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As the car pulled into the driveway of a huge Victorian house with peaked roofs, slate-blue siding and luscious landscaping, Clare Boneli stared at the sprawling structure without a shred of recognition. A quick burst of panic shot through her, and her breathing sped up. The darkness inside her yawned, widened, threatened to take her under.
"It's all right, Clarissa. Everything's going to be fine."
The man beside her spoke the soothing words, her panic abated somewhat. It went away more quickly now than it had before. When Clare had first awakened from the coma a week ago, she hadn't even known her name. That had come back suddenly, unlike the memories of her past.
She managed to choke out, "This is where I live?"
"Yes." Jonathan, who'd been at her bedside most days over the past two weeks, smiled sadly. He was dressed in an impeccable gray suit and pristine white shirt. He'd told her he owned the TV station they said she worked for.
And more. They were dating. Seriously, for over a year. But try as she might, Clare couldn't remember him or this beautiful house or anything else about her life. Panic threatened again, and she grabbed for his hand.
"I don't remember," she murmured.
He linked their fingers. Even his touch was foreign.
How could she not recognize someone she'd been so close to? Someone, he'd told her, she'd been intimate with? Shouldn't she sense things about him? Again, her heart began to pound, like it always did when she tried to make herself remember and couldn't.
"You're going to be fine. It'll all come back. Dr. Montgomery thinks when you're in your own environment, familiar things will jog your memory."
Retrograde amnesia, the neurologisthad told her. The loss of memory of events that occur before a trauma. Usually it lasts a few hours.
In Clare's case, the trauma had been a car accident on a rainy morning at two a.m. She'd crashed into a guardrail, lurched forward and banged her face on the steering wheel. Her head had ricocheted to the side, resulting in a huge bump on her skull and injuring her brain. Once the swelling had gone down, the tests revealed no permanent brain damage, and the doctors expected her memory to return soon. But it hadn't. So she'd been referred to a psychiatrist, Anna Summers, whom she'd seen twice and would continue to see now that she had been released.
"Dr. Summers told me that sometimes it takes a while for memories to come back, even if there's no visible brain damage."
"As I said, I think being home will help." He scowled. "I wish I didn't have to go out of town today. It's just that I postponed meetings in Chicago three times when you were in the hospital."
"Of course you have to go. You put everything on hold for me."
"I wanted to."
She peered out the window again. The late-afternoon
June sun sparkled off the black shingles on the roof and the many windows of the exterior. "Tell me about my condo before we go inside."
"Your favorite room is the kitchen."
Still facing away from him, she sighed. "Because I'm a chef, right?"
They'd told her a few things in the hospital so she wouldn't go into shock when she got back to her life. She lived in Rockford, a medium-sized town in upstate New York, and was a chef and successful cookbook author. Jonathan was WRNY's station owner and had offered her a cooking show, Clarissa's Kitchen, three years ago. Her parents were dead, she had a sister who lived in Arizona a teacher, divorced, no children. And though Clare was thirty-six, she wasn't married. She wondered why.
Jonathan kept hold of her hand. "Let's go inside."
"In a minute." Stalling, she pulled down the visor and opened the mirror to check her appearance, briefly wondering if she was vain. What stared back at her was a stranger with green eyes and short sandy-blond hair. Again the lack of recognition shocked her, and she had to take in deep breaths.
"Can you tell your hair's different?" he asked.
She shook her head. "No." But she knew it had been long. In the hospital, the doctors had to cut away a chunk of it on the left side and shave the area to take care of the bump on her head. When she awoke from the coma, Jonathan brought in the town's best stylist to cut it flatteringly. "Did I like my hair long?"
"Yes. I think the short style suits you better, though. It's more sophisticated."
Closing the visor, she smoothed down the peach sundress she wore. It was beautiful and expensive, she could tell. Someone had brought it to the hospital, but she didn't know who.
Jonathan smiled at her encouragingly. "Ready now?"
They got out of his car, which she recognized was a Jag. It was funny how she knew things like that. She had what the doctors called episodic amnesia, where she didn't remember past events but could remember objects and procedural things, like how to change a lightbulb or take a bus.
