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Castle in the Clouds

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Harry had always suspected he’d die in office, and he and Ruth had both been consumed by the job for years, so leaving took some getting used to. There were moments when they’d both stop, unsure of what came next, without the familiar routines and patterns. But they were here – prosaically because Harry had got his hands dirty once too often, this time as unofficially requested, so he’d been reprimanded with a dismissal and rewarded with a handsome pay-off. Swings and roundabouts, as ever. He knew his duty and if that meant walking off into the sunset with a wave, that was what he did.

He still wasn’t used to Ruth being here. He’d asked her, of course he’d asked her: it was the first thing he’d done, but he’d seen that moment of hesitation when she had to choose between him and the job. Knowing Ruth, he’d been afraid the job would win.

That was what took the most getting used to – having each other. The new routine replaced the old quicker than he’d expected, but after so many years of this nervous, careful dance around each other, close as they could be in many ways, a world apart in others – he found himself holding his breath about it working out. They’d waited too long. They weren’t like other people. They didn’t get a happy ending in a seaside town, or at least, not one that had tea shops with clotted cream, jam and scones.

Besides, he’d never had much of a life off the grid – Harry Pearce, OAP was not a glamorous figure by any stretch of the imagination. Still, he looked across at her and she caught his glance and smiled back. She seemed to be happy here and he didn’t think it was only down to the books. As for him, he couldn’t imagine her ever being dull, with all her elusive quirks and brilliance. She’d never fail to surprise him, his Ruth.

So, against all the odds, it was a second-hand bookshop in Devon for them. Ruth was worryingly good at finding and acquiring rare volumes on request. Harry had decided early on it was best not to ask how. Anyway, it wasn’t as if they needed to make a profit; it was something to do. Ruth might easily make the whole outfit too successful with her usual unconventional efficiency, but Harry only dealt with the coffee machine, manned the till and ambled down the near-vertical cobbled street to the sea. Or he’d talk to the man next door who ran the twee old-fashioned sweet shop while he took his cigarette breaks. Perfecting a leisurely retired persona proved easy.

Not, of course, that it was meant to be a persona. But it was hard to stop thinking of it in terms of deep cover – playing at a normal life from the outside yet again.

“Harry,” said Ruth and then, when he turned, blushed and smiled. Then she brushed a strand of hair back out of her face and attempted to look serious. “You’ve got to stop stalking customers who look at the Russian section.”

Harry grinned. “You never know.”

“If we could tell Russian agents by their tendency to buy copies of Crime and Punishment or War and Peace, we’d have had a lot less trouble all these years.”

“He wanted it in the original language.”

“It’s still nothing to write to the Home Secretary about.”

Harry headed over to her. “It’s all right, Ruth, I wrote that section in invisible ink. He’ll never think to look.”

Ruth looked at him.

“And, no,” said Harry, “of course I didn’t post it. It pays to keep in practice, that’s all.”

She shook her head. “So, the accounts are up to date, and otherwise we’re doing well –”

“This, Ruth,” said Harry, “is supposed to be a leisurely enterprise. If I don’t keep any eye on you, you’re going to turn this into an efficient and successful business, aren’t you? You’ll be sending me on bloody customer training courses next.”

“You could use one.” Then she gave him a sheepish grin, looking at him from behind her dark hair. “Well, we don’t want to do badly, do we?”

Harry cast a glance around the shop to be sure they were alone (random browsers, he’d learnt, seemed to deliberately hide in unexpected corners) and then walked round the desk and pulled her nearer. “Somebody has to scare the customers away.”

“Who says I don’t?” Ruth returned, before flashing him a bright smile, and kissing him.