The wait had been torture. If not for the calm assurances from Carrie, Nikolas and Dawn, Ned was certain that he would have lost his mind. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Dr. Newman came to him. In her detached, professional voice, she said, "Ned, come with me."
In a trance, yet enveloped by the silent hopes and prayers of his extended family, Ned rose from his perch on the edge of the cold, hard waiting chair and followed Dr. Newman behind the curtain.
Ned stood still just in front of the curtain. Dara's eyes were closed and her hand rested protectively on her protruding abdomen. Her breaths were even and not erratic. Up. Down. Ned watched her closely, making certain that all was well in that area. Confident that Dara herself was fine, his mind allowed the sound of distant, rapid beeping to register. Within seconds, his blue eyes found the source of the beeps. A monitor was attached to Dara's abdomen. With a sharp intake of air, Ned wondered how he could have missed it during his first perusal.
Upon hearing the gasp, Dara's eyes fluttered open. Reaching out a hand to him, she said, "Ned."
His brisk footsteps brought him to her side. His hand closed over hers and held on tightly. "Dara, sweetheart, are you okay?" he asked, his voice a little above a whisper. As one hand held on tightly to hers, his other hand rested gently on her, lightly caressing their unborn child and offering the only comfort he could.
"I'm better," she smiled. "We're both better."
"But, the monitor... Dr. Newman?" Ned asked. Suddenly, he found himself unable to utter complete questions. Seeing the fetal monitor frightened him and reminded him of the difficulties Lois had when she was pregnant with Brook Lynn. He doubted if he was strong enough to go through the same again.
"Please, don't let the monitor alarm you," Dr. Newman said as she set Dara's chart back in the tray at the foot of the bed. "It's helping us keep track of the baby's heartbeat-"
"What?! Is there something wrong with the baby's heart? Is that what happened?" Ned asked, regaining the use of his voice with amazing speed.
"No, there's nothing wrong with the baby's heart. I apologize for alarming you needlessly. The monitor is helping make sure that your child is fine and not in duress. The pains which brought Dara here were caused by stress, and that stress soon found its way to the baby, but everything is under control now."
"So, I can take Dara home now?" he asked, lightly squeezing her hand as he smiled down at her and then looked back at their physician.
"No, I'm not releasing her...at least not yet. I'm recommending that Dara should stay overnight. I need to double check her hormonal levels and the best way to do that is if she's admitted."
"Okay. Where do I sign?" Ned asked.
"Ned..." Dara weakly began to protest.
Ned immediately knew what her intentions were and shook his head. "If Dr. Newman thinks you should stay overnight, that's what you're going to do. Don't worry, hon, I'll be with you the entire time."
"But, what about Brook? She's at the main house now, but she was asking for you as we were leaving..."
"I'll talk with her, but I don't want you to worry about that, okay? I want you to concentrate on good, happy thoughts. If stress is what brought you here, then we have to get rid of it. Maybe a night here will help us," he said, gently.
"Okay," she agreed. Inwardly, she was relieved to spend a night away from Brook Lynn, even if it meant she'd spend it in a hospital.
"Carrie!" Stefan called, brushing past unrecognizable faces as he moved to reach his wife. Upon reaching her, he grasped her elbow and pulled her to him. "How's Dara?"
"She's better," Carrie sighed, relieved at the sight of him. Resting her head on his shoulder, she allowed herself a brief moment of comfort before she slightly pulled away. "Ned's with her now."
"And, how are you?" he asked, his gravelly voice soft as he gazed at her.
"I'm hanging in there," she said with a faint smile. She linked her arm through his and walked slowly back with him towards the waiting area. They stopped in the doorway as they noticed their two children, who were sitting apart from each other.
"Why do I sense that the physical distance between them is a metaphor for their relationship?" he asked.
"Because you are amazingly perceptive when it comes to them," she answered. When he moved to enter the waiting the room, she stopped him by squeezing his arm. "Stefan, wait."
