White lies (Chapter Nine)
They seemed so isolated that she couldn't understand his caution, but she supposed it was ingrained in him. Watching him gave her an even greater insight into the man he was. He was so superbly suited to his occupation! He knew what to do by instinct, without needing to rely on memory.
When he was stronger, he began chopping wood to keep a good supply for the fireplace. They used the hearth for most of their heat, to conserve fuel. The cabin was so snugly built and insulated that it held heat well, and a good fire was sufficient to keep the entire place comfortable. At first his hands were sore and blistered, despite the gloves he wore, but gradually they toughened. After a while he added jogging to his activities, but he didn't jog in the meadow, where it was clear. He ran through the trees, up and down the hills, deliberately picking the roughest path, and every day his legs were a little stronger, his breathing a little easier, so he would push himself further.
Jay loved those first days in the cabin, high in the vast, silent meadow. Sometimes the only sound was that of the wind stirring the trees. Having been accustomed her entire life to the bustle of cities, the space and silence made her feel as if she'd been reborn in a new world. The last remnants of tension from her old life relaxed and faded away. She was alone in the mountains with the man she loved, and they were safe.
He began teaching her how to drive a stick shift. To Jay, it was fun, bouncing in the Jeep over the meadow. To Steve, it was a precaution, against the possibility that something could happen to him and Jay would have to do the driving. It might come down to a matter of saving her life.
There was a heavy snow the third week they were there. Jay woke early to a world where every sound had been muffled. She got up to peek out the window at the deep drifts of new snow, then tumbled back into her warm bed and fell instantly asleep again. When she woke the second time it was almost ten, and she felt wonderfully rested, as well as starving.
She dressed hurriedly and brushed her hair, wondering why the cabin was so silent. Where was Steve? She looked into his room, but it was empty. There was a pot of coffee in the kitchen, and she drank a cup while standing at the window, searching the tree line for some sign of him. Nothing.
Curious, she finished the coffee and returned to her room to stamp her feet into warm boots; then she put on her shearling coat and pulled a thick knit cap over her hair. It was unusual for Steve to go out without telling her where he would be and how long he'd be gone. She wondered what he was doing, and why he hadn't woken her. Could he have hurt himself?
Anxious now, she went down the back steps. "Steve?" she called softly, a little afraid to raise her voice. The meadow was so silent, and for the first time its isolation felt threatening, instead of safe. Was there someone else out there?
His footprints were plainly visible in the new snow. He'd evidently made several trips to the woodpile to replenish the supply in the house, because there was a worn trail between them; then he'd walked up the slope into the forest. Jay dug her gloves out of her coat pocket and put them on, and wished she'd wrapped a scarf around her nose and mouth. It was so cold that the air felt brittle. She turned the collar of the coat up around her neck and began following Steve's trail, carefully stepping in his tracks because that was easier than breaking through the snow herself.
The snow wasn't as deep under the trees, making the walking easier, but Jay kept to the prints Steve had made. The thickly-growing evergreens, their branches weighted down with snow, blanketed noise and muffled it out of existence. She could barely hear herself breathe or the snow crunching under her boots. She wanted to call Steve's name again but somehow didn't dare, as if it would be sacrilege in this silent white, black and green cathedral.
If anything, she tried to be even quieter, picking her way from tree to tree, trying to become part of the forest. Then, suddenly, she lost Steve's tracks. She stood under the drooping limbs of a spruce and looked around, but there were no more tracks to follow. It was as if he'd vanished. It was impossible to walk in the snow without leaving tracks! But there were no tracks under the trees. She looked up, wondering if he'd climbed a tree and was sitting there laughing at her. Nothing.
Common sense told her that he'd played some sort of trick, but his tracks would have to pick up somewhere. She thought a minute, then began walking in a slow, constantly enlarging circle. She would have to cross his path somewhere.
Fifteen minutes later, she was angry. Damn him! He was playing games with her, unfair games, considering his training. She was getting cold, and she was already starving. Let him play Daniel Boone; she was going back to the cabin to cook breakfast–for one!
Just to be perverse, she backtracked as cautiously as she'd come; maybe she could leave him in here, sneaking around and hiding from her while she was already back at the cabin, snug and warm and eating a hot breakfast. He'd show up after a while, all innocence, and he could damn well cook his own breakfast! Show-off!
