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White lies (Chapter Four)

He was very still. Jay had the impression that she could feel him withdrawing, though he didn't move a muscle. A surprisingly sharp pain bloomed inside, and she chided herself for it. What had she expected? He couldn't get up and hug her, he couldn't speak, and he was probably exhausted. She knew all that, yet she still had the feeling that he was pulling back from her. Did he resent being so dependent on her? Steve had always been aloof in a curious sort of way, holding people away from him. Or maybe he resented the fact that she was here with him now, rather than some impersonal nurse. After all, a certain degree of independence remained when the service was detached, done because it was a job. Personal service carried a price that couldn't be paid in dollars, and Steve wouldn't like that.

She schooled her voice to a calmness she didn't feel. "Do you have any more questions?"

Two twitches. No.

She had been pushed away so many times that she recognized it now, even as subtle and unspoken as the message was. It hurt. She closed her eyes, fighting for the control that would let her speak again. It was a moment before she managed it. "Do you want me to stay in here with you?"

He was still for a long moment. Then his arm twitched. And twitched again. No.

"All right. I won't bother you again." Her control was shot, her voice thin and taut. She didn't wait to see if he made any response, but turned and walked out. She felt almost sick. Even now, it was an effort to walk out and leave him alone. She wanted to stay with him, protect him, fight for him. God, she would even take his pain on herself if she could. But he didn't want her. He didn't need her. She had been right all along in thinking that he wouldn't appreciate her efforts on his behalf, but the pull she thought she had felt between them had been so strong that she had ignored her own good sense and let Frank talk her into staying.

Well, at least she should let Frank know that her sojourn here was over, and that she would be leaving. Her problems hadn't changed; she still had to find a new job. Digging a coin out of her purse, she found a pay phone and called the number Frank had given her. He hadn't spent as much time at the hospital these past two days as he had before; in fact, he hadn't been there at all that day. He answered promptly, and hearing his calm voice helped. "This is Jay. I wanted you to know that my job is over. Steve doesn't want me to stay with him anymore."

"What?" He sounded startled. "How do you know?"

"He told me."

"How in blue blazes did he do that? He can't talk, and he can't write. Major Lunning said he should still be pretty confused, anyway."

"He's a lot better this morning. We worked out a system," she explained tiredly. "I recite the alphabet, and he signals with his arm when I get to the letter he wants. He can spell out words and answer questions. One twitch means 'Yes' and two twitches means 'No.'"

"Have you told Major Lunning?" Frank asked sharply.

"No, I haven't seen him. I just wanted to let you know that Steve doesn't want me with him."

"Have Lunning paged. I want to talk to him. Now."

For such a pleasant man, Frank could be commanding when he chose, Jay thought as she went to the nurses' station and requested that Major Lunning be paged. It was five minutes before he appeared, looking tired and rumpled, and dressed in surgicals. He listened to Jay, then, without a word, walked to the pay phone and talked quietly to Frank. She couldn't make out what he was saying, but when he hung up he called a nurse and went directly into Steve's room.

Jay waited in the hallway, struggling to handle her feelings. Though she knew Steve and had expected this, it still hurt. It hurt more now than it had when they had divorced. She felt oddly.. .betrayed, and bereft, as if she had lost part of herself, and she hadn't felt that way before. She hadn't felt so strongly connected to him before. Well, this was just another classic example of her own intensity leading her to read things into a situation that simply weren't there. Would she ever learn?

Major Lunning was in Steve's room a long time, and a phalanx of nurses came and went. Within half an hour Frank arrived, his face taut and set. He squeezed Jay's arm comfortingly as he went past, but he didn't stop to talk. He, too, disappeared into Steve's room, as if something dreadfully important were going on in there.

Jay moved to the visitors' lounge, sitting quietly with her hands folded in her lap while she tried to plan what she should do next. Return to New York, obviously, and get a job. But the idea of hurling herself back into the business world left her cold. She didn't want to go back. She didn't want to leave Steve. Even now, she didn't want to leave him.

Almost an hour later Frank found her in the lounge. He looked at her sharply before going to the coffee machine and buying two cups. Jay looked up and managed a smile for him as he approached. "Do I really look as if I need that?" she asked wryly, nodding toward the coffee.

