chapter fifteen

***truth***

"Do you know anything about the game?"

Keesha's mouth curved into a tiny smile and she shook her head. "All I know is the game is nothing like checkers."

"Checkers?" Andrèsj gasped in disgust. Surely, she was making sport. She couldn't possibly compare the greatest lesson for battle and strategic maneuvering with that silly nonsensical game with only one uniform game piece!

"Yes," she said with a nod. "My cousins and I played it all the time. If you don't know how, I can buy that game and teach you-"

"No, thank you," he interrupted. "That is quite unnecessary. I mastered checkers when I was a toddler. Chess is my game of choice. Are you ready to begin?"

She nodded. "I brought paper to take notes. You won't mind?"

The notion that she would take notes was adorable. Drè smiled and shrugged. "If it pleases you, please do so. I will begin by introducing the pieces and their starting positions on the board."

"Okay. I'm listening."

Keesha's pencil scratched noisily across the notepad as she took notes. The way her head tilted forward and her eyes ran back and forth across the words intrigued Andrèsj. He thought she was beautiful from the first moment he saw her, but every day, he found himself discovering new things about her. He found her independence charming. Her sense of humor was contagious, and her tenacity was admirable.

For the past few days, he'd doubted that she was simply a cook's assistant, but he knew better than to pursue the topic with her. He was constantly watched and to ask her for the truth would be detrimental to both. But still, he couldn't help wondering about where she came from and the life she led before she came here.

"Did your cousins often play games with you?" he asked, turning their attention away from Chess for a moment.

"Yes. My older cousin taught his sister and me how to play when we were just little girls. Then, he would encourage us to compete by rewarding the winner with an ice cream cone." She laughed at the memory. "I never realized I had a competitive streak until now, but I guess I do. What about you? Did you play any games with your cousins?"

Thoughts of spending time with Zarek made his blood run cold. Alexis was always a kind and caring cousin, but Zarek was very competitive. Nikolas took the brunt of his little games because he was older, but Andrèsj could never forget the way his older cousin looked at him with contempt. He shook his head and said in a distant voice, "No. My brother and I played together until I went to school."

"Was it a boarding school?" she asked.

"Yes. Tutors taught my brother, but I went to several boarding schools. It seems my penchant for pranks irritated a few headmasters."

"So you were a mischievous little boy?"

The light in her dark eyes as she asked the innocent question created a peculiar response for Drè. The urge to show her just how mischievous he could be charged inside him and refused to give him peace until he did something about it.

Keeping his face void of expression, he slid one shoe from his sock-covered foot. In a neutral tone, he pointed to the knight and explained the piece functions meanwhile his foot became busy underneath the small round table. Purposely, he dropped a pawn to the floor and bent over to quickly retrieve it. While he was bent forward, he glanced at her shapely ankles. This would be perfect, he thought.

He sat up with the pawn in his hand and handed it to Keesha. "Now, where were we?" he asked, while his foot hovered into position over near her feet.

"You were telling what moves are allowed with the knight. Something about an L-shape..."

"Ah, yes," he murmured. "The knight can move backwards and forwards in an L-formation. Like so."

As he demonstrated the move on the chessboard, his foot slipped underneath the hem of her skirt and drew the letter on her bare leg. Keesha's sharp intake of breath was her first response to his touch. Her second was to move her lower extremities away from him. Her eyes narrowed as she looked at him in condemnation. He supposed he should feel remorse for shocking her so, but none came. In fact, he felt somewhat triumphant. Her first gasp was all it took.

"It's getting late," she informed him in a firm voice. "I must help with the next meal."

Drè's full mouth drew into a pout. "Must you leave so soon? We haven't reviewed the entire basics of the game."

"I think we've reviewed enough for today." She rose from the chair and stepped back as he stood and moved towards her.

"I suppose I will look forward to your next lesson. I hope you found today's exercise pleasurable."

Her eyes widened at his innuendo, and her mouth thinned into a line. "I found it interesting and not at all what I expected. I will see you later. Good day, Andrèsj."

He watched her hasty retreat with a sensual smile. "Good day to you, Keesha."

~*~

"He's gone, and he took Emily with him."

Sonny pinched the bridge of his nose and started to pace. "Where?"

"I don't know," Jason answered, drawing in a harsh breath. "I'll have to go to the streets and find out who he'd run to."

"Do you need any help?" Sonny asked. He stopped pacing to look at Jason. "I could put Johnny on it."

Jason shook his head. "It's better if it's just me. Too many people looking for him and the word could get back to Sorel that he's out there. I'm not about to take that chance with my little sister with him."

"Yeah," Sonny agreed. "Dammit! The kid is stupid. He knows Sorel is out there...just waiting for him."

"He hated being cooped up. I can understand that, but taking Emily with him..."

