The Place reeked with a quiet ambiance. It also reeked of money and affluence. Dark, polished wood furniture and pure linen tablecloths lent an aura of sophistication far beyond the average eatery.
There were no casual diners in attendance, no drop-ins fresh off the street. Each person seated within The Place had either reserved that night's right to dine there, or had earned a permanent right of admittance by previous patronage.
Such was the case for Nikolas Cassadine. Since moving to Port Charles from Greece, he and his family had often dined at The Place. His father, Stefan, preferred it over any of the restaurants of Port Charles. Its exclusivity and well-deserved reputation for discretion were major considerations for its wealthy clientele.
Nikolas had chosen to dine at The Place because it held no unpleasant associations for him. Or his guest. The dining establishments of Port Charles all conjured up thoughts that neither wanted to deal with at the moment. For one night they had agreed to try and escape without guilt.
In that spirit, Nikolas had chosen to alter his somber style of dress, something he had unwittingly adopted over the last months. Tonight his traditional black pants were topped by a long-sleeved camel colored shirt. Subdued though the color was, on Nikolas it was virtually festive.
Silently he pulled a chair from beneath the table to which they had been led. Nikolas allowed Elizabeth to sit comfortably before guiding her chair into place.
“Thank you,” the young woman murmured.
Like Nikolas, Elizabeth Webber had made a conscious effort to liven up her wardrobe. In her case, it was the addition of a gaily patterned scarf which she wore tied loosely about her neck. “This is nice,” she noted. “I've never been here before.”
“Father prefers it here. I thought it might be a nice change of pace.” Nikolas idly glanced around the room. As usual, the other diners were strangers to him, a fact which filled him with relief. There would be no chance encounters with any of the denizens of Port Charles, no awkward conversations where realization of his bond with Elizabeth quickly elicited looks of pitied understanding.
That had been perhaps the most difficult aspect of their friendship; constantly seeing the sorrowful expressions on the faces of their friends and associates as they realized that what bound he and Elizabeth together was their love for, and grief over, Lucky Spencer.
Lucky was Nikolas' half-brother, and Elizabeth's boyfriend. He'd perished in a fire not long ago, and the wounds were still raw for both young people. Nikolas mourned the opportunity for a relationship with his brother, while Elizabeth mourned the loss of a love she thought was forever.
The very sight made him seethe within. Stefan's youngest, Andresj', sat in a corner of the room at the smallest of the tables. Yet it was as though the young man held court from a throne. The servants, particularly the young female servants, fell over themselves to do his bidding.
One young woman almost reverently placed a tray of freshly sliced cheeses before Andresj'. Her gaze followed his hand as ‘Dre lifted a small piece to his mouth and tasted it. Julian watched as his young cousin flashed an easy smile that caused the young serving girl to duck her head and blush madly. She was, Julian thought, nearly a perfect example of what the prose writers meant when they declared someone ‘besotted'.
It was sickening.
The slightest ripple of whispers caught his attention. Turning his gaze to the door, Julian saw something that made him straighten up with interest. There in the doorway, looking as regal and cool as ever, was the acknowledged matriarch of the Cassadine family, Helena Cassadine.
Like radar, her attention turned to the corner where her young grandson sat. Obviously, he too had heard the hushed whispers, for he rose from his seat and began to make his way to the doorway where she stood. Gone was the casual grace Julian had come to associate with young Andresj'. Now he moved with the stiff formality of a courtier. For Julian, it was a pleasant thing to behold. Such behavior was most fitting for a Cassadine male. Perhaps Stefan had not been as derelict in his teachings as Julian thought.
As Andresj' crossed the room under the watchful eyes of the various family members assembled, Julian was forced to admit that the young man seemed impervious to their curiosity. His gaze was riveted to Helena, who stared fixedly back at him. It was as though his actions were in question and she alone stood in judgment.
Without a single glance at the man who stood at Helena's side, Andresj' moved beside her and extended his arm. Gracefully, Helena placed her fingers atop his bent arm. Diamonds and precious gems of major proportions sparkled madly as sunlight bounced off the rings adorning her fingers.
There was no denying where everyone's attention was focused. Julian glanced quickly around the massive room to see all eyes fixed upon Helena and Andresj' as they made their way to the table directly in the center of the room. Like the royalty she gave every impression of being, Helena allowed her young grandson to seat her before motioning to him. Obediently, Andresj' bent gallantly at the waist and kissed the cheek she presented to him.
If there were any doubters in the room before Helena entered, there were none now, Julian observed. Helena had once again publicly acknowledged Andresj' as being under her protection. It was a significant gesture in light of the family's rumblings about Stefan's latest legal maneuver. Julian suspected that Helena was less concerned with showing her affection for Andresj' than she was in showing the family that any attempt to bypass her in the family hierarchy would be a grave undertaking. Knowing Helena as he did, Julian suspected it might be a fatal one as well.
