NZ Forest Native Birds


extract from
Extract from Stalker from Her Past by Laraine Anne Barker
by Laraine Anne Barker

Stranger in the Mirror is now

available for download

at Awe-Struck, and

Amazon (type Laraine Anne Barker in the search engine to find it there).

Book cover

Chapter 1

I opened my eyes to blankness.

       It had to be the biggest shock of my life, worse than the moment of my birth. For that trauma—a purely physical one—was surely far less terrifying than waking to a mental void.

      Where was I? What had happened I turned my head. The movement hurt, but I ignored the pain. I received an impression of a drab room that was also dim despite the apparent brightness of the day beyond its tall, dirty windows. I was sure I’d never seen my surroundings before. Then I became aware of how weak I felt and realised I must be ill. But this couldn’t be a hospital. Weren’t hospitals clean and bright—and full of bustle?

       Before I could think further, a head blotted out everything and I found myself looking into a man’s face. Even in my bewildered state I couldn’t help admiring his extreme good looks, the thick long lashes framing dark, anxious eyes whose lustrous depths were like a clear but bottomless pool, although their owner looked as though he hadn’t slept for some nights. His light olive complexion was topped by a head of black hair that was so unruly its owner might just have climbed out of bed. Oddly this—and even the shadow that indicated he hadn’t shaved for a while—only added to his attractiveness. But it was a stranger’s face. Then I must be in hospital. And he must be a doctor.

       “You’re awake. Thank God!” he said, letting out his breath in a sigh. His voice was rich and deep, but hoarse with anxiety. “How are you feeling?”

       He moved back a pace and I saw he couldn’t be a doctor. Doctors didn’t dress in shabby jeans and tee-shirts—at least not while on duty. And of course this room couldn’t be a hospital room. For a start, hospitals didn’t use beds as huge as the one in which I lay. It was clearly meant for a married couple …

       “Where am I? What’s happened?” The words came out in the raspy whisper of a voice that hadn’t been used for a while.

       He frowned, studying me thoughtfully. He spoke slowly, almost as though he thought I would have trouble understanding: “You have been in a car accident.”

       I tried to recall the accident, but there was nothing but blankness. My mind could conjure up no images whatsoever. I couldn’t even imagine myself behind the wheel of a car. And when I struggled to picture myself in familiar surroundings—somewhere more comforting than where I was—I couldn’t do that. But the worst thing was that I seemed to have no identity: I couldn’t remember my own name. Perhaps if I could see my face …

       “Do you have a mirror?” My request came out in a choked whisper.

       From the dressing-table he picked up a hand mirror. To my surprise it was heavy, silver-backed and as bright as the room was dim. My hand could barely hold it as I lifted it to my face.

       “See, your beauty is unmarked,” he said with a fervour that, coming from a stranger, sounded odd.

       I stared into the mirror.

       I didn’t know what to expect. But his words hadn’t been just a euphemism to tell me my face was unscarred. The stranger studying me from the mirror would have been classed as beautiful by most people. Enormous, wide-spaced eyes of aqua-grey stared at me with my own bewilderment and enquiry. In spite of illness the oval face, although thin and pale, had flawless skin framed by curtains of silvery-blonde hair that would shine once the dirt had been washed away. The generous mouth—too sensitive, I thought in dismay—was quivering on the verge of tears. Only the exotic, catlike slant of the eyes gave the face enough character to stop it having the insipid sameness of looks paraded in beauty contests.

       But the stranger in the mirror had no help or comfort to offer me.

       I let the mirror drop to the counterpane and sank back on the pillows, tears squeezing themselves from under my closed eyelids, though I strove to check them. “Who am I? And who are you? I suppose you must be my husband but I’ve no idea what your name is, never mind my own.”

       When seconds passed and I didn’t get an answer to my strangled questions I opened my eyes, blinked away the tears and looked at him with accusation. To my surprise, even in the dimness I could see a flush on the high, sharply moulded cheekbones that gave his face an air of arrogance—an arrogance from a bygone age. But why did he look so stunned? When he answered his voice sounded harsh with anger.

