Hot Flash Holidays (14 page)

Alice swallowed. For some bizarre reason, perhaps because she’d spent her life working in a corporation, reading and writing and living by rules, a register appeared in her mind, clicking along like a David Letter-man list. Oddly, these were not corporate rules, but the rules of the Hot Flash Club:

Don’t let fear rule your life.

When you’re depressed, get up, get dressed, and get out of the house.

Celebrate every chance you get.

Rule number three—that was the one she wanted now. It lay in front of her like a path.

She smiled. She tried to
beam.
“Congratulations!”

The surprised delight on her son’s face was a blessing.

Alice felt the air around her shift, as everyone released held breaths. “We should celebrate!” Alice hoped the others didn’t hear the wobble in her voice. “Shirley, is there any Champagne around?”

“Yeah, there is, but it’s not really
good
Champagne.”

“Could we break it out?” Alice turned to Alan and Jennifer. Jennifer was crying quietly, smiling at the same time. Alan looked like he was going to faint. The sight nearly broke Alice’s heart. “I hope you two will let us throw you a party.”

“Could we invite our friends?” Alan asked.

They had friends? Alice’s head spun. Of course they had friends! Alice had just never met them or heard about them, because she’d held Jennifer and Alan at arm’s length.

Alice smiled. “Of course you could invite all your friends!”

Shirley said, “I’ll get the Champagne.”

Faye jumped up. “I’ll get the glasses.”

Jennifer said, “I—I—I have to go to the ladies’.” Shyly, she confessed, “Since I’ve been pregnant, I have to pee all the time.”

“Honey,” Alice said, “I hear you.”

She sank back in her lawn chair, exhausted, vaguely aware of all the others rushing in and out of The Haven’s kitchen.

Gideon leaned over and whispered in her ear, “You did good, Alice.”

“Thank you. My brain feels like a bath mat.”

“Here’s the Champagne!” Shirley called, her arms wrapped around bottles.

“And here are the glasses!” Faye followed, carrying a tray.

Everyone rose as Shirley and Justin and Faye opened the bottles, aiming out toward the garden. With a satisfying popping noise, the corks exploded. Champagne surged up in a froth of bubbles. They filled the glasses and passed them around.

Alice raised her glass in a toast. “To Jennifer and Alan!”

“To Jennifer and Alan!” everyone chimed.

With a noise like thunder, fireworks burst in the sky.

15

WHEN MARILYN WOKE ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, SHE lay still and smiling in her unfamiliar bed, allowing herself to savor the moment. She was here!

She was in Scotland, on the very shore of Loch Ness!

She’d found this little B&B on the Internet, made reservations, flown to Edinburgh, and driven here all by herself. She felt brave. She felt like a woman on a pilgrimage.

She jumped up and pulled on her khakis, sweatshirt, and hiking boots. She ran a brush through her sensible chin-length hair, which, she noticed, needed another touch-up. The white was showing through the auburn. She shrugged. Who cared? She’d worry about that sort of thing when she was back home. She fastened her money belt around her waist—a stylistic faux pas that would make her Hot Flash friends shriek with horror— grabbed her room key, and headed down the stairs for breakfast.

The dining room was small and oddly decorated, with a red-and-green tartan rug and orange-and-pink floral wallpaper. The delicious aroma of coffee curled from the urn on the sideboard.

A young, Nordic-looking couple glanced up from their table. “Good morning.”

“Good morning,” Marilyn replied.

She poured herself a mug of coffee and sat next to the window. Through the lace she could see the green hill-side rising upward, and a steady rain pouring down.

That was all right. She’d brought a good oilcloth raincoat, knowing that it would rain at least half the days she was here, if not all of them. It was mild outside, nearly seventy, and once she started walking, she’d warm up quickly.

The vigorous, ruddy-cheeked owner of the B&B, garbed in a flowered, frilled apron, took Marilyn’s order for a full breakfast, returning with a plate of scrambled eggs, sausage, fried mushrooms, a potato scone, white toast, and a mysterious blob of brown. Marilyn ate quickly, eager to start her day.

