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The hospital room was dimly lit and silent except for the faint voices coming from the television mounted on the wall opposite the bed.
Willa Tyler had insisted that the television be on day and night in the room despite the fact that the man in the bed had been in a coma for the past six months. She liked to believe that somewhere in the sleeping recesses of his mind he might hear the sound of laughter from a sitcom and want to join the fun.
Even though it was late and she was officially off duty, she always made his room her last stop before heading home.
She moved silently into the room and for a moment just stood and looked at him. He was something of a miracle patient. He'd been found on the side of the road, more dead than alive after having been hit by a drunk driver.
Nobody had expected him to live through that first night, but he'd hung on and over the past six months all his physical injuries had healed. But his mind remained asleep and Willa was beginning to wonder if he'd ever wake up again.
"I figured you'd be in here."
Willa turned around and smiled at Nancy Baker, her supervisor. "I wanted to check his vitals one last time before I headed home."
"Girl, you should be spending your time off getting to know some of the handsome bachelors that Grand Forks, North Dakota, has to offer instead of in here with a man who can't even talk to you."
Willa smiled. "Eventually maybe I'll meet some of those bachelors, but in the meantime I've got a date tonight with a good mattress and it's quite possible I'll be there until noon tomorrow."
Nancy smiled. "That sounds good, but you need a little fun in your life, Willa. You're much too pretty and young to spend all your time here at the hospital or in your bed alone. Enjoy your time off and I'll see you Monday morning."
As she disappeared from the doorway Willa approached the man in the bed. He was a bit thin with black hair cut short. She knew that beneath his long-lashed lids, his eyes were a startling blue…but only because she'd been standing next to the doctor when he'd checked John Doe's pupils on a number of occasions.
His features were sharply defined. He had a strong, straight nose, lips that looked as if they might be soft and a firm and slightly square chin. Definitely a handsome man. The doctor had guessed him to be in his late twenties or early thirties.
With a small sigh, Willa checked his vitals, pleased to find them all normal. Nancy had said she shouldn't be spending her free time with a man who couldn't talk to her, but whenever Willa was near John Doe she felt a strange connection to him.
There were moments she imagined she could hear his deep voice in her head, softly whispering her name. It was crazy and she assumed it was because she'd been his nurse for so long.
As a trauma nurse she rarely had long-term care of any patient, but from the moment John Doe had been brought in she'd fought to be part of the team working to keep him alive.
With his vital signs checked there was really nothing more for her to do, but still she lingered next to him. "I wish you'd wake up," she said softly. "You've been sleeping for a very long time."
She fought the impulse to run her hand across his jaw, to gently touch the lips that looked so soft. Instead she straightened the sheet that covered him. "I hope at least you're having pleasant dreams," she whispered close to his ear.
The two simple words burst into her head. Wistful thinking, she thought. She often imagined his voice in her head, thanking her for taking care of him, for talking and spending time with him.
Exhausted from the long day, knowing there was nothing more she could do for him, Willa left his room and headed for the hospital exit.
The warm April night air held a hint of the smell of newly budded flowers and sweet spring grass, a welcome change from the antiseptic scent of the hospital.
She'd only been in Grand Forks, North Dakota, for a year now. She'd moved here from Kansas City following the painful breakup with a man she thought she'd eventually marry.
Pulling her keys from her purse as she approached her car, she shoved thoughts of Paul out of her head. Water under the bridge, she told herself. She'd come here for a fresh start and so far she was pleased with the life she was carving out. She tried not to think about the loneliness that often haunted her.
It took her exactly five minutes to get to the small but cozy house she'd bought when she'd first moved here. Once inside she threw her keys on the kitchen table, pulled the ponytail holder from her shoulder-length blond hair and unbuttoned the top of her pink scrub.
A shower, then bed, she thought. Her feet ached and she was bone weary. She passed through the living room, with its warm earth-tone colors, and into her bedroom.
The double-size bed called to her, but she knew a nice hot shower would unkink tight muscles and make her sleep better. It was far too early on a Friday night to be going to bed, but after a week of long hours she had no desire to stay up.
Within minutes she was naked and standing in the shower beneath a hot spray of water. She loved her work, but there was no question that it could be tense and exhausting. Friday nights she was always ready for a couple of days off.
"The next two days are your own," she muttered to herself as she stepped out of the shower and grabbed the awaiting fluffy towel.
Most of her days off since moving here had been spent working on the house. She'd painted walls, sanded woodwork and had even managed to install a new black sink to replace the old stained white one in the kitchen.
She slid her red silk nightgown over her head and left the bathroom, deciding to forbid herself to work on the house during the next two days. She'd find a park and take a walk, maybe go to the library for some new books to read.
She frowned. Nancy would disapprove of a solitary walk or curling up with a book as pastimes. But Nancy hadn't had her heart broken by a snake named Paul.
Willa would love to have somebody special in her life, but the next time she'd expect more. She wouldn't settle for a man who held tight to his own heart, who refused to share all the pieces of himself as she shared hers.
