Chapter One: aurora
“I’m back!” I hear my best friend call down the phone at me as soon as I answer her call. Her voice has a ring to it; almost like she’s singing the words down the phone. She’s driving. I can hear the sound of the engine in the background as she speaks to me through the cars sound system.
“What do you mean, you’re back?” I’m confused. She can’t be back. It’s the middle of November. She should be sat in a classroom, learning all about... well whatever artist types learn about at university. She’d been so excited when she left at the end of the summer to go to Brighton for her masters. She’d been like a small child, her eyes dancing with all the possibilities that her future held.
“I’ve come home,” Tallulah replies quickly. Home? Why? What on earth is she talking about. She can’t be home. What’s her brother going to say?
“What about your course?” I ask, because it’s not like Tallulah to quit anything; especially not her education. Not when her elder brother had worked so hard to help her pay for it.
“I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to even think about it.” I can’t help but feel worried. It’s not like Tallulah to not want to talk about a problem. A quiet Tallulah is usually a bad sign. Something’s gone wrong. And it’s bad. Really bad.
“What’s wrong Lou?” I know I probably shouldn’t ask but I can’t help it. She’s my best friend and I feel responsible for her. I’m her family. Almost all she has, except for her brother, Nathan.
“Absolutely nothing,” she’s lying, I can hear it in her voice. The singsong lilt has gone; her voice is timid and slightly cracked. It’s very unlike her but I won’t press her. I know better than that. She’ll talk to me when she’s ready, she always does in the end. “So I was wondering; did you ever replace me?”
“What do you mean?” Replacing Tallulah would be impossible. There’s no one in the world like her.
“In the flat,” Tallulah explains, “has someone else taken my old room?”
I chuckle, “No one could ever replace you Lou. The rooms still yours if you want it.” The truth is I haven’t even thought about getting someone to take Tallulah’s room. It’s not like I need the rent money and I always wanted her to have somewhere to stay when she visited. She’s family.
“Great, I’ll be over in twenty minutes,” Tallulah hangs up. I’m sat in the living room of my three bed room flat. The one my parents insisted on buying me when I started university. It’s a beautiful apartment; far too nice for typical student living. We’re just round the corner from Battersea Park, in an affluent area of London. Not that far away from my parent’s town house. Not that they are ever there. They spend most of their time in Surrey. The sliding doors are open, letting in a gentle breeze from the terrace, surprisingly warm considering it’s the beginning of November. The room is open plan with a large sitting area in the centre, a kitchen area along one wall and a dining area to the side. The television is on mute and there are study books and lesson plans all over the coffee table. I had studied English for my degree and had just started my training to become a teacher a month ago. I glance at my watch, wondering if I can finish my year eleven Frankenstein lesson plan before Tallulah arrives. I sigh with defeat before gathering up all the pieces of paper and notebooks. Although there is probably enough time to get it done; I’m not convinced that I’d be happy with the finished product. Knowing me, I’d end up doing it again tomorrow any way.
“Calling it a day already? You’ve only been at it for half an hour,” Cameron chuckles as he walks into the room wearing his gym shorts and a green t-shirt that shows off just how defined his muscles are, with just the hint of a tattoo visible under his left sleeve. He’s somewhat flushed and his dark hair is slightly damp. He makes his way into the sleek kitchen area that although clearly expensive looks more like a student kitchen than anything else in the flat. There are dirty dishes in the sink and a pile of letters on the side, not to mention silly magnets on the fridge. He opens the fridge and pulls out a carton of milk. He pours himself a glass, because he knows I hate it when people drink from the cartoon. One of the many Stone family rules I’d grown up with.
“Tallulah called,” I reply as I turn to face him, “she’s back in town. She’s moving back in.”
“When?” Cameron gives me a blinding smile.
“In about fifteen minutes,” I grin back at him. Inside I’m jumping up and down and doing a little dance with excitement but Cameron doesn’t need to know that. I’ve had a bit of a crush on him ever since I first met him in the very first month of my degree when he moved into the flat. His bone structure is practically perfect and he has the most incredible blue eyes. So even though I’m ridiculously excited about my best friend coming home, I keep myself from any sort of overly demonstrative excitement.
“No way,” Cameron takes a seat on the edge of the sofa looking thoughtfully at me. “What about her course?”
“She didn’t say,” I frown, “she didn’t want to talk about it.” I wonder if she’ll transfer? She wouldn’t just drop out; Tallulah would never do that, I worry.
