lost_spook (lost_spook) wrote in runaway_tales,

Lemon-Lime Sorbet 5, Cookies & Cream 24 [Divide and Rule] (1/2)

Title: Substitute
Author: lost_spook
Story: Heroes of the Revolution (Divide & Rule)
Flavor(s): Lemon-Lime Sorbet 5 (sweet nothings); Cookies & Cream 24 (play)
Toppings/Extras: Brownie + Chopped Nuts + Gummy Bunnies (also written for hc_bingo square “grief” and Gen Prompt Bingo square “Happy Endings.”)
Rating: All ages/PG
Word Count: 13,508
Notes: Coffee shop AU, mostly because oonaseckar once said I probably couldn’t write a 21st C Edward/Julia AU, so obviously I had to try.
Summary: Julia Graves has perfectly reasonable motives for fake-dating a customer – it’s all about interior decorating, honestly…


The man sitting in the corner was a regular, although he usually came in early in the morning – before work, presumably when he caught an early train to avoid the rush and wound up in Whitehall with time to spare for coffee, toast, and a newspaper. He came in later on rare occasions, usually with a colleague. Julia guessed he was a civil servant. It practically cheating, given their location, but the man in the corner embraced the traditional clichés so thoroughly he might as well have topped off the ensemble with a bowler hat and had done with it.

He wasn’t someone she usually paid very much attention to: he wasn’t noisy or troublesome, and while he was invariably polite, he rarely talked to the staff any more than was necessary, and he’d never creeped them out, which was more than she could say for far too many other customers. He was tall, thin, and not especially remarkable-looking, although he had a nice smile, when he bothered to bestow it on a person.

However, today he was in here at the irregular time of 2.15, sitting alone, while glancing at his watch, looking up every time someone entered, and failing to drink the tea he’d ordered. Julia, as she set about cleaning some of the nearby tables, could only conclude he was waiting for someone. A first date, she wondered, idly, or perhaps it was some sort of vital business meeting, or whatever the equivalent was for civil servants.

A dark-haired woman in a smart, cream jacket with a floating, patterned scarf arrived at much the same time, and the man rose to greet her. Julia bent her head to her cleaning to hide her smile at her successful speculation.

“Yes, but why did you want to see me?” he said, after an indistinct exchange that Julia had missed. He was keeping his tone low, but there was nevertheless a barely contained impatience in it. (Not a date, then, Julia thought.) “I really would rather not, Caroline.”

Caroline didn’t reply; she merely seated herself and set to work pouring out the pot of tea he’d been studiously avoiding till then. “I don’t want anything,” she said. “You know I wouldn’t bother you as a rule, but I wanted to let you know that Jack and I will be at Diana’s on Saturday. I didn’t know if she’d say. Are you – do you think you will be bringing someone?”

“I don’t see that it’s any concern of yours,” the man said, and when Julia turned her head, giving her table a final wipe down before moving onto the next, she could see his back straight and tense, and he was gripping the cup of tea too tightly; his knuckles white against the green of the china. “Or why you’re making a fuss. Naturally, we can’t avoid running into each other but we’ve never had a problem being civil. Do you want me to turn Diana down?”

Caroline had turned a faint pink colour by now. “Oh, no! I didn’t mean anything like that! Oh, Edward, it’s only that I do feel bad about it all. And you see – I have this friend, and I was thinking that perhaps I could ask her –”

“And, as it happens,” said Edward, “I am bringing someone, so you needn’t worry. Now, do excuse me – I have to get back –”

Caroline put down her cup on the instant and stood. “Yes, of course – I’m sorry. I won’t stop. You finish that tea. I’ve only just had lunch with Diana. But I am glad, Edward. I shall look forward to meeting her.”

Julia had to return to the counter to serve someone else at that point and meanwhile Caroline left, still apologising as she went out the door. By the time she returned to finish her cleaning, Edward was also standing, removing his coat from the back of the chair. She gave him a smile, but he wasn’t looking at her.

Idiot,” he muttered, brushing down the coat and then looked up and caught Julia watching. He hesitated and then gave her a rueful grin. “My apologies. I meant me, not you.”

Julia laughed. “I couldn’t help overhearing,” she confessed. “You don’t have anyone to bring to whatever-it-is?”

“No,” he said, and hung the coat over his arm. He shrugged. “Not unless you happen to be free on Saturday.”

Julia gave Edward a closer look than before, and thought about the woman who’d just left: she was exactly her sort of target group. She caught her breath. “I could be.”

He clearly hadn’t been expecting her to do anything other than laugh at his joke, and he almost backed into the table in surprise, and then glanced round to check he hadn’t knocked anything over before turning back to stare at her again.

“Yes, sorry,” she said. “You didn’t mean it, of course. Only it’d suit me, too, for – oh, well, I can’t go into all that now, but it would.”

Edward was also giving her a more appraising look now, but he was clearly still wary of her offer. “You don’t know me.”

“Well, no,” said Julia, “but you’ve been in a few times. You’re not a complete stranger.” She leant back against the table and gave him a smile. “Oh, all right: the truth is, I’m only a waitress temporarily. I’m really an interior designer, but it’s hard to get established and build up a proper business.” She fished in her pockets and pulled out a battered business card, handing it over. “See.”

Edward’s face cleared, and there was a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Ah. And you think a dinner party might be a good place to advertise?”

“Casually,” said Julia, trying to reassure him. “I mean, I wouldn’t launch into an OTT sales pitch over the dessert, but it could be worth a shot. And I’m good, I promise. I’ve got a website. You can look me up and check out my previous efforts.”

Edward turned the card over. “Yes, so I see.” He grinned now, gazing past her, before his face fell again. “But to strike up a pretence like that – it might be satisfying, but probably not the best idea –”

“Who was she?” asked Julia, more softly. “Your ex?”

He nodded.

“Trying to set you up with a friend?” said Julia. She raised both eyebrows. “No, really, you should have any revenge you can. I would.”

Edward laughed again, and held out his hand to her. “Thanks. I’m Edward Iveson.”

“I’m Julia,” she said, giving him her own hand in return. “When do you finish? If it’s not too late, I’ll hang about, and we can meet over in the Park, and exchange details and plan our strategy. We’ll have to be at least halfway convincing – and if either of us have got cold feet, we can back out then, no shame. How does that sound?”

