Ransomed Hearts
(First three chapters)

Chapter 1 – Roadway Encounters

   A flicker of movement in the pickup truck’s sideview mirror caught Carrie’s eye. A black Harley Davidson motorcycle slid out from behind the rear bumper and roared up the left lane until the rider was even with her door. Where in the world did he come from? She glanced at her speedometer. Uh oh, forty-six. The speed limit was sixty. Her distraction over a contentious Ridgway Civic Advisory Committee meeting she’d just left had caused her normally leaden foot to tread lighter than usual on the accelerator.
   Her heart thumped as the biker’s helmeted head turned in her direction. Harley riders weren’t known for their kind and understanding dispositions. The helmet’s smoke-glass facemask prevented her from seeing the man’s face, thank God, but she did see strands of thick, blowing beard below the bottom of the helmet, and long, dark hair whipping about in back. She had no doubt that behind the facemask the guy was casting her the same sort of dirty look she reserved for unusually slow drivers. “Sorry,” she mouthed.
   He gave her a slight shake of his head, then a nod, then gunned the Harley the rest of the way around her. The shiny, black road cruiser was equipped with large hard-sided saddlebags astride the rear wheel. A duffel bag was strapped upright to the tall struts that formed a backrest for the second seat. Cross-country traveler, she surmised.
   She sped up once the man was safely ahead, and found him to be keeping exactly to the speed limit.
   The road ahead was as familiar as her own driveway, the turn-off to her father’s Tin Cup Ranch, five miles west of downtown Ridgway Colorado, was only three miles ahead. The highway traced a path through gentle hills and sagebrush flats above a valley carved out over the eons by Dallas Creek that flowed down from the heights of the Sneffels Mountain Range which flanked Ridgway to the south.
   The straight, treeless stretch of road was bounded by a deep barrow pit on the right. Little remained of the snowbank covering the steep cut that edged the left side of the highway. Carrie glanced in the rearview mirror again and saw nothing behind her except the empty two-lane highway.
   The Harley was now comfortably a couple of hundred yards ahead. The waning early spring daylight reminded her that she still had chores at the Tin Cup. Two more miles to the turnoff.
   Movement on the side of the road just ahead of the biker caught her attention. A shape familiar to all who lived in the area bolted from the barrow pit into the road directly in front of the motorcycle. It was a deer. 
   Smoke erupted from the tires as the biker braked hard. Oh no! Carrie covered her mouth and slowed as she watched the man valiantly maneuver his bike to the shoulder to avoid hitting the animal, but when his front tire encountered the soft gravel just off the pavement, the front wheel suddenly wobbled wildly. As the creature scampered away to safety, the motorcycle, still traveling fast, tilted sideways and careened over the edge of the barrow pit. Man and machine disappeared from Carrie’s view.  
   She reacted more than acted. Amidst a cloud of tire smoke and dust, she screeched to a halt and scrambled out the door, dialing 911 on her cellphone as she sprinted to the side of the road. Below, fifteen or twenty yards farther west, she saw the mangled remains of the motorcycle. The driver lay on his back forty feet away, almost under the right-of-way fence directly across from her.
   Carrie knew that cell coverage was spotty in the area. She prayed the call would go through. “911 Operator, what is your emergency?” a voice answered on the third ring.
“There’s been a motorcycle accident on Highway 62, three miles west of Ridgway. I think the driver’s badly injured.”
   Carrie started down the slope as the operator asked, “Can I get your name please?”
“Carrie Bringhurst. It happened just now, right in front of me.”
As the ground flattened at the bottom, her foot, clad in a half-heel dress shoe, plunged through a thin grass covering that gave the illusion of being solid ground. Underneath was thick, cloying mud. She jerked back her foot but lost the shoe.
   She had to get to the man on the other side. Rather than have a repeat, she discarded her other shoe on the embankment, marking the location so she could return and search for the lost one. Then she plunged both feet into the cold, mucky mess.
   “Is more than one person injured?” the operator asked.
   “No, just the rider. I’m trying to get to him but there’s heavy mud.”
  She struggled her way through the furrow carved in the mud by the ruined motorcycle. One of the saddlebags had torn completely off, and she had to thrust it aside to clear her way.
   The man lay on solid ground on the upslope of the other side. He wasn’t moving. Carrie prayed he wasn’t dead.
   “Are you there yet?” the operator asked.
   “Almost, but it’s slow going.”
   Another car stopped near her truck and she heard doors slam. She glanced up and saw two young girls peering down at her. Neither took a step to help. She shot them a disgusted scowl and continued her task.
   A couple more steps and the mud thinned—two more and finally Carrie was on solid ground. She scrambled up the slope to where the man lay.
   The rider appeared whole, though his left leg between his knee and ankle was at an unnatural angle. She heard him groan. “He’s alive,” she shouted into the phone. “Please hurry.”
   “Check him for injuries,” the operator instructed.
  “I can already see that his left leg is broken,” Carrie said, “looks like the break is between his left knee and his foot.”
   “Any bleeding or protruding bones?”
   “Not that I can see.”
   “Good. Check his head before doing anything else.”
