মুখ্য What Dreams May Come

What Dreams May Come

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এই বইটি আপনার কতটা পছন্দ?
ফাইলের মান কিরকম?
মান নির্ণয়ের জন্য বইটি ডাউনলোড করুন
ডাউনলোড করা ফাইলগুলির মান কিরকম?
সাল:
1990
প্রকাশক:
Loveswept
ভাষা:
english
বইয়ের সিরিজ:
Once upon a Time...
ফাইল:
EPUB, 258 KB
ডাউনলোড (epub, 258 KB)

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আপনি একটি বুক রিভিউ লিখতে পারেন এবং আপনার অভিজ্ঞতা শেয়ার করতে পারেন. অন্যান্য পাঠকরা আপনার পড়া বইগুলির বিষয়ে আপনার মতামত সম্পর্কে সর্বদা আগ্রহী হবে. বইটি আপনার পছন্দ হোক বা না হোক, আপনি যদি নিজের সৎ ও বিস্তারিত চিন্তাভাবনা ব্যক্ত করেন তাহলে অন্যরা তাদের জন্য উপযুক্ত নতুন বইগুলি খুঁজে পাবে.
Contents

Synopsis

Prologue

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Epilogue





Synopsis




He'd been her first and only love, but when a tragic accident left John Mitchell in a coma a week before their wedding day, Kelly Russell was devastated. When the doctors told her he'd never come out of it, she refused to believe him... until the years began passing, and hope vanished. Now, shockingly, Mitch stood at her door -- determined to rekindle the love that fate had stolen from them a decade before! Kelly insisted that the girl he'd loved was gone, that the woman who'd mourned him and built a new life wasn't his any longer -- but she still wore the perfume he'd chosen for her... and she'd never stopped yearning for the enigmatic man who'd branded her soul with his fire. Mitch was even more drawn to this brave survivor, but did he want to cherish her so fiercely that he was holding on too tight? When unknown danger shadowed their reunion, Kelly vowed she wouldn't lose her beloved again. Could the power of love vanquish their ghosts?





To sleep: perchance to dream:

ay, there's the rub;

For in that sleep of death

what dreams may come . . .

—Shakespeare, Hamlet



Some come to take their ease

And sleep an act or two.

—Shakespeare, Henry VIII



The moon has set... it is midnight,

and time passes, and I sleep alone.

—Sappho





Prologue




February 14, 1980



"I can't accept that."

"You have to. It's been nearly two months; his condition hasn't changed in any way. We've called in every specialist available, and they all agree."

She stared out the window of the hospital waiting room, oblivious to the bleak, gray midwinter scene but feeling as cold as the rain trickling down the panes of glass. Unwilling to look at the familiar compassion in his tired eyes, she didn't turn to face the doctor.

Not again. She had gazed with desperate hope into those eyes day after day for weeks, praying for a different response from him. But day after day the doctor's weary eyes ; had remained pitying, offering no hope, and, with a tiny shake of his head, he always indicated there was no change.

The tearing pain and dreadful fear had turned into cold numbness, and she was grateful for it. It had been too much to bear, the pain and fear—and grief. Losing her brother so suddenly, and at the same time facing the possibility of losing Mitch as well. The first week had been the worst because nothing had been able to blunt the shock, and there had been so many things she'd had to take care of, arrangements to be made. Her parents had been devastated, and it had fallen on her to do what had to be done.

She had gotten through the funeral somehow, just as she had packed up Keith's things and put them in storage. She had dropped out of college for a semester, dividing her time between home and the hospital. The weeks had passed with agonizing slowness, and yet it seemed that only yesterday she had been eyeing gaily wrapped packages underneath a Christmas tree and waiting impatiently for Mitch to arrive at her house; Keith had gone to pick him up because Mitch's car had broken down the day before.

They never made it home that night. And now she was here, listening to a compassionate doctor's gentle voice telling her that the date she had made with Mitch on Christmas Eve would in all probability never be kept.

"He's alive," she said huskily without turning, clinging to that slim hope. "He's breathing on his own. And you said—you told me he wasn't brain dead."

The doctor sighed. "His brain is functioning, but we can't be sure there's been no damage. A coma of this duration almost inevitably means damage—"

"Almost," she murmured.

"Miss Russell, I can't be positive about anything. There's still so much we don't know about the brain. And, yes, people have survived comas of extended duration with little or no lasting damage. But those cases are so rare, they're only footnotes in the medical journals. The probability is that John Mitchell will never regain consciousness."

She was silent.

"I've spoken to his father," the doctor said tiredly. "He wants to move his son to a private constant-care facility."

"Why should he make that decision?" Her voice was tight now. "He never gave a damn about Mitch; he hasn't even been here since the accident."

"He has the right to make the decisions for his son because the court granted him legal guardianship; you know that. I understand they were estranged, but he has assumed responsibility for his son's welfare. The facility he's chosen is the best—but it's also five hundred miles away. There's no objection to your continuing to visit Mr. Mitchell."

"How kind," she said bitterly, knowing that visits would be nearly impossible once Mitch was moved so far away. She had to return to college, and to her part-time job; her family had little money.

The doctor drew a breath and made a final attempt. "Miss Russell, if you were my daughter, I'd give you the same advice I'm about to give you now: Get on with your life."

After a long moment she said, "Thank you, Dr. Ryan." Her voice was quiet, toneless.

He left the room, knowing that the attempt had failed. Kelly Russell wasn't prepared to bury John Mitchell.

Feeling very old, she stood at the window, her eighteenth birthday just months behind her. She pressed her fingers lightly against the cold glass and watched the rain trickle down. On the third finger of her slim hand a diamond solitaire caught the faint light and glittered.

They were too young, her parents had said worriedly. Especially she. But they had known Mitch since he and Keith had met in high school, and since he had told them quite firmly on Kelly's fifteenth birthday that he'd marry her as soon as she was old enough, they couldn't say they hadn't had time to get used to the idea. In love with her brother's best friend for as long as she could remember, Kelly had never wavered in her feelings— and neither had Mitch.

He had gone to college, working just as Keith had to put himself through school. Only after he graduated and found a good job had he announced —with Kelly's entire family present—his intention of marrying her. Reassuring her somewhat dazed parents, he had promised they'd wait until after Kelly graduated from high school. He had even been willing to wait while she went to college, but Kelly had protested that she could continue her schooling after they were married.

And so the date had been set. They had, she thought now dully, done everything right. Mitch had a good job with a healthy income and a promising future; he had been living in the apartment they'd chosen together while she continued to live with her family. They had seen each other on weekends and occasional evenings, spending the time planning their life together. They had done everything right. But they hadn't counted on fate.

She stared at the bright diamond on her finger, and for the first time in weeks felt the wetness of tears on her cheeks.

Today should have been her wedding day.

He blinked drowsily at the pattern of morning sunlight on the ceiling. The light was so bright it made his eyes hurt; he thought it must have snowed during the night, because the reflected glare was fierce.

He muttered a curse, and the cracked, hoarse sound of his own voice so startled him that the words broke off abruptly. His voice? That didn't sound like his voice. And there was something wrong with his eyes. No, one eye. Only his right eye seemed to be open. He felt coldness spread slowly inside him, and a nameless uneasiness stirred in his mind like something fearful rustling in the darkness. He wanted to sit up and fling back the covers, but was suddenly conscious of the heavy weight of his own body.

"Oh, my God ..."

The voice was feminine and unfamiliar. With a tremendous effort he managed to turn his head until he saw her. Through one eye, still only one eye, what was wrong with his left one? She was standing in the open doorway, dressed in the white uniform of a nurse. Her eyes were wide with shock, her pretty face pale, and she was gripping the doorjamb tightly.

"Who're you?" he muttered in that hoarse, rasping, foreign voice. Before she could answer, he realized that he was in a hospital bed, and the nameless fear stirred again in his mind. "Where the hell am I?" he demanded.

"I—I'll be right back, Mr. Mitchell," she whispered, and fled almost, it seemed, in a panic.

He nearly called her back, because he didn't want to be alone. He tried to sit up, and a cold sweat broke out on his brow when he realized it was impossible; he could feel muscles twitching, but there was no strength in them. Dear Lord, what had happened? Had he been injured somehow? Try as he would, he couldn't remember. With all his will he concentrated on lifting his right hand toward his face. The nurse had looked so shocked; had his face been damaged? Was that why he couldn't see out of his left eye? Did he look like some kind of monster?

He was lying flat on his back, and it was endless moments before he saw his hand wavering unsteadily, as if it weren't connected to the rest of him. He couldn't move his upper arm at all, but managed to move his head a little until his fingers touched his chin. With that accomplished, he was able to shakily explore the right side of his face. No bandages, no injuries that he could feel. Afraid of what he was going to find, he turned his head a bit more so that his fingers could reach the left side.

His teeth clamped together hard as he felt the sutures neatly closing his left eyelid. Fighting the queasiness rising in his throat, he forced himself to probe gently. Gone. His left eye was gone. But at least he was no monster; he couldn't find any other evidence of injury. There was definitely something more wrong, though. The bones of his face were too prominent, as if he'd lost a great deal of weight.

Sweating and panting from the effort, he allowed his hand to fall weakly back to his side. All right, then. He'd lost an eye. What about the rest of him? Why did his body feel so heavy, almost as if it didn't belong to him? Nearly groaning with the strain, he managed to lift his head a few inches so he could see himself. The reassuring presence of his feet under the blankets was obvious, and his left arm was there all right.

Dear God, was he paralyzed too?

He glared at his toes and willed them to move, rewarded finally with a twitch from each foot. He couldn't lift his left arm, but the fingers moved slightly. Exhausted, he let his head fall back as he tried to catch his breath, closing his eye and very conscious of his pounding heart.

He heard quick footsteps and opened his eye again to look up at the man bending over his bed. The white coat identified him as a doctor, and unlike the nurse, his eyes gleamed with excitement rather than panic.

"Do you know your name?" he said slowly and clearly.

"Of course I know my name. I'm John Mitchell." He was so annoyed by the question that his voice came out as little more than a growl. "Where the hell am I? A hospital? What happened?"

"Wait. Let me raise the head of the bed a little." The doctor pressed a button and the bed hummed.

Mitch could feel his body protesting the movement, and bit back a groan. His head swam dizzily, and he had to close his eye for a few moments until the nausea passed. When he was able to look again, the doctor was sitting in a chair by the bed and watching him intently.

