The Unflappable Celia Graham

The Unflappable Celia Graham

On a Thursday morning, half-way through her breakfast of yoghurt and blueberries, Celia Graham received an e-mail. It went something like this:

Dear Ms. Celia Graham,

We are writing to offer you a job with our Theatre Company, WordPlay, based on the recommendation of Stephen Rowes. This job is that of assistant to the lead in our newest play, Something Forgotten. If you would like this job, please phone the number included below within twenty-four hours. I apologise for the haste, but we leave for Monte Carlo—our opening location—on Saturday morning. 

Yours sincerely,

Raif Visner

Manager

Celia polished off her breakfast and picked up her phone, first dialling the corner store where she was currently working. “Hello, yes, Tarik? Great, hi, this is Celia. No, I can’t come—that’s what I’m… Yes, I’m sorry that Greg is on vacation, but there’s nothing I can do. No, that’s why I’m calling. I’m handing in my resignation, effective immediately. Why? Because I’m going to France.”

Saturday morning found Celia at the airport, a rucksack over her shoulder, smiling. She wore a grey beanie cap over her bob-cut straight and sleek brown hair, a tight pair of black jeans and a black and white striped shirt that was two sizes too big. She looked every inch the up-and-coming youth with more hope than reason, but she was perhaps the exception. To have reason and hope and enjoy what she did. For the most part. It was enough.

“Celia Graham?” the newcomer was an artist-type man too old for acting and too young for retirement. He had a belly that didn’t quite fit his image and the longer hair and beard of someone who watched and payed attention to the most modern styles. Based on the tailored sports jacket and the leather briefcase he carried, she assumed he was the manager. Raif Visner.

“That’s me,” she said, shaking his outstretched hand. He let his shoulders sag in relief.

“Oh, thank goodness. I heard that traffic was really bad getting to the airport and I was worried that you wouldn’t make it on time,” he said. “Oh, right. I’m Raif. The manager. Um, if you’ll follow me, we’ll get you through security and passport control and we can get you introduced at the terminal.”

“Righty-ho,” Celia said cheerfully. Raif gave a wan smile at her attitude and led the way through security. He seemed astonished that Celia had only the one bag, but you never knew with youth these days. The more odd part was that security or passport control or the woman behind the coffee counter where she purchased a cup of hot chocolate seemed completely charmed by this cheerful, willing woman. She smiled and petted and actually listened to them. If she could manage Bobbie Thurson as well as the coffee girl, things would be just fine. But Barbara Joan Thurson, while one of the best actresses out there, was far from a treasure of a person.

“Okay,” Raif said as they walked up to the gate. There were five or six people lazing around that looked as though they belonged to one group. That was where he headed and those people immediately seemed to fizzle with varying degrees of attention. “Attention people,” Raif said, projecting his voice as actors are trained.

“Raif, there you are,” a man with 1930s style hair and a three-piece suit said. Celia couldn’t tell if it was a costume or just a stylistic choice. It could have been both. “Bobbie was thinking that you would miss boarding call.”

“And what a shame that would be, too,” an older woman with grace and regality in her face and figure purred. She held out a hand as Raif drew closer and let him kiss it.

“Alice, you never cease to amaze me,” Raif sat beside the woman and grinned at her. “Your words cut as sharp as any knife.”

“Are you even going to introduce us to your friend?” The owner of this sharp voice was a woman of about thirty with the look of absolute beauty. Her skin held just enough of the golden tint to be luxurious, her hair was sleek and curled and a shade of dark chocolate that many coveted. Her clothes were in the height of style and cut to show off the fact that she was supremely proportioned. And her eyes were a deep brown that could melt hearts if she chose. At that moment, she did not choose. She stared at Celia with only the vaguest bit of interest.

“She’ll be most interesting to you, Bobbie dearest,” Raif said, placing just the tiniest bit of a bite on the word ‘dearest.’ “She’s your assistant. Bobbie Thurson, meet Celia Graham.”

“Hi,” Celia said, waving her hand. Bobbie straightened and looked Celia over with a penetrating gaze. Celia hardly blinked, just tried to look friendly and unassuming. She had been in the business since dropping out of university to work in the world of theatre and knew that actresses, especially leads, liked to have everyone else just a little bit inferior. So she would be inferior. “Nice to meet you.”

“Celia,” Alice said with one perfectly sculpted eyebrow raised. “That’s a funny coincidence. The main character in the play is named Celia.”

“Oh, well, that’s confusing,” Celia said, red warning lights going off in the back of her head as she saw Bobbie’s eyes narrow ever so slightly at Alice. “How about everyone just calls me Graham. That way we won’t have to get things all mixed up.”

“Works for me,” the man who had thus far been silent said. He was about Alice’s age and was just as handsome, Celia imagined, as the day he had opened his career. If slightly more mature. His slate-grey hair was swept back and he might have been wearing khakis and a button up shirt, but he could have been wearing a tux for all the difference it made. He was charm and style and, judging by the way everyone subconsciously relaxed, he knew it.

“So, Graham,” Bobbie said, patting the seat beside her. “You work as an assistant?”