She crept back toward the cabin, sidling as close to the tree trunks as she could, stopping often to listen for any betraying sound before moving to the next tree, and looking in all directions before moving again. Her indignation grew, and she began to think what she could do in the way of revenge, but most of her ideas seemed both petty and paltry. What she really wanted to do was hit him. Hard. Twice.
She had just begun to creep around a tree when the skin on the back of her neck prickled and she froze, her heart leaping in fear at the ancient warning of danger. She couldn't hear or see anything, but she could feel someone, or something, close by. Were there wolves in the mountains? Or bears? Motionless except for her eyes, she looked around for something to use as a weapon, and finally she saw the outline of a sturdy-looking stick, buried under the snow. A fraction of an inch at a time, she bent to reach for the stick, her senses raw and screaming.
Something hard and heavy hit her in the middle of the back, and another blow numbed her forearm. She was knocked facedown in the snow, her lungs straining for air, her arm useless. She couldn't even scream. She was jerked roughly onto her back, and there was a flash of shiny metal as a knife was laid against her throat.
Stunned, terrified, unable to breathe, she stared up into narrowed, deadly eyes as yellow as an eagle's.
His eyes widened as he recognized her, then narrowed again with rage. He jabbed the wicked-looking knife back into its scabbard and took his knee off her chest. "Damn it, woman, I could've killed you!" he roared, his voice like rusty metal. "What in hell are you doing?"
Jay could only gasp and writhe on the ground, wondering if she might die from lack of air. Her entire chest was burning and her vision was wavering.
Steve jerked her to a sitting position and whacked her on the back several times, hard enough to hurt, but at least the air rushed back into her body. She almost choked as her lungs expanded again, and tears sprang to her eyes. She gagged and coughed, and Steve patted her on the back but his tone was hard: "You'll be all right. It's less than you deserve, and a hell of a lot less than what could have happened."
She didn't plan it. She saw the stick out of the corner of her eye, the one she'd been reaching for when he'd hit her, and the next thing she knew it was in her hand. Red mist fogged her vision as she swung at him with all the strength her fury had given her. He dodged under the first blow, cursing, and leaped back to escape the second one. She moved to the left, trying to back him against a tree so he wouldn't be able to escape so easily, and swung again. He tried to grab the stick, and she caught him on the wrist with a solid thunk! then wound up for another blow. Cursing again, he bent low and rushed her. She hit him on the back with the stick just as his shoulder jammed into her stomach with enough force to knock her sprawling again.
"Damn it!" he yelled, kneeling astride her and pinning her wrists to the ground. "Settle down! Damn it, Jay! What in hell's wrong with you?"
She twisted and bucked beneath him, trying to throw him off. He tightened his knees on her sides, forestalling that effort, and his hands bit into her wrists so tightly there was no way she could free them. Finally she stopped struggling and glared impotently at him, her eyes like blue fire. "Get off me!"
"So you can brain me with that damn stick? Fat chance!"
She took a deep, shuddering breath and forced her voice to a relatively calm tone. "I won't hit you with the stick."
"Damn straight you won't," he grunted, releasing her hand to grab the stick and hurl it away from them. Jay used her free hand to wipe the snow out of her face, and slowly Steve eased his weight off her chest. She sat up and pulled the knit cap off her head to shake it free of snow.
Kneeling on one knee beside her, Steve brushed off her back. "Now suppose you explain just what you thought you were doing," he snapped.
Fury burst in her again and she swung at him. He jerked his head back in time to escape her fist, but the wet cap she held in her hand swiped his face with enough force to sting. Like a stroke of lightning she was flat on her back again. From between gritted teeth he said, "One more time and you'll eat standing up for a month!"
She blazed back at him: "You just try it! When I woke up and couldn't find you, I was worried you might be hurt, so I came looking for you. Then you started showing off with your Super Spy tricks, not letting me find you, until I got fed up and started back to the cabin. Then you knocked me down and pulled a knife on me, and yelled at me! You deserved to get hit with a stick! "
He glared down at her, taking in her tumbled hair and fierce blue eyes, and the stubborn set of those luscious lips. He swore under his breath and thrust his fingers into the honey-brown strands, holding her still while he ground his mouth against hers. His kiss was half angry and half starving. He was suddenly wild to feel her lips, to put his tongue inside her mouth and taste her. She kicked at him, and he moved swiftly, kneeing her legs apart and settling himself between them, his weight crushing her into the snow.
