“Hey ‘Rok. I got your messages.” Nick said into his cell phone as he waved back at Chris as he swung higher, arms flailing, an impish grin on his face.
“I wish you’d said what was going on. ‘Get your butt back here now’ isn’t terribly informative.” He moved forward instinctively as Chris launched himself from the swing, flying through the air and then landing in a laughing heap.
“Anyway, it sounded urgent, so I’ll be there tomorrow. And I want to be filled in then, ‘k? I gotta go. I have lots to talk to you about too, but I’m not going to say what it is. There; see how you like it. Ha ha. Toodles, Frick.” Nick signed off and turned off the cell phone just as Chris came running over and flung himself around Nick’s neck.
“Oof! Hey, big guy.”
“Uncle Nick? Did you see? I was flying! Not far, and not like a plane, but I was flying! Did you see me?”
“I saw you,” Nick chuckled as he pulled Chris up into his arms. “You were really up there.”
“I like flying. I wanna do it all the time.”
Gee, where have I heard that before? Nick thought. “Really? Even more than swimming?” He, Chris and Kat had spent a lot of time in the lake over the past few days.
Chris considered it thoughtfully. “Can’t I do both?”
“A little hard to do both at the same time,” Nick pointed out.
Chris frowned, then brightened. “Then I’ll swim all morning and fly all afternoon,” he said decisively.
“And at night?”
“That’s easy. I’ll be with Momma, and eat her cooking and make her laugh. She needs to laugh.”
Nick tried not to gape at him. Damn, but kids were a lot smarter than anyone gave them credit for. He was about to say something, but Chris beat him to it.
“She has a lot on her mind, you know. I gotta make sure she laughs a lot otherwise she gets sad.”
“She gets sad a lot?”
“Yeah. When she thinks I don’t know. But she does, so I make her laugh.” Then he winked at him. “It’s a good thing I’m funny. It makes it easy.”
Nick chuckled. “Yeah, you’re funny alright. A really funny monkey man.”
“Monkey? I’m a monkey!” Chris crowed as they opened the door to the café. “Hi Paul,” he greeted the head waiter. “I’m a monkey! Cool, hunh?”
Paul grinned. “You don’t look like a monkey.”
Chris and Nick exchanged mischievous grins, then started walking like gorillas and hooting noisily as they headed back to the kitchen. Behind them, Paul was holding onto the desk to stop from falling over laughing, and the few other customers who were in the café were snickering into their napkins.
“What’s all this then?” Kat asked, with a raised eyebrow when the two entered the room.
“We’re monkeys!” Chris explained as he climbed into Kat’s arms.
“Yeah, and I’m the monkey’s uncle,” Nick smirked as he walked over to Emma and wrapped his arms around her.
“I’m not even going to go there,” Kat chuckled. She turned to Chris, who was rustling her hair. “Now what are you doing?”
“Looking for fleas. I’m hungry.” He pretended to pull one out of Kat’s hair and offered it to Nick who shook his head. He was busy finding lots in Emma’s hair.
“Get out of there!” Em laughed. “I don’t have fleas!”
“Sure you do… Look there’s one now: it went behind your ear,” Nick said as he started to kiss her ear. “Oh look and another one’s on your neck.” He naturally had to nibble it away.
Em giggled and pushed him away. “Sorry, bub. No fleas, but now I have cooties.”
“Are cooties good to eat?” Chris asked.
Both Nick and Emma blushed a fiery red and Kat almost turned purple in an effort to stop from laughing.
“If you are that hungry, monkey boy, come over here and I’ll get you some soup.” Kat set up Chris with some food, and hoped, as she was sure that Nick and Emma did too, that it would keep him quiet for a little while.
Nick and Emma were whispering in the corner, and then Em broke off with a stricken look and walked out the side door. Nick looked after her sadly.
“Bri called. I have to head back.”
Kat paled. “You talked to Brian?”
“Nah. He left a message on my machine. Something’s up down there and he wouldn’t say what.” He snorted. “Typical Brian: thinks I have ESP or something. So I called and left a message telling him I’d be flying out tomorrow. Emma doesn’t like that much,” he finished unhappily.
“I’m not too stoked about it either.”
He grinned at her. “You gonna miss me?”
She looked at him seriously. “Honestly? Yes. I missed you a lot over the past few years. You were my bud, Nick. I miss that.”
“Am I the only one you miss?” he pushed.
“I miss AJ and Brian too. And Leigh. Is Bryleigh still a real minx?”
“That’s not who I’m asking about, Kat, and you know it.”
She turned away, going back to stirring the pot on the stove.
“You always do that. I show up: you ignore me and stir some food or other. I ask you about Kevin, and you start stirring again. Stop avoiding it, Kat.”
