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A New Adult Mystery RomanceCaitlyn Summer had always followed the straight and narrow path. Her perfect husband would love Jesus more than her and love her because of her love for Jesus. He would be faithful and gentle and have a heart for others. So how did she end up marrying the bad boy who got her high school best friend pregnant then pressured her to abort?Unable to remember the past three years or understand why she would’ve moved so far from home, Caitlyn can’t believe she willingly married such an overprotective, bossy, and jealous man. In this emotionally-charged, new adult mystery romance, Anyone But Him, Caitlyn struggles to solve the mysteries of her amnesia and her marriage. Suspicious circumstances surrounding her husband tempt her to leave and start life over, but they also challenge her Christian faith and convictions. The arrival of her first love, her husband's younger brother, intent on helping her regain her memory, offers a glimmer of hope. Together they uncover secrets involving her coworkers and the local abortion clinic, but nothing to explain why she married this man. Who changed – him or her?
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
PRAISE FOR ANYONE BUT HIM
“Anyone But Him had me hooked from the start! How did good girl Caitlyn Summers wake up next to bad boy Jarret West? Theresa Linden unravels the mystery layer by layer as Caitlyn questions whom to trust, who has changed, and how an unfinished investigation may be the key to it all. Caitlyn’s quest for truth won’t be complete until everyone’s motives are brought to the light, including her own. Told through Caitlyn’s eyes, Anyone But Him will keep you doubting, guessing - and maybe even falling in love - alongside her.”
~Carolyn Astfalk, author of contemporary inspirational romances, including Stay With Me and Ornamental Graces
“I don’t often re-read books but once in a while, one touches me, and I become so connected with the characters that I must revisit them from time to time. Anyone But Him is that kind of book. The author has a lot of elements going on in this story - mystery, romance, amnesia, and a pro-life message. How she intertwines and weaves all these pieces together is perfection. There were so many scenes that I read numerous times because they were so captivating.”
~Leslea Wahl, author of award-winning The Perfect Blindside and An Unexpected Role
BOOKS BY THERESA LINDEN
CHASING LIBERTY TRILOGY
Fight for Liberty
WEST BROTHERS SERIES
Roland West, Loner
Battle for His Soul
“Bound to Find Freedom”
“A Symbol of Hope”
“A Battle for the Faith”
“Made for Love” (in the anthology Image and Likeness: Literary Reflections on the Theology of the Body)
“Full Reversal” (in the anthology Image and Likeness: Literary Reflections on the Theology of the Body)
Copyright © 2018 by Theresa A. Linden
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events or places is purely coincidental.
Scripture quotations are from The Revised Standard Version of the Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1965, 1966 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Library of Congress Control Number: 2017918741
This book was originally titled “Life After Mistakes” but was retitled to avoid sounding like a non-fiction, self-help book. But the possibility of having a wonderful life even after making big mistakes is the message of this story, so I am dedicating this book to everyone who has made big mistakes in their life. I hope you come to believe that God is much bigger than your mistakes, and He can’t wait to forgive you, shower you with grace, and give you a mission for the sake of the Kingdom.
I am grateful for the encouragement and assistance I have received from several talented authors: Carolyn Astfalk, Leslea Wahl, Don Mulcare, Susan Peek, Corinna Turner, Barb Grady Szyszkiewicz, and my editor Lisa Nicholas. These authors have helped me to grow as a writer and have encouraged and supported me through this project. Last but not least, I will always be thankful for the love and support of my husband and three boys, who have helped me in countless ways.
“Therefore, if any one is in Christ,
he is a new creation;
the old has passed away,
the new has come.”
~2 Corinthians 5:17
A STRANGE TAP-TAP-TAPPING sucked me from a dark sleep, making me aware of something warm and comforting draped over my waist. An arm? No, not possible.
Shadows shifted, a breeze tickled my cheek, and a burst of light turned my closed eyelids orange. The tap-tap-tapping started up again, my last hope for sleep slipping away. Inhaling a deep breath of lilac-scented air, I reached to adjust my pillow, but pain made my hand shoot to my throbbing head. Why did it ache so? I never got headaches.
I opened my eyes and tried focusing on what should’ve been my closet door. Curtains swished in the breeze and a drawstring tapped the window frame. The window didn’t belong there.
The thing draped over my waist moved. It was an arm! Then a hand touched my side and slid over my abdomen. A man with a deep, sleepy voice said, “You still mad at me?”
Wide awake now, I stopped breathing. I threw back the covers—and the hand—and tore out of bed.
“I guess that’s a yes,” the man said.
In my mind, jagged, edgy lines zipped in every direction, splintering off again and again over the picture of my life, turning it into a puzzle. What was a guy doing in my—
I stood in the middle of a large shadowy room, next to a queen-size bed with a curved headrest behind it and a bare-chested man in it. A dark old-fashioned dresser with a huge mirror dominated the opposite wall. The room had three closed doors that probably led to a bathroom, a closet, and the way out. This was not my bedroom.
“It’s Saturday. Come back to bed, Caitlyn.” The man lay with his face in the pillow and his arm stretched across the bed in the exact spot where I had been. He turned his head, maybe to look at me but dark curls covered his eyes. He looked familiar. Did I know him? Why was I in his house? In his bed? Certainly we hadn’t—
My stomach tightened. “No, I—I think I...” With my eyes fixed on him, I backed to the window and the blowing curtains. Any chance it was a sliding glass door and I could make a break for it?
A gust of wind sent the curtain twirling and light scattered the darkness in the room. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. My hair had none of its natural curl but hung down, straight and red, over my shoulders. I wore a pastel pink sleep teddy and—
My heart shot into my throat. Was I wearing only a sleep teddy that barely covered my panties? I crossed my arms over my chest, which was adequately covered, and scanned for clothes.
My toes sunk into a fluffy dark-blue rug on a hardwood floor. Two antique armchairs flanked a big wooden chest against the wall. A worn cardboard box sat askew in the corner, seeming oddly out of place in the otherwise tidy room. Not a stitch of clothes anywhere.
