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When the phone rang that evening, Sophy grabbed it as fast as she could. She didn't need it waking Lily. Not just when her daughter had finally fallen asleep.
Lily's fourth birthday party that afternoon had exhausted them both. Normally an easygoing sunny-natured child, Lily had been wound up for days in anticipation. Five of her friends and their mothers had joined them, first at the beach and then here at the house for a cookout, followed by ice cream and cake.
Lily had been on top of the world, declaring the party, "the bestest ever." Then, in the time-honored fashion of overtired four-year-olds everywhere, she'd crashed.
It had taken a warm bath, a cuddle on Sophy's lap, clutching her new stuffed puppy, Chloe, and half a dozen stories to unwind her.
Now finally she was asleep, sprawled in her bed, but still clinging to Chloe. And, with the house a wreck all around her, Sophy didn't need Lily wide awake again. So at the phone's first shrill ring, Sophy snatched it up.
The voice was a man's, one she didn't know. But it was the name she heard that gave her a jolt. Of course her cousin and business partner Natalie was now Mrs. Savashad been ever since her marriage to Christo last yearbut Sophy wasn't used to getting calls asking for Natalie at home. For a split second she hesitated, then said firmly, "No. I'm sorry. You've got the wrong number. Call back during business hours and you can speak to Natalie."
"No. I'm not trying to reach Natalie Savas," the man said just as firmly. "I need to reach Sophia Savas. Is this" He paused as if he were consulting something, then read off her telephone number.
Sophy barely heard it. Her mind had stuck on Sophia Savas.
That had been her name. Once. For a few months.
Suddenly she couldn't breathe, felt as if she'd been punched. Abruptly she sat down wordlessly, her fingers strangling the telephone.
"Hello? Are you there? Do I have the correct number?"
Sophy took a quick shallow breath. "Yes." She was relieved that she didn't stammer. Her voice even sounded firm to her own ears. Cool. Calm. Collected. "I'm Sophia. Sophia McKinnon," she corrected, then added, "formerly Savas."
But she still wasn't convinced he had the right person.
"George Savas's wife?"
So much for not being convinced. Sophy swallowed.
No. Maybe? She certainly didn't think she was still George's wife! Her brain was spinning. How could she not know?
George could have divorced her at any time in the past four years. She'd always assumed he had, though she'd never received any paperwork. Mostly she'd put it out of her mind because she'd tried to put George out of her mind.
She shouldn't have married him in the first place. She knew that. Everybody knew that. Besides, as far as she was concerned, a divorce was irrelevant to her life. It wasn't as if she were ever marrying again.
But maybe George was.
Sophy's brain abruptly stopped spinning. Her fingers gripped the receiver, and she felt suddenly cold. She was surprised to feel an odd ache somewhere in the vicinity of her heart even as she assured herself she didn't care. It didn't matter to her if George was getting married.
But she couldn't help wondering, had he finally fallen in love?
She had certainly never been the woman of his dreams. Had he met the woman who was? Was that why she was getting this call? Was this official-sounding man his lawyer? Was he calling to put the legal wheels in motion?
Carefully Sophy swallowed and reminded herself again that it didn't matter to her. George didn't matter. It wasn't as if their marriage had been real. She'd only hoped
And now she told herself that her reaction was only because the phone call had caught her off guard.
She mustered a steadying breath. "Yes, that's right. Sophia Savas."
"This is Dr. Harlowe. I'm sorry to tell you, Mrs. Savas, but there's been an accident."
"Are you sure about this?" Natalie asked. She and her husband, Christo, had come over the minute Sophy had rang them. Now they watched as she threw things in a duffel and tried to think what else she needed to take. "Going all the way to New York? That's clear across the country."
"I know where it is. And yes, I'm sure," Sophy said with far more resolution than she felt. It had nothing to do with how far she was going. It was whom she was going to see when she got there. "He was there for me, wasn't he?"
"Under duress," Natalie reminded her.
"Snap," Sophy said. There was going to be a fair amount of duress involved in this encounter, too. But she had to do it. She added her sneakers to the duffel. One thing she knew from her years in New York was that she'd have to do plenty of walking.
"I thought you were divorced," Natalie said.
"So did I. Well, I never signed any papers. But" she shrugged "I guess I thought George would just take care of it." God knew he'd taken care of everything elseincluding her and Lily. But that was George. It was the way he was.
"Look," she said finally, zipping the duffel shut and raising her gaze to meet Natalie's. "If there was any way not to do this, believe me, I wouldn't. There's not. According to the papers in George's personnel file at Columbia, I'm his next of kin. He's unconscious. They may have to do surgery. They don't know the extent of his injuries. They're in 'wait and see' mode. But if things go wrong" She stopped, unable to bring herself to voice possibilities the doctor had outlined for her.
