Authors: Alexandra Brown
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Romance
Thinking of the gas bill that needs paying urgently, I launch in. ‘I probably shouldn’t tell you this …’ I hesitate, before lowering my voice. James flashes me a warning look but he doesn’t need to worry. ‘One of the Queen’s relatives was a virtual fashion recluse before we kitted him out in the finest menswear, so please be assured you’ll be joining an elite group within British high society,’ I say, amazed at my own nerve.
‘What club does he belong to?’ Malikov interrupts, rudely.
‘Mr Malikov, I’m not sur—’ He cocks his head to one side. ‘Sorry. Kon,’ I correct myself. ‘I’ve said far too much already. But let’s just say he’s definitely back on the society circuit now, according to last week’s …’ I hesitate momentarily and flick my eyes over to the pile of glossy magazines artfully fanned on a coffee table for inspiration. ‘…
magazine,’ I quickly add. Malikov’s eyes widen and he nods his head slowly. ‘And I could always investigate the possibility of a discreet introduction to him … say on the polo field.’ His nodding head speeds up at the prospect of mixing in such elite circles.
‘What did he buy?’ He stares directly at James, who doesn’t flinch. ‘Well, I’m sure you will appreciate that Carrington’s prides itself on offering a very personal serv—’
‘Yes, yes, I know all of that. I’ve done my checks so you can cut the flimflam. What’s the most expensive thing you have?’ he asks, waving a dismissive hand in the air.
‘Well I know you’ve mentioned an interest in jewellery …’ James takes a step towards a glass display cabinet housing Carrington’s fine jewellery collection, before he’s cut off again. Malikov juts his head forward.
‘That’s because I own a platinum mine. Won it on a hand of roulette last month. Uranium too,’ he chortles. Raising a hand, he bats the air around in front of him before continuing, ‘So let’s hope there’s another war somewhere so demand for uranium from the arms manufacturers increases.’ He snorts at his own sick joke, while James and I drag smiles onto our faces.
After showing him each of the bags I brought up earlier and talking him through the quality of craftsmanship, I bide my time as James tells him about the new Spring/Summer collection, prices, styles, and even manages to squeeze in a mention of the Chiavacci bags. A short silence follows.
‘No, that is not acceptable. I can go to any shop and get the same prices, so you will need to do better than that.’ His chubby paw tightens around the tiger’s head. James gives me a look and I’m off again.
‘Kon. Of course you’re absolutely right. Some of the big stores up in London do have the same items for the same price … but I think you’ll find this bag here,’ I pause to retrieve an exquisite £1,950 buttery leather under-shoulder bag from the display stand, ‘is exclusive to Carrington’s. The brand manager told me herself when she last visited.’ I pause for a moment, give the bag a quick stroke with the back of my index finger so as not to mark it, and lean forward slightly, squeezing my boobs together as I hold the bag out to him. I murmur a silent prayer for forgiveness to the women who chained themselves up so we wouldn’t have to resort to this kind of thing. But I can’t help wondering if they had to pay their own gas bills too.
Licking his fleshy lips, Malikov’s eyes flick to my cleavage and I know I’ve got his attention.
‘And, well, I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but Catherine … our very own new royal princess,’ I discreetly cross my fingers to cover the fib I’m about to tell. But needs must and all that. ‘Yes, Kate is the only other person to have this particular handbag. The designer sent it personally as a wedding present, and you know I’m almost certain I spotted it tucked under Kate’s arm when she was on the telly the other day.’ Malikov’s eyes widen. ‘
she was standing next to Her Majesty … the actual
!’ I add for good measure, making big eyes and willing my cheeks to stop burning. ‘So, I’m sure we can agree on a
deal especially for you.’ I glance at James, pleased with myself for having mentioned Malikov’s specific requirement.
Behind me, the gentle swing of the wall clock pendulum ticks away the excruciatingly long silence as Malikov ponders on what I’ve just said.
‘No. I don’t think we have a sale here.’ It’s as if somebody has slammed on the emergency brake. My heart skips a beat. This has never happened before. ‘Is that the best you can do for cash?’ He fixes a pair of now sinister-looking eyes on me, and then I get it.
