“I can’t believe I have to fly to London alone.” Lia Harris carefully folded the garment bag containing her bridesmaid dress into her luggage, feeling her mood fold along with it. She zipped her suitcase and set it on the floor with a thump. She’d planned this trip down to the last detail, and yet somehow, she’d failed to prepare for this moment.
“It’s such a bummer,” Rosie agreed, sitting cross-legged on Lia’s bed with her little dog, Brinkley, in her lap. “I wish I could go with you.”
“So do I,” Lia said, trying not to sound as wistful as she felt. Rosie was her best friend, but since she owned Between the Pages Bookstore and Café and Lia managed the store, they had to alternate their days off.
When Lia had first learned that her brother was getting married, she’d dearly hoped she would have a partner to bring with her on the big day, because her family had been insufferable lately in their quest to see her happily paired off. The problem was, despite many, many dates, Lia remained frustratingly single. One by one, her friends had fallen in love. In less than a week, both her siblings would be married, and Lia would still stand alone.
Worse, her ex would be at the wedding, and her mother was on a mission to get them back together. Lia hated that she was preoccupied with her dating woes ahead of such an important weekend. She loved weddings, and she was especially excited to see her brother tie the knot. If only she had someone special to bring with her . . .
At the other end of the apartment, the front door swung open with a distinctive squeak, followed by a thump as it bumped the stopper.
“Dinner’s here!” a voice called.
“Yay.” Rosie set Brinkley down and stood, brushing a hand through her blonde curls. Brinkley trotted out of the room, and Lia and Rosie followed him down the hall, where the rest of their roommates had gathered around several large white paper bags on the kitchen table.
“The containers marked with a C are chicken piccata,” Paige said as she began to unpack the bags of food. “The rest are portobello wellington.”
“Mm,” Rosie said appreciatively as she took one of the wellingtons. “You’re spoiling us tonight.”
Paige worked at her girlfriend Nikki’s catering company, and occasionally, they were able to bring home leftovers. The food was extremely well timed for Lia tonight, because she needed to leave for the airport in about fifteen minutes and now she wouldn’t have to eat there.
“Thank you,” Lia told Paige as she took a container of chicken piccata.
“You bet. All packed?” Paige asked.
“Yes.” She smiled, feeling a spark of excitement about her trip, even though she’d be making it alone. The UK was lovely in June. Too often, she only went home at Christmastime, when the weather was cold and dreary. And because tomorrow was Wednesday, she’d have a whole day to herself in London before she drove to her parents’ house for the wedding.
“And earbuds so you can listen to music . . . or an audiobook,” Jane said as she walked into the kitchen. She paused to kiss Rosie before selecting a meal for herself. “This smells amazing.”
Paige beamed at her. “Thanks.”
Nikki brought plates and utensils to the table, and they all moved around each other, preparing their plates.
Lia took her usual seat at the end of the table as Brinkley nosed around her feet, already looking for any morsels she might have dropped. “I’ve got lip balm and earbuds.”
“They’ve been in your bag for days,” Rosie teased as she sat beside her. “Your suitcase has basically been packed since last weekend.”
“You’re so much more organized than I am,” Nikki said. “I’m a total last-minute packer.”
Lia shrugged as she bit into her chicken. Yes, she was organized. She planned ahead. And yet, she couldn’t seem to plan her love life, no matter how hard she tried. She imagined her mother’s reaction when she arrived for the wedding weekend alone: the disapproving look she’d receive, followed by a lecture about her age, and then the matchmaking would begin. Dread soured her stomach.
“Do your parents still think you’re bringing your girlfriend this weekend?” Paige asked, giving her a sympathetic look.
“Unfortunately, yes.” A few months ago, Lia had dated a woman for several weeks, long enough that she’d become hopeful. Long enough that she’d told her mother about her. Lia got ahead of herself and planned too far into the future with the wrong person, an unfortunate habit she was trying to break. But when the relationship ended, she’d never set the record straight with her parents. It had been so easy to let a nonexistent girlfriend keep her mother from obsessing about finding someone suitable for Lia to date.