"There are a few things you need to know before you go in there and before I tell you, I need your word that you won't cause a scene or put either of them on the spot," Carrie said, her voice firm, leaving no room for compromise.
"Very well. I'll not utter a word."
"Dawn's hand was injured when she punched Nikolas in the jaw. When you get closer to him, you'll see a nasty bruise on the side of his face," she explained.
"I don't know why she hit him," she said with a faint shrug. "I've spoken with both of them, and they refuse to tell me."
"Well, I intend to get some answers-"
"Oh, no!" she said, pulling him back when he moved to enter the room. "You gave me your word. I want answers, too, but this isn't the time or the place. Besides, I'm sure if we put our heads together, we can come up with an idea for those two. What do you say?"
"I say I like it," he answered with a smile.
Dawn kept her eyes glued to the magazine in her lap. Even though Nikolas sat on the other side of the room, she could still feel his eyes on her from time and time, and she was sick of it. She wanted to fling the magazine at him or at the very least, demand to know what he was looking at, but she forced herself to remain still. Causing a scene in hospital waiting rooms was not her style and she had a strong feeling that sooner, rather than later, she and Nikolas would have to face each other. And, that was not something she was looking forward to-
Startled, she glanced up from her magazine to look into a pair of concerned, green eyes. A relieved smile pushed the clouds from her mind as she looked at her visitor. "Hi, Tommy. What are you doing here?"
"I've come bearing gifts," he smiled as he sat on the table in front of her, effectively blocking Nikolas from her view, and vice versa.
"Oh, really?" she asked, arching a perfect brow. "Well, one of those 'gifts' bear a close resemblance to my purse!"
Tommy chuckled and handed her the leather handbag. "Guilty as charged. I can't put one over on you, huh?"
"Nope! I'm pretty observant."
"Oh, yeah?" he asked, softly. "Well, that's always good to know. I'll keep that in mind. So...um, how's your hand?"
"It was sprained. It should be okay in a few days. Thanks for asking."
"You're welcome," he shrugged. He frowned slightly as he looked at her hand. Without a second thought, he reached for it and held it carefully. He turned it over in his hand as his eyes trailed over the brace which covered half of her hand and extended a little past her wrist. "This wasn't put on properly. May I?"
"Sure," she said, her voice a little too husky for her liking. Realizing that she'd been holding her breath, she slowly released it and willed herself to relax at the soft touch of his gentle hands.
In the back of his mind, Tommy heard her release the breath she had been holding, and he found himself releasing the air he had been holding as well. Taking much longer than necessary, he took his time separating the velcro straps and readjusting them the proper way. When he was done, he smoothed his hand along the length of the brace, making sure that it was secure...he told himself, but he knew that wasn't entirely true. He simply wasn't ready to let her go, yet.
"Well, that's what I get for loosening it in the first place," Dawn said, breaking the electric-charged silence which had formed between them. Against her hand's wishes, she pulled away and carefully cradled her hand in the crook of her arm.
"Oh, you loosened it. Well, I hope I didn't fasten it too lightly. If you want, I can-"
"No! Um, it's fine. Really," she said. "Thanks."
"No problem," he mumbled, suddenly feeling shy. Surprised by his feelings, he abruptly stood and said, "Maybe I should just leave."
"Well, if you have to... thanks for stopping by and bringing my purse. And, I'm sure Dara will like the flowers-"
"The flowers!" he said, shaking his head at his forgetfulness. "I meant to give them to you. The flowers are from Michael. He wanted to get you a get-well present. He chose the flowers himself."
Dawn took the flowers from Tommy. She smiled at the flowers and at the young man who brought them to her. "Thanks. They're not the usual arrangement, but they're the most beautiful bouquet I've ever seen. When you see Michael, will you tell him I said so?"
"Will do," he said with a smile.
First A.J. Quartermain and now Tommy Hardy! What the hell is she doing, Nikolas grumbled to himself as he watched the interchange from across the room. He didn't consider himself the jealous type, but watching Dawn talk and smile at Tommy irritated him. Why is she moving so fast, he wondered behind narrowed eyes.
