chapter seven

***the beginning***


Ring! Ring!

The insistent ringing of the telephone interrupted Dara's slumber with the gracefulness of a police siren. With her eyes still closed, she blindly reached out for the receiver. "Hello?" she mumbled after stifling a yawn.

"Rise and shine, porcupine!"

"Steve?" Her voice cracked as she rolled onto her back. She pulled the covers close around her to ward off the morning air and searched her brain to see if she truly recognized her stepfather's voice. With the overseas connection and lack of sleep, it was hard to tell. "Steve, is that you?"

"Doesn't it sound like me?" he quipped. "You're a grown woman, but if you can't recognize my voice because of the number of men-"

"Now, stop it!" she said, coming fully awake. That was Steve Jensen, all right! Nobody had the energy to tease so early in the morning except for him and her younger sister. Slowly, her eyelids fluttered open and she glanced at the bedside clock. The hour was ungodly and she couldn't prevent herself from whining. "Steve, there is a time difference. I know you and Mama are aware of that. Why are you calling me?"

"Talk about ungrateful!" he laughed and played a quick blues riff from his harmonica for her. "I hope that woke you up. Here's your sexy Mama. Once she's done with you, you'll wanna apologize for answering the phone like a grouchy wench!"

"Steve-"

"Too late," Carrie's voice replaced Steve's and she was loud and clear. "Just what is going on over there?"

Her mother was in a fierce mood. Dara could feel it stretching out across the airwaves. What had she done wrong now, Dara wondered. "Mama, I don't understand…"

"Girl, please, do not give me that," Carrie retorted. "You know what I'm talking about. It's all over the front pages on the newsstands. Sorel is free! What happened? Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," she answered, suddenly awake. "He was acquitted yesterday. End of story."

"That doesn't sound right to me, Dara," Carrie said. "You said it was an open and shut case. How could he get off this time? What about that boy…whathisname? Zachary? Zavier?"

"His name is Zander, Mama," Dara replied, holding in a chuckle. "He wasn't called to testify. The case is over."

"And what does that mean for you?" Carrie's voice became quiet and was tight with worry. "Are you safe from them?"

"I should be. I quit, so I shouldn't have to worry about Sorel, Corinthos or any of the rest of them."

"You quit?!"

Dara cringed. Maybe telling her mother about her resignation wasn't the smartest thing to do after four years of college and three years of law school. Damn!

"Your mother is seeing red," Steve informed her as he returned to the conversation. "I hope for you that by the time our plane lands in Port Charles, her vision will be normal."

"What? Wait!" Dara called out, but only the dial tone heard her. Damn! Why were they coming back? That's all she needed. Her mother would be like a dog with a bone until Dara redefined her life. Damn. Damn. Damn!

She set the phone on the nightstand and snuggled underneath the covers again. Since the plane would take several hours to cross the Atlantic, Dara decided to catch a few more winks. Until the telephone rang again.

"Hello!" she shrieked into the headset.

"Don't yell at me!" Dawn shrieked back. "Were you asleep?"

"What do you think? Look at the clock and you tell me."

"There's no need to get an attitude," her younger sister informed her. "You don't usually wake up so mean. What's wrong? Is everything okay?"

Dara sighed. The concern in Dawn's voice came close to easing her irritation at being awakened. "Mama and Steve woke me up. They're on their way back home."

"No way! Please, tell me you're kidding."

"I'm not," Dara said. "They're flying back right now. Why are you so upset? Is Sly keeping you warm at night these days?"

"Ha, ha," Dawn muttered. "Look, I can tell you're still drowsy, but…are you really okay? I heard about Sorel. It wasn't your fault, you know."

Dara smiled. "I know, and I'm fine, Bright Eyes. I'd like to go back to sleep and get some rest before the folks come back into town. Wanna meet up later for lunch?"

"Sure. Sounds good. Sleep well."

"I intend to," Dara murmured after ending the call and slipping underneath the covers again.

~*~

Zarek slammed the penthouse door shut and did his last set of stretches inside. An early morning jog along the waterfront left him invigorated and ready to battle a brand new day. Slowing down his breathing to coincide with the slow movements of his limbs, he felt his body start to cool down. If not for the fragrance of his mother's jasmine-scented candles floating in the air, the morning would be off to a good start.

Biting his tongue on the endless stream of expletives on the tip of his tongue, Zarek headed towards the mini-fridge in his office. He grabbed a 33.8 fl. Oz. Bottle of water and gulped the contents down to midway. Then he sauntered back into the living area, kicking his running shoes off along the way. By the time he reached the sofa, his body had completely cooled down. As he sat down, the doorbell rang and he rolled his eyes.

Sonny Corinthos stood on his doorstep and the surprise Zarek felt at the unexpected visit was hidden by a tight smile. "Good morning, Corinthos. To what do I owe this pleasure?" he asked, standing aside to allow Sonny entrance.

"I'm not here for chit chat," Sonny grumbled. "Is this how you do business? You agree to one set of terms and then abide by another set of rules?"

