Here is a sneak peek of the upcoming romcom by Laura Burton. Love in the Spotlight.
Julian throws open a large door and my eyes are blinded momentarily by what seems like a bazillion lights. I raise my hand to my brow and tentatively follow Ronan, gripping his hand for dear life. As my vision returns, I make an involuntary gasp.
“What is that?” I whisper to Ronan, who shrugs back.
“That is your pod,” Julian announces as he gestures to the large steel box standing in the middle of the hall. It reminds me of a world war II bunker. Jewel stands beside the door with her hands clasped and remains perfectly still as a stylist touches up her makeup.
“Come and step on your marks,” Julian instructs us, pointing at the two red pieces of tape facing Jewel. “In a moment, the cameras will roll and Jewel will give you instructions about your challenge. Questions?”
My mind is blank. I gasp, staring at the pod. Maybe we have to stay in there and talk to each other like a real couple?
Why didn’t we talk about nicknames? Should I call him Babe? Hon? I glance up at Ronan, blinking the tears out of my eyes. A stylist dashes over and starts working on my hair.
“Is there a safe word? You know, if we need to stop and take a break.”
Good question, Ronan.
I look up at the high ceiling as the stylist drags a pencil across my bottom lid. I hope this eyeliner is waterproof. I’m claustrophobic, and the mere thought of going in that pod is sending my anxiety into overdrive.
“We’re running behind schedule,” Julian says with a sigh. “It would be best if you could do this in one take.”
Great. So, basically, we can’t mess this up. Ronan squeezes my hand again as if it would pump courage to my heart. It works. His touch is soothing. As long as he keeps holding me, I think I can do this.
As long as this isn’t some awful jungle challenge, and they fill the pod with bugs. And with that terrible thought, the stylist dashes aside and the blinding lights shine in my face again.
“Melissa, Ronan, welcome to your first challenge.” I can’t see Jewel, so I try my best to smile at her, hoping I’m not grinning like a fool in the wrong direction. “This challenge will test how well you work together under pressure.” She pauses. “In a moment, I will ask you to step into this pod and we will lock you inside. You will find a series of objects and clues to help you get out.”
A room escape challenge. I’m all over this.
“You have thirty minutes of oxygen left. So, act fast.”
Is this part of the show? They’re not really sealing us up in a pod with only thirty minutes of oxygen, right?
“Time to find out if your relationship has what it takes to bring you back to safety, or if your love will be the death of you.”
My heartbeat thumps against my eardrums, and my chest is tight. Ronan rubs his thumb across mine to calm me down. But this time it’s not happening. I squint into the light to see the steel door swing open and the spotlights turn red. This will be the moment they’ll add some tension music to get the viewers nervous. No need, I’m already losing it.
“Now, if you could both step inside, and good luck,” Jewel says. I glimpse her sparkling veneers as she beams at us. Ronan steps into our doom calmly, like a lamb to the slaughter. I wonder for a split second if I’ll be the first contestant to break off and bolt for the exit screaming, “get me out of here!”
The pod is dark inside. I can’t see Ronan anymore, except for his hand still attached to mine. Every horror movie I’ve seen crosses my mind and I’m convinced any second now, Ronan will cry out and all that will be left of him is his hand. It tugs on mine and I shriek, still stuck in my thoughts.
“Come on,” he says. I glance at Jewel, who nods with a look of total serenity. Either she’s a fantastic actress, or she genuinely does not understand I’m on the verge of a massive panic attack.
I shut my eyes and stumble into the dark room, and the heavy door slams behind me. It’s like a vacuum in this pod and I swear they got it wrong and actually there are zero minutes of oxygen in here. I jump and clamp my lips together in an attempt to be brave. Only a little whine escapes them.
“Hey,” Ronan’s soft voice floats to my ears like a purr. He breaks away from my hand, and I tremble uncontrollably. I think a baby elephant is sat on my chest. It’s hard to breathe.
The question begs, how are we being recorded in a dark room? Surely they can’t see anything.
Then I remember the ghost hunt show I used to watch as a kid when my parents were asleep. They used night vision–or something like that.
“Mel,” Ronan says calmly as I stand trembling on the spot with my eyes still tightly closed. So, he’s calling me Mel now. Does that mean I should call him Ron?
