"Thanks for caring about me," Emily said with a sincere smile as she watched Tommy shrug into his leather jacket. She'd teased him endlessly, but now as he looked at her with weary eyes, she felt a twinge of guilt. She shouldn't have teased him so much, she realized. She hoped he wasn't too upset with her.
"You're welcome," he said, a faint smile brightening his face. "I'll see you around."
"Yeah, you do that," she said, playfully punching him. She moved to open the door for him and waited as he moved to exit.
"I will. Take care of yourself, okay?" he said. As he passed her, he caressed her cheek with the palm of his hand and gently gave her a chaste kiss on the cheek. "Bye, Em."
Emily's hand went to her flushed face as she closed the door. Tommy could be adorable when he wanted to be, she thought, heading towards the staircase. She had to admit to herself that she appreciated how much he cared about her because she still felt as strongly about him. A while back, a part of her had wished they could have worked things out, but she had long since moved past that dream. Ending their relationship had been the best thing either could have done for the other, and she was very happy that even though the romantic side was gone, she could still count on his friendship.
A smile covered her lips as she came to the top of the staircase, but it quickly disappeared as soon as she saw Nikolas' face as he almost brushed past her.
"Hey! Where's the fire?" Emily asked, grabbing his arm.
"Nowhere," Nikolas replied, distracted.
"So, where are you going? I thought we were gonna hang out for awhile."
"I think I've over stayed myself," he muttered, unable to look her in the eyes.
"No, you haven't," Emily said, squeezing his arm. "I apologize for taking so long, but Tommy and I had to clear something up."
"Oh, yeah?" he asked, narrowing his eyes as he finally looked at her.
Emily was surprised by the intensity of his gaze and would have taken a step back if she hadn't remember she was at the top of the staircase. Slowly, her eyes drifted over him as she took note of his body language. His face was flushed, his body was tense and his eyes were murky, almost as if they were hiding something. Emily wanted to ask him, but she knew better than to. He was angry and until he was ready to calm down, she'd be better off if she approached him a different way. In the meantime, she decided to answer his question.
"Yeah, he wanted to talk to me about a potential problem, but I assured him that there was no cause for concern."
"Well, that's good," he said, looking away from her again. He didn't mean to be rude, but he was still angry. Hearing about Tommy didn't alleviate his ire, it only increased it. He needed to get some air and he needed to get it soon. "Listen, Em, I'm sorry, but I really need to go-"
"You don't have to," she said. "I can see that you're upset-"
"I don't want to talk about it," he quickly interrupted her. He heard her sharp intake of breath at his brusque tone and he became apologetic. His hand covered hers where it continued to rest on his arm. He lightly brushed his fingers over hers as he said, "I'm sorry. I'm not in the best mood right now. If you must know, I argued with your brother..."
"A.J.? Why?" Emily asked, forcing herself to concentrate on his words and not the tingling sensation her fingers felt from the softness of his touch.
"I'd rather not say," he said. He swallowed hard and added, "I'm just... I think it would better if I leave now."
"If that's what you think is best," she said, disappointed.
"Hey, don't be upset because of me," he said, raising a hand to brush her hair from her face. His fingertips grazed her cheek and for the briefest moment, he wanted to lower his lips to hers and kiss her, but he stopped himself. His reaction to Dawn and A.J. had confused him and before he could get closer to Emily and the attraction he felt for her, he'd have to re-evaluate a few things about himself. He also wanted to be sure about the true status of Emily's relationship with Tommy before he made any sudden moves. He lowered his hand and softly said, "I'll call you later for our dinner, movie or whatever. Okay?"
"Okay," she said, as she slowly nodded. She stood still as she watched him move down the staircase away from her. As Reginald materialized from thin air and handed Nikolas his coat, she turned away and went in search of her brother.
"That's it, sweetie. Keep mashing it together, just like that," Dawn said as she guided Michael in Snowman Building 101. They were working on the lower half of the snowman and their handwork was coming along quite nicely.
"Like this, Dawnie?" he asked, grinning back at her. He picked up a fistful of snow and began to pound it against the snowman's hiney. He giggled as he watched most of the snow land on the ground instead of sticking on the snowman's body.
