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A Whirlwind of Color is now live!  It's finally time to find out what happens to Penny & James after The Light to My Darkness!

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A Whirlwind of Color Chapter 8

Chapter 8

Thursday

I wasn’t sure I had ever felt so awkward in my life.  Looking at our wedding spot in the distance, standing by a man I didn’t know, and feeling so lost.  I didn’t know how to clear the tension in the air.  And as soon as I thought about the awkwardness, I realized I was missing a whole element of it.  On top of everything else, I was alone with a man I didn’t know.  All alone.  In this huge apartment.  What did he want me to do?

“So where do I sleep?” I asked.  Really?  You’re jumping right to the sleeping arrangements?  What is wrong with you?  I could feel my face turning red.

He smiled down at me.

God, his smile made me nervous.  “Forget that last question.  Is it okay if I go for a run?  I think I just need some fresh air.”  The park across the street was calling to me.  Maybe if I got in the very middle of it, I’d forget I was in the city.  Unlikely.

“You don’t like to run,” he said.

I shrugged.  “Usually I don’t.  But I feel like it today.”

“No, I mean you really don’t like to run.  You hate running.  Trust me.”

I think I know myself better than you do.  I bit the inside of my lip.  I think.  “So you know that but you don’t know my favorite movie?  Interesting.”  I tried to give him what I hoped was a playful smile and not a horrified one.

“Have you ever considered that when we met, that was no longer your favorite movie?”

No.  Why would it change?  “So what do you think it is?”

“You don’t have one.  You’ve always claimed that you don’t.  You’re adamant about it really.”

“And yet, I know my favorite movie.  You’re the one that doesn’t.”

He laughed, but it sounded exasperated.  “I don’t know what you want me to say.”

“I want you to tell me anything that makes sense.  It doesn’t seem like you know me at all.”

“You’ve changed a lot in seven years.”

“So much so that I’ve lost myself?”  I didn’t mean for the words to spill out, but they did.  And now it was too late.  I hated that he looked hurt because of me.

“Some stupid movie doesn’t define you, Penny.”

“I’m not saying it does.”  My breathing was growing uneven.  I should have been backtracking, going back to make-believe, but I couldn’t stop myself.  “And I’m not even talking about the movie.  I mean all of this.”  I gestured to the enormous living room.  “This isn’t me.  I like simple things.  Homey things.”

“I know.  It’s one of the many reasons why I love you.”

“Then why do we live here?  What happened to me to make me say all of this was okay?”

He ran his fingers through his hair, and I had the oddest sensation that if he hadn’t, his fist would have gone through one of the walls.

“You fell in love with me,” he said.  “We fell in love.  And we made all these decisions together.  You love it here.  All our family and friends are here.”

“Oh, my parents live in New York?”  I couldn’t imagine them leaving their jobs in Wilmington.  They loved them.  How strange.

“I meant everyone besides your parents.”

“I see.”  This conversation was pointless.  I never should have started it.  “I think what you meant was that your family and friends are here.  Not mine.”

“They're yours too.”

I wanted to yell at him.  I wanted to throw all the stupid decorative pillows off the couch.  But I heard my doctor’s voice in the back of my head.  I was supposed to play along.  Would me agreeing with James take away the worry line on his forehead?  Would it really make everything smoother?  Because it didn’t feel like it would for me.  I took a deep breath.  Pretending made it easier for everyone but me.

“Penny.”  He stepped closer to me.  Too close.  His cologne was polluting my air supply.

“It’s fine,” I said.  “I’m sorry I freaked out.  I don’t have any of my own friends.  Got it.  What about Melissa, though?  Did we lose touch?”  The thought made me want to cry.  I had been holding out hope to talk to her.  It felt like she was the only one that could help me.

“Baby, my friends are your friends.  That’s what I’m trying to tell you.  Honestly, they probably like you more than they like me.”

Did he expect me to laugh at that?  “Awesome.”  I tried to keep my voice light and upbeat.

It just made him sigh.  “And you and Melissa are still friends.  She was planning on coming to town when the…” his voice trailed off.  “I mean, she’ll be here tomorrow.  It was the earliest she could get off work.”

“Melissa’s coming?”  I didn’t even have to pretend to be excited at that news.  “That’s wonderful.  She’ll stay with us, right?”

“We usually offer to put guests up in that the hotel down the street while they visit.”

“Why?  This place seems big enough.  Don’t we have any guest rooms?”

“Two actually.  But we prefer our privacy.”

“Privacy for what?  I’ll text her and let her know she can stay here.”  I looked down at my shoulder and realized I didn’t have a backpack.  Or a purse.  Or any of my things.  I turned in a circle.  “Where’s my phone?”

“I want to be able to focus on just us for a little bit.  I want to try to get you used to our lives.  Together.”

Was he keeping me hostage here?  I thought about how he said I couldn’t go for a run earlier.  How he wouldn’t let anyone stay here with us.  How he had taken away my phone.  I stared at him.  There were a lot of red flags.  But what could it hurt to let this weird fantasy play out?  Maybe if I let it, I’d be able to wake up.  I’d be able to go back to a time where I didn’t know this man.  “Okay.”

He lowered both his eyebrows as he stared at me. 

The action made me swallow hard.  I wasn’t sure I had ever seen anything so sexy in my entire life.

“Okay?” he asked.  “That’s it?  I’m used to you putting up a little more of a fight.”

I laughed.  Finally something that sounded like me.  “Sure.  So what exactly did you want to do in this huge apartment all alone?”

