It is such a thrill to a zealous reader like me to not only realise that one of my favourite authors never fails to blow my mind with her stories, but that she also remains capable of surprising me, time after time, as I never quite know what kind of ‘journey’ she would take me on, always somehow managing to leave me utterly stunned in the aftermath of her extraordinary tales. This book was like no other that I have ever read, its unique structure and pace designed to make our hearts race, skip beats, melt and crush from one moment to another, never knowing what to expect next. Meticulously assembled to ‘feed’ us only little snippets of the story at a time while our minds are frantically tiling the puzzle pieces to form the picture we are so desperate to complete—this is an impeccably written story, infused with suspense and cloaked in mystery, showing us the hefty price of a second chance at happiness in life.
“You get to be whoever you want to be, without the burden of your past.”
A young woman is found beaten, raped, and left for dead in the middle of a forest, her young body desperately clinging onto its last thread of life. We don’t know much about the man who rescues her except that he is in love with her, and that no one can know that she was found. After a myriad of life saving procedures and a long hospital recovery, the young woman wakes up with no recollection of her past or any of the events that caused her injuries. Confused, scared, ashamed of her scars, her battered body is a constant reminder of everything that has happened to her, and of everything she has no memory of, her mind having locked itself in a desperate act of self-preservation.
“Why can’t I seem to recall a single scrap of my life? Not a face, not a name, not a childhood pet. Nothing.”
And then we suddenly flip into the past, where we meet a young trophy wife to a cruel man several decades her senior, whose life is nothing like she hoped it would be. Physically and mentally abused on a daily basis, Alexandria Petrova is alone in the world but for the man who had promised to hand it to her on a silver platter, trapped in a loveless marriage and in a life that requires her to abide by her husband’s every whim. When a young man’s unexpected act of kindness stirs something inside her, Alexandria begins to question her decisions in life, and wishing for more. The more time they spend together, and the more his every action shows her the way she always dreamed of being loved, the more she blossoms before his eyes, becoming the vivacious but gentle young woman she was born to be. But some mistakes in life are not easy to erase, Alexandria’s newfound happiness making her oblivious to the dangers lurking within her own marital bed.
“I’d never leave you alone in the dark.”
Jesse has loved Alexandria from the moment her lips touched his on a stormy night on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. He felt her unhappiness in her every breath, but her passionate kiss marked his soul, making him unable to forget her even though he never even saw her face. When he recognises her in the young wife of the ostentatious brute who hires him to restore his car, he is unable to look away. Or walk away until she is his.
“In your life. Are you happy? Or do you ever wish you could just start over?”
We are given two timelines to follow simultaneously, constantly flipping from past to present, but in both we see two people falling in love, slowly, cautiously, irreversibly. In the past, a young woman is afraid of her own future, incapable of walking away from the only happiness she has ever experienced in her adult life regardless of what it might cost her to pursue it, while in the present, that same young woman is terrified of her past, her scars an incessant reminder of what her mind won’t let her recall.
“Someone must be missing me. Even just one person, right?”
What I loved the most about this story is the fallible nature of all the characters in it, especially the two leading ones. Jesse and Alexandria are imperfect people, people who make mistakes, act impulsively, fail to consider the consequences of their own actions until it becomes too late, but they are only following the paths their hearts have drawn before them, which is even more evident when they are given a second chance at happiness. Their love story is not about an all-consuming passion burning between them and making them blind to the world around them—it is a story of two souls being drawn to one another, finding more joy in the few fleeting moments spent in each other’s company than in anything else in their lives. It felt to me as if we were intentionally left craving that emotional intensity that was implied in their every word, in their every glance directed towards one another, putting all emphasis on the irresistible pull between them and the unique connection that brought them to each other time after time. This is not a love story born out of carnal pleasure. This is a story about love, first and foremost, a selfless love, a genuine love, a once-in-a-lifetime kind of love.
“If she doesn’t remember me, if she didn’t feel trapped and utterly alone, would a girl like her fall for me a second time?”
I never wanted this book to end. It was such an enjoyable reading experience beginning to end, with an incredible cast of secondary characters that made the story even more colourful and hard to let go of. Every single aspect of this story is unique, unexpected, riveting, and every moment spent reading it has been outright unforgettable. A must-read.
“If you wait long enough, the truth always finds its way.”
This can’t be real . . . This can’t be real . . . This can’t be real . . .
The words cycle round and round in my mind like the wheels on my speeding ’Cuda as its ass-end slips and slides over the gravel and ice. This car is hard to handle on the best of days, built front-heavy and overloaded with horsepower. I’m going to put myself into one of these damn trees if I don’t slow down.
I jam my foot against the gas pedal.
I can’t slow down now.
Not until I know that Boone was wrong about what he claims to have overheard. His Russian is mediocre at best. I’ll give any- thing for him to be wrong about this.
My gut clenches as my car skids around another turn, the cone shape of Black Butte looming like a monstrous shadow ahead of me in the pre-dawn light. The snowy tire tracks framed by my headlights might not even be the right ones, but they’re wide like Viktor’s Hummer and they’re sure as hell the only ones down this old, deserted logging road. No one comes out here in January.
