chapter ten

***release***

"Ouch!"

Frustration caused Nikolas' hands to shake and he tugged too roughly on the beard. Dawn's hands covered his and removed his trembling fingers from his face. Unable to look at her, he stared straight ahead at his reflection in the mirror. With the disguise partially removed from his face, he squinted to see the man he recognized. Irritation, anger and defeat etched into his features, and he didn't like that image of himself at all. He closed his eyes against the sight and sighed.

"Here, let me do it," she said softly. "Nikolas?" she added softly when he didn't open his eyes or speak. "Are you-"

"I'm fine," he interrupted in a choked voice. Opening his eyes, he looked down at her. The concern in her eyes and voice nearly overwhelmed him. Only one other person had ever conveyed that depth of emotion for him, with it so raw that Nikolas could read it in his green eyes. His father... Hot, salty tears stung Nikolas' eyes and he quickly nodded. "Very well, please. I am not familiar with this glue and make-up... Shall I sit?"

"Yeah," she said softly. She pointed at the toilet seat. "Here would be fine."

"Okay." He sat and waited while she washed and dried her hands.

Dawn soaked a cotton ball with adhesive remover and then applied it with gentle dabs to Nikolas' jaw. Carefully, she peeled the beard away from his face. As she worked, she said, "I'm sorry we didn't get a chance to talk to Lucky."

His emotions still raw, he answered hoarsely, "Me, too."

"I didn't think they'd leave so quickly, you know? We only danced one dance."

"What could cause them to leave?" he asked. "Do you have any suggestions?"

"None. Not unless..." She sighed. "Well, not unless Sly had a few too many. It happens. He's been a little irritable lately and when he gets like that, he drinks too much. It's possible he had too much to drink and they took him home. Want me to call him and see what happened?"

He shook his head. "No."

She shrugged and continued to remove the beard. When she reached out to apply more adhesive remover, his hand shot out and closed around her wrist. Her eyes widened in surprise.

"How can you work with a man like him?"

Anger flitted across her face and then her expression softened. She cast a pointed glance at his hand. He removed his fingers from around her wrist. Then, she answered him. "Sly's not a bad person. He tries hard, but he has a lot of pride, too. People don't know that he really has a good heart."

"You care about him," he stated, but they both knew it was a question, too.

Dawn nodded. "Yeah, I do. I wouldn't put up with him otherwise. He's been a good friend to me, and if I ever needed him, I know he'd be there. We fight, but there's more to our friendship than that."

"How much more?" Nikolas asked before he could stop himself.

"He's like a brother to me, and I love him. But that's as far as it goes." She paused and added softly but firmly, "I'm not in love with him."

A faint smile came to his face. He released a deep sigh and closed his eyes. Dawn resumed working on his face. Her gentle hands soothed and comforted him. He began to relax and the earlier sadness began to fade.

"Nikolas...I probably shouldn't say anything, but are you okay?" Dawn asked after removing the last of the beard and wiping his face with a damp cloth. She knelt before him with her hands resting on his thighs.

When he opened his eyes, her face was the first thing he saw. "What do you mean?"

"Have you had time to grieve? I'm not trying to practice psychology on you, but I know it's important." She pressed her palm against his jaw. Her thumb lightly caressed his cheek. "Securing your birthright is a must, but you shouldn't neglect your emotional needs, too. If you want or need to talk about your family, you can do that with me. Whatever you say stays between us. You know that, right?"

His heart swelled with love for her. So much so that his heart constricted and his chest ached. He closed his hand over hers and they both stood. Still holding her hand, he led them out of the bathroom and to the living area. After they sat on the futon, he continued to hold her hand. They sat in silence for a few moments and then the words that had been bottled up inside him came tumbling out.

"There was a time when the title of Prince meant nothing to me. I would have willingly given it up and walked away from it. I didn't always know that Stefan Cassadine was my father. For years, I was led to believe he was my uncle. But even so, father or uncle, I couldn't have loved him more and nor he me. My Father loved me very much, Dawn..."

He paused for a moment as he fought the tears that lodged in his throat. While he regained control over his emotions, he felt Dawn's love and encouragement envelop him. She hadn't said a word, but he knew she listened to him intently. The pressure of her slender hand increased as she laced their fingers together and squeezed. By that slight movement, she reminded him she was there and it helped.

