Part One - Never too old for a party
A/N New story alert. Not sure how this will go down. Seem to be conjuring up more unlikeable characters. Hope you enjoy.
And a huge thank you to mahgadahling for the amazing new cover for this story.
"Hey hey girlfriend, I am SO excited about tonight."
Julia Curtis was stooped over her laptop on the makeshift desk but full time dining table in the living area of the flat she shared with her best friend Abi Taylor.
Looking up she smiled innocently at said best friend. "What about tonight?"
Abi leaned in the doorway and rolled her eyes, "you are such a pain in the arse on times Miss Curtis, do you know that? TONIGHT!"
Julia sighed, "so you're excited about your birthday party, is that what you're saying?"
With a giggle she jumped up and down excitedly, "it's not every day that a girl has a thirtieth birthday party."
Julia smiled; she had no idea that tonight was SO much more than a birthday party. Her boyfriend of three years Luke was planning to propose. She really had NO idea, and Julia was finding it increasingly difficult to hide the secret from her friend. She couldn't wait for the night to start and the cat to get out of the bag. Abi would be so happy, and she truly deserved it.
An hour later, Abi was rapping furiously at her bedroom door, Julia looked at herself in the mirror. She groaned. She wasn't the dramatic beauty that her friend was, and when she stood beside her, she felt that so acutely. Abi with her luscious curves, luminous red hair and the greenest eyes was a classic Venetian beauty worthy of immortalising in a priceless painting. She on the other hand was average at best. Her dark brown hair too unruly, her skin too pale - she needed a good holiday and some sun on her skin, and the dress she'd thought would be perfect made her look slutty. Red. Why did she think that red would be appropriate?
It was strapless and managed to combine the opposites of both clinging to her out of proportion boobs, then sagging off her slimmer frame a few inches lower. When she tried it on in the shop it had hugged her body in what Abi assured her was a sexy manner, but today it looked misshapen, then there was the split in the tight above knee skirt that revealed far too much thigh.
Opening the door she grimaced at Abi, who glowed in her emerald dress, it illuminated her eyes and set off her hair perfectly making her milky white flesh seem almost translucent...in contrast to her own dull pallor.
"Julia, what's wrong?"
She hated that her unhappiness was so obvious; she didn't want to spoil Abi's night. "It's nothing. You look amazing."
Abi smiled her gracious smile, "I have to say today, I feel it. But...you look..." She placed a hand on each of her upper arms, "Julia...you look...thin..."
Julia fought a swell of tears that threatened to fall at her friend's directness, hating that her friend saw straight through her. It had looked better on her just a few weeks earlier. Abi was right. But then she was the only person aware of her past, or rather her history of an eating disorder. It had been under control for years, but in times of stress...it was an avenue of control that she knew she was only ever a step away from. And she was currently very stressed.
"I'm eating Abs, I swear. I'm just tense at the moment. Honest."
Abi pulled her close, "I hope so. Because I love you Jules, you know that?"
She smiled, "ditto baby." She returned the hug, "now let's go party."
Linking arms, she tried to ignore the turbulent feelings inside her, this was all about Abi and she wasn't about to spoil anything. She had to manage herself better. She could do that.
Julia was an integral part of the evening's plans. In the weeks leading up to the party, Luke had called her constantly, repeatedly every day, to make sure that the evening went without a catch. His anxiety to make things perfect was endearing.
The party was to be held in a nearby club, or at least that's what Abi believed. Instead, her friend had been duped into the pretence that they were meeting a few friends for pre-party drinks at an uptown hotel bar, but in reality all of her and Luke's families, as well as her best friends and colleagues were going to be gathered, all sat under a huge banner that said, 'WILL YOU MARRY ME BIRTHDAY GIRL?' And Luke intended to be stood beneath it, or rather kneeling.
Julia thought that she'd die if it was her, but that was just the sort of dramatic proposal that Abi would love. As best friend, it was her role to get her there on time...which meant being late, and the excited Abi didn't want to be late. As the taxi wound through the damp streets, her phone buzzed, Luke. She'd had to store him under another name; she didn't want Abi making the wrong conclusions.
My brother's flight is late, I am now running late. Can you delay about forty five minutes?
Julia fought the grimace that threatened to contort her face, this was going to take a lot of work, the girl was desperate to get to her party. But instead of panicking, she reached for Abi's arm.
"Can we detour...head to the Blue Lodge?" She gave a wistful look that had the desired effect. The bar had been their college haunt, a tacky wine bar, that when they were students seemed like a class above the usual university bars.
