Rachel Adams didn’t get good things.
That was probably why she was standing in the industrial-sized kitchen of a five-star French restaurant in a five-star Mayfair hotel, in the bitter London cold. Gritting her teeth and barely resisting the urge to throttle a Frenchman’s conceited, moustachioed face. And honestly, who would even blame her? The man’s utterly condescending behaviour was testing her patience to its limit. And she didn’t have that much to begin with.
She definitely wished she wasn’t here. However, her bank balance, or rather lack thereof, along with her landlord's rental lease, definitely thought otherwise… mainly because she had walked — stormed — out of her old job, in a back-alley bar with The Witch as a boss, leaving her with very few legal options about making money. Hence, the new job.
Granted, it probably wasn’t the best way to start said new job… Punching the Mâitre d’ of a posh restaurant – aka, your new boss – into a coma. No matter how annoying he was. And yet, that seemed to be the only course of action which made sense to her, right now.
“And you are sure you have done this before?” the annoying boss drawled on, repeating a question from not even three minutes before. Again. The man’s French accent was so thick and difficult to understand; English annunciation was clearly not his wheelhouse. Yet, Rachel definitely knew he was being passively-aggressively insulting.
She took a deep breath and decided to answer him, instead of pushing him into the nearest vat of soup.
“Yes, but not quite like this,” she muttered. Monsieur Jean-Pierre Dupont, Mâitre d’ of newest restaurant L’hôtel D’amour, rolled his eyes and clicked his tongue.
“Mon Dieu,” he muttered. “Here we go again.”
Rachel gawked at him mutely. What the hell that was supposed to mean?
“Right. This way!” Jean-Pierre clapped his hands together like she was an unruly puppy in training. “I will be showing you what you are to do, and you must listen - carefully! It is a very fine skill to serve guests with flair and not to spill anything on this. And you must not ever spill anything on them. Ever! Which is why I am going to be teaching you how, maintenont.”
This was what she got for starting a new job in a new French Restaurant, when the closest she had come to the actual country was to whiz through her French A-level exams. As a staunch vegetarian, she had also never felt the urge to stuff dead snails and frogs’ legs into her mouth – and now that she had seen them, she decided she definitely wasn’t going to be starting now.
Rachel quietly followed, feeling particularly nauseated that this was now going to be her prison of ten hours a day, most days of the week.
Grief. She wondered how long it would take before she actually drowned in all the condensation pouring out of this man, then inwardly sighed and tried, again, to convince herself she was only paying her dues like the best performers always do. Despite the fact she had, basically, entirely given up hope of a singing career somehow magically materialising in front of her a long time ago.
That’s what she had come London for, in the first place – to perform. To sing. Ran away from from the mindless, tiny town that believed no one should do anything different, or “rock the boat” of basic existence, to get to the one place that anyone could be anything they wanted to be.
The people where she was from had always belittled or dismissed her ideas. Made it clear there was no way in all s that little Rachel Adams was in any way fit to be in what would have once been her chosen profession – as a Singer-Songwriter. Until their ridiculing had become too much, hearing one too many times that the gawking girl with the frizzy red hair and glasses was in no position to go and become some “pop star” (say it with immense disdain to get the full effect). So, when her best friend and Performing Arts classmate, Kirk, moved to London to go to a prestigious Theatre School after college, she packed up her bags and followed him there faster than you can say Les Miserables.,
However, right now, she was thinking maybe she really shouldn’t have. There was only so much condescending Frenchman one could take in a lifetime... And she was starting to edge beyond her limit already.
The only thing even keeping her there was the fact she needed the money.
This job had come right on the tails of working for an evil witch at a nightmare of a backstreet bar in Camden, so the step-up in employment made it… almost worth it. That Camden job had been one she was forced to take to make rent and eat, and she barely managed to scrape by with either one. It had been endured with gritted teeth and Rachel bore with it for a good while, but in the end, she’d had to go. Leaving had been overwhelmingly terrifying, but it was either that or one day find said witch buried in or under her own kegs.
In comparison, The L’hôtel D’amour was like being in a palace. It was huge, spacious, and sat somewhere between pretentious and quietly sophisticated and glamorous. It looked more like what a First-Class dining room on Titanic might have looked like, had it been built in the twenty-first century, rather than a restaurant.
There were the slightly overstuffed minimalist armchairs and tablecloths in a muted cream, and tables with high backed plush sofas with the deep buttoning on the back, making them look even more pretentious. The walls looked like they were made of grey-speckled marble and there were even white pillars scattered throughout. The ceiling was high and moulded, except for the centre where there was an honest-to-goodness fresco in a large oval space in the centre. There was also rather annoying art-deco-style drop chandeliers, where a cluster of long white lights hung down low and you needed to circumvent those as well as the pillars, when swanning about the place. There even was an actual ivory-coloured baby grand piano in a nook.
The entire design exuded class, old-style glamorous fashion, and she felt so out of place it almost made her squirm. She even had a posh tuxedo-style uniform (even if it did make her look like a penguin in makeup), made up of tailored pants, pristine white shirt buttoned up to her ears, and a black dickie-bow, of all things.
