‘Friends with benefits,’ Cara echoed weakly, her stomach roiling at the thought.
That friendliness turned to consternation. ‘Have I spoken out of turn?’
‘Not at all,’ Cara said, knowing as she said the words that they sounded weedy and pathetic.
The woman slapped her own forehead. ‘I have a very big mouth—forgive me, I meant no harm. I didn’t know you were serious about him.’
‘I’m not.’ Cara strove to affect nonchalance. From the pity in the other woman’s eyes, she failed miserably at it.
‘I must use the bathroom now,’ the woman said, shuffling to the door. ‘Please, forget what I said. I didn’t know—’
‘I’m not serious about him,’ Cara interrupted, her horror at the woman’s assumptions trumping her innate shyness. ‘I’m well aware Pepe has the attention span of a goldfish.’
‘That is a little unfair,’ the woman said with a slight crease in her forehead. ‘To goldfish.’ With a quick wink she entered the bathroom and shut the door behind her.
Taking rapid breaths, Cara rejoined the party, trying desperately to contain the nerves that threatened to overwhelm her.
As she sought out Pepe she could feel people staring at her, feel their curiosity about this stranger in their midst. For this was no social-networking occasion, this was a proper party for friends to mingle, catch up on each other’s lives, drink too much alcohol and behave indiscreetly. She couldn’t even have a glass of wine to calm her nerves.
Eventually she found him chatting to a couple of women, a tall glass of beer in his hand. Walking towards them, she almost came to a stop when she saw one of the women cup his buttocks and give them a squeeze. How Cara’s feet carried on moving, she had no idea, but it felt as if a million hot pins were being poked into her skin.
Pepe laughed and grabbed the wandering hand. He brought it to his lips. Whatever he said as he kissed it made the wandering-hand woman burst into laughter.
‘Cara,’ he called, spotting her and beckoning her over. When she reached him, he placed an arm around her waist, his hand gripping her hip. The same hand that just moments earlier had held another woman’s hand so he could kiss it.
‘I don’t think I’ve introduced you—this is Lena and Francesca. Ladies, this is Cara.’
The two women looked at her with unabashed interest. Wandering-hand lady held her hand out. Much as she wanted to refuse, Cara forced herself to shake it, all the while thinking, This hand just squeezed Pepe’s butt. This is another of his ex-lovers.
How many of them were here?
The hot pins poking her skin were now strong enough to make her brain burn.
‘Ladies, look after her for me while I get her a drink.’ With that, Pepe disappeared into the crowd.
Francesca, the non-wandering-hand woman, an adorably plump blonde who had squeezed herself into a black dress that gave her a cleavage like two pillows, was the first to speak. ‘I don’t think we have met before, non?’
Cara shook her head.
‘How did you come to meet Pepe?’
At least it was a question she could answer. Even so, it took two attempts for the words to form. ‘His brother is married to my best friend.’
Francesca’s eyes gleamed. ‘Ah, Luca. Now that is one fine specimen of man,’ she said, turning back to Lena.
The two Frenchwomen spoke in their native language before Lena addressed Cara. ‘Je regrette un...non English.’
‘Lena doesn’t speak English,’ Francesca said apologetically. ‘I am translating.’
Even if Cara had actually paid attention in her senior school French classes, there was no way she would have been able to keep up with the speed with which the two women spoke.
As Cara stood there like a spare wheel while the two women conversed loudly before her, that same dreadful outsider feeling doused her all over again.
‘I need to find Pepe,’ she whispered, backing away, horribly aware her cheeks were flaming.
Slipping back into the crowd, she spotted him easily enough, standing by the bar with what looked like a glass of orange juice in his hand. It came as no surprise to find him talking to a woman. This woman’s hand was playing with the lapel of his tuxedo jacket.
If her brain could burn much more it would boil. Everything inside her felt taut, as if it had been wound into a coil. Perspiration broke out on her skin.
‘Where are you going?’ Pepe caught hold of her wrist as she passed him.
She hadn’t even realised her legs were moving.
‘To the bathroom.’ She said the first thing that came into her mind.