When her friend Rosamund had revealed her the plans and all the details for the glamorous winter party she wanted to throw at her huge town house, Cora had been thrilled.

But now, as soon as she arrived there, she was already ready to leave. No matter how much she had been waiting for this night, no matter how much of her salary she had invested to buy the Ermanno Scervino black lace dress she was wearing, she had to leave.

She couldn't meet him. Not even in a crowded room.

Since their date, which had been a complete disaster, he had been obsessed with her. He hadn't stopped calling her, texting her and had even followed her trying so hard to persuade her to give him another chance.

The mere thought of his hand on her thigh, as they were sitting on his car on their way back to her house, made her shiver. There was something about him -she couldn't say what it was exactly-, but whatever it was, it was frightening.

She had immediately spotted him standing on the farthest corner of the lavishly ornate dining room. He was engrossed in an animated conversation with Rosamund and a couple of other friends. She was pretty sure he hadn't seen her and she thanked her lucky stars that she would have left the party without raising any suspicions, without leaving any trace.

She felt so bad leaving the party, but what else was she supposed to do?

She inhaled deeply, as she turned towards the door, her overcoat still hanging on her arm. Rosamund would have certainly understood why she had left so quickly, without even saying hello.

As her hand reached for the cold metal of doorknob she felt someone tapping insistently her right shoulder. She turned her head slowly and when her eyes met his, she couldn't help but freeze on the spot.

"Hello Cora." He said in his velvety voice she once found alluring while now was anything but attracting.

"Simon? I didn't know you were here" she tried to sound calm and even surprised. She wasn't that bad at acting.

He rewarded her with one of his brightest smiles, his white teeth so in contrast with his almost orange skin "I wanted to surprise you, because you've made yourself scarce recently. You could have texted me back."

Oh, this was definitely a hit below the belt. She cleared her throat and tried with the first thing that came to her mind.

"I'm sorry about that, but you know I have been very busy lately…so very busy" she waved her arm in front of her trying to emphasise her last words and hoping he would step a bit backward from her.

But unluckily Cora's reply and gesture only helped him to push further "Oh really? Or are you hiding from me?" he asked bending his head a bit on the right, a mischievous grin already forming on his lips.

She was absolutely starting to fidget. She was glad he couldn't see her hands because by now they were surely shaking "Why? Oh no…absolutely not" she said, her cheeks starting to redden while she shook her head.

An exaggerated sigh escaped his lips before he went on "Well, that's a relief! Because I've missed you so much, my dear..."

She couldn't move, her heart was hammering in her chest and she couldn't seem to form a coherent thought. Her hand gripping her overcoat harder as he brought his hand to her cheek, his index finger caressing her "Would you like to join me?"

As his cold skin brushed against her flushed and warm complexion she found some strength and muttered "Uh no, thank you…I was just…"

"Yes?" he enquired trying to catch her off guard.

"I was… waiting for someone" the words were out of her mouth before she knew it.

"And is this someone a 'he' or a 'she' "? he seemed genuinely surprised because he let his finger fall from her cheek. This gave her some seconds to compose herself, her back straight and her gaze convinced.

"It's a 'he'…definitely a 'he' " she stated confidently.

She watched his face fall for a split of second, but then he went on. His devious smile always on his lips "You surprise me, Cora. Are you and this guy dating?" his brows arching as to urge her to speak again.

"Uhm…yes, we are." She nodded as if to subtly ask him to believe her "Is it so very hard to believe?" Now it was her time to arch her brows, the cornflower blue of her eyes icing him on the spot.

"Not at all, my dear. So where's this boyfriend of yours?" he tried to dissimulate his disbelief with a rapid gesture of his hand.

"Oh you know…men. They are always late." She replied trying to sound as disenchanted as possible. Then sensing the same amount of uneasiness she felt before beginning to rise in her chest again, she added "Isn't that Rosamund? I should go and say hello, it's her party after all".

As she watched Cora crossing the room, she knew something was amiss, but she tried feign ignorance before her friend could cause a scene in the middle of the room.

"Oh Cora, please help yourself and take a glass. It's an excellent champagne" she said happily pointing at the table on her left. Then she bent towards her friend to whisper "I ordered it from this famous Parisian producer, you'll find it absolutely..."

But Cora stopped her before she could finish, their faces inches apart. "How could you Rosamund? I mean, with all the people you could invite...why him?" she tried to keep her voice low.

"What are you talking about?" Rosamund asked, taking a champagne glass for her and one for Cora.

"Simon! You know I don't like when he's around. He is still texting me and asking me out...He is obsessed with me!" Cora whispered a bit more loudly than she should, her delicate fingers tightening their grip on the cold stem of the champagne glass, her brows arched and her eyes wide open in disbelief.

Rosamund, sensing Cora's discomfort and trying to block her from yelling while the centre of the room was already crowded with guests, grasped gently her arm guiding her to the corner, still empty enough to allow a private conversation.

"Oh please Cora don't be so melodramatic. What was I supposed to do? If you must know, I didn't invite him...oh well, not really. He kind of invited himself here and I didn't want to seem rude. Besides, what you and Simon had, was just a date...a bad date, that I have to admit. But all this panic is nonsensical. Believe me. Don't worry everything will be alright"

Cora looked at her friend with wide eyes, fear written across her face "No, it won't! And you must help me!"

