Three chapters from Love and Redemption

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I’m not going to give you much of an introduction…I’m just going to let you get your sneak peek!

Chapter Two

There weren’t many lights on at this house as I approached, but at least there were no snarling dogs.  The place seemed quaint and cozy, even in the dark—but, I supposed, with an impending storm, anywhere might have felt inviting.

When I got to the door, I looked for a doorbell but couldn’t see one, so I knocked. After a bit, there was no answer.  I couldn’t stop my teeth from chattering as I knocked again, this time more loudly, hoping to cut through any possible noise inside.

Wrapping my arms around my frame as tightly as I could, I waited.  Relief flooded my body as a light switched on above me, but I was shaking like a leaf.  When the inner door finally opened, the screen door acted as a barrier between me and the person on the other side.

An older man with thinning salt-and-pepper hair and warm brown eyes scrutinized me for a few seconds, long enough to realize he didn’t know me.  Although that meant he’d have no answers for me about who I was, he still might be able to offer shelter.  Before I could say anything, he asked, “Can I help you, miss?”

Through gritted teeth, I said, “I hope so.  I’m wet and cold—and lost.”  Just opening my mouth made my teeth begin chattering loudly again so I couldn’t even ask the question I wanted to.

An older woman with blonde hair appeared just behind the man, and I wasn’t sure if she’d heard anything.  Her eyes seemed to take me in.  “Are you in danger?”

“Honestly, I don’t know.”

Her green eyes narrowed, but I wasn’t sure why.  “What do you mean?”

“I can’t remember anything.  I woke up on the bank of the river,” I said, pointing in the general direction from where I’d come.  “And I was soaking wet.”

“What happened to your clothes?”

For some reason, I lied.  “I don’t know.”  But it was out of my mouth before I could stop it and I worried that if I corrected myself, I might lose any chance of getting their help.  My teeth started making noise again as I instinctively ran my hands up and down my upper arms trying to generate heat.

The woman opened the screen door and said, “Why don’t you come in for a minute?”

“Oh, thank you so much.”

“Alex, fetch a blanket from the hall closet, would you?”

The relief in his eyes was evident, and he seemed almost thrilled to have a task.  Meanwhile, the woman placed her hand on my elbow, guiding me inside.  I was hit immediately with the scent of apples and cinnamon, a candle, and something in my brain lit up, because it was something I actually knew.  Maybe that meant my memories were trying to come back.

Past the entryway, the woman led me into a cozy living room filled with charm, decorated in earthy tones with tiny splashes of pink.  The open layout of the house allowed me to see the dining and kitchen areas as well, and the aesthetic carried throughout.  As we sat on the sofa near the fireplace, the man named Alex brought a quilt, one that might have been handstitched decades ago, and the woman took it from him, draping it over my shoulders.

Already I was feeling better.  “Thank you.”

“Honey, would you mind building a fire, too?”

“Sure.”  The man began taking logs out of a box near the fireplace before crumpling up newspapers.  It was easy for me to tell he was avoiding looking at me, probably relieved that his partner was taking over dealing with me.

“Would you like some hot cocoa?” the woman asked me.

“I think I’d love some.”

She nodded and stood, walking into the kitchen.  After filling a kettle with water, she put it on the stove and then came back to sit next to me.  “So what happened?”

“Like I said, all I remember is climbing out of the river…and then running.”

“The river’s about two miles away.”

“I believe it.  I felt like I was never going to find shelter.”

“So where do you live?  Do you need to call someone to come get you?”

Love and Redemption, coming soon

Alex was lighting the newspaper in several spots in the fireplace, causing flames to begin flickering inside the enclosed space.  Without looking over at us, he said, “Big thunderstorm’s moving in.  If we’re gonna call somebody, we need to do it right now.”

“Who can we call for you?”

I tried at that moment—God, I tried—but there was absolutely nothing inside my brain making any connections.  “I…I don’t know.”  When the woman’s eyes scrutinized mine, I added, “I can’t remember anything.  It’s like a big blank void inside my head.”

The woman looked past me toward Alex but didn’t say anything.

Meanwhile, I kept probing and poking inside that abyss behind my eyes and felt frustrated that nothing had changed as far as what I could recall—and I thought that honesty might be the best policy.  “I can’t even remember my name or what happened that caused me to be in the river in the first place.”  Finally, the warmth from the fireplace was reaching me, even under the quilt.

“Well…my name’s Charise.  This is Alex.  We want to help you but—”  The kettle on the stove screamed, prying her attention.  “Just a second.  Alex, do you want some cocoa?”

“If you wouldn’t mind.”  Now that my nearly naked body was hiding underneath that big quilt, he seemed a little more at ease.  “Let’s see if we can figure this out.  So you woke up in the river like this and you ran until you got here to our house.  Is that right?”

“Yes.”

“Hmm.”  Shifting his eyes to Charise before returning to me, he said, “Maybe we should check with the authorities.  See if there’s a missing person’s report or something.”

Although I shrugged, I looked over at Charise.  She was stirring a spoon in a mug, and it clinked as she swirled it around, steam rising from it.  My nostrils were again assaulted, this time with the sweet smell of chocolate, and I realized something.

I hate chocolate.  Or at least I think I do.

But I’m not about to turn down the generosity and kindness of these people.  Still, I’m feeling hopeful that a random thought occurred to me even through the fog inside my head.

I thought to myself that it must mean something.  What, I didn’t know.

As Charise made her way back from the kitchen with two mugs of cocoa, I shook my head, because I had no idea what to do.  I was simply grateful that these folks had opened their door for me.  Charise handed me one mug, then Alex the other.  “You know those guys won’t be answering the phones for something that’s not an emergency until morning.”

“We could try.”

“I suppose we could.”

Alex took the hint and got up, walking into the kitchen and pulling a phone receiver off the wall.  I almost laughed at the landline but stopped myself—because did I maybe have a landline?  My head was killing me now, beginning to throb as if it were swollen with secrets clamped down yet wanting to flood out.  Bringing the mug to my lips so as not to appear rude, I took a slight sip.  If nothing else, maybe the heat would feel good inside.

To my surprise, though, I loved the taste.  Why had I thought I hated chocolate?  I took another sip to confirm and, oh, yes.  Smooth, sweet, and delicious.  “Thank you so much.  This is wonderful.”

“Sometimes nothing hits the spot like hot cocoa.”

Alex hung up the phone.  “Nothing.  Miss, would you mind if I spoke to my wife in private for just a moment?”

“Please do.”  That didn’t feel good, but I suspected they were trying to figure out what to do with me.  By this point, they were probably regretting opening the door when I knocked.  For now, I was going to accept whatever hospitality they offered, meaning the cocoa, which was warming me on the inside, and the blanket and fire, taking care of the outside.  When the couple disappeared through a door leading from the kitchen, I set the cocoa on a coaster on the coffee table and pulled the quilt more tightly around my body and stood, walking over to the fireplace.  I could hear their muted tones, but no one sounded angry or frustrated—and, when they returned, I hoped they couldn’t tell that I’d heard them at all.

When they came back into the living room, their expressions indicated that they wanted to appear friendly but had concerns underneath it all.  Charise gave me a tight smile while sitting on the sofa, patting the cushion next to her, and Alex sat in the recliner.  As I reluctantly moved away from the warmth of the fireplace, I hoped my expression didn’t seem too eager.

I was lost and alone—and their kindness thus far had been the one tiny beacon of hope in my life.

Charise asked, “Have you been able to remember anyone you can call?  Anyone who could pick you up?”

Shaking my head, I swallowed, maintaining eye contact.  “No.”

“Well, we have a guest bedroom.  If you’d like, you’re welcome to stay the night.  Maybe your memories will come back to you after a good night’s sleep.”  Charise patted my arm in a reassuring manner.  “I also have some clothes you can wear.  Then, in the morning, if you can’t remember anyone to call, we can take you to town and check with the police station.  Surely, they’ll have some kind of missing person’s report or something.”

