"I'm not gonna eat it! I want a Big Mac and fries!" The howl, followed by the sounds of smashing china, penetrated the lower hall, causing a pause in the conversation taking place. Two pair of eyes looked at the chunky figure of a woman in a white uniform descending the stairs with surprising speed.
When she reached the bottom, she stopped, glaring into the patrician face of the evening-gowned lady. "I quit! I ain't goin' to take no more nonsense from that spoiled brat."
"Oh, please, Nettie, I'm simply at my wits end, and Mr. Hamilton and I have an engagement this evening."
She turned to the man with whom she had been talking. "Please do something, Jim."
He raised an eyebrow. "About Nettie or Nick?"
"That isn't amusing."
"Ain't no need for the doctor to beg, Miz Hamilton, 'cause I mean what I say. I'ze quittin'." Nettie clumped down the hall.
"If you had done as I suggested and not spoiled Nick by giving in to his every whim ..."
"But to be confined to a wheelchair when all the other boys his age are out swimming or playing tennis just isn't fair."
The doctor sighed. "So you try to compensate with over-indulgence and make it worse. You've had five opinions besides mine and there's no physical reason why Nick couldn't have been fitted with prostheses and learned to walk two months ago, other than lack of exercise and all the extra weight he's gained from eating the sweets I warned you about. You even arbitrarily dismissed the psychiatrist who might have made some headway with him."
"You didn't have to cope with Nick after one of those sessions," she retorted hotly. "That's why the man we had before Nettie left. Now Nettie's gone, I don't know what we'll do. Live-in help just cannot be found, and we're so far from town competent day help is impossible to find. I'll have to ask Martin to listen out for him while we're out and pray that he and Mamie don't quit. They've been my rock every time something happens."
The doctor grinned. "For what you pay that couple, I'd be a rock, too. I suppose I could have another look around."
"Oh, please, Jim. It's so hard to live with the constant procession of help we've had through this house. I just ... ." She broke off at her son's call. "I'll be back in a minute. Tell Paul where I am."
She climbed the stairs and opened the bedroom door, looking at her grossly overweight twelve year-old son propped up on pillows in bed, his face still flushed from the outburst of temper. The cook, a tray of broken glass and china beside the door, now tried to wipe up the boy's dinner from the wall and floor.
Across the room a TV blared.
"Do turn that down," she begged.
The boy pressed a button and the blare diminished enough to make conversation possible.
"Darling, you know you shouldn't upset yourself. What was wrong with your dinner?"
"I hate veal chops and string beans! I want a Big Mac and fries, and a fried apple pie and a chocolate shake."
"You know your father and I are going out to dinner this evening and Martin doesn't have time to drive into town for them. Mamie will fix you another plate and, if you eat your dinner, your father and I will bring you a Big Mac when we come home."
"I want it now!"
"Not now. I told you we'd bring you one when we come home."
"Now!" He screamed.
She ducked a glass which shattered against the wall. "No. We're going out."
"I don't want you to go."
"We have to. This has been planned for months. Martin and Mamie will be here. You can ring if you need anything." She looked at the bed and two flanking tables cluttered with amusements of every kind, books, and candy. "Though what more you could possibly want, I don't know."
"What if I have to go?"
"Your chair is right here and you can ring for Martin."
"I don't want Martin. Where's Nettie?"
"What did you expect? She's gone."
"Good. I hate her."
"Really, Nick, you might be a little more considerate." She checked her watch. "Your father will be waiting for me, dear. We won't be too late." She bent and kissed her son. "Please don't throw anything at Martin. I'll tuck you in when we get home."
"I want a Snickers."
She looked at the assortment of candy on the table. "You have plenty of candy. There's a whole box of chocolates you haven't even opened. I'll try to remember to get you some on the way home."
"I want it now!"
"No. I told you I'd bring some home when we leave the dinner."
She neatly dodged another thrown glass and, with an apologetic look at the cook, started down the stairs to where her husband and the doctor waited. She smiled at them. "I'm ready, dear. Thank you for coming, Jim. I do hope you can find someone for us. Isn't there something you can give Nick to calm him?"
He shrugged, holding his hands out, palms up. "What do you want me to do? I'm certainly not going to give him drugs when there's no reason."
"But you know how he tires himself out when he has a tantrum. I just know that's part of what's keeping him from getting better."
"And I've told you countless times that he wouldn't have tantrums if you'd make him depend more on himself."
