Here's the prologue and first chapter from Destiny For Three. I'll post another couple of excerpts soon. It's set to be published this month.
I welcome any comments or questions!
“Not here yet? I don’t understand, Reverend. Bruce should have been here an hour ago.” Elise Davis’s smile evaporated and her bridesmaid, Tanya, stopped fussing with the strapless bodice of Elise’s satin bridal gown.
They both gaped at Reverend Parks.
“His best man asked me to give this to you.”
"What? Oh God, something hasn't happened, has it?" Elise took the envelope and tore it open, a hard knot tightening in her stomach. “Is he all right?”
"Yes, but I think you'd better read the note."
The reverend lowered his head and left quietly as Elise scanned the scrawled note. A wave of despair and disbelief washed over her.
"What is it?" Tanya laid a hand on her shoulder.
"He… he's not coming. The wedding's off." Elise's voice faltered. "He's decided he's not ready for this." She pressed her hand over her mouth to smother a sob.
“What?” Tanya gasped. She was silent for a moment, then hissed, “Bastard.” She reached out to tuck a strand of Elise’s shoulder-length brown hair back under her veil. "Oh, honey, I’m so sorry. Don’t cry. Everything's going to be all right."
Sinking into a nearby chair, Elise studied the paper she held, a part of her still not believing what she read. The words blurred before her eyes. "How could he do this to me? At the very least, he should have had the decency to tell me in person! He said he loved me!" Once or twice, when she'd pressed him. She crumpled the note and threw it to the carpet, then buried her face in her hands.
Tanya knelt down beside her. "Listen, please don't be angry with me for asking, but...do you really love this guy?"
Elise’s head jerked up. "Tanya, I was going to marry him!"
"That's not what I asked. I asked if you loved him." Elise stared at her, indignant. Tanya pressed on. "I'm sorry. Maybe I'm out of line, but I'm your roommate, remember? I've watched you and Bruce together for the past year, and I have to say that there just didn't seem to be, well, you know, any spark between the two of you."
"There were sparks," Elise argued, then slumped as if someone had just let the air out of her. "Well, maybe we weren't the most exciting couple in the world, but Bruce isn't an exciting sort of guy." Tanya raised her eyebrows. "You know what I mean. Bruce is boring in a good sort of way--level-headed, dependable. I thought we were a good match. Guess I was wrong, huh?"
Tanya rubbed her shoulder then pulled her into a hug. “That man isn’t half good enough for you. You deserve better, sweetie. You deserve the sparks. Hell, girl, you deserve frickin’ fireworks.”
There was another rap on the door. Elise’s parents let themselves in and Margaret Davis rushed to her daughter's side. "Veronica, darling! What happened? The reverend just announced that the wedding's been postponed!"
"It's been more than postponed, Mom. It's off." Her mother knew very well that Elise preferred to be called by her middle name, but always refused to acknowledge that preference.
Margaret shook her head. "I don't understand. Why on earth would you cancel the wedding? Bruce is such a nice boy. He's a lawyer. He's perfect for you!" Elise started to open her mouth, but Margaret rambled on, "But then, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, should I? It's so like you to make rash decisions. Throwing away four years of college and an opportunity for a career in your father's company to move back to Savannah, of all places, and open up some little knick-knack shop on nothing more than a whim."
"Mother, please. I didn't cancel the wedding, Bruce did. But that doesn't matter. What I really need right now is-"
"Bruce called off the wedding?” Margaret looked as if she'd just been hit in the face with a wet towel. “Why? What did you do?"
Elise clenched her hands into fists at her side.
Arthur Davis stepped between his wife and daughter. "It’s all right, Elise. Your mother and I want to do whatever we can to help. We're not here to make this any more difficult for you. Right, Margaret?" He looked pointedly at his wife.
Releasing her breath, Elise gave her father a hug. "Thanks, Dad."
Margaret pursed her lips. ”Well, in light of this situation, I think you should come home with us for awhile. You shouldn't be alone at a time like this."
