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Hope was a wasted effort, thought Gracie Henderson as she walked through the park at the Dallas Arboretum. There on a hillock she found the spot she remembered dearly, where she'd first met her cowboy. Now, staring at the exact spot where he'd entered her life, she noticed a man hunched down in the grass. Birds gathered around him, swooping down from the sky. They landed on toothpick legs, then moved toward him in tiny stops and starts.
Intrigued, Gracie paused to watch.
The man's face was turned away from her, but something about the way he sat, something in his frozen stillness would not let her look away.
He pulled off a morsel of whatever was in his hand with exaggerated slowness. Without so much as a muscle twitch he held it out, word-lessly coaxing the birds nearer until they lit upon his hand and pecked the food from his fingers. Entranced children flocked near the bird man, trying to emulate his success with the feathered animals as their bemused families watched.
Gracie blinked, checked her watch. Not a lot of time to spare. Since the wrought-iron bench she sought out was unoccupied, she sat down, but left her lunch bag unopened. In this particular place, in the warm rays of the May sun, her aching soul felt soothing relief.
Gracie had been back in Texas only a week, but that was long enough to dull her memories of the cooler North Dakota spring she'd left behind. It was almost long enough for Dallas's southern heat to evaporate the chill encasing her heart.
For the next six months they would be safe.
She pressed her back against the warm metal and soaked in the lake view, breathed the heady scents of blooming alyssum and freshly mowed grass, listened to the breeze rustle the lush leaves of a nearby cottonwood. All of it combined sent her thoughts headlong into the past, into emotions she'd struggled to bury.
She'd been so happy that day, so trusting.
Reality splashed down like a cold shower, reminding her that her blissful joy had lasted eight short days. At least she'd learned from that. Now she took precautions, made sure before she leaped.
With effort Gracie pushed away the hurt and opened her lunch bag. From the corner of her eye she noticed the man rise. He ambled across the grass, pausing to sniff at a bed of flowers, then pluck a tumbled leaf from the grass.
Gracie bit into her chicken salad sandwich and closed her eyes, allowing herself a moment to savor her lunch. Simple joys. She'd learned not to take them for granted.
"It's a beautiful place, isn't it?"
Gracie blinked, stared at the owner of that butter-smooth voice.
Her heart stopped.
He looked so real standing in front of her, watching her with a quizzical stare. Nothing at all like the man in her dreams. Her cowboy.
"Dallas?" she squeaked. Gracie's heart beat in a painful rhythm, and she grasped the edge of the bench for support.
"It's a pretty city, but I didn't know it would be so hot." He swiped a hand across his forehead, smiled. A familiar dimple peeked out from the corner of his mouth. "And this is only spring."
How she'd missed those bittersweet eyes. "You've chosen the prettiest spot. Do you mind if I share it?"
Gracie shook her head. Her limbs trembled with excitement until terror, cold as Arctic ice, grabbed hold, plunging her from delight to dread in two seconds flat. Something was wrong.
She didn't know what to ask first.
Dallas didn't try to break the silence between them. In fact, he seemed to relish it. A faint smile curved his lips as a bird flitted closer to beg for food.
It was a mirage, a dream. It had to be. Only Gracie couldn't wake up.
So many times, through long sleepless nights and terror-filled days, she'd longed to share her burden, to talk to him, to lean against his shoulder and know she wasn't alone, that she didn't have to be afraid anymore.
After the first year alone, filled with questions that were never answered, she'd shoved him out of her mind and never permitted herself to imagine him coming back.
Now here he was.
"Where have you been, Dallas?" Rage replaced curiosity. "Did you even consider how worried I was? Surely you could have called, writtensomething?"
Terror filled his face. He was afraid? Of her?
He jumped up from the grass. "I didn't mean to bother you, ma'am. I'm sorry I
Brown eyes brimmed with shadows she didn't understand. But his fear was obvious. A riot of emotions flashed in his eyes, a wariness she'd never expected. As if she were a stranger.
Gracie stood up in turn, touched his arm. "Don't you think you owe me some kind of explanation, Dallas?"
He fidgeted as if he found her touch painful. Then he grew still and his eyes met hers for the first time.
She might have missed his question if she hadn't been standing inches away.
"Of course I know you." Anger chased frustration. "What are you playing at, Dallas?"
His Adam's apple bobbed as he struggled to swallow. "So my name is Dallas."
Gracie pulled back. This was not the man she knew. This was a stranger in his bodya wary stranger who showed no signs of recognizing her. She longed to shake him, to finally pry loose the responses she'd been denied. But his uncertainty, the watchful way he peeked at her, like one of those wary birds he'd been feeding
Gracie gulped down her bitterness, sought nonchalance.
"What's been going on with you, Dallas?"
"Dallas what?" He stared into space, looking for all the world as if he hadn't heard the most important question she'd ever asked.
"My last name. What is it?"
He turned his focus on her then, obviously mulling over something in his mind. After a moment he stepped back.
Gracie waited for an apology, an explanation. Something. But he continued to regard her with that blank stare.
"Who am I?"
His rushed whisper sounded deadly serious. But Gracie couldn't quite believe it. And until she figured out if he was playing some kind of game, she had to be cautious.
"Let's sit down on the bench. You can share my lunch. Please?" she added when it looked as if he'd refuse. "Are you hungry?"
"Well, I am. Maybe you could wait while I eat my lunch." Gracie drew him toward the bench, motioned for him to sit. She needed to buy some time, figure out what to do next. "I have some juice and some coffee. Which would you like?"