"I'm ashamed of it now, but on more than one occasion, I took his love and devotion to me for granted. There are no excuses for my behavior and I make none. When I discovered that he was my father, I was angry and hurt. He and I shared our disagreements on many things, but this lie... I never expected it. He taught me to revere Stavros Cassadine as my father. He told me stories about this man. He taught me to love a lie! I felt like a puppet and he was my puppetmaster, so I left. I moved in with Lucky for a while and the brief separation helped. I was finally able to put things into perspective. I was ready to hear the reasons why. "

He stopped and gave Dawn a long, assessing look. Her expression was open and accepting. The sweet smile on her face took his breath away. Shifting so that he was turned towards her, he took both her hands and continued, "I have no doubt you've heard countless tales about my family. I won't insult you by denying any of it. It's all true. My grandfather created a weather machine. My grandmother cursed my mother and Luke Spencer on their wedding day.

"We are not a loving family. Greed, power and history control us, and it especially ruled my grandmother, Helena. Had she known that I was Stefan's son, she would have killed my mother, my father and me. So, my Father hid the truth until it couldn't be hidden any longer. At first, I mistakenly believed he hid it to secure the title and the wealth for himself. I look back and can't believe how foolish I was. My Father didn't do those things for him. He did them for me. He gave up his life for mine, and now, I can't ever tell him how much that meant to me. How much I loved him..."

He broke down then. Sobs shook his body. Dawn pulled him to her. His head rested on her breast while his arms encircled her. Murmuring words of comfort, her hands stroked his back and hair. "He knows, Nikky. Deep down inside they always know. It's okay, love. Let it all out. I'm here. I'm here and I won't let you go."

Her words swept over him and soothed his tortured soul. As soon as he received the telegram, his insides burned with the belief that Stefan had no idea how much Nikolas loved and revered him. His father wasn't a perfect man, but he held perfect ambitions. He wanted nothing more than to see his sons grow into fine, honorable men. Nikolas prayed that Stefan would be proud of the man he'd become.

The tears slowed and finally, stopped altogether. He sat up straight and smiled as she wiped the wetness from his cheeks. "Thank you," he murmured.

"You don't have to thank me," she whispered back. "I want to help you. I want to be there for you."

"I know," he said. During their embrace, a few braids slipped from the binding that held them away from her face. Reaching behind her, he untied the ribbon and threaded his fingers in the many braids. He lifted them and caused them to fall about her bare shoulders.

His gaze dropped down to her soft caramel skin and his fingers followed suit. Lightly, they skimmed across her collarbone. Her breasts rose as she inhaled sharply. The tube top slid down, exposing the enticing hollow between her ripe mounds. Nikolas sucked in his breath and locked eyes with her.

Desire shone vividly in her glassy eyes. Her tongue darted out to moisten her lips and that was all the invitation Nikolas needed.

He lowered his face to claim her lips in a deep, imploring kiss. His mouth moved sensuously across her soft, pliant lips, silently demanding her to open to him. She did and in his eagerness to taste her, his tongue slipped into her mouth and found hers.

Tasting...probing...tantalizing and soul stirring.

She shivered. Her hands grasped the hard, rippling muscles in his back as his hands slipped inside the mass of braids. Gently and tenderly, he angled her head and kept it close to his so that the kiss didn't break...wouldn't end...as he continued to press his hot, open mouth against hers.

With practiced skill, Nikolas lowered her onto futon. His knees nudged her thighs apart and he settled between them. Resting on one elbow, his other hand left her hair to cup her full breast. Through the thin fabric of the tube top, his fingers kneaded and caressed her hardened peaks. His mouth planted a trail of kisses along her neck and down to the rapidly beating pulse at the base of her throat. His tongue laved the pulsating flesh and low moans vibrated from the back of her throat. She clutched his head and her thighs wrapped around his waist.

Rock hard, his arousal throbbed within the confines of his jeans. Picking up the ages old rhythm, he rubbed his lower body against hers. She cried out, "Nikky!"

Her cries inflamed him. He rose from her neck to look into her glazed eyes. "I want to make love to you," he told her.

"I want you, too," she whispered hoarsely, "but I've never... I'm a... I don't know what to do..." She looked away as the words left her lips.

With his index finger, Nikolas pressed against her cheek until their gazes locked again. "I said I want to make love to you. You don't have to do anything, but stop me if you don't me to."

She swallowed hard and nodded. "I want you to. Make love to me, Nikolas."

He kissed her again. As deeply and thoroughly as he did the first time. She responded by pushing her tongue inside his mouth and tantalizing him with her innocent insistence. Her pelvis rocked against him and he groaned. The ache in his pants gripped him, begging to be released, but he made no move to do so. Tonight was her night. She comforted him when he needed it the most and loving her back was what he had to do. No, it was what he wanted to do. Later when the time was right, he would fully initiate her into the wonders of lovemaking. Now, he'd settled for a partial course.

