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At the chrome-and-glass Camden restaurant the skinny hostess ran her purple nail down the book and muttered, "Casey, Casey, where've you got to? Here we are, table twelve. You're the --"
"First to arrive?" Katherine finished for her. She couldn't hide her disappointment because she'd forced herself, every fiber in her body resisting, to be five minutes late.
"Are you a Virgo?" Purple Nails swore by astrology.
At Katherine's nod, she went on, "It's your destiny to be pathologically punctual. Go with it."
A waiter called Darius, with dreadlocks in a Hepburnesque topknot, pointed Katherine in the direction of her table, where she crossed her legs and shook her layered bob back off her face, hoping this made her look poised and unconcerned. Then she pretended to study the menu, wished she smoked, and swore blind that the next time she'd try to be ten minutes late.
Maybe, as Tara regularly suggested, she should start going to Anal-Retentives Anonymous.
Seconds later Tara arrived, uncharacteristically on time, clattering across the bleached beech floor, her wheat-colored hair flying. She wore an asymmetrical dress that glowed with newness, sang money, and -- unfortunately -- bulged slightly. Her shoes looked great, though. "Sorry I'm not late," she apologized. "I know you like to have the moral high ground, but the roads and the traffic conspired against me."
"It can't be helped," Katherine said gravely "Just don't make a habit of it. Happy birthday."
"What's happy aboutit?" Tara asked ruefully. "How happy were you on your thirty-first birthday?"
"I booked ten sessions of nonsurgical face-lifting," Katherine admitted. "But don't worry, you don't look a day over thirty. Well, maybe a day..."
Darius bounced across to take Katherine's drink order. But when he saw Tara a look of alarm flickered across his face. Not her again, he thought, stoically preparing for it to be a late one.
"Veen-ho?" Tara asked Katherine. "Or the hard stuff?"
"Gin and tonic."
"Make it two. Right." Tara rubbed her hands together with glee. "Where's my coloring book and crayons?"
Tara and Katherine had been best friends since the age of four, and Tara had a healthy respect for tradition.
Katherine slid a colorful parcel across the table and Tara tore the paper off. "Aveda things!" she exclaimed, delighted.
"Aveda products are the thirty-something woman's coloring book and crayons," Katherine pointed out.
"Sometimes, though," Tara said pensively, "I kind of miss the coloring book and crayons."
"Don't worry," Katherine assured her. "My mother still buys them for you for every birthday."
Tara looked up in hope.
"In another dimension," Katherine said quickly
"You look fantastic." Tara lit a cigarette and wistfully checked out Katherine's claret Karen Millen trouser suit.
"So do you. I love your dress."
"My birthday present to myself. D'you know something?" Tara's face darkened. "I hate shops that use those slanty forward mirrors so you think the dress makes you look slender and willowy. Like a poor fool I always reckon it's because of the great cut, so it's worth spending the debt of a small South American country on." She paused to take a monumental drag from her cigarette. "Next thing you know, you're at home with a mirror that isn't slanty forward and you look like a pig in a frock."
"You don't look like a pig."
"I do. And they wouldn't give me a refund unless it had something wrong with it. I said it had plenty wrong with it, it made me look like a pig in a frock. They said that didn't count. It needed something like a broken zipper. But I might as well wear it seeing as I went up to my Visa limit to buy it."
"But you were already up to your Visa limit."
"No, no," Tara explained earnestly "I was only up to my official limit."
"Okay," Katherine said faintly.
Tara picked up the menu. "Oh, look," she said in anguish. "It's all so delicious here. Please, God, give me the strength not to order a starter. Although I'm so hungry I could eat a child's arse through the bars of a cot!"
"How's the no-forbidden-foods diet going?" Katherine asked, although she could have guessed the answer.
"Gone," exhaled Tara, looking ashamed.
"No harm done," Katherine consoled.
"Exactly." Tara was relieved. "What harm indeed. Thomas was raging, as you can imagine. But really! Imagine a diet that tells a glutton like me that nothing is forbidden. It's a recipe for disaster."
Katherine made murmury soothing noises, as she had every time over the past fifteen years when Tara had fallen off the food wagon. Katherine could eat exactly what she liked, precisely because she didn't want to. From her glossy exterior she looked like the kind of woman who never had struggles with anything. The cool gray eyes that looked out from underneath her smooth dark bangs were assured and appraising. She knew this. She practiced a lot when she was on her own.
Next to arrive was Fintan, whose progress across the restaurant floor was observed by the staff and most of the clientele. Tall, big, and handsome, he wore a bright purple suit with buttonholes punched all over both sleeves, through which his lime-green shirt winked and twinkled. A plane could have landed on his lapels. Discreet murmuring of "Who's he...?" "He must be an actor...?" "Or a model...?" rustled like autumn leaves, and the feel-good factor among the Friday-night diners experienced a marked surge. Truly, everyone thought, this is one stylish man. He spotted Tara and Katherine, who'd been watching him with indulgent amusement, and gave a huge smile. It was as if all the lights had been turned up.
"Gorgeous." Katherine nodded at his suit.
When Fintan had... Last Chance Saloon
. Copyright © by Marian Keyes. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.