White lies (Chapter Eleven)
She intended to ask Frank the name of the American agent who had been "killed." He might not tell her, but she had to ask. Even if she couldn't say it aloud, she needed to know, she had to put a name to her love. She looked at him as he skillfully handled the Jeep, holding it steady even on the snow, and her heart swelled. He was big and rough-looking, not handsome at all with his rearranged features, but just one glance from those fierce yellowish eyes had the power to make her dizzy with delight. How could they ever have thought they could pass this man off as Steve Crossfield?
Their subterfuge was riddled with holes, but she hadn't seen them until she had been too deeply in love with him to care. They had relied on shock and ur- gency to keep her from asking the pointed questions to which they would have had no answers, such as why they didn't use blood type or their own agent's dental records to determine the identity of the patient. She had known at the tune that Frank was hiding something from her, but she had been too concerned over "Steve" to think it was anything more than protecting the details of a classified mission. The truth was that she had been misled so easily because she had wanted to be; after the first tune she had seen him lying in the hospital, so desperately wounded but still fighting with that grim determination of his that burned through unconsciousness, she had wanted nothing more than to be by his side and help him fight.
They were to stay at a different motel than the one they'd been in before, because Frank didn't want to take the chance the desk clerk might recognize them. They even used different names. When they got there, Frank had already arrived, and he'd made reservations for them under the names of Michael Carter and Faye Wheeler. Separate rooms. Steve looked distinctly displeased, but placed Jay's overnighter in her room without comment and went along to his own room. The eye specialist checked Steve's eyes immediately; then he was taken to an optometrist to be fitted for glasses, which would be ready for him the next morning. Jay remained behind, wondering what strings Frank had pulled and whose arms he had twisted to get everything done so fast.
They returned a little after dark, and Steve came immediately to Jay's room. "Hi, baby," he said, stepping inside and closing the door behind him. Before she could answer he was kissing her, his hands tight on her arms, his mouth hard and searching.
She shivered with excitement, crowding closer to his body as she dug her fingers into his cold hair. He smelled like wind and snow, and his skin was cold, but his tongue was warm and probing. Finally he lifted his head, a very male look of satisfaction stamped on his hard face. He rubbed his thumb across her lips, which were reddened from contact with his. "Sweetheart, I may freeze my naked butt off sneaking into your room tonight, but I'm not sleeping alone." "I have a suggestion," she purred. "Let's hear it."
"Leave your clothes on until you get here." He laughed and kissed her again. Her mouth was driving him crazy; it had the most erotic effect on him. Kissing her was more arousing than actually making love had been with other women– and just for a moment, before they faded away, some of those other women were in his mind.
"The doctor is already on his way back to Washington. Frank is staying until the morning, so it's the three of us again. Are you hungry? Frank's stomach is still on Washington time."
"Actually, I am a little hungry. We don't keep late hours ourselves, you know." He looked at the bed. "I know."
Jay hoped to have the chance to ask Frank about the agent's name; she couldn't take the risk of asking him in Steve's presence, because the sound of his own name might trigger his memory, and she couldn't face the possibility of that. She wanted him to remember, but she wanted it to be when they were alone in their high meadow. If the chance to talk to Frank didn't present itself, she could always call him after they'd retired to their individual rooms for the night, pro- vided Steve didn't come straight to hers, but she didn't think he would. He'd probably take a shower first, and put on fresh clothes. She sighed, weary of having to second-guess and predict; she wasn't cut out for this business.
Steve noted the sigh, and the faint desperation in her eyes. She hadn't said anything, but that look had been there since he'd had that first flash of memory the day before. It puzzled him; he couldn't think of any reason why Jay should dread his returning memory. Because it puzzled him and because there was no logical reason, he couldn't let it go. It wasn't in his makeup. When something bothered him, he worried at it until it made sense. He never quit, never let go. His sister had often said he was at least half bulldog– Sister?
He was quiet as the three of them ate dinner at an Italian restaurant. Part of him enjoyed the spicy food, and part of him was actively involved in the easy conversation around the table, but another part of him examined the sliver of memory from every angle. If he had a sister, why had he told Jay he was an orphan? Why hadn't Frank had a record of any relatives? That was the screwy part. He could accept that he might have told Jay a different version of his life, because he didn't know what the circumstances had been at the time, but it was impossible that Frank hadn't had a list of next of kin. That was assuming he was remembering "real" things.