When the kiss ended, she tugged his shirt free from the waistband of his jeans. He allowed her to pull it over his head. The appreciative gleam in her eyes as she looked at his bare chest only fueled his arousal. She held his dangling medallion in the palm of her hand as her fingers traced the intricate designs. She seemed to understand what the heirloom was and meant to him, so he didn't bother to explain it. Then she moved on to caress his pecs and abs. Her inquisitive fingers trailed the thin line of hair that disappeared inside his pants. When she tried to unbutton his jeans, he closed his hand over hers. "Not, yet," he told her. "Not this time."

"May I touch you?" she asked.

He nodded and her hand found the rigid length of him. His back arched as her hand stroked him and he groaned.

"Do you like this?" she asked.

Nikolas shuddered. Couldn't she tell? Unable to speak, he nodded.

"You're so hard," she said as she continued to caress him. "Like steel."

She moved to unzip his pants, but he was fast. He pulled her hand away and covered her again. "Not yet," he muttered with all the control he could muster. Her mouth puckered into a pout and he kissed it away.

While his lips claimed hers, his hand pulled the tube top down. The strapless bra was quickly removed and his hand caressed the full, quivering mound in his hand. When the kiss ended, his head dipped to her breast. Open-mouth, he kissed her there. Her hips bucked against his and she clutched his head. His tongue bathed the hard pebble and his hand moved down her body to the apex of her thighs.

Not wasting time, he unbuttoned and unzipped her jeans in fluid motion. His hand pressed against her wet panties. His mouth watered. He couldn't wait another moment to taste her there.

"Nikky..." she moaned in protest as his mouth left her breast.

"Trust me," he instructed in a passionate whisper as he moved down her body.

Resting on his haunches, he pulled off her jeans. His fingers brushed against her hips as they hooked the waistband of the scrap of lace and cotton. He removed the lingerie with anticipation of a child on Christmas morning. With infinite patience, he pulled it away from her body. His greedy eyes feasted on her nude form. Male pride and primal excitement pumped through him as he lowered his head to her. He would be the first man to take her to ecstasy. Heated by this knowledge, his mouth parted and consumed her with ardent kisses.

"Mmm..." he moaned as his tongue dipped and his fingers stroked. Her sweet nectar filled his mouth, making him hungry for more. "So delicious," he whispered as his lips kissed and sucked the tiny bud of passion.

"NIKKY!" Her back arched, her body tensed and she screamed his name over and over.

Clawlike, her fingers dug into his shoulders. Nikolas welcomed the pain and continued to take her to the brink and beyond. She trembled underneath his ministrations and as the trembles subsided, he raised his head and moved until he lay on the futon and she was on top of him. His body still throbbed with wanting her, but his release would come later. For now, he was content to hold her.

"Oh, Nikky," she murmured, tears glistening her eyes. "I didn't know it could be so incredible."

His hand slid down her bare back and pressed her against him. Truly in love for the first time of his life, he kissed her forehead and whispered, "Neither did I."

"You didn't have to drive me," Sly grumbled as he limped after Allyson. "And you for damn sure don't have to walk me to the door. I can make it on my own!"

"You're such an ungrateful jackass," she tossed over her shoulder at him. "A simple 'thank you, Allyson' would kill you wouldn't it?"

"Yeah," he agreed. "I'd drop dead on the spot." They reached the apartment he shared with Tommy and stopped. He took his time removing the keys from his jeans. "You know even if he is here, he's probably asleep. You won't see it."

She narrowed her eyes. "It? Just what it are you talking about?"

"You know," he snickered. "Tommy's bare form as he walks around the apartment. He doesn't walk around like that and if he did, I wouldn't live here."

"You have such a base outlook on life."

He tilted his head and smiled. "I'm so pleased you noticed."

He didn't make a move to unlock the door and she rolled her eyes. "Are you gonna stand out here all night? Go on!"

"You go on. I can unlock a door without assistance! Go away and I'll go in."

She brushed past him and bumped his shoulder. "Try not to break your other leg on the way in, ingrate!"

"Good night to you, too," he called after her.

Sly unlocked the door and went inside. To his surprise, Tommy was there and very much awake. He sat on the sofa with a glazed expression on his face and barely acknowledged Sly when he entered. "What happened to you?" Sly questioned.

"I'm just thinking," Tommy answered. Sly sat beside him and he fanned the air. "Dammit! Did you drink everything at the club?"

"Not this time. Allyson brought me home before the fun could really begin."

Tommy chuckled. "Allyson brought you home? That's a switch."

