Tipping Point

For one split second the smile she'd worn pasted on her beautiful face slipped. It went unnoticed by everyone but the one she wanted least to observe. Faith forced the brightness of her smile to increase by a few watts and turned her attention back to the celebration's guests as they drank and danced. Still, as she expected, within seconds she could feel the stolid presence of his warm body at her back.

"Beloved?" As always, he pronounced the word as three syllables.

"A single moment of weakness, Dear Heart." Faith let her body rest against his for the briefest of seconds before straightening up again. "I am fine now." In the silence that followed, Faith knew that her husband assessed the truth of her disclaimer. "You can trust my word, Stefan. I am fine."

Stefan lips brushed his wife's ear. It was so subtle a gesture that it escaped the curious gaze of anyone observing. "I would find no weakness in choosing to forego the remainder of the celebration. You have unfailingly given me this past year's support, a mercy I had no expectation to receive."

Faith gracefully squared her shoulders. "What, then," she murmured, "are a few more hours?"

"What, indeed."

The couple stood just outside the dance area. Reluctant to part, for several minutes they simply watched in silence as their guests enjoyed the gathering. "Dance with me," Faith turned and demanded. Her gaze was steady and sure but the fingers that trembled as they slid into her husband's outstretched hand revealed her need for the comfort that only his embrace could bring.

Faith led Stefan toward the center of the room. Those in their path politely made room for their passage. Pair by pair they began to drift to the outer edges. There was no signal given. Each year, Stefan and Faith took a moment from their hosting duties to enjoy a solo dance under the watchful eye of all assembled. Ironically, it was the couple's single concession to the very purpose of the gathering.

The whiskey-voiced chanteuse who had performed most of the evening returned to the microphone. She had been engaged for the occasion at the recommendation of attorney Dara Jensen. Dara assured them that though the young woman was at the moment an unknown talent, she would not stay that way for long. Faith could not help but agree upon hearing the first husky notes of the young singer's audition. Her voice and style were reminiscent of a generation past - Faith's grandmother's generation.

Mary Mae Ward had raised Faith and her younger brother Justus. They'd grown up to the sounds of Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington, Rosemary Clooney and Nina Simone...and on rare occasions, Mary Mae herself. She had been a nightclub singer in her youth. It was how she'd met and had a child with Edward Quartermaine.

The trio of skilled musicians providing accompaniment began playing the opening bars of a song that Faith had expressly chosen for her dance with her husband. She eased into Stefan's familiar embrace and felt the universe narrow down to the two of them alone.

'For all we know, we may never meet again '

Faith stared into Stefan's eyes. This was the man who loved her with a passion that was sometimes overwhelming. The man whose grasp on her was at times painful. The man whose desire to possess her sometimes threatened to consume her. And yet she wouldn't change a thing. Her marriage to Stefan revealed aspects of her personality that Faith had kept subdued for as long as she could remember. With Stefan, she could be herself.

'I'll hold out my hand, and my heart will be in it '

Faith softly sang that line along with the young singer. She had not inherited much of her grandmother's vocal talent but that hardly mattered.What mattered was that Stefan know the depth of her love for him. His eyes darkened and Faith felt the tears she had managed to withhold threaten to spill from her eyes. She raised shaky fingers and lovingly traced the outline of her husband's lips. "Oh, I do love you, Dear Heart," she murmured

"And I, you," came the familiar refrain.

Stefan gently took Faith's hand and held it against his heart. His sure, steady heartbeat soothed her fragile emotions. "Come." The word was uttered quietly. "We have been unselfish long enough." Stefan stopped moving in mid sway and beckoned to the ever-present cadre of personal guards always somewhere in his -and Faith's - vicinity. He held out his hand and Faith accepted it without hesitation. Stefan's face was like stone as he led his wife from the dance floor. And toward the door.

Faith could hear the murmur of surprise ripple through the assemblage as Stefan led her silently from the room. He slowed his stride only long enough to issue a single command in Russian to the guards. There was no need to wait and see if the command was obeyed. This elite group of men were handpicked by Stefan and loyal to him to a fault.

The musicians continued to play. The singer did not interrupt the song though her voice grew uncertain and whisper soft. Like the guests, they were thrown by their hosts' action and unsure of what to do next.

Any attempts for concerned family or friends to speak with Stefan and Faith before they disappeared was thwarted by the unsmiling sentries that blocked the path the couple had taken. 'The Master and Mistress have retired for the evening. They do not wish to be disturbed until the morning' was all the guards would reply when faced with the demand for them to step aside. Not even Prince Nikolas' quiet command had any effect on their stance. If there had ever been a demonstration of the power and influence Stefan still wielded, that was it.

Faith walked beside Stefan as they moved down the hallway to their suite. They stepped inside and the closing of the heavy door seemed to separate the two of them from the rest of the world. Of one accord they began to divest themselves of the formal clothing they'd donned for the celebration. There was no enflamed foreplay, no playful banter. Only silence.

Faith lay back on the oversized bed, opened her arms and thighs to her husband and caught her breath as Stefan buried himself inside.



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