The voices in her head were making Wanda McKain’s brain hurt. Urgent whispers, too many of them and louder than usual:
Hide your son.
Don’t let anyone know he’s different.
Dylan doesn’t understand different people. You know how he is; everything has to look so freakin’ normal.
She knew why, and she thought she could fit into his life anyway. When she’d fallen in love with Dylan, the voices had stopped. She thought their love had cured her. He was taller than a superhero, gorgeous like a movie star, with dreams of living a successful, normal life. It sounded like Heaven. All she’d had to do was keep her own past a secret.
Then the voices came back, on her wedding day, no less. She backed away from him whenever the murmur of voices kicked in. Luckily he started working a lot after that first year.
He’ll find out you’ve got crazy in your blood, maybe even put you back in the hospital.
Just that terrifying thought reinforced her mission. Her dad had called her crazy. Mommy was too timid to defend her. The voices said her parents were the crazy ones, but those people in the hospital believed them, not her. She knew other people heard voices. They put bumper stickers on their cars that read: I do what the voices in my head tell me. Why was she considered crazy when they weren’t?
She’d gotten good at pretending she was normal, giving the responses the doctors—and the world—expected. She’d even fooled Dylan. But the voices were getting more insistent. They told her she couldn’t fool Dylan much longer. Just the other day she’d answered out loud, and he’d looked at her funny. Three times now Camilla, their housekeeper, had caught her talking to them. It was only a matter of time, the voices said, until they’d take Teddy from her and put her away.
Once she and Teddy and Mommy were hidden away, Wanda wouldn’t have to pretend. She could get fat, luxuriously fat, and not worry what people thought of her, because no one else would be around. The voices had worked out all the details. She’d been consumed with “the plan” for two months now. It was finally time to act.
But don’t drive too fast.
Use your signals.
“Shhh!” She waved away the voices. “I hate when you all talk at the same time.” She glanced back at her son. He was strapped in the back seat, lost in his own world. The doctor had confirmed her fears that Teddy was different. Wanda knew the doctor would ignore her pleas not to tell Dylan.
“I’ll protect you,” she said to Teddy in a strangled voice she barely recognized as her own. “We’re going to go away together so no one will ever know.”
She pulled into the nursing home complex where her mother lived. Ironic, wasn’t it, that Mommy was now in a home all these years later. Anne Dodson had Alzheimer’s, or that’s what they told Wanda. The voices said it wasn’t true, that the nurses were trying to trick them. Maybe they were performing experiments on the people who resided there. Anne was all right. She just forgot things once in a while.
Wanda went through the procedure to sign out her mother, keeping the voices at bay. People looked at her strangely if she let them distract her. Sometimes she’d forget and tell them to shut up, only to find a startled cashier or waitress staring at her.
“Have a nice vacation,” the desk clerk said as Wanda hurried her mother out of the cheery lobby. That’s what Wanda had told them, that she was taking her mother on a week-long trip to North Carolina.
“Are you new?” Anne asked, blinking as Wanda pulled her out into the sunlight. “They keep hiring new people all the time, how’s a girl supposed to keep up with all those faces when they keep changing?”
“Mommy, it’s me, Wanda. Your daughter. Remember how I told you I needed you. You gotta take care of Teddy for a couple of hours.” Once she had Anne strapped into the passenger seat, she said, “We’re going to the safe place now. No more nurses, nobody looking at you like you’re crazy, no more having to pretend you’re just like everyone else. I’m going to take you and Teddy to the safe place first, then I have to go home for a few minutes. It’s all part of ‘the plan’. Camilla won’t even know me and Teddy are missing until she leaves for the day, and maybe not even then. We’ll have plenty of time to get into place. You have to take care of Teddy while I’m gone.”
Anne nodded. “That’s important, isn’t it? You said it with an important tone in your voice.”
“Yes, it’s important.”
“Take care of Teddy,” Anne repeated. “I can remember that.”
As Wanda pulled away from the nursing home, the voices got louder. She shook her head, but that only made her dizzy. “Stop it! I’m taking care of Teddy. You hear? Nobody’s going to get to him now.”
Chloe Samms was led in to see Mr. Barnes, the senior partner of the Fifth Avenue law firm. She had to remind herself to shake his hand. Having grown up in a community of women, she usually greeted people with a hug.
