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"Two more laps and it's yours, Cesar."
Nothing was ever "yours" until you crossed the finish line with the best time, but he didn't say that to his crew chief talking to him through the mic in his helmet.
"You're coming up on turn four. Watch out for Prinz. He's starting to make his run."
"I see him."
"Rykert has hit the cement wall. There's debris. Go inside."
Cesar made the correction. Coming out of the turn he saw what was left of Rykert's car. Smoke poured from it like a genie escaping a bottle. Then his heart failed him as part of Prinz's chassis flew at Cesar out of nowhere. Zero hope of escape. This was it.
"I'm a dead man."
No sooner did the words leave his mouth than the impact of gut-crunching debris tossed him in an arc across the track. He experienced blinding flashes of light before being sucked into an acrid-smelling black vortex.
He felt hands on his shoulders, shaking him gently.
Cesar de Falcon, known as Cesar Villon in the Formula 1 racing world, awakened gasping for breath. His torso was vibrating like a jackhammer. He saw his doctor leaning over him with a concerned look in his eyes.
"You're all right, Cesar. Your nightmares about the crash have begun. Do you remember any of them?"
"No." Everything from after a tire change at his last pit stop until he awoke in a hospital in Sao Paulo was a complete blank to him. He lifted an arm to wipe the perspiration off his forehead. His body was lying in a pool of sweat.
"I'll see you're bathed and changed immediately."
While Cesar waited for his heart rate to slow down, two of the nursing staff came in to clean him up and change his bed. Then his doctor was back.
"They left your breakfast, but I see you haven't touched it yet."
Still shuddering from the nightmare of a crash he couldn't remember, the last thing he wanted was food. "Feed it to some poor devil who gives a damn."
What he needed was a pill to keep him awake so he wouldn't have to experience another night of nameless terror like last night. But being awake proved to be equally horrendous.
He lay on his back, unable to move his legs.
Dead from the waist down.
Six years before his heart had also died. His demise was now complete.
"Your physical therapy must begin today."
One bronzed arm covered his eyes. "Why?"
"Surely I shouldn't have to point out that you need to keep up your strength in order to get through it." The doctor spoke as if Cesar hadn't said anything. "Putting it off any longer won't help you walk again," he said as he took Cesar's vital signs.
Cesar grabbed the doctor's hand to prevent him from doing anything more. "It isn't going to happen. Save your speech for someone who's gullible enough to believe it. Don't you understand? Look at me!" The cords stood out in his neck. "I've lost my body and my mind."
"You're only feeling that way because your nightmare is still upon you. But believe meyou're alive and well in every other way. I've told you repeatedly it's too soon to tell if there's permanent damage to your spine. After that crash on the track, it's a miracle you're in such good sha"
"Get out, dottore!"
The rage in his voice sent a shudder through Sarah Priestley's body. She'd been standing outside the hospital room door. The doctor had left it open, making it possible for her to see and hear Cesar for herself so she'd know what she was up against.
Though she didn't speak or understand Italian, his violent response revealed the depth of his despair. Sarah cringed, unable to imagine what life must be like for him now.
As the doctor came out of the room, he took her aside. "Cesar had a very bad night. I'm positive he was dreaming about the crash, but he couldn't recall it when he woke up. It's his mind I'm worried about. He needs to remember in order to help the healing process. Everything else is good. His body is strong and healthy, which is vitally important in his case.
"Unfortunately he won't stay that way long if he refuses to eat or get started on crucial therapy. He's like a wounded animal that won't let anyone come near."
"Then he's got to be lured out of that dark place where he's living," she whispered, sick at heart for him. Until now he'd walked away from his other track accidents without severe injury.
Sarah had always feared there would come a time when the law of averages caught up to him. Now that day was here
The doctor nodded for her to go in, but his expression said that she entered at her own risk.
Risk was right!
But Sarah had to do this. Yesterday she'd flown from San Francisco to Rome with her son, Johnny.A taxi had taken them to their hotel. From there they'd come straight to the hospital.
After being denied information or access to Cesar since he'd declared himself strictly off-limits, she'd made an appointment to talk to the doctor. But until he'd seen Johnny with his own eyes, he'd refused to discuss the case with her. At that point he was forced to concede that Sarah and Cesar had a history together and agreed to tell her what he knew.
To her dismay she learned Cesar had refused all visitors, including his parents and brother who were starting to panic. If there was an important woman in his life at the moment, the doctor had no knowledge of her. Cesar had demanded to be left alone.
With the exception of his private personal hospital staff brought in to take care of the absolute basics, he'd been given his wish. Since being flown to Italy after the ghastly crash on the racetrack in Brazil a week ago, Cesar had gone downhill steadily. No one could get through to him.
