Chapter 1

Surprise Visitor

Did you ever wish you could replay a scene in your life—one that forced an unexpected change in your destiny? That’s what I wanted one afternoon in April 2007.

 

With the wind in my face and my curls tucked under a helmet, I hung tightly to Jane on the first motorcycle I’d ever ridden in my forty-one years. I was scared sh— well, you can imagine how scared I was. The sun shone through the towering pines, blasting shadows with light rays as we whipped down a two-lane road in my small Central Coast town of San Cristofo, California. We could have been speeding at forty miles per hour but it felt like ninety.

The kid on the bicycle came out of nowhere. I squeezed Jane’s waist with a death grip. She slammed the brakes. Tires screeched. `

The boy and the bicycle sped across our path. We fishtailed. He turned his head to see what happened.

Panic—mine and what I saw on the boy’s face.

“The curb!” I shouted to him.

I was too late. His bike hit it head-on and he flew several feet over the handlebars. He was a big husky kid and must have landed with a real thud.

Jane shouted to me. I jumped off the Suzuki, willing my legs to be out of the way before the bike could topple. The machine grazed my ankle as it slid on shoulder gravel, throwing me onto the sidewalk. Jane leapt free before the motorcycle could fall. She hit the kickstand with her boot to keep the bike upright. Then she flung her helmet to the ground, grabbed her medical bag from one of the panniers and raced to the boy.

Gathering my wits and tossing my helmet near hers, I rushed behind her petite form to the lawn of the San Cristofo Research Institute, where the boy had landed.

He lay motionless on the grass, his legs and arms splayed, his eyes closed. A large bruise swelled on his forehead below the edge of his helmet. He looked about twelve.

Jane knelt beside him. “Are you all right?” she asked, leaning over the boy. She checked his airway and his breathing, acting methodically, like the doctor she was.

“Is he okay?” I asked.

She held up a finger to hush me. Slowly, she moved his arms and legs and then gently released the chin strap on his helmet. She checked the pulse on both sides of his neck. Then she quickly removed her leather jacket, exposing a tattoo on her upper arm. Once she’d covered him from neck to waist, she turned to me. “Give me your sweater,” she said.

I tore it off and Jane placed it over the boy’s lower body.

“He’s got a pulse,” she said.

I heaved a positive sigh.

“Hey!” A middle-aged jogger in shorts and blue T-shirt ran toward us. Out of breath and slowing his pace, he said, “I . . . I saw what happened . . . I called 911.”

911? I thought. The gravity of the accident hit me even harder. I should have been glad for a witness, but looking at the boy’s still body, I felt guilty. I could have shouted louder to warn him of the curb.

Sirens wailed in the distance, verifying this was real.

The boy stirred. Jane ran a hand through her short brown hair, now plastered to her head from her helmet. “Don’t move,” she said to the boy.

“I . . . I’m okay,” he said, trying to sit up.

“He’s okay,” I repeated under my breath, closing my eyes in relief.

The sirens stopped and I opened my eyes as a police car screeched to a halt at the curb.

Jane gently restrained the boy. “I’m Dr. Fratinelli. You’ve been in an accident. Lie still.” The boy lay his head back down. “Can you tell me your name?”  Jane asked.

“I . . . I’m Billy Carlucci.” His speech sounded clear, or maybe I wished it to be. I smiled at Jane and she smiled back.

“My name is Sassy,” I said to the boy. “I can let your mom know what happened. Is she at home?”

“No, she’s divorced . . . I mean she’s at work.” He tried to rise again but Jane quieted him. “My dad works here.” He waved toward the world-renowned San Cristofo Research Institute, our small town’s claim to fame. I wondered if his dad was a doctor.

I pulled out my cell. “Know his number?”

Billy recited it, which I took as a good sign. I called his father and got his voicemail. A deep, resonant voice said, “You’ve reached B.J., director of marketing communications.”

No mention of a “Dr.” in front of the man’s name.

The voice continued, “I’m in an ISRP planning meeting all day. Your call is important to me.” Had I not been so freaked by the accident, I would have been charmed by the man’s deep tone. “Please leave a message,” the voice added.

I held the phone to my chest so the machine wouldn’t pick up what I was about to say. “How about your mom’s number?” I asked Billy. I could tell my nerves were on edge when I shot the question at him at warp speed. What if the boy had internal injuries?

Billy knew that number, too. I disconnected from his father’s line, my fingers shaking as I placed a call to his mom.

A woman answered. “Copymakers.”

She must be here in San Cristofo, I thought. The Copymakers franchise is the only one on the California Central Coast. “May I speak to Mrs. Carlucci?”

“Yes, it’s me. Who’s this?” The gravelly voice was loud enough for me to pull the phone from my ear. Quite different from her ex’s.

