Ten (1)

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"Are you certain you want to do this?"

Vita surveyed her mother with a frown. They were in Lady Shaftesbury's bedroom, and she sat on the four-poster bed while McAllister, the lady's maid, and Louise helped Vita's mother into a dark green pleated gown.

It was the day after the Derby and it was still raining, a steady downpour that wrapped Weatherly in sheets of water. Vita had come home to see Dr Mead, as she had promised Izzy. The family doctor had known Vita since she was born, and they had chatted about the weather, London, the Season and flat racing. She had conveniently forgotten to take off her gloves or to mention her recent kidnapping, and Dr Mead had sent her away with his best wishes for her presentation.

"What do you think?"

Lady Shaftesbury spread her thin arms and raised an eyebrow at her daughter.

"You look beautiful, Mama."

Vita meant it. It was a gorgeous floor-length silk dress, with black beads artfully sewn along the emerald fabric. Unbeknownst to her, her mother had ordered it from Paris for her Court presentation, and had waited for her daughter to come home to have it fitted by the maids.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" Vita repeated.

"I need to, darling," her mother said, her voice low. "You're my only daughter. What would people think?"

"They'd understand."

It was a lie. If Lady Shaftesbury didn't come to London to present Vita to the King, people would gossip and shake their heads in disapproval. But her mother's wellbeing mattered more to Vita than what some High Society snobs thought of them.

"You don't have to do it if you don't want to," Vita added.

Her mother's gaze, which was always distant and wandering, fell on her suddenly.

"I want to, dear."

Vita's heart fluttered. Before the war, her mother had been a beautiful, radiant woman, who went on shopping sprees in the capital, discussed books with her daughter and politics with the men, and ran a house always full of guests. The Church Fete she organised every spring, as well as the annual Weatherly Autumn Ball, were legendary. It was hard to believe the same woman now stood in the grey morning light, her face emaciated and her skin ashen. Vita missed that strong woman, but her mother's decision to go to London for her made her catch a glimpse of her once again.

"Thank you," she said.

The flicker of a smile crossed her mother's lips, spreading warmth through her chest. Acting as if nothing was wrong, putting on a brave face with Archie, lying to Izzy and trying to be the perfect debutante meant Vita was lonely. Lonelier than she was when Izzy was in America and Archie was busy at the nightclub. At least then she wasn't pretending she was fine. This was a new kind of lonely. The kind where she kept others at bay in order to hide how disturbed she felt most of the time.

"What is it like," Vita asked, "when you think you see them? Papa and Uncle Rohan and Uncle Amir?"

On her knees by her mother's hem, McAllister shot Vita a sharp look. She ignored her. A wide smile spread across Lady Shaftesbury's face.

"It's lovely," she said. "I talk to them about you, and Weatherly, and what's new here..."

"Do they ever reply?"

A shadow crossed her mother's face. "Well, no, dear, they're dead, you know. The dead don't talk. They just watch over us."

McAllister cleared her throat, but Lady Shaftesbury didn't pay attention to her and Vita pretended she hadn't heard anything. She'd spent the last four years dismissing her mother's behaviour as lunacy, but the recent events in her life made her question her own sanity. She wanted to hear her mother's side of the story, at least once.

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