   The man’s head was turned away from her. Carrie kneeled beside him and spoke, “Sir? Sir? Can you hear me? His head lolled in her direction. The lens of his face shield was gone, apparently torn away in the violence of the crash. She looked at his face and caught her breath. A small rivulet of blood came from his nose and ran down to his mouth. A nasty cut over his left eye was bleeding profusely, pooling over his eye and spilling down toward his ear. “He has a bad cut over his left eye,” she shouted into the phone. “Lots of blood.”
   “Is he conscious?”
   “Sort of.”
   Carrie heard a siren wind up in Ridgway, then another. Ambulance and sheriff, she surmised.
   “Is the driver wearing a helmet?” the operator asked.
   “Yes, but the lens is torn off.”
   “Whatever you do, don’t remove that helmet. If he has a broken neck, you could kill him. Do you have anything there to restrain his head movement?”
  “If you can get through to him, tell him to not move his head. Is anyone else on scene?”
   “Couple of teenage girls are up on the road, watching.”
   “Have one of them come over and hold his head in a stable position.”
Carrie shouted across the barrow pit, “I need your help. Can one of you come over here?”
   They looked at each other. The short girl shook her head. The taller one shrugged and nodded. “What do you want me to do?” she shouted back.
   “Come hold his head steady. Hurry!”
   As she waited for the girl to arrive, the man’s eyes focused a bit. He looked at her and his eyes widened. It looked as if he was about to speak. Carrie beat him to the punch. “Sir. If you can hear me, try not to move your head, okay?” She realized she shouldn’t have asked him to do something that might require a head nod. “Don’t move. Just blink your eyes if you understand.”
   The man blinked, then blinked again.  
   “Have you got anything you can use to stop the bleeding?” the operator asked.
   “What are you wearing?”
   “Slacks and a blouse. I lost my shoes trying to get to him.”
   “Use your blouse.”
   “Don’t argue. Just do it. You’re wearing a bra, aren’t you?”
  “Unless it’s see-through, it’ll be just like wearing a swimsuit. We don’t want this guy drowning in his own blood.”
   Carrie’s bra was opaque on the bottom but had transparent lace on top, which might prove a bit embarrassing. Her blouse was one of her favorites, blue silk with delicate Japanese Maple leaves etched in, dry-clean only. It would be sad to lose it to such a gruesome task.
  Quit being such a puss. This is no time for modesty. She considered tearing the blouse into strips, but that would still require her to take it off, and would take more time. Maybe, just maybe the dry cleaner could get the blood out.
   She made quick work of the buttons and shucked off her blouse just as the other girl arrived. “Don’t you say a word,” Carrie hissed. “I’ve got to stop the bleeding. Hold his helmet so he can’t move his head.” She couldn’t help but notice the girl wasn’t muddy. Must have found a drier place to cross.
   Carrie knelt beside the man’s head and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Can you hear me, sir?” she asked.
  He stirred and said, “yes,” then tried to lift his leg. “Aughhhhhh!” His scream unnerved her and her young helper.
   “Don’t move!” Carrie shouted, more scared than angry.
   He groaned and stopped moving. His rummy eyes rolled up as if he was passing out.
  “Stay with me,” she commanded, just like she’d seen emergency workers do on television.
   She wiped the blood from his nostrils and mouth. His nose was askew just below the bridge, but she couldn’t tell if it was an old break, or if he’d have to get used to looking at a new image in the mirror.
   The nose bleed seemed to have stopped, but blood still flowed from the cut above the eye. “Sir, your head is bleeding. I’m going to try and stop it. Hold still please.” She pressed her already crimson-stained blouse against the cut as best she could, and stuffed a wad of it under the edge of the helmet in case the cut went farther than she could see.
   As she held pressure, he seemed to focus again. “What h—happened?” he asked, his voice thin and thready.
   “You almost hit a deer. Your eye’s cut and you’ve had quite a nose bleed. I think you’ve got a broken leg.
   “My bike…?”
   She leaned to increase her pressure on his forehead as a trail of blood escaped the edge of her blouse and threatened to run into his eyes. “Don’t worry about it for now,” she said.
   The man’s eyes caught hers and widened again. She thought he was about to say something, maybe about how she was dressed…or not dressed. Then he turned his gaze aside.
   “Do you hurt anywhere else?” she asked.
   “Ribs,” he responded, but I can still breathe.”
  She thought about opening the front of his leathers but immediately changed her mind. The tight jacket might be holding things in place better than if he were without it.
   “Sweet Jesus, my leg hurts,” he groaned.
   “I’m sorry. Help is on the way. I’m not going to leave you.”
  Siren blaring and lights flashing, the first emergency vehicle to arrive was the ambulance. Two EMT’s bailed out, gathered their heavy jump-kits and headed straight into the barrow pit. Carrie tried to warn them, but too late. The first one promptly sank to his knees, looked around, and bravely began slogging the rest of the way through. The other EMT stopped at the edge of the quagmire, then ran off to find a drier way across.
   Cars were stopping and a small crowd gathered, looking down from the edge of the highway. A deputy sheriff’s car screamed up behind the ambulance and a few moments later, a highway patrol trooper appeared who shooed away the bystanders. Members of the county search and rescue squad were the last to show up.  
   “How is he?” the muddy EMT asked Carrie as he approached.
   “Alive but hurting. Broken leg, and he says he has broken ribs.”
   “If you’d step back, ma’am, I’ll take care of him now.”
  Carrie stepped aside, thankful that the man didn’t stare. She crossed her arms to hide herself as best she could.
   The second EMT arrived. She knew him. Clint Keeler was a member of her parents’ church. He nodded, acknowledging her presence, but was kind enough to avert his eyes. He thanked her for her help, and promptly shuttled past to give his partner and the victim his full attention.