“My name is Sassy McFarland. Your—”

“I don’t know anyone named ‘Sassy.’ Is this a telephone solicitor?”

I talked fast. “Don’t hang up. Your son Billy is all right. He fell off his bike. There’s a doctor here—”

“A doctor? Where’s Billy?”

“In front of the research institute.”

I heard the phone drop. “Oh, my god.” Her voice faded. “Katy, take over for me. Billy’s been hurt. Send an ambulance to the research center. Where’s my keys?”

I clicked off, breathing hard. I needed comforting and wanted to call my boyfriend Joe . . . I mean, ex-boyfriend Joe. After two years together, he decided he’d rather comfort his ex-wife. Now this. I never felt so alone.

By this time, two cops had pushed through a small crowd that had gathered around Billy. The older one swaggered toward us. He was a hulk of an old guy. Tall and solid, his muscular chest strained against the buttons on his shirt. His nametag read, “Sgt. Joseph Dombrowski.” I guessed he was in his late fifties, but his demeanor was of someone who could ward off a charging elephant. He wasn’t smiling. I could tell this wasn’t going to be fun.

The other officer, a tall, gangly boy, whose nametag read, “Winston,” looked as if he’d recently graduated from cop school.

The jogger tried to get Dombrowski’s attention, but the officer headed straight for the boy and us.

I pocketed my cell.

Dombrowski squinted under bushy brows. “Move aside, ma’am,” he said to Jane.

“My name’s Dr. Giovanna Fratinelli,” she said, looking up at him from her kneeling position.

I’d forgotten her full name. She’d been “Jane” when I knew her nineteen years ago, in college. Today was the first I’d seen her since.

“The boy appears to have no serious injuries,” she told the sergeant.

More sirens screamed. Must be an ambulance, I thought. In a small town like San Cristofo, I was sure a good part of the police force was already present.

“Who here saw what happened?” Dombrowski asked.

The jogger was about to speak, but Jane spoke first. “We were coming through the intersection when the boy sped across it on his bike. We didn’t hit him.”

The sergeant took both our IDs and gave them to Winston. “Check these out,” he told him. Winston took off toward the squad car with our IDs.

The old cop leaned over Jane, so near he could have kissed her on the forehead. He sniffed her. Bending closer, he asked, “Who was driving?”

Good lord, I thought. He thinks she’s drunk. I thought back to a few hours before, when she’d surprised me with a call at home to say she’d arrived in town and wanted to take me to lunch. We rehashed our college roommate days over wine.

I was surprised when Jane didn’t reply to the officer. I spoke up. “I was a passenger. The boy sped right in front of us and then looked back at us. I tried to warn him about the curb but he hit it and went over his handlebars.”

“That’s not what I saw,” the jogger said.

Jane shot him a look that could freeze fire. The man’s statement hit me like a punch in the stomach.

“Just what did you see?” Dombrowski asked the jogger.

“The motorcycle slammed—”

The sirens grew so loud I couldn’t hear. I stepped toward the jogger, my jaw clenched.

The kid tried to get up again. “I’m really okay, guys. Lemme get my bike.”

“Down,” the old cop said. “And you, Red, back away from the jogger.”

Red? I prefer auburn, but you don’t argue with a man the size of Dombrowski.

The sirens abruptly stopped. Two young paramedics leapt from an ambulance and rushed to the boy. Jane rose from her kneeling position. She and Dombrowski gave the medics the information they needed. When finished, Dombrowski motioned for the jogger to follow him. Not us. The jogger, who had been half a block away. What a crock. He was liable to tell the cop anything.

Heat rushed to my face. “You need to talk to us first,” I shouted, catching up with them. “We were on the motorcycle.”

The officer stopped. His dark eyes burned into me. “I’m the one running this show, little lady. Best you remember that.”

Little lady? Now I was really riled. I stepped toward him but Jane pulled me away.

By now, Winston had returned to the scene. He gave us back our IDs and Dombrowski told him, “Keep the two females apart. Don’t take any guff from the redhead. And give the doctor the FSTs.”

Jane’s jaw dropped. Her eyes widened to full moons. I didn’t know what the FSTs were. Apparently she did.

Winston slid his hand to his hip. Was he reaching for his gun? Planning to hold us at bay while he gave the FSTs?

He relaxed his hand. “Come with me,” he said to Jane. He glanced at me. “You stay here.”

No way, I thought. The possibilities of what might happen hit me full force. Then I recalled from TV cop shows that FSTs were field sobriety tests. Could Jane be legally drunk? Dombrowski wanted evidence. What if Billy’s parents press charges? Could the jogger convince a judge of what he saw as easily as he seemed to convince the sergeant?

And who was this new biker woman I used to share a dorm room with?