Arman's presence before him was unusual enough to catch Stefan's attention immediately. He ceased his perusal of the polished saddle before him and gave the patiently waiting employee his undivided attention. “Yes, Arman,” Stefan prodded, “what is it?”
“Forgive my intrusion, Mister Cassadine. There is a matter I must discuss with you.”
Stefan waited for Arman to continue. He seemed to fortify himself to utter something Stefan would not be pleased with. “Is there a problem with security?” Stefan prompted.
“No, sir. There is a situation that has come to my attention. I thought you would wish to handle it.”
Arman took a deep breath. “I have been spending time with little Andresj', Piotr's child. He has no one and the time I spend with him does not detract from my service to you.” The words tumbled from his mouth in a rush.
“That is quite commendable,” Stefan reassured his employee. “I must compensate you for the time you spend.”
“Oh, no!” Arman hastened to explain. “I enjoy my time with him. Andresj' is a bright little lad, and full of questions.” He paused. “Today he asked me what a Moichidios was.”
Stefan froze in disbelief. Moichidios was a Greek deprecation that meant mongrel. “Where did he learn such a word?”
“He would not say. And he became very frightened when I pressed him to answer.”
“Do you have any ideas, Arman?”
The younger man did have his suspicions, but would not share them. Instead he answered indirectly, “No long-time employee who serves you would do such a thing.”
Stefan accepted the response. “Very well. If you should find your suspicions justified, I trust that you will inform me.”
“Of course, Mr. Cassadine. And thank you.”
It was obvious nepotism that enabled Elizabeth Webber to work as a part-time waitress at Ruby's Diner. Her past relationship with Lucky Spencer was all the qualification she needed for the job. In fact, Elizabeth was sure that Luke and Bobbie had created the position just to be able to help her out.
She was grateful to them. Every day she worked a few hours here and there. The money she earned was enough to help replenish her constantly dwindling art supplies.
Ruby's Diner had a regular group of customers who were pretty patient with Elizabeth's inexperience. The only shift that required the expertise of an experienced waitress was the lunch shift. All other times the customers tended to want to slow down their lives and just enjoy the meals.
Elizabeth was working the day's breakfast shift. She enjoyed it best. Other than having to rise quite early on such days, the breakfast hours were the most emotionally satisfying. Lucky's mother, Laura Spencer, would frequently bring his little sister Lesley Lu by the diner. The very sight of the little girl would begin Elizabeth's day off right. She felt most connected to Lucky then. Being in the midst of his family was comforting. Elizabeth liked to believe that Lucky was smiling down from heaven at the sight of his loved ones all interacting.
A huge smile brightened her face as Lesley Lu came skipping into the diner. With strangers the little girl was silent and solemn. But here in the diner she felt at ease enough to reveal her childish exuberance. Elizabeth moved to help the little girl out of her jacket, but one look at Lesley Lu's face and she realized her assistance would not be welcome.
“Good morning!” Elizabeth greeted her after she'd finally struggled out of her coat.
Lesley Lu merely smiled on her way to the family's usual table. “One, two, three,” she counted as she went around the circular table. “There are three places on our table.” Her face lit up. “Daddy's coming to breakfast!”
“No,” Elizabeth corrected her. “Nikolas is.”
Laura, who had entered the diner several steps behind her young daughter, heard Elizabeth's response. “Did you hear that, Lulu? Big brother Nikky will be having breakfast with us!”
For the first time since arriving in Greece, Stefan found himself idle. Up until the present, he had been preoccupied with correcting the paperwork of Andresj's adoption and overseeing details of the family's European holdings.
Andresj', he had been informed, was out riding the estate with several distant Cassadine cousins. Stefan was pleased that his younger son's family ties were being strengthened, so he did not disturb his outing. Yet thoughts of Andresj' were not far from his mind.
Stefan found himself in the east wing. Here in the lushly appointed rooms resided the most favored of staff. The Cassadine family's personal bodyguards as well as the cooks and drivers all made their residence in this particular wing of the estate. The east wing was also Andresj's initial place of residence. Because Stefan believed him to be the orphaned son of his loyal employee Piotr, Andresj' was housed with all the other personal staff.
