Chapter 12

Golden sunlight streamed through the white and pink lace curtains. The rays were warm and just bright enough to awaken the sleeping woman. Yawning, as she slowly broke free from her slumber, Dawn shifted slightly on the bed. As she moved about, she quickly discovered not one, but two bodies were pressed against her.

Opening her eyes, she looked first at her sleeping daughter whose head rested on her breast and then at her son whose arm rested around her waist. She knew that Dominik must have crept into the bed long after she and Noelle had fallen asleep.

The thought that he crawled in just because he wanted to be close to her again brought tears to Dawn's eyes. When she blinked the tears away, she noticed movement on the window seat that was on the far right side of the room. She held her breath, waiting for him to speak.

"He's missed you, too," Nikolas commented softly so as not to awaken the children. He still sat on the window seat far away from her; yet, even from that distance, his brown eyes bored into Dawn's.

"I know," she whispered. One hand rested on Dominik's arm as the other was lost in Noelle's light brown curls. "What time is it?"

"Ready to leave so soon?"

His tone clearly indicated that he was assuming too much. Dawn responded in a soft voice that held a slight edge to it. "Nikolas, it's too early in the morning for this. Besides, we don't want them to wake up to an argument."

"No, we don't," he replied as he rose from the window seat.

As he came towards her, Dawn was taken aback to see him in his riding clothes. The black riding pants fit his muscular thighs like a second skin and the white turtleneck was startling bright against his tan skin. Her pulse raced at the sexy image he presented. She swallowed hard, trying to control her escalating heartbeat.

Slowly, she raised her eyes to his. Satisfaction shone in his dark, brown eyes and a faint smirk was on his full lips. When everything was wonderful between them, she had no qualms about demonstrating just how deeply he affected her whenever he donned his riding gear. Was it possible that he wore the costume to enthrall her or torment her? She guessed from his satisfied smirk that his goal was the latter. Well, two could play at that game, she decided.

"Going riding this morning?" she asked. After she asked the question, she parted her lips just enough so that her tongue could moisten them. She almost laughed in triumph at his sharp intake of breath.

"Yes," he answered, his voice husky.

"Well, if my memory serves correctly, the stables aren't inside of Wyndemere and definitely not in Noelle's bedroom," she said pointedly. As she spoke, she carefully extricated herself from the sleeping children's arms and legs. She sat up straight in the bed, allowing the covers to fall from her. She released a powerful yawn, stretching as she did so. Her white T-shirt clung to her every curve and Nikolas's eyes were glued to her. She was pleased to see that she had turned the tables on his little game.

"I...ah..." Nikolas coughed softly and cleared his throat. He tore his eyes from her chest and rested his gaze on her eyes. "I came for Dominik. We ride every morning."

"Oh," she murmured. "I see." She moved onto her knees and crawled out of bed. When her feet reached the plush carpet, she looked up, startled to see that Nikolas had moved closer to her. Barely an inch separated them. Heat from both of their bodies surrounded her, causing her flesh to tingle. His eyes roved over her scantily clad body in a hungry perusal. Dawn suddenly felt naked and backed away from him, in search of her sweats.

She found her sweatpants just as Nikolas did. He held on to the pants leg in a firm grip. She pulled, but he wouldn't release them. "Nikolas, we're too old for games."

"Do you really believe that?" he asked her. He moved closer to her, looking down at her intensely.

She spoke in a weak and tremulous whisper. "I j-just want to put my clothes on." She lowered her eyes to the sweatpants and gave another tug. "Please, Nikolas. I don't want them to wake up and see me standing her with only a T-shirt and panties on. Let go, okay?"

He released the pants and smothering a groan, he stepped back. Closing his eyes for a brief moment, he drew in deep breaths and slowly released them. When he opened his eyes again, he shifted his gaze to their children and then back to her. "You'll leave before they wake up? Noelle will be disappointed-"

"I wasn't planning to," she interjected. She turned her back on him as she stepped into the pants and pulled them up over her hips. When she turned around, she accepted the sweatshirt that he held out to her. She nodded her thanks and then looked down at Noelle. "I promised her that I'd be here when she wakes up. I wasn't planning to leave. Have you decided to kick me out?"

"Of course not," he muttered, rubbing his large hands over his face. "You're right. We shouldn't do this in front of them or around them. It's good that you'll be here when they wake up."

"Thanks, Nikolas," she murmured, keeping her eyes on the sleeping children. She pulled the sweatshirt over her head. Once the top was settled on her, she ran her fingers through her hair in an attempt to style her tousled hair as best she could. When she looked at Nikolas again, she was surprised to see that he was watching her. His eyes were unreadable, but the heat behind his gaze was undeniable. She swallowed hard again and in a hoarse voice asked, "Do you think Mrs. Landsbury would have an extra toothbrush for me to use? I forgot to bring one with me."