A sister. His logic told him it was impossible. His guts told him his logic could take a flyer. A sister. Amy. Unca Luke! Unca Luke! The childish voices re- verberated in his head even as he laughed at something Frank said. Unca Dan. Unca Luke. Unca Luke Unca Luke… Luke… Luke…
"Are you all right?" Jay asked, her eyes dark with concern as she put her hand lightly on his wrist. She could feel tension emanating from him and was vaguely startled that Frank hadn't seemed to notice anything unusual.
The pounding left his head as he looked at her and smiled. He'd gladly count his past well lost as long as he could have Jay. The sensory umbilical cord linking them was as acutely sensitive as the strings on a precisely tuned Stradivarius. "It's just a headache," he said. "The drive was a strain on my eyes." Both statements were true, though the second wasn't the cause of the first. Also, there hadn't been that much strain. His problem was the precise, close-up focusing needed for reading; his distance vision was as sharp as ever, which was better than twenty- twenty. He had the vision of a jet pilot.
Jay returned to her conversation with Frank, but she was as aware of Steve's fading tension as she had been of the fact that he'd been as taut as a guide wire. Had something happened that afternoon that he hadn't told her? A feeling of dread almost overwhelmed her, and she wanted badly to be back at the cabin.
When they returned to the motel, she noted with relief that Steve went to his own room rather than stopping to talk with Frank or immediately following her to hers. She darted to the phone and dialed Frank's room. He answered on the first ring.
"It's Jay." She identified herself.
"Is something wrong?" He was immediately alert.
"No, everything's okay. It's just that something's been bothering me, but I didn't want to ask you in front of Steve."
In his room, Frank tensed. Had they failed to cover all bases? "Is it about Steve?"
"Well, no, not really. The agent who died… what was his name? It's been on my mind a lot lately, that he died and I never even heard his name."
"There's no reason you should have. You'd never met him."
"I know," she said softly. "I just wanted to know something about him. It could have been Steve. Now that he's dead, there's no reason to keep his name se- cret, is there?"
Frank thought. He could give her a fictitious name, but he decided to tell her at least that much of the truth. She'd know his name eventually, and it might help if she could simply think a mistake had been made. It would give her a small fact she could focus on for reference. "His name was Lucas Stone."
"Lucas Stone." Her voice was very soft as she repeated the name. "Was he married? Did he have a family?"
"No, he wasn't married." He deliberately didn't answer her second question.
"Thanks for telling me. It's bothered me that I didn't know." He'd never know how much, she thought as she quietly replaced the receiver. Lucas Stone. She repeated the name over and over in her mind, applying it to a battered face and feeling her heart begin to pound. Lucas Stone. Yes.
Only then did she realize what a mistake she'd made. If it had been difficult before to refer to him as Steve, it would be almost impossible now. Steve had been a stolen name, but one she'd used because there had been no alternative. What if the name Lucas slipped out?
She sat on the bed for a long time while she mentally flailed against the hall of mirrors that trapped her with its false reflections. The things she didn't know bound her as securely as the things she knew, until she was afraid to trust her own instincts. She wasn't made for deception; she was straightforward, which was one reason why she hadn't fitted into the world of investment banking, a world that required a certain measure of "slickery," that balance of slickness and trickery.
Finally, too tired to open any more blank doors, she took a shower and got ready for bed. When she came out of the bathroom, Lucas–Stevel she reminded herself frantically–was stretched out on the bed, already partially undressed.
She looked at the locked door. "Haven't we done this before?"
He rolled to his feet and caught her arms, pulling her to him. "With one difference. A big difference."
He smelled of soap and shaving cream, and the underlying muskiness of man. She clung to him, pressing her face into his neck to inhale that special scent. What would she do if he left her? It would be a life without color, forever incomplete. Slowly she ran her hands over his broad chest, rubbing her ringers through the crisp, curly hair and feeling the warmth of his skin, then the iron layer of muscles beneath. He was so hard that her fingers barely made an impression. Bemused, she pressed experimentally on his upper arm, watching as her fingernails turned white from the pressure but had noticeably little effect on him.
