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White lies (Chapter Five)

When she opened the door to Steve's room the next morning, he turned his head on the pillow and said, "Jay." His voice was harsh, almost guttural, and she wondered if he'd just awakened.

She paused, her attention caught as she stared at his bandaged eyes. "How did you know?" The nurses were in and out, so how could he have guessed her identity?

"I don't know," he said slowly. "Maybe your smell, or just the feel of you in the room. Maybe I recognize the rhythm of your walk."

"My smell?" she asked blankly. "I'm not using perfume, so if you smell me from that distance something's wrong!"

His lips curved in a smile. "It's a fresh, faintly sweet smell. I like it. Do I get a good-morning kiss?"

Her heart gave a giant leap, just as it had the day before when he'd demanded that she kiss him. She had given him a light, tender kiss, barely brushing her lips against his, while Frank, in the background, had pretended to be invisible; but it had taken her pulse a good ten minutes to settle down afterward. Now, even while her mind shouted at her to be cautious, she crossed the room to him and bent down to give him another light kiss, letting her lips linger for only a second. But when she started to draw away, he increased the pressure, his mouth molding itself to hers, and her heart slammed wildly against her rib cage as excitement shot through her.

"You taste like coffee," she managed to say when she finally forced herself to stand upright again, breaking the contact.

His lips had been slightly parted, with a disturbing sensuality, but at her words they took on a smug line. "They wanted me to drink tea or apple juice–" he made it sound like hemlock "–but I talked them into letting me have coffee."

"Oh?" she asked dryly. "How? By refusing to drink anything until you had your coffee?"

"It worked," he said, not sounding at all repentant. She could imagine how helpless the nurses were against his relentless will.

Despite the fact that she no longer needed to communicate with him in their old way, her hand went to his arm in habit, and she was so used to the contact that she didn't notice it. "How are you feeling?" she asked, then winced at the triteness of the question, but she was still rattled from the effects of his kiss.

"Like hell."

"Oh."

"How long have I been here?"

To her surprise, she had to stop and count the days. She had become so involved with him that time had ceased to mean anything, and it was difficult to recall. "Three weeks."

"Then I have three more weeks in these casts?"

"I think so, yes."

"All right." He said it as if giving his permission, and she felt that he would give them three weeks and not one day longer, or he would take the casts off himself. He lifted his left arm. "I'm minus a couple of needles today. They took the IVs out about an hour ago."

"I hadn't even noticed!" she exclaimed, smiling a little at the note of pride in his ruined voice. She wondered if she would ever get used to its harshness, but at the same time tiny shivers went down her spine every time she heard it.

"And I refused the pain medication. I want my head clear. There were a lot of questions I wanted to ask before, but it took so much time and effort, and my brain was so foggy from the drugs, that it was just too much trouble. Now I want to know what's going on. Where am I? I've heard you call the doctor Major, so I know I'm in a military hospital. The question is, why?"

"You're in Bethesda," she said.

"A naval hospital?" Astonishment roughened his voice even more.

"Frank said you were brought here for security reasons. There are guards posted at every entrance to this wing. And this was a central location for all the surgeons they pulled in for you."

"Major Lunning isn't navy," he said sharply.

"No." It was astonishing that he could lose the most basic of memories, those of himself, yet retain the knowledge that Bethesda was a naval hospital and that major wasn't a navy rank. She watched the stillness of his mouth as he studied the implications of what she had just told him.

"Then someone with a lot of influence wanted me here. Langley, probably."

"Who?"

"Company headquarters, baby. CIA." She felt a chill of dread as he continued, "Maybe the White House, but Langley is the most likely bet. What about Frank Payne?"

"He's FBI. I trust him," she said steadily.

"Damn, this is getting deep," he muttered. "All these different departments and military branches coordinating just isn't normal. What's going on? Tell me about the explosion."

"Didn't Frank tell you?"

"I didn't ask for or volunteer any information. I didn't know him."

Yes, that was like Steve. He had always held back, watching cautiously, though she had already married him before she began noticing that particular trait. He used his charm like a shield, so that most people would have described him as outgoing and spontaneous, when in fact he was just the opposite. He had held people away, not trusting them and not allowing anyone close to him, but they never noticed, because he was such an actor. Now she sensed that the shield was gone. People could take him as he was or leave him; he didn't care. It was a hard attitude, but she found that she liked it better. It was real, without pretense or subterfuge. And for the first time, he was letting her get close to him. He needed her, trusted her. Perhaps it was only because of the extenuating circumstances, but it was happening, and it stunned her.

