“Hey hun,” Rachel grinned tightly as she slid into the booth next to me, “What’s new with you?”
I had to fight the temptation to scowl at her and say well, if you had actually talked to me over the last couple of days, you’d know exactly what was new with me. I hadn’t shared as much as one word with Rachel since Monday evening all because I’d got a sort-of promotion. When I received a text out of the blue to meet for lunch – both Lucas and Rosalind were out of our hands for the meanwhile – every inch of me wanted to decline, but I was too nice to say no to people and honestly, I couldn’t be dealing with the hassle of Rachel being stroppy with me. She’d suggested the Costa in the village ten minutes from the hotel at one pm, and of course it was almost half past by the time she decided to grace me with her presence.
“Not much,” I smiled back, more to annoy her than anything else. She wasn’t interested in me. She was interested in Lucas. “What about you?”
Rachel looked a little put-out, but she didn’t let that quash her obvious complaints. “Oh, Rosalind Beaumont is such a diva. She’s had me running around getting her all sorts like I’m her little French maid – does Lucas take liberties like that?”
Surprise, surprise. It took her all of two minutes to expertly swerve the conversation back to her preferred topic. I knew I should’ve made up something to avoid this lunch. It was going to be an hour of Rachel trying to exhort admissions out of me whilst I tried to say nothing at all. “Uh, no – not really.”
“No, I thought not…” she leaned forwards, dreamily placing her chin in her French manicured hand, “He didn’t look like the type. He was really sweet when he met me. Has he mentioned me at all?”
I remembered Rachel’s amorous introduction in the lobby Tuesday morning, all teeth and smiles and short pleated skirt. Once she had her eyes on a man, she wouldn’t let them forget her – it was an integral part of her personality, this conscious allure, which came as easily as converting oxygen to carbon dioxide. It didn’t matter if the man was married, engaged or in a relationship: if she wanted them, she’d have them, and I’d never really seen a problem with that philosophy. Those who were stupid enough to sleep with her when they had other commitments were hardly moral superstars. I only started caring when she started chasing after guys that I knew, made them inevitably fall in love with her, then quickly broke their hearts when someone more interesting came along.
I didn’t want Lucas to be one of those people she built then broke. She was clearly intrigued and thrilled at the thought of being the girlfriend of Glamour Magazine’s Sexiest Male of 2016, but I doubt she actually liked him in the way you’d expect a girlfriend to. I didn’t think Lucas was shallow enough to fall for it, but I did know Rachel and I didn’t know him.
“No,” I said and her face hit the floor, “But he’s been busy and tired. We haven’t talked all that much.”
“We talked loads in the lobby yesterday,” Rachel interjected, “I don’t know – I think it might have been a natural click? I definitely felt some sort of – oh, you’re going to think it’s silly – but a sort of connection?”
Having a connection wasn’t silly or fake. Matt had been my lifeline, the other half of my soul, and when that link was severed I felt my whole body crumble into ashes. I believed in the notion, but it wasn’t some phrase I threw around lightly. Connections were brutal. This was superficial. I don’t know what kind of reaction she was begging to get from me as payback for me being his hotel confidant, but I wasn’t prepared to give it to her. She didn’t know what she was talking about.
“Maybe,” I offered. Costa was in the middle of the lunchtime rush, but even then we were in the tiniest town in the world so only a few other tables were filled and a couple were in the line to be served. I just wanted to get this whole thing done and over with. “Should we order?”
Rachel suddenly realised why we were actually here in the first place and started scrabbling underneath the table for her handbag. When she returned empty-handed I knew what the deal was. “Oh, shit – I’ve forgotten my handbag.” She grimaced. “Can I owe you?”
Rachel had a black leather Michael Kors handbag which was nearly always surgically attached to her hands which jangled with an expensive Pandora bracelet. There was no way she would casually leave it at work, unless she’d stuffed it in the lockers in the gym and never intended to pay me back. She had all the money in the world but was reluctant to spend it on anything other than Louboutin’s and overpriced jewellery.
As Lucas had mentioned earlier, I had a good nature. One that he insisted he wouldn’t take advantage of but Rachel wouldn’t hesitate bending to her will. She knew I wouldn’t say no. I just about survived on my wages and she could afford the latest iPhone, but it would always be me who paid for the next round of drinks or a meal or the cab journey back from town.
