Fans of Lisa Renee Jones's Inside Out series will be excited to see that Ella Ferguson's story is coming out in November!
Sara has been searching for Ella, and now we will see what happened to Ella since her disappearance.
Shifting, I roll to my side to fi nd myself staring into a pair of pale blue eyes so striking and pure that they seem inhuman. I blink again and bring the gorgeous man directly in front of me into stunning clarity. Thirty-something, with thick, longish light brown hair. His cheekbones are high, his chin dimpled.
“You’re beautiful,” I murmur, admiring my mind’s work. I like this dream.
His deliciously full and sensual mouth curves with my comment. “I’ve been called a lot of things, sweetheart, but beautiful isn’t one of them. And this isn’t a dream. How’s your head?”
“It hurts,” I say, my brow furrowing as I digest all he has said, and I realize I muttered that last thought aloud. “And wait. What? This isn’t a dream?” I lift up on one elbow, and I’m punished for my effort with the pounding of my head. “Okay,” I murmur, squeezing my eyes shut. “Maybe I want to wake up now, after all.”
“Easy,” he warns, his hand coming down on my shoulder, his touch oddly familiar even if he is not. “Lie back down,” he urges, and when I obey, he leans over me. “Sleep is a good idea. It’ll help you heal.”
I stare up at my beautiful stranger, and just the sight of him tells me he’s wrong. This is a dream, and I follow along where it’s taking me. “What’s wrong with me?”
“You have a concussion,” he explains, settling back down onto some sort of stool. “A pretty bad one, which is why you’re in the hospital.”
“Hospital?” I repeat, putting together the pieces of the puzzle and deciding that he must be my fantasy doctor. Fighting against the discomfort of moving, I roll to my side again, trying to confirm this assessment. The result is the certainty that every part of this man is hot; his black jeans and matching tee are hugging a lean, muscled body that absolutely fits my “fantasy” assessment. The doctor part, not so much.
“Shouldn’t you be wearing scrubs?”
“Last I heard, that isn’t a requirement for a visitor.”
My brow furrows again. “So . . . you’re not my doctor?”
He laughs. “No. I’m not a doctor. I’m the man who found you in the alleyway passed out.”
“Alleyway?” I repeat. This dream is getting a little strange.
He gives me a curious look. “You don’t remember?”
“No.” Considering I seem to have no memory except for the here and now, my answer is easy.
“Hmmm,” he murmurs thoughtfully. “Well, I’m sure it’s just the pain and trauma, but we need to call a nurse anyway and let them know that you’re awake.” He reaches for a remote-control-like device hanging from the edge of my bed and I watch him, thinking that he has very nice hands. Strong, masculine hands. Familiar, I think. Maybe. I’m pretty sure. I’m considering why that might be when he murmurs something into the remote that I can’t seem to understand. My head is so murky, it almost sounds like he’s speaking another language. Which is crazy.
“Someone will be right in,” he announces, returning the device to where he found it.
I open my mouth to thank him and realize something rather important. “I, ah . . . hate to admit this, but I don’t seem to remember your name.”
“Kayden,” he supplies, rolling his stool closer, the full force of his attention landing on me. It’s nerve-wrackingly intense. “And you don’t remember because I never told you.”
“Oh—right. Because I was knocked out.”
“In an alleyway,” I say, trying to get my thoughts around that.
“Right again,” he confirms.
“What was I doing in an alleyway?”
“According to law enforcement, most likely being mugged.”
I wait for the expected shock, followed by fear and bad memories, but still nothing comes to me. “When?”
He lifts his wrist, displaying a watch with a thick black leather band. “It’s six in the morning now. I called for the ambulance just after midnight.”
“That’s bizarre. What was I doing in an alleyway after midnight?”
“I was curious about the same thing.”
“Why were you there?”
“Trying to reach the grocery store in front of it, before it closed.”
“I see.” My brow furrows. “I just can’t imagine myself making the decision to go to a dark, deserted place alone that late at night.”
“Maybe you didn’t. Maybe you were forced.”
“That’s a horrible thought,” I say, and while I mean the words, I remember nothing, therefore I feel nothing.
“But a logical one, considering you ended up in the hospital.”
There is a flickering image in my mind of an ambulance and cobblestone pavement, and I can almost feel the cold ground against my body. And it’s then that fiction becomes reality.