“Thanks,” Celia said, taking the seat and knowing perfectly well that Bobbie was trying to make her out and put her into place. “Sort of. I started off as an assistant to the State Manager in the production of Phantom. Toured all over the United States then, when I got back to the UK, I decided I would do something else. So I jumped ship to working in plays. Props Master in a little production in the backwoods of London. Assistant to the Props Master in a slightly larger production. Assistant to the lead in A Christmas Carol—that one had been rewritten to include technology and modern times. Very interesting. Between jobs, I pick up work wherever I can get it. Last time was at the corner store down from my flat, but I’ve been a waitress at restaurants, retail associate at various stores, even researcher at a library. If something is interesting, I’ll try it for a while. But I always end up back in theatre.”

“You’re a floater,” Raif said. Celia gave a half-shrug and was glad that the conversation was cut short when the call to board came. They got on the plane and had barely settled into their seats when Bobbie started outlining her schedule, which Celia put into her phone.

“As long as I’m not up before seven, your head can stay on its shoulders,” Bobbie said. It was likely meant to be a joke, but Celia only managed a chuckle. “I’ll expect you to manage everything that involves the theatre. So that means rehearsal schedule, call times, etcetera. Personal things you leave alone unless they conflict with the job. You’ll be dealing with all of my costumes and make-up and everything else, so it had better be in order. And if I need someone to run lines–”

“I’m it,” Celia said. “I’ll get a copy of the script from Raif.”

“Good,” Bobbie said. 

“Anything else?” Celia was still keying the details into her phone, but Bobbie had already leaned back into her chair and closed her eyes.

“If there is, you take care of it,” Bobbie said. Celia nodded, then realised that Bobbie Thurson couldn’t see her.

“You got it,” Celia said with a smile. As always, things would be interesting. Then, the plane took off and they were on their way. Celia smiled, always glad to have another adventure.

The hop from London to Monte Carlo was little more than an hour. The arrival was everything Celia hoped it would be. There were people swarming around taking pictures, honeymooners exchanging gooey eyes with each other and businessmen. Sure, there was money, but there was also life. Celia didn’t even mind when Bobbie left her to carry the three bags and drag them along behind her. She loaded them into the taxi with Raif and let him tell the driver where the hotel was. Or motel. Or bed and breakfast. She didn’t really care.

“Now, normally, we house the assistants in a motel, letting the actors have the nicer accommodations, but as you are our only assistant—the others have to make do with the junior staff—and Bobbie Thurson is, well, Bobbie Thurson, we’ve got you in the same hotel,” Raif explained. 

“I’m the only assistant?” Celia asked, listening fully to the manager, though her attention was completely taken up by the scenery outside the window.

“Yes. It’s a fairly small production and, well, Stephen Rowes said that you were good. Really good. So I figured that you could make do?” It was a question, a hopeful one. She would officially be Bobbie’s assistant, but if there were errands to run or things to do, Raif was hoping he could count on her. Celia nodded.

“Shouldn’t be a problem,” she said. Then, the hotel came into view. “Oh, wow! Look at that. It’s like a palace.”

“It’s just a hotel,” Raif handed over the euros to pay the driver and Celia clambered out of the car, craning her head to look all the way up. It was stone and brick with tasteful landscaping and the old-city charm that she had hoped for with France.

“But it’s a pretty one. And so tall,” Celia said. She jerked her attention away a moment later and helped the driver unload the luggage. A moment later and the other cabs showed up, dispensing the actors with varying degrees of frustration with travel and pleasure at being where they were. Celia immediately picked up her and Bobbie’s bags and followed the troupe inside. Where she continued gaping, grinning widely.

Raif checked them in and Celia deposited Bobbie into her suite, promising to be back in a few minutes once she had dropped off her bag and freshened up. She took exactly that amount of time to admire her room. 

She had toured all over with Phantom and seen various other hotels with the other productions she had been involved with, but there was something about being in another country that made everything more interesting and novel. The carpet was plush and a deep burgundy. The bed was made with a gold and cream duvet and pristine white sheets were expertly tucked in underneath, the pillows plush. The furniture was made of cream-painted wood and the bathroom was big enough for a full bathtub and shower. It was exotic and homely and would be her home for the next while. 

Celia took one quick glance at herself in the mirror and straightened her hat before running down the hall to Bobbie’s room, where she met with chaos. There were bags strewn open and clothes everywhere. The actress greeted her assistant with a bared-teeth smile. “There you are, Graham,” she said. “Help me get everything sorted. I simply cannot find the green midi dress I brought and the black sheer scarf. I want to wear that when the company goes out tonight. I have the scarf, but I can’t find the dress!”

“I’ll find it,” Celia promised. Bobbie nodded gruffly and closed the door behind Celia with a grumble. Mentally, the cheerful assistant rolled up her sleeves and set to work. All adventures had their downsides, she supposed. Maybe Bobbie Thurson would just take a while to get used to things. Celia rather imagined that Bobbie would be her downside, though. 

Oh, well. It was better than the corner store.

Two weeks later and Celia was completely settled in to what someone looking in might call a routine and what everyone else would call hard work. She had taken over the role of costume assistant as well, after the man quit, refusing to work for the Head of Costumes for another minute. Celia suspected that there was a romantic affair behind that, but once Raif had discovered that she could sew (fixing a minute tear to Bobbie’s opening costume before one of the rehearsals), she was given that job. As well as others.

She had memorised the script for Something Forgotten due to the fact that not all of the cast members were present, or even on time. The male counterpart to Bobbie’s character, Celia, had yet to show up. From what Celia understood, it was because he actually held another job in the real world. And, since he was meant to be producing the show as well as starring in it, he could show up whenever he liked, according to the others.

