{Prologue} THE SHADOWS ARE FALLING

Prologue

                Resentfully, I sat in my car watching the stillness of the multi-million dollar luxury mansion at 1851 Chatlet Hill Drive, the place I once called home. I clenched my teeth and felt my body tense when I saw her; the woman who stole my home, my husband, my daughter, my name … my life.

              Gracefully she walked down the concrete drive to the mailbox, her hip-length light golden-blonde hair flowing freely behind her. The humid summer sun made her tone, tan body glisten like a defined fitness trainer. I gripped my hands tighter to the steering wheel never wanting to see her face again. But her face was everywhere. I couldn’t look in the mirror without an overwhelming sense of aversion for that woman. There was no escaping her face when it’s identical to mine. My body, identical to hers. Our skin, hair, voice, mannerisms, sapphire blue eyes – identical; identical right down to the very mole on our left thigh. But that’s it; that’s where the identical part ends.

                I’m almost certain she thinks I’m still locked away in the psych ward where she left me. She did everything in her power to make sure I stayed sedated and hidden away under her birth name, Kassie Darrick.

                I remember that day seven years ago, just as if it happened yesterday. The day my life was transformed into an intrusive nightmare; one I never saw coming. One that took me on a rampage fumed from the twisted lies of my very own identical twin sister. I awoke in her hospital bed, wearing her clothes and staring at the exact framed photo of my daughter I had given as a gift to her. Seven years I suffered from Kassie’s demands to the doctors to keep me sedated and narcotized while she lived my luxurious life pretending to be me … Alaina Shepherd.

                 For seven years, she loved my husband and raised my daughter, Hailie. For seven years, I cried, begged, screamed and prayed. I despised her every visit as she indulgently described her wonderful life… My life! I endured seven years of what was rightfully my life, pierced deep in my soul at the hands of my sister as she gloated and pranced around in her expensive clothing, flaunting her luxurious lifestyle and filling me in on the details and the moments that she unremorsefully stripped from me.

                From my room in the psych ward, I watched her attended the televised formal events and fundraisers related to my career; a well-known, sought after artist. She was living the dream career I had built. I was fearful she would cripple it to the ground, but surprisingly all these years, she had not.

                Tonight, she is speaking at the most prestigious art show in the country, displaying all my paintings, as her own of course, and there is nothing going to stop me from attending. Kassie Darrick has no idea what the real Alaina Shepherd is capable of. I am going and you can bet I’m going to make it known, just what a conniving forgery she really is.

*******

                “Are you almost ready Kassie?”

                “Yes! Just a minute!” I shouted back to Jonah from upstairs. I wanted everything to be perfect tonight. Life had become so complicated and I quickly learned, especially after just being released from the psych ward, that I still had to play their game. I had to stop telling people I was the real Alaina Shepherd. If I continued screaming out and pleading with everyone to believe me, they would have me readmitted for sure.

                I spent the past week preparing for this very event. Everything was going to be perfect, right down to my formal, floor-length red gown; an exact replica of the gown I was wearing the night Corbin Shepherd, my husband, first laid eyes on me. And my hair, laying around my shoulders perfectly styled exactly as it was that night almost a decade ago.

                I know Corbin will be there this evening. He attended every event of mine and stood by my side as the proudest husband in the world. He was my biggest supporter and traveled with me to every galleria event, sometimes putting his own events on hold or rescheduling.

            When I first met Corbin, Kassie had been in the psych ward for just under five years. I would visit her every week and fill her in on life outside the hospital, in hopes that she, herself, would want to get better. I talked to her about Corbin and then when I had Hailie … oh Hailie. She is the reason I was so impelled to play the hospital at their game the entire time I was falsely admitted. My baby. Although, she wouldn’t be much of a baby now. She would be seven years old, but she’s still my baby.

                I never thought for one second Kassie would take measures into her own hands, attack and switch places with me. That thought never crossed my mind. Not once. I had no idea what she was conspiring to do that day. I should have suspected something when I noticed how cheerful and alert she was. That right there alone should have been a clear sign. Kassie was rarely light-hearted nor content. When I’d visit her, she’d rarely speak or make eye contact. The doctors said that’s how she is every day, emotionless and melancholy. I blamed it on her meds. I tried to talk them into regulating her meds better, but they assured me the medications and the dosages she was taking were exactly what she needed to be taking for her level of mental illness.

