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Carmel, California 1995
Tess could barely breathe.
For that matter, she could barely hear, barely see, and smelling was completely out of the question. This cold was killing her. It was wrapping itself around her head and squeezing her brains out.
She'd been in bed for three days, watching hours upon hours of soap operas and game shows. And if constantly blowing her nose didn't give her an aneurysm, then the boredom was bound to kill her.
She lifted the remote, clicked off the television, and grabbed a tissue just in time to catch a throat-grating sneeze. Her eyes watered. Her head pounded. She groaned and sank back into her goose feather pillows.
At this rate, she'd be dead in a day. They'd find her limp, lifeless body buried amid gooey, used tissues, her hair matted, her makeup all worn off. The newspapers would say that Contessa Harper, daughter of computer chip moguls Travis and Patrice Harper, had been found dead in a stained Michael Bolton nightshirt with a box of cold medication clutched in her fist. Not exactly a graceful exit. Her mother would throw a fit -- and probably kill her all over again.
"Dear God," Tess croaked. She stared up at the ceiling she'd come to know well over the past few days and let go with another violent sneeze. "Strike down who ever gave me this cold from hell and then give 'em a good kick in the teeth for me."
She could see the blue sky out her open window. It was another bright, spring day in Carmel, a far cry from the rainy city of Paris she'd left behind four days before. Searching for better weather, she'd hopped a plane for California, intent on a few, quiet, sunnyweeks at her beach house, but by some demented stroke of luck she'd fallen sick on her first day at home. Now, instead of sunning herself on her private beach, armed with a tall bottle of Perrier and Danielle Steel's latest book, she was stuck in bed, settling for the meager bit of sunlight that managed to filter itself through her curtains and slurping down a day-old pitcher of lukewarm water.
Tess could tell it was close to lunchtime, not only by the dull cramping of her stomach, but by the sharp cry of the seagulls outside. She pictured the people on the public beach down the way, with their sweaty, tanned bodies and packed picnic baskets, tossing bread into the air for the scavenger seabirds while their children played in the sand and flew their kites. She could almost hear them laughing and she scowled at the image, envisioning a giant wave coming and sweeping them all out to sea.
She was blowing her nose for the umpteenth time when her maid's voice came over the intercom by her bed. "It's me, Ms. Harper."
Tess ran her tongue over her chapped lips and reached to push the button that released the lock on the front gate. A few minutes later she heard her front door open, and then her maid's round face peered around the edge of the bedroom doorway. "Just me."
"Did you bring the soup?" Tess demanded hoarsely.
The maid came into the room carrying a brown paper bag with Charley's Oyster Bar printed in red lettering on the front. "It took me an hour to drive up the coast to buy it -- but Lord knows I wouldn't dare forget. How you feelin'?"
"Like my head's in that bag, five hundred feet beneath the ocean," Tess grumbled.
"Well, have you been out of bed today? Did you get up, take a shower, brush your teeth like I told ya to?"
Tess gave the plump woman a frosty glare. "Thousands of microscopic cold-trolls are hammering aimlessly at my body, the hair on my head actually hurts, and you want me to get up and take a shower?"
"You get yourself up out of that bed, move around a little, and you'll feel a whole lot better."
"If I get up out of this bed I'll more than likely fall flat on my face. You know how light-headed I get when I'm sick."
The maid stooped down to pick up a pair of discarded jeans. "Yep. And I also know how dramatic ya get."
"Your sympathy is always so comforting, Mrs. Collins."
"Oh, for goodness sake, child, it's just a cold. In a few days you'll be back on your feet, spendin' money like there's no tomorra, going to all them fancy parties. Now, I'll put the soup in the microwave to reheat, but you're gonna have to get up and get it yourself."
Despite the agony in every joint of her body, Tess sat up in the bed. "You're not staying?"
"You know Mr. Collins has his poker game on Sunday afternoons. I've got twenty sandwiches to make." The maid went into the hall. "Take some more medicine and try to get some rest. You'll feel better in the mornin'."
Tess stared disbelievingly at the empty doorway. A few moments later the microwave started up with a low hum, and then she heard the sound of her front door open. . . and close. She was once again lying in her beach house alone.
She listened to the microwave, waiting for the final beep beep beep that would mock her inability to get up. She'd been abandoned by a very well-paid employee for a bunch of fat old retired men and a handful of submarine sandwiches. Her desolation was now complete.
She fell back onto the bed, picturing herself struggling to her feet, managing two feeble steps, and then crumbling to the floor. "I wonder if the scream of sirens would be enough to pull Mrs. Collins away from the mayonnaise jar," she grumbled.