Jay groaned, and his tongue thrust into her mouth. Suddenly she felt on fire, as her fury turned into a different, white-hot passion. Her hands were in his hair, digging into his scalp as she returned his kiss as fiercely as he gave it. His hips rubbed against her in primal rhythm, thrusting as if to deny the sturdy denim be- tween them, and her blood felt like lava.
Roughly he opened her thick coat and shoved the edges aside, his hands covering her breasts, but still she was protected from him by her shirt and bra, and the contact wasn't enough. He jerked at her shirt, popping three of the buttons off to be lost in the snow, and opened it, too. The cold air rushed at her and she cried out, but the sound was caught in his mouth. Her bra had a front hook; he handled it easily and peeled the thin cups away from her white, swollen breasts. Her nipples were hard and tight from the cold, stabbing into his palms when he put his hands over them.
He lifted his head. "Let me inside you," he rasped. "Now." The need was riding him hard, just the way he wanted to ride her. He put his hot mouth over a pouting nipple and sucked strongly at it, rolling it around with his tongue and listening to the incoherent sounds of pleasure she made.
Jay thought she might die from wanting him, even though he had scared her and hurt her; even though he'd made her angrier than she could ever remember feeling at another human being. He'd loosed the passion that had always been in her nature, torn it out of her control. Her hands were shaking, her entire body was shaking, and she wanted more.
He lifted his mouth from her breast, and the shock of the cold air on her wet flesh was so painful she whimpered. Their eyes met, hers wide and dazed with the sudden passion, his narrow and burning, and she knew what he wanted, knew he was silently waiting for her permission. She knew that if she made the slightest sign of acquiescence he would take her there, in the cold and snow, and her entire body throbbed with the need to let him do just that. She started to whisper his name; then terror washed over her like freezing water and she stared up at his hard face as he waited for her answer. She didn't know his name! She could call him Steve, but he wasn't Steve. His face wasn't Steve's. She knew him and loved him, but he was a stranger.
He found his answer in the sudden rigidity of her body beneath him. He swore viciously as he got to his feet, one hand rubbing the back of his neck as if that could relieve his physical tension. Jay fumbled with her shirt, trying to draw the edges together, but the buttons were gone and her hands were shaking too badly, so finally she just fastened her coat and got to her feet. She had been burning up only moments before, but now she was freezing. She was covered with snow. She shook it out of her hair and dusted it off her jeans and coat as best she could, then retrieved her knit cap, but it had snow on it both inside and out, and would be worse than wearing nothing at all. Without a word, unable to look at him, she started toward the cabin.
He caught her roughly by the shoulder and swung her around. "Tell me why, damn it," he rasped.
Jay swallowed. She hadn't meant to stop him, and she couldn't explain the dreadful fear she lived with every moment, every day. "I've told you before," she finally managed. "They're good reasons." A single tear tracked down her cheek and formed frozen salt crystals before it reached her chin.
His face changed, some of the angry frustration leaving him, and he wiped at the tear with his gloved hand. "Are they? Your reasons don't make much sense to me. It's natural to want each other. How much longer do you think I can live like a monk? How much longer can you live like a nun? That's not my calling, baby, and damn it all to hell and back in a little red wagon, it's not as if it'll be the first time!"
She thought she would scream. She wanted to cry and she wanted to laugh, but neither would make sense. She wanted to tell him the truth, but the biggest fear she had was of losing him. So finally she did tell him the truth, or at least part of it. "It will be the first time," she croaked, strangling on the words. "This time. And it scares me."
