In a Heartbeat
Love & Light, part of the series
Written Musings (February 23, 2020)
A Love & Light Romantic Suspense with a touch of Magical Realism
Each beat of her heart brings her closer to the truth and closer to him…
When Jenna’s husband, Paul, dies in a car wreck, he leaves his desperately ill wife one last gift: his heart. Now, as Paul’s heart beats strong within Jenna, something strange is happening. Paul is leading Jenna back to Texas — to a twin brother she never knew he had, and a past he kept secret from her.
Mitch Elliot is a mirror image of Paul — but that can’t fully explain the powerful, electrifying feeling Jenna has toward him. Paul’s heart is binding her and Mitch in a way that can’t be explained — and leading them both to a truth too dark to face.
Torn by two men: Paul, the husband she never really knew, and Mitch, who is shattering all her illusions and awakening her to love — Jenna knows she must follow her heart … at whatever the cost.
Connected Books: Love & Light
Read an Excerpt
Where are you, Paul? He was never late like this. He always called if something had detained him, even for a few minutes.
Something’s happened to him
She tried to still the doomsday voice in her head. No, not Paul, not her husband. He wouldn’t get shot down on a dusty street in a Godforsaken country like her parents had. He wouldn’t die of cancer like her grandmother. She wasn’t going to lose him like she lost everyone she loved.
Jenna Elliot pushed those thoughts to the far recesses of her mind. Paul would come home. He’d be just fine, fine enough to be reamed out for worrying her like this.
The house was dark but for the dim light in the bedroom that snaked down the hallway. Jenna leaned against the door frame of the nursery, conjuring up the soft sounds of a baby cooing as it played with the mobile hanging over the crib. Would the baby have her ash blond hair? Her gray eyes or Paul’s brown?
In every house that she and Paul bought and restored, he let her create a nursery in one of the rooms. It was pure whimsy, for they only stayed in any one place less than a year before moving on to the next house.
And before she could have her baby, she needed a heart. She’d been on the waiting list for two years now, while the walls of her heart inexplicably thickened.
She pressed her cheek against the smooth wood that still needed staining. The trim work was all that remained of this restoration project. Paul was already out scouting a home in Maine, the very task that had taken him away that day. She hadn’t been up to the car ride, though he’d insisted she stay home and rest anyway. She hadn’t told him about the pressure she’d been feeling in her chest over the last two days, the increased weakness.
Beyond the crib, moonlight spilled over the water like shattered crystals. In the distance, a lighthouse warned of danger with its beacon. The beam of light kept flashing, round and round, and uneasiness mounted inside her. Why hadn’t he called? Paul was always considerate, careful not to upset her. He did his best to protect her from the harshness of the world.
Jenna shivered, wrapping her arms around herself, keeping her eyes far from the ticking clock. Instead, her gaze strayed to the beacon, warning, warning…uneasiness transformed into dread as the clock ticked, ticked, ticked. . . .
The phone splintered the silence. Hand clutched to her nightgown, chest tight from exertion, she ran to the bedroom. Her voice sounded thick when she breathlessly said, “Paul?”
“Jenna, it’s Dr. Sharidon.” His voice usually sounded steady, but now traces of uncertainty ran through it.
Despair rocked her first. Not Paul’s voice. Then elation gripped her: they had a donor. If they had a heart for her, she’d have to leave for Boston immediately. Where was Paul, now that she desperately needed him?
“Dr. Sharidon,” she said, sounding even more unsteady than he did. Her chest felt crushed by anxiety, and she pressed a palm to it. “Is it…” She couldn’t even say the words, fear and hope surging inside her at once.
“Jenna, I…” The way his voice broke off sent a shiver of unease through her. “The transplant coordinator just contacted me. We have a heart for you.”
“T-that’s wonderful!” Her knees went weak, and she sank down on her bed. “But Paul’s not here. He has the car.”
“We’re sending an ambulance for you. I want you to get ready, call a friend or relative to come with you.”