“I still have a hard time believing this,” Elizabeth whispered. She looked around the room as though she suspected the restaurant staff of watching their table.
Nikolas smiled despite himself. “Most rules don't apply here,” he said.
“Yes, but we are underage!”
“Elizabeth, the maitre d' merely offered us a bottle of wine. Yes, I know,” he added, “it is illegal here for a place of business to serve wine to people our age. But you have to realize that my circumstances are a little unusual.” Nikolas shrugged. “Until a short time ago, I was a prince. I have been groomed since the age of five to properly appreciate the finer things life has to offer.”
Across the table, Elizabeth listened to Nikolas' matter-of-fact declaration. She was always amazed at how he could speak so casually about something so incredibly out of the ordinary. It was not that he took his heritage for granted, she thought. It was that he had somehow remained such a wonderful person.
“I had my first proper glass of wine at age eleven,” Nikolas recounted. “We were dining with the Sultan of Oman, who had presented our family a case of very rare Le Pin wine. Actually, he gave it to my grandmother. I think the Sultan was attracted to her,” he shrugged. “Still, he insisted on having a bottle with dinner, so…” His handsome face broke into a smile. “Dre' was so angry that he did not receive a glass. He seethed through the entire meal. I, on the other hand, could not understand why anyone would want to drink something that burned so going down!” The smile that curved Nikolas' full mouth was a pleasant sight for Elizabeth to see. Since losing his half-brother Lucky, such genuine enjoyment appeared to be a stranger to Nikolas.
Elizabeth understood all too well the pain that Nikolas felt. Lucky had been her first love. And her true love. The sorrow she felt for him was a constant and unrelenting companion. She believed that she would spend the rest of her life grieving him.
That was a future she did not want Nikolas to have.
“This trip has not been very enjoyable for you.” Helena broke the silence which had existed from the moment Andresj' sat across from her at the table.
“I am sorry, Grandmother?” The young man feigned ignorance. “I am afraid I don't understand your comment.”
Helena's facial expression made it clear that she recognized her grandson's attempt to sidestep her observation. Nonetheless, she began to elaborate. “Your time here in Greece has been spent either in the offices of the Ministry, or wandering the halls of the family estate. What is your father's reasoning for keeping you so close at hand?”
“This was not a pleasure trip,” Andresj' acknowledged. “Father explained that to me from the onset. He wishes to correct the legal paperwork that was filed during my adoption.” Andresj' tried not to show his discomfort with their current conversation. He had learned at an early age that an ability to mask his emotions was vital when dealing with his enigmatic grandmother. “It is important that I remain accessible should my presence be required.”
“Is that the justification for not allowing you to visit the farm where you spent the first years of your life?”
Andresj' knew that he shouldn't have been surprised by the scope of his grandmother's knowledge. But once again she had managed to throw him off-guard. Where did she get her information? Andresj' was sure that neither Arman or Anton would have shared the story of how ‘Dre had been turned away by his father from a visit to his childhood home. So how…?
With satisfaction Helena watched the confusion flash across her grandson's face. He had not mastered the art of concealing his emotions, a fact for which she was occasionally grateful. “Did your father bother to explain why you could not even take the flowers you picked and lay them on the land?”
A movement just over his shoulder distracted Andresj' from answering. He looked up to find Julian Luna standing beside the table. The Cassadine cousin, ever elegant as usual, was adorned in his usual dark suit. Today's variation was a stylish black Nehru cut that was in direct opposition to the casual white cable sweater and slacks that Andresj' wore.
“Julian.” Andresj' politely rose and extended his hand in greeting.
The older man chose to overlook the gesture. He did not attempt to disguise that his business was with Helena alone. “Helena,” Julian nodded respectfully to her as an insulted Andresj' resumed his seat. “Perhaps you might find time to meet with me tomorrow.” He got straight to the point. “There are family matters I would like to hear your opinion on.”
“Of course,” Helena agreed. “Breakfast tomorrow?”
Julian had taken several steps away when he heard Helena's refined voice utter his name. Curious, he turned back toward the table where she sat. The silence in the room was absolute as all assembled strained to catch their interaction. “Yes, Helena?”
She did not raise her voice, but its power seemed to bounce off the very walls. “Do not ever disrespect my grandson again.” With that very public reprimand, Helena turned her attention back to her meal. And Andresj.
*General Hospital and its characters are not mine. I make no profit from this. The characters Andresj' Cassadine, and Diane Jennings are my creation.*