Toni Tildesley surveyed herself critically in the full-length mirror.
At 27 years old, her face had lost the childish roundness but was yet to be affected by any signs of aging. The hair was still naturally blonde but cut stylishly short and the outfit . . . well, when it came to riotous colour, less was now more. Still small but a killer pair of heels and being perky in all the right places made up for any lack of height.
The only accessory she really needed was some arm candy but unfortunately you couldn't just pick that up from Claire's.
As she applied a final coat of gloss to her lips, a horn beeped outside. Grabbing her small clutch purse, she hurried out of her small flat and into a waiting cab.
"Stamford Plaza, please," she told the driver and settled into the back seat. Industry parties were usually such a bore although the last one had been quite spectacular with the sports reporter from Macton News making a drunken pass at one of his junior reporters in front of his wife and editor - who were the same person. Oh - and there was the small matter of the guy from the Sherrington Shopper. Toni squirmed a little, remembering the drunken snog, the 6am wake-up in a strange hotel room and the fake phone number she'd given the next morning.
Then there was the time before with the guy from Channel 4, and then before that it was some photographer . . . Toni shuddered. Well, not this time. She would eat the food, drink the drink, make polite small talk and leave at a respectable hour. Alone.
The cab pulled up in front of the Stamford Plaza. A sign on a stand spelt out WELCOME GUESTS - SOUTH-WEST MEDIA ANNUAL DINNER DANCE - MAIN BALLROOM in gold letters and, after checking her reflection in one of the many mirrors lining the lobby walls, she climbed the stairs to the main ballroom and groaned inwardly when she reached the doors. Name tags. Thank God there was no-one currently manning the table and enforcing the wearing of. She picked up hers and stuffed it into her purse, planning to file it in the bin on her first trip to the Ladies. As if she was going to stick a pin through a perfectly good dress, not to mention give lecherous journos a chance to learn her name by staring fixedly at her breast.
She quickly scanned the seating arrangement list pinned to the noticeboard and took note of her table number before pushing open the heavy door and heading into the dimly-lit main ballroom.
As usual, the room was packed full of people eager to drink their way through England's alcohol supply and doing a very good job of it. She took her place at table 9. Her wine glass was immediately filled by an attentive waiter. An overzealous accountant who reminded her vaguely of Colin Mathews was to her left and a vapid court reporter was to her right. The low light made it almost impossible to see the plates in front of her, let alone anyone she recognised and table-hopping was so desperate. Toni smiled politely throughout the meal – especially at the waiter who ensured her glass was never more than half-empty. She picked at her smoked salmon, then her dukkah-encrusted chicken breast, endured the long and ponderous speeches and award presentations, waved away dessert and headed for the bar.
"G and T, please," she said to the bartender. "Double, if you don't mind."
Drink in hand (twist of lime, not lemon, very posh), she surveyed the main ballroom. The band had started up, playing classic hits of the 50s. There was some sporadic dancing happening but very little else.
"Norbridge's glittering night of nights, huh?" said a familar American voice behind her.
Toni fought the impulse to whirl around and instead turned slowly, her heart in her mouth.
Spike Thompson was standing there with that same wry smirk on his face and a glass of scotch in his hand. If anything he was even more handsome with age, with a faint shadow of stubble on his face, wearing a sharp suit with an open neck and no tie, looking as elegantly dishevelled as any rock star could ever hope to be.
"Lookin' good, Tids," he drawled. "Nearly didn't recognise you in, uh . . ." he gestured to her little black dress " . . . monochrome. Shouldn't you have a name tag?"
She didn't bother to correct him on the nickname she had dropped after high school. It was all she could do to stop from gaping at him, open-mouthed.
"I lost it," she said, finally.
Spike reached into his inner jacket pocket. "No problem. Here, have mine."
Toni took the plastic covered badge and read "SPIKE DAY".
"Oh," she said. "Bit of a mix-up?"
"I should be used to it by now," Spike took the name tag back and tossed it into the bin. "What do you know. I lost mine too."
"So, you're here with Lynda, then?" Toni asked.
The corner of Spike's mouth twitched. "Uh, no. We broke up."
"Oh, I'm sorry," said Toni, ignoring the lurch her stomach gave. "So it hasn't been long then, I take it?"
Spike checked his watch. "Not really. About half an hour. Between entree and mains, I think it was. The people at table 2 should be able to tell you for sure."
"Oh," said Toni uncomfortably. "I didn't notice. I didn't even see your names on the list. So is she still here, then?" She couldn't help but glance around, slightly nervously.
"No, no. Gone. Took the car." Spike shrugged indifferently and Toni felt oddly relieved. "And my house keys, come to that." He drained his drink and replaced the glass on the bar. "Same again, please. And another for my lady friend." The drinks were duly dispensed and Spike handed hers over. She had to juggle the other glass that was still three-quarters full.
