Nicole Brady could hardly wait to get home after one of the worst days she'd had in a long while. Biological grandmother regardless, how any judge in her right mind could grant custody of that sweet, innocent baby boy to Sami Br- Her palm smacked the steering wheel as she recalled the verdict that was made, accidentally sounding the car's horn in the process, prompting the driver in front of her to thrust her arm out the window and flip her the bird.
"Sorry," she mumbled half-heartedly, never intended for the unidentified woman to actually hear. Although traffic was currently at a standstill, it wasn't the cause of her current frustration to begin with, so there was no point engaging in even an apology of some sort. Thankfully, she wasn't more than a block away from home at this point, and before she knew it, she was parked in her spot in the garage, just in time to make it upstairs by 4:30 to relieve Holly's babysitter from duty as promised.
Holly. Her baby girl, the child she thought she would never have, the one true love of her life. There wasn't a day that went by that she didn't thank God, her lucky stars, whatever powers-that-be that govern good fortune, for her precious gift, especially since she knew first-hand that motherhood wasn't something that was just handed to you on a silver platter. Not to her, anyway. Losing the two little babies who came before their big sister was more pain than she could bear, and she had not even been trying to test those waters again when she was blessed with Holly. The daily ritual of counting her blessings always made her think of her two little angels in heaven, and if anyone had cared to pay attention and inquire the reason for the tears in her eyes and the lump in her throat, they would know she was simply remembering the daughter and son who never made it to this earth.
She could hardly wait to hug her little munchkin, and as usual the feeling was mutual. As soon as Nicole opened the door, her leg was attacked by the six-year-old.
"Mommy," Holly cooed affectionately as she squeezed her mother tight. Nicole pried herself away just long enough to kneel down for a proper hug. This time, with the babies still fresh in her mind, she squeezed a bit tighter than usual. Holly didn't seem to mind.
"There's my munchkin! Did you and Cailey have fun at the park today?"
"Yes," her little girl's gleeful response from beyond her shoulder sharply contradicted the panicked look on her babysitter's face. The young girl, fresh out of high school, looked as nervous as a death row inmate walking the green mile. That, combined with the fact that Cailey wasn't trying to bolt out the door when she should be off-duty, led Nicole to believe there was more to the story.
"Tell you what. Why don't you go to your room and change while mommy talks to Cailey real quick, then we'll go out for pizza."
"Am I going to get in trouble?" Holly had turned her head to direct the question to Cailey.
"I doubt that sweetie," she replied reassuringly enough to convince Holly, at least. "I'm just going to tell your mom about our day today."
"It's OK, honey, go on and get changed," Nicole affirmed, keeping the tone consistent. "We'll be done in a minute." She truly did doubt there was anything her child could have done that she might even find disappointing, let alone mad. Gently, she shooed Holly in the direction of her bedroom.
"OK, what was that about," Nicole asked as calmly as she could. There was no sense in panicking until panic was warranted.
"Well, I scolded her while we were at the park. I got pretty upset and raised my voice, and I made her cry. I didn't mean to, she just scared me, that's all.:
"Scared you how? Like you're scaring me right now? WHAT HAPPENED?" Now it was Nicole who was raising her voice.
"She was right there playing with the rest of the kids one minute, then then next time I looked up at my phone she was gone. I called to her and she didn't answer and I couldn't see her anywhere." I ran through the park screaming her name, then finally I saw her, sitting on a bench all the way on the other side of the park, talking to some man I've never seen before."
"Jesus, how long were you busy playing on your phone and not looking after my little girl? Long enough for her to end up all the way on the other side of the park with some strange man apparently!" She was expressing her disapproval as best as she could without completely losing her shit with her daughter in the other room. "Who the hell was he, and what was he doing with my daughter?"
"I don't know," Cailey confessed. I really didn't give him the opportunity to find out. I just know I'd never seen him before and I told him to get the hell away before I called the cops. He said he was sorry, and then he left."
"And you're sure you've never seen him before. It wasn't Brady Black, or Xander Cook, or-"
"No, I've definitely never seen him before. Holly did say that the man said that he knew you, but she didn't know his name, and she never saw him before either."