She walked away again, and he let her go. She was shaking with cold by the time she got back to the cabin, and she took a long hot shower, then dressed in dry clothing. The smell of fresh coffee came from the kitchen, and she followed her nose to find him frying bacon and whipping eggs in a bowl. He had changed clothes, too, and she faltered under both his physical impact and a sudden realization. He was tall and muscular, as powerful as a puma, his shoulders and chest straining the seams of his shirt. In the weeks they had been there he'd gained weight and muscle, and his hair had grown enough that now it was a trifle long. He looked uncivilized and dangerous, and so utterly male that she quivered instinctively. He was no longer a patient. He had recovered both his health and his strength. She had followed him because she had been worried, but in her mind he had still been a wounded warrior. Now she knew that he wasn't. Her subconscious had recognized it earlier, when she had fought him. She never would have done that before.
He looked up at her, Ms gaze assessing. "I made fresh coffee. Drink a cup. You still look a little shaky. Does the thought of making it with me scare you that much?"
"You scare me." She couldn't stop the words. "Who you are. What you are."
An icy motionlessness seized him as he realized that she had guessed. "You said I was using Super Spy tricks."
"Yes," she whispered, and decided she did need that cup of coffee. She poured it and watched the steam rise for a moment before sipping. Why had she said that? She hadn't meant to. She was in agony, afraid that it would trigger his memory and he would leave, and equally afraid that he might never get his memory back. She was caught, trapped, because she couldn't call him hers until he regained his memory and chose her. If he would. He might just walk away, to his real life.
"I didn't think you knew," he said flatly. Her head jerked up. "Do you mean you did?"
"There had to be more to it than the possibility that I had seen something before the explosion. The government doesn't work that way. I guessed, and Frank confirmed it."
"What did he say?" Her voice was thin.
His smile was equally thin, and a little savage. "That's about it. He can't tell me more because of the circumstances. I'm a security risk right now. How did you guess?"
"The same. There just had to be more to it."
"Is what I am the real reason you turned me down?"
"No," she whispered, an aching, needing expression in her eyes as she watched him. How could loving a man hurt so much? But it did, when the man was this one.
His entire body was taut, his mouth twisted. His voice was harsh. "Stop looking at me like that. It's all I can do to keep myself from pulling your pants off and laying you down on that table, and that isn't the way I want to take you. Not this time. So stop looking at me i as if you'd melt if I touched you."
But I would, she thought, though she turned her eyes away. His words made her feel hot and shivery, thinking of the act he'd described, the scene forming in her mind. It would be raw and hot, and purely sexual. If he touched her, they would burn each other up.
He spent most of the day outside, but the tension between them didn't ease; it hung there, as thick and heavy as fog. When darkness finally drove him inside, his eyes burned her every time he looked at her. Instincts she hadn't known she possessed pulled her toward him, despite the reasons her mind presented for not letting their relationship progress. She lay alone in her bed that night, aching with the need to go to him and spend the long, dark hours in his arms. He was right; what did her reasons matter? It was already too late. She already loved him, for good or bad. That was the real danger, and it had been too late for a long time now. Keeping herself from him wouldn't lessen the pain if the worst happened and she lost him.
But she didn't go to him. Things often seemed different in daylight than when lying alone in the darkness, but caution wasn't what kept her in her own bed. Circumstances were hard enough; she had to call him by a name that wasn't his own, had to pretend he was someone else, but she wanted to be able to see his eyes when they made love. More than anything she wanted to know his real name, to be able to call him by it in her heart; failing that, she wanted to see his eyes, for they were his own.
A chinook blew in during the night, chasing away the weather system that had covered them with new snow. Mother Nature must have chuckled to herself as she promptly began melting the high white drifts with her hot winds, teasing them with a hint of a spring that was still over a month away. The melting snow dripped from the trees with a sound like rain, and there were crashes in the night as limbs dropped their white burdens.
The rise in temperature made Jay even more restless, and she was up at dawn. She could barely believe what she saw when she looked out. The hot wind had turned their winter wonderland into a wet, brown meadow dotted with shrinking patches of snow. The melting snow still dripped off the roof, and the heated air made her feel as if her skin would explode. How could it have happened so fast? "A chinook," Steve said behind her, and she whirled, her heart jumping. She hadn't heard him approach, but he moved like a cat. He looked so ill-tempered that she almost stepped back. His eyes were hard and frosty, and a day's growth of beard darkened his jaw. He glanced, from ner to the window. "Enjoy it while you can. It'll feel like spring while we have it, and then it'll be gone, and the snow will come back."
