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CHAPTER ONE

 

THE explosion woke Caitlin.

Okay, so it was only the trash truck outside, but it seemed equivalent to the decibel level of two trains colliding at high speed.

She cracked open one eye, quickly shutting it again when bright sunlight nearly blinded her. The three square windows over her bed were set high on the wall, so she’d never bothered with blinds. Privacy wasn’t a concern, as her fenced backyard and an alley separated her townhouse from the neighbor’s behind her. They’d have to be on their roof with binoculars if they wanted to see into her bedroom. And Caitlin was an early riser, so she always woke long before the light could become a problem.

Except, apparently, for today.

Her head throbbed in time with the grinding, mechanical sounds of garbage cans being lifted and dumped into the truck. Caitlin raised a hand, pressed her fingers to her temple in a futile attempt to push the pain away.

She must be getting sick.

Even as she had the thought, her stomach roiled, the foul taste in the back of her mouth seeming to fill her nose as well. Caitlin held perfectly still in the hope that a total lack of movement would make the nausea subside, but as bile began to rise up her throat, she realized that she wasn’t going to escape that easily.

Shit.

It had been ages since she’d had a stomach virus. Apparently her luck had run out.

Caitlin rolled to her side, intending to head to the bathroom for the inevitable misery of emptying her stomach, but as she sat up the room seemed to swoop around her. Gathering that her situation was direr than she’d thought, Caitlin kicked at the covers, managing only to tangle her legs and essentially fall out of the bed when they refused to cooperate. Her hair fell forward to block her view, forming a blonde curtain, but she didn’t take the time to push it out of her way. Instead, she crawled as fast as she was able on her shaking limbs, barely making it to the bathroom in time.

Caitlin hugged the commode, thankful that she hadn’t eaten much last night. She’d been supposed to meet a friend of her future sister-in-law – and a bridesmaid in the upcoming wedding – for dinner. However, the other woman had texted her thirty minutes past the time they were supposed to meet, telling Caitlin she wasn’t going to be able to make it after all. Caitlin finished the wine she’d ordered at the bar while waiting, and then headed home, thinking she’d just grab a sandwich. But she…

Well, to be honest, she couldn’t remember exactly what she’d done when she’d gotten home. Had she eaten? Or had she started working on her current manuscript and forgotten to eat, which happened with more frequency than was probably healthy? Thinking about it too much made her head pound even harder, so she gave up for the moment.

After her stomach was finally empty, Caitlin reached up to flush the toilet. She stared at her bare arm, realizing with a jolt of surprise that she was naked. She must have been too out of it last night to bother with pajamas. Although that didn’t explain the lack of underwear. Maybe she’d gotten hot? Taken them off without remembering?

If she was this sick, she probably had a fever. People with fevers sometimes did and said unusual things in the grip of their delirium.

Marshaling her energy, Caitlin crawled over to the vanity and pulled herself up, grabbing the hand towel to wipe her face. But that wasn’t enough. She had to brush her teeth. The taste in her mouth was atrocious.

She pulled her toothbrush from the holder, loaded it up with minty paste. Bracing herself against the counter with her right hand, she vigorously scrubbed with the other. After leaning forward to spit, Caitlin rinsed the brush, laying it beside the sink. Then she finally pushed her hair from her face, straightening enough to look at herself in the mirror.

“Holy hell, Cavanaugh.”

Her voice sounded like sandpaper, and she looked positively awful. And she didn’t even need her glasses to see that.

But were those… spots on her face? Crap, could she possibly have measles?

But she’d been vaccinated. Of course, that wasn’t a guarantee. There’d been outbreaks of the disease recently, among the vaccinated population. And Savannah was a major tourist destination, so you had all sorts of people visiting the city from points around the globe, carrying their germs with them.

She leaned closer to the mirror, trying to bring the spots into sharper focus. They didn’t appear to be raised. Weren’t measles bumps?

Frowning, Caitlin lifted her fingers toward her face, brushing them lightly over the collection of spots on her right temple and cheek.

Definitely not bumps.

She turned on the faucet, ran her fingers under the water, and then wiped at her face again. The spots smeared.

So, not measles. She glanced down at her fingers, noted the faint wash of color staining them. Caitlin stared.

Slowly lifting her eyes back toward the mirror, Caitlin tilted her head and leaned in again. The spots were concentrated on the right side of her face. And upon further examination, she discovered them on her neck and her shoulder. Her stomach and legs.

Her hair.

Some were bigger than others. It looked more like paint splatter than a rash.

Her breath began to saw in and out of her lungs, and Caitlin grabbed a washcloth from the vanity drawer and ran it under the water, making it as hot as she could. She pumped soap onto the cloth and then scrubbed it all over herself, her mind focusing solely on the task at hand.

When she finished, she looked at the washcloth. The white cotton was a diluted, rusty brown.

Caitlin dropped the cloth into the sink, and slowly backed away. Something wasn’t right. In fact, she thought something might be terribly wrong.

Continuing to stare at the sink, where the water running over the washcloth swirled reddish as it flowed down, Caitlin backed toward the bedroom. When she bumped into the doorframe she leaned against it for several moments, trying to catch her breath. But the smell… maybe she’d been sick in the bed and hadn’t realized.

Caitlin squeezed her eyes shut. Her stomach threatened to rebel again, so she pressed a hand to her abdomen, willing it to settle. Gathering her strength, she turned around, taking in the scene in the bedroom for the first time.

Oh God…

Had she taken a bottle of red wine to bed and spilled it?

But her mind rejected that thought even though she wanted to believe it. Desperately. Because the alternative was far less palatable.

Blood. That had to be blood staining the sheets, her white down comforter. Splatters and streaks.

 
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