"I'm Dr. Brady. Have you tried to move?"

"Yes. And I can. But just barely."

"Good. We were sure there was no spinal damage, but the muscles have weakened."

"Why can I barely move?" Mitch asked hoarsely. "What happened to me?"

"You were in an accident. A car accident, on Christmas Eve. Do you remember?"

Frowning, Mitch searched his mind. "No. I don't remember anything about that."

"Don't worry, it isn't unusual. You may never remember the hours just before the crash."

"How badly was I hurt?"

"A number of broken bones and some internal injuries. But all that has healed. Your left eye is gone, but there isn't much scarring and the socket's intact if you decide to use a glass eye." The doctor's voice was calm and impersonal. "You'll need physical therapy to get your muscles and nerves back in working order, and it'll take time, but you should be as good as new."

Mitch felt the dark stirrings in his mind again, the rustle of panic. He looked down at his body, looked at the arms that were too thin, remembered touching a face with little flesh. Holding his voice as steady as possible, he said, "Broken bones and internal injuries take time to heal. Lots of time. Why can't I remember that, Doc? What else happened to me?"

Softly, the doctor said, "You've been in a coma, Mr. Mitchell."

He understood what that meant, but only vaguely. A coma was like a sleep, a long sleep. His mind told him he had slept only a night, but his body—a new thought entered his mind, replacing the nameless fears with one that was very real.

"Was I alone?" he asked hoarsely. "In the car?"

The doctor frowned, studying him, then said slowly, "I was told a friend of yours was driving. The accident wasn't his fault; a drunk driver crossed the median and crashed into you."

Mitch felt cold. "Keith? How is he?"

"I'm sorry. He didn't make it."

The coldness spread through him. Keith . . . his best friend since the first year of high school, like a brother. Lord, what Kelly must be going through! Pain and grief ached inside him, but even that could no longer hold back the icy certainty that the accident had stolen more than his best friend and his eye.

"How long?" he demanded, bracing himself for a reply he somehow knew would be devastating. "How long have I been in a coma?"

Dr. Brady hesitated. "Mr. Mitchell, I want to remind you that you are extremely lucky to be alive. No one expected you to come out of the coma. With therapy, your physical condition should be optimum within a few months, a year at most. Judging by your coherency, I'd venture to say there's been no brain damage, though you may discover more gaps in your memory; that's always a possibility."

"How long?" Mitch repeated harshly.

The doctor drew a breath. "It's really remarkable in many ways, Mr. Mitchell. Today is the anniversary of your accident. Christmas Eve. December 24—1988."

It was worse than a shock, and no amount of bracing could protect against it. He couldn't breathe for a moment, and some wild, primitive cry of protest tangled violently in the back of his throat. Lost. Nine years lost forever. Nine years stolen while he slept. The whole world had gone on without him, seasons changing and lives lived and . . .

"Kelly," he whispered.





One




It was just a few days into February when Kelly opened her mail and found the clipping. There was no note, and no return address on the envelope; the postmark was smeared and unreadable. The clipping was from a major East Coast newspaper, but the article was a small one. The author of the piece seemed to feel that his information was newsworthy only because the situation was a bizarre one, and he clearly relished the odd coincidence of dates.

On Christmas Eve, 1979, John Mitchell had been involved in a car accident that had left him in a coma. On Christmas Eve, 1988, he had awakened, as if from a night's sleep.

There was more, a few bare facts. A battery of tests on Mitchell had found no brain damage. Intense physical therapy over months had repaired the ravages of the long coma, and doctors were astonished by his progress. There had been no setbacks, and the medical staff at the hospital was confident enough to anticipate no future ones.

For a long moment, as she stared at the clipping. Kelly felt nothing except distant shock. Then, as if a dam had burst inside her, a complex tangle of emotions washed through her. Happiness, relief, guilt, bitterness, anger. And last of all hurt, because Mitch had come out of the coma more than a year before.

He hadn't contacted her in any way.

She tried to be fair, reminding herself that he could have looked for her and simply not been able to find her. After all, she had learned to cover her tracks with all the caution of a hunted animal. The past ten years had taken her far from home, and no one who had known her then would even think to look for her in Tucson.

Kelly rose from her chair, the clipping still in her hand, and went to gaze out the window. The desert scenery was still unfamiliar, but already she was feeling the urge to move on. She had stayed here too long, months now. Her awareness of her surroundings was growing more intense, the urge to look over her shoulder stronger with every passing day.

It certainly was time to move on.

The phone rang, and Kelly crossed the living room of her tiny apartment and sat down on the couch to answer it. "Hello?"

"Miss Russell?"

"Yes?"

"Miss Russell, my name is Cyrus Fortune." His voice was soft and deep, and even over the phone the force of a strong yet curiously gentle personality was evident. "Your employers at ITC gave me this number; I hope you don't mind my calling you at home?"

"I don't mind. What can I do for you, Mr. Fortune?"

"Well, I'd like to offer you a job, Miss Russell. I understand that you enjoy traveling to different parts of the country to accept temporary assignments."

"Something like that," she murmured.

"I'm setting up a new company near Portland, Oregon, and I need a computer system designed. Are you interested?"

Oregon.

"Yes," she answered without giving herself time to think how odd the coincidence was. "My work at ITC is finished; I'm ready for . . . for a new challenge."

"Excellent. May I come to your office tomorrow morning and talk to you about it?"

"Of course. Would ten o'clock suit you?"

"Fine. I'll see you then, Miss Russell."

"Good-bye, Mr. Fortune."

She cradled the phone slowly and sat gazing at the clipping she held. Oregon. What a strange twist . . . Still, she would be moving even farther away from Mitch, not toward him, because he was, no doubt, in Baltimore. But it was better that way, she told herself. Because ten years was a very long time, too long to rekindle a flame snuffed out in pain and grief. She wasn't the girl John Mitchell had loved. And he hardly could be the man she had adored from childhood, not after what had happened to him.

Still, it hurt her to think of him waking all alone and facing so many shocks. The loss of years from his life. The loss of his eye. Keith's death in the accident. And the death of his father. Mitch and his father hadn't been on speaking terms for years before the accident, but the death of a parent is always a blow. The irony was that although Mitch had lost a great deal while he slept, he had gained the one thing he'd never wanted: the wealth of his family.

Kelly knew about that only because Hugh Mitchell had specifically requested that she be present at the reading of his will. Though he had never spoken to her in life, he had, after death, in a strange way acknowledged her place in his son's heart. Or, at least, so she had supposed. Because without explanation, and through careful arrangements making certain it hadn't cost her a penny in inheritance taxes, Hugh Mitchell had left her a house and property.

In Oregon.

She had speculated with a little bitterness whether he had specifically chosen that property to be her inheritance because it was across the country. Even though his son had been three years into the coma then, and not likely to recover according to the doctors, she had to wonder if Hugh Mitchell had still considered her a threat.

Kelly's first impulse had been to ignore the bequest, but she knew Mitch had spent time there as a boy and she'd been unable to cut that fragile tie to him. But neither had she been able to contemplate living there herself. Finally, she'd arranged with a realty company to rent the place and use the income for taxes and upkeep, and her family's lawyer kept an eye on the accounts. She had never gone to see the property, and though her lawyer had several times told her it was a valuable inheritance, she had refused to listen to appraisals or any other details.

Now it looked as though she would have the chance to see the place for the first time. She felt a little uneasy about that. She had avoided any place with ties for several years now, and it occurred to her that she might well be tempting fate by breaking her own rule. But what would be the harm? She'd stayed so firmly away from the Northwest that no one could possibly guess she would go there now, after all these years.

Still, it was something to think about. Kelly was on the point of rising when another thought occurred to her, this one definitely disturbing.

The clipping. Who had sent it to her? How could anyone in Tucson know of the connection between her and John Mitchell? And if the article had been sent from outside Tucson, then who had known just where to find her?

She stared at the bit of newsprint, conscious that her heart was thudding with the uneven rhythm she hated. The ache inside her was fear, and regret, and bitterness.

"Mitch ..." she whispered to the silent room. "I should have waited for you."

"Well, Mr. Boyd?"

In his long career as a private investigator Evan Boyd had heard that terse question often. Clients tended to ask it when an investigation bogged down, and their voices grew more strained and harsh with every repetition.

But not this client. His voice had never altered, even though it had been nearly a year since he had first asked the question. A lot of control in this one, Boyd had decided. And, even more, the kind of relentless determination that few men could boast. It had served John Mitchell well.

"I have a lead," Boyd replied, but allowed his own misgivings to filter through his voice.

Mitch looked at him, and even though the investigator was no longer unnerved by that burning dark eye, he could feel the increasing force behind it. "A lead you don't trust?"

Boyd nodded, the perceptive response not surprising him since he had come to know this client. "It didn't come through the regular channels. Since she has a degree in computer science, I was checking into all the high-tech firms. If you remember, I warned you it could take a long time."

"I remember."

"Well, it should have taken a long time. But this morning I received a newsletter. The kind of thing some companies send out to their clients or employees once or twice a year. I can't explain how I got it, and the company—ITC, in Tucson— hasn't a clue either. They don't know me from Adam. And I wouldn't have known them; they weren't even on my list. ITC isn't strictly a high-tech firm. They're a small company, and they make toys, the garden-variety kind. Stuffed animals and dolls."

Mitch waited silently, his broad-shouldered, athletic body still and apparently relaxed behind the big desk. Boyd thought fleetingly of the man he had first met, a much thinner man who had been immersed in physical therapy in that private hospital; his driven determination to regain his strength and leave that place had, Boyd knew, worn out three therapists and astonished a number of doctors.

Curiously enough, the coma had left few signs of age on John Mitchell; and he actually looked younger now than he had when Boyd had first met him. The wings of silver at his temples had appeared only during the past year, and the black eye patch lent his lean, hard face a look of danger that was intensified by his invariable stillness.

"In the newsletter," the investigator went on, "was a small article about the company's new computer design program. They had hired a programmer on a temporary basis to set up the system. The programmer was Kelly Russell."

"Did you check it out?" For the first time there was a hint of strain in the deep, even voice.

"By phone, yeah. She was working there until three days ago. ITC says she's accepted another project, but they weren't willing to part with any of the details. I need to go out there and pick up the trail."