What had I done with my clothes? Or what had he done with them? And what else could I use to cover myself? A wave of nausea washed over me. Head throbbing and hands trembling like mad, I grabbed the bedspread and gave it a good tug.
He grasped at it and said, “Hey! Just ’cuz you don’t want to sleep in...” as I whisked it from the bed. He made one last swipe for the bedspread, then pulled the sheet up to his chest and locked it down with his arm.
I wrapped the dark flowery bedspread around myself and tossed the end of it over one shoulder, making a sort of toga. Where was my purse? My cell phone?
“I still don’t get why you’re mad at me.” The man rolled over and threw back the sheet, revealing a lean but muscular physique. He pushed himself up, swung his bare legs over the edge of the bed, and sat with his back to me. Dark curls hung past his wide shoulders. He wore nothing but dark blue shorts or maybe boxers.
The trembling increased. I shot wild glances to each side, looking for something to arm myself. Who was he? How did I end up here?
He groaned, rubbing his face. “Really, I should be mad at you. You were the one out late. With no explanation. You ever gonna tell me why?”
Not sure how to answer, I watched his reflection in the mirror. When he dropped his hands, I gasped and staggered back. The puzzle of my life quivered, and all the pieces scattered. “Jarret West?”
Okay, so at least I knew him. I shook my head, shocked that I’d found a degree of comfort in that thought. Jarret West?
He looked older or maybe tired. And rather than the faint, trim goatee I remembered, he had that stylish unshaven look of today’s young actors and models. Maybe he hadn’t bothered shaving for the past few days. No, that didn’t seem like him. He’d been one of the vainest guys in high school.
His haughty eyes narrowed as he gazed at me through the mirror. “What?” His tone held a note of challenge.
“Oh, I... um.” I backed up until the curtains licked my back. Not wanting to make him mad and desperate to figure this mess out, I forced a smile. “I’m sorry. I don’t know how I got here.”
Where was here? I’d been inside Jarret’s house before. His younger brother Roland was one of my best friends. Expensive furniture and displays of antiques filled every room of their gigantic house. This looked nothing like their house. “I’m not sure where I—”
“You wanna go look for your car? Is that it?” He stepped to the dresser and opened a low drawer.
So much bare skin and in such an intimate setting! I squirmed and turned away.
“I wish you’d tell me why you up and left it somewhere. I’d like to know what happened. Don’t I have a—”
“My car?” What was he talking about? I was only eighteen. My parents weren’t rich. How could I afford a car? “You mean my dad’s van? I’m sure it’s at home.” My parents must be worried sick. I’d never stayed out all night unless for a sleepover... with permission... at a girlfriend’s house. What did I do last night? How did I end up in this mess? I tapped my throbbing forehead. Why couldn’t I remember?
“Huh?” He glanced at me through the mirror as he pulled his jeans up. “What’s the matter with you?”
“What happened last night?”
“I don’t know.” He shoved a wallet into his back pocket and jangled some keys but didn’t seem interested in getting a shirt. “I hate when we fight.” He turned around. His eyes looked softer, maybe a little sad. I had never seen him like that before. He’d always struck me as an insensitive, rude, and conceited guy.
I stepped back again and bumped the window. “No, I mean, what happened to me last night?”
Bare chested, long hair hanging loose, he walked around the bed, eyes on me. “You don’t remember? Are you feeling all right?”
I reached for my aching head, and the toga slipped.
Jarret stepped into my personal space.
He stepped back.
Grasping wildly at the bedspread, I remade the toga and held it in place as I moved away from him. He followed until I wound up backed into a corner.
His eyebrows twitched. He stopped uncomfortably close and brought a hand up to my head.
I jerked back, knocking my head against the wall. Not that I thought he would hit me but... I shivered and crossed my arms over the quilt.
He put a palm to my forehead. “You’re not hot.”
“I—I have a headache.”
“Yeah?” With concern in his eyes, he brushed the hair from my forehead.
My skin crawled. I shoved his hand away and darted past him. “Yes, a little one.” I lied. It felt like a bomb had gone off inside my head, and my stomach rumbled as if I had eaten bad clams. “But really, I can’t remember how I got here. And...” I gulped, hating to ask the next question. “Do you know where my clothes are? And my purse?” I slunk to the other side of the bed, scanning the floor.
“You don’t remember how you got here?” He cocked an eyebrow and raised his voice. “You came home in a cab. You don’t remember that? I want to know where your car—”
“Home? Okay, but that doesn’t explain how I got here. I took a cab home... and then came here? Why? Where else was I? I mean, what was I doing?” I tried one of the doors. A nightlight showed a large, tidy bathroom that smelled of soap and manly cologne.
Jarret stood motionless on the other side of the bed, staring at me with his mouth hanging open. “What... were... you doing? You’re asking me?”
“Yes.” I held his gaze then dropped mine to the bed. I’d shoved the thought aside but had to face it now. We’d crawled out of the same bed. The answer was obvious. Needing to hear him say it, I pulled the toga tighter, sucked in a breath, and waited.
His mouth fell open again, his eyes narrowing. Why didn’t he want to answer my question?
I gripped the bedspread so hard my fingernails pressed into my palms through the fabric. How could I ever have wound up in a situation like this? This was like bad casting for a horror movie. Some of my friends might have found themselves in this situation. But not me. I always said “no” to drugs and to sex before marriage. I didn’t even swear. And I always said “yes” to my parents and to Jesus. This could never be a chapter in my life. There was no possible way this was happening to me.
“We didn’t, I mean...” Relaxing my death-grip on the bedspread, I set my jaw, determined to get an answer. “Did we, did we...?” I couldn’t get the words out.
His mouth curled up on one side and his eye twitched. “Make love?”
“Have sex?” Could one really call doing it with someone they didn’t like making love?
He turned away, inhaled, turned back, exhaled. “You don’t remember making up?”
