Jerked awake, the horror of the nightmare fresh in her mind, Kathryn raised up on one elbow. She breathed deeply and waited for the pounding of her heart to slow and calm the stark fear ripping through her. Shaking and drenched in a cold sweat, she clenched a handful of bed covers over her mouth to smother an outcry. With the edge of the cotton sheet, she wiped her face and shivered against the terror gripping her mind.
“Dream, . . .just a dream,” she reassured herself, then settled deeper into the mattress and pulled the blanket up over her arms. In vain she tried to keep her eyelids from closing as her mind slid into that realm between sleep and consciousness. The nightmare began to fade, but it left her with an uneasy impression that someone had just left her bedside. The urge to flip on a lamp and plunge from the bed filled her, but she couldn’t move. Exhaustion bound her to the mattress. After all, it was only a dream, just another nightmare like the others. She was safe and secure in her condominium.
Absently, she rubbed her chest and licked her dry lips. Pain arced from the back of her head to settle behind her eyes. She clutched her head and moaned as a wave of nausea assaulted her. She tried to breathe deeply hoping to stop the churning of her stomach. Nothing stopped the urge to vomit. She leaned over the bedside knowing she would never reach the wastebasket. Strong arms supported her and a deep soothing male voice kept repeating the same phrase.
“It’s all right. I’m here. I’ll stay with you.” A calloused hand brushed the hair back from her face and a warm damp cloth wiped her mouth.
“Robert?” she mumbled. Her eyes refused to stay open. “What happened? Why are you here?” No answer came as she drifted back to sleep.
Sometime in the wee hours of the morning she awakened. Her mind was a little clearer, but her mouth was filled with a bitter taste. The dream and the man forgotten, she lay quietly thinking. Today was D-day, her divorce would be final. The papers were signed and she, at last, would be free of Robert Cantree and could put her life back on track.
It would be almost laughable, if it wasn’t so sad, the stupid things women did in the name of love. Most women fell for Robert. She had, for a while anyway. She really shouldn’t beat herself up about it. Robert could exude more charm and manners than any man she had ever met. Then reality struck.
Marrying Robert was not the worst mistake of her life. No, not the worst, but it ranked near the top. Her entire life was filled with mistakes, one piled on top of the other, until at times; she couldn’t breathe from the memories.
She let her eyes half close and listened. The sounds of a new day soothed her, quieting the demons of nightmares and memories, giving her the courage to face whatever happened. Today she heard nothing. No raucous cry of the gulls as they winged their way along the shore, no papery sound of palm fronds swaying in the breeze. No warm salty breeze drifted through the room from the screened balcony door. Instead a faint, sharp odor permeated the air. She wrinkled her nose. Unease furrowed her brow as she opened her eyes.
Faint light began to flicker through the blinds sending eerie shadows jumping up and down on the walls. The sky continued to brighten from black to pearl gray. Dawn arrived. Sunlight always chased away her mental gloom. This time she focused. The shadows had disappeared, bringing the room into sharp clarity. Puzzled, she looked around. This definitely was not her apartment.
This was a hospital room. Two chairs were placed before the tall windows. One was a padded metal chair with arms, the other, an upholstered recliner. Grayish blue paper covered the walls and a wide border of yellow roses wound around the room just below the ceiling. On the bedside table stood a plastic water pitcher, a Styrofoam cup and a vase holding a single red rose.
She sat up and pushed the hair back from her face. Her fingers found a bump on the right side of her scalp. She winced, as her touch sent another shot of pain though her head. It was not a large knot, but big enough to let her know it was there and it was not bandaged, no skin was broken. She felt a tugging pain and her eyes dropped to the narrow bed. Held in place by tape, a capped needle protruded from the back of her right hand. She ignored the pain, more concerned as to why she was in a hospital. Had she been in an accident? The knot on her head would indicate so.
Thinking back to the prior evening, she remembered leaving her apartment and driving down Gulf Boulevard to pick up her grandmother for dinner. The sky was blue, the clouds puffy, and the sun hot. That was it. Her memory stopped at that point. She did not remember turning onto the Bayway or stopping at the toll booth. Nor could she remember arriving at her grandmother’s house on Tierra Verde, or even dropping her off and going home.