It was rather a turnabout after moving to London with a vague hope that maybe she could somehow mesh some kind of a music career, performing as a singer and songwriter. She had even studied Performing Arts and applied for a place at a highly prestigious music school to further study singing. At one time, she had been ambitious and really serious about it. But that had been a long time ago, now. Before The Evil Witch, before the rejections, and her already non-existent confidence taking a nosedive into somewhere by the Earth’s Core.
As she tried to balance plates, cups and crystal glasses on silver trays, something told Rachel that not only did she look like an idiot in her penguin suit, but also maybe she was in way over her head with her waitressing skills here. After all, the only reason she was here was because they really wanted her for her language skills, and there apparently weren’t many people willing to work in waitressing who could also speak fluent French.
And was quickly becoming clear to Rachel that she seemed to have drastically overestimated her skills as a waitress for this job.
“No, no, no! NO! Not like that, vous imbecile! Regarde-moi, maintenant!”
And so, as directed, she watched. And kept on watching, whilst the temperamental French diva kept on ranting, and then would repeat it, expecting her do everything again.
“Non! Wiss flair and grace. Head up, shoulders back, smile. Non, I said smile, not look like you just sat on the wrong end of l’ épingler. Now float, be graceful and trés charming… If you possibly can.”
At the end of a very long day, Rachel even shocked herself to be finally really getting the hang of it. Head up, shoulders back, smile, float. She didn’t drop anything, she could carry away the plates without them falling off the tray, and she could pour wine without spilling it all over herself and everywhere else. She could actually do it - call the Guinness Book of Records. Her best friend Stevie (real name Stephanie, but you ran the risk of being beaten with your own shoes if you called her that) would never believe it when she told her.
“Well, I admit you are not the clumsiest person I have ever taught,” Jean-Pierre said in some kind of grudging compliment to himself. “But still took lots of work. I sink you are now ready to face the guests. How is your Français?”
This time Rachel really did feel at ease. It was the only thing she knew she could do, and well. Jean-Pierre hadn’t hired her himself, so he had no idea that French was about as natural to her as speaking English.
“It’s not bad,” she answered mildly, and in perfect, fluent French. “I know more about it than this. And I know what you kept saying to me.”
And it definitely hadn’t been complimentary.
“Ah. Then we do not need to go through the menu,” Jean-Pierre remarked, also in French He kept to his native language and finally made a lot more sense to listen to. “Now, tomorrow, you will do as I tell you, as I have taught you today, and you will learn to be a real waitress, and not some pretty bar girl in an abominable English place. I have heard of the bar you’ve mentioned, for all the wrong reasons. Here, you will not be subjected to such… atrocious things.”
Glad to be free after surviving many hours of her nightmarish first day,Rachel flew out the tall glass doors of the hotel restaurant and looked back at her new workplace. If nothing else, working at a place that was that so very pretty and shiny would cheer her up, for now – and at least it didn’t smell of stale beer and dodgy old men too inebriated to know how to use the toilet facilities properly.
As she hopped down the steps leading down the pavement, she noticed someone walking towards her, head down with a baseball cap and dark glasses on. Immediately thinking she was going to be mugged – as she always did with all the horror stories of living in London – she backed up towards the doors again and clutched onto her bag for dear life, waiting for the man to attack her, ready to scream the building down if he did.
It was as he came up to the building, though, that he pulled off his hat and glasses and looked right at the odd expression on her face, which suddenly changed as she actually recognised him. And he was no mugger. Or at least he needn’t to be.
What the — Luke Heartlett? Really? her brain rattled at her dumbly.
Her jaw dropped and she stared after him, unable to believe just who had just walked into the restaurant she was working at. The Luke Heartlett… Of all people. Mega-Iconic legend of the music industry and worldwide super-celebrity. A media obsession and industry veteran, he had rocked and ruled the music world for the last decade, having gone from teenage pop sensation in his superbly-super-famous “boy-band”, All-In, to respected grown-up artist… or so the last tacky magazine she had accidentally read had described him.
MThe American singer was infamously dubbed by all media as “The Heart Man” for his over-zealously sweet manner to fans, and even being utterly charming the Mass Media journalists. He also couldn’t seem to help but get himself at least mentioned every day in every tabloid newspaper, magazine, celebrity-gossip blog and online social media medium – although Rachel suspected that perhaps he gave them a lot of help in getting himself there. If he wasn’t excessively photographed and over-analysed by just about every given any opportunity, he was being continuously mentioned in the famous online celebrity gossip blogs, and always made the front-page of the tabloid press if he did anything more exciting than simply breathe.
He was gorgeous, she’d give him that, definitively confirmed after just seeing him in the flesh. And he even had a typically stunning girlfriend that was one of the most famous and controversially skinny supermodels in the world, and he always had a guaranteed hit every time he released a new song or album, because almost all teenagers, as well as the veteran fans who grew up listening to him, couldn’t wait to have him plastered all over their walls and clogging up their playlists. He had managed to win every music award known to the worldwide industry at least three times, and Rachel felt very ashamed that, at the grand old age of twenty-five, she even knew any of this, and was even able to recognise his face. But then again, her blind great aunt would recognise that face, it had been in the media so often.
