When Natalie Shelton thinks back to how things were before the car accident, she remembers a great marriage. She and her husband, Zack, seem as strong and dependable together as the houses he builds. They live in Portland, Oregon, and Natalie is co-owner of a successful accounting firm. They’re happy, she’s almost sure of it.
Yet as Natalie lies trapped in a coma, unable to communicate though aware of everything around her, she realizes that her husband is hiding something. Zack has always been reticent about his past, which she attributed to an unhappy childhood. Now the strange calls he’s receiving, the apologies when he thinks she can’t hear him, and her fragmented memories from the morning of the accident suggest a deeper secret.
When she finally awakens, Natalie is determined to find out the truth. Sorting through clues as her brain heals, she realizes she has a rare opportunity—to reexamine the life she’s made and the man she’s made it with. But as answers come to light, she faces surprising, heartrending decisions, as well as a danger that could upend her world once again, as Zack’s past finally catches up with them . . .
“Fast, suspenseful . . . an action-filled, unexpected resolution.”—Library Journal
“Lamb opens her magnetic novel with a tantalizing glimpse of a mystery, and a feisty heroine to root for.”—Publishers Weekly
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He had lied.
He lied about his past, he lied about where he was from, and he lied about what he'd done before I met him.
All of it.
"What isn't a lie, Zack?" I heard my voice pitch straight up, a screech and an accusation in one.
"Natalie, I —" He closed his eyes for a second, his face pale.
"Answer the question!" I slammed my hands down on the granite island in our kitchen. It hurt, but I didn't even wince. The coffee machine gurgled. It gurgles every morning. The gurgling is usually comforting. Today it sounded as if it were choking, which was exactly how I felt. "Answer it!"
He ran a hand over his eyes, his expression exhausted but determined. So determined. "What I told you from the time I lived in Alaska is all true."
"And before that?" I had had enough lies already in my life; they had stalked my childhood, and I didn't need any from him.
"What I told you about my life before Alaska is not true."
"Is your real name Zack? Zack Shelton?"
His jaw tightened. "No."
I hit the granite countertop again. I can't believe this. My husband of five years, whom I had made love to, in the bath, last night, whom I had also made love to during halftime of the football game, was not named Zack.
The morning had started out right and warm and ended up cold and wrong. We'd been in bed, the dawn light sneaking around the edges of the curtains. I had turned, naked as usual, to snuggle into Zack. He was always cuddly, and I loved hugging him. I didn't want to go to work.
I'd decided that morning sex would be a splendid idea and rolled on top of him and smiled, my messy blond curls spilling onto his chest. Yes, I'd smiled on top of Zack, but he had not been smiling.
He'd had his cell phone in his hand and he placed it, slowly, on the nightstand next to our bed. He closed his eyes for long seconds and swore. He can swear with the best of them when something ticks him off. In the years we had been together, he had never, ever sworn at me.
"What's wrong?" I figured something had gone wrong with his home construction business. Lumber not delivered. Appliances lost. A plumber not showing up.
"Baby," he'd said. "I need you to trust me."
That's when he told me what I didn't want to hear and my life spun in a spiral and flipped upside down. I peeled myself off him, stunned. I grabbed my pink lace robe and headed to the kitchen to get away from him, to get away from what he'd told me.
And now we were here, and I was freezing, and reeling. I dragged in a breath. It was breathe or pass out. I studied my husband. Zack has brown hair, not a soft curve on his face, and light green eyes, with fine lines fanning out from them. He has a long scar on the right side of his ribs and a smaller one on the top of his left cheekbone from when he was a fisherman in Alaska. His face is Marlboro Man type, only he does not smoke. "What is your real name, Zack?"
He hesitated. I saw it. Infinitesimal.
Devon? "Devon what?"
"Natalie, sit down, please, for a second. You're shaking. You look like you're going to faint."
"Of course I'm shaking, Zack." I wrapped my arms around myself. "Or Devon. Oh, my God. Two names! It's not every day you find out your husband is not who he has told you he is."