"Is it true then he's suicidal?" she'd asked the doctor yesterday, dreading the answer. "I heard it on television, but I didn't believe it. That doesn't sound like Cesar. He's a fighter."
The doctor frowned. "He's in a severe depression. Frankly I'm worried he's reaching that stage."
She shuddered. "Tell me about his injury."
"The chain of nerve cells that runs from the brain through the spinal cord out to the muscle is called the motor pathway. Normal muscle function requires intact connections all along that pathway. Cesar's has been damaged in one area, enough to have reduced the brain's ability to control the muscle movements in his legs.
"After studying all the X-rays, I have reason to believe it's only badly bruised. In time there could be nerve regrowth. Therefore he needs to be undergoing physical therapy to retrain his limbs. It will maintain and build any strength and control that remain in the affected muscles."
"Then it's not impossible that he'll get feeling back!"
That was all she needed to hear. "Does he know he has everything to live for?"
The doctor nodded. "But his minddespairing and traumatized by the nightmaresis keeping him from believing it."
"How soon can I see him, Doctor?"
He eyed her speculatively. "Your visit could be the kind of shock therapy Cesar needs to provoke a reaction from him. I'll arrange it for tomorrow morning."
"Thank you." It was worth anything if she could pull him out of the black sinkhole burying him alive.
"I'm counting on you, Signorina Priestley," he murmured in a grave tone.
Little did the doctor know she was counting on Johnny
If Sarah hadn't witnessed for herself Cesar's precarious mental state in front of the doctor just now, she might not have found the courage to follow through with her plan. But the situation called for drastic measures.
One of the nurses named Anna was keeping her son company at the nursing station down the hall. She spoke enough English to communicate with him. When it was time, Sarah would get him and bring him to the hospital room. Of course that depended on Cesar
After taking a fortifying breath, she stepped over the threshold into his territory.
A thin sheet covered the lower half of his body where he lay flat in the bed. Sarah could hardly tell he'd been in a crash, one that neither he nor the two other drivers could have prevented. It had sent all of them to the hospital. Cesar had been the most seriously injured.
Her heart quaked. Cesarmy love
His millions of adoring fans located throughout the world would be horrified to see the great Cesar Villon, five time world champion of the Formula 1 Grand Prix, lying helpless in a hospital bed, unable to move his legs. The cruel media had already predicted he was crippled for life.
He was part Italian through his mother's titled Varano family, and part Monegasque through his titled father, the Duc de Falcon of Monaco. Between a week's growth of black beard and his black curly hair more unruly than usual, the thirty-three-year-old race car driver was the epitome of the ultimate, dashing, aristocrat bachelor.
With his eyes closed, the black lashes against his gorgeous olive skin accentuated the bruised hollows beneath, the only surface evidence of the crash's impact. It was a miracle he'd survived something that had demolished the fabulous race car his engineering brother Luc de Falcon had designed several years ago.
Called the Faucon, the French name for falcon, toy manufacturers had made a facsimile of it. Her son had a collection of miniature Formula 1 race cars, but he prized his daddy's Faucon. In fact he was the keeper of the scrapbook they'd kept about his famous father. He pored over it every night before saying his prayers.
When she was a few feet from the left side of Cesar's bed, she finally found the courage to speak. "H-hello, Cesar." Her voice faltered.
His eyes flew open.
The last time she'd seen him in person, they'd been a beautiful, translucent gray burning with desire for her. These eyes were the color of a dark funnel cloud that had touched ground, destroying everything in its path.
Her mouth went dry. She couldn't swallow. "I-it's good to see you again after so long," she stammered.
At thirty-three, he was more attractive than ever. But the low, menacing curse that escaped his bloodless lips was evidence that Sarah was the last person Cesar had expected to see walk into his room.
She supposed it was at least something that he still recognized her.
The last time they'd been together she'd been twenty, and proud of the fact that she'd never cut the hair that had hung down her back to her waist.
Six years later it was now styled in a jaw-length feather cut, bringing out the oval of her face, and dark fringed eyes.
Time had added curves to her slim, five-foot-seven body. His narrowed gaze took in all of her. Heat filled her cheeks to realize he knew every centimeter of what lay beneath the soft crepe dress in periwinkle covering her figure. If anything, he looked repulsed by her.
This was so much worse than she'd imagined, and Sarah had thought she'd imagined the worst
"You once asked me to join you in Italy." She took a fortifying breath. "Until now there was a good reason why I didn't."
"Your timing's off," sounded the frigid voice before he closed his eyes against her.
Clearly this conversation was over as far as he was concerned.