"I have extras in my bathroom," Nikolas said softly. He pushed a stray strand of hair away from her cheek and then quickly lowered his hand to his side. "Feel free to use my hairbrush, too. It's on the vanity."

"Th-thanks," she said, uncertain. She stepped around him careful not to touch him or get too close to him. "I'm not sure if I know where your room is..."

"It's right across the hall. The door is open. You can't miss it."

She tilted her head in a nod and stepped towards the door. She paused just as her hand turned the doorknob. She twisted to face him. Softly, her whisper reached him across the room. "If they wake up, let them know that I'm still here."

He nodded once and then she was gone.

~*~

"Dominik!" Nikolas called out to his racing son. "Slow down!"

"I'm sorry, Papa," the boy said, contrite as his father reached him.

Nikolas reached for Dominik's reins and slowed both his horse and Dominik's to a stop. "You know that you don't ride your horse with such force before she's warmed up. What were you thinking about?"

"Nothing," Dominik mumbled. His father handed the reins back to him. He took them but didn't make any further movements.

Paternal instincts dictated to Nikolas that his son was hiding something. He believed in giving his children their privacy, but he wasn't sure if he should be so lenient in this situation. He placed his hand on his son's small shoulders. "You should respect Isis. She's not a toy, son. She's an animal who relies on us to treat her well and to take care of her. If you can't show her more respect, perhaps you shouldn't ride her."

"No, Papa!" Dominik cried. His eyes begged his father to reconsider. "I respect Isis. I wasn't paying attention. I'll do better next time. I promise."

"Very well," Nikolas said, giving his son's shoulder a squeeze before he removed his hand. "You're becoming a fine horseman, Dom, but you must remain focused. Now, tell me why you were in such a hurry."

"I didn't mean to be," the boy said, mumbling again. "I didn't want to miss breakfast that's all."

Nikolas frowned. "Miss breakfast? Son, we never miss breakfast. If you're hungry when we get back, Mrs. Landsbury will make you something to eat... This isn't about food, is it?"

The boy shrugged. He turned away from his father and looked out towards Spoon Lake. His hands tightened on the reins, making his knuckles white.

Reaching over, Nikolas closed his hand over the boy's smaller hands. "This is about your mother, isn't it?" Dominik's only response was a slight tremble. Immediately, Nikolas recognized himself in his child and was drawn even closer to his firstborn. He lifted the boy from his horse and placed him on Sheba with him. Wrapping his arms around his son, he said against the boy's ear, "There's nothing wrong with your missing her and wanting to be near her."

"But she left us," Dominik said in a broken whisper. "She doesn't care-"

"No," Nikolas interrupted in strong, firm voice. "Your mother loves you very much. Don't ever consider otherwise."

"But she went away, Papa. What if she goes away again?"

The fear in Dominik's voice was unmistakable. Nikolas kissed the top of his son's head. "She won't go away again," he told the child.

Dominik shifted on the horse so that he could see his father's face. "How do you know?" he asked with hope in his big, brown eyes.

Nikolas smiled at his son. "I won't let her."

"You won't?"

"No," Nikolas said, shaking his head. "I won't promise you that this will happen overnight, but we will be a family again. Trust me?"

"Yes!" the child vigorously nodded his head. He wrapped his arms around Nikolas' neck, holding his father in a tight hug. "I love you, Papa."

"I love you, too, Dominik," Nikolas said, stroking his son's hair and back. As he held his son close to his heart, his mind sought a plan that would validate his promise. He remembered Dawn's reaction to him in Noelle's bedroom. The riding apparel worked like a charm, he thought with a smirk. The tight black pants got to her every time. Perhaps her attraction to him could be used to his advantage. And, perhaps, they weren't too old for games, he decided. Not too old at all.

~*~

"MOMMY!"

Startled, Dawn jumped at the sound of her daughter's high-pitched cry. She left the hallway in a mad dash, racing into the children's playroom. "Noelle!" she cried, frantically looking around the room for her daughter. She was familiar with the room, so it took her a few seconds to become familiar with the furnishings. She then spotted Noelle sitting in front of a monitor and waving her hand.

"Sunshine, what's wrong?" Dawn asked, crossing the room to inspect her child. She knelt before her and moved to take her into her arms.

"I'm fine, Mommy," Noelle informed her mother. "Look! Papa and Dommie are coming back! Let's go meet them!"