“So you’re not going to tell them until you get there?” Rosie asked.
“Would it be awful if I just tell them she couldn’t make it?” Lia asked as she looked at her friends. Rosie and Jane sat beside her, and Paige and Nikki were across from them. Two couples. Even in her own apartment, Lia was the odd one out these days.
“If it would make the weekend easier for you, I say go for it,” Nikki offered.
“I’m never going to hear the end of it if they find out I’m single again, especially with Asher there,” Lia lamented. Her ex was a big part of the reason Lia had left the UK and moved to New York in the first place.
“Well, here’s an idea . . . what if I call Grace?” Rosie suggested. “If she’s not busy, maybe she could pretend to be your girlfriend for the weekend.”
Lia rolled her eyes. “Your imaginary friend? Forgive me for being skeptical that she’d show up.” Grace was Rosie’s best friend from high school, and she was notorious for backing out of things at the last minute, so unreliable that Lia had never even met the woman. After Grace bailed on one of her planned visits a few years ago, Lia had jokingly called her Rosie’s imaginary friend, because it was ludicrous that none of Rosie’s friends had met her, and the name had stuck.
“It’s hard for her to make it to New York,” Rosie said, sounding pensive. “But she’s not flaky otherwise, and as you know, she moved to London a few months ago. It’s late over there now, but I’ll call her in the morning, okay? Worst case, she says no. Best case, you get a date to the wedding after all, and my two best friends will finally meet.”
Grace Poston sipped her coffee as she walked home from lunch, her gaze drifting from the ornately carved buildings before her to the gray-tinted sky above, and if it was possible, she fell a little bit more in love with London. Okay, the weather wasn’t her favorite, but she would happily put up with it to be here in the city. After she’d spent over a decade in the Spanish countryside, London’s hustle and bustle felt like a homecoming. It reminded her of growing up in Manhattan, and as she strolled through her new neighborhood, she felt alive in a way she hadn’t in years.
She’d needed a change, and so far, this seemed to be a good one. Humming along with the Spanish pop tune playing through her earbuds, she turned the corner and let herself into the building where she lived. She climbed the steps to her third-floor flat and shoved the key in the door, jiggling it until the lock caught and turned.
“Honey, I’m home,” she announced as she stepped through the door, tugging the earbuds from her ears.
“You have got to stop that,” Oliver said, looking up from his spot on the couch, but his eyes twinkled with amusement despite his stern tone.
“Oh, humor me. I’ve always wanted to say it,” she said, because it was fun to needle him, but she’d lived alone for a long time, and it was surprisingly fun to have a roommate. Maybe she’d get sick of it, but for now, she was loving everything about her new life in the city.
“London brings out an odd side of you, Gracie.”
“A fun side, I think you mean.”
He leaned forward to grab the remote control and silenced the TV. “Speaking of fun, the crew is going out for drinks tonight after the show. They’ve been asking after you. Say you’ll come?”
“Of course I’ll come.” She’d enjoyed herself the last time she’d gone out with Ollie’s friends from the theater, even though Violet had persistently hit on Grace despite her multiple attempts to tell her she wasn’t interested.
She sipped her coffee as she headed to her bedroom to work for the rest of the afternoon. An office was a luxury she no longer had, although the small desk she’d set up in the corner of her room was working well so far. She’d known returning to the city would mean sacrificing some of the comforts of her country life, including her home office, but her job as a translator for Modern Style magazine meant she could work anywhere, so when Ollie had dangled the bait that he was looking for a new roommate here in London, she’d jumped at the chance.
After her grandmother died last year, there was no longer any reason for her to stay in Spain. On the contrary, she felt as if she’d outstayed her welcome. Grace couldn’t seem to stay in places where she’d lost someone, so she did what she did best—she left.
With a sigh, she set her insulated cup on the desk and turned on her laptop, stretching her arms over her head as she waited for it to boot up.