"You don't trust the information?"

"I don't like the way I got that newsletter out of the blue. Maybe it was just a fluke, but I don't trust flukes. Like I told you, I think she's running from something or someone, and I can't find out what. She seems to use her own name once she's settled in a place, but uses a false name to travel; that's what made it so hard to find her. And that's why it's so important that I go to Tucson and find out everything I can before the trail gets cold."

Mitch rose from the desk and stepped over to the window, gazing out at the city of Baltimore. Without turning, he said in a low voice, "You've gotten this close once before. Months ago, in Chicago. And lost her."

Boyd knew what he was being asked. And it wasn't only his professional pride at stake here, but a purely personal interest he had developed in this man and his search. In an equally quiet voice, he said, "I don't mean to lose her this time, Mr. Mitchell. I have contacts in Tucson; I'll pick up her trail."

There was a short silence, and then Mitch said, "Go. Report back the moment you find out anything. Call me any hour, day or night."

Boyd rose from his chair, then hesitated and drew the newsletter from the inside pocket of his coat. "I'll leave this with you," he said, leaning over to place it on the neat blotter. "There's a photo." Then he turned and left the silent office, knowing that John Mitchell would prefer to be alone.

The streets of Baltimore were busy. Mitch stood gazing out for a few moments, then turned and slowly went back to his desk. His desk. That still felt strange to him. He had made no changes in his father's office, and the executive board had made no change even though this room had gone unoccupied for years.

The old bastard had had the final word after all.

Hugh Mitchell's will had been a curious document. Dated just a few months before his death, it had clearly been written in the unshakable belief that his only son would survive to control the family holdings—no matter how long it took. The company had been set up meticulously, temporary control granted to the executive board and a group of trustees composed of accountants, lawyers, and financial advisers who had been required to work within a set of clear and unbreakable rules.

The result of all the care and forethought had been that Mitch had been able to step into his inheritance so smoothly it had caused hardly a ripple.

The bequest to Kelly had been a surprise, and since his father had left behind no remarks on the subject, Mitch couldn't guess what the intent had been, though he doubted it had been a positive one. At any rate, that promising lead had fizzled out quickly when it dead-ended with Kelly's lawyer; the man claimed he'd had no direct contact with her in years, and had no idea where she was. The realty company in charge of the property in Oregon had been just as useless.

Mitch sat down behind the desk, his gaze fixed on the folded newsletter lying on the blotter. His initial problems with depth perception due to the lost eye were virtually past now, and months of hard work had repaired the other results of his coma. He'd had literally to relearn many things, but there had been no brain damage to slow his progress, and at least he had the satisfaction of knowing that he was actually in better shape physically now than he had been ten years earlier.

Emotionally was something else.

He had discovered that the small shocks were, curiously enough, the ones that stayed with him. During the months of physical therapy at the hospital, Mitch had pored over magazines and newspapers in an effort to catch up with the world. The number of events he'd slept through was mind-boggling; some were minor, some major, and all of them made the world different.

Cars looked subtly different. Computers were everywhere, it seemed, as were satellite dishes and video stores. There were space shuttles now, making routine flights. Mount St. Helens had erupted. John Lennon was dead. There was a woman on the Supreme Court, and one had finally made it into space; England had a new princess and two new princes; a president had been elected, had survived an assassination attempt, and had served two terms. Baby boomers had come of age, and were making their presence felt in a number of ways. There had been a devastatingly long famine in Ethiopia, an earthquake in Mexico City, a tragic shuttle explosion, and terrorist insanity. The Statue of Liberty had gotten a face-lift, AIDS had become a terrifying epidemic, a Soviet leader named Gorbachev was charming the West, and they'd found the Titanic.

Mitch had had more than a year to begin absorbing the changes, but he still felt disoriented sometimes, out of step. It was one of the reasons he'd followed his father's wishes and taken his place in the company. At least he felt a sense of roots here, a sense of belonging, though he hadn't wanted any part of the company or his family's wealth.

What he wanted, more than anything, was to find Kelly. He didn't know what would happen then. He had loved her since she was fourteen years old, had planned his entire future around her, and now— And now. While he had slept she had lived through the days, and weeks, and years. He'd been told that she had lost her brother, her parents, and had given up on him.

He watched his hands reach out and slowly unfold the newsletter, then turn the pages until he saw her picture. An unposed shot, he thought, Kelly looking up from a computer keyboard as if she'd been startled. Her hair was shorter than he remembered, her face finer-featured, with adolescence well behind her. And there was something haunted in her eyes.

Why didn't you wait for me? He knew it was unreasonable, but the question echoed painfully in his mind, even though some part of him understood what her reasons must have been. She had been so young, and forced to bear so many shocks and griefs piled one on top of the other. It was natural, he told himself, that she turn to someone else eventually. She had been briefly married; Boyd had found that out quickly. Married five years after his accident, and divorced less than two years later.

Mitch didn't know—or want to know—about her ex-husband. The marriage had been registered in Texas, but if they had lived together there, Boyd hadn't been able to discover where. Since divorcing her husband, Kelly had been constantly on the move, living nowhere more than a few months at a time.

Was Boyd right? Was she running from something or someone? Or had Kelly simply lost so much that she was rootless, drifting through life? He didn't know, couldn't know, because he remembered only an eighteen-year-old girl; he was very much afraid the woman of twenty-eight would be a stranger to him.

The only thing Mitch was certain of was that he had to find her, had to see her and talk to her. She was all that was left of the future he had planned, the only link with the years that had been stolen from him. His mind told him she'd be different, changed by the life she had lived without him, but he had no emotional sense of those years passing, and his heart couldn't accept that she wouldn't still be the Kelly he had loved.

He had to find out. He didn't think he could bear it if he lost her too.

Two days later Boyd called, the satisfaction in his voice still mixed with a thread of doubt. "I finally got somewhere," he reported. "Her next-door neighbors in the apartment building are an old couple, very talkative. According to them, she's moved somewhere near Portland, Oregon."

"Find her," Mitch ordered, holding his voice steady with an effort. "Don't approach her at all, just find out where she is. Then call me."

"You've got it."

The house was more than a surprise. She didn't know quite what she had expected, but certainly not this huge, beautiful old house perched near the edge of a high cliff overlooking the Pacific. It was more than seventy years old, the realtor had told her, puzzled by her lack of knowledge, and they'd had no trouble renting it for weeks or months at a time during the past seven years.

Kelly could see why. The house was built of weathered stone, the style vaguely reminiscent of an English manor, with well-kept grounds and a spectacular view of the ocean. It had been built during an era when wealthy families had lived in luxury—and the Mitchells had been very wealthy. This "vacation retreat" was not a mansion by the standards of its day, but it was a large house on very valuable property and worth a fortune.

Before Kelly had inherited it, the house had been closed up and virtually abandoned for more than a decade. A year before his death, however, Hugh Mitchell had thrown an army of workmen into renovating and restoring it—apparently with the intention of leaving the property to Kelly.

The realtor, who had, as it turned out, been a very responsible and thoughtful caretaker, had presented her with an inventory of the contents of the house as well as a yearly appraisal from the insurance company. He had also hired a landscape service to take care of the gardening, a cleaning service to take care of housekeeping, installed a very good security system, and had been selective about who he rented the place to.

Kelly certainly had nothing to complain about there. She'd told her lawyer that she wanted no income from the property, and that if there had been a profit from the rentals, it should be put back into the property. According to the realtor's itemized accounting, her wishes had been followed scrupulously.

But she didn't understand why Hugh Mitchell had left her the property at all. And the way he had, restoring the house and grounds, repairing or replacing all the furnishings, leaving the place ready to be occupied. It was as if he had fully expected her to live there, and that just didn't make sense. She had spent her few days wandering around the house and grounds, increasingly bothered by the situation.

Even the master bedroom had been decorated with a woman in mind.

Kelly was in the conservatory at the back of the house, gazing at white wicker furniture and lush green plants, when the doorbell sounded distantly. Since she was expecting the delivery, via her new boss, of a computer system, she wasn't surprised by the alien sound. She made her way back through the house, struck again by the quiet elegance of gleaming wood floors and antiques and beautiful old rugs.

She opened the heavy paneled oak door, expecting to see a delivery man with clipboard in hand and an inquiring look. And even though the newspaper article had at least prepared her for the possibility, she could feel the color drain from her face.

It was Mitch.

Taller than she remembered, his shoulders wider and heavier with maturity, a new look of strength and power in his stance. The gleaming dark sable hair had gone silver at the temples, but rather than making him look older, it, along with the black patch over his left eye, gave him an almost piratical air of danger.

"May I come in?" His voice was deeper than she remembered, slightly husky, and despite the prosaic request, she could hear the note of strain.

She stepped back wordlessly and opened the door wider, holding on so tightly to the ornate brass handle that she felt her nails biting into her palm. Strangers, she thought with the detachment that comes of total shock. We're strangers.

She pushed the door closed behind him as he came in, then led the way into the den, where a fire burned brightly in the stone fireplace. She didn't know what to say to him. Her legs felt shaky, and she sank down in a comfortable chair near the fire, watching as he slowly crossed the room and stood just a few feet away near the hearth.

"You knew I had come out of the coma." It wasn't a question.

Kelly answered anyway, her own voice holding tension. "I saw a newspaper article." She didn't mention that it had been only a week before.

Mitch slid his hands into the pockets of his dark slacks and looked at her steadily, giving no clue to his thoughts. He was wearing a black leather jacket over a dark gray shirt, and the somber colors made him look even more dangerous.

"I'm sorry," she said suddenly, almost blurting it out. There was a flash in the dark, watching eye, as if some emotion had surged inside him, but his face remained expressionless.

"Sorry for what, Kelly? That you didn't wait for me? I've seen all the medical records; I know what they told you." But there was something in his voice that didn't jibe with the words, something that might have been bitterness.

She gestured helplessly, then let her hands fall back into her lap. "The weeks turned into months. Years." Her voice was toneless now. "The only thing I could think of doing was to keep going, the way we'd planned. Finish college, get a job. And wait. But they told me you'd never wake up. The doctors seemed so sure of that."

"When did you give up on me?" he asked, the question somehow very important.

Kelly didn't want to relive that period of her life, but she had to answer him. "It was after Dad died. He outlived Mom by only a few months. Neither of them was the same after the accident. When he died, I realized I was alone. You'd been in the coma nearly four years. Everyone else was gone. And it hurt so much to keep hoping."

