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White lies (Chapter Eight)

After a series of small delays, it was midafternoon before the private jet actually took off from Washington National Airport, and the sun was already low in the pale winter sky. There was no way they could make it to the cabin that night, so Frank had already made arrangements for them to stay overnight in Colorado Springs. Jay sat by a window, her muscles tense as she looked down at the monochromatic scenery without really seeing it. She had the sensation of stepping out of one life and into another, with no bridge by which to return. She hadn't even told her family where she was going; though they weren't a close-knit group, they did usually know everyone's location. She hadn't seen any of them at Christmas because she had remained at the hospital with Steve, and now it was as if a tie had been severed.

Steve sat beside her, his long legs stretched out as he lounged in the comfortable seat and pored over several current news magazines. He was totally absorbed, as if he'd been starved for the written word. Abruptly he snorted and tossed his magazine aside. "I'd forgotten how slanted news coverage can be," he muttered, then gave a short laugh at his own phrasing. "Along with everything else."

His wry tone splintered her distracted mood and she chuckled. Smiling, he turned his head to watch her, rubbing his eyes to focus them. "Unless my vision settles down, I may need glasses to read."

"Are your eyes bothering you?" she asked, concerned. He'd worn sunglasses since leaving the hospital, but had taken them off when they had boarded the plane.

"They're tired, and the light is still too bright. It's a little hard to focus on close objects, but the surgeon told me that might clear up in a few days."

"Might?"

"There's a fifty-percent chance I'll need reading glasses." He reached over and took her hand, rubbing his thumb over her palm. "Will you still love me if I have to wear glasses?"

Her breath caught and she looked away. Silence thickened between them. Then he squeezed her hand and whispered roughly, "All right, I won't push. Not right now. We'll have time to get everything settled."

So he intended to push later, when they were alone in the cabin. She wondered exactly what he wanted from her: an emotional commitment, or just the physical enjoyment of her body? After all, it had been at least two months since he'd had sex. Then she wondered who had been the last woman to lie in bed with him, and jealousy seared her, mingled with pain. Did that woman mean anything to nun? Was she waiting for him, crying herself to sleep at night because he didn't call?

They spent the night at a motel in Colorado Springs. Jay was surprised to find there was only a light dusting of snow on the ground, instead of the several feet she had expected, but random flakes were swirling softly out of the black sky with the promise of more snow by morning. The cold pierced her coat, and she shivered as she turned the collar up around her ears. She would be glad to get something more suitable to wear.

Steve was tired from his first day out of the hospital, and she was exhausted, too; it had been a hard day for both of them. She lay down across the bed in her room and dozed while Frank went to get hamburgers for dinner. They ate in Frank's room, and she excused herself immediately afterward. All she wanted was to relax and gather her thoughts. To that end she took a long, hot shower, letting the water beat the tension out of her muscles, but it was still hard to think coherently. The risk she was taking frightened her, yet she knew she couldn't go back. Couldn't–and wouldn't.

She tied the belt of her robe securely and opened the bathroom door, then froze. Steve was stretched out on her bed, his arms behind his head as he stared at the television. The picture was on, but the sound was off. She looked at him, then at the door to her room, her brows puckered in confusion. "I thought I locked the door."

"You did. I picked the lock."

She didn't move any closer. "A little something you remembered?"

He looked at her, then swung his legs off the bed and sat up. "No, I didn't remember it. I just knew how to do it."

Good Lord, what other suspicious talents did he have? He looked lean and dangerous, his battered face hard, his yellow eyes narrow and gleaming; he was probably capable of things that would give her nightmares, but she didn't fear him. She loved him too much; she had loved him from the moment she had first touched his arm and felt his will to live burning in him. But her nerves jangled as he stood and took the few steps he needed to reach her. He was so close now that she had to look up to see his face; she could feel the heat emanating from his body, smell the warm, musky male scent of his skin.

He cupped her cheek in his palm, his thumb rubbing lightly over the shadows fatigue had smudged under her eyes, making their blueness seem even deeper. She was pale and jittery, her body trembling. She had taken care of him for months, spending all day, every day, at his bedside, willing him to live and pulling him out of the darkness. She had filled his whole life to the point that even the shock of having amnesia paled in comparison. She had gotten him through hell. Now the strain was telling on her, and he was the stronger one. He could feel the tension in her, vibrating like a string at the point of breaking. He slid his arm around her waist and pulled her forward until her body rested against his. His other hand moved from her cheek into her heavy brown hair, exerting just enough pressure to bring her head against his shoulder.

