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Authors: Karen Kirst

Reclaiming His Past

BOOK: Reclaiming His Past
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No Possessions, No Memories, Not Even a Name!

The wounded stranger found on Jessica O'Malley's property has no idea who he is. And Jessica would be foolish to trust him after being proven so wrong about a former suitor who turned out to be a criminal. But Jessica's wariness toward the newcomer is soon turning to interest...and hope.

Until he knows his true identity, “Grant” can't make a life in this quaint Tennessee town. He certainly shouldn't be thinking so much about the feisty redhead with beautiful, guarded eyes. But even as he fights to keep a distance from Jessica, his feelings for her grow. And he can't help but wonder if he'll want to return to his old life when his past is revealed.

Smoky Mountain Matches: Dreams of home and family come true in the Smoky Mountains

“You and I aren't friends?” she said.

In the intimate closeness the serene, dark forest imparted, he lifted his head to regard her with eyes that had deepened to a navy hue. “That's a question only you can answer, Jessica. Friends trust each other. They don't suspect them of deceit and ill intent.”

There was no condemnation in his tone. He'd spoken frankly, but there was understanding there, too. As if he identified with her misgivings.

“In that case, the answer is yes.”

The slow arrival of gratitude, then relief and finally happiness passing over his clean-shaven features did serious damage to her defenses. Bolting to her feet, she bid him a brief good-night and reentered the house, seeking sanctuary in her room.

She couldn't allow herself to like Grant Parker. Empathy was acceptable. Concern for his health was natural. But opening herself up to a man, even for something as innocent as friendship, could very well be the first step to disaster.

was born and raised in East Tennessee near the Great Smoky Mountains. A lifelong lover of books, it wasn't until after college that she had the grand idea to write one herself. Now she divides her time between being a wife, homeschooling mom and romance writer. Her favorite pastimes are reading, visiting tearooms and watching romantic comedies.

Books by Karen Kirst

Love Inspired Historical

Smoky Mountain Matches

The Reluctant Outlaw
The Bridal Swap
The Gift of Family
“Smoky Mountain Christmas”
His Mountain Miss
The Husband Hunt
Married by Christmas
From Boss to Bridegroom
The Bachelor's Homecoming
Reclaiming His Past

Visit the Author Profile page at

Karen Kirst

I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go: I will guide thee with mine eye.


To Kelly Young—who could've guessed we'd wind up in the same place? I'm so thankful for you and your family. Looking forward to many more years of friendship.

Chapter One

Gatlinburg, Tennessee

t wasn't easy staying angry at a dead man.

Jessica O'Malley hesitated in the barn's entrance, the tang of fresh hay ripening the air. The horses whickered greetings from their stalls, beckoning her inside, probably hoping for a treat. She used to bring them carrots and apples. She used to enjoy spending time out here.

This place had become the source of her nightmares. Her gaze homed in on the spot where the man she'd loved had died defending her. The bloodstain was long gone, but the image of Lee as she'd held him during those final, soul-wrenching moments would be with her for as long as she lived.

His whispered apology, his last uttered words, came to her during those nights she couldn't sleep. At times she missed him so much it hurt to breathe. Other times she wished she could give him a piece of her mind. How could he have been so reckless, so irresponsible with their future?

If he'd been honest with her, if he'd made different choices, she wouldn't be living this lonely, going-through-the-motions existence She wouldn't be a shadow of her former self, clueless how to reclaim the fun-loving girl she once was.

Lost in troubling memories, she was wrenched back to the present by a weak cry for help. Her empty milk pail slipping from her fingers, Jessica hurried to investigate. She and her mother lived alone on the farm. And right this minute, her mother was inside the cabin preparing breakfast. She surged around the barn's exterior corner and had to grope the weathered wall for support at the unexpected sight of a bruised and battered man near the smokehouse.

He was hatless and looked as if he'd romped in a leaf pile, and his golden-blond hair was messy. “Can you help me?”

“Who are you? What do you want?”

He dropped to his knees, one hand outstretched and the other clutching his side. Jessica belatedly noticed the blood soaking through his tattered shirt. Bile rose into her throat. Lee's gunshot wound had done the same to his clothing. There'd been so much. It had covered her hands. Her dress. Even the straw covering the barn floor had been drenched with it.


The distress in his scraped-raw voice galvanized her into action. Searching the autumn-draped woods fanning out behind her farm's outbuildings, she hurried to his side and ducked beneath his arm. She barely had time to absorb the impact of his celestial blue eyes on hers. “What happened to you?”

“I...don't remember.”

Struggling to help him stand, she shot him a disbelieving look. At this moment, she supposed it didn't matter how he'd come to be on her property. He required immediate medical attention. “Let's get you inside.”