It did mean that Celia often filled in, playing Anselm and doing his blocking as a reference for the other characters. She also filled in as Mrs. Squires, Jenny, Roland and Mr. Pearson, as Alice, the barely-adult Penny, the 1930s-imitator Mark and the stately Walt were late, ill or just absent. Bobbie, for all her faults, was at least on time most days. It helped that Celia dragged her out of bed.

Adding on costumes to her responsibilities meant that she was running around just about every second of the day. Bobbie kept her on her toes and the Head of Costume, Tony, snagged every spare minute otherwise. Between fetching coffees and organic foods, cleaning up trashed bathrooms and putting away Bobbie’s clothes, making sure that the actress arrived at the theatre on time, pinning and making adjustments on the costumes and, in the case of the dress that Bobbie was to wear in the final act, helping Tony make it completely from scratch, was enough to ensure that she fell into bed at the end of the day completely exhausted.

“Graham!” Bobbie yelled, her voice carrying across the hallway that the theatre company had reserved entirely for them (apparently it was too much trouble to have to run up and down stairs at the hotel). “Graham, where are you?”

“Right here,” Celia said, poking her head out from the bathroom door. She had been going through the make-up collection and writing a list of what needed to be purchased. Her bobbed hair was sticking up at odd angles and the pocket-watch necklace she wore swung on its chain. She wore grey patched skinny jeans and a tunic-length shirt of heath green. And, despite the annoyed snarl in Bobbie’s words and the fact that she had been running around since dawn that morning, she was still smiling. “What do you need?”

“I have to get these dresses dry-cleaned,” Bobbie said. Three of them were parts of costumes and the other two were just every-day (well, if every-day were an Event) dresses. “I need the costumes for tomorrow.”

“Okay, sure,” Celia said, already tucking the list she had been making into a pocket. She picked up the load of dresses in one arm and started to leave.

“Graham, bring back an iced tea and a croissant, okay?” Bobbie said. “I skipped lunch and I want something in me before rehearsal tonight. I hear we’re going to be working through dinner.”

“Raif must really want us to practise,” Celia said, moving for the door again. “We don’t open for another three weeks.” She didn’t expect Bobbie to answer and didn’t blink when Bobbie just closed the door behind her. She did blink when Alice saw her leaving with dry-cleaning and tossed another set of clothes onto the pile. As did Walt and Penny.

Almost completely blind, Celia moved towards the stairs, feeling her way down with her feet as she tried to peer around the pile in her arms. She halted when a voice called out to her, certain that if she moved, she was going to drop something.

“Uh, Pardon, mademoiselle? Pouvez-vous m’aider? Je cherche la compagnie de théâtre…” he said. Celia grumbled quietly. Of course, the one problem she had discovered since coming to France—apart from Bobbie demanding every ounce of her attention—was that she didn’t actually speak French.

Celia broke out the only French she knew, “Je ne parle pa français…”

“Ah,” came the reply, whose owner she would very much like to see. He had a rich, deep timbre and almost musical tone. And, if she wasn’t mistaken, there was a bit of an– “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” –English accent. Never mind, Celia thought.

“Ja,” she said, glad that the man spoke at least one language she knew. Her two years of university weren’t useless after all. “Wie kann ich ihnen helfen? Oh, bother,” she said, getting jostled by someone coming down the stairs from behind. The person—a tourist, perhaps—moved past Celia and the stranger, muttering apologies.

“You’re English?” the man asked once the other person had gone. In a perfect posh English accent, one she knew well. Celia desperately tried to peer around her pile of clothes and decided that she would just have to get scolded later for setting precious costumes down on the stairs where anyone could come on them. She put them down and stared straight into the bluest eyes she had ever seen.

The owner had wavy, combed brown hair, cut in a classic style that could have belonged in the 1800s, the 1940s or modern day. He had the typical pale skin of the English and the physique of a footballer. Celia’s weakness. He wore plain trousers and a grey button-up shirt, a bag in one hand. He was obviously monied and Celia felt wholly inadequate with her patched jeans and tousled hair. “English, yes,” she said before she could be called out for staring.

“I thought you were… well, German,” the man said, brushing his hair back in an embarrassed gesture.

“You are in Monte Carlo and you immediately assume that if I don’t speak French, I must be German?” Celia asked, raising her eyebrows.

“Yes, of course, now that you say it, English was the natural next language,” the man smiled sheepishly. Celia nodded and waited a beat to see if he was going to actually ask her a question or just stand there. “Oh, right! Um, you wouldn’t happen to know where the manager of the theatre company WordPlay is? I was told that the company was on the third floor and, well…”

“Sure,” Celia said with a casual shrug. “You want the room at the end of the hall. If he isn’t there, then he’ll be in 304 with the Stage Manager.” She started to turn and point him the way then got her foot caught on one of Walt’s shirts. Right. Dry-cleaning. Celia gathered the laundry up in her arms again and started down the stairs as if she hadn’t been interrupted.

“Thanks,” the man said. “I’m Greyson North.”

“So you’re meant to be playing Anselm,” Celia said. It made sense. He was the sort of undeniably handsome that fit with the star of a play.

“Er, yes,” Greyson said with another embarrassed sweep of his palm across his hair. Celia nodded and smiled over her shoulder at him as she went down the stairs.

