The carat diamond on her wedding set sparkled as Hallie DiBarto ran her fingers across the black velvet surface of the sofa. Not the appropriate distraction to avoid her husband Jamie’s eyes, she realized, and shifted her vision to her silk stockings. She deserved the bitterness those blue depths radiated at her, she knew that. But if she didn’t go through with this, who knew what Mick would do to her. Or to Jamie.
“I want a divorce, Jamie,” she said softly, her words absent of emotion. She would have to put more meaning into them to convince him. If only the migraine would subside enough for her to summon her acting skills.
As it turned out, she didn’t need to.
“Absolutely,” he told her.
That word sent a chilled rush to her bones in spite of the warm California sun pouring through the windows.
Her voice quivered. “Just like that?”
Jamie sighed, running a hand through his blond hair in frustration. It was a gesture she had seen many times, had caused many times, if she was honest with herself.
“What do you want me to do, Hallie, drop down on my knees and beg you to stay, so you can keep making a fool of me by seeing that maniac? I’m done with that business. Don’t cry or accuse me of not caring. You’d be right. I don’t care anymore.”
Pain shot through her skull like an iron lance. She’d had horrible headaches all her life, but this sense of fear enveloping her was new and the pain sharper. Her head dropped down into her hands, and her thoughts scattered like ants on a trampled hill. Dimly, she heard Jamie’s concerned voice, but his words were unintelligible, as if spoken through layers of gauze. Her body convulsed under tremors of cold, and she slid onto the tile floor, unable to stop herself from falling.
“Make it stop. Make it stop!” her voice cried out through a fog of pain.
The touch of Jamie’s hand, tight on her arm, seemed to tingle, then disappear. She tried to move her hand, her arm. In sheer horror, she realized she could not. Black dots clouded her vision, and she heard her heartbeat slowing to nothing as the darkness closed in. She heard a whistling sound, like a faraway train. As the pain lessened, Hallie welcomed the dark cloud of death as it took her away. Anything to make the pain go away.
Hallie DiBarto had come back from the brink of death a changed woman. That in itself was not unusual. Coming back in a different body was.
And not just a different body, but a different life. Someone else’s life. Marti, they kept calling her. Who was Marti? Hallie felt the surge of panic that enveloped her every time she realized that she was Marti. Before she’d had a chance to ask where Jamie was, or to tell them they’d made a mistake in her identity, she realized something was terribly wrong.
Hallie glanced down again at short fingers and stubby nails, at the body of a stranger. She took a deep breath, willing the panic away. How had she ended up in Chattaloo, Florida? In this bruised and aching body? She remembered dying as if it were years ago, remembered jagged pieces of a life in California. During her stay in the hospital, those memories melded together to form a past that did not coincide with what she’d found here. She had never before been to Florida, been a brunette, been short. She had never seen the tall man who helped her out of the wheelchair after they went through the hospital doors, watching her with a worried expression. The man who claimed to be her husband, Jesse.
Jesse’s thick, brown hair lifted in the fat breeze as they bid the doctor farewell and walked into humid sunshine. He was twenty-five years old; she’d seen his date of birth on a form. He studied her openly, and for that she could not blame him. After all, he’d been told that his wife had been assaulted, nearly raped, and hadn’t spoken to anyone since the attack. She didn’t know how the man with those dark green eyes would take her crazy story: that a tall, blue-eyed, blonde stranger lived inside his wife’s petite body. Hallie had to cling to the only truth she knew: that woman still existed.
She would have to tell him eventually. For now, playing the part of silent trauma would serve her best. She hoped fervently for a sign. It was not God who spoke, but Jesse.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” he said, softer than she thought a man of his size could speak. He held out a hand to her. “But let me help you.”
She glanced upward, catching a glimpse of thin clouds against a washed-out blue sky. A sign? Jesse’s hand remained in mid-air, unwavering as she contemplated. Then, very slowly, she reached a thin arm toward him. Somewhere deep inside her, down where she still existed, a small coal of warmth sparked to life as his fingers wrapped solidly around her own.
