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Excerpt for ALMOST DEAD (reissue)

Kensington Publishing Corporation
July 2017, ISBN: 1496708423

Genre: Romantic Suspense
(Part of the San Francisco series - Book 2)

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Prologue

Bayside Hospital
San Francisco, CA
Room 316
Friday, February 13

NOW

They think I’m going to die.

I hear it in their whispered words.

They think I can’t hear them, but I can and I’m listening to every single syllable they utter.

“No!” I want to scream. “I’m alive. I’m not giving up. I will fight back.”

But I can’t speak.

Can’t utter one damned word.

My voice is stilled, just as my eyes won’t open. Try as I might I can’t lift the lids.

All I know is that I’m lying in a hospital bed and I know that I’m barely alive. I hear the whispers, the comments, the soft-soled shoes on the floor. Everyone thinks I’m in a coma, unable to hear them, to respond, but I know what’s going on. I just can’t move, can’t communicate. Somehow, I have to let them know. My condition is bad, they claim. I understand the terms ruptured spleen, broken pelvis, concussion, brain trauma, but, damn it, I can hear them! I feel the stretch of skin at the back of my hand where the IV pulls, smell the scents of perfume, medicine and resignation. The stethoscope is ice cold, the blood pressure cuff too tight, and I try like hell to show some sign that I’m aware, that I can feel. I try to move, just lift a finger, or let out a long moan, but I can’t.

It scares me to death.

I’m hooked up to machines that monitor my heartbeat and breathing and God only knows what else. Not that it does any good. All the high-tech machines that are tracking body functions aren’t providing the hospital staff with any hope or clue that I know what’s going on.

I’m trapped in my body, and it’s a living hell

Once again I strain . . . concentrating to raise the index finger of my right hand, to point at whoever next enters the room. Up, I think, raise the tip up off the bed sheets. The effort is painful,. . . so hard.

Isn’t anyone watching the damned monitor? I must be registering an elevated pulse, an accelerated heartrate, some-damn-thing!

But no.

All that effort. Wasted.

Worse yet, I’ve heard the gossip; some of the nurses think I would be better off dead . . . but they don’t know the truth.

I hear footsteps. Heavier than the usual. And the vague scent of lingering cigar smoke. The doctor! He’s been in before.

“Let’s take a look, shall we?” he says to whoever it is who’s accompanied him, probably the nurse with the cold hands and cheery, irritating voice.

“She’s still not responsive.” Sure enough, the chipper one. “I haven’t seen any positive change in her vitals. In fact . . .well, see for yourself.”

What does she mean? And why does her voice sound so resigned? Where’s the fake peppy inspiration in her tone?

“Hmmm,” the doctor says in his baritone voice. Then his hands are on me. Gently touching and poking, lifting my eyelid and shining a harsh beam directly into my lens. It’s blinding and surely my body will show some response. A blink or flinch or . . .

“Looks like you’re right,” he says turning off the light and backing away from the bed. “She’s declining rapidly.”

No! That’s wrong! I’m here. I’m alive. I’m going to get better!

I can’t believe what I’m hearing and should be hyperventilating, should be going into cardiac arrest at the very words. Can’t you see that I’m stressing? Don’t the damned monitors show that I’m alive and aware and that I want to live? Oh, God, how I want to live!

“The family’s been asking,” the nurse prods. “About how long she has.”

My family? They’ve already put me in the grave? That can’t be right! I don’t believe it. I’m still alive, for God’s sake. How did I come to this? But I know. All too vividly I can remember every moment of my life and the events leading up to this very second.

“Doctor?” the nurse whispers.

“Tell them twenty-four hours,” he says solemnly. “Maybe less.”

Chapter One

Four Weeks Earlier

Click!

The soft noise was enough to wake Eugenia Cahill. From her favorite chair in the sitting room on the second floor of her manor, she blinked her eyes open. Surprised that she’d dozed off, she called out for her granddaughter. “Cissy?” Adjusting her glasses, she glanced at the antique clock mounted over the mantle as gas flames quietly hissed against the blackened ceramic logs. “Cissy, is that you?”