He extended a cup toward her. "I know. It tastes worse than it looks. Drink it anyway. If you don't need it now, you will in a minute."

She took the cup and sipped the hot liquid, grimacing at the taste. It was a mystery how anyone could take simple water and coffee and make them taste so horrible. "Why will I need it in a minute? It's over, isn't it? Steve told me to go away. It's obvious that he doesn't want me here, so my presence will only upset him and slow his recovery."

"It isn't over," Frank said. looking down at his own coffee, and his flat tone made Jay look at him sharply. He looked haggard, with worry etching new lines into his face.

A cold chill ran down her spine and she sat up straight. "What's wrong?" she asked. "Has he relapsed?"

"No."

"Then what's wrong?"

"He doesn't remember," Frank said simply. "Anything. He has amnesia."

Frank had been right; she did need the coffee. She drank that cup, then got another one. Her head was reeling, and she felt as if she'd been punched in the stomach. "What else can go wrong?" she asked, talking mostly to herself, but Frank knew what she meant.

He sighed. They hadn't counted on this. They had needed him awake, able to talk, able to understand what needed to be done. This latest development had thrown a monkey wrench into the whole plan. He didn't even know who he was! How could he protect himself if he didn't know who he had to be on guard against? He couldn't recognize friends or enemies.

"He's been asking for you," Frank said, taking her hand. She started, already rising to her feet, but he tugged on her hand and she sank back into her chair. "We've been asking him a lot of questions," he continued. "We used your system, though it takes a while. When you told him you were his ex-wife, it confused him, scared him. He couldn't remember you, and he didn't know what to do. Remember, he's still easily confused. It's hard for him to concentrate, though he's getting better fast."

"Are you certain he's asking for me?" Jay asked, her heart pounding. Out of everything he had said, her emotions had centered on his first sentence.

"Yes. He spelled out your name over and over."

The instinct to go to him was so strong it was almost painful. She forced herself to sit still, to understand more. "He has total amnesia? He doesn't remember anything?"

"He doesn't even know his own name." Frank sighed again, a heavy sound. "He doesn't remember anything about the explosion or why he was there. Nothing. A total blank. Damn it!" The last expressed his helpless frustration.

"What does Major Lunning think?"

"He said total amnesia is extremely rare. More often it's a sort of spot amnesia that blocks out the accident itself and anything that happened a short while before it. With the head trauma Steve suffered, amnesia wasn't that unexpected, but this…" He made a helpless gesture.

She tried to think of what she had read about amnesia, but all that came to mind was the dramatic use often made of it on soap operas. Invariably the amnesiac recovered his full memory during a highly dramatic moment, just in time to prevent a murder or keep from being murdered himself. It was good melodrama, but that was all it was.

"Will he regain his memory?"

"Probably. Part of it, at least. There's no way to be certain. It might start coming back almost immediately, or it could take months before he begins remembering anything. Major Lunning said that his memory will come back in bits and pieces, usually the oldest memories first."

Might. Probably. Could. Usually. What it all added up to was that they simply didn't know. In the meantime Steve lay in his bed, unable to talk, unable to see, unable to move. All he could do was hear and think.

What would it be like to be so cut adrift from everything familiar, even himself? He had no point of reference for anything. The thought of the inner terror he must be feeling squeezed her heart.

"Are you still willing to stay?" Frank asked, his clear eyes filled with concern. "Knowing that it might take months or even years?"

"Years?" she echoed faintly. "But you only wanted me to stay until the surgery on his eyes was completed."

"We didn't know then that he wouldn't remember anything. Major Lunning said that being around familiar things and people would help stimulate his memory, give him a feeling of stability."

"You want me to stay until he regains his memory," Jay stated, putting it into words. The idea frightened her. The longer she stayed with Steve, the more strongly she reacted to him. What would happen to her if she fell in love with him far more deeply than she had the first time, only to lose him again when he returned to his footloose life? She was afraid that she already cared too much to simply walk away. How could she walk away when he needed her?

"He needs you," Frank said, echoing her thoughts. "He's asking for you. He responds to you so strongly that he keeps confounding Major Lunning's predic- tions. And we need you, Jay. We need you to help him in any way you can, because we need to know what he knows."