“Okay.  Thank you.”

“Of course.  Now, I imagine you’re wanting to get out of those cold things and into something warm.  Would you like to take a bath, warm up your bones?”

“Would you mind?”

“Not at all.”  Charise stood.  “Why don’t you go curl up by the fire, and I’ll draw a bath for you?”

Alex also stood.  “And I’ll get the guest bedroom in order.”

“Thanks, honey.”  While Alex was making his way down the hall, Charise asked, “Are you hungry at all?”

My stomach felt a little queasy but the cocoa was settling okay.  That said, I didn’t want to chance food.  “No, thanks.”

“Just make yourself comfortable and I’ll let you know when the bath is ready.”

After she disappeared down the hall behind her husband, I took another sip of my cocoa, still pleasantly surprised that I was enjoying the sweetness on my tongue.  The crackling in the fireplace made me want to get near it again, so I stood, hugging the quilt tightly around my frame.  From there, I could hear the sound of water splashing into a bathtub.

And the couple talking.

I was certain they didn’t want to be heard, but I couldn’t help it—and when I realized they were definitely talking about me, I intentionally tried to understand their words.

Alex’s voice was quiet but still easy to make out.  “What do you think happened to her?”

I couldn’t make out the first part of what Charise said, but the last part came through loud and clear.  “Maybe she got lost and couldn’t find the way back to her campsite?”

“That’s possible.  I could go to the campground and see if there’s—”

“Absolutely not.  That storm will be starting soon, and I don’t want you stuck out there.  Let’s just wait till morning.”

“Fine.”  Until Alex moved away from the bathroom door, I hadn’t really noticed that I was looking that way.  Not wanting him to know I’d been eavesdropping, I looked down, nuzzling my head into the sides of the blanket, resting my chin against my chest.  Alex’s voice was easier to understand now, as he was farther away from the bathroom door.  Maybe he wasn’t worried that I could hear him.  “But I’m going to leave the outside lights on, just in case someone’s looking.”

“Good idea.”

The voices stopped then, and all I could hear was the pop and crackle of the fire, along with the muted sounds of water being drawn.  My memories might not have been accessible, but I knew a warm bath would feel good, possibly even better than the warmth of the fire.  Turning around, I allowed the heat to sink into the other side of my body while I waited.

After a few minutes, the sound of the tub filling stopped, and Charise showed up a few seconds later.  “It’s all ready for you.”

“Thank you again so much.  I really appreciate it.”

As we approached the bathroom door, she said, “Don’t mention it.  I’d like to believe you’d do the same thing for me.”

Nodding, I smiled, hoping that was true, but not knowing for certain.

“You stay in as long as you need.”

“Thank you.”

The bathroom matched the décor of the rest of the house, but it had a bit more of a rustic feel—raw wood beams framed the ceiling, and the recessed lighting offered a warm glow that made the room homey.

Away from the fire, I started feeling cold once again, especially when I removed the quilt.  Sitting on the toilet seat, I propped one of my feet up on my other leg to make it easier to remove a shoe.  As I untied the laces on the sneaker, the sounds of thunder rumbled in the distance, once again making me grateful I was under a roof.

Finally, I removed both soggy tennis shoes, and then I peeled off the socks that seemed to be stuck on my feet.  The skin was wrinkled like a prune and so cold.  Finally, I took off the panties and bra, piling all my things in a corner, and then dipped one toe in the water.

Ah.  Soon, my foot followed, along with another, until I placed my hands on the sides of the tub and eased my entire body in.  Immediately, the warmth soaked into my bones as I rested my head against the back of the tub.  As I tried to relax, I looked back over my life as I knew it—which was hardly anything.  I just started feeling more frustrated that my brain had locked up, refusing to let go of any of my memories.

But maybe Charise was right.  Maybe I would wake up tomorrow with my brain once again brimming with memories from my life.  For now, I needed to relax, and I hoped that maybe even doing that would help.

As I rested in the warm water, I could hear the wind picking up, growing louder by the minute, while the thunder rumbling in the distance got closer.

Holy crap.  I was lucky.  What would have happened to me if I hadn’t made it here?

Without saying it out loud, I knew—I probably would have died.

When the thunder crackled again, I realized relaxation was out of the question.  Sitting up in the tub, I picked up the bar of white soap resting in the tray and began rotating it in my hands to create a lather—and that, in essence, woke me up.  Ouch.  Turning my left hand exposed a nasty gash in the palm and, even though it hurt, I rubbed my finger along it.

And my brain tried.  Oh, it tried so hard—but there was nothing.

Somehow, I knew this was a clue, but there wasn’t much I could do about it, other than clean the wound so it wouldn’t get infected.  While I did that, I began visually inspecting the rest of my body, only to find that I had bruises and scrapes all over.

What the hell had happened to me?

My frozen bones finally warmed, I forced myself out of the tub, grabbing one of the towels that Charise had laid on the counter.  Then I started dabbing my skin, drying off a section at a time.  After that, I picked up the other towel and wrapped it around my head.  There was a long fluffy blue robe that had been underneath the towels, so I wrapped myself up in it.

Already, I was feeling so much better.

A loud thunderclap cracked overhead, so loud that the rumble could be felt in the floorboards, reminding me again of just how lucky I was.

When I started to leave the bathroom, I caught sight of myself in the mirror and realized that, until this moment, I’d been avoiding my reflection.  Now, I stared at the image looking back at me.  This was not a foreign face.  I knew the person I was looking at.  The small lines forming at the corners of my mouth and eyes, the heart-shaped lips, round cheeks, and firm jaw, thin brown eyebrows that slightly arched over my steely indigo eyes.  All of these features were familiar to me.

So why couldn’t I remember my damned name?

Feeling angry and frustrated wasn’t helping me, so I tried to let it go.  Besides, now I was starting to feel overwhelmingly tired.

I needed rest.

Leaving the bathroom, I walked toward the living room.  Charise said, “We’re in here.”  The couple sat at the kitchen table, so I headed there.  She asked, “Feeling better?”

“Yes, so much.  Thank you.”

“I thought you might be hungry so I made you a sandwich.  Do you like turkey okay?”

I pondered my brain like I had been over the past hour.  “I don’t know.”  Was I even hungry?  At least the queasiness had passed.  That was a plus.

“Well, why don’t you try it?”  When I nodded, I picked up the square, relieved that I knew what I was looking at:  wheat bread, turkey sandwich meat, a slice of white cheese, maybe Swiss.  I took a bite, immediately shocked at how much stomach growled and constricted.

I was hungry.

“I’ll get you some chips and a glass of water to go with that.”

“Thank you.”  Suddenly, I felt ravenous, and I was chewing and swallowing faster than was probably polite, but the food was hitting the spot.

Overhead, the thunder cracked again, making me almost jump in my seat.  The lights in the house dimmed a little but stayed on.

In seconds, the sandwich was already half-gone.

“Feeling a little warmed up now?”

“Much better, thanks.”

“Can I get you anything else?”

“No, thank you.  As it is, I think I ate too quickly.”

Alex patted his belly, a grin on his face.  “You think that’s good?  Wait till breakfast.  Charise makes some mean eggs and pancakes.”  How Charise rolled her eyes at her husband’s compliment was cute—but I was focused on the small plate in front of me.

“Don’t discount yourself, honey.  I can’t make quiche like yours.”

Grinning, Alex picked up his mug, drinking the rest of his cocoa, and we all sat in silence as I demolished the rest of the sandwich.  Meanwhile, the thunder continued to rumble all around us.  When I finished the sandwich and started eating the chips, Charise asked, “Would you like another?”

My gut lurched then, as if threatening to toss out everything I’d swallowed, and I let go of the chip in my hand.  “No, thanks.  In fact, I think I’m done now.”

She gave me a quick nod.  “Are you ready for bed?”