Zarek sat on the edge of the sofa's armrest. His eyes narrowed as he watched Sonny battle himself for control over his boiling rage. Impressive, Zarek thought as Sonny reined in his emotions without breaking a sweat. "I misunderstand," he said, the faint sound of an Australian accent passing from him.

Sonny released a short humorless laugh. His hands flexed into fists at his sides before the fingers slowly relaxed. "The Sorel problem has not been resolved. He was granted an acquittal. He's free as a bird. I thought you knew how to handle him."

"Oh, that?" Zarek shrugged. "Yes, Judge Franklin surprised the world with that swift legal move." He rose and grabbed his water bottle. He swallowed a few more gulps before he spoke again. "Sorel isn't a threat against you. We have an arrangement and I have no plans of losing a business partner so early in the game."

"And I'm supposed to just take your word for this," Sonny ground out. "I don't know how you handle your enemies in Greece, Cassadine, but here in the States, we're more hands on and don't leave things to chance-"

"Impulsiveness is not a tool best used against Sorel," Zarek advised when Sonny strode to the door. "Leave him to me. The thorn he represented has already been removed from your side."

"I only have your word for that."

The quiet insult angered Zarek, but he refused to be baited. His word was as good as any legal contract. It was a matter of honor. Inhaling a deep breath, he pressed the cool bottle against his forehead. The condensation chilled his rising temper and he smiled as he looked at Sonny. "If Sorel wanted you dead, you would never have reached my front door. Believe me. He is under control. Don't make the mistake of underestimating that."

Sonny's jaw clenched visibly. He nodded once. "See that it stays that way."

Zarek laughed upon Sonny's departure. The man would have the last word this time, but he shouldn't accept the occurrence as a habit.

~*~

All was quiet in the cottage and Zander decided to make his move. He stuffed armfuls of clothing inside the worn backpack and slowly edged to the bedroom door. Swallowing a deep breath, he turned the doorknob and pulled. The hinges creaked in protest, but became quiet as he pulled the door in one quick move. He poked his head out into the hallway and listened.

All was still quiet in the cottage. He released a sigh of relief and shrugged the backpack on. Carrying his boots in his hand, he crept down the hardwood floors in sock-covered feet. He came to the opening that led to the living room and peeked inside. Spiked blonde hair stuck up from the end of the sofa. The soft whirring noise of light snoring drifted from Jason's sleeping form and Zander smiled. If he could make it to the door, he was home free.

He edged closer to the sofa and looked down at his abductor. Morgan was hanging out with the Sandman! Zander almost laughed out loud. This was almost too easy, but since he'd bided his time, he knew this escape was his in the bag. The time away from Emily was too long, and with Sorel on the loose again, he had to know that she was safe. Then, he was out forever.

Of course, if Emily agreed to go with him, everything would be just perfect.

He decided against slinking out the back door and opted for the front. The double bolt only took a few minutes to pick and he was gone.

~*~

Andresj sat still as a statue on the edge of the window seat as he watched the mocha-skinned beauty set out his snack tray. He wasn't quite sure what to make of her arrival, but since she started preparing his food, the taste had improved immensely.

A pulse pounded erratically at the base of her throat, and he knew that his unwavering gaze affected her. The sweet thrill of victory was lost on him, though. Caged inside a room with an electronic shackle around his ankle made the win a bitter pill to swallow.

"Would you prefer something else?" she offered, a faint frown creasing her brow.

Wary of telling her what he really wanted, Drč simply shook his head.

She pointed at the tray with its assortment of cheeses, fruits and crackers and continued to question him. "Are you sure? I could call the service for a delivery of chips and dips..."

"I do not require dips or chips, Keesha," he answered quietly. "The table you have prepared is quite edible. I have no complaints."

Keesha smiled. Her slender hands clasped in front of her, she glided across the floor to stand before him. "You are a very well-mannered young man. Would you voice a complaint if you had one?"

Drč stiffened. What was she asking of him? Did she really want to know that electric charges left him stunned in retaliation for minor infractions? Could she stomach the knowledge of what he'd endured since he was taken from his boarding school dormitory? That he was bound, gagged and thrown into a disgusting hovel for days on end, and that even now, the threat of returning to that depraved environment loomed over him and forced him to behave like a 'well-mannered man'?

"I'm sorry," she quickly apologized. "It appears that I've insulted you. It wasn't my intention. My parents raised me better than that. I think I'd better go now. Take care, Drč."

Andrčsj watched her leave and wondered if there was more to her question than he first realized. Perhaps, his days of imprisonment were nearing an end.

~*~

Nik stepped out of the shower and wrapped a towel around his dripping torso. He left his bathroom and headed down the hall to Gia's room. Just as he suspected, he found her curled underneath the covers with just a few wisps of her braids peeking out from underneath the down comforter. As he tiptoed across the floor, he rubbed the towel over his body and quickly dried himself. When he crawled into bed with her, her slender frame warmed his body instantly.

"Urmgh," she mumbled, burying herself deeper into the covers.

"Good morning, Sparky," he murmured against her ear before covering her face and neck with kisses. By the time his mouth reached the opening of her nightgown, she was awake and her arms closed around him.

