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White lies (Chapter Two)

When Jay awoke the next morning she lay very still in the bed, staring around the unfamiliar hotel room and trying to orient herself. The events of the previous day were mostly a blur, except for the crystal-clear memory she had of the injured man in the hospital. Steve. That man was Steve.

She should have recognized him. Even though it had been five years, she had once loved him. Something about him should have been familiar, despite the disfiguring bruises and swelling. An odd feeling of guilt assailed her, though she knew it was ridiculous, but it was as if she had let bun down somehow, reduced nun to the level of being too unimportant in her life for her to remember how he looked.

Grimacing, Jay got out of bed. There she went again, letting things matter too much to her. Steve had constantly told her to lighten up, and his tone had sometimes been full of impatience. That was another area where they had been incompatible. She was too intense, too involved with everyday life and the world around her, while Steve had skated blithely on the surface.

She was free to return to New York that morning, but she was reluctant to do so. It was only Saturday; there was no hurry as long as she returned in time to go to work Monday morning. She didn't want to sit in her apartment all weekend long and brood about being unemployed, and she wanted to see Steve again. That seemed to be what Payne wanted, too. He hadn't mentioned making arrangements for her return to New York.

She had been so exhausted that for once she had slept deeply, and as a result the shadows beneath her eyes weren't as dark as they usually were. She stared into the bathroom mirror, wondering if being fired might have been a blessing in disguise. The way she had been pushing herself had been hard on her health, burning away weight she couldn't afford to lose, drawing the skin tightly over her facial bones so that she looked both haggard and emaciated, especially without makeup. She made a face at herself in the mirror. She'd never been a beauty and never would be, but she had once been pretty. Her dark blue eyes and swath of sleek, heavy, golden-honey-brown hair were her best features, though the rest of her face could be described as ordinary.

What would Steve say if he could see her now? Would he be disappointed, and bluntly say so?

Why couldn't she get him out of her mind? It was natural to be concerned about him, to feel sharp sympathy because of his terrible injuries, but she couldn't stop herself from wondering what he would think, what he would say, about her. Not the Steve he had been before, that charming but unreliable will-o'-the-wisp, but the man he was now: harder, stronger, with the fierce will to survive that had kept him alive in the face of overwhelming odds. What would that man think of her? Would he still want her?

The thought made her face flame, and she jerked away from the mirror to turn on the shower. She must be going mad! He was an invalid. Even now, it wasn't by any means certain that he would survive, despite his fighting nature. And even if he did, he might not function as well as he had before. The surgery to save his sight might not have worked; they wouldn't know until the bandages came off. He might have brain damage. He might not be able to walk, talk or feed himself.

Helplessly she felt hot tears begin to slide down her cheeks again. Why should she cry for him now? Why couldn't she stop crying for him? Every tune she thought of him she started crying, which was ridiculous, when she hadn't even been able to recognize him.

Payne was calling for her at ten, so she forced herself to stop crying and get ready. She managed that with plenty of time to spare, then found, surprisingly, that she was hungry. She usually didn't eat breakfast, sustaining herself with an endless supply of coffee until lunch, when her stomach would be burning and she wouldn't be able to eat much. But already the strain of her job was fading away, and she wanted food.

She ordered breakfast from room service and received it in a startlingly short length of time. Falling on the tray like a famine victim, she devoured the omelet and toast in record time; when Payne knocked on her door, she had been finished for almost half an hour.

Without seeming to, Payne studied her face with sharp eyes that noted and analyzed every detail. She'd been crying. This was really getting to her, and though that was exactly what they wanted, he still regretted that she had to be hurt. She also looked immeasurably better this morning, with a bit of color in her face. Her marvelous eyes were bigger and brighter than he had remembered, but part of that was the result of her tears. He only hoped she wouldn't have to shed too many more.

"I've already called to check on his condition," he reported, taking her arm. "Good news. His vital signs are improving. He's still unconscious, but his brain waves are increasing in activity and the doctors are more optimistic than they've been. He's really done better than anyone expected."

She didn't point out that they had expected him to die, so anything was better than that. She didn't want to think about how close he had come to dying. In some way she didn't understand, Steve had become too important to her during those minutes when she had stood beside his bed and touched his arm.

