The Switchby Sandra Brown
Melina vows to stop at nothing to learn the truth and avenge her twin's death. But Gillian's murder has a far-reaching impact that no one suspected or could even fathom. This is the latest thriller from the author of The Alibi.
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- Grand Central Publishing
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- Hachette Digital, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt
"Kiss, kiss." Melina Lloyd kissed the air in the general direction of her twin sister's cheeks. "I've ordered an Italian white wine. Crisp, light, and not too fruity, according to the waiter who was. Fruity, that is. Speaking of, here he comes."
Gillian sat down across from her. The waiter served her glass of Pinot Grigio, spilling some of it over his hand as his shaved head swiveled back and forth between them. "Oh, my goodness gracious!"
"We're identical," Gillian said, sparing him from asking.
"I'm speechless. The resemblance is positively flabbergasting."
Melina gave him a frosty smile. "My sister would like to place a drink order, please. If it's convenient."
Her tone of voice, which had been as crisp as the wine, got his attention. "Certainly," he said, practically clicking his heels. "Forgive, forgive. Madam?"
"Club soda. Lots of ice, wedge of lime, please."
"I'll be back prontomente with your drink and to recite today's specials."
"I can hardly wait," Melina muttered as he glided away.
Gillian leaned forward and whispered, "Is prontomente a word?"
The sisters laughed together. "I'm glad to see you smiling," Gillian remarked. "When I got here you looked grumpy enough to snarl."
"I am a little cranky," Melina admitted. "I had to drive an author to the airport this morning in time for a five fifty-eight flight. Five fifty-eight! I know publicists bookflights at those ungodly hours just to provoke us media escorts."
"Who was the early bird? Anybody interesting?"
"Forgot her name. First book. Treating Your Children Like Pets. Subtitled With Amazing Results."
"Two-year-olds are sitting up and barking on command?"
"I don't know. I didn't read it. But someone is. It's currently number three on the New York Times bestseller list."
"Swear to God. If it's gimmicky enough, it'll sell. Nowadays even I could write a book. It's just that I can't think of anything interesting to write about." She thought it over for a second or two. "Maybe about the famous and infamous I've met and barely tolerated for a day. But then I'd probably be sued."
The waiter returned with Gillian's club soda and a tiny silver basket of bread. He recited his elaborate spiel, which was more about adjectives than food, and retreated in a huff when they ordered avocado halves stuffed with shrimp salad off the printed menu.
Melina offered the basket to Gillian, who broke open a quarter-size biscuit spiked with pecan bits. "What about being an identical twin? You could write about that."
"There's too much material there. The field would need to be narrowed."
"Being dressed alike versus not?"
"Competing for parental attention?"
"Better. How about connecting through preternatural telepathy?" Melina eyed Gillian over the rim of her wineglass as she sipped from it. "Which leads me to note that my twin seems awfully introspective today. What's up?"
Before answering, Gillian polished off the biscuit and dusted flour from her fingertips. "I did it."
"You know." Self-consciously she lowered her voice. "What I've been contemplating for the past few months."
Melina nearly strangled on the excellent Italian import. Her eyes, smoke-colored replicas of Gillian's, lowered in the direction of Gillian's lap, but it was out of sight beneath the table.
Gillian laughed. "You can't tell by looking. Not yet, anyway. I came straight here from the clinic."
"You mean today? Just now? I could be an aunt-in-the-making as we speak?"
Again Gillian laughed. "I suppose so. If the little guys are doing what they're supposed to do, going where they're supposed to go, swimming upstream."
"My God, Gillian." She took another quick sip of wine. "You actually did it? You did it. You're acting so... normal. So relaxed."
"Then the gynecologist would be pleased. He had the nerve to tell me to relax. As if I could. For one thing, the stirrups were cold as ice, hardly conducive to relaxation. For another, this was the culmination of months of debate. It wasn't a decision I made lightly."