“The truck’s parked over there.”
Hallie nodded, maintaining the silence that had seen her through the ordeal of being
questioned by Deputy Thomas, the doctor and Jesse. It bought her time, if nothing else. She stuck her finger in her mouth to nervously chew on a nail, but found with dismay she had no nails to chew; they were already clipped short. Jesse helped her climb into a dusty, red pickup truck.
“Marti, if you want to talk about. . . . ” He glanced uneasily at her, then looked ahead. “what happened, I’m here. Dr. Toby said not to press you, and I won’t.” He reached over and lightly grazed a spot on her cheek where she knew a violet bruise blossomed. “I want to make it better, but I don’t know how. Will you tell me?”
Give me back my body and my life! she wanted to scream out, but clamped her lips shut instead. Keeping the panic from her eyes was harder than keeping her mouth shut. Could he see the confusion she saw whenever she looked in the mirror? Jesse sighed softly as he turned back to the steering wheel and started the engine.
After spending most of her life nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the mountains of Southern California, the small town of Chattaloo seemed flat, boring. She picked idly at the lace that edged her jean shorts. A thin scar edged along the top of one knobby knee, and she wondered how it got there. She loosened the scarf Jesse bought to hide the bruises around her neck. The sight of them had aroused a queer sense of fear in her, though Hallie had not suffered the attack herself.
Trying not to look overly interested, she pulled the worn-out wallet from the vinyl purse lying next to her. One library card and a driver’s license. The brunette gave the camera a forced smile. Next to the photo read, “Marti Jeane May.” The birth date indicated Marti was twenty-three years old. Four years younger than Hallie! Marti had an identity, a life, a husband. Now Hallie had those, and she didn’t want them.
“Is anything missing?” Jesse asked, breaking into her thoughts.
A strangled laugh escaped, which she quickly disguised as a sob. Her life and identity, that’s all. At Jesse’s concerned look, she shook her head, keeping her silence.
The orange groves flanking the two-lane highway grew gradually into downtown Chattaloo. Tiny frame houses were snuggled under oak trees, kids raced each other on bicycles, and groups of teenagers gathered idly around trucks and Jeeps. Normal life, going on as if the strangest thing in the world hadn’t just happened to her.
Jesse turned onto a dirt road. Distant barking materialized into one of the ugliest dogs she had ever seen. It was speckled, stocky and worse yet, large. It chased alongside the truck as they passed under a canopy of oak trees to a house in the middle of the hammock.
The dog jumped all over Jesse when he got out of the truck, but he didn’t seem to mind the grubby paws. Jesse opened the passenger door and held out his hand, but Hallie didn’t move. The dog looked hungrily up at her, flinging its tail from side to side.
“What’s wrong?” Then he followed her stare to the dog. “You’re not afraid of ole’ Bumpus, are you? You’ve been living with him for two weeks.”
She opened her mouth to say something, then caught herself. Yes, she was afraid of ole’ Bumpus. Terrified. But that ugly dog was the least of her problems, she thought, trying to put him in perspective. Bumpus cocked his head, his wrinkled brow looking thoughtful as he waited for some acknowledgement. Jesse whistled, then gestured. Bumpus moved to where Jesse pointed and sat down with an internal whining noise.
“He’s just concerned about you, is all.”
Hallie took his outstretched hand this time and carefully climbed down. Jesse led her up the stone walkway to the small gray house washed pink by the dying sunlight. Bumpus followed, his tail wagging wildly as he sniffed around her ankles. She moved away, but he followed, trying to jump up in front of her.
“Bumpus, what’s your problem? Maybe he knows you’re hurting.”
Maybe he does, she thought, eyeing him. And maybe he knew she wasn’t Marti.