She snatched up the box of cold medication from her nightstand. Although she'd taken a tablet two hours before, nothing seemed to be cracking the brick lodged behind her eyes. She popped another pill into her mouth, and laid back against her pillows to wait for the antihistamine to take effect.
A few minutes later, she drifted toward an odd sort of awareness. Through the echoing chasm of her mind she heard the microwave beep, but she couldn't seem to open her eyes. Her head felt strange, not so much clogged, but fuzzy.
In the next few moments the silence in the house became deafening, and Tess feared that the last pill she'd taken had been one too many. After twenty brave years of living, Tess Harper had gone and killed herself with a handful of cold medication.
Tears burned at Tess's closed eyes, and then she thought she heard something in the hallway outside her bedroom door. She practically sobbed with relief at the idea of seeing her maid again. "Mrs. Collins?" she rasped.
There was no answer.
"Mrs. Collins. . . I don't feel very well."
"Of course you don't feel very well. The instructions on the box say to take one tablet every four to six hours, not every time you please."
That strong, precise voice did not belong to her maid, and Tess managed to crack open one eye. "Mrs. Collins?" She frowned at the strange, small woman standing at the foot of her bed. "You're not Mrs. Collins."
The woman folded her arms across the front of her gray, textured jacket. "No, Miss Harper, I am most certainly not your maid."
Becoming anxious, Tess forced her eyes open all the way and tried to focus, tried to figure out how the woman had gotten into her house. Mrs. Collins was a stickler for locked doors, and, despite her foggy state of mind, Tess felt sure she hadn't heard the burglar alarm go off.
A burgeoning fear was rising up inside her, replacing the dazing affects of the medication. She swallowed hard despite her scratchy throat and tried to keep from shrieking when she spoke. "How -- how did you get past the gate?"
The woman came to sit on the edge of the bed. "It wasn't a problem," she replied.
"Wh-what do you want?"
"I want to help you, Miss Harper." She lifted a cool, small hand to Tess's forehead.
"Are. . . are you a nurse?" Had Mrs. Collins finally realized the seriousness of her employer's illness and dialed 911?
"Not exactly a nurse."
"Would you like me to get you a bowl of soup, Miss Harper?"
Tess's bleary gaze drifted over the woman's bright, colorful scarf and tailored gray suit. Experience told her that the pearls around the woman's neck weren't paste by a long shot. She looked like a professional woman, maybe even a doctor. "Yes," Tess finally responded, though hesitantly. "Yes, I'd like some soup."
The woman smiled and Tess decided that it was definitely the patronizing smile of a doctor. "A healthy appetite is a very good sign, Miss Harper."
She left the room and Tess managed to pull herself up into a sitting position, trying to ignore the constant pounding in her head and ringing in her ears. She'd been stupid to take another tablet before the other had worn off. Thank God the doctor had shown up when she had.
Tess was feeling a little more alert when the doctor came back a few minutes later. "Here we are," the woman said. "A steaming bowl of chicken soup. It smells wonderful."
Tess took the bowl, and, balancing it beneath her chin, spooned a bite into her mouth. She winced as her bottom lip cracked.
The doctor frowned. "My, my, you do look a mess, Miss Harper. And your hair is rather. . . vertical."
Tess gave her a cool glance.
"Your nose looks like a raspberry--"
"I'm sick," Tess replied sharply. "Have you tried a nice warm shower? You know, it always--"
"What is it with you women over forty?" Tess blurted out. "You all seem to think that showering and brushing your teeth cures cancer!"
The woman arched a dark brow. "Getting your body moving will make you feel better."
Tess snorted through her stuffed up nose. "I guess it must be some menopausal thing."
She went back to her soup, ignoring the doctor. The chicken broth felt wonderfully warm as it slid down her throat and, amazingly enough, began to clear her sinuses.
When she was finished, she handed the doctor the empty bowl and settled back into her bed. Her strength was beginning to return, and the earlier grogginess had lifted from her head. "I think I'm feeling a little better now."
"Good," the woman replied. "Then we can get down to business."
Tess eyed her. "You're not going to try to give me a shot, are you? I hate needles."
The doctor set the empty bowl on the nightstand. "I know that."
"Then I hope Mrs. Collins also informed you that I am allergic to penicillin, so don't try shoving any of that down my throat either."
"Miss Harper, I am not here to inject you or force-feed you medication."
Tess frowned, not sure what to make of a physician who didn't dish out pills like candy. "The thermometer is in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom," she said, knowing there wasn't a medical person alive who wasn't temperature happy. She'd gone in to have a mole removed once, and the first thing the nurse had done was shove a thermometer into her mouth.