This time he was the one that swallowed hard.  I could tell because I had the pleasure of watching his Adam’s apple rise and fall.  Maybe I was wrong before, because this was the new sexiest thing I had ever seen.

“How about we start with a tour?” he asked as he stepped closer to me.

“Mhm.”  My voice came out weird and high-pitched.  Had he seen me staring at him?  I backed up and my butt collided with the couch behind me.  “Okay, so…the living room.”

“You’ve always been very intelligent,” he said.

I laughed and folded my arms across my chest as I looked around the room.  My eyes landed on a framed piece of artwork above the fireplace.  It looked like it was taken from the boardwalk of Rehoboth Beach.  I used to love going there with my parents.  I smiled, picturing myself walking along the boardwalk.  I had always wished that I had someone to hold hands with.  It always felt like I was the only single person in existence on those lazy summer nights.  But I wasn’t alone right now.  I wondered if I had told him that story. 

“That painting is nice,” I said.  “It reminds me of summer trips with my parents to the beach.”

“One of our first dates was a day trip to Rehoboth.  We picked out this painting because it reminded us of that.”

I smiled.  “You know, I always wished I had a boyfriend to walk along the boardwalk with.”

“I know.”

He knew?  I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye.  He was staring at the painting like it was a distant memory.  I had a million questions.  Had we only ever been once?  Did he like to play in the water or was he scared of sharks?  And speaking of sharks, did he even like Shark Tank?  Did we have the same hobbies?  Did he truly love me?

“And now you have a husband to accompany you on the boardwalk.”

I laughed.  “Accompany?  That’s such a serious way to put it.  It’s more of a skipping, dancing, twirling in the ocean breeze kind of boardwalk experience in my mind.  I’m starting to think you don’t know how to have any fun.”

“Trust me, I know how to have a good time.  Especially at the beach.”

“Why especially at the beach?”

“The first time we went together, we went skinny-dipping and some stupid kids stole your bikini.”

I laughed.  “I strongly doubt I did something so reckless.”  No favorite movie and skinny-dipping?  Who the hell was this Penny Hunter person?

“Well, then maybe you’re the one that doesn’t know how to have any fun.”  He raised his left eyebrow like he was challenging me.

I rolled my eyes.  “You can have fun without public indecency.”

“But the best kind of fun is public indecency.”

“If you want to wind up behind bars.  Thanks, but no thanks.  I don’t want to end up in jail.  My parents would kill me.”

“Your parents can’t exactly ground you anymore, Penny.  You’re 26 years old.”

“Right.”  Right!  God, I’m 26 in this alternate reality!  I could legally drink alcohol.  Now that was something that would make this fantasy easier to digest.  “Speaking of being old, we should like…make a toast or something.  To…being married.”

James smiled.  “Penny, you just stopped taking morphine yesterday.  We should probably give it more time to flush out of your system.”

“But I feel fine.”

“That’s probably the morphine talking.”

“Oh come on.  I’m a skinny-dipping jailbird.  I’m sure I can handle my alcohol.”  I wandered into the kitchen and was happy that he didn’t stop me.  I opened up the stainless steel refrigerator and stared at the contents inside.  Fresh fruits and vegetables jumped out from everywhere.  I had never seen such a well-stocked fridge.  And nothing was pre-made, it was all fresh ingredients.  In the back corner I saw a bottle of white wine that was half empty.  I grabbed it and opened up one of the cupboards.  Only plates.  Tons and tons of plates.  Who had so many plates and what on earth were they all for?

“Next one over,” James said.

I opened up the next cabinet and pulled out two wine glasses.

“None for me,” he said from behind me.

Party for one then.  I poured myself a glass and lifted it into the air as I turned to face him.  “Here’s to being in love.”  That was everything I’d ever wanted.  And I had it.  I could tell I did by the way he stared at me as I took my first sip.  By the way his eyes lingered on my lips.  By the way he so desperately wanted me to remember him.

I had never been in love before.  I didn’t know what I was supposed to feel.  Or what I should suspect.  All I knew was that his gaze made me nervous.  And when he touched me I felt like I had been zapped by a bug zapper.  I took a huge gulp of my wine.  “This is great.”

“I’m pretty sure that bottle has been open for weeks.”

“I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.  This is actually my first glass of wine.”  I swirled it in my glass as I looked down at the amber liquid.  “So, we opened it before my accident?  I mean…is that what it was?  An accident?  No one’s told me what happened.”

“It’s a conversation for another day.  When you’re able to remember.”

“But what if I never remember?”

He shook his head.  “You will.”  But his tone screamed, “you have to.” 

I took another sip of my wine.  “It must have been something serious.  I have scars on my stomach.  And I’m…fat.”

“Baby, you are not fat.”

The way he said “baby” made goosebumps rise on my skin.  Did he often call me that?  I liked the way it sounded.  “Baby.”  I smiled.  “No one’s ever called me that.”  I awkwardly cleared my throat.  “Besides you, I mean.  You call me that.”

“I do.”

I smiled at him.  “I like it.”  And I really did.  It made me feel special.  Safe.  Warm.  I tucked a loose strand of hair behind my ear.  “So how about that tour?”  I grabbed the bottle of wine to bring with me.  I told myself that it was because I’d need to refill my glass again soon.  But maybe a small piece of me was worried that I wouldn’t keep my hands to myself.  And I needed to keep my hands to myself.  Fantasy or not, I didn’t know this man.  My reaction to him didn’t make any sense.  Technically I was kind of sort of still dating Austin.  And I wasn’t a cheater.  That was Austin’s job.  I really should break up with that prick. 