The big white naval hospital was much busier that morning than it had been the night before, and two different guards stood at the doors to the ICU wing where Steve's room was located. Again they seemed to know Payne on sight. Jay wondered how many times he had been here to see Steve, and why he would have felt it necessary to be there at all. As he had that morning, he could have checked on Steve's condition by phone. Whatever Steve had gotten himself into must be extremely important, and Payne wanted to be on hand the instant he recovered consciousness, if ever.

Payne left her to enter the room on her own, saying he wanted to talk to someone. Jay nodded absently, her attention already focused on Steve. She pushed open the door and walked in, leaving Payne standing in the hall practically in midsentence. A wry, faintly regretful smile touched his mouth as he looked at the closed door; then he turned and walked briskly down the hall.

Jay stared at the man in the bed. Steve. Now that she was seeing him again, it was a little hard to accept that he was Steve. She had known Steve as vibrant, burning with energy; he was so still now that it threw her off balance.

He was still in the same position he'd been in the night before; the machines were still quietly humming and beeping, and fluids were still being fed into his veins through needles. The strong scent of hospital antiseptic burned her nose, and suddenly she wondered if, in some corner of his mind, he was aware of the smell. Could he hear people talking, though he was unable to respond?

She walked to the bed and touched his arm as she had the night before. The heat of his skin tingled against her fingertips despite the coolness of the controlled temperature. The mummylike expanse of bandages robbed him of individuality, and his lips were so swollen they looked more like caricatures than the lips of the man she had once kissed, loved, married, fought with and finally divorced. Only the hot bare skin of his arm made him real to her.

Did he feel anything? Was he aware of her touch?

"Steve?" she whispered, her voice trembling. It felt so funny to talk to a motionless mummy, knowing that he was probably so deep in his coma that he was unaware of everything, and that even if by some miracle he could hear her, he wouldn't be able to respond. But even knowing all that, something inside compelled her to try. "I.. .it's Jay." Sometimes he'd called her Jaybird, and when he'd really wanted to aggravate her he'd called her Janet Jean. Her nickname had evolved when she'd been a very young child. Her parents had called her Janet Jean, but her elder brother, Wilson, had shortened it to J. J., which had naturally become Jay. By the time she'd started school, her name was, irrevocably, Jay.

"You've been hurt," she told Steve, still stroking his arm. "But you're going to be all right. Your legs have been broken, and they're both in casts. That's why you can't move them. They have a tube in your throat, helping you to breathe, and that's why you can't talk. You can't see because you have bandages over your eyes. Don't worry about anything. They're taking good care of you here."

Was it a lie that he was going to be all right? Yet she didn't know what else to tell him. If he could hear her, she had to reassure him, not give him something else to worry about.

Clearing her throat, she began telling him about the past five years, what she'd been doing since the divorce. She even told him about being fired, and how badly she'd wanted to punch Farrell Wordlaw right in the nose. How badly she still wanted to punch him in the nose.

The voice was calm and infinitely tender. He didn't understand the words, because unconsciousness still wrapped his mind in layers of blackness, but he heard the voice, felt it, like something warm touching his skin. It made him feel less alone, that tiny, dim contact.

Something hard and vital in him focused on the contact, yearning toward it, forcing him upward out of the blackness, even though he sensed the fanged monsters that waited for him, waiting to tear at his flesh with hot knives and brutal teeth. He would have to endure that before he could reach the voice, and he was very weak. He might not make it. Yet the voice reached out to him, pulling at him like a magnet, lifting him out of the deep senselessness that had held him.

"I remember the doll I got for Christmas when I was four years old," Jay said, talking automatically now. Her voice was low and dreamy. "She was soft and floppy, like a real baby, and she had curly brown hair and big brown eyes, with inch-long lashes that closed when I laid her down. I named her Chrissy, for my very best friend in the world. I lugged that doll around until she was so ragged she looked like a miniature bag lady. I slept with her, I put her on the chair beside me when I ate, and I rode miles around and around the house on my tricycle with her on the seat in front of me. Then I began to grow up, and I lost interest in Chrissy. I put her on the shelf with my other dolls and forgot about her. But the first time I saw you, Steve, I thought, 'He's got Chrissy eyes.' That's what I used to call brown eyes when I was little and didn't know my colors. You have Chrissy eyes."

