Until I Die Again
Love & Light, Book 1
A Love & Light Romantic Suspense with a touch of Magical Realism
~Soul Change Novel #1 ~
She had to lose everything—even her life—to find out where her heart truly belonged.
It only takes a second—a second filled with the scream of twisting metal, shattering glass and her own terrified cry—and Chris Copestakes’ young life is ending before it really began.
Then, against all odds, Chris wakes up in the hospital and discovers she’s been given a second chance. Only there’s a catch. She’s been returned to earth in the body of another woman—Hallie DiBarto, the selfish, dazzlingly beautiful socialite wife of a wealthy California resort-owner.
Suddenly, Chris is thrust into an unfamiliar world of glittering prestige and angry secrets. As she struggles to hid her identity and make a new life for herself, she learns the terrible truth about Hallie DiBarto. And when she finds herself falling for Jamie DiBarto, a man both husband and stranger, she discovers that miracles really can happen.
Read an Excerpt
Seventy-five miles per hour. Chris Copestakes shifted her eyes from the speedometer to the narrow portion of her face in the rear view mirror. Worried brown eyes stared back. She watched the road ahead, her fingers gripping the worn steering wheel tighter than necessary. Her gaze shifted to the map scrawled on the scrap of paper. She shouldn’t be meeting her boyfriend, Andy, at some strange address. Instead, she should be going straight to the police. Couldn’t the flat tire have been an omen against going? Shifting on the cracked vinyl seat, she found it hard to get comfortable—her uneasiness of mind manifesting itself in the physical.
Would her life with him become shattered pieces of a sinister lie? She already knew the answer. There was no denying what she had discovered that day. Andy—handsome, charming . . . dangerous-looking and full of secrets. He was her one voyage into murky waters, and now she was drowning. He had begged for the chance to prove his innocence. What kind of proof would he have? Could there be some plausible explanation for it all?
The change in the sound of the tires brought her back to present. Not another flat tire, she hoped. She swallowed hard, her fingers gripping the wheel. No, just the Crystal Bridge. That irrational fear of driving over bridges returned full force. She laughed aloud, trying to force the building tension away. Hah! A fear of bridges and born and raised in Colorado! She slowed down and stared straight ahead, careful not to look at the deep pit of rock that dropped hundreds of feet on either side. Her throat was suddenly dry, and her heart beat a little faster.
Rapid movement in the rear view mirror caught her attention. A black semi was moving up quickly behind her. Too fast, she thought as her stomach clenched. It’s too early for drunk drivers to be out. Just wait ten more seconds, and then you can be on your way. Don’t you dare pass me on this bridge!
In seconds its huge chrome grill filled the mirror. She jumped at the blast of his horn, but didn’t go faster. Her gaze kept shifting between the thin strip of road ahead and the truck in the mirror. With a squealing of tires, the rig swerved around her, roaring up beside her car. Her GTO rocked in the heavy current of air as the semi revved its engine and started rumbling past. Chris’ fingers froze on the wheel, holding the car steady. Damn you, impatient jerk! You’ll get us both killed. Determined to file a complaint against the driver, she shot a glance at the truck for identification. Two painted elf shoes caught her attention a fractured second before the truck slammed into her sideways.
The resounding thunderclap ripped through the car. Oh my God, oh my God. She jerked the wheel to the left. Disbelief turned to panic—the trailer was blocking her. Metal grated against metal. Chris couldn’t swallow or breath. Grinding breaks—shattering glass—then the whooshing sound after she smashed through the guard railing and dropped down, down. Silence before the scream tore from her being, releasing the terror inside. The world turned black as she mercifully fell unconscious an instant before impact.
“We’re losing her,” a controlled voice called out. “Come on, come on!” another voice urged. Chris looked around at the icy whiteness of the room, at the doctors and nurses rushing frantically to retrieve instruments from various tables. She tried to listen to their quick, efficient dialog over the roaring noise. What is happening? Where am I? No one looked at her, or gave the slightest clue that they had heard. They were busy, she realized.