“I think so.  It’s kind of hit me how tired I feel.”

“And no wonder.”  Charise stood, waiting for me to join her.  “Let me show you to the guest bedroom.”  As we started walking out of the kitchen, Alex picked up my plate and began clearing the table.  While his wife and I walked through the living room, she asked, “Have you managed to remember anything yet?”

“No.”  And I wasn’t ready to tell her about the cut on my hand, although I was sure they’d already noticed all the bruises and scratches on my body before I was wrapped in the quilt earlier.

“Well, let’s get you taken care of.  Your brain will hopefully take care of itself soon enough.”

Just past the bathroom, Charise opened a door, then flipped on the light switch before motioning for me to enter.  I walked inside, immediately falling in love with the room.  Like the rest of the house, this bedroom had a country feel, with beautiful wood panel walls, a deep warm beige carpet, and a four-poster double bed piled high with pillows.  Lacy curtains adorned the window and two big paintings of farms hung on both sides.  Nestled against one wall was a wooden desk and chair beside a large wooden dresser with a mirror.  On both sides of the bed were matching nightstands holding lamps with frilly blue floral shades.  I felt sleepy just looking at the big inviting bed taking up most of the space.

“Thank you again.  I don’t know what to say.”

“You’re very welcome.  I believe that what goes around comes around.  You never know when I might need a stranger’s help.”

I smiled back as I moved toward the bed.  Then Charise opened one of the top dresser drawers.  “There are some pajamas in here you’re welcome to use.  You look to be close to my size, and these are my extras.  Choose whatever you like.”  Then she walked back to the door.  “Our bedroom is right down the hall.  Just knock if you need anything.”  When I nodded, she added, “Otherwise, we’ll see you in the morning.  Good night.”

“Good night.”

Suddenly, the day’s events—the ones I remembered—felt heavy on my shoulders and eyelids, and a wave of sleepiness overwhelmed me.  Before looking through the drawer, though, I walked over to the now-closed door that I hoped had a lock.  While I trusted this couple, I had no idea where I’d come from or what had happened, so I needed to look out for my own safety.

And that started now.

After turning the lock on the door and testing the knob to be sure, I walked back to the dresser and peeked at the nightclothes.  Really, it didn’t matter what I put on.  I just needed something to cover my body.  On the very top, there was a two-piece set in a blue floral print that almost matched the lampshades and curtains.  As I donned the flannel fabric, something close to a memory—a warm feeling—almost hugged me.

Something from my past, but my brain wasn’t going to let me take full hold of it.

After draping the robe over the chair, I flipped on a lamp and then walked across the room to switch the light off.  Once more, a feeling of cold permeated my bones but, more than that, a heavy sleepiness that could no longer be denied.  As I pulled back the covers on the bed and crawled in, I got ready to switch off the lamp, but not before my eyes focused on the black book on the nightstand.  Holy Bible.

There was something about it that was so familiar—and yet it wasn’t.  Sitting up a little, I picked it up and leafed through it, glancing at the words at the top of the pages.  They weren’t foreign to me and I even felt like I recognized this book.

So why couldn’t I remember my own name?

As the need to sleep wrapped me up tightly, my last thoughts were that maybe tomorrow I would remember something.  For now, though, as I drifted into a dark, unnatural slumber, my rest disturbed only by the loud crashes of thunder overhead, I felt some tiny sliver of comfort, even not knowing what tomorrow would bring.

For now, I was alive.

Chapter Three

The sound of rain pelting the pane behind the bed awakened me.  Nothing I saw was familiar, and I felt so disoriented, I was in danger of hyperventilating.  What should I have seen upon awakening?  I couldn’t answer that except to know that it wasn’t what I was seeing right now.

But then I remembered the night before.  All of it, from leaving the river to arriving at this house.

Before that, though?

Nothing.  Not one damn thing.

Actually, there was something.  Throughout the night, I’d had strange dreams that left behind fuzzy memories.  As I tried to latch on to those, all I could conjure up now were blurred angry faces.

And a feeling of betrayal.

That was it.

Tired of being by myself, I grabbed the blue robe off the chair at the desk and slipped it on.  And then I noticed some house slippers on the floor in front of the closet and slid them on my feet.  One thing I knew for certain:  This couple, Alex and Charise, I’d never met them before.  Deep down, though, I knew they were good people.  I could feel it in my bones.

When I opened the bedroom door, I could hear voices coming from the kitchen, so I headed that way.  As I walked through the living room, I enjoyed the heat emanating from the fireplace, warming my legs on my way to the kitchen and loving the smell of frying sausage filling the house.

Charise stood at the stove and Alex sat at the table, sipping a mug of coffee while working on some kind of word puzzle.  He spotted me first and said, “Good morning.”

“Morning.”

Charise turned from the stove, a spatula in hand.  “How did you sleep last night?”

“Great.”

“Did anything come to you?  Were you able to remember anything?”

“Nothing.”  There was no sense telling them about the weird emotions I’d felt upon wakening, because they might not mean anything.  And, of course, the longer I was awake, the more those sensations faded.  “I’m not sure what to do about that.  But what bothers me most is not remembering my own name.”

“I can’t even imagine.  It’s hard enough for us not knowing what to call you, but I can’t even imagine what it must be like for you.”  As I got closer to the counter, she asked, “Would you like some coffee?”

“Yes, please.”  But would I really like it?  Only one way to find out.

Charise got a mug out of the cabinet and then poured some of the steamy black liquid in it, sliding it to me.  “Would you like some cream or sugar?”

I paused for just a moment as something prodded my brain.  “Both please.  I think I like cream and sugar in my coffee.”

“Fantastic.  That’s a start!”

“It is.”

Alex said, “Right here, miss.  Cream, sugar, and even fake sweetener if you like it.”

I honestly didn’t know what I liked, but cream and sugar sounded familiar—so I picked up the mug Charise offered me and sat at the table where I could begin experimenting to discover how I enjoyed my coffee.

“I’m making waffles, sausage, and eggs for breakfast.  I hope that’s okay.”

“It sure smells good.”

“We’ll have some orange slices with it, too.  A little fiber,” Alex said.

I nodded.  Everything sounded familiar but I couldn’t have defined it if I’d tried.  “Is one spoonful enough?”

“Depends on how sweet you like it.”

Charise said, “Start with one spoonful and stir it in.  Then sip it.  If it’s not sweet enough, add more.”

On that note, it was time to add cream.

“Charise makes good coffee, but her breakfasts are the best.”

It turned out Alex and Charise were right.  First, the coffee.  After adding a couple of spoonfuls of sugar and enough cream to make the color of the liquid a warm beige, I allowed myself to enjoy the pleasure of the way it tasted when it hit my tongue.  But then the food—the way the savory sausage and eggs complemented the sweet sensations of the waffles and oranges, I wished I could have eaten more, but I filled up fairly quickly.

I wasn’t sure if I’d liked these foods before, but I did now.  Maybe that was a start.

As I took one last bite of the irresistible waffle drizzled in maple syrup, Charise said, “Dear?”

At first, I thought she was talking to Alex.  When I realized she was addressing me, I responded.  “Hmm?”

“How does this sound?  When you’re done here, go ahead and get dressed.  I’ll bring you a toothbrush and a change of clothes.  I’ve already cleaned the clothing you brought with you, and your shoes are in front of the fireplace drying as we speak.  When you’re all ready to go, we’ll drive you to town and, I hope, we’ll be able to get some answers for you.”

“Thanks.”  Maybe going to town—wherever town was—would jog my memory.  I hoped seeing places I already knew would help my brain wake up.

“Rain’s still coming down pretty hard,” Alex said.

“Guess we’ll have to start work on the garden tomorrow.”