   Three search and rescue members showed up, one bearing an orange backboard. The third came up behind her, took off his own tee shirt and handed it to her. “Thanks,” she said, giving the guy a grateful smile. “I’m glad someone finally noticed.”
   “No worries there, ma’am, no need to be embarrassed. What you did was pretty heroic.”
   Carrie pulled the tee shirt over her head and restored her modesty.
   No longer needed, Carrie slogged her way back across the bog to look for her lost shoe. It was a futile search that only served to muddy her arms as well. She finally gave up and, one shoe in hand, climbed toward her truck as the ambulance crew and search and rescue members raced past on the road shoulder above, carrying the victim on the backboard. Someone must have found them a dry crossing.
   Hobbling barefoot across the gravel to the door of her truck wasn’t a pleasant experience. Carrie pulled herself aboard sideways and began scraping gobs of mud from her arms and pant legs. The deputy sheriff, who’d somehow avoided getting a speck of mud on his uniform, sauntered up and said, “The guy wants to talk to you, ma’am. He’s insisting the ambulance not move until he does.”
   “Me?” Carrie asked.
  “Yup. Better come with me.” The deputy spun and stepped toward the rear of the ambulance.
   Why? She shrugged and followed, shaking mud from her fingers as she went.
   The open ambulance doors revealed the man strapped to a gurney against the left wall, his head facing her. An IV bag dripped fluid into his left hand. His broken leg was now secured inside a bulky air cast.
   The attendant bending over the victim was Clint Keeler. He lifted his head and looked at her. “I understand he wants to see me,” she said.
  Keeler, nodded. “He sure does. Won’t let us go anywhere until he talks to you. Apparently, you made quite an impression.” He extended a hand and helped her climb aboard. “Sit there.” He indicated a metal bench attached to the right wall. She assumed it was where a second attendant or passenger sat when the vehicle was in motion.
   The patient groaned and shifted just enough to prompt a warning from Clint. “Try not to move, sir. It will only make the pain worse. I’m going to give you something to make you more comfortable. Are you allergic to anything?”
   “Not that I know of.”
   “Ever had morphine?”
   “Yeah, a long time ago. Don’t put me out, okay?”
Clint obscured Carrie’s view of the man’s face, but she could tell he was responding through clenched teeth.
   “I won’t,” Clint said, “I’ll give you just enough to take the edge off.” After administering the morphine, Clint looked at her and said, “Okay, you can come up and talk to him now. Make it snappy.”
   Carrie moved to where the man could see her. “Hello,” she said. “That was quite a tumble you took.”
   Though his helmet was strapped down and his head couldn’t move, his eyes could. They locked onto hers. She was struck by how blue and intense they were. Almost like…no…not possible. 
   He blinked once, winced, and clenched his teeth. When the wave passed, he said, “Thanks for helping me.” Though strained, his voice was deep, rich, almost like a radio announcer. It sounded familiar—so familiar that it dredged up a pain that she didn’t dare consider. Surely this couldn’t be… “I’m glad I could help,” she responded. “Anyone would have done the same.”
  She felt movement against her left leg and looked down to see the man’s hand seeking hers. Something—the voice—the eyes—compelled her to comply.  
  “Would you ride with me? Please?” There was urgency in his voice. “There’s something I need to ask you to do.”
  She shot Clint a panicked glance. Maybe he would say that such things weren’t allowed, but all he did was give her a casual shrug and an affirmative nod.
   “I…I, well, I guess I could.” She had never ridden in an ambulance. The prospect frightened her. When her gaze returned to the stranger’s eyes, something stirred—a vague hint of recognition that disturbed her. She averted her eyes and asked, “Do I know you?”
   He gave her hand a barely perceptible squeeze. A slight smile touched the corners of his mouth. When he spoke, his voice sounded rummy—the drugs taking hold she guessed. “We’ll talk about that, Carrie,” he said, then his eyes dimmed and lost focus and his hand fell away.
   “Clint, is he okay?” she asked, alarmed. Clint checked the man’s vitals. “He’s fine,” he said. “It’s the morphine making him groggy. Get us out of here, Richard,” he called to the driver.
   Carrie was surprised by how quiet the siren seemed inside the vehicle. She sat back on her bench, just an arm’s length away from the victim. Clint sat on another small bench nearer the patient’s head. He ignored Carrie as he watched the readouts of instruments connected to the man.
   As the vehicle rounded the intersection in Ridgway onto northbound Hwy. 550, Carrie was perplexed. We’ll talk about it, Carrie? How did this stranger know her name? Perhaps he’d overheard one of the emergency people use it. She asked Clint, “Do you have any idea who this guy is?”
   Clint glanced up from his instruments. “Never seen him before. I’ve got his wallet though.” He patted a large pocket over his chest. “When we get to the hospital, we’ll check it out. Why?”
   “Just curious, that’s all.” She wasn’t about to voice her feeling—no—more an intuition that this man was familiar.
   The patient groaned and shifted a little, prompting yet another groan. Carrie felt a rush of sorrow for him. The guy apparently took some comfort in holding her hand. Could he still sense that she was there? She reached out and grasped his fingers, leaned over and said, “I’m still here.” He grasped her hand and gave it that same barely perceptible squeeze he had before, then seemed to relax.
   All the way to Montrose, her mind asked the same question over and over. How does this guy know my name?


