"Maybe this is the one," Molly whispered, hoping against the odds that people in this town would know her. She'd stopped by three towns already and asked if they remembered her living there, as her parents had told her. But no one had.
She drove her Honda Civic north on I-5 through the softly falling rain, watching for the Ridge City sign. She thought about the dangers of triggering her memory to return, but she had to do something to figure out what happened to her parents. Regaining her memory might give her those answers, plus she didn't want to spend her life without a memory of her first twenty years.
The exit came and she veered to the right. A few miles later, the road ran along the top of a hill, giving her a view of the town below. A sign announced Entering Ridge City. The rain was just a mist now, letting the sunshine through for a minute.
The town's houses crowded together until they reached the top of the hill, overlooking the generous farm land below. Molly had read as much as she could find on the place, which wasn't much. The town sign said population five thousand. She saw a long main drag, a mill, the usual fast food and family restaurants, and a touristy section with billboards advertising Oregon gifts. If only she could remember this quaint little place. Had she been happy here? Would anyone recognize her?
She followed the main drag and parked in a free parking lot close to the police department, where she planned to go first. As she opened her car's door, she felt pummeled by Oregon spring weather: fat rain drops and a cool wind. In like a lamb, out like a lion. This March, however, seemed to be starting like a lion. Molly pulled her raincoat's hood up to protect her hair from falling flat. The weather wasn't style-friendly at all, and her hair was curled and pulled up except for a few curls she left loose. Her black hair might draw some attention. If anyone here knew her, she didn't think they'd miss seeing her today. Both her parents were a mix of American Indian and English, so Molly had light brownish red tone to her skin. Maybe someone here could tell her why she'd ended up in California without a memory or any family besides her parents.
The weather cleared and the wind died down to a gentle breeze that teased the curls by her temples. A few brave trees had blossomed, but the wind blew their petals all over the pavement like snow.
Seeing the police department sign, she slowed, hesitated, and then pushed herself to quickly walk inside. At the desk, an older and kind looking blonde smiled. "How can I help you?"
Molly liked her soft blue eyes and motherly appearance.
"My name is Molly Anderson," she started with a shake in her voice. She cleared her throat and straightened herself, trying for confidence. "I might have lived here about five years ago, before I was hurt and lost my memory."
The woman's smile remained, but her brows pulled together and her eyes gained this intense focus. "Did you say Molly Anderson?"
Even while Molly nodded, the woman grabbed her phone. "Trent, get up here."
Molly's heart jumped into double time while her stomach squeezed into a ball. She crossed her fingers behind her back but also wanted to run right back outside.
A door opened to her right and a man stepped out, actually a broad shouldered cowboy about six feet tall, built like a bulldog, with deep brown eyes that lit up all shiny and bright when he spotted her. He looked genuinely happy to see her, but his size and posture startled her.
She jerked, jumped out of her skin really, upon hearing the rugged voice. "Uh..."
The excitement faded. "Mol?"
Now that someone actually recognized her, she didn't know what to say. This man didn't speak either, but stared right back at her. He was clean-shaven and neat with dark hair and eyes, a strong face that fit this build.
He glanced at the receptionist and back at her as if he didn't believe what he was seeing in front of him.
Flip-flop went her stomach. Those eyes ... wow. Molly didn't remember ever feeling a burning and tingling excitement like this, but she knew what it was.
His chocolate-brown eyes gazed into hers like he was looking at Elvis back from the dead. Suddenly aware that her lips were parted in surprise, she pulled them shut, trying to pull her desperate hope back inside her before he saw. She saw a million emotions swirl in his eyes as he took her in.
"Molly, why don't you come with me so we can talk?" He swung the door open. She didn't move, and noticed he looked either confused or hurt. "You're perfectly safe here."
She nodded, tried to give the kind woman a smile and walked through the door. He shut it behind him and gestured down the hall. They went into a small room with a table, chairs and a shelf with a coffee maker. Nervous again, she turned to him in surprise.
"Please, relax," he said softly, "I just want a quiet place for us to talk. I'm here to help you."
"You know me?" She barely managed the words as she sat down.
His raised eyebrows and bewildered eyes turned to pleading at her words. But pleading for what? For her to recognize him, of course. He knows me!
"Molly Anderson," he said or asked, she wasn't sure. He had a strong face, she thought again, though caring. A sense of comfort filled her, bringing some confidence with it.
"Yes, I am." She remembered herself, or at least the memories of herself over the last four years, and recited her usual explanation. "I lost my memory several years ago, so I don't remember you."
His eyebrows rose, his eyes full of disbelief. Not the suspicious kind of disbelief, but he looked like she just told him he had cancer. With puzzlement, he said, "You sure have changed."
"I have?" This was her opportunity. She'd found a link, maybe some answers. "I've been visiting towns where I lived before. This is town number four and the first one where anyone knows me. Maybe if you told me how we knew each other, something will come back. Could you start with your name?"
He almost smiled. "Trent Williams."
Molly repeated the name, but it did nothing for her. How could she have known this impressive man and not remember him? That didn't feel right.
"Everyone said you were gone," he said. "No one thought you'd come back except Alicia and me."
She sat back and then realized how tense her shoulders were. "You said I've changed. How so?"
"You're not the Molly I remember." His eyes looked all over her face. Molly wasn't used to having a man gaze at her like that, like he was memorizing and meeting her at the same time. Suddenly, she wondered at their relationship, how close they had been. Darn it, isn't it a little late to worry about that now? Trent continued, "Your hair's curled, done up, your jewelry looks pretty expensive, and you're wearing perfume that nobody in this small town can afford."
Molly tugged at her earring which had actually been her mother's. Without her memory, a cool air about herself had been her only way of putting a buffer between her and the world. She still clearly remembered how frightened she'd been when she'd first awoken, and how everyone around her could see her fear.
"I wasn't ...." She broke off. Wasn't what? "I wasn't like this when you knew me?"
"You were a down-to-earth, jeans-wearing free spirit." A faint smile danced on his face, and his speech fell smoothly with a small hint of a southern accent adding to his slight drawl. She wanted to see his full smile. She'd glimpsed his white teeth and knew he must have a persuasive, slow grin.
He watched her like he was putting that person together with the person sitting in front of him. "I want to know where you went, what happened," he said.
"Aren't you going to tell me how we knew each other first?" Why this banter, she wondered. Trent rubbed his hands together and clasped them, almost as if he was buying time.
"We were friends. Hung out in the same circles."
Was that all they were? And if so, was it all he had wanted from her? If they had been dating and she didn't remember a man like him, maybe something was wrong with her.
"So why'd you leave?" He brought her back. "Why didn't you call anyone here? Why didn't your parents call? None of this makes sense."
"I know, but I just don't remember." She heard the frustration in her voice and reminded herself that she was sitting here with someone who finally recognized her. Trent's intent look, those brown eyes a shade darker than hers, didn't leave her anywhere to hide. He wasn't going to look away until she answered him. "I have about four years' worth of memory. I remember waking up one morning in a strange house and finding a couple who said they were my parents. I became hysterical, not believing them until they showed me our family picture albums."
"Where was that?"
He nodded, leaning forward.
"Northern California. I tried all kinds of things to get my memory back. Then it hit me maybe I should visit other places where I had lived."
Trent leaned back, giving a soft hmm. He lowered an eyebrow, tilted his head to one side. "Seems to me that seeing me would make you remember. We used to be friends. And this town. Nothing?"
Molly shook her head. "I don't know what to tell you."
"Can you tell me what happened to make you forget?"
Trent's question didn't have an answer, at least not one Molly knew of yet. Shaking her head, she thought that if she could remember why her memory disappeared to begin with, maybe all of her memory would return.
"I just have questions and no answers. This was a long shot to come here, but I didn't know what else to do."
Trent tried again. "Didn't your parents tell you anything?"