“Sure,” I gave her a tight-lipped smile, “What do you want?”
She then proceeded to order an elaborate cheese Panini filled with various extras that I pretended I could remember, offsetting it with a super-skinny Frappuccino in order to keep her figure. It only took a couple of minutes to order and pay but by the time I returned back to our booth, Rachel’s demeanour had completely altered.
I slid back onto the red leather bench, dropping the change onto the table. Her eyes had iced over, her expression hard and unfaltering. My eyes narrowed in confusion. “Are you alright?”
“You tell me,” she spat vehemently. When I looked none the wiser, she chucked my phone roughly in my direction. “Are you going out for a cute little date with Lucas North this evening?”
More out of surprise than anything else, I quickly unlocked my phone and went straight to my messages.
Sam is wrapping early at six instead of seven – should be free by eight-ish? X
Pushing that Rachel had read my private messages with total disregard to my confidentiality aside, the fact that she automatically assumed Lucas had texted me for romantic purposes was truly a testament to her character. A shudder of fury shot right through me – what gave her the right to invade my phone then interrogate me about it, like I couldn’t speak to Lucas without her permission? As much as she believed so, she didn’t own every man who crossed her path. They did have minds of their own, and sometimes their minds weren’t constantly thinking of her.
“It’s not a date,” I snapped, but quietly, to avoid the ears of the other diners. A young guy in a tweed jacket by the door kept flicking a glance over at us, but I couldn’t tell if it was because we were talking loudly or if he was interested in Rachel’s prominent cleavage. “Lucas asked me to find a bar for him and the others tonight. He originally told me he wanted to meet later and he’s obviously changed the plans. That’s all.”
I shouldn’t have explained it to her. She could think what she liked: we’d been friends for almost a year but she clearly didn’t think that highly of me. And, on telling her, I knew exactly what was going to happen next.
“I’m not busy tonight,” she said, her anger fading into a coy excitement, “I’ll meet you there. Where you going?”
I’d brought this on myself. I couldn’t very well not tell her now. If I didn’t she’d throw a hissy fit and I’d lose her, and as much as her personality frustrated and infuriated me at times, Rachel was my closest ally at the hotel. I wasn’t ready to forsake that relationship.
“Twelfth Night,” I relented, my sigh of defeat barely audible. “It’s a bar on Chambers Street. I’ll probably be there by half eight.”
“Great!” Rachel grinned ecstatically. I wouldn’t get a moment of Lucas’s company to myself, I knew that now. Rachel would spend the whole evening trying to act on this “connection” she was desperate to fulfil, another thing to knock off her bucket-list. Shag a famous actor. She turned to glance at the watch on her wrist. “Is that the time already? I said to Rosalind that I’d pick up her dry cleaning. I really should go.”
Rachel said this literally the second our food arrived, the young female barista shocked as she grabbed the wrapped panini and plastic cup from her grip. I mouthed a thank you just so she didn’t think I was as rude as my friend. Usually, I’d be infuriated if Rachel had to dash away from lunches she’d organised herself, but her actions of the last ten minutes actually left me craving a meal on my own. I agreed nonchalantly, gesturing briefly towards the door – she leaned down and kissed me lightly on the cheek, swirling out of the glass double-doors and into the near-empty street.
Even though I’d rather have a meal on my own than with Rachel, it still felt weird to be sat a table without company and without a laptop. Coffee shop chain-stores were usually filled to the rafters with students and businesspeople taking advantage of the free WiFi, reasonable coffee and relaxing vibe, as these places always had mismatched wooden tables and walls bursting with old books and weird art prints; they were ironically indie in appearance, as any true, thoroughbred hipster wouldn’t be seen dead in somewhere so corporate and immoral. Tweed jacket guy was still keeping one eye on me, the other on his upside down newspaper – the Daily Mail, no less, which was enough to make me vomit. Rather than hang around awkwardly whilst I finished my sandwich I hastily packed it up, stuffed it in my bag and downed the rest of my peppermint tea.
This was possibly one of the worst lunch-dates of all time, but at least I could now spend the rest of the afternoon in the office pretending to think about my thesis. Which was still nowhere closer to being done, by the way.