"Tell me about it, but I don't want to talk about her."

"Allright," Tommy said as he stood up. "While I make you a pot of coffee, why don't you tell who you do want to talk about."

Sly sighed. This was the problem with best friends. They could read you like a book. Adjusting his leg on the sofa cushions, he grumbled, "I think she found someone else. I don't know when or how it happened, but it did."

"You should have told her how you felt a long time ago," Tommy advised from the kitchen.

Sly shook his head. "It wouldn't have mattered."

"It could have changed things," Tommy suggested. "Maybe."

"It wouldn't have," Sly denied. "It would have ruined our friendship. Dawn sees me as a screw up-"

"No, she doesn't," Tommy cut in. "She has a better opinion of you than you have of yourself."

"Well, there you have it," he said with a sweeping hand gesture. "That's why it wouldn't have worked. Oh, well. I'm releasing her from my system."

"That easy?"

Sly shrugged and shook his head. "No, but I can pretend."

Carly settled into bed beside Sonny and he looked at her. "This fighting has to stop," he told her. "I don't tell you how to run Deception and you don't get involved with my business."

"I know," she said, turning on her side with her back to him. "You've said this before and you're sounding like a broken record."

"That's because you refuse to listen. I will take care of Sorel and I will continue to protect you and Michael-"

"And who's gonna protect you?" Carly asked. She rolled onto her back. She took his hand and rested it on her breast. "Jason's nowhere to be found and Sorel is one of your biggest enemies. Don't be mad at me for wanting you to live."

"That's not why I'm upset and you know it. I love you and getting killed is the last thing on my mind." He took her hand and kissed it. "Promise me, you'll stay out of it."

"What makes you think I'd get involved?"

He gave her a hard look. "I know you and how your mind works. You're rash and impulsive. You'll think you're taking care of the situation while you're only making it worse. Listen to me, and leave it alone. Please."

"Okay, Sonny," she murmured quietly. "I'll do whatever you want."

He wasn't sure if he should believe her, but he didn't really have a choice. He had to hope that his words got through to her this time. One day, she'd have to understand what her role was as his wife in this lifestyle and he hoped she wouldn't have to learn the hard way.

Sabrina turned off the downstairs lights and slowly ascended the staircase to the second floor of her condo. The flash of excitement that coursed through her as Tommy's hand touched hers surprised her. She hadn't felt an instant attraction like that in years. So immediate and fast. It nearly blinded her. Just a simple touch.

She couldn't deny even to herself that she found the young man attractive. He could have been a model, his looks were so startling desirable. He stood well over six feet tall, had skin the color of golden honey and a physique that rivaled most athletes. And those eyes...his eyes presented all the varying shades of green from sparkling emerald to deep jade, and they reminded her of another pair of eyes that held the same hue.

Stefan

Sabrina prepared herself for bed and as she did so, she allowed her memories to take her back to less turbulent times.

***Flashback***

Cassadine Compound

Greece, February 14, 1976

Nine-year-old Sabrina sat on the rocks that overlooked the Aegean Sea. In her hand, she grasped an unsigned letter addressed to her, detailing undying affection. From the crooked penmanship, she had a good idea of the author, but even with that knowledge, she was still confused. Why would the headmaster's son send her such a letter? They barely knew or saw each other and whenever they were in the same room, he called her names and hit her. Thoughts of the last time he pulled her hair came to mind and she came close to balling up the letter and tossing it down into the crashing waves. But something held her back and she read the letter again.

"What do you have there, Sabrina?"

Relief swept over her as she recognized the familiar voice of her favorite twenty-year-old middle brother. If it had been the oldest, he wouldn't have asked. He would have taken the letter and teased her mercilessly. He was such a brute!

"Sabrina?" Stefan questioned, moving to sit beside her. "I trust that nothing is amiss."

"I'm not sure that nothing is," she answered, tilting her head to look into his brilliant green eyes so filled with concern. "I have a letter. I don't know what I should do with it."

"Have you received distressing news?" He placed his hand on her thin shoulder and squeezed. "If you require assistance, you need look no further. Perhaps, I can help."

She smiled then and handed the letter to him. "Perhaps, you can."

A slight frown marred his brow as he took the letter from her. Silence settled over them as he read the crooked letters. When he was done, he folded the parchment and gave it back to her. "It would appear that someone holds great affection for you, dear one. Do you recognize the lettering? Have you an idea who wrote this?"

She nodded and scrunched her nose. "It was the headmaster's son, Grigori."

Stefan laughed quietly. He tapped her nose with his forefinger and shook his head. "That isn't an attractive expression. Tell me what is so distasteful about this Grigori."

