"Mrs. Jensen?" the young teenager cautiously began.
"Yes, Lisa?" Carrie asked. She gave her prospective employee a gentle smile and hoped the young girl would just say whatever was on her mind and go. Carrie wasn't too proud of herself for feeling that way, but she couldn't help it. Lisa, with her multiple piercings and black lipstick, was her last interview of the day, and Carrie wanted it over with as soon as possible. Lisa seemed to be a nice enough person, but Carrie didn't want her to represent her boutique, not the way she was presently dressed.
"Well, um...your phone is off the hook," Lisa said, raising a tentative finger to point at Carrie's telephone.
"I know, hon. I did it on purpose," Carrie said with a smile. She only wished she had thought of it sooner. A series of crank calls had forced her to resort to desperate measures. The very first thing, the following morning, Carrie planned to have the telephone give her a new number. A phoneline tied up with senseless calls would not help her boutique serve her customers.
"Oh," Lisa replied, swallowing the lump in her throat.
"Well, now, Lisa, your application says that you worked at a video rental store. Could you tell me a little bit about that?" Carrie asked, looking from the application to glance at the timid girl.
"Well, um...I worked there."
"Yeah," Carrie said, hoping the girl would continue before she lost her mind.
"Until I quit."
Carrie bit her lip to refrain from speaking the first thought that came to her mind. Instead, she said, "How were you with customers?"
Lisa shrugged her shoulders. "I dunno. I didn't work with any."
"Your application says you were a cashier. How could you not work with customers?" Carrie asked with a frown.
"I quit before I had to."
"Okay!" Carrie said, abruptly rising from her chair behind her makeshift desk. "Thanks, Lisa. It's been a pleasure meeting you."
"Thank you, Mrs. Jensen," Lisa said, taking Carrie's lead and rising from her chair, too.
As soon as Lisa left the boutique, Carrie released a sigh of relief. Running her hands through her hair, she quickly moved about her store. She straightened her desk and began to organize the applications of the people she had interviewed that day. She grimaced as she realized that none of them had the qualifications or the common sense she needed to help her make Carrie's Essentials a success. Her despair was so deep that she didn't hear her front door open and close.
Carrie dropped the stack of applications she had been going through and her startled eyes flew to her unexpected visitor. "Stefan? Has something happened? Dawn is-"
"She's fine. I apologize for coming here unannounced. Dawn mentioned that your boutique would be open to the public soon, and I wanted to stop by and offer my congratulations," he said, his tone smooth as he allowed his eyes to gaze on her. She appeared to be at her wit's end, but she couldn't have looked more appealing if she tried. Her hair was mussed, her make-up was nothing more than a memory and her clothes were in a disarray, but Stefan couldn't help but find himself attracted to her.
Carrie gave him a faint smile and said, "Thank you, but as you can see, I'm far from a grand opening."
"Is there a problem?" he asked, genuinely concerned as his brow creased into a frown.
"Not one that I can't handle," she reassured him with a smile.
Stefan gave a slight nod in acceptance of her answer. He would be certain to not overstep his bounds again. She, like her daughters, was fiercely independent. They weren't prone to accepting help from anyone unless they trusted the person. He was not so foolish as to think he'd won her trust so easily, but he was sure that in time, he would.
"I'm sure there are few problems you can't handle," he agreed with a slight smile. "I'll take my leave now."
Carrie watched him turn to go with disappointment. He was an intriguing man. Quiet, reflective, and brilliant. She wanted to get to know him better, she realized. But, for Dawn's sake, of course, she quickly added. "Stefan, wait."
Stefan paused as he neared the door. He turned back to face her and waited for her to continue.
"I'm overdue for a coffee break. Would you care to join me? The coffee shop next door has the best expresso I've ever tasted."
"Expresso? I haven't had any in quite some time. I accept your invitation," he said, smiling at her.
"Very good then," Carrie replied. She headed towards Stefan, but remembering the telephone, she went back to her desk. She put the phone back on its base and moved to exit the store with Stefan close behind her.