What had happened? A faint memory, a shadow, struggled to penetrate the fog in her brain. She rubbed the back of her neck to ease the tightening muscles. A glimmer of a scene came through, a vehicle slamming against some object. That was it. For some reason, that memory made her afraid, and she did not know why.
Her mind raced with questions. How long had she been here? Did her parents know where she was? She could not have been in the hospital long. Someone had been to visit. They had left the rose. Nothing else in the room indicated Grandmother Abby had been to visit. If she had, the room would be filled with flowers and cards. That was Abby’s way, always there to cheer her up.
She threw back the blanket and inched past the left side rail to let her feet dangle over the side of the bed. Every muscle protested as she tried to stand. She clung to the railing for support as another wave of dizziness assailed her. Determined, she waited for it to pass.
When her bare feet hit the floor, the cold tile sent a chilly draft swirling about her bare legs. Chill bumps raced up her spine as she reached behind and felt nothing but her own bare backside. Great, she thought a hospital gown, open back and all.
Holding on to the rail, she picked up the phone receiver on the nightstand next to the window, and then wedged back to sit on the side of the bed. The instructions for an outside line were simple so she dialed Abby’s phone number. Apprehensive, she waited for the line to ring. All she got was a rapid busy signal. Again she tried the number. It was the same. At last, she dialed the operator.
“What city are you calling?” a woman’s voice asked.
What a weird question, Kathryn thought, but said, “St Petersburg, of course.”
“What state, please?” the woman inquired.
“Florida of course.”
“I’ll connect you with a long distance operator.”
“But it’s a local number.” What the hell is going on, Kathryn wondered and frowned? A cold feeling of dread washed over her.
“What is the number, please?” the woman insisted.
Kathryn gave her the phone number. This was ridiculous.
“I’m sorry, that is not a Colorado Springs number,” the woman said, and again, “Would you like to be connected to the long distance operator?”
Icy fear gripped Kathryn as vertigo swept over her. “What city did you say?” The woman repeated it for her. Stunned, Kathryn ended the call and let the receiver drop to the floor. Anxiety knotted her stomach as she raised a trembling hand to open the blinds wider. Nothing could have prepared her for the view outside the window. Instead of the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico, her eyes were assaulted by a blinding reflection of sunlight on white. Snow!
Her mind fought to comprehend what her eyes were seeing. Where there should have been palm trees, instead stood snow-covered pines, their boughs glistening and bent with the weight. She looked down at the street below. Men and women, bundled in coats and scarves, fought to stay upright as they made their way down the slick sidewalk. In the distance, she could see snow-covered mountains.
The reality of the scene hit her. She was two thousand miles from home and in a strange city. It was difficult for her mind to accept the indisputable evidence. How long she stood transfixed, she had no idea. Suddenly the sun flashed off a car windshield. She stumbled back to sit on the edge of the bed rocking back and forth. “I’ve lost my mind,” she cried. “That’s it. I’ve gone flipping nuts!” She clamped a hand over her mouth to stop a hysterical giggle. Although why she felt the need to laugh was beyond her. Cry. Scream. Sure, but giggle?
“It’s the headache,” she muttered to the empty room. “The pain is causing me to hallucinate. Things like this just don’t happen,” she whispered, peering out the window. “People don’t go to bed in one place and wake up in another.” But in the space of a few minutes, she had gone from one nightmare to another. It was all real.
Kathryn cried out in panic and groped for the bell cord, repeatedly pressing hard on the button. The door to the room burst open; a nurse rushed to her side catching her before she slipped to the floor. The woman helped her back into bed.
“You stay in bed, young lady,” she scolded and began adjusting the sheets and fluffing the pillow. “Justin Crown will have my head if anything happens to you.”
As the nurse tried to cover her with the blanket, Kathryn cried out, “What am I doing here? What has happened to me?”
Calmly, the nurse answered, “Now, Mrs. Crown, you’re going to be fine. Dr. Otis will be here shortly,” she said, ignoring Kathryn’s questions.
Hands shaking, she fought to control the panic. Kathryn insisted, “How can everything be fine? I’m not supposed to be here. What am I doing in Colorado Springs?”
The nurse stared at her. “Why, Mrs. Crown, you’re at the Colorado Springs Medical Center. You were brought here after your accident last night.” The nurse paused, watching Kathryn’s face. Trying to reassure her, she continued. “Your husband should be arriving any moment. I’m sure he can tell you more about the accident than I.”