"Why are you so agitated?" Rosamund asked, because she knew Cora was not a simpleton. If she was asking for help, it meant she was in trouble. Since her question was still lying in the air unanswered, she tried again "Cora what have you done?"

She shook her head and looked at the golden liquid inside her glass, tracing the round curved shape of its upper end.

"Nothing illegal"

Rosamund sighed heavily, extending her hand to touch Cora's arm "Thank God! Go on then"

Her movement had the desired effect on Cora who lifted her gaze to meet her friend's waiting eyes.

The first thing Rosamund noticed was that the other woman's eyes were full of embarrassment and she suddenly seemed to her the terrified girl who came knocking on her door in the middle of the night after her first date with Bricker. At this point she thought she knew why Cora was so frightened. "I was so shocked Roz. He cornered me some minutes ago and asked me a lot of questions. He told me that he was missing me and wanted to know if I wished to join him and long story short…well, I might have told him I was here with my boyfriend"

"You might or you did?" Rosamund felt she had to ask her despite she knew deep down in her heart the answer.

Cora couldn't see her friend anymore, her eyes were so full of tears, threatening to spill at any moment, that she cast her eyes to the floor and her answer came out as a barely audible whisper

"I did"

Even if she had guessed it, since Cora in particularly extreme circumstances could act naïvely, her friend's answer came to Rosamund as a cold shower. "Good Lord, Cora!"

She saw her sudden reaction cast a shadow on the other woman who looked now ashamed and shaken up. It hurt to see her usually bright, lively Cora scattered and at a loss. She opened her arms to her and welcomed her in her warm, comforting embrace. She let her take her time and when she felt she had recovered, she moved some inches away to inspect her face. Cora with pleading eyes, grabbed Rosamund's upper arm "Oh please you have to help me because…"

But she couldn't finish her sentence because Rosamund cut her off, her eyes sparkling with mischief "Why don't you find yourself a boyfriend, then? I'm sure he will give up, if he sees you have eyes only for someone else". She had to admit that her decision to embrace Cora to comfort her had been a pivotal one, because it had given her the exact amount of time to think of the possible solution.

"Rosamund, you of all people should know I don't have a boyfriend. It's not that I can extract him from my purse..I'm not Mary Poppins, you know!" she stated.

"Oh come on Cora. Can't you think of someone?" Rosamund asked dramatically, turning lightly on her right pointing her champagne flute towards her brother, who was amiably chatting with a group of men.

"What? Oh no, no, no Rosamund I can't ask Robert. It's not possible"

Cora was completely flabbergasted. How could Rosamund even hint at something like this was beyond her.

"And why not? Isn't he your best friend?" she stated since she knew it was the truth and Cora couldn't deny it.

"Yes but..."

"Oh well, if you prefer to have Simon wrapped around your leg for the whole evening…" Rosamund added as to emphasise this was the only idea she would consider, then she turned away from her.

As Robert was left alone, he caught her shape from the corner of his eyes and he felt his jaw drop to the floor. She was stunning and tonight her tiny figure was wrapped in a mid length black dress embellished with embroidered lace that created wide almost transparent inserts on the front and on the back. She was a vision and despite knowing that he shouldn't notice all those details about her dress or how her eyes were glistening or how her smile was captivating, he couldn't help but notice. Yet, Cora was his best friend, nothing less and nothing more.

He saw she was coming quickly in his direction, her cheeks a bit flushed, he couldn't tell the cause, whether it was from the wine or from the rush.

"Hey Robert! How are you?" She pecked his cheek with a quick kiss as it was her habit and as he felt her lips gracing his skin, her perfume invaded his nostrils.

"I'm fine, thank you. And you?" He replied trying to control his smile.

"Good! Thank you...I...well..." she lied biting her lower lip not being able to find the courage to ask him. How could she? When he looked so tremendously dashing in his black suit.

"Just say it" he interrupted her with a half smile, arching his eyebrows for a couple of seconds so that she could lose herself in those mesmerizing light blue eyes.

"What?" she feigned ignorance, shaking her head.

"What you were about to say" he quickly replied. He was sure she was hiding something and he was dying to know what it was.

"Oh well it's nothing...really" she began to blush, she knew that if he wanted he could make her tell him what it was.

"Cora...what do you always say? That I know you..."

She suddenly lifted her gaze to meet his "…that you know me better than I do"

"Yes! So please tell me what's troubling you?" she kept smiling, but she could see his eyes were full of concern. In that moment she knew she was ready to tell him. After all he was her best friend and he, of course, had full knowledge of all her secrets...all of them except one. The one that she couldn't tell because it would mean losing him.

"Alright. But not here. Let's go to the other room" she whispered before taking his hand and pulling him into Rosamund's sitting room.

"Do you remember when you said you would do anything for a friend?"she asked nervously letting go of his hand.

"Yes, of course I do." He nodded even more curious of what was going on in her head.