"They told me we moved around a lot. We lived here for a year and a half before my father's job took him to California. I fell and hit my head, I guess. The doctors didn't find any damage, but I couldn't remember anything before that." The fear she must have felt flickered in her eyes for a brief moment. "You're the first person I've met besides my parents that knew me before."
Trent's hmm sounded louder this time, and he sank into his own thoughts for a few minutes.
"That's what your parents told you?" he finally said. Molly's brows creased. She had no idea what Trent was really asking with his question, but she sensed that he disagreed with her story somehow.
He stared at her like she might be lying. The hurt she felt both stung and surprised her. "Wait, did you know my parents?"
"Yes, I knew you and your parents." He leaned forward, his dark eyes earnestly pleading. "Everyone did, Mol."
"I . . . I don't know what to say about all this."
"I guess it's only fair that I share about myself, maybe that'll help." Trent relaxed back into the seat, even though it looked a little forced. "I joined the police force after high school, and I just got my first promotion when you ran off-"
"Ran off?" she interrupted. He hadn't mentioned that before.
"You were just gone, no word, no call to anyone. Just gone."
This news didn't sit well with her.
"Maybe you need to ask your parents a few questions," Trent said.
After a short and involuntary intake of breath, she said, "They're dead."
His head shot up to stare at her. "When?"
"Two years ago." After an unsure pause, she explained. "A car accident, or maybe it was tampering, but the police never decided."
She shrugged, looking away. "I didn't know them that well. Just those two years." What a lie. They were her world, the only people she'd known. "I mean, I should have known them all my life." Molly was surprised to see her pain reflected in Trent's eyes. Could he possibly understand what she'd been through?
"Mol, I'm so sorry," he whispered, and he meant it - they both could tell that. Oh no. He really did know her. The trueness of it hit her, taking her breath away. For some reason this hadn't felt real to her until this moment. Hot tears stung her eyes but she bit down on her lip to stop them. Shocking her even more, Trent reached across the table and placed his hand over hers, a warm and friendly gesture. This is what she'd come looking for. She longed to walk around to his side of the table and lean into his arms, almost as if by instinct. If only she could stop time with his hand on hers...
"I can help," he said.
"But I'm sure you have a life of your own to live." She suddenly felt like a lost puppy tagging along with the first friendly stranger it found. While she wanted, and maybe needed his help, she wasn't sure if it was asking too much.
"I'm a cop, and I know a few good detectives. The Anderson case is cold, but now you're here to help solve it. Don't you want to know why you and your parents disappeared? I'll help you."
She almost laughed. "You can't take time off to do this, and it's been two years since the accident."
"I don't care." His determination wouldn't sway. "I'll ask to use some of my vacation. I've got over a month accrued."
"Don't you ever take time off?"
"No, haven't had a reason to. But now I want to help a friend. Maybe you'll remember your old life, but if you don't, maybe we can find out what really happened to your parents."
She pulled in a long, deep breath. "Okay."
Back in her room an hour later, Molly went in the bathroom and stared at her reflection saying her name several times. "Molly Avery Anderson." She'd tried that many times without results, so this time she added, "Trent Williams."
This name sent her head and heart twirling. Rethinking her day, she wondered if fate had sent her into that police station. Of course, she had visited several other stations and towns before that one, but it'd been a gut feeling that she'd find the help she needed there.
Turning, she walked from the bathroom and stood looking around the hotel room. It was clean and impersonal, the way these rooms usually are. She felt a connection between this room and her life-she didn't feel comfortable in either. However, it felt like a good place to sit and talk to Trent simply because it wasn't too personal.
Meeting Trent and hearing him say how she was different made her look at herself anew. She'd taken on her mother's style, she supposed, since she didn't remember dressing the way Trent described.
He knocked and her stomach tightened as she went to the door and opened it. He seemed shy coming in, without the hat this time, and his hands in his pockets. "I got the time off pretty easy."
"Good. It's really nice of you to help me out like this." She felt clumsy and sat down in a chair by the table, gesturing to the chair across from her. He, too, looked uneasy. She said frankly, "I want to know the facts about that day, when I disappeared."
"Okay. On July 23, 2007 your house was found empty. A neighbor went inside because the door was open. He could tell all of you tore out of there in a hurry, leaving it a mess. Drawers were open, things thrown around, clothes missing. He called 911, said he had a funny feeling about it."
When Trent paused, she asked, "No note? No call to anyone?"
"No. Nothing. That's why most people think you and your parents decided to skip town for some reason, though we never found that reason."
"And that's all there is to it still?" She couldn't believe that. She wanted answers.
"There were traces of blood on the floor."
Blood? Did she hear him correctly? "Whose?"
"We don't know that either. Everyone in town was tested for a DNA match." He watched her closely to say, "I even got tested. We couldn't get a DNA match on anyone that knew you. It appears likely it was a relative, though, because it was close, but not exact, to DNA taken from samples in the house."
"I'm completely puzzled. I have no idea what happened." If it didn't match any of them, who could it be? She didn't have any relatives that ever visited her in California. Of course, there could have been relatives before that.
"Unless the police missed someone in Ridge City, which could happen, someone was there that other people didn't know about, someone from out of town."
"Why did you say the police might have missed someone in Ridge City?" she asked.
"It's possible someone was there and lied about it, but it'd have to be someone who usually wouldn't visit you."
"Oh." She paused for a long minute. "I suddenly don't want everyone knowing I'm here, not right away. You've told me so much. I don't know what to think."
Trent looked like he wanted to touch her, reach out to her. He didn't, of course. Maybe she was being silly.
"That's fine," he said. "Just in case someone is looking for you, it might be a good idea. And maybe you'll remember now that you're back in your hometown."
He looked puzzled now. "Oh, I was going to ask you about that. Mol, you lived your whole life here."
Molly felt stunned and knew it showed. Why had her parents told her they moved around often? She had to blink back sudden tears.
Looking up, Molly saw the concern on Trent's face. She couldn't miss how rugged and handsome he was, or how he made emotions swirl through her. She didn't remember feeling attraction in the last four years. Her neighbor in Redding sure felt it for her and wasn't shy about it. She just didn't feel the same, and had tried to tell him she only wanted to be friends. She needed friends.
"I searched all over for you."
Why would you do that? She didn't respond, and was glad she didn't when he continued.
"We followed all kinds of empty leads."
She realized he was speaking as a police officer. All this time, she'd wondered why no one seemed to miss her.
"We got coverage in the news, sent your pictures to police here and in Washington, California, and Idaho."
The conversation lagged. She didn't want him to leave, though. "So who are you, Trent Williams?"
"Me?" Trent studied her like she was somehow the answer to her own question. "I grew up here, too, on a farm a little ways out of town with my one sibling, Alicia. I grew up wanting to be a cop, and now I am. That's about it."
She didn't believe that. "I've noticed a few things about you."
He gave her a small, slow smile. "So tell me."
"The way you stand." She pulled her body up straight, demonstrating, and started laughing without any unease at teasing him. It made him grin.
"It's not about being cocky, you know. I know what you're thinking. But stand up and I'll show you."
She rose, arms folded across her chest because she felt like she was under a microscope now that his attention was on her.
"I don't get it."
He gave her a nudge and caught her by the arm before she stumbled. He pointed down to her feet. "Put your feet out like this." He nudged her again. "It's about safety. Now pretend you have a gun under this arm and you don't want me to get it."
"Can I run?"
He didn't smile or laugh, so she looked up at him, wondering what he was thinking. She had to look away so his eyes wouldn't hypnotize her.
"Put this foot back. It's your gun leg." He tapped her thigh. "Keep this side of your body turned away."
"So if I ever carry a gun, I'll know how to keep it safe," she said.
"Well, now you know why cops stand the way they do."
