+~Life's Just Begun~+

Chapter 4: On the Staircase

Though Isabella danced with several other men that night, mostly League and Guild members (who were always kind to her), her mind was always with Sir James. They had agreed not to yet show their love in public, of course--not only was such sentiment against convention, London Society would not likely look on it with approval, since he was an aristocrat and she was not. So each mingled with the other guests, longing to be with the other only, but wisely playing a part for the moment. Isabella was quite used to play-acting, of course, but for Sir James, the experience was harrowing and exhausting.
He wandered into one of the card rooms, finding Sir Andrew Ffoulkes loitering about one of the tables.
"Andrew!" he called out. Sir Andrew turned in surprise.
"James! Zounds, how are you, my boy?"
Sir James laughed. Sir Andrew was only a year his senior, but he used the slight advantage mercilessly. The two friends wandered away from the card tables and into the hall. Sir James had sought out Sir Andrew for a reason; he needed to confide in someone. Sir Andrew was as good a friend as he had ever had. He would sympathize. He could offer advice.
"I'm simply wonderful."
He sighed, picturing Isabella's sweet face in his mind. "I'm in love, Andrew."
"Love? James, are you sure?"
"I've never been more sure of anything in my life. And the best part of it is, she loves me too."
"Odd's fish, that's marvelous! Congratulations, my friend. And I had thought you were a confirmed bachelor! If you don't mind my asking, who is the lady who has won you over at last?"
"Andrew, that's the trouble. She's not a 'lady'--at least, she's not an aristocrat; in my eyes she's every bit the lady. I'm in love with a plebian French mademoiselle, Isabella de Roche. I have no problems with this, Andrew, but Anne will have my hide about it if I don't find some way of telling her gently. You know how stiff she is when it comes to conventions."
Upon hearing Isabella's name, Sir Andrew smiled in approval. He remembered the quiet young mademoiselle from her rescue, and recalled that she was one of his beloved Suzanne's school friends, as well as of Lady Blakeney's. He thought her an exceptionally prudent young woman, polite and pleasant. As for her social status, hadn't Lady Blakeney been a plebian when Sir Percy married her? It was no disgrace in his eyes for an aristocrat to love a plebian. Love is love. It cannot be denied.
"James, if you love her, and she loves you, it doesn't matter what her social status is. As for Anne, she is a sweet and kind young woman. She may disapprove at first, but very soon I think, she and Isabella will become very good friends. Isabella is a charming young woman. She could win the friendship of even the most adamant."
Sir James smiled at his friend, shaking his hand gratefully.
"Thank you, Andrew. You've put my mind at rest."
Sir Andrew smiled, then saw Sir Percy Blakeney out of the corner of his eye moving toward the staircase, with a quick glance over in his direction. Understanding the silent order, Sir Andrew turned again to Sir James.
"If you will excuse me, James, I think I'll go wander in the dancing rooms and see if I can find Suzanne. I haven't the faintest idea where she's disappeared to."
"Of course, Andrew," Sir James replied in some confusion, watching him walk away in the general direction of the grand staircase. His old friend had given heartfelt and sound advice, but there was something different about his manner that he had not noticed before. He seemed to assume a lighter, more careless air than ever he had seen in him before, and yet throughout the conversation he had seemed aware of the slightest movement around them, and cautious of every word he said.
Instinctively, Sir James knew that Sir Andrew was not looking for Suzanne. Sensing a mystery, he followed where Sir Andrew had gone.
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Isabella saw Sir Percy head for the staircase and drew in her breath, knowing what would come next. Lady Eliza walked past her nonchalantly and whispered, "Places."
Isabella immediately began to wander to her spot in the room opposite the staircase. She watched as, one by one, League members followed their leader up the staircase, leaving plenty of space in between. Last of all, Lord Hastings himself ascended his own staircase, pausing a moment to glance at her as he went. She gave him a slight nod, understanding his gaze. She was to permit no one else to go up the stairs until they all came down. Idly she leaned against the wall, waiting.
Suddenly Isabella heard footsteps approaching. So soon! She would have to go to work right away. She turned to see who the intruder was, and saw the one thing she had been dreading.
Sir James was approaching the staircase.
Once again she asked herself the awful question: Could he be a spy?
Then she remembered the balcony, how he had looked at her, had kissed her. No. Not him. He was not a spy. But, he was a friend of Sir Andrew Ffoulkes. Most likely, he had seen Sir Andrew leave, and followed out of curiosity. She would just have to direct his attention elsewhere, but she loathed herself for having to decieve the man she loved. She intercepted him at the base of the staircase.
"James, will you not accompany me into the next room?" she asked innocently, taking his arm. He looked at her as if he had just realized she was there, then smiled.
"Of course, Isabella. I just have to go upstairs for a moment first."
Uh-oh. He was more than curious--he was interested. She would have to try harder.
"Oh, James, what is upstairs that is so important?"
"I need to go see what is wrong with my friend Sir Andrew Ffoulkes."
"Right now?"
Isabella watched, wondering what to do, as he set his foot on the first step.
He was determined. He was already halfway up the stairs. Isabella made her awful decision in an instant, but she would have to act fast.
Taking up a walking stick she had earlier hidden in her skirts, she delivered a well-placed hit to the back of his head, watching him fall unconscious at her feet with tears in her eyes.
"I'm sorry, my love," she said as she dragged him into a small, deserted room and laid him on the couch. "Maybe, someday, you will understand."
She returned to her position sorrowfully, sure that he would not wake for several hours, and once again went on the watch, waiting.