Maybe this was all a dream to motivate me to move on.  A dream to show me that there was someone out there for me that was better than Austin.  I followed James out of the kitchen and tried not to sigh at the sight of him.  Hopefully that someone that was out there for me would be as sexy as my fake husband.

END OF CHAPTER 8

& THE END OF A WHIRLWIND OF COLOR PREVIEW

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A Whirlwind of Color Chapter 7

Chapter 7

Thursday

James hadn’t taken his eyes off of me since I laughed at our apparent meet cute.  A coffee shop?  Too cliché to have really happened, but a dream was supposed to be cliché, right?  But him being my professor on top of that?  Ludicrous.  Hilarious.  Absurd.  So why wasn’t he laughing? 

It wasn’t worth dwelling on.  This man sitting next to me wasn’t real.  And he certainly wasn’t a professor.  No chance.  I knew professors.  They were usually in their fifties, had comb-overs, and carried their weight all wrong.  James was the complete opposite.  He was older than me, but he was still young.  And fit.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he had abs of steel under his dress shirt.  And why wouldn’t he?  It was my dream.  I had plenty of dreams of hot men falling head over heels for me.  Didn’t everyone?

He closed his eyes and pressed his lips together like he was holding back a sigh.  I stared at the dark circles under his eyes again.  Or maybe he was holding back a grimace.  He truly did look like he was in pain.  Before I could ask, he opened his eyes again and ran his fingers through his hair.

More proof that he wasn’t a professor – he had a head full of dark hair that just begged for me to run my fingers through it.  Now I was the one pressing my lips together.  Where on earth had that thought come from?  I was being sucked into this fantasy.  It happened to me a lot.  Whenever I read, I always pretended I was the main character.  I had traveled the world through books.  Fought monsters.  Fallen in love.  I had done more make-believe than actual living.  And this felt like some weird combination of the two.  I tried to shake the thought away.  This.  Isn’t.  Real.

I’d wake up soon enough and Melissa and I could laugh about this dream together.  I could already hear her analyzing my dream in her head.  She’d probably say something like, “Clearly you need to move on from Austin and you’re dying to go to this party with me tonight!”  Or something equally unhelpful.  Just the thought made me smile.

I glanced at James again.  Even though I desperately wanted to wake up, it didn’t mean I couldn’t enjoy this dream.  I had told the doctor I’d play along.  And that’s what I was going to do.

The car slowed down to a stop in front of a towering building.

“Here we are,” Ian said from the front seat.

“What’s here?” I asked.  Was he taking me to work or something?  Was it take your imaginary wife to work day?  This certainly didn’t look like a college.  I knew he wasn’t a professor!

James unbuckled his seatbelt.  “We’re home.”

“Home?”  I looked out the car window at the building.  “It looks so…un-homey.”

James laughed.  “When we first moved to New York, you said every apartment looked cold.  But trust me, you love it here.”  He reached over and unbuckled my seatbelt.

How could I possibly love living in this building?  I loved grass and trees and fresh air.  You probably couldn’t even open a window in that building.  What kind of life was that?  I looked over at him, and he was staring at me so intently.  And I found myself wanting to trust him.  What was the harm in that for now?

“Okay, husband, show me the way.”

He smiled.  “As you wish, wife.”

I laughed.  “Oh, I love that movie.”

“What movie?”

“The Princess Bride.  Westley always says, ‘As you wish,’ to Buttercup but really he means ‘I love you, I love you, I love you!’  And it took her so long to realize it.”

He just stared at me.  “I’ve never seen it.”

“What do you mean you’ve never seen it?  It’s my favorite movie.  You’re my husband, of course you’ve seen it.”

“You never told me.”

I never told him?  What kind of sham of a marriage was this?  Did we rarely ever talk?  Was it a marriage of convenience somehow?  It didn’t matter.  It wasn’t real anyway.  “Well, come on then.  Let’s go watch it right now.”  I opened up the door and stepped out onto the city street.

A wave of hot air hit me.  And the stench of trash.  I scrunched up my nose.  Welcome home to me. 

Ian was standing there like he had been about to open the door for me.  He said he was a security guard, not a driver.  Did he usually open the door? He looked upset.  Had I done something to offend him?

He gave me an odd look, his hand still awkwardly outstretched.

“Thank you so much for the ride.”  I thrust my hand into his and shook it.

“Penny, get back into the car,” he said, his voice much more serious than it had been when we first met.

“Um…isn’t this my home?  I’d like to go see it.”  This should be fun.

Ian put his hand on my shoulder and tried to push me back into the car with too much force.

“Don’t touch me,” I hissed and tried to shove his hand away.  When he tried to push me again, I yelled, “Don’t touch me!”

“Jesus.”  James climbed out of the car and grabbed my hand with a harsh tug.  “Come on.”

I pulled my hand out of his.  I wasn’t going anywhere with him.  Not when he looked like he was about to kill someone.  I was wrong before, I didn’t want to trust him.  He didn’t seem like someone I could ever rely on.  He seemed angry and irrational and unkind.

He grabbed my forearm, this time his fingers dug into my skin.  “Penny, we need to get back in the car.”

“Stop.”  I tried to pull away, but he gripped my arm even tighter.

A swarm of people surrounded us, microphones were thrust into my face, cameras flashed.

“Mrs. Hunter, are you alright?”

“Is the baby okay?”

