Gwen Cassidy needed a man.
Failing that, she'd settle for a cigarette. God, I hate my life, she thought. I don't even know who I am anymore.
Glancing around the crowded interior of the tour bus, Gwen took a deep breath and rubbed the nicotine patch under her arm. After this fiasco, she deserved a cigarette, didn't she? Except, even if she managed to escape the horrid bus and find a pack, she was afraid she might expire from nicotine overdose if she smoked one. The patch made her feel shaky and ill.
Perhaps before quitting she should have waited until she'd found her cherry picker, she mused. It wasn't as if she was drawing them like flies to honey in her current mood. Her virginity was hardly presented in its best light when she kept snarling at every man she met.
She leaned back against the cracked seat, wincing when the bus hit a pothole and caused the wiry coils of the seat to dig into her shoulder blade. Even the smooth, mysterious, slate-gray surface of Loch Ness beyond the rattling window that wouldn't stay closed when it rained—and wouldn't stay open otherwise—failed to intrigue her.
"Gwen, are you feeling all right?" Bert Hardy asked kindly from across the aisle.
Gwen peered at Bert through her Jennifer Aniston fringed bangs, expensively beveled to attract her own Brad Pitt. Right now, they simply tickled her nose and annoyed her. Bert had proudly informed her, when they'd begun the tour a week ago, that he was seventy-three and sex had never been better (this said while patting the hand of his newlywed, plump, and blushing bride, Beatrice). Gwen had smiled politely and congratulated them and, since that mild show of interest, had become the doting couple's favorite "young American lassie."
"I'm fine, Bert," she assured him, wondering where he'd found the lemon polyester shirt and the golf-turf-green trousers that clashed painfully with his white leather dress shoes and tartan socks. Completing the rainbow ensemble, a red wool cardigan was neatly buttoned about his paunch.
"You don't look so well, there, dearie," Beatrice fretted, adjusting a wide-brimmed straw hat atop her soft silvery-blue curls. "A little green about the gills."
"It's just the bumpy ride, Beatrice."
"Well, we're nearly to the village, and you must have a bite to eat with us before we go sightseeing," Bert said firmly. "We can go see that house, you know, the one where that sorcerer Aleister Crowley used to live. They say it's haunted," he confided, wiggling bushy white brows.
Gwen nodded apathetically. She knew it was futile to protest, because although she suspected Beatrice might have taken pity on her, Bert was determined to ensure that she had "fun." It had taken her only a few days to figure out that she should never have embarked upon this ridiculous quest.
But back home in Sante Fe, New Mexico, as she'd peered out the window of her cubicle at the Allstate Insurance Company, arguing with yet another injured insured who'd managed to amass an astounding $9,827 worth of chiropractic bills from an accident that had caused a mere $127 in damage to his rear bumper, the idea of being in Scotland—or anywhere else, for that matter—had been irresistible.
So she'd let a travel agent convince her that a fourteen-day tour through the romantic Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland was just what she needed, at the bargain price of $999. The price was acceptable; the mere thought of doing something so impulsive was terrifying, and precisely what she needed to shake up her life.
She should have known that fourteen days in Scotland for a thousand dollars had to be a senior citizens' bus tour. But she'd been so frantic to escape the drudgery and emptiness of her life that she'd only cursorily glanced through the itinerary and not given her possible traveling companions a second thought.
Thirty-eight senior citizens, ranging in age from sixty-two to eighty-nine, chatted, laughed, and embraced each new village/pub/bowel movement with boundless enthusiasm, and she knew that when they returned home they would play cards and regale their elderly and envious friends with endless anecdotes. She wondered what stories they would tell about the twenty-five-year-old virgin who had traveled with them. Prickly as a porcupine? Stupid enough to try to give up smoking while taking the first real vacation in her life and simultaneously trying to divest herself of her virginity?
She sighed. The seniors really were sweet, but sweet wasn't what she was looking for.
She was looking for passionate, heart-pounding sex.
Sex that was down and dirty, wild and sweaty and hot.
Lately she ached for something she couldn't even put a name to, something that made her restless and anxious when she watched 10th Kingdom or her favorite star-crossed lovers' quest, Ladyhawke. Were she still alive, her mother, renowned physicist Dr. Elizabeth Cassidy, would assure her it was nothing more than a biological urge programmed into her genes.
