Once out of Bianca’s presence, Lena found herself spinning, unable to concentrate, lost, and barely tracking her surroundings. She rubbed mindlessly at the raw, burning tears searing her cheeks, her body aching as though the car accident had only happened minutes before rather than days, barely aware of the askance gazes cast her way by the man standing as far away as possible in the narrow confines of the elevator, though she was conscious enough to be grateful when he got off on the next floor. Good. The last thing she wanted was to be around strangers when it felt like someone had bitten chunks out of her hide and she just wanted to find a safe hole and pull it in after her.
So much for the woman who’d thought she had a new chance in life. That was gone now. Bianca had made certain she knew precisely where she stood.
Damn her. Once upon a time Lena had carved her heart from her chest and thrown it away, and damn Bianca for making her long for those harder, colder days. A soft sob escaped Lena's lips, a part of her wanting to take the thought back even as it ran through her head. She scraped tangled bangs back from her forehead, her hand trembling violently, unaware of a few spatters of blood that smeared her fingertips, left there by the cut on her forehead---the edges had reopened under the force of the desperate massage that did nothing to chase back the headache pounding violently in her frontal lobe.
She wanted to sob and scream and cry out her rage at the universe over the unfairness of it all.
Instead she folded her arms tightly around her midsection, her eyes tightly shut, achingly aware of the slight jerk of the elevator floor beneath her feet. It would be on the ground floor in just a few more moments. She didn't have much time.
She had to regain control. It wouldn't do to show any weakness. Now wasn't the time to repeat her errors of the night before. In her ignorance she'd been foolish and soft. She'd surrendered control to Bianca's sweet lies far too easily, opening her body and her heart for the younger woman to take and use at will. She wouldn't make the same mistake again. From now on, she trusted no one with her secrets. Her emotions were her own and no one would touch them ever again, least of all Bianca Montgomery.
When she opened her eyes again, she fought to make her expression cold and hard.
She had to be utterly dead to emotion.
No love, no hate. Just nothing.
The floor beneath her bare feet lurched as the elevator came to a halt.
Nothing. Just feel nothing, she told herself over and over as she struggled to restore some semblance of her old self: the woman who had floated above everything, dead to nearly all feeling, her only remaining emotion a vague sort of loathing for the entire world. Don't cry, don't hurt, don't bleed, just despise them all.
But it didn't work. Tears burned her eyes and cheeks. She rubbed at them and tried to will them away, but the effort just seemed to make things worse.
The last thing she wanted was for the doors to slide open and to find herself facing a crowd of curious eyes.
Which was probably why that was exactly what happened. Her luck had never been the best.
"Miss, are you all right?" a man questioned as he broke away from a small group to reach out as if he expected her to topple at any second.
Which was a distinct possibility, Lena thought as the world wobbled around her. "I’m fine," she insisted as she stumbled free of the elevator, feeling trapped by the close confines and watching eyes."Just fine."
"Are you sure?" he asked doubtfully, his hand still outstretched. He was trying to be kind, she knew, but as he drew a step closer, it felt like the walls were closing in and she darted sideways out of reach.
And directly into a solidly muscled frame. She wasn't moving particularly fast, but dizzy and weak as a kitten, even that small collision was more than she was prepared for. As her knees buckled, she tried to catch herself, but it was already too late. She half slid, half tumbled to the floor in sprawl. Not good. Pain made bright lights pop behind Lena’s tightly closed eyelids while every muscle in her body trembled with fatigue.
"Oh, my god, are you all right?" A man’s voice, worried and vaguely familiar, rattled around in her head, even that small noise threatening to make her skull implode.
Somewhere she heard a mumbled comment passed between two members of the crowd asking if she was on drugs. No, but she probably should be. Painkillers, lots of them.
"Fine," Lena lied through the pain driven nausea, instinctively pulling away from the hand that barely started to touch her shoulder. She had to get out of there. Bone ground against raw bone as she pushed up with her bad arm, the resulting agony enough to send a wave of blue across her vision. For just a moment she thought she might escape into the nirvana of unconsciousness, then the darkness receded, leaving her staring at the dull grey carpeting beneath her hand.
"Are you sure?" the voice echoed in her head, fighting to be heard over the buzzing in her ears. "Because you really don’t look so good."
Something familiar brought her head up and she frowned. Contrary to what she'd let Bianca think, her memory of her time in Pine Valley was far from complete, much of it still hazy and confusing. As a result, it took her an extra beat to recognize the angular features peering down at her, but when she did she wanted to scream as an echo of that last phone call before the accident came back to her; that voice, taunting her with his knowledge of what she was---and wasn't---to Bianca even as he offered her an opportunity to take back her old self in his service.
Adam Chandler. Not quite the last human being on the face of the earth that she wanted to see, but definitely in the top ten. She glared at him. "Don’t touch me," she snarled, already envisioning his chuckle if he realized why she was running half dressed through the Valley Inn. Oh, yes, the whole story would definitely give Adam quite a laugh.
He yanked his hands back as though stung, staring at her with a look that seemed almost hurt. Which didn't make any sense at all. Adam Chandler might have emotions somewhere under that sneering mien, but they wouldn't be wasted on a peasant like her.
"You're Lena Kundera, aren't you?" he asked after a beat.
And he didn’t sound like Adam, Lena realized in a rush. His voice was close, but not quite right. Adam Chandler’s voice was knowing and constantly underlaid by a wry twist. Only not now. Now it was---she hunted for the right word---innocent.
Rolling into a sitting position, she gripped her broken arm above the edge of the brace as she curled her forearm into her body. Staring at him, the only thing keeping her upright, the wall at her back, she fought to think through the pain. It proved challenging, but finally she dredged up a memory of Adam's brother---Stuart Chandler---as sweet as Adam could be cold, though some said he was a little slow.
Behind him the crowd would have milled in an effort to assuage their obvious curiosity, but a woman---his wife?---shooed them away with some determination.
"Stuart---" she began as she turned back toward them, but he cut her off, still staring at Lena with that same quiet intensity as though he was trying to figure a way to tame some wild forest creature.
"Hush, Marian." He offered a gentle smile, then directed his question to Lena. "How can we help you?"
For once Lena didn't question, just rubbed at the painful burn of tears. "Hospital," she rasped. "I need to get to the hospital." Irina and Bianca would soon follow, with their expectations and their demands, wanting everything and offering nothing. She didn't want to face either of them.
Or maybe they wouldn't follow, but would just leave her completely on her own one more time. God knew, they'd both done so before.
Uncertain which thought hurt more, she just wanted to flee. If she was gone, she'd never know and never have to deal with the consequences of either option. All she had to do was find her mother and they could leave this damned town before anyone thought to look for them. She'd had to turn most of her secret accounts over to the government when she'd turned on Michael, but there were still two they hadn't found. They weren't large, but they were enough to survive on until she could come up with something else. And even if they weren't, she didn't care. She could see now that she had to get out of there. She should have left months before, but had still been too vested in trying to restore her relationship with Bianca. Perhaps she owed the younger woman a note of thanks because she'd made damn certain that Lena no longer felt any ties to Pine Valley.
Stuart held out a hand, not pushing, just waiting for her to reach back. "Of course." He looked up at his wife. "Marian, why don't you bring the car around while I help Ms. Kundera." She looked like she wanted to argue, but didn't bother, simply accepted the keys he handed her and left to do as asked.
Only moments later, Stuart gently helped Lena into the back seat of the comfortably lush sedan, then slid in next to her. She kept waiting for the questions, but he didn't ask any, simply watched her quietly as they drove toward the hospital. At the wheel, Marian glanced back over her shoulder now and then and clearly wanted to ask everything her husband wouldn't, but any attempts were met with a hush from Stuart, and she quickly gave up.
Despite her gratitude for that small measure of kindness, Lena refused to show any sign she'd noted it. It would have required a look, maybe even a small smile, and allowing even that small measure of vulnerability was more than she could bear. After all, looks and smiles were inevitably read as invitations for more contact. They invited questions and confidences and a host of other things that suddenly seemed all too terrifying.
