Layla dropped the stack of letters and met Noor Ghaffar’s stony gaze. She opened her mouth to explain why she was taking pictures of this woman’s mail but for once in her life, no words came. Not in any language.
Noor crossed the room in four strides, her gold chandelier earrings jangling. “Who do you think you are, inviting yourself into my private office?” She stood before Layla, hands on hips, glaring down at her from her heavily kohl-lined eyes.
Layla swallowed hard. What if it got back to Noor’s husband that she had been poking around in Noor’s office? Gamal Ghaffar could use his government connections to look into her. Her cover could be blown.
“I— I’m sorry.” Layla sank to her knees and scooped up the envelopes that had scattered across the silk Persian rug.
Noor snatched the mail from Layla’s hands and flung it on her desk. Then she turned on her kitten heel and strode over to the intercom panel, her manicured index finger extending toward the red security button.
Shit. Layla glanced through the window at the liquid pewter of
Lake Geneva and the cold blue Alps beyond, as if a plausible excuse would materialize. When it didn’t, she turned to a nearby ficus tree and dry-heaved into its decorative container, buying herself a few seconds more to think. Altitude sickness? No. They weren’t high enough in Geneva.
Noor turned from the intercom and stared at Layla with an expression of horror. “If you’re going to be ill, kindly avoid the rug. It’s a priceless antique.”
Ill. Drunk. Confused. Yes. That’s how she’d play this out. That shouldn’t be too hard. How many times had Layla woken in the night to steer her disoriented, partying roommates back into their correct rooms, or to the bathroom? Back home, that happened all the time. Back home. Wherever that was.
The room tilted. Her stomach lurched. And suddenly Layla wasn’t acting anymore. Osso buco, Dover sole, raclette—the entire contents of a full day of lavish ski chalet meals and après-ski cocktails all emptied out into the ficus tree pot. The very real fear of blowing her cover had finally hit.
When she looked up, wiping her mouth, she saw Noor’s face lined with concern, not unlike her own mother’s face when Layla got sick as a little girl. She blinked away tears, remembering the steady presence of her mother’s hand on her back.
“I was looking for the bathroom,” Layla explained, deliberately slurring her words. “Think I had too much to drink. Took a wrong turn.”
Noor shot an accusing glare at Layla’s iPhone on the desk. “I know it looks weird. I can explain.”
“Please do.” Noor pressed her burgundy-painted lips firmly together.
“I just love your taste in art. I wanted to see what galleries you support, and remember them so I can check them out myself.” Layla turned on her phone and pulled up her photo gallery. “Once I realized I’d had too much to drink, I didn’t trust myself to remember, so I took a picture of a brochure.” She quickly deleted all the photos she’d taken except the last one, the return address of a gallery in the Netherlands. She showed that to Noor as proof. “Well, my goodness, you could have just asked me that,” said Noor.
“I am always happy to talk about art.” She gave an exasperated sigh, but then the hard lines in her face softened slightly, and the furrows between her thick eyebrows disappeared. “All right. I suppose I can overlook a certain degree of foolishness. That includes the drinking.”
“Sorry about that,” Layla whispered. She looked down at her lap.
“We have a modest supply of alcohol here, and I do not mind a glass of wine now and then, especially when we are away from Cairo,” Noor continued. “But my husband does generally frown on drinking.”
Her eyes darted toward a framed photo of Gamal Ghaffar on her desk. “Use restraint, Layla. The circle we move in is rather small. You understand.”
“Of course. Thank you.” Layla pressed her hands together, as if in prayer. “I’m really, really sorry, Mrs. Ghaffar. I made a huge lapse of judgment. This will never happen again.”
Noor gave a graceful nod. “We’re all human. And you’ve been a positive influence on Jehan thus far. Her father and I don’t care much for the company she keeps in Cairo, but since meeting you she’s even been talking of grad school a little. So I accept your apology.” With a flick of her jewel-encrusted hand, she indicated that Layla should now stand.
Layla rose to her feet, unsteadily, leaning on the desk for support. She felt genuinely lightheaded now.
“I’m ordering you straight to your room to rest. I’ll have seltzer water sent up to settle your...