“I’m not dreaming, am I?”
“You didn’t really think you were, did you?”
“I thought . . . because I can’t remember anything . . . it just seemed off. I’m off.”
“Because you have a head injury—and from what you’ve indicated, a hellacious headache. That’s no dream I want to experience.”
He’s right, of course. He might be dream-worthy, but nothing else about this is. Definitely not the blank space in my mind that I try to access now and fail. I don’t know what is happening to me. Panicked, I jerk to a sitting position, a mistake I’m punished for as the pain bleeds from the center of my skull left and right, seeming to draw a circle.
Groaning, I curl forward and grab my head. “It feels like my scalp is being detached.”
“You need to lie back down,” Kayden insists.
“No,” I say, grabbing my legs to support myself. “No, I don’t need to lie down. I need to remember what happened to me.”
“I’m raising the bed for you,” he says, and a low hum fills the air as the mattress comes to life.
I force my head up and look at him. “Kayden,” I say, clinging to what I know. “Your name is Kayden.”
“Yes,” he confirms, his hands encasing my waist as he eases me against the mattress. “My name is Kayden.”
“Thank God,” I breathe out. “I have present-time memory.”
He starts to move away and I grab his forearms, holding him to me. “Wait. What’s my name?”
“What? You don’t know your name?”
“I can’t remember anything before I woke up. Just tell me my name. Please. I need a trigger for my memories.”
He studies me for a beat, maybe two, in which I want to yank a response from his mouth. And then he’s standing, giving me his back, one hand running through his thick hair.
“Kayden, please,” I say, freaking out at his reaction.
“What’s going on? Why aren’t you answering me?”
He faces me, hands settling on his lean hips. “Because I can’t. You were mugged. Your purse and identification were missing when I found you.”
“You don’t know who I am, either?” I feel as if I’ve been kicked.
“None of us do.”
“Surely someone has come looking for me.”
“Not yet?” I choke out, and the news is yet another gut-wrenching blow that leaves me reeling and alone. What kind of person has no one looking for her?
He moves to the side of my bed again and sits down. “It’s only been a few hours.”
“Please don’t do that obligatory make-me-feel-better thing that people do. I am indebted to you for saving me, and I appreciate that you waited here until I woke up—but you don’t have to stay here with me.” My eyes prickle with tears, and I stare at the doorway, trying to compose myself.
Of course, it’s at that poorly timed moment that a woman in green scrubs rushes into the room, speaking in a language I don’t understand. I inhale and will away the tears threatening to spill over, only to have her stop at the foot of my bed, her speech pausing expectantly. I blink and realize that she’s waiting for an answer I can’t deliver. I stare at her. She stares at me, and while the tears might be gone, I have this sense of standing in quicksand, sinking fast, unable to claw my way out.
Kayden rescues me, stepping to my side and answering for me. Confused, overwhelmed with everything but memories, I let my head roll forward, pressing my fingers to my throbbing forehead and telling myself not to crumble. I have to be stronger than this moment in time.
“You don’t know Italian, do you?”
At Kayden’s question, I look up to find the nurse gone and him standing at the end of the bed. “Why would I?”
“It’s the native language.”
He’s making no sense. “No, it’s not.”
“You don’t know that you’re in Rome.” It’s not a question, and he doesn’t wait for an answer. “Of course you don’t. Why would you? You don’t even know your own name.”
“What? I can’t be in Rome. I’m American.”
“You have to know that’s not a logical reply. Plenty of Americans, myself included, live in Rome, while thousands of others visit as tourists.”
“I know that—I meant I don’t live here.”
“So you’re visiting,” he says, rounding the bed to reclaim the stool. “That’s progress. Where do you live?”
“I don’t know,” I say, wracking my brain. “I don’t know. I just know it’s not here.”
“That’s okay. You know you’re American. You know you don’t live here. You’ll remember the rest in time.”
“You have no idea how much I want you to be right.”
“I’m right,” he assures me, “and for the record, you were right, too. I don’t have to stay. But I am.”
“I don’t want to be an obligation.”
“I don’t do obligation, sweetheart.”
“Well, then, pity.”
“Another thing I don’t do, so if you’re looking for someone to feel sorry for you, I’m the wrong guy for the job.”
