Silent night, holy night

All is calm all is bright

December 24, 2003

Wyndemere

Eight o'clock in the morning…

Stefan Cassadine awoke with a familiar and welcome weight on his chest. He curved his arm around his wife's shoulders. A sweet murmur escaped from her lips as he ran his fingertips across her bare flesh. Tiny chill bumps rose. He shifted on his side, drawing her close. Open mouth, he sucked and licked her quivering mocha skin.

"So beautiful," he murmured against her flesh.

"Oh, baby." She clutched the muscles of his back. Her thighs spread. He moved between them. "What are you doing?"

"Welcoming in the new day." He nibbled her throat. "Good morning, Carlotta."

She thrust her fingers through his thick hair, guiding his head to her. "Good morning, Stefan."

A couple of hours later, they sat across each other in the glass-enclosed courtyard. Mrs. Landsbury prepared a brunch complete with crisp bacon, fresh strawberries, warm scones and a variety of juices. The meal returned the energy they passionately depleted.

"We are officially off course."

Stefan frowned at her over the Wall Street Journal. "You are too meticulous to be off course."

"I set the alarm for six." She gave him a pointed look, alerting him that she was aware of his duplicity. "It's after ten now and instead of making sure that everything is as it should be, I'm eating."

"A most delicious meal, wouldn't you agree?"

"Stefan."

His mouth twitched with unleashed humor. "Carlotta."

She balled up her linen napkin and perfectly aimed it at his chest. "You are incorrigible."

He nodded. "Yes, I am."

"Can you believe this?" Dawn Jensen asked as she made a beeline to the platter of bacon. "They're eating while we're slaving away."

Nikolas followed her. He patted Stefan's shoulder and kissed his stepmother's cheek. "They're not to be trusted." He reached for a scone. "But we knew this."

"True that." Dawn patted her mouth and wiped her fingers with a napkin before giving her mother and stepfather a kiss each. "Dara called. They're gonna try to beat the storm. I told her to call before they leave."

"What storm?" A frown darkened Carrie's brow. "The weather is clear today. I made certain of it."

"Canada had a change in plans," Nikolas informed her. "There's a chance of a snow storm this evening. I've asked Mrs. Landsbury to prepare rooms for our guests just in case."

"Very good, Nikolas," Stefan said. "You are right on schedule, my dear."

"I'm not sure about that. Maybe it would be better to postpone the party."

"Until next Christmas Eve?" Dawn asked. "Mama, you've been planning this party for months. There's no reason to cancel it."

"Wyndemere has plenty of room," Nikolas said.

"If push comes to shove, it'll turn into a slumber party."

Carrie smiled at her daughter and future son-in-law. "You two always see the glass as half full. I love that. Don't ever change."

The young couple looked at each other and smiled. "We won't," Nikolas said.

Stefan folded the newspaper and set on the side of the table. He enjoyed the sight of his family. Finally, they could relax and delight in their family and friends without the threat of outsiders wrecking their happiness. It certainly was about time.

One o'clock in the afternoon…

"Okay, I understand," Carlotta said into her cell phone. "Maybe next year. Have a merry Christmas. I'll talk to you later."

She released a long sigh as the call ended.

"Who was that?" Dawn finished wrapping a present. "Who's flaking?"

"Ellen." Carrie tried to keep the disappointment from her voice. "She's worried about the storm."

"Matt's still in the recovery stages," Dawn commented. "It's probably better if they stay in Port Charles to be on the safe side. That man is stubborn. He'd want to use his crutches and if he slipped on the ice… I'm sorry, Mama. Who's left?"

"You, Dara, and Lucky haven't flaked as you put it." Her mouth turned down. "One of Simone's patients is having complications. Marcus was called out of town on a hush-hush assignment. Everyone else is worried about the storm."

"Keesha and Jagger, too?" Dawn asked. "I don't see either of them afraid of a storm."

"They are a maybe," Carrie explained. "Remember Marcus' case? They may be pulled on that, too."

