Off to Greece
At this particular moment on what was supposed to be a very special day, Rani sat with the Frommer’s guide to Greece opened in her lap. Armed with a highlighter, she turned each page into a wash of fluorescent green. She nibbled on the end of the pen, trying to concentrate on the descriptions of the sites in Athens. It was her fourth time through the paragraphs on the Acropolis, and she still couldn’t recall the details. She tossed the book onto the table, shifted in her chair, crossed one leg over the other, and bounced it faster than a rabbit with an itch. A plate of oysters sat pushed away from her, untouched, her stomach feeling as squidgy as the little mollusk sliders.
Her best friend Hayden stopped eating and looked up, smiling as he shook his head. “At least I know where you get your tight ass from,” he said before slurping up another oyster.
She leaned forward and rested her folded arms on the table. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re so uptight I should feed you charcoal instead of oysters. We’d be rich.”
Rani wrinkled the upper corner of her lip in a snarl. “We’re gonna be late.”
Hayden put a hand on her shoulder and looked directly into her eyes. “Calm down. Our flight doesn’t leave for another five hours. We have plenty of time.”
By her time frame, she and Hayden should have checked in with their luggage at JFK by now. They should have already made it through security and arrived at the gate, where they’d be waiting to board. Instead they were sitting in the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station, lounging away precious time. What if things went wrong at check-in? What if security lines strung out a mile long? She stretched her neck and attempted to loosen her shoulders.
“Better?” he asked, smiling at her.
“Why are we here anyway?” she asked.
“No reason.” He looked around the room at other diners.
“Liar. We could have taken the E train straight to AirTrain. You’re up to no good. I see it on your face.” Although they’d been best friends since their undergraduate years, they were so comfortable with each other that they felt like they’d known each other since the earth was young and cooling. And all during that time, Hayden had tried to get her to slow down and not take life so seriously.
Hayden shrugged and put on that half-smile that gave him a rakish look Rani couldn’t resist. “I like oysters,” he said.
“Right, and you won’t have any opportunities to get them in Greece.” She lowered her chin to look at him over the tops of her eyeglasses, drawing in a corner of her mouth. He blushed and the smooth skin of his chin brushed the starched collar of his oxford shirt. His perfectly aligned white teeth made him all the more enchanting. Of course, his perfectly coiffed hair, somehow rugged and unkempt, didn’t hurt either. She reached over, tousled it, and then slouched back in her chair.
“You know, you’re an Adonis, even when you’re a royal pain in the ass.”
He gestured to himself. “Moi?”
Rani rolled her eyes. “Why is it that everything feels right when I’m with you.”
He chuckled a sexy laugh that made him all the more endearing. “I feel safe to you. There’s a difference. You know I love you no matter how uptight your career…or traveling… makes you. We’re friends. There’s no chance of a romance, so there’s no risk.”
Of course he’d just affirmed what she already knew, what she’d known since the first time he’d nursed her through a breakup. She crossed her arms over her chest. She could choose a best friend, no problem, but when it came to boyfriend material, no man measured up to her standard.
“What is it with guys and commitment? They either want to jump in your pants without so much as a hello, or they’re complete nerds who wouldn’t know a real girl from a constellation. I can’t remember the last time I had mind-blowing sex where the guy didn’t shoot out the door like a comet when the chance for real conversation came.” A group of men eyeing her from a table on the opposite side of the archway laughed. She sat up and leaned in toward Hayden, her chin down. “They heard me?” she whispered.
Hayden sat back in his chair, slurping down another oyster and clearly savoring the experience. “The acoustics in here can get you into trouble if you’re not careful.”
“Now you tell me?” Rani scowled back at them.
Hayden wiped his mouth with a napkin. “I’m sorry. I thought you would have known. You’re the astrophysicist.” Next, he cleaned his fingers. “So, was it mind-blowing…or any other kind of blowing for the guys?” He winked at her.
Rani choked on a sip of water. “Hayden!” The men chortled. “You’re not helping here.”
He waved them off. “Ignore them. They’re pigs.” He pushed the empty plate away and leaned forward on his elbows. “Here’s a phrase you’ll understand,” he continued. “‘Explore the universe, seek out new life and new civilizations.’”
Rani beaded her eyes at him. “You watched Star Trek? How did I not know this?”
