"I can't believe they dragged me here. I can't believe this. No eighteen-year-old woman should have to suffer the indignity of attending a child's birthday party."
Lesley Lu rolled her eyes as her stepsister pouted, whined and muttered to herself. Brushing her straight, dark brown hair from her forehead, Lesley Lu looked down at the girl who was opposite to her in looks and temperament. Through clenched teeth so that their parents couldn't hear, she said, "Listen, Serena. You're 17! Not 18 and you're not a woman. And, if you don't want to celebrate my niece's birthday with us...leave!"
Serena moved her head and her blond curls fell back from her face. She stood to her full height of 5'2 and placed her hands on her slim hips. "You listen, Lu Lu," she said, purposely using the childhood name she knew the girl, four years her junior hated, "Just because your half-brother is loaded and allows you to baby-sit his brats-"
"Shut up, Serena!" Lesley Lu threw back at the other girl.
"Hey!" Scotty Baldwin said as he moved to stand between his daughter and stepdaughter. "Can't you two give it a rest for a couple of hours?"
The picture of innocence, Serena reached for her father's hand and placed her head on his shoulder. "Daddy, for you, I'd do anything. Besides, I was just standing here and then, suddenly, she's yelling."
Lesley Lu's mouth dropped open in outrage. "That's not true!"
"I don't care if it is or if it isn't. Play nice!" Scotty ordered. He gave both of the young women firm, but gentle squeezes on their shoulders before he left them.
Serena's blue eyes twinkled in triumph as she watched her father greet his law practice partner, Alexis. With a smirk on her face, she turned to the girl who was taller than she by four inches. "You heard what my Dad said. Play nice, Lu Lu!"
Gggr. Lesley Lu kept the growl deep inside her throat, but she couldn't hide the anger from her face. Her face was hot from it and her brown eyes blazed. She watched in silence as Serena left her and made a beeline for Sly Eckertt. "Pathetic," Lesley Lu mumbled as Serena flirted with the older man. He responded in kind by patting the girl's head. Lesley Lu giggled out loud and then went in search of her best friend, Grace.
"Sarah," Stefan said gently. The younger woman seemed as if she would make a mad dash away from him and before he could allow that to happen, he intended to have a few words with her first.
Sarah stood still. She felt cold all over, but she masked her discomfort with a smile. Cocking her head to the side, she looked up at Stefan. "Yes, Mr. Cassadine?"
"I wish to thank you for being so attentive to my son and grandchildren." Stefan maintained a steady gaze on her. He clasped his hands behind his back as he waited for her response. He wondered if she was bright enough to read between lines...to understand what his words truly meant.
Sarah understood. In a moment, her cool facade lapsed and a frown creased her brow. Disbelief was in her eyes and colored her voice as she said, "You sound as if... Well, you make it seem like I've tried to take Dawn's place in some way."
"You've...tried," Stefan said, "but as you can see, you haven't been successful. Dawn has returned and-"
"Forgive me for interrupting, but Mr. Cassadine, you have misunderstood my concern as...um, interest in Nikolas. We were childhood sweethearts. What we had was in the past."
"Exactly," Stefan said with a curt nod. "So, again, I thank you. Now, if you will excuse me."
Stunned, Sarah couldn't find the words to counter Stefan's statements until the older man was long gone. "Insufferable, pompous, windbag!" she muttered.
"Who would that be?"
"Lizzie!" Sarah gasped. Laughing, she pulled her sister into a fierce hug. "You scared me!"
"Sorry," she said, laughing as she shrugged. "Now, answer my question. Who were you grumbling about?"
Sarah shook her head. "Take a wild guess. Nikolas must get his goodness from his mother because that man certainly doesn't have an ounce."
Lizzie frowned as she weighed her sister's words. "I'm not so sure about that. Mr. Cassadine isn't as bad as he seems."
Sarah made a rude noise in protest. "No, I'd say he's worse."
Laura patted her friend and co-worker's shoulder. "I'll talk to you later," she said to Keesha. She left the younger woman and moved to her grandson and his grandfather. She linked her arm through Stefan's and gently pulled him away from Dominik.
"Is something the matter?" he asked, concern shone in his green eyes.
"That's what I came over to ask you." She nodded towards Sarah. "What did you say to her?"
"Excuse me," he said.
"Don't dance around it. I know you said something to Sarah. She's been a godsend to Nikolas and the children. I can't imagine why you'd want to change that."
"She's been helpful, but there is no need for her services now," Stefan said with shrug.
