~...I lie awake and pray that you'll be strong tomorrow…~
Tommy fastened his seat belt and gave his prodigal daughter an encouraging smile. In his mind's eye, he saw her as the little girl she used to be. A mass of golden brown curls framed an adorable honey hued chubby face. As a toddler, she was always so serious. If she fell, she climbed back on without pausing a second to fret or cry. She performed her tasks methodically and with such concentration. He saw himself in her. Tenacious determination coupled with a stronghold to internal suffering. Many times he wished he could change himself and reach out a hand to change his daughter. But maybe they were meant to be that way.
"Just relax," he advised as they pulled from the roadside diner and onto the highway. "The car will tell you what it needs."
"Dominik let me drive his Jag," Ciarda said. "He pretty much said the same thing."
Tommy grunted. "Dominik," he muttered under his breath. He loved Nikolas and Dawn's oldest as if the boy was his own son, but Tommy hated the discord the Cassadine heir caused between his daughters. He never noticed the obvious until Gina pointed it out. Both twins had always looked up to Dominik. As they grew older, their admiration transformed into the stirrings of first love. Dear God, why did both of them have to fall for the same boy?
"How was that?" Tommy forced civility to his tone. "I was surprised when you came home with him. Your mother and I had offered to get you the week before."
"Dominik just showed up. I'm sorry, Daddy."
He patted her shoulder. "Don't apologize. We're always happy when you're at home. The house is not the same without you there."
"I miss everyone, too."
Tommy seized the opening. "Then, is it better here for you? Away from your family? Did your mother and I not understand enough because it can't be a shortage of our love for you? We love you, sweetheart and it's torture not having you there every day."
"I know, Daddy b-but…" Sniffles swallowed the rest of her words.
Tommy closed his hand around hers. "Pull over and let's talk."
"The school's five miles away." She rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand. "I can do it."
Always so independent. What would it cost Ciarda to lean on him or Gina just once?
"Okay," he said with a quiet sigh of resignation. "Do it."
A few minutes later, they walked into Ciarda's dorm room. Tommy set her bag at the foot of her bed. His heart felt heavy. Saying goodbye to his child was never easy. To delay the inevitable, his eyes scanned her room, memorizing details and cataloguing the changes since his last visit.
"Thanks for letting me drive."
The glimmer of uncertainty in her eyes softened his heart. He released a low breath and gently pulled her into his arms. "You don't have to thank me," he said, his chin resting on top of her head. "I hope this is the right thing for you, Ciarda. I hope you know that anytime you change your mind and want to come home, you can. None of us wanted you to leave."
"I know, Daddy."
Knocking interrupted them. Ciarda left his embrace to open the door. A large bouquet of vibrant red roses greeted her. Then, the flowers lowered to reveal Seth.
"Buffy told me you were coming back today and I heard you were here. I'm sorry, Ciarda, for everything. Can I come in?"
"My dad is here," she said as the boy moved past her without waiting for an invitation.
Seth stopped short in the threshold. His eyes darted around the room until they connected with Tommy's. Tommy stiffened. He didn't care for Seth Stevens, but he was unsure about the depth of Ciarda's feelings for the young man. If Tommy spoke out of turn, he could risk alienating Ciarda even more. He'd never forgive himself if that happened. Neither would Gina.
"Hello, Mr. Hardy." The boy flashed a wide, polite smile. He extended his hand and Tommy shook it.
"Hello, Seth." Tommy watched Ciarda closely for her reaction. If she gave the slightest hint of unease, he'd handle the situation as delicately as he could. "Sweetheart, is everything okay?"
"It's fine, Daddy. Call me when you get home."
He gave her another hug. Before he released her, he said, "If you need us for anything at anytime, I'm just a call away."
Then, he left. As he guided his car onto the road back home, he called Lynn and told her to run a background check on Seth. Just in case.
~…hold on to yourself for this is gonna hurt like hell…~
"I know that look," Dara warned as she settled in the chair across from Dawn. Faint worry lines wrinkled her brow. "Just out with it."
Dawn needed no further encouragement. Mindful of the Outback's dwindling crowd, she spoke in low tones. "You didn’t have to put your research on hold to check up on me. What will Alex do in Greece without you?"