“But Paul. . . . ” She let her sentence die. Paul was all her friends and relatives wrapped up in one. “I’ll be ready.”
“Good. I’ll be waiting.” He paused, then added, “And I’ll be here for you. Remember that.”
She hung up and readied the suitcase she kept packed for this occasion, then sat in the darkened parlor waiting. Her fingers incessantly tapped on the arms on the rocking chair. Dr. Sharidon wasn’t telling her something. He was holding back, and that knowledge revived her earlier dread. Why hadn’t the transplant coordinator called her directly? That’s how they said it was supposed to happen.
She found her gaze returning to the lighthouse. “Oh, Paul, where are you?”
Nine months later…
The sun rose in brilliant splashes of color over the Atlantic Ocean. Like the sun, Jenna was also released from another endless night. The summer sky would soon be bright blue, the air warm and salty. Jenna drew up her knees and curled her arms around her legs. The gazebo near the rocky beach was her favorite morning place where she sipped her coffee and nibbled her bagel. And watched as the first child found her creation.
The state park ended several hundred yards away, where the beach was less rocky. In the pre-dawn hours she wandered like a woman waiting for her sea captain to return. Before walking back to her house, she arranged shiny brown stones into a smiley face. Later, she delighted in the children’s fascination, reveled in the words “fairy” and “mermaid” floating over the wind.
She turned back to the turn-of-the-century house she had come to love. It was the longest time she’d ever stayed in one place, and she felt comfortable in the New Hampshire community. But her home lacked the two things most important: Paul and their baby. Why hadn’t she thought to have him donate sperm so she could someday have his child?
That’s easy, Jenna. He wasn’t supposed to die; you were.
She shivered, blaming it on the chill morning air. Her hand went automatically to her chest, covering the place where Paul’s heart beat inside her. Irony was cruel. Paul had often said he’d do anything to get her the heart she needed, but he probably hadn’t counted on sacrificing himself. Yet, he had made arrangements, unbeknownst to her, that she get his heart should something happen to him.
She’d never heard of the ability to will one’s organs to a specific individual, but apparently Paul had. He’d had his blood tested to see if they matched, then had signed his heart over to her. The transplant surgeon had trimmed the heart to fit her cavity, and as he’d told her in the recovery room, “You’re off and running now.”
Her sense of peace evaporated like the early morning mist. She gathered her dishes and the note pad covered in her flower doodles and left the gazebo, stopping at her shed-turned-workshop to start airing out the paint fumes. When once she and Paul had renovated houses for a living, now Jenna refinished furniture. Alone. The way she did everything these days.
The loneliness made her blood flow thick and heavy. She was tired, so very tired of feeling alone, but she didn’t have the courage to remedy the situation. Making friends wasn’t a skill she’d had the opportunity to learn. And the thought of opening herself up for any kind of friendship, to depend on someone who would let her down again . . . no, she couldn’t do it.
She walked across the half-moon patio and up the wooden steps. The kitchen was bright and airy, sparkling with the sun catchers hanging in the windows. The little things made life bearable, like the children on the beach and the cardinals that visited her bird feeders. But was she making the most of her precious second chance? Last year she had been on the edge of death, struggling with even the most simple tasks—like sanding, painting or making love. There were days she couldn’t muster energy enough to get out of bed in the morning.
Jenna now thanked God for each step she took on her treadmill every evening, for every day she’d been allowed to live. She was grateful, yes, but her second chance had come at the expense of her dreams, of all she held dear. Jenna thought she’d die from Paul’s loss alone, never mind the surgery or threat of her body rejecting his heart.
She told herself, as she always did when a bout of loneliness washed her in blue, that she didn’t need anyone else in her life; she had a part of Paul with her always. Not only physically, but . . . spiritually. Sometimes his presence was so strong, she would actually turn around and expect to find him standing there. Jenna had dared to ask Dr. Sharidon about the sensations she’d experienced since getting Paul’s heart. She now craved the jars of tamales Paul used to devour, and she was a sleepwalker, as he was, waking to find herself in the living room or even outside once.
