Extreme makeover? Hardly. And yet, would it be enough? Would anything ever be enough to make her feel beautiful ever again?
Elora inhaled deeply, lifted her chin, and squared her shoulders. With a flick of her wrist, she tugged the shawl off her head and looked Veronica dead straight in the eye.
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph!" Veronica dropped the sugar bowl on the counter and granules of sugar spilled everywhere. She placed a protective hand on her abdomen. "Lori! What have you gone and done to yourself?"
"What's the matter?" Elora raised a single eyebrow. She knew exactly what she had done to herself, but she chose to ignore the full ramifications of her actions. She'd made her decision and she would have to live with it -- awful or otherwise.
"Your hair." Veronica pressed her fingers over her lips and spoke in a horrified whisper. "Your lovely hair."
"What's wrong with my hair?" Elora lifted a hand and primped at the tightly bound spiral curls that fell in a wild cluster to her shoulders. "Don't you like the new me?"
"You stuck your finger in a light socket, that's what's wrong!" Veronica crossed her arms over her chest and tapped her foot on the spotless, green linoleum kitchen floor. "How could you?" Before Elora could respond to the rhetorical question, Veronica continued in a rush, "No, for your information, I don't like the new you. I much preferred the old version. She at least had style and sophistication." Her best friend waved her hand in the air. "Now you look like an overblown tumbleweed. A bleached blonde, overblown tumbleweed."
"I distinctly remember you offering me a cup of coffee."
Elora pushed past her friend and hobbled stiff-legged across the room. She bit back a curse when her long skirt got tangled around her cane. She didn't have the height to carry this much fabric. Her petite stature was meant for mini skirts, not queen-size bed sheets. At last she managed to make her way over to a comfortable wicker-backed chair. She stifled the sigh that sitting down evoked, then took her time to hook her elegant bone-handled cane over the chair's armrest. She resisted the urge to rub her perpetually aching kneecap. She spied a cheerful vase full of brightly coloured tulips squatting on the middle of the round glass-topped table. She reached out to touch a thick, velvety red petal.
"These are nice. Patrick bring them home?"
"Elora St. James." Veronica stamped her foot. "Don't you go changing the subject on me. I know you too well. And what you've gone and done to yourself is extreme, to say the least. We used to laugh at those women who went through such lengths to change their looks!" She threw both hands up in the air. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Lori! Why did you have to go and change that gorgeous color? This paler shade of nothing is so not you. I've always envied you that lovely rich shade of auburn, you know." Veronica feathered her fingers through her own short, smartly styled dark brown hair that brushed enticingly along the nape of her neck.
"Come on, Ronnie. It's still me. I haven't changed that much."
Elora noticed how little Veronica had changed over the years. Marriage to her childhood sweetheart, Patrick, hadn't altered her in any significant way, and the early stages of pregnancy only enhanced her vivacious good looks. Today, Ronnie wore a slim-fitting top over snug pants. If anything, she looked more radiant than ever, marred only by the growing scowl darkening her expression.
"That's what you think." Veronica snorted. "What will it be next? Botox treatments? A nose job? Or how about boob implants?"
"Botox." Elora rubbed a finger along her furrowed brow. "That's not such a bad idea."
"Don't you even dare consider doing any of those things!" Veronica glared at her from across the room.
Elora lowered her gaze first, her mind spinning. Maybe changing her hair, drastic as it was, hadn't been drastic enough. Perhaps, upon further consideration, what she truly needed was a complete makeover. If she changed her upper half so much, then maybe she would be beautiful again, and maybe, just maybe no one would even notice she had a lower half.
"I know what you're thinking, Elora Tiffany St. James." Veronica let out a gusty sigh. "Don't think you can fool me for an instant. And what you're thinking right now is idiotic, to say the least."
"What's that supposed to mean?" The pucker deepening even further between her eyes as Elora stared up at her friend. Anger was never far from the surface these days, and try as she might, she just couldn't seem to get rid of the tight knot of seething frustration that had taken up permanent residence somewhere in her mid-section.
"Just look at what you're wearing these days, Lori. Long, ankle-length skirts that could double as tents and great big baggy pants that swamp your petite stature. You're not an old maid, but you've taken up looking like--"
"I'm not you," Elora said through clenched teeth. "I know I don't have your height or your pair of gorgeous legs--"
"My legs are not the topic of discussion here." Veronica planted her fists on her well-rounded hips.
