Mandy Ruhe receives a sacred amulet and is suddenly swept back in time to Texas 1845. She finds herself inside the body of Carmena Luebber, owner of the Holiday Ranch. Until she can return to her own time, Mandy is caught up in the lives of the people on the ranch—their struggles, hopes, and dreams. Torn between two men in love with the woman she portrays 165 years in the past, Mandy finds herself hoping that true love can triumph over time.
A colossal headache jackhammered at my skull. Pain ransacked every nerve ending, worse than the migraine I’d suffered before my court appearance. Motion sickness blossomed as my head swayed back and forth against my will. A struggle went into flitting open my sticky lashes.
The fuzzy image of a moustached man came into view, and his tears dripped onto my face. Long brown hair dangled past his wide shoulders and stuck in the salty liquid on my cheeks. Decorative braiding and pretty gold buttons shimmered on the front of his dark blue jacket.
Yankee Jesus rocked me in his arms, and I wanted to throw up.
“Don’t leave me,” he whispered. His deep voice sounded like a lullaby, pulling some of my attention away from the pain and the need to vomit. “Carmena, come back to me.”
It was the wrong name, but he said it like a soothing hot drink on a chilly day. I felt safe in his presence, inexplicably secure in an embrace so suffocating that it threatened to choke the air from my lungs.
My lashes fluttered all the way open. It felt like the man with the knockout looks wasn’t holding me for the first time, but I couldn’t recall seeing eyes bluer than the waters on a Caribbean postcard.
“Carmena!” His weak smile tried to nudge past his anguish. “Darling, stay with me!”
“Dude, why wouldn’t I?” The small and scratchy voice didn’t sound like my own, but apparently he didn’t care.
His long fingers swiped strands of tacky hair out of my face. “Forever more, I shall see to your every happiness, my love.” Deeply comforted, I gave him a trifling smile as I closed my eyes and lapsed into sleep.
* * *
Something jabbed the backside of my body, like a hammock supported with rebar ropes. An ugly stink reminded me of the herbal poultices my great-grandma concocted for skinned knees. People whispered in a foreign language. A distant yell of “Heeyah!” was followed by neighing, mooing, barking, bleating, and crowing.
I must have fallen and smacked my head. That would explain the confusing sounds and hallucinations. I probably had a concussion to boot.
Light penetrated my lids, forcing me to blink out the brightness. My head throbbed more than ever, and the room blurred, but I didn’t miss the extreme close-up of a heavyset older woman smiling sweetly at me in a high-collared dress.
The cushy maternal image was, no doubt, a subconscious portrayal of my cousin.
There was no way for me to determine how much time had elapsed between seeing Yankee Jesus and Hispanic Nicole. I closed my eyes and felt a cool cloth press lightly on my forehead. Nicole chanted in Spanish, fluid rolls of the tongue like my private Pied Piper convincing me to follow her into wakefulness.
I opened my eyes and a tear flowed down her cheek.
“Your fever has broken, muchacha. Gracias a Diós. We thought we lost you.”
Her floor length brown skirt rustled over layers of fabric with a hint of lace circling the bottom. Black leather lace-up boots peeked from beneath the brown cloth and the white utilitarian apron enhanced her wide waist.
“How could I let my imagination do this to you? I must be subconsciously jealous.”
“I go see if the caldo is ready,” she said with squinty eyes.
Nicole’s Mexican alter ego left the room. My aching brain vaguely recalled that caldo meant soup. My high school foreign language requirement finally paid off.
Too tired to question why she spoke another language, I let my sight wander to the golden tint enveloping the room. It was late afternoon. A breeze lifted the thin curtains.
I could swear I’d changed those.
I tried to make sense of the surroundings. My clever imagination had created the utmost authenticity in the 1800s décor. Although the vintage furniture looked too new, it contributed to the stylish Roy Rogers meets Zorro retro design.
Well-preserved glass hurricane oil lanterns topped superbly crafted pine end tables and another lantern hung from an iron hook next to the door. What felt like metal ropes on my back turned out to be leather straps tacked along all edges of the bed frame to brace the thick, down-feather mattress.
A light tap on the door announced a tall, dark-haired man who hesitated before entering. “Buenas tardes, Carmena.” He said the name in a thick but decipherable Spanish accent. “Angela says your fever has broken.”
I’d transformed Marco into a handsome Mexican ranchero, although I surprised myself by not conjuring up something truer to his roots, like a mighty African warlord. The Marco-man was quite attractive and muscular. Gray hair at his temples gave scarce hint of his age. His biker black leather vest and gold watch fob were fairly macho compared to the long sleeved white shirt with a feminine round collar and a shoelace style tie, more like a ribbon knotted into a bow.
“How do you feel?”
“You mean aside from my head reeling worse than when riding a rollercoaster in a backward loop after a dozen margaritas?” I mumbled. The Marco persona tilted his head and narrowed his gaze on me, and I felt the need to reassure him. “I’m cool.”
He pushed himself off the doorjamb. “I’ll get you a blanket.” He started for an afghan thrown over a Victorian style chaise lounge in the corner.
“I mean, I’m much better.”
“Que bueno.” He leaned back against the doorframe, relaxed, yet a tight jaw belied his tension.