"I don't think this is a good idea," she whispered, the sound muffled in his shut.

"It feels like a damned good idea," he muttered. Every muscle in his body was tightening, his loins growing heavy with desire. God, he wanted her. His hands moved over her slender body. "Jay," he whispered roughly, and bent his head to hers.

The hot, needful pressure of his mouth made her dizzy. The stroking of his tongue against hers made her tighten inside with pleasure so piercing it was almost unbearable. Her hands lifted to the back of his neck, clinging as all strength washed out of her legs. She barely noticed as he turned with her still in his arms and forced her backward until the bed nudged against the backs of her knees. She lost her sense of balance, but his arms supported her as she fell back, and then his hard weight came down on top of her.

She had forgotten how the pressure of a man's body felt, and she inhaled sharply as quick response flooded her veins. The wide expanse of his chest flattened her breasts, and the swollen ridge of his manhood pushed against her feminine mound, his thighs controlling the restless movement of her legs. He kissed her again and again, barely letting her catch her breath before his mouth returned to take it away once more. Feverishly they strained together, wanting more. He pulled at the belt of her robe until the knot gave and the fabric parted, exposing the thinner fabric of her nightgown. He made a rough sound of frustration at this additional barrier, but for the moment he was too impatient to deal with it. His hand closed over her breast, kneading the soft flesh, his thumb making circles on her nipple until it tightened into a nub.

She whimpered softly into his mouth. "We can't," she cried, desperation and desire tearing her apart.

"The hell we can't," he rasped, taking her hand and moving it down his body to where his flesh strained at the fabric of his pants. Her fingers jerked at the con- tact; then a spasm of pain crossed her pale face, and her hand lingered involuntarily, exploring the dimensions of his arousal. He caught his breath. "Jay, baby, don't stop me now!"

She was stunned at how quickly passion had exploded between them; one kiss and they were falling on the bed. Her lips trembled as she stared up at him. She didn't even know his name! Tears burned her eyes and she blinked them away.

He groaned at the liquid sheen welling in her eyes and kissed her again with rough passion. "Don't cry. I know this is fast, but everything's going to be okay. We'll get married as soon as we can, and this time we'll make a go of it."

Shocked, she swallowed convulsively and barely managed to speak. "Married? Are you serious?"

"As serious as a heart attack, baby," he said, and grinned roguishly.

The tears burned again, and again she forced them back. Misery filled her. She wanted nothing more than to marry him, but she couldn't. She would be marrying him under false pretenses, pretending he was someone he wasn't. Such a marriage probably wouldn't even be legal. "We can't," she whispered, and a tear rolled out the corner of her eye before she could catch it.

He rubbed the wetness from her temple with his thumb. "Why can't we?" he asked with rough tenderness. "We did it before. We should be able to do better this time around, with our prior experience."

"What if you've remarried?" She gulped back a sob as she frantically thought up excuses. "Even if you haven't, what if there's someone else? Until you get your memory back, we won't know!"

He froze above her; then, with a sigh, he rolled off her to lie on his back, staring at the ceiling. He swore with a precise, Anglo-Saxon explicitness that was all the more jarring for the control in his voice. "All right," he finally said. "We'll get Frank to check it out. Hell, Jay, he's already checked it out! Isn't that why they had to get you to identify me?"

Too late she saw the trap, and saw also that he wasn't going to give up; with his usual steamroller determination, he was flattening the obstacles in his path. "You could still have some… someone who loves you, someone waiting for you."

"I can't promise you I don't," he said, turning his head to watch her with his predatory golden eyes. "But that's not a legal deterrent. I won't let you get away from me because some unknown woman somewhere may be in love with me."

"Until you get your memory back, you can't know that you aren't in love with someone else!"

"I know," he snapped, propping himself up on his elbow and leaning over her. "You keep coming up with excuses, but the real reason is that you're afraid of me, aren't you? Why? Damn it, I know you love me, so what's the problem?"

He was so arrogantly sure of her devotion that her own temper flared, but only for a moment. It was true. She had revealed it in a thousand different ways. She admitted shakily, "I do love you." There was nothing to be gained from denying it, and actually saying it aloud held its own painful sweetness.