No way was she going to hug Mr. Barnes. He had bulging eyes in a wide, speckled face and reminded her of those pacman frogs she’d seen in Petland. His chin didn’t pulse with his breathing…only when he swallowed. She pasted on an optimistic smile, but before she could say anything, he said, “You’ve come to see if I’m hiring your accounting firm.”
“You said you’d have a decision by today.”
A respectable law firm in the heart of Naples, Florida would be a nice way to lend credibility to C.S. Accounting. Lord knew she needed all the credibility she could get.
“I’m afraid I’ve decided to go elsewhere.” He held up his hand, as though expecting a rebuttal. “It’s nothing personal.” His gaze slid over her, lingering on a chest she did everything to downplay. “You’re a cute thing and all—”
Don’t let him see your disappointment. Be tough, be strong. “I’m not all that cute, really.” She grimaced. “I can be downright ugly if I put my mind to it. You should see me in the morning.” She rolled her eyes. “What I mean is…” She hated when she got this way, jabbering and making it more than obvious that she was desperate for this account. She gestured toward her shoulder-length blond hair. “Beneath these curls is a brain, Mr. Barnes.” She picked up a ledger on his desk and glanced down the list. “The total is forty-two thousand, five hundred and fifteen dollars. Go ahead and check it.”
He took the ledger back. “I’m sure you are smart, Ms. Samms. I like your spunk, and that’s why I even considered hiring your firm.”
“But?” She’d tried to inject strength into that word, but it came out like a drizzle.
“My partners felt that having someone associated with Lilithdale wouldn’t be a wise public relations move.”
She took a deep breath, not sure if she wanted to scream or cry. “Fourteen hundred twenty-two divided by twelve equals one-eighteen and a half. Seventy-eight times twelve equals nine thirty-six.”
“Now, Ms. Samms, don’t embarrass us both by grovel—what did you say?”
“Some people count to ten. I do calculations.” It was a habit that had started when she was six. Usually she did it in her head, but sometimes she was so mad, she had to say it aloud to keep anything else from spouting out. She nodded curtly and turned to the door.
“Oh, Ms. Samms? I gotta know, is it true what they say? That you girls have drunken orgies out there?”
“I hate to crush your lurid fantasies, but there are no orgies. On New Year’s Eve the residents take a skinny dip in the bay. It’s a symbolic way of shedding last year’s baggage, bad memories…and negative feelings toward pig-headed, demoralized men who have nothing but sex on their minds.”
His expression didn’t change at all. “So…are you all lesbians or what?”
It wasn’t a new question; heck, Chloe had had to answer this one hundreds of times. This creep wanted it to be true. “The women who live in Lilithdale are as heterosexual as you.” Her gaze slid over what she could see of the man. “Probably more so. They just don’t have any need for…”—Let’s see if it sinks in this time—“pig-headed, demoralized men who have nothing but sex on their minds.”
He sat back in his chair. His leering smile faded, but his smugness remained in place. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you meant that as a slanderous insult against me personally.”
Not only him. It also applied to another man who had done more than made her angry; he’d shattered her heart into a hundred and twenty-one pieces. She gave Barnes her sweetest smile. “If I implied that you were a blunt-minded, frog-faced, depraved, sorry excuse for a man, I’m sure I meant it in the nicest possible way.”
She walked out, leaving the door swinging open. Outside, she leaned against the wall and closed her eyes. I can’t believe I said that to him. She didn’t know whether she should feel ashamed, proud, or angry. At the moment, all three fought for dominance. She felt the slightest smile break free, then a choked laugh. Then the snorting kind of laughter that brought tears to her eyes.
She pushed away from the wall and caught her reflection in a jewelry store window. Definitely she wore her hand-in-the-cookie jar face. Her smile faded. Maybe she could hack off her curls, deepen her voice. She didn’t dress cute, though her yen for pastels probably didn’t help. Cute was tiny, and she was too full-figured to be considered tiny. But cute wasn’t her biggest problem; Lilithdale was. The bane of her existence. The place she’d called home since her mother died of breast cancer and left her in her aunts’ care when she was five.