“That’s good,” she said. “Now I can stop playing you.” There. That should be cryptic enough to completely make a fool of herself, she decided, glad to have the armful of laundry to bury her blushing face into. Celia darted down the stairs with a quick step, hoping that Greyson would just completely forget that she had said something like that in all of the hullabaloo that was surely to follow his arrival. The arrival of the main character and the money.

Celia forced herself to stop thinking about it as she walked through the lobby of the hotel and nodded to the bellhop that waited for something interesting to happen. He nodded back and held the door for her, having grown used to the plucky assistant. She murmured a thanks in broken French and walked out onto the streets of Monte Carlo.

The people with money glared at Celia as she walked past with her armful of clothes, but the storeowners and the people who were tourists just smiled and laughed, either familiar with her antics or amused by the sight of someone walking to the dry-cleaners. Having made the trip a few times before, Celia ducked down the third alleyway from the hotel with ease, finding herself at the cleaners a few minutes later.

The owner gave a full-belly laugh as she came inside. “Bonjour, bonjour,” he said. Celia deposited the pile on his counter and they set to talking in what amounted to broken phrases in French, English and occasionally some sort of sign language, when everything else failed. Eventually, they figured each other out and Celia got a ticket for the pile of clothes, to be picked up the next day.

“Merci,” Celia called and ran out of the cleaners, jogging back to the hotel and not forgetting to pick up the iced tea and croissant on the way. She made it back to the hotel in time to find Raif leaving, grumbling into his phone.

“Oh, there you are, Celia,” Raif said, hanging up his phone and making Celia wonder why she hadn’t heard hers ringing, if he was calling her. “I wanted you to know that our patron and Anselm have arrived. No more filling in for him, so you can focus all your time on Bobbie and the costumes.”

“Just dropped a few off at the cleaners,” Celia said. “What’s the schedule for tonight?”

“Keep Bobbie from going out, if at all possible. I want us at the theatre by five and we’ll be there until I say,” Raif said. Celia grimaced. Another long night, if that was any indication. “I know, I know. But we have three weeks until we open and none of our actors have rehearsed with the actual Anselm. Not to mention we have the tech rehearsal and dress rehearsal and any other problems that are bound to happen on the way–”

“No, how you could you even say such a thing!” Young Penny was stalking through the lobby, her blonde hair whirling around her as though she were walking through wind. Her eyes were blazing and heels clicking on the tile floor of the lobby. Alice, ever calm and ready with a distracting word in case things were getting too heated between anyone, was following after her, mouth drawn in an angry line.

“Because I know Walt and I know how he likes his women,” Alice said. “No matter that we’ve been married for twenty years. Don’t you dare deny this!”

“You’ve been divorced twice,” Penny whirled and jabbed a finger at Alice, snarling. “And are right in the middle of another separation. So what if he wants something that you can’t give him anymore? It’s not a crime to be young and beautiful.”

“But sleeping with my husband is certainly enough to bring down a whole load of crap on your head, slut,” Alice said. Celia raised her eyebrows. In the two weeks she had known Penny and Alice, she had never heard the older woman say more than a ‘drat’ when spilling her coffee one morning. Just goes to show, Celia thought, that actors are always more… volatile than they appear.

Raif looked at Celia desperately and she shook her head, holding up the tea and bag with the croissant, mouthing, “Bobbie.” She did not want to be dragged into the middle of that argument and there was no way that Raif was going to rope her in. Not when she had such a solid excuse.

Celia dashed for the stairs before the manager could come up with a decent reply and took the stairs at a run. Three flights later and she leaned against the wall, breathing heavily and grinning like a fox. Narrow escapes were the most entertaining.

She took the time to regain her breath and waltzed to Bobbie’s room, opening the door with her spare key. “Brought your croissant,” Celia called, closing the door with her hip. She moved into the room and stopped in mild surprise. There was Greyson North, standing with hands in pockets and an intriguing expression on his face. Bobbie was sitting in one of the arm chairs, hand out as though she were in the middle of asking him to sit down.

“Graham, there you are,” Bobbie said. Celia lifted her eyes and was silently grateful that she had coveted the bear claw in the coffee shop. It would never do to serve Bobbie and not a guest. She would just have to get a pastry later. “I was just meeting our newest member of the troupe. Meet Mr. Greyson North.” Was it Celia’s imagination or was Bobbie actually being charming? No, there was a pleasant and even demur smile and a breezy note in her voice. Hmm.

“We’ve met,” Greyson said. “On the stairs. Only you had a bundle of laundry and I thought you were German.”

“Graham?” Bobbie asked. Celia shrugged and opened the paper bag, depositing croissant and bear claw on a tea tray. She didn’t have another iced tea, but she could always fill up the electric kettle.

“Unusual name,” Greyson commented, accepting Bobbie’s silent invitation to sit down.

“Oh, right, sorry,” Celia said, holding out her hand to shake. “I’m Celia Graham. Bobbie’s assistant and general lackey for the production. If you need something, just ask for Graham. It’s easier than Celia, what with the main character–”

“Being named Celia. Makes sense. People call me North,” Greyson shook her hand firmly, hand surprisingly callused for someone who supposedly came from a great deal of money. “So, Graham, did you just guess that Ms. Thurson was going to have a guest or are you in the habit of bringing extra pastries?”

“Sheer luck and a good deal of magic,” Celia answered. Bobbie blinked, a warning. Celia got the picture perfectly well and managed to keep the easy smile on her face while feeling the stab of hurt inside. The beautiful actress had a much better chance with the handsome producer. Not the assistant who floated from job to job, living on the pound and running around at everyone else’s beck and call. “Rehearsal is from five until Raif decides that we’re done. I’d eat something now, because who knows whether he’ll even want to stop for supper,” Celia said, backing away, fading into the background as she had done so often before.