"Natalie, I am sorry —"
"You are not sorry enough." I put my hands to my head. What was going on? Was this real? Was this a nightmare? He hadn't lied only about his name, either. My God. The worst came after he told me about his fake name. "You are wanted by the police."
"And for evading the law."
"Yes. Honey —"
"Don't you 'honey' me!" I was furious, and I was scared. He had killed a man? Zack had never been violent, though he's built like a lumberjack. He didn't even have a temper. He got along with all of his employees. He had four best friends from college. He laughed a lot. He did crosswords. He played chess with me.
"We don't have time to talk right now, Natalie. We need to leave."
"Oh, heck, no. I'm not leaving." I glared at the vase of white daisies that Zack had brought me. I wanted to throw them against the wall.
"Yes," he said, his voice low, insistent, "you are, Natalie."
And there was the steel. The strength. His voice was quiet, hard. Zack, my Zack, was an incredible man whom I fell in love with on the Deschutes River, a fly rod in my hand, but I sensed that steel the first day I met him, and I had seen it many times since. It's what helped him build his company. It's what made him Zack. But I was not letting him push me around.
"We are leaving together," he said. "Now."
"No." My whole life was crumbling, which sounded totally melodramatic, but it was true. My reality as I knew it was not my reality. My marriage was a myth. "This is my home." Actually, a little voice said in my head, it's not your home, it's his.
"Natalie, I would not tell you that we have to leave unless we did. I will take care of this problem, but I can't take care of it until I get you someplace safe."
Safe? Safe? I'm an accountant. That's a safe occupation. I co-own an accounting firm. That's a safe business. I like numbers. Numbers can be brought to order. They are safe. They tell the truth. You can trust the numbers.
I drive a blue truck built like a tank. That's a safe way to go. We have a home in Portland, Oregon, with my collection of hummingbirds hanging from the ceiling and a towering oak tree in the backyard. That's a safe place to live. I like driving tractors and playing poker, reading books and fishing. I like home decorating and choosing paint colors. I love making necklaces when I have time. These are safe hobbies.
I have worked hard so that I will never be poor again, because being poor makes me feel unsafe. I have tried hard to be a normal woman and to fit in because I spent a lot of years not feeling as if I fit in and not feeling equal to others or loved. Those are safe neuroses. I am working on them.
But today I woke up and my husband told me he's not who I thought and he killed some man a long time ago and apparently someone wants to kill me because of it.
Kill me. Natalie Deschutes Fox Shelton.
That does not make me feel safe.
"I'm not going anywhere with you, Zack. I have no idea if you're telling me the truth."
"I am telling you the truth." His jaw was rigid. He might crack his teeth.
"You just told me you killed a man. Why did you kill him?"
"I will tell you later. We don't have time now. It'll take too long."
"And after hearing that I'm supposed to trust you?"
He came toward me, and I put a hand up to stop him. "Stay away from me. You are not going to tell me what to do. I don't even know who you are, and that sounds so ... so ..." I struggled because I couldn't think through the shock. "Stupid. Ridiculous. Like we're in a badly written movie. But it's true. Who the hell are you?"
"I'm your husband. I love you. You need to do what I'm telling you to do."
"No. I am not going with you." I turned to the bathroom to get in the shower and ready for work. I am never late for work. I had clients. I had columns of numbers to examine. I had tax codes to study. Profit and loss sheets to explain.
He followed me to the bathroom and said, "You don't have time to shower. Get dressed. Grab your purse, your computer, and your phone. Hurry. You have to hurry."
I slammed the bathroom door in his face and locked it. I stared into my worried blue eyes in the mirror. They are an odd blue. Some people say they have a smear of lavender in them. My mother has told me they are "too large — try to lower your lids, dear, so you don't resemble a guppy fish."
I have a crooked smile, but it takes up half my face. My teeth are big. Let's just say I have no problem eating steak. My nose is ever so slightly off-center. I'm told that no one notices it, but I do. It looks as if my nose were plopped on my face and then squished to the left side. I have blond curls that do what they want to do no matter what. They stop midway down my back.
