Dawn stood off to the side and watched while Dominik and Noelle clamored for Nikolas' attention. The competition was purely innocent and fun to behold. Dominik, who hadn't sat on his father's lap in years, would tickle Noelle until she fell to the ground in a fit of giggles. Once she was down, he claimed Nikolas' lap and hugged their father until Noelle retaliated. All three laughed at the silly game which brought a smile to Dawn's face.
"Mommy, come play, too!" Noelle squealed as she curled into position again. With her small dimpled hand, she beckoned.
"Yeah, Mama," Dominik added, running over to take her hand. He led her to the wicker chairs and table. "This is fun!"
"Your Papa's lap isn't strong enough for all three of us," she declared. "Besides, I'd rather not share it. I'll take my chances here."
As soon as she sat down, Noelle leapt from Nikolas' lap and hopped onto her mother's. The little girl shrieked in delight when Dawn closed her arms around her and kissed her cheek.
Not to be outdone, Dominik climbed onto Nikolas' lap and the two Cassadine males regarded the two smiling females who looked back at them. Nikolas' eyes locked with Dawn's and she nodded. The time had come to say goodbye.
Nikolas reached for Dawn's hand. Happiness and love wrapped around their small circle. The children became quiet as if in anticipation. Nikolas looked at each of them as he said, "I have to go back to Port Charles later this evening. You'll stay here with your mother until I return."
"How long will you be gone, Papa?" Dominik asked, his expression serious as he shifted on Nikolas' lap in order to see his father's face. "Why aren't we going, too?"
"I shouldn't be gone long, but I can't say exactly. You're staying here because it's vacation time for you and when I return, it will be the same for me," Nikolas explained.
"Are you really coming back?" Noelle asked. "You can't go away for a long, long, long time, Papa."
Dawn understood her daughter's question. Her heart constricted with strong emotion. "It's not like when I left, Sunshine. We're a whole family again."
"Honest?" the little girl questioned.
Dawn nodded. "Honest. Papa's just going away for a little while. He'll be back and we'll have days like this again. All four of us."
"She's right," Nikolas agreed, tapping lightly on Noelle's nose. "I'm coming back and it'll be like I never left. I promise."
Laughter and shouts carried from the beach. Dawn looked out and saw the other children running along the sand. "It looks like they're having another sand castle competition. Why don't you two join them? We'll be down in a few minutes."
The children slid from their parents' laps. They took turns hugging their parents before Dominik grabbed Noelle's hand and together, they ran towards the beach and the other children's cries.
"They took it well," Dawn commented.
"Because they know it's not the end of the world," Nikolas replied. He pointed to his lap and arched an eyebrow in invitation. When Dawn accepted and rested her head on his shoulder, his arms closed around her and he continued, "I'm coming back."
"I wish you didn't have to go. Sarah scares me." Her voice trembled with fear. "What will she do to you if she knows that it was all a trick?"
"She won't do anything to me," Nikolas informed her. "I'm not worried about her. Besides, I won't be dealing with her alone. Somebody will be there to back me up."
"Won't she find that suspicious?"
He kissed the tip of her nose and smiled. "Not if she doesn't know." His arms squeezed around her. "Don't worry about me. Focus on being with the children again and being strong for Dara. I'll be fine. As long as I know you and the children are safe, no harm will come to me." He tilted his head to look at her and his voice deepened, "Can you do that for me, my darling?"
The seductively spoken endearment sent waves of excitement through her. Dawn shivered within his protective embrace. "You know what that 'darling' stuff does to me. I couldn't resist you now even if I wanted to." She buried her hands in his dark, silken locks and leaned in close. "And why would I want to?"
"Why indeed?" Nikolas murmured.
The laughter of the playing children faded and the rest of the world diminished as Dawn and Nikolas kissed goodbye.
Jason finished telling AJ and Eve the details about Dara's illness and the other chaos that he and his friends had been involved in. The couple digested the news slowly with AJ being the first to prod his brother with more questions.
"Are you sure that Keesha and your baby is okay?" Lines of worry etched from the corner of his eyes as he frowned.
Jason nodded. "Simone did a thorough examination and the results were positive. Keesha's immune system isn't under attack and the pregnancy is developing the way it should. As long as she's free from strain and worry, everything should be fine this time."
"That won't necessarily guarantee a healthy pregnancy," Eve volunteered, "but it doesn't hurt either. Matt and Ellen are excellent researchers, but it has to be tiring for them. Three doctors working round the clock... They need help."
"I'm glad you said that," Jason said. "I didn't come to gossip. I'm planning a trip to the island to see what I can do. I may not be a big help, but I can relieve them with the basic stuff. I wanted to know if you'd like to come along."
"When are you leaving?" AJ asked.