"They're PCPD. Not big time Feds like Marcus." Dawn moved to wrap her arms around her mother. "Remember that half full glass? Even if it's just family, we'll have a jolly ole time. Okay?"

Carrie returned her daughter's hug. "Okay."

Three o'clock in the afternoon…

Bluish gray clouds rolled in the distance. Blowing winds caused the trees to bend to its will. Stefan studied the scene from the window of his study. His jaw tightened as he witnessed nature in its glory, reminding him that there were a few things that he was powerless against.

"Father? Is this a bad time?"

He turned from the window and faced his son. Waving him into the room, he said, "No time is bad when you are involved. Come. Have a seat."

Nikolas closed the door behind him and chose a spot on the velvet-covered settee. "Carrie is worried about the weather. Have you spoken with her?"

Stefan frowned. "Not in couple of hours. We had a few cancellations. I assured her the party would be a success regardless of the number of attendees."

Nikolas shrugged. "I'm only bringing this to your attention because I've never seen her like this. She's usually calm, the voice of reason. But if you're sure she's fine…"

Stefan waited as Nikolas stood. Then, he went to him and patted his cheek. It amazed him how the boy he raised became a man he admired. The past seven years passed so quickly.

"I appreciate your concern. She's nervous and wants perfection," Stefan explained. "Once the festivities begin, she'll return to her usual, reasonable self."

Nikolas laughed. "You'd better not let her hear you say that."

"I wouldn't think of it."

Five o'clock in the evening…

The colorful array of lights glittered brightly on the large pine. As he touched a glass ornament, Nikolas' lips curved in a half smile as he remembered the first Christmas he and Stefan shared with Carrie and her daughters.

Carrie adamantly requested they decorate the tree. At first, Stefan balked at the idea. He'd never decorated a tree. When he was younger, Helena forbade him helping the servants. By the time Nikolas came along, the idea of others doing the holiday chore was second nature. It appeared the same to Nikolas until five years ago. Now, he couldn't imagine it any other way.

The scent of jasmine engulfed Nikolas. Arms closed around him from behind. The unexpected hug returned him to the present. He turned and pulled Dawn close.

"A penny for your thoughts," she said.

He cocked an eyebrow in mock consternation. "Only a cent? Surely, my thoughts are worth more than that."

She frowned as if in deep thought. "Okay, a dime, but that's my final offer."

He laughed. "A frugal woman is a rare find. I think I'll keep you."

"Whatever." A giggle belied her words and tone. Then, her expression sobered. "Seriously. You had that out there look on your face. Have you changed your mind about visiting Laura?"

Humor left him. "She hasn't crossed my mind."

"I find that hard to believe."

"Believe it." He released her and moved to the fireplace. He grabbed a poker and began poking. "Visiting her is pointless. She doesn't know me. Recognizing me is impossible."

"What happened to the optimist from this morning?" She moved to sit on the arm of the sofa. "There's always hope."

"Perhaps."

"I don't want to see you hurt any more than you have been."

"I know." He set the poker back in its spot and turned to face her. "Laura was lost to me long before the mental breakdown. Saying the words is as difficult as realizing their truth."

"I'm sorry," she said softly. She stood and tenderly stroked his cheek.

"I know."

The distant chime of bells sounded in the parlor. A few moments later, the first guests arrived and joined them before the fire.

"It's unbelievable out there." Lucky, dressed in all black, removed his gloves and scarf and then helped Emily with her coat to reveal a shimmering emerald gown.

"So, you were lucky to get here?"

Nikolas heard the laughter in his fiancée's voice. The desire to relax slowly returned. He smiled at his brother.

"Cute," Lucky grumbled. He looked at Nikolas. "How do you put up with that mouth?"

"It's a labor of love."

The brothers shared a laugh.

Emily removed beautifully wrapped gifts from her bag. She handed the first present to Dawn. "This is for you from Lucky and me. We hope you like it."

"And if you don't, we don't need to know about it."

"Lucky!" Emily hissed. "I don't know what gets into him."

