Chapter 39

Witness

~… I won't weigh you down with good intention…~

Adrik's passionate outburst at the dinner…the soul-baring walk across the island…finally, the long night at the cabin. Nikolas hadn't intended for them to stay overnight. When he and Dawn left Wyndemere, his only intent was for them to find a solution. Their children were aching. Not just a soothing balm, but a cure had to repair the damage done to their family. A focused discussion was to lead to a resolution. The wear and tear on all of them had reached the limit. Enough was enough.

But spending the night with Dawn in the secluded, cozy cabin where they first made love… Nikolas inhaled a deep breath, filling his lungs with the biting salty air. The launch taking him to the mainland rocked from the power of the choppy waters. Wind toyed with the tail ends of his hair. He tugged on the ribbon, releasing his ponytail so that it whipped around his head. The distraction, although miniscule, pulled him free of the memories of the night before. For just a moment, the cold breezes ripped to his core, cooling the fever that had burned him the moment they entered the cabin.

Making love hadn't been at the forefront of his mind. Yes, the scent of her body awakened his desires. She asked why he'd stopped wanting her. The truth was he had never stopped. His body ached for her in ways his mind and heart had no way of comprehending. The fire he started in the fireplace added fuel to his growing need. He remembered in vivid detail laying her before the burning embers.

The way she opened for him, the taste of her on his lips and the insistent nudges that put him inside her all came back to flood his senses. One glance into her bright, heavy lidded eyes told him the memories threatened to overpower her, too. Only sheer force of will on both of their parts kept them from surrender. Instead, they cuddled on the sofa and drifted asleep. Yet, the fire, once kindled, had not banked. Not even in the light of day nor even when he was at Adrik's bedside as the boy awoke. And not even now as he entered his penthouse office.

The office hummed with its usual activity. Annika, his assistant, handed him a list of phone messages. He shuffled through them. The urgent calls he placed first. Answering questions and quieting concerns, he performed like an automaton. Finally, he removed the headset and reclined onto the comfort of his leather chair. As if sensing his mood, the insides of the chair rolled and massaged the tension from his back. He had scoffed when Tommy gave it to him as a birthday gift, claiming that the chair's tension sensors were ingenious. Nikolas grudgingly agreed as he slowly relaxed and made mental note to call his best friend.

He didn't know how long he enjoyed the chair's massage. He felt lost in a trance. The maze of putting his family back together slowly became less confusing. He and Dawn were far from the loving couple they once were. Hurt, disappointment and distrust created a rift bigger than any they'd encountered. Knowing if they'd remain intact was a mystery that eluded his mental capacity. But what he did know was that he wanted to try.

The inner workings of the chair ceased as a firm decision took root inside Nikolas's mind. With long strides, he left his office and headed to the other side of the building. Gilly stood outside her office. She and George were engaged in conversation. The purple jacket and skirt molded to her curves. He watched her for just a moment, testing himself for any hint of regret. When none came, he stepped forward.

"Gilly, I need to speak with you."

She turned sharply, as if he'd startled her. Her brown eyes flickered with surprise. She nodded once and said, "Of course. George, we'll continue our discussion later."

"Okay. Mr. Cassadine," George said in greeting.

"George." Nikolas gave the younger man a faint smile before following Gilly inside her office. He closed the door and moved to the center of the room.

She settled behind her desk. Her hands trembled slightly. She grabbed a pen and clenched it between both hands. "What is it?"

"Your work has been invaluable," he said. He spoke slowly, searching for the right words. "I cannot tell you what an asset you've been in establishing the production company--"

"You're firing me." Her voice was hoarse. Her eyes were overly bright. She dropped the pen and stared at him. "You should have just said so. Coloring it with praise doesn't change the final outcome."

"I'm not firing you," he denied.

"Then what is this?"

Tension returned, creeping up his spine at a snail's pace. Hands clenched, he shoved them into his front pants pockets. "I'd like for you to resign. I considered opening an office on the West Coast, but even that wouldn't be fair to any of us. You, Alan-Michael, Dawn or myself."

"I thought we could work through this." She hitched a ragged breath. "I guess she made an ultimatum and this is it. My career is the casualty."

"Your career will hardly be over because you've left Cassadine Enterprises," he said quietly. "Your reputation is impeccable. It always has been and if you're worried about a recommendation, be assured that I will give you the best."

"Okay. I can't argue with you." She stood and began closing her appointment book and collecting her personal belongings. "I'll leave within the hour."

"There's no need for the rush."

Her faint smile had a touch of sadness. "That's where you're wrong. The faster the better."

"Very well, if you think that's best…" He turned and headed toward the door. As his hand rested on the knob, he gave her one final look. "Just so you know, Dawn made no ultimatums."