Better to simply trust herself and block out anyone else, no matter how kindly the eyes watching her might seem. Gentle eyes could hide a thousand cruelties.
That thought still running through her head, she bailed out of the car the moment it pulled to a halt at the front entrance to the hospital, sheer determination carrying her forward even as she heard Stuart shout after her. Lena never looked back. Instead she kept her head up, eyes to the front, pointedly ignoring any curious gazes cast her way. Let people stare. She was used to it, and there was no one left whose opinion mattered anyway. Which only made it that much more tempting to just turn and run away again. Her stomach coiled with tension. No, her mother. She owed it to her mother to see things through, at least until she could get both of them out of town.
She reached a bank of elevators just as Stuart and Marian came through the main doors, and was grateful when one opened on cue. Doubtless Adam's brother was sincerely trying to be kind, but she couldn't afford the luxury of trust.
Not now, maybe not ever again.
Folding her arms tightly around her upper body, the pressure of the position making her broken arm ache fiercely, Lena stepped onto the empty elevator, sparing a glare for a man who would have joined her. He took an unsteady step back, an uneasy expression on his face as he left her alone in her metal prison. She released her tight grip on her upper arms just long enough to hammer the button for her floor, then retreated into that tightly restrained, defensive position.
You can do this, Lena told herself over and over, just hold on a little longer.
When the elevator stopped on her floor, she turned in the direction of her room only to think better of it. Given the way she'd disappeared and Irina's attitude in Bianca's hotel room, there was likely to be a crowd waiting there. She could almost feel their watching eyes and cloying sense of disapproval.
She turned the other direction, frowning as she tried to decide what to do next.
Doctor Grey. The woman had been kind, even understanding, and very uncertain about allowing Bianca's pursuit. In retrospect, it seemed as though she'd had some idea of the coming disaster and had made some effort to avoid it. She seemed most likely to help and her office was nearby. A thousand aches and pains catching up with her, each step came a little more slowly than the last as she searched for the doctor’s office. The pain damping effects of shock and adrenaline were fading away with every passing second. She'd already pushed her body far past its limits. It seemed likely that a price would soon have to be paid for the abuse.
With her head down she didn't initially notice the man ahead of her in the corridor, then something caught her attention; perhaps a moving shadow, a sound, perhaps just an awareness that something wasn't right. As she saw him, she was tempted to dart into some nearby office in search of a hiding place, but he didn't look back and she doubted any of the office doors they passed were unlocked anyway.
Besides, she suddenly wanted to know where he was going. Medium height, dark hair, confident stride. She knew him. It took only an extra moment or two of searching her still foggy memory to come up with the name David Hayward. One of the "good people" of Pine Valley. And a bigger liar, thief, and cheat than she could ever have dreamt of being.
At that thought a thin trickle of the past—of his voice in her ear and his fingers pressing at the carotid artery in her throat---slid through her, nothing more than a phantom, not substantial enough to be called a memory, but still enough to taunt her.
Lena trailed after him in a daze, drawing closer than she might have had she been thinking more clearly, but suddenly curious about why he was here and instinctively certain it had something to do with her.
Finally, after several twists and turns, he stepped into an open office ahead. "All right, Maria, I'm here," David snarled. "Now what do you want?"
Dr. Grey had called him here? Lena shook her head slowly, not quite understanding. It had to be some other case, surely. And yet....
"Did you really expect to get away with it?" the doctor demanded before David could say anymore.
Lena frowned, that haunting threat of memory still there like delicate vines crawling up the back of her skull, taunting her without quite letting her see the past.
"You're going to have to be more specific---" David put a sneering spin on the words, "after all, I've gotten away with so many things."
"Your little elixir and its tendency to wipe people's memories," Maria clarified.
The vines became claws. Lena could feel them digging in deeper into her brain as they dragged themselves higher, flicking memories this way and that in their search for just the right ones.
"Y'know, Maria," David snapped impatiently, "you have my deepest apologies for your memory loss. Believe me, I wish to hell I hadn't saved your life and---"
"Not me," Maria cut him off, "Lena Kundera."
It was like the words triggered a microburst inside Lena's skull, rain and sleet and hail all hammering at flesh and bone, battering them until she lost all sense of her surroundings. Before that moment, she'd had only the faintest hints of the actual accident---images like ancient black and white movies that flickered in her head without sound or sensation. It had been distant, safe, as though it had happened to someone else. Nothing really when compared with the horror of being betrayed by the person she loved most in the world.
Only now the memories were all sound and sensation and definitely happening to her. The whip and thrum of blinding rain overlaid by the scream of metal echoed in her ears, and her body spasmed as though she was once again being tossed about inside the cracked eggshell interior of her car, while her hands fisted as just as they had when slender fingers crushed into the leather lining on the steering wheel. In her mind, she fought to escape the skid and failed, then once again experienced the momentum that hurled her car into the air and her body into the bruising restraint of the seatbelt. The windshield shattered, and her head snapped back under the force of a blow, her vision lost in a haze of spattering blood. Then she felt the weight of gravity as it pulled at her where she hung helpless, her blood draining away from the gash in her forehead a drop at a time, the crush of death ebbing closer with every tiny splash.
Lena's breathing slowed, her eyes dulling as though she was once again dying and listening to it all from a distant point far above the real world.
Even in her daze, she heard David’s words and a distant part of her dispassionately analyzed them with calculating objectivity.
"Sorry," he jeered, treating Maria's insinuation as something far different than it actually was, "she's not really my type, and I know I'm not hers."
Sometimes acting like a supreme asshole was the best defense. Lena had used it more than once, but in spite of David's bravado, she could hear the fear. He was terrified. Just like he'd been that night. Lena remembered it more clearly now---the husky, too fast rhythm of his voice, the feel of fingers at her throat, hunting for some sign of life.
And there'd been another voice, she abruptly realized—a woman—whispering and panicked. Her doctor?
"Test results." Maria Santos-Grey's tone was just as furious as David’s, her fear much more obvious. "All sorts of nasty little test results...with some very familiar components."
No, it hadn't been Maria Grey that night.
"I have no idea what you're talking about." David's denial was weak.
No surprise. For all of his bluster, David Hayward was fundamentally weak. It was why he impulsively grabbed at anything he wanted with no self control to ever back off or say no. But the woman?
Who was she? Had she been with Hayward or perhaps a nurse in the E.R.?
No, not in the E.R. The flicker of a memory was shaded in darkness, not the bright lights of the emergency room. She’d been at the accident. Lena was certain of it as she struggled to remember whispered comforts.
Then light burst behind her eyelids like an old fashioned flashbulb, and she heard the words through the pop, soothing, scared, telling her she couldn't die because it would hurt Bianca. As though Bianca would have cared or even noticed unless she was in the mood for a little sex.
It had been Erica that night. And she’d been scared, not of injury or death, but of discovery. Lena knew that particular emotion oh so well. She'd lived with it for years and used it against more than one mark on Michael's behalf.
As she realized the truth, Lena would have laughed if she could have. The memories were indistinct, more impressions than actual words---by then she'd been well on her way to her final repose---but there was just enough for her to put two and two together. Erica had been a very bad girl with very bad boy, Dr. David Hayward. Ah, the good people of Pine Valley. Sinners, every last one of them.
That thought caused another flash bulb explosion to illuminate more of her foolishness. No, her naivete. Still thinking she was a decent human being surrounded by others of the same stripe, it had never occurred to her that the doctor in her room only two nights before cared about anything but her health, but now she remembered the bone white cast of his clenched knuckles where he gripped a pillow so tightly he appeared ready to tear it in two.
Or smash it down on her face?
His eyes had been scared then too. Scared of getting caught? Or scared of finally committing that last sin that would guarantee his place in an everlasting hell of his own making?
She was still musing on that question when she realized that David and Maria were still talking, their voices low and intense. She'd lost part of the discussion, but not enough to lose the whole thread. David had used one of his concoctions on her that night, stolen her memory, then nearly her life, and now he appeared to be morally incensed that Maria was questioning his judgment. Yeah, that just about summed it up.
"Goddammit, if I hadn't, she'd be dead," he snarled.
