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Asher Williams was not a patient man by nature. When he wanted something, he didn't like to wait, and truth be told, he rarely had to. However, he was warned, when he enlisted the services of a private investigator, that finding a missing person could take time. Particularly if the person they were looking for didn't want to be found. That being the case, he was surprised when he received a call from him a mere two days later.
Ash was in a meeting with several of his colleagues and wouldn't normally answer his cell phone, but when he saw the P.I.'s number on the screen, he made an exception. He suspected it was either very good news, or very bad.
"Excuse me for just a minute," he told his colleagues. He rose from his chair and walked across the room, out of earshot. "You have news? " he asked, then heard the three words he had been hoping for.
"I found her."
In that instant he felt a confusing and disturbing combination of relief and bitterness. "Where is she?"
"She's been staying in Abilene, Texas."
What the hell was she doing in Texas?
That wasn't important now. What mattered was bringing her back home where she belonged. And the only way to do that was to go and get her. He was sure, with some convincing, he could make her see that he knew what was best for her, that leaving him had been a mistake. "I'm in a meeting. I'll call you back in five minutes."
He hung up the phone and turned to his colleagues.
"Sorry, but I have to go," he told them. "And I'm not sure when I'll be back. Hopefully no more than a few days. I'll let you know when I have more details."
The look of stunned confusion on their faces as he walked from the room was mildly amusing, and not at all unexpected. In all his time as CFO of Maddox Communications, Ash had never missed a meeting or taken a sick day. He had never been so much as five minutes late for work, and he honestly couldn't recall the last time he'd taken a vacation—much less one with two minutes' notice.
On his way into his office Ash asked his secretary, Rachel, to hold all his calls. "And cancel any appointments I have for the next week, just to be safe."
Her eyes went wide. "A week?"
He closed his office door and settled behind his desk, his mind racing a million miles an hour with all that he needed to do before he left as he dialed the P.I.'s number. He answered on the first ring.
"You told me it could take months to find her," Ash said. "Are you sure you have the right Melody Trent?"
"I'm positive it's her. Your girlfriend was in an auto accident. It's how I found her so quickly."
Melody Trent wasn't his girlfriend. By definition, she was his mistress—a warm body to come home to after a long day at work. He paid her law school tuition and living expenses and she offered companionship with no strings attached. Just the way he liked it. But it was no time to split hairs.
"Was she injured?" he asked, expecting, at worst, a few bumps and bruises. He truly was not prepared for what the P.I. said next.
"According to the police report, the driver, your girlfriend, was pretty banged up and there was one fatality."
Ash's stomach bottomed out and his mouth went dry. "How banged up?"
"She's been in the hospital for a couple of weeks."
"You said there was a fatality. What happened exactly?" He rose from his chair, began pacing as the P.I. gave him what few details he had about the crash. And it was bad. Worse than Ash could have ever imagined. "Is Melody being held responsible?"
"Fortunately, no. The police filed it as an accident. That doesn't mean there won't be a civil suit, though."
They would deal with that when and if the time came. "How is Melody? Do you have any details on her condition?"
"All the hospital would say is that she's stable. They'll only give details to family. When I asked to talk to her, they said she wasn't taking phone calls. That usually means that for whatever reason, the patient is unable to speak. My best guess would be she's unconscious."
Since Melody left him, Ash had been counting the hours until she came crawling back to ask forgiveness, to say that she'd made a mistake. At least now he knew why she hadn't. Although that wasn't much of a consolation. And he would be damned if anyone was going to stop him from learning the truth. "I guess I'll just have to be family."
"You going to say she's your long-lost sister or something?" the P.I. asked.
"Of course not." He needed something a bit more believable. Something he could easily prove.
Melody was his fiancée.
The next morning Ash caught the earliest flight to the Dallas/Fort Worth airport, then rented a car and made the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Abilene. He had called ahead the afternoon before, setting up a meeting with the doctor in charge of her care. They told him that Melody was conscious and out of the woods, but that was the most they would say over the phone.
Once he got to the hospital he strode right past the registration desk. He'd learned a long time ago that if he looked as though he belonged somewhere, showed he was in charge, people naturally followed along, and no one tried to stop him as he stepped onto the elevator. He got off on the third floor, surprised to realize that he was actually nervous. What if Melody didn't want to come back to him?
Of course she would, he assured himself. Her leaving had obviously been a great error in judgment, and it would have only been a matter of time before she realized how much she missed him. Besides, where else would she go while she healed from her injuries? She needed him.
He stopped at the nurses' station and they paged a Dr. Nelson. He appeared less than five minutes later.
"Mr. Williams?" he said, shaking Ash's hand. The department on his name badge was neurology, which likely meant that Melody had suffered some sort of brain injury. Which explained why she would have been unconscious. But did it mean her injuries were even more serious than he could have imagined? What if she never made a full recovery?
"Where is my fiancée?" Ash asked, surprised by the note of panic in his voice. He needed to hold it together. Barging in and making demands would only make this more difficult. Especially if Melody told them he actually wasn't her fiancé. He took a second to collect himself and asked, in a much calmer tone, "Can I see her?"
"Of course, but why don't we have a talk first."
He wanted to see Melody now, but he followed the doctor to a small family waiting room by the elevator. The room was empty, but for a television in the corner playing some daytime game show. He sat and gestured for Ash to join him.
"How much do you know about the accident?" the doctor asked.
"I was told that the car rolled, and there was one fatality."
"Your fiancée is a very lucky woman, Mr. Williams. She was driving on a back road when the crash occurred and it was several hours before someone drove past and discovered her there. She was airlifted here for treatment, but if the local EMS team hadn't worked so quickly, you would be having this conversation with the coroner."
