Twenty-three

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They gathered in Vita's father's old study once all the other guests had gone to bed. It was the room farthest from both the visitors' bedrooms and the servants' quarters downstairs. It hadn't been used in years, and it retained a musty smell and a chill particular to forgotten rooms.

Vita turned on the light, but it was dim in the darkness that clung to every book and piece of furniture. Archie opened the velvet curtains, shaking dust out of the heavy fabric and letting a faint moonlight in. Izzy grimaced at the cloud of dust. She coughed before sitting down in an armchair covered with a white sheet, Mr. Lang at her side. Holden stood by the closed door, his hands in his pockets. He had taken a bath and put on clothes borrowed from Mr. Lawrence, who surveyed him with a dark look by the empty fireplace.

Archie lit a cigarette and handed his open silver case around. Everyone took him up on his offer, except Izzy and Mr. Lang.

"I'm afraid I don't smoke," he said, with an apologetic smile.

Vita raised a surprised eyebrow. Very few men didn't smoke in this day and age. But once his silver lighter had been passed around, Archie spoke and she forgot about Mr. Lang's quirks.

"I'm going to tell Graham we expect an intrusion. That way the servants will be on alert and will let us know if they see anything amiss."

Mr. Lawrence nodded. Vita let out smoke though her nose. She leaned against her father's desk, her cigarette held lazily between her fingers. She stared at the carpet's old-fashioned patterns, worn-out by thousands of footsteps, and refused to look at everyone's grim faces.

"We're not cancelling anything," Izzy said, a warning in her tone.

Vita almost smiled at her intensity. Izzy had worked so hard planning this weekend, that she'd rather kill than cancel it.

"Don't worry, we're not," Vita replied.

Both Archie and Holden opened their mouth to protest, but she held out her hand to stop them.

"We're not changing our plans." She raised her gaze to meet Archie's. "As you said, we just need extra security."

Archie paused, pondering her resolve, before replying. "I don't want you alone, at any point. And I don't think you should go riding tomorrow."

Vita shook her head, ready to object, but Izzy cut her off.

"She doesn't have to. None of the ladies will be going anyway." She turned to Vita. "It's going to be cold and boring. You should stay here with us, like Archie said."

Anger rose in Vita's blood. She couldn't believe they were ganging up on her.

"There's no way I'm staying here," she snapped. "This is my home. I'll do whatever I please. I want to go riding tomorrow. I will go riding tomorrow. I don't care if none of the ladies want to go or if Finley might turn up."

Holden took a step towards her. "Vita--"

She didn't give him a chance to speak. "I won't sit around and wait for him to come for me. I won't."

Holden pressed his lips together, dropping the matter.

"Besides," Vita told Archie, "isn't it safer to go to the hunting party with all the men and the guns than to stay in the house with the women and the servants?"

Archie sighed. "Probably."

Vita took a drag from her cigarette, her temper settling. But Holden spoke, making her grit her teeth again.

"I won't be riding. You could stay. I'd prefer if you would."

Vita turned to face him. His shoulders were hunched and he gave her a pleading look.

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