As if that was the worst thing that could happen to a person.
"You used her like a goddamned guinea pig," Maria hissed. "And then you didn't even warn me...Jesus, David, you gave her an untested, untried drug with no regard for---"
"Fine, then take it to the police," he challenged her.
Oh, please do, Lena thought with some malice. David Hayward had played ducks and drakes with her brain, and she was looking forward to seeing Dr. Grey tear him apart a piece at a time.
"I'll deny it all, of course," he continued before Maria could get a word out, his voice dropping, a cruel, suggestive note entering his tone. "And remind them all about your little mental problems---"
"You lying sack of---"
"And probably I'll have to tell them all about our past---"
"You wouldn't," Maria hissed.
Lena tensed, feeling the shift in the balance of power yet not wanting to believe it, some tiny, hidden part of her still hoping there was someone in the damn town that wouldn't sell her out for their own gain.
"Of course I would," he corrected her. "I'll give them every damn detail until no one remembers who Lena Kundera was for discussing how we---"
"So help me, god, if you---"
"Or you can just forget it all," David threw out. "Burn the test results...let everyone go on thinking it was just the head injury that wiped her memory."
"For god's sake, David, who knows what that crap may have done to her...and if her memory returns---"
"It probably won't...at least not for a long time," David interrupted. "Remember how long you knew who you were and still didn't remember a thing...and you had every reason to want to. She doesn't. Hell, the kindest thing would be if she never remembered a thing."
And the kindest thing for David and Erica as well, Lena mentally sneered, her loathing growing with every self serving word that came out of his mouth.
"You're crazy," Maria growled, furious and scared and fighting to stay out of the corner he was trying to back her into. "I can't just ignore this---"
"Yes, you can," David disagreed. "For all our sakes, just forget everything."
For all their sakes? Lena thought with considerable acid. Not for her sake. Her brain was the one he'd toyed with, and ignoring that fact definitely wasn't in her best interests. Her past might not have been what she wished, but it was hers and no one had the right to take it away from her.
"And the possible side effects? For all you know, the memory loss is just the tip of the iceberg---"
"Work with me...and I'll tell you everything I know," David promised. "Hell, give me her files and I can model more tests...figure out what's going on...find a way to help her...and maybe even help us too."
Dear god, now the bastard wanted more files, and was hoping for another shot at mixing together a few random chemicals and using her like a damned labrat. Hell, maybe he could succeed in killing her or making her a vegetable this time. Rage sweeping over her, Lena waited for her doctor to start carving away David's body parts. No matter his insinuations, Lena couldn't believe the other woman would betray a patient the way he was suggesting she should.
"What the hell are you---" Maria began, but David overrode her, though he kept his voice low. Silky. Tempting.
"Perfected, that formula is worth a fortune---"
"You can't seriously---"
"It's already in her bloodstream, Maria. Nobody can unring that bell, but if we do this right we can all profit from it."
Lena almost couldn't believe what she was hearing. His temerity knew no bounds.
"Dammit, David, what you're suggesting is---" Maria began, but David cut her off, his tone coaxing.
"We can help her...even more if she doesn't know---"
The snake in the original garden of Eden probably hadn't sounded so caring and reasonable. Lena shook her head in disgust, wanting to lunge in and tear a hole in him, but held herself back. She needed to see how Maria reacted to the offer, needed to see if there were any uncorrupted souls left in the entire town.
"She has a right---" Maria began, but her voice threatened to falter and David broke in.
"You know how she'll react if you tell her about the formula." Sensing her weakening resolve, he kept pressing his case. It was a tactic Lena knew well, and had she been in a more reasonable mood she might have even seen the irony in the way it was being used against her. "She won't let me anywhere near her. No, the only way we can help her is if she doesn't know," he insisted, then softened his voice, "Besides, it's not like Lena Kundera has a past she's likely to miss...and who knows, maybe it really was the blood loss and seizures that caused the amnesia."
Maria was silent for a long moment while David tried another tack in his efforts to hide his own crimes.
"Did you know Bianca's been seeing her again...still has feelings for her. For god's sake, Maria, this gives them a chance to start over. Don't take that away from them because you have some kind of grudge against me."
He really was a piece of work. Lena's jaw clenched so hard it was a wonder her teeth didn't shatter.
His tone turned wheedling. "You know what that poor kid has been through. If you make a case of this, it'll just put her through even more when everything comes out---"
"My god, David, you can't actually be using that girl to protect yourself---"
"Erica was with me that night," David cut in, his voice so flat as to be nearly toneless as he used the last weapon in his arsenal. "Do you really want Bianca to find out...because we both know that once an investigation starts, nobody knows where it'll end. Do you really think the gains outweigh the risks? Lena got the formula. That can't be undone, but you don't have to risk putting Bianca through any more pain." His voice turned coaxing again, every word making Lena's hands clench a little tighter. "God, hasn't that poor kid been through enough?"
As though it was all about Bianca, Lena thought with rising venom. The only reason he'd spared her life was because of the girl, and now he was using her to justify hiding his own perfidy. And doubtless Bianca wouldn't even see the problem with that. Lena's lips twisted in a sneer. She'd probably just consider it her due, just as she considered it right and just that the entire town conspire to commit murder or that she not suffer a moment for that same killing. Not that Michael hadn't deserved to die, but on the rare occasion Lena let herself think about it there was something disturbing about the fact that it never seemed to bother Bianca in the least that she'd done it. Of course, why should she be any different from anyone else in town. Even the law had seemed strangely uninterested in what had come perilously close to premeditated murder.
Lena pushed that thought aside. Like so many things, it hardly mattered now. She just wanted to find her mother and go. To hell with all of them.
"If there's an investigation, it'll cause nothing but pain," David continued, "to Bianca, Erica...even Lena. Do you really think she wants to remember all the things she's done...what happened to Bianca because she brought that man to Pine Valley?"
Lena fought a wave of nausea caused by that accusation, but for the first time she didn’t experience the usual numbing wave of guilt. She hadn’t brought Michael, he’d brought her. And besides, Bianca’d gotten her own back at Lena.
Unaware of their silent audience, David continued to push his case. "And for what, so you can feel like you did the right thing no matter who suffers for it? And what about Edmund? If some reporter starts sniffing around, god only knows what they'll find out about you and I. You two have been having problems, haven't you? Do you really want to risk hurting him that way?"
Even as angry as she was, Lena couldn't help but smirk at the innocence in David's tone when only moments before he'd been threatening to shout the information from the nearest rooftop. Now he was pretending some reporter might dig it up by accident and trying to sound sympathetic even as he reiterated the threat. And she'd thought Michael was the textbook definition of a cold blooded manipulator. It looked like David Hayward might do him one better.
"It doesn't have to be that way...everyone hurt and bleeding," David wheedled. "We can make this a win-win situation...protect Bianca...Edmund...and everyone else...."
Shaking her head back and forth, Lena silently willed the doctor to tell him to go to hell. "Please don't," she exhaled almost inaudibly.
"Not one word ever gets out about you and I," Maria rasped at last.
"Not one word," he agreed.
"And I get copies of every trace of information you have on that formula."
"Everything," David promised, sounding almost cheerful now that he'd won.
Hot tears suddenly searing the back of her tightly closed eyelids, Lena spun away, but not before she heard David's silky request.
"And in return I get copies of her medical records...."
Certain she knew what Dr. Grey's response would be, Lena didn't wait to hear the damning words, just spun and fled. She only made it a few feet before crashing into a frame considerably shorter than her own, the limbs heavy yet oddly frail. It was pure instinct that made her reach out to steady the staggered figure, and with her eyes blinded by tears, she didn't realize she'd run into her own mother until she heard the rapidfire exclamations in Polish, then felt clinging arms wrap around her. The tight grip sent ragged bolts of pain through her bruised ribs, but she folded her mother in her arms as the older woman buried her face in her shoulder and broke into relieved sobs. "Shhhh," Lena soothed, hugging her mother tightly as she felt the older woman tremble violently. "It’s all right. I’m all right." Without thinking, she petted pale hair and whispered soothing reassurances in her native language, seeing to the older woman’s welfare just as she always had without even pausing to consider that there might be anything wrong in the way she had always been the caretaker in their relationship.
