Chapter 7


Late night,a restless Stefan turns in bed for the umpteenth time. As is true on many nights, sleep isn't possible. In fact, if truth be told, Stefan could manage easily on just a few hours of sleep a night. This has often been a source of annoyance to anyone who has lived with him.

He looks over at his soon-to-be bride who is sound asleep beside him and brushes a lock of hair from her face. After several minutes of watching her, he rises from bed and puts on his black silk robe . He doesn't need light because he knows every dark nook and cranny of his home; he has roamed it many a sleepless night. It has become practically a nightly ritual to prowl about a darkened Wyndemere alone at this hour. Often he ended up in the living room, glass of wine and a book in each hand, waiting until sleep claimed him in the wee hours of the morning.

Stefan silently slips out of his bedroom, the only sound being the click of the door latch as he closes it behind him. Next, he descends the steps to the living room. To his surprise, he finds someone already occupying it. Nikolas stands in the shadows, looking out of one of the windows, lost in thought. "Nikolas," Stefan says as he arrives at the bottom of the steps. "I did not expect to find you up at this hour."

Nikolas turns from the window to face Stefan. "I couldn't sleep. It must be jet lag or something. But you have no such excuse; I would think you'd be with Rina."

"Rina is sound asleep upstairs and I found it impossible to sleep." Stefan crosses the room to pour himself a drink. "Would you like something? A glass of port?"

"Yeah.. that'd be great."

Stefan goes about the business of pouring them drinks. "Although I am certain you would find sleep more desirable, having your company is infinitely preferable to what I am accustomed to. Countless nights since you left I have walked these floors with nothing but my own morbid thoughts to keep me company." He looks around the room sadly. "This house has been empty too long." Stefan gives Nikolas a meaningful look as he passes him his wine glass.

Nikolas takes a sip while at the same time giving Stefan a guarded look. The last thing Nikolas wants tonight is any disagreement with Stefan... before the wedding, on the night of his return home. Every conversation, every word uttered between them is a potential mine field. Maybe Stefan didn't mean to put pressure on Nikolas, but that's the end result nonetheless. Nikolas knows Stefan wants him home and wants that close suffocating relationship they had had when Nikolas was growing up. And Nikolas can't do that. Not only isn't it healthy, it will lead them to certain disaster. So, in an attempt to keep their conversation from degrading into an rehash of old wounds, he chooses his words carefully. "I am here now. I can't promise anything beyond that."

"I am well aware that coming back to Wyndemere has not been easy for you..." Stefan concedes, putting his hand on Nikolas' shoulder. He looks at the floor as he feels his emotions bubbling up, and says with his voice quaking slightly, "How could either of us forget the night you left Wyndemere? How furious you were with me... how angry you still must be." His voice cracks slightly at the memory and Stefan shakes himself to regain composure. As he had done countless times while Nikolas was growing up, Stefan pats his cheek affectionately. "But you are home now and that is the only thing that matters."

Nikolas tries to speak, but Stefan stops him. "No, please allow me to finish. I have much to say and I fear if I don't say it now, another opportunity won't present itself." Stefan frames Nikolas' face with his hands and stares at him intensely, silently communicating the depth of his love and devotion. "I want you to know I understand why you had to leave. I'll admit, at first I couldn't. But with the passing years, I have been forced to acknowledge that you needed to find your own way, without my 'suffocating influence' as you call it. And, I have been torn. I'll admit at times I wanted you to falter, to reach out for my guidance so we could be as close as we once were. And yet, as you surpassed every expectation I have ever had for you, I felt intense pride. I know now that my Nikolas.." Stefan lowers his voice to a hoarse whisper. "My SON can do anything he sets his mind to."

"Th.. Thank you," Nikolas replies shakily as he blinks back tears that he can't seem to stem. How is it that this man, the man he has at times despised with every fiber of his being, the man he has shunned for years, can still reduce him to tears with mere words? Why is it that this man's opinion still means everything? For the first time in years, Nikolas feels like the needy teenager he was when he arrived in Port Charles rather than the cold ruthless businessman he's become. Why couldn't he just accept the praise Stefan heaped on him?

