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Exiting the elevator in the lobby of Mercy General Hospital, Max Montgomery glanced up and did a double-take. The woman leaving the coffee shop looked exactly like his ex-wife.
As petite as Kate, wearing blue jeans and a little flowered top that was her style, with thick, shoulder-length sable-colored hair that swung when she moved, she had to be Kate.
He shook his head, telling himself that was nuts. His wife had left Pine Ward, Pennsylvania, almost eight years ago and he hadn't seen her since. She'd divorced him through lawyers. Hadn't answered the letters he'd sent to her parents' home. Hadn't even returned to visit as far as he knew. Not even at holidays. That couldn't be her.
He made his way to the glass exit doors and they automatically parted, but curiosity turned him around before he could step out.
The woman now stood in front of the elevator he'd exited, her back to him.
Sensation vibrated through him, the radar he'd always had with her. He'd always known when she was within twenty feet. Always known when she was about to walk into the room. Always known. It had to be her. The radar never failed.
He took a few cautious steps toward her, but stopped. Even if it was her, why would she want to see him? What would he say? Sorry i screwed up our marriage, but i'm sober now?
Actually, that wasn't such a bad idea. Of all the people on his twelve-step list, people he needed to make amends with, he'd contacted everyone but her. The person who most deserved his apology.
If it wasn't her, he'd simply apologize for the mistake.
Either way, he'd be apologizing. No big deal.
He sucked in a breath, crossed the small space between them and tapped her shoulder.
His heart stopped then sped up again. It was her.
His mind flew to the day he'd met her at a pool party at a friend's house. She'd worn a green bikini that matched her eyes. But though her looks had been what caught his attention, it was her personality that had hooked his heart. Sweet. Fearless. Funny. In one short conversation, she'd made him forget every other woman he knew. And now she was here. In front of him.
His heart stumbled. His knees weakened.
But when she realized who'd tapped her, the happily surprised expression on her face crumbled and was replaced by something Max could only describe as a look of horror.
A lump of emotion lodged in his throat. More of their life together flashed through his brain. The way they'd talked till dawn the night of the pool party. The first time they'd kissed. The first time they'd made love. Their wedding day.
He'd thrown it all away for the contents of a bottle.
He cleared his throat. "Kate."
She motioned with her coffee. "I um I need to get this up to my mom."
This time when his heart upended it was with fear for her. "Your mom is here? As a patient?"
"No. No. She's fine." She glanced around nervously. "Daddy had a stroke."
Was that any better? "Oh, my God. I'm sorry."
"He's okay." She looked to the right again. "The stroke was reasonably mild. Prognosis is good." She tried to smile. "I've really gotta go."
It was the worst moment of his life. Eight years ago, she would have turned to him in this kind of tragedy. Today, she couldn't stand to be around him. In some respects, he didn't blame her. But he'd changed. He'd been in Alcoholics Anonymous for seven years. He was sober. And he did realize what he'd lost. But more than that, apologizing, admitting his faults, was part of his twelve-step program.
When the elevator pinged, he caught her arm to prevent her from turning. Electricity crackled through him.
Their gazes caught. His heart swelled with misery. God, how he'd loved her.
She swallowed. "I've really gotta "
"Go. I know. But I need a minute."
Hospital employees walked out of the elevators behind them. The gathering crowd waiting for the elevator loaded inside.
She glanced around nervously.
Pain skittered through him. She couldn't even stand to be seen with him. He thought back to the times he'd embarrassed her and the pain became a familiar ache. He'd disappointed so many people.
But that was seven years ago.
And today was today.
He pulled her a few feet away from the elevators. "I have to tell you that I'm sorry."
Her face scrunched with confusion. "Have to?"
"Yes. It's part of the program."
Her eyes lit with recognition. "Oh, twelve steps."
She looked at him differently now, closely. "You're sober." He finally let himself smile. He'd wanted to be able to tell her that for seven long years. "Yes." Her voice softened. "I'm so glad." His chest loosened a bit. Breathing became easier. "I am, too."
An awkward silence stretched between them. He understood. There really wasn't anything for them to say. He'd ruined their marriage. She'd left him to save herself.
She showed him the two cups of coffee again. "I should get this to my mom before it gets cold."
Pain radiated out from his heart to his entire body. He'd had this woman. She'd loved him and he'd loved her. She'd been everything to him and he'd driven her away.
Don't dwell on the past. Focus on the future.
He stepped back. "Yeah. Sure. I'm sorry."
The bell for the second elevator pinged. The doors swooshed open. Kate turned to get inside, but a little girl raced out.
"Mom! Grandma sent me to find you. She thinks you're making that coffee."
His knees that had already been weakened began to shake. The little girl's hair might have been the same sable color as Kate's, but those blue eyes they were Montgomery eyes.
Pain morphed into shock. Could this be his child? His daughter?
"And who is this?"
Kate's gaze flicked to his. Her hand fell protectively to the little girl's shoulder. "This is Trisha."
His body went stock-still. "Short for Patricia?" His beloved grandmother's name? Why name the little girl after his grandmother if she wasn't his?
She smiled weakly. Her eyes filled with tears. She whispered, "Yes." Damn it.
He had a child. A daughter. And Kate had kept her from him?
He looked at the little girl again. Pain, wonder, curiosity simultaneously burst inside him. Everything in him wanted to touch her. To examine her. To see the beautiful child he'd made.
But anger warred with longing and both of them were wrapped in confusion. Was this why she'd left him? Because she was pregnant? Because she didn't want him to know his child?
