My Friday nights were not like other girls’, I reflected as I laced up the black leather corset.
Tom poked his head around the bedroom door just as I’d finished tucking in my cleavage.
‘You ready yet, wench? It’s been your shift for five minutes.’
I jumped. ‘God, learn to knock, can you? I could be starkers in here.’
‘Excellent, I’ve always said we need to try something different on the weekends. Funbags Friday, we’ll call it. Corner the lad market.’
‘Yeah, and you can explain to Dad why you’ve reinvented the place as a family Hooters bar.’
‘Look, hurry up. I need to take over in the kitchen so Deano can go for his break. He’ll play pop if we keep him waiting.’
‘Ok, ok, keep your jerkin on,’ I said, stuffing my dark brown curls inside the unattractive Mrs Tiggy-Winkle mop cap that went with my costume.
He wasn’t wrong. Ever since Dad had become too ill to keep up with cooking duties, it felt like we’d been dancing round our diva-ish new chef Deano. Dad said a temperament like that was the sign of true talent. Tom said it was the sign of an arse.
I laced up the leather boots and stood to examine myself in the mirror.
‘All right, I’m ready. Come zip me.’
‘Hey, treat for you tonight,’ Tom said, grinning at me in the mirror as he fastened my skirt. ‘Mr Squeezy Sauce. Thought I’d save him for you, I knew you’d want to give him the star treatment.’
‘Harper Brady? He’s here?’
‘Yep. Can’t wait to tell Dad.’
I shook my head. ‘Not tonight, Tom. He’s not good at the moment.’
He frowned. ‘Bad afternoon?’
‘Yeah. Gerry’s sitting with him now.’
‘Ok, if you close up I’ll relieve Gerry after my shift.’ He patted my arm. ‘You take a night off Dad duty. You look jiggered.’
‘I am a bit. Thanks, bruv.’ I turned to face him. ‘So what do you think Brady’s doing here? I wouldn’t have thought he’d be caught dead in a place like this.’
Tom shrugged. ‘Maybe he fancied slumming it for a change. Hey, think we can get a signed photo to put behind the bar? It’d be great PR.’
I curled my lip. ‘You can ask if you want. You know I don’t groupie.’
‘Come on, you nearly wet yourself when that boyband bloke came in last year.’
I tilted my nose, trying to look superior. ‘That was different. He was childhood nostalgia. That band were massive when we were kids.’
‘Yeah, childhood nostalgia you wanted to hump.’
‘I did not. Shut up.’
‘Still. Harper Brady,’ Tom said, a faraway look in his eyes. ‘I bet he’s the biggest name we’ve had in.’
‘He certainly knocks that bloke from Last of the Summer Wine out of the water.’ I groaned. ‘God, I hope he doesn’t expect special treatment. Celebrity diners give me a pain. If he tries to order off the menu he can explain it to Deano himself, see how he likes the heavy end of a skillet.’
Still, as celeb customers went I had to admit Tom was right: this one was a pretty big deal. Oh, we got the occasional soap actor or washed-up pop star coming along to check us out – the quirky medieval theme restaurant with the pulled hog platters and spiced mead on tap, tucked away in a forgotten corner of the Yorkshire Dales. Then when they’d had a good laugh, off they buggered back to their usual highbrow dining establishments to tell people how hilariously ironic they were. We didn’t mind. A visit from a name was usually good for a few weeks’ spike in business.
But we’d never had a name as big as Harper Brady.
The family were well-known locally. Harper’s mum Sonia had made a mint back in the nineties when she’d patented a design for the upside-down squeezy ketchup bottle, and when she’d passed away, her only son had got it all. He’d lived it up as a jetsetting playboy for a while, then, not content with being a gentleman of leisure, he’d blown the lot on acting lessons in the hope he could make a name for himself in TV.
