Authors: Kate Noble
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
Before Jack could answer—or even realize that Amanda had stopped her monologue and begun asking questions—a commotion could be heard in the hall they had just vacated for the comfort of the drawing room.
It was the sound of a half-dozen lovesick swains making their unhappiness known as feminine voices uttered sweet regrets … followed by a quick slam of the door.
“I’m telling you, that particular problem would be well solved with a short pistol,” an acidic young lady’s voice pierced the drawing room door.
“Oh, Bridget, it’s sweet,” came another voice, this one lighter, more relaxed.
“Besides, Viscount Threshing is out there. Terribly bad form to shoot a viscount.” Yet another female voice, this one soft, but authoritative.
“Well, I cannot help but be glad that the afternoon is over—driving in the park is meant to be relaxing!” This voice he knew, Jack thought with a smile. It was undeniably Lady Forrester’s. He and Amanda made a move to the door, edging it open wider, to peer out into the hall.
There, he was met with the sight of four colorful peacocks, doffing hats and gloves and spencers and handing packages to a number of mute ladies’ maids, in a mad whirl of movement and color that blinded the unseen audience to little else.
But as the layers were shed, and four ladies emerged, their conversation did not stop, and Jack found his eye drawn automatically to the form of the golden-blond one in a pale yellow ensemble, but with the slightest shimmer. The color of a clear winter morning’s sun.
She was stunning, elegant … but even given her dress’s hue, cool. Frighteningly so, as if the world were on her string and she hadn’t decided yet whether or not to cut it.
“That’s Lady Worth,” Amanda whispered in his ear. “But Sarah gets to call her Phillippa, they are
good friends. Even Mother takes her cue from Lady Worth. Everyone says she’s the queen of society, but I don’t think an actual queen would like to hear them say that.”
Ah, that must mean that the grumbling brunette in green was Bridget (indeed, he would have recognized Bridget’s freckles anywhere—as he did her dark curls, which matched Amanda’s lighter ones), and the tall blonde in the smart violet was Sarah.
“If you’re not going to shoot them,” Bridget sneered, “why not invite them in? Or are you too disappointed that the Comte is not among them?”
Even though they stood in full view at the drawing room door, they had yet to be noticed. The women were too invested in their own conversation. It allowed Jack the opportunity to observe his fill.
He paid particular attention to the one in violet. Her face had turned out very angular, and she was quite polished. Funny, he never thought of Sarah as city polished. He thought of Sarah as twelve, hanging upside down from a tree, trying not to fall and yet retain her dignity.
Stranger, this Sarah didn’t seem to be suffering from an extreme disappointment. Stranger still, she was the only one who did not remove her spencer and hat—in fact, she waved the footman away when he came to take them from her.
Surely he would have contemplated further—surely he would have figured it out … but at that moment, the lady in yellow turned and Jack saw her full face.
And he lost his breath.
She had a face made for whimsy, for mischief. But it had been schooled—or perhaps tricked, with rouge or powder or other women’s secrets—into an expression of haughty superiority.
But … there was something familiar about those green eyes…
“The Comte has trampled through Burma and India, he is far too … interesting a man to wait outside of a door,” the one in yellow—Lady Worth—said, as she turned to admire herself in one of the foyer’s mirrors. “Really, Bridget, you shoot one of those gentlemen, you could very well be shooting your future husband, and then where would you be?”
That face full of freckles came up, a hot anger burning across her cheeks.
“I’ll never marry a man who mooned after you, thank you very much.”
A pretty pout crossed the taller woman’s reflection. “You may not have that choice,” she said sweetly. Too sweetly. Jack couldn’t help but feel a little for Bridget as she huffed past the other women and stomped up the stairs.
But then … why would Bridget be so rude to a guest? And why would Lady Worth retaliate so?
“Well, I should be going!” said the lady in violet—although, why would Sarah be leaving?—as she took a few of the parcels out of the pile that had amassed in the hall. Hers, presumably. “I will be seeing you at the Langstons’ card party this evening, yes?”
“Only if Sir Langston will let us play vingt-et-un, not just boring old whist,” the yellow-clad Lady Worth replied to her reflection in the mirror.