Twelfth Night was one of my favourite bars in Edinburgh, mainly because I was a literature student and all the cocktails were named after Shakespeare plays. The interior was equally quirky and pretentious, with a colossal fake oak tree consuming the centre, each branch covered in books which swung like pendulums in a grandfather clock when the air con was on or the door swung open. Paper lanterns cast dim lighting across the walls which were littered with quotes and odd, abstract caricatures of various Shakespeare characters. They’d chosen a theme and they’d stuck with it – and every time I was in there, usually with Gemma, Roisin and Karen in tow, we made an effort to try and taste every drink on the menu. So far, we’d managed to get through about fifty percent. The high alcohol content dissuaded us from having too many at once.
I thought Lucas would appreciate the theme. As an actor, I’d assumed that it was near compulsory for him to have done at least one Shakespeare production in his career. As it happens, I was correct: I’d quickly looked up his Wikipedia page this afternoon and he’d been in Romeo and Juliet (as Paris, just after he left drama school), Othello (as Cassio) and, in his biggest related part to date, as Benedick in the Globe theatre’s production of Much Ado About Nothing. That had completely slipped my mind. Much Ado was the play I’d concentrated on in my second year of university and I’d borrowed the DVD version of his performance from the college library, yet it had never clicked in my memory until now. His portrayal was discussed heavily in critical circles on the internet and beyond, as Lucas was one of the youngest actors to ever professionally play this pivotal role. Some people rated it, some people didn’t – but I for one thought he really, believably, managed to pull it off.
“Do I look alright?” Gemma asked, scrutinising herself in the bathroom mirror. Okay, so I’d brought Gemma along for moral support, and by the looks of his Instagram page she was very much Freddie Whittaker’s type anyway. I wasn’t sure how I’d be with just Rachel after the past couple of days. Having Gemma by my side made me feel a little more confident.
Gemma had her long blonde hair loose, covering her bare shoulders in her off-the-collar top. Paired with tight leather-look trousers and clunky boots, she looked gorgeous, but this was no surprise. Gemma could roll out of bed and look beautiful – not in the manufactured, superficial way Rachel did, with all her fancy bathroom products and high-end makeup.
“You look great,” I said honestly, although I wasn’t sure if I could say the same for myself. Clothes didn’t hang off my figure in the way they did Gemma’s. I’d gone for a blouse and skinny jeans, my half auburn/half brown hair braided away from my face. I didn’t look awful, but I didn’t look great either.
I think maybe this was a consequence of having the same boyfriend between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one. Matt had watched me survive puberty, had loved me through my emo phase and the torrent of spots that plagued me in my early teens, so I hadn’t grown up with the want to impress men. Matt loved every single part of me and he was the only one I cared about.
Not that I was trying to impress anybody. Mum had said that I ought to get myself back out there whilst I was young, but the idea of kissing, having sex, loving another man after Matt still made me feel hollow inside. I kept telling myself that I didn’t want another love story, however brief or fleeting, but the selfish and contradictory part of me just wanted somebody to not look straight past me to my gorgeous friends. I didn’t think I could ever fall in love again, but I still wanted to be someone somebody could fall for again.
It reminded me of a conversation I’d had with my little sister in the months after she’d given birth to my niece. I don’t want a boyfriend, she’d said, but I want a man to want me to be his girlfriend. Elizabeth had never had a problem attracting men before she had a baby. Now, she still didn’t have a problem attracting them. It was making them stay that was the hard part.
“You look great too,” Gemma replied, smoothing down her top. Her apparent anxiety had surprised me a bit. She’d always been a social butterfly, the kind of person who just seemed to find her fit in every social opportunity given to her. I didn’t think she’d find this situation any different. “Oh, God. I feel like I’m going to wet myself. Should I go again? Maybe I should go again.”
We’d arrived at Twelfth Night about twenty minutes before Lucas said that he and the others would be there by so we could pace frantically round the bar’s compact yet nicely designed bathroom. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t such a good plan, because Gemma felt the need to expel her bowels every five seconds.
