Chapter 15

~ Unexpected Returns ~


Ciarda declined Ben's invitation to come inside. She decided to follow her twin's advice, and telling Ben she might not see him again for awhile was better done outside his mother's home instead of in. He pointed to the swing hanging in the backyard and she nodded. They walked over and sat.

"What's up?" he asked. He dug his heels into the dirt and started to move the swing back and forth. "The long face is in place again."

"I got some news," she said. "It's good news actually. Mom and Dad agreed to the boarding school in Connecticut. We're going to see it tomorrow."

"That's good news, I guess," he said. "But it doesn't feel good to me. I'm gonna miss you."

"I know, but we can write," she said, trying to sound excited. "And you can call! Please, promise to call. It would make me look cool to have a guy in college calling me."

Ben shook his head. Long, dark hair flopped into his eyes. He grimaced and gave her a hard look. "You don't need me to call you in order to be cool. You're cool enough without the extras. If you go there worrying about what those girls think of you, it will be more of the same. You might as well stay here."

"It won't be the same!" Ciarda looked away. Her gaze took in the backyard she knew so well. This was her home away from home. Knowing that she won't have easy access to it anymore brought tears to her eyes.

"There's still time to change your mind," Ben said quietly. "The world is full of pain. You have to decide how much of it you want to bear. There's more than enough of us to share it. You don't have to carry it all on your shoulders."

"It's not like that," she said. "I don't want to feel like this. I just want to make it go away. Boarding school in Connecticut may not be the answer, but I won't know unless I go there and see."

Ben was quiet for a moment. Ciarda could feel him looking at her. She wondered what he was thinking, so she turned to face him. His brown eyes were glassy and his cheeks had dots of red on them. Suddenly, he gathered her into his arms and held her snugly. His hands stroked her back and he said, "If you don't like it, don't be afraid or scared to say so and come back. Promise me that."

She held onto him and whispered, "I promise."

~*~

"I wasn't expecting this," Carly smirked and stood aside to allow AJ to enter Bobbie's brownstone. "Slumming, AJ?"

In the past, AJ would have fired back with a scathing retort. He and Carly had come a long way since their drunken night at Jake's that created their son, Michael and the later drugging that ended their friendship. They had their share of battles until ten years ago, the nastiness came to an end. AJ admitted that he'd been hurt that she had so little regard for their friendship, and Carly finally apologized for going too far and ruining it. At this point, they weren't best friends, but they were friendly. And they tolerated each other far better than most people realized.

"If Bobbie isn't here," he answered, "then the answer is yes."

"Fortunately for you, she's upstairs." Carly closed the door and followed AJ into the living room. "To what do I owe this honor. I doubt if Michael would like us planning his wedding without him."

"That's not what I had in mind," AJ answered. He sat on the sofa and she took the easy chair facing him. "I came over to welcome you back to Port Charles and to see if you have any plans tonight."

Carly's eyebrows shot up. She laughed. "A date? You're asking me out on a date?"

"Um, no." AJ held in his laughter at how quickly the smirk vanished from her mouth. "Keesha and I are having a special dinner tonight at the Ward House. We'd like for you to join us if you want."

"Yeah, right!" She snorted and shook her head. "Keesha wouldn't invite me to sit down for dinner. If she was charitable enough to feed me, she'd toss the food out the window. Tell her thanks, but no thanks."

"You give yourself far too much credit," AJ said. "Keesha's invitation is sincere. We thought you'd like to join us to welcome Michael and the twins back. You haven't seen him since your return, but if you'd rather wait..." AJ stood and shrugged. "Well, that's entirely up to you."

Carly sighed. "Fine, AJ. You and Keesha win. I'll be there."

~*~

"Mama, I wanna help!"

Dawn stopped in her tracks at the sound of her youngest child's demand to offer assistance. She bit back a smile. At that age, the older two were always willing to help. Oh, how she missed those good ole days. "Did you wash your hands?"

Adrik nodded emphatically. With his hands held high for inspection, he crossed the kitchen floor for his mother's approval.