“Penny, where is the baby?”

Baby?  What baby?  I thought about the little redheaded girl from my dream.  A figment of my imagination of myself as a child.  The one that had run toward me instead of toward my mother.  That had been a dream, right?  God, it was too hard to keep everything straight.  My head started to swirl.

“Back away before I called the cops,” Ian said, trying to keep the microphones out of my face.

I felt my body start shaking.  My heart raced.  Why did all these reporters care about me?  I tried to back away from them and ran into James’ hard chest.

“Jesus, you’re shaking.”

How did I find comfort in his voice when I barely knew him?

He wrapped his arms around me, sending warmth I didn’t know I needed through my body.

A microphone was held out a few inches from my lips.

“Penny, have you and James fully recovered?”

James’ strong arms tensed around me. 

Had he been hurt too?  What had happened to him?  He was the one thing in this crazy fantasy that was able to calm me down.  I didn’t want to lose him.  Although he did freak me out at the same time.  But facing all of this newness on my own didn’t sound very appealing.  Why wasn’t I just allowed to go home with my parents?

“I need to get out of here,” I whispered. 

The man with the microphone gave me an odd look.

“Get me out of here.  I want to go home.  Please take me home.”  I tried to swallow down the lump in my throat, but it wouldn’t go away.

“Back up!” Ian yelled, but more people were swarming us.  Flashes.  Voices.  He knocked the mic out of my face.

I closed my eyes.  I felt like I was going to faint.  “Please.”

And then I was being lifted up and over James’ shoulder.  My eyes flew open and I was staring down at his ass.  His very perfect looking ass.  But its perfection didn’t distract me from wondering what he was doing.  I hadn’t been asked to be lifted like a child.  I was about to protest, but he pushed through the front doors of the building and the blast of air-conditioning and silence of the lobby made my breath come back.  I felt myself sink into him.

“It’s okay,” he said gently.  “You’re safe.”

I had asked to go home.  But in my dream, this was my home.  Try to embrace it.

James’ breathing sounded labored.

“You can put me down,” I said.  I thought about my strange beer belly.  It was probably hard to lift me.  “I know I’m a little heavy.”

He laughed, but slowly set me down on my feet.  “You’re not heavy, Penny.”  But his face looked ghostly pale.  And his breathing still didn’t sound normal.

I stayed pressed against him, staring up into his eyes.  “You were hurt too.”

“Penny, I’m fine.”

“You don’t look fine.  Whatever hurt me also got you too, didn’t it?”

He touched the side of my cheek ever so slightly.

I tried not to wince or step back.  I continued to stare at him.  What was he hiding from me?

“Truly, I’m fine.”  He ran the pad of his thumb along my cheek.  “Let’s get you home, okay?”

Whatever had happened to him, he didn’t want to talk about it with me.  I wondered if he usually would.  Maybe he didn’t recognize me as much as I didn’t recognize him.  I stepped back, not able to keep staring into his eyes so intently.  “So that’s what being badgered by paparazzi feels like?  No wonder so many celebrities punch them in the face and wind up in rehab.”

James laughed.

I smiled at him.  I liked when he laughed.  “Heck, I’d probably start drinking too if they followed me around all the time.  I’d be one of those crazy people in rehab.”  I laughed at my own joke.  “How do we usually deal with them?”

He lowered both his eyebrows and the smile on his face vanished.

What had I done wrong now?  James’ smiles seemed so rare.  I wanted them to be permanently affixed to his face.  He was too serious.  Way too serious for me.

“I’m sorry if I did something to offend you,” I said.  “I’m new to all this.  I mean…” I awkwardly cleared my throat.  Just keep pretending.  “Let’s just go home, okay?”  I instinctively walked back toward the exit.

“Our place is upstairs,” James said.

I turned around.  Of course.  “Right.  We’re on floor…”

“Let me just show you,” he said and lightly touched my lower back to guide me toward the elevators.

It seemed like he wanted some kind of expression from me as we walked through the luxurious lobby of the apartment building.  But it all made sense to me.  In my fantasy, this is what I had.  And I was having an easy time pretending it was real now.  How wonderful would it be if it was reality?  I mean, it was enough to make anyone swoon.  But I knew it wasn’t real.

We were rich in my make-believe world.  Even the elevators were decadent.  The music that was playing through the speakers was straight from a 1950’s movie.  It was all elaborately overdone.  I had an overactive imagination.

And to think in my dream world I’d had a scandalous affair with my super hot professor.  Who just so happened to be rich?  Yeah, right.  Never could have happened.  First of all, I never would have dated my professor.  Second of all, professors weren’t rich.  Tenure didn’t make you wealthy and he was too young for it anyway.  I laughed out loud.

“Something amusing?” James asked as the elevators dinged open on our floor.

“Nope.  This all seems...normal enough for a fantasy.  But seriously, James, how did we meet?  We both know you couldn’t afford any of this as a professor.”

“I was serious when I said I sold my first company for a large sum.”

“How large?”

He didn’t respond.  He just guided me down the hall to a door.  Our door.  He unlocked it and turned the knob.  I didn’t even care that he hadn’t answered my question.  Because I wouldn’t have been able to listen anyway.  It felt like all the air had been knocked out of my lungs.  I took a step into the immaculate foyer.  This was an apartment, right?

I looked through the kitchen to the right at the ornate, winding staircase.  Did apartments have two floors?  I had never seen anything like it in movies.