Chapter 2 – At the Hospital

   Things happened fast when the ambulance rolled to a stop—faster than Carrie could keep up with. Someone threw the doors open from the outside and revealed a gaggle of hospital staff awaiting their arrival. One motioned for her to step out, and two others nearly ran her over as she did. In a matter of seconds, the staff and the ambulance attendants disappeared into the building with the victim, leaving Carrie standing alone on an empty ambulance porch. For lack of knowing what else to do, she followed through the double-door entrance.
   The emergency room was a labyrinth of curtained cubicles, some open, some not. People dressed in hospital scrubs scurried here and there, paying her no attention.
A hum of activity came from a well-lit cubical at the far end of the floor. Was that where the man was taken? Her curiosity was confirmed when Clint and the ambulance driver stepped out of the curtained space, pulling the ambulance gurney behind them.
   “Sorry to leave you waiting in the lurch,” Clint said as he spotted Carrie. “It’s pretty much chaos once we get here. I should have warned you.”
   “I’m fine, how’s the guy doing?”
   “He’s going to live. The cut on his forehead was bloody but superficial, and they’ve already reset his nose. He’s going to look like a raccoon for a while. He broke some ribs, but no punctured lung, thank God. The most serious thing is his leg. He’s going to be off his feet for a long time, months probably. Anyone asks, I didn’t tell you any of this. HIPPA laws, you know.”
   Carrie used her fingers to zip her lips. “Know who he is yet?”
   Clint patted his shirt pocket. “Let’s take a look. I’ve got to turn this over to the charge nurse, so if she sees us, I’ll tell her we’re looking for medical notifications. Clint pulled the wallet from his pocket and extracted the driver’s license. Robert Edward Rasmussen,” he announced. 
   “Let me see,” she demanded as she took the license from Clint’s fingers. The hirsute image on the license told her no more than she’d seen out on the roadway.
   “Rochester, New York,” Cint said. “We don’t see a lot of New York folks in Ouray County, especially this early in the year. Wonder what he’s doing here?”
“Probably just passing through,” Carrie said. “A lot of West Slope travelers do that on their way to the Four Corners.”
   “He sure attached himself to you.”
   “I know. Maybe it’s because he’s scared, and I was the first to get to him. How long before you guys can get me back to my truck?”
   “Gonna be a good hour or so by the time we get the paperwork done. Maybe an hour and a half.”
   “I’d kind of like to speak with him before we go. Is that possible?”
   “Depends on what they’re doing and what kind of shape the guy’s in,” Clint said as they watched a portable x-ray machine be wheeled into the cubical. You never know about internal injuries. I’ll let you know if they can sneak you in for a few minutes.”
   “Is there anything we can do about this,” Carried asked. She raised her mud-caked, shoeless foot.
“Oh,” Clint exclaimed. “I’ll get you a pair of hospital slippers if I can, if not, at least a pair of hospital socks. It’ll take me a minute to track them down.”
   “No problem. I’ll hang out by the waiting room. I’ve got to call my dad anyway.”
   “…I’m sorry, Dad, it all happened so fast. This is the first chance I’ve had to call. I didn’t mean to worry you.” Carrie stood in the hall outside the waiting room. Medical staff and patient families talking as they shuffled back and forth required her to put her hand over her other ear to understand her father’s voice.
   “The important thing is that you’re alright,” Ted Young said. “Where’s the truck? Do I need to worry about it?”
   “The truck’s fine. It’s safely off the road just south of Huntington Bypass. I’ve got the keys. Clint Keeler says the ambulance crew can drop me back there when they come back. How are the kids?”
   “They’re fine. Doing their homework. They got a good laugh when grandpa made them Mickey Mouse pancakes for supper.”
   “Good. I’m not sure when I’ll be home, but tell them Mommy had to help a man who was hurt.”
   “You want me to cook something for you?”
   “No, no. Please don’t. The kids need to be in bed by 8:30. I’ll tell you all about it when I get home. Daddy, have you ever heard of a family by the name of Rasmussen around here?”
   “No, can’t say as I have. Why?”
   “I haven’t either. That’s the guy’s last name. His ID says he’s from New York. Clint says it will be a couple more hours before I get home. If it turns out to be longer, I’ll call you. Thanks, Dad, you’re my rock.”
   Carrie hung up and looked at her arms and down at her pant legs. I’m such a mess. She walked to the Ladies’ Room.
