200 miles north of Manhattan
…and a surge of fragrant air fills me.
… the murmur of wind in spring leaves.
… the feather weight of fabric on my limbs.
Slowly, afraid it is all yet one more cruel dream,
I open my eyes.
Splinters of color and shape pierce me.
The world rushes in.
I am lying on a floating bed suspended under the wrought iron dome of a small pavilion. The sky, glimpsed between tall white columns, is painfully bright. Far off in the distance, light creates shards of diamonds on the surface of a lake fringed with the reflections of tall pines. Beyond, an endless vista of trees and mountains falls away to the edge of the world.
In the stillness, I hear the stirring of life all around me. The bed sways as I leave it and step out onto the far end of a garden divided by the long sweep of a manicured lawn. Spring flowers in a riot of white, pink, and blue fill the formal beds. A robin flits by, bound for the fountain at the center where sprays of water create prisms of light in the fragrant air.
I turn and turn again, trying to drink it all in, relief for my parched senses. In the periphery of my vision, I see chestnut strands of hair–my hair!–fluttering in the air. I feel the shifting of the thin sheath that skims my body from shoulders to ankles. Backlit by the sun, the fabric becomes diaphanous and I glimpse blushing alabaster skin.
Turning, turning, my arms fling out to embrace this extraordinary world. I laugh because I can and because the joy bubbling up in me will not be denied.
I am free!
But I am not alone.
The sight of an elegant palazzo at the opposite end of the garden brings me to a sudden stop. Late afternoon sun falls over white stone walls that gleam under a sloping, red-tiled roof. A graceful balcony runs the length of the second floor. Twin, one-story wings extend perpendicular to the main part of the house. They frame the garden between columned galleries.
As I watch, a man emerges from the deep shadows on the far side of the fountain, coming from darkness into light. His stride–steady, swift, purposeful–dissolves the distance between us. Black jeans hug the long length of his legs and his narrow hips. Under a snug black T-shirt, I see the movement of muscles across his broad shoulders and chest. His arms hang loosely at his sides, the fingers of each hand curling inward as though he carries weapons that are invisible to me. His hair is dark brown, thick and slightly long. The sun has burnished his skin. He has strong, symmetrical features, the facial bones angular and chiseled.
Too far away to see his eyes, I nonetheless feel their intensity. My first instinct is to flee but where? Belatedly, I realize that I don’t know where I am, much less where I could go.
Searching for answers, I stumble across a greater mystery. I have no idea who I am.
With that discovery, my heart begins to race but only for an instant. Panic recedes like a swiftly ebbing tide, replaced by a swell of soothing calm. I stand frozen in place, waiting heartbeat to heartbeat as he nears.
Across shrinking space, further details reveal themselves. He hasn’t shaved in a day…two? I wonder suddenly how the stubble along his square jaw would feel against my fingertips. Is it coarse? Raspy? Silken? The thought shocks me with its presumption of intimacy.
When no more than an arm’s length separates us, he stops. That close, he appears even larger, more formidable but also young, still in his twenties, I think. At last, I can see his eyes. Set under arching brows, they are a rich golden amber shading to brown and framed by thick lashes.
When I meet his gaze, I glimpse curiosity darkened by…passion? I shy away from that at once, concentrating on what else I glimpse. Wariness? Can that be right? Is there something about me that makes this man cautious?
At that moment, what I want most is to hear his voice. When it comes, the deep, slightly husky timbre sends a shiver through me. I watch in unwilling fascination as his full, surprisingly sensuous mouth–the only hint of softness I can see in him–shapes a single word:
I have a name.
One I do not recognize but a name even so.
Without taking his eyes from me, he steps closer and holds out his hand in a gesture that is equally comfort and command. Without thought, I give him my own and am drawn to him.
I can feel the heat of his body through the thin sheath that covers me. His touch is new, strange, disturbing. Yet not for a moment do I consider trying to break the contact between us.
“How are you feeling?” he asks, looking down at me. He appears genuinely concerned but still watchful.
I answer honestly. “Confused. I have no idea who or where or how–”
My voice is faint and a little raspy, as though unused, but it rises slightly as I speak. The keen edge of panic, surely understandable under the circumstances, surges in me. Just as quickly, it slips away. The quiet inside returns, containing me once again even as I begin to struggle against it.
This is not right. I should not be so accepting. I should be demanding answers. Why don’t I know who I am? Why am I in this place? Who is this man? Who am I? But even as the questions clamor in me, I stand mute.
Something of my anxiousness must communicate itself to him. His fingers tighten around mine. I can feel his strength, so much greater than my own even when he holds it strictly in check.
The intensity of his gaze has not lessened. If anything it is growing. His nostrils flare as he leans closer. I have the distinct impression that he is inhaling my scent, my heat, the essence of me.
The gesture, and my own recognition of it, is so carnal that the muscles in my abdomen clench. I try to step away but he doesn’t allow it.
In a tone that seems meant to reassure and soothe, he says, “Your confusion is understandable but it will pass soon. Right now just know that you’re safe.”
A laugh verging on hysterical gurgles up in me. Safe? He must be joking. I have never felt less safe not even in the–
A wisp of memory comes and as quickly goes across the landscape of my mind. I am left with an elusive sense that there is something I should know but it remains well beyond my reach.
“My name is Ian…Ian Slade.” He pauses as though waiting for a sign of recognition. I can offer none. His name means no more to me than my own does. I don’t know it any more than I know his face or his voice yet there is something in his touch…a sense of being in accord with him, in harmony, as though we belong together.
A thread of yearning unspools deep within me, arching upward, reaching for him…
All at once, I break beyond whatever restriction keeps me silent and blurt, “Why can’t I remember who I am or how I got here? What has happened to me?”
My outburst takes him by surprise, which in turn surprises me. Why would he expect me to be other than upset?
“You’ve only just awakened after a long sleep,” he says finally. “Right now your senses are being overwhelmed. If I try to answer your questions, you won’t understand half of what I tell you, if that much.”
I open my mouth to protest but he shakes his head. “Tomorrow everything will be clearer, you’ll see. Until then, just give yourself a little time to adjust to waking up. All right?”
I can refuse, of course. I can insist that he tell me now. I can…I think…but I don’t. Instead, held by his golden gaze, I nod. My brief moment of rebellion is over. For now. But my alarm at my own docility remains.
In contrast, he appears pleased. The smile he gives me is instant and real. At the sight of it, warmth curls through me. I am happy because he is. I want to do whatever I must to earn that smile again.
“Good,” he says.
With this voicing of his approval, I find myself relaxing and can only distantly manage to wonder why. When he begins leading me by the hand from the garden, I don’t think of resisting.
Disturbingly submissive, I go with him across the gallery and through the high doors of the palazzo that stand open to admit us.