Darkest Before the Dawn

CHAPTER 3


"Hey, honey, I'm home," Carly mumbled to herself as she entered her new home. Elsa, their overly competent housekeeper advanced upon her as soon as she crossed the threshold. With a strained smile, Carly stood still as the older woman took her coat and purse from her. "Thank you, Elsa," she responded in a low voice.

Elsa answered with a curt nod of her head. The movement was barely noticeable, as most of her movements were. She carefully folded Carly's expensive fur coat over her arm and pressed the small leather handbag to her chest. Through thin pursed lips, she said, "Mr. Santiago is in the den. The dinner is to be served in an hour."

"Why, thank you, again, Elsa," Carly said. The steely glint in her eyes matched the annoyance in her voice. Her eyes fixated on the fortyish woman with the premature gray hair and the pinched mouth. Carly parted her lips to add a biting comment, but she refrained herself. Her husband was convinced that Elsa Graham was a godsend, and there was nothing Carly could do or say that would persuade him otherwise. She turned away from her employee and picked up the stack of mail. In a bored tone, she said, "That will be all."

Carly kept her eyes glued to the numerous fashion magazines that would soon be discarded until she could no longer hear the other woman's footsteps. Once that she was certain that she was alone, she tossed the magazines back down onto the cherry wood table. "Mr. Santiago is in the den," Carly mimicked to herself as she crossed the shiny hardwood floors. "Did I ask you where Mr. Santiago was, you old witch?" she mumbled to herself as she shook her head.

A few blonde strands disengaged from her neat French roll. Frowning, she stopped before the mirror to quickly double check her appearance. She smoothed her hair back down and adjusted her clothing. Her eyes wandered over her expensive, designer sweater and matching slim skirt. The reflection of her diamonds—earrings and rings—caught her eye and she couldn't help but smile. Carly Benson was a pauper, but the woman facing her in the mirror now, Caroline Santiago, was a wealthy sophisticate. "And, those Port Charles snobs had better watch out."

"Talking to yourself again," a warm masculine voice responded.

Carly smiled as a pair of strong, muscled arms wrapped around her waist. Leaning back, she pressed her back against her husband's chest. She looked at their reflection in the mirror and saw his dark, handsome face smiling back at her. "Hello."

"Hello to you," Vincent Santiago replied. Closing his arms tighter around her, he asked, "Didn't Elsa tell you that I was in the den?"

"She did," Carly said with a slow nod. "I...um...was on my way there when-"

"-when the sight of yourself stopped you in your tracks and you were mesmerized," he added for her. He laughed softly before he kissed her cheek and released his hold on her. He reached for her hand and led her down the long hallway towards their den. His soft voice, which contrasted with his well-built 6'3 frame, was quiet as he spoke to her. "How does it feel to be back home? You were gone for quite some time. I was afraid that you had gotten lost."

"Funny," she remarked as he laughed at his little joke. "Port Charles was never really my home-"

"Nonsense," he interjected. "You have family here. Your son...your mother-"

"My mother died and she was buried in Florida."

"Correction," he deftly replied as they entered the den. He gestured for her to sit on the long leather sofa. He moved to the bar and began to pour brandy for both of them. "Virginia was your adoptive mother. She cared for you and now, she's passed on. But, your biological mother... Barbara Spencer... She is your family, too. Blood counts, my dear Caroline. Never forget that."

Her mouth twisted in response to his words, but as he turned to face her, a smile was on her face. She held out her hand for her drink and shifted her position as he sat beside her. "Whatever you say, my dear Vincent."

"Ah, I knew that you'd see the light one day," he said, laughing softly as she rolled her eyes. He took a sip and watched her as she finished her drink. His eyes narrowed, but when he spoke, it wasn't to comment on her alcohol consumption. "We will invite her into our home. You will form a relationship with her."

"Vincent," she slowly hedged, rising to stand. She went back to the bar and refreshed her drink. "I'm not so sure about that. She hates me-"

"And, with good reason, I'm sure," he said, moving to stand beside her. He removed the brandy from the counter and put it inside the cabinet. He took her glass from her and drained it down his throat. His dark eyes never wavered from hers as he said, "You slept with her husband. Of course, she would hate you."

