Rosie Smith raised the delicate bone china cup to her lips, took a sip of the fragrant Darjeeling tea and sighed with contentment.
Despite being a penniless orphan, with no prospects worth mentioning, here she was, dressed in the latest fashion, taking tea at the Ritz, surrounded by Britain’s elite.
Her feet, encased in soft kid leather boots, were aching after spending all day walking around the shops and sights of London. She was still tired from the gruelling trip across the Atlantic from New York. And yet she couldn’t be happier.
She sighed again and looked across the lace-covered table at her friend, who was smiling with equal contentment.
‘What shall we do tomorrow?’ Rosie took a cucumber sandwich from the top layer of the three-tiered cake stand and placed it on her rose-patterned plate. ‘More shopping? Or shall we take in some art galleries and museums?’
‘Art galleries and museums, I think.’ Arabella placed a scone on her plate and smothered it with jam and clotted cream. ‘After all, I’m sure Father would want us to absorb as much culture as we can while we’re in England.’
The two girls giggled conspiratorially.
Rosie lifted a finger and waggled it in Arabella’s direction. ‘“What good is art, my dear? You don’t get a decent return on sculptures. Nobody ever got rich from culture.”’
Arabella clapped her hands and laughed loudly. ‘You do such a brilliant impersonation of Father. It’s you who should be on the stage, Rosie, not me.’
Their jubilation drew the attention of the women sitting at the next table, who glared down their imperious noses with looks that might have withered the spring buds on the tree. Rosie was tempted to poke out her tongue. Instead she lifted her head and returned their looks of disapproval. Although she suspected being glared at down a small button nose wouldn’t have quite the same impact.
‘Humourless old biddies,’ she whispered. ‘Have they never heard anyone laugh before?’ She smiled at Arabella. ‘So, tomorrow it’s art galleries and museums—perfect.’
The two girls sipped their tea and sighed simultaneously.
A waiter approached the table and bowed low. Arabella smiled her thanks, removed the folded letter from his silver tray and read its contents. Her smile dissolved. Her hand shot to her mouth and her shoulders slumped.
‘What is it? What’s wrong, Bella?’ Rosie reached across the table and touched her friend’s arm.
Arabella’s hands trembled as she passed her the letter. Rosie quickly scanned the elegant handwriting. It was an invitation from the Dowager Duchess of Knightsbrook, inviting Arabella to a weekend party at her estate in Devon.
‘Oh, this is too, too terrible, Rosie.’ Arabella took a lace handkerchief from her embroidered clutch purse and dabbed at her eyes. ‘It’s from the mother of that horrid man Father expects me to marry.’
‘It’s disgusting!’ Rosie threw the letter down on the table. ‘They think they can buy you. That all they have to do is dangle a title and you’ll come running, and then they can get their greedy hands on your father’s money. Disgusting!’
‘I know… I know. I don’t want to go. And I especially don’t want to go that weekend. It means I’ll miss the opening night of Oscar Wilde’s play. I’ll miss the opportunity to meet the great man himself.’
‘Then don’t go.’ Rosie thumped the table, making the teacups jump and rattle in their saucers. ‘You can’t possibly miss the opening of that play. That’s one of the main reasons we came to England.’
Her raised voice drew another scowl from the next table. This time Rosie didn’t hold back. She screwed up her face, poked out her tongue and let the women know just what she thought of their disapproving looks.
Their gasps and bulging stares would have made Rosie laugh if she had felt like laughing.
Arabella lowered her handkerchief. ‘Well, no…the main reason we’re here is because Father wants to marry me off after that…’ She tilted her head and lightly bit her upper lip. ‘After that scandal.’
‘Scandal? That was no scandal. Your appearance on the New York stage as Lady Macbeth was a triumph and should be celebrated as such. Your father just doesn’t understand your passion for acting.’
Arabella sent her friend a shaky smile. ‘Thank you, Rosie. But I’ll still have to go, Father will never forgive me otherwise.
‘And I’d never forgive myself if you missed that play. There has to be a way out of this.’
Rosie drummed her fingers on the table and looked around the room for inspiration. There had to be a way out of this dilemma; there was always a way out of every problem.
‘I’ll go instead.’ She smiled in triumph.
Arabella twisted her handkerchief in her lap. ‘You’ll what?’
‘I’ll go in your place. The Dowager and the Duke have never met me. If I tell them I’m Arabella van Haven how will they ever know the difference? We’ve both got black hair and blue eyes, and everyone always says we look like sisters. They’ll see a fashionably dressed young woman, and all they’ll be thinking about is getting their hands on your father’s money. They’ll never suspect I’m not you.’
‘Oh, Rosie, you can’t… Can you?’
‘Of course I can.’
Arabella screwed her handkerchief into a tighter ball. ‘But, Rosie, you might get caught.’