   “Ugh,” she groaned as she gazed into the mirror. She’d done a cursory job of cleaning her hands and arms in the ambulance, but a film of gray, cakey mud residue still reached past her elbows. Dabs of mud adhered to her shoulder-length, strawberry-blond hair, and a large swipe of mud was smeared across the left side of her face from jaw to ear. She couldn’t remember wiping her face like that.
   She wet a paper towel and started to scrub, arms first, then her face. So much for the mascara. She wasn’t into heavy makeup—just a little blush, a smidgen of mascara, even less eye shadow—and a light powder for things like church or committee meetings. Most times, she preferred no makeup at all.
   She dealt with her arms and face and then, hoping no one walked in, raised the tee shirt that her search and rescue friend had given her, more mud and blood. She didn’t remember her bra becoming so blood-stained, but it could probably be saved with a good soak in cold water and a trip through the laundry. She wondered what the paramedics had done with her shirt. She’d ask Clint about it. She settled the tee shirt back in place.
   There was little she could do about her pants legs, and her nylon half-hose were hopeless, so she took them off and deposited them in the garbage can, hoping Clint hurried with whatever he could find to cover her feet.
   As she gave herself a last check, a momentary sense of panic seized her. Her purse was on the front seat of her unlocked truck back at the accident scene. Not normally a big deal in rural Colorado, where unlocked vehicles were the norm, but still…
   Coming out of the restroom, hunger nibbled at her. She’d last eaten just before noon. She looked around seeking a vending machine, then remembered her missing purse. Okay, a water fountain instead of a diet Coke, and she would just have to command her stomach not to growl—unless—that is—she bumped into someone she knew who might lend her a couple of bucks.
   She’d just settled into a waiting room chair and opened a magazine when Clint appeared with a pair of hospital slippers in his hand. “If you want to talk to him, you better do it now,” he said, handing her the footwear. “He’s going into surgery as fast as they can get him ready. You won’t have much time.”
   As they hurried toward the emergency room, Clint said, “I must warn you, he might not remember you.”
   “It’s okay either way,” Carrie said, a little breathless.
   The helmet was gone and Mr. Rasmussen wasn’t wearing a neck brace. So much for that worry. The jacket, jeans, leathers, and shirt were gone, replaced by a standard issue light-blue hospital gown. She hoped the man was enough out of it that he didn’t care that they’d cut all his clothing off, including underwear.
   His injured leg was in a sling and elevated, the lower half still encapsulated in the air cast. Though a sheet was thrown over his leg, the sling still exposed the man all the way to the hip. She averted her eyes to avoid embarrassing him—or herself.
   His shoulders were broad, solid, his arms long and well-muscled. His hands were large and rough, with no jewelry. Even without the helmet, the man’s facial features were barely discernible. His heavy beard and mustache, shot through with occasional gray strands, began high on his cheeks and obscured almost every feature below. She could barely see the line of his lips, and none of his chin. His most prominent feature was an aquiline nose, angry red, swollen, and still at a bit of an angle. Already, two very impressive shiners were beginning to show.
   He had thick, shoulder-length hair, straight and dark but not black. His eyes, clearer now, again locked onto hers. The man frightened her a little. He embodied her image of a Hell’s Angels type. She stepped closer, but not too close. “Hello, Mr. Rasmussen,” she said quietly. “I hope you’re doing better.”
   He gave her a wan smile. His raspy voice had a drug-induced softness, like an old man’s. “They got me pretty doped up,” he said. “They’re going to slice on my leg a little. Not looking forward to…” A sudden cough seized him. He grabbed his ribcage with both hands and moaned. Another cough shook him, smaller this time. He grimaced as his head fell back to the pillow. “Oh God, my ribs,” he hissed between clenched teeth. “I’ve got to remember not to cough.” Beads of sweat glistened on his forehead as he took rapid, shallow breaths waiting for the pain to subside.
   “You probably shouldn’t be talking either,” Carrie said with concern.