Inside, the house looked larger than it seemed from the outside. A ceiling fan whirred slowly above, barely moving the wilted leaves of an ivy. Marti obviously hadn’t had much of a chance to feminize the place, and a brief glance at Jesse left Hallie little doubt as to where the bride’s time had been going. Enjoying marital bliss obviously. He was a kicker, as she used to call the good looking ones. In a country sort of way.
The blue plaid couch looked lumpy, but it reminded her how little sleep she had gotten last night. Jesse was watching her, perhaps thinking she might faint, cry or worse. She tried for a moment to put herself in his place. His wife is almost raped and nearly strangled. When she wakes at the hospital, she is so withdrawn that she appears not to recognize either him or the doctor. And she has not spoken a word since. He might reasonably expect her to fling herself out the nearest window.
“You look tired,” he said.
Again, he held out that large, strong hand of his. She only hesitated a moment before reaching out and letting him lead her someplace where she could hopefully let sleep wrap her in the comfort of familiarity.
He led her to a room that held a king-size waterbed, one long dresser and not much else. She sat on the padded edge of the bed while he dug through a disorganized drawer and pulled out a long nightgown splattered with blue flowers. Hallie hadn’t worn a nightgown like that since she was five years old, but she wasn’t in the mood to be picky. Jesse stood by the door, shifting from one foot to the other.
“Do you . . . should I . . . do you want me to sleep out on the couch tonight?”
It took an effort for her jumbled mind to put together what he meant. Well, of course, if he and Marti were married, they probably slept in that king-sized bed together. The thought of his body lying next to her was unsettling. She wrapped her arms around herself and nodded.
There was a strange light in his eyes, deep and protective. “If you need anything, anything at all, let me know.”
But he didn’t leave. Jesse looked at her, obviously weighing something.
“Marti, can I ask you something?” He swallowed loudly. “Why haven’t you asked about the baby?”
She could only give him a blank expression. Was there a baby in the house? His shoulders drooped, and he stepped closer.
“Don’t you even remember that you’re pregnant?”
Hallie slid off the railing and fell into a heap on the dark green carpet. “P-pregnant?” she croaked out, then realized she’d broken her silence.
Jesse pulled her to her feet and helped her sit on the bed. His green eyes held a mixture of confusion and surprise. He still held her hands tightly in his, kneeling in front of her.
“Thank God you can still talk.” He gently touched the bruises that ringed her neck, causing an aching tingle. “Dr. Toby was worried that the man who . . . that he had damaged your vocal cords.” He removed his hand and looked intently at her. “Did you really forget about the baby?”
Her stomach flip-flopped inside her as she tried her best to compose herself. Could he tell her hands were shaking within the confines of his grasp? She took a deep breath, hoping for some divine intervention in the form of a real good reason his revelation had shocked her into talking. Damn, but this complicated matters, even more than they were!
“Things are . . . muddled right now,” she whispered in a hoarse, strange voice. “The past isn’t clear to me. Nothing is.” Her hand slipped from his and touched her nearly flat stomach. “Are you sure?”
“Oh, I’m sure all right. You’re only two months pregnant. Didn’t Dr. Toby tell you that the baby was all right?”
She shrugged. “She might have, I don’t know. My head was spinning most of the time.” She tilted her head back. “Oh my gawd, I’m pregnant.”
“Maybe I’d better call Dr. Toby—”
“No!” she blurted out. “I—I’ll be fine. Really. Just give me some time.”
“Time,” he repeated with a slight nod. “Okay, I’ll give you some time. But this not remembering stuff is spooky, Marti. Are you sure you’re okay?”
She nodded, then walked into the adjacent bathroom so Jesse wouldn’t see the panic in her eyes. Her heart sank when she saw Marti’s face in the mirror. She had looked at that reflection a hundred times in the last day and a half, but it was always the same. The swelling was going down a little, making the purple bruises look more pronounced. There was one bruise, or mark really, that was different than the others. It looked like a sideways “V” with two little marks below it. The skin was broken where a sharp object had dug in.
