Brighton House, Mayfair

1803


"Mama, this is unfair!"

The salmon-coloured writing room in Brighton House crackled with the electricity of a female temper tantrum. Seated on a cream-coloured chintz sofa was Winifred Rycroft, lady of the house, and a beacon of respectability in London society. Her hands were folded neatly in her lap, and her posture was resigned as her youngest daughter, Diana, stormed around her.

"Diana, I must ask you to sit down, the carpet is already balding, and you're making it worse with all of this stomping about."

The dark-haired daughter whirled to face her mother, cheeks pink with indignation.

"I haven't done anything wrong - it's Rosa whose done it, she always-"

"I will remind you that your cousin is upstairs at this time, and can very likely hear you, so mind what you say, my dear."

Diana's voice lowered in pitch, warbling with emotion. "Mama, please, don't send me away. I'll behave, I promise, I'll go to Lady Haverley's ball on Sunday, and I'll wear whatever you want, and I'll dance with Bernard Coddington, and -"

Winifred laughed her musical, tinkling laugh, and rose, clasping her daughters clammy hands in her own cool ones.

"My girl, you are far too willing to accommodate others, do you know that?"

Diana stared helplessly at her mother. What had being a soft-spined pushover to do with anything?

"Your cousin is certainly to blame for this latest indiscretion, I agree, but it would hardly be appropriate for her to travel to Dublin alone, and stay there for any time."

"But Miss Chessam will be with her!"

"Diana, do not interrupt me. Rosamund will need a companion her own age, to keep her out of trouble. I realize you do not relish the task, and being away from your friends at such a juncture seems unfair to you."

Diana resisted the urge to roll her eyes, a habit her mother had repeatedly told her was highly unattractive. But it was such an understatement to say that it seemed unfair - it was patently unjust! To send her away during the peak of the Season! Never mind that Diana hated the crowded ballrooms and mindless gossip that was essential to the London Season. She preferred to remove herself from it voluntarily, not by force!

"But I think you will find that this sojourn to the Emerald Isle will be very good for you. Haven't you been telling us all how you want to travel the world?"

"Not to Dublin, mother, I meant more like India, or the Americas - Russia, even!"

"As with all new things, Diana, you must begin with small steps. Dublin tomorrow, India another day."

"Tomorrow!?"

Winifred issued one of her patient sighs, and released her daughter's hands.

"Rosa is upstairs packing. Perhaps you should join her."

That quiet suggestion bore all the finality of a General's command, and Diana sullenly offered her cheek to her mother for a kiss, their usual sealing of an accord. Winifred left the room in her familiar cloud of perfume; Diana waited until she heard her mother's feet on the stairs before she threw herself face down on the sofa to rage silently.

Diana was not a bad girl, in any sense of the word. Stubborn, yes, opinionated, certainly, but never bad. She was occasionally obstinate and vocal about her wishes, but always relented to her mother's will, no matter how desperately she wanted to do otherwise. Being the youngest child of Lord and Lady Rycroft had its advantages - as a child, her occasional fits of temper were tolerated and largely ignored. As a result, she had grown in to adulthood with the notion that crying and stamping her feet would achieve nothing. Still, at eighteen, she hadn't quite outgrown the urge to sulk when things didn't go her way. Sometimes, there was nothing like a good cry to get ones temperament in order.

Diana pressed her face in to a velvet pillow and willed the tears to come. When none came, she vented a puff of hot air in to the fabric, and sat up so quickly her head spun.

As mentioned, Diana was not bad. But sometimes, she wanted to do bad things. For instance, at this moment, she would have very much liked to push her cousin, Rosamund, down the stairs. Or cut off her hair while she dozed in the little gazebo in the garden.

Rosa was the wild one. She was the one who was always causing some scandal or another, whether it was stealing her great aunt's knickers out of the laundry basket and fashioning a flag out of them, or disappearing in to alcoves with questionable young men, Rosa never failed to give the upper echelons of London society something to talk about. Normally, Diana managed to stay out of Rosa's path of destruction, or at the very least, followed meekly in her wake, cleaning up messes where she found them.

