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White lies (Chapter Seven)

His heart almost stopped in his chest. Jay. The face to go with the name and the voice, the gentle touch, the sweet and elusive scent. Her description of herself had been accurate, yet it was far from reality. The reality of Jay was a heavy mane of honey-brown hair, eyes of deep-ocean blue and a wide, soft, vulnerable mouth. God, her mouth. It was red and full, as luscious as a ripe plum. It was the most passionate mouth he'd ever seen, and thinking of kissing it, of having those lips touch his body, made a hard ache settle in his loins. She was immobile, her face colorless except for the deep pools of her eyes and that wonderful, exotic mouth. She stared at him as if mesmerized, unable to look away.

"How does everything look?" the surgeon asked. "Do you see halos of light, or are the edges fuzzy?"

He ignored the doctor and stood, his gaze never wavering from Jay. He would never get enough of looking at her. Four steps took him to her, and her eyes widened even more in her utterly white face as she stared up at him. He tried to make his hands gentle as he caught her arms and pulled her to her feet, but anticipation and arousal were riding him hard, and he knew his fingers bit into her soft flesh. She made an incoherent sound; then his mouth covered hers and the erotic feel of her full lips made him want to groan. He wanted to be alone with her. She was shaking in his arms, her hands clutching the front of his shirt as she leaned against him as if afraid she might fall.

"Well, your sense of direction is good," Frank said wryly, and Steve lifted his head from Jay's, though he kept her tight against him, her head pressed into his shoulder. She was still trembling violently.

"I'd say his priorities are in order, too," Major Lunning put in, grinning as he looked at his patient with a deep sense of satisfaction. It hadn't been too many weeks since he'd had serious doubts that Steve would live. To see him now, like this, was almost miraculous. Not that he was fully recovered. He still hadn't re- gained his full strength, nor had his memory shown any signs of returning. But he was alive, and well on the road to good health.

"I can see everything just fine," Steve said, his voice raspier than usual as he looked around the hospital room that had been home to him for more days than he cared to remember. Even it looked good. He'd disciplined himself to picture everything in his mind, to form a sense of spatial relations so that he always knew where he was in the room, and his mental picture had been remarkably correct. The colors were oddly shocking, though; he hadn't pictured colors, only physical presences.

The surgeon cleared his throat. "Ah… if you could sit down for a moment, Mr. Crossfield?"

Steve released Jay, and she shakily sat down, gripping the arms of the chair so tightly that her knuckles were white. They were wrong! He wasn't Steve Cross- field! Shock had kept her mute, but as she watched the surgeon examine Steve– no, not Steve!–control returned and she opened her mouth to tell him what a horrible mistake had been made.

Then Frank moved, tilting his head to watch the surgeon, and the movement caught her attention. Ice spread in her veins, freezing her brain again, but one thought still formed: if she told them that she'd made a mistake, that this man wasn't her ex-husband, they would have no use for her. He would be whisked away, and she would never see him again.

She began to shiver convulsively. She loved him. She didn't know who he was but she loved him, and she couldn't give him up. She needed to think this through, but she couldn't right now. She needed to be alone, away from watching eyes, so she could deal with the shock of realizing that Steve… dear God, Steve was dead! And this man in his place was a stranger.

She stood so abruptly that her chair tilted back on two legs before clattering forward again. Five startled faces turned to her as she edged toward the door like a prisoner trying to escape. "I… I just need some coffee," she gasped in a strained voice. She darted out the door, ignoring Steve's hoarse call.

He wasn't Steve. He wasn't Steve. The simple fact was devastating, rocking her to the core.

She ran down the hall to the visitors' lounge and huddled on one of the uncomfortable seats. She felt both cold and numb, and faintly sick, as if she were on the verge of throwing up.

Who was he? Taking deep breaths, she tried to think coherently. He wasn't Steve, so he had to be the American agent Frank had been so concerned about. That meant he had been deeply embroiled in the situation, the one man in the world who knew what had happened, if only he regained his memory. Could he be in danger if anyone–perhaps the person or persons who had set off the explosion that had already almost killed him–knew he was still alive? Until he recovered his memory, he couldn't recognize his enemies; his best protection now was the false identity he wore. She couldn't put him in more danger, nor could she give him up.