"I thought you were dead," Paulina sobbed. "That damn article...and that girl...she was here and...." Unable to finish, she choked to a halt and nosed deeper into her daughter’s shoulder.
A fresh rush of emotion clamping down on her throat and squeezing her heart, Lena clutched her mother a little closer. "Don't," she begged. "Just don't. None of it matters...none of it." She swallowed hard in an effort to halt another round of tears, then pushed back from the older woman to stare down into watery blue eyes. "But mama...we can't stay here. We have to leave now...quickly...before---"
"Leave," Paulina repeated, her tone confused, then seized on a likely explanation, "yes. We'll leave for Chicago as soon as---"
"No," Lena cut her mother off, "we need to leave now...immediately...just go...get out of this damn town. I still have a little money the government didn't find. We can be in Paris or Munich...or anywhere you can think of before anyone thinks to look for us."
Shaking her head, Paulina took a small step back, clearly thinking her daughter didn't know that her legal problems had been solved. "No," she exhaled, "we don't need to run. We can go to Chicago now...and start over---"
"No," Lena hissed desperately, the sense of a net closing in around her making her tremble. "We need to go...now...please."
"You don't understand," Paulina tried to reassure her daughter. "I couldn't tell you before because of...of everything, but I've been pardoned. There's no need to hide or play games anymore---"
Frustrated by the way they were talking at cross purposes, Lena bit back on a curse. "I know," she broke in. "But we still need to leave." She had to escape this damned town of traitors before one more person got a knife in her back. "Disappear...now...before---"
Lena wanted to scream as her mother stepped back a pace, her eyes wide. "No," she whispered, shaking her head back and forth as she rejected that idea. A beat passed while the two women stared at each other. "What is it?" Paulina asked at last. "What's happened?"
Ashamed of the way she'd spent the night and frightened her mother, Lena dropped her gaze. "It doesn't matter," she whispered raggedly. "Please, let's just go before---"
"Lena?" Maria Grey's voice rose questioningly on the second syllable.
Caught, the Polish woman tensed, the urge to scream at the other woman for all the things she'd overhead nearly overwhelming. Knowing she was close to losing control and unwilling to do so, she allowed herself a single second to settle her emotions. Clamp down and don't give them any weapons to use against you, she reminded herself as she pushed all the anger, hurt, and resentment behind a high wall of indifference. Time for the old Lena to make a reappearance. By the time she pivoted to face her physician, her eyes were clear and unreadable while her mouth twisted into the faintest of mocking smiles. She'd survived Michael's blows with that same expression. She could survive this. "Doctor," she drawled with the slightest tip of the head to acknowledge the other woman.
Dark brows drew together in a hint of a frown. Whatever Maria had been expecting the next time she saw Lena Kundera, the eerily calm, cold-eyed woman with her icily regal air in spite of standing there barefoot in stolen scrubs was nowhere near any of her predictions. The Lena Kundera who had been her patient had been gentle eyed and all courtesy and genuine friendliness. Her newly returned doppelganger seemed almost brittle with an air of hostility that Maria was at odds to understand. Shaken and uncertain what to say, the doctor stood perfectly still for an extra beat as she tried to decode the puzzle in front of her.
During the lull, Lena flicked her gaze past Dr. Grey to David Hayward where he hung back doing his best impression of wallpaper. He didn't want to be noticed, but neither was he willing to miss the show. Despite her intention to give them nothing to use against her, she couldn't restrain a small, disgusted sneer that disappeared almost as quickly as it had appeared. To judge by the faint narrowing of David's eyes he saw the flitting hint of disdain.
"I'm very glad to see you returned," Maria said at last, the words coming out too fast and a little flustered. She started to reach for Lena's upper arm. "Now let's just get you---"
"Don't touch me," Lena hissed furiously before she could think better of it.
Maria pulled up short, brows drawing together into a worried frown, mouth open ever so slightly. "I know you've had a hell of a shock, Lena---" she began at last, her tone smooth and placating.
"More than one," Lena sneered, all pretense of being able to keep her emotions in check blown to hell. She looked pointedly at David, then back at her doctor, one corner of her mouth twisting disgustedly. "I've made deals with the devil, Doctor, so let me give you a piece of advice: they never come out well."
Maria half turned, her gaze following the path Lena's had until she recognized the target of that directed gaze and processed the softly uttered comment. In an instant her eyes went wide and every last drop of color drained from her face. "Lena," she whispered after a beat, "whatever you think you---"
"Don't," Lena hissed, too angry to let one more lie pass. She shook her head as frightened brown eyes swung her way. Given what she'd overhead, she had the power to hurt the other woman and Maria knew it. Her mouth worked silently for a brief second as she ran through a list of words she wanted to hurl at the other woman before finally shaking her head. It wasn't worth it. "I apologize for thinking you were different from the rest of the pit vipers in this town," she drawled at last, her gaze crystal hard as it dragged over Maria.
"Lena, I didn't---" Maria began, but the Polish woman cut her off.
"Don't," Lena hissed. Despite her injuries and weakness, an air of barely leashed violence swirled around her with enough intensity to keep Maria back. "No more lies." Her gaze raked over David. "I'm so sick of liars and their lies."
Hayward snorted at that comment, matching her disdain with his own. "Not much for looking in a mirror then?"
His sarcasm drew that hard gaze, and Lena matched his superior look with one of her own. "I have my sins...my lies," she allowed, refusing to be cowed by his disapproval. "But at least I have the decency to be ashamed of them."
David tensed ever so slightly, his shoulders pulling taut as though he expected to find himself under attack.
Lena shook her head. "You're not worth it," she dismissed, then looked down at her mother, her expression clearing. "Come on, Mama, we're leaving." It was a flat statement this time, no longer a plea or negotiation. She rested a hand on her mother's back, intending to guide her toward the nearest elevator.
"And where will you go?" a softly accented voice questioned before Lena could take a step.
She did a slow turn, tension rippling through her upper body. She'd made it this far, but her legs threatened to turn to jelly as a fresh wave of adrenaline pumped through her system. "Nowhere you need to know about," she snarled at Irina where the woman stood a short distance away. Damn her for being here. Probably enjoying the show.
Dark eyes that were an eery mirror of Lena's own favored Paulina with an oddly gentle look. "And is that what you think Mama wants...now...when she can finally stop looking over her shoulder...more running and hiding?"
Lena's throat bobbed as she swallowed hard to break the tightness that threatened her ability to speak. "I can take care of her." It had been her task since she could remember, and she'd damn well made sure her mother was okay. Whatever her sins no one could deny that much. "I always have."
"I'm not questioning that," Irina sighed, sounding tired. One hand floated up, briefly shading her eyes from view. "And I'm not here to hurt you. I just want to help."
Lena swallowed hard and looked like she might just break for a moment, but then her expression hardened. Reaching deep she clawed onto that old Lena and hauled her back up one more time. That Lena had understood that the real world was full of liars and thieves and it didn't do to pretend anyone cared about anything but themselves. "Doesn't matter," she muttered, wrapping her anger around her like a cloak and clinging to it desperately to ward off any temptation to soften. "None of it matters now...."
"That's not true," Maria murmured, breaking in carefully. Too tired and overwhelmed to deal with the situation rationally, Lena was like an overtired child who couldn't get a tantrum stopped on their own, and the doctor suspected it would be all too easy to push her into hysteria. "It matters a great deal." Dark eyes swung her way and the doctor offered what she hoped was an encouraging expression. "I know things seem bad right now, but that's partially because you're hurt and in shock." She risked taking a step closer, and Lena didn't protest this time, simply watched her with that deep, assessing gaze. "But Lena, it'll be a lot easier to face it all if you get some sleep and let your head clear." She started to reach out, resting a hand lightly on her patient’s arm.
A moment passed while the Polish woman stared down at the slender fingers that wrapped loosely around her bicep. "Get. Your. Hands. Off. Of. Me," she said after a beat, her voice low, each word carefully spaced for maximum effect. She made no move to knock Maria's hand off, but as she looked up something in her eyes warned the doctor to back away.
