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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8. CHAPTER SEVEN // LUCAS NORTH... AND MISS RACHEL VAN DER WAAL?

CHAPTER SEVEN

I didn’t exactly expect to wake up the next morning the subject of speculation in every well-known (and not so well-known) gossip magazine on the web, but when Gemma rushed into my bedroom before I’d even had chance to open my eyes it was a reality I was forced to accept. The bright white light of her laptop screen burned my vision but slowly yet surely the colours started to merge together, forming a somewhat blurred and low-quality image of me and Lucas outside Twelfth Night last night. Even with his hood up as a precaution, the paparazzi were trained to spot a celeb in hiding – plus, that smile was unmistakable and those who were aware of Lucas would be able to tell straightaway. On the other hand, it was much harder for these ridiculous reporters to pinpoint my identity. I was angled in a way that meant only the back of my head was visible, the camera picking up the slight bronze tones in my hair and the shine off my leather jacket, but not my face. I briefly wondered if Lucas had deliberately positioned me facing the bar in case of this situation and the assumptions that arose because of it. I wasn’t used to the limelight like he was.

But as I scanned the article, I realised they hadn’t just left me anonymous, they’d completely mixed up my identity. They thought I was Rachel van der Waal.

“What?” I dragged Gemma’s laptop closer to my eyeline, reading over a paragraph again. It is likely that the mystery girl in question is Rachel van der Waal, the younger sister of Harriet, Martha and Alice van der Waal of the Chelsea-based fashion trinity, Waal to Waal. “Why would they automatically assume that it was Rachel? Have they even seen Rachel? We look nothing alike, not even from behind!”

Gemma perched on the edge of my bed, flicking to another tab she had open in her browser. She’d brought up Rachel’s Instagram page, where the latest post was a selfie of her and Lucas, her pouting effortlessly into the camera lens whilst he leaned in beside her with one of his trademark smiles. Her caption read having a drink with this one. “I think this probably has something to do with it.”

As we sat there, the likes seemed to go up and up. It had gone past six thousand and the number was still climbing. Lucas fans were commenting like there was no tomorrow, some questions, some compliments, some insults. I could picture her sitting at home, grinning at her self-made chaos.

“She’s going to bloody love this,” I muttered vehemently. “But even with this – we’re wearing completely different clothes and we have completely different hair. Only an idiot could think that we were the same person.”

“These sorts of reporters are idiots,” Gemma replied. “They see what they want to see in order to cause drama. You should be happy they didn’t pick up on you. You wouldn’t want deranged fans on your case.”

An immense wave of sympathy jolted through me for Lucas, right then. Just googling his name would return a flood of images of him with different women, debating on whether they were an item or not. Some were so obviously innocent, a laugh between takes or a chat over lunch; some were decidedly less so, a rushed snog outside a night club or holding hands in the street. Either way, it was impossible for him to have a meaningful relationship without the whole world having an opinion on it. Rachel may like being the centre of attention in that respect, but I wasn’t so sure about Lucas himself.

But, as usual, Gemma was right. Better Rachel than me. The last thing I wanted was to be the subject of slanderous remarks on social media. I wasn’t the kind of person who could just casually rub off someone thinking badly of me and not care and that would be a hell of a lot harder to handle if Twitter was brought into the mix. It wouldn’t just be one person on my back; it would be literally thousands.

“True,” I murmured, passing Gemma’s laptop back over to her. “Good thing they didn’t pick up on you and Mr Freddie Whittaker, either.”

Gemma flushed red, frantically tucking a loose wave of blonde hair behind her ears. “Oh, please, don’t remind me.”

My brows knotted in confusion. My first impression from yesterday evening was that Gemma and Freddie were clearly made for each other – his arm was loosely tangled round her shoulders for hours, Freddie’s laugh one of the most audible noises in the restaurant at every little thing Gemma mentioned. And, to my knowledge, Gem wasn’t exactly complaining. I distinctly remembered her palm curled round his knee under the table and her leaning up to whisper in his ear every so often.

“Did I read the signs incredibly wrong? You both seemed to really like each other.”

“No, no, you didn’t,” Gemma sighed, relaxing back into my headboard. Instead of slowly making her way out of my room she’d decided to curl up in my bed with me, her sock-clad toes contrasting with my bare ones. She looked wistful, her eyes glassy and faraway. “I liked him. I really did. He asked for my number but I didn’t give it to him. I don’t want the hassle of dating a celebrity not when…” She paused to scroll through the torrents of tweets discussing mine and Lucas’ photo, “Not when you get people discussing you like this.