“Bloody hell,” she couldn’t help but exclaim under her breath, grinning excitedly – and despite knowing a lot better than to behave like a twelve-year-old at a Harry Potter convention. She told herself she was simply just excited that she had just seen her first celebrity in the city – otherwise, she was being really sad. Really, really, really sad. But just wait until she told Stevie!
Of course, naturally, Stevie the cynic didn’t care at all. When Rachel trotted over to her best friend’s house, she barely got a blink out of her. Stevie hadn’t even given much attention to teen music sensations when she actually was a teenager, and so now she was an adult she absolutely had no intention of caring one iota about idiots who took all their clothes off for extortionate amounts of money and couldn’t sing. She also didn’t think he was even remotely cute and had never bought into the celebrity-obsessed culture that most people always seemed buy into. To her it was shallow, and she hated anything shallow. Something which often made Rachel beg the question - why Stevie was friends with her?
“But it is quite cool,” Rachel tried to argue when she told her. “And he looked straight at me.”
“Yes, but that was probably because you first thought he was a mugger and nearly screamed at him. Then you probably stared at him with your jaw hanging on the floor. By the way, how do the steps of the L’hotel D’amour taste?”
Rachel narrowed her eyes and threw her a cold look.
“My jaw was not on the floor and my tongue wasn’t hanging out,” she informed Stevie defensively, lying through her teeth. If she had kept a bottle of Pledge in her mouth the steps would have been gleaming. “But when you see them on TV all the time you don’t really think of tha.”
“Yes, whatever you say dear,” Stevie answered patronisingly, giving her attention back to the food she was making in her kitchen. “Now are you going to let me cook my dinner or not?”
“I am letting you,” Rachel sulked. “I’m just sitting here and talking.”
“Well, if you keep on, I’ll put you in the oven instead, and you can sit and talk in there, if you like.”
Pouting, Rachel hopped off the countertop in the kitchen and went back through the little archway that separated it from the lounge and sat herself down on the couch. Just as she sat down, though, she heard the buzzer go for the main door to the apartment building, and she got up and clicked the intercom to find out who it was. They definitely weren’t expecting anyone.
“Hey, it’s me,” announced the answer when she inquired as to whom it was.
Rolling her eyes, Rachel pressed the button to open the door for her old friend Kirk Branson, and then waited patiently for him to walk up the stairs and appear at the apartment door.
She had known him since primary school, but they had only become friends while in college when they both took all the same classes by some freak accident. They had somehow managed to become adoring best friends, and he somehow muscled himself into the role of her surrogate big brother, which she loathed and loved in equal measure. It also was his moving to London to pursue his acting career which had made her contemplate leaving the ramshackle ruins of their tiny little town. So, her depressing existence in this city was all his fault, really.
When he appeared at the door of the flat, Kirk near-suffocated her in his usual bear-hug greeting, and dumped himself on the couch and smiled up at Rachel and Stevie.
“And what do you want, trouble?” Stevie grumbled as he came in. “Bored of your famous friends already?”
This was the tormenting he had to endure for appearing in West End shows with a toilet-roll list of celebrity headliners and several extra parts in TV programmes and a handful of films. Not to mention his fabulous West End debut in Phantom of the Opera, which he got the moment he graduated from drama school.
“No,” Kirk answered Stevie, rolling his eyes at her. “You know there are no performances on Sundays. I’m free till tomorrow.”
“God help us,” Stevie muttered. “I’m surprised your big fat ego can fit in this tiny place.”
“I’m surprised your big fat arse can.”
Since Stevie was a size 8 if she put on weight, they both stared blankly at him for that one for a second.
“All right! Enough, people,” Rachel then ordered, before Stevie electrocuted him with the electric whisk in her hand. “Behave, you two.”
“So why are you here then?” Stevie said to Kirk.
“I came here to see my favourite girls.”
“No, you want something,” Rachel remarked knowingly.
“All right, you caught me,” Kirk admitted, grinning and holding up his hands. “I’ve got a date and she’s fantastic, and I want to know how to treat her like a real lady. I wanted to get a girl’s opinion, but you’re just going to have to do.”
“Ooh. Who is he?” Stevie shot. He threw her a glare.
“Contrary to popular opinion, Stephanie, not all stage actors are gay,” he commented dryly. “I happen to like women, and this one I want to be very nice to.”
“So, who is she?” Rachel requested amicably.
“Holly Webb.” He said her name very smugly, and Rachel and Stevie exchanged very surprised glances.
“Holly Webb? The Holly Webb that’s in that show with you and is apparently so fantastic and gets rave reviews in The Stage?” Rachel asked in surprise. “Doesn’t she know you by now?”
“That’s probably why it took him so long to get a date,” Stevie shot from the kitchen, where she had returned to.
“No, it’s not, thank you very much,” Kirk called back. “I just decided to ask her out now.”
“And yet, if we asked her, you can guarantee that’s not what she would say.”
Kirk was infamous in the circles who knew him for being an incorrigible charming flirt and outright womaniser. His own description was that he didn’t “do” relationships – only pretty women – and enjoyed nothing better than a challenge. He could be charming when he wanted to be, but he was only ever interested in one thing, and it certainly wasn’t a girl’s personality. He had been the cute, popular boy in school and now he was the gorgeous West End up-and-coming superstar, and - of course – it had all gone straight to his head. Especially when sweet, female performing arts students clamoured for autographed programmes after the show.
