Act Like It by Lucy Parker

Chapter One

London Celebrity @LondonCelebrity. 10h

West End actor Richard Troy throws scene (and a plate) at the Ivy...

Almost every night, between nine and ten past, Lainie Graham passionately kissed her ex-boyfriend. She was then gruesomely dead by ten o’clock, stabbed through the neck by a jealous rival. If she was scheduled to perform in the weekend matinee, that was a minimum of six uncomfortable kisses a week. More, if the director called an extra rehearsal or the alternate actor was ill. Or if Will was being a prat backstage and she was slow to duck.

It was an odd situation, being paid to publicly snog the man who, offstage, had discarded her like a stray sock. From the perspective of a broken relationship, the theatre came up trumps in the awkward stakes. A television or film actor might have to make stage love to someone they despised, but they didn’t have to play the same scene on repeat for an eight-month run.

From her position in the wings, Lainie watched Will and Chloe Wayne run through the penultimate scene. Chloe was practically vibrating with sexual tension, which wasn’t so much in character as it was her default setting. Will was breathing in the wrong places during his monologue; it was throwing off his pacing. She waited, and—

“Farmer!” boomed the director from his seat in the front row. Alexander Bennett’s balding head was gleaming with sweat under the houselights. He’d been lounging in his chair but now dropped any pretence of indifference, jerking forward to glare at the stage. “You’re blocking a scene, not swimming the bloody breaststroke. Stop bobbing your head about and breathe through your damn nose.”

A familiar sulky expression transformed Will’s even features. He looked like a spoilt, genetically blessed schoolboy. He was professional enough to smooth out the instinctive scowl and resume his speech, but with an air of resentment that didn’t improve his performance. This was the moment of triumph for his character and right now the conquering knight sounded as if he would rather put down his sword and go for a pint.

Will had been off his game since the previous night, when he’d flubbed a line in the opening act. He was a gifted actor. An unfaithful toerag, but a talented actor. He rarely made mistakes—and could cover them better than most—but from the moment he’d stumbled over his cue, the additional rehearsal had been inevitable. Bennett sought perfection in every arena of his life, which was why he was on to his fifth marriage and all the principals had been dragged out of bed on their morning off.

Most of the principals, Lainie amended silently. Their brooding Byron had, as usual, done as he pleased. Bennett had looked almost apoplectic when Richard Troy had sauntered in twenty minutes late, so that explosion was still coming. If possible, he preferred to roar in his private office, where his Tony Award was prominently displayed on the desk. It was a sort of visual aid on the journey from stripped ego to abject apology.

Although a repentant Richard Troy was about as likely as a winged pig, and he could match Bennett’s prized trophy and raise him two more.

Onstage, Chloe collapsed into a graceful swoon, which was Richard’s cue for the final act. He pushed off the wall on the opposite side of the wings and flicked an invisible speck from his spotless shirt. Then he entered from stage left and whisked the spotlight from Will and Chloe with insulting ease, taking control of the scene with barely a twitch of his eyelid.

Four months into the run of The Cavalier’s Tribute, it was still an undeniable privilege to watch him act.

Unfortunately, Richard’s stage charisma was comparable to the interior of the historic Metronome Theatre. At night, under the houselights, the Metronome was pure magic, a charged atmosphere of class and old-world glamour. In the unforgiving light of day, it looked tired and a bit sordid, like an aging diva caught without her war paint and glitter.

And when the curtain came down and the skin of the character was shed, Richard Troy was an intolerable prick.

Will was halfway through the most long-winded of his speeches. It was Lainie’s least favourite moment in an otherwise excellent play. Will’s character, theoretically the protagonist, became momentarily far less sympathetic than Richard’s undeniable villain. She still couldn’t tell if it was an intentional ambiguity on the part of the playwright, perhaps a reflection that humanity is never cast in shades of black and white, or if it was just poor writing. The critic in the Guardian had thought the latter.

Richard was taunting Will now, baiting him with both words and snide glances, and looking as if he was enjoying himself a little too much. Will drew himself up, and his face took on an expression of intense self-righteousness.

Lainie winced. It was, down to the half sneer, the exact same face he made in bed.

She really wished she didn’t know that.

“Ever worry it’s going to create some sort of cosmic imbalance?” asked a voice at her elbow, and she turned to smile at Meghan Hanley, her dresser. “Having both of them in one building? If you toss in most of the management, I think we may be exceeding the recommended bastard quota.” Meghan raised a silvery eyebrow as she watched the denouement of the play. “They both have swords, and neither of them takes the opportunity for a quick jab. What a waste.”

“Please. A pair of blind, arthritic nuns would do better in a swordfight. Richard has probably never charged anything heavier than a credit card, and Will has the hand-eye coordination of an earthworm.”

She was admittedly still a little bitter. Although not in the least heartbroken. Only a very silly schoolgirl would consider Will Farmer to be the love of her life, and that delusion would only last until she’d actually met him. But Lainie had not relished being dumped by the trashiest section of London Celebrity. The tabloid had taken great pleasure in informing her, and the rest of the rag-reading world, that Will was now seeing the estranged wife of a footballer—who in turn had been cheated on by her husband with a former Big Brother contestant. It was an endless sordid cycle.

The article had helpfully included a paparazzi shot of her from about three months ago, when she’d left the theatre and been caught midsneeze. Farmer’s costar and ousted lover Elaine Graham dissolves into angry tears outside the Metronome.

Brilliant.

The journo, to use the term loosely, had also complimented her on retaining her appetite in the face of such humiliation—insert shot of her eating chips at Glastonbury—with a cunning little system of arrows to indicate a possible baby bump.

Her dad had phoned her, offering to deliver Will’s balls on a platter.

Margaret Ward, the assistant stage manager, paused to join the unofficial critics’ circle. She pushed back her ponytail with a paint-splattered hand and watched Richard. His voice was pure, plummy Eton and Oxford—not so much as a stumbled syllable in his case. Will looked sour.

Richard drew his sword, striding forward to stand under the false proscenium. Margaret glanced up at the wooden arch. “Do you ever wish it would just accidentally drop on his head?”

Yes.

“He hasn’t quite driven me to homicidal impulses yet.” Lainie recalled the Tuesday night performance, when she’d bumped into Richard outside his dressing room. She had apologised. He had made a misogynistic remark at a volume totally out of proportion to a minor elbow jostle.

The media constantly speculated as to why he was still single. Mind-boggling.

“Yet,” she repeated grimly.

“By the way,” Margaret said, as she glanced at her clipboard and flagged a lighting change, “Bob wants to see you in his office in about ten minutes.”

Lainie turned in surprise. “Bob does? Why?”

Her mind instantly went into panic mode, flicking back over the past week. With the exception of touching His Majesty’s sacred arm for about two seconds—and she wouldn’t put it past Richard to lay a complaint about that—she couldn’t think of any reason for a summons to the stage manager’s office. As a rule, Robert Carson viewed his actors as so many figureheads. They were useful for pulling out at cocktail parties and generating social media buzz, but operated beneath his general notice unless they did something wrong. Bob preferred to concentrate on the bottom line, and the bottom line in question was located at the end of his bank statement.

Margaret shrugged. “He didn’t say. He’s been in a bad mood all day, though,” she warned, and Lainie sighed.

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