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Nathan glanced at the clock on the wall and decided that sleep was just something he wasn’t going to get. He was running on empty, yet couldn’t force his eyes to close. It was beginning to become a losing battle, his fatigue against his overactive mind. And unfortunately, the overactive mind was winning.
Shaking his head, he sat upright on the sofa and stared across the dimly lit den, the cabin shaded by trees that made the sunlight sparse. It was noon, yet seemed still night by the darkness of the room. Everything was quiet with the exception of the leaves blowing in the breeze outside, the birds chirping in harmony with nature. Usually, this place was his refuge, his sanctuary. Yet, he couldn’t find the serenity here. Under the circumstances, he didn’t think he would find peace for a while.
They had gotten here around two o’clock in the morning. It had been a long drive, one that had worn him out after the grueling day at the hospital. And Jessie had fallen asleep in the passenger seat, looking so peaceful and at ease that he almost didn’t want to wake her. He had helped her out of the SUV and lent her support on the short walk up the cemented passageway to the front porch. She had faltered a few times, almost stumbling and he knew it was because she was still weak and in pain. She didn’t complain, didn’t even whimper when he finally just picked her up, cradled her against his chest and carried her inside the cabin, straight to the bedroom where he dumped her carefully onto the bed and covered her with a blanket.
He had left her there, let her sleep in the only bed in the cabin while he had tossed and turned on the sofa, never finding the right position. Of course, the only times he had ever slept on the couch was when he had passed out there, after a long day of fishing and drinking out on the lake. It was funny how when the mind was entirely intoxicated, anything could suffice as a bed.
A small draft drifted through the den, causing Nathan to pull the blanket over his shoulders and stand up. He needed a cup of coffee badly; otherwise he would be running on empty for the rest of the day.
Stalking into the kitchen, he reached into the cupboard above the stove and drew out a can of instant coffee and a mug. Just as he turned on the faucet, he heard movement behind him and turned a fraction to spy Jessie walking sleepily into the kitchen, her fingers digging furiously at her eyes to clear the sleep. She was still wearing the same clothes she had traveled in which meant she had been more successful than he had been in catching some much needed sleep.
“Want some coffee?” he asked, causing her to look at him with startled eyes.
Suppressing a yawn, she nodded and took a seat at the small wooden table.
Nathan snatched another mug and busied himself making them both a cup of coffee, only sparing a sporadic glance her way. “You sleep well?”
“Not really. You?”
“No. Not really.”
Nathan popped the two mugs into the microwave and drummed his fingers against the cabinet while waiting for the familiar ding. The moment the tone sounded, he reached for the mugs, scooped in the coffee and stirred. “You take anything in your coffee?”
“Nah. Black is fine.”
He nodded and carried the two mugs to the table, setting hers in front of her and sitting down in the chair horizontal to her. Nathan watched as she lifted the cup to her mouth and sipped, her eyes lighting up at the jolt of warmth and caffeine.
He took a sip of his own coffee before setting the mug down. “Why didn’t you sleep so well?”
“I had a bad dream that woke me up.”
“What kind of dream?”
“It was odd. I was driving home late at night and I look over to the passenger’s seat and Karen is sitting there. But it wasn’t really Karen. Almost like she was there but she wasn’t. I tried to reach out to her, but I couldn’t touch her. And then, she started whispering something to me, something that I couldn’t hear at first.”
“What was it?”
“She said nothing is as it seems.” Jessie shivered chill and shook her head. “I must have taken too many pain pills last night,” she laughed, although the gesture didn’t reach her eyes.
“Or maybe your subconscious is trying to tell you something,” Nathan offered optimistically.
She shrugged. “Or maybe I’m just a delusional freak of nature.” Jessie stared at him for a long moment, her expression subdued. “Why didn’t you sleep?”
“A combination of being overly tired and that damn sofa.”
“You know I would have gladly slept on the sofa,” she replied in a scolding voice.
“Yeah. Well, I am a gentleman. I would never ask you to sleep on the sofa.”
She lowered her eyes and stared into the steam rising off of the coffee. “I’m afraid we got off on the wrong foot yesterday.”
“You think?” he jested.
Her eyes met his immediately, her defenses up. “In my defense, yesterday wasn’t exactly the best day for me. In fact, it was the worst day of my life.”