Though she was terrified of the change in him, she held her ground. "I disagree. The next racing season doesn't start until March. That gives you seven months to recover from this temporary setback. There couldn't be a better time for my visit."
"Go away, Sarah." She could feel his white-hot rage boiling beneath the surface.
"I'm glad you still remember my name."
Another Italian curse pierced the air. Anyone else would have flown from the room by now, but she was on a desperate mission.
"Surely you're not taking back the invitation you once extended me."
"Get the hell out of here"
All pretense of civility had fled.
While his brutal demand bounced off the walls of the room, his dark head had turned away from the entrance. He'd closed his eyes, undoubtedly believing he'd scared her off for good.
"I don't pity you, you know," she persevered. "The doctor told me you're going to walk again. In truth, I came for an entirely different reason."
Any sensible person would have stayed away, but she wasn't just any person, sensible or not. She'd given birth to Cesar's son. Now was the moment for them to meet.
Heaven help me, her heart cried as she stood there shaking from the inside out.
"Maybe you don't remember what you said to me the morning after we made love, but I do. You said, Sarah? With two more races coming up and the extra practice time I need to put in testing out a new tire, you and I won't be able to be together again like this for a couple of months.
"'When I'm free, I'll send for you to join me for two weeks in Positano like we talked about. After that I'll have to get ready for a race coming up in France, and after that Spain.'"
She shifted her weight nervously. "I would have come for those two weeks, but by the time you phoned me to make final plans, I had just learned some news that would alter both our lives forever."
Another unintelligible epithet escaped his lips.
This was it.
"II discovered I was pregnant."
This brought his head around. His eyes opened to slits. "Pregnant with whose child?" he lashed out, his words dripping acid.
It was hard to breathe. "Yours."
He swore savagely. "Tell me another story. I took precautions."
"I know, but my obstetrician told me no protection is a hundred percent. In case you wanted proof, I brought the results of his DNA with me."
"You and I have a little boy, Cesar. He looks so much like you, the nursing staff can't get over it."
In that instant she heard his breath catch in shock.
"I have a son?"
Despite his fragile state and his anger toward her, she'd heard unmistakable joy in his voice just now. He couldn't disguise it. That was all she needed to know to carry out the rest of her plan.
"Yes. Since his birth, it's been just the two of us. He's at the nursing station waiting impatiently to meet his famous father."
His face paled. "If this is some kind of joke"
"It isn't! I swear before God. Give me a moment and I'll be right back with him."
When Cesar didn't tell her no, she hurried out of the room. Johnny saw her and came running toward her. "Hi, honey." She swept him into her arms, wanting to cry out in pain for Cesar who'd been through too much. But she couldn't break down in front of Johnny.
"Did you talk to daddy?" he wanted to know immediately.
"Does he want to see me?"
She hugged him tighter. Cesar's cry of amazement still rang in her ears. He wanted to see Johnny all right. "Of course he does!"
"Is he very sick?"
"No. With a lot of exercise he's going to be fine." He had to be.
Johnny seemed satisfied with her answer.
The first time he was old enough to ask about his daddy, she'd explained that his father didn't know about Johnny because he'd gone away long before he was born.
As time wore on and he grew more curious, she told him about Cesar and showed him pictures. She assured him that when the time was right, she would take him to meet his busy father. Finally her son was going to get his wish.
She looked down at Johnny, hoping against hope this first meeting wouldn't end in disaster. Two precious lives were at stake here. Both were so vulnerable. If anything went wrong now
With her heart racing like the engine of Cesar's Formula 1 car, she took hold of Johnny's hand and they started down the hall toward his hospital room.
Maybe Cesar was in the middle of a dream
He had to be dreaming. His hands balled into fists.
Long ago he'd dispatched memories of Sarah Priestley to the ends of the universe. In the intervening years he hadn't known where she'd gone, or what had happened to her. She'd killed all his feelings for her.
What he'd experienced just now had to be her shadow left over from his nightmare.
You and I have a little boy.
Once upon a time when he'd been wildly in love with her, he'd wondered what it would be like to see her pregnant and watch her beautiful body undergo the changes. But before his imaginings had had the barest hope of becoming a reality, she'd dealt him the death blow.
Right now he needed something strong to blot her out permanently from his subconscious. Panicked, he reached for the button to call the nurse. In the process of doing so he heard a slightly husky feminine voice say, "Honey? This is your daddy."
With those words Cesar's head snapped around. He opened his eyes. There she was again, this time accompanied by a child.
A Falcon, as he lived and breathed.
Solemn gray-blue eyes stared at Cesar for the longest time. "I didn't know you had a beard, Daddy. You look different."