"It's not your fault."
Hours of grueling interrogation and painful confessions had taken their toll on Dawn. Sitting on the edge of Noelle's new resting place, she barely registered Nikolas' soft words as he came up behind her. Exhausted, she could only watch her young daughter sleep and pray that somewhere Dominik was safe and well. In the back of her mind, a tiny voice nagged on, reminding her that Nikolas' words were false. Dominik's disappearance was all her fault.
"Dawn?" Nikolas called softly to her. His voice held an edge of fear to it. His hands trembled as they grasped her shoulders. "No one here blames you for what happened."
"Well, you should," she murmured. She rose from Noelle's bed and moved away from his comforting warmth. Soft candlelight created a warm glow in their new tunnel dwellings. Shadows bounced along the earthen walls. Posters of Noelle favorite cartoons had been placed on the walls to create a homey atmosphere for the girl. For her mother, the characters left her feeling anything but homey. Shaking her head, she turned away from the mocking images. "I wanted to have my family back. I should have considered the consequences. It's not like I hadn't been warned."
"Ssh," he cooed, pulling her into his arms as her face crumbled. He pressed her against him in an iron-tight grip. "This shouldn't have happened. Period. I'll give you this moment to wallow in remorse, but when the moment is over, you are not to blame yourself again. I am not to be disobeyed in this-"
"Nikky," she whispered hoarsely, smiling in spite of herself. "You're being medieval again."
"I plan to be even more so before this is all over." He cupped her face, tilting it upwards until their eyes locked and held. "Are you ready for what's to come? I can shield Noelle from what must be done. I won't do that for you. I won't pretend that I'm not capable of bending the law to get our son back."
Dawn shook her head. "I wouldn't want you to pretend with me. I won't pretend with you… I'm just as capable as you are. I'll be beside you. I'll be your partner. In everything."
Nikolas closed the space between them and sealed their vow with a kiss.
Across the small space, Stefan and Tommy watched the couple. Their thoughts were the same as they realized how greatly they admired them for their love and for their tenacity. The couple's separation had pained both men and now that they knew the reasons for it, their pain was now mingled with rage. Neither would stop at anything to put them out their misery and bring their son back to them.
"They amaze me," Tommy said, looking away from the couple. He directed his attention to the quiet man in front of him. "I hope that one they will forgive me."
"For?" Stefan questioned.
Tommy's cheeks became pink with the flush of embarrassment. "For believing the lie so easily. I should have had more faith."
Offering the younger man a smile, Stefan gripped Tommy's shoulder. "To err is human. Forgive yourself. I am sure they already have."
Tommy drew in a long breath and slowly nodded his head. The remorse wouldn't aid him in finding Dominik. He would have to bide his time and allow his feelings to take care of themselves. In an attempt to shake the feelings off, he said, "Who would have the most to gain in destroying Nikolas' family?"
"Spencer is the first name to come to mind," Stefan murmured. "Helena is the second."
"I would have to agree-"
Dawn interrupted Tommy's words as she and Nikolas joined them. Shaking her head, she said, "It's not either of them. They were the first ones we thought of, too. It's not them."
"How can you be certain?" Stefan frowned. "I would put nothing past either of them. Ten years may seem like a long time for some, but for my mother, it's simply another nightfall. Witches never consider the passage of time the same as we do."
"Father, listen to her. Helena and Luke aren't behind this."
"But, they've done it before." Tommy's doubts would not be abated. "I've been trying to locate them for years, but I have never been successful. Each time I get close to something, they disappear. A move like this one is something that would feed both of their egos."
Dawn nodded. "When this mess first started, that's what Lorenzo and I thought, too. Until we found them. Luke and Helena are dead."
"Did you see the bodies?" Stefan asked.
"We did," she admitted. "It took us three weeks to find them. They were living in a commune in Peru. We went there and confronted them. It was a sad affair. Helena's mind had deteriorated and Luke's didn't fair much better. At first, we thought that they were playing games with us, but after the accident, we knew that it had been real."
Stefan's eyes glowed with interest. "What accident?"
"There was gas leak. Luke must not have realized it and lit his cigar. The explosion rocked their village and rattled the windows at our hotel. They were killed instantly," Dawn explained.
"Something like that should have lit up the wire," Tommy said with a frown. "Their dental records would have been checked to identify the bodies. My programs would have alerted me to that."