It was wrong to pretend he was someone he wasn't. By keeping this secret she was betraying Frank, whom she liked, but most of all she was betraying Steve… damn, she hated calling him that, but what else could she call him? She had to continue thinking of him as Steve. She was betraying him by putting him in a life that wasn't his, perhaps even hindering his complete recovery. He would never forgive her when he knew, if he ever regained his memory. He would know she had lied to bun, that she had forced him to live a lie by putting him in her ex- husband's place. But she couldn't put him at risk. She just couldn't. She loved him too much. No matter what it cost her, she had to lie to protect him.

"Jay."

It was his voice, the raw, gravelly voice that haunted her at night in the sweetest of dreams. Numbly she turned her head and looked at him, still so shocked that she couldn't guard her expression. She loved him. Loving Steve, with his need for excitement that she couldn't give him, had been bad enough; what had she done, letting herself love this man whose life consisted of danger? She had walked off an emotional cliff and was now in a free fall, unable to help herself.

He filled the doorway of the lounge. Now that she knew, she saw the differences. He was a little taller than Steve had been, broader of shoulder and deeper of chest, more muscular. His jaw was squarer, his lips fuller. She should have known just by his mouth, the shape of which hadn't been changed by surgery. A funny kind of pain filled her as she realized that she didn't know what he had looked like before. Had his cheekbones been that high and prominent, his eyes that deep set, his nose slightly off center? His face was battered and rough now, but had it been drastically changed?

"What's wrong, baby?" he asked in a low tone, squatting down in front of her and taking her hands in his. His thick, level brows descended in a frown as he felt the iciness of her fingers.

She swallowed, and fine tremors shook her body. Even hunkered down, he was on a level with her. The sense of power, of danger, about him was overwhelming. It had been partially disguised while his eyes had been bandaged, but now, with his fierce will glittering in those yellow-brown eyes, she felt the full force of his personality.

"I'm all right," she managed to say. "It just got to me all of a sudden. I've been so worried."

He released her hands and slid his palms up her arms. "I wanted to see you so badly I didn't have time to worry," he murmured. The stroking of his big hands warmed her arms, and she felt the heat of his legs as they pressed against hers. "You told me about your blue eyes, but you didn't tell me about your mouth."

He was looking at her mouth. She felt her lips begin to tremble. "What about my mouth?"

"How erotic it is," he said under his breath, and leaned forward. This time his kiss was hard, seeking, forcing her to give way under his onslaught and open her lips for his tongue. Pleasure shuddered through her muscles even though a dim alarm began to sound. While he had been recovering and needed her support so badly, he had been supplicant, asking for her kisses and the intimacy of her touch. Now he wasn't asking, and she realized that he had been holding back all along. He wanted her, and he was coming after her with the full intention of getting what he wanted.

He stood, his strong grip drawing her up, too, without breaking contact with her mouth. He kissed her with the forceful intimacy of a man who intends to take his woman to bed, loosening the reins of control, demanding more. Jay clung to his shoulders, her senses swimming at the hard pressure of his body against hers. He moved his hips, seeking the cradle of hers, and groaned harshly in his throat when his swollen flesh found the warm notch at the apex of her thighs. She would have groaned, too, if she'd had the breath. A wild, hot madness was swirling through her veins, tempting her to forget everything in the demanding urge to satisfy the longings he'd aroused.

A man and woman entered the lounge; the man walked past without more than a sidelong look, but the woman stopped and blushed before looking away and hurrying past. Steve lifted his head, his hands loosening as a crooked smile quirked his mouth. "I think we need to go home," he said.

She panicked all over again. Home? Were they expecting her to take him to the small one-bedroom apartment she'd been using for the past two months? Or would they take him away from her after all, to finish recuperating in some unknown place?

They left the lounge to find Frank leaning patiently against the wall, waiting for them. He straightened and smiled, but his eyes were sympathetic as he looked at Jay. "Feeling better now?"

She took a deep breath. "I don't know. Tell me what's going to happen, then I'll tell you how I feel."