                I knew mental illness ran in my family. For the past twenty-three years, my mother has been hospitalized in a different psych ward in my home state of Arkansas. My father left when Kassie and I were toddlers. My mother always said it was because he found some younger woman who was much better looking and he couldn’t keep his pants on. For years I never understood what she meant. My mother would relentlessly degrade my father. In fact, I don’t recall a time she ever said anything kind about him.

               Over the years, I increasingly thought my father probably ran off because of my mother.  Growing up, there were numerous times Kassie and I wanted to run away as well. One could never predict who you would be getting when you walked through the door of our make-shift one bedroom efficiency apartment. Our mother could be happy one minute, then flying off the walls the next.

               Growing up, Kassie and I stuck together. I tried to help Kassie, hoping she wouldn’t fall for our mothers ways. I fought and I fought to make Kassie feel normal, but it never seemed good enough. Kassie would always degrade herself, just like my mother degraded my father all those years.

                We didn’t have much for close family growing up, and the close family we did have, did all they could do to try and take Kassie and I away from our mother. I often wondered if life would have turned out better had they succeeded. Would Kassie have had a better childhood and outlook on life? Would I? Over the years, as we got older, we sided with our mother and cut ties with all our relatives. She brainwashed us to think they were the wrong and spiteful ones, when in all reality it was our very own mother.

                When Kassie and I turned sixteen, the county came in and took our mother away. I still don’t know all the details of what happened that day, but I do know they took her away kicking and screaming. That much I recall very vividly. She kept yelling that it was all Kassie’s fault. I never understood what she meant by that. To this day, I still don’t understand. And poor Kassie never forgot that moment. It’s as if it’s tattooed on her soul. My mother always labeled Kassie the evil one, the devil child, the child with no future. Why a mother would do that to her child, I’ll never know.

                I tried my best to soothe Kassie as we were tossed into foster home after foster home for the next two years. Our relatives refused to take both of us and demanded the county split us up so I could live with them and Kassie remain in the foster system. I despised them for that. I fought to stay with Kassie. I fought hard to keep us together, even if she was a devil of a teen, she was still my sister. I wish I could have got her help back then when she needed it the most. Maybe things wouldn’t have turned out the way they did.

*******

                “About time! Okay. Off record. I have to say this … Damn! You … look … stunning!” Jonah exclaimed as his jaw dropped. I could see the drool spilling to the floor. I just shook my head and grinned as I slowly walked down the stairs holding the train of my red gown in my right hand and the railing in the other.

               It had been a long time since I had not only worn a gown, but heels. I had to get used to walking in them again. I reached the bottom step and held my hand out. “Shall we Mr. Hartman?” I smiled as Jonah stood there in some sort of trance.  I just grinned. All I could think about was Corbin, and how his jaw had dropped the exact same way when he saw me in a similar red gown almost a decade ago.

               “We shall,” he nodded as he grabbed my hand and led me out the front door and down to the awaiting limo.

              Jonah Hartman was one of the Psychiatrists from the hospital. Since I was now an outpatient, he was in charge of supervising and making sure my adjustment back in society was going well. He knew meeting my sister after all these years could cause a relapse in my recovery. And since I was hell-bent on going, and it was against the outpatient policy to attend any such public events alone, he offered to come with. I didn’t object.

               Jonah was in his late thirties. He was tan, handsome, muscular and if you talked with most the other nurses at the hospital, he resembled an exotic Chippendale dancer. His black hair was beginning to show some gray. And his dark brown eyes were, I have to admit, mesmerizing at times. He looked to me like he should have been a coach or taken up football or some other active sport instead of sitting behind a desk all day long. Carrying around a briefcase and clipboard didn’t suit him well. But he was dedicated to his career. He was an amazing Psychiatrist. Different from all the others I’ve met over the last few years.

              When I first met Jonah, he convinced me that I could tell him the truth. So I did. I told him how Kassie had attacked me and switched places with me in the hospital. I told him everything not once, not twice, but many times. The same story. I thought if anyone would hear me and believe it, it would be him. He acted like he wanted to believe me. But just like the others before him, he prescribed more medication to make me come to my senses. It was a lost cause. I was certain of it. No one would listen to me. No matter how hard I tried, everyone would hear me but no one would listen.

*******

                “Wow, this is an impressive painting!” Jonah marveled as he stood beside me. “It’s so real. In all reality it looks like an actual photograph. Look at that detail!”

                “You like it?” I whispered to him with a grin. I was in awe that he liked my paintings so much. It actually gave me a little bit of strength, something I needed for today.

                “Like it? I am in love with it. So far it’s the best I’ve seen. I’m serious,” he confirmed as he studied the painting.

