Forget Me Not, p.1Elizabeth Lowell
Books by Elizabeth Lowell
Forget Me Not (1984)
Forget Me Not (1984)
W HEN THE PHONE rang, Alana was almost relieved. Though it was before dawn, she was wide awake. Since she had come back from Broken Mountain, she had slept very little, and never peacefully.
Kicking aside the tangled sheets, Alana turned toward the phone. It was too early for anyone she knew on the West Coast to be up and about. That meant it was probably her brother in Wyoming calling to see how she was.
Calling to see if she remembered what had happened on Broken Mountain.
“Hello,” Alana said, keeping her voice steady with an effort.
“Sis? Is that you?”
“Hi, Bob. How’s Merry?”
“Counting the weeks until February,” said Bob, laughing. “If she gets much bigger, we’ll have to put her in a stall with the brood mares.”
Alana smiled at the thought of petite, blond Merry tucked into one of the heated stalls Bob kept for his prize mares.
“Better not let Merry hear you say that,” Alana warned.
“Hell, it was her idea.” Bob paused, then said, “Sis?”
Alana’s hand tightened on the phone. She had heard that tone before, little brother to big sister, a smile and affectionate wheedling.
He wanted something from her.
“When are you coming home?” Bob asked bluntly.
Alana’s heart began to beat too fast. She didn’t know how to tell her brother that she was frightened by the thought of returning to the ranch where Broken Mountain rose steeply, mantled in ice and darkness.
Before her last trip to Broken Mountain, Alana had loved the ranch, the mountains, the silence, the heights, and the clouds swirling overhead. She had loved the memories of Rafael Winter—Rafe reflected in every lake, every fragrant forest, sunsets and sunrises sweeping across the land like fire, the wind’s keening harmonies echoing the music Rafe had made on his harmonica.
Alana had come to love the land even more because she and Rafe had been part of it, lovers suspended between sky and mountains, more beautiful than either, timeless, burning with the sun.
But now those mountains terrified Alana.
Now the memories of Rafe were a brittle, cutting armor that she pulled around her like the colors of dawn, hoping to drive away the horror and darkness that crawled up out of the abyss of those six missing days.
“I don’t—” Alana began.
Her brother interrupted before she could refuse.
“I’ve already talked to your agent,” Bob said cheerfully. “He told me you’ve refused to accept any concerts and won’t even look at the songs he sends to you.”
Bob kept talking.
“So don’t tell me how busy you are,” he said. “If you’re writing songs again, you can write them just as well here. Better. You always did your best work here.”
With a conscious effort, Alana loosened her grip on the phone. She had no more excuses, so she said nothing.
“Sis? I need you here.”
“Bob, I don’t think—” Alana began.
Then her voice broke.
“Don’t say no,” Bob said urgently. “You don’t even know what I want yet.”
And you don’t know what I want, Alana thought rebelliously. You’ve never even asked if I want something.
The words went no further than Alana’s thoughts, a silent cry of need. Yet even as the cry echoed in her mind, she recognized its unfairness.
What she needed, Bob couldn’t provide. She needed warmth and reassurance, safety and a man’s hard strength standing between her and the abyss, protecting her until she knew what had happened and could protect herself once more.
She needed love waiting instead of terror. She needed a dream to banish a nightmare.
She needed Rafael Winter.
But Rafe was just a dream. The nightmare was real.
With a deep breath, Alana gathered herself and set about living in her new world just as she always had lived. Alone, depending only on herself.
She had done this many times before, the deep breath and the determination to do the best she could with what she had, no matter how little that seemed to be when the nightmare descended like a storm.
“What do you want?” Alana asked softly.
“You know cash has always been a problem with the ranch,” Bob said quickly. “Land poor, as they say. Well, Merry and I had this idea for a classy—and I mean classy—dude operation. High-country fishing safaris for people who can pay high prices.”
Alana made a neutral sound.
“We had it all planned, all lined up, all our ducks in a row,” Bob said. “Our first two customers are very exclusive travel agents. Their clientele list reads like Who’s Who. Everything was going great for us, and then . . .”
“And then?” Alana prompted.
“Merry got pregnant,” Bob said simply. “I mean, we’re both happy, we’ve been trying for two years, but . . .”
“Dr. Gene says Merry can’t go on the pack trip.”
“Is that a problem?”
“Hell, yes. She was going to be our cook and entertainer and general soother, take the rough edges off. You know what I mean, sis.”
“Yes. I know.”
It was the same role Alana had played in the family since she was thirteen and her mother died, leaving behind three boys, a devastated husband, and a daughter who had to grow up very quickly. That was when Alana had learned about reaching down into herself for the smile and the touch and the comfort that the people around her needed. She had rebuilt the shattered family as best she could, for she, too, needed the haven and the laughter and the warmth.
“It will really be more like time off than a job,” coaxed Bob.
Alana heard the coaxing, but it didn’t move her nearly as much as the disturbing thread of urgency beneath the soft tone.
