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Nora Pride was having a heart attack.
Wearing her best black silk power suit, in the middle of an Interior Design Association luncheon at the Sandestin Hilton, of all places, she broke out in a sweat that seemed totally unrelated to the still-blistering end-of-September day outside the posh Florida hotel. The grand ballroom's frigid air-conditioning wasn't doing her a bit of good.
Her pulse raced. It skipped then thumped, hard, and Nora coughed twice, a knee-jerk physical reaction that tried to stabilize the beat. She prided herself, so to speak, on her appearance. On keeping up appearances, in fact.
My God, I can't die in public. That would be humiliating. Nora fumbled through her handbag for her cell phone, ever ready not only for a quick business deal but also for any emergency, like her mother's unexpected coronary several years ago, in case Nora was needed again in a hurry. Now, it seemed, her own life was at risk. Still, she hesitated to pull out the phone and make a fuss.
At the podium someone droned on. "...and with the Gulf area's incredible growth rate in housing—a boom that seems to have no end or even a peak—our design talents in this region will continue to be highly sought..."
Nora didn't hear the rest. Her heartbeat thundered in her ears. She suddenly felt light-headed. Should she call 911, or was that premature? She would hate calling in a false alarm, but as her daughter often pointed out, Nora was much better at caring for others than for herself.
Pulse still pounding, she tried to restore a sense of inner calm. This might be simple anxiety, an everyday, garden-variety panic attack. True, she'd never had one before, but...
Weren't cardiac events more typical in the early morning than at noon? Whew, the room did seem hot. Nora glanced across the table. Her gaze landed on her longtime nemesis, Starr Mulligan, with whom Nora had disagreed again only yesterday about a new client they both wanted—badly.
The memory provided a brief distraction. Nora's business, in particular, had been thriving until the past couple of years. During a pair of especially powerful hurricane seasons, some of her clients had, sadly, lost their homes, and until they rebuilt their devastated properties they obviously had no use for Nora's design services. There were no interiors. Then more recently, another, luckier client had reneged on his payment, and although Nora didn't want to refer the account to a collection agency, she needed the money. Her cash flow was hurting, and the competition with Starr wasn't helping her financial picture. Despite some personal misgivings about the new client they both wanted, Nora still needed the job.
Starr reminded her of Elizabeth Taylor soon after her first marriage to Richard Burton. A few pounds too heavy but still attractive, if not the stunning beauty Liz had been in her youth, with that same dark hair and those arresting lavender eyes.
Nora wasn't mean-spirited by nature. She liked helping people, and she wanted to get along with Starr. But no matter what Nora did, they always seemed to wind up at each other's throats. And it was Nora who tended to back down, to let Starr win.
At the moment, Starr's coal-black hair failed to reflect the overhead light, and her normally piercing gaze stayed as dull as dust—Starr's usual reaction to a boring after-lunch speaker. For a second, Nora forgot her own problems to wonder if Starr had fallen asleep with her eyes open. Maybe she was like a canary in a coal mine, and too much carbon monoxide floating through the cold air had zapped her into wide-eyed yet vague unconsciousness. Now it was causing Nora to...blush.
She reached for her napkin to fan herself.
Women didn't have heart attacks at her age. Her birthday might be circled on her calendar next week in red—Nora would turn fifty—but she had hoped for more time before she had to fret about her health like Leonard Hackett, one of her favorite clients, who could be a world-class hypochondriac.
She couldn't die. People needed her. Her mother, Maggie, who had already lived two-thirds of her life playing the helpless widow, was beginning to fail. Sooner or later she would require Nora's help, whether or not Maggie wanted it. Then there were Nora's two grown children. Savannah and Browning might sometimes accuse Nora of intruding in their lives (meddling was the word they used), but they, too, needed her. And what about her friends? Her dog?
But then, as if she'd been sacked like a quarterback during the Super Bowl, the truth struck her. Nora dropped her napkin with a soft plop on the linen tablecloth and jerked upright on her ivory damask-upholstered chair. Her eyes again met Starr's across the round table.
And wouldn't you know? Starr couldn't resist arching a penciled eyebrow, which drew the attention of several other people in their circle. Worse for Nora, in the suddenly too-quiet ballroom Starr's voice rang out like a Buddhist temple gong for all to hear.
