STAY with ME

by Beverly Long

 

 

A Berkley Sensation

Time Travel Romance

ISBN#0-425-20062-0

 

 

Chapter One

 

California, Present Day

 

         “You can’t just quit.”

         Sarah Jane Tremont smiled at Melody, the woman who had been both her friend and co-worker for the last six years.  She walked across the small office and grabbed her diplomas and professional license off the wall.  “Actually, I can,” Sarah said, dropping the frames into the cardboard box, not caring when they scraped together.

          With more care, she removed the remaining frame.  She’d picked up the old black and white photo last year, while walking through an antiques mall.  Just a simple nine-by-seven print, it had stopped her in her tracks.  It was a picture of a woman sitting on a log, facing a campfire.  Her back was to the camera, her long skirt touching the ground, her hair ribbons dancing in the wind.  The photographer had captured the sun just as it slipped behind the mountains in the distance.

         What had captured Sarah’s attention had been the man.  He stood off to the woman’s side, just a foot or so back.  He had one leg propped on a tree stump and his lanky frame was bent over as he rested an elbow on his thigh.  He watched the woman as she watched the fire. 

         The photographer had chosen an angle that offered just a hint of the man’s profile, just a peek at a strong chin.  He wore a cowboy hat and a long coat.  Sarah reached out and traced the man, letting her finger run down the length of his body.  A tingle started in the tip of her finger and traveled across her hand, causing the hair on her arm to rise.

         She yanked her hand back and rubbed her still-tingling fingers together. They felt almost hot.  She raised her hand toward her face and sniffed her fingers.  She could smell the campfire, the burning evergreens.

         “What the heck are you doing?” Melody asked.

         Dreaming.  “Nothing,” Sarah denied.  Before she lost her nerve, she reached for the picture, careful to touch just the frame.  She lifted it off the wall and gently laid it on top of the rest of her things.

         She pulled the small nails out of their holes and dropped them into the garbage.  “Who knows?” Sarah said, waving a hand toward the faded wall.  “Maybe this will be a good excuse for them to paint the office.”

         “I don’t care about paint,” Melody said, her eyes filling with tears.  “I care about you.  I don’t understand why you have to leave.”

That was easy.  “Because I can’t stay,” she said.  She stood next to the door, her half-full box propped on her hip and took one last look around the small, windowless office.  For the next months, as long as it took, she’d do what she could for the Lopez family.  When that was over, she didn’t have a clue what she’d do.  She only knew that she couldn’t come back here. 

These kids and their families deserved better—certainly more—but she had nothing else to give.  She was empty.

Melody brushed a tear off her cheek with an impatient swipe.  “For God’s sake, you’re a social worker, Sarah, not a miracle worker.”

That was too bad, because Rosa Lopez and her sweet eight-year-old son had needed a miracle. 

“I’ll call you,” Sarah said, as she wrapped one arm around her friend’s shoulder and pulled her close.  “Maybe not right away.  But I will.”

When Sarah left the four-story brick school, she heard the click of the metal security door as it closed behind her.   Without looking back, she walked across the deserted cement lot, stepping over the wide cracks.  Two basketball hoops, looking forlorn with their torn netting and scratched poles, swayed in the brisk spring wind.  A slide, more rust than metal, stood off to one end.

During the day, kids played in the front and staff parked in the back two rows, separated from the busy street by a wire fence that did little to protect the children from the local drug dealers but caught every piece of garbage that blew around the gray streets.

When she got to her car, she threw her box and purse in the trunk.  As she eased her six-year old Toyota into traffic and headed west, she saw Mr. Ramirez flip the sign on his front door.  During the day, he sold gas and magazines to the teachers and candy and soda to the children.  At night, he pulled the grates over his windows and got, as the saying went, the hell out of Dodge.

Except this wasn’t Dodge.  It was Salt Flats, the poorest suburb of Los Angeles.  Sixty percent of the population earned under what the government defined as the poverty level.  In actuality, almost everybody in Salt Flats lived in poverty.  If it weren’t for the drug dealers and the hookers, there would have been no real commerce.     

