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Nick's Child

Nick's Child by Freda Vasilopoulos
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Nick Angelopoulos rushes into Tessa Lee’s hospital room, demanding to see the child that he has just learned resulted from their brief summer romance. “My baby is gone,” a distraught Tessa tells him. He doesn’t believe the baby died in the car crash, and swears he will bring their child back to Tessa. But will he want to be part of their family? Romantic Suspense by Freda Vasilopoulos writing as Tina Vasilos; originally published by Harlequin Intrigue

Belgrave House; April 1998
ISBN 9781610847063
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Title: Nick's Child
Author: Freda Vasilopoulos
 
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Excerpt

The crash of the car slamming into a tree echoed through her head. Needles lanced her temples. She forced her eyes open, blinking against a warm trickle of liquid that ran down into them. A dense darkness surrounded her. Her heart pounded in her ears, a deafening clamor. She couldn’t see anything.

Had she been blinded? She rolled her head to one side. A pale blob swam into her line of vision. Twisting her head farther, she saw a red light glowing. On the dash that had somehow moved from where it usually was.

She suddenly became aware of the pressure against her shoulders. It struck her why the dash lights were in such an odd position. The car was upside down, or at least tilted on its side so far that she was hanging by the fastened seat belt. The white object in front of her was the deflated airbag.

A thicker blackness than the surrounding night filled her head. She fought the darkness, blinking again to clear the sticky film from her eyes.

A faint whimper penetrated the deadly fog in her brain. Her baby. She cried out, struggling to free the seat belt. The buckle wasn’t where it should be. Her hands didn’t seem connected to her brain; she couldn’t move them.

The smell of raw gasoline stung her nostrils. She lifted her head, sniffing. Small particles of glass scattered from her hair and shoulders. Forcing the pain and the encroaching darkness away, she managed to free one hand, twisting it around to turn off the key. The red light disappeared.

Wind rustled the trees overhead, driving rain through the broken windows. She shivered, realizing her clothes were wet. Water dripped on her hands, her face. She welcomed the discomfort. The ground must be soaked, she thought with a sense of relief, reducing the danger of fire from spilled gasoline.

Cold seeped into her extremities, alarming her. Was she dying? She stirred, fighting to stay awake. Her eyelids seemed weighted, falling closed. She forced them up, focusing blearily on the twisted mass of metal surrounding her. The seat belt buckle—it was half under her. She would have to move in order to unclip it.

The baby cried again, a plaintive wail. Tessa turned her head, tears mixing with the blood in her eyes as excruciating pain shot through her temples. She couldn’t move. Her legs were numb, trapped by the crumpled metal of the car.

“Andrew.” She tried to say his name but all that came out was a weak moan.

She pushed frantically against the restraint of the webbing. She had to get to him. She had to save her baby. Her right arm, caught between the seats, tingled with pins and needles. She pulled at it, biting her lip as the tingling turned to searing pain. If she could reach down to press the seat belt release—

Suddenly a bright light raked the wrecked car. Tessa squeezed her eyes shut, praying frantically. Help?

She heard a metallic sound behind her. A voice. “Damn, it’s stuck right at the edge of the ravine.”

Ravine? Tessa struggled to make sense of the words, but her head felt as if the high school band were marching through it. She couldn’t open her eyes. A heavy copper smell filled her nose. Blood. Her stomach heaved and she swallowed down the nausea, fighting the rolling darkness that threatened to engulf her mind.

“My baby,” she whispered raggedly. “Save my baby.”

More noises, something scraping along the car, someone muttering. The light bobbed up and down but never steadied long enough for her to see anything.

Ominously, the baby was silent. What was wrong with him? He should have been screaming his head off. She was hanging almost upside down; his car seat must also be tilted at the same precarious angle.

The voice came closer. “Don’t worry. Everything will be all right.”

The car shifted. Tessa’s stomach lurched sickeningly as she slid forward, the safety belt unwinding and no longer supporting her body. She braced her left hand on the strangely crooked dash. Too late. Her neck jerked toward the steering wheel. Pain shot through her temple and the world turned black and cold.

* * * *

“No, it can’t be. You’re lying. It’s not true.” Tessa pounded her fist on the rail at the edge of the bed. She gripped the cold metal and struggled to sit up. The room swirled around her.

Gritting her teeth, she pushed at the rail. The IV in the back of her hand ripped free, the small sting negligible compared to the agony tearing through her heart. She yanked the end of the tape loose and tossed the needle aside. It dangled from the IV pole, swinging gently.

“Tessa, dear, you’ll hurt yourself.” Alexander stood by the bed, his face creased, his hands twisting together as if he wanted to console her but didn’t know how.