“Anyway,” Kirk said, sidestepping Stevie’s jibes, “I want to know how you can really impress a girl.”
“Don’t you usually?” Rachel stated what she thought was the obvious.
“She’s not exactly the same as the other girls I’ve been out with. I actually like this one.”
Rachel rolled her eyes and sighed. He was unbelievable – quite literally. No one who knew him could believe that.
“Don’t you suck her face off every night anyway?” she asked pointedly. “Why make it more complicated by asking her out?”
“Actually, I don’t,” Kirk grumbled. “That would only happen if the bloke who plays her boyfriend accidentally broke his leg, or maybe his neck. I have a completely different role. Don’t you listen to anything I say?”
“No. Not really.”
“So are you going to tell me how to really impress this girl?”
“Ask someone else to go in your place?” Rachel offered. She was immediately shot down with a derisive stare.
“I don’t think you could really impress a girl,” Stevie remarked dryly, poking her head around from the kitchen. “You actually have to be genuinely genuine to the girl and not spew your usual crap. You actually have to mean what you say. I know that’s a completely alien concept to you, but you should try it sometime.”
“I always mean what I say.”
“Honey, you never mean what you say.”
Kirk pouted for a moment, then looked back at Rachel.
“So?” he asked her, very unexpectedly. “What do girls like?”
“Seriously?” Rachel raised an eyebrow. She received a sincere nod, so she continued. “Really, I think women want to feel special. That you’re interested in them, not just a cold-hearted hookup
Rachel then spent the next hour giving Kirk an insight into how a girl’s mind worked, the basis of which ran around getting to know the girl before you could actually say what would impress her – at the end which, he was still none the wiser.
“If you actually take the time to get to know Holly, she’ll let you know herself what she likes. You’re just too thick to be able to read between the lines,” Rachel pointed out, while Stevie groaned with her head in her hands.
“God, you girls are complicated.”
“That’s only because men are so simple,” Stevie argued sensibly.
“Have you actually managed to get one yet? Or are you still happy in your own little couple?” Kirk retorted sardonically.
“Why on earth would we want men like you to come and shatter our little lives? You guys haven’t a clue how to make a girl happy. You’re so busy thinking of women as objects to get into bed as soon as possible, you forget we’re actually people. With opinions. And you wonder why they don’t hang around for very long.”
“They hang around long enough.” Kirk gave them a wink and a smirk.
Stevie’s expression morphed into a dangerous scowl. “If you don’t get out of this sexist attitude, we’re not going to let you in here again.”
“Nah. Rachel won’t let you do that, will you darling?”
He looked over at her hopefully. Rachel simply glared back
“She doesn’t live here,” Stevie retorted pointedly.
Kirk rolled his eyes and changed the subject.
“So, how was your first day hun?” he asked Rachel.
Stevie grumbled under her breath at Kirk as Rachel told him about how her new job in the hotel and bumping into Luke Heartlett on the steps when she thought he was going to mug her.
“Luke who?” Kirk asked blankly, and Rachel huffed grumpily.
“Heartlett? He’s a singer. I'm surprised you don't know – his face is always all over everything. From what I heard, though, the music is actually tolerably good.”
“Oh. The Heart guy. Well, if he can genuinely just hold a tune, he’s ahead of the pack,” Kirk commented mildly. “I tell you, they would get a shock if most of those supposed pop stars went into real singing we have to do, absolutely live night after night, no miming. Doing our own singing and dancing.”
“Yes, yes, we know about the singing you musical Thespians have to endure,” Stevie said in a bored tone. “All those musicals you’ve done must be really hard on the ego. Especially when it’s as big as yours.”
“It’s a point though,” Rachel remarked, knowing very well what it was like to put that much effort into it and having to come out being, looking and sounding perfect. Every time. “It takes a lot of hard work and talent to pull off a show like that, and famous singers and these so-called pop-stars just get it really easy and don’t have to do anything else except look pretty and smile. They don’t actually sing or perform at all. Though I’ve read All-In, and now Luke Heartlett on his own, actually does.”
“Whatever floats your boat, dear,” Stevie retorted, barely listening to what she had to say. “When you see him again, don’t forget to tell him that and suck it up for a really fat tip. If you can think of a couple more things along those lines, you can probably get next month’s rent off him.”
“I’m hardly going to be seeing him again.” Rachel laughed at the thought. “And if I did I would be far too embarrassed to stay in the same room as him after this evening. I really humiliated myself there. I just hope he didn’t take too much notice of me.”
“So you’re actually going to stay in this place?” Kirk asked, moving the conversation back to Rachel’s job.
“I may as we well,” she replied with a sigh. “It’s nice enough. And apparently they have celebrities there. Cute celebrities.”
“Would you like another one?”
Rachel looked at him dubiously. “Like who?”
“Me,” he answered in complete conviction. “And Holly.”
Stevie snorted loudly. “Despite the size of your giant ego, you are not a celebrity, Kirk. You are an actor in a play.”
“Musical, dear. And I’ll have you know, I even I have my own professional website. And fan club.”
“Do people actually visit it? And I don’t just mean you and your loopy friends.”