“The captain took care of everything.” A hint of a sneer distorted his features when he said the officer’s rank.
The woman he’d called Angela bustled into the room carrying a serving tray. “Martino helped me get all the animals from the barn up the hill before the soldiers arrived. They were tied together like the paper chains the niños make for the Christmas tree!”
“Captain? Soldiers? Martino?” There was only one logical explanation for this bizarre hallucination. I was dreaming and couldn’t wake myself up. I must have created a story based on my inner thoughts and feelings, changing people I knew into brilliant characters.
Hispanic Marco frowned and a small crease etched between his brows.
The woman set down a delicious-smelling bowl of chicken soup. “You eat and get well,” she said. It sounded more like an order than reassurance.
She helped me to sit nearly upright, fluffing the pillows behind me. It felt like a boxer punching a bag attached to the back of my head. My eyes clenched shut until the rancid taste in my throat dissolved.
Angela/Nicole patiently hand fed me with a polished, antique silver spoon. My starving body gladly accepted the savory concoction. It felt like I hadn’t eaten for weeks. My taste buds endured torture waiting for each bite while she methodically dipped the spoon into the hot liquid, carefully scraping the bottom on the edge of the bowl.
My open mouth had only so much patience.
The woman jerked back as I grabbed the spoon and slurped down spoonfuls of the delicious broth. Golden liquid dribbled down my chin and I burped.
“Her appetite’s back,” the woman said.
“So are her manners,” the man scoffed.
I patted my chest and burped again. “So what am I doing here?”
The woman gasped. “You don’t remember?”
“No. The last I remember is seeing you and Marco disappearing right in front of me.”
“Marco?” they asked one another.
“Carlos, she hit her head harder than we thought,” the woman said. She pushed my chin to the left, inspected the side of my face, and looked back at the man. “It stopped bleeding, but I think you should get the doctor.”
He uncrossed his arms. “It may not be safe to ride into town,” he said, yet he stood upright, ready to do her bidding. He looked to me for confirmation.
“No need for a doctor,” I told them.
The altered state was too realistic. What if I felt the breaking of skin if a doctor stabbed me with a needle? Worse yet, he might use leeches like they did in old western movies.
“You know, I really don’t feel that bad. I’m just not remembering things too clearly.” I looked from one to the other.
“You’ll have to fill in the blanks.” “The blanks?” the lady asked.
Even with accents, they obviously understood English, yet they questioned everything I said. I touched the knot on my temple, but the pain was worse at the back of my skull. I couldn’t trust the experience to be real, although my senses said otherwise. “Maybe I’ll feel better once I soak in the Jacuzzi for a while.” Mouths remained open.
“The what?” the man asked.
“Let me fix you a hot bath instead,” the woman suggested.
This dream was getting out of hand. It was time to wake up and see Nicole and Marco in their regular bodies. These people, this room—while they were intriguing—I wanted to get back to life as I knew it. The images weren’t terrible, but they didn’t make sense and nothing was in my control.
I lay back into the pillows, hoping more shuteye would end this imaginative yet brainless illusion, but a dreadful feeling cropped up, snapping my eyes open again.
What if I wasn’t dreaming?
Nicole whispered something to Marco in Spanish. I heard agua caliente, which I knew to be hot water. I relaxed slightly. While the tub filled, I’d sleep, wake up, and things would be back to normal. Maybe that delicious caldo would turn out to be real.
The woman picked up the serving tray, and I said, “Thank you. That was great. Maybe you can give me the recipe.”
She giggled, a pleasing lilt similar to Nicole’s laughter, but the Angela lady was more of a soprano. “The day you cook we all die of the stomach poison. Ay Diós!” She walked out of the room, braying, her laughter fading with her footsteps.
The second she left the room, the man she called Carlos rushed to the edge of the bed. He knelt down on one knee and lowered his face close to mine. One large hand gently brushed my tangled hair from my forehead and the other tenderly stroked my cheek. Dark brown eyes welled and he whispered, “I’m glad you pulled through, Carmena.”
He smiled. “You’ll feel better soon.”
His firm lips were warm on my temple. He pressed another kiss onto my cheek. I turned my head and his lips grazed my ear. Desperation managed to climb its way into his irises, and I felt obligated to say something before he planted another kiss somewhere else on my face.
“Thank you, Mar—er, Carlos.”
Tension eased from his features until no more than a few tiny wrinkles cornered his eyes, and only a couple of worry lines furrowed into his forehead.
“I’m sure I’ll feel even better after I rest,” I said.
“Of course,” he growled. “Forgive me, Carmena, for thinking only of myself.”
He stood and twisted a little knob on each of the lamps, and my eyes relaxed as the room gradually darkened. His figure cut a large outline in the doorway as he waited. I didn’t say anything, and he walked away.
It felt like a comic word bubble hovered over my head, except I had no words to fill it, nothing to describe the unbelievable characters, vivid surroundings, and my emotional and mental confusion. It was a welcome blessing when sleep came on to dull the colorful mirage.
As I succumbed to unconsciousness in the comfortable surroundings and headed back to the real world, my mind kept running over the same question.
Nicole was a vegan. Since when did she make chicken soup?