Her doctor said he’d heard of instances where an allergy had transferred from the donor to the recipient. But presences, cravings…not likely. The heart was only an organ, nothing more. She should concentrate on the future, on a life that, besides her medications and suppressed immune system, was now much like everyone else’s.
Dr. Sharidon thought most likely that Jenna was mourning Paul so deeply, she was conjuring the sensations. He said she had to heal, both physically and emotionally, before they would go away. But was she ready to let that part of Paul go?
No, she decided, heading to the office they once shared. Her memories with Paul were all she had. Were, in fact, the most important thing in her life. She was healing in her own way, sealing herself in her world of memories. There wasn’t anything wrong with that. Was there?
The office was dark, rich with the scent of the wood that covered the floors and made up the built-in bookcases. This was Paul’s place, where he’d managed the financial details of their lives. Now she used the large oak desk and the leather chair she slid into.
Framed pictures lined the back edge of the desk, from their simple wedding ceremony to a recent photo of him scraping paint from this very house. She found herself smiling back at him, but her smile faltered. She looked at each of the pictures in turn, studying them. Paul was smiling in most of them, but the smile never quite warmed his eyes.
Jenna blinked, picking up one of the brass frames and looking closer. Something thrummed in her chest, not the ever-present ache of loss, but something she couldn’t identify. She quickly set the frame down, licking her dry lips and dismissing it as a by-product of her grief. Of course Paul was happy.
You make a good man of me.
His words echoed in her mind, fading into the quiet of the dark-paneled room. He said that a lot, though she knew his goodness has nothing to do with her.
I’ve never been happier in my life, Jenna.
Those words echoed, too, and faded. That’s what he’d said, time and again. But was he truly happy?
“Why am I thinking this?” Her voice sounded thick in the silence, and she ran her hand over her shoulder-length hair, pulling it away from her face. “We had the perfect life. We worked together, loved what we did . . . loved each other. We. . . . ”
Her gaze drifted back to the photos. It was her imagination that made his eyes look . . . empty. They had been each other’s first loves, drawn together by their loneliness and the ghosts of their pasts. She shared the tragedy of her parents’ murders, and he shared the sadness of his cold childhood and his parents’ deaths. Neither had siblings, though Paul had mentioned distant relatives who may as well have resided on some distant planet. It was just the two of them, and that’s how he wanted it.
For the first time in her life she’d been protected, cherished. She would have lived in an igloo with him if that’s what he’d wanted.
Jenna wrote out two checks and two invoices. Sometimes it seemed that all of her newfound energy went into worrying about paying the bills, keeping the house. As if to punctuate the thought, the stamp holder was empty.
She pulled out the drawers in the desk, each one moving like silk after hours of sanding and finishing. When she searched the middle drawer, her mouth went dry. Behind two boxes of pens lurked a plastic bag: the jewelry Paul had been wearing when he died.
She sat back in the chair, feeling as exhausted as she had in the days before her transplant. Jenna had brought the bag home and stuffed it away, never giving it another thought.
She crossed her arms over her chest and stared at the bag. “Why were you driving so recklessly, Paul? You never broke the speed limit, always wore your seat belt.” There was the other question, too, but she held that one in. She would never know the answers and, frankly, wasn’t sure she wanted to know.
Before she even realized what she was doing, she’d pulled out the bag. “All right, so it’s out. I can put it away just as easily.”
But she couldn’t.
The plastic unfurled slightly, inviting her to be brave and open it. She’d be the first to admit she wasn’t brave. Not brave enough to look at their totaled car, not brave enough to delve into the questions that didn’t make sense. And until now, too much of a coward to open the bag.
Once again, her hands moved of their own volition, unwrapping the bag and spilling out its contents. Her gaze riveted on the watch with the cracked lens.
Jenna jerked around, though she knew the word had originated in her mind. It was Paul’s voice, yet she’d never heard him say it before.
Ponee, Texas. Go, Jenna. Go to Ponee.
She sat very still, concentrating on every sound. In the distance, a lawnmower droned, a sea gull screeched.
