(An unedited excerpt from CHANGE OF LIFE by Leigh Riker)

 

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 hot 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 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 heart beat thundered in her ears. She felt suddenly light-headed. Should she call 911, or did that seem 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 long-time 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. But 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 to Nora, and although she 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 Nora’s 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?”

© Leigh Riker    All Rights Reserved

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  © 2006 Leigh Riker
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