I turned my attention back to the foyer and saw that there was natural light streaming in.  I walked through the foyer into a huge living room that was open to a dining area as well.  But my eyes weren’t on the room itself or the furniture.  I walked toward the far wall.  Although, it wasn’t really a wall at all.  The whole side of the apartment was glass.

I could see Central Park from the window.  Cars still swerved and honked below, but it was easy to focus on all the greenery.  It was breathtakingly beautiful.

“Do you like the view?” James asked.

I jumped at the sound of his voice.  I had almost forgotten he was there.  I laughed and folded my arms across my chest so I wouldn’t be tempted to put my hands on the glass.  “The city’s actually kind of pretty from up here.”  I nodded toward the window.

“Being close to Central Park was one of the reasons why you agreed to move here.”

“Yeah?”  That made sense.

“And you can even see where we got married from here.”  He pointed to a large tree in the distance.  It looked like a restaurant was beside it.  There were tables beneath the tree and happy couples dining.

“It’s pretty.”  I didn’t know what else to say.  I couldn’t remember our wedding.  Had it really happened?  Was I even standing here right now?  I glanced over at James.

He was staring at me in that way again.  Like he could read my soul.  Like he knew every secret I possessed.  Like he knew me better than I knew myself.

END OF CHAPTER 7

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A Whirlwind of Color Chapter 6

Chapter 6

Thursday

No matter what I did, I couldn’t wake up from this dream. 

“Today’s the day you get out of here,” my doctor said cheerily as he strolled into my room.  He sighed when he saw me.  “You need to stop pinching yourself, Penny.  This isn’t a dream that you can wake up from.  He put his hand on top of mine to stop me from pinching my skin.

“I know it’s not a dream.  It’s a freaking nightmare.”

He lifted his hand.  “We’ve talked about this.  You’re suffering from amnesia.  Your memory should come back.” 

“My memory is fine.”

“You fighting it isn’t helping.”

“I’m trying to hold on to my life.”  I felt like I was drowning.

“Getting back into your normal routine is going to help you remember,” he said, ignoring me.  “Your husband is filling out the discharge forms as we speak.  And he left a change of clothes for you in the restroom.”

“Please don’t make me leave with him.”

“From everything I’ve heard and seen, you two are very much in love.”

A forced laugh came from my lips. 

“You’re one of the lucky ones.”

I certainly didn’t feel lucky.  Everything I knew and loved had been stripped from me.  I was transported into this world I didn’t understand.  With a brooding fake husband and a daughter?  I didn’t know what was real anymore.  Maybe I had imagined the little girl.  I probably had.  She’d never come to visit me in my room.  Maybe I was imagining James.  Please let me have imagined James too.

“Are you ever going to tell me about my scars?”  I had brought it up yesterday after I came out of my forced sleep.  But the doctor had insisted that I needed more rest.

He sat down in the chair next to my bed.  “You’ve been having a hard time accepting things as it is.  How about we make an appointment for you to come talk next week?”

“So it’s bad, huh?”

“You need to take it easy.  You were unconscious for two weeks.  You can’t resume normal activity for at least another two.”

“Is it my liver?”  God, I just knew it was my liver.  I could feel it.

He smiled.  “No.  Your liver is functioning properly.  There’s nothing to worry about there.”

“So there is something to worry about?”

“No, no.  You’ll live a full happy life.  Come see me in a week.”  He stood up. 

Now that I was about to leave the hospital, everything suddenly felt real.  It was slowly sinking in that I was stuck in whatever joke of a life this was.  With a man I didn’t know.  What was he going to expect of me when I went back to his place?  I swallowed hard.  I couldn’t do this.  “There’s nothing you can do to jog my memory?”

“I know all of this is shocking.  And it’s going to take some time to adjust.  But please, try to accept what you hear.  Everyone’s just trying to help.  That 19 year old that you’re holding on to?  From everything I’ve read about you and your family, you turned into quite the impressive young woman.  Embrace her.  You’ve been given the whole world.  You’ll never want for anything.”

That wasn’t true.  I wanted my old life back.  But what did he mean by that?  Was I rich?  Had I robbed a bank?  Had I won the Nobel Peace Prize?  “Is James famous or something?  Or…am I famous?  Or…”

“Your husband will fill you in,” my doctor said.  “In the meantime, if you don’t want to embrace this life, how about you pretend this is all real?  Make a game of it.”

“You’re joking.”

He shook his head.  “It might help.  You’re going to have quite the eventful day.  See you in a week, Penny.”

At least he hadn’t called me Mrs. Hunter.

***

Make-believe.  I didn’t have to truly believe it.  I just had to pretend to believe it. 

I finished dressing and stared into the mirror at the face I didn’t recognize.  I can do this.  Right?

The dress I was wearing was sophisticated and uncomfortable.  I missed my leggings and tank tops.  Maybe they’d be back at my place.  Our place.  God.

How could I play make-believe when I didn’t even know what I was about to get myself into?  I had no idea where I lived.  No idea who I was.  I took a deep breath.  Just pretend.  It’ll all be over soon.

I smiled at my reflection and tried not to grimace at the face I didn’t recognize.

“Penny,” James said with a knock on the door.

I opened it and stared at my husband.  Just thinking about the word “husband” did make me believe I was in an alternate world.  Accept it.

“You ready to get out of here?”  He looked hopeful.  And tired.  Or maybe it was something else.  The brown hue of his eyes seemed to swirl with secrets.  I found myself wanting to know every single one of them before I awoke from this dream.

“Yup.  Take me home, husband.”

