Killian Jones was not having a good day.
He stared up at the darkening sky from the bottom of the canyon, then back at the line of boys trailing behind him.
"Look alive!" he shouted, and their three heads came up in unison. Jack, the eldest, circled back as Will - who was right behind him - quickened his pace. Killian could hear Jack encouraging John, who was youngest, but John was having none of it.
"-dragging us out here when it's a hundred degrees outside," young John grumbled. "I hate hiking."
"Come on," Jack cajoled. "We used to hike with Dad, remember?"
"He's not Dad."
"No, he's not," Jack said tiredly. "But we're gonna be out here all night if you don't get a move on."
Will made a rude noise from up ahead. "One night in the desert is enough for me with this clown."
"Hey!" Killian called out sharply. "That's enough lollygagging. Those are storm clouds overhead." He pointed up, above the ridge. "We don't want to be caught on the canyon floor when the rain hits."
"It's desert," Will pointed out. "It would have to rain for ten hours before the ground would even get wet enough to make mud."
"My point exactly," Killian said, putting his hand on his hip as he surveyed the terrain. "The water will run first, and with great force and speed. A flash flood will take you down before you even know it's upon you. Let's get higher and find shelter before that occurs, shall we?"
"All the way up there?" John asked, looking up at the wall of rock in dismay.
"Come on butterball," Will said snidely. "I'll give you a twinkie if you beat me to the top!"
"Will!" Jack's voice carried a warning note. "Lay off."
"You make me," Will bit back. "You're not the boss of me. Or anybody."
"I can kick your ass easy enough," Jack promised.
"Bring it!" Will stepped forward, swinging, but found his momentum arrested as Killian pulled him back by the shirt, hard, sending him sprawling into the dirt.
"Enough!" Killian roared. "All you three have done for the last three days is bicker and complain! You might try acting like brothers and seeing to each other's welfare! We're all in danger, and none of you are going to die on my watch! Is that clear?"
Will got up without a sound, dusting off his jeans and shaking his backpack into place. "Come on," he said to John. "Follow me up. I'll show you where to step."
Jack watched them go with troubled eyes. "They do look out for each other," he defended to Killian. "It's just that sometimes-"
"Sometimes you behave like squabbling brothers," Killian finished. "I know."
"Do you have brothers?"
Killian shrugged. "I don't know. I feel as though I'm familiar with the feeling. The rapport between all of you - it feels like I've had it before, somehow. I just don't know."
"It must suck, not having your memory." Jack gave him a sympathetic look that made Killian grit his teeth. He'd seen far too much of that look in the six months since he'd walked into town.
"It sucks," he agreed, shouldering his pack again, just as the raindrops started falling. "Let's go."
He moved in behind the boys as they scrambled up the side of the cliff wall, shouting out directions from below.
"John, your foot! Don't grab with your hand until your foot is seated!" A small tumble of rocks slid down behind the boy as he regained his foothold.
"Will, help him!" Jack shouted.
"You help him! I can barely get a grip up here!" Will shouted back.
"To the left!" Killian called out. "That overhang - we need to get to it!" His words were drowned out by an enormous clap of thunder as the rain began to fall harder, pelting them until their skin was red from it. Will managed to pull himself up to the ledge, reaching down to yank John up next to him, then they ran for the shelter of the overhang. The cliff wall was slick, and pieces of it were crumbling to mud between the rocks.
"Careful, Jack!" Killian called. "Don't grab for any rocks smaller than your head!"
"Got it!" Jack called back, but his sneaker slipped, sending him sliding backwards. Killian leaned right, anchoring himself with a booted foot against a large boulder as Jack crashed into him.
"Got you," he panted. "Come on, let's angle over here."
He pushed the boy toward the safer path, and in just a few minutes, they were levering themselves over the ledge and racing for the overhang. The four of them stood beneath the large rock ledge, shivering with cold but no longer exposed to the elements.
"Holy shit!" Will said, leaning out a bit to look over the edge. "Do you see that? Holy shit!"
Killian and the other boys edged toward the rim, and Killian laid a cautionary hand on John's shoulder. "Not so close, John," he said. "Careful."
The canyon below them ran several feet deep with roiling brown water, rushing with such force that smaller rocks were torn away from the walls, shearing off and slamming into the sides as the water took them away. An occasional scrub bush floated by, torn from its roots. There was no doubt what that water could have done to human flesh.
"Wow," Jack said. "We would have been goners."