The tinny notes of Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA” played from the bed, the ringtone she’d assigned Rosie many years ago, and Grace smiled as she spun in her seat to grab the phone.
There wasn’t much about America that appealed to Grace these days, but Rosie was the exception to that rule. They’d met in eighth grade and had been inseparable all the way through high school. At this point, she felt almost like family. Grace connected the call. “Hello, beautiful.”
“Hello yourself,” Rosie said with a smile in her voice. “How’s London?”
“Gloomy and gray and just perfect,” Grace answered. “I love it.”
“I’m glad. As soon as things are more settled at the store, I want to visit.”
“I’m going to hold you to that,” Grace told her. “And bring Jane with you, because I’m dying to meet her.”
“That feeling is mutual. You’re something of a mythical creature to my friends at this point,” Rosie joked.
Grace flinched. Yes, she knew she had a bad habit of backing out of her planned trips to the States. As much as she missed Rosie and as much as it made her sick to acknowledge how long it had been since she’d seen her paternal grandparents, every time she tried to board a flight to New York City, she just . . . couldn’t do it. There were certain ghosts from her past that she wasn’t ready to face, and they all resided in New York. “I’m sorry. I want to see your new store so much. This year, I promise.”
“I hope so,” Rosie said. “It’s been entirely too long since I’ve seen you. But listen, I have a favor to ask . . . kind of a big favor, but hear me out.”
“Sure,” Grace agreed.
“Lia’s brother is getting married just outside London this weekend, and she needs a date to the wedding.”
Grace could feel her face scrunching up as Rosie spoke. She rubbed a hand over her forehead, because she hated weddings. She hated everything about them. And Lia . . . well, it wasn’t her fault that Grace resented her for her importance in Rosie’s life, but Grace couldn’t help the way she felt.
Once upon a time, Grace had been Rosie’s best friend, and now Lia held that honor. They’d gone to college together in Manhattan, and now Lia was Rosie’s manager at Between the Pages. They were always together, while Grace had fled New York after high school and never looked back. But despite the ocean between them, Grace still thought of Rosie as her best friend. No one else had ever come close to being as important to her as Rosie.
She knew she was one of Rosie’s closest friends, but Rosie had a lot of close friends, while Grace only had one. It was an awkward thing when your best friend considered someone else their best friend. And Grace dealt with it by . . . avoidance. If running from your problems were an Olympic sport, Grace would be a gold medalist. She’d have a whole shelf full of gold medals.
“Grace?” Rosie said in her ear, reminding her that she hadn’t yet responded.
“I hate weddings,” she said on a sigh. She hated weddings almost as much as she hated the idea of attending one with Lia. Ugh, Lia. But Rosie never asked for favors, even though she must know that Grace would do pretty much anything for her.
“I know you do,” Rosie said. “And this would involve spending the whole weekend at Lia’s parents’ house in Sevenoaks, so if it’s too much or if you already have plans, feel free to say no.”
“Well, I’m meeting a few friends for dinner on Saturday night, but I guess I could cancel. Why can’t she just go alone?” Grace asked.
“She can, and she will, but you know how her family is.” Now Rosie sighed, and yes, Grace had heard stories of Lia’s uptight family and how relentlessly they hounded her to settle down. If there was anything in this situation Grace could relate to, it was the discomfort that came from being pressured to fall in love when it wasn’t what she wanted. “Lia told her family she’d be bringing her girlfriend this weekend, to get them off her back, and now she needs to either find someone to fill that role or be hassled about it all weekend.”
“So I’d have to pretend to be her girlfriend?” Grace asked, pressing a hand against her forehead. Pretending to be Lia’s girlfriend was a much bigger deal than just being her date to the wedding.
“Yes,” Rosie confirmed. “I mean, you don’t have to kiss her or anything; just hang out with her all weekend. Anyway, I know it’s a huge favor, but maybe you and Lia could at least grab a drink together and talk it through? She’s staying in London tonight.”