"Hot flash, darling?" * * * "Mark, you have to do something," Nora murmured later that afternoon, flat on her back in her gynecologist's examining room. The peaceful blue and gray decor, which Nora had done, didn't soothe her, but to her immense relief he had squeezed her into his schedule. Nora gazed down her body at her spread legs in the stainless steel stirrups she had hated since before her first pregnancy.
Dr. Mark Fingerhut patted her hand. "Nora, relax."
His touch felt warm, comforting. He must remember her tendency to overreact.
"Why do you always say that? Relax? You know I despise white coats." Actually, she adored him—all of his patients did—if not, at the moment, the specialty he had chosen to make his living.
Mark pushed his stool back from the exam table. He flicked dark hair from his eyes. They were brown, like bitter chocolate, but compassionate.
"Listen. I know you're feeling a bit needy..."
"What I need, apparently, is to take ten years off my life."
"Would that be chronological?" he said, sounding amused.
"Or biological? There's a difference, you know." But of course he could afford to look smug. To Nora, he appeared too young to be a doctor at all, much less a highly respected gynecolo-gist. And her daughter, Savannah, who was perhaps his newest patient, agreed with Nora. His boyish smile belied the fact that he was pushing forty.
"I have women in their early forties who are perimenopausal," he said.
"What does that mean?" Fresh panic beat inside her like a hummingbird's strong yet delicate wings.
Mark sighed, but his dark eyes twinkled behind his black oversize frames.
"In a way, you're overdue." With a quick glance at her chart, he snapped off his latex gloves. "Fifty—actually,
50.8—is the median age at which women in this country stop ovulating, which means some do when they're slightly younger, others a bit later. Like those women, you're about to undergo what was euphemistically known before the sexual revolution and women's lib as The Change. These days, we tell it like it is."
Her heart sank. "My ovaries are dying."
"Well, not exactly. Slowing down, I'd say." His smile broke through as he smoothed his hair. "You can sit up now. Put on your clothes and I'll see you in my office. Then we'll talk."
He stepped out of the room into the hall. "Your future. There are some choices of treatment for your symptoms we need to consider."
Symptoms? Alone, like the dying woman she'd feared she was at lunch, she saw her life flash before her eyes. Her childhood, alone with Maggie after Nora's father died. Her marriage to Wilson, and the flaming torch she'd carried for years after their divorce. The births of her two children, and the joy they had given her, and still did. Despite her recent attempts to smooth away the lines of experience with a little Botox, and those necessary thrice-weekly trips to the gym to keep in reasonable shape, she was clearly, in Mark's opinion, on her way out.
In the empty room, squishing excess K-Y jelly, Nora wriggled into her panties and skirt, tucked in her silk top and then slipped into her shoes. Blinking, she grabbed her jacket.
"The future," she murmured.
She ducked out of the exam room into the corridor, then bypassed Mark's office and kept going toward the reception area and the door that faced the elevator in the hall. He could be wrong. Naturally, Nora had attended informative lectures (only half listening), read the occasional magazine article on the topic (and instantly dismissed it as irrelevant), and talked to her friends (who all suddenly seemed older than she was).
She'd thought she was prepared. But this was her. One silly hot flash didn't mean she was entering another stage of her life.
Menopause—she shuddered at the term—happened to other women.
Not to Nora Pride.
On her way home, Nora stopped at Starbucks for a mocha Frappuccino, her preferred grande size, although she wasn't sure it would be a big enough pick-me-up today. Back in the car, she pulled out her cell phone to call her mother. In spite of their usual differences, she needed to hear Maggie's voice, needed perhaps to weep in Maggie's sympathetic ear.
Unfortunately, as was often the case, she didn't get the chance. When Maggie answered, Nora said brightly, "Hi, it's me. I know it's been a while," she added so Maggie wouldn't point out that Nora hadn't phoned last week. "How are you?"
"How else would I be? I'm bored. I watch CNN all day. At six o'clock I switch to Fox News. My balanced diet of current events," she said. "Big whoop." Her tone changed in a heartbeat from dry to sad. "If I watch enough TV, it helps me—a little—to bear up after losing your father."