"We wouldn't have had to worry about it if we weren't out here in the first place," Will pointed out.
"Shut up," Jack said, rolling his eyes and thoroughly annoyed.
"You saved our lives," John said, looking up at Killian.
But Killian wasn't listening. He hadn't heard a word since he'd stepped closer and looked down. The sight of the water raging, the waves slapping the rocks, the feel of the spray as it hit his face. . . the pull was so strong, he nearly dove in.
He looked down at John's concerned face. "It's all right," he said. "Sometimes I think I'm getting a memory, but it never comes."
"Sucks to be you," Jack said, punching his arm lightly.
Killian couldn't help but chuckle. "That's the way of it. Sucks to be me."
"How'd it go today?" Lou Ann asked as Killian loaded the boys' backpacks into the minivan.
"They were brilliant," he said, smiling widely. "Every day is more adventurous than the last."
"You were paid up-front," Lou Ann reminded him with smirk. "You don't have to lay it on so thick."
"I'm not," he said. "We scaled a canyon wall under extreme circumstances and came out the victors. I call that an adventure any day."
"Can we stop at McDonald's?" John whined. "All I had since lunch was beef jerky and granola."
"And an orange," Killian reminded him. "To keep scurvy at bay."
"Scurvy?" Lou Ann laughed out loud. "Mr. Jones, I don't know where you come from, but you talk like a movie on the Hallmark channel."
"Maybe you were an actor," Jack said, leaning to look around Lou Ann from the passenger seat.
"If he was an actor, his disappearance would be all over the news, numb-nuts."
"Will!" Lou Ann's said sharply. "Language!"
"Are we going?" John asked."I'm staaarrrving!"
"Same time tomorrow, boys," Killian said. "And don't forget - Friday we're camping out!"
"Great." There was no mistaking the annoyance in Will's exaggerated tone.
"See ya, Mr. J," Jack said, giving Killian a wave as they pulled away. He watched them go, then turned to head back inside the small adobe building, rotating his head on his shoulder and flexing his arm in a circle as he went.
"Rough one?" Billy asked from behind the counter.
"That cloudburst caught us unaware," he said. "I've never seen it's like. The sky lit up with a glow I'd never seen before. It was like. . . magic." He rubbed the back of his neck, then rotated his arm once again.
"Pulled your shoulder, didja?" Billy asked. "I got a heatin' pad in the back if you need to borrow it."
"I may do that, thanks," Killian said. "One-armed rock climbing takes a toll."
"They make special climbing attachments for guys like you," Billy said, pointing down at Killian's stump. "But I hear they're expensive. If you can prove you were a veteran, you might get some help with that. Not sure as they'll pay for a climber, though."
"I get by all right," Killian said. "Did we get that second group in for sunset walk tomorrow?"
"Yep. They're all from New Hampshire or some such. They want an authentic desert experience."
Killian raised a brow. "I'll do my best. Still won't do the accent, though."
"You're the one with the accent," Billy reminded him. "If you weren't so damn good at your job, I'd have never hired you, sounding like a European pompadour. But there's no denying that face brings in the money."
"Well, I'm off. See you tomorrow."
Killian grabbed his helmet on his way out the door, then slung his leg over his bicycle. It was only ten minutes to the tiny apartment he called home, and he trod up the stairs, tired to the bone. The apartment complex only held forty units, plaza-style, overlooking a central courtyard that was nothing more than rocks and cactus, with one carefully placed bench that no one ever sat on. The owners tried to discourage people crossing the courtyard instead of using the walkways around, but the paths worn between the white rocks were testament to the futility of that.
He got the door open, tossing his keys and pack down on the table in the small kitchenette before running himself a nice, hot shower. It took two passes with the soap to get all of the dirt off him, and he lingered under the fall of the water, soaking it in. Once again, he felt a wave of something, as he watched the water splash off his hands. He remembered how the river tore through the canyon, and he put his head against the tiles of the shower stall in frustration. It was almost there. Almost.
He shut off the water with a sigh.
"Best not to force it," the doctor had said. "Your memory will come back in bits and pieces, if it comes back at all."
Bits and pieces ended up being wisps and inklings, but nothing solid. No miraculous flash of a loved-one's face or a revealing name suddenly coming unbidden to his tongue. If it hadn't been for his chance run-in with the law somewhere in New York City a few years back, he'd never have known his own name. They were calling him "Ken" up until the police ran his fingerprints. It was as close as he could remember.