"Jay?" he prompted.

"I don't know exactly what happened," she explained. "I don't know why you were there. They don't know either."

"Who is 'they'?"

"Frank. The FBI."

"And whoever else he's working for," he added dryly. "Go on."

"Frank told me that you weren't doing anything illegal that they know of. Perhaps you were only an innocent bystander, but you have a reputation for sniffing out trouble, and they think you might know something about what happened to their operation. They had set up a sting, or whatever you want to call it, but someone had planted a bomb at the meeting site. You were the only survivor."

"What kind of sting?"

"I don't know. All Frank has said is that it involved national security."

"And they're afraid their guy's cover was blown, but they don't know, because the players on the other side were disintegrated, too," he said, as if to himself. "It could have been a double double-cross, and the bomb was meant for the others. Damn! No wonder they want me to get my memory back! But all that doesn't explain one thing. Why are you involved?"

"They brought me here to identify you," she said, absently stroking his arm as she had for so many hours.

"Identify me? Didn't they know?"

"Not for certain. Part of your driver's license was found, but they still weren't certain if you were… you, or their agent. Apparently you and the agent were about the same height and weight, and your hands were burned, so they weren't able to get your fingerprints for identification." She paused as something nagged at her memory, but she couldn't bring the elusive detail into focus. For a moment it was close; then Steve's next question splintered her concentration.

"Why did they ask you? Wasn't there anyone else who could identify me? Or did we stay close after our divorce?"

"No, we didn't. It was the first tune I'd seen you in five years. You've always been pretty much a loner. You weren't the type for bosom buddies. And you don't have any family, so that left me."

He moved restlessly, his mouth drawing into a hard line as he uttered a brief, explicit curse. "I'm trying to get a handle on this," he said tersely. "And I keep running into this damned blank wall. Some of what you tell me seems so familiar, and I think, yeah, that's me. Then part of it is as if you're telling me about some stranger, and I wonder if I really know. Hell, how can I know?" he finished with raw frustration.

Her fingers glided over his arm, giving him what comfort she could. She didn't waste her breath mouthing platitudes because she sensed they would only make him furious. As it was, he had already used up his small store of energy with the questions he had asked her, and he lay there in silence for several minutes, his chest rising and falling too quickly. Finally the rhythm of his breathing slowed, and he muttered, "I'm tired."

"You've pushed yourself too far. It's only been three weeks, you know."

"Jay."

"What?"

"Stay with me."

"I will. You know I will."

"It's… strange. I can't even picture your face in my mind, but part of me knows you. Maybe biblical knowledge goes deeper than mere memory."

His harsh voice gave rough edges to the words, but Jay felt as if an electrical charge had hit her body, making her skin tingle. Her mind filled with images, but not those of memory; her imagination manufactured new ones–of this man with his harder soul and ruined voice, bending over her, taking her in his arms, moving between her legs in a more complete possession than she had ever known before. Her own breath shortened as her breasts grew tight and achy, and her insides turned liquid. Another tingle jolted her, making her feel as if she were on the verge of physical ecstasy, and merely from his words, his voice. The violence of her response shocked her, scared her, and she jerked away from his bed before she could control the motion.

"Jay?" He was concerned, even a little alarmed, as he felt her move away from him.

"Go to sleep," she managed to say, her voice almost under control. "You need the rest. I'll be here when you wake up."

He lifted his bandaged hand. "How about holding my hand?"

"I can't do that. It would hurt you."

"It would blend in with all the other pain," he said groggily. He was losing strength rapidly. "Just touch me until I go to sleep, all right?"

Jay felt his request go straight through her heart. That he should ask anything of her still staggered her, but his need to be touched was almost more than she could bear. She stepped back to the bed, folding her hand over his arm. At the first touch she felt him begin to relax, and within two minutes he was asleep.