“Four-thirty?” said Edward, and then glanced at his watch. “Excuse me, I have to go.”

“Third bench to the left!” Julia called after him, and hoped he’d heard. Still, the card had her website and telephone number on if he hadn’t.

Edward Iveson glanced at his watch as he dashed down the stairs of the office. He’d intended to leave early, but it was already ten past five, and he hoped that Julia hadn’t given up on him. There had been a tiresome last minute crisis, involving an error in the design for some headed paper, of all things. If Julia wasn’t waiting for him in St James’s Park, he’d have to believe he’d imagined their encounter earlier. Things like that simply did not happen to him.

He made it to the bench in question, slightly out of breath, only to find that it was already occupied by two elderly women. Edward stopped, and looked around, but there was no sign of Julia. He fished in his pocket for her business card, but he wasn’t entirely sure he felt comfortable ringing her. Maybe she’d been joking and he’d misunderstood? He didn’t fancy making even more of a fool of himself.

“Edward!” she said suddenly from behind him.

He turned with a start.

“Sorry,” she said, biting back a grin. “I didn’t mean to make you jump. You were late and the bench was taken, so I wandered off down the path to see if I could see you, but clearly we missed each other.”

They found another bench and sat down, Julia giving a small shiver. “I thought it was warmer today, but it’s still rather chilly, isn’t it?”

“I suppose,” said Edward, watching her in bemusement. Outside, in the sunshine, and no longer in uniform, she was even more attractive than he’d thought her in the café and it disconcerted him. Not that she was unreal, like a fashion model or something – she was pretty enough with bobbed blonde hair, eyes an uncertain shade of blue, and a vivid smile, but it was something more that appealed to him – the easy way she moved, perhaps, or the humour lurking in her face. He fell back on a uselessly vague ‘something about her’. He was suddenly at a loss for what to say.

Julia merely gave him a smile. “Well, then,” she said. “Hello again, and here we are. Now we had better exchange information, so we’re not hopelessly unconvincing on Saturday when it turns out neither of us knows anything about the other.”

“Well, we can’t have been going out long,” said Edward. “We hardly need to memorise our respective biographies.”

Julia nodded. “Yes, of course, but even so. We should both know how we met or it will look a bit fishy.”

“It’s not that I don’t appreciate this,” said Edward, shifting his position on the bench, unconsciously edging back, “but it’s not a sensible thing to do.”

Julia raised her chin. “It is from my point of view. It’s very practical, mercenary and sensible. And from yours – well, being sensible is overrated. But,” she said, with a sigh, “if you want to call it off and dash my hopes, that’s fair enough. I hope Caroline isn’t too pitying to you when you try to explain how your girlfriend couldn’t actually make it due to being completely imaginary. I hear it’s an incurable problem.”

Edward glancing down, fighting amusement. Bringing a fake date to a party full of people he’d known and mostly liked for years was a reprehensible action, and he shouldn’t even be considering it, but he couldn’t deny that her point weighed with him more than it should. And, after all, what would be so unusual to go out with someone for a short while and then break it off again? It was hardly even lying at all if he looked at it that way.

“It won’t hurt,” said Julia, watching him. “Not really. A harmless little white lie at worst.”

He gave in and grinned. “Yes, I know. All right. I’m Edward Iveson – I work at the Foreign Office, in Mr Morley’s office. Not very exciting, I’m afraid. And as you know, I have an ex-wife – just the one – no children, but relatives in Kent and a cousin in London. I live alone, near Primrose Hill. I’m not sure there’s a great deal else to say.”

“Well, that must be a lie,” said Julia. “But it’ll do for now. I’m Julia Graves, you know where I work and what I want to be already. At the moment, I live in a depressing flat in the wilds of Bermondsey. The landlady won’t let me decorate and I live in fear that a client will follow me home and denounce me as a fraud when they see the wallpaper. If it hasn’t been there since the seventies, I don’t know what its excuse is. Oh, and I’ve got an older brother. He’s a nuisance, but we get on.”

“Noted. And how did we meet?”

Julia rested her chin on her fist and stared at the people walking past. “Good question. Maybe I fell into the lake over there and you dived in to save me.”

“Something plausible,” said Edward.

Julia grinned. “Oh, all right, how about you fell into the lake and I dived in –”

“We’ll just stretch the truth a little,” said Edward, before she went any further. “We met at the café, which is for the best – Caroline might even remember seeing you.”

“Not very likely.”

“But possible,” said Edward. “And it makes sense.”

Julia pulled a face.

“You spilled coffee over someone one morning,” said Edward, her disappointment spurring him to try harder. “Not your fault, of course – someone jogged your arm when you were going past with the tray –”

“Thank you.”

“And the chap was getting irate over it, so I bought him another, which calmed him down. Afterwards, you offered to buy me a drink in return somewhere if I wanted. I took you up on the offer.”

“I think that’s just as implausible as saving me from drowning,” said Julia. “Irate customers never listen to reason. He’d take your coffee and then still complain about me to the manager.”

“As you said yourself when you bought me that drink,” said Edward. “Where shall we meet on Saturday?”

“Where does this friend of yours live?”

“Diana? Regent’s Park Road. Not far from me.”

“Then I’ll meet you at the top of the street and we’ll walk down together.”

Edward nodded. “Sensible,” he said. “After all, we can’t be sure one of us won’t turn out to be an axe-murderer.”

Julia felt a good deal less confident about the whole arrangement by the time Saturday night rolled around, but on arriving at their rendezvous point, she found Edward already waiting, and visibly on edge, shoulders hunched. His evident unwillingness over the scheme instantly made her warm to it again. He needed some encouragement to kick over the traces, she decided. It was practically her moral duty.

“It’s not that terrible,” she said, reaching him and taking his arm. They walked together along the street, Primrose Hill stretching out to one side of them, and smartly painted Georgian terraced houses on the other. “Not so different to actually asking someone as your date for the evening. We might pretend for Caroline’s sake it’s more than that – but then I have been seeing you in the café for weeks.”

Edward gave a reluctant laugh. “Yes, I know. It’s just one thing coming up with the idea, and another going through with it.”

