HIS LIFE started with a single step forward.
It was as though someone flicked an On switch. Suddenly there was the world in front of him, around him—new and weird and kind of familiar, but not. Branches brushed his bare arms as he stepped between a pair of trees, and he knew the tree on the right was a pine and the one on the left was a maple. He knew the item on the grass in front of him was a typical picnic table. He knew the time of day was twilight, the wetness falling from the clouds was rain, and the gentle rumble in the distance, like a father’s lullaby, was thunder.
He knew all of that, but not why he was naked.
A gentle breeze tickled the orange-gold hair on his arms and chest. The grass was slick beneath his bare feet. He wriggled his toes and stared down at them as he tried to determine what he was feeling. Was he feeling something? There should be some emotion there, right?
He held out his arms, fingers splayed, and noted the scattered cinnamon freckles on his pale skin. His arms were toned, not flabby. Same with his chest, though there were a pair of marks on his left pectoral, over his heart—two crescent scars. He ran his fingers over them, but they didn’t hurt. He traced the line of muscle down his ribs and across to a trail of hair in a slightly darker shade of copper that led down to a flaccid penis.
He let out a sigh of relief at seeing that particular part of himself. Then he wondered why.
He looked back up, beyond the picnic table, to the large low building in front of him that stretched to the right and left. It was constructed of plain brown brick and had black cladding along the roof’s edge. There was a cargo door for truck deliveries and a smaller one for people by the end of the building farthest from him. A large garbage container hunkered near the delivery bay, and the faint smell of rotting food wafted by on the air. This was probably the back of the building, he realized, because there was no sign to indicate what the structure contained. There was nothing to give him a clue why he was standing in front of it, naked.
Why was he here?
He… he should know this.
Another On switch triggered, and emotions came rushing back. He should know where he was and why he was there and why he was naked and….
What was his name?
Oh God, what was his name?
His knees gave out. The chill of the wet grass was even more evident against his bare buttocks, but the shiver that rolled through his body had little to do with the damp ground or the rain or the breeze. A sound wisped by—a tiny moan—and it took a moment for him to connect the reverberation in his throat with the utterance.
“I,” he said, and choked. “Oh my God.”
He didn’t recognize his own voice.
He didn’t recognize his voice or his body, and he didn’t have a name, and he didn’t know where he was, and—
He rocked forward and whimpered.
“Hey. Hey, this is private property. You can’t—”
The voice jolted him, and he looked up. A figure stood a few steps from the people-sized door, frozen. He had a split second to note that the figure was male and dark-skinned before the man darted across the grass toward him. He scrambled backward, his heart thudding against his breastbone as he tried to get back to his feet and run, dammit, he had to run.
“No—Aidan, wait. Stop.” The man followed his own instructions, his dress shoes slipping on the wet grass. “Oh my God. I can’t—you’re here. Holy shit, you’re here. And you’re naked. Why the hell—” He shook his head. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter.”
He—was his name Aidan?—stopped his backward movement and watched the man warily. “Who’re you?”
“Who—” The man’s brows dropped low over his light brown eyes, and he took a breath. “Okay. Okay. Gonna assume you’re not playing me, buddy, because this is way too far for a practical joke.”
“I—” He looked down at his naked legs. “No. No joke.”
“Right. I’m, uh….” The man lifted a hand and slowly moved it to the pocket of his gray dress slacks. He wore a matching vest over a light pink shirt that was rolled up to the elbows. “Just getting my phone, okay?”
He—Aidan—watched, still wary.
The man pulled out the phone and dialed someone. “Boss? You need to come out back. It’s Aidan. Aidan. Yes, I’m—” He clicked off the phone. “He’s on his way.”
“The boss. Our boss. This is an office. You work here.”
“I don’t—” Aidan’s breath caught as the people-sized door slammed open and another figure marched toward them—all but ran, actually. Dark, glowering, dressed in a three-piece suit, looking like he was eight feet tall, and… pissed off beyond words.
Panic clawed at Aidan’s throat, and he pushed himself back again, digging at the slick grass and damp dirt.