He gave me a strange look.  “You’ve stopped fighting the truth?”

“Sure.”

He shook his head, clearly not believing me.  But he put out his hand for me anyway.

I slipped my hand into his and felt the same spark that I had yesterday.  I could get used to this.  It was easy to feel safe by his side as we made our way through the hospital.

“The car is right outside,” he said as he stopped before the exit.  His hand fell from mine and I instantly felt cold.

“Aren’t you coming?”

“Yeah, I’ll be right there.”  He looked down at his watch like he was studying something.

“Is everything okay?”

He smiled and looked back up at me.  “Everything’s fine, Penny.  I just forgot something from your room.  I’ll be right back down.”

“I’ll see you at the car then.”  I made my way out the doors even though I had no idea what our car looked like.  I glanced over my shoulder before the doors closed.  James had his hand pressed against the wall and was hunched over slightly.  Maybe he wasn’t as broken as I originally thought.  Maybe the dark circles under his eyes weren’t caused by me.  Maybe it was something else entirely.  He looked…ill. 

I was about to walk back into the hospital when someone called my name.  I turned around just in time to see the man before he threw his arms around me. 

“I knew you needed me back,” he said.  “Despite what Jen thinks, this is the best position I’ve ever had, and I’m not going anywhere this time.”

Who the hell was this?  And who the hell was Jen?  “Oh, okay,” I said without hugging him back.

He pulled away.  “Sorry.  I…let me start over.  I’m Ian.”  He held out his hand for me to shake.  “I am engaged to James’ sister, Jen.  You know…your sister-in-law.”

“Ah, got you.”  I had met Jen the other day.  I think.  “So you’re my soon to be brother-in-law.”

“Also the head of your security detail.”

“Security detail?  Why on earth do we need a security detail?”

“Well, for starters because it seems like everyone’s out to get you.”

I laughed.  “Who?  I don’t think I have any enemies.  I barely talk enough for someone to realize if they hate me or not.”

“Just trust me when I say that you need us.”

“There’s more than just you?”

“Four of us in total.  You had three and then you hired me back.”

“Me?”  I thought three security guards wasn’t enough?  What kind of paranoid weirdo had I become?

“Yes, you,” James said as he rejoined me, slipping his arm around my waist.  He did it like it was the most normal thing in the world.  Like he didn’t realize how much his touch accelerated my heartbeat.  “Let’s get you home.”

Ian opened up the back door of the car in front of us.  A sleek black sedan that probably cost more than my college tuition.

“So we have a security detail?” I asked as I slid into the back seat.  And a fancy car that we don’t drive ourselves.  I stared at James as he sat down next to me.

“To keep us safe,” he said as he buckled his seatbelt. 

“From who?”

“When you’re in the limelight like us, you’d be surprised by how many people are a threat.”

“And why are we in the limelight?  Are you like a famous actor or something?”  It seemed like the most logical conclusion.  He was beautiful.  There was no doubt about that.  His dark brown eyes and sharp jaw line would make anyone in their right mind weak in the knees.  And it really seemed like he was part of some elaborate scheme to make me feel insane.  But if that was the case, he probably wasn’t an A-list actor.  Maybe he was just starting out in showbiz.

He sighed.  “A lot of reasons.”

“Like?” 

“I sold my first company for a large sum.”  He shrugged.  “We donate to a lot of great charities.  The way we met didn’t exactly pull me out of the limelight either.  It just thrust you into it.”

“You avoided my question about how we met before.  Are you going to answer it now?”

“I fell in love with you the moment I saw you.”

His words reverberated through me.  I could feel that he was telling the truth.  It made our make-believe relationship feel real.  “And how did you meet me?”

He smiled.  “We bumped into each other in a coffee shop.”

“That hardly sounds like something that would make us need a security detail.”

He lowered both his eyebrows.  “Well you weren’t just some woman who stole my affection.”  He paused, catching my gaze.  There were so many secrets swirling in his dark irises.  I wanted to know everything he was holding back.

“I wasn’t?”

“No.”  He reached out and cupped the side of my face in his large hand.  “As much as I wished that you were, that wasn’t the case.”

“Because I'm only 19?  Er...was only 19.”

He lowered both eyebrows.  “Yes.  But more so because you were my student.”

I started laughing. 

His expression didn’t change.

I started laughing harder.  And I couldn’t seem to stop.  So he wasn’t an actor after all.  But he was most definitely a comedian.

END OF CHAPTER 6

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A Whirlwind of Color Chapter 5

Chapter 5

Wednesday

I had never felt so safe and secure in my entire life.  Like I was wrapped up in a cocoon of warmth.  I squeezed my eyes shut.  I didn’t want to face today.  The nightmare from last night was so vivid.  And I was glad it was just that.  A nightmare.

Today was a new day.  And I needed to get up before I was late for my exam.  But I loved having Austin’s arms around me.  It was the one time when his feelings about me were obvious.  When he was sleeping, he clung to me.  He held me close.  I didn’t know why he couldn’t do that during the day.  Why he couldn’t see us as more.

These were the moments I held close to my heart.  They were the reason I stayed.  The reason why I was patient with him.  Melissa said I was a pushover.  And maybe that was true, but it didn’t take away from the fact that I liked him.  I truly did.  I was just waiting for him to realize that we were on the same page.

I took a deep breath.  He smelled different, like he'd started to wear cologne or something.  But I knew for a fact that he didn’t wear cologne.  For a second I wondered if it was another woman’s scent on his skin.  The thought quickly faded.  This scent was all man.  Deliciously male.  Maybe it was a new body wash.  Whatever the change, I liked it.  He smelled like a million bucks.  It made me feel slightly dizzy like I was intoxicated by him.  I turned in the bed to nestle into his chest.