“Oh, well,” said Julia, stopping, her hold on him pulling him to a halt also. “That’s fine – let’s not. I’ll find a taxi or a bus home and grab some fish and chips on the way home. No harm done. You can go on in there and hope Caroline doesn’t start feeling so sorry for you she telephones her friend on the spot.”

“You really want this business opportunity, don’t you?”

“I’ve got to live,” said Julia, as they set off again. “Although, to be honest, right now, I’ll settle for being in the warm and having a nice dinner.”

They stopped outside another impeccable town house; Julia wondering how much it must have cost while Edward knocked on the door. It opened almost immediately, and he led Julia into the light hallway.

“Edward,” said Diana. “You’re almost late, you know. What has come over you? And this is Julia?”

Julia let Diana take her coat. Diana’s age was impossible to guess – probably in her thirties, and currently elegant in grey with not a hair out of place. Julia immediately felt shabby in comparison, despite the fact she’d thought her black dress was pretty decent up till then.

“Julia Graves,” she said.

Diana gave a faint, sideways smile and an infinitesimal nod. “Edward’s new girlfriend.”

“Yes,” said Julia. She threw a glance at Edward, now standing in a regular grey suit, with a dark red tie. It should be blue, she thought in faint annoyance, and he was far too neat anyway. A person shouldn’t look completely unused when they stepped out of the house. “That’s me.”

Edward had been worried that Julia would throw herself too much into the role – she seemed to have a taste for the dramatic – but she behaved quite normally and didn’t put on any exaggerated signs of affection. He found by the end of the evening, that he wished she would. It had been far too long since he had been on a date.

“Edward,” said Diana, pulling to one side as she returned their coats. “One moment. I don’t mind you bringing whoever you like here, but I seem to have promised Julia that she can give me a quotation for decorating my living room. That isn’t a bad idea, is it?”

He turned his head. “What do you mean?”

“I didn’t think there was anything complicated about decorating the living room. Oh,” she said. “Edward. I knew what Caroline was up to. I told her you wouldn’t stand for it, but she said she could at least ask. Then next thing I know, you have a girlfriend you didn’t have when you originally accepted. It could be true, but –” She shrugged. “My instinct says not. Anyway, I don’t care about that. Can I trust her with my bricks and mortar?”

Edward took the coats, refusing to comment on her too-accurate guesswork. “I should think so. Besides, she’ll show you her previous work when she gives you the quotation. And you don’t have to take her up on it.”

“What did Diana want?” Julia asked when he rejoined her, passing her the coat.

“Nothing much. You’re ready to go?”

Julia smiled. “It’s not my party, darling. Yes. Before Caroline corners me again.”

“She didn’t, did she?” he said, as he led her out of the door. “She is very nice, really. I shouldn’t – it’s only –”

“It’s none of her business,” said Julia. “And, yes, she is. Terribly, terribly nice. Very earnest. What were you thinking when you married her? Or you weren’t, like most men, I suppose.”

Edward looked away, biting back amusement he felt was inappropriate. “We went out, and then got married in the usual way, thank you. And while my current affairs are none of her business, my marriage with her is none of yours.”

“Sorry,” said Julia, sounding much quieter. She was staring away from him, out at the darkened park when he tried to see whether or not she was actually upset. “You’re quite right. Fake girlfriends don’t get to be jealous of the ex-wife, that would be ridiculous.”

Edward hailed a taxi for her, thanking her again. Before he could get as far as saying that he supposed they would meet again at the café, she suddenly caught at his arm.

“Don’t just stand there,” she said, practically pushing him into the taxi, before following. “Caroline at 12 o’clock,” she said into his ear.

“Oh, God,” said Edward and, as she pulled the door shut, he leaned forward, and then said, “12 Chalcot Crescent.”

The taxi driver hesitated and turned to look at him. “Isn’t that round the corner?”

“Humour him,” said Julia. “And then Bermondsey, for me, thank you.”

Edward looked at Julia, suddenly realising how ridiculous this was: what would it have mattered if Caroline had seem him waving Julia off in a taxi instead of taking her home? As the driver swung round the corner and pulled to a halt outside number twelve, he watched Julia, half illuminated by orange lamp light, half in shadow. She was laughing, putting a hand up to her mouth to cover the fact.

“Thanks,” Edward said again. “I mean – you’re welcome to come in, if you like, but I assume you want to get home.”

She nodded. “I do. And thank you. Your friend Diana’s agreed to let me look at her lounge, although I don’t know if she was serious.”

“No, Diana’s all right,” said Edward. “She wouldn’t mess you about.”

Julia smiled. “Then thank you. You’ve brought me luck.”

“I think that’s called enterprise, not luck. On your part, I mean,” he said, shuffling out of the car. “Or having a damned cheek.” He grinned at her before he shut the car door.

She stuck out her tongue. He ignored her, giving the taxi driver £20. “For her fare, or towards it at any rate,” he murmured. “Thanks!”

He drove away, and Edward remained on the steps, watching the tail lights disappear. “And that,” he said, “is that.” He took off his coat and could almost still feel Julia’s hand on his arm; the way she’d moved so close to him. It had been very pleasant, for an evening, he had to admit, and found his comfortable house strangely quiet.

Still, he thought, as he went in and pulled the door closed behind him, he would see her again on Monday, even if only in passing. It was a cheering thought.

It wasn’t Monday when they met again; it was early on Tuesday afternoon, when he appeared in the café, out of breath, scanning the place for Julia. She made her way over, curious.

“Julia,” he said, his face lightening with relief as he caught sight of her. “May we talk – when do you have a break?”

She tilted her head to one side, wondering what could possibly have gone wrong with their charade. Clearly, something had. “I finish at four, if that’s any use.”

“Yes, yes,” he said, almost backing out of the door already. “Thanks! At the same bench!”

Julia shook her head in mystification as she returned to clearing up the tables. “And hello to you, too. Edward. Nice to see you again. How are you?” Even if she wasn’t a real girlfriend, was that too much to ask?

When Julia reached the Park, Edward was standing to one side of the bench with his coat in his arms. The bench had been already claimed by a lady with a dog.

“I don’t know why we chose this bench,” he said, moving across to her with a smile. “It’s always otherwise engaged.”

Julia laughed. “It knows we’re not really an item, I suppose. It objects to being used in our wicked schemes. Now, what is it? You seemed very flustered earlier.”

