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Scene 77

“Good morning.”

The smile Sonny sent her was a thousand watts bright. The power of it halted her in her tracks, halfway between the bottom of the stairs and the dining table. He sat in the chair at the far end with a coffee mug in one hand and the morning paper held loosely in the other.

“Good morning yourself.”

Alexis loitered in place, watching the upper corner of Sonny’s paper as it curled downward, toward the top of the table. He didn’t seem to notice. His eyes were too busy sparkling up at her like he had some kind of secret he couldn’t wait to share. She smiled and tilted her head.

“Did you sleep well? You look like you did.”

“Like a baby.”

“Good.”

He set the mug on the table and the paper was folded, then set down on the empty chair to his left without so much as a cursory glance. As she shifted her weight to one bare foot and wrapped an arm around herself, Sonny imagined that she was unconsciously replaying the feel of his arm encircling her in the night. He didn’t know if her mind remembered it, but he was sure that her body did.

“You did too.”

She nodded briskly. “Mm hmm.”

Sonny clasped his hands around the warmth of his mug and leaned back in his chair with a satisfied smile. He knew her sleep had been free of the memories that so often came to taunt her in the lonely dark – Stavros, Helena, Sorel. Her body held no tension within his arms, and the beautiful face that lifted his heart spoke of nothing but peace. Alexis knew she was protected. Sonny was holding her, and he would chase all the dragons away.

Alexis felt her cheeks begin to tingle under the study of Sonny’s dark eyes. “What?”

The quick flushing of her face lowered his gaze to the top of his mug. He knew he’d been staring, and her shyness became his. Sonny’s lips parted slightly, as if about to let words slip from his tongue. Instead, his tongue slipped from his mouth and grazed the edge of his teeth. He took a sip of his coffee and cocked his head, eyes slowly rising back up to her.

“I was just wondering why you were standing all the way over there.”

She bit her lip and gave him a perplexed look. Her fingers fidgeted with the hem of her pajama top while her eyes darted hither and yon around the room.

“I have no idea why I’m standing all the way over here.”

“Then come here.”

Alexis shook her head with a mild laugh as she went to him. Sonny rose to his feet and pulled out the chair beside him.

“Thanks.” She took the seat he offered, and Sonny rested his palms on her shoulders. Alexis quickly brought her hand up to cover his and tilted her chin to look up at him.

“That’s better.” Sonny smiled wide and leaned down over the top of her head. He loved the view that particular angle gave him of her face and the light play of freckles dancing across her nose. “I’ll go get your coffee.”

He gazed down at her upturned eyes and the long bangs that skirted her lashes, threatening to fall between them. And before he moved away from her, Sonny blew a gentle breeze to chase them aside. Alexis reflexively tightened her fingers around the back of his hand and her eyes rapidly blinked before squeezing shut.

“I’m sorry. Did I get you in the eye? Your hair was just about to fall into…”

Alexis kept a firm grip on his hand as her brow furrowed. She slowly lowered her head without a word, and Sonny knew he’d just pulled a trigger. He gave her a long moment of quiet, and then softly whispered her name.

“Alexis?”

The shadow of a face hovered before her closed lids, and all her other senses were dimmed as she tried to flesh the shadow out into someone tangible – someone identifiable. It belonged to someone she knew, but the image stayed dark…like the feeling running through her. And within the physical memory of a light breeze running through the hair that fell against her forehead, Alexis grew hot and squirmed in her chair. She pushed at her bangs and winced as her hand lit upon the scrape she’d forgotten was there.

“Ow…”

Her hand let go of Sonny’s, just when he wanted to hold onto her the most. She hadn’t been torn away from the present in over a day – at least, not while Sonny was there. Whatever transpired while Ashton was with her was still just a distressing figment of Sonny’s own imagination. And he worried that the prospect of venturing back into the real world made all unseen dangers loom large to Alexis, and it was more than tempting to urge her to wait another day. But that would be wrong for him to do. As with that willful horse that threw her adolescent self to the ground, Alexis had to get back in the saddle and take her control.

