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A Stroke of Magic
By Tracy Madison
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2009 Tracy Leigh Ritts
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePregnant women had taken over Chicago.
At least, it seemed that way to me, because every single place I went, there they were. Women with glowing skin, shiny hair, smiling faces, stomachs in various shapes and sizes, and-the far majority of the time-with men at their sides. It boggled my mind, really. I'd lived in or near Chicago my entire life, and I'd swear on a stack of one-hundred-dollar bills there had never been so many expectant mamas.
Now, once again, I was surrounded by them. Literally. Of course, seeing as I was sitting in an obstetrician's waiting room, this didn't exactly shock me. But the phenomenon occurred at the grocery store, the library, when I went out to buy art supplies over the weekend, and even at the car wash. Rationally, I knew there weren't more of them, just that I noticed them more now. But that didn't make me feel any better. It also didn't help that all of the women in this room had someone with them. Except me. I was alone.
"Alice? Alice Raymond, is that you?" The way-too-perky voice came from my right.
I thought about ignoring whomever it was, because come on-unless I lifted my head and acknowledged them, they would assume they'd made a mistake and leave me alone. Because I really wanted to be leftalone, I continued pretending to read Your Pregnancy and You. In actuality, I'd already read the dang pamphlet cover to cover. Three times.
"Alice?" the woman said again. "From Mayfield High?"
Oh, hell. Now I recognized the voice. How I'd ended up in the same doctor's office as Shelby Whitaker, otherwise known as crazy-cheerleader-chick from my high school days, was beyond me. This girl? I'd disliked her with a passion for four years running. Don't get me wrong; cheerleaders in general didn't annoy me, just this specific one. And yep, I continued to ignore her. I was in no mood for a reunion.
A man spoke next. "Honey, she's obviously not who you think she is."
"Oh, she is too. I'd recognize her profile anywhere. I sat next to her in almost every class we had together." A hand, presumably Shelby's, touched my arm. "It's me, Shelby Whitaker. Well, Harris now. It's so great to run into you here! When are you due?"
"My name isn't Alice." I kept my eyes on the pamphlet. Lying didn't bother me. I hadn't seen the manstealing, self-involved twit in more than a decade, so I'd likely never see her again after this.
"That's so odd! You look just like her. Sound like her too."
"Sorry. Not her." Leaning against the arm of the chair, I used my right hand to block her view. "But they say everyone has a twin."
She didn't respond, and the chatter in the room that had momentarily died down picked back up. Relieved, I focused on what I would say to the doc when I finally saw him. Some weird symptoms had cropped up since my last visit, and I wasn't all that sure about the best way to broach them. Probably, he'd think I was a nutcase. Honestly, that might not be so far off.
I heard the soft slide of the door opening across the carpet. "Alice Raymond? The doctor's ready for you now."
"I knew it!" Shelby all but screamed.
I really should know by now not to lie. It always bites me in my ass when I do. A flush of heat swarmed my cheeks. Oh-so-slowly, I replaced the pamphlet on the table in front of me.
After I stood, I confronted the cheerleader. Shelby Harris née Whitaker didn't look all too different from the girl I remembered. Same Kewpie-doll mouth, same wide blue eyes, and the same perfectly styled ash blonde hair-albeit a different, shorter style. The big difference, and I do mean big, was her stomach. Either her due date had long since passed, or she carried a baby elephant.
Humor lifted her lips at the corners. Her left hand, adorned with a megasized diamond ring and wide gold band, rested on her belly. "Why'd you say you weren't you?"
"Sorry about that. I was focused on reading and didn't want to be interrupted."
A flash of surprise, and maybe hurt, whisked over her expression. "I see. I'm sorry for interrupting you then."
Her eyes shifted away, and a tiny bit of remorse crept into my consciousness. Dealing with the realities of being single and pregnant, with an out-of-his-mind and delusional ex, hadn't exactly made me a happy-go-lucky person. But I hadn't meant to make Shelby feel bad. "I'm kind of uncomfortable around doctors."
A lame excuse, but she seemed to accept it. Swinging her gaze back to me, she smiled again. "It's been a long time." She turned to the man next to her. "This is my husband, Grant. Grant, this is Alice. We went to school together."
Grant Harris had almost the same shade of hair as his wife, cornflower blue eyes that shone brightly behind his glasses, and an open, engaging smile. So totally not the type of guy Shelby used to go for. I wondered which of her friends she'd stolen him from. He nodded in greeting. "Any friend of Shel's is a friend of mine."
"Um. Sure. Well, it's nice to meet you." I didn't bother stating his wife and I had never been friends. Hell, we hadn't even been friendly. What we'd had in common was one friend whom she'd stabbed in the back repeatedly.
"Miss Raymond?" the nurse said. "Can you come with me?"
Yay. Saved by the bell. "Gotta go. Good luck with everything."
I'd almost made it to the nurse when Shelby whispered, "She never liked me much. I don't know why."
