cover

About the Book

Everyone has heard of the Beaufort twins, but few have ever seen them…

On the eve of their 21st birthday, at one of the most lavish parties society has ever seen, Octavia and Flora Beaufort are launched into the world.

For Octavia, it is one of the most thrilling nights of her life, an evening glittering with the promise of her future. But Flora shrinks from the limelight, fearful of what lies beyond the walls of her over-protective aunt’s house.

As Octavia is swept into a whirlwind of lavish spending and fashionable society, she grasps eagerly at whatever she wants: clothes, houses, men… even a department store. But Flora yearns for security – and when she is rescued from harm by a kind stranger, she seems to have found the love and protection she craves.

Prey to all kinds of dangers, the twins soon realise that without each other, they run the risk of losing everything. But is it already too late…?

title

Contents

About the Book

About the Author

Also by Lulu Taylor

Title Page

Dedication

Part One

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Part Two

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65

Chapter 66

Part Three

Chapter 67

Chapter 68

Chapter 69

Chapter 70

Chapter 71

Chapter 72

Chapter 73

Chapter 74

Chapter 75

Chapter 76

Chapter 77

Chapter 78

Chapter 79

Chapter 80

Chapter 81

Chapter 82

Chapter 83

Chapter 84

Chapter 85

Chapter 86

Chapter 87

Chapter 88

Chapter 89

Chapter 90

Epilogue

Acknowledgements

Copyright

This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

Version 1.0
Epub ISBN 9781446492970
www.randomhouse.co.uk
Published by Arrow Books 2011
2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1
Copyright © Lulu Taylor 2011
Lulu Taylor has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
This book is a work of fiction. Names and characters are the product of the author’s imagination and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition, including this condition, being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
First published in Great Britain in 2011 by
Arrow Books
Random House, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road
London SW1V 2SA
www.rbooks.co.uk
Addresses for companies within The Random House Group Limited can be found at:
www.randomhouse.co.uk/offices.htm
The Random House Group Limited Reg. No. 954009
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
ISBN 978-0-099-55045-7
To Fiona Alexander
With love and thanks

About the Author

Lulu Taylor grew up in the English countryside, was educated at Oxford University, and has lived all over the world. She is married and lives in London.

Also by Lulu Taylor
Heiresses
Midnight Girls

Part One

1

Spring 2008

The night was balmy, one of those gold and petrol-blue evenings when the day seems to take its time slipping away, turning softly and slowly from light to dark. A silvery moon hung low in the night sky, glowing benignly over proceedings.

Below was a scene that might have come from three centuries before. In the exquisitely manicured gardens, people promenaded elegantly between the privet hedges and herbaceous borders, gliding past statues and fountains as they talked and laughed. The gentlemen were in white stockings, buckled shoes, breeches or pantaloons, and gorgeously embroidered coats worn tight across the shoulders and to the waist, before billowing out in extravagant folds. The ladies were a truly splendid sight: on their heads were towering wigs of white and silver, some halos of powdered thistledown, others masses of intricate curls and ringlets. In their locks were velvet ribbons, sprays of crystal flowers or other magnificent adornments. One lady had the proverbial galleon in full sail perched on her ocean of hair; another wig was encrusted in jewelled sea creatures, with crabs, lobsters and oysters nestled among mother-of-pearl shells and crystal rocks. Below the sumptuous wigs were powdered and painted faces, with spots of rouge in doll-like circles and velvet beauty spots worn on cheeks, at the corners of eyes or on the curve of a pretty jawline. Each dress seemed more lavish than the last, encapsulating the extravagance of the ancien régime: heavily embroidered silks and satins, edged with stunning laces, glinting with gold and silver thread, in a rainbow of beautiful colours.

Diamonds sparkled and pearls glimmered softly in the moonlight or in the beams of the delicate Chinese lanterns suspended at intervals from bamboo poles. The women moved slowly, held back by the weight of their costumes, waving fans in front of their faces as they talked and flirted with the gentlemen, their merry laughter ringing out across the stately garden.

A few clues revealed that this was not a night of pre-Revolutionary jollity at the court of Versailles: some of the dresses were scandalously low-cut and rather short, with the slim legs visible beneath clad in fishnet tights and feet on towering platform heels or sharp stilettos, or even, in one case, magenta biker boots with chrome buckles up the side. More than one hand was holding a cigarette, and more than one breast, back or shoulder sported a tattoo.

This was no eighteenth-century soirée, but rather a twenty-first-century party where the rich and privileged of society had gathered to play. ‘Fête Champêtre’ the invitation had proclaimed in gold engraving on the stiffest card, to celebrate the twenty-first birthdays of Octavia and Flora Beaufort. Dress: Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI.

A group of girls sat on two semi-circular stone benches in the rose garden, dressed in a riot of silks, petticoats and wigs.

‘Why aren’t you wearing a wig, Amanda?’ asked one, who had a peroxide-white tower on her head with fat ringlets falling on to her snowy bosom.

‘Because, Suze,’ said Amanda sweetly, putting her head on one side, ‘I’ve come as Madame de Pompadour.’

‘Oh.’ Suze looked blank, her round eyes wide. ‘But didn’t the invitation say Marie Antoinette? Who is Madame de Pompadour?’