Kathryn could not believe her ears. Husband! Robert? “I’m divorced. I don’t have a husband,” she stormed.
“But, Mrs. Crown. . . .”
“Stop calling me Mrs. Crown!” Kathryn exploded. “That is not my name.” The nurse looked confused and backed away. Kathryn rubbed her forehead in an attempt to ease the pounding. She had to think. Nothing made sense, not this strange city, not the nurse, not even the name of the hospital. If she had wrecked her car, how did she get here from St. Pete?
“Good morning, Kathryn,” a pleasant male voice interrupted. She looked up. A tall slender man, with a white lab coat over a dark suit, stood beside the bed. His silver hair contrasted with the weathered tan of his face.
“Who are you?” she demanded and gestured toward the nurse. “Would you please tell this woman I am not this Mrs. Crown she keeps referring to? I am not married. Please tell me why I am in Colorado.”
“Dr. Otis. . . .” the nurse began.
Seeing the fear on his patient’s face, he shook his head as a caution to the nurse. “What do you mean, Kathryn? Why do you say you’re not Kathryn Crown?” He watched in surprise as Kathryn huddled on the bed.
The doctor and nurse were staring at her as if she had lost her mind. Maybe she really had gone crazy and had been committed to a nut house. This was worse than any nightmare. As the doctor moved toward the bed, Kathryn ordered, “Stop. I don’t know you.”
Stunned and with a frown on his face, he stopped. “Kathryn, I’m not going to hurt you,” he said, backing away. “What’s wrong?”
“I want to know how I got here.” Her insides were quivering. What was wrong with these people? Why couldn’t they just answer a simple question?
The doctor moved to stand at the foot of the bed. Her outburst was a definite shock. He considered his next words carefully. Before he could begin to explain, a deep masculine voice sounded from the doorway.
“How’s she doing this morning, Dan?” A tall man entered the room with an easy stride.
Kathryn looked at him, puzzled. Who was this addition to her nightmare? His rugged face was handsome in a sharp-edged way. Deep blue eyes regarded her with concern, and when he smiled the corners of his eyes crinkled with fine laugh lines. His nose appeared to have been broken at one time. Though it was slender, a crook below the bridge that gave him a hawkish appearance. A neatly trimmed moustache grew above well-defined lips. A thick, unruly mass of black hair, peppered with gray at the temples, softened his features.
A dark blue flannel shirt and faded jeans accented his muscular body. Western boots added to his over-six-foot height. In one hand, he carried a Stetson hat by the brim, and a heavy sheepskin coat draped over his arm. Casually, he tossed the coat in one of the chairs and placed the hat on top. He gazed at Kathryn and leaned forward, his hands gripping the bed’s footboard for support.
As Dr. Otis hesitated, the stranger turned then sat down in the vacant chair to study the doctor’s face.
“Okay, Dan, what’s going on?” He folded his arms across his chest and waited for the bad news.
“Justin, Kathryn is physically fine, but there appears to be a different problem.” Dr. Otis arched an eyebrow, but before he could explain, Kathryn exploded.
“Who are you people?” She looked from one to the other, ignoring the nurse who remained nearby. “Would one of you tell me how and why I’m in Colorado?” Her control almost gone, her voice rose. “What do I have to do to get an answer?” Kathryn’s self-control exhausted, rage took its place. “I wake up in a strange hospital, in a city I’ve never visited in my life, and I can’t find out why.” She scooted off the bed on the side closest to the door. A death-grip on the bed rail for support, she let anger help combat her fear. “Damn you! What happened to me?”
Shock registered on Justin’s face. He turned to Dan. “What is she talking about?”
The two men and the nurse stared at her confounded and concerned. “Kathryn, please calm down. I’ll try to answer your questions,” Dan said. He moved toward her only to watch as she side stepped out of his reach. Justin started to rise, but was stopped by the fear he saw in her eyes. The doctor retreated to stand by the chair to give her time to regain her composure.
Eyes filled with mistrust, Kathryn returned to sit on the edge of the bed and glare at them. “I’m calm, but I want answers,” she said, but her breathing was still rapid. In truth, she was anything but calm. But where was there to run. She was physically unsteady and her head continued to pound.