“Hey.” Sonny tensed his jaw and allowed his palms to slide down the length of her silk-clad arms as he moved from behind her and sat back in his own chair. Her eyes fluttered open and darted down to her hands, now held gently in his.

“I’m okay.” Her tone was decisive and she nodded for emphasis. “I just wish I had some idea what that was.” Alexis smiled and looked into his eyes, entreating him to not be afraid for her. “I’m okay, Sonny.”

“Show me.” He challenged, touching a fingertip just an inch away from her mouth, and the tiny indentations he sought there magically appeared.

“Ask, and ye shall receive.” She murmured, as his hand lowered from her face.

“Sorel is never going to take that away from me…you, I mean.”

Sonny thought it was Sorel invading her head, and Alexis just left it alone. She wasn’t so sure it was Sorel her mind had conjured, but it didn't really matter anymore. She smiled at the sweetness in his eyes and her finger reached out to mimic the touch of his.

“You mean, us.”

Sonny’s skin burned at the feel of her. “Us.” He repeated mindlessly, giving her the smile she asked for. He took a deep breath and chose to get on with the day. “I shall return.”

His hand brushed up along the side of her face as he stood, and it sent an unexpected shiver up her spine. Alexis swallowed and turned to watch him disappear into the kitchen. Her hand wandered upward and her fingers began to drum a light rhythm against her bottom lip. She could still sense his hand upon her face after he’d gone. His touch always seemed to stay with her now, like an invisible companion she carried with her. It made her feel secure, somehow – protected and strong. She would miss it, once he was gone. And all at once, the full realization came crashing in on her.

Sonny would be leaving that day.

A moment later, Sonny returned – with coffee – and Alexis pulled herself away from her distracting thoughts of the inevitable. He set the mug down on the table in front of her with a warning that it was hot, but his voice was just a light hum in her head. She pulled one leg up, then the other, to sit cross-legged on the chair. As Alexis reached for the mug, she smiled at the heat creeping into her hands through the thick stoneware, and the soothingly fragranced steam rising up to her nose received a throaty murmur of appreciation.

“Mmm…that’s wonderful.”

The rich timbre of her voice traveled a path down Sonny’s spine. He barely found his breath. “Thank you.”

“Thank YOU. I think I like having a house boy.” She winked at him, and Sonny beamed.

“And just two days ago, you didn’t want one at all.”

“Yeah, well…” Alexis paused to blow gentle ripples along the surface of the dark liquid. “Two days is two days.”

“And two days goes by too soon.”

Sonny rubbed at his brow with a wry smile, and Alexis narrowed her eyes.

“Are you starting to get another headache?”

“A heartache - at the thought of leaving you.”

He shook his head. “Speaking of which, you sure do have some finesse of your own, don’t you?”

She cocked her head. “What do you mean.”

“That acupressure thing you did on me last night chased away not just my headache, but also my insomnia.”

“Oh…” Alexis flashed her dimples. “That’s right. You fell asleep right there on the couch – practically mid-sentence.”

“Your sentence or mine?”

“I’m not quite sure. I think yours.”

Sonny’s eyes softened as he gazed at her. “You have a nice touch. It made me feel it was okay to relax. You made me feel…safe.”

Her fingers lifted away from their curve around the mug, as if she might drop it. But the hold of her palms was firm and secure. Sonny ran his tongue across the edge of his bottom teeth as he watched Alexis search for words. Her eyes were wide and they darted back and forth from his left eye to his right. Finally, she leaned in toward him with a small, pink-cheeked smile.

“It did? I mean…I did?”

Sonny laughed to once again see that charming little quirk of hers in action - that funny way of speaking where her words flowed freely, but her lips barely moved except to curve in a smile. It seemed to come upon her when she wasn’t quite nervous, but not quite sure of herself either. Sonny wanted her to be sure of herself.

“Yeah, you did. And that’s an invaluable thing.”

