Daine's phone buzzes repeatedly as she leaves her last lecture of the day. She pulls it out of her bag and swipes up. "Hello, this is Daine Sarrasri."
"Hi! Daine!" The voice of George, the man who interviewed her two days ago, washes over her. "I'd like to offer you the job, if you're still interested?"
She almost drops her phone. "Ye-yes, I am. Very much still interested."
It sounds like he's chuckling. "Brilliant. I know it's short notice but could you work tonight from 6? And bring your paperwork so we can get your payroll set up."
She's walking fast back to her flat, eyeing the sky with mistrust because she didn't bring her umbrella and she did bring her laptop. "Yes, I can be there at 6. I'll see you then."
"Thanks Daine, see you tonight." With a click, he disconnects, and she sprints the last few steps to her door just as the sky opens.
At 6, she walks through the door of the Dancing Dove, perhaps one of Corus's seedier establishments but no slouch on pay for its bar staff. The lighting is low, the tables have had chunks hacked out of them by fights or just by drunks falling into them, and the atmosphere is generally one of faded class. Daine prefers this to the newer, swankier pubs that her friends usually go for. You can't get a good gin and tonic at the Lioness; the bartender would laugh in your face.
George waves her over. "Daine! So glad you could make it." His smile is charming, and she shrugs her coat off into his waiting hands. "I've asked you here a half hour earlier than your usual starting time will be, to show you some basics," he says, leading her into the back room where he'd interviewed her. "Not that you need instruction, per se, but maybe a refresher?"
She nods gratefully.
"Now, tonight is a Wednesday, so you might get some odd birds. You'll be closing weeknights -- I'll be here until you get the hang of things -- and you may have to handle some unpleasant sorts." He scans her face. "You're a bit pretty to be intimidating, especially because you're not so tall, but we can work on your attitude."
The next half hour is a blur as George introduces her to the other staff, whose names she promptly forgets, and has her mix him all sorts of drinks. After tasting her Cosmopolitan, he sets the glass down on the bar and claps her shoulder. She starts and backs away, but he doesn't notice, saying, "You don't need me at all! Go forth and conquer, lass."
She hesitates. If she doesn't say something now, she'll be even more paralyzed the next time. She screws up her hands in her skirt and says, "George?"
He turns back to her, serious, focused. "Aye."
She looks down, up, at the wall. "I, er . . . please don't touch me." There's a startled silence, into which she rushes, "You weren't to know, I just -- I thought I should tell you now, so's you didn't think worse of me -- "
"Think worse of you?" He moves closer, then thinks better of it. "Daine, I'm sorry. I won't again. And if anyone, anyone at all, does anything to hurt you or make you feel unsafe, I'll kick them out meself."
Tears prick at her eyes, and she tries to show her appreciation with a smile. It seems to work, because George returns her smile. "All right then, get to work, missy!"
It's 9:30 and very busy when Daine shakes her hair out of her eyes and locks eyes with the most beautiful man she's ever seen. He's tall and dark and sat at a table with three other gorgeous people: a sandy-blond man with his arm around a woman with K'miri features, and a short and stocky redhead. As Daine, engrossed, sneaks glances every few moments, she sees George walk over and drop a kiss nonchalantly onto the redhead's lips. <So that's the girlfriend, then,> she thinks, and makes her 150th gin and tonic of the evening.
Once the crush of people has dissipated, George and his friends settle at the bar. Daine busies herself with their orders, determined not to eavesdrop, until
"Daine," says George, "stop cleaning the same thing five times in a row and meet my friends."
The redhead and the blond laugh. Daine ducks her head.
"And pour yourself a drink while you're at it. This is my girlfriend, Alanna."
The redhead leans forward, offering a hand. "Hi."
Daine shakes it, holding her breath.
"This is Jon and his fiancee, Thayet," George continues.
"Jon and I used to date," says Alanna.
Startled, Daine blurts, "And it's not awkward? I mean, being friends?"
They all laugh, even Daine, though she's not sure what she's laughing at.
"No, it's not really," says Jon. "Alanna's been really good about it."
"It helps that I introduced him to Thayet," Alanna stage-whispers.
"So you're just not going to let George introduce me, then," says the gorgeous dark-haired man.
Daine, pouring herself a Bloody Mary, shakes her head with a boldness she didn't know she possessed and says, "Doesn't look like it. You could always introduce yourself, but you don't seem the type."
There's a stunned silence, and then they all burst out laughing again.
"Oh, she's funny, George," gasps Thayet, dabbing at tears in the corners of her immaculately made-up eyes.