The Nordic couple went out. A man came in. He was around Marilyn’s age, bald except for a rim of gray hair, spectacled, lanky, and lean. Like Marilyn and the young couple, he wore hiking clothes. He greeted Marilyn with a nod and a smile, then sat down at the remaining table, opened a folder, and took out a sheaf of papers. Marilyn strained to read them—it was an unbreakable habit of hers, spying on other people’s work—but they were too far away.

She’d finished her breakfast, except for the odd brown substance. Now she decided to try it—why not? When in Rome, after all. She tasted a forkful—
hm.
Perhaps onions and pureed corned beef?

“Pardon me,” the man asked from across the small room. “But do you know what that is?” He had a marvelous Scottish accent.

Marilyn hesitated. She didn’t want to seem like an ignorant tourist. But actually, she
was
an ignorant tourist, so she confessed, “I have no idea.”

“Blud pudding.”

“Excuse me?”

“Blud pudding. Blood and suet and seasonings.”

“Ah.” Marilyn put her fork down. “Thank you for telling me.”

“Some develop a taste for it.” His eyes sparkled.

“Yes, well, perhaps not for breakfast.” Washing down a big swallow of coffee, she rose. “Have a good day.”

“Aye, you, too.”

Back in her room, she checked her pack: bottles of water, some trail mix, a chocolate bar, maps, tissues, and sunglasses, in case the weather changed. She pulled on her rain jacket, skipped down the stairs, and went out into the Loch Ness day.

For twenty-three miles, Loch Ness cut like a narrow knife blade through the Great Glen dividing the north of Scotland from Inverness to Fort William. Geologists knew the loch lay in a fault line active since mid-Devonian times, 400 million years ago, but on this lovely summer day, Marilyn forgot all that, as her senses exulted in air softened by a gentle rain, the tantalizing azure sparkle of the water, and the emerald hills rising steeply on either side. She was here, now.

Leaving her car in the B&B lot, she strode downhill and along the road toward the Loch Ness Monster Exhibition Center. It was hardly a scientific headquarters, but she wanted to tour it nonetheless, and she was not disappointed. Ignoring the souvenir shop with its Nessie dolls and mugs, she focused on the sketches and detailed accounts by witnesses who’d testified to the creature’s existence over the years. St. Columba saw the monster in A.D. 565. Would a saint lie? In 1987, a million-dollar sonar exploration called Operation Deepscan found evidence of a mysterious moving mass larger than a shark. And most recently, a member of the coast guard discovered with his own sonar an enormous underwater cavern, which he called “Nessie’s Lair.” A professor at Harvard and MIT had also spent years searching for the creature.

Crowds shuffled past the exhibits and clogged the passageways. Most of them were families with children hugging soft stuffed toys of a friendly, smiling, slightly goofy Nessie. This wasn’t a sweet cartoon character invented by Disney, Marilyn wanted to remind them.

Leaving the throngs, Marilyn returned to the fresh air. Just on the other side of A82 and down by the loch was Castle Urquhart, a stony ruin set on a small promontory. Marilyn wished its stones could talk.

The rain had stopped, and shafts of sun striped the landscape. Marilyn wanted to lean against the rocks and stare out at the blue waters, but a busload of senior tourists arrived, clucking like chickens as they fluttered down to the castle, so she dug out her map, planned a route, and set off walking.

Paths wound up- and downhill, through forests and bogs, past streams and rivulets. Marilyn wandered along, taking her time, never getting too far from a view of the lake. Occasionally, she thought of her Hot Flash friends, or wondered how Ruth was doing, and whether her granddaughter was over her cold. Sometimes she thought of Faraday, and wondered whether she’d ever be with a man she loved.

