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She opened her eyes to another world.
A world filled with grainy grayness, like a TV channel with no transmission. But she didn't care.
This world had an angel watching over her.
And not just any angel. An archangel. If archangels were the personification of beauty and power, were hewn out of living rock and bronze and unadulterated maleness.
His image floated in the jumble of light and shadow, making her wonder if this was a dream. Or a hallucination. Or worse.
Probably worse. In spite of the angel's presence. Or because of it. Angels didn't watch over anyone who wasn't in some serious trouble, did they?
Would be a shame if he turned out to be the angel of death. Why make him so breathtaking if he was just a life-force extractor? He was way overqualified. Such overkill was uncalled for, if you asked her. Or maybe his extreme attractiveness was designed to make his targets willing to go where he led?
She'd be more than willing. If she could move.
She couldn't. Gravity overwhelmed her, squashed her back onto something that suddenly felt like a bed of thorns. Every cell in her body started to squirm, every nerve firing impulses. But the cells had no connection to each other and the nerves were unable to muster one spark of voluntary movement. Distress bombarded her, noise rose in her ears, pounding, nauseating her….
His face came closer, stilled the vertigo, swept over the cacophony, stifling it.
Her turmoil subsided. She didn't have to fight the pull of gravity, didn't have to fear the paralysis.
He was here. And he'd take care of everything.
She had no idea how she knew that. But she knew it.
She knew him.
Not that she had any idea who he was.
But everything inside her told her that she was safe, that everything would be okay. Because he was here.
Now if only she could get any part of her to work.
She shouldn't feel so inert upon waking up. But was she waking up? Or was she dreaming? That would explain the detachment between brain and body. That would explain him. He was too much to be real.
But she knew he was real. She just knew she wasn't imaginative enough to have made him up.
She knew something else, too. This man was important. In general. And to her, he was more than important. Vital.
Was that his voice? That dark, fathomless caress?
It so suited the sheer magnificence of his face….
"Can you hear me?"
Boy, could she. She more than heard him. His voice spread across her skin, her pores soaking it up as if they were starved for nourishment. It permeated her with its richness, its every inflection sparking an inert nerve, restarting a vital process, reviving her.
"Cybele, if you can hear me, if you're awake this time, por favor, answer me."
Por favor? Spanish? Figured. So that's where the tinge of an accent came from—English intertwining with the sensuous music of the Latin tongue. She wanted to answer him. She wanted him to keep talking. Each syllable out of those works of art he had for lips, crooned in that intoxicating voice, was lulling her back to oblivion, this time a blissful one.
His face filled her field of vision. She could see every shard of gold among the emerald, moss and caramel that swirled into a luminous color she was certain she'd never seen except in his eyes.
She wanted to stab her fingers into the lushness of his raven mane, cup that leonine head, bring him even closer so she could pore over every strand's hue and radiance. She wanted to trace each groove and slash and plane that painted his face in complexity, wanted to touch each radiation of character.
This was a face mapped with anxiety and responsibility and distinction. She wanted to absorb the first, ease the second and marvel at the third. She wanted those lips against her own, mastering, filling her with the tongue that wrapped around those words and created such magic with them.
She knew she shouldn't be feeling anything like that now, that her body wasn't up to her desires. Her body knew that, but didn't acknowledge its incapacitation. It just needed him, close, all that maleness and bulk and power, all that tenderness and protection.
She craved this man. She'd always craved him.
"Cybele, por Dios, say something."
It was the raggedness, tearing at the power of his voice, that stirred her out of her hypnosis, forced her vocal cords to tauten, propelled air out of her lungs through them to produce the sound he demanded so anxiously.
"I c-can hear you…."
That came out an almost soundless rasp. From the way he tilted his ear toward her mouth, it was clear he wasn't sure whether she had produced sound or if he'd imagined it, whether it had been words or just a groan.
She tried again. "I'm a-awake…I think…I hope, a-and I h-hope you're r-real…."
She couldn't say anything more. Fire lanced in her throat, sealing it with a molten agony. She tried to cough up what felt like red-hot steel splinters before they burned through her larynx. Her sand-filled eyes gushed tears, ameliorating their burning dryness.