"Younger than the rest of your staff, though, isn't she? Are you still in uni, Daine?"
Daine nods. "I'm finishing this year."
Alanna looks around. "Isn't this pub too old-fashioned for your age group? I thought the uni crowd all go to the Lioness nowadays."
"They do, but -- " Daine shrugs. "It was always too loud for me, and the cocktails were no good."
George chuckles. "The Lioness was named for Alanna here." Seeing Daine's open mouth, he laughs harder. "It's true!"
"It is," says Alanna, "but that isn't the full story."
The Bloody Mary feels sharp and tingly in Daine's mouth. She's warm but doesn't want to take off her cardigan. She's trying not to look at the gorgeous, still nameless dark-haired man, and she thinks George's friends are all impossibly glamorous and grown-up. She leans forward on the bar and asks Alanna what the full story is, and Alanna says she'll tell her when they're sober, and Daine thrills at the idea that Alanna might want to spend time with her. Might like her. That any of these worldly adults with jobs and lives might enjoy her company.
Eventually George relents, and Daine discovers that the last friend's name is Numair and that he teaches at the Royal University.
"Oh, I knew a boy who went to the Royal Uni," she says, "but I think he dropped out. Anyway, after -- well, he didn't want to be seen with me when he realised I wasn't growing up to be pretty."
It's a lie and she knows it, but she doesn't trust any of them nearly enough to tell them anything truer.
Thayet says sharply, "Who told you you're not pretty?"
Daine shrugs. There's enough alcohol in her system that she doesn't much care who knows her insecurities. Her secrets, however, will stay secret.
Alanna and Thayet exchange a look, then Alanna leans forward and places a hand over Daine's. "Who -- " she begins, but that's as far as she gets because Daine jumps back, hitting her hip on the corner of the sink and almost falling over.
"Oh," says George, and Daine hears him, through her haze, belatedly explain to his friends that she isn't to be touched. Her hands grip her skirt, clenching and unclenching, and she counts the number of seconds she breathes for. Counts the number of seconds she's okay for. When she comes to, the others have moved away, and George is perched across from her on a stool.
"I'm sorry," he says. "I should have told them."
She acknowledges this with a nod. "They know now," she offers, her voice weak.
He sighs. "Daine, if there's ever anything you need to talk about, I'm here to listen. And that goes for my friends as well. We care about you."
She wants to fight, to tell them it's illogical to care about someone they've just met, but her voice isn't cooperating and her tear ducts are threatening to burst. When she gets herself back under control, it's closing time, and George's friends have gone.
She doesn't see them again until the next Thursday. George is sick and she has the closing shift to herself. Unsurprisingly, Alanna is also absent, so it's just three of them sitting at the bar with Daine.
"What are you studying?" asks Jon, who Daine has figured out is probably the same Jon who's heir to the throne.
She tosses a glass she's just dried and catches it neatly. "Biology."
Numair leans forward. "Why?" There are more questions behind his eyes, but Daine doesn't have time to fall in love with a man who barely knows she exists.
"I like knowing how things work," she says a little sheepishly. It sounds childish now, hanging in the air. "I like animals."
"Do you have a pet?" asks Thayet, leaning into Jon, the two of them making a pretty tableau.
Jon and Thayet lean forward at the same time. "Do you have photos?" asks Jon, a little breathless. "What breed?" Thayet wants to know.
Daine laughs a little, pulling her phone out of her pocket. "She's mostly wolf, I think -- I got her as a rescue, she was all wild when I met her. She's quite domesticated now, though." She pulls up one of the latest photos, hoping it doesn't show too much of her messy flat, and slides the phone across the bar.
Numair leans in as well. "That is a beautiful dog, Daine. You've taken good care of her."
She blushes and hopes he doesn't see.
"How old do you think she is?"
"About seven, I'd say." Daine does some quick mental maths. "I've had her almost five years."
"And she's yours. Not your parents'?"
Daine looks down, fiddles with her bracelet. "Haven't got any."
The silence feels like it's pressing on her, but there's no George to man the bar while she goes to the staff room to count her breaths with no one watching, so she takes Jon's empty glass and washes it, feeling their eyes press into her.
Thayet is the first to speak. "How old are you, Daine?"
Great. More questions. "Twenty-four."
"What's your dog's name?" asks Numair.
She could kiss him, she's that grateful. "Cloud."
Jon steers the conversation away from her and onto other topics, and she leans in and listens, drinking all of them in. She laughs when they laugh and doesn't catch the way Numair's eyes track her mouth, her smiles, her hands. If she were to see this, she'd dismiss it as her overactive imagination, as he dismisses any unconscious movement of hers toward him as his own attraction run amok.
