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A Very English Misadventure

Caroline Morland checked her phone again as their taxi navigated the rainy streets of London. Mrs. Watkinson still hadn't responded about the change in plans. Her mother had sent a polite text an hour ago explaining that an old friend, Mrs. St. Leonard, had invited them to a soiree at her South Kensington flat that evening. However, as the Watkinson invitation had come first, they wanted to give her ample notice if those plans had to change.

Caroline's brother Edward shook his head. "I still think we should have waited to hear back before leaving the hotel."

"But Mrs. St. Leonard is expecting us now," Caroline replied, glancing at her watch. They were due at the Watkinson's any minute for a simple family supper before Edward left for his graduate program at Oxford in the morning. Though Caroline looked forward to exploring London, a night in with board games and the telly wasn't quite how she had hoped to kick off their English holiday.

As the taxi pulled up to the nondescript council house in Croydon, Mrs. Morland leaned over to the driver. "Could you wait for just a moment? I want to make sure they're expecting us before we bring in all our things."

A woman with a stern expression that made her look as though she had just bitten into a lemon answered the door. "The Morlands, is it? Running a bit late."

"Yes, about that," Mrs. Morland began. "I sent a text—"

"No matter, come in, come in. Let me introduce my daughter Jane." She beckoned to a colorless young woman standing stiffly in the entryway.

As they made awkward greetings, Caroline peeked into the dim living room. A tired looking man sat in an armchair staring blankly at a program on the BBC. Two pale children crouched on the floor silently pushing toy cars back and forth. There wasn't a hint of the "select company" Mrs. Watkinson had mentioned in her invitation.

Her mother made one last attempt. "Mrs. Watkinson, I apologize again for the late notice, but an old friend of ours happens to be having a small party this evening in Kensington, and she so hoped we could attend since we're only in town for—"

"Nonsense, nonsense," tutted Mrs. Watkinson. "You're here now, and supper's all laid out. Jane's made her famous beans and toast."

Jane nodded as if this was a great point of pride. Caroline felt her stomach sink at the unappetizing prospect of beans on soggy bread. She thought longingly of the hors d'oeuvres and champagne likely on offer at Mrs. St. Leonard's elegant flat.

Mrs. Morland glanced at her crestfallen children and came to a decision. "That's very kind of you, Mrs. Watkinson. However, I'm afraid we simply must send our regrets and head to our prior engagement. I do hope you understand. We so appreciate the invitation."

Mrs. Watkinson pursed her lips, clearly unused to having her hospitality questioned. "Well, I never. And us already set for company. I suppose that's London manners, is it?"

Before her mother could respond, Caroline gently guided her out the door with a hasty farewell. The taxi was mercifully still waiting by the curb. Once inside, the Morlands looked at each other and burst out laughing, giddy with relief.

"Oh Mum, I thought we'd never escape!" Caroline giggled.

"To Mrs. St. Leonard's please," Mrs. Morland instructed the driver. "And step on it. I have a feeling her party will be much more our cup of tea."

As the taxi sped through the rainy London night towards the glittering lights of Kensington, Caroline sighed happily. Now this was more like the cosmopolitan adventure she had imagined. Spotting a Pret A Manger, she suddenly had a wicked idea.

"What would you say to picking up some proper nibbles on the way?" she asked. "I'm absolutely starved."

Her mother and brother readily agreed, the traumatic Watkinson affair already fading into an amusing anecdote to share over canapés. At least Caroline had already learned one vital lesson: when it came to English hospitality, always read the fine print. And when in doubt, have an escape plan at the ready.

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