“It was a black hole in my childhood. I had parents who dressed me in Starfleet uniforms and dragged me to those god-awful conventions. I will say this, though, those pants sure show off a man’s best ass-ets.” The men at the next table choked on their drinks. Hayden winked at them then licked his lower lip, slow and hungry-like, devouring them with his eyes. They all looked away and shuffled in their seats.
Rani laughed. “Good one.”
“You spend all your time in that observatory except when you’re walking across campus. Your selection’s limited to sexed-up, hormone-raging frat boys, or scientists with their heads in the stars, and I don’t mean the important head either.” He waved a dismissive hand. Rani laughed. Hayden leaned in farther as if examining every pore on her face. “Live it up in Greece. It’s new territory, with a new pool of men. And, it’s the first time off you’ve agreed to in years.”
He sat back and looked at her with suspicion. “This is a vacation, right? You don’t have any conventions in Greece?”
She shook her head and Hayden raised his eyebrows in disbelief. Rani held up her hands. “No, I swear.”
“Then why are you wearing a pencil skirt, and jacket that screams ‘all business and no play.’ Have you forgotten how to have fun?”
Rani took in her clothes. “I thought I’d get better service at the ticket counter.”
“Our seats are assigned.”
“As long as we make it to the airport in time.”
He put a reassuring hand on her arm. “Trust me. I’ve traveled a lot. We’ll be on time. Now stop avoiding the issue.”
She sighed. “Okay, fine. I’m dressed like I’m going to speak at a conference. I just….” Rani slumped in her chair. She thought through the rest of the clothes she’d packed for her trip: khakis and pullover shirts for daytime, and a couple of blouses that matched the skirt she was wearing for dinners out. They had all seemed fine when she was packing. Now they didn’t.
Hayden put a hand on her arm. “This is why I brought you here. I happen to know that the right clothes make a person feel better and happier. And after Neanderthal Neal, you need a fresh outlook. Let me help you. I’ll take you to a store here that sells my designs. It’ll be fun.”
She sighed. “Okay, fine.” She rose and tucked the guidebook into her carry-on.
Hayden scanned the restaurant. “Waiter, check, please,” he called out. He extracted several bills from his wallet and threw them on the table, just as their server arrived. “Thank you, that should cover it.” The waiter nodded a thank-you, wide-eyed at the generous tip. Hayden grabbed his suitcase and followed Rani.
As they passed the group of men, she sneered and gave them the finger before Hayden pushed her out the door.
Outside the bar, people rushed by in every direction. A musty underground scent of dirt and grease wafted from the train stops. Rani and Hayden’s footsteps echoed as they walked into the Whispering Gallery. Here, low ceramic arches from several domed hallways converged at a central hub spanning more than thirty feet. Each marble archway made a perfect curve that allowed even the slightest whisper from someone standing in one corner to travel to a person standing in the opposite corner.
“Stop!” Hayden practically shouted. “Isn’t this amazing? We have to do this. Go stand in that corner. I’ll stand in this one.” He pointed at diagonal corners as people moved on.
“Hayden, this is something tourists and little kids do.”
Hayden practically pushed her towards the corner, smiling. “We’re tourists now. Come on.”
Rani recalled how she’d done this with her father when she was a child. He’d shown her the zodiac on the ceiling too and explained how her great-great grandfather had taken abuse for designing it backward. He’d simply told his critics, then, that he was inspired by the muse of astronomy, Urania, to paint it that way. In fact, years later that was how Rani had gotten her name. Her father had named her after the same muse, saying she was his inspiration.
That had been the day she’d fallen in love with the stars.
She allowed Hayden his indulgence, stepping into the corner. He jogged to the opposite one and stood facing it. “You will find true love on this trip, I just know it,” he whispered. His voice carried up, following the curvature of the ceiling, and back down into Rani’s ears.
Rani whispered, “I can hear you. Can you hear me?”
“Yes, I can hear you. Isn’t this the bomb?”
“It’s pretty cool, but really we should get…” A voice started singing out of the corner at Rani. Something about flying to the moon and playing among stars.
The tune dawned on her. “Funny, Hayden. Channeling a little Frank Sinatra?”
“Sweetie, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I’m not into necrophilia. If I was going to channel somebody famous, it’d be that Sam Heughan. Mm-mm, he’s delectable.” His voice rang through clearer and cleaner than the singer’s.
