The jaunty notes that Noël Coward was coaxing from the piano on the dais seemed appropriate to a more intimate soiree, Ian Fleming judged with some amusement. But the formality of the evening’s gathering had decidedly declined, and most of the prominent guests had vacated the hall and were by now snugly home to their lavish city estates or suburban manors. Fleming eyed the large Roman numerals of the clock above the hall’s arched entryway. It was growing late.
He had enjoyed himself tonight, this which was to be his last night in his homeland, at least until the winter was safely past. He was booked on a flight to Kingston at quarter of ten that morning. Jamaica would be a welcome change from the sharp January chill of London. Still more welcome would be his return to the private tropical Eden of his house on the island’s coast.
This first week of January had seemed one successive string of galas, as the Christian world celebrated the dawning of the new year. Fleming couldn’t recall what this evening’s event had allegedly been in honor of; it certainly seemed merely a continuation of the social festivities that had been raging since New Year’s Eve.
The world might be nearly nineteen and a half centuries old, but Fleming remained relatively young—nearing forty, agile, fit, handsome, mannerly, well-educated and charming. He appeared quite elegant in his tailored evening clothes. He betrayed virtually no signs of age, either outwardly or inwardly. He had found himself caught up in a few pleasant flirtations tonight with the party’s female guests. He enjoyed this sort of harmless trifling. It would be some months before he saw England again, and it was nice to think that he would be remembered in his absence.
He lit a Players with his gold cigarette lighter and took a last sip from his gin-and-tonic. One more drink, he decided, and then he would take his leave. His luggage was already packed, and he had no worries beyond getting himself to the airport in time for his flight.
He had hoped for a private word or two with his friend Coward, but Noël had already drawn a sizable crowd around the piano and was plainly relishing the attention. Where Fleming was quietly debonair, Noël Coward was a showman. Fleming decided he would airmail his friend from Jamaica. It certainly wouldn’t do to barge in on his performance to get in a few words of good-bye.
Fleming crossed the varnished mahogany squares of the wide floor toward one of the three full-service bars. The hundred or so guests that remained made small chattering clumps here and there. The bar Fleming approached had gathered its own group. He had to wait a moment to get the red-uniformed bartender’s attention.
“Gin, please. A splash of tonic. No ice.”
The drink was placed on a cork-topped coaster. Fleming set down his empty glass and picked up the fresh one, taking a final puff from his cigarette and snubbing it out in a nearby ashtray. As he turned from the bar-top to wander the floor once more, his elbow was jostled.
“Dreadfully sorry—” he began automatically, though it was he who had been bumped.
“Might I trouble you for a light? I seem to be out of fluid.”
He was reaching reflexively for his lighter before he even took note of who had addressed him. When he did, he squelched the urge to stop and gawk, something which would not have been in keeping with his usual manner.
The object of his sudden attention was a woman he judged to be no older than thirty-three. Her hair was a vast cascade of shimmering red ringlets held in perfect place by a number of ornamental clips. Her features were startlingly narrow, though by no means gaunt. High angled cheekbones and a tapering chin formed the outline for a genuine vision of loveliness. She had fine rouged lips and limpid blue eyes beneath arching brows. The face might have appeared delicate, like a china doll’s, were it not for the ruddiness of her tan and the sly self-possessed smile that curled the corners of her mouth.
She held a cigarette lighter of dull metal in one hand and now gave it a flick with her thumb. It sparked, but no flame followed. It was one of those lighters American GIs carried, Fleming noted distantly. Zippos, weren’t they called?
Then he realized he had after all stopped unceremoniously in the act of lighting her cigarette and now hastened to do so. Her gloved fingers touched his knuckles as she dipped her head slightly to touch her cigarette tip to the flame. It was some dark filtered cigarette.
“Thank you so.”
“Indeed,” he said.
She wore a very becoming gown of printed silk and a decorative lace scarf. Careful not to ogle, Fleming nonetheless realized her figure was as striking as her face—generously youthful and apparently well-kept.
“Would you care for a cocktail?” he asked.
The defunct lighter disappeared into a tiny handbag with silver clasps.
“That would be lovely. But wine, I should think. Something red. Perhaps you might choose…?” The sly smile brightened a few effective degrees.
Fleming employed a bit of insistent elbowing to reach the bar-top again. He quizzed the same bartender as to available stock, picking from the list of merlots a prewar French that seemed suitable. He delivered the glass to the young lady.
“You’re most kind,” she said, lifting the drink in a chipper salute.
“Chin-chin,” replied Fleming.
Though she constructed her sentences in an English manner, the accent was American, and she was taking no pains to disguise the fact. Fleming correlated his observations—accent, her obvious grasp of English dialect, her suntanned complexion—and concluded that this woman was well-traveled. An ambassador’s daughter perhaps? The wife of a career American military man?