"Yeah, like that," she laughed, shaking her head in happiness at his glee.
"Wow, now that's a snowman," came a gentle masculine voice behind them.
Dawn turned sharply and smiled as she recognized the newcomer. She laughed as Michael began to clap his hands and charge at the poor soul.
"Tommy!!" Michael screamed as he ran towards his friend.
Tommy caught him and swung him high in the air. "Hey, pal! How are ya?"
"Fine," Michael said, as Tommy pulled him into a hug. Michael hugged him back as Dawn silently watched. As they released their embrace and Tommy put the little boy back on the ground, Michael grabbed his hand and pulled him as he said, "Dawnie and me make a snowman. Look, Tommy."
"I see," Tommy said, laughing as Michael released his hand and began to pick up more snow to add to his creation. Tommy looked at Dawn and said with a bright smile, "Hi, Miss Jensen."
"Hi, Tommy," Dawn said, blushing. "And, please, don't call me that."
"But, you're my boss. I have to show the proper respect," he said softly as he continued to smile at her.
"You're always respectful," she said, looking at him as she wondered if he was flirting with her. She decided that he wasn't and continued speaking. "But, we're not on the clock now. You don't have to be so formal."
"So, I can call you 'Dawn' when we're not on the clock?" he asked, his voice low as he bent over to pick up a handful of snow. His hands formed a ball as he continued to gaze at her with steady, green eyes.
Was he really flirting with her, she asked herself again, as her face began to warm from the heat of his gaze. Of course, he's not, she silently answered herself. Right?
"Yes, babe?" Dawn asked, tearing her gaze from Tommy's sparkling green eyes. She looked at Michael's rosy cheeks and with great effort, resisted the urge to pinch his cheeks.
"His booty is getting big."
Dawn began to laugh at Michael's accurate observation. She lowered herself to a squat as she tried to quiet her laughter, but she couldn't. Her laughter soon became contagious and within seconds, Michael and Tommy joined in.
"What's so funny?" Nikolas asked as he came towards the giggling trio. He'd heard them before he saw them, and even though he knew he was probably making a huge mistake, he went over anyway. He stopped short as the laughter abruptly ended.
"Nikolas," Dawn said quietly, trying to be mindful of Michael's sensitive nature.
"Hi," Tommy said as he watched their interchange. He knew they were a couple, but judging from the looks of things, she wasn't too happy with him at the moment. He also noticed how Michael grabbed Dawn's hand and moved behind her. He wondered what was behind Michael's reaction as his eyes moved back to Nikolas.
Nikolas gave a brief nod of his head in response to Tommy. His eyes held Dawn's as he said, "Are you ready to go?"
"No," she said, her brown eyes beginning to flash at his presumptuous tone.
"When will you be?" he asked, undaunted by her attitude.
"Don't worry about it," she said, dismissively.
"I brought you here, and I'm taking you home," he said, his jaw tight as he tried to keep his tone light for Michael's sake.
Tommy glanced at the young woman as she tried to remain composed and he looked behind at her at the little boy who was trying his best not to cry. And, against his better judgment, he began to speak.
"I don't want to intrude, but I don't think she wants you take her home-"
"I didn't ask you what you thought. You should stay out of this. This is between Dawn and myself. This has nothing to do with you," Nikolas said.
"You're right. I probably should stay out of it, but I'm not," Tommy said, moving closer to Nikolas. He positioned himself so that he blocked Nikolas from Michael's view and he continued, "Look, man, whatever's going on between you two is none of my business, but Michael means a lot to me and you're obviously upsetting him. I think you should leave. Now."
"Oh, do you?" Nikolas challenged.
"Yeah, I do. If you're worried about her, I'll give her a ride home."
"I'm sure you'd like that," Nikolas said, his eyes unreadable as he glared at Tommy.
"Look, man, you need to chill. I know you and she are together. I'm not trying to come between that, but I'm not about to let you upset a little kid. She doesn't want to go with you. Why don't you just leave it at that and give her her space?"
Nikolas glared at Tommy for another second before his eyes moved past him to look at Dawn as she played with Michael. The last thing he wanted to do was upset the child again. He didn't know why he was being so belligerent. Slowly, he admitted to himself that maybe Tommy was right. He'd leave, but soon, he and Dawn would talk.