‘She was a royal mistress,’ Amanda said, her nose in the air. ‘One of the people who held real power at court. Do you like my dress?’ She looked down at her costume with satisfaction. ‘I sent my pet dressmaker to look at the portrait in the Wallace Collection, and then had her make it up. It’s come out rather well.’

The others gazed at the splendid confection. It was a beautiful shimmering sea blue, cut low, with a rose-pink silk bodice adorned with large pink silk bows that narrowed towards the tiny waist. The full skirts below were like something from a fairy-tale princess’s gown, festooned with ruffles and miniature pink roses. The sleeves were tight to the elbow, then billowed out into a cascade of silk and lace, with tiny bows stitched wherever a tiny bow could be put. Amanda wore no jewellery but round her neck was a delicate chiffon fichu in the same pink as the roses. On her feet were rosy silk slippers with bows on their high stiff fronts. She looked magnificent.

‘I’m not David Starkey or anything,’ drawled another of the girls sitting on the benches, ‘but wasn’t Madame de Pompadour the mistress of Louis XV, not Louis XVI? You’re about fifty years out of date, sweetie.’

Amanda smiled condescendingly. ‘Don’t split hairs, Claudia darling. I’m in a bloody costume, aren’t I? Besides, you can talk. You’re covered in fake tan and wearing sunglasses! Was Marie Antoinette satsuma-coloured? I can’t remember.’

‘Piss off, sweetie. No one comes between me and my sunnies.’ Claudia smoothed out her own candy-pink taffeta dress. ‘Anyone know the time? I’m not wearing my Cartier.’ She looked over at the sundial near the centre of the rose garden. ‘That thing’s useless at night. Not that I’d know how to read it in the daytime anyway.’

‘I’m surprised you can see it at all, with those sunglasses on,’ murmured Amanda.

‘Ten o’clock,’ piped up someone else.

Amanda pouted and looked sulky. ‘Ten o’clock? For God’s sake, how long do you think we’re going to have to wait? I only came to see those girls. I can’t think of any other reason for coming out here to the back of beyond. How long are they going to hide away? This is their party, for fuck’s sake.’

Just then a voice said loudly, ‘Joan Fish, as I live and breathe! Joan Fish, is that you?’ and a man at the tail end of middle age, with white hair, bright brown eyes and suspiciously unlined skin, appeared on the path leading to the benches. He went straight to Amanda and bent to kiss her.

‘Gerry darling.’ Amanda offered him one smooth cheek and then another as she pursed her own rosy lips and touched the air with a kiss. ‘I’m not Joan Fish, I’m Madame de Pompadour.’

‘Same difference.’ Gerry Harbord gave a flourish of his wrist, flicking out the waterfall of lace ruffles that emerged from his startlingly tight frock coat. ‘La Pompadour was just a sexy little parvenue, sweetheart. She may have died a marquise but she was born plain Mademoiselle Jeanne Poisson. Or Joan Fish, as I call her. Still, one can’t fault her taste. She was exquisite – and so are you.’ He looked around at the others politely. ‘You all look fabulous.’

Suze twirled a ringlet round one finger and said, ‘What I don’t understand is why everyone’s making such a fuss anyway. Who are these girls? I’ve never heard of them.’

Gerry breathed in sharply. ‘Never heard of the Beauforts? What on earth are you saying?’

Claudia laughed. ‘Oh, Suze, you are an idiot. Surely you know about the Beaufort money. It all came from steel, I think. A couple of generations back at least.’

‘And you must have heard of that divorce,’ chimed in Amanda.

‘The custody battle,’ sighed Gerry. ‘Two little girls, fatherless, left with their feckless mother, then taken in by their aunt after a vicious court case.’

Suze seemed puzzled, her small face looking rather comical under the great wig she was wearing. ‘But that must have been years ago.’

Claudia tossed back her long dark curls over one shoulder. ‘I remember seeing that court case all over the news like anyone else, though it didn’t mean much to me at the time. Suze is right, it was fifteen years ago, wasn’t it? And I haven’t heard anything about them since.’

‘Hardly anyone has,’ Gerry said mysteriously. ‘They’ve been protected like little princesses in purdah. Who knows why? But all that’s about to change.’ He smiled at the little group. ‘Now, I’m going to steal my darling Amanda away, I simply can’t go a moment longer without her. Do excuse us, ladies.’

He offered his arm to Amanda, who stood up and took it, and they walked away together along the path, leaving the other girls staring after them. They made a striking couple, with Gerry outfitted in a magnificent cream coat and matching breeches, the shimmering silk embroidered with golden birds sitting in twisting golden vines. He had attached a curling white tail of hair to the back of his head, tied with a black velvet ribbon. ‘You’re very out of fashion, darling,’ he murmured. ‘Scandalous.’

Amanda smiled at him mischievously. ‘I know what I’m doing. Everyone else was going to come in huge white nylon wigs, all struggling to outdo each other.’ She put her hand to her head. ‘So this is my take on Madame de Pompadour … a little modern twist.’ Her hair, usually a rich brown and cut into a full, wavy bob, had been dyed a colour that was almost silver until the light caught it in a certain way and then it glowed the softest lavender. It was pulled back into a simple chignon, and pinned with a few more miniature silk roses to match the ones on her dress.