“No, stop. Nassim! Christ.” The first man rushed forward to intercept his boss—their boss. “He’s confused, he—”
He didn’t know that voice either, but the hitch in it made Aidan’s fingers relax. He didn’t know why. The boss—Nassim?—looked so intense, his black eyes and black hair and bronze skin all adding up to a dark figure who looked anything but welcoming.
Except… his voice broke, and that….
Aidan didn’t know what that meant.
“He’s naked. Why is he naked?” Nassim pushed the first man aside and stepped forward. Aidan stayed where he was and managed not to flinch when Nassim swept off his suit jacket and draped it over Aidan’s shoulders. It was incredibly warm and far too big for his slender frame, and it carried an earthy but sweet scent that made him want to bury his nose in the lapel. Nassim’s hand hovered by Aidan’s cheek, but he didn’t make contact, clenching his fingers instead and redirecting them to pull his jacket closed over Aidan’s chest. “Did you call the police?”
“Merry gods, Jasper, call 9-1-1.” Nassim knelt in front of Aidan and brushed off the shoulders of the too-large jacket. “I’m here. You’re going to be okay.”
For some reason, that statement made Aidan’s teeth chatter. “I’m not okay.”
“Maybe not,” Nassim admitted, “but—”
“Who am I?” This large, imposing man who’d given up his jacket, didn’t care that the moist earth was soaking into the knee of his slacks, and who was rubbing his shoulder soothingly—he’d know, right? He’d have all the answers.
Someone had to have the answers.
Nassim said nothing for a moment, but he stopped rubbing Aidan’s shoulder. “You’re Aidan Bishop.”
Aidan shook his head. “I don’t know that name.”
“You work here. For me. You’re my executive assistant.”
“Executive—” No. That wasn’t right. It didn’t fit. Just like his name didn’t fit. Just like he didn’t fit. His teeth chattered harder. “I don’t—”
He was breathing—but too fast, too raggedly. Nassim cupped his shoulders and leaned closer, and part of Aidan welcomed that.
A larger part wanted to run.
He squirmed out of Nassim’s grasp. “No. Please, I—”
“You’re safe. I promise you, you’re safe.”
Aidan shook his head back and forth, and he didn’t seem to have the ability to stop it. But it spoke for him when he couldn’t force words out of his throat. Denial. This couldn’t be real. This couldn’t be happening. He couldn’t have lost everything—all sense of self, all sense of who these people were, all sense of where he belonged.
“Why?” he managed. “How?”
Nassim held up his hands in a gesture of harmlessness. “I don’t know. You’ve—” His voice hitched again, barely discernible but there. “You went missing four days ago.”
“Missing? Like… gone?”
“Gone,” Nassim confirmed. “Without a trace, gone. And I… we… we’ll find out what happened. I swear it.”
Sirens drifted through the deepening night. The sound made Aidan want to curl up into a ball. Hide. “I don’t—I—”
“I’ll lead them back around here,” Jasper said softly. Then he disappeared out of Aidan’s field of view.
Nassim didn’t even note Jasper’s departure. He was looking at Aidan, his black eyes intent. A streetlamp flickered on overhead and teased out the lighter strands in his hair. They were probably silver, but they took on the greenish-blue tinge of the LED bulbs.
“I won’t—” Nassim seemed to struggle with whatever it was he wanted to say, and finally his head drooped, as though he’d given up. “You’re safe, Aidan. I promise.”
He wanted to trust this man—needed an anchor in a world he didn’t know. But even as he watched, Nassim’s gaze grew less intense, and he pulled away and stood up.
“You’re safe,” he said again, but he wasn’t looking at Aidan anymore. His gaze was turned toward the ambulance as it lurched around the building.
Aidan wondered who was supposed to benefit from those words—him or Nassim?
After spending the night in the ER with lovely drugs to cushion the anxiety and panic and then his waking hours in a private room being scanned, poked, prodded, checked for trauma that didn’t exist, and asked thousands of questions he couldn’t answer, that was the doctor’s conclusion. But she admitted that his symptoms didn’t follow the recognized and recorded characteristics of the disorder.
“Typically amnesia is the result of trauma—usually physical, but sometimes mental or emotional. And in the retrograde version, which is the closest to what you’re exhibiting, the memory loss is limited to the time surrounding the traumatic event.”
Dr. Singh leaned her hip against Aidan’s bed, and either she hadn’t noticed Nassim’s glowering form in one corner of the room—because somehow Aidan warranted a full room to himself—or she was choosing to ignore him. It was impossible for Aidan to do the same. Nassim drew his gaze like nothing else. He wasn’t allowed to accompany Aidan to his tests, but when Aidan was rolled back into his room, there was Nassim, waiting, normally with a hand in his pocket, as though he were rolling coins through his fingers but without the jangle of change. He didn’t know what Nassim had told the hospital to allow him to stay, but whatever it was, Aidan was thankful for his continued presence.
It was so much better than being alone.
“Sometimes it extends backward for—well, there have been cases where patients were missing whole years of their lives. But the memory loss you’re displaying is nearly unheard of.”
Aidan flexed his hands on the thin blanket covering him and his less-than-warm gown. “Meaning?”
“A total wipe of self.” Dr. Singh looked at him over her glasses. “You can answer questions about current events with relative ease, and you retain your knowledge of language and your sense of place… for the most part,” she amended because he hadn’t known he was in Ottawa to start. But once it was mentioned, things clicked, at least regarding his geographic location. “But details about you—your history, your childhood, your interests and hobbies—they’re gone.”
Aidan shifted under his blanket at Dr. Singh’s uncomfortably direct words. “I’m not faking it.”
Her stern look eased up. “I’m not saying you are, and I’m sorry if I made you think that. That’s not my intention. Something happened to you, Aidan. Despite the lack of evidence of physical trauma, I have no doubt of that. Something that you’re blocking out, along with everything that makes you you.”
“How do we fix it?” Nassim’s voice was gravelly and just as dark as his gaze.
Dr. Singh glanced in his direction. “The brain is a delicate, mysterious beast. Therapy might help, but time is probably what’s needed.”
“So I… I just wait for my memory to come back?” The idea was horrifying in a way Aidan had difficulty expressing, even to himself.
“It might not,” she said gently. “You have to be prepared for that too. The best advice I can give you is to simply live. Rejoin your life and see where it takes you. One day you may wake up with your memories intact. Or you might build new ones and not miss the old.”
“That’s shitty advice,” Aidan grumbled.
“It’s the best I’ve got, kid.” She gave him a quick smile as she straightened and turned to Nassim. “Can I see you in the hall, Mr. Kader?”
As much as Aidan appreciated Nassim’s presence, it was kind of a relief to have a moment to himself. He retrieved the hand mirror one of the nurses had left him and regarded his reflection. It was as unfamiliar as his voice.
Red hair, long on top, short on the sides. His eyes were blue—light and bright—and his chin and cheekbones were sharply delineated. His lips were nice, full, but not overly so. Underneath a proliferation of freckles, his skin was pale. The phrase “peaches and cream” came to mind, but he didn’t know from where.
He lifted his eyebrows, and it was weird seeing a face he felt no ownership of carry out the action. He frowned. Smiled. Pouted. Narrowed his eyes. Made them wide.
None of the expressions he saw in the mirror clicked.
But he knew it was him—Aidan Bishop, middle name Donnelly. Nassim had shown him pictures of himself with Nassim and other people he didn’t recognize. He’d even gotten an image of Aidan’s driver’s license from somewhere, but none of the data it contained meant anything to Aidan. His birthday was just a date. June nineteenth—he was twenty-five years old. Twenty-six in a couple of months. His height was just a number. Six feet, one inch. His address was a location he couldn’t picture and wouldn’t be able to find without a map.
He knew what he looked like, and he knew what he sounded like, but that was the extent of his knowledge of Aidan Bishop.
Noise in the hall by his door prompted Aidan to set the mirror aside. He gripped the blanket as a man and a woman, both wearing suits, entered his room. Nassim trailed behind them, his glower even darker than before.
“Mr. Bishop?” the woman said. She wore a navy blue suit and a white shirt—plain but well-tailored. Her blond hair was short, and she wore no jewelry. “I’m Detective Sara Hough from the Ottawa Police. This is my partner, Detective Kenneth Morgan.”
Aidan sat up a little farther and tucked the blanket more closely around his legs. “Hi.”
Detective Morgan was as put-together as his partner, if not more. He wore a tailored dark gray three-piece suit paired with a light yellow shirt and gold tie, a color combination that flattered his light gold skin. The suit perfectly accentuated his broad shoulders and narrow waist. He might have been older than Hough, or not. Aidan couldn’t tell.
“We have a few questions for you,” Hough said, her tone pleasant and professional. “It shouldn’t take long.”
“You’re aware he has amnesia?” Nassim grumbled from his usual corner.
“The doctor informed us,” Morgan replied with just the right amount of sympathy. For some reason that made Aidan’s shoulders twitch. “And you are…?”
“Nassim Kader, the CEO of Tuninas Software. Aidan works for me.”
“I see.” Morgan pulled a notepad from the inner pocket of his jacket and flipped through a few pages. “You filed the missing person report.”
“According to the missing person report, Mr. Bishop, the last time anyone saw you was at your workplace on the evening of April twenty-three—last Monday,” Detective Hough said, referring to her notepad. Aidan had gleaned that from conversations he’d had with Nassim—he went missing on Monday and was found on Friday evening—so he waited for Detective Hough to continue. “Mr. Kader reported that you told him you were meeting a friend, but you didn’t share who or where you were meeting them.”
Aidan looked at Nassim, but there was nothing in his expression that confirmed or denied what Hough said. He directed his attention back to the detective. “I don’t remember.”
Hough hitched herself up to half sit on the edge of Aidan’s bed. “Okay. Can you tell me what you do remember?”
“Walking out of the woods. I was naked.”
“That would have been chilly,” Morgan said with a chuckle. “Do you know what happened to your clothes?”
“I don’t know.”
“How did you get there?”
“I don’t know.”
Morgan shared a look with Hough. “Nothing?” he asked gently. “Are you sure?”
Didn’t they understand that he’d been trying to remember what happened? Every time he did, every time he found nothing in his memories before walking out of those trees, he felt unmoored, untethered. Alone. He shivered. “Nothing.”
“Okay,” Hough said. “I’m going to share some names with you, all right?”
“Same last name—a relative?” He shook his head. “I don’t know her.”
“Ryan, last name unknown.”
Aidan shrugged. “No.”
“103 Topwood Street, Unit 312.”
Aidan frowned. “That’s my address, isn’t it? Nassim showed me a copy of my driver’s license.”
“From his employment file,” Nassim clarified.
Oh. That’s where it came from.
“Those names…. Who are they?”
Hough tapped a finger on her notepad. “The name Ryan came up a few times when we asked around in your neighborhood. Seems to be a friend of yours, but we haven’t been able to track down more information or a solid description. And he didn’t come forward to us looking for you.”
So in other words, he wasn’t much of a friend. “And Nadine?”
“She was your mother,” Nassim supplied. “You told me about her. In passing.”
“She died twelve years ago,” Hough said. “I’m sorry.”
There was a lump in Aidan’s throat, but he had no idea how it got there. Or why. The name didn’t mean anything to him. It didn’t trigger any images of someone who could be his mom. It was just empty. Kind of like he was.
“Do you have a picture?” he asked, his voice raspy.
“Sure.” Hough laid her notepad on the bed and pulled out her smartphone. She tapped and swiped the screen a few times and then handed it over.
It wasn’t a good picture. The lighting sucked, and there was no life to the background. It was probably from her driver’s license. That would explain her lack of smile and the bags under her eyes.
The woman didn’t have red hair. Hers was brown, with a lazy wave to it. It drooped around her ears, skimming her shoulders. Her skin was just as pale as Aidan’s, but without the peachy undertone and freckles. It looked almost sallow. But her eyes were the worst, nearly lifeless, dull, washed-out blue.
“I don’t know her.” He handed the phone back. No one commented on the fact that his hand was shaking. “How—how did she die?”
“Cirrhosis of the liver.” When Aidan looked at her blankly, Hough explained, “She was an alcoholic.”
“Oh.” And he didn’t remember. Forgetting the pieces of himself was bad, but somehow, not remembering his mother was far, far worse.