Maybe the grief was getting to her, that and the solitude. She often heard Paul’s voice inside her head, remembering things he had said. But she’d never heard of any Ponee, Texas. Paul hailed from Philadelphia, and neither had ever been in Texas.
She waited for her heart rate to slow again before turning back to the watch. Paul had died at ten-thirty, or at least his brain had died then. His heart had kept beating for her, strong and healthy, and the rest of his organs had gone to others in need.
She reached out, fingers hovering over the timepiece, the symbol of time and love shattered in one instant. Her breath hitched, and slowly, she lowered her fingers to touch the cracked glass.
The room went black. A suit of panic and fear froze her body. The sound of glass shattering and metal screeching filled the car…the car? The steering wheel was slippery beneath the desperate grip of damp hands as the car careened into a telephone pole. It was Paul’s scream she heard as she sucked in air and wrenched her eyes open.
Jumping to her feet, she swiveled around. Nothing looked out of the ordinary. All she heard was the sound of rushing blood in her ears. What was happening to her? Was she going mad? Her fingers gripped the back of the chair. She did not—could not—smell blood. The coppery essence lingered in her senses, an aftermath as real as the sounds and the fear of the car accident.
It took her several minutes to gain her balance. She kept looking around the room to assure herself that she was indeed there. Her gaze drew back to the watch and then the ring that gleamed dully in the morning light.
She found herself sliding back into the chair, though her whole body trembled. “Paul?”
The word sounded jarring, ridiculous. She didn’t believe in ghosts or things supernatural, but what she’d just experienced was not her imagination. She’d never been in a car accident before, but now she knew exactly how it felt. Not just any accident either, but the one that took Paul’s life.
A glass dome clock on the bookcase ticked loudly, as though urging her to again touch the watch. She sat staring at it for a long time, trying to talk herself out of it. She had no will of her own. Invariably her hand reached out once more.
The moment the pad of her finger grazed the surface, Jenna was again enveloped in intense fear. The car took a turn too fast. Paul overcorrected, his hands too slick to grip the wheel. The back end of the car slid to the left. The headlight beams zigzagged across both lanes before spotlighting the telephone pole. Nooooooo! The horrible sounds crashed through her mind. Jenna’s body shook at the moment of impact, and she fell back against the chair like a rag doll.
When she finally had strength enough to open her eyes, she again looked around the room. Nothing out of the ordinary, nothing but what had gone on in her mind.
Not my mind—my heart. Paul’s heart.
“It’s just an organ, a pump.” She recited the doctor’s words in a faint voice, believing them no more now than she had then. Her gaze went to Paul’s wedding ring. She reached for it without giving herself time to fear what it might bring. Ready for more terror, she was surprised to be swept into an urgency . . . Do the right thing. Find the truth. It swirled around her like purple smoke, engulfing her with a purpose she had not felt in a long time. And then it was gone. She opened her eyes to find the ring clutched in the palm of her hand. Her fingers unfolded, and she stared at the simple gold band.
“Paul, what does it mean?”
He didn’t answer, but the sensation echoed through her as she continued to hold the ring.
And then, several minutes later, his voice said, Ponee, Texas. Go, Jenna, go.
“What kind of answer is that?”
Jenna tilted her hand, and the ring rolled across the leather pad. She pushed herself to her feet and walked over to the bookcase. The atlas was tall and unwieldy; Ten months ago, even lifting the book would have been a struggle. She stood in the filtered slice of sunlight by the window and opened it to Texas. Ponee was a small town in the upper east corner; her finger had gone right to it.
“This is crazy.”
Jenna returned the atlas to the shelf and sat at the desk. She didn’t want to touch the ring or the watch again. She scooped up the plastic bag, clutching it tightly as she stared at Paul’s smiling face in one of the pictures. The almost sort of, mostly smiling face.
“Why were you driving recklessly? You were afraid of something,” she found herself answering, remembering the fear even before Paul had lost control of the car.
