Twice In One Lifetime [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Judith Otto
eBook Category: Romance
eBook Description: "You took off with my unborn child!" When a man in a city restaurant flings the accusation at Rachel Hudson, the stable little world she has created shatters. For two long years Rachel existed without a past. Though she knows why she ran that night, the identity of the man who assaulted her is buried deep within her. Could it be the man glowering down on her? Claiming to be her husband, Struan Cassidy whisks her home to his mansion overlooking the picturesque Hauraki Gulf. Despite Rachel's unease, there is one good reason to stay. Though she lives with crippling fear that her attacker will return, Rachel vows that no one will cause her to desert her family ever again. Nor will she step aside for Struan's mistress. But can Rachel overcome her fear and give Struan what he wants most? Can Rachel Hudson become Rachel Cassidy again?
eBook Publisher: Whiskey Creek Press, Published: 2008
Fictionwise Release Date: March 2008
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50 Reader Ratings:
Rachel has accompanied her boss, Alan Jamieson, on a business trip and while seated in a diner with him is accosted by an unknown man. Unrecognized by Rachel, Struan Cassidy, her husband carried her to his car shouting, "My child, you took off with my unborn child." Rachel couldn't remember anything but Struan took quite a while to catch on.
From that point Rachel lives in a world completely unfamiliar. Memories provide glimpses of a former life, but there is no one to help her find her way. Her husband is full of resentment and it appears he is having an affair with a co-worker.
Miss Otto spins a tale of a woman caught in a web of forgetfulness and her attempts to free herself from the cobwebs enclosing her memory. The reader is left to wonder about the intent of a husband so focussed on holding on to his wife while interested in another woman. In addition, who was Rachel? As her memory returns, Rachel, and the reader learn the answers.
-Frances Boyle, Fictionwise Recommender
"It was very well written story with very life-like characters. The story elaborates on the feelings and struggles of assaulted women. Each time somebody touches her, Rachel often tenses up and pulls back. Her struggle is described in detail as she tries to love a husband of whom she has no memory. However, the story did drag in certain places. The many times that Rachel 'almost' remembers her assailant leaves the readers in suspense. Many times throughout the story I wanted to "push" Rachel to identify her attacker. But overall, this is a very sweet story that reminds readers of second chances and the power of love."--The Long And Short of It Reviews
"Rachel's world is turned upside down when a strange man accosts her in a restaurant, talking about her taking away his unborn child. She is befuddled, but that's nothing new; she has no memory of her life before the last two years. Thus, she is able to accept the truth that this stranger, Struan, is her husband and willingly goes home with him to begin to reclaim her life. Yet, it's an uphill challenge all the way as she discovers she does not always like her former self and she now has a rival to fight for her husband's love. Yet, one truth remains hidden that could shatter the tentative happiness before her. This story begins on a compelling note and keeps you hooked throughout. Though the ending is a little rushed, weakening it slightly, it is nonetheless powerful. Ms. Otto has successfully used the standard amnesia story and given it a fresh life."--Amanda Killgore, Independent Reviewer
"It was my child, too, you know." He glared at the woman, then jerked his thumb to dismiss a hovering waiter.
Aware that the intimate murmurs of the evening diners had ceased with his startling outburst, Struan shot a scornful glance at a nearby table. Figures came to life like wind-up dolls in a toy store; limbs moved, napkins dabbed, glasses chinked and steaks were ruthlessly serrated.
"I ... I beg your pardon?"
Returning his gaze to the woman, Struan ignored the ginger-haired man at her table. He resumed his attack. "My child! You took off with my unborn child." He sucked in his breath as his own words sliced him, aggravating a wound he'd long ago deluded himself had healed. The urge to smash his fist on the table, to see the flickering candlelight quiver between the woman and her companion consumed him.
"You can't--" The man was halfway out of his seat.
"You! Keep out of this," Struan warned, his tone forcing the man to retreat. He jabbed a finger at the woman. "You have some explaining to do."
The blue eyes widened and fixed warily on him, and Struan Cassidy felt an insane urge to laugh. He'd had two long years to decide what to say to this woman, only to vent what had hurt him the most.
From the night she had walked out of their hilltop home, Struan had never lost hope of finding her.
And now it had happened.
Proficient at picking up the merest hint of blonde hair, his eyes were always scanning. And this time ... this time, his peripheral vision had not failed him.
His mouth hardened. She was even more beautiful than he remembered.
Uncertainty marked her expression, eclipsed suddenly by--what was it? Courage? Life?
She was his wife.
And yet she wasn't.
He watched as she drew herself up in defense. "Excuse me, but you have the wrong--"
He didn't allow her to finish. She wasn't going to skirt the issue with that tired routine.
"Where is it?" His shadow arced across her face before he moved slightly to the left.
He wanted to see the lie in her eyes.
Rachel Hudson yearned to rub her neck. She'd been looking up at the towering figure for far too long, smarting beneath his tirade. What did he expect from her?
"You will apologize to my fiancée."
Rachel broke eye contact with the hypnotic brown eyes and fired a startled glance at Alan. Obviously, he sensed the disadvantage in being seated, as he was already scraping back his chair. But why was he claiming an engagement?
She had promised Alan Jamieson nothing.
She reached out with a trembling hand, imploring Alan to back down. Rachel sensed the challenging figure was not someone who played games, and the sooner this case of mistaken identity was dealt with, the sooner she could relax and rescue the remainder of the evening. But it was already ruined, confirmed by a quick glance at the congealing lemon chicken and rice that had long since lost its steam. Ruined, too, by this man's shocking accusation.
She wanted him to realize his mistake and leave.
Alan wasn't helping to bring the confrontation to a close; he was deliberately ignoring the pressure of her hand. "I asked you," Alan said through gritted teeth, "to apologize."