Fury rose, hot and eager for release, but thank God his common sense had not deserted him. With this beautiful little girl standing so sweetly innocent in front of him, he couldn't out-and-out ask Kate if this was his daughter.
Kate wanted to grab her baby girl and run away. Not because she feared Max. When he was sober, he was a great guy. And right now he was sober. But drunk? He had never hurt her, but he'd ranted and raved, smashed dishes, broken windows. The night she'd made the choice to leave rather than tell him she was pregnant, he'd smashed their television and thrown a vase through their front window. She'd known she couldn't bring a child into that world.
But she'd also realized it wouldn't be good enough to merely leave him. He had money. He had power. After she had their baby, he'd get visitation, and she wouldn't be able to control what happened. If he drank around their little girl, or drove drunk with her in the car, he could kill her. And there would be nothing she could do to stop it, if only because every judge in the county owed his election to the Montgomerys.
That frightening night, standing amid the evidence that his bad behavior was escalating, she'd made the only choice she could make. She'd disappeared.
She swallowed, motioned to the elevator. "We've gotta go."
He hesitated. His gaze slid to their daughter, then returned to her. "Okay."
She saw the anger in his eyes, and quickly herded Trisha into the elevator. The doors swished closed. Her eyes drifted shut, and she expelled a low breath as guilt trembled through her. She had no idea how long he'd been sober. Her parents didn't travel in his social circle and she lived too far away to hear a rumor.
What if he'd stopped drinking the day after she'd left? What if she'd kept Trisha away from him for nothing?
"Who was that?"
She opened her eyes to glance down at her daughter. This was neither the time nor the place to tell Trisha that she'd just seen her father, but she knew the time and place were coming soon.
The elevator doors opened. "let's go. Grandma's waiting for her coffee."
Trisha giggled. "I know. She thinks you're making it."
Kate smiled at her lovely, innocent daughter whose world was about to be turned upside down, and headed to her dad's room. His "incident" had been a few days before. He was awake now, at therapy a good percentage of the day and so eager to get home he was gruff.
"Hey, Daddy." She leaned in and bussed a kiss on his cheek. "If I'd known you were awake I'd have brought you coffee, too."
Her mom stepped from behind the privacy curtain surrounding the bed. As tall as Kate, dressed in jeans and a sleeveless top, with her brown hair cut in a neat short style, Bev Hunter said, "He doesn't get coffee until the doctor says so."
Her dad rolled his eyes for Kate, but smiled at his wife. His words were slow and shaky when he said, "Yes, warden."
Kate's hands were every bit as shaky when she gave one of the two coffees to her mom. "Here."
"Thanks." Bev popped the lid, took a sip. "You were gone so long I worried that you'd gotten lost."
"Mommy was talking to a guy."
Bev's eyebrows waggled. "reeea-lly?"
"He wasn't somebody I wanted to see." She nudged her head in Trisha's direction. "But this isn't the time to talk about it."
Her mom frowned, then her eyes widened in recognition.
"I didn't do anything. He just suddenly appeared out of nowhere. But July is the month Montgomery Development does their annual physicals." She squeezed her eyes shut. "I should have remembered that."
Her mom groaned. "So he was here, and he saw Trisha."
Kate grabbed a paper cup from her dad's tray table and handed it to Trisha. "Would you throw this away in the bathroom trash can and then wash your hands?"
Trisha nodded eagerly like the well-behaved almost-seven-year-old that she was. When she was gone, Kate said, "I have about thirty seconds. So just let me say Max found me. Trisha came out of the elevator when we were talking. He took one look at her and knew."
Her mom pressed her hand to her chest. "I knew you shouldn't have come home!"
"I wasn't about to desert the two of you when Daddy was so sick." She squeezed her eyes shut. "Mom, Max is sober."
Bev took a second to process that, then snorted in disgust. "And you're feeling guilty?" She snorted again. "The man had become violent and was getting worse by the day. You had no choice but to protect your child."
"But I could have checked on him"
"You have no idea when he got sober. For all you know, he just went to his first AA meeting last week. This isn't the time to be second-guessing."
Kate heaved out a sigh. "Okay, but I know Max was angry. If I don't go talk to him, he'll probably come to the house tonight. Or I'll be hit with some kind of legal papers tomorrow. Or maybe both."
Walking out of the bathroom, sweet, trusting, Trish smiled. Kate's heart sank. If he came to the house, they'd have to have their talk in front of Trisha. And she didn't want Trisha to hear her dad was a drunk. Especially when she was too young to understand.
"You know what? I think I'd better deal with this now." She faced her mom. "Will you guys be okay for an hour or so without me?"
Her eyes filled with worry, Bev said, "Sure."
Kate sucked in a breath and turned to her daughter. "You behave for Grandma."
Trisha nodded and Kate left her dad's hospital room. She got into her car and drove to downtown Pine Ward. The small city was old and working to revive itself after the loss of the steel mills in the 1990s. Buildings from the 1940s were being renovated. Trees had been planted along the sidewalk on Main Street. A few new restaurants had even popped up.
She left her car in a parking garage and headed out. A couple of blocks and two turns took her off the beaten path to the place in the city where the newer, more modern structures stood. She stopped in front of the yellow brick building housing Montgomery Real Estate and Development. Only four stories, it nonetheless had an air of wealth and power. Quiet. Dignified. Understated.
She hesitated. Though Max had been reasonably calm at the hospital, she knew he was angry with her. He had to be. If the tables were turned, she'd be furious with him. So his anger was justified. And she had to admit that.
Maybe it would be better to give him a day or two to get past that? To get his bearings?