As they walked up the brick path to the front porch, they passed a profusion of big fat peonies, petunias and geraniums. Pots of the latter variety hung from the rafters, she noticed as they climbed the steps. Warmth seeped into her at the sight of them and as she reached the house; the remnants of fear abated. She felt comfortable here.
The double wooden front doors had a digital lock, and Jonathan keyed in some numbers.
"You know the combination?" she asked.
"Yes." So they must be close, as he said. "I come here often."
When they stepped inside, she took in the huge foyer with an exquisite Persian rug on the hardwood floors, a breathtaking solid oak staircase and large windows. Again, calm infused her.
"Clarissa," Jonathan said gently. "Are you all right? Is this too much?"
"No, not at all. Just give me a minute." She looked around at the first floor. "There are four condos in the house, right?"
"Yes. Two on the first and two on the second. There's also an attic of sorts." He added the last with a note of displeasure tingeing his voice.
"I live on the second floor."
Jonathan smiled. It was a nice smile, though forced sometimes; often it didn't reach his hazel eyes. She guessed her not remembering him had been hard to take. "You knew that."
"Nothing else, though."
He kissed her forehead. "That's enough for now. Just be glad familiar things are already jogging your memory."
Taking her hand again, he led her over to the elevator. She caught another glimpse of the staircase that spiraled upward and had a quick vision of dark hair and startling blue eyes. "Brady, the other man who came to the hospital every day? He lives here, right?"
Jonathan's face hardened. "Yes."
Suddenly, she saw herself, carrying grocery bags, climbing those steps.
And the memory of someone teasing her. Elevators are for older people and the ill. I never take it, but if that's the kind of girl you are
The voice belonged to Brady.
The elevator pinged, and she and Jonathan entered the car. They rode in silence, and when it stopped, they exited on the second floor. The first thing she noticed was color on the walls. A variety of sketches lined the hallway. As she got closer she saw they were illustrations done mostly in colored pencil: a couple of cartoons that made her laugh, an adorable mouse and rat in some kind of square off, a picture of a dish of piping hot lasagna, a green salad and a wine bottle. Dull pain began to form in her head. She raised her hands to her temples. "Oh."
"Some pain for a second. It's gone now."
Jonathan stared at the sketches. Glared, really. "Too much too soon."
He grasped her arm and led her down a corridor to condo number three. Number four was next to hers, their doors side by side. Hers sported a simple wreath of silk flowers, but the other one had been painted like a mural. The light-blue background was broken by white puffy clouds; birds fluttered over the door, all done in the same style as the illustrations on the wall. She imagined that when the door opened, the birds would seem to be flying. On closer examination, the little feathery creatures had personalities. One blue jay sported a baseball cap and winked. A goldfinch had an apron tied around its body and held a spatula. There was a sparrow with a baby bird, and a robin in a suit.
Tension coiled inside her. "Who did this? And the sketches on the walls?"
Before Jonathan could answer, the door to number threeher placeswung open. Inside her condo stood Brady Langston. His grin was big and broad and genuine. Though he wasn't any taller than Jonathan, his muscular stature made it seem as though he towered over them both. When he'd been at her bedside in the hospital, she'd found his presence soothing. When he held her hand, that, too, felt right. "There you are. I thought I heard voices."
"What the hell are you doing here?" Jonathan asked.
Brady's brows raised. "I'm the welcome wagon, Harris."
A quick glance told her Jonathan's light complexion was flushed. "I have home health-care aides scheduled to be with Clarissa around the clock while I'm gone."
Brady squared his shouldersthey were big and broad, too. Jonathan mirrored the gesture. Clare didn't need her memory to feel the animosity crackle between them. And it made her stomach clench.
"I sent the woman who showed up home," Brady said. "Aides are for people who don't have family and friends. We've all arranged to be here at various times, so Clare doesn't have to surround herself with strangers. And her sister is coming in when she gets back from France."
Which was why, apparently, Clare's only blood relative hadn't come to her bedside. Despite the explanation that Cathy was in Europe, Clare had wondered about that.
