Darkest Before the Dawn

CHAPTER 2


Dawn slammed the door behind her. The physical effort drained her and she slumped against the door. She felt hot and cold all over. Her body still burned from Nikolas' touch and her entire being shook with slight tremors. She and Nikolas had been alone together for less than five minutes and that quickly he had almost destroyed her resolve. She hated that he was able to get to her so thoroughly. But even more than that, she hated that she was so weak.

She had known that he would affect her. She had been certain of it, but the pull…the draw… It was so strong. And, she had to be strong! Tears of anger and frustration threatened to fall. She needed to calm down and get a grip. Just a few moments alone and she'd be fine, she told herself. After taking a long, deep breath, Dawn pushed herself away from the door and allowed old memories to guide her to the downstairs' powder room.

A bittersweet smile was on her face as she looked at the old family portraits that adorned the wall. So austere. "Loosen up, for goodness' sakes!" she said, pausing to stare at one portrait in particular. Steely blue eyes stared back at her and she stuck her tongue out at the old face. The childish gesture lessened her inner turmoil and she felt a small sense of relief. And, in the next instant, she felt a small pair of hands grab her as a small child squealed,

"MOMMY!"

The squeal and the body hit Dawn simultaneously. Tears of joy spilled from her eyes as she stooped down and wrapped her arms around her daughter. Holding the child tightly in her arms, Dawn's voice was husky as she said, "Noelle! Happy birthday, my sweet love!"

"Thank you, Mommy!" Noelle said, squeezing her arms tightly around her mother's neck.

"Be careful, Noelle. Don't hold onto her neck so tightly. You don't want to hurt her."

"I'm sorry, Mommy," Noelle mumbled, loosening her arms from around Dawn's neck.

"Baby, it's okay," Dawn quickly reassured her daughter. "You can squeeze me as tightly as you want. I'm your mommy, and mommies don't break." With her child still in her arms, Dawn stood up straight. Ire flashed in her brown eyes as she looked at the woman who had dared to tell her child how to hug her. "Sarah," she said, keeping her tone even.

"I wasn't sure you'd remember me," Sarah said, her lips upturned in a half smile.

"It's not like I could forget," Dawn said, her voice saccharine sweet.

"That's right!" Noelle piped up. "My Mommy never forgets anything! Do you, Mommy? Not even my birthday!"

"Especially not your birthday," Dawn said, smiling at her child. Her fingers smoothed her daughter's light brown curly hair and then ran over her café au lait cheeks. The little girl giggled and her aquamarine colored eyes twinkled with her unconditional love for her mother. Dawn's eyes glistened with fresh tears. "I missed your laugh, Sunshine."

"I missed your laugh, too, Mommy," Noelle told her. "I missed everything, Mommy. Don't go away again, okay?"

"Oh, Noelle…" Dawn found herself unable to continue. Overwhelmed, she buried her face in her four-year-old's neck and hugged her to her. "I love you so much. You know that, right? Promise me that you'll never forget that."

"I'll never, ever forget it. I promise and promise," Noelle vowed. Dawn sniffled and the little girl said, "Don't cry, Mommy. I promise I won't forget."

Noelle's heartfelt promise made Dawn's tears fall faster and harder. She tried to stop them but found herself unable to. She moved to stand by the wall and then slowly eased down it. She kept Noelle in her arms the entire time.

The little girl quickly moved into her favorite position in her mother's arms: she straddled Dawn's lap. Seeing so many tears fall down her mother's face, scared her. Tears blurred her vision as she wiped the tears from her mother's face. "Mommy, don't cry. I'll be a good girl so you won't leave again. I promise, Mommy. Please, don't cry."

"Oh, baby," Dawn sniffled. "You are a good girl. I didn't leave because of you-"

"Noelle, maybe you should come with me. You don't want to keep your guests waiting," Sarah interrupted.

"No!" Noelle screamed when Sarah reached for her. She wrapped her arms tightly around Dawn and violently shook her head. "No! Don't touch me!"

Dawn's arms tightened around her child's convulsing body. "Sarah, stop it!" she told the woman through gritted teeth.

"I'm only trying to help," Sarah said, plaintively. "She's upset and I thought that maybe the party would help. She's only four."

"I know how old my child is," Dawn said, "and I don't need you to explain to me that she's upset-"

"I was only trying to help-"

"Thanks, but no thanks." Dawn said. She took a deep breath to reduce the anger that welled inside of her. How dare this woman tell her how to be a mother to her child? Dawn knew things about both of her children that even their father didn't know. Sarah's presumptuous attitude, not to mention her presence in what was once Dawn's home made Dawn long to lash out at her. What was her role in the children's lives? What was her role in Nikolas' life? Just how far did her helpfulness extend?