It was almost funny how much hatred could be expressed in just 14o characters. This was stuff nobody would dream of saying aloud, of course, but on the internet people could hide behind handles and avatars. You could spew all this mindless hatred into the world and people would be none the wiser of your identity. It was hard to see the internet and social media in a positive light when it gave trolls free roam to tell Rachel to “go kill herself” for one photo that was completely misconstrued and abused for dramatic effect. Strangely enough, it wasn’t Rachel I felt sorry for. She didn’t deserve this – nobody did – but Lucas deserved it even less. Who would be mad enough to be his girlfriend if they couldn’t log into Facebook without strangers hounding them for where their heart lied?

“I don’t blame you,” I said, “But maybe all of this would blow over. In a matter of days people will forget all about Rachel, to her dismay. Unless she prods the hornet’s nest.”

“Which she most definitely will,” Gemma elbowed me, “She’s going to be a nightmare at work today. Lucky you.”

I groaned, burrowing my face in my hands. My mind hadn’t even reached that conclusion yet – she was going to crow on about this whole scandal all day, probably claiming to be in the photograph when she knew as well as I did that it was me. I was mildly surprised she hadn’t texted me already, acting all innocent about the whole situation like she hadn’t manufactured the whole media catastrophe herself. She’d probably talked to four or five trashy journalists offering her big money for a scoop already, claiming that she and Lucas were very much an item and had been secretly for months.

Most of all, I wondered if Lucas would say anything. He would be blind not to see the media explosion left in the wake of one ridiculous photo that meant literally nothing. I mean, we were just talking. Or flirting. Whatever. But we were hardly passionately making out in front of the locals like the tabloids were insinuating.

“I’ll just avoid her,” I stated decidedly. We only really coincided at work on purpose. It was really unlikely I’d just wander into her path by accident. “I really need to get on with this proposal anyway. I’ll hide away in some hole somewhere after I’ve dealt with Lucas and I’ll sneak out after I know she’s clocked out.”

“A tremendous plan,” Gemma grinned, tucking her laptop under her shoulder. She slowly vacated the bed and made her way over to the door. “But please, Charlie, don’t worry about her. We all know she’s full of shit.”

That final sentiment was oddly reassuring in a stereotypical Gemma way, not completely uprooting my worries but making them less prominent, perhaps. She disappeared into the warm, early morning light of the hallway, shutting my bedroom door behind her. The darkness returned, my alarm clock buzzed and the Hawdon uniform glared at me yet again from the handle of my wardrobe. Ever since Lucas North became a presence in my life, I woke up feeling very confused about so many things. We’d only known each other a few days but he’d thrown my whole universe off kilter, the way a meteorite comes thrashing through the atmosphere and burns a hole in everything it touches, repercussions spreading like ripples in streams. I liked spending time with him. There was no way around it; he was special, in a way most men aren’t, and at first I thought it was because he was a man so many people craved attention from. But as I got to know him, particularly as we sat in the cold last night, just the two of us, I knew that specialness about him wasn’t synthetic. He exuded a quality that made him addictive. I went to bed thinking about him and I woke up thinking about him too.

But Matt was like that too. Matt wasn’t just a part of my world, he was my world – I could spend days seeing no-one other than him, never tiring of his boldness and enthusiasm and his lust for life. I went to bed thinking about him and woke up thinking about him too. After he died, I barely existed; because I couldn’t accept how the memory of him was the only thing I’d ever have of him ever again. I’d got too close. I’d put every emotion I had into one person, who was ultimately just a man and just as breakable and fragile as everyone else, even though a part of me just assumed he’d live forever because I’d wanted him to.

I was scared of Lucas. I was scared of Lucas because I could feel feelings stirring in me that hadn’t been provoked in such a long time, not by anybody but Matt. But at the same time I couldn’t just stop wanting to be with him – not that Donna would allow it – and despite being scared, I didn’t feel the conventional fear inspired by frightening situations. The fear only made his person more addictive, somehow.

It was a good thing that he was only here until Monday. After Monday, I wouldn’t have to see him ever again. Maybe it would be sad at first, but ultimately it was better than getting more attached. I didn’t want another love story, especially not an unrequited one or with someone as normally unobtainable as Lucas North. I was so fucking sick of not getting a happy ending.

Face-planting my pillow for the foreseeable future seemed like the most enjoyable alternative. Life was too exhausting.

