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Ellie could smell the wine on her date’s breath as he leaned closer, bringing his mouth toward hers. Polishing off a full bottle of California Zinfandel on his own had taken this guy from slightly irritating to downright obnoxious, and now he had the gall to try to kiss her.
Thrusting her hand out to him in a clearly platonic gesture, she turned to the side and murmured, “I had a nice time, thank you.”
Now please let me leave without either of us making a scene, she mentally finished.
Ellie allowed him to place his hand at the small of her back as they exited the restaurant, but jumped in her waiting car so quickly she almost snagged her skirt in the door.
Her date laughed and pried the door back open, smiling at her the way she imagined a shark might smile at its prey before taking a big, bloody bite. “Oh, c’mon, Ellie.” He frowned and shook his head as if she was the one who had done something ridiculous. “Not even a little kiss after I paid for your dinner?”
Unwilling to take her eyes off him for even a second, she blind-groped for her purse, pulled it onto her lap, and pulled out a fifty dollar bill. She shoved it into his hand, shivering as their skin briefly made contact. “There, that should cover my share. Goodnight.”
Luckily, the suddenness of her gesture caused him to stumble back in surprise, which gave her the perfect chance to slam her door, press down hard on the locks, and speed away.
The nerve of that man!
Why did all her dates go like this now? Despite getting asked out by countless suitors, not one engaged her in fun conversation or really seemed to like any of the same things she did. Not one made her voice catch or her heart skip a beat. Not one felt compelling enough for Ellie to agree to their offers of second dates.
At least none of them had tried to force themselves on her though… well, until tonight. Ugh, he’d been the worst one yet, giving her little hope that she would ever find—and managed to hold onto—the one.
She sighed loudly and leaned back in her seat as she navigated her car back onto the freeway. The rain that poured outside matched her suddenly dark mood.
Why does dating have to be so hard? Ellie Hawkins knew she was a catch by anyone’s standards. In fact, she’d been named as one of the hottest celebs under thirty by a major industry magazine earlier that month. Yes, her star was on the rise, and soon she’d have more money than she knew what to do with. People often referred to her as this generation’s Brooke Shields, which made it easy to book one job after the next, made it easy to succeed in the cutthroat world of modeling.
Yes, Ellie had everything going for her…
Everything except someone to love her.
Her heart somersaulted as she thought about him, the one man she’d let herself love and who she’d once believed actually loved her in return. But her fairytale wasn’t meant to have a happy ending after all. That once upon a time love hadn’t been willing to be the man she needed—and so they’d ended their relationship a couple months back with broken dreams, broken promises, and two very broken hearts.
But two months felt like an eternity ago now. Ellie was determined she didn’t need him, and she was going to prove it to herself by finding a man who would fit in her life. She’d find someone who could love her just as she was and just as she deserved.
Until then, unfortunately, it would just be Ellie and her mom.
Yes, Ellie loved her mother, but she honestly couldn’t be sure the feeling was mutual. Ever since Ellie was a little girl, her mom had been enrolling her in pageants and traipsing her all over the world for opportunities she had missed for herself and would make darn sure Ellie didn’t miss, too.
At first, little Ellie had hated the pageants. She remembered crying and wanting to go home, but her mom never let her give up. She’d spent thousands of dollars on dresses and other accessories Ellie would need to win the top prizes. Her room was now filled with tiaras, crowns, ribbons, and trophies from her years on the pageant circuit. And she’d slowly grown accustomed to the pageants—even if she’d never truly enjoyed them.
Sometimes Ellie still felt like she was racking up Grand Supreme titles as part of her grown-up pageantry. Impress the designer, land the gig, smile, smile, smile, smile. Her mom was still by her side, of course. She’d become the kind of “momager” that could even put Kris Jenner to shame. After all, she only had one child to dote on instead of a whole clan.
But at least she was devoted. Obsessively devoted.
As she transitioned her wipers to high speed, Ellie tried to convince herself that she had everything she needed in her life, that she’d be better off without the man who’d broke her heart. Still, she felt her patience wearing thin. Just how many more miserable dates would she have to go on before she could find someone to help her forget him?
Tears started to blur her vision, so she reached up to wipe at her eyes.
He’s not worth it. I already have everything I need.
As Ellie ran through these affirmations in her head, she closed her eyes for the briefest of moments. When she opened them again, she noticed a wet blur streaking across the curved road in front of her.
She noticed, but she barely had the time she needed to react.