"But he needs help."
"He does not. He's perfectly capable of walking given proper exercise. He's got to overcome the muscular atrophy caused by being in bed for so long, and every delay makes it worse. As long as you insist on waiting on him hand and foot, he's going to exploit the situation."
"Do you think you can find someone to replace Nettie?"
"I doubt it. She was pure luck. You know every agency in town refuses to make any more referrals to you, so there's no one else to call. Who's going to stay with him tonight?"
"Martin. But Paul says he'll give notice if he or Mamie have to stay with him again. Oh, please, Jim, there must be someone."
"I'll look in on Nick and do what I can when I get home, but I warn you, Ann, this is absolutely the last time. If you can't follow my instructions, you can find another doctor."
He watched them enter their car, then wearily climbed the stairs. A sullen Nick glowered at him while he made a cursory examination, then left without a word having passed between them.
Irritated at the unnecessary visit, he slammed into his battered Bronko, and left in a spray of gravel. He was a good physician, he knew, and his choice of a practice in the small village increased the amount of time and attention he could give his patients. Because of those fleeing city living and his being the younger of the two physicians in the area, he found himself more involved in the social stratum than had he practiced in the city as his parents had wanted. His smaller practice also left him time for sailing, fishing, and other leisure pursuits. He was content, especially as his bachelor household was capably run by the woman who came in daily.
Thinking of the family he had just left, he would long ago have told Ann to go to hell, had it not been for his long friendship with Paul. Ann was a charming person, but her single-mindedness toward her son often drove him to the brink.
More than once he'd been tempted to turn the boy over his knee for a good spanking.
Irritation cooling, he let up on the accelerator and relaxed, the full moon making the secondary road bright as he left the area of the estates for rolling, wooded countryside. Two miles more and he would be at his isolated A-frame home, situated on a small rise overlooking the lake.
With his mind on finding a nurse who would not be intimidated by Nick, he glanced at a movement on the side of the road, seeing a lanky denim clad figure, thumb outstretched. Mentally, he compared the tall, broad-shouldered young man with the overweight, ill-tempered boy in bed at the mansion. He stopped on an impulse.
The young man opened the door. "You go city, yes?" The deep voice was well modulated, heavy with a middle-European accent.
The smile vanished. "Was go Midvale. Last ride bad. Now am lost."
"This is the wrong direction. You've come twenty miles out of the way. There's a road in Parkton which will take you to the highway, but that's back the way I came. It's so late now I doubt you'll find a ride."
"Is place I camp in woods? No money for room. I hope work find in Midvale."
He thought of the Hamiltons and said, "Get in."
Oh, my God, how stupid can I be, he thought as the young man climbed in. My bag's on the backseat. He's sure to see it.
By the overhead light, the doctor discerned clearly the sharply featured face. Eyebrows met in a straight black line, black hair curled thickly about the worn shirt collar. Thin lips and brooding dark eyes gave a 'no nonsense tolerated' feeling to the happy expression. The clear swarthy complexion added intensity to the brilliant white teeth set in a wide smile, bringing the term 'Gypsy' to Jim's mind.
"Am thanking you, sir." The boy dropped his duffel bag on the backseat then pulled his seat belt in place. "You be doctor, yes?"
"Yes," Jim replied, regretting having stopped.
The boy gave him a grin. "No to worry. No be thief. No drugs." He held out his hand. "Am Stephan Cezak."
"Jim Collins. May I ask the derivation of your name?"
Ah, ha, Jim thought. Not a bad guess.
They rode for several minutes in silence before Stephan asked, "You know of work?"
"Why are you looking for work around here? This is a very small place. I doubt you'll find any."
The dark head jerked to the side. "Come from Heights in city. No much work there."
Jim recognized the pretentious name of a slum in the city where he had done his residency, but nothing classed this man as a slum product. "What kind of work?"
"Orderly. Can do garden also."
"You've worked as a hospital orderly?"
"Saint Joseph's. Father become ill, need much care. Sister Superior promise good recommendation. I go Midvale. Hospital is good I am hearing. Have two years only of school."
Jim gave a start of surprise. "You were in medical school?"
"Why didn't you stay in the city? Saint Joseph's constantly needs help."
"Father die. City no good for save money. Need money for finish school."
This guy may be just right for Nick, he thought. "Then you could take a live-in position?"
"Just so." The smile flashed.
"Even if the patient is difficult?"