-x-

The foyer was pleasantly quiet this morning as I walked through to the office, dumping my laptop and small stack of novels I’d brought in the hope I’d get some spare moments to organise my proposal. My meeting with David, my supervisor, wasn’t until Friday, but Lucas had requested a “sightseeing” trip around Edinburgh tomorrow so I was unlikely to have the time to write it out then. I wasn’t usually so last minute with my work but this week had put some crazy developments into my previously otherwise quiet life.

The past two or so years of my life had been so uneventful it bordered on unusual. I assumed it was some otherworldly force making up for the incredibly turbulent years preceding that, feeling they owed me a calmer roll of the dice. The year I started at Oxford wasn’t just the year Matt packed off for Afghan; it was also the year my dad remarried and another sibling turned up in my life, as well as my seventeen-year-old sister getting pregnant by a stranger on her birthday night-out. The whole time I was away in Oxford I was emotionally torn apart, desperate to be there for mum and Matt and Lizzie and dad whilst being miles away from all of them. Mum was struggling with the fact that dad had found happiness again and she was still mourning the gap he left in her life. Lizzie was six months pregnant and sitting her A Levels, watching all her friends apply for university, her Oxbridge dreams crushed as she was forced to remain grounded in Brighton – and even after my niece was born, I was unable to supply the emotional support she needed. All I got from Matt was letters, declarations of love in biro pen, the only kisses the ones carelessly scrawled at the bottom of a side of A4. The guilt of attending dad and Sophie’s wedding still haunted me; I felt like I was betraying mum in celebrating the love that effectually aided in ending their marriage, Lizzie refusing to speak to me for weeks after as she’d very much sided with mum as soon as she was old enough to decide where she lived permanently.

The year after Matt died, nothing happened. Literally nothing. The first week I was a hallucinating, inconsolable mess, trapped in my duvet and staring up at the ceiling, finding words in the cracks of the plasterwork and listening to Matt’s voice on his answering machine like everybody did when someone died in the movies. The next week was his funeral, a big military parade that was miles away from the personal gathering he would have wanted. I spent the whole service drunk on my own grief, barely knowing what was going on or who anyone was, flowers gathering at my doorstep and messages of sympathy flooding my Facebook inbox. Matt and I had been together since we were fourteen. We were that couple that everyone we used to go to school was aware of and everybody at school felt the need to say how sorry they were that we had to come to an end. I missed my Oxford graduation – an experience that before, I wouldn’t have dreamed of missing, but after didn’t seem to care about at all – and I missed applying for the masters programmes and the internships and the jobs all my friends were getting offers for. It was the beginning of a very long and lonely year. I couldn’t work because I was so fragile but staying home alone was even more of a struggle, because it only emphasised how alone I felt I was always going to be, at the age of twenty-one. As I slowly began to regain my senses my sister let me look after my niece, Matilda, alone, whilst she and mum were at work.

I think Matilda saved me, in an odd and unexpected way. She was the life that was brought into the world as my boyfriend left it. I feared I’d begrudge her for it; but it seemed to be the opposite. I knew Matt would be satisfied that despite being dead, there was still new life in the world. Matilda made me realise that I couldn’t grieve forever. I missed him and I loved him. That would never, ever change. But my loss didn’t have to be the thing that dictated and defined my life for the foreseeable future, especially when I had so much of it left to live.

In that October, I applied for MAs in universities across the UK, but it was Edinburgh that caught my eye. It was faraway and new and exciting, away of escaping all the memories my hometown held. It would be the fresh start I so desperately needed in the wake of my reality shock, but not so different from what I was used to. It was then that I slowly started to pick up the broken pieces of myself: my mum got me a job in her office, basic administration, and I was earning a salary and attending a support group and actually kind of looking forward to my future in Scotland. It was ordinary and slow-paced and normal, and that was the way I assumed it was going to stay once I avoided serious job-hunting for another two years and completed my PhD. But I had soon become accustomed to the way life can change so quickly and unexpectedly.

After I dropped off my stuff, I went up to Lucas’ room as usual, but after a few taps on the door it was clear to me he wasn’t in. The filming must have been early morning and he’d forgotten to tell me. Instead, I used my master key to unlock the door to give the room a quick once over and to check everything was in order. His bed was an unruly mess – quite like the unkempt black curls of his hair – and his scripts were scattered across the floor as well as the desk, bright pink highlighter pen screaming from the cream of the carpet. I wouldn’t usually pry into a guest’s belongings, but the literature student inside of me was shaking at the thought of a new Pride and Prejudice adaptation, especially seeing as I was going to be spending the next two years of my life writing about it. A quick skim of the text revealed that Lucas was practicing the infamous proposal scene, in which Darcy tenders marriage to Elizabeth in the most offensive way he can muster after treating her rudely in the first place. I’d always thought it was a strange way to show love, but Darcy is a strange character. His shyness is offhand rather than endearing, dissuading Elizabeth rather than attracting her. It all gets rectified in the denouement, of course. He’s not such a bad guy. He’s actually one of the better canonical literary male characters.