“You don’t need to go again,” I tutted, gripping her shoulders. I stared at both of our reflections and for once since I’d known her, I was the most relaxed out of the two. “I don’t know what you’re so anxious about. Admittedly, I haven’t spoken to Freddie, Laura or Rosalind much – but Lucas, he’s lovely. Really lovely. He’ll like you. And if for some mad, fucking stupid reason he doesn’t, it really doesn’t matter. You don’t have to see him again. Just because he’s famous it doesn’t mean he deserves special attention or that you have to be anything but yourself around him.”
Gemma smirked in the mirror. “I can’t believe it was just Tuesday that I was telling you to relax about this.”
“Well, I clearly listened to your sound advice,” I replied, “After a few seconds you’ll forget they’re famous, trust me. It’s Rachel you’ve got to worry about. I think she may still have it in for me.”
Gemma rolled her eyes, turning back to me. “You should be the one annoyed at her – she read your texts! That’s a violation!”
“I am annoyed at her. But I’m pathetic and stupid and can’t fucking say no to her.”
“Maybe she won’t even turn up,” Gemma reasoned, “She might have found something better to do.”
I snorted. “You don’t know Rachel like I know Rachel. She’ll be here. She’ll be late, for added drama, but she’ll be here.”
“Oh, fuck Rachel,” Gemma cursed, “If she’s here, she’s here. Doesn’t mean we need to have a bad time. I’ll make it impossible for us to have a bad time.”
“No. No, I don’t suppose it does.”
Gemma dragged me by the arm from the toilets back into the bar, which was starting to fill up but was by no means full. Many of the more popular bars were situated on Prince’s Street which stretched through the middle of the city centre, constantly cramped out with locals, students and those who worked in the shops and offices nearby. It was best to stay away from that sort of area in the beginning of September – the university and the Napier had their fresher’s week in full swing by now, so everywhere you turned there were eighteen year olds in various states of drunkenness and confusion. I’d been accidentally caught in an undergrad bar crawl last year and I only just made it out alive. It was definitely not as rowdy when I was at Oxford.
There was no sign of Lucas either. Gemma gestured towards an empty table at the back, hidden from the view of the main window, but still in sight of the impressive wooden centrepiece. She threw her handbag on the exposed leather sofa and I followed suite.
“Should we wait then order?” Gemma pondered, eyes scanning the chalkboard menu which hung on the wall above the bar. Twelfth Night had its set cocktail menu – delights which included the Lady Macbeth (which was basically a Bloody Mary), Puck’s Fizz and Romeo and Julep – but they had daily specials, too. For today, it was the Shrewdriver, which was basically a lot of lemon flavoured things in a glass.
My eyes kept hovering towards the door. I hoped they hadn’t got lost. Edinburgh wasn’t a massive city, but it was huge when you had no idea where you were going. “I think we should wait.”
Gemma nodded before getting up and having a closer look at the menu. She immediately got talking to the guy behind the bar (a bit younger than us, perhaps, with a scruffy hairdo but neat uniform) and her anxieties seemed to wash away with as her charisma bled through stronger. The guy was clearly enthralled already. Even from a few feet away I could see the shine in his eyes as she spoke.
Whenever the door opened, a tiny chime above the threshold rang out, alerting the staff of a new customer. As soon as the bell rang I’d shoot a look across the room, hoping that it was Lucas coming through. The one time I didn’t I’d got the shock of my life when I felt a hand touch my shoulder, my heart shooting up through my throat as I turned quickly to address my assaulter.
“Hey!” Lucas said, laughing at my prevalent surprise, “Did I scare you?”
I clasped my chest with my palm, my heartrate easing back to normal territory. The first thing I noticed was that he’d washed his hair, his thick tresses soft yet windswept from being outside. He was also dressed more formally than I’d ever seen him: tight blue shirt, skinny jeans, smart brown boots, blazer. I couldn’t tell if I was imagining it or not, but I swore I could see his abs flex through the material. Jesus.
“No,” I lied, but he saw straight through it. “You found the place okay, then?”
“Oh, fine,” he answered, “Laura typed it in Google maps and we ended up down about forty different streets before this one, but yeah. Fine.”
My attention was swiftly drawn to Lucas’s company, who were stood discussing the décor behind him. Rosalind Beaumont was pointing, grinning, at the lanterns that flooded the ceiling, Laura agreeing with her. When Lucas noticed me looking, he tugged on the shoulder of Freddie, who turned immediately and grinned at me.