"What are you doing?" he asked curiously.
"Seeing how hard you are."
"Honey, that's not the right place."
Her face was bright with laughter as she swiftly looked up at him. "I think I know all your other places."
"Is that so? There are places, and then there are places. Some places need a lot more attention than others." As he spoke he began moving her toward the bed. He was already aroused, his hardness pressing against her. Jay moved her hand down to cover the ridge beneath his jeans.
"Is this one of the places in need of attention?"
"A lot of attention," he assured her as he levered them both onto the bed. He felt her legs move, her hips lifting to cradle him, and all amusement faded out of his eyes, leaving them fierce and narrow. It was a look that made Jay shudder in exquisite anticipation.
She looked up at him, her face soft and shining as his hands began moving tenderly on her body. "I love you," she said, and her heart echoed, Lucas.
It was different the next morning, as if the world had altered during the night, but he couldn't quite put his finger on the difference. It was an oddly familiar feeling, as if he were more at home with himself. Jay was in his arms, her sleek, golden-brown hair lying tangled on his shoulder. If they had been in the cabin he would have got up to rebuild the fire, then returned to bed for some early-morning loving. Instead he had to go to his own room to shave and dress. That damn Frank. He'd booked separate rooms knowing they needed only one. But Jay wasn't like all the other women; Jay was special, and maybe this was Frank's tribute to her specialness.
Other women. The thought nagged at him after he left Jay and returned to his own room in the biting cold of dawn. His memory was returning, not in one big, melodramatic rush, like a light switch being turned on, but in unconnected bits and pieces. Faces and names were surfacing. Instead of feeling elated, however, he was aware of a growing sense of caution. He hadn't told Frank his memory was coming back; he'd wait until it had truly returned and he'd had time to consider the situation. Wariness was second nature to him, just as he automatically checked his room to make certain no one had entered it in his absence.
He showered and shaved, but as he shaved he found himself staring at his face in the mirror, trying to find his past in the reflection. How could he recognize himself when his face had been changed? What had he looked like before? He wondered if Jay had a picture of him; it would be an old one, if she'd kept any at all. But women tended to keep mementos and their divorce hadn't been a bitter one, so maybe she hadn't destroyed whatever pictures she'd had. Maybe seeing one would give him a link to the past.
Hell, why should it? He stared at himself in disgust. He hadn't recognized Jay or Frank; why should he recognize his old face? The face he knew was the face he could see now, and it wouldn't win any prizes. He looked as if he'd played too many football games without a helmet.
Still, the sensation lingered that he was on the brink of… something. It was there, just beyond his reach.
It nagged at him in little ways, like the ease with which he slipped his shoulder holster on, and the familiarity of the gun in his hand as he checked it, then slid it into place. The ease and familiarity had been there before, but now they were somehow different, as if the link between past and present were returning. Soon. It would happen soon.
The day was uneventful, but the feeling of anticipation didn't leave him. They all met to eat breakfast; then he and Frank drove to the optical lab and picked up his glasses. On the way back he asked, "Have you found this Piggot guy yet?"
"Not yet. He surfaced a month ago, but he went underground again before we could get to him."
"Is he good?"
Frank hesitated. "Damn good. One of the best. His psychological profile says he's a psychopath, but very controlled, very professional. His jobs are a matter of pride to him. That's why he wants you. You screwed him up the way no one else ever had. You spoiled his job, killed his 'employees' and managed to hit him hard enough that he had to go underground for months to recover."
"I may have hit him hard, but it wasn't hard enough," Steve said remotely. "Do you have a picture of him?"
"Not with me. There's only one. We got him with a telescopic lens, and it's grainy. He's about five-ten, a hundred and forty-five pounds, blond, forty-two years old. His left earlobe is missing, also courtesy of you. His reputation suffered." "Yeah, well, some days I'm a little cranky." That was vintage Lucas Stone. Frank felt the shock of it like a slap, but he kept his hands steady on the wheel. "Is your memory coming back?"