A long steady beep pierced the air, and the orderly chaos halted. With defeated faces, they moved slowly away, and Chris now saw the body below her, a tangled mass of skin and flesh. She gasped at the blood, at the legs twisted into bizarre angles.
“I was amazed she made it here alive in the first place,” a voice softly said.
“She must have had one heck of a will to live,” another voice uttered.
Panic gripped her as some of the orderlies left the room. What about me? You can’t just leave me here! I’m still alive. Can’t you see me? No one looked at Chris, no one heard. She tried to move toward the floor, toward the girl on the operating table . . . and then she screamed, a hollow sound that faded the second it left her throat. That twisted flesh was her! She was dead!
The “body” she occupied now was misty, like a cloud. She struggled to move toward her physical body, wanted to get back into it. I have to get back! I have to talk to Andy. He may have done something horrible, and I have to tell someone. I have to tell my sister, Paula, what happened. She knew no way to accomplish it.
Panic subsided, turning to regret. I haven’t done anything with my life yet. I haven’t finished school so I can help rejuvenate the state forests; I haven’t really and truly loved a man; I never got married and had a baby. I never told my sisters how much I love them.
How much time had passed, she had no clue. Time didn’t exist in this place. Floating just below the white ceiling tiles, she watched a young woman unhooking the IV’s, trying not to look at Chris’ body as she did so. Chris wasn’t afraid to look at her body. Even as she saw her mortal wounds, she felt no pain. That body is not me; I am here, floating above it. That was a shell, but this, this is my soul.
A man walked in the room and covered her body with a white sheet. When he opened the doors and wheeled her out, Chris could hear crying, heart-rending sobs coming from the waiting area. Her mother, her sisters. She knew it. Getting the hang of moving around in her disembodied state, she started to move toward the wall, wondering if she could go through it.
At that moment, a dazzling light filled the room and pulled her gently into its warm embrace. Chris turned toward the source and found that the light did not blind her. With the light came a sense of overwhelming peace and love. She instantly knew the light was God and was ready to go with Him.
He spoke to her, not in words that she could hear, but in thoughts. You are not ready to die?
Her own voice was the same, not spoken, yet heard. There are things I need to do. Things I want to do. But I will come with you. She expected to miss living on earth, but was surprised to find that she didn’t.
It is not your time yet.
Even with the light, she could clearly see the room below. She looked at the space her body had once occupied. But my body is broken. How will I live in it?
You will not. You have a new task.
I will do whatever you wish. What is my task?
Find his heart.
Before she could ask what He meant, she felt herself fall backwards as a blanket of darkness wrapped around her. Gone was the freedom of her spiritual body; she felt blood pumping through her veins again, the rhythm of her heartbeat, and dull pain. Then the deepest, darkest sleep she had ever experienced claimed her.
Jamie DiBarto’s wife was not dying beyond those doors. He paced in the hospital waiting room, glancing every two minutes toward the operating room doors. He refused to believe the paramedics’ mutterings about a brain hemorrhage and coma. The feeling that he’d had riding with her in the ambulance . . . Jamie shook his head.
He wanted to attribute it to the shock and panic of her collapse, the fear that built in him as he watched the blood drain from her face. Yet the feeling still lingered, the feeling, knowledge almost, that she was gone. While he had held her hand in the ambulance, he could feel her soul—her essence—slip from her body. He ignored it, yet afterward the body that lie in front of him seemed empty.
He shook his head again, refusing to believe it. She was alive, her heart was beating, her lungs breathing. By machine, but she was alive, dammit. It seemed like hours since some stone-faced entity told him the doctor would be out soon. He was almost glad that his mother and Hallie’s mother wouldn’t be arriving for another few hours. He wanted to take the news alone.
“Mr. DiBarto?” a soft male voice asked.
Jamie jumped at the sound of his name. “Yes, that’s me. How is she?”
The tall, dark-haired man held out his hand, and Jamie grabbed it as a drowning man might clutch at a rope. The doctor’s healthy, California glow looked out of place in a hospital filled with sickness.
“My name is Doctor Barrett Hughes. I’d like to talk to you in private. Please follow me.”