"If sentiment won't get me, try patriotism?" she asked tiredly, leaning her head back against the padded orange vinyl chair. "It wasn't necessary. I won't leave him. I don't know what's going to happen, or how we'll handle it if he doesn't get his memory back soon, but I won't leave him."

She got up and walked out, and Frank sat there for a moment staring at the cup still in his hands. From what she'd just said, he knew that Jay sensed she was being manipulated, but she was willing to let them do it because Steve was so important to her. He had to talk to the Man about this latest development, and he wondered what would happen. They had counted on Steve's willing participation, on his talents and skills. Now they had to let him walk out on the streets as helpless as a baby because he couldn't recognize the dangers, or take the risk of telling him things that could set back his recovery. Major Lunning had been adamant that upsetting him would be the worst thing they could do. He needed quiet and tranquillity, a stable emotional base; his memory would return faster under those conditions. No matter what decision the Man reached, Steve was at risk. And if Steve was at risk, so was Jay.

It was hard for Jay to enter Steve's room after the emotional battering she had taken. She needed time to get herself under control, but she felt the pull between them again; it was growing so strong she no longer had to be in the room with him, touching him. He needed her right now, far more than she needed time. She opened the door and felt his attention center on her, though not even his head moved. It was as if he were holding his breath.

"I'm back," she said quietly, walking to his bed and putting her hand on his arm. "It seems I can't stay away."

His arm twitched urgently, several times, and she got the message. "All right," she said, and began reciting the alphabet. Sorry.

What could she say? Deny that she'd been upset? He would know better. He felt the pull just as she did, because he was on the other end of that invisible rope. He turned his face slightly toward her, his bruised lips parted as he waited for her answer.

"It's all right," she said. "I didn't realize what a shock I had just given you."

Yes.

It was odd how much expression he could put in a single motion, but she felt his wryness and sensed that he was still shocked. Shocked, but in control. His control was astounding.

She began spelling again.

Afraid.

The admission hit her hard; it was something the old Steve never would have admitted, but the man he had become was so much stronger that he could admit it and lose nothing of his strength. "I know, but I'll stay with you as long as you want me," she promised.

What happened? He made it a question by a slight upward movement of his arm.

Keeping her voice calm, Jay told him about the explosion but didn't give him any of the details. Let him think that he'd simply been in an accident.

Eyes?

So he hadn't understood everything she'd told him before and needed reassuring. "You'll have more surgery on your eyes, but the prognosis is good. You'll see again, I promise."

Paralyzed?

"No! You've broken both legs and they're in casts. That's why you can't move them."

Toes.

"Your toes?" she asked in bewilderment. "They're still there."

His lips moved in a very slight, painful smile. Touch them.

She bit her lip. "Okay." He wanted her to touch his toes so he'd know he still had feeling in them, as a reassurance that he wasn't paralyzed. She walked to the foot of the bed and firmly folded her hands over his bare toes, letting his cool flesh absorb the heat from her palms. Then she returned to his side and touched his arm. "Did you feel that?"

Yes. Again he gave that painful fraction of a smile.

"Anything else?"

Hands.

"They're burned, and in bandages, but they're not third-degree burns. Your hands will be fine."

Chest. Hurts.

"You have a collapsed lung, and a tube in your chest. Don't do any tossing around."

Funny.

She laughed. "I didn't know anyone could be silent and sarcastic at the same time."

Throat.

"You have a trach tube because you weren't breathing well."

Face broken?

She sighed. He wanted to know, not be protected. "Yes, some bones in your face were broken. You aren't disfigured, but the swelling made it hard for you to breathe. As soon as the swelling goes down, they'll take the trach tube out."

Lift the sheet and check my–

"I will not!" she said indignantly, halting her spelling when she realized where his words were heading. Then she had to laugh because he actually managed to look impatient. "Everything is still there, believe me."

Functional?

"You'll have to find that out on your own!"

Prissy.

"I'm not prissy, and you behave or I'll have a nurse change your tube. Then you'll find out the hard way what you want to know." As soon as she said the words she felt herself blushing, and it didn't help that he was smiling again. She hadn't meant to sound the way she had.

The effort of concentrating for so long had tired him, and after a minute he spelled Sleep.

