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Cassidy hated hospitals and she wasn’t really a big fan of Christmas either, so sitting in an empty emergency department waiting room with a flickering fluorescent light overhead and a plastic Christmas tree a few feet away, wrapped in tinsel as though it were a big, glittery bandage, was just adding salt to the wound.
“Excuse me?” She pounced the minute a nurse clickety-clacked her way behind the counter. The woman—with curly black hair, bright-pink nails and a name badge that read Patricia—smiled politely.
Cassidy sucked in a deep breath. “I’m looking for information on my grandfather. Someone said they were checking on his condition, but that was fifteen minutes ago.”
Patricia’s eyes softened at the corners. “And you’re anxious?”
Another thing Cassie hated—small towns and the way everyone expected they had a right to know everything about your business. It was one of the reasons she’d left this place without a backward glance almost exactly ten years ago. She’d always hated busybodies, and the way they’d descended, vulture-like, after her mother’s car accident.
“I’d like to know what happened, and when I can see him.”
“I see.” Patricia’s sympathy was unchecked by the cool response. “Let me see what I can do for you. Name?”
The nurse nodded. “And your grandfather’s?”
She exhaled slowly, trying to focus. “Thomas Hanna. Tommy.” Her voice cracked a little as she used the shortened version of his name. She’d never heard anyone call him anything but Tommy. Thomas was so stuffy and formal, definitely ill-suited to a man who spent the long days of summer angling for fish in the shallow waters of the ocean that rolled into and wrapped around Cape Hope.
The nurse’s finger tapped a name on a piece of paper. “He was brought in this morning.”
Cassie nodded because she didn’t trust her voice to speak. She’d been running her usual route, looping around Bryant Park, breath fogging out in puffs courtesy of the subzero temperatures, when her phone had rung. “Ma’am, I’m Harrison Parker, a paramedic. Your grandfather had a fall, a bad one, and needs to be admitted to the hospital. He wanted you to know.”
There were many alarming details in that succinct relaying of information. Things Harrison Parker didn’t say but that Cassie understood. The most terrifying of which was the fact Tommy had asked for her to be called. He hated to make a fuss and particularly hated to bother Cassie. It drove her crazy. The last time she’d come to visit he’d barely let her in the kitchen to fix a cup of tea for him, let alone do anything around the house that might make his life easier. And how she’d wanted to!
Living alone had been bad for Tommy. When she’d first moved away, he’d kept things much as they’d ever been, but in the last few years he’d been getting sloppy, disorganized. The last time she’d visited, the place had been almost unrecognizable, with books stacked like towers in the hallway, boxes dragged out of the attic and left across the dining room, and dishes in the sink. There were some signs he’d tried to tidy up, but overall the sense had been one of chaos and mess. Tommy was fiercely independent. It wouldn’t have occurred to him to get someone in to help, nor to ask Cassie for it.
So for Tommy to ask a paramedic to call Cassie, she knew he must have been really hurt or really scared and the latter almost cracked Cassie’s heart beyond repair. She had the sense that she was drowning, water pressing in on her, just to think of her grandpa, who was fearless and brave and had held her close on the nights when she’d missed her mom so much she couldn’t sleep, who’d let her cry into his side until the tears were all spent, the man who’d been to war and tackled bombs with his bare hands, to think of that man being scared . . .
“Please, I need to know what’s going on.” Urgency flooded her voice. She lifted a hand to tuck her hair behind her ear, its thick dark length with natural honey-brown highlights unruly courtesy of her morning run, then a frantic day spent throwing whatever she could hurriedly find into an overnight bag, catching a cab to the airport, hopping on a hastily booked flight to Wilmington, and enduring an hour’s drive in a tiny rental car beneath a sky that had been thick and heavy with the threat of rain and thunder almost the entire time.
“Of course you do,” the nurse agreed, reaching for the phone beside her. “Hang on. I’ll see what I can find out.”
Cassie offered a small smile, but inside, her nerves were stretching tighter and tighter, almost to breaking point. Her stomach was empty—she’d had a packet of crackers on the flight and nothing else all day—and even though she was too worried to eat, she recognized that her body craved food and her mind would work better if she had some energy. Her eyes strayed the length of the corridor, skipping over the garish Christmas tree and falling on a vending machine propped behind it.
“He’s down the hall and to the right.”
Cassie spun on her heel. More garish Christmas decorations greeted her—garlands of tinsel adorned the ceilings and plastic casts of Father Christmas danced along the walls. “And?”
