Gemma had said that Rachel didn’t have to ruin the night, but she did, and she did it so effortlessly. The moment she waltzed in, late as usual, the warm, hazy atmosphere hanging between the group just fell away into nothing. I felt sharp and tetchy, wanting to say something but not bringing myself to. Her hand curved round Lucas’s neck as she pulled his cheek down for a kiss, the shock of the contact forcing him into it more than anything.
The way she kissed me was awkward and robotic and out of necessity rather than in greeting. She didn’t want to greet me. She was here for one reason and one reason only, and that was to seduce Lucas North. She grabbed his arm and tugged him away to the bar before any of us could say otherwise, her laugh hanging high in the air as she tossed her head back at every little word he said. Laura prodded my shoulder.
“Come on,” she smiled, “Seeing as you were so kind to suggest this place, I’ll buy your drink.”
I didn’t even have it in me to adamantly disagree, like I would have done every other occasion, or if it was Lucas who had offered to buy it for me. I just nodded, no words escaping my lips, following in Laura’s shadow. Like she knew how uncomfortable I felt, Laura deliberately took me round to the other side of the bar, so both Lucas and Rachel were hidden by an obtrusive branch of the Shakespeare tree. All I could hear now was Rachel’s high-pitched laughter, sounding like the equivalent of nails scraping down a chalkboard. At least, that’s the effect it had on me.
“Okay,” Laura let out a deep breath, “I know it’s not professional to speak ill of your colleagues, and feel free to tell me to shut up, but you don’t like her very much do you?”
Usually, I’d deny it. I wasn’t the kind of person who spilled my opinions on people easily – words travelled fast and the last thing I wanted was knowing that I’d upset somebody, leaving an unsettling feeling in the back of my mind that made me unable to think about a lot else. Ignoring how surreal it was that I was speaking to Laura freaking Marlow about my problems, she had hit the nail on the head. Rachel was so used to being one better than me that I’d stopped noticing her inherent superiority complex and just accepted it. Now I had this job, the job that she wanted, she was determined to restore the equilibrium: not by taking my job, because Donna would never allow that. However, if she stole Lucas’s heart, made him like her more than he did me, she’d effectually won. This was her victory. Her fuck you, Charlotte, you will never have something that I want.
I thought she was my friend, but as long as I knew her this was how it was always going to be. I was never going to be allowed to have more than what she had, whatever more was. Friends didn’t do that to each other.
“She…” I began, but ultimately trailed off. I had so much to say about how much she angered me, how I wished she wasn’t here, how I wished she’d just been paired with Lucas in the first place so I didn’t have to deal with the verbal sparring and her monitoring my texts messages like an angry father checking his daughter’s Facebook page. I wish I didn’t care so fucking much about everything.
Laura seemed to understand. Her eyes were wide and sympathetic, eager to let me in. “You don’t need her in your life if you don’t want her there. It’s not worth it.”
Ah, if only it was that easy. “I have to see her every day. It’s just easier to keep her happy.”
Laura sighed, resting her arms on the bar. Light cast from overhead picked up the slight tinge of auburn in her otherwise dark hair, remnants of dye left over from her last role. “I used to be such a people-pleaser, Charlie. Especially when I was starting out as an actress and a model. I wanted people to like me so badly that it actually started to make me unhappy – in my line of work, you have to make a good impression in order to make connections and get auditions. I put that before everything, even my own wellbeing, and it made me really fragile. I know it’s difficult, and maybe in the short-term it’ll feel like the wrong decision – I point blank refused to take any more work from a director who really took advantage of me and treated me like a doormat, cutting me out of some really great parts that have made other actresses stellar. But in the long term it was the best decision I’d ever made.” She smiled up at the ceiling, her face radiant. “I am so much happier now I’ve stopped letting the opinions and actions of other people affect me. I think you will be too. Be civil with your colleague, work with her competently, but don’t surrender to her will. You seem like a nice girl and you have good friends outside your work, so don’t feel like you need someone who makes you unhappy. You don’t need that.”