“Since you don’t appear to recognize me, I’ll introduce myself. I’m Dan Otis, your doctor and your friend. I’m also a longtime friend of your husband,” he pointed to Justin, “Justin Crown. So you have nothing to be afraid of.”
“He is not my husband.” Where did these people get the idea she was married to this man? “He is not my husband,” she repeated, daring them to disprove it.
Dan placed a hand on Justin’s shoulder and pushed him back into the chair. “Relax,” he told him. “Kathryn, can you tell me your name?”
Her control began to slip. Even with Dr. Otis’ assurance that she had nothing to fear, she did not like his questions. She dreaded his answers even more. Taking a deep breath, she exhaled slowly and said, “Kathryn Fowler Blanding.”
“You said you are not married.”
Justin sat in stunned silence as Dan continued. Would you tell me what month and day this is?” This morning was filled with surprises.
“It’s supposed to be my birthday, October twenty-fifth. But, with the snow outside the window, I don’t believe it is October. I remember a car accident. Have I been in a coma?” Had she even made it to her birthday dinner with Abby, she wondered?
“No, not a coma,” he said. So far, her answers were what Dan was expecting. “You say your last name is Blanding? Is that your maiden name?”
“Yes. Why are you asking these questions? I don’t have amnesia. I know who I am.” Kathryn did not like the way the two men kept glancing at each other as if they shared a secret. She also disliked the placating tone the doctor used to ask his questions.
“Bear with me for a moment. What is the year?” Dan was not surprised by her answer.
“For heaven sakes, the year is 2008. I told you, I don’t have amnesia. Why do you keep questioning me as if I do? And why do you think I’m married to him?” she scoffed, pointing to the cowboy.
“Oh, good Lord,” escaped from Justin. He refused to remain silent and let that statement pass. “Because that’s my ring on your finger, Kathryn,” he shouted. “I bought it. You know damn well, I’m your husband. And who the hell is this Robert you were muttering about during the night?”
Kathryn’s eyes widened. “No!” she yelled back. “You’re not my husband! I have never seen you before in my life.” She stared at the diamond wedding band on her left hand. It couldn’t be true. She started to shake. This was all such madness.
Seeing her shocked expression, Dr. Otis admonished Justin. “If you want to stay in this room, keep quiet and let me handle this.” Calmly, he tried to defuse the statement blurted out by Justin. “Ignore what he said.”
Ignore what he said, how could she? His words kept reverberating in her mind. She could not have made another mistake and gotten remarried?
Dan watched as her eyes darted back and forth between him and Justin. “Focus on me, not Justin,” he said and was relieved when she turned her gaze back to him. “I want you to tell me where you live.”
Her voice faltered as she kept her eyes glued to the doctor’s face. “I have a condo on St. Pete Beach in Florida.” Kathryn shuddered. She thought of her parents and Grandmother. Abby must be out of her mind with worry.
Dan noted how her skin had paled and she was holding her body in a stiff manner.
“I don’t feel well.” Her voice was barely audible. A wave of nausea rose in her throat. She pushed the doctor aside and rushed into the bathroom. The violent retching sent searing pain through her head until she thought she would pass out. Relief was a cold damp cloth pressed against the back of her neck, while a warm hand-held her hair away from her face. The heaving stopped. She pulled the cloth away from her neck and wiped her face, but continued to lean over the basin holding onto the sink for support.
“Thank you, she muttered, not attempting to look up.
“Feeling better?” he asked.
She was surprised it was Justin Crown who had followed her into the bathroom. “Yes, thanks.” She let the water flow for a moment, then rinsed her mouth and splashed water on her face while he held her hair back. A towel was placed in her hands. She dried her face, lowered the towel and stared at her reflection in the mirror.
Her own mirrored image was more terrifying than the nightmare; more horrifying than waking in a strange city. She did not want to believe what she was seeing, but her reflection did not lie. The face of a stranger stared back at her.
A blood curdling scream boiled up and exploded from her throat. Her knees buckled. Strong arms lifted and carried her to the bed. Striking out wildly at the offered comfort, she screamed, “What have you done to my face?” She dissolved into tears and buried her head in the pillow.