She stepped outside, feeling the need to escape, though she wasn't certain exactly what she was escaping from. It was Steve, and yet it was something else, something inside her that was growing more and more powerful. It scared her; she didn't want it, yet she was helpless to stop it. She had never responded to him like that before, not even in the first wild, heady days of their marriage. It's just the situation, she told herself, trying to find comfort in the thought. It was just her tendency to throw herself wholly into something, concentrating on it too intensely, that made her feel like this. But comfort eluded her and despair welled in her heart, because analyzing her emotions didn't change them. God help her, she was falling in love with him again, with even less reason than she'd had the first time. For most of the past three weeks he'd been little more than a mummy, incapable of movement or speech, yet she had felt drawn to him, tied to him; and loving him now was much more dangerous than it had been before. He was a different, stronger, harder man. Even when he'd been unconscious, she had felt his fierce inner power, and her need to know what had happened to him to cause that change was so strong it almost hurt.

A nurse, the one who had first noticed Steve's unconscious reaction to Jay's presence, stopped beside her. "How is he? He refused his pain medication this morning."

"He's asleep now. He tires very easily."

The nurse nodded, her bright blue eyes meeting Jay's darker ones. "He has the most incredible constitution I've ever seen. He's still in a great deal of pain, but he just seems to ignore it. Normally it would be at least another week before we began tapering off the pain medication." Admiration filled her voice. "Did the coffee upset his stomach?"

Jay had to laugh. "No. He was rather smug about it."

"He was certainly determined to get that coffee. Maybe we can start him on a soft diet tomorrow, so he can begin regaining his strength."

"Do you know when he'll be transferred out of intensive care?"

"I really don't know. Major Lunning will have to make that decision." The nurse smiled as she took her leave, returning to the central station.

Jay walked to the visitors' lounge to buy a soft drink, and she took advantage of the room's emptiness to give herself some much-needed privacy. She was filled with a vague uneasiness, and she couldn't pinpoint the reason. Or reasons, she thought. Part of it was Steve, of course, and her own unruly emotional response to him. She didn't want to love him again, but she didn't know how to fight it, only that she had to. She could not love him again. It was too risky. She knew that, fiercely told herself over and over that she wouldn't allow it to happen, even as she acknowledged that it might already be too late.

The other part of her uneasiness was also tied to Steve, but she wasn't certain why. That aggravating sense of having missed something kept nagging at her, something that she should have seen but hadn't. Perhaps Steve sensed it too, judging by all the questions he'd asked; he didn't quite trust Frank, though she supposed that was to be expected, given Steve's situation. But Jay knew that she would trust Frank with her life, and with Steve's. So why did she keep feeling that she should know more than she did? Was Steve in danger because of what he had witnessed? Had Steve actually been involved in the deal? She would have had to be naive not to realize that the vast majority of the facts had been kept from her, but she didn't expect Frank to spout out everything he knew. No, it wasn't that. It was something that she should have seen, something that was obvious, and she'd missed it entirely. It was some little detail that didn't fit, and until she could pinpoint what it was, she wouldn't be able to get rid of that nagging uneasiness.

Steve was taken out of intensive care two days later and moved to a private room, and the navy guards shifted location. The new room had a television, some- thing the ICU room had lacked, and Steve insisted on listening to every news program he could, as if he were searching for clues that would tie all the missing pieces together for him again. The problem was that he seemed to be interested in all the world situations and could discuss the politics of others nations as easily as domestic issues. That disturbed Jay; Steve had never been particularly political, and the depth of his current knowledge revealed that he had become deeply in- volved. Given that, it became more likely that he had also been more involved in the situation that had nearly killed him than perhaps even Frank knew. Or perhaps Frank did know, after all. He had had several long, private conversations with Steve, but Steve remained guarded. Only with Jay did he lose his wariness.

His various injuries kept him bed-bound much longer than he should have been, but he wasn't able to negotiate with crutches due to his burned hands. His physical inactivity ate at him, eroding his patience and good humor. He quickly decided which television shows he liked, discarding all game shows and soap operas, but even the ones he liked lacked something, since so much of the action was visual. Merely being able to listen frustrated him, and soon he wanted the set on only for the news. Jay did everything she could think of to entertain him; he liked it when she read the newspaper to him, but for the most part he just wanted to talk.

"Tell me what you look like," he said one morning.

