Reconsidering Riley

Jayne Murphy hadn't intended to tackle the rugged Northern Arizona wilderness armed with not much more than pink stilettos, a tin of Altoids, and two hardcover copies of Heartbreak 101: Getting Over The Good-Bye Guys. But when she arrived at the Hideaway travel adventure lodge shortly before eleven on the sunny Monday morning that was to begin her weeklong trip, it became immediately clear to Jayne that intentions didn't necessarily mean a thing.

Reality, on the other hand, did.

And Jayne's reality included none of the things she'd been prepared for. Where were the valets? she wondered as the airport shuttle jolted to a stop in a cloud of red dust. Where were the private spa cabins? The chic outdoorsy patio for dining al fresco? The back-to-nature Jacuzzis?

In their places were a lot of boulders, a hand-lettered "parking" sign, two picnic tables beneath the trees, and a single long, low building accented with smaller outbuildings. It looked like Abe Lincoln's summer home. Like Frontierland come to life. Like, like—Jayne took a deep breath and fought back her panic at being thrust unexpectedly into such hardscrabble surroundings, trying hard to fit the scene into her personal frame of reference—like a grunge-meets-L.L. Bean ad layout.

Minus the glossiness, of course.

She swiveled in her seat toward the van driver who'd transported her and her five companions from the airport in Sedona. "Is this the gatehouse? The garage?" She couldn't keep the hopefulness from her voice. Maybe Arizonans envisioned the standard two-and-a-half car number differently than she did. "Someone's private residence?"

He chuckled. "No, ma'am. This here's the lodge."

"The Hideaway Lodge?"

"The very same."

Jayne frowned in confusion. Her publicist had led her to believe the Hideaway Lodge was about as rustic as the Ralph Lauren department at Macy's. She couldn't help but feel a little misled.

"And home base for you ladies for the next week, I understand." The driver pulled out the keys and tossed them jauntily in the air before catching them. "Welcome to the back country."

His door creaked as he opened it. He jumped out, ostensibly to retrieve their luggage. That was when Jayne realized he wasn't kidding. This really was It.

Faced with the truth—that the research for her next book was going to take place here in PaulBunyonville and that a compensatory sea salt aromatherapy rub followed by a champagne cool down was unlikely at most—she rallied her spirits and prepared to make the best of things.

After all, there was a lot riding on this week's activities. Her whole future depended on what happened here in Arizona. And now that she'd discovered where that future lay, Jayne intended to grab every opportunity with both pink-manicured hands. Starting this minute.

"Okay, ladies." Moving into full leadership mode, she raised her voice to gain the attention of the five chattering women on the van's bench seats behind her. Simultaneously, she pulled a compact from her handbag. "This is it. The beginning of the next chapter of your life: breaking free!"

Everyone cheered. The driver, hauling bags from the storage area behind the final seat, shook his head.

"You're about to make your entrance into that new life. Compacts at the ready!" With a swift look, Jayne confirmed that each woman had withdrawn the leopard-print mirrored compact she'd been issued. "Okay...primp!"

Nose-tickling powder pouffed into the air, sent adrift by the force of six puffs diligently in action. Various perfumes filled the spaces between the seats. Lipsticks were passed, mouths puckered, hair fluffed. Finally, Jayne surveyed her own reflection, blew a kiss into the mirror, and snapped her compact shut. A series of echoing clicks followed.

"What's our motto?" she asked.

"If you look good, you feel good!"

The ladies' enthusiastic response made Jayne smile. Obviously, the mini-orientation session she'd held while waiting in Phoenix for their connecting flight had paid off. Satisfied, she complimented everyone on their efforts.

There was nothing better, she thought as she gave her charges a fond look, than helping people in need.

"All right, then. Let's go!"

"Yay!"

Ready or not, Jayne led the charge. Opening the van's passenger-side door, she thrust her T-strap stilettos bravely into the high-desert air. She touched the reddish dirt with her toes. She grabbed her handbag and both books she'd brought, then emerged into the sunlight with a smile on her face.

The adventure was about to begin.

~ ~ ~

Ten minutes later, the adventure had yet to begin, and Jayne was getting a little worried. Not that she meant to show it. Her ladies' sense of confidence and well-being depended on her, and she wasn't going to let them down.