“You’re telling me.” Her chocolate eyes sparkled at him teasingly and Alexis shrugged a shoulder up toward her tilting head. And in another moment’s time, Sonny was the recipient of the most radiant smile in all of Port Charles. It sent a current of warmth through his center, reminding him of the heat of her body as it reached through both cotton and silk to meld with the heat of his own. And as if reading his mind – or feeling a remembrance herself – Alexis slowly turned her head to gaze at the couch with a questioning expression.

“Hey. Didn’t we BOTH fall asleep over there?” She pointed to the living room for emphasis.

Sonny nodded. “And you wanted to stay there too. But I was bossy and made you go back up to bed.”

She turned her eyes back to him, confused. “I have no memory of going back up to bed. I remember being IN bed…and…” That scent - the scent of Sonny, close to her face. “And I remember…moving. Like I was floating, but I was holding onto something.”

“Someone – who was also holding onto you.” Sonny smiled, and Alexis straightened her back.

“You carried me again, didn’t you?” Her eyes narrowed slightly. “And did you say something about a flower, or was that something I dreamt?”

He laughed. “A SACK of flour. You didn’t want me to carry you like a sack of flour. But you were too groggy to walk up the stairs, so I pulled rank.”

“Pulled rank? Oh for heaven’s sake, Sonny.”

She blushed, crossing her arms with a sigh. It was all growing more clear now - the sound of Sonny’s voice and the feel of her arms around his warm neck as he held her aloft. She cleared her throat and took another sip of her coffee.

“You should have just left me where I was. If you keep picking me up like that, you’re going to find yourself in traction, buddy.”

“If I’d left you lying all twisted like a pretzel on that couch, YOU’RE the one who would have found yourself in traction - buddy.”

His dimples teased her and Alexis bit her lip, wondering how contorted a position her body had managed to assume while unconscious on the couch. She remembered Sonny drifting off, but not drifting herself. One minute, her fingers were seeking to relieve the ache in Sonny’s head, and the next he’d slipped into sleep. It was so quick and unexpected, and she barely moved for fear of waking him. Her hands held softly against his skin for a long while, before carefully floating away. And she slowly leaned back against the cushions to watch him. Alexis smiled at the smoothing of the creases in his forehead. He looked almost childlike - sweet and innocent. They were qualities she knew him to own, but which too few people ever saw. He was too afraid of what it would cost him.

But Alexis loved seeing him that way - so serene and truly at peace. Sonny had finally unburdened himself of the secret he’d kept for her sake, and now he allowed himself to rest. She recalled all the times she’d awakened to the sight of Sonny’s face as he watched her sleep. The expression it held always spoke of something that she could feel, but not name. It was like a subtle gift, and it was a lovely thing to see as she opened her eyes. Alexis wondered if Sonny would feel the same way about her expression right then, while she watched him sleep, should he open his eyes and see. She hugged the throw pillow against her body, and sighed.

And then it was morning, and Sonny was crouched beside her bed, gently rousing her awake.

An arm unexpectedly crossed in front of her, and a plate of scrambled eggs was set down on the table. A glass of water was set beside it, and a moment later, three vitamin pills of differing shapes, colors and sizes also made their way onto the table.

“Just when I thought the bossing of me was over.”

“I didn’t want you to forget them.” He set one palm down on her knee as he lowered himself into his chair. “I let you sleep a little later than I intended, since you were up in the middle of the night - helping me with my insomnia. If you take them now, that’s just one less thing you have to think about doing before we leave.”