Laura’s wisdom came from a matter close to her heart that left me a little shaken. She’d always seemed so impenetrable in the snippets of interviews I’d seen her in, like she could take on the world with her smile. You never pictured the glamorous women who posed on the front of Vogue magazine ever having weaknesses.
“Yeah,” I said quietly, my eyes wandering to where I could see a glimpse of Rachel’s expensive fur cape. I lay awake at night sometimes when she was upset with me, wondering what I’d done and how I could fix it. I’d sent her unnecessary apologies which she was reluctant to accept, even if it was her who should’ve been saying sorry to me. Maybe it was time to sever the friendship. She didn’t do anything for me apart from make me feel bad. She used me to make herself feel better, more accomplished. I was tired of it. “Yeah, maybe I should.”
The poor boy behind the counter was clearly flustered by the presence of so many seriously famous faces in the bar that he had to take a breather, an older girl dressed in authentic Shakespearean costume taking over mixing our drinks. She was cheerful and personable, not affected in the slightest, laughing when Laura complimented her on her outfit. Laura ordered two of my favourite – the Cleopolitan, Anthony and Cleopatra inspired – and they were promptly served to us, Laura’s face quickly transforming into a grin when she’d had a sip.
“This is gorgeous!” she exclaimed enthusiastically, to the delight of the server. “Do you mind if I put this on Instagram?”
Of course the girl was over the moon, grinning madly as Laura took a swift photo of the set-up, clearly making this girl’s day. I hadn’t come across many celebrities in my time but I really hoped that they were all like Laura, taking the time out of their lives to make somebody smile. Laura Marlow was the kind of actress that was a role-model to young girls everywhere, not the kind that parents disapprove of after bare or weed-smoking snaps appeared in tabloids.
Laura led the way back to our table where the group had now reassembled. Rachel had her arm lingering across Lucas’s broad shoulders whilst he laughed at something Rosalind said, Freddie and Gemma deep in conversation. Gemma had gone for a Bloody Tamora, the deep, rich colour of the drink matching her pomegranate-red nails. Her and Freddie certainly seemed to be getting on well – was there anything in it for the two of them?
“Charlie!” Lucas announced when he’d caught eyes with me, shuffling out of Rachel’s hold. He pulled out the chair positioned next to him, beckoning me to sit. Laura squeezed in next to Rosalind on the sofa.
“What did you go for, then?” I asked, tossing my jacket over the back of my chair. He had something in a wide tumbler, full with crushed ice and curling mint leaves.
“A Romeo and Julep,” he said with an eyebrow raise, “It’s… very minty. What about you?”
“My favourite. It’s called a Cleopolitan,” I lifted my martini glass, “Because I can’t resist citrus vodka.”
“Damn! I should’ve got that one. Can’t resist citrus vodka either,” Lucas grinned, “But this one is good too. I was right. You have excellent taste.”
I took a slightly edgy sip of my drink at the praise, but my moment of glory was rudely disrupted by Rachel. She frowned, resting her chin on Lucas’s shoulder. “Surely it’s me who has the good taste? I did help you pick it out.”
Lucas laughed somewhat nervously. “Yeah, but it was Charlie who picked out the place.”
“Sure, sure,” Rachel agreed, “But it’s pretty fucking dead, right? What if we want to dance? You should come to me next time. I know somewhere you can party until six am.”
This attitude perplexed me. Before she moved to Edinburgh, Rachel lived in Chelsea. She schmoozed her way through life, drinking cocktails and attending launches of fashion brands and having fancy brunches at fashionable hotels. She was used to this sort of thing, more so than the rest of us. And if she hated it so much, why was she here?
“I don’t think I could party until six am even if I wanted to,” Lucas admitted, “I’m so exhausted.”