My heart plummeted to the floor. My eyes watered, making me blink rapidly. I couldn’t have. I was waiting for marriage. Could he be lying? “Where are my... my clothes?”
“Where are your— I think you’d better go back to bed. Maybe you’re dreaming. Somehow. Maybe. Could you be sleepwalking, sleep talking?” He crept toward me. “Why don’t you lie down?”
“No, thank you.” I backed away. My lips wouldn’t stop trembling. “If you could give me my clothes, I’ll be on my way.”
He shook his head. “No.” He pointed to the bed. “Lie down.”
I shook my head. “I don’t want to. You can’t keep me here. I need to go home. My parents are probably worried sick.”
His face drained of color. “Your parents?” With something like panic in his eyes, he grabbed my shoulders. “Baby, you need to lie down.”
Disgusted by his touch, I tried twisting from his grip. “Please, don’t call me baby.”
“Something must’ve happened to you.” Still gripping my shoulders, he moved me to the bed. “Maybe we should get you to the hospital.”
“The hospital? I’m not going to the hospital. There’s nothing wrong with me!”
“No, I’m gonna call a doctor. I’ll call Mike. You remember Mike? Did you know he’s a doctor?”
“Jarret, no, I’m not going to—” If he went to make the phone call, I could try the window. I’d need to grab some clothes. “Okay, I’ll lie down. You call the doctor. What’s his name? Mike? You go call Mike.”
With jail warden eyes, he watched as I crawled back into bed. Then he went for the middle door. He gave me and the window a funny look before leaving the room.
The door clicked shut.
I jumped out of bed. The toga fell to the floor. I tore open the bottom drawer, the one from which he’d taken the jeans. Two neat stacks of jeans filled the drawer. I grabbed a faded pair and shoved my foot into it. They fit tight at my hips, loose around my waist, and hung way past my feet. As I zipped up, I dashed for the window.
When I pushed back the curtains, my blood ran cold.
A little wooden deck came off the back of the house, outside the bedroom window. A tree with a twisted trunk grew nearby, casting its shadow on the cushioned patio chairs and teak table on the deck. Jarret, still shirtless, sat hunched at the table with a phone pressed to his ear. He glanced at the window.
I let the curtain fall.
Had he kidnapped me? Maybe he’d drugged me. But why me? He had no need for money and no interest in my type. He always chased the pretty, flirty, vain girls.
I flung myself onto the bed and wrapped my arms around my waist. My head still ached and my stomach churned, but I didn’t feel different in any other way. Had I really lost my virginity? To him? I could never get that back. Burying my face in the pillows, I sobbed. Oh Lord, how could I have let this happen? What have I done? Why did he do this to me?
A DOOR SLAMMED and jarred me awake. The front door? Dad must’ve been off to work, and that meant Mom would come knocking on the bedroom doors in a few minutes with her daily chant: Time to get ready for schoo-ool. The house would soon fill with the abominable noises of my brothers and sisters fighting over the bathroom.
Oh, just a few more minutes. My body felt like a lump of clay, weighted down and molded into the bed. Sleep never felt as good as it did in the morning when I had to get up. If only I didn’t have this grinding headache.
A headache. That probably accounted for my crazy dream, the nightmare. I giggled at the thought of lying in the same bed as Jarret West, being anywhere with him for that matter. I inhaled and exhaled slowly. Thank you, Lord. It was only a dream.
Jarret West. Why would I dream of him? Why not Roland, whom I adored, or one of the other nice boys in the Catholic teen group? Or anyone but him. But dreams didn’t have to make sense. Still, why would he come to my mind? I hadn’t seen Jarret or thought about him for the past two years. He was probably keeping himself busy with all the girls at college, robbing them of their virginity, if they still had theirs.
My thoughts turned to my best friend. Poor Zoë. Dating Jarret had made her the envy of all the girls, but she’d hated being pregnant in high school. She’d wanted to hide it at first. Then came the morning sickness and all the physical changes. She’d lost some friends. And her parents hadn’t taken it well.
A knock sounded on the door.
I moaned and buried my face in the pillow. “Just a few more minutes.” I should force myself to get up. Mom always tried to wake me before the others so I could have first dibs on the bathroom. I was the oldest—it was only fair. If my body would just cooperate. I sank deeper into the pillow.
Oh, wait. I didn’t need to get ready for school. It was Saturday. Was it Saturday? No, no, it wasn’t Saturday. Why did I think it was Saturday?
My cheek brushed a big damp spot on the pillow. I lifted my head and looked at it. Why was my pillow wet? Had I been crying in my sleep?
The bedroom door opened.
“Hey, baby, you awake?”
The sound of Jarret’s voice sent an involuntary shudder coursing through my body. I rolled over to face him, my gaze falling upon the dark flowered bedspread, the dresser with the big mirror, and the room I had never seen before today.
Jarret West stood in the doorway, dressed in jeans and—oh good—a shirt. A white tank top. Not much of a shirt but better than nothing.
Could I still be dreaming? I sat and pulled up the disheveled bedspread, tucking it under my arms.
He sat on the foot of the bed and gawked at me.
“Why are you doing this?” I tried to steady my voice.
“Hey, uh, Mike’s here. You wanna get dressed?”
I flipped the covers back to show him I wore jeans.
“You, uh, wanna put on some of your own clothes?” He gave a nod toward door number three. “Not that you don’t look hot in my jeans, but...” He gave me a crooked smile.
My stomach twisted. “My clothes are in there?”
He shrugged and sort of nodded.
“Could you please leave the room?”
He gave another nod and rolled his eyes.
When the door clicked shut, I tore out of bed and threw open door number three. I stared in amazement.
The closet was as big as my bedroom at home. Granted, I’d gotten stuck with the smallest room on account of my younger siblings shared a bedroom. Men’s clothing hung on one side, organized by type and color. Women’s clothing hung on the other, with no obvious organization. Cubbies on the back wall held folded clothes and miscellaneous items. Shoes in neat rows on the floor lined the walls.
