LOVE IN THE DARK

Charlotte Costello is twenty-three years old and broken, still reeling two years after the death of her childhood sweetheart in Afghanistan. A move from her hometown of Brighton to study for her MA in English Literature at Edinburgh University is the one escape she has from her old life, but her relatively quiet existence vanishes when meeting Lucas North - a famous British actor who is staying in the hotel she works in part-time. Suddenly, Charlotte's falling in love again after the heartbreak of a lifetime, but is she strong enough to survive the constant scrutiny by the media? Can she cope with being the girl the world - and Lucas - can't stop talking about?

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9. CHAPTER EIGHT // HOUMOUS FOR BREAKFAST

CHAPTER EIGHT

True to my prediction, the very next day the world seemed to forget about Rachel van der Waal. There was still speculation floating about but the majority seemed to have died down, Rachel herself not even provoking it with a comment. I assumed it was something to do with the disclaimer that Donna quickly made us all sign yesterday; she’d obviously heard the rumours (she heard literally everything that had anything to do with her guests) and didn’t want to take the risk. Rachel wouldn’t be an exception to this.

The idea of Lucas leaving his jacket at Rachel’s after what I could only assume was a night of passion still disturbed me. I didn’t know what to believe anymore. I couldn’t confirm it for definite unless I asked Lucas personally, but I felt asking intimate questions about his private life was a bit intrusive. I barely knew the guy. Instead, the thought was always at the back of my mind, wondering whether this wonderful, wonderful guy had actually slept with the girl who would happily read my texts when I left my phone out on the table, like there was nothing wrong with that at all.

I was still troubled by it as I got off the bus that morning, my head so filled with crap that I almost didn’t notice the pale blue Nissan Figaro parked on the gravel right outside the entrance of Hawdon. I’d seen a number of fancy cars hanging around whilst I’d worked here, property of the rich and famous, but they were mostly expensive Porsches and flashy Ferraris. Rarely did I see vintage cars and it was a rare delight when I did; but nobody had forewarned me about a new guest, not even Donna.

“Like it?” Lucas called out from the stairs, and like everything else, I failed to notice him before. He was back to his casual self, a leather jacket thrown over his jumper and jeans. His aviator shades protected his eyes from the glare of the sun. “I’ve got a mate who owns a vintage car rental in the city centre. He’s let me borrow this one for the day providing I give the keys back by nine pm tonight.”

“I love it!” I said, skimming my hand across the immaculate paintwork. Well, this answered the how come I wasn’t told about a new guest debacle. “You’ve got friends in very useful places.”

“Indeed. Anyway, I couldn’t let us go on our little daytrip without a nice set of wheels,” Lucas jangled the car keys between his fingers, “And I don’t actually own a car, not that I could bring it with me here anyway. I travel too much to justify the expense.”

Ah, if only that were the reason why I didn’t have a car. I hadn’t even learnt to drive. “You made a good decision. If this was all down to me we’d be getting the bus.”

Lucas laughed, leaning against the bonnet of the car. Rather than seeing his eyes through the lenses of his glasses the reflective metal just tossed a mirror image of myself back at me. I was seeing me through his eyes and the thought made me so uneasy – I was just so ordinary. “One thing you need to know about me, Charlie, is that I’m meticulous in planning the things I care about. I am definitely not as laidback as people make out I am.”

It was a good job that instead of soldiering on with my thesis last night I sat for hours and planned all the places I hoped to take Lucas to today – more to take my mind off the whole Rachel thing to be honest. I brought up Google maps on my laptop and scanned the city that was as good as my home, pinpointing all the locations that I’d enjoyed spending time in the year and a bit I’d been living here. Karen came round whilst Gemma and Roisin were still working and we spent hours trawling through old photos on my iCloud of drunk evenings and parties past. We laughed for hours over our MA graduation last summer when Roisin got trapped in a toilet in Edinburgh castle, Gemma having the audacity to film the whole thing and refusing to remove it from the internet.

“Okay, so this daytrip,” Karen asked, sipping the glass of white wine I’d just placed in her hand, “Is it like… a date?”

“No!” I snapped back, almost too quickly. The way Karen raised her eyebrow suggested I’d given exactly the wrong impression. “Don’t be daft. Of course it isn’t a date.”

“Why wouldn’t it be a date? From what Gemma has told me, you two seem to get on like a house on fire.”

My cheeks were burning like a house on fire, that was certain. I drank half of my glass quickly in the hope it would calm my nerves and somehow make my next sentence come out less frantic and suspicious, but it seemed to do the opposite. “It is definitely not a date for a number of reasons.”

Karen wouldn’t let alone. It was one of her stronger character attributes, this obstinacy, a refusal to back down and accept an answer that was unsatisfactory to her. She would’ve made a good lawyer or politician or police officer, but instead she’d chosen teaching in the days before childrearing and PhDs. “Like what reasons? Oh, don’t give me that. You can’t just tell me reasons and not explain them.”