"And I am your best friend. Am I not?"again she couldn't look at him. She knew very well the answer to her question, but she couldn't' help but ask. She had to be sure. She had made a mistake and to rectify it, she had to demand him the biggest favour she could ever ask.

"Yes, Cora you are. What do you need exactly?" he was so caught up in trying to figure out what to expect from her that he had almost forgotten his drink. He decided then to take a sip form the glass.

She could not lie to him, he would have surely understood. Wouldn't he?

"Would you mind terribly if I asked you to play the part of my boyfriend, tonight?" she replied speaking so quickly she hoped she wouldn't have to repeat it.

"I...me...you...What?" He asked coughing, almost chocking his champagne.

She knew his first reaction would not have been a positive one, but Robert was her only hope "I need a pretend boyfriend, just for tonight...please. And if it works at the end of the night you'll be free. I promise"

Robert on the other hand was completely flabbergasted. The woman who understood him better than anyone else in the world was asking something she probably knew it was too much for him. "You can't be serious. Why on earth would I do something like that?"

She finally looked at him again, his mouth was still agape and he was still bright red for the previous embarrassment "Because I'm asking you." Then she added after a brief moment of silence "Robert, please you have to help me, otherwise Simon won't leave me alone." She choked back the lump that was beginning to form in her throat and he could see she had angry tears in her eyes.

"Is he here? Now?"

She looked away, he was sure she didn't want to embarrass him by crying in from of him. Even if it was because she was overwhelmed by anger. She knew he was still a bit uncomfortable around her Americanness, as he always said, trying to cheer her up when her feelings had the better of her "Yes and less than fifteen minutes ago he has tried to importune me"

"What a cad! Are you alright?" his hand touched lightly her upper arm. She leaned a bit against it and he sensed her closing the distance between the two of them.

"Yes, I am. But…oh my God, Robert I made a mess! I was so shocked when I saw him that I told him I was here with my boyfriend. You're the only one who can save me from Simon!" At the mention of the words 'you're the only one' Robert could have probably touched the sky and when he looked at her and saw how much she was fighting against her feelings, he felt he had to help her. She was everything and he hated to see her unhappy or frightened.

"Oh, ok ok if you put it that way I think I will help you"

She let a giggle escape her mouth and he was glad to have brought a smile on her face again "Thank you Robert! My knight in shining armour!" She felt that with Robert at her side she could face anything.

"What do you want me to do?"

"It's rather simple. You only have to pretend to be my boyfriend. That's all! Rosamund suggested that if Simon sees me with someone else he'll leave me in peace"

"What? Does my sister know?"

"Well...honestly she was the one who suggested you as candidate"

"She is incorrigible" he muttered all by himself, forgetting Cora was still standing so close to him.

"What?" Cora in the meantime was wondering if she had heard correctly or if it was only her imagination.

"Nothing...never mind." He took a step back and gestured with his hand as it was just a minor detail with no importance at all. "Anyway, Cora, are you sure it is going to work? Because you know me, I'm not a good actor. What are we exactly supposed to do?"

"Well...I don't know. I suppose we should do things that young couples do" she honestly hadn't got any ideas, she hadn't planned anything ahead. Everything was just on the spur of the moment.

"Things like what? Holding hands?" he asked spontaneously and she was glad. At least she had an ally.

"Yes, my precious cinnamon roll. That's a good start!" she giggled. After this comment, Robert had to admit Cora had this inner ability of taking him always by surprise.

"I beg your pardon?"

With a dramatic flair she flung her arms to the ceiling and exclaimed "Robert I'm improvising! And please do make an effort and try to make it sound plausible."

"Can you avoid calling me with silly nicknames?" he wanted to beg her, it was already so difficult for him, but in his heart he couldn't deny her anything. He only had to put it in his mind that it was all a show, it was all fake, no real feelings (apart from friendship), no love, no attachment and the day after it would be over.

"No I'm sorry I can't. All couples use silly nicknames to refer to each other. Everyone knows that. Don't you agree, gummy bear?" she asked him exaggerating the pronunciation of the last two words, accompanying it with a swift motion of her fingers which were now gracing the short locks of hair on his temples.

Her hand felt so good that he decided to start to play along with her and placing his hand on her lower back he whispered "Alright. You make the rules, darling. Just as it should be"

Her face lit up as she heard the word 'darling' leave his lips and she looked at him surprised. Yes, her Robert was a man full of hidden resources, it seemed.

"What? Why are you looking at me like that?" he asked, catching her wandering eyes roaming his face.

"Because you're the best pretend boyfriend I could ever have" taking his hand in hers she pushed the sitting room's door open and they joined the already crowded party.

Oh well, at least he could pretend, just for one night, that she was his. And pretending was better than nothing, wasn't it?

As the minutes turned into the first hour, Robert found that pretending to be Cora's boyfriend wasn't very different from the way they behaved normally. Having been best friends for the last two years meant that their thoughts and movements were perfectly synchronised and that, as everyone has already noticed, they could easily understand each other. The only thing that was "new" between them was that she was constantly holding his hand. This was the worst part for him, knowing that what was giving him so many wonderful feelings was all a lie and Robert had silently vowed himself to make it out of the night with the least amount of scars. The more time he spent holding Cora in his arms, while they were chatting with various acquaintances, the more he wanted to believe it was all true.