“Yes they do, for your information,” he answered indignantly. ”And, I’ll have you know, I get asked to sign autographs every night at the stage door.”
“Probably because they mistake you for a genuine celebrity.”
He glared at her coldly and folded his arms in a sulk.
“Okay, we know you’re brilliant,” Rachel said to Kirk, trying to soothe his damaged ego. “But what were you talking about going to the hotel restaurant for?”
“I was wondering if it was nice enough to take Holly to.”
“How much are they paying you for this show?” Rachel asked in surprise. “The L’hotel D’amour is a celebrity hotel for a reason. As in they’re the only ones who can afford it.”
“I thought it would be a nice place to go… with staff discount?”
“Forget it, mate,” Rachel laughed wryly. “I am not having you anywhere near my new job, and I am not wangling any discount for you when I’ve only just started there. Even with fifty percent off the bill you still couldn’t afford it. Take her to Pizza Hut or something, where you belong.”
“Yeh, because that’s going to impress her.”
“If you really want to impress her, take her on a night time picnic in the park or something soppy,” Stevie suggested. “It costs nothing and it looks like you’ve put some effort into it. Any idiot can take someone to a hotel restaurant.”
“Not to that one, apparently,” Kirk sulked.
“If you can’t figure out what she would like, you’ve got no business going out with anyone that good,” Rachel said to him. “I don’t know why you bother anyway. It’s not like you could actually love someone as much as you love yourself.”
“Hey, you’re getting as bad as her!”
“Kirk, darling,” Rachel said, sitting down next to him and patting his leg, “just do what you want to do. If there’s any kind of decent bloke in there at all you’ll do something she actually likes. Otherwise, I’ll have to send her a sympathy card.”
“Right. Well, thank you for the advice – and merciless kicking, girls,” Kirk stated dryly, standing up to leave. “I’m sure I’d have been better off without it.”
“You sure you can get your big celebrity head out of that door?” Stevie shot as Rachel walked him out of the flat.
“Yes, thank you,” he answered dryly. “You concern is most not appreciated.”
Rachel said goodbye to him at the door and he kissed her on the cheek before he left. Then she closed door and walked back to Stevie in the lounge.
“That poor girl doesn’t know what’s going to hit on her,” she smiled as she sat down next to her friend.
“She should know by now what she’s letting herself in for,” Stevie mumbled. “He’s been there every day for the last six months.”
“He’s too good at being charming and an actor for girls to actually see through to the shallow depths that he really does hold. The problem is that girls always seem to imagine there are hidden depths to him when there really aren’t any.”
“And don’t I know it, the amount of girls I’ve seen him go through.”
“Well, at least there’s someone out there who’s going to get lucky,” Rachel muttered. “At this rate I’m going to die an old maid.”
“No you won’t,” Stevie replied. “There’s got to be some idiot out there willing to put up with you. I do.”
“Charming. That makes me feel so much better.”
It only took a week of extremely long shifts to burst Rachel’s fairly cheerful little bubble about her new job. Yes, it was better than her old job – and paid a heck of a lot better – but she worked long hours, had to wear a horrible penguin suit and got nothing but biting sarcasm from the pretentious, over-stuffed guests. It just went to prove that no amount of money could ever buy manners or style.
She didn’t see Luke Heartlett again in the place either, which didn’t make it any better. At least being able to look at his pretty face would have made it all slightly more bearable, even when Jean-Pierre yelled at her for not pouring the wine at the right angle or giving the customers the wrong smile. However, the only thing she ever got to look at were rich, ugly old farts that stank of too much expensive aftershave instead of stale alcohol. Not exactly the epitome of wonder, but at least it was a step in the right direction.
After barely sleeping a wink all night Sunday, Rachel was in no mood to be up at ten, so she would be ready for work at midday on Monday. She wasn’t looking forward to a long, late shift finishing at ten pm. and as she painted her face up ready to look presentable in public she wondered once again why she was putting herself through such long hours on her feet when there were lots of other kinds of jobs to be had.
The bottom line was she hated normal work, full stop. But there must be something out there more suitable for her than ten-hour shifts at a snobby restaurant with some French bloke yelling random obscenities at her every time she breathed in the wrong direction. The only thing she could say was she was almost competent at her job and received some good tips from the few customers who weren’t above dipping for the odd pennies in their deep pockets.
By the end of her day there on next Monday she was in, she was ready to sympathise with the dear little serial-killing psychopaths who went around murdering everyone they met for just because they felt like it. She was exhausted, she was cranky, and she was very ready to curl up in a corner somewhere and die. Everyone who had come in had been horrible, Jean-Pierre had taken up screaming at her as an Olympic sport, and she’d ended up dropping a tray-full of china plates all over the kitchen floor, and herself, with the loudest crash she had ever heard.
At least Jean-Pierre hadn’t screamed at her for that. In fact, he had been surprisingly and very uncharacteristically philosophical about it, telling her to forget about it after sort-of taking care of her for about two minutes. He had even continuously asked if she was all right. She was afraid that he was saving his rage for when he came to bath her on the head with one those trays in the middle of the night for revenge.