Maria pulled back, keeping her hands in the air, palms spread. "Lena, please, you’re hurt. Just let me help---"
"I’m aware of what your version of help entails," Lena jeered, her eyes going to David where he still hung back, out of the thick of things, but close enough to continue track everything said, "not to mention his." Reminded of what they'd intended, she felt the rage surge anew, the anger so sharp it was a kind of madness. They all had their secrets and because of that, she had a full arsenal of weapons to turn their way.
David stiffened, uncertain what she knew, but smart enough to realize she knew something. "I saved your life," he shot back.
Lena’s mouth twisted in an acid smile. "And then, I think, nearly took it again...or perhaps you were just intending to fluff my pillow," she reminded him, the communication for the two of them alone. "Mind you, that’s not all you fluffed, was it? Though I suppose Erica appreciated her fluffing more than I would have appreciated mine."
The color draining from his face, David shook his head, wavering under the knowing scrutiny directed his way. She couldn't possibly know...but she did. "I didn’t..." he began only to trail off.
"Now that would be a first," Lena sneered, her angry confidence enough to leave him shaken. Injured, barely able to stand, and lied to by all of them, she’d become the most dangerous kind of enemy; one with nothing left to lose, so she simply waited for his response.
It was David who broke first, his gaze falling away, Lena’s soft, mocking laugh playing in his ears, telling him she knew exactly what he was, her contempt like acid on his skin, threatening to burn through him layer by layer until he was revealed to the black depths of his shrunken soul.
"You should have just finished it," she taunted him, instinctively knowing how to twist the knife. "It would have been kinder for all involved."
Every last bit of color draining away, he looked up, wincing as she offered him an ironic smile and tip of the head. "Don't say that," he whispered at last, still sickened by the mistake he'd nearly made.
"Why not?" she sneered.
"Bianca," he snapped, unable to forget the girl’s confessions the next day or the guilt that came from knowing he’d nearly caused her yet more pain. "She's been hurt too much already. She doesn't need anymore pain."
Lena snorted under her breath. If he thought that was the way to bring her back into line, he was sorely mistaken. "I assure you," she said after a beat, "other than the loss of a toy she enjoys now and then, it wouldn't matter in the least to her." It was strange, but as much as the words hurt to say, there was an oddly freeing quality to throwing her worst fear into their faces.
"That's not true."
Lena froze, tension quicksilvering through every muscle in her body as she recognized the voice behind the seemingly heartfelt denial.
She felt more than heard the collective gasp that resonated through their small audience as they too realized there was a new entrant in the game.
Oh god, not now.
Lena could feel her heart pounding against her ribs, slamming into them with painful force, each beat loud enough to echo in her ears.
"Lena, please," Bianca begged after a long moment, "look at me."
Amazing, even now she had the power to command attention. If there had been any way at all to escape, Lena would have. She would have run without stopping until she reached the ends of the earth. Only there was no running now.
No running at all.
Blocked in, every escape venue cut off, Lena did a slow turn, her movements slow and unusually stiff, as though she'd aged a century in moments. She forgot to breathe for a long moment as her eyes fell on the slender figure standing only a few yards away.
Bianca. Here. Crying.
In an instant, the rest of them faded away as Lena's full attention was held by the woman watching her with wide, brown, tear-stained eyes.
Even now when Lena should hate---did hate if she was completely honest---it hurt to see the pain in the those eyes.
"Lena," Bianca whispered, the single word sounding like a thousand different pleas.
Every last one of them a lie, Lena reminded herself. She wavered gently on her feet, the shock of Bianca's arrival threatening to knock her off her feet. "Don’t," she whispered very softly, the rage giving way to hurt and disappointment. She was so tired of it all, tired of being alone and scared and bearing more hate and pain than anyone should be asked to carry, even her. "I don't want you here," she sighed a beat later. No longer a comfort, Bianca had simply become one more reminder of a life wasted.
Bianca winced, but didn't leave. Instead, she cautiously advanced, stepping lightly as though approaching a cornered animal. "I don't believe you," she whispered.
Dark eyes tracked Bianca's every move, while Lena quivered, blowing quick, ragged pants as she fought for air.
"I know I've made mistakes," the girl continued as she drew to within arm's reach. "But I've never wanted to see you hurt...and never---"
"You. Used. Me," Lena ground out the accusation, Bianca's apparent dismissal of her own deliberate manipulation as nothing but a mistake retriggering her anger. She kept her voice too low for anyone but her former lover to hear, but no one could have missed the tension in her pose.
"No," Bianca sharply denied the charge, then carefully softened her voice when she saw the way the muscles clenched along the line of Lena's jaw. "I just---"
"Lied and took what you wanted in spite of my wishes...just like he always did," Lena accused, anger softening to profound pain in an instant, "just like everyone always does." She closed her eyes, blocking out the world as the past threatened to swallow her whole. She'd been here before, feeling like this, like nothing. Not again.
"That's not true," Bianca insisted. "I---"
"Then tell them," Lena breathed, too numb to allow herself to hope as she offered Bianca one last chance at redemption, "the truth about you and I."
Bianca ignored the lurch of sheer terror that tightened her stomach muscles as she reached out to rest her palm lightly on Lena's forearm. Carefully ignoring the heartfelt request, she whispered, "Let's go away together...just you and I...so we can talk," she coaxed, "the way we should have last night...just sit down and hash everything out." Frightening as that idea was, it was still far more bearable than what Lena was asking of her.
Not very many hours before Lena would have been grateful for the offer. Now it just made everything that much worse. "It's too late," she whispered, accepting her defeat. Nothing would ever change between them. "Just go," she added as she pointedly turned away, hoping against all hope that Bianca would accept the dismissal and go. Her posture perfectly straight, she faced their audience with a purposely cold look, determined to show none of the churning emotion engendered by Bianca's arrival. Judging by the looks cast her way, she doubted she succeeded very well. Even David wore an expression that bordered on pity.
She forgot David and the others as the lightest pressure touched her upper back, heat radiating outward from that light contact.
No, of course she wouldn't leave just because Lena had asked her to. Hell, that had probably only made her more determined to stay.
"...just give me a chance and we can work this out," Bianca coaxed, her hand still resting lightly on Lena's back, fingertips just barely moving, massaging so very lightly that Lena felt the heat more than the pressure. "Just---"
"Go away with you," Lena broke in before Bianca could finish.
"Yes," Bianca whispered hopefully.
"To a very discrete, very expensive hotel, no doubt," Lena murmured, pain radiating through her as she uttered the words that damned them both. "Check in under an assumed name, pay with cash, ruffle the sheets and no one needs to know...I go on being your nasty, little secret." Bianca didn't respond this time, and her hand stilled where it rested on Lena's upper back, leaving the Polish woman to wonder if it was anger, fear, or disbelief that paralyzed her.
Unable to resist the temptation to find out, Lena did a slow turn, sad to see no understanding in the younger woman's eyes, only confusion, hurt, and what appeared to Lena to be a fair degree of resentment over not getting what she wanted. "You never understood," she mourned after a long moment, reaching out again, touching velvety skin---for the last time, she told herself. "To do what did for Michael, I had to become inhuman...barely alive. I tore the heart from my breast and threw it away to keep from blowing my brains out...and then I saw you, and inch by inch you made me want to reclaim myself. Merely looking at you made me want to be someone worthy of even speaking to you. I thought you were everything perfect in the world." The explanation was made for her own reasons, and no longer because she had any hope that Bianca would comprehend what she was being told. Gloom swept over her, the sheer melancholy of it all nearly enough to drive her to her knees. "But whatever we had it was built on a foundation of lies. My lies...your lies...everyone’s...lies..."
"Lena, please," Bianca begged, wanting to stop this before it went too far.
Lena shook her head, rejecting her former lover’s plea to stop. She'd already held back too much. This time Bianca would hear her even if she didn't understand. "For months I have lived and breathed nothing but shame for who I was and what I did...and for what happened to you...." She shook her head, still sickened with remorse for her crimes, but for once also aware of just what everyone else had done. They all took what they wanted without a trace of guilt about who they hurt. She was tired of carrying her sins when no one else bothered. "No more."