"I didn't mean to tire you out," she murmured. "Go to sleep."

Stay?

"Yes, I'm staying. I won't go back to my apartment without telling you." Her throat felt thick at his need for reassurance, and she stood by the bed with her hand on his arm until his breathing changed into the deep, steady rhythm of sleep.

Even then she was reluctant to take her hand away, and she stood beside him for a long time. A smile kept curving her lips. His personality was so strong that it came through despite his limited means of communication. He wanted the truth about his condition, not vague promises or medical double-talk. He might not know his name, but that hadn't changed the man he was. He was strong, much stronger than he had been before. Whatever had happened to him in the past five years had tempered him, like steel subjected to the hottest fires. He was harder, stronger, tougher, his willpower so fierce it was like an energy field emanating from him. Oh, he had been a charming rascal before, devilishly reckless and daring, with a glint in his eye that had turned many feminine heads. But now he was… dangerous.

The word startled her, but when she examined it, she realized that it described exactly the man he had become. He was a dangerous man. She didn't feel threatened by him, but danger didn't necessarily constitute a threat. He was dangerous because of his steely, implacable will; when this man decided to do something, it wasn't safe to get in his way. At some time in the past five years, something had drastically changed him and she wasn't sure she wanted to know what it was. It must have been something cataclysmic, something awful, to have so focused his character and determination. It was as if he had been stripped down to the bare essentials of human existence, forced to discard all his personality traits that weren't necessary to survival and adopt new ones that were. What was left was hard and pure, unbreakable and curiously resilient. This was a man who wouldn't admit defeat; he didn't know what it was.

Her heart was beating heavily as she stood looking down at him, her attention so focused on him that they might have been the only two people in the world. He awed her, and he attracted her so strongly that she jerked her hand away from his arm as soon as the thought formed. Dear God! She would be a fool to let herself get caught in that trap again. Even more now than before, Steve was essentially alone, his personality so honed that he was complete unto himself. She had walked away relatively unscathed before, but what would happen to her this time if she let herself care too much? She felt scared, not only because she was teetering on the edge of heartbreak, but because she was even daring to think of getting too close to him. It was like watching a panther in a cage, standing outside the bars and knowing you were safe, but feeling the danger that was barely restrained.

Making love with him before had been… fun, passionate in a playful way. What would it be like now? Was the playfulness gone? She thought it must be. His lovemaking would be intense and elemental now, as he was, like getting caught up in a storm.

She became aware that she could barely breathe, and she forced herself to walk away from his bed. She didn't want him to mean that much to her. And she was very much afraid that he already did.

"What do we do?" Frank asked quietly, his clear eyes meeting shuttered black ones.

"We play out the hand," the Man answered just as quietly. "We have to. If we do anything out of the ordinary now, it could tip someone off, and he isn't able to recognize his enemies."

"Any luck in tracing Piggot?"

"We lost him in Beirut, but we know he hooked up with his old pals. He'll surface again, and we'll be waiting."

"We just have to keep our guy alive until we can neutralize Piggot," Frank said, his tone turning glum.

"We'll do it. One way or the other, we have to keep Piggot's cutthroats from getting their hands on him."

"When he gets his memory back, he isn't going to like what we've done."

A brief smile touched the Man's hard mouth. "He'll raise mortal hell, won't he? But I'm not taking any chance with the protected-witness program until he's able to look out for himself, and maybe not even then. It's been penetrated before, and could be again. Everything hinges on getting Piggot."

"You ever wish you were back in the field, so you could hunt him yourself?"

The Man leaned back, hooking his hands behind his head. "No. I've gotten domesticated. I like going home at night to Rachel and the kids. I like not having to watch my back."

Frank nodded, thinking of the time when the Man's back had been a target for every hit man and terrorist in the business. He was safe now, out of the main- stream … as far as was generally known. A very small group of people knew otherwise. The Man officially didn't exist; even the people who followed his orders didn't know the orders came from him. He was buried so deeply in the bowels of bureaucracy, protected by so many twists and turns, that there was no way to connect him to the job he actually did. The President knew about him, but Frank doubted the vice president did, or any department secretary, the Chiefs of Staff or the head of the agency that employed him. Whoever was President next might not know about him. The Man decided for himself whom he could trust; Frank was one of those people. And so was the man in Bethesda Naval Hospital.

