chapter thirteen

***guidance***

Stefan's heart thudded steadily underneath Keesha's ear and she thought it was the sweetest sound she ever heard. His hands stroked her bare arms and she shivered. Closing her eyes for a moment, she found it hard to believe that there was a time in her life when she didn't know this man...didn't trust him...didn't love him. It was amazing how lives could change in the blink of an eye.

"What are your thoughts?" he asked as he brushed his mouth against her forehead. "Please tell me they are pleasant ones."

Touched by his tenderness, she said hoarsely, "Yes, they are. I was thinking about us. Right now, I find it hard to believe I ever doubted you. I'm so sorry..."

"Ssh," he whispered. She sat up and their gazes locked and held. With infinite care, he caressed her face, brushing the pad of his thumb against the swell of her cheek. "I gave you enough reasons to doubt me. You were entitled to your suspicions and I have harbored no ill will because of them. Tell me you know how deeply I care for you."

Keesha nodded. "I know. Believe me, I do. I know this is wasted energy, but sometimes, I can't help wishing I could turn back the clock to when you first approached the WSB and me. If we had listened to you then, I'm sure everything else wouldn't have happened. You came to us with the truth and a request for help. We were in error to turn you away."

He blinked and then shrugged. "Do not trouble yourself so, Keesha love. My feud with Helena had reached legendary proportions. I fault neither your agency nor you for questioning my plea for assistance. I had never done so before. That within itself was a cause for suspicion. It is I who is grateful to you for reconsidering and contacting me at the threat of repercussions from your superiors."

She gave him a long look and a faint smile. "You're such a forgiving man."

Stefan laughed softly. "There was a time when I would not have been so generous or forgiving, especially in light of my sons' circumstances. Despite what your co-workers have to report about Nikolas, I have no fear for him. I know that he is well. I can feel that, but please, tell me more about Andrèsj. I can sense his unhappiness. How soon will you and Mr. Cates have leave to free him from Philana and her henchmen?"

Keesha sighed and looked down at their joined hands. Stefan was such a complex man. Ruthless business acumen coupled with an emotional depth that almost overwhelmed her. He was certainly unlike any man she had ever known and he made all others pale in comparison. God help her, but she could not wait for this latest assignment to end so that his family was restored and they could be together again.

The silence only lasted for a moment and then she looked at him. "Andrèsj is a well-mannered young man in spite of the circumstances. I'm sure that neither Philana nor her employees have been kind to him. From the past pictures of him, I can see that he's lost weight and his eyes are hooded and drawn. His propensity for mischief has been quelled, but I can sense it lying just beneath the surface. Today, I presented him with a Chess set and requested that he tutor me. He was agreeable and I think this will strengthen our relationship and form a bond of trust between us.

"Philana's servants are extremely loyal, but I have been able to determine their surveillance methods of Drè. Cameras monitor his bedroom, and there is an electronic shackle around his ankle, which is used to prevent mutiny on his part. I haven't been able to find the surveillance room, but I plan to search for it one night this week."

He squeezed her hands tightly. "Do be careful. My Uncle Victor was a paranoid man and he passed that onto his wife. She would have traps and cameras installed over the entire villa. She doesn't believe in leaving anything to chance. If her men discover your betrayal, they would not be timid in their methods of retribution. Please, Keesha. Promise me that you will not put yourself in danger needlessly."

"I won't," she assured him. "I am very good at what I do, Stefan. I will bring your son back to you and no harm will come to either of us. You have my solemn vow."

He lessened the grip he had on her hand and patted it gently. "I suppose I cannot ask for more than that. You did well in presenting Andrèsj with Chess. He is an avid player and if you are an intelligent, inquisitive student, he will warm to you immediately. Observe him closely, respond with wit and kindness, as I am sure you have, and pay close attention to how he responds to you in kind. When he begins to tease you, you have gained a friend. He does not torment those with his mischief unless he cares for them."

"Thank you," she said. "I will remember your advice and proceed accordingly." A soft tap sounded at the door. Their time was up. "That was Jagger. It's time for me to go now. I'll see you again as soon as I can."

"I know you will. Be careful," he said as he cupped her face and drew her to him.