"This afternoon. Sonny's jet is being prepared for me as we speak."
AJ looked at his wife. "It's short notice. Do you think you can pull it off? What about the clinic?"
"I can do it," Eve said with a smile. "I'll need to make a few phone calls, but I can be ready to leave with you."
"Ready to leave?" Michael repeated from the doorway of AJ's office. He tossed the apple he was eating into a wastebasket as he descended the steps. "Where are you going, Mom?"
Eve rose from the sofa and moved to stand beside Michael. Wrapping her arm around his shoulder, she said, "Jason and I are taking a little trip."
"Where?" he asked. "When are you leaving?"
"What I'm about to tell you cannot be discussed with anyone, Michael," Eve began. "It must be held in the strictest confidence. If you don't think you can keep it to yourself, tell me now and I won't say anymore."
"Maybe it's better if we don't tell him," Jason said.
"We've never lied to him," AJ said. "We're not about to start now." He looked at his son. "You're old enough to know if you can keep a secret or not. Life and death are involved. This isn't a game, son. If you'd rather not know, we understand. The choice is yours."
Michael frowned as he looked back at the three adults staring at him. He agreed with a nod. "Yes, I can keep a secret. Who's in danger? It's not Auntie Keesha, is it?"
"No," Jason reassured his nephew, "she's fine."
"Dara Garcia is very sick," Eve explained. "She's being helped, but a cure hasn't been found for her. Your Uncle Jason and I are going to see if we can help."
"I'm sorry she's sick. Maybe that's why I haven't heard from Dominik lately. But why are you guys so hush-hush about it? People get sick all the time," Michael said.
"Dara's illness isn't a random occurrence," AJ told him. "Someone made her sick on purpose and they can't know that we're trying to help her."
"Oh, that's messed up," Michael murmured. "So, where is she? Can I visit her and see how Dominik is?"
Jason shook his head. "I'm afraid not. For your own sake, that's all we can tell you. If we see Dom, we'll let him know you're thinking about him, okay?"
"Okay, but when are you coming back?" he directed this question to Eve. "Will you be gone for a long time?"
"I can't say," Eve answered. "Maybe two weeks or less."
"I'll miss you." Michael wrapped his arms around her waist and hugged her close to him.
When the hug ended, Eve kissed his cheek. "I'll miss you, too. Be good for your dad while I'm away and please, don't let him destroy my kitchen. I'd better go make those calls. Don't leave without me, Jason."
"I won't," he called out as she bounded up the steps and out of the room.
Michael stepped over his dad's legs and joined him on the sofa. Looking at his uncle, he said, "I've left messages at your place and no one's called me back. What gives?"
"Keesha and the kids went away for a little while," Jason answered.
"Oh. George and Grace didn't say they were going to Philly. They could have told me," he muttered sadly.
Jason drew in a long, hard breath and searched AJ's eyes for guidance. His brother nodded and then Jason spoke. "They're not in Philly. I was afraid that whoever hurt Dara would try to hurt them, too, so I sent them away. The twins wanted to call you, but there wasn't enough time. I'm sorry about that. As soon as this is over, they'll come back and it'll be like that they never left."
"When you talk to them again, can you tell them 'hi' for me?" the boy asked. "I hope that everything is fixed soon. I don't like it."
"I don't like it either," Jason agreed, "but we're working hard to change things in our favor. Say a few prayers for us and maybe it'll go that much faster."
"I will. So...um...do you think Grace will be back in time for the dance? I wouldn't ask, but I know how important it was to her. You know..."
Jason bit back a smile and nodded with solemn sincerity. "I know." He leaned forward, resting his forearms on his thighs and added in a low voice. "I love you, Michael. You know that and you know that Grace is my daughter and I love her with all my heart-"
"We're just friends!" Michael defended himself. "Honest! I've never even asked her out. Not really. I know how you feel about dating and then...well, it's all weird." A fiery red blush crept across his cheeks and he hung his head.
Jason reached out and placed his fingers underneath Michael's chin. He lifted until Michael looked at him. "Don't be embarrassed. I've teased you, but it doesn't mean anything. If you'd like to come over to visit Grace, you have my permission. Don't think this means I won't tease you because I will. Hey, it's fun. But I won't prevent you from seeing her unless you give me reason to. Dating will come later, but visiting can start as soon as we're back. Okay?"
"Okay!" Michael hugged his uncle on impulse and then hugged his dad. He rose from the sofa and raced up the 3 short steps to the hall. "I'm gonna see if Mom needs help. I'll see you when you get back. Bye, Uncle Jase!"
The teenager's footsteps echoed down the hall and his whirlwind of energy followed him. AJ and Jason laughed. "You made his day with that pronouncement," AJ commented. "He's on a high now. Thanks a lot."