"Father much hard to please. He from old country. If patient difficult, I no fear hard work."
The hollow rumble of the boy's stomach all but echoed in the car. He pressed his hand against his concave belly. "Long after eat," he apologized.
Decision made, Jim pressed the accelerator. "I'll fix you something at the house and we can discuss a possible position while we eat. You can stay the night."
The boy's words convinced him. "Is not good. Am stranger."
"I'm desperate for someone, but I'll have to know something about you before I can recommend you to the Hamiltons. You can stay and talk with me, or you can leave. It's up to you."
"I stay. Need work."
His chow came tearing down the steps from the deck when he parked in the drive of his office-home. Though only half grown, the cream colored dog viciously defended the property. "Stay." Jim called. He reached for his bag as Stephan pulled his duffel from the other side, then followed Jim into the house, the dog snarling at his heels.
Jim showed Stephan the other bedroom and bath in the loft, then went down and turned the heat up under the pot of soup the housekeeper had left on the stove. He was at the table, a pad and pen handy when the boy came down.
"I need a brief biography. Do you want to do it, or shall I?"
Stephan shrugged. "Have twenty-four years. Until one month, I nurse father. Was cancer. Was two years in school. Now is no home."
"I'll call the school and Saint Joseph's to verify your statements. Have you any objections?"
"No. Phone of hospital, I know. You call tomorrow, yes?"
"Very well, then." Jim pointed to the bowls in the cabinet and Stephan set the table.
The soup in the boy's bowl vanished quickly. Jim got up to refill the bowl and set it in front of the boy. The smile flashed. "This is delicious," he said with a faint accent.
Jim glanced at him sharply. "What happened to the accent and poor English?"
The returned look was sheepish. "In a new situation, sometimes it's better to pretend my English is not so good."
Jim's thumb and finger pinched his chin in thought. "Hmmm. You may just need that accent and poor comprehension if you work out for the job I have in mind."
"What makes you say that?"
Jim explained over their coffee. "Still interested?"
Stephan laughed. "Won't be as bad as taking care of my father. I loved him very much, but he was a real tyrant, old-country style."
While Stephan showered the next morning, Jim called and elicited glowing recommendations from both the dean of the medical school the boy had attended and the nun in charge of the hospital in which he had worked.
Stephan came down the stairs moments later wearing worn jeans, T-shirt, engineer's boots, and carrying a ragged goose-down parka. From his duffel he pulled an immaculate white lab coat. "This okay for work?"
"Fine. I told you this is a live-in situation. Have you any better clothes?"
"Just what's here. Father's illness took everything."
"Don't worry about it. Let's have breakfast and I'll take you to the Hamiltons."
As they ate, Jim said, "The job's confining, as I told you, and it will probably last for several months. If you stay, you'll find the Hamiltons very generous."
"I'll stay. I want to finish medical school and this is the best offer I've had."
"Didn't you investigate student loans?"
Stephan nodded. "The minute they heard my accent they turned me down. I guess they knew I was an immigrant and thought I wouldn't pay them back."
Stephan whistled when Jim drove up to the mansion. "This is it?"
"Yes. Bring your bag."
Martin opened the door. "Good morning, Doctor Collins. The Hamiltons are at breakfast, sir."
"Thank you, Martin. This is Stephan Cezak, the new nurse for Nick. Stephan, Martin and Mr. Hamilton are the two people you will speak openly to of Nick."
The butler looked at the closed face, rippling muscles of the arms, and broad chest, emphasized by the stretch of the T-shirt. "This one might last, doctor."
"I certainly hope so, for your sake as well as Mamie's. Follow me, Stephan."
Paul looked up as Collins entered the dining room. "Jim, come in. Have you had breakfast?"
"Yes, but I'll take another cup of coffee."
"Of course." He nodded at Martin.
Stephan remained standing in the doorway until Collins motioned him into the room.
"I've found someone for Nick. This is Stephan Cezak. He's well qualified and you can't imagine how lucky I was to find him."
Hamilton stared at Stephan; his wife gasped and spilled her coffee.
Stephan gave a formal bow. "Is much pleasure to meet," he said with the heavy accent.
Ann still frowned at the boy, not unnoticed by Collins. "You don't need to worry about Stephan, Ann. I've checked his references and they are outstanding.
"We've had a long talk about Nick, but," he jabbed a long finger in her direction, "you will let Stephan have a completely free hand with no interference." Paul Hamilton, he knew, had long ago given up on his wife and son. He felt another pang of sympathy for his friend.