In private. Those words made Jamie feel cold all over. It wasn’t good news. The doctor gave you good news right there in the waiting area. They gave you bad news in private.
Jamie followed the doctor down another corridor to a closet-sized room with a large window that let sunlight filter in. There was a tiny desk, and chairs for up to five people to receive bad news at the same time. He chose the one farthest from the desk, as if that could put distance between him and the words on the papers Dr. Hughes held so tightly in his hand. Instead of sitting behind the desk, the doctor took the seat next to Jamie.
“I’m afraid the news isn’t good. We can’t be hopeful about your wife’s condition.”
Jamie’s throat tightened, and he couldn’t swallow. He suddenly felt warm, then cold as a chill possessed him. The doctor continued.
“Hallie suffered a massive intracerebral hemorrhage near her brain stem. She had a stroke. Right now she’s in a coma.”
The ocean roared in his ears. The room spun around, leaving him disoriented and clutching the arms of his chair. Suddenly he wasn’t feeling so brave about taking the news alone.
Jamie found his voice. “It sounds . . . bad. But she’s going to be all right, isn’t she?”
Dr. Hughes’ dark eyes were blank, his mouth a grim line. “Your wife had one of the most serious kinds of stroke. Of the many patients I have seen with this massive a CVA, that is, cardiovascular accident, most don’t live very long. It’s usually fatal, perhaps within an hour, a day. It’s hard to determine.”
Jamie stood up, his balance precarious. “There must be something you can do! You’re a doctor. All this instrumentation, these gadgets and machinery . . . there has to be something that will save her!”
Dr. Hughes touched Jamie’s arm in a silent request for him to sit again. “We have on staff one of the best neurosurgeons in the country. His judgement is that surgery is useless. And possibly dangerous at this point. The worst of the bleeding is already over.”
Jamie sat staring into space, feeling cold turn into the heat of despair and anger. He thought of that warmth, soon to be absent from Hallie’s body. Finally he tuned into the present and asked, “She’s going to die?”
Jamie’s gaze moved slowly around the room, then rested on Dr. Hughes. “Am I supposed to be this angry? I want to blame someone: her, you . . . someone.”
The doctor nodded, resting his chin on steepled fingers. “You can blame God, if you’re so inclined. Most people go through a whole range of emotions while the realization process takes hold.”
“It sounds so damned clinical.”
Dr. Hughes smiled faintly. “I’m sorry if it seems that way. Comes with the territory.”
“Can I see her?”
“Of course. And I would suggest you call her family and let them know that there isn’t much time.”
“Her mother is on her way now. No one has any idea where her father is. That’s all the family she has.” Jamie’s voice sounded flat, as if it came from a cardboard box.
“Follow me to ICU then.”
He couldn’t believe he was walking down the sterile corridors of the hospital to say what might be his final words to his wife. Their marriage had shattered long ago, but it still ripped him up at the thought of her dying.
Hallie lay in a glassed-in room, a fragile creature in a protected environment. Jamie stood alone by the door for a few minutes, sustaining a hope that perhaps this was the wrong woman. As long as he didn’t see her face, there was the smallest chance that Dr. Hughes had gotten Hallie mixed up with this dying woman. But soon he was drawn to her side, and the limp hand he held in his own was definitely Hallie’s. His mind tried unsuccessfully to erase the tubes from her mouth and nose, the IV stuck in her arm. The respirator issued a soft, wheezing sound every time it gave her a life-sustaining puff of air. He couldn’t understand the green scribbles on a nearby monitor, but was thankful that something was happening.
She looked like an ice sculpture, beauty captured and held suspended. Life flowed under the serene exterior, but where was her soul? he wondered. Right there, he told himself, still locked inside her body. Jamie squeezed her hand hard, as if by holding on, he could keep her from slipping away. He envisioned himself in a tug of war with father death. Of course, death would win. He had to keep reminding himself of that; it hadn’t sunk in that she would actually die. How could someone who looked so healthy and beautiful be dying?
Jamie pulled up a chair beside the bed. He had heard that people in comas could sometimes hear the sounds around them. So, he would talk to her then and try to pull her back. Starting from the first time he’d ever seen her, he told her how his heart had jumped around inside him, how absolutely stunning she’d looked in that sparkling blue dress.
