She stood up so fast she almost knocked her chair over. Richard caught it and steadied it. Vassily, Yusuf and Richard stood up awkwardly but politely as Isabella began hurriedly gathering up her bag and jacket. Cassie rose to follow.
‘Can I walk you girls back, then?’ asked Richard, but Isabella was already at the door to the café.
‘No. No, it’s fine. You stay. Just a phone call. I promised I’d, uh, let her know how we’re settling in. Bye!’ Isabella waved quickly, and then ducked speedily through the low wood-framed exit.
‘What?’ Cassie heard India say. ‘Did I say something wrong?’
‘I think you just put your size six Louboutins in it, sweetheart.’ That was Richard – but Cassie was already out of the door as well, hurrying to catch up with her roommate.
‘Wait, Isabella! I’ll come with you!’ Cassie called, catching up and linking her arm through her friend’s. She was relieved not to have lost Isabella in the thronging crowds.
‘Sorry, Cassie,’ said Isabella miserably. She sounded on the verge of tears. ‘You were enjoying yourself. I didn’t mean—’
‘Don’t be daft. It’s cool, I was getting a bit bored in there anyway,’ Cassie replied with a grin.
‘Me too.’ Footsteps slowed close behind them, and then Richard fell into step. ‘Thought you might need a big strong man to protect you from the hordes out here.’
Cassie glanced at him in mild surprise, but couldn’t help returning his ironic smile. ‘Yeah,’ she replied. ‘Do you know where we might find one?’
‘That is so sweet of you, Richard. I’m sorry,’ Isabella sniffed, ignoring their banter and walking fast.
‘Stop apologising, you silly cow,’ said Richard cheerfully, his loping stride easily keeping pace with her. ‘And hey, bella Isabella … I’m really sorry about Jake not coming back. What a prize arse, eh? And I’m not just talking about those tight glutes of his. You’re far too lovely for him, and I always said so. If you’re looking for a means by which to achieve some comfort …’ He trailed off, raising his eyebrows suggestively.
Cassie half expected Isabella to stop in her tracks and slap him, but she only giggled and wiped her nose. ‘Uh, I’ll let you know. Thank you, Richard.’
‘But of course,’ he said, though his eyes kept flicking towards Cassie, as though he were checking her reaction. Cassie frowned. What did she care if he flirted with Isabella? Anyway, he was only doing it to make their friend feel better, right?
Even beyond the Bazaar the streets were hot and noisy, and already the calls to prayer were floating above the chatter and thrum of the city. Richard kept up a stream of chatter as they headed for the port – pointing out landmarks, tossing out morsels of history, making off-colour jokes. By the time they reached the waterside, Isabella was just about cheery enough to wave to the boatman and call out without a wobble in her voice.
As they began to board, Cassie caught Richard’s arm, gesturing for him to hang back beside her for a moment.
‘Listen, thanks, Richard,’ she began. ‘Really. I appreciate it. She needed cheering up.’ Cassie nodded towards Isabella ahead of them.
‘No problem.’ He cleared his throat awkwardly. ‘I meant it, anyway. Jake is an arse.’
‘He’s got reason, Richard,’ Cassie reminded him darkly.
‘I know. And I’m sorry his sister di— was killed,’ he corrected himself. ‘But he doesn’t have to take it out on Isabella. She’s nuts about him, poor thing. Sometimes it’s hard to get over someone, no matter how much has happened between you.’ He muttered the last sentence, so Cassie wasn’t sure she heard correctly.
‘I agree with you about Jake,’ she sighed. ‘But I reckon the whole situation with those two is more than half my fault, so it’s kind of hard for me to discuss it with her.’
Glancing once again at Isabella, who was chatting amiably to the boatman who had helped her aboard, Richard lowered his voice. ‘And are you OK, Cassie?’
It seemed like that question was so loaded it could sink the launch. ‘I’m fine,’ she said stiffly.
‘Really? I hope so, Cassie, I honestly do.’ He swept a lock of hair out of his face. Following it with her eyes, Cassie was irritated at realising she found the mannerism attractive. ‘Because while we’re talking fault,’ he continued, ‘I suppose I’ve got a lot to feel guilty about myself.’
Cassie took a deep breath. He was leading, but now was as good a time as any. ‘True. But listen – I’ve been meaning to say thanks for that as well, Richard,’ she muttered quickly. ‘For last term? You telling me where to find Jake that night, at the Puppet Theatre? I’d never have thought of that. If it hadn’t been for you, he probably would have been dead before we even got to him.’
‘Yeah, well there are many things I regret in life.’ He winked.
‘Seriously. For all we’ve said about him, I am grateful. And of course, so’s Isabella.’
‘Even though you two nearly got killed yourselves?’
‘But we didn’t. That was a good thing you did, Richard.’ And more than Ranjit bloody Singh managed, she thought bitterly.
‘I owed you that much, didn’t I?’ He made a rueful face.
She laughed dryly. ‘Yeah. I guess.’
Very lightly, he touched her arm, then dropped his hand. ‘And look, Cassie, I know I was a pain last term, asking you to forgive me all the time, but I promise not to give you a hard time any more. OK? I’ll leave you alone now. On my honour.’