                “Do you see the prices on these paintings?” I gasped. “Alaina is asking $17,000 for this one alone.” I had to bite my tongue as I called her Alaina. I couldn’t wait to call her by Kassie, her real name.

                “Just look at the detail put into it. There are seriously no words to express her work of art. It’s absolutely beautiful. Well worth, if not more, than the asking price.” He paused for a few seconds. “In a way it reminds me of you,” he said quietly as he stared at the painting.

                The feelings I dreaded swirled around me. I felt a tear escape down my cheek as I held my breath. I wanted to instantly run from the room. I also wanted to tell him once again that I was Alaina! That I painted that very picture he was standing in front of; that I was the one ….

                “Oh, Kassie I didn’t mean to make you tear up,” he said as he slowly pulled me off to the side. “I just meant that the little girl in the painting looks a lot like how I imagine you would of looked like when you were a little girl. I mean, maybe it is you. Maybe Alaina painted … ”

                I wiped away more tears that fell from my eyes and bit my tongue. Suddenly, I felt like it was a mistake to come here. What was I doing? Was I ready to confront my sister? Was I ready to see my husband? Was I ready to …

                “I’ll just stop talking now, but I do think she’s my new favorite artist,” Jonah affirmed. “Your sister has talent.”

                 I hated how he refused to listen when so many times, I’ve tearfully told him the truth. He seemed like the only one who was there for me, the only one who held my hand and spoke to me like I was a real person and not some patient with a comorbid bipolar and personality disorder. A disorder that wasn’t even diagnosed for me, but for her! But I couldn’t get him to listen to me. I couldn’t figure it how to get him to actually listen to me. And I also couldn’t risk being admitted back into the hospital, or put on more meds in hopes of suppressing memories she didn’t want me to recall. So I had to pretend to be her. I had to pretend that my, or more technically… her mental illness was under control. A disorder that I didn’t even have. It was literally driving me crazy trying to pretend I wasn’t crazy.

                “Can I offer you two a complimentary drink?” a waitress asked as she steadied a tray of drinks on her left hand.

                “Thank you,” Jonah said as he grabbed two glasses of champagne from the tray and handed one to me. “Only because this is a special occasion I’ll let you have a drink,” he winked. “Between you and me. Off record. Besides this is rather a special occasion.”

                Little did he know just how special this occasion was going to be. I smiled and quickly looked away from the waitress. I could feel her eyes study me as I sipped my champagne. I took a few steps away from her towards another painting. We kept to ourselves as we walked through the gallery admiring the rest of the paintings. Guests were beginning to gather in the adjoining room mingling towards their reserved seats in anticipation for Alaina’s upcoming speech. I kept my eyes open as to not run into her or Corbin as we mingled amongst the other guests, each one praising the work of Alaina Shepherd. I was grateful the light in the gallery was dimmed way down, with just lighting surrounding each painting. Everything seemed so surreal. It was like I was watching my own life from a distance. Like a slow motion dream and I was invisible to everyone around me.

              I could feel my nerves begin to question my own sanity for being here in the first place. I was increasingly nervous knowing that at any moment someone could easily blurt out her … or, my name… and want to talk. Or worse yet, request a photo be taken and ruin the plans I had in confronting Kassie that evening.  So I kept my hair covering the sides of my face as best I could. Jonah just brushed it off as my first step adjusting to being in public and didn’t really ask any questions.

                “May I have your attention please?” a woman spoke into the microphone. The crowd began to silence as everyone turned to face the stage in the adjoining room. “I first want to thank you all for coming out this evening. It’s greatly appreciated. My name is Tamara and I am going to be the announcer this evening. I promise not to bore you all to death, as I’m sure my speech is not near as exciting as Mrs. Alaina Shephered’s will be.” The crowd laughed.

                “So tonight, we are here to support the amazing and breathtaking artwork of Alaina Shepherd, of course.” Tamara continued. The crowd began to clap. “I’d like to invite you all to grab some champagne and find your seats as we anticipate the arrival of Mrs. Alaina Shepherd on this very stage. Again, thank you all for coming and I hope you are all enjoying her lovely artwork surrounding us here this evening.”

                “You feeling okay?” Jonah asked as he wrapped his arm through mine. “You’re looking a little pale.”

                “I feel fine,” I lied. Even I had a hard time trying to figure out just what it was I was feeling. I truly felt like a mess. I felt lost in someone’s nightmare and at the same time, watching my own life disintegrate in slow motion. I was screaming, but silent. I was running, but standing still. I was pleading for everyone to hear the truth as I held back the tears, kept my eyes on the ground and carefully sipped my champagne.