She'd make sure he was old enough to have sown all his wild oats and yet young enough, exciting enough, to make her heart beat fast.
Until the moment Paul had broken up with her she hadn't realized that she'd been the one who had done all the giving in the relationship and he had done nothing but take. She hadn't seen the relationship unraveling, hadn't seen the end coming until it was upon her.
She turned on her bedside lamp, then turned off the overhead light and slid into bed, her tired bones melting into the comfortable mattress.
This was one of the loneliest times of the day for her, when she got home from work and had nobody to talk to, nobody to share the events of her day.
Other than her coworkers at the hospital she hadn't made new friends. Willa didn't remember her father, who had walked out on her and her mother when she'd been four, and her mother had passed away five years ago after a long battle with cancer.
Sometimes she thought that the reason she'd stayed with Paul was simply because she hadn't wanted to acknowledge just how alone she was in the world.
You're not alone.
The deep voice whispered in her head and brought with it a measure of comfort. This time she didn't question where the voice came from, only that occasionally it was there.
The first time she'd heard it, about four months ago, she'd thought maybe it was a memory of the voice of her father. Then she'd decided that it was the voice of her patient John Doe. In truth she figured it was probably nothing more than a crazy manifestation of her own loneliness.
She reached up and turned off her lamp, plunging the room into semidarkness as a sliver of illumination from the streetlamp outside drifted into the partially closed curtains. Sleep edged in quickly and she closed her eyes, giving in to it without a fight.
He came out of the darkness, first a tall, lean shadow in her room, then as the light found his face she recognized him as the man she knew as John Doe.
Somewhere in the strange world of slumber, she knew it was a dream, but it felt more real than anything she'd experienced in a very long time.
"You," she whispered. He wore a pair of hospital pants, the pale blue cotton material hanging low on his lean hips. "John."
It didn't occur to her to be afraid as he moved closer. "Not John. My name is Jared," he said. His voice was as deep and rich as she'd imagined it would be.
He sat at the bottom of the bed and reached beneath the blankets and captured one of her feet in his hand. "Your feet hurt," he said and began to massage her with his warm hands. "You've been on them all day."
"How did you know?" she asked as rivulets of warmth raced up her legs at his touch.
He smiled. "I know." His smile was sexy and warmed the blue of his eyes and softened his bold features.
As he reached for her other foot, she thought of all the things she wanted to ask him, but as his hands moved up to her calves and he caressed with slow hot fingers, all her questions fled from her mind.
She didn't want to talk, she just wanted to enjoy this dream of him with her, touching her. When he'd finished stroking her legs, he moved from the foot of the bed to stretch out beside her.
He rose up over her, his blue eyes flaming with desire as he took her lips with his in a kiss that stole her breath with its ravenous hunger.
She met his tongue with hers, loving the taste of him, the scent of him that filled the air. He didn't smell like the hospital; rather he smelled like a fresh clean breeze and a hot, hungry male.
His hands were hot against her silk gown as he stroked down the length of her body. He cupped her breasts through the material and her body responded, arching up to him, wanting more…more.
It was crazy. It was wild, and within minutes he'd removed her nightgown and his mouth moved to capture one of her nipples.
He raised his head to look at her. "You are so beautiful. You've taken such good care of me. I want you, I want to give to you."
His mouth captured hers once again and she was lost in him, in the dream that spun wildly out of control as they made love….
She came awake with a sharp gasp and for a moment was shocked to find herself alone in the bed with her nightgown still on. Glancing around the room, she assured herself that no sexy man stood in the shadows.
"Wow," she muttered aloud and reached to turn on her lamp. She sat up and looked around once again, half expecting John Doe to be sitting in the chair in the corner, or leaning against the wall next to her bed. It had been so real. She'd never had a dream that had felt so real.
A glance at her clock let her know it was just after midnight. Her heart still beat with a quickened rhythm. What a dream. She'd never experienced anything as erotic, as wonderful, before.
She still felt the sweet sensations his caresses had evoked, still burned with the fire of desire.
She ran a hand though her hair and realized that falling back to sleep immediately wasn't an option. Her heart still beat too fast and she definitely needed something cold to drink.
Drawing a deep breath, she swung her legs over the side of the bed and stood, surprised that her body continued to tingle with the residual sensations of his touch.
It had felt so real and in that moment of abrupt awakeness she'd been disappointed to realize it had just been a crazy dream. Maybe Nancy was right and she did need a boyfriend, she thought.
She left her bedroom and walked through the living room to the kitchen, still reeling from the vision of John Doe in her bed. She grabbed a glass from the cabinet and filled it with cold water. She raised it to her lips.
The voice thundered. With a startled gasp she dropped the glass. It hit the edge of the sink and shattered into pieces.
She whirled around from the sink and stared around the kitchen, but there was nobody there. She pressed her hands on either side of her head, wondering if she were losing her mind.