During the course of the night, Bricker had only observed them from far away and he was glad there hadn't been an interaction, yet. Robert had previously been informed by Rosamund and Cora, who was not willing to leave his side, of his opponent's exact moves so that he could see what he looked like. He needn't look too far away from where they were or to ask himself who Simon exactly was because as the night went on, he acknowledged that Simon's presence was beginning to make itself more explicit.

They had been behaving impeccably well, apart from a couple of times in which Cora had spotted Bricker and, probably wanting to impress him, had stepped closer to Robert and kissed him on the cheek, murmuring in his ears. Robert, who was not accustomed to this kind of vicinity and intimacy, tried to use all his strength to limit the reddening of his face.

"Robert! Cora! Come quickly! It's time to take some pictures" Robert and Cora excused themselves from the nice conversation they were having with his friend John and Anna to direct their attention to Marmaduke's voice who was calling them "Come on Anna, Bates...you too!"

Cora turned her head towards Robert who seemed deep in thought, but that shook away the serious look on his face as soon as Cora's hand made contact with his. As she entwined her fingers with his and started to pull him in the direction of Marmaduke, he called her back "Cora? You don't want to do this" she surely wouldn't want to take pictures with him. Would she?

"Why not? Come on, honey, it will be fun"

He tried to protest for the second time, pulling at her hand again "No, Cora no..please" he was usually the one who took the pictures. He was too shy to stand smiling or to make funny faces at the camera.

"Don't be such a spoilsport!" apparently Cora couldn't accept a no for an answer tonight and he suspected that Bricker was the cause of all this urge to impress everyone with their love. She kept pulling and almost dragging him until they reached their friends.

Rosamund had set up a corner of the large dining room as a little photo scenery complete with big paper frames, funny wigs, hats and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. They all took turns to shoot the pictures and when it was Robert's turn he had even had the chance to take a couple of Cora's close-ups. He would have them framed and then he was planning to give them to her as Christmas present. She was glowing, her face was rosy, her soft white skin and the pink complexion of her face were in clear contrast with the black of her dress. She was perfect, a vision in his eyes, her eyes shining from happiness that he couldn't simply resist, but press the camera button another couple of times. She seemed so carefree, he could even bet that in that moment she had forgotten all about Bricker and the chaos that she had unwillingly created.

After he rejoined the group he absent-mindedly encircled her waist with his arm and pulled her towards him, she turned her head and was still smiling. "Cora you look beautiful tonight" he whispered close to her face. She could feel Robert's breath on her cheek, the smell of his cologne. He was absolutely intoxicating. She could have even kissed him there and then, but she knew she couldn't. He was just her best friend and the last thing she wanted was to ruin their friendship with a foolish act. She only had the time to blush and lower her eyes because when she looked up she saw Simon staring in their direction, waiving theatrically his hand. Someone was still taking pictures and Cora felt her pulse quicken. As driven by an inexplicable force, she instinctively turned a bit more into Robert's arm and pulled him towards her by the lapel of his jacket. Cora's unexpected move took Robert, who was still drowning in her eyes, by surprise. As a result, he lost his balance and bent forward hitting his head against hers, his hands falling dangerously downwards on her lower back. Now it was his time to blush as he stepped back to make sure she was fine and placing his hands on her upper arms, a "more appropriate place", as his mother would have surely underlined.

"Ouch!" she exclaimed, rubbing her forehead her eyes still shut.

"Cora? Are you alright?" he asked taking her hand away -which was still massaging her head- and placing that stubborn lock of hair behind her ear.

She was so embarrassed that she couldn't find the courage to look at him, so she kept her eyes fixed on his tie while she whispered a soft "Yes" looking anywhere but at him.

The people surrounding them were still engrossed in their activities that no one was paying them the least amount of attention. Robert having ascertained that, put his index finger under her chin and asked her keeping his voice as low as possible, despite all the confusion around them "Cora, what has gotten into you?"

She could have said "Nothing" but thinking about it, it seemed rather absurd. And even if she could have given him that answer, it meant she had to explain him why she had suddenly behaved that way. She was sure it hadn't only been Simon's presence to force her to pull Robert to her. It had been months now she had been feeling this way around Robert and she had almost admitted it to him once, while she was suffering from a bad cold and he had rung at her door with a take away dinner. He had prepared her a tray and they had sat next to each other on her couch watching the telly under her favourite blanket.

"Cora?" his soft voice, immediately followed by a long sigh, woke her up from her reverie. She looked at him with a faint smile and muttered the name he had been hating for the last 2 months "Simon".

He should have known. Simon, Simon, Simon he hated that man. He had witnessed the effect he had on her since their disastrous date. His strong, cheerful, witty Cora had transformed from the ray of light that brightened his day and possibly everyone in the room, into a ghost of what she was. She had become hesitant and as she had just demonstrated, unsure. So unsure that, to try so hard to convince him to let her go, she had acted rashly. And this was not the Cora he knew.

When they finally reached a small group of Rosamund's friends, other people soon gathered in astonishment around the newly discovered couple. Apparently they were the gossip of the night and neither Cora nor Robert anted to ask the other how they were supposed to justify their separation the very next day.