Nodding, Alex stood up from the table, carrying his plate and utensils over to the sink where he rinsed them off.  Soon, I followed suit and then went through the motions of getting ready, something I was sure I’d done many times before.  Charise had given me my clean underwear and socks, along with a pink sweat suit that was a little loose on me but fit okay.  When I was ready, I came back to the kitchen where both Alex and Charise were enjoying another cup of coffee.

Charise scrutinized me.  “Maybe we need to get you a jacket, too.”  And she was up again, crossing the house quickly.

Alex stood as well, crossing to the sink where he peered out the window.  There was a little condensation on the corner panes, but it was easy enough to see out of the middle of the glass—and the rain was coming down hard.  When Charise rejoined us with a lightweight coat in hand, I thanked her again.

Turning from the window, Alex said, “It’s pretty crappy out, honey.  I’ll go ahead and take her myself.”

Charise’s face softened as she beamed at Alex—but then she turned to me.  “Will you be all right if I stay here?”

I had to say goodbye to both of them sometime anyway.  “Yes.  Thanks again for everything you’ve done.”

Charise took me into an embrace, and I immediately felt uncomfortable, even though I knew this was merely a warm, friendly gesture.  Rather than push back, though, I tried to return the hug while wishing she’d let go.  When she did, she said, “I just hope you find answers quickly.  I imagine you’re wanting to remember who you are.”

I nodded, forcing a smile, but I wasn’t sure what else to say except to thank her again.  As the three of us made our way through the house, I put on the coat.  Charise opened the closet by the front door, handing Alex his coat before digging inside for something else.  After a few seconds, she produced a navy-blue umbrella and held it out.  “You’ll need this, too.”

“I suppose we will.”  Alex took it before kissing Charise on the cheek.  “I’ll be back soon, but give me some time.  The rain’s coming down hard.”

“You want to take the cell phone?”

Flashing a frown, he asked, “And what good would that do?”

“You could let me know when you make it to town.”

“I suppose that’s fair.”

Charise darted off down the hall while Alex avoided looking at me.  Cell phone?  I knew what that was, but I didn’t quite understand their exchange—until Alex clarified.  Maybe he’d seen it on my face.  “No cell towers up here.  Can’t get a signal till you get closer to town.”

When Charise returned, she was holding a thin black phone in her hand.  “But you can get a signal there, which is why we have this little pay-as-you-go thing.  I can’t tell you how many times it’s saved us.”

“I don’t know about that.”

Charise laughed.  “Okay, maybe it saved me.  If Alex is in town and I realize I forgot to ask him to pick up some eggs, I have a chance of catching him on the phone before he heads home.”

When he opened the front door, I said, “I’m grateful for your help.  Thank you.”

“It was our pleasure.”

After we stepped onto the porch and Alex opened the umbrella, I took in the surrounding area.  It was difficult to see much because it was foggy and rainy, but I loved how green the trees appeared now compared to last night when they had only looked like hulking shadows.  As Alex began walking down the steps, he held the umbrella up, waiting for me to join him.  “Truck’s on the side of the house.”

As we followed the flagstone path, I marveled at how differently I was taking in the world today.  Like last night, I could feel the cold, but today I was protected from it.  I was still in an unfamiliar place surrounded by sights I couldn’t identify, but now I had hope.

When we got to the red truck, Alex held the umbrella over my head while I climbed in the passenger side.  “We’re hoping to add on to the garage this summer so we can park all our vehicles in there.”  I nodded while he closed the door behind me and walked over to the driver’s side.  Before he shut his door, he folded up the umbrella and tucked the dripping thing on the floor between us.  “I’ve never seen rain like this up here.”

“What’s it usually like?” I asked while he put the keys in the ignition and started it up.  The engine roared in response, a sound that seemed so out of place in this seemingly idyllic forest setting.

“I don’t know.  This could be typical spring weather.  We just moved here last summer, so your guess is as good as mine.”  After backing up the truck a bit, he drove in a loop around the garage before beginning to head down the gravel driveway.  “I’d guess this isn’t unusual, though.  How else would everything seem so green and lush?”

I didn’t want to argue, but I couldn’t see much through the gray fog and ceaseless rain.  The evergreen trees?  Absolutely—but there was nothing else in sight.

“What was left of the snow just melted last week, so I’ll gladly take the rain.”  The windshield wipers were moving at maximum speed and still had a hard time keeping the water off, but Alex drove slowly enough that I felt safe—and I also felt grateful that he was talking enough for the two of us.  “Don’t get me wrong.  I like snow.  That’s why Charise and I retired up here—but it does a person good to see the renewal of life that comes with spring.”

All of what he said sounded so true, so familiar, like something I might agree with—but I didn’t have any frame of reference.  Like a baby, I had a blank slate.  Even after hours in this state, it felt disconcerting.

“This thing’s four-wheel drive, but I’m not sure how much good that’ll do us now.  I’m just going to take my time.  Getting to town usually takes about a half an hour, but I suspect it’ll take us longer than that today.  It’s all dirt road until we get to the turnoff.  Just sit tight.”

When he turned onto the main road off their drive, I noticed the big mailbox that said The Burgers, and I rolled that around my head.  Alex and Charise Burger, my saviors.  After he started driving down the dirt road, there were spots where the truck seemed to struggle—but that could have been my imagination.  Still, it caused me to feel anxious.  There was nothing I could do but be a passive passenger—and I hated that helpless feeling.  But I noticed something that I thought might help take my mind off it.  “Could we maybe listen to the radio?”

“You can try—but we usually can’t get any reception until we get to the main highway.  Feel free to try, though.”

I needed some sort of distraction, and I didn’t want to make Alex nervous with chatter, so I wanted to give it a shot.  After turning on the power, I pressed the button that would make the radio try to find any stations out there.  The FM band didn’t produce any results, so I switched to AM and tried again.  It finally paused on a number but all we could hear was static, so I turned it back off.  “Oh, well.”

“It’s always worth a try.  Cell phones aren’t worth much up here, either, as you know, but even television’s next to impossible unless you have satellite.”

I knew in theory what he was talking about, but I was already under the impression that I wasn’t much of a TV watcher.

“Of course, Charise and I moved up here to get away from that.  We have a DVD player and some of our favorite movies when we want a movie night—but it’s quiet.  We like it that way.  Last summer, we’d sit in the back and just listen to nature.  That’s my kind of entertainment.”

I wondered if, before today, I would have agreed.  I got the feeling that here I was completely out of my element—but I had no way of knowing for sure.  As I took in the mountainside passing by, I had to admit that it was absolutely breathtaking, even under the gray shroud.  The forest covering the rising peaks was full of evergreen trees, and whether covered in snow or bathed in sunlight, I imagined it was a beautiful sight to wake up to every morning.

After all, it couldn’t rain all the time.

When the truck slipped again, Alex corrected it and slowed down even more—and I tried to simply focus on the landscape.  There were little gullies at various points in between rises in the hills, and I imagined they’d been dry before last night.  Today, they were rushing with muddy water, pooling in smaller gullies beside the road and rushing faster once there.  That flowing water was moving in the direction we were, finding its way to lower ground.

The truck moved painstakingly as the minutes ticked by, and Alex turned on the heater and defroster, allowing the windshield to at least stay clear.  I was grateful for the semi-warm air on my feet.  After we’d gone a mile or so, though, he brought the truck to a stop.  “That doesn’t look good.”

The way he said it made me shift my focus from the hillside to front and center.  In between the swipes of the windshield wipers, it didn’t take me long to know what he’d been referring to.  All of the water that had been rushing over the road up to this point had been easy enough to pass through.  The one ahead, though, posed a concern, and it was easy enough to understand why Alex had his doubts.  The water flowing over the path ahead was rushing quickly, and it looked like the road could wash out soon.

“If you like, I can give it a try—but if it’s that bad here, the river will be high.”

And, unspoken, he might have also been worried if he’d be able to make it home after leaving me wherever he planned to—and even that uncertainty made me wary.  Alex and Charise and their home were all I knew up to this point, and that out there was unknown.  Still, I felt like I’d already put them out and didn’t want to wear out their hospitality.  “It’s up to you.”

