Jessica was everything Linda hadn’t been. She was quiet and thoughtful, philosophical almost. We had deep conversations that lasted far into the night. She wasn’t a great beauty, but a great conversationalist. I could really open up to her. I thought she might stay because she was so introverted, but I missed the fact that she was hopelessly attached to her twin sister. The distance was too great. I planted the Best Friend rose in her honor, wishing I could have been her best friend.
A week after moving back into her childhood bedroom, Elaina still wasn’t settled. Even though she was surrounded by the comforts of home – her stuffed animals, her books, the lavender curtains around her windows, the soft white sheets with their tiny purple and blue flowers – it still felt wrong. She was twenty-five, a college graduate, and had once lived in the lap of luxury.
The fairy tale still wound through her head, just as it had two years before. At twenty-two, she was recently graduated and moved back to the city she had grown up in. She had been disappointed the library didn’t have any current openings, so had opened up her job search. The entry-level writing position with the Hunter Publishing Group had appealed to her.
Her fingers froze on the keyboard of her laptop, the screen displaying job openings making the memories flood back. She remembered applying to the job, not expecting anything. After all, she’d trained to be a librarian, not a writer. But an English degree was an English degree and maybe that jounalism course she’d had to take would finally come in handy.
She’d met Camille on her first day. A mousy brunette, she had tried to quickly scamper past the stunning model, her arms full of papers her supervisor had wanted her to copy. Camille later told her she’d only followed Elaina because she was bored waiting for the photographer and was curious about the slim girl rushing past with her dark hair hanging over her face. Most people who saw her wanted her autograph.
The copy room had felt a little small to Elaina, but Camille had been nice, and had a good deal more brains than she expected of a model. Surprisingly, the model was well-read and they had been gushing over the classics when Bradley Hunter had poked his head in, a frown clearly questioning the excited chatter.
Elaina hadn’t minded Camille’s friendship, and Lily had warmly welcomed her. But she had minded Bradley’s sudden interest in her as he chased her for a year. She’d later found out he had been curious about why a model as lovely as Camille wanted to befriend someone as plain as Elaina. That had been over a year after she’d given in and said yes to a date. It had also planted the first seed of doubt in her mind about their relationship.
“I couldn’t imagine ever wearing something like that.”
Lily’s voice popped the bubble around Elaina. Startled, and curious about what Lily was exclaiming about, she looked up from where she perched on her bed, her laptop precariously balanced on her knees.
Lily and Camille were leaning against the far wall, magazines scattered around them, though Lily held the local paper. Camille was flipping through an old fashion magazine, showing Lily some of the shots she’d done over the five years she’d spent modeling.
Camille smiled. “It wasn’t as bad as it looks. Actually, the hem was about two inches longer.”
“That still doesn’t cover much.”
“No, but that’s why they had me stand like that.”
Elaina smiled. She had no idea which pose they were talking about, but Camille had worn so many daring outfits that it didn’t really matter.
Lily shook her head as Camille turned the page, her wide blue eyes turning back to the local paper. She tilted her head up slightly, her nose looking perfectly pert and the sunlight beaming into the room playing with her hair to make her look like a fairy.
“Oh, look,” Lily said, spreading the paper on the gray carpet. She pointed to a square of text in one corner. “I guess the shut-in’s companion left. Rose Roderick has issued another ad.”
The shut-in, as they liked to call him, was Rose Roderick’s poor son Robert. Well, he wasn’t poor. He was heir to the largest fortune in the area. But, after his father had been killed eight years before, the now twenty-five-year-old had lived the last eight years locked up in Roderick Hall. His mother had been sporadically putting out ads for a female companion for her son since he was seventeen, but none of them ever seemed to stick for more than a few months.
Camille leaned over to read the ad for herself. “I wonder why they never last long.”
Lily shrugged. “Maybe he’s hideous. Wealthy, but not easy on the eyes.”
“Or maybe he has bad breath or is bad in bed. I mean, who could say no to living that kind of life? The Roderick family is the wealthiest one around. Sure, you have to live cooped up in that mansion, but, come on, it probably has every amenity imaginable.”
“I wouldn’t do it,” Elaina said softly, just the thought of living in luxury again making her stomach churn.
Her friends looked up, understanding in their eyes.
“The wealthy lifestyle isn’t for everyone,” Elaina said, pushing back a lock of brown hair. “There are so many rules and guidelines and you’re expected to behave a certain way.” She waved a hand at the paper. “Sure, it could be different because he’s been confined for so long, but he was raised wealthy.”
“Have you been to one of the garden parties?” Camille asked. “I’ve always been too busy to attend. Not that I haven’t daydreamed about being picked myself.”
“I have,” Lily said, “but Elaina has always refused to go with me, and then she was dating Bradley.”
“What’s it like?”
“Rose Roderick hosts an afternoon garden party in the gardens behind Roderick Hall. All unattached women over eighteen are allowed to attend, and everyone wears fancy gowns. She never shows her face, so it’s essentially run by a butler. There’s tea and pastries, kind of like a tea party, but no seats. Women mill around and drift in groups. Robert always chooses groups of girls to enter the Hall and all but one comes back out.”
“So, if he picks you, you just stay.”
Lily nodded. “I’ve heard they give the chosen companion everything she could possibly want, but she has no more freedom than Robert does.”
“I’d go bonkers,” Elaina said matter-of-factly. “I’d miss both of you and my parents terribly. Perhaps that’s why every companion has left. Only Robert is built for a life in seclusion.”
Camille eyed her, making Elaina sweat a little with worry. “I don’t know, Elaina. You’re a homebody. I think you could probably get along just fine with just a couple of people to keep you company.”
Elaina scowled and loudly shut her computer. “Don’t get any ideas, Camille. I have no plans of jumping to another rich guy, much less the wealthiest guy in the city.”
“But, come on, Elaina, a garden party would be wonderful,” Lily said, her eyes beseeching. “You haven’t left this house since you left Bradley, and you yourself said there are no jobs for you in the area at the moment. Even if Robert doesn’t pick you, at least you’ll have an afternoon’s diversion.”
Elaina firmly shook her head. “I don’t think so, Lily. A garden party does not sound like it’s up my alley.”
Camille arched a brow. “I think it’ll be fun. What do you say? The three of us. We can get dressed up together and attend together and, if Robert wants to pick one of us, we’ll say no. It might be fun just to attend a party. And I’m still new in town, even though I officially moved here three years ago, so I wouldn’t mind meeting other girls.”
Lily nodded enthusiastically. “I think that would be fun. I wouldn’t mind an opportunity to dress up. Besides, Robert is getting older and, one day, he’s going to find his forever companion. These garden parties aren’t going to be thrown anymore at some point.”
“Oh, no,” Elaina said as her friends turned to her. “I don’t think so. You two go.”
Lily turned to look at Camille and Elaina’s eyes narrowed at the wink she saw pass between them. She took a deep breath. She would have to be strong.
A mischievous gleam in her eyes, Lily smiled and said, “You can bring a book.”