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by Celia Ashley
Description: Awakening naked on the beach, Caleb Hunter knows his name, knows that someone tried to kill him, and yet nothing about his life before, not who he was, or what he was, or how he came to be where he was. And almost most disturbing of all, he has no idea why the desire he feels for Meg seems so new and yet so familiar. As handsome and desirable as the dark stranger is that she finds on the beach near her home, Meg still doesn't understand why she's not only not afraid of him, but drawn to him, trusts him enough to bring him into her home, to give herself to him when it's so contrary to her nature. Loneliness, pure and simple? The need to comfort and draw comfort? Or is it something else? Something dark and infinitely dangerous that draws the two of them together? Rating: Sensual/Spicy
eBook Publisher: New Concepts Publishing, 2007
eBookwise Release Date: December 2007
14 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [237 KB]
Reading time: 157-220 min.
Pushing a handful of sodden hair from his eyes, Caleb Hunter scrambled upright. An expanse of sand stretched as far as he could see into a soaking fog, although on the crest of the dune he viewed a slate-roofed, white house rising three stories out of the shimmering haze. Slowly Caleb lowered his hand to his side. He stepped away from the water purling around his feet. He had no idea where he was.
Thinking on it, he wasn't quite sure who he was, either. He knew his name. He thought he was thirty-five or thirty-six years old. Somehow he knew he was six-foot-one, that his eyes were brown, that his nearly black hair was badly in need of trimming. At this point, it was in need of a great deal more than that, plastered with salt and sand and a bit of debris floating in the breeze before his eyes that looked like vegetation. Yanking the piece of seaweed from his brow, he tossed it down.
Turning his hands palm up, he stared at them. They were well-formed, calloused across the pad of the palm just below his fingers. The skin of his fingertips was wrinkled from long emersion, fine sand embedded in the near side of the joints. The hair on his arms was encrusted with salt and sand, the skin chafed. He bore a bruise on his right forearm. When he flexed his hand the injury felt deep, into the muscle.
Bending his head to check the rest of his body for injury, he discovered that he wore not a stitch of clothing. More sand coated his torso, his groin, clumped in the hair on his legs and in places more private where it grated uncomfortably. He planted his feet apart and bent to brush it away, finding this only made the situation worse.
Dismayed by his lack of recall as well as his lack of garments, Caleb glanced around again. He pushed both hands through his hair, clasping his fingers behind his neck on a hard knot of flesh that was very tender, indeed. A frown creased his brow.
Something had struck him there. He remembered that. Something ... no, not something. Someone. Someone had tried to kill him.
That fragment of recall brought no further revelation, but his skin shifted in reaction to a danger he couldn't fathom, and he looked around again to make certain he was alone. He wasn't.
The fog was shredding, revealing a woman approaching him from a short distance. She walked with her head down, bending every now and then to pick up small items from the water's edge. Not knowing what else to do, Caleb sat down, pulling his knees up close to his chin and wrapping his arms around his legs. After ascertaining that everything was neatly tucked out of view, he waited.
She stopped less than a dozen feet from him, bending to pluck at a polished stone to deposit with the array of minuscule treasures on her palm. The wind fluttered the length of a dark blue shawl from her shoulders, dragging the fringed edge in the sand. Tan trousers were rolled to the knee, exposing the curve of her calf and slender feet washed by the surge of the tide as she crouched. Her hair was the color of honey, dark golden-brown and clasped loosely at her nape. Her white blouse was haphazardly buttoned, exposing a glimpse of fair skin and the fact that she wore a skimpy undergarment beneath. The flapping hem opened to the second button, revealing the lower curve of a taut, full breast above a firm belly only slightly rounded by position. Sensing that he would increase the precariousness of his situation if he let his gaze linger, Caleb looked again at her face. Even at that distance he could see that her eyes were very green. And they were staring straight into his.
Clutching her treasure trove close to her breast, the woman straightened slowly. Her lips parted, yet if she spoke, her words were carried away on the wind. Caleb cleared his parched throat, uncertain what to say. The woman stared at him for several seconds longer, expression unreadable. Dropping the items from her fingers into a heap on the sand, she placed one bare foot behind the other, backing away. Her gaze never left his face. She shook her head, then turned on her heel and started into an awkward run across the shifting sand, the shawl flying from her shoulders to land on the beach.
Leaping to his feet, Caleb strode quickly over and snatched up the garment, draping it around his waist and tugging the loose knit down to cover himself. Scooping the woman's discarded treasure into his hand, he started after her.