The demand flustered her. It was oddly embarrassing to be asked to describe oneself. "Well, I have brown hair," she began hesitantly.

"What shade of brown? Reddish? Gold?"

"Gold, I guess, but on the dark side. Honey-colored."

"Is it long?"

"No. It's almost to my shoulders, and very straight."

"What color are your eyes?"

"Blue." "Come on," he chided after a minute when she didn't add anything. "How tall are you?"

"Medium. Five-six."

"How tall am I? Did we fit together well?"

The thought made her throat tighten. "You're six feet, and yes, we did dance well together."

He turned his bandaged eyes toward her. "I wasn't talking about dancing, but so what? When I get out of these casts, let's go dancing again. Maybe I haven't forgotten how."

She didn't know if she could stand being in his arms again, not with her responses running wild every time she heard his harsh, cracked voice. But he was waiting for her to answer, so she said lightly, "It's a date."

He lifted his hands. "The bandages come off tomorrow. Next week I have the final surgery on my eyes. The casts come off in two weeks. Give me a month to build up my strength. By then the bandages should be off my eyes, and we'll do the town."

"You're only giving yourself a month to get your strength back? Isn't that a little ambitious?"

"I've done it before," he said, then went very still. Jay held her breath as she watched him, but after a minute he swore softly. "Damn it, I know things, but I can't remember them. I know what foods I like, I know the name of every head of state of every nation mentioned in the news, I can even recalj what they look like, but I don't know my own face. I know who won the last World Series, but not where I was when it was played. I know the smell of the canals in Venice, but I can't remember ever being there." He paused a minute, then said very quietly, "Sometimes I want to take this place apart with my bare hands."

"Major Lunning told you what to expect," Jay said, still shaken by what he'd said. How deeply had he involved himself in the gray world Frank had hinted at? She was very much afraid that Steve was no longer an adventurer, but a player. "Stop feeling sorry for yourself. He said your memory would probably come back in dribbles."

A slow grin touched his lips, deepening the lines that bracketed his mouth and drawing her helpless, fascinated gaze. His lips seemed firmer, fuller, as if they were still slightly swollen, or perhaps it was because his face was thinner and older. "Sorry," he said. "I'll have to watch that."

His wry humor, especially when he had good reason to occasionally feel sorry for himself, only reminded her again of his hard inner strength and was one more blow against the shaky guard she had set up around her heart. She had to laugh at him, just as she had years before, but there was a difference now. Before, Steve had used humor as a wall to hide behind; now the wall was gone, and she could see the real man.

She was with him the next morning when the bandages came off his burned hands for good. She had been in there before when the bandages were changed, so she had seen the raw blisters on his palms and fingers when they had looked much worse than they did now. Patches of reddened skin were still visible all the way to his elbows, but his hands had caught the worst of it. Now that the danger of infection was past, the new, tender skin would heal faster without the bandages, but his hands would be too painful for him to use them much for a while.

When she compared how he looked now to the way he had looked the first time she had seen him, hooked to all those machines and monitors, with so many tubes running into his body, it seemed nothing short of a miracle. It had been only four weeks, but he had been little more than a vegetable then, and now he exerted the force of his personality over everyone who entered his room, even the doctors. His face had been swollen and bruised before; now the hard line of his jaw and the precise cut of his lips fascinated her. She knew that plastic surgeons had rebuilt his shattered face, and she wondered about the changes she would see when the bandages were completely gone and she was able to truly see him for the first time. His jaw was a little different, a little squarer, leaner, but that was to be expected, since he had lost so much weight after he'd been injured. His beard seemed darker, because he was so pale. She was very well acquainted with his jaw and beard, since she had to shave him every morning. The nurses had done it until he became conscious and made it known he wanted Jay to shave him, and no one else.

He no longer had a thick swath of gauze wrapped around his skull. There was a big, jagged white scar that ran diagonally from the top of his head, at a point directly above his right ear, to the back and left of his skull, but his hair was already longer than that of the average military recruit in boot camp, and it was beginning to cover the scar. The new hair was dark and glossy, having never been exposed to the sun. His eyes were still covered with bandages, but though the gauze pads and wrapping were much smaller now than they had been before, the upper bridge of his nose and the curve of his cheekbones were still covered. The bandages tantalized her; she wanted to see his new face, to judge for herself how well the plastic surgeon had done his job. She wanted to be able to apply his identity to his face, to look into his dark eyes and see all the things she'd looked for in their marriage and hadn't been able to find.