Dismissing Alan with an impatient wave, the stranger glared through angry slits, his mouth tightening before he growled, "Where is it?"
Where was what?
Rachel felt the constriction beneath her ribs and willed herself to relax. Her imitation silk bodice tightened across her breasts.
She was shaking her head, puzzled, her fine shoulder length hair brushing her skin, when the words he had spat in opening suddenly struck her.
"Baby? I don't have a ... have a baby."
She watched as he spread his palms flat on the table, mere inches from her breast, the tempo of her heartbeat escalating as the beginning of her life as she knew it, two years before, came hurtling back.
"Got rid of it, did you?" he snarled, his lips drawn back to reveal front teeth with a slight crossover. The small imperfection added to his striking good looks.
Rachel watched a muscle contract at the corner of his mouth and realized this was no sick joke. The man was deadly serious, his wrath directed at her.
Her fingers shredded the navy table napkin.
"You must be mistaking me for someone else. I ... I don't have a baby."
"Come off it, Rachel!" Without a flicker of an eyelash, he held her gaze. "Why run off in the middle of the night?"
He lifted one hand and smoothed it over his already immaculate jet hair, before sitting, uninvited, into the vacant leather seat opposite.
Rachel released her breath. If she expected him to be less intimidating sitting down, she had sadly misjudged. At least eye contact was easier. Not that she wanted to look him in the eye, but the relentless dark gaze compelled her to do just that.
Willing herself to relax, so certain this man had made a mistake, Rachel was suddenly suspended in time as a mental replay of his words hit her. Come off it, Rachel! Rachel!
He knew her name!
The words reverberated in her head. Her hand slipped along a flushed cheek to her forehead, pressed there for a moment.
And the baby. He insinuated she had been pregnant with his child.
As she surveyed the effervescent restaurant scene, she knew it wasn't real. It couldn't be real. People smiling. Laughing. Touching. Rachel groaned, allowed her head to rest in her arms, muffling the sounds of wine being poured into clinking glasses, cutlery resounding on porcelain.
"Now look here!" Alan jumped in.
Let Alan do all the talking, a nebulous brain told her.
"Keep out of this."
At the cold steel in the man's voice, Rachel forced her heavy head to lift, to look at him once more. The face was blatantly male, clear-cut and forceful, with strong chin and firm mouth. He exuded an aura of a born fighter. A man who knew what he wanted and went out and grabbed it.
Despite the overall warmth of the restaurant, Rachel shivered.
"I won't have you harassing my fiancée like this." Alan's pointed chin jutted as he shifted his weight to lean against the table.
Rachel's head began to thump. If he calls me his fiancée one more time, I'll scream!
She watched the men, both standing now, the stranger having risen to answer the call, while Alan craned his neck to meet the hostile eyes.
"Rachel is not your fiancée."
She blinked. How can you be so certain of that? She searched the handsome face before her but no sense of recognition stirred.
Lost for words, Alan spluttered, an angry flush whipping across his already-rubric cheeks.
The man gazed down at Rachel, his hand reaching out as though to touch her, then pulled away. "She's my wife."
The words, spoken softly, hit Rachel harder than his earlier allegation; she seemed to float in a mist that had magically evolved to cocoon her. All sound disappeared. All activity ceased. Bewildered, her gaze flicked between the two men before it rested on the gaping cavern that was Alan's mouth.
It was the last picture Rachel viewed before darkness gathered her protectively in its shroud.
Rachel's head moved against his firm shoulder, her breast rubbing along the silky lapel of his suit. With purposeful strides he carried her across the foyer and out through the double glass doors. From the corner of her eye she caught the curious glances of people heading into the restaurant. She listened to the slam of car doors, muted voices. Like a child who seeks to block out the world, she squeezed her eyes shut.
Alan scuttled alongside, shoes scuffing, failing to match the man's lengthy strides.
Rachel allowed her lids to flutter open, to study a remarkably determined chin. It was late evening and by the strobing lights of the carpark she could see the black pinpoints of his five o'clock shadow. She inhaled his clean, male smell and a faint scent. Sandalwood.
She liked it.
She felt she belonged, enfolded in the protective embrace, and without pausing to consider, snuggled a little closer. For several delirious moments, she was tempted to surrender to the pleasurable smell, the total masculinity of this stranger. Before those seductive sensations could totally dull her judgement, the precarious position she was in conveyed itself to her numb mind. She struggled, wriggling desperately in the tight circle of his arms.
"Don't do that, Rachel," he growled. "You might get more than you bargained for."
The clipped words had the desired effect. She froze.
"What do you mean, she's your wife?" Alan puffed, sucking huge lungfuls of air as they came to a halt beside an Alfa Romeo in a shadowed section of the carpark. It appeared inky black. Rachel suspected it was blood red.
She watched as the evening breeze stirred flimsy catkins from the car bonnet, cupping airborne particles and dispersing them, daring them to settle again.
Alan stopped before the man's solid bulk and tapped him on the shoulder. His mouth opened but no words formed, proof he was as overawed as she was.
"She's Rachel Cassidy. My wife." The tone announced further elaboration would be unforthcoming. He turned and slid Rachel gently into the luxurious passenger seat.
Alan shuffled his feet on a patch of loose gravel and frowned. "She's Rachel Hudson. My employee. And my fiancée," he added hurriedly, as he caught the derisive expression.
Rachel, aware that Alan took no joy in confronting this man, appreciated the fact that her boss was unprepared to stand by and be party to a kidnap.
"I can't allow you to do this, just because you hit on her name. I'm going to call the police," Alan stated.
"Do what you damn well like." Then he ignored the smaller man and tenderly, as if she were precious as a babe, went to clip the seatbelt into place.