She was making for the white house at a remarkably swift pace, and was a good distance ahead of him. He observed her leap up the long flight of wooden steps from the beach two at a time, crossing a seaside garden to a porch where she yanked open the door and disappeared inside. Caleb paused in uncertainty. He hadn't meant to frighten her, and she did seem frightened, not merely startled. Nevertheless, she was for the moment his only hope of receiving any kind of answer to the burning questions in his head.
Girding his determination as well as his grip on her shawl, he set his own bare feet toward the stairs, climbing to the brick pathway that led through the tiny, tended garden. At the porch steps he paused again, his gaze drifting the length of the covered area, glancing at the blank face of the windows to see if she was peering out at him. All he could see was the milky reflection of the fogged-in sea.
Climbing up the series of shallow steps, he halted a short distance before the closed door. "Hello?"
"Go away!" he heard her cry out, muffled through the solid wood. "Whoever you are, just go away!"
He released his breath through his nose. "I ... can't," he said.
"I'm sorry if I startled you."
"I would return your shawl, but I have a specific need of it at the moment."
"I'll say you do. Keep it."
The fact that she had spoken to him again gave him a glimmer of hope.
"I was hoping you could help me," he continued with dogged persistence. "I don't know where I am. I don't know who I am," he added, frowning down at the boards of the porch floor. That statement aloud sounded ludicrous. The brief flare of fear engendered by his own words was not funny at all.
"What do you mean you don't know who you are? What makes you think I can help you?"
Her voice was clearer. Lifting his head, he was able to see past a security chain stretched taut in the darkened space between the frame and the door, where her leaf-green eyes regarded him intently.
"I don't remember much. I believe I was hit on the head. Maybe I washed up onto the beach from the ocean. I'm not sure. I can give you my name, if that helps. It's about all I do remember. Caleb Hunter. Is that familiar to you?"
"No," she said, "I don't know anyone by that name."
The door shut again. He blinked at the scarred surface, the light blue paint scoured by the salt winds peeling away in places to show the bare, weathered wood beneath. Glancing about, he noted other evidence of neglect. Not years of overbearing neglect, but a general lack of recent regular maintenance.
The door opened enough for her to toss something out at him. He bent and picked up the crumpled fabric of a pair of men's jeans. They looked like they might actually fit.
Turning his back, Caleb dropped the shells and stones and bits of sea glass onto the lacquered surface of a nearby chair, followed by the shawl as he hastened into the jeans. He grimaced as sand abraded his flesh. If she was standing in the doorway watching him struggle into the pants, she gave no indication. He glanced over his shoulder. Through the narrow opening he could not see her.
"What was that in your hand?"
At her question he slowly pivoted to face the door, feeling more naked now than he had in her shawl. It was a strange sensation, talking to her wearing nothing but a pair of borrowed blue jeans. He felt on display, half-dressed. He was tempted to pick up the shawl and drape it across his shoulders. Instead, he seized it from the floor where it had fallen and placed it beside her rescued treasure. The door opened a little more and her face appeared.
"Your things," he said by way of explanation. "I never meant to frighten you, to make you drop what you'd been gathering."
He saw her frown at what he had placed on the chair, then she turned her gaze to meet his. She was slow to speak, her eyes studying him a moment.
"Thank you," she said.
The door closed again.
Not knowing what to expect, Caleb moved to another chair and sat down. He leaned forward, elbows on his thighs, his hands folded together between his knees. Now that he was paying closer attention, he realized that he ached all over. Reaching up, he fingered the back of his head, tracing the contours of the vicious lump. He remembered a flurry of fists, grunting blows and male voices raised in harsh invective, but not the words. Was one of those voices his own? Could have been. And he remembered ... he remembered ... nothing. Nothing else.
Once more the door opened. The honey-haired woman stepped onto the porch holding out a tee shirt. Gratefully he took it, slipping the garment over his head. It smelled a little like it had been left sitting in a drawer. Not that it mattered. He was thankful for any consideration.
"Your husband's?" he asked.
"Is he here?"
"He's dead," she said.
Caleb blinked, running his hand through his salt-encrusted hair. "I'm sorry."
"So am I."
She moved with a lithe stride to the chair where her shawl lay, bending to pick up the oddments he had deposited there. Brushing them into her hand, she walked to the porch railing and sprinkled them into the garden below, permitting them to flow through a loose fist. Her eyes closed as she did this and it occurred to Caleb that there was something ritualistic in the execution of her action, like perhaps she did it every day in memory of her late husband. He wondered what had happened to him.