Breathing in deeply in an attempt to regain his equilibrium, Nikolas realizes he needs some distance or he'll be swallowed up whole. "I... I'm more tired than I realized at first. Would you mind if I...."

Stefan pulls Nikolas into an embrace before reluctantly releasing him. "Certainly. Rina and I will see you in the morning for breakfast? Mrs Lansbury plans on making your favorites."

"I would like that," Nikolas answers, already breathing easier. "I'll see you then."


Breakfast at Wyndemere

"I hadn't realized how much I missed Mrs Lansbury's cooking," Nikolas comments as he dabs his mouth with his cloth napkin. "She's really outdone herself. First, the feast she served us last night, and now this morning."

Stefan leans back in his chair with a satisfied smile. "As you can see, I am not the only one who has missed you, Nikolas. It has been a long time since Mrs Lansbury has had a chance to truly exercise her culinary skill, not to mention pamper you."

"She is a magnificent cook," Rina adds. "I'll have to be careful what I eat or I'm likely to become quite round." She rises from the table. "And with that thought, I hope you two won't be offended if I go have a quick run to burn off this breakfast."

Stefan reaches for her hand and brings it to his lips for a brief kiss. "Go ahead, but I hope you will join me later to make the last minute preparations for our wedding."

"Absolutely, I'm looking forward to it." Rina turns to Nikolas and puts a gentle hand on his shoulder. "I just want to say again how happy I am that you're going to be here for our wedding. I'm really looking forward to getting to know you."

Nikolas and Stefan watch her go in silence. "She seems very nice," Nikolas says finally. "How did you meet her?"

"At a fund raiser for pediatric wing at one of the hospitals in Albany," Stefan explains. "There was something about her that drew me to her and I have been courting her ever since. It took some serious convincing to get her to agree to marry me."

"Why is it so important for you to marry her?" Asks Nikolas. "I mean, why marry now? After all these years... since the fiasco with Katherine, I know you've seen your share of women, but you've never considered marrying. Why now? She doesn't seem all that different from any of the other women over the years. Unless, of course, you stand to gain something by marrying her. That's it, isn't it?" Nikolas challenges.

Stefan fixes Nikolas with an arrogant glare, a glare that says 'how dare you question my motives?' It is a look he often used when Nikolas challenged him as a boy and almost always led to Nikolas backing down in shame. When Nikolas doesn't immediately buckle, Stefan's glare turns into a looks of deep hurt. "How little you must think of me to arrive at such a conclusion."

Nikolas rolls his eyes at Stefan's blatant attempt to emotionally manipulate him. "Come on now, it's just the two of us and I know you better than anyone on this planet. How can I not come to that conclusion? You suddenly decide to marry after all these years? What other reason could you have other than you stand to gain something by marrying her?"

Stefan shakes his head sadly. "It only illustrates how estranged we have been, Nikolas, and how little you know of my life now. My decision to marry Corrine was not a sudden one. On the contrary, the decision came after long and careful consideration by me and Corrine." Stefan gets up and walks to the window to look out as he continues to explain. "As the years have passed, it has become more of a question of why haven't I married. I am weary of wandering this empty house alone.. more and more this house seems like a tomb than a place for the living. Since you left, the solitude has become increasingly oppressive. As for my reason for marrying Corrine as opposed to any of other women, it is quite simple. Not only does she perfectly fit the expectations I have for a wife, she accepts me for who I am."

"Or rather she accepts the facade you show her," Nikolas mutters under his breath quietly enough that Stefan can't hear. When Stefan turns to give him a puzzled look, Nikolas catches himself and raises his voice again. "You don't mention love."

Stefan shakes his head. "Am I in love with her? No, I have learned the painful lesson that marrying for love is not in my future. Every time I have loved a woman or she has loved me, it has ended in unmitigated disaster. I have no desire to marry for love, or for my relationship with Corrine to progress to that point. Friendship and companionship are all I desire."

All this causes Nikolas to shake his head. He doesn't know whether to support this marriage or not, given what Stefan has just told him. "So why is Rina marrying you? Does she know you don't love her?"

