Two (1)

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Vita yawned behind her folding fan.

Burlington House was ridiculously crowded for the Royal Academy's Private Viewing, yet barely anyone paid attention to the paintings exhibited on the walls. People were too busy surveying one another, commenting on this one's outfit and this other's hairdo, and generally gossiping to spare more than a couple of glances for the pictures. Journalists milled about in the crowd, taking notes on small pads.

Vita stood next to Izzy and pretended she was following her best friend's conversation with Margaret Sullivan. The girl was also a Debutante, and they were talking about the Chelsea Flower Show, which Vita planned on avoiding if she could help it.

The air was stifling in the neoclassical gallery, and Vita played with her long strands of creamy pearls. Lady Rhodes, Izzy's mother, was supposed to be their chaperone for the event, but she had disappeared ages ago.

Vita wanted a cigarette. She wanted a drink. She wanted Archie to be there. She wanted to be anywhere but here. She wondered if she could steer Izzy towards the room with the refreshments. But her friend fanned herself with a programme and laughed at something Margaret said.

Vita gazed around the room at the mingling young people and their parents. Debutantes in pastel-coloured dresses whispered amongst themselves while eyeing bachelors in neat white suits. The young men all looked the same to Vita, with their hair slicked back and their self-assured stances.

"Excuse me," she said to Izzy and Margaret.

Without bothering to give them an explanation for her retreat, she walked to the room next door, where the drinks and canapés awaited. Amidst the buzz of discussions, she caught snippets of conversation about the latest political scandal, recommendations for a dressmaker and Goodwood's racecourse. No one talked about art.

There was champagne and claret on offer at the refreshments table, but Vita didn't want to embarrass Lady Rhodes by drinking alcohol and causing a scandal. She settled for a lemonade and walked into the next first-floor gallery. The gilt-framed paintings were displayed from floor to ceiling, and filled in every inch of available space. Vita navigated through the crowd, passing portraits of long-dead aristocrats and gloomy landscapes.

The next room was far less crowded, with only a handful of people chatting by the paintings. In a quiet corner, Tallulah Redcliffe stood in front of a still life with rotting fruits, where flies hovered above the blackened apples and peaches. The girl was their age, and she was a friend of Izzy's, or at least they had gone to the same school. She wore a green chiffon dress, which highlighted her auburn hair, and she kept her head down as she sketched a copy of the still life in a square notebook.

Vita stopped at her side, and Tallulah shot her a wary look. Her face lit up when she recognised her.

"Vita! How are you?"

Vita blinked, always a bit taken aback by Tallulah's friendliness, as they were only distant acquaintances.

"Bored." She nodded at Tallulah's notebook. "So are you, it seems."

Tallulah glanced about her and nibbled at her lip.

"Mother is talking with her friends," she said. "I figured I could get away with sneaking off for a couple of minutes."

Vita knew the feeling. She leaned forward to see the pencilled sketch better. It was a perfect copy –albeit unfinished- of the painting on the wall.

"It's a beautiful drawing," she said, her tone earnest. "I didn't know you were an artist."

A blush came over Tallulah's cheeks. "I'm not. It's just something I like to do. Mother says I should focus on finding a husband instead."

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