After a while, the words jumbled and lost meaning. Only weak, non-responsive Dominik lay in the hospital bed. Dawn caressed his ashen cheek and whispered many prayers. Gently, then forcefully, she called his name. He neither flinched nor reacted in any way. Worry filled her chest like a dead weight. She stumbled into the hallway and leaned back against the wall. Tears stung her eyes, but she refused to surrender to the emotional outburst.
Heavy footsteps pounded across the pristine tile floors. Lorenzo sprinted toward her. His hair tumbled across his forehead in disarray. Worry lines stretched from his eyes. He stopped short at the observation window into Dominik's room. Color drained from his face. With his gaze locked on his nephew, he said, "I came as soon as I heard. What's wrong with him?"
Her brother-in-law's thinly disguised anxiety did little to lessen her concerns. She'd seen that look on his face too many times. They already endured far too much together. She swallowed the lump forming in her throat. Her voice was hoarse with unspent emotion. "They don't know."
A scowl darkened his handsome face. "Someone has to know. He's young, healthy. He wouldn't just get sick like this overnight and without symptoms."
"He had symptoms," she said. "I just wasn't paying attention."
"What are you talking about?" He turned from the window and reached out to cup her face. "You look exhausted."
The single word failed to convey exactly how she felt. Her body ached from lack of rest and her mind felt frazzled. But she'd gladly sacrifice sleep and peace of mind if it meant her son would be well.
"Never mind about me." She removed his hand from her cheek and continued to hold it. "He hasn't been himself. Tired, coughing. If I hadn't been so caught up with other things, I would have seen this coming."
"You're the best mother I know," he said with quiet conviction and a squeeze to her hand. "Don't blame yourself."
"Mothers are supposed to know when something is wrong—"
"You can't know everything about your child. Don't do this. Blaming yourself won't help him and it will only make you feel worse."
She wanted to believe him. Yet, the feeling that this was somehow her fault refused to rest. She moved to the observation window. The young man lying prone in the hospital bed did not resemble her son. Yes, the features were similar, but something was missing. He looked so weak and helpless. Nothing like the robust boy who rode horseback as skilled as his father or played piano as passionately as she. Against her wishes, a single tear slid down her cheek. She quickly wiped it away with the back of her hand.
"He's been trying to reach Ellen and Matt since a little after midnight. They helped Dara all those years ago. We're praying for a similar miracle."
"So am I."
Noelle sensed the difference as soon as she slipped through the secret corridor. Foreboding lingered in the air. She moved carefully to her suite of rooms. Falling asleep in George's arms had been a fantasy come true. Awakening to his anger had not. Deep in her heart, she knew he was right. If her parents discovered them together, they wouldn't understand and George would have hell to pay. As much as she believed they belonged together, she didn't dare risk his career. She'd offered no argument as he drove her to the dock and steered her to the launch. When he moved to step aboard, she begged him to stay on the mainland. The trip across Stone Lake was one she'd taken many times. She could handle it alone.
She breathed a sigh of relief as she entered her bedroom and found it empty. She half expected one or both of her parents to be present. Their wrath, followed so closely after George's, was not something she wanted to experience.
She kicked her shoes off and shrugged off her jacket. From the corner of her eye, she noticed movement. A scream lodged in her throat. She backed to the door.
"Stop, Noelle." Stefan stepped from the shadows. He stood near the window. The long, dark drapes had hid him from her. "Where have you been?"
"I—um... I was downstairs," she stammered. She wanted to hide from his flashing green eyes. Her grandfather always beamed approval when he looked at her. Seeing the opposite shamed her.
"Do not insult us both with dishonesty," he said quietly. He pointed at the window behind him. "I saw you ride across the launch. You were on the mainland and without your parents' permission. Why?"
She stiffened under his direct interrogation. His questions left no room for creative maneuvering. Her knees weakened. She dropped to the edge of her bed and pulled her favorite teddy bear to her chest. "I needed fresh air."
"Your response disappoints me."
Her parents had long since stopped checking on her in the middle of the night. As far as she knew, her grandparents didn't do it either. Maybe they looked in on Adrik, but never her. She nervously chewed her bottom lip. "How did you know I was gone?"
"When you didn't answer my knock I surmised you were not here." He moved to stand over her. He placed his hand on her head. "Upon entering the room, my suspicions were confirmed. Dominik is at General Hospital. Your parents are with him."
"What's wrong with him?" she asked in a small frightened voice. Her older brother never got sick. He was strong and as formidable as their father. Then, she thought of his Jaguar. He liked to drive it fast, rippling along the darkened streets as he released pent up frustrations. The image of his small black car wrapped around a tree brought a sob to her throat. She grabbed Stefan's hand. "What happened?"
"He collapsed and has not regained consciousness."
Water filled her eyes. "I have to see him."
He wiped away her tears. "I will take you."
She followed the few travelers into the station. A large clock hanging on the far wall chimed with the arrival of a new hour. She considered calling a cab. After Seth's attack, she wasn't ready to see her family. They'd take one look at her and know. She did not want to face their questions. Humiliation welled in her heart at the thought.
Her cell phone vibrated against her hip. She flipped it open and looked at the number. Relief swept over her. How did he always know?
"Where the hell are you?" he asked. "I called your room. Buffy said you left with her brother hours ago. What happened? Did his car breakdown?"
"No, uh, there was a change in plans. I took the train."
"Are you home?"
"I'm still at the station," she answered. The sound of his voice brought tears to her eyes. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and sat on a bench. "We just pulled in."
"Wait," he said. "I'll be there in about ten minutes."
"I'll meet you in the parking lot—"
"Just stay where you are. There are too many weirdos out this time of morning. Tell me where you're sitting and I'll find you."
"What?" His voice softened. "Ciarda, don't worry about Dominik. He'll make it. I feel it in my gut."
She nodded, forgetting for a moment that he couldn't see her. Of course, he had no idea that she wasn't crying over Dominik although his condition concerned her. Ben's inherent caring nature cut her to the quick and unleashed the tears she fought desperately to swallow. She hitched a deep breath. It was better if Ben didn't know the truth anyway.
"You're right. Uncle Nikolas and Aunt Dawn will take care of everything."
"I hear your dad is helping them," Ben said. "So, there's no reason to cry. Okay? Now, I'll be there soon—"
"Wait! Don't hang up. Can you talk to me as you drive over?"
A brief silence followed her question. She wondered if there was something in her voice that gave her away. Did she sound needy? Weak?
"You don't have to ask," he said quietly. "I'm getting into my car now. Did you hear that? I just started the engine. Does Big C sound sweet or what?"
She laughed softly. Ben loved his car. He, George, their Uncle AJ and Dominik had rebuilt the 1969 Mustang almost from scratch. The project consumed his senior year of high school. She teased him about being obsessed. He pulled out a copy of Stephen King's "Christine" and said the novel was his inspiration. She called his car "The Big C." The name stuck and she smiled every time she heard him use it.
"Yeah," she said. "Your car is a lot like you."
"Sure tell me anything."
"Like what?" she asked, feeling safe just from the sound of his voice.
"Why didn't Seth bring you?"
Her mouth tightened. "Something came up—"
"His sister said he was bringing you. Why didn't she know—"
"I don't want to talk about it," she snapped.
"In other words, it's none of my business."
"Ben, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it that way."
"No, I guessed I shouldn't have asked. Let's talk about something else," he said. "Do you want to go home first?"
"No, I'd rather go to the hospital. I want to see Dominik."
"Of course, I'll take you right to him."