She glanced at the other corners. Only Hayden occupied the one opposite her. The stranger’s voice came from the corner again. “Raaani.” It definitely wasn’t Hayden’s. It was deeper, more resonant, and come to think of it, oddly familiar. She just couldn’t remember where or when she’d heard it. Its haunting sound made the hairs on the back of her neck stand. Two new higher-pitched voices chimed in, calling her name. “We’ve been waiting for you for so long. Please help us.”
Rani backed out of her corner so fast she bumped into Hayden who’d come up behind her. Her heartbeat thrummed in her ears. Her gaze darted in all directions, looking for the owner of the voice, but while people hurried all around them, no one else lingered in the alcove.
Hayden grabbed her arm. “You’re white as a sheet. What’s wrong?”
Her eyebrows knitted together. “Tell me you heard that.”
“The voices. The singing. Some stranger called me by name.”
Hayden looked around them. “Rani, it was just us in the corners.”
“You weren’t playing a trick on me?”
Hayden held up his hands. “No. I swear.”
With beaded eyes she glanced at the people rushing by, then grabbed his shirtsleeve and pulled him after her. “Come on, let’s just go.” She let go and cut people off weaving between them to put some distance between her and the Whispering Gallery, leaving Hayden behind. He jogged to catch up. She was about to round a corner when he grabbed her by the arm and directed her the opposite way. “This way.”
They walked into a dress shop, and a gorgeous woman with perfect makeup and hair strode to Hayden and embraced him, giving him air kisses on each side of his face. “Hayden! Good to see you. Are you here to let me have first choice on your fabulous new line?”
“Julia! Unfortunately not. We’re in a bit of a crunch. We need some vacation clothes for my friend. Are you up for it?”
“Always. Take a seat, and we’ll do the work.” She grabbed Rani by the arm and pulled her along. Still reeling from the voices, Rani trailed after the woman in silence. Within minutes, Rani stood in front of the dressing- room mirror so surprised by the image there that she calmed down at last. The body-hugging halter dress transformed her, outlining her hourglass shape. She felt like a Greek goddess. The silver heels just peeked out from the hem of the ocean-blue dress, but if she reached a toe out to the side, a shapely leg appeared from behind a slit that went all the way up to mid-thigh. She never would have picked this dress for herself but had to admit it didn’t look too bad, especially when she took off her glasses.
When she emerged, she said, “This is your design? Seriously? It’s amazing.” She modeled it for Hayden. He clapped his hands, all too pleased with himself.
“Perfect. With your auburn hair and pale green eyes you’ll have those Greek men thinking you’re a siren. Try these next.”
He’d been shopping for her while she and Julia were in the dressing room. He handed her pants that looked like they were made to fit a praying mantis. She shook her head. “I don’t think these are going to fit.”
“No protesting.” He wagged his finger at her. “Take the top too—they’ll look great together.”
In front of the three-way mirror, she pulled and stretched, used to the rigors of donning leggings. Once she had them on, she had to admit they were comfortable. They weren’t the problem. It was the shirt Hayden had picked out to go with it. It didn’t cover her backside, which at the moment looked to her like a dark moon rising.
Suddenly, the haunting voices returned. “Raaani, please remember,” one said, and then others joined in. “Yes, remember your dreams. Remember us and set us free.”
“What?” Her recent dreams had been of mythological creatures and godlike men. She’d attributed the nonsense to drinking too much during her most recent ruined relationship.
“Just stop!” She covered her ears and waited. Nothing happened. “You’re just going through a rough time, a bad breakup, and stress at work,” she muttered. She took a deep breath, peeled off the crop top, threw on a longer shirt she’d snagged on the way in, then hurried from the dressing room.
Hayden looked at her like she’d come out covered in a dirty garbage bag. “That is not what I gave you.”
“But it covers my rear more than this does.” She threw the other top at him. He rolled his eyes, tucking the shirt under his arm. He walked off, and Rani turned to inspect herself in the three-way mirror. He soon retuned with a belt, wrapped it around her waist a couple of times, and buckled it in front, cinching the shirt around her.
“There. Much better. What do you think?”
“I love it!” She pecked him on the cheek. “Thanks so much for your help.”
“You’re welcome. Go change clothes. We don’t have much time and we have one more store to hit.”
She chewed on a fingernail, hesitating at the entrance to the dressing room. No one likes to feel like she’s losing her mind. “Just make it quick,” she mumbled, then took a deep breath and closed herself inside. Immediately, the voices returned. “Raaani. Please just set us free.”