But this time, Rosa had gotten them both so far in to trouble that Diana's mother had seen fit to resort to banishment until the scandal died down. Rosa, in her infinite wisdom, had decided that a dull evening could quickly be remedied by a trip to a boxing match. Diana had dug her heels in to the plush Persian rug, trying to dissuade Rosa from such a foolish escapade. Never mind that the notion of attending a boxing match was sort of alluring (Diana had seen only one male specimen without it's shirt on; her brother, Henry, and it had been uninspiring to say the least) it would be a Very Bad Thing for the two of them to attend, un-chaperoned.

Rosa's indomitable will had prevailed in the end, and they likely would have gotten away with it, too, if they hadn't run in to George, Diana's older and most insufferable brother. He had dragged them home immediately, despite protesting from Rosa and pleading from Diana not to tell their mother, and thrown them directly to the wolves.

Winifred had arranged a very docile evening of music for some of her female friends and their daughters, which was rudely interrupted by the sudden re-appearance of Rosa and Diana, who had earlier plead a headache and been excused to bed early.

Tongues would be wagging for weeks.

Lying back against the sofa, Diana tried very hard to focus on the light side of this new arrangement - no Bernard after all - when her cousin burst in to the room with all her usual dramatic flair.

Diana face darkened as Rosa flung herself in to a chair opposite - in the cool morning light, Rosa's hair glowed like copper, and her skin was as smooth as if someone had painted her in to the chair. In addition to being wild, Rosa was uncommonly beautiful, a combination that regularly appeared in Diana's beloved novels, and so rarely translated well to real life.

"Di, darling, please tell me you aren't angry with me."

Diana bit down on her tongue.

"Oh, Di, stop it, I simply couldn't bear it if you were upset with me on our little adventure!"

Diana arched a dark eyebrow.

"Adventure?"

The mischievous gleam had come back to Rosa's eye, now that knew she had Diana's attention.

"Why, of course! And adventure to Dublin, Di - haven't you always said you wanted to travel?"

Diana was about to tartly explain, for the second time this morning, that her aspirations for adventure extended a little further than soggy old Dublin, thank you very much, when Rosa cut her off, as was her nature.

"Anyways, I don't know why you'd be upset about leaving stuffy old London. Everyone here is such a dreadful bore - you'd think you were in the Country, for heaven's sake!"

Diana's eyes glazed over as Rosa prattled on happily about all the people they'd meet, and how many things they could explore with just Miss Chessam, Diana's old governess, to supervise them.

Try as she might, she couldn't bring herself to hate Rosa. It ought to have been easy - Rosa was stunning, while Diana was pretty, at best. Rosa had the indefinable, macabre allure of being an orphan, while Di had two loving parents, and a slew of siblings to keep her company. Rosa did exactly what she wanted, without ever worrying about the consequences, while Diana fretted and worried her way through every decision she ever made.

And then there was the inescapable fact that Rosa loved Diana, as she told her on numerous occasions. Though Rosa's residence at Brighton House had been relatively recent, the two girls had spent nearly all of their respective nineteen and eighteen years together. When Rosa's parents had died of malaria last spring, there had been no question as to where Rosa should go to live. She had clung to Diana's side in those first few weeks, declaring that she didn't know how she'd ever done without her beloved cousin. Certainly, Rosa's exclamations were melodramatic and overbearing, but Di had never had cause to think them false. Rosa had stood up, not only for herself, but for Di on numerous occasions against the nastiness of other girls, and had literally given Di a dress off her back because she thought it's colour was better suited to Di's dark hair.

It was things like that that made it difficult to be cross with Rosa for very long.

"Di?"

Pulled from her contemplation, Diana peered owlishly at her cousin, willing herself to recall what Rosa had been asking.

"You will promise to have fun with me, won't you?" Rosa asked, leaning forward to take Diana's hand across the small tea table between them. Her perfect face, which Diana knew better than she knew her own, was hopeful and alive, and impossible to say no to.

Resignedly, Diana promised that she would.