"His ship went down in a storm. That's what you were thinking, wasn't it? You were wondering how he died."
Caleb blinked again, feeling the skin between his shoulder blades shift within the confines of a dead man's shirt. "Yes," he admitted, "I was."
She nodded, the longs bangs of her honey-blonde hair swinging forward. "A year ago today," she told him quietly.
Today. Caleb said nothing.
Moving back across the porch, she lowered herself into the chair opposite. Gathering up the shawl, she held it balled against her stomach. She tucked her feet around the outside of the legs of her seat, her knees angled together. She looked innocent and vulnerable. Caleb felt something churn in his abdomen.
"I dream about him, most nights," she confided in a voice barely above a whisper, her green eyes intent on his own. "But not always. This morning, on the anniversary of his death, I dreamt about someone else. I didn't realize it until I saw you on the beach. I'm fairly certain I dreamt of you."
Stunned by her speech, Caleb sat back hard against the chair frame. His breath exploded from his lungs as the knot at the back of his head came in contact with wood, causing him to jerk forward again, bright pinpoints of light dancing before his eyes.
No matter that he couldn't remember the fundamental particulars about himself and his own life, he knew what dreams were without requiring an explanation. "What do you mean? Do you know me?" he asked again hopefully. Perhaps she did not know his name, but she might recall having seen him somewhere. Something.
She raised her eyes from a fierce contemplation of the air between them back up to his face. After a moment of study she shook her head. He licked his dry, salty lips, then shifted on the seat, frowning at the pain wracking his body. She reached into her pocket as he watched, drawing out a small black object. She opened it. From somewhere in the recesses of murky recognition, he knew it was a cell phone.
"What are you doing?"
"Calling the police," she stated.
Don't let her. Don't let her. Don't let her.
He blinked at the force of his own voice in his head, recognizing without understanding that it was instinct for preservation speaking to him.
"Don't," he said, then added more sedately, "Please."
She displayed no overt consternation at his command, but merely cocked her head to the side a little, studying him. However, he could see evidence of the pulse beating beneath her jaw, the momentary suspension of her respiration.
"Why not?" she asked after a moment.
He stared back at her, trying to dredge up a reply that would be suitable. He couldn't.
"God, I don't know," he answered, lowering his head into his hand, shoving his fingers deep into his tangled hair. "I don't. I don't know."
He heard her breathe again, a short, decisive inhalation. She flipped the phone shut. "Don't you want to go to the hospital?"
"Why?" he countered.
"Aren't you hurt?"
The color of her eyes, he decided, was amazing. He did not believe he had ever seen eyes so green, though he couldn't recall for certain. She stood up.
"You had better step inside and let me see to your head."
He held himself very still, eyeing her extended hand as suspicion dawned. "How do you know I have a head wound?"
Her mouth twisted in wry amusement. "I could say that I dreamt it, but I didn't. You told me you thought you had been hit on the head. Even if you hadn't, you wince every time you touch the base of your skull. That, and the fact that you can't remember who you are, are fairly good indicators of some sort of head trauma. Which," she added, "is why you should have a doctor check you out."
Raising his eyes to hers, he held her gaze for a long moment. She did not look away. There was a certain defiance in her stance. Her hand remained steady, waiting to assist him in rising, should he need it. He wondered at her trust in a stranger, or was it merely confidence in herself? That, or total foolishness. He could remember nothing about his past life. For all he knew, he could be a very nasty sort of person, a dangerous man. After all, someone had tried to kill him, hadn't they? Somebody had felt they had good reason for that.
"Not yet," he whispered. He could not say why he possessed such an aversion to the possibility of questions, of a need for answers he could not provide. He did not think he was so dreadfully injured that his life was at risk. He felt no weakness, no disorientation beyond his inability to recall. Whatever was wrong, there was no reason to expect that she was not capable of caring for him. If she saw something that troubled her, he would consider listening to her then. If only--if only what? Swallowing, he slipped his hand into hers and allowed her to pull him up from his seat with a surprising strength.
When he stood up he could smell the sea in her hair, and the fresh air, and a faint suffusion of citrus. She was a good deal shorter, the top of her head about even with his collar bone. The feeling of protectiveness that stole over him belied his recent misgivings about his own character, but couldn't erase them altogether.