"Sophy," Natalie's voice was one of gentle warning.
Sophy swallowed, straightened and squared her shoulders. "I have to do this," she said firmly. "When I was alonebefore Lily was bornhe was there." It was true and she made herself face that fact as much as she told it to her cousin. He had married her to give Lily a father, to give her child the Savas name. "I owe him. I'm paying my debt."
Natalie looked at her doubtfully, but then nodded. "I guess so," she said slowly. Then her eyes flashed impatiently. "But what kind of grown man gets run over by a truck?"
A physicist too busy thinking about atom smashing to watch where he was going, Sophy thought privately. But she didn't say that. She just told the truth.
"I don't know. I just know I appreciate your dropping everything and coming over to stay with Lily. I'll call you in the morning. We can arrange a time and do a video call, too." She patted her briefcase where she'd already packed her laptop. "That way Lily can see me and it won't be so abrupt. I hate leaving her without saying goodbye."
She had never left Lily in four yearsnot for more than a few hours. Now she knew that if she woke Lily she'd end up taking her along. And that was a can of worms she didn't intend to open.
"She'll be fine," Natalie assured her. "Just go. Do what needs to be done. And take care of yourself," she advised.
"Yes. Of course. It will be fine," Sophy assured her, picking up the briefcase as Christo hefted the duffel and headed out to the car.
Sophy allowed herself a quick side trip into Lily's room. She stood there a moment just looking at her sleeping daughter, her dark hair tousled, her lips slightly parted. She looked like George.
No. She looked like a Savas, Sophy corrected herself. Which Lily was. George had nothing to do with it. But even as she told herself that, her gaze was drawn to the photo on the bedside table. It was a picture of baby Lily in George's arms.
Lily might not remember him, but she certainly knew who he was. She'd demanded to know about him ever since she discovered such people as fathers existed.
Where was her father? she'd asked. "My daddy," she said. "Who is my daddy?" Why wasn't he here? When was he coming back?
So many questions.
For which her mother had had such inadequate answers, Sophy thought miserably now.
But how could she explain to a child what had happened? It was hard enough to explain it to herself.
She'd done her best. She'd assured her daughter of George's love. She knew that much was true. And she'd even promised that some day Lily would meet him.
"When?" her daughter had demanded.
"Later." Sophy kept the promise deliberately vague. "When you're older."
Not now. And yet, at the same time Sophy thought the words again, another thought popped into her head: What if he died?
Impossible! George had always seemed tough, impervious, imminently indestructible.
But what did she really know about the man who had so briefly been her husband? She only thought she'd known.
And what man, even a strong tough one, could fend off a truck?
"Sophy?" Natalie's voice whispered from the door. "Christo's waiting in the car."
"Coming." Quickly Sophy bent and gave her daughter a light kiss, brushed her hand over Lily's silky hair, then sucked in a deep, desperate breath and hurried out of the room.
Natalie was waiting, watching worriedly. Sophy mustered a smile. "I'll be back before you know it."
"Of course you will." Natalie gave her a quick smile in return, then wrapped Sophy in a fierce tight hug intended, Sophy knew, to supply a boatload of encouragement and support. "You don't still love him, do you?" Natalie asked.
Sophy pulled back and shook her head. "No," she vowed. She couldn't. She wouldn't! "Absolutely not."
They weren't giving him any painkillers.
Which would be fine, George thought, though the pounding in his head was ferocious and moving his leg and elbow made him wince, if they would just let him sleep.
But they weren't doing that, either. Every time he fell blessedly asleep they loomed over him, poking and prodding, talking in loud kindergarten-teacher voices, shining lights in his eyes, asking him his name, how old he was, who was the president.
How idiotic was that? He could barely remember his age or who the president was when he hadn't just got run over by a truck.
If they'd ask him how to determine the speed of light or what the properties of black holes were, he could have answered in the blink of an eye. He could talk about that for hoursor he could have provided he was able to keep his eyes open long enough. But no one asked him that.
They went away for a while, but then came back with more needles. They did scans, tutted and muttered, asked more of their endless questions, always looking at him expectantly, then furrowed their brows, worried, when he couldn't remember if he was thirty-four or thirty-five.
Who the hell cared?
Apparently they did.
"What month is it?" he demanded. His birthday was in November.
They looked askance when he asked them questions. "He doesn't know what month it is," one murmured and made quick urgent notes on her laptop.
"Doesn't matter," George muttered irritably. "Is Jeremy all right?"
That was what mattered right now. That was what he saw whenever his eyes were closedhis little four-year-old dark-haired neighbor darting into the street to chase after his ball. That andout of the corner of his eyethe truck barreling down on him.
The memory still made his breath catch. "How's Jeremy?' George demanded again.
