Farah dialed the number and waited tensely through six rings before an irritated male voice answered.
His tone indicated she was interrupting something, and he wasn't going to be any happier when he heard what she had to say. She took a deep breath and plunged in.
“James? This is Farah. I hate to do this again, but...I'm afraid I'm going to have to cancel out on dinner.”
He groaned. “I was just heading out the door. What is it this time? Are you working late again?”
“No...” she hesitated. It was one thing to simply not mention her two young children, but quite another to intentionally conceal it from him. Still, this wasn't the time or place. “I'll talk to you about it tomorrow, okay? I promise. I'll meet you for lunch or something. We need to talk.”
Silence - then a dry tone. “I'll say. Look, if you want to break it off, just say so.”
“It isn't that,” she answered instantly. More likely he'd be the one who wanted to break it off when she made her confession. “It's just that...well, it isn't something I want to discuss over the phone. I simply can't make it tonight.”
“Whatever,” came the voice in a dejected tone. “Then we'll make it lunch tomorrow.” A note of sarcasm crept into his voice. “That's twelve o'clock noon, right?”
“Sure...well, maybe a few minutes after.”
A futile sigh. “In front of the office building?”
“Sure,” he repeated.
“I'm sorry, James. I didn't mean to ruin your evening. I hope I've given you enough time to make other arrangements.”
“Other arrangements?” An exasperated sigh. “Can't you get it through your head? I want to be with you.”
“I'm sorry,” she said again. “I didn't mean to make you angry.”
“I'm not angry.” The voice softened. “I'm just disappointed, that's all. We never seem to connect any more. If you're not working late, then I'm out of town - and now this. What's all the mystery?”
“There's no mystery.” Surprise was more like it. She wound the telephone cord around her finger and rolled her eyes at Karen, who was watching her with that 'I told you so' look. “I've really got to go now. We'll talk tomorrow.”
“Okay,” his tone was puzzled. “I'll see you then.” He didn't sound convinced.
Farah replaced the receiver and turned to her friend. “I know what you're going to say, but I have to tell him. He has a right to know. At Karen's lifted brow, Farah turned her palms to the air. “I wouldn't be in this situation if I hadn't listened to you.”
Karen's eyes widened. “Don't lay it all on me. If you didn't agree that men were turned off by women with kids, you would have told him about yours before now.”
She was right, of course, but back then James had meant nothing to her - nothing but an evening out with an interesting companion. Who would have guessed she would ever fall in love again?
Farah knelt beside the couch and placed a hand over her daughter's hot forehead. The fever seemed to be going down a little. Good. The Tylenol must be working. She brushed a blond curl away from the tiny sleeping face and kissed the soft pink cheek.
“I'm not going to hide my children from James,” she stated decisively.
Karen snorted. “Well, you've been doing a pretty good job of it so far. You two have been going out for months now...and he still doesn't know you're a widow with two children?”
Farah wrinkled her nose and gave Karen a wry smile. “He knows I'm a widow. I just never got around to mentioning Lisa and Tommy. What difference did it make? He wasn't dating them.”
Karen eyed her suspiciously. “But it makes a difference now?”
Farah nodded, avoiding Karen's eyes. She stroked the tiny hand hanging limply over the edge of the couch. “He's pretty nice.” She kissed the hand and placed it on Lisa's stomach with the other. The image stirred disturbing memories, and she quickly moved the hand again.
“Well,” Karen finally said in a mystified tone. “I always figured some day you'd find someone to take Tom's place, but I never figured it would be someone like James.”
Farah glanced up with a frown. “What's so bad about James? And he isn't taking Tom's place.”
Karen shrugged. “Nothing's wrong with him. He's just...nothing like Tom.”
Farah sighed deeply. “I loved Tom, but I was so young when we got married. I didn't know what I wanted back then.”
Karen lifted her brows. “Are you saying you weren't happy with Tom?”
“No,” Farah said. “He was a fine man and a good husband. I was happy with him - I just wasn't....“ She paused, searching for the right word to describe a feeling she had never quite identified when Tom was alive.
“Complete?” Karen supplied.
Farah stared at her friend. Maybe that word fit, maybe it didn't. Tom was gone now, so it didn't really matter. She shrugged. “I don't know. I just feel more content with James.”
Karen rose from the couch. “Well, if you're not going to need a sitter tonight, I've got some laundry that's been piling up for nearly a week.”
Farah stared at the door after Karen left. It had been Karen who introduced her to James, and it had been Karen who had warned her not to mention that she had children. It had rankled then, but she had seen the logic in it. Still, she hadn't lied to James about the children. She had simply avoided the issue. James had never asked if she had children, and she had seen no reason to broach the subject - until now. Sure, at first she had believed that he might lose interest in her if he discovered she had children. After all, what man wanted to accept the responsibility of a 5-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl? But James was different...or was that something she merely wanted to believe?
She shook her head and rose from the floor. James wasn't the problem. She was. She had betrayed his trust with her silence.
She found Tommy in his room on hands and knees, running a truck around the floor and making a noise that left a trail of slobber down his chin. He glanced up as she paused in the door and sat back on his feet. His large blue eyes searched her face solemnly.