‘Kon, I can understand your hesitation. This is a very expensive bag.’ I swallow hard. ‘With certain … more exclusive customers –’ I rack my brains for a suitable sweetener before deciding to wing it again – ‘we could offer a selection of special promotional gifts.’ Pausing to clear my throat, I spot James in my peripheral vision and he looks panicky. ‘A purse or two to complement your handbag choices. And a selection of fashion jewellery,’ I add, remembering the flashy costume jewellery hidden in the cupboard behind my counter, too garish for our usual customers. The Brazilian jewellery supplier refused to take the items back and, even with the half-price markdown in the Christmas sale, we weren’t able to shift any of it.
Malikov’s monobrow creases. His eyes dart greedily towards James for confirmation, who nods. ‘I’ll just pop downstairs and get you a selection of our best purses and bring the tray with the jewellery collection, if I may.’
When I make it back to the personal shopping suite, Malikov and his entourage aren’t there.
‘What happened? Where’s he gone?’ My heart sinks.
‘I’ve just got back from escorting him to his car.’ James is grinning from ear to ear.
‘But what about these gifts?’ I say, glancing at the stash in my arms.
‘Oh, he said he’d collect them next time.’
‘Next time? I take it you got a sale then?’ I nod hopefully.
‘Damn right,’ he replies.
‘And?’ I prompt, putting the purses and jewellery on the circular sofa before crossing my fingers.
‘A Louis, two Balenciaga and –’ he pauses to pull a face and make quote signs – ‘the exclusive under-shoulder bag that our very own Princess Kate was carrying on the telly.’ James laughs and I grin with excitement. This must be more than we’ve sold in months – it’s almost like the boom days. ‘Oh, and a pair of Union Jack cufflinks,’ James rolls his eyes. ‘And get this …’ James leans into me with a hushed voice, the electricity between us is almost tangible. ‘He was hinting at both Chiavacci Kelly bags. And he wants to be treated like royalty.’ James and I both smirk at the same time.
‘Yes, really sorry about that, it won’t happen again,’ I say, knowing I overstepped the mark.
‘Well, I think we can overlook it this time. Your royal innuendo sure got him hooked, and just imagine if he buys the Chiavaccis?’ My pulse races.
‘Oh my God … well done,’ I whisper back, my mind working overtime to try and calculate my share of the commission. The Balenciagas alone cost well over £1,000 each!
‘And it’s all down to you.’
There’s a moment of silence between us.
‘Hardly. I didn’t do anything,’ I say, loving his modesty. ‘You were the one who organised everything.’
‘Yes, but you were the one who reeled him in,’ he says seriously, as a whiff of his delicious citrusy aftershave teases my nostrils. ‘Our dream holiday is definitely on now,’ he grins. Then James realises that his hand is still on my arm, and he blushes before taking it off.
‘Sorry,’ he says awkwardly, and turns to go.
‘Don’t be,’ I mutter, but he’s already striding off towards the door.
hree cheers for Ciaran, and Tina of course.’ I’m in the canteen and Tina has just announced her engagement. After an initial stunned silence – they’ve only been seeing each other for a few months – we’re all necking plastic cups of Asda buck’s fizz, even though it’s only lunchtime.
The radio has been switched off and Ciaran is standing in the middle of the floor. ‘Guys, I’m overwhelmed. Not only because she said yes …’ he pauses momentarily to glance at Tina, who’s grinning like the cat that’s got the whole damn dairy. And it’s no wonder. Ciaran hired a suite at a posh hotel in London and they spent the weekend there so he could propose, so Lauren told me. I guess this is what Ciaran’s been up to, then, planning the proposal. Sam will be thrilled. As queen of hearts, she loves a good wedding, even if the bride is not her most favourite person.
As we all smile at Tina, and the girls from Lingerie start cooing over the rock that’s clinging to her finger like a fridge magnet, someone shouts, ‘Yeah, only because the diamond is the size of a sugar lump,’ at which everybody except Tina laughs. James is standing next to me. His cup is empty so I make my way over to the bench table at the far end of the canteen to find another bottle. As I turn I almost bump straight into him.
‘Looks like we had the same idea,’ he says, holding up his plastic cup. I quickly turn back to the table to wrestle the cork from the bottle. Seeing me struggling, he reaches his hand over mine and effortlessly eases the cork free. A froth of white bubbles cascades down the rim of the bottle and I suddenly feel the effects of the daytime alcohol.
‘Georgie, stay for a moment,’ James says. But our names are being called from over by the salad bar and the moment changes. For a brief second I’m not sure if I imagined the last few seconds, but when I turn around James has gone off to join the others.