Unprepared for the alarming tingle as his fingertips brushed her abdomen on their way to engaging her belt, Rachel shivered. Until now, any touch of a male's body, however fleeting and impersonal, was something that unnerved her, and she recoiled as if stung.
Crickets chirped in the freshly mown grass border, while others congregated around a distant spill of lamplight. Rachel clamped her teeth, imagining the scrunch of brittle insect bodies as the stranger walked around the rear of the car to the driver's side door and settled himself behind the wheel. Without a word, he fired the ignition and engaged gears. He roared out of the carpark, uncaring of a wildly gesticulating Alan.
Rachel slanted a glance at the man beside her and fervently hoped he wasn't abducting her. She'd done precious little to prevent it. But strangely, she felt unafraid.
A charged silence settled as the vehicle gobbled the miles along the perimeter of the tree-lined harbor. Rachel turned her head to watch the yellow lights from small craft winking on the horizon. Auckland, the City of Sails, as she had read in the hotel brochure that morning, was aptly named, she mused, as she viewed clusters of sea craft moored parallel to the busy highway that streamed from the city center.
Had she really allowed herself to be carted off by this stranger, presentable though he was, simply because he claimed to be her husband? Any male could waltz up making rash statements, and like Alan Jamieson, she had allowed it to happen. Though Alan at least had put up some semblance of protest.
"Where are you taking me?" Her predicament finally washing over her like the sea lashing the rocks alongside them, Rachel's numb brain stirred to life. Her fingers tautened on the seat as she squeezed the burgundy leather.
Breath held, she waited for his reply.
He flicked a quick glance her way, eyes hooded, mouth a tight line. He uttered one clipped word. "Home."
Her head snapped up.
He wasn't taking her home. It was impossible he was privy to that information. It wasn't here in Auckland. Rachel was only in New Zealand's largest city for an antique buying spree. Alan had urged her to come, more, she suspected, to further their personal relationship than to assist with buying. Rachel knew, apart from her initial objections to accompanying Alan, she could hardly refuse and so had resigned herself to the business trip.
It wasn't as if she'd feared this visit. No thunderbolt of awareness had struck her on arrival at Auckland's airport after the two-hour flight from Dunedin. But obviously there should have been. If this man was telling the truth.
Why would he lie? Unless he was a madman who abducted any woman he fancied, there would be nothing to gain by lies. She tossed her hair. Impossible. Women would zealously queue to slip into his arms, she was certain. Or was it the unattainable that incited him? Yes, a challenge; that was it. She was a challenge.
"Why the deception, Rachel?"
She heard steel chips in his voice again. His knuckles showed white in the spasmodic slashes of moonlight and streetlight that slid between rustling fingers of a Phoenix palm.
"I don't know what you mean."
Should she be afraid of this man? She felt faintly disturbed. Nothing tangible. His bulk, all firm muscle she suspected, could be a cause for fear. And he had a cutting temper. He'd launched into his insolent attack without the courtesy of introduction. But then, he wouldn't bother with such formalities. He claimed he knew her.
This was too much. Suppositions, emotions, overwhelmed her, tangling like wild ivy, trapping her as surely as the seatbelt across her chest. She shook her head, concentrated on her surroundings.
The drive along Auckland's waterfront was engaging, despite the monotonous hum of traffic. Comforted by the roar of the sea as it crashed against rocks which formed a wall between untamed nature and manmade road, Rachel released her hold on the seat, acknowledging that if her nails left unsightly indents in the plush leather, then it served him right for his uncivilized behavior.
Struan raised his hand and spiked it through his hair. To say he had been stunned to walk into the bayside restaurant tonight and find his wife was a monumental understatement. It wasn't a restaurant he normally frequented, so fate had been on his side for a change. Struan had given up all hope of finding her in this city. As the months wore on he knew she must have scarpered. He'd even worked out why.
Slanting a glance at his wife, determined to see what story she would fabricate, he snapped, "Why did you leave us, Rachel?"
Before she could answer his question, a thought shot through him.
He snatched up the mobile phone and thumbed in digits, tapping the wheel, impatient at the steady burr ... burr. She had to be in her car, dammit! Surprised she hadn't been at the restaurant when he arrived, on reflection, Struan was relieved by her uncharacteristic tardiness. He wouldn't have wanted Ingrid with him when he'd found his wife. Ingrid had always been a festering sore between them.
"Answer it, damn you!"
The throaty response traveled loud enough for Rachel to hear, and she squirmed in her seat. In profile, Rachel watched the strong jaw relax as the female voice answered. She heard his relieved breath in the quiet interior of the car.
"Ingrid. About dinner. Something's come up." A brief pause and his brow puckered. "Yes, it is important enough to cancel out at this late stage. I wouldn't do it otherwise and you know it."
The words bleating out of the earpiece were indiscernible, but Rachel picked up the ice cool tone. The woman, Ingrid-whoever, was playing the jealous lover.
"You can eat dinner alone for once."
Rachel blinked. For once?
The words sliced her. But why should she care about this man's relationship with 'Ingrid'?
He chuckled at something the woman said, his smile lines crinkling, softening the sharp profile. "I'll call you tomorrow. No, there's nothing you can do. But thanks." Rachel watched the corners of his mouth tug into a smile again. "You too," he said softly into the mouthpiece.
She bit down on her lip. Ingrid. His mistress?
Wishing the soft leather was quicksand, Rachel huddled deeper into the pliant seat, praying it would suck her down into its depths and swallow her whole. It wouldn't be the first time she'd wished she could disappear without trace.
Was it because of this woman that she'd fled? She denied the thought immediately.
The reason was more traumatic.
This man, skillfully maneuvering his powerful car in the sudden build up of traffic was visibly relaxed after the phone call. Prior to that, contending with Rachel, he'd been tense. If she believed his claim ... if she was his wife.... Absently, she slid her silver bracelet along her arm. Had this man so wanted rid of her two years ago that he...