"Your temperature is 99.9 degrees."
Tess blinked. She'd taken her temperature a few hours before and 99.9 was right on the money. "How did you know that?"
"And 99.9 degrees certainly isn't going to kill you, Miss Harper. Mrs. Collins is right. You have a simple cold. One that will run its course in two more days."
"That's awfully optimistic advice considering you haven't even examined me yet. How do you know I don't have pneumonia or something?"
The doctor gave her a knowing look. "Remember when you were thirteen and became infected with the chicken-pox? You insisted that your nanny phone your parents in Europe at once and inform them that you had come down with leprosy."
Tess pulled in a startled breath. "How did you--"
"And the time you ate so many cherry Popsicles that you vomited red for ten minutes? I believe in that instance your greatest fear was bleeding ulcers."
Tess was amazed. She'd never told a soul except her nanny, Mrs. Smalls, about the leprosy scare, and only she and the porcelain god knew about the "bleeding ulcers."
"Your nanny was a very put-upon woman, thanks to our mistake. We're going to have to compensate her very handsomely on the other side."
"Now, wait just a minute." Tess snatched up a tissue and blew her nose, loudly. "I know I wasn't a model child, but I certainly wasn't that difficult." Then she realized what the woman had said. "The other side of what?"
"Why, life. Of course.
"Of course," Tess said slowly. She quickly reevaluated the woman. "Since when do doctors make housecalls?"
"I never said I was a doctor."
Tess sat taller in the bed and narrowed her eyes. "And what's all this talk about my nanny and compensation?" It was occurring to her that a doctor and a lawyer generally dressed the same and had the same patronizing disposition. "Is Mrs. Smalls suing me?" she demanded.
"I should have known I'd never be rid of that woman. Damn it, I even sent her a Christmas card last year!"
"Miss Harper, calm yourself. Mrs. Smalls is not suing you."
"Then what does she want?"
"After spending eighteen years with you, some peace and quiet, I should think."
"Well, you can tell your client that the time when she could intimidate me has come and gone. I wouldn't give her another dime if it flew her to the moon and left her there."
"Mrs. Smalls is not my client, Miss Harper. . . You are."
"I don't get it."
"I am not a doctor. And I am not a lawyer--"
"Then you're a burglar, and I suggest you leave while you still have the chance."
"A burglar who breaks into homes and fixes people chicken soup?"
This was all too much for Tess's fevered brain to take. Her thoughts were growing muddy again, and she decided she'd had enough. "Whoever you are, I am tired and would like to take a nap. So, if you would please leave--"
"I am afraid I can't do that."
Tess gave the woman her best Harper glare, the one that through countless generations had always sent its victims scurrying. "I beg your pardon?" she said evenly.
"We haven't finished conducting our business, Miss Harper, so I'm afraid your nap will have to wait."
"Our business? Do you haveany idea the trouble you'd be in if I decided to report you to the police?"
"Oh, yes, I am quite aware of the clout you have with the local authorities."
"Then I suggest that you get the hell out of my house before I call them and have you locked in a cell for the rest of your life!"
The woman sighed, but didn't appear in the least bit intimidated by the Harper stare, or Tess's threatening tone. "This would all be a lot easier for you -- as well as myself -- if you would forgo the snippety attitude, Miss Harper, and incline yourself to listen for once."
"Now. . ." The woman stood and began to pace at the foot of the bed. "We don't have much time. If we're to install you at the most propitious moment, then we shall have to act fast."
"I'll give you 'propitious'!" Tess lunged for her cordless phone, but knocked it to the floor and out of reach. The woman didn't bat an eyelash, and continued on with her rambling. "Mr. Maguire is in quite a fix at the moment." She arched a dark brow at Tess, who sat panting with rage in the center of the bed. "I see that as the only reason he might deign to take you into his humble abode. As for that cold you have, it might help you in gaining more sympathy. Don't forget to take your medication with you, though. We don't want you whining too much on Mr. Maguire's shoulder. Mustn't overdo."
"Take it with me?" Tess repeated, her teeth clenching. "Dare I ask where I am going?"
"I am sending you back where you belong, Miss Harper. Far, far from here."
"You think so, do you--"
Kansas?A warning light went off in Tess's brain. The only reason she could think of for anyone to want to drag her out into the middle of a nowhere place like Kansas was to kidnap her. She'd been warned about the possibility before, a wealthy heiress like herself, living alone, jet-setting around the world. She even knew a man in Rome who'd been abducted once before. But Tess had never really considered that it could ever happen to her.
"Time to go," the woman announced.
