White lies (Chapter Six)
He listened, trying to locate his captors. The usual jungle sounds were absent, and gradually he realized that he was too cold to be in a jungle. The smell was all wrong, too; it was a sharp, medicinal odor, like disinfectant. This place smelted like a hospital.
The realization was like a curtain going up, and abruptly he knew where he was and what had happened, and at the same time the hazy recollection of the steamy jungle swiftly faded. The final surgery on his eyes was over, and he was in Recovery. "Jay!" It took an incredible amount of effort to call for her, and his voice sounded strange, even worse than usual, so deep and hoarse it was almost like an animal's cry. " Jay!"
"Everything's all right, Mr. Crossfield," a calm voice said soothingly. "You've had your surgery, and everything is just fine. Lie still, and we'll have you back in your room in a few minutes."
It wasn't Jay's voice. It was a nice voice, but it wasn't what he wanted. His throat was dry; he swallowed, and winced a little because his throat was so raw and sore. That's right; they'd had a tube down it. "Where's Jay?" he croaked, like a frog.
"Is Jay your wife, Mr. Crossfield?"
"Yes." Ex-wife, if they wanted to get technical. He didn't care about the labels. Jay was his.
"She's probably waiting for you in your room."
"Take me there."
"Let's wait a few more minutes–"
"Now." The single word was guttural, the steely command naked. He didn't try to dress it up in polite phrases, because it was all he could do to say a few words at a time. He was still groggy, but he fixed his thoughts on Jay with single- minded determination. He began groping for the rail on the side of the bed.
"Mr. Crossfield, wait! You're going to pull the IV out of your arm!"
"Good," he muttered.
"Calm down, we're going to take you to your room. Just lie still while I get an orderly."
A minute later he felt the bed begin to move. It was a curiously relaxing movement, and he began to go to sleep again but forced himself to stay alert. He couldn't afford to relax until Jay was with him; there was damned little he knew about who he was or what was going on, but Jay was the one constant in his life, the one person he trusted. She had been there from the beginning, as far back as his memory reached, and further.
"Here we are," the nurse said cheerfully. "He couldn't wait to get back to his room, Mrs. Crossfield. He was asking for you and kicking up a fuss."
"I'm here, Steve," Jay said, and he thought she sounded anxious. He noticed that she didn't correct the nurse about her name, and fierce satisfaction filled him. The name didn't mean much to him, but it was a name he'd once shared with Jay, one of the links that bound her to him.
He was lifted onto his bed, and he could feel them fussing around him for a few more minutes. It was getting harder to stay awake. "Jay!"
He reached out with his left hand toward her voice, and her slim, cool fingers touched him. Her hand felt so small and fragile in his.
"The doctor said everything went perfectly," she said, her voice somewhere above him in the darkness. "You'll get the bandages off for good in about two weeks."
"Then I'm outta here," he murmured. His hand tightened around hers, and he gave in to the lingering effects of the anesthesia.
When he woke again, it was without the initial confusion, but he was still groggy. Impatiently he forced his mind out of lethargy, and it was so habitual now to ignore the pain in his mending body that he truthfully didn't even notice it. At some unknown point in his life he had learned that the human body could be forced to superhuman feats if the brain knew how to ignore pain. Evidently he had learned that lesson so well that it was second nature to him now.
Now that he was more awake, he didn't have to call for Jay to know she was in the room. He could hear her breathing, hear the pages of a magazine turning as she sat by the bed. He could smell the faint, sweet scent of her skin, a scent that identified her immediately to him whenever she entered the room. Then there was that other awareness, the physical awareness that was like an electrical charge, making his skin tingle with pleasure and excitement at her closeness, or even at the mere thought of her.
He hadn't kissed her since their argument the week before, but he was only biding his time. She had been upset, and he didn't want that, didn't want to push her. Maybe he hadn't been much of a prize before, but she still felt something for him, or she wouldn't be here now, and when the time came he would capitalize on those feelings. She was his; he knew it with a bone-deep sense of possession that overrode everything else.