Determined to push the questions from her mind, Dawn moved to stand. The sudden movement brought a bloodcurdling scream from Noelle's lips. "No! Mommy, no!"

Clutching Noelle to her, Dawn stood. She patted her daughter's back and murmured softly," Baby, it's okay. Ssh. Don't cry. Ssh."

The sound of Noelle's cries cut through the solid oak of the study's door. Dawn's parting words had conjured up the past for Nikolas. He had become immobile as the memories of a French countryside and a painful argument swept into his consciousness. His past and present actions stung him. His reverie had been deep and impregnable until he heard his daughter's cry of protest. His footsteps were quick and carried him down the hallway and to his child.

"What's going on?" he demanded, staring at the trio of females. He moved past Sarah to go to his estranged wife and daughter. He lightly patted Noelle's back and the girl flinched from his touch. "Noelle? Sunshine, what's wrong?"

"No, Papa," the little girl mumbled against Dawn's neck. She tightened her grip around her mother's neck and her legs wrapped around Dawn's waist.

"Nikolas, it's okay. She's just a little overexcited. We're just fine, aren't we, baby?" Dawn said. She used her voice to coax her daughter into a relaxed state and her eyes to plead with Nikolas not to take the child away from her. Please, Nikky, don't, she silently pleaded.

"Noelle," Nikolas began again. He gently patted her curly hair. "Tell, Papa what's wrong."

Sniffling, the little girl raised her head. She loosened her hold on her mother, but not to the point where she could be easily taken from Dawn. With a dark frown on her face, she looked at Sarah and then at her father. "She tried to take me away from my Mommy!"

"Now, Noelle, you know that's not true," Sarah said, taking a few steps to stand beside Nikolas.

Noelle's face fell and fresh tears began to fall. Dawn patted Noelle's back until the little girl rested her head on Dawn's shoulder again. With her hard brown eyes trained solely on Sarah, Dawn said, "My daughter isn't a liar, Sarah."

"She misunderstood," Sarah said, defending herself as Nikolas looked at her.

"How could she misunderstand?" Nikolas asked. His brown eyes were intent as they stared at Sarah.

"Nikolas, c'mon!" Sarah said, releasing a self-conscious laugh. "I feel like I'm on trial here. I'm not the one who went away. Of course, her return will cause the poor child to be upset. I can only imagine what Dominik's reaction will be."

"Don't worry about Dominik's reaction," Nikolas told her. From the corner of his eye, he had seen Dawn flinch at Sarah's words. A part of him rejoiced in Sarah's little speech, but the other part of him wanted nothing more than to erase the pain he saw in Dawn's eyes. He moved so that he fully faced the two Cassadine females. "She's upset. Maybe you should give her to me."

Dawn glanced from the triumphant gleam in Sarah's blue eyes to the concern in Nikolas' brown orbs. She felt Noelle's tiny nails dig into her neck and she quickly made her decision. She took a step back and shook her head. "No. She and I are going upstairs to freshen up. Tell her guests that we'll be right down. Isn't that right, baby?"

Without raising her head, Noelle nodded. "Yes, Mommy." All three adults heard the smile in the little girl's voice. As well as, the love. Dawn kissed a chubby wet cheek and still holding Noelle in her arms, she left Nikolas and Sarah staring after them.

~*~

"She's not coming."

The disappointment and disillusionment weren't hard to miss. Stefan didn't have to ask his ten-year-old grandson who the 'she' was. He knew. Ever since his parents had separated and Nikolas had brought Dominik and Noelle to live with him and Carrie at Wyndemere, Stefan had witnessed the boy's slow dissent into overwhelming sadness. He rarely mentioned Dawn's name, but Stefan knew that Dom thought of her often. Oftentimes, he would come upon the adolescent and see a faraway, melancholy look in his dark, brown eyes. Dismay would sweep over Stefan as he recalled the same look in Nikolas' eyes from when he was a boy. Nearly twenty years ago, he didn't have the words to ease his son's heartache, but he had the words for his grandson. With strong conviction, he said, "She is."

Dominik held himself still as his grandfather patted his shoulder. Together, they looked out from behind the gauzy white curtains of the library's glass paned doors and stared out at the gaily-decorated garden. Children had already arrived for his sister's birthday party. Dominik felt that he had a duty to greet them for her, but he couldn't summon up the energy. Releasing a deep sigh, he leaned against his grandfather's side. Stefan's hand rubbed his shoulder and he accepted the comfort of the older man's touch.