And he was all around her. He raised her, cradled her in the curve of a barricade of heat and support, seeping warmth into her frozen, quivering bones. She sank in his power, surrendered in relief as he cupped her head.
"Don't try to talk anymore. You were intubated for long hours during your surgery and your larynx must be sore."
Something cool touched her lips, then something warm and spicily fragrant lapped at their parched seam. Not his lips or his tongue. A glass and a liquid. She instinctively parted her lips and the contents rushed in a gentle flow, filling her mouth.
When she didn't swallow, he angled her head more securely. "It's a brew of anise and sage. It will soothe your throat."
He'd anticipated her discomfort, had been ready with a remedy. But why was he explaining? She would swallow anything he gave her. If she could without feeling as if nails were being driven into her throat. But he wanted her to. She had to do what he wanted.
She squeezed her eyes against the pain, swallowed. The liquid slid through the rawness, its peppery tinge bringing more tears to her eyes. That lasted only seconds. The soreness subsided under the balmy taste and temperature.
She moaned with relief, feeling rejuvenated with every encouraging sweep of tenderness that his thumb brushed over her cheek as she finished the rest of the glass's contents.
The solicitude in his voice, in his eyes, thundered through her. She shuddered under the impact of her gratitude, her need to hide inside him, dissolve in his care. She tried to answer him, but this time it was emotion that clogged her throat.
But she had to express her thankfulness.
His face was so close, clenched with concern, more magnificent in proximity, a study of perfection in slashes of strength and carvings of character. But haggardness had sunk redness into his eyes, iron into his jaw, and the unkemptness of a few days' growth of rough silk over that jaw and above those lips caused her heart to twist. The need to absorb his discomforts and worries as he had hers mushroomed inside her.
She turned her face, buried her lips into his hewn cheek. The bristle of his beard, the texture of his skin, the taste and scent of him tingled on her flesh, soaked into her senses. A gust of freshness and virility coursed through her, filled her lungs. His breath, rushing out on a ragged exhalation.
She opened her lips for more just as he jerked around to face her. It brought his lips brushing hers. And she knew.
This was the one thing she'd needed. This intimacy. With him.
Something she'd always had before and had missed?
Something she'd had before and had lost? Something she'd never had and had long craved?
It didn't matter. She had it now.
She glided her lips against his, the flood of sensuality and sweetness of her flesh sweeping against his sizzling through her.
Then her lips were cold and bereft, the enclosure of muscle and maleness around her gone.
She slumped against what she now realized was a bed.
Where had he gone? Had it all been a hallucination? A side effect of emerging from a coma?
Her eyes teared up again with the loss. She turned her swimming head, searching for him, terrified she'd find only emptiness.
Far from emptiness, she registered her surroundings for the first time, the most luxurious and spacious hospital suite she'd ever seen. But if he wasn't there…
Her darting gaze and hurtling thoughts came to an abrupt halt.
He was there. Standing where he'd been when she'd first opened her eyes. But his image was distorted this time, turning him from an angel into a wrathful, inapproachable god who glowered down at her with disapproval.
She blinked once, then again, her heart shedding its sluggish rhythm for frantic pounding.
It was no use. His face remained cast in coldness. Instead of the angel she'd thought would do anything to protect her, this was the face of a man who'd stand aside and brood down at her as she drowned.
She stared up at him, something that felt as familiar as a second skin settling about her. Despondence.
It had been an illusion. Whatever she'd thought she'd seen on his face, whatever she'd felt flooding her in waves, had been her disorientation inventing what she wanted to see, to feel.
"It's clear you can move your head. Can you move everything else? Are you in any pain? Blink if it's too uncomfortable to talk. Once for yes, twice for no."
Tears surged into her eyes again. She blinked erratically. A low rumble unfurled from his depths. Must be frustration with her inability to follow such a simple direction.
But she couldn't help it. She now recognized his questions for what they were. Those asked of anyone whose consciousness had been compromised, as she was now certain hers had been. Ascertaining level of awareness, then sensory and motor functions, then pain level and site. But there was no personal worry behind the questions anymore, just clinical detachment.
She could barely breathe with missing his tenderness and anxiety for her well-being. Even if she'd imagined them.
