Chapter 38

Family Portrait

~ I ran away today, ran from the noise, ran away…~

Family dinner. Where did her grandparents get that crazy idea? Noelle dreaded the thought of spending time in the same room with her parents. Seeing them sitting at opposites sides of the table would only remind her of past dinners. She and Dominik would blush at their parents' closeness, their seemingly inability to be more than a foot from each other. How could something that right go so wrong?

Dominik invited her to join the horseback ride. She didn't want to hang out with him and their friends. She needed solitude. Years ago, she and Dom loved to explore Spoon Island. On one of their many adventures, they found a secluded cabin. Immediately, it became their clubhouse. In a wild, defiant move, Dom even threw a party, but in the end, he rescinded the invitations except for their closest friends.

She grabbed a backpack filled with miscellaneous supplies, including a flashlight and water and trekked to the cabin. Using a bobby pin, she jimmied the lock and pushed the heavy, thick door open. Nothing had changed. Everything was just as they'd left it.

For the first half hour, she simply lounged around, willing herself not to think. Eventually, her will weakened. What was a family dinner supposed to accomplish? Her mom had a thing with her Uncle Lorenzo and her dad was ogling another woman! The family she loved and revered would never be the same again.

Sudden tears stung her eyes. She choked back a sob. No tears! They weren't worth that. Rubbing her eyes with one hand, she reached for her cell phone with the other. Her call was answered on the third ring.

"You shouldn't call me--"

"There's no one else," she whispered, a hoarse voice. "Please, George, don't be mad at me."

The edge left his voice. He spoke in a calm, soothing tone. "I'm not mad. What's wrong?"

"Everything. Nothing. Are you busy?"

"What's everything and what's nothing?"

The words lodged in her throat. Voicing her fears aloud frightened the crap out of her. She drew her legs to her chest and squeezed her eyes shut.

"Noelle?" He paused, waiting her response. When none came, he said, "Noelle! Are you there? Talk to me."

"I'm here--"

"Where are you?"

A small spark of hope flared to life. "Will you come?"

"I shouldn't," he hedged.

"Will you?"

There was no hesitation. "Yeah."

~Your pain is painful and its tearin' me down…~

Wyndemere, despite its cheerful décor and warm occupants, still held an ominous air. Ben spent as much time on the island as he had his grandparents' estate. Yet, he couldn't shake the feeling that Wyndemere held many secrets. Some good and some bad. Years before Dom's grandparents moved in, Ben's cousin Ned had owned the place. Given the Quartermaines' penchant for mischief, Ben believed the secrets weren't all Cassadine. One day, he wanted to research the mansion's origins and uncover its mysteries.

"You love this place, don't you?" Ciarda nudged his arm as they strolled a hallway on the East Wing. "You like hiding here."

"That's not what it is," he argued. "I like the silence and the noise, but I especially love the history. Do you ever wonder about this place?"

She shrugged. "Maybe a little bit."

He waited for her to say more. When she didn't, he studied her face. Faint worry lines creased her brow. Her mouth was set. He moved behind her to rest his hands on her shoulders. They were tight. His fingers flexed, squeezing and rubbing. A shudder of pleasure went through him, but he ignored it.

"What are you doing?" She glanced over her shoulder.

"You're so tense," he explained. "I'm trying to help. Do you want me to stop?"

Slowly, he felt her relax. She shook her head. "No, that feels nice."

"I have skills," he said softly. "Seth is a jock, right? I bet he gives you great massages all the time."

Like a light switch, tension returned. She pulled from his grasp and moved to lean against the wall. He shoved his hands into his pants pockets. Hair fell into his eyes as he tilted his head to the side. "What's up, Ciarda?"

"I don't know. I think we broke up, that's all."

Ben's eyes widened. "You broke up? Why didn't you tell me?"

"I'm not sure that we did." She pushed from the wall and stalked away. Ben had to run to catch up.

"How can you not be sure? What happened?"

"I don't know, Ben. One minute, everything's fine and the next, he's being weird."

"Weird how?"

She shook her head. "I don't want to talk about it."

"What did he do?"

"Nothing--"

He caught her arm. She came to an immediate halt. Her eyes pleaded with him to stop, but Ben couldn't. "I swear to God if he hurt you, I'll… Ciarda, I--"

"There you are!" Dominik called from a few feet ahead. "Come on. Dinner's about to start."

"Ciarda, listen to me--"

"You heard him." She closed her hand over his for a brief moment. "Let go, Ben."

"Okay." Reluctantly, he released her. "If that's what you want."

~ Daddy don’t leave

Don't leave us here alone~

Dinner went better than expected. Noelle arrived after soup was served. Despite her sullen expression, the meal was a civil affair. Stefan supposed Dominik invited his friends to prevent otherwise. His oldest grandson had the makings of a great diplomat.

