"Daddy!" Brook Lynn screamed as her blue eyes spotted him standing in the doorway of the Quartermaine den.
"Hi, sweetheart," Ned smiled as he lowered himself to one knee in wait of her hug.
"You came to get me," she said, wrapping her arms around his neck.
"Not exactly," Ned said, picking her up and carrying her to the sofa. He placed her on the soft cushion and he sat down beside her. He took one of her small hands in his own and gave her a soft squeeze. "Brook Lynn, I didn't come here to get you. You're staying here with Aunt Monica tonight."
"But, I don't want to. I want to go with you. Please, don't make me stay here," she said with a pout.
"Sweetheart, it's not that bad. You've stayed here before. I know it won't be as much fun without Michael here to play with, but you can watch videos with Aunt Monica or Reginald. And, maybe after Emily comes back from her dinner, she'll play with you, too."
"You won't have to wait that long," Emily said, dropping her coat and purse on the chair as she entered the room. "As soon as I change clothes, the videos can begin."
Ned looked away from his daughter to take in the sour expression on his young cousin's face. He knew that she'd been waiting for Nikolas for quite some time and apparently, she'd decided to stop waiting. Concern clouded his blue eyes as he said, "Are you sure? What about Nikolas?"
"What about him?" Emily asked, sitting on the other side of Brook Lynn so that the little girl sat between her and Ned.
"I thought you had dinner plans with him. You don't have to change them on Brook Lynn's account. She'll be fine," Ned said.
"No, I won't!" Brook Lynn said, with an even more exaggerated pout. "I won't be fine unless I'm with you, Daddy."
"Now, Brook..." he warned her.
"You were fine without him when it was just the two of us before, right?" Emily asked. "You and I have fun together. You'll see. And, Ned, don't think I'm changing my plans because of you. I'm just waking up and smelling the coffee is all."
"What does that mean?" Ned asked.
"It means that Nikolas has kept me waiting long enough, and I'm not waiting any more."
Brook Lynn looked from one adult face to another and knew that the decision was being made without her. But, she wasn't ready to give up. "Why can't I go with you? I'll be good. I won't run around or anything."
"You can't go with me because I'm going to the hospital. Dara and the baby are being watched by the doctors, and I want to be there with them."
"But, if the doctors are watching them, they don't need you to watch them, too. What about me?" she asked, her eyes brimming with unshed tears.
Ned pulled her into his arms and placed her on his lap. He stroked her long black hair from her face and wiped the tears as they began to stream down her cheeks. "You know I love you. You're my little Angel Face. But, honey, right now, I can't stay with you. I love Dara very much and right now, she needs me. I'll call you as soon as I get to the hospital and I'll even sing you a lullaby, but I can't take you with me. And, I can't leave Dara there alone. I know you can be a big girl and stay here with Emily, right?" he asked. "Come on, Angel Face, don't you want to be a big girl for Daddy?"
Brook Lynn looked into her father's eyes. He looked tired, sad and a little afraid. She never thought her daddy would be afraid of anything. Seeing the fear in his eyes scared her a little and in an effort to make it go away, she slowly nodded her head. "Okay. I'll be a big girl for you, Daddy."
Ned hugged her to his chest. Closing his eyes, he sighed, "Thank you, sweetheart. Thank you."
AJ carefully placed his sleeping son onto his bed. He pulled the sheet and comforter over him and stood at the foot of the bed, waiting to make sure that Michael didn't wake up again. Michael stirred for a moment and then he rolled over, clutching his worn teddy bear to his chest. AJ smoothed his hair down and leaned over him to softly kiss his cheek. "Good night, Michael," he whispered before he left the room.
Running a hand through his dark, brown hair, he sighed as he looked at the table he and Michael had so painstakingly prepared in honor of their very late dinner guest. The flowers, which Michael had insisted on, were beginning to wilt and the ice in the glasses had long since melted down.
Sparing a glance at his watch, AJ wondered what could have kept Dawn. She hadn't called and he was beginning to worry about her. He decided that he'd wait five more minutes and then he'd call her. Until the five minutes were up, he'd clear the table and put away the dishes, in the hopes that the small task would keep his mind from worrying about her.
The five minutes passed quickly and AJ reached for his telephone. His finger was poised above the seventh digit as the doorbell sounded. He placed the phone back on the table and went to the door. Looking back at him on the other side of the glass door was his unfashionably late dinner guest. He wrenched the door open and pulled her into his arms. "What happened?" he asked as he pulled away from her and led her inside.
"I'm sorry, AJ. I should have called," Dawn said as AJ helped her remove her coat. "I just wanted to get out of there as fast as I could that I didn't think that you'd be worried about me."
"Did something else happen? Did Nikolas insult you again?" AJ asked, clenching his jaw.
