Whiteout (A Seasons of Love story)
This title is part of the Seasons of Love universe.
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Noah Landers wakes up one day with a headache and no memory of where—or who—he is. Jason, the man taking care of him, tries to fill in some of the blanks: they’re in a cabin in Colorado on vacation, and Noah slipped on ice and hit his head. But even with amnesia, Noah knows Jason is leaving out something important.
Jason O’Reilly is sexy as hell, treats Noah like he’s precious, and seems determined to make this the romantic getaway they’d apparently dreamed of together. But Noah’s more concerned that he’s trapped alone with Jason in the middle of a blizzard while his slowly returning memories bring hints of secrets and betrayal.
Noah’s not sure what’s the truth and what’s a lie. But as he learns who he is—and who Jason is to him—he’s forced to reevaluate everything he believes about himself, about loyalty . . . and about love.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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He woke up to gentle fingers carding through his hair, and a raging headache.
The fingers stopped their soothing movement as he groaned, and then there was a hand on his face and a shadow blocking out the light. He blinked once, twice, forcing his eyes to slowly open.
A man was looking down at him, his gaze filled with relief and tenderness. “Good, you’re awake.” The hand moved down his face and neck, feather-light touches, and then the man twined their fingers together. “I’ve been so worried. How are you feeling?”
He shifted, wincing as the movement caused the pain in his head to spike. “I don’t . . .” His voice was rusty, and he had to swallow a few times before continuing. “Head hurts,” he finally managed. “Where am I?”
“We’re in the cabin in Colorado. Do you remember what happened, baby?”
Baby? The word made no sense, meant nothing to him. His head ached fiercely as he struggled to find something to explain what was going on, but he couldn’t think past the stabbing in his head. The man was waiting for an answer, eyebrows furrowed with worry.
He tried to connect a name to the face staring down at him, but there was only static—and more excruciating agony. “Who are you?” he whispered.
The fingers around his tightened. “Babe? What’d you say?” The words were still soothing, but now there was panic laced in that soothing tone.
“Don’t know,” he tried again, voice tight through the pain, “who you are. Or where I am.”
“Noah, it’s me. Jason. Do you remember me?”
Nope, nothing. The names ran through his head, but there was no memory to attach them to. Nothing to connect Jason to, with his brown eyes and comforting voice. And he was Noah? The words were meaningless. He closed his eyes as his head pounded. Why didn’t he recognize his own name?
“Noah, baby, keep your eyes open. I called the doctor in town; he said you probably have a concussion and I’m supposed to keep you awake if I can.” The calm was all but gone now, replaced with something stronger.
“Don’t remember.” He sucked in a shallow breath, then another. Why couldn’t he remember? His heart hammered like it was going to beat out of his chest. He clenched his eyes tighter, until bursts of red bloomed against his eyelids. Everything hurt, and the harder he tried to think, the more his head felt like it was being torn in two.
The other man—Jason, why can’t I remember that?—climbed carefully onto the bed next to him. He slid one arm underneath his shoulders, made soft noises against his neck. “Deep breaths. Shhh. Inhale, exhale. You’re okay. It’s going to be okay. Breathe with me, Noah.”
“Why do you keep calling me that?”
“Noah? It’s your name, baby. Noah Landers.”
If that was true, then why didn’t he know it? It felt weird, not quite right, like putting on clothes that didn’t fit well. “And you’re Jason?”
“Yeah, I’m Jason.” He paused, then added, “Jason O’Reilly.”
But that wasn’t right either. The words made his stomach ache, but he didn’t know why.
“C’mon, Noah, open your eyes for me.” Jason squeezed his hand again. “I’m going to call the doctor again in a few minutes, but first I need you to open your eyes back up. Come on, let me get you some water and Tylenol. I bet you have an awful headache, and I know how grumpy you get when you’re in pain.”
Slowly, Noah blinked his eyes back open.
Jason gifted him with a smile, and a small part of Noah must have recognized it—his body responded, relaxing at the sight. The sick feeling in his stomach didn’t vanish, but it lessened.
“Let me grab those painkillers for you. I’ll be back soon, okay?”
Before Noah could answer, Jason brushed a gentle kiss over his forehead, then slid off the bed.