Following in her mother's footsteps, Gwen had majored in physics, then worked briefly as a research assistant at Triton Corp. while completing her Ph.D. (before her Great Fit of Rebellion had landed her at Allstate). Sometimes, when her head had been swimming with equations, she'd wondered if her mother wasn't right, if all there was to life could be explained by genetic programming and science.
Popping a piece of gum in her mouth, Gwen stared out the window. She certainly wasn't going to find her cherry picker on this bus. Nor had she entertained even a modicum of success in the prior villages. She had to do something soon, because if she didn't, she would end up going back home no different than she'd arrived, and frankly that thought was more terrifying than the idea of seducing a man she hardly knew.
The bus lurched to a halt, pitching Gwen forward. She struck her mouth on the metal frame of the seat in front of her. She cast an irate glance at the rotund, bald bus driver, wondering how the old folks always seemed to anticipate the sudden stop, when she never could. Were they simply more cautious with their brittle bones? Strapped into the seats better? In cahoots with the ancient, portly driver? She dug in her backpack for her compact and, sure enough, her lower lip was swelling.
Well, maybe that will entice a man, she thought, poking it out a little more, as she dutifully followed Bert and Beatrice off the bus and into the sunny morning. Sucker lips: Didn't men fixate on plump lips?
"I can't, Bert," she said, when the kindly man tucked her arm in his. "I need to be alone for a little while," she added apologetically.
"Is your lip swollen again, dear?" Bert frowned. "Don't you wear your seat belt? Are you sure you're okay?"
Gwen ignored the first two questions. "I'm fine. I just want to go for a walk and gather my thoughts," she said, trying not to notice that Beatrice was regarding her from beneath the wide brim of her hat with the unnerving intensity of a woman who had survived multiple daughters.
Sure enough, Beatrice pushed Bert toward the front steps of the inn. "You go on, Bertie," she told her new husband. "We girls need to chat a moment."
While her husband disappeared into the quaint, thatch-roofed inn, Beatrice guided Gwen to a stone bench and pulled her down beside her.
"There is a man for you, Gwen Cassidy," Beatrice said.
Gwen's eyes widened. "How do you know that's what I'm looking for?"
Beatrice smiled, cornflower-blue eyes crinkling in her plump face. "You listen to Beatrice, dearie: Fling caution to the wind. If I were your age and looked like you, I'd be shaking my bom-bom everywhere I went."
"Bom-bom?" Gwen's eyebrows rose.
"Petunia, dear. Booty, behind," Beatrice said with a wink. "Get out there and find a man of your own. Don't let us spoil your trip, dragging you about. You don't need old folks like us around. You need a strapping young man to sweep you off your feet. And keep you off them for a good long while," she said meaningfully.
"But I can't find a man, Beatrice." Gwen blew out a frustrated breath. "I've been searching for my cherry picker for months now— "
"Cherry ... Oh!" Beatrice's round shoulders, swathed in pink wool and pearls, shook with laughter.
Gwen winced. "Oh, God, how embarrassing! I can't believe I just said that. That's just what I started calling him in my mind because I'm the oldest living ... er— "
"Virgin," Beatrice supplied helpfully, with another laugh.
"Doesn't a pretty young woman like you have a man back home?"
Gwen sighed. "In the past six months I've dated oodles of men...." She trailed off. After her prominent parents had been killed in a plane crash in March, returning from a conference in Hong Kong, she'd turned into a veritable dating machine. Her only relative, her grandfather on her father's side, had Alzheimer's and hadn't recognized her in forever. Lately, Gwen felt like the last Mohican, wandering around, desperate for someplace to call home.
"And?" Beatrice prodded.
"And I'm not a virgin because I'm trying to be," Gwen said grumpily. "I can't find a man I want, and I'm beginning to think the problem is me. Maybe I expect too much. Maybe I'm holding out for something that doesn't even exist." She'd voiced her secret fear. Maybe grand passion was just a dream. With all the kissing she'd done in the past few months, she'd not once been overcome with desire. Her parents certainly hadn't had any great passion between them. Come to think of it, she wasn't sure she'd ever seen grand passion outside of a movie theater or a book.
"Oh, dearie, don't think that!" Beatrice exclaimed. "You're too young and lovely to give up hope. You never know when Mr. Right may walk in. Just look at me," she said with a self-deprecating laugh. "Over-the-hill, overweight, in a dwindling market of men, I'd resigned myself to being a widow. I'd been alone for years, then one sunny morning my Bertie waltzed into the little diner on Elm Street where the girls and I breakfast every Thursday, and I fell for him harder than the fat lady at the circus takes a tumble. Dreamy as a young girl again, fussing with my hair and" — she blushed — "I even bought a few things at Victoria's Secret." She lowered her voice and winked. "You know you've got hanky-panky on your mind when perfectly respectable white bras and panties suddenly won't do anymore, and you find yourself buying pink ones, lilac ones, lime green and the like."
