In Name Only
Kevin's face froze into a mask when Howie stated his reason for needing a day or two off.
AJ had to ask the question that Kevin was afraid to.
"Are you sure it’s her?"
"Honestly? No. But there's a good chance. Todd's friend Bianca gathered as much info as she could quickly about this Jeanne woman. And it all sounds very much like Kat. Single woman. One child; a son. Has a few romance novels under her belt; those cheesy Harlequin types. She is looking to move to the "big time" with a new agent. Kat always did say that if she needed a little extra cash she'd just write up an romance quickly and sell it under an assumed name."
"Maybe she did it this way to establish her "new' identity," Howie continued. "We know she wears glasses because Jeanne told Bi that she couldn't go up to New York because she had an opthamologist appointment."
"That's a pretty weak similarity," Brian pointed out.
"Fine," Howie said with an angry snort. "Then how about this? She also told Bi that they'd have to negotiate something special because she wouldn’t go to New York. She was very evasive about it; wouldn't give clear reasons. Just that she had an eye doctor's appointment and that she couldn't leave her son. And that bringing him was impossible."
AJ looked that the other three men thoughtfully. "She does have good reason to hate New York City," he mused.
"And she'd be recognize there pretty quickly. Especially in the publishing industry," Brian agreed.
Kevin didn't say a word.
"Look, I know it's a long shot. But I did read the chapters she submitted. Todd was right: they really do read like Kat. Much darker but a similar style. I can give them to you if you want." Howie was starting to get excited again. He took a deep breath, then slowly let it out. "This woman is going way out of her way to ensure that no one sees her. That she stays where she is and doesn't leave. She is making Bi come to her if she is really interested. And she says that she won't do book tours or allow her photo in any finished books..."
"And a publisher would go for that?" Kevin asked softly.
"It speaks," AJ muttered, then cursed as Brian elbowed him.
Howie shrugged. "It’s up to the publisher as I understand it. If they are really that interested they might go for it. Bi told Todd she'd had a few nibbles and while those qualifications had slowed things down they hadn't shut things off."
The room was silent: each man lost in their own thoughts.
"Damn, I wish I could get a hold of Nick and tell him about all of this," Brian sighed.
AJ was glad of any slight change of conversation. "Still hasn't called in?"
Brian shook his head. "I left a message on both his home phone and on his cell. He hasn't returned them yet."
"He probably let his batteries dies again," Kevin said with a small chuckle.
Brian grinned. He agreed with his cousin's comment. And was glad that Kevin still had his sense of humour. "Yeah, he's probably going to his meetings or whatever they were, then straight back to playing Nintendo for hours on end and lost all track of time. He probably won't clue into the larger world until he has attained the highest level or finished his business. Whichever comes first."
AJ grinned. That did sound like Nick.
Howie held his patience as long as he could. Then finally cracked. "Well?"
Four sets of eyes darted around the room. Then finally Kevin drawled, "well, I don't see why not. After all, I'm not going to be here either. I'm going with you."
Kat opened the side door to the house and dropped her bag and keys in her usual cubbyhole. She tilted her head and listened for any sounds. There was a light murmuring from deep in the house and she didn't suppress her smile.
"Man, have I ever had a long, hard day," she said loudly. She walked over to the fridge and pulled out a bottle of water. "And do you know what I need at the end of a long day?"
Nick was going to ask, but something told him not to. It was as if Kat was following some sort of regular ritual.
"I need something sweet to nibble on. That's what I need. Something to give me a little energy and make me laugh. Hmm. What should I have? Maybe some pie."
Nick could hear a small giggle from around the corner.
"No, maybe some chocolate. Or some of those Sweet tarts I like so much."
There was a brief flash of dark hair in the doorway, then it pulled back and Nick heard more giggling.
"I know what I need," Kat said triumphantly. "I need some sweet and slurpy, ooey and gooey, slippery and slimy, so oh-so-good..."
"Toffee!" A small voice piped then a little body flung itself around the corner and jumped into Kat's waiting arms.
The boy was a miniature version of Kevin. Nick had expected that, of course, but to see it there in the flesh...
He had Kevin's sculpted face, and short dark brown hair that spiked in all directions. While Kevin's was often that way for 'artistic' purposes, the child's was like that through reckless abandon. He had hazel eyes, which glowed green and blue and brown in turn. And yes, the infamous eyebrows were starting to make their appearance. He was also built like Kevin: slim and tall (for his age), but with a muscular tone. Anyone seeing him would know who his father was instantly. Or maybe it was just that way because Nick knew who it was and had sought out those similarities.
Nick took all of this in quickly as he watched CJ alternately kissing and licking Kat's face. Kat was doing the same thing back. It could have looked ridiculous, especially with the "you taste yummy", "I like toffee; so sweet" and "yuck what did you have for lunch?" banter that was going back and forth. But the two were clearly having fun, and the love between the two was obvious.
CJ finally noticed Nick hovering in the background and jerked back in Kat's arms.