I flipped through the dresses. What was my denim jumper doing here? And my aqua sundress... my white linen dress... my black, my brown, my plaid...
My chest tightened. Something was terribly wrong. How could he have gotten all my clothes from home to this place? Where did my parents think I was? Why couldn’t I remember yesterday?
A wave of nausea and lightheadedness washed over me. The answer became clear. I’d been drugged.
In high school, I had heard about a date rape drug. A guy could sneak it into a girl’s drink. She’d be out of it and he could—
I sucked in a breath. “It happens so fast,” Zoë had told me, “that you don’t know anything’s wrong until it hits you hard. Then you’re so tired you can’t keep your eyes open. You’re in this strange dreamlike state where you feel like you’re floating.”
I had never thought to ask Zoë how she knew about it. Could she have known from experience? Had Jarret ever used it on her? Rumors surrounded that boy, some of them pretty bad.
My hands trembled as I searched my memory. Had I ever heard anything like that about him?
A knock came again and a muffled, “Are you dressed?”
“No!” I yanked the denim jumper from the hanger. “I’ll come out when I’m done. I need a few minutes.” I pulled the jumper over my head and dropped the jeans. Okay, a dress really wasn’t the most practical outfit for what I planned to do, but I was absolutely not going to wear his clothes, not if I could help it.
Would the shoes be my size? I slipped my feet into a pair of brown sandals. They fit perfectly.
Now, to make my escape. I stepped out of the closet and scanned the room. What could I stand on to climb out the window? I headed for the wooden trunk and the antique armchairs. The trunk was a good height, but it didn’t budge. I grabbed a chair by the arm and yanked. It scraped across the hardwood floor, the sound ripping through me.
I froze, my heart pounding.
No one came through the door, so I continued, this time lifting the chair so it wouldn’t drag. It slipped in my hands and cracked against my shin. Stifling a yelp, I limped to the window.
Anxiety mounting, I pushed back the curtains and stepped onto the chair. The window was open, so I had only to deal with the screen. Not finding any tabs, I gave it a shove. It didn’t budge. I tried lifting it a little and then shoving. The bottom corner popped out.
Voices came from the other side of the door.
“Just a minute!” I shouted, ramming my palm against the screen. It popped halfway out. I pushed, twisted, then wrestled it from the window, hoping the scraping sound didn’t reach Jarret and the doctor on the other side of the bedroom door. The screen finally came free and clattered to the deck four feet below.
I sat on the windowsill and swung a leg outside. It would be an easy jump, but I’d better hurry. They may have heard the noise. Any second now—
The bedroom door opened. “Caitlyn?” Jarret’s voice.
Heart racing, I swung my other leg outside and said a quick prayer for safety.
“What are you—” He rushed toward me. “Caitlyn, no!”
I cast one frantic look over my shoulder. Then I jumped. I landed on my feet but fell to my knees. Would he follow? I scrambled to my feet, flew down the steps, and ran past a tall lilac bush and into the backyard.
Thick bushes grew between trees along the back edge of the yard, leaving no obvious way into the woods. A high wooden fence ran along one side of the yard, so I dashed to the other side. The neighboring lawn had the unkempt look of an abandoned property. Just my luck: I’d find no one there to help me. I sprinted through the long grass and nearly made it to the next yard when someone grabbed me from behind.
“Caitlyn, stop!” Jarret squeezed my wrist.
I pulled away then remembered it would be more effective to push. So I shoved my captive arm toward him and twisted it fast. Breaking his grip, I took off running.
An instant later, his arms slid around my waist and held me tight. His chest pressed against my back, his face over my shoulder. “Hey, stop.”
The feel of his body against mine increased the surge of adrenaline through me. I could get free of him and I knew it. To accomplish it, I simply needed a bit of space between us. With a grip on his arms, I twisted my shoulders and tried turning my whole body.
Thwarting my plan, he lifted me off the ground.
My blood boiling with frustration, I considered kicking his knee or taking a groin shot. A few more self-defense moves came to mind, but I needed my feet on the ground. I needed some space. Of course, Jarret did have long hair...
I reached over my shoulder, grabbed hold of his long locks, and yanked.
He cussed and lessened his grip.
I slid down and got my feet on the ground. He moved to tighten his embrace, but I twisted my body and got the space I need to—
A grunt escaped me as I cracked my elbow into his gut. He groaned. As he leaned forward, I took my elbow to his chin. He staggered back. I lunged, ready to knee him in the groin, but then stopped.
What was I thinking? This wasn’t a cage match but an escape mission. I turned and dashed for the woods.
The bushes at the back of the yard grew close together like a wild hedge. I plunged into them, making my escape. Branches, like a hundred daggers, sliced my arms and legs but I forced myself through.
“Caitlyn, hey, stop! You don’t want to go back there.”
Beyond the bushes, the undergrowth thinned enough for me to pick up my pace. I ran. Branches cracked beneath my feet and birds fluttered overhead, but it didn’t sound like he was following. Once farther away, I’d risk a look. Right now, I needed to figure out my destination, the depth of the woods, and where they came out. Finding no obvious paths, I dashed between the wider spaced trees and bushes.
The woods had a pale, surreal quality, the green tones softer, the dirt a lighter shade of brown, the scent like a candy store or maybe root beer. They didn’t remind me of the South Dakota woods I knew. Maybe the stress of the moment affected my perception.
I made a studied glance to either side. My gaze caught the shaggy, peeling bark on the trunk of a tall tree, lobed leaves on shrubs, branches with toothed leaflets, and a tree covered by thick vines. No, I had never seen woods like this before.
My heart pounded and my mind raced as fast as my feet. How had I gotten into this situation? I would never have gone anywhere alone with Jarret... willingly. Did Roland suspect what Jarret had done? Did anyone know where I was? If he had all my clothes brought here, he must’ve had a plan, one that he’d been working on for some time. Maybe he’d made it look like I had run away. Oh, how miserable my family must’ve been!
