"That's a beautiful dress."
"Thanks, Grandma," the young voice chirped. "Mommy let me pick it out. I like the roses."
Jason heard the voices before he saw the two females. His chest tightened when he heard the second voice. Without seeing the little girl's angelic face, he knew it was Maya.
"Jason?" Lila's worried tone interrupted his thoughts. "What is it? You've stopped us in the middle of the hallway."
He swallowed the lump in his throat and without saying a word, steered her wheelchair toward the ballroom.
Just then, Monica and Maya appeared hand in hand right before him and Lila. The wheelchair came to an abrupt halt. Jason couldn't move and worse than that, he didn't understand why the sight of the little girl affected him. Was it because Michael talked about her nonstop? Or was it something else? Like how closely she resembled her mother...?
"Jason," Monica greeted, unable to mask the hopefulness in her voice. "Good evening, Lila. You look beautiful."
"Thank you," Lila gushed. "So do you and so does Maya. Come here and give me a kiss. It is so lovely to see you. Where are your mother and father? I wish to tell them how pleasing this year's turnout is."
Maya glanced at Jason. Her eyes danced as she gave him a smile. She moved to obey her great grandmother's bidding. As their embrace ended, she said, "Mommy is getting dressed and Daddy isn't here."
She returned to Monica's side. Her gaze returned to Jason. She seemed to want to speak. Monica took her hand and Jason momentarily wished that he could so easily do the same.
"Jason, have you met Maya?" Monica asked. "She's AJ and Keesha's little girl."
He edged from behind Lila's wheelchair. Maya stepped toward him. He squatted so that their eyes were level. "Hello, Maya."
"Hi. You're Michael's Uncle Jason. He talks about you all the time. You have a motorcycle."
He nodded. "Yes and you have a goldfish."
Her mouth dropped open. "How do you know?"
Jason couldn't help but smile at the incredulous look on her face. "Michael told me. He talks about you, too."
Her mouth curved into a grin. Then, she stepped forward and whispered in his ear. "Michael's my best friend and I'm his. It's a secret. Okay?"
A moment passed. Jason inhaled her youthful scent and marveled at the dewy softness of her caramel cheeks. Her dark blue eyes made him pause a second longer. Then, he said, "Okay."
* * *
A heart-shaped diamond pendant glittered like the North Star against her toffee-colored bosom. Dawn's breath caught. She placed her index finger against the precious stone. Her chest heaved with mixed emotions. Words escaped her.
"I don't know what to say." She stared at Stefan's reflection in the mirror. "I don't deserve this. I can't accept it."
Stepping close, he wrapped his arms around her waist. His chin nestled in the curve of her neck. His goatee tickled her. She shivered within his embrace.
"Yes, you do," he replied in a low whisper. "This and so much more."
"Stefan, I don't need this."
"This isn't about what you need, my love." He trailed her neck with kisses. One hand caressed her silk covered midriff. The other cupped her breast. Her heart thudded an erratic beat. His fingertips coaxed her nipple into hardness. He pressed his mouth to her ear. "I love you. The diamond is only a small token of my love."
Her body quivered in anticipation of fulfillment. The benefit was only minutes away. She didn't have time to surrender to his passionate skill even as liquid warmth filled her womanhood and begged for him to give her release.
She closed her hands over his. "You're driving me crazy."
"Madness can be a wondrous state." His teeth nibbled her earlobe.
"Stefan," she moaned. "Please, I can't be late."
He placed a lingering kiss on her cheek. "No, you mustn't."
He released her. She glanced at the mirror. The diamond winked and Stefan's eyes glittered. She turned away and reached for her dress. As she slid into the black backless gown, she felt Stefan's gaze watching her every movement. He had the time to sit back and enjoy his perusal. When she joined him in their hotel suite, she discovered him already looking handsome as usual in a black tux. Her heart raced at the sight of him. Just one look into his emerald orbs and the episode with Nikolas was completely forgotten.
Dawn swallowed hard as she faced him. She moistened her suddenly dry lips with the tip of her tongue. "Before we go downstairs, we need to talk."
"About Nikolas?" he inquired.
Her heart leapt to her throat. All she could muster was a nod.
Stefan held her worried stare. "I know."