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From Book 1: This Is the Circle Path. Lanie has been avoiding seeing Ben after the explosion, trying to move on after saving him. However, Jake believes that Ben is circling the drain, and that the only way to save him is to let him hear Lanie’s voice, so he forces her to visit.
Fine, she sighed inwardly five minutes later. I guess I have nothing better to do.
“Don’t think this means anything, you big oaf,” Lanie muttered from her chair as she huddled in the corner, eying the hulking mass of tubes and wires and man on the bed. Jake had practically thrown her in before and shut the door in her face before she had time to get worked up into a full panic attack. Now, all the helplessness and despair of flying Ben home was coming back. Once again, she had the thought that she could breathe deeper for him, giving him the vital oxygen that would keep him alive.
They’d had to extend his bed for him to fit. He was just lying there, so still. No ear-to-ear grin. No thoughtful little crinkles on his forehead when he frowned. No fluttery grey eyes. He was just…nothing. Just a junk drawer of medical paraphernalia and limbs.
“I only said I was your fiancée so I could make sure someone was looking out for you,” she continued to break the silence. “I didn’t technically accept your proposal. And since I didn’t even need to say it to get in here in the first place, it double doesn’t count.”
His broad chest moved steadily up and down, slow and rhythmic.
“Oh, don’t give me that. You know as well as I do that it was just fun and games. Harmless flirtation. We weren’t together in any way. We never even kissed. It didn’t mean anything.” A tear slid down her cheek, and she wiped it away. After everything she’d done to avoid seeing him hurt…. “It didn’t count. You don’t throw your life away for a flirtation, stupid.”
His hair was getting long. It spilled on the pillow like curls of ink. He was also developing quite a beard, too. That had to be a good sign, right? His hair wouldn’t be growing if he was dying. And at least he wasn’t on a ventilator. According to Jake, his neuro checks were still good, considering he was in a coma. His brain activity was strong. Dr. Roche said that was a good sign, too. He should wake up any day now, the doctor said. He would still be in a lot of pain, and have a long road of recovery ahead of him, but he might not have any permanent damage.
So that was good, at least.
Groaning, she stretched, popping joints. “You’re the life of the party, as always.”
Admittedly, this was the only time she felt like she wasn’t going to stumble over her words and say something stupid to him. When those eyes weren’t on her, she could keep her mind clear. Focused. Unclouded.
But she wouldn’t mind a bit of a distraction right now. She didn’t like the direction of her thoughts. She didn’t want to remember how his life had hung in the balance, just like the airplane had hung in the air.
She was suddenly hit with the enormous weight of his almost-death. She could have lost him. Forever.
No. Think about something else. Her legs were falling asleep. Rolling her shoulders, she got up and crept a little closer to him. It looked like he was wilting. Losing too much weight. On top of what he had been losing in Africa when he’d been on his stupid hunger strike for the children.
“This is not what I meant when I said you should shed a few pounds.”
Had she really made fun of him like that? He really had gotten to her. But she kind of liked how sturdy and…soft, he was. Like that thing from that movie. Baymax. Or that other movie with the candy race car princess and the demolition guy. Demolition Dan? Annihilation Andy? Something.
She would give anything for him to wrap his arms around her one more time. To pull her to him again and let her exist in the space where two heartbeats became one. “It’s time to wake up, B.”
His eyes moved beneath his lids, and his beautiful lashes brushed his cheeks as they twitched. On impulse, she reached over and traced one finger lightly over them. They twitched a little more. His eyelids were soft, like flower petals. There were little crinkles around his eyes from smiling too much. Yes, he smiled way too much. But she’d give anything for one of those devilish grins right now. Just the way he’d looked in the moonlight on the night when everything had changed. The night before the explosion, when he had broken something in her that she wasn’t sure she would ever be able to fix.
Under these artificial lights, he looked off. Especially with all of the fresh scars. The caramel of his skin was brassy, his onyx hair as brittle as shale. Though the bandages on his face, legs and hands had been removed, his torso was still covered. On top of that, he smelled wrong. Like powder, medical tape, and rubbing alcohol. None of his fruity, woodsy smell remained, or the cinnamon of the gum he always chewed.
His full, rose-gold lips were parted slightly as he breathed. He was going to get chapped, letting his mouth hang open like that. Carefully, she shut it, then couldn’t keep from tracing those lips. They were pretty dry. She dug in her bag for the bargain-brand balm that was a necessity during Canadian winters, and carefully applied it. He probably hadn’t been properly washed since he got here. He definitely hadn’t been shaved.
Jake was doing a terrible job; so much for being a guardian angel.. Upon closer inspection, she also saw tangles in his hair, especially where it was on the verge of curly at the ends. She passed her hands through it slowly, trying to work out the snags. It was course and shaggy in her fingers as she toyed with it. Usually, it was silken and soft at his temples and nape.
She wished she had his grooming products with her. Or knew how to use them. It could be a month before his stuff arrived from overseas. But she had some unscented, off-brand Aveeno. Equate colloidal oatmeal lotion.
She squinted at the label. “ ‘Equate colloidal oatmeal.’ Sorry it’s not Kiehl’s. It’s all I’ve got.”
His face continued to tic as she carefully worked the lotion into his scarred forehead, temples, and cheeks. She tried to scrunch his face to make his dimples appear. When that didn’t work, she gently rubbed her thumbs in the place where they would be if the world was right-side up. His five-centimeter, crinkly beard tingled her fingertips.
“I promise I’m not feeling you up.” She massaged his jaw, then his neck, feeling the pulse of life flowing steady and strong. If he could hear her, he wouldn’t remember anything. “And don’t get used to this.”
Absently, her hands ventured under his gown to his collarbones, following a path up to the wide base of his neck, then his shoulders. She drew away. His chest was covered in so many wires.
His hands were probably getting dry, too. Tenderly, she picked up the one with the pulse-ox reader, placing his palm along the side of her face. It was warm, but not as warm as usual. On his other hand was an IV needle. Sighing, she stroked his scarred wrist and fingers. The plastic ID band on his wrist was his only accessory.
“Oh, B.” She sniffled. “Your cuticles are just a disaster.”
His finger twitched, and her eyes flew to his face. The monitors confirmed his quickened breathing. A muscle in his cheek fluttered, hinting at those dimples, and she placed her hand over it.
“Ben?” She shook him gently. “It’s time to wake up. You’re way overdue for a trim and some beard oil. You’re scruffy and chapped, and you need a manicure.”
His head moved. Just a little. And was that a groan?
“You’ve really let yourself go, Ben. Come on, wake up. It’s time to go to the spa or whatever.”
She willed him to move again. Make a sound. But even after thirty minutes, there was nothing else. Grief slammed into her. Very easily, she could be the one in this bed. If there was a chance that she could have survived the blast. Where would Ben be, if their roles were reversed? Would he look after her, and sit in this empty quiet by her side?
She would never know.
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