Nora zipped along in the rush-hour traffic, the AC on high, sipping at her Frappuccino while speaking into her hands-free phone. She envisioned her mother's graying hair, corkscrewed into the unflattering style Maggie still preferred. Nora could almost see her mother's baggy house dress and her white ankle socks scrunched down into the heels of her worn-over, laced-up shoes. Like some Ice Age mummy, in forty years of widow-hood Maggie hadn't changed.
"Daddy died when I was ten." Nora willed herself to find the patience she had lost earlier in the day. She threaded her way between an SUV and a semitrailer rig on the narrow stretch of Route 98 that led through Destin. "We both miss him. But isn't it time you got past that, and went on with your life?"
"Life? I'm seventy-five years old," Maggie informed her as if Nora didn't know.
Nora's pulse hitched. "Are you feeling all right? I told you to make an appointment with your cardiologist. If you want me to, I can take you." It wasn't that far from Destin to the Commonwealth of Virginia, but sometimes just far enough for Nora's peace of mind. Now she felt worried. She could block out the time on her schedule, even cancel a few appointments if she had to, to spend a couple of days with her mother. Take care of business, meaning her mother's health.
With luck, maybe Maggie would welcome Nora's company. Nora doubted that. She envied Savannah, who had spent most of her girlhood summers in Richmond with Maggie. To this day, she and her grandmother were close, and Nora wished she could duplicate their relationship.
Maggie snorted. "Why bother with the doctor? That man books months ahead. By the time I really need him, I won't need him," she insisted.
Nora bit back a sigh. No wonder they didn't get along. Like Maggie, she didn't relish change in her life (take today, for instance), but she'd had her share. Nora was a survivor, and she remained an optimist. She blew a stray hair from her forehead, then counted to ten before she took a last sip of her Frappuccino. "If you don't want to see your regular doctor..." Nora hesitated before adding, "then come visit me. Better yet—" she took the plunge "—live with me. As soon as you get here we'll get you a complete workup."
This was an old argument, and Maggie didn't accept it now. "I don't want to move to Destin. I have plenty of friends here. I refuse to become a burden on my children."
Child, Nora corrected in silence. Her only brother lived in Hawaii, and Hank Jr. had made it clear years ago that their mother was Nora's responsibility. His interests seemed to consist of a collection of surfboards, the highest seas he could find, and endless women with the kind of deeply tanned skin that wouldn't age well. He hadn't held a steady job in years, unlike Nora, who had been working since she was fifteen. And seeing to Maggie's future rather than her own.
"When it's my time, I'll go." Maggie didn't mean the move to Destin.
Nora ignored that. She didn't want to think about losing Maggie. She slammed her empty cup into the holder on her console, steering a path with her other hand on the wheel through rush-hour traffic past the posh Silver Sands Mall. Overhead the sky was a clear, brilliant blue, and outside the car she knew the temperature still hovered in the eighties. It was too hot to open the windows, but Nora had the urge to inhale the bracing salt sea air along with the ever-present humidity. "The weather's nicer here," she pointed out. "Don't you know how I worry about you alone in that house?"
"It's my home," Maggie said stiffly. She had rarely left it in fifty years.
"Yes, and it has three flights of narrow stairs and an outdated kitchen with faulty wiring. What if there was a fire?"
"My problem," Maggie insisted. "I should think you have enough to handle. What about Savannah, living with that man before they're even married? In my day, that would be a scandal. And then there's Browning, who may have a fancy-sounding job with the government—he's a spy, if you ask me— yet he hasn't a clue about settling down. How many times has he 'fallen in love' in the past six months?"
Nora sighed. "More times than I can count."
She swung her white Volvo convertible, the top of which was up today to shade her from the sun, off the two-lane road onto a side street that connected to her subdivision. And made one more try. "Please listen to reason. I'm your daughter. Your only daughter."
Maggie's tone hardened. "I hate Florida. What would I do among that bunch of leather-skinned sunbathers in retirement? They look like alligators. Listen to me, Nora Marianne Scarborough Pride, I am still your mother."
After a few more minutes when neither of them budged from their usual positions, Nora said a wistful goodbye, then hung up, feeling frustrated. Well, that had gone badly, which, considering the rest of her day, shouldn't have come as a surprise. First Starr, then Mark, now Maggie. Nora hadn't even mentioned her troubles, after all.
Thank goodness her day was at an end.