"Dawn," he called to her, willing himself to keep his tone light.
"Yeah?" she asked, pushing a strand of her back from her face as a light breeze began to blow.
"See you at Wyndemere."
"You can count on it," she said, her voice deadly soft with a promise of more to come later. She watched as he crunched across the snow-covered grounds and as soon as he was out of earshot she said to Tommy, "I'm sorry about that."
"No problem. I'm just glad I could help. I did help, right?" he asked, concerned that he might have overstepped himself.
"You did," she said with a smile.
"The big man doesn't like me," Michael said softly, as his lower lip began to tremble.
"No, sweetie. Nikolas likes you," Dawn said, holding his two small mitten-covered hands between her own.
"Uh uh," Michael said, shaking his head. "I made you cry. Him mad at me."
"You were crying?" Tommy asked, softly. "What happened?"
"Me and Daddy tickle Dawnie. She cried," Michael answered sadly, his hazel eyes on the ground in front of him. "I'm sorry, Dawnie."
"Mikey! I told you that I cry when I laugh. It doesn't mean I'm sad, okay?" she said, lifting him into her arms. "Sometimes, crying doesn't mean you're sad. It can also mean you're happy. Understand? I was happy, playing with you and your daddy. Very happy."
"Happy?" he asked, sniffling as his hands wrapped around her neck.
"Very," she said, hugging him to her. She looked over at Tommy and was surprised to see that he was looking at her with a curious look on his face. She was even more surprised when his expression quickly changed and he began to grin at her.
"So, you're ticklish?" he asked, his green eyes dancing.
"Don't even think about it," she warned him. She laughed softly as he raised his hands in mock defense.
"I already told you. I don't want to get into it."
"But I do!" Emily insisted as she followed A.J. down the massive staircase. Her search for A.J. was over quickly and she'd found him in Michael's room. His blazing eyes told her that he was incensed, but the more she pressed him for details, the more he resisted. If Tommy thought she was stubborn, how in the world did he work with A.J., she wondered.
"No, Em," A.J. said, reaching into the foyer closet to pull out his dark, navy blue parka. He pulled it on and stuffed his hands into his pocket for his knit cap and gloves. He found them and began to put them on.
"But, why not? I swear, A.J., if you were fighting with him about me-"
"About you?" A.J. asked, confused. "Why would we fight about you? Oh...wait a minute. Is that why he was messing around up there? He was sniffing around you? What a jerk!"
"'Sniffing around?' Sheesh, you sound as silly as Grandfather. He was visiting me."
"All alone in your room. Yeah, right. I guess he can play around all *he* wants and he expects Dawn to cater to *his* demands... He's such a pompous ass. You'd do better if you stayed away from him, Em," A.J. said, his voice hard and heavy.
"A.J.! 'Pompous ass'?! I mean, really! Nikolas may be a lot of things, but he's not that. And, what's this about Dawn? They broke up, so I seriously doubt he'd *demand* her to *do* anything!" Emily said, her voice becoming louder as she defended her friend.
"Wait. Back up. They broke up? When?"
"Last night. Uh huh, just as thought," Emily said with an all-knowing nod of her head. "You assumed that he was still with her and that's why you picked a fight with him. His *friendly* visit with me did not cause him to two-time your friend. Maybe the next time, you'll get your facts straight."
As A.J. contemplated Emily's words, Dawn's open flirtatiousness with him began to make sense. Suddenly, the New Year seemed brighter and better and more wonderful than he had dreamed it would be. She and he could finally pursue what had been growing between them.
Feeling Emily's eyes on him delivered him from his dreamlike state and he grimaced as he looked at her. His hand squeezed her shoulder as he said, "My facts *are* straight now, thanks to you. And I still say, you should think twice about him. I'll tell you why later, but right now, I have a snowman to help build. Care to join us?"
Emily pursed her lips and slowly shook her head, "Nah, maybe later, okay?"
"Sure," he shrugged as he opened the door. A warm feeling of anticipation and love filled him as he closed the door behind him and he quickly moved to join the objects of his affections.