   “No, no,” he whispered. I just wanted to say thanks for all you did out there—and for babysitting me on the way in. I had no right to ask you to do that. It meant a lot.” He reached out his hand as if he wanted to take hers again. 
   She hesitated, then thought, Why not? If it helped in the ambulance, it might help here as well. She couldn’t escape the sense that there was still something familiar about this guy—something that drew her to him. “I’m glad I could help,” she said, placing her hand in his. Her voice was suddenly husky, almost choked up. Where did that come from?
   “Do you have family, friends, anyone around here who can help?” she asked. “I’d be more than happy to contact them.”  
   The man’s eyes held hers as he appeared to mull the thought. Was that disappointment she sensed when he looked away? A light seemed to have gone out in his eyes. “I don’t think so,” he said, “it looks like that’s pretty much gone.”
   What a strange answer, not really a yes, but not a no either. Who is this guy?
   The cubical curtain slid open and a plump, middle-aged nurse carrying a syringe entered. “Sorry,” she said. “Don’t mean to disturb you, but we’ve got to get him over to the OR.” She held the syringe in front of the man’s face and said, “Mr. Rasmussen, I’m going to inject this into your IV. It’s going to make you sleepy. Understand?”
   The man squeezed Carrie’s hand, lifted it, and asked the nurse in a slightly slurred voice, “Can she go with me?”
   The nurse gave Carrie a once-over as if to say, “Who the dickens are you?” then said, “Yes, but only as far as the surgical area doors.”
   A burly male nurse came in and politely asked Carrie to step out of his way. Still holding the patient's hand, she moved near the head of the bed as she watched the nurse lower the leg sling. Carrie grimaced as the man groaned and tightened his grip on her hand.
   The male nurse unhooked wires and sensors as the lady nurse screwed the syringe into the IV and pushed the plunger. Almost instantly, Carrie felt the man’s grip relax, but his eyes remained locked on hers. She bent to his ear and whispered, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to leave you. You’ll be just fine.” Somehow his being in a hospital gown made him seem far less threatening than when he was dressed in biker’s leathers.
   The emergency room bed doubled as a gurney. Carrie paced briskly beside while continuing to hold the man’s hand. He whispered to her a couple of times, but with all the hubbub, she didn’t understand what he said. Just outside the swinging doors leading into the surgical area, the first nurse looked at Carrie and said, “Far as you go, miss. If you’re going to give him a kiss or something, now’s the time.”
   Carrie was befuddled. She’d not even thought about that. What did he expect? She looked down and saw his startling blue eyes nearly beseeching her. As if compelled by an unseen hand, she bent and brushed a light kiss across his forehead and said, “Good luck, Mr. Rasmussen. I’ll be praying for you.”
   He gave her what under other circumstances would have been described as a drunken grin, and whispered back, “thanks, Puddin’ Head. See ya later.”
   Carrie stood frozen in place as the gurney disappeared, her world suddenly upside down. She staggered to the wall as her knees failed her and she sank to the floor. Tears flooded her cheeks. Both her hands covered her mouth as she tried to stifle the gut-wrenching wail threatening to escape her throat. No one except Daddy called her by her childhood nickname anymore. Only people in her adult life who had been granted the sacred dispensation to use that nom-de-guerre. were her best friend, Marci Taylor, who had been killed in a car accident at age nineteen. Eddie Isaacson, her favorite cousin, who in eighth-grade wanted to be a kissing cousin, but she thought that just silly. Leukemia took him just three years ago. The third was Ransom Connor, her childhood best friend, and high school sweetheart whom she thought she’d love and live with forever. But after she kissed him and sent him off to war ten years ago, he disappeared without a trace, and it smashed her heart to pieces.
   So that’s who you are. She didn’t know whether to shout for joy or scream in anger. Memories that were locked and sealed long ago in a never-to-be-entered room in her heart came rushing back—and the flood threatened to overwhelm her.
   Concerned hospital staff hurried to her aid, asking if she needed help. She waved them off and finally arose. She stumbled back to the waiting room where she collapsed into a chair, her heart pounding and a million questions firing off in her mind all at once. She covered her face with her hands and tried to reassert control. Oh, Ransom…how could I not have known it was you?