Of course it was. Cissy had called earlier and told her that she’d be by for her usual weekly visit. She was to bring the baby with her . . . but the call had been hours ago. Cissy had promised to be by at seven and now . . . well, the grandfather’s clock in the foyer was just pealing off the hour of eight in soft, assuring tones. “Coco,” Eugenia said, eyeing the basket where her little white scruff of a dog was snoozing, not so much as lifting her head. The poor thing was getting old, too, already losing teeth and suffering from arthritis. “Old age is a bitch,” Eugenia said and smiled at her own little joke.

Why hadn’t Cissy climbed the stairs to this, the living area, where Eugenia spent most of her days? “I’m up here,” she said loudly and when there was no response, she felt the first tiny niggle of fear, which she quickly dismissed. An old woman’s worries, nothing more. Yet, she heard no footsteps rushing up the stairs, no rumble of the old elevator as it ground its way upward from the garage. Pushing herself from her Queen Anne recliner, she grabbed her cane and felt a little dizzy. Unlike her. Then she walked stiffly to the window, where, through the watery glass, she could view the street and the city below. Even with a bank of fog slowly drifting across the city, the vista was breathtaking from most of the windows of this old home – a house which had been built on the highest slopes of Mt. Sutro in San Francisco at the turn of the century, well, the turn of the last century. The old brick, mortar and shake Craftsman-style manor rose four full stories above a garage tucked into the hillside and backed up to the grounds of the medical school. From this room on the second story, Eugenia was able to see the bay on a clear day and had spent more than her share of hours watching sailboats cut across the green-gray waters.

But sometimes this old house in Parnassus Heights seemed so empty. An ancient fortress with its electronic gates and overgrown gardens of rhododendron and ferns. The estate backed up to the vast grounds of the university’s medical center yet still sometimes felt isolated from the rest of the world.

Oh, it wasn’t as if she were truly alone. She had servants, of course, but the family had, it seemed, abandoned her.

For God’s sake, Eugenia, buck up. You are not some sorry old woman. You choose to live here, as a Cahill, as you always have.

Had she imagined the click of a lock downstairs? Dreamed it, perhaps? These days, though she was loathe to admit it, her dreams often permeated her waking consciousness and she had a deep, unmentioned fear that she might be in the early stages of dementia. Dear Lord, she hoped not! There had been no trace of Alzheimer’s Disease in all of her lineage; her own mother had died at ninety-six, still “sharp as a tack” before falling victim to a massive stroke. But tonight she did feel a little foggier than usual. Unclear.

Eugenia’s gaze wandered to the street outside the electronic gates, to the area where the unmarked police car had spent the better part of twenty-four hours. Now the Chevy was missing from its parking spot just out of range of the streetlight’s bluish glow.

How odd.

Why leave so soon after practically accusing her of helping her daughter-in-law escape from prison? And after all the fuss! Those rude detectives showing up at her doorstep and practically insisting that she was a harboring a criminal or some such rot.

Humph. They’d camped out, watching the house, and, she suspected, discreetly following her as Lars drove her to her hairdresser, bridge game and The Cahill House where she offered her time helping administer for unmarried pregnant teens and twenty-somethings who needed sanctuary.

Of course the police had discovered nothing.

Because she was totally innocent. Still, she’d been irritated.

Staring into the night, Eugenia was suddenly cold. She saw her own reflection, a ghostly image of a tiny woman backlit by the soft illumination of antique lamps, and she was surprised how old she looked. Her eyes appeared owlish behind her magnified glasses, the ones that had aided her since the cataract surgery a few years back. Her once vital red hair was now a neatly-coiffed do closer to apricot than strawberry-blond. She seemed to have shrunk two inches and now appeared barely five feet tall, if that. Her face, though remarkably unlined, had begun to sag and she hated it. Hated this growing old. Hated being dismissed as past her prime. She’d considered having her eyes “done” or her face “tightened,” had even thought about Botox, but really, why?

