Gina slammed the backdoor shut behind her. A red haze of anger clouded her eyes
and she could barely see straight. Never before had she been so infuriated. Simone,
Dawn and Audrey had all warned her that motherhood would change her. Motherhood
would make her strong as a bear and God help the man, woman, or child who would cause
of any her little twin cubs any pain. At the time of the warnings, Gina had brushed
her friends' words aside. She didn't anymore. She now knew exactly what they were
"OH!" she cried in anger, pushing her way through the swinging doors. A squeal of surprised squeaked from her as a pair of strong hands grabbed her.
"What are you doing home?"
Tommy and Gina asked the questions simultaneously. Surprise and relief shone in Gina's eyes. She wrapped her arms around her husband and gave him a fierce hug. He stroked her back in return, pressing her to his massive chest.
"I'm so glad you're home," she sighed against him.
"I'm glad to be here," he replied. "At first, I wasn't so sure you were happy to see me. You're really wound up. What's up?"
"Ciarda…" she said as they ended their embrace and joined hands. She moved slowly behind him as he guided her down the hallway to their shared home office. "I can't grasp what's going on with her."
"Did something happen while I was away?" he asked. His green eyes darkened with concern. They sat down on the sofa and he wrapped his arm around her shoulders. "I'm sorry that I wasn't here. I should have been."
"Sweetheart, it wasn't anything big. It's just that…" Gina shifted to face him. Worry was etched in her eyes as she looked at him. "I drove past the school today and I saw that Ciarda was all alone on the playground. She seemed so sad and lonely. I wanted to do something, but I wasn't sure if I should. It's not like I can force the other kids to play with her."
"She was alone?" Tommy repeated. "What about Alanna? Why wasn't she playing with her sister?"
"They have recess at different times," she explained. "Yesterday, I tried to talk to her teacher, but there was a teacher conference after school."
"Well, we can do it today," Tommy said. His lean, bronze fingers trailed down her porcelain cheek. Frowning, he said, "This is really bothering you, isn't it?"
"Yeah," she said in a hoarse voice. "She looked so sad. I can't bear to see her like that."
"Neither can I," he admitted. "How was she while I was gone? Was she like that here, too?"
"No," Gina shook her head. "She and Alanna played just like they usually do and with Shana arriving last night, this place was a playground. By the way, your sister is with Keesha. She and Jason invited us over for dinner tonight and I told them yes. I hope that I didn't speak too soon."
"No, that's fine," he said, smiling. "How is my little sister? Did Sonny say what was going on?"
"Dara is sick. She's being treated in Paris."
"Nikolas never mentioned it. How bad off is she?"
Gina's eyes clouded over. "No one else knows about this and we're not to say anything. Not even to Dawn. Dara is almost comatose. She's in and out consciousness and none of the doctors have any idea why. Simone went over to help."
"Oh, boy," Tommy whispered as he rubbed his hand over his face. "I thought it was odd that she and Alex weren't there for the baby's party, but I never expected this. I think they're wrong not to let Dawn in on this."
"I agree, but I gave Sonny my word," Gina said. "I told him that you wouldn't say anything."
"I won't," Tommy agreed, "but I still think it's wrong."
"I didn't say anything before, but um…well, the dress you were looking at the other day was really prêt-um, I mean cool."
Grace smiled at Michael and stole a french fry from his tray. "Thanks. My mom has good taste."
"Yeah, Auntie Keesha's the best," he agreed. Michael cleared his throat. Using the sun as his excuse, he pushed his chair closer to her. "These breezes are easier to deal with in the sun."
"Yeah," Grace agreed, "but I just love the Fall, don't you? Pretty soon, we'll have to eat lunch inside. I'm glad we have a few more weeks left."
"Yeah, me too." Michael looked at Grace and smiled. For a second his father and uncle's words of wisdom came back to him. He ignored their voices and decided to concentrate on Grace. Her face was zit-free, her lips rosy and her hair gleamed in the sunlight. He remembered a time when the sight of her hair made him want to tack it to a desk. Now, all he wanted to do was run his fingers through her hair. Sometimes he dreamed of how the silken tresses would feel against his skin and how fresh her hair smelled…
"Michael?" Grace asked, interrupting his thoughts. "Is something wrong? You look funny. Are you getting sick?"
"No!" he said quickly. Swallowing hard, he pushed away from the lunch table. Around him, the other students had begun to walk around the grounds, wasting a few moments before the afternoon bell rang. Suddenly, an idea came to him. Trying to appear nonchalant, he looked down at Grace. "Wanna go down by the bleachers? We have a few minutes before 5th period."
"Sure," she said, pushing away from the table to join him. A smile curved upon her lips as Michael took their trays and deposited them in their proper place. "Thanks."
"No problem," he shrugged. "Ready?"
"I'm right behind you," she told him.
They walked away from the outdoors cafeteria in silence. Both were content to have some time alone together. Over the summer, the relationship they shared where they teased each other unmercifully had changed. Shy glances and nervous giggles had replaced bike rides and games of tag and chase. Something was blossoming between them, leaving them both curious and anxious to spend even more time together.
"Are you going out for baseball this year?" Grace asked as they reached the chain linked fence. She turned her attention away from the track team to look at him. "I think you should."
"You think so?" he asked. His chest puffed up with pride as she vigorously nodded. "I hadn't thought about it. Maybe I will. What about George? Is he trying out?"
"He's thinking about. He and Daddy go to the batting cage and practice sometimes. You should go with them."
Michael shrugged. A breeze blew a few strands of hair into his face, and he tossed his head to clear the hair from his eyes. "I'm always hanging out with Uncle Jase and George. I bet George gets tired of it. I'll sit this one out."