                 “You sure you are up for staying here for Alaina’s speech?” Jonah whispered. “I can take you home if you’d like. You do look quite pale. We can see her another time. I can arrange for a meeting elsewhere. This probably isn’t the best place for a reunion …”

                “No,” I interrupted as I nodded my head and grinned. “I’m very positive I’d like to stay.” We walked over to the far side of the adjoining room and took our reserved seats. They were the perfect seats for what I had planned for the evening.

                I tightened the grip on my champagne glass as Tamara took the stage. I scanned the room, resting my eyes on a couple in the front row. How had I not noticed them before? How had we not run into them as we were mingling this evening? Leo and Susan Blackredge. They live right next door to Corbin, or at least they lived there the last I knew. We hung out almost three to seven times a week. Had they known something was different with her, Kassie? Had they noticed anything? Surely they would have noticed something off or different? I could feel the questions jumble around in my mind as I struggled to focus.

                Susan and I did everything together. She knew I had an identical twin sister. Surely she would have noticed something different; that it was Kassie living next door to her and not me. She never missed anything. She had to have mentioned something to Corbin. Susan wasn’t very shy and did voice her opinion and thoughts instead of keeping them to herself. I watched as they smiled and chatted with everyone around them. I wanted to run and wrap my arms around Susan and tell her how much I’ve missed her, how much I’ve thought about her over the years and how much I need her help. Yes, I could use Susan’s help. She would understand. If anyone would understand, it would be Susan.

                I kept my eye on Susan and Leo as Tamara continued talking. I wasn’t listening to a word being spoken, but I did my best to smile and laugh with the crowd. I could feel Jonah watching me intently. I knew very soon he’d realize that all these years, I had been telling him the truth. I’ve tried many times to get him to believe me, but it was always the surrounding doctors that would pull him aside and bring him back into their sick and twisted world, making him once again believe that I was the messed up one; that I was mental and insane.

                 I sat up straighter and glued my eyes to the stage. I knew I was minutes away from seeing the woman who stole my life. I knew all those years that I tried my hardest to hold onto her, I was now ready to let her go. I was ready to let her get what she deserved. I was more ready than ever to get right in her face and tell the world what she had done, what she continues to do and how she is manipulating and lying about who she really is.

I brought my hand up to my mouth and gasped.

                Corbin!

                Now I really couldn’t focus on what Tamara was saying. I focused on Corbin as he took his seat on the side of the stage. He still looked the same; tall, dark, stocky, muscular and downright handsome. Even though now his hair was mostly gray peppered throughout, he was still the sexy Corbin Shepherd I had met almost a decade ago. The same Corbin Shepherd I had pledged my vows to and the same Corbin Shepherd who was the father of our daughter … Hailie.

                I could feel my love for him overflow inside me. Seven years had passed since I last laid eyes on him, since I last hugged him, kissed him and told him I loved him. Seven years. The man of my dreams, my husband, the father of my daughter … my everything. I tried to hold my breath to keep my tears from falling. I felt like I was being punched repeatedly in my stomach and could feel my heart shattering in a million pieces, that only he knew how to put back together.

                Memories flooded my mind as the tears welled up in my eyes. It was hard to see the stage and I knew if I blinked, I would somehow resemble Niagara Falls with everything I was holding inside. It’s true what they say: Don’t forget to tell someone exactly how you feel about them. You never know when that last time you see them will be. Life doesn’t wait for you. Sometimes you don’t get second chances. Sometimes you have to live with the regrets as a painful reminder of what you should have said and what you should have done. Well, I’m getting my second chance at my life. And there is nothing and no one that is going to stop me this time.

                The crowd clapped and brought me back in the moment. The lights lit up in the room as I dabbed the tears away with the palm of my hand and stared with piercing eyes at the woman gracefully walking across the stage to the podium. Everyone clapped around me. I was almost sure I was the only one in the room not clapping. I hoped no one noticed, but at the same time, I didn’t care.

                I watched Corbin and the expression on his face. He was full of pure joy and admiration of his beloved Alaina. I remember the way those eyes looked when they looked into mine. And the way it felt to have him by my side. I remember the way his arms held me like I would blow away in the next strong gust of wind and he may never see me again. I remember it all … Yes, I remember it all. And there she stood … smiling back at him. There she stood, wearing a sapphire-blue, floor-length gown that I know Corbin picked out for her for this very event. Her soft blonde hair was swept up into a curled updo that left a few strands around her face, showing off her delicate features. I wished at this very moment, I did not look like her, because she did look gorgeous. And that was something I never wanted to say about her.