Artificial insemination using donor sperm. Gillian had been weighing the pros and cons for months. Melina was confident that her twin had spent hours soul-searching, but she couldn't help nursing a few ambiguities of her own. "Did you consider it from every angle, Gillian?"
"I think. I hope. Although there are probably angles I didn't think of."
Those unthought-of angles worried Melina, but she kept her concerns to herself.
"Sometimes I became so ambivalent, I was tempted to reject the idea altogether. I wanted to deny it had ever occurred to me and forget about it. But once the idea took hold, I couldn't shake it."
"That's a good sign. When something grabs us like that, it's usually for a good reason."
"Physically there was no deterrent. I'm in perfect health. I read everything I could get my hands on about alternative methods of conception. The more I read, the more conflicted I became. Honestly, I even tried talking myself out of it."
"And I couldn't come up with a reason not to." She grinned happily. "So I did it."
"Did you use the Waters Clinic?"
Gillian nodded. "They have a high success rate, a solid reputation. I liked the doctor. He was very kind. Patient. Explained everything in detail. I made an educated decision."
And it was clear from the glow on her face that she was delighted with it. "I can't believe you didn't tell me. I would have gone with you if you'd asked. Held your hand. Lent some kind of support."
"I know you support me, Melina. You and Jem were the only two people I discussed it with. I'm sorry I didn't inform you of my decision. But Melina..." Her eyes went liquid with appeal. "Please understand. I filtered your and Jem's opinions and viewpoints through your respective biases."
"Hear me out, please. When all was said and done, when all the votes were in, I was the one inseminated. If it's successful, I'll carry the fetus and have the child. So the decision was mine to make. Alone. I wanted to tell you. But once my mind was finally made up, I didn't want it "
"Or even questioned."
"I respect that. I do." She underscored it by reaching for Gillian's hand and giving it a quick squeeze. "Was Jem there?"
"I still can't believe it," Melina said, taking another quick peek toward her tummy. "How do they . . . ? How is it actually . . . ?"
"Yesterday, a self-administered urine test indicated a hormone surge, meaning that I would be ovulating within twenty-four to thirty-six hours. I called the clinic and booked the appointment. It's very clinical. They use an intrauterine catheter."
Melina listened spellbound as Gillian talked her through the procedure. "Did it hurt?"
"Not at all."
"Where'd the sperm come from?"
"Where do you think?"
Melina grinned. "I meant geographically."
"The Waters Clinic has its own sperm bank, but they'd rather not use a specimen acquired locally on a local patient."
"Mine came from a very reputable sperm bank in California. The specimen arrived this morning packed in dry ice. Then it was thawed and washed "
"That's the term. The semen is mixed with a protein and spun in a centrifuge, so that what is drawn into the catheter is..." She laughed. "Sperm concentrate, I guess you could say."
"I can think of a thousand jokes, all of which shall go unvoiced."
"Thanks for that."
"Do you feel any differently?"
"Not at all. I actually dozed afterward. I had to remain lying down for about half an hour. Next thing I knew, the nurse was back in the examination room, asking me to dress and join the doctor in his office. He gave me a pep talk about their success rate and told me not to get discouraged if it didn't work this time, and then I left and drove straight here."
Satisfied with Gillian's reassurance, Melina sat back in her chair and stared into the face identical to her own. "My, my. It's positively flabbergasting." After they'd shared another laugh at the waiter's expense, she said, "Seems to me the trickiest part would be peeing on that little strip of paper."
"It did require a certain amount of skill. I was getting pretty good at it."
"And frankly..." Melina broke off and waved her hands in front of her as though erasing the unfinished sentence. "Never mind. I shouldn't say anything."
Gillian, however, already knew what her sister was thinking. "You were about to say that you prefer the old-fashioned method of insemination."
Melina shot an imaginary pistol at her. "You know me well."
"Daddy always said we share the same brain."
"Call me slutty," Melina said, giving an exaggerated shrug, "but I prefer flesh and blood to catheters and stirrups. Cold metal just doesn't have the same appeal as a warm chest and hairy legs rubbing against mine under the covers. Not to mention the sexual apparatus."
