Chapter 23

She sat on the shore. Her feet crossed at the ankles. Every time the tide rolled in, it came within just inches of wetting her heels. She never moved or outwardly conveyed that the water worried her. Wisps of dark brown hair whipped around her head. Even the cool Spoon Lake breezes did nothing to disrupt her concentration.

Watching her, Nikolas longed to be the paper she held, rapt by its every word. He ached to be the source of her concentration. He would give almost anything to go back in time. Leaving her on that dance floor had been the biggest mistake of his life.

He moved carefully down the slope toward her. If she were aware of his presence, she didn't show it. Her lips moved with the words. Her hand clutching the paper trembled slightly. He hesitated a few feet from her. Perhaps now was not the best time.

"What?" Dawn acknowledged him without tearing her gaze from the paper.

"I've made a mistake."

"Do I want to hear this?" She released a loud, dramatic sigh. She set the paper on her lap and held it in place with her hand. Another wave tumbled in.

"Possibly." He pointed to a space beside her. "May I?"

"You own this place. You can sit anywhere you please."

"But if I sit, will you leave?"

"That's a chance you'll have to take."

"I've taken enough of those to last me a lifetime," he answered. "I'd like for you to stay."

"Okay. I will…until you force me to leave."

He gave her a faint smile. "I will be on my best behavior."

Nikolas crossed his legs under him. His elbows rested on his thighs. He resisted the urge to ogle and stared at the lake instead. At times, the depth of the water appeared murky at best. Today wasn't one of those times. As the sun prepared to set, the water reflected the yellow-orange ball's warm glow. Another thing Nikolas missed.

"Kenyatta hasn't returned to the Foundation."

"He's upset with me," he confided. "We've talked. When he forgives me, he'll return."

Her jaw tightened. "He's only hurting himself."

"I know." Nikolas nodded. "I told him. He heard me, but he's not ready to listen."

"Will you be there when he is?" She turned to look at him then.

"I don't plan on being anywhere else."

"This game you're playing is harmful. Kenyatta cares about you. He looks up to you. Don't use him as a pawn."

He stiffened. Her words cut him to the quick. Her accusations were valid. Still, they stung. "I'm not."

"You're lying."

Nikolas shook his head. "No, not now. I volunteered there because…"

"Of me," she said. "I know."

"Yes." He couldn't deny the truth. "But I stay because I'm doing good. I haven't since I volunteered at GH. That was years ago. I was young then. I understood, but it's different now."

"You want me to ask why," she said after a moment of silence passed between them.

Her insight was damn near frightening. He refused to let it show. "I wouldn't mind."

"It's none of my business," she said. "If I give you a grape, you'd try for the entire bunch. This isn't good and I can't take much more. I'm leaving Wyndemere."

"Because of me?" He tried, but hope lifted his voice.

She erased those hopes with a shake of her head. "Because of Stefan. I love him and I don't want to lose him."

"I'd rather you stay. I want us to be friends."

"I don't think that's possible," she said.

"But it's not impossible--"

"You sound so sincere. What is this? A new tactic? Strike when my guard's down?" She glanced at the paper still clutched in her hand. "Do you want me, Nikolas?"

His mouth parted. Verbal communication escaped him. He didn't know what to say. The truth would only make things worse. Besides, didn't she already know?

"Your silence answers for you. Are you prepared to live with the consequences of having me?"

"What do you mean?"

"Stefan knows you far better than you can imagine and he loves you anyway. He would only betray you to save you. You've betrayed him for reasons all your own. He would forgive you as he's always done, but would you be able to look at yourself in the mirror? Are you without conscience?"

He stiffened. "I love my father. That's why I approached you today."

"To tell me you love him."

"No, to prove it." He paused a moment. "I won't interfere with your relationship with him."

"I don't know what to say." Her voice sounded hollow, echoing with disbelief.

"Actions will speak louder than words." He stood and headed toward the slope. There was one last thing he wanted to know before he walked away. "What are you reading?"

"A poem by Stefan," she said. "He wrote it for me. It's beautiful."

"Would you read your favorite line?"

"I would give my world to lift you up. I would change my life to better suit your moods."

Nikolas smiled. "He loves you."

"I know. I love him back."

[Stefan's poem is a line from Santana/Rob Thomas's 'Smooth.']

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