"No buts! I told you the agencies we've used will no longer carry a listing from you. It's a miracle I found someone like Stephan. He's experienced and knows what's expected of him. This is Nick's last chance at a full recovery and if you interfere with Stephan in any way you can find another doctor."
"Jim! You wouldn't?"
After some moments she relented. "All right, Jim. I'll try to do as you ask."
"Come sit down and have some coffee, Stephan," Hamilton invited.
Stephan stared at the floor. "Am servant, yes? Is no right to sit at table with master."
"You are not a servant. You are a companion to our son and you will be a part of this family, such as it is."
At Collins' nod, Stephan pulled out the chair next to him. Martin's usually stony face cracked into a slight smile as he set the cup in front of Stephan.
"I do hope you will like Nick and stay. If you do, we must get you something more suitable to wear at the first opportunity." Ann said.
Certainty expressed itself in Stephan's face. "Must be as doctor say, Madame. For to like Nick, must see. Respect, how you say, is earned."
She frowned again, but Paul grinned at Jim. "Why do I have a feeling that he's going to be just what we've needed?" He arose and crossed to Stephan who stood at his approach. "I'm delighted you're here. You must do for Nick whatever is needed, but I will not tolerate your being unkind to him."
"Sir, is sometime cruel be good."
Hamilton glanced at Jim, uncertain of Stephan's words.
"Stephan means that he will be quite firm with Nick, even if Nick feels he's being mistreated. But remember, this is our last chance of success." Jim explained, delighted that Stephan had slipped so completely back into the pose of the night before.
"Of course, I thought you meant personal cruelty." Hamilton felt a momentary anxiety from the coldness of the dark eyes fixed on him.
Stephan looked at Collins questioningly.
"Mr. Hamilton thought you meant being cruel from hate."
The boy looked shocked. "No. No hate. No yet to like."
The sound of a bell from the butler's pantry cut the conversation short.
"Nick's awake," Collins said, rising. "We may as well beard the lion in his den, Stephan."
"Please?" Stephan said with a questioning look as he got up.
"Just joking. Come along and I'll introduce you to your patient. Paul, ask Martin to take Stephan's bag to his room." He turned back to Stephan. "You will have a connecting room with Nick's. Martin will put your things away."
Nick's petulant voice reached them as they climbed the stairs. "I hate eggs. I want pancakes."
"But ..." the maid began before Collins motioned her out of the room.
"Nick, this is Stephan. I'll see you this afternoon."
Nick threw a plate of toast at Stephan. "Get out! I hate you!"
Stephan planted his hands on his hips and looked down at his patient. "No like you. Much fat like pig. Act like ass." He easily caught the glass of milk that sailed toward him. Three long strides brought him to the side of the bed. He set the glass down and seized Nick's wrists firmly.
"Let me go!" Nick screamed. "Mother will have Martin throw you out."
"Doctor say I stay. You no be disrespectful to important man like doctor." He released the boy and blotted the milk that had spattered on him with his handkerchief, while Nick searched for something else to throw.
"Go ahead. Throw food. No eat." He said as Nick lifted the plate of eggs and bacon. He raised his head and sniffed. "Much stink."
Collins closed the door behind him with a smile as Nick began to throw everything within reach at Stephan. Good for you, Stephan, he thought as he went down the stairs. By the time he reached the dining room where the Hamiltons lingered over coffee, Nick's screams of rage were clearly audible. There was a slight smile on Paul's lips while Ann wrung a napkin in her hands.
She jumped up. "Oh, Jim! How could you bring someone like that into this house? He barely speaks English and he looks positively evil. Just listen. He's mistreating Nick already."
"He is not. He's had two years of medical school and knows precisely how to carry out my orders. He's exactly what Nick needs."
"Damn it, Ann, sit down! Jim has told you this is the last chance the boy has and I intend for him to have it, no matter how unhappy it makes you or him," Hamilton thundered, while his wife looked at him in disbelief at being denied her way for the first time. "Jim told you this is the last time he'll help and he means it."
"You wouldn't leave us just when we need you most?" She asked.
"Try me. I have patients to see. I'll come by this evening to see how Stephan is getting along."
"I'm hungry. I want breakfast!"
Stephan maintained a placid expression. "Throw breakfast at me. No eat 'til lunch."
"I want it."