"No. It wasn't like that," she said, shaking her head. She held out her hand to him and led him to the sofa. They sat side by side and she continued to hold his hand as she explained to him why she was late. She told him about Carrie and Stefan's matchmaking scheme, the looked door and the broken door knob. She purposely left out her and Nikolas' inability to resist one another and ended on her decision to leave Wyndemere, pointing to a small duffel bag as she did so.
"Are you sure that you're ready to leave?" he asked, after taking in everything she'd told him. "I'm surprised they let you go at all."
"We guilt-tripped them," she admitted. "I took advantage of their brief moment of shame and ran for it. Tomorrow will be the day when all hell breaks loose."
"I can image," he smiled briefly. "Well, while you're putting your things away, I'll heat up dinner."
"I wasn't expecting to stay here, AJ," Dawn said. "I mean, if you don't want me here, I can afford to stay at a hotel or something until I can find a place."
"Of course, I want you stay here," he said, softly. "That is, if you want to stay here. Dawn, I'm not trying to rush you. There is a guest room. I wasn't implying that you'd be staying with me."
"I didn't think you were," she said with a shrug. "I'll put my stuff down and I'll be right out."
AJ watched her as she picked up her bag and as she reached the stairway, he called out, "Nice dress."
She blushed at his compliment and said, "Thanks."
AJ laughed softly as she continued up the stairs. He reset the table for dinner for two. He placed candles on the table and lit them. He then sat down at the table as he waited for her to return and for the microwave to signal that their dinner was ready.
Dawn smiled as she looked at him in the doorway. His dark hair and always lightly tanned skin tone looked good against the dark blue shirt he wore. Her smile widened when he turned his eyes towards her, his hazel eyes sparkling as he allowed his eyes to move over her. Very nice dress, he thought.
He stood and held out his hand to her. "Come."
Dawn entered the dining room, took his hand and allowed him to seat her in the chair next to the one he had vacated. She continued to smile as she watched him wait on her. "AJ, you shouldn't have gone to so much trouble," she said as he placed a plate of steaming vegetables and a grilled steak on the table before her.
"It wasn't any trouble," he said, sitting down again. "We were happy to prepare dinner for you."
"I'm sorry I missed Mikey," she said with a frown. "Was he upset?"
"Maybe a little," AJ admitted. "He was really excited about having dinner with Dawnie, but I think when he sees you across the table at breakfast he'll soon forget it."
AJ watched her for a reaction and when none was forthcoming, he said, "Are you okay about staying here? I'm okay with it and I'm sure Mikey will love it."
"I'm okay. I guess," she said. "Just until I find a place."
"Of course," he agreed. "When I said I didn't want to rush things, I meant it."
He reached across the table for her hand. She rested her hand against his warm palm. Then, in a move which surprised them both, she rose from her chair and stooped beside his chair. She whispered, "Thanks, AJ."
AJ cupped her face and drew her closer to him. "You're welcome, Dawn." He lowered his face to hers and claimed her lips in a gentle kiss. He hadn't planned for it to be more than just a quick kiss, and he certainly wasn't expecting Dawn to change the intensity of it. Her lips parted, allowing her tongue to slide between his lips. Stunned by the sudden passionate turn of the embrace, AJ responded to her with equal fervor until the warning bells sounded in the back of his mind.
He pulled away from her and asked, "What's going on?"
"Hmm?" she asked, leaning in to kiss him again.
AJ averted his face and stood, helping her into a standing position as he did so. "Why the change in the kiss? I told you before that I'd rather we take things slowly. I thought you'd agreed."
"I did agree," she said, taken aback by his rejection. "I guess I didn't know that kissing was off limits."
"That's not it, and you know it. You were telling me something with that kiss. Something that I don't think we should explore. At least, not yet."
"I wasn't telling you anything," she denied. "It was...a kiss."
"Dawn, that wasn't just a kiss," AJ replied. "Don't ask me how I know, but I could just sense that you were coming from somewhere else with it. I just think it would be best that while you're staying here, we refrain from kissing like that. Mikey's here and things could get complicated."
Dawn nodded slowly. "I understand. Maybe I should just leave."
"Dawn, c'mon," he said, cupping her cheek and raising her head so that her eyes met his. "I don't want you to go. I want you here where I know you'll be safe. I just don't want us to move too fast. Okay? Baby, I'm not turning you down. Think of it as being put on hold."
Dawn laughed softly, finding the humor in his attempt to not hurt her feelings. "On hold? Okay, I guess I can deal with that."
"Don't get too used to it, though," he said with a gleam in his eyes. He pulled her close to him and kissed her soundly on the cheek. Whispering hoarsely against her ear, he said, "Holds only last for so long."
Nikolas wasn't sure what just flew past his head. It was nothing more than blur and he'd only dodged it by a mere millisecond before it could make contact with his head. The second time, he wasn't so lucky.
