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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5. CHAPTER FOUR // ARE YOU TEASING ME, MISS COSTELLO?

I wasn’t the kind of person who gave in to illness easily. In my second year of university I contracted an especially horrific bout of food poisoning thanks to some undercooked fishfingers and even though I could barely see, I still turned up to lectures the next day. I could slip into a coma and I’d still somehow make it into work. However, this time, I took Lucas’s advice. I slipped out through the maintenance door at just after one pm, ordered a pizza, got through half a season of Game of Thrones and was in bed before Gemma got home. The next morning I woke up a whole ten minutes before my alarm and it felt like a nigh on spiritual reawakening.

I’d shifted the hangover. My head was clear, my limbs were no longer made of lead and I felt like I could finally look Lucas in the eyes without throwing up on him. Again. In fact, I felt so chirpy that I made coffee for Gemma this morning, not the other way round. I’d showered, ironed a new blouse and done my hair and makeup all before seven o’clock, so I caught the early bus and decided to have breakfast at work.

I wanted to make a good impression in front of Donna after my nightmarish appearance yesterday. We did all have bad days, but it was just one bad day. The rest of the time, I was prepped-and-ready Charlotte Costello, equipped to take the world face on. And I kind of wanted to show Lucas that I didn’t always look like I’d slept in a skip.

“Morning, Charlotte,” Donna hummed, not looking up from the reception desk as I strolled in. The rain had started again this morning but renewed, refreshed me had brought a red spotty umbrella. I shook off the drizzle in the doorway and hung it up on the coatrack.

“Morning,” I grinned, positively sparkling. “Horrible weather. Do hope it perks up later.”

As usual, if Donna had registered my obvious change in personality from yesterday, she left it unsaid. She flicked over a page in her open file. “Indeed. Lucas North has requested room service for eight. Carlotta wanted to take it up to him, but I think it’s best if you do it.”

“Of course,” I replied, “Has he requested anything else?”

“Not to my knowledge,” Donna closed the file and looked up at me, “How did you find yesterday? I understand you’re not used to that particular job…”

Flashbacks of me gripping Lucas’s toilet basin and wanting to die came to mind, but I quickly shook it off. She couldn’t know just how disastrous yesterday was. I wondered how good Donna was at spotting when someone was lying. “Oh, brilliantly. It came so naturally.”

She waited a few seconds before replying. For a moment I thought she’d rumbled me, but her lips softened into another scarlet lipstick smile. “Glad to hear it. I do have to ask you to deal with another of Mr Hugh MP’s requests in the meantime – he’s feeling a bit neglected with the new guests – but I believe it’s another jam-packed schedule for Mr Beckett, Miss Marlow, etcetera… so I’m sure you will have it under control.”

Oh, bloody brilliant. Lindley Hugh MP and Jennifer had been staying with us for over two weeks now and I’d assumed that they would be checking out before long, scurrying back to their three-floor townhouse in some expensive London suburb. They complained about literally every meal they ate, every spa treatment they indulged in, every free Hawdon product left in their bathroom…yet they still insisted on staying here. Maybe I could get Scott to shit in their sink when he came up here next. Give them something to really complain about.

Of course I wouldn’t do that. I was a nice person – mostly. It was just very difficult to be civil to a person who clearly thought your every attempt to make them happy wasn’t quite good enough for their high standards.

“I’ll drop in on him after I’ve seen Mr North,” I silently seethed, “Do you think he can wait until then?”

If I were to ask Lindley Hugh MP himself, the answer would most likely be absolutely not. He seemed to think that everyone in the hotel was there only for him, not the countless other guests we had milling about the place. But as I was asking Donna, she nodded decisively. “He is going to have to.”

With that, Donna tucked her folder neatly underneath her arm. Today, she was wearing a navy blue pantsuit complete with gold name tag, equally as expensive and immaculate as yesterdays. She tossed her auburn hair over her shoulders and made her way down to the office to make some very important phone-calls. I took that as my cue to head down to the restaurant, where Lucas’s breakfast would be prepared ready for me to take up.

