Chapter 17

~ Luv Me, Luv Me ~

luv me, luv me, luv me…

"Daddy?"

Tommy jumped. He tore his gaze away from the flat screen monitor and looked toward the doorway. Alanna stood there. She looked tense, poised for flight. He straightened and forcibly cleared his mind of Juan and the hell the man created for Tommy and so many others.

"Come in." Smiling, he beckoned for his daughter to enter his home office.

"You look busy." She hesitated at the door.

"I'm never too busy for you." He stood and moved around his desk. He held out his hand and Alanna finally crossed to him. She slid her slender hand into his. "Is Ciarda settling in okay?"

Alanna nodded. "She and Buffy are busy choosing outfits for the concert. I've never seen her so excited."

Tommy led her to the leather sofa that rested along the far wall. They sat. "Do you think her excitement has anything to do with Buffy's brother?"

Her eyebrows arched. "Daddy!"

"What? I'm observant. I saw how he looked at her when he dropped them off."

She shrugged. "Okay, maybe it is because of him, but please promise me, you won't have him investigated."

Tommy's jaw dropped. "Who? Me?"

She gave him the first smile he'd seen on her face in days. "Yes, you. You have a habit of being overprotective."

She had no idea, he thought. He'd do whatever necessary to keep his family safe. "That's my job. I can't help it. I love you, your sister and your mother very much."

Alanna rested her head on his shoulder. Her hand squeezed his. "I know, Daddy."

He closed his hand over hers. "What's wrong? You didn't come in here to discuss your sister."

"I'm almost afraid to say. You'll be mad at me."

"I doubt it."

She inhaled a deep breath and quickly said, "I had a talk with Tom Hardy. I would have asked you, but I know you'd say no. I just went on my own. I had to see him."

Tommy remained silent for a moment. Alanna's secret was no secret to him. He'd known the minute she drove to the Port Charles Hotel. Her bodyguard had told him. Tommy wondered if she would tell him. Since the bodyguard was not common knowledge, he had no choice but to wait for her to come to him.

"You are mad." She pulled away from him.

"No." He continued to hold her hand. "I'm not surprised you're curious about him."

"You didn't want Ciarda and me to see him."

"Because I don't know him and I don't trust him not to hurt you," Tommy answered. The words hurt, but they were true. He barely remembered Tom Hardy. The man walked out and never looked back. Tommy and Simone went through hell, but the man who should have protected them was nowhere to be found. How could Tommy trust him now?

"I wanted to meet him and find out why he ran out on you and Grandma," Alanna said.

"Did you get your answers?" Tommy held his breath, waiting.

After a brief pause, she said, "No. Nothing I can understand. He's nothing like you. You're a good man. I trust you. I love you, Daddy."

Trust. Would she trust him if she knew what he was capable of? Of the lengths he'd endure to protect his family? That he'd willingly assisted in disposing of the remains of his captor and tormentor without a second thought?

Those were questions he never wanted answered.

"I love you, too," he whispered, hugging her close. He closed his eyes, wanting to remember this moment of closeness. But all his mind's eye captured was darkness. The dark caves surrounded him, reminding him that no matter how much time passed, he'd never forget.

~*~

"Are you taking a girl to the concert?" JE settled on the floor beside Ben. They held controls to a video game. JE had the lead and he was pretty sure his big brother had given it to him. But the boy wasn't about to complain.

"Why?" Ben brushed hair from his eyes. "Do you need pointers?"

"No!" JE cried, outraged. "Yuck. Girls are gross."

Ben laughed. "Right. That's what I told George when I was your age. He laughed."

"Well, they are."

Ben shrugged. "At your age, they are, but they won't be gross for long. Just wait. You'll want to carry her books, call her on the phone, and hold her hand."

JE shook his head. "No, way. Not me. Adrik and I won't let some dumb girl ruin our friendship. We pinky sweared."

"Mama would kill you if she heard you say that. Besides, girls aren't dumb."

"Adrik said that Dominik doesn't stay at the apartment with you anymore."

Ben ruffled his younger brother's hair. "It's not because of a girl."

JE dodged Ben's hand and nodded. "Sure, it is. You both like the same girl."

Ben grunted. "You think you're so smart."

"So, is it true?"

Ben didn't answer. Morgan entered the den. He looked at JE and said, "Wanna play catch in the backyard?"

JE hopped from the floor. "Sure! Ben, come on."

Morgan's jaw tightened. He didn't say a word. Ben stared at the man. Seconds passed. Then he looked at his brother. "That's okay, little bro. I have to get a date for the concert. I'll see you later."

"Later!" JE raced from the den with Morgan right behind him.

"What's all the noise?" Keesha asked when she entered the den a moment later.

"JE's playing ball with Morgan," Ben replied without looking at her.

"Why aren't you out there with them?" She sat behind him on the couch.

"I wasn't invited."

She touched his shoulder. "What?"

"You heard me, Mama." He rose from the floor and joined her on the sofa. He placed his hand against hers. "Morgan's blood doesn't run in these veins. He has no use for me."

Her heart lurched. She sucked in air to keep from screaming. That bastard's stupidity knew no bounds. She hugged Ben. "I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault," he said, his voice muffled against her neck. "I remembered riding piggy back on Dad's back. He never treated us like we weren't his. Neither of you did. I hoped that when he came back, my Dad had returned. George and Michael warned me that he wasn't the same. But every time I see him, I keep hoping…"

"Ben--"

"I learned something today, Mama," he said. "I can't keep hope alive forever. I'm not staying for dinner."

"Don't leave," she pleaded. Of all her children, he was the most sensitive. She didn't want him alone when his hurt was so strong.

Ben shook his head and stood. "I can't stay. I don't know when I'll come back."

"No!"

"It hurts, Mama. I thought I could handle it, but I can't." He bent forward to kiss her cheek. "I'll call you."

~*~

The ride across Spoon Lake was quiet and undisturbed. The walk to Wyndemere was more of the same. She let herself in and headed upstairs. As was their private custom, he waited for her.

"I wondered if you had changed your mind."

"No. I wouldn't miss this night with you for anything."

Stefan closed the door. He pulled the woman into his arms. They embraced for longer than they ever had. As if they were drawing strength from each other. For a brief moment, he wondered if she knew what had transpired between him and Carlotta. As their embrace ended, he looked into her expressive brown eyes and realized that her distress was personal. Once again, pain was a common bond between them.

Dawn reached inside her bag and removed two box sets. "I couldn't remember if we agreed on Season Four or Season Five."

His brows drew together in a mock frown of concentration. "Which season had the vampire episode?"

"The one with the 'he said, she said' scenes? When Mulder gets doped up and sings 'Shaft'?" A twinkle formed in her eyes as she questioned him.

He could not prevent the smile that formed in his heart and spread to his lips. His surrogate daughter was the breath of air his soul needed. At least for the moment. "That's the one."

"Season Five."

"Very well." He placed the Season Four box set on the end table and then prepared the first disk in the Season Five set for viewing.

Dawn shrugged out of her coat and curled onto the sofa. "I brought sunflower seeds, too."

Stefan settled on the sofa beside her. He dimmed the lights with the nearby remote control and began the DVD. She moved to rest her head on his shoulder. He patted her hand.

"Should I be concerned?" he gently asked, not wanting to pry.

"Yes," she responded, "but not tonight. Tonight, we have our mini-marathon." She paused and then asked, "Are you okay?"

"I've had better moments," he confided.

"Wanna talk about it?"

"No. Not tonight."

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