And what about the biggest question? Where had he gotten the four hundred thousand dollars in cash found with him?
Jenna had given the police an answer that had satisfied her, at least for the most part: Paul had been on a house-buying expedition and had taken the cash to bargain with. The police had bought that after hearing that she and Paul renovated old houses for a living. But Jenna had been left with one niggling question: where had he gotten that kind of money?
She wadded up the plastic bag. There was something else in it.
For several minutes she was afraid to look. Paul wore only the watch and the ring, nothing else. She wanted to throw away the bag without looking. Even as she decided this, she dumped out another wedding band onto the desk pad.
This one was more intricate than Paul’s, embedded with clear, perfect diamonds all around. It was also at least two sizes larger than Paul’s ring, with the minuscule scratches of many years of wear.
She picked it up between her thumb and forefinger. This time it was startling anger that engulfed her, and a flash of night sky. The air was salty, like the ocean breeze at her house.
Jenna dropped the ring. She had never seen Paul angry. His moods were steady, subtle. Whether he’d just smashed his thumb with a hammer, grieved over her damaged heart, or celebrated finishing another house, he remained calm and unemotional. Sometimes he would sink into a melancholy where she couldn’t reach him. Eventually he would come out of it, and then he would make love to her, but he never revealed what troubled him. She figured Paul was trying to protect her from whatever it was. Maybe it was her illness that painted him blue.
So why was he doing this to her now?
She had no doubt it was Paul. Where this knowledge came from, she didn’t know. She wasn’t frightened. No, not exactly frightened, but . . . concerned. All this meant that Paul had kept something from her. That meant she didn’t know him as well as she thought. The memories of the man she’d married kept her going, and if he wasn’t what she thought him to be, what did she have?
Sure, she had questions. But if the answers jeopardized all that she held precious, she didn’t want to know.
She scooped up the pieces and put them into the bag, which she stuffed back in the drawer. And that’s when she saw the folded newspaper pushed to the back. When she pulled it out, she recognized it. A reporter from the Maine paper had come to the hospital, bringing a copy of the article he’d written about Paul’s car accident. He’d wanted an interview with the grieving widow who had received her husband’s heart. A great human interest story, he’d said with a smile as dazzling and phony as a cubic zirconia. She’d declined, but somehow couldn’t make herself throw out the newspaper.
Paul’s crumpled car made the front page, and Jenna shivered as she took it in. Her eyes clouded over, and she blinked to clear them.
The article had scant information about Paul, before they even knew what the cause of the accident had been, or if alcohol had been involved. Her gaze strayed to the headline article about a woman’s body found at the bottom of a cliff. Details were even sketchier about that incident.
She started to fold up the newspaper, and found beneath it another dated two days later. This one included information about her transplant. Just as she started to throw both newspapers away, another article caught her eye. They’d found out who the dead woman was: Becky White. There was no evidence of either foul play or intended suicide. The nearby inn had been closed for the winter, and the woman had no business being there.
The strangest part was, the woman had no business even being in Maine. Jenna dropped down into the chair, legs weak as she blinked to make sure she’d read correctly. The words were there in black and white.
The woman had no business being in Maine because she lived in Ponee, Texas.
When Jenna rested her head upon her pillow that evening, it was with thoughts of the baby she and Paul could have had. Those were the thoughts that kept her sane. She dreamed of her gray eyes and Paul’s sensual mouth on a little girl who laughed as she ran around the gazebo, or delighted in the smiley faces on the beach left by mermaids.
When Jenna woke suddenly, she found herself down in the office, phone clutched in her damp palm. The yellow pages were splayed open to travel agents, and a woman on the other end of the line was saying, “All right, Mrs. Elliot, I’ve got you on a Delta flight at eight-fifty this morning into Dallas Fort Worth. According to my map, that’s just a few hours’ drive from Ponee. A rental car will be waiting at the airport, and your plane tickets will be ready at the counter in Boston. I believe everything’s in order. Thank you for calling Twenty-Four By Seven Travel, and I hope you have a pleasant trip.”