“Yes, sorry about that,” he said. “I only had about five minutes between meetings, but I’ve escaped now.” He led her across to an empty bench and sat down heavily, running his hand through his hair. “Oh, God, why did we do this? What possessed me?”

“That’s not an answer,” said Julia. “Look, what is it? What’s wrong?”

He leant back against the bench. “Nothing! The reverse, really. It’s ridiculous, though. Someone talked about us – God only knows why – and next thing I knew Mr Morley was asking us to dinner, and I didn’t know what to say –”

“That’s your boss?” said Julia. She couldn’t keep back a small smile.

Edward nodded. “I’m not sure when he last asked me. Oh,” he said, in a different tone. “Probably that time when Elaine – Mrs Morley paired me up with – well, never mind. Yes. My boss, as it were. And the guests would probably be an even better target audience for your talents than Diana’s.”

“Yes, I can tell you’re thinking solely of me and not your own career,” said Julia. She put her hand to her mouth, trying not to laugh again. “Yes, all right. When is it? Will it be very formal?”

Edward stared ahead. “We shouldn’t, though. I should tell him that you’re not available, or that we’re not seeing each other anymore –”

“It was only Saturday we had our first proper date,” said Julia. “I don’t see why we should have broken up all that quickly. I’d be happy to come, if you’ll only answer my questions, and if I’m around.”

He turned back towards her. “I’m sorry. Friday evening, and it probably will be quite formal. Mr. Morley’s one of the Deputy Secretaries.”

“I don’t know what that means,” said Julia, “but I won’t put you to shame, and I didn’t have any particular plans for Friday.”

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave,” said Edward. “Although I think the moral of that is that it’s supposed to result in unpleasant complications, not prosper your career.”

Mr Morley, despite being something important at the Foreign Office, seemed pleasant enough – a white-haired, quiet man, with a sharp gaze. His wife, Elaine, was also friendly. There were various other guests, some of them no doubt important, but nobody Julia knew, except for Mr Harding, an MP who’d lately been in the papers over a scandal involving somebody else’s wife. He was here tonight with a Lady Annabelle, who seemed very down to earth, but Julia was pretty sure there was still a Mrs Harding somewhere and wondered what she thought about that.

Julia had managed to touch up a long, silver satin strap-dress she had from better days – her father had once been a successful businessman with a printing firm – and had been gratified to see Edward’s look of admiration when he’d helped her out of the taxi. He’d tried to mask it, but she wasn’t fooled. She’d pushed for a compliment: “Am I overdressed?” she’d asked.

“Hmm,” he’d said, with a sudden, amused light in his eye and circled her, taking in every detail, before he faced her again and said, “No, don’t worry. I should think you’ll do.”

“Julia, isn’t it?” Elaine Morley said, cornering her, and interrupting her petty pleasure in the memory. “You know, I suppose I shouldn’t say it, but I am so pleased about you and Edward. We’re both rather fond of him, and it is time he tried to get out a little more. Where did you two run into each other?”

Julia had to stifle guilt: she wasn’t lying to anyone, not exactly. It wasn’t her fault if Edward’s friends and relatives seemed inclined to marry them off after a handful of non-existent dates. Her mother would have been the same, she knew, and had to push the thought away. Now was not the time to think of Mother. “Oh, at the café where I work,” she said. “At least temporarily – I’m actually an interior designer.” She related Edward’s tale of the difficult customer, resisting the temptation to embroider it further. Elaine’s gaze strayed over to Edward while Julia talked, and Julia wondered for a moment if she didn’t believe her, but then Elaine turned back with a smile.

“Kind of him,” was all she said. “But then, he is. He never complained about last time he was here, either, you know. Did he mention it to you? I was so embarrassed.”

Julia shook her head, although immediately after, a half-formed sentence of Edward’s on Tuesday returned to her.

“Oh, well, you know how it is – I invited Lotta Willoughby to make up the numbers. Not to pair them up, but Lotta can be rather sensitive and she objected to having someone foisted on her. Silly, of course, but knowing how things went Caroline, I did feel bad about it. I wasn’t sure whether to invite him again – at least, not too soon.” She patted Julia’s hand. “This solves that dilemma at any rate!”

Julia was tempted to ask what had happened with Caroline, but even as she regretfully decided it would be unfair, she turned around to find Mr Harding at her elbow.

“I have to say,” the MP told her with a wink, “that my estimation of Iveson has risen considerably this evening. What do you see in him, eh?”

Julia let her gaze cross to where Edward was standing, up against the wall, a little hunched and awkward in his tux, busy talking to someone Julia thought might have been introduced as Mrs Morley’s aunt, but there had been so many names and faces to remember she had given up on most of them already. He seemed, however, to instinctively sense her attention, looking over with a small smile that nevertheless lit his face. Her mouth crooked into a smile in return; it was easy to let herself believe it was all real for a moment or two and the idea warmed her.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “These things are inexplicable, aren’t they, Mr Harding?”

“Is Julia all right, do you think?” Elaine Morley said to Edward from across the table.

Edward had been wondering the same thing himself. Julia had excused herself before dessert had arrived, but that had been nearly quarter of an hour ago. “I don’t know,” he said in return. “Would you mind if I went and made sure?”

He was glad to leave the crowded dining room. The evening had been too full of people, and he found, stupid as it was, that he was living for the moment when they left and he could talk to Julia alone. He wondered what would happen if he pulled her to one side and asked her if there was any chance she’d go out with him for real, even though he knew that to do so was probably the quickest means of ensuring that he never saw her again. Not to try, though, was also rapidly becoming unthinkable.

He checked the cloakroom downstairs, but that was empty, so he went upstairs. “Julia?” he called outside the bathroom door, and then wondered what she’d think about him coming after her. “Are you all right?”

She pulled back the door and stumbled out. “Oh, Edward,” she said. “Thank goodness! I’ve lost my shoe!”

He blinked at that, trying for a dazed moment to imagine how and drawing a blank.

“It was silly, but I swung my foot a bit and it flew off and out the window,” said Julia. She bent down and pulled off the other heeled silver sandal. “I don’t know how. If I’d been trying, I wouldn’t have managed it in a million years.”

Edward took this in and surveyed her, shoeless on the landing carpet, and tried not to laugh. “It’s all right,” he said. “I’ll nip outside and find it.”