‘Now, I love that,’ Gerry told her. ‘It ought to look pure Mrs Slocombe but somehow it doesn’t. So clever. I might have known you’d do something a little special, Amanda. You never let one down.’

‘And if I know you, Gerry, you’ll have the same colour by Monday morning, and claim it was all your idea,’ Amanda retorted, although she smiled at his compliment. They progressed up the long walk towards the splendid Queen Anne house that dominated the night skyline. The strains of a Haydn string quartet floated out from the terrace on the night air. ‘Now listen, I want to know when these blasted girls are going to make an appearance. If anyone knows anything, it’ll be you. There are furious rumours going around that you planned this whole bash. You always get Chloe de Montforte on the harp – and there she is, strumming away by the grand staircase. I’d guess the guest list is your work too. All your pals are here.’

Gerry looked pleased. ‘Of course I did, my dear. Frances called me. She’s an angel … a bit stiff perhaps but a darling at heart. She knows no one, though. Just think – all that money and not a friend to call her own, only that crusty old husband of hers. She told me about her scheme to launch the girls in society, and I simply clapped my hands with joy. It was just too adorable! Two little nuns, never been seen out of the convent, and here they are, making their debut as no one does any more. If a girl retains much of her unworldly innocence beyond thirteen these days, she’s probably a simpleton. So refreshing to find two of them so unspoiled.’

‘Oh, spare me,’ muttered Amanda, rolling her eyes. ‘And have you actually met them? They’ve been under lock and key for so long, I’ve begun to think that they don’t really exist at all.’

‘Well … no, not really. I spied a couple of portraits in the house when I visited but one never can tell how true to life they are.’ Gerry looked a little shame-faced, as though he had failed his own high standards of social spying. ‘But it was my idea that they should appear at just before midnight, like a pair of Cinderellas. And it was my idea too to have a fête champêtre,’ he added happily.

‘Yes – it has your queeny old fingerprints all over it.’ Amanda giggled.

He raised an eyebrow at her. ‘I forgive you for disobeying the dress code and coming out of period,’ he declared nobly. ‘Isn’t that nice of me? Now, here comes a footman with some champagne. You clearly need a drink. I decreed gallons of vintage Krug and the old girl didn’t bat an eyelid. There are cases and cases and cases of it. And there’s a special surprise later too.’ He lifted two flutes off the footman’s tray and passed one to Amanda. ‘Are you hungry? I’m starving. Let’s go to the Orangery. There’s a supper laid out there and, if I say so myself, it’s inspired.’

They moved through the crowds. The revellers had by now been drinking and eating for a couple of hours and there were already signs of dilapidation among them: some wigs were looking distinctly askew, velvet ribbons and silk stocks were no longer crisply tied but hung down loosely, and some of the carefully applied make-up was a little smudged. The younger crowd had disappeared inside to the ballroom, which had been transformed with black velvet drapery and twinkling starlit cloths into a modern dance floor, the whole room pounding with the beat from the sound booth. The Orangery was quieter, with the strains of Haydn floating in from the terrace, and an older crowd relaxing among the armchairs and chaise-longues that Gerry had arranged be put there: their rich damasks and silks, laden with cushions, looked theatrical and stylish among the great stone pots, pedestals and statues that adorned the room.

It was certainly an amazing feast, with everything displayed as elaborately as possible: towers of seafood decorated with seaweed and oyster shells full of caviar, ice sculptures of cupids dancing in the middle of exquisite jellied terrines, whole salmon scaled in the tiniest, whitest slivers of cucumber, curling about ice waves. Lobsters, oysters, smoked chickens, foie gras, sides of beef and glistening hams studded with cloves … it was a riot of plenty and, in the manner of the period, focused predominantly on meat, which suited most of the society ladies who were on high-protein diets and refused to touch potatoes or bread.

Just then, Gerry was collared by an elderly dowager so Amanda went to admire the buffet table. She leaned over and plucked a langoustine from a tower of fruits de mer, dipping it into a jug of rich, yellow mayonnaise. While she ate it, she studied the table opposite where the puddings were laid out. They were just as marvellous: marzipan castles decorated in crystallised fruit, baskets of raspberries, blueberries and candied currants; towering, wobbling milk blancmanges swathed in cream, champagne jellies with violet and rose petals suspended in them, vast pillowy meringues drenched in vanilla-flecked cream and studded with scarlet strawberries. All was exquisitely beautiful, displayed on Meissen, Sèvres and Venetian glass, like a banquet from a fairy story.

Gerry returned as she was finishing her third langoustine, unable to resist their delicate sweetness. He looked apologetic. ‘Sorry, my darling, the countess insisted on talking to me about her party. She wants me to organise it but of course she wants all this’ – he waved a hand about – ‘for a fraction of the price. I don’t think people really understand how much a bash like this costs.’

‘Go on, tell me. How much?’ Amanda said mischievously. ‘Daddy spent fifty grand on my twenty-first and it wasn’t a patch on this.’ She licked a finger delicately and smiled at Gerry.

‘Fifty grand?’ Gerry raised an eyebrow. ‘Hardly, my angel. But, shhh! I’m not saying another word, and don’t even try to get it out of me because you won’t. Discretion, discretion, that’s my watchword.’