But mostly she let her mind drift through the ages. She thought about the geology of this land, the metamorphic schists underlying the hills, the altered limestones, the shattered granite. She imagined the last Ice Age, just a geological moment ago, when this great glen was occupied by an enormous glacier. Everything would have been white then, blindingly white beneath the sun. She thought about the moving on and holding of time, how it never stopped but often saved.

She loved the ache in her legs from all the climbing up and down the lumpy, uneven, tufty hills, so unlike the flat streets of the city where she worked. She felt she was breathing differently, seeing more, hearing more clearly. She felt her body sparkle as her lungs pulled in new air, skimming through her blood like transparent vitamins.

In her excitement, she forgot to eat. It was nearly four in the afternoon when she felt her physical system plummet. Shaky, tired, and weak, she collapsed on a rock on the edge of the loch while she munched her trail mix.

Today there was no wind, so the loch lay still, except for the occasional wake caused by a boat. Some enterprising soul motored by, his launch loaded with tourists fishing off the side or taking pictures or gazing through binoculars. Marilyn sat watching for over an hour, but not a ripple disturbed the surface.

When she’d regrouped, she rose and headed back to her B&B. She showered, then collapsed on the bed for a nap, waking two hours later with a rumbling stomach.

Outside it was still light—the sun stayed up past nine o’clock in the summer. She went down to the front hall to study the brochures and decide where to eat.

The Scotsman she’d met at breakfast this morning was there. He wore jeans and a flannel shirt and smelled of the same soap Marilyn had just used in her shower.

“Hello,” he greeted Marilyn. “Did you have a good day?”

“It was
bliss,
” Marilyn told him.

“Are you a Nessie hunter?”

She hesitated. She didn’t want him to think she was just some kind of superstitious cryptozoologic nut. “I’m a paleontologist, actually. I teach in Cambridge— the American Cambridge—and I study trilobites, which are—”

“Trilobites, you say! Indeed! I know what they are. I’m a paleoartist.”

“Get out!” Marilyn exclaimed.

“But it’s true.” He held out his hand. “Ian Foster.”

Marilyn looked at his hand as if it were made of diamonds. “
The
Ian Foster? You’ve done the restoration drawings of the plesiosauria?”

“That’s right.”

“Oh, my gosh!” Marilyn had to restrain herself from going into adolescent shrieks. “Oh, what a pleasure to meet you! What are you doing here?”

“The same thing as you, I imagine, taking a little holiday, going for walks, airing out my poor old brain.” Folding his arms, he leaned against the wall. “I’ve just finished a critical analysis of existing and dependent phylogenies via cladistic methods.”

“How fascinating!” Marilyn was too enthralled to be shy. “I’d love to hear about it.”

The Nordic couple came through then, muttering to each other in guttural tones. They stopped to say hello, then passed on, out the door.

Ian looked at Marilyn. “Listen, would you like to join me for dinner? There are several fairly decent restaurants in Inverness, which is only about fifteen miles from here.”

“I can’t think of anything I’d rather do!” Marilyn told him, adding to herself,
Except wait on the banks of the
loch, watching for Nessie.

They sat together at a small table in a large pub, eating fresh trout, drinking Scots lager, and talking about paleontology like reunited old friends.

Thin and gawky, Ian was not a handsome fellow. His Adam’s apple protruded sharply, bobbing up and down as he spoke, and pouches bagged beneath his dark eyes, slightly hidden by his heavy glasses. His forehead bulged out, and his bald head stuck up from his rim of hair like an ostrich egg from a nest. But his hands were beautiful, his fingers long, lean, and supple, and he had nice, even white teeth. Something about him was very attractive to Marilyn. Perhaps she was high on simply being here, but the longer she spoke with Ian, the more she wanted to touch his elegant hands. She even found herself fantasizing about pressing her lips to his, and she didn’t feel the slightest bit guilty, because Ian was widowed, with a grown son living in Australia.