Twenty-five minutes later, Sarah took her exit, just like every other night, but at the last minute, she turned left, heading for the ocean.  There was no need to go home, to her tiny apartment with its white walls and beige carpet.  There were no files to read, no case reports to dictate, or telephone calls to return.

Well, that was mostly true.  An hour ago the harried school secretary had jammed a note in her hand with a name and a number she didn’t recognize.  Sarah had slipped it in her pocket.  She supposed the least she could do was call from the beach and let this person know that she wasn’t going to be able to help.

She was done helping.

She needed time to breathe, to think, to find her center again.  She’d sit in the sun, jog in the park, maybe even take up the piano again.  She’d missed the music, the sense of peace playing gave her. 

When she got to the beach, she pulled into the empty parking lot, grateful that it was really too cool to be there.  She didn’t feel like sharing space with anybody else tonight.  Shifting in her seat, she kicked off her shoes, then reached under her long silk skirt to yank off her pantyhose.  It had felt odd to have a dress on at work.  Her standard uniform was slacks and a blouse, something that could survive milk carton missiles in the cafeteria, gum on chairs, and vomit from nervous kids. 

She’d dressed up for the potluck, the going-away party that Melody had insisted upon.  The symbolism of the event hadn’t been lost on her.  She’d dressed like she might for her own funeral, and the well-wishers had milled around, staring at her, talking in low tones, not really sure what to say.  What was the right thing to say to someone who was giving up?

All she’d ever wanted was to make a difference.  But it was too late for that.  She wasn’t going to get her wish.

Sarah opened her car door and at the last minute, slipped out of her conservative suit jacket.  She’d freeze in her sleeveless blouse but she wanted to feel the harsh spray of the cold water on her skin.  She grabbed her cell phone and put it and her keys in her pocket.

Sarah loved the beach, especially at night, when the tide rolled in, each wave more aggressive than the last, leaving jumbles of seaweed and all kinds of other treasures in its swift retreat.  She could spend hours looking across the water, searching for the exact point where the dark blue sea met the purple sky, and the two became one, a perfect welcome mat for the moon.

Tonight’s sky had streaks of pink and lavender, and a splash of red where the sun barely kissed the horizon as it slipped away.  It would be dark soon.  She strolled along the deserted beach, stopping every so often to examine a pretty shell or an unusual piece of wood.  When she slipped one of the shells into her pocket, her fingers brushed against the message slip.  Before the light faded completely, she needed to return the call.

She’d dialed the first three numbers when she saw the footprints.  They started thirty feet in front of her.  She watched as the bubbles of the gurgling tide swept over the prints, and she waited for them to disappear. 

But they didn’t.

She dialed the remaining four numbers and took another few steps.  A wave washed first against her calves, then flowed over the footprints.  Their perfection remained undiminished.

The phone rang three times before a man answered.  “This is Sarah Jane Tremont,” she said, as she put one bare foot inside the first print.  It stretched inches beyond her toes.  “I’m returning your call.”

“Thank you,” he said, then paused, like he was trying to remember why he’d called.  “Oh, yeah.  Here’s the file.  I’m a customer service representative for Dynasty Insurance.  You had called a couple of weeks ago about a policy that Rosa Lopez purchased last year.”

She’s called about twenty times.  She wondered which time he was referring to.  She took another step and thought she might be crazy.  It almost seemed like the footprint fit better.  “Yes.”

“I’m not sure how to tell you this, but I think we made a mistake. We…”

Sarah listened and walked and realized that this was the miracle that Rosa Lopez had been waiting for.  When the call ended, she snapped her cell phone shut, stunned from the turn of events.

It took her a minute to realize that the footprints had become a perfect fit. 

A sizzle started in her toes, jumped over the arch of her foot, streaked up her leg, and lodged itself in the middle of her chest.  She felt as if she’d stuck a knife in the toaster.  She wanted to move, to fling herself forward, to hurl herself back, to protect herself, but she couldn’t. 

 A jagged spear of lightning split the now-dark sky and thunder roared.  Wind, so strong it pushed her to her knees, came from behind.  Sand whirled around her, biting into her skin.  She squeeze her eyes shut and cupped her hands over her ears.  The ground shook, sending her sprawling face down in the sand.

Her cell phone flew.  “No,” she cried.  She had to call Rosa Lopez.  Now.

