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Voices, distant and jumbled, echoing from somewhere in the darkness, somewhere just out of reach, beckoned to her.
"You wake up now," a woman said in thickly accented English. "Dios, it's time for you to stop this sleeping. Señora, can you hear me?"
She tried to respond but couldn't, though the voice had become familiar and kind, one of the voices that ebbed and flowed on the tide of her consciousness. She'd heard many voices often in the darkness and knew that they were friendly. They were voices she could count on, voices that would helpunlike the voices in her dreams, the voices that caused her to scream in silent horror as she replayed the chase through the jungle over and over.
If only she could open her eyes.
"Señoracan you hear me? ¿Señora?" The nurse was trying to talk to her again. "Your husband
he is here. Waiting for you to wake up."
Husband. But I don't have a husband
She swallowed. Lord, was that sand in her throat? And the taste in her mouthhorrid and bitter. Metallic. Her stomach burned and her eyelids peeled back for an instant. Light streamed through the swollen slits, causing an explosion of pain in her brain. In an instant, she saw a huge woman leaning over hera woman in white, with large breasts, worried expression, dark skin and black hair pulled into a tight bun covered with a stiff white nurse's cap.
Intelligent brown eyes stared into hers, and the nurse began speaking in rapid-fire Spanish that she couldn't begin to understand. Where was she? A hospital, she guessed, but where?
She couldn't focus, couldn't read the name on the pin clipped to the nurse's huge bosom. "The doctor, he is on his way, and your husband, we have told him you are waking up."
I'm not married, she tried to say, but the words wouldn't form, and another wave of blackness engulfed her.
she is sinking again
" More Spanish as the nurse barked orders.
The darkness was peaceful and calm and cool.
"We are losing her again!" the big nurse's voice called from the darkness. "¡Señora! ¡Señora! You wake up. You just wake up again!" She felt strong fingers around her wrist, moving quickly, trying to edge her back to consciousness, but the sinking had begun and she floated steadily downward to the black void, grateful for the relief it brought.
"Nikki!" A man's voice called to her, but it was too late.
"Your wife, she will wake up soon," the nurse said.
I'm no one's wife. I'm
Panic seized her as she searched for a name, a memory, anything she could recall. But there was nothing.
"Nikki, please. Wake up." The husband again. Husband? Her eyes fluttered for a second and she focused on a hard face, a very male face. Severe, bladed features, thick brows and stormy blue eyes pierced through the fog in her mind. His lips were thin and sensual, his nose a little crooked, and she was certain that she'd never seen him before in her life.
"Nikki, come on. Wake up
But the darkness washed over her again, pulling her into its safe, silent vortex, to a place where she didn't have to wonder about her past and she didn't have to think why this man, this stranger, was claiming to be her husband.
The fragrance of carnations and roses drifted through the ever-present odor of antiseptic, and she heard music, a soft Spanish ballad interrupted by occasional bouts of static as the melody drifted through her sleep, dragging her awake. She tried to stretch, but her muscles rebelled and she felt as if she'd been lying in one spot forever. She ached all over and her headLord, her headpounded with an intensity that brought tears to her eyes.
Slowly lifting a painful eyelid, she stared at a ceiling of white plaster. The lights were dim, but waning daylight streamed through a single window and kept the room from total darkness. She blinked and swept her gaze around the rooma hospital room, from the looks of it, with white stucco walls, tile floor and two single beds, one bare of bedding and unoccupied.
She felt, rather than saw, the man. Turning her head slightly and sucking in air against the pain, she faced a stranger who was slouched in the single chair. Unshaven, shirt wrinkled and rolled at the sleeves, jean-clad legs stretched in front of him, he was tall and swarthy, his features set and grim, his lips clamped shut in a harsh, thin line. His gaze was trained past her to the hallway door, and the sound of the music accompanied muted voices and the rattle of a cart being pushed through the corridor.
A tingle of foreboding touched all her nerve endings when she looked at him. There had to be a reason he was herebut what? And who was he? Mean-looking, with a square jaw that meant business and shoulders wide enough to hide the back of the chair, he appeared not to have slept for the past week. Aside from his rumpled clothes, his black hair was mussed and hung past his collar, and there was an air about him that seemed almost dangerous.
