Chapter 25

"Meeting you awakened me. I lived my life in the dark. When we met, I was on the road to self-discovery. It was no accident that I encountered you on that journey."

Stefan moved the vase of red and white roses to the floor and reached across the table to take Dawn's hand. Demanding complete privacy and a romantic setting, he reserved a suite at the Port Charles Hotel. Candlelight cast a warm glow on the woman who sat across from him. For weeks, tension darkened her disposition. Stefan knew the source, and he knew that ultimately the decision was hers.

And she had made it.

"I can't believe how we met," she said softly. "It was unreal. Random."

He shook his head. "Nothing in life is random. Everything has a purpose. Including this." He took the small, black velvet box from the pocket of his suit jacket.

A surprised gasp came from her parted lips. Stefan acknowledged the wonderment in her eyes and smiled. "Yes. I cannot imagine waking up without you next to me. You helped me reclaim the joy in my life. I have been rigid, demanding and controlled."

She arched an eyebrow. "Have been?"

He released a low, husky laugh. "Perhaps, I still am at times, but with this ring, I promise you a lifetime of love, passion and poetry." With a flick of his thumb, he opened the box. The seven-carat diamond glittered dangerously. He plucked the ring from its nest of black velvet and held it between them. "This is only a small symbol of my love for you. A precious stone for you are more precious to me than any other I've ever known. A platinum circle because my love has no limits. I want you in my life, Dawn. I want you as my wife. Will you marry me?"

A single word dictated his future. Stefan inhaled a quick, sharp breath, waiting. Unlike his previous marriage proposals, he harbored no ulterior motives. This one was simple. True. Few received second chances. Fortune, luck or fate decided he deserved one. But only if her answer was in the affirmative.

She gave him her hand. Tears rolled down her honey brown cheeks. "I love you, Stefan. Yes, I'll marry you. Yes!"

!*!

"If anyone other than you or Mrs. Quartermaine engage in contact with Maya, I am to call the authorities immediately." Ellen Wood, the principal at the elementary school took note.

"No," AJ said, causing the woman to stop writing and look at him. "You are to contact me. Here's a card with my cell number."

Crimson dotted the school administrator's cheeks. She accepted his card, stared at it before fixing her worried gaze on first AJ and then Keesha. "Has their been a threat? We have security guards. I can let them know what to look for."

AJ sensed his wife's distress. Taking her hand, he continued to speak for their family. "We're just concerned about Maya's safety--"

"Has something happened at school that I'm not aware of?"

"No," Keesha responded, her voice hoarse from a night of crying. "Nothing here. It's a private matter."

"I understand," the woman said. "I'll be sure to inform her teachers."

AJ stood. Keesha, still clutching his hand, rose from her seat.

"If there's anything else I can do, please let me know." The principal walked them to the door of her office.

"We will," Keesha said. "Thank you for your help."

"Are you sure you want to do this?" AJ asked as he drove Keesha to the university for her morning classes. "You didn't sleep at all. Missing today won't hurt."

"And if I don't go to class, what will I do?" she asked. "Sit around and think about what's going to happen. That's what I did last night."

"You could join me at CSF or we could take the day off."

She shook her head. "I promised Sly that I'd look over his rough draft."

"He'll understand if you're not feeling well."

She looked at AJ. "Running won't solve a damn thing. I have half a mind to go to Jason and ask him what the hell he wants. But I already know."

AJ parked near the Student Union. Students of all ages trekked to and fro. Before Jason's visit, Keesha was like them. Eager to learn, hungry for her degree. But that light was gone from her eyes. Now, she just went through the motions. He hoped not for long.

"Everything will be fine." He cupped her cheek with his hand. "I promise."

He leaned toward her and pressed his lips to her. She returned his kiss, clinging to him. Then, she quickly pulled away, grabbed her bag and exited the car. Through the open window, she said, "I'll meet you at Maya's school this afternoon. Have a good day."

He gave her a tight smile. "I'll try."

AJ sat in the car. His gaze followed Keesha as she moved purposefully up the cobblestone walkway to her class. Others moved behind and around her. He watched them, too. After he was satisfied that she was okay, he headed across town to Charles Street.

As he pulled in to his reserved space, chrome and steel blinked at the corner of his eye. Tension knotted his gut. He switched off the ignition and jumped from the car in one fluid motion.

"You've got a lot of nerve coming here!" AJ's hands balled in to fists. Instinct to protect warred with common sense. He couldn't very well beat the shit out of Jason in CSF's parking lot.

"You kept them from me," Jason said. His jaw clenched. Dark blue eyes radiated with aggression. "I had a right to know."

"What?" AJ's eyebrows shot up. "A right? You gave up your rights a long time ago."

"When? I didn't know. Nobody told me."

"You didn't want to know. You were too busy pushing everybody away." AJ moved to stand just inches from Jason's face. "But some people you didn't just push. Keesha, you shoved. You threw her away like she wasn't fit to change your sheets. Like she was nothing. You stupid, arrogant bastard. You did that, and now, you want to talk about your rights. Fuck your rights, Jason. You don't have any."

Color drained from Jason's face. His mouth hardened into a thin line. "Don't push me."

"You've got that wrong." AJ's eyes narrowed. His lips barely moved. "Don't push me."

"Is everything okay?"

AJ turned at Dawn's voice. She stood in the back doorway. Her hand clutched a cordless phone. He wondered whom she'd call. Probably the police. He definitely didn't want them involved. Forcing himself to relax, he nodded. "Everything's fine. I'll be inside in a minute."

She glanced at the other man. Her expression unreadable, she looked at AJ. "Okay."

"You don't have to protect them from me," Jason said in the silence after Dawn left.

AJ didn't speak. He retrieved his briefcase from the back seat. After locking his car and setting the alarm, he brushed past Jason.

"We can work something out," Jason said, his voice strained.

AJ paused at the back entrance to CSF. "No. Everyone's made compromises and concessions for you. Me. Keesha. The family. It stops with Maya. You won't disrupt her life. She's a wonderful little girl who deserves a wonderful life. For once in your life, be selfless."

"She should know the truth."

AJ's grip on the briefcase handle tightened. "She does. She knows she has a mother and a father who love her. Always have, always will." He turned his back and grabbed the doorknob with his free hand. Without turning around, he said, "Leave it alone, Jason. You had your chance and you blew it. Walk away before someone gets hurt."

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