Two days later, they took the tube out of Steve's chest because his collapsed lung had healed and reinflated. When they let Jay into his room again she hung over the side of his bed, stroking his arm and shoulder until his breathing settled down and the fine mist of perspiration on his body began to dry.

"It's over, it's over," she murmured.

He moved his arm, a signal that he wanted to spell, and she began reciting the alphabet.

Not fun.

"No," she agreed.

More tubes?

"There's one in your stomach, for feeding you." She felt his muscles tense as if in anticipation of the pain he knew would come, and he spelled out a terse expletive. Her hand moved over his chest in sympathy, feeling the coarseness of his hair as it grew out, and avoiding the wound where the tube had entered his body.

He took a deep breath and forced himself to slowly relax. Raise head.

It took her a few seconds to figure that one out. He must be incredibly sore from lying flat for so long, unable to shift his legs or lift his arms. The only time his arms were moved was when the bandages were changed. She pressed the control that raised the head of the bed, lifting him only an inch or so at a time, keeping her hand on his arm so he could signal her when he wanted her to stop. He took several more deep breaths as his weight shifted to his hips and lower back, then moved his arm to halt her. His lips moved in silent curse, his muscles tightening against the pain, but after a moment he adjusted and began to relax again.

Jay watched him, her deep blue eyes mirroring the pain he felt, but he was improving daily, and seeing the improvements filled her with heady joy. The swelling in his face was subsiding; his lips were almost normal again, though dark bruises still stained his jaw and throat.

She could almost feel his impatience. He wanted to talk, he wanted to see, he wanted to walk, to be able to shift his own weight in the bed. He was imprisoned in his body and he didn't like it. She thought it must be close to hell to be cut off from his own identity as he was, as well as being so completely constrained by his injuries. But he wasn't giving in; he asked more questions every day, trying to fill the void of memories by making new ones, maybe hoping that some magic word would take him back to himself. Jay talked to him even when he didn't ask questions, idle conversation that, she hoped, gave him basic information and perspective. Even if it just filled the silence, that was something. If he didn't want her to talk he would tell her.

A movement of his arm alerted her, and she began the alphabet.

When married?

She caught her breath. It was the first personal question he'd asked her, the first time he'd wanted to know about their past relationship. "We were married for three years," she managed to say calmly. "We divorced five years ago."

Why?

"It wasn't a hostile divorce," she mused. "Or a hostile marriage. I guess we simply wanted different things out of life. We .grew apart, and finally the divorce seemed more like a formality than any wrenching change in our lives."

What did you want?

Now that was a twenty-thousand-dollar question. What did she want? She had been certain of her life up until the Friday when she had been fired and Franlc Payne had brought Steve back into her life. Now she wasn't certain at all; too many changes had happened all at once, jolting her life onto a different track entirely. She looked at Steve and felt him waiting patiently for her answer.

"Stability, I guess. I wanted to settle down more than you did. We had fun together, but we weren't really suited to each other."

Children?

The thought startled her. Oddly, when they had been married, she hadn't been in any hurry to start a family. "No, no children." She hadn't been able to visualize having Steve's children. Now… oh God, now the idea shook her to the bones.

Remarried?

"No, I've never remarried. I don't think you have, either. When Frank notified me of your accident, he asked if you had any other relatives or close friends, so you must have stayed single."

He'd been listening closely, but his interest suddenly sharpened. She could feel it, like a touch against her skin. No family?

"No. Your parents are dead, and if you had any relatives, I never knew about them." She skated around telling him that he'd been orphaned at an early age and raised in foster homes. Not having a family seemed to disturb him, though he'd never given any indication that it bothered him while they had been married.

He lay very still and the line of his mouth was grim. She sensed there was a lot he wanted to ask her, but the very complexity of his questions stymied him. To get his mind off the questions he couldn't ask and the answers he wouldn't like, she began to tell him about how they had met, and slowly his mouth relaxed.

