This book is offered to the lovely ladies (and the few brave men) of my message forum, in gratitude for the hours of amusement, entertainment, and chuckles. You're too many to list here, but you know who you are. And don't think I haven't noticed that there is now a waiting list for people to get into the Corner of Shame—I told you guys that having buff, shirtless, kilt-clad men as waiters was just going to cause trouble…
"Experience the romance of Iceland under the starry summer night sky with a descendant of the Vikings of yore; that's what the brochure said."
Eyes a startling shade of unadulterated grey considered me seriously.
"Thus far, my starry summer nights have been trying to figure out why my hair-dryer adapter keeps blowing out the hotel lights. I don't suppose you are free tonight for a little stargazing?"
The grey eyes didn't blink, just continued to watch me cautiously, as if their owner expected me to suddenly leap onto the tiny round metal and glass table at which we sat, and start dancing the cancan. "Stargazing?"
"Yes, it means looking at the stars. Speaking of which, your English is remarkably good. But I assume your lack of enthusiasm means you'd rather pass on the idea." I sighed. "I kind of thought so. It's par for the course, you know. Well, par for my course. A couple of ladies on the tour have done well for themselves thus far."
Three women danced by in progression. The first two were strangers, but the third one, Magda, was a decidedly plump, buxom lady of Spanish descent who had snapping black eyes and a wicked sense of humor.
"Pia, you're not dancing?" Magda called as her partner, Raymond, whirled her around to vaguely Germanic music, complete with accordion. It was the middle of June, and all of Iceland was celebrating their Independence Day with much abandon, even the tourists. Small booths of crafts and food vendors lined the square, filling the air with an intriguing mixture of smells that ranged from floral (a dried-lavender seller) to mouthwatering (a Mediterranean gyro stand). At the far end of the square a stage had been set up, and various bands ranging from country (who knew Iceland had country music?) to easy listening had played all day. I gathered that the more raucous bands were to grace the evening's stage.
"Not this time, no," I called back.
"You should!" she yelled, her deep, throaty voice carrying surprisingly well over the noise of the music and people. "The music is divine!"
I thought about pointing out the obvious, that thus far in the trip, no blond, blue-eyed descendant of Vikings had asked me to join the throng, but a small morsel of pride kept me from bellowing that out to Magda.
My tablemate swigged down the last of his beverage and belched, politely excusing himself.
I eyed him doubtfully for a moment, before deciding beggars couldn't be choosers. "Would it be forward of me if I asked you if you would care to dance?"
He looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded and stood up. "Dance is good."
I was a bit surprised at his easy acquiescence, but determined to enjoy myself no matter what, I took his hand and wound my way through the crowds perched at café tables to the part of the square where the dancing was taking place.
"Do you two-step?" I asked my partner politely.
He glanced down at my shoes. "Two feet."
"Yes. It's a dance. I assume you don't know it?"
"No." He shook his head. "I like dance."
With careful deliberation, he put his faded-sandal-clad feet directly on top of my sturdy, if somewhat scruffy, leather walking shoes, and looked up with expectation.
"It's a good thing you're as small as you are, and I'm as big as I am," I told the boy, taking his hands and moving in gentle, vaguely dancelike motions that would keep him from being dislodged. "How old are you, exactly?"
The boy scrunched up his face for a moment as he sorted out the proper word. "Four."
"Really? Then your English is even more remarkable than I thought. I couldn't say squat in another language when I was your age, and here you are dancing with me and chatting away like crazy. Well, all right, I'm the one doing most of the chatting, but you seem to understand what I'm saying, and as I am probably the only person on Sgt. Patty's Lonely Heart's Club Tour who has yet to hook up with either a fellow tour mate or a handsome local, you're pretty much it as far as available conversationalists go. What's your name?"
His brows pulled together again for a moment. "Geirfinnur."
"What an interesting name. I'm Pia Thomason. I'm from Seattle. Do you know where that is?"
He shook his head.
"Let's see, what's Seattle known for… Microsoft? Have you ever heard of Microsoft? Starbucks? Google?"
He shook his head again.
"Geirfinnur!" A man appeared from out of the dancers, gesticulating at my feet as he spoke in Icelandic. My dance partner reluctantly stepped off my shoes, shooting me a chastened look.
"Are you Geirfinnur's dad?" I asked, as the subject of his ire's eyes started to fill with contrite tears.
