chapter one

***chance encounters***


Zarek Cassadine approached the penthouse suite at Harbor View Towers the same as he approached everything in life. Cool, calm and confident. Dressed in a beige, linen Ermenegildo Zegna suit, he was every bit the suave, debonair businessman. He held no doubts that this impromptu meeting would result in success. What he had to offer Sonny Corinthos would hint around the border of sentiment and emotions. Corinthos would rule with his heart and not his head. And Zarek would have him right where he wanted him.

"Is Mr. Corinthos expecting you?" the guard questioned after Zarek announced his intentions.

"No, he is not, but I assure you, he will not wish for me to be turned away."

"One moment."

The guard disappeared inside the suite, leaving his partner behind to stare at Zarek in a feeble attempt at intimidation. Zarek dismissed the man with a smirk. He was a Cassadine. Mere thugs did not possess the ability to daunt the comportment of someone with his breeding and class. The thought was absurd. Zarek bit back a chuckle and stared at the closed door. When it opened, he would be ready.

The first guard reappeared and held the door open. "Mr. Corinthos will see you now."

The guard patted Zarek down and when he found no weapon, he allowed him admittance.

Zarek inclined his dark head in a faint gesture of approval as he examined the interior of the penthouse. The room was furnished in rich, various shades of brown. An air of sophistication and comfort filled the space and his opinion of Corinthos increased a notch. Conversation would prove whether or not the man would deserve his respect.

"You come to my home to speak with me," Sonny stated as he descended the far staircase. His dark gaze bored into Zarek, but his face was still without expression. "I don't know you, and I don't conduct business here-"

Zarek raised his hand and Sonny stopped talking. "I meant no disrespect to come to your home. I understand that you're a family man and I know what that means. I come to make you an offer. If you would prefer, we can discuss this at my suite at the Port Charles Hotel." He reached inside his jacket pocket and pulled out a small business card. "The information needed for contacting me is located here."

Sonny waved the card away as he moved to stand in front of Zarek. "Just state your business."

"I'm sure your guards informed you that my name is Zarek Cassadine." He paused for effect.

The other man nodded. "Johnny told me your name. I heard about the fire. My condolences. Alexis Davis was a remarkable woman."

"Indeed she was," Zarek admitted. "Which brings me to the business at hand. I am aware of your problems with the Sorel family. I wish to offer you assistance."

"In exchange for what?"

Zarek shrugged. "In exchange for nothing. My extension of the family owns a vineyard in Italy. We've only distributed our product in Europe and we're looking to extend to the United States. I'd like to offer you a partnership."

Sonny's eyes narrowed. "Cassadines don't extend offers of partnership. What's the real reason for this visit?"

"I just told you," Zarek stated calmly. "I'm here only to offer you a once in a lifetime opportunity. I've dealt with men like Sorel before. I know how to handle them. Judging from recent events, you do not."

Sonny bristled. "I have Sorel under control."

"You have a wife and a child. Are you really prepared to risk their lives out of some misguided sense of male pride?" Zarek placed his business card on the desk and moved to the door. "The offer has a time limit. I wouldn't hesitate if I were you."

Zarek's hand closed around the doorknob and turned.

"Wait," Sonny said before Zarek fully opened the door. "Let's talk."

~*~

Tommy Hardy, a three-year veteran of the Port Charles Arson Strike Force, moved carefully through the debris. Even after a week, the biting smell of smoke lingered in the air. Tommy's eyes squinted as he jotted down notes. The lead Fire Marshal on the case, Bryan Phillips, ended the investigation for the day, but Tommy decided to stay behind. The case nagged at him and he was determined to continue until something clicked.

The positions of the bodies had been strange. Stefan Cassadine was found in his study while his mother and sister were found near the fireplace in the main room. The fire started in the kitchen and spread throughout the house within minutes. All three were burned beyond recognition and there were no other fatalities. Despite the impressive list of live-in servants, not one of them was at the estate at the time of the fire. Tommy wanted to interrogate them, especially the long-time employee, Mrs. Lansbury, but his superior assumed that task. Later, Tommy planned to review Phillips' notes.

Tommy walked through the doorway of the charred remains of the study. He paused there when he noticed that he was no longer alone. "Excuse me. This is a crime scene and no civilians are allowed on the premises until our investigation has been concluded."

Justus Ward turned around to face Tommy. Lines marked his forehead and touches of gray spotted the hairline around his temple. His eyes were dark and murky as he regarded the younger man. "I'm not just a civilian, Tommy, and you know it."