“I wouldn’t have forgotten, Sonny. And if you happen to be entertaining the notion of sneaking into my apartment every morning to count how many pills are in each bottle so you’ll know if I’ve taken them or not, you can just forget about it. I will take all of them, every day, like Tony told me to do. And…and I will also remember to breathe on my own, and I’ll…eat things other than popcorn, which I suppose goes without saying because if I’m not mistaken, you’ve already seen to it that every packet of microwave contraband has been removed from my cupboards in favor of something like, oh, I don’t know, soy protein granola bars, and I will also sleep by myself - I mean, I will be alone at night and I’ll be fine. Dreams or no dreams, I will take care of my…”

“A-leeeeeex-sis?” Sonny drawled the second syllable of her name out into a long stretch of sound until she was quiet. Short of taking possession of her rambling mouth with his own, it was the best way he knew to stop it. He’d seen in her eyes that Alexis needed reassurance that he believed what she said – that she’d be fine alone. She needed to convince Sonny as much as, if not more than, herself. She WOULD be fine. Both of them knew it, but she needed to hear it. He paused for just a while, staring at her mouth until her teeth took hold of her lip and turned him to a puddle inside. He would never stop reacting to the sight of that sweet little bottom lip as it went into hiding.

“I know.” Sonny’s airy whisper was full within the silent room.

“After all, I do have…my penguin, to watch over me.” Alexis tilted her head and gave him crooked smile, which Sonny repaid with a dazzling show of pearly whites. “So I won’t really be alone anyway.”

“You’ll never be alone, Alexis. You not only have that furry little beast upstairs…” He rubbed at his face, which bore a fresh, fine sprouting of beard. “You also have a normally clean-shaven beast right across the hall.”

Alexis laughed, as did he. And then, her hand traveled through the small expanse of empty space that lay between them. Her palm settled against his skin, cupping the scratchy cheek of the attentive, brooding man who showed her his true self. The man who took her childhood secrets into his own heart to make her heart light, who picked her up from sofas and floors and carried her to bed, who made her cappuccino with chocolate sprinkles - and eggs that tasted better than eggs had any right to taste. The man whose touch and scent she knew as well as anything else.

“Right back at ya. Except for the ‘beast’ part.”

Sonny leaned into the feel of her hand on his face, not worrying about the ten o’clock morning shadow meeting her skin. It was a masculine display of nature visited upon his cheeks, and a welcome contrast to the softness of her fingers. It reminded him full-throttle that he was a proud and primal male being.

“You forget that I’ve seen you in court, councellor. The beast part still stands.”

“I mean it, Sonny. The hallway out there is the same distance from my door to yours as it is from your door to mine.”

“You don’t say!” Sonny made a clucking noise as he shook his head. “You Harvard girls are so smart.”

“Sonny.”

“Alexis?”

“Don’t do that.”

“Your eggs are getting cold.”

“I said don’t.” Her hand pulled away from his cheek, taking her blessed warmth with it and leaving his skin to the mercy of the elements.

“Eat!” He ordered, placing a fork in her hand and wrapping her fingers around it.

”What am I, Helen Keller?” He gave her a blank stare as he rubbed at his now cool face. “Never mind.” Alexis mumbled, begrudgingly sticking the prongs of her fork into the pale yellow hill on her plate. “That was quite a little bombshell you dropped on me last night, and I refuse to act as if it wasn’t - no matter how valiant an effort you make to behave otherwise. We both know better.” She pointed her fork at Sonny before finally putting it in her mouth.

“I told you, Alexis, you don’t have to worry about it. It’s my marriage that ended, not my life.”

“I must say that’s a questionable way to put it. But I’m not worried, I just want you to acknowledge that I’m here for you too. Don’t think I don’t know how difficult a decision it was for you to make, and I also understand how difficult it is to adjust to the aftermath of a break up. Even though in my particular circumstance, the decision to end the relationship wasn’t MINE, I know it’s hard for both people involved.” She smiled weakly, twisting the four metal prongs against the china and eliciting a tiny squeak in response.

The tiny flicker of sadness about her lowered Sonny’s eyes as he began to remind her of the obvious. “But Alexis, Ned wants to…”

“It was YOUR decision, wasn’t it?” She abruptly cut him off, eyes firmly locking into his. By the concentrated look on her face, Sonny wasn’t even sure that she’d heard what he started to say. “I mean, I don’t remember you specifically saying that it was you who ended it and not Carly. I just inferred, from the way you talked.”

“It was me. But Carly agreed.”

“That…surprises me.” Her eyes darted away from his and down to the abstract design her restless fork had made in her scrambled eggs.

