Monday morning breakfast briefings were the absolute worst, but Donna Marsden made them compulsory to all employees at the Hawdon House Hotel – including the part-time ones. Even if I wasn’t due to work that day, I had to rock up to the reception at eight am sharp to get the lowdown on the week’s current bookings and activities. Being five star luxury accommodation just a forty-five minute drive from Edinburgh town centre we often housed the great and the good from across the world. Most of the time it was politicians, sometimes royals, occasionally actors when Edinburgh’s scenery was scouted by location managers. No matter whom it was, Donna made sure we knew exactly who they were and exactly what their needs consisted of. As she said, it’s why they keep coming back.
This particular Breakfast Briefing was no different to the many I had attended before. My partner-in-crime Rachel was still very hungover from the previous weekend, the mug of coffee stapled to her hand the only thing keeping her alive. Donna was annoyingly chipper and annoyingly well-dressed, with her bright red nails newly manicured. Everyone else was hovering over a plate of croissants and queueing up by the coffee machine. I, on the other hand, had a dissertation proposal due in less than a week, and would have much preferred to be sitting on my laptop surrounded by books rather than discussing guests that I’d probably meet for a maximum of two minutes.
My job at the hotel wasn’t really to interact with the clients. Nicky, Rachel, Dom and Sophie mostly did all the front-of-house personal relations stuff. I sat in the office and triple-checked bookings, made sure any and all requests were immediately fulfilled, and sometimes manned reception whilst Lucy was on her break. Donna told me I had an eye for detail, which basically meant I lived by the photocopier and had my hand glued to the phone. Which suited me just fine, really. I could sneak my laptop into the office and bash out an essay if we were going through a quiet period. I think most of my MA was completed in the Hawdon House management office.
Donna clapped her hands, notifying to the rest of us that we were due to begin. Conversations lulled into silence and Rachel rolled her eyes at me from across the room.
“Hello, hello everybody,” Donna’s red hair was perfectly straight today, sitting elegantly on her shoulders. Rachel and I often discussed how jealous we were of Donna’s absolutely perfect hair. “Let’s just jump straight into it. Busy week this week, as usual – Lindley Hugh MP and his wife are still staying with us, of course…”
The politicians who stayed with us were usually lovely, but nobody liked Lindley Hugh and his insufferable wife Jennifer. I had to order in a whole new duvet set after he spilt a bottle of red on the sheets from the minibar. He said it was our fault for having sheets that were “too permeable”.
Donna rolled through a list of guests that were continuing to stay with us, before moving onto new bookings. Ever the professional, she was never fazed by the selection of famous faces that often careered through Hawdon’s glass double doors. “Due to filming of Pride and Prejudice this week, we’ve received a few new bookings for some of the cast and crew of the production.”
A chorus of oohs echoed round the small office, my colleagues practically bristling with excitement. Donna had forewarned me about the possibility of this booking a couple of weeks ago, saying that the film’s location manager and director had been looking around the area. Something about Edinburgh’s impressive scenery (including the medieval castle) had obviously enticed them here, as I had no idea the booking was concrete.
Donna picked up a notepad, but she obviously had the names memorised. She was meticulous about her bookings. “The director, Samuel Beckett, as well as the actors Laura Marlow, Freddie Whittaker, Rosalind Beaumont and Lucas North have all requested rooms thirteen to seventeen, with five other crew members requesting twenty to twenty-four as well as another room for storing costumes and equipment.”
The mention of names only turned up the excitement more. Pride and Prejudice was a huge production boasting some pretty big names, Lucas North and Laura Marlow in particular. Obviously, I wouldn’t get anywhere near them – the really famous guests were quietly ushered around like they were in a witness protection programme, with no non-essential staff getting a glimpse of their identities – but Rachel’s sallow complexion had brightened up completely. Tall, tan and exceptionally pretty, Rachel would undoubtedly be attached to one of the guests by Donna to make sure they had the best experience possible. She regularly got up close and personal with the great and the good, and wouldn’t hesitate to list every little detail about her encounters with me over a gin and tonic after work.
It never bothered me. Hawdon wasn’t my life: it was just the job I had whilst I completed my PhD and needed money. That’s what I told myself, anyway. I had no idea what I actually wanted to do when I finished my doctorate in English literature.