"I'm not alone. I have plenty of friends. Tanya and I share an apartment, remember? I'll be fine."
"I promise I'll look after her for you, Mrs. Davis," Tanya added. "You don't need to worry about Elise."
Margaret ignored the young woman. "No, it would be best if you came home. You need your family now. You’re flying home with your father and me, and that’s final."
"Good God, Mother. What am I, sixteen? No, I'm staying right where I am."
"Why are you always so stubborn? Always so determined to make your father's and my life difficult, first with your absurd notions about changing your name--as if the one we gave you isn't good enough anymore--then moving halfway across the country. You used to be such a vivacious child, so full of life, but you've been so distant and sullen ever since the accident-"
"Would you please stop," Elise snapped. "That accident happened twenty years ago, for God’s sake. Why do you need to bring it up now? I’ve just been dumped on my wedding day!” Her voice broke as those words hit home. “Can’t you just be supportive for once?"
When her mother’s eyes rolled in exasperation, it was the last straw. Elise snatched up her purse from the dressing table. "Tanya, I've got to get out of here. I need some time alone. Could you see to things until I get back?" Ignoring Margaret's continued harping and her father's pleas to sit down and relax, Elise rushed out of the room in a flurry of ivory satin and tulle.
The blackness enveloped her, thick and cloying, as if she were drowning in a pool of warm ink. As self-awareness slowly returned, with it came the memory of the giant live oak looming before her windshield. She felt the hardness of the steering wheel pressed against her temple.
Oh, God, I’ve been in an accident!
Tentatively, she straightened and tried to peer through the darkness. Weird. Hadn’t it been early afternoon just moments ago? Perhaps she’d been unconscious for a long while and night had fallen. But it was so intensely silent. No chirping crickets, no whisper of breeze through the pines--nothing.
Before Elise could wonder further, a bright light appeared outside the driver’s side window. It grew bigger, brighter, started to flicker and dance like the beam of a giant movie projector. The window next to her lit up with a swirl of light and color.
Apprehension gnawed at her, a feeling that what she was experiencing was outside the boundaries of ordinary reality, yet she was unable to do anything other than watch.
Like a picture on a television screen, an image formed in the window. Elise recognized it as the Richardsons’ beautifully restored antebellum home where she was to have been married earlier that day. She could see her best friend, Tanya, standing near the dressing table in a coral bridesmaid gown. She followed the young black woman’s gaze toward the doorway and saw herself, tall and willowy, swathed in yards of beaded ivory satin, staring in confusion at a solemn Reverend Parks. The images sparked her memory.
The wedding… Bruce… Oh, God…
There in the darkness, held motionless by some invisible hand, Elise watched as the painful events replayed before her eyes. Fresh heartache gripped her as she watched herself read the note from Bruce, argue with her mother and finally flee.
Then she was speeding down the Richardsons’ tree-lined driveway in her white Explorer. Gravel flew from beneath the tires as she pulled onto the main road and headed for the acreage that had been her childhood home. If there was ever a time she needed the serenity of a quiet walk in the old orchard, it was then.
“Slow down. You’re going too fast,” Elise whispered to the image on the window.
Her plea fell on deaf ears. The sobbing bride behind the wheel only grimaced and rubbed her temple. When the vehicle hit a soft spot at the side of the freshly graveled road, she jerked on the steering wheel and sent the SUV fish-tailing out of control.
Elise cringed as she heard her own high-pitched scream, saw the huge unyielding trunk of the ancient live oak. “No!”
The window went blank for an instant, then lit up once more as a series of images from Elise’s past danced rapidly past her eyes: The moment she first met Tanya during a tour of a historic plantation house.
Hanging up the framed arrangement of pressed violets she’d painstakingly created for the grand opening of her collectibles shop, Time Will Tell.
The nasty argument with her mother when she broke the news about her decision to move back to Savannah.