"Yeah, well you and I both know that these scumbags will say things like that so-" She squeezed her eyes tight in attempt to dispel the nightmarish visions of things potential wrongdoers might do with an innocent little girl from crossing her mind. "I'll talk to her about it more this evening. You can go now Cailey. Be sure to take all your things with you. I won't be needing your services anymore."
For a moment the girl looked as if she might plead her case to stay, but then nodded understandingly as she grabbed her hoodie from the back of the door and scurried out the door into the hall. She was in such a hurry to leave that she forgot to close the door behind her, and Nicole doubted she made it more than two steps before she could hear the poor girl burst into tears. She truly felt bad for the girl. Everyone makes mistakes, and from those mistakes come important life lessons. Lord knows she has made her share. Sometimes if you're lucky you catch a break and chance at a do-over, but where Holly's safety was concerned, there was no margin for error, and if she went too easy on the girl, she might not be so careful as to not repeat the error. One day down the road when Cailey herself is called to the duty of motherhood, she will understand the decision she had to make.
"How does this look, mommy," Holly asked proudly as she twirled before her mother in her self-assembled outfit, consisting of her favorite pink T-shirt with a shimmering, multi-colored decal of a unicorn rearing on it's hind legs, a light blue ruffled skirt, and white sandals with yet more unicorns galloping across the strap just beneath her toes. Not exactly appropriate attire for a place like Chez Rouge, but for the family-oriented pizza joint just down on the corner, it would do just fine. It was no Chuck E Cheese, but there was a playroom with a small gym and an assortment of games to please all age groups, and for the adults, they actually offered the best pizza in Salem. An opinion shared by one of her old flames, who had every right to critique the quality of the Italian fare that the city offered. It was EJ's go-to place when they were craving pizza, which was quite frequently during her first pregnancy. For the second time today came the lump in her throat and a fresh set of tears to the eyes.
These were the thoughts that played through her mind as she and Holly walked to the restaurant hand-in hand. Well, she walked, while Holly skipped, but due to the size difference and Nicole's long legs, an even pace was kept the entire way there. It wasn't until they were inside and seated in their booth that she snapped out of her reverie,
Holly was squirming impatiently, and Nicole didn't have to investigate to know the cause. The booth sat directly across from the game room, and Nicole could tell her daughter was already trying to figure out what treasures she would bring home that evening with her potential winnings. She was already armed with tokens and tickets from their previous visit which she stashed into her tiny little cross-body purse which was in the shape of, you guessed it, a unicorn's head.
"Mommy, Holly had begun to whine, but was interrupted by the approach of the young waiter named Zack who would be taking their order that evening.
"Just a large cheese, two waters, and a to-go box, please." With the business out of the way, she now had the time to tend to her captive audience. "You'll get to play after dinner," she stated with enough firmness that she didn't get so much as a pout from Holly, who knew her mother well enough to know when she could gain an inch, or when she should just be quiet and listen.
"I want you to tell mommy how you ended up talking to that man at the park today."
Holly sat quietly for a moment, then looked up at her mother with big, soulful eyes that said she was sorry far more than any words could say. "I just wanted to pet the dog. I'm sorry mommy, I promise I won't walk away from Cailey again."
"The man had a dog?"
"No, it was a girl's dog. She was walking it and I tried to catch up to her, but then she walked out of the park. I was going to go back but when I turned around I couldn't see the playground anymore. I started to cry. and then the man came up to me."
Nicole began to see the different picture being painted for her, and for a mount considered if she had been to harsh on Cailey. Still, she needed to know more about this mystery man who proclaimed to know her.
"What did the man say to you, honey?"
"He asked if my name was Holly Jonas so I said yeah, then he said he knew because I look exactly like you mommy."
"And you're sure you've never seen this man before?"
"What else did he say?"
"He asked me who I was there with and where I last saw her, and said he was going to take me to her, but first I needed to tie my sneakers, so we went and sat on the bench."
"OK, so you tied your shoes. He never told you his name, or how he knew mommy?"