‘Nonsense. It’s a perfect plan. And when has one of my plans ever gone wrong?’
Arabella frowned in concentration. ‘Well, there was that time you said Cook wouldn’t notice the missing cakes if we moved those remaining around the pantry. And there was the time you said that if we dressed as boys and went to the local fair we’d be able to get work on the sideshows. And then there was that time you were certain that if we told our tutor we knew everything there was to know about—’
Rosie held up her hand to stop the flow of words. ‘Those were mere childish pranks. This time it’s serious—and, really, what choice do we have? You don’t want to go to this party, do you?’
Arabella shook her head.
‘You don’t want to miss the play’s opening, do you? You don’t want to marry this Duke, do you? You don’t want to end up living out in the countryside, miles away from the nearest theatre, do you?’
Arabella shook her head more emphatically.
‘Right, then leave it to me. You said it yourself. I’m almost as good an actress as you.’ She stabbed her finger at the abandoned letter. ‘This horrid Duke of Knightsbrook will be completely fooled.’
‘Well, I suppose you could pretend to be me…’ Arabella chewed her lip again, as if not wholly convinced.
‘Of course I can. And I’ll have fun doing it. This stuffy Duke will think he’s wooing the wealthy, beautiful Arabella van Haven. Instead he’ll be wasting his energies pursuing a penniless, plain, charmless ward. And it will serve him right.’
‘You might be penniless, Rosie, but no one could ever describe you as plain or charmless. You’re beautiful, kind, funny and the best friend I could ever—’
Rosie held up her hand again, to stop Arabella’s praises. ‘Whether that’s true or not, I can’t say—but I certainly won’t be appearing charming in front of the Duke. After all, it might be your father’s wish that you marry a titled man, but that’s not what you want, is it?’
Arabella straightened her spine. ‘It certainly is not.’
‘So I’m going to have to convince this stuffy Duke that the last thing he wants to do is marry the appallingly behaved and completely unacceptable Arabella van Haven, despite her father’s fortune.’
Arabella smiled and placed her handkerchief back in her purse. ‘You’re so clever, Rosie.’ She paused, her purse half closed. ‘Except…’
‘I’ve just thought of a big flaw in your plan. Aunt Prudence was going to accompany me as my chaperon.’
Rosie rolled her eyes. ‘Aunt Prudence is too sick to go anywhere. Or at least she thinks she is. I suspect she won’t be over her imagined seasickness until it’s time to go back to New York.’
Arabella covered her mouth to stifle a giggle. ‘Poor Aunt Prudence—she is a bit of a hypochondriac. But you can’t go without a chaperon. They’d get suspicious if a young unmarried woman of twenty arrived at their estate unaccompanied.’
Rosie would not be deterred. ‘Then I’ll take Nellie. I’ll need a lady’s maid anyway, and Nellie enjoys a good caper as much as we do. When I tell her we’re doing it so we can make sport of a family of greedy aristocrats there’ll be no stopping her. Nellie will be the perfect chaperon.’
‘This is so good of you, Rosie. You’re always so kind to me.’
Rosie waved her hand in front of her face to dismiss the compliment. Arabella’s happiness meant everything to her.
Rosie drew in a deep breath and ran her hand down the soft pink silk of her stylish gown. Arabella had saved her from a life of poverty and loneliness. Without her, Rosie couldn’t imagine how hard her life might have been. She closed her eyes and shuddered. But she was not alone any more. Thanks to Arabella she had not been forced to try and survive on the streets of New York with no money and without a friend.
There was nothing she wouldn’t do for the friend who had saved her from such a life. And she hated to see Arabella sad.
Her friend had been so kind to her, had always treated her as an equal, and she had such little happiness in her life. Rosie saw it as her job to keep her friend happy, so she might be distracted from the neglect she felt over her father’s constant absences.
Spending the weekend with a stuffy aristocratic family to save her from an unwanted marriage was nothing compared to the enormous debt she owed her friend. And at least poverty had one compensation. While Arabella’s father was determined to marry her off to a titled man for his own social advancement, he had no such concerns when it came to Rosie. Nobody, including Rosie herself, expected anyone to want to marry a penniless orphan who didn’t even own the clothes she was wearing.
She smiled and pushed away her unpleasant thoughts. What was the point of dwelling on such things? Today was all that mattered. Having fun was all that mattered. Not what had happened in the past, and not what the future might bring.
‘Honestly, Bella. I want to do this. I’ll get to have fun putting a stuffy duke in his place, and you’ll get to see the play. And when I return I’ll be able to regale you with tales of my exploits. It’s perfect.’
Rosie smiled. She picked up a smoked salmon sandwich and placed it on her plate.
‘Oh, yes, the Duke of Knightsbrook is going to regret ever thinking he can buy Arabella van Haven.’