Noah took the chance to study him as he walked away, and to take in the room through his pain-soaked haze. Nothing was familiar. The room, filled with dark wood and white linens, was cozy and quaint, but the size, combined with the quality of the furnishings, implied a subtle wealth. A window showed that it was evening, only a hint of gray light making it through the glass, and white snow blew past, obscuring any possible view.
And Jason himself . . . Noah couldn’t take his eyes off him as he walked back into the room with a glass of water and bottle of medicine. He was tall, easily six foot, and there was a clear definition of muscles beneath the henley and jeans he wore. His dark hair was flecked with gray at the temples, and it was standing straight up, as though Jason had run his hands through it over and over.
That thought was followed by another. What do I look like? Noah’s panic attack threatened to return again. How can I not know what I look like? It was a terrifying disconnect, trying to picture his own face and drawing a complete blank. He examined his arms, thin and pale. Sparse blond hair and dark freckles patterned the skin.
Jason set the water down quickly and moved back to the bed. He shifted Noah to a sitting position, wrapping his arms around Noah’s shoulders to support him. “You’re all right. Deep breaths, babe.” The concern that had been present on his face since Noah had woken hadn’t faded, but there was another emotion present there now. Noah wasn’t sure what to call it, but it made the awful feeling in his gut rise back up.
“I’m trying to remember.” He took a deep breath, felt his body steady, and then took another one. His hands were trembling, heart racing.
“Let’s start with the pain medicine,” Jason said. “Then we’ll work on helping you remember, okay?” He retrieved the water and passed over two white pills, but had to help Noah drink from the cup. A few drops spilled down his chin anyway, and Jason used his thumb to wipe them up gently.
Noah swallowed the medicine gratefully, then relaxed back against the pillows.
“So you don’t remember anything?” Jason asked.
“None of this is familiar. I don’t know who you are. I don’t know who I am, or what I look like.”
“I can fix one of those things right now.” Jason moved over to the wall, where a large rectangular mirror hung, and lifted it off its hook. His arms flexed under the strain, and Noah had to pull his attention away from the bulging biceps in order to investigate the image before him.
Blond hair curled around his ears. Blue eyes appeared dull with pain, and a purple bruise bloomed along the edge of his temple, disappearing up into a white bandage that was spotted with blood.
Hesitantly, he touched the injury, watching in fascination as his reflection did the same. The face in the mirror wasn’t familiar, and his brain struggled to connect the thin, pale figure with the concept of self.
“The bleeding stopped,” Jason said, motioning to the bandage. “But it bled a lot at first. The doctor gave me a list of food to help you recover from the blood loss, so you should be . . .” He paused and ran a hand through his hair. “That was the scariest part, finding you lying on the ground, blood everywhere.”
The face staring back at him was essentially a stranger, and Noah had to look away.
Jason propped the mirror against the wall and then sat down on the bed again, carefully drawing Noah in to curl against him. “We’re on vacation,” he said. “In Colorado. I have a small cabin here, and we decided to come up for Christmas. I had . . .” he hesitated. “I’d asked you to go shovel the path to the wood shed, because it was starting to snow and the weather report had said a blizzard was going to be rolling through. I guess you slipped, hit your head pretty bad.”
“Yeah,” Jason laughed, “of course that’s what you’d latch on to. You warned me, said sane people go to the beach for Christmas, not to a house in the middle of the mountains, because who picks avalanches and blizzards over sun and sand? But I wanted to spend Christmas with you, relaxing in front of the fire. You said you’d never had a true white Christmas before, just gray slushy snow in the city.”
Noah frowned. The more Jason spoke, the more he knew that something wasn’t right. “Why no hospital?”
“Emergency vehicles can’t get up here until the storm dies down,” Jason said. “Maybe two days if we’re lucky, three or four if not. I called the doctor in Aspen, and he’s been walking me through how to take care of you step-by-step.”
Carefully, Noah brushed his fingers over the bandage around his head again. The Tylenol was beginning to work, but there was still a sharp pain and throbbing ache in his skull, and there was a large bump just over his ear.
“It’s late now, but I’m going to call the hospital back, see if I can talk to a doctor. A little memory loss is normal, from what they told me, but I just want to check in with them about your amnesia.” Jason leaned forward, and Noah expected another kiss on his forehead. Instead, Jason carefully brushed their lips together, fingers resting against Noah’s jaw. “You’re going to be okay, baby,” he said. “I’m so sorry, but I’ll do everything I can to make sure you’re better soon.”