Throughout the night, in between the times when her mother spent time alone with her, Jamie went back and forth between forgiving her for the heartbreak she’d caused, and asking her why she had betrayed him. How he wished he would have asked her before. Now he might never know why she wouldn’t fully open herself up to him, or give her heart to him.
Chris swam up from the depths to consciousness, lured by a man’s voice. She didn’t have the strength to open her eyes or respond, but slowly her mind began to recognize his words and put them into logical order.
“You actually died last night. You were gone and then you came back to life. That has to mean something. Dammit, it has to mean that you’re going to come out of this coma.”
I’m here, Andy. Or is it Dad? Then she realized what he had just said. She had died and come back. She had gotten her second chance! Only vaguely did the memory of her twisted body return. She felt no pain, only a spear of panic as she wondered what her life would be like now. Was she whole? It didn’t matter, she was alive! She clenched her fists, testing.
“You moved again!” He took her hand in his, and his warmth felt good on her chilled skin. “Oh, Hallie,” he said, drawing it out into a sigh. “Dr. Hughes keeps reminding me that it’s not unusual for people in deep comas to move or twitch. He calls it posturing or something like that. But I can’t help wondering if you’re trying to tell me you’re in there.
“So many times . . .” He took a deep breath, and his voice sounded more strained when he continued. “So many times in the last two years I wanted to rip that wedding ring off your finger. I couldn’t, God help me, I just couldn’t do it. Now that it’s not there, it seems strange. The hospital took all your jewelry off. They thought it might disappear.” He forced a laugh. “You’d be mortified if you knew.”
Wedding ring? Chris groped for memories of her life. Andy. They were dating, but not married! She slowly opened her eyes, focusing in on her surroundings. The machines didn’t surprise her; she had expected that. But the man did. His arms were outstretched on the wall opposite her, and his head was pressed against the glass. His breath made a circle of fog in front of him. He was not Andy, nor her father. She could only see him at an angle from the back, but she already knew she had ever seen him before. His blond, straight hair tapered down a few inches past his shoulders, in something like a duck tail. His wrinkled shirt and jeans outlined a lean, muscular body like none she was so fortunate to lay eyes upon.
When he started to turn around, her eyelids fell shut under the weight of fatigue. Why was he in her room, talking to her like this? She needed more time to figure it out.
It took little effort for Chris to keep perfectly still. He came close and gently rubbed one hand, then the other. When he laid her hand down, she had to quell a desire to reach for him.
“I guess I should tell you that Mick is not on the list of people allowed to visit you. Maybe you’d be mad at me for that. I don’t know. He’s here, of course. As soon as he heard, he came right here. Then he blew up in the lobby when he was refused admittance. I just don’t think it’s right, your lover being in here. It’s somehow . . . I don’t know. Sacred in here, maybe. His kind would contaminate the place.”
Chris could hear his shoes scrape the floor as he paced next to her bed. Her lover, Mick? Now she was sure this man had the wrong room. She wanted to open her eyes and tell him he’d made a terrible mistake, tell him how crazy it was, his thinking she was his wife. But she couldn’t. All she could do was listen.
“And I might as well tell you, I know about your plans to take off with Mick. I found the plane tickets when I grabbed your suitcase after the stroke. Even you couldn’t lie your way out of two one-way tickets to France with both your names on them.” He laughed softly. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to hold that against you now. But when, and I mean when you get out of this coma, I plan to discuss it with you. Hell, I’m even gracious enough to wish you all the happiness in the world. I just want you alive.”
This is crazy! I’ve got to tell him he’s made a mistake. How can he think I’m his wife? Just when Chris started drowning in a sea of confusion, she got a reprieve.
After a whoosh sound, Chris could hear a vast array of noises from the hallway: a distant conversation, a doctor being paged. A feminine voice said, “Excuse me, Mr. DiBarto. You’re going to have to leave for a little while. You can come back in about an hour.”