“That’s not like Lou,” Cameron’s voice is laced with a concern that matches my own. In many respects he’s become like a big brother to Tallulah and I. One that I think we’ve both needed. Tallulah had lost her parents when she was nine years old and her brother Nathan had been eighteen. He’d jumped into the role of guardian without any trepidation regardless of how young he had been. Cameron had no siblings at all and so he’d quickly taken us under his wings when he’d moved into the apartment. Although I knew very little about his family; I’d met his mum once or twice. She was a very shy, retiring sort of person; almost fearful. I’d had countless questions after the first time I met her but I hadn’t voiced them. Cameron didn’t talk about his family. I’d always considered myself the fortunate one of our little trio but truth be told I had my own issues.
I shake my head, “I’m sure she’ll tell us eventually. How was your run?” I try to shake off my unease.
“Great thanks,” Cameron grins, “I need to get all my gym stuff out of Tallulah’s room before she gets here or she might just kill me.”
“You’re using my room as your own personal gym? Seriously? What’s wrong with you!” A sarcastic voice calls from the hall, as we hear the door being pulled firmly closed behind her.
“Hey!” I jump to my feet and grab Tallulah as she enters the room. “I’ve missed you.” Looking her over, I know something is definitely wrong. She’s thinner than the last time I saw her, her clothes are fitting somewhat looser. She must have gone down at least a dress size, if not two. There are bags under her eyes that normally wouldn’t be allowed to grace her face. But other than that, she’s still the same old Lou; blonde, bubbly and perhaps completely mental.
“I’ve only been gone a month,” Tallulah hugs me back before falling down onto the sofa in a flop, her straight hair over her face. She blows it out of her eyes before smirking at us both. She’s always been almost childish in her mannerisms.
“It was a long month,” Cameron chuckles, “I think we need to celebrate. Perhaps we should go to the bar, do some tequila shots, cocktails, a few beers for me. What do you think? I mean you’re clearly not studying Rory,” Cameron winks.
“Alright,” I laugh, “I like the sound of that,” I wrap an arm around Lou’s shoulder as I perch next to her on the arm of the sofa, “what do you say Lula?”
“I’m in if you’re in,” Lou smirks, “You’re the perfectly behaved one, not me.”
“Ha ha,” I pout, but secretly I’m thinking just how right she is. Everyone calls me perfect; the perfect daughter, the perfect student, the perfect friend, practically perfect in every way, I might as well be fricking Mary Poppins. I was brought up on a list of rules and I don’t remember the last time I broke one. I even live in this flat because it’s what my parents expect me to do. I’ve got the list of rules memorised. Don’t drink to excess and never get drunk. Don’t do drugs, not even just to try it, just don’t do it. Don’t lie, never cheat on a test. Always be the best, get the best results, be competitive but be generous and gracious. Don’t do anything that might put you in danger. Work hard, be selfless. Don’t dress inappropriately; only wear skirts that fall below the knee. Go to church, sing in the choir, find yourself a nice Christian boy and settle down, get married, have children... and above all else never ever have sex outside of wedlock. I’ve kept every single rule that my parents have ever given me. My little sister is the one who breaks the rules not me, but sometimes I get really jealous of her because I want to be the rebellious one.
“Right, well, if we’re going out I better go have a shower. I’ve been in a car for the last three hours. I probably smell almost as bad as you Cam,” Tallulah leans forward sniffing Cameron, suggestively giving him the eye, “definitely almost,” she adds before jumping off the sofa and flouncing out of the room before he can react.
Cameron leans back, resting his head on the back of the sofa, “I’m so glad she’s back,” he sighs.
“Me too,” I lie down next to him, putting my feet in his lap. He automatically picks them up and starts kneading the sole of my left foot. “I’m surprised you’re free tonight.” Cameron is studying medicine so he spends most of his time in the library and when he’s not in the library, he’s usually with whatever girl he’d found on campus that day.
“Nothing I can’t cancel,” Cameron shrugs unapologetically.
“Really?” I laugh, “What’s her name?”
“Where did you meet her?”
“Class,” Cameron replies, “she’s the girl who keeps offering me sweets during lectures.”
We’re quiet for a few minutes. My thoughts are all over the place. I think about the differences between me and my friends. Both Cameron and Tallulah go after what they want. Tallulah moved half way down the country to follow her dream of being an artist and Cameron is never scared to do what he wants. They don’t ever worry about what everyone else thinks or anything. I envy them. I break the silence, “are people serious when they call me perfect?”