Luckily, she'd brought enough luggage to see them through any contingency...even, as was the case right now, the mysterious absence of their lodge hosts.

The place was as deserted as a Thanksgiving swimwear sale. No one had answered their knock at the Hideaway Lodge's locked front door. No one had answered their cell phone call to the number Jayne's publicist had listed on her itinerary. No one had arrived in their driver's wake and explained the whole mess while handing out complimentary bottles of Evian and creatively assembled finger foods.

More's the pity, Jayne decided. She really could have used a little nosh. Maybe some of those cream cheese stuffed cherry tomatoes, or a nice mini quiche Lorraine. She hadn't had a bite since breakfast—but with only airport food available, who could blame her? Her favorite blueberry frappe bath gel was probably more edible than the average stuff served up between concourses.

She'd been looking forward to the lunch she'd thought would undoubtedly await them at the lodge. Instead, Jayne's stomach rumbled as she traversed—yet again—the distance between the lodge's front door and their assembly in the parking lot.

Seated on various pieces of Jayne's hard-sided signature-baby-blue luggage, the women all looked to her for guidance. The game of gin rummy being played atop her steamer trunk of shoes came to a stop.

"Still no answer."

They drooped. Grudgingly, the players resumed their game. Although Jayne didn't know any of them well yet, their disappointment tugged at her.

"But I'm sure it's only a matter of time. I'll see what I can do."

For privacy, she strode into the shadow of a semi-crumpled pickup truck with its hood raised. Careful not to brush her close-fitting baby blue print silk shirtdress against the vehicle's grimy exterior, she took out her cell phone and dialed. Her publicist answered on the third ring.

"Francesca? It's Jayne. Listen, about this research trip you planned—"

"Jayne! Great to hear from you! How are things in the southwest?"

Jayne covered her phone-free ear, the better to hear Francesca speaking from her noisy Snap Books cubicle in faraway—and blissfully civilized—New York City. "They're...unexpected. This Hideaway Lodge is—"

"Rustic, yes? Charming? Quiet? All the things you're going to need to work on that next blockbuster for us. Don't worry about a thing. I've got every detail covered."

That was what worried her. "When you said you were sending me and my workshop participants on an 'adventure travel trip' to get away from it all, I thought that was just one of those sayings. You know. Like 'instant classic,' or 'wash-and-wear hair.'" She tossed her own shoulder-length tresses in frustration. "I think they actually have outhouses in this place!"

Francesca hooted. "Those didn't show up on the website picture when I was scouting locations for you."

"I think you mistook them for the guest cabins."

"Hmmm. Maybe. There were several of them...."

Jayne didn't want to speculate on the reasons for that. "All I wanted was someplace private and serene. Someplace where my workshop participants wouldn't be bothered by reminders of the problems they were leaving behind."

"By which you mean the 'good-bye guys.' The ex-boyfriends."

"And ex-husbands, ex-lovers, ex-unforgettable-one-night-stands. Yes."

Jayne's gaze fell on the two hardbound books—copies of the book she'd actually written—stacked on a nearby boulder to give her handbag a clean spot to rest. Heartbreak 101: Getting Over The Good-Bye Guys was her claim to fame and the key to her newfound purpose, all in one. If its follow-up workbook was going to be half as successful, she needed to make Francesca understand her dilemma.

"Most of these women have spent the time since their break ups in full phone-hovering mode," Jayne explained, "hoping to hear from Mr. Wrong again. Or dropping by their old hangouts, expecting to 'accidentally' run into him. It's self-destructive, and it's not part of my plan. So while being out of town certainly is part of my plan, for this to really work—"

"You need someplace like the Hideaway Lodge," Francesca interrupted. "It's secluded, it's quiet, and it only has one public phone—a half-hour hike from the lodge. It's perfect."

"It's deserted."

There was a verbal shrug in Francesca's voice. "The owners are a sweet older couple. They bought the place after the husband retired. Probably they're just out for their afternoon constitutional or something."

"'Afternoon constitutional?'"

"Or something. They're expecting you, after all." Briskly, Francesca went on. "Look, we're putting a big push behind this breakup guide and workbook idea of yours. It's already on the schedule for next spring. You've got to deliver. If you have a problem with the way we're supporting you..."