If there was any divine justice, that would’ve been the end of the story. A few acting tutors would be living the high life on the squeezy sauce millions and Harper Brady, spoilt trust fund kid extraordinaire, would be forced to get a proper nine-to-five like everyone else. But no. In the most irritating twist of fate ever, it turned out he was actually bloody good at acting. Now he was twice as rich and just as handsome, with a legion of adoring fans and a string of TV credits to his name.
I made a mental note to make him wait for his food.
Downstairs in the restaurant, I spotted Harper near the front of the queue. He was perfectly groomed as always, in a designer suit and tie – I mean, a waistcoat and everything, talk about overdressed – with his long flaxen hair stylishly gelled like he was the lost member of One Direction.
I couldn’t tell if the good-looking, slightly scruffy man he was chatting to was with him or if they’d just struck up a conversation. However, there were certainly eyebrows raising among the other waiting diners. He preened slightly when he clocked the looks of recognition directed towards him, all the while talking to his friend as if he hadn’t noticed a thing.
I screwed on my brightest customer smile for the middle-aged couple at the front of the queue.
‘Welcome to Here Be Flagons. Can I take the name you booked under please?’
‘It is, it’s him!’ the woman in the loud purple hat hissed to her husband. ‘It is, I know it.’
I hemmed loudly to command their attention. No response.
‘It’s nice when stars patronise these little local places, isn’t it?’ her husband whispered back.
I tried again. ‘It’s just, there’s rather a queue, so if you wouldn’t mind—’
‘Yes, yes, dear.’ The woman lowered her voice and leaned forward confidentially, enveloping me in a cloud of evening primrose. ‘I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but that’s Harper Brady behind us.’
‘Lovely. So if you could just give me the name your reservation’s under, I can get you to your table.’
The woman turned back to her husband. ‘I’m going to ask for a photo with him,’ she whispered.
‘Go on, go on,’ her husband said, nodding vigorously.
‘I will. I’m going to do it.’ The woman giggled. ‘Will I do it?’
‘Yes, do it!’ Her husband smiled at me. ‘I’m sure the young lady can wait.’
There were mutterings now as those waiting wondered what the hold-up was.
‘Well no, actually—’ I began, but the woman had already turned to face Harper.
‘Oh, Mr Brady, is it really you?’ she asked, her mouth forming an O of fake surprise. Harper looked round, annoyed at having his conversation interrupted.
‘No, it’s really Abe Froman, the sausage king of Chicago.’
The woman carried on beaming, failing to notice the sarcasm. ‘Me and my husband are such huge fans,’ she gushed. ‘We’ve seen everything you’ve ever been in. Everything, even back when no one had heard of you.’
Harper scowled. It was clear the suggestion there was ever a time he’d been less than megastar famous displeased him.
‘I don’t suppose you’d consider letting me take a photo of the two of us?’ the woman blundered on. ‘My friends will never believe me.’
‘A selfie?’ Harper curled his lip. ‘I couldn’t consent to anything so crass, I’m sorry.’
The woman’s face fell. ‘Perhaps… an autograph then?’
Harper lowered his voice. ‘Look, lady, I’m here to enjoy a quiet night with a few close friends. I don’t appreciate having my identity broadcast to all and sundry, and I appreciate still less having my conversation interrupted by fat menopausal hatstands. How about a little respect for my privacy?’ He lifted his voice so I could hear. ‘I don’t know why the staff here allow their customers to be badgered this way. Disgraceful.’
The woman sagged. ‘Sorry,’ she mumbled. ‘I didn’t think you’d mind.’
‘Well I do.’ Harper looked as if he might be incubating a few more choice insults to go with his hatstand line, and I came out from behind the desk to rescue the situation.
‘Follow me,’ I said firmly to the woman and her husband. ‘Never mind about the name.’ Looking hurt and bewildered, the two shuffled along behind me to an empty table, where I left them gazing with unseeing eyes at the wine list.
I beckoned to Jasmine, our pretty teenage waitress, and she came shimmying over. Somehow on her tiny, swaying hips, ‘medieval tavern wench’ looked pure catwalk.