As if he suddenly sensed that she was staring at him, his gaze swung quickly back to the bed, and eyes as blue as the Caribbean focused on her with such unerring intensity that a shiver of dread chased up her spine. Don't be silly, she told herself. He's obviously a friend. And yet there was something disturbing about him, something she should remember, something important. Something desperate. She tried to remember, but pain screamed through her head.
She expected him to smile, but instead the corners of a blade-thin mouth tightened a bit when he saw that she was awake.
Was that her name? It seemed to fit, and yet
She tried to say something, ask him who he was, but her voice failed her and her mouth felt gritty and dry. She licked her lips and tried to sit up, but pain exploded in her head.
"Hey, wait a minute." He was on his feet in an instant, big, callused palms pressing gently on her shoulders as he held her down. "Take it slow, Nikki. You'll get your chance to talk, believe me."
He knew her, but she was certain she'd never seen him before in her life____No, there had been an instant of wakefulness when these same cold blue eyes had searched hers. She willed herself to remember, but the pain in her head caused her to wince and she felt like she might throw up. There was something she should know about him. Something important.
He offered her a sip of water from a glass on the table, bending a straw so that she could drink. The water was warm and tasted slightly metallic, and after a few swallows she shook her head and he set the glass back on the tray.
who are you?" she asked, her voice rough and squeaky, like a neglected instrument that needed tuning.
For just a second she thought his eyes slitted suspiciously. "You don't know?"
" Panic gripped her as she searched her memory, or what had been her memory. Nothing surfaced. Nothing. Not just about this man or this hospital or herself. "I..I don't remember
." But how could that be? She tried to concentrate, but no single event of her pastno person, no place, no favorite pet or bookwould swim to the surface of her memory. "Oh, Lord," she whispered, her heart hammering, her palms beginning to sweat. "I don't remember
He shoved his hair from his eyes and seemed about to say something, but stopped himself short, and the sharp glance he shot her way said, without words, that he didn't believe her.
"Who are you?" she demanded. She knew instinctively that she shouldn't show any kind of weakness to this man.
"You're serious about this amnesia?" he scoffed in a whisper. "I don't"
Suddenly he leaned over the bed, took her face between his hands and pressed his lips upon hers with the intimacy of a kiss that bespoke of a thousand kisses before. His lips molded against hers with a warm possession, and her heart, already beating in fear, began a wild tempo that pulsed through her veins. He groaned softly into her mouth and whispered, "I've missed you, Nikki. Oh, God, I was scared." His lips claimed hers again with a depth of passion that caused her to tremble and melt inside before she could collect her senses.
Stop this madness. Stop it now!
Even though his mouth and hands were persuasive, she couldn't respond, because deep in her heart she knew the kiss wasn't rightthe passion and caring of this man were all wrong. There wasn't any logic involved in her thinking, just a gut feeling that the man wasn't being honest with her. She tried to struggle, but the IV tube in her arm restrained her and his mouth moved slowly, sensually against hers.
"Thank God you're safe." Again he kissed her.
A quiet cough from the doorway caused him to stand straight and flush up the back of his neck. Embarrassed, he managed a smile for the nurse who filled the doorway. "She's awake," he said, shrugging with the innocent guile of a child caught stealing a cookie from the jar. All trace of the coldness she'd sensed in him had been quickly hidden.
"Dios. We thank the Virgin." The nurse, a big, buxom woman with copper-colored skin and eyes as black as obsidian, moved to Nikki's bedside. Smothering a smile over the tender scene she just witnessed, she shooed the man back away from the bed where he suddenly hung like a lovesick puppy.
Nikki tried to explain. "I don't know what's going on, but"
"Shh, señora. Please." With trained fingers, Nurse Consuela Vásquez, according to the name tag pinned to her ample bosom, took Nikki's pulse, blood pressure and temperature. Nikki tried to protest, to ask questions, but she was told by the big woman to wait. "First we see how you are doing. Then you tell us everything. Okay?"
Impatiently Nikki waited, wanting to wiggle from beneath the stranger's stare, for his eyes, as she was examined, never left her. Finally, when Nurse Vásquez had checked the IV bag and scratched Nikki's vital information on her chart, she offered Nikki a sincere and relieved smile. "Well, Señora Makinzee, you wake up. ¿Qué tal se siente hoy?"