The restaurant was split into two distinct halves. The first was more chilled and laidback, with paler walls and comfier seats sat round smaller tables. A breakfast buffet was laid out across the back wall, overflowing with croissants and pastries and bowls brimming with fresh fruit. Part of the kitchen looked out across the diners, the chef handing out cooked delicacies to those who wanted them – exclusively free range bacon, sausage and eggs, along with omelettes and any other egg based meal you could ever want. The second half of the restaurant only opened after four pm – it was darker, more intimate, with fancier tableware, more diverse menu and a bar, giving a more romantic feel. Donna sometimes organised a string quartet or jazz band to play on a makeshift stage displayed in the corner. As I mostly did admin, I’d rarely ventured into that part of the restaurant. It felt too posh for me.

Carlotta stood, primed, right by the service door to the side of the kitchen. Usually, she was very bright and pretty: she had an envious Spanish complexion, complete with heaps of dark hair knotted under a net to the back of her head. Today, her beautiful features were scrunched into a scowl which didn’t shift when I ventured over.

“Hi,” I tried a smile which wasn’t reciprocated, “I’ve came to uh… Get Mr North’s breakfast?”

Carlotta ignored my request. Instead, she seemed to scrutinise my every pore, like she didn’t quite believe it was me standing in front of her. “Since when has that been in your job description?”

“Good question. Since yesterday, apparently,” I gestured towards the plate of eggs benedict and the two plums in her hands, “I’m sorry, but the eggs will get cold…”

“They wouldn’t get cold if I just brought them up to him,” she muttered vehemently, shoving the plate into my palms. The two poached eggs shook threateningly on the two English muffins, but I managed to steady them. See, I was on the ball today. Yesterday there probably would have been eggs benedict splattered across the linoleum floor.

She turned on her heels and slammed through the swinging service door. What was it with Lucas North and everyone who I thought was my friend turning against me?

-x-

I tapped gently on the door of room thirteen with my fist, clutching the plate and the plums ridiculously loosely in my other hand. Luckily, Lucas answered barely ten seconds later, and the look he greeted me with altered so quickly it was comical. One second, his eyes were narrowed and still thick with sleep; the next I was blown away with that unbelievable smile, the one that stirred the dust that had settled round my heart.

Oh, get a grip, Charlotte.

“Miss Costello!” he said, almost breathlessly, “You look like a different person!”

“That’s because I could actually face my reflection and put makeup on well this morning,” I tittered nervously, overwhelmed that he actually noticed more than anything else.

“No, it’s not that,” said Lucas, “Not that your makeup is… No, I meant you looked brighter. And less like you’re going to be sick.” His smile softened, cheekbones turning from sharp edges to smooth curves. “Followed my advice then? You feel better?”

“Much better,” I smiled back, “I am never drinking again.”

He laughed heavily, opening the door wider so I could come in. The room looked so different to what it did a few hours ago: his clothes were littered across the bed, shoes stuffed with socks on the shelf near the door. A towel wrestled for space next to a still wet raincoat on the back of the radiator. Toiletries were scattered haphazardly across the dresser, his desk piled with wads of paper and highlighter pens. He’d left his mark everywhere but on the window seat, which remained untouched, the cushions still propped up against the glass.

“Let me take that,” he murmured softly, taking the now lukewarm breakfast from me before I could say otherwise. He placed the plate on the only empty space on the desk but he ripped into one of the plums straight away, purple juice spilling onto his fingers. Hastily wiping his hand on the towel, he said: “Jesus. Sorry. I’m starving.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said, because I was in his room and he could do whatever he wanted. However, the fruit and the eggs did stir the hunger that was beginning to swell in my stomach. That’s what happened when all you’d eaten was half a margherita pizza in twenty-four hours. “Sleep well?”