There was the sound of a gong booming out over the terrace and grounds. Gerry jumped, the startled expression on his face swiftly replaced by a smile of anticipation and a sparkle in his eyes.

‘Look at the time! It’s almost midnight. I think the moment of the unveiling is here.’ He hurried out of the Orangery. Amanda stared after him for a second and then followed, heels clattering and skirts swishing on the stone floor, eager to see what was about to be revealed.

In the kitchen of Homerton House, Maggie the housekeeper was bashing things about crossly, swearing under her breath at the hired caterers who’d invaded her realm for the evening and who swarmed everywhere in their chic black outfits, carrying trays of food and stacks of plates. They had overrun the place, which was now in a kind of organised chaos – and they were politely but insistently ignoring her and overruling all the usual systems.

‘Best to let them be,’ said Jo the cook. She hadn’t been needed for the night, not with the professional caterers on hand to carve flowers out of courgettes and peel the artichokes and do whatever else had been decreed for the special event, but she’d come up from her cottage to see what was going on. No one wanted to miss this, after all. ‘No point in getting riled about it,’ she said wisely.

‘Maybe,’ Maggie said with a sigh. ‘But I don’t like it, and that’s a fact. I like things the way they’re supposed to be.’

‘We’re not used to this kind of fuss,’ Jo pointed out. ‘Nothing much ever changes here, does it?’ She picked up a tea towel and started polishing a champagne glass. ‘We usually know exactly what will happen from one day to the next.’

‘Yes, well … not any more,’ muttered Maggie. She frowned. ‘This place looks like a bomb site! And they’ve taken over the breakfast room too.’

‘They’ll be gone in the morning,’ Jo said comfortingly. ‘I know what these outfits are like. It’s a terrible mess at the time but they’ll have sorted it before they go. You won’t know they’ve been here.’

Maggie sniffed. ‘I doubt it.’

‘What’s bothering you?’ The cook put down her towel and laid her hand gently on Maggie’s arm. ‘You’re not happy, are you?’

Maggie said nothing for a minute, staring at the stone flags on the floor. Then she sank down on to a chair and clasped her hands round her knees. ‘No,’ she said at last. ‘I’m not.’ She looked up at Jo. ‘Like you said, we know how things work around here. We know how it is. It’s always been the same. But that’s all going to change after tonight.’

‘Is it?’ Jo’s eyes widened and she looked startled. ‘How?’

‘Can’t you see? This night’s going to be the end of everything here. Those girls … she’s releasing them at last. Do you think, when they’ve got their freedom, they’re going to stay here? In this big old house in the middle of nowhere, with that crusty old couple? I don’t think so.’

‘Oh.’ Jo let out a long breath. ‘I hadn’t really thought about that but now you say it …’

‘There’s been plenty going on lately,’ Maggie said sharply. ‘I haven’t wanted to say anything because … well, I try to keep my mouth shut. I don’t like gossip. But there’s been people coming here – lawyers, accountants, people in suits carrying briefcases. Something’s about to happen, I just know it. And it’ll change life for all of us.’ She shook her head, her mouth turning down and her eyes filling with tears. ‘I don’t know how we’ll survive without those girls. They’re all that makes this place live.’

‘But you wouldn’t want them to stay here forever, would you?’ Jo asked quietly. ‘They’re young. They have to spread their wings. Besides, it’s not … healthy, them being here all alone. You know it isn’t.’

There was a pointed pause and the two women exchanged glances.

‘Course I do,’ Maggie replied gruffly. ‘And I know it’s right they should go. Doesn’t mean I have to like it, does it?’

The distant sound of a gong boomed out. They listened and then looked at each other.

‘This is it,’ said Maggie breathlessly. ‘They’re coming. Come on, we can’t miss this.’

The small party began to descend the grand staircase from the upper floor: first two footmen leading the way, then the two girls and behind them the elderly couple. The Brigadier was in his mess uniform, a wonderful scarlet jacket with brass buttons and gold braid, medals displayed across his chest. His wife, Frances Staunton, majestic and elegant in navy blue satin and a sapphire necklace, glided beside him, her bearing as upright and soldierly as her husband’s. With her silver and gunmetal-grey hair she looked every one of her sixty-two years, but with a regal quality that made her transcend age: her skin was soft, the lines in it as delicate as the creases in tissue paper.

No one was looking at the elderly couple, though. Below, in the main hall standing on the black-and-white chequered marble floor, Maggie and Jo tried to conceal themselves behind a statue of a Roman god, and gasped as they saw the twins.

‘Don’t they look lovely?’ sighed Jo. ‘Like film stars!’

‘Beautiful,’ whispered Maggie. ‘Oh, I feel quite choked up! Oh, my goodness. Poor wee girls. What’s going to become of them?’

The two women scuttled off to bag the prime viewing spot before the party arrived on the terrace.

The crowd streamed up the garden, along the formal walks, past the hedges and rose gardens, back from the rockery, the carp pond, the boating lake and the summer house. Others came from the Indian silk tents that had been set up on the croquet lawn, where they’d been lounging on cushions while drinking rose petal cocktails and feasting on exotic delicacies. It was late now, and the mood was relaxed: the night air was full of chattering and laughter, fragrant with cigarette and cigar smoke, and alive with curiosity.