Vanity?

After all she’d been through. It seemed trivial.

And so she was over eighty. Big deal. She knew she was no longer young, her arthritic knees could attest to that, but she wasn’t yet ready for any kind of assisted living or retirement community. Not yet.

Creeeeaaaak!

A sound of a door opening?

Her heartbeat quickened.

This last noise was not a figment of her imagination. “Cissy?” she called again and glanced over at Coco who barely lifting her groggy little head at the noise, offering up no warning bark. “Dear, is that you?”

Who else?

Sunday and Monday nights she was usually alone; her “companion” Deborah, generally leaving the city to stay with her sister; the day maid gone by five and Elsa, the cook having two days off. Lars finished every night by six, unless she requested his services, and she usually didn’t mind being alone, enjoyed the peace and quiet. But tonight . . .

Using her cane, she trundled into the hallway that separated the living quarters from her bedroom. “Cissy?” she called down the stairs. She felt like a ninny. Was she getting paranoid in her advancing years?

But a cold finger of doubt slid down her spine, convincing her otherwise, and though the furnace was humming, she felt a chill icy as the deep waters of the bay settle into her bones. She reached the railing, held onto the smooth rosewood banister and peered down to the first floor. In the dimmed evening lights she saw the polished tile floor of the foyer, the Louis the XVI inlaid table and the Ficus trees and jade plants positioned near the beveled glass by the front door.

Just as they always were.

But no Cissy.

“Odd,” Eugenia thought again, rubbing her arms. Odder yet that her dog was so passive. Coco, though old and arthritic, still had excellent hearing and was usually energetic enough to growl and bark her adorable head off at the least little sound. But tonight she just lay listlessly in her bed near Eugenia’s knitting bag, her eyes open but dull. Almost as if she’d been drugged . . .

Oh, for heaven’s sake! She was getting away with herself, letting her fertile imagination run wild. She gave herself a swift mental kick. That’s what she got for indulging in an Alfred Hitchcock movie marathon for the past five nights.

So where the hell was Cissy?

She reached into the pocket of her heavy sweater for her cell phone. Nothing there. The damned thing was missing, probably left on the table near her knitting needles.

Turning back toward the sitting room, she heard the gentle scrape of a footstep, leather upon wood.

Close by.

The scent of a perfume she’d nearly forgotten wafted to her nostrils and made the hairs on the back of her neck lift.

Her heart nearly stopped as she looked over her shoulder. There was movement in the shadows of the unlit hallway near her bedroom. “Cissy?” she said again, but her voice was the barest of whispers and fear caused her pulse to pound. “Is that you, dear? This isn’t funny–“

Her words died in her throat.

A woman, half-hidden in the shadows, emerged triumphantly.

Eugenia froze.

Suspended in time.

“You!” she cried. Panic swarmed up her spine and the woman before her smiled, a grin as cold and evil as Satan’s heart.

Eugenia tried to run, to flee, but before she could take a step, the younger woman pounced, strong hands clutching and squeezing, athletic arms pulling her off her feet.

“No!” Eugenia cried. “No!” She lifted her cane, but the damned walking stick fell from her hands and clattered uselessly down the stairs. Now, finally, Coco began to bark wildly.

“Don’t do this!” Eugenia cried.

But it was too late.

In a heartbeat, she was hoisted over the railing, pushed into the open space where the crystal chandelier hung. Screaming, flailing pathetically, hearing her dog snarling, Eugenia hurtled downward.

The Louis XVI table and tile floor of the foyer rushed up at her.

Sheer terror caused her heart to seize as she hit the floor with a dull, sickening thud. Crack! Pain exploded in her head. For half a second she stared upward at her assailant. The woman stood victorious on the landing , holding Coco, stroking the dog’s furry coat.

