Read Open Heart Online

Authors: Marysol James

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Western, #Westerns, #Romance, #Contemporary, #romantic, #sex

Open Heart

Open Heart

 

(Open Skies #4)

By Marysol James

© 2014 by Marysol James.
All rights reserved. No part of this document may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, including information storage and retrieval systems, without prior written permission from the author, except in the case of a reviewer, who may quote brief passages embodied in critical articles or in a review.
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Cover design:
www.doc2mobi.com
Cover photo: © bartekwardziak/Fotolia

Dedication
For J.
Lover of all things wild, most especially flowers.

Chapter One

 

Annabeth Wheeler sighed and stretched her neck. She reached for her cup of coffee and took an absent-minded sip before realizing that the coffee was, actually, stone-cold.

“Urgh!” She spat it back in to the mug and gazed down at it, bemused. She glanced at the clock in the corner of her laptop screen and started.
How is it 11:40 already? I haven’t even had breakfast yet!

Annabeth got to her feet a bit unsteadily. She raised her hands to the ceiling, stretching her back and shoulders now, and looked outside at the Rocky Mountains, taking note of the brilliant colors of the wild late-summer flowers.

Cam brought me wild flowers, bright yellow ones, and the petals scattered on the floor next to the bed when we made love. He held my face between his hands and he kissed me as I came.

Annabeth flinched at the pain of memory and resolutely turned from the window.

“OK,” she said, her voice echoing in the empty cabin. “I’ll go to the restaurant and have some lunch.” It didn’t bother her much that she was talking to herself; she’d been doing it for the past three years. But she wouldn’t be doing it for much longer, she knew. The book was almost finished and then she’d send it to Catherine and she’d be free to go.

She wandered in to the bathroom and took in her reflection.
Oh, man. Disaster.

She met her own blue eyes in the mirror. “Did you shower today?” she asked the woman with all her blonde hair standing up on end. She thought about it. “You didn’t, did you?”

Annabeth shook her head at herself and started the shower. She climbed in and closed her eyes as the water pummeled and massaged her tight upper body. She reflected that there had been a time in her life when she had been sure that a hot shower was the cure to most anything that had ailed her.

Except when a police officer comes and tells you your husband is dead. Not even a hot shower can lift your spirits much then.

“Stop it,” she said aloud. “Just – stop it.”

She stuck her head under the shower spray, hoping that the noise would drown out the voices, that the gush of water would wash away the memories. And it worked. For a little while. It always only worked for a little while.

Thank God she was ending it all soon.

**

Eric Neilson stared out the window of his cabin. By sheer luck, he had ended up booking the one directly across from Annabeth Wheeler’s and he spent a great deal of his time standing and waiting for her to emerge. No sign of her yet, and he was starting to think she might not tear herself away from her laptop and set foot outside today. Sometimes, she holed up in there and didn’t come out for two or three days in a row. He supposed she was on a tight deadline from her agent and publisher, and reminded himself to be patient. He’d waited almost three years to do this, so what was a few days more?

He wandered away from the cabin window and sighed. He was getting hungry again. He looked in the fridge with a decided lack of interest: nothing in there except stuff to make sandwiches and he was about sick to death of sandwiches. He glanced at the clock and saw that it was almost lunchtime.

Maybe to the restaurant? Manny does make a mean smoked salmon salad.

He heard a door shut and he bolted back to the window. Annabeth was just stepping off her front porch. He watched as she walked across the wide open clearing between their cabins and headed to the main building.

OK. So, let’s go to the restaurant for lunch.

Eric went in to his bright and cheerful bedroom to change his shirt. As always, he ran his finger down the length of his scar: it started just below his collarbone and went down the middle of his chest and was still a vivid purple. He knew many heart transplant patients had a tough time looking at their scars, but Eric didn’t. For him, it was the most beautiful, amazing thing he’d ever seen. It meant that his life had been saved; it also meant that someone else’s had ended. He got his life back because a stranger had lost theirs, and a part of him would never be OK with that.

He closed his eyes and laid his hand on his chest, feeling his heart beat under his fingers. It was still a miracle, this second chance that he had been given. He had to do the right thing with it.

He met his own black eyes in the mirror.