"Thanks, dear," she replied with sarcasm. "And, I thought you were on my side," she countered as she moved away from him and the bar. She went to stand in the window. With her back to him, she folded her arms across her chest and released a deep sigh.

"And, I am," he told her.

"So, why are you bringing up the past?" she asked, her voice hard with anger and pain. "I should never have told you."

"You were wise to tell me. Everything. You know that," he said. He went back to the sofa and sat down. His arms were outstretched on the back of the sofa and his eyes stared at her. "I bring up the past to show you the future."

"I don't get it," she bit out.

"Of course, you don't, dear," he replied. "You refuse to think. You rely on your gut and it always tells you to lash out. Learn how to control your gut and use your mind instead. I know you have one in there. It lead you to me, didn't it?"

"Are you saying that I married you for your money?" she asked, whipping around to stare at him.

He leaned his forearms on his thighs and in a quiet voice, asked, "Are you saying to me that you didn't? I may be young, Caroline, but I'm no one's fool."

"I'm not a gold-digger," she defended herself quietly. She turned back around to face the window. Her bottom lip trembled slightly and she raised a hand to her lips to still it.

"No, you're not," he said, resting his back against the sofa again, "but you are transparent. Listen, I am in no mood to argue."

"Neither am I."

"Good, for once we agree on something," he said, laughing softly. "Your forming a relationship with your biological mother will paint a pretty picture for the judges. You do want Michael back, don't you?"

"You know I do, but I don't see why I have to spend time with Bobbie," she said. "Why can't you just call in a favor-"

"I decide when I call in favors, my dear wife," he said, quietly. "And, I won't waste any of them needlessly. After dinner, call Barbara. Invite her to lunch or on a shopping spree. Okay, dear?"

"Okay," Carly said, her jaw tight, "dear."

~*~

"Okay, there she is," Jason said, nodding toward his fourteen-year-old daughter. "Make your move, but don't forget who you'll have to answer to if you break her heart."

"Aw, Uncle Jase!" Michael groaned, blushing furiously at the gentle teasing. "You're not gonna tell her, are you?"

"Hmm..." A teasing light shone in Jason's eyes and a grin spread across his face. "Maybe...maybe not."

"You won't," Michael said. "You can't. Please."

"I won't. I won't," Jason replied, raising his hands in mock defense. "Besides, I have grownup stuff to attend to."

"Cool! Thanks, Uncle Jase!" Michael said, grinning happily. He punched his uncle in the arm before he began to move towards Grace and her twin, George. "See ya later!"

Jason laughed as the boy turned on his heel and jogged towards the object of his affection. Turning away, Jason went in search of his object of affection. He found her sitting near a heating lamp. Her eyes were on the playing children and she had a bright smile on her face. "Hello, sweetheart," he said. His voice was husky and his breath was warm against her ear as he leaned forward to kiss her.

"Hi, there," Keesha said, returning his kiss. "Did you find Barbie's slippers?"

"I'm the dad!" he said, in mock indignation. "Of course, I found them." He pulled up a chair and sat down close beside her.

"You're silly," she said, shaking her head at him. "So, you brought Michael. I thought A.J. was coming, and Eve, too."

"Yeah, I brought him. Apparently, he and my dear older brother had an argument. A.J. is getting Carly vibes again."

"Yuck!" Keesha turned up her nose and made a face. "I thought I smelled a foul stench in the air, but I thought it was from the waterfront."

"MeOW!" Jason said, laughing. "My baby's got claws!"

"Oh, hush, you!" she said, laughing. "I guess that was a little on the catty side."

"Just a little," he said, grinning. He indicated the amount with this thumb and forefinger. "Between you and A.J., she doesn't stand a chance if she does show up."

"Not even a little one," Keesha said, seriously. "After the last stunt she pulled... She used up her second chances when she abducted him. I'm with A.J. on this one. Michael doesn't need her selfishness in his life."