His breathing seemed to be slower, deeper. She couldn't be certain, but she thought there was a different rhythm to the rise and fall of his chest. The sound of his breathing whistled in and out through the tube in his throat. Her fingers gently rubbed his arm, maintaining the small contact even though something inside her actually hurt from touching his skin.

"I almost told you a couple of times that you have Chrissy eyes, but I didn't think you'd like it." She laughed, the sound warm in the room filled with im- personal, humming machines. "You were always so protective of your macho image. A devil-may-care adventurer shouldn't have Chrissy eyes, should he?"

Suddenly his arm twitched, and the movement so startled her that she jerked her hand away, her face pale. Except for breathing, it was the first time he'd moved, even though she knew it was probably an involuntary muscle spasm. Her eyes flew to his face but there was nothing to see there. Bandages covered the upper two-thirds of his head, and his bruised lips were immobile. Slowly she reached out and touched his arm again, but he lay still under her touch, and after a moment she resumed talking to him, rambling on as she dragged up childhood memories.

Frank Payne silently opened the door and stopped in his tracks, listening to her low murmurings. She still stood by the bed; hell, she probably hadn't moved an inch from the man's side, and she had been in here–he checked his watch– almost three hours. If she had been the guy's wife, he could have understood it, but she was his ex-wife, and she was the one who had ended the marriage. Yet there she stood, her attention locked on him as if she were willing him to get better.

"How about some coffee?" he asked softly, not wanting to startle her, but her head jerked around anyway, her eyes wide.

Then she smiled. "That sounds good." She walked away from the bed, then stopped and looked back, a frown knitting her brows together. "I hate to leave him alone. If he understands anything at all, it must be awful to just lie there, trapped and hurting and not knowing why, thinking he's all alone."

"He doesn't know anything," Payne assured her, wishing it was different. "He's in a coma, and right now it's better that he stays in it."

"Yes," Jay agreed, knowing he was right. If Steve were conscious now, he would be in terrible pain.

That first faint glimmer of awareness had faded; the warm voice had gone away and left him without direction. Without that to guide him, he sank back into the blackness, into nothingness.

Frank lingered over the bad cafeteria food and the surprisingly good coffee. It wasn't great coffee; it truly wasn't even good coffee, but it was better than he'd expected. The next batch might not be as good, so he wanted to enjoy this one as long as he could. Not only that, he didn't know exactly how to bring up the sub- ject he'd been skating around all during lunch, but he had to do it. The Man had made it plain: Jay Granger had to stay. He didn't want her to identify the patient and leave; he wanted her to become emotionally involved, at least enough to stay. And what the Man wanted, he got.

Frank had sighed. "What if she falls in love with him? Hell, you know what he's like. He has women crawling all over him. They can't resist him."

"She may be hurt," the Man had conceded, though the steel never left his voice. "But his life is on the line, and our options are limited. For whatever reason, Steve Crossfield was there when it went down. We know it, and they know it. We don't have a list of possibilities to choose from. Crossfield is the only choice."

He hadn't needed to say more. Since Crossfield was the only choice, his ex- wife was also the only choice by reason of being the only person who could identify him.

"Did McCoy buy it?" the Man had asked abruptly.

"The whole nine yards." Then Frank's voice had sharpened. "You don't think Gilbert McCoy is–"

The Man interrupted. "No. I know he isn't. But McCoy's a damned sharp agent. If he bought it, that means we're doing a good job of making things look the way we want."

"What happens if she's with him when he wakes up?"

"It doesn't matter. The doctors say he'll be too confused and disoriented to make sense. They're monitoring him, and they'll let us know when they start bringing him out of it. We can't keep her out of his room with-' out it looking suspicious, but watch it. If he starts making sense, get her out of the room fast, until we can talk to him. But there's not too much danger of that happening."

"You're stirring that coffee to death." Jay's voice broke in on his thoughts, and he looked up at her, then down at the coffee. He'd been stirring it so long that it had cooled. He grimaced at the waste of not-bad coffee.

"I've been trying to think of how to ask something of you," he admitted.

Jay gave him a puzzled look. "There's only one way. Just ask."