"Corrine has been deeply wounded by a man she loved and she has no interest in marrying for romantic love," Stefan explains. "On the contrary, the fact that our marriage won't be based on romantic love is the only reason she agreed to it in the first place. But I know she genuinely cares for me, as I care for her."

A long silence descends as Nikolas attempts to make sense out of Stefan's thinking. Could his father truly be happy in a marriage like this? He fights his worry and pastes on an encouraging smile; the fact remains that Stefan looks happier than Nikolas could ever remember seeing him. Expressing skepticism would only dampen things. "It's obvious that you're very happy, I wish you both well."

 

Chapter 8


The morning is crisp and sunny like the best of September mornings. Rina wanders through the rose garden at Wyndemere, enjoying the quiet serenity. Breathing in deeply and closing her eyes, she clears her mind of all the nervous thoughts that clutter it. She could be happy and at peace here, surrounded by such tranquil beauty; it could be her refuge when she needed to unwind or banish the dark memories that haunt her from time to time. Touching the petals of a delicate yellow rose, she wonders absently if the gardeners would allow her to tend this garden; she's sure it would be therapeutic.

"You like the garden, don't you?"

Rina jumps slightly at the sudden interruption and grabs her chest to catch her breath. She blushes slightly at the cause of the interruption, Nikolas. "You surprised me! You came up so quietly I didn't know you were there until you spoke."

"I'm sorry, you probably wanted to be alone," Nikolas apologizes. "I'll leave you to enjoy the garden."

Rina puts a hand on his arm to stop him. "No, don't go. I was just surprised for a moment. I'd like the company, actually. Would you believe I'm nervous about the upcoming wedding? It probably sounds silly."

Following her over to a nearby bench, Nikolas smiles warmly, charmed by her honest admission. In the times he'd seen her since he arrived, she had been polite and cheerful, but reserved, observing more than participating. A few times he wondered what it would take to break through that reserve, and what she would be like when the social veneer wore off. He much preferred this version of Rina. "No, not at all. I can't think of a more appropriate time to be nervous than about your wedding. When the time comes for me to marry, I'm certain I'll be terrified. I probably won't be able to say my own name without stuttering."

Rina laughs lightly at his self-deprecation. "Oh, I have a hard time imagining you being nervous about much of anything. It seems to me that the Cassadine men have cornered the market on grace under pressure. I admire that about you."

"You seem to have plenty of that grace yourself," Nikolas points out. "I think that's one of the things that drew my... " He catches himself before saying too much. "Uncle to you. Can I ask you a question?"

Rina unconsciously holds her breath, waiting for the inquisition. If Nikolas is going to question her reasons for marrying Stefan, now would be the time he'd ask. "Go ahead, ask away."

"This may be rude to ask, so please forgive me," Nikolas begins hesitantly. "You don't have to answer if you don't want to. But why isn't any of your family going to be present for the wedding?"

"The reason my family isn't coming to the wedding is that I don't have any family to invite," She answers quickly. Uncomfortable with the topic, Rina gets up from the bench and busies herself with admiring the flowers.

Nikolas waits for her to elaborate and when she doesn't, he's puzzled. He can't fathom a reason she would have for not explaining further, but he senses her discomfort and withdrawal from the conversation. Dropping any further questions, he instead smiles empathetically. "I'm sorry, that has to be lonely for you."

Rina tenses instinctively in response to Nikolas' sympathetic response, and recognizes it as an attempt to establish a connection with her. Instantaneously the protective shell of her public persona is in place. She's untouchable, safe, and her voice reflects the distance. "I'm used to it."

Nikolas sees the change in her and recognizes it as a defensive strategy he'd seen at work before, usually by someone had been hurt one too many times. He leaves the bench to join her in admiring the flowers. When he speaks, his voice is soft and undemanding. "You don't have to protect yourself with me, Rina. I'm not here to pass judgment on you or find where your weaknesses are and exploit them. I just want to get to know you better. We're going to be family."

While she's not able to let go of her basic distrust, his kind words put her at ease again. She smiles at him gratefully "Thanks, I think I needed to hear that. As you've obviously guessed, it's not easy for me to trust anyone at first."