There was no consolation. Not from this. “You’re lying.” Her voice rose to a scream. “He’s not dead. My baby’s not dead.” She hammered her clenched hand on the bed rail that trapped her. “He’s not! He’s not! He’s not!”

A nurse rushed in, a young woman who’d graduated from the same high school class as Tessa. “Tessa, I’m so sorry. We didn’t know how to tell you.”

Tessa fixed her with an accusing stare. “So you knew, did you?”

“I’m sorry.” Tears filled her eyes. She looked at the deflated bag on the IV pole. “I guess you won’t need it any more. I can get you a sedative, if you want. Let you rest until you’re feeling better.”

“I’ll never feel better.” The pain spread through her body, lacerating nerve endings. An icy chill enveloped her. She shuddered, her teeth clattering together. “No, he’s not dead. You’re all lying. He’s not.” Her voice faded into a husky croak, and she collapsed back onto the pillows, gasping for breath.

“It’s hard now,” the nurse said soothingly. “But time heals everything.”

“It won’t bring my baby back.” Exhausted, Tessa stared up at the ceiling, her eyes tracing an old yellowed water mark on the white plaster. “Please go. I want to be alone.”

The nurse hovered, making worried noises. Tessa wished she’d just leave. She didn’t want a sedative. She’d been unconscious long enough. Too long, not knowing.

Alexander spoke to the nurse in a low voice. “I can handle it. I’ll call you if we need anything.”

“Okay. That might be best, for her to have family with her.”

Rubber soles squeaked faintly across the floor and the door swished closed.

Alexander touched Tessa’s hand. She jerked it out of his reach. His face etched with lines of concern, he sat down, folding his hands in his lap. “Dear Tessa, please let me help you. I know how you must feel—”

“How can you know how I feel? You’ve never had a child. Never lost a child.” She choked on the words, the lump of tears she couldn’t shed closing her throat. “Then why did they take my milk, let me believe my baby was alive and in another room? Why?”

“Because you were so ill we feared you’d die unless you had something to hope for. And you insisted.”

She shook her head. Mistake. Her stomach heaved and she took a deep breath, afraid she would throw up. Agony, only slightly muted by the residue of painkillers, ripped through her skull. Wasn’t it her heart that should be racked by pain? She closed her eyes. Her heart was gone, leaving a gaping, empty hole. It couldn’t hurt any more.

She shifted heavily on the bed until she faced the wall. A sharp pain in her ribs reminded her to move slowly. Every muscle ached as if she’d been beaten. It was too much. First Nick, then her father, and now her baby. There was nothing left. Nothing and no one.

“Please go. Just leave me alone.”

Alexander put his hand awkwardly on her shoulder. “If you’re sure that’s what you want…”

“I want my baby back.”

Alexander made a choking sound. “We all do, Tessa. I’d give anything if this hadn’t happened.”

Dimly she heard him prepare to leave, clothes rustling as he pulled on his raincoat. Still raining then. It had been raining when the car crashed. Water mixing with the blood on her face. It could go on raining forever as far as she was concerned. The sky weeping for her child.

Weeping, as she couldn’t.

Alexander patted her shoulder again. “Sleep now, Tessa. I’ll come back later.”

She must have dozed. She woke when a nurse came in. A different one from earlier, older, with a comfortable, motherly face, someone she didn’t recognize. Must have been a change in shift.

Rain spat against the window next to her bed. Tessa shivered and moved her head experimentally. Her temples ached dully, an intermittent thudding rather than the searing pain that had sapped her strength earlier. She felt numb inside, with the uneasy feeling that there was something she should remember, something bad.

She moved her legs under the sheet, wincing as cuts and bruises smarted. “I don’t have any broken bones, do I?” she asked with an oddly detached curiosity.

“Nothing broken. You were lucky,” the nurse said cheerfully.

Pain exploded inside her, memory sweeping in. My baby wasn’t so lucky, Tessa thought, taking a deep, agonizing breath. What were broken bones? She would give up her very life, if she could bring Andrew back.

The nurse’s eyes were warm and sympathetic. “Just let me check your temp and blood pressure,” she said gently. “It’ll soon be supper time.”

“I’m not hungry,” Tessa mumbled around the thermometer stuck in her mouth. “I need the breast pump.”

The nurse took the thermometer, read it and noted down the results on Tessa’s chart. She cranked up the head of the bed and wrapped the blood pressure cuff around Tessa’s arm.

“The breast pump,” Tessa said.

Frowning, the nurse pumped up the cuff. “No talking until I’ve got the reading.”

