Fertile Ground

Chapter One

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The young woman lay motionless on the bed, her arms on top of the light blanket. She didn't hear the nurse approach, didn't know she was at her side until she felt her hand being lifted.

"How are you doing, Felicia?"

The nurse's voice sounded far away and muffled, as if it were coming through a tunnel. Felicia's eyes fluttered open, then shut. "Okay. Tired, and a little groggy. How many eggs did they get?"

She'd been asleep, not unconscious, during the egg harvesting. She vaguely remembered the doctor speaking to her afterwards, but found it difficult now to recall what he'd said.

"I don't know, dear. You'll have to ask the doctor."

She felt the nurse press two fingers on the inside of her arm, just above her wrist. The woman's nails dug lightly into her skin, but not so that they hurt.

Felicia tried again and this time was able to keep her eyes open. "Is my pulse okay?" she asked when the nurse released her hand.

"It's a little fast, but fine." She wrapped a blood pressure cuff around Felicia's upper arm and pumps. "Blood pressure's fine, too," she said a moment later.

The vein where the IV tube was inserted throbbed. "That's good." Her speech sounded slurred and thick to her ears. She mentioned this to the nurse.

"That's the sedation. It should wear off within the hour. Don't worry, dear. We'll keep you in Recovery till it does, then send you to Outpatient. Then you can go home."

"Home" sounded good, but she didn't know how she would move off the bed and get dressed, let alone get into her car and drive all the way to her apartment.

"You've been crying," the nurse said, surprise and worry in her voice. "Are you in pain, Felicia?"

"Not really. I'm just a little. . .sad," she whispered.

"That's from the sedation, too. There's nothing to be sad about, Felicia. The egg retrieval was successful, and you're fine." She smiled. "Just rest now."

"Hagar, the handmaiden of Abraham, abandoned her child," she whispered.

"What, dear?" The nurse bent down to hear.

"That's what the man in my dream said. ‘Hagar, the handmaiden of Abraham, left her child to die alone because she didn't want to hear him cry. But in the end Hagar didn't abandon him. Why are you abandoning your babies?'" Tears welled in the corners of her eyes. "I don't even know who Hagar is, but it's so sad, isn't it?"

"It was just a dream, Felicia."

"I know. But he seemed so real." His voice—quiet, stern—had seemed so clear. She'd tried to open her eyes to see him, but her eyelids had felt heavy, so impossibly heavy, and when she'd finally opened them, she realized that he'd never been there at all, that she'd been dreaming. "Try to relax." The nurse patted her arm.

"It isn't the same, is it?" she asked urgently. "Giving away my eggs and giving up babies?"

"Of course it isn't. Try to rest, Felicia."

"That's what I told him. In my dream, I mean. But he said it was the same. He said. . . he said he was the voice of my babies, that my babies are crying. He said I would be punished." Tears were streaming now down her face.

"You did a very lovely thing, Felicia." The nurse's voice was soft, reassuring. Gently she wiped Felicia's tears. "You're helping other couples have children, aren't you?"

"Yes."

"Well, then. It was just a dream. Don't let it upset you."

"And everything's fine? The eggs are fine?"

The nurse patted her arm again. "Everything's fine. You just rest now," she repeated. Felicia nodded. She breathed deeply and let herself drift off into sleep.

 

Chapter One

They'd been making her self-conscious all night, the two men at the corner table--watching her, calling her over to repeat the specials, smiling to catch her attention whenever she passed their way. So Chelsea wasn't surprised when the older of the two, both of whom were wearing almost identical navy wool blazers, said, "You're very pretty," as she refilled his cappuccino. "I'll bet people tell you all the time that you look like Julia Roberts."

It was hardly an original come-on, she thought, thanking him. The funny thing was, she did look like Julia Roberts. Dennis said so all the time. She had the same wide, Cupid's-bow mouth and slender, sloping nose; the same long, wavy, warm brown hair Julia used to have. Sun-kissed hair, Dennis called it.

She may have looked like a famous movie star, but she didn't feel like one, not tonight. The veins at the backs of her knees were throbbing in protest at the long hours she'd been standing, and the balls of her feet were aching and tender. As soon as she got home she would take a long bath with water so hot it would steam the mirror and the windows. She still had a few of the jasmine-scented amber bath gel balls Dennis had given her for her eighteenth birthday, along with a small diamond pendant. She was wearing it now under the white shirt she'd pressed before coming to work.

"I'm James and this is Roy," the man said. "We're producers. Always looking for new talent." He smiled at her, revealing capped front teeth. "What's your name?"