Lilithdale started out as a refuge for a handful of repressed women back in the fifties. The newly-independent women took over a small undeveloped part of east Marco Island. They built a large house and lived by selling seashells to tourist shops. More women came and settled in, but not because they were repressed. They were oddities in their own worlds. Many were psychic in nature, seeing visions, auras, or in the case of one woman, a person’s last moments on earth. One woman talked to dead people, and there was her Aunt Stella who communicated with animals. Belle had so much energy in her body she could light up a bulb by just holding it in her hand. Irina had once been billed “the strongest woman in the world.” She could pull a car with her teeth. And then there were women who believed they had some kind of gift, but nobody could say for sure whether they really did or not. No matter what ability you believed you had—whether it was real or not—you belonged in Lilithdale.
Unless you had no special ability like Chloe. Besides her gift with numbers (which didn’t count since it was left-brained and too ordinary), she had nothing, not even good instincts. Her ordinariness made her an anomaly in Lilithdale; her connection to Lilithdale made her an oddball to the rest of the world. The only person Chloe could intimately relate to was Marilyn of the Addams family, who was pitied for her normality.
“Can I…help you?” An attractive blonde dressed in silk and linen was leaning out of the doorway. She didn’t want to help, not by the way her gaze disdainfully took in Chloe’s pantsuit or the way her lip lifted at the sight of Chloe’s green Keds. There was nothing wrong with her Keds. Thanks to her grandma, the dyeing guru, her shoes were a perfect match to her outfit. What the blonde was really saying was Stop blocking our first class window with your second class self.
Just like she’d done for years, Chloe swept her gaze down the woman’s attire, pretending to find something amiss. “I can’t imagine a thing you could help me with.” Head and shoulders high, she spun around and walked away. It didn’t hurt. Not even a tiny bit.
The sun sparkled on the Porsches and BMWs parked along Fifth Avenue. Her green ’66 T-Bird didn’t stand out like a bruised knuckle. It didn’t. A gorgeous guy was eating a sandwich on the whale’s tail of his Porsche. She smiled at his cleverness of finding a table, but he looked right through her. Men in suits and women in outfits that probably cost more than Chloe’s whole wardrobe passed her on the sidewalk. She heard snatches of conversations, this stock going up, the Heart Association’s gala that weekend, look, new Ferragamos in the window, I’m going to try them on. Not even a mention of going fishing that afternoon, good vibes, or getting their chakras cleared. What was she even doing there? Forget the Porsches, the snooty blonde, and the frogman, she told herself. Enjoy the perfect winter day. In Naples, winter meant the temperature barely had the decency to dip into sweater-wearing weather. It was too warm, but the snowbirds that migrated from the North to take up residence in their condos weren’t complaining.
She pulled out the list Aunt Stella had given her. Buy a bacon-scented chew toy for her session with the troubled Great Dane. Pick up plum foot cream from the Day Spa for Gisella. Then Sangeeta needed Chloe’s help at the tea house for a few hours while she went to regress to her previous lives at Aunt Lena’s Total Balance Women’s Center. Oh, and she was supposed to pick up Nita’s books so she could work on the monthly accounting. Two hundred and fifty women now lived in Lilithdale, most having moved down once they’d packed their kids off to college. Chloe had been the only child to grow up there. Over the years the surrounding communities had taken notice of their psychic neighbors and started going for readings. While they were there, they had tea and tofu and sometimes stayed for dinner. Slowly it had become a Mecca for women seeking anything from a psychic reading to advice, from animal counseling to a bookstore specializing in women’s tomes.
While the residents welcomed visitors, they abhorred leaving town, so they always loaded Chloe with errands whenever she drove into Naples. Since their requests were accompanied by hugs, how could she resist? Chloe’s smile faded when she remembered Gisella’s warning: “Be extra careful today. I feel something bad’s gonna happen.”
Dylan McKain met with Judge Neely late that morning. When a judge asked for a meeting in her chambers, Dylan thought it unwise to tell her that most of his clients came to his office. Neely told him to make himself comfortable in the wood-paneled office.
“We almost met two months ago. The mayor’s open house party. You did a fabulous job designing his house.”
“Thank you.” The mayor had made him the official guest of honor. Not only did Dylan hate being the center of attention—although for his firm’s sake, he’d suffer it—Wanda had manufactured her usual crisis before every important social event. People were beginning to wonder if he’d made up a wife since she never made any appearances.