When Nick reached for the bell, Stephan dropped the push behind the bed.
"Damn you!" Nick threw the last thing within reach, but the clock fell short at the end of its cord, sparks flashing when it crashed against the floor.
Stephan calmly pulled the plug and dropped the remains in the trashcan, regarding his patient's sulk stoically.
"I gotta go to the bathroom."
Stephan pushed the wheelchair next to the bed and waited.
"Help me." Nick whined.
"Do for self."
"Then mess bed."
"Then how ask?" Stephan yelled.
"P ... please?"
Stephan smiled. "Yes." He effortlessly lifted him into the chair.
"Do for self." He pushed open the bathroom door while Nick slowly maneuvered the chair into the room, where Stephan then helped him.
When Nick had relieved himself, Stephan lifted him into the tub and turned the water on full force.
"I don't want a bath."
"Need. Smell like pig." He handed soap and a wash cloth to Nick and stood watching. Exasperated at the feeble attempts of the boy to bathe, Stephan grabbed the cloth and began to scrub him.
"You hurt." Nick whined.
"You dirty," Stephan replied, scrubbing harder. He drained the tub and refilled it. "Soak while I bed fix."
Martin answered the ring and handed Stephan fresh linen. When the bed was made, he listened with a knowing smile as Stephan ordered lunch for both Nick and himself.
Dressed in other than pyjamas for the first time in months, Nick sat in his wheelchair and watched TV, sipping slowly from a glass of diet cola. "I want a Snickers." He pointed to a stack of candy bars on a table across the room.
"No need. Make fat." Stephan swept up the entire assortment of candy, opened a window, and threw it all out, just missing the gardener below who stopped working to pick up the candy bars with a broad smile.
Stephan ducked the glass that narrowly missed his head and smashed against the wall. Picking up the pieces, he dropped them into the trashcan and turned a smile of satisfaction on his patient. "No glass. Now no drink."
Nick's screams of rage shattered the quiet. His mother would have flown up the stairs, but Hamilton grabbed her arm and forced her back into her chair. "You will not interfere."
"But he's hurting Nick."
"He is not! It's nothing but another temper tantrum. It's about time Nick learned he's not always going to get his own way."
"I can't stand it."
"Then get your coat. We'll go for a ride so you can calm down."
At one, the day maid tapped cautiously at the door. Stephan opened it and looked at the tray: a large green salad for each of them and two glasses of low fat milk as ordered. He took the tray and pushed the door closed with his foot, then placed the food on the table, looking at Nick who had wheeled himself over.
Nick turned a disdainful look at the salad. "That's for rabbits. I want a burger and fries."
"Eat or I throw out window." Stephan picked up his fork and began to eat. When Nick pushed the salad aside, Stephan picked up the bowl, opened the window, and threw it into the garden below.
Ann Hamilton looked up from her own lunch just in time to see the bowl and salad sail by. "My God!" She shrieked. "He's thrown their lunch out of the window. Paul, you must do something. He's trying to starve Nick."
"It won't hurt him to miss a meal or two, fat as he is. Jim said he had to lose weight."
"I'm sure Stephan knows what he's doing. Now eat."
"He wouldn't even let me in the room this morning when I went up to see Nick. You must get him out of this house."
"Damn it, Ann! Shut up and eat."
Shocked at his pertinacity, she complied.
Stephan finished his salad and rang for the maid to remove the tray, ignoring Nick's whines of hunger. When the maid had gone, he picked Nick up and dumped him on the sheepskin throw rug. Seeing the boy's mid-calf stumps were well healed, he pressed down on the knees. "Sit-ups," he demanded.
"Will. I not let go."
Nick managed two before he slumped back on the rug, perspiration beading his forehead.
Stephan patted Nick's protruding belly. "Good you. Much fat. Make hard." He picked the boy up and placed him on the bed. "Tomorrow, four."
Nick was asleep when his mother tapped at the door. Stephan opened it and whispered, "He sleep. No wake." Then closed the door in her face.
At dinner, Nick wolfed down the broiled chicken breast, green beans, salad, and fruit compote placed before him without complaint. When he drained the glass of low fat milk, Stephan smiled. "Is good. You want game?"
They played video games together until bedtime. Once Nick lay asleep, Stephan went to his own room and satisfied slumber.
Over the next few days, Nick's tantrums lessened, then ceased until his mother slipped into the room while Stephan had gone to his own room for something. She had just held out a Snickers bar to Nick when Stephan reappeared. He snatched the candy from her hand and flung it out the window. "No candy give! Make fat ass."