He swallowed back the rest of the fruit hurriedly in order to reply to me. “Like a baby. Did you?”

I hesitated, but his expression didn’t falter – it was intense and concerned, like when we were both stood in his bathroom yesterday and he offered me some aspirin. “Oh – yes, yeah, I did.”

“Good. I’m glad.” Lucas turned his attentions to the eggs, which were now on the verge of needing de-icing. Their temperature didn’t seem to bother him; he wolfed them down like he did the plums, nodding with approval.  “You really didn’t have to come in just to bring me breakfast. I feel bad.”

“It’s my job to bring you breakfast,” I reminded him, but appreciated his sentiment, “Please don’t concern yourself with it.”

“I know it’s your job,” Lucas looked up at me, “But honestly, I feel really awful making you run around doing stuff I could do myself like a skivvy. You’re doing a PhD, Charlie. You’re way too clever to be cleaning up my shit.”

The compliment instantly went to my cheeks, heat blooming throughout my features. I shifted in an attempt to relax my limbs, but it came off as restless and nervy. “Erm…Just think of me as personal assistance, then, if it makes you feel better. I can assure you, I am being paid to do this. It is my job to worry about you, not the other way round.”

Lucas didn’t look entirely convinced, but he seemed to accept my terms. A flash of guilt crossed his features – he still felt like he was promoting slave labour, even though I got paid twelve pound an hour and had adequate health insurance. I was touched, really, that he cared enough to even think that. I wasn’t even Lindley Hugh MP’s hotel liaison and he clearly didn’t mind bossing me around.

“Alright, but I’m not making you wash my dirty underwear or, I don’t know, fill up my hot water bottle,” he said, enunciating his words by pointing his fork in my direction, “And you have to let me do stuff for you. Then I’ll feel less like I’m taking advantage of your clearly good nature.”

“Oh, no you don’t – “

“No, I do,” Lucas asserted, “I’m not exactly sure what, yet, but I will do something for you before I leave.”

It’s not very often that you find a world-renowned actor trying to get out of your debt, even if the debt is totally non-existent. Part of me wanted to say no, no way, please don’t feel bad, just don’t but another part of me was endlessly curious at just what he was picturing. The inquisitive part of me had dimmed recently. I thought, maybe, I could revive it again – it’s what Karen had suggested to me a couple of weeks ago when I’d went round to dinner at her house. One of her husband Jamie’s friends, Alice, had offered me the opportunity to finally visit France, after years of meaning to and wanting to. I didn’t have the strength to say yes even though every fibre in my body was whispering this is your dream.

University wasn’t going to last forever. I’d already had four years of flitting around and avoiding endings, scared of what loomed on the horizon when everything became so uncertain. Maybe it was time to get more used to the spontaneous, the unknown.

I did what I did best and swerved the subject back to familiar territory. “So…could we run over your itinerary for today?”

“Absolutely,” Lucas started, putting his now empty plate back onto the side of the desk. A stack of papers about a mile high seemed to hold the answer, as he started madly rummaging through them until he caught sign of one marked with a pink post-it note. “Aha. Yes. I’ve got a full day shoot until seven. It’ll probably take longer than that – people have caught wind of the location and apparently it’s getting pretty blocked up by the castle.”

“Anything I can do?”

“Thanks, but no,” Lucas smiled, shoving the paper clumsily back onto the desk. “It’s kind of an occupational hazard, I’m afraid. People want to get a glimpse of Laura mostly.”

I wasn’t exactly a Twitter addict, but I’d watched enough shows with Lucas North in to follow him on social media (one in literally two point three million). He was being very modest indeed: people were just as desperate to get a glimpse of him in his Mr Darcy get-up as they were Laura Marlow as Elizabeth Bennet, if not more so. Flocks of women would be fainting and begging for selfies. If there was one thing Lucas wasn’t short of, it was female attention.