But if that was true, then his near-enough abduction of her was senseless. Why would he want her back in his life? Clamminess broke out on her skin, her light summer dress clinging to her as effectively as sticky tape. Oh, Lord, she wasn't ready for this! No wonder she'd happily existed in the small South Island city, tucked away in an antique store, making no attempt to form friendships until Alan Jamieson, with gentle persuasion, succeeded in instilling a sense of self-worth.
She hadn't told Alan the truth, all that she'd known about herself. Only that she'd lost her baby, and the resulting trauma had left her with amnesia.
But Rachel knew another trauma had occurred before the miscarriage. To learn about her past would take her back to the monstrous event, and despite the feeling of oppressive dread that threatened to cloak her, Rachel wanted to know something about her life with this man. She shivered, though the interior of the car was warm. Rachel found herself flicking back to the earlier conversation, interrupted when he'd made the vital telephone call.
"You said 'us'?"
He shot her a lightning glance, the angry glint in his dark eyes changing to incredulity. Lips thinned, he hissed breath out of the narrow slit.
In the restaurant Rachel considered his mouth had a sensual quality, promising raw excitement and hungry passion. A hungry passion she had every intention of spurning. As the thought slipped out, an unfamiliar tingling sensation cannoned from her toes to her scalp, leaving her breathless; not once in two years had she assessed a man in sexual terms. Why now? If any sexual awakening were to come to her, wouldn't it have happened when a gentleman--like Alan--showed her friendship, protected her?
"You certainly put us all behind you." The voice was scathing. "What did I ever do to deserve that? You wiped me--us--out of your mind. Thanks a million, lady!"
Light rain fell quietly on the windshield. He stabbed a button. Twin wipers began a gentle, hypnotic fanning. Like the rhythm of her life, the rain pattering the windscreen, obscuring her past, then swishing it away. She could remember nothing. She was being force-fed information that she found difficult to assimilate.
Rather than answer her question, he put another of his own. "Who is this pixilated creep you were with? Your fiancé?" He sneered. "It's illegal to have a fiancé when you already have a husband, sweetheart!" No term of endearment, it was derogatory in the extreme.
Rachel shifted in her seat. "I'm not responsible for Alan's claim. Of course I'm not engaged to him."
She did not want to be engaged to anyone. She did not want to be married to anyone! Right now all she wanted was to be back in her safe little apartment in Dunedin. She would, without complaint, suffer the rowdy, beer-swigging students who occupied the apartment next to hers. Anything--anything would be preferable to this despotic male's inquisition.
She folded her arms across her chest, her hands planing goose bumps from her flesh.
"Lucky for you, then," he said, his voice dangerously low. He shook his head. "I couldn't believe you'd left me. I got home that night to find you gone. Dad had arrived before me. He figured you were still in your studio, painting."
So, she had painted.
Rachel concentrated on that, pushing away her sense of unease at the thread of pain that intermingled with anger in his words. Did she have talent? Or did she merely play at being an artist? A rich bitch who had had nothing more productive to do? Suddenly, Rachel realized she was accepting that she had led a privileged life. The man's exquisitely tailored clothes, subtle cologne, this expensive car, all bore witness to that.
He wore power as only a wealthy man could.
"But most of all," he went on, while Rachel tried to dissociate from the rich, deep voice, a disturbing cadence changing the pitch, "I couldn't believe you'd leave Justin."
This was a raw subject with Struan. He had struggled to adopt a reasonable attitude ever since he got Rachel in the car, but he needed to tie a knot in his temper. He didn't want to push Rachel, have her take flight, now that he'd found her.
Struan wanted explanations.
He had always loved his wife's gentle nature. A fragile flower in a cutthroat world, she preferred the quiet side of life. He was her antithesis in every way. His relaxation came from slamming a tennis ball across a net, plowing lengths in the swimming pool. But for all their differences, they'd got on well, balanced each other. He had truly believed Rachel to be happy. Until the night she'd disappeared from his life.
Three days later he found her diary. He felt like a sneak, an intruder into her private world. Which he was, of course. He read it anyway, to see if he could shed light on why Rachel had taken off in the middle of the night without a word to anyone, shattering his life.
Shattering Justin's young life.
And the diary enlightened him.
"Who is Justin?"
Rachel wrinkled her brow, rubbing a slender finger along the furrow. It was too much. How could she be expected to absorb what he was saying? She still felt dazed. She glanced at her cheap digital watch. Barely thirty minutes since the confrontation in the restaurant and all this data crowding her mind.
What was Alan doing now? Had he called the police? There'd been no time to follow in his rented car; they'd zoomed out of the carpark leaving Alan a desolate figure beneath a spill of light.
"Who is Justin?" she repeated the question, more sharply this time. Her mouth matched the stubborn set of her abductor's.
"Goddammit, Rachel! What game are you playing?"
This time he refused to take his eyes from the road. Even for a moment. Perhaps he did not trust himself to do so. The clench of his jaw did not escape Rachel's notice.
"Justin cried for a month after you left!" he flared.
"Tell me who he is!" The words rent the air, causing his head to twist sharply towards her. Undisguised shock registered on his tight features.
Rachel almost laughed. Had she never screamed before? By the surprised light in his eyes it appeared not, a light that was quickly snuffed as he concentrated on the rain-slicked road ahead.
"I'm not playing a game." Rachel tightened her lips, mirroring his. "I don't even know your name."
The Alfa Romeo veered suddenly towards the centerline. He cursed. The driver of an on-coming vehicle blasted his horn, flicked his headlights. "Same to you, mate!" Struan roared, the token outburst leaving him with a sense of satisfaction despite his error. He glanced in the rear view mirror, then flicked the indicator switch before swinging sharply left and guided the powerful machine on to the shoulder.
