Authors: Elizabeth Sinclair
Tags: #Romance, #Paranormal Romance
The weight of his burden almost drove Alvin double. He needed answers, and there was one place he knew he had a chance of finding some. Determinedly, he aimed his footsteps toward the cottage just this side of the footbridge, the cottage that Meghan had once occupied until Steve had come to the village and their love had moved them outside Renaissance.
The cottage was now occupied by the new village Healer, Ellie Stanton. For reasons either unknown to him or ones that he didn't want to admit to, Alvin always found solace and comfort in Ellie's presence. But lately, he'd come to the realization that more often than not he gravitated to her for more than just spiritual guidance and the wisdom of her words.
Carrie made herself comfortable on the grass beside the stream. She propped the canvases against the rock, then opened the paint case and set it next to her. Automatically, she opened tubes, fanned out her brushes, and then deposited small globs of paint on the palette. She was ready to paint. But how? She had no recollection of even holding a paintbrush, much less creating anything recognizable with it.
For a moment, she gazed out over the stream and the surrounding forest in search of a subject to paint, and then at the blank canvas, not really sure what she'd do even if she did settle on a subject.
Then, when she'd just about given up, without consciously making a decision, she picked up a brush, dipped it into the black paint, and began to work. Seeming to have a mind of its own, the brush swirled across the canvas, bringing to life a figure of a man in an almost abstract setting. Around him she placed garish smears of red, yellow, orange, purple, and black.
Carrie's fingers gripped the brush handle as though it were a lifeline. Her clenched jaw set her teeth firmly against each other. Again and again she replenished the paint on her brush and continued to angrily apply more and more color to the canvas. With each brushstroke, she could feel the contact to her own skin, just as though each movement of the brush was a tiny razor blade scratching across her flesh.
At last, she applied the final slash of paint. Her breath came fast. Her heart beat heavy in her ears. She stared at what she'd done.
"Oh my God."
The brush dropped from her numb fingers. Her hands flew to cover her mouth in astonishment. She couldn't believe she'd actually created the grotesque picture before her.
Distorted, lightning-bolt-shaped splashes of bright red, orange, black, purple, and yellow cut brutally across the canvas. Black layered the top where a bright blue sky should have been.
The geometric angles were sharp and pointed, the colors dark and foreboding. This painting was violent, angry, and cruel, and at the same time filled with stark fear, agonizing pain, and a deep, dark sense of hopelessness. She saw many things in this painting, but what Carrie didn't see was any of the love and softness Clara said Carrie had always put in her paintings.
What was most disturbing could be found in the center of the painting—a man without a face. At his feet was a large, black hole, and just over his shoulder was a black-and-blue hand adorned with a wedding band and poised to push him in.
Frank's steps came to a halt. Without realizing where his wanderings were taking him, he'd come back to the very spot in the garden below the window where he'd seen the woman the evening before. To his surprise and delight, a few feet from him sat that very woman, staring at a rather ugly painting propped against a rock at the stream's edge. From the paint tubes, brushes, and other paraphernalia scattered around her, he assumed she had been the artist.
"Interesting painting," he said, slipping through the bushes and walking to her side to get a closer look at both the picture and the woman.
"Oh!" She jumped backward, hand over her heart, and almost toppled over into the grass at his feet. He grabbed her forearm just in time to prevent her fall.
She looked up at him. Breathless, he could do no more than stare. Though the picture appeared even uglier up close, the woman was one of the most beautiful creatures he'd ever seen. With eyes as green as emeralds and hair that reminded him of sleek, reddish-brown silk, he had a hard time dragging his gaze away, but he forced himself to and concentrated instead on the painting.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you." When she was steady again, he drew his hand away. "I was just admiring your painting."
is hardly the word I would have used. It should be burned." Her voice slid over him, warming him and taking away all his trepidations about being there.
Frank laughed. "Okay, so I was being polite." He studied the painting, tilting his head this way and that. "It's really quite… weird." Immediately, he regretted his words. He glanced at the woman to see if he'd offended her. "I'm sorry. That was rude."