What concerned me most was how the rain showed no signs of stopping.

Flashing me a grin, he said, “Aw, what the heck.  You need to be with your family.”  This time, he revved the engine and the truck started moving again, but he was pushing the accelerator more, forcing the truck through the rushing water.  Four-wheel drive or not, the truck didn’t like passing through the washed-out area.  There was no mistaking how the water was dragging on the vehicle, trying to pull it to the other side of the road, or how the wheels were spinning in places—but we got past it.  When Alex said, “We made it.  No worries,” I could see past his nervous smile.  He was worried—and so was I.

“You said the river’s two miles away?”

“As the crow flies.  On the road, though, it’s farther.  We’ll be there shortly.  We’ll cross it when the valley starts to widen and sorta flatten out.”

At this point, my eyes were locked on the road.  We continued coming to various rough spots, but Alex’s truck managed the washed-out areas okay.  The problem I could foresee was with his return trip, because the torrential rain didn’t show signs of stopping or even slowing.

After another five tense minutes, I thought I could make out the vague shape of a bridge in the distance.  As we drew nearer, Alex slowed the truck and I understood why when we got closer.  Another truck was heading our direction, but the bridge could fit only one vehicle at a time.  Even though the other truck had its lights on, I could hardly make it out through the downpour.

Good thing I wasn’t driving.

Once over the bridge, the vehicle stopped next to Alex’s truck, and the driver rolled his window down.  Alex responded in kind, even though it caused the rain to splatter inside.

A young man who appeared to be in his late twenties or early thirties smiled as though he didn’t have a care in the world.  “Hey, Mr. B.  I’d advise against going any further.  Road’s washed out bad, where we keep telling the county to build a culvert.  Maybe this’ll make ‘em listen.”

“That bad?”

“Yeah.  I didn’t even want to try it.”

“Where is it?”

“About a half mile from here.”  The man wiped his brow, whether of perspiration or rain, I couldn’t tell, and he looked forward at the road for a moment before facing Alex again.  “In all my years, I’ve never seen it this bad.  I think we need to hunker down for a while.”

“What were you going to town for?”

The other man grinned sheepishly, causing the cutest dimple to form in his left cheek.  “I hate this weather.  It’s worse than snow, ‘cause there’s nothing much to do.  I thought I might catch a movie or something in town.”  Shifting his eyes from Alex, he said, “Guess that’s out of the question.”

“Not worth risking your life for.”  Alex turned to me and asked, “Do you mind sticking it out with us until the weather clears?”

After that speech?  “No.”

Then he turned back to the other truck.  “Thanks for the info, Bryan.  Stay safe.”

“Yep.  You, too.”

“Say, why don’t you stop by our place for a bit?  I’m sure Charise still has coffee on, and we can catch up.  Not as good as a movie—”

“It’s even better.  Thanks for the invite.  I’ll see you there.”

Bryan.  I rolled his name around my brain, so afraid of forgetting all the new things I was learning.  His truck headed back the way we’d come while Alex rolled up his window.  “I’m sure sorry about this.”

“It’s not your fault.”

At first, I was confused, because he moved forward, driving over the bridge anyway.  Maybe I’d misunderstood his intent.  As we moved drove over the bridge, my nervousness increased, because now I could see the full force of the storm in the water underneath us.  The river seemed alive, angry.  It was full of white cresting peaks but brown and muddy underneath, roiling and agitated.  I shivered as it hit me.  This was the river I’d been in last night?  Where had I been when I’d fallen in?  All I knew was I was fortunate I’d been in it yesterday.  There’d be no surviving that river today, even if I turned out to be an excellent swimmer.  I would be no match for nature.

After clearing the bridge, Alex turned the truck around.  Then, slowly but surely, we passed over the bridge again, this time heading back to his house.  He said, “I’m really sorry about this.”

“Please don’t be.  I don’t know what else you could do.”

“Better to be safe and alive.  We’ll try again tomorrow.”

I had to agree with that.  Whatever I was missing from my previous life could wait another day.  Right now, I felt no connection to my past, none, and I only hoped I hadn’t left a family or friends behind who were worried about me.  Was I a missing person?

One thing was certain:  I wouldn’t find out today.  That was a mystery to be solved on another day.

Chapter Four

The trip back from the bridge took longer than driving there in the first place, because the washed-out areas on the road were getting worse.  Fortunately, Alex’s skill with his truck got us back to his house safely—and I was glad to be back.  Bryan’s black truck was parked in front of the house, telling us he’d also made it without a hitch.  It wasn’t until Alex and I got to the porch that my muscles began to relax before starting to shake.  Once again, I felt chilled to the bone, and all I wanted to do was stand in front of the fireplace.

Charise greeted Alex and me at the door.  “Thank God you’re back.”  After nearly dragging us inside, she hugged Alex and then me, once more making me feel a little uncomfortable—but I could sense her genuine warmth and caring and tried to hug her back.  “Bryan said the road’s getting bad.”

Nodding, Alex removed his coat.  “He’s not kidding.  It’s getting washed out in places.  Did he tell you how high the river is?”

“He mentioned it.  Come have some more coffee, both of you.  I invited Bryan to stick around and play some games today.  It’s not often we have visitors over to play cards with us.”  As I took off the coat I’d been wearing, Charise took it from me and hung it on a hook beside the door.

I made a beeline for the fireplace and stood in front, warming myself.  When I spied Bryan sitting on the sofa, I nodded and smiled, and he stood, extending his hand to me.  “Bryan Jennings.  Nice to meet you.”

I understood the gesture and shook his hand.  “Nice to meet you, too…”  My voice trailed off but something occurred to me.  I’d almost had it.  There it was, tickling my brain, teasing me.  But as soon as it had tried to appear, it was gone, leaving me feeling almost awkward.  “I—I don’t know my name.”

“Charise was telling me that.  You really can’t remember anything?”

His question didn’t feel nosy or snoopy or even disbelieving; instead, it felt curious and inquisitive, and the way he asked it made his warm brown eyes sparkle.  Without consciously thinking about it, I took him in from head to toe, from his dark brown hair and his easy smile to his height, super tall, and his lean yet solid physique.  More than that, though, he was infused with a country-boy charm that made me want to blush and flirt.

What was this?  Was I actually attracted to this man?  Sure, he was worth every ogle I could give him, but what if I had a boyfriend or husband to return to?  But it couldn’t be helped.  Something inside me, something feminine and sexual, was responding to his masculinity in the most unexpected of ways.

“No.  Nothing.”

“Sorry to hear it.  I’m not sure how I’d handle that.”

“Thanks.”  I folded my arms partly to warm myself but also maybe in a gesture to partially hide.  After forcing another smile, I said, “I still feel pretty chilled,” and then I turned to face the fire.

Bryan joined me.  “Nothing like a fire to warm your bones.”

“Yep.”  Where were Alex and Charise?  I’d seen them in the kitchen, but they were clearly doing their own thing, leaving Bryan and me to converse on our own  Although I didn’t want to be alone with him, I wasn’t afraid of this man.  He didn’t feel threatening in the least, but my reaction to him was a bit disconcerting—almost like he was a lone gazelle on the plains and I was a hungry lion who hadn’t eaten in a week.

Fortunately, he couldn’t hear my inner conflict and kept the conversation going.  “Can you remember anything?”

“No.  It’s so strange.  I can remember simple things, like walking, talking, how to eat and drink.  But I can’t remember who I am, what I like or don’t like, where I’m from…nothing.  It’s weird.”

“I’ll bet.”

“And then something even stranger.  When Charise made hot cocoa last night, something inside me told me I hate chocolate—but I tasted it anyway and loved it.”

“Hmm.”

