"What will Stefan's gift to my grandson be?"
Helena listened quietly to the voice on the phone. A smile of genuine pleasure appeared on her face. "Oh, my dear, the irony of it all is just too much . . . Nothing. You have served me well, Spiros."
She placed the receiver back on its base and turned on the antique lamp atop the dresser. Reaching into the top drawer, she pulled out a small square.
"Be patient, my darling Stavros." Helena caressed the worn photograph she held lovingly between her fingers. "Your weakling brother may enjoy a moment of contentment now, but it will not last." She stared at the likeness of her long-deceased elder son. "Stefan, fool that he is, does not realize that he is in the midst of a minefield of my making. Eventually he will take an incorrect step, and one of the many secrets I have planted will blow up in his face." A cruel smile graced her features. "It is just a matter of time."
The Port Charles Grill was almost empty when Diane walked in. The time between the departure of the lunch crowd and the arrival of the early diners gave the staff an opportunity to regroup before things got hectic again. The bartender looked up from what he was doing only long enough to see that the new arrival was being led to a table.
Absently, Diane thanked the waiter and nodded her agreement to whatever his suggestion was. Though she hadn't eaten since breakfast, she was less concerned with her hunger than she was with her failure to successfully connect with Stefan Cassadine. 'That certainly did not go well,' she thought.
Stefan Cassadine had turned out to be somewhat of a puzzle. He had not seem surprised at her claim, yet he didn't show any interest in hearing what she had to say. No matter what the reality of being extremely wealthy was, Diane was sure that a claim such as hers wasn't an everyday thing. Stefan hadn't seemed angry or excited or any of the reactions she had prepared herself for.
She shouldn't have been surprised at the man's complexity, though. All the descriptions she had read simultaneously praised and cursed his nature. Diane recalled reading one particular phrase several times. 'He isn't always a nice man, but he is a good one.' After their brief meeting, she was beginning to understand what that meant.
Stefan Cassadine had been extremely polite - under the circumstances. But Diane had walked away feeling no doubt that under the suave, sophisticated veneer there existed a potential for danger.
"It has begun," Stefan angrily informed Alexis as he strode into the study.
She looked up from the guest list in alarm. "What?! Who?"
"The campaign to disrupt tonight's celebration. Mere moments ago I was approached by a woman named Diane Jennings. She was waiting for me outside the hospital."
Alexis rose from the desk and quickly crossed the room to Stefan's side. "What did she want?"
"She claimed a tie to Andresj'. Miss Jennings said that she was Ariana's best friend, and that Ariana had somehow sent her to me."
"Did she seem rational when she said it, Stefan?"
Stefan dismissed the question impatiently. "The comment was intended as humor, a means of relaxing my guard. It did not disturb me so much as her request that I answer several questions to verify her claim."
"Then perhaps we are not dealing with Helena or Luke."
"That is a matter yet to be determined. I have no admiration for either of them, but I do find it difficult to believe that my mother or Luke Spencer would engineer such a clumsy effort."
"I agree. So should we be comforted by the thought that they may not be involved?"
"It does not matter. Whoever is behind this will pay dearly."
"The Jennings woman is being watched." Alexis sought confirmation from Stefan. It was not a question.
"Ivan is to report to me in one hour. The others are engaged in compiling a dossier on her."
"Is there anything I can do to help while we wait?"
"You have no other job tonight, Alexis, but to assist me in making this birthday one Andresj' will always remember."
Andresj stood before the mirror clad only in a large, white towel wrapped low around his waist. He began to dry the small beads of water that raced down his muscled chest and washboard stomach. "I'll be glad when this part of today is over," he sighed. "I can't think of anything less exciting than a royal performance."
Nikolas shrugged. "Actually, I am looking forward to tonight," he said, leaning against the bathroom door. "This will be the first official Cassadine function I've attended as plain old Nikolas Cassadine and not the Cassadine Heir."
"Do you really think anyone will treat you any differently, Nik?" Andresj' stopped toweling his wet hair to turn and face his brother. "You may not be the Prince anymore, but you are Stefan Cassadine's son. Not to mention that you are still under Helena's protection."
"I suppose that is what makes tonight so interesting," Nikolas answered thoughtfully. "It will be a true test of what my life in the Cassadine universe will be like from now on. So," he straightened, "what did you need from me?"
"Take a look under my pillow."
Nikolas walked to the bed and found an envelope beneath the pillows. He reached inside and withdrew a stack of photographs and papers. After one glance he looked toward the bathroom doorway where Andresj' stood watching.
"Where did you get this?" Nikolas demanded, his voice low.
"It was waiting for me at General Hospital the other day."
"And you never told anyone?!"
"I told you."
"This isn't the kind of thing you keep to yourself!" Nikolas chided. Thrusting the papers toward Andresj', he nodded in the direction of the study. "Go and show these to Father."
"No. Luke or Helena or whoever left it is just trying to get some kind of reaction from me. I won't play along."
"Well, I guess if you won't do it, I will."
"When are you going to stop this foolishness and come back to ELQ?" Edward Quartermaine blustered between bites of salad. "And why am I eating this? If I'd wanted to graze, I would have just wandered out onto my own front lawn." Pushing the salad away, he flagged a waiter and demanded, "Bring me a porterhouse - medium rare."
"Don't pay any attention to him," Justus told the waiter. "His salad is just fine."
The man continued to wait, uncertain about just whose orders he should obey. "Have you worked here awhile?" Justus asked. The waiter gave a quick nod. "Then you should ask yourself whether you want to be the one who answers to Lila Quartermaine about Edward breaking his diet."
"Confound it, man! Come back here!" Edward bellowed to the waiter's rapidly retreating back. "I won't have it!" he banged his fist on the table. "It is bad enough that Lila coddles me, I won't have you doing it, too!"
"Believe me, old man, if it were up to me I would let you order as many steaks as you wanted. But for some reason Lila loves you -"
"She loves you, too, Justus. And I know she would be happy to see you at dinner tonight."
"Sorry, Edward, I have plans."
"Cancel them. You haven't spent anytime at the house lately."
"Lila misses you."
"I will see her at breakfast tomorrow. I promise."
"That's not good enough! You know, ever since you started associating with those wretched Cassadines, you have no sense of loyalty!"
". . .Ever since you started associating with those wretched Cassadines. . ."
Diane was suddenly riveted to the conversation of the two men seated somewhere behind her. She'd heard the name Cassadine mentioned, and none too favorably. Carefully she turned her head in an attempt to get a glimpse of the speakers. All she got was the impression of a dark-colored business suit and a head of fine white hair.
"Edward," the conversation continued, "I can't believe you want to make some kind of moral comparison between the two families!"
"Now, you listen here, young man!"
The waiter chose that exact moment to return with a small tray of appetizers. As he set the tray down and rearranged the table for Diane's convenience, she strained to recapture the conversation she'd been listening to.
". . . dividends for this quarter . . ."
"No, no, no!"
"Is something wrong, ma'am?" the waiter asked, pausing in his attentions to the table.
Diane realized that she had spoken her frustration aloud. "I am sorry," she said. "Thinking out loud, I suppose."
"Very well. I will return shortly for your order."
"Thank you." Perhaps by then, Diane thought, she would have figured out what her next move should be.
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*General Hospital and its characters are not mine. I make no profit from this. The characters Andresj' Cassadine, and Diane Jennings are my creation.*