The shock of his action and words and Nick's scream of rage sent her scurrying down the stairs to the phone.
Ann met him at the door. "Oh, Jim. I know you went to a lot of trouble, but I want that boy out of here right now."
"You mean Stephan?"
"Yes. He's absolutely evil."
"In what way?"
"Nick hates him. His temper is even worse, and when I carried him a Snickers bar this evening, that boy snatched it out of my hand and threw it out the window, then pushed me from the room. I can't believe what he said to me."
"What did he say?"
"I couldn't repeat such language!"
"I doubt Stephan would swear at a lady. Now tell me what he said."
"He said I wasn't to give Nick candy, that it would make him fat in the ..., ah, backside, but that isn't the word he used." Collins smothered a grin. "Besides, I haven't had two minutes alone with Nick since he's been in this house. If I tell Mamie to fix things I know Nick likes, he makes her bring them back. The child is getting nothing but salads to live on."
Collins' eyes narrowed. "Nothing else?"
Her voice wavered. "Well, there's lean meat, of course, and vegetables, the very ones Nick despises, but nothing sweet at all and you know how Nick loves sweets. How can that boy be so heartless."
Collins patted her on the shoulder. "I'll go up and see how Nick's getting on. But if I find nothing wrong, Stephan stays."
Collins opened the door quietly. Nick sat in his wheelchair at a table, pushing pieces of a puzzle around; Stephan stood at the window looking down into the garden. He turned at the slight sound.
"Ah, doctor, sir. Good evening."
"Get out! I hate you!" Nick screamed.
"Shut mouth, disrespectful one. I say is no way to talk to important man like doctor." Stephan yelled back.
Nick lapsed into sniffles.
After Collins examined Nick, he motioned for Stephan to follow him into the hall. "You have some explaining to do."
"Is there some complaint, doctor?"
"Not really, but Mrs. Hamilton says that you've been starving Nick and you have not let her see him. Too, you seem to have spoken rather abruptly to her."
"If I have done something contrary to your wishes, sir, please correct me. I put Nick on a low fat diet, no sweets but for diet Jello and fruit. He needs to slim down and start exercising. Every time Mrs. Hamilton comes up to see him, she brings him a candy bar and that starts a tantrum when I refuse to let him have it. It takes quite a while to quiet him afterwards. I think it better for him to see less of her until I can establish a relationship with him. I'm afraid I forgot myself and told her candy would make him fat in the ass."
Collins laughed. "Well, it does, but you might have chosen more diplomatic wording."
"I'll be more careful in the future, sir. Is there something more?"
"No, you're doing just as I expected from a man of your experience. Keep working on Nick's exercises and I'll tell Ann that everything is just as I've ordered."
"Thank you, sir." Stephan turned back into the room as Collins went down the stairs.
Pleased with the results of Stephan's skills, Collins visits decreased in frequency. At the same time, Nick's resistance to Stephan gave to grudging respect, for his touch was more gentle and sure than that of the nurses before. His demands for help lessened as he gained strength to care for himself. On the morning he managed ten sit-ups, Stephan hugged him.
In spite of himself, Nick asked, "You like me?"
Stephan nodded. "Now do for self. No more baby. Make soon you walk."
"Will see. More exercise of legs need. Much weak. Will machine get."
Martin could only shake his head in amazement as he escorted the delivery men carrying cartons of equipment ordered by Stephan up the stairs.
Nick watched him begin to assemble the unit, sliding across the floor to help.
After lunch, Stephan lifted him to the bench, set the weights, then coached Nick in lifting the bar with his stumps. When the boy began to sweat from exertion, Stephan stopped him and carried him to the tub for a warm bath.
With calm in the household at last, Ann frequently visited friends in the city, resuming her place on committees and having luncheons at the club.
On an afternoon that she was out and Nick napped, Stephan went down to the kitchen where the Martins sat at a small table drinking coffee.
Martin immediately stood. "Sir?"
"Am not sir. Am Stephan. I talk you alone, yes?"
"Of course, sir. Come this way." The butler led Stephan into Hamilton's study and closed the door.
"Doctor say I talk you if need. You keep secret, yes?"
"Anything you say will be held in confidence."
Stephan grinned, then said in his lightly accented voice. "Great. Is the swimming pool heated?"