The door quietly closed, leaving the drone of machines to press down on her. After a few minutes, Chris forced her eyes open, looking everywhere around the vacated room. She moved her hand again, and smiled to feel it there. And she smiled just because she could. Then she realized there were tubes in her nose and mouth, and one started to cause a strangling sensation in her throat.
When her hand reached up over her mouth, she jerked her head around, ready to encounter the owner of the graceful fingers with long, bright pink nails. She had never worn nail polish, nor had nails long enough to paint. She stared at the hand that hovered shakily over her face, and moved a finger. One long finger moved. Then another moved at her will.
The hand moved lower, and pulled the tape away before pulling the tube from her throat. The slight gagging sensation was followed by the wonderful feeling of taking a breath on her own. She could breathe! Next came the tubes in her nose. But the hand still looked foreign to her.
Chris tried to remember what had put her there. An accident. Yes, she could hear the distant memory of crunching metal, screams. Her screams. It hurt to think of anything else. She had to get up, to see herself and make sure she was whole. Her arms felt weak, but she pushed herself up a few inches at a time. The room started to spin around, and she closed her eyes and held fast. Finally it passed, and she tried to still the waves of nausea pulsing through her stomach.
Once she felt stable again, she held her breath and looked down. The blankets had slid down to her waist, and she pushed them to the floor—and stared. Not at herself, not the straight, boyish figure and skinny legs. Something was wrong, terribly wrong! This was not her body!
She moved legs that seemed twice as long as her own, shapely legs with small feet and painted toe nails to match those fingers. They moved in unison with her thoughts. Her arms moved at will, and . . . her eyes widened. Her chest was not the barely-a-B she was used to seeing, but much more than that! Beneath her hospital gown, voluptuous breasts rose each time she inhaled. Her hands moved to her head, desperately wanting to feel the kinky curls she had hated all her life. She pulled a handful of long, dark blonde hair in front of her face.
Panic twisted her heart, and dazed confusion rushed through her blood. Or was it her blood? Nothing else was hers! No, it had to be a horrible, distorted nightmare! A nightmare like. . . .
The picture filled her mind, this time vividly. Her twisted body, the blood, oh, the blood! But there was so much more than that. She remembered floating above her body, feeling detached from it. The clear, bright light telling her that it wasn’t her time yet. Her body was such a mess, she had told Him without words. He said she wouldn’t be in her body, and something about a new task. She had been given another chance as . . . Chris’ gaze fell to the plastic band on her wrist: H. DiBarto. She was in another woman’s body!
“Hallie! You’re awake!”
The man who had been talking to her earlier rushed to her side, followed by a tall woman in her fifties. Chris looked at them blankly, the reality of her situation crashing in over her.
“Hallie, it’s Jamie, your husband. This is your mother. Hallie, are you all right? You look scared.” Then he shook his head, smiling. “You’re alive! I knew you’d come back!”
Jamie leaned over and hugged her, followed by a crushing hug from the woman who was supposed to be her mother. The woman touched Chris’ face, hair and arms, as if to assure herself she was really seeing her daughter and not an apparition.
Chris tried to talk, but nothing came out. Finally a sound croaked from her throat. “Why am I in here?” She vaguely gestured to all the equipment around her.
Her mother leaned forward and grasped her hand tightly. Chris wasn’t sure whose hand was shaking, but their clutched hands quivered. “You had a brain hemorrhage, sweetheart. The doctors thought you were going to die.”
Chris’ weight pulled her back to a prone position. All the while, she kept staring at Jamie, keeping her focus on one person to keep her mind from exploding into a thousand directions. His face was finely sculptured, and his eyes were the lightest shade of blue she had ever seen. He had one of those regal noses from advertisements for cologne and blue jeans. He must have been staring at her with the same disbelief that filled her face. And then he smiled, and the whole room seemed to light up. Maybe she was in Heaven after all, and he was an angel.
The illusion of Heaven was disrupted when a nurse pushed her way in after looking through the large glass window. Everything happened quickly after that. She called the doctor in, ushered Jamie and her “mother” out of the room, and put her through a battery of embarrassing and lengthy tests. All the while, the doctor kept asking her questions.
“What’s your name?”