She drew a deep breath and met his gaze as steadily as she could. "It's easy enough to say that I would have waited if I could have known you'd come out of it. But I can't even tell you that's true. I don't know, Mitch. I don't even know if that would have made a difference. You had been so much of my life for so long, and when you weren't there anymore—"

"Someone else was."

Kelly could feel a new tension seep into her, and tried to keep calm. She didn't know if he knew of her marriage or was just guessing, but whichever it was, she wasn't willing to talk about that. Not to him.

She was increasingly aware of the strain of this, the danger of exposing too many raw emotions. They were virtual strangers, but they shared too much pain, too many remembered dreams of the life they should have had. A large part of her shied away, urging her to cut whatever ties remained between them and finally end it, put it behind her once and for all. She was used to being alone now, and she knew all too well that she and Mitch could never go back to what they had been.

She rose to her feet, and somehow managed a distant, polite tone. "I just made fresh coffee; would you like some?"

After a moment he nodded slowly. He followed her as she went through the house to the kitchen, but it wasn't until she was pouring coffee that he made a comment.

"This place is different."

Kelly was standing on one side of a narrow, neat counter dividing the kitchen from a breakfast nook, and he was on the other side. She set his cup down near him, realizing only then that she had automatically fixed his coffee with cream and no sugar, as he used to drink it. Unwilling to think about that, she responded to his comment in the same polite tone.

"I was told your father had the house renovated before he died. Any idea why he left it to me?"

"No." Mitch lifted his cup, watching her over the rim as he sipped the coffee. He chose not to mention that he noticed how she'd fixed it. "I went through some of his papers a couple of months ago, but whatever his motive was, he didn't write it down anywhere."

"You're running the business now?" She was determined to keep to unemotional topics.

"Yes. It seemed to be where I belonged—if anywhere."

Her cup clattered as she set it down on the counter. The tension inside her was winding tighter. There were too many emotions between them to be strangers, too much time between them to be anything else. Ignoring it wasn't going to help, she realized tautly. She was too aware of him, too conscious of all the things they had both lost. The distant echoes of pain and regret and bitterness were growing stronger, the limbo of numbness receding.

Mitch had come here for a reason; probably, she decided, he simply wanted to close the book on that part of his life and go on. That was reasonable, to want an ending between them. He had never been a man to leave anything unfinished. The way he was watching her made it obvious that he was just biding his time, almost as if he were waiting for her to say something.

Get it over with! she ordered herself. End it now, before it hurt too much, before she had to open a door closed in pain years earlier. She couldn't let that happen. Because she wouldn't be able to survive losing him a second time.

"Did you expect to find me here?" she asked flatly.

He nodded. "I knew you were here. I hired a private investigator a year ago to find you."

A year ago, soon after he'd come out of the coma. "Why? I gave up on you, remember?" She couldn't manage indifference, but was able—barely —to keep her tone without emphasis. "I made a life for myself without you. I buried you, Mitch, just the way I buried Keith and Mom and Dad."

Mitch set his cup down slowly, the intense gaze still fixed on her face. A muscle flexed in his lean jaw. Then, suddenly, he reached across the narrow counter.

She felt a cool touch against her throat near the neckline of her blouse, but before she could stiffen or pull away, he had slipped one finger beneath the thin gold chain and drawn it toward him. As he pulled the chain taut between them, the diamond ring lifted from its resting place between her breasts and hung suspended. The stone caught the morning light and glittered brightly.

Kelly stared at the ring for an instant, then looked at him. For the first time he was smiling, though the expression was hardly more than a slight curve of his firm lips.

"I don't think so," he said quietly.





Two




For a long moment she didn't move, but only stared at him with her huge violet eyes. Then she reached up and caught the chain a couple of inches from his fingers, and pulled it away from him. The ring fell onto the smooth material of her blue blouse, and she fingered it for an instant before crossing her arms beneath her breasts.

"Don't read too much into that," she said stiffly.

Mitch knew he was walking a tightrope and that his balance had to be perfect. Even though he didn't feel the years that lay behind him—and between him and Kelly—he knew they existed. For her, the passage of time had been very real, and nothing he could say would be able to change it. He could only try to convince her that the past was no more dead and buried than he was.

He didn't try to fool himself into believing it would be easy. He knew all too well that he couldn't do for Kelly what the coma had done for him: make the years seem no more than a single painless night. Even if she hadn't buried him, she had mourned for what they had lost, and that was what set them apart right now.

Kelly had said her good-byes years before.

"What can I read into it, except the truth?" He held his voice steady and quiet. "You wouldn't be wearing that ring if you really had buried me. You still feel something for me."

She shook her head slightly, her shoulder-length copper hair gleaming with the movement. "The ring is habit, that's all. Like wearing a watch or earrings. Something you do automatically." She drew a breath. "I felt too much for too long, Mitch. One day I just stopped feeling."

"I don't believe that."

"It's the truth. What did I have to hold on to? Dreams? The dreams faded. You weren't there, and everyone kept telling me you weren't going to be. Ever. I finally believed them. I said good-bye to you, and I walked away."

"No regrets since?" He saw her almost flinch at the question, but even though he didn't want to hurt her, he refused to let it go. Let her go. She looked exhausted, the strain of this obviously affecting her strongly despite the control that kept her voice steady and unemotional, and that was the only thread of hope he'd found.

"What good are regrets? If it helps you to hear it, then, yes, I have regrets. A lot of regrets. But I can't go back and change anything. I can't change anything now. I'm sorry for what we lost, but I can't bring it back."

"Maybe not." All his consciousness was so totally fixed on her that he was aware of nothing else. "But I have to try, Kelly. I don't have a choice. For me, nine years passed in a night. I woke up loving you."

She felt a pain so sharp it took her breath for a moment, and when it passed, it left behind a dull ache. "Not me,'" she murmured. "Her. Don't you understand? I'm not her anymore. You don't know me, not now. I became somebody else while you were sleeping. I'm so different from that eighteen-year-old girl that we might as well be totally separate beings. The girl you loved is dead, Mitch. It's your turn to grieve . . . and get on with your life."

He was silent for a moment, his gaze so intense that it felt like an actual physical touch. Then he shook his head once, and said flatly, "No. I've already lost too much, all of it taken away from me while I slept, while I was helpless to stop any of it. But I'm not helpless now. I won't lose you too, Kelly. Not without a hell of a fight."

Ten years before, he had been the most determined, strong-willed man Kelly had ever known. Confident and assured, he had gone after what he wanted with a single-minded intensity that had utterly fascinated her. Their personalities had meshed perfectly then; he a leader and she willing to follow. She had, with the unconscious fervor of a young girl in love, begun molding herself into the kind of woman Mitch had wanted her to be; he was a strong man with a dominant personality, and in all likelihood she would have echoed his thoughts and opinions without forming her own.

But ten years stood between then and now, and for Kelly those years had been filled with events and emotions that had forever changed the woman she might have been. Looking back, she saw herself as weak and submissive, and with Mitch taken away from her, those flaws had become painfully evident. She knew now the price she had paid for her own lack of individuality.

Her maturity and independence had been hard-won, and she valued both now because the cost had been so great.

After a moment she said quietly, "What are you going to fight? Time? Fate? There's no villain, Mitch. No thief you can get your hands on. A drunk driver crashed into a car, after which lives took separate paths. If you came here thinking you could change that, you were wrong."

A muscle tightened in his lean jaw. "I can't accept that. Ill fight you if I have to. I'm not giving up on us." He hesitated, then drew a breath and added in a hard tone, "You owe me. You owe me time."

"I didn't take that away from you."

"No. But you walked away."

She wanted to walk away again. Just turn and walk away, order him out of her life. But he had, whether deliberately or not, laid bare her greatest regret—and her guilt. She had given up on him. She hadn't been strong enough, or hadn't loved enough, to wait no matter how long it took. It wasn't a rational guilt, and Kelly knew it, but knowing did nothing to lessen her feelings. She had lived with the guilt for more than five years, the only chain still binding her to the past.

She felt that she did owe him, that she should somehow atone for having failed him.

It had to be resolved, she knew that as well. The ring she still wore on a necklace was the constant reminder of everything and everyone she had lost one cold night, and until she made peace with herself she would never be able to put the ring—and the guilt—away. She had made so many mistakes in her life, and there would never be an opportunity to correct most of them. No matter what it cost her, at least she had to try to correct this one.

"Kelly?"

She looked at him, focusing on his face—a face almost as familiar to her as her own, even though it had changed in both stark and subtle ways. "I suppose in a way 1 do owe you," she told him steadily. "I owe you an ending. You won't be able to get on with your life until that chapter of it is closed."

"That isn't what I want, Kelly. I didn't come here to finish anything. You weren't a chapter in my life, you were the whole damned book. That hasn't changed."

"But I have. I didn't sleep for nine years ... I lived. I got through the days one at a time. I buried my brother. I buried my parents. I finished college and built a career. I even ... I even married another man."

"I know," he said flatly.

Kelly didn't want to let either of them dwell on that fact, and went on determinedly. "Then you know I'm not the girl you remember. I can't be. Pretending anything else would only hurt us both. It's over, Mitch. It was over years ago."

He slid his hands into the pockets of his jacket, his gaze never leaving her. After a moment he moved slightly, his shoulders settling as if he had braced them against something. "All right." His voice was even. "Maybe it is over. Maybe the girl I loved is lost to me, just like the years. But you still owe me. And I'm collecting on the debt."

"What kind of payment do you expect from me?"

"You said you owed me an ending. Fine. Give me that ending, Kelly."

"How?" she whispered.

"Let me find out for myself if the girl I loved is really gone. Is that too much to ask? A few weeks out of your life, a little time spent with me. Time without prejudice."

The guarded, wary part of Kelly resisted that, but she had already accepted the existence of a debt that had to be paid. "How could it be without prejudice?" she objected.

"Maybe it can't. But we can try. If it's over, I have to believe that. I have to feel it."

And then I'll have to say good-bye to you again. She didn't know if she could bear it. But she knew she had to. She couldn't be the one to walk away a second time.

With a faint shrug, trying to pretend this didn't matter to her, she said, "I have a career, and a job to do here. Your company's in Baltimore."

"I haven't officially taken over yet," he said. "After ten years, what's a few more weeks?"