Dawn nodded. "Looks good, sweetie." She grabbed an apron from the counter and handed it to him. "We're having chili tonight, and I need you to crumble up the ground turkey before I brown it."

"Okay!" He climbed onto his chair and waited for her to set the raw meat in front of him. Even though he loved his pets, he didn't mind eating meat. Dawn marveled at his ability to separate the two and thanked God for his healthy appetite. And his willingness to help.

She became busy chopping up the tomatoes. Adrik chatted about his day at school. She told him about her time in the studio with his uncles. Dinner was going as planned until a major distraction entered the room.

Nikolas arms snaked around Dawn's waist and pulled her back to his chest. "I'm starving!" he proclaimed loudly.

Adrik giggled and continued crumbling the meat. Dawn glanced over her shoulder at her husband. "Dinner will be ready soon."

"It's not dinner I'm hungry for," he breathed against her ear. His mouth closed over the spot where her neck and shoulder met. He suckled gently until Dawn elbowed him hard in the ribs. "You shouldn't punish a starving man for taking a sample of a delicious appetizer."

She laughed. "Nikky, cold shower, baby. Right now."

"Alone?"

She turned around and held up her finger, on the verge of shaking it at him. Tomato juice clung to her fingertip and Nikolas took the finger into his mouth. Dawn's knees weakened as Nikolas stared deeply into her eyes and sucked her finger. She moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue. She drew in a ragged breath. "You're hitting below the belt."

He grinned as he released her finger. "I'd like to. Later, I will." He planted a hard fast kiss onto her mouth and then turned his attention to his giggling son. "And just what are you doing?"

"I'm helping Mama make chili," Adrik announced.

Nikolas smiled. "It looks good, too. I'll freshen up and come back to help."

He patted Dawn's backside as he walked past her. Her eyes burned with the promise of a heated night. He looked forward to it.

"Cold shower, baby!" she called out as he left the kitchen. "That's non-negotiable!"

And as long as she didn't think about him hard and naked beneath the rush of water, she'd be just fine.

"Mama, why does Papa have to take a cold shower?"

Dawn washed her hands at the sink and took the crumbled meat from Adrik. While she browned the turkey, she said, "Because that will help your Papa with his present condition. Baby, wash your hands again and then add the tomatoes to the salad, okay?"

"Okay."

"Mama! Where are you?"

Dawn jumped. The farmhouse bustled with just way too much energy. She still needed time to catch her breath from Nikolas' passionate assault on her senses. She inhaled a deep breath and said, "I'm in the kitchen!"

Noelle with Tommy right behind her entered. "Ooh, chili!" Noelle announced. "I'll be right back. Don't start the cornbread without me!"

"Don't worry!" Dawn said to her daughter's retreating form. She looked at Tommy and smiled. "Sorry, Tommy. How are you? Would you like to join us for dinner?"

"I wish I could. I love your chili, but Gina and I have dinner plans with Keesha and AJ tonight."

"Tell them 'hi' for me," Dawn said. "Have a seat. Nikolas is upstairs. He's threatened to come back down and help."

"I heard that," Nikolas said from the doorway. His wet hair clung to his perfectly shaped head like a knit cap. He looked rugged and sexy in the jeans and t-shirt that replaced his black Armani suit.

Dawn stared at him in awe. "That's the fastest shower you have ever taken in your life!"

Nikolas laughed. "See what I can do when I'm properly motivated." He smiled at Tommy. "Hi there. Are you joining us for dinner?"

"Not tonight. Can we go into your office for a minute?"

"Sure." He led Tommy to his home office and closed the door. "You look tense. What's happened? Is it Ciarda?"

Tommy hunched his shoulders. "In a way. Gina and I have decided to look at the boarding school. If Ciarda likes it, we're gonna let her transfer."

"That was quick," Nikolas said, sitting on the edge of his desk. "Are you sure?"

"There's nothing else we can do. We spent sleepless nights looking for an answer. There isn't a simple one."

Nikolas nodded. "You're right. There isn't. Dawn and I have been talking about Ciarda and what she's going through. We want to help, and I've... Well, I bought a movie studio. Some things are about to change, my friend."

