“I thought you said none of your students were part of the recital.”
“They weren’t,” she said, smiling at him. Her eyes twinkled with delight.
“That last girl, the one who played so beautifully, wasn’t someone you know?”
“No.” Her smile was huge.
“She’s someone from the high school?”
“Are you going to make me guess?”
“Actually, I thought you might recognize her, but apparently not.”
Sam frowned. Recognize her? “I know her?” he asked.
“Sam,” Beth said, as she placed her hand on his arm. Looking at him, her eyes were full of love. “This is the Christmas surprise I mentioned. That beautiful young girl with that gift for music is your daughter, Luci.”
The shock of her words hit him with such force it caused him to stumble back two steps. It felt like a two-by-four had been slammed into his midsection. He was too stunned to breathe, and when he was able to gasp a breath it was followed by blinding pain.
“Are you surprised?” Beth asked, with what he could only guess was expectation.
“How …?” Getting out that one word past the blinding pain tightening his chest was all he was able to manage.
“How did I find her?” Beth supplied the rest of the question for him. “It was sheer luck and a tiny bit of checking. When you told me about your daughter, I asked Nichole about Trish. That relationship was before she knew Rocco, but he’d shared Trish’s last name when she asked. Then at one of my meetings with other music teachers, we were all talking about our most talented students. When one of my friends mentioned Luci’s name, I asked about her and I figured it out from there. Same name, right age. She’s your daughter.”
Sam realized Beth had no clue what she’d done. No clue whatsoever. When his chest relaxed enough for him to breathe normally again, he started walking toward the car. Beth had to scurry to catch up with him.
“Are you surprised?” she asked again, still two or three steps behind him. “It makes sense Luci would be musical because you are. You taught yourself to play the guitar, and, Sam, you’re good. You’re really good. She got that talent from you.”
He had nothing to say. Not one word.
“Luci is so gifted,” Beth continued. “My friend told me about her and how hard she practices. She’s shy but when she sits down at the piano she feels completely at ease. You saw it when she performed, didn’t you? I did. The minute she set her hands on the keyboard she gained all the confidence she needed. It was a beautiful sight. Don’t you think so?”
When he reached the car, Sam leaned forward, bracing his hands against the hood while emotion raged through him like a storming wildfire. He had to blot out Beth and her words.
“Sam?” Beth stood at his side. “Did I do something wrong?” For the first time she sounded unsure.
“Get in the car,” he demanded.
“Get. In. The. Car.”
She blinked hard. He’d never spoken to her in this way. Still, she hesitated but eventually did as he asked.
Sam remained outside, buffeted by the wind and a light drizzle. He leaned his back against the side of the vehicle and dug the heels of his hands into his eyes. Beth thought she’d given him this great gift when she might as well have taken a scalpel and dug out his heart.
For the first time in years, life had felt good. Just when it seemed that he could move beyond the pain of Trish’s betrayal, he was hit in the face with it. Just when he felt he was able to put the past behind him, she thrust it at him like a fast-pitch baseball. No more than a few rows in front of him was the woman he had loved and the child he had lost, and Beth assumed she was doing him this great favor. This was his Christmas gift? The gift she was excited to share with him? Was the woman that insensitive? That oblivious?
He heard the door creak open and Beth climbed out again. “Sam,” she whispered, and placed her hand on his shoulder. “Please say something. I feel awful. I thought … I hoped. Oh Sam, please believe me I didn’t do this to hurt you.”
“Don’t. Just don’t. Get back in the car and stay there before I say something I’ll regret.”
She slid back inside the car and closed the door once again. Sam paced the area for several more minutes until he felt he could talk. Even then, the band of pain around his chest had loosened only enough for him to feel limited control of his emotions.
When he felt he could, he got into the car and started the engine.
“Sam … I’m so sorry. I thought you’d want to see your daughter. I didn’t do this to hurt you,” Beth said, her voice low and tight with concern. “Did I?”
“You know I’d never intentionally do anything to hurt you, don’t you?”
He laughed without humor. “I’d hate to think of what you’d do if you were. Another one of your little surprises would probably cripple me for life.”
“Don’t say anything more,” he snapped. “Don’t tell me your intentions were good. I don’t want to hear it.”
“I wasn’t going to say that.”
“Good. It’d be better if you said nothing.” He didn’t want to be cruel, but he couldn’t deal with her questions and his pain at the same time. It was all he could manage to hold himself together.
“I’m sorry, Sam. I … thought you’d want to see your daughter.”
They rode ten minutes in silence.
It came to him as they reached the freeway entrance that he had no clue where he was driving. Dinner with Rocco and Nichole was out of the question. No way could he sit across the table from friends and be sociable and celebrate the holidays. No way on God’s green earth. Not with the way he currently felt. He wanted to hit something, plow his fist into a wall or scream in pain and frustration.
As soon as he could, he exited the freeway and headed back to Beth’s apartment.
The silence in the car was thick with tension. When he pulled up to the front of her building, Beth looked at him.
“Please say something.”
“What do you want me to say?” He couldn’t look at her, afraid if he did he would unleash his frustration and anger on her, say things he’d regret. He had the power to destroy her and he wouldn’t, couldn’t, retaliate with words that would wound her.
“Just something, please. I leave tomorrow and I can’t go knowing what I did hurt you.”
“Go, Beth, get out of the car. Now.”
She placed her hand on the door handle but didn’t move. Her head drooped. “I can’t leave you like this.”
“If you don’t get out of the car, then I’m going to tell you what I’m feeling and you’re not going to want to hear it.”
“I do. I need to know.”
“Fine.” He whirled around so that he was facing her. “Tell me, in the name of all that’s holy, what gave you the right? You can’t seem to leave well enough alone. Look what you did to your aunt. You ripped her heart open and jumped on it, disturbing the peace she’d made with her past. And what about that attorney? How do you think he must have felt? Did you see how she was after that surprise dinner you arranged? Didn’t you notice the pain in her eyes? Are you so blind?”
“I … I didn’t know it would turn out the way it did.”
“What right do you have to dig up old wounds? And what’s worse is that you clearly didn’t learn a lesson from the awful mess you created earlier. Oh no, Sunshine wasn’t enough, you had to meddle in my life, too.”
Beth had gone pale.
“Apparently, you don’t have a clue what you’ve done. Tell me, Beth, did you honestly think you were doing me a favor by bringing up the most painful period of my life and rubbing my face in it? In that messed-up head of yours, did you see any good coming out of reminding me of the daughter I can never speak to, never acknowledge, never know? Are you that insensitive?”
“Sam, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize.”