The foolish doe had frozen in fear, and if Ellie didn’t at least try to do something—and fast—they’d both be goners.
She jerked her steering wheel hard, sending her tires skidding across the flash flood that had begun to pool on the lonely road. The sudden motion startled the deer, sending it running back into the trees at the edge of the road.
Ellie continued to hold her breath as she swung the wheel back around, trying to straighten her vehicle as she’d learned so many years ago in drivers ed. Her tired locked in a hydroplane, letting out a ghastly shriek as machine fought nature…
Everything moved in slow motion, and just like that darned deer, Ellie froze. She watched in horror as her trusted car betrayed her, spinning across the road and careening down, down, down.
The giant hunk of metal flipped and twisted around her as they both went over the edge of the road where no guardrail had been placed to prevent their fall.
Clenching her eyes shut, Ellie tightened every muscle in her body as she waited for the impact.
Please, God. Don’t let this be the end. She didn’t know whether she had spoken her prayer aloud, but either way, she hoped God heard it—and hoped He wasn’t too angry with her to intervene and save her from this living nightmare.
The first roll sent Ellie even faster down the edge. Her body slammed against the driver’s side door before being hurled back to the other side like a rag doll. Her hands came off the steering wheel and frantically tried to grab onto something to hold as she spun over and over down the ditch.
Suddenly, the vehicle hit a rock, hurling it into the air again before landing with a hard crash onto the roof. Her head slammed into the corner of the window which was now crushed inside, then bounced back to hit the steering wheel in front.
Excruciating pain shot through her body, and a moment of clarity stopped the world around her for the briefest of interludes.
In that moment, she realized that instead of worrying about whether she’d ever work again, or if she’d suffer some kind of injury that would destroy her modeling career, or even what her mother would think, the only thoughts Ellie had were of him, the one who’d gotten away.
The pain taking over her body was nothing compared to the agony crushing her heart.
She already knew she’d never feel his arms around her again or see his whole face light up when he laughed—and, without the promise of a future together, perhaps it wouldn’t be worth surviving this crash anyway.
Strong arms held her close. She didn’t know who they belonged to or how she had come to be in this place, but this comforting human touch was enough to keep her calm as pain attempted to rip her body apart.
She kept her eyes scrunched tight, not wanting to see the damage, not wanting to know anything beyond that she was alive and safe, and that someone was looking out for her. Her ragged breaths began to match the pace of the strong body beside hers.
Slowly, gently, the arms hugged her tight and then began to let go.
Instantly, the pain returned in full force. She felt as if she was falling clean off the edge of the earth without those arms to anchor her to this realm.
“No, don’t go!” she cried as tears began to push against her eyelids.
But it was too late. She was already falling, falling, falling…
Then suddenly she crashed onto a firm bed, gasping in pain as her consciousness returned.
A dream, that’s all it had been.
What is going on? Why am I hurting so much?
A grizzled face came into her view, staring down at her with concern. It belonged to an older man with graying hair peeking out from beneath a well-worn cowboy hat and bright blue eyes that seemed out of place in his tanned face.
“Ellie?” the man said with a voice that felt familiar, though she couldn’t bring herself to recognize it. “Oh, thank the Lord in Heaven you’re awake.”
Ellie? Is that me?
She blinked, trying to focus her gaze, trying to remember. She tried to sit up but was overcome with pain forcing her back onto the bed.
“Whoa, hey there. You’ve got to be gentle on yourself,” the man said, rushing to her side to help her get settled back in bed. Were these the arms from her dream? Somehow she didn’t think so, but right now, he was the only person in the world she knew.
Turning her head slowly, she realized she didn’t recognize anything in the room. “Where am I?” she whispered, almost afraid to speak the words aloud.
He smiled sadly and scratched at the back of his neck, unwilling to meet her eyes. “You’re in the hospital, Ellie. You were in an accident a couple nights ago.”
Again with the Ellie. That must be me. But who is he?
Her mind frantically searched to pull up any memory of what happened, but she realized she couldn’t recall anything recent.
“The doctors were worried you might not wake up. I’ve been sitting here praying they were wrong. And, see, the Lord answered! Just lay back and relax while I go get the nurses to let them know you’re awake.”
She kept her eyes on the man, noticing the heavy circles under his eyes. He’d obviously been worried about her, but why? Who was he to her, and if it was somebody so important, how come she couldn’t remember ever meeting him before?
“Who are you?” she asked at last.