Donna reeled off a few more details about their visit before her expression went cold and serious. Unlike me, Hawdon was Donna’s life. She lived and breathed the running of this hotel and was a perfectionist from beginning to end. “As usual, ultimate discretion. As you would any guest, respect their privacy. If I find anything…untoward getting out from the mouth of a handy hotel “source” you will be fired. No exceptions. It reflects badly on all of us.”
Donna’s severity completely admonished any of the remaining chatter murmuring around the room. No-one would dare go against Donna’s Golden Rule; I doubt anyone who took a sneaky photo of an actor with their trousers down would make it out of here alive. Security was always tight, with any and all fans/photographers kept firmly on the outside of the hotel’s doors, unless the subject requested otherwise.
The briefing gradually came to a close and Donna gathered her papers and tucked them neatly under the shoulder of her black pinstriped pant-suit. The various housekeeping and security staff began to dissipate, sneakily grabbing a croissant on their way out. I was about to do the same, but Donna gently grabbed my shoulder.
“Charlotte, could you do me a favour?” she asked, her tone suggesting that it wasn’t a could but a will. You didn’t disagree with Donna. She had this ingrained sternness about her expression that automatically made you say yes to her every demand.
Nevertheless, she rarely asked me for favours. I blinked nonchalantly, trying not to look taken aback. “Sure, what is it?”
“I know this isn’t really in your job description, but…” Donna took a large intake of breath, “Could you possibly take care of one of our new guests for me? Sophie is away on holiday this week.”
I think my expression gave everything away. No, it definitely wasn’t in my job description. And I had an important – emphasis on the important, here – essay due in this week otherwise my tutor couldn’t vet my dissertation and I couldn’t start my research. Being a PA (which pretty much was what the job was) took up more hours than I had and I wouldn’t have the time to write what I needed let alone attend the seminars that were being put on this week. I worked part-time, and I worked part-time for a reason. This wasn’t like my undergraduate years, where it didn’t really matter if you got an assignment in late or skipped a lecture. This was important.
“Look, Charlotte, I know you’ve got university. But I am desperate.” Wow. I hadn’t seen Donna beg before. Well, as close as she could get to begging. “You are hard-working, efficient and reliable, and I know I can trust you to be personable yet discreet when it comes to our more extinguished guests. I will pay you more. Just please say you’ll do this for me.”
I could tell that my mouth was opening and closing like a goldfish. I should say no. I should really, really say no, for the good of my future and my career and my lecturer who clearly had anger management issues. But I just couldn’t say no when someone pleaded with me. I caved in like a crappy soufflé whenever anyone applied pressure to my emotional state.
Donna’s hardened outlook completely faded away into a bright, lipstick-red smile. “Excellent. You’ll be taking care of Mr North. They will be arriving early tomorrow morning, so make sure you’re here for eight o’clock sharp.”
She rushed away like a scrupulous whirlwind, her black high-heeled shoes clicking loudly off the hallway laminate, leaving me in her wake. I’d started this briefing quietly panicking about my upcoming thesis, and I’d finished it now loudly panicking about my upcoming thesis but with a famous actor in tow. If he turned out to be a diva I was screwed. Luckily, from what Rachel had told me, actors were busy most of the day and required little interference unless they wanted new pillows or a wake-up call. If he was out filming most of the day, maybe my extra hours wouldn’t be hugely affected and I could still sneak in some proposal research and go to a lecture when Donna wasn’t looking.
Rachel was hanging around the door, waiting up for me. Her hazel eyes were positively sparkling, like Donna’s news had removed all remnants of a hangover. She flashed me a muted smile once I’d caught up with her.
“I can honestly say I didn’t expect to come into work today and find out I was assisting Rosalind Beaumont,” she said breathlessly, “Okay, so I’d’ve preferred one of the guys, for various reasons. But Rosalind Beaumont is huge.”
Those various reasons being that Rachel could just flutter her eyelashes and any man would fall into bed with her. She’d grown up in the diamond-paved streets of Kensington before moving to Edinburgh so she had flirting down to an art. I had a hard time believing that a Hollywood actor would be immune to Rachel’s endless charms.
“What did Donna want with you, anyway?” Rachel questioned me, trying hard to look casual. In reality, she was incredibly nosy, and I knew the fact that Donna had assigned me Lucas North would probably piss her off. It was too early in the morning for me to handle Rachel in a bad mood.