Chapter 3– Ransom’s Awakening

   What was happening? Why was he running? Why did he feel such fear? He sensed the evil in the darkness behind him, felt it reaching out, clawing at his back, trying to steal his soul. Indistinct faces flashed by his periphery only to disappear and meld with the evil behind.
  Then he was no longer running, but fleeing in a different way, a motorcycle. Yes, that’s it, a motorcycle. But no matter how fast he went, the evil followed. But he wasn’t just fleeing, he was rushing toward something—no not something—someone—a woman—someone he knew—someone he loved. If only he could catch up to her, but with the evil behind, no matter how fast he drove, she remained just out of reach. He had to get to her, had to touch her, had to talk to her, but she remained just out of his grasp.  
   As Ransom’s consciousness swam up from blackness through a confusing maze of dreams, he became aware of sounds, real sounds that violated the silence—metal on metal, a cacophony of noises and voices he didn’t understand. Finally, his mind focused on a single sound, a voice calling, “Robert…Robert, I need you to wake up.”
But I’m not Robert.
  With eyes yet to open, his mind still held the image of the woman, thick, wavy, strawberry blonde hair that fell below her shoulders. So familiar, but her name was just out of reach. He smiled and reached for her hand, but she didn’t reach back.
“Robert, you must wake up. Open your eyes, please.” He felt a hand shake his shoulder. Robert…”
    Stop it, my name isn’t Robert. He struggled to hold the image of the woman, but try as he might, it receded, faded, until he could no longer see her. He tried to call out, but no sound came, tried to follow, but his frozen limbs refused to move.  
   Then he realized his name was Robert, at least for now. The female voice was talking to him. He shook his head and lifted strangely heavy eyelids. A flood of light assaulted him, and in the middle of its offensive fluorescent glow was the dark silhouette of a woman. “Good,” she said. “Welcome back. You had us worried for a moment. Try not to go back to sleep, Robert.”
   Who is this woman? Where am I? He stirred and tried to raise himself, but a strong hand pushed him back. The woman’s voice said sharply. “Don’t try to move.”
   Why the hell not? He thought about pushing the hand away.
The woman continued her verbal assault. “You’re in a hospital in Montrose, Colorado, and you’ve just been through surgery. My name is Katherine. I’m a recovery room nurse. You’re doing just fine, Robert, but the doctor needs to clear you before we can take you to your room and let you go back to sleep. Is there anyone we need to notify that you are here?”
   The question required Ransom’s brain to work. The wheels turned slowly. “A—a—I don’t…no, no there isn’t. How did I get here?”
   “Your motorcycle crashed somewhere up by Ridgway. They say you’re pretty lucky to be alive. If it weren’t for your helmet…”
   “Something gray,” he said, “something gray came at me…but I can’t remember.”
  “It’s okay,” the nurse soothed. “You have a mild concussion. It will all come back. Might take a couple of days, but right now we need to get you checked over, then up to your room so you can go back to sleep.”
   “What time is it?”
   “It’s a couple of minutes after three.”
   “Morning or afternoon?”
   “Morning. You’ve been with us a little over eight hours”
   “I’m freezing to death,” he said. “Why is my throat so sore?”
   “You had a breathing tube in. The soreness will be gone in a couple of days.”
 His eyes suddenly flew wide open and he panicked. The leather portfolio in the right-side saddlebag, where was it? The portfolio itself was unremarkable, easy to dismiss. But if someone saw the file inside, they would know that it contained government papers, the evidence he’d gathered over the last four years, and names, at least one of which was highly recognizable. The file was the reason for all he’d gone through—all that led him to disappear and become someone else four years ago. If the file fell into the wrong hands, he might well not survive the consequences. The thought blew all the cobwebs away.
   He looked at Katherine with what he hoped were pleading eyes. “I’ve got to get something from my bike. It’s important.”
   “Not going to happen. That bike’s probably somewhere up in Ridgway, thirty miles away. But I’ll certainly get you some warm blankets as soon as the doctor looks at you. Are you in pain?”
   Ransom had to think about that. While he thought, he coughed—not hard—but it felt as if someone clamped a giant vise-grip around his chest and squeezed. “Oh,” he moaned. He tried to clutch his chest with his arms, but the left one, the one with the IV, was strapped down.
   “Broken ribs, three of them,” Katherine said. “Try not to cough.”
   “Now you tell me.”
  “Sorry, Robert, I’m afraid you’re going to be flat on your back for several days. It’s important that you not move any more than absolutely necessary. We’d hate to have a rib come lose and puncture a lung.” She placed a pillow on his belly. “Press this against your chest if you start to cough. The doctor said that by the looks of you, this isn’t your first rodeo.”
   She was correct. It had happened before. An IED on a dusty, Afghan road in Helmand Provence during his first tour. He didn’t remember the explosion, only waking up in a field hospital with every kind of tube imaginable coming out of him. It was his leg that time too—damn near lost it—and his spleen—and the foot on the other side.
   One rib went through his right lung, and shrapnel almost finished him off on the other side. So far, by comparison, this was a piece of cake. He took as deep a breath as he dared, relaxed, and let his Zen training take over. Do not let what you cannot do interfere with that which you can. 
   He lay back and accepted his present reality. His mind went back and held a vision of himself flying through the air, hitting surprisingly soft ground, then tumbling end over end, then a sudden blinding impact, and…nothing.
  Next thing he remembered then was hearing a female voice. Through red, misty vision, he perceived someone standing over him, telling him not to move. He didn’t obey and paid the price. The pain that washed over him threw him back into an oblivion that left only perceptions rather than thoughts.
  Then he remembered a woman kneeling beside him, nearly naked—surely that couldn’t be true. She wiped his eyes and the red mist was gone. He wasn’t particularly religious, but the thought came to him that this might be his guardian angel. Who’d have known she would be so beautiful?
   He shook his head and decided his hallucinations were merely an enticing product of his lunatic, heavily-drugged imagination.