"She brought him back," Jason said, quietly. "I agree that she was wrong for taking him, but bringing him back should count for something."

"It would, but motives count even more," she said. "She used Michael as a bargaining tool. She never saw him as a person. She saw him as a possession."

"Some could say the same about me," Jason said, shifting in his seat. He looked away from her to glance at their young nephew. "I kept him locked away in the penthouse away from everyone."

"True," she said, keeping her eyes on him. She placed her hand against his jaw and gently caressed his face. "I think you did it to protect him. I don't agree with it, but I think your actions were from a better place."

"A better place?" he repeated quietly, turning his head to look into her brown eyes again. "It was so long ago that I sometimes forget. Maybe, but maybe not. And, maybe Carly's changed. And, maybe it's time for Michael to get to know her on his own terms."

"There's a lot of maybes in there," she murmured.

"Yeah, and anything can happen," he said with a smile.

"And, anything usually does whenever that woman's involved."

~*~

"Red Rover, Red Rover, sing Ciarda right over!"

Gina watched as her daughter played with the other children. Smiling, she nudged Tommy as Ciarda's giggles carried over to them. "She's having fun."

"Yep," he said, smiling down at his wife. "I knew she would. I guess kids go through phases where they feel shy or something. Maybe Ciarda is going through hers now."

"I don't know." Gina shrugged. "But I still think we should pay a visit to her school on Monday."

"Oh, most definitely," Tommy agreed.

"Most definitely what, T-bird?"

"I hate it when you call me that," Tommy groaned with a smile. He turned to face to his cousin and his arms closed around her in a bear hug. "Lizabeth! You should have told us you were coming. We could have given you a ride."

"I wasn't sure until the last minute, you know," she said, quietly. Their embrace ended, but she held onto his hand. She smiled as she looked at Gina. "Hi. I see that the twins are as adorable as ever."

Gina smiled. "Hi, there. So, is everything okay with you?"

"My goodness, you two are acting as if I may go on a rampage. I'm fine!" Lizzie told them. "I'm here to celebrate my goddaughter's birthday and not to do anything else."

"We're not trying to give you that impression, " Tommy said, slowly and carefully. "We know what happened hurt you-"

"My best friend left her husband for my fiancé," Lizzie said with a shrug. "You live and you learn. My life won't end because of it, and I won't disappoint a little girl because of it either. Honest, I'm okay."

"Okay," Tommy said, giving her hand a gentle squeeze.

"So, where is the guest of honor? I could hear Dominik's screams before I even made it to the gate. I was surprised that Noelle isn't out here, too."

"We haven't seen her," Gina told her. "I suppose that Sarah is still fussing over her."

Tommy rolled his eyes at his wife's words, but remained silent. Lizzie didn't notice and asked, "You haven't seen Dawn then?"

"She's here?" Tommy asked, glancing from Wyndemere to Lizzie. "I haven't seen her. Have you, Gina?"

"No," Gina said, shaking her head. "How do you know?"

"I...um...saw Lorenzo on the docks. I guess that he saw her get on the launch," she said.

"Well, it's nice to know that he has a little common sense left," Tommy muttered.

"Yeah, just a little," Lizzie murmured.

"What did he say to you?" Tommy questioned. Her eyes were a little brighter than before and he was immediately concerned. He grasped her upper shoulders when she didn't respond. "Lizabeth?"

She slowly raised her eyes to his. They now shone with unshed tears. "He said that he was sorry."

Her voice broke as she whispered the words. Tommy pulled her into his arms and rubbed her back.

~*~

"Maybe I should go with them," Sarah suggested as Dawn and Noelle disappeared upstairs. She looked at Nikolas, but his expression was unreadable. When he said nothing, she put her words into action.

"Sarah, no," Nikolas said. She grew still on the staircase and he held out a hand to her. She took it and he led her away. "They're fine."

"Are you sure?" Sarah questioned. She frowned and her blue eyes darkened with worry. "Noelle is too young to understand what's happening."