Then he left Noah alone in the room with his thoughts.
The wind howling outside combined with the faint murmur of Jason on the phone in another room, creating a soothing white noise as Noah stared at the ceiling and tried to remember.
There were things he knew, although he wasn’t sure how he knew them. He knew what amnesia meant, and that he didn’t like being trapped in a blizzard. He knew that Jason loved him, or at least cared very deeply for him. But he didn’t know why that knowledge made his chest sore. He’d caught Jason’s nervousness earlier when explaining how he’d been injured, and knew there was something that he wasn’t being told, but his brain was as blank and white as the world outside the windows.
Through the pain pulsing in time with his heartbeat, he tried to get his mind to focus. He couldn’t stop thinking about the pale reflection in the mirror and how much his own appearance had unsettled him. And who, exactly, was Noah? Where do I come from? Do I have family? A sharp wave of nausea hit him, and Noah forced his thoughts elsewhere. It was Jason who came to mind immediately, and the caring look he’d given Noah that helped the nausea fade. Jason had called him babe, so were they boyfriends? Was he gay? Why did he know what the word gay meant, but couldn’t even remember if he had a family, or what his favorite color was?
When Jason came back into the room, Noah was no closer to figuring anything out.
“Good news and bad news,” Jason said. “What do you want first?”
“Bad news,” Noah said immediately.
That got him a grin. Clearly it was the response Jason expected from him. “All right, bad news is that the doctor thinks you have retrograde amnesia.” He had a pad of paper in his hand, and was reading the words carefully. “Normally it goes away on its own, but it can take anywhere from twenty-four hours to a week, and you’ll probably have a headache the whole time.” He winced. “Sorry.”
Retrograde amnesia. Memory loss, that was the amnesia part, but he wasn’t entirely sure what retrograde meant. How do I know that? “It sounds like a bad movie plot,” he said aloud, the words tumbling out before he could think.
Jason laughed. “Yeah. And the fact that you remember the plots of cheesy movies but didn’t remember your own name sounds exactly like Hollywood.”
The smile warmed something in Noah, as did the doctor’s report that the amnesia would go away . . . eventually. But while the headache had faded thanks to the medicine, Noah wasn’t thrilled to hear that it wouldn’t stop hurting anytime soon. “And the good news?”
“Dr. Whitcombe says you can sleep tonight, but I’m going to have to wake you every two or three hours.”
“That’s the good news?”
“Yeah.” Jason paused. “Sorry.”
“Stop saying that you’re sorry,” Noah said. “It’s not your fault that I agreed to shovel the snow.”
That got a wince, and Jason started to open his mouth, then closed it suddenly. “The doctor also said not to tell you too much. He wants you to remember on your own.”
Which meant Noah would be lost and confused until his memories started coming back. “Still waiting for the good news,” he grumbled.
“There’s not a whole lot of that,” Jason admitted. “It’s late now, though. I think we should go to sleep.”
“So you can wake me up every two hours?”
Jason smiled. “Yeah. Trust me, I’m not looking forward to it any more than you are. Hopefully in the morning you’ll remember more.”
Noah allowed Jason to reposition the pillows to support him so that the throbbing in his head wasn’t quite so immediate, and pulled blankets up around him.
“Good night, I guess.” Jason leaned over and gave Noah another kiss on the forehead, then straightened, glancing at the other side of the bed before shaking his head and turning to leave.
“Where are you going?”
“The couch, I suppose.” Jason sounded unsure.
Noah frowned. He glanced at the bedside tables: there was a book on the one next to him and an e-reader tablet and watch on the one opposite. “You normally sleep here,” he said. “We sleep together?”
“Yeah, baby—I mean, crap. Noah. I shouldn’t.” Jason bit off the words, then started again. “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable,” he said. “If you don’t know who I am, then . . .”
“Are we boyfriends?” Neither of them had rings on, so they probably weren’t married. But he also knew—somehow, his brain had retained this information when it cut him off from everything else—that he wouldn’t sleep in a bed with someone he was just friends with. And Jason kept calling him baby, like he was something precious.