       “You’re Rebecca, my wife, of course. You were on your way home in your car and some idiot, probably drunk and driving on the wrong side of the road, slammed into you almost at our gate and drove off, leaving you for dead. I brought you home from hospital only this morning and you’ve been sleeping ever since.”

       So I had been in hospital. That must be why I’d expected to find myself in a hospital ward. But since I couldn’t remember waking to find myself in hospital, this information only made the situation worse.

       I sent him an entreating glance. Please tell me something that will help me remember!

       “Rebecca who?” That was as much as I could get out. Talking made me feel so weak.


       Whatever I had been expecting it wasn’t what sounded like a foreign name. But of course, I told myself, if I was married to him it would be his surname and not the one I was born with. When I studied him again I could see his heritage, if not in the broad build of his tall, elegant figure, then at least in its proud carriage and certainly in those exotic good looks.

       “You’re … Spanish?”

       “My father was.”

       For some reason this made me curious. “And your mother?”

       “She was the only daughter of English farmers. My sister Leecy and I grew up in England on my grandparents’ farm. My parents have since retired to Spain where my father has two brothers. My sister married a doctor and I hardly ever see her. She and her husband spend more time overseas than they do at home.” With this he picked up the mirror and placed it carefully back on the dressing-table. “Look, you don’t really want to listen to me spouting about my family. It’ll only exhaust you. And you must be hungry. What say I get you some soup and then let you sleep? You’ll probably remember more when you wake up again.”

       More? I thought bitterly. I can’t remember anything.

       But I was exhausted, as he had surmised. And he had also guessed correctly that I was hungry.

       While he was in the kitchen I took the opportunity to look at my surroundings with more care, which reinforced my first impression of the room’s poverty. Even the oilcloth on the floor—laid, I guessed, before the second world war—was torn and dirty with age, although the huge bed was new and the aged bedcover concealed a down-and-feather duvet. All the same, I hoped the rest of the house was in a better state.

       I must have been madly in love to have married a man whose home offered so little comfort. This room, for instance, would be freezing in winter. Imagine putting feet warm from bed onto that cold, bare floor! Then I noticed that there was a fireplace with an elaborate overmantel. But even it looked as though it hadn’t seen a fire for a generation at least.

       His reappearance put a stop to my gloomy thoughts. He put the tray he was carrying on the bedside table and I felt unaccountably shy as he lifted me to a sitting position, placed more pillows behind my head and tucked a tea-towel under my chin. Then he sat on the edge of the bed and started spooning hot chicken soup into my mouth with as much care and patience as a trained nurse, spilling not a drop and stopping only when I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. I heard him put the bowl back on the tray and was aware of his movements as he took away the tea towel and pillows—was too much aware of those dark eyes that were the last thing I saw.

       But I didn’t hear him leave the room.

       When I next awoke it was with as much fright as the first time—for it was the bouncing of the bed that disturbed me. I opened my eyes to see that it was now night-time. By the light of a bedside lamp a male form was climbing into bed beside me. At the gasp that I was unable to stifle he froze. Dim though the light was, I was sure it was guilt that suffused his face with red.

       “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.” He spoke in a whisper.

       “What d’you think you’re doing?” I couldn’t keep the indignation out of my voice.

       “Coming to bed. I’m tired of the old couch. It’s too short for me—and it has a broken spring. Besides, you’re well enough now for me to come back to bed with you.”

       My imagination ran riot at what this could mean. “But I don’t even know your name!”

       He sighed. “I’m sorry—it’s difficult for me to comprehend that everything’s strange to you, including me. I’d hoped you’d remember once you’d had some proper sleep. My name’s Raoul.”

       I frowned puzzledly. “But that’s … French isn’t it?”

       “Yes. My mother felt that my father’s name—Rafael—was too much of a mouthful to call a child and that the English Ralph was too abrupt.”

       By now he was between the sheets. Propped on one elbow, he looked down at me uncertainly, a bit like an actor who wasn’t too sure of his next move let alone the accompanying lines. But I was determined not to give him any cue. I had nothing to say anyway. Well, that wasn’t strictly true. Rather, I had too much to say. The trouble was my lines were all questions—questions tumbling so thick and fast I didn’t know where to start. And he looked too badly in need of sleep to spare the time to answer them. We stared at each other for a long moment of silence, my heart starting to thud apprehensively at the grimness that settled over his features.