“There are no other reasons for you to be here.”
“Aren’t there?” he challenges softly.
“What does that even mean?” I ask, but it’s a forgotten question when I hear “Good morning.”
A twenty-something woman in dark blue scrubs, her long dark hair tied neatly at her nape, sweeps into the room and offers me hope that I might actually find a way to escape all of this white noise.
“I’m Maria,” she says pleasantly, stopping at the end of the bed. “How are you feeling?”
“Like someone turned off the switch to my brain,” I say, holding nothing back.
“That’s quite normal after a head trauma,” she assures me.
“How about your back? Can you move okay?”
I flex a bit, and grimace. “I can. I just don’t want to.”
“I’m not surprised,” she says. “You have a pretty nasty lump between your shoulder blades.”
I don’t care about my back. I care about my memories. “When will the doctor be in?”
“He’s on his rounds now,” she says, “but he’ll be by soon to discuss your recovery. Now let’s check your vitals.”
She moves toward Kayden’s side of the bed and he stands reluctantly—or maybe I’m imagining it because I don’t want him to leave. He might be a stranger, and I might hate feeling like a burden, but he’s also all I have right now.
Moving into Kayden’s spot, Maria reaches for the blood pressure cuff and wraps my arm. “So far, your vitals have been looking good.”
It’s then that Kayden steps to her left, hovering over her shoulder, seeming to supervise her actions, and I swear the look on his handsome face is intense, almost possessive—which is a ridiculous thought. He barely knows me. I barely know him. He’s not possessive. Protective, maybe, of the woman he saved. Yes. That has to be it. That’s why he’s still here.
“How’s your pain?” Maria asks, shifting my attention back to her.
“Fine, unless I move.”
“That should start easing up by tomorrow,” she assures me, going silent for a moment to operate the blood pressure machine before confirming, “Still right on target.” She removes the cuff and picks up my chart by the bed.
“What about memory loss?” I ask. “Is that normal?”
“It happens,” she says, her tone matter-of-fact, dismissive even.
“But it’s not just a few mental hiccups,” I clarify. “It’s a complete meltdown.”
“It’s probably not as bad as you think,” she says, “but let’s do a little test.” Her pencil is poised to write on my chart.
“Let’s fill in the blanks. I need your full name, birthday, and address.”
I laugh without humor. “I’d like to know those things myself.”
Her brow furrows. “You don’t know your name, birthday, or address?”
“That’s what I am telling you. My memory is gone. I don’t know my name. I don’t know how I got here. I don’t remember what happened last week.”
She narrows her gaze. “What is the last thing you do remember?”
“Waking up here.”
“No,” she amends, “I mean, what do you remember before right now?”
“Nothing,” I say. “There is nothing but now.”
She stares at me, her expression cautiously blank; more beats pass as she says nothing. Then she glances over her shoulder at Kayden and speaks a few sentences in Italian that are obviously about me. He replies rather shortly, almost as if he’s reprimanding her. But she is undeterred, launching into more Italian.
“English, please,” I plead, unable to take one more thing I don’t understand, especially since it’s about me, and to a stranger. How is that okay?
“I’m sorry,” Maria apologizes, setting the chart back on its clip.
“What did you say to him?” I ask, glancing at Kayden.
“What did you say to her?”
“I told him I’m going to have the doctor in to speak with you in a few minutes,” she replies.
“And I told her we’d prefer sooner than later,” Kayden adds.
“Do you need anything before I go?” Maria asks.
“To know what’s wrong with me,” I say, not believing for a minute that either of them has told me everything that was said. “Why can’t I remember who I am?”
“Some temporary memory loss with a head injury isn’t unheard of,” she says.
“So this is temporary?” I press, hoping for positive news.
“Most likely, but the doctor is the one we need to speak with.” She reaches down and squeezes my arm.
“Everything is going to be fine. Try not to worry.”
“How do I not worry when I don’t even know my name?”
“I know it’s scary, but I’m certain we’ll figure it all out. I’ll go hurry the doctor along. Do you want anything in the meantime? Water? Something to eat?”
“Water would be good,” I say, dying for a drink, but I amend my request: “It’s not urgent. After you find the doctor, but thank you.”
