Ultra Violet – First Chapter
The cops were going to think she was nuts.
Violet Marsh gripped the steering wheel of her Honda sedan and stared at the no-nonsense police station building in front of her. Yep, they were going to think she was a whack job, and she had nothing to prove otherwise but five days missing from her life and a really bad feeling.
Her stomach roiled as she imagined the looks they would give her. She winced a little but made herself let go of the wheel and pop the fastener on her seatbelt. No, it wasn’t going to be pretty, but she couldn’t think of a way around it.
She pushed open the driver’s door and slid out slowly, rehearsing possible opening lines. Hi, I seem to have lost five days, and I swear I wasn’t drinking. Too defensive. Hello, what do you think the chances are that I was abducted by aliens? Ha. Definitely loopy. Hi there, I got home from work the other day and then I don’t remember anything…
A swell of panicky fear rose up in her chest, and she closed her eyes. Oh, hell. She just wasn’t going to be able to joke her way out of this. She shut the car door and leaned against it for a minute, pressing her lips together hard and trying to breathe.
You’re okay, it’s okay. She said it loud and clear inside her mind in the way that had calmed her for most of her twenty-six years, and it helped. A little.
“Now, don’t fall apart on me.”
Vi jerked her head up and looked around for the owner of the voice – a rich, warm, assured voice coming from behind her.
A woman stood there, tall, black and striking, with sharp brown eyes and a stark, pixie-cut hairstyle. She had a concerned look on her angular face.
Pushing herself off the car, Vi straightened up and tried to pull the anxious expression off her own face. She always felt puzzled when strangers spoke to her; she never knew whether she was dealing with an outgoing normal person or a barrier-crossing crazy person.
“I’m fine,” she said, giving the woman a quick, polite smile.
“Well, that’s a good thing,” the woman said, smiling back. “Cause if you’ll fall to pieces now, there’s no way you’re going to handle everything that’s about to happen to you.”
A skittering chill sheeted across Vi’s back, and she felt her smile slip into a frown. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
The woman shrugged one shoulder. “It means I see some rough times ahead for you, that’s all.”
Vi’s anxiety slackened. “Oh, what are you, some kind of psychic?” she asked, recognizing that she was stalling. You had to know your life was messed up when you’d rather chit-chat with a potential crazy than talk to the police.
The woman laughed, a low chuckle. “Don’t I wish. But if I could tell the future, you think I’d be standing here talking to you instead of down at the 7-Eleven getting my lottery tickets? You’ve got to use your head, honey.”
Vi nodded, eyebrows raised. “Ri-i-i-ight. Thanks for clearing that up. I have to go now.” She turned away and stepped up onto the sidewalk, heading for the building’s front doors.
“Wait a minute, Violet.”
Vi stopped, a wash of cold pouring down into her stomach and clenching there. What the hell? She turned around again and peered at the woman.
“Do I know you?” Even as she said it, she knew it wasn’t possible. She was good with faces and names; she didn’t forget people. She’d never seen this woman before.
She ignored a little shiver of fear and thought of a better question. “How do you know my name?”
“Oh, I know a lot about you, Violet,” the woman said, leaning back against the car parked next to her and crossing one long leg over the other. “Fact is, I probably know more about you right now than you know about yourself.”
“What do you mean? What is this? Who are you?” Vi’s hands were starting to shake a little, and she was torn, unsure how to feel. A few days ago, she’d have assumed she was on some kind of hidden camera show and laughed this woman off. But since she’d recently woken up in her own bed and then discovered five days had apparently passed without her… well, she was more inclined to take weird things seriously.
“Now, calm down. I’m going to explain. I’m not here to mess you up – I’m here to help you.”
“Someone’s got to,” the woman said, her face going serious. “You are in way over your head, and that’s a fact.”
Vi’s stomach clenched again, and she forced herself to take hold of the situation. “What are you talking about? And is it possible for you to stop with the mysterioso act and just say whatever the hell you want to say?”
“Ooh, someone’s cranky,” the woman said. “Listen, I know you’ve had a bad couple days, but that’s no reason to take it out on me.” She shook her head. “I never thought you’d be so crabby. I think it’s all that junk food you’ve been eating. Cheeseburgers and ice cream and french fries – you’ve got to lay off that stuff.”
Vi stared. What… how did she… had this woman been following her?
Before she could get her mind around the concept, the woman dug into the pocket of her black denim jacket and pulled out a business card.
“Here, this’ll help,” she said.
