chapter twenty-three

***connections***

Dara smiled without realizing it. Her eyes glued to the screen, she snuggled deeper onto Mac's sofa and sighed.

"Do you like that?" Mac asked, tearing his green eyes away from the television to look at her. He pointed at the screen. "Do you like what he's doing for her?"

A thrill rippled through Dara. Something about the way he phrased the question caused her nerve endings to stand on end. The question was innocent considering that Larenz Tate was busy preparing breakfast for Nia Long, but the suggestive tone of Mac's voice was anything but. He sounded almost seductive.

"Dara?" he rumbled against her ear.

She cleared her throat and nodded. "Yeah, Mac. I like it. I think it's a nice gesture."

His laugh was rich and deep. "It's more than a gesture. When a man scrambles eggs for a woman, he means serious business."

Her eyebrows arched. "Oh, really? Eggs are that serious? Umph. I never knew."

Mac shook his head. "It's not the eggs, but the act itself. Any schmoe can pour cereal into a bowl, but a man who's ready for something more will crack the egg, whip it up in the frying add and serve it on a platter complete with toast and butter and jam on the side."

She shifted on the seat to look at him. The conversation started off with light teasing, but the hint of something more lingered in the air. "Are you a scrambled eggs kind of man or a Frosted Flakes schmoe?"

"There have been times when I've been both," he admitted with a shrug. "It depends on the woman."

The lights in his emerald eyes sparkled dangerously, and Dara thought it best to turn the conversation back to safer ground. She gave him what she hoped was a bland smile and directed her attention back to the movie he had chosen.

They watched "Love Jones" in companionable silence, interrupted only once when their fingers touched while going for popcorn. Both inhaled sharp, deep breaths, but Dara was too much of a coward to look at Mac. His attraction to her was apparent. From his first hug upon picking her up to the wonderful dinner he prepared, Mac Scorpio silently informed her that he meant business. His actions flattered her more than words could express, but she wasn't sure what she felt beyond that. Especially since thoughts of Zarek Cassadine were never far from her mind.

The ending credits rolled and Dara could feel Mac's eyes on her. She smiled again as she looked at him.

"Did you like it?" he asked, expectantly.

"I loved it. Dawn has the DVD, but I never got a chance to borrow it. I wish I hadn't waited so long now."

He gave her another one of his sensual smiles. His hand covered hers and lightly stroked her sensitive flesh. "I'm glad you waited. It gave me a chance to share it with you."

Her heart swelled. What he said was sweet and she knew it wasn't just a line. He meant every word and that in turn, meant a lot to her. "Thank you, Mac."

"It's been my pleasure." He leaned forward and brushed his mouth against her cheek and then her hand. "I enjoyed our date tonight. Did you?"

She tittered nervously. "I forgot how blunt you could be." Nodding, she said, "Yes, I enjoyed tonight."

"Enough to want to do it again?" he quickly asked.

Dara paused before answering. She didn't want to get his hopes up and decided that a little honesty was necessary. Whatever happened, she valued Mac's friendship and would never want to do anything that would damage it. "I think I'd like to, but Mac... I think I should let you know that I'm seeing someone else, too."

Color stained his cheeks, but he never broke eye contact with her. He squeezed her fingers and kissed them again. "Thank you for telling me. I'm not afraid of a little competition for your attention and affection, Dara. I think you're more than worth the challenge."

~*~

After Nikolas finished gluing the beard to his face again, he took a deep breath and stared at his reflection. He looked nothing like himself and without his medallion around his neck, he almost didn't feel like himself. But still, he harbored no regrets at giving it to Dawn in lieu of an engagement ring. She'd already given him her heart. The Cassadine Medallion seemed to pale in comparison.

He moved quickly to clean up the bathroom and gather his scant belongings. Tonight would bear enough melancholy without him making the delay worse.

With a duffel bag slung over his shoulder and his disguise firmly in place, Nikolas stepped out of the bathroom and joined Dawn in the living room. Tears glistened in her dazzling brown eyes and he had to still himself against them unless his eyes filled with water, too.

He went to her. Unable to resist, his hand cupped her lovely face. "My bag is packed and my face is hidden. I think I'm ready to go."

"I wish I could say the same," she murmured softly. "I'm not ready for you to leave. Are you sure about this? Where will you go? Will you be safe?"