I shrugged my shoulders. “Nothing. Just office stuff. Lucky you, shadowing Rosalind Beaumont.”
Once the subject had returned back to her, Rachel seemed to forget her previous curiosity. “Yeah. Maybe I’ll be able to get a selfie for my Instagram. I’m counting on getting one with Lucas North – imagine all the jealous fans!”
In another life, I think Rachel would rather be a movie-star rather than part of a hotel PR team. I often wondered why she ended up here and not on channel four’s Made in Chelsea, because every man on that programme seemed to be one of her ex-boyfriends.
“Sure,” I said, not mentioning that Donna would probably fire her if she was caught pressuring her guests for social media, “Anyway, I’ve got to…”
“Oh, yeah. The office calls, right?” Rachel laughed lightly, “I’ll catch you at lunch.”
She tottered off up the stairs, pulling her tight black skirt down as she went. It was in the light of the early morning sun bleaching through the foyer windows that I noticed Rachel had had her hair highlighted – more vibrant caramel tones were showing through her otherwise pale brown hair, clearly expensively done. I liked Rachel, I really did, but I often wondered if we’d met outside the hotel if we’d actually be friends. The only reason we gravitated towards each other was because we were the only female employees under the age of twenty-five, therefore finding some sort of common ground. Otherwise, we were literally nothing alike. I rarely saw her outside of work.
I would tell her at lunch that I was shadowing Lucas North this week. She would probably hate me for it, because she clearly had a bit of a thing for him, but didn’t everybody? I would tell her and if she got pissy with me, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Besides, Rachel was work. I had much better friends outside the confines of the hotel.
Matt Knightley had always been my best friend, but after he died Gemma Myers seemed to easily swing into the frame. We were put into contact by the university as I was seeking a flatmate in Edinburgh and she was the first reply to my advert. Gemma was two years older than me and starting the English Literature MA, like me, and over a year later we were both embarking on our PhD in the same flat but sharing a lot more memories.
It didn’t take me long to realise the reason why I liked Gemma so much was because she was the female equivalent to Matt. She had a relentless optimism about her, was clumsier than the norm yet incredibly quick-witted and intelligent. She was one of these people who were near impossible to dislike. That, and she was gorgeous. Maybe I was biased, but Gemma’s long, golden wavy hair was to die for and her big blue eyes sat perfectly in her completely symmetrical complexion. To top it all off, she was completely and totally unaware of all this. If you even tried to tell her how beautiful a person she was, she’d profusely deny it.
Whilst Gemma was my closest friend, Karen and Roisin followed close behind. Karen came from a completely different world: she was thirty-one, married and had a three-year-old daughter, completing her MA after taking a career break for child-rearing then going on to do her PhD. Roisin, like the rest of us, had finished her MA and was doing her PhD, but she was twenty-eight and always caught up in some sort of row with her transatlantic boyfriend. Scott was away in the states most of the year but whenever he was over in Edinburgh they ended up falling out, Roisin camped out on our sofa for days at a time.
Despite being from four very different walks of life, the university had undoubtedly pulled us together. I had felt so isolated before coming to Edinburgh, numbed by the events of the year before, but now I was finally happy with my place in the world.
“Proposals!” Karen announced enthusiastically, bringing a tray of drinks over to our table, “How exactly are we getting on?”
The four of us had gathered in Chapel, the bar that Gemma worked in part-time in the centre of town. It was one of these reasonably glitzy places, with tables that were crammed outside on the cobbles and chandeliers that loomed over us from the ridiculously high ceilings, casting shadows across the jacquard patterned walls. The décor was going for a shabby-chic vibe, with a distressed-wood bar and mismatched antique chairs and tables scattered across the floor. Gemma had had the lunch shift today, which mainly consisted of serving cocktails, champagne and prosecco to wealthy businessman and solicitors who needed to entertain their clients over alcohol. As it got into the evening, it got busier, with hen parties pre-drinking before nights out at the proper clubs.
Roisin let out a distressed groan at Karen’s request and reached out for a mojito, tossing out the straw and taking a massive gulp before replying. It didn’t surprise us – Roisin’s inherent Irishness didn’t just start and end with her accent. “Ask me that again after about six of these. Then I’ll tell you.”
Karen rolled her eyes, elegantly pinching her wine glass between her fingers. If there was one word I could use to describe Karen, it would be elegant. She trained as a ballerina when she was young and never lost the fluid movement of her slim figure. “What about you two, then? Got anywhere?”