“I understand you’re doing the Kraft Theater on Third Street. N Magazine said you were the sole architect. The kind of project to elevate your firm to national status.”
“It’s an exciting project. The exposure is just a bonus.”
“My husband and I are planning to build a home in Pelican Bay and we want you personally to design it for us.”
Dylan usually had a hard time saying no to opportunities like this. But he’d made himself a promise that morning and he was going to stick with it. “I’m afraid I can’t. I’ve already had to delegate my projects to my associates because of the theater. But I have talented people who do great work.”
The judge surprised him with her pout. “But we want you.”
He smiled. “I appreciate that, but the theater is going to take all of my professional time for the next several months. If you’re not in a hurry, I’d be glad to schedule an appointment as soon as the theater requires less time.”
“Sure you can’t put in some evening hours if I pay you a bonus?”
“Afraid not. I already work too many weekends and evenings. Frankly, I need to spend more time at home.” This morning he’d eaten his bagel at the empty table and realized the sacrifice he was making. He never saw his son anymore. Teddy was still asleep when Dylan woke, and Wanda usually had him put to bed by the time he got home. Whenever he made a point to spend time with his son, Teddy was either sick or tired from playing.
Neely’s pout disappeared. “All right, I can understand that. Family should always come first. Put me on your schedule.” She gave him a wink. “I want to be first on your list.”
Dylan shook her hand. “Count on it.”
It was strange, the ache he’d gotten that morning as he’d looked at his son’s booster seat and realized he never saw Teddy sitting there. He had to make time for his son. He glanced at his Movado watch as he walked to his Mercedes. It was early, but maybe he’d stop by the house on his way back to work and have lunch with his son. He had to go right by Royal Harbor anyway.
He felt good about seeing Teddy on the spur-of-the-moment until he saw Wanda’s car in the garage. Odd that the garage door was open. He looked at her BMW and for a moment didn’t want to go inside. She never complained about his long hours and never accused him of neglecting his family. In fact, she seemed agitated when he did decide to take a weekend morning off or come home early. He just figured he threw off her schedule—like he was doing today.
Lately she’d been acting odd, like disappearing for a few hours and not telling him where she’d been. He would have suspected an affair, but she didn’t look…satisfied. Then again, what did satisfaction look like exactly?He pushed himself out of the car. He nearly collided with her as she barreled out the door that separated the garage and the laundry room.
Her eyes went wide with panic. “Dylan! What are you doing home? You’re not supposed to be here.”
She looked guilty, and he rethought the affair idea. “I had an appointment down at the courthouse and thought I’d stop by and see Teddy.”
“Courthouse?” She wrapped one arm around her waist and chewed the tips of her fingers.
“A judge wants me to design her house,” he said absently, taking in Wanda’s disheveled appearance and dowdy clothing. Maybe not an affair then. “What’s wrong? Where were you going in such a hurry?”
“Nothing. Nowhere. What’s with all the questions? I was going out for a walk, that’s all. And you can’t see Teddy. I just put him down for a nap.”
He checked his watch. “Already? He’s only been up a few hours.”
“He was tired.”
“You said you were going to take him to the doctor—”
“I did and there’s nothing wrong with him. He’s perfectly normal. Why don’t you go on to work? I know you’re busy with that new project. Come on, I’ll walk you to your car.”
Every nerve ending went on alert. He glanced at the door behind her, then at her hand as she tugged on his arm. The only time she ever touched him lately was when she was trying to get rid of him. And no doubt, that’s what she was after now. He didn’t budge. “Is Camilla working today?”
“Of course. Her car’s right there, and isn’t she always here, right on time every weekday from seven to three? She’s cleaning the pool right now. Dylan, you really should get going. I don’t want you to lose this project, I know how important it is to you.”
Her face was flushed and splotchy now. Wanda wouldn’t have a lover hidden away inside, not with Camilla and Teddy there. He realized she played this game a lot, keeping him from his son. But she’d never been desperate before. He jerked his arm free and walked inside.
Instead of following him, she grabbed her car keys and walked back out to the garage. Something wasn’t right. Why was Wanda running from him? He glanced to the hallway where Teddy’s room was. A car engine started. He had to make a decision. He bolted out to the garage in time to see her back up, then gun the car around the drive. She nearly hit the fountain. Her tires squealed as she maneuvered the circle and turned onto the street. He didn’t have to think about it; he jumped into his Mercedes and followed her.