His face softened and he put his free hand on her breasts, gently cupping them. "Then why shouldn't we get married?"

It was hard to concentrate with his palm burning her flesh through the thin cotton of her gown, and her body quickened again. She wanted him just as much as he wanted her, and denying him was the hardest thing she'd ever done, but she had no choice. Until his memory returned, she was in limbo. She couldn't take ad- vantage of him now by marrying him under false pretenses.

"Well?" he demanded impatiently.

"I love you," she said again. Her lips trembled. "Ask me again when your memory has returned, and I'll say yes. Until then, until we're both certain it's what you want, I… I just can't."

His face hardened. "Damn it, Jay, I know what I want."

"We've been thrown together because of the circumstances! We don't know each other under normal conditions. You're not the same man I married–" how true that was! "–and I'm not the same woman. We need time! When your memory returns–"

"That's not guaranteed," he interrupted, his voice harsh with frustration. "What if my memory never returns? What if there's permanent brain damage? Then what? Are you still going to be saying no this time next year? Five years from now?"

"I don't think you have brain damage," she said shakily. "You recovered your speech and motor functions too easily."

"That's beside the damned point!" He was furious. Before she could move, he rolled onto her and pinned her hands to the bed. He was so close that she could see the yellow flecks in his irises, his curling black lashes, and a tiny scar in his left eyebrow she hadn't noticed before. He took a deep breath and slowly relaxed, the anger fading from him as he moved against the softness of her body, letting her feel his hardness. "I won't wait forever," he said in soft warning. "I'm going to have you. If not now, then later."

Then he rolled off her and was gone, moving with a peculiar silent grace that had become far more evident since the bandages had been removed from his eyes. There had been signs of it before, manifested in the superb control he had over his movements, but now it was striking. He didn't just move, he flowed, his muscles rippling with liquid power. Jay lay quietly on the bed, her body burning from frustration and the lingering sensation of contact with his, her eyes on the door he had closed behind him.

Who was he? Terror washed over her again, but it was terror for him. He was an agent, obviously, but not just any agent. He had clearly had extensive training; he was valuable enough that the government was willing to spend a fortune protecting him, as well as setting up this elaborate charade with her as an unsuspecting partner. If it hadn't been for his eyes, she might never have sus- pected a thing. But if he was that valuable to his own government, then logic told her he was of at least equal value to his enemies. All things were in proportion; whatever lengths had been taken to protect him, his enemies would be willing to go to equal lengths to find and destroy him.

As each new part of him was revealed, the stakes seemed to get higher. Now she knew that he was skilled at clandestine forced entry. She had picked up some of the lingo at Bethesda; what had she heard it called?

Light entry? No, soft entry. They called it a soft entry. Going in hard was an attack with weapons. Maybe the lock on the motel door wasn't the sturdiest model available, but she knew that picking it was beyond the average citizen. A good burglar wouldn't have any trouble with it, though… or a good agent.

And the way he moved. He was as controlled and graceful as a dancer, but a dancer's moves were poetic, while Steve's were evocative of silent danger.

His mind. No detail escaped him. He was trained to notice and use everything. Already Frank was deferring to htm, another sign of his importance.

And he was in danger. Perhaps not immediate danger, but she knew it was there waiting for him.

The phone rang at two in the morning in Frank's room, and he muttered a sleepy curse as he fumbled for the receiver. It was second nature to him not to turn on a light, which could alert any outside observers that he was awake. Nor did he have to ask who it was, because only one man knew where they were.

"Yes," he said, and yawned.

"Piggot surfaced," the Man said. "East Berlin. We couldn't get to him in time, but we did find out that he's learned there was a survivor of the explosion and has made inquiries."

"Did the cover hold?"

"If Piggot asked at all, there has to be some doubt. Make certain your trail is covered. I don't want anyone other than the two of us to know where they are. How is he doing?"

"Better than I would have, if this had been my first day out of the hospital in two months. He's stronger than I expected. One other thing: I never would have believed it, but I think he's falling in love with her. It isn't just that he's been dependent on her, I think he's really serious."