Tessa bit her lip. As soon as the nurse whipped off the cuff, she said in a tone of exaggerated patience, “Could I have the breast pump when you’re finished, please?”

The nurse folded her equipment and perched on the edge of the bed, taking Tessa’s hand in hers. Her eyes were soft and kind when she smiled. “I know it’s hard for you. Mr. Roth explained that he’s told you about the baby. Expressing your milk will only prolong your discomfort. I can give you medication to dry it up.”

“No.” Tessa’s voice echoed around the room, startlingly loud. “No,” she repeated more softly in deference to the renewed pounding in her head. “I need to do this. Please.”

The nurse looked down at her. “All right. Just once more.”

An hour later Tessa lay back, exhausted. The hiss of trolley wheels and the rattle of dishes outside the door told her supper was being served. Her stomach roiled sickeningly at the thought of food. She willed it to subside. She would need the food, the bland liquid diet that was all they fed her at the moment. She had to eat to keep the milk coming in.

She gritted her teeth as pain knifed through her. Her baby was dead. He would never need her milk again.

“No,” she cried to the empty room. He couldn’t be dead. It was all a mistake.

A curly dark head poked around the doorway. “Did you call?”

Tessa shook her head wearily. “No, I didn’t call. Did Mr. Roth say when he’d be back?”

“Seven, I believe. Shall I bring in your tray?”

“Fine.”

The young student nurse withdrew, returning five minutes later with a tray. “Just the usual, I’m afraid. Tomorrow you’ll be getting something more solid.”

As if it mattered, Tessa thought dismally, lifting the cover from a bowl of chicken broth. The student nurse still lingered, straightening the edge of the blanket. “Bed okay? Shall I crank it up a little?”

“A little,” Tessa said, picking up her spoon. She searched her mind for the girl’s name, remembering vaguely that she’d helped her with the breast pump yesterday or the day before. When they’d all been lying to her.

Wendy—that was it. “Thank you, Wendy. I’m okay now.”

“Okay.” Wendy reached the door, then paused, turning. Her concern sat uncomfortably on her youthful face. “Uh, Ms. Lee, I’m really sorry about your baby. But the doctor thought it best not to tell you. We were really worried about you.”

Tessa gestured with her hand, the lump in her throat choking her. After a moment, she managed to say, “What day is it?”

The girl’s smooth forehead wrinkled. “Don’t you know?”

Tessa shook her head, grimacing at the pain. Her brain must have really smashed itself against her skull. “No, I don’t seem to have my watch.”

“I think it was broken in the accident. It’s Tuesday. The ambulance brought you in on Friday night or rather, early Saturday morning.”

Tessa’s tired mind worked to digest this piece of information. Four days. “Was I unconscious all that time?” No, not all the time. She faintly remembered people around her, Alexander soothing her, the nurses whispering.

“You were unconscious most of Saturday and Sunday. You kept asking about the baby whenever you woke a little. Monday you slept most of the day, but you probably don’t remember much. That’s the way it is with head injuries. Today…” She shrugged, going over to the window to pull down the blind, shutting out the rain. “I’m really sorry.”

“Thank you,” Tessa said, her voice expressionless. How could she say anything else when she was dead inside?

She was just finishing the tasteless red jelly when Alexander strode in. A tall, spare man in his early fifties, he wore his clothes with elegant grace. His pale gray hair lay smoothly combed back from a tanned face. He smiled tentatively. “Feeling a bit better, dear?” he asked, shrugging off his damp raincoat and laying it on the back of a chair.

Tessa set down her spoon and fixed a level gaze at him. “How should I be feeling?”

He looked momentarily flustered, the hand he’d extended toward her dropping at his side. He rubbed his hand over his perfectly tailored pants, then stuck it into his pocket. “I’m sorry, Tessa. I can’t begin to tell you. I know how much the baby meant to you.”

“Andrew. His name is Andrew.”

Alexander stepped back, as if she’d slapped him. Guilt flooded up in her. Tessa dropped her gaze and began to pleat the edge of the sheet between trembling fingers. “Oh, Uncle Alex, I’m sorry. It’s not your fault. I’m sure you did what you thought was best.”

“What the doctors thought best, my dear. I had to go along with them. You had a severe concussion. We were afraid there might be brain damage.”

Brain damage? Maybe that was why she felt so numb. Maybe she’d lost her mind completely and was dreaming all this. “Was there?” she asked quietly.

“Not as far as they can tell. There may be more tests, but so far everything looks fine.” He reached for the tray. “Shall I take that away?”

She shrugged. “I’m finished with it.”