Guilt got the better of me in the end and I managed to avert my gaze. However, my eyes were brought right back to a post-it note stuck on the open wardrobe door, Lucas’ curled script declaring my name.

Charlie – out filming early and not back until late. Enjoy your day and do some uni work! Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow – Lucas X

A small, amused smile tugged at my lips. He’d known that I needed to dedicate today to my work more than he did. Outside, the sky was bluer than it had been in days, the sun casting light across his white bedsheets. As I clutched Lucas’ expansive window sill I could see dog walkers traipsing across the fields and schoolkids with backpacks racing through the shortcut to catch the bus. A man on a lawnmower drove in strict, straight lines, cutting the grass to Donna’s exact and particular measurements. Lindley Hugh MP and his wife Jennifer grumbled and complained (well, I obviously couldn’t hear them, but when were they not) behind a porter who was trying to look chipper when wheeling their twelve suitcases back to their car. One of the brighter things to come out of this morning was their departure at long last. I slipped the note into my pocket and turned to leave, but as I opened the door I was faced with the exact person I was hoping to avoid.

“Oh! Charlie!” Rachel exclaimed, acting as if she was totally surprised to see me coming out of Lucas’ room when I was employed to spend time with him. Between last night and now she’d managed to get a fake tan, her skin a shimmering bronze like she’d been in Tenerife for two weeks. In her arms she clutched what I recognised at Lucas’ jacket – the blazer he was wearing at the bar. When she noticed I’d clocked it, she clutched it tighter. “Didn’t know you’d be here.”

“Donna sent me to check Lu—I mean Mr North’s room,” I corrected, not forgetting the formality, let alone in front of Rachel. “The cast is away filming this morning.”

“I gathered,” she replied haughtily, “It’s not just you who is assisting them.” She gestured towards the jacket in her arms with a cockily raised eyebrow. “I just came to return Lucas’ jacket from last night. He will insist on leaving his things hanging around.”

I blinked, unable to speak, but Rachel knew exactly what she was insinuating when her lips curled into what I could only describe as a smug pout. I wouldn’t believe it, not for one second, but I remembered Lucas wearing that exact jacket last night – it wasn’t just a random coat she was pretending was his in order to make me, I don’t know, jealous? Like I’d lost a competition she was the only competitor in?

I hadn’t left with Lucas after the bar. We talked for a while, just the two of us, before heading back inside when it got too cold and the rest of the group were considering ordering cabs. Rachel had returned to the table and quickly snatched Lucas back to herself, throwing a childish glare in my direction like I’d been snogging her boyfriend behind her back. I tried to throw it off and returned to Gemma and the two of us left together very soon after. I assumed that Lucas, Freddie, Laura, Ros and Rachel all left too, but maybe I was mistaken. Maybe Lucas saw the gorgeous Rachel and her fake fur coat and her big fluttering eyelashes and thought she’d be amazing to spend the night with. Maybe the rumours flooding about them weren’t as ungrounded as I originally thought.

This was all fine, of course, if true. I still wasn’t one hundred percent certain on whether I should rely on Rachel’s insinuations, but if it was true… I was stupid to think otherwise. I was stupid to have a stupid crush on the celebrity, because he was so utterly out of my league. Not that I wanted or expected a relationship with him, not at all, but not Rachel. Anyone but Rachel, who wanted the benefits of dating a celebrity and not the man himself.

Lucas deserved better. Someone like Gemma for instance, who had a heart as golden as her disposition. He did not deserve some like Rachel, who would trade him up at any given opportunity.

I did my best to smile, although I feared it would come out as a grimace. “I can leave it for him, if you like.”

“No, no, it’s fine,” Rachel nodded, already pushing past me. “I’ve got a master key as well. I’ll leave it for him myself. I think he’d want that.”

For the first time, it wasn’t Lucas who closed the door, leaving me standing in the hall alone. It was Rachel, who would try her very best that it would always remain that way. I’d always be the one looking in on her, not quite allowed into her elite circle.

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