"I thought you barely spoke English, sir." The startled butler said.
"There are times when it's better if I don't."
Martin smiled. "I understand. The pool can be heated, but the heater is turned off. It hasn't been used all winter."
"It's warm enough outside for Nick to use it. Please have the cover removed and the heater turned on. I would prefer that you say nothing to anyone about it except the doctor. We will want to use it when Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton are out."
"I will do it immediately. Shall I inform you of those occasions when I'm sure they will be out for several hours?"
The next day the sun was bright, warm enough. Waiting until Mrs. Hamilton had driven off, Martin went up to let Stephan know. Stephan carried an excited Nick down the stairs and held him up in the shallow end of the pool. Nick pulled away and splashed happily.
"Teach me to swim, Stephan."
"Just so. Good for you."
"You think so?"
"I know. You see."
When Stephan pulled him from the water after an hour, Nick protested. "I was having fun."
"I know. Sun make red, will hurt. We do again, soon. Need machine now for work legs."
A few weeks later, while Nick's parents were out, Jim and Stephan took Nick to a prosthetics firm. Four days later, with Stephan behind him, Nick took his first hesitant steps, Stephan's encouragement ringing in his ears.
"I did it!"
"Are fine young man. Was much good. Am proud of you."
"Of course. I like you much."
Nick held out his arms and hugged Stephan. "I like you, too. Please don't tell anybody until I can walk good."
"I keep secret, if you want." The accent vanished. "Now, I have one for you."
"I was a medical student for two years. I speak English as well as you."
"Then why do you talk so funny all the time?"
"Would you have done what I asked if I hadn't pretended not to understand you?"
"I guess not. Does anybody else know?"
"Only doctor. Let's keep it a secret, until you want to show the doctor and your parents how well you're doing."
"Okay. I like secrets."
Six weeks passed before Collins returned to the house in response to Ann Hamilton's excited call with an invitation to dinner. She met him at the door, her words running together.
He held up his hand. "Wait a minute. Slow down. You're talking so fast I can't make heads nor tails of what you're saying."
"Oh, Jim, that boy sent word by Martin that Nick wants to come down to dinner and Mamie is to fix everything he likes. There hasn't been a sound out of them all week. Do you think anything's wrong? He hasn't let me see Nick but one time a week and that's after Nick's in bed for the night."
"Stephan must have done a fine job if Nick is coming down to eat, but I'll check since I'm here."
"Oh, do. I can hardly wait, I've been so worried. That boy's English is so limited I can't seem to get him to understand my concern."
Collins tapped at the door. At the sound of the key turning in the lock, he raised an eyebrow. Stephan peeped out then swung the door open. "Please come in, doctor."
Nick sat on the edge of the bed, slender and healthy looking. He smiled at Jim. "How do I look?"
Collins took a step back. "I'm in the wrong house. The Nick Hamilton I know is a fat sorry looking slob."
"Not any more. I can do twenty-five push-ups and fifteen sit-ups already. Stephan's teaching me to swim, too, and he says he'll play tennis with me real soon."
"I thought you hated him."
"I did, but when I stopped acting like a baby, he got real nice. He makes things fun. He helps me with my homework, too. He's real smart. Want to know something? He talks as good as you. Are you staying for dinner?"
"Do you think Mamie will mind?"
"Naah. Stephan told her I could have anything I want, so she's got plenty cooked, I'll bet. You tell mama you're staying and Stephan and me will come down soon as dad's home." He motioned Stephan closer. "Let's show him how good I can walk. He won't tell."
"If you wish."
"Look at this, Doctor Jim." He stood and walked easily to the far side of the room and back. "I can go up and down the stairs, too. Don't tell mom and dad. It's a surprise."
"I won't. I'm really proud of you, Nick." He hugged the boy. "I'll go down now and have a drink with your parents. I'll see you at dinner."
In the hall, Stephan looked at him with pride. "What do you think, sir?"
"Just what Paul and Ann are going to think. You've worked a miracle with him. I wasn't sure you would be able to take his tantrums."
Stephan shrugged. "He was just a little boy who hurt because he couldn't do what other boys were doing. I know how it is, because I couldn't go out and have fun with others when I nursed father. Is very hard for one so young as Nick. I had to make him hate me before I could help him. I tell him he can fight me back if he get strong. Now he likes me. No longer want to fight.''
Collins patted him on the shoulder. "You've done a great job. I'll see you at dinner."