Chapter 23

*Stoic Squirm*

Taggert's voice drifted away. Keesha waited until his tone completed faded before stepping into the shadows. She smelled his scent and felt his eyes watching her. He shouldn't be there. It was a crime scene. His desire to protect her—even at her job—warmed her heart, but his presence compromised the investigation. The time had long since passed for Jason to realize that.

"You shouldn't be here," she said in a quietly firm voice. "This entire area has been sectioned off. Jason—"

"I know." He reached out. His warm hand closed over her upper arm. The heat of his flesh burned through the fabric of her wool jacket. His fingers flexed, squeezing and caressing. "I worry about you."

She closed her hand over his. Their fingers entwined. Awareness rippled through her from head to toe. "You don't have to," she said. "I know what I'm doing."

He released a quick breath. "I'm glad one of us does."

The darkness made it impossible for her to read his face. Just the tone of his voice was enough to cause unease. "What's wrong? You're not here because of the case."

Jason shrugged. "Yes and no. You're right. I shouldn't be here, but since I am… Can't I stay to help?"

"CSI is coming, babe," Keesha said. "If you're seen here…" She paused and pulled him out of the shadows. She needed to see his face, look into his eyes. His eyes never lied to her. Not before and not now.

She flinched as his blue orbs connected with her gaze. So much pain and confusion. He needed her help, not vice versa. But she couldn’t leave Taggert. The disappearances and carnage were adding up, and PCPD had zero leads. Her vow to protect and serve had to take precedence over the man she loved. And oh, how she hated it.

Keesha glanced at her watch. The hour was late. Within a couple of hours, she could go home. "How about we meet at my place? You have a key. Let yourself in. I'll be there as soon as I can."

He shook his head. "No, when you get home, you'll need to rest."

"But…"

Cupping her face, he bent forward and glided his mouth across hers. For a fleeting moment, his tongue slipped between her parted lips. Liquid warmth coated her lower belly. She longed to lengthen the moment and deepen the kiss, but he pulled away.

"We'll talk tomorrow," Jason said, rising to his full height. "Promise me you'll be careful."

"I always am," she replied. "I love you."

"I know." He kissed her cheek. "I love you, too."

Jason left. Keesha stood at the edge of the shadows, watching his departure.

"Ward."

She bristled. Her partner's observation skills were at an all-time high. "He didn't come any closer than right here. The scene is uncompromised."

"This time," Taggert said. "I shouldn't have to remind you that your boyfriend's presence is a hindrance to the investigation. Make him stay away."

"I'll do what I can," she said. Keesha jutted her chin toward the tall, slender brunette who stood a few feet away. "And your girlfriend. I know she was a deputy. She's not one anymore."

Marcus' jaw clenched. A muscle worked at his jaw. "V isn't my girlfriend. Besides, she was a deputy, she knows how to conduct herself. She also has insight about the case."

"So I've been told," Keesha said. Sarcasm weighed heavily in her voice.

"I'll tell you everything," Marcus said.

Keesha sniffed. She'd heard that one before. Marcus was one of the most tight-lipped men she had ever met in her life.

"No, seriously," he said. "You may not believe everything, but I swear it's all true."

Her eyebrow raised. "I'm intrigued."

"So was I," he said with a nod, "at first. Now, I just want to drive a stake through the bastard's heart."

**

"What do you hope to accomplish with this?" Carlotta asked, as she entered the nursery. Carly stood at the foot of the crib. Her interest in decoration knew now bounds as judged by the time and effort the younger woman had put into the room. Carlotta viewed it all as a display in poor taste. Of course, her judgment was not without bias. Her daughter should be the woman carrying Nikolas' child and not this sorry excuse for a woman.

"Nikolas will never care for you," Carlotta added, unable to prevent the words from coming out. "You are an incubator for his child. Nothing more."

"And you are a heartless woman," Carly said, her nostrils flaring. "I don't want Nikolas to care for me. I do this for my child. My child will have everything I never had: the best."

Movement fluttered inside Carlotta's womb. Apparently, her and Stefan's unborn didn't believe Carly either. Carlotta rubbed in circular motion, soothing her babe. "The best gift you could give your child would be to turn down Nikolas' proposal."