Jason’s lips quirked up. “Partners, I think. You used boyfriends once, then made a face like you’d eaten something terrible. Said it sounded like we were back in high school. So, partners. Lovers.”
Lovers. Noah liked the sound of that. He liked Jason, even though he couldn’t remember him. “You should stay here tonight, then.”
“Noah, I can sleep on the couch just fine.”
“But you have to wake up every few hours to wake me up,” Noah pointed out. “And . . . this is your bed. I mean, it’s our bed? You should stay here.”
Jason lingered at the side of the bed, the desire to be close to Noah clearly visible on his face.
Noah pulled the blankets down next to him. He yawned, the pain pills leaching away the last bit of ache, exhaustion washing over him. “Sleep.”
“All right,” Jason finally agreed. He turned the light off in the room, then crawled into the bed next to Noah, careful to leave space between them. There was a flash from his watch as he set an alarm. “Three hours,” Jason said. “Good night.”
“Night,” Noah murmured, and didn’t fight the darkness as it pulled him under.
For a minute after waking up the next morning, Noah wondered if he was hungover. His head was pounding, his mouth was dry, and a band of blinding white light was piercing his eyelids.
Then what Jason had told him the previous evening came rushing back. He’d fallen and injured his head. Concussion. Amnesia. He distantly recalled being woken repeatedly throughout the night by soft words and gentle hands.
He tried to roll over, but his head protested the movement, and suddenly bile rose in the back of his throat. Noah leaned over the bed, and barely managed to spot the trash can and grab it before he was heaving up the contents of his stomach.
The sound of bare feet against wooden floors echoed from the hallway, and Jason burst into the room and was at his side in an instant.
“Oh shit, baby, you’re okay.” Jason rubbed his hands over Noah’s back, brushed his hair off his sweaty neck. “It’s the concussion: the doctor said you might throw up. Breathe in through your mouth, out through your nose.”
The nausea receded slowly, and Noah was finally able to groan.
Jason used the hem of Noah’s shirt to wipe his mouth. “I’m going to help you sit, and then we’ll go to the bathroom and get you cleaned up,” he said. Noah could barely hear him over the roaring in his head and the pounding of his heart in his ears. “Then I’ll get you settled on the couch while I change the sheets in here, all right?”
“Not your job.” Noah coughed a few times, throat hurting. He didn’t know why, but the words got a sad smile from Jason.
“My job is taking care of you,” he said. “Up now . . .”
Jason picked Noah up as though handling something fragile, cradling him in his arms and walking carefully toward the bathroom. Noah buried his face against Jason’s chest, wishing his head would stop hurting. He was barely aware as Jason set him down on the closed toilet seat, turned the tap on, and began to carefully work his vomit-spattered T-shirt up over his head. The shirt caught on the bandage, and tears welled at the corners of Noah’s eyes. He clenched them shut against the pain.
“I’ve got you,” Jason said soothingly. The tap shut off, and a warm, damp rag moved across his mouth, his chin, and along his chest. Jason kept talking, low enough that the words didn’t matter, just the tone. It kept Noah anchored, helped him breathe through the pain.
A cup appeared at his lips. “Just a sip or two, swirl it around in your mouth. Don’t swallow, though, spit it back into the cup.”
Noah must have passed out again at some point, because the next thing he knew, Jason was lowering him to the couch and wrapping a fleece blanket around his shoulders. There was something cold on his head, and it felt amazing.
“Ice pack,” Jason said quietly.
“Read my mind?”
“Nah, I just know you that well.”
Noah’s stomach cramped, and he clutched it weakly.
“Are you going to be sick again?” Jason helped Noah lean forward over a clean trash can, but Noah just shook his head.
“’M okay,” he murmured, settling back onto the couch.
The nausea didn’t recede.
“I’ve got a bottle of water for you here,” Jason said, holding it up so Noah could see it. “And the trash can is by your head. I’m going to go back down the hall and change the sheets while you rest. I don’t want to give you Tylenol if you’re going to throw it back up, so let’s wait a couple of hours for that, okay?”
Noah made a noise under his breath, but he was already falling back asleep.
It felt like he’d only closed his eyes for a few minutes, though, when he was woken by a hand gently squeezing his shoulder.
“No,” Noah said.