Tommy shrugged. "It doesn't matter that you were the deceased's attorney. You shouldn't be here. Your presence damages the integrity of this investigation-"

"So it was arson?" Justus interrupted. "It's conclusive?"

"Nothing's conclusive, yet, but that doesn't change the fact that you shouldn't be here," Tommy repeated. "Did you touch anything?"

"No," Justus said impatiently. "I know better than that. Just tell me what you've found so far."

"Why do you need to know?" Tommy asked, regarding Justus with suspicion. "What's the urgency?"

"Cut it out. I didn't start this fire, but I have a good idea that I know who did."

Tommy's interest peaked. "Who?"

"Alexis Davis and Helena Cassadine," Justus said. "I would bet my life on it."

~*~

'I heard from a friend today
And she said you were in town
Suddenly the memories came back
To me in my mind

How can I be strong
I've asked myself
Time and time I've said
That I'll never fall in love
With you again'

"Breaker, breaker."

Dawn Jensen pressed power on the stereo and brought an abrupt end to Janet Jackson's heartfelt ballad. She grabbed the CB microphone and said, "What's up?"

"Bubblin' Brown Sugar is that you?" a male voice asked with a trace of laughter.

"Sly, don't make me get ethnic with you," she said, straining to keep the humor from her voice. "You know damn well it's me. As I said before, what's up?"

"We got a call, sweet thang," he told her. "Some guy has a blow out on Ludlow Road. How soon can you get to him?"

"I'm about 2 miles from there."

"Good. I told him you'd get there in ten minutes. Now, we don't look like liars."

"Ha, ha," she said, interrupting his loud burst of laughter. "You think you're the funniest thing in the world. Just wait until the cast is off your leg, buddy. We'll see who's laughing last then!"

Sly sighed. "Promises, promises. That's all I ever get from you."

"Exactly!" she said with laugh. "That's all you will ever get from me! Over and out."

She lowered the volume of the CB before he could respond with some nonsense wisecrack. Sly Eckertt proved to be a great business partner, much to her globetrotting parents' chagrin, but when it came to romance, they were worlds apart. Teasing and light flirtation played a large role in their friendship, but neither wanted anything beyond that. Well, Dawn didn't. Sometimes, she wasn't so sure about Sly.

Her parents, Carlotta and Steven Jensen were already upset that their youngest daughter was the co-owner and operator of a towing service instead of following in the footsteps of her older sister, a prominent attorney. They'd lose their minds if she became involved with Sylvester Eckertt. It wasn't the fact that Sly was white that bothered them. His squirmishes with the local police department outweighed that.

Dawn grimaced. If they had any idea that he broke his leg while bungie jumping off the Port Charles Bridge and she was out helping strangers with tires in the middle of the night... Thank goodness, their European vacation was extended another six weeks was all Dawn could think. Thank goodness!

Because of the darkness of the night, Dawn nearly missed the black Jaguar parked on the shoulder of the road. Lucky for her, Ludlow Road wasn't well traveled. She put the truck in reverse and backed up to the Jag. With one glance in the rearview, her heart stopped.

"Damn," she mumbled under her breath.

For a brief moment, her eyes connected with the owner of the expensive automobile. Her mouth watered within seconds. Standing almost six feet with dark brown eyes, high cheekbones and an olive skin tone, he was the hottest man she'd ever seen. The reaction she felt to him was strong, immediate and came close to scaring her senseless.

"Get a grip, girlfriend," she scolded herself. "Just help him out and get a grip."

She quickly called in the make, model and license plate number of the Jaguar before grabbing her clipboard and hopping out the truck. As she approached the disconcerting young man, she kept her focus on his car. "What seems to be the problem?" she asked. Her fingers clutched the pen, poised to write out his order.

The man huffed. "I think it's obvious."

Dawn's eyebrow arched at his tone. "Oh, really?" Attractiveness did not make up for manners. She didn't give a damn how fine he was, no one talked to her like that. "Why don't you enlighten me?"

His breathing sounded ragged as he sucked in air. Pointing at the back tire, he said, "The tire blew out."

"Oh, wait. Please don't tell me you have a car like this, but you don't know how to change the tire." She bit down on her bottom lip to keep from laughing. "Pop the trunk and I can set this for you in a minute."

"That won't help," he answered.

"Why not? Don't you have a spare?"

