A well-manicured, bejeweled hand momentarily grasped the larger one which offered assistance. The other hand carefully held up the hem of an elegant gown as she and her accomplice traversed the underground passage. Stepping delicately over a slick, moss-covered patch of rock, the woman seemed out of place in the murky surroundings. After several minutes of travel, they reached the passage's end.
"Shall I accompany you within, Madame?" he asked reverently.
"No. Wait for me here," Helena commanded.
"But how will I know if Madame needs assistance?"
Her nails raked his cheek lightly. "I will be in no danger, my dear boy. Stefan is not here, and the others do not dare make a scene by having me removed." Helena kissed Spiros' lips passionately. It was a unspoken promise of future reward for his concern.
Alexis wasted no time getting to the point. "Stefan has been delayed." At Nikolas' look of alarm, she hastened to reassure him. "He is fine, but whatever he is handling will take some time.
"Is it the file I showed him?"
"He didn't go into details. He only instructed me that we are to start the bacchanalia without him."
"How will it look for the head of the family not to be present at an event he is hosting?" Nikolas asked.
"I don't think anyone will wonder about it for very long. They will be too busy observing the next head of the family in action."
"Me? You want me to begin the bacchanalia?"
Alexis nodded. "Your father suggested it and I agreed."
"Don't you think it would make more sense for you to address our guests? Everyone knows that you are Father's advisor and confidante."
"Thank you." Alexis appreciated his recognition of her unofficial position in the family hierarchy. "But this is an opportunity for you to begin establishing your future as The Cassadine." Anticipating his response, she argued softly, "Nikolas, I know that you have no regrets about not being the Heir. But that is no reason to burn bridges you may find you need in the future."
Accepting the wisdom of his aunt's words, Nikolas squared his shoulders and made his way through the throng to find the guest of honor.
The most wonderful thing has happened! I am sorry. I know that I should at least ask about you first. But you will excuse my poor manners when you hear why I am so excited.
I am pregnant! Yes, that is right. PREGNANT! I never thought that I would be able to say those words. You know that. But the doctors were wrong, Diane. Wrong!
"Alyse was so certain that she could not bear children."
"All the doctors told her so," Diane explained. "They said that the damage from the accident caused a lot of internal scarring. I always believed that hearing she'd never have children was the straw that broke her back."
"Stefan," Justus interrupted, "I know that there are questions you would like answers for. And I am sure that Diane will be able to answer some. But in the meantime, you are missing your son's birthday celebration."
"This is true, Justus." Stefan stood and gathered up his briefcase. "Miss Jennings, I would be honored to offer you the hospitality of my home. I am aware that you may not have come prepared to attend a formal occasion such as tonight's bacchanalia, but I assure you that as my guest your attire will be inconsequential."
"That is a very generous offer, but I would really feel out of place."
"Say yes, Diane. Wyndemere is filled with nooks and crannies where you can observe the festivities unseen." Justus extended his hand to her. "I will do my duty, say my ‘hellos', and then spend the rest of the evening as your official guide to Who's Who in Port Charles."
Coming to a quick decision, Diane nodded. "Let's go, then."
"Wow! And I thought my family overdid things!"
Andresj' spun around in delight. "Em! I am so glad you came." He enveloped Emily Quartermaine in a warm hug. Pushing her away slightly, he examined her from head to toe. "You look beautiful, by the way."
"Thank you, kind sir."
"You look lovely as well, Elizabeth."
Elizabeth Webber gave a small quiet smile in response. She didn't seem to say much. Andresj' wondered what she had been like before the loss of Nikolas' brother Lorenzo. Lucky, they called him. According to Em, Elizabeth and Lucky were the match of all matches. Romeo and Juliet, Jack and Rose of the Titanic. Those were Emily's exact words. Andresj' chose not to point out that those relationships had also ended in tragedy.
Sliding an arm around her waist, Andresj' gave her a gentle squeeze. Emily had quickly become his closest new friend in Port Charles. He hoped that would never change.
Fighting to conceal the excitement she felt at Andresj's touch, Emily observed, "There must be something here for everyone."
"Not everyone. Papa drew the line at having trays of grape pixy sticks circulating through the crowd."
"Good thing, too," came a voice from behind the group. "Those things are nothing but pure sugar."
"I believe that is why Father's exact words were 'No. Absolutely not!'"
Nikolas escorted Keesha up to the group of friends. "Andresj'," he addressed his brother, "we are ready to begin. Will you ladies excuse us?"
Coffee. Check. Fresh-squeezed orange juice. Check. Fresh fruit. Check. Croissants. Check. Everything was there. The young waiter sighed in relief. Another morning he would be on time, and have all that he was supposed to.
Not that it seemed to matter. The slender, dark-haired woman was never satisfied. He hated serving her in the best of circumstances. She was condescending and quick to anger. The young waiter guessed she was rich. Or powerful. She was always on the phone, wheeling and dealing with parties unknown. From the tone of her voice, she was the one with the upper hand.
Heaven help anyone she was out for. Like some guy named Justice, whose name came up in just about every call he overheard.
Alexis watched the scene unfold with mixed emotions. It was obvious to anyone in attendance that Stefan had spared no expense for tonight's celebration. Excess was not unusual for the Cassadine family. But there had been only one other bacchanalia in the last century to rival tonight's event. And that had been Nikolas'.
There was, of course, some curiosity when it became obvious that Nikolas and Andresj' would begin the bacchanalia without Stefan. But her two nephews stood before the assemblage of guests with all the poise and self-confidence that centuries of breeding had borne.
Nikolas represented his father well. His normally soft-spoken voice had been tinged with authority as he formally welcomed those gathered. In spite of all his protests, Nikolas' shoulders seemed to bear the mantle of power with ease. It was a more powerful message than any Stefan could have hoped to send to his enemies.
Also clear was the closeness of the two brothers. The pride with which Nikolas introduced Andresj' - as well as the embrace they shared - was the proof. How wonderful it must feel, in the midst of everyone you know, to be the object of such pride!
"Careful, Natasha. Your envy is showing." Helena suddenly appeared beside Alexis. "How it must gall you to observe the lengths Stefan will go to on behalf of his sons. Does it fill you with sorrow that no one cared enough for you to do the same?"
‘The old witch is psychic,' Alexis thought, keeping her expression neutral. "Helena, why do you insist on showing up where you aren't wanted?"
"My dear, you sound like my weakling son. Still, I suppose if you're to stand in for him here tonight, the wisest course would be to parrot Stefan." Helena tapped a finger against her cheek. "But wait, you aren't representing him, are you? For all your loyalty to Stefan he still chose a mere boy as his agent over you."
"Oh, please, Helena! Aside from the fact that this was my idea as well as Stefan's, we both know that you would not have it any other way. Seeing Nikolas take charge of the family must fill that gaping hole in your chest where your heart should be." Plastering a fake smile upon her face Alexis demanded through clenched teeth, "You've overstayed your welcome. Go back however you came. Or I will gladly have security throw you out."
"Shall you, Natasha?" Helena took a moment to observe the guests, quite a few of which were sworn loyal to her. "Andresj' is under my protection. My presence here confirms it . . . Will you take it upon yourself to remove him from my favor?"
Alexis seethed. As much as she hated Helena, she could not - would not - take chances with Andresj's safety.
"I knew that you would see things my way, Natasha." Brushing past Alexis, Helena disappeared into the crowd.
*General Hospital and its characters are not mine. I make no profit from this. The characters Andresj' Cassadine, and Diane Jennings are my creation.*