“Thank you, Graham,” Bobbie said with a possibly-genuine smile. Greyson North didn’t even bother to respond as Bobbie immediately launched into a question and answer session about his work and what his vision for the play was.

Celia ducked into the bathroom and went back to inventorying Bobbie’s make-up. Half-an-hour later and her golly-mopes, as she called them, had very nearly faded away. What she needed was some time off, Celia decided. If Raif agreed and she could convince Bobbie that having Celia around tomorrow would be a hindrance, she would go explore Monte Carlo. Alone. And perfectly fine with that, thank you.

All it took to get a good portion of the day off was to say to Bobbie, “I wonder if Mr. North has ever been to Monte Carlo.” Celia was dismissed from her duties until rehearsal and, as Raif was too busy trying to get Alice, Walt and Penny to sort out their differences without violence, it was easy enough to slip away and explore the city of Monaco.

There was plenty enough to do in the Monte Carlo quarter. Celia didn’t have to travel into the greater part of Monaco the entire day. She found herself visiting the Private Collection of Antique Cars of H.S.H Prince Ranier III, walking by the coast, visiting the great churches and nearly falling asleep in the sun as she lounged on a bench in the Japanese Gardens. It was there, naturally, that her great day on her own was interrupted.

“Celia Graham, isn’t it?” Celia cracked open an eye and saw a pair of grey chino-clad legs and leather shoes. She looked up and saw a white linen shirt and the unmistakeable face of Greyson North. There was no Bobbie to be seen.

“Just Graham,” Celia said, sitting up and swinging her legs down so that Greyson could sit. “I thought Bobbie was going to show you around, Mr. North.”

“Oh, no. Just North. No mister, okay?” he sat and gave her a light smile. Celia raised her eyebrows.

“You want me to call you by a cardinal direction. Just a cardinal direction. I know my last name makes me sound like a boy, but North makes you sound like some bad criminal or something. It’s Greyson, isn’t it? How about that?” Celia shook her head, her short hair catching on a slight breeze. She scowled at the sky and saw some incoming clouds. Rain was definitely on its way.

“Everyone calls me North,” Greyson said. “Friends, family, everyone.”

“Well, I’ve never been good at doing what everyone tells me,” Celia said. She paused for a heartbeat. “Back to my original question. Where’s Bobbie?”

“Ah, yes. Bobbie was called away,” Greyson said. “I believe there was something about a shopping mall and not having a chance to properly stretch her legs. I got the distinct impression that she didn’t mean a walk around the gardens.”

“She’s not as bad as everyone seems to think,” Celia said, unsure where the sudden need to defend Bobbie came from. “She’s just a lot of talk. Appearances matter very much to her, but I think she’s got a good soul, if you take the time to see it.”

“Coming from someone who is at her beck and call, that means a lot,” Greyson said. “So what are you doing here?”

“What, can’t I just come out to the gardens and enjoy myself?” Celia asked, frowning ever so slightly. Greyson shifted and looked at her in alarm. She laughed at the comical expression and shook her head. “I don’t think that’s what you mean, is it?”

“Not exactly. I was asking about this job. As in, why are you here in Monte Carlo working your ass off for Raif and company when you could be working a much better job?” Greyson asked. He stretched his arms along the back of the bench and looked at her in question. Celia let her easy grin jump to her mouth and raised her eyebrows.

“You’re assuming that I am capable of getting a better job,” she pointed out. Greyson blanched and opened his mouth to defend himself. Celia flapped her hand in dismissal and shrugged, “You’re probably right. But you also answered your question. Monte Carlo. Seriously?”

“A traveller,” Greyson said. “Okay, I’ll accept that. Though my question still applies. Why aren’t you doing something else?”

“You mean, why am I assistant to Bobbie Thurson and costumes and whatever else Raif wants me to do?” Celia asked. She grabbed her bag and stood, stretching. Greyson looked at her lazily and held out a hand. “Wimp,” Celia said, grabbing onto it and pulling him up. She turned towards the tea house and stuck her hands in her pockets. “Because it’s interesting. And because someone has to manage everyone else. It’s always been something I’m good at; organising, getting things done. So why not? Besides. Monte Carlo.”

“It’s interesting and you get to travel,” Greyson said. “Well, that is about the most vague answer I think I’ve ever heard.”

“Okay, Mr. North,” Celia said, ignoring the look that he threw her. “What about you? You show up weeks late to rehearsals, but it’s okay because you also happen to be the producer. My guess is that you have another job, because you look the type. What’s the story there? Too bored with your other work or you just can’t resist putting on somewhat-cheesy plays?” They stepped into the tea house and Celia did her best to order tea in poor French. Greyson stepped in at the confused exclamations of the cashier and ordered them some tea and pastries in perfect French. Celia even scowled when he slapped away her euros and paid for it himself.

“I’m the monied one, remember?” he said. Celia stuck her tongue out at him and picked up the tray, stalking to a table. Greyson followed along. “You’re very astute, did you know that?” he asked, sipping at his tea.

“Uh-uh,” Celia waved her croissant at him, narrowing her eyes. “You’re not getting out of answering that easily. Answer the question, Mr. North.”