A few more weeks. If the past pattern held true, she'd be safe here for at least that long. She'd managed months in Tucson before feeling any need to move on. But, someone had sent her that clipping, someone who knew she and Mitch were connected in some way. And now here she was in the Mitchell family's old vacation house. A house that was hers now—so it was a target. She hadn't been able to prove the damage done to her apartment in San Francisco had been anything other than vandals, but she knew.

For the first time in years, she wished that she had someone to turn to, someone to confide in. Not Mitch, though. He had borne enough pain without having to bear hers as well. She didn't want him to know about it, didn't want him to see her shame and fear. And if she hadn't been fairly certain she was safe here for a while, that there was no reason for him to know, she wouldn't have even considered his request.

"Dammit, Kelly—"

Realizing that she had been silent for too long, she managed another faint shrug before saying, "I agreed that I owe you."

Some of Mitch's tension seemed to ease. His tone was carefully neutral when he said, "I talked to your employer before I came here. Went to his office outside Portland. An . . . interesting man. He says you're going to work here in the house rather than at his company."

Kelly knew somehow that he hadn't changed the subject, but the tangent puzzled her. Making a mental note to ask Cyrus Fortune not to discuss her with anyone outside the office, she said, "That's right. He's sending all the equipment I need. The company's so new they're still getting organized, and I'll work much more efficiently if I'm out of all the confusion."

"So you'll be here all the time?"

"Probably."

He glanced away from her, looking briefly around the room in a considering way, then returned his gaze to her face. "Then it'll be much simpler if I just move into the house. This is a big place, plenty of room for two."

Kelly's first realization was that the statement was no spur-of-the-moment thought; he'd had this in mind long before he'd rung her doorbell. She wondered if he believed it would be so easy. Her impulse—and a very strong one—was to refuse to allow him to stay in the house. But she had learned to weigh her impulses carefully.

This impulse, she knew, was purely selfish. Too guilty to push Mitch away and too afraid to cross the years between them, she'd been hoping for some painless solution—or absolution, some way of paying her debt without risking her emotions. But that wasn't right, it wasn't fair. Mitch wasn't at fault for what had happened to them, and he deserved peace just as much as she did.

"If that's what you want," she agreed finally. She saw the flash of satisfaction in his dark eye, and went on in the same mild but firm tone. "But there are ground rules, Mitch."

"Which are?" His voice was slightly wary.

"I'll be working long hours, and my job is important to me." It was the only thing she had made for herself, all she would have left when he was gone again. "You'll have to respect that."

He nodded immediately. "All right. I promise I won't disturb you while you're working."

"A cleaning service comes in once a week, but I expect you to do your share of work around the house."

"Agreed." He smiled very slightly. "I'd better warn you, though, I'm no better at cooking now than I was ten years ago."

Kelly refused to be charmed, but she couldn't help wondering how she could have forgotten how engaging his crooked half smile was. Keeping her voice dispassionate, she said, "There are cookbooks on the shelf by the pantry."

"I'll remember that," he murmured.

She remembered how he had been when announcing he would marry her—confident, assured, and never actually asking her about it. Not that she would have said no, but still, she knew now his kind of decisive—even masterful—attitude that had so intrigued her as a girl would run head-on into her independence ten years later. He was going to find that out, no doubt, but she had to make one last thing clear.

"And one more thing," she said quietly. "I've told you I'm different; you don't seem to want to accept it. I know that you see me as the only tie to those lost years, but—"

"Kelly— "

"Hear me out, Mitch." She held his gaze steadily. "If I've learned anything, it's that nothing is simple, I promised you an ending, but it may not be the one you want. If it isn't, don't think you can . . . can recreate the girl I used to be. No matter what happens, I won't be swallowed up by you. I've fought too hard to stand on my own two feet."

He was frowning now. "Is that what you think would have happened before? That you'd have been swallowed up by me?"

"It was already happening, before the accident." She conjured a faint, rueful smile. "You were strong, and I wasn't. You were so sure of yourself, so confident. Even arrogant." When he moved slightly, as if in protest, she nodded. "Oh, yes. But arrogance isn't necessarily a bad thing. Maybe your strength came from that. The problem was that there was so much of you and so little of me. And I never knew it. Until I was alone."

In that last simple sentence, so quietly uttered, was a world of stark emotion.

He drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I see we have a lot to talk about."

She knew that was true. What she didn't know was what would happen when the talking was done. And she already felt drained. She looked at their cold coffee on the counter and sighed. "That equipment I'm expecting should be here anytime.

Why don't you get your suitcases out of the car, and you can unpack."

He looked at her for a moment, and that crooked, engaging smile curved his lips. "You're that sure I came out here prepared to move in?"

As she moved around the counter toward the door that led into the hallway, she said dryly, "Wasn't I supposed to guess? Arrogant, remember? That hasn't changed."

Following her, Mitch felt a curious mixture of anxiety and fascination. Anxiety because he was beginning to realize she had changed a great deal— and fascination for the same reason. He knew without a shadow of a doubt that he was staying in the house only because Kelly had weighed the situation carefully and had decided to allow it; if she had decided against it, nothing he could have said would have budged her.

She wasn't hard, but there was a toughness in her now that had not been evident ten years before. It was part stubbornness, he thought, and part hard-won self-knowledge. The impulsive, emotional, pliant girl he remembered had grown into this thoughtful, wary, strong-willed woman.

It had been a shock to him, but not as great a shock as he had anticipated. Because even though he saw the changes in her, he felt a bond between them. He wasn't sure what that tie was composed of; right now the emotions were jumbled and confused. Pain and loss, guilt and bitterness, love and shared dreams, familiarity and strangeness, longing and regret. He felt it all, and he thought she did as well.

But she had gotten it into her head that everything between them belonged in the past, that they had no present together, no future. Her certainty of that was obvious. She'd made it all too clear that the time she was allowing them was only to prove to him what she already knew.

It had required all his will to keep himself from yanking her into his arms and convincing her she was wrong, but he was glad now that he had resisted that urge. It would have worked on the girl he remembered—but not the woman she'd become. He couldn't sweep her off her feet, couldn't carry her along on the wave of his own emotions.

And he was troubled by what she'd said about being swallowed by him. Was that true? She'd been so young when he realized he loved her, a fourteen-year-old from a close family with a protective older brother, and astonishingly innocent in so many ways. Had he dominated her without meaning to? His own emotions had been certain, and he had known she loved him—though, looking back now, he wondered why he'd been so sure.

"Damn," Kelly said mildly as she opened the front door. A delivery van was just pulling up in the drive. She glanced at Mitch, who had joined her at the top of the steps. "I'll have to show them where to put this stuff."

"No problem," he responded. "I'll take my things up and find a bedroom. You're in the master suite?"

She nodded. "You probably know the house better than I do. The beds aren't made, but the linen closet in the upstairs hall is stocked. It'll take me a few hours to get all the equipment set up; I want to get that done today."

He glanced at his watch and was somehow surprised to find it was still early afternoon. Then, as a delivery man came toward them with a clipboard and a harried expression, Mitch nodded an acknowledgment to Kelly and went down the steps toward his rental car. Her car was parked beside his, and he remembered that Cyrus Fortune had told him Kelly's standard employment agreement required that a company car be leased for her; since she moved from one part of the country to another with fair frequency, that made sense. She didn't have to concern herself with insurance or maintenance, yet made certain she had transportation.

He retrieved his suitcases and went back into the house, slipping through the doorway between two men carrying big sealed cartons. A glance showed him that Kelly had decided to set up her computer system in the large back parlor, where floor-to-ceiling windows provided plenty of light and a view of both the gardens and the ocean beyond.

Kelly was standing in the hall directing the delivery men, and as Mitch raised an eyebrow at her, she offered bemusedly, "He sent more than I asked for. I don't know what half this stuff is."

"1 gather it's going to be a long day," he said lightly.

A hint of relief was in her brief smile. "Afraid so."

Mitch didn't like that look, because he knew where it came from. Despite her willingness to let him stay with her, she was wary and disturbed by his presence. But both the long months of physical therapy and his search for Kelly had taught him the value of patience, and he had ho intention of letting his own fierce emotions push her farther away from him.

So his voice remained light. "Don't worry about me. I'd like to explore the house and grounds. Do you mind?"

"No, of course not." Again, the flash of relief.

"Okay, then. See you later."

She nodded, and turned to speak to two men carrying in a labeled carton that looked like one section of a desk/computer work station.

Mitch went upstairs, looking around curiously as he noted the changes his father had made in the place. There weren't many structural changes that he could see, but the house looked much better than he vaguely remembered from his childhood. The floors had apparently been refinished, paneling and wallpaper replaced, and the furniture was different. There were five bedrooms with baths on the second floor, and an attic purely for storage occupied the top floor of the house. Mitch looked into each of the four rooms lining the hallway, then chose the one closest to the master suite.

He dropped his bags near the double bed, then immediately went back out into the hall and opened the door of the master bedroom. He didn't feel guilty at what she would likely consider trespass; if he was going to find out about the woman she'd become, he'd have to take every opportunity.

As soon as he walked into the room, he smelled Kelly. He'd noticed the scent before, downstairs, but with all his senses focused on her, it hadn't hit him like this. It was her perfume, so familiar that for an instant he could only stand breathing it in and remembering. Her fifteenth birthday, and his present had been her first bottle of "grown-up" perfume. He'd spent a long time choosing the fragrance, amusing the helpful salesclerk because he'd been so careful to find exactly what he'd wanted.

Oddly enough, the light, spicy scent with just a hint of musk suited her now far more than it had then. It was a little mysterious, quiet, and yet held the promise of things unseen, emotions untapped. She was still using the perfume he had chosen for her. Another habit? Or another tie to the past?

Mitch looked around the room slowly, and found it had changed more than any other part of the house. Heavy furniture and neutral fabrics and colors had been replaced by gleaming antiques, colorful rugs and wallpaper, and delicate fabrics. It was clearly and indisputably a woman's room, and yet a man wouldn't feel the least bit uncomfortable in it.

He stepped to the doorway of the bathroom and found it, too, had been remodeled. The old white tiles had been torn out and replaced by mosaic tiles in a muted pattern, the small window replaced by a three-sided bay window half wrapping a sunken tub that replaced the old claw-footed one and providing a spectacular view of the ocean. A glass shower stall had replaced the large linen closet. There were neat tile cubbyholes for towels, and an antique bureau was placed against one wall.