First, he kissed her tenderly, slowly and then he forced her lips open with his thrusting tongue. Keesha moaned low in her throat, thrilled by his demanding mouth and roving exploration. Even with bandages covering his face, Stefan tantalized her with his expert skill. A fire ignited within her and she wanted nothing more than for him to extinguish the flames, but that was not to be. Reluctantly, she pulled away and the kiss came to a premature end.

"Return to me soon," he said as she reached door.

She looked over her shoulder and smiled. "I will."

~*~

"Thank you for agreeing to meet me," Sabrina said after the waiter took their orders and left. She looked around the Port Charles Grille. Most of the faces were unfamiliar to her and any one of them could be in Philana's employ. She supposed it would be useless to wonder so she turned back to Justus and said, "I hope I'm not taking you away from anything important."

Justus shook his head. "There could be nothing more important than what you've told me. Has there been a change?"

Sabrina nodded and smiled. "Yes. I saw my real nephew today. He's alive and well."

"Nikolas?" he repeated for clarification. A smile of genuine warmth came to his handsome face. "That's wonderful. Where is he?"

She shook her head. "I'm sorry, but I can't say."

"You can trust me," he said.

"I know, but for the time being, it's best that you don't know where he is," she explained. "For his safety and yours."

"I'll accept that for now," he replied. "I've been reviewing all of Stefan's transactions. He was making preparations to officially sever all ties with Helena and Alexis. He gave the documents to me over a period of time and I wasn't fully aware of what the bottom line was. Now that I know what he knew, I see what he was doing. Do you believe that Helena and Alexis were in on the ruse?"

"Replacing the Impostor with Nikolas?" she questioned. When he nodded, she answered, "It's possible. Anything is possible with those two. A week before the fire, Stefan confided to me that Helena and Alexis had journeyed to St. Petersburg together."

"Did he know why," Justus asked, "or where they went?"

"He didn't know why. He was in the process of uncovering that information," Sabrina answered. "But he did know where they went. They went to an orphanage and then to the Regional Children's Hospital."

The waiter returned with Justus' chicken noodle soup and Sabrina's Caesar salad. He set both dishes before them and left. They began to eat their first course in silence and then Justus asked, "Why would they go to an orphanage and then to the hospital? What if they were suspicious of the Impostor? Maybe that's why..."

She set her fork down and shook her head. "I don't think so and neither did Stefan. Their trip was bizarre in that Alexis was reportedly upset and Helena comforted her. No, I think there is something more to the trip to Russia."

"Maybe a visit is called for," Justus said.

Sabrina shook her head again. "I doubt if you'd get anywhere. They wouldn't respond well to a distinguished man with dark skin asking them questions."

"What do you suggest?" he asked. "The answer may be there. I don't think we should ignore it. How would they respond to you?"

"Probably a little better than they would to you," she answered honestly. "I can make the arrangements and be on the next flight in the morning. I'll call you-"

"There's no need," Justus interrupted. "I'm going with you. Your family has a lethal reputation. I think it would be best if you're not alone."

Sabrina smiled. "Thank you, Justus. That's very kind of you."

He returned her smile and during the rest of their meal, they discussed the upcoming trip.

~*~

The rocking motion of the train lulled Emily to sleep. She curled against Zander and he wrapped his arm around her. The other passengers paid no attention to the teenage couple and Zander didn't really notice them. Holding Emily close to him, he rested his chin on top of her forehead, closed his eyes and thought back to the one of the last times he and Alexis were together.

***Flashback***

Port Charles, NY

One month ago

Alexis' eyes remained on him while she munched on the slice of pizza. Zander's cheeks burned and he asked, "What? Do I have cheese stuck in my teeth or something?"

She shook her head. "No, I was just thinking. Was I staring, too? Sorry. It happens sometimes."

"It's not a big deal. Just a little eerie," he commented, reaching for another slice. "I used to do it, too. When I'd get caught up in something, I'd think hard about it. People would assume I'm staring. I've gotten into a few fights over it, but I've learned to concentrate a different way."

"Wow," she said with a smile, "there's something we have in common."

"Unbelievable, right?" He laughed as he bit into the pizza. "A powerful lady like you and nobody like me have things in common. Nobody would buy that one."

She frowned and lowered her slice to a napkin. "I wasn't trying to offend you."