"I love coffee."
He always had.
She handed it over. Dallas removed the lid, sniffed and closed his eyes as he savored the aroma. The familiar gesture brought tears, but Gracie dashed them away.
She would not weep. Not then. Not now.
"This is good coffee. Thank you, ma'am."
If he had a hat she knew he would have doffed it. Like a gallant cowboy. Her cowboy. The sting pierced deep and hard, but Gracie was used to pain. She ignored it, focused on getting the answers she craved.
"Can you tell me where you've been?" For now she had to push back the raging inner voice and try to figure out her next move.
"What did you do there?"
"I worked with animals." That made sense to Gracie. It didn't matter why he'd been there. She knew it would have to do with the almost spiritual rapport Dallas had always shared with animals. But that was the only part of Dallas she recognized. "Did you come to this city straight from California?"
He nodded, accepted the half sandwich she held out, munched on it before speaking. "Yes. I needed to figure out the dream."
"You had a dream?"
He looked around. "Maybe more of a memory. Of this park, I think. It was different, but it was the same day as today. May 1." He glanced around, frowned. "I kept hearing a word. Dallas. So I came to Dallas." He pulled on his earlobe, fiddled with a shirt button. "I know that sounds weird."
The significance of the date may have escaped him, but Gracie couldn't forget.
"My name is Dallas. Dallas Henderson," he repeated.
She held her breath as she gently probed. "You say you couldn't remember your name before?"
"It was on the tip of my tongue, but I couldn't catch it. Do you know how that is?" He held out a bit of crust from his sandwich. The big, generous smile she remembered so well flashed when a bird hopped onto his knee and took the bread.
"Dallas, do you know my name?"
The smile vanished when he turned sideways to study her. "No."
"My name is Gracie."
"Hello, Gracie." He held out a hand, shook hers with solemn formality. "Pleased to meet you. You're very lovely. Your eyes are the color of bluebells."
"Thank you." She detected no sign of recognition on his face. For now she'd have to assume he wasn't pretending. Her heart jerked.
"Do you know me well?" Dallas played with his pant leg while he waited for her answer.
"I thought I did."
"Oh." He lifted his head, searched her face.
"How did we know each other?"
"We met in this park." Gracie wasn't sure how much to reveal. "Over there. Where you were feeding the birds. On that hillock. I was here on a vacation during college."
"So I came back to a familiar place." He nodded, his brown eyes pensive. "The doctors said I might."
So he'd been in hospital? "Do you remember anything about being here before? About me?"
"Nothing is clear." His rubbed his temple, his visible agitation warning her to proceed with caution. "If I could only"
"It doesn't matter." Concerned about the white pinch of his lips, she pushed back her own gnawing uncertainties. "We don't have to talk about it now."
"You're the first person I've met who knows me. I want to talk, to figure things out," he said, his voice slightly hoarse. "I just don't know what to talk about. II'm afraid."
Yes, she'd seen fear crawl into his dark eyes a few moments ago. She just hadn't recognized it. Dallas had never been afraid. Of anything.
"What is it you're afraid of?"
"There must be a reason I can't remember. Maybe I don't want to. Maybe I committed a crime, ran away from the law or something." He kept his head bent. "Maybe I was in jail and I don't want to go back."
It was so preposterous Gracie almost laugheduntil she saw his hand shake as he brushed away some crumbs.
"I knew you very well, Dallas, and I'm fairly certain you were never in jail. You don't have to worry about that."
"Then why don't I remember anything?"
"I'm sure you will. Don't worry, you'll think of plenty of things to talk about in a while. Didn't the doctors say not to try too hard?"
He scanned the park once more before his gaze came to rest on her. "You know, I wasn't sure why I kept dreaming the word Dallas but it seemed like God was leading me to this city. This is only my second day here but it feels right. Not like California did. I didn't belong there."
God led him here? Or had chance?
Gracie preferred to think God hadn't deliberately done this to her.
Having found a subject, Dallas seemed inclined to talk. "Yesterday I looked at some maps in the library. I saw White Rock Lake and an article about the arboretum. It sounds silly, but they both seemed familiar. So I decided to see for myself. But when I got here, I couldn't remember anything more. Everything is a big blank."
"Are you staying nearby?"
"At a small motel not far away. And there's a diner near it. It's okay."
She handed him one of her cookies, mostly to buy time to think.
So Dallas was backa different Dallas. One who had no knowledge of their past. It was unbelievable, something she'd never anticipated.
"When you knew me
" He spoke haltingly, as if still fearful of the answers his questions might bring. "What did I do? For a job, I mean."
"You're an animal behavior specialist," Gracie told him. That part was easy. "When I knew you, you had almost finished a contract working for a multinational company, traveling a lot to complete a research project. You talked about training horses after that. For police patrols, in New York, maybe? I'm not sure. You spoke of a number of different options, but they always included horses."
"Hey, maybe I was a cowboy." He grinned. You were. My cowboy.
You were supposed to come home.
Dallas crumbled the rest of the cookie, held his outstretched hand on the bench and waited. After a moment another bird approached, and before many minutes had elapsed, it was eating from his hand.
"Do you know where I used to live in the city?"
"Actually, when I knew you, you had a place in Houston when you came back from traveling. I think your company owned it." Gracie hesitated to tell him more, her fear crowding out the joy she'd begun to allow.
This was not the Dallas she'd known. This man was a stranger. Every sense warned her to be careful about what she told him. Thankfully, she wasn't the same naive woman she'd once been.
Things had changed.