Carly snorted. "I'm sure you'd love that. If I leave, that clears the way for your kid to come back. I don't think so. Nikolas made his choice. You and his uncle should respect his wishes."

"We do respect him." Carlotta paused. She almost left, but the following was destined to be said. "A child should know that his parents respect each other. What can you teach your child, knowing that Nikolas doesn't respect you?"

Flames of red flushed Carly's cheeks. Carlotta didn't want to hear the younger woman's lame comeback. She turned on her heel and moved down the hallway. Unease fell over her. Something was wrong, but she couldn't put her name on it. Perhaps, Stefan could put her soul at ease. She detoured from their quarters and headed for his study on the first floor.

**

"It is wrong to go back on one's word?"

Nikolas held himself still. He knew how his uncle would respond. The answer, of course, was no. Never can a man take back his word. His word was synonymous with his honor. It was a contract…a bond. But couldn’t there be a loophole? A way out? Couldn't another set of circumstances change the initial agreement? Would it truly be so wrong to seek Dawn out? He missed her. He needed her. And his love for her, since their parting, had only intensified. It grew inside him like a volcano and threatened to erupt at any time.

Stefan removed his spectacles and gingerly placed them inside his case. "I believe you know the answer to this. However, in regards to Miss Benson, no one would fault you for reneging on your agreement to marry her. Marriage should not be taken lightly and it is far better that you dissolve the arrangement now than bind yourself to her legally and before God."

"Uncle." Nikolas swallowed hard. "I cannot turn my back on my child. I thought you understood that."

Emerald eyes glittered like diamonds. "I do. If this discussion is not in regards to your impending marriage to Miss Benson, then what is it that you speak of?"

Stefan's anger was palatable. The older man made no secret of his disapproval. Nikolas understood Stefan's reasoning and wanted nothing more than for his uncle to understand his. Nikolas never knew the joy of having parents of his own. He had no memories of a mother and a father during his childhood. His uncle was a far better parent than Nikolas could have ever hoped for, but one small detail remained…Stefan was not his father.

Nikolas would be a father. The mother was not the woman he would have chosen to bear his child, but since Caroline was pregnant… Well, he had no choice. He would have to make do. He would be a good father. However, he made no promises in regards to being a dutiful husband. Just the thought of Caroline--not to mention sharing a bed with her--sickened him beyond belief. Never would he understand why Dr. Jones jeopardized his family to be with such a disturbed young woman.

"Nikolas?" Stefan prompted as the silence grew. "What is this promise? To whom was it made?"

"To Dawn," Nikolas replied finally. "She requested that I never contact her. I agreed, but I cannot for much longer—"

"Nikolas—"

"I think of her constantly. In the middle of the night, I can feel her presence so strongly. Forgive me, Uncle, but I want her," he said, unashamed of admitting his innermost feelings. "When I close my eyes at night, I can hear her music. I can feel her next to me. I will never stop loving her."

Stefan frowned. His lips thinned into a hard, unforgiving line. "Yet, you will betray her by marrying another."

"Uncle—"

"No," Stefan bit out, "you will hear me! You wish for me to tell you that it is fine for you to break your promise to Dawn. To seek her out and insinuate yourself into her life…into her bed. I will not. I love her as if she were my own daughter and you as if… I love you both dearly, and I am pained to see you separated. This marriage to Caroline Benson is a mistake!" Stefan jabbed a finger in Nikolas' chest. "Mark my words, Nikolas, no good will come of this."

Nikolas closed his hand around Stefan's and held it close to his heart. "What would you have me do? Never see Dawn again?"

"You must!" Stefan pulled his hand free and grasped Nikolas' shoulders. "You cannot have it both ways. True, you are the Prince and I have taught you that there are few limitations for you. Hurting Dawn…making her second to Caroline… This I will not allow."

Salty tears stung Nikolas' eyes. "Dawn will never be second. She is first in my heart."

Stefan shook his head. "No, you have chosen and Dawn is not first. Your child with Caroline Benson has taken her place."

A soft rap sounded on the door. Carlotta called out for Stefan and he answered her call. Nikolas was left alone with his thoughts and one burned stronger than all others: wherever Dawn was, she needed him…as much as he needed her.

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