The silence echoed in the room as he stopped and turned back to face her. His jaw clenched tight, and a shadow passed over his eyes as he looked down to the floor. The speaker in the hallway announcing a code in one of the other rooms finally broke the silence and he lifted his head to look at her. The sorrow on his face was evident, but he did his best to smile through it.
“I’m your father, Ellie,” he explained. “I know you haven’t seen me in quite a few years but I don’t think I’ve changed that much. Maybe got a few more wrinkles and gray hairs, but otherwise I’m the same man you’d remember.” He forced a laugh, then wiped away a tear. Whether it was a happy tear from her finally waking up, or a sad one, she couldn’t say.
Ellie’s mind raced as he waited for her to say something in response. Her father? She had no recollection of this man whatsoever. Should she pretend that it had been a joke in order to spare his feelings?
No, the truth was better—even if it terrified her. Her voice caught as her heart raced in fear. “I don’t remember you, but I do believe you.”
Her father’s forehead furrowed. He took off his hat and bowed his head before speaking. “Ellie, I know I haven’t been the father I should have been. I’ve made mistakes, but Lord knows I tried to make things right. I don’t blame you for not forgiving me, but please don’t make me feel any worse than I already do.”
She shook her head slowly, her heart aching for this dear stranger and fearing for herself. None of it made any sense. “I wish I was kidding, but I’m not. I truly don’t remember you. I’m not even sure I remember me.” Her eyes were wide with fear as this realization hit her.
He kept his gaze steady on hers as he walked over and reached for her hand. They both trembled as Ellie’s father took her hand into his strong grip.
“Ellie… how could you not know me?” He didn’t attempt to hide the wetness that clearly shone in his eyes.
She struggled to find the right words, but nothing was right about this situation. Ellie had already done all she could do by speaking the truth.
They both startled when a nurse breezed into the room carrying a fresh IV bag and approaching with a smile. The moment she locked eyes with Ellie, she let out a small cheer. “Oh, you’re awake! Welcome back to the world, darlin’. Now let me get this set up for you real quick, then you’ll have to excuse me while I go page Dr. Crosse and let him know the good news.”
Her father shuffled out of the way to give the nurse access to Ellie’s IV stand. His voice was low, but she had no trouble discerning the words. “She says she doesn’t remember me.”
The nurse hung the bag on the pole beside the bed and deftly switched out the tube extending from Ellie’s left hand. “That’s nothing to worry about,” she reassured him once the set up was complete. “Ellie’s been through quite a trauma, so it might take some time for everything to come back to her. Once the doctor has a chance to look her over, we’ll have a better idea of what’s going on.”
She smiled kindly down at Ellie and reached out to pat her other hand. The warmth of her skin made Ellie realize just how cold her own hands had become. “Don’t worry, dear. I’ll get the doctor in to see you right away. You’ve been through a lot, and the fact that you’re awake is truly a miracle. Somebody out there’s looking out for you.”
Ellie watched the woman’s retreating back as she rushed out of the room to get the doctor. Her heart raced as thoughts swirled around her head in a confusing blur. How could she forget her own father? What other memories had fallen clear from her head? And, most worrisome of all, would she ever get them back?
Her breath caught in her throat as she desperately tried to make some memories come back to her. But all she had were missing pieces and blackness when she tried to think of her past. Her heart clenched as she realized she wouldn’t even have known her own name if her father hadn’t said it.
With a trembling chin, she looked back at her father. “Where is my mom? Is she still alive?” She wanted to cry out loud at the unfairness. How could she not even know if she had a mother? How could she have lost all of her memories?
Her father clenched his jaw tight, the muscles moving as he struggled against his own emotions. Finally, he nodded slowly, his eyes fixed on the corner of the room as he spoke. “Your mother is in Spain. She was on a trip with her new boyfriend.”
His cheeks reddened, and he let out a sudden cough. “I guess if you’re memory’s a bit shaky I probably need to fill you in on a few things, huh?”
Ellie nodded and waited for him to reveal more about the life she couldn’t remember. Did it even truly belong to her anymore?
“We aren’t married anymore,” he continued with a look that suggested he was unhappy about this particular turn of events. “You lived with your mom after the divorce. I moved to Alaska and didn’t get to see you as much growing up as I’d have liked.”
He finally returned his gaze to her, and Ellie smiled encouragingly.
“Umm, we can talk about everything more once you’re feeling better,” he stuttered. “Right now, you need to just rest and focus on getting better.” Her dad took a deep breath and stepped back from the bed, suddenly looking like he’d aged another ten years since she’d woken up. He held his hat tightly in his hands, slowly twisting them until she was sure the hat would rip.