Now, that, Mitch thought, was definitely odd. Placing a bureau in a bathroom was not a standard decorating choice, but it was something Kelly had always preferred; since he had spent so much of his time with Keith during their high school years, Mitch knew that the small bureau in the Russell bathroom, which he'd asked about on his first visit to the house, had always contained underwear and sleepwear belonging to Kelly and her mother.

She could have moved the bureau in here since she'd arrived, but Mitch didn't think she had. That piece had the look of belonging, as if it were an integral part of the room. Coincidence? How could it be anything else? His father had been so adamantly opposed to the idea of his only son marrying into a working-class family—never mind the fact that he'd considered Mitch too young and Kelly far too young—that he'd taken no interest at all in finding out any of Kelly's habits.

Frowning to himself, Mitch turned around and studied the bedroom again. It was neat; that didn't surprise him. The small wooden antique jewelry box on the dresser was something he remembered because he'd given it to her. There was also a hairbrush and comb on the dresser and a bottle of perfume. A photo of her parents and brother in a silver frame.

He could still smell her perfume, as elusive as a dream.

After a long moment Mitch left her bedroom and returned to his own. He hardly noticed what it looked like, beyond a fleeting interest in more antique furniture. Unpacking occupied him for a few minutes, then he went out into the hall to the linen closet and found sheets and blankets. He heard the delivery men leaving, but ignored the urge to go down to find out how Kelly was coping with the equipment they'd brought.

He stripped the bedspread from the bare mattress and made up the bed, frowning to himself as he struggled mentally with the feeling of disorientation he'd been conscious of since first seeing Kelly. Not a new sensation, of course, but this time it was more than usually unnerving. The outward changes in her were minor ones, but just enough to make her seem slightly out of focus to him. Her hair was shorter and the coppery color more gold than he remembered; her face was more delicate, her violet eyes guarded, her smile brief and tentative. She seemed to him more slender, yet he didn't remember her breasts being so full or her legs so long.

It was like looking at a photo that was a little blurred, as if snapped during motion. His memories of her were strongly fixed in his mind, and none of them quite matched the reality.

He managed to shake off the disquieting feeling, knowing that only time could make past and present merge. Finishing in the bedroom, he decided to do what he'd told Kelly he would—explore the house and grounds.

In the car parked just off the narrow road, the man tapped his fingers restlessly against the steering wheel as he watched a delivery van pull out of the winding driveway and head toward Portland. When it was out of sight, he turned his gaze to the rooftop just visible in the distance through the trees. He hadn't had a chance to explore the place yet, because she hadn't left since he'd been watching.

And now she wasn't alone. He'd known she would come straight here once she found out her lover had survived the coma, and he wasn't surprised that Mitchell had come here as well. In a way, he was even pleased by that. At least now the bastard was out in the open instead of tucked away in some hospital.

He hated failure. He should have gotten to her long before this, but she seemed to know just when to run. It made him mad as hell. He'd been amusing himself so far, enjoying her fear, pleased each time she bolted like a scared rabbit. But it was time to teach her the final lesson now. It was a matter of pride.

Kelly looked up as she heard a knock at the door of her new office, and wasn't surprised when Mitch poked his head in. But she was surprised to realize that it was dark outside, and she was surprised to feel a surge of some unidentifiable emotion as she looked at his lean face, the dark eye and rakish black eye patch and crooked smile.

"It's after seven," he said. "I dug out those cookbooks and tried my hand at baked chicken. How's your nerve?"

Despite herself, Kelly had to smile. "My nerve is fine," she said. "And I have a cast-iron stomach."

"Then I'll go put the rolls in the oven. Ten minutes?"

She nodded, and sat gazing at the closed door after he'd gone. Neatly arranged on its section of the three-piece desk, the computer hummed as it digested the basic programming she'd fed into it during the last hours. On a second section the printer was hooked up but silent, since it had as yet no work to do. In front of Kelly on the third section were stacks of files and graphs and reference books. All around the desk, in chairs and on the floor, were a number of boxes and cartons containing more equipment and supplies.

Kelly leaned back in her new and very comfortable office chair, lifting one hand to massage the back of her neck. The strain she'd felt since Mitch's arrival hadn't diminished, but she'd managed to focus her mind on the work, and that had helped at least a little.

I see we have a lot to talk about.

That was what she dreaded. The talking. Reopening old wounds and feeling the pain again. All the questions he would no doubt ask about the last ten years, and the answers she didn't want to give him. She knew it was necessary, but she didn't want to relive the emotions. And she didn't want to feel new ones.

She had loved him as only the very young can love, without shadows, trusting and totally absorbed and completely without fear. She had loved him passionately, yet physical desire had been just awakening in her, the bloom of it shyly unfolding and unsure of itself. Mitch's desire had excited and intrigued her, but her starry dreams had included a white wedding dress and all the tradition that entailed; though he had made a number of decisions for both of them, he respected her wishes in that and agreed they should wait.

It was one of her regrets.

Shoving the memories violently away, Kelly began shutting the computer down. She neatened her desk as much as she could, then turned off the lamp and left the room. Mitch had turned on lamps through the house so that a welcoming light showed her the way to the kitchen, and she couldn't help but reflect on that small indication of not being alone. It was strangely comforting. And seductive. She'd been alone a long time.

He had set the small table in the breakfast nook rather than the more imposing one in the dining room. Everything was neat, and appetizing scents filled the bright kitchen. Mitch was transferring golden rolls from a baking pan to a linen-lined wicker basket, whistling softly. He'd shed his jacket and rolled the sleeves of his gray shirt up over his forearms, and despite his earlier comment, he looked as if he knew what he was doing.

As Kelly came into the room and heard him whistling—an old habit when he was absorbed in something—she winced and said lightly, "I never had the nerve to tell you before, but you're tone deaf."

He looked across the counter at her with a sudden gleam in his dark eye. "You're definitely not, as I remember. It must have driven you nuts."

"Sometimes," she confessed.

"Was I such an ogre that it took nerve to tell me?" His voice was as light as hers had been, but underneath was a very serious question.

"No. I just didn't have much nerve."

He continued to look at her for a moment, then said, "I found a bottle of wine. It's on the table. If you'll pour, we can dig into this feast."

The wine was excellent—and the feast wasn't half bad. He might not have had much practice at cooking, but it was obvious Mitch could follow recipes. Kelly wasn't lying when she told him the food was delicious. And even though she hadn't felt very hungry, her appetite increased with the first taste of tender baked chicken. She ate more than usual.

She felt some of her tension ease as well, but whether that was due to the food, the wine, or Mitch's easy and casual company, she couldn't have said. Sticking determinedly with the present, he asked her about the job she was doing for Cyrus Fortune, and seemed interested in the work.

Prompted by his intelligent questions, she explained what was involved in writing a wide-ranging program for a company. He was most intrigued by the realization that by the time she finished her job, Kelly had to have learned virtually every function of the company.

"It's really that involved?" he asked as they were finishing dessert—peach pie he'd discovered in the freezer.

"Sure. For instance, it's easy to write a basic accounting program, but if the company involved has half a dozen sources of income, it gets a lot tougher. And if that same company has an eye to the future and wants to project their earnings years in advance, that's another complication." She shrugged. "Fortune's company is definitely going to be a challenge. From what I can gather so far, he's forming the Portland office as a base to consolidate a dozen different companies across the country. He wants a network, a solid link tying everything together."

"Funny, he didn't look like an entrepreneur," Mitch commented.

"Neither did Colonel Sanders."

"Touché." Mitch smiled at her easily. "Why don't you take your coffee into the den while I clear up in here."

"You cooked. I should—"

He shook his head. "Let me take over kitchen duties for a while. I could use the practice, and you're going to have your hands full writing Fortune's program."

Kelly wasn't sure if Mitch was trying to make points or if he really did want to practice his domestic skills. You're getting cynical, she thought, and wasn't happy about that. She'd learned not to take anything or anyone at face value, but her own wariness sat uncomfortably on her shoulders.

"Kelly? You look tired. Go into the den." His voice was suddenly gentle.

How long had it been since anyone had cared that she was tired? Too long, because it affected her too strongly. Nodding, she left the table, carrying her coffee back through the house to the front den. The fire had been rebuilt, and the room was warm and cozy. She could dimly hear the wind whining outside, and it was a lonely sound that disturbed her. The wind always grew stronger at night, and she'd thought she was getting used to it, but tonight the sound was unnerving. Ignoring the television in one corner, she went to the stereo nearby and put in a cassette tape of soft music.

She looked at the couch for only a moment before kicking off her shoes and curling up in the big armchair near the fireplace. She was tired. Half listening to the quiet music, she gazed into the fire and tried to ignore the sneering taunt that had begun running through her mind during dinner.

You can't go back . . . can't go back . . . can't. . .

Somebody had wisely said it. You can't go home. Can't go back to your past. The problem was that Kelly's past had come to her. Too much had been left hanging between her and Mitch, left unresolved, incomplete. And she could no longer fool herself into believing that her own feelings had died. Perhaps she had buried them when she'd said good-bye to him, but he had walked through her front door, bringing the feelings with him.

They were inside her now, a little alien because those old emotions were being filtered, passing through the experiences and awareness of ten years. She had been conscious of them while she had talked casually to Mitch, trying not to let herself feel but helpless to prevent it.

Though lovers be lost, love shall not. . .

The next line of that suddenly remembered poem was just as vivid in her mind, and she felt the stark truth of it for the first time.

And death shall have no dominion.

Mitch had cheated death, awakening from a coma that medical science maintained he should not have awakened from. He had come looking for her across the years and the miles, determined to find what had been lost, mend what fate had broken. And she had offered him the chance, wary and convinced she felt too guilty to refuse what he asked of her. But it wasn't guilt, not just that.

"Did you love him?"

She turned her head slowly and looked at Mitch, everything inside her stilled. He had come into the room quietly, and now stood just a few feet away, gazing at her with a hard look around his mouth, a tightness in his jaw.

"I didn't think I'd want to know," he said in the same roughened voice. "But I do. Did you love him, Kelly?"





Three




Kelly looked away from him and returned her gaze to the fire. She felt curiously still inside, as if everything had stopped to wait for something. "It isn't that simple," she said finally.