The sound of ringing in his ear caused Nikolas to release the breath he had been holding. He had been trying to reach Carrie as soon as he left the launch, but it had been to no avail. Her phoneline at her boutique had been busy and he had been thatclose to ordering the operator to perform an emergency break-through when he heard the ringing come through on the other end. Now, if she would only pick up...
Nikolas counted the rings and as he reached twenty-five, he ended the call. Carrie wasn't there, he decided. He'd try her at her home later, but for now, he would continue to look for Dawn. He was confident that if she had gone to her mother, Carrie would have called him or Dara. If Dawn wasn't with Carrie, where was she? But even more than that, was she safe?
Nikolas discarded the images of her being harmed from his mind. She was fine, he told himself. He would find her and she would be just fine.
"They should have been back by now," Dawn said, glancing at her watch again. Her eyes then moved to door.
"Just relax," Sly said, "My cousin knows how to take care of himself. He and Hardy are okay. Trust me. They'll be back soon."
"Soon was half an hour ago, Sly. They should be here, right now. I'm going after them," Dawn said, rising to stand.
Jordan tore himself away from Emily to block Dawn's path. "No, you're not. You're going to sit here and wait for them."
"Jordan, move," Dawn said, using irritation to mask her fear.
"Nope. Sit," he said, using a forceful tone that surprised even him.
"Jay's right," Sly agreed. "Sit down, D. Let Tommy and Lucky handle it. They'll be back soon. I guarantee it."
"No, Sly. Dawn's right," Liz spoke softly. "They should have been back by now. Maybe we should call the police."
"No cops," Sly said, shaking his head.
"Why not?" Emily asked.
"Yeah, why?" Lark added.
"Because I don't trust 'em, and Lucky and Tommy don't need 'em."
"Oh, brother!" Lizzie said, rolling her eyes. "So, what are we supposed to do? Just wait?"
"Yep," Jordan said, staring at Dawn who looked as if she would bolt as soon as he moved away from her. He said his next words, using a softer tone, "You've got to relax, okay? Getting all bent out of shape isn't good for you or your baby. Just chill for a bit and wait it out. Lucky and Tommy have gone through worse. They'll be back."
Dawn slowly allowed Jordan's words to sink in. She then said something, he thought he'd never hear her say to him. "You're right," she said, resting her hand against her still flat abdomen. "But, I think I'll call Nikolas just in case."
Jordan breathed a sigh of relief as Dawn set her purse in her chair and went to the counter to use Ruby's phone. He ran his fingers through his short, dark brown hair and moved to sit beside Emily again.
Emily smiled at Jordan as he reclaimed his seat beside her. She was impressed with how he spoke to Dawn, but something started nagging at her. She wasn't one for gossip, especially considering how the kids treated her after her overdose, but there was something she had to know. Leaning close to Jordan, she asked, "Did you say 'baby'?"
Jordan swallowed hard as Emily moved closer to him. He took a deep breath before he spoke. "Yeah. I thought you knew."
Emily's mouth parted in shock and she had to remind herself to close it. She slowly shook her head. "I didn't know. When Nikolas invited me to the wedding, he didn't tell me."
"Yeah. It's no big deal, though," Jordan said.
"What? Of course, it's a big deal. She's having a baby!" Emily whispered.
"That's not what I meant. Of course, a baby's a big deal. I meant that they didn't get married just because of the baby, you know? They were destined to do it anyway. I think the baby just sped it all up," he said with a smile, pleased with himself and his ability to speak to her without sounding like a fool.
"I suppose you're right," Emily said, with small smile. With the knowledge of his unborn child, Emily's feelings for Nikolas began to change and her conversation with AJ took on a whole new light. She would be Nikolas' friend as she always had been, but she wouldn't pursue her interest in him. He was definitely spoken for, she thought as she glanced at the counter. From Dawn's body language, she could tell that Nikolas was on the line. Lucky girl, Emily thought, but then as she looked at the cute young man next to her, whose eyes were glued to her, she thought, lucky me.
"Hi, Nikky," Dawn said twirling the telephone cord around her fingers.
"Dawn?! Darling, where are you? Are you okay? I've been looking everywhere for you," Nikolas said, barely taking a second to pause between his questions.
"Slow down! I'm at Kelley's-"
"Who's with you? You're not alone, are you?" Nikolas asked, unaware that he had interrupted her.