Dara waved off her concerns. "Didn't you miss me?"
"Of course, but Dara, you have better things to do. Besides, I have Mama and Father to play matchmaker and counselor."
"I'm not here to do either," her sister said. "I'm here because I need to see for myself that you're okay."
"Do you really want the truth?"
Dawn released a short laugh. "I can't imagine you sugar coating anything. Come on. Give it to me. I can take it."
She was granted a short reprieve when a waiter arrived. They gave their orders. He returned with water and herbal tea.
"You look exhausted," her sister commented. "Are you sleeping?"
She shrugged. "Not really, I guess. I keep having these weird dreams. When I wake up, I can't remember them and I feel that I should. It's like something important is happening when I'm asleep, but I'm too out of it to do anything."
"Do you think it's about Nikolas?"
"Oh, boy. Not the N-word."
Dara laughed. "I can't believe you. I know you still love him. You don't have to pretend with me. Do you want to talk about what caused this rift between you? If not, hey, I'm okay with that."
"I'm not in for details right now," Dawn answered honestly. "So I'll give you a short summary from my viewpoint."
"Okay, I'm listening and then I want to hear about your meeting with Evangeline."
"After twenty years of high drama and delirious passion, we got wiped out. Nikolas and I never really had normal. Not a normal courtship or marriage or anything. It's been one crazy circumstance after another and it's been exciting. But now the high has worn off. Maybe we got caught up in the moment and what we thought we had wasn't real. We're coming off the high and reality doesn't add up."
Dara's mouth dropped open. She reached across the table and took her sister's hand. "None of that's true."
"Maybe. Maybe not." Dawn tugged free of Dara's hold and reached for the glass of water. After she sipped, she added, "I talked to Evangeline about divorce. She's very nice. You didn't tell me about her husb--"
"Wait. You cannot casually mention the word divorce and go on like it means nothing. Are things really that bad between you and Nikolas? Can't you work it out?"
"I didn't file the papers." She clenched her hands together under the table. "You see through me. I still love him, but I don't think it's enough. Adrik had a meltdown because of us, begging Nikolas not to leave. It was awful and reminded me of when Noelle was little. God, Dara… Nikolas and I talked a little bit later, but instead of working toward a real solution, we almost had sex. How dumb is that?"
"There's nothing wrong with being attracted to your husband."
"But when that's all you have with him--"
"Dawn! You seriously need to get some sleep because you're not thinking clearly. There's always been more to you and him than the physical."
"Yeah, and it's call mad, high drama." Dawn twirled her wedding ring around her finger. "I want normal, Dara. The other stuff is wearing me out."
Their lunches arrived. Conversation happened in spurts, around bites of salad and sips of tea. Dawn felt relieved of all the talk. Thinking about her marriage returned lingering doubts of self-worth. The visit to Robert Jensen in his jail cell should have ended those feelings once and for all. But only in the land of make believe, Dawn realized. Real life had no easy solutions.
Everywhere she turned family and friends spoke adamantly about her and Nikolas's relationship. Once upon a time, her belief was as fierce as theirs. But everything had a breaking point. She asked him if they could be a family again. Was that what she really wanted or what was best for the kids? A stray cherry tomato rolled across her plate, dodging the tines of her fork. Watching the ripe fruit's evasion tactics she marveled at no matter how much problems were dodged, they were always there waiting for the prime moment to attack.
She turned and Dara's eyes widened at the sound of the darkly rich voice. Half-expecting an autograph-seeker, Dawn plastered a polite smile on her face. The smile transformed into the real thing when she met the warm, jade eyes of a new acquaintance.
"Griffin. Hi. I didn't know you were still in Port Charles."
"Brenda Barrett's having a fashion show and asked me to serve as photographer." He smiled at both women, but his gaze lingered on Dawn. "I didn't mean to interrupt your lunch. I just wanted to say hi, so I'll go--"
"No, wait. This is my sister, Dara Jensen-Garcia. Dara, this is Griffin Stiles. When Liz was unable to come back for the concert, she and Justin recommended Griffin."
"So, you're the one who did those great shots," Dara said. She smiled as they shook hands. "I've seen your work. Very talented."