“Oh, how I wish this were all a nightmare, and if I screamed, I would wake up in a familiar bedroom with pounding heart and realize it was all over. But it’s not, is it?” She’d pinched herself so many times to wake herself up, there were red marks all over her arm.
She had to remember a life she had not participated in. Or run like hell away from this place. But run where? Home to her husband, Jamie, and tell him that she had somehow gotten herself into the body of another woman, a pregnant woman?
She thought of Jamie, her real husband back in her real life. It had been two months since then for him. Two months where she had lived in some abyss. She couldn’t dare to hope that he missed her. And she couldn’t dare blame him if he didn’t.
Jesse flipped on the television and settled onto the couch. The room was dark except for the bluish glow from the set. Two weeks ago he had married a woman he hardly knew because she had manipulated him into getting her pregnant. He couldn’t deny the protective instincts this attack aroused, but he didn’t much like them. Could she have staged the whole thing just to elicit some sympathy from him? Jesse shook his head. No, Marti wasn’t gutsy enough to pull off something like that.
Through the night Jesse kept moving, twisting, sighing deeply every time he realized he wasn’t asleep. It didn’t take much to put him on alert, even the sound of quiet footsteps walking past him and the front door closing softly. He wondered if he’d really heard Marti go outside alone, after what she’d been through.
Swinging to an upright position, he eyed the digital clock: 5:49. What the devil was she doing up at this time of the morning? Jesse located where he’d dumped his jeans and slid into them as he walked toward the window. He spotted her silhouette on one of the swings that hung from the large oak tree out front.
She was slumped over a little, moving slowly back and forth. He watched her for a while, trying to imagine what it would feel like to be overpowered and attacked in such a vicious way. He couldn’t. What he really wanted to do was find out what son-of-a-bitch had done it to her and rip him apart.
Jesse glanced at the clock again: 6:10. He wasn’t going to let her wallow in self-doubt, or whatever else she was dealing with any longer. He walked out into the damp, foggy morning.
“What the devil are you doing out here by yourself?” he asked.
She shrugged, staring down at the toe that kept her swing moving. He dropped down in the swing next to hers. They sat in silence as the early morning glow of pink filtered through the oak trees. She looked at him for a few minutes, studying him. He held her gaze, wishing he could read what her eyes were saying.
“Jesse, do you believe in God?”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “Sure, I do. Do you?”
“I do now.”
“You think it was God who helped you get away from the . . . creep who attacked you?”
“It’s a lot more complicated than that.”
He wasn’t following her line of conversation, but he wanted her to get her anxieties out. “Sometimes near-death experiences bring people closer to God, or give them religion when they didn’t have it before.”
She laughed, a strange, thick sound. “I’m not talking about a near death experience.” Marti pressed a clenched fist against her lips. “What do you think happens to people when they die?”
“They go to Heaven. Or hell.” He shrugged. “But you didn’t die, Marti.”
“But do you think it’s really cut and dried like that? I mean, is your only choice Heaven or hell, or is there another option?”
He crinkled his eyebrows, wondering if she had sustained a little brain damage or something. “I’ve never heard of any other options.”
She seemed to study him again, as if weighing whether to go on.
“Marti, what are you talking about?”
She took a deep breath. “Let’s just say, for example, that a person dies, but they don’t go to Heaven or hell.” He raised his eyebrows at her, but let her continue. “They knew for certain they were dying, and then they woke up again. But it wasn’t their body they were in anymore.”
“Marti, you’re not making sense.”
“Jesse, listen to me. If that happened, what would you think had occurred?”
He was becoming more and more sure that something had gotten knocked loose in her brain. “It couldn’t happen.”
She bit her bottom lip, nodding slowly. “I knew you wouldn’t understand.”
“Marti, what you’re saying is crazy. It would be incredible, amazing.”
“But God can do anything, right?”
“Right, but things like that don’t happen.”
“Yes, they do. Something . . . crazy, incredible, and amazing happened to me. I don’t know why, but it did.” She took a deep breath. “I am not Marti. My name is Hallie DiBarto, I’m from California, and I’m married to a man named Jamie.”