“So I wonder if I really didn’t like chocolate in the past or believed it—or if my brain is continuing to play tricks on me.”  After all, if it refused to let me access my memories, how else could it be fucking with me?  My eyes almost widened at my internal use of a curse word, but it was enough to tell me maybe I was no stranger to cussing.

Because we were facing the fire, we didn’t see Charise approach, but her voice behind us was loud and clear.  “Ready for some coffee and cinnamon rolls?”

Ah, so that was the subtle sweet smell I’d noticed:  cinnamon.  Something in my brain told me I liked it, but I wasn’t trusting those signals anymore.  I was going to reserve judgment until I tasted it in the here and now.  Bryan, like a gentleman, presented an open palm, encouraging me to go first, and we followed Charise into the kitchen.  Thanks to the heat radiating off the oven, it felt almost as toasty as where I’d been standing next to the fire.

Alex was busy pouring coffee into cups in front of us at the table while Charise brought a huge platter of warm cinnamon rolls and set them in the middle of all of us.  Up close, the smell was intense, causing my mouth to water.  Charise used a spatula to scoop up one of the gooey rolls and slid it onto a plate before offering it to me along with a fork.  I gladly took it but set it in front of me while waiting for her to serve everyone else.  It wasn’t until she was seated that I poked mine with the fork, finally cutting a bite-sized piece off the edge.

It was an explosion of sweet spicy goodness in my mouth, and I closed my eyes to savor the flavors.

“Mmm-mmm,” Bryan said, and I opened my eyes to glance at him.  “Mrs. B., I do believe you make the best cinnamon rolls on the planet.”

“Don’t let your mother hear that.  And for heaven’s sake, Bryan, please call me Charise.”

When he grinned, his dimples became more pronounced, and I wondered the opposite of what I’d been thinking before.  Did this man have a girlfriend or wife?  “Sorry, Charise.  Old habits die hard.”

“Speaking of your mother, were you able to get hold of her?”

“Nope.  Your phone’s dead.”

“Dead?”

“Yep—but that’s not unusual.  Ours usually goes out once or twice during winter storms.  Once everything’s dried out, the phone company’ll make things right.”

Alex asked, “Do you suppose the lightning last night had anything to do with it?”

“I don’t doubt it.  It wouldn’t be the first time.”  Setting down his fork, Bryan picked up his coffee mug.  “But don’t you worry about my mama.  She expected me to stay in a hotel in Winchester tonight, on account of the weather.”

“How does this storm compare to others in the past?”

“I tell you what, this is right up there with the worst of them.  I remember one time when I was in high school, it got pretty bad—so much rain, it flooded the fields but we wound up having one of the best growing seasons ever because of it.  But I’ve never seen the river like that.  We’ve had plenty of storms that wash out parts of the road, but this is something special.”

Charise looked almost like she was trying not to shiver.  “Well, I’m glad we don’t have to go out into this.”  Then she got a guilty look on her face, maybe because she was thinking of Bryan having to leave later.

Alex said to me, “We’ll get you back home as soon as we can.”

Home?  We didn’t even know where my home was, but I knew he was trying to be comforting.  “I know.  Thanks.”  I simply focused on being grateful that these people had taken me in.  As for what or where my home was…I supposed I’d find that out soon enough.

When Charise reached over and patted my wrist, I smiled at her before looking down at her hand.  She had a ring on her left ring finger, one that I knew signaled marriage.  I had no such jewelry.  In fact, the only jewelry I had on was a thin silver ring, but it was on my right hand.  Trying not to be obvious, I snuck a glance at Bryan as he brought his coffee mug up to his lips, and I noted that he also had no ring.  While it didn’t discount that either of us could be in relationships, it did mean that we weren’t wearing symbols of permanent bonds.

Suddenly, I realized all three of them might have been looking at me, and so I shifted my eyes to my cinnamon roll and sliced off another bite.  Alex said, “I guess that’s one thing to be grateful for.  Where our house is situated, we don’t have to worry about flooding.”

“We’re okay so far, too,” Bryan said.  “The creek and the fields are a little lower than the house.  You might not be able to tell that just driving by, but you walk from the house to the field several times a day and you figure it out.”

They talked more about the weather and the farms in the valley for a bit, and I focused solely on my cinnamon roll.  It was delicately sweet, the kind of treat I suspected I didn’t indulge in very often—but until I knew for certain, I was going to enjoy myself.

My thoughts were broken by Charise’s hand on my arm.  “Did you want another?”

My mouth certainly did, but my stomach told me to stop.  “Maybe later.  Thanks so much.  That was delicious.”

“I have to say, it’s hard not having a name to call you.”

I hadn’t thought of that, but I knew that had to be true.  “I’m sorry.”

Her smile warm, she added, “No, don’t be.  But, until you remember your name, would you mind if we gave you a nickname?”

“I’ve just been calling her miss.”

Charise all but ignored her husband when she asked, “Would a nickname bother you?”

I didn’t think so.  Of course, it depended upon the name itself, but it was hard for me, as well.  Without a name, I felt almost unanchored.  “Not at all.  I think…I think I’d like that.  But I really don’t know what you should call me.”

Charise screwed up her mouth and furrowed her brow, trying to figure out how to tackle this new task she’d given herself.  Alex said, “I’ve always liked the name Ruth.  You know, from the Bible?”

Nothing against the woman in the Bible, but that name didn’t feel right.

Bryan spoke up.  “How about Violet?  You know, for your eyes.  They’re almost a violet color.”

Charise said, “I’d say they’re more a blue-gray—but I guess that doesn’t lend itself to a name, does it?”  Placing her hand on my arm again, she said, “What do you think, honey?”

I tried it on in my head.  I definitely liked that better than Ruth, but I didn’t think either were my real name.  But I couldn’t help but realize that Bryan had noticed my eyes enough to give it some thought.  And that was good enough for me.  “I think I like that.  Violet.”  Saying it again, I knew for certain it wasn’t my real name, but I liked it for now.  “Yes, Violet it is.  Until, by some miracle, I remember my real name.  Thanks, Bryan.”  Suddenly, it felt like a weight being lifted off my shoulders, like having a way to be addressed was something of a relief.

“No problem, Violet.”  Holy crap.  The way he said my new name made me feel warm from head to toe—and I hoped I wasn’t blushing.  But I smiled and then picked up my coffee mug, loving how his eyes weren’t letting me go any more than I could look away.

Charise stood.  “Be right back.”

Alex asked, “How long do you suppose this will last?”

Bryan shook his head as he picked up his mug.  “No idea.  Like I said, I’ve never seen anything like it.  And they predicted rain, but I don’t think they predicted this much.”

“The weathermen?  They’re never right anyway.”

“Sounds like something my dad used to say—but my mom would remind him that even a broken clock’s right twice a day.”

Alex chuckled and stood.  “Can I get either of you more coffee?”

“Yes, please.”

“Me, too.”

My situation was far from ideal—but I couldn’t at the moment imagine it any better, considering all that had happened to me.  Fate had brought me to this couple who’d welcomed me with open arms, and the good-looking cowboy across the table had simply sweetened the deal.

When Charise came back in the kitchen, she held a thousand-piece puzzle in her hands.  “I found something fun for all of us to do.  Puzzles okay with the two of you?”

Bryan said, “I’m game for anything today.”

“Sounds good to me.”

After replacing the coffeepot, Alex waved his hands.  “Okay if I sit out?  I thought I might do some reading.”

Charise gave him a hug.  “Fine, sweetheart.  Go take your nap.”

Feigning irritation, Alex said, “I’m going to read.”

“Enjoy yourself.  I’ll let you know when lunch is ready.”  As Alex left the room, Charise gently lifted the lid from the puzzle and poured out the pieces.  The lid’s cover showed a grand-looking white mansion with a pristine green lawn and hundreds of flowers of all colors in the foreground.  It was beautiful, I thought, and something tickled the back of my mind.  I’d seen and been in places like that before.  The three of us quietly turned all the upside-down pieces over.  “Do we want to put the border together first?”