He wanted her. The strength of his sexual need for her surprised him, given his current physical condition, but the stirring in his loins every time she touched him was proof that certain instincts were stronger than pain. Every day the pain was a little less, and every day he wanted her a little more. It was basic. Whenever two people were attracted to each other, the urge to mate became overwhelming; it was nature's way of propagating the species. Intense physical desire and hot, frequent lovemaking reinforced the bond between two people. They became a couple, because back in the human species' first primitive days, it took two people to provide care for their helpless young. In current times one parent could raise a child quite well, and modern medicine had made it possible for a woman not to become pregnant if she didn't want to, but the old instincts were still there. The sexual drive was still there, a man's need to make love to his woman and make certain she knew she was his. He understood the basis of the biological need programmed into his genes, but understanding didn't lessen its power.
Amnesia was a curious thing. When he examined it unemotionally, he was interested in its oddities. He had lost all conscious knowledge of whatever had happened to him before he'd come out of the coma, but a lot of unconscious knowledge evidently hadn't been affected. He could remember different World Series and Super Bowls, and how Niagara Falls looked. That wasn't important. Interesting, but not important.
Equally interesting, and far more important, were the things he knew about both obscure Third World nations and major powers without remembering how he came by the knowledge. He couldn't bring his own face to mind, but somehow that didn't negate what he knew was fact. He knew the desert, the hot, dry heat and blood-sizzling sun. He also knew the jungle, the stifling heat and humidity, the insects and reptiles, the leeches, the shrieking birds, the stench of rotting vegetation.
Taking those bits and pieces of himself that he could recognize, he was able to piece together part of the puzzle. The jungle part was easy. Jay had told him that he was thirty-seven; he was just the right age to have been in Vietnam during the height of the war in the late sixties. The rest of it, all added together, could have only one logical explanation: he was far more involved in the situation than Jay had been told.
He had wondered if scopolamine or Pentothal would be successful on an amnesia victim, or if the amnesia effectively sealed off his memories even from the powerful drugs available today. If what he might know was important enough for him to warrant this kind of red-carpet treatment, then it would have been worth Frank Payne's effort to at least have tried the drugs. They hadn't tried, and that told him something else: Payne knew Steve had been indoctrinated to resist any chemical prying into his brain. Therefore he must be a trained field operative.
Jay didn't know. She really thought he had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. She had said that when they had been married, he had constantly been taking off on one "adventure" after another, so he must have kept her in the dark and just let her think that he was footloose, rather than worrying her with the knowledge of just how dangerous his work was, and that the odds were even he wouldn't return from any given trip.
He had fitted that many pieces of the puzzle together, but there were still a lot of little things that didn't make sense to him. He had noticed, as soon as the bandages were taken off his hands, that his fingertips were oddly smooth. It wasn't the smoothness of scar tissue; his hands were so sensitive, with their new, healing skin, that he could tell the difference between the burned areas and his fingertips. He was positive his fingertips hadn't been burned; rather, his fingerprints had been altered or removed altogether, probably the latter. Recently, too, most likely here in this hospital. The question was: Why? Who were they hiding his identity from? They knew who he was, and he was evidently on good terms with them, or they wouldn't have gone to such extraordinary lengths to save his life. Jay knew who he was. Was someone out there hunting for him? And, if so, was Jay in danger simply because she was with him?
Too many questions, and he didn't know the answers to any of them. He could ask Payne, but he wasn't certain he'd get a straight answer from the man. Payne was hiding something. Steve didn't know what it was, but he could hear a fault note of guilt in the man's voice, especially when he spoke to Jay. What had they gotten Jay involved in?
He heard the door to his room open and he lay motionless, wanting to know the identity of his visitor without them knowing he was awake. He had noticed that cautiousness in himself before; it fit in with what he had deduced.
"Is he awake yet?"
It was Frank Payne's quiet voice, and that special note was there again, the guilt and the… affection. Yeah, that's what it was. Payne liked Jay and worried about her, but he was still using her. It made Steve feel even less inclined to cooperate. It made him mad, to think they could be putting Jay in any danger.
"He went to sleep as soon as they got him in bed, and he hasn't stirred since. Have you talked to the doctor?"
"No, not yet. How did it go?"
"Wonderfully. The doctor doesn't think there's any permanent damage. He has to lie as quietly as possible for a few days, and his eyes may be sensitive to bright light after the bandages come off, but he probably won't even need glasses."