"You are English?" I could see the similarity in their faces, and the same clear grey eyes. "I am very sorry that he is behaved so poor with you."
"He wasn't behaving badly at all," I said quickly, ruffling the boy's hair. He rewarded me with a toothy grin. "In fact, just the opposite. He wandered past while I was sitting and watching everyone, and kindly kept me company and helped me eat ice cream. He speaks English so well, I'm really quite amazed at how young he is."
"My wife is from Scotland," the man explained, giving his son a fond look. "You say thank you to the English lady."
"American, not English. I'm from Seattle."
Geirfinnur's father adopted the same look of concentration his son had worn as he obviously tried to pinpoint Seattle.
"It's in the Pacific Northwest. Upper left-hand corner of the country. We have Boeing and Amazon."
"Seattle?" the man said, his brow clearing. "Nintendo!"
"Yes, we have that, too," I answered, smiling as my dance partner leaped around us shouting, "Nintendo, Nintendo! Super Mario Brothers!"
"You are here as a tourist? I am Jens Jakobsson. That is Geirfinnur."
"Yes, I'm with a… uh…" I waved a vague hand, suddenly shy about the fact that I was on a singles' tour. "It's a three-week tour of Europe."
"That is most excellent. You enjoy Island?" He pronounced the word "Iceland" with its native inflection.
"Very much. Dalkafjordhur is a lovely little town. We've been here two days and have three more to explore Reykjavík and the area before we move on to Holland."
"This is good," he said, grinning. "You are so kind to Geirfinnur, we will show you around tonight, show you places tourists don't normally see. We know a good place to see fireworks. You would like that?"
"I would love it," I said, sincerely pleased at the thought of meeting some local folk. My happiness was short-lived as I pulled up a mental image of the tour itinerary. "Only… drat. I think our tour is going out into the countryside tonight, to see some ruins."
"Ruins are very pretty here," Jens said. "But not as pretty as fireworks, I think."
"Fireworks!" Geirfinnur parroted, suddenly rushing me and wrapping his arms around my waist as he looked up. "Fireworks are good!"
"Geir, do not annoy the lady. She has a tour to go with. What ruins are you going to visit?"
"It's some sort of protected forest with a ruin contained within. I'm afraid I don't remember the name, but evidently it has some tie-in to a cult that was supposed to be very prominent around midsummer, and since that's just a couple of days away—"
"Ilargi!" Jens gasped, his expression suddenly horror filled as he snatched his son from where he was bouncing up and down on my feet. "You are Ilargi?"
"Me? No, I'm Irish. Mostly. There's some German on my mom's side."
Jens eyed me warily. "If you are not Ilargi, are you from the Brotherhood?"
"I'm not overly religious," I said slowly, confused by his reaction. "I'm sorry, maybe we're having a communication issue, despite the fact that your English is exceptional. This Ilargi place that we're going to visit tonight isn't an abbey or a religious house, it's a stretch of untouched forest, which I gather is rare. It's supposed to have some sort of pagan meaning, but I'm afraid I kind of skimmed that section of the itinerary."
"Not pagan," Jens said, picking up his squirming son and backing away. "Not good. Stay away from Geirfinnur. Stay away from Ilargi."
Before I could ask him just what the dickens that meant, he turned and bolted, Geirfinnur's waving hand the last thing I saw before they were swallowed up by the dancing crowd.
"Well, how do you like that?" I asked no one in particular. I was answered by a brutal jab to the back, reminding me that there were better places for contemplation of confusing Icelanders than the middle of a dance floor.
I made my way back to my table and ordered another lemonade, nursing it as I watched the people swarm around me. What on earth was so wrong with the Ilargi forest that it triggered such a strong reaction in Jens? Did Audrey know about it? I wondered.
Before I could mull over what I wanted to do next, a dark-haired woman plopped down in the chair that had previously been occupied by Geirfinnur. She shot a glare over her shoulder toward a very handsome blond man as he bumped her back while escorting two children wearing blue and white horns past us. "Hey, Pia. You look like I feel. Did you hear? The trip to the forest is off for tonight. And a good thing, too. I could do without being eaten alive by mosquitoes and god knows what other kinds of insects there are around here. I don't suppose you've seen Audrey? She disappeared right after she told me about the cancellation, and I didn't have time to have a word with her about the serious lack of men on this tour."