"I'll be fine. What's more important is making sure that you are kept safe." He lowered his bag to the floor and wrapped his arms around her. "I couldn't bear it if something happened to you, too. The attacks on my Father and both of my brothers were because of their connection to me. This is something, which I do not doubt. Your safety means the world to me and the longer I stay the greater the risk for you."

"I'm not afraid," Dawn said. "I don't scare easily, you know."

His lips curved in a half-smile. "I know. I saw the way you handled the truck when bullets were flying at us. You're a remarkable woman and I want so very much to make you my wife. In order for our fairy tale romance to have that happy ending it deserves, we can't be together right now."

She closed her eyes and leaned against him. "I won't make this harder than it has to be. Will you call me?"

"Once I'm settled, I'll find a way to let you know."

"Wouldn't you like to meet Frisco tomorrow?" she asked, opening her eyes to look at him again. "I think he can help."

"I'm sure he can, but I can't meet with him. He's WSB. It would be too risky even with the disguise. You know everything I know. I trust you to speak with him accordingly."

Dawn sighed. "How long will this take?" She gave him a watery smile. "I kinda like having a roommate who cooks and does the dishes. The loft won't be the same without you."

"I'll be right here," he assured her, pointing at the Medallion, "in your heart. This will be over soon, and we'll be together. Now, give me another of your beautiful smiles to send me on my way."

"I can do better than that," she said, lifting her head to press her lips to his.

The kiss was deep, warm and passionate. It stirred Nikolas' bones and created a dull ache in his chest. Leaving her was the hardest thing he'd ever done, but inarguably the best decision he ever made. Besides, it wouldn't be forever. Their love was destined and soon, they would be together again.

The kiss ended and slowly, he released her. He grabbed his bag and with his arm secured around her waist, led them to the door. Holding in the sob that lodged in his throat, Nikolas released her, slipped out the door and left.

~*~

The silence of night settled over the hospital. Lucky's family continued to wait for word about his condition while the doctors continued to run tests on him. The delay put everyone on edge, but there was nothing that could be done. Until the doctors had an answer, nothing could be done to help him.

"I don't understand this," Laura said as Luke paced in front of her. "Lucky wouldn't experiment with drugs. He knows better."

"He knew better," Luke corrected. "We don't know what that she-devil did to him when he was gone from us. He's not the same. You know it and I know it."

"But it was so long ago," she countered. "Besides, Helena is dead! Even she doesn't have the ability to manipulate people from the grave."

Nik opened his mouth to speak, but Gia pulled him away before he could say anything. He turned on her and his eyes glared viciously at her. "What are you doing?" he whispered angrily.

"Stopping you from making a mistake. A dangerous mistake," Gia said.

"What are you talking about?" he sighed, running his hand through his short black hair. "Lucky is in there and we don't know what's wrong with him."

"He's at the hospital and he's safe-"

"That's not good enough!" He drew in a harsh breath and continued to glare at her. "You and I both know that Helena isn't behind what's wrong with him-"

"We don't know anything," she interrupted. "All we know is that Lucky is messed up right now. Breaking up with Liz is probably what's wrong with him."

Rolling his eyes, he shook his head. "This has nothing to do with Liz. Philana-"

"Don't!" she cut in. Her eyes darted around the lobby. "Her spies could be anywhere and anyone. She's already threatened you once. Do you want her to make good on her threats? Nik, please," she said, clutching his hand, "don't say her name again."

"Don't say whose name?" Luke bit out, appearing suddenly beside them. "Sly saved you before. He's not around to do it again. What do you know about my son's condition?"

"He doesn't know anything-"

"I'm not talking to you, little girl," Luke interjected without sparing her a glance. "This is between Count Vlad, Jr. and me." His hands flexed at his side, but he made no move to grab Nik. "Your family is behind this, isn't it? Even burnt to a crisp, their evil haunts my family."

"Luke, stop it!" Laura said, grabbing his arm. "Leave Nik out of this. If Helena was behind whatever's wrong with Lucky, Nik had nothing to do with it and wouldn't know anything about it. Please, Luke. Lucky needs us to be here for him and fighting doesn't help. Leave my son alone."

Luke's jaw clenched and he broke free from her grip. With loud stomps, he stormed away from them. Once he was out of earshot, Laura took Nik's hand and apologized. "I'm sorry about Luke. He's just really worried."