They ate breakfast in silence, and he left the cabin immediately afterward. Later on in the morning, Jay heard the solid bite of the ax into wood, and she peeked out at him from the kitchen window. He had taken off his coat and was working in his shirt sleeves, which were rolled up over his forearms. Incredibly, sweat had left dark stains under his arms and down the center of his back. Was it that warm?
She walked out onto the front porch and lifted her face to the warm, sweet wind. It was incredible! Her skin tingled. The temperature was at least forty degrees higher than the day before, and the sun burned down from a cloudless blue sky. Suddenly her jeans and flannel shirt were much too heavy, and her skin began to glisten with moisture.
Like a child made giddy by spring, she hurried to her bedroom and stripped off her heavy, restricting clothes. She couldn't stand them another minute. She wanted to feel the air on her bare arms; she wanted to feel fresh and free, like the chinook. So what if winter could come back at any time? Right now, it was spring!
She pulled her favorite sundress from the closet and slipped it on over her head. It was white cotton, sleeveless, with a scoop neck, and far too flimsy for the temperature, which was probably only in the fifties, but it suited her mood perfectly. Some things were just meant for celebrating; this chinook was one of them.
She hummed as she began the preparations for lunch; it was a while before she noticed that Steve was no longer at the woodpile. If he'd gone off just at lunch-time, she would eat alone and he could do without! She still hadn't quite forgiven him for the day before.
Then she heard a slight noise from out front, and she removed the soup from the stove before walking to the front door. He'd pulled the Jeep around and was washing it. It was such a domestic scene that it lured her onto the porch, and she sat down on the top step to watch him.
He glanced up at her, and his eyes flickered over the dress. "Pushing it a little, aren't you?"
"I'm comfortable," she said, and she was. The crisp air was both chilly and warm, and the sun beating down on her was a delicious sensation. He'd given in to the rising temperature, too, by unbuttoning his shirt and pulling it out of his jeans.
She watched as he alternately scrubbed and rinsed, each time having to stop washing to take up the hose and spray the soap off the Jeep. Finally she went down to pick up the hose from where he'd dropped it. "You wash, I'll rinse."
He grunted. "Do you expect the same deal with the dishes?"
"Sounds fair to me. After all, I'm doing the cooking."
"Yeah, but I'm having to eat all that food so it won't goto waste."
She gave him an awful look. "Poor baby. I'll see what I can do to take that burden off you."
"Just like a woman. Tease her a little bit and she turns nasty. Some people just can't take a joke."
Jay turned the hose on the section of Jeep he'd just washed, but he didn't have time to step back, and the water hit the Jeep full blast, spraying back into his face and onto his clothes. He leaped back, swearing. "Damn it, watch what you're doing!"
"Some people just can't take a joke," Jay said sweetly, and turned the hose on him.
He yelled from the shock of the cold water hitting him and started toward her, holding his hands up to deflect the stream from his face. Jay chortled and darted around the Jeep, then got him again when he looked around at her.
He pushed his wet hair back and his light brown eyes took on that unholy yellow gleam. "You're going to get it now," he said, beginning to grin, and with one bound leaped onto the hood of the Jeep. Jay shrieked and ran to the rear, but the hose caught on the tires as she dragged it after her. She tugged frantically as Steve jumped lightly to the ground. He laughed in a way that made her scream again, and she threw the hose down as she ran for safety.
He grabbed the hose and reversed direction, running back around the front of the Jeep, to free it. He met Jay almost head-on.
"Wait," she said, laughing and begging at the same time as she held up her hand. "It's lunchtime. I came out to tell you. The soup's ready–" A blast of water hit her in the face.
The water was almost unbearably cold. She screamed and tried to run for safety, but he was there every time she turned, and the water soaked her from head to foot. Finally her only means of defense was attack, so she ran straight at him. He was laughing like a maniac, a sound that ceased abruptly when she twisted the nozzle up so the water hit him right in the mouth. They wrestled for control of the nozzle, both of them laughing and yelling as the icy water sprayed all over them.
"Truce, truce!" she yelled, backing away. There was no way she could have gotten any wetter, but then, neither could he. She felt a sense of satisfaction that it had turned out so evenly.
"Are you giving up?" he demanded.
She hooted. "What's to give up? We're both half drowned."