“Mommy, is Lisa going away like Daddy?
Farah swallowed to relieve her constricting throat muscles. Tommy still couldn't understand why Tom had left them. All he knew was that Tom got sick and then went away. Now Lisa was sick.
Farah knelt in the floor with him. “No, Tommy. Lisa is sleeping right now.”
His attention immediately shifted back to the truck. Spinning a wheel with one pudgy finger, his tone indicated the subject was forgotten.
“She went home. I decided to stay home tonight.”
His face lit up. “Will you play with me?”
“I need to start supper...” She hesitated when his lower lip started to quiver. “But I suppose I could play with you for just a little while.”
She played with Tommy for a while and then escaped with a promise to fix pizza for supper. She glanced at Lisa as she walked by and noticed that her face looked flushed. Again she felt Lisa's forehead. It was much too warm.
She retrieved the thermometer from the bathroom and discovered that Lisa's temperature was climbing. The Tylenol wasn't bringing it down. She stood over Lisa for a few uncertain moments. Should she take Lisa to the emergency room, or would it wait until tomorrow? She placed a cool damp rag on Lisa's forehead and went into the kitchen to put the pizza in the oven.
Thirty minutes later Lisa's temperature was up to 105 degrees. “Tommy,” she called anxiously, grabbing her purse.
Tommy came running from his bedroom, truck in hand. “Is the pizza ready.”
“Oh, I forgot!” Farah gasped as she darted for the kitchen.
The pizza was well done. She pulled it from the oven with her mitt and fanned the foul smelling smoke from her face. It was ruined.
“I'm hungry,” Tommy whined.
Farah sighed. “I know, honey. I'll get you something out of the machine at the hospital. Lisa has a bad fever and the doctor can give her something to help her feel better.”
“Cool,” Tommy said in response to the idea of getting something out of the machine, and then a shadow crossed his face. “Will we have to leave Lisa there?”
She wanted to assure him that things wouldn't be the same as when Tom died, but he wouldn't believe her. Hadn't she told him they would bring Tom home? She shook her head. “I don't know. Now run get your coat.”
Another fifteen minutes and they were all in the car. Lisa slumped in her car seat in the back seat, still in a restless sleep. Farah hit the starter with a growing fear. The motor turned over once - slowly, and then simply stopped. Farah turned the key again, but nothing happened. She spoke to Tommy as she gathered Lisa into her arms again.
“Change of plan. I'll call Karen and she can take us to the hospital.”
Tommy looked disappointed. “Is the car sick too?”
Farah smiled. “I suppose so. I should have bought that new starter last week instead of the tires.”
Back up the stairs. Lisa was getting heavy - and very hot. She needed to get a cell phone, but they couldn’t afford a land line plus a cell phone. Farah gently lowered Lisa to the couch and picked up the telephone receiver. Karen’s phone rang several times and then switched to her answering machine.
“Hi. I can't come to the phone right now. If you'll leave a name and number, I'll...”
Farah hung up. Should she call 911? A taxi? Yes, that was it...a taxi. Where was that phone book? As she glanced around, the telephone pierced the air with its sharp ring. Maybe that was Karen. She grabbed the receiver.
“Farah?” It was James. “I was hoping I'd catch you home. Listen, I've got to cancel lunch tomorrow. It looks like I'm going to be out of town. Is there any way we could get together later tonight?”
Farah stared at Tommy, who was watching her intently. “I can't...I have an emergency. My car won't start and...”
“What's the matter with your car? I can come over and pick you up, you know. This is important.”
“I know,” Farah sighed. “But I have to get to the hospital.” She hesitated. This wasn't the time or place to tell him about the children - or was it?
“The hospital? Are you hurt?”
“No.” She took a deep breath and plunged in. “It's my daughter. She's running a bad fever.”
“I'll be right over,” he answered curtly and hung up without waiting for a reply.
“Who's that?” Tommy asked with a frown. “Was that James?”
Farah stared at him. “How do you know about James?”
“Karen,” he answered simply. “Do you like James more than Daddy?”
“Of course not,” she answered too quickly. She should have known she couldn't keep a secret from Tommy. She lifted him into her arms and brushed the blond curls from his eyes. “I still love your Daddy very much, but I can love more than one person. After all, I love both you and Lisa, don't I?”
Tommy wrinkled his nose. “Are we still going to get something out of the machines at the hospital?”
Farah sighed. “Sure.”
The doorbell rang and Farah's heart skipped a beat. What would he say? Was he angry? She opened the door and met his level gaze. “Come on in,” she invited politely in a tight voice.
He stepped through the door and his attention immediately focused on Lisa. He crossed the room to her and kneeled by the couch, placing a hand on her forehead. He winced.
“We need to get her to the hospital right away.” He glanced at Tommy. “Can you get me a cool wet wash rag?”
Tommy nodded emphatically and raced off to the bathroom. James glanced up at Farah. “They're both yours?”
Farah nodded numbly. What now?
James lifted Lisa from the couch and gazed down soberly at her small face. “She looks like you.”
