"Thirty-nine. I won't be forty for another ten months," I said defensively, trying to keep a grip on my temper. I had spent every cent I had to go on this tour, and I absolutely refused to let one sour woman ruin what was sure to be the trip of a lifetime.

"Close enough to count. You're forty, with no man, no looks, and a dead-end job in some insignificant little town."

"Hey!" I objected. "You don't even know what I do. My job is quite nice."

"You said at the orientation that you were some sort of a secretary."

"I am the administrative manager for an animal shelter that specializes in elderly pets who have been displaced," I answered, my fingers curling into fists beneath the tabletop. "It's a very rewarding job!"

"I'm sure it is," she answered with a half sneer. "But there's hardly any room for advancement, is there?"

I gritted my teeth and said nothing. I didn't have to defend myself or my job to this harpy.

"Face it," Denise said, grabbing my arm as she leaned forward across the table. "Women like us get the shaft our whole lives. You may think that there is a man out there for you, a Mr. Wonderful who will be everything you want, but there isn't. Look around you, Pia. Look at who has all the handsome men—it's the pretty ones, the skinny ones, the ones who don't give a fuck about anything but getting what they want. They've got no morals and don't care who knows it."

"I don't buy that," I said, jerking my arm out of her grip. "I know a lot of nice women who get men. Sometimes it just takes a while; that's all."

"Something your mommy told you?" she asked, her words whipping me like a scorpion's tail.

"I really don't think—"

"No, of course you don't. That's because everyone is so politically correct these days. But let's cut the crap, shall we, and get real. We're the last pick on the volleyball team, Pia. We get the leftovers. I can tell you don't like to admit it, so I'll prove it to you." She scooted around in her chair, waving a hand toward the stage.

The music had stopped while one group of musicians was being replaced by another, leaving the dancers to catch their breath, and the square half empty. The sun was low in the sky now, little fiery orange and red tentacles streaking upward, long indigo shadows beginning to edge their way across the square. A few people strolled through the shadows, mostly families, the kids leaping about less enthusiastically as they started to wind down from the day's activities.

"That guy, that one there, the blond guy with the receding hairline. You think he'd like you?" Denise asked, pointing at a man who stood with his arm twined around a slender woman. "Or how about that one, the man with the beard. He looks like an accountant. Maybe he'd go for you."

My lips tightened. I refused to tell her that she was perfectly welcome to live in her misanthropic world, but I preferred a much happier place.

"Oh! Those two! Those two across the square, coming out of that building. Oh my god, they're gorgeous. That's what I'm talking about—perfect eye-candy specimens. Both tall, both dark haired, although I don't like long hair on a man, and both absolutely and completely out of our reach."

I looked where she was pointing. "Oh, I don't know."

She swiveled around in her chair to pin me back with a maliciously triumphant gaze. "You're never going to have a man like that, Pia. Neither will I. If we're lucky, we'll get some balding, paunchy couch potato, but the good ones are not for us."

"There's nothing wrong with a man who is balding and has a bit of a paunch," I protested.

"Oh, come on! They all end up that way, sure, but you don't want them to start out looking like that!"

"Not all men are alike," I pointed out. "Some men like more than just a perfect body, just as some women prefer men who aren't drop-dead gorgeous. There's no reason to assume that just because we aren't supermodel gorgeous, we'll never have a hunky guy like one of those eye-candy men."

A hard look settled on her face. "You just refuse to face reality, don't you? Well, let's put our money where our mouths are, OK? You go talk to those two hunks and see what happens."

"I didn't mean those two specifically," I said quickly, my palms suddenly sweating at the thought of the humiliation that would follow should I even think of approaching the two men in question. "I just meant eye candy in general."

She stood up and scanned the crowd for a second before sitting down. "I don't see anyone as gorgeous as those two who aren't with someone already. Mind you, they could be gay and a couple, in which case I will still win, but let's go on the supposition that they're not gay, and not married. You go talk to them and see if one of them asks you out."

"This is not a contest, Denise."

"Sure it is. You think you're right, and I know I am. You think you can date someone as gorgeous as the two male model wannabes, and I say they won't even give you the time of the day. Prove me wrong, that's all I'm asking."