Several inches taller and made of solid muscle, he leaned heavily on her, his hitched breaths testament to his discomfort. His uneven gait made the distance to her two-story cabin seem impossible.

His injuries likely hadn't resulted from a wagon accident or a toss from the saddle. “Should I be worried someone will show up here to finish the job?”

The split on his full lower lip reopened when he frowned deeply. Dark blond stubble lined his hard cheeks and chin. “Can't say. My mind's gone hazy.”

Can't or won't? Either he was rattled, or he was reluctant to admit the truth. Perhaps he thought she'd refuse him aid if he did.

When they reached the main door, he sagged against the notched logs, eyes closed, chest heaving. Beneath his tan, a deep purple bruise blossomed over his cheekbone. What sort of trouble had befallen him?

“Just a few more steps,” she urged, compassion eclipsing suspicion. “Then you can rest.”

His golden lashes fluttered, and his startling gaze locked on to hers. “Thank you.”

Confusion and pain swirled in the depths, yet he'd taken the time to express gratitude. Yanking the door open, she called for her mother. He was too big and heavy for her to maneuver into the bedroom on her own, and his strength was fading fast.

“Is something the matter?” Alice advanced into the room wiping her hands on the apron stretched across her plump figure, bushy brows lifting above her spectacles. “Who's this?”

“I was about to milk Sadie when I heard him outside. Can you help me get him into Jane's room?”

Halfway to the couch, he stumbled, his hand curling into the wet, stained fabric of his shirt. A weak groan escaped him. Jessica prayed he wouldn't collapse right there on their living room floor.

“Just a little farther,” she grunted.

Having spent her entire life in these mountains, her ma had dealt with more than her fair share of mishaps. Solemn yet determined, she hurried over and took his other arm. Together they got him to her sister's old room and stripped the quilt off the bed before lowering him onto it.

“Let's see your wound, young man.” Alice edged his bloodied hand aside.

Jessica transferred her attention to his boots and began working them off.

“Looks like a knife's to blame.” Alice's tone was grave. “It's too deep for me to stitch up. We need Doc Owens.”

Grabbing a towel from the washstand, Alice leaned across and pressed it against his opposite flank.

“You go, Mama. I'll stay with him.”

“I'm not sure that's the best idea.”

“I am.” She was far more comfortable with firearms than her ma. Thanks to her cousins' patient instruction, she'd learned to protect herself. “I can handle this.”

The stranger dwarfed the bed, his body rigid atop the mattress, his head deep in the pillow and his teeth gritted. Images of Lee, wounded and dying on the barn floor, bombarded her. The boots hit the floor with a clatter.

He flinched.

“Jessica.” Her ma was looking at her with a knowing, sympathetic expression that she'd grown to loathe this past year, one that made her feel as if she was five years old again. “You don't have to prove anything to me.”

Sinking onto the mattress edge, she gently dislodged her ma's hand. “I'm not trying to prove anything. I'm armed. You're not. When was the last time you shot a gun, anyway?”

“Too long.” With a shake of her head, Alice began untying her apron strings. Wisps of her silver-streaked brown hair had escaped her loose bun to dance about her hairline. “Are you certain you don't mind? I know how you get around this sort of thing.”

“I'm certain.”

“I'll hurry.”

“Be careful. And don't worry about me.”

“That's like telling a robin not to fly,” she said wryly.

Her mother left her with the mystery man, the swish of the clock's pendulum punctuating the bed's creaking beneath their combined weight. Long lashes fanned against his cheeks. He possessed handsome, open features that made it hard to guess his age. Jessica figured him to be in his midtwenties.

His forehead screwed up. “Think I'm gonna be sick.”

Seizing the patterned washbowl, she struggled to maintain pressure on his injury as he tipped over the side of the bed. Unwanted sympathy welled in her chest. He collapsed against the pillow minutes later, perspiration dotting his brow.

Blond strands stuck to his forehead, and the impulse to smooth them back surprised her.

“False alarm, I guess,” he murmured.

“Hold the towel in position. I'll be right back.”

Jessica darted into her room across the hall and retrieved the tin of homemade ginger candies from her bedside cabinet.

“Try one.” Resuming her spot, she held one out to him. “They're good at relieving an upset stomach.”

When he'd complied, he glanced out the single window situated square in the middle of the log wall. Jane's old room faced the rear of their property. There wasn't much behind the cabin besides the well and outhouse. Beyond the small clearing, a thick deciduous forest dominated their property.

“Where are we?”

“In my home.”

“No, I mean what part of the country?”

“Tennessee. The eastern section. Gatlinburg, to be exact. About a day and a half's ride from Knoxville.”

A worried crease pulled his eyebrows together. “I don't know why I'm here.”

An air of uncertainty shrouded him. Was there a legitimate reason her earlier questions had gone unanswered?

“Have you hit your head?”