"All right." He took a deep breath. "Don't go back to New York tomorrow. Will you stay here with Steve? He needs you. He's going to need you even more."

The words hit her hard. Steve had never needed her. She had been too intense, wanting more from him, from their relationship, than he had in him to give. He'd always wanted a slight distance between them, mentally and emotionally, claiming that she "smothered" him. She remembered the time he'd shouted those words at her; then she thought of the man lying so still in the hospital bed, and again she felt that unnerving sense of unreality.

Slowly she shook her head. "Steve is a loner. You should know that from the information you have on him. He doesn't need me now, won't need me when he wakes up, and probably won't like the idea of anyone taking care of him, least of all his ex-wife." "He'll be very confused when he wakes up. You'll be a lifeline to him, the only face he knows, someone he can trust, someone who'll reassure him. He's in a drug-induced coma… the doctors can tell you more about it than I can. But they've said he'll be very confused and agitated, maybe even delirious. It'll help if someone he knows is there."

Practicality made her shake her head again. "I'm sorry, Mr. Payne. I don't think he'd want me there, but I wouldn't stay anyway, if I could. I was fired from my job yesterday. I have two weeks' notice to work out. I can't afford not to work those two weeks, and I have to find another job."

He whistled through his teeth. "You had a bitch of a day, didn't you?"

She had to laugh, in spite of the seriousness of the situation, "That's a good description of it, yes." The longer she knew Frank Payne, the more she liked him. There was nothing outstanding about him: he was of medium height, medium weight, with graying brown hair and clear gray eyes. His face was pleasant, but not memorable. Yet there was a steadiness in him that she sensed and trusted.

He looked thoughtful. "It's possible we can do something about your situation. Let me check into it before you book a flight back. Would you like a chance to tell your boss to go take a flying leap?"

Jay gave him a very sweet smile, and this time he was the one who laughed.

It wasn't until later that she realized the request meant they were certain Steve would live. She was back in Steve's room, standing by his bed, and she gently squeezed his arm as relief filled her. "You're going to make it," she whispered. It was almost sundown, and she had spent most of the day standing beside his bed. Several times a nurse or an orderly had requested that she step outside, but except for that and the time she had spent with Frank at lunch, she had been with Steve. She had talked until her throat was dry, talked until she couldn't think of anything else to say and silence had fallen again, but even then she had kept her hand on his arm. Maybe he knew she was there.

A nurse came in and gave Jay a curious look but didn't ask her to leave the room. Instead she checked the monitors and made notes on a pad. "It's odd," she murmured. "But maybe not. Somehow I think our boy knows when you're here. His heartbeat is stronger and his respiration rate settles down if you're here with him. When you left for lunch his vital signs deteriorated, then picked back up when you returned. I've noticed the same thing happen every time we've asked you to leave the room. Major Lunning is going to be interested in these charts."

Jay stared at the nurse, then at Steve. "He knows I'm here?"

"Not consciously," the nurse said hastily. "He isn't going to wake up and talk to you, not with the barbiturate dose he's getting. But who knows what he senses? You've been talking to him all day, haven't you? Part of it must be getting through, on some level. You must be really important to him, for him to respond to you like this."

The nurse left the room. Stunned, Jay looked back at Steve. Even if he somehow sensed her presence, why would it affect him like that? Yet she couldn't ignore the nurse's theory, because she had noticed herself that the rhythm of his breathing had changed. It was almost impossible for her to believe, because Steve had never needed her in any way. He had enjoyed her for a time, but something in him had kept her at a small but significant distance. Because he couldn't return love of any depth, he hadn't allowed himself to accept a deep love. All Steve had ever wanted was a superficial sort of relationship, a light, playful love that could end with no regrets. Theirs had ended in just that way, and she had seldom thought of him after they had parted. Why should she be important to him now?

Then she gave a low laugh as understanding came to her. Steve wasn't responding to her, he was responding to a touch and a voice meant for him personally, rather than the impartial, automatic touches and words of the healers surrounding him. Anyone else would have done just as well. Frank Payne could have stood there and talked to him with the same result.

She said as much an hour later, when Major Lunning studied the charts and stroked his jaw, occasionally glancing at her with a thoughtful expression. Frank stood to one side, careful to keep his face blank, but his sharp gaze didn't miss anything.