The unvoiced alternative was clear. Jayne could practically hear her current book contract—and all the contracts she hoped would follow it—shrivel into dust and blow away. If she didn't make a success of this, she'd be back working full time in the art department of the San Francisco advertising agency she'd taken a sabbatical from.

Even worse, her book's followers would be out in the cold. Including the five women waiting for her across the dirt ruts.

"I'll manage," she promised, crossing her fingers for luck. "Don't worry."

"I'm not worried." Francesca went over a few additional details about a possible local talk show appearance, then signed off with some encouragement about 'roughing it.' At the last instant, she added, "Oh, and don't worry about the hiking part, either. You'll do fine. Byeee!"

Click. Tilting her head as the publicist hung up, Jayne blinked. Hiking part? What hiking part?

She glanced down at her shoes. Made of pink leather with three-inch heels and a tiny bow at the T-strap's juncture, they managed to say cute and sassy with nothing more than a flash of ankle. They did not, however, say hike. In fact, Jayne was pretty sure none of her shoes spoke Hike. Ever.

Well, she'd just have to deal with that when the time came. Until then, she had a group of breakup-ees to help: Mitzi, a waitress from Michigan; Carla, a student from New Mexico; Doris and Donna, sixty-something sisters from California; and Kelly, a data analyst from Washington state.

She gathered her things and went back to them. They looked up at her expectantly.

Sudden nervousness pushed through her, tightening Jayne's grip on her handbag and books. Who was she to offer advice to these women? She wasn't a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a therapist or a relationships counselor. She wasn't even a bona fide expert. She was just a girl who'd had her heart broken one too many times...and lived to tell about it. What if she couldn't do this?

For the sake of her group, she mustered a confident smile. "The lodge owners should be back any minute." She hoped. "Until then, does anyone have any questions?"

Carla, a petite brunette with a pierced nose, raised her hand. "Umm, yeah. I have a question."

"Great!" Encouraged, Jayne tilted her head, ready to discuss break up recovery strategies, healing methods, and anything else outlined in her book. "What is it?"

"Can I borrow your cell phone?"

"Me, too!"

"Me, too, please."

"Me, next."

"No, me, Donna!" Doris complained, elbowing her gray-haired sister. "You always get to go first."

Amid the hubbub, Jayne sat on the shoe trunk beside Carla. She put her hand on her shoulder. "Who do you want to call?" she asked gently.

Everyone quieted.

"My Paolo. If I could just, like, hear his voice on the answering machine, one more time. I mean—" Carla glanced upward, meeting Jayne's concerned gaze. "—what if this trip really works, and I'm over him by the time I get back?"

Biting her lip, she hugged herself. Mitzi and Kelly did, too. Even Doris and Donna abandoned their shoving match to listen.

They were afraid, Jayne realized. Afraid of the unknown, afraid of letting go, afraid of moving forward. She understood.

She'd been there, too.

"I know a part of you doesn't want this to work," she said. "A part of you wants to hang on. But if your relationship's ended, it's ended, and you have to accept that. Getting over him—whether his name's Paolo or Hank or Marty—"

Doris and Donna gave a joint telltale cry.

Jayne nodded encouragingly. "—or anything else—will be for the best. It really will."

Kelly adjusted her rectangular-framed eyeglasses. "How can you be sure?"

Jayne closed her eyes. She didn't want to get personal with this. She really didn't. But if it would help....

"I'm sure because I've lived it. My heart was broken—" Just like her voice, when she spoke of it. She cleared her throat and went on. "—not so long ago, and I got past it. I came up with some strategies that helped. Eventually, I passed them on to my girlfriends, and they helped them, too. One thing led to another, somebody suggested I write them down, and...voilà! A book."

She thumped the topmost copy of Heartbreak 101 in her hand. The women all brightened.

"You have a gift," Mitzi said seriously, popping a bubble in her gum. "A genuine knack for helping people."

Nods all around. It was Jayne's turn to brighten.

"You do," Doris said, still nodding. "Everyone in our canasta group agrees. Right, Donna?"

Her sister folded her arms. "No. Our golf club loves Jayne's book more. And you know it."

"Everyone in my dorm was like, completely green with envy when they found out I was going on this trip," Carla volunteered. "You're our hero, Jayne."