"Please," Bianca took a step closer, reaching out to Lena, her voice cracking with the intensity of emotion, "just let me---"
"What?" Lena breathed as hope threatened to rise anew in response to Bianca's tone. She quashed it with a wave of purest rage, reminding herself how the younger woman had used that soft inviting voice to betray her and use her body. Perhaps it was justice given her own history, but she wasn't going to fall for that trick again, not when she knew it so well. "Perhaps I should let you love me," she breathed, dropping her voice, making it low and seductive, drawing on the skills she'd learned through hard use, the very softness of her voice drawing Bianca in, fooling her into believing forgiveness was in the offing.
"Yes," the younger woman whispered as she took a step closer, putting them almost toe to toe. "Just trust me...I'll take care of you."
"Trust you?" Lena breathed, so close that Bianca could feel the warmth of her breath and see her own reflection in dark eyes. "Oh, Bianca," the Polish woman exhaled, her voice a husky lover’s purr. She reached out, stroking a full upper lip with the pad of her thumb. "So soft and beautiful. So sweet." She leaned closer, well aware of the tiny tremors that slid through the younger woman in response to her nearness. "So incredibly duplicitous." A wicked smile twisted full lips as she heard Bianca’s pained gasp. Strange as it seemed, she felt more like herself than she had in months. Maybe she was meant for cruelty. A soft, half mad laugh on her lips, Lena staggered back a half pace and offered a regretful moue. "Sorry, but I don’t really have the time or energy to fuck right now." Her words were deliberately obscene, their very crudity drawing the intended gasps of shock and disbelief from those around her, but also making the point very neatly to Bianca that she knew exactly what the night before represented and it wasn’t love.
"Lena, stop this...now," Irina snapped, her voice sharp as she interceded between them, unable to allow the bloodletting to proceed when the child was so clearly out of her depth. She might as well have tried to halt a runaway train by dragging her feet.
"Another country heard from." Lena couldn't contain a bitter snort as she rounded on her doppelganger, her eyes black with longstanding rage. "Poor thing," she murmured with mock sympathy. "It must be very frustrating for you to have come all this way only to be denied your chance to attend my funeral."
"Don’t say that," Irina whispered as it occurred to her that perhaps Bianca wasn’t the only one out of her depth. Lena had let go of any remaining restraints on her behavior, and that made her very dangerous, especially to anyone with secrets they wanted kept.
"Why not?" Lena demanded smoothly, her arch tone slipping only slightly as she added, "You’ve wanted me dead since before I was born. This must have seemed like the ideal opportunity. Hell, you were probably praying shock would take Mama as well."
"That’s not true." Irina shook her head, denying the accusation. "I came to help...to-to---"
"Don't even try," Lena snarled, then her head whipped around, gaze hardening as it dropped to touch on the hand that alighted on her arm. Her expression softened ever so slightly as she realized who was reaching out to her this time.
"Lena," Paulina said pleadingly. Seeing her daughter breaking down this way, she just wanted to get her away from all the things hurting her. "You were right before. We should go. The past doesn't matter. None of it...not Irina...not the girl...not this entire town."
Lena stared at her mother’s hand where it rested on her arm for a long moment, then tipped her head up until she encountered worried blue eyes. "If Irina doesn’t matter, then why did you call her?" she demanded, her tone torn between hurt and impatience.
Paulina flinched as though struck. "They told me you might be dying," she stammered defensively, looking older and weaker with every word. "I-I needed someone to---"
"Why couldn’t you stand on your own for just once in your life?" Lena muttered as she swung her uninjured arm to indicate Irina. "She turned her back on us and you went begging to her---"
"She couldn’t face what happened to you alone," Irina said very softly, trying to keep Lena from going down that road. It held too many pitfalls for all of them. "She called me and I just wanted to help---"
"Liar," Lena hissed, outrage twisting her expression. She advanced a step even as Irina backed away at the same rate. "You had a chance before...and you didn’t give a damn."
"You don’t understand," Irina rasped shakily. Uncomfortable and crowded, she backed up another step, but Lena wasn’t going to let her escape that easily. "If I had known...," she began, but couldn’t finish, uncertain what she might or might not have done if she’d understood the consequences. "It wasn’t as simple as you think."
Drawing a certain kind of pleasure from the pain throbbing through her veins, Lena broke in with a soft bark of grim laughter. "It never is," she jeered. She couldn't help it, she gloried in the fear she saw in eyes that were a mirror of her own. Irina couldn't want her secrets known any more than the rest of them.
"I thought I was doing the right thing," Irina said at last, the words coming in disjointed syllables.
Lena reacted as though struck, a tiny whimper escaping as she dug her teeth into her lower lip. "The right thing," she repeated on an enraged note, the words coming through choking tears.
Seeing Lena’s pain, Bianca wanted to go to her and offer some sort of comfort and protection, but afraid it would only trigger a fresh wave of anger, she quelled the instinct.
Unaware of her lover’s close perusal, Lena’s gaze dropped and she stared at the floor tiles as though memorizing the bland, grey on cream pattern so common to public works buildings. The brief respite helped calm some of the rage, but did nothing to deaden the pain. After a long moment she looked up. "If it was so right," she breathed, "then why not tell everyone what you did?" It was the challenge she’d been longing to throw at all of them—not just Bianca. If their actions were so wonderful, why weren’t they eager to proclaim them from the rooftops?
Well aware of what her daughter was asking, Paulina tried to intercede. It would only cause more pain. "Don't do this," she pleaded, pulling at her daughter’s arm.
Her entire focus on Irina, Lena never noticed. "Tell them how it was the right thing," she ground out, her voice cracking with barely controlled emotion. "Tell them what you did when I begged you for help."
"Don't," Irina whispered and shook her head very slowly back and forth. She folded her arms across her chest, but otherwise stood perfectly still while everyone else looked on, horrified and yet irresistibly fascinated by the scene playing out in front of them.
Involved in the show, no one noticed the latest figure to join them.
"I did the best I could—" Irina began defensively.
"I. Begged. You!" Lena roared before the other woman could say another word, the rage she had carefully leashed for so long breaking completely free. "And he...he---" She couldn’t finish. Her memory loss and Bianca’s lies had shown her the promise of what might have been, which only made the realization of what Irina’s choice had cost her hurt that much more.
For a moment, everything was silent and still and then the latest entrant into the drama stepped through the small crowd. "Mom," Niko said very softly, "What’s she talking about?"
Staring at her son in abject horror, Irina could only shake her head. He wasn’t supposed to be at the hospital. Not now. "You shouldn’t be here," she said at last, her voice tremulous and far weaker than he’d ever heard it before.
Meanwhile Lena did a slow pivot, her head canting to one side, mouth hanging open as she stared at the young man whose face was an eery mirror both of his mother's and her own. She’d known there was a son, but hadn’t been prepared for the reality.
"I heard she’d been spotted on a police scanner...and wanted to let you know," Niko murmured, his gaze swinging back and forth between the two women. "I guess I’m a little late," he said at last, the comment meant to lighten the mood. It landed like a lead balloon and he shifted self consciously from foot to foot as he peered at his mother. "What’s going on here?" He glanced at Bianca, but she seemed to be well back from the conflict, and contrary to what he would have expected, didn’t appear to have much to do with it.
Irina shook her head, refusing to look at him as she pleaded, "Go back to the hotel, Niko. I’ll explain everything later."
Frowning, he shook his head resentfully. Dragged out of school and into the mess, he’d been certain they were lying to him from the first, but he’d gone along with it because it seemed like the easiest course. Suddenly he wasn’t so sure. "Why would you start now when you’ve left me in the dark for the last week?" he questioned. Swinging his head around, he focused on Lena, searching out the rises and hollows of elegant features as though they might tell the tale. "Why don’t you just tell me what’s between you two?" He’d been aware of the aura of secrecy that surrounded his mother’s relationship to this woman from the moment he’d arrived, but he’d done what she wanted by carefully ignoring it. Now it was all blowing up. No more.