For tonight they had already had enough distress and it seemed that they had both silently decided to avoid the elephant in the dining room.

Suddenly, Robert sensed Cora had become all nervous and fidgeting. He could hear her breathing faster, her chest rising and falling under the soft layer of the black fabric. As she tightened her grip on his hand, scratching his palm with her thumb, he could see the reason of her quick change of behaviour. Simon was standing right next to her, scrutinising them. It was the first time he had come so close to them.

Finally, one of the women spoke totally unaware of what was going on, saving Robert and Cora from a discomforting situation.

Simon was still near them probably willing to overhear their conversation, without even having the decency to pass unnoticed.

"Robert and Cora what a surprise! So tell me, how long have you been a couple?"

Robert was trying to figure out what to say when Cora, who seemed to have found a renewed strength, spoke first.

"Oh well Laura, you know how these things work. We've been knowing each other for so long that when he asked me to go out with him on a real date, I couldn't resist. How could I? Right, sweet pea?"

There she was again...Cora and her silly nicknames. Robert had never been more embarrassed in his life, he turned bright red at the mention of the words 'sweet pea'.

"Oh well, yes..I suppose so" he replied politely, then he turned his head to her, his eyes wide open, his brows arched, silently asking her to stop the charade. It had been fun at the beginning, but now it was all very annoying.

"Ohh, isn't this the cutest thing ever, Claire? From best friend to boyfriend. You're so lucky Cora" the three women began to giggle.

"Who is lucky here?" Rosamund came to greet Cora and Robert bringing a couple of champagne glasses with her.

"I am lucky!" Cora exclaimed with a smile, taking the two proffered flutes from Rosamund's hands and passing one to Robert "Thank you, Roz, and this one is for you my cute marshmallow man".

Robert, who was still trying to regain his natural colour from the earlier embarrassment, found himself blushing again and cleared his throat. She knew immediately he was reaching the tolerance limit. The sound he had just emitted with his throat and the exasperated rolling of his eyes were a clear signal. She knew it and taking a deep breath she steadied herself and shut her mouth.

He knew exactly why Cora was doing that, because Bricker was still within earshot. The thing was he was feeling extremely uncomfortable. Not wanting to put himself or her to shame more than they had been doing for the entire evening, with a swift motion, he took the glass from her hand and put it with his on the nearby table. Wrapping his arm around her he asked softly "Would you like to dance, my dear?". She nodded her assent and by the look in his eyes she understood he was giving them both the chance to take a break from the impossible situation they had created.

As they made their way to the space reserved for dancing, Cora couldn't help but replay the sentences she had just heard from those women. Yes, she was lucky to have Robert in her life. She was well aware that no one else would have probably agreed to her crazy plan and she was taking advantage of him. She owed him a great deal, but tonight it seemed to her that even every little, minor detail was playing against her.

When she felt his large hand softly gracing the fabric on her lower back and his left hand brushing her arm and then grasping gently hers, she mouthed a " Thank you" her eyes never leaving his. As the string quartet began playing a waltz and all the couples were whirling across the small dance floor she felt good in his arms. She had never danced with Robert before, let alone a slow dance, but their movements were incredibly coordinated, as they had been dancing together for years. She was happy...truly happy for the first time in a very long time. She moved her hand from his shoulder and put it on his chest, closing the small distance between them, her cheek found a comfortable spot under Robert's chin and after a while she felt his tender lips on her hair.

Oh, if she knew how difficult it was for him to hide his feelings for her.

She took a moment to relish in the sensation and then looked at him. She felt his heartbeat quicken its pace under her palm as she found soon after that hers was beating in tune with his.

Oh, if he knew how difficult it was for her to refrain herself from revealing the most hidden secret in her heart.

When the song faded away, they were suddenly brought back to reality as Robert excused himself informing her he would be back with something to drink for the both of them.

She was still watching Robert walking away in the direction of the small table when she felt someone touching her shoulder and she turned around with widened eyes.

"Simon..." she wasn't as much surprised as the first time he approached her that night, but still he seemed to have chosen to speak to her when Robert was not around.

"Did you enjoy the dance?" his voice was low, his eyes looking at her as if deep down he was insinuating something.

"Yes, very much" she replied quickly looking at him square in the eyes. It was true, she was not lying. Her dance with Robert had been wonderful. She had never felt more safe and comfortable in her life. It was easy being like that with him, because despite the more "public side of Robert" who could be so skilled in hiding his feelings, she had been one of the few who could witness his more "private one". He had this disarming ability to hide his feelings from everyone, but who could surprise her disclosing little pieces of his heart when no one was around.

"I could see that. I see the way he looks at you." He replied after a while, nodding in the direction of the crowd. "Will you save one for me before the evening is over?"

"Simon, I wouldn't feel comfortable and Robert wouldn't feel comfortable, either." This was way too much and she shrugged at the thought. She only hoped Robert would be back shortly because it seemed to her that Simon was not willing to leave.

"Speaking of which... you still haven't introduced me to your boyfriend." he made sure to underline the last word adding a light tone of disgust.

