The nearest entrance to the Staff Club, facing Hallward Library, was open. Light spilled out from the windows. The lounge area was already full; the restaurant had obviously already been closed, but a buffet had been set up in case anyone had an attack of the nibbles. There were flashes of light at the edge of my vision, alerting newcomers to the present of a disco masquerading in the deli area.
A tall, slim figure with long blonde hair swept up in a French twist and an intricate red and black lace mask that matched her dress (of course) appeared almost as soon as we came through the door, her arms flung wide. “Darlings!” she exclaimed, enfolding me in a bony hug. I hated hugging Sarah. Not because I hated Sarah, which was why Faye hated hugging her. No, I hated hugging Sarah because there was so little of her that it always felt like hugging a twig. Or one of those stick insects. She was so damn insubstantial.
“Hello, Sarah,” I said as she kissed me on both cheeks. Continental pretensions, check. Any bets on how long it would take her to graduate to three kisses?
“Sarah,” Faye said, her mouth stretched into some semblance of a smile as Sarah clasped her in an embrace and repeated the kisses.
“Faye, of course,” Sarah said, with that knowing little smile Faye despised so much. “Your smile is unmistakeable.”
Given that Faye’s smile currently resembled a grimace, that was hardly a compliment. From the strained expression on what little of Faye’s face I could see, I suspected she was contemplating knocking Sarah’s delicate little mask off her face and possibly breaking her nose in the process. That would have been entertaining, but alas, Faye had had too much practice at controlling herself around unpleasant people. Pity. The result might have been a change for the better; Sarah’s most recent nose job wasn’t an improvement over the previous model. She would have done better to stick with the nose she’d had when we were in grad school.
“Everything looks great, Sarah,” I said quickly, looking around at the decorations.
“Well, thank you so much, Emily,” she said, turning to me with a delighted smile. “It’s not so very much, of course, but you know I do try!”
I managed to keep the smile on my face. Try, my arse. Sarah was worthless at organising things. We’d learned that the hard way a few years earlier when Alex’s birthday happened to fall in one of their on-again phases and she’d had the idea of throwing an elaborate party for Alex’s birthday. She had been supposed to take care of the details and had promised that everything was coming along perfectly, but almost everything had fallen through and in the end we’d all just gone out to the pub. Good night, but not exactly what we’d had in mind when Sarah had proposed a spectacular night out!
“I am so glad you could make it, darlings,” Sarah was saying as I dragged my attention back to her face. “It just wouldn’t be the same without you!” Her pretty little mouth twisted into pout as she added, “I was so disappointed to hear Nate wouldn’t be coming. Come down ill, has he?”
“Ugh,” I said, making a face. “He’s got flu. He’s been sick all week, which has been god-awful to live with. You know men — they get a little sick and whinge like they’re bloody well dying.”
“Oh, the poor thing,” Sarah said sympathetically.
“I think he’s on the mend now, thank god,” I said. “He gets so damn cranky when he’s ill!”
“Ick,” Sarah said, although she’d been nodding understandingly. “The poor dear thing. Well, we’ll miss him tonight, of course!” She glanced behind us and then said, very casually, “But where’s Alex? I thought he was coming?”
I exchanged glances with Faye. Neither of us could ever keep up with Alex and Sarah’s relationship. It was too damn complicated. I had a feeling that at the moment they were off rather than on, which made me wonder if a) Alex had arranged for that business meeting tonight to avoid Sarah and b) Sarah was supposed to know where Alex was if he hadn’t told her himself. Probably. She knew everything else about him, after all.
“He’s in Notts tonight,” I said after a moment’s consideration. “He had a meeting rescheduled at the last minute for tonight.”
“I’d have thought he’d have told you,” Faye said, casing the crowd for, I assumed, men with attractive personalities.
Sarah pouted. “He didn’t say a word! Are you certain?”
“Uh…well, yeah,” I said. “I had a text from him this afternoon to that effect. But I haven’t actually seen him in, like, a week. We’ve all been stupidly busy. Faye?”
“What?” Faye started and dragged her attention away from a tall, broad-shouldered man across the room. “Oh. I’ve hardly seen him all week. I think I saw him briefly on Sunday, but like Fish said, we’ve all been stupidly busy the last couple weeks and I don’t think he’s been in the house much. Always buys loo roll, though, thank god.”
I laughed. “Mark of a good housemate! Nate never remembers unless I prod him about it.”
“Why are we talking about loo roll?” Sarah demanded.
“Sorry,” Faye said dismissively. “I forgot we were talking about you.”
“So Alex definitely won’t be here?” Sarah asked anxiously.
“Nope,” I said. “Not unless he’s got a body double at his meeting.”
Sarah gave me a funny look and chewed briefly on her lower lip. “Dammit.” She sighed. “We’re in the off stage of our relationship again,” she said in a confiding tone of voice. Yeah. Surprise, surprise.
“We’re aware,” Faye said dryly, startling me. I hadn’t known. But then, Faye lived with the man. Presumably she clocked the on and off periods based on when Alex was moody and when Sarah actually spent time at the house. “Trust me,” she continued, “We know more about your and Alex’s relationship than we’d ever care to know. Get him drunk and he spills his guts.” A malicious grin hovered briefly at the corners of her mouth and then vanished. “Believe me.”
“Oh.” Sarah looked disconcerted for a moment and then said, “Well, it’s just that I was hoping he might be here so we might be able to get back on, if you see what I mean.”
“You poor thing,” Faye said solicitously. “How remarkably rude of whomever Alex is meeting to ruin your plans.” She patted Sarah’s hand and I hid a smile as she added, “They should have realised instinctively, of course that he had a very important party to go to. Drunken memories to relive.”
“Faye,” I said warningly, as Sarah’s expression grew stonier.
Faye rolled her eyes and let her eyes wander for a moment before returning her attention to the man across the room.
“Faye,” I said again, quietly.
I tapped my left ring-finger. “Wedding band.”
“Drat.” She considered for a moment, and then said hopefully, “Maybe he’d be up for a torrid one-night stand? He does have a nice bum…”
I choked back a laugh, half prompted by the ridiculousness of Faye’s comment and half prompted by the expression on Sarah’s face.