“Sounds like a plan.”  Bryan started picking out border pieces, setting them aside.  Then he said, “I almost asked you what you do for a living, Violet, but you probably don’t remember.”

Did I work?  That concept felt right, but I really had no way of knowing.  “I don’t—but I wish I could.”  As a joke, I said, “I don’t even know enough about myself to make something up.”  Something inside told me I could probably spin quite a yarn just the same—and I didn’t like that feeling.

So we worked on the puzzle in silence for quite some time.  Charise entertained us by telling us about how she and Alex had met several years ago while volunteering for a homeless shelter in Colorado Springs before moving on to stories about her now-adult children.  Until she’d said something, I never would have guessed that they’d only been married for about ten years, both coming from previous marriages.  They’d just seemed to have that perma-couple feeling.

And where had I gotten that idea?  Just thinking that made me realize that, in my past life, I hadn’t much believed in fairy tales or happy ever afters.  But maybe Alex and Charise could change my mind.

After making some real progress on the puzzle, finishing the border and then some, Charise announced that she was going to make some lunch.  No longer wanting to be the guest who simply took and took, I asked, “Would you like some help?”

“Maybe in a little while.  I need to figure out what I’m going to make first—but my tummy’s grumbling.”

Pushing his chair back a bit, Bryan stood and stretched.  “I think I’m gonna go out on the porch for a little bit and get some fresh air.  See if there are any breaks in the clouds.”

Why I was so bold, I didn’t know, but I asked, “Want some company?”  I was standing before his reply.

“Why not?”

As we passed through the living room, there was no denying Charise’s prediction was correct:  Alex was snoozing in his recliner, a book across his chest.  I could see how easily that might happen, thanks to the comfy chair, warm fire, and overcast skies.  It seemed like the perfect kind of day for doing that.

I grabbed the coat I’d been wearing earlier, but Bryan didn’t bother with his, maybe because he was wearing a long-sleeved flannel shirt.  As he held the screen door open for me, I walked past him onto the porch.  As I passed by, though, I could have sworn I felt his body heat, imagined that there was some electricity between us.

Which was stupid.  There was no way this guy was thinking of me in the same way.  And what if I had a family back at home, wherever that was?  What if I had a husband and kids?

But that didn’t feel like me—just as there were other things that either felt right or didn’t.  Like brushing my teeth.  I just knew how to do it, and as soon as I put that minty toothpaste in my mouth, I knew I preferred cinnamon.

So, going forward and until I knew for certain otherwise, I was single.

“It’s still pretty chilly,” he said.  “I can almost see my breath.”

I nodded, watching how the rain kept pouring, large drops violently hitting the ground.  Then I walked to the edge of the porch and placed my hands on the railing, taking in a deep breath of the cool, humid air.  It smelled fresh and clean, and I had the feeling that I didn’t make it to the great outdoors that often.

Bryan’s words interrupted my train of thought.  “I wouldn’t be surprised if we got some snow out of this.”

“Seriously?”

“Oh, yeah.  It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve seen snow in May.  I’ve even seen it in early June here.”

“Wow.”  I couldn’t remember a thing about my life—but I did know that snow in June would be unusual.  Maybe not for the mountains but, in general, June was late spring, early summer—warm and even hot.  “So you grew up here?”

“Yeah,” he said, moving closer to me so we didn’t have to strain to hear each other’s voices over the heavy patter of rain.  “When I was a teen, I swore I hated it.  I decided I was going to college, getting a job where I didn’t have to strain my muscles or get my hands dirty, and I was never looking back.”

“So what happened?”

He was quiet for a bit, staring out at the trees just past the driveway.  I realized our conversation wasn’t a usual give and take—I was taking and taking, and maybe he wasn’t comfortable with that.  I wondered, if I knew anything about myself, if I’d feel enough at ease to talk about myself.

“Let’s just say I’m not a city boy.”

I tilted my head and took him in and something inside me remembered how to flirt.  “I never would have mistaken you for one.”  He gave me an easy grin, but I couldn’t read him.  “That’s not a bad thing, by the way.”  I swallowed, venturing into unknown territory.  “All I can remember of my life is, like, less than twenty-four hours, but I already see the beauty of nature, the appeal of this part of the world.  I don’t have a thing to base this on, but I get the feeling that I was a city girl before I lost my memory.”  A quick flash through my brain confirmed this.  My bra and panties were designer, and I’d paid a ridiculous sum of money for them.  My sneakers?  Jimmy Choo.  If I could go back and locate the jeans and top I’d had on, I would have been surprised had the labels not been high end as well.  But something about Bryan told me he had no use for people who loved the city, and I sensed that he was a good man.  I, on the other hand, was a blank slate.  Underneath the surface, there was something that I was starting to wonder if my brain was intentionally keeping me from my conscious thought—and maybe this was meant to be a fresh start.

So I planned to embrace it.

“And, standing here, I can appreciate the natural beauty, the fresh air, the quiet.”

“Hard to make a living here, though.”

“What do you do?”

“I run the family farm.  Cattle, pigs, corn.  Non-GMO corn, if that matters to you.”

Something was tickling my brain, but I didn’t care about corn.  I didn’t even know if I liked the taste of it.  “There’s no money in that?”

“It’s not that there’s no money, but you can’t predict your future.  Like this godforsaken rain.  I just planted one field and, if I’m lucky, half that seed won’t be washed away when all’s said and done.  And there’s no way I can know for certain how much we’ll get for the livestock.  It’s pretty touch and go from year to year.”

I nodded my head, not knowing quite what to say, but I caught myself rubbing my hand on his arm.  I quit moving my hand but left it there, not wanting to draw attention to it.

“Still…it’s better than living in downtown Denver.”

“You lived there?”  And I remembered—the capital of Colorado, biggest city in the state.  I wondered how far we were from there, but I didn’t want to interrupt him.

“Yeah.  After college, I worked as a financial advisor for a big firm.  Made good enough money to pay off my student loans in short order and then got the hell out of there.  Not my cup of tea.”

“Well, I can definitely see why you’d prefer it here.”

“Yep.”  After a few seconds of silence, Bryan started laughing.  “I almost did it again.  I almost asked where you were from.  I gotta stop that.”

“I’ve asked myself that, too—believe me.  I feel like I should know.”

“Well, the logical part of you knows you should know.  But the part of you that’s traumatized doesn’t want you to know.”

Traumatized?

“Yeah.  You’ve lost your memory, right?  So you’ve probably either had a brain injury, or your mind is purposely blocking it out.  And I’m guessing brain injury is out of the question, but I could be wrong.”

“How’s that?”

“Do you have any bumps on your head or anything?  Have you had a headache?”

“No, no headache,” I said, but I started running my fingers through my hair along the scalp.  After a second, I felt something that might be a bump on the back of my head.  “I might have found something.”

Bryan moved behind me to look at the spot I was touching.  As he gently pushed my hair aside, I tried not to feel thrilled by his touch.  “Yep.  It looks like you might have hit it on something.  There’s a small scab here.  I guess it could be an injury then.”

“It doesn’t hurt.”  As he removed his hands and moved back to my side, I asked, “What else did you say it could be?”

“Some kind of psychological trauma.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know.  People’s minds work funny.  Usually that kind of amnesia is brought on by stress or fear.”

While I had a suspicion my brain was shrouding some things intentionally, I couldn’t identify a stress or fear like what Bryan was talking about.  “Where did you learn that?”

“Psychology 101—or some other psych class.  I can’t remember.  Before I switched my major to business, I was considering psychology.  After a few classes, though, I realized I did not want to mess with people’s heads.”

Had I ever been to college?  If I had, was all that time wasted, considering I couldn’t recall a damn thing?  “Did you like college?”

“It was different.  It was new.  And it was what I needed at the time.  If I hadn’t tried it, I would have resented the hell out of being here now.  Instead, I appreciate home like I never did as a kid.”