Feeling slightly numb, Vi reached out and took the card. Gideon Enterprises, it read in bold letters. And down in the corner, a name – Natalie Warner – and a phone number. That was all.
“Oh, you’re right,” Vi said. “This explains everything.”
“That’s me,” the woman said, pointing at the card. “I’m Natalie Warner. I work for a man named Mal Gideon, and he owns Gideon Enterprises.”
“Congratulations. What does that have to do with me?”
“Well, now, that’s complicated. It’s kind of a long story.”
“What about the part of the story where you’ve been following me?” Vi asked. Her breath was coming faster. “Can you explain that?”
“I could,” Natalie said, nodding. “But I can see you’re starting to get upset, and I think that’d just make it worse.”
“Try me,” Vi said, forcing the words out through her clenched teeth. Be mad, she told herself. It was better than any alternative.
Natalie was shaking her head. “No, I think I better let Gideon do that part. I’ll just mess it up. You might’ve noticed I’m not real people person. Now you just call that number –”
She reached out, and Vi flinched and stepped backward, stumbling a little. She saw now that Natalie had just been gesturing toward the card, but she kept backing up, heading for the police station doors.
“Stay away from me,” Vi said, knowing it was irrational because Natalie wasn’t moving at all. Her voice sounded high-pitched and thin in her own ears. “I’m going to tell the police all about this,” she said. “There are stalking laws, you know.”
Natalie just smiled gently. “You tell them, honey.” She straightened up just as Vi reached the door and put her hand on the metal pullbar. “Watch that door, now,” she added. “Careful not to break it.”
Vi froze, her hand clamped on the cool metal. She knows. The thought raced through her mind, blocking out everything else, paralyzing her.
“Been happening a lot lately, huh?” Natalie said.
Vi stared at her, trying to steer her mind toward logic. Of course she knew. She knew because she’d been watching – she’d seen it happen. That was all.
“Put a hole in your dining room wall yesterday, didn’t you?” Natalie said, taking a few slow steps forward. “Just knocked right through the sheetrock. And this morning you grabbed that big, thick coffee mug and shattered it.”
“What do you know?” Vi said. Her voice was quavery now, but her mind had slipped to a place of some cool distance, as if she were watching herself in a movie.
“I know a little. There’s other things, too. Right? You burned your hand on the coffee when that mug broke, but it’s all right now, isn’t it? It got all right quick. And you’re hungry all the time.”
“What do you know?” Vi asked again.
“Don’t worry about what I know. Gideon knows. He can tell you. You just keep that card.”
Vi looked down at the business card crumpled in her hand.
“And when you’re ready to know the rest, you call me.”
When Vi looked up again, Natalie was gone.
Vi clutched the card in her fist and turned back toward the door, swallowing hard. Well, at least now she had something to show the police.
Vi sat on the brown-and-orange flowered couch in her living room, gnawing on the only remaining fingernail on her right hand that wasn’t bitten to the quick. Her police station visit had been a bust and just as humiliating as she’d feared, and now she wasn’t sure what to do. Between trying not to freak out and trying not to eat the rest of the jumbo bag of pretzels she’d torn open half an hour ago, she’d been too distracted to guard against her old nail-chewing habit.
Every few moments, she tuned into a sentence or phrase from the local news on TV, which she’d switched on for comforting noise. Eight-car pileup on the Interstate… fire at Broadbrook Methodist… nine-year-old Ruby Mulligan still missing…. It was mostly bad news. Everyone had problems, not just her.
The doorbell woke her from her daze. Jerking her hand away from her mouth, she stood up and reached for the remote to turn off the TV.
She had her hand on the doorknob before she thought to be cautious. Fear tingled through her as she realized it could be Natalie again, or someone else. Someone worse.
The bell rang again, and she slid her hand off the doorknob and pressed her eye to the peephole. Melissa.
Slumping against the door in relief, Vi drew a long breath and then pulled the door open.
Melissa Delgado, neat and stylish and gorgeous as always in a short lilac business skirt and a white silk blouse, stood on the porch holding a plastic bag and frowning.
“Hey,” she said, her sleek black eyebrows dipping down in concern. “You had me worried there for a minute.”
Despite all the thoughts and anxieties cramming her brain full, Vi found she still had room to mentally compare Melissa’s stylish, elegant clothes with her own faded jeans and blue T-shirt with a ketchup stain, Melissa’s long, glossy black curls to her own stick-straight brown hair, and Melissa’s tiny size two figure to her own tall size ten.