Upon hearing the child's weary sigh, Stefan felt the familiar urge to interfere in his son's marriage seep through his veins. After much discussion and a few heated arguments, Nikolas had told him that Stefan was not to mention Dawn to him. Their relationship—such that it was—was none of Stefan's business, and if he knew what was good for him, he'd stay clear of it. Stefan had balked at his son's furious decree at first, but after seeing the torment in Nikolas' eyes during an unguarded moment as he stared at an old portrait of him and Dawn, Stefan had decided for the time being that he would refrain from making any untoward overtures. But now as he held the slightly trembling child's body against his, he made a new decision. He would do whatever he could to restore his grandchildren's family. He couldn't do it for their father, but he would be damned if he wouldn't do it for them.

"Grandpapa?" Dominik asked softly.

"Yes?" Stefan responded. He looked down into a pair of soulful brown eyes as the boy moved away from him.

"How do you know?" the boy asked with a deep frown of concentration and in his eyes, a small glimmer of hope.

Stefan gently cupped the boy's face. He gave him an affectionate pat on his cheek before he folded his hands behind his back. With a smile on his face, he said, "Because she said she would. Believe me this, your mother would move heaven and earth for both of you. Despite their present situation, your parents love you. Don't ever doubt that, Dominik."

Dominik offered his grandfather a faint smile. "I won't, Grandpapa." He looked out at the garden again. More guests had arrived and he smiled when he saw his Uncle Tommy and Aunt Gina arrive with their twin daughters. Although Ciarda and Alanna were younger and were girls, they were fun to play with. He said, "I think I should say hello, don't you?"

"By all means," Stefan said, chuckling softly.

~*~

"I changed my mind," Ciarda said, holding on tightly to her father's hand. "I don't want to stay here."

"Just for a little while, remember?" Tommy coaxed. "It won't be bad, and they will play with you. Look, here comes Dom. What's up, Dom?"

"Hi, Uncle Tommy, Aunt Gina," the boy responded politely. Mischief twinkled in his eyes as he looked at the two little girls. "Hi, Squirts!"

"I'm not a squirt!" Alanna said, giggling.

Dominik laughed and then he waited for Ciarda's usual reply. Instead of answering him, she moved closer to Tommy and kept her eyes downcast. "Ciarda?" Dominik questioned. "Hi."

"Hi," she mumbled.

"Are you sick?" Dominik asked, genuinely concerned for his little friend. "You can go lay down in the playroom if you want to. Or I can get Mrs. Landsbury to give you some tea."

"I'm not sick," she replied.

"Well, what's wrong?" he asked, looking at her and then the rest of her family.

"She doesn't think anyone will play with her," Alanna quickly supplied.

"Aw, Ciardy!" Dominik said. He pulled her away from Tommy, and as he grabbed each girl, he said, "Of course, they will! And, if they don't, you tell me. I'm a Cassadine and they'll listen to me!"

Gina's eyes grew wide and she laughed as Dominik took the twins toward the Eckertt brood. Her hand automatically reached for Tommy's as she said, "He's a Cassadine, all right."

Tommy chuckled softly as he squeezed Gina's hand. His eyes followed his daughters as Dominik initiated a game of tag with them. Soon, Sly and Lark's children joined in. Keesha with Grace, George, Benjamin and Marisa arrived. The two younger children joined in the game, while the older twins moved to the refreshment table. Tommy smiled at Keesha as she approached them. "Hi."

"Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Hardy," Keesha said with a smile. Her friends offered her another smile, but she could sense their preoccupation with their daughters. "What's up? Are the twins okay?"

"One of them is," Tommy replied, a slight frown on his brow.

"What's wrong with the other one?" Keesha asked.

"Ciarda didn't think anyone would play with her because she's not as pretty as Alanna."

"You and Alanna is what she said," Tommy added. "I don't understand it. Look at her. Once she opened up a little, she's having a ball the same as always."

"So, let me get this straight. A six-year-old is concerned about her looks?" Keesha asked, shifting so that she could watch the children play.

"That's what she told me," Tommy answered.

"Yeah," Gina said, "but I think there's more to it."

"I agree," Keesha said. "Would you like me to talk to her?"

"We were planning to talk to her teacher on Monday and see what he has to say. Do you think we shouldn't?" Gina asked.

"That depends," Keesha said, biting back a smile as she looked at her two friends.

"On?" Tommy asked, one eyebrow raised.

"On whether or not you're both able to keep your tempers in check," Keesha said, chuckling as Gina and Tommy voiced their protests. "So that means, no switchblades for either of you."