       It was he who broke that stretched-out, uncomfortable pause. “There’s no need to look at me like that. I’m too tired to … make any demands of you. Besides, you’re still not well enough. But if I’m to care for you properly I need a better night’s sleep than I’ve been getting since you had the accident.”

       He turned his back on me and settled his pillow under his head.

       “Goodnight. Sleep well.” With these gruff words he reached out and switched off the bedside lamp.

       Some husband! I thought. I’m surely not too sick for a goodnight kiss!

       However, I said nothing. After all, as far as I was concerned he was a stranger. Within five minutes his deep, even breathing told me he was asleep. But for me sleep just wouldn’t return. I told myself it was because I had been sleeping most of the day. In reality it was surely that my overworked brain kept coming up with more and more questions. In the morning, I told myself, I’ll put every one to him. I’ll grill him mercilessly. I refused to admit to myself that his presence in the bed beside me was in any way disturbing.

       Out of consideration for Raoul’s need for sleep I tried not to toss and turn. In the end increasing pressure on my bladder gave me a good excuse to satisfy my curiosity about the house. Carefully I pushed back the duvet and swung my legs off the bed. To my surprise my feet found a pair of slippers waiting for them.

       It was very dark. The only light in the room came from the large figures on the digital alarm clocks, one on each bedside table. But I reckoned these would be bright enough to help me to feel my way to the door.

       I was surprised at how weak I was. I had to use the bedside table to stand up. I can’t remember how I steered myself across the room, but it must have taken me ages. Once outside I gently closed the door. Then I really was in total darkness. I groped along the wall, feeling for the light switch. It was pure chance, I’m sure, that led me to it. By the glow of the unshaded bulb I saw I was standing in what had once been a grand hallway in a Victorian house. I quickly found the lavatory, which was sadly in need of replacement.

       Though my legs felt tottery under me, my curiosity was too great to allow me to go back to bed without at least glancing into all the rooms. I found the other bedrooms—of which there were a surprising number—all empty except for boxes and pieces of stored furniture. It confirmed my impression that Raoul and I had no children and that I was alone in the house with him. It looked, in fact, as though we were still settling in and hadn’t unpacked everything. There was an incredible amount of dust.

       Downstairs I was surprised—and much relieved—to find a large modern kitchen in a quaintly Victorian farmhouse style, looking as though it had hardly been used. The house also boasted what had once been an elegant formal dining-room and a huge drawing-room that showed signs of being in the process of redecoration—though, from all the dust, it appeared the workmen had abandoned it years ago. Feeling suddenly weak, I sank down on the old couch Raoul had mentioned. I was wondering how he had managed to get any sleep at all on it when the silence was broken by a click as the door behind me opened.

       I started and whirled, unaccountable guilt suffusing my face in a hot crimson tide. It was, of course, Raoul, his hair even more dishevelled than before, squinting blearily at me in the light from the naked bulb. And he still needed a shave. How could a man be so attractive when he looked so rumpled and tired?

       “What on earth are you doing down here? You’re not well enough to be out of bed!” He looked and sounded annoyed.

       Like a chidden child, I stared at him in sullen defiance. With long strides he crossed the room. Next moment he had scooped me up just as he would a child who was too sleepy to walk up to bed. Instinctively I shrieked with the shock of being abruptly lifted into the air.

       “Put me down! Put me down at once!”

       “Very well—but I doubt you’ll be able to get yourself back upstairs,” he said, promptly yet gently placing me on my feet. To my mortification I felt myself swaying dizzily and was forced to clutch the nearest thing, which happened to be the front of his pyjama top.

       “See?” The arrogant complacency in his gaze sent tears of humiliation instantly welling to my eyes. I lowered my lids to hide them and to shut out that hateful expression—and found myself staring at the hand clutching his chest. For a moment I was sure I could feel his heart thudding against my palm. So he really was angry with me—much angrier than he even admitted—for waking him up and for being stupid enough to come downstairs when I had recently been in a coma. And how could I blame him? Hastily, in utter confusion, I withdrew the hand.