"No, but he showed me a picture of you and him, and you were dressed like a princess."
"I was dressed like a princess?" The story suddenly took a new twist to the bizarre. She could't remember a time even in costume where she might have dressed anything even remotely-
"Mommy, that's him," Holly shrieked as she lunged across the table and manually twisted her mother's head in the direction of the front door. "That's your friend."
It was amazing how much time could truly heal. The last time she'd actually seen him in the flesh, apart from his presumed death, she'd still entertained the idea of spitting in his face. Now, it took every bit of her composure as a mother of one and a married woman, to not leap out of her seat and go running to his arms like a scene in an old romance flick. After all, it wasn't like she was still in love with the guy, not anymore, but regardless, she was genuinely happy to see him alive and well, and appearing to be in far better health than she was previously led to believe.
He hadn't seen her yet and for a moment she toyed with the idea of hiding her face behind a menu if he were to come her way but, before she could act, if that was the route she wished to take, it was too late for those antics. Their eyes locked and he smiled, although the one on his lips was completely outshined by the one in his eyes by far.
For a moment she thought she was having something of a heart-attack because it legit plain stopped beating for just a brief moment. When it finally resumed, it pounded away feverishly in her chest as to assure her it was certainly still there. Relief, that's what it was. She now knew who the mystery man was, and that Holly had not been in any harm. It was only EJ.
Without thinking, her hand flew up and beckoned him to join them. After a brief exchange with the hostess, he was permitted to bypass the handful of parties waiting to be seated, and that was when she noticed that Johnny was also with him, following his father close behind. If she had not seen a recent picture Allie shared, she wouldn't have recognized him at all. The last time she'd seen him he was barely to EJ's waist. Now, he appeared to be maybe just a few inches short of his father.
Nicole slid out of her seat and greeted him with a hug. For a split second she considered that maybe a hug was a bit too much, but when his return embrace lifted her clear off the ground, she was assured that it was the right way to go.
"It's so wonderful to see you again, Nicole," he murmured in her ear, right before thinking nothing of kissing her on the cheek. Why would he, she then supposed after realizing that was pretty much the way she was greeted by most of her male friends, even yes, eve those who were ex-lovers she was still in good terms with.
Because you never loved any of them they way you loved EJ. Oh, shut up, Nicole!
"It's wonderful to see YOU," she mimicked, placing the extra-emphasis on YOU for his benefit. "You look good. Great, in fact! Fantastic, considering…"
"Thank you. It has been quite the road, but I am finally feeling like my old self again. You, on the other hand, look more beautiful and radiant than ever."
She told herself the flush in her cheeks was nothing more than a rest of the room being too stuffy. The theory was swiftly crushed when she realized she also wasn't willing to remove the sweater she'd worn because the restaurant was notoriously cold.
"Well thank you, I owe it all to this little munchkin. She reminds me every day how blessed I am, and motivates me to be my best self."
"I understand completely. These last few years have been extremely challenging, and I wouldn't be where I am today without the help of my family, and my children especially," he said, running a hand through Johnny's already messy hair. He pretended to mind more than he actually did. It was easy fir Nicole to tell that father and son had a great relationship still to this day.
As much as she was enjoying the touching discussion about their children, the children themselves were getting restless while the two played catch-up, especially since the waiter had casually delivered the pizza to their booth while they were all, excluding Holly, standing in the middle of the walkway mid-discussion.
"Pizza's here. Care to join us?"
"I was hoping you wouldn't mind, otherwise it looks like we'd have a long wait."
"Of course we don't mind," Nicole replied, careful not to sound too giddy. Not that she WAS giddy, at all. "Actually, Holly and I were just talking about her outing at the park earlier today."
"Hi sweetheart," EJ said sweetly as he turned his attention to Holly, his tone rich with the same kind of "affection he would have for his own daughter. "Remember me from the park today?" Sensing from Nicole's tone that this conversation was of the serious variety, EJ offered a premature apology. "I hope I didn't get you in trouble with your mommy. I mean, mommy," he continued, now turning his attention to Nicole, " I can personally vouch for what a good girl she was. She knew that the right thing to do was to find her nanny, and she very staunchly informed me that she is under no circumstance whatsoever, allowed to talk to strangers."