OK, today’s the day. Today, you talk to her. You did not come all this way to
not
talk to her. Right?

Today, he was finally going to meet Annabeth Wheeler. He owed her and her husband more than she would ever know. He owed them absolutely everything.

**

Annabeth sat in the restaurant, staring out the window. The Rocky Mountains were stunning, but her vacant blue eyes didn’t notice: she was thinking about the supply of sleeping pills she had been hoarding for almost a year. She’d been careful – very, very careful – not to arouse Dr. Gerard’s suspicions. She had never asked for a higher dose, never returned early for a refill. She had, in fact, done without on many, many nights and she had simply set that evening’s dosage aside and kept it. Just in case.

Annabeth wasn’t totally sure when she had given up. Maybe it was when the second-year anniversary of Cam’s death loomed and she realized that she didn’t feel any better, despite the therapy and anti-depressants and unending and loving support from friends and family. Maybe it was when what should have been their sixth anniversary rolled around and Cam wasn’t there. Maybe it was when she celebrated her thirty-second birthday and she realized that she would probably never have a child. She would certainly never have Cam’s child. His warm green eyes would never gaze up at her from a crib; she’d never run her fingers over a tiny head covered with his blond curls.

In her whole life, she had never done a single impulsive thing: Annabeth was all about planning and foresight and double-checking. So when she decided to end her life, she did so calmly, carefully, rationally. She made a list and she knew all the things she had to finish, every loose end that had to be tied up. For the past year, she had been methodically checking things off that list, and now she only had a few things left to do.

She looked up at the mountains, wondering if she was really going to go through with this. Maybe it was a mistake? Maybe she could hang on a bit longer, maybe things would get better.

Dear God. One thing. Just one thing to keep fighting for; one thing to live for. Please send me one thing.

“Hi.”

Startled, Annabeth looked up.

A man was standing there. Not a total stranger – she thought maybe he was renting the cabin across from hers. He had dark hair and dark eyes and looked fit and well-muscled.

“Hi,” she said.

“I was wondering if I could join you for lunch?”

Immediately, her mind flashed back to another man, another lunch. That man became her husband. She forced her thoughts back to the present.

“Umm. Really?” she said.

“Yes.” He gestured around the restaurant. “We seem to be the only two people who are not in families.”

She looked around, actually seeing for the first time that other people were present – in her bleak state of mind, she had thought herself totally alone in the room. The tables were filled with parents and kids, chatting and talking and laughing. She felt a stab of pain at their joy.

“OK, sure.” She pulled herself together and smiled at the man. “Please.”

Eric sat down, his heart pounding hard.

She forced herself to be polite. “I’m Annabeth Wheeler.”

“Eric Neilson.” He shook her hand, saw that she still wore her wedding ring. “It’s so good to meet you.”

More than you’ll ever know.

“And you.”

“So, Ms. Wheeler…”

“Annabeth, please.”

“Annabeth. Is this your first time at Open Skies?”

“Oh, no. I’ve been coming here for years. Yourself?”

“First time.”

“And how are you finding it?”

I’m right across from your cabin, and now I’ve met you, so I love it so far.

“Great.” Eric glanced up as the waiter approached. He asked for a smoked salmon salad and a glass of water.

“Well, it is beautiful here.” Annabeth looked at Eric and noticed how dark his eyes were – it surprised her that they were warm and full of humor. Normally, she found eyes that color cold and deep, like looking in to a well, but Eric’s black eyes sparkled with life and energy. She blinked as it occurred to her that he was a good-looking man, with that dark hair and those dark eyes and his muscled torso.

Now, why am I noticing that he’s attractive?

“And what do you do, Annabeth?”

Yeah. That accent is sexy. Like molasses just dripping off those lips.

“I’m a writer. Actually, I’m here to finish my newest book. I always come to Open Skies to do my final edits and revisions… I find it easier to focus when I’m away from everything.”

Eric was fully aware, of course, that she was a writer. He also knew that she came here to work – that is, after all, why he had taken a month off and come out here. But he also knew that he’d come across as a crazy stalker if he told her that.

Time to play dumb, man.

“A writer, huh? What do you write?”

“Books, now. But I started on a blog.”