Nikolas jumped as the sound of Emily's voice interrupted his thoughts. Sitting up straight in the uncomfortable chair, he smiled at her. "Hi, Em. What are you doing here?"
"I came to check on Dara and see how Ned was doing," she replied. Her eyes darted across the room at what had held his unwavering attention only moments before, and she found that she wasn't surprised to see Dawn sitting across the room. She was, however, surprised at Tommy's presence. She shrugged it off. Tommy's free-time wasn't her concern any more, she decided, and then turned her attention back to Nikolas...and his magical disappearing pajamas.
"What's wrong?" he asked, in response to the sudden frown which had planted itself on her brow. He nodded towards Dawn and Tommy and said, "You're not happy about your ex's new friend?"
"It's really none of my business, but I suppose the same could be said for you. You weren't exactly dancing the happy dance of joy when I walked in here. Your eyes were glued to them. I think you're the one who's unhappy about your ex's new friend," she countered as she pulled a chair from a nearby table, placed it front of him, and sat down.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he denied.
"Right," she said. "Sure, you don't. Listen, Nikolas, I didn't come here to fight with you. To be honest, I didn't expect to see you here. You looked like you haven't slept. Have you been home at all?"
"Nah," he shook his head. "I went straight to Dawn to try to talk things over, but when I got there she was on her way here to have someone examine her arm. I brought her and while we were here, we found out about Dara. So, I'm still here."
"Oh, I see," she replied, unaware that her voice was distant as she contemplated his words and actions. Again, Brook Lynn's innocent words came to her and her usually open brown eyes clouded over and became unreadable.
"What do you see?" he asked, resting his forearm on his thighs so that he was eye to eye with her. "What's wrong? You seem...upset. If it's something I've done, let me know. I have enough people angry at me for unknown reasons. I'd hate for you to add yourself to the list."
"Well, it's really none of my business," she hedged. Whatever was forming between her and Nikolas was new and she wasn't sure if she really had a right to know. Her mind told her she didn't, but her heart was beginning to demand a few answers.
"Emily, if it has something to do with me, I'm making it your business. Please...what is it?" he asked again, his eyes boring into hers as he pleaded with her to be forthright with him.
"I've heard something that I didn't really want to believe, especially in light of what's been happening between us," she began, finding encouragement as she spoke. "Brook Lynn overheard a conversation between Dara and Dawn, and she told me part of it. Mind you, I didn't ask her anything. Little kids have a way of volunteering information whether you ask them or not..."
"Okay, I understand. Besides, I know you'd never coerce a child to do anything. Go on. What did Brook Lynn overhear?" he asked.
Emily groaned inwardly at his faith in her that she'd never pump a kid for info. Oh, if only he knew... "Well, she heard Dawn mention something about you and the night you two decided to stop seeing each other..."
"Yeah? So? I can't imagine Dawn saying anything discomforting about me. Our problems didn't start until the next morning at your house," he said.
"Well, I'm not too sure about that. Brook said that Dawn was upset as she was speaking to Dara... Okay, I've been dancing around this long enough. Dawn mentioned that you guys slept together that night and that when she woke up, you were nude-"
"What?!" he asked, raising his voice as his eyes widened in shock. "She told Dara that?"
"Yeah, that's what Brook Lynn said. Listen, Nikolas, I feel kinda weird now, so I'm gonna check on Ned and then, I'm leaving. Maybe you should think about having a talk with Dawn because it doesn't seem like it's over between you two to me." She abruptly stood, causing the chair to scrape across the floor. She could feel the eyes of Tommy and Dawn bore into her back, but she refused to turn around as she left the room.
Nikolas rose from his seat in a flash and went after her. He lightly grabbed her arm, stopping her as he said, "Em, wait. I... You're right. Dawn and I need to talk, but I assure you. My feelings for her are not as they were before. I don't want this to end this way between us, Em. I'm sorry you feel weird now and that I pressed you to tell me, but I'm glad you did. Maybe if Dawn had told me this herself, none of this other stuff would have happened."