“We have water,” Kayden announces, moving to a tray on top of a rolling table at the end of the bed and indicating a pitcher. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Just a little at first, so you don’t get sick,” Maria warns, heading to the door where Kayden delays her departure and, ignoring my request for English, says something to her in Italian. Maria gives him a quick, clipped reply and, seemingly satisfied with her answer, he steps aside and allows her to pass.
“I’ll be back soon,” she calls to me, breezing out of the room.
Kayden fills a cup with water, and I can’t help but notice a tattoo on each of his wrists. The left one extends beyond the edge of his watch, but it’s the right one that catches my eye: a box with words trailing up his forearm, none of which I can make out. I’m still trying when he sits next to me, and I’m not sure if I’m more aware of his powerful thigh pressing against mine or those piercing eyes giving me an intense inspection.
He hands me the water, our hands and gazes colliding, and I am jolted with the impact, feeling it in every part of me. Afraid he’ll see my reaction, I tip up the cup and start to drink. Oh, God. The first drop on my tongue is liquid gold that has me gulping as fast as I can.
“Easy,” Kayden warns, his hand coming down on mine again, heat radiating up my arm as he eases the rim from my lips. “Remember what Maria said. You’ll make yourself sick.”
“I’m still thirsty,” I object, licking the last droplet of liquid bliss from my lips as he takes the water from me.
“A little at a time,” he warns, setting the cup on the table beside the bed, acting more like a friend or family member than a stranger, like someone who cares when I seem to have no one who does.
Nervous energy has me wiping my mouth, aware that this is a moment when I should suggest he has better things to do than stay here. But I don’t. I can’t. I cling to him, the only person I know right now, embarrassingly worthy of the pity he swears he won’t give me. “What did you say to Maria when she was leaving?” I ask.
“That I expect you to get the best care possible.”
He makes the statement like he’s in charge of my care. For a moment it’s comforting, while in the next moment I know it’s a façade I can’t afford. “As much as I appreciate that, I need the cheapest options, not the best. I have no money.”
“Money’s the last thing that should be on your mind. Healing comes first.”
“We both know that’s not true. I have to walk out of here and survive, when I don’t even remember where I live or where I’m staying.”
There’s movement outside the door, and Kayden stands as Maria enters with a tall man in a white coat, his thick hair graying on the sides.
“Signorina,” the man greets me, crossing to stand beside my bed across from Kayden. “I’m your physician, Dr. Mortello. I’ve been caring for you since your admission some hours ago. I understand your head injury has left you with extensive memory loss?”
“That’s correct,” I say. “What does that mean?”
“Your CT scan showed a clear concussion, and most likely you’re simply encountering side effects from the swelling of your brain. Still, I prefer to err on the side of caution. We’re going to send you for an MRI and draw more blood to run some additional tests.”
More tests mean more money, but Kayden’s right. I can’t think about that now. “If this is from the swelling,” I ask, “how long until I recover my memory?”
“There’s really no solid answer to that question,” he replies.
“Each patient is different.” A nurse appears in the doorway and speaks in Italian, then he tells me,
“They’re ready for you now.”
“Now?” I ask, shocked at how quickly this is moving.
“Why is this so urgent?”
“We’re always cautious with head injuries, especially with unexpected symptoms.”
“I thought I had normal symptoms.”
“You do.” Before I can press for a more conclusive answer, another nurse rushes into the room and says something to him in Italian. I wait for the moment I can push him for answers, but it never comes. “I need to go,” he announces abruptly. “I’ll see you back here after we have the results.”
And just like that, he’s gone, and one of the nurses steps to my side. “I’m Anna,” the woman says. “I was with you when you first arrived and had the CT scan.”
I study her, taking in her salt-and-pepper hair styled in a bun, and try to place her. “I’m sorry. I don’t remember you.”
“Of course you don’t, silly,” she says good-naturedly. “You were out like a light. Glad to see you’re awake for the ride this time. We’re going to roll you down to the MRI department.”
She kicks the brake free on one of the wheels of my bed, and Kayden steps to the other side of me, kicking his side free as well and speaking to Anna in Italian, his hands resting on the railing. I open my mouth to plead for English again, but for some reason my gaze falls to his watch, to the brand name.
Cartier. The name means something to me beyond being an expensive brand, and I’m instantly frustrated that I know it’s high priced, but still know nothing of who I am or why I’m here.
