Chapter 1: The Arrival
Stepping out of the airport terminal in Orlando, Kat was rocked back by a wave of heat. It had been hot in Toronto this summer - temperatures high in the thirties - but this was intense.
"Itís just because it's inland," she reassured herself. "Itíll be better once I get to the ocean."
She gripped her Pullman case firmly, trying not to think about the squelchy feeling of sweaty palms on the plastic handle and headed to the car rental bus.
The car was a subcompact - a Geo - a nice turquoise colour that was just shiny enough to reflect the sun's glare straight into her eyes. Still, driving it gave her a sense of freedom that she had not felt in a while. Since giving up on owning a car, and relying on Torontoís subway and streetcar system Kat has missed the rush that having a car, any car, at her disposal gave her. She rolled down the window, happy to get a breeze going, but just then a semi-trailer went by spewing a noxious trail of black smoke. Coughing, Kat pulled into a nearby convenience store.
Shaking her t-shirt loose from her sweaty back she entered the store, sighing happily at the wave of air-conditioned coolness that swept over her. She grabbed two big bottles of water from the cooler, one for now and one for the car ride, a box of her favorite Keebler™ cookies, a kind she couldnít find in Toronto, and headed to the counter. She grabbed a map of Florida, and on a whim, a street map of Orlando.
Once in the car she put one bottle behind the seat, and pulled the cookies out of the bag. Both maps came with it and she frowned as she looked at the street map. "AC must have gotten to me. What am I going to do with that?"
Fortunately, it did have a basic map of the city in the front, and she used that to try and figure out the quickest route out of town, and hit the road.
The heat continued to beat down on her and the quickly drunken bottle of water seemed to have no effect. As she approached the outskirts of town she as a large park, complete with swings, a slide, a picnic area and small woods. Decisively, she pulled into the parking lot, determined to sit and acclimate to the Florida heat and to make some decisions about where she was heading. She pulled her baseball cap down low to ward off the sunís glare, grabbed her second water bottle and her map before heading to a picnic table.
She had been sitting for only a few minutes before a couple of young teens, in their 13ís or 14s at most, cycled by. One, wearing an Offspring T-shirt, glanced at her and said loudly to his buddy, "man, do you smell that bacon frying? I wonder why the smell is so strong over there," indicating her with his chin. They both laughed cruelly before cycling off.
Kat blinked back tears. She knew she had put on a few pounds recently and was trying to get it off, but between her sedentary office job, general unhappiness about her life and normal metabolic changes brought about by, well, getting older every year, it wasnít slipping off her the way it had in her early 20s. Then, all she seemed to need to do was think about it and the weight disappeared. No longer. It didnít hurt most days. It had been a gradual thing and sheíd adjusted to it. She only hated it first thing in the morning when she looked at herself in the mirror or when she tried to get into clothes she hadnít worn in a while. But the unthinking, uncaring occasional comments by idiots like those boys still cut. "The average American woman wears a size 14," she whispered under her breath, but, like always, it didnít help.
She heard a rustling in the woods to her right. "Just great. Back for more," she thought angrily.
The rustling continued.
"Just go away," she shouted angrily and was surprised when her call was answered not by another cruel juvenile laugh but by a low mournful howl of an animal in distress. She looked around, wondering if this was just a joke. "Hello?í she called. Another softer howl came from the bushes.
Cautiously she moved into the woods, calling occasionally trying to pinpoint the howl. In the late afternoon half-light it was hard to see, but eventually she found the animal. It was a small chihuahua, still on its leash, that had gotten tangled in the underbrush. Judging from the gouges on the ground around it, it had been caught there for some time. Small cuts and scratches marked his chest, with the blood dried, to show how hard it had struggled to release the handle end of the leash from the small outcropping that it was caught on.
"Hello, little one. Are you in trouble?"
The chihuahua looked at her with its big, sad brown eyes and whimpered sadly. "Okay, let me help," Kat said reassuringly as she released the leash from where it was caught. She fully expected the dog to run off, but instead it came up to her licking her ankle quickly and looking up at her.
Chuckling softly, she bent, undid the leash, putting it around her neck, over her shoulders and picked up the dog. "Had enough for one day, have you? Okay bud, letís get you out of here and see if we can find a way to get you home." She cleared the woods and returned to the table where her water and maps lay. Taking her baseball hat off she filled it with water, letting the dehydrated dog drink while she petted it softly and hummed a soothing, reassuring melody.
Once the dog had drunk almost three-quarters of the water, it sat back on the table and looked at her expectantly. She pulled his collar around until she could reach the tag. "Lil Tyke," she read. "1354 Walnut Crescent. Well, Mr. Tyke, what say you we get you home?" The chihuahua gave a short bark in agreement. Kat picked up the streetmap. "You do not know how lucky you are that I got this." The dog seemed to sense something and licked her hand. "You little charmer," Kat smiled, petting him appreciatively.