“Take it easy,” Nathan quipped. “I won’t hold it against you.”
Jessie covered her face with her hand, peeking at him through her fingers, embarrassment written all over her. “I am so sorry.”
“It’s okay. No hard feelings.” He shrugged and offered her a smile.
She dropped her hand.
“So look,” he replied in a soft voice. “I thought today we could just take it easy. Tomorrow we can start reconstructing your memory.”
“What did you have in mind?” Jessie asked.
“Well, I thought that maybe you could get your rest.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to grab my rod and my tackle box and head down to the river.”
“That sounds like fun. You have an extra rod?”
“Are you sure you’re up for that?” he asked in a concerned voice.
“I’ve been sleeping for two and a half weeks, right? How much more sleep could I possibly need?”
He couldn’t argue with that logic, he thought to himself. But… she had just come out of a coma, had been stabbed and almost died. Somehow taking her fishing didn’t seem like a good idea. Yet, the enthusiastic expression on her face made it damn near impossible to tell her no. “Okay,” he finally agreed. “But, if for any reason you start feeling bad, you say the word and we’ll come back.”
“If I recall, didn’t you say that your job wasn’t to baby sit me?” she taunted with a stubborn tilt of her chin.
“I do believe that is what I said,” Nathan countered, amused and baffled by her.
“All right, then. Do we have time for me to take a quick shower?” She noticed him prepare to protest and quickly added, “I know, you don’t have to be clean to go fishing. But I haven’t had a shower in almost three weeks. I could really use a shower.”
Nathan chuckled as he lifted his cup to his mouth. “Yeah, you could.”
Jessie quirked one eyebrow, her mouth tilted into an ironic smile. “Are you trying to say something, Sheriff Benson?”
He put his hands up in mock surrender and laughed.
“That’s what I thought.” Downing the remainder of her coffee, she stood up and darted away.
* * * *
Eugenia Wolfe stared out into the beautiful spring day, the sun casting a radiant glow among the freshly watered flowers outside of her window. She smoothed one frail hand over the pastel colored lap robe that rested across her legs, her fingers picking at a loose string carelessly.
She had tried to learn to deal with everything that had happened to her, tried to remember that things often happen for a reason. It didn’t change the fact that she resented the situation she was in. Being cut off from the world was torturous, was worse than being dead. Gene wanted to say so much, wanted to communicate the thoughts running rampant in her head. Alas, no matter how hard she tried the words just would not come.
She heard the door open and shut behind her and tried to incline her head to see who the intruder was. A gentleman in forest green scrubs stepped forward, a lunch tray in his hand and newspaper beneath his arm.
He had to be new because she didn’t recognize him, knew most of the workers here. He was a young man, maybe in his early to late twenties, with short blondish brown hair and gray eyes. Tall and slender, the guy was quite attractive.
“Good afternoon, Gene,” he said in a polite voice. “I’ve got your lunch here.”
She watched him set the tray in front of her before he opened up the paper and placed it to her side. The man worked at opening her milk and cutting her food into tiny pieces, chattering away as he did so.
“The nurse said you didn’t feel like getting out of bed today. I heard you haven’t been getting out of bed a lot lately. If you ever want to get your strength back, you need to go to therapy.”
Gene shook her head, her lips pursed as she tried to say something. It was no use. The words simply would not come out, no matter how well formed they were in her head. Getting frustrated, she dropped her attention to the newspaper in front of her, barely glancing at it until the headline grabbed her interest. ‘Deatsville Woman Could Awaken Any Day Now.’ She grabbed the man’s arm and yanked on him, pulling him towards her.
“What is it, Gene?”
Desperately, she pointed to the article and then lifted a finger to him, urging him to read it to her.
The man sighed as he dropped down on the bed beside of her and lifted the paper to his face. Clearing his throat, he began, “Eyewitness to the brutal slaying of three women in Deatsville could wake up at any moment. She was airlifted to University Hospital in Raleigh and has been in a coma ever since. But now, the doctors are giving her better odds, saying that any day, the young woman could wake up. Jessica Porter, 28, barely survived the vicious stabbing that occurred merely two and a half weeks ago and is said to be the only link to solving this heinous crime.”
Eugenia gasped, covering her mouth with a shaky hand and staring at the man beside of her with wide horrified eyes.