"No offense taken. I mean, I was just making a comparison," he said. "I'm not offended. You're not so bad, Lex. You have a thing about beating a guy over the head with stuff, but otherwise, you're not so bad at all."

She smiled. "That's a nice unexpected compliment. Thanks."

"No big deal," he said. "It's not like you don't hear it all the time."

She rolled her eyes and reached for her slice of pizza. "You'd be surprised."

Zander finished his slice. While he wiped his hands and mouth with a napkin, he watched her closely. "I won't comment on Ned, but I know you'd have to know you're okay. Sonny thinks you're great, and there's your family. They'd have to agree, right?"

Alexis' frown returned and she shook her head. "Wrong. My relationship with my family has never been idyllic. I wouldn't wish it on anyone."

"It couldn't have been worse than mine," he said. "At least you had someone watching out for you. I grew up on the streets alone. Not that I'm complaining. You do what you gotta with what you get."

He shrugged and brushed his hair from his eyes. The color drained from her face and her eyes grew large as she watched him and this time, he frowned. "What's wrong?"

"Um...nothing," she stammered. "I just remembered there's a call I need to make. Review those notes," she said, rising to her feet. "We'll go over your testimony again when I come back."

"Sure," he replied, watching her race from the room.

***End of Flashback***

Zander opened his eyes and stared at the passing scenery. He wanted to ask her about her weird mood change, but the moment never came. Part of him said that it wasn't any of his busy, but the rest of him couldn't help but admit he cared. And it saddened him that with her death, he'd never know what caused her to look at him with longing and sudden tears in her eyes.

~*~

Zarek looked at the vivacious woman walking beside him and his heart swelled. The dalliance with Dara was supposed to be just a mild distraction, but against his better judgment, it was turning into something much more. He enjoyed her company and often found himself thinking of her at the oddest moments. Ignoring the obvious would have been an error, so he admitted the truth to himself. He had fallen for her and would do everything within his power to have her fall for him, too.

"You're quiet," she said, as they descended the staircase to the dock. "Is something wrong?"

"No, everything is right," he said, taking her hand. "See the third one from the left. That's the one."

"Ares?" she questioned. "You named your boat, Ares? As in god of war?"

He grinned. "You're good. Most confuse the Greek gods with the Roman ones."

"I have a younger sister. When she was little, she loved hearing about mythology. Her fascination with it gets all the credit."

They reached Ares and Zarek stepped onto the boat's platform first. He held out his hand and helped Dara join him. He moved quickly and soon, they were away from the dock's edge and enjoying their day on the water.

"This is really nice," she told him after inspecting the lower and upper decks. "Very cozy, too. Have you had it long?"

"For a few years," he admitted. "If you're hungry, there are refreshments in the cabinets below. Help yourself."

"I'm fine. Would you like anything?"

He shook his head and beckoned for her to join him. When she came close, he pulled her to the wheel and placed her hands on the spokes. He stood behind her and closed his hands over hers. The close proximity electrified him. Her body was so warm and close and her sweet scent filled his nostrils. He wanted her but made no move to make his burning desire known. The time for that would come later.

"You're the captain now," he said in a husky voice. "How does it feel?"

"I like it," she said with a catch in her voice. "It feels good."

"Have you ever done this before?" he asked, wanting to know the things about her that the dossier missed. Hell, he wanted to know everything.

"I've been in a boat a few times," she said. "My stepfather has a few friends who like to set sail. We've had family outings with them."

"And you weren't allowed to steer?"

Dara laughed. "Not once, but I never asked either. It was just fun to spend time with my family. I was okay with not having to be stuck behind that big wheel."

"You are a natural," he complimented, removing his hands from hers. He sat on a nearby cushioned bench and smiled at her. The breeze blew dark, curly tendrils around her face and her eyes were bright with excitement. So beautiful, he thought, unable to pull his gaze from her.

"Thanks!" she said. "I'm glad we're here today. It feels good to get away."

"Doesn't it?" he said. "I like the water. It's an amazing creation. One moment, it's calm and soothing and the next, it can be turbulent and terrifying. There are only a few things that can compare with that kind of unpredictability."