Gwen cleared her throat and shifted uncomfortably, wondering if her lilac bra showed through her white tank top. But Beatrice was oblivious, chatting away.
"And I'll tell you, Bertie certainly wasn't what I thought I wanted in a man. I'd always thought I liked simple, honest, hardworking men. I never thought I'd get involved with a dangerous man like my Bertie," she confided. Her smile turned tender, dreamy. "He was with the CIA for thirty years before he retired. You should hear some of his stories. Thrilling, positively thrilling."
Gwen gaped. "Bertie was CIA?" Rainbow Bertie?
"You can't judge the contents of the package by the wrapper, dearie," Beatrice said, patting her cheek. "And one more piece of advice: Don't be in too much of a rush to give it away, Gwen. Find a man who is worthy. Find a man you want to talk with into the wee hours, a man you can argue with when necessary, and a man who makes you sizzle when he touches you."
"Sizzle?" Gwen repeated doubtfully.
"Trust me. When it's right, you'll know," Beatrice said, beaming. "You'll feel it. You won't be able to walk away from it." Satisfied that she'd said her piece, Beatrice planted a pink-lipsticked kiss on Gwen's cheek, then rose, smoothing her sweater over her hips, before disappearing into the gaily painted inn. Gwen watched her retreat in thoughtful silence.
Beatrice Hardy, age sixty-nine and a good fifty pounds overweight, walked with confidence. Glided with the grace of a woman half her size, swayed her ample bottom and serenely displayed her cleavage.
In fact, she walked like she was beautiful.
At this point, Gwen Cassidy would settle for a man who didn't require a stiff dose of Viagra.
Gwen paused to rest atop the small mountain of rocks she'd climbed. After discovering she couldn't check into her room at the inn until after four o'clock, and firm in her resolve to not march into the nearest shop and buy a pack of that-word-she-wasn't-saying-anymore, she'd grabbed her backpack and an apple and trotted off into the hills for an introspective hike. The hills above Loch Ness were dotted with outcroppings of stone, and the group of rocks upon which she stood extended for nearly half a mile, rising in breakneck hills and falling in jagged ravines. It had been a tough climb, but she'd relished the exercise after being cooped up in the stale air of the bus for so long.
There was no denying that Scotland was lovely. She'd tromped gingerly through patches of hawthorn, skirted prickly thistles, paused to admire a rowan tree's bright red berries, and kicked about a few spiky green horse chestnuts that heralded autumn with their tumble to the ground. She'd stood long moments admiring a field of cross-leaved heath that ascended and blended with a hillside of purple-pink heather. She and a dainty red deer had spooked each other as she'd passed through the woodland clearing in which it grazed.
Peace had settled over her, the higher she'd hiked into the lush meadows and rocky hills. Far beneath her, Loch Ness stretched twenty-four miles long, over a mile wide, and, in places, a thousand feet deep, or so said the brochure that she'd read on the bus, highlighting the fact that the loch never froze in the winter because of its peaty, slightly acid content. The loch was a huge silvery mirror shimmering beneath the cloudless sky. The sun, nearly at its zenith, marked the approaching noon hour and felt delicious on her skin. The weather had been unusually warm for the past few days and she planned to take advantage of it.
She flopped down on a flat rock and stretched out, soaking up the sunshine. Her group was scheduled to remain in the village until seven-thirty the following morning, so she had ample time to relax and enjoy nature before reboarding the tour bus from hell. Although she'd never meet an eligible prospect up here in the foothills, at least there were no phones ringing, with irate insureds on the other end, and no senior citizens casting nosy glances her way. She knew they gossiped about her; the old folks talked about everything. She suspected they were making up for all the times they'd' held their tongues when they were young, invoking the impunity of advanced age. She found herself rather looking forward to senior immunity. What a relief it would be to say exactly what she thought for a change.
And what would you say, Gwen?
"I'm lonely," she muttered softly. "I would say that I'm lonely and I'm damned tired of pretending that everything's fine."
How she wished something exciting would happen! It just figured that the one time she'd tried to make something happen, she'd ended up on a senior citizen's bus tour. She may was well face it, she was doomed to live a dry, uneventful and lonely life.