"He's standing over there. Black suit, broad shoulders, dark blonde curly hair." she tried to sound unharmed by his request and pointed her index in Robert's direction.

"I'd like to meet him" he retorted and started to move the first step which would have probably led him to Robert.

But she was faster and grabbing his upper arm she stepped before him blocking his track.

"Oh sure! I'll be right back"

This was the perfect chance and if she played her cards wisely and Robert helped her one more time, she could finally get rid of him.

It was now or never! She hurried her pace towards Robert who was carrying two champagne flutes.

"Cora?" he asked as if not understanding why she was rushing towards him, but he could barely say her name because her lips crashed against his. Robert tried to balance himself, careful not to spill the content of the glasses on his pretend girlfriend and when she pulled away he looked at her with wide eyes. He was totally and undeniably surprised.

"Cora! What are you doing? You didn't tell anything about kissing" he muttered inches apart from her mouth.

Still flushed against his body, she took the proffered glass with one hand and let her free arm slip around his waist and then whispered "Robert, he's watching us and if you want him to believe we are here together as a couple you have to kiss me! Now! And I suggest you use your tongue this time"

"Wha…" But he couldn't object because her lips were on his again. He felt her tighten her grip on his waist and simultaneously she opened her mouth to him. He thanked God the room was partially in the dark because he felt his face redden up to the top of his ears. Cora's lips were soft and she tasted of champagne and of a peculiar taste he was sure it was hers only. He wanted this moment to last forever. Apparently Cora was so engrossed in their kiss that neither she had sensed that in the meantime a little crowd had gathered around them. They kept kissing until Rosamund took things in hand and clearing her throat declared "My goodness, brother dear…". At her exclamation a wave of giggle interrupted their happy little bubble.

When they broke the kiss Robert was thinking his heart would explode and cast his eyes down, suddenly finding the tip of his shoes more interesting then the people chuckling at them.

When the crowd began to dissolve, Cora noticed Simon was still there as if waiting for them. She took Robert by his hand and entwined her fingers with his. At this point Robert couldn't care less about Bricker or about anyone. He was at a loss and Cora's behaviour was not helping.

"Darling, may I introduce you to Simon? Simon, this is my boyfriend Robert Crawley" she said with a bright smile.

"Nice to meet you" Robert tried to hide his disgust behind a circumstance smile.

But soon Simon interrupted him with a evil grimace plastered on his lips "Well, well, well so this is the man who has stolen you from me"

"Mr. Bricker, I suggest..."Robert wanted so much to be calm but he couldn't. How dared this man say such thing in front of Cora? Cora didn't belong to anyone but herself, she was an independent strong willed woman. Not some kind of object at the mercy of the first man she wanted to date.

"Hold your tongue, man, I was asking Cora." Simon's reply caught him completely off guard. Usually he was not used to be hushed and that gave Bricker enough time to go on "Now tell me, are you sure this is the man you are dating?"

"From what you've just witnessed, I thought it was pretty clear" she had to reply with the first thing who came to her mind because to think about it she was as taken aback as Robert.

"Honestly, I've been watching you for the entire evening. Now you have to tell me how in the world did you manage to get someone like him when you could have someone like me? He's all manners with everyone, but so clumsy when he's around you. You need someone who cherish you and that boast you about like a trophy. Not a man that blushes for a kiss. You deserve a better man than that!"

Cora was furious and didn't mind if she was probably causing a scene. She tried to keep her voice even, but firm and spoke with a raspy throaty voice that Robert had never heard her use.

"Now you take back every word you've just said!"

"And why should I? When you have decided to be with such an insignificant man?" Simon's straightforward reply, soon followed by a mischievous laugh was all she needed to go berserk.

"Robert is not insignificant! He is the most wonderful, sweet man I've ever met. Yes, he can seem clumsy and awkward sometimes, but he has also-despite what he believes- a great heart and he is capable of exceptional feelings. He understands me, he believes in me and he knows every little crevice of my heart. And I don't want a man who parades me around like I'm some sort of prize he has won. I want a man who loves me for who I am. I want a man who knows what's going on in my head and in my heart before I do...and that man can only be Robert".

At those words Robert was barely breathing and left the room in search of fresh air with his heart broken in one million pieces. He had to admit, Cora had been quite convincing in playing the part of the devoted girlfriend and it pained him so much to know it was all a lie for her. He found a seat on his sister's bench on the porch and stared at the moon, hoping the cold December air would do him good. He could not go back inside like that, when he had allowed Cora to conquer his heart little piece after little piece during these two years only to see it shattered to the floor in one night. And why on earth had he agreed to this crazy plan of hers? He should have known it would have ended badly, but the more he knew Cora, the more he was unable to deny her something.

Yet he couldn't help but smile thinking about her. "Everything will look better in the morning" that was what she always said when he told her about a difficult day at work or when he had to confront his mother on something. The party was about to end and that meant that no matter how much they had played the couple tonight, no matter how good it had felt to dance with her, holding her so close to his chest, no matter how her hands seemed to fit perfectly into his lager palms, no matter how those kisses had made his knees go weak and his heart run wild in his chest, their happy little moment was about to end, as well. Robert let out a defeated sigh as he felt his sister sitting right next to him on the bench.