"Good God," the Man said, startled. He laughed. "Well, it happens to the best of us. I have the final medical report on him here. His brain damage, if any, is minimal. He's a walking miracle, especially the speed of his recovery. He should regain his full memory but it may take a trigger of some sort to release it. We may have to bring his family in, or take him home, but not until we find Piggot. Until then, he stays hidden."

"The day we get Piggot, we tell him–and Jay– what's going on?"

The Man sighed. He sounded tired. "I hope he's recovered his memory by then. Damn it, we need to know what happened over there, and what he found out. But with his memory or without it, he has to stay there until we get Piggot. He has to be Steve Crossfield."

Steve woke early and lay in bed, feeling the fatigue that still weighted his body, as well as the sexual frustration that had been plaguing him for several weeks. He had tried, but even the rigorous exercise he'd been taking hadn't rebuilt his strength to the point he would have liked. Yesterday had exhausted him. He grinned sourly, thinking that it had probably been a good thing Jay had turned him down, because there was a good chance he would have collapsed on her in the middle of making love. Damn it.

He didn't intend to let her refusal stand in his way, but his lack of strength was something else. He had to get back in shape. It wasn't just that he was dissatisfied with his lack of strength and his physical limitations; he had a nagging feeling that he needed to be in top shape just in case… what? He didn't know what he expected to happen, but he had an uneasy feeling. If anything came up, he had to be in shape to protect Jay and handle the situation.

After getting out of bed, he first took the pistol that had been on the bedside table and placed it on the floor, within easy reach. Then he dropped down and began doing push-ups, counting silently. Thirty was his limit. Already panting, he rolled over and hooked his feet under the bed, his hands behind his head, and did sit-ups. The new scars on his abdomen throbbed at the strain he was putting on them, and sweat broke out on his brow. He had to stop at seventeen. Swearing in disgust, he looked down at his body. He was in pitiful shape. Before, he'd been able to do a hundred push-ups and sit-ups without even breathing hard– He went still, waiting for the half memory to become full-blown, waiting for the mental door to open, but nothing happened. Just for a second he'd had a glimpse of what his life had been before; then the door had closed again. The doctor had told him not to try to force it, but that blank door taunted him. There was something he needed to know, and rage built inside him because he couldn't force his way past the block.

Suddenly he heard footsteps outside the room, and he rolled, grabbing the pistol as he did so. Stretched out prone on the carpet, he aimed the pistol at the door and waited. The footsteps halted and a grumpy voice said, "June, come on. We need to get an early start and you've wasted enough time."

"Will the town be gone if we get there at four instead of three?" an equally grumpy female voice returned.

Steve let out his breath and climbed to his feet, staring at the pistol in his hand. It fit his palm as if he'd been born holding it. It was a Browning automatic, high caliber, and loaded with hollow-tip bullets that would make a hell of a hole going in and an even bigger one coming out. Frank had given it to him at the hospital while they were waiting for Jay to return and had told him to keep it on him, just as a precaution. When Steve had reached to take it, it was as if part of him had slipped back into focus. He hadn't realized how unusual it had been not to be armed, until the pistol was in his hand.

His reactions just now said a lot about the type of life he'd been living; it had been second nature for him to place the pistol within reach even while exercising, and second nature to regard those approaching footsteps as a possible danger. Maybe Jay had been smart to divorce him the first time. Maybe he wasn't doing her a favor by forcing his way back into her life, considering the dangers of his.

The pistol in his hand was a fine piece of hardware, but it couldn't compare to the feel of Jay's body. If he had to choose between Jay and his work, the job had just lost. He'd been a damned fool the first time, but he wasn't going to foul up this second chance. Whoever he worked for would just have to reassign him, bring him in, or he'd get out completely. No more clandestine meetings, no more assassins after him. Hell, it was time he settled down and let the Young Turks have their chance. He was thirty-seven, long past the age when most other men had wives and families.

But he wouldn't tell him until his memory returned, he thought cynically as he showered. Until then, he couldn't afford to totally trust anyone, except Jay.

***

They bought boots, socks and insulated underwear in Colorado Springs, jeans and flannel shirts in another town, hats and shearling coats in another. Jay also bought a thick down jacket with a hood, and a supply of long flannel gowns. The two vehicles Frank had obtained were four-wheel-drive Jeeps with snow tires, so they made good time, even though the snow became deeper the farther west they went.