She liked that smile of his. It felt so nice to be laughing and talking with someone like him. They sat again and he told her about Mark Stone, his friend and fellow cop, who was a few years older than him but single as well, so they hung out often and had things in common. He told her, "We're the only single guys on the force in this one horse town, so we stick together."
There was a hint of loneliness in his voice that made her want to reach out to him. She didn't feel so alone anymore with him sitting by her. This time, it was her that reached for his hand. Their gazes met and held until he cleared his throat.
"I came here meaning to tell you something important." His tone scared her, so she reminded herself she'd come to Ridge City to discover who she was. "The department is reopening the case now that you're back. It's strange anyway, but it's even more complicated now that we know your parents died. This could possibly be a double murder."
The uneasiness she noticed when he had first arrived returned, and she had to say, "I don't know why we left." She didn't add that it could be her fault. Or maybe she did something awful that forced them to leave. She felt in her heart it couldn't be true, but she didn't remember. One look at Trent's eyes told her he didn't know, either.
"We don't know much at this point, but I'd like to answer these questions for all of us."
Did he trust her? And could she trust him? Her words were about to gush out, when he said, "I'll let you go to bed now, but I'll come back tomorrow."
They rose in unison and slowly walked to the door.
"Goodnight, Molly, and welcome home."
Molly couldn't help the grin on her face as her brown and tan horse trotted beside Thunder, Trent's charcoal colored stallion. They rode side by side at the edge of the pasture, next to the tree line. "I know how to do this. I still can't believe it!"
Trent had told her how much they used to ride together and she'd been intrigued. The experience felt new and yet familiar when she placed her foot and swung up on Galaxy like she'd been riding for years.
She was too afraid to venture away from her parent's home in California, but riding through the countryside took her mind off her problems and new worries that coming to Ridge City had brought. Sitting atop the horse, she felt free and happy, and she wondered, even hoped, the feeling was a memory of how she felt years ago when she rode.
"This sure beats yesterday," she said with a giggle and then realized her slip. "I mean, this is a lot more fun than visiting the police station."
She had been thinking about how nervous she was at first. Now Trent wore casual clothes and they laughed with ease.
"Galaxy sure was happy to see you," he said. "And you hopped up there before I showed you how, so you must remember some things."
He had noticed. Molly tingled with pride in herself. It felt so good knowing she could do something. She smiled at him. "Things like walking, riding a bike, and I guess riding a horse."
While Trent smiled back, it wasn't a sure smile as he searched her face. He seemed to shake himself and look away. Maybe, when she'd felt so comfortable about mounting the horse, he thought she remembered everything. If only she could.
Molly looked down at Galaxy's shaking tan mane as they rode. When she first saw the horses and how majestic they looked dancing around each other, she knew she loved to ride. Maybe she didn't remember, but she felt it. The horse had whinnied and danced when Trent brought her from the pasture to see Molly.
"Did I tell you that Alicia let you help name him?"
"Really?" Molly looked forward to meeting his sister, sometime. That name still didn't bring any emotion back except anxiety about meeting someone who had known her so well.
She patted her horse and breathed in a deep breath of moist forest smell. She wore blue jeans and a pink sweater, enjoying the soft feel of it since warmer weather was on the way. Spring daffodils bloomed beside their trail. The trees were still wet from a recent rain, but everything was budding or starting to bloom. The sun shone through the leaves for parts of the day, and the wind wasn't as cold as when she first arrived.
"Yesterday and today went by so fast," Molly mused out loud. "Everything went by so slow in California."
"Life here did, too." He didn't look at her so she couldn't see the emotion in his eyes, but his soft tone sounded sad.
Trent nodded to their right and they turned the horses to follow the trail, winding uphill through the pine and oak trees. He moved his horse ahead of hers on the path lined with ferns. Water drops fell out of the tree branches, landing on them and creating their own personal rain shower. Molly giggled.
"It's beautiful here," she told Trent, knowing she didn't need to. She could see how much he loved the land and his horses.
"We spent half our childhoods out here in these woods."
"Was I a tomboy?"
"No, but you didn't mind getting dirty." He got a gleam in his eyes, and she wanted to stare but needed to watch where she was going. He said, "I feel a little selfish, keeping you all to myself. Other people are going to be glad to see you. My sister Alicia has been waiting for you as much as me."
As much as me? The phrase caught her off guard, and he probably saw it when she turned to stare at him. She didn't need a memory to know her eyes usually told everyone what she was feeling. His gaze searched her again, looking for the old Molly, she guessed, and she had to look away. Alicia would look at her and want to see her old friend as well. Could Molly give them that person? Could she face them knowing they so desperately wanted to find the person they knew? Again, she felt the urge to run back to California and just move on,pretending her old life hadn't existed.
No, she couldn't live like that. She knew she couldn't hide from Alicia and the other people she no doubt knew here, but she liked spending timealone with Trent too.
She sighed. "I'll have to see them at some point, and I did come here to remember things, didn't I?"
Trent watched his Molly as he led them through the forest, still blown away that she was back alive and healthy... and happy for the moment. Yet, so many questions and doubts stood between them. Why did she disappear? And why did she come back now? He wanted the truth, and he wanted Molly to get her memory back. If she remembered their time together from childhood, maybe all those moments would mean something. Right now they were just pictures in his head.
He watched her sway with the horse and throw him a smile. Yeah, she was having fun, and they were making a new picture, a memory that both of them knew about. Still, the unknowns haunted him, even in the quiet, misty woods.
He wanted everyone in the town to believe in him again, and Molly could do that for him if she knew what happened. A few people were still suspicious and blamed Trent for the Andersons' disappearance. Things that big don't happen in small towns and people needed someone to blame.
She glanced his way and smiled. "I'm so glad we came out here." She spoke softly, her eyes glowing with pleasure.
"Yeah," he agreed. "It's real nice riding with you again." It felt right. It almost felt like they hadn't lost the last four years. For a minute, he tried to pretend they hadn't. But maybe he wouldn't appreciate this so much then. As things stood, he had her back, in a way. A big way, but he needed to get to the bottom of this too.
He'd spent the last four years searching for her and praying that one day she'd come back to him and clear up all the doubt. How could she without her memory? She had walked right by him without recognizing him. Talk about a heart breaking moment. Then, he heard her story and swore he'd find a way to bring her memory back. Or more importantly, bring her back to all of them.
Mark Stone questioned Molly's story and raised doubts at the precinct. That was his job, plus he was acting in Trent's best interests by playing the devil's advocate, but Trent still felt stabbed in the back. They'd traded a few angry words over the subject, so it was probably for the best that he was off the case, and work, for a while. Besides his two weeks of vacation time, he could also take personal time. His boss made that clear, if he needed it to deal with all this.
Trent felt relieved to keep away from Mark for another reason: Mark had asked what Molly had said when Trent told her about their relationship. Thing was, he hadn't. He couldn't tell her about them now that he knew about the car accident that took her parents' lives. If he revealed some of their relationship, she might realize he was a suspect in her parents' case, just as she was. Her reappearance caused some of the old suspicions about him to come back to life. She needed a friend to trust right now, and the truth would scare her.
"Look!" She whispered loudly, pointing at a spooked deer as it jaunted off.
"I'm surprised that's the first one we've seen today."
He could tell she enjoyed the quietness as they rode the horses slowly through the forest. Pretending to get lost in the beauty around them, Trent thought back to when he and Molly were together. About a month before Molly disappeared, he'd proposed and she'd been waltzing around with a modest diamond on her ring finger. There weren't many people in Ridge City who had a diamond on their wedding band, which made Molly even more proud.
This new Molly wasn't anything like the wild one he knew then. He couldn't forget how she looked as she sashayed down the sidewalk, her hips swinging slowly under her nice pants. She looked polished, like a city girl. She seemed to have more money now than before. Maybe her parents had life insurance.