"That's good. He should be leaving here in another couple of weeks, if everything goes all right."
"It's hard to think of not coming here every day," Jay mused. "It won't seem normal. What happens when he's released?"
"I need to talk to him about that," Payne answered. "It can wait a few days, until he's more active."
Steve could hear the worry in Jay's voice and wondered at it. Did she know something, after all? Why else would she worry about what happened to him when he left the hospital? He had news for her, though; wherever she went, that was where he intended to go, and Frank Payne could take those ideas of his and become real friendly with them.
Two more weeks of biding his time. He didn't know if he could do it. It was hard to force himself to exercise the patience he needed to allow his body to heal, and there were still weeks of rehabilitation ahead before he regained his full strength. He'd have to push himself harder than the therapists would, but he could sense his own limits, and he knew they were more elastic than the therapists could guess. It was just one more piece of the puzzle.
He decided to let himself "wake up" and began shifting restlessly. The IV needle tugged at his hand. "Jay?" he called in a groggy tone, then cleared his throat and tried again. "Jay?" He never quite got used to hearing his own voice the way it was now, so harsh and strained, gravelly in texture. Another little oddity. He couldn't remember his own voice, but he knew this one wasn't right.
"I'm here." Her cool fingers touched his arm.
How many times had he heard those two words, and how many times had they provided him with a link to consciousness? They seemed embedded in his mind, as if they were his one memory. Hell, they probably were. He reached for her with his free hand. "Thirsty."
He heard the sound of water pouring; then a straw touched his lips and he gratefully sucked the cold liquid into his dry mouth and down his raw throat. She took the straw away after only a couple of swallows. "Not too much at first," she said in that calm way of hers. "The anesthesia may make you sick."
He moved his hand and felt the needle tugging at it again. Swift irritation filled him. "Get a nurse to take this damned needle out."
"You need glucose after surgery to keep from going into shock," she argued. "And it probably has an antibiotic in it–"
"Then they can give me pills," he rasped. "I don't like being restricted like this." It was bad enough that his legs were still in casts; he'd had enough of having to lie still to last him a lifetime.
She was silent for a moment, and he could sense her understanding. Sometimes it was as if they didn't need words, as if there were a link between them that transcended the verbal. She knew exactly how frustrated it made him to have to lie in bed day after day; it was not only boring, it went against every survival instinct he possessed. "All right," she finally said, her cool fingers drifting against his arm. "I'll get a nurse."
He listened as she left the room, then lay quietly, waiting to see if Frank Payne would identify himself. It was a subtle game; he didn't even know why he was playing it. But Payne was hiding something, and Steve didn't trust him. He'd do anything he could to gain an edge, even if it was something so trivial as pretending to sleep while he eavesdropped. He hadn't even learned anything, other than that Payne had "plans" for him.
"Are you in any pain?" Frank asked.
Steve cautiously turned his head. "Frank?" Another part of the game, pretending he didn't recognize the other man's voice.
"No, not much pain. Groggy." That much was true; the anesthesia made him feel limp and sleepy. But he could force himself to mental alertness, and that was the important part. He would rather be in pain than be so doped up he didn't know what was going on around him. The barbiturate coma had been a nightmare of darkness, of nothingness, which he didn't want to experience again, even in a mild form. Even amnesia was better than that total lack of self.
"That's the last of it. No more surgery, no more tubes, no more needles. When the casts come off your legs, you can start getting back to your old shape." Frank had a quiet voice, and there was often a note of familiarity in it, as if they had known each other well. His words touched a chord of recognition in Steve; his old shape hadn't been bulky muscles, but rather speed and stamina, a steely core of strength that kept him going when other men would have collapsed.
"Is Jay in any danger?" he asked, cutting through the cautious maneuvering to what was most important to him.
"Because of what you may have seen?"
"We don't anticipate any danger," Frank replied, his voice cautious. "You are important to us only because we need to know exactly what happened, and you might provide us with some answers."
Steve smiled wryly. "Yeah, I know. Important enough to cut through red tape and coordinate two, maybe three, separate agencies, as well as pulling in people from different branches of the service and from the private sector. I'm just an innocent bystander, aren't I? Jay may buy that, but I don't. So cut the crap and give me a yes or no answer. Is Jay in any danger?"