"Please! Don't mention the sexual apparatus."
"Didn't you miss the heavy breathing? That marvelous buildup? That 'Oh, my God, life is beautiful' feeling? Just a little?"
"It's not about sex. I didn't do this for the thrill. I did it to make a baby."
Melina sobered. "I'm just teasing." Folding her arms on the table, she said seriously, "The underlying, fundamental truth of it is that you want a child."
"That's right. That's the underlying, fundamental truth of it."
"Good for you," she said giving Gillian a fond smile. After a reflective moment, she added, "Too bad Jem is firing blanks. You could have one-stop shopped. Sex and baby-making in one."
The waiter arrived with their order. The food was garnished with fresh pansies and was almost too pretty to eat. Using her fork, Gillian toyed with the tiny purple blossom atop her scoop of shrimp salad. "Jem had his vasectomy long before he ever met me."
"Which I take as good fortune." Melina raised her wineglass in a silent salute. "He's a stick."
"Melina," Gillian said reprovingly.
"Sorry." But she wasn't, and Gillian knew the apology was insincere. "But he is a dud, Gillian. He doesn't make you happy."
"That's not true. I'm happy."
"Really? You don't seem over-the-moon in love to me. Unless I've missed something. Have I?"
"Apparently. Because I do love Jem."
Melina raised her eyebrow to form a skeptical arch.
"I do," Gillian insisted. "But what relationship is perfect? One can't have everything in a neat and tidy package. It's asking too much of any one person to fulfil all your needs and desires."
"In your case, a baby. You've wanted one since you were a child yourself. You played with dolls while I favored skates."
"Do you still want to be in the Roller Derby?"
"Yes, and I'm pissed because they switched to in-line skates, which is much harder."
Gillian laughed. "Sometimes Mother could tell us apart only by looking at our knees."
"Mine were the ones with the scabs." They laughed at shared memories, but gradually Melina's smile relaxed. "If Jem's sterility is the obstacle to your having a perfect relationship, ask him to have the vasectomy reversed."
"I broached it once. He wouldn't even talk about it."
"Then how has he reacted to your decision?"
"Surprisingly well. In fact, whenever I expressed doubt, he encouraged me to go through with it."
"Hmm." Melina was surprised to hear that. "Well, as I've said many times before, he's a weird duck."
"Let's not talk about Jem. Whenever we talk about Jem, we get into an argument, and I don't want anything to spoil today. On the topic of Jem, let's agree to disagree. Okay?"
"Fine by me."
They ate in silence for a moment before Melina said, "Just one more point." Gillian groaned, but she spoke above it. "If the procedure is successful and you do conceive, it'll be an acid test of Jem's love."
"I've thought of that."
"Beware, Gillian. If a baby comes of this, the reality might not be as rosy as it seemed in theory. Kodak moments don't occur as often as messy diapers. Jem might not be as accepting as he's led you to believe he'll be. And in fairness to him, he probably believes he'll be okay with it."
She paused to sip her wine, then decided to speak aloud her troubling thoughts. She and Gillian had always been candid and brutally honest with each other. "I'm a little concerned that his attitude will change when the baby is actually here. Wouldn't it be hard for any man to accept what is, essentially, another man's child? At the very least, Jem will harbor a few misgivings. Possibly some resentment."
"I anticipate some backlash," Gillian said. "And I took that into account. But I couldn't base my decision on possibilities and speculations. I had to stop asking myself 'what if?' or I'd never have done it. If I was going to do it, I needed to do it sooner rather than later. We'll be thirty-six in a couple of months."
"Don't remind me."
"I was constantly being reminded that my biological clock is ticking. I could no longer ignore it."
Gillian set down her fork. "Do you, Melina? Can you understand?"
