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Amy Ryan was safe in her bed, drifting in that place where slumber and wakefulness mesh into a tranquil twilight, when she distinctly felt someone grasp her big toe and wriggle it. "Amy."
She groaned and pulled the covers up over her head. Two full years had passed since her handsome, healthy young husband, Tyler, had died on the operating table during a routine appendectomy. She couldn't be hearing his voice now.
"No," she murmured. "I refuse to have this dream again. I'm waking up right now!"
Amy's toe moved again, without orders from her brain. She swallowed, and her heart rate accelerated. Quickly, expecting to find eight-year-old Ashley's cat, Rumpel, at the foot of the bed playing games, she reached out and snapped on the bedside lamp.
A scream rushed into her throat, coming from deep inside her, but she swallowed it. Even though Tyler was standing there, just on the other side of her blanket chest, Amy felt no fear.
She could never be afraid of Ty. No, what scared her was the explicit possibility that she was losing her mind at thirty-two years of age.
"This can't be happening," she whispered hoarsely, raising both hands to her face. From between her fingers, she could still see Tyler grinning that endearing grin of his. "I've been through counseling," she protested. "I've had grief therapy!"
Tyler chuckled and sat down on the end of the bed.
Amy actually felt the mattress move, so lifelike was this delusion.
"I'm quite real," Tyler said, having apparently read her mind. "At least, real is the closest concept you could be expected to understand."
"Oh, God," Amy muttered, reaching blindly for the telephone.
Tyler's grin widened. "This is a really lousy joke," he said, "but I can't resist. Who ya gonna call?"
Amy swallowed and hung up the receiver with an awkward motion of her hand. What could she say? Could she dial 911 and report that a ghost was haunting her bedroom?
If she did, the next stop would be the mental ward at the nearest hospital.
Amy ran her tongue over dry lips, closed her eyes tightly, then opened them again, wide.
Tyler was still sitting there, his arms folded, charming smile in place. He had brown curly hair and mischievous brown eyes, and Amy had been in love with him since her freshman year at the University of Washington. She had borne him two children, eight-year-old Ashley and six-year-old Oliver, and the loss of her young husband had been the most devastating experience of Amy's life.
"What's happening to me?" Amy rasped, shoving a hand through her sleep-rumpled, shoulder-length brown hair.
Tyler scratched the back of his neck. He was wearing slacks and a blue cashmere cardigan over a tailored white shirt. "I look pretty solid, don't I?" He sounded proud, the way he used to when he'd won a particularly difficult case in court or beaten a colleague at racquet ball. "And let me tell you, being able to grab hold of your toe like that was no small feat, no pun intended."
Amy tossed back the covers, scrambled into the adjoining bathroom and frantically splashed cold water on her face. "It must have been the spicy cheese on the nachos," she told herself aloud, talking fast.
When she straightened and looked in the mirror, though, she saw Tyler's reflection. He was leaning against the doorjamb, his arms folded.
"Pull yourself together, Amy," he said good-naturedly. "It's taken me eighteen months to learn to do this, and I'm not real good at sustaining the energy yet. I could fade out at any time, and I have something important to say."
Amy turned and leaned back against the counter, her hands gripping the marble edge. She sank her teeth into her lower lip and wondered what Debbie would make of this when she told her about it. If she told her.
Your subconscious mind is trying to tell you something, her friend would say. Debbie was a counselor in a women's clinic, and she was working on her doctorate in psychology. It's time to let go of Tyler and get on with your life.
"Wh-what did you want to-to say?" Amy stammered. She was a little calmer now and figured this figment of her imagination might give her an important update on what was going on inside her head. There was absolutely no doubt, as far as she was concerned, that some of her gears were gummed up.
Tyler's gentle gaze swept her tousled hair, yellow cotton nightshirt and shapely legs with sad fondness.
"An old friend of mine is going to call you sometime in the next couple of days," he said after a long moment. "His name is Harry Griffith, and he runs a multinational investment company out of Australia. They're opening an office in Seattle, so Harry will be living here in the Puget Sound area part of the year. He'll get in touch to offer his condolences about me and pay off on a deal we made the last time we were together. You should get a pretty big check."
Amy certainly hadn't expected anything so specific. "Harry?" she squeaked. She vaguely remembered Tyler talking about him.
Tyler nodded. "We met when we were kids. We were both part of the exchange student program- he lived here for six months, and then I went down there and stayed with Harry and his mom for the same amount of time."
A lump had risen in Amy's throat, and she swallowed it. Yes, Harry Griffith. Tyler's mother, Louise, had spoken of him several times. "This is crazy," she said. "I'm crazy."