“Next time you’re in Edinburgh then,” Rachel prodded, coy smile on her face, “I’ll give you my number. That way you’ll be able to hit me up.”
Lucas didn’t say yes, but he didn’t say no either. He just leaned forwards and took a contemplative sip of his drink, glancing at his surroundings. I wondered, if she asked enough, whether he would indulge her and pass over his details. She wasn’t going to give in, I knew that as much.
“Right!” Gemma announced loudly, clapping her hands together. She’d obviously noticed the negativity that had settled over me, like thick grey rainclouds preceding rain. “Did you know that this place also does tapas?”
As the night dragged on, I actually began to enjoy myself more. As none of us had actually eaten, Gemma’s suggestion was taken up and we ordered quite the selection of tapas – all on the house, because the manager had come in and was apparently a huge Laura Marlow and Lucas North fan. Our little wooden table was overflowing with bacon-wrapped dates, grilled asparagus, steamed octopus, bruschetta dripping in cheese and garlic butter and of course a massive pitcher of Bloody Tamora. It didn’t feel like I was sitting around with complete strangers anymore: Freddie fed Lucas octopus and we all exploded into giggles as it went all over his chin, Rosalind squirming when Laura forced her to eat a date. Rachel was sat there with a face like thunder, reluctant to involve herself with anyone other than Lucas, but it stopped bothering me. I didn’t get to talk to Lucas very much, but I had the others. Laura could make you laugh until your sides split.
“So,” Laura started, her words slurring together thanks to the alcohol, “How long have you two known each other?”
Her hand was flitting between Gemma and I. Gemma grinned over at me. “Just over a year now.”
Laura’s eyes almost bulged out of her head. “What? Just a year? I assumed it was a lot longer than that!”
“We both started studying at the university at the same time,” I elaborated, “That’s how we ended up sharing a flat.”
“So you’re doing a PhD too, then?” Lucas asked and Gemma nodded shyly, “I’ve never been surrounded by so many geniuses before. I’m beginning to feel inadequate.”
It was said teasingly, but Rachel seemed to take it to heart. “I don’t see the point in university, to be honest. Neither of you were born into money so it is unlikely that you’ll make more – you’ll just have a mountain of debt and a career that you didn’t need a degree for in the first place.”
Her smug look was quickly wiped off her face by Freddie, who seemed eager to stick up for Gemma in any way possible. “I disagree. Doing a research degree can get you a lot more attention from relevant and important people. I think it’s a great way to open doors. It’s not always for the money, either.”
“I’ll drink to that,” I offered, clinking glasses with him. The support was welcome. I just didn’t tell him that I was really doing my PhD as an escape option, not because it was my goal all along – not like Gemma, who had spent two years working in a supermarket beforehand in order to justify moving to Scotland to study. I loved university. It was safe and normal and relatively unchanging, a world that I could easily forget myself in. I really needed that last year: it was fazing myself out of this livelihood once I graduated that really worried me.
Rachel just shrugged it off. I’d observed her picking at the tapas, nibbling a piece of asparagus but leaving most of it untouched. Her hand kept sneaking onto Lucas’s thigh, fingers stretching across the material of his jeans. “What do you think, Lucas? Is university a waste of time?”
“All my siblings went to university but me,” Lucas replied, “And that’s only because I went to drama school. They’re all really happy.”
Rachel rolled her eyes. “That doesn’t answer my question.”
Lucas sighed, glancing over at me. “Anything is a waste of time if you refuse to make the most of it. That’s my answer.”
I didn’t know what he was trying to tell me. Lucas’s gaze settled on me for a few more moments, much longer than necessary, before turning back to the conversation. There were streams of questions building up in my head, begging for answers, but with Rachel hanging malevolently round his shoulders like a bad omen words refused to escape me. However uninteresting, I couldn’t say anything to him without Rachel having an opinion.
“I wish I’d gone to university,” Laura mused, folding back into the leather of the sofa. “Particularly when I was eighteen. From like, twelve, other people have decided what I’m doing and when I’m doing it constantly. Uni might have given me a bit of independence.”