"Not yet," Steve lied. He could see Geoffrey Pig-got, whiplash thin, malignant, cold. Another face to go with a name.
He was very quiet on the drive back to the cabin. Jay glanced at him, but sunglasses hid his eyes, and she could read nothing in his expression. She still sensed the tension in him, just as she had the night before, during dinner. "Do you have another headache?" she finally asked. "No." Then he softened the bluntness of his answer by reaching over to rub the backs of his fingers against her jaw. "I feel okay."
"Did Frank say anything that's bothering you?"
Briefly he considered the disadvantages of letting someone get so close to you that they could read your moods, but then he counted that battle well lost in Jay's case, because as far as he was concerned, she couldn't get close enough to suit him. And he hadn't let her get close; it had simply happened.
"No. He told me a few things about the guy who tried to make me into beef stew–"
"Oh, gross!" she said, slapping his hand away, and he laughed at her.
''I was just thinking about him, that's all."
After a moment she curled up in the seat and rested her head against the back. "I'll be glad to get home."
He was in total agreement with that. They had been alone together for so long that this trip had almost brought on culture shock. Neon lights and traffic were a definite jolt to a system that was used to fir trees, snow and a deep, deep silence. Right now he would welcome a trip to civilization only if he and Jay were getting blood tests and a marriage license.
Suddenly he felt alert, just as he'd felt a thousand times before when his life hung in the balance. Adrenaline spurted into his veins, and his heart began racing, but not as fast as his brain. A blood test. Damn it, it didn't fit. Why had they needed Jay to identify him when they had all the means at hand? He was their agent. Granted, his fingerprints were gone, he'd been unconscious and his voice damaged, but they still had his blood type and dental records. It should have been easy enough to establish his identity. It followed, then, that they hadn't needed Jay at all, but had definitely wanted her for some reason.
He went over what Jay had told him. They had wanted her to identity him because they couldn't make a positive ID, and they'd needed to know if their agent had bought the farm, because Steve and this other guy had been caught in the explosion and one of them was dead. That meant there must have been two agents on location, but it wouldn't have changed the fact that Frank had the means at hand to identify both of them. Supposedly he and this other agent had physically resembled each other, about the same height and weight, and with the same coloring. There still wasn't any problem with identification, even if he stretched coincidence and allowed that they both might have had the same blood type. That still left dental records.
Damn, he felt like a fool. Why hadn't he seen this before? They had wanted Jay in this for some reason, but identification hadn't been it. What kind of scheme was Frank running?
Think. He had to think. He felt as if he were trying to put a puzzle together without all the pieces, so no matter how he moved things around they still didn't fit. If he could just remember, damn it!
Why would Frank lie to Jay? Why concoct the story that he and the other agent so closely resembled each other? Why insist that he needed her at all?
Why did they need Jay?
Voices tumbled in on him. "Congratulations, Mr. Stone"… "I'm glad you're back, son"… "Unca Luke! Unca Luke!" Stone… son… Unca Luke… son… Luke… Stone…
Luke Stone. His hands jerked on the steering wheel. He felt as if he'd been hit in the chest. Luke Stone. Lucas Stone. Damn Frank Payne to hell! His name was Lucas Stone!
As soon as he'd turned that mental corner, all the memories came rushing at him in a confusing flood, filling his mind with so much clatter that he could barely drive. He didn't dare stop, didn't dare let Jay know what he was feeling. He felt… God, he didn't know how he felt. Battered. His head hurt, but at the same time he was aware of an enormous sense of relief. He had his identity back, his sense of self. Finally he knew himself.
He was Lucas Stone. He had a family and friends, a past.
But he wasn't Jay's ex-husband. He wasn't Steve Crossfield. He wasn't the man she thought she was in love with.
So that was why she'd been brought in. There had been only one agent at the explosion, and he was that man. Steve Crossfield must have been there for some reason, and he had died there. Lucas tried to form his memories of the meeting, but they were blurred, fragmented. They would probably never come back. But he did remember seeing a tall, lean man walking up the street, his outline reflected on the wet pavement under the streetlight. That could have been Steve Cross- field. He didn't remember anything after that, though now he was remembering making contact, setting up the meeting with Minyard, going to the meeting site. He'd looked up, seen the man…then nothing. Everything after that was a blank, until Jay's voice had pulled him out of the darkness.