"Why would you say that?" Grace asked, fully turning her back to the field. She leaned against the fence as she waited for his response.
"I dunno. I'd get irritated if someone hung out with me and my Dad as much as I hang out with yours," he said with a faint laugh. "Besides, if I ask my Dad, he'll go with me. No big deal."
"Well, if you're sure," she said with a slight frown. "I hope this doesn't mean you won't come over like you used to." She paused and then added, "Did George say something to you?"
"Nah," he shook his head. "George? C'mon, Grace. You know how George is. He's cool about everything. I'm the one who'd lose it."
With a grin, she nodded. "That's true."
"Hey! I'm not that bad."
Laughing, she told him. "Not all the time. You come by it naturally though."
At her innocent jibe, Michael stiffened. "I guess being a mental case does run in the family."
Grace's laughter died. Her hand reached for his. "I didn't mean it that way. I wasn't talking about…her. I was talking about Grandpa Edward. I'm sorry."
Michael's fingers laced with Grace's. A part of him was glad to have an excuse to hold her hand, but the rest of him couldn't get thoughts of his biological from his mind. "I knew you didn't meant it that way. I just get scared sometimes… I don't want to be like her."
"You're not," Grace reassured him.
"Thanks," Michael said, his expression serious. "If I tell you something, can you promise not to tell anyone?"
"You know I won't rat." She took a step closer to him. "What's up?"
"You know how my Dad got another bodyguard for me, right?"
"Sure," she said. With a nod of her chin, she gestured. "He's right over there. It's not like you can miss him."
"Yeah," Michael said, rolling his eyes. "Anyway, at first, I thought that Dad was losing it, but over the last few days, I've been getting these weird vibes."
"What do you mean?"
"It feels like someone is watching me," he whispered. "I get the creepy crawlies on my neck like someone is right behind me. I turn around and no one's there."
"That's scary," Grace said, her brown eyes shining with concern. "Maybe you should tell Uncle AJ-"
"I can't," he said, shaking his head. "I don't want him to freak out on me, and…what if I'm getting nutty? I don't want to get shipped off to Ferncliff."
"Uncle AJ wouldn't do that!"
"Dad wouldn't want to, but let's face it, Grace. Being mental is in the blood. I read about it and I know."
"So what are you going to do?" she asked. The school bell rang its first warning and they began to head to their classes. "Maybe you should talk to Mama about it."
"I thought about that, but I can't. She and Dad are too close. She'd tell him-"
"No, she wouldn't!" Grace said in defense of her mother.
"She wouldn't do it on purpose!" Michael explained himself. "But something might slip. And there's something else that I thought of."
"What's that?" she asked as they entered the school building. The other students brushed past them, but the two teenagers were focused solely on each other. "What else could there be?"
Michael concentrated on their linked hands. Taking his time, he answered her. "There really could be someone out there watching me, and it really could be my… her. She could be back, and if she is, Dad's right. She would come after me."
"What are you gonna do?"
"Stop her before she gets too close. She made her decision a long time ago. Carly Benson is not my mother and she never will be."
Simone stood tall under the scrutiny of her dearest friends. Their pain and anguish filled the room and squeezed her chest. As a physician, she knew that she should keep a tight rein on her emotions, but she couldn't. Carrie was one of her dearest friends. There was no way Simone couldn't be emotional when told her and the rest of them what her tests had discovered about Dara's condition.
"Simone, did you find anything?" Alex asked. Unable to sit, he stood in the back of the conference room. His jaw was tight and his voice was raw. He looked to her for the solution to his and his wife's agony.
"Yes," she said. Clasping her hands in front of her, she moved from the front of the room. She sat on the edge of the table. Her gaze moved around the room. Carrie's hand clutched Stefan's. Stefan's emerald eyes bore into Simone. Alex seemed ready to pounce and rightfully so. She looked over to the window and felt a sense of relief as her rock gave a slight nod his head. Sonny's black eyes encouraged her and gave her the strength to continue. "Dara has a virus which has attacked her immune system."
"AIDS?" Carrie croaked. "My daughter has AIDS?"
"No!" Alex cried, moving closer to the group. "That can't be right, Simone. She was tested for that."
Simone raised her hand to silence them. "I didn't say that she had AIDS. She has an AIDS-like virus."
"Is there a cure?" Stefan asked, quietly.
Simone gave him a long, hard look. She knew that he would be the one to ask the no-holds-barred question. In the storm that was to come, Simone was glad that her friend would have his quiet strength to keep her steady. Slowly, Simone shook her head.
"So, Dara is going to die?" Alex asked. "That's what you're telling us, right? How much longer does she have?"
"Alex, wait," Simone called out as he moved to leave the room. Sonny took a step towards him, but Simone asked him to be still with a small shake of her head. "Right now, there isn't a cure, but there may be one soon. We're not giving up until we find it."
"We?" Stefan asked.
"I don't want any more of these so called French specialists touching her!" Carrie bit out. "They couldn't even give us a diagnosis."
"They're not French," Simone reassured her. "We're getting help a little closer to home." She gave her friends a gentle smile as she stepped back towards the door. She pulled the door open and stood aside as her colleagues entered.
The man moved slowly with the aid of a cane and the woman did not stray from his side. The couple stopped at the front of the room. Simone went to stand beside them. "After reviewing Dara's test results, I made a few phone calls and found out that the best medical researchers and two very good friends were here in Paris. In case you don't remember them, we have the best in the field…Drs. Ellen and Matt Harmon."
"Can you save my wife?" Alex asked, moving to stand before the doctors.
"We can't give you a guarantee," Ellen told him.
"But we will do our damnedest to try," Matt reassured him.
"That's all that we ask," Carrie said.