Confounded and discomfited, Caleb followed her into the house, the inside of his borrowed pants chafing like sandpaper over thighs and calves and along the tender flesh of his testicles. He trailed her into the kitchen, where she indicated he should sit in a chair she pulled from the table. Gingerly, he did so. She pulled back the curtains to allow more light into the room, then walked behind him across worn linoleum to place her fingers into his hair, gently parting the tangled strands for a better view of what lay underneath. At the delicate touch of her fingertips on his scalp he felt a shiver run the length of his spine. She paused.
"Am I hurting you?"
"No," he said, willing himself to remain still while she examined him, a feat that proved easier to command than to accomplish. He closed his eyes as she bent for a closer look. He now scented more than the fragrance of her hair. He could smell the warmth of her skin, what he knew was the lavender soap with which she had bathed, the light sweat she had worked up while walking through the damp sand. Against his lids he visualized the shape of her arms, her hands, the soft flow of her blouse, the ease with which the buttons would loosen with simple manipulation, allowing him to take her breasts into the curve of his calloused palms with what seemed a remembered weight and texture and sweet response.
He stood up in a hurry and walked away from her, the chair sliding across the worn floor.
"I did hurt you," she said behind him in genuine remorse. "I'm sorry."
He could not bring himself to reassure her. He stared out the window. The sun had broken through the fog, the golden light dancing on the waves and on the sand, reflecting in a shimmer on the pale blue ceiling of the porch. He felt both mortification and confusion mingle with that strange, unexpected surge of lust.
"You didn't hurt me," he stated quietly. "How bad did it look?"
"The skin's not broken," she said. "It's quite the goose egg, though. I'm no doctor, but it seems to me it's just a nasty bump. I mean, I don't expect there's a fracture or anything. Still, you could have concussion, you know, if your brain gets knocked around hard enough in the pan."
Wordlessly he nodded, staring at the varied reflections of sunlight until his eyes watered. He heard her open the refrigerator and rummage around in the ice container. A few seconds later she was standing behind him. He could feel her there with every pore in his skin.
"Here," she said, handing him a plastic bag of ice wrapped in a tea towel. "This might help the swelling. If I'm not mistaken, you shouldn't sleep with concussion. Would you look at me a moment? I'd like to see your eyes."
Oh, Lord, no, he thought, blinking once. He took the ice pack from her, slapping it against the back of his head with a deliberate intent of distraction before he turned to face her. Pain made him flinch, then he raised his lids in an unblinking stare. Very deliberately she looked first at one of his eyes, then the other, then repeated the process. Her eyes were not just green. The pupils were ringed about with tawny gold, the deeper striations of color in the iris flecked with more of the same. He tried not to notice just how beautiful her eyes were, pressing an edge of a single cube more urgently against his battered flesh.
"Hey," she said, noticing what he was doing to himself, "take it easy. You want the ice on your skin, not embedded in your skull. Sit down. I'll do it."
He obliged, only because he could think of no reason to offer as to why he would not, and dutifully handed the ice pack over to her. She laid the towel-wrapped pack against his nape, standing at his side. From the corner of his eye he could see the gentle rise and fall of her white blouse as she breathed.
"So, you remember nothing at all but your name? I mean, obviously you remember a great deal, otherwise you would be questioning everything I said to you. But those are general things. I suppose it's just your life in particular you don't recall."
"That seems aptly put," he agreed, fixing his gaze on a spot where the seam in the wallpaper had started to curl. He could feel the concentrated focus of her regard as she studied him, could still smell the totally appealing scent of her. He curled his fingers over his thigh, squeezing hard and winced. There was another bruise there, as well.
"You don't know me," he said again at length, as he had before.
"No," she answered. "I told you that."
"Then it stands to reason that I do not know you, right?"
"That only makes sense."
Of course. Sense. When, in point of fact, there was none of it to be made of this day. Regaining consciousness on a beach without memory. Recalling only his name and that someone had tried to kill him, and nothing of his life. Sitting in the kitchen of a woman he had just met being tended to by her and wearing the clothes of her dead husband. Realizing there was that in him, something elemental, that recognized her, that knew her, that yearned to touch her, hold her, lose himself inside of her, and not for the first time. Yes, it all made perfect sense, didn't it?
"Do you often dream of people you do not know?" he managed after a moment. The phrasing of the question, the tone in which he uttered it, sounded harsh. Still, he could not help the manner of his delivery. Something was not right about the implication of his question. Due to his inability to recall, he was not quite sure why that was so, but he knew that dreaming of someone you had never met before, then having them turn up on your doorstep, or at the very least the beach leading to your doorstep, was not a mundane occurrence.