Her husband-or this mental image of her husband-smiled. "No, babe. You're a little frazzled, but you're quite sane."
"Oh, yeah?" Amy thrust herself away from the bathroom counter and passed Tyler in the doorway to stand next to the bed. "If I'm not one can short of a six-pack, how come I'm seeing somebody who's been dead for two years?"
Tyler winced. "Don't use that word," he said. "People don't really die, they just change."
Amy was feeling strangely calm and detached now, as though she were standing outside of herself. "I'll never eat nachos again," she said firmly.
Ty's gentle brown eyes twinkled with amusement. When he spoke, however, his expression was more serious. "You're doing very well, all things considered. You've taken good care of the kids and built a career for yourself, unconventional though it is. But there's one area where you're really blowing it, Spud."
Amy's eyes brimmed with tears. During the terrible days and even worse nights following Tyler's unexpected death, she'd yearned for just such an experience as this. She'd longed to see the man she'd loved so totally, to hear his voice. She'd even wanted to be called "Spud" again, although she'd hated the nickname while Tyler was alive.
She sniffled but said nothing, waiting for Tyler to go on.
He did. "There are women who can be totally fulfilled without a man in their lives. You aren't one of those women, Amy. You're not happy."
Amy shook her head, marveling. "Boy, when my subconscious mind comes up with a message, it's a doozy."
Tyler shrugged. "What can I say?" he asked reasonably. "Harry's the man for you."
"You were the man for me," Amy argued, and this time a tear escaped and slipped down her cheek.
He started toward her, as though he would take her into his arms, then, regretfully, he stopped. "That was then, Spud," he said, his voice gruff with emotion. "Harry's now. In fact, you're scheduled to remarry and have two more kids-a boy and a girl."
Amy's feeling of detachment was beginning to fade; she was trembling. This was all so crazy. "And this Harry guy is my one and only?" she asked with quiet derision. She was hurt because Tyler had started to touch her and then pulled back.
"Actually, there are several different men you could have fulfilled your destiny with. That architect you met three months ago, when you were putting together the deal for those condos on Lake Washington, for instance. Alex Singleton-the guy who replaced me in the firm-for another." He paused and shoved splayed fingers through his hair. "You're not cooperating, Spud."
"Well, excuse me!" Amy cried in a whispered yell, not wanting the children to wake and see her in the middle of a hallucination. "I loved you, Ty. You were everything to me. I'm not ready to care for anybody else!"
"Yes, you are," Tyler disagreed sadly. Quietly. "Get on with it, Amy. You're holding up the show."
She closed her eyes for a moment, willing Tyler to disappear. When Amy looked again and found him gone, however, she felt all hollow and broken inside.
Amy went slowly back to bed, switched out the light and lay down. "You're losing it, Ryan," she muttered to herself.
She tried to sleep, but images of Tyler kept invading her mind.
Amy recalled the first time they'd met, in the cafeteria at the University of Washington, when she'd been a lowly freshman and Tyler had been in his third year of law school. He'd smiled as he'd taken the chair across the table from Amy's, and she'd been so thoroughly, instantly besotted that she'd nearly fallen right into her lime Jell-O.
After that day, Amy and Tyler had been together every spare moment. Ty had taken her home to Mercer Island to meet his parents at Thanksgiving, and at Christmas he'd given her a three-carat diamond.
Amy had liked Tyler's parents immediately; they were so warm and friendly, and their gracious, expensive home practically vibrated with love and laughter. The contrast between the Ryans' family life and Amy's was total: Amy's father, one of the most famous heart surgeons in the country, was a distant, distracted sort of man, totally absorbed in his work. Although Amy knew her dad loved her, in his own workaholic way, he'd never been able to show it.
The free-flowing affection among the Ryans had quickly become vital to Amy, and she was still very close to them, even though Tyler had been gone for two years.
Alone in the bed where she and Tyler had once loved and slept and sometimes argued, Amy wept. "This isn't fair," she told the dark universe around her.
With the morning, however, came a sense of buoyant optimism. It seemed only natural to Amy that she'd had a vivid dream about Tyler; he was the father of her children and she'd loved him with her whole heart.
She was sticking frozen waffles in the toaster when Oliver and Ashley raced into the kitchen. During the school year she had trouble motivating them in the mornings, but now that summer had come, they were up and ready for day camp almost as soon as the morning paper hit the doorstep.
"Hey, Mom," Oliver said. He wore a baseball cap low on his forehead and he was wearing shorts and a T-shirt with his favorite cartoon character on the front. "Kid power!" he whooped, thrusting a plastic sword into the air.