Sonny gave Jason a hard look. "Bring him back in one piece. Don't kill him. Besides, he couldn't force Emily to go with him. She went because she wanted to. Don't forget about that."

"I won't, but he shouldn't have gone to her," Jason reasoned. "He knows what he's up against. She wouldn't have a clue. She's innocent to his world and ours. To include her isn't fair." Fear for Emily's safety and anger at Zander made his blood boil. He stopped talking and drew in a deep breath. He slowly exhaled and the action soothed him to a degree. "Look, I'd better get out of here. I'll call you when I find them."

~*~

"Everybody take five. Ms. Campbell, upon your return, I hope you can find that magic. It's sorely missing today."

Gia knew that the photographer was right. She'd tried to pretend that what Nik told her hadn't bothered her, but that was a lie. It had, and now, the knowledge affected her work. She brushed a few braids from her face and sighed. Sitting down at the make-up table, she closed her eyes and tried to find a solution for their looming problems.

"What's wrong?" Carly asked, interrupting Gia's thoughts. Gia opened her eyes as Carly sat on a stool that faced her. "Frank is right. You haven't been on it today. What's going on?"

"Just some home stuff," Gia admitted. "Nik is stressing about family issues. I'm trying to help, but I'm not quite sure what to do."

"The fire..." Carly said quietly. "Grief is hard. You never know quite what to say or do. I would think being there is enough."

Gia nodded. "It should be, but I need to do more."

"Something tells me that there's more to this than just his being in mourning. I can squeeze a few more minutes out of Frank. Wanna talk?"

Carly's offer tempted Gia, but she knew she couldn't take it. But maybe she could talk enough around it that the ache in her chest would ease up some. "Sure."

"I'll be right back." Carly breezed over to Frank. When she returned a moment later, she had a smile on her face even as she rolled her eyes. Perching on the stool again, she informed Gia, "He wasn't too thrilled, but I reminded him who signs his checks. He sung a different tune then. Okay, I'm listening. Shoot."

"It's his family," Gia began slowly as the words came to her. "They're not happy that with the deaths, Nik will be in control now. I think they're plotting somehow to take it all away from him. You know he's a prince, right? He's the Cassadine who's in charge of everything."

Carly frowned. "I thought he didn't want to have anything to do with his family."

"He changed his mind," Gia quickly answered. "He's given up so much because of his birthright that it would be silly for him to walk away from it now. Anyway, that's it in a nutshell. I want to help him, but I don't know how. I can't fight his family for him."

A strange light shone in Carly's dark eyes and a wide smile claimed her lips. She patted Gia's hands and said, "Yes, you can. There's always a way to help. Strike first before they attack Nikolas. They don't have to win."

"But I don't know where to start."

"You're a smart girl," Carly said. "You'll figure it out. Frank is looking this way. I think our time is up. Feel better now?"

Gia nodded. "I do. Thanks. I don't know what I'm gonna do to help him, but I think some ideas are forming. Thanks for listening, Carly."

"Of course," she smiled. "What are friends for?"

~*~

"You're a hard man to track down."

Lucky looked up as Nikolas suddenly appeared in the park. He pointed at the empty space beside him on the bench and his brother accepted the invitation. "Why were you looking for me?"

"We left the club earlier than expected," Nikolas said. "We didn't get a chance to talk. Is it getting better? Did dancing with Allyson help?"

Lucky smiled at the grin that spread across his brother's face. "It wasn't like that. She just wanted to dance and to probably get Sly's goat."

"Whatever the reason," Nik continued, "did you enjoy her company?"

He grimaced and rolled his eyes. "I'm not trying to move on so fast. Elizabeth was a big part of my life. I'm giving myself time to accept that she won't be there any more. Is that okay with you?"

"You don't have to bite my head off," Nik said raising his hands in defense. "I know what she means to you. I just want to help if I can."

"You can't. This is something that I have to do on my own." He rubbed his hands wearily over his face. "I should be handling this better, but I'm not. I don't know what I'm doing half the time."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Lucky gave him a faint smile. "I trashed my room last night and I don't remember doing it. It scared the hell out of me, I gotta admit."

"Maybe you should see a doctor..."

"I did," Lucky answered. "I stopped by GH yesterday. They ran some tests. I should find out within a week. I never cleaned up the place. I crashed with Sly last night, so now, I'm dreading going back there and facing what I did." He gave Nik a long look. "I can't believe I could be so out of it and do something as wild as that."

Nik patted his shoulder. "It happens, I guess. If you don't wanna go home, you can spend some time at the cottage with Gia and me. We have an extra room and I'd love to have you over."

"Gia wouldn't."

"Yeah, she would," Nik nodded. "She likes you, Clucky Lucky. She just has a funny way of showing it. What's it gonna be? Are you coming?"

"I'll need some clothes..."