Abi turned to her mouth open, "the Lodge?"
Julia knew it was a wild request, in Abi's eyes it was delaying things. And in all honesty, it was nowhere really special, but it was filled with memories, and even Abi's thirtieth birthday seemed a great time to reminisce.
"We always said when we 'made it' we'd go there and have champagne...look down on the out of place students, trying to be as cool as we thought we were."
Abi smiled at her with wide, emotion filled eyes. "Have we made it?"
Julia grinned, hiding her distress at the thought, "you have chick, you'll be starting your GP placement soon. In six months you'll be a respected family doctor. I have a LONG way to go to being a grown up, but hell, we're self sufficient, almost. Come on. Let's do this!"
"We'll be late."
"It's your birthday, how can we be late? You ARE the party!"
Her look of bewilderment turned to a beautiful smile, "you're right. Luke can entertain the masses. Me and my bestie deserve some 'us' time. Especially with you about to leave me for six months."
Julia smiled; she was looking forward to her imminent trip. She was a curator in one of the smaller museums in London, and her most recent exhibition - the history of a Cro-Magnon woman found buried in a peat bog within twenty miles of the museum, perfectly intact, was being taken to the American Museum of Natural History, to run concurrently with a similar finding that they were presenting.
She was to travel with it, and provide seminars, talks and in all reality, protection for the exhibit. It was the first time she'd ever had an opportunity like this, and she was so excited. Her assistant Lisa was going with her, and fortunately she had arranged for somewhere to stay. They were sharing a room in an East Village apartment of Lisa's cousin. It was the only way they could both afford to go. The museum had no money, and whilst they were given expenses, it was hardly enough to cover rent, plus they had to keep their rent payments up back home...she rolled her eyes, all thoughts of Broadway shows and nightclubs had long flown out of the window. But she knew that she could walk, and see so much of a City she'd always longed to visit. Plus, she loved her job.
Glancing down to her phone, she fired off a quick text to Millie aka Luke, then called out to the driver, "can we turn back please? The Blue Lodge - wine bar extraordinaire por favour!"
The cabby chuckled at her exuberance, then replied with the most Cockney of voices, "it's many fings dahling, but not extraordinary!"
Abi lifted her flute of champagne and Julia lifted hers to clink against it, "you're the greatest BFF, you know that right?" She asked the question before taking a rather generous mouthful of the drink.
"Ditto Abs, we've had some fun over the years, hey?"
They had been friends since school, gone through exams, broken hearts and hormonal changes together, then they had travelled to London to the same University, now they shared a flat, as inseparable as when they were ten.
Nodding her friend surveyed the room, "and nowhere more than here, hey?" When Julia smiled, gave her friend a one armed hug without spilling her drink, Abi stared at her for a moment. "Are you sure you're ok Jules?"
"Of course, just busy in work, preparing to leave Sophie and Leon in charge, you know how that will be!" When Abi didn't look convinced, she smiled, "I promise."
It was part truth. She'd spent the last two months planning the transport of something priceless, then there was anticipating all that could or would go wrong in her absence. She'd been burying herself in her preparation for weeks. Work truly was absorbing her time, her mind and parts of her soul. She didn't feel like she'd seen daylight the last few weeks, but she still managed to keep abreast of things. Most people would have missed a two inch square notice at the bottom of page nineteen of a huge national broadsheet newspaper a few days earlier, but she had, she'd seen, read and absorbed it, and it had unsettled everything that she knew. She shook her head, NO. Abi, this was all about Abi. She couldn't go off the rails, couldn't make a scene, she had to control everything.
Smiling at her friend, she reached to refill their glasses wanting to lighten the atmosphere and move away from questions about her, and offered rather flippantly, "hey, now is not the time to address me being a workaholic or my Seasonal Affective Disorder. Let's have fun."
"It's May, you get that in the winter," Abi protested, rolling her eyes.
"You know I'm different. I pride myself on being unique." With an elaborate wink, Julia turned back to the bar and refilled their glasses.
The champagne was crisp, dry and very easy to drink, and they had soon finished their second glass. Before Julia could pour more, Abi jumped up, "need a bathroom break...my bladder seems to be the first thing to feel old."
Laughing Julia called out after her, "you know once you break the seal that's the end, you'll be weeing all night!"
Abi gestured lewdly with two fingers on her right hand before disappearing in to the bathroom, leaving Julia to laugh. As soon as she was out of sight, still laughing, she found her phone.