"They could have wives or girlfriends who aren't here," I protested, a slight feeling of panic making my stomach tighten. "Or maybe they just broke it off with someone and aren't looking for a relationship. There are any number of reasons that they wouldn't want to ask me out."

She flicked the wadded-up paper straw wrapper at me.

"That's a cop-out, but I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. How about this: you walk past the two guys—just walk past them—and see if one of them is interested enough to watch you."

I opened my mouth to protest that catching a man's eye wasn't going to prove anything, but the triumphant gleam in her eyes was too much for the tenuous grasp I had on my temper. If nothing else, I would be able to escape her presence. "All right, you're on. I'll walk past them."

"I'll be here, waiting, when you come back. Alone," she said with a smile that made my palm itch with the need to smack her.

"I am not a violent person," I muttered as I gathered my things and shuffled my way around the people at the café. "It is illegal to kill a tour mate, no matter how provoked I am."

The square was still partially empty as people took the opportunity offered by the band switch to refresh themselves at the cafes and food stands that lined the area. I paused a moment at the edge of the square, having no trouble in finding my quarry.

The two men continued to stand in the shadows cast by a tall, sculpted stone building, evidently having some sort of a conversation, since one of them periodically nodded, while the other spoke, his hands gesturing quickly.

Glowing bluish white lights suddenly blinked on around the perimeter of the square, causing me to squint for a minute as my eyes adjusted to the brightness. The sun in this area of Iceland never quite set during midsummer, but it went far enough down on the horizon to bring on a sort of twilight, what was called "white night." The sky was a glorious palette that ranged from a gorgeous amber to deep blues, the glow enough to see by, but dark enough to leave everything a bit softened about the edges. A little ripple of excitement filtered over to me as people started to drift away from the square, heading to the nearby park that sat overlooking the waterfront, where the evening fireworks were to be held.

I eyed the two men who stood in conversation. They were both clad completely in black, one carrying a leather jacket, the other wearing one despite the heat of the day. The jacket wearer was farthest from me, his face too shadowed to see in detail, but I did notice he had short curly chestnut brown hair. The one turned slightly away from me, holding on to his jacket slung casually over his shoulder, had long black hair pulled back in a ponytail.

Despair welled in my gut as I edged my way around the square toward them, my mind frantically trying to find a way out of the untenable situation I'd managed to create. "What on earth are you thinking, you foolish woman? So Denise has stung your pride with her constant cracks about your appearance and likelihood of getting a man. Do you seriously think there's any way on this green earth that you will ever be able to garner even a momentary flash of interest from those two gorgeous men, let alone a second glance?"

I glanced back at Denise, hoping against hope that she might have given up on me and gone to see the fireworks, but doubting she'd miss the opportunity to do a little old-fashioned gloating when I failed at my goal.

"I hate being right," I said under my breath. Denise stood at the table, the café nearly empty now as more and more people headed to the park. She made shooing gestures toward me.

I edged my way past a tiny clothing shop and pretended interest in racks of dusty books that sat outside an even dustier bookseller. This must be the spider-filled shop Denise had mentioned. I glanced toward her. She had her back to me as one of the men on the tour stopped to talk, gesturing in the direction of the park. Excellent! She was distracted! Now was my chance.

I ducked into the spider-filled bookshop, scurrying to the back, grabbing a couple of books with English titles to pretend interest. "She's not likely to come looking in here for me if the spiders are as bad as she said. I'll just hide out for a little bit. There's no shame in hiding. She'll figure I skipped out, and go look elsewhere for me, right? Right."

My relief lasted about two minutes, after which shame got the better of me. Being a coward wasn't my style. I started toward the front door, stopping when a tiny, wizened old man coughed at me, looking meaningfully at the books in my hands. Hastily I dug out a couple of bills and gave them to him with a word of apology.

A careful and covert survey of the square from inside the bookshop confirmed my hunch. Denise was disappearing down a street opposite, clearly on the hunt for me. "Yay for insight into human nature."

I strolled out of the bookshop, adopting a casual, not in the least bit stalkerlike air as I meandered toward the two men, eyeing them critically as I got closer. "Maybe I'm just too cynical. There's nothing wrong with me, other than there's a bit too much of me. I don't have any vices or bad habits other than talking to myself. I like animals. I am open to new experiences. Is it so out of the bounds of reason that one of those two guys might actually look at me?"