“Only if you promise to stop calling me Mr. North,” Greyson snatched the croissant out of her hands and bit off a piece of the end. Celia gaped at him and let her eyes widen. A pout of the lip and just the barest hint of moisture in the eyes– “Oh, jeez. Look, I’m sorry about the croissant. It was only a joke. I didn’t mean to–”

Celia laughed, leaning back in her chair and doing her best not to point at him. Greyson looked confused for a fraction of a second then vaguely resigned at having been fooled. “I’m sorry,” Celia said, wiping her eyes. “I just couldn’t help myself. You were prime for it.”

“Har har,” Greyson said. He set the partly-eaten croissant on his plate and took another sip of his tea. Celia picked up the croissant and ate the rest, looking perfectly self-assured while doing so. “You’re just doing this to cause trouble, aren’t you?”

“Got it in one,” Celia said. “Now. Where do you work?”

“Troublesome and persistent. Now I understand why you’re content to be an assistant for Raif,” Greyson picked up another pastry and tore it in half, giving part to Celia just to avoid another incident. “I work as an architect for a company in London. And I inherited a great deal of money from my parents, so that’s why I can go and produce a play. Go ahead, laugh.”

Celia shrugged, “Why should I? That’s a perfectly reasonable profession. And of course you have inherited money. You’re not a technology guru, so the money for play production had to come from somewhere. Inheritance makes the most sense.”

“What are you, Sherlock Holmes?” Greyson gave an exasperated sigh. Celia grinned.

“In my dreams,” she said. “Okay, so that’s the job. What about the acting. Where did that come from?”

“My school days found me not so interested in football or driving around with my mates. I liked building sets for theatre. Then I discovered that I liked acting, too. There’s something about creating another world for people. It’s like opening a doorway into someone’s mind. Experiencing what they experience,” Greyson said. He wrapped his hands around his cup and hunched his shoulders just enough to tell Celia that he had told that story and been scoffed at. She nodded.

“That makes sense,” she said. “That and you get to go to Monte Carlo. Though, I just realised that it’s on your own dime, so it’s not nearly as fun.”

“Your own dime? What are you, now, American?” Greyson smiled, a gesture of appreciation for changing the topic.

“Ah, no. But I did tour for two years with the company of Phantom of the Opera. You pick up a phrase or two,” Celia said. She pulled out her phone and checked the time before wincing and sliding it back into her bag. “If we don’t leave now, we’re going to be late for rehearsal. And, after the day that Raif has had, I’m sure that would be a really bad idea.”

“What do you mean the day Raif has had?” Greyson stood and the two walked towards the entrance, admittedly a little faster than they would have if they hadn’t been late.

“Well, apparently, Walt has been sleeping with Penny, which his wife, Alice, finds a bit of a bother,” Celia said.

“Alice and Walt are married?” Greyson said. She nodded. He may have only known them for a few hours, but Celia had observed them since meeting and she had been in the dark as anyone else. “Well, that’s news to me.”

“Me, too,” Celia said. “Until I heard the three of them going at it in the hotel. Well, Raif has been dealing with them all day and I don’t imagine he’s terribly happy. And I didn’t think to bring him anything. Bother.”

“Does that work? Bribing the manager-slash-director?” They made their way onto the main street and Greyson held out his hand for a taxi. He held the door open for Celia and she managed to climb in without feeling as though he were treating her any differently than he would anyone else. Thinking like that made it a whole lot easier to accept the fact that he was from money and she was nothing and nobody. That way, she could be a friend without anything else. No extra baggage, no unrequited feelings. Just having a good time.

“Yes,” Celia nodded solemnly. “He likes coffee. And chocolate eclairs. And occasionally, a very good glass of wine.”

“I’ll keep that in mind when I’m late,” Greyson said. Celia shook her head and rolled her eyes, smiling all the while. They made it to the theatre with little more incident and no more than ten minutes late. To Celia’s great pleasure, Bobbie was already present, shopping bags at her feet. It meant that Celia didn’t have to go fetch her from the shopping mall.

“Graham, there you are,” Bobbie said, rising from her chair as soon as she saw Celia. “I need you to–” she spotted Greyson and paused in her orders. “North, how was your tour? I had thought that we could meet up for dinner, later, but Raif is determined to have us here all evening.”

Greyson stepped close enough to Bobbie to be friendly, or something more if you were looking. Celia was gathering up the shopping bags and was looking. They would make a beautiful couple, she thought without ire or regret. Bobbie was just a touch self-conscious and Greyson was kind enough to make that feeling go away. With a little prodding, perhaps…

“Graham, there you are,” Raif said. Celia had only just gathered up the bags to take back to the hotel when he grabbed her arm, dragging her off to a secluded corner of the stage. “You’d be getting a pay raise. And you wouldn’t have to be Bobbie’s assistant anymore. But really, you’d be doing me a great favour. Perhaps helping your career along, too. I mean, you could go anywhere.”

Celia put the bags down and plucked Raif’s hand off her arm, frowning. “Are you firing me?” she asked quietly. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“What? No! You’re not being fired… you’re being promoted,” Raif said. Celia raised her eyebrows and seriously considered folding her arms into a pout.

“Raif, this is a theatre company made up of about five people, not including the actors. I’m already doing costumes under Tony, so either you want me as Props Master or Lighting. Otherwise, there’s nowhere else to promote me. I see both the PM and Lighting people here, so…” Celia prompted. Raif winced and rubbed the back of his neck. “Oh, no. What is it that you want me to do?” He mumbled an incoherent phrase. “What?”