He sank his fingers into the short blond locks. He grimaced as he tentatively probed a place behind his ear. “Something did. There's a knot here.”

“Can you tell me your name?”

“Of course. It's...” Uncertainty flashed in his blue, blue eyes. “It's, ah...” He blanched. “I—I don't know. I can't remember. I can't remember anything.”

Jessica studied him. Either he was a seasoned con man, or the blow had scattered his memories.

* * *

Hands fisting in the mattress ticking, he fought the panic rippling through him.

His head felt as if it had been crushed beneath a loaded wagon wheel. The flesh where he'd been gutted like a fish burned hot, and the redhead's shifting weight as she stemmed the blood flow only served to inflame it further. The ache in his busted ankle was bearable by comparison.

Shoving all that aside, he tried to sort out the facts of his life. He'd woken facedown in the woods not far from this cabin, with no idea how he'd gotten there. A blank, black void prevented him from remembering. Faces scrolled through his mind, vaguely familiar and yet not. One clear memory replayed itself—a young boy calling to him, beckoning him to come and climb a tree.

“What's the last thing you remember?”

The ginger candy dissolved on his tongue. His stomach had calmed as she'd said it would.

“Waking up on your property.” Hurt. Disoriented. “Before that, I recall patches of information. People whose identities and how they relate to me I can't grasp.”

Disbelief shimmered in eyes the color of forest moss. She had expressive eyes, almond-shaped and rimmed with cinnamon-hued lashes and topped with bold, slashing eyebrows. High cheekbones were offset by a smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose. Her expressive mouth twisted in open irritation.

“I don't blame you for not trusting me,” he said. “I wouldn't believe me, either.”

Her gaze dropped to his wound for a second before skittering to the window draped with lacy white curtains. Beyond the glass, the cloudless sky was a brilliant blue. He realized he didn't even know what month it was. Or the year.

The panic pounced, constricting his lungs until he thought he'd suffocate.

Focus on the here and now. Maintain control.

“Your name is Jessica, right?”

Seated close, her chocolate-hued skirts spread over the ticking, she had to lean across him to reach his injury. Her long hair, restrained by a shiny brown ribbon, spilled over her ivory blouse like deep red silk. “Is it just you and your ma living here?”

“Why do you ask?” She visibly bristled.

“No reason.” He gestured to indicate the space decorated in bold hues of red, white and blue. The handmade quilt folded over the footboard had repeating diamond shapes, and a flag design dominated the hooked rug beside the bed. Maps of various sizes had been pinned to the wall. A stack of books joined a dusty jewelry box atop the dresser. “I hope I haven't taken over your room.”

“This used to be my sister's. She's married now.”

Her reticence wasn't surprising. Why wouldn't she be concerned for her safety? She couldn't know his intentions, whether or not he meant her harm.

Unease niggled at the base of his skull. “Have you lived here your whole life?”


“Suppose that means I'm not a local, seeing as you don't recognize me.”

“Your accent isn't Southern.”

“It's not exactly Northern, either. I could've moved here at some point.”

“Perhaps.” She shifted again, her hand digging into his flank. He sucked in a sharp breath. “Sorry,” she mumbled. “Look, I'm not going to hand you an opportunity to take advantage of us, so you might as well cease with the questions. As soon as Doc gets here, he's going to stitch you up and take you away. I'm certain the sheriff will be interested in discussing your situation.”

His unease grew. What sort of man was he? The law-abiding, church-going sort? Or someone who lived according to his own code of ethics? Not knowing was tougher to handle than any physical discomfort.

“Meeting with the sheriff is a good idea,” he said, exploring the knot beneath his hair again. “I apologize for making you uncomfortable. And for invading your home like this.”

She said nothing, contemplating him with that cool, assessing gaze. “Pretty words. You play a convincing victim. I'm reserving judgment until we see whether or not your likeness matches one of the town's wanted posters.”

Victim? That label didn't sit well with him. He wasn't about to argue with her, though.

“You're right to be wary of me.” Weariness that went far beyond his physical condition settled over him like the blackest night. He lifted his hand so that it hovered above his leaking wound. “I'll take over now.”

His unenthusiastic hostess removed herself from the bed and backed toward the door, leaving the faint scent of roses in her wake. A rose with thorns, he thought, soaking in her innocent, vibrant beauty that seemed to be at odds with the prickly, glaring distrust in her eyes.

“You must be thirsty. I'll bring water.”

“Could I trouble you for a mirror first?”

Inclining her head, she disappeared into the room across the way again, returning with a carved handheld mirror.

“Appreciate it.”

She hovered a moment before quitting the room and giving him the privacy he craved. Heart thundering, he slowly brought the mirror to face level and peered at his reflection. No spark of recognition. No jarred memory. Nothing.

BOOK: Reclaiming His Past
10Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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