“Well,” I started, letting the word hang in the air for a few seconds. Karen gesticulated for me to continue with her wine glass. “He’s famous, he’s out of my league, I’m almost certain he’s banging my colleague, and my last boyfriend died in Afghanistan and I’m still not over it. Good enough reasons?”

Karen’s physique softened, the way everyone does whenever you mentioned death. She wasn’t an exception to this rule – it was something I had come to notice in so many situations, this sagging of shoulders and gentle curl of mouth. The only people who didn’t reply in that way were the ones who still felt a loss as deeply as the one you were experiencing. In those moments, a mutual, unspoken understanding seems to rapidly evolve, a one that doesn’t need explaining. You can just feel it, the way you can feel a thunderstorm on the horizon, a heat and knowing and mental preparation for the fall. Karen hadn’t lost anyone, not as recently as I had, so I couldn’t feel that spark between us like I did with those in the support group I attended in the year before Edinburgh.

The snapping was uncharacteristic of me and I instantly felt bad afterwards. “I’m sorry, that was – “

“Absolutely fine,” Karen reassured, “But Charlotte, you can’t be stuck in stasis forever. I know that you’re still hurting and I know that it probably won’t ever stop, but please. This is from a person almost ten years older than you. Don’t convince yourself that you have to be alone forever, because that is exactly the sort of thinking that I’m sure your boyfriend would have condemned.”

I’d had a lot of people drop the that’s what Matt would have wanted card on me, but the way Karen said it in such a brutally honest way seemed to sink deep into my bones. I didn’t want to be stuck in stasis forever, but once you constructed this self-imposed prison it was just so easy to give yourself a life sentence. The idea of the outside world, life beyond the bars, was too terrifying and new to comprehend.

Lucas opened the left side of the car, gesturing for me to get in. The interior was as pristine as the outside; the seats were spotless beige leather and the dashboard practically gleamed. I felt just sitting down would tarnish it, somehow, my dirty trainers muddying the carpet and my fingerprints leaving ugly stains on the metal armrests. It was then that I realised how long it had been since I’d been in an actual car that wasn’t used by the general public. Gemma could drive, but couldn’t afford the upkeep or insurance; Roisin had a habit of hitching lifts off anyone available and Karen and her husband Jamie had two cars, but I couldn’t say I’d ever really been in any of them. It was actually kind of odd that I was getting into a vehicle and I wasn’t expected to pay for the privilege.

A moment later, Lucas clambered in to the other side. The first thing he did was attach his iPhone to the holder on the dashboard, scrolling through his extensive music library.

“What music you into?” he asked, hovering over an album on Spotify. “Can’t have a daytrip without a good playlist.”

“Oh, er, anything really,” I replied, “As long as it isn’t, I don’t know… screamo.”

Lucas grinned to himself as his finger paused over a playlist he clearly liked the look of. “Right. No screamo. Can’t say I’m a fan of that particular genre either.” When he pressed play, the sound of the latest Little Mix song came blaring through the car’s newly installed sound system and to my surprise, he started singing along. “What? Don’t you like them?”

“No, they’re fine,” I bit my lip to hold in the laughter, “I just didn’t picture you being a fan.”

Little Mix are great!” Lucas defended adamantly like he was representing them in court, “And I’ve met them all like, four times. They’re great fun. Perrie Edwards knows a lot of drinking games.”

I was about to call him out on his bullshit, then I realised it was highly probable that he’d met Little Mix. Sometimes I forgot that Lucas was genuinely world famous and not just an ordinary guy staying at the hotel where I worked, liked many of the other guests. I would go home tonight and he just as easily could appear on my TV screen in an Oscar-nominated film. Yet here he was, belting along to a pop song, acting like he wasn’t only in my life because he was shooting one of the highest-anticipated films of the year. This was all so surreal.

“So…” Lucas trailed off, hands clutched round the steering wheel, “What do you fancy for breakfast, Miss Costello?”

-x-

Obviously, due to Lucas being a worldwide sensation, I had to be seriously selective about the places I took him to. Wherever we went, it always ran the risk of being surrounded by reporters or fans begging for interviews or photographs. Like he’d told me before, it was an occupational hazard; but I wanted Lucas to have one day out where he didn’t have to worry about the consequences of being famous. Luckily, I was a person who often got anxious in big crowds so normally I’d tend to avoid busy locations, so picking little cafes and restaurants that didn’t get overwhelmed at peak hours was one of my fortes. Truthfully, Lucas’ choice in car didn’t exactly divert attention away from us, but once we’d found a parking spot a reasonable walking distance from the city centre we were much less obvious. His sunglasses were a somewhat suitable disguise but it was still before nine am: most kids were already at school and the only other people milling about were on their way to work or old ladies we could easily stride past.