Herself as a miserable eight-year-old, hiding in the ancient brick shed that stood on their acreage near Savannah, hoping that her parents would never find her and she could stay in the place she loved. Margaret, dragging that same little girl kicking and screaming to the car, angry and baffled that Elise could want to stay in a place that held so many unhappy memories for their family.
Herself at age five, feeling her father’s strong hands lifting her limp body from the swimming pool, retching as the water left her lungs, disoriented and scared by Margaret’s piercing shrieks.
Blackness cloaked the window again. The beam of light softened, and Elise felt herself moving toward its source, her vehicle suddenly gone, though she didn't remember getting out of it.
A figure walked toward her out of the light. A woman in a flowing gown, her blue eyes soft with love, and the gentlest, most beautiful smile Elise had ever seen. Elise’s feet trailed behind her as she glided through the darkness like a wraith, her arm outstretched, wanting more than anything to connect with the angelic figure before her.
An incredible sense of peace enveloped her. Everything would be all right now.
The woman came close and reached out a hand to caress Elise’s cheek. “My dear little one, as much as I look forward to the time when we will be together again, it is not yet that time.”
Elise felt a sharp stab of longing. “But I want to stay here with you.”
“I know. But you are needed on the other side.” The woman’s eyes glistened with tears, but she smiled, kissed her fingertip then touched that finger to Elise’s lips. “Go now, and take back what is yours.”
With that, the heavenly figure retreated into the light, and Elise knew a deep sense of despair more painful than any she’d experienced.
From behind her, the faint sound of a man's voice pierced the silence. "Elizabeth... Elizabeth..."
Elise looked back, mildly curious, then turned again toward the brightness.
The voice was louder now, and Elise felt the unsettling sensation of being dragged back toward it. Instinctively, she reached out for the light, yearning to be part of it, and struggled against the force pulling at her.
"Elizabeth, wake up!"
The force dragging her became too powerful to resist. Elise felt herself falling backward, faster and faster. She was terrified and cried out. Finally, she landed with a jolting impact that knocked the breath from her lungs.
Elise gasped, filling her aching chest with life-giving air. Her head throbbed. She opened her eyes and saw it was once again daylight. The brightness sent shards of pain zinging through her skull. Squeezing her eyelids shut again, she moaned.
"Elizabeth, can you hear me?"
Elise grimaced. The man's voice was so close. Elizabeth? Who’s Elizabeth? A moment later she felt fingers tapping her cheek, gently at first, then sharply. “Hey, cut it out!” She raised a hand to swipe at her offender.
"Elizabeth! Open your eyes."
When she did, the pain lanced through her head, but she forced herself to keep her eyes open. Above her were rippling patches of shadow and light that, as her vision slowly cleared, she recognized as the softly swaying boughs of an oak festooned with Spanish moss.
A man leaned over her, his face in shadow, blocking out the dappled light above. "Don't try to move," he ordered and gently held her down. "I've sent Samuel back to the house for help. Just lie still till he gets back. You've got a lump on your head the size of a hen’s egg."
"Hmm?" Elise squinted to make out the man's features. His gruff voice was unfamiliar. Perhaps he was a passing motorist who had seen the accident and stopped to help.
"Who are you?" she rasped. "Why are you calling me Elizabeth?"
The man pulled back and a shaft of sunlight fell across his face. For the first time, Elise was able to see him clearly. He was...well, striking was the word that came to mind, with lean, sharply chiseled features and a wide mouth. His dark chestnut hair was sun-streaked and brushed away from his face as though he'd just combed his fingers through it, a few strands falling across his brow. His eyes were a warm golden brown, the rich color of Kentucky bourbon.
The man’s lips thinned, like he was angry. "Jesus,” he muttered. He bent closer again and pulled her hair away from her face. "Can you see all right? Has the fall affected your sight?"
"No. I can see." He didn’t answer her question, so she asked again, trying to lift herself onto her elbows. “Who are you?”