A flurry of doctors and nurses rushed into the room, forcing Ellie’s father back. Everything seemed to slow down around her as Ellie struggled to understand what they were saying—and, more importantly, what it all meant. Her arm was put into a cuff that started to tighten while a bright light was shone into her eyes.
No longer able to stay strong, Ellie finally let the tears flow freely down her cheeks.
“On a scale of one to ten, how much are you hurting, darlin’?” the same nurse from before asked her with that same reassuring smile.
“Ten,” Ellie answered without hesitation. She had to believe that there was no way this could get any worse. Otherwise, she wasn’t sure she’d survive the night—let alone an entire life.
Ellie slurped on a spoonful of sodium-free, taste-free hospital broth, only to find her first non-intravenous meal in several days interrupted when a bossy woman strode into her room and began complaining about everything in sight.
“This bed isn’t at the optimal angle,” she told a nurse as she dug about in her designer handbag for a little compact mirror that she used to apply a dark shade of lipstick to her over-plumped limps.
“And why don’t we have a more private suite?” she demanded of a passing doctor. Her short, spiky haircut remained perfectly still as she shook her head in dismay.
“You!” she said, locking eyes on Ellie’s father. A horrible expression overtook her face as she pushed the poor man toward the hall. “Oh, you definitely have some explaining to do!”
“Aren’t you going to say hello to our daughter first?” her dad asked the woman, and Ellie realized in dread that this high-strung woman must be her mother. Heaven help her. Heaven help them all.
“Of course I’ll say hi to Ellie, but first we need to have a word in private…” She pushed him the rest of the way into the hall and fully out of sight. But not even the rush of the busy hospital could drown out her shouts.
Ellie couldn’t hear her father’s end of the conversation, but she heard every word her mother spoke.
“I just find it awfully convenient that you show up here now. I suppose you think since she has no memory of the past, you can just waltz in here and be father of the year. Well, it’s too late for that, Stewart Hawkins. I’m her mother and her father. We didn’t need you then, and we don’t need you now.”
Ellie pushed her bowl of broth away and gazed at the world outside her window, hoping for a distraction from the fight brewing inside. A cardinal had built its jagged little nest on the outcropping of building that faced her. She watched the intrepid bird as it flew away, only to come back moments later with food to drop into the small mouths that poked over the top. Ellie absently wondered if the poor mama ever had a chance to eat anything for herself.
The voices coming from the hallway just past her door had leveled out somewhat. Her father’s was louder, angrier now, and her mother’s had become cold and disconnected. Now she could hear both sides of their intense conversation and, despite her better judgment, she listened in, hoping she might learn something about the world she had yet to remember.
“Listen, Arlene, I came here to be with my daughter because I love her. There is no hidden agenda. I came before I even knew she had no memory of the past. I came because I needed to see that she was all right. And I’ve stayed because I want her to get better. I’m not leaving until I know she is.” She imagined her father crossing his arms and staring down the bridge of his nose at his parenting rival.
But her mother was not to be deterred. Somehow Ellie doubted she ever backed down from a fight. “Well, you have no right to be here. Just go back to your stinky farm in Alaska and let me take care of her like I always have.”
“That was your choice, Arlene. I’ve always tried to do right by Ellie, but you wouldn’t let me. Well, I’m not letting you do that anymore. I’m Ellie’s father and I have just as much right to be here as you do.”
Ellie’s mouth turned up slightly as she smiled for the first time since she’d woken up to this living nightmare. The past few days seemed like an eternity as she had test after test to see what was wrong with her. And her dad had been by her side through it all, even before her mom had arrived. So she didn’t care what had happened in the past. Right now, he was the longest memory she had, and she needed him here with her.
The nurse’s assistant who’d entered the room somewhere between “I’m not leaving” and “you have no right” gave her a sympathetic smile as she pulled the sheet tight on the bed. “I’ll take your meal tray now. Is there anything else you need?” She came over and put the cover on the tray before lifting it away.
Ellie shook her head and offered a polite smile. “No, I’m fine. I mean, we should probably leave something for them to take care of. Maybe that way they’ll forget about wanting to kill each other for a bit.”
There was no sense pretending the woman hadn’t heard her parents arguing. Everyone in a thirty-mile radius had probably heard. Everyone knew just as much about Ellie’s life as she did because, yes, the memories still hadn’t come back.