He set it on the straight chair near the door. Coming back, he drew the armchair close to the bed and sat down, crossing one leg over the other. He plucked at the crease in his pants and cleared his throat several times, clearly ill at ease. Tessa watched him, the thin edge of compassion cutting through her pain.

Alexander didn’t handle emotion well. When her father had died, he’d stood stoically at the graveside, his face expressionless. After the funeral, although he’d offered his condolences to Tessa, she had seen how awkward the gesture was.

He must have felt grief since he was her father’s distant cousin and they’d worked together in Lee Enterprises for years. He just didn’t know how to show it, hiding behind a stoic mask.

“Thank you for coming,” she said tentatively.

Alexander cleared his throat. “I’m just happy to see you feeling better.”

“Have they said when I’ll be able to go home? I asked the nurse but she says it’s up to the doctor.”

“Yes. I imagine he’ll let you know tomorrow morning.”

She’d had time to think while she was using the breast pump, but the past four days remained a confused jumble in her mind. Pain and cold and voices, none of which made sense.

She remembered waking up flat on her back in a moving vehicle with bright lights shining in her eyes. She’d wanted to ask about the baby, but someone adjusted an oxygen mask over her face and she couldn’t speak. After that, she must have passed out again, because the rest was a blank until she’d woken up in the hospital bed where she now lay.

“Why was I on that road at night in a rainstorm? And in your car?”

Alexander shrugged. “You called me earlier in the day. The weather was good then. You said you wanted to spend the weekend at the cottage. I’d lent you my car because yours had a problem with the electrical system.”

Tessa frowned. “Do they have any idea what caused the car to go off the road?”

“The weather, most likely,” Alexander said. “It was raining heavily and you know how treacherous the curves on that road can be. Maybe you swerved to avoid an animal and the car skidded.”

Tessa clenched her fingers together, pain knifing through her temples. The blank space in her memory haunted her. Was the accident her fault? Had she been instrumental in killing her own baby? A silent scream seized her throat. She swallowed to dislodge the suffocating fear. If she thought about it, she would go insane.

She pried her fingers apart and thrust one hand through her hair. Although someone had obviously cleaned the glass and blood out of it, the thick strands felt sticky and matted. Briefly she closed her eyes. If only her head felt better, she’d get up and take a long hot shower. And be done with the humiliating business of the bedpan.

But when she tried to sit upright, the room spun around her and she felt weak and dizzy. Nausea rolled in her stomach, aftereffects of concussion, the nurse had told her. Tessa had no intention of getting up and falling on the floor. Her bones and muscles ached enough as it was, without adding more bruises.

“You’re lucky you weren’t more seriously hurt,” Alexander said. “Only surface abrasions except for the cut on your temple.”

Lucky? When her baby was dead? If one more person said that, she’d scream and never stop.

To distract herself, she gingerly probed the thick bandage on her head. It was healing, the nurse had assured her. And would not likely leave a scar.

Stifling a cry of pain, she pressed her hand over her mouth. A scar. It would be a cheap price to pay if only her baby lay in her arms.

“How—?” Her throat constricted and she couldn’t go on. Eyes burning, she summoned strength, blurting out the words in a tortured whisper. “How did he die?”

Alexander’s narrow brows drew together. His fist clenched on his knee until the knuckles turned white. “Please, Tessa,” he said in a strained voice. “We can talk about it later.”

Alarm skittered through her, quickly turning to panic. Cold sweat enveloped her body. “Later? What do you mean, later?”

“When you’re stronger.”

He winced under her angry glare, and sighed heavily. “Head injury. He was apparently thrown from the car after it hit the trees.”

“What?” She bolted upright in bed. “That’s not possible. He was in his car seat. I never went anywhere without putting him in the car seat.”

“Nevertheless, something must have given way. He was probably killed instantly.”

Killed. The ugly word echoed through her mind. The adrenaline rush subsided, and she collapsed onto the pillows. A memory flitted through her tired brain, gone before she could grasp it. Guilt flooded her. It was her fault. She had gone up to the cottage in a storm, in the dark. Whatever had possessed her to expose her child to that danger? Even in clear, sunny weather, she hated that road, winding and twisting through the mountains.

Her fault. Her fault. She should have gotten a better infant seat. She should have checked the consumer reports more carefully. She should have stayed home, not gone out at all.

She had failed miserably as a mother, letting her baby die.

The faint squeak of the door hinges interrupted her self-recrimination. The young woman who entered hesitated inside the doorway, her eyes dark with concern. A fragile thread of warmth penetrated Tessa’s despair.

Unable to speak, Tessa held out her hand.