“He had a fall.” The nurse lifted a shoulder. “Looks like he broke his arm, but it’s a weekend and the specialist won’t be in ’til Monday.”
“I can go see him?”
The nurse’s eyes lifted to the clock. “It’s outside visiting hours.” Cassie’s heart plummeted to her toes. “So don’t stay too long, okay?”
“Thank you.” She nodded jerkily. She just needed to see him tonight, make sure he was okay and that he knew she’d come. Guilt bubbled inside of her, a guilt she often felt when she thought of how she’d turned her back on Cape Hope, not coming home for several years when she’d first left, desperate for a clean break, and terrified of seeing Phoenix again, of being confronted with the man who’d broken her heart. Man? Could he be called a man at only nineteen? And had her heart really been at stake? Theirs had been a childhood romance, that was all. Meaningless. They might have thought they were in love at one time, but really, it had been a stupid, naïve fantasy that had fallen apart like a house of cards. What was that if not evidence that it had never been love?
Still, she’d felt heartsore for a long time, and embarrassed, so the idea of coming back to Cape Hope with all its memories was daunting enough that she’d avoided it like the plague. Tommy had traveled to Manhattan, but Cassie had still nursed a sense of guilt for a long time, because she’d left him completely alone—a man who’d once had a wife, a daughter, and a granddaughter suddenly had no one.
Her feet moved faster, carrying her down the corridor, past more enthusiastically pinned tinsel and the occasional bauble, past noticeboards stickered with posters reminding her to get her flu vaccination and that regular checkups saved lives. Rounding the corner, there were several doors to her right.
She hesitated, not keen to go poking her nose into each room until she found her grandfather’s. She looked around, but there was no one who could help her, so Cassie moved forward, casting as brief a glance as was possible into the rooms as she passed. Only one was occupied—a young girl had her leg in a cast. It was just past eight o’clock and she was asleep, her head lolled to the side, a book open on the edge of the bed. Cassie resisted an impulse to step in and shift the novel to a more secure spot. Light arced from the next room and Cassie held her breath, pausing for a moment as her eyes swept in and landed on the sleeping form of Tommy Hanna.
She pressed a hand to her mouth, her body very still, hovering just outside the room. He looked so frail suddenly, so much older than he was. He’d turned sixty-eight over the summer. She hadn’t been able to come home for his birthday. She’d wanted to, but the concert series in Vienna had sold out twelve months earlier. Tommy had insisted she go. I’ll have lots more birthdays, Cassie. No need to make a fuss. It’s just another spin around the sun.
She’d consoled herself as she always did, that she was making him proud. Her renown as a classical pianist was something he’d always wanted for her. And for himself, before the war had stolen that dream. She’d dedicated her performance to her grandfather, and had described him as an instinctive musician who could no longer play. The crowd had given her—and Tommy—a standing ovation.
More guilt punched her in the gut. She moved into the room quietly, wincing when one of her sneakers squeaked against the linoleum floor. She paused, breath held, and, when she was sure Tommy hadn’t been disturbed, kept going. There was a chair beneath the window. She’d have liked to drag it closer to the bed, but that would have increased the likelihood of Tommy’s waking, so she left it where it was, perching on the edge with a growing sense of unease.
Sitting wasn’t right. She stood, pacing quietly to the bed, studying him up close.
Her pulse grew tight in her body, her fingers tingling.
She’d thought she’d loved Phoenix, but she hadn’t. And he sure as heck hadn’t loved her.
She thought she’d loved Mark, but she hadn’t, not really. Otherwise she would have accepted his proposal when he’d surprised her at dinner two weeks ago.
Love could be complicated, whether romantic or familial, but in this case, it was straightforward. She loved Tommy more than she’d ever loved anyone. Even before the accident, that had been the case. Helen had been Cassie’s mom but it had never been straightforward. Drug addiction was a terrible thing and Helen had made a series of choices that terrified Cassie. She hadn’t loved her mother so much as depended on her for survival, and instinctively Cassie had understood that she needed to fulfil a certain role to stay safe and alive.
Cassidy stood, watching Tommy for several minutes, wondering how much longer she should stay. He had a cast on his arm, and she thought how much he’d hate that, an additional limitation on top of what he’d already suffered with his fingers. Though, he was an expert at accommodating his injury now.
The paramedic had said he’d fallen. Where? On what? The boxes and books that were scattered throughout the house? Or had he been outside, perhaps in the shed he loved so much? Or worse, had he been attempting something he shouldn’t have done on his own, like climbing up a ladder to change a light bulb or trimming back trees before the storm?