She covered her ears and slammed her eyes shut. “No, no, no!”
Julia knocked on the door. “Everything okay in there?”
“I’m fine.” Right after she said it, she felt bad for snapping at Hayden’s friend. The shadow of feet beneath the door disappeared before she could apologize. It wasn’t the woman’s fault she was going nuts.
“Raaani, please. Do it for love,” one of the muffled voices pleaded. The rest joined in the chorus.
She banged her head repeatedly with her palm, on the verge of tears. “What do I have to do to make you shut up?”
“Just set us free.”
“Okay. Poof, you’re free. Now leave me alone,” she whispered and waited for a response, counting to ten. Blessed silence. Still, instead of changing, she gathered her belongings and bolted from the dressing room. Hayden raised his eyebrows in surprise.
The saleswoman cut the tags off the clothes Rani wore and rung up the sales. Rani gave the woman her credit card without even looking at the bill, thanked her for her help, grabbed the bags, and walked out. Hayden said goodbye to Julia and caught up with Rani outside.
“This many bags for a dress and a pair of shoes?” Rani asked him. He ducked into a lingerie store before she could stop him. She reluctantly followed and grabbed him by the arm, shaking her head. “Oh no! This is where I draw the line. Besides you said we’re running late, now.”
“I didn’t say that. I said we don’t have much time. That’s different.” Hayden placed a condescending hand on his hip, looking quite catty.
Still, this proposed shopping spree made Rani uncomfortable. “I won’t try anything on. You can’t make me.”
“Not necessary.” He sized her up and went around the store picking out bras, thongs, and teddies. He soon had an entourage of salesgirls following him around, dollar signs flashing in their eyes.
“Who are you, Queer Eye for the Straight Girl? You don’t even know if they’ll fit.” Rani stood in the center of the shop, her arms crossed and a foot stuck out in front, watching them.
He stopped and raised one eyebrow, a thong dangling from an index finger. “Dare to try me?”
“Not a chance.”
“Then stop interrupting.” He threw a couple of negligées on the salesgirls’ growing piles. Rani stared out the store windows, watching people scurrying to trains, while the clerks rung up the items and bagged them.
A ram with long curled horns and a golden yellow coat strolled past the window. A ram? What the…? A black-winged horse cantered up beside him, while a white bull ambled along, looking this way and that. Lastly, a giant crab skittered past trying to keep up with the rest.
Rani shut her eyes, shaking her head, then opened them again. She peered back through the window, but the ram, hose, bull, and crab were gone. She ran out the door and scanned all directions. No animals in sight. “What is wrong with me?” she muttered, rubbing her forehead.
Hayden joined her outside, laden with more bags. “Wow! You look like you’re going to be sick. Are you all right?”
“No, I’m not. I need to get out of here. Can we please go?”
“Absolutely, but what happened?”
“I think I’m losing my mind.”
He sighed and smiled. “Oh, well that’s a relief. It’s vacay. Let your mind go a little.”
She shook her head, with a small chuckle. Hayden always had a way of saying just the right thing to calm her down. This was her vacation. They were headed to a country on her bucket list, and apparently none too soon.
“Here.” He handed her the latest shopping bag. “And you owe me two hundred dollars.”
“I owe you? This part was your idea. I have nice lingerie.”
“Well, now you have more.” He looked her over. “Are you happy with the clothes?” Rani nodded, smiling. “Good, because you do make those leggings look hot.”
“Well, they certainly won’t stop me in airport security. I couldn’t hide a pin in these pants, much less a gun.” She tugged the pant legs down a bit, hoisted her purse and backpack onto her shoulder, shifted them around, grabbed the handle of her roller bag along with her new purchases, only to have purse and pack fall from her shoulder. She huffed and pushed them back up.
Hayden moved on down the tunnel with poise and ease despite the load of bags he carried. How did he do it?
“I feel like Eliza Doolittle,” she muttered under her breath. “Hey, are you my Henry Higgins?” she yelled down the tunnel at him.
He turned and watched her coming toward him. “In six months I could pass you off as a duchess at an embassy ball.” His impersonation of Rex Harrison was a little lacking, but done with such flamboyance that Rani laughed.
She tried to look poised, but everything fell off her shoulder again and crumpled the new shopping bags. Hayden rescued her, taking the new purchases from her. She sighed with relief. “I don’t think I’m going to have room in my luggage for all this.”
He carried the added burdens with ease. “We’ll manage.”