"Chelsea," she said, returning the smile. "Chelsea Wright." Judging from the gray at their temples, she guessed they were in their forties. Good looking, well groomed, the snowy monogrammed cuffs of their shirts peeking beyond the sleeves of their blazers. Gold chunky rings with inset diamonds sat like miniature hotels on their pinkies, and they were wearing too much cologne. She didn't know if they were producers—L.A. was filled with people who claimed to be in The Business. She did know they had to be a little high from the cocktails and wine she'd served them, and hoped they would leave her a generous tip.

"Chelsea Wright. Chelsea." The man called James repeated the name slowly, letting the l roll off his tongue. He nodded. "I like it." He glanced at his companion, who looked bored, but nodded too. "Matter of fact, Chelsea, we're casting a small feature. If you're interested, you can audition for a minor role."

She planned to teach Special Ed, not act, but she could use the extra cash, especially now that she was transferring from Santa Monica City College to USC. Her parents had paid for the fall quarter ("Dad and I are so proud of you," her mother had said when the acceptance letter arrived, "all your dreams come true"), but Chelsea regarded the money as a loan. The tuition was steep for her parents, who had refinanced their small house in Culver City several years ago to help pay the bills.

There were always so many bills, never enough money. Things would be different now if she hadn't been so strapped for funds. She felt a wave of sadness and forced the thoughts from her mind. "What kind of role?" she asked, shifting her weight to her right hip.

"Exotic dancer." His eyes moved to her chest. "I think you'd be perfect. Don't you, Roy?" he asked, turning to his companion and receiving another nod.

A stripper. She felt a flash of disappointment, then almost laughed, he was so transparent. She thought about the tip and smiled again instead and said, "Thanks, but I don't think so," in a voice that conveyed a hint of regret. She doubted that he was legit, and she wasn't interested in stripping. And if she ever did something like that, her parents would kill her.

She moved away and made a circuit of the room, pausing at each of her tables to make sure everything was fine. Thirty-five minutes later she'd collected the checks and was ready to leave, her black apron folded and stored in her metal locker.

"See you tomorrow night, Ramón," she said to the short, muscular bartender.

"Vaya con Dios, baby." He smiled. "How'd you make out?"

"Ninety-eight. Not bad for a Sunday night." The producers had left a twenty and a card--"In case you change your mind, Chelsea," one had scrawled underneath the raised lettering of their company's name, First Star Productions. Maybe he was legit, or maybe he'd gone to a Kinko's and had a thousand cards printed for twenty-some dollars.

She told Ramón about the producers, laughed about it.

"See the type of people you meet? How can you leave this gold mine?" Ramón shook his head, drying the inside of a champagne goblet with deft swipes. "Just two more days, huh? Bet you'll be begging for your job back within a week."

"Betcha I won't." She stuck her tongue out at him playfully, then waved good-bye. She would miss Ramón and the others and the easy camaraderie she shared with them, but she was looking forward to her new job, to USC, to everything that was suddenly within easy reach.

Don't expect too much, she warned herself, but she couldn't repress the excitement that surged through her. She found it hard to believe that two weeks ago she'd been despondent, isolated by fears that had occupied her every waking moment. She was glad that she hadn't told Dennis or her parents—there was no undoing what she'd done, so how could they have helped, after all, except worry with her?--and though she had every hope that things would be all right now, and she hated keeping secrets from them, hated not sharing what had happened, she'd promised. She said good night to Yvonne, the waitress who was balancing the night's receipts, slung her brown canvas backpack over her shoulder, and left the restaurant. It was cold outside, and she'd forgotten to bring a sweater or jacket. She hugged her arms across her chest and walked quickly, wishing her car weren't two blocks away. It was dark outside, too, but this was a quiet, residential neighborhood, as safe as any neighborhood in L.A., and she'd walked this route without incident countless times after work.

Approaching her Honda Civic, she groped inside her purse for her keys and touched the edge of the card the producer had given her. She shook her head, smiling, and bent down to insert her key into the car lock. Dennis would laugh when she told him about the Julia Roberts comment. "You're my pretty woman," he'd say. Then he'd lean over and kiss her. God, she loved him. The sharp blow at the back of her neck—swift, sudden—slammed her forehead into the metal of the car. She moaned and slid like a rag doll to the ground, her knees thudding against the concrete. Fear knifed through her.

Dazed, her hands trembling, she jerked her backpack off her shoulder and thrust it away from her. "Take whatever you want!" she whispered. She kept her eyes sealed. She didn't want to see her assailant, didn't want to be able to identify anyone.

She heard a popping sound, felt a stinging sensation in the hollow of her neck, then searing, exploding pain.

 

Fertile Ground (ISBN: 0-380-78953-1), an Avon Books paperback, is out of print. You can look for it at abebooks or half.com. Or check the Deadly Directory at the Cluelass website for a list of bookstores that carry out-of-print and used books.

 

 

On sale October 25
($13.95)

 

In paperback

 







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