"He hits me!" she announced with an angry pout. "He calls me names, too. He's not very nice."

"Ah, I see. He likes you very much-"

"How can you say that?" she questioned. "He hits me almost every time he sees me. I don't understand why he'd slip this letter in my books. It doesn't make any sense."

Her older brother smiled and shrugged. "Love never does."

Sabrina shook her head vigorously at that. "He doesn't love me and I certainly don't love him! I don't like him. He's always so unpleasant. Just last week, he took my favorite ribbon and refused to return it. I don't like him at all."

Stefan wrapped his arm around her shoulders and hugged her to his side. "I won't doubt you know your feelings, but Grigori doesn't quite know how to express his. His unpleasant actions toward you are his attempts to get your attention."

"Can't he do that in a nicer way?"

"I'm afraid he cannot. He's still young and hasn't learn the ways to win a young lady's heart. Give him time. I assure you that instead of taking your ribbons, he'll give you more," he advised.

"What should I do about this letter?" she asked, enjoying Stefan's attention and advice. Their quiet times alone without Alexis who adored him, too or Stavros who was horribly boorish occurred far too infrequently for Sabrina's taste. Next to her Papa, she loved Stefan best of all. Sometimes, she thought she loved him more than Papa. Stefan's moods were always even and consistent whereas Mikkos could change at whim. If she ever had to choose between the two, Stefan would win her undying loyalty without a second thought.

"Well, since he left it unsigned, I suppose there is nothing you can do with it. You certainly cannot answer an unsigned letter."

She breathed a sigh of relief and laughed. "I can fold it and forget about it-"

"No, you mustn't forget. Now that you are aware of his feelings you should take great care."

"I have to be nice to him?" she asked. "He's always mean to me!"

Stefan kissed her forehead. "You will continue to be my dear sweet Sabrina. I will see to Grigori and his treatment of you. Are we in agreement?"

She smiled brightly. "Yes. I do love you, Stefan."

"I love you, too, dear one."

***End of Flashback***

Sabrina rolled to her side and pulled the sheet and comforter around her shoulders. Despite the pull of melancholy, the memory brought a smile to her lips. She never knew what Stefan said to young Grigori, but whatever it was worked. The young man never hit her or said an unkind word to her again. After that, he was her staunchest defender and carried her books whenever he could.

She laughed softly until tears welled in her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. "Oh, my dear brother. Why couldn't I have been there to protect you this time?"

The Quartermaine mansion was dark and quiet as Emily tiptoed back to her room. She balanced the food and drink laden tray on her arm as she opened her door and went inside. Quickly she closed and locked the door. She set the tray on her bed and turned on the bedside lamp. The room was so still that she at first feared that Zander was gone. Then she saw him sitting on the window seat. Bathed in the pale moonlight, she didn't think she ever saw him look more handsome or more alone. She went to him and wrapped her arms around his shoulder. His hand closed over hers and he leaned back against her.

"What are you thinking about?" she quietly asked.

"Getting out of here and making a new start," he told her. "Doing things right this time instead of always messing up. You know, the usual."

"I think you're doing all right," she complimented. "I'm sorry things didn't go as planned today. I left a message for Nikolas. I'm sure he'll call back tomorrow. I know he'll give us the money. It will happen."

"I'm not worried about that. I believe you, Em. Things will be better once we leave Port Charles. They have to be, right? They can't get much worse."

She moved from behind him. Bending towards him, she pressed a kiss against his stubble-covered jaw. As she stood up, she said, "I got the food without any problems. Cook was nowhere to be found. Would you like it now?"

He shook his head. "Maybe later." Taking her hand, he pulled her beside him on the window seat. "Sit here with me. I missed you so much. I missed holding you."

"I did, too," she answered honestly. "But that won't happen again. It's in the past."

A dark look crossed his face and he grunted. "The past. It's such a small word but it holds so much. The last few weeks are in the past, too, but I can't stop thinking about them. I can't believe Alexis is dead. I don't want to believe it. It's not fair."

"You cared about her a lot, didn't you?" Emily asked, squeezing his hand.

"She was good to me, Em. Next to you, I can't think of anyone else who's ever believed in me like that. I wished I could have told her... I wished she knew how much she meant, you know?" Tears suddenly glistened in his eyes and Emily pulled him to her. "I can't believe I'm balling like a baby. I only knew her for a little while, but I miss her. I miss her like you wouldn't believe."

"Ssh, I know," she cooed, rocking him in her arms. "Let it all out. It's okay to cry, love. It's okay."

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