Excerpt: If I Stay: Book One of the Guardian Series



Prologue
 
Bramleigh Park, Northern England, January, 1816

Memory lost…

Her fiancée.  She could hardly look in his eyes.  Not because she didn’t want to, but because she had such hard time looking away, as if her whole life was reflected in the deep, cobalt blue.  Had she always felt this way?  Ariana smiled as Justin refilled her crystal goblet with red wine.

The evening had been perfect.  He’d set himself out to charm her and succeeded beyond measure.  How could she not be charmed?  A beautiful, candlelit table laden with delectable food, a warm fire to keep the chill of winter at bay, and, last, but certainly not least, a handsome, attentive dinner companion. 

The ‘other Ariana’ had been a lucky girl. 

Under the table, out of Justin’s perceptive line of sight, she clenched her napkin in her fist.  Stop it!  She and the ‘other Ariana’ were one and the same.  Somehow she must stop fracturing the two or she feared she’d always feel like an imposter.  

She smoothed the wrinkles from the fine linen napkin on her lap, her finger tracing the gold monogram.  Yet how could she think of this family crest potentially becoming her own?  She had no sense of where she’d come from, so how could she possibly pick up the threads of where she’d been going?

“Would you like that?”

“Hmm?”  Would she like what?  Ariana flushed, realizing she had no idea what he had been saying.  She gambled he wouldn’t be asking her to do anything unpleasant and smiled.  Surely she’d never smiled so much in her life.  “Yes, that would be…lovely.”

“Lovely,” Justin repeated, as if contemplating her word choice.  “All right.  In a day or two, when you feel up to it, I will introduce you to my dead ancestors.”

Now he had her full attention.  “What?”

He arched a dark brow.  “You asked about my family history.  The portrait gallery will be a good enough place to start as any.”

“Oh!  The portrait gallery.  Of course.”  Where else would dead ancestors be?  For a second she’d wondered what new turn her fall into this strange world had taken.

Justin looked a little perplexed at her nervous relief, but she wasn’t about to explain the way her imagination had conjured ghosts.  And true, she had asked about his family history.  Over dinner she’d asked many questions about his life until she’d blundered into the topic of his recent loss. 

“I would like to see the portrait gallery,” she said again.  Her fingers now worked at folding the napkin into small squares.  “It would be…”

“Lovely,” finished Justin.  “I know.” 

They ate in silence for a while and Ariana tried to think of a way to bring the conversation back to its earlier camaraderie.  She hadn’t asked what she wanted to know most of all, but she could hardly blurt out her question now. 

But the moment seemed lost.  Justin set down his napkin.  “You are tired.  I’ll call for the servants to clear the dishes so you can rest.”

Ariana bit her lip in disappointment.  Too late.  She tried her well-worn smile one more time.  “I am not that tired.”

She lied.  The range of questions she had about herself and about the two of them flat out exhausted her.  Maybe tonight her dreams wouldn’t leave her with more questions than answers.  Or maybe she’d toss and turn, wishing she’d been brave enough tonight to ask what only he could answer.

“Wait!” She reached out across the table and grasped his hand to stop him from leaving.  The bandage on her wrist, so carefully hidden by the frilly lace of her dressing gown sleeve, showed itself in a stark white juxtaposition of darker questions.  From what she’d been told, she’d injured her wrists in the carriage accident weeks ago.  Both of them.  Odd, that.  And then she’d been ill for a long time, which accounted for her weight loss.  But somehow it felt out of order.  Shouldn’t her injuries have healed by now?

“What is it, Angel?”

Angel.  When he called her that she felt torn in opposite directions.  I do not know if I belong here.

Ariana shook her head.  Where else could she belong?  She searched his eyes, hoping to lose herself and have the dark questions and uncertainties banished.  Perhaps it was because she felt so weary of the void of her past, but she surprised both.  “How did we meet, Justin?  Was it love at first sight?”

There was no sound in the room except for the crackle of the fire.  She hadn’t taken her eyes away from his face and she thought, for just a moment, his mouth quirked.  Amusement?  A grimace?  In the shifting flicker of the candlelight, it could have been either one.  And that’s what bothered her.  The uncertainty of claiming one true emotion from the past, even if it were his alone, tied her stomach in knots. 

She waited, hoping he would erase the ambiguity of what really should have been a simple question.  But he said nothing.  If anything, he looked pained.  Tormented.  So it had been a grimace then, she decided.  Yes, it must have been a grimace.  Either that or the impeccably prepared stuffed pheasant had disagreed with him.  Rather unlikely, although she would like to give him the benefit of the doubt.

She released his hand and sat back.  Her throat felt tight.  That he cared for her she believed, but something was plainly wrong.  Why must he hold his silence so firmly?  Didn’t he know how much she needed his words?  Without them she had nothing.  Worse than nothing. 

“I know you think I have to remember everything on my own,” she rushed on, filling the silence, “as if telling me anything will do some irreparable harm, but I feel certain if you could just tell me this one thing then I would remember the rest.  Would you do that please?”

He sighed.  “Ariana, it’s complicated --”

“Of course it’s bloody complicated!”  The tears were coming fast now and she brushed impatiently at her cheeks.  “Don’t you think I don’t know that?  But we had a past!  The least you could do is talk to me - - not sit there like, like some martyr!”

There.  She’d said it.  Now maybe he’d tell her everything.

Justin said nothing long past the aftermath of her outburst. He looked around the room, as though looking for escape, and settled his gaze on the fire.  She felt foolish sharing so much intimacy with a man who was a stranger to her.  She didn’t know if she’d hurt him.  She didn’t know him.

The tears fell down her cheeks and she didn’t try to stop them.  Her head bent, she offered the only apology she could.  “I’m sorry.  I’m sorry I’ve forgotten you.  I want you to know that.  You’ve lost so much and don’t deserve to have a fiancé who cannot remember you.  You don’t--”

Glass shattered.  She jerked her head from the fireplace grate back to Justin.  Her breath caught at the turmoil that flashed raw and dangerous in his eyes.  Her wish had been granted.  One true emotion. 

“I’m not a bloody martyr!” he said tightly.  “You have no idea how much the opposite.”

Now maybe he would be honest with her.  She tried to be still.  Nothing would have made her look away, except a tingling in her nose couldn’t be ignored.  She sniffled. 

Justin visibly recaptured his control, taking a calming breath and running a hand over his jaw.  She cursed her runny nose for breaking the spell.  

He studied her, obviously weighing what to tell her.  “What do you want from me, Angel?  Do you want me to paint a rosy picture of our perfect life?” 

Her heart skipped a beat at the implication he would tell her what she wanted to hear—be it truth or lie.  What did she want? 

Everything.  She wanted what she’d felt earlier, when he’d brushed her hair.  The intimacy hadn’t frightened her.  Not then.  Only, with each new hint of something wonderful between them, she felt more and more cheated of her memories, of which there must be many for her to feel so connected to this man. 

Surely there was nothing to fear.  She decided to answer his question with a question, trying hard to sound, if not casual, at least not desperate.  “It wasn’t a perfect life?”

Something like a prayer ran through her mind.  Please tell me it had been perfect.




***

Would you like to read more?  This book is available now.  Click on the IF I STAY link to Amazon in the right margin.

2 comments:

  1. Wonderful! I love the turmoil she's going through, trying to remember her past with him. The last line is perfect. :) I can't wait to read more.

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  2. Thanks, Donna! I can't wait for you to see more too! All of it. LOL

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