For a millisecond, I considered turning around and reminding her of why I hadn't liked her much. But really, it had been a lifetime ago, so why bother? What is it they say: let bygones be bygones? Something like that, anyway. So I did the mature thing and kept walking, without even a flinch as a response. My sister would have been quite proud, as I wasn't known for keeping my mouth shut.
On the other side of the door, the nurse motioned me down the hallway. We stopped in front of a scale and I cringed. Before this whole pregnancy thing had occurred, I'd never thought twice about my weight. Now, with my body changing shape so rapidly, I'd begun to worry about the pounds. Though it couldn't be too bad yet. At barely four months along, and with nearly constant nausea screwing up my appetite, how much weight could I have possibly gained?
I stepped on, and the nurse fiddled with the bar until it balanced out. "Ten pounds," she said as she wrote the number in my file.
"Ten pounds in a month? Are you sure?"
"That's what it says."
"That's too much, isn't it?" Following her into an examination room, I mentally did the math, and it didn't look good.
"You were on the thin side to begin with. You'll likely even out. There's nothing to worry about yet."
Everything I'd read said most women gained an average of between twenty-five and thirty-five pounds over nine months. Seeing as I'd already gained fifteen altogether, I'd probably beat those averages. "What if I don't? Even out, that is."
She set the file down. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. If you're concerned, talk about it with the doctor."
Swallowing my worries, I pushed up my sleeve when she grabbed the blood pressure cuff from the wall. After she finished with me, I only waited a few minutes before Dr. Layton came in. With his warm eyes, curly brown hair, and slightly round body, he was like a cuddly teddy bear come to life. Plus, Dr. Layton radiated kindness, compassion, and expertise. Exactly what a girl like me needed at a time like this.
"The nausea hasn't abated at all?" he asked, reading from the notes the nurse had written in my chart.
"Not really. It's pretty constant."
"Have you tried any natural remedies? Peppermint, ginger, soda crackers, or dry toast might help." At the shake of my head, he said, "Give it a try. You might also try some candies called Preggie Pops. A lot of my patients have had good results from them."
Preggie Pops? Why were things created for pregnant women given such cutesy names? I worked at an advertising firm, and I still didn't get it. But hey, at this point, I'd give anything a go. "Okay, thanks."
Rolling the stool over, he sat down with my file in hand. "I'd like to set up an ultrasound before your next appointment. Just so we can take a peek at how the baby's growing and ascertain that everything is good."
The room spun slightly as I took in what he had said. "Do we need to do that now? I'd rather wait another month or two."
"It's up to you. If you'd rather wait, that's fine. But is there a reason?"
I didn't know what to say, how to explain what I didn't understand. Intellectually, I knew I carried a baby. I did everything I was supposed to do so the baby would be healthy. But emotionally I wasn't prepared, and the first time I saw an image of my child I wanted to be prepared. "I'd prefer to hold off a little longer."
"Okay. We'll talk about it at your next appointment. Let me know if the nausea gets any worse."
"I will." Deciding to take the plunge, I said, "And I have a question about some odd symptoms I've been having."
"That's what I'm here for. What's going on?"
My mind played over the events of the past several weeks, and I tried to find a way to articulate what I wanted to say without sounding like a complete idiot. Because nothing came to mind, I put it the best way I could: "Are weird dreams and hallucinations normal?"
"Dreams, yes. Hallucinations? That's a new one to me. Why don't you tell me exactly what has you concerned?"
Clasping my hands, I took another breath. "It started a few weeks ago. I have the same dream, over and over. Nothing really happens in it, but it fascinates me. There's a woman with a lot of colors around her, and she opens her mouth as if she's talking, but I can't hear her."
"Do you recognize the woman?"
"She looks a little like my sister. Long brown hair, brown eyes, but she's tall ... and what ever she's trying to say, I think it's important."
"You're tall. And you have long brown hair and brown eyes," he pointed out. "Could this woman be you?"
Startled, I thought about it for a second, brought the image of the woman to the front of my memory. "My sister and I are similar in appearance, so I guess if I think she looks like Elizabeth, she probably looks like me too. But, no, it's not me."
He opened my file and wrote something down-probably that I was insane, and to check my family history. "It's not uncommon for pregnancy to cause unexplained dreams. My guess is that this woman is you, but you can't hear her because your life is changing drastically. This dream is simply a manifestation of your fears."
"Really?" I said.
"I can't guarantee it, but I've had patients who've had some out- there dreams." Dr. Layton laughed. "Trust me. As you become more accustomed to what's happening, your emotions will even out, and the dreams will likely end."
Relief poured through me. What he said made sense. "Awesome. Thank you. I feel better already."
"Now, tell me about these hallucinations."
I'd almost forgotten that part. Suddenly, I worried all over again. "The hallucination is exactly the same as the dream, except the last time I had it, I wasn't sleeping. Well, I had been asleep. But I woke up because it was muggy in the room. I remember sitting up and wishing the bedroom windows were open. That's when it happened. She sort of halfway appeared, but I still couldn't hear her."