Kelly nodded. "The women in my office feel the same way. I'm lucky to be here."

Overwhelmed, Jayne looked from one woman to the next. She could have hugged every last one.

It was one thing to know Heartbreak 101 had shot to the top of bestseller lists on the strength of readers' demand. It was something else again to talk with those readers, and to know she'd really, truly helped them.

You have a gift, she remembered Carla saying, and wanted to grin like an idiot, all over again. Jayne had never had an honest-to-gosh gift before. Now that she did, it meant so much to her.

"But I'm dying to know," Kelly went on, giving her a speculative look, "exactly what happened with the guy? The guy who broke your heart? Who was he? What was he like? How did you meet him?"

To Jayne's dismay, everyone else chimed in, clamoring for details. How had it ended? Where was he now? How did she feel? Tell, tell, tell.

Finally, Jayne held up both palms, leaving her handbag and books balanced on her lap. She laughed. "Okay, okay. At the risk of giving away terrific book-three material...here goes."

They all settled in. Around them, the afternoon breeze swooshed past the rocks and mesquite, and an occasional bird chirped. The setting was serene, peaceful...and way too 'raw wilderness' for Jayne's tastes. Seriously. How was she supposed to get a decent decaf soy latte out here?

Anyway....

"Well, let's see. It was almost—" She paused, as though the time that had passed weren'temblazoned in her memory. "—almost two years ago now, I guess. We met at the pier in San Francisco, while I was on location for an advertising shoot. He was a photographer on assignment taking pictures of migrating whales off the coast—"

"What was his name?" Mitzi interrupted.

Jayne hesitated. Then she decided there really wasn't any reason not to tell them. "Riley. His name was Riley."

She barely stifled a sigh. Hearing Riley's name again—especially from her own lips—was strange. Thinking of him was even stranger. Yet at the same time, it was tempting, too. A half-forgotten yearning nudged itself awake inside her, and Jayne knew she'd be wiser not to travel down this road again.

"To make a long story short, we hit it off," she said casually. "You know those romantic montages in the movies where the couple walks along the beach, laughs over dinner, and chases each other in the park? That was us. Instantly smitten. Love at first sight. Blah, blah, blah."

They smiled. Doris leaned forward. "So what happened?"

Jayne fingered the gold pendant she'd worn to fill the neckline of her shirt dress. She shrugged. "Six months later he left. That's what happened. One minute, everything was wonderful. And the next, he was gone. Just...gone."

"Awww." The group huddled closer, patting Jayne on the shoulders. Their comfort surrounded her, freely offered even though they were still mostly strangers—strangers who'd bonded over shared loss.

Jayne felt herself weaken, felt a sting of tears at the long-lost memory of Riley's desertion, and told herself she had to get a grip. Falling back under the spell of coulda, woulda, shouldawouldn't help anyone now. Least of all herself.

Besides, she was over Riley now.

She sniffed and swiped a hand over her eyes. Straightened. "It's all right," she croaked, knowing she had to set an example for them. "I'm fine now. But thanks everyone."

Amid the comforting murmurs her breakup-ees offered, Jayne sucked in a deep breath. She stood. "I'd better...go try knocking on the lodge door again. Maybe they've just been asleep in there."

At ten forty-five in the afternoon? a part of her jibed. But none of the women called her bluff, so Jayne managed to get away. At the big plank door, she pulled out her compact and checked her makeup.

Bawling over lost loves was, after all, hell on a girl's Benefit "babe cakes" classic eyeliner.

A shout from Carla carried from the parking lot. Jayne turned to see her pointing through the towering pines and scrubby oaks toward the dirt road beyond. "I see, like, a dust plume! Somebody's coming!"

The lodge owners. If they were back, then she could get started—and move on to something positive, too.

Jayne ran (okay, walked quickly—sacrifices had to be made for beauty, and for stylish shoes) back toward her things. Sudden excitement shimmied through her as she gathered up her handbag and the autographed books she'd brought for their hosts.

Now that the time was here, she could hardly wait to get started. Anything was better, Jayne figured, than thinking about Riley Davis...and the bewildering vanishing act he'd pulled, just when things had started to get good between them.

(end of excerpt)

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