She might as well have been speaking a foreign language as far as Jesse was concerned. It had to be delirium! Encouraged by his silence, she continued.
“Two months ago something happened inside my brain and I died. I think God gave me a second chance here, in this body, this life.” She gestured vaguely around her.
There was no hint of craziness about her, no odd light in her eyes. But she was sure talking crazy!
“Marti, you’ve been through a lot. It’s just the stress—”
She stood and faced him, taking the chains of his swing in her hands. “It is not stress! I know it sounds crazy, it is crazy!” Her voice dropped down to a whisper. “But it’s true.”
“Wait a minute, let me understand this.” He ran his fingers through disheveled hair, trying to make his brain understand. “You’re saying that you’re someone totally different in Marti’s body?” He was trying to put it together, but it sounded so . . . she had the right word: crazy. “That you died and came back in Marti’s body?”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
Jesse stood up and paced a few feet before turning to face her. She dropped into her swing again and twisted nervously, watching his reaction.
“If you’re really some woman from California, then where’s Marti?”
Marti touched the bruises around her neck. “I don’t know. She must be dead.”
“Nolen Rivers did swear you were dead when he found you by the side of the road, but—no, it’s crazy! I’m calling Dr. Toby—”
“No!” she said as loud as her hoarse voice could manage. “There’s nothing she can do about it. Do you think I’d make something like this up?”
“I don’t think you’re making it up. The problem is you believe it.”
She looked so fragile, sitting there on the swing with desperation in her eyes. Like a battered doll. But it couldn’t be true. And yet, it could explain why she didn’t know she was pregnant with their baby. And why she didn’t look at him with annoying adoration the way she had before the attack. He shook his head.
She stood up and crossed her arms over her chest. “Well, it doesn’t matter if you believe me or not, I won’t be around much longer anyway.”
He realized then that the woman before him was like a stranger. Those were not Marti’s words. “What do you mean by that? Where are you going?”
“Probably home to California. I can’t stay here, with you. I’m married to someone else, for Pete’s sake, and I don’t even know you!”
Those words made him smile. “You didn’t know me before the attack either, doll.” The endearment had slipped by.
She relaxed her tensed shoulders. “What do you mean?”
He shrugged. “I hardly knew you before . . . well, you know. It just sorta happened, and you said you were on the pill to make your periods lighter. A month later, you found out you were pregnant. That was two weeks ago.”
Hallie thought about the situation for a few minutes. She didn’t want this baby, and he probably didn’t either. The question of whether or not it was too late for abortion crossed her mind. Then she looked upward, chastising herself for the thought. How could she use her second chance to take away an innocent baby’s first chance in life?
“Marti, enough of this bizarre conversation. Let’s go inside.”
After breakfast, Hallie watched him clear away the dishes. “Tell me about Marti. What was she like?”
He dropped his head. “Marti, this conversation is making me crazy.” He lifted his head and looked at her. “You work at the Bad Boys Diner with my sister, Kati. She brought you home for dinner at my Ma’s a few times. You were quiet, nice enough.”
“How’d you, um, get with her?” Hallie asked, interested in knowing everything she could about the girl who used to be Jesse’s wife. “I mean, if you didn’t know her very well.”
He gave her an exasperated look. “One night after dinner, you looked like you really wanted to talk, and Kati had to take off for class. So we picked up a six-pack of beer and headed down to the river. You were lonely, weren’t making many friends. You got another six-pack, we kept talking. We were both feeling pretty buzzed when you leaned over and kissed me. That’s how it started.”
“Sounds romantic,” Hallie said derisively.
“Drunk sex is never romantic.” He stuck his hands in his jean pockets, tilting his head.
“Marti, are you doing this because you want out of the marriage? Because if that’s what you’re after, you don’t have to make up all this crazy stuff—”
“You still think I’m just making this up? How can I prove to you that it’s real?”