The colourful throng gathered at the foot of the stone steps that led to the terrace. A line of footmen stood facing out, each one impassive, stopping anyone from going up to the house, its windows blazing with electric light that seemed somehow harsh and blinding after the gentle lanternlight and flickering torches that illuminated the garden. The string quartet stopped playing, and the crowd gradually quietened down as it watched with interest.

For long moments nothing happened.

‘Hurry up!’ shouted one woman from the back, and then screeched with laughter before she was hushed by her friends.

‘Someone get that hag out of here,’ hissed Gerry crossly. ‘I won’t have anyone spoiling the moment.’

Amanda watched the empty terrace. They had managed to get an excellent place near the edge of the crowd and could see perfectly.

Suddenly the house was plunged into darkness. Spotlights mounted somewhere high above flashed on and a single pool of white light appeared on the terrace, everything around it sinking into contrasting blackness. There was a hush of anticipation. Then into the pool of light stepped two figures.

The crowd drew in its breath and released a gentle ‘Aah’ at the sight. In the glare of the spotlight stood two identical girls, each with platinum-white hair set in a mass of curls that formed a glittering halo about her face, while a few wide soft ringlets were allowed to drop on to bare shoulders beneath. They wore strapless silver silk dresses, simple yet exquisite, an utterly feminine silhouette that skimmed every curve to the waist before floating down in a full skirt, with over it the softest dove-grey net embroidered with hundreds of crystals that sparkled and glinted as though the dresses had trapped a miniature galaxy of stars.

‘They’re not in costume,’ murmured Amanda to Gerry.

‘Not strictly,’ he said, happily, ‘but it works, doesn’t it? The hair is the real nod to Marie Antoinette. The gowns are, I admit, more modern. But utterly classic. And those sweeping skirts and that dreamy netting … Aren’t they magnificent?’

The two slender platinum blondes stared out over the crowd, each one shimmering in the white light they were bathed in. Their wide blue eyes blinked as they tried to make out the garden beneath, which was lost in shadow to them. One sister turned to the other and reached out a hand. Her scarlet mouth moved as though she were speaking but no one heard what she said. The other sister seemed oblivious, her lips curved up into a cherry-red smile, her expression expectant and happy.

Then, at some invisible signal, the string quartet began to play the tune of ‘Happy Birthday’ and a moment later everyone joined in singing heartily. The old couple joined the girls in the spotlight as the song reached its crescendo, then the lights widened to encompass the whole terrace. The aunt led her nieces to one side of it where four spindly gilt chairs waited, and they all sat down. A moment later the crowd gasped as acrobats appeared as if by magic from the surrounding trees and hedges, from the battlements and windowsills and balconies of the house; they rolled, jumped and flew through the air, landing at last on the terrace where they performed a series of magnificent circus manoeuvres of such skill that the crowd laughed and applauded in delight. When their routine was finished, the acrobats disappeared as gracefully as they’d come.

As they vanished, music filled the air: eighteenth-century courtly music, strings and harpsichords in elegant fusion. From the French window, a troupe of dancers in period clothes and wigs made their entrance on to the terrace, stepping out in perfect time in the manner of a court dance. When they were all on the terrace, they performed a delightful minuet. It was graceful and enchanting but, just as the audience began to tire of it a little, the music changed: a deep insistent beat emerged and there was the harsher note of an electric guitar. The dancers tugged at their costumes and within moments the girls were dressed only in corsets, tutus and ripped fishnets, the men bare-chested with tiny biker shorts covering their modesty. The strains of a famous song began to pound out and, as the crowd screamed in recognition and excitement, one of the world’s megastars strutted out from the French windows wearing hot pants, a corset and thigh-high lace-up boots. She adjusted her head mic, struck a pose and began to sing. Everyone went wild as the dancers twisted and writhed through a complex routine, the singer moving with them in time, stunning them all with some gracefully executed yoga moves.

As the song reached its end to ecstatic applause, the star shouted, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I give you … Octavia and Flora!’ She gestured to the girls sitting at the side of the terrace. ‘Happy birthday, honeys. You girls have arrived!’

Just then, a huge birthday cake was wheeled out from the house, a staggering tiered confection covered in white icing and ornamented with crystallised white rose petals, pushed along on its stand by two footmen. Forty-two candles burned on the tiers. The girls stood up and walked forward. Another chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’ broke out. At the last note, the sisters blew out all their candles, the singer helpfully stepping forward to blow out a few herself when they seemed to be struggling with the task.

The moment the last candle was extinguished, columns of golden sparks shot up from all along the edge of the terrace and a magnificent firework display began, exploding above the house, bathing the crowd of onlookers in red, blue, green and gold light. The birthday girls watched too, their faces tilted up to observe the show. They seemed in awe of the magnificence around them, as though they had not quite grasped that all this fuss was for them.

‘Well, that was quite a coup,’ Amanda said at last, turning to Gerry, who was grinning broadly, obviously satisfied with the way everything had gone. ‘I thought she never did private performances.’

‘If the price is right, my sweet, if the price is right …’ Gerry rubbed his hands together. ‘I’m not allowed to tell you how much it cost. Let’s just say that each second of that song could pay off a substantial chunk of Third World debt.’