She's gotten used to seeing them in her pub -- she doesn't know when it became "her pub" in her mind, but it fits -- but it's still a shock seeing them in her "real life." Case in point: she turns down the canned food aisle in the supermarket, sees Numair, and immediately ducks back round the way she came. Her hair is in pigtails and she hasn't showered; she can't let him see her like this!
She peeks around the corner of the aisle, just to make sure it's him. He's unshaven and carrying on a phone conversation via his earbuds. His hair, a little long when she met him, has grown out to touch his shoulders, and his coat comes to the middle of his calves. He's putting cans of tomatoes into his cart and arguing in a low, tense voice. A pit forms in her stomach as she realises that she never wants to be the cause of that voice.
She ducks back to the crisps aisle and resumes her shopping, succeeding so thoroughly at forgetting she saw him that when their hands reach for the same bunch of bananas, she glances up at him and almost screams.
His earbuds are out now. "Daine!" He moves to hug her, then thinks better of it. She wants to hug him but doesn't know how the others would take it. To be fair, she wants to hug them all, and she's just getting comfortable enough to do it.
She gestures at the bananas. "All yours."
He flushes. "Are you sure?"
She rolls her eyes. "There's plenty more, see?" Picking up another bunch at random, she brandishes them before his eyes.
He laughs. He's cute when he laughs. <Stop it, Daine!>
"If you insist." He grabs the bunch they'd both reached for and sets it in his cart. "I didn't know you shopped here."
She exhales. Inhales. "I just moved, actually -- my lease was up and I wanted to live closer to my job."
"Daine, I hope you realise that you don't have to work in a pub forever."
She shrugs, picking up a packet of bell peppers. "Just to make ends meet while I look for jobs in my field." She turns back to him. "But won't you miss me if I leave the Dove?"
He blushes. He actually blushes! "We'd all miss you."
She leaves it at that. She isn't ready. She hasn't told any of them anything important.
The next day, she goes in to work early and asks to talk to George privately. He takes her into the back room, sits her down, and says, "I hope you're not leaving. The customers adore you."
"No, I'm not leaving." She watches the smile spread across his face and says, "May I hug you?"
He stares at her.
"I'll explain, I just -- "
"Daine, I -- thank you for trusting me." He stands, and she moves forward into his arms. He's solid and real and she feels that he thinks she's worth something and then she's crying and he's rubbing her back and in between sobs she lets the whole thing come out. Her mother's death. The young man who took her in. The rape. The abuse. The manipulation.
"When he left me," she hiccups, "I was convinced I wasn't worth anything. It took me months to go back to my college and ask them to let me study for my A-levels. I had nothing, no money, no credit, and no parents to help me. I hid myself in my room when I wasn't at school." <This job was the first thing that got me to stop doing that,> she wants to add, but thinks maybe he'll read between the lines.
George offers her a tissue. "Well," he says. "Do you want to tell the others, or do you want me to?"
She hesitates. "I don't want them to look at me different."
"Let me handle it," he says decisively. "I'll make sure they don't."
He's true to his word. The next time they come to the Dove, nothing is different, except that Daine comes out from behind the bar and hugs all of them. Thayet lingers the longest and whispers, "Come shopping with me sometime," and Alanna says, "Daine, I want to teach you to dance. We've got to get you to a club one of these days!"
Daine refuses to look at Numair, refuses to see pity in his eyes, refuses to think of what can't be.
"I can't believe you're leaving," says Jon.
It's Daine's last night, because she's got a job in a lab, doing what she loves. A job that may mean she will never see any of them again, because this job is an hour away by public transport. She downs her tequila double shot in one and says, "You just don't want to believe it."
Thayet laughs. "She's got you there, love."
"How does it feel to be the owner of an academic degree?" George wants to know.
"Go to uni and find out," says Daine, prompting laughs from all.
Another double shot later, she inches over to Numair. "Cat got your tongue?"
"What?" He looks at her. "Oh, sorry. I'm just lost in my thoughts."
"What are your thoughts?" she asks.
"You're drunk," he says.
She laughs. "Yes, and you're pretty. What are you thinking about?"
He looks startled. "No one's ever called me pretty before."
"Oh, does it offend your masculinity? I'm sorry."
"No," he says, putting a hand over hers, "no, it doesn't."
She swallows. The room seems smaller, warmer, and Numair seems closer than before. She frowns. "I don't have the guts to talk to you when I'm sober."