"Very funny," Tommy grumbled with a good-natured grin. "So, Mrs. Morgan-Quartermaine, since there's only the three of us…what's the word?"

"Tommy!" Gina said, slapping his arm.

"Ow!" he howled in protest. "So, I wasn't supposed to say anything?"

"Um, no!" Gina said. She smiled sheepishly at Keesha. "Sorry. I can't keep anything from him."

"No need to apologize," Keesha responded with a shrug. She moved closer to them and in a conspiratorial whisper said, "I am!"

"Congratulations!" Gina squealed, wrapping her arms around her dear friend. "Does Jason know?"

"Not, yet," Keesha said after Tommy had released her from a bear hug. "I plan to tell him tonight."

"He's gonna be surprised and very happy," Tommy told her. "Just take it easy this time around, okay? You don't have to do everything. We're here for you and for Jason. If you need help with the Ward House, call us. Don't hesitate."

Blinking back sudden tears, Keesha nodded. Her voice was a little hoarse when she said, "I will. I promise. I refuse to let anything happen to this baby. I'm doing everything by the book this time around. If things become hectic, you will definitely hear from me. I want nothing more than to give Jason a child, and this time, I will."

~*~

Lorenzo hadn't left the dock. His blue eyes had watched as the launch carried Dawn back to Wyndemere. He wondered what had happened and if she was okay. He knew his brother well enough to know that her first few minutes on Spoon Island would more than likely be her worst. He wished with all of his heart that he could have been there with her, but he knew that she was right. His presence would only have added fuel to the fire. And, the little ones definitely didn't need a front row seat for when Papa and Uncle met face to face again. No, it was better for him to keep his distance…for now.

Sighing deeply, he thought of the million and one things that he should have been doing. It wasn't that the wooden bench was even that comfortable, but try as he might, he couldn't move. His butt was glued to the wooden planks and with the gentle breezes blowing in, he began to believe that he'd be a fool to give up such a comfortable spot. Closing his eyes, he leaned his head back and lowered his guard for the first time in months. He was finally home.

"Lorenzo?"

His eyes fluttered open and he stared at the young woman before him. "Elizabeth," he murmured.

Liz slowly nodded her head. She attempted a smile, but it didn't feel right, so she stopped. She turned her back on the water and the dock's edge as she gave him her full attention. "I didn't expect you to be here. You are not going over there, are you? Dom and Noelle shouldn't be there when you and Nikolas see each other again."

"I know that," he said quietly. "Dawn asked me not to go, and I'm not going."

"That's so nice of you," she said, sarcastically. "Your first thought is always of her. I guess some things will never change."

"Elizabeth-"

She had begun to walk away from him, but when he called her name, she stopped. "What, Lucky?" she questioned. "Am I wrong?"

"It's not like that," he mumbled. Her brown eyes stared at him in disgust. His blue eyes lowered to the platform in defeat. "Really, Liz."

"Really?" she repeated, becoming angry. "Wrong! I always sensed the um…special interest you had in her. I pushed it aside as only friendship. Boy, was I a fool."

"You weren't a fool. Things are complicated right now, but-"

"Complicated?" she asked, in disbelief. "Things are always just so complicated with you, aren't they? You call having an affair with your fiancée's best friend who just so happened to be your brother's wife as merely complicated? Well, you're right about one thing. I'm not a fool, but I do believe that you are."

She stormed away from him. Her feet took her to the dock's edge. Her brown eyes stared across the lake at the approaching launch. Shivering slightly, she brushed her hair from her eyes as a breeze blew the long, wavy brown tresses into her face. Behind her, Lorenzo moved. She stiffened as she prepared herself for his approach. She knew he'd say one wrong word too many and it would begin again. The heartache and humiliation she'd felt when she first really witnessed his attraction to Dawn would return and with it, the shame she felt at still being in love with him.

"Don't say anything," she whispered as he stood right behind her.

"I have to," he responded softly. "I never got a chance to tell you how sorry I am for hurting you."

"You didn't have to. It was inevitable. I always knew that."

Lorenzo opened his mouth to say more, but what more could he say? He swallowed back hollow words of comfort and turned away from her. As he left the dock and drove the rental car back to the hotel, her words haunted him.

It was inevitable. I always knew that.

Then and there he decided that before it was all over they'd find a way to make peace with it all…somehow.

Flashback 2

General Hospital ©ABC
Dawn, Dominik & Noelle Cassadine,
Alanna & Ciarda Hardy,
Grace, George, Benjamin & Marisa Morgan-Quartermaine ©1999 niklovr
All Rights Reserved

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