‘So, those are the Beaufort twins,’ Amanda said, staring at them. ‘They don’t look much. Beautiful, obviously. But plastic. Barbies.’ A pleased expression came over her face. ‘I don’t think we’ve got much to fear from them.’

Gerry said nothing but raised his brows, and continued to stare beadily at the two shimmering figures as they watched the display in the night sky.

2

Frances Staunton made her way through the house, her eagle eye catching sight of everything that was out of place. The chaos of the previous evening had been worth it. The party had been a success, that was certain. The last task she had set herself had been achieved. As she walked down the hallway towards the breakfast room, she stopped in front of a portrait of a young man, a pen-and-ink sketch that looked as though it had been hastily dashed off while its energetic subject was uncharacteristically still for a brief moment. There were better portraits of Arthur – the Lucian Freud was wonderful and, of course, hugely valuable – but this was her favourite. It had caught her brother when he was at his peak: young, vibrant and full of promise. Before he married that woman. Before all the disasters that followed.

Frances stood in front of the sketch for a moment, filled with the bitter melancholy she always felt when she thought too long about him. Then she said aloud, ‘Well, Arthur, I’ve done it. I’ve done what you wanted me to. I’ve brought them up the best way I could, and I think I’ve done a good job. But now my work is finished. There’s nothing more I can do. I’ve fulfilled my duty to you, my dear brother.’

Then she turned on her heel and continued on to the breakfast room, stopping on the way to glance out at the gardens where people were clearing up the mess.

‘How could one party cause such havoc?’ Frances said to herself as she watched them carrying sackfuls of litter and trays of discarded glasses. God only knew what the Orangery looked like, with the remains of the demolished supper still there, or what state the croquet lawn was in. ‘Never again,’ she told herself firmly. ‘Once is most certainly enough.’

The strain of planning the great event had been very wearisome. And what it had cost … well, the bills would come in soon enough. No doubt it would be a lot, but sometimes it didn’t do to watch the pennies and Frances was quite sure that this was one such occasion. We can afford it after all, she thought with a shrug. And I had to make sure that people noticed.

She saw one of the housemaids walking towards her, keeping her eyes downcast as ordered. ‘Where are the girls? Have you seen them?’ she demanded.

The maid shook her head, her eyes frightened. ‘No, mam,’ she said in a small voice. ‘They’re still in bed, mam, I think. No one’s seen them yet anyhow.’

‘I see.’ Frances nodded at the maid, who scuttled off, and consulted her watch. It was after 11.30. Well, the party hadn’t ended until five a.m., although she had been in her own bed by three. The girls had probably stayed up until the end. That party fellow, Gerry, had darted forward at the end of the firework display, introduced himself to Octavia and Flora and then whisked them away, saying he would chaper-one them very carefully.

They certainly weren’t in any danger from him, she was sure of that. A small smile twisted Frances’s rather thin lips. A confirmed bachelor, as the saying went. Anyway, he’d certainly done a splendid job on the party, and had charged plenty for his services, more than likely getting commission from all the people he’d recommended as well.

‘Madam, madam …’ It was Hobbs, the butler, approaching along the thickly carpeted corridor.

‘Yes?’

‘I’ve had word from the lodge. The lawyers have arrived. They’re on their way up the drive.’

‘I see.’ Frances thought for a moment. ‘Show them into the library, Hobbs. Offer them coffee. Give them the papers and ask them to wait. I’ll be there to see them when I can.’

Hobbs bowed, the top of his bald head glimmering in the hall light. ‘Very good, madam.’

Frances turned back the way she’d come.

Outside one of the main bedroom suites, Frances rapped hard on the door and waited. There was no answer, so she opened it and went in. Inside was a large but still cosy sitting room, decorated in a young, rather pretty style with vintage floral prints, soft armchairs and a saggy sofa covered with cushions. Frances walked quickly through, noting with disapproval a pile of glossy magazines on a coffee table, and knocked at another door on the far side of the sitting room.

‘Octavia?’ she said loudly. ‘Are you awake?’

There was a stirring behind the door and a light moaning.

‘Octavia!’ Frances rapped again, then opened the door. She looked at the large four-poster bed that stood directly opposite the door, hung with swathes of rose-printed chintz. ‘Octavia!’ she repeated sharply.

‘Oh!’ A tousled white head popped up from among the pillows, blue eyes wide and blinking, smudges of mascara under each one. ‘Yes?’ Then she sighed and flopped back down. ‘What time is it?’

‘It’s almost noon. You must get up.’

‘But I’ve only been asleep for about five hours! I’m exhausted. That man Gerry made me dance and dance …’

‘You heard me,’ Frances said in her strict voice. ‘I want you and Flora downstairs in thirty minutes. I’ll have some breakfast sent up to you while you dress. I shall expect you in the library no later than twelve-thirty, do you understand?’

There was a muffled moan from under the bedclothes.

‘Good,’ said Frances sharply. ‘I will see you then.’

She walked across the sitting room to Flora’s bedroom door. The girls had shared a bedroom until they reached eighteen when Frances had decreed that they should have separate bedrooms and sitting rooms, and had planned to put them at opposite ends of the house. But the twins hadn’t wanted to be apart and had put up a surprising show of resistance to her plans. In the end it was agreed that they would share a sitting room but have separate bedrooms and bathrooms on either side of it.