If Lucas was the token filler of the tall, dark and handsome trope, Freddie was undeniably your stereotypical prince charming. Whilst Lucas’s hair was longish and near-black in appearance, Freddie had tousled blonde curls that were neatly cropped and a softly handsome face. Lucas was attractive in a more striking way, but Freddie was gentle.
“Freddie, remember Charlie?” Lucas introduced me properly, because the first time we met was about ten seconds in the foyer before Donna ushered us off to the rooms. “She chose this place.”
“Of course,” Freddie insisted, kissing my cheek in greeting, “And you’ve done good. This place is special. You know actors can’t physically resist Shakespeare. You should see us in Stratford.”
“I can’t imagine,” I smiled, because it was just about impossible not to smile in his presence. Freddie emanated warmth and chivalry, like he really was a fairy-tale prince misplaced in reality. Shouldn’t he be trying to find a fit for a glass slipper somewhere?
Lucas didn’t hesitate introducing me again to Laura and Rosalind. Rosalind – it’s Ros, really – was pretty, cheerful and blonde, fragrantly smiley and naturally wistful, in clothes that seemed to naturally hover in the air around her like she could fly right out of there. The kindness in which she greeted me, complimenting my blouse and makeup, completely contradicted the nasty image that Rachel had painted for me earlier. Laura, on the other hand, was just as willowy – but her beauty verged on ethereal, like she couldn’t be real. Her personality was down-to-earth and modest, laughing at any given moment, but I couldn’t get out of my head how someone so beautiful could actually exist. Maybe I was being over complementary, which I had a tendency to do, but she really was special. You wouldn’t ever see a face like that again.
In the flurry of new faces and rushed heartbeats I’d almost completely forgotten about Gemma. She’d finished talking to the bar staff and had since wandered back over, gently tugging on my arm in the hope that I’d introduce her. The anxiety had returned full-force, reducing her to a tight smile and a need to pull her curls behind her ears.
“And this is Gemma,” I pointed a thumb in her direction and she waved back nervously, “We’re mates. We live together.”
Lucas gave her a grin and a how are ya and both Laura and Ros gave similar greetings, gushing over how beautiful her hair looked this evening. As anticipated, Freddie looked very much in awe of my friend. Enthralled, I believe, was the word.
“Gemma,” he smiled, like he was trying out the word on his lips. He leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek, a hand lingering on her shoulder. “Pleasure to meet you.”
“Oh! And you,” Gemma insisted, blue eyes blinking, as if she’d come in from the dark. A warm feeling stirred within me – he was clearly attracted to her and had no subtlety in showing it. “Do you want to get a drink?”
“I do, but you’ll have to recommend me one,” Freddie replied, “I’m honestly not up to much when it comes to cocktails. I’d like to be.”
Freddie led the way to the bar, Gemma following behind. She shot a look from behind which most definitely meant oh my God.
“Your friend has clearly made an impression on Fred,” Lucas murmured close to my ear, “Not many people manage to do that.”
“Gemma’s special,” I smiled. She was sparkling; looking up at him like the whole world resided in his eyes. Her hands were gesticulating wildly and his smile grew as she spoke, her passion for mixology intertwining with her love of English. Well, Gemma mixed cocktails whilst doing a PhD. She knew what she was talking about when it came to those areas. “And she knows a hell of a lot about cocktails and Shakespeare, so he’s in for an education.”
“He’ll love every minute,” said Lucas, “And as will I. So what do you recommend, Miss Costello? As much as I like drinking, I’m as utterly clueless when it comes to cocktails as Fred is.”
“As am I,” Laura interrupted, throwing her arms round Lucas’s shoulders. “And Lucas trusts your tastes, so I will too.”
When I glanced up at Lucas, questioning Laura’s turn of phrase, he merely shrugged. “I’ve said it again and I’ll say it now. You seem like the kind of person who knows where it’s good to drink.”
“Okay,” I warned, “But if you hate my choice don’t blame me. You made me do this.”
Lucas chortled. “As if I would. Lead the way to the bar, Miss Costello.”
And that I would, if Rachel van der Waal hadn’t just brushed through the front door, fur cape tossed over her shoulders like a catwalk model.