I give a nervous hum in response. The only reply I can muster that does not resemble a scream. Ronan’s hands feel around my waist and run up and down my back. He presses his lips to my ear and shushes me as a flood of panic rolls through my entire body. I stiffen and the next thing I know his body presses firmly against mine.
“It’s okay. You’re okay,” Ronan whispers to me. “We need to find a light. There will be one somewhere.”
Who knew that counter pressure is exactly what you need during a panic attack? Having Ronan’s arms wrapping my body and squeezing to the point I think my lungs might expel its last breath, is oddly comforting. He loosens his grip a little and I gasp. A flood of wonderful–albeit musty–air fills my lungs and a rush of relief relaxes my body.
“Light. That would be good, because I really hate the–”
“–dark, I know Mel,” Ronan interjects. Then it hits me. Couples would know about each other’s fears. He played that one well.
“Feel around, a light switch maybe, or a torch…”
A torch. Visions come back of Ronan’s phone shining in my face, sitting behind his belt buckle. I snigger at the thought.
“Nothing,” I blurt, reaching out in front of me.
“Wait, I think I feel something…” I say slowly, padding something hard.
“No, that’s me,” Ronan says with a laugh. I drop my hands as if they have been electrocuted. I’m about to blabber my apologies when Ronan continues, “Babe, how could you not recognise my elbow in the dark?”
We both chuckle to ourselves.
It’s true when they say laughter is the best medicine. It seems like the darkness has lifted a little and suddenly I can make out Ronan’s silhouette.
“Here we go,” he says and a flash of red light floods the pod. A small lightbulb hanging from the ceiling swings side to side, illuminating Ronan’s grinning face as he stands facing me with his broad arms folded.
“Don’t get too proud of yourself,” I say with a smirk. “We’re not out of here yet.”
The light changes to blue, then yellow, now green. The lightbulb cycles through the four colours every few seconds. That will get annoying fast, but for now I’m just relieved we’re not stuck in the dark.
Ronan unfolds his arms and studies the long desk beside us. Meanwhile, I turn around and study the door.
“We need to find a four-digit code,” I say, tapping on an electronic pad with my index finger. Ronan nods and rubs his jaw while studying a large grid on the wall. I sidle closer to him to get a better look.
“What do you think these numbers mean?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” I reply with a shrug.
Ronan and I forage around the pod, looking for clues, engrossed in the task at hand. And funnily enough, that task is not faking a relationship. We’re working together as a team, totally forgetting we’re even on camera. He brushes his hand across my back as we switch places and he looks at the lock on the door. Minutes roll by and neither of us have any ideas. The table is mostly barren, with only a plain sheet of paper sitting atop. The numbers on the wall are so faint, it’s difficult to read.
“Ten minutes of oxygen remaining,” a robotic voice makes me jump. Ronan mutters something inaudible and I fall to my knees to find a clue. Any clue. Twenty minutes into the challenge and all we’ve achieved is finding the light switch and working out we need to find a four-digit code.
I wonder if you can get sent off the show for being too boring? Ronan joins me on the floor and grimaces. Has he given up as well?
“Hey, are you alright? You look blue.” It’s a weak attempt at a joke, but Ronan’s face breaks into a smile. He literally looks blue, everything does. I look up at the light bulb just as it changes to yellow. “Those colours… they mean something.”
Ronan leans forward and bangs against one of the table legs.
“What are you doing?” I say, startled by this apparent sign of aggression. Now is not the time to break things. That’s what we do when there’s sixty seconds remaining.
“Look,” Ronan says, as the table jolts to the side. He retrieves a small wooden box and shows it to me.
“Where did you find that?” I say breathlessly, taking the box. Ronan wobbles the table, one leg is an inch shorter than the rest now.
“I know what this is,” I say, jumping to my feet. I edge closer to the light to get a better look at the markings.
“Me too. It’s a Chinese puzzle box.” Ronan follows me and tries to take it back, but I hold up my hand.
“Oh no, leave it to me.” I clear my throat dramatically while Ronan folds his arms and looks at me with amusement.
“Do you have a secret hobby I don’t know about? Since when did you become a Chinese puzzle expert?”