It was several seconds before he turned to look at her. Several expressions crossed his strong face. "Come again?"
Under his piercingly derisive gaze, Rachel could feel herself beginning to shrivel. Her own name was a mystery to her. How was she expected to remember his?
When his hand whipped out, Rachel jumped, her heart thudding at the unexpectedness and speed of the action.
"You take off into the night, abandon your car in the city, then not a word. No phone calls. No letters. We didn't know if you were alive or dead!"
She looked down at the hand circling her wrist, biting into tender flesh. "You're hurting me." She felt a need to rub away the sting of his brandmark. If he didn't release her soon, she would be tempted to sink her teeth into his fingers.
"What kind of woman walks out on her baby son? Tell me that. If you can." Anger slashed lines around his sensual mouth, blazed across his cheeks. His black eyes stared into hers.
Shock mingled with disbelief. Stunned, Rachel could only stare, eyes wide, registering pain at the unfair accusation thrown at her. She'd thought the words flung in the restaurant were painful. But not as painful as this latest revelation.
"Answer me!" The crazed look gave way to an instant flash of pain, before clicking back to anger. "I've made a considerable effort to be patient with you because I realize my earlier approach was less than friendly. I intended to wait until we were home before demanding an explanation." Struan thumped the flat of his hand on the beautifully molded steering wheel, making her jump. "I want one now!"
Was that what he yearned to do to her?
Her voice wavering, she asked, "Justin is my son?" How could she have forgotten she had a son? A tiny precious being to whom she had given life.
How old was he?
Over the last few weeks Rachel had experienced flashes of memory, all hazy, and not one included a little boy. Or led her to her true identity. Somehow, she suspected, in some dark, unacknowledged depths, she had not truly wanted to remember.
And not one sliver of flashback had included this very attractive, albeit furious, male.
Most of Rachel's memories were of a vague disquiet, of struggling and pain, on touching and being touched.
Nearly a month ago, she'd stopped to watch a little boy at play in a city park. A young mother was throwing a ball and the boy, about three or four Rachel guessed, attempted to catch the bright, spongy object, laughing with delight every time it slipped through the very obvious hole left in his small, outstretched arms. Such a tender little scene, a mother and her son enjoying a game in the early summer sunshine. A hollow pang she associated with the loss of her unborn child had stung Rachel's heart. Now it seemed to suggest her heart was also aching for a son she'd left behind.
She turned troubled eyes to the furious figure beside her. Registered the fervid torment in his, before saying, as she had done moments before, "I don't even know your name."
Time stood still. A phrase Struan Cassidy had never before taken in its literal sense. But at that moment, he could honestly say he experienced it for himself. Never unsure of himself, the strange sensation assailed him and left him open, bleeding and raw.
"What are you saying? That you don't know me? You don't know Justin?" he ground out incredulously, spearing restless hands through his hair, tousling his earlier impeccable appearance.
Slowly, Rachel nodded.
"Are you telling me you've lost your memory?"
Again she nodded, wisps of silken gold swaying, brushing her bare shoulders with each gentle movement. Through the churning in his gut, Struan felt an intense longing to touch the silkiness of her throat, to feel that gleaming, healthy hair brush his skin. He shook the longing away.
Something nagged in the corner of his mind. Something not quite right.
Then he remembered. Her name. She had remembered that, then.
"How do you explain your name?" He had her there. That simpering idiot back at the restaurant had called her by name. Was she pulling a fast one? Was this her way out of a sticky situation? A way of covering her two year absence?
In reply, Rachel lifted her arm nearest the door. The glint of silver was caught by a filter of moonlight, the flat plain metal resting on her outstretched wrist, the link-chain, almost cumbersome for one so slender, dangling beneath.
Struan's breath caught. She had kept it then.
An inexpensive bracelet, it was a gift he'd bought her on one of their early dates. Rachel had not wanted gifts--ever--but eventually he'd worn her down, and she consented to accepting this trinket. Christ, he could have afforded a bracelet hundreds of times more expensive! But for all her soft nature, she had stood firm on this. So, in exasperation he had folded, instructing the jeweler to engrave her name on the underside. Once they were married, Rachel could hardly refuse birthday and Christmas gifts, and over the years built up an impressive collection of exquisite jewelry. She wore her diamonds and sapphires almost reluctantly. And she had never once removed the silver bracelet.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Rachel touch the trinket. "I know my name because of this."
He reached out a hand to grasp her fingers, oddly cool in the warm night air, and lifted them to his lips. As he brushed her knuckles, he heard the sharp intake of her breath and a physical force of intense longing slammed through him. He raised his hooded gaze in time to catch a flicker of what seemed almost fear light the blue bewildered eyes.
She tugged, but he refused to relinquish his grip.
"Don't be afraid, Rachel." Struan's voice was barely a whisper. "We'll get through this. Together." He released her hand and shifted to his side of the car. "I'll get you home. You've had enough to contend with for one evening."
He turned the motor and said, "My name is Struan. Struan Cassidy." He searched her face for recognition and finding none, deftly slid the car into gear. Without haste, the Alfa Romeo purred out into the steady stream of nocturnal traffic heading east.
"Nice name," Rachel said.
"Thank you," Struan said wryly, "My mother thought so."
Christ! Lost her memory.
His plans for sitting down with her, coaxing her to confess the reason she'd fled so they could talk through her fears and be one step closer to overcoming them, all scattered on the wind. He would be the one feeding her information, when what he wanted--what he desperately needed--was his wife's input. Struan's heart lurched as he thought of the child that had never been born.