His arms wrapped tighter around me.  “Penny.” 

That was not Austin’s voice.

My eyes flew open at the same time my heart stopped beating.  A man’s chest I didn’t recognize was pressed against my face.  I screamed at the top of my lungs.

“Penny, it’s just me.”  The man pulled away, releasing me from his warm embrace. 

I screamed again even though I recognized him now.  James.  The man that claimed to be my husband.  The man from my nightmares.  The man that couldn’t possibly be real.

“It’s me.”  He grabbed both sides of my face and tried to force me to look at him.

I was supposed to wake up from this dream.  Why hadn’t I woken up?  I tried to push his hands away from me, but he gripped my face harder.

“Penny.”

“Don’t touch me.”  I clamped my hands on his wrists, trying as hard as I could to fight him off.

“Look at me, baby.  Please just look at me.  Look at me and try to remember.”

“Help!” I screamed.  “Someone help me!”

He removed his hands from my face like I had slapped him.  And we stayed like that for a moment, with my hands clutched tightly around his wrists.  Frozen in the bed staring at each other. 

The dark circles under his eyes and the frown on his lips weighed on me.  And I had the same sense as before.  That he was broken.  I wanted to help, but I didn’t know him.  I couldn’t fix him.  I immediately let go of his wrists and scooted away from him.  “What are you doing here?”

“I can’t sleep without you beside me.  You know that.”

I hadn’t meant in my bed.  I meant here.  In existence.  “I know nothing about you.”  I inched farther away.

“Penny, you know me.  If you’d just take a second to truly look at me I know you’ll remember.”

I kept scooting away from him until my ass was hanging off the edge of the bed.

“Look in my eyes and tell me you feel nothing.”

I locked eyes with him.  It was true, his arms had made me feel safe.  Secure.  Warm.  But I hadn’t known it was him.  I thought it was Austin.  That was the only reason why I had felt that way.  I tried to ignore the nagging thought in the back of my mind.  The one that was screaming that when James released me from his embrace, I had never felt so cold in my entire life.  My skin pebbled with goosebumps.  It was like my body was trying to tell me I needed him.  I stared into his eyes, willing myself to remember him.  To remember anything that he claimed to be true.

But there was nothing there.  Yes, he was handsome.  I couldn’t deny that.  Any woman would be lucky to have him.  But he wasn’t mine and I wasn’t his.  Everything he claimed was true couldn’t possibly be.  I scooted even further away, forgetting that there wasn’t any more room, and started to fall off the bed.

He grabbed my waist before I fell, and pulled me back onto the mattress.  This time I didn’t think his touch was comforting.  It was electrifying.  Like he had just slapped me with a bug zapper.  What the hell was that?

I climbed off the bed, pointing at him accusatorily.  “You can’t just sneak in here and…and…hold me in the middle of the night, you psycho.”

He sat up in the bed but didn’t respond.  His t-shirt was slightly wrinkled, and it somehow made the guilty look on his face even more extreme.  He was sad and lost and…I wasn’t sure why I cared so fucking much.

I buried my fingers in my hair.  “God, this was supposed to be a dream.  Why haven’t I woken up?  What the hell is happening?”  I reached down and pinched myself.  Ow.  I stared at the other side of the bed where James had just stood up.  I pinched myself again.  Ow.  Why wasn’t he disappearing?  Go away!

I started walking back and forth.  “You’re not real, and I don’t know why I can’t make you go back into my imagination.  Not that I’ve been imagining you.  I’d imagine someone my own age would want to marry me.  At some point.  Way in the future.  Not any time soon.  I’m too young to be married.”

“Penny.”  He started walking around the bed.

“I’m 19.  Don’t you see that?  Don’t you see that I’m too young for whatever the hell this is?”  I gestured back and forth between us.  “You’re 34.”

“Penny.”  He stopped a few feet away from me, giving me the space I desperately needed.

I flung open the blinds to see that the city was still below me and started pacing faster.  “What the hell am I doing in New York City?  I hate the city.  I hate it here.  I wouldn’t choose to be here unless I lost my mind!”  I realized I was waving my hands around, but couldn’t stop.

“We decided that…”

“We?” I said.  “There is no we.  And all those people I met yesterday?  Those aren’t my friends.  And you’re not my husband.  This,” I said and pointed to my ring finger.  “Was just a terrible self-tanner accident.  We’re not married.  It’s impossible.  And whatever is going on with my skin,” I gestured to my face, “is a weird hospital mirror trick.  I don’t have wrinkles next to my eyes.  Teenagers don’t have wrinkles.” 

“They’re laugh lines,” James said.  “And I love them.  I love every part…”

I held up my hand so he wouldn’t come any closer.  “What, you’re telling me you love this?”  I gestured to my beer belly.  “Am I just fat or did something happen to me?  Did I lose my liver?  Do livers make you sane?  Why can’t I remember what the fuck a liver does?”  I was screaming now.  Screaming, pacing, and flailing my arms around like a maniac.

“Penny, if you’d just calm down I can tell you everything you want to know.”

“I don’t want you to tell me.  I want the doctors to tell me.  You’re not even real.  I’ve just lost my damned mind.”

“Penny, please…”  He reached out for me, his hand connecting with my forearm.