Ashley rolled her beautiful Tyler-brown eyes. "What a dope," she said. She was eight and had a lofty view of the world.
"Be careful, Oliver," Amy fretted good-naturedly. "You'll put out someone's eye with that thing." She put the waffles on plates and set them down on the table, then went to the refrigerator for the orange juice. "Look, you two, I might be home late tonight. If I can't get away, Aunt Charlotte will pick you up at camp."
Charlotte was Ty's sister and one of Amy's closest friends.
Ashley was watching Amy pensively as she poured herself a cup of coffee and joined the kids at the table.
"Were you talking to yourself last night, Mom?" the child asked in her usual straightforward way.
Amy was glad she was sitting down because her knees suddenly felt shaky. "I was probably just dreaming," she said, but the memory of Tyler standing there in their bedroom was suddenly vivid in her mind. He'd seemed so solid and so real.
Ashley's forehead crumpled in a frown, but she didn't pursue the subject any further.
After Amy had rinsed the breakfast dishes, put them into the dishwasher and driven the kids to the park, where camp was held, she found herself watching for Tyler-waiting for him to come back.
When she'd showered and put on her best suit, a sleek creation of pale blue linen, along with a blouse, she sat on the edge of her bed and stared at the telephone for what must have been a full five minutes. Then she dialed her best friend's number.
"Hi, Amy," Debbie answered, sounding a little rushed. "If this is about lunch, I'm open. Twelve o'clock at Ivar's?"
Amy bit her lower lip for a moment. "I can't, not today I have appointments all morning. Deb-"
Debbie's voice was instantly tranquil, all sense and sound of hurry gone. "Hey, you sound kind of funny. Is something wrong?"
"It might be," Amy confessed.
"I dreamed about Tyler last night, and it was ultra-real, Debbie. I wasn't lying in bed with my eyes closed-I was standing up, walking around-we had an in-depth conversation!"
Debbie's voice was calm, but then, she was a professional in the mental health field. It would take more than Amy's imaginary encounter with her dead husband to shock this woman. "Okay. What about?"
Amy was feeling sillier by the moment. "It's so dumb."
"Right. So tell me anyway."
"He said I was going to meet-this friend of his- Harry somebody. Who names people Harry in this day and age? I'm supposed to fall in love with this guy, marry him and have two kids."
"Before nightfall?" Debbie retorted, without missing a beat.
"Practically. Ty implied that I've been holding up some celestial plan by keeping to myself so much!"
Debbie sighed. "This is one that could be worked out in a fifteen-minute segment of any self-help show, Ryan. You're a healthy young woman, and you haven't been with a man since Ty, and you're lonely, physically and emotionally. If you want to talk this out with somebody, I could give you a name-"
Amy was already shaking her head. "No," she interrupted, "that's all right. I feel foolish enough discussing this with my dearest friend. I don't think I'm up to stretching out on a couch and telling all to some strange doctor."
"I'll be all right, Deb," Amy broke in again, this time a little impatiently. She didn't know what she'd wanted her friend to say when she told her about Tyler's "visit," but she felt let down. She hung up quickly and then dashed off to her first meeting of the day.
Amy often marveled that she'd made such a success of her business, especially since she'd dropped out of school when Tyler passed the bar exam and devoted herself entirely to being a wife and mother. She'd been totally happy doing those things and hadn't even blushed to admit to having no desire to work outside the home.
After Tyler's death, however, the pain and rage had made her so restless that staying home was impossible. She'd alternated between fits of sobbing and periods of wooden silence, and after a few weeks she'd gone numb inside.
One night, very late, she'd seen a good-looking, fast-talking man on television, swearing by all that was holy that she, too, could build a career in real estate trading and make a fortune.
Amy had enough money to last a lifetime, between Tyler's life insurance and savings and her maternal grandmother's trust fund, but the idea of a challenge, of building something, appealed to her. In fact, on some level it resurrected her. Here was something to do, something to keep her from smothering Ashley and Oliver with motherly affection.
She'd downloaded the program and signed up for a seminar, as well.
Amy absorbed all the sessions in the program. The voice was pleasant and the topic complicated enough that she had to concentrate, which meant she had brief respites from thinking about Tyler. Under any other circumstances, Amy would not have had the brass to actually do the things suggested by the program and seminar, but all her normal inhibitions had been frozen inside her, like small animals trapped in a sudden Ice Age.
She'd started buying and selling and wheeling and dealing, and she'd been successful at it.
Still, she thought miserably as she drove toward her meeting, Tyler had been right, she wasn't happy. Now that the numbness had worn off, all those old needs and hurts were back in full force and being a real estate magnate wasn't fulfilling them.