"Isn't it?" Mitch moved to the chair on the other side of the fireplace and sat down, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, staring at her with the hard, almost driven intensity that made her feel wary. "It should be, Kelly. It should be that simple."

She could feel his gaze, but continued to look at the fire. "No. It isn't. I—I needed someone, Mitch. I was alone, and I didn't know how to be."

"So you didn't love him?"

Kelly set her coffee cup on the small table by her chair, then looked at him. The stillness was giving way to a confused tangle of emotions, and she was trying to sort through them, trying to find only the bleached white bones of a truth that would satisfy him.

"I don't know. I felt a need for him. An emotional need. He had a kind of aura. Purpose, strength. He said he wanted to take care of me, and I needed that."

Mitch looked down at the hands clasped before him, and she could see that his knuckles were white. After a moment, steadily, he asked, "What happened?"

She rested her head against the high back of the chair, trying to think of an answer. She didn't want to lie, but even less did she want to tell him the entire truth. "I suppose ... I realized I had to learn to take care of myself." Which was, after all, true enough. "That I had to stop depending on others to make me feel worthwhile."

His gaze lifted to her face, and his voice was grim when he said, "Worthwhile. How could you not feel worthwhile? Was it really that bad, Kelly? Did I and your family smother you that much?"

She was relieved that he hadn't pressed her for more detail about her marriage, but the question he asked was nearly as difficult to answer. Shaking her head slightly, she said, "I don't blame you or my family. That was one of the things I had to face up to, that it was my own fault . . . not the fault of an old-fashioned family or an assertive fiancé. No, the flaw was in me, Mitch. Nobody told me I had to be the kind of woman my mother was—so totally devoted to her husband and children that nothing else was important to her, so wrapped up in them and their lives that she lost her own individuality."

"I loved your mother," Mitch said, and the statement was both wistful and defensive.

"So did I. She was easy to love. And she was happy with her life, I know that. She was a loving, gentle, motherly woman; that was her greatest strength. And her greatest weakness. She poured so much love into her family that when Keith died it was as if a part of her had been cut away. Twice as bad, because she thought of you as a second son. Her family was wounded, and she bled to death."

Kelly drew a breath, and her voice was soft when she went on. "That was the kind of woman she was, the example I had in front of me all my life. It was natural for me to want to be like her, to consider the wishes of everyone I loved first and ignore my own. The problem was that Mom was the genuine article. I was just a pale copy. I didn't know what I wanted or needed, I never stopped to think about it. It never occurred to me that I had to learn to value myself before I could expect to be valued by others."

"I valued you," Mitch said intensely.

She'd had ten long years to think about it, and now her response was immediate and certain. "What you valued was my reflection of you, Mitch. And my willingness to be what you wanted. It couldn't have been anything else, because there was nothing else there."

"Kelly—"

"Think about it. You have to see it's true. I'm not saying you were conscious of your reasons. But love comes from need. What did you need from me?"

"You tell me," he said a bit tightly. "You seem to have it all figured out."

Ignoring the sarcasm, she said, "Your own family was anything but traditional. Your father was a domineering man, and your mother refused to be dominated by him. She wanted a career, friends apart from him, travel. And maybe it was unfortunate for all of you that she was just as strong-willed as your father. They fought right up until the day she left. Not six months later, you met Keith in high school, and his very traditional family adopted you in spirit."

Mitch was staring at his hands again, silent, a little pale. Kelly knew how hard it had to be for him to hear this, but she had to make him understand that even the past hadn't been exactly as he remembered it.

"We were so different from your own family. There were no bitter disputes in our house, no struggle for authority or confusion about what we were supposed to be. My parents had been together since they were sixteen years old; they'd decided on the roles a long time before. There was Keith, so secure in his world, loved and supported."

"And you," Mitch said in a low voice.

She nodded. "And me. I was just a kid, Keith's little sister. It was years before you really noticed me, and by then I adored you. I would have done anything to please you, even go on pretending I could be the kind of woman my mother was. That's what you saw in me, that willingness to be whatever you wanted me to be. Unlike your father, I accepted you just the way you were. Unlike your mother—"

"You don't have to say it." He sighed roughly, lifting his gaze at last to look intently at her quiet face. "What would have happened if we had gotten married, Kelly? If there'd been no accident."

Her hands rose slightly in a helpless gesture and then fell to her lap. "I don't know. Maybe nothing drastic. I might have grown up slowly, and you might have accepted me. Both of us could have adjusted. Or I might have been like so many women who look around in their thirties or forties and realize they have gone from being somebody's daughter to somebody's wife to somebody's mother, and they rebel. But I would have changed. I had to change, Mitch; it was inevitable. The accident and everything that happened after just made the changes come faster and more painfully."

"And now? You said you didn't know what you wanted or needed then. Do you know now?"

Another tough question. "Partly. I know what I don't want. I don't want to live through somebody else. To do what others expect me to do, be what they think I should be. I have to make my own choices, my own decisions. I have to control my own life, at least as much as any of us can."

"Kelly ... I never intentionally tried to make you be something you weren't."

"I know." She looked at him steadily. "But you needed me to be something I wasn't, Mitch, and I felt that even then. I'm not blaming you; none of us can help our needs. And I was more than willing. I needed the security of a dominant partner because I was afraid of being alone, afraid of testing my own strength. What you have to understand is that I don't need that anymore. Or want it. And if your needs haven't changed, you won't find what you're looking for in me."

The click of the tape deck turning itself off was loud in the silence. Then, quietly, Mitch said, "I have changed, Kelly. I went to sleep in my twenties and woke up in my thirties. I lost an eye, my best friend, and the girl I was going to marry. The father I never made peace with has died. The whole world is so changed, not an hour goes by that I don't notice I'm out of step in some way. I'm rebuilding my life almost from scratch. How could I not be different?"

Kelly felt the pressure of hot tears behind her eyes, and her throat was aching. His voice had held steady, the eloquent words not a plea for compassion but a simple statement of what had happened to him. It moved her in ways she hadn't expected, made her feel his losses as keenly as she felt her own. For the first time, she was aware of her guard wavering, as if one or both of them had taken at least a small step to begin crossing the years between them.

She didn't know what would happen when—or if—they met again somewhere in the present. Every step would be tentative and painful, the way carrying them across old hurts and new, unexplored ground. But if they did finally meet, it would be as two adults who had learned to see each other clearly.

Kelly was afraid of the distance yet to be crossed. She was afraid of opening old wounds. But she couldn't deny even to herself the knowledge that the attempt was something she couldn't walk—or run—away from.

Finally, she swallowed the ache in her throat and said, "Neither of us is the person we were ten years ago. And we can't go back. The only way is forward."

Mitch drew a short breath. "I want you to understand that even though I'm not sure of everything I need yet, I do know it isn't what I needed ten years ago. I guess I wanted security just like you did, but in a different way. I'd seen my parents fight a tug-of-war all my life, and it was like being caught up in a storm of bitterness that never died. I suppose that I believed if only one controlled in a relationship, there'd be peace."

"You don't think so now?"

A faint, rueful smile tugged at his lips. "I think control is an illusion we build to protect ourselves, and the larger we try to make that circle, the weaker it gets. We can't control our own destinies, much less someone else's. And even the illusion is so fragile, any change can destroy it.

"I don't want peace, either, not that kind. Not the false calm of one person's individuality sacrificed. I saw the struggle my parents went through for years, and you've made me see what my own blindness would have done to us. But there must be a compromise between the two. There's a balance, Kelly, and that's what I hope we can find. A partnership. I don't want us to be together because either of us is afraid. We have to be whole before we can share what we are with each other."

She knew what he meant. For years she had felt incomplete. Finding her own strength had helped, but there was still, at the core of herself, some uncertainty she didn't want to examine too closely.

"Are you whole?" she asked hesitantly.

"No." His answer was immediate, his voice steady. "There are still too many pieces missing. I have to come to terms with what I lost and how it's changed me."

In a sudden moment of understanding, she said, "You knew that before you came here. You knew what we had was gone. But I am the only emotional tie left to your past."

Mitch nodded, his gaze holding hers. "I've been thinking about it ever since we talked earlier today. And in a way, you were right about that. But so was I. It's something I have to feel, to accept. I can't go forward until I stop looking back. I can't reconcile past and present yet. You're the only one who can help me do that, Kelly."

"So that's what you need from me now?"

He hesitated briefly. "Yes. For right now. You've had ten years to find yourself, and I think you have. But for me, the present's blurred because there's too much of the past standing in the way. I do have to close that chapter of my life and put it behind me."

He had, she realized, carefully talked about what he hoped they could find together before saying anything about closing the door on his past. It seemed he still believed she would be a part of his life no matter what he came to understand about the past and the present.

Her eyes still on him, she said, "You think that by spending time with me you'll be able to do that."

"Yes."

It was what she'd already agreed to, but the strain of this first day had stretched her nerves taut, and there was a request she had to make. "Mitch, I know we have to talk about all this. For both our sakes. But I—I don't think I can take much more right now. Can we try to forget about the past for a while? Tackle it slowly?"

The crooked smile softened his hard face. "I'll do my best."

She uncurled from the chair and found her discarded shoes, then got to her feet. "It's been a long day," she murmured, wryly aware of the understatement. "I'm going to bed."

"See you in the morning," Mitch said.

Kelly went up to her room. Without thinking very much, she closed the wooden shutters at the windows around the sunken tub in her bathroom and took a long, hot bath, trying to soak away the tension. When the water began to cool, she got out and dried off. She dressed in a fresh nightgown from the small bureau, then opened her bedroom window an inch and crawled into the big four-poster.

The wind outside whined softly, and the ocean was a distant roar, rhythmic and soothing. She turned out her nightstand lamp and lay watching the moving shadows in the room as the trees outside filtered the moonlight.

Mitch had changed, she thought, but the enormous strength in him had withstood the years and all his losses. It was an emotional strength, the inner toughness of someone who had grown up in the midst of other strong personalities; he had learned young to assert himself, to avoid being overshadowed. That quality in him had awed her once, but now she simply respected it because she'd found her own brand of strength.

He seemed more patient now, more willing to listen to what she had to say. And more willing to talk about his own feelings. She thought the last year had changed him in those ways. Not so much the coma itself, but the shock of awakening.