Nikki's brows drew together and she shook her head. "I
I don't understand. I don't speak Spanish."
"She wants to know how you feel," the man interjected.
"Like I've been run over by an eighteen-wheeler."
The corners of the stranger's mouth curved upward just a little as he explained to the nurse, and Consuela Vásquez chuckled.
"Sí. You are lucky to be alive. Your husband
he save your life."
Nikki's gaze moved to the man leaning over the bed. He wasn't smiling any longer and his gaze had suddenly become unreadable. Like a chameleon, always changing. "He did?" she whispered, her heart hammering and sweat collecting along her spine. She wanted to confide in the nurse, to explain about the frightening blackness that seemed to be in the spot that should have held her memory, but hesitated, wondering if it would be wise to admit as much while this manthis man who had kissed her so passionately while she was lying helplessly in the bedwas standing nearby. "My husband? But I'm not married."
The nurse's smile collapsed. "He is your husband, señora."
Nikki shook her head, but a jagged streak of pain ripped through her brain and she was forced to draw in a sharp breath. "I'm not married," she said again, her gaze locking with that of the stranger, the man claiming to have married her. Was it her imagination or did the skin around the corners of his mouth tighten a little?
"But, Señor Makinzee"
"McKenzie. Trent McKenzie." His eyes didn't warm as he said, "You remember, we were married just before we came to Salvaje for our honeymoon."
Dear God, was he telling the truth? Why would he lie? But certainly she would remember her own wedding.
"My name is" She squinted against the blinding pain, trying to see through the door that was locked in her mind.
"Nikki Carrothers," Trent supplied.
That sounded right. It fit, like a favorite pair of old slippers.
"Nikki Carrothers McKenzie."
The slippers were suddenly too tight. "I don't think so," she said uncertainly. Could she possibly have been married to this man? Eyeing him, she mentally removed several days' growth of beard, the tired lines of strain around his eyes, the unkempt hair. He could be considered handsome, she supposed. He was just shy of six feet with a thick chest that tapered to slim hips and muscles that were visible whenever he moved. Lean and mean. For there wasn't a trace of kindness in his eyes and she knew that undying love wasn't one of the reasons he'd had for staying at her bedside.
"No memory?" the nurse asked.
Try, Nikki, try. She squeezed her eyes shut for a second, willing her memoriesher lifeto come back to her. "None. just can't," she reluctantly admitted, her head throbbing.
Consuela's worried expression deepened. "Dr. Padilla will be in soon. He will talk to you." She turned questioning eyes to Trent and then, after promising a sponge bath and breakfast and a pill for pain, she hurried out the door with a rustle of her crisp uniform. Trent followed the nurse into the corridor, and though Nikki strained to listen, she heard only snatches of their conversation which was spoken in whispered Spanish. What was she doing here in this foreign countryin a hospital, for God's sakewith no memory?
Her heart thudded and she tried to raise her arms. Her left was strapped to the bed, the IV taped to her wrist. Her right was free, but ached when she tried to move it. In fact, now that the pain in her head had eased to a dull throb, she realized that she hurt all over. Her legs and torsoeverywherefelt bruised and battered.
Your husband. He save your life.
Her throat tightened. What was she doing with Trent McKenzie?
She glanced around the room, to the thick stucco walls and single window. Fading sunlight was streaming through the fronds of a palm tree that moved in the wind just outside the glass, causing shadows to play on the wall at the foot of her bed. The window was partially opened and the scent of the sea wafted through the room, mingling with the fragrance of the roses, two dozen red buds interspersed with white carnations in a vase on the metal stand near the table.
The card had been opened. Pinned to a huge white bow, it read: "All my love, Trent." These flowers were from that hard-edged man who claimed he was married to her? Nikki tried to imagine Trent McKenzie, in a florist's shop, browsing over vases of cut lilies, bachelor's buttons and orchids. She couldn't. The man who'd camped out in her hospital room was tough and suspicious and had a cruel streak in his eyes. No way would he have sent f lowers. And no way would she have married him.
But why would he lie?
If only she could remember. Her head began to throb again.