"Were you afraid?"
"Not at all. But then she vanished, and I fell back asleep pretty much right away. So, that's a hallucination, right?"
"I don't think so. Have you ever had a dream where you thought you were awake but then you really woke up?" At my nod, he continued. "You probably either never woke up to begin with, or you fell back asleep and didn't realize it."
"I don't know. I'm pretty sure I was awake."
"Let me ask you this, then. Have you had this happen in the middle of the day? Like at work, or cooking dinner, or any other time that wasn't immediately preceded or followed by sleeping?"
"No. It's only happened once."
Another smile. "Okay, then. There's your answer. Trust me, Alice, this is all normal."
Rather than argue with him, I took the easy way out. The more I pushed, the crazier I'd sound; and really, it's not like the hallucination scared me or anything. It was just weird. Really, really, weird.
After reminding me to set an appointment for the following month, he left the room. I gathered my belongings and thought about what he'd said. Yeah, probably I'd be able to believe him, except for one very specific thing I'd neglected to mention. That night? When I'd seen the mystery woman in my bedroom? My windows had most definitely been shut, and I had most definitely not gotten out of bed to open them. Nor had I ever before had an incident of sleepwalking. When I woke in the morning, a cool breeze blew through the room. Somehow, at some point, those windows had been opened, and I was almost 100 percent sure I hadn't done it myself.
After leaving the doc's office, I did the responsible thing and returned to work. My new position as a graphic designer with Enchanted Expressions Advertising didn't leave me with a lot of squeeze room, and risking my recently acquired steady paycheck was out of the question. Not in this economy, with a baby on the way.
Even so, I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss my prior job at a local art gallery. Before baby, I'd carved out a life that was nearly a perfect fit. Twenty hours per week at a job I loved, helping to show other artists' paintings, and plenty of nonwork time to focus on my art. It had just started paying off too. With a couple of solid placements in national art competitions, and as a featured artist at a local art fair, my paintings had finally begun to sell. But not quickly enough, and not for nearly enough money, to support the added responsibility coming my way.
I'd thought I could handle working full-time and continuing to paint, at least until the baby was born. Unfortunately, that hadn't panned out so well. Mostly because I was so freaking tired every minute of the day. Including now.
Glancing at my coworkers, I saw glazed-over eyes, twitchy arms, and barely restrained bodies. With the AC on the blink, the surprising May heat in the cramped conference room had notched up to just this side of the Inferno, and the couple of fans circulating air didn't alter the temperature any. Sweat dribbled down my neck and I wiped it away. My blouse and skirt stuck to my skin, and I wanted nothing more than to take a cool shower.
Because I needed to make a good impression, I attempted to pay attention to the staff meeting currently in progress. Not such an easy task. My eyelids refused to stay open. I envisioned propping them up with a couple of toothpicks, like in the cartoons I used to watch as a child. It had worked okay for Tom the cat in Tom and Jerry. But, seeing as I'm not a cartoon cat, or crazy enough to actually put little pointy sticks in my eyes, I hoped the image alone would be enough to keep them from slipping shut. So not the case. A heavy weight, almost like a drugged feeling, pushed down on me.
The owner of Enchanted Expressions, the dark- haired, ridiculously long-lashed, smoky-eyed Ethan Gallagher, was running through our current list of clients, asking for a progress report from each of the leads. His deep voice carried through the room, and with it, a faint Irish brogue that had most of my female coworkers entranced. For me, the result was more sleepiness. Every time he spoke, it was as if he were telling the most mesmerizing bedtime story ever written, delivered with the perfect cadence and rhythm.
My eyelids drifted shut again, and I pinched my thigh as hard as I could, hoping to send a burst of adrenaline through my system. I yelped. Every gaze in the room swung toward me. Geez, I'd wanted to be forced awake, but not like this!
"Sorry," I mumbled.
Ethan cocked his head to the side, eyes sweeping over me. "Everything okay, Alice?"
Prickly heat crawled along my skin, inch by inch. "Um. Yeah. Couldn't be better."
"People don't normally yell out in pain without reason. Are you sure there isn't a problem?" He stared at me, his eyebrows raised.
"Not pain," I replied. "Excitement. I just get so darn excited at these meetings, I can't keep it to myself."
"I see. Do you often say 'ow' when you're excited?"
"No. Of course not. That wouldn't make much sense, would it? I said 'Wow!' as in ... well, you know ..." Great. Any hope I'd had of making a good impression had just flown out the proverbial window.
A few quiet giggles from my coworkers sent another wave of heat to my face. I just knew I'd be the topic of conversation at the water cooler for the next several days, if not weeks. (Continues...)
Excerpted from A Stroke of Magic by Tracy Madison Copyright © 2009 by Tracy Leigh Ritts. Excerpted by permission.
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