“There’s a lot you don’t know about me,” I shoot back. That was probably the wrong thing to say, considering the viewers will watch this later. But there’s no time to rescue it, I set my tongue between my teeth and get to work.
“Done,” I announce seconds later, holding out the open box for Ronan to see. He whistles.
“That’s why I love you Mel, always full of surprises.”
The box clatters to the floor, my heartbeat races. As Ronan bends down to pick it up again, I stand rooted on the spot and panting like a dog. No one has ever told me they love me before. And for a split moment, I forgot that Ronan was just playing a part.
I inwardly shake myself and take a deep, steady breath. This is a dangerous game. Not just because we might die from suffocation, but we could lose touch with reality and that will only end in heartbreak.
There’s no time to dwell on my thoughts, as Ronan makes a sound of victory and holds up a black crayon in front of my eyes.
“You know what this is?” he asks excitedly. I resist the urge to roll my eyes. The sense of urgency picks up as the pod ticks.
“You don’t think…” Ronan doesn’t finish his question. Instead, he takes the crayon and frantically scribbles on the paper.
“Oh great, sure. Ruin the one sheet of paper we have. Look babe, I know you’re stressed but we could have needed–”
Ronan brandishes the paper and dangles it in front of my eyes as he laughs.
“What am I looking at?” I squint at the black markings just as the light turns back to yellow and suddenly, I can make out a number grid.
“It’s like the one on the wall. But look at these numbers here, they’re written in bold.”
I inspect and want to kick myself.
“It’s a Sudoku puzzle,” I say, leaning over the table to study the wall more closely.
“One-minute remaining.” The announcement sends a surge of adrenaline through my body.
“Look,” Ronan says, pointing at the paper. “Four of the numbers are bold. But they don’t correlate with the numbers on the wall.”
I shake my head.
“It’s a guide. Don’t you see? Obviously, the numbers in these boxes make up the code.”
I climb onto the table and hover less than an inch away from the wall to see the markings on the wall.
“Look, it’s faint, but these boxes are coloured. This one is a blue five… and here’s a red seven.”
“Thirty seconds remaining.”
We jump, and now I can hear my heartbeat.
“How do we know which order they go in?” Ronan asks as he hurries to the door.
“Try this: five, seven, nine, nine,” I shout back. Ronan taps the numbers into the pad and… nothing happens.
I slam my fist against the wall in frustration. What are we missing?
We will die. Just because we can’t work out the order to enter the stupid code. This will mark the first time I’ve ever lost a room escape game. And the entire world will see it.
“Wait, Mel. Look at the light.”
He’s already told me to go to the light. We haven’t even suffocated yet. I glance at the light bulb as it flashes red. Then an idea hits me like a bolt of lightning.
“The colour sequence… it’s the light!” I study the wall again.
“Ten––” The countdown has begun. I sit up and trace my fingers on the wall to keep my place. We’ve got one more chance.
“Try this: Seven––”
“Nine, Nine.” I’m screeching over the stoic voice counting down to our doom. Ronan taps into the keypad as I jump down from the table and dash over to him.
“Four, Three, Two––”
My ears are ringing too loudly to hear anything now. I clamp my eyes shut and scream the final number.
The door clicks, and green light floods the pod.
“Congratulations, you have successfully completed your challenge.”
Ronan turns on the spot and lifts me into the air as I throw my arms around his neck.
“We did it, we did it!” I squeal. Ronan squeezes me tight and plants kisses all over my face.
“You are amazing,” he says between kisses. “Just amazing.”
The door swings open, and we stumble out of the pod like a pair of drunken partygoers.
“Well done, Ronan and Melissa, how do you feel?” Jewel says, clapping. Ronan takes my hand and we stand on our marks, ignoring the cameras as we beam at Jewel. Ronan wraps his arm around my waist and leans down to kiss the top of my head, while I stand grinning like a fool, unable to speak. I’m not sure if it was the thrill of solving the game, or Ronan’s kisses, but I have never felt so alive.
Will Ronan and Melissa, two perfect strangers, fool the Nation and be crowned King and Queen of the Love Trials? Pre-order Love in the Spotlight here.