"Good morning, sweet prince," she said. "Why are you waking me up so early? My photo shoot isn't until the afternoon."

"It's not that early," he whispered. "Sheba and I have already gone out for our morning ride-"

"When are getting rid of that dumb horse?" she asked. "It takes up too much of your time as it is."

"Nikolas Cassadine loves that dumb horse, and as long as it took for that dumb horse to get to know me, you can bet I'm not about to give him up too soon," Nik told her. "Horses are worth some good money. Once I get the riches, I may buy a few more. Breed them for racing."

Gia rolled her eyes and pulled away from him. "I hope you're not planning to waste too much of our money on some stupid stables. What about the plans we made? I hope you're not backing out on me now…"

He encircled her within his arms, pressing his nude frame against her. "I wouldn't do that. We're in this together, Gia. I'm here for you, sweetheart. Let's not fight. Aren't there a better way we could say good morning?"

"I think so," she murmured as she moved to face him. Her fingers threaded in his hair and she brought his head down to hers.

~*~

The sound of running water greeted Dawn as she entered the kitchen. Nikolas stood at the sink, diligently washing the breakfast dishes. "You didn't have to do that. I was planning to…"

He shrugged as he looked over his shoulder at her. "I don't mind. How's your sister?"

"She sounds okay. We're having lunch later. I'd like for you to come with me. We could tell her what's going on."

She grabbed the dishtowel and dried the dishes as he washed them. They worked in companionable silence until Nikolas' unwavering stare unnerved her. "What?" she mumbled.

"You tell me," he suggested. He pulled the plug and the water drained out of the sink. While he dried his hands with a paper towel, he continued to look at her. "You're quiet this morning. Is it me or did something happen?"

She shook her head. "It's not you. You made breakfast for me and cleaned up the kitchen. I have no complaints with you. It's really kinda silly."

"I doubt that." He removed the dishtowel from her hands and tossed it on the counter. Taking her hand, he led them out of the kitchen and to the living area. To Dawn's surprise, he didn't sit on the futon. Instead, he held both her hands and his dark brown eyes gazed at her with such understanding that tears came to her eyes. He caressed her cheek with the back of his hand. "Tell me."

"My parents are coming back sooner than expected," she sighed. "I told you it wasn't that big of a deal, and it isn't…"

"You're upset for a reason," he reminded her gently. "I've been so consumed with my own problems that I haven't been aware of what you may be going through. We haven't known each other for long, but that hasn't affected our friendship. We are friends, aren't we?"

"Yeah, I think so."

A stern expression settled on his handsome features. Holding her chin in a gentle grasp, he said, "Either we are or we aren't."

Her skin tingled and she smiled in spite of herself. "We are."

His eyes gleamed with satisfaction. "Well, now that we've settled that dilemma, perhaps I can be of some assistance with whatever's troubling you. Please, allow me to try."

"You are relentless," she complained with a faint smile. "This won't take long, but let's sit down anyway." Once they were settled on the futon, Dawn began, "I've received a job offer and during their absence, they expected me to make a decision about it. That's it in a nutshell!"

Nikolas laughed. "I think there's more to this tale than what you've given me. What kind of a job offer? To be a dancer?"

Dawn laughed then. "A dancer? I think I will take that as a compliment, but no, the offer wasn't to dance. The WSB offered me a job as an agent."

"The World Security Bureau ?" he questioned a hint of disbelief in his voice. "Aren't you rather young for that…and what about a university degree? Wouldn't you need one to be an agent?"

Her eyebrow arched in indignation. "Are you assuming that I don't have a degree? I have a BS in Psychology and a Masters in Criminology-"

"How old are you?" he sputtered. His eyes raked over her boldly.

Dawn shivered under the heat of his brash stare. Damn him for affecting her without even trying! She swallowed hard and directed her attention back to their conversation. "I'm 21 and before you start in with more questions, I finished school early. It wasn't that big of a deal-"

"I disagree! You should be proud of your accomplishments," he told her. "Why are you hiding your knowledge inside of a tow truck?"

She rose abruptly and turned her back on him. His question was the same her parents had asked and the same she'd often asked herself. The answer eluded her, but deep down, she knew the answer lingered just below the surface. The only problem was she wasn't brave enough to dig through to reach it.

Behind her, Nikolas stood up and moved to her. He rested his hands at her waist and gently turned her around to face him. Pulling her close to him so that only a breath separated their bodies, he whispered, "I had no right to say those things to you. Your decisions are your own. No one knows that better than I do. Forgive me?"

The heat of Nikolas' body enveloped Dawn. Common sense escaped her as she closed the distance between them and leaned towards him. Her arms closed around him and her hands pressed against the hard muscles in his back. Her tongue moistened her lips as she nodded. In a husky whisper, she said, "Forgiven."

"You'll need to forgive me for this, too," he murmured just before he lowered his head to hers.

The first touch of his lips on hers was as soft as a whisper. Then his mouth parted. His tongue traced the fullness of her lips before slipping inside to explore the recesses of her mouth. Desire soared through her and she willingly gave herself to the passion of his kiss.

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