My gaze lifts to find Kayden watching me, his expression unreadable, his continued presence truly unexplainable. “Don’t you have a job or something to go to?”
“My boss is good to me.” His lips curve. “Some even say he’s ‘beautiful.’ ”
I flush with the obvious reference to my compliment. “I thought I was dreaming when I said that.”
“Which makes it all the better.”
“You aren’t going to let me forget that, are you?”
“Not a chance.”
I blush and we both laugh, the sounds mingling, soft and feminine, and low and deep. And then the air shifts around us and we are staring at each other. I have no idea why he’s sticking this out with me, but without him, I’d be alone and even more scared.
“I don’t know what would have happened to me if you hadn’t found me in that alleyway,” I say, a tremor slipping into my voice. “Thank you, Kayden.”
There’s a flicker in his eyes, a shadow that’s there and gone before either of us blinks. “Thank me by getting your memory back,” he says, and while it’s a perfect answer, it’s somehow imperfect. There’s an odd undertone that reaches beyond predictability or sincerity.
It’s the last thought I have before the bed is moving and I’m being pushed away from him, and I can’t think for the motion setting the room spinning. Another bump, and my stomach churns. Groaning, I roll to my side, curling my knees to my belly, and I will myself to not throw up. The bumps and sways of the bed are pure torture.
“Oh, honey,” Anna says, leaning over me as we stop moving. “That ride didn’t go well, did it?”
“Sick,” I manage, my throat thick, goose bumps rising on my arms. “And cold.”
“I’ll make sure we have some antinausea medicine waiting for you when you get out of the MRI machine.”
“Can’t you do it before?” I plead. “I don’t want to get sick during the test.”
“We’ll have you done before I can get you medicine,” she says. “If you’re okay with it, I’d like to try and just get this over with for you. I’ll put a warm blanket over your legs now to stop your shivering.” She doesn’t wait for my agreement, announcing, “We need to move you to the table,” and she and another nurse are suddenly lifting me.
My stomach rolls and the throb in my head intensifies as they set me on the hard platform, which hits my injured back in all kinds of wrong ways. It also has me feeling exposed and very alone in my skimpy hospital gown. Hugging myself, I shiver, my teeth chattering. “Cold,” I say. “Really cold.”
“I know,” she says. “Hang in there. I’ll get the blanket.”
She rushes away and comes right back and, as promised, wraps my lower body. “Better?”
“Yes,” I say, feeling a bit of the chill fade. “It helps.”
“Good. Because once we start the MRI, you have to try to hold still.” She unfolds my arms. “Keep them by your side.” I nod, and she adds, “I’m going to put some headphones on you. It’ll help with the noise.” Before she puts them on, she tells me, “Try to just shut your eyes and it will be over soon.”
I grab her hand before she covers my ears. “How soon?”
“Twenty minutes,” she says.
“That’s a long time.”
“It’ll be over before you know it.” She covers my ears with the headphones and I hear some sort of music playing—classical, I think. The table starts to move and I hug myself again, the air around me seeming to chill from cold to frigid. Too soon, I’m in the center of a giant cylindrical machine.
“We need you to be really still,” comes a voice in my ears. “And put your arms back down.”
“Okay,” I say, willing my body to calm. I need this test to get answers. I need to be well and remember who I am.
The music starts to play again, a soft violin that is moody, almost sultry, and I wonder how I know what a violin is when I can’t remember my own name. A roar starts around me and the machine begins some kind of swirling motion. I squeeze my eyes shut. The volume of the music is louder now, the violin playing faster, the notes fierce and defiant, and suddenly I’m running down a cobblestone road, darkness cloaking me, my heart racing, fear in my chest. I have to get away. I have to escape. I look over my shoulder and try desperately to see who’s after me, but there’s only darkness and then a hard thud to my shoulders that makes me gasp, pain splintering upward into my skull.
I sink to my knees and tell myself to get up. Get up! But the pain, oh, the pain is so intense. I feel myself falling, my hands catching the pavement, rocks digging into my palms before my cheek is there too. And then there is blackness. Black, inky nothing. Time ticks and ticks, the pain radiating in my skull, until I’m suddenly on my back and blinking up into pale blue eyes, but I can’t focus. Then everything goes black again.