Frank drove the lead Jeep, with Steve and Jay in the one behind. Jay had never driven a stick shift before, so the driving was left up to Steve. At first Jay worried about his legs, but he didn't seem to have any difficulty with the clutching and braking, so after a time she stopped worrying and began paying attention to the magnificent scenery as they drove west on U.S. 24. The sky, which had been clear, gradually became leaden with clouds, and occasional snowflakes began to drift down. The weather didn't worsen beyond that, and they continued to make good time even after they turned off onto a state highway. Then they left the state highway for a secondary road with much less traffic and a lot more snow, necessitating a slower speed. After that Frank took a dirt road that wound through the mountains for what seemed like hours, and finally he made another turnoff. Jay could see no discernible road or even a trail; they were simply driving up a mountain by the route of least resistance.

"I wonder if he knows where he's going," she muttered, clinging to the seat as the Jeep jolted to one side.

"He knows. Frank's a good agent," Steve returned absently, downshifting to climb a particularly steep rise. Once they reached the top, they seemed to be in a high, wide meadow that stretched and dipped for miles in front of them. They drove along the edge of the tree line until the meadow abruptly ended, and then they descended sharply down the side of the mountain. Next they climbed up another mountain, where there was a stretch of track barely wide enough to accommodate the Jeeps. On one side was the rock face, and on the other, nothing but an increasing distance to the bottom. Then they crested that mountain, too, and reached another rolling meadow. As the sun dipped behind the western peaks, Steve squinted his eyes at the tree line to their left. "That must be the cabin."

"Where?" Jay asked, sitting up eagerly. Just the thought of being able to get out of the Jeep and stretch her legs was pure heaven,

"In that stand of pines, just to the left."

Then she saw it and sighed in relief. It was just an ordinary cabin, but it was as welcome as a luxury hotel. It was tucked just under the trees, visible only from the front. Because it was built on a slope, the front was higher than the back; there were six wooden steps leading up to a porch that ran all the way across. Built onto the cabin at the back was a lean-to for the Jeeps, and thirty yards to the rear was a shed.

They parked under the lean-to and stiffly got out, arching their backs to stretch aching muscles. The air was so cold and crisp that it almost hurt to inhale, but the setting sun was painting the snowy peaks and ridges in shades of red, gold and purple, and Jay stood motionless, entranced, until Steve nudged her into mo- tion.

It took several trips to carry everything in; then Frank took Steve to the shed to show him how the generator worked. Evidently someone had already been up to turn it on, because the electric lights worked and the refrigerator was humming. Jay checked the small pantry and refrigerator, and found them fully stocked with canned goods and frozen meats.

She gave herself a short tour of the cabin. Next to the kitchen was a small utility-mudroom with a modern washer and dryer. There was no dining room, only a round wooden table and four chairs in one corner of the kitchen. The living room was comfortably furnished in sturdy Early American, with brown corduroy upholstery. A brown-and-blue hooked rug covered the wooden floor, and one wall was almost entirely taken up by an enormous rock fireplace. There were two bed- rooms of equal size, connected by the cabin's lone bathroom. Jay stared at the connecting door, her heart beating a little faster at the thought of sharing a bath- room with him. She knew the intimacy of damp towels hanging side by side, toiletries becoming jumbled together, a shared tube of toothpaste. His whiskers would be in the sink, his razor on the side. The small details of living together were at least as seductive as physical intimacies, meshing their lives at every moment of the day.

The back door slammed, and Steve called, "Where are you?" His rough voice was even raspier than usual from breathing the cold air.

"Exploring," she replied, leaving the bathroom and crossing to the bedroom door. "Any objections if I take the front bedroom? It has the best view."

A fire had already been laid in the fireplace. He bent down and struck a match on the hearth, then held it to the paper and kindling under the logs, not answering until he'd straightened. "Let me look at them."

Vaguely surprised, Jay stepped aside and let him enter. He examined the location of the windows and their locks, opened the closet and looked at it, then stepped into the adjoining bath.

"It's a connecting bath," she pointed out.

He grunted and opened the door into the second bedroom. The windows in both rooms were on the side walls, but because the rear of the cabin was closer to the ground than the front was, the windows in the second bedroom were more accessible from the outside. "All right," he said, checking the locks on his windows, too. "But I want it understood that if you hear anything at all during the night, you wake me. Okay?"

