Nikolas glanced at his watch as he tied his long hair into a ponytail. The morning rendezvous with Dawn hadn't put them too far behind schedule, and even if it had, he wouldn't care. Making love with his wife usually took precedence over everything, except their children. Close to eleven years ago, he'd learned how dismal his life could be without her. Since being reunited, he promised himself that he would never take her for granted again. So far, he'd been true to his vow.
"Nikky!" she called from the bathroom. "Have they started to arrive?"
"Who?" He went to the window and pushed the curtains aside. Looking out the window, he saw a car zooming up the drive. He grimaced when he recognized the auto. The speed was much too fast. Dominik wouldn't appreciate it if the keys were taken from him, Nikolas decided.
"The caterers and bunch of other folks," she answered. "I don't want this to turn into a media circus. The sooner they get here the better."
"It's possible they're here," he replied, turning away from the window. "I'll find out when I go downstairs."
"Baby, if they're not here-"
"I know," he interrupted. "I'll call them."
When he left the bathroom, she was dressed, but was busy applying the finishing touches so he left their bedroom door opened as he walked out. He'd just reached the end of the hallway on the second floor of their two-story farmhouse when she screamed his name.
He spun on his heel and raced back to their room. He found her standing in the middle of their bed and pointing across the room at the dresser. "What's wrong?" he asked, picking up on the stark terror that radiated through her.
"It's underneath the dresser! Get it!" Her brown eyes glistened with unshed tears and her bottom lip trembled.
Nikolas didn't even bother to ask what had frightened her so. He went to the dresser and dropped to his knees. Adrik's latest acquisition rested far against the wall. Nikolas carefully pulled the turtle out and stood. He moved to the bed and offered Dawn his free hand. She held on tightly to him as she stepped down from the bed.
"That's strike one," she said, giving the turtle a hard stare before looking at Nikolas. "I'm beginning to think your son does this on purpose."
"My son," he murmured, stifling a chuckle. "My son wouldn't dare to be so mischievous, but I'm sure your son would love a good practical joke."
"Don't even suggest Adrik would inherit such a mischievous mind from me," she retorted with a delectable pout.
"Of course not, darling," he said before he pressed his lips to hers. When he finished devouring her mouth, he gave her a satisfied smirk upon the passion-glazed expression on her face. "I'll talk to him about the turtle. You may want to talk to your oldest about his speeding."
They held hands as they left their bedroom and went downstairs. "Dominik's home?" Dawn asked. "When he did he arrive?"
"While you were in the bath," he said.
"All of our kids back under one roof," she said, wistfully. "I love it. I've missed having all my babies around."
Nikolas smiled. "So do I. I'd better take care of the youngest and the caterers. Don't go easy on Dom."
"I'm not a pushover," she countered, giving him a swat on his denim-covered rear.
He laughed out loud and watched with a leer of male pride and approval as her denim covered rear sashayed away from him. Then Adrik turned the corner. His leer disappeared and his mouth thinned into a grim line. "Looking for this?" he asked, holding up the adventurous pet.
"Thanks, Papa!" the eight-year old boy gushed as he took the turtle from his father. "I've been all over the house. I thought he was gone for good."
Adrik held the turtle up to his face and smiled. He headed for the staircase, but his father stopped him by putting a firm hand on his shoulder. "Not so fast, young man. Strike one has been enacted. One more strike and you're out."
The young face that bore a mixture of Dawn and Nikolas' features frowned. "That rule isn't fair, Papa. It should be three strikes. There are three strikes in baseball-"
"This isn't baseball, Adrik," Nikolas informed him. "This is our home and we have rules. Your mother is afraid of Peter the Great and it isn't fair for her to live in fear in her home."
"Peter wouldn't hurt her," Adrik declared, petting the turtle's hard shell. "He's gentle. Besides, he's a vegetarian. He wouldn't bite her."
Nikolas wouldn't argue with his son's logic. Dawn's fear was real to her so it was real to him. He ruffled his son's straight dark hair. "Even so, make sure that Peter stays in his cage or else he goes in the barn with the rest of your collection. Understood?"
Adrik nodded. "Yes, Papa. They're setting up the tent in the back. Is it okay for me to watch?"
"Yes, but see to Peter first. Do not get underfoot and at two o'clock look for either your mother or me. You'll have to start getting ready then."
Nikolas watched his son ascend the staircase before going in search of his other son and wife. He hoped that Dominik didn't use his usual charm on Dawn. It wasn't that Dom was spoiled, but he certainly knew how to charm his mother.
"I promise I won't do it again. My mind was somewhere else and I wasn't paying attention. The car just accelerated," Dominik was explaining as Nikolas joined them in the den.
"That's not good enough," Dawn replied. "When you're driving you must pay attention. You can't let your mind drift so that the car starts speeding. What if something ran across the road?"
Dominik groaned. "Come on, Mama. It's not like I was on the main road. This is our property. Nothing's back here except for this farmhouse and the barn."
"It doesn't matter," Nikolas said. "This isn't up for negotiation. Drive the Rover responsibly or it will be taken from you."
"That's just great, Papa," Dominik said with a hint of irritation. "Treat me like I'm Adrik. I'm in university now. I'm not a little baby."
"But you're beginning to whine like one," Nikolas countered. "Behave like a mature university student and you will be treated like one. Otherwise, a driver will be reassigned to you."