“Oh, Grandpa,” she whispered, moving to the window and crossing her arms, staring out at the parking lot. Beyond it, the thick trees of the forest were just delineated against the inky-black sky, the moon struggling to cast much light given the storm clouds that still blanketed much of the Cape. Even the parking lot hadn’t escaped the festive spirit—the streetlights had huge plastic bells strangling their poles, halfway up.
Cassie stared out for a long time, belatedly remembering the promise she’d made to the admissions nurse that she wouldn’t linger. Casting a glance over her shoulder, she was about to leave when Tommy shifted in the bed, frowning. His eyes opened and disoriented, his voice hoarse, he said something soft and low. She could just make out the “ter” sound at the end of the word. He repeated it, his frown deepening, his voice throaty, agitated.
“Water?” she prompted, moving quickly to the bedside table and filling his plastic cup.
“—ter,” he said again, his eyes piercing hers without seeing.
Cassie’s heart stammered. “Here, Grandpa. Can you sit up a little?”
He didn’t move, simply stared as though trying to place her. The ground beneath Cassie seemed to tilt off-balance. He held out a hand, his fingertips shaking a little, and she put hers in it.
“Cass. You came.”
Relief flooded her. He sounded more like himself. “Of course I did. Sit up and take a sip.”
“I’m okay.” His eyes bore into hers, and she was very quiet, very still, sensing that he wanted to say something important.
She waited, but then he smiled and dropped his hand. “I didn’t mean to worry you.”
“What happened, Grandpa?” She moved the chair to the bedside as she asked the question.
A frown cracked his face. “I broke my arm?”
“Yes.” She was impatient. “How?”
“I—can’t—” He shifted his shoulder, then grimaced. She suspected that beneath the hospital gown his body was covered in bruises. “How long are you here for?”
It was a strange question to ask, but it was clear he either couldn’t remember or didn’t want to say how he’d fallen. She let it go for the moment. “I don’t know. As long as it takes for you to get better.”
“You’ve got that Christmas concert at the Guggenheim,” he reminded her.
Concern shifted. “Carnegie Hall,” she murmured, wondering if the medications were making him forgetful—they’d discussed it only days ago. “Let’s cross that bridge when we get to it, hmm?”
“But you’ll stay tonight?”
“Yes. I’ll head back to the house soon.” She leaned forward. “Do you need anything?”
“I—” Another grimace. “No. But the house . . .” His eyes shifted around. “It’s a bit of a mess.”
“Oh.” Was that all? “It doesn’t matter. I’m sure I can pick my way to my room just fine.”
His breathing was heavy. When they weren’t speaking, the sound of it punctuated the silence of the room. His eyes grew heavy. She stood, leaning down to press a kiss to his forehead, above his bushy gray brows.
He startled. “Cassie?”
He seemed to rouse himself, blinking and squinting at her, as though it was taking all his concentration.
“I don’t want you sticking around and fussin’. It was just a fall.”
She nodded slowly. “I know, Grandpa.”
He held out a hand and she walked to him, putting her own in his. The skin was paper-thin, his knuckles more pronounced than she remembered.
“Your Chopin étude was exquisite.”
She smiled. “You heard it?”
He laughed; it turned into a thick cough. She stayed, waiting for it to pass. His eyes were heavy once more, but he forced them open, looking at her with all his concentration.
“Yes. Yes, I heard it. You made it sound as though a bird had taken up residence in the piano. Light and flighty, just as it’s supposed to be. But with heart. How do you do that with such a lyrical étude? Usually they’re pure sunshine, yet you gave it gravitas and made it sing. I was so proud of you.”
Pleasure exploded. Very few people understood music in the same way she did, but Tommy was one of them. They had always spoken this language, all their own, transposing emotions into songs as though it was necessary for their survival.
“It’s one of my favorites.”
“I know. But I have never heard you play it quite like that.”
“It was the venue.”
“No.” He squeezed her hand. “It was you. I heard you in the song, your thoughts, your heart. It was as though you were sitting beside me, telling a story.” He shook his head. “Your talent is unique.”
She smiled as she leaned down to kiss his forehead. “Coming from you, that means more than you can imagine.” She straightened. “I’ll be back in the morning. If you decide you want anything brought in, just have a nurse call me, okay?”
“Sure thing.” He grinned and the world straightened. It was a grin that was so familiar, so reassuring, that she knew then everything was going to be just fine.
End of Excerpt