“Will you eat? Please?” Sonny nodded at her plate.

“Tyrant.” Another forkful made its way into her mouth, and Sonny gave her a dimpled reward.

“Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me. Tell me about Carly.” She prodded, exchanging the fork for her mug and leaning back in her chair. “Why did she acquiesce so easily? Or was it not done easily?”

Sonny watched her sip on her coffee while giving him a look of expectant concern, and he knew she was not going to let it go. He mimicked her, taking a large swallow of dark liquid as he leaned his into the wood behind his back.

“I think that being with Jason again made Carly know in her heart what was right. Just like my being…” Sonny stopped himself short. He paused with eyes fixed on the table, waiting for Alexis to question him as he knew she would. He was wrong. She was respectfully silent, waiting for him to decide if there was more he wanted her to know. His gaze lifted up to her face and found it open, accepting. And it would have been so easy to let the words flow to her.

“Just like my being with you made me know in my heart.”

But Sonny had only just begun to feel that it might be possible – that the small part of Alexis’ heart that belonged to him could grow. It had grown already, that he knew. And he refused to make the mistakes that Ashton had made. Sonny wouldn’t push, and he certainly wouldn’t presume. But he would continue to hope…and to love her with all his heart. He cleared his throat and ran his tongue across his teeth with a vague smile.

“Just like the way I felt after Carly left made me know what was right. There was no yearning. There was no ache, no deep sense of loss that a man should feel in the absence of a woman with whom he is truly in love. The fact is, I was not a man in love…with his wife. And that fact is what makes this change the best thing for me. Okay?”

Alexis nodded, her face a reflection of pure understanding. She DID understand, and Sonny was grateful he’d found the courage to give her the truth she deserved, if not the truth that might scare her away from him. She slowly set her mug on the table and shifted in her chair with a ponderous look in her eye.

“I certainly never thought I’d have reason to feel sorry for Carly, but I do - kind of. No offense to Jason.” She shifted again, uncrossing her legs and grimacing at the movement of stiff muscles newly put to work. “Ow. Remind me not to sit like that anymore.”

She rubbed at her sore thigh with one hand and reached for a vitamin pill with the other, oblivious to the simple magnitude of what she’d just said. At least, it was of magnitude to him. It sent a goofy grin across his face to know it was lost on the preoccupied and achy Alexis. And a striking difference between Carly and Alexis suddenly lit up in Sonny’s mind. Carly felt entitled to anything she wanted, simply by virtue of her wanting it – including love. Alexis felt entitled to precious little unless she’d gone through hell to prove herself worthy of it – including love. Both women wanted love and both deserved to have it, but neither seemed to recognize when it was already theirs.

“So, do you believe me when I tell you I’m good with this situation?”

“I believe you. And I won’t bring it up again. But if YOU want to talk about it some more…”

“Alexis!”

“I’m just saying I’m glad you let me listen to YOU for a change. Thank you for that. And see? I’m no worse for wear.” She glanced down at Sonny’s hands wrapped around his mug. “But tell me the truth – isn’t it nice to peel those kid gloves off every now and then?” She stabbed another forkful of eggs and grinned.

“Yeah.”

Sonny sipped on his coffee in contentment as Alexis made a valiant attempt to work her way through a now cold breakfast, because she knew that he wanted her to. It made him smile to know that what she did for herself was in some part also done for him. A soft silence fell between them. It was familial and comfortable, and it led him back to the familial, comfortable silence of her bedroom in the late hours of the night. Sonny had given himself over to sleep all too quickly for his liking.

Snuggled close against Alexis, his arm wrapped around her, he wanted to languish in the heady experience and make it last – to drown in all the heightened senses that his precious armful fed. She was as much a comfort to him as he was to her, and his mind and body gave in, carrying him off before he’d had his fill. And when the morning came, it woke him to the sweet feel of her body curled into his. Strands of her hair lay across his bare arm, and her palm pressed a light, warm pressure against his side.