“Hallie Di . . .” She stole a glance at her bracelet. “DiBarto.”
“How old are you?” “Where were you born?” The questions kept coming, and she didn’t know the answers to most of them. At least the answers that belonged to the body she was in. Her own life was clear and the memories vivid up until the day she died. She squeezed her eyes shut. Dead. I’m dead. Who am I now?
“Are you all right?” one of the nurses asked.
Chris shook her head. No, she wasn’t all right. She would never be all right again.
Jamie, his mother, Theresa, and Hallie’s mother all gathered in the closet-sized room with Dr. Hughes. The bad news room. He tried to keep telling himself that Hallie was all right now, but another dark thought kept pressing into his mind, spurred on by the memory of that blank look on Hallie’s face: brain damage. What would he do if she never recovered mentally?
Dr. Hughes looked at his paperwork, then set it down on the desk with a short sigh. “I have been a doctor for fifteen years, and all I can tell you about Hallie’s recovery is that it is a miracle. I have never seen someone in so deep a coma awaken so suddenly. Her movements are purposeful, hand and eye coordination much better than anyone could ever expect.”
“So she’ll be okay?” Hallie’s mother asked, nervously fingering the frosted hair piled on top of her head.
“Well, Mrs. Parker . . .”
“Please,” she interrupted, placing a hand on Dr. Hughes’ sleeve. “Call me Velvet.”
Jamie always cringed at the mention of her mother’s name, Velvet. Her real name was Hedda, but she kept the stage name she used when she had been an exotic dancer years ago.
Dr. Hughes steepled his long fingers and leaned back in the brown vinyl chair. “We’ve run tests, numbers of them. There isn’t a trace of the hemorrhage or any damage. Physically, she’s perfect.”
Jamie leaned forward and pushed the words out. “And mentally?”
Dr. Hughes tilted his head. “Well, that’s what we’re not too sure about. Both long and short term memory are impaired. She seems to know little other than her name. With the kind of recovery she made, it’s going to be hard to predict her progress. In normal cases it could take up to two years for her memory to return, and even then some of it may never return.”
Velvet’s face registered shock. “You mean she might always look at me with that nothing look on her face?”
“No, I’m not saying that at all. But you may have to fill in the blank spaces for her.”
Jamie leaned forward. “Will she be the same way? I mean, her personality and all?”
“Yes, in time she will become basically the same person she was. She will of course be different in some ways. This kind of experience changes a person. She’ll probably appreciate life a lot more.”
“Hah!” Velvet’s deep, harsh laugh seemed to ricochet off the walls. “She did that before!” When she noticed Jamie’s right eye narrow, her smile died.
Dr. Hughes cleared his throat, perhaps in an attempt to clear the air of tension. “I would like to keep her here for a few days, just for observation. Then she’s free to go home, although she should stay near the hospital for a few weeks.”
A sick feeling began churning in Jamie’s stomach. “Do you think she’ll have another stroke?”
“No, not at all. The last CAT scan we did came out completely clear.” He shook his head and looked away for a moment, as if still stunned. “It might be a good idea, though, to keep her nearby in case of complications. This isn’t an average case, so it’s hard to foresee any problems that might occur.”
Jamie turned to his mother, squeezing her hand in question, trying to read those beautiful, icy blue eyes of hers for an answer. As usual, they revealed nothing, but the slightest nod of her head confirmed it.
“She’ll recuperate at my mother’s home in Los Almeda,” Jamie announced.
Velvet spoke up. “I don’t think that’s appropriate, considering the circumstances. She should . . .”
“She’s staying with us. You don’t have the time, nor the room, to house her comfortably.” She also didn’t have the wits, but he wasn’t going to get into that. “Besides, she’ll be closer to the hospital. When she’s up to it, she can do whatever she pleases.”
Dr. Hughes stood up, holding his clipboard against his chest. “Good. We’ve moved her to a regular room, 425. You can go in to see her now if you’d like.”
After hours of being treated like a lab specimen, Chris was escorted to her new room. All those tests had only confirmed one thing in her mind. No one had a medical explanation for her miraculous recovery, except that it was a miracle, as one doctor had whispered reverently. Oh, how she wanted to tell someone about her experience, about the love and peace, and the light.