“I need you to take over as Jenny,” Raif muttered. Celia stared at him. “Don’t give me that look, Graham. Penny quit after Walt refused to take her side over Alice’s and I don’t have time to audition and train a new actress.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Celia deadpanned. This time, she did cross her arms. And shift her weight.

“No. I’m perfectly serious. You already know the script and the blocking and, well, you’re about the same size as Penny. You can act. I know it, you know it. Please. You’d be doing me the most enormous favour,” Raif said. He looked at Celia, pleading and desperation in his eyes. She took a deep breath and wanted to refuse. She wanted so badly to refuse.

Sure, she loved theatre. Loved the chaos that came with creating a new story for people to see. Lighting, props, costumes, sets, scripts, blocking, drama, details, it was all wonderful. Stressful at times, but wonderful. She even liked working with demanding people like Bobbie Thurson because she could figure them out and anticipate them. But there was one thing Celia hadn’t done since she was a girl. And that was act. Properly act, not just fill in when someone was late. Once upon a time, she had promised herself she would never do it again. Now, Raif was begging her to break that vow and he was giving her the one excuse that she couldn’t possibly refuse.

“Damn it, Raif Visner,” Celia said, pinching the bridge of her nose.

“Does that mean you’ll do it?” Raif asked hopefully, his face lighting up.

“Yes. Fine. I’ll do it. But I’m still working costumes and as Bobbie’s assistant. Just to prove to you that I can,” Celia jabbed her finger into Raif’s chest and stalked off, growling and muttering under her breath. It had been such a good day, too.

“Mother, why can’t you understand? I’m in love with Jenny and she with me,” Mark said, gesturing at Celia. Alice, playing Mrs. Squires, was wearing her hair done up in a style appropriate for the time period of the play, but her jeans and black t-shirt didn’t fit in at all. Mark, as Jenny’s lover Roland, was at least dressed in a suit. Celia, though, was feeling quite ridiculous. She had been called on stage in the middle of getting fit for a proper dress. That meant corset and shift, which was all she was wearing right then. None of the others seemed to mind apart from Bobbie, who had been oddly silent the last couple of days.

“Roland, please don’t make a fuss–” Celia simpered, putting a hand on her chest and reaching the other out to Mark. He took it and pressed a kiss to her wrist, flashing a look at Alice.

“Listen to the child, Roland,” Alice said, snapping her fan. “Don’t do this.”

“That’s not what I–” Celia said, again to be interrupted, this time by a look from Alice.

“Isn’t it? My dear Miss Bertram, I know you mean well, but you should do what is best for Roland. He has next to no fortune, his only prospects lie in parliament and you have no connections to bring to him. In fact, you have no fortune at all,” Alice snarled, turning her back on Celia. Harsh, Celia thought privately, but outwardly, all she did was cover her mouth with her hand and force tears to come to her eyes.

“Mother!” Mark scolded, dropping to the couch to sit beside Celia. He reached out as if to put his arms around her, but she pulled away and stood, looking between the two other actors on stage. Then, Celia fled.

The moment she was off-stage, Tony whisked her away to finish with her dress. She complied happily, not wanting to talk to anyone about her performance. It had been so long since she had done anything like this and Raif wasn’t being much help. All he would say was “thank you” and “you’re doing wonderful.”

“Too tight?” Tony asked as he buttoned up the dress. Celia twisted and flexed, stretching her arms and moving about as her character would need to.

“The bust feels loose, but the shoulders are a little pinched,” Celia said. Tony grumbled and tugged at the fabric. She held still and let him pin and do whatever he needed with the dress, taking it off when directed.

“I’ll get this sorted and we’ll squeeze in a fitting later,” Tony said.

“You want me to take care of it?” Celia asked, reaching for her real clothes. “I can try it on and fix what needs to be done. That way you can deal with Bobbie’s dresses.”

“Don’t even get me started on Bobbie’s dresses,” Tony grumbled. “I hate working with starlets. They want everything just so, want to be shown to the greatest advantage, no matter what the actual fashion was like. And she has one more costume change than any of the other women in the show. At least you can sew!”

“How about I come by your room after rehearsals and we can get working on them. If we’re diligent, we should be able to get most of them sorted before morning,” Celia said, putting on a smile even though she didn’t really feel like smiling just then. But Tony needed it more than she did, so she smiled.

“You’re a treasure, Celia Graham,” Tony patted her cheek and shooed her away. She changed and returned the bits of her costume to the appropriate garment bag and rack. Then, the niggling feeling that her cue was coming sent her towards the stage. She had time to realise that her cue was still a ways out before she stopped, watching and entranced.

They were like magic, moving together. Celia knew all the words and yet watching Bobbie and Greyson work together was a new experience. So she stood in the wings and watched.

“Anselm,” Bobbie breathed, loud enough for the audience to hear, but only barely. “We need to talk about Roland and Jenny.”

“Why can’t we talk about us?” Greyson said, stepping towards Bobbie. She took a step back, bringing her hands up to her chest in a protective gesture.

“You know why,” Bobbie said. “I’m promised to Mr. Pearson. You know that. There’s nothing we can do. It’s done.”

“It’s not done until you say your vows, Celia,” Greyson said. Bobbie gave him a half-smile and turned towards the faux-window at the back of the set. “Celia,” Greyson said again, this time pleading.