Small talk. When was he going to say what was on his mind? When was he going to lash out at her for hiding them from him? The clock ticked off thirty seconds, and then Tommy came rushing back into the room, a dripping wash rag in both hands. He shoved the soggy rag at James, and gave him a bright smile.
“Here it is.”
James nodded, accepting the sloppy thing as if it were made to order. “Can you get the door for me now?”
Tommy flew across the room and stood on his toes, using both hands to turn the knob. He grinned up at James as he stepped through, and then waited for Farah to follow before pulling the door shut. Then he pushed past Farah and darted down the stairs.
“Watch out,” James cautioned quietly. “You wouldn't want to slip on those stairs and break something. We'd have to carry you into the hospital as well.”
The last phrase brought Tommy up short. He frowned at James and then started down the stairs again, this time holding on to the hand rail.
At his car, James waited while Tommy opened the door and Farah got in. Then he leaned down and placed Lisa in Farah's arms. He patted Farah's shoulder before he straightened.
“She'll be all right.” He glanced at her car. “I'll get the car seats.”
Those were his only words until they reached the emergency room. There he left her and took an impatient Tommy to get something to eat. If she hadn't been so concerned about Lisa, she might have assumed that he was angry. As it was, it only briefly crossed her mind.
Three different doctors examined Lisa, and they must have drawn a quart of blood. It was while the third doctor was examining Lisa that James paused at the door of the examining room. Farah motioned for him, and he entered with a contented Tommy in tow. James leaned over Lisa, his strong features softening as he gazed down at her.
“What's the diagnosis?” he asked no one in particular.
The doctor glanced from Farah to James. “Are you the father?”
James shook his head, without glancing up.
Again the doctor glanced at Farah. He lifted his brows. “Fiancé?”
Farah felt her face getting hot and shook her head. She glanced at James, but he kept his attention on Lisa. His words were softly spoken.
Farah stared at him. Was that what he had planned for this evening? Was that what was so important? More important, had his discovery of the children changed his plans?
Finally James glanced up at the doctor. “So what have you decided?”
The doctor shrugged. “Looks like a bad case of the flu. She's obviously dehydrated, so we're going to put her on an IV...” he glanced at Farah “If we can get your permission. Of course, she'll need to stay in the hospital tonight for observation.”
Farah stared down at the tiny hand swallowed in hers. “If that's what you think is necessary. Can I stay with her?”
The doctor hesitated. “Usually children tolerate the hospitals a lot better when the parents aren't around...” he cut his sentence off when four pair of hostile eyes met his gaze. “But of course you're welcome to stay. We have a nice waiting room, and there's a recliner in the room.” He glanced down at Tommy. “Children under twelve aren't allowed in the rooms, though.”
“I'll take care of Tommy,” James offered immediately, and glanced at Farah. “You can stay in the room with Lisa if you want.”
Obviously he had been talking with Tommy. In her unfocused state of mind, she hadn't even introduced the children to him. And then she remembered something else.
“But you have to go on a business trip tomorrow.”
He shrugged. “I canceled out. This is more important.”
She stared at him. Why would he do such a thing? Unless...
The doctor's voice commanded her attention again. “So I take it we have your permission.”
“Of course,” Farah answered.
Two hours later, Lisa was sleeping comfortably in a hospital bed. Farah rose from the recliner and walked down the hall to the waiting room. There she found Tommy resting in the security of James' protective arm. They were both asleep.
For a moment Farah stood over them, warmed by their obvious acceptance of each other. Finally she touched James' arm. His eyelids fluttered and opened. He squinted up at her face.
“What time is it?”
He gently untangled himself from Tommy and leaned forward, rubbing his eyes and bristly jaw.
“How is Lisa?”
“Much better. She's sound asleep.” She glanced at Tommy. “I can probably get Karen to watch him now. You need to get some sleep.”
“I'll stay,” he answered.
She knelt on the floor in front of him and gazed up into his face. “I really appreciate the way you're handling this. I thought you'd be angry with me.”
He frowned. “For what?”
She blushed. “For not telling you about my children.”
He gazed down at her. “Yeah, well it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why you did that...only I'd hoped you knew me a lot better than that.”
Her face grew hotter. “Oh, I did...after I got to know you, but by then I didn't know how to bring it up.”
He nodded. “I hoped you knew how I felt about you.” He shifted uncomfortably and his neck turned a shade darker. I'm not exactly the romantic type.
Farah put her hand over his. “That's not true. You're the most romantic man I've ever met. Sure, you aren't full of flowery words and compliments, but you're always respectful of me. And look what you did tonight. Canceling out on your business trip said more than flowers or words could ever say. You don't simply talk romance.”
He turned his hand over and laced his fingers through hers. A wry smile twisted his lips. “So you wouldn't mind getting hitched to a stuffed shirt?”
She lifted her brows. “Is that supposed to be a proposal of marriage?”
He nodded, his gaze sobering and his expression becoming apprehensive.
She nodded. “Children and all?”
His mouth slipped sideways in that wry smile again. “Is that a yes?”
She gazed up at him adoringly. She'd never hide anything from him again.
“With a capital Y,” she answered solemnly.