His cover had been blown, obviously. Piggot was after him; that was the reason for the charade. Pulling Jay in, duping her into thinking he was her ex- husband, having him positively identified as Steve Crossfield, was the best cover the Man could concoct for him until they could neutralize Piggot. The Man never underestimated his enemies, and Piggot was, as Frank had said, very good. The extent of the Man's deception also told Lucas that the Man suspected there was a mole in his ranks and hadn't trusted regular channels.
So they'd "buried" him, and he'd awakened to another name, another face, another life, even another man's wife.
No, damn it! Savagery filled him, and his knuckles turned white as he automatically negotiated the icy patches on the road. Maybe he wasn't Steve Crossfield, but Jay was his. His. Lucas Stone's woman.
Silently and at length, he cursed the Man and Frank for everything he could think of, ranging back over several generations of their ancestors. Not Frank so much, because he could see the Man's fine hand in this. Nobody had a mind as intricate as Kell Sabin's; that was how he'd gotten to be the Man. They had probably–no, almost certainly–saved his life, assuming there was a mole passing information to Pig-got, but they weren't the ones who had to tell Jay he wasn't her ex-husband. They didn't have to tell her that the man she loved was dead and she'd been sleeping with a stranger.
What would she say? More important, what would she do?
He couldn't lose her. He could stand anything except that. He expected, and could handle, shock, anger, even fear, but he couldn't stand it if she looked at him with hate in those deep blue eyes. He couldn't let her walk away from him.
Immediately he began examining the situation from all angles, looking for a solution, but even as he looked, he knew there wasn't one. He couldn't marry her using Crossfield's name, because such a marriage wouldn't be legal, and besides, he'd be damned if he'd let her carry another man's name. He would have to tell her.
His family probably thought he was dead, and there was no way he could let them know he wasn't without jeopardizing them. If his cover was blown, his family would be at risk if Piggot ever found out he hadn't died as planned. The way things stood now, he'd have a hard time convincing his family of his identity anyway; he neither looked nor sounded the same. His hands were tied until Piggot was caught; then he supposed Sabin would arrange for his family to be notified that a "mistake" had been made in identification, and due to extenuating and unusual circumstances, et cetera, the error had only now been corrected. The Man probably already had the telegram composed in his mind, letter-perfect.
His family would be taken care of; they would be glad to get him back despite the way he looked, or the fact that his voice was ruined.
Jay was the victim. They'd used her as the ultimate cover. How in hell could she ever forgive that?
Jay dozed, finally awakening as they turned onto the track to the meadow. "We're home," she murmured, pushing her hair back. She turned her head to smile at him. "At last."
He was tense again, surveying every detail of the track. There was new snow on the ground, filling the tire tracks they had made the day before and also obliterating any other trail that could have been made after they'd left. All his training was coming into play, and Lucas Stone didn't take chances. Unnecessary chances, that was. There had been more times than one when he'd laid his life on the line, but only because he'd had no other choice. Taking chances with Jay's life, however, was something else.
As usual, Jay picked up on his tension and fell silent, a worried frown puckering her brow.
The snow surrounding the cabin was pristine, but when Lucas parked the Jeep he put a detaining hand on Jay's arm. "Stay here until I check the cabin," he said tersely, drawing a pistol from beneath his jacket and getting out without looking at her. His eyes were never still, darting from window to window, examining every inch of ground, looking for the betraying flutter of a curtain.
Jay was frozen in place. This man, moving like a cat toward the back door, was the man she loved, and he was a predator, a hunter. He was innately cautious, as graceful as the wind as he flattened his back against the wall and eased his left hand toward the doorknob, while the pistol was held ready in his right. Sound- lessly he opened the door and disappeared within. Two minutes later he stood in the back door again, relaxed. "Come on in," he said, and walked back to the Jeep to get their bags.
It irritated her that he'd frightened her for nothing; it reminded her of the morning when he'd tracked her in the snow. "Don't do that to me," she snapped as she threw open the door and slid out. The snow crunched under her boots.