Kathryn rolled onto her back and returned the baffled gaze of the two men staring at her. She brushed away the tears and sat up. When the doctor started toward her, she drew away. “Don’t touch me,” she snarled and scooted back against the head of the bed. He moved to sit back down in the chair. “What in the hell have you done to my face?” Her voice trembled. “Why are you doing this to me?” Her words tumbled one over the other as she threw questions at them. “Don’t act as if you don’t know what I’m talking about!”
Baffled, Dan responded first, his expression filled with shock. “No one has changed your face.”
“I don’t believe you.” Kathryn raised her knees and hugged them to her chest, hands balled into fists, knuckles white. “Don’t you think my parents are wondering where I am? No doubt they have the police looking for me. Is that why you changed my face? So no one will recognize me?” Oh God, oh God, raced through her mind, could this nightmare get any worse? Both men were staring at her like she was crazy. “Say something,” she yelled at them.
Justin was mystified. Did she really think this far out story was going to work. For nearly four weeks, she had been withdrawn, acting strange, and now this. Her claim of being someone else was too wild. A new name, new city, and a new face were too hard for him to believe. It was all too elaborate. Why she had created this fabrication, he didn’t know. But, he refused to let her continue the farce any longer. Even his patience had limits. “Damn it, Dan! You can’t honestly believe her ridiculous story?”
Dan glared at him. “Justin, wait for me in the hall. After I finish talking with Kathryn, I have a few things to explain to you.”
From the expression on Dan’s face, Justin knew if he did not leave as his friend requested, he would be pissed and possibly have him escorted from the room. He retrieved his coat and hat from the chair and stormed out without glancing at Kathryn.
She half expected an argument from him, but his tight-lipped expression told her he was only cooperating out of respect for the older man. Justin Crown appeared more accustomed to giving orders than taking them. A sigh of relief escaped her, as he let the door slam behind him.
“I’m sorry.” The doctor’s eyes expressed genuine concern. His voice was gentle as he spoke. “No one, to my knowledge, has altered your face in any way. You have the same beautiful features you had the first day I met you. That was on your wedding day when you married Justin.”
“But, I . . . .”
“Don’t interrupt. You said you want answers. I’m trying to give you the only answers I have.” He paced back and forth as he continued. “Last night, you were brought to the Emergency Room with a head injury. You were unconscious. The CAT scan revealed no serious damage. Justin told me you and he had argued. You ran from the house and drove off. He followed on foot in time to see the Jeep spin and slide into a snow bank. The impact threw you from the vehicle.” He turned and looked at her. “I won’t attempt to explain what you’re doing two thousand miles from where you claim you live.”
“St. Petersburg, Florida is my home!”
“That well may be. But, you have to realize that Justin and I don’t have the answers you want. We’ll help you find out what happened, if you’ll let us.”
Kathryn wasn’t sure why, but she believed him. But the idea she might really be married to Justin Crown was difficult to accept. When had Dr. Otis said they were married? She remembered. He had not mentioned a date. It must have been recently. Her birthday was in October, and this must be? “What month is this?”
“March,” was all he said.
Good. No more than a few months had elapsed. That situation would be rectified and quickly. “How are you going to find out why I’m in Colorado?”
“We can start with an examination of your face. If someone performed plastic surgery, there will be scars.”
“Alright. First, would you take this damn needle out of my hand? It hurts like hell.” If it would prove her story, she would submit to anything.
He quickly removed the HepLock and dropped it in the Sharps bin. His hands were soft as he brushed the thick hair back from her face. He examined each side, parting the silky strands until he located the faint pencil thin lines, and then let the shiny locks slide through his fingers.
He frowned, puzzled. This was unexpected. It changed everything. Lord, he wondered how Justin was going to take the news. “You have scars.”
“I told you.”
“Yes, you did. Now, would stay here while I go talk to Justin? I need to explain this to him, and you need rest. You have several bumps and bruises, and a slight concussion. That’s why you may experience bouts of dizziness. Sleep if you can. I’ll have the nurse check on you.” He nodded to the nurse, who had stood silent and unobtrusive near the door.
“Promise you won’t try to leave?” he said.
“Since I don’t have much choice in the matter, I guess I’ll have to stay.” To sleep for a while would be a blessing.
She watched Dr. Otis walk to the door, and then he turned back. “Trust me, Kathryn. Everything is going to be all right,” he said.
As the nurse and Dan left the room, Kathryn closed her eyes, hoping for sleep to take her away from this nightmare.