When she reached US41, she paused at the light. Her eyes widened in the rear view mirror when she saw him. She gestured as though she were talking to someone in the car. The light turned green, and she punched the gas and made a left. Traffic was jammed up because of construction, but she managed to maneuver around the lanes. He wasn’t about to let her get away. He knew Teddy wasn’t at the house. Dylan sure as hell hoped he wasn’t in the car. He managed to catch up to her at the Goodlette Road light. He waved her over, but she kept going. She ran the red at the Four Corners intersection, causing a ruckus of brake squeals and blaring horns. He followed her. She wouldn’t hurt Teddy. But at the moment she was acting crazy. Wanda charged down Fifth Avenue, going way too fast for a busy shopping area filled with tourists and businesspeople. If she was stupid enough to endanger her life, there wasn’t much he could do about that. But to endanger others…and what if Teddy was in the car?
Dylan had to drive just as crazily to keep up with her. He beeped his horn to warn people to get out of the way. Others beeped too, and pedestrians waved their arms at her recklessness. Traffic slowed her down as someone made a right turn—but only for a second. She swerved into the oncoming lane to go around.
Dylan’s heart stopped when he saw the woman herding a Muscovy duck across the street. She looked like an angel, with the sun lighting up her blond curls. She checked for traffic to the left, not even looking in their direction. The duck reached the sidewalk. Wanda wasn’t slowing down; she was looking at him. Dylan slammed on his horn. Everything went into slow motion, including his heartbeat. The woman looked up. The expression on her face changed from disbelief to terror. A car wasn’t supposed to be coming from that direction, that’s what she was thinking. Wanda hit her brakes and swerved, but it was too late. Dylan’s body shook as the car made impact. The woman flew several yards through the air and landed on the sidewalk. The sound of shattering glass filled the air. Everything froze, except for the sick feeling in his stomach. People on the sidewalk stared with horror on their faces. It felt like hours passed in that frozen state. Then, as though someone had released the pause button, everyone broke out of their trances.
The woman was surrounded by a crowd, and only when he couldn’t see her anymore could he focus on Wanda. Her car had gone through a plate glass window and been stopped by an interior wall. The horn wailed. He felt a sickening chill in his stomach. Then the paralysis dropped away as he pulled down a side street and propelled himself from the car. His first thought was Teddy. If he’d been in the car…
Relief washed over him when he saw the empty car seat. Wanda was drooped against the steering wheel, and her head was twisted at an angle. Her eyes stared at nothing. He started to reach in through the shattered window.
“Don’t move her!” a man behind the counter shouted, dropping the phone with a thud. “Something might be broken. I just called for help. We’d better wait.”
Something probably was broken, and beyond repair. The chill spread slowly through him. “I’m going to check her pulse.” She was still warm. She had to be alive. His finger slid against the blood on her neck. He felt nothing, not even a shallow beat. Where were the ambulances already?
“Keep an eye on her,” he told the guy in the store and walked outside. His brain was on automatic now. As he walked around to the trunk of Wanda’s car, he called Camilla on his cell phone. “Is Teddy there?”
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Is Teddy there?”
“No, sir, he’s not. Mrs. McKain took him out early this morning, right after you left.”
“Where did she take him?” He wrenched the lid open and breathed in relief. No Teddy. He didn’t think Wanda would put her son in the trunk, but nothing made sense right now.
“I don’t know, sir. Is something the matter?”
Dylan headed across the street. “She didn’t bring him back when she returned?”
“This will sound strange, but she pretended to have him with her. I mean, she was talking to him real loud, like she wanted me to hear. But I didn’t see him.”
“Make sure he’s not in the house. I’ll call you back.”
He approached the crowd of people surrounding the woman Wanda had hit. His heart felt leaden. This was his fault. If he hadn’t been chasing Wanda, none of this would have happened. He could only see glimpses of her between the crowd, the beautiful woman who’d just seconds before been trying to save a duck’s life. Blood reddened those golden curls and stained her pale green pantsuit.
And then he heard someone say, “Oh, my God, she’s dead.”