Fists curled at his sides, Jonathan asked, "What gave you the right to decide all this, Langston?"
Brady's palm hit the doorjamb hard.
At the sound of the slap, blinding pain shot through Clare's skull. Leaning into the wall, she closed her eyes. Brady reached out and touched her arm. "Clare, baby, you okay?"
"Now look what you've done." She heard Jonathan's voice but it was far away. "Come on, Clarissa, let's get you to bed."
Eyes still shut, her stomach roiling, she could only brace herself against the wall. Then she felt strong arms slide beneath her legs and around her back. She was picked up and cuddled to a warm, hard body. Nosing into his shirt, burying her head in his chest, she breathed in his scent. It was familiar and calmed her dramatically.
She felt herself being carried and heard mumbling behind her, but she closed it off and reveled in the safety of being in this man's arms. It was something she hadn't truly felt since she'd woken up in that hospital and recognized nothing.
Soon, she was set on a bed and covered. "Sleep, sweetheart," Jonathan mumbled.
No, wait, that wasn't Jonathan's voice. She pried her eyes open. Brady stood over her bed. And in her gut, she realized she knew this man well. Very well. But her lids got heavy and closed on their own. Maybe she could figure all this out when she awoke. Lips brushed her forehead just before she drifted off.
For Clare's sake, Brady tried to collect himself before he left her bedroom. At least Harris had waited out in the living room and not upset her anymore with this aide thing. Taking deep breaths, Brady knew the guy would go on the attack with himBrady would do the same if their roles were reversedso he prepared for a fight but preferred to be in control.
He found Harris staring out the big bay window in the back, on his phone, of course. "Yes, I'll be there late afternoon. Tell the Chef's Delight people my plane leaves in ninety minutes."
When the guy clicked off, Brady spoke. "You can go anytime, Harris. I got it here."
Harris spun around, and there was fire in his eyes. So Brady tried even harder to stay cool. Rocking back on his heels, he stuck his hands in his jeans pockets.
"What the hell are you trying to pull, Langston?"
Innocently, he raised his eyebrows. "Nothing. I'm Clare's best friend. I've made arrangements to take care of her."
"You may have been her best friend before, but we both know things changed over the last year." Harris started to punch in a number on the phone. "I'm getting the aides back."
"Not after you see this." Feeling smug, Brady turned away and strode into Clare's office off the living room. He found what he was looking for in the tray of her fax
machine. He'd gotten the form in case Harris tried to pull something. Brady skimmed it to be certain Clare's sister, Catherine, had done what he'd asked. She'd been thousands of miles away when the accident had occurred, shocked and frustrated when he'd called
Oh my God, is she okay?
"She doesn't remember anything."
"Brady, I can't come home from France. I'm with fifteen people who depend on me."
"You don't have to come home. I'll take care of her. But I need something from you."
After he told her what, she asked, "Why do you want to do this, Brady?"
"Because we're her friends."
"I know, but after what she did to all of you. To all of us."
"None of that matters. And she needs you now, too."
"I know. I wish I could come back sooner."
"Leave it to me, Cath. Send the fax, and come to Rockford when you get back "
Quickly, he read the sheet of paper. Perfect. He left the den, crossed to Harris and handed it to him.
"A notarized directive from Clare's sister, who's her only living relative and has power of attorney in case something happens to Clare."
Harris cocked his head. "I thought they were estranged. That's why I've never met her."
"You thought wrong." Brady folded his arms over the chest of the shirt Clare had given him for Christmas one year. She thought the color matched his eyes. He thought it might bring him good luck. "Wrong about a lot of things, I might add."
Raising his chin, Harris scowled. "I'll have my attorneys look into this."
"You do that, Jon." A name he knew the guy hated to be called. "Meanwhile, we'll take care of Clare."
"Don't you dare try to keep her from seeing me when I get back from my trip."
"Go ahead, see her. We're starting with a clean slate, at least for a little while, and this time, I'm not giving up on her."
As he'd done before, which had been a huge mistake. One he'd tried to rectify the night of the accident and felt slicing guilt over now. He pushed the thought away.