He stopped reading immediately. “Gene, what is it?”
Gene’s eyes began to roll into the back of her head, her body convulsing. The young man jumped at once, pressing her call light and running out of the room. Unfortunately, for Gene, she knew it was already too late.
* * * *
The boat rocked gently on the small swells of water set in motion by the soft breeze. Not a cloud was in the sky, the sun hovering above them and casting a warm glow over the lake. A hawk cried out from somewhere in the distance, a piercing cry that echoed in the silence.
Nathan turned to Jessie and watched her bait her rod with the apparent ease of a pro. Unlike most women, she hadn’t squealed or complained when he had brought back from the tackle shop a fresh bucket of night crawlers. Instead, she had smiled and told him that worms made the best bait anyway.
She had taken a shower while he had been gone and changed into a clean t-shirt and a pair of shorts. Her freshly washed hair was piled into a loose bun on the top of her head, tiny wisps of curls falling to her face. Not many women looked quite as good dressed down. But Jessie was a pure beauty, looking absolutely stunning with no makeup and no frills.
“It’s not polite to stare,” Jessie mocked as she cast her line into the water and reeled in the twine a bit to make it tight.
“Not staring. More like marveling in the skillful way you baited your own hook.”
“I have been fishing before,” she retaliated defensively.
Nathan grinned as he baited his own line with nimble fingers.
“So, what made you decide to become a cop?” Jessie asked as she stared at him sideways.
Nathan flicked his own line into the water to join hers and sat back against the bow of the boat. “My father was a cop.”
“He must be very proud of you.”
“He was killed when I was very young.”
“I’m sorry,” she replied softly, lowering her eyes.
“I remember always wanting to follow in his footsteps. I graduated high school and tried my hand at college first before realizing college wasn’t for me so.. I went into the police academy, much to my mother’s dislike. And… that’s that.”
She propped her rod against the boat and struggled to get comfortable, crossing her legs and offering Nathan an inquisitive glance. “How did you come to Deatsville?”
“I was working homicide up in New York with a man named Cyrus Barnhart.”
“The former sheriff?”
“Right. He had been with the NYPD for fifteen years and told me he had had enough brutal visions to haunt him for the rest of his life. Cyrus left the precinct and moved down here where the only crime he had to deal with was drunks and parking violations. They liked him so damn much that they elected him sheriff.” Nathan reeled his line in a little bit before placing it next to hers. “I had been working on a really difficult case… a man found his wife cheating on him and sliced her, her boyfriend, her mother, her father, and all of her brother and sisters to shreds. I had never seen anything like it and never wanted to see anything like it again. So, Cy talked me into coming down here and working for him. I couldn’t wait to get out of the city and took him up on the offer immediately. The next thing I knew, he was retiring and naming me as his successor. Next election, they just kept me.”
“They just kept you?” she laughed.
“What can I say?” he shrugged. “They liked me.”
“Did you grow up in New York?”
“Nah. I grew up out west.”
“Wow. From Utah to New York City. That’s a big change.”
“Well, when my mother married husband number three, they moved to Manhattan and I just followed suit.”
“Number three?” Jessie scrunched her nose. “How many times has she been married?”
“Four, so far.”
“She’s one of those people who can’t be alone.”
“What about you? You grow up in Deatsville?”
“For the most part. My parents died when I was very young. We lived in California at the time, but I don’t remember it very well. I came to live in Deatsville with my maternal grandmother, Gene. She practically raised me.” Just the thought of her grandmother saddened her. Gene had to be worried out of her mind since Jessie hadn’t talked to her in so long.
Nathan reached out and placed his hand on top of hers, sensing her misery over not being able to contact her grandmother. “I know it’s hard on you, not being able to talk to her and tell her that you’re okay. But, trust me, it’s only meant to keep you safe.”
“I understand,” she murmured softly.
“Jessie, I don’t think you do. Whoever did this to you is going to come looking for you or whoever knows your whereabouts when they figure out that you’re awake and could point a finger at them. It’s not only to keep you safe but to keep her safe as well.”
“How did this happen?” Jessie groaned in a miserable voice. “One minute, I only had to worry about my term paper. The next, my roommates are dead and the man who did it could very well be looking to finish what he started.”