Nik looked down at their joined hands. "We all are. I'd never do anything to hurt my brother." Slowly, he raised his eyes to hers. "You know that, right? I love him and Lulu, too."

"I know," Laura said, pulling Nik into an embrace.

Gia watched them, shook her head and walked away.

~*~

"Who's there?" Sly called out when he heard the tap on the front door. It was late and dressed in only a t-shirt and boxers, he wasn't in the mood for uninvited guests.

"It's Allyson!" a soft female voice called.

Allyson? Why would she come over so late? He grabbed his crutches and hobbled to the door. He had forgotten his attire until her eyes widened at the sight of him. Embarrassment made him want to hide, but Sly wasn't a punk. He puffed up his chest and opened the door wide.

"Are you gonna stand out there gaping all night or are you coming in?"

She rolled her eyes and crossed the threshold. "Do you always open the door in your underwear?"

"Why?" he asked, slamming the door shut and then hobbling back to the sofa. With a leering grin, he added, "Did you like it?"

She turned her nose up. "Please."

Sly watched her while she looked around the apartment with haughty disdain. If she found it so disgusting, why was she there? "Well?" he asked, when her silence started to bug him.

"You are such a rude-"

"You came all the way over here in the middle of the night to compliment me?" he cut in. "Wow."

"Okay, I'm sorry for that. I'm being rude," she said in a less than gracious manner. "I came over to ask about Lucky. I heard he's in a bad way. Is there anything I can do?"

He was too stunned to speak. Allyson Phillips actually cared about someone other than herself or Tommy Hardy. It was almost too much to believe. In time, he closed his mouth and pointed at a recliner that only had a few magazines littering its lap. "Have a seat. If you want something to drink, it's in the fridge. Help yourself."

She gave the recliner a questioning glance. With the tips of her forefinger and thumb, she grabbed the magazines and tossed them onto the coffee table and sat. "I won't be staying that long. I just wanted to know if I could help."

"I'm surprised that you'd want to," he admitted honestly, "but thanks. I appreciate it. The doctors don't know what's wrong with him, so until they figure it out, there's nothing anyone can do."

"Other than pray."

He gave a hard look and then slowly nodded. "Yeah, there's that, too."

~*~

Philana swept down the long hallway to the living room. Zarek hadn't moved since she left for her nightly meditation. She hated seeing him so melancholy, but such were the ways of love. Not even a mother's love could protect him from the ups and downs of that emotion.

"Zarek.."

He jumped and then stared at her. "Oh, Mother. I didn't hear you. What is it?"

"I met with Miss Jensen's mother today," she began slowly. "She's a charming woman. If her daughter is as charming as she, I can understand your distraction."

"Mother, I'm not distracted," he denied. "My time with Dara has not interfered with my responsibilities."

"No?" she asked, perching on the edge of the sofa. "Are you aware of the latest?"

Frowning, he left the window and joined her on the sofa. His legs stretched out before him and he sighed. "What latest, Mother?"

"Lucky Spencer has surrendered to my spell. He was admitted to General Hospital this afternoon."

Zarek shrugged. "We knew the effects would wear off him sooner or later. I admit this is sooner than expected, but this shouldn't prevent us from attaining our goal."

"No," she agreed, "it won't, but Prince Nikolas' return would."

He stiffened. "Nikolas wouldn't be so foolish as to return now. Even if he is alive out there, he knows he's lost-"

"Stefan raised Nikolas in his image," she stated, "and the desire for revenge courses in his veins as it does in all Cassadines. Just because the Impostor's presence has neutralized him does not mean that he will give up easily. I have reason to believe that Nikolas is here and is making plans to reclaim his throne."

"Do you know where he is?"

Philana lifted her shoulders and smiled her secret smile. "I have a good idea."

"Where?"

She patted her son's hand and rose. "I will handle Nikolas. Please do not argue with me about this. Believe me, you'd rather not know my methods for controlling him."

"Mother," he said, frowning, "why wouldn't I want to know?"

"Because ignorance is bliss, my sweet," she said, gently caressing his stubble-covered jaw. "I want bliss for you. Please?"

A frown continued to crease his brow, but he offered no argument. "As you wish."

"Thank you." She bent forward and kissed his cheek. "Goodnight, love. See you in the morning."

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