“I am horrid and rude,” she pronounced abruptly. Fleming blinked. “I have imposed upon a stranger to light my cigarette and fetch me a drink. Shame on me. My name is Nora Blair DeYoung. You must forgive me.”
“Nothing to forgive,” he returned suavely. She was far and away the most attractive woman he had met this evening. “I’m Ian Fleming. It’s a pleasure to meet—”
“Ian Fleming?” One brow arched even higher. “Not the journalist?”
“Why, yes,” he said, a bit surprised by her reaction and more than a little gratified. It was no sin for one to take pride in one’s livelihood.
“Dear heavens, what a treat! I’m happy to say I’ve admired your work for some time.”
“Thank you, Mrs. DeYoung.”
“Miss, actually,” she said offhandedly. “Never have found the time for a husband. But you”—returning eagerly to the previous topic—“you’re the first person I’ve met at this tedious affair I can honestly say I know—or at least know of. I can’t tell you what a relief that is.”
“I’m pleased to be of service, then. I’m sorry you’ve found the evening disagreeable.”
“Oh, only up to now. Really, I should like to hear of your work. That is, of course, if you don’t have to dash…Do you?” She smiled even brighter this time.
Fleming’s gaze started to shift toward the clock again, then he caught himself and leveled his eyes with her limpid blue ones. In the elegant heels she wore she was only a hand shorter than he.
“Nothing urgent,” he reassured her smoothly. “Perhaps you’d care to sit?”
Her gloved hand wound over his elbow as he ushered her across the hall to an unoccupied lounge upholstered in rich velvet with lacquered arms. He felt a few curious stares following them and wondered if among them was whoever had escorted this young lady to this event. He waited while she sat, then settled himself onto the neighboring cushion.
A waiter bearing a tray with perfect poise glided up and offered Miss DeYoung a sampling of hors d’oeuvres. Dinner had been held some hours ago in the hotel’s adjoining banquet hall, and Fleming had eaten well of the steamed mussels and game hen and broiled beef, even indulging in a slice of cheesecake topped with a hot rum sauce. He’d felt a prickling of his conscience, thinking that much of England was still suffering heavily from the shortages which were part of the war’s legacy. He had also noted that the food, though undeniably tasty, lacked the exotic tangs of spices which he would soon be enjoying in Jamaica.
He saw with some surprise that Miss DeYoung had gobbled several of the morsels from the waiter’s tray in rapid order. They appeared to be sautéed mushrooms stuffed with a thick blend of cheese and crab meat. Fleming declined when the tray was presented to him.
“Ah,” she said with some relish. “Famished. That’s much better.”
Fleming’s brow furrowed. “Did you find the dinner unappealing?”
“Missed it, I’m afraid. I only arrived a short while ago.”
Which explained, thought Fleming, why he hadn’t noticed her earlier, an oversight that up till now he’d been unable to fathom.
She sipped at her wine, and he took a swallow of his gin.
“Now, really, might I ask you about your work?” she pressed with a kind of irresistible merriment.
“I can’t imagine that the life of a journalist would be of any real interest. It consists, I tell you truthfully, of mostly sitting around in chilly airports waiting for planes, making phone calls and quarreling with editors. If you think it’s a romantic style of living, I’m terribly afraid I must disappoint you.”
She gave a fine musical laugh. “Oh, Mr. Fleming, it’s too late to disillusion me.”
“You’ve met other journalists, I take it?”
“Is one of my professional fellows perhaps your escort this evening?” he asked casually, casting among the guests strewn about the hall. Noël Coward was drawing in even more numbers as he regaled his audience with snippets from old and new theatrical productions, probably weaving in a few of his own wry spirited ditties.
Miss DeYoung laughed afresh. “Mr. Fleming, are you attempting to be subtle? Let me settle accounts and say that I’ve come unescorted.”
Fleming felt a mild flush of embarrassment which he hoped didn’t show above his collar.
“I’m terribly sorry to pry—”
“Nonsense. Don’t think of it. Or—you can make it up to me by divulging. Give”—which was a decidedly American expression—“tell me about your work.”
“Very well. But I’ve warned you in advance, Miss DeYoung. Journalism is not to be confused with anything exotic.”
“And I say, Mr. Fleming, that I’m perfectly enlightened as to the day-to-day trivialities of the profession. In fact, I am intimately familiar with them. I too belong to the fourth estate.” Her smile this time was droll but no less bright. “Perhaps you’ve even heard of me. I write under the name of Blake Young.”
Copyright © 2003 by Quinn Fawcett