Leaves stirred overhead. I glanced up and saw a squirrel scurry from one branch to another. Bugs chattered but no wind blew. Everything, besides me and the squirrel, seemed still and calm. I leaped over a dead tree and ducked under a low branch. The branch caught my sleeve, making me need to stop to free myself. I took the moment to try to catch my breath and then raced on. My pace had slowed to a jog despite all my efforts, but I wouldn’t stop, not until I found help.
Jarret had held me so tightly, yet I had freed myself. I smiled. It didn’t seem possible. He obviously worked out. I liked to take walks, but I was thin as a pipe cleaner. How had those self-defense moves popped into my mind? Maybe I’d seen them on TV. But they had come to me in such detail. And I hadn’t hesitated to use them.
Light showed between the trees about a hundred yards ahead. I ran out of energy to carry on. Panting for air, I forced myself to the edge of the woods.
The wooded area ended at a strip of grass along a newly paved two-lane road. A few scattered, mismatched houses stood across the street: a little ranch with a three-car garage, an old graying bungalow, and a vinyl-sided split-level. They each had a deep yard, a long gravel driveway, and naturally growing clusters of trees between and behind them.
I could go for help. Lungs struggling for air, I propped myself against a tree and gasped to catch my breath as I scanned the woods behind me. He must not have followed, but I wasn’t going to wait longer to be sure. I stepped out of the woods.
A shiny black Mercedes Benz rolled down the road, approaching. It slowed then came to a sudden stop in front of me.
I sucked in a breath, my heart pumping double-time. Jarret didn’t drive a Mercedes. Maybe someone had come to help me.
The passenger-side door flew open.
I braced myself to run.
A man jumped out of the car. Jarret!
I gasped, my mouth going dry. I staggered, wanting to dive back into the woods, but in an instant, he was upon me.
He latched onto me from behind, his arms like tentacles entrapping me.
“Let go!” Drained of energy, I couldn’t fight him. Maybe I could slip out of his vice. I tried to drop down. He dropped down with me, and we both ended up on our knees.
“You’ll run.” He spit his words into my hair.
“Of course... I’ll run.” I gasped to draw in air. “Why... don’t you... let me go?”
“I can’t do that.”
I wiggled and twisted. He lessened his grip, so I turned to face him and plopped down in the grass. He stayed on one knee as if waiting to pounce.
“But I don’t... I don’t want to be here.”
“Yes, you do. You belong here.”
We stared at each other for a moment, both of us breathing hard.
“Come on back,” he said. “We’ll talk. Something happened to you. I don’t know what, but we’ll figure this out.”
“Why can’t we... talk... at the police station?”
He chuckled and stood, holding out a hand to me. “Come on.”
I reached as if I would take it but then jumped up to run. I turned, bolted, and smacked into a wide, solid chest.
“Hey there, Caitlyn. Whatever are you doing?” The thug had to be seven feet tall. He had smoothed-back dark hair, a clean-shaven chin, a white scar under one eye, and the strangest pale eyes I had ever seen. He planted a hand on each of my shoulders and grinned down at me.
“I don’t suppose you remember Mike?” Jarret said.
I didn’t answer. He must’ve known I didn’t know him. Something about Mike made me reluctant to speak, but I pushed past the discomfort. “So, Mike, you must be the doctor Jarret told me about.”
Mike’s grin broadened. “That I am. I hear you’re having something of a day.” He spoke with a definite Southern drawl. Who was he pretending to be?
“Did you drug me?” I said, glaring at Mike.
“Come on.” Jarret grabbed me by the arm and tugged me to the Mercedes.
“WHAT DID HE just put in the eggs?” I dropped the peroxide-soaked cotton ball I’d used to clean the scrapes on my arms and straightened in my chair, wanting a look at the small white container in Jarret’s hand. He turned away from the kitchen island and slid the mystery ingredient back into the refrigerator. It wasn’t milk.
“Please, Caitlyn,” Mike drawled, tapping his fingers on the table. “It’ll be a right quick exam.” His impatience clashed with his professional “doctor” demeanor.
I sat opposite him at one end of a long, thick-legged, formal dining room table. Carvings on the edges of the table gave it an elegant look, despite the scrapes and wear. While too big for the breakfast nook, it would’ve fit well in the empty dining room on the other side of the kitchen. A huge antique painting of a rifle-toting man on a horse filled the wall behind me, as if someone thought hanging it in the same room as the monstrous table would tie it all together.
The antique pieces clashed with the clean, contemporary feel of the house. Sand-colored walls without a single smudge, dent, or handprint. Pale kitchen cabinets and shiny black appliances. If I hadn’t seen Jarret yanking things out of cabinets and messing up the marble countertops, I could’ve believed no one lived here at all, that this had all been staged.
I crossed my legs and hiked my skirt high enough to expose the bleeding gashes on my shins. I’d ruined my denim jumper. As soon as they’d dragged me back to the house, I’d changed into a camouflage skirt and an army-green t-shirt. If an opportunity to escape presented itself, I’d be ready.
Jarret had kidnapped me. But why? Did he have mental problems? He’d done mean things before. He once made his younger brother, Roland, miss school by locking him in a room of their house for a whole day. Roland was fourteen then, Jarret sixteen. Did Jarret have a reason for it? Had he a method to his madness? Or was he just mad?
Mike leaned back and folded his arms. His gaze shifted from me to the sliding glass patio doors. He looked like he’d rather be fishing. No, he probably played golf. But maybe he owed Jarret a favor and had to convince me to take his mind-altering drugs before he could go. Or whatever devious thing Jarret wanted him to do.
With a sigh, I dragged a cotton ball down a scrape on my leg. If only I’d succeeded in getting away, the bodily damage would’ve been worth it. I should’ve stayed in the woods instead of rushing through them. He hadn’t followed me into them. I could have hidden, sneaked out later, and found my way home. How could I have known he would drive around—
“Caaaitlyn? The exam, please.” Mike’s tone bore a strong resemblance to my father’s when he wanted me to do something to which I was diametrically opposed, like eating stew for dinner.