"What are you saying?" Laura questioned. Her jaw became tight as she waited for his reply. "Are you saying...?"
"Yes, Laura," he said, quietly. "Nikolas' wife and the mother of his children is here. She's back, and Ms. Webber's assistance is no longer necessary."
"Did Lucky come with her?" she asked, searching through the crowd in order to answer the question with her own eyes.
"No. She came alone."
"I don't understand why you'd even what her back in Nikolas' life. She left him for a Spencer. I thought you'd hate her for life for that."
"Then you never knew me very well," he said, quietly. He turned his back on her and went to his grandson. He held his hand out to Dominik and the child took it. "Come along now."
"Yes, sir," Dominik answered. "Where are we going? Is Grandmother coming with us?"
Stefan paused. He smiled at Dominik and then directed his gaze towards Laura. "Laura. Noelle is about to make her entrance. We're moving closer to the doors. Would you join us?"
"Of course. Let me see if Scotty and Lu Lu would like to as well," she said.
"Very well then," he said with a nod.
"Grandpapa?" Dominik asked with a frown.
"Yes," Stefan said, lowering his head to hear the child's soft voice.
"Is she here?" the little boy asked, his expression hopeful and needy.
Stefan's emerald eyes glittered with love. His voice was hoarse with emotion. He smiled gently as he and the boy moved closer to the terrace doors. "She is," he said. "Your mother is here."
"Are you ready for this?"
Dawn's eyes moved from the light brown curls on her daughter's head to look at Nikolas. The softness of his voice was matched by the compassion she saw in his brown eyes. She was surprised to see the gentleness in the way he looked at her. Her throat suddenly felt dry and her eyes felt wet. She swallowed and blinked, and when she looked again, the compassion was gone. It was just as well, she reasoned. She hadn't deserved it anyway.
She looked through the glass doors at the family and maybe former friends who waited outside. She squeezed Noelle's hand and looked down at her little girl as she said, "Yeah."
Determination and love. Nikolas was momentarily amazed at how in one syllable she revealed so much of herself. For one selfish moment, he wanted to trade places with their daughter. He wanted it to be his hand that Dawn held onto. She was about to face the censure and judgment of their nearest and dearest. Her back was straight and she held her head high. But he knew that inside she wasn't as sturdy as the picture she presented. He wanted to be her rock again, but he didn't make a move to switch places with Noelle. Dawn didn't want him as her rock. She preferred his brother for that.
Silently, he berated himself. He wanted to grow cold as he looked at her, but he found that he couldn't do that either. Seeing her again hadn't been what he had expected. He hadn't anticipated how strongly he would be pulled to her. And not just his body, but his heart as well.
He glanced at her again. Unaware of his scrutiny, she smiled gently and lovingly at Noelle as the little girl basked and glowed in her mother's presence. Noelle's giggles and laughs had become scarce in her mother's absence. Nikolas hadn't known just how much he'd missed them until that moment. A sob lodged in his throat and he choked it back down, coughing softly to hide the sudden emotion.
"Papa?" Noelle asked. "Are you okay?"
"Nikolas?" Dawn asked, frowning as she looked at him. "Are you ready for this?"
Nikolas paused under the unwavering stare of the two most important females in his life. Noelle's tiny hand squeezed his fingers, reassuringly. And, Dawn didn't bother to hide her concern for him. It was evident in the hand that had raised to touch him, but instead lay suspended in mid-air. It was bright in her eyes as she looked at him. He gave a slight nod of his head in reply. "Yeah," he said softly, choosing to use her word of affirmation.
Dawn swallowed hard as Nikolas stared back at her. A smile came into his brown eyes and made his lips turned upwards slightly. Her heart began to beat wildly in her chest and she quickly looked away. She didn't come back here for that. She couldn't let him see that she still loved him. He couldn't know. She'd have to do better. Whatever he saw in her eyes must never be shown to him again. She lowered her eyes to Noelle instead. In a teasing, coaxing voice, she said, "Let's do it, birthday girl!"
"Yay, Mommy!" Noelle said, bouncing up down.
Nikolas paused as his hand reached for the handle to open the door. He looked at Dawn, hoping to make eye contact again. It didn't happen. Her eyes remained glued to the scene outdoors. He shrugged. They would be alone again and then, he'd do whatever he had to do in order to see that look in her eyes again. Because if she still loved him... Well, that would change everything.
[Author's note: Special thanks to Ms. THGA #1 for her LL suggestion!! Keep 'em coming!!! :-)]
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