“For some reason, I seem to attract pensioners,” Lucas muttered in my ear as we quickly dodged a group of old women, one who had obviously clocked us and was shaking her walking stick in Lucas’ direction from behind us. It was funny, admittedly, as come to think of it I was so sure my own gran had said similar declarations of attraction when Lucas guest-starred in one of her favourite period dramas last Christmas. “Back home I’m like a local legend at the old people’s home. I took about eighty selfies when I was visiting my great aunt.”

I guided him into a shortcut through a tiny, narrow cobbled street. Pastel-coloured bunting still hung between the rafters after some festival at the weekend and Lucas grinned up at the sky, reaching out for creased crepe paper that would eventually end up drifting in the wind. “The minute you appear in Call the Midwife you start attracting pensioners.”

“Is that so?” Lucas teased, pretending to look affronted, “And what, dare I ask, is your opinion on Call the Midwife?”

“Well, I’m a grandma on the inside, so I obviously watch it religiously.”

“Glad to hear it!” he announced, clasping his hands together. “You really do have impeccable taste.”

Once we’d navigated the shortcut we were back in the quieter side of town, the shops bordering a great park that stood fenced in the middle. A duck waddled past our feet, on search for the lake, and the trees on the periphery were starting to burn orange. Autumn was creeping up on us, sodden leaves swept up in puddles sticking to my boots. Soon enough we’d be getting snow. Seven years of spending either Christmas or New Years in Glasgow had already affirmed that we always got snow in Scotland.

My café of choice was a little indie place called Quilled, which stood on the end of the street opposite to the back entrance of the park. In the spring and summer a colossal cherry blossom tree suspended its branches over the hedge, its tiny blooms decorating the shop’s window sill like piped pink icing. The flowers had died off now, the branches retreating and curled back into their confines, but Quilled’s window still looked bold due to the introduction of strings of little white fairy lights. Inside, the counter at the entrance was brimming with cakes, but the restaurant itself was up a dinky spiral staircase. A waitress – who by her accent was clearly eastern European and either wasn’t aware or didn’t recognise Lucas – lead us up the stairs and to a table, right through the back and near the window facing the city. The diners were sparse and didn’t look up from their food, sat on patterned plates on gingham tablecloths. Lucas deliberately sat on the chair facing the window so no-one entering the restaurant could catch a glimpse of his face, just in case.

I didn’t often go out for breakfast because of my measly student budget, but whenever I did Quilled was embraced with open arms. The pancakes were easily the best in Scotland, buttery and soft and oozing with golden syrup. And don’t even get me started on their blueberry porridge. Whenever Gemma and I tried at home we could never get the consistency quite right. After deliberating on the pros and cons of certain types of eggs, Lucas finally decided on the vegetarian full English (“I have to think of my body, Charlie. I’ve had the full-on, meaty English twice this week already. Got to give those arteries a break.”) and I had my go to of pancakes with golden syrup, bananas, blueberries and strawberries. We both ordered fairly strong Americanos alongside our food, because coffee was the only liquid I felt anyone could reasonably stomach before nine o’clock in the morning.

“I haven’t been able to sit down and have a relaxing breakfast in God knows how long,” Lucas admitted on a sigh, leaning back in his chair on an intake of breath. “When we’re filming it’s on the go constantly from as soon as the sun comes up, unless we’re on night shoots, then it’s the opposite.”

“Why aren’t you filming today?” I asked. Lucas played Mr Darcy. He was hardly one of the minor roles in this production.

“Sam wants to film some of the scenes from the very beginning of the movie,” Lucas leant in a little closer, “When Lizzie and Jane meet Bingley for the second time, I think? I’d never read the book before I was cast, so I’m still a little hazy on the details.”

I took a hell of a lot of willpower to not audibly gasp at that statement. Realistically, a lot of people hadn’t read Jane Austen’s most famous work, but as a literature PhD student that was a fact I found very hard to come to terms with. Lucas must have seen the look of despair flash over my features because he immediately burst out laughing.

“Have I offended you?” He chortled, only laughing more when I tried to convince him otherwise, “Nah, I get it from my sister all the time. Only with history, not with literature. She’s all like how didn’t you know that only six people died in The Great Fire of London? I’m not that culturally unaware, I promise.”

“You have a sister?”

“Yep,” Lucas popped the ‘p’. He smiled up at the waitress who had returned with our coffees, only resuming when she’d vacated the area. “I’m the youngest of seven. Five older brothers, one older sister.”

“Seven?” I couldn’t help but squeak. I grew up with three siblings and even that felt excessive to me, let alone six. Lucas snickered again on a sip of coffee. I’d only then noticed the way his eyes narrowed when he laughed and the dimples carved into his cheeks.