"I dream a lot," she said. There was a note both defensive and apologetic in the statement.
"Of people you don't know," he persisted.
"Of many things."
"And these things you dream of come true? In some way, they come to pass?"
"Sometimes," she said, more quietly.
He let his breath out slowly, accepting. How could he argue the point with her with no ammunition for the battle? Besides, he had no cause to doubt she spoke truly of having dreamt of him, and therefore the proof, so to speak, was in his very presence in her home, in her life now. But why?
"Why?" he asked aloud, before he realized he was doing so.
The ice pack eased away from the back of his skull and lowered to rest against her thigh. He glanced aside at the delicate structure of her fingers grasping the red and white check of the towel, then back to the loosening wallpaper.
"I wish to God I knew," she whispered. "It's hard, when you don't know which of the things you see will happen and which will not. You end up jumping at shadows, trying to foresee everything, then you ignore it all, hoping that it's all meaningless, unable to pick out the one dream you should have paid attention to."
Her voice trailed off and she sucked in a sharp, deep breath, turning to set the ice pack on the counter. Yanking open the refrigerator door again, she drew out a container of orange juice and poured a glass, holding it out to him. Mutely he took it from her, tipping his head back a little to drink.
"What did you dream about me?" he asked, wiping orange pulp from his lip with the back of his hand. "Something in it that might help me, do you think?"
Leaning the small of her back against the counter, she folded her arms under her breast. "I don't remember, exactly," she said. "Usually I do, but I had no recollection of having dreamed at all until I saw you. It was only then that I knew I hadn't dreamt of Matt this morning, of all mornings."
"Matt?" he echoed, feeling a small twinge of something he could not pinpoint. "That is--was your husband's name?"
"It still is his name," she answered. "He didn't suddenly become nameless just because he died."
The pain in her eyes, the bitterness, seared him. "Of course not," he said as she turned away to place his empty glass in the sink. Flicking up the faucet handle, she filled the vessel with water, then shut off the flow with a fierce motion that made the pipes groan. She curved her hands over the edge of the counter, her arms far to either side of her body, and leaned forward, head bent. He could not see what she was doing. He thought it was an attempt to regain composure, but when she dropped her hands to her side and turned to look at him he saw that he was wrong. She had regained nothing, and it was not grief that shone out brittle and hard from her eyes, but anger.
Wordlessly she shook her head at him, a tiny movement that tossed her bangs into her eyes. She blinked at the intrusion of fine honey-blonde hair into her lashes, at the sudden moisture glittering in her gaze. She was holding something back, holding it inside, some severity of emotion that she did not want to let loose.
"I guess I should be on my way," he murmured.
One eyebrow lifted in a gesture like amusement, but she did not laugh or even smile. "And where," she asked quietly, "would you be going?"
He tried very hard to think where, indeed, that might be. The air left his lungs, passing over his lips with a noise like a deflating balloon. "Nowhere," he said. "I have nowhere to go."
A vast emptiness bloomed inside him at his statement, as if his admission had made suddenly visible the void he had entered upon regaining consciousness on the beach. Folding his hands between his thighs, he stared down at his interlaced fingers. What the hell was he going to do?
"You should rest for a little while," she said, "and then decide what you should do."
He glanced up sharply, startled once more at how astutely she interpreted his unspoken thoughts. The anger of her expression was gone and in its place was sympathy and concern and the look of a decision made.
"I'll put a towel and some more clean clothes for you in the bathroom, then turn down the spare bed. Your pupils are reacting normally to light, so I suppose lying down won't do you any harm, even if you do doze off. I'll wake you up at regular intervals, if it comes to that, just to make sure you're okay."
"You're not afraid to have me here?"
"Should I be?" she asked.
"I don't know," he answered.
She met his uncertainty with an appraising stare, eyes now green as the sea. She had a lovely face, no longer young but still youthful in expression. Her skin smooth and lightly freckled, the minute lines beside her eyes and more faintly running alongside her nose to her mouth showed that at one time she had laughed often. He was not so sure she did so now.
In response she turned away, heading across the kitchen floor to a narrow flight of stairs. "You can shower and do whatever you need to do while I'm gone."
"Gone?" he echoed, rising from his seat. "Where are you going?"
"After I get you those things I promised, back to the beach. Maybe something else washed up besides you."