Twenty-two

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On the last Saturday of July, Weatherly was bustling with activity such as it hadn't seen in years. Extra staff had been hired for the weekend, the house had been scrubbed and decorated from top to bottom, and guest rooms had been reopened for the first time since the start of the war.

By mid-afternoon, the special guests who'd been invited to stay at the manor for two nights began to arrive, expensive motorcars pulling up one after the other in front of the portico. Footmen with straight backs opened car doors and directed people up the marble stairs and inside the house. Chauffeurs parked the guests' automobiles in an emptied stable, while maids and valets found their way to the servants' quarters up a narrow staircase.

Tea was served in the tapestry room, where Izzy fluttered around in a pink beaded muslin dress. The hum of conversation rose under the high ceiling, and she smiled at the elegant crowd she'd gathered. Her parents were here, of course, as well as Vita's mother, sat in a chair by the fireplace. Lord Shaftesbury – Vita's uncle, and the rightful owner of Weatherly – sat beside her with his wife. They were an odd couple, both in their forties, him tall and affable and her small and shy. Robert and Archie stood by a window, talking about the next day's shooting party. Margaret and her fiancé, Lord Slane's heir, sipped their tea next to the piano. She wore a petrol-blue crepe dress with silver beading, a French design Izzy decided didn't suit her. The rest of the assembly consisted in a couple of carefully selected bachelors and debutantes, and one film producer Izzy had met at the Bentley Boys' party in London.

"Heavens, how many people do we have here?"

Vita materialised next to Izzy, who beamed with pride at her friend's worried expression.

"Sixteen," she said, "including seven gentlemen ready to take part in the hunting party tomorrow. Not too shabby if I may say so myself."

"Don't tell me none of the ladies are willing to ride tomorrow?"

Vita pressed her lips in disapproval. Izzy sighed.

"The papers say the weather will be dreadful, so I seriously doubt--"

"Well, I don't care," Vita interrupted her. "I'll be riding. You can let all those city girls know we do have horses if they want to join in."

"I'm not making any promises," Izzy replied, casting a doubtful glance at Margaret and the other debutantes in pretty dresses by the piano.

She, for one, had no intention of going out riding in the rain.

Her gaze wandered around the room again, until she caught Robert staring at her behind his teacup, oblivious to Archie's conversation. They exchanged a smile across the room, a promise and a secret, an agreement and a reassurance.

***

Later on, when everyone was in their rooms getting changed before dinner, Vita knocked on her mother's bedroom door.

"Come in."

The large bedroom, with a four-poster bed and a high wardrobe, smelled of dried flowers and Lady Shaftesbury's perfume. Vita's mother sat at her dressing table, with her maid, McAllister, arranging an opal necklace around her thin neckline. She looked up in the mirror as Vita closed the door behind her.

"What is it, dear?"

"I just wanted to make sure you were all right," Vita said. She sat on her mother's bed and folded her hands in front of her. "You don't have to go to dinner if it's too much for you."

"Oh no," her mother shook her head, her voice soft. "I want to go. It's been lovely so far, having your uncle and your aunt here, and seeing these rooms full of people."

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