Steve put his arm around her waist. "Don't worry, sweetheart. They're not sending me anywhere without you. Are you, Frank?" He asked the question mildly, but there was steel underlying his tone, and his yellow-brown eyes narrowed.

Frank looked back at him with wry humor. "It never even crossed my mind. Let's step back into your room and we'll talk."

When they were once again behind a closed door, Frank walked over to the window, opened the curtains and looked out, blinking a little at the brightness of the winter sun. "First, you have to let the surgeon finish his examination of your eyes," he said, and glanced back at Steve. "And you'll need a follow-up exam next week, but I'll arrange that."

Steve made an impatient gesture, one that Frank read perfectly. He held up both hands, palms out in a delaying motion. "I'm getting to that. We'd like to keep you safe, but accessible to us. If you agree, we plan to move you to a safe house in Colorado."

Jay's head spun, and she sat down abruptly. Colorado? Her life had been turned upside down in the past two months, so the thought of such a drastic change shouldn't have stunned her, but it did. How could she go off to Colorado? Then she looked at Steve and knew she would go anywhere if it meant she could be with him. It was ironic. When she had been married, the most important thing in her life had been to establish some sort of stability on which to build her relationship with Steve, and the marriage hadn't survived. Now she had to pretend this man was Steve, but she was willing to walk away from everything and everyone she knew just to be with him. Painful sadness filled her, because this pointed out so clearly that she hadn't truly loved the real Steve Crossfield, though she had wanted to. He had held her away, walked his path alone and died alone without anyone ever really being close to him.

"Denver?" Steve guessed.

"No. The closest town is forty miles from the cabin by road, about fifteen air miles. It's a quiet, peaceful place, with no one to put any pressure on you."

"It's really nice of you folks to do all of this, just for the chance to talk to me when I get my memory back," he drawled, watching Frank with a hard gleam in his eyes.

Frank laughed, thinking that some things never changed. Even without his memory, he was so sharp he'd already put part of the puzzle together. "Why don't you go to the apartment and start packing?" Frank suggested to Jay, then lifted his brows in question. "If you want to go, that is."

"She's going," Steve said flatly, crossing his arms as he leaned against the bed. "Or I don't go."

Because she desperately needed the chance to be alone and think, Jay said yes. She slipped from the room without looking at either man, afraid they would see the terror in her eyes.

Steve regarded Frank in silence for a moment before growling, "You told me there wasn't any danger. Why the safe house?"

"So far as we know, you aren't in any danger–"

"Look, you can cut the crap," he interrupted. "I was an agent. I know all of this–" he gestured at the hospital surrounding him "–wasn't done out of the goodness of the government's heart. I know those guards aren't out there for decoration. I also know you wouldn't go to the expense of hiding me away in a safe house unless there was some threat to me, and unless you very badly need some information I may have."

Frank looked interested. "How did you know the guards were there?"

"I heard them," Steve replied shortly.

Now what? Frank looked at the man who had been his friend for over a decade and wondered how much to tell him. Not all of it, for damned certain. Until the Man nailed Piggot, the masquerade had to continue because it was Steve's best protection against any more attacks on his life. He knew too much for them to leave anything about his security to chance, and for the masquerade to be complete, it had to include Jay. The Man didn't take chances with his agents, or his friends, and Steve was both.

"You're right," Frank said. "You're an agent. A very highly trained agent, and we think the information you got on your last assignment is critical."

"Why the safe house?" Steve asked again, not letting up.

"Because the guy who tried to blow you to kingdom come went underground and hasn't surfaced yet. Until we get him, we want to make certain you're safe." Like a burst of lightning, fury turned his eyes to yellow. "And you dragged Jay into this?"

Frank watched him warily, knowing how fast he could move. "Piggot doesn't know anyone survived the explosion. We just don't want to take any chances with you."

The yellow eyes flickered at the mention of Piggot's name. "Piggot. What's his first name?"

"Geoffrey."

Again there was that flicker in Steve's eyes and Frank watched closely, wondering if the mention of Piggot's name would trigger any real memory. But if it did, Steve kept it to himself. "I want to see the file you have on him," he said.

"I'll see if I can get clearance."

"But don't expect it, right? I'm a security risk now."

"That's the way it's played."