Holly nodded emphatically in agreement with her pro nono counsel.
"You're not in trouble, munchkin," she assured Holly while shooting a set of very dull daggers in EJ's direction. "I do think however that we need to have some refreshers on what to do if you're approached by a stranger though. Just in case next time it's not a friend of mommy's."
"We'll talk about it more later. For now, let's all enjoy a nice dinner, and then I will take you to the game room to play."
"I think were gonna need more pizza," Johnny suggested, prompting EJ to begin distributing slices, beginning with the children and finishing with his own. Before proceeding to dig in, he flagged down their waiter and ordered an additional 'Quatro Formaggio.'
"He's not kidding. This boy will eat you out of house and home. Especially when it comes to pizza."
Nicole couldn't help but smile adoringly at Johnny. In many ways he appeared no more than your typical teen, but Nicole knew first-hand from Sydney that he was transforming into quite the young man, finishing high school at the top of his class and currently preparing to attend Oxford University this fall. The resemblance to his father was strong, but his current hairstyle featuring shaggy bangs that covered his eyes and jeans and a tee of some band, she assumed, that she's never heard of, interfered with the casual observer's ability to appreciate the resemblance.
"Before we get started, I think proper introductions are in order," EJ suggested as he extended his hand across the table to Holly. "Ms. Holly Jonas, my name is EJ DiMera, and this young man over here is my son Johnny. Forgive me for my lack of manners, but it's not every day I get to meet a princess."
Holly's eyes grew wide. "Am I a prunes too, like mommy?"
EJ looked to Nicole for an explanation.
"Ah, she must be referring to the picture she told me you showed her of you and I, where I was dressed as a 'princess?'"
"Oh, I see," EJ chuckled as he withdrew his phone from his pocket, and brought up the picture in question.
A gazillion questions seemed to populate her mind all at once, starting with the reason why EJ had a picture of them on their first wedding day so easily accessible. As if sensing her bewilderment, he immediately explained.
"Sydney sent this to me recently. She thought it was very important that I remember this time in our lives. She regularly checks in on me and sends me pictures, just to make sure my memory has been completely restored. For a while there, I remembered almost nothing, and it really affected her greatly. She was determined to help restore the past, even the times and people that Samantha would rather I forgot."
"Were you dressed up for a Halloween party," Holly suggested, eager to steer the conversation back to the picture. EJ shot a glance at Nicole assuring her he would let her handle the explanation however she chose.
"No honey, this picture is from our wedding day. EJ and I were married, once upon a time."
"How many husbands did you have mommy," Holly asked innocently, with no jab at her mother's relationship woes intended. "Is it really ten like Aunt Sami said?"
Aunt Sami…she could kill Eric for that one. Even if Eric was Holly's biological father she wouldn't have encouraged her daughter to call that wench her aunt. At least EJ found some humor out of it, evident by the fact that he barely saved himself from spitting out his water, earning him a kick to the shin.
"Well, let's just put it this way, not as many as she said," Nicole defended herself. "And speaking of your Aunt Sami, as a matter of fact, EJ is actually her husband now."
"Not for long," Johnny began, but any further elaboration was cut short by a stern glance and gentle reminder from EJ.
"Johnny, not now."
"So," Nicole began, eager to change the subject despite also being curious to hear what else Johnny had to say. "How's Sydney? WHERE is SYdney?"
"Oh, she's here," EJ explained as he smiled, grateful for the subject change. "She would have come with us tonight but she wanted to check in on Marlena at the hospital. She's worried about John too. We all are, of course, I'm sure if she knew we would run into you tonight though, she would have made it a point to be here."
"Is Sydney the special girl you talk about sometimes mommy," Holly inquired, keeping up with the conversation.
"Yes sweetie, Sydney is EJ's daughter. You see, when EJ and I were married, Johnny and Sydney spent time living with us sometimes, and sometimes they would go stay with their mother Sami.