In the early days of Rachel's disappearance, he'd tortured himself with visions of another man. Then dispassionately evaluated his lovely young wife and vetoed the idea. There was never any question that men desired her, lured by the fragile beauty, the sweetness and light that was Rachel, the blue ever-changing eyes he himself found irresistible. And Struan was not above admitting to puffed up pride, plus a twinge of jealousy at the stir his wife created when she attended business functions. Rare though her appearances were.
On more occasions than he cared to count, he'd ended up with Ingrid Deb, his super-smart financial adviser, on his arm. His lovely wife elected to spend the evenings at home, having scant regard for the superficial people who hovered, offering false smiles and equally false friendships in the expectation of feeding off the Cassidy business name.
No, Rachel preferred to spend valuable time with their son. Which made her flight from their home a complete contradiction of her character.
Therefore, something drastic must have happened to make her run.
"Care to tell me what happened?"
Somewhere, Struan had read about a safety trigger, amnesia voluntarily induced to mask trauma. Christ, if only he'd known how Rachel felt about her pregnancy! They could have talked it through. Sought help. Hell, he would have bought the best medical brains in the business. Anything to allay his young wife's fears.
Had she decided that night, that she could not face the prospect of a new baby? Despite his obvious emotional support and delight for the child growing within her slender body? Had something tenuous, so fragile, snapped inside her? His heart filled with grief at what his young wife must have suffered.
Curling his left hand smoothly over Rachel's clasped ones, he let it rest in her lap. Immediately he sensed the tenseness that rose inside her at the sudden intimate contact.
Of course. He had to give her time. * * * *
Rachel exerted all her willpower to keep from flinching as Struan Cassidy's hand came down to intimately sheath hers. It was not so much the hand contact; she'd basked in his arms while he carried her to his car. It was the intimate settling in her lap, the warmth of his fingers that induced her to react in the only way she knew how.
Even as his hand lingered, intrinsic warmth spread its invasive tendrils to shift a torpidity she had not consciously known existed. She steeled herself, least the tremors that were based deep within her soul became visible.
Struan shot her a quick glance.
She sighed. He wanted answers. It might be prudent to talk now. Sooner or later there would be questions. Why not now?
"I don't know why I left the house that night, Stru ... Struan." The name tested foreign on her tongue and was met by a responsive discerning squeeze of her chilled fingers. "I don't remember taking the car." Abruptly she turned to face him. "What was it, by the way?" And wanted to laugh at the incongruous question.
At that, he gave a wry grin. "A Honda. My Rachel didn't care for anything flashy."
Did this man who instilled awe and countless other impressions, treasure his Rachel?
The Rachel she once was?
Only the hypnotic hum of the car filled the air. She licked suddenly dry lips. "Well. I ended up in hospital. In Hamilton."
"Hamilton?" Rachel sensed his frown.
"I guess I must have taken a bus down after I abandoned the car. It's all speculation." She shrugged, unaware her movement released her own special body perfume, and Struan's battle to remain impervious to her.
"Why were you in hospital?" Struan gritted his teeth. Getting rid of our child? "Is that when you lost the baby?"
Rachel nodded, then realized his eyes were on the road ahead. "Yes. The doctors told me I'd been knocked down in the street. The distraught driver drove me to the hospital."
Struan, unaware that he'd been holding his breath, felt the pressure ease out of lungs that were only too relieved to jettison their burden. She hadn't deliberately aborted their child then. The accident would have caused her to miscarry.
Now Struan grunted sympathetically, squashing her fingers together once more, each delicate bone digging into neighboring flesh.
Rachel wished he would remove his hand. The weight was creating a seductive bowl in the thin fabric of her skirt, slipping between her thighs. She cleared a suddenly clogged throat and resumed her story, fervently aware of the masculine hand where it should not be.
"When I regained consciousness..." Rachel caught at the memories, edging locked fingers to her side and out from beneath the very male grip. She curled a golden strand of hair round her ear. "I didn't know my name, or what had happened to me."
There were several silent beats before she spoke again as, fleetingly, she contemplated her initial moments of consciousness in the stark hospital ward.
Was she relieved to lose the baby? Struan pondered, sensing Rachel's distinct unease. But before he succumbed to that notion, Rachel sighed and continued.
"I took my surname from a nurse who was very kind to me."
Medical staff had been sympathetic and attentive, but despite this her stay had been swamped in misery, knowing she had lost her baby. And why. And worse, was the emptiness of knowing nothing beyond her Christian name. "The young Maori girl was very good to me, refusing to let me wallow." Her mouth twisted at the memory. "She took me to her home in rural Hamilton where I stayed for three months. After that, I moved on. I felt I should get on with my life, that I couldn't hide with these good people forever."
Flashing her a controlled look, Struan asked, "Were you hiding?"
High color flamed her cheeks, stamping her guilt.
Her reluctance to acknowledge that question led him to another. "Where did you go after that?"
She could almost hear him thinking: Only an hour away. But she had been a lot further than that, separated by a stretch of wild Tasman Sea, in the South Island.
He started. She felt it in the sudden jerk of his hand, though he tried to stifle the movement. Rachel wished he would let go. Normally, she shunned male physical contact, however innocent. In two whole years, tonight was the first time a man had touched her without her consent.
Rachel surprised herself at allowing the touch to linger.
"One day I hauled out a map when Linda--that's the nurse who cared for me--was at work, and I decided to head for Dunedin. So..." She shrugged, as if that said it all. "Linda lent me money. I bought a ticket and flew down. Found myself an apartment, a job."
"With that idiot, Jamieson?" Struan's tone was derisive. He shook his head, as if he couldn't believe her foolishness.
"He's not an idiot! He was only trying to protect me."
"Aah..." Struan feigned enlightenment but she knew darn well that he was playing with her. "From what, may I ask?"
She glared into the car's dim interior, the action appeasing her, while knowing he was immune to any such facial language with eyes focused on the road ahead.