“Damn right they are. You’re my little school teacher after all,” Cameron laughs, before glancing my way seriously, “but Rory that’s not a bad thing.” That’s what I love about Cameron. He never judges me; unlike my family.
“It feels like a bad thing,” I admit shyly. “I better go get ready. I’ve got to look my absolute perfect best.” I’m ashamed to hear bitterness in my voice. I get to my feet and walk towards the door before turning back, “how many of my parents’ rules do you think I can break tonight?” I ask with an easy tone that most people wouldn’t recognise for the lie it is.
Cameron laughs, “Let’s see... at least five or six.” He’s not being serious. We’ve had this conversation so many times. He doesn’t expect me to break a single rule tonight. He’s only humouring me and that leaves me strangely disappointed with myself.
“As long as I don’t break the fricking golden rule,” I laugh back tightly, feeling that bitter disappointment in my chest as if it were a heavy weight that could cause me to sink to the bottom of the ocean.
“See you’re so perfect you can’t even swear properly,” he teases me.
“Fricking is a swear word.”
“No it’s not. It’s what mums say instead of swearing when they are sat in the car with their kids.”
“That is so not true.”
“Is too,” Cameron winks at me before pulling his shirt over his head, “I call dibs on your shower.”
“Fine,” I force my eyes to stay fixed on the blue spheres of his eyes instead of staring at his chest, “but you better hurry because I want a shower too.”
“You could always join me,” Cameron retorts, “knock off a rule from your parents’ list.”
I blush, “I probably should work my way up to the golden rule. Start with something small. Get drunk on tequila or something.”
“Sounds like a good start,” Cameron calls from my bedroom as he enters my en-suite.
Three hours later, I’m sat in my favourite bar with my third margarita in front of me. The bar is relatively new, literally only been open a month or so. Tallulah’s never been before and she is still looking around in awe. “So this is your new hangout?”
“Yeah,” Cameron grins. There are red drapes hanging from the ceiling and books on the shelves around our booth. I’m barely paying attention to their conversation.
I’m still thinking about my conversation with Cameron earlier. “I’m just so fed up of all the rules,” I accidentally say out loud.
“You do realise you are an adult, right?” Tallulah pipes up.
“Exactly! I’m an adult!” It’s different for Tallulah though. She hasn’t got to live with my parents. As much as they love me, their expectations are crushing.
Cameron chuckles, “it’s up to you what you do.”
“Exactly! And I want to... I want to do tequila shots.”
Cameron jumps to his feet, pulls out his wallet, “better get the lady some tequila,” he says before making his way over to the bar. “Do you think I’m being stupid?” I ask Tallulah. I feel stupid. I feel like I’ve wasted opportunities. It makes me feel a little bit sick.
“No,” Tallulah sips her drink, “I think you need to live your life for yourself; not your parents.”
I nod my head slowly, “but how?” I don’t even think I know where to start. I’ve done everything I can to be exactly what they expect me to be for the last twenty two years. I don’t know how I’m supposed to go against everything I know.
“Well what do you want to do?” She asks seriously; more serious than I’ve ever seen her.
“I want to break all the rules my parents ever gave me,” I respond without stopping for breath.
“Okay then,” Tallulah opens her bag and pulls out her sketch book and a pencil, “I think we need a list.”
“A list?” I ask bewildered.
“A list of rules to break,” Lou replies. The irony isn’t lost, even on drunk me. I’m the queen of rules and lists and plans; of course I’d need a list to help me break my rules.
When Cameron arrives back with our tequila shots, there are already seven things on the list and the list keeps growing, “Don’t swear.”
“Yeah, you really need to break that one,” Cameron laughs teasingly.
“Don’t get drunk,” I continue watching Tallulah write down what I say. I can’t help but wonder if this list will even be legible in the morning when we are sober.
“Well you’re starting on that one tonight,” Tallulah grins, “welcome to the world of too much tequila.”
“Don’t do drugs,” I add calmly.
“As a med student, I really can’t encourage the use of drugs...” Cameron sits chuckling to himself.
“Well someone in this bar is bound to be willing to give you a cigarette,” Tallulah replies.
“No inappropriate relationships... no sex!”
“Again, there are probably at least thirty guys in here who would happily help you out with that one,” Cameron smirks.
“Hell – I’ll be able to have a fricking lie in. No one telling me that it’s a waste of valuable time that could be better used volunteering at church.”
“I think you mean a fucking lie in,” Tallulah’s eyes are glowing with laughter.