She nodded. "The one thing I can think of is family. I know with mine, I never know what to expect and I wouldn't want it any other way."

"You're close," he stated.

"Very," she said. "They're my rock."

"Other than your younger sister, do you have any other siblings?" he asked.

"No," she answered. "My mother became pregnant a few years after she married Steve, but she miscarried. They decided not to try again after that."

"I'm sorry," he said, honestly. "I'm sure it wasn't easy news to hear."

"I wasn't at home at the time," she said quietly. "I didn't know until after the fact, but it was still sad. I like having a kid sister and I miss not having another younger sister or brother to look out for."

"Are you and your sister close?" he asked, enjoying listening to her voice even as he already knew the answers to his questions.

She nodded. "Considering the age difference, we're close. She's got a good head on her shoulders when she's not being too stubborn. It's kinda weird, but she and Steve are very similar. When I see them together, it's easy for me to forget that he's not her biological father. Well, at this point, it doesn't matter. He raised her and he's always been there for me. I couldn't have asked for a better father figure." She looked at him and smiled. "Now, that's enough about me. Your turn. When I'm with you, I can easily forget about your family's reputation. Tell me what it was like growing up as a Cassadine."

Shrugging, he turned away and looked towards the crystal blue rolling waves. "It was everything you could imagine and then nothing like your wildest dreams," he said softly. "My family has a legacy that can be overwhelming and intoxicating at the same time. For the weak, they succumb to its charm. The stronger ones accept it at face value and survive despite it."

"Which one are you?" she asked.

He turned his attention to her again and smiled. "I'm a mixture of both, I'm afraid. Will that change your answer the next time I call?"

"No," she murmured. "I knew when I said yes the first time, I should have said no. At this point, I think it may be too late to turn back now."

Zarek stood up and went to her. Removing her hands from the wheel, he pulled her to him. With his hands linked together at the small of her back, he said, "I think you're right."

He lowered his head to hers and probed her mouth with a deep, passionate kiss. Her response set him aflame. She tasted sweet like honey and her soft curves molded to his lean frame in a perfect fit. His manhood throbbed with longing for more, but he brought an end to the kiss. Continuing to hold her in his arms, he said, "I'm not sure if I should ask you..."

"Ask me what?" she said, moistening her swollen lips with the tip of her tongue. "What is it, Zarek?"

"I enjoy being with you, Dara, and I don't want anything to ruin it."

"What could ruin it?" she asked. "We're two mature adults and we like being together. I don't see how anything could ruin it. What do you want to ask me?"

"If we could have a professional relationship as well as a personal one?" he inquired. "I am need of legal advice and I would rather not look any further than you. However, if this will bring an end to what's happening between us, I'll have to make do with someone else."

There was a brief pause before she answered him. "Let me think about it. How soon do you need an answer?"

"By tomorrow morning," he said. "I don't want to push you, so if you would rather not, I understand."

"Well, it's not like I'm working or anything. I can provide you with counsel."

He smiled and hugged her. "Oh, Dara! Thank you. With your guidance, I am assured of success." He cupped her face and softly added, "And with your presence in my life, I am assured of happiness."

They kissed again.

~*~

The atmosphere around the cottage was quiet and serene. The feeling of fantasy lingered in the air with fairies and sprites watching with avid interest. Nikolas leaned against a tree as he looked at his former home. He'd been quiet for the last few minutes and Dawn wondered if bringing him out there had been a mistake. Since speaking with his aunt, his demeanor changed. She knew he was relieved that his father was truly alive, but there was more. An intensity burned inside him and she thought she recognized it as rage and it made her uneasy.

"Are you ready?" she asked, moving across the broken twigs to stand beside him. "We should leave before he or Gia return."

"I know," Nikolas replied, taking her hand. "Just give me a few more minutes."

Dawn's eyes followed the direction of his gaze. All she saw was a pretty, well kept home. No doubt, he saw much more than that. "What do you see?"

"The life that was taken from me," he answered. "Behind those walls, that man is stripping away my life."

"He's trying to," she corrected, "but he hasn't been successful. You're still here."

"Yes, but I should be there." Nikolas pointed at the cottage. "Did you see how Sheba reacted to me? She missed me. I dread to think of what she was put through. If I had someplace to store her, I'd take her away right now."