"Yeah. Now tell me why you had to bring Jay into the game. She doesn't know I'm an agent, does she?"

"No. We brought her in to identify you. It's as simple as that. And once she was here… you responded to her voice so strongly that the doctors decided it would help you to have her around. So she stayed." That was the truth, as far as it went. Frank just hoped Steve wouldn't ask too many more questions. He'd told him about all he could without clearance from the Man.

Steve rubbed his jaw as he mentally cataloged what Frank had told him. If he'd felt his presence was endangering Jay, he would have walked away from her that minute, but he felt Frank's sincerity. The other man thought they were safe enough. The deciding factor was the thought of living in an isolated house with Jay, just the two of them. He would have another chance. He would learn again what pleased her, and what made her angry. They would have another first time together. After he got all his strength and stamina back, they would lie in bed on cold, snowy mornings and make love until their bodies were damp with sweat even in the chilled air, and she would give him all the fiercely passionate love he could sense inside her. She presented a calm, controlled facade to the world, but perhaps because he hadn't been able to see her and had been forced to rely on his other faculties, he'd sensed the depth of her emotions behind that cool control. Maybe he'd been fool enough to let her slip away from him before, but not again.

"Okay," he said, exhaling slowly. "So we go to this safe house. What kind of security and communications does it have?"

"Bulletproof windows, reinforced steel doors. The cabin is isolated, built on a high meadow. There aren't any roads going up there, so a four-wheel-drive vehicle will be made available to you. The cabin has its own generator, so there aren't any public utility records. You're connected to a satellite-dish antenna for communication and entertainment, with both computer and radio-sending capabilities."

Steve's expression was remote as he concentrated, considering the angles. "Are there any active security systems, or just the passive precautions?"

"Just the passive."

"Why not thermal or motion sensors?"

"To begin with, this cabin is so safe it isn't even on file. And there's a lot of wildlife in the area, which would constantly trigger the alarms. We could set up a perimeter of thermal sensors and program the system to sound the alarm only at a large heat source, but a deer would still set it off." "How inaccessible is this place?"

"There's just one track leading to it, and I'm being kind by calling it a track. It winds from the cabin across the meadow and down a mountain before it hits a dirt road, then it's twenty more miles before the dirt road runs into a paved secondary road."

"Then a laser across the track would alert us to most visitors, while almost eliminating alarms triggered by wildlife, by covering only a thin strip of the track."

Frank grinned. "You know, don't you, that a bunny is going to hop through that light beam and set off the alarm? All right, I'll have a laser alarm system set up. Do you want an audible or visual alarm?"

"Audible, but a quiet one. And I want a portable beeper to carry with me when we have to leave the house."

"For someone with amnesia, you sure remember a lot," Frank murmured as he took a small pad from his inside coat pocket and began making notes.

"I remember the names of the heads of state of just about every country in the world, too," Steve replied. "I've had a lot of time to play mind games with my- self, putting together pieces of the puzzle by cataloging a lot of the things related to my job."

"Your job meant a lot to you. It does that, sometimes, takes over so much that the personal side of life kind of fades away."

"Has it done that for you? "

"It did once, a long time ago. Not now."

"How did you get involved in this? You're FBI, and this sure as hell isn't a Bureau operation."

"You're right about that. A lot of strings were pulled, but there are a few people with the power to manage it."

"Very few. So I'm CIA?"

Frank smiled. "No," he said calmly. "Not exactly."

"What the hell does that mean, 'not exactly'? I'm either CIA or I'm not. There's a shortage of alternatives."

"You're affiliated. That's all I can say, other than to assure you that you're perfectly legal. When you recover your memory you'll know why I can't say more."

"All right." Steve shrugged his acceptance. It didn't really matter. Until he regained his memory, the knowledge wouldn't do him any good.

Frank indicated the bag he had brought in with him. "I brought street clothes for you to change into, but first let me get the surgeon in here to finish your exam. After that, I guess you'll be released."

"I'll need more clothes before we go to Colorado. By the way, where did I live?"

"You have an apartment in Maryland. I've arranged for your clothes to be packed and carried to the plane, but they won't fit until you've gained back the weight you've lost. You'll need new clothes until then."