"Your hands are tender," the doctor who'd been caring for Steve's burns said as he cut away the last of the bandages and signaled for a nurse to clean them. "Be careful with them until all this new skin has toughened. They're stiff right now, but use them, exercise them. You don't have any tendon or ligament damage, so in time you'll have full use of them again."

Slowly, painfully, Steve flexed his fingers, wincing as he did so. He waited until the doctor and nurses had left the room, then said, "Jay?"

"I'm here."

"How do they look?"

"Red," she answered honestly.

He flexed them again, then cautiously rubbed the fingers of his right hand over his left one, then reversed the procedure. "It feels strange," he said, smiling a little. "They're damned tender, like he said, but the skin feels as smooth as a baby's butt. I don't have any calluses now." The smile faded abruptly, replaced with a frown. "I had callused hands." Again he explored his hands, as if trying to find something familiar in the touch, slowly rubbing his fingertips together.

She laughed softly. "One summer, you played so much sandlot baseball that your hands were as tough as leather. You had calluses on your calluses."

He still looked thoughtful; then his mood changed and he said, "Come sit by me, on the bed."

Curious, she did as he said, sitting facing him. The head of his bed had been raised to an upright position, so he was sitting erect and they were on the same level. Abruptly she noticed how much she had to look up at him. His bare shoulders and chest, despite the weight he had lost, still dwarfed her, and again she wondered what sort of work he had done that had developed his torso to that degree.

Tentatively he reached out, and his hand touched her hair. Realizing why he had wanted her to sit there, she remained still while his fingers sifted through the strands. He didn't say anything. He lifted his other hand, and his palms cupped her face, his fingers gliding lightly over her forehead and brow, down the bridge of her nose, over her lips and jaw and chin before sliding down the length of her throat.

Her breath had stopped, but she hadn't noticed. Slowly he laced his fingers around her neck as if measuring it, then traced the hollows of her collarbones out to her shoulders. "You're too thin," he murmured, cupping the balls of her shoulders in his palms. "Don't you eat enough?"

"Actually, I've gained a little weight," she whispered, beginning to shake at his warm touch.

Calmly, deliberately, he moved his hands down to her breasts and molded his fingers over them. Jay inhaled sharply, and he said, "Easy, easy," as he stroked the soft mounds.

"Steve, no." But her eyes were closing as warm pleasure built in her, her blood beating slowly and powerfully through her veins. His thumbs rubbed over her nipples and she quivered, her breasts beginning to tighten.

"You're so soft." His voice roughened even more. "God, how I've wanted to touch you. Come here, sweetheart."

He ignored the pain in his hands as he pulled her against him, and he wrapped his arms around her as he had dreamed of doing so many times since her voice had charmed him out of the darkness. He felt her slender-ness, her softness, her warmth, and the gut-wrenching pleasure of her breasts flattening against the hard planes of his chest. He smelled the sweetness of her skin, felt the thick silk of her hair, and with a harsh, muffled sound of want, of need, he sought her mouth.

He already knew her mouth. He would beg, cajole, insist until she would give him a kiss in the morning and again at night before she left. He knew it was wide and full and soft, and that her lips trembled each time she kissed him. Now he slanted his mouth to cover hers, pressing hard until her lips parted and gave him the entrance he sought. He could feel her shaking in his arms as he moved his tongue into her mouth and tasted her sweetness. Damn, how had he been fool enough to let her get away from him five years before? Not being able to remember making love to her made him furious because he wanted to know what she liked, how it felt to be inside her, if they had been as good together as every instinct he possessed told them they would be. She belonged to him; he knew it, felt it, as if they were tied together. He deepened the kiss, forcing her to respond to him the way he knew she could, the way he knew she wanted to. Finally she shivered convulsively, and her tongue met his as her arms crept up around his neck.

He shouldn't be this strong, Jay thought dimly, not after all he's been through. But his arms were hard, and so tight around her that her ribs were being squeezed. Steve had never been this aggressive before; he certainly hadn't been a passive man, but now he was kissing her with naked demand, forcing their relationship into an intimacy that frightened her. He wanted her more than he ever had during their marriage, but now his attention was intensely focused on her because of the circumstances.