As his fingers stretched out to touch the slippery silk of her sleeve, Sonny realized he might never awaken that way again. He set about committing every detail to memory before forcing himself to move – the sound of every airy breath she took and released, the play of soft sunlight against every crimson-colored inch of her, the shift of every muscle she moved, and every hint of gardenia the air carried into his nose.

But the clock beckoned and Sonny answered, carefully slipping away from her body and her bed. He didn’t want her to wake up to him in her bed, even if she did remember how he came to be there. It just didn’t seem right. His movement evoked a slight protest from Alexis in the form of her stretching limbs and a hand gliding across the warm, mow-empty space beside her. Sonny crouched down beside the bed and smoothed a hand over her head. Alexis turned from her side onto her stomach and sighed heavily, sleepily.

“Wake up, sleeping beauty.” His touch grew firmer as his words received no response. He hated having to wake her, but she’d need time to prepare for her first day out in the world. He didn’t want her to be rushed. “Alexis? It’s eight thirty. Time to rise and shine.”

Alexis groaned and turned her face fully into the pillow. “I HATE that expression!”

Sonny rubbed at his own heavy-lidded eyes with a smile. “Yeah. Me too.”

“Please don’t ever use it again.” She begged into the muffling mound of fluff.

“You got it. Are you awake?”

“Mm hmm.”

“Good. Do you want coffee first and then a shower, or the other way around?”

She groaned and stretched again, mumbling something unintelligible.

“Right. Coffee first.”

Sonny pushed the tangle of hair away from the small part of her face that he could see, and Alexis turned her head. Her left eye opened halfway and her left dimple showed itself in tandem.

“Do you want me to call Tony and see if you can come in a little bit later?”

“Mm-mm. I want to be done with it. I’ll be up in a minute, okay?”

“Sure. Do you want a cappuccino this morning, or regular coffee.”

Alexis smiled and closed her eyes again. “You’re spoiling me, you know.”

“You’re letting me.”

She hugged the pillow to her head and looked up at him once more. “Just coffee is fine. As long as it’s leaded.”

“Is there any other kind?”

“Johnny seems to think so. You really should set him straight on that.”

Sonny laughed and slipped his hand down from the back of her head to her shoulder before his instincts took over, stopping it from traveling further along the length of her back – her sore and bruised back. His hand quickly lifted from the silk and hovered, just above her body as Sonny swallowed against a mouth gone dry. He couldn’t believe he’d almost carelessly hurt her. It was the last thing he wanted a show of his affection to do. He rose to standing, needing to physically distance himself from her.

“Come down soon, okay?”

Alexis nodded, curling her arm up against her chest. A yawn suddenly crept up on her and she closed her eyes, bringing a palm up to cover her scrunched face. And Sonny bit down on his lip. He wondered how one woman could be so many kinds of adorable in the span of five seconds.

“I told Ned everything.”

Sonny’s sensibilities took a lightening hit. His head snapped to attention, finding Alexis swallowing the last of her pills.

“What?”

“Everything. Literally.” She picked up her fork and twirled it in her plate, giving Sonny a sideways glance. “I told him that you’ve been staying here to look after me, I told him about what Sorel did, that the nightmare thing he saw at the hospital wasn’t an isolated incident, and I told him what’s been bringing the nightmares on.”

Alexis tossed the information Sonny’s way with a deliberately casual manner, robbing the words of the significance he knew they deserved. To bare her soul and share her life-long pain with anyone was a very big deal. To do so with Ashton was huge. The man had wrecked havoc with her sense of worth and made her feel so small. Her instinctual pulling away from him in the throes of her crisis was pure self-protection, and Sonny was glad for it. But now, the crisis was waning and Alexis wanted to trust Ned…again. It made Sonny somewhat sick inside. That trust could bring her pain - that trust could bring Sonny loss.

He felt her eyes on his face and suddenly realized how deafening the quiet had become. Sonny was afraid to look up from the spot on the table that his gaze obtusely studied. He was afraid to look at her and see his loss beginning as she spoke of Ned. But he did look at her – and he didn’t see anything but a smile. He smiled back, leaning an elbow on the table and his chin into his palm.