I glanced at Mike but wanted to keep my attention on Jarret. “Did you see what he put in the eggs?”
Jarret looked up as he zealously whisked the eggs. “Don’t worry, you’ll like ‘em.”
“I’m not hungry.”
He snickered. “Yeah, right. Have you ever skipped a meal in your life?”
“Of course. I’m Catholic.” In fact, I fasted twice a year: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. My stomach always hated me for it, rumbling at mealtimes and making me nauseous within the hour. Thank God the Church prescribed only two fast days.
“Not counting Lent.” Jarret gave a cocky grin.
My cheeks warmed as I realized he’d read my mind.
“Dear, may I inquire?” Mike said. “Is there a history of mental illness or other disorders in your family?”
“Mental illness?” Jarret stopped whisking and shot Mike a horrid glare. “She ain’t crazy. There ain’t no crazy people in her family.”
Mike withstood Jarret’s glare, expressionless for a moment, then he exhaled and lifted his hands in frustration. “Well, it need not be that extreme. Are her parents still living?”
Jarret’s mouth fell open and he glanced at me. “What does that matter?”
“Yes, my parents are still living.” Done cleaning my wounds, I secured the lid on the peroxide bottle and pushed it aside.
“What about a thyroid disorder? An untreated thyroid—”
“No. Something happened to her.”
“As a doc-tor...” Mike emphasized the word and paused. “I must consider all possibilities.”
Jarret bristled at the word doctor, as if Mike had challenged him for leadership of their little duo. What was their arrangement?
With a father as rich as his, Jarret could pay his accomplices well, but his youthfulness and lack of education could be a source of insecurity. Maybe the two of them would get into it and I could silently depart. Yes, I could help generate friction between them.
Jarret mumbled something and returned to whisking the eggs. They had to be getting to the soft peak level. When would he stop? Of course, with that secret ingredient...
I craned my neck to glimpse inside the bowl, but Jarret tilted it toward himself as he worked.
“Caitlyn, if you would simply allow a check-up...” His fake Southern accent grated on my nerves. People didn’t really talk like that. Except sometimes on TV. When they were acting. “... we might get some answers.” Mike tapped the shiny black doctor bag on the table.
“No, thank you. How do I know you really are a doctor? And besides, I have my own family doctor. Why don’t you let me see her? I’m sure she’s not far. Where are we, anyway?”
Jarret chucked the whisk over his shoulder to the sink and dumped the frothy egg mixture into a skillet. It immediately hissed. He muttered something—probably a swear word—then yanked the skillet off the stove and lowered the flame. He glanced at Mike. “Don’t you have an ID badge or something to show her?”
“Oh, sure.” Mike stood and swung a hand to his back pocket as he approached. “You can have this.” He pulled a business card from his wallet, tossed it to the table, and got his phone.
Stopping near me—too close for comfort—he tapped his cell phone then twisted toward Jarret. “What did you put in the eggs? My stomach is beginning to take note. I hope you’re fixing to give me some.”
My attention zeroed in on the image on his phone, a portrait of a teenage girl with sleek brown hair and a slight smile. She sat poised with her head tilted, looking like a teen model. She’d probably had her picture done professionally by a glamour studio with make-up artists. “Is that your daughter?”
Mike turned his cell phone to himself and tapped the screen. “Is what my daughter?”
“The picture. The girl.” I pointed to his phone as he continued tapping it.
He set his phone nearby. He’d pulled up an on-line listing that showed his professional portrait, name—Michael A. Caragine, MD—bio, and the address and phone number of the medical facility where he worked. The business card had the same information.
“The ‘girl’? Why, she’s a young woman. Besides, how old do you think I am? Since you obviously do not recall me, I get a second chance at your first impression.” He peered down at me through pale eyes and grinned. His eyes... were they green or gray? He continued staring, waiting for my opinion, no doubt hoping for a favorable answer.
“Hmm.” I hated to look him over.
His wide chest and slight paunch strained the cotton fabric of his designer gray polo shirt. The upright and relaxed way he carried himself gave him an assertive, professional air that countered the thug-like impression created by the thick scar under his right eye. His hair—shiny, dark brown, and smoothed back in a man-bun?—could have come from Just for Men hair color, but he did have all his hair. Fairly handsome, he had a strong, clean-shaven jaw and few wrinkles, not counting the bags under his eyes. Overall, he struck me as a clean, vain, gentlemanly, and professional man with a few quirks. Probably pushing forty.
“Well? Your guess?”
I shrugged and decided to go with the lower number in my estimate range so as not to offend his pride. “Thirty-five.”
“Thirty-five?” He laughed, snatched his phone, and returned to his seat at the table. “Not yet, sweetheart. I’m only thirty.”
I glanced at the business card and flicked it away. “I could have one of those made up and put anything I wanted on it. Caitlyn Summer, hmm...” What title would I use? “Caitlyn Summer, Private Investigator.” Liking the sound of it, I folded my arms and gave a satisfied grin.
Jarret laughed. “Yeah, you could use that title, all right. Only you got the last name wrong.”
“Back to the matter at hand. I’ve given you proof. So, how about it? You have a bathrobe, don’t you? You could put that there on...”
Jarret jerked his head toward Mike.
“... and I could examine you right quick in the bathroom or in your bedroom if you prefer. I’m worried that you—”
“What, do you think,” Jarret snapped, “she has cuts or bruises she don’t know about? I’m sure she’d feel it. Besides, she can check herself in the mirror.”
Mike shook his head. “Try to help me out here, Jarret. Y’all want answers or not? Caitlyn, I—”
“No.” I folded my arms. “The only cuts I have came from Jarret hunting me like a lion after its prey. But I do have a headache. Probably from the poison you gave me. Maybe it’s wearing off.”