~*~

Caterers bustled in and out of Keesha's kitchen. She glanced at AJ's smiling face and then back at the uniformed workers. "When we planned on dinner at home, this isn't what I had in mind."

"I thought you liked the Grille's roasted herb chicken with garlic mashed potatoes and asparagus."

"That's not the point and you know it."

AJ laughed and wrapped his arms around Keesha. "Well, get used to it. I plan to spoil you rotten."

He brushed his lips against her cheek. He was planning to go for her lips, but a caterer's short cough interrupted them.

"Excuse me," the caterer said. " There was a mix up at the Grille. We packed two desserts and would like to know which you'd prefer? We're sorry about that."

"What are the choices?" AJ asked.

"Orange sorbet and caramel apple torte."

"Apple torte!" AJ and Keesha said in unison.

The caterer stifled a laugh and went back to work. AJ took Keesha's hand and they went outside. The evening air was sweet and crisp. Keesha took in a deep breath and slowly released it.

"Content?" AJ asked.

"Very," Keesha said. "This feels good, AJ. Very, very good."

~*~

The flight from Los Angeles to Port Charles had been met without any difficulty. Michael breathed a sigh of relief when they landed and piled into his waiting car. For a moment, he wasn't so sure everything would go off without a hitch. George wondered aloud if Morgan had packed a white sheet in his bag. Michael and Grace held their breaths, waiting for Morgan's outburst. None came. His jaw tightened and he just looked away. They weren't sure if he understood the implication or just chose to ignore it.

"I want to see my son," Morgan said.

Michael guided the car out of the parking lot and onto the street. "That's where we're headed."

"But don't expect to just walk right in and say hello," George warned. "Our mother doesn't know you're alive. We have to clear it with her first."

"If the kid is mine like you say, I don't need her permission."

"This isn't about permission," Grace answered before her brother could speak. "She'll have to explain it to Jason-Everett. You'll have to wait until she does."

"We'll see."

"No," Michael said, swerving to the curb and braking suddenly. He shifted to face his stoic passenger in the backseat. "We don't have to see. This is how it goes. My aunt has no idea you're alive. We can't...we won't just spring you on her without warning her first. She won't prevent you from seeing Jason-Everett. But you will have to wait until she says it's okay."

Morgan didn't respond. He just stared out the window. Michael glanced at George who looked ready to strike. In that moment, the two men made a silent pact to keep Morgan far away from his namesake until Keesha was ready for them to meet.

A few minutes later, Michael pulled to the curb in front of Keesha's house. He wasn't surprised to see his father's Audi in the driveway. He spent more time at the Ward House than he did at his own place. Michael stepped out of the car and went around the front to open Grace's door.

George left the backseat to confer quietly with the couple. "I'll stay here with him. We shouldn't have brought him here first. My gut is telling me this is wrong."

"Let's take him to the Hotel," Grace said.

Michael glanced at the house and back at them. "It's too late. I saw a curtain move. We've been spotted."

~*~

"They're just standing there, looking as guilty as sin," Keesha said. "If Grace and Michael eloped, I'm gonna have a fit."

"They wouldn't do that," AJ said.

"Well, they're making me nervous just standing there like that," she said. "I'll be right back."

Keesha headed out the front door. Michael and Grace rushed to her. The looks on their faces set her on edge. Something was wrong. Something she couldn't quite put her finger on. She looked past them to George. He leaned against Michael's car as if he was hiding something. She pushed past the couple to reach her son.

"What's in the car?"

"Mama," he said, grabbing her upper arms. "Go back inside. Michael and Grace will explain everything."

"What's going on?" AJ asked, having followed her. "What are you guys hiding in the car?"

"Dad--"

"They're hiding me," Morgan said, interrupting Michael as he left the backseat and walked around the back of the car. He stepped onto the curb and looked Keesha dead in the face. "They didn't think you were ready to see me, but I don't care about that. I wanna see my son."

"Jason?" The word fell from Keesha's lips in a hushed whisper. She stared into the familiar blue eyes she knew so well and gasped. Then, everything went black.

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