"Who's that?" he asked boldly.
"Chris, this is your Uncle Nick. You remember him; you two used to play together a lot. And you have lots of pictures and videos of him. Nick, this is Chris, the Toffee man."
Nick flashed Chris the patented Carter smile. "Chris? I thought it was CJ."
Kat opened her mouth to answer but Chris got there first. "CJ was my baby name. I'm a boy now so I am Chris." Nick could tell by his tone and the lack of emotion on Chris' face, that he wasn't quite sure about Nick's appearance.
"That makes sense. A lot of people used to call me Nicky. But I'm Nick. That is my adult name. And I only let my really, really good friends call me Nicky, and then only sometimes," Nick said pleasantly.
"EVERYbody calls me Chris," the little man replied firmly. Then bent a little. "Mom calls me Toffee, too. And that's okay."
Again it was Chris with the answer. "When I was becoming a boy I had trouble with words. I couldn’t say Christopher. I said Chris Toffee." Chris allowed Kat to wipe his face, his eyes still measuring Nick cautiously.
"You’re my uncle?"
"In a way. Your dad and I are in this group together…"
"The Backstreet Boys."
Nick was startled that Chris knew and he flicked a quick glance at Kat. She sipped her water, saying nothing.
"Yeah. Them. We’ve been together so long we are like brothers. In fact, I got to meet you about a day after you were born. So I feel like your uncle. Is that okay with you?"
Chris didn’t answer. Just cocked his head and looked at him. "You’re the one who sings ‘I need you tonight’."
"I like that one. It’s not my favorite but its good. You know my dad?"
The sudden change of conversation was making Nick’s head spin. The whole thing was making his head spin! He looked at Kat. She just leaned back against the stove and watched her son give him the third degree.
She must have been thinking the same thing as him. She smiled mildly at him and said quietly, "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition."
Nick glared at him. "Yes. In fact, I have a present for you from him." Nick moved back to his suitcases. They had stopped by the hotel, checking him out and picking them up, on their way to the house. Kat had insisted and Nick wasn’t going to question it. He’d looked for her for too long.
He opened one of the smaller sports bags and pulled out a large plastic dinosaur. Kevin had gotten it for CJ’s birthday recently. He’d told Nick all about it. How it was so popular with boys CJ’s (oops, Chris’) age and how he’d love it… Then Kevin had gotten that distant, longing look on his face, sighed heavily, and returned it to the room he had set aside for Chris in his LA home.
With an extra day to get ready for his trip north, Nick had plenty of time to get the toy from of Kevin’s house. Kevin was in Orlando; if this had been a false lead Nick would have time to return it and Kevin would be none the wiser.
Chris’ eyes lit up at the sight of the toy. "An apatosaurus," he murmured reverently. He took the dinosaur gingerly from Nick, his eyes and hands caressing it as he turned it, looking at it from all angles.
"It’s perfect." Chris looked up at his mother and at Nick. "The apatosaurus is kind of like a brontosaurus, but its not. They both eat plants though. They get to be almost 100 feet long. And they laid eggs, not having babies. They found bones in Colorado and Utah."
"Rina? Chris?" An older woman entered the kitchen. "Oh! I’m sorry. I didn’t know you had guests."
"It’s okay, Deb. This is Nick."
"He’s my uncle," Chris said, his eyes still glued to the dinosaur.
Kat chuckled. Yep, the fastest way to Chris’ heart right now was through prehistoric reptiles.
"Yes, he is. Nick, this is Deb. She watches Chris for me in the afternoons."
Deb looked at him, knowing that she knew him from somewhere but not sure where. Kat didn’t have many personal pictures around the place. Those she did have were mainly of Chris. "Nice to meet you. Nick, was it?"
"Yes ma’am." Nick had obviously been taking Southern charm lessons from Brian.
Deb turned back to Kat. "Well, if you don’t need me, I’m off. Night Rina. Night Chris."
Chris just grunted; intent on his model.
"Come on Nick. I’ll show you to your room," Kat said.
Nick was loath to leave Chris, but figured it would only take a few minutes. Kat lead him up the stairs and to a small, but airy room.
"It’s not large, but it does have a secret weapon," Kat said with a grin. She opened the door to the left and showed him that it had its own bathroom. Them, with a broader grin, opened a door by the bathtub. He had thought it was a linen closet, but instead it opened onto a large porch that looked out towards the lake.
"Oh man. That is cool," he breathed as his eyes took in the sparkle of the water and the trees. A breeze came up and he could smell a fresh pine scent.
"Yeah. Chris’ room opens onto the same porch. If you are going to have a shower you might want to lock the door or you might have visitors.
They headed back downstairs and Kat offered him a beer. He was already intoxicated by the whirlwind day he’d had, but he took it anyway.
"Yo! Chris! What kind of pizza do you want?" She called down the hallway.
"Pepperoni!" was Chris’ response.
She glanced at Nick. "What? I cook all day, so I get to relax at night. What do you want?"