“Riding and fishing and hiking in the high country just like we used to do. You’ll love it, sis! I just know it. A real vacation for you.”
Alana throttled the harsh laugh that was clawing at her throat.
Vacation, she thought, shuddering. In the mountains that nearly killed me. In the mountains that still come to me in nightmares.
Oh, God, that’s some vacation my little brother has planned for me!
“Sis,” Bob coaxed, “I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t really need you. I don’t have anywhere else to turn. The pack trip is all set and the two dudes are here. Please?”
Unexpectedly, a vivid memory of Rafe came to Alana. . . . Late summer, a narrow trail going up Broken Mountain, a lame horse, and a saddle that weighed nearly as much as she did. She had been leading the horse, dragging the saddle, and watching the silent violence of clouds billowing toward a storm. At fifteen, she knew the dangers of being caught on an exposed ridge in a high-country cloudburst.
Without warning, lightning had come down so close to her that she smelled the stink of scorched rock. Thunder came like the end of the world. Her horse had screamed and reared, tearing the reins from her hand. Then the horse’s lameness had been overridden by terror. The animal had bolted down the mountainside, leaving her alone.
She, too, had been terrified, her nostrils filled with the smell of lightning and her ears deafened by thunder. Then she had heard someone calling h
Rafe had come to her across the talus slope, riding his plunging, scrambling horse with the strength and grace she had always admired. He had lifted her into the saddle in front of him and spurred his horse back down the slope while lightning arced around the mountain.
Sheltered in a thick growth of spruce, she had waited out the storm with Rafe, wearing his jacket and watching him with the eyes of a child-woman who was more woman and less child with every breath.
On Broken Mountain Alana had found first fear, then love, and finally horror.
She wondered if there was another balance to be discovered on Broken Mountain, opposites joined in harmony, freeing her from nightmare.
The possibility shimmered through Alana like dawn through night, transforming everything.
“Sis? Say something.”
Alana was appalled to hear herself take a deep breath and say calmly, “Of course I’ll help you.”
She didn’t hear Bob’s whoop of victory, his assurances that he wouldn’t tell any of the dudes that she was the famous singer Jilly, his gratitude that she was helping him out. She didn’t hear anything but the echoes of her own terrifying decision to go back to Broken Mountain.
As though Bob sensed how fragile Alana’s agreement was, he began speaking quickly.
“I’ve got you booked on the afternoon flight to Salt Lake. From there, you’re booked on a little feeder flight into the airport here. Got a pencil?”
Bemused, Alana stared at the phone. The simple fact that Bob had thought to take care of the details of her transportation was so unusual as to be overwhelming. It wasn’t that Bob was thoughtless; he was very considerate of Merry, to the point that he was almost too protective.
Alana, however, had always been taken for granted in the manner that parents and older siblings often are.
“Sis,” Bob said patiently, “do you have a pencil? He’ll skin me if I louse this up.”
“He?” asked Alana as she went through the drawer in her bedside table looking for a pencil. “Who will skin you alive?”
There was a static-filled silence. Then Bob laughed abruptly.
“The travel agent who made the arrangements,” he said. “Who else? Ready?”
“Hold your horses,” Alana muttered.
She found a pencil, grabbed a credit card receipt, turned it over, and wrote down the flight numbers and times.
“But that’s today!” she protested.
“Told you we needed you.”
“That’s not much warning, little brother.”
“That’s the whole idea,” Bob muttered.
“Nothing. Just be sure you’re on that plane or my butt is potato salad.”
“Bob,” Alana began.
“Thanks, sis,” he said quickly, talking over her. “You won’t regret it. If anyone can pull it off, he can.”
Alana felt as though she was missing half the conversation, and the most important half at that.
“He who?” she asked.
“Damn,” Bob said beneath his breath.
“The travel agent?” Alana guessed.
“Yeah, the travel agent. He’s something else,” said Bob dryly. “See you tonight, sis. ‘Bye.”
Before Alana could say good-bye, the line was dead.
She stood and stared at the receiver clenched in her hand. Silently she asked herself why she had agreed to do something that terrified her.
She was a fool to let warm memories of Rafe Winter lure her back to the icy source of nightmare. She didn’t even know if Rafe was in Wyoming. In the past, Rafe’s job had taken him all over the world. His time at the Winter ranch had been limited to a few weeks now and then.
It had been enough, though. Alana had learned to love Rafe and to accept his absences. She had learned to live for the day when he would come home and marry her and she would never cry for him at night again.
And then Rafe had died.
Or so the Pentagon had said.
The phone began to make whooping noises, telling Alana that the receiver had been off the hook too long. She hung up and stared at the phone.
It was deep red, like the flowers in the Spanish tile that covered the kitchen counters. Red, like the wildflowers that grew high on the mountain slopes.
Red. Like blood.
“Did I see Jack die on Broken Mountain?” Alana whispered. “Is that what my mind refuses to remember?”
With a shudder, she jerked away from the bright red telephone.