Ready to run out screaming, she finally left the building after forcing herself to civilly say goodnight to Jean-Pierre and had changed out of her penguin costume. She pushed through the glass doors of the main entrance and slumped down the steps, filled with anything but joy at the prospect of the bus ride home in the dark. For the record, she hated taking the buses at night even more so it if was the Night Bus, but it wasn’t like she could actually afford the Tube.
Walking as quickly as she could with what little energy she had, she suddenly found herself careering straight into someone running right in her direction and nearly fell on the floor.
“Hey, watch it dipshit,” she snapped harshly at whoever it was. “Why don’t you look where you’re going?”
Normally, she would never, ever react in such a way, but she was feeling so exhausted and at odds with the whole world, she just didn’t care. She wasn’t letting someone quite literally try and walk all over her. Not in the mood she was in.
“What? Hey, don’t yell at me,” reacted a loud, brash American, his voice raised in defensive annoyance. “You’re the one who should be looking where you’re going. I’m in a hurry, if you don’t mind.”
“Yep, whatever you say,” Rachel retorted snarkily. “Maybe if you weren’t in such a bloody rush you wouldn’t go knocking people over.”
“Well then, you shouldn’t be in the way.”
“What, you think I’m the one in the way? You’ve got a flipping nerve, haven’t you? What is it with men and their innate inability to apologise and see when they are the ones in the wrong?”
Rachel glared right at him. He was now standing in front of a street lamp and she could now see who she was yelling at. And she couldn’t believe her eyes.
Oh, Holy God, Jesus and Mary, her head immediately thought as she suddenly found herself staring at him.
Sodding Luke Heartlett.
Actually. The. Luke. Heartlett. Gorgeous, smouldering, can’t-keep-my-shirt-on, legendary music icon. Deep and mesmerising dark eyes, even darker hair that was almost pure black, sharp and high cheekbones, square-jawed, and looking more like a billboard underwear model than a music-industry god.
But in person? No picture she had seen could ever do him even a reasonable amount of justice. This man was… Something else.
And, yet. Here she was, yelling at him, staring straight into his face, and about ready to launch another attack with what rubbish he was sprouting at her now. Gorgeous and famous or no, he wasn’t getting away with that. Oh, no.
“I do apologise when something is actually my fault,” the man snorted at her with derision, and that got her out of her stunned reverie. Focusing back on the situation again, she got her flow back.
“But it was your fault,” she insisted stubbornly. He could be God himself, she wasn’t letting him get away with behaviour like this!
“No, it wasn’t. And then you started yelling at me. Now are you going to let me go or make me freeze here while arguing with you all night?”
“Well, if you just –”
A bright flash suddenly started her and caught her attention. Immediately, they both naturally looked around to where it had come from, and from extensive prior experience, Luke recognised the flash and the retreating shadow of a paparazzi photographer attempting to make the deadline for tomorrow’s stories, and swore under his breath.
“Damn paparazzo photographers,” he muttered under his breath.
“What?” Rachel’s eyes widened in horror.
He shot her a look that silently asked if she was stupid. He obviously assumed she had recognised him. Pompous git.
“The press,” he repeated slowly, with pointed wryness. “That’ll now be in every corner of the world now, for everyone to comment and click on.”
“They can’t be that desperate for stories, surely?”
Luke shot her an incredulous glare and crossed his arms across his chest.
“They’re always desperate for stories,” he remarked dryly. “God knows what they will create out of this.”
“Well, that would be one more thing that would be your fault,” Rachel grumped loudly at him.
“Oh, for God’s sake, stick a cork in it, honey,” Luke exclaimed in exasperation. “Now. I am leaving. I’m sorry you couldn’t look where you were going. I’ll probably see you tomorrow morning in the damn entertainment news. Goodnight.”
He sauntered off, and Rachel huffed and stomped off in the opposite direction, muttering obscenities about him under her breath as she walked away. Stevie was going to hate her by the end of the night.
And Stevie did – especially when Rachel let herself into her flat and went about slamming everything and complaining loudly about something at eleven-thirty at night, when all she wanted to do was get some sleep.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Stevie demanded, slamming open the door to her room. Her ruffled long blonde hair was skewed and she was in her Winnie the Pooh pyjamas, but Rachel ignored her, and carried on as if it was still the middle of the day.
“That goddamn Luke Heartless is what’s wrong with me,” Rachel steamed. “He thinks he’s so bloody marvellous because he’s some up-his-arse celebrity.”
“I take it you’ve seen him again, then?”
“Seen him? He only just came stampeding towards me at sixty miles and hour out of nowhere and nearly knocked me over, then insisted it was all my fault!”
“So, a gentleman then?”
“Hah! Are you kidding? There’s nothing gentle about that egomaniac arsehole, I can tell you.”
Rachel threw herself on the couch and Stevie watched her stomping in tired amusement.
“Are you done yet?” she asked dryly.
“No, I am not.”
“Well, can you please strop quietly and go either go home, or get in the bed, so I can get some sleep?”
Rachel made a face and eventually succumbed to the idea of company and a warm duvet. She mentioned for Stevie to lead the way into her sole bedroom, who then proceeded to throw pyjamas at her and climb into the big bed to get back to sleep. It’s what they’d been doing since they’d known each other, staying up and hanging out until all hours in one person’s place or the other’s, then staying in the bed of whomever’s home they were hanging out in. They’d probably still do it in their 90s – it was so much easier than trying to actually go home!