"…and since it was our first date, I was a little stiff. More than a little stiff, if you want the truth. First dates are torment, aren't they? It had been raining off and on all day, and water was standing in the streets. We walked out to your car, and a passing truck hit this huge puddle just as we reached the curb. We were both drenched, from the head down. And we stood there laughing at each other like complete fools. I don't even want to think what I looked like, but you had muddy water dripping off your nose."

His lips were twitching, as if it hurt him to smile but he couldn't stop the movement. What did we do?

She chuckled. "There wasn't a lot we could do, looking the way we did. We went back to my apartment, and while our clothes were washing we watched television and talked. We never did make it to the party we'd been going to. One date led to another, and five months later we were married."

He asked one question after another, like a child listening to fairy tales and wanting more. Knowing that he was reaching for the part of himself that was lost due to the blankness of his memory, she tirelessly recounted places they had gone and the things they'd done, people they had known, hoping that some little detail would provide the spark needed to bring it all back. Her voice began to grow hoarse, and finally he managed a small shake of his head.

Sorry.

She pressed his arms, understanding. "Don't worry," she said softly. "It will all come back. It will just take time."

But the days passed and still his memory didn't return–not even a glimmer of a link to the past. She could feel his intense concentration on every word she uttered, as if he were willing himself to remember. Even now, his control was phenomenal; he never allowed himself to become frustrated or lose his temper. He just kept trying, keeping his feelings under control as if he sensed that any emotional upheaval could set his recovery back. Total recovery was his aim, and he worked toward it with a single-minded concentration that never wavered.

Frank was there the day they took the trach tube from Steve's throat, and he waited in the hall with Jay, holding her hand. She looked at him questioningly, but he merely shook his head. Several minutes later a hoarse cry of pain from Steve's room made her jerk, and Frank's hand tightened on hers. "You can't go in there," he said softly. "They're removing his stomach tube, too."

The cry had been Steve's; the first sound he'd made had been one of pain. She began to tremble, every instinct she had screaming at her to go to him, but Frank held her still. There were no other sounds from the room, and finally the door opened and the doctors and nurses exited. Major Lunning was last, and he paused to talk to Jay.

"He's all right," he said, smiling a little at her tense face. "He's breathing just fine, and talking. I won't tell you what his first words were. But I want to warn you that his speaking voice won't be the way you remember it; his larynx was damaged, and his voice will always sound hoarse. It will improve some, but he'll never sound the way he did before."

"I'd like to talk to him now," Frank said, looking down at Jay, and she understood that there were things he wanted to tell Steve, even though Steve didn't remember what had happened.

"Good luck," Major Lunning said, smiling wryly at Frank. "He doesn't want you, he wants Jay, and he was pretty autocratic about it."

Knowing just how autocratic he could be, Frank wasn't surprised. But he still needed to ask Steve some questions, and if this was his lucky day, the questions just might trigger some return of memory. Patting Jay's hand again, he went into Steve's room and firmly closed the door behind him.

Less than a minute later, he opened the door and looked at Jay, his expression both frustrated and amused. "He wants you, and he isn't cooperating until he gets you."

"Did you think I would?" a raspy voice demanded behind him. "Jay, come here."

She began trembling again at the sound of that rough, deep voice, so much rougher and deeper than she remembered. It was almost gravelly, and it was won- derful. Her knees felt rubbery as she crossed the room to him, but she wasn't aware of actually walking. She was just there, somehow, clinging to the railing of his bed in an effort to hold herself upright. "I'm here," she whispered.

He was silent a moment; then he said, "I want a drink of water."

She almost laughed aloud, because it was such a mundane request that could have been made of anyone, but then she saw the tension in his jaw and lips and realized that, again, he was checking out his condition, and he wanted her with him. She turned to the small Styrofoam pitcher that was kept full of crushed ice, which she used to keep his lips moist. The ice had melted enough that she was able to pour the glass half full of water. She stuck a straw into it and held it to his lips.

Gingerly he sucked the liquid into his mouth and held it for a moment, as if letting it soak into his membranes. Then, slowly, he swallowed, and after a minute he relaxed. "Thank God," he muttered hoarsely. "My throat still feels swollen. I wasn't sure I could swallow, and I sure as hell didn't want that damned tube back."

Behind Jay, Frank turned a smothered laugh into a cough.

"Anything else?" she asked.

"Yes. Kiss me."

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