Everything about Ronnie was curved to perfection, and she had the willowy height to accent those curves. Elora had always thought her friend should have aspired to becoming a model rather than a housewife. "It's you we need to talk about," Veronica muttered. "It's your legs that are the topic of discussion here. Ever since your illness--"
Elora made a slashing motion with her hand. "I don't want to talk about that. Ever." She tried to run her fingers through her once luxurious, waist-length, silken-straight hair, but she stopped in frustration when they got tangled in the crinkly curls of the shoulder-length perm. She longed to grab her hair by the roots and pull it all out. She longed to scream, and go on screaming, until she woke up from the nightmare her illness had plunged her into. Instead, she took a deep breath and dropped her hand into her lap, forcing her fingers to flex and relax. They did so while playing with a fistful of dark, midnight-blue, crinkly cotton. In a voice devoid of all expression she said, "That's over and done with. I'm better now. It's time to move on."
"It is not over and done with." Veronica swept the sugar off the counter into her hand and dumped it down the sink. "Not until you learn to deal with it. You can't hide from it forever. And changing your looks, pretending to be someone you're not, isn't going to accomplish anything." She refilled the bowl and set it on the table.
"I'll deal with this in my own way." Elora couldn't keep the frost from her voice. "In my own good time. Just as I've dealt with everything that has ever happened to me in my own way and in my own time."
"But you're not dealing with it, Lori." Veronica sank gracefully into the opposite chair and placed her hand over Elora's. "Last year in Los Angeles, at the World Figure Skating Championships, you performed that amazing free skate tribute to your family to Celine Dion singing My Heart Will Go On. At the end, when you slid on your knees into that tiny pool of light, there wasn't a dry eye in the entire arena."
Elora tried to pull her hand free, but Veronica wouldn't let go. Elora looked into her friend's glistening gaze, but turned her head aside the instant she felt the sting of heat behind her own lids. At last she yanked her hand free.
"Lori," Veronica sighed as she surreptitiously wiped at her cheek. "That night in Los Angeles there wasn't a dry eye in the place -- except for yours. You have to--"
"If you intend to lecture me, then I will leave." Elora knew they were the wrong words the instant they left her mouth, but she couldn't unsay them. Contrary to what Ronnie might think of her, it wasn't that she was feeling no emotion, but rather, too much emotion. It was all she could do just to hold herself together. And if she hadn't been so lucky as to have Caitlin to take care of in the aftermath of her living nightmare, she would have burst apart like an overflowing dam ages ago.
Veronica must have seen something in her expression because her lower lip quivered.
"I'm sorry." Her rich brown eyes grew once again suspiciously bright. "I just want to help." She stood up and resumed her more mundane domestic activities this time filling the creamer with milk from the fridge. "Let me get that cup of coffee I promised you."
Elora blinked away the tears that prickled behind her own eyelids.
"Fine." She swallowed hard and sighed. "A cup of coffee would be a great help."
Elora watched Veronica get down two matching porcelain cups and saucers and fill a china plate with homemade cookies. She noticed the rigid set to her friend's back. She knew how much Ronnie wanted to help, but no one could help. Elora felt more alone now than ever before.
She held a tight rein on her own emotions. Crying would accomplish nothing, change nothing. She cloaked herself in the competitive spirit that had seen her meteoric rise to the top of the figure skating world. Life had simply dealt her another challenge, one she vowed she would overcome. But not today. Today, she still needed to hide and lick her wounds. Instead of the short skirts and tight dresses that had been her trademark look to show off her million dollar legs, she would hide her true self underneath a voluminous skirt.
Veronica arranged the coffee things on the table and gave her an overly-bright smile. "I guess I'll just have to get used to this new you." She waved a well-manicured hand in the air. "It's just so ... so different, that's all."
"That's the whole point." Elora stirred half a spoon of sugar in her cup and added a good shot of milk. "I want to look so different that people won't recognize me. Especially with the tourist season about to start in full swing; people will soon be crawling all over Lunenburg."
"Nobody'll recognize you," Veronica agreed. She offered Elora a cookie. "Your own mother, God rest her soul, wouldn't recognize you."
"My own mother doesn't even know me," Elora whispered under her breath.
"That's nonsense. I'm sure she would know you today if she were still living," Veronica said.
Elora nibbled at her lower lip.
Veronica reached out across the table and took Elora's hand again. "I'm sorry. I guess I'm just saying all the wrong things this morning."