“Why don’t you call home, this place in California where you supposedly came from?” he asked in a challenging tone. “You’ve got to have family there, someone who knows you.”
Home. What was home to her anyway? She dropped back onto the chair.
“Oh, sure, just call home and say, ‘Hey, remember me? I died, but now I’m in some other body in some godforsaken town in Florida.'” She felt a frown creep over her face. “Besides, there is no home! My mom’s a bitch, I’ve never even met my father.” Her tears, previously pent-up with disbelief, slipped down swollen cheeks. “I was a lousy wife.” She sat up, facing Jesse. “Look at me! I’m a brunette, shorter . . . and pregnant! How can I tell them I’m really alive? They’ll think I’m crazy!”
“No-o-o, why would they think something like that?”
“I thought you would understand.”
He laughed in disbelief. “You thought I would buy a zany story like this just because you say it’s true? I could tell you I’m the ghost of Elvis. Would you believe me?”
“Where’s the phone, oh, king of rock and roll?” she snapped.
Jesse got a cordless phone from the living room and handed it to her. She looked at it, then him. He was waiting for her to make the call. Testing her. If she talked to Jamie, told him who she was, would he believe her or just slam the phone down? Would anyone believe her? Another look at Jesse’s smug expression prompted her to start pressing buttons.
First she called the mansion in California. Solomon, the butler, sleepily informed her that Jamie was at Caterina. Jesse leaned against the door frame, watching her with curiosity. She punched in the number for Caterina.
“‘Mornin’, Caterina.” a sing-song voice answered.
“Jamie DiBarto’s office, please.”
“Certainly, just one moment.”
The accent brought back memories that seemed like only days ago.
“Good morning, may I help you?”
Hallie’s heart stopped mid-jump when she realized it wasn’t Jamie’s voice. Her hands didn’t stop shaking, however.
“May I speak to Jamie DiBarto, please,” her hoarse voice whispered. It was Miguel, Jamie’s brother. He had never liked her, especially after the time she’d gotten drunk and flirted with him.
“He’s out on the boat all day at Sting Ray Point. Can I—”
“Sting Ray Point?”
“Yeah, his wife started swimming with the sting rays on the west end, and now it’s our biggest attraction. It’s great if you’re adventurous—”
She choked out the words, “H-his wife?”
“Yeah.” Miguel’s tone changed. “Is there something I can help you with?”
Roaring hot flames engulfed her face. Holy toledo, Jamie had already remarried!
“His w-wife, is her name Renee?”
Miguel laughed. “No, her name is Hallie. Who is this?”
Her voice dropped to a lower whisper as she tried to catch her breath. “Is Hallie there? Right now?”
“No, she’s out with Jamie. Look, if you want to leave a message. . . . ”
Even with using two hands to hold the phone to her ear, it slipped out of her grasp. Jesse lifted it to his ear for a moment, but didn’t respond to Miguel’s voice. He hung up, giving Hallie a curious look.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
She swallowed the huge lump in her throat, shaking her head. “Hallie is there. She’s there with Jamie.”
“So this Hallie person didn’t die then. And if she didn’t die, then you couldn’t be her, right?”
Hallie violently shook her head, taking deep breaths to calm herself. “I did die. I was Hallie. But how is she still alive? How can that be?”
“How can it be that you’re here if you died?”
Her eyes widened. “That’s it! Someone got a second chance in my body! With my husband!”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“But you’re right!” Hallie pulled her hair away from her face in a tight ponytail, staring at the blanket. “I’m not the only one! See, there’s more of us, getting second chances in other people’s bodies. It’s possible. God, does Jamie know?”
“Marti, you’re talking crazy again. So now you’re going to tell me that you’re jealous and want your husband back, right?”
She shook her head, the reality sinking to the bottom of her soul. “It doesn’t matter; we were getting divorced anyway. I asked him just before I died.”
“Oh.” He searched for something to say, looking around the room. “I’m not really sure what to tell you. I’m sorry?”
“You don’t have to be sorry. I’m sorry enough for both of us.”