard not to be awed by the grandeur of the house. But how could he not be? Marble and oak lined the massive room, making even the smallest sound, from his footsteps to a gasp he hadn’t managed to contain, echo across the space. When the butler went to fetch his master, Jack couldn’t help but poke his head around the corner, and peer into an even larger room! Why this one room must have been bigger than his entire house! After a few moments, Jack decided it must be the sitting room, for receiving callers. And there were plenty of places to sit, he thought, making sure to keep his mouth from hanging open. There were dozens of sofas and chairs and things that looked so fine they would surely break if he touched them. He briefly glanced at the ceiling, two stories above. How did the ceiling
stay up in so massive a space? Churches had flying buttresses and the like, reinforced columns, but this ceiling just seemed to soar high above.
He wondered for the umpteenth time that week just what on earth was expected of him. Surely, people that lived in a house this intimidating would look down at him as nothing more than … charity.