Sophie ran to the bed and threw her arms around Tessa. Tessa inhaled the familiar scent of Chanel No. 5 and for the first time since she’d been in the hospital, tears stung her eyes.

“Tessa, are you all right?” Sophie asked.

“Yes. No.” Choking on the words, Tessa dimly recalled that Sophie had been to see her before. Yesterday, she thought. She remembered the soothing sound of her voice. Had Sophie known Andrew was dead? Was she part of the cover-up? No, she couldn’t blame Sophie. Not her best friend. Sisters forever, they’d sworn in kindergarten.

“I’m so sorry about Andrew.” Sophie loosened one arm and groped for a tissue to mop up her tears. “I just can’t believe it. That poor little baby.”

“I can’t believe it either,” Tessa said painfully, her voice muffled against Sophie’s shoulder. “I keep thinking they’ll bring him in.”

Sophie gave another sob. Tessa, her eyes dry and aching, envied her the easy tears. Like any godmother, Sophie had loved Andrew, doted on him. She gave Tessa another hug and drew away, blowing her nose.

Alexander rose to his feet, arranging his raincoat over his arm. He squeezed Tessa’s hand briefly. “Now that Sophie’s here, I’ll leave you in her capable hands. Take care of yourself, Tessa. I’ll drop by again tomorrow.”

“Alexander hardly left your bedside while you were unconscious,” Sophie said when the door had closed after him. “I never saw a man so worried.”

Tessa nodded. “Yes, he’s been very supportive.” She sighed, agony blossoming anew. “But it won’t bring Andrew back.” Her voice broke.

Dabbing at fresh tears, Sophie pulled her close. “It’s all right to cry, Tessa. Let it go. You’ll feel better.”

Tessa hiccupped. “I can’t. I can feel the tears but I can’t.”

“Are you going to tell Nick now?”

A pang speared Tessa’s heart. Nick, her lover for a brief, summer interlude. Nick, the father of her child. Nick, the man with whom she’d shared a deep, overwhelming passion before he’d vanished off the face of the earth. “Tell him what?” she asked stonily. “It’s too late now. Besides, I don’t know where he is.”

“You could try to find him again. You never know. Maybe some disaster happened and he couldn’t contact you.”

“Yeah, like amnesia,” Tessa retorted. “No, he didn’t want a commitment. We had an awful fight and he just disappeared.”

“You tried to call his office in Montreal, didn’t you?”

“Number disconnected,” Tessa said tersely. “No listing in the phone book. It’s like he never existed.”

“He existed, all right.” Sophie was very definite. “He got you with child. Not very responsible, I’d say.”

“It wasn’t just his fault. I should have been more careful.”

Sophie made a dismissive gesture. “You were on the rebound from that rat Scott. You had an excuse for getting carried away.” She paused. “Maybe it’s just as well he doesn’t know. You know how possessive some men can be about children, especially sons.”

“Not Nick,” Tessa said firmly. “He didn’t want children.”

“More fool he,” Sophie said. “He doesn’t know what he missed.” She wiped away another tear. “Those gorgeous blue eyes Andrew had, and the way they sparkled when he smiled.”

“Nick’s eyes,” Tessa whispered, wishing she could cry. Wishing she could find release from the bottled-up grief and bitterness.

Her breasts were beginning to hurt again. Would the reminders never end? How long would it take before she stopped speaking as if Andrew were merely asleep in another room, and then got slapped in the face by the truth? The truth she still wanted to deny.

Sophie sat silently, holding Tessa’s hands tightly between her own. Tears streamed down her rounded cheeks and she made no effort to stop them. Yes, Tessa thought, cry. Cry for Andrew. And cry for me.

* * * *

Once visiting hours were over and Sophie left, Wendy came in and straightened the bed to settle Tessa for the night. Tessa closed her eyes, but thoughts kept spinning through her exhausted brain like demented mice in a maze.

If only her head would stop aching. If only Andrew lay next to her, nursing contentedly.

She had fallen into a fitful doze when a commotion in the hall jolted her to full wakefulness. The room was dark except for a sliver of light under the door.

“Sir, you can’t go in there,” the night nurse said firmly just outside her door. “Come back tomorrow. Sir!”

The door swung open, so hard it bounced off the rubber door stop. The silhouette of a man appeared in the doorway, followed by the bulky figure of the night nurse pulling at his jacket. “Sir, I can’t allow this. I’m calling security.”

“Be my guest,” the man stated in a voice that sent shivers up Tessa’s spine. Her heart hammered against her ribs in a mixture of dread, denial, and helpless elation.

Nick Marcopoulos flicked on the overhead light and strode to the bed. “Hello, Tessa. Would you mind telling me what you’ve done with my child?”