"Cybele! Keep your eyes open, stay with me."
The urgency in his voice snapped through her, made her struggle to obey him. "I c-can't…."
He seemed to grow bigger, his hewn face etched with fierceness, frustration rippling off him. Then he exhaled. "Then just answer my questions, and I'll leave you to rest."
"I f-feel numb but…" She concentrated, sent signals to her toes. They wiggled. That meant everything in between them and her brain was in working order. "Seems…motor functions are…intact. Pain—not certain. I feel sore…like I've been flattened under a—a brick wall. B-but i-it's not pain indicating damage…"
Just as the last word was out, all aches seemed to seep from every inch of her body to coalesce in one area. Her left arm.
In seconds she shot beyond the threshold of containable pain into brain-shredding agony.
It spilled from her lips on a butchered keen. "M-my arm…"
She could swear he didn't move. But she found him beside her again, as if by magic, and cool relief splashed over the hot skewers of pain, putting them out.
She whimpered, realized what he'd done. She had an intravenous line in her right arm. He'd injected a drug—a narcotic analgesic from the instantaneous action—into the saline, flicked the drip to maximum.
"Are you still in pain?" She shook her head. He exhaled heavily. "That's good enough for now. I'll come back later…." He started to move away.
"No." Her good hand shot out without conscious volition, fueled by the dread that he'd disappear and she'd never see him again. This felt instinctive, engrained, the desperation that she could lose him. Or was it the resignation that he was already lost to her?
Her hand tightened around his, as if stronger contact would let her read his mind, reanimate hers, remind her what he'd been to her.
He relinquished her gaze, his incandescent one sweeping downward to where her hand was gripping his. "Your reflexes, motor power and coordination seem to be back to normal. All very good signs you're recovering better than my expectations."
From the way he said that, she guessed his expectations had ranged from pessimistic to dismal. "That…should be…a relief."
"Should be? You're not glad you're okay?"
"I am. I guess. Seems…I'm not…all there yet." The one thing that made her feel anything definite was him. And he could have been a mile away with the distance he'd placed between them. "So…what happened…to me?"
The hand beneath hers lurched. "You don't remember?"
"It's all a…a blank."
His own gaze went blank for an endless moment. Then it gradually focused on her face, until she felt it was penetrating her, like an X-ray that would let him scan her, decipher her condition.
"You're probably suffering from post-traumatic amnesia. It's common to forget the traumatic episode."
Spoken like a doctor. Everything he'd said and done so far had pointed to him being one.
Was that all he was to her? Her doctor? Was that how he knew her? He'd been her doctor before the "traumatic episode" and she'd had a crush on him? Or had he just read the vital statistics on her admission papers? Had she formed dependence on and fascination for him when she'd been drifting in and out of consciousness as he'd managed her condition? Had she kissed a man who was here only in his professional capacity? A man who could be in a relationship, maybe married with children?
The pain of her suppositions grew unbearable. And she just had to know. "Wh-who are you?"
The hand beneath hers went still. All of him seemed to become rock, as if her question had a Medusa effect.
When he finally spoke, his voice had dipped an octave lower, a bass, slowed-down rasp, "You don't know me?"
"Sh-should I?" She squeezed her eyes shut as soon as the words were out. She'd just kissed him. And she was telling him that she had no idea who he was. "I know I should…b-but I can't r-remember."
Another protracted moment. Then he muttered, "You've forgotten me? "
She gaped up at him, shook her head, as if the movement would slot some comprehension into her mind. "Uh…I may have forgotten…how to speak, too. I had this…distinct belief language skills…are the last to go…e-even in total…memory loss. I thought…saying I can't remember you…was the same as saying…I forgot who y-you are."
His gaze lengthened until she thought he wouldn't speak again. Ever. Then he let out a lung-deflating exhalation, raked his fingers through his gleaming wealth of hair. "I'm the one who's finding it hard to articulate. Your language skills are in perfect condition. In fact, I've never heard you speak that much in one breath."
"M-many fractured…breaths…you mean."
He nodded, noting her difficulty, then shook his head, in wonder it seemed. "One word to one short sentence at a time was your norm."