“Yes,” I giggle, “I mean a fucking lie in.”
“What about lying?” Cameron asks, “Don’t you wish you could just say a little white lie once and awhile?”
“Yup, all the time.”
Tallulah jumps to her feet with a giggle, grabs my hand and pulls me out of our booth, “let’s go find you a cigarette.”
“What?” I’m shocked.
“Seriously,” Tallulah’s nodding now as she drags me through the bar towards the outdoor smoking area, “it’s against the rules and you’ve got to start somewhere… and it’s not like we can get you a tattoo tonight!”Cameron has disappeared off somewhere with a pretty blonde girl he found the last time he went to get us more drinks, so now it’s just me and Tallulah. I’ve drunk more tonight than I ever have before, I’ve smoked my first cigarette although I think it will also be my last; I didn’t really like it and as Tallulah keeps reminding me the night is not over. Tallulah keeps trying to hook me up with every random guy that comes by our booth to hit on us. It’s a tad embarrassing and I think I might have spent most of the night blushing. “What I don’t understand is how it’s so easy for Ali...” We finished writing the list about an hour ago and now several drinks drank and a few rules broken later, I’m complaining about the unfairness of the whole thing. “I just don’t get how she breaks all their rules without even a second thought.”
“Do you know what I’ve never understood? Why doesn’t she live in the flat? She’s at the same university as you so why don’t you live together?”
“She refused to accept any help off of our parents. They own the flat.”
Tallulah cocks her head to the side, clearly thinking about something, “she really is nothing like you, is she?”
“Nope; We’re nothing alike. But for all that... she’s happy. She’s not miserable. She does what she wants, when she wants, and she doesn’t worry about what our parents think.” I’ve always worried too much about what our parents think.
Lou nods, “that must be pretty great.”
“Yeah,” I nod my head slowly before making a decision, “I want to make a toast.” I lift up my glass.
“What sort of toast?” Tallulah’s eyebrow has shot up.
“To being more like Aileen,” I lift my glass before downing the rest of my drink. I look over at Tallulah with a serious expression on my face. I’ve been so selfish, focused completely on myself. “Are you okay Lou?”
“Of course,” she gives me a smile but it doesn’t reach her eyes, “why wouldn’t I be?”
“I’m just worried about you,” I shrug. “You’re important to me.”
“I know. Thank you. But really I’m okay.”
“How long are you staying?” I ask her.
“I’m not going back.”
“Are you sure? Tallulah you were so excited this summer. Why did you leave?”
“Roo just drop it, please,” she’s whispering.
I nod because there’s nothing else I can say. “Are you thinking of transferring?” I’m scared to ask, but I don’t want her to just abandon her masters.
“I don’t know yet.”
“Okay,” I smile at her before taking pity on her, changing the subject. “So… how’s Nathan?”
If I thought that talking about her brother would cheer her up I couldn’t be more wrong. “Urgh he’s going to kill me when he realises I’m not in Brighton.”
Tallulah is laughing and it’s kind of infectious. I give her my biggest smile, before glancing down at my empty glass and then up at the bar where my eyes land on a guy. He’s watching me, or maybe not. He might be watching Tallulah. Yeah, he’s probably watching Tallulah. He’s gorgeous. He’s got dark, messy hair. The sort of hair Tallulah would say just screams at you to run your hands through it. His eyes are immense, I feel like they are piercing into my soul from across the room but that’s impossible. He’s not even looking at me. He’s looking at Tallulah or someone behind me, but I can’t help but blush because there’s a chance that he’s looking at me.
Historically, if this sort of thing happened I would ignore it and return to my conversation, completely pretending nothing had happened. But the problem is that I’ve just made that list and I have to try and change if I’m ever going to break those rules. I glance back at him and he’s still looking this way. He’s not smiling. He’s looking at me or at least in this general direction with an intense look that makes him look a little cold, intimidating, unapproachable. But underneath that there’s something else. His eyes. They are intent on whatever has his attention; perhaps me. It’s now or never. Do I go for it or not. I want to. I feel like I might need to. I can’t keep being scared to break my rules. I look back down at my empty glass and in that split second I make a decision, “we need more tequila!” I jump to my feet and make my way towards the bar. I’ve never done this before. I’ve never tried chatting a guy up before.
