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The woman sank to the creaking wooden porch step and soaked in the serenity, rare since she'd first regained consciousness in the small town she'd been told was Lucky Draw, Colorado.
Luck was certainly something she could use.
Still, for the moment, she would be asked no questions, could allow her mind respite from her own. Stop flailing against Who am I? and Where did I come from? Is anyone looking for me? and simply rest. Only be.
The green soothed her, though the tangle of it was a little unsettling. If she weeded over there and planted daisies beneath
She halted. Was this a piece of the puzzle of Jane Doe? A gardener? Heartened, she followed the thread. Bent forward, rested her chin on folded arms atop her knees.
So what would she do with this jumble? She let her eyes go a bit out of focus and imagined the johnsongrass rooted outthough God knows it was as nasty as kudzu to control, with its roots that stubbornly cling to the soil like a toddler to her mama
She sat up, breathless. Where did kudzu grow?
The faintest of shadows. A wisp of memory, a garden, teased at the edge of her inner vision. Something blue, leggy, a fluff of blossoms at the end of a long stalk.
She frowned, bore down, desperate not to let the image slip away.
But the fragment had already vanished. Frustration soured the brief, earlier bliss, and the bitter edge of fear threatened to drag her back into despair.
A faint buzz snatched her attention. A hummingbird hovered in front of her perhaps five feet away, pretty ruby throat and incessant search for energy, as if he wondered whether she was a flower from which he might drink.
The sight of him calmed her. Staved off fear once more.
She needed to act, to seize control. Perhaps she would plant flowers for her busy little friend. "Thank you," she murmured, to the bird, to the green, to the morning she was, after all, alive to experience, a grace note in this dark hole that was the past she could not recall.
One step, minuscule but desperately appreciated, into the new life she must create.
Strengthened a bit against the constant drain of worry, Jane Doe rose and walked into the chaos that could become a garden, trailing her fingers over the feathery tops of doomed johnsongrass as she formulated plans for how she would spend this first day in the garage apartment Dr. LincolnSam, she cor-rectedhad insisted she make her home, since she had no money and nowhere to go. This tiny village of three hundred fifty-six souls was nearly five hundred miles from the nearest city, with no social services available except the old-fashioned concept of community. After being released from the hospital in Denver, where an MRI had revealed no brain damage beyond this amnesia, she'd accepted Sam's offer because he was a kind man and because she'd had no choicebut only, she reminded him, until her memory returned.
Until she figured out where home really was.
The sheriff had taken her fingerprints and a photo he was comparing with national databases for missing persons, but thus far, he'd come up with nothing. To be so adrift was beyond frightening.
Why isn't anyone searching for me? Am I alone? Is there no one who cares that I'm absent?
I don't know, I don't know, I don't know any-thing. But, she reminded herself, that wasn't strictly true. A mirror had shown that she had black, curly hair, shoulder-length and sprinkled with streaks of silver. Green eyes. She was tall for a woman, five foot nine, they'd measured her. Not skinny, but not overweight, either. Probably fiftyish, no longer young but hardly old. She'd borne no children, Sam had told her.
Two dental fillings and pierced ears. Size nine feet. The battered remains of a manicure she was hesitant to remove, only because it was a link of some sort to who she had been.
Serious gardeners didn't get manicures, and her nails were her own, long and sleek beneath the traces of polish. So she probably didn't do manual labor, either, or health care or child care or culinary pursuits. Did she work with her mind? She possessed a quick one, they'd discovered, once she'd regained consciousness. She was good at math, better at writing, and understood some Spanish and a smattering of French.
And she still possessed bruisesshe'd fought someone, the sheriff had told her, judging from the skin cells that had been trapped beneath her nails. Her coma of six days had been obtained from a blow to the head during some sort of attack, possibly a carjacking, since she'd been found with no purse and no vehicle, left for dead on the side of a deserted mountain road.
She hadn't, thank God, been raped, Sam had assured her. Though she couldn't remember any of the experience, so would that have mattered? Could you be traumatized by something you didn't recall?
Was there a man in her life who would miss her? Did he wonder where she was? Did he worry?
"Morning." Sam rounded the corner, two mugs in his hands. "Do you like anything in your coffee?"
"How would I know?" But she forced herself to smile. "Sorry."
He shrugged one broad shoulder, then handed her a mug. "Most likely you will, at some point. As the specialists told us, you may never recover details of the immediate trauma, but over time, the rest of your memory should come back."
"But you can't promise that."
"No," he said. "However, I can and will make sure you have a safe place to heal. There's no rush," he said gently.
But the urgency inside her dictated otherwise. To avoid being ungracious, she ventured a sip.
Then wrinkled her nose.
He grinned. "Too strong for you? Got into the habit in med school I drink it thick enough to stand a spoon in."
She was very aware that she wore only a borrowed cotton nightgown, covered by an ancient blue man's sweater she'd found on a hook by the door. "I should go change."