Steve grinned, feeling suddenly light-spirited. "Jay and I will both need new clothes. The snow in Colorado is probably ass-deep to a giraffe."

Frank threw back his head and laughed.

Jay sat on the bed in the cramped apartment she'd been using for the past two months. Her heart was pounding and chills kept racing up and down her spine.

The implications, and complications, of the situation terrified her.

Now she knew what it was that had been bothering her off and on for two months; what she had never been able to put her finger on before. When she had been brought here and asked to identify the man in the bed, she hadn't been able to positively say he was Steve Crossfield. Then Frank had said that the man had brown eyes, and she had based her identification on that, because Steve had had dark, velvety eyes, "Chrissy eyes." Probably to a man, or on a vital statistics sheet, brown eyes were simply brown eyes. They didn't allow for chocolate brown, hazel brown or fierce yellow-brown. But Frank had known that the man had brown eyes!

She pressed her hands to her temples and closed her eyes. Frank must have known the color of his own agent's eyes, and he had known that Steve's eyes were brown, so it followed that Frank had also realized she couldn't base her identification simply on eye color, yet he had led her to do exactly that. She realized now that he had gently maneuvered her into declaring the man to be Steve Crossfield. He must have known there was at least a fifty-percent chance that the man wasn't Steve, so why had he done it?

The only answer she could come up with, and the one that terrified her, was that Frank had known all along that the man was the American agent and not Steve. He had taken Steve's identity and given it to the man, and given the tale substance by having Steve Crossfield's ex-wife confirm the identity, then maneuvered her into a bedside vigil that would have convinced anyone.

So Steve, the real Steve, was dead, and the agent had been given his identity for… protection?

It all fit. The plastic surgery on his face to alter his appearance; the bandaged hands to prevent fingerprints being taken. Had they done surgery to alter his fingerprints, too? Horrible thought: had they also deliberately damaged his larynx to change his voice? No, surely not. She couldn't believe that. All the doctors had fought so hard for his life, and Frank had been so anxious. No wonder. The man was probably Frank's friend!

But was the amnesia real? Or was the man faking it so he wouldn't have to "remember" any of the details of their supposed life together? Amnesia would be a convenient excuse.

She had to believe the amnesia was real, or she would go mad. She had to believe that "Steve" was as much in the dark as she was, maybe even more so. And Frank had been sincerely distressed when Major Lunning had told them about the amnesia.

So that left her back at the beginning. If she told Frank she knew Steve wasn't really Steve, the game would be up and they would have no more use for her. She was a screen, useful only to provide incontrovertible proof that the man who had survived the explosion was Steve Crossfield.

So she had to go along with the deception and continue pretending he was Steve, because she loved him. She had fallen in love with him before she even knew what he looked like; she had loved his relentless will, his refusal to give in to pain, to stop fighting. She loved the uncomplaining way he went about recovery and rehabilitation. Except for occasional frustration at his lack of memory, he hadn't let anything get him down. She had fallen in love with the man while he was stripped down to his basic character, without any of the cam- ouflaging layers added by society.

She couldn't give him up now. Yet neither could she take him as hers; she was as caught in the web of circumstance as he was. He trusted her, but she was being forced to lie to him about something as basic as his identity. She knew the man, but she still knew nothing about his life. Dear God, what if he were married?

No, he couldn't be. Whatever game they were playing, they wouldn't tell a woman that she was now a widow, then give her husband another identity. Jay simply couldn't believe that of Frank. But there could still be a woman in Steve's life, someone he cared for, someone who cared for him, even though they weren't married. Was there such a woman waiting for him now, weeping because he'd been gone for so long, and she was terrified that he would never come back?

Jay felt sick; her only choices were twin prongs of the devil's pitchfork, and either would be pure torment. She could either tell him the truth and lose him, very possibly throwing him into danger, or she could lie to him and protect him. For the first time in her life she loved someone with the full force of her nature, with nothing held back, and her emotions propelled her toward the only choice she could make. Because she loved him, she could do nothing but protect him, no matter what the cost to herself.