“They’re just worried about you.” Patting her arm gently, the woman smiled again and left the room. A moment later, Ellie could hear the aid telling her parents that they could go back inside.
Her father raised an eyebrow. “Are your memories coming back to you now, Ellie?”
Heat rose to Ellie’s cheeks. She hadn’t meant to give the poor guy false hope. Before she could answer, her mother rushed to her side with a massive look of disappointment on her face.
“Oh, for goodness sake, why do they insist on putting your hair in that awful ponytail? Just because you’re in the hospital doesn’t mean you need to look like you’ve just walked in off the street.”
“I mean, I almost died, so… maybe my hair isn’t the most important thing in the world right now?”
“And you’ve made a miraculous recovery. The media is going to be all over this, and we need to make sure everyone sees how beautiful you are when you’re properly made up.” Her mom reached out again, shaking her head in disgust as she made a clucking sound with her tongue. “Speaking of that, I’ll put your makeup on for you today. They wouldn’t know how to do that right anyway. It’s time for you to start feeling more human again. We’ll have to wait until the stitches come out around your eye before doing anything about that, but I’m sure we can cover it all up with the right product. And once you’re feeling better, we can talk to the plastic surgeon about fixing any remaining scars.”
“Arlene, Ellie looks beautiful just as she is. She doesn’t need to be all done up with makeup and hairspray. No one is going to care about her scars.”
Her mother spun around and glared at her father. “Maybe it isn’t important to you, but looking her best matters to Ellie. She has a reputation to uphold, and there’s nothing that shows true strength to the world than being all done up, as you say, even when things are going wrong.”
Just like that, Ellie slipped back into the invisible place where her parents talked about her rather than to her. She honestly didn’t care what she looked like at the moment and had to wonder if she had ever cared as much as her mother seemed to in this moment. Had she really been so superficial? Would it even be worth getting her memories back, or would she hate who she once was? Maybe she didn’t have to be that person anymore. Maybe this really was a blessing in disguise, an opportunity to make a change. That is, if her parents would stop bickering long enough to let her…
“Does it matter to Ellie, or does it matter to you?” her father spat. “And who does she have to show her strength to? The only ones who matter at this point are the doctors who are trying to find out what’s wrong and Ellie herself. There’s no one else she needs to put on any kind of show for. I can see her strength without needing her covered in that clown makeup you think is so important.”
Ellie’s eyes widened slightly as she cringed and she slowly looked at her mom to see how she was going to react.
Predictably, her mom balled her hands into fists at her side and clenched her jaw as the impact of that blow hit. She sucked in a deep breath, no doubt ready to launch into a tirade of her own.
Thankfully, at that moment, Dr. Crosse walked into the room with his interns right behind him. He came every morning, a wide smile on his face as he greeted her. “How’s my favorite patient doing this morning?”
“I’m feeling a bit better today, Dr. Crosse. I was able to walk to my chair on my own today without too much pain.”
He nodded and looked down at his chart. “Well, I’m glad to hear that the physiotherapy is helping. Keep going every day and you’ll be up and walking about in no time.”
After getting over the shock of having no memory, Ellie had discovered that she’d suffered a few more injuries than just a knock on the head. One shoulder had been dislocated and a few of her ribs had been cracked. And, much to the apparent horror of her mother, she’d suffered many cuts and bruises on her face, arms, and chest that were going to take some time to heal. It seemed like every part of her body hurt, but thankfully nothing else had been seriously broken.
The doctors had all been shocked she hadn’t suffered anything more serious, considering the wreckage she’d been pulled from. Everyone agreed that the most concerning injury was the blow she’d taken to her head and whether it was something she could recover from. While the physiotherapy was helping with the aches in her body as she tried to get mobile again, nothing seemed to be helping with the memories that had been erased.
“And we have the results from your scans yesterday. It looks like the swelling around your brain is starting to go down, so we are hopeful that in time your memories will return. We can’t guarantee that everything will come back, but sometimes in cases like this, you just need to be patient.”
“Be patient? Really?” Her mother turned all her aggression onto the poor doctor. “That’s all you can offer us? Can’t you do something to help? That is what we’re paying you for, right?”
Ellie turned to look back out the window, not wanting to hear her mother’s voice at the moment. She focused back on the bird outside, patiently feeding each of the open mouths.
Patience. It was a word she’d heard so many times since she’d woken up and she’d been trying her best to wait without worrying.
But how could she not?
At this point, she felt as if she’d never be herself again. And if she wasn’t herself, then who the heck was she?