"Listen to your mother," Lena whispered, pushing aside any temptation to hurt Irina the cruelest way possible. "Leave and forget you were ever here." The boy wasn’t part of this and suddenly she had no stomach for the blood sport she’d intended, not when he was the one most likely to pay the highest price. But that didn’t mean she had to stay. If her mother wanted Irina’s support now, fine, they could have each other, but she wasn’t going to be a part of it. She started to sidestep Niko, intent on making her escape while everyone stood frozen.
"Not this time," Niko growled. His arm shot out and he wrapped long fingers around Lena’s upper arm, stopping her before she could bolt in spite of her struggles. After days being cut out of the loop he wasn’t going to be dissuaded from learning the truth now. "Now what’s going on?" He gave his mother another chance to answer the question.
"Niko," Irina pleaded, "don’t."
"Okay, that’s one down," Niko muttered unhappily as he swung around to face Lena, "So why don’t you tell me instead?" The words were barely out of his mouth when their eyes met and he froze. He’d only seen her from a distance, the space allowing for some objectivity. Now, in an instant, he saw his mother’s and his own face reflected back in hers and for the first time instinctively felt what he intellectually knew. They were family; a part of each other. Fear and pain glittered in Lena’s eyes, coupled with some element of the same bond he sensed before she abruptly looked away.
"Let go." The request was softly spoken, her tone calm for the first time since the confrontation had begun.
"I can’t." He shook his head, unable to do what she wanted, though he was terrified of what he might hear. His mother wasn’t one to show fear easily or lightly, but she was terrified of this woman and he had to know why. "What did she do to you?"
"Niko," Irina interjected sharply, her tone not so different from the one she’d used when he was a child and had ventured too close to traffic. "You heard her, let it go."
Niko looked over his shoulder at his mother, still young enough to instinctively respond to that tone, but old enough that a measure of defiance took over. "I wish I could," he admitted. Lena was still pulling against his hold, but her struggles were painfully weak and it was obviously taking all her effort to stay on her feet. Stepping closer, he shifted his hold, his touch becoming supportive rather than restraining. "Tell me," he pleaded. He’d seen his mother go over the line enough times to know she was perfectly capable, but family had always been her driving force. The notion that she had somehow betrayed her own blood scared the hell out of him.
Lena’s chin fell to her chest. She had the ultimate tool for revenge held in her palm, and she couldn’t use it. She couldn’t say the words that would damn Irina to the son she clearly adored and who obviously loved her in return. It wasn’t the woman she was unable to hurt, she told herself as she released a thousand dreams of vengeance that had kept her going through too many long nights, it was the boy.
When Lena looked up her eyes were as cold and hard as she could make them through a haze of silver tears. Judging by the way his expression softened, she wasn’t very successful. "It doesn’t matter," she told him, the icy tone she meant to summon cracking and breaking in spite of her best efforts. "You should learn not to listen too closely to the complaints of whores."
Niko flinched at the last word even as the surrounding audience seemed to hold its collective breath. Battered and half dead and the woman in front of him was still trying desperately to project an image of being in control. In the brief lull that followed his gaze slid past her to his grandmother where she leaned against the pretty doctor for support, her face ghostly pale and streaked in tears. Still holding Lena, he did a half turn, his eyes running over the small crowd watching the scene, pausing briefly on the young woman who was apparently his cousin’s lover. She was poised on the balls of her feet, her eyes scared and as their gazes met she mouthed something that might have been a plea. Finally, he found the figure of his mother, standing perfectly still, head down, arms folded protectively across her chest, her eyes tightly shut. "Mom?" he whispered very softly, the little boy in him wanting comfort, the man needing the truth.
Irina’s chin rose and she opened her eyes on a watery world. She should have just stayed away or at least kept her son from this hell of her own making, but she’d had some thought of making amends and hoped his presence would smooth the way and make things easier. It was almost too foolish to be believed now that she thought about it. She stared at the woman standing so close to her son, their faces so similar it made her heart ache to see the shame in Lena’s eyes and the way she hunched as though expecting a blow to fall at any moment. They looked too much alike for Irina to maintain her emotional distance. "If she’s a whore," she breathed, unable to bear the guilt any longer. She met her son’s gaze, sacrificing the only thing she had left that the other woman might accept as reparations---her son’s love and respect. "It’s because I made her one."
His frown deepening, Niko could only shake his head. He’d seen the stories, maybe not everything, but enough to know Lena Kundera was infamous and why. There was no way his mother could have had anything to do with the Cambias mess. "How?" His tone was oddly flat, as though the emotion had abruptly been drained from the scene, though in reality it was an act, the coldness a cover for the underlying fears he didn’t understand or know how to control.
"Lena came to me when the Polish government went after my mother for things she did under the communists...she wanted money—" As though taking her cue from her son, Irina’s tone became strangely distant.
"How much?" he whispered.
"Thirty thousand. I refused—"
"You refused---" he gasped as though gut punched and shook his head, instinctively resisting what his mother was telling him.
"I didn’t give her the money," Irina carefully reiterated, then started to say more only to be interrupted, by her son’s angry growl.
"You could have just written a goddamned check—" he began, but she raised her voice above his.
"Bullshit!" Niko exploded, any illusions of coolness disappearing in an instant. "Dad's all about family. He wouldn't have let yours twist in the wind if he could help—"
Irina flinched and softened her voice as she agreed, "Of course he wouldn’t have—"
"And that was the problem, wasn’t it?" Lena murmured before she could think better of it, suddenly understanding so much more. A soft, bitter laugh escaped her lips. "It wasn’t that he would have refused to help. It’s that you would have had to admit some tie to us."
Niko looked at Lena for a long moment, then back to his mother. "Mom?" His tone made it clear he didn’t want the charge to be true and would have done anything to hear an answer that would make it all go away.
"No," Irina said at last, her voice so soft it was nearly inaudible. "Your grandfather was running for reelection and your father was up for the ambassadorship...ties to a woman who’d betrayed friend and family alike could have—"
"You sold them out for politics."
He sounded so hurt and so lost that Lena sympathized with the boy even though she was resolved to feel nothing where he was concerned. It was just that she knew what it was like to lose faith in a parent and it was an experience she wouldn’t have wished on anyone.
"It wasn’t that simple," Irina said by way of denial, but Niko was having none of it.
"They were an embarrassment," he exhaled disbelievingly, "so you cut them off when they were in trouble?"
"I made a mistake," Irina admitted without confirming his view of the situation.
This wasn’t her problem, Lena reminded herself as she slowly eased back from the conflict, oddly grateful for the way it had drawn attention from her. The world swooped and swirled around her, but maybe she had enough left in her to use the opportunity to get the hell away before anyone could stop her.
She made it another three steps before dizziness turned the floor into the world’s largest Tilt-A-Wheel. A second later pain radiated up her thigh as she crashed to one knee. Oh damn. Before she could topple to the floor, an arm slid across her shoulders, offering support and comfort. Even after everything that had happened, a part of her wanted it to be Bianca. It was Niko. Somehow he’d known she was in trouble and gotten there in time.
"I’ve got you," he assured her.
Refusing to look up into his eyes, Lena instinctively steadied herself by resting a hand on his chest even as her head drooped and she leaned against his shoulder. She was startled to realize he smelled like her father. The similarity made her look up and she was struck by the worry in his eyes. That too, was like her father. He was the last person she could remember watching her—caring about her—that way. "Please," she begged, the resemblance shattering her intention to maintain her distance. "I can’t stay here." She couldn’t trust any of the others, and she couldn’t make it on her own. He was her only hope.
He started to say something only to be cut off as the doctor eased down beside them, her manner cautious. "Lena, you can’t just leave," she argued, her tone firm and at the same time coaxing. "You need to let me—" She started to reach out, intent on checking her patient.
She never made contact.
"Don't. Touch. Me," Lena ground out. After what she’d learned, she’d have to be three days dead before she allowed Maria Grey anywhere near her.