Eric knew this – he had read every one of her posts. He also had her two books at home.

“So, you had a popular blog and you got a book deal out of it?”

“Yep, basically.” She smiled. “I’m one of the lucky ones.”

“Yeah, for sure.”
Careful now. Careful.
“So, what do you write about? On your blog and in your books?”

“Grief.”

Annabeth looked at Eric, fully expecting him to exhibit the usual reactions she got when she dropped that news on the table: shock, discomfort, pity. Averted eyes, an appointment that was suddenly ‘remembered’, folks shuffling around in their chair. Some people held her hand and wanted her to talk, others wanted to tell her about their own losses. She’d seen it all.

Eric gazed at her, those black eyes kind and open. He didn’t seem like the kind of guy to flinch in the face of something unpleasant or uncomfortable. “Grief? For who?”

“My husband.” A stab of pain went through her as she said those two words. “My husband died almost three years ago – it will be three years ago in two days – and I started to write on the blog about my grief. I was writing for me, you know, just to express all the things I was feeling… and suddenly, I had followers. People started to comment, telling me about their own losses, sending me support on my down days.” She shrugged. “And then out of nowhere came a book offer. Then another, and now this last one.”

“And does it help?”

“What?”

“To write about grief – does it help you with yours?”

OK, time to give him the spiel. I know what people want to hear, and what kind of PR I’m selling. Catherine will be so proud.

“It does. I feel connected to others, and they help me as I help them. It’s symbiotic, really. And I work through my own feelings of anger and abandonment really openly – it’s somehow liberating to be so totally honest about grief. It’s not really talked about, in many ways. It makes people uncomfortable. I try to change that.”

Something about her words struck him as hollow, and her body language was all wrong… her clear blue eyes were blank and her body was stiff. Eric wasn’t totally convinced that she believed what she was even saying. Odd, since her written words were so passionate and vulnerable and raw. Her writing was poignant and heartfelt, her spoken words were clinical and automatic. Maybe she was just someone who expressed themselves better in writing?

“Well, I’m very glad to hear that it helps. And I’m very sorry about your husband.”

“Thank you.”

Just then, Eric’s lunch arrived.

“So, what do you do, Eric?”

He took a bite of salad. “I’m a gardener.”

Her fork paused halfway to her mouth, taking in his arms and commanding presence. “A – gardener?”

Eric grinned. “I know, right? I mean, who’s actually a gardener? But I am. A glorified gardener, really.”

“So… you take care of gardens? Like, for parks or museums or whatever?”

“Yes, ma’am. But not only. I also design them and I own a supply store and a greenhouse. So I grow the plants and do some selling of basic products for people who have their own smaller gardens at home.”

“And where are you based?”

“Just outside Houston, Texas. Beautiful part of the state.”

Ummm. He had a drawl that made her think of drinking Mimosas on a hot Texas night, the smell of sweet lavender in the air. She leaned back and surveyed him across the table.

“That’s fascinating. Your job, I mean.”

“It is? You like gardening?” he said.

“Oh, I know nothing about it, I’m afraid. But I like flowers and plants. I like gardens.”

“Well, luckily most people do. Keeps my bills paid.”

She laughed and Eric saw how her whole face just changed… opened up and lightened. It came to him that Annabeth was beautiful.

“And how long have you been a gardener?”

“Just a few of years. I’m kind of new to the profession.”

“And before that?”

“I was a cop.”

Annabeth blinked at him. “That’s quite a change in careers.”

“It is.”

“Can I ask how that happened? If it’s not too personal, I mean.”

“Sure you can ask. I was shot on the job and it damn near killed me. After something like that, you kind of re-evaluate things in your life. I had never really wanted to be a cop – but my Dad had been and my Granddad too, and me and my older brother Ian both ended up as cops. Ian loves it, though, whereas for me it just kind of happened. So after I was shot, I was told that I’d never be able to go back to the force… no doctor would ever clear me for duty again.”

“Why? What kind of damage was so permanent?” Her eyes ran over his arms and chest. Eric was large and muscled and obviously in great shape.

He smiled. “My heart. I was shot in the chest, and it damaged my heart pretty badly. I recovered, with time, but no way I’d be able to work as a cop again.”

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