Nik shrugged. "I can go to your place and get some stuff for you. Here's the key to the cottage. Take it and get settled. It shouldn't take me long and in the meantime, you can start on dinner. That will immediately put you in Gia's good graces."

Lucky took the key from Nikolas and handed him his key to his apartment. "Thanks, brother. I appreciate this."

"Don't mention it."

~*~

"I'll wash and you'll dry," Dawn informed Nikolas as they cleared the table. A faint smiled curved his lips, but he didn't contradict her orders. She filled the sink with warm water and Joy liquid soap. As the suds rose to the top, Nikolas moved next to her, lightly brushing her shoulders as he did so. "Behave yourself."

"I'll try to," he said, a hint of teasing in his voice. "Your father should be here soon, correct?"

"Yeah. He had to run some errands, but he's stopping by before he picks Mama up at the store."

"What store?" he asked, grabbing a dishtowel in preparation for his responsibilities.

"I guess I never mentioned it... My mother has a boutique. It's called Carrie's Creations. She designs clothes and sells them. She has a few seamstresses who help her, but she sews, too. One day, we'll have to stop by." Dawn smiled. She was proud of her mother's accomplishments. "Her designs are becoming more and more in demand every day. They went to Paris to discuss the possibility of expanding to Europe. I can't wait to find out what happened with that. I can't see my father behaving himself in Europe, and I certainly don't want them to move there."

"You're a close family," he commented. "That gives me relief."

She stopped washing a glass to look at him. "Why?"

He shrugged. "I was worried that they were too hard on you about owning a towing service with your friend and not accepting the WSB position. I wasn't sure if I would like your family because of their treatment of you."

He found another way to melt her heart. She shouldn't be surprised, but she was. Everything about him drew him to her. She sighed and then impulsively kissed his cheek. "That's sweet. My family wants the best for me. They're sometimes strange in how they make their opinions known, but I'm used to it. You don't have to protect me from them. Are you close to your brother and father?"

"When I'm not living in isolation for two years, I am," he said with a humorless laugh. "My younger brother and I are nothing alike in temperament, but he and I are close. I think you will like him. My father is far more reserved, but once he's come to know you, he will love you as much as I do."

The declaration of love warmed her all over. Her father was the only man to ever say those words to her and truly mean them. Even though she'd admitted she felt the same, she didn't quite know what to say, so she said nothing. Her lack of response didn't seem to phase Nikolas and they continued to work together in a companionable silence. When they were done, she stopped him from moving away by grabbing his arm. There were a few words of warning she thought he needed to hear.

"Daddy should be here any minute. I want you to wait in my bedroom until I come and get you-"

"I'm tired of hiding away," he said, frowning.

"I'm not hiding you," she argued. "This is different. I will have to explain the situation to him and if he sees you, he's not gonna pay attention. Trust me on this. He'll be too busy questioning you that we won't get a word in edgewise. Please, just wait."

Nikolas' gritted his teeth and gave his acceptance with a slight nod of his head. "Very well."

"Thank you," she said, "and another thing. He only has one eye. He wears a patch. He's not sensitive, but I am. Please, don't stare at him. The patch is what he wears. It's not who he is. He has a good soul and he's a kind man-"

"I know," he said softly, his expression softening. He cupped her face and leaned in close. "I would never be impolite to your family...not unless they gave me cause such as by hurting you. I will behave myself and I will do as you ask and wait in the bedroom."

"Thanks-"

His mouth on hers interrupted her words. The kiss burned with desire and when he pulled his lips from hers, she felt lightheaded. Love and passion proved to be a heady combination, she thought.

Taking a deep breath, she shooed him away. "Go... I hear the elevator."

He smiled. "I'm gone."

Nikolas managed to step inside her bedroom just as Steve stepped out of the elevator car and straight into the loft. Before, Dawn never cared that he used the private car, but with Nikolas sharing the loft with her, that privilege would soon be revoked.

"Bright Eyes!" Steve swaggered towards her with open arms.

Dawn ran to him and they hugged. "Hi, Daddy! Did you have a good trip?"

He wrapped his arm around her and they sat on the futon. "It was tolerable. Your Mama took Paris by storm. I think she's gonna take the offer. What about you? Did you make any important decisions while we were away?"

She sighed. "Daddy, please. You just got back. I don't want to talk about that right now."

"I know," he said gently, "but you'll have to eventually. You have a brilliant mind. It would be a shame if you didn't use it, baby. I won't mention it again...for now. What's so urgent that I had to rush right over?"

Her mouth dropped open. "I didn't say you had to rush over!"

"You didn't have to!" He tapped her nose affectionately. "I heard it in your voice." Craning his neck, he looked around the loft and then back at her. "I noticed your car was missing in the garage and my bike has a few more miles on it. What's going on, little girl? What happened to your car?"