She knocked on Flora’s door, to give her the same message, but Flora was not in her bed, a four-poster identical to Octavia’s but swathed in delphinium-printed chintz. The sound of water coming from her bathroom indicated that she was showering.

No lazy lying about for Flora, Frances noted. She was always the more diligent of the sisters. Frances turned and left. The maid bringing up their breakfasts would make sure that Octavia had alerted Flora to the meeting in the library. Dear Flora, so sweet, so unspoiled, Frances thought to herself as she returned to her own rooms to tidy her hair and powder her nose. Always so quiet and obedient. Quite unlike headstrong Octavia. If I could, I would keep Flora here … she would make the perfect companion. Frances sighed. There was little chance of that. She was sure that once set free the little birds would fly away like the dove to dry land, never to be seen again.

At 12.30 Frances was sitting in the library, her least favourite room in the house. It was dark, lined with untouched leather-and-gold volumes, and furnished in burgundy leather and mahogany. It smelt of the Cuban cigars the Brigadier smoked, and the side table was covered in heavy decanters of whisky, brandy and port. On the darkest side were those grisly cabinets, covered in their protective green baize cloths. No, she didn’t like it at all. This was her husband’s territory, where he got up to his own masculine pursuits and drank his whisky. As a rule she preferred to sit in her own morning room, where she could listen to the radio and do her sewing and her painting in peace. Peace was all she’d ever wanted, after all, and if that meant closing her eyes to some of the less pleasant things that happened, so be it.

The Brigadier stood over by the window, in his casual clothes of baggy cord trousers, a soft brushed cotton shirt and a grey cardigan – less distinguished now that he was out of uniform. He was silent, as usual. He rarely spoke, but simply watched everything that went on. The lawyers were sitting a trifle stiffly on their chairs, shuffling papers and talking quietly to each other.

‘I take it all is ready?’ Frances asked.

‘Yes, Mrs Staunton,’ answered Challon, the senior lawyer present. He was rarely seen out of his office. Clients tended to go to him except in rare circumstances. This was obviously one of them. ‘We only require the principals now.’

Frances looked down at her watch. It showed 12.30. There was a knock on the door.

Good. The girls were well trained, after all. They knew what standards were expected and the consequences of not meeting them.

‘Come in!’ she called.

Everyone turned to look as the library door opened. A young woman put her head round it and then came in. She was tall and slender, with a rangy coltish look and platinum-white hair that reached down past her shoulders, falling in a glossy curtain that curled slightly at the ends. Her face was dominated by wide blue eyes that had a violet tinge to them and were made even more dramatic by long dark lashes and the straight dark brows above them. Her most overwhelmingly attractive feature, though, was her air of unself-consciousness, as though she hadn’t the faintest idea of how stunning she was. Certainly she wasn’t dressed like a sultry sophisticated woman, but rather girlishly in a plain grey dress that looked almost like a school uniform, although she had belted it at the waist with a wide three-buckle twisted leather belt. She walked into the room in flat black ballet slippers, looking about her with interest, clearly curious about the men in their dark suits sitting opposite her aunt.

She was followed by another young woman, and the combined effect was almost supernaturally strange. This girl had her hair scraped back with an Alice band and wore a white jersey top under her grey dress and no belt. Apart from that, the two of them were identical. They had the exact same blue eyes, with those remarkable dark lashes, and high cheekbones that curved down to a small neat chin. The lawyers shifted in their seats: it was startling to see two separate human beings who so closely resembled one another, even though they’d known they were to be meeting identical twins.

Frances stood up. ‘Good, you’re here. Gentlemen, may I introduce Octavia –’ she gestured to the girl wearing the leather belt ‘– and Flora.’ She waved her hand at the other. ‘Sit down, please, girls.’

The sisters went silently to the chairs she had indicated and sat down neatly, feet together and hands folded in their laps. They waited expectantly.

Over by the window, the Brigadier lit his pipe and puffed out a cloud of tobacco smoke that smelt like a mixture of vanilla and burnt leaves. No one paid any attention to him.

‘Now,’ began Frances, ‘you are probably wondering what’s going on. Girls, yesterday you turned twenty-one. That is a remarkable moment in anyone’s life – the transition to true adulthood. But it’s more remarkable for you than most. I don’t need to remind you that you are the children of a special young man, one who was cruelly taken from us in the prime of life, before he had achieved even a tenth of his destiny …’ Frances walked over to a grandly framed oil portrait of her brother that stood in place of honour on an easel in the middle of the room. ‘Here he is, Arthur Beaufort, the great hope of our family.’

Octavia looked bored while Flora gazed down at her hands. They had clearly heard something along these lines before.

Frances reached out to touch the painting. The young man in it also had startling blue eyes under thick, straight black brows. He was sitting formally by an open window that showed a Cambridge college in the background. One hand was resting on a degree scroll and over the back of his chair hung a mortarboard.