"Yup, she's our mommy Nicole. At least that's what we called her then," Johnny explained to Holly.
"So does that mean you're my brother?" Holly asked hopefully. Sure Holly had her half-brother Parker, but with Chloe always having to travel so much for work she barely got to see him. Holly wanted another sibling more than anything, and for the past two Christmases at least, it was number one on her list.
The second pizza arrived just as Johnny took the initiative to explain for himself. "Not exactly,"he informed, but then stumbled to find the right words to soften the blow of the unintended letdown.
EJ stepped into assist. "No sweetheart, he's not your brother, but he's a very good big brother to his sister Sydney, and he's a whiz at playing arcade games. I bet if you ask him nicely he'll be more than happy to accompany you to the game room.
Nicole glanced at Johnny, half expecting to see some hint of aggravation on his face, but instead he smiled genuinely and seemed more than agreeable to fulfill the task he was volunteered to.
"Mommy, can we go now, please?"
Nicole observed the 1 and 2/3 pieces of pizza her daughter consumed, evident by the crusts left behind and was satisfied by the amount consumed. "OK, but ask Johnny if he's ready?"
When Johnny nodded in agreement, Holly sunk beneath the booth to easily bypass EJ and maker her escape.
"Not so fast, Speedy Gonzales," Nicole said she grabbed her, eliding out of her seat in the process to let Johnny pass. "Before you go anywhere I need you to look me in the eye and promise me you'll mind Johnny, and won't leave his side, OK?"
"I promise mommy."
"And Johnny, if she doesn't listen, you bring her straight back."
"I'm sure she'll be a good girl. Come on, Holly."
Nicole watched with adoration as Holly gleefully skipped alongside Johnny all the way to the game room. They went straight for the skeeball, and the sight of Johnny first demonstrating, then assisting Holly with her own pitching of the ball up the ramp toward the scoring area made her smile just a bit brighter, Apparently Holly did not get the anticipated result, and she could hear her daughter's little wail of frustration. She chuckled at the scene, then turned her attention back to EJ when she was satisfied Holly was both in good hands, and she could easily glance over for a visual security check at any time. Apparently, EJ had been observing a different scene, and she couldn't help but wonder just how long he had been staring at her that way. That same way that always made her weak back in the day that always backed up his proclamation that she was the only woman in the world who mattered,
"She's absolutely beautiful Nicole. I can't begin to tell you how happy I am that you finally have your little girl."
"Thank you." Her voice was weak and crackly, and she imagined that if she'd been standing that her knees would have buckled from beneath her too. EJ was the only other person in the world who truly shared the pain of her previous losses, and to see the tear in his eye that was mirroring her own, to have that confirmation that he also continued to grieve for their lost ones, she was about half a second away from completely losing it. She had to change the subject, and fast.
"Sooooo, what is going on with you and Sami? Honestly, by the way she talked I thought you were wheelchair bound, hugging a teddy bear and just learning to button your sweater."
"Samantha and I have been separated about six months now. I assume she hasn't talked about it because she finds it embarrassing that she;s not able to control everyone in her life, but that's the short of it. I left to return to one of my father's villas, and Johnny and Sydney chose to move out with me. From what I've heard, you're already well-aware of Allie's situation. Prety much everyone knew she was pregnant before Sami found out."
"Yeah, well not sure if you heard the latest on that, but Sami won that one."
"She didn't win Nicole. The reason she wants that baby so bad is because none of her other children want anything to do with her. The only one who will even talk to her is Will, but even that relationship is strained. It's all going to blow up in her face, and soon. Allie is on her way back to Salem as we speak to fix this mess."
"Oh lord, I'm in for it. I'm sure regardless of how Allie decides to handle things, it'll be all my fault."
"Naturally, " EJ chuckled. "But don't take it personally, my dear. It really doesn't matter whose fault it is as long as it's to hers. You just happen to be her favorite person to blame."
Nicole sighed deeply as she wondered if she had the strength remaining for another round with Sami.
"I hate to say it, but there may be another development in the works to further complicate things."