One of them gestured in my direction. The other turned to look. I spun around and feigned interest in a bakery window. When I glanced back, they were continuing their conversation.

Denise was still nowhere to be seen, but I was not about to chicken out now. This had gone beyond a silly dare. "My honor is at stake, dammit!"

Ignoring the fact that the very same sense of honor had been lacking a few minutes before, I squared my shoulders and turned to face the two men. "Just get it done, Pia. Think positive, and get it done."

The two men loomed closer as I strolled confidently toward them, my belly roiling with anticipation of what was sure to be a deflating experience. "Maybe I could bribe them. Maybe I could offer them a few bucks if one of them would walk back to the hotel with me… Ugh. Is this what it's coming to? Bribing men to pretend an interest in you? For shame, Pia. For sha—oof!"

A woman whumped into me with enough force that it sent us both reeling, my books and her large bag falling to the ground.

She excused herself in French.

"Do you speak English? I'm afraid my French is pretty rusty," I said, kneeling to help her gather up the things that had spilled out of her bag. I handed her back the usual assortment of items—keys, cell phone, compact, and a paperback—before gathering up the couple of books I'd purchased.

"Oh, thank you. Yes, I do speak English. I am so sorry, I am very late for an appointment and wasn't watching where I was going," the woman said in a delightful French accent, her delicate-boned face perfectly framed by fluffy blond hair. She had that air of fragility common to Frenchwomen, the one that screamed "gamine." That she plowed into me with the force of a Mack truck mattered little, I suspected, to the men who no doubt flung themselves daily at her feet. "Did I step on you? No? Good. I am very distressed, you see. I've lost the address where I'm supposed to go, and none of the bookshops seem to be the right one. Ah, there is another one. I will try there."

"Beware of spiders," I warned as she tucked her belongings away in her bag.

The smile she flashed me faded. "Spiders?"

"Yes, evidently some big hairy ones."

She shuddered. "I detest spiders! Perhaps that shop is not the one…" She eyed the bookstore with obvious distaste.

"If you're looking for a current book, they probably aren't going to have it. It seemed to be mostly old and antique books."

"Antique," she said thoughtfully. "That does not sound correct. The Zenith was most specific it was an English book with the man and woman on the cover dancing… oh, la la! The time!" She had glanced at her watch, hoisting her bag onto her shoulder. "I will try another one; that does not look like a shop to have the dancing books, does it?"

"Naw, the only thing I found there was an old Agatha Christie and some Regency romance," I said, gesturing at my books.

"Bien, It is good I run into you, I think!"

"No problem," I called after her as she started off. "Always happy to save a fellow tourist from death by dusty spiders. But you're not going to the fireworks? The park is that way."

She paused and looked at where I was pointing. If she was a tourist like me, perhaps she didn't know where the festivities were to take place.

"Fireworks?"

"They're supposed to be having some fabulous fireworks show that you won't want to miss. For the Independence Day stuff."

"I cannot, I'm afraid," she said over her shoulder as she hurried off across the square. "I'm so very late, you see, and I lost the name of the shop. The light be within you, sister."

Her voice trailed behind her even after she was gone from sight.

The light be within me? That was an odd thing to say. "She must belong to one of those religious groups, like the celebrities are always touting," I said to no one.

I shrugged and turned back to the men, who were still standing in close conversation.

"Boy, I give you guys a chance to go away and cut me a little slack, and you refuse. Fine. Be that way. I might as well get this over with, not that Denise is here to witness it."

I clutched my books and took a deep breath, then without any further dillydallying, marched myself toward the two men, determined to… I didn't know exactly what I was determined to do. Maybe smile at them as I passed, and hope one of them smiled back? If I did that, at least I could face Denise with a clear conscience over the breakfast table.

"Well, hell," I said out loud, stopping abruptly as the two men split up, heading in two different directions, neither of which encouraged them to so much as glance my way.

Denise's crow of laughter rolled over the square. She had come from the side nearest the park, arriving at the perfect moment to see the two men walk away from me.