"Drink up, Tids, it's a reunion!"
"Right," said Toni, "Err, cheers." She drained the first glass and placed it on the bar.
"Good girl," replied Spike. "Cheers." He did the same to his glass. "Same again?"
"Why not," replied Toni, a little giddily. "So, what have you been up to, Spike? Besides, err . . . I mean, are you well?"
"I'm drunk," replied Spike with forced cheer. "Which is as well as it's going to get tonight, I figure."
"Oh. Right." Toni cast about for something to say. "Well, you don't look drunk. You look good."
"So do you," replied Spike. "All . . . grown up, you might say."
Toni laughed lightly. "Yes, I'm a big girl now."
"Yes, you are." Spike's gaze drifted down her body in a way that would feel sleazy coming from anyone else but Spike, though drunk, managed to make it seem flattering. "Who would have thought the little kid in the crazy colours would have turned into such a knockout?"
"Oh, stop," said Toni, afraid she was about to blush. "You haven't changed a bit. Ever the player, you are."
Spike grinned cheekily. "Don't you want to play with me? You always used to."
Toni forced herself to roll her eyes.
"Your hand is shaking," Spike observed. "Either that, or you're trying to drown out the band. Can't say I blame you."
"I'm just a little chilly," replied Toni tartly. "Don't flatter yourself, Thomson."
Spike looked amused. "You know, you sounded just like Lynda then."
"Turn you on, did it?" she snapped.
"Oh, that happened when I first recognised you," he replied and took the glass from her hand.
"What are you doing?" she asked. He slid his hand into hers. The warmth after holding the cold glass felt like her hand was melting.
"Change of scenery," he replied. "Come on."
Before she could protest, he had dragged her from the bar and out through the main ballroom, down the stairs and into the lobby. They were about to go through the lobby doors when Spike paused.
"Wait, I just have to do something . . ." He walked over to the gold lettered sign and swiftly rearranged a few letters. "I've been dying to do that all night. Come on."
Toni stole a glance behind her and burst out laughing. The sign was now welcoming guests to the SOUTH-WEST MEDIA ANAL DINNER DUNCE.
They climbed into a cab that was waiting in front of the hotel.
"Where are we going?" she asked.
"Your place," replied Spike, casually. "But neither the driver or I know where that is, so you might have to help us out."
"What makes you think you're welcome?" she demanded. "Do I look like some kind of . . ."
"You wouldn't leave an old friend without a place to stay in a time of personal crisis, would you?" he asked. "Come on, Tids. Otherwise it's a hotel room, and frankly, I'd prefer the company."
Toni sighed. "18 Primrose Court," she told the driver. "But you're on the couch," she said to Spike.
Spike shrugged. "We'll see."
They reached Primrose Court and Toni unlocked the door, mentally sweeping the flat for anything potentially embarrassing that could be on display, like underwear drying on the radiator.
"Nice," said Spike as they entered. "Got anything to drink?"
"If you wanted to drink, why didn't we stay at the hotel where it was free?" she asked, opening the cupboard above the fridge. "I've got half a bottle of Stolli, will that do?"
"Fine. I'll pour," he said, coming up behind her. "You go and slip into something more comfortable."
Toni turned. "I'm not slipping into . . ." she broke off. It's hard to talk when someone is kissing you.
"Stop," she said quietly.
"No," he said and kissed her again.
"I mean it," she said half-heartedly.
"Then say it like you do," he said and kissed her again.
"It's not right," she said. "You're with . . ."
"We broke up."
"So are you."
"Do you always do this . . ."
"Then why . . ."
"Because I need to."
"You're taking advantage of me."
"Look who's talking."
"You've always known I . . . and now you just . . ."
"You're not putting up much of a fight."
"You'll be back in Lynda's arms tomorrow."
"How do you think that makes me feel?"
"Don't think about the emotional. Let's concentrate on the physical."
"I . . . oh."
"There's plenty more where that came from."
"This isn't right."
"Feels all right though, doesn't it?"
"Spike . . ."
Toni woke up to a sore head, a rolling, sick feeling in her stomach and a mobile ring-tone that was not her own.
Movement in the bed beside her recalled the sensation of the night before and she kept her eyes firmly shut as he answered the call. The voice on the other end was loud and sharply familiar even after so long.
"Well, what did you expect . . . at a friend's. No-one you know," came the low reply and the voice on the other end faded as he moved around the room, picking up discarded clothing. "No . . . I'll meet you at the . . . fine. I'll see you there."
The phone clicked shut and Toni continued to feign sleep until Spike left her without saying a word.