His mouth twists. "I wondered if that -- I thought you didn't like me."
"No!" she cries. "I did -- I do like you, probably too much, and I didn't want to make you uncomfortable, and -- "
She shuts her mouth. She can't believe she thought he might -- after a year of being sensible --
"As much as alcohol can make you less inhibited, I think this is a conversation best had sober. Would you be amenable to discussing this over dinner, maybe on Friday?"
She struggles to parse his meaning. Is he really asking her out? She can't see any other way of looking at it. She finally nods, unsure if she can trust her voice.
"Okay." He squeezes her hand once, then lets go. "I'll text you where to meet me, okay? Now let's get you sobered up."
It's a very nice restaurant, she thinks as she pulls her hair out of its braid and tries to make it look somewhat presentable. She'll pay for herself, of course, but he has excellent taste.
When she goes in, he's standing, waiting for her. She isn't sure if she should hug him or not, so she settles for an awkward little wave. He smiles, looking just as shy as she feels. They sit, order drinks, order food. She plays with the napkin ring.
He shifts in his chair.
"I'm paying for myself," she says, hearing him inhale, plowing ahead to get through it, to get over the embarrassment. "I don't want you to feel you owe me anything just because you've looked after me, just because your friends like me, just because I like you." She dares a glance at his face and wishes she didn't; he's too handsome, sat there with that confused look on his face. She continues, "I like you, Numair; more than I should, I think, and in a way that I've never really liked anyone before. In that I've avoided you, it's been because I've not wanted to make you uncomfortable with my attraction to you. I -- "
"Daine," he breathes. "You -- the first moment I saw you I wanted you."
She covers her mouth with her hands.
"I didn't say anything because you were so clearly uninterested, I -- and you're younger, and your financial position is -- well, I didn't want to take advantage of you. And I still don't. But at least you have a proper job now, so I don't feel as guilty. Gods, Daine! I thought you only put up with me because you liked the others."
She laughs, but it sounds almost like a sob. "I never wanted to kiss any of the others."
His eyes are so deep and wild and beautiful and she's lost in them. He leans forward, and she half-rises from her chair to meet him, lifting her hands to cup his face. His lips are warm and soft and gentle and she tastes hope on them.
After dinner, he walks her home -- "I chose this restaurant because it's near your flat," he says, and she kisses his cheek -- and stands outside her door, facing her, looking at her, not touching her.
"I'll come to the Dove when I can," she says eventually.
"Can I see you next Friday?"
She nods. "Text me."
They pause. She looks at him, drinking him in, smiling softly.
He sighs. "Don't invite me in, Daine."
"No," she says. "No, I need a little more time before that."
She kisses him goodbye and falls asleep with his name on her lips.
"Where's the bouquet?" Alanna asks.
Daine shrugs. "I thought we already gave it to Thayet."
Alanna smacks her forehead. "I'm so stupid. Daine, have I told you you look like a goddess?"
"I'm not tall enough," Daine tells her, laughing.
The day is clear, the guests happy, and the champagne flowing. If anyone told Daine two years ago that she'd be a bridesmaid at a royal wedding, she'd tell them they were crazy. Yet here she is, watching her friends speak their vows, watching Alanna's engagement ring sparkle in the sun, watching the press take photographs. Here she is with the rest of the wedding party as the royal photographers capture their smiling, serious, and silly poses. Here she is with cake and champagne, watching Alanna and Numair make their speeches.
Numair comes to her once the dancing starts. "Hi," he says, bending to kiss her. "You look fantastic."
She twirls. "I'm burning this dress when we get home."
He laughs. "Let's recycle it."
"Yes, as kindling."
He shakes his head. "May I share your cake?"
She holds her fork up to his mouth.
Later that night, as they're walking back to the hotel, she says, "Numair?"
It takes her a couple of tries, partly because she's nervous and partly because she knows it's very quick, but she doesn't particularly want to wait. "Marry me, please?"
He stops walking and pulls her against him. "Daine, did I -- did you just ask what I think you did?"
It's easier the second time. "I did. Will you marry me?"
It takes her a few seconds to register that he's crying, and another few seconds to register that the tears are happy ones. He leans his forehead against hers and whispers, "I didn't know if you were ready. I've wanted to ask you for the past two months."
"And you didn't think to bring it up in conversation and see how I felt about it?" She rolls her eyes.
He laughs wetly. "No. I'm very good at academics and not much good at anything else."
She kisses him. "That's why I love you."
"Just to be clear," he says between kisses, "yes, I will marry you."