A laugh against his ear made him shudder. “Yes,” came the response. “Time to wake up. Open your eyes, baby.”
The words were kind, but there was a sternness about them that told Noah it was an order. He squinted at Jason, hoping his look conveyed his displeasure.
“More medicine, and then I think it would be best to keep you awake for a little while. You haven’t eaten since lunch yesterday, so I’ll heat up some soup or find something light for your stomach.”
Noah made a face at the mention of soup, but accepted Jason’s arms around his shoulders as he helped him sit up. He opened his mouth to allow Jason to slide the pills onto his tongue. The water was cool and felt amazing as it washed the last taste of bile out of his mouth.
“How’s your head?” Jason asked.
“And . . . your memory?”
Noah tentatively prodded at the white space in his mind. The sleep and ice had helped to numb the pain, but even the act of trying to remember caused the ache to flare back up. “Nothing still,” he said, voice weak from a combination of pain and fear.
“It’ll come back.” Jason sounded confident, but Noah couldn’t tell who the words were intended to reassure.
“Tell me a story?” Noah asked, desperate for something to fill the void. He felt lost in a snowstorm in his own head, unable to see anything but white. Static, his mind helpfully supplied, but fell silent when he tried to figure out how he knew what static was.
“The doctor said I should let you remember on your own,” Jason said. But he was already sitting on the couch, maneuvering Noah so he was lying down again with his feet in Jason’s lap.
Noah forced a faint smile in thanks. “It’s weird, you know? You’re so kind to me, but I can’t even remember my own name, let alone what I’ve done to deserve someone like you taking care of me.”
“I know, baby. And I’ll do everything I can to help you.”
“So tell me a story, then,” Noah pressed. “Just one. Tell me how we met.”
Jason’s lips pressed together. “Of all the stories, you want that one.”
“Was it so bad?”
“Ha, worse. But maybe this is my penance.”
Noah frowned and shifted against the pillow. “Tell me?”
Jason hummed, clearly thinking. Then he took a deep breath, held it, and let it out. “This was back in the beginning of June, and I’d gone to a club for a friend’s birthday. I didn’t want to go out, but Andrew—my friend—pushed and pushed, so there I was. And there you were.” Jason paused, looking hesitant. “When we first met, I was absolutely horrible to you. I’d only lost my partner, Steven, a few months before, and you . . . god, you looked so much like him. But you were such a brat, and you refused to leave me alone. I said and did things that I regret to this day. Terrible things.”
“I was a brat?” Noah asked. It wasn’t the question he wanted to ask, but Jason seemed too upset to elaborate on the loss of Steven, though Noah couldn’t help but wonder about the man who’d put such sadness in Jason’s eyes. And he was certain Jason would clam up if Noah asked him what he’d meant by terrible things.
“You’re still a brat,” Jason said fondly. “But the difference is that now you’re my brat.”
“You changed my mind.” Jason appeared lost in thought now, running his hands over Noah’s shins and ankles. “In the club that night I would have sworn you were Steven’s twin—same blond hair, same body, and you even had bracelets around your wrist like he did. You kept flirting, trying to get under my skin, and refused to take no for an answer. So I—”
He clenched his teeth.
“The next day you found me again. You didn’t look like him in the daylight. But when I tried to apologize, you refused to listen. You kept saying there was nothing to be sorry for, and you begged me for another chance. That was six months ago, but I’ve spent every day regretting that first meeting.”
Noah could feel the questions boiling over. “What happened that you’re not telling me? I want to know what happened that night in the club.”
But like Noah had suspected, Jason immediately straightened like he was about to stand, and his face was closed, blank. “Another time. You’ll remember soon enough.”
The words sounded ominous, and Noah wasn’t sure, suddenly, if he wanted to remember.
“Your turn,” Jason said. “Tell me what you know.”
Noah shook himself out of his thoughts. “What I know?”
Jason nodded. “You might not remember much, but you know some things. Common-sense things. And certain things you don’t even realize.”
“Well,” Jason said. “Like, you know you don’t like soup. When I just mentioned heating some up, you made a face.”
That was true, Noah realized excitedly. He didn’t want to eat soup. There were no particular memories to associate that with, nothing to say why he didn’t like that particular type of food, but he knew instinctively that it was true.