After dinner, they ordered fresh berries for dessert. Wanting to linger, they asked for cheese and crackers, and after that, they had a brandy. Finally, they left the pub and drove back along the loch to the B&B. It was raining again, so for a while they sat in Ian’s car, talking, until the windows misted over and Marilyn shivered— she assumed from the damp. They ran inside to find the lights were dim, the common rooms empty, the building hushed.

Ian looked at his watch. “It’s almost midnight.”

“Oh, dear. We should go to bed,” Marilyn said reluctantly.

“How much longer are you here for?” Ian asked.

“Ten more days.”

“Well.” He hesitated. “Would you like to join me tomorrow? We could hire a boat to take us out on the loch. Have a little picnic.”

“Oh, that would be wonderful!”

He smiled at her enthusiasm. “Good, then. I’ll see you at breakfast.” He held out his hand and shook hers. “I’m awfully glad I met you, Marilyn.”

“Yes,” she said, flushing. “Me, too.”

In all her life, Marilyn had never experienced the kind of happiness she felt over the next few days. In her twenties, she’d married Theodore for three reasons. First: she knew she was a science nerd, too engrossed with her studies to be attractive to most men. Second, the time was right. Third, Theodore had been the one to ask her. But during the long years of her marriage, her own scientific interests had been overshadowed by her husband’s brilliance, and by his lack of interest in anything that didn’t further his own career or studies. Then he left her for a younger woman.

She’d shared common scientific interests with Faraday, but she’d never felt like she felt right now with Ian: as if they were two halves of a whole, two pieces of one jigsaw puzzle, best friends who’d been waiting all their lives to meet.

Ian made her laugh. She made him laugh. Often they said the same word at the same time. They walked at the same pace—they were so comfortable together.

Ian was from Edinburgh. He taught at the university there, and he was an ardent Scotsman. One day when the rains poured down, he drove her to visit Cawdor Castle, where Shakespeare set
Macbeth
and where, after a delicious lunch, Marilyn got to lean on a fence and gaze to her heart’s delight at a herd of shaggy red-haired Highland cows. But mostly they hiked the hills around Loch Ness, sharing lunches from their backpacks, talking, or silently enjoying each other’s company.

The night they met, Ian had shaken her hand when they parted. The next night, he pressed a gentle kiss on her forehead. The third night, he kissed her cheek. By the fourth night, Marilyn thought she’d hit him with a full-body tackle, wrap her legs around his hips, and clutch him like an octopus if he didn’t get a little more passionate—and he either read her mind or sensed her urges, because that night he pulled her to him and kissed her heartily.

“Oh, my!” she sighed when he released her.

They were sitting in his little car, rain singing down all around them.

He pulled back, studying her face as well as he could. It was late. They could only barely see each other’s face.

“Marilyn,” he said softly. “What shall we do? I’d like to take you to bed, but we’re both practically strangers, and you’re going back to the States in a few days.”

Her mouth had gone dry. Her heart was thudding. “I think you should take me to bed.”

Quietly, they crept into the B&B and up the stairs to Marilyn’s room. They locked the door. Ian put his arms around her and they pressed against each other, all up and down. This kiss was different from the others, rougher, warmer, more urgent. Marilyn wanted him inside her so much she was afraid she’d explode.

They pulled the covers back and fell on the bed with all their clothes on. As they kissed each other’s mouths and eyes and faces, Marilyn unzipped her denim skirt and wrenched it off while Ian unzipped his khakis. Ian rose up on his arms and Marilyn tilted her hips up. He slid inside her, fitting as perfectly as the loch outside fit into the glen. Marilyn felt her eyes go wide with surprise as her body adjusted to this delicious intrusion. Ian moved slightly, and they both groaned. He lowered his head and brought his mouth down to kiss her. She clutched him to her and kissed him back. They rocked together slowly, letting the tension build. Something loosened inside her. A landslide of sexual pleasure rode through her pelvis. Clutching him for dear life, Marilyn surrendered to a force she’d never known her body contained.

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