"It's at the garage. I'll pick it up when it safe-"

"Safe?"

She squeezed his hand. "Stop gabbing and listen to me."

He shrugged in mock innocent. "I'm listening. This had better be good."

"It is," she said quietly. "I need your help. A friend of mine is in trouble and he could use whatever WSB contacts you still have-"

"What the hell has Eckertt done now?!" Steve bellowed. "I swear! One of these days, I'm killing that kid myself!"

"Daddy!" she screamed back. "Stop it! This isn't about Sly. It's someone else-"

"I'm the friend, sir," Nikolas said, stepping out of her bedroom. He moved towards them and stood before Steve. He looked the man directly into his green eye and was momentarily startled by his resemblance to his father. Shaking the surprise off, he continued, "My name is Nikolas Cassadine, and I am in dire need of assistance. Lives are at stake and my time is running short. Will you be able to lend your help to my cause?"

Steve cocked an eyebrow, as he looked the man over. He then gave Dawn a long, assessing look. "Just what in the hell was he doing in your bedroom? What have you been up to since we were gone?"

"My reasons for being in your daughter's bedroom are not at issue-"

"When you have a daughter of your own, you can decide that, son," Steve informed him. "Besides, if you want my help, you'll have to sit back and deal with me in stride-"

"Daddy, we don't have time for this!" Dawn bit out. "Please, will you stop playing around and help us?"

"Us?" he repeated. "Just how deeply involved are you in this? Have you noticed that he's lying to you? He's not the Cassadine heir-"

"Yes, he is," she interrupted quietly. "The one who's been in all the papers is the Impostor. This is the real Nikolas Cassadine. Would you listen to Nikolas and hear him out?"

Steve's mouth tightened. He nodded and sat quietly as Nikolas told him everything. The truth about his past two years came from Nikolas as if his life depended on it and it did. He wanted this man to understand that he was sincere and honest. Later, when he formerly asked for Dawn's hand in marriage, he didn't want any arguments from Steve Jensen. Although, he was almost certain the man would do so just because the act amused him.

"That's quite a tale," Steve said when Nikolas stopped speaking. "I suppose I could offer some assistance. Jones owes me a few favors. I could call them in and see what I can do about getting your brother back."

"Thank you." Nikolas said quickly. "Your assistance will be greatly rewarded."

Steve smiled. "My reward...now, you're on to something."

Dawn expelled a loud breath and buried her face in her hands. The dramatic action amused Nikolas and he couldn't help but chuckle softly. She looked at him then and shook her head. Her eyes told him that his amusement would be brought to a quick end. Of course, he didn't believe her, but he should have.

"I'm sure you could offer me more money than I'd know what to do with," Steve began, "but that's not what I want. To help you, I ask for one thing-"

"Anything," Nikolas said. "Name it and it is yours."

"Good. I want you to leave my daughter out of this. I want you out of her home tonight and you are not to contact her. Ever."

"Anything but that," Nikolas bit out. "I agree that I should leave and I was planning to do so soon, but I will not give my word to remain out of her life. I care for Dawn too much to make a promise such as that. If those are the only terms, then I will revoke my plea for help. I will find my brother on my own without your WSB contacts-"

"Nikolas, wait!" Dawn moved quickly to grab his hand and stop him. She turned to Steve. "I can't believe you just said that with me sitting right here. I respect and love you, but right now, I don't like you very much. You raised me, but you don't have the right to dictate my life. This is the safest place for him and he's not leaving. And I will help him find his brother and reunite his family whether you like it or not!"

"Bright Eyes," Steve said firmly, taking her other hand and holding on tightly to it. "I knew you wouldn't like it, but I had to say it. It was a test and he passed. Something has happened between you and I know it's not any of business, but that won't stop me from caring. I'll help Cassadine, and you'll listen to me and do what I tell you. Your Mama would never forgive me if something happened to you."

Dawn's eyes welled with tears and she gave him a faint smile. "And there's another thing. You can't tell Mama. Dara is seeing Zarek, and if he knew about Nikolas... Mama might slip and say something she shouldn't to Dara."

"You don't have to say anything more," Steve said. "I don't like keeping secrets from Carrie, but I will keep this one. Now, I'd better go. Don't do anything until I call you."

"Okay. Thanks." Dawn hugged her father and he held her tightly. When it was over, he brushed the tears from her cheeks and left.

"He's a good man," Nikolas said once they were alone again.

"Yeah," she agreed. She went to him and wrapped her arms around his waist.

Nikolas returned her embrace and closed his eyes. Steve Jensen would prove instrumental in returning Andrèsj, he believed and Nikolas had no doubts that the older man would do whatever he could to keep Nikolas out of Dawn's life. Nikolas would have to be guard for that because he wasn't about to let her go without a fight.

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