"No problem," Jason grinned. "That's what uncles are for."
Now that they were alone, the questions that plagued AJ's mind refused to be put off any longer. He left the sofa and went to the fridge. He pulled two small bottles of water out and tossed one to Jason. While he untwisted the cap, he asked, "Who else is involved with this...other than Sarah Webber?"
"We're not sure. We have suspicions, but nothing concrete."
"I should have known something was up when Dawn's eyes lit up at that telephone prototype," AJ said after taking a sip of water. "I'm glad they got Dominik back in one piece. Having been there, I don't wish that agony on any parent. Do you need anything? Is there anyway I can help?"
Jason shook his head. "I think everything is covered as much as can be. I'll let Tommy know you're up to speed and if he can think of anything, he'll call you."
"That works for me-"
The telephone interrupted the rest of his comments and he moved to answer it. The familiar voice brought a scowl to his face and he worked hard to maintain an even tone. "What do you want, Carly?"
"I want to talk. Just you and me."
"I'm not in the mood for games," he answered.
"This isn't a game. I'm serious," she told him. "There's some things we need to discuss about the past and about Michael. I'm willing to find a way to work this out for his sake. Are you?"
"Yeah. I'm busy now, but I'll call you later with when and where we can meet." He hung up the phone and smiled at the curiosity that lit up Jason's blue eyes. "You heard right. She wants to meet and I'm agreeing."
"Amazing, big brother," Jason said.
The car pulled to a stopped alongside the curb in the picturesque suburban neighborhood. The occupants sat quietly for a moment before the passenger moved to open the door. Sonny's hand closed over Tommy's forearm to still his movements. "Are you sure you don't want me to come in there with you?"
A half-smile crossed the younger man's face. "I can handle it. There won't be any bloodshed. I promise."
Sonny released a long sigh as he released Tommy's arm. "Don't stay too long. The longer you stay, the madder you'll get. If you're not out in ten, I'm coming in."
Tommy gave the man a genuine smile of affection. "That rhymes. Pretty impressive."
He slammed out of the car. Resting his hands in the open window, he leaned inside and said, "I'll be out in ten. What I have to say won't take long."
Tommy moved briskly up the brick walkway to the home of his daughters' teacher, Miriam Walker. Taking deep breaths to maintain a calm persona, he pressed the doorbell and waited.
The door opened a few inches. A man with a medium build and thinning blonde hair asked, "May I help you?" Frowning, he looked Tommy up and down.
"My name is Thomas Hardy and I'm here to speak with Miriam Walker. She teaches my daughters."
"My wife schedules meetings with the parents on school grounds. We do not appreciate this intrusion onto our private property," the man clipped. "Call the school counselor and schedule the meeting through them."
"I don't have time for that," Tommy said. He pressed his hand against the door and pushed it open. As he walked inside, the man sputtered in outrage. Tommy ignored him. "Is your wife here? I assure you what I have to say won't take long."
"How dare you barge into our home?" the man questioned angrily. "I'm calling the police. You'll be arrested for trespassing, but I imagine that this won't be a first time for someone like you."
"Someone like me?" Tommy repeated with a humorless smile. "You mean someone black? Listen, call the police. I'm pretty sure they'll be interested in what I've discovered about your wife and you."
The man's hand hovered over the phone. It shook visibly. "What do you mean?"
"Where's your wife?" Tommy asked. "I only plan to say this once."
"Miriam!" Walker stood at the bottom of the staircase and called her name again. "Miriam!"
"I'm coming!" she called as she descended the stairs. Her eyes were flat and hard as her gaze raked over Tommy. In a brittle tone, she bit out, "What is the meaning of this? Parents don't have the right to come to teachers' homes without an invitation-"
"So you remember me?" Tommy interjected.
"It doesn't really matter," Tommy said. "I remember you and your explanation for my little girl's sudden distance. I remember you said it was because her previous teacher moved away and that in time, she'd adjust. It didn't happen and we finally got to the bottom of it. You're a bigot, Miriam Walker, and your prejudice has hurt my daughter. She won't adjust to your problems because she won't have to. In the next few minutes, you'll call the school and resign-"
"I will not!" she screeched. "Now, listen here. You can't come in here making threats-"
"I haven't voiced a single threat against you," he said in a deceptively calm voice. "Not one. I'm not a man who believes in threats. I believe in action, which led me to conduct a small investigation. In that investigation, I discovered that Miriam Walker's real name is Margaret Baxter and the man who calls himself Grant Walker is really Greg Wilson. Your spouses died under mysterious circumstances and here you are with new identities. So, yeah, call the police. I already have."
The wail of distant sirens could be heard as Tommy pushed the door wide open and left.
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