Royal Portrait

It wasn't as awkward as she thought it would be. They'd both been surrounded by so many people that an opportunity for private conversation never came up. She had become renown, thanks to the word of mouth that had spread when the pictures had been hung. Now she had a whole assortment of assistants even though she did all the actual photography herself.

The new Prince, she could see, was almost smothered by security staff, and other assorted flunkies. The Royal Photographer regretted her uncharitable thought. She didn't know the people who now served The Cassadine Prince. True, she did recognize one or two of them. Like the stern faced man who shadowed Nikolas' every move. Or the beaming older lady who stood so subserviently near the buffet table in the rear of the room. They were, undoubtedly, faithful to their new Prince.

"Prince Nikolas," Dom prompted deferentially, "we may begin if you are ready."

All noise and activity in the room ceased. Everyone, including Dom's assistants, turned to hear the Prince's reply. A single nod of his head was Nikolas' only response.

His retinue cast quick glances at one another. Their Prince had shouldered the mantle of leadership admirably in the wake of the tragedy that had thrust him to power. But it was obvious to all that he was in pain. Who did a monarch turn to when all his royal family was gone?

Through her camera's lens, Dom traced the lines of sadness etched upon Nikolas' face. This man was not the man she'd known so intimately that night years ago. This was not the face of the man who had worn those silly shorts as a symbol of his openness to her.

Her breath caught. Even as Dom reflected on him, Nikolas angled his gaze directly into the camera's eye. And into her soul, it seemed. For in that moment she saw him clearly. The gentle soul who had made love to her and with whom she'd made love.

A wave of longing hit her. The photographer pulled back hastily from the camera. Grabbing blindly, she picked up the first piece of equipment she could and pretended to consult it. After a moment, she returned to her place behind the camera, satisfied that her emotions were in check.

There was no question that the small glimpse he'd allowed her was now gone. Prince Nikolas did not even twitch as he sat awaiting her directions. Taking the royal portrait would be all business from here on in.

The throne room of the castle in Vaduz was not exactly what Dom would have chosen as a location for the first official portrait of Prince Nikolas Mikhail Stavrosovich Cassidine. It was dark and dank and gloomy, and based upon the local gossip she'd heard, a very fitting metaphor for his demeanor.

Nikolas sat and watched indifferently as the royal photographer positioned her equipment. 'Royal Photographer'. Gods, his thoughts were beginning to sound as pompous as his words. Had he changed so much, so quickly?

He had made love to that woman behind the camera. He had shared not only his body, but a piece of his soul. And yet he sat before her a stranger. What was happening to him, he wanted to cry out in despair.

One look at the faithful retainers who surrounded him, and Nikolas knew that there never again be an opportunity for weakness. The memory of their night together would be all that he had left, just like the memories of his father and Aunt, and even his grandmother.

The photographer read each emotion as it flitted across his face. Prince Nikolas' beautiful countenance was so expressive that she did not understand how his 'people' could not tell that he was dying inside. Perhaps years of making a living examining faces had sharpened her insight. Or perhaps it was simpler than that.

She had been privileged to see a part of him that she dared say no one else and seen. Dom knew, also, that no one would ever see that part again. Not even the woman fortunate enough to become his wife.

Though she sincerely hoped otherwise, she did not think that the woman who became Nikolas' wife would own his heart. He was already closed off to everyone around him. How much harder would he be in a year or two?

The photographer could not let that happen. She and Nikolas did not share a great love, but she did love him. She'd had the one great love of her life in Thomas. No one could ever replace that. But she could help him.

Clearing her throat, she addressed him informally. "Nikolas, I want to do something different."

There was a collective gasp from those assembled. Royal photographer or no, to address His Highness by his given name was not a courtesy extended to commoners.

Momentarily thrown off guard, Nikolas hesitated. Protocol dictated that he correct Dom's casual address of him. But he found he could not. Not since his family's death, had *anyone* addressed him as plain old Nikolas. It was always Prince Nikolas, or The Cassadine, or His Highness. The sound of his name from her mouth was like a balm to his soul.

He stood abruptly as tears threatened to overflow from his eyes. He hadn't realized until this moment how much he missed having someone know him well enough to call him Nikolas. Someone who looked past all the trappings and just saw him. "Leave us," he commanded as forcefully as his shaky voice would allow.

Exchanging glances among themselves, they reluctantly left.

All but the photographer.