“Why do I know that, but I can’t remember having ever eaten soup?” Noah didn’t wait for an answer. “I like spicy food.” His mouth watered at the thought. “When I’m sick, I want spicy things.”
Jason smiled. “Yes,” he said, triumphantly, like he was proud of this little bit of Noah that had shown through the fog. “When you had a cold, we ordered the hottest curries we could manage. You said it’s comfort food for you.”
“And I like music.” Noah was struggling now. “And . . . dancing?”
This got him another grin, although this one was a bit tighter. “When we met,” Jason said, “you asked me to dance.”
It wasn’t enough though. Noah searched his mind, desperate for a single hint of memory, and found nothing. “Why can’t I remember more?” His chest was growing tight, breaths coming in short bursts, and blackness was seeping in around the edges of his vision. He tried to find a memory to help calm him, but it was like digging through an endless pile of snow. “My body tells me that I like or dislike something, but I don’t know why.” Noah’s voice rose as the fear started to pull him down—he couldn’t seem to stop it from happening.
Distantly, he heard Jason trying to soothe him, saying his name over and over, but Noah’s head was on fire and his chest ached with a terror he couldn’t contain.
“What if it never comes back?” Noah asked. “What if I have to live like this forever? I can’t remember anything. Nothing. How can I know that I’m right-handed, and that I like to sing, but not recognize my own name? How can I know that I trust you, when I don’t know why I trust you?”
Jason was silent for a minute. “I think just because your memories aren’t there right now doesn’t mean that you aren’t there,” he said. “You’re still the same person you were before. Amnesia doesn’t change that. Deep down, you’re still you.”
“How can you know that?”
Jason tapped on Noah’s hands, gently unfolding his fingers from where his nails were digging into his palms. “You do that when you get upset or stressed . . . clench your hands until you’re bleeding.”
Noah studied the crescents blooming on his palms, and something in the image helped to calm him down. “I want what you said to be true.” He exhaled unsteadily. “I want to know that I’m still here somewhere.”
That got him a kiss on the cheek. “You are,” Jason said confidently. He gave Noah’s hands one last careful squeeze, then stood, careful not to displace Noah’s legs. “I’m going to get you something to eat.”
“No soup,” Noah said, the last of the panic attack receding as his breathing slowly returned to normal.
Jason made him soup.
Noah took the steaming bowl because the heat felt good against his hands, and because the piece of crusty bread on top looked fresh, steam rising off it.
“It’s just from a frozen loaf,” Jason admitted as he sat next to Noah with his own bowl.
He had also brought Noah a cup of peppermint tea, which smelled excellent but tasted less than appealing. Jason helped him drink it when Noah’s hands were shaking too hard to keep the cup steady. “I know you’d prefer coffee or black tea, but the doctor said to avoid caffeine. And I remember hearing that peppermint tea is good for nausea.”
It would have been lovely and peaceful, but Noah found that he couldn’t just relax and enjoy it. At first, it was little things that sparked his frustration. He would ask a simple question, like, “How do I like my coffee?” and Jason would refuse to answer, or would shift the conversation to a different topic. There were also the minor humiliations, like spilling soup on himself and having to allow Jason to help him clean up. And the less said about his trip to the bathroom the better; Noah’s cheeks were flushed for half an hour after.
By midafternoon, his frustration was threatening to spill over.
Boredom fed the irritation, sending Noah into a dark mood that only intensified the pain in his temple. Jason tried to be more cheerful in balance, but his upbeat attitude made things worse. Noah napped while Jason watched a movie, then woke long enough to exacerbate his headache by trying to watch as well. He groaned and clenched his eyes shut, and Jason turned it off immediately, plunging the room into silence.
“Should I read to you, then?” Jason asked after a minute. He stood up, disappeared down the hallway, and returned with the book Noah had spotted on the bedside table the night before. He held it up so Noah could read the title: Wicked, by Gregory Maguire.
The bookmark showed that he was halfway through the book. “Don’t bother,” Noah said. “You’d just have to start over.”
“I don’t mind. I’ve never read it before. I think they turned this into a Broadway play, actually. I remember seeing the billboards everywhere.”
Noah thought for a long minute. “All right.”