“I… I know where things stand with me, Anselm. You should just accept that. I’m worried about my sister. Jenny isn’t acting normally. She’s being secretive and subdued. I know there was a confrontation with your mother, but she won’t tell me anything else,” Bobbie was the one to take a step forwards, now. Greyson tightened his expression and looked out over the audience. “I’m afraid she’s going to do something she would be ill-advised to do.”

“What, like marrying for love?” Greyson snapped. Bobbie recoiled and sat on the couch, looking stricken. “Celia, I’m sorry… that was cruel of me.”

“I know this is difficult for you,” Bobbie answered. “But I have given my word. And yes, Jenny loves Roland. Perhaps too much, given the circumstances.”

“I don’t understand,” Greyson paced the stage. “It’s because of the money, isn’t it. The fact that my father’s estate was left to me as the eldest son. Jenny has only a small dowry and Roland isn’t wealthy enough for her. Is that it?”

“Jenny is my sister and my dearest friend,” Bobbie said. She took a deep breath, “I would do anything to secure her future and happiness.”

Greyson froze and rounded slowly on her. He then dropped to his knees before the couch and kissed her hand, “That’s why you’re marrying Mr. Pearson, isn’t it? So that Jenny can have a proper dowry. So she can marry Roland.”

“You already know the answer, dearest Anselm,” Bobbie said, sounding as if her heart were breaking. Greyson lay his head in her lap, facing the audience and she stroked his hair gently, lovingly.

“I don’t deserve you,” he said. Bobbie took another deep breath and then waited five seconds.

“Right, that’s the end of the scene and the first act,” Raif called out, climbing onto the stage and thereby releasing the actors from their poses. Bobbie stayed where she was and Greyson merely moved to sit on the couch next to her, as casual as could be. Celia stepped far enough on stage to be seen by the manager. She was in awe of the magic that could be created before her very eyes. The bittersweet taste in her mouth wasn’t just from the poignancy of the scene, though, and it took all of her mental strength to acknowledge that. There was a knot right in the middle of her chest that told Celia she would never truly be a part of that world, the world of acting. She had known it before and her pitiful-by-comparison performance was enough to confirm it.

“Raif,” Alice said, walking out onto stage with a tired look. Walt was a few steps behind, Mark next to him. “Can we stop for the night? My feet are killing me and I haven’t eaten for a good portion of the day. We’ve already run the first act seven times.”

“And we’ll keep running until I say so,” Raif snapped. “We need this to be perfect. The better it is, the better reviews. The better reviews, the better turn out. The better turn out–”

“The better the money,” Celia cut in, her own temper about as done as Alice and the others. She was normally the first to agree to work harder and later, but not tonight. Tonight, she just wanted to lay in her bed and read, sulking until morning when she would get up, perfectly alright with the world. Unfortunately, she had already promised her time to Tony. At least he wouldn’t try to talk her ear off when she was unwilling to listen. “We’re all tired,” Celia continued, rubbing her shoulder to relieve some of the built-up tension. “And we’ve been through act two already, so it’s not new.”

“No, but it needs to be perfect,” Raif retorted. Celia was inches away from snarling back when Greyson cut in.

“How about we all take the night off,” he said, staring straight at Raif, silently reminding him who the money in the situation was. “We can go out for dinner and rejuvenate. My treat.” Those last two words were enough to press the point home. Raif held up his hands and gave his best smile, proving that he had once been as great as any of them.

“You win,” Raif said. “Go on, gather your things and we’ll meet outside in ten minutes.”

No one needed anything else. They went off to grab their bags or change out of half-completed costumes. Mark practically dashed past Celia, calling out a “Good job, tonight!” to her before vanishing into the men’s dressing rooms. Celia shook her head and went to grab her own bag before helping Tony with the costumes. She had taken an armful of garment bags and was moving to the back door when an arm on her shoulder stopped her.

“Wait, where are you going?” Celia turned to Greyson, who had changed and thrown a thin leather jacket on over his shirt, making him both dashing and dangerous. Bobbie was a few feet away, purse over her shoulder and looking on with a masked expression. Celia didn’t need a neon sign to know that Bobbie was unhappy.

“Back to the hotel. Tony and I are going to get the rest of these sorted out,” Celia said. “Yours will be done, sure thing, tomorrow, Bobbie,” she directed her words at the other actress. “Let me know if there’s anything else that you need and I’ll get it sorted.”

“You’re working too hard,” Greyson said, smiling. “Come on, take a break with the rest of us.” He tugged on her arm to get her to come along. The last inch of Celia’s temper frayed and she jerked her arm back, her expression turning neutral. She barely managed to keep back the snarling words and took a deep breath.

“I need to get these done,” Celia said flatly. “Especially if any of you want to have costumes for tomorrow.” She turned to the back doors and pushed them open, ready to slam them behind her and leave the others behind.

“Wait,” Greyson called, following her. “Hold up.” Celia stopped and glared up at Greyson, that knot tightening in her chest. “What’s wrong? You’re always so calm and happy. Did we do something wrong?”

“I just need time to recharge,” Celia said, jerking her chin in a nod to Tony, who was emerging with the rest of the costumes in his arms. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” She stalked off with the head of costumes, leaving Greyson and Bobbie and the rest of that world behind.

She wished that she had never agreed to play the part of Jenny. She wished she had never given up being nothing more than an assistant. She was even beginning to wish that she had never come to France. All it was giving her was heartache and memories that should have stayed buried.