But he wasn't Ken. He was Killian Jones, birthplace New York, living in New York at no particular address, and he'd given his occupation as "Entrepreneur." No Google search had found him, or anyone who knew him, or discovered the reason he'd been wandering in the god-forsaken desert for days. He'd been carefully saving from each paycheck since Billy hired him, and someday he was going back to New York. He had no idea what he'd find there, but he felt like he should try.
Most days, anyway.
As time passed, he felt the urge to do that fading away. He was home here, in the desert. He had a job he liked and a place to live and food in his belly. He could have had plenty of female companionship while he was at it, but something held him back. It didn't seem fair being with someone when you had no idea who you were yourself.
He toweled off and stepped into some faded plaid pajama pants, comfortable and worn. He'd shopped the Goodwill store for all his fashions. A desert survival tour guide salary wasn't taking him far, but he liked what he did. There was something familiar about fighting the elements, facing adversity, and being out under a crystal-clear sky full of stars that made him feel like he belonged there, if he truly belonged anywhere. New York didn't sound like home. He was sure of that.
He'd just settled down on the tattered couch with a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of tomato soup when he heard the crash. A neighbor's voice carried through her open window.
"Keep it down out there!" she yelled.
Killian set his dinner on the coffee table and walked to the door, opening it. He stared down the row, first left, then right. A box full of odds and ends - an old lamp, a digital alarm clock, some clothes, a few dishes - was scattered across the balcony walkway, but there was no one in sight. He pulled his door shut behind him and scratched his head as he stared at the mess.
"What the devil?" he muttered, glancing up to see if someone had dropped it off the roof, when suddenly the door open in the neighboring apartment. A woman - a beautiful woman, he silently amended, with the most glorious cloud of blonde hair stepped through, then froze in her tracks, startled, when she saw him.
"Uh. . ."
Her eyes were wide, and she was slowly breaking into a smile at the sight of his face. He was used to that, of course, but this smile. . .well, it made him want to smile back.
"Hello," he said by way of greeting. "Lost something?"
She glanced down at the broken items and the upended box. "Yeah," she laughed. "I guess you could say so."
"May I offer a hand? I've only the one but I'd be glad to put it to good use." He held up his right hand and wiggled his fingers, bringing on another laugh.
"I'd appreciate that," she said. "I've been moving in all day and I'm just exhausted."
She started to squat down but he waved her off. "Get off your feet," he said. "I've got this."
She gave him a grateful smile and walked back into her apartment - a fact that he was thankful for, as the box was ungainly and getting it in a good grip took some doing with only one hand. He managed, as he always did, and at her direction, he set it down on the sofa.
The place was bare with only a few boxes scattered about. She must have moved everything to the bedroom if she'd been moving all day, as she claimed. There was hardly anything here.
"Can I offer you a drink?" she asked, reaching for a bottle from a cupboard.
His mouth watered, but he shook his head. "Thanks, no. I don't drink."
Her eyes popped wide. "You don't drink?"
It was a common reaction, but he refused to apologize for it. "Doesn't appeal to me," he said. "At any rate, I have a dinner that's getting cold."
"Oh. Sorry," she said sheepishly. "I just thought we should introduce ourselves. Over a drink."
She wasn't blushing. Her eyes were warm and her manner direct. He was so used to stammering women, or fawning women, or forceful and somewhat scary women. This one was none of that, and he found himself intrigued.
"The name is Killian," he said. "And you are?"
"Emma." Her eyes hadn't left his, and her answering smile showed that she'd seen him react to the mere sound of her name. The familiarity of it wrapped around him like a warm blanket and he gritted his teeth in frustration, willing it to flower into a full memory. But, as always, it dwindled back to nothingness.
"Are you all right?" she asked, concerned.
"Forgive me. I had a major head injury half a year ago, and the recovery has been difficult. I still have moments where things are a bit. . . scrambled."
"It's all right," she said. "I'm glad to meet you, Killian."
They stood staring at each other for a long moment, until he finally realized he was probably behaving like the village idiot, ogling her that way. He gave her an embarrassed nod and headed for the door, pulling it closed behind him. Emma listened for the sound of his own door opening, then closing and she sank down into the chair in the kitchen, putting her elbows on the table and her face in her hands.
She was silent for a few moments before pulling herself together, wiping her eyes with her fingers.
"I found you," she whispered in relief. "I've finally found you."