“Actually,” Lucas broke my train of thought, “There is one thing you could do for me.”

“Name it.”

“I finish at seven and so do Freddie, Laura and Ros,” he elaborated, “Sam—that’s our director, I think you met him last night—and the other crew guys are working later, so that gives us a good few hours free in a city none of us know that well. If you could take us to a nice, quiet bar where we could have a drink unnoticed that would be immense.”

I blinked a couple of times in disbelief. “Sure, I can do that, but—you want me to come?”

Lucas gave me a look that suggested well, duh, you moron, like it was totally normal for a hotel employee to accompany a group of four of the most famous people I’d ever met to a night on the town. Of course, as an Edinburgh-based postgraduate who had spent a whole year prior finding bars that weren’t bursting with freshers, I knew where the quiet places were hidden away. It still caught me a little off-guard. “Unless you’re busy, which is totally fine. You just strike me as someone who has good taste in drinking establishments. I mean, you work in the poshest hotel I have ever stayed in and you did turn up yesterday slightly wrecked.”

I cringed at the memory – would that ever stop plaguing me – and didn’t mention that the only bar I got drunk in that night was Chez Costello/Myers. “No, no; I’m not busy.”

“Great!” he grinned, “It’ll probably be nine-ish that we all finish or whatever, but I’ll text you if it’s later.”

For one, brief moment my mind raced at how exactly he had my number, then I remembered that I’d given it to him. Strictly for professional business.

“Well, if that’s all, I’ll leave you to get ready,” I clasped my hands together awkwardly, “Hope everything today goes successfully.”

“Sam plans every scene down to the letter,” Lucas embellished, “He won’t allow things to not go successfully, trust me. We were filming scenes down in Derbyshire last week and a pigeon we were using for a faux shooting scene shat down my jacket. My expensive, fitted, costume jacket. Ideally, it needed at least a wash, but Sam just redid the scenes so that you couldn’t see the back of my left arm. Maybe you’ll spot it if you see the film.”

I wondered if it would be weird, watching a film – like a big, anticipated block-buster film – having known someone in it. I’d had seen people that I’d known on the telly before: my dad used to be a political advisor at Downing Street back before my parents divorced and we’d all used to gather around the six o’clock news, waiting for a flitting image of a grey suit and dark hair that we could vaguely recognise as him. Two people I knew from school moved to London after sixth form to go to drama school, and I’d seen one of them as a nameless street urchin in the background of Peaky Blinders. My sister was once in an advert for Cheerio’s when she was cute and angelic little kid, much to my own jealousy when her gap-toothed grin was flashed across every commercial break on ITV. But these were all fairly inconsequential. My dad quit his job, Peaky Blinders kid bled into the every-growing crowd of unemployed youth actors and my sister got pregnant at eighteen. Lucas North was a household name. People were going to remember his roles. I was going to remember the time Mr Darcy gave me aspirin and the exact type of aftershave he had sat on his dresser.

“I’ll keep a look out for it,” I said, grabbing his empty plate and dirty cutlery. As an automatic reflex, his arm reached out to stop me, but there wasn’t exactly a place he could wash them up himself. “Don’t worry. I won’t put myself out. There’s an eight-year-old dish washer in the kitchen downstairs. Sometimes he doubles up as a chimney-sweep!”

Lucas’ face crumpled into a bemused smile. “Are you teasing me, Miss Costello?”

I felt my cheeks pink, as usual. Maybe I’d surpassed a couple of boundaries with that remark – Donna wouldn’t be impressed. He was just so easy to feel comfortable around. I suppose it was quite difficult to be closed-up around someone who had already watched you vomit. I smiled softly. “I’ll leave you to it.”

Lucas rose from the bed and went over to open the door for me. “See you later.”

As the door closed, leaving us in separate worlds yet again, I wondered when exactly being in Lucas’ company had alternated from being a cause of anxiety to something I wasn’t worried about in the slightest. 

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