"Not since lunch, no," I answered, digging out my disposable camera to snap a picture of the behorned kids as they waved flags madly. "I think she said something about checking on the accommodations in Amsterdam."
Denise, the fourth woman on the tour, and my least favorite of all the members, curled a scornful lip at my answer. "Bah. We don't go there for three days. Not that I won't be glad to get out of this country. I've just been in the most appalling bookshop over there. Ugh. They didn't have anything printed in the last hundred years. And the spiders! Who'd have thought that Iceland would have such big spiders? Positively tarantulas! Here, you! Diet Coke. Coca-Cola. You understand?" Denise grabbed a passing waitress and shook her arm. "Pia, you have a phrase book—how do you say that I want a Diet Coke?"
The waitress gave her a long-suffering look. "I speak English. We do not have Coke. I will bring you a Pepsi."
"Whatever, just so it's cold." Denise released the waitress and used my napkin to mop at the sweat that made her face sparkle in the bright afternoon sunshine. "Sorry I just sat down without asking you, but we big girls have to stick together. You weren't waiting for anyone, were you?"
Sharp, washed-out hazel eyes peered at me from beneath overplucked eyebrows, a gloating glint indicating that an answer in the affirmative would surprise her greatly. I adopted a polite smile and shook my head, my teeth grinding at both her expression and the big-girl comment. I had come to grips with the fact that I was what my mother euphemistically termed "big boned," but I didn't need to be reminded of it every few minutes, as Denise was wont to do.
"Didn't think so," she answered with sour pleasure. "Women like us never get the guys. It's always the ones who put out who end up having all the fun. That Magda. Did you hear her last night? She was at it all night long. I asked Audrey to change my room, but she says the hotel is full and they can't. Honestly, why on earth did I spend two grand on a singles' tour of romantic Europe if the only men on the trip are old, perverts, or gay, and I have to spend every friggin' night listening to Magda get her jollies. "Oh, Raymond! Harder! Harder, my stallion of love!'" she all but yelled in an obscene parody of Magda's Spanish-inflected voice.
"Shhh," I cautioned, frowning at the startled looks we received from people seated around us. "Others can hear you."
"So what?" She shrugged. "They can't understand us, and even if they could, I'm not saying anything that isn't true. Has Raymond hit on you yet? He tried me this morning, but I wouldn't have anything to do with him. I don't take her leftovers." She cast an acid glance toward the dancers.
I had no doubts at all—Magda and I shared a bathroom, and noises from her room were audible through it—that Raymond and she were actually hitting it off rather well, but it was almost impossible to believe that he'd want anything to do with Denise. She was pretty enough, with dark brown hair that was carefully coiffed, a heart-shaped face, and an overall impression of neatness despite the trials of traveling out of one bag, but her personality did much to ruin the first impression.
"Sorry." She raked me over with a scathing look. "I didn't mean to rub it in that Raymond wants into my pants but not yours. Not that you're missing much, despite Magda's histrionics. Have you ever seen such a motley collection of men as the ones on this tour? We're expected to hit it off with Ray the lounge lizard, Gary, who has to be right off the set of Queer as Folk; Ben, who is clearly sixty if he's a day; or Alphonse, the Mafia pervert. And we paid money for this? Audrey sure has some sort of a scam, and we're the suckers who fell for it. Romantic Europe, my ass."
I'd lived with Denise's negativity and overall nastiness for three days now, and was sorely tempted to tell her just what I thought, but I reminded myself that we had another eighteen days together, and it wouldn't actually kill me to turn the other cheek. Instead I indulged in a fantasy wherein she was left behind on a remote fjord.
"Have you dated much lately?" she asked, obviously sharpening her claws for another attack.
I smiled and threw in a couple of hungry wolves prowling along the edge of the fjord. "I live outside of Seattle in a small town in the mountains. There aren't a lot of people there to begin with, so it's kind of hard to meet guys. That's why I decided to go on this tour, to open my horizons."
"At least you're not opening your legs for everything with a penis, unlike some people I could mention," she said with another waspish look toward Magda. "I think we've been had, though. The men on the tour are useless, and as for these Icelanders… they may be descended from Vikings, like Audrey says, but I don't see any of them panting over us. Mind you, if you said the words 'green card' to them, that would change things fast enough, but that's not going to happen."
"We've only had three days so far—" I started to object, but was cut short when she slammed her glass down on the little table.
"You don't get it, do you? Pia, look at yourself! You're, what, forty? Forty-five?"