They had always sought each other's approval. Melina valued and trusted Gillian's opinion above all others, and she knew the reverse was true. "Yes," Melina answered slowly, "I understand it. I just don't share it. I've never felt the urge to have a child." Smiling ruefully, she added, "It's good that I didn't, isn't it? My life, my future, is all about my business."
She reached across the table to clasp Gillian's hand. "The maternal instinct may be the only difference between us. I think you got both portions, yours and mine. If it's that strong, you would have been wrong to ignore it. You needed to respond to it or you would never have been happy. So the decision you made was the right one for you."
"Oh, God, I hope so." Even knowing how meaningful this experiment was for Gillian, Melina was surprised by the level of emotion in her twin's voice. "I want a child very much, but what if... what if the child doesn't want me?"
"What if my maternal instinct is false and I'm no good at mothering?"
"Not a chance."
"You're just saying that because you know that's what I want to hear, Melina."
"Have you ever known me to mince words? I'm saying it because it's true. You'll be an ideal mother."
"I want to be." Gillian's expression, her tone, conveyed her earnestness. Neither of them was given to spontaneous crying, yet Gillian appeared to be on the verge of tears, which could be attributed to that hormonal surge thing, or was still another indication of the depth of her feeling.
She said, "Of all the decisions I've made in my life so far, this is the most important one. Of all the decisions I'm likely to make in the future, it's the most important one. I don't want to fail at something that is this important to me. I simply can't."
"And you won't," Melina stated definitively.
"I want my baby to be as happy with me as I'll be with him. Or her."
"It'll consider itself the luckiest kid alive. And I wish I could be that certain about everything else as I am of that. You'll be a stunning success at parenting, Gillian. So put the improbability of failure out of your mind. Banish it. Bury it. It ain't gonna happen."
Her twin's firm validation of her decision made Gillian smile with relief. She blinked away her unshed tears. "Okay. My doubts are officially banished and buried."
"Well, thank God we got that out of the way."
Again Melina raised her wineglass. "Here's to you and modern medical science. I hope those microscopic tadpoles are doing their thing!"
They clinked glasses. Gillian said, "The success rate even when all systems are go, as in my case is only twenty-five percent. It may take more than one time."
"That's not what Mother told us before our first car date."
They laughed at the memory of their mother's painful shyness when it came to discussing sex and her warnings to her daughters of its potential hazards.
"Remember that lecture? I didn't know there were that many euphemisms for body parts and intercourse!" Melina exclaimed. "But the message that came through loud and clear was that it only took one time to make a baby."
"We'll see. The doctor assured me that these were good swimmers."
"He actually called them swimmers?"
They giggled like teenagers over a dirty joke. Eventually Melina signaled the waiter to remove their plates and ordered coffee. "What about the donor?"
"He's only a number, selected from the sperm donor's equivalent of a Spiegel's catalogue. Of all the candidates, he best fit my preferences."
"Hair color. Eye color. Body type."
"Those, along with interests, background, and IQ."
"So you just ordered a number out of a catalog?" Melina asked wryly.
"This is a scientific procedure."
"Biology. Human reproduction boiled down to its most clinical form."
Gillian smiled, knowing she'd been trapped. They couldn't hide a thought from each other for long. "But I'm a human being, and my body isn't a test tube. I can't be as entirely objective as I should." Staring into near space, she said quietly, "With the help of an unnamed person, I hope to create a new individual. A baby. A personality. A soul. That's heady stuff. Naturally I wonder about the donor, who he is and what he looks like."
"How could you not? Of course you wonder. But you don't have a clue?"
"Nothing. He's probably a med student who needed some extra spending money."
"And who likes to jack off. But then, they all like to jack off, don't they?" Melina winked at the man seated at the next table. He smiled back at her, flattered by her flirtation.
Seeing the exchange, Gillian chided her in a stage whisper. "Behave."
"He doesn't know what I said."