“Fair enough,” Grace conceded. “I guess the day has finally come when Lia and I meet in person.”
Lia’s eyes were gritty behind her glasses as she made her way down the jet bridge into Heathrow Airport. Her flight had been delayed out of New York, and consequently it was already past noon here in London. Lia never slept well on overnight flights. She’d watched two movies and dozed a bit here and there, and now, she was exhausted.
Still, she was excited to be back in the UK, and she had the rest of the day to herself in London before she drove to her parents’ house in Sevenoaks tomorrow. She’d hoped to spend the afternoon at the British Museum. Lia’s love of museums—and this one in particular—was legendary among her friends, but with her delayed arrival, there probably wasn’t time. Maybe she’d nap instead.
Lia yawned as she inched through the customs line, scrolling through notifications on her phone as it pulled in everything she’d missed while she’d been over the Atlantic. There were several texts from Rosie, an email from her mother, and a text from an unknown number. Lia clicked on that one first.
Unknown: At long last we meet! Dinner tonight to get introductions out of the way? ~ Grace Lia Harris: That sounds perfect. Just name the time and place, and I’ll be there.
Lia stored Grace’s number in her contacts, too tired to work out how she felt about seeing Grace tonight. While she was undeniably curious and even a little bit excited to finally meet Rosie’s elusive friend, she wasn’t sure she wanted to spend several days with her at her parents’ house, pretending Grace was her girlfriend. She had serious doubts that Grace would even agree to the plan, but at least they’d finally meet.
Lia sent off a quick message to Rosie and one to her mom, letting them know she’d arrived safely. What felt like a million hours later, she finally left the airport and made her way to the underground. From there, she rode the train downtown and checked into her hotel. Her room was small but clean, and right now, that bed was calling her name. She freshened up in the bathroom and climbed right in, then set an alarm to wake herself in an hour so she wouldn’t sleep through dinner with Grace.
When the alarm jolted her awake at four o’clock, she grumbled into her pillow, reaching blindly for her phone to shut it off. She felt groggy and out of sorts, with a dull headache from her disjointed sleep and probably some dehydration from the flight. She got up, drank a glass of water from the sink, and took a shower.
Grace had texted her the name of a pub in Covent Garden and asked if Lia wanted to go with her to a show afterward. Apparently, Grace’s roommate was one of the performers. Lia sent her a quick confirmation, and then she finished getting ready and headed out. She hopped on the Tube and rode across town, taking a quick detour to walk through the gardens along the Thames for some much-needed fresh air before she made her way to the Flying Pig.
The pub was loud and crowded, and God, she’d missed this. She did love an English pub. There was nothing quite like it in the States. She’d arrived right on time, but there was no sign of Grace, so Lia made her way to the bar and ordered an amber ale. She and Grace were Facebook friends, so Lia was confident she’d recognize her when she saw her . . . if she saw her.
Because it wouldn’t surprise Lia a bit if Grace bailed on her, and this time, she could hardly even blame her. It couldn’t be Grace’s idea of a good time to spend the weekend with Lia and her family, pretending to be her girlfriend. She sipped her beer, relaxing on the stool as the noise of the bar swallowed her up.
She was halfway through her beer before she saw a familiar figure slip through the door, and . . . wow. Grace was a striking woman. Her hair was dark brown, hanging almost to her waist in loose, shiny waves. Her complexion was several shades darker than Lia’s, and her lips were painted a vivacious red. She wore a black knit dress that clung to her figure, and as she scanned the bar, her gaze settled on Lia.
Grace’s smile brightened, and she crossed the bar as Lia stood from her stool to greet her. She was significantly taller than Grace, who leaned in for a quick hug and an air-kiss on each cheek, reminding Lia of how long she’d lived in Europe.
“So you do exist,” Lia said as they faced each other.
Grace’s expression hardened, just slightly, just enough for Lia to realize she’d offended her, which was not at all the first impression she’d wanted to make. “I sure do,” Grace said lightly. “And you—as I had apparently forgotten—are British.”