"Don't apologize," Dawn said. "Santa will take care of him. One lump of coal coming up. Thanks, Em." She put the gift under the tree and returned with two. "This is for you from Nikolas and me. Lucky, this is from Nikolas."

He took the present with a frown. "Where's yours?"

"I'm one of Santa's helpers this year," she said. "The verdict is still out on you."

Lucky mumbled a thanks to Nikolas and plopped on the sofa. As he reached for Emily to join him, he said, "Is this party still a go? I was expecting to see more people at the dock. There was just us. What gives?"

"We've received a few cancellations," Nikolas said. He sat on an overstuff chair across from them. Dawn claimed his lap. One hand rested on her denim-clad thigh while the other stroked her back. "Tonight, may be just a family affair."

"Sounds good to me," Lucky said. "Family is what Christmas is about anyway."

Nikolas nodded. A few years ago, he never imagined this day would come. Lucky sitting across from him and eager to share the holiday. The only thing missing was their baby sister. But she was gone, never to return except as their angel. He believed it was she who played guardian over their relationship. What the little girl couldn't do in life, she achieved in death.

He nestled his cheek in the curve of Dawn's neck and shoulder. Holding her to his heart and looking at his brother, his thoughts turned to the one man who'd love nothing more than to take this moment away.

If he could. But Luke Spencer no longer had that ability. The cold iron bars of a prison cell saw to that.

Seven o'clock at night…

"Merry Christmas." Dara and Mac Scorpio entered the ballroom hand in hand. Dara wore a stunning red ensemble while Mac opted for a black suit, white shirt and red tie.

Carrie left the window and its display of a snow-covered landscape to greet her oldest daughter. Her white sequined gown made a jingling noise with every step she took. "You made it!"

She hugged both and gently rubbed Dara's swollen abdomen. "There's a suite already prepared for you. I don't want you going back out in this weather."

Dara groaned. "Yes, ma'am."

"Thanks, Carrie," Mac said with a smile. "She insisted on coming tonight, but when the weather turned, I tried to change her mind."

"I'm too stubborn for that," Dara replied. "Besides, it wouldn't be Christmas without Mama's red velvet cake. Did you make it?"

"Of course. However, Dawn took care of licking the bowl."

Dara's eyes narrowed while shining with humor. "Where is that greedy girl?"

"Listen, Big Mama." Dawn, decked out in an ivory strapless creation, appeared with Nikolas, who complemented his bride-to-be in a white-on-white tux. Emily and Lucky followed them.

"Are you sure you're just eating for two because that waist is definitely expanding?"

"Brat! Come here." Dara and Dawn hugged.

"Where's Stefan?" Mac asked.

"That's a good question," Carrie said. "He's the king of punctuality. It’s not like him to be late."

"I'll find him," Nikolas volunteered.

Ten minutes later, Nikolas found Stefan, already dressed in his white tuxedo, in the sitting room with Keesha and Jagger, who were both dressed for the evening. All three wore serious expressions that did not the fit the festive occasion. Nikolas moved to his father's side.

Jagger looked at Nikolas then back at Stefan. "Should I continue?"

Stefan nodded. "Yes, I have no secrets from my son."

"The Feds contacted PCPD a short time ago. While transporting Luke Spencer to another facility, there was an accident," Keesha explained. "He escaped. His whereabouts are unknown."

"And you believe he will come here," Stefan said.

"How could they let this happen?" Nikolas questioned. His voice deepened with anger and frustration.

"Nikolas!" Stefan grabbed his son's arm. "Calm yourself."

"How? He threatened to kill you."

"He won't."

"What kind of security system do you have?" Jagger asked.

"The best," Stefan said. "The island is covered in surveillance equipment."

"How many guests are you expecting?" Keesha asked.

"Not many," Nikolas answered. "The storm convinced most of them to cancel."

Jagger gave a curt nod. "That's good. Has everyone arrived?"

"No--"

"Yes," Nikolas interjected. "We were waiting for Dara and Mac. They're here."

"Mac…where is he?" Jagger asked.

