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Though I say it myself, I made a lovely tart.
From my wardrobe mirror she pouted back at me: Emerald Caprice, slapper with a heart of nine-karat gold plate and very good at games. Naughty schoolgirls with cabinet ministers, Miss Moneypenny to a bishop's Bond: you name it, Emerald had done it and taken notes. Just now she was about to publish her memoirs, go on talk shows, and sell excerpt rights to the Sunday papers.
And get murdered.
"Serve you right, too," I said in her mother's Cockney accent, as Emerald had started life as Janice Trotter. "I always knew you'd come to a bad end. Your dad would turn in his grave, you little trollop. Just look at you -- your dumplings is boiling over."
But possibly not enough. Hitching up my scarlet satin Wonderbra another couple of inches, I gave myself a critical inspection. False eyelashes, perhaps? Since I have the reddish-gold hair that often goes with green eyes, my lashes aren't my best feature. False nails would be good, too. Emerald would probably go for those two-inch jobs that double as weapons, and woe betide any client who wouldn't pay.
However, the leopard-print top was perfect: two pounds fifty from a thrift shop and sprayed on. The trousers were supple black leather, borrowed from my colleague Louise. "I've only worn them once," she'd said. "I was terrified of sitting down in case they split right up the bum."
They were skintight on me, too: one of those size eights that calls itself a twelve. Still, tight was the idea. Much of my stomach was gasping for its life, forced up for air.
After slapping on lipstick in Red Hot Red I went downstairs to show Leo. Flaked out on a beanbag sofa with Henry snoring beside him, he gaped at me. "Christ, Vera. When you said tarting yourself up, I didn't think you meant it literally."
My name is actually Isabel, but I won't go into that now. I shot him a flirty pout. "If that's a gun in your pocket, darling, it's pathetic. Come to Emerald, and for fifty quid I'll turn it into an AK-47."
A grin spread over his face. "Emerald? What's all this about?"
"Felicity's party. We're away for the weekend, remember? Her pre-Christmas, getting-in-the-mood bash in Devon?"
This wiped the grin off his face. "Don't tell me it's a costume party? Please, not vicars and tarts?"
"Leo, it's a murder party. Didn't I tell you?"
This was why I'd conveniently forgotten to tell him before. "Sorry," I lied. "I could have sworn I had." I showed him the invitation, done in scary Gothic script, as Felicity liked to do things properly. It said:
MURDER MOST FOUL
You are invited to a weekend of treachery,
violent death, and ham acting at the
House of Horror
Under date and address she'd written: Come Fri. night if you can, otherwise Sat. lunch. Bloodstains will be provided. NB Do not bring bottles, Bill the Booze gives me a discount.
Leo was gaping at the address. "Colditz?"
"That's what the locals call the house. It's hideous Victorian Gothic, used to belong to her family. I told you she'd rented it for the weekend."
He was not looking exactly overjoyed at the prospect. "Is she throwing in the odd vampire as well?"
"No, and there's only going to be one tart, so don't get overexcited. Plus a bishop and a has-been rock star, among others."
His eyes closed in an oh-shit fashion. Leo had once told me he had a phobia about anything smelling of a costume party, ever since his mother had sent him to a party as a tomato sandwich at the age of six. He'd had nightmares about the abject humiliation of it, when every other boy was Batman or Robin Hood, and he'd wet himself because he couldn't get his top slice of bread off.
"Oh, come on," I coaxed. "Don't go all boring on me."
"Who am I, then? Dirty Dick, your pimp?"
"Emerald handles her own career development, thank you very much. You're down as a dodgy City type who's laundering crack money in the Turks and Caicos."
He groaned. "I can see it now. Hammed-up Agatha Christie-stroke-Clue. We'll all be sitting about waiting for dinner when the lights will go out, and somebody'll scream. Then there'll be a body on the carpet, and Lady Posh will say, 'Dear me, how very tiresome,' and we'll all pretend we don't know who dunit for the sake of form."
Even this was probably optimistic, culturally speaking. Felicity had asked a friend to dream this murder up, on the grounds that he'd written a play entitled Rude Riding Hood for the Village Players. "You'll love it," I soothed. "All you need is some red suspenders -- it'll be a doddle. You're Charles Plonker-fforbes, with two fs."
"Two fs is about right. I hope this Felicity isn't into cretinous party games as well."
I couldn't lie, because she was. Killer around the dining table was a favorite, or grown-up Pass the Parcel, with amusing little items from Ann Summers. "I'm afraid so. Like lining all the girls up on chairs, blindfolding the blokes one by one, and getting them to feel all the legs, to identify their own partner. You'll just hate that," I added, running cunning fingers through his hair. Leo had gorgeous, glossy hair, midway between wavy and curly and two shades short of black.
At last he was cracking his face, which was a relief. As I hadn't seen Felicity for months, I didn't want a reluctant player in tow ...A Girl's Best Friend. Copyright © by Elizabeth Young. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.