“It’s on the roof,” she said, her face still tragic. “I looked out the window and I could see it below, caught in the guttering. Oh, Edward, I’m so sorry! I don’t know how the hell I did it. Oh, crap, you can’t take me anywhere.”

He was still laughing, but crossed past her, to stretch up and stare out the window. “Where is it? I can’t see anything.”

Julia switched the light off, tugging on the cord, and crossed to join him. “Down there. Do you see?”

“I’m not sure,” he said, squinting into the darkness and drizzle outside. “Oh, wait – yes. I think so.” He looked back at her, then sat on the edge of the bath and collapsed into helpless laughter.

“It’s not funny!” said Julia, though she was also laughing. “What am I supposed to do? I can’t stay up here, I can’t hop home again, and I can’t go back downstairs and say, oh, don’t mind me, I just threw one shoe out the window.”

“Is that what’s happened?” said Elaine in the doorway, causing them both to turn, and then laughed at their startled reaction. “Sorry, but it occurred to me that if Julia was unwell, I might be able to help.”

Edward made a valiant effort to pull himself together: Julia had a point, after all. He tried looking out the window again, trying to note where it is in case he had to go up a ladder to get it. “Elaine,” he said. “It’s landed on the garage roof, and there’s a window not far above it there – on the stairwell perhaps. I’m not sure.” When she joined him, he pointed as best as he could in the cramped space. “Do you see? Does it open?”

“Oh, yes,” she said, and they went down half a flight of stairs, where she demonstrated the fact.

It was an older window and both small panes opened. Edward reached out, but the shoe was too far across, so he clambered out onto the roof, slipping slightly in the rain, but grabbing at the troublesome article and climbing back down inside.

“Here,” he said, passing it to Julia with a triumphant grin. “I think this is yours, Cinders.”

To his surprise, she didn’t take it. Instead she pushed him away, enough so as to make him catch at the side of the window.

“How could you?” she said. “Climbing about out there on the roof, all for a stupid shoe! What if you’d fallen? What then?”

Edward slid off the sill, watching her in bemusement. She was trembling slightly, he realised. “Julia,” he said, and caught hold of her hand. “Julia, it’s okay. It was only the garage roof. I could have jumped down. I’m not the heroic sort, you know.”

“Oh,” said Julia, her anger and emotion dying away abruptly. She glanced behind her, but Elaine had discreetly withdrawn. “I’m sorry. I just – hadn’t expected you to do that, and they’re only a pair I got cheap off a market stall. Not exactly designer.” She took the shoe from him and gave him a rueful, crooked smile. “Thank you.”

He pulled the window shut behind him and then turned back as she was putting both shoes back on.

“Ta da,” she said as she stood again, and gave him a smile, but it was still only a dim shadow of her usual bright smile.

He took her hand again. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

She nodded. “You’ve got mud and moss on your knees, though.”

“I expect it’ll brush off,” he said, and put an arm around her waist, guiding her back down the stairs towards the dining room. “Come on. I hope they’ve left us some pudding after all that, don’t you?”

Edward walked Julia along the street afterwards. She slipped her hand through his arm again and as they passed from lamplight and shadow, he tried to think of some way to ask her if he could take her out on an actual date instead of a pretend one. He was distracted from the attempt, however, by the realisation that she was shivering.

“Julia!” he said, stopped and turning to face her. “You should have brought a coat. That thing –” he gestured at her gauzy wrap – “is no use. Where did you say you were meeting your brother?”

“Over there, at the bus stop,” she said. “He’s late, as usual. And it wasn’t cold when I left, and I had a taxi. But also vanity, I’m afraid.”

Edward took off his coat, and then shrugged off his jacket, pulling it round her shoulders. “There. Have that.”

“Thank you,” she said and, as Edward put his coat back on, she watched him with an odd little smile he couldn’t interpret. “And thank you for rescuing my shoe earlier, too. I’m sorry about shouting at you.”

Before he could reply, she stretched up and kissed him on the cheek. As she moved back, he pulled the jacket into better position around her, and then hesitated, pausing to brush a stray hair from her cheek, kissing her there in return. Julia shifted in nearer, and Edward bent his head down again, pressing his lips against hers, sliding his arm around her underneath the jacket, giving in gladly to the moment – before she pushed at him suddenly, and the odd echo of a fairy tale reverted to something more indelibly prosaic. Possibly somewhere a clock was chiming midnight.

“Christy!” Julia said, pulling away and hurrying over to the bus stop. “Oh, crap, not again!” She seemed to remember Edward enough to turn her head back, stretching out her hand towards him. “I’m sorry,” she said. “My nuisance of a brother.”

Edward gathered his senses and looked past her to where a fair haired young man was busy retching into the gutter and resigned himself to the fact that this evening was not going to go anywhere he might have wanted it to. He followed her over.

“You idiot,” Julia was saying as Edward joined them. “You promised me you wouldn’t, not tonight. Now what am I supposed to do with you?”

Christy pulled himself up. “I can see you home,” he said, but he swayed dangerously, and then when Julia and Edward steadied him, looked round at the world in puzzlement at its odd behaviour.

“I’ll have to take you back instead,” said Julia, “and I told you, I’ve got things to do in the morning! I’m seeing someone about their house – Diana,” she said, in an aside to Edward. Then she froze and looked again at Edward. “You wouldn’t possibly see Christy home, would you? He lives nearer you than me.” She glanced back at her brother and her shoulders sagged. “No, sorry. That’s unfair. I’ve already caused you enough trouble this evening without Christy weighing in. Oh, I could kill him!”

Edward shook his head. “It’s fine,” he said. It wasn’t, really, but he didn’t have any interior designing to do in the morning, or indeed, anything particular planned for this weekend.

“Really?” said Julia. She seemed about to argue again, and then a bus swept in beside them, making up her mind for her. “Thank you! I’m sorry – I’ll see you next week – I’ll give you a coffee on the house or something!” Then she hurried onto the bus, fumbling about in her dainty silver bag for her Oyster card, before the bus swept her off again.

Christy gave him a hard look and then scowled. “Who’re you?”

“Edward Iveson. I’m going out with your sister.” Edward didn’t think it was the moment to try and explain that he was merely pretending to date Julia to further their respective careers.

His face didn’t clear. “But I know you.”