"We shouldn't do this," she managed to say, turning her head aside to free her mouth from the hungry pressure of his. She brought her hands down and pushed lightly at his shoulders.

"Why not?" he murmured, taking advantage of the vulnerability of her throat with slow kisses. His tongue touched the sensitive hollow below her ear, and her hands tightened on his shoulders as wonderful little ripples of pleasure radiated over her skin. His lack of sight didn't hinder him; he knew his way around a woman's body. Instinct went deeper than memory.

Both conscience and her sense of self-protection made Jay push at his shoulders again, and this time he slowly released her. "We can't let ourselves get involved again," she said in a low voice.

"We're both free," he pointed out.

"As far as we know. Steve, you could have met someone in the past five years who you really care about. Someone could be waiting for you to come home. Until you get your memory back, you can't be certain that you're free. And… and I think we should be cautious about jumping back into a relationship without knowing more than we do."

"No one's waiting for me," he said with harsh certainty.

Her movements were jerky with agitation as she slid off the bed and walked to the window. The morning sky was a leaden color, and snow flurries were drifting aimlessly on the light wind. "You can't know that," she insisted, and turned back to look at him.

His face was turned toward her even though he couldn't see her, and the hard line of his mouth told her he was angry. The sheet was around his waist, baring his broad shoulders and chest, as he had disdained both pajamas and a hospital gown, though he had finally consented to wear the pajama bottoms with the legs cut off and the seams slit so they would fit over the casts on his legs. He was thin, pale and weak from what he'd been through, but somehow the impression he gave was one of power. Nor was he all that weak, not if the strength she had just felt in him was any measure. He must have been incredibly strong before the accident. Those five years when she hadn't seen him were be- coming even more of a mystery.

"So you've stayed here with me all this time just because you have a Florence Nightingale complex?" he asked sharply. It was the first time she had refused him anything, and he didn't like it at all. If he could have walked, he would have come after her, sightless or not, weak or not, even though he was still in pain most of the time. None of that would have stopped him, and for the first time she was grateful for his broken legs.

"I never hated you," she tried to explain, knowing that she owed him at least the effort. "I don't think we were all that deeply in love, certainly not enough to make our marriage work. Frank asked me to stay because he thought you would need me, given your condition. Even Major Lunning said it would help if you were around someone familiar, someone you knew before the accident. So… I stayed."

"Don't give me that crap." Her attempt to explain had made him even more furious, and it was a type of anger she hadn't seen before. He was very still and controlled, his guttural voice little more than a whisper. Chills ran up her spine because she could feel his temper like both ice and fire, lashing out at her even though he hadn't moved. "Do you think that because I can't see, I couldn't tell you were turned on just now? Try again, sweetheart."

Jay began to get angry at the harsh demand in his voice. "All right, if you want the truth, here it is. I don't trust you. You were always too restless to settle down and try to build a life together. You were always leaving on another of your 'adventures,' looking for something I couldn't give you. Well, I don't want to go through that again. I don't want to get involved with you again. You want me now, and you may need me a little, but what happens when you're well? Another pat on the head and a kiss on the cheek while I get to watch you ride off into the sunset? Thanks, but no thanks. I have more sense now than I did before."

"Is that why you start shaking every time I touch you? You want to get involved again, all right, but you're afraid."

"I said I don't trust you. I didn't say I was afraid of you. Why should I trust you? You were still looking for trouble when that explosion almost killed you!"

Abruptly she realized that she was all but yelling at him, while his voice hadn't risen at all. She turned and walked out, then leaned against the wall outside his door until both the temper and the shaking subsided. She felt sick, not because of their argument, but because he was right. She was afraid. She was terrified. And it was too late to do anything about it, because she was in love with him again, despite all her warnings and lectures to herself against it. She didn't know him anymore. He had changed; he was harder, rougher; far more dangerous. He was still a leaver, probably far more involved in the situation than Frank had wanted her to know.

But it didn't make any difference. She had loved him before when it had gone against her better judgement, and she loved him now when it made even less sense. God help her, she had left herself wide open for a lot of pain, and there was nothing she could do.

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