"Lena," Maria coaxed, "I know you’re angry, but I need to make sure you haven’t---"
"What? Ruined the experiment?" the Polish woman demanded, then shook her head. "I don’t think so. I'm not staying here...not so you and he," she nodded to indicate Hayward, "can mix up a few random chemicals to inject in my veins." She’d been Michael’s favorite waste of time, Bianca’s dirty little secret, and blackmail fodder for more than a few CEOs and captains of industry. She wasn’t going to be David Hayward’s labrat too.
Maria flinched, her eyes dark with shame, and hands up as though surrendering, but she didn’t back off. "Lena, no matter how you feel about me—how you feel about any of us," she added in tacit acknowledgment that Lena had no reason to trust any of them, "after everything you’ve been through, you need to be checked by a doctor."
"Not you," Lena ground out.
"Okay." Maria didn’t even try to argue. "I’ll get one of the other doctors."
"Not anyone in this hospital," Lena said by way of rejection. Maria would have access—and by extension, David would as well—to any medical records, no matter which doctor saw her. She tried to push to her feet only to have her knees buckle before she could even manage a crouch.
Niko cushioned her collapse as she sank back down to her knees. "Where’s the nearest hospital?" he asked.
"Look, the best thing to do is—" Maria began.
"Tell me where the nearest hospital is," the boy ground out, sounding every bit as dictatorial as his mother for a moment. "Look at her," he added, his tone sharp, "she’s not going to let you or anybody else here touch her." That he didn’t blame Lena for that sentiment wasn’t explicitly said, but it was there in his tone. "Now where can I take her that none of you can touch her?" He didn’t even look at his mother as he made the request.
Maria looked like she was about to argue when Bianca abruptly stepped forward, her voice low and tremulous. "St. Joseph’s...it’s on the other side of town, but if you get on 7th, it’s a straight shot." The girl heard the faint, collective gasp of those around her and wondered if any of them had the slightest idea what it cost her to say those words, wondered if even Lena would understand that they were a tacit admission of her own wrongdoing. But Lena was coming unglued and everyone was making it worse. They could work through everything later. "You could be there in fifteen minutes."
"7th?" Niko repeated, his brow drawing into a frown. "That’s what, three blocks west of here?"
"I can show you."
Bianca looked over her shoulder, eyes going to the speaker as he stepped forward, startled to realize that Stuart and Marion had joined the rest of them sometime during the fireworks. Helpless to do anything but watch, she watched Stuart kneel down beside Lena, his voice low and coaxing. "Remember me, Ms. Kundera...Stuart Chandler?" he asked even though it had only been a few minutes since the scene at the hotel. He didn’t wait for her to respond before he questioned, "Will you let me help you?"
Lena managed a weak nod and would have tried to rise, but it was hopeless.
Sliding his arms protectively around her, Niko glanced up, skin crawling at the sense of being judged by their avidly watching audience. If this was what she went through every day it was no wonder she was coming apart at the seams. One arm was already around her back and he slid the other behind her knees, muscles flexing as he lifted her against his chest. She was slighter than he would have guessed, tall, but with a surprisingly delicate bone structure. Not nearly heavy enough to slow him as he rose to his feet. He expected her to struggle, but she sagged against his shoulder, apparently trusting him to fight now that she no longer could.
He’d only gone a step or two when the old woman—his grandmother, he reminded himself, though the relationship still felt unnatural---stepped in front of him and reached out, resting a gentle hand on her daughter’s shoulder.
"Lena?" the older woman whimpered, but Lena just pressed deeper into Niko’s shoulder.
"I’m sorry, Mama," she didn’t look up, "I can’t...not this time."
Irina stepped forward and slid an arm across Paulina’s shoulders. "I’ll take care of her." She would have reached out to her son, but the expression in his eyes warned her off. Even during the most defiant teen years, he’d never looked at her like that, and she had to fight the sudden weakness in her knees. Now wasn’t the time to collapse. There was too much to be done. "Niko," she begged as he stepped past her.
He stopped, but didn’t turn back.
"I know you don’t understand any of this, but I wasn’t trying to hurt her...I just couldn’t...go back..." she trailed off, months of guilt since the whole story had come out in the press catching up with her. "And I thought...I thought it would be for the best," she exhaled at last, her shoulders deflating.
In the past, he would have turned and talked things through, but suddenly it felt as though there was nothing left to say without opening up far too many secrets and too many fears, both hers and his own. Head down, he started walking again, but made it only a few feet before someone stepped in front of them, forcing him to pull up short. Looking up into frightened brown eyes, Niko felt for the girl, but as he felt the slender figure in his arms tremble faintly, he knew which side he had to be on. A fine-boned hand rose as if to touch and he shook his head, silently warning her back.
Stung by the look thrown her way, Bianca didn’t make contact, but her hand remained poised a few inches from the back of Lena’s head, and she refused to step aside. "Please," she begged after a beat, her voice strained, "take care of her."
Niko could feel the impact of every gaze directed his way. "I will," he promised, his own voice none too steady.
Unable to speak for a moment, Bianca simply nodded. Ignoring his warning, she dropped her hand to lightly pet dark hair, well aware that Lena knew exactly who she was by the way the woman turned her head away and buried deeper in the curve of Niko’s throat. "I’m here," she whispered at last, the ache in her chest making speech almost impossible, "whenever you’re ready to talk." And then she had no choice but to let Niko pass as he shouldered her aside.
"It’ll be all right," Stuart assured her as he followed the younger man out.
Bianca wished she could believe that, but she couldn’t forget the things said or the very primal sense of loss when Lena literally flinched away from her touch in those final moments. It was going to take a lot—maybe more than she could do—to put things right this time. Still she stood right where she was—some small part of her willing Lena to at least raise her head and look back—until long after Niko had rounded the nearest corner and disappeared from sight.
When she finally turned around, she found that David and Marion were both gone. Marion presumably because she had no real place there, and David? With no idea why David had been there in the first place or why he would be one of the many targets of Lena’s ire, Bianca couldn’t even begin to guess at the timing of his exit. Her gaze went to Maria who was still standing to one side, a horribly sad expression on her face.
As she realized Bianca was watching her, the doctor drew breath as if to speak, but no words came. How could she chastise the girl when her own behavior was no better? Finally, she just shook her head and turned away, pausing in front of Irina and Paulina to murmur, "If there’s anything I can to make this right..." she paused, seeing their confused looks.
"You thought you were doing the right thing letting the girl see her," Irina said at last, seizing on the only explanation she could think of for the doctor’s obvious guilt.
Noting the grey tinge to Paulina Kundera’s complexion, Maria put aside any temptation to throw herself on her sword. The last thing the poor woman needed was to hear a tortured confession she probably wouldn’t really understand. "I’m just sorry for the whole mess," she sighed.
"I need to get my mother back to the motel. She needs to rest," Irina responded, her arm still across the older woman’s shoulders.
"If you need anything, you have my number."
Irina nodded and said no more as she guided her mother away.
With nowhere to go, Bianca could only stand perfectly still as Lena’s mother and sister drew closer. She was braced for their anger, but Paulina never looked up, and Irina simply looked worn beyond repair and utterly devoid of the energy required for an explosion. For a moment, Bianca thought Irina was going to say something, but like Maria, she seemed to have lost her anger when faced with her own sins.
Bianca, on the other hand, felt a wave of anger wash over her as she remembered the confrontation between her lover and this woman, and the information that had come out of it. Irina could have saved Lena from the agony of working for Michael. Irina and Paulina had already moved past her when Bianca spoke without planning. "Why didn’t you help her?" she whispered.
Irina froze, tension rippling through her muscles as she resisted the urge to spin and demand, Why didn’t you? It wouldn’t do any of them any good to hit back. "I thought I was," she admitted quietly. And then she couldn’t contain the need to punish the girl for her transgressions. "What’s your excuse?"
"I...." With no ready defense, Bianca trailed off almost immediately, and said no more as the two women left together. Head down, shoulders slumped, she stayed where she was for a long time. Everything seemed horribly unreal, leaving her with the sense that she’d wake up from the nightmare at any moment.
Only it didn’t work that way. The world stayed exactly as it was.
When it became obvious no one was going to offer any miraculous solutions, Bianca straightened her shoulders and slipped out.
* * * * * *