“I don’t think you can,” said Edward, his attention on waving down an approaching taxi, but when he looked back at Christy, he frowned himself, suddenly unsure of that. There was something oddly familiar about Christy Graves, and he didn’t think that it was merely the resemblance to Julia.

Christy shook himself. “I can manage,” he said, and practically fell into the taxi, Edward following after, resigned to his fate. When he pulled the door shut and turned to Christy to ask him where he lived, he found he’d passed out.

“Oh, for God’s sake,” said Edward under his breath, exasperation with both Graves siblings trumping any wish to play knight errant. He shook him. “Christy, your address!”

Christy stirred, muttered something entirely unintelligible that probably wasn’t even an attempt at an answer and started snoring.

“12 Chalcot Crescent, please,” said Edward to the cabbie, with a certain fatalism in his tone. He might have known. Next time he got into a fake relationship, he should make the arrangement with someone who didn’t throw things out of windows, or land him with their brothers. Was that too much to ask?

The taxi driver helped Edward get Christy inside. They dumped him on the sofa and Edward hunted out a blanket to throw over him. As he did so, Christy, stirred and opened his eyes, squinting up at him.

“Iveson,” he said and waved a hand about vaguely. “Vienna. Knew I knew you.”

Edward stared back at him. “My God, yes,” he said. “Vienna. Christopher and Rudolph Graves.”

“Where am I?”

Edward perched on the arm of the nearest chair. “My place. If you want to tell me where you live, I can call you a taxi.”

“No, got to say something,” he said, and then paused for a long moment. “It’s important,” he muttered, and then closed his eyes and resumed his snoring.

Edward eyed him with resigned amusement. “Is it?” he said, and waited for a few moments, but Christy didn’t seem about to revive again, so he gave it up as a lost cause. He fetched the younger man a glass of water, leaving it on a nearby low table, and then took himself up to bed, mulling over Christy’s last words. He had met Christy in Vienna, years before, when he had been attached to the Embassy. He’d come in, worried about his younger brother, Rudy. Edward had tried to do all he could to help, and badgered some more important officials on his behalf, only to have it turn out that Rudy had merely gone shopping with their mother and forgotten to tell Christy. Of course, that was a happy outcome, but it had left Edward humiliated and out of favour with his immediate superiors, and it had been hard not to blame Christy. Edward remembered, with some discomfort, being rather sharp with him. He’d been that much younger himself, and still over-sensitive after the business with Caroline. Well, he thought, as he reached his bedroom, at least he’d have chance to apologise in the morning.

Edward was woken by the sound of a yell and thud from somewhere below him. He opened his eyes and listened, until he realised that it wasn’t from outside: it must be Christy waking up downstairs. Serves him right, he thought, having spent the night in patchy sleep, between thinking of Julia and worrying over his inadvertent guest. It had occurred to him to wonder if this might be some weird set-up cooked up between Christy and Julia, but even at three in the morning, he’d been hard pressed to imagine why.

He groaned and sat up, glancing at the clock, but it was gone eight – a civilised hour, at least – and then dragged himself up, fumbling around for his dressing gown and pulling the curtains back, only to jump as someone knocked at the door.

“Hello?” said Christy from the other side. “Is someone in there? Is anyone here? Where the hell am I?”

Edward hurried across to pull the door open. “Hello,” he said. “I’m sorry – I’m Julia’s boyfriend. You passed out in the taxi –”

Christy closed his eyes and put his hand up to his head. “Oh. Okay. Right. Sorry, then. And you are?”

“Edward Iveson.”

He opened his eyes again and straightened slightly. “Oh, yes. It’s coming back. How annoyed was she? Julia, I mean.”

“Fairly,” said Edward.

“And you’re the Embassy guy from Vienna. How did she wind up with you?”

Edward gave a shrug, and fought the urge to glare, a prickle of bad temper settling in him. Obviously, he wasn’t actually going out with Julia, but it wasn’t as if there was a reason he shouldn’t be.

“Bathroom?” said Christy after another pause, evidently giving up on the more complicated aspects of their situation.

Edward grinned and directed him across the landing.

Edward went into the spare room to get a towel for Christy, and fished out a new toothbrush. Christy, he had the distinct feeling, was the sort of person who’d use whatever was nearest to hand otherwise.

However, the bathroom was empty, so he put both down by the bath and hesitated over whether or not to go and see if Christy needed breakfast, or get washed himself first. He decided he needed a few moments to work on feeling more like a human being before he contended with Christy again, so he shrugged, and got on with his own morning ablutions.

When he got downstairs, he found that he needn’t have worried about Christy: he was sitting in the kitchen, eating a bowl of Wheatabix and working on what appeared to be an irritatingly rapid recovery from the previous night’s excesses.

He looked up as Edward came in. “You don’t mind, do you?”

“No, of course not,” said Edward, even though he did a little. Not the Wheatabix; it was the fact that he’d taken it without stopping to ask. Breakfast cereal, though, was a stupid thing to get on his high horse about, so he instead set about filling the kettle and making himself some coffee and toast.

Christy finished off the Wheatabix, and then eyed Edward’s toast with wistfulness.

“Want some?” said Edward, his sense of humour beginning to resurface. The whole thing was, after all, a first class kind of ridiculous. “And coffee?”

Christy nodded. They didn’t speak for a while, as Edward passed him the first round of toast, made the coffee, and then spread marmalade on his own slices while Christy ate.

“I’m sorry if you had a fright this morning,” said Edward eventually. “You were dead to the world yesterday and I had no idea what else to do with you.”

Christy swallowed a mouthful of toast and coloured. “Yes, sorry. Bit of a night.” He shrugged. “I expect I’ll make it up to you one day. Anyway, I wanted to talk to you.”

“You said something like that last night,” said Edward. He cleared his throat. “Look, I should say – I was a bit short with you that time in Vienna, and I shouldn’t have been. You were worried about your brother. I’m sorry.”

Christy blinked. “Oh, er, yes. I’m sorry about making such a fuss, but I was young and Rudy had been hanging round with some dodgy people. And, oh, God, that’s the thing.”

“What is?”

“Rudy. Our parents,” said Christy. He stared down at his empty plate, and then gave a short laugh. “God, it doesn’t get any easier to say. Julia hasn’t told you, has she? I had a feeling she hadn’t.”