Finally she got up and threw her clothing haphazardly into suitcases, not caring about wrinkles. Two months ago she had stepped into a hall of mirrors, and she had no way of knowing if the reflections she saw were accurate or a carefully constructed illusion. She thought of her chic apartment in New York and how much she had worried about losing it when she'd lost her job, but she couldn't think now why it had seemed so important to her. Her entire life had been thrown off kilter, and now it rotated on a different axis. Steve was the center of her life, not an apartment or a job, or the security she had fought so hard to win. After years of struggle she was throwing it all away just to be with him, and she had no regrets or moments of longing for that life. She loved him. Steve, yet not Steve. His name, but another man. Whoever he was, whatever he was, she loved him.

She found a box and dumped into it the few personal articles such as books and pictures that she'd brought to Washington. It had taken her less than an hour to get ready to leave forever.

As she went back and forth, loading things into the car, she looked around carefully, wondering if any of the people she could see supposedly going about their own business were in reality watching her. Maybe she was getting paranoid, but too much had happened for her to take anything for granted, even the appearance of normalcy. That very morning she had looked into fierce, golden eyes and realized that everything that had happened during the past two months had been a lie. The blinders of trust had been stripped from her eyes, making her wary.

Suddenly she felt a driving need to be with him again; uncertainty made her desperate for him. He was no longer a patient in need of her care and attention, but a man who, in spite of his memory loss, would be more surefooted than she was in this world of shifting reality. The instincts and reactions she had wondered about were now explained, as was the scope of his knowledge of world politics. He had lost his identity, but his training had remained with him.

He and Frank were lounging in the hospital room, patiently waiting for her. Jay barely managed a greeting for them; her eyes were on Steve. He had changed into khaki pants and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled back over his forearms. Even as lean as he was, he still gave the impression of power. His shoulders and chest strained at the cotton shirt. With the bandages gone from his eyes, he had shed the last semblance of being in need of care. He looked her over from head to foot and his eyes narrowed in a look of sexual intent as old as time. Jay felt it like a touch, stroking over her body, and she felt both warm and alarmed.

He got to his feet with lazy grace and came to her side, sliding his arm around her waist in a possessive gesture. "That was fast. You must not have packed much."

"It wasn't actually packing," she explained ruefully. "It was more like wadding and stuffing."

"You didn't have to be in such a hurry. I wasn't going anywhere without you," he drawled.

"Both of you have to go shopping, anyway," Frank added. "I didn't think of it, but Steve pointed out that neither of you has clothes suited to a Colorado win- ter."

Jay looked at Frank, at his clear, calm eyes and friendly face. He'd been a rock for her to lean on these past two months, smoothing the way for her, doing what he could to make her comfortable, and all the time he'd been lying to her. Even knowing that, she simply couldn't believe he'd done it for any reason other than to protect Steve, and because of that she forgave him completely. She was willing to do the same thing, so how could she hold it against him?

"There's no point in shopping here," Steve said. "Or even in Denver. If we go to a city, we'll have to get what some department-store buyer thinks is stylish for a winter vacation. We'll stop at some small-town general store and buy what the locals buy, but not at the town closest to the cabin. Maybe one about a hundred miles from it."

Frank nodded at that impeccable logic, as well as the ring of command in Steve's raspy voice. He was taking over the show, but then, they hadn't expected anything else; amnesia didn't change basic character traits, and Steve was an expert at logistics. He knew what to do and how to get it done.

Jay didn't exhibit any surprise at the precautions. Her deep blue eyes were calm. Having made her decision, she was ready for whatever happened. "Will we need any sort of weapon?" she asked. "After all, we'll be pretty isolated." She had the urbanite's distaste for guns and violence, but the thought of living on a remote mountain put things in a different light. There were times when guns were practical.

Steve looked down at her, and his arm tightened around her. He'd already discussed weapons with Frank. "A rifle wouldn't be a bad idea."

"You'll have to show me how to shoot. I've never handled a gun."

Frank checked the time. "I'll make a call and we'll get started. By the time we get to the airport, the plane will be ready."

"Which airport are we using?"

"National. We'll be flying in to Colorado Springs, then driving the rest of the way." Satisfied with the way things had turned out, Frank went to make his call. Actually he had to make two calls: one to the airport to have the plane readied, and another to the Man to bring him up-to-date.

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