Lia nodded with a smile. “We make an interesting pair, a Brit from New York and an American living in London.”
“Yes, we do,” Grace agreed. “Should we get a table, or do you want to stay at the bar?”
“A table,” Lia said. “I’m starved. I haven’t eaten since my flight.”
Grace led the way to the hostess desk, where they were shown to a small table against the back wall. Grace settled across from her, and for a moment, they regarded each other in silence. Lia wasn’t shy, and she didn’t get the impression that Grace was, either, but something seemed to be making this awkward. Maybe it was the way they’d known each other peripherally for so many years through Rosie without ever meeting in person, or maybe it was the fact that Grace had come here tonight because Lia needed a wedding date.
Grace lowered her gaze to the drink menu in front of her. “You must be tired after your flight.”
“Exhausted,” Lia confirmed. “But I had a nap at the hotel, so I’m hoping it will fuel me through the evening.”
“That’s good,” Grace said, toying with a strand of her hair as she studied the menu, and well, this conversation was off to a stilted start.
“How do you like London so far?” Lia asked.
Grace immediately brightened, looking up with a smile. “It was love at first sight. I’d forgotten how much I love city life. So yeah, I think this was a good move.”
“I’m glad,” Lia said. “I’m a city girl as well. Do you know many people here yet?”
“Mostly just my roommate, Oliver, so far. We met through a mutual friend in Spain. He’s a dancer, so he’s introduced me to plenty of his theater friends, and they’re a lot of fun.”
“Is Oliver just your roommate?” Lia asked, because a boyfriend would make her request even more awkward, and she wasn’t sure of Grace’s sexuality. She’d always had the impression that Grace was queer—and Rosie probably wouldn’t have suggested this if Grace were straight—but Lia couldn’t actually remember her mentioning Grace’s dating anyone.
“Roommate only,” Grace confirmed. “He’s gay. I’m gay. My ideal roommate situation. No potential for awkward attraction.”
“That’s good,” Lia said with a laugh. “Somehow, I share an apartment with several other queer women, and we’ve managed to avoid any uncomfortable attraction between friends.”
“I’m super intimidated by your roommate situation,” Grace admitted. “Ollie’s actually my first roommate since college. I lived alone in Spain, but I think I prefer rooming with a man for that very reason.”
“Luckily, I’m not prone to crushes on my friends,” Lia said.
“Never?” Grace asked, eyebrows raised.
Lia spun her beer glass, thinking. “No, actually. Never.”
“That’s impressive,” Grace said. “I thought it was, like, a lesbian requirement to fall for at least one of your friends.”
“Well, I’m not a lesbian,” Lia told her.
“Bi?” Grace asked.
“Yes. So you have, then? Fallen for a friend?”
“Once,” Grace told her, dropping her gaze to the menu again.
“Hello, ladies,” their waiter said, interrupting their conversation before Lia could ask more. “Can I start you off with another pint? Or are you ready to order?”
Grace ordered a lager and a chicken salad, while Lia got another ale and the steak pie, because she was famished, and it was an indulgence she missed in New York.
“So,” Grace said after he’d left, propping her elbows on the table as she stared at Lia. “Let’s talk about this wedding.”
“Please feel free to say no,” Lia told her. “I’m really glad I got to meet you tonight, but the wedding involves a whole weekend with my family and letting them think you’re my girlfriend, so it’s kind of a huge ask.”
“It is,” Grace agreed, looking none too thrilled at the prospect. “And for the record, I hate weddings.”
“Then let’s just have dinner and leave it at that,” Lia told her. It was one thing to bring an actual girlfriend with her to London. It would be another thing entirely to pretend with Grace, who was essentially a stranger. There was a lingering awkwardness between them that made Lia think she might prefer to spend the weekend on her own, even though her mother would be insufferable if she showed up alone.
“Rosie was awfully persuasive on the phone on your behalf,” Grace said, sounding skeptical. “Aren’t you even going to try to convince me?”