‘And you will all come to my hen do, won’t you girls? It’s going to be a-mazing. Ciaran said I can have whatever I want,’ Tina smiles, gazing up at him. ‘I’ve opted for a day in the Carrington’s spa. I’ve already spoken to Caroline, the manager, and she said if the board are OK with it, then she’s happy to open up on a Sunday.’
‘Cor. Can I come?’ shouts Gareth, one of the security guys.
‘No you can’t,’ Tina snaps. ‘I’m off to get the engagement cake.’ She tilts her cheek out at Ciaran for a kiss, and he duly obliges before heading over towards me.
We’re all chatting and laughing when Tina starts descending the staircase at the end of the floor. Her spray-tanned face, which I can’t help thinking makes her look like she’s just run naked through a Ronseal factory, has a smile spread across it, but as her eyes meet mine, the smile fades ever so slightly and her eyes narrow. I quickly nudge Ciaran, who has my upturned hand in his, pretending to have inherited a palmistry gift from his old Irish granny.
There’s a huge crashing sound. Everybody turns in unison to see Tina tumbling down the last step of the staircase to land in a heap at the bottom. Victoria sponge cake is splattered all over the banisters and splodges of strawberry jam are everywhere. It’s even ricocheted up the walls so the whole area looks like a scene from
. I run over to help her in case she’s seriously hurt herself, but just as I crouch down and reach my hand out to her she hisses in a tight voice.
‘Get off me. I’ve won. He’s mine now.’ She yanks her arm away. Her words hit me like a hard slap. I don’t believe it. She really thinks we’re in some kind of competition and Ciaran is the prize. I open my mouth to protest but the words won’t come out. Then she quickly follows with a much softer, ‘Oh I’m fine, silly me. I just slipped on the stairs. If you could just help me up, darling,’ and I realise that Ciaran is standing right behind me.
‘God Tina. Are you OK?’ Ciaran asks, the concern catching in his voice. I stand up.
‘It’s this new carpet – not only a waste of money but a damn liability as well,’ I offer.
‘Thanks Georgie,’ Ciaran says, as he helps Tina up to her feet. She looks at me over his shoulder.
‘Actually, I think the carpet was a very good idea. I could have seriously damaged myself if the landing hadn’t been so soft,’ she sniffs self-righteously. And with that she leans into Ciaran and starts off towards her Lingerie friends, hobbling as though her life depended on it. ‘Oh! I almost forgot,’ she stops short. ‘You’ll need to call the in-store cleaners and get them to come and deal with this mess,’ she barks in my direction, as if I’m the hired help.
‘Sorry,’ Ciaran mouths over his shoulder. I shake my head, wondering what he sees in her, when James reappears at my side. He hands me a drink.
‘Sure. I’m fine,’ I reply, shrugging my shoulders. We both lean back against the table and his fingertips brush mine as our hands touch the surface, and I suddenly feel distracted and self-conscious, as if everybody is watching us. Mrs Grace catches my eye and gives me a discreet knowing look before smiling kindly. And I know I didn’t imagine it this time.
Somebody pops open another bottle of buck’s fizz and the cork performs a spectacular arc that just misses
the light above, but lands bang on target. The doors at the
end of the canteen spring open and The Heff appears just as the cork makes its descent to land slap on top of his head.
‘Not interrupting anything, am I?’ The Heff booms as he bats the cork away. Everybody stops talking. Eddie appears at his side; he has a black clipboard pressed to his chest. And he’s doing his best to look efficient but he keeps staring at his shoes. ‘Good. Because, before you all rush off I have some very important news to share. Then you can all return to your sections and send up whoever is on the rota for the next lunch session … without telling them what I’m about to say. Is that clear?’
We all mutter, ‘yes’ in reply. Like that’s really going to happen. One of the Footwear girls is already surreptitiously fingering her phone, poised to send a text. ‘Right. As you all know, Carrington’s has seen a decline in sales of late and I think it is fair to say that unless something is done pronto’ – ‘Like buy more carpet,’ someone mutters behind me – ‘we’re in serious danger of entering a terminal decline. So to help us revitalise the store, it is my pleasure to announce that Carrington’s has today, at twelve noon, secured the services of the country’s finest retail guru.’ The Heff puffs his chest out, as if he’s just, single-handedly, negotiated peace in the Middle East. A collective gasp circuits the canteen.