“It is the only way we shall deign to attend,” the violet one responded with air kisses, followed by prolonged good-byes.
“Amanda, who is the woman in the purple?” Jackson asked in a low whisper, trying not to attract attention.
“I told you, that’s Lady Worth!” Amanda explained. “Look, she’s almost as tall as me. Isn’t her gown exquisite? When I’m of age, I’m going to wear a gown in just that color.”
But Jackson didn’t hear anything else. He was dumbstruck, because if the lady in purple was Lady Phillippa, the queen of
society, that meant the one in yellow, with the face made for mischief but schooled into snobbishness, who was so absorbed in her reflection she didn’t notice the way she wielded power—or more likely, didn’t care—
“Sarah, you should be kinder in how you speak to your sister,” Lady Forrester chided.
The one with the familiar green eyes…
“I’m sorry mother,” the one in yellow replied on a sigh, “but I was merely stating the truth. If she is determined to be unhappy with life, then nothing I say or do will change that.” Then she smiled brightly and turned from the mirror, her reflection having finally met with approval. “Now, we simply have to find a dress in my wardrobe to go with this reticule we purchased—I insist on using it this evening for my vingt-et-un winnings!”
Thus Lady Forrester was successfully diverted, and took her daughter’s arm to begin a chatty stroll up the stairs to prepare for the evening’s festivities.
“See?” Amanda said, a little sadly, as they watched their retreating forms. “I told you they don’t realize I’m in the room sometimes.”
Jack could only nod. His mind was too consumed by one topic: There was no way that that beautiful, snobbish, mean creature was the Miss Sarah Forrester that he had known.
Or, at least, that he’d thought he’d known.
believe you are staying with Sarah Forrester!
Sarah Forrester!” Whigby whispered to him a few evenings later, in the ballroom of some party or another—which one, Jack could not be bothered to remember.
There simply had to be two Sarah Forresters, Jack thought. There was no other way to explain it.
“They say she left a Duke crying her name at the altar. He was so devastated, he up and left for the Continent,” Whigby continued blithely as he grabbed a small bit of exotic food off a passing tray.
The Sarah Forrester of old was from Jack’s memory, a girl who led her sisters like a mother hen into childish mischief. The other Sarah Forrester was a jewel, sparkling, alluring, whose looks drove men to camp outside of her house in the hopes of a glimpse of her fair hair and green eyes, and whose acerbic wit bordered on cruelty.
Everyone at this party had no idea the former existed, instead falling madly for the latter.
“I need a drink,” Jack mumbled, looking down into his cut-glass cup of orangey liquid. “A real one, not this … stuff.”
“That’s a plan!” Whigby cried, cramming the bit of food into his mouth. “We can forgo this madhouse for a better one—with drink and cards, and women who let you touch more than their hands…”
“A hell?” Jackson’s brow perked up.
“Better than this mess.”
“True enough—but I’m afraid that since I am lucky enough to be staying with a good family, I must act deserving of it.”
“And you’re the luckiest bastard in England because of it.” Whigby said between chews. “I still can’t believe it! Miss Sarah Forrester! The Golden Lady.”
Over the past several days, Jack had heard the phrase “the Golden Lady” more times than he could count. Indeed, ever since he came to London, Jack had received a daily education on the life of Sarah Forrester.
It began almost immediately with Amanda announcing his presence to her mother and sisters seconds after they began to head up the stairs that first day. Amanda, of course, crowed with delight over having the information first for once, a full ten minutes ahead of everyone else. And then, delightfully, everyone else crowed over seeing him.
“Jackson!” Lady Forrester cried, her eyes taking on a decided sheen. “Oh, my boy, can it really be you? I hardly recognize you.”
“Perhaps you should put your spectacles on, mother,” Bridget piped up, exasperation in her voice. In years past, Lady Forrester had frequently gone without her spectacles, and it seemed her vanity had not changed.
Indeed, that good lady ignored her daughter’s good advice, simply embracing Jack again. “You’re so tall, and so dark!”
“Except his hair, mother,” Amanda piped up. “Look, he’s gone quite blond in the sun.”
Indeed, he was soon to be embraced by all of the Forresters (even Bridget had a smile on her face where previously there had been only a scowl) when Lord Forrester stepped through the front door not a minute later.