Rubbing her arms to chase away the chill that had been with her since Broken Mountain, Alana walked quickly to the closet. She pulled on jeans and an old cotton blouse. From habit, she buttoned the blouse completely, concealing the delicate gold chain that Rafe had given her years before.
As always, Alana’s fingertip lingered on the tiny symbol of infinity that was part of the chain.
Love ever after, love without end.
A beautiful dream.
Reality was six days missing from her life and a nightmare whose end she was still trying to find.
Slowly Alana walked into the kitchen. With hands that wanted to tremble, she plugged in the coffeepot, scrambled two eggs, and buttered a piece of toast. She forced herself to eat and drink, to clean up after herself, to do all the things normal people did.
An untidy stack of papers on the kitchen counter caught Alana’s eye. Unhappily she looked at them. She should read the song sheets her agent had sent over. New songs. Solo material for the sole survivor of the Jack ‘n’ Jilly duo.
Alana should read the music, but she wouldn’t, for she no longer could sing.
That was the most bitter loss, the most unbearable pain. Before Broken Mountain, she had been able to draw songs around her like colors of love chasing away the gray of loneliness and the black of despair.
Alana had taken her love for a man she believed was dead and transformed that love into song. Singing had been her greatest pleasure, her reason for living after she was told that Rafe was dead.
Jack Reeves hadn’t loved her, but she had always known that. Nor had Alana loved him. Theirs had been a business marriage, pure and simple. Jack loved fame and Jilly loved singing.
Now Jack was dead and Jilly could sing only in her dreams. And in her dreams it was Rafe’s harmonica that accompanied her, not Jack’s flawless tenor.
Awake, she had no music in her.
It wasn’t stage fright. Even now, Alana wasn’t afraid of being in front of people. Nor was she afraid of the savage doggerel that would be running through the fans’ minds as they watched her.
Jack ‘n’ Jilly
Went up the hilly
To fetch a pail of vodka.
Jack fell down
And broke his crown,
And Jilly lost her mind.
Alana had listened to it all before, read it in print a hundred times, heard it whispered. She could face that.
But she couldn’t face opening her lips and feeling her throat close with terrible finality, as though there were no more songs in her now and never would be again. Nothing but screams and the silence of death.
Uneasily Alana looked around, barely recognizing her surroundings. Even though she had lived in the Oregon apartment for three weeks, the place was neither comfortable nor familiar to her. It certainly wasn’t as real to her as the nightmare about Broken Mountain.
But then, nothing was.
Abruptly Alana walked toward the wall of glass that opened onto a small patio. She stood near the glass, trying to shake off the residue of nightmare and death, fear and mistakes, and most of all a past that was beyond her ability to change.
Or even to understand.
“I’ll remember what happened someday,” Alana whispered. “Won’t I?”
T AKING A RAGGED breath, Alana forced herself to look at the dawn that was etching the room in shades of rose and vermilion, gold and translucent pink. The September sun’s radiant war
Alana found herself staring at her reflection in the glass as she often had since Broken Mountain, searching for some outer sign of the six-day gap in her memory. Nothing showed on the outside. She looked the same as she had before she had gone up the mountain with the worst mistake of her life—her singing partner, Jack Reeves.
The singing hadn’t been the mistake. The marriage of convenience had. He had always pushed for more. She had always wished for less. He had wanted a reconciliation. She had wanted only an end to a marriage that never should have begun. So they had gone up Broken Mountain together.
Only one of them had come back.
No visible marks of the ordeal in the mountains remained on Alana’s five-foot, five-inch body. Her ankle had healed. It ached only when it was cold. The bruises and welts and cuts were gone, leaving no scars. She no longer had to diet to fit into the slender image demanded by the public. Since Broken Mountain, her appetite was gone.
But it wasn’t something that showed.
Alana leaned forward, staring intently at her nearly transparent reflection in the sliding glass door. Everything still looked the same. Long legs, strong from a childhood spent hiking and riding in Wyoming’s high country. Breasts and waist and hips that were neither large nor small. Her skin was a golden brown. Nothing unusual. Nothing at all.
“Surely something must show on the outside,” Alana told her reflection. “I can’t just lose my singing partner and six days of my life and wonder about my sanity and not have any of it show.”
Yet nothing did.
Though Alana’s eyes were too dark, too large, too haunted, her mouth still looked as though it was curved around a secret inner smile. Her hair was still black and glossy, divided into two thick braids that fell to her waist.
Alana stared at her braids for a long moment, realizing for the first time that something about them made her . . . uneasy.
She had never particularly liked having long hair, but she had accepted it as she had accepted the nickname Jilly, both necessary parts of the childlike image that audiences loved to love. The image went with her voice, clear and innocent, as supple and pure as a mountain stream. . . .
Water rushing down, cold, and darkness waiting, lined with rocks, ice and darkness closing around, clouds seething overhead, lightning lancing down, soundless thunder.
Forget Me Not by Elizabeth Lowell / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes