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Lost in Me

Written by Barbara J. Hancock

Released from hospital into the care of the man whose eyes have haunted her for a year, a troubled artist returns to Belle Aimée. The antebellum New Orleans mansion is the site of a tragedy Chloe's mind will not disclose. It's also home to an unseen presence that traces her steps, visits her studio and lingers near her bedroom.

Waking and sleeping, Chloe grasps at scraps of memory that flutter about her, alighting eventually on her countless canvases. Only under the stormy eyes—and electrifying touch—of Jonathan La Croix does Chloe begin to remember what they once were to each other. What they could be again. Such a man cannot be forgotten forever….

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Chapter One

"Dites moi qui vous aimez, et je vous dirai qui vous etes." (Tell me whom you love and I'll tell you who you are) —French Creole Proverb

I painted.

I also walked and talked and occasionally ate pudding. But, mostly, I painted. Everything else was superfluous. Walking, talking, eating, breathing…

Paint mattered more than being ambulatory or loquacious or full of pudding. Of course, I had to breathe to live and therefore paint so I suppose breathing mattered, too.

But, mostly, the midnight colors of red, black and purple mattered. And blue. Oh, that particular elusive shade of blue so hard to capture even with the most careful blending of oils on paper.

Yes. The blue of his eyes mattered most of all.

"Not hungry today, dear? Not even for Tapioca?"

Talking, talking, there isn't time for talking.

I carefully swirled blue-tipped fingers on the canvas that held my full attention. Urgency caused my chest to tighten and my head to hurt, but I wasn't a fool. The nurse picked up the neglected tray that had sat on a nearby table all morning. I'd have to stop and eat the next food that was brought to me. Not only because I'd be light-headed by then but also because, if you didn't eat something once or twice a day, paint and canvas would disappear.

I would eat when I finished his eyes. They were the trickiest aspect of the stranger to recreate because they were always changing. I could never capture the expression though I'd seen it in my nightmare thousands of times.

It was the change I tried to paint, a simple shifting of dark to light.

I'd never gotten it right

"Always the same, love. A handsome devil for sure, but why the same man over and over and over again?"

The nurse was new. I didn't throw a handful of paint at her or scream my frustration or try to knock the hours old pudding from her hands. It wasn't right to strike out when someone "meant well." I'd been told that in the beginning. A lot. It was something I already knew, but I'd forgotten just as I'd forgotten so many things.

I would never be able to remember if I had to talk at the same time but I was also afraid of losing my paint if I didn't try.

"He watches over me…I think. I see him in my dreams."

I dropped my hands to my lap not even noticing the smears of cerulean left there on an old smock from hundreds of just such moments before.

The eyes were finished, but they were wrong. They were too dark and angry, almost frightening. Goosebumps rose on the back of my neck as I looked into the wrong eyes for the hundredth time.

"A guardian, you say? Like an angel?" The nurse—her name was Emma, or Hannah, or Anna—walked around the room from painting to painting. Names didn't matter. I was terrified if I learned new names I'd lose the beloved ones I couldn't recall because they hovered on the edge of my consciousness like echoes of a yesterday that never was. Canvases were hung and propped and stacked everywhere and these had caught her attention. "But…no wings?"

The nurse had turned back to me as the not-quite-right shade of blue dried on my fingers.

"He's not an angel," I corrected. As always, I felt slightly defeated but also relieved to have failed. If I didn't get the eyes right then maybe such an intimidating creature didn't exist.

In spite of the relief, I'd be driven to try again and again.

For some reason, I had to get it right. An obsessive loop my doctors called it. There was so much my doctors didn't understand. I might have forgotten who I was before I came to St. Mary's, but the sense of urgency I had—to remember this one man—was a life line to my lost memories I couldn't release.

"Not an angel?" The nurse repeated thoughtfully running a finger down the handsome cheek of the man I had painted hundreds of times since I'd been brought to the clinic a year before.

"Not at all," I whispered, shivering as I looked into the wrong eyes.


I didn't have much to bring with me to Belle Aimée. When the ivy-covered wrought iron that surrounded the old house loomed large in front of me, my possessions seemed even more meager. The ghostly white Greek revival style "cottage" sat with silent prominence behind the elaborate iron gate on the very edge of the Lower Garden District. It was a mansion by today's standards. I had only a creaky old steamer trunk filled with carefully rolled canvases, a much more modern suitcase on wobbly wheels packed with the simple clothing I'd needed at St. Mary's and a shoulder bag with a few personal items that meant nothing to me. I didn't remember why I carried the silver-handled hairbrush or the faded lavender ribbon or the book of French fairytales, worn and obviously well-read.

I only knew it was late and I hadn't painted all day.

The hollow ache in my stomach, the nerves skittering along my spine as I looked up at the glow of windows shuttered against the night, mattered much less than my clean fingers and my restless need to find the man I tried so hard to recall.

I missed my quiet room at St. Mary's and the orderly schedule that allowed me to devote myself to his mystery. But even if my benefactor hadn't died, I could no longer stay. I'd grown increasingly certain if I didn't remember soon it would be too late. When I'd been summoned to Belle Aimée and a nurse had put me and my belongings into a car someone had hired to fetch me, I didn't protest. It was time. My blood sang it with the beat of my heart. It was time. The nurse had hugged me and promised to write.

I'd never allowed myself to learn her name.

The driver opened the gate and it swung wide on well-oiled hinges. I could see pineapples worked into the design of the ironwork, but the welcome of the traditional symbolism made me uneasy instead of soothed. I wasn't a visitor come to enjoy the fruits of a successful trade voyage. I was marooned. Lost in a world that might never be grounded in the memories of my previous life again.

But, for some reason, it was the fleur-de-lis rising out of the scrolled hearts along the top of the gate that caused me to dread putting one foot in front of the other to carry me through. I did it anyway, of course. I'd been hiding away at St. Mary's for too long.

The walkway beneath my feet was made of interlacing bricks that fit together in rows of jagged teeth. I recognized the rough edges and slightly imperfect surfaces of handmade stone and found it cruel that I would remember such unimportant details about the world when I'd forgotten everything and everyone that mattered.

The driver carried my trunk and I followed him up to the imposing entrance of Belle Aimée. There had been a sign on the gate I'd read by the light of the street lamps. The house had been built one hundred and fifty years ago for the mistress of a wealthy New Orleans judge just before the Civil War. He'd been a Beauregard and she'd been a La Croix.

La Croix.

The name caused my heartbeat to skip erratically in my chest.

Two great palazzos stretched across the front and around the sides of the house. Artistically turned, white Corinthian columns held up these double porches. In the glow of the porch lights, I could barely make out the evidence of aged paint gone from white to ivory through a hundred years of thick reapplication. The weighty evidence of so much history was oppressive to someone who had no history at all. I was nothing and no one approaching a place that had obviously meant a great deal to many people through the years.

As he walked, the columns shadowed the driver's face and the shifting darkness on his cheeks disturbed me. I almost imagined the house was reaching out to touch us. I could feel the cool slide of shadows on my own face though I knew that should be impossible. I could almost imagine a dark assessment taking place.

We came closer to the house and climbed the broad front steps to the door. My throat threatened to close and my respiration grew shallow and quick. Had I been here before? If so, my body was telling me I didn't want to be here again.

Ever again.

Even the heavy sweet scent of night blooming jasmine carried on a faint breeze across my cheeks failed to soothe me. The touch of air was spidery. I wanted to brush it away. The scent caused goose bumps to rise on my skin as if, deep down, I was instinctively afraid. It was incredibly difficult to trust instincts that rose out of nowhere with no memory to ground them in reality.

The driver rang the bell and I jerked because its dulcet, ringing tones caused something inside of me to go aching and raw. But I knew nothing of ache. Not in those moments while we waited. Not until the heavy oaken door swung open to reveal the perfect shade of blue.

"Chloe," he said. And I knew my name, as I hadn't for twelve long months. They'd told me, of course. They'd used it to address me. But it hadn't been me until he uttered it in the long, low accent of Louisiana French Creole.

My artist's eye catalogued the black waves of his hair, the high prominent cheekbones and the Gallic nose, but some hidden part of me that had been suddenly magnetized noticed other things—the swell of his lips in an otherwise lean face, the thick sooty lashes so dark against the blue of his irises. Though I didn't lack skill, the chance that I would ever have achieved his exact likeness on canvas was revealed to me as never.

"Are you Jonathan La Croix?" The driver asked the man from my nightmares.

