1: Past

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ONE WEEK EARLIER...

I roll onto my stomach and clutch the side of the bed, gulping hungrily at the air. The beautiful, fresh, unpolluted oxygen fills my lungs. My blood. My brain. My thoughts come into focus. The gnarled knot in my stomach starts to unravel.

I pound my palm hard against my chest, searching for my heart. Waiting eagerly for its next beat. It feels like hours of stubborn silence pass. My rib cage, an empty chamber.

Until finally . . . 

BA- BUMP

BA- BUMP

BA- BUMP

With a sigh, my head drops forward and I put forth a silent offering of gratitude.

When I look up, my vision has cleared and I can see my sur­roundings.

The austere wooden furnishings of our small bedroom. Cloaked in slowly vanishing darkness. And Zen. Breathing softly beside me. Lying on his stomach. A lock of dark thick hair flung over his left eye. One arm is tucked underneath him and the other is draped across the bed. Saving my place. Completely unaware that I’m no longer there. That I’ve been replaced by a damp silhouette of sweat.

Still sucking in frenzied breaths, I run my hand across my forehead. It comes back moist.

The light is just starting to break outside, giving the room a faint, ghostly glow.

I eye the empty space next to Zen. The thought of lying back down and closing my eyes again sends my heart into a tempest of banging and sputtering.

I gently rise and walk over to the armoire, easing open the heavy oak door. I slide my arms into Zen’s linen doublet and button it over my nightdress. Zen’s sweet, musky scent on the jacket immediately starts to calm me as I guide my feet into my leather mules and tiptoe toward the door. The floor­boards grumble under my feet and I hear Zen stirring behind me. When I turn around, his endless brown eyes are already open, concern flashing in them. He’s watching me, his fore­head creased. “Is everything okay?”

“Of course,” I whisper, certain the tremble in my voice will give me away. “I . . .” But my throat is dry and thick. I attempt to swallow. “I had a bad dream. That’s all.”

A dream.

Not real.

I repeat it in my mind. Hoping it will sound more believ­able the second time around. Knowing the one I really have to convince is me.

Zen sits up. The sheets fall to his waist, revealing his bare chest. Beautifully toned from the countless hours of hard labor he’s been doing since we arrived  here six months ago. “Same one?”

My lip starts to quiver. I bite it hard and nod.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

I shake my head. But then I see the frustration on his face. His constant need to fix me. And I don’t have the heart to tell him that he can’t.

“It’s no big deal,” I say, breathing the words in an attempt to lighten them. “It was just . . .”

Ghastly. Horrifying. Real.

I swallow again. “Unsettling.”

I force a smile onto my face. Praying that Zen  can’t see my cheeks twitching from across the room. “I’m just going to go outside and get some fresh air.”

Zen hastily kicks the covers from his legs. “I’ll go with you.”

“No!” I say. Too loudly. Too quickly. Too stupidly.

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