"Everyone is in the ballroom," Nikolas said.

"Everyone?" Keesha questioned. "What about staff?"

"Most of them have been given a holiday to spend with family," Stefan said. "The staff is down to twenty."

"Is there really a chance he could come here?" Nikolas asked.

"The lake was beginning to ice over. We had a difficult time crossing it," Jagger said.

Stefan folded his arms across his chest. "Luke Spencer has always been resourceful."

Keesha gave them a tight smile. "We'll do everything we can to protect you."

Half past seven…

"Appetizers, madam?"

Carrie blinked. She hadn't sensed Tomas, Mrs. Landsbury's nephew, approach. Her attention was locked on the corridor and the hopes that Stefan would soon stride down it. She turned away from the hallway and nodded. "Yes, go ahead."

He took the tray and headed into the hauntingly vacant ballroom. Her gaze followed his movement. He stopped with Dara and Mac first. The mother-to-be seemed unable to resist the delicacies. Finally, Mac waved Tomas away. Then, he circled the table, stopping between Emily and Dawn and afterward Lucky.

The room was large enough to seat many. She should have moved the festivities to the dining hall, but everyone had gone to so much trouble to hang lights, lay out boughs of holly, and strategically place poinsettias that she didn't have the heart to move a single thing.

'Winter Wonderland' played over the speakers. A grudging smile came to her face. Hearing about the potential storm hadn't put her in a festive mood. But that wasn't right for this time of year. Didn't everyone want a white Christmas?

"Carrie." Mac appeared at her side and took her elbow. "Won't you join us?"

"I need to find Stefan and Nikolas."

"I can do that," he offered.

She squeezed his hand. Such strong hands that took care of her daughter and future grandchild and a loving heart, too. Carrie couldn't have created a better man for Dara.

She shook her head. "Go back to Dara. It's the hostess' job to run around. I won't be gone long."

"Okay. Be quick about it, or I will come after you." He winked.

"Yes, sir!" She saluted.

A faint blush colored his cheeks. "Salutes went out the window with my former job. I'm just a regular schmo, now. No salutes necessary."

He headed back to Dara and she moved into the hallway.

Her heels clicked on the marble floor. The sound had a haunting echo. Years ago, Wyndemere with his dark atmosphere set her on edge. Becoming Mrs. Stefan Cassadine gave her license to make changes. And she did. The depressing manor became a home. Stylish with the best creature comforts that money could afford, but still a home all the same.

She shoved away thoughts of haunting sounds. Wyndemere was her and her family's sanctuary. She had nothing to fear here.

Carrie reached Stefan's study. The partially opened door beckoned. As she pushed it open, a cold draft whirred around her. She wrapped her arms around her and glanced about for an open window.

Then, without warning, the room fell into complete darkness.

Half past seven…

Stefan and Nikolas with Keesha and Jagger right behind them headed toward the ballroom. The detectives' news weighed heavily on Stefan's mind. He did not fear Luke Spencer, but worried about Carrie's reaction. The feud with the Spencers was one she wanted squashed years ago. Not only for the children's sake, but for Stefan's as well. She believed that his hatred for Luke Spencer would only ruin their family in the end. If Spencer made good on his promise, she'd be proven correct after all.

Stefan didn't relish the thought of that happening.

He glanced at his son. Rigid, stoic and deep in thought, Nikolas moved like a soldier and as close as a bodyguard. Stefan wondered if his son's thoughts turned to the current reason for Spencer's wrath.

Leslie Lu's death changed everyone who knew her. She was an innocent victim. A case of misunderstanding prompted Spencer to question her paternity. He accused Laura of tricking him into raising another man's child. Stefan's daughter. What other reason could explain why Nikolas supplied the marrow the little girl needed when no one else could? Not Lucky. Not Luke. But a Cassadine.

Laura came to Stefan, distraught and agitated. He cast her fears aside. Carlotta listened quietly and after Laura left, she asked him for the truth. He told her. Leslie Lu was a sweet little girl, but she was not his. Carlotta believed him. Luke Spencer did not.

