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How could she have forgotten something like that?
Someone like him?
Belinda eyed the silent stranger standing beside her father at the foot of her hospital bed. Tall, and looking as if his designer clothes were just a little too large on his frame, the stranger stood with his left hand in his trouser pocket, his right hand resting on the knob of a shiny black cane.
She didn't even know his name. How could she be married to him and have no knowledge of it? Fear choked her throat.
His glittering green eyes never left her face. An intangible thread of somethingwas it anger?burned just below the surface. His expression remained inscrutable. The hard lines of his face spoke of an iron willthis was not a man who tolerated fools.
Her breath hitched. She didn't know himhow could they expect her to go home with a total stranger? Belinda cast a frightened look at her father. The smile he returned seemed strained; the lines on his face deeper than usual. Suddenly her desire to be released from her room here at Auckland City Hospital fled, and the place she'd itched to be free of assumed proportions more in line with a much-sought-after sanctuary.
A disturbing thought occurred to her.
"If you're my husband why haven't you been here at my side, like my parents have? It's two weeks since I came out of the coma." Her challenge rang hollowly across the room.
Belinda intercepted a glance between her father and the man who claimed to be her husband, saw the imperceptible nod her father gave.
"Well?" she demanded, her hands fisting in the bedclothes.
"The accident that took your memory also caused me injury. I am fit to returnhome now. With you."
There was a great deal he wasn't saying, and what he left unsaid caused her more anxiety than the realisation he too had been hospitalised. She'd been treated with kid gloves by the medical staff and her parents since she'd regained consciousness, everyone prepared to give her medical answers but nothing else. Not even the details of the accident that had left her in a coma for four weeks. Throughout the past two weeks of tests and examinations, her doctors had tried to find the cause of her amnesia and had come to the conclusion it was not a direct result of the blow to her head that she'd sustained in a car accident. She'd overheard the words "traumatic amnesia" and "hysterical amnesia" being discussed in low tones.
The last had made her shudder. Did that make her crazy, she wondered, that she chose to forget a part of her life that for anyone should have been full of excitement, fun and passion? Or did she have good reason to want to forget?
She looked again at the stranger. The slightly less-than-perfect fit of his clothing now made sense if he had been stuck in hospital. Had he been too incapacitated to see her? Did a lengthy stay in bed explain his gauntness? She had no doubt that he was the type of man who paid attention to every detail, and that under normal circumstances his clothing would conform to his body as if tailor-made.
Another thought skittered through her mind. Had they timed her release to coincide with his? Protest flared inside.
She'd been railroaded.
"No, I won't do it. I won't go home with you. I don't even know you!" Her voice sounded shrill, panicked.
The stranger's eyes narrowed, a muscle worked in the side of his jaw.
"I'm Luc Tanner, you are Belinda Tannermy wife. Of course you'll come home with me." He nodded in her father's direction. "Do you think your father would allow you out of his sight if I was a threat to his precious child? Rest assured, you know me well."
There was an undercurrent in his tone she couldn't quite nail, but it was enough to send a shiver down her spine. She shook her head slightly to rid herself of the sensation. What the strangerLuc, she corrected herselfsaid made sense but a cautionary niggle played at the back of her mind.
"Why can't I go home with Dad? At least until my memory returns." She was grasping at straws, and she knew it.
"And if your memory never returns? Are we to forever forget our marriage? Our vows to each other?"
There was a thread of steel in his tone that sent a chill through her. It was a good question. What if she didn't get her lost months back? And why, when she could remember so much else, could she remember nothing of their courtship, their marriage? The love they'd supposedly shared.
A spear of something else shot through her body. Had they been intimate? They must have been, even now her body warmed to his with a physical recognition her mind refused to accept. He was a very attractive man despite that air of aloofness he wore like a warrior's mantle. A flush of heat suffused her cheeks as she studied his featuresthe slightly shadowed line between cheekbone and jaw bisected by a thin pink scar, the straight blade of his nose, the sensual curve of his lips. Had they lain together, delighted in each other's scents, reactions, pleasure? Had she clutched that short-cropped sable-coloured hair as she'd held him to her body?
The stranger's voice was like the sensual stroke of velvet across her skin as he changed tactics in the face of her refusal to go with him. "Belinda, I know you're afraid, but I'm your husband. If you can't trust me who can you trust? We will work through this," he cajoled gently. "And if your memory never returns, we will make new memories."
New memories. Why did the very thought strike dread into her heart?
She shot an imploring look at her father. "Dad?"
"You'll be fine, my sweet. Besides, you know your mother and I had planned to travel for a bit. We postponed the trip because of the accident. Now that you and Luc are well again we can set our plans back on track. Go home with Luc, honey. Everything will be all right."
Was it her imagination or were her father's words just a little too emphatic?
"The doctor has seen fit to discharge you. It's time for you to come home." Luc held out his left hand to her, a hand that bore a glint of gold on his ring finger. A ring she'd supposedly put on him while declaring her love for him before witnesses.
Belinda was suddenly aware of her own naked hand. There wasn't even so much as a dent in her skin to show where a ring had encircled her finger.
"Ah, yes, of course. Your rings." Luc slid his hand inside the breast pocket of his jacket and extracted two rings. He limped forward to the side of her bed. "Let me."
His fingers were surprisingly warm to the touch. They curled about her hand in a gentle, yet undeniably possessive grip. Something perverse inside her encouraged her to pull from his touch. As if he anticipated her action his fingers tightened as he helped her to her feethis grip holding her hand captive.