‘Get them a free bottle of whatever they want, with our apologies,’ I muttered. ‘My dad’ll go spare if he hears about this.’
‘Right.’ Jasmine went to take the couple’s drink order, and I headed back behind my desk. The smile I summoned for Harper Brady was anything but warm, and possibly threateningly toothsome.
‘Welcome to Here Be Flagons. Can I take the name you booked under please?’
Harper acted as though he hadn’t heard, chatting away to the man with the rumpled sandy curls.
I leaned across the desk to give his shoulder an irritated tap. ‘There are people waiting, so if you can make it quick, sir—’
Harper turned to me with surprise. ‘I’m sorry, what?’
‘The name you booked under. I’ll need it to seat you.’
‘Seriously? You’re asking my name?’ He let out a short laugh, rolling his eyes at his friend, and leaned forward to let me get a closer look at his face. ‘How’s this, good enough?’
I stared impassively into his eyes. ‘Look, if you haven’t made a reservation I can’t let you in. We’re full tonight.’
‘You must be joking! I’ve been queueing quarter of an hour.’
I was enjoying myself now, doing my best nightclub-bouncer-with-a-dictator-complex. I folded my arms across my chest.
‘Sorry, mate. No reservation, no entry.’ After a second’s pause, I added, ‘More than my job’s worth.’
BAM. Have that, Harper Brady. I’d always wanted to say that.
‘Look, I don’t have time for this. I’m meeting my agent, I have to—’ He drew a deep breath and lowered his voice. ‘Come on, don’t pretend you don’t know who I am. You know my name.’
I kept my expression fixed. ‘I can promise you I don’t.’
He goggled. ‘You’re having me on. Haven’t you seen Stitch? The Chester Files?’ He reeled off a load more of his TV credits, but I remained inflexible.
‘No. What’re they, films?’
The way his mouth fell open was worth losing out on the PR value of a big-name diner. Next to him, the handsome friend’s mouth twitched at the corners.
‘Look, maybe I can sort this out before we both starve to death,’ the other man said.
He pushed Harper behind him and leaned one arm against the desk, letting the twitch at the corner of his lips spread into a warm smile. After hesitating a second, I returned it. Next to him, Harper almost reeled to see his friend’s charm working where his celebrity had failed.
‘We booked online,’ he said. ‘It’s under my friend here’s name.’
‘Tell her,’ he said to Harper.
‘Fine. Harper Brady,’ Harper said sulkily. He scrutinised my face for any sign the name meant something, but I let go of not a flicker.
‘Ok, yes, there’s a booking here for Brady,’ I said, scanning my reservation list. ‘Can I see some ID please? Sorry, but we are very busy. When there’s a lot of demand for tables I have to be extra cautious.’
Total bollocks, obviously, but I was having bags of fun.
‘God! What is this, the Ivy?’ Harper pulled out his wallet and shoved a driving licence in my direction. ‘You know, I’ll be making a complaint about this to your manager. Bloody ridiculous.’
‘For what, doing my job?’ For form’s sake I checked his ID and ticked him off the list.
‘For being deliberately rude and obstructive. Don’t think I’m joking.’
I saw him scanning my cleavage, jutting out in the nothing-to-the-imagination leather corset, while he told me off. He wasn’t above having a perve in his righteous anger then.
‘Come on, what’s his name, your manager? He’ll be receiving an email about your conduct.’ He sneered unpleasantly. ‘Have fun on the dole queue, love.’
‘It’s a her actually. Lana Donati.’
‘Right. And what’s yours?’
His friend snorted, then quickly turned it into a cough. Harper grabbed his driving licence, shot me a last resentful glare and stormed off into the restaurant.
‘Bit hard on him, weren’t you?’ his friend said. ‘Not that it wasn’t hilarious.’
‘Couldn’t help myself. I heard what he said to that fan before.’
The man smiled. ‘So you do know who he is.’