Dominik looked at his parents' faces and then his eyes dropped to the floor. He didn't offer any further protest. He mumbled, "Yes, Papa and Mama. Do you need any help with the party?"
"Adrik will need help getting dressed," Dawn said.
"I told him to look for one of us at two," Nikolas added.
"I'm on it." He went to them and hugged them. Quietly, he said, "Congratulations on twenty years."
Touched, Nikolas kissed Dom's cheek and said, "Thank you."
"You shouldn't be here."
Noelle gave George a dimpled smile and refused to let his words deter her. She rose from his chair and gestured for him to sit. He did so reluctantly. His dark brown eyes never left her. She felt herself blushing under the heat of his gaze, but she refused to be intimidated. Sticking to her guns, she moved to the middle of his desk and sat facing him.
His jaw tightened as a dark crimson spread from his neck to his face. "If your father walked in here right now—"
"Papa is busy with Mama today," she said. "He won't be coming to the office."
George clenched his hands together. "You have all the answers. Why aren't you at home? Little girls should be at home—"
"I'm not a little girl," she protested.
"I'm 24. You're 16. To me, you're a toddler."
Noelle arched an eyebrow. Leaning back, she crossed one shapely leg over the other. George's Adam apple bobbed as he swallowed hard. She bit back a triumphant smile and tried to keep her face void of expression. It was hard considering the way his eyes raked over her legs. The game she played was dangerous, but she moved without fear. She and George Morgan-Quartermaine were destined. One day he'd stop fighting her and accept it.
Suddenly, his face darkened and he pushed out of his chair. "Get off my desk before I put you over my knee!" he threatened. "I'm not in the mood for these little girl games, Noelle. I have work to do and I have to do it now."
There was always a fine line between anger and passion, but she wasn't about to push her look. He was definitely mad enough to act on his threat. Pouting, she slid from his desk and moved around it to sit in a guest chair. He sat down and started shoving papers around, refusing to spare her a glance. "George, don't be mad," she said softly. "I came in to see if there was anything I could add to your proposal. Let me help."
He worked in the Marketing department at Cassadine Enterprises and was one of the best artists on staff. Noelle, on the other hand, didn't possess a creative bone in her body. Instead, she had a business mind and could increase a bank account just by thinking about it. In her opinion, she and George made a winning combination.
"You could help me by going home and getting ready for the party."
His refusal of her offer hurt, but she had too much pride to let him see it. "I've been reviewing the stats of the competition," she announced. "Your campaign is a good idea, but it could be updated just a little bit."
He paused and looked at her. "How?"
Encouraged by his question, she stood up and went around his desk. She grabbed his colorful proposal and held it up. "The demographics are slightly off. You're targeting teenagers when you should target the older generation. They're the ones with the cash, and they're the ones who'll be able to afford this latest toy."
George took the drawing from her. He studied it for a few moments and then he smiled at her. "Okay, Cassadine. Maybe you're not a total pest. You can help for two hours and then you have to go home. Deal?"
"Deals are made with a handshake," she said, a little breathless at the prospect. She extended her hand and he took it. Electric charges sparked between them…just like she knew it would.
"So, what did you tell him?" Gina asked, adding sugar and cream to her coffee. "I have to tell you that I wasn't surprised that he asked."
Keesha groaned and buried her face in her hands. "Oh, please don't say that. He caught me off guard with that one. I enjoy spending time with AJ, but marriage… I can't imagine marrying again. I'm not even sure if I want to."
"Keesha, please," Gina scolded. "You can't mean that. You're too young to hide yourself away the way you have been." Her voice softened as she added, "Jason wouldn't have wanted you to be alone."
At the mention of her first love's name, a chill came over Keesha. It was the same feeling that came over her whenever she thought of him. Like he was still out there somewhere very much alive and waiting for her to find him. She'd tried to push the sensation from her mind and had been successful until AJ's proposal. Now, the feeling that it wouldn't be right to marry AJ wouldn't leave her alone.
"What did you tell him?" Gina asked again.
Keesha sighed. "I told him I needed time. He didn't seem happy about it, but he knows better than to push me. But he did…"
"What did he do?"
"He mentioned how happy Jason-Everett would be if we married," Keesha replied. "Of course, he didn't say a thing about Michael or George, Grace, Marisa and Ben. They remember Eve and Jason and I don't think any of the kids would be thrilled with this."
"The whole lot of them are too old to object," Gina said. "They should want their parents to be happy."
Keesha frowned. Her children had good hearts and Michael had a good one, too. She didn't want Gina to misunderstand. "They're not like that. It's just that it would be awkward. We've been looking for Jason for so long… I've been in love with him since we were just barely out of our teens. Even when he didn't remember, I still cared about him. It's not easy to let go. Every time I think I can… It's not easy, Gina."
Gina placed her pale, slender hand over Keesha's and squeezed. "I can't imagine what I'd do if I lost Tommy. I'm sorry. I know this can't be easy. You're not alone, okay? Whatever you decide, I'm on your side."
Tears came to Keesha's eyes without warning. She clung to Gina as the other woman held her in a warm embrace. As the hug ended, she wiped her eyes and smiled. "I know and I thank you. I'll get it together, Gina. Sooner or later, the answers will come to me and the struggle will be over."