They were different in that way, too. Melina tended to speak her mind, where Gillian was more discreet. Melina said and did things that Gillian thought about but was often too inhibited to say or do. They shared the same impulses, but Melina acted on them: She plunged headfirst off the high diving board. Gillian would stand with her toes curled over the end of it until dared to dive in. Melina admired her twin's circumspection. Gillian claimed to be envious of Melina's courage.
Leaving the gentleman at the next table to think what he wished, Melina asked Gillian how long it would be before she knew if the artificial insemination had worked.
"I go back in a week for a blood test."
"A whole week! Are you under any restrictions?"
"None. I go about my everyday activities."
"I have an appointment this afternoon."
"Very funny. You know what I meant."
"I know what you meant, and no, there's no restriction. In fact, the doctor told me that if I had a partner who would share the child, he would encourage us to have intercourse soon. That's psychologically beneficial for infertile couples who have resorted to using donor sperm when all else has failed. If they have sex on the date of the AI, there's always the outside chance that "
"The partner's sperm was the one to fertilize the egg."
Melina pressed her temples with her index fingers. "Jeez, this gets "
"Deep. I know. There are myriad facets to this issue. Endless factors to consider. Ethical and religious questions to probe and hopefully resolve. But I don't regret doing it. Nor am I going to start second-guessing the decision now that I've acted on it. In fact, if I don't conceive this time, I'll definitely try again.
"Until recently, my fantasies of motherhood were nebulous. They took place in the far-distant future. But now that I've actually taken the step necessary to conceive, those fantasies have crystallized. I want a baby, Melina, dirty diapers and all. I want one very much. A son or daughter to care for. Someone who requires my love. Someone who loves me back."
Melina swallowed hard. "Are you trying to make me cry?"
Gillian blinked back her own tears. Touching her tummy lightly, she said, "It's going to be a long week."
Melina sniffed, impatient with herself for becoming so sentimental. "What you need is a diversion," she stated. "Something to take your mind off it and make the time go faster."
"I'm thinking." She tapped her lips with steepled fingers. After a moment, she experienced a burst of brilliant inspiration. But it was immediately followed by exasperation. "Damn!" she exclaimed, slapping the tabletop. "I can't believe I'm about to offer this to you."
"Oh, what the hell?" she said, making a sudden decision. She leaned across the table and said excitedly, "Go in my place tonight."
"Guess who I'm escorting this evening."
"I don't care."
"Sure you do. Christopher Hart."
"Ah-hah! Your eyes lit up when you said his name."
"If they lit up, and I doubt they did, it's because I'm impressed that my sister's been retained to escort such a VIP Isn't he just back from a space mission?"
"Three months ago. He completed a shuttle mission that salvaged an important military satellite. Crucial to world peace or something like that."
"What's he doing in Dallas?"
"Receiving an award from SMU's alumni association. They're giving him a distinguished something-or-other award at a black-tie banquet at the Adolphus." She smiled wickedly. "Want to meet him?"
"I don't know how to do your job!" Gillian exclaimed. "Any more than you know how to sell commercial real estate."
"Your job is difficult. It involves interest rates and plats and stuff. Mine's a no-brainer. What's to know?"
"Not so. You pick him up at the start of the evening, you drop him off at the end of it."
Of course, she was grossly simplifying her job description. She had worked as an apprentice for years before her employer retired and sold her the business. Under her management it had expanded.
Essentially, unless a celebrity visiting Dallas arrived with his or her own entourage, she, or one of her three carefully screened and trained employees, was responsible for that individual until he was safely on his way to his next destination. She served as chauffeur, confidante, shopper whatever the client needed her to be. She sometimes groused about having to work ridiculous hours, but her complaining was so much hot air, because she loved what she did. Her business had thrived because she was good at it.
But she wasn't worried about Gillian taking over for her one night. Like her, Gillian had never met a stranger in her life, and she wasn't likely to become tongue-tied in the presence of Colonel Christopher Hart. She'd sold real estate to men more important than he. And it would get her away from Jem Hennings for one night, which in Melina's view was a bonus.
"You know where the Adolphus is, right?"