“When I interviewed your coworkers earlier this week, they said that you were fun to be around and a solid part of the team, but distant. They didn’t know where you lived or if you had any friends outside of work.”
Aidan tugged his blanket higher, or tried to. Hough’s weight made it impossible. She took the hint and stood up, and he followed through with his action. He wanted to pull the blanket up over his head and hide from the implications of her words. “So… I don’t have any friends?”
That moment came back to him when he’d realized he didn’t know his name or his voice. He didn’t know the men walking up to him or where he was or… anything. In that moment, he’d realized how alone he was, and this new revelation was like twisting the knife.
“He’s got me,” Nassim said and quickly added, “and everyone at Tuninas.”
“Right. Well.” Hough tucked her notepad away. “I’m glad this case ended with a found person in good condition.”
Nassim pushed away from the wall. “Ended? You mean you’re closing it?”
“He’s no longer a missing person, Mr. Kader,” Morgan said.
“I understand that, but—what about where he was? What happened to him?”
“There’s no evidence of foul play,” Hough said, her tone reasonable.
“But his memory—”
“There’s nothing to indicate any crime was committed.” She raised a hand to forestall another of Nassim’s questions. “If Mr. Bishop’s memory returns and he recalls something criminal, we’ll happily investigate. But until then we need to focus our efforts on finding other missing persons, as I’m sure you can understand. Have a good day, gentlemen.”
Both Aidan and Nassim watched the cops depart. When they were gone, Aidan didn’t look up at Nassim, though he felt Nassim’s dark gaze on him. He wondered if he should thank Nassim for stating he wasn’t alone, but he couldn’t drum up the energy to do so. All he wanted was to close his eyes and pretend his head wasn’t a mess. Maybe… maybe when he woke up, he’d know the world again. He’d know himself. Everything would make sense and he could work on fixing his life… changing the fact that he was so alone.
He hadn’t realized he’d closed his eyes until the head of the bed jerked and started to lower. He blinked, expecting to see a nurse, but it was Nassim standing over him. Aidan couldn’t read his expression. It seemed to be equal parts fierce, determined, and… tired.
“You’ll be released tomorrow.” His voice was just as businesslike as it was with the cops. There was no hint of the bumps and hitches it had on the grass next to the Tuninas building. “The doctor doesn’t want you staying on your own, so you’ll be coming home with me.”
Because he was too much of a loser to have a life, to have actual friends, his boss had to step up. “I’m sorry.”
“No. You won’t say that to me again.” Wait—was that a flare of red in Nassim’s pupils? “Whatever happened, the important thing is you returned to m—us.”
“Your eyes….” Aidan shook his head. “And now I’m seeing things.”
“Did they show my fire? Understandable. I’m not completely at ease right now, you could say.”
“Fire? I don’t—”
“I’m a dragon, Aidan.”
“Dragon,” Aidan breathed.
In the same way that he retained the basic knowledge of language and worldly events, he knew mythological creatures of all sorts were real—gryphons, unicorns, minotaurs… dragons. They had their own rules and laws and their own kingdom too, led by the Gryphon King. They were part of regular human society, but removed, and other than the basics, humans didn’t know much about them.
“Should I be afraid of you?” He didn’t think so, but… screwy perceptions.
The fire in Nassim’s gaze instantly diminished. “Never. I….” He flexed his jaw. “No.” A soft breath left him, almost but not quite a sigh. “Rest.” He offered Aidan a weak smile, gave a nod, and turned to the door.
“Wait!” The word came out with more than a tinge of panic, and Aidan had to stop himself from reaching for Nassim.
But if Nassim left—he’d be alone.
“Stay?” he whispered and cleared his throat. “I mean, not all night. But… until I fall asleep?”
Nassim was expressionless, and for a moment Aidan thought he’d deny him. He was a busy man—a CEO. He wouldn’t have the time to—
“Of course,” Nassim said and settled into the uncomfortable-looking chair beside Aidan’s bed.
Something in Aidan’s chest relaxed. His lips curved, the first real smile he could remember giving someone. “Thanks,” he said and closed his eyes.
He was almost asleep when he heard the quiet “You’re welcome.”