The citizens wanted to believe LuLu's death was accidental poisoning. The Medical Examiner proved the contrary. Luke Spencer was convicted. Losing her child and her husband was too much for Laura. She suffered a mental breakdown, choosing to forget that which caused her pain. She remembered her son Lucky, her mother, and a few choice friends. Her time in Greece was erased. Consequently, so was her firstborn son. Nikolas accepted her rejection as he always had. With quiet, knowing acceptance. It pained Stefan to no end.

The quartet entered the ballroom. Stefan scanned the room, looking for the one who changed his life. But she wasn't there.

"Mama's looking for you," Dawn said as she smiled at Stefan and took Nikolas' hand. Her happiness faltered as she looked at their faces. A frown marred her smooth forehead. "What's wrong? You look like something awful has happened."

"I'll explain in a moment," Nikolas said.

"How long ago did Carlotta leave?" Stefan asked.

"Just a few minutes ago. Mac offered to go. She was worried about you."

Keesha and Jagger exchanged looks. Stefan ignored the unease that settled in his chest. He didn't want to imagine what the detectives were speculating. He turned away from them and moved into the corridor. Behind him, he knew that Nikolas and the police were making the necessary explanations.

The sudden hushed quiet from the ballroom shook him. He broke into a run. Carlotta's safety became his only priority.

The darkness that descended upon his home made him stop dead in his tracks.

Spencer.

Then, a scream cut him to the quick.

Carlotta.

Meanwhile, the ballroom vibrated with panic.

"Everyone calm down!" Nikolas shouted. "Wyndemere has a generator. The power will be restored momentarily."

"There's a delay?" Mac questioned. A click sounded followed by a beam of light. It flowed from the direction of his voice. "How long?"

"Not long," Nikolas replied. "Less than a minute."

"There's a candle on the table," Dara said. "Mama was waiting to light it. Does anyone have a lighter?"

"I do," Jagger said. His footsteps echoed on the marble floor. Then a flicker of light appeared near the center of the table as he lit the candle.

"I have a flashlight," Keesha said as she turned hers on.

"The minute has to be over by now," Dawn said. She squeezed Nikolas' hand in a death grip. "The generator should be on."

"It will be," Nikolas said. "Just a moment."

"No." Lucky's voice was quiet and sure. "Luke's here. He did this."

"It's just a coincidence," Emily said.

"There's no such thing."

Eight o'clock…

Hands grabbed her. Carrie twisted and fought, but she couldn't escape the iron grip. She released a scream that made her assailant curse.

"Damn you, woman!"

That voice, hoarse and edgy, belonged to one person.

"Let go of me, Luke!"

"You know," he snarled, "you always talked too much." He clamped a hand over her mouth and wrapped his other arm around her waist.

Carrie dug her heels into the carpet. He tightened his hold. The air squeezed from her lungs. She clawed at his hands and arms. She was no match against his strength. The urge to faint overwhelmed her. Her world faded to black.

Luke rolled Stefan's woman onto his shoulder like she was a sack of potatoes. The sequined gown added to her weight, but he managed. Prison food wasn't top cuisine, but there were weights. He worked out daily, preparing himself for this day.

Getting onto the island had been a piece of cake. The weather aided his passage. No one noticed him because everyone was holed inside. Breaking into the mausoleum had been another story. Count Vlad beefed up security. It took him about forty-five minutes to find the generator and cut its supply. Guards almost discovered him twice. Finally, he clubbed the men, cut the generator and the power before sneaking inside.

He didn't have a specific plan. Making Cassadine hurt was the only thing that mattered. He considered going after the man and torturing him until he broke. But then he saw Carlotta Cassadine. Stefan would give his life for her, so what better way to torment him. Use her to make Cassadine suffer. It was like she was dropped in Luke's lap just for this purpose.

He carried her to the second floor. So many rooms to choose from, but Luke knew exactly which one he wanted. The couples' suite. He had plans for their marriage bed.