Gemma, for all her disorganisation and clumsiness, always was prepared when it came to uni work. Her notes may be scattered all across her living room, but she knew exactly why each one was placed where. “Yeah – I’ll probably concentrate on Sylvia Plath and twentieth century American feminism.”
“Nice,” Karen nodded approvingly before glancing over at me, “What about you, Charlie? Any ideas?”
“I would have if Donna didn’t have me doing extra shifts,” I muttered, staring down at the bubbles in my drink. I’d ordered Bellini. Not usually my drink of choice, but after the day I’d had I needed a kick.
Donna was driving me up the wall. Ever since I agreed to taking on Lucas North for the week she’d assumed that I was okay with doing everything she asked that didn’t strictly run under my job title, including surveying all the suites booked by the Pride and Prejudice cast and giving the housekeeping staff complete briefings. I knew we were a man down, but making me do Sophie’s jobs as well as my own was not what I was paid for. As well as this, Lindley Hugh MP and Jennifer were being even more intolerable than usual today. I had to note down a formal complaint made by Jennifer about why the red wine wasn’t “quite red enough”.
And don’t even get me started on Rachel. I’d had radio silence from her since lunchtime, like Donna’s staff adjustments were all my fault and I was doing anything I could do spite her. I was so exhausted I barely had a moment to myself, let alone to devote to my upcoming thesis.
“Jesus,” Roisin murmured, “Your day sounds even worse than mine. And I was writing product descriptions for an orthopaedic slipper catalogue.”
“Wait a minute…” Gemma leaned forwards a little, “Did you say the Pride and Prejudice cast were staying at your hotel?”
“Yep. Unfortunately,” I sighed, “Laura Marlow, Lucas North, et al. They’re filming up here next week.”
“Laura Marlow? Lucas North?” Gemma repeated, excitement creeping into her tone, “Wow, Charlie! That’s amazing! Do you get to meet them?”
Roisin and Karen both stared at me expectantly. “Of course I get to meet them. Donna’s got me shadowing Lucas North for the week because Sophie’s on holiday. That’s why I’m doing the extra shifts.”
“Lucas North,” Roisin said dreamily – I assumed this was the rum going to her head, because right now she was very much in love with Scott and not in a mood with him. Mainly because he was currently in New York City and not in Edinburgh town centre. “I’d do those extra shifts voluntary if I got to get up close and personal with Mr Darcy.”
Karen laughed a little. “Donna is paying you for those extra shifts though, Charlie?”
“Oh, yeah, of course,” I replied, “It’s just now I have no time to think about this proposal, and I think David may throw a vase at my face if I walk into his office sans research.”
“I’m sure you’ll be fine,” Gemma reassured me. Her blonde hair sat in its natural waves across her shoulders and I’d noticed several men in suits checking her out as they went over to the bar. “Anyway, won’t they be filming most of the time? You could just sit in Lucas North’s room and bash out your proposal whilst he’s busy emerging topless from lakes or being Intense and Brooding.”
Roisin raised a suggestive eyebrow. “Rifle through his dirty laundry.” When all three of us turned to stare at her in half-revulsion half-amusement, she shrugged her shoulders. “What? Do not tell me you wouldn’t do the same. I want to know what kind of underpants Lucas North wears! Is that so wrong?”
“You pervert,” Karen said teasingly, the grin on her face prevalent, “But Gemma has a point. He doesn’t look the type to be that needy or a diva. Just let him do his own thing and you can do yours.”
I sipped my drink, the alcohol warming my throat. “Yeah. Maybe.”
“And that’s what you should do your dissertation on,” Karen continued but elaborated when I looked confused, “Austen’s heroines. You have your own walking, talking Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet for the week. It would just be a waste not to use them.”
“Yes!” Gemma exclaimed excitedly, “You love Austen! You could do something on feminism or the progression of social class.”
Actually, that wasn’t too bad an idea. I’d read all of Austen’s books hundreds of times – which literature student hasn’t? It would take too much more reading, and I knew Elizabeth Bennet better than I knew most of my family. Call it a bi-product of having a literature enthusiast of a mother. My younger sister was named after the heroine in question, after all.
“Right,” Roisin slammed down a now empty glass, “Another round? No? Well, you three chat shit about romantic heroines, but I’m ordering another three mojitos.”