Then she heard it.  The noise.  A hundred times louder than the thunder, a hundred times more frightening.  She opened her eyes.  A wall of water swept across the ocean, heading right towards her.  Sarah screamed as the first spray hit her face. 

 

 

She woke up flat on her back.  Every bone in her body ached, her head throbbed, her eyes felt glued shut, and her tongue seemed too big for her mouth.  She licked her dry lips and tasted salt.

She’d undoubtedly drowned.  She was dead.  Done.  Finished.  The fat lady had sung.

She wiggled her fingers and her toes.  Everything moved.  She patted her arms, her cheeks.  Everything felt pretty solid.  So much for all that stuff about ashes to ashes, dust to dust. 

She pried one eye open, then the other.  Rolling to her side, she got to her knees, and then stood up.  She felt a little lightheaded, the way she did when she’d skipped both breakfast and lunch.

In the moonlight, the trees, their branches full, cast long shadows.  She saw mountains in the distance.  Stars, brighter than she’d ever seen, sparkled in the sky.  Grass, a whole field of it, tall enough to reach her waist, swayed in the soft breeze.  It smelled sweet, like spring flowers.      

It had to be Heaven. 

She jumped when she heard a noise behind her.  Whirling around, she saw two yellow eyes, ground level, staring at her.  She screamed, the sound echoing in the quiet night.  The startled squirrel ran up the trunk of the nearest tree.

Just seeing the animal made her feel a little better.  She’d always hoped her fat old cat who’d died just last year, had made it to Heaven.  If a squirrel got in, Tiny was a sure thing.

She looked to her left, then to the right.  A narrow dirt road stretched as far as the eye could see in both directions.  Hoping for a bit of divine inspiration, she looked up and studied the sky.

She tried to pick out the brightest star.  That had, after all, worked out okay for the Wise Men.  She patted the pockets of her still-damp skirt.  Fresh out of frankincense or gold.  Oh, well.

She turned to the right and began walking down the dirt road, wincing when she stepped on a sharp rock.  She got another hundred yards before a second rock sliced into her other foot. She stood first on one foot, then the other, probing the cuts with her fingers. 

When had she had her last tetanus booster?

She laughed, feeling giddy.  What did it matter?     

She squatted down, rubbed her hands across the grass, attempting to wipe the blood off.  She managed to smear it up past both wrists.  She resisted the urge to use the edge of her skirt.  It might have to last her through eternity. Now she really regretted that she hadn’t worn her practical slacks and blouse.  “I hope you’ve got some extra bathrobes, God.”  She spoke quietly as she continued down the path.  “Some of those white thick ones, the kind they have in expensive hotels.” 

She took a few more steps.  “I always figured Heaven would have pizza and hot chocolate and red licorice.”  Another six steps.  “Not that I’m complaining, God.  I’m sure there’s more than this.”  She did not want the Big Guy to think poorly of her.  After all, she’d handled this death thing pretty well so far.  No sense letting Him down now.

She walked another ten minutes, each step a bit more painful than the last.  She had almost decided to give up and let God or whoever come and find her, when she reached the top of the hill and spied a log cabin, another half-mile down the road.  A wooden barn, three times as big as the cabin, stood a hundred yards to the right.  

She hobbled as fast as her sore feet allowed, slowing when she got close enough to see better.  No porch light beckoned.  No sidewalk led up to the front door.  Just more dirt.  “I’m assuming this is all a staging area, God,” she whispered.  “I’m going to walk through that door and find Paradise.  Eternal peace.”

For the first time, she felt fear.  What if she was doomed to live an eternity of unending dirt roads and bloody feet?  The biggest fear of all hit her, almost taking her breath away.  What if this wasn’t Heaven?  What if it was something else?  She didn’t want to say the name. 

“Here’s the deal, God.  I know I gave up.  That doesn’t make me a bad person.  I know I could—”

A dog’s angry bark interrupted her.  That scared her.  In Heaven, all the dogs would be gentle Labradors.  In the other place, they’d be pit bulls.

She wanted to run, but to where?  Heart pounding, hands clammy, she edged closer to the door.  She raised her hand to knock but before she got the chance, the door swung open.  A man—a big, terrifyingly menacing man with a gun slung over one shoulder—stood there.  He held a lantern in one hand.  The light played over his strong features, his broad forehead, his straight nose and whiskered chin.

