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LONDON, 24 October
Venetia Haven hurried across Pont Street, her arms full of autumn flowers from Harrods and her head full of questions.
The flowers were for Lydia Lancaster, who, she knew, would have forgotten to pick up any herself, although a dozen guests were expected for dinner. The endless crystal vases and antique washbowls, jugs, tureens, and cachepots, some of them probably worth a small fortune, were crammed with a wilting display of saddened blooms that dripped petals and pollen on every ledge and table in the house. Lydia seemed to notice them only when they were fresh and bursting with color and scent. As they withered, so did her interest. It wasn’t that Lydia Lancaster didn’t care. It was simply that she never thought about what was next on her crowded schedule until she was faced with it. Her friends were never quite sure whether they loved her despite her casual absentmindedness, or because of it. It was a part of Lydia’s exuberant charm that her total interest in the person she was with at that moment tended to eclipse her good intentions to be more practical about such things as regular meals, walking the dogs, getting her children back to school on time with everything properly labeled, or getting the car serviced. And Venetia adored her.
The questions had lurked unanswered at the back of Venetia’s mind all summer, and now, with the change of seasons and the first really gray October day, they had surfaced with an urgency that demanded answers.
Venetia hovered at the edge of the pedestrian crossing, scarcely noticing the surging evening traffic. Her thick sweep of pale blond hair was tossed by the suddenly wintry wind, and she thrust it impatiently behind her ears. Her tall, slight figure was wrapped in the lavish cream cashmere trench coat that Jenny had sent from Alan Austin’s in Beverly Hills and she wore it, British style, with warm caramel ribbed tights and matching easy loafers. With her arms full of bronze and yellow flowers, Venetia looked the perfect image of a well-brought-up English girl. Which she was. “Almost,” she added with a sigh. That was one of the questions. Jenny wanted her to go home. “I want you to go to college here, Venetia,” she’d announced firmly on the telephone, “I miss you.” A fine time to decide that, thought Venetia miserably, after twelve years. London was home now; it was Los Angeles that was the foreign land. It’s my life, she thought rebelliously, and my future.
My future? She added the big question mark at the end. What do I have to offer? I’m nineteen years old, educated at the very best English schools, possessor of a brand-new, hard-earned cordon bleu cooking diploma. I’m not the least bit academic. I’m five feet nine inches tall, in good shape, and my friends think I’m pretty. And I’m Jenny Haven’s daughter.
The taxi honked impatiently, waiting for her to cross, jolting Venetia from the quick calculation of her assets, although she wasn’t always sure whether the last item on the list was an asset or a liability. Anyway, there didn’t seem much to build a solid career on.
Her long legs covered the ground rapidly as she turned into Cadogan Square. There wasn’t time to dwell on the question of her future now. They’d be lucky, she thought, glancing at her watch, if Lydia had remembered to pick up some food for their guests.
Lydia had insisted on black tie for tonight’s dinner, for two reasons, she’d said laughing. First, the ladies would look so much prettier all dressed up and the ones she’d invited tonight could use all the help they could get; and secondly, the dinner was being given for an important business acquaintance of her husband, an American in London on a quick visit, and she thought she’d let him see that England still upheld its traditions and standards. “I’m ‘flying the flag,’ ” she’d said to Venetia, “and Fitzgerald McBain can thank God he’s not here for longer or he’d have to endure the full country-house weekend!” Venetia grinned at the thought. Dinner at the eccentric Lancasters’ was hazardous enough; a weekend at their country house had been known to throw new guests into a complete panic.
Zigzagging across the square into the cobbled mews, Venetia turned the key in the door of the rambling white house where she had spent most of her school holidays with her friend Kate Lancaster, becoming through the Lancasters’ generosity and all-encompassing kindness a part of their big family. After her final year at Hesketh’s Venetia, their “lodger,” had stayed on. She was, as Lydia laughingly put it, because Jenny had insisted on paying for Venetia’s room and board.
The hall, with its green and white geometric David Hicks carpet and drooping flowers, was ominously silent.
“Oh, my God!” The groan escaped her as she surveyed the drawing room. The Labrador wagged a lazy tail from his uncomfortable position on the brocade sofa in front of the fireless grate. The two Jack Russell’s dashed to her side, bouncing on their little terrier legs, glad to see her because they knew she could be relied on to feed them. Last night’s coffee tray still sat on the low table by the sofa and dust rested untouched on the surfaces of Chippendale library tables and Georgian mirrors.
Venetia strode across the hall, the dogs at her heels, and peered around the door into the dining room. Nothing! The long mahogany table she had expected to find glittering with the Lancasters’ old Waterford, Spode, and silver was naked. The small Art-Deco Cartier clock on the sideboard said six-thirty; guests had been invited for eight-thirty. Nothing had been done and there was no sign of Lydia. Venetia thought of the American coming unsuspectingly for dinner in an English home, fresh from the land of ease and efficiency. A mischievous grin lit her small triangular face and wide gray-blue eyes as she imagined him courteously clutching a drink and trying not to look astonished as the hours ticked by and still no dinner appeared. He’d probably be about fifty, married, with three children whose photographs he would display proudly, and his wife would certainly have dinner ready promptly on the dot of seven every evening. In that case, thought Venetia, turning from the empty room and heading for the kitchen, I’d better help keep Lydia’s end up. A girl with a cordon bleu diploma was supposed to be able to throw together a banquet at short notice, wasn’t she?
The front door slammed and Kate’s light voice called cheerfully, “It’s me. Anybody home?”
Venetia shot from the kitchen after the dogs, who yapped joyfully now, jumping at Kate’s knees.
“Hello, you darlings.” Kate hugged each one in turn. “Hi, Vennie.” A quick glance at Venetia’s face boded disaster. “What’s up? Has Henry ditched you?” Kate’s merry, dark eyes met her friend’s teasingly. “No, don’t tell me,” she added, realizing what had happened. “Mummy’s not back yet, there are hordes of people coming for dinner, there’s no food, and the place is a wreck.” She grinned at Venetia. “A typical situation in the Lancaster household! She’ll probably show up at eight o’clock and expect to be able to throw it all together in five minutes.”
“Not this time. I’m afraid it’s you and I to the rescue. We forgot that Mrs. Jones has gone off to Majorca for her hols and Marie-Thérèse obviously decided the whole thing was too much for her and took the day off too.”
Kate sighed. Marie-Thérèse was the au pair and notoriously lazy but Lydia could never be persuaded to get rid of her. “Think of the poor girl’s mother in France,” she always said when presented with each maddening example of Marie-Thérèse’s inefficiency. “What would she think if we threw out her daughter and said she was no good?” So Marie-Thérèse stayed and did less and less as the weeks went by.
“There are fresh flowers waiting in the kitchen, the table needs setting, get Shaky off the sofa in the drawing room and tidy it up.” Venetia dashed for the door.
“But where are you going?” yelled Kate as Venetia slammed the door behind her.
“Shopping!” If she took the Mini and double-parked, she’d just make Europa Foods on Sloane Street before it closed. The question of Venetia Haven’s future was pushed once again to the back of her mind.