"Sarah, I don't even understand what's happening," Nikolas said, dropping Sarah's hand as he stood at the bottom of the staircase.

"Nikolas," Sarah said with a firm voice, "I think it's obvious."

"Is it?" he asked, turning to look at her. The pain in his eyes was mirrored in his voice. "Explain it to me then because I sure as hell don't understand it. Any of it."

"I'm your friend and the last person who would want to hurt you. Maybe it would be best if I didn't say anything."

"Don't do that, Sarah," he said. "Don't worry about my pain. It's there and it's not going anywhere. Worrying about my hurt would be pointless. Just say what you have to say. Explain it all to me."

"Dawn is here-"

"Dawn is here?" Stefan interrupted quietly upon his entrance. "Where is she?"

Nikolas glowered at the lilt in his father's voice and eyes. "She's upstairs with Noelle."

Stefan glanced towards the second floor landing. He resisted the urge to climb the steps and instead directed his attention to his son. A faint smile came to his lips, but he remained quiet.

"Say it," Nikolas muttered, becoming angrier at Stefan's silence.

"I have nothing to say," Stefan said with a shrug. He sensed Sarah's sigh and paused for a moment to look at her. Her attempt to return his stare was fruitless and she soon looked away. Stefan's jaw tightened for a moment and then he looked back towards Nikolas. He caught the younger man unaware and witnessed the longing in his eyes as Nikolas looked towards the second floor landing, too. The faint smile returned to Stefan's lips and in a determined voice, he said, "Perhaps, I should go upstairs to help her with Noelle."

"No!" Nikolas moved to block Stefan's path. "Leave them."

"Very well, then," Stefan said, taking a step back. He gave a slight nod of his head before turning to Sarah once again. Smiling, he went to her and extended his arm. "Would you be so kind as to accompany me in my wife's absence?"

"I...uh..." Sarah hedged as she glanced from Stefan's proffered arm to Nikolas' back, as he once again had his eyes on the upper landing. The younger man's mind was miles away and her quiet plea wasn't acknowledged. She turned her lips upwards and nodded her head. "I would be honored, Mr. Cassadine," she said, placing her hand on his arm

"As would I," Stefan said. He covered her hand with his and led her to the back terrace.

~*~

"Let me see that face!"

Noelle giggled as her mother dried her face with the hand towel. "Here's my face!" she proclaimed as the towel was removed.

"And, what a beautiful face it is!" Dawn decided, laughing as Noelle flung herself into her arms again. "Sweetie, we're gonna mess up your dress."

"I'm sorry, Mommy," the little girl said softly. She pulled away from Dawn and her small hands began to smooth out the wrinkles. "I'm supposed to be still when I wear dresses. I forgot."

"That's not what I said," Dawn said gently. Her daughter had lowered her eyes to the floor and Dawn carefully placed her fingers underneath Noelle's chin, raising the child's head. "You weren't doing anything wrong. You don't have to be still when you wear dresses."

"I don't like dresses, Mommy," the little girl said, her expression solemn.

"I remember," Dawn told her. "I was surprised to see that you were wearing one. Would you rather wear something else?"

Noelle vigorously nodded her head in reply. Dawn smiled at her. She rose from the settee and took her daughter's hand. They went to the child's closet and Dawn opened the door. "Well, what do you say, Sunshine? How about a pair of overalls?"

"Yes!" Excited, she squeezed her mother's hand.

Dawn squeezed back. "Well, overalls it is!" She pulled out a pair of blue denim overalls and a matching pink shirt. She tossed the garments onto the little girl's canopy bed before turning back to look for her daughter's shoes. She found the pair of Keds with the Barbie emblem on the side and tossed them behind her. They landed at the foot of the bed. She heard Noelle gasp and giggle beside her. Dawn grabbed her daughter and gave her a wet kiss on the cheek. "Now, socks, young lady!"

"Socks!" Noelle agreed as her mother set her back down on the floor again. She followed Dawn as her mother went to her dresser. As Dawn searched through the drawers, she said, "My Barbie socks, Mommy."