Major Limning was one of the top military doctors, a man devoted to both healing and the military. He wasn't stationed at Bethesda, but he hadn't questioned the orders that had gotten him up in the middle of the night and brought him there. He and several other doctors had been given the task of saving this man's life. At the time they hadn't even known his name. Now there was a name on his chart, but they still had no inkling why he was so important to the powers that be. It didn't make any difference; Major Lunning would use whatever weapon or procedure he could find to help his patient. Right now, one of those weapons was this too-thin young woman with dark blue eyes and a full, passionate-looking mouth.

"I don't think we can ignore the pattern, Ms. Granger," the Major said frankly. "It's your voice he responds to, not mine, not Mr. Payne's, not any of the nurses'. Mr. Crossfield isn't in a deep coma. He's breathing on his own and still has reflexes. It isn't unreasonable to think that he can hear you. He may not understand and he certainly can't respond, but it's entirely possible that he hears."

"But I understood that his coma is drug-induced," Jay protested. "When people are drugged, aren't they totally unconscious?"

"There are different levels of consciousness. Let me explain his injuries more completely. He has simple fractures of both legs, nothing that will prevent him from walking normally. He has second-degree burns on his hands and arms, but the worst of the bums are on his palms and fingers, as if he grabbed a hot pipe, or perhaps put his hands up to shield his face. His spleen was ruptured, and we removed it. One lung was punctured and collapsed. But the worst of his injuries were to his head and face. His skull was fractured, and his facial bones were simply shattered.

"We performed surgery immediately to repair the damage, but to control the swelling of the brain and prevent further damage, we have to administer large doses of barbiturates. That keeps him in a coma. Now, the deeper the coma, the less the brain functions. In a deep coma the patient may not even be able to breathe for himself. The level of the coma depends in part on the patient's tolerance for the drugs, which varies from person to person. Mr. Crossfield's tolerance seems to be a bit higher than usual, so his coma isn't as deep as it could be. We haven't increased the dosage, because it hasn't been necessary. In time we'll gradually decrease the dosage and bring him out of the coma. He's going to make it on his own, but I'll tell you frankly, he definitely does better when you're with him. There's still a lot we don't know about the mind and how it affects the body, but we know it does."

"Are you saying he'll get well faster if I'm here?"

The Major grinned. "That's it in a nutshell."

Jay felt tired and confused, as if she'd spent hours in a house of mirrors trying to find her way out but instead finding only one deceitful reflection after another. It wasn't just these people, all insisting that she stay; part of it was inside. Something happened when she touched Steve, something she didn't understand. She certainly hadn't felt it before, even when they'd been married. It was as if he were more than he had been, somehow different in ways she sensed but couldn't define.

She wished they hadn't put this responsibility on her. She didn't want to stay. This strange feeling she had for Steve made her feel threatened. If she left now, it wouldn't have a chance to develop. But if she stayed… She hadn't been devastated by their divorce, five years earlier, because their love had never grown, never gone any deeper. In the end it had simply faded away. But Steve was different now; he'd changed in those five years, into a man whose power she could feel even when he was unconscious. If she fell in love with him again, she might never get over it.

But if she left, she would feel guilty because she hadn't helped him.

She needed to find another job. She had to get back to New York and begin doing something to keep her life from disintegrating. But she was tired of the frantic pushing and maneuvering, the constant dealing. She didn't want to go, but she was afraid to stay.

Frank saw the tension in her face, felt it vibrating through her. "Let's walk down to the lounge," he said, stepping forward to take her arm. "You need a break. See you later, Major."

Major Lunning nodded. "Try to talk her into staying. This guy really needs her."

Out in the hall, Jay murmured, "I hate it when people talk around me, as if I'm not there. I'm tired of being maneuvered." She was thinking of her job when she said that, but Frank gave her a sharp look.

"I don't mean to put you in a difficult position," he said diplomatically. "It's just that we badly need to talk to your husband… sorry, ex-husband. I keep forget- ting. At any rate, we're willing to do whatever is possible to aid in his recovery,"

Jay put her hands in her pockets, slowing her steps as she considered something. "Is Steve going to be arrested because of what he was doing, whatever it was?"