Chapter 5: Never Let Her Go

The meeting was over quickly. Still, it was late, and only a few guests besides League and Guild members remained when the men came back down the staircase. As soon as Lord Hastings gave her a reassuring smile, that the job was done, she went into the small room where Sir James lay. She sat by his side, watching him as he slept in unconsciousness, hating herself for attacking him, but knowing she had no other choice.
"Isabella? Are you okay, my dear?"
Lady Hastings had followed Isabella into the room, worried that the job had been too much for her. But it was not the job that had distressed Isabella. She turned to Lady Hastings with tears filling her eyes again. Lady Hastings noticed the man lying on the couch, and looked again to Isabella, puzzled.
"I love him, Lady Hastings. I love him with all my heart, and I attacked him."
Lady Hastings was taken aback. "You love him? You're sure of this, Isabella?"
"Does he return your love?"
"Yes," she replied, thinking of the balcony, his profession of love, and his tender kiss. "Oh, yes."
"Then may I offer my congratulations to you, Isabella," Lady Hastings said with a smile. "Not many find love so early in life, and even fewer are allowed to keep it."
"But I attacked him, my lady! How can I allow myself to continue to love a man I brutally attacked?"
Lady Hastings laughed. "Isabella, dear, that was in the line of duty! It does not mean you cannot love him! You are sure he was innocent of ulterior motive?"
"Yes. He was only worried about his friend, Sir Andrew."
"If he is a friend of Sir Andrew, you need have no fear as to his loyalty to England. Sir Andrew is an excellent judge of character, and any friend of his is a friend to the League, and though they may not know it, also to the Guild. So you see, you have nothing to worry about! Simply tell him that something fell on his head when he wakes up. It's true enough," she added with a grin. "Nobody but you and I will know that you attacked the man you loved for the sake of the League's safety."
Impulsively Isabella embraced Lady Eliza warmly. "Thank you."
"I need no thanks, Isabella," Lady Eliza laughed kindly. "Only an invitation to the wedding!"
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The wedding of Sir James Whitsfield and Mademoiselle Isabella de Roche was a warm and brilliant affair, well attended by Society. Even the staunchest of Sir James' friends had been charmed by Isabella's sweet nature in time. Moreover, her bridal gown was a masterpiece, a gift from Anne, who had become Isabella's fast friend, as Sir Andrew Ffoulkes had predicted. Sir Andrew was there, with Suzanne, as were Sir Percy Blakeney and Marguerite, with many other League members. And Lord and Lady Hastings led the throng of Guild members in attendance to see the shy, quiet Isabella enter into her new life as a titled, married woman.
The ceremony was simple and beautiful, and Isabella enjoyed every moment, but she longed for it to be over, so she could be alone with Sir James. For it was then that she could tell him her secret. She had spoken to Lady Hastings about it, and Lord Hastings had discreetly spoken of him to Sir Andrew; Sir James' sentiments clearly lay with the Scarlet Pimpernel, and so Lady Hastings had given Isabella her consent to tell Sir James about the Violet Guild, and to ask him if he wished to join. If he wished to do so, she would send him the customary sealed invitation.
Finally, the festivities were done, and Sir James helped his new wife into the carriage and drove her back to his estate. He carried her into the house in his arms, in the beautiful custom, and kissed her passionately and lovingly.
"Welcome home, Lady Whitsfield," he said tenderly. He set her down, and Isabella began to wander through the house.
"It's beautiful, James." She turned to him, ready to tell him the truth. "I have something very important to tell you." She led him into a room and sat him down. "But you must swear that what I tell you will never be repeated to another soul."
After she had told him all about the Guild, Sir James was speechless. Isabella was afraid that he was angry. Finally he spoke.
"You do this for your countrymen, Isabella? You have done this in the past? You are even more noble and brave than I first thought!" He kissed her again. "How I love you."
"James, it's dangerous work, I know, and you needn't accept if you don't want to, but . . . would you join us? I would like nothing more than to work side by side with my husband."
Without hesitation, Sir James responded, "Of course. How could I permit myself to refuse to do that which my wife so bravely dares to?"
They kissed once more, and with that kiss Isabella felt the Guild and the Scarlet Pimpernel grow even more dear to her than before, for they had led her to her true love.
"We shall work together, my darling." she whispered, "for the safety of the Pimpernel."

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