Nikolas nods. "I can be patient. I just hope the door's open for us to be friends. Real friends."

Relaxing further, Rina chuckles. "Definitely. As a matter of fact, you've already gotten farther with me today than most people do after months of trying to get to know me."

Nikolas grins. "I'll take that as a compliment."

"It is." Rina becomes serious again. "Now it's time for me to ask you a question."

Nikolas opens his arms wide. "Go ahead. I'm an open book." His eyes twinkle as he adds, "To a point, of course."

"Are you concerned about my taking advantage of your uncle? You know, going after his money, stuff like that." Rina studies him closely for any reaction.

Nikolas' eyebrows arch with surprise. "You mean do I think you're a fortune hunter?" He considers the question for a moment. "No, I don't."

"You're very certain of that," Rina replies. "Why? It's not like I've told you anything about myself. Or even why I'm marrying Stefan. Aren't you curious?"

Nikolas shrugs slightly. "I can just tell that's not what you're about. I've learned a lot about sizing people up in the years I've been away from home. I'm not always right about people and their motives. But I am most of the time." He looks her in the eyes. "Am I curious about why you're marrying my uncle? Sure. Do I need to know to be sure you aren't out to hurt my uncle?" Nikolas shakes his head. "No. I can tell you genuinely care about him. It's in your eyes when no one else is looking, and in your voice when you talk of him. So whatever you're looking for in marrying my uncle, I know it's not money."

Not even aware that she was keeping herself stiff waiting for his answer, Rina visibly sags with relief. Nikolas' opinion is crucial, not only because of how much he means to Stefan, but because in the short time she's come to know him, his opinion means something to her. "Then you approve of us getting married." Realizing how that sounded, Rina blushes. "I'm usually much better with words. What I meant was, do you support us getting married?"

Nikolas takes her hands and squeezes them affectionately. "Yes, I do," He says with conviction. "My Uncle is happier than I've seen him in years, probably ever. And I want that more than anything for him."


................

The Park, the scene of the "crime"

Forcibly shaking off the memories, Emily brings her thoughts back to the
present. She and Nikolas had made love, and that night he'd left Port
Charles to never return. Over the past few years she'd been aware of his
movements from newspaper articles, gossip, whatever she could find. He'd
even been in Paris for a week while she was at the Sorbonne. She'd spent
it holed up in her apartment, too heartbroken and mortified to face him
by chance.

Their lovemaking had been beyond her wildest imaginings. In all of her
youthful daydreams, nothing could touch the kind of intimacy, connection
and sense of belonging she'd experienced in Nikolas' arms. But the
euphoria hadn't lasted very long. One look in his expressive eyes told
Emily everything she needed to know. He'd been ashamed and disgusted
with himself. It was the worst blow to her sensitive soul. She'd wanted
him, loved him and he had just wanted a warm body. Once again the agony
tears through the pit of her stomach.

"Stop it, Emily." She says to herself slowly. "It's over now. It's all in
the past." The words bring her cold comfort. Even though she knows he's
gone, she can feel his presence in the park. Almost suffocating her with
unrequited love and desire. Pushing aside all feelings about the past,
Emily resolves to focus on the future. "I've got Michael to think about.
He needs someone who is centered and living in the here and now. He's
my future. Nikolas is in the past, and that's where he's going to
stay." Emily rises to her feet, preparing to walk away from the park and
leave behind every memory, the pleasant and the unpleasant, for good.

A crunch of pebbles on the path brings Emily's head up, her brown eyes
like saucers at the sight of the last man on earth she ever thought
she'd see. "Nikolas." Sinking heavily to the bench, Emily stares
silently at the grown man before her. He looks so much older. More
handsome than ever, she thinks disjointedly.

His eyes traveling slowly from the young woman's long sable brown hair,
to her gorgeous face, Nikolas' breath catches. He hadn't recognized her
at first. The woman where once only a girl had stood. But now, over the
years the girl had vanished, leaving in her place a beautiful woman.
"Emily? I can't believe it."

Finally steadying herself, Emily rises gracefully from the bench and
moves tentatively towards Nikolas and awkwardly extends her hand. "Hello
Nikolas."