"Their dental records weren't checked," she told them. She reached for Nikolas' hand. After a brief pause, her voice was shaky when she spoke again. "We identified the bodies for the authorities and had the remains buried."
"Tommy, I know what you're about to say and because we knew about your program, Lorenzo and I gave the authorities false names."
"Why?" Stefan questioned. "What would possess you to do that?"
Dawn swallowed hard. Directing her attention to Nikolas, she said, "We thought it would be best. For everyone." She looked back at the other two silent men and added, "So, we can cross them off the list and move on to the next one."
Silence followed Dawn's suggestion as the three men contemplated her and Lorenzo's decision. None of them understood it, but it was obvious that Dawn was not ready to explain it to them. Lost in their own thoughts, Stefan and Tommy thought it odd and chose to think about it later. Nikolas gripped Dawn's hand and gave her a smile, deciding that when the time was right he would get clarification from her. Right now, they had more important things to consider.
After hours of constant chatter and juvenile bantering, the Ward House had finally settled down. Jason breathed in the quiet with a smile of contentment. Upstairs, his children lay safely tucked away in their beds. Downstairs, his wife lay in wait for him. The smile turned sensual and Jason's breath quickened. Taking the stairs two at a time, he bounded down the staircase with thoughts of Keesha on his mind.
He rounded the hallway and the scent of vanilla filled his nostrils. The fragrance was her scent and it called to him. He answered by following the delicious aroma down the hallway and into the den. When he reached the doorway, he paused. The sight that awaited him inflamed and he needed a moment to catch his breath.
"Hi, there," Keesha greeted her husband in a breathy whisper. Rising from the sofa, she stood in the middle candlelit room. Her fingers tugged on the knotted belt that held her flannel robe together. In seconds, the belt was loosened and the flannel fell from her to reveal the ivory silk that had been hidden underneath.
Swallowing hard, Jason stepped inside the den. Acting on impulse, he closed and locked the door behind him. "Hi yourself," he murmured, stepping over comic books, hot wheels cars and Barbie dolls to reach her. Trembling hands grasped her waist and pulled her to him. Keesha smiled up at him and the muscles in his stomach constricted. The power she had over him was one that he would never want to relinquish. "I love you."
"You'd better," she said, tracing the line of his jaw with soft fingertips. "I am having your baby after all."
A chill zipped down Jason's spine. His baby. Their baby. The first pregnancy had ended in a painful nightmare. A life for a life… No! The memory of where he had been and what he had been doing when their first child was lost to him came to him. Guilt closed in around him. Squeezing his eyes shut, he tried to hide from the images. Unknowingly, his grip on her waist tightened.
"Jason?" Her hands closed over his and still he didn't respond. "Baby, relax, okay? You don't have to hold on so tight. I'm not going anywhere."
"Keesha…" Opening his eyes, he looked down at her. Concern shone brightly in her chocolate brown eyes. Traces of pain hinted in the darker recesses of her eyes. Suddenly, he understood. Releasing her, he fell down onto the sofa. He drew in a long breath and looked at her with apologetic, blue eyes. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you."
"I know that," she said.
Keesha sat close beside Jason. Her hands closed over his tightly clenched fist. Tenderly, she unfolded his fingers and brought his hand to her lips. As she kissed each knuckle, Jason began to relax. When she turned his palm upwards and her mouth opened over the sensitive flesh, Jason's pulse quickened again. He replaced his hand with his mouth. A gasp of surprise parted her lips and Jason took full advantage. Tongues collided and they hungrily absorbed each other.
"Oh, Jason," Keesha moaned when he ended their kiss. Another moan escaped from her as his mouth trailed hungry kisses up and down her throat. Through his skintight t-shirt, her fingers clawed his back, further demonstrating her need for him.
Wanting to feel her flesh on his, Jason pulled away from her to rip his shirt from him. The cotton material hit the wall and fell down to the floor. He took her hands and placed them on his racing heart and his throbbing arousal. Keesha whimpered as her hands caressed him. Jason cupped her face, his thumbs running across her full, parted lips. "Do you feel what you do to me?"
Keesha nodded. "Oh, yes!" she whispered emphatically. "Make love to me. Now, Jason."