"No," Frank said firmly, and after a second Steve gave a fractional nod, all he could manage. Regardless of what Frank was hiding, he was still fond of Jay and protective of her. Jay was safe enough. Steve could deal with the rest later; Jay was what mattered now.
His legs were thin and weak after having been encased in plaster for six weeks; he ran his hands down them, getting himself accustomed to their peculiar lightness. He could move them, but his movements were jerky and uncontrolled. For the past couple of days he had been sitting in a wheelchair or in the bedside chair, letting his body adjust to movement and different postures. His hands had healed enough that he had been able to stand, using a walker for support, for a few minutes each day. His store of knowledge was increasing all the time. He now knew that even when he was bent forward to hold the walker, he was several inches taller than Jay. He wanted to take her in his arms and hold her against him, to feel her soft body adjust to his size as he bent his head to kiss her. He'd been holding off, taking it slow, but now that was at an end.
Jay watched him massage his thighs and calves, his long fingers kneading the muscles with sure strokes. He was scheduled for a session in physical therapy that afternoon, but he wasn't waiting for someone else to do the work for him. He had been like a coiled spring since the surgery on his eyes: tense, waiting, but under iron control. It had been a month and a half since the explosion, and perhaps lesser people would still have been lying in bed and taking pills for the pain, but Steve had been pushing himself from the moment he'd regained consciousness. His hands had to be tender, but he used them and never winced. His ribs and legs had to hurt, but he didn't let that stop him. He never complained of a headache, though Major Lunning had told Jay he would probably have headaches for several months.
She glanced at her watch. He'd been massaging his legs for half an hour. "I think that's enough," she said firmly. "Don't you want to go back to bed?"
He straightened up in the wheelchair and his teeth flashed in a grin. "Baby, I'm so tired of that bed, the only way you could get me back in it would be if you crawled in there with me."
He looked so wickedly masculine that she felt herself weakening even as she tried to warn herself against his charm. He wasn't above using his appeal as a wounded warrior to get to her, blast his hide. She couldn't even look at him without getting wobbly kneed, and sometimes the way she felt about him welled up in her like a flood tide, pleasure and pain so sharply mingled that she would almost moan aloud. Every day he was stronger; every day he conquered new territory, exerted his will over another aspect of his life. It was both amazing and frightening to watch him and to realize the extent of his willpower as he dealt with his situation. He was so fiercely controlled and determined that it was almost inhuman, but at the same time he let her see how very human he was; he depended on her now more than she had ever imagined possible, and the vulnerability he revealed to her was all the more shattering because she knew how rare it was.
"Get the walker for me," he ordered now, turning his bandaged eyes toward her expectantly, as if waiting for her to protest.
Jay pursed her lips, looking at him, then shrugged and placed the walker in front of him. If he suffered a setback, it would be his own fault for refusing to ac- cept his limitations. "All right," she said calmly. "Go ahead and fall. Break your legs again, crack your head open again and spend a few more months in here. I'm sure that will thrill the nurses."
He chuckled at her acerbity, a reaction that was becoming more frequent as he healed. He regarded it as a measure of his recovery; while he had been ill and helpless, she hadn't refused him anything. He liked finding this bite to her personality. A passive woman wouldn't suit him at all, but Jay suited him in every way, at all times.
"I won't fall," he assured her, levering himself into an upright position. He had to support most of his weight on his arms, but his feet moved when he told them to. Jerkily, true, but on command.
"And heee's offf aaand stumbling!" Jay cried in dry imitation of a racetrack announcer, her irritation plain.
He gave a shout of laughter and did stumble, but caught himself with the walker. "You're supposed to guide me, not make fun of me."
"I refuse to help you push yourself too hard. If you fall, it will be your own fault."
A crooked smile twisted his lips and her heart speeded up at the roguish charm it gave his face. "Ah, baby," he cajoled. "I'm not pushing too hard, I promise. I know how much I can do. Come on, guide me down the hall."
"No," she said firmly.