On way from airport.
It was dated twenty minutes earlier, and was followed by ten minutes later.
We'll be there in ten minutes...ready when you are! I think...
Seeing those words she smiled, poor Luke, at least he was too busy to feel REALLY nervous. Still she could barely believe that no one else could have collected his older brother who was flying in to Heathrow from the States. But then all of his family were travelling to London from Manchester for the event, so they had limited chance to come via the airport themselves, it all meant for extra chaos before arguably the biggest moment of his life.
When Abi emerged from the bathroom, she'd refilled their glasses and her friend grinned.
"I don't feel thirty when I'm drinking this luscious fizz!"
Julia laughed, "as great as this is here, just the two of us, we need to drink up, we've got a party to get to!"
The taxi pulled up at the swanky hotel and Julia leaned over to pay.
"Do you think out friends will still be there?" Abi was looking at her watch as Julia got out of the car.
"It's YOUR birthday, and yes, your boyfriend and our closest friends will be waiting for you to arrive. Jeez woman! This is all about you, you know that. They're hardly going to move on without you!"
The hotel bar was to the left of the reception, and Julia had thought through this moment a million times, as they approached the imposing wooden doors to the bar, she stepped back, slightly behind her friend, but placed her hand on her friend's back hoping to give her some reassurance as she was about to be shocked out of her shoes.
Julia felt her Abi freeze, and looking into the room past her friend, she gasped herself. The banner didn't disappoint, neither did the almost one hundred people gathered beneath it, staring at them intently. She could feel the tension, see the held breath. For a moment it was completely silent.
Then Abi whimpered, and Julia leaned around to peak at her friend in time to see tears flooding her cheeks. But it was Luke who stepped forward, she was his responsibility now. Julia watched as he dropped to one knee and opened a small velvet box for her perusal.
Abi's hand flew to her mouth and she gasped again. Bewildered, surprised, stunned.
Julia gave her a gentle push further into the room, just as Luke asked, "well Miss Taylor, what do you think? Will you be my Mrs Harding?"
Her stance was unsteady, so Julia kept a hand on her. Finally she looked down at the kneeling man, and took an audible deep breath, "it's Dr Taylor I'll have you know, but I would LOVE to become Dr Harding."
The crowd gathered let out a collective deep breath, and at the same moment a confetti cannon shot sparking tinsel over them both.
Face hurting from smiling so much, Julia stepped away from the couple who were about to be engulfed by dozens of well-wishers and made for the bar.
"Gin and tonic please. Hendricks if you have it."
The barman nodded, "of course ma'am."
Once the drink was safely in her hand, she took a necessary gulp, tonight her life was about to change, and whilst she was ecstatic for her friend, she knew that whilst Abi was moving on, to another stage of her life...well she wasn't, that was the hard thing to deal with. Julia Curtis was still the same. She tried to muster a smile, after all she had this trip to look forward to...but everything else pointed to the fact that she'd be losing her best friend. A sombre and quiet honestly selfish thought at the highest point of Abi's life. She felt like such a bitch.
Glancing up she nodded for another drink, her back turned to the happiness of the engagement party.
Aaron Harding was exhausted, as if travelling all day wasn't bad enough; he also had the added pleasure of jetlag. If he'd come to London from his home in New York City then it'd have been bad enough losing a night's sleep to a redeye flight, but he could have caught up with some sleep before the party. Instead he'd spent the last two weeks dealing with an issue in Seattle. Double the distance and an even bigger time difference, with a delay, it had been a hell journey and he was exhausted. He'd not slept properly in more than two days; his body clock had absolutely no idea where the fuck he was, or when. And all he wanted was to collapse into bed. A bed...any bed.
Feeling like death warmed up, he trend away from the happy scenes of his little brother and his beautiful fiancée being congratulated, and made for the bar. He should be happy, pleased for him, but he wished he was anywhere else. He knew he could be a selfish bastard, and he had to get over that.
Leaning on the bar, he took another glance around the room and spotted his mother in his peripheral vision approaching with a look of glee in her eyes, he wasn't ready for her sickly happiness, not at the moment. The last thing he needed was her disappointment, her questions.
So he turned for the bar, his eyes cast over the only other person buying a drink rather than gushing over an engagement ring, the girl who'd arrived with Abi, the pale brunette who was tossing a glass of something clear down her throat. Seemed he wasn't the only one turned ga-ga over the thought of a wedding.