She grew still. "This was your decision?"

"Yes." Then, he left her.

The stricken look on her face promised to haunt him, but he would not change what had been done. His marriage was owed the sacrifice.

~… And when we're done soul searching…~

"I'm sorry."

She told him to let go, but she hadn't really meant it. Not in the deeper context. Ciarda valued Ben more than she cared to admit. All night long, she tossed and turned with the possibility of losing him forever. She didn't want that. She just didn't want him to push.

Ben's fingers danced over the controls on her dad's recliner. He seemed engrossed in the buttons and options. At first, she didn't think he heard her. Then, he looked up. His warm brown eyes met hers, unwavering. "You don't have to apologize. I pushed too hard. Some things aren't any of my business, but…"

His opening words calmed her. But the final word held too many possibilities. She slumped onto the easy chair facing him. "But what?"

Of course, she regretted prompting him as soon as the words left her mouth. So many boys were surface material. They didn't go deep. Ben and Dominik had never been that way. Not since childhood. Not ever. Whatever lay beyond Ben's 'but' promised to be earth shattering. She felt it in the pit of her stomach.

"I meant what I said. I don't want you hurt. Not by anyone and if Seth has hurt you or hurts you, you can come to me. I won't judge you or what happened. I'm your friend, Ciarda. That's more than tutoring you in chem, skating in the park or eating a pizza with anchovies. I can do a lot of things, but I can't lose our friendship."

Each word touched a new, unknown section of her soul. Goosebumps prickled her arms. She shrank into the comfort of the familiar chair. Her mind searched for coherency. "I don't know what to say."

"There's nothing to say except that our friendship is solid." He became still as a statue as he stared at her. "Is it?"

"Of course," she said with conviction.

Before her eyes, he seemed to relax and release the weight of the world from his shoulders. A loud breath pushed from his chest. His long bangs ruffled on top his forehead. Then, a cute lopsided grin appeared. "As long as we understand each other."

She laughed. How was it she always felt like herself in his presence? More than anyone else, sometimes even her family, she could be Ciarda Hardy. Without explanation and without apology. Did he have this calming effect on everyone or was she lucky?

"I told Dom I'd drive you back to school," he said. "Are you ready?"

"Wow, just kick me out the door!"

"What? It's a question." He adjusted the recliner into a laid back position. "If you're not ready, I can wait."

"My Dad was planning to leave work early to drive me back."

"Nevermind. I'm not about to get on his bad side," Ben joked.

"He's not so bad."

He nodded. "Your parents are cool."

"How are things working out with Morgan living with Aunt Keesha and JE? Has it gotten better?"

"Better?" he mumbled under his breath. "I'm not sure what that is. It's tolerable, I guess. Mama pretends. Uncle AJ is counting the days until this is over. JE is loving it. He has two dads now."

"What about you?" She resisted the urge to go to him. Instead, she moved to the sofa. To her surprise, he joined her. He sat with his legs wide, his knee pressing into hers.

"I have Uncle AJ. He's always been like a dad." He shrugged and ran his hands through his hair. "Mama is dying for me to cut this." He pushed his hair back from his face. "What do you think? Would I look good with a buzz cut?"

"You'd look good bald," she said, the words coming out without hesitation.

His eyes widened. Color heightened his cheeks. His mouth curved into a smile. "For real?"

Oh, boy. Why did he have to smile like that? Why did new goosebumps form on her arms? "Um, yeah. You're not bad looking."

He shrugged. "Can't everyone be a stud like Dominik or Seth?"

"What? I didn't say anything about them?" She slapped his arm. "Since when did you want to be a stud?"

"It's gotta be better than being a pony."

She swallowed the laugh that edged into her throat. "You're not hardly a pony. And what's with the horse analogies?"

"I dunno."

Silence fell over them, strange and exciting. He reached out and threaded his fingers through her hair.

"Soft and silky," he murmured, "but I miss the curls."

Her heart hammered her chest. Speaking became difficult. "They were…unruly."

"There's nothing wrong with unruly." He shifted closer. His thigh pressed hard against hers. "You're so pretty, Ciarda. Pretty and smart and nice. I like that about you."

"Ben, I…um..."

"You don't have to say anything. I just wanted you to know. Just in case you ever wondered." He leaned in, so close his warm breath fanned her cheeks. Her breath caught in anticipation. Their eyes locked for what seemed like an eternity. Then, in an abrupt move, he stood. "Do you have anything good in fridge? I'm starving?"

"Help yourself."

He headed into the kitchen while she remained on the sofa, wondering about the hollow ache that had come to life at Ben's nearness and husky voice.

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