Two minutes later she was walking slowly by his side as he maneuvered the walker, and his reluctant legs, down the hall. At the end of the corridor, the Navy guard watched alertly, examining everyone and everything. It was like that every time Steve left his room, though he didn't realize he was guarded so closely. Jay felt a chill as her eyes met those of the guard and he nodded politely; no matter how calm everything seemed, the guards' presence reminded her that Steve had been involved in something highly dangerous. Wouldn't his amnesia put him in even more danger? He didn't even know he was being threatened or by wtipm. No wonder those guards were necessary! But realizing just how necessary they were terrified her. This was all part of the large gray area Frank hadn't explained, but she knew it was there.
"This is far enough," Steve said, and cautiously turned around. He turned exactly 180 degrees and took two steps before stopping, his head turning back to her. "Jay?" "Sorry." Hastily she moved to his side. How had he known how far to turn? Why wasn't he more uncertain of his movements? He walked slowly, still supporting most of his weight on his arms and hands, but he seemed deliberate and sure. He was slowed by his injuries but not thwarted. He wouldn't let himself give in; he didn't look on his injuries as something to be recovered from, but rather as something to be conquered. He would handle this on his own terms, and win, because he wouldn't accept anything less.
She saw even more of his determination in the following days as he sweated through physical therapy. The therapist tried to restrain him but Steve insisted on setting his own pace. He swam laps, guiding himself by Jay's voice, and walked endlessly on a treadmill. By the third day of therapy he had discarded the walker permanently and replaced it with Jay. Grinning as he put his arm around her shoulder, he explained that at least she'd cushion him if he fell.
He had gained weight rapidly since the tube had been taken out of his throat, and now he regained his strength just as rapidly. Jay felt as if she could see a difference in him from one day to the next. Except for the bandages over his eyes, he seemed almost normal, but she knew every scar hidden by the comfortable sweats Frank had brought him to wear. His hands were still pink from the burns, and his ruined voice would never be much better. Nor was his memory showing any sign of returning. There were no flashes of memory or glimmers of recognition. It was as if he had been born when he had fought his way out of unconsciousness to respond to her voice, and nothing existed before that.
Sometimes, watching him as he exercised with that frightening relentlessness of his, she caught herself hoping that his memory wouldn't return, and then guilt would eat at her. But he depended on her so much now, and if he began to remember, the closeness between them would fade. Even as she tried to protect herself from that closeness, she treasured every moment and wanted more. She was caught on the horns of her own dilemma and couldn't decide how to get free. She could protect herself and walk away, or she could grab for whatever she could get, but she couldn't decide to do either. All she could do was wait, and watch over him with increasing fierceness.
The day the bandages were supposed to come off his eyes, he got up at dawn and prowled restlessly around the hospital room. Jay had gotten there early, feeling as anxious as he did, but she forced herself to sit still. Finally he turned on the television and listened intently to the morning news, a frown knitting his brow.
"Why the hell doesn't that damn doctor hurry up?" he muttered.
Jay looked at her watch. "It's still early. You haven't even had breakfast yet."
He swore under his breath and raked his fingers through his hair. It was still shorter than was fashionable, but long enough to cover the scar that bisected his skull, and it was dark and shiny, undulled by sunlight, and beginning to show a hint of waviness. He prowled some more, then stopped by the window and drummed his fingers on the sill. "It's a sunny day, isn't it?"
Jay looked out the window at the blue sky. "Yes, and not too cold, but the weather forecast says we could have some snow by the weekend."
"What's the date?"
His fingers continued to tap against the sill. "Where are we going?" Jay felt blank. "Going?"
"When they release me. Where are we going?"
She felt a shock like a slap in the face as she realized he would be released from the hospital within a few hours if everything was all right with his eyes. The apartment Frank had rented for her was tiny, only one bedroom, but that wasn't what alarmed her. What if Frank intended to whisk Steve away from her? Granted, he had once said something about her staying with Steve until his memory returned, but it hadn't been mentioned since. Was that still his plan? If so, where did he intend for Steve to live?
"I don't know where we'll go," she replied faintly. "They may want to send you somewhere…." Her voice trailed off into miserable silence.
"Too damn bad if they do." He turned from the window, and there was something lethal in his movement, a predator's grace and power. She stared at him, silhouetted against the bright window, and her throat contracted. He was so much harder than he had been that it almost frightened her, but at the same tune, everything about him excited her. She loved him so much that it hurt, deep inside her chest, and it was getting worse.