“In that case, you shouldn’t, either.”

“No,” said Christy. “I should. I mean, if the two of you are at all serious – and I bet you’re serious about everything –”

Edward glared.

Christy waved a hand. “I mean, sorry. There was an accident. A car accident, four months ago. Mother, Father, Rudy. And that was that. Well, Rudy hung on for a bit, but he didn’t make it. On the M1,” he added, as if that made a difference.

Edward let his hand holding the last piece of toast drop back to the plate, dismay filling him. Poor Julia! But, God, no wonder she was happy to throw herself into a fantasy, an unreal relationship – anything where she could escape the reality for a little while. She didn’t want him at all. The hopes that had awoken in him yesterday died in an instant. And now he knew, he’d have to be far more careful, or he’d be taking advantage of her grief. He felt a momentary unjust and selfish anger at both of them: at Julia for failing to let him know, and at Christy for telling him. If it had only been the other way around, he thought, and pushed away his plate.

Christy watched him for a long while, and then said, frowning as if in heavy thought, “Is there any more toast?”

It probably wasn’t logical, but Edward’s next thought was that he must talk to Julia. He contemplated phoning her, but hesitated. Technically, he didn’t have anything to say, other than to let her know Christy was all right. He was standing there with the mobile in his hand when it finally dawned on him that she’d said several times that she was going to Diana’s to make a start on her lounge.

Edward straightened in relief, shoved the phone in his pocket, and grabbed a jacket, heading out towards Diana’s.

Diana raised both eyebrows on finding him at the door at a relatively early hour on a Saturday morning. “Edward! I suppose you want to see Julia?”

“She’s here?” he said. “And, yes, thank you – if that’s all right.”

“Of course, only Edward –”

Diana didn’t get a chance to finish her warning, but it was unnecessary: she was cut off by Caroline emerging into the hallway as Edward stepped inside. He fought to contain an inward groan. The last person he wanted to see this morning was Caroline, after everything else. It was evidently not going to be his weekend.

“Edward,” said Caroline, looking equally taken aback. Then she moved forward with a smile. “Of course – you’re here to see Julia. I do like her, you know – I’m so pleased for you.”

Edward glanced towards Diana, as he replied. “Yes. Thanks. Where is she?”

“In the lounge,” said Diana.

Caroline laughed. “Her plans look very promising – original, you know.”

Edward had to smile. “Yes,” he said, “I expect they would be.” He pushed open the door and walked inside, pushing it shut behind him by leaning against it gently.

Julia was sitting halfway up the stepladder, frowning over a thick cardboard sheet full of squares of colour and material. On hearing the door, she looked up slowly, breaking into a smile when she saw him. “Darling!” she said, standing. “What an unexpected surprise.”

“There’s no need to be silly about it,” he murmured as he stepped forward to reach her. He had to swallow back another unfair moment of anger, reminding himself that all Julia had ever promised him was the game. She had been entirely upfront about her motives, and if she had kept her loss private, that was only her right.

Julia caught at his arm and kissed him briefly on the cheek. “You never know if somebody’s listening,” she said, lowering her voice. “Caroline kept asking questions and the only way I could derail her was to quiz both of them on what to get you for your birthday. They both agreed you were difficult, so it didn’t help.”

“Julia –”

She patted his arm and moved back. “Yes, sorry. What is it?” She paused, and then said, “Christy didn’t make a nuisance of himself, did he?”

“Not really,” said Edward, and then laughed. “He passed out in the taxi, so I had to take him home, but he wasn’t any trouble, and he seemed all right when he left.”

Julia’s gaze shifted past him, and she played with the material samples on the board she was holding. “Please don’t think too badly of him. He’s just – it’s just – it’s not the best time.”

“No,” said Edward. “I, er, meant to say. About last night –”

Julia coloured. “Oh, well, yes, sorry about that, too. I think I had too much champagne. I don’t suppose the Morleys will ever risk having me back.”

“Don’t be silly,” said Edward. “Elaine liked you. And that wasn’t what I meant. Afterwards –”

Julia sat back down on the steps. “Oh, that. As I said – too much champagne. But it wasn’t as if anything happened, you know. Not to worry, Edward. You can’t be that old-fashioned, can you?”

“No,” said Edward. He felt his cheeks heat now; he wasn’t even sure what he did want to say. He couldn’t force her to tell him about a traumatic event, and until she did, he had better stick to the letter of their agreement. He felt sure there ought to be something better he could say, however, but no inspiration came.

Julia looked up at him and gave a tremulous smile. “I told you I was being purely mercenary, darling. If you want to back out now, I don’t blame you. It was a nerve to land you with Christy.”

“That’s all right,” said Edward, accepting his defeat. “Besides, it would ruin the whole charade if I broke up with you. Rather unconvincing, don’t you think?”

“Don’t be self-pitying. There’s nothing wrong with you. But,” Julia said, breaking into a proper smile, “there is something reassuring about that. And I think these dinner parties are going to be a great help.”

Edward nodded towards her design board. “May I have a look?”

She handed it over, and he studied it. He had wondered what to expect, given Caroline’s comment about it being original, but it didn’t seem to mean that much. However, he couldn’t argue with Julia’s taste, even if grey would never be the first colour he’d choose. He liked the contrasts she’d picked out in a deep red, and what he supposed must be a curtain sample.

“Which shade do you think?” said Julia, pointing to two small patches of grey on the magnolia wall.

Edward stared at them. “There’s a difference?”

“Yes,” said Julia, “so try harder, or maybe I’ll break up with you after all.”

Edward studied them. He had been mostly being facetious: one had a slightly pinkish tinge, the other edging more towards blue. “Would you consider giving my house a look? I rented it out for years and it’s in need of something doing to it.”

“Which grey?” said Julia. “Left or right?”

Edward straightened up again. “Left,” he said. “At least, if this were my living room.”

“I suppose I could look at your house. That couldn’t hurt, could it?”

Just looking summed up everything, Edward thought, and nodded, although he suspected it could probably hurt a great deal before the two of them were through.

Julia hurried down Chalcot Crescent until she finally reached number twelve. It was nearly quarter to seven now, and she’d agreed to meet Edward there at half six and take a look over the house before he took her out for a meal – no dinner party on this occasion. It was a date by any other name, which they had brushed over by claiming it was necessary for verisimilitude.