       Fortunately for me he chose that very moment to pick me up again, or I would certainly have reeled like a drunk. At first I turned my face from him and gazed at my surroundings to avoid having to look at him, but found myself feeling even giddier, and so insecure I felt the need to cling to something. However, there was nothing to cling to except him, and I steadfastly refused to do that. So I concentrated instead on my hands clenched together in front of me. This meant I had no choice but to lean against him, with the side of my head pressed against his chest, and so could hear as well as feel the beat of his heart, which slammed against my ear with unnecessary noise and vigour. If he went back to bed with so much anger bottled up inside him, I told myself, he’d never get the sleep he so badly needed.

       “I’m sorry I’ve been such a nuisance and made you angry,” I whispered.

       “You haven’t—just a little foolish. And of course I’m not angry with you.” The chilling curtness of his voice, rather than reassuring me, simply increased my mortification.

       We continued up the stairs in silence. Once in the bedroom he settled me in bed and tucked the duvet firmly around me.

       “Now stay there,” he said, hands on hips, like a mock-stern father with a disobedient small daughter. “If you want anything, just ask for it.”

       “Do you have a potty?” I spoke without thinking in a desperate attempt to lessen his annoyance.

       Much to my surprise it worked. He threw back his head and laughed. It completely transformed his face, making him less medieval looking. I couldn’t help smiling at the success of my silly question.

       “The lavatory’s right opposite the bedroom, and I suspect you’ve already found your way to it. But I think perhaps you might be hungry again and I’d rather not be woken by your rumbling insides—so how about I make you some scrambled eggs and a cup of tea?”

       I ventured an upward peep at him. With the broad grin still on his face he looked devastatingly handsome. “Thank you. That would be lovely.”

       The eggs came with hot buttered toast, all of which I devoured greedily while he lay back and watched me inscrutably through thick, lowered lashes. At the first sip of the tea, however, I made an involuntary grimace of distaste.

       He sat up quickly. “What’s wrong?”

       I held out the offending cup. “It’s horribly sweet. Do you mind if I leave it?”

       He shrugged and took the cup from me. “No, of course not. Tastes do change after an illness. But I’m too tired to make you another. You’ll have to put up with water.”

       A few minutes later he placed the refilled cup on my table, returned to his side of the bed, climbed in and snapped out the light—all without so much as another glance in my direction. “Goodnight.”

       Again he was asleep before me. But at least I must have eventually slept, for the insistent Beep! Beep! Beep! of the clock on my bedside table dragged me from dreamless depths. It was still as black as midnight. Furiously, without thinking, I shot out my hand and thumped the clock into silence.

       The loud thud was what woke Raoul. He sat up, switched on the light and looked at me in momentary fright.

       “You all right?” Then, without waiting for my answer: “Was that the alarm?”

       “What’s it doing going off in the middle of the night? And why can’t you set the one on your side instead? I hate alarm clocks!”

       He grinned, and something inside me did cartwheels while my burst of ill-humour instantly vanished. “It isn’t the middle of the night any more—it’s nearly dawn. And I always set yours to go off before mine. It’s a good incentive to get up when the alarm’s on the other side of the room.”

       With that he switched off his own alarm, climbed out of bed and started to strip by dropping his pyjama trousers. A tide of hot shame washed over me and I quickly turned my back, pulled the duvet close under my chin and shut my eyes. Only the deepening of the brown against my eyelids warned me that he had walked round to my side of the bed. At the suddenness at which my eyes flew open his mouth quirked and his eyes gleamed sardonically. He had thrown on the tee-shirt and jeans he had worn the day before, but he hadn’t bothered to comb his hair. And his face still sported a dark shadow that was now almost the untidy beginnings of a beard. Goodness knows how devastating he’d look in decent clothes after a good shave, I found myself thinking. He leaned over and switched off my alarm so that it wouldn’t go off again.

       “I’m off to work now. I’ll bring your breakfast up when it’s light after I’ve showered and shaved. In the meantime get yourself some more sleep. You can come downstairs for a bit later in the day if you feel well enough.”

       “Yes, Doctor.”

