Eleven (2)

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Vita conceded three dances to Archie before leaving him to his own devices and retreating to the ladies' cloakrooms. Since it was still early in the evening, the place was deserted save for Tallulah, who checked her reflection in the mirror as Vita walked in.

"You're not dancing?" Tallulah asked.

Vita bit back a sarcastic reply and shook her head instead. She didn't need to ask Tallulah why she was hiding in the ladies' room instead of twirling on the dance floor. Sitting with the chaperons because you lacked an escort wasn't a nice way to spend an evening at a ball.

"You know Archie will dance with you, if you want me to ask him," she offered.

Tallulah's green eyes grew wide in panic.

"Oh no!" she said. "I could never dance with him. He's too scary."

Vita snorted at the ridiculous notion, and Tallulah's face fell.

"I didn't mean that, sorry. I just meant he's a bit imposing, you know, and..."

Vita let her ramble on and redden for a moment before putting her hand up to stop her.

"I understand. Don't worry."

Tallulah fell silent and bit her lips, embarrassed. Vita wished she'd go away. She was burning up, her skin hot all over. She wanted to wash her hands under the cold water but she couldn't remove her gloves under Tallulah's watchful gaze. Instead she made sure her hair wasn't dishevelled and her tiara wasn't askew.

More than anything, she wanted to go home and take a cold bath, but this was Izzy's ball. She'd promised her support and her friend would never understand if she left before the evening was over. She regretted pledging her help to Izzy, when it was becoming clearer by the minute that she needed to focus on her own well-being.

She took in a deep breath, her mind made up all of a sudden. She was going home. Izzy would have to manage on her own.

"Have you been to the terrace yet?" Tallulah said, out of the blue. "I heard it's lit by Chinese lanterns."

Vita shot her a dubious look. This sounded tasteless, but the idea of an outdoor place empty of people appealed to her. She might be able to cool off somewhat in the fresh air, and if not, she could still leave the party.

"Why don't we go, then?"

Tallulah's face brightened up.

Instead of going back to the ballroom and bringing attention to the fact they weren't dancing, they made their way through the caterer's temporary kitchen and up the backstairs to the top of the house.

"Oh, isn't it lovely?" Tallulah said, with her hands clasped together.

The stars shone in the clear sky above the terrace. Rows of colourful Chinese lanterns glowed around the large stone balcony, swaying in the night's warm breeze. The only other person there was a footman, waiting by the buffet for guests to arrive. Next to him, a gramophone played a slow tune. He straightened his back when Tallulah approached him.

"Do you have any fruit squash?"

Faint panic shot through the young man's eyes. The buffet displayed a large variety of champagne, cocktails and food, but no squash that Vita could see.

"I have lemonade, my lady," the footman offered.

Tallulah made a disappointed face, and Vita felt a pang of pity for the poor girl, whose evening wasn't going well even in its most insignificant details.

"Is there any squash downstairs?" she asked the footman.

"I believe there is, my lady," he said. "Shall I go and...?"

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