University was the biggest leap for me, but I don’t think it was because of the moving. My mum and dad divorced when I was sixteen, dad moving back to his hometown of Glasgow, so I’d spent two years travelling the seven hour car journey between his house and Brighton during the holidays. The two hours to Oxford was measly in comparison. No, my first year of university coincided with Matt’s first official tour in Afghanistan – the first time we’d been separated for more than a few weeks the whole time we’d known each other. As well as that, my third year of uni coincided with Matt’s final tour of Afghan. The one he didn’t come home from. When I graduated, I felt like a completely different person, and not because I’d got a first from Oxford – but because I started university with someone I knew I was going to marry and left with nobody.
“Charlie,” I was tossed out of my daydream as I felt a hand close round my forearm, “Are you alright?”
It was Lucas, gentle smile on his face, eyes warm yet troubled. He seemed to look at me like that a lot. Maybe it was because nearly every time he saw me I seemed emotionally unstable, either wired by alcohol or gripped by flashbacks.
“Yeah, yeah,” I nodded, quickly reaching out for my drink. Now was not the time to dwell on the past. I’d done that enough. “Just got a bit… I don’t know, zoned out a bit.”
“Do you want a breath of fresh air?” Lucas offered, his hand already reaching for my coat hung on the back of my chair. “I could do with it, to be honest.”
It was then that I realised that Rachel was no longer sat next to him, crooning over his body like she’d been his girlfriend for months. She must have gone to the toilet or something when I wasn’t paying attention. Taking it as a sign, I let him put my jacket over my shoulders and wandered out quietly behind him, not disturbing the conversation that was happening between the others.
It was about half ten now and the city centre was rumbling into life. Taxis lined the pavements outside the bars, hen parties in ridiculously high heels clambering out with high-pitched giggles and fluffy pink headbands. A group of lads in tight t shirts were already halfway to drunk, catcalling a gaggle of girls in crop tops and miniskirts who pretended they didn’t love the attention. Lucas hid his face away in the hood of his coat, his eyes lost in the shadow. The only thing giving away that it was him was the edge of his chin and a smile that was irreplaceable, a complete giveaway for anyone who knew him well.
We stood in the little outdoor seating area in the front of Twelfth Night. In the summer it was usually full, the wooden benches covered in pitchers and laughing diners, but the wind had blown everyone towards the warmth of the interior. It gave us some well needed breathing space – however much I enjoyed the company of the others, particularly the endlessly charismatic Laura, I was an introvert at heart. Sometimes I needed time away in social gatherings to recollect my thoughts.
“Your friend is pretty full on,” Lucas remarked, breaking the quiet. He was leaning against the bench, the artificial lighting from inside casting an eerie glow across his face.
“No! Not Gemma,” he laughed, like I couldn’t be so ridiculous “Gemma’s lovely. The one from the hotel. Rachel.”
His lips tugged into a grimace in order to make me giggle. As usual, he succeeded; I wondered if he was like that with everyone. When I thought about it like that it made me feel so idiotic. He was a famous actor. Of course he was going to be charming with every girl he met – he wasn’t going to act differently for me.
“She’s not so much my friend,” I reasoned. That had been this evening’s epiphany: Rachel van der Waal was not my friend. “We just work together, and she wanted to come along…”
Lucas half-laughed bitterly, like he was in on a joke that I wasn’t. “Yeah, she doesn’t seem much like you. I tried to picture you as friends in my head but it didn’t seem to compute.”
The idea of Lucas North even thinking about me when we weren’t together didn’t seem to compute in my head. I didn’t expect him to care about my friendships – it caught me off guard a bit, like when he handed me the aspirin the first time we met. Like because he was famous, for some reason, I didn’t expect him to be decent.
“Yeah, we’re quite different,” I admitted, “She’s just someone to talk to at the hotel. Some days are easier than others in her company.”