He pushed open a door, only to be greeted by silence and slightly stale air. These suites of rooms remained empty except for occasions when Stefan returned to Greece bringing his staff along. There had been no cause lately for such a formal visit by the Cassadine Regent. On his current visit Stefan had brought only guards for himself and his younger son.
Stefan moved unerringly through the maze of rooms until he reached one in particular. He stood before the intricately carved wooden door and frowned. It was true that he had not visited this particular room in some time, but still he knew its every detail. Something was not right.
The door to Andresj's room was tightly shut. He could not recall ever seeing it that way. From the first moment Andresj' had come to Stefan's attention, he recalled, the door to his room had been slightly ajar.
Stefan stood just outside the door and watched through the opening as the small child reverently fingered the pages of a well-worn book. He could see the little one's mouth move as though he read the words contained on each page. The child was not much younger than Nikolas and wore his innocence like a cloak.
With a soft warning cough, Stefan pushed the door open. The little lad looked up in fright, a fright that seemed to become terror as the child recognized Stefan's face. Almost desperately the little boy scrambled to his feet, coming to stand rigidly by the bedside. Even from the doorway Stefan could see the pounding of his heart against the thin ribcage.
Stefan was aghast. He was accustomed to the Cassadine name inspiring fear in certain circles. His mother's ruthlessness and his deceased brother Stavros' cruelty had guaranteed that reaction. But Stefan was not prepared for such a reaction from a three-year-old child.
“I will not hurt you, little one,” Stefan reassured him as he moved closer.
His words had no effect. The little boy stood trembling violently before him. What manner of lies had been taught to one so young? Stefan sat upon the bed and pulled the child onto his lap. A little awkwardly he enfolded him with the circle of his arms. He wished to comfort the child, but could not recall his name. So in silence they sat.
Nikolas entered the diner a little cautiously. No matter how many times he had peacefully breakfasted here with his mother and little sister, Nikolas always expected to run into Luke Spencer. Because a confrontation had not happened did not mean that one was not inevitable.
He took a moment to hang up his dark leather jacket on the coat hook near the door. While he did, Nikolas scanned the room. There was no visible plume of smoke coming from the kitchen, so it was safe to assume that the diner was ‘Luke-free'.
The handsome young man walked up behind his mother, who sat alone at their usual table. Softly he placed a hand on her shoulder. “Good morning. Where is my little sister?”
“Good morning.” Laura accepted her son's kiss on the cheek. “Lulu is in the kitchen helping Cook and Elizabeth.” She waited until he had pulled out a chair and taken a seat. “I am glad she is,” Laura began. “I would like a chance to speak to you about something.”
Nikolas was intrigued. Just what was it that was so important his mother wanted to discuss it in private? “Go ahead,” he replied.
“Elizabeth mentioned that you took her out to dinner at a fancy restaurant . . . And you have been spending quite a bit of time together lately.”
“Yes….” His response was wary. “We are friends.”
Laura breathed an audible sigh of relief. “I am so glad to hear you say that.” She reached out and patted Nikolas' hand. “I was so afraid that you might have been developing feelings for Elizabeth. I just didn't want you to get hurt.”
“Why would I get hurt?”
His tone was the neutral one that Nikolas used most often in his dealings with his mother. It was an unrevealing tone that frustrated Laura. When she heard it, she knew that some word or deed on her part had caused her son's defenses to snap into place. “Elizabeth is a wonderful girl, and no one would blame you for becoming attracted to her,” Laura hastened to explain. “It is just that Elizabeth will always belong to your brother. Lucky was one of a kind, and what they shared can't be repeated.”
Gradually the little boy had grown calm. He was still wary of Stefan and held himself frozen against the older man.
“There. I am not so bad. . . Andresj'.” At last the name popped into Stefan's head. “I only wanted to talk awhile.”