       My mockingly meek reply elicited the result I had aimed at—the devastating grin that set my insides churning. I wanted to ask where he worked and what he did, but didn’t dare risk bringing back the moodiness that seemed to be characteristic of his volatile personality. After he’d been to the lavatory and gone downstairs I heard a door close after him and the crunch of rapid footsteps on a gravel drive. But once the footsteps died I didn’t hear the expected sounds of a garage door opening or a car engine starting up. Well, if he had to walk to work that would account for his having to get up before dawn, I told myself. Not to mention going without breakfast. That was when it struck me: my accident had probably written off our only car.

       This thought brought all the questions I wanted to ask him to the forefront of my mind. Some of them, surely, could be answered by simply nosing around the house.

       I snapped on the light and gingerly climbed out of bed. Now where would I be likely to find my clothes? The bedroom didn’t appear to have a wardrobe. Then I noticed there was a second door in the far wall. When I opened it I saw what had once been a smaller bedroom. It had been divided into two rooms, one of which was a walk-in wardrobe-cum-dressing room. The other, I guessed, would soon be a bathroom. It already had a large corner shower box enclosed entirely in glass with gold trim. When I tried the mixer I was surprised to find it was plumbed in.

       I had no trouble finding underwear and a pair of soft, flat-heeled leather shoes and there were plenty of jeans and tee-shirts. However, there was very little in the way of smart clothing: a short cocktail-type dress and a periwinkle blue evening gown, both of them elegantly plain, but nothing suitable for, say, office wear. I could hardly go around the house in evening clothes, however plain, so I chose the smartest jeans and a knitted tee-shirt in blue and headed for the shower.

       By the time I finished dressing I was feeling weak again. I found some cheap skincare products in the bathroom but no makeup. Also, there was no sign of a hair-dryer so I had to make do with using the comb from the silver-backed mirror and brush set.

       As I dealt with the tangles in my hair I studied myself in the mirror and didn’t like what I saw. I had tucked the tee-shirt into the jeans but it was still obvious they were too big for me. Even if they fitted, I told myself bitterly, I was far too thin—and far too pale without makeup—to bring a spark of desire to Raoul’s eyes. And wet hair clinging to my head was somehow even less appealing than dirty hair, I thought, giving the offending locks a tug that made me wince.

       When I was as ready as I was likely to be I made my way downstairs, clinging to the carved banister all the way. A glance around the drawing-room told me there was nothing there that might yield bits of my past to me, apart from a built-in glassed bookcase covering half of one wall and filled with an odd assortment of books. I saw classics from the eighteenth to the twentieth century along with an amazing variety of modern novelists, together with a wide range of biography, history, geography and a collection of agricultural tomes that looked very hard reading. Then my eyes lighted on a motley and very shabby collection of children’s books. One of the titles stood out starkly: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. With trembling fingers I lifted it from the shelf and opened it at the flyleaf. But there was nothing there and none of the other books yielded anything either.

       I then made my way to the dining room where only a writing bureau—a large, handsome piece of genuine Victoriana—gave any promise of hidden secrets. There I found an item of the sort I was looking for: a photograph album. I saw myself, a radiant bride in off-white bridal attire that refused to give my memory the clues that I demanded. And there was Raoul beside me, as devastatingly handsome as I had imagined in his formal garb. In one photograph he was looking at me rather than the camera. My breath caught on a sob as I compared this elated, ardent bridegroom with the moody man of the present.

       Absentmindedly leaving the writing bureau wide open, I sat on the nearest dining chair and continued turning the album leaves, peering hopefully at the wedding guests. But their faces had nothing to say to me either. Then wedding photos gave way to honeymoon snapshots. The exotic surroundings in which they were taken—mostly snow-clad ski slopes—were no more enlightening.

       I was so engrossed in my search for my past that I didn’t hear the dawn chorus begin. And with the drapes still drawn I didn’t realise it was daylight until Raoul’s voice cut the silence like a whip cracking.

       “What the devil do you think you’re doing going through my desk?”

       I gasped and almost leapt in the air with shock. The album thudded to the floor.

Now available for download at Awe-Struck and
© L A Barker Enterprises
All rights reserved

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Go to Stalker From Her Past to read
the first chapter of my
first romantic suspense novel.

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