Jarret and Mike exchanged glances.
“What can you tell me about yestuh-day?” Mike said.
“Ask Jarret. I don’t remember yestuh-day. I don’t remember how I got here at all. What kind of drug did you use on me anyway?”
“What’s the last thing you do recall?”
I made a face. What difference did that make? The last thing I remembered was... was... Memories and images tumbled in my mind. Was I still attending high school? Was I a senior? No.
An image came into focus: my graduating class all in caps and gowns, huddled for a group picture. Roland came up to me afterward, a look of humble pride in his gorgeous steel-gray eyes. A few strands of his dark hair had fallen out of place and hung over his forehead. He looked so handsome in black. Of course, he always wore black...
Realizing I was smiling, I forced a frown. “What difference does it make? Can I use the phone?”
“The phone?” Jarret slid a plate of scrambled eggs and buttered toast in front of me, his gaze traveling up and down me.
My skin crawled. I turned my eyes to the plate. All that work for plain old scrambled eggs?
“What’s with the camouflage outfit?” His eyes held a glint of humor.
I flashed a curt grin.
Smirking, he stepped back behind the counter. “What d’ya want to drink?”
His cocky look and the arch of his brow showed he had tired of my attitude.
I pushed the eggs around with a fork. They didn’t look strange.
Jarret returned with a tall glass of milk.
I dropped my fork onto the table. I wouldn’t take my chances.
He took a swig of the milk, set the glass in front of me, snatched the fork and took a bite of my scrambled eggs. “See? No poison.” He set the fork down, leaned back against the counter island, and gawked at me.
“Can you recall the day before yestuh-day?” Mike wasn’t going to let up until I gave him something.
“Umm.” The eggs did look good. Should I try them? I said the Prayer Before Meals in my mind and tasted the eggs. Light, fluffy, melt-in-the-mouth delicious. What did he put in them? “Sure, I remember the day before. I umm...” I was sitting on my bed, the papers I’d received from South Dakota University spread out around me, trying to decide how to spend the summer. Happy butterflies danced in my stomach as I thought about college. I couldn’t wait. All through high school, I’d looked forward to college even more than summer vacation. This summer would be a long one. I’d reached for the phone to call Roland when Mom shouted, “Caitlyn, I need you to watch the kids while I run to the—”
I snapped from the memory. Why was I thinking about that? That wasn’t yesterday. When was that? I finished the eggs—with no ill effect—and grabbed the toast. “I don’t see what difference it makes. May I please use the phone? Mom’s probably wondering—”
“How old are you, Caitlyn?” Mike said.
Jarret should know. I was the same age as Roland. I gave Jarret a look to say “as if you didn’t know” and answered, “Eighteen.”
Jarret’s eyes snapped wide and his mouth fell open. He turned away and leaned over the counter, looking like he might vomit.
“So, are you still in high school?” Mike continued to pry. What was his game?
I shook my head. “Jarret, why don’t you tell your little Southern friend all about me? It’s not like you don’t know.”
Moving in slow motion, Jarret turned and sat in the chair nearest me. Trembling? “You’re not eighteen, Caitlyn. You’re twenty-two.”
I laughed. “Oh, I’m twenty-two. That makes me older than you.”
He shook his head. “I’m twenty-five. After high school, I went to college for four years. I have a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. I wanted to get my...” His eyes flickered and he shut his mouth.
Could it be true? No. And if it were— “I still don’t see why I’m here. With you. What do you want with me?” Heart quaking, I struggled to keep the emotion from my voice. “Why are you doing this?”
He gave me a blank stare then raised his hand. I jerked back though he didn’t look angry. With his other hand, he tapped the gold band on his ring finger.
He grabbed my left hand. I pulled away but then looked at my hand. There on my ring finger, where I expected to see my chastity ring, was a gold band and another ring with an opal set between two diamonds.
I gazed at the rings in disbelief then looked at him. “We’re... married?”
He frowned. “Don’t sound so excited.”
The blood drained from my face, my neck, my chest. I forced myself to breathe. “This isn’t real. I don’t see how...”
He huffed and got up from the table, the chair legs scraping the floor. “Are you done with that?” He grabbed my empty plate.
Mike dug through his little black bag and pulled out a stethoscope and something else, maybe a pen or one of those “doctor” flashlights. After hanging the stethoscope around his neck and stuffing the flashlight into his pocket, he scooted his chair out and stared at me. Then he stood and approached slowly, as if he thought I might attack.
“Now, if you’ll oblige, I’ll simply take a peek at your eyes and head. That there shouldn’t be a problem, should it?”
“Well, um...” I leaned away from him.
He had his fingers in my hair before I could voice an objection. Oh well, what would it hurt? He could look, but only at my head.
“Mmm.” He moved my head to one side and the other as he inspected me with all the gentleness one might expect from a doctor. “Mmm-hmm.”
“What?” Jarret propped his hands on his hips and stepped closer. I shot him a warning look, and he stepped back.
Mike stooped, lined his face up with mine, and held his little flashlight-thingy up. I tried to hold still and focus on his seriously pale irises, while he tried to blind me by shooting a beam of light into each eye. He did it a second time then straightened and snatched my wrist.
I blinked to get rid of the green spots the light had caused.
After a minute of staring at his watch, he dropped my wrist and shoved the earpieces of the stethoscope into his ears.
“Don’t,” I said, but he did.
He placed the chest piece here and there on my back, over my shirt, and then on my chest. He seemed like a doctor.
Yanking the stethoscope from his ears, he spoke. “How’s your vision, Caitlyn?”
“My eyes are fine. I just have a terrible headache.”
He held his hands out in front of me. “See if you can squeeze my fingers.”
I made a disgusted face and did not comply.
“She’s got her strength and reflexes,” Jarret said. “Believe me.” Glaring at me, he rubbed his chin where I’d hit him earlier.