Jason spread out on the couch, facing him, propping their legs side by side. He has a nice voice, Noah thought as Jason started to read from the beginning. It was low, calming. Noah dozed off somewhere in the second chapter, letting the softly accented words flow over him.
When he woke up, it was still bright outside. Jason spoke before Noah could ask. “You were only out for about half an hour.”
“Reading my mind again.”
“Nah,” Jason smiled, “I just know you that well.”
Noah swallowed around the lump in his throat. “Do you?”
“What?” Jason set down the book; he had continued to read while Noah slept, although silently.
“Know me that well?”
Jason thought about the question. “I’d like to think that I do,” he said. “I’d like to think that we both know each other pretty well after six months.”
The lead weight in Noah’s stomach made a reappearance. “Then will you tell me something about myself?”
Jason leaned forward to set the book down on the coffee table, then grabbed one of Noah’s feet, massaging the arch. “I really shouldn’t.”
“You really should,” Noah corrected petulantly, even as he wiggled his toes in pleasure.
Jason laughed softly, but gave him a sympathetic look. “I know. I can’t imagine how frustrating it is, but it won’t be like this forever. Just another day or two, then hopefully your memory will start coming back.”
Noah frowned, thinking. “Tell me something that’s not one of my memories, instead. Tell me something I couldn’t know, even if I had my memory back.”
“I don’t know. Something about Steven?” The mysterious man Jason had mentioned before.
For a long while, Noah thought Jason wouldn’t answer. He appeared to be fighting something within himself, struggling and failing to keep his face blank. “I’ve told you about Steven in the past,” he said finally.
“But that’s your memory, so you telling me again should be okay.” He reached out instinctively and ran his hand down Jason’s arm.
“Damn you and your logic,” Jason said, but he didn’t seem upset. He tapped out an uneven rhythm on his thigh, thinking for a minute, and the skin around his mouth was tight, like he was biting his cheek. Noah almost said, Never mind, and moved on to another question, but Jason spoke before he could.
“I was with Steven for two years,” Jason said slowly. “Two amazing, ridiculous, emotional years. We fought like children, but the making up was always the best part.”
“You loved him.”
Noah could tell that this story didn’t have a happy ending. He remembered something from the night before, Jason saying how he’d resembled Steven. “Tell me the good parts.”
There were conflicting emotions on Jason’s face. Sadness and loss, but also the look of someone remembering happier times. Bittersweet. That was the word.
“I took him to Chicago in the spring,” Jason began. “I had business there, but we flew in a day early so I could show him the city. We went to Navy Pier. I took you there in October, remem—” He frowned guiltily. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay. Keep going.”
“Navy Pier: it’s a tourist attraction, big Ferris wheel and carnival snack food, and boats everywhere. Pretty. It was early springtime, still a bit chilly, but we walked around for an hour, and then I managed to convince him to come up in the Ferris wheel with me at sunset. Steven was terrified of heights, you see.”
Noah nodded, but didn’t speak. Jason appeared absorbed in the memory, and he didn’t want to risk ruining the moment.
“So we got up to the top of the Ferris wheel, and I’d timed it just right, because the sky was lit up orange and purple behind the skyline. Gorgeous.” Jason sighed. “That was our last trip together before—”
Before he died, Noah finished silently. It wasn’t a memory, not really, but a truth he knew nonetheless.
Jason looked like he was going to keep talking, but he glanced at his watch and winced. “I should call Dr. Whitcombe. I told him I’d call before his shift at the hospital ended, and it’s later than I expected.” Jason gave him a sad smile, and the kiss before he stood up was a bit deeper this time.
Jason grabbed his cell phone from the coffee table, then made a face at it and set it back down. “No signal,” he explained. “Must be the storm. I’ll be back in a minute.”
There was a cordless phone on the side table only a few feet away, and Jason picked it up and started dialing. Then, before anyone on the other end could possibly answer, he walked out of the room. Noah heard him moving down the hallway, his voice growing fainter.
What the hell was that all about? He strained to listen to the phone conversation, but Jason was too far away, and the wind provided enough white noise to drown out everything except the faint rumble of his voice.