"Sweetie, how do you know that?" Dawn asked, frowning. "They're on the grounds. You can't possibly see them from her."

"Yes, I can!" the little girl said, nodding her head. She pointed at the monitor. "See. They're on the TV, Mommy. Papa's waving at me. See!"

Dawn looked at the monitor. Sure enough, there were Nikolas and Dominik. Smiles were on their faces as they waved at the little girl that they knew would be watching. Dawn couldn't help but smile at the images.

"Come on, Mommy," Noelle said, grabbing her mother's hand. She pulled until Dawn had stood up and then, she continued to pull until they were out of the playroom and in the hallway.

"Where are we going?" Dawn asked, chuckling at her daughter's spirit and tenacity.

"Outside to meet them! C'mon!"

"Wait," Dawn said, pulling her daughter to a stop. "It's cold out there and you are not dressed properly. You need a coat, young lady."

"I would say that you both could use one, wouldn't you?" Stefan appeared with a coat in each hand. He handed a man's calf-length leather jacket to Dawn. After she took it from him, he bent down to help Noelle into her bright pink jacket.

"Thanks, Grandpapa!" the little girl chirped with a smile and a giggle.

"You're welcome," Stefan told her, brushing his knuckles across her chubby cheek. She giggled again and he smiled down at her.

"Th-thanks..."

Stefan smiled warmly at Dawn. He cupped her cheek with the palm of his hand and said, "You're welcome."

Dawn's eyes lit up with gratitude. She had expected him to hate her. The warmth in his green eyes radiated with the love she could always depend upon from him. She was too moved to speak. She wanted to verbally thank him, but she was too overwhelmed. As the seconds lingered, her daughter's chatter disrupted the silence.

"Mommy, we have to hurry," Noelle said. She grabbed her mother's hand and pulled.

"Enjoy yourselves," Stefan advised as the two females disappeared through the French doors.

With skips and hops, Noelle led her mother down the stone-covered path. They reached the stables in record speed, arriving just as Dominik and Nikolas did. Nikolas lowered himself to the ground and Noelle dropped her mother's hand to run into his arms.

"Hi, Papa!" she said before giving him a loud kiss on the cheek. "Did you have a nice ride?"

"I sure did," he told her. He kissed her cheek and then asked, "Would you care for a ride?"

"Yes!" she said, clapping her hands.

Nikolas laughed. He lifted her up and then carefully set her on top of Sheba's saddle. Noelle placed her hands just as she had been instructed numerous times before. She looked over at Dawn who stood a few feet away. "Look, Mommy! I can ride now."

Dawn waved at her and smiled. "I can see that. You're doing a fantastic job."

"Hi, Mama," Dominik said, as he slowed Isis down to a stop. "Have you had breakfast?"

"Hi, sweetie," Dawn said, moving towards him. She shook her head. "No, we haven't. We waited for you."

Dominik smiled at her and responded. "You didn't have to wait for us."

Dawn reached for his hand. Holding on to his hand, she said, "I know, but we wanted to."

Dawn released her son's hand and walked beside him as he led Isis into the stable. After they were all in side, Nikolas lifted Noelle from the saddle and set her on the ground. She remained underfoot as he and Dominik brushed down their horses. Finally, Nikolas gently scolded her, "Noelle, you know the rules. You could get hurt. Go stand back there."

"I forgot, Papa," she told him. "I'm sorry." Her contrite expression lasted for less than a minute as she brightened and giggled. "I'll go stand with Mommy!"

Shaking his head, Nikolas watched as she raced towards Dawn. The little girl threw herself into Dawn's arms and both of them laughed. As Dawn lifted her head, her eyes locked with Nikolas'. He nodded his head toward her. "Nice coat."

"What?" she asked, looking at first Noelle's jacket and then at hers.

"My leather jacket," Nikolas said, pointing at her with Sheba's brush. "It looks good on you."

Nikolas moved past Dominik and winked. The boy giggled softly, and Dawn looked at both, wondering what the joke was. She began to shrug out of the jacket. "If you want it back-"

"That's not what I said," Nikolas said, cutting her off. He silently thanked the stablehand as the older man took over with the horses for him and Dominik. He rested his hand on Dominik's shoulder as they strode towards the waiting females. When he reached them, Nikolas stood before Dawn and grabbed the lapels of the jacket, pulling it closer around her. His voice was low when he spoke to her again. "I said that it looks good on you."

He lowered his hands from her and Dawn stepped back. "Thanks," she mumbled as she reached for Noelle's hand. She held her hand out to Dominik and he took it. Without another glance at Nikolas, the trio left the stable. Nikolas laughed softly as he followed them.

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