“You said yesterday that his visit was okay for you. Was it really?”

“Yeah, after all was said and done. But I admit that at first it was kind of like…walking blindfolded into possible oncoming traffic.” She laughed nervously, and soon felt Sonny’s hand setting down upon her knee. “But the road was clear, and I’m still standing.”

“How do you feel about it now? Any regrets?”

“No. You were right about unburdening your mind of things that weigh upon you. And Stefan was right about not allowing bad things and bad people to take any more power away from you than they already have. It was hard, trying to find the words to explain everything to Ned, but I did it. I did sort of bury him and the poor thing didn’t even see it coming, but I think he really did understand. And I think I even managed to keep him from taking my decision as a personal rejection.”

“You mean me?”

Alexis nodded.

“I’m glad I didn’t make things more difficult between the two of you.”

“Sonny, nothing between Ned and me is anyone’s doing but our own. I wanted to be as honest as I could with him because I think he deserves that from me. And I want to be accepted for who and what I am, both the bad things about me and the good. I think I deserve that from him.”

Sonny’s heart swelled to hear her speak with such surety and self-acceptance. It was music to his ears. “Yes, you do. And I’m so proud of how strong you are. Of how you’re owning what’s yours and making no apologies.”

She scrunched her shoulders and grinned. “Kind of like someone else I know.”

“Not even close. I want to be just like you when I grow up.”

Her expression shifted, and Sonny watched her shift her jaw as her eyes reflected some new goings on in her mind.

“Sonny, were you aware that Lois told Ned about Deke?”

Sonny blinked. “No.”

“I’m sorry. But Ned won’t say anything to anyone. He only brought it up because of what I told him about myself. I just...thought you should know, if you didn’t already.”

Sonny nodded mutely. He was more stunned that Ashton had never thrown it in face than that Lois had spoken of it to him. She’d had no reason to think it a secret, but he wondered what her reason was for disclosing it. No matter. It was done.

“Um…in the interest of equal disclosure, you should know that Zander told Emily about the heroin.”

“Why?”

He paused, noting that his utterance of the word hardly registered with her. Progress. “It was right after Sorel sent that envelope…to let us know what he might be doing to you.”

“Oh, God.” Alexis winced.

“The poor kid freaked, and Emily wouldn’t leave him alone until he told her what was wrong. He loves her and he didn’t want to lie to her. But he made her promise not to tell anyone and she didn’t. Not even Ned.”

“Oh boy. Let’s just hope that Ned never finds out about that little secret.”

“He doesn’t deserve to have that wonderful young woman for a cousin.”

“Sonny!”

“It just slipped out.”

She leaned against the table and squinted at him. “Did not.”

He cleared his throat and gave her a sheepish grin. “Sorry.”

“Are not.”

“You’re right – I’m not.”

Alexis rolled her eyes. “Will it never stop among you three so-called grown men?”

“I doubt it.”

Sonny smiled and cocked his head, waiting for Alexis to maybe tell him more. He was desperate to know what place Ashton still had in her life and in her heart. But Alexis was silent, and Sonny knew the topic had ended. It would be his fate to hang by his thread a little longer. He watched Alexis turn her face toward the window, and smiled into the faint light filtering in across the room. The glow of the sun spread across her upturned cheeks, giving her a simple radiance. He hardly even noticed the fading bruise of her cheek.

Sonny rose and reached for her plate. “I guess these eggs are toast, huh?”

“Oh brother. That was really bad!”

He chuckled at the small groan she made. “You weren’t very hungry this morning, huh?”

“Not really. I’m sorry.”

“That’s okay. You can just eat a little more at lunch time to make up for it.”

Sonny winked as he turned away, but his smile quickly vanished as soon as his face left her view. He knew she’d be too nervous to eat – and probably too scared. He wished he’d tried harder to talk her into a short walk the day before, so her first trip outside wouldn’t be returning her to the hospital that she’d begged, through well-fought tears, to leave. But as he studied the half-eaten remains on her plate, Sonny gave thanks that Alexis wasn’t making herself go back there alone.