"Yes. I'm La Croix," he replied and even though I didn't know my own last name or where I'd gone to school or how I'd gotten the scar over my left eyebrow that looked like tiny butterfly wings, I knew he was Old Louisiana. It was in the slightly arrogant tilt to his chin and the cultured tones of his southern drawl. It was in the cut of his jaw and the gleam of his light eyes against his skin. He had received all that was beautiful from his multicultural background—the Native American, French and Spanish—but he had the carriage of a man who could trace his roots all the way back to the original settlement and even if the unions that had gotten him to this point had been left-handed he was surely an aristocrat through and through.

La Croix drew me forward, but it was the kind of pull that brought out the large Luna moths flapping dangerously close to the hanging lights of Belle Aimée's porches. When he'd said my name, it had sounded too intimate as if the utterance held all my secrets in its simple syllables. He corrected himself now, coolly, until I thought I must have imagined his ability to peer into a past I couldn't see no matter how I strained and strived.

"Welcome to Belle Aimée," he said.

I couldn't tell him I was welcome nowhere, that I was too lost, wandering a world I couldn't recognize, surrounded by strangers and constant confusion. I couldn't tell him that I regained my equilibrium only when I painted because I recognized and understood the laws of paint on canvas when all else seemed to have deserted me.

Moisture welled in my eyes from frustration, loss and exhaustion brought on by the overwhelming changes I'd faced that day. It had taken all the courage I could muster to step out into a strange world with no memories to anchor me in it. I mustered more courage to hold back the tears, but if he saw my emotion, he didn't acknowledge it. He simply took my trunk from the driver and directed me inside.


Walking into Belle Aimée was difficult. The air seemed thick and stubborn almost as if it would hold me back and press me out. Though it must have been nearly two hundred years old, the Cyprus floors gleamed and the vintage silk wallpaper glowed, barely faded for all its years. And, yet, I felt those years, every one of them, around me. The air was heavy, filled as it was with bygone whispers.

"We've prepared a room for you upstairs," La Croix said, motioning to the curving staircase that branched like a wishbone at the top where landings led into two wings of the house. I barely noted the "we". I was too overwhelmed by the house itself.

"I will never understand how they could have considered this a 'cottage'," I said.

He blinked as if surprised that I would know history. Had he been told that I barely recognized my own face in the mirror when I first went to St. Mary's? Once he came to know me better, he would realize that the mundane hadn't left me. Only the vital. Only my heart.

"Yes. Apparently this house was considered discrete when my great grandfather built it for my great grand-mère. Not hidden, you understand. Their relationship was formally acknowledged by society at the time. Her children had an inheritance from their father and fine social standing…just not his name. Her mother was a French opera singer. Her father was a trapper more Natchez than French."

"La Croix," I said, softly. The name was both strange and beguiling with vague familiarity on my tongue.

"Yes," he replied. "She took her mother's name." He looked at me with that expectant pause I'd learned to dread. The one that seemed to wait for me to suddenly blink and remember everything. The one that said he knew more than I knew about my past, but it was too heavy with shadows to share. The weight of all I didn't know behind his hooded eyes was almost more than I could bear.

"Will I have a place to paint?" I asked, desperate to regain my equilibrium.

"Always," La Croix said. Now there was impatience in his clipped tones and maybe disappointment. It didn't seem leveled at me, but rather the world around us as if he'd like to grab it and shake it into place with his bare fisted hands. The uncomfortable moment passed, but another followed it. My "always" consists of the three hundred and sixty five days I can remember. All else is as if it never was. I had to have known Jonathan La Croix. He held the evidence of that hidden in tight rolls of canvas in the trunk in his hands. What had he been to me and why was his name the one name I'd allowed myself to know in a year?

"Come with me," La Croix said. He carried the trunk filled with imperfect portraits up the stairs and I followed. The white of his knuckles stood out on his fingers as he held the trunk's handles tighter than necessary. But I also noticed the way his black shirt stretched across his shoulders and the way his broad back narrowed to a nipped athletic waist. Not because I'm an artist. Something else in me had wakened. A sleeping woman who now yawned and sat up to note the way La Croix's powerful legs took the stairs. He was very tall, topping me by at least a foot. I had to rush to keep up with him though his stride was steady and slow.

I tried not to stare, but I failed.

The song in my blood had changed to, "Here he is. Here he is." But when he turned to make sure I followed him down the long dark upstairs hall, there were shadows in his eyes I was no longer sure I should have been driven to find.

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About the author

As the daughter of an alcoholic, I learned at a young age to turn to f...

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Barbara J. Hancock

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