He slid the platinum band, inlaid with baguette-cut white diamonds, onto her ring finger. As the overhead light caught the sparkle and fire in the stones, Belinda fought to control the tremor that quaked through her body, the sensation of having been branded Luc Tanner's property. A shocking sense of déjà vu swamped her as the image of Luc placing the ring on her finger in another time and place filled her mind. A remembered thrill of excitement and anticipation surged through her.
She fought to hold on to the impression, the fleeting consciousness of her lost months, but it dissipated as quickly as it had come, leaving her feeling empty and alone.
Belinda became aware of Luc's long fingers sliding another ring on her finger, bringing it up over her knuckle to nestle against the wedding band. The radiant-cut blue-grey diamond burned with cold fire, the shoulders of its setting decorated with smaller baguette-cut white diamonds. She gasped aloud at the size and beauty of the stone.
"Did did I choose this?"
Luc's dark brows pulled together, making him appear even more formidable than before. "You don't remember this, either? For a moment I thought you did."
Somehow he'd sensed her flash of memory when he'd put on her wedding band. The implication of how well he understood her was unnerving, more unnerving perhaps than even the knowledge that she couldn't remember a single thing about him.
"No," she replied on a whisper. "I remember nothing."
"I commissioned the ring for you the day I met you."
"The day we met? But how...?" Belinda looked up at him in surprise.
Luc's gaze held hers. "I knew from that day you would be my wife."
Her laugh sounded forced, even to her ears. "And did I have any say in the matter?"
"Belinda." He pronounced each syllable of her name with care, making it sound like a caress. "You loved me before. You will love me again."
He lifted her hand to his lips, and pressed a kiss against her knuckles. His lips were surprisingly cool and an unexpected quiver of longing spread through her. What would it feel like if he kissed her? Would that unlock their past, the memories entrapped within her mind?
Luc drew her to his side, the imprint of his body heat seeped through her light clothing and deeper, to her skin. She pulled away, just enough to break the unnerving contact that had already sent her pulse into an erratic beat. His body felt unfamiliar, yet she was drawn to him at the same time. Surely if they had been married, been intimate together, she would have some physical memory imprinted in her psyche?
"The helicopter is waiting. We can't obstruct the hospital helipad for any longer than absolutely necessary."
"Helicopter? We aren't driving? Just how far are we going?"
"Tautara Estate is southeast of Lake Taupo. Perhaps being back there will assist in triggering a memory for you."
"Lake Taupo, but that's almost a four-hour drive from here. What if...?" Her voice trailed away helplessly. What if, indeed? There'd be no one there to help her if the fears that plagued the edge of her consciousness became more than she could bear.
"What if ?" Luc prompted, his lips a thin implacable line across his face.
"Nothing." Belinda dropped her head slightly, allowing the fullness of her hair to cover her face, to hide the sudden tears that stung her eyes. Everything inside her screamed that this was wrong, but she couldn't, for the life of her, remember why. The doctors had told her her memory should return in time, that she should stop trying to force things, but right now the black void in her mind threatened to overwhelm her.
"Then let's go."
Belinda walked two steps with Luc then halted, her sudden stop sending him slightly off balance. She noticed he used the cane to regain his stability. Was he fully recovered himself? She already sensed it was a question she couldn't ask, sensed he was too proud to admit to physical failure or weakness. Pulling from Luc's hold, she turned to her father, holding her arms out for a hug.
"I'll see you later, then, Dad. You'll give my love to Mum?" She searched his face once more for any inkling of why she felt as if she'd been shucked off like last year's haute couture, but he refused to fully meet her gaze. Instead he wrapped her in his arms and held her as if he'd never let her go.
"Yes, I will. She wasn't up to today's visit but we will see you soon," Baxter Wallace said, his voice thick.
"Baxter." Luc's voice cut through the air with the precision of fine steel, and her father's arms dropped to his side.
"Go on, darling, everything will be all right. Just wait and see," he urged.
"Of course everything will be all right. Why wouldn't it be?" Luc tucked Belinda's arm in the crook of his and guided her out the door.
Later, as the helicopter lifted from the pad, Belinda tried to remember why she'd been so excited when the doctor had told her she'd be discharged this afternoon. Now she felt anything but. She had nothing with her but the clothes on her back and the rings on her fingerrings that felt as foreign to her as the man who was her husband. She didn't even have so much as a pair of sunglasses to ward off the sharp late-summer-afternoon light.
She cast a glance forward to her husband who sat next to the pilot in the cockpit. Her husband. No matter what they said, he was a stranger, and deep in her heart she knew he'd remain that way for a long, long time.
You loved me before. You will love me again.
His words echoed in her mind and as they did it occurred to her he'd said nothing of his feelings for her. Not one word of love had passed his lips from the moment she'd set eyes on him. The realisation sat like a cold ball of lead in the pit of stomach.
Relief poured through Luc's aching bones as his Eurocopter Squirrel neared Tautara Estateso named because of its position on the hilltop overlooking a small tributary river to New Zealand's largest lake. He conciously fought to stop himself from rubbing his hip to ease the ache of sitting in the confines of the cockpit of the helicopter. He'd accepted he was unable, at this time anyway, to pilot the craft himself. His recovery from the broken hip and torn spleen had taken longer than expected when a bone infection had delayed his rehabilitation.