There's no 'I' in team...
Celeste dabbed off the excess lip tint and stood back from the mirror. It was astonishing how much makeup was required to make her look as if she didn't need to wear any makeup. She threaded her fingers up through her hair, trying to boost the volume without looking too windswept or eighties, then stepped side-on to check out her silhouette. She was pleased with the black woollen wrap top. She had to wear a silk cami underneath because the neckline didn't so much plunge as plummet, but it tidied her D-cups and flattened her stomach.
She allowed herself a little smile, packed up her handbag, and pushed out from the girls’ room into the corridor, walking right into Big Craig.
“Looking rather nice,” he told her bosom. “Going somewhere fun after work?”
“Hope so!” Celeste pushed through to the staffroom to finish setting up. She'd dragged the chairs in for the ‘pow wow’, but hadn't set them up yet. Steve was already at his locker, suited and booted and pushing his small, brown earpiece in with his forefinger. He flinched.
“That looks uncomfortable.”
He didn't reply, his back turned as he locked up. She was beginning to suspect that the earpiece was actually a hearing aid. Fine, so she’d wait for him to turn around, then restart the conversation. She put her handbag into her locker, shutting it hard, and saw Steve jump out of the corner of her eye.
“Sorry I startled you.”
He gave her a rueful grin, fiddling with the earpiece. “You're like a bloody ninja, girl.”
“I take it that's a bad thing?”
“Let's just say I like to be able to hear a girl coming for miles.” Steve dropped his face into his palm. “Not quite what I meant to say.”
“I can't promise ‘miles’.” She fought with a giggle but the giggle fought dirty. “I know what you were trying to say.”
“Thanks.” He chuckled, then appeared to look her up and down. “You look...really nice.”
Her gaze snagged on his as he walked towards her slowly, stroking a little bruise on his jaw from last night’s brawl. He had a little notch in his chin, she noticed. Not a full dimple, just a little tension line that emerged when he seemed nervous. She wanted to kiss it. She wanted to kiss all of him. Above and below the belt. And suddenly he was standing almost right on top of her.
“Th-thanks,” she managed eventually. Call that flirting, Miss? Flirt back, girl! “It's nice of you to say so.” No! Flirt PROPERLY, dammit!
“Celeste, I know I sometimes seem a little—”
“Okay, guys! C'mon in! The sooner we get this done, the sooner the gate opens and you can get on with your night.” Ian led the bar staff into the room and their rabble drowned out Steve's double-barrelled expletive. “Chill out, Steve. You all knew there was going to be a meeting. Settle down, everyone!”
After fifteen minutes, Celeste had to concede that Ian had some kind of gift for alienating people. His idea of a 'pow-wow' was to save up four weeks' grievances and unleash them all in one go.
“O-kay...Tina, Sabrine and Carl—great dancing lately. Really. You totally lead the beat. But don't be so quick to get down between tracks, ok? Clients are looking to you guys to keep the rhythm going.”
“We do need to drink, you know!”
As Ian pointed out that they could keep water bottles on the podiums, Celeste caught Steve rolling his eyes. He grinned at her.
“Steve! If you could tune in, maybe?”
“This is kinda the point I want to make. It hardly seems worthwhile with two shifts left before you go, but it's a health-safety issue for our customers. When I'm giving you an instruction through your earpiece, it would be good to get more than a grunt in response so I know you get me. Okay?”
“Good good...” Ian checked something off on his tablet, then looked around at his crew of bar staff with a sigh. “This is the part of the meeting I was totally not looking forward to. I got Celeste's reconciliation report showing our takings and expenditures. Her email makes it pretty clear that some dishonesty's been going on.”
“What!?” Celeste squeak of disbelief disappeared beneath the overlapping shouts of outrage from Tish, Sandra, Rude Craig, and the other two guys that made up the bar crew.
Ian had his hands up in peace. “Guys, ease down. I'm sure it's maybe just a mistake in the record-keeping—”
“You fuckin' little cow!” Tish glared over at her. “I tried being nice to you, and you was sitting there at that stupid table all that time, writing a bloody dossier on us!”
“I was not writing a dossier!” Celeste shouted, then took her volume down a peg. “I-I said there was an annnn-anomaly—a difference I couldn't explain—between the bar stock and the income. I said nothing about dishonesty.”
Rude Craig snorted. “Sure about that?”
“So it's just stuff-ups, is it? Cause you've bollocksed up my pay pack twice in a row, now.”
Celeste gripped the underside of her seat to prevent marching over and chopping him in the windpipe. If she'd made any mistakes on his payroll, it was probably to pay the snidy little bastard too much. She met Ian's gaze directly. “I may have a back-room job here, but I’m still a part of the team like everyone else. And I'm happy for anyone in this room to see a printout of my email or the attached report, both of which will make it clear that I wasn't pointing any fingers.”