Frank didn't have any hesitation on that score. "No," he said with absolute certainty. The man was going to get nothing but the best medicine and best protection his country could provide him; Frank only wished he could tell Jay why, but that wasn't possible. "We think he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, an innocent bystander, if you will. But given his background, we think it likely he would have picked up on the situation. It's even possible he was trying to help when everything blew up in his face."

"Literally."

"Yes, unfortunately. Anything he can remember will help us."

They reached the lounge and he opened the door so she could precede him. They were alone, thank heavens. He went over to the coffee machine and fed coins into it. "Coffee?"

"No, thank you," Jay replied tiredly as she sat down. Her stomach was blessedly calm, and she didn't want to upset it now with the noxious brew that usually came from those machines. She hadn't noticed before how tired she was, but now fatigue was washing over her in great waves that made her feel giddy.

Frank sat down opposite her, cradling the Styrofoam cup in his hands. "I talked to my superior, explained your situation," he began. "Would you stay if you didn't have to worry about finding another job?"

She let her eyelids droop as she rubbed her forehead in an effort to force herself to concentrate on what he'd said. She couldn't remember ever having been as tired as she was now, as if all energy had drained from her. Even her mind felt numb. All day long she had focused so fiercely on Steve that everything else had blurred, and now that she had let herself relax, exhaustion had crashed in on her, a deep lassitude that was mental as well as physical.

"I don't understand," she murmured. "I have to work at a job to make money. And even if you've somehow lined one up for me, I can't work and stay here, too."

"Staying here would be your job," Frank explained, wishing he didn't have to push her. She looked as if it were all she could do to sit erect. But maybe she would be more easily convinced now, with fatigue dulling her mind. "We'll take care of your apartment and living expenses. It's that important to us."

Her eyelids lifted and she stared at him incredulously. "You'd pay me to stay here?"

"Yes."

"But I don't want money to stay with him! I want to' help him, don't you understand that?"

"But you can't, because of your financial position," Frank said, nodding. "What we're offering to do is take care of that for you. If you were independently wealthy, would you hesitate to stay?"

"Of course not! I'll do whatever I can to help him, but the idea of taking money for it is ugly."

"We aren't paying you to stay with him, we're paying you so you can stay with him. Do you see the difference?"

She had to be going mad, because she did see the difference between the two halves of the hair he had just split. And his eyes were so kind that she instinctively trusted him, even though she sensed a lot going on that she didn't understand.

"We'll get an apartment for you close by, so you can spend more time with him," Frank continued, his voice soothing and reasonable. "We'll also keep your New York apartment for you, so you'll have that to go back to. If you give me the word now, we can have a place here ready for you to move into on Monday."

There had to be arguments she could use, but she couldn't think of any. Frank was sweeping all obstacles out of the way; it would make her feel mean and petty if she refused to do what he wanted, when he had gone to so much trouble and they–whoever they were–so badly wanted her to remain.

"I'll have to go home," she said helplessly. "To New York, that is. I need more clothes, and I'll have to quit my job." Suddenly she laughed. "If it's possible to quit a job you've already been fired from."

"I'll make the travel arrangements for you."

"How long do you think I'll be here?" She was estimating a two- or three- week stay, but she wanted to be certain. She would have to do something about her mail and utilities.

Frank's gaze was level. "A couple of months, at least. Maybe longer."

"Months!"

"He'll have to have therapy."

"But he'll be conscious then. I thought you only wanted me to stay until the worst was over!"

He cleared his throat. "We'd like you to stay until he's dismissed from the hospital, at least." He had been trying to break the idea to her gradually, first by just getting her here, then convincing her that Steve needed her, then talking her into staying for the duration. He only hoped it would work.

"But why?"

"He'll need you. He'll be in pain. I haven't told you before, but he needs more surgery on his eyes. It will probably be six to eight weeks before he'll get the bandages off his eyes for good. He's going to be confused, in pain, and they'll put him through more pain in therapy. To top it all off, he won't be able to see. Jay, you're going to be his lifeline."

She sat there numbly, staring at him. It looked as if, after all this time and now that it was too late, Steve was going to need her more than either of them had ever thought.

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