Elora squeezed her friend's fingers, then pulled her hand back. She missed her mother -- and the rest of her family - terribly, and at times like this even more. Her parents, her twin brother Elliot, his wife Jeannie, and Granny Rose had been on their way to join her in Gothenburg, Sweden for the World Championships when their plane went down. Elora took constant solace in the fact that Elliot and Jeannie's daughter Caitlin, who had been one year old at the time had been spared. They had felt she was too young to travel to Sweden and had left her behind in Nova Scotia in the care of Veronica and Patrick.
Elora had already been in Gothenburg for a week, practicing with the rest of her teammates. When word of the plane crash and the fate of her family reached her, she had pulled out of the competition. The World Championships in Los Angeles the following year, where she'd won gold, had been her first major comeback since that tragic day.
"It's not your fault." Elora picked up her coffee. "Today just seems to be one of those momentous days." She took a sip from her steaming cup. "Whoever thought that a change in hairstyle would trigger such a chain of events?"
Veronica stared at her over the rim of her cup. Elora looked into her friend's speculative brown gaze, then glanced quickly away, afraid that her own eyes would say too much. Half-formed thoughts and deep-rooted longings churned around in the back of her mind, begging to be realized. She slammed a lid on the simmering pot.
"What are you not telling me?" Veronica asked.
"Nothing," Elora said. "Forget I said anything."
"We're friends." Veronica set down her cup. It rattled upon contact with the saucer. "Best friends. You used to talk to me. I want to know what's going on behind those hazel eyes of yours. Ever since the crash you've been living life on the edge. And you've gotten worse since the infection."
"I should be going." Elora reached for her cane. The past strained out to snare her, and suddenly she didn't want to face it. These latest wounds -- the ones caused by the infection - were still too fresh and raw to deal with just yet.
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Lori." Veronica caught her by the wrist and forced her to sit back down. "You are going to sit right there and tell me what's going on. What was that comment about your mother supposed to mean? She's dead. The way you just spoke of her now sounded like she was still alive."
Elora sighed and relaxed back into the wicker chair. A flock of butterflies fluttered somewhere in the nether regions of her stomach. She didn't know what was worse, the constant anger that consumed her these days, or this new sensation made up of part dread and part excitement.
She reached up once more in an unconscious gesture to run her fingers through her hair, but stopped short when she encountered the first curl. Changing her hair had been a mistake. Well, at least it was just hair, and it could grow back.
She sighed. It was long past the time to confide in someone. Besides, concentrating on this problem, which had been gnawing at her for two long years, would make her forget the other troubles that seemed to be compounding in her life.
There was no easy way to say it, so she just blurted it out. "Elliot and I were adopted."
"Jesus, Mary and ... and...!" Veronica upset her cup, splashing coffee dregs across the table. "And that's impossible! Who told you that?" She grabbed a napkin but only half-heartedly dabbed at the spreading mess. Her already wide-open eyes seemed to grow even bigger.
Elora picked up her silver teaspoon and rubbed the handle back and forth between her thumb and index finger.
"After the crash, when I found myself alone with Caitlin, I discovered the adoption documents in my parents' personal papers, along with our original birth certificates." She absently swirled her rapidly cooling coffee with the spoon.
"Why didn't they ever tell you?"
Elora glanced up at her friend, then stared back into her cup. "I don't know." She shrugged.
"Why didn't you ever tell me?"
"I wasn't ready before, I guess."
"What's your real mother's name?"
"And your father's?"
"There's no name given."
"But you have a mother somewhere!" Veronica crowed. "That is so amazing. We have to find her. Now you and Caitlin will have someone besides each other. You'll always have us, of course, but now you'll have family again."
"Just hold on a sec." The spoon clattered into the saucer. "Before you go charging off on something that isn't even your business."
"But nothing," Elora said. "Adoption means she gave us up. She got rid of us for a reason. As in, she didn't want us in her life back then, so she probably would not take kindly to my barging back in right now."
"I refuse to believe that." Veronica poured herself a fresh cup and topped up Elora's coffee. "You know what they say, 'nothing ventured nothing gained'. I just know she'd love to have you back in her life. After all, who wouldn't want the gold medal winner and world renowned figure skater Elora Tiffany St. James for a daughter?"
"And what makes you think she'd want me with all my loads of emotional baggage dropping out of the blue on her doorstep?" Elora narrowed her eyes as she looked across the table at her grinning friend.