"I can't believe it's you." Ignoring her outstretched hand, Nikolas
quickly pulls her into an embrace. "Emily Quartermaine! After all these
years."

Despite the pounding in her ears and the lump in her throat, Emily
manages to whisper, "It's been a long time."

Setting Emily away from him by an arm's length, Nikolas studies her
carefully. "You look wonderful. You know, I've thought about you often
over the years, wondered what you were doing." Taking in her beauty,
Nikolas answers his own question. "Growing up." Guiding her to a bench,
Nikolas forces himself to release her hand. "I had expected to see you
and Ned and Alexis' wedding."

"I went water skiing the day before I was supposed to come back for the
wedding, and I broke my leg. The doctor wanted to keep me in the
hospital for a couple of days for observation because I'd bumped my head
too."

"I'm sorry to hear that. I trust you are well now?" Feeling an
unfamiliar clenching of his stomach, Nikolas offers his sympathy. "I
heard about your brother and his wife. I am genuinely sorry for your
loss, Emily."

Struggling with an overload of emotions, Emily tries in vain to hold
back a wave of tears. Dashing them away with the back of her hand, Emily
takes a deep breath. "I'm sorry Nikolas. It's just that Jason's death is
still so fresh, and it's been difficult. Add to that where we are right
now, I think I am just tired." She comes to her feet. "I need to get
home. I'm glad to see you back in Port Charles, Nikolas. It's good to see
you home."

Distressed by her sudden flight, Nikolas puts out his hand and catches
her. "Emily. Don't go, not like this."

Emily tries to break free from his hold. "Let me go, Nikolas. I don't
have anything left to say to you."

Closing his grip Nikolas hauls Emily close, unable and unwilling to let
her run off in tears. "Emily." Remembering Ned's words about how stoic
she's become Nikolas begins to speak to her softly. "It's okay, Emily. I
know what it's like to lose someone so important to you, and to feel
like the world is crashing down on your head." Nikolas strokes her hair
using the same tone he'd use to gentle a wild horse. "I know you miss
your brother, and now to be charged with raising his son, it must be too
much for you to bear alone."

Unable to resist the comfort, no matter who is offering it, Emily gives
in and lets deep gut wrenching sobs shake her body. "I miss him so much
I think I'm going to die." She confesses mournfully. "And I just don't
know how I can give Michael everything he needs to be happy."

Nikolas simply holds her tightly and rocks gently back and forth until
the storm of pent up sorrow passes. Lowering his face into her hair, he
sighs sadly under his breath. "I am more sorry than you'll ever know."

Instantly Emily stiffens, her chin coming up stubbornly as she wrenches
herself from Nikolas' embrace. "You never had anything to be sorry
about. NEVER." Wiping discreetly at her eyes, Emily's tone becomes
frosty. "I've always been overemotional and silly. I'm working on it.
Life has a nasty habit of curing a person of over-sentimentality." The
words are too bitter and tired for such a young woman.

"No Emily. Don't ignore your feelings. That's a million times worse than
dealing with them. I've always admired how honest you are with your
feelings. . . ."

"And what has it ever gotten me besides a kick in the teeth, Nikolas?"
Emily laughs with no trace of genuine amusement. "Honesty is overrated."
Running her fingers through her tousled hair Emily meets Nikolas' gaze.
"I can't afford to be an emotional wreck anymore, Nikolas. Michael
depends on me, needs me to be strong for him, steady for him, and most
importantly constant. I don't have the luxury of wallowing anymore."

There is the sound of footsteps on the path as Rinaldo comes into sight.
"Emily? We're supposed to pick Michael up from his grandmother's in 15
minutes." Taking in the scene of an obviously upset Emily with the
confused looking Nikolas, Rinaldo steps up to Emily, and places his hand
on her back. "Ready to go?"

Nodding automatically Emily composes herself admirably. "Yes. Let's go."
The two turn begin to walk down the path, only to have Emily glance back
over her shoulder. "Oh Nikolas. I don't want you to get the wrong idea
about what just happened. I needed someone and you were a warm body."