"He didn't know I had a husband. I didn't know I had a husband!" She hugged her arms about her in a supreme effort to quell the rapid rise and fall of her breasts.
"What about the child? Did you think you were a single mother?" he asked mockingly.
The interrogation disturbed Rachel, each question dragging painful memories to the fore. She knew it had to be done. This man would want all pertinent information. And as expeditiously as possible. Then maybe with this behind them she could ask for facts about her life before she'd taken flight.
Did he love the wife she'd been? Most certainly angry now, he'd been hurt as well. She had caught the pain in his voice when he asked why she'd left him, left their young son.
"Didn't you wonder if you were married?"
"I didn't know! I wore no rings."
Rather than stare ahead at the unfamiliar terrain, Rachel swiveled in her seat and gazed at the man beside her, assessing the rigid silhouette. Jet hair blended with the darkness of the night. Street lamps and an occasional burst of headlights picked up stark features from the crest of a cheekbone, sliding on down to the set jaw, the thickly muscled neck. He was physically powerful, and that, coupled with his height, was enough to cower anyone. It had worked to his advantage in the restaurant. With an artist's eye, Rachel acknowledged his was an arresting face, a face that begged to be painted, a face she'd like to paint one day. If she hadn't already done so. Then, perhaps she'd fostered little talent as a portrait artist. But that needn't count as an insurmountable obstacle. She would work at it.
A smile tugged her mouth; for the first time in what seemed an eon, Rachel was looking to the future.
If Struan was conscious of her less than subtle scrutiny, he gave no sign, and several minutes passed before he spoke. "I checked your jewelry box the next morning. They're still there." To Rachel's now heightened senses, his tone appeared dull. As if he didn't really care.
They fell into an uneasy silence, as if both were searching to find some significance in her leaving her matrimonial rings behind.
"How far now?"
It seemed as though they'd been travelling for hours--but a quick glance at the luminous dashboard clock disclosed that a mere twenty minutes had elapsed since she found herself on the road with him. Her skin prickled as the Alfa Romeo sped on into the night. What would she find waiting for her? A rising excitement at the prospect of meeting her son surged through her. And, beneath the surface of that excitement, a clump of dread that the boy might very well hate her for what she'd allowed him to endure--however unwittingly--clawed its way to the surface. But she refused to dwell on that now.
Earlier, Struan had mentioned his father. Domestic staff, she speculated, lived out. A very quiet household. An ideal situation for an intruder the night she'd fled.
"Not far," Struan said, drawing her from her muse.
He sounded tired, a weariness apparent in the earlier invigorative tones. He has a right to feel strained, Rachel thought, suddenly feeling sorry for Struan who had, by his own words, and those he left unsaid, suffered so much.
But then, she reminded herself, she had suffered, too.
The maelstrom events from the moment Struan Cassidy appeared in front of her this evening were unconducive to any degree of serenity. She hadn't asked him to burst into her life like a destructive tornado, sucking her up in its lethal mass, destroying all that was familiar and safe to dump her into a constellation of problems and emotions.
"Do your parents live with you ... um ... us?" Rachel asked, her tongue seeming to stick to the roof of her mouth. For two sterile years, there had been an absence of 'us' in her vocabulary.
"My parents are divorced. Dad was with us for several months before you ... left. In-between buying a house and then," Struan shrugged, "he stayed on."
"I see." The lashing rain had ceased now that they'd reached the affluent eastern suburbs, the highway vapid beneath the yellow cascading streetlights. The rain had been fairly localized, she noted inconsequentially, keeping her mind impotent, just as she wanted.
"Go on," Struan prompted, flipping a switch to silence the wiper blades. "About your job."
Rachel lifted her shoulders in an expressive gesture, more for her own benefit than his. "I found I enjoyed antiques, and the streets of Dunedin are paved with antique stores. I applied for a job as sales assistant in Alan's business, then graduated to co-buyer."
The clutching of his strong fingers on the wheel, bleached knuckles showing clearly in the splash of light, did not escape Rachel's notice.
"I bet you did," he growled. "How did you rise so quickly? From sales assistant to the prestigious position of buyer?" There was a nasty sting to his voice, a clenching of teeth, and hot color burned Rachel's cheeks as she caught the unmistakable innuendo.
"Just what are you suggesting?" Stupid question, she thought.
If the harsh sound rising from Struan's throat meant to be a laugh, it landed sadly, a deflated balloon. "Any favors for ... the meteoritic rise to ... co-buyer?" The punctuated pauses were planned significantly, assuring the message seeped through.
"You bastard! Let me out of this car." Rachel swung at the door and grappled with the handle. It wouldn't budge.
"Sorry, my love. Central locking. Had to make sure you wouldn't escape on the way." Struan's dark eyes mocked hers. "I'd be a fool to take a chance on you running again. And you'd be damned foolish to try and get out at this speed. You know," he continued conversationally, as if there'd been no outburst from her, "there was a time when you never used such language."
"Huh!" Rachel folded her arms across her chest. "What was I, some kind of a wimp?" she asked derisively.
Struan chuckled. Rachel refused to be taken in by the warm sound.
"Never that, dear Rachel." He sent her a sneaky look. "A real tigress in bed."
He released a gust of laughter before he sobered, as a nasty unbidden thought drilled into his mind. Because it meant thinking about her years of absence, Struan didn't ponder too deeply. "Rachel Cassidy is gentle, compassionate, emotional and unworldly." Remnants of laughter laced his voice now that he'd squashed the other disturbing thoughts.
At his words she straightened her spine and wrapped her arms more tightly about her. Only the knowledge that the darkness hid her burning cheeks mollified her.
"In other words, a real wimp," she decided, miffed.