‘Yeah,’ I said, smiling back. ‘But don’t let on, eh?’
He made a zipping motion across his lips. ‘Not a word.’
‘So what’s your connection to him?’ I scanned the athletic figure and broad chest. ‘Not his minder, are you?’
He laughed. ‘No, I’m his cousin, sadly.’ He held out a hand. ‘Stewart McLean.’
‘Oh, right,’ I said, shaking the hand absently. The name sounded vaguely familiar. ‘Family meal?’
‘Research date actually. Harper’s got a part as a cyclist. He’s been shadowing me the last few days.’
‘Occasionally. Anyway, I get a consultant credit, so, you know, pretty cool.’ He glanced over his shoulder at the queue. ‘Oh. Sorry everyone, I’m holding you up.’
He stood to one side to let me deal with the other customers, but he didn’t go sit with his cousin. Actually, when I glanced over to Harper’s table I saw he’d been joined by someone else – a busty blonde woman in an almost invisible black dress who’d been seated by herself at the bar for the last half-hour. Charmless git that he was, the man didn’t seem to want for company.
When I’d dealt with the last pair’s reservation and Jasmine had taken them to their table, I turned to Stewart.
‘So. Sounds like you’re going to be a star,’ I said.
‘No autographs, please.’ He tossed his curls comically. ‘You really manage this place, Lana?’
‘Actually I own it – well, my family does. My dad bought it when he emigrated from Italy and turned it into this place.’ I gestured round the candlelit room, plastered all over with mounted boars’ heads, replica halberds and painted coats of arms while Dad’s favourite CD, Harpsichord Renaissance, played on a loop in the background. It felt like a Chaucer lecturer’s drug-fuelled nightmare.
‘It’s original, I’ll give him that.’ Stewart followed my gaze, taking it all in. ‘Why the medieval theme though? I mean, not that the costume doesn’t suit you, but it’s a bit… well, Here Be Flagons? Yikes.’
‘You don’t need to tell me,’ I said, smiling. ‘Just his sense of humour, I suppose. Only my dad could build a business around a single pun.’
‘Is he working tonight?’ Stewart asked. ‘A pun-obsessed Italian with a medieval history fetish sounds like someone I need to meet.’
I flushed. ‘No, not tonight. He’s… not well.’
‘Ah, right. Maybe another time.’
‘No, I mean he’s really not well.’ I had no idea why I was telling him that, this stranger. The words just seemed to fall out of me. ‘Cancer, you know? Bastard cancer.’ I cast my eyes down. ‘Terminal.’
‘Oh God,’ Stewart said, a look of concern spreading over his features. ‘I’m so sorry, Lana.’
I shrugged. ‘Not your fault, is it?’
He looked puzzled. ‘Well, no. That’s just what people say. You know, when they…’
‘…when they don’t know what to say,’ I finished for him, smiling. ‘Sorry, didn’t mean to be rude. Years of inhaling soup fumes has sent my sense of humour careering into the surreal a bit. If I make you uncomfortable, feel free not to tip.’
His puzzled expression lifted into a smile. ‘No, I like you. You’re kind of weird and funny.’
‘Don’t be offended: attractive qualities in a tavern wench. They lend her that air of sophisticated unpredictability that always leaves you checking for your wallet.’
I laughed. ‘If that was a chat-up line, it needs work.’
I blushed, wondering if I’d misjudged the flirting. ‘I know. Just a joke.’
‘This one’s going to be though. Fancy grabbing a drink sometime?’
The blush deepened, with a more pleasant sensation this time. ‘Er, yeah. That sounds nice.’
‘When are you free? Next week?’
‘Thursday’s good. That’s our quiet night so I can get off early.’
‘Pick you up at eight then?’
‘You know, for the first time tonight I’m glad I let Harper talk me into coming out.’ Stewart sighed theatrically. ‘Suppose I’d better join him, before Legs 11 over there smothers him to death. See you, Lana.’