Veronica's eyes softened and she reached out to Elora. "Because I know you. I know what kind of person you are -- loving, caring, generous to a fault, and you must have gotten some of those qualities from your natural mother. Don't get me wrong," she added hastily before Elora could make a rebuttal. "I loved your mom dearly. She was like a second mother to me. But I'd like to think that your real mother is like that, too."
"Maybe. I don't know. I need some time to think about it." Elora raised both hands to brush the hair back from her face. When she encountered the wild tangle of curls she clutched at it and gave it a good shake. She laughed at Ronnie. "I guess it is a bit on the bushy side. The hairdresser said the perm would relax in a few weeks."
Veronica giggled. "At least you don't have to look at it. The rest of us get that dubious pleasure." She shook her head. "Good grief, you look so different. I hope you don't scare Caitlin."
Elora climbed to her feet and grabbed her cane. Veronica got up as well, standing a head taller. Even though Elora was the elder of the two, by a full seven months, she always felt like a child in comparison. Slightly less than average height, she had a petite, pixie-like quality to her looks that had always driven her to push far beyond the normal boundaries to garner recognition and success.
"You're walking better," Veronica said. "You'll be rid of that cane in no time, I'm sure." She escorted Elora to the door. "Are you heading back to the hotel now?"
"No." Elora made her way to the front door. "I have to stop in at the club first and pick up the papers Greg is supposed to have ready for me."
"That guy sure is a hunk."
Elora snorted. "His brawn is all I'm interested in personally. He wields a mean golf club, and I have to admit, he's good at teaching that skill to others. Though it would help if he had two brain cells to rub together business-wise."
"You two would make a great pair." Veronica kept pace. "You own the place and he runs it. You'd be perfect for each other."
"In his dreams."
"He is one of Patrick's good friends after all. And he's always liked you. I'm sure he's asked you out."
"Why don't you accept? You know, maybe having a guy in your life could go along with your new image." Veronica held the screen door open.
"The last thing I need to complicate my life is a man. Especially Greg." Elora gripped the wrought iron handrail with her free hand and navigated her way carefully down the steps. Her carefully executed grace left her as she cautiously lowered herself down the stairs, one step at a time. Frustration squeezed at her innards, but she refused to give in to its insidious presence and continued instead with her bantering. "You snatched up the only decent guy in a thousand kilometre radius."
"They're not all like Trevor," Veronica admonished.
"Him I definitely refuse to talk about." Trevor McGinnis was a jerk of the highest order. Elora thanked her lucky stars she'd found out in time; her only regret was how she'd discovered the fact.
He'd been more than her coach, although publicly, and at his insistence, no one knew of their personal involvement. Since gaining custody of Caitlin, Elora had wanted to bring stability to the little girl's life while Trevor had simply pushed Elora harder to out-perform and out-score the competition, vaguely promising marriage later, after her career peaked. In her heart of hearts, Elora knew that she had been the favoured figure skater going into this year's Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia and to that end she had set that ultimate goal in her sights.
Fool that she'd been, Elora had risen to the upcoming challenge, outperforming the competition in Los Angeles. After the loss of her family she'd poured her soul into her career, skating her heart out as if only today mattered, along with attaining another gold medal. She had taken the figure skating world by storm, intent on winning her laurels and her man. With success almost within her grasp, illness had snatched all she'd worked so hard for away, dashing her dreams asunder. Lying in the wreckage, Elora had learned two immutable truths: Trevor had loved her career, not her; and who her real friends were.
Elora snagged her keys out of her purse. She saluted Ronnie with her cane and opened the door of her cheerful little red car, a new model Toyota Yaris, that Caitlin liked to refer to as a big ladybug.
"I'll see you and Caitlin later on," Veronica called as she waved. "Do you want to bring her over for dinner tomorrow night. I know you'll be so busy with getting your own place sorted out?"
"That would be great." Elora rested her arms on the top of the open door. "I have to admit, I'm looking forward to moving back home. I've lived long enough in that hotel."
"All that being spoiled by everyone would be hard on anyone," Veronica said. "Not to mention having your meals taken care of, someone to do your laundry, and--"
"Maybe you're right." Elora chuckled and tossed her cane onto the passenger seat. "Maybe I'll just keep the suite at the hotel. Caitlin loves it there. According to her every male in the building is her uncle."
"But only Patrick is her 'Pa'." Veronica grinned and rubbed her still flat tummy. "I think we need to find the girl a daddy, before she starts believing Patrick is hers. That could cause problems later on." She raised a hand in farewell. "But first, we have to do something about your hair."