He'd said the past and present were blurred for him, and in a way she was coping with the same problem. The last years had taught her to resist the kind of man Mitch had been, to protect her individuality fiercely, and that lesson had been a hard one; she would never again be weak or submissive. If he had come back into her life with the manner she remembered, she would have ignored her own unresolved feelings and ended it between them no matter what he said.

But he hadn't demanded, hadn't tried to overpower her or make light of her objections. He hadn't tried to impose his will on her; he had used reason, not domination. He seemed to her just as strong-willed as he had been ten years before, perhaps even more so, yet he was also watchful and quieter and more self-contained. She didn't quite know how to react to this Mitch, her past knowledge warning her to keep a distance between them even as she was conscious of feeling drawn to him.

She had never looked at him through a woman's eyes, not really. Not until today. And today he was different.

Kelly turned onto her side and stared toward the window, trying to relax, to stop thinking. It occurred to her only a long time later as she was drifting off to sleep that it wasn't just her mind and emotions that were drawn to Mitch. With all the tensions between them, she hadn't realized how her body had reacted, how she'd been vibrantly aware of his every movement.

Except for when he had lifted the gold chain she wore, they hadn't touched at all. Yet she'd felt every glance, felt his voice like some strange, taut vibration in the air that brushed her skin softly. New, unfamiliar, and unnerving feelings. And those feelings followed her into sleep, prompting dreams like none she'd ever had before. . . .

He drew his thick jacket tighter and turned up the collar, mildly annoyed by the coldness of the wind. From his position in the lower level of the garden he could see the house clearly, had watched lights going out downstairs. She'd taken a bath, he thought, but had closed the wooden shutters so he couldn't see. Modest little bitch. They were all like that, though, at least to hear them talk.

Protesting the lights being on, acting uncomfortable about dressing and undressing around him. Trying to hide from him even when they were his to look at as much as he damned well pleased.

Then her bedroom light had gone out, and he had seen the dim glow in another bedroom, realizing that the two in the house weren't sharing a bed yet. The very thought of the bastard in her bed made bile rise in his throat, and he spat into the bushes angrily. Ghosts were impossible to kill, but Mitchell was flesh and blood.

He stared up at the bedroom window, barely able to make out a shadowy form, then glanced toward the cliffs. He'd looked the place over thoroughly, and knew there were wooden steps leading down to the narrow strip of sand. After a while he leaned against a tree and watched the window, waiting patiently for that other watcher to go to bed.

Mitch stood at his bedroom window, staring out into the shifting landscape. The trees tossed restlessly, blown by the fractious coastal winds, and now and then he caught a glimpse of the dark gleam of the sea. The hardwood trees were naked branches moving eerily, and the pines whispered and sighed as they swayed. It was a lonely sight.

He found it difficult to trust sleep now, to relax and give himself up to it. The therapists had told him that was natural and that one day he'd be able to close his eye without feeling the dark stirrings of fear. Doctors had assured him that there was no likelihood of his slipping back into a coma. Not likely at all, they'd said with quick smiles.

But then, it hadn't been likely that he would ever awake from the coma at all.

He hadn't wanted even to close his eye in those first days, his resistance almost obsessive, until sheer exhaustion had taken the choice out of his hands. It hadn't gotten any easier in all the months since. The sensation of drifting toward unconsciousness, so pleasant for most people, was for him a stoic leap of faith. And each time he opened his eye, his muscles were braced, the single thought in his mind like neon.

Just a night. Please, just a night. . .

Even now he found it impossible to sleep through the night. He woke often, peering in the darkness at the digital watch whose red numbers kept track of time and day and month and year. A reassurance that would allow him, minutes or hours later, to take the leap yet again.

So little control. That had been hardest to accept, that even his own mind and body could betray him. That fate could step in without warning and steal years. And that there was not one single, damned thing he could do to stop it.

That was why he had so quickly seen and understood what Kelly had talked about. Ten years earlier he had sought control in order to avoid the bitter struggles he remembered so vividly. Perhaps unconsciously he had fallen in love with Kelly because she'd been so young and adoring, so pliant to his wishes, because, as she'd said, he needed that. But now he knew only too well what an illusion control was.

More, he was beginning to realize that even the illusion was a cheat when it surrounded two people, and a twisted one at that. He would have fought like a tiger to avoid even the suggestion of surrendering his own individuality to another's, yet he had—unconsciously—expected Kelly to do just that. To be swallowed up by him, to live through him.

It made him a little sick now to think of it.

He stood by the chilly window, still dressed because he wasn't yet prepared to risk giving himself over to sleep, staring out without seeing because he was looking back at the past and inward at himself and his life. It came to him slowly, with a distant shock, that his father had been terrified of losing his mother. A naturally possessive and willful man, he'd seen his wife's need for independence as a threat, and had either loved too much himself or trusted in her love too little. Perhaps both. Rather than risking losing her, he had held on tighter, demanding that she belong only to him.

She had fought him for years, and Mitch realized now that the struggle had gone on so long only because his mother had loved his father, and had sought to preserve her marriage without losing herself. In the end, unable to live through her husband as he demanded, she had chosen, painfully, to live without him. She had told her son that he could come to her as soon as he was of age; Hugh Mitchell would have fought tooth and nail if that battle had gone to court.

She had died in a plane crash two months later.

With her gone, Mitch had launched a war of his own, blaming his father and rebelling at the slightest show of authority. He hadn't understood the complexities of relationships then, and had seen only the results of his father's domination. Now, looking back, he realized that it had been largely a case of history repeating itself. Hugh Mitchell had held on tightly to his son out of fear, and Mitch had pulled away all the harder. Until, finally, the decision to marry Kelly had caused the final break between them.

Love without trust. The difference between holding a hand and chaining a soul.

His father must have been a lonely man.

Mitch leaned his forehead against the cold glass and stared out at the bleak, alien landscape. How close he'd come to repeating his father's mistakes. And he would have, had not fate intervened.

I was alone, and I didn't know how to be.

But she had learned how to be. After her brief marriage. There was, Mitch thought, more to that than she'd told him. He'd heard it in her voice, but hadn't been willing to probe because it had been like a knife inside him to hear her say she'd needed another man. But he'd have to hear it sooner or later; he'd have to listen and deal with his own feelings. That was part of the past he had to accept, part of who Kelly was now. Another man had been her first lover. Her husband.

He had no right to be jealous, but he was. No right to feel bitter and betrayed, but he did. He still was enough of the possessive, willful man he had been to feel the violence of those emotions even while he recognized them as unreasoning. And because she was the last tie to all he'd been, he had to fight an even more desperate urge to hold on too tight, to demand of her how she could have given herself to another man. To blame her for the pain he felt.

The emotions were raw inside him, a jumble composed of past and present. He didn't know where one left off and the other began, or if there could even be, in the end, a division between the two. The only thing he was certain of was that his need for Kelly was far greater and infinitely more complicated than it had been ten years earlier, and that if he were able to win her love this time, it would happen only once he mastered his own innate possessiveness.

And that was going to be very difficult for him. He had accepted that control was an illusion, but he had lost so much that the fear of losing her was something he couldn't bring himself to contemplate.

Yet he had to let go. Let go of the past. Let go of Kelly. He had tried to chain her then, and fate had stopped him. He had to stop himself from trying to chain her now. If she could learn to love him again ... he had to learn to trust that love enough to hold only a hand.

Not a soul.

It was three in the morning when he roused himself and glanced toward the waiting bed. But he didn't move toward it, and after a moment he returned his gaze to the wind-tossed trees that teased him with glimpses of the ocean.

He wasn't ready. Not yet.

"Good morning."

Mitch looked up from his work to see her standing just inside the kitchen. Wearing jeans and a dark blue cowl-neck sweater, her bright coppery hair pulled back away from her face and tied with a ribbon, she was lovely and a little wary, but less strained than she had been the night before.

Perhaps it was her sudden appearance, or the demons he had wrestled with in the night, but for one fleeting instant he saw her clearly, without the blurring of past images. He saw intelligence in her violet eyes, sensitivity and vulnerability in the curve of her lips, stubbornness in the delicate line of her jaw. He saw the slender figure of a woman who moved slowly and gracefully, shoulders almost unconsciously braced, something of vigilance in the tilt of her head.

He saw a woman who had lost a great deal, perhaps much more than he knew. No girl now, but a woman who had survived.

And in that brief moment he felt a desire for her so strong it was almost like a blow. It was a feeling of stark necessity, a shattering tangle of physical and emotional needs. He wanted her not the way he had ten years earlier with a passion tempered both by her youth and by the arrogant certainty that she belonged to him; this was a need far more complex than anything he'd ever felt before—deeper, and grinding inside him. Not the male urge for possession, but a compulsive realization that she was half of himself and that without her he'd never be whole again.

"Mitch?" Faint color bloomed across her cheekbones, and her eyes skittered nervously away. "Is—is something wrong?"

With an effort that tore at him jaggedly, he pulled his gaze from her and looked down to watch idly as the spatula in his hand bent under the tightening force of his grip. Too much, he thought, I'm feeling too much. She'd seen it, and the apprehension in her eyes was plain.

Dear Lord, was she afraid of him? Afraid he'd resort to force, that he would attempt to overwhelm her with his own feelings?

He cleared his throat and carefully loosened his grip on the spatula, concentrating on reining his wild emotions. "Good morning. Ready for breakfast?" His voice held steady, somewhat to his surprise.

Kelly slid her hands into the pockets of her jeans, shaken by what she'd seen in his intense gaze and by her own instant response. These strange sensations, heat and tightness and a wordless yearning . . . they unnerved her.

"I usually don't eat breakfast," she murmured.

He glanced back up at her, the intensity shuttered now, and where the old Mitch might have told her she was too thin and needed to eat more, this one merely said, with a faint smile, "Humor the cook."

She nodded and went to pour juice and coffee while he transferred golden pancakes from the griddle to plates. Kelly couldn't think of anything casual to say as they began eating, but she couldn't stop glancing up at him. He seemed different this morning, at least after that first oddly naked, searing scrutiny of her. More . . . what? More withdrawn. As if his focus had turned inward.

And she felt peculiar, unable to stop herself from remembering her surprising dreams. She rarely remembered dreams, yet she vividly recalled those of last night. Some had been stunningly erotic, filled with shapes and images and colors and throbbing feelings. But the dream she remembered most clearly had been different. It had been u