Chapter 25

Last Beautiful Girl

~ …you needed to find your space… ~

Dawn stood on the balcony and surveyed the landscape. Inhaling a deep breath, she marveled at the beauty of Elizabeth's villa. A majestic mountain with white capped peaks guarded the north while a rich valley completed the south. The fresh air tickled her senses. Its perfume was like nothing man could create. Pure and serene. She welcomed the change in scenery and hoped its goodness would wash over her.

A light tap sounded at the door before Elizabeth burst inside the room. Long brown waves flowed over her shoulders. Arms outstretched, she glided to Dawn. Elizabeth's arms wrapped around her. Dawn closed her eyes and enjoyed the embrace. They'd overcome so much in the last twenty years. Their friendship was something she could not afford to lose, too.

"You're shaking," Elizabeth said, patting Dawn's back. "Let's go back inside. Sven is building a fire and hot cocoa is brewing."

Dawn allowed herself to be led from the solace of her suite of rooms down to Elizabeth's den. She paused at the doorway and admired her friend's eclectic taste in decorating. Portraits and landscapes adorned the walls in wild abandon. The images depicted friends and strangers at their best and most confused. The landscapes captured parts of Port Charles, Athens, and other international locales. The artist's talents knew no bounds. Dawn looked at Elizabeth with a smile. Just to think, she knew Liz when.

"It doesn't make sense, does it?" Elizabeth plopped on a sofa and patted the empty space in invitation. As Dawn complied, Elizabeth continued, "Few understand this room. Oh, when patrons and critics come to visit, they ooh and aah over it. The eccentricity of an artist, they say. But they don't get it."

Shifting on the sofa, Dawn hugged her knees to her chest. "They don't understand what you've gone through."

"That's not just my history there," Elizabeth said. "It's ours, too. This room is a work in progress."

Dawn's gaze connected with a depiction of Dominik, Ciarda, Alanna and Noelle on the shores of the Aegean Sea. Melancholy seized her. She remembered that day. Noelle just barely out of diapers fell onto the sand with a loud giggle. Dominik, the birthday boy, stood between the twins, gripping their hands lest they fall, too. He wasn't much older than the girls, but that didn't diminish his sense of responsibility. Emotions lodged in Dawn's throat. Some things never changed.

Sven, Elizabeth's manservant, rolled a goody-laden tray into the room. The delicious aroma of hot Swiss chocolate, gooey marshmallows and fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies assaulted Dawn's senses. Just then, she remembered skipping dinner and breakfast. Her stomach rumbled. Elizabeth laughed.

"Right on time," Elizabeth said. "Thanks. We can manage from here."

After he left, Elizabeth served them both. As Dawn succumbed to the hot chocolate, Elizabeth asked, "We have food and solitude. Talk to me. What's happened now?"

Dawn frowned. Her cup hit the saucer with a loud clank. "Nothing earth shattering."

"Don't stop there." Elizabeth fixed her with a hard, yet loving stare. "Just because I live on the other side of the world doesn't mean I don't care."

Dawn sank into the cushions. The trip to Switzerland was for Elizabeth and whatever secrets she held. Divulging the latest trauma wasn't on Dawn's agenda. "I know you care." She squeezed Liz's hand and released it. "And I appreciate it. You know, for the longest time I wondered why you moved here on the other side of the world. Away from your family and your friends. Now, I think I understand. You needed your own space. Right?"

Elizabeth nodded in agreement. "I did. Port Charles overloaded me with bad memories."

"I'm sorry about that."

"It's not your fault." Liz shrugged. "You've had your share, too. Looking into your eyes I see something's haunting you. Won't you tell me what it is? If I can't help, I can listen. Listening helps."

Dawn willed herself not to breakdown. She squared her shoulders and locked her gaze on her wedding band. "My marriage is falling apart and it may be too late to save it. But that's not the worst. The worst part is, I don't know if I care enough to try. Isn't that awful?"

"Why didn't you tell me? You should have called me," Elizabeth said. "How does Nikolas feel? What happened? Twenty years, Dawn, is too much to simply discard--"

"Guess who's here!"

Both women jumped at the interruption. Tommy and Elizabeth's lover stood in the doorway, arm in arm. Tommy wore a quizzical expression on his face as he looked at each woman.

"Liz, you didn't tell me Dawn was coming," he said. "What's going on here?"

Elizabeth gave Dawn an apologetic smile. Then, she stood and moved to hug her cousin. "Welcome, cousin. It's good to see you, too."

"Sorry," he murmured. "You know how I am about surprises."

"Well, prepare yourself." Elizabeth reached for Bianca Montgomery's hand. "I asked you both here as witnesses to our commitment ceremony."

~ …needed to still be friends… ~

Long stretches of road called to Dominik. His Jaguar acquiesced to his demands. Roaring and sailing over hills and down valleys. When brilliant rays of pink, yellow and orange peeked over the horizon, he returned to Port Charles and into a very familiar neighborhood.

He parked a couple of houses away from the Hardy home. At this time of morning, few roamed the streets. Then, two joggers emerged. One light, the other dark. A lump obstructed his airways. Hesitation gripped him. Ignoring the reasons that told him to stay put, he left the car and stepped onto the sidewalk. The girls' steps faltered as they recognized him.

"Good morning," he said.

Both girls wore suspicious expressions. Neither spoke. They simply nodded in unison.

"You're probably wondering what I'm doing here."

Alanna folded her arms across her chest. She glanced at her sister before she spoke. "Yeah. This is out of your way."

"You look awful," Ciarda added. "So does the Jag. What have you been doing all night?"

His hand went to the Cassadine medallion that hung around his neck. Subconsciously, he traced the intricate emblems chosen by his ancestors. Centuries of history summed up in a piece of jewelry. What a crock. Frowning, he shoved his hand into the front pocket of his pants.