He thought about that and nodded. Then he walked over to the spigot to turn it off and began coiling the hose. "You fight dirty. I like that in a woman."
"That's right, butter me up. You just want to make certain I don't stop cooking."
"The situation being what it is, I'll take anything from you I can get."
Abruptly the humor was gone from the moment. He dropped the hose and straightened, his face hard as he looked at her.
Jay felt her breath catch. He had never been more beautiful to her than he was at that moment, soaking wet, his hair plastered to his skull, badly in need of a shave, and his eyes glittering with masculine intent. Slowly he let his gaze move over her face, then down her body, taking his time as he traced the outline of her form.
Then she realized that he could see more than the outline. The white cotton dress was almost transparent, plastered to her body the way it was. She couldn't stop herself from looking down. Her nipples were hard and erect, plainly visible under the wet cotton, and the fabric was molded to her hips and thighs. With the sun shining through the material, she might as well have been naked for all the protection the dress gave her.
She looked back up at him and froze in place at the look on his face. He was staring at her with such savage male hunger that her heart leaped, making the blood surge through her veins. Her legs trembled as she felt herself begin to grow warm and moist in response, and she inhaled sharply.
His head jerked up. For another moment he was motionless. Her lips were parted slightly, trembling. Her eyes looked heavy. Her nipples were hard little circles plainly visible through the wet dress, her arms limp at her sides as she let him look. He shuddered, and his control snapped.
She couldn't move. He walked toward her without taking his gaze from her, without seeing or hearing anything else, a primal male animal intent on mating. He was breathing hard and deep, his nostrils flaring. Water dripped off him as he moved. She waited, shaking with need and fear, because he was out of control and she knew it. It was an exhilarating terror, freezing her but at the same time filling her with an anticipation so acute she was almost in pain.
Then his hands were on her, and she moaned aloud from the sudden release of tension.
She didn't have time to respond. She had expected to be swept up in his arms and carried to bed, but he had gone far beyond paying attention to niceties. Nothing mattered to him but to have her, right then. He bore her down to the cold, wet earth, which, despite the chi-nook, still held the long freeze of winter. Jay cried out at the iciness against her back, involuntarily arching upward to escape it. Steve's hard hands pressed her back, and he covered her, his weight pinning her down. He jerked at her dress, pulling the skirt to her waist. "Spread your legs," he said gutturally, though he was already kneeing her thighs apart.
Excitement speared through her. "Yes," she whispered, her hands digging into his shoulders. She wanted him so much that she didn't care where they were or how urgent he was. There would be time for seduction later, as well as worry. Right now there was only this quick, primitive mating.
There was no foreplay, no leisurely petting or stroking. For months there had been too much between them while the final intimacy had been denied, and suddenly the walls were down. He disposed of her panties by the simple means of tearing them apart, then unfastened his pants and shoved them down only as far as was necessary. He pushed her legs wider apart and lowered himself onto her.
She made a little sound of pain as he tried to enter her and couldn't. He swiftly adjusted his position and pushed again, this time sliding deep into her. Shock reverberated through her body as she tried to adjust to his girth, and this time she groaned.
He braced himself on his elbows, and Jay looked up at him dazedly. His yellowish eyes were fierce, his face hard and intent, his neck corded as he drove into her. She arched up to accept him, her heart almost exploding with love. This was what she had wanted, to see his face, to see his eagle-fierce eyes, to imprint his image on her mind and heart even as he imprinted his touch on her body. With the icy earth beneath her and the pure blue sky above, with the bright sun on his face, they were as pure and primitive as their surroundings. No matter what his name or what he did, he was her love, her man.
This was for him. She lifted her hips to meet his thrusts, her flesh quivering under his pounding force. He groaned unintelligibly and slid his arms beneath her to lift her up even more, as if he could grind their bodies so tightly together that they would mesh, then convulsed in release.
She held him tightly, her legs around his hips, her arms about his shoulders as he heaved into her, groaning and shivering. "I love you," she said over and over again, though her lips moved soundlessly and only the warm winds heard her. She closed her eyes, feeling that warm wind on her cheek and his heavy weight both on her and in her, and knew that no matter what happened when he regained his memory, this hard, fast possession had made her his in a way that could never be shattered.