With the help of the headlights from the Jag, Dawn easily noted the blush that crept across his high cheekbones. She shook her head and held up her hand. "Don't say it. I know the answer. Let me see what you have here and I'll call it in to make sure we have something for you."

"Thank you."

She smiled to herself as she knelt. He had some manners after all. Good! She pulled a flashlight from the utility belt around her waist. The light shone on the tire and Dawn's eyes narrowed. The beam swam across the rear of the car and she knew that her assessment was correct. Standing up, she flipped off the flashlight and shoved it back into place. "This isn't a blow out. The tire was shot out."

"Impossible." He frowned.

"Trust me. I know what I'm looking at here. See these skid marks along the side here. They're bullet markings. Someone shot at you-"

From the corner of her eye, she saw a flash. The sound of twigs cracking echoed around her and the next thing she knew, she was flat on her back with the young hottie on top of her.

"Excuse me, but I believe you're right," he announced. "We have to get out of here!"

"No joke?" she retorted as he rolled off her. "We can make it to the truck. I left the keys in the ignition. On the count of three, run for it and stay low. By the way, I'm driving so don't get any ideas."

He shrugged his acceptance of her terms and quickly counted, "One, two, three!"

Silent bullets whizzed past them. Dawn made it to the tow truck without incident, but she wasn't sure about her companion. He muttered an oath just as he slid into the cabin beside her. As she gunned the engine, she called out, "Were you hit?"

"It's just a flesh wound." He looked behind them. "I don't think we're being followed."

"It will take them a while to catch up. I think they were on foot," she told him as she took side streets and back alleys to reach the oldest section of Port Charles.

"You seem to know what you're doing," he complimented.

"I do. When I'm being shot at, my driving ability intensifies."

"Do you always respond with quick retorts?" he muttered.

"Do you always behave like a pompous jerk one minute and a gracious human being the next?" she asked.

"Touché," he mumbled. "I apologize. I'm not here under the best of circumstances."

Dawn glanced in the rearview mirror as she circled the block again, just in case. "What do you mean by that?"

"I lost my family in a fire a short while ago. I thought I had it under control. I apologize for any rudeness."

"I'm sorry to hear that," she said softly. She pushed the garage opener on the dashboard and one of the doors to a warehouse opened. The tow truck pulled inside and the door closed after them.

"This is a garage?" he questioned as the tow truck pulled to a stop. "What about my car?"

"You can worry about that car later," Dawn advised. "You're bleeding all over my truck. This isn't the garage. I figured they saw the name on the side and I wasn't about to take any chances. This is my place. I have a loft upstairs. You should be safe here while I look at your arm. Hold on while I call my partner."

After quickly filling Sly in on the situation, Dawn ended the call without giving him her whereabouts over the airwaves. She had a feeling he'd know where she'd hide anyway and would call her to check up later.

"This way," she said, leading the man to the elevator that would take them three stories up to her apartment. Once he was inside, she pulled the doors shut and pushed the necessary buttons. When the doors opened less than a minute later, she'd grown uncomfortable under his unrelenting stare. "What?" she asked.

"Why are you doing this for me?" he asked. He cradled his right arm against him. "You don't even know me."

"Karma," she answered. "I feel like it's a debt I owe. Don't ask because I don't get it myself. Sit down over there." She pointed at the chairs circling her wooden dining room table.

She washed and dried her hands and then grabbed the first aid kit. As she passed her bedroom, she pulled the baseball cap from her head. Long, curly micro braids fell to her shoulders. When she returned, their gazes locked immediately. His eyes darkened with interest and surprise. A tiny smile curved his lips. "You're a very beautiful woman. You shouldn't hide behind caps and uniforms."

Heat flooded her cheeks and she shook her head. "And you're a flirt. Let me see your arm."

"And you're bossy," he told her, holding out his arm for her inspection.

"Yeah, but I'm one helluva driver," she said with a faint smile.

His wound wasn't too deep, but it was wide. The bullet scraped across his flesh and left him bloody. He'd survive, but the arm could be a problem for him. She applied peroxide and a bandage. He only winced once.

"Thank you, miss...?"

"My name is Dawn," she answered. "Dawn Jensen."

He held out his hand and smiled. "I'm Nikolas Cassadine. Thank you for saving my life, Dawn Jensen."

"You're welcome," she said, refusing the hand he offered, "but is it customary for you to thank the person who saved your life by lying to them? You're not really Nikolas Cassadine...or are you?"

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