‘He was brilliant, you know,’ Frances continued, her voice mournful. ‘This was painted to celebrate his first-class degree from King’s. The tragedy was that he never lived to fulfil his early promise. Dead before he was thirty. My poor, beautiful Arthur …’ She bowed her head momentarily then turned to face everyone in the room. The girls immediately snapped to attention. ‘But he left us this legacy. You, Octavia and Flora, are his living bequest to us. His children.’ She allowed herself a smile. ‘He would be very proud of you if he could see you today. And … he left you more than that.’ She looked over at Challon. ‘If you would please explain?’

‘Certainly.’ The elderly lawyer coughed lightly and looked down at the green leather folder he was holding. Then he said, ‘Young ladies, today you come into your inheritance. The terms of your father’s will were that your fortune should be guarded for you in trust, with your guardian having main control of that trust, along with a few other trustees. You received the first portion of your inheritance when you turned eighteen …’

At this, the sisters looked surprised and shot quick, covert glances at one another.

‘… but under the guiding hand of your guardian, who had total discretion over what you should receive.’ Frances’s face remained impassive as Challon spoke. ‘Now that you are twenty-one, those restrictions are removed. The money becomes yours to do with as you wish. I will need you to sign some papers, and there will be some further formalities. I also wish to put at your disposal certain financial advisors who will endeavour to explain the situation to you and give you some pointers as to how to guard and maintain your inheritance.’

The two girls stared at him for a long moment and then Octavia frowned and said, ‘Are we free to leave here?’

Challon looked puzzled. ‘Of course. You’re free to leave at any time. There haven’t been any restrictions on your movements, except the usual discretionary rules laid down by your guardian – your aunt.’

‘Oh.’ The girls looked at one another again.

Flora spoke up next, in a soft, almost wispy voice. ‘H-h-how much? I mean, how m-m-much is our inheritance?’

Challon coughed again. Frances raised her chin and stared up into the murky darkness of the ceiling.

‘Your father’s total legacy amounts to two hundred and eighty-five million pounds. To be split between you equally. So you have each come into your inheritance of one hundred and forty-two million, five hundred thousand pounds.’

The sisters gaped at him, unable to believe their ears. Even the hardened lawyers, used to enormous sums of money, raised their eyebrows and exchanged looks.

‘Congratulations, young ladies. You have just become very rich indeed. Now, Mrs Staunton, shall we witness the necessary signatures?’

3

Octavia whirled about the room, tossing books and pictures on to the sofa, her eyes bright and her cheeks flushed with excitement.

‘Tavy, Tavy!’ cried Flora, trying to calm her sister down. She had a strange nauseous feeling, as though the bottom of her stomach had dropped away, or she had just plummeted a hundred floors in a lift. ‘What are you doing?’

‘Doing?’ Octavia stopped whirling for a moment and clutched the back of the sofa with one hand, the other arm flung wide. ‘Don’t you see? We’re free! We’re free at last! Oh my God …’ She clambered over the sofa and collapsed on its soft cushions, giggling and breathless. ‘Didn’t you hear what they said? We’re rich. We can go anywhere we like, do anything!’

‘But …’ Flora blinked, bewildered. All this had happened so fast. First there had been that party. Only last night. That had been terrifying enough – she’d been sick for days beforehand thinking about it, horrified by the idea of so many people watching her. Only Octavia had been able to give her the strength to face it. Octavia always had so much strength herself, there was plenty left over for her sister. ‘But where are we going to go?’

‘Who cares?’ Octavia’s eyes were burning brightly. ‘Anywhere. Out of this prison.’ She sat up and held out her hand to Flora. Her sister went to her and took it, and they clutched one another tightly. ‘Don’t you want it too?’

‘You know I do,’ Flora said in a small voice.

‘Then let’s go tonight!’

‘But how? I don’t understand how it’s going to happen. Some men have told us we have money, but how are we going to get it? Nothing seems any different to me.’

Octavia sighed. The fervour in her eyes died down a little. ‘You’re right. We can’t go tonight. There will be masses to sort out, I suppose. But we will go. As soon as we can.’

Later that night, after a solitary supper eaten without a sign of their aunt and uncle, the girls went about their usual bedtime ritual. After their baths, they dressed in their pyjamas and then sat on Octavia’s bed, slowly brushing out one another’s hair. When they were very little, a nanny had taught them to brush their fair hair with long firm strokes, telling them it would make the hair strong and healthy, and ever since they had done the same thing every night, finding comfort in the routine.

Flora pulled the Mason Pearson brush through Octavia’s locks. Their whiteness was unfamiliar. It was symbolic of how everything had changed overnight, she thought. Yesterday they were themselves. Today they were possessors of fabulous wealth, platinum-haired heiresses, about to strike out in the world on their own.

‘I’m going to telephone that lawyer tomorrow,’ Octavia was saying as she knelt on the bed, her legs tucked up underneath her. ‘Aunt Frances will have to let me. Did you hear what he said? We got money on our eighteenth birthdays, and she never told us. If she tries to stop me, I’ll tell her we’ll sue her or something.’

‘Do you think we could?’

‘I’m sure we could. I’ve read in plenty of books that concealing that sort of thing from someone is criminal. I bet I could frighten her into letting me. Besides …’ Octavia shrugged. ‘She can’t stop us any more. I bet she’s just like a pussy cat from now on.’ She turned to look over her shoulder at Flora. ‘Her powers have been melted away. She’s like the witch in The Wizard of Oz