“I’m sure they are,” Lucas hummed, “But I bet every day in your company is an absolute joy.”
I laughed at the absurdity of the notion, but when I glanced over at Lucas he was deadly serious, confirmed by the slight wry smile he wore. The heat rose in my cheeks – was he flirting with me or making fun of me? I quickly covered up, brushing a stray hair away from my face that had come loose in the wind. “Oh God – I don’t know about that. Ask Gemma. I’m a pain in the arse.”
“Fine. I’ll ask her,” he grinned coyly, “And I bet she’ll say the exact same thing as me. I’ve enjoyed your company the last couple of days.”
“You’ve barely seen me,” I said, trying to make as many excuses as possible to dissuade this claim. “And that’s work me. I have to be chipper or I’ll get fired.” When Lucas raised a questioning eyebrow, I quickly elaborated. “Not including any of my hangover-induced emotions.”
“Jesus, you can’t take a compliment, can you?” Lucas grinned, “Are you always this reluctant to let a guy chat you up?”
He was chatting me up? I think that because he could have his pick of the girls, whether that was because of his profession or him not being bad to look at, so I’d just assumed he wouldn’t look twice at someone like me. I was so plain: Gemma always said otherwise, like I told her when she told me she felt ugly, but I actually was. I’d never known what Matt saw me. I was never going to be one of those beautiful girls, like Laura Marlow or Rachel van der Waal. I was always going to be me, with boobs that were average in size and fairly short legs and a past that seemed to weigh me down constantly, always threatening to ruin me.
That was why I was reluctant to let guys chat me up, if I got any attention at all. I didn’t feel ready. Almost two and a half years later I still wasn’t fucking ready. And taking the advances of a famous actor was probably not the way to go about it.
But then he would smile, and I couldn’t picture a better man I wanted to spend more time with. Why was this so fucking confusing?
He seemed to realise that he was being a little too forward and relaxed, not expecting me to answer. Maybe he was joking after all. Everything within me was screaming contradictions, the parts of me that couldn’t let go of Matt and all he meant to me and the parts who wanted nothing more but to move on, never forgetting but still managing to have a healthy relationship with somebody. I liked Lucas, I really did, but even if he was interested in me I couldn’t help but think that a relationship with him would be bad for both of us. I didn’t know the etiquette when it came to the potential romances of those in the public eye in anyway.
I was just going to have to shake it off and forget about it. He was here for a week and a bit of flirting wasn’t going to change the fact it was unlikely I’ll ever see him again after filming ended. He wasn’t the kind of guy you could just look up on Facebook and meet up for a coffee with next time he was in the area. He’d forget me almost as quickly as the time we physically spent together, in a week’s time flirting with another hotel employee in another place. It was just his nature. We got on, but it meant nothing. It was ridiculous for me to think it meant anything more. Not that I wanted it to mean anything more.
“Anyway, I’ve been meaning to ask you something,” Lucas changed the subject, crossing his arms. “I’ve got a day off on Thursday. Freddie, Ros and Laura are filming some scenes that I’m not in, so I was wondering if you wanted to go on a little daytrip round your university city.”
“A daytrip?” I queried, shuffling closer to him. The wind kept cutting him off.
“Yeah,” he continued, “You can be my tour guide. As you keep telling me, I am your client.”
“Of course,” I quickly interjected, not forgetting my place. Sometimes it was so easy to misplace the information that Lucas wasn’t my friend – technically I was his employee and he was my boss, in an albeit unconventional way. “Whatever you want to do, I can arrange it.”
“Sounds lovely,” Lucas grinned, “But please – none of this conventional let’s do the castle and Prince’s Street bollocks. I want to see your Edinburgh. The places you like going, not the tourists.”
Okay, so that was something I could definitely do. Edinburgh was not short of little places that I loved and I was sure Lucas would love too. It certainly was going to be an interesting experience.