He swore softly then put his hands to her shoulders, pressing her back to the ground. “Just stay still. Don’t move.” He started to rise.
“Please!” She grabbed his arm and he froze. She thought she saw him shudder just slightly. “Please, don’t leave me.”
Confusion played across his features before his expression darkened and he peeled her fingers from his sleeve. “I said don’t move. I need to check on your brother. I’ll be right back.”
Then he was gone, leaving her squinting against the sunlight. She covered her eyes with her hand. Brother? She didn’t have a brother. She shook her head and moaned as a wave of dizziness engulfed her, unconsciousness swallowing her again.
Elise awoke to the sensation of being lifted by strong arms. Opening her eyes, she saw a middle-aged black man peering down at her. “You jus’ hold still, now, Miss Lizzie. I got you.” He looked up. “Mistuh Kingston, she’s woke up again!”
“Good, Samuel. Get her in the house quickly. We’ll need some more help with Edward. He’s hurt badly and I don’t want him jostled.”
“Yessuh, Mistuh Kingston.”
Miss Lizzie? What the hell? She started to struggle against the man as he removed her from the back of some sort of wagon. “Please, put me down. I can walk on my own.”
Samuel grunted with the effort of holding her while she squirmed. “Miss Lizzie, please! I’s jus’ tryin’ to help you. Stay still, now.”
“Elizabeth. Settle down.” It was the handsome stranger from before. He looked angry again.
“I’m not Miss Lizzie! Put me down!” She continued to struggle until the stranger nodded at the black man who held her.
“It’s all right, Samuel. Set her down before she hurts herself. Gently.”
Once on her feet, Elise paused to get her bearings. They were in front of a Greek Revival plantation house in what appeared to be pristine condition. Someone had obviously spent a fortune restoring the place. She'd been through a lot of these old mansions and seldom had she seen one in such excellent shape. The white paint on the wood siding appeared fresh and the trim showed no signs of rot. Elise decided that the tall rectangular columns of the entrance portico must be recreations of the originals, for they showed not a trace of decay, not even at the bases.
Elise frowned. She'd traveled the roads in this area many times since returning to Savannah, yet she'd never seen this magnificent house before. How could she have missed it?
The man called Samuel kept a steady hand at her elbow, urging her toward the front porch of the house. She could hear the other man, Mr. Kingston, barking orders to a gathering group of people. A woman in a brown dress, starched white apron and calico head-scarf burst through the front door.
"Oh Lordy, what's done happened to my babies!" The woman hurried across the front porch to meet them.
“Their horse bolted, Jemma, and the buggy overturned,” Mr. Kingston replied. "Elizabeth has a nasty bump on her forehead that needs to be tended. But Edward’s hurt badly. I’ve sent Bobby for Doc White."
The woman started to wave her arms and wail, and Elise lost it. “Look, I don’t understand why you people think you know me, but you’re mistaken! I am not this Lizzie person you keep referring to and I was not in a buggy! I've never been in a buggy in my life! My name's Elise Davis. I've had a car accident and I have people waiting for me who'll be worried. I need to call them. My cell was in my purse, if we could just go back to my vehicle and get it-"
Jemma gasped then hollered, “Lord o'mighty! She done knocked her brains right outta her head!"
"I did not!" Elise glanced around at the circle of hesitant, pitying stares. Her face grew hot. "Look, I've had a really bad day, okay? Please, I need to use a phone, that's all I ask. I'll call for a ride and have a wrecker come for my vehicle then I'll be out of your hair."
Jemma gave Elise one more horrified glare before she shouted over her shoulder to the others assembled. "Get some cold rags! You men get her on up to bed an' if'n she fights, tie her down!" Then she rushed to the wagon. “Oh, Massah Edward, jus’ lie still now. Jemma’s here ta’ help you.”
Tie her down? Oh, hell no! Elise spun on Samuel. "If you think I'm going to let you people hold me prisoner here-"
“You’s gotta calm down, Miss Lizzie, like Jemma said,” Samuel insisted as he urged her toward the house.