Today she looked more like the old Molly, in blue jeans for riding and her hair damp from the misty air. Whether in jeans or slacks, she always looked good. She smiled when she caught him looking her way, but they still didn't speak.They were on the back end of the path heading toward the stables, and he sadly realized the ride hadn't triggered any memories for her. Unless she just hadn't told him.
She turned her light brown eyes on him. His body jumped, remembering her red lips on his, and how he tangled his fingers in that thick, dark hair. I can't take this!He almost moaned and had to clear his throat to cover it. Next, he had to force his hands to loosen their grip on his reins. He shifted in the saddle, restless and tense with want for her. She sat so close but so far away at the same time.
Her eyes looked troubled when she glanced over several times in a row. She must have felt his mood. He couldn't fake a smile so they remained silent as they emerged from the woods and turned onto the pasture path, heading back.
At the stables, he got the brushes and they cared for the horses together.
"This seems natural, too," she told him, then added, "But I don't think..."
"That you're really remembering anything yet?"
She made an angry sound then.
"Mol, don't rush it."
A sigh. "There's so much to be frustrated about."
He knew it, but that didn't change it. Not sure what to say, he led his horse to the gate and opened it for both horses to return to the field. They walked back to the truck and he reached an arm around her, hoping that would ease her tension.
She looked down and he wanted to pull her into his arms, love away her sadness. When they reached her door, he held onto her a minute longer.
"Thank you for today." Her eyes looked a bit shiny as she looked up into his.
"Hey, there's plenty more for us." He caught himself at the very last second before he leaned down to kiss her. Shaken that he slipped like that, he stepped away from her and opened the truck door.
When he reached the main road, an older song came on that they used to sing together. Molly started humming and looked happier.
"We can come back and ride any time," he said, deciding he needed to enjoy their time together instead of brooding over what they'd lost. He'd headed back to her hotel since they hadn't discussed any plans. What was the protocol for this? Act like they had just met, or whisk her away to his house, like he would have done four years ago?
He settled on, "How about dinner?"
"Dinner sounds great."
Grinning, he turned around and headed for a little diner by the bridge. "Does Sally's sound good? Good country food." He wanted to add how they used to eat there all the time, but he'd already decided to enjoy the evening and not push things.
Sally, the owner, wasn't there that night like she was sometimes, and he suddenly knew that was a good thing. She'd known Molly pretty well. Their waitress tonight had been hired about two years before, so she knew Trent but didn't ask Molly any questions. People had to be talking though.
Thankfully the two people who stopped simply said hi and welcomed Molly back. A group of college kids came in and were laughing pretty loud, so they had something to eavesdrop on and laugh about.
He had always loved her smile and how much her entire face lit up. She looked at him now, laughing softly. Then tears came to her eyes.
"I would have never guessed I'd find you here."
Her serious words sent his heart spinning. "You remember now?"
Her smile fell, sending his hopes right after it. "No, I just meant I didn't think I'd find anyone who would help me so much. I felt pretty alone, but you're here."
He smiled warmly at her then but caught sight of a tall brunette walking through the diner behind Molly. He stiffened, realized he was holding his breath and forced himself to let it out. Molly looked worried and turned to glance behind her.
It wasn't Bev, thankfully, because she would throw a hissy fit right there if she saw them together. Molly watched him nervously now.
"Sorry, I thought that was someone else." To explain, he added, "I didn't want you to face that yet."
He felt grateful she didn't press for a further explanation. A few years ago she would have, but this was completely different. Like they were two different people, or maybe the same people starting over.
She'd been studying him and said suddenly, "This does feel familiar." He could see her searching and reaching for a history to match this feeling between them. "Maybe," she added at last with a sigh.
"But what were you thinking?"
"Well, I don't feel out of place here at all. Maybe there's something there. But then why did I forget about it? Why was I in California? Now I'm not sure my parents told me the truth."
It seemed all her questions came crashing down on any hope of recovering her memory. He touched her hand on the table, wanting to reassure her but didn't know what to say.
After dinner, Trent had the same urge to stretch the evening out, but it was getting late and, in reality, she didn't know him that well any more. He pulled up to the main door of her hotel and let the truck idle. Mol reached for his hand first, just a light touch to say goodbye.
"Goodnight, and thanks for today and dinner."
"Anytime, and I mean it." He smiled, knowing she had to be thinking about kissing him. Right? Or maybe wishing he'd kiss her. Crazy.
She opened her door and slid out of his truck. He answered her wave with his own and left in the misty evening rain that started up. That was it, for today anyway.
As he drove to his parents' house, Trent unsuccessfully tried to stop the summer four years ago from running through his mind. He fought this same war every day, trying to not think about Molly.
"But she's here." Styled, cultured, but still his Molly. His mind played games with him and envisioned her in a short pair of cut-off blue jeans, her long black hair flying around her as the sun shone on it. She loved anything active that kept her going. Her dark brown eyes held a mischievous gleam, but the small freckles dotting her nose gave her a little-girl look. He was really whipping on himself today, replaying the afternoon he'd proposed to her.
They were hiking up the hill for a picnic, and Molly was running ahead of him. She made it to the apple tree they always sat under, the one he carved their names into, and plopped down to wait for him, her arms resting on her knees.
"Slow poke!" she called with a giggle. "You can't be a cop if you can't chase down the bad guys."
"Are you one of those bad guys?" he asked upon reaching her. He spread out a blanket and set down their bag.
"Hungry already?" she asked, her voice teasing that maybe she wanted something else.
"Well ... hey, what's this?" He pulled out a shoe box and handed it to her. It hadn't been easy packing their lunch around that box, but he wanted to surprise her. A little box would have ruined it.
She threw him a glance, a half smile, and lifted the lid. Trent remembered how her face came up, those big brown eyes filling with tears. When he asked, she just nodded, and he slid the ring slowly onto her finger. A perfect fit, just like the two of them. She grabbed him in a fierce hug, kissed his cheek, his mouth... After a long kiss, Molly jumped to her feet, ran to the edge of the hill, and shouted down to Ridge City, "I'm getting married!"
He was sure the entire town heard her.
His daydream ended when he pulled up to his parents' house and saw Beverly Marshall standing on the porch, arms folded, dark eyes set for a fight. It hadn't been her at the diner, but it was her for sure now. Damn it. He didn't like how she spent time with his parents, but so far he wasn't able to shake her. She was distant family in a way, in his parents' line of thinking. His sister Alicia had married David, Bev's cousin, and that made it okay for her to hang around.
The porch light right above her cast shadows on her face in the dark, and he imagined a scowl on her face.
"What's got you going this time?" He swung out of the truck, hoping he could soften her mood before telling her the good news.
"Molly Anderson, that's what. Was it her?" Bev, he had to admit, was pretty, but when mad, she looked like a classic TV villain with her dark eyebrows, which were usually pulled together in a glare. She tended to overuse the pouting beauty look too.
He was taken aback that she knew so soon. "How?"
"Just got a call, Terry Hill swears he saw you walking with her on Main Street yesterday." The door opened behind Bev.
Brenda, his mother, stepped out with an anxious face. Mom usually had a pleasant face, but Trent saw the question in her eyes as she asked, "How did today go?"
"Is it really her?" Bev questioned again.
"Yes, it is her. She's back. Let me come in and explain." He followed them inside and saw his dad. Of course he had called his parents about Molly's reappearance, but he'd been so excited he probably didn't explain everything well. Since Bev didn't know any of it, he repeated the appropriate parts of Molly's story while Bev kept her eyes narrowed and lips twisted.
"You'll check into her story, right?" she asked when he'd finished.
Trent shook his head in disbelief, but upon glancing at his mother's expression, said, "Already am. The case needs to be closed, you know."
Bev sighed, sat back, and continued to glare at him. "We all know what she did to you by leaving, and now you're welcoming her back, no questions asked. She could hurt you all over again."
Trent sprang to his feet. "Didn't you hear what I just told you? She lost her memory."