He extended his arm, raising the lantern to get a good look at her.  He didn’t say a word, he just glared at her, his eyes filled with hostility.  She opened her mouth but no words came out.  She wanted to run but her legs refused to obey. 

“That’s enough, Morton,” he said, turning his head slightly.  The barking stopped.

The devil and his dog, Morton. 

He turned back toward her.  He set the lantern down, shrugged one powerful shoulder and lowered his gun, placing it next to the door.  Then he looked at her again.  “What the hell are you doing here?” he asked.  “I thought you said you were never coming back.”

 

 

John barely kept her head from hitting the floor.  She’d dropped like a stone.  But once he held her in his arms, he didn’t have any notion of what to do with her.  Then he saw the blood on her hands and feet, and he knew he had to help her.

“Damn, Morton,” he said to the dog.  “She’s hurt.”

The big dog whined in response and ran nervous circles around John’s legs.  “Get out of the way,” he scolded the dog, as he carried the woman to the bed in the far corner of the room.  With as much care as he could, he placed her on top of the worn blanket, then took a step back.  She looked small and pale and so very still.  Reaching forward, he held his hand in front of her lips.  Delicate breaths warmed his fingers.

“It’s okay, boy,” he said, patting the dog’s head, knowing he wasn’t reassuring the animal so much as himself.  What had brought this woman to his door in the middle of the night wearing nothing but her shift?  Trying to ignore her barely covered breasts, her small waist, and the sweet flare of her hips, he concentrated on her face.

She looked thinner than he remembered.  She’d cut her hair, too.  Now it just brushed her shoulders.  He remembered the hours she’d spent in front of the mirror, crimping her long hair with the hot iron.  Then she’d laid out her powders and her paints and weighed down her face with a layer of oil.  Tonight, her skin, still pale, looked bare.  He ran a thumb across her cheek.  Just skin.  He could see the faint shadow of freckles on her nose.  Somehow, it made her look younger.  Innocent.

“Deceitful witch,” he muttered.  This woman was no innocent.  She probably hadn’t been born innocent.

He held the lantern above her head and moved it down the length of her body, looking for injuries.  When he got to her feet and saw fresh blood oozing from both, he quickly set the lantern down on the table next to the bed.  He walked across the room, grabbed a clean cloth from the cupboard, and wet it with water from the pitcher he kept on the table.  He returned to the end of the bed and picked up one foot.  The warmth and softness of her skin shocked him. 

“Conniving gold-digger,” he reminded himself.

He wiped first one foot, then the other.  One of the cuts worried him.  Grabbing another clean cloth from the cupboard, he doubled it over once, and then again.  Pressing the edges of the cut skin together, he wrapped the cloth around her foot, tying it in a knot on top.

He got his third cloth, the last clean one he had, wet it, and wiped off her hands.  She sighed, a soft sweet sound.  He flicked his eyes to her face.  Her pale pink lips parted and he could see just the tip of her tongue.

“Manipulative, spoiled, rude,” he said, kneading his forehead with his fingers.  Damn, his head hurt.  “Come on,” he said.  “You’re not the fainting type.”  He put his hand on her shoulder and shook her gently.  She didn’t stir.

Making yet another trip to his cupboards, he reached for his vinegar bottle.  After pouring a generous amount into a cup, he brought it back to the bed and held it under her nose.  She sniffed, coughed, and turned her head to avoid the smell.

“Good girl,” he urged.  “Now open your damn eyes or I swear, I’ll dunk your head in a pail of this stuff.”

Her dark lashes fluttered against her pale skin.  She opened her eyes, startling him.  He’d never noticed before just how blue they were.

He watched as she looked first at him, then from one corner of the room to the other, then at Morton, who sat at the end of the bed, growling.  Her gaze settled back on him.  Big and round, her eyes filled her face.  She looked scared to death.

He didn’t remember her ever looking scared.  Belligerent.  Sullen.  All that and more.  But never scared. 

“Sarah, you’re okay,” he assured her.

If anything, she looked even more frightened.