The little one peered doubtfully up into Stefan's face. “You did not come to take me to the gypsies?” he asked fearfully.
“Never! Did someone tell you I would?”
Andresj' dipped his head. “Noisy boys get eaten by gypsies,” he replied, obviously parroting someone else. “The Cassamines don't like noisy boys.”
“Well,” Stefan smiled despite himself, “I am a Cassadine , and I don't mind noisy boys at all. In fact, I rather like them. They make wonderful friends.” He tilted the little boy's face upward until their eyes met. “Shall we be friends?”
A tiny nod was Andresj's response. “Does that mean I can touch your horse?” the little boy added shyly.
“You know which horse is mine?” Stefan was intrigued.
“Yes. Arman lets me look. He says I can't touch him, though.”
“Tomorrow,” Stefan promised, “I will take you for a ride.” The look of wonder on Andresj's face nearly shamed him. Such a small thing to bring such pleasure to a child with no family to call his own.
“Master Stefan!” A gasp from the doorway startled both Stefan and Andresj'. Stefan turned to see Andresj's English nanny standing in the doorway with her hand upon her heart. She had been hired to care for Andresj until a suitable family could be found.
“Oh, my! I do hope Andresj' has not done anything to cause your displeasure.”
“No. We were merely becoming acquainted, Miss Wallace.” Stefan's intense scrutiny seemed to agitate the young English woman. Two red spots colored her cheeks and she would not meet his gaze.
“In that case, I am sure you have much more important things to do,” Jane Wallace insisted. “I will take charge of Andresj' now.” She realized how impertinent her statement sounded and tried to amend it. “It is, after all,” she simpered, “his bedtime.”
“Indeed,” Stefan remarked. “Then you may have the rest of the evening off. I shall see to it that young Andresj' is properly prepared for bed.”
“I assure you, I am quite capable of caring for a little one such as this.” Stefan's voice was icy. “You are dismissed.”
The nanny reluctantly left. She attempted to catch the attention of her young charge as she did, but Andresj' was burrowed deeply within Stefan's arms.
“Come,” Stefan coaxed the little one, “I will help you prepare for bed.” Despite his desire to share such experiences with Nikolas, Helena had ensured that such opportunities were rare, if at all. In truth, Stefan was not exactly sure all that preparing a young child for bed entailed.
He was sure, however, that something was amiss with the English nanny. Her appearance had triggered in Andresj' another fit of violent trembling. Stefan was determined to find out why.
Answers were not long in coming as he raised the little boy's shirt to reveal a large ugly bruise across his back.
“Elizabeth will always belong to your brother…”
Lucky was dead and still Laura put his brother's happiness above Nikolas'. The uncharitable thought had not been completed before Nikolas berated himself mentally. Lucky had been his younger brother, not some casual acquaintance. Instead of pouting and complaining that their mother loved Lucky best, he should just be grateful for the relationship he and Laura had.
Laura's comment about Elizabeth should not have bothered him. They really were just friends. Yes, at one time Nikolas had believed himself to be in love with his brother's girlfriend. It had not taken much introspection to see that what he was in love with was the idea of being Lucky. Or more specifically, the idea of being his mother's favorite son.
It seemed that nothing Nikolas did could change the basic truth of his relationship with Laura Spencer. Nikolas was her ‘other son'. And he always would be. Could he learn to live with that?
Nikolas had once heard someone say that all parents love their children differently. Not better or worse, just differently. Maybe that was the case with Laura and himself. Perhaps his mother was trying to love him, and his jealousy of her relationship with Lucky would not let him accept the love she tried to give. Despite what everyone else in his life insisted, maybe the fault did not lie with Laura. Maybe her failure to love Nikolas like he wished was truly not her failure at all. Laura had, of late, made the effort to be there for him. Perhaps it was time for Nikolas to stop pointing fingers her way. Perhaps it was time to take a good hard look at himself.
*General Hospital and its characters are not mine. I make no profit from this. The characters Andresj' Cassadine, and Diane Jennings are my creation.*