"You've stopped mangling your nails." Struan's index finger stroked the neatly rounded tips, skated the smooth, pearly finish of her pink lacquer; she sucked in her breath as dormant senses roiled from the chasm of loneliness deep inside her.
Her teeth clamped her lower lip. After avoiding men, certainly as often as possible over the last two years, including all casual contact, Rachel found it difficult to explain her body's quisling reaction to Struan Cassidy. The fact that he claimed to be her husband was insufficient to suddenly eclipse all aversion.
She had been wary of men for so long... * * * *
The morning Rachel's life, as she knew it, began, was the day she regained consciousness to find two doctors and a nurse hovering round her bed.
"She's coming around now." The disembodied voice drifted like gently swirling waves lapping about her head. "Well, Rachel, how do you feel?"
Were they addressing her?
"Groggy." She groaned. The understatement of a lifetime. Her head was swinging and with each resulting upward surge she wanted to leap off, back into that fluffy oblivion.
"To be expected." The clipped, impersonal voice was not unkind. "You'll be fine when the sedative wears off."
She could hear a scratching sound at the end of the bed and lifting her head, watched the younger of the two doctors writing notes on a chart.
"Rachel, I'm Dr Reid." A short, slim man with a smile to match. "Now, we need to ask you some questions."
She sank down onto the pillows and waited.
A pretty young girl clucked around, smoothing her patient's golden fringe back from the clammy brow. Rachel rewarded her with a nervous smile.
Why didn't the doctors say something? Why was she here? What was wrong with her?
Once the questions began, soft and searching, Rachel realized she had no memory of any event prior to the moment of consciousness minutes before. Her limbs felt lethargic and with effort she raised her right arm and squinted at the letters framed in the clear plastic wristband. A Christian name followed by a date.
"Is this my name?" She couldn't remember her name. Her breath came in shallow gasps. The room spun, leaving her faint. She fought against the panic. Her gaze latched onto the two men studying her from the end of the bed.
"We believe so." The older, portly doctor spoke. "When you were brought in you were wearing an engraved silver bracelet. It's in your locker." He turned aside and caught the young nurse's attention.
"Yes, Doctor." She trotted obediently around to the other side of the raised bed and clicked open the pitted bedside cabinet, producing the bracelet and carefully placing it in her patient's hands for inspection.
Tracing the thin, cold metal with a trembling finger, Rachel commanded a memory to appear, and when not a wisp would oblige, she flipped the object and studied the engraved lettering, almost as if she needed to see for herself the truth of what the doctor was telling her.
Just 'Rachel'. No other clues whatsoever.
The nurse bustled to Rachel's side, her white hose scraping between her thighs as she moved, the sole intrusion in the room. "Here, let me." She clipped the bracelet on the slim arm above the prominent wrist bone.
As if admiring a collection of exquisite gems, Rachel's gaze roamed every silver inch of her link with the past. An identity bracelet that revealed merely half an identity. At the absurd musing, she snuffed off a laugh, because if she didn't, Rachel knew she would break down and weep. Popping a finger beneath the flattened section, she felt the roughened lettering of her name. It seemed at this moment the only tangible thing she had to grasp.
They'd allowed for her pondering but they were busy men, the realization sinking in when the talkative Dr Reid coughed. "We've got some bad news for you, I'm afraid."
Did they all cough when delivering bad news? And what could be worse than informing her she was without a family name? Without an identity? She squeezed her eyes shut. No, there could be nothing worse.
"We were unable to save your baby, Rachel."
Her eyes snapped open.
Later, when the nightmare finally subsided, she sobbed in Nurse Hudson's arms, sobbed for the baby she couldn't remember carrying, sobbed for herself, a woman with half a name and no memory of family or friends. When the tears eased to a trickle, the doctors assured Rachel her memory loss was a temporary setback, due to shock. Not only had she been knocked down in the street, but also hours prior to the accident she'd been the recipient of a vicious attack. The cumulative trauma contributed to her miscarriage and her mind chose to block out events it had no wish to recall.
Too afraid to ask ... and then it became unnecessary.
"You fought off your attacker, or something scared him. He never completed the deed. Your injuries leave us in no doubt as to what he intended."
Rachel glimpsed the empathy in the studied gaze and looked away as a wave of shame, bound in hopelessness, engulfed her.
Left alone in the ward, Rachel inspected her thighs, wondering why she'd failed to feel the pain on regaining consciousness. Now, as she witnessed the brutal markings, bruises the color of rotten apples on her tender flesh, she could feel the re-awakening agony as if it were just beginning, nails savaging a trail of torn skin, a knee shoved between her thighs, evil breath in her ear. With a bitter gasp Rachel allowed her head to flop back onto the pillow, evidence of the cruel attack draining her.
One week later, with nowhere to go, Rachel found herself tucked under Nurse Hudson's benevolent wing and with little protestation, she climbed into the young woman's battered Toyota. Driven to the family property by a chattering Linda, and once ensconced in the old farm cottage, Rachel was treated as an honorary daughter and sister. With so many comprising the family group--parents, six children and grandparents, Rachel silently marveled at the love to spare for a stranger. At night, alone and empty, tasting salty tears that flowed in a warm river against her skin, she grieved for her lost past.
The Hudsons protested she need not leave; nor did she wish to. Safely cocooned in a loving family environment full of laughter and uninhibited displays of affection, Rachel knew they had their lives to lead, and whatever it amounted to--she had hers. Afraid of what the truth might bring, she could not avoid the obvious fact that it was the only way to discover who and what she was.
Disorientated after the shocking news the doctors had meted out, Rachel surmised her attacker was the baby's father, and she refused to mourn a child conceived in the brutal coupling, until common-sense forced itself upon her and revealed the impossibility of being four months pregnant by a man who had failed to complete the ultimate horror.
Unless ... the father of her child and her attacker were one and the same.