More than twenty minutes passed, and Jason didn’t come back into the room. Noah clenched his hands into fists, waiting impatiently. What’s taking so long? And why the secrecy? A rush of frustration struck him, mixing with the anxiety caused by the amnesia and boiling over into a seething anger. If he’s keeping secrets about my injury, what else could he be hiding from me? How do I know that whatever he tells me when he comes back in will be the truth? He stopped suddenly, cold fear weaving down his spine. How do I know if anything he’s told me is the truth?
By the time Jason reappeared, Noah was breathing heavily and grinding his teeth. He’d swung his legs over the couch and managed to sit up, but his attempt to stand and walk after Jason had failed.
“Phone call go well?” Noah asked darkly.
Jason stopped short, turning the phone over in his hands. “Well enough,” he said. “Talked to the doc.”
“Did you?” Noah sneered. “Had to do that alone in another room?”
“I figured you’d want to rest.” Jason seemed to immediately realize that it wasn’t the right thing to say, holding his hands out before him and taking a step back.
Noah lunged to his feet—balance be damned—then clutched the side of the couch in a desperate attempt to not face-plant. The pain and disorientation only fueled his anger. “That’s all I’ve been doing. Resting. But I’m also trying to remember, and you’ve been keeping secrets, refusing to tell me a damn thing about who I am.”
“Is that even my name? I don’t even know who you are. You pretend like you care about me, but you won’t answer my questions and you hide things.” He inhaled deeply. “Who was on the phone, Jason?”
“Dr. Whitcombe.” Jason held his hands up, phone still clutched in his right palm. He took a step forward, offering the phone like a sacrifice to a vengeful god. “Here, take it. You can call back and check.”
Noah didn’t move, but only because letting go of the couch would have seen him on the floor. There was a feedback loop between his mind and his body—the more upset he got, the more his head throbbed and the more unsteady his legs grew, which just fueled the anger. “So you say you’re calling the doctor about me, about my injury, but you have to leave the room for it?” His body wavered as the pain behind his eyes increased.
“The doctor said—”
“I don’t care what the doctor said!” Noah’s voice rose, which only made everything worse. “I care about what you’re saying . . . and what you’re not. I have nothing to go on except what you tell me, but how can I believe you if you keep important things from me?” His breath was coming out in heavy pants, and he wasn’t sure how much longer he could stay upright.
“If I can’t even trust you to tell me basic things about myself, how do I trust that anything you’ve told me is real? The story about Steven, about Chicago? Is that just something you made up so I’d stop asking questions?”
Even as he said it, he wanted to take the words back. No one could fake the emotions that he’d seen on Jason’s face when he talked about his previous lover. But Noah couldn’t stop himself now, couldn’t pull the words back inside.
“Everything I’ve told you is the truth,” Jason said desperately, eyes wide and hands held out before him.
But that, Noah knew in his soul, was a lie.
Something dark twisted beneath his rib cage. “Is it? I don’t believe you. I don’t believe you about where we are, or about your conversations with the doctor, or about fucking Chicago—”
“Do you like the view?”
The window looked out over the magnificent skyline, the city lit up in the late evening, with the water alongside it. Noah pressed his hand against the window, not caring if he left smudges, and leaned forward until his breath fogged up the glass.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “It’s so much cleaner than home, more . . . elegant. It’s beautiful.”
Warmth along his back, and hot kisses along his neck. The contrast between that and the cold glass along his front made him shiver.
“You’re beautiful,” Jason said from behind him.
Noah could feel himself blushing. “I’m nothing special.” He tapped on the glass. “Not like that, anyways.”
A blur, and suddenly he was looking into intense brown eyes. Jason stepped forward, crowding into his space, until Noah’s back was flat against the window . . . until the only thing Noah could see was Jason: his eyes, his lips, his skin.
“That’s nothing,” Jason said. “Machines and steel and glass. It might seem nice, but it’s actually cold and heartless. You, baby, you’re warmth and happiness. You’re not beautiful, you’re . . . exquisite.”
There wasn’t anything else to do after hearing words like that. Noah tilted his head back and kissed Jason, pouring everything he couldn’t say into the gesture.
“I want to make love to you here.” Jason pressed kisses along Noah’s throat and ear. “I want to love you on the bed with the curtains open, so you can understand that the only beautiful thing I see is you.”
Noah gasped, his knees hitting the rug. Strong arms caught him before the rest of his body could hit the floor. He was distantly aware that someone was groaning, crying, and then realized that it was him.