"What he said," Nick smiled.
Kat made the call, motioning Nick to head down to the living room. Chris was sitting on the floor, playing with the dinosaur. Playing on the TV behind him was one of the Boys’ concert videos.
"You watching that?" Nick asked, his mouth suddenly dry.
"Yep." Chris got up and looked at the screen. "Hey, that’s you!" Then laughed as the Nick on the screen stumbled, recovered then grinned goofily.
"So it is."
"And there. That’s my dad," Chris said proudly, pointing at the screen.
Nick’s eyes went wide. He hadn’t been sure what Kat had told her son, but he hadn’t expected that.
Chris’ finger pointed unerringly at Kevin’s face.
The flight was shorter than he’d expected. Though obviously not short enough for Kevin. He’d been tapping his fingers on his leg almost the entire flight. At times he seemed to be playing the piano: Howie could swear he’d recognize the hand positions for "Back to your heart." It had been a while since he’s watched Kevin play it, but for a while there he’d seen it all too often.
"We are on our final approach into Austin. Please ensure that your seat backs and tray tables are upright and your seatbelts are secured," the flight attendant’s voice said over the intercom.
"Nervous much?" Kevin asked with a slow drawl.
"That’s the fourth time you’ve checked your table tray." Kevin pointed out.
"Excuse me, Mr. Piano Man," Howie snapped back.
Kevin looked down at his fingers, realizing what he’d been doing and broke off with a small curse.
"Todd’s meeting us?" He asked, eager to change the subject.
Howie nodded. "He’ll have gotten us checked into the hotel and picked up the car. His flight got in early this morning."
"That’s good. No waiting."
Howie glanced at the older man. He was still nervous around him. They’d managed to rebuild most of their friendship. Kat and CJ were the one are where they just couldn’t connect. Both had too much emotional baggage to deal with there.
Yet Kevin had been the first to accept Howie’s relationship with Todd. Actually that wasn’t true; Howie’s family had been. That had amazed him. When his mother had turned to him and said, "I’m glad you finally found a nice man to settle down with," you could have knocked him down with a feather. But of the Boys, Kevin had been first.
Brian had been reticent mainly because Todd had been involved in that ill-fated online conversation. The one that had caused his cousin’s collapse. His trip home had given Kevin a chance to recover, but he’s never really been the same since.
AJ just wasn’t totally sure about the whole thing. Or maybe he was still leery of anyone who could supplant him as Howie’s closest buddy. Come to think of it, the way AJ had been behaving was very similar to how he’d behaved when he and Kat had first gotten together…
Nick just seemed to be annoyed that Howie’s gotten on with his life. Of course he was also irked with Kevin for the same reason.
The rumble of engines and the bouncing of the plane on the tarmac shook Howie out of his reverie. He felt another surge of excitement that he carefully bit down. Yes, this really might be it. Or it could just be another blind ally. Stay calm, Howie, he admonished himself.
Todd was waiting for them at the gate. He seemed surprised to see Kevin, even though Howie had called and told him to get a second room at the hotel.
"Howie. Kevin. It’s good to see you both," Todd said pleasantly, though his eyes lit up when they rested on his lover.
Kevin nodded, and Howie smiled, his eyes blazed the same message.
As neither man had brought more than carry-on luggage they got out of the terminal quickly. Todd started the engine on the SUV he’d rented, and expertly headed out of the airport and along the highway.
"So?" Howie said finally.
Todd sighed. "Look, we’re almost there. Can I tell you when we get to the hotel?"
"No," Kevin said softly. But dangerously. "Tell me, us, now."
Todd sighed again, and turned off at a rest stop. He pulled to a stop in a secluded corner.
"I haven’t seen her. My flight was late and all I had time to do was get the car and check in before coming to get you. But Bi did find out more and faxed it to the hotel for me."
Todd looked at Howie. "It’s not good."
"Tell me anyway," Kevin growled.
Todd took a deep breath and wet his lips nervously. "Jeanne is a writer who appeared on the scene about two years ago. She has been based out of Austin for the entire time. And she has always refused any publicity. Harlequin wanted to move her into their stable of mainstream writers but she refused because it would mean more exposure for her."
"Todd, out with it. Stop beating about the bush," Howie said impatiently.
Todd glanced at him, hoping this wouldn’t hurt so much. But knowing that it would.
"As I said she appeared about two years ago. Settled her because, well, this was where she was. See she’d been in an accident. Her car had been hit by a drunk driver. Car was totaled. She’d been hurt bad. She’s still in a wheelchair. Probably will be for life. She has facial scars that she is very shy about…" his voice faded as he saw the looks of shock, fear and concern wash across their faces.
"And CJ? I mean, what about her son?" Kevin finally asked.
Todd looked him straight in the eye as he delivered his final blow.
"Her son was also in the car. That is why she won’t leave town. He died instantly and he is buried in a cemetery here. She refuses to go anywhere that would take her away from him."