"Thank you. I read The Evolution of the Criminal Justice System for the Common Black Man. Your words struck home with truth. It's an honor to meet you."
Dawn swallowed a chuckle as she watched her sister blush. Dara worked hard on her first nonfiction work. The entire family was proud of her achievement. It was a wonderful opportunity to see her sister glow in the limelight for her achievement.
"Thank you," Dara said. "It looks like we could start a mutual admiration society. I saw you place an order at the counter. Would you like to join us?"
"I would love to, but this is a working lunch. But if you ladies offer rainchecks, I would gladly take one."
"I'm only here for the day, but I'm sure Dawn can extend one on my behalf."
Dawn nodded. "Anytime. It was really nice seeing you again."
"The same here. Ladies." He smiled once more before moving with a self-confident stroll to retrieve his take-out and leave.
"Wow." Dara blew under her breath. "You didn't tell me about him."
"What's there to tell?" Dawn shrugged. She stabbed the tomato with her fork and brought the succulent fruit to her mouth. "He took our pictures."
"He's attracted to you," Dara stated in her usual blunt style. "Don't tell me you didn't notice."
Dawn stared at her sister in shocked silence. "He is not. He's friendly."
"Oh, baby sister. Maybe you didn't know. You've been all about the N-word that you miss the obvious sometimes. Griffin couldn't take his eyes off you. What are you gonna do about it?"
"Do?" Dawn shook her head. "Nothing."
"Okay, but don't say I didn't warn you."
~…you know that only time will tell…~
"Where did you go?"
Keesha jumped. Morgan's steel edged voice attacked her nerve endings like a buzz saw. Ignoring him, she finished changing the diaper of her household's latest addition.
"Don't use that tone with me or in this house," she said quietly. The highly attuned eighteen-month-old kicked. His face contorted with discomfort. A powerful wail burst from his lungs. Keesha lifted the baby from the changing table and hugged him to her chest. "It's okay, Cody. Just calm down. The rude, insensitive man will either chill out or go away."
"That's almost funny." Morgan fully entered the nursery. His movements reminded her of a hunter stalking his prey.
Instinctively, she stepped back.
He rolled his eyes. "What kind of monster do you think I am?"
"You don't really want me to answer that."
He rested his forearms on the crib's railing. In an almost seductive murmur, he said, "You'd be surprised."
"I'm not playing these word games with you today or anymore." She snatched a few toys from the crib and moved to leave.
Morgan's hand shot out. Fast as a panther, he caught her upper arm. Electric charges seemed to pass from him to her. His fingers pulsed and flexed against her bare flesh. She cursed her body's immediate response to the sensation of Jason Morgan-Quartermaine's skin on hers. Thank goodness she knew better than to succumb to an illusion. Despite the obvious physical similarities, in the heart where it mattered, Morgan James was nothing more than a disappointing imitation.
She tugged free. "Why don't we call it a draw? Let's talk to the judge and come to an agreeable arrangement."
"I want my son full time. Anything else I can't agree to."
"Can't?" she questioned. "More like won't."
He shrugged. "Whatever."
"Why are you doing this?"
"Where did you go the other night?" His eyes flashed with fire as the words pushed from his mouth. "Who were you with?"
Her eyes narrowed. Disbelief shot through her. Surely, those weren't sparks of jealousy burning in his blue eyes. The snarling twist of his mouth couldn't be the result of the green-eyed monster taking root inside him. And if it was…how dare he?
"What does it matter to you?"
"You're my wife--"
"I'm not your anything," she clarified with cold precision. "I was married to Jason. You're not him. And you're nothing to me."
"Settle down, Keesha," he said too softly. "Or I'll think you're protesting too much."
"Think whatever you want." She moved to the door and paused in the threshold. "Sooner or later this arrangement will end. I won't put my life on hold indefinitely--"
"You can't wait to be with AJ."
She looked him straight in the eyes. "It gets harder every day."
"Well, that's too bad," he said, his voice heavy with sarcasm. "I'm not giving up my son so you can scratch your itch with Quartermaine."
"Don't worry about my itches or how they're scratched. JE deserves the best, and you'll do what's right for him whether you like it or not."