"Maybe so," she shrugged.
"I'd like to have dinner with you tonight...if you're still interested in spending time with me. Please. Say yes," he said, reaching for her hand as he held her eyes with his.
"Leticia, I really appreciate this," AJ smiled at her as she strapped Michael into his car seat. "I know it's last minute notice and I promise you that you will be well compensa-"
"AJ, please. You can call me AJ."
"AJ," she began again with a nod of her head and a faint smile. "You don't have to increase my pay to care for Michael. I've told you before that I love taking care of him. He's a wonderful little boy."
"He sure is," AJ replied, his voice soft as he looked at his almost two-year-old son. He sighed when he thought of how much time had been wasted. How he'd missed so much of the little boy's development, but he intended to make up for it. Each and every day of his life would be marked with the joy of having his son back in his life again. He would make certain of it.
After Leticia joined Michael on the backseat of the Forerunner, AJ slammed the door shut. He then sat in the driver's seat and slammed his door shut behind him. He laughed softly when Michael recreated the sound as best he could. Turning around in his seat, he smiled at his passengers and then focused his attention on his son. "Are you ready to go?"
"Yay!" the little boy screamed, causing the two adults to laugh.
"I've stayed at the lodge before and the accommodations are excellent," AJ said, securing his seatbelt as he made eye contact with Leticia in the rearview mirror. When she nodded, he continued. "I'm pretty sure that the negotiations won't last longer than a day and that we'll only be here overnight."
"You've told me this before," she gently reminded him as she fastened her seatbelt and double-checked Michael's. "You said that everything would be wonderful. I believe you."
"I apologize for repeating myself, but I feel guilty for pulling you away from your family during the holidays," AJ replied, as he started the engine and pulled out of the garage. "Over the last six months, Michael's transition has been great, and I think he's adjusted very well."
"He has. I think it's because he's so loving."
"I think so, too," he agreed.
"And, I'm sure that it hasn't hurt that you've spent so much time with him, too," she said with a smile.
"No, I guess not," he laughed. "When I found out that he was my son, the only thing I wanted to do was be with him as much as possible. And, now that I have full custody of him, I intend to do just that which is why he's coming with me today."
"You know, AJ, I'm sorry about what happened..." Leticia said quietly.
"It's not your fault. None of us knew. I probably still wouldn't know if it weren't for Carly's friend suddenly finding a conscious. I believe me. I don't blame you for any of it. I just appreciate your not turning your back on Mikey when the truth came out. The consistency you provided has helped him more than I can say. Thank you."
"You're welcome," she said, softly before giving Michael her attention.
AJ spared a brief glance at them in his rearview mirror before turning his attention to the open road. He quickly estimated that if traffic continued to move as briskly as it was now, they'd arrive at the lodge way ahead of schedule. He'd have time to make sure that Michael was comfortable in their suite of rooms and he might even have time to play with him before he had to meet with the possible investors. He wished Dawn could have been there with him, but he refused to dwell on it. She had exams and she also had a boyfriend. But, maybe someday-
A passing car which moved too close to them for AJ's comfort swerved in front of him and prevented him from thinking of anything except for the road in front of him. "Stupid idiot," he mumbled.
"Stupid idiot," Michael repeated from his car seat. He started to laugh when AJ and Leticia began to laugh at his comment.
"I see I have to watch what I say around him," AJ replied.
"Oh, definitely," Leticia agreed. "He's at the age where they like to repeat things. You'd be surprised at how quickly they learn the words you really don't want them to know."
"Oh, I can imagine. I've been reading about that, and-"
A bump against the back end of the sports utility vehicle caused AJ to end his conversation abruptly. His full attention was directed to driving and trying to determine what had hit them.
"What was that?" Leticia asked, worry in her voice.