"But they packed, all of them, and left." Bev stood and left in a huff, stopping only to call out a goodbye to his parents. They packed. How did he get around that one? Molly didn't know why she left, but just the same, she had packed and left.
Trent looked at them and found his mother teary eyed.
Downhearted, he tried to cheer them up. "I can't explain it yet, but now we can try."
His mom threw a look at his dad before she said, "I'm just so happy she's back and safe." She grabbed her son in a hug. "You know Beverly's cynical about everything. She watches out for her friends, that's all."
"And you know she's been trying to be more than friends since before Molly left. It's pretty late, so I'm heading home." He pulled his mom into his arms, squeezing her, before he walked outside.
"Just be careful, that's all I'm saying," she called from the front door as he climbed in his truck.
Molly's breath gushed out in a long exhale as she did her hair in front of the mirror. She curled her eyelashes and applied mascara, then paused as she remembered Trent's words. He said she'd changed. What did he call her, a free spirit? Now she wore tan slacks, nice but thick for the weather, and a V-neck knit top, a rich blue that enhanced the color of her dark hair and brown eyes.
Trent's words stuck in her mind as she readied herself for dinner with Alicia and her husband. He'd told her, "She was your best friend four years ago. She's dying to see you again, and this might spark a memory."It was just what she was looking for, yet she almost wanted to back out of it. When Trent said "best friend," she automatically thought of Karen Jenkins back in Redding, not a stranger named Alicia Nor.
During the last four years, she'd avoided personal conversations because when people asked her about herself she had nothing to say. She'd spent the last four years mainly inside at her parents' home, in contact with Karen and her parents. She spent two years getting to know Arnold and Ellen as her parents again and trying to remember her life. If Karen hadn't been a nurse at the hospital where her parents had first taken Molly, the two of them would have never met and become friends. And Molly would have been utterly alone after the death of her parents. When her parents died, Karen helped her plan the funeral.
A knock at the hotel room door quickly brought her back to reality. She needed to finish getting ready.
"Hey there." Trent greeted her as the door swung open, but she didn't acknowledge him because his cologne stopped her thoughts. She thought he was probably dressed up, though he wore hiking boots, wranglers, and a blue T-shirt, all of which molded to him. He wasn't wearing his hat tonight, just neatly combed reddish brown hair.
"You look beautiful," he told her. His words sounded more like a breath than voice.
"Thank you." The blue top seemed to do the trick. "I'm not quite ready, yet." She didn't like how breathless she sounded. "Would you like to come inside?"
He nodded as she opened the door wider and left him sitting in a chair while she finished in the bathroom. As they left, she noticed how natural it felt for him to take her arm and lead the way to his truck, but she felt like she was on a first date with a stranger.
"No need to be nervous." Soft words spoken in her ear, words to help her feel more comfortable. A shiver ran down her neck, almost tickling her.
"Are your sister and her husband mad about what happened?" she asked. "Do they all believe I ran out on them?"
"No." He stopped, faced her. "There's a good explanation, and we're going to find it."
Possibilities ran through Molly's mind, ones she didn't like. Nothing seemed to explain why she up and moved to California with her parents, without telling a soul, and lived there several years like nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Unless maybe she was the one who'd hurt another person, done something wrong and awful, and her parents had taken her to California to hide her.
"Mol?" His voice sounded a little worried. She'd been so quiet Trent seemed to sense her mood as they drove.
"I just wonder if I did something."
"After you left, we talked to everyone who knew you, looking for a reason. Everyone swears up and down they didn't have an argument or disagreement with you of any kind."
"So there was no reason for my family to run like that."
"I'm sorry to say it, but none at all, nothing we could find. People came up with some pretty wild stories, but none of them checked out." He paused as if he knew how worried those words made her. "Don't sweat tonight. I'll be right there with you."
She tried for a smile to show him how much she treasured his support. She'd been brave enough to drive into town and look for her past, but she hadn't thought about details like this. They arrived at a small, neat house after a quiet drive, and Trent explained it was Alicia's home.
Molly grabbed several deep breaths as they walked up toward the entrance. Before they reached the door, it flew open. A short blond with a cute bob studied her for a minute, slowly stepping out, then, "Mol? It is really you."
She didn't smile, but Molly could picture her face beaming.
"Alicia?" she asked, feeling more comfortable than she had expected. The woman was petite, had delicate features, and wore a grayish green shirt that picked up the green tint in her blue eyes. A man came out several steps behind Alicia, about Molly's height with sandy brown hair and light brown eyes.
"Yeah," Alicia said and threw her arms around Molly's neck, tears coming to her eyes. "You remember me? Trent said you wouldn't-"
"No, no, I'm sorry." Molly felt horrible as she said the words to the dainty looking woman. "Trent told me who you are."
Alicia stepped back, wiping her tears, a frown on her face. "Yeah, he said you'd changed a lot, and he wasn't joking."
"So I'm told." Molly didn't know what to say next, so Alicia led the way inside. Molly thought of a tiny wild flower when she saw her, a tiny delicate bloom. A strange feeling came with the thought - a feeling like jealousy. No, it wasn't that she felt jealous now, she got the impression she used to want to look like Alicia: blonde, small, and cute. Molly thought she was remembering something, but there wasn't a picture or place with the feeling.
Alicia jarred her from her thoughts. "This is David, my husband. You didn't know him before, but I wanted you to meet him tonight."
"And it's a pleasure," Molly responded, holding out her hand.
David gave it a firm shake and said, "After all I've heard about you, and wondering if I'd ever get to meet you, well, I'm more than glad you're back, especially for Alicia. She's missed you so much."
Molly could only give a weak nod to David as she stepped through the door. As they hung their jackets in the foyer, Molly caught an anxious quick look between Alicia and David.
"Would you both like something to drink? Dinner's almost done." They followed Alicia into the brightly lit and clean kitchen. She had already set the table in the attached dining area. After pouring wine in glasses and beer into mugs, they sat down in the living room, decorated with matching forest green recliners, a couch, and love seat. Trent sat on the love seat with her. The room felt cozy with a coffee table and books between the chairs, but she wasn't sure what to talk about.
Molly wanted to run out the door. It felt so strained sitting there, knowing they were waiting for her to recognize them. "I don't know why, but nothing helps. I know I didn't just leave, something must have happened." Molly wondered if she could explain this so they'd understand. "I don't remember, but I know myself. Why would I just leave my home and friends?"
"Where did you go all this time?"
Although she hated to relive those first few days, months even, she told them about finding herself in a strange house and then realizing the house wasn't new, she was. "I had no memory of who I was." She didn't mention Karen, her only friend in California, who in a way replaced Alicia. She knew sharing about her parents would be even harder than talking about losing her memory, but she tried. "I was trying to put everything back together." She stopped, closing her eyes for a second. "It was like I didn't have a life before. There just wasn't anything there. My parents didn't tell me about my life here in Ridge City, or all the things Trent told me about. I was starting to think I spent my life doing nothing."
"Did they ever give you any explanation?" Alicia asked.
"No." Molly realized she hadn't gotten to that part yet. "Two years after that, they were killed in a car wreck. So now that I know about my life here, I can't ask them why they didn't tell me."
Alicia's eyes filled with sadness. Molly didn't need her memory to tell that Alicia cared about her.
"Why did you come back now?" Alicia asked, "Why after four years, if you didn't know you had a life here before?"
Wonderment filled Molly's face; she couldn't miss the hurt in her friend's voice.
"I thought I lived here for a while, not my entire life, before we moved to California, so I came in case it brought something back." She paused. There wasn't anywhere for this conversation to go. "You thought I was a missing person?"
"You were." Alicia's throaty exclamation kicked the tension in the room up twenty degrees. Molly couldn't respond. Her hand went nervously to an earring before she caught herself and clasped both hands in her lap.
"Whatever happened, she's back now." Trent's voice came out low, emotional like Alicia's. "We need to give her time and help her remember."
