Natalie stepped onto the treadmill in the university student fitness center and with quick taps selected the her favorite workout. She set the distance to six miles, her regular daily distance, tucked the tiny headphones in her ears, and hit START. The machine began to turn and she settled into a warm-up jog.
It was April, and next month would be her five year anniversary in America. What little Natalie could remember of her life before, in England, was a blurry and unpleasant dream.
Susan was now ten years old and president of her sixth grade class, and the only student who was conversant in both French and Spanish, with the odd bit of Portuguese sprinkled in. Natalie had had one boyfriend, a brief relationship that lead nowhere with no hard feelings on either side. She had a group of friends that she saw occasionally, but for the most part she kept to herself and focused on her college studies.
Majoring in mathematics had been a good choice–the faculty was great and the classes were challenging. She’d added, as late as she could, a minor in Economics that had needed an extra semester, yet despite all her efforts graduation was looming. Her adviser had introduced her to the work of a famous Hungarian mathematician, George Pólya, and she had undertaken a translation of his seminal works into English, teaching herself Hungarian as she went along. This line of study was interesting, obscure, and best of all could easily take her through a masters and doctorate program without having to leave the place she now called home.
Ian’s picture by her bed tempted her, but her resolve was firm.
Dad still wrote every week and Helen would call once a month for a ‘quaint chat’ as she liked to put it. Natalie had gotten the tiny earphones specially for these calls, since Helen did most of the talking and getting in her daily run at the same time was a productive way to spend her time. The call last month had lasted the entire six miles as Helen filled her in on the details of Octavia’s and Desmond’s engagement, most of which she had already heard from Octavia via text message.
But this morning she’d received an unexpected email from Helen titled URGENT WE SPEAK! They traded messages and set up a time. As the treadmill hummed Natalie adjusted the buds in her ears and took a swig of water before pressing the dial code.
Helen picked up and began a breathless discussion without even saying hello. “I don’t know what to do. It’s all too abrupt. Has everyone lost their minds?”
“Hi, Helen. Fine, and yourself?”
“It’s completely out of the question!”
“Completely,” Natalie agreed, having as usual, no idea what Helen was talking about.
“And of course she’s marrying into one of the oldest and most distinguished families in Great Britain. Desmond’s father is the hereditary Knight of Tranch Hall, and Octavia will be a ladyship someday. Which just makes the situation all the more ridiculous.”
Natalie considered the pre-set workouts on the dashboard before her and settled on a challenging interval circuit. This might be a long phone call. “It is ridiculous.”
“Exactly. I knew you’d understand, darling, things just can’t be rushed. I told Octavia to talk with you first, you’ve always had such sound judgment, I’ve always said that. Desmond might only be in Dubai six months! The bank moves everyone around continuously. But she is dead set on this, and said you’d understand.”
Natalie settled into her running favorite pace, her long ponytail tapping her back in rhythm with her stride. “Not a problem. Of course I understand.”
“You are both impossible!” Helen sighed. “I don’t know how everyone expects me to just wave a magic wand and make this all happen.”
“I don’t know either.” A television mounted on the gym wall began to show news footage of a protest in Trafalgar Square, catching Natalie’s attention.
“By some miracle the church in Chipping Dinton, that’s the town where Tranch Hall was before it was torn down after the war, is still available for the date. But that beastly wedding planner everyone uses won’t hear of us pitching a tent in the graveyard and having the reception there. She said we’ll have to use the village inn.” Helen paused, a sob caught in her throat. “As if we are commoners.”
Natalie adjusted the treadmill incline to a five percent grade. “At the village inn,” she repeated. “Tell me more.”
As Helen nattered on in her ear, Natalie watched the protest on the big screen unfold. There were riot police, protesters, smoke bombs, and people with megaphones. Was Ian there filming? Protest footage was very popular on FilmCritique.com.
The coverage switched to White Hall, and then Number 10 Downing Street. There seemed to be protests being staged all over London in broad daylight, with huge crowds. It was early evening in London, the skies were clear, and the setting sun was turning the light golden. If Ian got his camera up in one of the surrounding buildings he would have an excellent sight line of the action, with St Paul’s dome in the distance.
“I’ll book my flight right away and let you know,” Natalie repeated, glancing at her heart-rate monitor and noting with satisfaction it was in the zone.
“Good. Let me know what time you land.”
A cold tremor bolted up Natalie’s spine. “Wait, what did you say?”
“Your flight. When you land.” Helen enunciated each word. “Darling, you haven’t been listening! You’re just like your father. I need to know right away which flight you’ll be on, so book the flight immediately and let me know. There’s so little time and I know we’ll be frantic at the inn, so we’ll have to send someone to the airport to fetch you.”
Natalie’s feet tangled together and she careened against the treadmill rail, the twist of her body jerking the emergency clip out of the safety stop. The machine jolted to a dead stop, tossing her off the back where she landed squarely on her butt. Panting hard, she clamored to her feet and tried to catch her breath. “What?”
“Darling, do you always have to say ‘what’? It’s so American. The polite term is “I beg your pardon?”
“I beg your pardon, what do you need?”
“The flight, dear. When you’re coming in. You’re in the wedding, haven’t you been listening to anything I’ve been saying?”
The sound of her panicked heartbeat in Natalie’s ear threatened to drown out Helen’s voice. “Whose wedding?”
“Octavia and Desmond’s. What do you think we’ve been talking about?”
“But that’s not for at least another year!”
“Natalie,” Helen snapped, “Sometimes talking with you is like talking to a wall. The bank is transferring Desmond to the Dubai office in three months. Octavia is insisting they be married before he goes. The wedding is in ten weeks. And you’re in it.”