“Payback’s a bitch, isn’t it?” the woman gloated.

Then there was only darkness . . .

*******************************************

“Shhh! Beej, you’re okay, got it? You are O-K!” Cissy Cahill leaned over the railing of the playpen and hoisted her eighteen-month old son onto her hip. His face was red from crying, tears streaked down his chubby cheeks and his nose was running something fierce. “Oh, baby, look at you.” Cissy’s heart instantly melted, and she kissed the top of his blond head while reaching for a tissue and dabbing at his nose. “It’s gonna be all right. I promise,” she said as she found his little jacket and the hat he hated with a passion. She somehow managed to dress him, grab the diaper bag and head out the door of the old Victorian home she’d lived in for nearly two years. He’d been cranky all afternoon, probably teething, and when the pizza delivery kid had showed up, for some reason Beej had ratcheted into full tantrum mode. She had no real idea why he was upset. Teething? Too cold because the friggin’ furnace had gone out? Too hot because his mother had piled on extra clothes? Whatever the reason, Cissy was convinced it wasn’t serious and the baby would just have to deal with it. She was running late and her grandmother would be angry.

“The price we all pay for being Cahills,” she confided to her son as she locked the door behind her and walked to driveway where her car, a silver Acura sedan, was parked, the pizza already cooling in a box on the floor of the passenger seat. In no better mood than he’d been in all day, B.J. wailed and clawed at his hat as she strapped him into the backseat of her car and climbed behind the steering wheel. It was dark out, a soft rain beginning to fall, the lights of the city a little blurry. She glanced across the street to the spot where the unmarked police car had been parked ever since she’d heard the news that her mother had escaped from prison, but, surprisingly, it was missing.

Gone, too, was the news van that had camped out for hours on the street, a reporter coming to her door three times and asking for an interview. As if she would ever talk to the press! Cissy had prayed they’d go away and tonight she’d gotten her wish.

Good.

She was sick of being treated like she was some kind of criminal when she’d done nothing wrong. Nothing! It wasn’t her fault that her mother just happened to be a narcissistic, murderous bitch – which were some of the nicer adjectives Cissy could ascribe to Marla. As far as Cissy was concerned, the further her egocentric nut-case of a mother stayed away from her and B.J., the better.

Don’t think that way . . . get rid of the negative thoughts . . . . count slowly to ten . . . Cissy’s shrink’s voice slipped through her brain, but she ignored it. She wasn’t in the forgiving mood tonight and she was just grateful that the police weren’t following her to the Cahill estate where her grandmother had resided ever since marrying into the family nearly fifty years earlier. Cissy’s life was in enough turmoil as it was; she didn’t need to deal with the cops. In her opinion, she’d already suffered enough melodrama and pain to last her a lifetime or two – compliments of Marla Amhurst Cahill, sick-o extra ordinaire and her mother.

“Yeah, Beej, that’s your Nana,” she said weaving her way through the neighborhood streets rimming Alamo Square. “Nana Psycho.” She glanced into the rearview mirror and caught a glimpse of her son, his wailing having stopped, his big eyes devoid of tears. For the moment he’d stopped fighting the hat.

Relieved that the tantrum was over, she winked at him. “See, you just wanted a date out with Mom in a classy car, right?”

The light ahead turned amber and she stepped on the brakes. There had been a time when she had run anything remotely yellow, but now, with Beej, she’d suddenly become a model driver and nearly over-protective mother. Who woulda thunk it?

Her rumbling stomach and the clock on the dash reminded her that she was late. Great. No doubt she was in for another lecture. Like she hadn’t had enough. She was a grown woman for God’s sake.

Once again she looked into the rearview mirror. This time she scanned the traffic behind her, searching for signs of a cop car. Not that she could pick one out. But it was odd that ever since her mother had escaped and the police had planted themselves near her door, that they weren’t following her now.