Rachel crawled in soon afterwards, snuggled into one of her soft and warm pyjama sets she kept here for just such an occasion, and was indeed grateful for the warm duvet and some company. She now hoped she could at least try and go to sleep.
“Excuse me, we ordered coffee ten minutes ago and it hasn’t come yet.”
That was the story of her life now, with no exception, Rachel thought as she cursed the guests once more in her mind. She was always running around after everyone else. And they always complained. And then she had to assure them that the coffee was on its way and apologised for the wait.
“Call me again and I’ll pour it over your head,” she muttered under her breath as she walked off with someone else’s order.
There was another one. She was seriously beginning to consider legally changing her name to “Excuse Me”, since that was what she always being called. Not even “Waitress”. Hell, why complicate things by having an actual name? Christ, she really, really, really hated working lunchtimes.
“Yes, sir,” she answered with grinding politeness, turning around and giving him a tight smile. Then the smile quickly snapped into pursed lips when she saw who it was. Was he never going to leave her alone?
The Luke Heartlett was sitting at the table and waiting to be served, and of course she was the one who had to do it. Especially since he was the last person she wanted to see after that morning’s gossip headlines all over the Internet and Social Media – claiming the photograph of the two of them arguing was them having a lover’s tiff – the audacity! – publicising their “secret affair” after the very supposedly-famous and apparent recent break-up between he and his supermodel girlfriend. So famous, she hadn’t had a clue about it, and – what the ever-loving Hell, journos? – why did it have to be her, the only woman alive who would rather skewer him with one of her fancy silver forks, than be anywhere near him, let alone some imaginary “love interest”?
The story had come with the headline “Not-So-Secret Heart-To-Heart” spanning the width of her phone screen that morning.
“I’d like some coffee,” Luke answered her coolly. “And to know when your break is.”
Rachel stared at him as if he was crazy – which, of course, he must have been.
“My break? Why?” she demanded indignantly.
He held up the iPad with that very same headline all over it and she cringed. “That’s why.”
“So, one coffee is it, then?” Rachel said, trying to ignore him. “Would that be a café au lait or café noir? For you, an Americano perhaps?”
“Come on. Five minutes and I’ll leave you alone.”
She gave him a scathing look from over her order pad. “Why can’t you leave me alone now?”
“I’d like to discuss something with you.”
She looked back at him sharply. What on earth did he want now?
“I’m the waitress here, and the only thing you need to discuss with me is your order. Sir.”
This was ridiculous and unbelievably weird, and wasn’t supposed to happen at all. He was obviously a little out of his head. All that celebrity dope, probably. Actually, after his behaviour last night, he probably was the celebrity dope. Didn’t get itself called dope for nothing.
“It’s not my order that I wish to discuss.”
“Then what?” she demanded, suspicious and skeptical. She looked around to check Jean-Pierre wasn’t going to descend on her for talking while she was working, and waited for Luke to answer.
“You’ll find out when I can speak to you,” he answered, infuriatingly.
Jean-Pierre floated past them and gave Rachel a suspicious glance and she looked down at her order pad.
“And would you like anything else with that coffee?” she quickly asked Luke, ducking her eyes from the stern maître d’.
“A conversation, if you don’t mind.”
“Oh… Fine then,” Rachel grumbled. “My break’s at three. I’ll go to the hotel's lobby. Don’t expect me to hang around for you.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be there,” he assured her, and she wandered off to get his coffee. He was still there when she came back with it. And there he stayed, until he finally vanished.
Keeping her word – reluctantly – she went to unfortunately, there he was. At ten past three, she went for her break – leaving later than usual, in the hope he would be gone by then. It was usually spent on a short walk to the nearest Starbucks, and she passed through the front entrance, just in case the famous nutter had been serious and was still there. Dear God, why did these things happen to her?
She saw him standing by the reception desk and she attempted a calming breath as she approached him. It was only now, in the daylight streaming in, that couldn’t help noticing how ethereally stunning he looked, especially this close and in person. Damn.
“Yes?” she said to him in a hard tone.
“Ah. Hi,” Luke replied, giving her an expression that vaguely looked like a smile. She did not smile back. “I think that by now you know who I am. But I still don’t know your name.”
“And why do you need to know?”
She rolled her eyes. “It’s Rachel. Rachel Adams. You want my National Insurance and passport numbers, too?”
“Hello, Ms Adams,” Luke said pointedly, holding out his hand. She reluctantly shook it, and wondered how bizarre this was. She never thought she would be holding The Luke Heartlett’s hand, even if it was just for a handshake.
“Can we make this quick, please,” Rachel said to him. “I’d still like to make it to my Triple-Shot Caramel Latte.”
“I’ll walk you then.”
Sighing defeat, Rachel let him walk with her to Starbucks, where they sat to discuss whatever he wanted to talk about. There was no point arguing with him. He was obviously a seriously stubborn git when he wanted to be.
“So, when are you going to tell me what all this is about?” Rachel finally asked when he didn’t immediately offer an explanation for his bizarre behaviour. She watched him wearily, noticing the odd, interested looks from other people and inwardly cringed.