I stared at my reflection, which was utterly stricken, until the bathroom door was kicked open with a bang, the hinges flying off, wood splitting.
"You broke the door, Zack," I protested, my hands over my head for protection.
"I did. Baby, come on." His voice was gentle.
"No." He pulled me out. "Stop it. Let go of me!" I pushed him away and got dressed for work while he followed me and told me we had to be out the door in two minutes. I ignored him. I would go to my office, find a difficult file, and concentrate until all this stuff stopped buzzing in my head and I could figure out what to do.
When I was dressed I went back to the kitchen to grab my briefcase, my phone, and my purse. I glanced at my late grandma's antique perfume bottles on a shelf. She would know exactly what to do here, but I sure didn't. "I'm not running, Zack." I faced him across that granite counter in the black suit I'd pulled on, black heels, and sheer tights with two black butterflies on my ankles. I had not brushed my hair or teeth. That's how confused and furious I was. "You run, not me." I glanced at the clock. I was going to be late for work! I grabbed my purse and headed to my truck in the driveway.
"Natalie, for God's sakes —" He grabbed my arm, and I pushed it off.
I said a bad thing to him that started with an F and ended with a "you," and I ran to my truck as fast as I could and climbed in. I locked the doors before he could yank them open. He yelled at me to stop, but I didn't. I was living with a liar. I was living with a man I didn't even know who had lied to me. Repeatedly. For years. I could not trust him or what he was saying now. He had admitted to killing someone. His name wasn't even Zack.
And now I was late for work.
I reversed out of the driveway in my safe truck. He ran after me, and I headed down the street of our safe, quiet neighborhood in the hills to my safe job with numbers. Fall leaves — scarlet, gold, yellow, and green — spiraled in front of me, as if it were a normal autumn day. I started to cry. I cried so hard it felt as if I was going to choke.
I saw Zack rush to his black truck.
It was in that state that I drove to work, Zack right on my tail, honking. I stopped at a stop sign, and when I was waiting for a school bus to cross, he got out of his truck and raced to the door of my truck and banged on the window. "Natalie!" he shouted. "Pull over —"
I kept driving and stopped at the next intersection, two blocks from my home. I should have looked. I always look. I am a cautious and safe driver.
A flash caught my eye. Someone had his lights on. But that wasn't what I remembered last. The last thing I remembered was the driver of the van, seconds before he rammed his car into mine. He was driving way too fast and smiling.
Yes, the driver of the van — heavy, bald, with beady eyes — was smiling.
Oh, my God, I thought, before our explosive impact. Zack was right. Someone is trying to kill me.
Because of him. Because of Zack.
Because of the man I married.CHAPTER 2
I hear screaming noises.
My head has exploded, I think. Maybe my brain is in pieces all over the steering wheel. That would explain why I'm being crushed by pain. There's a white pillow against my face and chest. Why is there a white pillow there? There's red paint all over the white pillow, all over my blond curls. It smears when I touch it. I glance up and can see only broken glass. Broken glass is so pretty. Tiny fissures. Elegant lines. Geometric and organic shapes.
I hear people yelling. Why are they yelling? Someone hits the door of my truck, but I don't look at who it is, because if I do my brain might shatter. I picture my brain, like a puzzle, all broken.
Wait. Is that Zack yelling? Yes. It is. He opens the door of the truck with his key. "Natalie! Natalie! Hang on, honey." I want to hug Zack. I want to be with him. I love Zack.
"I love you, Zack, I love you," I whisper.
Something in my head pops, one final blast of sheer pain, and the broken glass on the windshield of my truck, such an intricate design, starts to fade and blur. It's getting smaller, pulling away from me. Wait. Maybe I am pulling away from the glass.
Yes, it's me. I'm pulling away. I'm moving backward in a soft, warm tunnel. I don't understand how there can be a soft, warm tunnel in my truck. The steering wheel is getting smaller, and for some reason I am in the backseat and I can see that the white pillow is the airbag and my blond curls and the blood are still on it. How can I be looking at myself in my own truck?