"He's fine. Barely a scratch," the doctor said, shining a light in George's eyes. "Already gone home. Much better off than you. Hold still and open your eyes, George, damn it."
Ordinarily, George figured, Sam Harlowe probably had more patience with his patients. But he and Sam went back to grade school. Now Sam gripped George's chin in firm fingers and shone his light again in George's eyes again. It sent his head pounding through the roof and made him grit his teeth.
"As long as Jeremy's okay," he said through them. As soon as Sam let go of his jaw, George lay back against the pillows and deliberately shut his eyes.
"Fine. Be an ass," Sam said gruffly. "But you're going to stay right here and you're going to rest. Check on him regularly," Sam commanded the nurse. "Keep me posted on any change. The next twenty-four hours are critical."
George's eyes flicked open again. "I thought you said he was all right."
"He is. The jury's still out on you," Sam told him gruffly. "I'll be back."
As that sounded more like a threat than a promise, George wanted to say he wouldn't be here, but by the time he mustered his wits, Sam was long gone.
Annoyed, George glared after him. Then he fixed his gaze on the nurse. "You can leave, too," he told her irritably. He'd had enough questions. Besides, his head hurt less if he shut his eyes. So he did.
He may have even slept because the next thing he knew there was a new nurse pestering him.
"So, how old are you, George?" she asked him.
George squinted at her. "Too old to be playing games. When can I go home?"
"When you've played our games," the nurse said drily.
He cracked a smile at that. "I'm going to be thirty-five. It's October. I had oatmeal for breakfast this morning. Unless it's tomorrow already."
"It is," she told him.
"Then I can go home."
"Not until Dr. Harlowe agrees." She didn't look up while she checked his blood pressure. When she finished she said, "I understand you're a hero."
George squinted at her. "Not likely."
"You didn't save a boy's life?"
"I knocked him across the street."
"So he wouldn't get killed by a truck," the nurse said. "That qualifies as 'saving' in my book. I hear he just got a few scrapes and bruises."
"Which is what I've got," George pointed out, about to nod toward the ones visible on his arm. "So I should be able to go home, too."
"And you will," she said. "But head injuries can be serious."
Finally, blessedly, sheand all her persistent colleaguesleft him alone. As the hours wore on eventually the hospital noises quieted. The rattle of carts in the halls diminished. Even the beeps and the clicks seemed to fade. Not the drumming in his head, though. God, it was ceaseless.
Every time he drifted off, he moved. It hurt. He shifted. Found a spot it wasn't quite so bad. Slept. And then they woke him again. When he did sleep it was restlessly. Images, dreams, memories of Jeremy haunted his dreams. So did ones of the truck. So did the grateful, still stricken faces of Jeremy's parents.
"We might have lost him," Jeremy's mother, Grace, had sobbed at his bedside earlier.
And his father, Philip, had just squeezed George's hand in his as he'd said over and over, "You have no idea."
Not true. George had a very good idea. There were other memories and images mingling with those of Jeremy. Memories of a baby, tiny and dark-haired. A first smile. Petal-soft skin. Trusting eyes.
She was Jeremy's age now. Old enough to run into a street the same way Jeremy had He tried not to think about it. Tried not to think about her. It made his throat ache and his eyes burn. He shut them once more and tried desperately to fall asleep.
He didn't know how much sleep he finally got. His head was still pounding when the first glimmers of dawn filtered in through the window.
He'd heard footsteps come into the room earlier. There had been the sound of a nurse's voice speaking quietly, another low murmured response, then the sound of the feet of a chair being moved.
He hadn't opened his eyes. Had deliberately ignored it all.
All he'd thought was, please God they would go away without poking him or talking to him again. He didn't want to be poked. He didn't want to be civil.
He wanted to go back to sleepbut this time he didn't want the memories to come with it. The nurse left. The conversation stopped. Yet somehow he didn't think he was alone.
Was that Sam who'd come in? Was he standing there now, staring down at him in silence?
It was the sort of juvenile nonsensical thing they'd done as kids to try to psych the other out. Surely Sam had grown out of it by now.
George shiftedand winced as he tried to roll onto his side. His shoulder hurt like hell. Every muscle in his body protested. If Sam thought this was funny.
George flicked open his eyes and his whole beingmind and bodyseemed to jerk.
It wasn't Sam in the room. It was a woman.
George sucked in a breath. He didn't think he made a noise. But something alerted her because she had been sitting beside his bed looking out the window, and now as he stared, dry-mouthed and disbelieving, slowly she turned and her gaze met his.
For the first time in nearly four years he and Sophyhis wifewere face-to-face. Wife? Ha.
They might have stood side by side in a New York City judge's office and repeated after him. They might have a legally binding document declaring them married. But it had never meant anything more than a piece of paper.