"Smells like dinner is almost done." Alicia rose and went into the kitchen.
Grateful that was over, Molly gave a little sigh and leaned back into the sofa next to Trent. She so wanted to know who she used to be, but nothing had come back tonight. She turned to Trent and found warm eyes watching her. That glow lit his entire face, made him look so inviting. If she knew him, maybe she'd understand the unspoken message. Or maybe she didn't need her memory for this.
Something jumped inside her. A memory? No, not a real memory, but this felt familiar.
"I ....." What could she say to him?
"What, Mol?" he prompted, trying his best to hold his excitement.
"This feels like I've done it before. I mean you and me sitting here, that look." Now she felt like an idiot. She didn't want to talk about the kind of look he gave her at times.
"We've been friends a long time." He searched her eyes before they got up and followed David to the table.
Alicia's face brightened with a small smile as she sat down with them. "Just like old times. Like things should have stayed." She began serving baked chicken while Molly thought about her words.
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, you know, all of us together."
That wasn't what Alicia had been thinking, and they both knew it. Molly wanted to know why her old friend was holding something back. She didn't want to be rude so she dropped the comment and smiled as they ate. Even though they were quiet, the awkwardness wore off.
"I thought it might help if I took you around to some familiar places tomorrow," Alicia offered.
"I'd like that." She would for more than just the drive, she wanted to talk to Alicia alone and question her about Trent.
"Does any of this even feel familiar to you yet?"
As her friend spoke, it hit Molly that she felt comfortable, maybe familiar with Trent. Somewhat with Alicia. She liked her, she knew that much. But she shook her head, not wanting to explain.
"I'm sorry about your mom and dad," Alicia said.
"Were you and I good friends for a long time?"
"We were best friends from the start." Her fond memories warmed Alicia's eyes. "We made mud pies by your porch when we were little. That's when we weren't riding horses. And dad helped us build that tree fort in the fourth grade. It's still there."
Molly pictured herself as Trent had described her-running around in blue jeans, her hair down, just her freckles to decorate her face. She had to smile.
"We hid up there to talk about boys after that," Alicia added with a laugh. "Of course Trent would try to sneak up to spy on us."
"Have you and Trent always been so close?" Molly asked her.
"We're so close in age. We fought a lot growing up, but if anyone else messed with me, Trent gave it to them. He was my defender. Practicing for the police force, I guess, since that's what he wanted to do since he was little."
"And you? Trent said you're a teacher. Did you always want to do that?"
Alicia shrugged. "I wanted to do something with kids and eventually decided on teaching."
"Trent said I was in business school but still didn't have a career goal."
"Well, you did, in a way." Alicia laughed, giving Trent a look. "You planned on running a business. You just didn't know what kind of business."
Even though she didn't remember the things Alicia talked about, it felt so good to be around someone who knew her. When Alicia stood and started to clear the plates, Molly helped her. "Maybe we could catch a movie tomorrow, something fun, after you show me around."
The big smile that spread across Alicia's face was contagious.
"I've missed you, girl."
Before she thought it through, Molly blurted, "I think I missed you, too. I don't remember you, but I kept wondering about who I used to spend my time with. I knew something was missing."
Seeing Alicia tear up made Molly question why she shared something filled with so much longing. A minute later, Alicia just nodded, wiping her tears.
Molly tried not to see the expression on Alicia's face as she and Trent left a few minutes later. She didn't like the mix of hope, hurt, and disappointment. In Trent's truck, Molly let out her breath like she'd been holding it all evening.
"That rough?" he asked, easing the truck away from the curb.
"I'm so frustrated!" She folded her arms, chilled from the walk from the house to the truck. "I just don't understand why visiting the place I grew up and my old friends hasn't triggered anything." She wanted to remember him.
She suddenly felt Trent's hand on hers. He didn't offer words, just that hand, and it was enough. They reached her hotel, and he walked her to the door. She wished she could invite him in so she wouldn't be alone, but she hardly knew him.
"Tomorrow morning, before you take off with Alicia," he started, "why don't we go over a few things so I can look into your parents' case?"
She thought he was off the case, but didn't comment. "Oh, sure."
They paused at the door. She looked up into his face and it felt so natural she wondered if part of her remembered. They stared into each other's eyes a little too long. "You'll be okay?"
"I always am," she said, not wanting him to worry about her anymore. It sounded as if he'd worried for the last four years already. At her words, though, his face changed. "What? What did I say?"
"It's just that you used to say that."
"I did?" So why didn't she remember? Even without a clear memory, she couldn't help but smile that something was the same.
"Now that's the Mol I know." He brushed back a loose curl from her face, his fingers grazing her cheekbone. The urge to ask about their history almost overwhelmed her, but she didn't want to ask in case there hadn't been anything between them. What about now? Could there be something there now, whether or not she remembered any past they had?
"Is ten okay?" he asked.
"For tomorrow?" She cleared her head. "That's fine."
He didn't leave until she'd shut and locked her door. She found herself leaning against it, wondering about that handsome man. Well, if she had never had a thing for him before, she sure was developing one now.
That thought was followed by another, more depressing one. We don't have a chance. She shouldn't think about getting involved with anyone in her condition. It wasn't just that she didn't remember most of her life. She didn't remember why she ran from Ridge City.
A loud knock shook Molly right up in the hotel bed. Morning? Already?
She grabbed her robe and stumbled to the door, mumbling as she opened it, "I'm so sorry, I thought I set the alarm."
Trent took one look at her and laughed before entering. She flopped back on the bed, still groggy, and watched as he went to the tiny coffee maker and started a pot. He wore Khakis and a green cotton shirt that highlighted the red tint in his hair. Wow, imagine waking up to him every morning. Not a bad way to start the day.
"You never were a morning person." Trent sat on the bed next to her, took her hand, and they looked at each other. Trent had filled her dreams all night, but Molly wasn't sure if they were dreams of the past or fantasies.
She realized how bright her room was and asked, "Is that sunshine coming through the curtains?"
He caught her amazed tone, laughed, and said, "That happens in Oregon once in a while. It'll be a good day to run around."
Yes, Alicia would be here in a while, but she'd think about that later.
"Tell me what kind of person I was. Tell me everything you remember." She felt fully awake now and excited. Yesterday had been the start of the road back to herself, and now she was on her way.
With a smile, Trent responded, "That'd take a while." He looked away for a minute and came back with something akin to a twinkle in his eyes. "The other girls fought over you, wanting to be your best friend. You were the cheerleading captain, homecoming queen ...."
Molly wanted to ask who her date was, but didn't interrupt.
"You went through all your different business stages from catering, a deli and then a bridal shop." Trent was laughing now, and Molly felt that she and Trent had been very close. Trent and Alicia had her life banked in their heads. At the very least, she could hear about her life here if she never got to remember it herself. "You took business classes at college. That year was tough for you. You liked the dreaming part, but all the details overwhelmed you."
She liked watching him talk about her, liked the way his face lit up and his eyes shone, and she was glad he never let go of her hand. Sunshine warmed the hues in the room, and she wondered if that made his face appear so bright and eager. His expression mirrored her hope. It also helped her feel that he cherished this special time too as she sat holding his hand. His skin on hers felt warm and comforting, yet exciting and new.
He seemed to notice how she lay there watching him, almost adoringly, while he spoke. He stopped, everything stopped, and they looked into each other's eyes.
She'd done this a thousand times.
Molly blinked, startled. She felt like she was falling. A memory had almost surfaced, but she'd realized that she was remembering and that ruined it. Did he notice?
Leaning back, he said, "Coffee's done."
Yes, he looked a little jarred as he stood and went to pour her a cup. That memory teased her like wet rope just out of reach while she clung to a cliff. She could have grabbed it! But something had stopped her. She'd stopped herself, it seemed. With a tremor, she realized something scary stood between her and her memory.