She looked through the book, eventually finding Walnut Crescent. "Hmmm, not too far from here. Did you run away from your master?" The dog barked a short series of small dog yips. "Okay, okay," she said raising her hands in a gesture of defeat. "Did you run away from your slave, then?í The dog cocked his head at her -- clearly a gesture of agreement.
"Okay King Tyke, letís get you back to your palace." She picked him up gently, trying not to hurt any of his scratches, and carried him to the car, his little tail beating a steady pulse on her stomach.
Finding Walnut Crescent on the map and finding it in real life were two different things. For one thing the number of one way streets made getting there directly a little difficult. Throughout the ride Kat kept a steady hum of soothing talk going to the little dog that had curled up on the passenger seat. He seemed exhausted by his ordeal and in the need of reassurance.
Finally she pulled up in front to f a large house whose numberplate matched the ones on Tykeís collar. "Wow, quite a place your servants live in, mister mighty mutt. Shall we see if anyone is at home?" She carried Tyke up the driveway to the front door. She rang the doorbell and listened to it echo throughout he house. No one answered. She was looking down the side of the house for some lights when a deep voice behind her said, "Can I help you?" Kat spun around quickly, jostling the little dog who immediately started yipping in concern. She was looking into the deep green eyes of a tall, well-built man. "I...I was looking to see if anyone was here," she said only to be interrupted by his joyous cry of "Tyke!" when he saw what she had in her arms. Tyke jumped out of Katís grasp and ran over to the man who bent to pet him.
"Yours, I take it?" Kat smiled.
"No actually, my cousinís. But weíve been looking for him all afternoon."
"I found him at a park a few blocks from here. He was caught in the brush." She bent to show him the scratches on the chihuahuaís front. "I think heíd been there a while - see, he put up quite a struggle."
"Poor little guy."
"Yeah," she agreed. "His leash was caught. He was lucky I heard him."
Tyke was enjoying having two people fuss over him.
"You like dogs?" the man asked.
"Not really. Comes with the territory." She chuckled at the quizzical look on his face and held out her hand, "Hi, Iím Kat."
"Kevin." he smiled shaking her hand. "now it makes sense. So, no dogs for the Kat? Tyke was really lucky then."
"Not really, I canít stand to have any animal in pain - even if it is canine," she grinned. "And I donít hate dogs. Just not fond of most breeds. Iíd have one if I could, but that would be cruel."
Kevin gave her another quizzical look. "My favorite dog is the Irish wolfhound. You know gray, shaggy things, about the size of a small horse. Iíd love to have one, but my apartment is kind of small. Besides, " she smiled, "if I had enough room for a wolfhound, Iíd have enough room for a horse, so Iíd rather have one of those. Saves me from getting in trouble with a the SPCA for riding a dog."
Kevin laughed, crinkling his nose. It made the butterflies in her stomach flutter even harder.
"So have both then," he said.
"Iíd love that. That would be my dream - a large spread on the ocean, with room for a few horses, the Ďhounds and lots and lots of cats. I do have to live up to my name naturally." Kevin smiled. "Yes," she said, eyes twinkling, "and with the rest of my lottery winnings I suppose Iíd be able to solve world hunger, create world peace and still have time left over to win that Oscar."
"Ha ha," Kevin said. "Keep dreaming, itíll happen." He paused to wrestle Tyke who was starting to gnaw on his shoes. "Why on the ocean?"
"Hmm?" Kat pulled herself back from gazing at his muscular body. "Oh, the ranch. I am a real sea-girl. Nothing makes me happier than the sound of waves and the smell of salt air. Thatís why I am here."
She was about to say more but Tykeís yipping raised them out of their conversation. Kevin released the dogís collar and he went bounding off across the lawn to a medium-height blond-haired man who was walking up the driveway. The looks of joy on both the manís and the dogís face as they were reunited was a sight to see. A huge goofy grin shone on the manís face as the chihuahua licked him all over the face.
"Hey, Brian, " Kevin called, "Kat here found your runaway." Kat shook hands with Brian who was still hugging the little dog.
"As I was telling Kevin, I found him in the park down the street. Heíd been caught there a while. Heís got few cuts and scratches, but nothing too bad, I think. Heíd been pulling on his leash so he may have strained his neck and he was very dehydrated."
"Thanks so much for bringing him home, Kat. Weíve been looking for him for hours. Iíd just got him on his leash, ready for a walk when he took off."