“It’ll burn if I don’t stir it,” she replied softly.
“Then, shit…” he elbowed her out of the way and turned off the stove and moved the pot off the element. “There. No burn. Now talk to me. Please!”
“I don’t know what to say, Nick,” she whispered.
He took her shaking hands in his and squeezed then supportively. “Come back to Orlando with me.”
There was a little sniffle behind him and he turned around. Emma had come back into the room, then swallowed convulsively as she heard his words and turned and ran back outside, tears streaming down her face.
“Stupid, stupid,” she berated herself as she ran. “What on earth possessed you to think that maybe he’d want you?”
It had hurt so much: hearing him say the words she’s wanted him to say to her to Kat. Damn it, why couldn’t he have said them to her? She’d really thought he’d cared…
“Emma!” Nick’s hand grabbed her arm, whipped her around to face him. “Jesus, didn’t you hear me? I was calling you.”
She wiped away her tears angrily. “Oh? You were saying something?”
“Come on, Em. You know I was. Please, I can’t take two women I care about not talking to me.”
“You…. You care about me?” she asked timidly.
“Of course I do! I wouldn’t be spending as much time with you as I do if I didn’t.”
She sniffled once, then wiped her eyes quickly. “I just figured maybe you needed a distraction while you were here or something.”
He cursed and pulled her into his arms. “Hell, no. I thought you knew that. I told you all about how I’d done that before and…”
“Yeah, so I thought that was just warning me…”
“I said I hated that. That I didn’t like myself for doing it. And that I was tired of all the damn people who are nice to me just ‘cos of that who I am shit. I was being honest. I thought you were being honest with me too. Or weren’t you?”
“You sure you weren’t stringing me along? Just to say you got to fool around with Nick Carter?” he asked nastily.
“Hell, no! What are you? New? I don’t do that! I really thought we were…”
He pulled her into a deep hug, then kissed her gently on the lips. “That’s what I was hoping you’d say,” he whispered huskily.
She sighed and leaned into him. “I just don’t want you to go. I’ll miss you.”
“I’ll miss you too.”
“And especially if you take Kat and Chris with you.”
He shook his head. “I don’t think that’s going to happen. Damn that woman! Why is she so stubborn? Doesn’t she know how much we need her?”
“But I heard you… You asked her to….”
He raised his eyebrow quizzically. “We’re talking about Kat here. You know, the same woman who stood in that kitchen and said ‘call me Rina’ until I wanted to take her over my knee and spank her.”
“You can spank me,” Emma murmured, then blushed.
He laughed and hugged her again. “I can, can I? What if I want you to spank me?”
“Maybe. If you beg,” she grinned cheekily through her rosy hue.
“I’d be begging for a lot more than that.” He started to nibble on her neck, then stopped as he felt her tense. “What?”
“I just… I thought you didn’t…”
He looked at her mock sternly. “Now you listen, you dumbass. I have to put up with morons like Brian and AJ all the time, and I don’t expect it from you. I want you. I want you very much. I just want to be more than some fast fling. And I want to be more to you than that. So, I’m taking it slow, and you’ll just have to bear with me. Okay?”
She nodded, but the look in her eyes was all the answer he needed. “Good. And another thing. I know when I asked Kat to come with me it hurt you. I really need you to understand this: the reason I am here is to convince her to come home. That is my priority. And its gotta stay that way. So, if I can’t get her to come when I go tomorrow, I’m going to need you here to try and talk her into it. Once she’s there and things are squared away, then we can figure out some way for you and I to be together. Okay? I’m asking you to wait for me, Emma. Can you do that?”
Memo to self: when in doubt of how to answer questions like that, let your lips do the talking.
Kat held a sleeping Chris tightly. He’d been miserable all day. Ever since Nick had left. He’d pouted and moaned, and then flopped in front of the television and watched the Disney video that Nick had bought him. Twice. He’d finally fallen asleep, and Kat had scooped him up and carried him up the stairs.
Why was she so scared?
She thought she’d come to terms with it all. Kevin didn’t love her. Okay. But he did love Chris, so she’d just have to live with that. Howie… well, Howie was a jerk. And fortunately she didn’t have to live with that anymore.
For the last two years the only man in her life, other than the one who haunted her dreams, was Chris. She’d devoted her life to him. But it didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that Chris was at an age where he needed a father. He needed a male role model. The way he’d clung to Nick and done “guy stuff” as he called it, made it clear.
The question was: could she let him have the father he needed? Could she handle seeing Kevin on a regular basis and knowing that he didn’t care about her? Could she handle him seeing other people and being around to see it?
Could she give Chris back his father without losing herself?