Tess began to panic. "Oh, but -- but you don't have to take me anywhere. My parents -- no. I'll pay you anything you want. Any ransom you name. Just. . . just let me get my checkbook."
Carefully, so as not to incite the apparently very disturbed woman who broke into sick people's homes, nursed them with soup, and then stole them from their beds, Tess pushed back her covers and eased her legs over the side of the mattress. She would empty her bank account if need be -- knowing a check could be easily canceled in the end. All she needed to do was get the woman out of her house, then she could lock the door and call the police.
She stood on shaky legs and slipped her arms into her "sick coat," a pink fuzzy bathrobe she'd had for years and only found the nerve to wear when she was sick. "I'll only be a moment," she said calmly. "My checkbook is in the den--"
"Oh, stop all this nonsense, Miss Harper! I do not want your money!"
Startled by the woman's sharp voice, Tess grabbed the edge of the tall oak dresser beside her. That's when her eyes lit on the twenty-four-karat gold Victorian candlestick she'd bought at an auction in London. She snatched up the heavy object, and held it out in front of her like a golden saber. "I won't let you kill me!"
A vision of Mrs. Collins stopping by to clean in the morning went flitting through Tess's mind. The blood, the mess -- the woman would probably demand overtime.
"I am not going to kill you," the woman replied. "As I said before, I am here to help you."
"Then help me by leaving!"
She sighed. "Put down the candleholder, Miss Harper. I am not going to hurt you."
"Said the spider to the fly!" Tess jabbed out with her impromptu weapon. "And you're not going to take me anywhere either!"
"This is going to be more difficult than I'd first imagined."
"You've got that right, lady. Might I suggest you leave while the leaving's good! What do you want? A check? Cash? Some silver from the kitch--" Tess's voice cracked and she had to swallow to dampen her scratchy throat. "What is it going to take to get you out of my house?"
The woman's face brightened, giving Tess hope that maybe she wouldn't be kidnapped or senselessly murdered on her fine oak floor. "Name your price," Tess told her.
The woman's attention flitted to the box of cold medication on the nightstand. "Put the tablets into your pocket."
Tess did so immediately, stuffing the box down into the deep, left pocket of her sick coat amid a fistful of new and used tissues. "Done."
"And now you will agree to take a trip--"
"Oh, I don't think so," Tess said with a nervous laugh.
The little woman crossed her arms again. "Miss Harper, I will not be allowed to leave here until I have convinced you to agree of your own free will."
"Agree to what?"
"To a visit with your true fate."
"I told you, lady, you aren't getting me out the front door."
The woman smiled mysteriously. "I won't need to take you out the door. You can sit right there on your bed if you like. Go ahead. Have a seat."
Tess thought that a rather odd request, but at this point was willing to do just about anything to send the bewildering woman on her way. "And you won't kill me?"
"I promise I will not kill you," the woman said impatiently.
"I just sit"-- Tess edged over the bed-- "right here?"
She lowered herself down to her designer French lace comforter, still keeping the candleholder clenched tightly in both hands. "And you'll leave?"
"Now you simply say, 'Yes, Spiritual Guide, I would like to have a look at my true fate.'"
"And you'll leave?"
"Yes. I'll leave."
"All right. Yes, spiraler--"
"Spiritual. . ."
"Spiritual Guide, I. . . I would like to have a look at my true fate."
Tess blinked. Then she spun around in a quick circle. She was standing outside, in the middle of nowhere. She still held the candleholder tightly in her clammy hands but now the sun was bright and hot on her face, and dust was drifting through the air.
Terrified, she looked from left to right, afraid to budge one millimeter more than necessary before she'd figured out what had just happened to her. One second she'd been sitting on her bed, and the very next, she was standing here, on a dirt road, in front of a weathered, wooden sign. She leaned closer and read the words sweet briar. She glanced down at herself, and then at her arms, making sure she was completely intact. She'd never been so confused in all her life.
The country road beneath her bare feet was dry and dusty, and she curled her toes into the packed earth as a warm wind lifted her hair from her face.
Had she been knocked unconscious and kept that way until finally being released on some backwoods road halfway across the country? If that were the case, then why was her nose still stuffed from her cold? Why was the candleholder still gripped in her hands?
She did another quick mental check of herself. It was as if she'd just appeared here in this strange place in a split second of time.
The only sound around her was the wind rustling through the trees, and then a low, persistent rumble came from behind her. Tess turned to see a herd of black horses bearing down on her like some crazy scene out of Ben Hur. She opened her mouth to scream, but her throat was still scratchy and her voice failed her.
Hoofs clamored. Gleaming black bodies thundered closer. But Tess remained too stunned to move.
Copyright © 1995 by Suzanne Elizabeth