I don't have much time to think about that conundrum, because I'm soon outside of my truck and floating. I watch Zack lean in toward the other me, the "me" with her face on the bloody airbag, his head close to mine. I can tell he's panicked; there are tears on his cheeks. People are around us, trying to help, two on their phones, yelling. I see a few of my neighbors running toward my truck. A fire engine is down the block, lights and sirens on, an ambulance screaming in from the other direction, a police car speeding through the neighborhood. I watch them arrive from way up in the sky.
I am leaving the scene of my accident like a bird. They think I'm still in my truck because my body is there, but I am moving through the tunnel, nice and smooth. My head doesn't hurt anymore. Nothing hurts. I think I can hear music. Ah, yes. Beethoven's Fifth. My very favorite. Then country music. I hear my dad's voice, too. He's singing me songs from my childhood. Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire." "Old McDonald Had a Farm." The Beatles' "Let It Be." My mother never sang to me, so it is not surprising I don't hear her voice.
I feel someone with me, holding my hands. I feel love. Peace.
The morning light is a golden circle around my truck now, the circle getting smaller as the tunnel pulls me back. The paramedics are getting me out of the truck, a brace on my neck. Zack is talking to me, anguished, earnest, but I can't hear him. He's holding my hand. I'm put on a white stretcher. The sirens are silent now.
I hear my dad sing, "My hummingbird, you are my life, my love. ..." He often calls me Hummingbird because when I was little I loved them and told him I wanted a pet hummingbird farm.
I float upward, through the trees with their burgundy and pumpkin-orange leaves, above my home, farther into the blue sky and the white cotton puffs of clouds. I am rested. I am calm now, in the clouds. Happy.
Is that ...? Oh, my gosh, it's my grandma Dixie, my dad's mother. She's been dead for years. She taught me how to play poker. I love Grandma Dixie. I run to her and give her a hug. In the background I see the love of her life, Howard, grinning, waving at me. I wave back.
She gives a cry of delight and hugs me tight, a drink in her hand, the ice clinking. "Good to see you, kid." Her eyes flood with tears. She puts the drink down on a table beside a red 1967 Chevy. The hood is up. She's in her blue mechanic overalls. She places her hands on either side of my face. "I have missed you so much, honey."
"I've missed you, too, Grandma Dixie." She smells like her rose perfume.
My grandma was a ball-breaker. She was popular in Lake Joseph, our small town in eastern Oregon. She was the mechanic. Everyone said she could get a car without an engine to drive. She shot darts, bluffed her way through poker, and won the rifle shooting contest every year. When she swore it was like listening to a poem or short story. She'd left me all her antique perfume bottles.
"I'd like you to stay and play poker, kid, have a beer, but you have to go back."
"Your dad needs you. Zack needs you."
"I don't understand."
"Go back, Natalie." She hugs me again, cheek to cheek, then lets me go and says, "Go back now."
"Go back where, Grandma Dixie?"
"I mean, get out of here, quick as a hot cat. It's not your time."
"Not my time?" And then I get it. I know where I am. Oh, hell. Not that I am in hell, but hell. I do not want to be here, that's for sure.
"Fight, baby. Fight for your life. I love you."
She takes three steps back, then rushes forward and shoves me as hard as she can, right in the chest.
I fall straight back through the soft tunnel, Beethoven's Fifth whirling around me.CHAPTER 3
I can't breathe. I can't move. I can't see. I can't talk. It's dark in here. I'm in pain. My head is throbbing, every cell shrieking. I need to breathe.
What is going on? Where am I? What happened?
"Clear!" someone shouts.
Ouch! That hurt my chest.
"Clear!" someone shouts again.
Ouch! Hurts again.
It's Zack. He's upset. Is he crying? I think he's crying. He rarely cries. Only a few times, when I told him I loved him, when he asked me to marry him, our wedding day ...
"Natalie, breathe, honey. Please. Take a breath. ..."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Man She Married"
Copyright © 2018 Cathy Lamb.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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