The line of trees marking the dead end comes up on me before I expect it. I slam on my brakes, sending my car sliding side- ways toward the old totem pole. It’s still sliding when I cut the rumbling engine, throw open the door, and jump out, fumbling with my flashlight. It takes three hard presses with my shaking hands to get the light to hold.
I begin searching the ground. The mess of tread marks tells me that someone pulled a U-turn. The footprints tell me that more than one person got out. And when I see the half-finished cigarette butt with that weird alphabet on the filter, I know Boone wasn’t wrong.
“Alex!” My echo answers once . . . twice . . . before the vast wilderness swallows up my desperate cry. With frantic passes of my flashlight, my knuckles white against its body, I search the area until I spot the sets of footprints that lead off the old, narrow road and into the trees.
Frigid fingers curl around my heart.
Darting back to my car, I snatch the old red-and-blue plaid wool blanket that she loves so much from the backseat. Ice-cold snow packs into the sides of my sneakers as I chase the trail past the line of trees and into the barren field ahead, my blood rushing through my ears the only sound I process.
The only sign of life.
Raw fear numbs my senses, the Pacific Northwest winter numbs my body, but I push forward because if . . .
The beam of light passes over a still form lying facedown in the snow. I’d recognize that pink coat and platinum-blond hair of hers anywhere; the sparkly blue dress that she hates so much looks like a heap of sapphires against a white canvas.
My heart freezes.
“Alex.” It’s barely a whisper. I’m unable to produce more, my lungs giving up on me. I run, stumbling through the foot of snow until I’m on my knees and crawling forward to close the distance. A distance of no more than ten feet and yet one that seems like miles.
There’s no mistaking the spray of crimson freckling the snow around her head. Or that most of her long hair is now dark and matted. Or that her silver stockings are torn and stained red, and a pool of blood has formed where her dress barely covers her thighs. Plenty of footprints mark the ground around her. He must have been here for a while.
I know that there are rules to follow, steps to make sure that I don’t cause her further harm. But I ignore them because the sinking feeling in my stomach tells me I can’t possibly hurt her more than he already has. I nestle her head with one hand while I slide the other under her shoulder. I roll her over.
Cold shock knocks the wind out of me.
I’ve never seen anybody look like this.
I scoop her limp body into my arms, cradling the once beau- tiful face that I’ve seen in every light—rage to ecstasy and the full gamut in between—yet is now unrecognizable. Placing two blood-coated fingers over her throat, I wait. Nothing.
A light pinch against her lifeless wrist. Nothing.
Maybe a pulse does exist but it’s hidden, masked by my own racing one.
Then again, by the look of her, likely not.
One . . . two . . . three . . . plump, serene snowflakes begin floating down from the unseen sky above. Soon, they will con- verge and cover the tracks, the blood. The evidence. Mother Nature’s own blanket to hide the unsightly blemish in her yard.
“I’m so sorry.” I don’t try to restrain the hot tears as they roll down my cheeks to land on her mangled lips—lips I had stolen plenty of kisses from, back when I was too stupid to realize how dangerous that really was. This is my fault. She had warned me. If I had just listened, had stayed away from her, had not told her how I felt . . .
. . . had not fallen wildly in love with her.
I lean down to steal a kiss even now, the coppery taste of her blood mixing with my salty tears. “I’m so damn sorry. I should never have even looked your way,” I manage to get out around my sobs, tucking the blanket she loved to curl up in over her.
An almost inaudible gasp slips out. A slight breeze against my mouth more than anything else.
My lungs freeze, my eyes glued to her, afraid to hope. “Alex?” Is it possible?
A moment later, a second gasp—a wet, rattling sound— escapes.
She’s not dead.
Not yet, anyway.
The fragrance calls to me.
I cannot see, for my eyes are sealed shut against the wicked glow in his stare.
I cannot hear, for my ears have blocked out his appalling promises.
I cannot feel, for my body has long since shattered.
But, as I lie in the cool stillness of the night, waiting for my final peace, that comforting waft of burning bark and twigs and crispy leaves encases me.
It whispers to me that everything will be okay.
And I so desperately long to believe it.
* * *
Beep . . .
“. . . basilar skull fracture . . .”
Beep . . .
“. . . collapsed lung . . .”
Beep . . .
“. . . ruptured spleen . . .”
Beep . . .
“. . . frostbite . . .”
Beep . . .
Beep . . .
“Will she live?”
Beep . . .
“I honestly don’t know how she has survived this long.”
Beep . . .
“We need to keep this quiet for now.”
“Gabe, you just showed up on the doorstep of my hospital with a half-dead girl. How am I supposed to do that?”
“You just do. Call me if she wakes up. No one questions her but me. No one, Meredith.”
* * *
“Don’t try to talk yet,” someone—a woman—warns softly. I can’t see her. I can’t see anything; my lids open to mere slits, enough to admit a haze of light and a flurry of activity around me—gentle fingertips, low murmurs, papers rustling.
And then that rhythmic beep serenades me back into oblivion.