Mike returned to his end of the table and dropped the instruments into his doctor bag. Sitting, he rested his clasped hands on the table and leaned forward, his pale eyes fixed on me. “Caitlyn, there’s a right good-sized lump and bruise on one side of your head.”
I touched my head, my finger going right to the sore spot. Oh! A bump!
“I do believe you’ve got a concussion, and you’ve obviously got amnesia.” His eyes narrowed with a thoughtful look. “My dear, do you have any idea what on earth happened to your head?”
“Amnesia? I have amnesia?”
Mike turned to Jarret. “I suggest you take your wife in for a CT scan and...” He lowered his voice. “Well, you’ll want to check...”
Jarret had been standing as still as a stone statue ever since Mike had said amnesia, but now he blinked and made a quick nod. “Yeah, yeah, okay. Your clinic?”
“The clinic? Why, no, it’s Saturday. We’re closed.” Mike cast a long look out the sliding glass doors.
“Oh yeah?” Jarret gave an annoyed smirk. “You got the key, don’t you? And that place has the equipment, right? Can’t you do a CT scan?”
“Well, sure, I suppose.”
“Amnesia?” I whispered to myself. Could I really have amnesia?
MY EYELIDS HUNG at half-mast. The second we’d returned from the clinic, my body had been drawn to the couch. Its soft cushions and plush throw pillows beckoned me to curl up and fall into a deep slumber. Unfortunately, my parched throat had diverted me from the couch to the kitchen, where I now stood searching for a cup.
I opened another kitchen cupboard: dinner plates, dessert plates, and a tissue box filled with... batteries? Interesting.
Maybe I should’ve put up more of a fight when Mike insisted I take a sedative before the CT scan. Jarret hadn’t wanted me to have a sedative, at first. That was the main reason I did. I’d fallen asleep to the buzzing, clicking, and whirring of the CT scanner, and I woke to Mike’s grinning face hanging over mine.
“That’s a girl,” he’d said. “Time to get up.”
Having no clue what had happened to my head, I’d been relieved when Mike had given me a clean bill of health. Whatever that was worth.
I cracked open another cupboard and found spices, olive oil, cooking spray, and a carton of dog treats. Dog treats? My gaze swept the kitchen floor, the sun-drenched breakfast nook, and the part of the living room I could see over the kitchen island. No fur, scratches, dog toys, or food dishes.
Jarret and Mike carried on a whispered discussion behind the half-closed door of a room off the empty dining room. If only they would close the door completely and I could sneak out or take the phone. Every minute or so, Jarret glanced, his eyes narrow and glum. They must’ve been working out the next part of their plan. Maybe they were waiting to see if I bought the amnesia and marriage lines. Maybe I did have amnesia. It would explain a lot. But that I had willingly married Jarret West? That mountain was too hard to climb.
As I opened another cupboard, a Ziploc bag stuffed with packets of hot sauce from a Mexican restaurant fell out. I tried to shove it back but couldn’t find room in the crowded cupboard. Plastic containers filled the top shelf. On the lower shelf, bottles of vitamins and medicine surrounded a stack of bowls, leaving little room for much else. The kitchen had seemed so clean and new, with shiny marble countertops, natural maple cabinets, and sparkling black appliances, but I felt more at home with every packed cupboard I checked. I’d always had too many things and not enough room.
Opening another cupboard over the island, I finally found them. Glasses. I wrapped my fingers around a pretty, blue-tinted glass and went to the sink.
As I turned on the water, the phone rang. My heart skipped a beat. The phone sat at the end of the counter. Would he let me get it? I was much closer to it than he was. I lunged and snatched it up on the second ring.
“Caitlyn?” His voice—I recognized his voice!
“Roland! Is it really you?” My heart danced in my chest. “You found me!”
“I need your help,” I said, my voice high and hurried. “It’s urgent. I don’t know where I—” A hand snatched the phone from me. I spun around.
Jarret hung up the phone and shook his head. “No phone calls yet.”
My bottom lip trembled. Was he the jail warden and I the prisoner? “But it was Roland.”
“Was it?” Jarret said with indifference. Did he expect Roland to find me? Did Roland already know where I was? He wouldn’t be in on it, on this evil, twisted scheme. He didn’t have a devious bone in his body. Maybe I shouldn’t have said it was him. Maybe now Roland would be in trouble.
“Why can’t I talk to him? He already knows I’m here.”
He shoved his hands into the front pockets of his jeans and stepped past the dinner table. “I don’t know.” He faced the sliding glass door. “Maybe you can. I need to think.”
Clinging to hope, I stared at his back. Then a shadow shifted and a voice sounded in my ear—
“So, take my advice,” Mike said.
I jumped. I hadn’t heard him approach, but now he stood right behind me.
Jarret turned. “I will.”
“Good.” Mike’s tone held authority, his expression concern. “Call if you need me. Or, uh, if her memories return. Remember, I would like you to call right away, should that occur. She may have some confusion about her memories.” He gave me a strange pasty-eyed look as if he refrained from saying more. Then he grinned at Jarret. “Well, I’m going to go chase the little white ball. Take care.”
I knew it: he was a golfer.
Jarret walked him to the door, where they exchanged a few last whispers. I thought Mike said, “Maybe you should tell her.” Then they both looked at me.
As the door closed, a dull feeling of dread rolled over me, like the shadow of a storm cloud, at the thought of being imprisoned with Jarret. He seemed different from when I knew him in high school. More devious, if that were possible.
“Maybe you should tell me what?” I said.
“Why don’t you come sit down?” Jarret grabbed a framed picture from the bookshelf, sat on one end of the couch, and propped a bare foot on the coffee table. He wore his hair in a low ponytail and had a look of concentration or a scowl on his unshaven face. Maybe it was the look he got when scheming. I’d seen him annoyed and angry, usually at Roland, with his lip curled up on one side and his eyes narrowed. I’d seen his vain and cocky look too, with his brows arched and a coy smile on his face. What would he look like if he ever really smiled? Maybe he never did. Maybe he was an unhappy man.
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