Well, Mel could make anyone feel like Miss Average America, but you just couldn’t hate her for it.
“Sorry,” Vi said, shrugging off her momentary low-self-esteemfest. “I’m moving a little slow.”
“That’s okay – I’ve got the cure,” Melissa said, holding up the bag in her hand. “My abuela’s world-famous chicken soup. This’ll have you up to speed in no time.”
Vi’s stomach gurgled at the faint scent of the soup wafting from the bag, but her heart sank. She’d been so relieved to see a friendly face at the door, she hadn’t stopped to realize that she was in no shape to deal with Melissa. She needed time to think, and Melissa only ever wanted to act.
“The place is a mess,” she said weakly, but Melissa shook her head and pushed past her into the house. “Of course it is. You’ve been sick. That’s the only good thing about being sick – no one expects you to do anything but recover,” she said over her shoulder as she headed for the kitchen.
Vi trailed after her, trying to prepare herself to deflect probing questions. She’d told Mel she’d spent her missing week in the hospital, back when she was still hoping that was true, and maybe it was best to leave it at that. If Mel found out about the time blank and the weird encounter with that Natalie person and all the rest, she’d have a fit and demand immediate action. Vi wasn’t ready to do anything yet.
“Speaking of which,” Natalie continued, “please tell me you did not go back to work yet.”
“No, not yet,” Vi said, leaning against the doorjamb as Melissa unloaded a large Tupperware container and set it on the avocado green kitchen counter. “I think I’m going to use a couple more sick days.” At least a couple. No way could she go back to work until she got this mess figured out.
Melissa snorted. “God knows you’ve got them saved up.” She shot Vi an evil grin. “I bet Steve is freaking out, right?”
“Three guesses,” Vi said, rolling her eyes and remembering the false, buck-up cheerfulness in her boss’s voice when she’d talked to him that morning. Gotta take one for the team, Vi-let, he’d twanged. Time to suck it up, show what you’re made of, he’d said, along with about a dozen other clichés that basically meant he didn’t care if her head had fallen off, he wanted her back in the office and finishing the quarterly financials for Payton Furnishings.
She was surprised she didn’t feel much of the anxious pull to obey, but she supposed her mind was a bit preoccupied for that.
“He actually told me there was no one to cover my work,” Vi said, realizing that bitching about work stuff was a sure-fire diversion for Melissa’s attention. They’d been bonding over bad bosses and busywork since their college days.
“You are kidding me,” Melissa said, peeling the lid off the Tupperware container. “After you took all of Judy’s work last month when she went on that stupid three-week golf vacation?”
“I know,” Vi said, nodding. “Suddenly we have no ‘slack in the system,’ whatever that means.”
A wave of the soup’s salty, brothy scent rolled over Vi, and her stomach clenched crazily. She should not have any of that soup. She’d already had cereal and a bagel with cream cheese, four boxes of raisins, a bag of corn chips, a blueberry muffin, a double cheeseburger, a large order of french fries, an ice cream sandwich and, of course, half a jumbo bag of pretzels.
It was only five o’clock in the afternoon.
Melissa paused in the act of pulling a bowl down from a cabinet. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t even ask if you wanted this now. Are you hungry?”
Oh, what the hell.
“Starved,” Vi said, reaching into the pantry for the rest of the pretzels to go with the soup. “Thanks, by the way.”
“For the soup?” Melissa shook her head and put a brimming bowl on the kitchen table. “It’s nothing. The least I could do. I’ve been wracked with guilt ever since I talked to you yesterday. I can’t believe the one time you get sick I’m out of the frickin’ state.”
Vi sat at the table and took the spoon Melissa handed her. “Don’t feel bad. There was nothing you could’ve done.”
“I could’ve gone to see you in the hospital. I could’ve cornered all the doctors and nurses and made sure they were taking care of you. I hate that you were there all by yourself.”
Stiffening a little, Vi stared down at her soup. “I can take care of myself, Mel,” she said, trying to keep her voice light. “I have been doing it most of my life.”
There was a pause. “I know your mom was…” Melissa let the sentence trail off. “But your grandparents–”
“Weren’t the same as parents,” Vi finished. She looked up, noted Melissa’s concerned expression, and shook her head. “Hey, they tried. And they left me the house.” She glanced around at the kitchen’s green countertops, gold leaf wallpaper, and Spanish-mission style light fixtures, then smiled at Melissa. “Such as it is.”
Melissa smiled, too. “At least the rent’s cheap.”