"That felt so familiar," she whispered to his back. He glanced back at her and stopped, maybe waiting for more but there wasn't anything more to give him. When she sighed and looked down, he finished stirring in her sugar.
Trent sat on the bed again and held a cup out for her.
"Mmm." She sat up. "Thanks for making it."
As they sipped their coffee, she noticed he was ready to take notes.
Within a few minutes, he'd written her address in Redding, California, a phone number for a nurse named Karen Jenkins, and the location of her parents' accident: highway 299, heading west from the city. He acted all business as he took her info down, stepping into a detective role comfortably. His quiet, low voice with that faint sway of an accent drew the information right out of her, and Molly imagined it helped him quite a bit on the job.
"Where did the drawl come from?"
"I have my dad to thank for that. He grew up a good old country boy in Alabama. 'Cause of him, I grew up listening to country and folk music, going to rodeos, watching Nascar, learning how to live off the land and respect it."
Molly could hear the respect in his voice for his father, and she felt a respect for Trent knowing that he honored his dad like that. He spoke about his life with gusto, and she loved watching his charisma. The light in his eyes. The warmth on his face. And that smile. Glancing over, he caught her watching him. Instead of looking down, she smiled.
Trent smiled back, feeling that the carefree Molly was coming through this morning. "You're really going to be late if you sit there all morning."
He'd spoken with a grin but his nervousness came through anyway.
She finished her coffee and he sent her to the bathroom to get ready. Alicia knocked while Molly was in the shower. "Hey, sis."
"She's not ready?" Alicia breezed in. "Still the same, even if she can't remember. I even came late."
Laughing, Trent said, "That's our Molly."
It felt so good to say that again. Alicia repeated it after him before sitting down.
"Have you told her?" she asked.
Trent had to sit on the bed for this question. "I can't. I don't think telling her would make her remember."
"A good old fashion kiss might." Alicia just wanted her best friend back with her memory intact. She caught Trent's look and realized he'd already been tempted to kiss his old fiancée.
The blow dryer came on and Molly's voice called, "I'm about ready." Within minutes, all three were walking out the door. Alicia jumped right in her car, but Molly stopped and turned to Trent, wanting to hug him goodbye. She didn't, though. It felt strange, but she just smiled and waved, all the while looking into those soulful brown eyes.
Molly and Alicia started their day by stopping by a family café for breakfast. While they waited for their food, Molly prompted Alicia by saying, "Tell me more about your teaching job. You didn't mention what grade you taught."
"Oh." Alicia broke into a warm smile before she described her class of second graders, about twenty-five kids that were a really good bunch this year. "I had a couple of boys last year that wanted to cause all kinds of problems. They wanted attention, but really disrupted the classroom. That made my first year a little hard. If it weren't for David,I'm not sure I would have made it. I met him two and a half years ago. I wasn't the most together person back then, trying to get through college and wondering about you-" She cut herself off, then skipped over the subject and said, "We were married a year ago, and he's already talking about starting a family. We both want to." Everything Alicia shared seemed so right, familiar in a strange way.
"So." Molly had held off any questions about Trent, but knew she needed to ask now in case the rest of the day became too busy. "Why does Trent know so much about me?"
They paused as their server set their plates down. Alicia said, "He wants you to remember on your own."
"So there was something there at some point?"
"I can't lie to you, but I think he's right." Alicia picked up her fork, and Molly thought she'd finished speaking, but she continued talking between bites. "I guess you could ask him, but then what? You can't pick up where you left off without remembering, and you might feel like you have to."
Molly started on her own food, thinking for a minute. "So it wasn't over between us when I left?"
A sound gurgled out of Alicia's throat as if she'd almost choked. "Over? You and Trent? You were the happiest couple I've ever seen."
So she knew without a doubt she'd had a relationship with Trent. And, without warning, she abandoned him one day. It must have broken his heart. Why wasn't he mad at her now that she was here? Or why didn't he grab her in a big hug when he found her waiting in the police station? Alicia must have felt her change of mood and let her be ... about Trent at least.
"So what are your plans? Everyone thinks you're back-" Alicia broke off, fork paused, not wanting to add the "but."
Without knowing why she left Ridge City, Molly couldn't make a concrete decision on whether to stay or not, but she didn't want to tell anyone that. "I didn't know what to expect, so I was just planning a trip. I still have the house in California to deal with." Her voice faded as her eyes went to look out the window. "Now I don't know what I'll do." In her mind, she thought about how she didn't have a history tying her to any one place. Her parents were gone. California had her house, and one friend. And a pesky neighbor that thought they were a match made in heaven.
As if reading her mind, Alicia asked, "What's in Redding to keep you there? From what you've said, you didn't really put down roots. Why not stay here?"
Molly met her friend's eyes, and answered honestly, "I've been thinking about it." This brought on a new thought and she suddenly asked, "Where did I live before?"
"With your parents, on Elk Street. I can take you there."
Maybe that would bring back something. She pushed the last of her food around her plate before nervously asking Alicia, "I get the feeling David isn't actually glad that I'm back."
Alicia stopped chewing, thought for a minute, and swallowed to say, "He was jealous of you. Of how much I talked about you, I should say. He felt like he couldn't compete. Well, at first he completely understood, but after we married he wanted me to move on. I guess he thought getting married would fix it, heal me somehow. I told him he's the love of my life. That's different than a best friend, and you were gone anyway."
"So what about now that I'm here?"
"I don't know why he's worried." She pushed her plate away and glanced at the bill, buying time. "He'll come around."
"We can be honest, right? I need that." Molly knew coming to Ridge City was the start of finding the truth, and she didn't want any kind of dishonesty.
Exhaling, Alicia took a drink of water before saying, "He doesn't think you should be able to jump right back in. But he doesn't understand, we were all friends, all the way through school, beyond."
Molly gathered her things and thought David didn't want her pushing into his life, taking his wife's time, and in a way, replacing him. The idea was silly, and she hoped he wouldn't hold onto it.
Outside she stopped abruptly, causing Alicia to stop and look at her.
"I'm sorry I left," Molly started. "I don't know why yet, but I'm sorry it caused so much pain." Her friend stepped close and wrapped her arms around her, unable to speak. Molly didn't know what else to add with words, so she let the moment linger.
"We'll figure this out, okay?" Alicia said, stepping back. Molly nodded before they started for the car.
As they walked to Alicia's Mazda, Molly realized she did plan on staying at least until she discovered a few answers, maybe longer.
The sky outside only held a few white clouds and a lot of people were taking advantage of the sunshine and rise in temperature. They drove through town on the main road and turned right near the other end, toward the edge of town.
"Here's your old house."
Molly felt dismayed as she saw the baby blue house with white trim. The place looked so welcoming with the wide porch, the padded wicker chairs, and flower pots.
"It's quaint. A cute, country kind of quaint."
"You say that like it's weird," Alicia said.
"Oh, no." Molly corrected. "I wasn't expecting it to look like this, though. It's so different from the house in California. Did the house look so warm when my parents and I lived there?"
"You helped a lot. You planted the flower beds because you loved growing things."
Molly turned to look at Alicia now. "I did? I didn't know that."
Next they drove thirty miles to the city and to a mall where Alicia said they spent a lot of time at during high school. Inside, Alicia took her to their favorite clothing store.
"This is so cute!" Molly looked through a rack of shirts.
"You used to have more of a country style," Alicia told her. "More casual, too."
"I wonder what happened to my clothes. I only had a few outfits when I first, well, you know." Why hadn't she ever wondered about that before?
"Hey, I like this." Molly pulled a baby blue shirt from the rack and found a pair of jeans and a few other things she liked.
"That looks more like you. You came back to town dressed like your mother."
Molly glanced up to see her expression, then they broke into giggles."Feel like a movie after this?" Molly asked.