"I'm not sure. Just sit tight okay. I have everything under control."
"Okay," she said. Michael began to whine when he dropped his stuffed animal and she quickly moved to placate him. "It's okay," she cooed.
"Barney!" he wailed, his face scrunching up to cry in his frustration.
Leticia looked around the back of the car and saw that the toy had fallen underneath the seat. She bent over to retrieve it, but she couldn't. As Michael began to cry harder, she quickly decided to just get the toy for him, but later he'd learn that he couldn't always have what he wanted when he wanted it. Releasing her seatbelt, she lowered herself to the floor.
AJ was unaware of the happenings of the backseat as he pondered the best course of action. After looking in his sideview mirrors, he could see that the car was fast approaching them again. AJ didn't want to risk it, but he didn't have much choice so he pressed down on the accelerator, hoping that would increase the distance between him and the other car. It did, but only for a second. Soon the car was on his tail again, and without warning, it hit them from behind with full force.
Michael cried out as the wheels spun briefly against the slick surface of the road. Leticia sat up to comfort him, but in that instant, a deafening roar echoed through the confines of the vehicle as a bullet tore through her chest. Her body lurched forward in an attempt to protect Michael in her last second of life.
At the sound of the gunshot, AJ's heart began to pump wildly in his chest. "LETICIA!!" he screamed, but there was no answer except for the sound of Michael's cries. Realizing that he had to keep it together for his son's sake, AJ calmed himself. "It's okay, Mikey," he loudly reassured his son. "Everything is just fine. Daddy will get you out of here. I promise."
With a dexterity he didn't know he had, AJ righted the wheels of the Forerunner and pressed the accelerator. He knew he was taking a chance by speeding on the slick road, but he had no choice. Someone had shot at them and he'd die before he allowed any harm to come to his little boy.
From his sideview mirror, AJ could see the other car move into the passing lane. As the car moved along beside them, he could see clearly into the car and he was shocked. Staring back at him was the barrel of a gun which was being held by Jason, while in the driver's seat sat Carly.
Frantic, AJ pointed to the back seat of the car, screaming, "STOP!! MICHAEL'S IN THE BACK! MICHAEL'S IN THE BACK!!"
Either Jason didn't understand or he just didn't care, but either way, he never lowered the gun. Instead, he cocked it. AJ's survival instinct kicked in and he pressed the accelerator down to the floor.
The Forerunner lurched forward in a desperate attempt to obey its driver's commands, but something unexpected happened. In awful slow motion, the vehicle began to swerve. Unsure of what exactly to do, AJ pressed lightly on the brake, but despite his efforts the Forerunner began to glide across the surface of the road which was wet from a light snowfall.
The steering wheel became useless in AJ's hands as the vehicle began to spin out of control. Somewhere in the distance he heard a loud crash, but the sound didn't really register. Every fiber of his being was centered on trying to right the Forerunner. Trying to prevent the crash that he prayed wouldn't happened.
The next several seconds passed in a blur. AJ saw the flash of the guardrail. And then there was embankment. The shrieking of the metal was only matched by Michael's wails of terror as the Forerunner careened over the side. Blindly, AJ reached behind him, hoping that his touch would calm Michael's fears.
As the vehicle plunged down the slope, AJ prayed that if death came that it would be instant and that if there was a thing as life after death, he'd come back, and Jason and Carly would pay for putting Michael through this. The vehicle bounced violently as it headed for the tree. AJ was thrown forward. There was overwhelming pain, and then darkness.
AJ woke with a start. Raising his head from the desk, his eyes were wide with fear and agony at the remembrance of that awful day. He reached for Michael who had awoken from his nap and now stood beside him. He forced himself to regulate his breathing and as he gathered his son into his arms, he said, "Hi, Mikey, did you have a good sleep?"
"Yeah. Did you?" he asked, patting his father's arm as AJ held him close to his heart.
"Not really, but I'm better now," AJ reassured him, kissing the top of his copper-red hair. "I'm so much better now."