He discarded his jeans and underwear as skillfully as he had his t-shirt. Settling his back against the sofa, he pulled his wife to him. Strong, steady hands slid underneath her thigh-length negligee. A wicked gleam darkened his eyes when he discovered her bare bottom. Without bothering to remove her nightgown, he pulled her down so that she straddled his lap.
Their love exploded as their bodies pulsed in frantic unison. Spasms overtook them. Jason's perspiration slick forehead dropped to Keesha's ripe breasts. His hands clutched her hips, but not in the tight grip from before. This time, he was very much in the moment. His senses were heightened and he was aware of everything. Her warmth…her scent…her love. He had no doubts that he'd remember this night forever.
Keesha's head rested in the crook of his neck and shoulder. His hands stroked her back, moving downward until they rested on her behind. Rubbing his chin across her damp, dark mass of hair, he asked, "Yes?"
"Are you feeling alright?"
Jason laughed. "I feel perfect! Okay, I'm a little tired now, but I'll be fine in a few minutes. Can you wait that long?"
She pinched in and released a small chuckle. "Hush you! That's not what I meant… I was wondering if something was bothering you. You seemed upset earlier."
"Did I?" he asked, smiling to keep the tension from his voice.
"Yeah. You did. Maybe you should come with me to my appointment with Dr. Graham-"
"I was already planning on it," he cut her off. He didn't mean to interrupt her, but the words were out before could stop them. And before he could stop himself, he changed the subject to a topic that didn't fill him with fear and guilt. "You were talking to Gina earlier. It sounded serious. Is something wrong?"
If Keesha thought the change in conversation was strange, she didn't let on. Wrapping her arms around her, she burrowed herself closer against him. "Ciarda's having problems at school. She wants me to spend some time with her and see if I can help."
"What kind of problems?"
"Gina said that she's become withdrawn and that she said something about not being pretty enough to play with."
"What?" Jason asked, tilting his head to look at Keesha. "She's six! Why would she think about something like that at such a young age?"
"I don't know." Keesha shrugged. "Tommy, of course, is suspicious of the teacher and is having her background investigated."
Jason nodded in full agreement. "Smart man."
Keesha groaned and rolled her eyes. "I don't know who's worse. You or him. Always jumping to conclusions."
Jason shrugged and then bent forward to kiss the tip of her nose. "It's always better to be safe than sorry."
"Do you really believe that?" Keesha asked. A frown creased her forehead.
"I do," he said with a solemn nod. When she didn't quickly respond, he arched an eyebrow. "Is there more or was that one of your infamous rhetorical questions?"
"Infamous? I resent that remark," she said with a smile. Then her expression sobered. "I saw AJ the other day. He's worried about Carly again."
"The last time, his worries were dead on," Jason said quietly.
"Did you know that he's added more guards to protect Michael?"
Jason shook his head. "I knew that he was thinking about it. Keesha, I'm feeling that we're not having a casual conversation. Is there something you want to tell me?"
"I think I saw her. Twice."
"When and where?"
Keesha drew in a harsh breath. "That one time I was with AJ… I saw a woman in a car. It happened so quickly that I wasn't sure."
"And the second time?" Jason prompted.
"Here," she said after a brief pause. "I didn't exactly see her, but I saw the car. It was before you took George to practice. I saw that same car parked across the street when I came outside to give George the permission slip for the camping trip. I didn't really think about the car until Grace and I had a little talk."
"What little talk?" he asked, his eyes narrowing.
"She's concerned about Michael. He's worried about Carly, too. Is there any way for us to help AJ and Michael?"
"No," Jason said firmly. "Not us. Me. I'll help my brother find her, but you are to stay out of it-"
"Jason, I don't plan to walk the streets looking for her," Keesha said, her voice tight with irritation.
"Keesha," he said, mimicking her tone, "I wouldn't let you even if that was your plan." He gave her a tender, loving smile. "She's not worth the aggravation that she causes you. I don't want you even thinking about her. You have better things to think about, remember? No stress and no worries. You are to be pampered and waited on. I won't compromise on this, Keesha. And if I have to, I'll tie you to the bed and post guards all around you."
"No, Keesha. AJ and I will deal with Carly. You will stay out of it. Understood?"
Jason held Keesha's stare with an unwavering glare of his own. Their marriage was a partnership with compromises abound, but on this, there would be no compromises. She would obey him. Whether she liked it or not.