The group glare transferred to Ian, who looked down and tapped rapidly on his tablet. “Alright. So, as it could take a little while to get to the bottom of the 'anomaly', let's move on. Guys—your locker room is nearly done. You’ll be able to use it from Monday.”
The room rumbled with unimpressed male silence.
“O-kay. So you’re not all blown away by that. Fine. Celeste, from Monday you’ll have the room at the end of the corridor, by the new men’s room.”
She mentally plotted out where that was. “That’s a cupboard.”
“It’s a room.”
“I’ll be lucky to get an iPad in there, let alone a desk and laptop!”
Ian snorted. “Ok, so it’s a little cramped but you were after a quiet space, right? You have somewhere to focus now, but be ‘one of the team’ on your breaks.”
"Yes, but I—"
"There's no 'I' in team, honey."
Perhaps it was the watchful, contemptuous silence into which her next remark would fall, or maybe it was Ian's smile of fake, patient sweetness, but she felt surreally calm as she got up from her seat, ready to make a permanent exit. She snatched her jacket off the back of her seat. “Perhaps not. But there are three 'You's in 'unhelpful fucker,' aren’t there? Bye all!”
She tore out into the corridor and then out into the night, getting as far as the rear alleyway before the adrenalin wobbles caught up with her. She leant against the wall, feeling her legs rattle. So, this was what walking-out-of-a-job felt like. Only daring people did that. Daring, or so casual that nothing in the world seemed to touch them. She wasn't either of those things.
What have I done?
There would be no deposit, so no new flat of her own. At least not until she'd been in a new job for a while. Did she really have to storm out like that? Could she really not have handled Ian's wankerishness for just another few weeks? She knew what her mother would say about 'ruining' her career record with an early 'quit', and then Uncle Dave would weigh in, sadly pointing out that he couldn't make any exceptions for her in his office, just because she was family.
And she wouldn't see Steve again.
That one hurt. The realisation got her like a punch in the gut.
She stumbled down the alley towards Tottenham Court Road, wishing she'd never abandoned her sensible shoes. The heels slipped through rubbish hidden by non-existent lighting and she had to hold the wall to keep her balance until she’d moved past the ground grime. It was bloody cold, too. She stuck her hands in her jacket pockets, feeling her rape alarm, three quid—enough for a coffee, at least—and a glacier mint.
But nothing else.
Her heart fell. She had no keys, no wallet, no travel card…because she’d caved into the temptation to use a handbag. And the handbag was back in her locker. She felt like crying; no way could she just slide back in there after that kind of exit. But she couldn’t stand crying in alleyways, either. That was a recipe for getting mugged. She wrapped her hand around her rape alarm and marched towards the main road. She'd get that coffee, get a grip on herself, and then go back to the club through the front door and collect her vitals. The traffic noise from the open road made her feel a little safer, when a hand on her shoulder made her heart do a triple-smack against her ribs. The shock trapped the scream in her throat and she whipped the alarm out, firing it into the air. The aerosol scream lasted all of two seconds before Steve plucked the cap off and hurled it into the night, handing the silenced device back to her.
“It was meant to be shrill!”
“Sorry.” Steve scratched the back of his head. “Just came to make sure you were okay. You’re not, are you?”
He gathered her against him, stroking the back of her neck with his thumb and she gave into the relief at seeing him, resting her face against his chest. There was something comforting about the fact that his pulse seemed as hyped as hers. Part of her was still itching to beat him round the head for scaring her, but his hold felt really good.
“Let's get out of this alley.” He wrapped his hand around hers and tugged her towards the lights of the main road.
It was only when they were out on the High Street that the fog around her brain lifted and she remembered that she was going the wrong way. She tugged him to a halt under the streetlight. “Steve, I left all my stuff in the office.”
“Eh?” He peered intently down into her face.
“My bag,” she enunciated, now convinced that he had a hearing problem and was struggling with the shadows. “It's still at the club.”
He glanced back towards the club unenthusiastically. “Bollocks. Alright, we'll go back for it tomorrow. Big Craig won't have a problem letting us in.”
“Why would he have to let you in? It's your last night tomorrow, isn't it?”
“Would've been.” Steve looked sheepish. “My resignation was even punchier than yours.”
“You HIT Ian?”
“No comment. Got your phone, at least?”
She patted her back pocket, feeling its reassuring outline. “Yes, thank god.”
“I share a flat a few minutes from here. Henry's never in. Call your mum. Tell her you’re kipping over with a mate. Don’t worry about the keys for tonight.”
A mate? Celeste saw only tender sincerity in his eyes and nodded. 'Mate' could be good. It could lead to something more. Plus, she didn’t relish going back to get her handbag, or being home early enough to get a mouthful from her mother about quitting. She managed a smile for him. “Thanks. I appreciate it.”
“No probs.” He hooked his arm across her shoulders, steering her down the road. “I reckon we're both a bit jumpy, so no funny business, I promise.”
She felt drained enough just to want company and a soft surface to crash out on. She'd be fine. So long as he didn't expect her to share a bed but keep her hands off him.