"What now," Nicole groaned as she rolled her eyes. "Don't tell me that baby daddy is getting involved now.'
"Actually, the thing I'm referring to has nothing to do with Allie. It's Sydney."
"Syd," Nicole questioned with sudden alarm rising up in her voice. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong. Sydney is absolutely fine. Fantastic actually."
"Oh," Nicole said through a deep sigh of relief. "OK, what's going on then?"
EJ hesitated before speaking. "Sorry, I'm a bit unprepared. I didn't expect to see you so soon after arriving. I was actually going to call you tomorrow and ask you to have diner with me so I could explain."
So EJ is fresh off the plane in Salem, and his first order of business is securing a dinner date, with her?
"Um, and how does Sydney fit into all this?"
"Join me for dinner tomorrow night, and I'll tell you."
"Mommy, we're out of tokens."
The little voice seemed to be just a mere hint of an echo which somehow escaped into their plane from some faraway land. The only sound she seemed to be able to hear now with any sort of clarity was her sudden, irregular breathing, and the elevated thumping of her heart.
"OK, she found herself saying automatically, as if her body was merely a vessel for communicating some otherworldly being's desires. Although she wasn't sure the source of the answer, she wasn't looking to overturn it either.
"That time, the voice came loud and clear, certainly of the same dimension.
"Honey, I'm sorry, we have to go now. Eric will be home soon, and we need to bring him his pizza."
"Ok," Holly said disappointedly, realizing there was no wiggle room to earn another few minutes of playtime.
During this brief exchange with her daughter, EJ managed to secure the bill and send is credit card off with the waiter to settle their tab. Nicole shot him a visual scold, to which he replied with an impish wink.
"Thank you." Her words of gratitude were nearly followed by an admonition that he didn't have to do that, but she knew dam well that EJ never did anything other than exactly what he wanted to do, and he would never dream of letting a woman pay. He was old school like that, and independent though she was, she still found it completely charming.
"You're welcome. And Holly, I'm so glad we had a chance to meet. You take good care of your mommy now."
"I will," Holly promised as they all began to walk toward the exit. EJ was the first to arrive at the door by design, and held it until his entire party passed through, Nicole bringing up the rear.
"We had a lovely time tonight," he said soothingly as she brushed past him, catching a whiff of his cologne as a warm summer breeze blew their way. God he even smelled the same. "Thank you for the pleasure of your company."
"It was lovely," she agreed. "I have to admit though, if anyone told me earlier I'd be doing this tonight I would've thought they were crazy."
"I know, right? Pizza on a Tuesday night. For shame."
"I was going to suggest we do this again sometime, but I guess that's already a done deal. So, how's this aging to go? You cal me, I call you…_
"I'll get with Sydney tomorrow and get your number. There are a few details I need to iron out before we meet so I'll call you when I know more."
Nicole just shook her head. "What are you up to, EJ DiMera?"
"Meet me tomorrow and find out. Goodnight, Nikki." It was the first time she cursed the fact that the pizza parlor was so close to home. They were already paused outside her apartment building, and she could tell by the the particular lights illuminating her third floor corner apartment that Eric was upstairs waiting for her. Without warning, he leaned in, and for a moment she was sure he was going to kiss her, but then he suddenly stopped as if catching himself performing an automatic gesture which was no longer appropriate, and backed away. He then took both her hands in his own and squeezed tightly, and left her with a smile reminiscent of some dude in a chick flick realizing they were truly, madly, deeply in love.
Oh God, get over yourself Nicole. He's just not that into you, and why would you even care. Breathe girl, breathe.
Disinterested as she pretended to be, she watched as EJ and Johnny retreated back toward the restaurant, where it turned out the car was parked all along. In typical EJ fashion, he had gone well out of his way to see her and Holly home safely. His unmatched chivalry was one of many characteristics which had set him far apart from those who came before, and raised the bar for all those who followed, so the gesture really was no shock. What was surprising, was that for the rest of the night, she found herself fantasizing that he hadn't stopped at her front door, and instead escorted her clear upstairs to her bedroom and finally finish the kiss he'd been unable to start.