"Scare me like that."
"Scaring you is a hell of a lot better than walking into an ambush," he replied evenly.
"How could anyone know we're up here, and why should anyone care?"
"Frank thinks someone would care, or they wouldn't have taken the trouble to hide us." She climbed the steps and knocked the snow off her boots before entering the cabin. It was cold but not icy, because they had left the backup heat system on. She took the bags from him and carried them into the bedroom to begin unpacking while he built a fire.
Lucas watched the yellow flames lick at the logs he'd placed on the grate, slowly catching and engulfing the wood. He couldn't tell her, not yet. This might be the only time he'd ever have with her, an indefinite period of grace while Sabin's men hunted Piggot. He'd use that time to bind her to him so tightly that he could hold her even after she found out his real name, and that Steve Crossfield was dead. She had told him she loved him, but it was Steve Crossfield she'd been saying the words to, and, oddly, it had been Steve Cross-field hearing them. He was Lucas Stone, and he wanted her for himself.
His need was fast and urgent, like a fire low in his belly. He walked into the bedroom and watched her for a moment as she bent over to remove her boots and socks. She was as slim as a reed, her skin silky soft. He caught her around the waist and tumbled her on the bed, immediately following her down to pin her to the mattress with his weight.
She laughed, her blue eyes no longer filled with irritation. "The caveman approach must be fashionable this year," she teased.
He couldn't smile in return. He wanted her too badly, needed to hear her say the words to him, not to a ghost. The yellow glitter was in his eyes as he stripped her and surveyed her nakedness. Her nipples were puckered from the chilly air, her breasts standing up round and firm. He circled them with his hands and lifted the tight nipples to his mouth, sucking at each of them in turn. She gasped, and her back arched. Her responsiveness did it to him every time, shattered his control and made him as hot and eager for her as a teenager. He could barely tolerate taking his hands off her long enough to hastily tear at his own clothing and throw it to the side.
"Tell me you love me," he said as he adjusted her slim legs around his hips and began entering her.
Jay squirmed voluptuously, rubbing her breasts against the hairy planes of his chest. "I love you." Her hands dug into his back as she felt the muscles ripple. "I love you." Slowly he pushed and slowly she accepted him, her pleasure already rising to an urgent pitch. Her body was so attuned to him that when he began the rhythmic thrust and withdrawal of love-making her sensual tension swiftly reached a crescendo. He held her until her shudders stilled, then found the rhythm anew.
"Again," he whispered.
She wanted to cry out his name, but couldn't. She couldn't call him Steve now, and she didn't dare call him Lucas. She had to bite her lips to keep his name unsaid, and a moan rose in her throat. He controlled her, his slow, deep thrusts taking her only so high and refusing to let her go any higher. She was on fire, her nerve endings exploding with pleasure.
"Tell me you love me." His voice was gravelly, the strain apparent on his face as he kept his movements agonizingly slow.
"I love you."
"I love you."
He wanted to hear his name, but that was denied him. Sometime in the future, when this was all over, he promised himself that he would have her as he was having her now, and she would scream his name. He had to be content with knowing it himself, and with the way her eyes locked with his as she whispered the words over and over again, until his control broke and sweet madness claimed them both.
He couldn't get enough of her, ever, and knowing that he might lose her was intolerable. Physical bonds were the most basic, and instinctively he used them to strengthen the link between them. He would make himself a part of her until his name no longer mattered.
Two nights later, Frank had just gotten into bed when the telephone rang. With a sigh, he reached for it. "Payne."
"Piggot's in Mexico City," the Man said.
Forgetting about the good night's sleep he'd been anticipating, Frank sat up, instantly alert.
"Do you have a man on him?"
"Not at the moment. He's gone to ground again. It's about to unravel, and this move tells me who snipped the thread. I'll take care of that little detail, but you get Luke out of there. The cabin's location has been leaked."
"How much do you want me to tell him?"
"All of it. It doesn't matter now. It'll go down within the next twenty-four hours. Just see that they're safe." Then Kell Sabin hung up, wondering if he'd cut it too fine and endangered a friend, as well as an innocent woman.