As soon as the nurse tucked her into her crisp, cold sheets and left her alone, Chris freed herself—and studied herself again. It still wasn’t her body. Her hands moved up to her face, touching her cheeks, following the lines of her bones. What did she look like now? She had to find out.
After a wary glance toward the door, she climbed out of bed and walked stiffly to the bathroom. She felt the hesitation of meeting someone new. Being afraid is silly. It’s still you, Chris. For the first time she was able to do more than snatch a vague reflection off the face of some monitor. A deep breath served to inject a few ounces of bravery into her, and she stepped up to the mirror—and stared. A stranger stared back. Chris touched the mirror, just to make sure it wasn’t a window into her neighbor’s bathroom. A long, slender hand moved with her to touch the glass.
Chris moved back, taking in the stranger’s reflection. Blonde hair hung limply around her face, looking flat and oily. Her nose was petite; her lips shapely, not too large, not too small. Her eyes were a deep blue, set just a little too far apart. And her body . . . Chris shook her head. Pulling the thin, cotton gown tight from the back, her curves showed through. What was she going to do with a body like that?
“What are you doing out of bed?”
A concerned male voice rocked her out of her thoughts, and she whirled around. The man was definitely not a nurse, dressed in a red shirt and black jeans. He walked right into the bathroom with her and hugged her fiercely before pulling her back to bed.
“Leave it to you, Hallie, to come back from the brink of death and be concerned about how you look. Don’t you know you’re beautiful, no matter what? Come back and lie down, dear.”
Chris had been about to object to this stranger’s forwardness when his familiarity indicated that he was someone else she was supposed to know. She followed him to her bed and let him tuck her back under the sheets. His hair hung in strands around his face, and beneath thick glasses she saw worry and strain grow into love. He knelt on one knee beside her bed and took her hand in his, planting a long, wet kiss on it.
“I would have been here sooner, but that damn husb . . .” He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. I’m here now, you’re here.” He squeezed her hand, and his brown eyes grew shiny with tears. “I thought I’d lost you. My heart would have shriveled up like a pea without you.”
“Like your brain, perhaps?” Jamie’s flat voice asked from the doorway.
The man stood, still gripping Chris’ hand. She wanted to pull free, but was too mesmerized by the fire in Jamie’s eyes to move.
“Who let you in here?” Jamie demanded.
“You can’t restrict her visitors anymore, James. Besides, she needs me.” Mick tilted his head up a little, as if daring Jamie to challenge him.
Jamie’s gaze flickered to her, then back to Mick. His slight smile was a bit crooked. “How can she need you if she doesn’t know who you are?”
Mick’s panicked expression heightened when he looked at her. He leaned closer and looked into her eyes. “You know me, darling, don’t you?”
Fatigue was beginning to shroud her, and she wanted nothing more than to close her eyes and not answer any more questions. But she couldn’t ignore the ernest face hovering in front of hers. “You . . . you’re Mick. Hall—” She’d started to say Hallie’s lover, as if talking about someone else’s life. It was, in a sense. But it was Jamie’s expression that bit into her, his obvious disappointment in her remembrance of Mick. Actually she’d only deduced his identity.
Mick grinned triumphantly. “When she’s released, I’m taking her home with me.”
Jamie’s voice returned to the flatness it had earlier, and his eyes narrowed. “As long as I’m her husband, she’s my responsibility. At least until she gets better.”
Mick’s face reddened. “Hallie’s a grown woman. She can do what she wants.” Then he turned to her and asked, “What do you want to do, dear? Do you want me to take care of you?”
“She can stay with me too!” Hallie’s mother added from her place behind Jamie. “Who do you want to stay with, darling?”
Chris looked at the faces around her as they waited for her response. Mick appeared as though his life hung on the balance of her answer. Jamie looked resolute, despite the offering of a choice. She looked at each face, not sure where they fit into Hallie’s life. Her gaze drew back to Jamie. “I want to stay with you,” she said softly.