"Yes," she said, her throat constricting. All this was second nature to him. He must think there was some danger, too, despite all the precautions Frank had taken. She had wanted to think they were safe here, but perhaps they weren't. The best thing she could do was not argue with him.

He glanced at her, and his rough face softened a bit. "Sorry. I guess I'm overreacting to a strange situation. I didn't mean to scare you." Because the tension didn't fade from her eyes, he walked over to her, cupped her face in his hands, then kissed her. Her wonderfully full, lush, exotic mouth opened for him and his tongue teased at hers. Jay put her hands on his shoulders and luxuriated in the heat of his body against her. The cabin wasn't icy, but it was far from warm.

He held her against him for a moment, then reluctantly let her go. "Let's see what this place has in the way of grub. If I don't eat soon, I'm going to fall down." He wasn't exaggerating, she realized. She could feel a faint tremor in his muscles, a sign of the enormous strain he'd put on his body that day.

Casually she put her arm around his waist as they walked back to the living room. "I've already checked the food. We can have almost anything our hearts de- sire, as long as our hearts desire plain cuisine. If you want lobster or truffles, you're out of luck."

"I'd settle for a can of soup," he said tiredly, and groaned as he sank down into one of the comfortable chairs. He stretched his legs out, absently rubbing his thighs. "We can do better than that," Frank said as he brought in an armload of wood, having caught Steve's last comment. He stacked the wood on the hearth and dusted his hands. "I think. I'm not much of a cook." He looked hopefully at Jay, and she laughed.

"I'll see what I can do. I'm a real whiz with microwave dinners, but I didn't see a microwave oven, so I'm a little lost."

She was too tired to do much, but it didn't take a tot of effort to open two large cans of beef stew and heat them, or to brown buttered rolls in the gas oven. They were almost silent as they ate, and after Frank had helped her clean up the few dishes, they all took turns in the shower. By eight o'clock they were asleep, Jay and Steve in their respective bedrooms and Frank rolled in a blanket on the couch.

They rose early the next morning, and after a hearty breakfast Frank and Steve walked around in the snow. The gas stove and hot-water heater operated on butane gas, and the large tank had been filled; it shouldn't need refilling until spring. The fuel tank for the generator would need replenishing, but all Steve had to do was contact Frank by computer, and fuel would be brought in by helicopter. They didn't want a delivery to the cabin by any commercial business or utility, and, at any rate, the cabin was too difficult for an ordinary fuel truck to reach. It was a complicated setup, but it was meant to be an ultrasafe lodging, unlisted in any files. All in all, the place was stocked for a long-term stay, though Frank couldn't help wishing Steve would recover his memory soon and put an end to all this, or that Piggot would be caught.

"The nearest town is Black Bull, population one hundred thirty-three," Frank said. "Go down to the dirt road and turn right, and you'll eventually get there. It has a general store for basic food and supplies. If you want anything fancier, you'll have to find a larger town, but keep a low profile. You should have enough cash to last a couple of months, but let me know if you need more."

Steve looked out over the white meadow. The air was so clear, the early- morning sun so bright on the spotless snow, that it hurt his eyes. The cold burned his lungs. The land was so damned big and empty that it gave him an eerie feeling, but at the same time he was almost content. He was impatient for Frank to leave so he would finally be alone, completely alone, with Jay.

"You're safe here," Frank added. "The Man uses it sometimes." He glanced up at the cabin. "I wouldn't have brought Jay here if it wasn't safe. She's a civilian, so take good care of her, pal."

A tingle, a heightened awareness, had seized Steve when Frank mentioned the Man. It wasn't a sense of danger but a sort of excitement. The memory was there, but blocked from his consciousness by the lingering effects of the explosion. The Man was another piece of the puzzle.

He shook Frank's hand, and their eyes met in the comradeship of men who have been in danger together. "You probably won't see me again until this is over, but I'll be in touch," Frank said. "I'd better get moving. It's supposed to start snowing again this afternoon."

They went inside and Frank got his gear, then told Jay goodbye. She hugged him, her eyes suspiciously bright. Frank had been her rock for two months, and she would miss him. He had also been a buffer between her and Steve; when he left, there would be only the two of them.

She glanced at Steve, to find him watching her intently. His pale brown eyes were glowing, yellower than they had moments before, like those of a raptor that had sighted its prey.

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