Though the detectives had been nothing but nice, she knew behind the concerned words and patient smiles, they were suspicious.

As if her mother would contact her.

As if she would harbor a woman she hated.

“No friggin’ way,” she whispered. Every muscle in her body tensed. As a kid, she’d grown up with Marla’s cool, aloof attitude toward her. She’d accepted it, accepted the fact that her whole family was a set of cold weirdos. To survive she’d simply rebelled in any and every way she could think of.

But now, as a mother herself, Cissy couldn’t imagine not feeling close and bonded to a child. From the first time she’d laid eyes on her son, she’d been a new person. Life had changed in that sterling instant. Throughout her pregnancy she’d talked to the baby, rubbed her tummy, even named him Juan because of her cravings for tacos or anything Mexican at all hours of the day or night, but it hadn’t compared to holding him and hearing him cry at the hospital. Yep, they were a team. Inseparable.

So where was her mother?

How the hell had she gotten out?

Weren’t prisons supposed to be escape-proof?

What will you do if she does show up at your door?

“Don’t even go there,” she told herself. She didn’t need any more tension in her life. Wasn’t it bad enough that she was in the first stages of a divorce and that her son was quickly approaching the terrible twos and had been crabby all week? It didn’t help that the furnace had decided to go kaflooey now, too. All in all, the last seven days had been hell.

The light changed and Cissy drove along the panhandle until she reached Stanyan, then headed steadily up hill. Her cell phone rang just as she was taking a steep switchback of a street that climbed Mount Sutro. Pulling the phone from the side pocket of her purse, she checked the Caller ID. She could plug the phone into the slot on her dash and talk hands-free, but seeing the number on the LCD caused her to frown.

“Not tonight,” she said aloud. She wasn’t going to deal with Jack – lying, cheating, bastard that he was. Oh, yeah, and he was still her husband. Well, not for long. Dropping the phone into its pocket, she concentrated on the narrow road that climbed ever upward past elegant old homes built a hundred years earlier and surrounded by manicured gardens. Near her grandmother’s home, she pressed on the electronic gate opener and slowed as the old iron gates groaned open. She pulled into a spot in front of the garage, hit the button again and once the gates were locked behind her, tried to figure out how she was going to haul BJ, the pizza box, diaper bag and purse into the garage and upstairs without dropping the baby or ending up with melted cheese and marinara sauce everywhere.

“You win, Beej. You get to go first,” she said, tossing her purse into the oversized diaper bag. Slinging the bag over her shoulder, she walked around the car, ignoring the tantalizing scent of garlic and pepperoni as she unbuckled her son. “You can stay with your great-grannie while I run back down here,” she told the boy. She hoisted him onto the same hip she used to nudge her car door closed. Rubbing her nose into his ear, she heard him giggle. “Come on.”

Sometimes it was a real headache to visit Eugenia when the staff had the night off. It would be so much easier for Cissy to spend time at the old mansion when someone else was here to help with the baby. Then there wouldn’t be the problem of dinner, or the guilt that if she didn’t show up the old woman would be disappointed.

Carrying BJ, who was making loud smacking noises with his lips just to hear himself, she walked along a brick path through tall rhododendrons and ferns that still dripped from the rain that had stopped over an hour earlier. This old house, where she had grown up, held a lot of memories. Maybe too many. Some good and a lot that weren’t, but the brick, mortar and shake walls, peekaboo dormers and sharp gables had endured two earthquakes and generation after generation of Cahills. For well over a hundred years it had stood on the slopes of Mt. Sutro, offering up commanding views of the city and the bay. Cissy didn’t know if she loved the old house, or hated it.

Oh, get over yourself, she thought, inserting her key into the old lock.

“Helloooo,” she called as the door opened. “Sorry I’m late but. . . .Oh, God!” She bit back a scream and turned away, hiding her son from the sight of her grandmother, lying face down on the marble floor, blood pooling beneath her head.