A fire blazed in the hearth. The orange and blue flames provided enough light to guide him. He dumped her on the bed and went back to lock the door. Afterward, he pulled out his flashlight and removed the black stocking cap from his head. Running a hand through his close cropped hair, he shined his flashlight on the opulence of his surroundings.

Luke worked hard to provide for Laura, but nothing compared to this. Their entire home was a shack compared to this room. Money ruled the world. To bad for Count Vlad all the cash in his coffers wouldn't change what was about to happen tonight.

"Ho, ho, ho," Luke growled and then he turned to Carrie. "Merry Christmas, Mrs. Cassadine."

A few seconds past eight…

"Was that a scream?" Emily asked.

"Mama!"

"Dara." Mac closed his hand around her shoulder. "It won't do you any good to get upset. Calm down."

"Mac, please go check. Make sure she's okay."

"I don't want to leave you alone."

Nikolas, Lucky, Jagger and Keesha left soon after Stefan. Mac agreed to stay behind and protect the women. The servants had been instructed to remain in their quarters.

"She'll be okay," Dawn said. "Emily and I will stay with her."

Although instinct begged for him to go, he couldn't. He made a promise to the woman who carried his child and he intended to honor it.

"No," he said firmly.

"Mac, please. She's my mother. I need to know she's safe," his wife pleaded. "I'll be fine here."

"We can protect her," Dawn said. She grabbed a couple of iron pokers from the fireplace. She handed one to Emily. "If he comes in here, we'll blow out the candle and knock the shit out of him."

He knew from the wild look in his sister-in-law's eyes that she meant every word. He glanced at Emily for confirmation of her loyalties.

"Me, too," the young woman said. "We'll be okay."

He kissed Dara's temple. "Get your cell phone ready with my number. If anything happens, push send. I'll be here before you can blink."

"I know."

Half past eight…

"Whatever you're planning won't work."

Carrie hoped for an even tone. The sight of Luke Spencer terrified her. After what he did to his own child, the thought of him sickened her. Hell, that wasn't true. She'd never cared for him. There was always something sinister behind his so-called witty barbs.

For years, most held him on a pedestal. She always regarded him as a thug. His bullying tactics against Nikolas proved it. Whatever Laura saw in him remained a mystery to Carrie. He was the most despicable being she'd ever laid eyes on.

"Don't you worry about that, little darling," he said as he knelt beside her on the bed.

She tried to shy away. The ropes kept her still. He reached out and she visibly flinched.

"You're a wild one, I bet," he said, his face unreadable in the flickering candlelight. "It's been awhile for me. Who knows? You might even enjoy it. Not that it matters."

He stroked a gloved finger down her cheek. Bile lodged in Carrie's throat. She choked it down along with her revulsion, hoping for a clear head that would save her. If she kept talking, maybe he'd back off.

"You don't want to do this," she said. "If you stop now, I can vouch for you."

He released a chuckle that sent shivers up her spine.

"Vouch for me? Little lady, when this is over, you won't be able to do a damn thing." He shifted. The sound of an opening zipper screeched in the otherwise still room. "Enough talking. Let's get down to business."

Meanwhile, Nikolas and Lucky took the East wing while Jagger and Keesha searched the opposite.

Nikolas worried about his brother. He'd remained quiet. Was he concerned about his father? Worried what would happen to him if he were found there?

"Lucky--"

"Don't, man," he said. "He's here. We both know it. There's nothing to say."

"He's your father."

"He stopped being that when he killed our sister," Lucky said. "Hate destroyed him and it almost took me along with him."

"If he's hurt Carrie," Nikolas said, "my father will kill him."

"Good."

A short while earlier…

The scent of Carlotta's perfume lingered in his study. Stefan sensed that he missed her by mere seconds. He followed the fragrance to the end of the corridor. Then, it became lost.

He stood at a crossroads so to speak. Should he continue on the first floor or go upstairs?

Stefan opted for the stairway.