"Forget it, Melina," Gillian said, enunciating each word.
"He's staying at The Mansion. You pick him up there and get him downtown by "
"You're not listening."
"I don't listen to lame excuses. You haven't given me one good reason why you won't go."
"Then how's this? We're no longer children. Adults don't play games like this."
"We could still get away with switching."
"Of course we could, but that's beside the point."
"Because it's crazy."
"Colonel Hart doesn't know me from Adam. What's the harm?"
Gillian continued to ignore her arguments. "I've got my own business to attend to! I'm on the brink of getting a hot new ad agency to sign a contract on a new facility to the tune of three million. I'm meeting with them this afternoon to hammer out the deal points with the seller. In addition to all of the above, Jem's coming over tonight. So, thank you for the thought, but no."
"Christopher Hart is hot, hot, hot," she taunted in a singsong voice.
"You can tell me all about him later."
"Last chance. Going, going..."
Frowning, and muttering over what a wet blanket Gillian was, she requested the check and insisted on treating. Outside the fashionable restaurant, parking valets brought their cars around. One of the young men was staring so hard at the two of them, he nearly rear-ended another car.
As they exchanged goodbyes, Melina made one final pitch. "You're going to regret passing up this opportunity."
"Gillian, he's a national hero! You'd be spending the evening with him. This could be the best gift I've given you since introducing you to the Miracle Bra."
"I appreciate the thought."
"Oh, I get it. You're still pouting."
"Because I couldn't arrange a meeting between you and Kevin Costner last month. Gillian, I've told you a thousand times that he was on a very tight schedule. There was absolutely no way."
Laughing, Gillian leaned forward and kissed her cheek. "I'm not pouting. I love you, sis."
"Have fun with the astronaut."
She winked, drawling, "You can bet I'll try."
"I want details," Gillian called back to her as she climbed into her car. "The nitty-gritty."
"Promise. I'll call you as soon as I get home."
A strong wind blew across the desert floor, lifting sand and using it to scour the face of the mountain before scattering it among the scrub brush. At the peak where the air was thinner and cooler, the same wind made castanets of the saffron-colored leaves of aspen trees.
The compound situated in the midst of the aspen grove blended so well into its setting that it was almost invisible to motorists on the highway that snaked across the desert floor miles below. The buildings were constructed of granite that had been handpicked and imported from Scotland. The rivers of color streaking through its basic gray background perfectly matched the dun and ocher and sienna hues of the surrounding landscape.
The shaded terrace on the third level of the central building served as an outdoor temple for the one presently at prayer. His knees were cushioned by a maroon velvet pillow that was elaborately embroidered. The gold and silver metallic threads glittered in the sunlight that filtered through the trees.
The cushion had been a gift to him from an admirer. It was said to have been brought from Russia by emigrants at the turn of the last century. A family heirloom, it had been the gift-giver's prized possession, and, as such, a supreme sacrifice, an enormous tribute to the one to whom she had given it.
His head was bowed. His thick blond hair appeared almost white, silky in texture, angelic. His eyes were closed. His lips formed silent words of supplication. His hands were folded beneath his chin. He seemed the epitome of piety. God-touched. God-blessed. God-sanctioned.
A man wearing a severely tailored dark suit emerged from the wide glass door separating the terrace from the vast room inside. Without making a sound, he approached the man at prayer and laid a sheet of paper beside his kneeling form, tucking the corner of it beneath the velvet cushion to prevent it from being swept away by the wind. Then he withdrew just as noiselessly as he had approached.
The man at prayer suspended his petitions to the sky, picked up the note, and saw that it had been stamped with the day and time. Today. Less than an hour ago.
As he read the typed message, a slow smile spread across his handsome features. His long, tapered hands pressed the note against his chest as though its value to him were inestimable. He closed his eyes again. Seemingly enraptured, he angled his face toward the sun.
He didn't invoke God's name, however. Instead, the name he whispered reverently was "Gillian Lloyd."
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