"Of course!" Dawn said, nodding her head. "Ah-ha! I found them!" Dawn held the socks up with one hand and reached for Noelle's hand with the other hand. She led Noelle to the bed and when they reached it, Dawn knelt down onto the floor beside the little girl. "Turn around, sweetie."

Noelle giggled as she did as her mother told her. Dawn paused as the sound of her daughter's happiness washed over her. She blinked back tears and took a quick, long breath. She then unbuttoned her daughter's dress, removed it and replaced it with her child's new outfit. She moved into a sitting position on the floor and pulled Noelle into her lap as she put the child's socks and shoes on.

"Mommy, I can't tie my shoes."

"Oh, no?" Dawn asked. "Would you like for me to teach you?"

The little girl nodded her head and her brown curls bounced. Dawn smoothed them down with the palm of her hand before she kissed the little girl's forehead. Noelle turned as Dawn sat up straight. In a sudden move, she wrapped her arms around Dawn's neck and kissed her cheek. "I love you, Mommy."

"I love you, too," Dawn said, hugging Noelle to her. Tears glistened her eyes and she became afraid that they'd fall again. She blinked them away and patted Noelle's back until the child ended the hug. When the hug was over, she smiled at the little girl again. "Okay, Shoelace Tying 101 is about to begin. Are we ready?"

"We're ready!"

"Okay!" Dawn said. She slid the shoes onto Noelle's small feet. And, one shoe at a time, she showed Noelle the basics in tying her shoelaces. They repeated the steps for both shoes until Noelle was able to do all the steps on her own. "You did it!" Dawn said, when Noelle finished tying up the shoelaces.

"I did it!" Noelle agreed. Smiling, she rose from her mother's lap and jumped up and down. Her bedroom door opened behind her and she looked at the figure in the doorway. She squealed, "I did it, Papa! I tied my shoes!"

"You did?" Nikolas asked a smile on his face as he looked at the exuberant pre-schooler. She ran to him and he lifted her into his arms. He inspected each shoe and then looked at her. "You most certainly did!"

"Mommy showed me!" she said.

"She did?" he asked, quietly. He moved further into the room. He was silent as Dawn rose from the floor and began to straighten Noelle's room. Her movements were slow and deliberate as Noelle's chatter filled the room.

"Let me down, Papa. I wanna help Mommy." Noelle wiggled until Nikolas lowered her to the floor. She ran to Dawn and still chattering, helped her put her things away. "We did it!" She said when the room was neat again.

"We sure did!" Dawn said. Noelle took her hand and pulled her towards Nikolas. Dawn's breath held and caught as she dreaded and anticipated the next moment. To her relief and somewhat dismay, Noelle grabbed Nikolas' hand. Noelle stood between her two parents and smiled as she held onto their hands.

"Are you ready for your party now?" Nikolas asked, his voice hoarse. He cleared his throat and spoke again. "Sunshine, everyone is waiting for the birthday girl."

"Yay!" she said, jumping up and down again. "I'm ready, Papa! I'm wearing overalls and I can play now!"

"What?" Nikolas asked, frowning as they left the bedroom and began the descent down the staircase.

"She's saying that she's not allowed to play when she's wearing a dress," Dawn said, keeping her tone even although inside her temper threatened to flare. "Imagine. A little girl being told to wear a dress for her birthday party and also being told that she can't play in it."

Nikolas recognized the fire in Dawn's brown eyes. His own eyes brightened with temper as well, but like her, his tone was neutral as he spoke. "I've never told her that she's not allowed to play in a dress."

"I never said you did," Dawn said, glancing at him. "I'm sure we both know who told her that. I suggest you have a talk with your friend. She's not their mother."

"No, she isn't," he replied quietly, "but their mother wasn't around, was she?"

"No," Dawn conceded after a moment of silence, "but she is now."

Go to Chapter 4

General Hospital ©ABC
Dawn & Noelle Cassadine, Ciarda Hardy, Vincent Santiago, Elsa Graham ©1998 niklovr
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