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Steven J. Clark, Author
Writer's Digest: In All the Pretty Dresses by Steven Clark we are presented with a story that shows how friendship and gumption can help top the prejudices and horrors of the world through detailing the work that Cass and Sam do to work their way through a puzzling and brutal series of events. The title seems to this reader to be evocative and interesting, compelling the reader to open up and plunge in. The overall design of the book is professional and the cover image for the book is appealing and wonderfully detailed. The narrative is tightly woven and compelling, moving at a fast pace while still allowing the reader to experience a true depth of characterization as they develop a full appreciation of the events as they take place. The writing is detailed which helps the reader to place themselves in this richly imagined world. Characters and their motivations are detailed too, given through a mixture of dialogue and prose narration. The dialogue at times seems choppy but Cass and Sam are always handled well. It must be that the author finds these women as strong and durable as the reader does!   “Judge, 2nd Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published eBook Awards.”

Gayla E, Orem, UT: WHAT THE HELL? Your book should be at the top of the New York Times Best Seller's list. I read a lot and this is the best by far...I LOVED IT!!!

Jim Collins, author of Gallagher: I loved this right from the start. Yours is an excellent story, told clearly and concisely with no wasted wordage, and your gram-mar, punctuation and use of language are spot on. This is Jack Reacher without the excessive overuse of plot-slowing des-criptions. I liked your main character straight off and your uncluttered picture that you painted of her and her abilities...The pace of your story is perfect...I think that this is a really well-written and readable tale..."

Erin Davis, author of A Lethal Choice and A Driven Vengence: Right away I found the character of Cass Rosier very interesting and very much like detective Kate Beckett on TV's "Castle." I see a lot of the same determination to be taken seriously as women in a more dominantly male field...I think the twist on having the husband cheat on cass with another man as opposed to just another bleach-blonde, bit-boobed bimbo is definitely interesting and fresh. Nice job. I love the relationship Cass has with her daughter...Okay, just finished chapter 13 and found myself moving from a relaxed, seated-back position to full straight up and only a few inches from my computer screen...hoping the girl would finally make an escape from the killer. When it mentioned that she was looking for her car and only saw his pickup truck, but she had left the keys inside, I found myself saying out loud--"Rookie mistake girly." Then as she was running away and heard the truck start up, my heart started to beat faster, then I actually yelled out, "Oh you're kidding me..." BEAUTIFUL JOB WRITING  THAT SCENE...Steve, my friend, you definitely have a gift!"

Jack Hudson, author of Warm-up Kills: "All The Pretty Dresses is an exceptionally well-written thriller that keeps the reader on the edge of his seat and unsure of exactly who the serial killer is until near the end. Action scenes are exciting and well-written. The author proves that off-color language is unnecessary to create tension and realism. High stars."

Joanne Kendrick, author of Chance Inherit-ance: "...Your writing is succinct and engaging, giving the perfect tone for the story. The characters are well written and believable. Dialogue flows well and is natural...I would expect this to do very well across multiple genres."

Shar H, Fairview, UT: "It's got everything; mystery, suspense, romance, and terror. I couldn't put it down. Clark owes me more than one night's sleep."

Lynne H, Lewiston,ID: "Anyone who wants a thriller that makes them sit on the edge of their seat and wonder what is next will find this book a must read. I was unable to put it down and consequentally lost some sleep wanting to find out just who the 'Freak' was going to be. Clark is a wonderful writer and I will be at the top of the list to see what he has in store for us next.

Laci W, Herriman, UT: "It holds you right to the end and won't let go. I enjoyed every minute of it."

Dawn Carter, author of Heart of Vengence: "This is well written...I love a murder mystery and you succeeded in keeping my attention. I am bookmarking this. Kudos."

For more reviews, visit Amazon.Com and Goodreads.com