Eyes shut against the bright rays, she groped for her backpack to get her sunglasses but misjudged the distance and knocked the bag off the rock. She heard it bounce amid the clatter of loose stones for several moments, then a protracted silence, and finally a solid thump. Tucking her fringed bangs behind one ear, she sat up to see where it had fallen. She was dismayed to discover that it had tumbled off the rock, down a gully and to the bottom of a narrow, forbidding precipice.
She moved to the lip of the aperture, eying it warily. Her patches were in her pack, and she certainly couldn't be expected to remain a non-that-word-she-wasn't-thinking without something to take the edge off. Gauging the depth of the rocky cleft to be o more than twenty-five to thirty feet, she decided she was capable of retrieving it.
She had no alternative; she had to go down there after it.
Lowering herself over the edge, she felt for toeholds. The hiking boots she'd laced on that morning had rugged, gripping soles that made the descent a little easier; however, as rough stone grazed her bare legs, she found herself wishing she'd worn jeans instead of her favorite pair of khaki Abercrombie & Fitch short-shorts that were so in vogue. Her lacy white tank top was comfortable for hiking, but the faded denim button-down she'd tied around her waits just kept getting tangled about her legs, so she paused a moment to untie it and let it waft down onto her backpack. Once she reached the bottom, she'd tuck it in her pack before climbing back up.
It was slow, strenuous going, but half her life was in that pack—and it was arguably her better half. Cosmetics, hairbrush, toothpaste, floss, panties, and many other items she'd wanted don her person in case her luggage got lost. Oh, admit it, Gwen, she thought, you could live out of that pack for weeks.
The sun beat down on her shoulders as she descended, and she started to sweat. It figured that the sun had to shine directly into that crack at that moment, she thought irritably. Half an hour earlier or later and it wouldn't have penetrated there.
Near the bottom, she slipped and inadvertently kicked her bag, wedging it firmly at the bottom of the narrow crevice. Squinting up into the sun, she muttered, "Come on, I'm trying to quit smoking down here, you could help me anytime now."
Easing herself down the last few feet, she placed one foot on the ground. There. She'd made it. Hardly enough room to turn around in the tight space, but she was there.
Lowering her other foot, Gwen grabbed her button-down and stretched her fingers toward the strap of her pack.
When the ground gave way beneath her feet, it was so sudden and unexpected that she scarcely had time to gasp before she plunged through the rocky bottom of the crevice. She fell for a terrifying few seconds, then landed with such force that the impact knocked the air from her lungs.
As she struggled to draw a breath, crushed rock and dirt showered her where she lay. Adding insult to injury, the backpack fell through the hole after her and thumped her in the shoulder before rolling off into the darkness. She finally managed a ragged breath, spit hair and dirt out of her mouth, and mentally assessed her condition before attempting to move.
She'd fallen hard and felt bruised from head to toe. Her hand were bleeding from h er panicked attempt to catch herself as she'd plunged through the jagged opening, but, blessedly, it didn't appear she'd broken any bones.
Gingerly, she turned her head and gazed up at the hole through which she'd fallen. A stubborn ray of sunshine filtered down on her.
I will not panic. But the hole was an impossible distance above her head. Worse still, she'd not passed any other hikers during her climb. She might yell herself hearse, yet never be found. Shaking off a nervous shiver, she peered into the gloom. The shadowy blackness of a wall loomed a few yards away, and she could hear the faint trickle of water off in the distance. Obviously, she'd fallen into an underground cavern of sorts.
But the pamphlet said nothing of any caves near Loch Ness—
All thought ceased abruptly as she realized that whatever she was lying upon was not rock or soil. Stunned by the abrupt fall, she'd naturally assumed she'd landed on the hard floor of a cavern. But, while it was hard, it was certainly not cold. Warm, rather. And given that until a few moments ago no sunlight had penetrated this place, what were the odds that something could be warm in this cool, damp cave?
Swallowing, she remained utterly still, trying to decide what she was lying on without actually looking at it.
She nudged it with a hipbone. It gave slightly and it did not feel like soil. I'm going to be sick, she thought. It feels like a person.
Had she fallen into an old burial chamber? But then, wouldn't it be nothing but bones? As she debated further movement, the sun reached its zenith and a brilliant shaft of sunlight bathed the spot where she'd fallen.
Summoning all her courage, she forced herself to look down.