Vi nodded, knowing it was more than that. She should’ve sold the place and gotten something normal, had considered it a hundred times, but she couldn’t bear to part with the old, funky house. It held all the memories of the closest thing she’d had to a childhood, and just being surrounded by its ugly walls made her feel safe.
“Well, anyway,” Melissa said, “since I missed everything while I was gone, you have to tell me all about it now. What exactly were you sick with?”
Vi felt her smile fade as her mind went to all the things she’d didn’t want to get into with Melissa yet. But she hated to lie to her best friend. This was going to get tricky.
“I think it was a sort of flu,” she said. She took a quick sip of the soup. “Oh, my God. This is delicious. What’s the secret?”
“The avocado,” Melissa said. “What do you mean, you think it was flu? You don’t know for sure?”
Vi shook her head, looked at her soup again. “I was pretty out of it the whole time I was… in the hospital. I forgot a lot of the specifics.”
She could feel Melissa frowning at her, but she didn’t look up.
“Well, what are you doing for follow-up? What does your paperwork say?”
A little trickle of the fear she’d been pushing down for the past two days slipped up to her throat and made it tighten. You can handle this. She sucked in a breath.
“I haven’t really looked at it yet,” she said. There. That wasn’t a lie.
Melissa didn’t answer, and when Vi glanced up, she saw her friend waiting with her eyebrows raised.
“Well…” Melissa said after a long beat. “Can I look at it?”
Vi looked around, tried to seem absentminded. “I’m not sure where it is.” That wasn’t a lie, either. She was disturbingly good at this. “Hey, how did your trip go, anyway? You think it’s going to get you that promotion?
But Melissa was regarding her with narrowed eyes. “What’s going on? Why are you sidestepping me?”
Crap. Serious evasive action needed now. If Melissa really got her teeth into something, she’d never let up. “Nothing, I’m not. I just don’t want everything to be all about me. I’m trying to be a good friend, here. Speaking of which…” She hesitated, her mind churning as she scrolled through possible distractions. “Oh, did I tell you that Tracy Peterson from college is a lawyer now? Can you picture that? Ten-Watt Tracy?”
“Okay, now I know something’s up,” Melissa said, folding her arms and sitting back. “You never start the gossip – I start the gossip. You’re trying to throw me off something. Spill it.”
Vi sighed. It was over. Melissa had reached impossible-to-deflect stage. The fact that her best friend was pushy and warmly interfering was one of the reasons Vi loved her so much, but it was also damned inconvenient at times.
In any case, the only thing to be done now was to try to minimize the impact by caving immediately.
“Fine. It’s just… I don’t have any paperwork.”
Melissa frowned. “What do you mean? From the hospital?”
Nodding, Vi took another sip of soup.
“Not even a bill?” Melissa asked. “Or a copy of whatever they sent your insurance?”
Vi shook her head. “I’m sure it’s just some administrative screw-up. Some… massive administrative screw-up. It’ll probably all show up in the mail in a day or two.” She tried a little laugh. “Probably right when I’m feeling all the way better, and then the bill will give me a heart attack.”
All right, it was a weak joke, but Melissa wasn’t even smiling.
“Vi,” she said. “That’s weird.”
It was. Vi tried not to let it show on her face.
“Did you call them?” Melissa asked. “What hospital was it, anyway?”
Oh, boy. Her throat tightened as she thought about the truth, and she wondered how long she was going to be able to hide it from Melissa, the most persistent person she knew.
Melissa was leaning forward now, her brown eyes intent. “Vi, what’s going on?”
Vi closed her eyes and put down her spoon. She was cornered. There was no way Melissa was dropping this now. Maybe it was for the best. Maybe talking it out – okay, arguing it out – with Melissa would help her decide what to do. God knows she wasn’t getting anywhere by herself, chewing on her fingernails and thinking herself in circles.
“I don’t know what hospital,” she said. “In fact, I’m not even sure there was a hospital. I’ve called them all, and no one has any record of me, and my insurance didn’t get anything, and I don’t have any paperwork, and the truth is… I don’t remember a thing.”
She smiled ruefully at Melissa’s wide eyes, then pushed herself away from the table and stood to pace around Nana Martha’s ugly but comfortingly familiar kitchen.
“And wait,” she said, looking back at Melissa. “There’s more.”
From the book: ULTRA VIOLET
By: Ellen Henderson
Imprint and Series: Silhouette Bombshell
Publication Date: October 2005
Copyright ©: 2005
By: Ellen Henderson
® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher
The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
For more romance information surf to: www.eHarlequin.com