A nurse brought in his breakfast tray, then winked at Jay. "I noticed you were here early, so I had an extra tray sent up. I won't tell if you won't." She brought in another breakfast tray, smiling as Jay thanked her. "This is the big day," the nurse said cheerfully. "Call this a sort of precelebration meal."
Steve grinned. "Are you that anxious to get rid of me?"
"You've been an absolute angel. We're going to miss those buns of yours, but hey, easy come, easy go."
A slow flush reddened Steve's cheeks, and the nurse laughed heartily as she left the room. Jay snickered as she unwrapped his silverware and arranged everything on the tray as he was accustomed to finding it.
"Bring your gorgeous buns over here and eat your breakfast," she ordered, still snickering.
"If you like them, get a good view," he invited, turning around and lifting his arms so she did indeed have an excellent view of his tight, muscular buttocks. "I'll even let you touch."
"Thank you, but food wins out over your backside. Aren't you hungry?"
They made short work of the meal, and soon he was again prowling about the small room, his restlessness making it seem even smaller. His impatience was a palpable force, bristling around him. He had spent too many weeks flat on his back, totally helpless and blind, unable even to feed himself. Now he had his mobility back, and in an unknown number of minutes he'd know if his sight had been restored. The doctor was certain of the surgery's success, but until the bandages were off and he could actually see, Steve wouldn't let himself believe it. It was the waiting and the lack of certainty that ate at him. He wanted to see. He wanted to know what Jay looked like; he wanted to be able to put a face to the voice. If he never saw anything else, he needed to see her face, if only for a moment. Every cell in his body knew her, could sense her presence; but even though she had described herself to him, he needed to have her face in his mind. The rest of his vanished memory didn't haunt him nearly as much as the knowledge of Jay that he'd lost, and the most piercing of all was that he couldn't remember her face. It was as if he'd lost a part of himself.
His head came up like a wary animal's as he heard the door open, and the eye surgeon laughed. "I half expected you to have taken the bandages off yourself."
"I didn't want to steal your thunder," Steve said. He was standing very still.
Jay was just as still, tension coiling in her as she watched the surgeon, a nurse, Major Lunning and Frank all enter the room. Frank was carrying a bag with the name of a local department store on it, and he placed it on the bed. Without asking, Jay knew it contained street clothes for Steve, and she was vaguely grateful to Frank for thinking of it, because she hadn't.
"Sit down here, with your back to the window," the surgeon said, directing Steve to a chair. When Steve was seated, the doctor took a pair of scissors, cut through the gauze and tape at Steve's temple and carefully removed the outer bandage in order not to disturb the pads over his eyes or let the tape pull at his skin. "Tilt your head back a little," he instructed.
Jay's nails were digging into her palms and her chest hurt. For the first tune she was seeing his face without bandages; even the relatively small swathe of gauze that had anchored the pads to his eyes had covered his temples and eyebrows, as well as his cheekbones and the bridge of his nose. He had been a handsome man, but he wasn't handsome any longer. His nose wasn't quite straight, and they had made the bridge a little higher than it had been before the explosion. His cheekbones looked more prominent. All in all, his face had more angles than it had before; the battering he'd taken was evident.
Slowly the doctor removed the gauze pads, then wiped Steve's eyes with some sort of solution. Steve's lids looked a little bruised and his eyes were deeper set than before.
"Pull the curtains," the doctor said quietly, and the nurse pulled them across the window, darkening the room. Then he turned on the dim light over the bed.
"All right, now you can open your eyes. Slowly. Let them get accustomed to the light. Then blink until they focus."
Steve opened his eyes to mere slits and blinked. He tried it again.
"Damn, that light's bright," he said. Then he opened his eyes completely, blinked until they were focused and turned his head toward Jay.
She sat frozen in place and her breath stopped. It was like looking into an eagle's eyes, meeting the fierce gaze of a raptor, a high-soaring predator. They were the eyes of the man she loved so much she ached with it, and terror chilled her blood. She remembered velvety, chocolate-brown eyes, but these eyes were a dark yellowish brown, glittering like amber crystal. An eagle's eyes.
He was the man she loved, but she didn't know who he was, only who he wasn't.
He wasn't Steve Crossfield.