“Demmed suitors, trampling my crocuses…” he grumbled as he passed through the door, his moustache twitching in a way that bespoke his frustration. But his grumbles changed markedly when he saw Jack enveloped by the sea of
femininity, lighting up and pumping his hand with such vigor that Jack had to stretch his fingers afterward.
Indeed, everyone had surrounded and embraced him like the prodigal child he didn’t know he’d been. Except for Sarah. She held herself back. Waiting for her moment.
Then, she slowly moved down the few stairs, and came to stand before—but still above him.
“Jackson,” she said coolly, her lips curving up in the smallest of smiles. “Or should we address you as Lieutenant now?”
It was the oddest thing. Here he had been, caught up in the enthusiasm of being received by the family he thought of as his own, blushing with the joy of it, and suddenly, Sarah had floated in and sounded…
It set his back up, and set off alarms in his head.
Instead of stuttering in her presence or blushing over her hand, like Sarah seemed to expect him to, he pulled himself up to his full height and gave the deepest of bows. “If you so desire, Miss Forrester. Or we could dispense with artifice that has never been there in the first place.”
While Sarah stared into his face, visibly trying to discern his tone, Bridget nearly choked on laughter. Lord Forrester thumped Jackson on the back.
“Quite right! No artifice between the Forresters and Jackson Fletcher!” And then he threw his arm over Jackson’s shoulders (well, he threw it as high as he could) and pulled him toward the library, saying, “Now, I’m very eager to hear all about life at sea—you’ve been in and around the Orient, correct? Have you come across any interesting features in architecture? If so, I would love to take them to the Historical Society.”
“Perhaps that will allay some of the bad feelings between you and the society, father!” Amanda piped up.
Everyone in the room shot Amanda a silencing look. Sarah especially.
“What possible bad feeling could be between Lord Forrester and the Historical Society? I thought you a founding member?” Jackson had asked innocently. Innocently, because he did not know he was walking into a snake pit.
Sarah had turned her cool, assessing gaze back to Jack, while the rest of the room—her parents especially—held their breath.
Then, she laughed, a light happy trill. And everyone in the room exhaled.
“Oh, tell him about the Event, father. He’ll know soon enough in any case. I have a dinner to dress for.” And with that, she turned and flitted up the stairs. Escaping her family below.
So, he was told. Told of Sarah’s engagement to a Duke who had jilted her on the night of their engagement party. A Duke who was a member of the Historical Society, and that Lord Forrester’s loyalties had been divided between his family and his institution ever since the Event. Told that up until about a month ago, Sarah had been in such low spirits, the Forresters had considered taking her home to Primrose Manor.
Then, he was told of her miraculous change in fortune, and her rise in popularity.
“And I know we have Lady Worth to thank,” Lady Forrester sighed, as she sipped her wine after dinner. Lady Forrester always said wine improved her eyesight—it certainly relaxed her perpetual squint. They had dined en famille, although, of course without Sarah, as her social engagements were far too pressing. The younger girls had been dismissed, and it was just Jack and the lord and lady of the house. “She made my girl sit up and sparkle.”
“Yes, she is very well received now,” Lord Forrester agreed with a grunt, as he took a box of tobacco and a pipe from a servant and began packing the stuff in.
“Very well received?” Lady Forrester repeated. “My dear, she’s the toast of London. I have to say, I knew she would pull through. And of course a little motherly guidance never hurt anyone…” She paused when Lord Forrester cleared his throat conspicuously. Then, she turned to Jack. “And you need not fear, my dear. While the purpose for my invitation has altered, the invitation itself hasn’t. We would love to have you come stay with us, my dear Jackson, for as long as you need. We were so sorry to hear of the
Jack’s eyes shuttered at the thought of his beloved ship, already written off for scraps by the people of London. Not wanting to dwell too much on it, he waved off the thought.
“Now how many times have I asked you to call me Jack, Lady Forrester?” he said with a charmed smile.
That good lady preened like a mother hen. “I like having something special to call you,” she replied, then her face turned to a frown. “But really, Jackson, are you certain there is no cause for alarm—?”