Chapter 36

*Intimate Discussions*

Marcus flashed his ID and worked his way through the crowd. V walked two steps behind him. Her frustration at not being able to save the victims surrounded her like a white-hot aura. He didn't have the words to soothe her. Hell, he wrestled with the same. And worse of all, his baby sister was still out there. Somewhere.

A circle of officers protected the body from spectators. The sight of Marcus' gold shield caused the circle to split. The body hadn't been disturbed and still faced the brick wall of the brownstone. The vic wore an expensive wool jacket. Shoulder-length blonde hair lay in waves on the floor of the dirty alley.

Marcus knelt beside the corpse. After pulling on a pair of latex gloves, he began to check the body. Pale flesh. Two puncture wounds to the neck. He didn't need a Medical Examiner to tell him her body was drained of blood. Shit.

V knelt beside him. "Who is it?"

"We're about to find out."

He touched the shoulder and carefully lowered the victim onto her back. He and V released loud gasps. Not a stranger this time. This one was a close friend. A single mother with two girls who needed her. Dammit, it wasn't fair!

"Felicia," V said in a choked whisper. "My God, it's Felicia. Why, Marcus? Why can't we stop this?"

One glance at her stricken face was almost his undoing. When did Venus Ardnowski stop being a partner in combat to a woman he seriously cared about? Responding on emotion alone, he slipped his arm around her and helped her stand. As she leaned on him, he guided her away from the stares of his fellow officers and into the shadows of the building.

"Marcus." Sobs shook her as she clutched his jacket. "I can't let this continue. Art says I have the power to stop it, but I'm always too late. How can I be what he says I am if I let my friends die."

In a swift movement, he cupped her face and forced her to look at him. Agony tore through him at the desolation in her eyes. But he fought through it. "V, sweetheart, listen to me. None of this is your fault. None of it. You were in law enforcement. Sometimes, the bad guys are a step or two ahead of us. But not always. You're not going after these beasts alone. I'm with you, and we will bring them down."

He wrapped his arms around her again. She gripped his waist. Charges went through him. Then, she rested her head on his shoulder. His voice was hoarse with emotion as he said, "I'm gonna take you home. Tonight, we rest, and we mourn our friend."

~**~

Baby Carlysa Cassadine had no qualms about letting her unhappiness known. Stefan smiled at his wife and shook his head when she moved to stand. They decided to forgo the assistance of a nanny and share the joy of taking care of their newborn without hired help. Even with early morning feedings and occasional testiness, they hadn't regretted that decision once.

"I'll see to her."

Carlotta laughed. "Only a few days old and already she's wrapped you around her little finger."

He bent over her and brushed his lips across her smooth forehead. "Guilty as charged," he murmured.

The baby's cries came to a complete halt as soon as Stefan lifted her from the crib. She blinked once or twice before locking him with her stare. Her mouth parted and he swore it was smile.

Stefan enjoyed every moment of changing her diaper and lulling her back to sleep. With a great deal of reluctance, he returned her to bed. Not ready to leave her, he pulled the rocking chair close and sat. Rocking back and forth, he watched her sleep until his eyelids began to droop.

The dream caught him unawares. He sat in his study. Paperwork lay all around him, but he couldn't focus. His thoughts ran to his family. Carlotta. Nikolas. Carlysa. Dawn. And even Alexis. Protecting them had always been his first priority. Loving Carlotta showed him the importance of demonstrating that emotion, too. He yearned for their happiness and it seemed to resonate from within him. So much so that his surprise visitor commented on it immediately.

In a haze of smoke and fog, his deceased mother appeared to him. She laughed and taunted. Teased and tormented. And before she vanished, she promised that all wasn't settled between them.

Stefan woke with a start. Carlotta stood over him. Worry lines marred her beautiful face. Gently, she wiped the perspiration from his brow.

"What's wrong?"

"I dreamed about Helena," he confessed.

"Again?"

He nodded. "This one was different. There was a warning. I have made a grievous mistake."

She knelt beside the rocking chair. She took his hands and held onto them tightly. "What mistake?"

"Believing her to be dead." His gaze dropped to their locked hands. His chest constricted. "For she is very much alive."

~**~

"I've never felt so useless in my entire life."

Keesha rolled onto her side to look at Jason. They lay together in bed. Sated from a heated lovemaking session, they were now content to talk. He loved being inside her, but their intimate discussions intensified his feelings for her. Without a doubt, she was the only woman for him. He didn't understand how Jason Morgan didn't realize that. Or maybe the Morgan did and wasn't man enough to love her properly. Whatever the reason, Jason was glad to put that behind him.

She slid her hand along his chest, pausing to rest on his heart. "You're not useless. I need you. Your family does, too. You've done a lot of good at the Foundation."

"Other than being with you, I want more," he said. He drew tiny circles on her back. The softness of her skin never failed to mesmerize him. "I want to make a difference. I need to atone the sins of Jason Morgan."

She shook her head. "No, you don't. You're not him and you're not responsible for what he did. I thought you understood that."

"I understand it, but it doesn't lessen what I feel. When I was him, I lived my life recklessly and without consequence. I hurt a lot of people. If I live to be a hundred years old, I won't be able to change that…but I can do something important."

"Like what?" She clutched the sheet around her and sat. "I can tell by that stubborn glint in your eyes you've made a decision. What is it?"

His smile transformed into a soft chuckle. "Marry you for one, my brilliant love…and go back to med school. I'd like to set up a clinic on Charles Street and one on the docks. While you're out that protecting lives, I'd like to save them."

"Wow," she breathed. "Not just a doctor, but clinics, too. Are you sure? Monica and Alan didn't pressure you to make this decision?"

He took her hand and raised it to his lips. Her responding shiver awakened his desire. "They've been great, but this decision was my own. Now, as for the first part, you haven't said anything. Will you be my wife?"

"Yes."

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