She pulled her elbow from his grip. “Let me go!”
Mr. Kingston grabbed her other arm. He wasn’t gentle. His fingers bit into her flesh. “Elizabeth. Settle down and get into the house. Let them help you.” His low voice had an ominous tone and the anger in his eyes sent a chill down her spine.
The situation was getting out of control. Elise took a deep breath then said in a deceptively calm voice. "All right. Look, I'm not upset anymore.” She removed his hand from her arm. "I can walk by myself. Really, I'm fine." She lifted the skirt of her gown above her ankles and strode into the front hall. Her head spinning from the sudden movement, she stopped to steady herself.
When her vision stopped reeling, she noticed the hall was as carefully restored as the outside of the house. The mahogany of the staircase and door trim gleamed with the soft glow of hand-polished wax, the walls were covered with richly patterned sage-green damask, and the furniture looked like genuine Louis XVI.
"I'm all right," she insisted when she felt Samuel’s hands on her again. “Please, just show me to the phone.”
"I’ll help you upstairs, Miss. You needs ta lie down."
It was clear none of these people were going to help her. She was on her own. Her façade of calm disintegrated. "For the last time, I'm not going upstairs! If you people won't help me, I'll help myself." She pulled away from Samuel. "I'm walking to the highway to catch a ride. Don't you dare try to stop me."
She turned and staggered toward the door, then stopped as she caught a glimpse of a woman in the tall gilt-framed mirror on the wall opposite her. Petite and dark-haired, the woman stared back at Elise with wide, blue-green eyes. She wore a long skirt and fitted jacket, fawn-colored with dark green trim. Dirt and grass stains marred the outfit and the jacket was torn at one shoulder.
Elise looked down at her own clothing. Her breath caught in her throat. Where was her wedding gown? She’d been wearing an ivory satin gown, hadn't she? In that instant she began to question her own sanity.
Her eyes shot back to the mirror and she raised a trembling hand to the throbbing lump on her head. The woman did the same, gingerly touching the large purplish swelling that marred her porcelain complexion.
Elise uttered a strangled cry as she stared at the stranger in the glass and realized she was the stranger. She felt her knees buckle, the parquet floor seemed to rush upward then blackness closed around her.
Elise's eyelids flickered open. She moaned and turned her head on the soft feather pillow. Where was she? Slowly, she began to take in her surroundings. She was in a spacious bedroom furnished with lovely antique furniture and occupied a canopied four-poster bed, swathed in great volumes of white netting. It dominated the room and was surrounded by matching pieces of Queen Anne style furniture. It occurred to her that there was absolutely nothing modern in the room. No light switches--no lights at all, except for oil lamps and candles--no electrical outlets, no vents to indicate any sort of central air system...nothing. Strange. It was as if she'd awakened in another time.
Like a swift kick to the stomach, memory of the dream came back to her. It had to have been a dream.
Her head swimming, she forced herself out of bed and staggered to the tall mirror that hung next to the wardrobe. The image that confronted her took her breath away.
Dear God, it was true!
She wasn't herself anymore. This body in the mirror wasn't her own. Gone was the tall, thin figure, the light brown hair, hazel eyes and somewhat square jaw line that she'd grown accustomed to seeing in a mirror. The attractive, but unexceptional body of Elise Davis was no longer hers. In its place was the delicately-boned figure of a sable-haired beauty. Though petite, this body was lushly feminine, the soft curves covered in a modest nightgown of white batiste.
Elise pressed her fingers against the high cheekbones, the fragile, yet proud jaw line, the perfect cupid's bow of dusky pink lips. She stared, still barely able to believe what she was seeing. Wide, heavily-lashed turquoise eyes peered back in amazement. My God, this woman was beautiful. This woman...she was this woman!
Shaking, Elise turned away from the mirror and tried to gather her thoughts. Had she died in the accident? She remembered the darkness after the crash, the feeling of weightlessness, the beckoning light.