"Yes, it is weird." She pushed herself to her feet, picked up the painting, and held it at arm's length, then laughed. "And please don't apologize. That's probably the kindest thing anyone could say about it."
He turned to look at her. Her green eyes came alive with suppressed laughter. Her creamy complexion had taken on a hint of a pink flush of embarrassment. A breeze picked up a few strands of her hair from behind her ear and whipped them across her cheek. His fingers itched to push the hairs back, and then trail his fingertips down her smooth cheek. Before he could act on the urge, she captured the loose hairs and tucked them back in place behind her ear.
He gestured toward the canvas, groping for anything that would take his mind off his totally unexpected thoughts. "Why is he faceless?"
Her features seemed to melt into a troubled frown. When the laughter vanished from her eyes, he was instantly sorry he'd asked the question.
"I don't know," she said, just above a whisper. "I guess he's faceless because… I dreamed him that way."
"I kind of feel sorry for him."
She turned to Frank. "Why?"
"Because he's obviously someone you are not very fond of, and from that hand ready to push him into the hole, someone for whom you wish bad things."
She turned back to the painting and studied it for a long time. "I certainly hope not, but you may be right."
"I'm Frank," he said, realizing he hadn't introduced himself. "Frank Donovan."
She smiled, and the light returned to her eyes. For Frank, the whole day got immeasurably brighter.
"I'm Carrie, Carrie Henderson… I think."
Frank frowned this time. "You think? Don't you know?"
The sparkle of those green eyes turned to the color of a misty drizzle on a depressingly cloudy day. "No, I don't. Or at least I'm not sure. People here have told me that's my name." She shrugged, and though he was sure the gesture was meant to be dismissive, something told him that she did not consider it as inconsequential as she'd like him to believe. She emitted a mirthless laugh. "Since I can't remember anything about myself, I have to take their word for it."
Amnesia? "Well, I like that name, Carrie Henderson. It fits you, so I hope they're right."
"Thanks." She smiled again, and Frank's heart sped up.
He took a deep steadying breath and dropped to the rock. The last time he'd been hit in the gut with this giddy, euphoric feeling, he'd been picking up Sandy for their first date. To cover the sudden surge of guilt that invariably came with the thought of his wife, he picked up a handful of pebbles and tossed them into the stream. They landed with a series of soft
. Concentric ripples fanned out from it like a series of chains on a silver necklace. Eventually, the movement of the ripples played out, and the surface of the water became smooth once more, allowing him to see his troubled expression in the water. Next to his reflection the woman's face shown back at him.
Carrie studied him while his back was turned. The way his hair lay in dark, loose curls all over his head gave him a boyish appearance. His gray eyes had appraised her in a way that told her he saw more than the surface of his fellow man. However, beyond his handsome face and muscular build, Carrie felt a definite calmness in his presence, and at the same time a sadness that lay heavy on his soul.
"So, Frank Donovan, who are you? Do you live here?"
Frank laughed. The sound made her smile.
"No, I don't live here. Like you, I'm an Assignment, or so they tell me." He brushed the pebbles’ soil from his hands, hands that looked gentle and caring, and then swung around on the rock to face her. "I'm a pediatric cardiologist at a hospital in the city." She frowned. "A children's heart doctor," Frank explained and then studied her for a moment. "You said you couldn't remember your name. Is it only your name you can't recall?"
She shook her head. "Oh, how I wish that were true."
"Do you know that when you shake your head like that, your hair catches the sunlight and it's almost as though a fire is buried within it?"
A deep heat permeated her cheeks, and she lowered her gaze. She ignored his outrageous observation. "Unfortunately, I can't remember anything at all of my past."
Even as she ignored his intimate remark, Carrie wondered what had prompted him to say such a thing to a woman he'd known for a grand total of several minutes.
Evidently following her lead to overlook his remark, he pointed at the strange painting. "And this, I take it, is an attempt at finding out something about your identity."