Everyone remained on safe topics. The determination would have been laughable if Stefan didn't know the reasons for it. Many times, he found himself studying Nikolas and Dawn. Not only were they husband and wife, they were his children. Stefan loved Dawn as if he fathered her himself. Torment hid in the depths of her brown eyes. Instantly, he was reminded of Noelle's fourth birthday party. The tension was just as palpable then.

Dear God, what had he hoped to accomplish at this dinner?

The servants cleared the table in preparation for dessert. From the corner of his eye, he saw Adrik grab his plate and refuse to let go. Both Dawn and Nikolas reached for him at the same time. Stefan's throat constricted with heartache as he watched the scene unfold.

"Baby, dessert is coming," Dawn said, "and you can have as much as you want."

"I don't want it," the little boy said in a tight voice. His cheeks were red and his eyes were bright. "No dessert!"

"Adrik," Nikolas's voice was deeper and less coaxing than Dawn's soothing tones, "you've never been prone to tantrums before and I will not stand for it now. Release the plate. Mrs. Landsbury went to a good deal of trouble to guarantee that each of us will have our favorite desserts tonight. You will not insult her with ill behavior."

Tears rolled down Adrik's cheeks, but he wouldn't budge.

"Baby, please don't act like this," Dawn said gently. "Tell me. Why don't you want dessert?"

He shook his head.

Nikolas reached out and wiped his son's tears away. "Tell us, Adrik."

"Dinner's over after dessert," the boy choked out. "Then, you'll leave, Papa. You'll leave us here, and I don't want you to go! I want us to be like we used to be. When you and Mama and Dominik and Noelle and me were all together! I don't want dessert, Papa. Don't let them bring it out."

Silence filled the dining room. Stefan glanced at the stricken faces of his other grandchildren. Their pain was just as evident as their younger brother's.

"Oh, God." Stefan murmured the silent prayer under his breath. This dinner had been an immeasurable mistake. What had he done?

~ Can we work it out? Can we be a family?~

"Are you okay?" Nikolas touched Dawn's elbow as they followed a path away from Wyndemere. They worked as true partners in calming Adrik. In the end, Nikolas promised to be there the next morning when his son woke up. After all these years, he finally understood the torture Dawn endured when she was forced to leave their family. The heartache in their children's eyes would haunt him until the day he died, as well as the sorrow reflected in her eyes, too. At this point, he didn't know what to do to make any of this better.

"Not exactly. I didn't have much hope for Father's dinner idea, but this was much worse than I imagined--"

"I told him not to do this. He wouldn't listen."

"Nikolas, what happened isn't Father's fault," she said quietly. "We did this. You and me. Adrik cried himself to sleep tonight and it's our fault. Again, I caused one of my children pain. I can't stand this."

"He wants us to go back in time to be the family he remembers," he said. "We can't do that. Not even to make our children happy."

"I know."

They continued to walk. The ensuing silence felt comfortable, without an ounce of awkwardness. Moving further away from Wyndemere and deeper into the dark of night, they trudged ahead. Nikolas couldn't remember walking this far. If he had, it had been years ago. Yet, there was a path as if this walk was meant to be.

"I saw Evangeline Williamson-McBain today."

"Dara's friend?" he asked. "I heard Carlotta mention her."

"Yes, her. She's an attorney," she said. "I asked her about divorce."

A swoosh of air went through him, as if he'd been sucker punched. "Oh."

"Yeah."

"When will I receive the papers?"

He felt her shrug. "I don't know. I didn't go through with it. I…um… She was married to a cop and they have two beautiful children. Photos of their happy life were all over her office. Looking at them reminded me of how we used to be. Anyway, he died in the line of duty not too long ago."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"Me, too, but she's handling it well, I think. I remembered the times I lost you. Luke and Helena tried to convince me you were dead, but I didn't buy it. Then later…when Sarah had you, and we didn't know where you were. That time, fear crept in. I fought it. One way or another, I was determined to find you and bring you home."

His hand brushed hers. Before he could blink, their hands were locked. "You did. You found me."

They came to a stop. A building blocked their path. Not just any building, but a cabin. A sweet, secluded cabin. Memories came flooding back. He hid her there from Stefan and Dara. Just days into their meeting, they found in each other what they hadn't found elsewhere. He became a man inside her arms and she a woman. Had Fate brought them here for a reason?

"This is unreal," she said in a hoarse whisper. "I haven't thought about this place in years. Maybe what happened here, but not the actual place."

With a gentle tug on her hand, he led them to the door, which opened without too much coercion. He discovered that the electricity worked and warm light filled the room. Soon, they were just a few feet away from the fireplace where he laid her down for the very first time.

She looked down at their joined hands. "You were so gentle and giving and God, so thorough."

"I was scared out of my mind," he said, "but I wanted you more than I ever wanted anything or anyone in my entire life."

"What happened?" she asked. "Why did you stop wanting me?"

He took her other hand. "I can't say that I have."

"We can we work this out? Can we," she asked, squeezing his hands, "be a family? Is it too late?"

"Right here, right now…I don't want to believe that it is."

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