Pure adrenaline propelled him to the second floor. West or East? Another decision that meant life or death. Stefan sucked in air and headed toward the suite of rooms he and Carlotta shared. If Spencer had her--

He willed the thought from his mind. He couldn't waste energy on what Luke Spencer might do. Instead, he had to stop him. Picking up the pace, he raced down the hallway.

"NO!"

Screams ripped into Stefan's core. Carlotta's voice. In their suite.

He tried the doorknob. Locked. He shoved his body against the door and crashed through.

What he saw stopped him in his tracks.

Lit candles circled the bed. An eerie glow highlighted the scene. The unforgettable moment of Luke Spencer sprawled on top his Carlotta. Fury almost choked him. In a seething rage, Stefan lunged.

An hour later…

Lucky stood over his father's dead body. Emotions escaped him. He was empty.

"It's what you wanted. I'm glad it's over."

He pulled the sheet over Luke's lifeless form before storming past Jagger and Keesha. Emily waited for him in the hallway. She wrapped her arms around him. He sank onto her, spent. They crumpled to the floor.

"I'm sorry," she said, stroking his hair.

"I wish I could be," he said in a hoarse whisper, "but I'm not. I'm not sorry, Em. I'm relieved. God, Em, I'm so relieved."

Jagger and Keesha waited until the couple left before they exited the bedroom. Having called in the events, they had no choice but to wait for back up to arrive. Jagger took her hand and they moved to the settee that had been placed outside the room for them.

"Some Christmas this turned out to be," he murmured against her temple. "I wouldn't want to trade places with any of them."

"Me either," Keesha said, reclining against him.

Mac, seeing that Jagger and Keesha had the scene under control, headed downstairs to Dara. After he left the ballroom, he went outside in search of the generator. While he reconnected it, Stefan and Luke engaged in a battle to the death. The returned electricity led everyone to them. Mac missed the big finish, but like he told Carrie, that part of his life was over. His new one was just beginning.

"What are you doing?" he asked as he encountered his wife on the stairway. "I told you stay put."

"I have to see for myself that she's okay."

Mac closed his arm around Dara's shoulders. "She's resting. Stefan is with her."

"I just need to see her," she persisted. Her voice broke. "I have to."

"Okay." Mac turned around and headed back upstairs.

Dawn and Nikolas came onto the landing as Mac and Dara reached the top. They'd just left Carrie and Stefan. Dawn held her tears in until they were out of earshot. Then, she cried like a baby.

Nikolas stroked her back, holding her up and against him. He rubbed his cheek against her temple. "Let it all out."

"I hate him," she said through her tears. "I wish he was dead."

"He is."

"I wish I had killed him."

"No, you don't."

Dawn gulped hard and fought for control. She looked into his eyes with blurred vision. "Will she be okay?"

"I think so." He gave her a tight smile. "Carrie is a strong woman. Father will see her through it."

It took a good amount of reassurance to calm Dara's worries. Somehow, he and Carlotta managed to convince her that all would be well. If not at that moment, soon. Very soon.

After Dara and Mac left, Stefan readjusted the covers around Carlotta. His gaze missed nothing. The sadness, revulsion, and emptiness. She told him no, but he couldn't be sure. He took her hands.

"He didn't rape me," she said, staring back at him. "You came in as he was about t-to…penetrate me. He didn't. You stopped him."

He looked down at their joined hands. "I want to believe you."

"Believe me." She inhaled a ragged breath. "I wouldn't lie about it."

"Words aren't enough, but I am sorry, Carlotta. I deeply regret what he did and what he tried--"

"Ssh." She pressed her hand to his mouth. "It's not your fault. You saved me, Stefan. That's the important thing."

He stood. She caught his hand.

"Don't go."

The alarmed look in her eyes wounded his soul. He sank onto the bed and pulled her within the circle of his arms. "I was about to shut the door."

"Leave it open."

"Very well," he said. "The light?"

"On, please." She curled against him. "Stay with me."

"All night long," he promised. He kissed her forehead. With gentle strokes, he smoothed her hair. "Sleep in peace, my love. All is well now."

Sleep in heavenly peace

Sleep in heavenly peace

THE END

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