The thought that this painting could have anything to do with who she was sent shivers over her. "Yes, but I'm afraid it's just muddied the waters even more. Now I'm wondering if I
to find a past that belongs to someone who could create that."
He stood and stared at the canvas for a time. "Psychology was never one of my strong points, but I'd say that is not the real you."
She laughed. "Please don't tell me that you think it's born of something buried deep in my psyche."
"We all have a dark side, I'm told. Maybe this is yours. You said you dreamed him without a face." She nodded. "There must be a reason you couldn't or wouldn't put a face on him. What else did you dream about? Maybe there's a clue hidden there."
She sighed. "If there was, then I don't remember it. All I recall is the faceless man standing over me. I know he frightened me." She opened her mouth to say more, but stopped.
A large orange and black butterfly had landed on her shoulder. Carrie stood stone still. It sat there for a few seconds, exercising its wings, and then it flew off into the flowering shrubs behind them. Carrie laughed like a delighted child.
As if punched in the gut, Frank sucked in his breath. A surge of the same feeling he had experienced the night before beneath her window coursed through him. Last night, he'd only guessed it was the return of life. Now, he was certain. This woman had him doing something he hadn't done in a very long time—looking forward to tomorrow.
Almost magically, Frank became acutely aware of his surroundings. The color of the flowers had become more brilliant, their fragrances headier; the gurgle of the stream reminded him of the laughter of children; the wisps of clouds dotting the sky were more vividly white, the sky itself a more dazzling blue. In short, like it or not, Frank Donovan was returning to the land of the living.
"Why don't you try painting something else? Maybe now that you've gotten that out of your system," he pointed at the garish painting, "you can paint something appealing to the eye."
Carrie glanced at the paint box, then at the second blank canvas. She picked up a brush.
Alvin knocked on Ellie's cottage door. Moments later it swung open to reveal a lovely young woman dressed in an ankle-length, navy blue skirt and a white peasant blouse. Her long, blond hair hung in loose waves over her shoulders, framing her peaches-and-cream face, and her bright blue eyes danced with pleasure at seeing him. She seemed to have an inner merriment, which was an intricate part of why Alvin liked her so much.
"Alvin, how nice to see you." She moved to the side. "Come in, please."
Alvin stepped over the threshold and then went directly into the cottage's quaint living room. Many of the things that Meghan, the previous village Healer and this cottage's prior occupant, had kept there still remained: the clock with no hands that ticked away the time in the corner, the curio cabinet that held some of the mementos of Assignments who had passed through the former Healer's care, and the two well-worn armchairs that flanked the large, fieldstone fireplace. Even the basket containing a colorful tangle of embroidery thread still sat beside one of the armchairs, as if Meghan had just left the room for a moment, but would return presently.
But along with the remnants of Meghan's occupation of the cottage, Ellie had added her own special signature, and in doing so, had made the dwelling hers. A bright-colored, braided rug covered the pine floor in front of the hearth. Curled up on it and basking in the glow of the fire burning cheerfully behind him was a white dog, a stray that had wandered into the village and adopted Ellie, and whom she had christened Ghost for his habit of disappearing for days at a time and then suddenly reappearing on her doorstep. Curled comfortably amid Ghost's legs was an orange cat named Ginger. Neither acknowledged Alvin's arrival with more than a raised eyelid.
He strode to his customary seat in one of the armchairs and sat.
"Can I get you anything?" Ellie asked, coming to stand beside him.
Alvin shook his head. The only thing he needed didn't come in a cup or a glass, nor could it be laid out on a pretty plate. "I'd like to talk, if you have some time."
Ellie smiled and sank into the other armchair. She curled her legs beneath her and pulled her skirt down to cover her bent knees and bare feet. "I always have all the time in the world for you."
Alvin met her gaze. He wished that were true. He'd like nothing better than to spend every waking moment with Ellie. But that was something that couldn't or wouldn't ever happen, so he was better off not even dreaming about it. Sweeping his mind clean of such empty wishes, he concentrated on his present dilemma.