I felt the same shock as before.  He was strong.  And kind and patient.  I wanted to be able to lean into him and let him fix everything.  But I couldn’t lean on a figment of my imagination.  “I’ve lost my mind.”  I rushed past him toward the door.

“Penny, don’t go out there…”

But I had already flung the door open and was running out of the room.  I needed fresh air.  I couldn’t breathe in this hospital.

“Penny, stop!”

I flung open a door at the end of the hall.  Strangers turned toward me from their seats in the waiting room.  No, not complete strangers.  I had met several of them yesterday.  Some of James’ friends.  His father.  My eyes landed on my parents.  Thank God.  I was just about to yell for my mom, but someone beat me to it.

“Mommy!”

I turned around to see a little girl with bright red hair running toward me.  I saw another reflection of myself.  A younger version of me.  She looked exactly like I did when I was a kid.  And I felt something snap in my head.  Like any sanity I had left had evaporated. 

I was watching myself from my past.  I wasn’t actually here.  Was I dead?  I felt tears start to fall down my cheeks.  My life was replaying before me.  I stepped out of the way of my childhood self, wondering if she’d be able to just run right through me anyway.

But instead of going toward my parents, she turned toward me.  I stepped to the side again, and she altered her path again. 

The little girl threw herself on me, wrapping her small arms around my legs.  “Mommy, Mommy.  I missed you.”  She peppered kisses on my thigh.

“You have the wrong person, sweetheart,” I said as calmly as I could muster.  “Your mom is over there.”  I pointed to my mother.

The little girl pulled back from me and cocked her head to the side as she studied me.  “No, you’re my mommy.  That’s Grandma.”

What?

“She’s your mommy, Mommy.  The stork brought you to her.  Like he brought me to you and Daddy.  And Liam too.  He’s the most beautiful baby in the whole wide world.  Do you want to see?”  She grabbed my hand.

I immediately pulled away and took a step back.  I collided into a strong chest.  The smell of James’ cologne engulfed me.  It felt like I was suffocating.  I stepped away from him.

“Penny.”  He reached for me, but I backed away.

“No.”

“Penny, let’s get back to your room.”  He reached for me again.

“No.  No, no, no, no…” I couldn’t stop saying it.  I needed my parents.  Not whatever the hell this was.  “Mom!”  I started to run over to them.  “Mom, Dad, take me home.  Tears cascaded down my cheeks.  “Please take me home.”

“Mommy!”  The little girl yelled as she followed me.  “Mommy!”

“Would someone get Scarlett out of here?” James said sternly.

“No, I want my mommy!” she screamed at the top of her lungs.  “No!”  She started crying as James’ brother lifted her into his arms.  “No!” she screamed.  “Mommy!  Mommy, Mommy, I need you!  No!” 

I could still hear her screams as the door closed behind them.  Or was it my own screams?  Because I sounded just like her.  Yelling for my parents.  Begging for them to fix this.

“Take me home.”  I was choking on my tears.

My parents were just sitting there, staring at me like I truly had lost my mind.  I had.  I knew that I had.

James wrapped his arms around me and started whispering in my ear to calm me down.  But his breath wasn’t calming.  It made my heart race faster.  God, I was going to throw up.

“Penny,” he said in the soothing tone you’d use for a distraught child.  “It’s going to be okay.  You’re going to remember everything soon.  Us.  Your children.”

Children plural?  “Get off of me.”  I tried to wiggle out of his grip.  People in the waiting room that I didn’t recognize were staring at us.  Judging my insanity.  “There is no us.”  I said the word “us” with disgust.  “And I don’t have any children with you.  I don’t have any children at all.”

James shook his head.  “You must have seen the similarities…”

I pushed him off of me.  “That was not my daughter.  I’m the daughter.”  I pointed to my chest.  “Mom, tell him.  Tell him none of this is real.”  I was barely getting the words out, I was crying so hard.

 A doctor rushed in.  “Mrs. Hunter, if you would just take a deep breath.”

“What’s happened to me?” I choked.

James tried to reach for me.

“Mr. Hunter, that’s enough,” the doctor said, stepping in front of him.

“She’s upset, I’m trying to calm her down,” James said.

“You’re the one upsetting her.  Can’t you see that?  Just give her some space.”

I wanted to hug the doctor.  But all my fears came bubbling to the surface.  “Am I sick?  Am I dying?  I’m delirious.  I’m imagining things.  I’m imagining him.”  I pointed to James, hoping that the doctor couldn’t actually see him.  Hoping that I was as confused as I believed I was.  Hoping that everything was a dream.

“Mrs. Hunter, I need you to take a deep breath.”

“That’s not my name.”

“Okay, Penny, just take a breath.  We’re going to get you back to your room.”

“Make him stay out,” I said and pointed to James.  “He slept in my bed last night.  I woke up and his arms were around me.”  I started to scratch my skin, trying to rid myself of the feeling of his touch.

The doctor frowned.  “Mr. Hunter, how many times do we have to talk about visiting hours?  You’re not allowed…”

“She needs me,” James said, trying to sidestep the doctor.  “How can she remember if I stay away from her?”

I started sobbing harder.  “I don’t need you.  I need to get out of here.  I need to go home.  Let me go home!  Mom, Dad, please.  Please.”

A nurse rushed in carrying a needle.

“Don’t hurt her!” James yelled.

But the needle was already being pierced into my arm.  The room slowly blurred in front of me.  And I entered the dreamlike state I thought I was already in.

END OF CHAPTER 5

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***Ch. 6 now available HERE***

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