We were quiet, focusing on the relentless rain for a bit, and I finally decided to be a little bold.  “So tell me about your family.”

“Hmm. Not sure what to tell you.  There’s my mom and dad, of course, and I have two younger brothers.  They don’t live here anymore.  My little brother’s in Colorado Springs, but the other one’s in California.”  The way he said it, it sounded like maybe there was a little bad blood there or something, but I didn’t want to push.  “My dad had a hell of a heart attack a few years ago and moving back was a no brainer.  I quit my job and worked the farm while he was in recovery.”

“Is he better now?”

“Yeah, but if mom and I let him, he’d keep going like he was twenty.  Mom makes sure he eats more greens and goes easy on the eggs and cheese.  I’ve taken over the majority of tasks on the farm so he doesn’t have to do so much.  There’s always work to be done and there’s no such thing as a day off—so I make sure he take days off, like it or not.”

“What about you?”

“Well…that was what today was gonna be.  It’s not like we can do a lot right now anyway.  Just make sure the animals have a place out of the rain, fresh food and water.  So I said something about wanting to get out—and both mom and dad told me to take the rest of the day off.”

“And you were going to go to the movies.”

“Yep—and you see how that all worked out.”

I had the feeling that I might have been a bit of a workaholic, never a day off like Bryan, but for entirely different reasons—but that idea might have just been in my head.  “Well, you still got the day off.”  The way his dimples appeared as he let out a soft chuckle made my tummy clench.

“I guess you’re right.”

Impulsively, I reached out to touch his arm again like I had earlier—and I decided to just spit it out.  After all, what did I have to lose?  “Thanks, Bryan,” I said, my fingertips grazing the soft flannel of his shirt where it covered his forearm.

“For what?”

“For helping me feel like I belong, even though I don’t have a clue.”

“I think you need to thank Charise and Alex for that.”

“Yeah…but you’re closer to my age than they are, and…I like you.”  I forced myself to look in his coffee-colored eyes, and I got the feeling that being a little shy wasn’t part of my personality.

“I like you, too, Violet.”

When our eyes locked, I felt my mouth begin to water, and the hunger I now sensed I knew was an old one, a big part of who I was.  His eyes were searching mine as if trying to find my soul, and he flashed me another easy smile, one that made the dimple in his right cheek appear, and then he shifted his gaze back to the rain.

Had I made him feel uncomfortable?  Was I being too forward?

Probably.

“I, um, should probably head in and see if Charise needs any help.”

“All right.  See you in a bit.”

Reluctantly, I removed my hand from his arm and turned, walking through the door slowly.  As I went through the motions of taking off the coat and finding my way to the kitchen, I wondered why I’d developed such strong feelings for Bryan—and so quickly.  And then it dawned on me—when Bryan was talking about his family, he never mentioned a wife.  Or even a girlfriend.

Maybe having these emotions wasn’t so bad.

“Charise, what can I do to help?”

“Perfect timing.  I’ve got everything next to the sink to make a salad.  Do you think you can do that?”

“Yep.”

“Great.  Holler if you need help—but, otherwise, I’ll finish up what I’m doing here and we’ll be eating lunch in no time.”

I loved making the salad, because I was able to identify the ingredients without even asking—radishes, carrots, grape tomatoes—those were all veggies I knew.  It was those moments of clarity that made me hopeful for my future, and I doubted that I’d ever enjoyed putting together a salad as much as I did then.

When I finished, I placed a pair of tongs in the salad bowl as Charise requested and then she said, “I’m going to go roust Alex.  Would you mind letting Bryan know that lunch is ready?”

“I’d love to.”

By the time I got to the door, Charise was already nudging Alex in his chair.  When I stuck my head out the front door, I couldn’t see Bryan anywhere.  I stepped outside without my jacket and, as I walked around the porch, I regretted it.  Even with the sweatshirt on, the chill seeped in clear to my bones, and I wondered if I’d ever feel truly warm again.

As I turned the corner on the porch to where it looked over the entire valley below, I spied Bryan sitting in a rocking chair where he seemed to be lost in thought.  “Bryan?”  When he didn’t turn to look, I realized he couldn’t hear me, thanks to the noise of the rain pounding on the roof of the porch—but he couldn’t see me, either, thanks to the way the chair was turned—so I walked over and rested my hand on his shoulder until he looked up.  “Lunch is ready.”

“Fantastic.  I’m starving.”  Then he stood and followed me to the door—but insisted upon holding it open for me.

Soon, the four of us were seated around that homey table, filling our bellies with hot soup, sandwiches, and the salad I’d put together.  Bryan had us all laughing while telling stories about the harmless practical jokes he used to play on his little brothers growing up—like setting off fireworks nearby when they weren’t expecting them, hiding their boots in the barn…and snipe hunting.

“Snipe hunting?” I asked.

“Yep.”

“What’s a snipe?”

Bryan grinned enough to make those adorable dimples pop out on each cheek.  “You are a city girl, aren’t you, Violet?  You don’t know what a snipe is?”

“How does that confirm I’m a city girl?”  And why did this feel like flirting?

“Because if you were from the country, you would know what a snipe is.”  He pointed at me with his empty soup spoon.  “Even with amnesia.”

Both Charise and Alex were grinning, enjoying our back and forth.  I asked, “So what’s the joke?”

Bryan winked at Charise.  “Should I put her out of her misery?”

“I think so.”

Putting down his spoon, Bryan started speaking, and his dimples and the twinkle in his eye made me clench my thighs.  “There’s no such thing as a snipe—but every country boy has gone snipe hunting once.  Only once until they find out it’s baloney.  So back then, I told my brothers we were going snipe hunting, and I gave them each a gunny sack.  You can only snipe hunt after dark, so we went up on the mountain where snipes are known to congregate.  Then I told them to hold the sacks open and I would chase snipes their way—and they just had to be on the lookout and catch them when they came running.  And once they caught a snipe, they needed to come join me at the road.”  Grinning, he picked up his glass but didn’t drink yet.  “But, like I said, there’s no such thing as a snipe.”

“No!”

“Oh, yes.  That’s the fun of it.  And after I got them situated—and I had them in two totally different places so they couldn’t even talk to each other—I came home and watched TV.  A couple of hours later, my mom asked where my brothers were.  Man, did I get a butt whoopin’ for that one.”  The three of us laughed while Bryan continued.  “But it was so worth it.”  Then he took a drink of his tea, and I tried imagining what he would have looked like as a teen, deciding it was probably a lot like now.

Bryan continued telling us stories about how he got in trouble as a kid, and he wound up eating for longer than we did.  Soon, Charise was pulling a batch of brownies out of the oven, filling the kitchen with the aroma of sweet chocolate and it wasn’t long before we all enjoyed one.

As Bryan grabbed a second brownie off the platter, he said, “Charise, you’re fattening me up.”

“You need it.  I know how hard you have to work during the summer.”

“Still can’t hold a candle to my dad, though.  When I look at what he used to do all by himself when I was a kid…”

Alex said, “I wouldn’t be so hard on yourself, son.  I think you can outdo most anyone out there.”

Sitting at the table, immersed in this sensation of family, I felt warm inside and out, gooey and sweet, just like the brownies.  Maybe that sensation was heightened since we were all huddled on one half of the table, leaving room for the still unfinished puzzle.

Did I share meals like this with my family?  Or were these folks the closest I’d ever been?  As I allowed myself to enjoy all the soft emotions around this table, I told myself that, if I would be returning to a life like this in my world, once I finally discovered who I truly was, I would be happy.  If it wasn’t like this…well, I needed to figure out a way to bring this feeling with me, make it part of who I was.

Because, the longer I was here with these good people, the more I couldn’t bear the thought of losing this feeling.

***

Love and Redemption (Small Town Secrets #8) comes out exclusively on September 24. You can preorder it on Amazon!

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