“Did someone hurt you?” he asked, struggling to get the words out.  No woman deserved to be mistreated.  Not even this one.

She shook her head.

“Tell me what happened,” he demanded.

She cowered against the bed, causing the narrow strap of her shift to slip a couple inches lower on her bare shoulder.  He worked hard to keep his eyes on her face. 

“Never mind,” he said.  “We’ll talk about it later.  Would you like some water?”

She nodded.

On his way to get the cup, he opened the door for Morton.  When the dog didn’t look inclined to move, John whistled.  The dog whined one more time, gave Sarah a quick look, and then left, but not before brushing his big body up against John’s legs.  John shut the door and walked over to the shelf above his stove, picked up his extra cup, and filled it with water from the pitcher.  He went back to the bed and held it out to her.

Their fingers met around the metal cup.  His large tanned ones seemed twice the size of her small white ones.  He saw the scar across the first joint of his ring finger, an old reminder of Peter’s clumsiness with a fishing hook.

Peter.  His brother.  Younger than John by just a year.  The two of them had been inseparable.  The only thing that had ever come between them had been a woman.  This woman.

He let go of the cup.  She caught it but not before a little water sloshed over the edge.  The water stain spread across the pale blue of her shift.  He backed up, needing to put some distance between them.

She might look soft and sweet, but this woman had killed his brother. 

Maybe she hadn’t pushed him down the silver mine shaft with her own hands, but if not for her incessant wanting, her need for things, her inability to ever be satisfied, Peter wouldn’t have been compelled to take the risk that had cost him his life.

“How was Cheyenne?” he asked.  That’s where she’d been headed six months ago, just three weeks after his brother’s death.  He’d come home, after working a backbreaking ten hours clearing trees, and her bags had been packed.

His mother, who had moved in after Peter’s funeral, had been sitting at the table.  Sarah stood by the window.  She hadn’t even bothered to say hello when he’d entered the room.

“I’m leaving,” she’d said.  “I kept my promise.  I stuck around long enough to know I’m not with child.  Proof positive came today.  Thank the sweet Lord.”

He still remembered how cold her words had sounded.  He’d understood the sadness in his mother’s eyes.  It wasn’t Sarah’s leaving that pained her. She wouldn’t miss her daughter-in-law.  It was that she’d lost her last hope.  There’d be no grandchild to rock in her arms.  No chance to hold Peter’s child tight against her breast.

“I’ll be on tomorrow’s stage,” Sarah had said.  “I need you to get my bags to town.  Is the wagon fixed?”

He’d nodded.  It didn’t matter.  He’d drag her damn cases on his back, the full three miles, to get the evil out of his house.

“I’d like my money,” she’d said, holding out her hand.

He’d walked back to the barn, dug the money out of its hiding place, and returned to his house.  He’d thrown the packet on the table.  She’d picked it up, counted it, and put it into her valise. 

“Sarah, you don’t have to go,” his mother had said.  “You’re my son’s wife.  There’s a place for you here.”

“I was your son’s wife,” she’d responded.  “Now I’m a rich widow.  I’m leaving and I’m never coming back.”

But she had.  Tonight of all nights.  Had Peter lived, he’d have been thirty-one today.  “You’re not welcome here,” John said.  “I’m not as charitable as my mother.”

“Mother?” she whispered.

She looked confused, almost forlorn. 

“You’re on the next stage,” he said.  “I’ll put you on it myself.”

“Stage?”  She took another small sip of water.

“You’re not my responsibility,” he said. 

She nodded, never taking her big blue eyes off him.  “I thought I was dead.”

He stood up, grabbed his hat off the hook, and jammed it on his head.  “I couldn’t be so lucky,” he muttered, not wanting to admit how her words shook him.  He hated her, sure.  But he didn’t want her dead.

She didn’t respond at all, just blinked her big eyes a couple times.  And then a tear slid down one pale cheek.

What kind of man made a woman cry?  He turned away, unwilling to watch the results of his own surliness.  He got to the door before she spoke.

“Thank you for helping me,” she said, looking at her bandaged foot.

He didn’t want her gratitude.  He wanted her gone.  “Forget it.  Just get better so you can get the hell out of my life.”

###

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Copyright 2006, Beverly Long

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