“I’m sorry,” she said, when Edward pulled open the door. “I thought it made sense to go back to Diana’s and talk curtains and cushion covers and then time ran away with me. Am I too late?”

Edward stood back for her to pass. “No. Come on. I’ll show you over the place, if you really don’t mind.”

“You’ve done too much for me these last couple of weeks,” said Julia. “It seems only right.” She stared round at the hallway as she spoke, and Edward switched on the light. It wasn’t an attractive prospect: the wallpaper had to be years old, even if not quite as bad as that in her flat. It was green and brown, a pattern of branches and leaves and thorns winding about the walls.

Edward smiled, watching her. “You don’t approve.”

“Well, it’s not what I’d have chosen,” she said. “You need something lighter in here – it’s much too dark.”

Edward sat on one of the lower steps and glanced upwards. “I rented it out for years. Caroline and I were here, briefly, and then it was too large. There were two flats, so I had some work done last year to pull out the extra kitchen and all that sort of thing, but I didn’t fix the hall.”

“Can I ask you something personal?” said Julia. “It’s only because people keep saying things about it, and I’m nosy, I’m afraid: what did happen with Caroline?”

Edward rested his chin on his hands. The light from the hallway caused the shadows of the banister to fall across him, like bars. Julia didn’t think he was going to enlighten her, but eventually he said, “There’s nothing much to tell. It was all a mess, in the end. She married me, but it turned out she was really in love with Jack Sheldon, and when she saw him, a couple of months after the wedding, it finally dawned on her, and she – I suppose she fell apart with the guilt. She hadn’t been well for a while, I think. I hadn’t exactly realised that, either. I tried to understand what it was, but she locked herself away – cried at me when she did come out and kept apologising. And then sometimes she’d turn round and –” He hesitated. “She’d talk about duty and things – as if she was a Victorian – and I don’t know how she thought I was supposed to stomach that. And that was that. It’s only that people wonder what I did to make her run away from me after only three months. And I am ashamed that I didn’t realise, didn’t see any warning signs – that it was over so fast, like some tacky celebrity marriage.” He straightened himself, putting his hands down to the step on either side of him. “At least Caroline was civilised. You couldn’t get a much more civilised or apologetic divorce than we had. Like most things in life, it has its comical side, I suppose.”

Julia moved across to him, and sat down on the bottom step. “I see. And that’s why all your friends and relatives keep telling me how pleased they are that you’re going out with someone at last.”

“I apologise for them all without reserve,” said Edward. “And it’s not as if I haven’t dated people.”

Julia looked up, deciding to push her luck. “Oh?”

“Not all that much,” he said, and stood, holding out a hand to her, which she rose and took. “Let me show you the study. I’ve been doing a lot of reading instead.”

Julia bit back amusement. She had got used to Edward enough to know that he was probably teasing her in part. “So in however many years it is, you just sat home with a good book?”

“Not always a good one,” said Edward, guiding her into the study. “You can’t always be that lucky. And, no. There have been other people. Only two of note, I suppose, and one of them was unavailable, while the other didn’t work out. I failed to notice the obvious until too late – she’d decided to leave the country.”

“That seems a bit excessive.”

“I thought so, too. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable not to enjoy arriving at a dinner party to find you’ve been invited as an afterthought, to provide company for Maggie, or whoever it happens to be this time. And all the while, the established couples watch you both as if it’s a social experiment of some kind.”

Julia laughed. “Now you’re being self-pitying again, and unfair. Maggie might turn out to be the perfect woman for you.”

“Not in my experience,” said Edward, and leant against one of his bookcases with a small grin.

“You need a lighter paint in here as well. Preferably some purpose built shelves, too. And probably a sort out.”

Edward shook his head. “No. And besides,” he added, in that quieter, more serious tone again, “the honest truth is – time just goes, doesn’t it? It’s always easy to go on as you are and not really think about things. It doesn’t matter. Or should I demand to know why you’re still single as well?”

“I’m concentrating on my career,” said Julia. “Haven’t you noticed? Besides, I see your Maggie and I’ll raise you a couple of Michaels who never could quite remember my name.”

“Idiots, then,” Edward said.

She smiled. “How about the rest of the house?” she said. She wished, as she had a few times before, that he would kiss her again. She couldn’t kiss him; he seemed to be starting to like her a little too much, and that would be playing with his feelings. Julia had no wish to be cruel, or bring this convenient arrangement to a premature end. She felt, too, that she could really get to like Edward a great deal, but she couldn’t risk starting anything now; she was such a mess, and it wouldn’t be fair. And Edward, she suspected, would always take a relationship seriously. If she wondered what it would be like to go a good deal further than kissing him, and if, maybe, it would cheer them both, she also fantasised sometimes about telling him the truth about this miserable year and letting him hold her, as if that could solve everything. And that was sheer stupidity. Nothing would make everything all right, not for a long time, maybe never.

But if Edward happened to kiss her, and it wasn’t her fault, there would be no reason to feel guilty about that, would there?

“Julia?” said Edward, staring at her.

She started, realising that she must have let her attention wander, and put her hand to her mouth to hide amusement. “Sorry. Which room next, or had we better get on to the restaurant?”

“I think we’d better get on to the restaurant,” said Edward, holding her gaze. His eyes, always such a variable grey, now seemed slate-blue. “I suspect this was never a good idea – no disparagement on your expertise intended, but I’m sure I can manage to choose some paint when I need to.”

Julia nodded, but she felt suddenly, and unreasonably, as if somehow she’d failed him. She caught at his arm as she moved past him to the door. “Edward. Promise me something. When we’re done with this, do make the effort. Risk the dinner parties, or go online, or whatever works for you. You can’t sit here waiting for someone to come along, as if by magic.”

“I don’t,” said Edward.

She pulled a face. “Yes, sorry, I didn’t mean it to come out that way. But, please – promise.”

“I don’t think I can,” said Edward. “You’ll have to allow me at least a few weeks or months to recover from our break-up. For verisimilitude, of course.”

Part Two
Tags: [author] lost_spook, [challenge] cookies n cream, [challenge] lemon-lime sorbet, [extra] brownie, [topping] chopped nuts, [topping] gummy bunnies
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