A knot twisted his insides. It was surreal to imagine that he had come so close to losing Melody for good, and the thought of her lying trapped and alone, not knowing if she would live or die, made him sick to his stomach. He may have been angry that she left him, but he still cared deeply for her. "What was the extent of her injuries?"
"She suffered a subdural hematoma."
"A brain injury?"
He nodded. "Until two days ago she's been in a drug-induced coma."
"But she'll recover?"
"We expect her to make a full recovery."
Ash's relief was so intense, his body went limp. If he hadn't already been sitting, he was sure his legs would have given out from under him.
"Although," the doctor added, his expression darkening, "there were a few…complications."
Ash frowned. "What complications?"
"I'm sorry to have to tell you that she lost the baby."
"Baby?" he asked, the doctor's words not making any sense. Melody wasn't having a baby.
The doctor blinked. "I'm sorry, I just assumed you knew that she was pregnant."
Why would Ash even suspect such a thing when the radiation from childhood cancer had rendered him sterile? It had to be a mistake. "You're sure?"
The only explanation, Ash realized, was that Melody had been cheating on him. The knot in his gut twisted tighter, making it difficult to take a full breath. Is that where Melody had been going when she left him? To be with her lover? The father of her child?
And like a love-sick fool Ash had been chasing after her, prepared to convince her to come home. She had betrayed him, after all that he had done for her, and he hadn't suspected a damned thing.
His first reaction was to get up, walk out of the hospital and never look back, but his body refused to cooperate. He needed to see her, just one last time. He needed to know why the hell she would do this to him, when he had given her everything she had ever asked for, everything she could have ever needed. She could have at least had the decency, and the courage, to be honest with him.
He could see that the doctor was curious to know why, as her fiancé, Ash hadn't known about the pregnancy, but Ash didn't feel he owed him or anyone else an explanation. "How far along was she?" he asked.
"Around fourteen weeks, we think."
"You think? Didn't she say?"
"We haven't mentioned the miscarriage. We think it would be too upsetting at this point in her recovery."
"So she believes she's still pregnant?"
"She has no idea that she was pregnant when she was in the accident."
Ash frowned. That made no sense. "How could she not know?"
"I'm sorry to have to tell you, Mr. Williams, but your fiancée has amnesia."
The gripping fingers of a relentless headache squeezed Melody's brain. A dull, insistent throb, as though a vice was being cranked tighter and tighter against her skull.
"Time for your pain meds," her nurse chirped, materializing at the side of the bed as though Melody had summoned her by sheer will.
Or had she hit the call button? She honestly couldn't remember. Things were still a bit fuzzy, but the doctor told her that was perfectly normal. She just needed time for the anesthesia to leave her system.
The nurse held out a small plastic cup of pills and a glass of water. "Can you swallow these for me, hon?"
Yes, she could, she thought, swallowing gingerly, the cool water feeling good on her scratchy throat. She knew how to swallow pills, and brush her teeth, and control the television remote. She could use a fork and a knife and she'd had no trouble reading the gossip rags the nurse had brought for her.
So why, she wondered, did she not recognize her own name?
She couldn't recall a single thing about her life, not even the auto accident that was apparently responsible for her current condition. As for her life before the accident, it was as if someone had reached inside her head and wiped her memory slate clean.
Post-traumatic amnesia, the neurologist called it, and when she'd asked how long it would last, his answer hadn't been encouraging.
"The brain is a mysterious organ. One we still know so little about," he'd told her. "Your condition could last a week, or a month. Or there's a possibility that it could be permanent. We'll just have to wait and see."
She didn't want to wait. She wanted answers now. Everyone kept telling her how lucky she'd been. Other than the head injury, she had escaped the accident relatively unscathed. A few bumps and bruises mostly. No broken bones or serious lacerations. No permanent physical scars. However, as she flipped through the television channels, knowing she must have favorite programs but seeing only unfamiliar faces, or as she picked at the food on her meal tray, clueless as to her likes and dislikes, she didn't feel very lucky. In fact, she felt cursed. As though God was punishing her for some horrible thing that she couldn't even remember doing.
The nurse checked her IV, jotted something on her chart, then told Melody, "Just buzz if you need anything."
Answers, Melody thought as the nurse disappeared into the hall. All she wanted was answers.
She reached up and felt the inch-long row of stitches above her left ear where they had drilled a nickel-size hole to reduce the swelling on her brain, relieving the pressure that would have otherwise squeezed her damaged brain literally to death.
They had snatched her back from the brink of death, only now she wondered what kind of life they had snatched her back to. According to the social worker who had been in to see her, Melody had no living relatives. No siblings, no children, and no record of ever having been married. If she had friends or colleagues, she had no memory of them, and not a single person had come to visit her.
Had she always been this…alone?
Her address was listed as San Francisco, California— wherever that was—some sixteen hundred miles from the site of the accident. It perplexed her how she could still recognize words and numbers, while photos of the city she had supposedly lived in for three years drew a complete blank. She was also curious to know what she had been doing so far from home. A vacation maybe? Was she visiting friends? If so, wouldn't they have been concerned when she never showed up?
Or was it something more sinister?
After waking from the coma, she'd dumped the contents of her purse on the bed, hoping something might spark a memory. She was stunned when, along with a wallet, nail file, hairbrush and a few tubes of lip gloss, a stack of cash an inch thick tumbled out from under the bottom lining. She quickly shoved it back in the bag before anyone could see, and later that night, when the halls had gone quiet, she counted it. There had been over four thousand dollars in various denominations.
Was she on the run? Had she done something illegal? Maybe knocked off a convenience station on the way out of town? If so, wouldn't the police have arrested her by now?