"Robert, tell her" she said, just like that. This was Rosamund's style after all. Always so direct, so frank.

"Tell her what?" he asked after a while, never turning his head to her. He kept staring in front of him, in the distance.

He sensed his sister's hand grab his arm and she turned to him "That you are in love with her"

"No", his eyes always fixed, looking at a distant point of the horizon. He bent his back forward so that his arms and elbows were touching his thighs.

"Why not?"

Rosamund's stubbornness was unnerving and he had to put his head on his hands. He let out a soft sigh before answering his sister, "Because I can't. It can't work between us. She is beautiful, intelligent, witty and when I'm with her I'm a different person. But what can I be for her? I'm a just a man...an ordinary boring awkward man."

"Rosamund rolled her eyes and was about to reply, giving him a piece of her mind, but he was speaking again and she thought that maybe he needed this, and she let him go on.

"We've already spoken about it. It's for her sake"

"Is it?" she squealed "Or is it because you are afraid that once you've told her what you feel, you wouldn't be able to live without her anymore?"

Rosamund was right, but the reason he couldn't tell Cora was also another one "Mmm...I don't want to ruin our friendship if that's the only way I have to be with her. I can't risk to make a false step and lose her"

Her brother's train of thoughts was going completely out of control. He could be so blind at times. She tried to open his eyes "False step? Robert did you hear what she said to Bricker?"

Rosamund's statement served only to unnerve him even more. His eyes darted in her direction from the first time they started this conversation and she could clearly see her brother carried a sadness mixed with disappointment in them "Don't play with me Rosamund. Weren't you the one who suggested her earlier tonight to ask me to be her pretend boyfriend?" his eyes were glistening with tears. In that moment he was wearing his heart on his sleeve. A jumble of different feelings from anger to failure shadowing his features. This had been the worst idea Rosamund had ever had since the day they were still kids and she had persuaded him to steal their mother's perfume because she wanted to try it.

Her job was over. She couldn't help him. He had to do it all by himself, or Cora could have been the answer. But for now she couldn't intervene. "Sometimes brother dear, you can be unreasonably stubborn".

She stood up from the bench and retreated inside to join her guests once again.

Replaying the events of that night and noticing how both Cora and Robert had behaved during their masquerade, she knew she would have probably laughed in another occasion. The idea of feigning a relationship between the two of them had been hers, after all, and now she felt bad for them. She had suggested the whole thing to Cora because she really thought they were meant to be together, that they just needed a bit of encouragement. It's not that she considered herself particularly romantic, but the thing was that the two people she loved the most on this earth had decided to be best friends because they feared to hurt each other, and she couldn't let this happen. Now she was struggling to mend his brother's broken heart and wondering if she should speak to Cora.

Maybe tomorrow, she thought. For tonight she had already caused enough damage.

"There you are! I've been looking for you for half an hour, now. What are you doing here?"

Her presence, which had always been source of comfort and happiness for Robert, now felt almost unwelcome. Robert stood up from the bench turning his back to her without speaking.

She closed the distance between them in a swift motion and grabbed his shoulder to make him turn to her.

"Robert? Are you alright?" she asked, her hand still on his shoulder.

He couldn't look at her. Another day, maybe but not now. He was too wounded. He couldn't lie to himself anymore. He didn't turn to her, not even with his eyes and replied "There's no need to pretend, anymore. I'm fine. You had what you wanted"

He could hear the pain and sadness in his voice, and Cora had probably already sensed something was amiss. She let her hand fall and with a quick step she was standing in front of him "What? Don't be silly! You know all too well I'm not pretending."

"Well, if you say so" his head was still looking in a distant point over her shoulder.

"Robert, please..." for a split of second their eyes met. Her gaze so worried and concerned about him sent a shiver through his spine and he turned away from her again, descending the few wooden steps that lead to Rosamund's garden and leaving her behind.

"Cora please leave me alone"

He couldn't even bear her presence, not because he hated her. He could never do that. Most of all he hated himself for the discomforting situation he found himself in.

Cora on the other hand was really disconcerted. They had had a great time at the party - except for the few encounters with Simon- but those didn't matter. Did they? When they had laughed and talked and danced together.

Robert's behaviour was totally unlike him. He was reserved, that was true, but he had never denied her a chat. Not even when they had just met. That was the reason she found all this silence very odd and very uncomfortable.

She descended the three steps that divided her from Robert and walked a bit further to talk to him again. If he had decided he wanted to be alone for some unknown reasons he was apparently unwilling to reveal, fine, she was perfectly fine with it, but she had to say just one more thing. Because tonight's success had been also his doing. She wanted so much to try to touch him again, to have some sort of connection with him. She raised her arm again while speaking "I just wanted to thank you... you've been so wonderful that Simon has been completely persuaded by our little performance" she chuckled as to ease the tension between them and had almost reached his back, when he turned to her abruptly.

"So that's all it was for you? A charade?" Robert's eyes were burning with fire. His face was so very close to hers she could feel his hot breath, his index finger dangerously pointed at her nose.