“Actually, I was wondering if you would perhaps do me a… favour.”
She choked on her coffee. Now she was really confused, as well as annoyed.
“You want me to do you a ‘favour’?” She stared at him in incredulous revulsion. Who did this guy think she was, asking her? “What kind of desperate hussy do you think I am?”
“Christ! Not that kind of favour,” Luke hissed quickly, realising how it might have sounded. “I was wondering if you would help me out by pretending to be my girlfriend.”
“Yuh – eh… What?” Rachel stammered out. She stared at him in bewildered, stunned and incredulous astonishment. “Same answer! But… Why?”
“OK, let me tell you what’s going on.”
“You think?” she snapped back at him in incredulous horror. Oh, God… this was not happening.
Luke leaned forward in his seat, and glanced around him surreptitiously, to check no one was listening.
“I think by now, thanks to the wonderful world of the damned Mass Media, everyone and his dead dog knows about Tara and me braking up.” Rachel shrugged. She didn’t really know, and she certainly really didn’t care. “So, now I need someone to pretend to be my girlfriend so they’ll get off my back about it.”
How old was he? Twelve? “You are joking?”
He shook his head. Rachel stared incredulously stare and emphatically shook her own.
“Nuh-huh! Not on your life,” she insisted with a dry laugh. “That’s so pathetic.”
“You’ll be getting something for it,” Luke added quickly, “including a trip to Paris. I can give you a cheque right now if you like.”
“You’re trying to buy me?” Rachel stared at him dumbly in very incensed shock and disdain.
“Or… you could see it as a gesture to make up for any earnings you lose from your job while you’re away with me.”
“I’m sorry – you want me to drop my life for God-knows how long and go to France with a perfect stranger for money? Are you out of your mind?”
“It’s only a week, and I'll make it worth your while.”
Nausea rose in Rachel’s throat at the mere thought. Not just of the insinuation, but that she’s be even capable of falling for such a blatantly obvious insinuation as that.
“Seriously?” she explained indignantly. “I am not sleeping with you, and you certainly can’t entice me with your celebrity nonsense.”
“What? That’s so not what I meant!” Luke looked horrified and a little pale, so she’d give him that. But still…
“And what makes you think I’ll possibly do anything of the sort. anyway?”
“Nothing! I’m just asking.”
Rachel rubbed her head in confusion. This was giving her a bigger headache than she already had. “Why me?”
“Because you’re the genius who decided to chew my ear off in front of the world media. And frankly, everyone’s already got it in their heads we’re seeing each other, after that huge banner across the entire gossip world,” he grumbled. “Will you at least think about it?”
“The only thing I’m thinking of is that you’re crazy,” Rachel remarked dryly. She pulled uneasily at the dickie-bow and closed shirt collar of her uniform, which was now suddenly starting to feel very constricting under his intense expectant gaze. “I don’t care who the hell you are, I’m not going anywhere with a stranger who is obviously stranger than most.”
Luke Heartless’ expression fell into disappointment. It was obvious he had been waiting for some star-struck mutterings and squeaks, ending in her throwing herself at him for the chance of spending a few days in his company. His whole approach had been based on the thought of that since he was The Luke Heartlett, there was no way any girl was going to pass it up. What a shame he had chosen the one girl who would. Jamesh
“You won’t even consider it? I can make it worth your while.”
“No! I don’t even know you! I’m not going to Paris with you. And the only place you should be going is away.”
Luke looked like he had never considered it was going to be this difficult, and Rachel took great satisfaction in making it as hard as possible for him. He had, after all, managed to publicly humiliate her in the national press.
“What can I do to change your mind?”
“Leave me alone,” Rachel snapped grumpily. “I could always go to the papers with this and tell the world what you’re trying to do if you don’t.”
“Would you?” He looked rather genuinely startled by that, looking intently at her with evocative deep brown eyes. “I could give you more money than they would.”
Rachel looked straight back at him, arms crossed. “I don’t want the money. And no, I wouldn’t really, you moose!”
“Just… think about it as a free trip to Paris? Real French restaurants instead of Park Lane splendour?” Luke sighed exasperatedly at her scowl and rubbed his head. “Look, seriously, just think it over. At least let me take you to dinner and show you I’m not some psycho axe murderer, or whatever it is you’re thinking. It’s just two weeks of pretending, we ‘break up’ and then I’m out of your life. And the damned media and Tara’s out of mine.”
With only fifteen minutes of her break left, and out of sheer morbid curiosity, Rachel decided on the spur of the moment to at least consider this insanity. Because there was nothing else interesting going on in her life right now, and this man was certainly enamoured with the idea of causing as much fracas as possible, so why not at least let the egomaniac pop star continue to make at least some real entertainment for her.
“You take me to a nice restaurant somewhere and try and win me over, then I might think about it,” she offered, deciding she may as well get something decent out of the crazy, rich bugger. “And I mean a nice, expensive place with real food, not that continental crap they spew out that you need a microscope to find, like L’hôtel D’amour.”
“Why do I somehow get the feeling I’m being taken for a ride?” Luke gave her a wry smile and eventually agreed. “Okay. You’ve got yourself a deal.”
Oh. Well. Shit.