Trent drummed his fingers on his desk while waiting for Molly's friend to pick up the phone. He almost hung up as the fifth ring started, realizing he wasn't going to get an answering machine.
"Hello?" The voice sounded groggy.
"Oh, I woke you, I'm sorry."
"Well, who is this?"
"I'm Detective Trent Williams calling from Ridge City, Oregon. Molly Anderson gave me your number. Is this Karen?"
"Oh, yes. She called and told me about you, but I didn't expect you to call me."
He felt bad, realizing she must either work nights or be on her day off, but he'd already ruined her sleep. "I wanted to ask you about when you first met Molly."
"Okay...Her parents brought her to the hospital on my shift, baffled by her behavior."
"Was she scared?" Trent heard the rushed sound of his voice.
"No." Karen paused, and Trent wondered if she believed him about who he was. She finally continued, "She didn't know where she was, or who was with her. They told her, she seemed to understand, and then she'd forget again. At the end of the day, the doctor believed she had PTA."
Lost, Trent said, "That's not Parent Teacher Association?"
She laughed quickly but returned right to business. "Post Traumatic Amnesia."
"Okay, got that." He jotted down the official name of Molly's condition and added, "I knew her before, but she didn't recognize me when she saw me."
"Well, we were wrong."
"Wrong?" Trent didn't understand how it could be anything else. Would Molly lie to him? He couldn't believe that, wouldn't believe it.
"You see, PTA traps someone in the present, unable to make short term memories. They live minute to minute, after a brain injury, and it usually doesn't last over a month."
"I've never heard of that," he admitted, while thinking Molly didn't have that problem. Trent hoped Karen could give him information on how to jump start Molly's memory, if that's what she needed to move on.
"There are around two million head injuries each year, seven hundred thousand need hospitalization, and only about seventy percent of those get PTA."
"And Molly seemed to have this?"
"Several doctors agreed it looked likely, but they agreed it was a tough diagnosis. Her symptoms weren't consistent. So they decided to wait a month, believing the condition would improve."
He wrote Symptoms? on the top of a new page. "Do you remember the cause of her injury?"
"She fell, they said. She couldn't remember. I think they said from a ladder several feet up onto pavement."
"So what happened?"
"She went home. I checked on her daily. Frankly, I was worried about her. She wasn't afraid at the hospital, just confused, but as she kept re-experiencing the confusion of not knowing who or where she was, she started to panic."
Trent held his breath so his emotion wouldn't come through in his breathing. How horrifying. His poor Molly. He chewed his lip, a bad habit that surfaced when he was having trouble holding in his emotions.
After the stretched pause, Karen continued, "She did improve, but the strange part was her memory before the accident never came back. I don't think she has a clear memory of that month, either."
"But you said PTA lasts for about a month?"
"Yes, only a third of cases usually go past that. But she exhibited symptoms of retrograde amnesia, where she couldn't remember her past before the accident."
"So her case is unusual?"
"To say the least. I asked the doctors a lot of questions, researched myself, but science doesn't have every answer. And all these numbers haven't helped Molly." Karen paused this time before she asked, "Am I speaking to a friend? A friend to Molly?"
"I believed you right away because Molly told me about how you're helping her. So I'll tell you what I really think. But this is something I haven't shared with Molly."
"Yes?" He felt sweat beads on his forehead.
"This seems more like a case of not wanting to talk."
"Excuse me?" Trent again told himself Molly wouldn't lie to him. "Why do you think she's hiding something?"
"Oh, no, not like that. Have you ever heard of someone who wouldn't speak after a traumatic incidence?"
"Yes, in movies."
"I think Molly wants to regain her memory more than anything, but she's terrified of what she'll find. I think part of her is blocking her memory. You see, there wasn't enough damage to her brain to permanently erase her long term memory."
"Okay." He digested her theory. "So, with support, you think she'll remember everything?"
"Maybe, when, if, her mind decides she can handle the event that made her want to forget." When Trent didn't comment, Karen added, "This is, of course, my personal opinion, apart from medical science. I am just a nurse. I'm not supposed to diagnose these kinds of things. But I've spent a lot of time with Molly, and some time with her parents before they died, and I think something awful did this to her."
Trent still couldn't speak.
"You'll help her?" Karen asked.
"Yes." He swallowed. "I'm going to get to the bottom of this. For Molly." And for them, but he didn't add that part out loud.
Later Molly and Alicia headed back to Alicia's house laughing about the movie and how they spilled popcorn everywhere. Alicia had even thrown a few pieces back at a pesky kid in front of them. Molly noticed popcorn stuck in Alicia's hair and pulled it out, holding it up for her to see and causing more laughter.
"I want to show you one more place." Alicia drove into Ridge City and up a street Molly hadn't seen yet, since she'd returned. A few blocks up the road, Alicia said quietly, "That's his house."
After a long driveway, a wide brick house sat surrounded by rose bushes. Molly pictured them in bloom, thinking maybe they were red because that would set off the reds and oranges in the bricks. The lawn between the house and link fence didn't have a single weed, and looked so perfectly thick and good for lying on. Under a starlit sky on a warm summer night, crickets chirping, his arm under her head, talking about their dreams.
A car behind them honked and Alicia waved them by. After the distraction, Molly tried to recapture the feeling that had just hit her, but it was a blurry thought about laying on that perfectly kept lawn. The car sat in neutral as Molly took in the house. Her eyes moved to the mailbox and the sign swinging under it that read Williams.
"He's been here a while?" she asked, wondering about a single man who hangs a sign like that on his mailbox. She thought of him watching her leave earlier that day, and how she felt when he looked at her.
"And plans to stay a while, too," Alicia answered. "There's a five acre backyard. I love his house, it has a wide fireplace, open layout, but it's still cozy."
"Hmm. It sounds really nice." Molly wanted to go inside and see it for herself. She asked, "Why didn't he bring me here?"
"Oh." A long pause. "Maybe he doesn't think you're ready."
Ready? Would she ever be ready? Her next question popped into her head and out her mouth. "Has he dated?"
Wow she didn't really want to know.
"Since?" Alicia almost snorted. "Of course not. He was in love with you since kindergarten. We've always teased him because he's so practical and analytical about everything but loving you."
Loving you. Molly didn't turn to look at her friend as the words echoed over and over in her head. Loving you. Molly added patience to Alicia's list about Trent, because what kind of man waited around for a woman for so long?
Alicia put the car in gear and drove back to her house where they had lunch with David. He was polite enough not to ask if Molly remembered anything that day, but his pointed look at his wife caused her to say, "No, not a thing."
They were eating salad, beer bread, and homemade clam chowder. It was so delicious Molly refused to let her stomach wince in frustration. After only a day with Alicia, she trusted her. Molly spoke up and said, "I want my memory back, but even more I want to uncover why I took off, if I did, that is."
"It is strange," David murmured, and Alicia shot him a look.
"I agree, it is," Molly said in David's defense though she wondered at Alicia's concerned look. Her friend seemed to tell things like she saw them. "I was with my parents, who knew all of you were here looking for me, but they didn't call anyone."
"I wonder what they were running from."
The thought had been teasing the back of Molly's mind, but she still jumped when she heard it said out loud. "I want to find that out, too. I want to know all of it, and why they were keeping it from me."
"Are you sure they were?" her friend asked. Molly admitted she couldn't be sure of anything, but she had a gut feeling that something had forced them into leaving quickly. The phone rang and David rose to answer it, letting the women continue the conversation. A minute later, he told Molly that Trent wanted to take her out for dinner that evening.
"Dinner?" What would she wear? Maybe she wasn't ready for dinner out with him. Her face flushed before Molly realized it was probably more about getting down to business and solving all of this than . . . dinner. He needed to gather more information and get to the bottom of this mess. That mess didn't necessarily include her feelings for him, if she had feelings, that is. She cleared her throat and tried to look normal, which was a bit tough with Alicia grinning at her.
... continued ...