"No worries," said Kat, "I am just glad I got Mighty Mutt home safely."
"Mighty Mutt, huh? Is that your new name? More like Mighty Pain-in-the-Butt." Brian looked at Tyke who started licking his face again. "Yes, I love you, too."
Kevin laughed, again crinkling his nose cutely.
"Did you want to come in?" offered Brain, hugging the dog close, but indicating the house with his head.
"No, thanks. Its okay. Its starting to get dark and I should hit the road."
"Where you headed, Kat?" Kevin asked.
"I have no idea," Kat smiled. "Somewhere with waves."
Brian glances curiously at his cousin who shrugged.
"Actually, maybe you can help," Kat continued. "Are you native Floridians?í
"No,' said Brian. "We are both from Kentucky, though we have lived here for several years, off and on."
"Well, what I am looking for is a nice seaside town - not too rowdy but not too boring either. Something with good beaches, good waves, good sights, and a good motel, preferably beachside, that wonít cost an arm and a leg."
"Tall order," said Kevin.
"Yeah, I usually head to North Carolina for my beaches, but I had a some more time this vacation, and figured I would combine that with rollercoasters and theme parks."
"Well, weíve got those here," Kevin chuckled.
"Where are you from?" asked Brian.
"Toronto," Kat replied.
"Been there several times," said Kevin.
"Great city, great people, great golfing," said Brian."
"Why, thank you, kind sir," Kat made a little curtsy which had both men laughing, "Yeah. It is a great town, but everyone needs a change of scene."
"You might try Edgewater," suggested Kevin. "Its near Port Orange on the Atlantic coast. Cute little town, close to nightlife, but off the beaten path enough that it doesnít get crazy. Good surfing and nice beach."
"EdgewaterÖ" Kat mused, "Iíll give it a try. I better get going before I totally lose the light. Nice meeting you Kevin, Brian," she said shaking their hands. She then bend down to Tyke who was now chewing on Brianís sneaker laces. "Now listen, buster. No more running away. I donít want you to hurt your friendsí beautiful voices by making them raw with calling you. Understand?"
The dog looked at her, barked once, then returned to his chewing.
She rose to see a slightly shocked look on Kevinís face. "So you know who we are?"
"Took me a little while, but yes. I love the Millennium album. You guys have really grown as a vocal group. I even sent you a video concept for one of the songs on the album, but I havenít heard anything back yet. Of course you were on tour, and I am sure that whoever in your office who normally looks after that was really busy."
"Yeah, we usually like to answer those ourselves, but with a tour..." Brian trailed off.
Kat smiled. "No worries. It was great meeting you. Iíll see you."
"Thatís it?" Kevin said sharply. "No requests for autographs or anything?"
"Iíd love it, but I donít want to intrude. You guys deserve your privacy. And I do have to hit the road."
"You donít even want to pitch your video concept to us here in person?" Brian asked incredulously.
"No. Just keep an eye out for one from Kat. Its great stuff." Kat walked towards the car, then stopped and walked up to them. Kevin had a wary look in his eye, which told her that as much as they liked their fans not all of their encounters with them had been easy on them. She took the leash from around her neck and gave it to Brian. "Here, you probably want this."
Brian chuckled. "What, not going to keep it as souvenir?"
"No, Tyke clearly needs it much more than me." Kat turned to Kevin, "Kevin - our talk about horses - is there anywhere hereabouts where I can rent a horse for a few hours? I havenít ridden for some time, so even if it is just trailwalking that would be great."
"You have two Backstreet Boys in front of you, all ready in debt to you for a dog rescue, and all you want is vacation advice?" Kevin laughed. "You are very strange."
"Thanks. Iíll put that on my résumé," she said wryly
"I didnít mean..." Kevin started.
"Kevin, relax. Chill. I take it as a compliment. Iíd rather be strange than boring," she reassured him.
"What about the place you have your horse stabled, Kev?" Brianís question cut across the look that Kevin and Kat were exchanging.
"Starlight Stables. Good place - not too far from Edgewater, even," Kevin agreed. "Its off Route 1 road in ???? Just tell them I sent you."
"Thanks, I will." Kat turned and walked back to her car, strongly fighting the urge to look at Kevin on more time. She allowed herself one quick glance, and a good-bye wave, as she climbed into her car.
"Nice girl," said Brian. "A little heavier than your usual conquests."
Kevin punched him playfully in the arm. "It doesnít seem to have slowed her down any. She doesnít seem to care; why should I?"
"True. And Tyke likes her," Brian grinned.
Kevin laughed, " Oh yeah, that is a good sign."
"Come on," Brian turned towards the house, carrying the sleeping Tyke, who had fallen asleep in his arms, exhausted by his adventure.