Alexis continued to stare after Sonny had gone. The stark white hue of the ruffled clouds was mesmerizing. And framing the billowy puffs was blue, as far into the sky as she could see. It was a pure, clean blue, like that of the Grecian sea lapping at the shore…like the eyes of Thomas Malloy. She’d been mesmerized by them too. At times, she’d tried to swim inside of them and know what they were saying as they stared back down at her. At times, it was if he was trying to swim into her eyes too. She knew it was probably just the heroin, playing tricks with her mind. That’s what it was supposed to do - what Sorel wanted it to do. But Thomas…what did Thomas want? What was going on behind the curious blue of those eyes?

She abruptly pulled her focus from the sky and the room immediately spun. She closed her eyes against the vertigo and held tight to the edges of her seat to keep from falling. A light buzz filled her head and she blinked, reaching for the last swallows of water still in her glass. It helped steady her, and by the time she heard Sonny’s bare feet padding against the floor on his way back into the room, Alexis felt mostly right again.

“It looks like another beautiful day.” She knew her cheerful voice sounded forced the second it left her mouth.

Sonny followed her eyes to the window. “That it does. But don’t let the sun fool you. It’s still pretty cold outside.”

Alexis cleared her throat and leaned an elbow into the table to prop up her chin in her hand. “You know what’s odd? After all the time I spent sequestered in one place or another, I couldn’t wait to get outside and feel the fresh air filling my lungs and the warm sun on my face. And I did love it the other day, when I finally got to feel it. But once I got home the great outdoors kind of lost it’s intrigue, and I was perfectly content to just…look at it from the confines of my own little corner of the world.”

“You’re allowed.”

“And it’s also odd that I didn’t want to dive headfirst into work the minute I got home. I mean, have you noticed that I haven’t even put on my glasses in the last two days, let alone opened my laptop or picked up a file?”

“I noticed. But I did tell you upfront that there would be no working allowed under my tyrannical watch.”

“Did you really think that would stop me?”

“No. And I wouldn’t have tried to stop you, if you really needed the distraction. But I’m glad you didn’t.”

“What I really needed was exactly what you gave me. A safe, warm place to hide.”

“You haven’t been hiding, Alexis. You’re been healing.”

“Noted. But what I’m saying is that you created this protective little cocoon for me, and once I was inside it, I had no real desire to leave. And in spite of how much I grumbled and protested a couple of days ago, I did need it. And you somehow knew that.”

“I know YOU.”

She bit her lip and grinned. “I suppose you do. And even so, here you still sit.”

“Shut up.” He teased.

Alexis wrapped her arms round herself, and Sonny’s eyes followed the movement of her fingers as they lightly ran back and forth across her shoulders. He wanted to slip his own arms around her just one last time, while she was still secure in his protective cocoon. Instead, he glanced down at his watch.

“If you want to take a bath this morning, instead of a shower, I think there’s enough time. We’ve got almost an hour and a half before we need to leave.” She nodded, staring back out the window as Sonny rose and moved behind her, setting his palms down upon her shoulders. “I’m going to finish up in the kitchen and then I’ll come up and get dressed too.”

“I don’t want to go back there.” Her sudden whisper was arrid and light.

Sonny slipped his hands down to cover hers. Her confession tore at his heart. Alexis turned her palms upward, lacing their fingers together, and he looked down at the freckles on her nose as he whispered in reply.

“I know.”

“I don’t want to smell that hospital smell and see all those white lab coats and hear that scratchy voice echoing over the loudspeaker.”

“I know.”

“I don’t want to be looked at and touched and stuck with any more needles.”

“I know.”

Sonny leaned down to rest his chin upon the top of her head. “Just remember that it’s cold outside, so dress warm.”

Her eyes lifted upward and she gave his fingers a gentle squeeze.

“I know.”