Unusual Suspects

The joyful gathering on October 18th of each year had become an event that no one in the immediate family wanted to miss. The date was circled on each calendar and schedules were coordinated so that family members all around the globe were free to celebrate together on that day. And though a gala was held under the guise of fêting the happy union of the family's former head, members of the immediate family gathered to celebrate what those of the Cassadine clan previously thought impossible for any of them - another successful year of marriage.

This year was no different.

Less charitable members of the lower branches of the Cassadine family tree smirked that the gala was held on the anniversary of Stefan's marriage because no one ever believed that he would find a woman sadistic enough to remain in a marriage to him, or lucky enough to survive marriage into the twisted royal contingent. Such thoughts they were prudent to keep to themselves. Yet these same scoffers fought viciously to maneuver themselves into position for the yearly occasion's coveted hand-scripted, 18 carat gold-embossed invitation.

The guest list for the gathering was strictly enforced. Only invited guests were even allowed access to Spoon Island and Wyndemere. This year there were far less people in attendance than usual. The Great Hall of Wyndemere was usually filled with both family and associates, all dressed in formal attire. Still, an hour before the official beginning of the celebration nearly all the guests but the immediate family quietly circled the room sipping champagne and renewing alliances.

Marcus Taggert allowed his eyes to circle the room. His gaze recorded each person there, never lingering past the time it took him to identify and catalog their identities. Marcus was not fully aware he did so; over 15 years as a police detective made some things automatic. Eleven years married into the Cassadine family made such vigilance a must.

At a glance he numbered the absence of at least 20 Cassadine cousins who had become familiar to him as a result of this yearly celebration. Nearly all of the business associates normally invited were missing as well. Stefan and Faith had decided to host a slightly more intimate celebration of family only, with a scattering of treasured friends and associates mixed in. Marcus had half-jokingly speculated that Stefan might be feeling the pinch of the structural renovations made to Spoon Island four months earlier. Alexis, missing the teasing in her husband's voice, assured him that Stefan's net worth remained safely in the billion dollar column.

The memory of the so casual reassurance made Marcus shake his head all over again. The years might have blunted his sense of wonderment where Tasha's family was concerned, but time had not numbed him to it completely. For that he was grateful.

Marcus was aware that after all the years of marriage to Tasha, he was still considered by some to be the outsider who married into the family. Even as he reflected on this opinion, he spotted across the room the other "outsider" of the family, Jack Bauer, making his way to where Marcus stood. Like himself, Jack was attired in a custom tuxedo tailored just for him. In the beginning, the wearing of such exclusive - and frankly expensive - garments felt pretentious and unnatural. It hadn't taken many Cassadine functions to make the men see the necessity of such attention to quality. Lengthy events were so much more bearable in clothing that fit like second skin. It was one less distraction from their instinctive desires to observe and protect.

"Five minutes, huh?" Marcus's gaze flickered over to Jack, a man who had become like a brother to him. "That's one helluva five minutes. You might want to check that fancy watch Nikolas gave you for your birthday."

Marcus did not need to look to know that the corners of Jack's mouth were turned up slightly. He had stopped by the other man's suite of rooms nearly 30 minutes earlier. Marcus knew that, like himself, Jack would already be dressed for that night's event and ready to give the premises a critical look-over. "What can I say?" Jack murmured, amusement lacing his voice. "'Bri wanted my opinion on which shoes went best with her dress."

"And let me guess... You couldn't give her an objective answer with all those other clothes in the way." Marcus shook his head fondly and then discreetly offered his clenched hand for a fist bump. "Handle your business," Marcus grinned.

The two men stood in companionable silence and watched the number of guests increase. Still, as Cassadine gatherings went, it was a smaller assemblage than either man could recall. "So " Jack's gaze swept the room. "No Cousin Gervaise?"

"Nope," Marcus replied. "No Anya or Gregor either." The three Cassadine cousins were fixtures at nearly every event hosted by Stefan or Nikolas.

"I don't see Schmidt or Verducci," Jack observed.

One by one the two men listed all of the usual guests seemingly not in attendance that evening. With each omission, they became more and more intrigued. Marcus made a mental note to speak about it later with his wife Alexis.

The handsome detective felt a subtle shift of attention within the occupants of the Great Hall. He glanced toward the door. Stefan and Faith stood just outside the threshold of the cavernous room, looking as elegant a couple as ever. Stefan wore an impeccably tailored tuxedo, while Faith was clad in an emerald-hued designer gown that clung to her shapely form as possessively as any lover. Her hair was swept up into what Marcus over the years had learned was called a chignon.

"Hmm...Things are starting to move," Marcus murmured. He directed Jack's attention to the Great Hall's entrance and watched as certain guests began a subtle yet determined drift toward Stefan and Faith's position. That determination only increased when the couple was joined by Nikolas, Gia and Andresj. It was true that Nikolas was the Prince and head of the Cassadine family (he had been for several years now), but he had made it perfectly clear from the onset of this yearly gathering that he would entertain absolutely no business matters during the course of the celebration.

Stefan issued no such restrictions.

"Looks like all the players are in place now." Jack tipped his chin in the direction of the doorway. "There's 'Bri and Lex."

"Yep." Marcus squared his broad shoulders and began to stride across the room. "It's show time."


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