I stop when I’m stood right next to where he’s sat on one of the bar stools. I don’t look at him. I don’t speak. I just wait for the barman. My heart’s racing with excitement. I don’t know what to do next. I wonder if I should introduce myself, or just start up a conversation, or maybe I should just glance his way. Out the corner of my eye, I can tell his body is leaning towards me, our shoulders touching gently in the crowded space around the bar. I can feel a palpable tension radiating off him and it affects me in a way I’ve never known before. I need to say something. I can’t let the opportunity pass me by; I won’t waste it. Not this time. Just as I’m about to say something, the barman arrives and asks for my order, “two margaritas and two shots of tequila with lemon and salt.”
The guy chuckles, “you sure like your tequila.” His laugh is deep and rich and I like it. It causes me to smile instinctively, as if it’s an intrinsic part of me to be happy when he’s happy. But that’s just ridiculous.
I turn to face him, completely speechless. I didn’t expect him to speak first and I’m nervous, “it’s a new preference.” My voice is quiet, timid.
“I see,” he grins, “so before you turned to tequila, what were you?”
“Pardon?” I’m confused and I’m pretty sure he can see it all over my face and that embarrasses me.
“A gin girl? A vodka girl?”
“Neither; I’ve never been much of a drinker,” I’m blushing. I can feel it. I can’t decide if it’s from embarrassment or something else, something hotter. It’s probably both. I’d usually just have a single glass of whatever everyone else was having. I’ve never had a preference.
“Really?” He doesn’t really sound convinced and in fairness it is quite unbelievable when I think about the girls that attend my university and even the girls I went to secondary school with.
“Really; this is the first time I’ve ever been drunk.”
“You’re not serious?” his eyebrow raised, a look of barely concealed surprise on his face. I blush as he looks me over thoughtfully. I don’t respond, partly because I don’t know what to say and partly because I think he finds me amusing. I can’t help but be cross that he might be laughing at me.
The barman’s back, “that’s eighteen pounds, love.”
I open my purse, but I’m not quick enough, “put it on my tab.”
I turn towards the guy, “you don’t have to do that.”
“I don’t have to do anything,” he retorts with what I can only describe as barely concealed arrogance, “enjoy your drinks.”
I don’t seem to be able to look away from him, “thanks.” Up close he looks even better than he did from across the room. He’s got broad shoulders and he’s wearing a white shirt. His shirt sleeves are rolled up to just below the elbow, showing off strong, powerful forearms. His top button is undone. I can see a suit jacket over the back of his bar stool. It looks soft – expensive. His tie is peaking out of the breast pocket of his jacket. It’s a deep, rich emerald green. His eyes are bright with excitement and they seem to twinkle as he looks me over. I’m awkward and completely at a loss as to what to do next. I’ve never really known how to flirt. I’ve not ever really tried. I try to think of something, anything to say but nothing comes to mind, so I decide to settle for another slightly over polite thank you but as I open my mouth to speak. Tallulah grabs me from behind, taking me by surprise. My eyes are still on the guy besides me as Tallulah starts nattering about some guy she’s met whilst I’ve been distracted at the bar with him. I don’t know anything about him. I don’t even know his name. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do next. The alcohol in my system is supposed to help with this right? Make me less inhibited or something but no, I’m still just Aurora Stone, the girl who hasn’t got a clue what to do. “I’m going to go dance with him,” Tallulah is saying. “Will you be okay for a bit?”
I laugh, “I’m great. Go! Have fun.” I didn’t say what I was really thinking, that now I have an excuse to sit here with perhaps the most gorgeous man I have ever met. I just need something to say to him now.
Tallulah looks unsure but when she sees the guy beside me she gives me a massive grin and a wink before flouncing off. “Your friend is certainly excitable,” he sounds slightly mocking.
I look up; back into his eyes, “she’s...” it’s hard to describe Lou. I really don’t know what to tell him so instead I shrug, “she’s Tallulah,” I tell him as if that answers all his questions.
He grins, “And who are you?”
“I’m Aurora. Rory,” I feel like I should be offering my hand for him to shake. That’s what my mother would expect me to do. She always made a fuss about how you should introduce yourself with confidence. I settle for rubbing my neck and giving him a big smile as I lean slightly on the bar before taking a sip from my margarita. It’s delicious. Amazing in fact. I think I’ve found a favourite drink.
“I’m Landon, are you going to do those shots?” he raises his eyebrow again. I feel like he’s challenging me.
“Well I did get one for Lou but it doesn’t look like she wants it,” I glance towards where Tallulah is dancing with a blonde man. “Would you like one?” I offer him.
He laughs, “Alright.”