"I know. It will happen soon-"

"Soon isn't soon enough!" he bit out.

His anger flashed like an angry whip. Dawn flinched and tugged free from his hand. She moved briskly back towards the motorcycle and Nikolas caught her before she straddled it. Wrapping his arms around her waist from behind, he held her against his body. "I'm sorry," he murmured against her ear.

"You have every right to be upset-"

"Not with you," he said. "Never with you, Angel. I was wrong to snap at you. It won't happen again. I promise."

"You shouldn't make promises you won't be able to keep."

"I'll keep this one," he vowed. He turned her around and rested his hands on her shoulders. Bending slightly so that their eyes were level, his dark brown eyes bored into hers. "I'm not accustomed to living on the edge like this. I don't like it and it's causing me to appear selfish and brutish. I would never intentionally be unkind to you."

She understood his anger and frustration, but that didn't lessen the sting of his harsh words. His promise to always treat her with kindness sounded wonderful, but it brought home that they moved in two different worlds. He was a Russian prince. She was just a smart African-American woman. Just because they were attracted and began to care for each other didn't mean a relationship between them would last. His flare up was a good thing. It brought things into perspective for her.

"It's okay, Nikolas," she said. "'Blow-ups are bound to happen. You're tense and upset. I know you're a kind man. You don't have to say it for it to be true."

She then tried to move from his grasp, but he refused to let go. Instead, his arms slipped around her waist and he drew her against him. "You're pulling away from me," he said quietly. "Please, don't. I truly apologize for hurting you just now. I don't know what I would have done these last few days without you, and I don't want to imagine having to face any days without you-"

"Nikolas," she interrupted, shaking her head.

"Please, listen to me," he implored. "This is probably the worst time and place to say this, but I know it should be said. I love you, and once my personal crisis has been resolved, I would like to build a life with you."

She gasped. This admission hadn't been expected. "A-Are you asking me to m-marry you?" she stammered.

He nodded. "I wouldn't expect us to do so immediately, but definitely eventually. I've never felt so strongly about anyone or anything in my life."

She rested her hands against his chest while her thoughts spun at a dizzying speed. "This is too fast. We've only just met. You're Russian royalty. I'm a nobody from Port Charles. Marriage? I-I don't know what to say."

"You could answer a question for me," he stated. "I believe I already know the answer, but hearing your response would put things into perspective for both of us."

He paused. She drew in a long breath and shrugged. "What's the question?"

"Do you love me?"

"You don't waste any time, do you?" she asked. "You go straight for the jugular without giving a woman time to breathe."

"Stop stalling," he murmured against her lips. "Answer the question. Do you love me?"

She couldn't resist him. Not when his delicious lips were so tantalizingly close to hers. She slowly exhaled and said, "Yes. I love you very much."

His lips pressed against hers, warm and sweet. She succumbed to his demanding, passionate caresses until a crow called out overhead. The realization of their surroundings hit her in full force and the kissed came to an abrupt halt.

"We should get out of here," she said in a breathy whisper.

"Yes," he said quietly, looking at the cottage again.

Dawn swung her leg over the motorcycle and Nikolas did the same behind her. Before they covered their heads with helmets, she looked over his shoulder and said, "Justus will be good in helping Sabrina, but I think we could use some assistance, too."

Nikolas frowned. "We can't go to Dara. Zarek could pose too much of a threat to your family if he suspected she knew the truth."

"I know," she said. "I wasn't thinking of her. I was thinking about my Dad. He did some work with the WSB before he married Mama. I think he could help. I trust him and he could help us make plans in taking down the Impostor and your cousin."

"I would prefer not to put anyone else in danger, Angel," he said. "I worry about you. If something happened to your family because of me..."

"Daddy isn't a wimp," she assured him. "He can take care of himself and he taught me to do the same. Think about it while we ride back to the loft. Once we get there, we can talk about it some more. Okay?"

He nodded. "Okay."

She moved to pull on her helmet and he stopped her. She looked at him with a quizzical frown. "Yes?"

"You're not a nobody," he said firmly. "You're a beautiful, caring, intelligent woman and far too good for a Russian prince like me. Never forget that."

She shivered under his intense gaze and nodded. "I won't."

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