Cora let her arm fall and shook her head in disbelief and after some seconds of stagnant silence muttered "I... we had a plan... Robert I don't understand what this is all about"

"Oh really? So you've been playing with my heart for the entire evening and for the most part of these two years and you don't understand?!" Robert's tone was still harsh and she had even recognised a touch of humour in his voice.

His eyes transitioning from her face, to the dark blue sky.

"Robert look at me" the situation was so unbelievable to her that she had to look at his eyes. That was the only way for her to understand what was going on in his stubborn head.

"I can't" his denial came to her like a whisper and it felt like a pang in her heart.

"Why not?" she asked looking at him, who was still looking at the sky.

"Because if I do, I won't be able to control myself and I will surely lose you" in the meantime he had crossed his arms behind his back as his whole body was striving not to touch her. Cora could see he was doing everything he could to build some sort of wall between the two of them, to create a gap. Robert, after all was not very good at expressing himself with words. His emotions couldn't be found on his surface. He usually preferred to communicate with gestures or with his eyes; she had already come to terms with this and this was what made Robert so special in her eyes. The space he was creating between them was painful to bear.

"Robert, what are you trying to say?" she murmured, stepping closer to try to break at least the physical barrier.

As his eyes finally left the sky to look at her, Cora had expected anything from Robert, but not the frustrated raise in his voice which could not be restrained anymore.

"That I love you, Cora! I do love you, truly and with all my heart. And I'm sorry but I can't be your pretend boyfriend because it hurts, you know? It hurts having to hold your hand and feeling your thumb scratching my palm, knowing that at the end of the night everything will be over. It hurts looking at you from the corner of my eyes, when you are talking with someone who is not me and to notice the way your eyes sparkle, the way your nose wrinkle when you giggle, the way that stubborn curl always falls on your cheek no matter how many times you try to place it behind your ear. It hurts to hear your voice calling my name, in that unmistakable accent of yours, or giving me those silly nicknames not because you find them cute, but only because you are pretending to be my girlfriend and I've foolishly agreed to help you with your crazy plan. It hurts to hear you describing me as your perfect boyfriend in front of everyone when obviously I am not. It hurts to hold you in my arms knowing that you will never be mine. It hurts to kiss you when for me it means everything, but at the same time I know, for you, it's all a lie. So yes, we had a plan, but it apparently blew up in my face."

His face was flushed, his hands trembling and he immediately felt embarrassed by his outburst. He was sure he had lost her "I'm sorry, I've just made a fool of myself" he added looking at the soft grass under his feet.

"Robert?" she asked softly, looking in his eyes. Robert's revelation had come so unexpected to her, but she was so glad. Her eyes were sparkling with utter happiness and Robert's look had finally softened to one of pure love and adoration she could feel her heart fill with the same sentiment.

"Yes?" he asked timidly. He had been ridiculous and he was aware of it. She was going to laugh at him or worse she was going to be so disappointed in him that she would have asked him to leave and never see her again. But that look in her eyes...what could that be?

"Kiss me" she said softly wrapping her arms around his waist.

It was not a question, but it wasn't imperative either.

He raised his eyes from hers, it pained him because she was so beautiful he couldn't even find the adequate words to describe her.

He looked in the distance behind her, but there was no one, then on their left, on their right and at last he looked behind himself, his hands coming to rest on her hips.

She knew what he was thinking, because of course he was still totally clueless "No, don't move away from me. Simon is not here" her smile was so bright he thought it could have illuminated the garden and her eyes were glistening with tears.

"Then why?" he asked shyly, caressing her check with his thumb.

"Because...I love you..." she couldn't hide her tears anymore. Robert placed his other hand on her other cheek as well, trying unsuccessfully to wipe the tears away.

"Cora..." he let his right hand slip behind her neck, while the left one found its way on the small of her back pulling her to him in his warm embrace. He peppered her lips with light loving kisses. His Cora, his best friend, the love of his life was in love with him.

He was completely speechless, but he had to find a way to show her how much she already meant to him. He pulled her even closer, their bodies flushed against one another and he started to kiss her passionately.

When they broke the kiss they smiled at each other and she felt she had to reassure Robert because she knew he was still thinking it was some kind of dream.

"Yes, don't be surprised. I've always loved you" she giggled in his arms and kissed his nose.

"Have you? Really?" he tilted his head on the right, but she saw he couldn't contain his happiness.

"Yes." She nodded "from that time you spilled your drink on my dress at my art exhibition"

"Oh, well" he chucked feigning disbelief "and here I thought it was when you had fallen in that big muddy puddle and I helped you"

"Roz, have you seen Robert? I wanted to have a cigar with him, but he's nowhere to be found " Marmaduke asked his wife while he caught her staring outside the window.

She turned her red hair to her husband and smiling broadly extended her arm to him, which he gladly took.

"As you can see he's rather busy at the moment. I'm afraid your cigar has to wait" she giggled, while Marmaduke's arms encircled her from behind and they witnessed Rosamund's brother covering Cora's shoulders with his dinner jacket and kissing her.

"Oh, well..I gather we will soon welcome another member to the Crawley family"

Rosamund and Marmaduke disappeared from the window, getting back to their winter party, leaving Robert and Cora kissing in the chilly December air.