“Yeah,” he grinned, “But where I live that’s kind of average. In previous generations my hometown saw the number of kids you had as a status thing, like the more you had the more prosperous you were, or something. It’s not such a big thing now. It’s probably because we’re not as strict on Catholicism as we used to be decades back.” He paused, but not long enough for me to question anything. “What about you, then, Charlie? Got any brothers or sisters?”

“I do,” I smiled warmly at the thought, “Two older brothers, one younger sister and a younger half-sister. I sit exactly in the middle.”

“Ah, you see, I’m the baby,” Lucas replied with a grin, “Even though I’m twenty-seven. I can still get away with murder when I go back home.”

“I’m too honest to be able to get away with murder,” I admitted, “You can see it in my eyes when I’m lying. My sister, on the other hand, could commit mass genocide and easily get away with it.”

When Lizzie got pregnant, she managed to hide it from everyone until she was three months off giving birth. She was ridiculously clever – way more intelligent than me, like I worked so hard to get into Oxford, whereas she could probably sit the entrance exams with her eyes closed and a hangover – but she didn’t always use her brain for the right reasons. I was always very good but naïve as a teenager, with a good boyfriend and good friends and not having the heart to skip lessons. Lizzie used her brain to see how far she could bend the rules and finding craftier ways to get into nightclubs underage. She was funny, wildly popular, destined to get into a good university regardless… But then came Matilda, and she was working behind the counter at a bespoke furniture shop in the Brighton lanes. I used to be so jealous of Lizzie’s confidence and her effortless academic ability, but as I went to university she was stuck at home with a baby. Her intelligence hadn’t really kicked in when it came to using contraception.

But in that year I spent moping around Brighton after Matt’s death, Lizzie still seemed to be so much happier than I was.

“Oh, well it’s good to be honest,” Lucas reassured me with a teasing smile, “I know I can trust you.”

At that moment the waitress returned with our food, so I didn’t have the chance to flush and panic at Lucas’ admission. His vegetarian breakfast looked amazing, toast with pine-nuts, guacamole, poached eggs, hummus and hash browns and my pancakes were starting to make me salivate just looking at them. There was something about breakfast food that was superior to all other meals. Lucas didn’t waste time in tucking in and I didn’t blame him; Hawdon’s food was good, but Quilled was on a whole other level of culinary excellence.

Okay, so maybe I was overhyping it, but I really do love breakfast. And the company this time wasn’t so bad either.

“Just as I think your taste can’t get any better,” Lucas said between mouthfuls of toast and chunky, earthy guacamole, “You bring me to a place I can have hummus for breakfast. You are wasted working in that hotel. You should be like a personal shopper but for restaurants. Come to think of it, what do you actually want to do? After you’ve finished your PhD?”

Well, that was easily the question of the millennium. One that I was yet to formulate an answer to. “…I don’t know. I’m trying to avoid thinking about the future as much as I can.”

“Fair enough,” Lucas shrugged, “I used to be like that. Still am, really. A lot about being an actor is living in the moment.”

S0mething about the living in the moment ideology terrified me – it was a way of life I couldn’t adapt to. I’ve never been a spontaneous person. I felt comfortable in consistency and well-established plans, even if it didn’t sound like it at the moment. That’s why the prospect of the future terrified me so much. I had no idea what was going to happen to me after I graduated with my PhD and that wasn’t what I was used to.

I was about to reply, but my phone pinged with a notification. I debated ignoring it, not wanting to be rude, but Lucas gestured that all was fine. I quickly tapped in my pin and opened the email.

TO: charlottecostello@uoedinburgh.ac.uk

FROM: postgraduatestudies@uoedinburgh.ac.uk

SUBJECT: INTRODUCTORY LECTURE

Dear all,

This is a reminder to all our new arts and humanities postgraduates about the compulsory introductory lecture taking place in Burns Building at 10:30-11:30am today. Your attendance at this lecture is vital as it will guide and aid your studies over the coming weeks and months, providing much needed information about upcoming proposal supervisions and research approvals. There will be opportunities to talk to members of our academic team at the end of the session if you have any queries about your course.

We are looking forward to meeting you all and answering any questions you may have!

Best wishes

Harry Rutter and the rest of the Postgraduate Team

My face immediately blanched. Shit, shit, shit. I’d been so wrapped up in Lucas the past few days that I’d completely forgotten about everything that I actually had to go into university for, including the lecture that was supposed to start in less than an hour. Even if I left, right now in the middle of breakfast, I’d probably still be late – the bus was a nightmare at this point in the day and walking was definitely not an option.

Lucas immediately noticed my change in mood and his expression transformed, altering to that of concern. “You okay?”

How exactly could I explain that I had to abandon him on the one day he had free this whole week?

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