"I'm not alone. I'm with the guys. Well, minus Lucky and Tommy," she said, not bothering to hide her worry from him.
"Where are they?" Nikolas asked, immediately concerned.
"I'm not sure. I thought I saw someone or something in the bushes. Tommy and Lucky left to investigate and they haven't been back since."
"How long have they been gone?"
"About an hour or so," she said, her voice tight with concern. Hoarsely, she asked, "How soon can you be here?"
"Turn around?" Dawn repeated. Her eyes widened and she repeated, "Turn around!"
She turned around and found her husband, standing right behind her. She could barely move away from the counter before he pulled her into his arms. Her arms wrapped around him and she was certain she felt him tremble. "Baby, what's wrong?"
"I was afraid something had happened to you. Dara told me that you spoke to your father and then your missing cell phone..."
"I put it in my purse," she said certain of it.
"I know. I saw you. That's what worried me. Your not having it when I knew that you did. We won't think about that right now. I'm just glad that you're okay," he said, cupping her face in his hands.
"We're doing just fine," she said with a small smile.
"Good. Now, I want you to do me a favor. I want you to stay here with Sly and Jordan while I go look for them," he said, his eyes holding hers.
"No!" she said, shaking her head. "I don't want you to go. I think we should just call the police."
"No police. Not yet," he said. "I have to go. I'm sure they're okay. I'm just going to tell them to hurry up."
"Uh-uh," Dawn said, shaking her head again.
"Love, I'm going. Stay here. I'm taking my cell phone with me. If anything happens, I'll call you here, but if we're not back in thirty minutes, call Uncle and then the police. Okay?"
"So, you're gonna go whether I like it or not, huh?" she said, lowering her eyes so he wouldn't see the fear which shone brightly there.
He took a short breath and said, "Yeah."
"Okay. I'll call Stefan if you don't come back soon, and then, I'll call the police," she said quietly.
"I'll be back. I promise," Nikolas said. He lowered his lips to hers and gently kissed her. After the kiss was over, he roughly pulled her into his arms again and gave her another warm embrace. He released her and moved to the table where their friends sat. He smiled his 'hello' to everyone and asked to speak with Jordan and Sly privately. He asked them to always keep Dawn in their sight. He couldn't go into the reasons now, but it was necessary. They agreed and gave him the thumbs up as he left the restaurant.
Maxwell couldn't believe his rotten luck. He wasn't even supposed to follow her that day. He was only doing it to earn brownie points with the boss, but now he doubted if those brownie points would come. Here he was, trapped like a dog by a couple of high school students. He'd never felt so stupid before in his life.
"Here boy!" Lucky beckoned. He winked at Tommy and pointed behind the dumpsters.
Tommy nodded at him and picked up a stick from the ground. Tapping the stick against the palm of his hand, Tommy called out. "Wonder where he is?"
Lucky picked up a handful of gravel and began throwing it against the dumpster. "I don't know, man, but I hope he comes out soon. This game of hide and seek has gotten old."
"I know what you mean," Tommy replied, tapping his hand again.
Lucky threw the last of his gravel against the dumpster and sought more. He laughed softly to himself as he saw a big rock just sitting there on the ground, waiting for him. He picked it up and threw a hard, fastball against the metal container. The sound of the rock echoed throughout the small alley and a voice called out, "KEEP IT QUIET DOWN THERE!!"
Impatient, Tommy whispered to Lucky. "Let's get him."
"Wait. That won't be necessary," came the voice from behind the dumpster. With his hands raised high above his head, Maxwell exited his hiding place. "I'm unarmed."
"Just keep 'em high," Lucky said as he moved to pat him down. He felt a hard object in the upper pocket of the young man's jacket. Lucky pulled the object out and said, "What have we here?"
"What is it?" Tommy asked, keeping his stick in an attack position.
"A cell phone," Lucky replied, tossing it to Tommy.
Tommy glanced at the small phone which was enclosed in a leather case. The initials 'DJC' jumped out at him and he became incensed. "This is Dawn's!! You took this from her purse!?"
The rest of his statement was lost as Tommy jumped him.