                It felt like a part of me died inside when I saw the ring on her finger, sparkling as she waved her hand. My ring! My wedding ring from Corbin! I held my breath and blinked my eyes repeatedly trying to hold the tears in for just a little longer. I pleaded and pleaded with my heart not to break open in front of all these people. At the same time I wanted to blurt out everything. But the thoughts of being readmitted back into the hospital, steadied me in my chair.

                “Thank you,” she spoke with a smile into the microphone. “What an amazing turnout here this evening. I want to personally thank you all for coming out here tonight and showing your support. I also want to thank the Transfern Museum Art Gallery for holding such an amazing event.”

                The crowd cheered and clapped. I watched as she fumbled with her hands. It was something she had always done with she was nervous. Surely Corbin had to have picked up on that? I never fumbled with my hands like that when I was nervous. I glanced back towards Corbin. He was so mesmerized by his beloved Alaina that he probably didn’t even notice. And now that she’s been doing it for seven years, he’s probably used to it. But still, that was something I never did!

                “As you are all aware, I am a huge supporter of the Children of the World Hunger Prevention Charity. I have been involved with them for the past six years and I couldn’t feel more rewarded than to be able to give back to such an amazing charity. Corbin, my husband, and I have a seven year old daughter, Hailie. Our family is very involved in this charity. We are very proud to instill such good character in our daughter,” she smiled at Corbin.

                I bit my bottom lip and tightly clasped the champagne glass. I took a few deep breaths and tried to control my continuous rapid beating heart. How could she stand up there and be so deceiving?

                “Right after I gave birth to my … our … daughter, we … were looking for something that I could do as I stayed home with our beautiful baby girl. I had always loved to paint and at that time, I just knew I had to take out some of these old paintings and display them for the world to see. I am selling every painting that I currently have to support the Children of the World Hunger Prevention Charity.”

                My jaw dropped as I sat stiffer in my chair. Did I just hear her right? Selling my paintings? All my paintings? She really was finally trying to rid me from her life.

                “Kassie,” Jonah whispered. “I think you need to get some fresh air. You really don’t look so good …”

                “You know, you’re right,” I looked at him. “I thought I would be better once I sat down, but it’s really making me feel worse.” I looked into his eyes. I could feel myself slowly sinking but I wanted to stay. I wanted to get what was mine! What belonged to me! I wanted to make her pay for everything! “Let’s arrange a meeting with her in a little more private setting,” I whispered to him.

                 I glanced at Corbin. I wanted so much to run to him and feel his arms around me again. I wanted to feel his kiss, his touch; breathe in his scent that always drove me crazy and comforted me at the same time. I wanted to look into his eyes and see the sparkle when he laughed. I wanted to hear him whisper in my ear that he loved me and that everything was going to be okay. I wanted to lay in bed next to him, lay my head on his chest, listen to his heartbeat and fall asleep feeling safe. I wanted to see Hailie and hold her in my arms and never let her go.

                The more I sat there the more agitated I began to feel. I knew I had to get a handle on myself now. I bit my lower lip, “I’m ready.” I could feel my heart begin to beat rapidly as the air around me began to dissipate. I took a deep breath before standing up. Jonah stood up with me and escorted me out of the row. I handed my wine glass to him and glanced up at the podium where Kassie stood and made eye contact.

                I glanced at Corbin, whose eyes were now fixated on me. I could feel his electricity zap through my body as I watched as his jaw hit the floor and I knew, right then, where his mind was taking him – back to the very first night he laid eyes on me. And tonight, here I was, standing before him in a crowd, wearing the same red gown, my blonde hair falling straight around my shoulders and my lips the same shade of red as my gown, looking very much like I had almost ten years ago.

               I didn’t realize the silence that had overtaken the room as Jonah apologized quietly to those around us. He placed the champagne glasses on the nearest table and took hold of my arm. We casually made our way across the entire banquet room towards the exit doors. I turned around one last time once we reached the doors, glaring Kassie right in the eyes. She stood white as a ghost and speechless at the podium. I then made direct eye contact with Corbin, nodded and smiled. I watched as he slowly stood from his chair; his hand covering his mouth. Jonah and I left the room just as others were beginning to turn around in their seats, but not before I watched Corbin glance at Kassie then back at me and I knew I had his attention, all of his attention.


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