Slowly, half expecting the room to shimmer and dissolve around her, she went to one of the tall windows and looked out. It was clear she was inside the Greek Revival mansion she remembered being brought to after the accident. Beyond the overhanging pediment supported by tall columns was a large expanse of yard, split in two by a gravel driveway lined with cottonwood trees. In the distance, past the moss-draped trees, she could see a river, and marshy rice fields dotted with the hunched over figures of laborers. A movement in the driveway caught her eye. A horse-drawn wagon paused at one of the small outbuildings. The passengers, six men and women, dark-skinned, wearing crude, patched and dirty clothing, crawled out. With the shine of perspiration on their bodies, haggard expressions on their faces, they looked like...Good God, they looked like slaves!
Frantically, her mind fumbled for an explanation that made sense. Maybe she was dreaming all this, while in reality she lay comatose in a hospital bed. Something inside her told her that wasn't the case. This wasn't heaven, or hell. This wasn't the figment of a damaged brain. This was real, just not the reality she'd always known.
Elise turned back to the mirror, trembling like a leaf, trying to remember the murky events that occurred after the accident. The flickering images from her past, the gently smiling woman, the warm, soul-encompassing light... Elise had read enough about near-death experiences to know her ordeal was similar. She’d been on the brink of crossing over, then, for reasons unknown, was pulled back from the light, pulled back into her body--no, to this body.
Elise watched the unfamiliar face in the mirror blanch. If she now inhabited the body of this woman, Elizabeth, then where was Elizabeth? Had her soul passed over? Or had they switched places somehow? At this very moment, somewhere in the future, was Elizabeth staring into a mirror trying to come to terms with her new form?
The door opened just as Elise swayed, grabbing the bedpost for support. The woman she recognized as Jemma stepped in.
"Lord o'mighty! What's you doin' up?" She hurried across the room and took Elise by the arm. "You get yourself back into this here bed! And don' go givin' me no lip, neither. You need your rest ifn' you want that head of yours to heal proper. I ain't aimin' to spend the rest of my days nursin' no crazy woman."
Numb with shock, Elise let Jemma tuck her back into the big, soft bed. She leaned forward obediently as Jemma fluffed the feather pillows behind her back.
"There. Now you jus' lie back and rest." Jemma's voice had lost its sharp tone. "You feel up to eatin' somethin'?"
Jemma's mention of food made her stomach pinch with hunger. "Um, yes, thank you. That would be wonderful, if you don’t mind. I haven't had anything since yesterday."
"Yesterday? Child, you been sleepin' for two days now. An' it's already near half-way through the third." At Elise's look of alarm, Jemma patted her hand. "Now don't you worry none. Doc says you’s gonna be fine, which is more than I can say ‘bout poor Massah Edward. He’s been askin’ for you, so soon as you feel able, you needs ta’ go be with him." The woman’s dark eyes grew shiny with tears.
“Edward?” Oh, yeah. There was another person with her who was hurt in the accident.
Jemma’s brow furrowed with alarm. “Yes, child. Massah Edward. Your brother.” She scrutinized the bruise on Elise's forehead. "You sure you's afeelin' better?"
Elise nodded gingerly. "My head still aches. Do you have anything I could take for it? Maybe a Tylenol, please?" As soon as the words left her mouth, she realized she'd blundered. Jemma was plainly troubled, though she tried to hide it by briskly smoothing the coverlet.
"You poor child. Jus' lie still and I'll be back in no time with somethin' for the pain."
Elise watched Jemma bustle out of the room and chided herself for being careless. If this nightmare was true, if she had indeed been transported into the past and into another body, then she had better pull herself together quickly and deal with it. That meant being more mindful of what she said.
She had so much to find out: what year it was, exactly where she was, who she was. She would have to be very careful. The people around her would probably accept some memory loss on her part, but if she told them the truth, she might well find herself trussed up in the nearest loony-bin.