“Sometimes life kicks you in the ass like that,” he offered, knowing it wasn’t much but all he had to give her that made sense where there was no rhyme or reason.
“You ever been kicked in the ass before?” Jessie asked, cocking her head sideways, and gave him a small grin.
“Plenty of times.”
“What do you do?”
“Well, you’ve got two options. You can piss and moan about it. Or you can kick back.”
“Words to live by,” she muttered.
“The question is which are you going to do?”
“Kick back,” she nodded, her voice sounding confident and self-assured.
“That’s my girl,” Nathan grinned and released her hand.
“So, I bet you know more about my life than I do right now, don’t you?”
“I’ve done some investigating, yeah.”
“Tell me, Sheriff Benson. What do you think you know about me?”
“Everything I need to know,” he admitted sheepishly.
“Hm,” she sighed, a slight smile tilting her lips. “I probably seem pretty boring.”
“No…” he interjected in a fierce voice.
“I consider myself to be pretty boring.”
“Not boring. Admirable.”
Jessie’s reply was a quick roll of her eyes.
“Just because you choose to dive into school and work and push a personal life aside until you’ve achieved your goals does not making you a boring person.”
“I don’t know if I should take that as a compliment.”
“Hell, you know what you want and you’re going after it. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“Maybe you’re right. Then again, maybe you’re wrong.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve always wanted something more out of life. And in the process, I’ve pushed everyone away because I didn’t want them to get in my way.”
“You do what you have to do,” Nathan conceded, a bit amused at her adamant tone, the way she tilted her chin stubbornly.
“You’re pretty good at that, aren’t you?”
His brow furrowed together, confusion etched on his face. “Good at what?”
“Telling people what they want to hear.”
“I don’t think I tell people what they want to hear,” he corrected. “It’s more like…” Nathan’s voice trailed off. He wasn’t quite sure how to explain it.
“It’s telling people what they want to hear,” she finished for him. “Which can be either a good thing or a bad thing.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s nice to tell people what they want to hear, as long as you agree with them. But if you disagree, then what’s the point?”
“People have to believe in themselves,” he offered. “My opinion doesn’t matter.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. Your opinion matters more than you think. And I believe you know that, which is why you choose to tell people what they want to hear. That way, you can’t be held accountable for giving bad advice.”
Nathan opened his mouth to protest but wasn’t given a chance. Jessie bolted to her fishing rod, an aura of excitement lighting up her features.
“I think I’ve got a fish.”
“Yeah?” Nathan arched one brow and glanced at her rod, seeing the tightening of her line and knowing she had caught something. “Reel it in.”
She began reeling to no avail. The fish was flopping around too much. Jessie tried again, but just wasn’t strong enough to bring it out of the water. “Help me,” she giggled. “This guy is determined to stay put.”
Nathan didn’t hesitate to plant himself behind her and reach around with his arms to grab the rod. Her back was braced against his chest, his hands covering hers on the rod. Together, they pulled the flailing fish onto the boat.
Jessie turned to him and smiled, her face merely inches from his. “This is so awesome! I’ve never caught a fish before!”
“I thought you said you’ve been fishing before,” he muttered.
“I have! I’ve just never caught anything!” Jessie giggled.
He could feel her breath against his cheek; feel the warmth of her body next to his. His eyes wandered down to her mouth--soft, full lips that he longed to kiss. He had the urge to reach up and cup her cheek in the palm of his hand, to lean forward and capture her lips with his own. Quickly, Nathan had to pull himself away from her before he did something that he would regret.
He set her away from him and slid to the other side of the boat, a safe distance from her and the spell she was putting him under. He cursed under his breath, loathing himself for the direction his mind had lingered to. The best thing for him to do was to push it aside.
Staring at Jessie from across the boat, he offered her an appreciative smile. “Congratulations, darlin’, you just caught our supper.”
She offered him a smug smile, picking up the fish and holding him up as a trophy. “He is a handsome devil, isn’t he?”
Nathan laughed, “Handsome isn’t quite the word I would use.”
“Stop it!” She set the fish into the Styrofoam cooler filled with ice and shut the lid. “You’ll hurt his feelings,” she whispered, causing Nathan to laugh harder. Rolling her eyes, she shook her head and chuckled as well. “I’ve caught my dinner. Where’s yours?” she challenged.
working on it.”