His hands flew to his face as the snow exploded on his cheek. Wiping the snow from his eyes, he'd barely had to time to focus before another snowball was hurled at him.
Deflecting the balls with his hands and elbow, he yelled, "Em! I'm sorry!"
"Sure, Nikolas!" she yelled back, molding another snowball between her palms. And, you're about to get even sorrier, she thought as she flung the ball at him at full force.
"Hey!" he yelled, hitting the ball away from his face. He ducked to avoid another hard, fastball and while he was bent over, he picked up a handful of snow. He packed a small ball of his own and as he rose, threw it at her. He was hoping for the middle of her chest, but instead the ball landed on her forehead. He knew he shouldn't laugh, but he couldn't help himself.
"You think this is funny?!" Emily screamed. "Standing me up and then hitting me with a snowball?!"
"No, of course not," he chuckled. "It's just that...it's just that..."
She threw another one and it landed against his neck, causing him to shriek her name. This time, she laughed and laughed. She doubled over in laughter as he shivered and tried to shake the snow from underneath his collar and against his neck.
"Oh, so you think this is funny, huh?!" he asked, picking up another large handful of snow. With mischief in his eyes, he began to take steps towards her. He then broke into a run as Emily shrieked and took off for the East side of the house.
Nikolas rounded the corner of the house, looking for any sign of her. If the clouds would ignore the moon for a moment, he was certain that he'd be able to spot her tracks and find her. But to his dismay, every time he thought he saw her, he realized that he only saw a shadow of a bush. He refused to give up and in a singsong voice called out, "I'll find you, Em, and when I do, you'll have a nice snow surprise, waiting for you."
Emily stifled a giggle as Nikolas crossed in her front of her. Hunched down between the bushes were the perfect hiding place and she intended to stay there until he had moved to a considerable distance. When Nikolas called out again, she could tell by the way his voice carried in the air that he was far enough away that she could make a run for it. And, she did.
Nikolas heard the twigs break as Emily broke free of her hiding place. Using his skill as a frequent runner, he soon closed the distance between them. He wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her to him. His free hand held the snowball above her head in a threatening gesture. "Now, Ms. Quartermaine, what do you have to say for yourself?" he asked, his voice low and soft against her ear.
Emily felt her body responding to being pressed against him. Her back leaned against his chest and her hand covered his where it rested against her waist. Biting her lip to keep from saying something she would regret letter, she simply shook her head.
"So, should I accept that your silence gives consent?" he asked. "You wouldn't mind if I put this snowball against your neck?"
Again, Emily remained silent and this time, she didn't shake her head. She didn't move.
"Em, please," he said, knowing that her silence meant that despite their play, she was still angry with him. "Please, hear me out, okay?" When she didn't respond, he quickly continued. "I'm sorry about being late. My parents decided to play games and locked Dawn and I up. The locksmith had a problem with the door and by the time we were free, it was so late that I just came right over instead of calling first."
"There wasn't a phone in the room where your parents locked you up?" she asked.
"There was, but my parents turned off the outside line."
"Oh, Nikolas, please," Emily said, twisting herself out of his arms. "Give me more credit than that."
"I'm telling you the truth," he said, tossing the melting snow onto the ground as he moved towards her. "They were doing their usual matchmaker game. They thought they were covering their bases. It backfired on them when the locksmith couldn't just fix what they'd caused."
"Well," she said, crossing her arms. "Sounds like your parents went to a lot of trouble to get you and Dawn back together."
"They did, but Em, it didn't work," he reassured her. "Dawn and I aren't back together. She's with your brother and I'm here with you. We're with the people we want to be with. I can understand that you're angry and I don't blame you. But, please, Em. Please, don't let it change things between us."
"Nikolas, it's not my anger that will change things between us," she answered softly.
"But something will?" he asked, hearing the warning in her voice. "Tell me, Em, and I'll make sure that it won't come between us."
"It's not an 'it'," she said. "More like who."
"Who?" he asked. "Dawn?"
She nodded and moved back towards the house. He followed her and as they reached the front door. He reached for her hand. "Dawn won't come between us. She and I worked through our differences. We're okay now. With her moving out, everything will be fine between us. She wants me to move on. She really does."
"But what about you, Nikolas? I've been thinking about what you've told me about what's been going on between you. What do you really want?"
"You," he said softly, pulling her closer to him. "I really want you."
Emily stood still as he lowered his head to hers. She had half a mind to pull away at the last moment, but her lips wouldn't let her. Instead, they parted in anticipation of receiving his soft, full lips.
Nikolas moaned softly in satisfaction as his tongue moved slowly into her mouth. She accepted him and drew him deeper inside, pressing her body against him as they kissed in the open air of the dark, snow-covered night.