"Driving and thinking," he said. "Thinking about how I miss two smart, beautiful girls and how I need to make things right with them."

Color darkened Alanna's cheeks. Ciarda averted her gaze and looked at the ground.

"I miss our friendship," he hurried on to fill the tense silence. "I've given mixed signals and that was neither fair nor right. A current situation has forced me to see how fragile relationships are. They are not to be taken for granted. I sincerely apologize for doing so."

Alanna spoke first. "What do you want, Dom? Things can't go back the way they were."

"I miss the days when all we needed was a hug and a game of tag to set things right," Ciarda said. "I don't like this rift between us."

Dominik ignored the trepidation that attacked his gut. Opening his arms, he looked each girl in the eye and smiled. "A hug and tag sounds good to me."

They only made him sweat for ten seconds. Simultaneously, the twins moved into his arms. The warmth of friendship was overpowering. He dreaded the moment when he'd have to let go.

Then, Alanna whispered for him only, "Don't make me regret this."

~ …it won't be the last beautiful girl… ~

Inside the treehouse that his uncle and father built, Ben found solace. Over the years, he'd turned the space into his own little sanctuary. To his surprise, JE never ventured inside without asking permission. Before Morgan's arrival, Ben and his kid brother had sleepovers there with Dominik and Adrik. The Secret Boys Club they called it. A few times, Marisa, Noelle and the twins voiced loud objections and were allowed entry. Resting on his old, ratty Sponge Bob sleeping bag, he grabbed his backpack and pulled out an envelope of coveted photographs.

The images recorded the best moments in his young life. He shuffled through photos taken at family holiday gatherings and friends' celebrations. Finally, he arrived at the Kodak captured image of his sixteenth birthday party. Keesha made sure that each of them celebrated the momentous occasion in different ways. George and Grace had a skating party. For Marisa's, she rented a movie theater that played a marathon of Demi Moore movies. Being a little bit more low-key, Ben requested that she tone it down for him. Keesha agreed and threw a block party. At first, Ben was mortified, but then his best friends cornered him. Embarrassment gave way to enjoyment. And then, AJ snapped a shot of him and Ciarda.

His arm hung loosely around her shoulders. A wild array of curls formed a halo around her laughing face. He'd made a joke and looking dead into his eyes, she burst into a fit of giggles. The frozen moment in time had always been one of his favorite imagines, but now that he began to understand how deeply his feelings for Ciarda ran… He perused every nuance and memorized how perfectly her sea green eyes glowed against her caramel skin. The way her full lips spread into a ready grin caused his stomach to twist into knots. Why hadn't he ever kissed her? Would she taste as sweet as she looked?

"God, I've been so blind!"

"He's up there!" The sound of sneaker soles on the wooden ladder followed the exclamation. Then, the knowing grin of his sister popped into view. "Hey, sport!"

He glowered at Marisa. She always overplayed the older sibling bit. "I came up here to be alone."

"Nothing doing." She crawled inside and rolled onto a beanbag.

"Wow," George said as he came up the rear. "It looks the same. I didn't know you still used it."

"I didn't want anyone to know," Ben mumbled.

"He's got it bad," Marisa stated.

"I can see that," George said. He grabbed the photos from Ben's hand. Nodding, he stared at the one on top. "Did I take this?"

"Uncle AJ did." Ben tried to take it back, but George passed it to Marisa.

"You actually look kinda cute here," she said. An appreciative sigh escaped her. "Ciarda looks good here, too."

"Cut it out!" Ben snatched the photo and quickly shoved it inside his backpack. "What do you want?"

"To pull you out of the funk, little brother," George said as he sat on the floor between Marisa and Ben.

"I told you it was pretty bad," Marisa said. "Moping and grumbling. It's a good thing we're here to help."

"I didn't ask for your help."

"That's the cool thing about family," George quipped. "We don’t always wait around for an invitation. Ciarda is a beautiful girl, but she's not the first or last one you'll meet or care about. It hurts now, but in time, the pain will ease. I guarantee it."

Marisa nodded in agreement. "So do I."

"I thought that was a phase," Ben said.

"A phase sounds like a whim," she said, frowning. "My love life is far from whimsical."

"Are you ever gonna tell us who 'she' was?" he asked, welcoming the change in conversation.

She shrugged. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you. Besides, it's over and like Georgie said, it hurt, but the hurt faded. You and Ciarda have a great friendship. Don't blow it over what might have been. Who knows? She and her boyfriend may not work out. She'll need a shoulder to cry on…"

George held up his hand. "Nope. Stop. Ben will not be a rebound man."

A wicked gleam lit up Marisa's gray eyes. "So is that what happened between you and Leslie Lu?"

"Don't worry about it," George snapped at her. "Listen to me, Ben. Be Ciarda's friend, but keep your options open. That's the smart thing to do."

Ben appreciated their effort, but doubts remained. What he felt for Ciarda went beyond a mere crush and seeing her with her roommate's brother burned him up. Being powerless to interfere reminded him of his inability to reach Morgan. On both fronts, nothing he did seemed to matter. The cards were already stacked against him.

"We love you, kiddo, warts and all." Marisa tossed a baseball at him. "You're a great catch. Anyone can see that and if not, they're a fool and don't deserve you anyway. Now, let's go. Mom is frying chicken and there's a thigh down there with my name on it!"

Marisa scampered down the ladder. George jutted his chin toward her disappearing head. "There she goes, Ms. Subtlety. She's right, kiddo. Come join us."

Ben zipped his pack and pulled it onto his back. Right as George stepped onto the ladder, Ben asked, "Is Morgan there?"

"Nope." George playfully socked Ben's upper arm. "It's just family."

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