"Not on my account." He winked, laughter in the kind chocolate eyes that were her first waking memory. He wasn't a lot taller than her, maybe six feet, a burly teddy bear of a man who commanded both respect and affection from everyone she'd encountered so far, both in Lucky Draw and in Denver. She didn't know what she would have done without his steady, calm guidance in the first awful days when she'd realized just how alone she was. She hadn't thought of him as a man then but as her rock, her guide, her shelter. Her friend.
But Sam was a male, and something inside her held back, as if she was already bound.
She glanced at her left hand. No ring.
"You can't be certain," he said, as if he'd read her mind. "Now, if only marriage involved tattoos "
She smiled. "Have you ever been married, Sam?"
"Me? No. Never found the right woman. Well " A shake of the head. "No."
"A little amnesia of your own?"
He grinned. "There was this one weekend in Vegas, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't legal. Here" He laughed at his joke while digging in his pockets. "Maybe this will make the coffee more palatable. I've got real sugar and the blue stuff and the pink stuff"
"No yellow packets?"
They stared at each other.
"I like the yellow packets," she said, a smile blooming inside her. "And cream."
"‘O ye of little faith.' Didn't I tell you, Jane? One memory at a time."
"I thought of a flower this morning, a blue one, but not its name." She stepped forward. "And kudzu, Sam. Where does kudzu grow?"
"You're asking me? I barely recognize grass." He wrinkled his forehead. "I believe I've heard of it in connection with the South, which would fit with your accent."
"I have an accent?" Until now, she hadn't registered the differences in their speech.
"Maybe you're a Georgia peach or a Mississippi magnolia." He grinned.
"Or just a redneck."
"Nope." He reached for her hand. "No calluses or blisters, for one thing. Those are lily-white, lady hands." He frowned and looked closer. "But you might have played guitar, though not recently."
"What makes you say that?" She pulled her fingers up to her face.
"Feel it. Just the smallest thickening on the tips guitar players have calluses on one hand, from holding down the strings."
She flexed her fingers without thinking. Closed her eyes to see if anything stirred.
Nothing. Her shoulders rounded.
"Hey," he said softly. "Don't push it. Your brain isn't ready."
I'm ready, she wanted to shout. To scream. But none of this was Sam's fault.
"I, uh, I need to get to the clinic, but I can switch some things if you'd like me to stay around. Or you could accompany me."
The kindness in his voice had her halfway to tears. She sniffed them back. "No." She glanced up. "I'll be fine. Thank you for letting me stay here, Sam. I can't imagine what I would have done if you"
"You're not alone, Jane. Let yourself rest and recover your strength." He paused. "Anything I can bring you when I return?"
My name, she thought. I'm not Jane. But she only smiled and shook her head. "Thanks for the coffee. Have a great day."
But still he hesitated. "You'll be all right here, you're sure?"
"I will. Don't worry."
She would be doing enough of that for both of them.
Parker's Ridge, Alabama
If you're sleeping on the couch, so am I.
James Parker paused in the act of forming a perfect Windsor knot in his tasteful tie, remembering the wild black curls of the woman who'd turned his life upside down over thirty-five years ago. The woman who never did the expected, just like that night when they'd had their first big fight. He'd stormed off to sleep on the couch.
She'd chased him down.
Oh, Bella. How did we get from there to here?
And when are you coming back?
His shoulders sagged as he stared at himself in the mirror. He wasn't twenty-five anymore, as he'd been when they'd had that ridiculous argument, the subject of which he couldn't even recall.
But he could still remember the make-up sex, the laughter the night they'd spent camping out on the living-room floor, surrounded by candles. Because Bella had feared she and he would get stuffy and rigid if they forgot the passion and magic that had brought them together.
Promise me we'll always play, James. My serious James, she'd said fondly, trailing one slender finger over his jaw, studying him with stars in the green eyes that had bewitched him the first second he'd met her. I'll make sure you take time. We'll be crazy ol' coots when we're old, and we'll always have fun. Life doesn't have to be so serious, you know.
She'd blown into his practical, ordered existence like a cyclone, and he'd barely kept his feet. A gypsy, a free spirit, his hippie chick had scandalized his family, horrified and fascinated his friends.
He'd never looked back. Never needed more than her.
But the fifty-eight-year-old businessman he saw in the mirror, though fit and trim and still in possession of a good head of hair, blond going silver, had not only lost the art of playing long ago.
Somehow, his wild and crazy Isabella Rosaline had lost it, too.
The ring of the phone jolted him. "Hello?"
"Daddy, why isn't Mama home yet?" His daughter, Cele, seldom bothered with small talk. "Does she sound okay when she calls you?"
He paused. How did he answer that? I don't know because she hasn't phoned? Because she's trying to decide if she's leaving me?
What level of honesty did you owe your children when they were grown?