Mick dropped her hand and took a step back. Her “mother” crossed her arms over her large chest and pursed her lips. But Jamie looked the most surprised of all. She left them all and slipped into a haven of darkness.
Sometime later, Jamie’s voice pulled her from sleep again, much like the day she had come out of her coma. This time another male voice spoke to him, in soft, hushed tones. It sounded like Dr. Hughes’ voice.
“Have you given any thought to our earlier conversation, Jamie?”
“You mean what to do with her if she’s . . . brain damaged?”
Chris strained to hear their whispers coming from the far side of the room. She kept perfectly still, holding her breath.
“It’s not something I want to think about, Dr. Hughes.”
“I know, but it’s still a possibility at this point. Right now all we know for sure is that she’s lost a good deal of her memory. Her friends and family can deal with that. But if she experiences lapses in logic and reality, or starts having seizures, it may be too much to handle. Remember, thinking about it won’t make it happen. It’s better to be prepared.”
“I know that.” After a pause, he said, “What about the Sharp Rehabilitation Center in Sacramento? You said that was the best in the area.”
“Absolutely. They’ll work with her, take care of her as long as she needs it. She’d make a lot of friends there. And maybe some of their advanced methods would help her to eventually become independent again.”
“But we don’t know that she has any damage, right?”
“No, there seems to be no indication yet. But keep an eye on her for unusual behavior in the next few weeks. If she . . .”
Dr. Hughes’ voice drifted out into the hallway and was swallowed up in hall noise as the door opened, then closed. Her eyes snapped open. The Sharp Rehabilitation Center? A mental hospital? What would they think if she told them that her real name was Chris Copestakes from Colorado, that she had died, and God had given her a second chance in Hallie’s body? Would that be considered a lapse in logic? They would surely think she was brain damaged! Or just plain crazy. Then off to the Sharp Rehabilitation Center they would send her, just like her Uncle Tom.
Poor Tom, imprisoned in the mental hospital for as long as she could remember. Her mother visited him every Saturday afternoon at three o’clock. She told Chris that if she didn’t go, Tom would cry out for his sister at the top of his lungs, pounding on the walls until the orderlies restrained him. Chris remembered that one Saturday when she was ten years old and wanted to give her mother support. She’d been secretly curious about Tom, only knowing him from pictures and stories.
The sprawling one-story building had smelled like a hospital, sterile with the faint odor of decay and urine. What struck Chris the hardest was the absence of hope in everyone’s eyes. Nurses and doctors looked more like zombies than the patients did, bringing the gown-clad man who had once been a baseball player into the visitor’s room with mechanical efficiency. Chris had gaped at his fingers, covered with tiny spots of red flesh where he continually picked at the cuticles, even during their visit. His nails were chewed to the bloody quick.
Tom had recognized his sister, but had never met the niece who had been “protected” from seeing his grim life. He was fascinated by the new visitor, touching her hair, her hands. Chris had tried not to flinch away, but she couldn’t help it. His once-blue eyes were faded and gaunt, his skin was the color of the paste she used in art class. He moved carefully, deliberately: the result of the drugs pumped into him every day, her mother told her later.
Chris shut the memory away, as she had done so many times during her life. No, she would not go to a mental hospital, nor anything like it! She knew how precious life was, and meant to spend every minute making the most of it.
Praise & Reviews
“Ms. Wainscott brings a fresh new voice and perspective to romance fiction with this charming, emotionally satisfying novel. An author to watch!” —Jill Smith, RT Book Reviews
“An exciting blend of page-turning suspense and sensual romance with a heavenly twist.” —Marilyn Campbell, author of Pretty Maids in a Row
“Contemporary romance with an intriguing twist.” —Deborah Smith, New York Times bestselling author
“Tina has unforgettable female protagonists and action-packed, almost haunting plotlines.” — Janet Evanovich, New York Times bestselling author
“A well-written and absorbing tale, fascinating in its concept and characterizations. Chris’s struggles to assume Hallie’s identity while modifying her lifestyle and Jamie’s reaction to his familiar yet altered wife make a most enjoyable one-night reading experience!” —Anne Cleary, Paperback Forum