"Take your hands off her."
For a moment Kat was sure she'd imagined hearing it.
So much had changed - and so quickly. One minute she'd been talking to Howie, feeling totally safe. The next she was terrified, in over her head, and convinced she was alone in the world. All she wanted to hear was that one voice...
"I said, take your hands off her, Howie."
She took her eyes off Howie, glancing over his shoulder, and there he was. Filling the doorframe, sunlight hitting his blonde hair at such an angle that it looked like he had a halo. Howie had obviously heard him too because his hands clenched tighter on her arms, making her gasp in pain.
"Aren't you supposed to be working? Nick? Kevin's going to have your head if you ducked out early," Howie said conversationally.
"And still you aren't letting her go," Nick said coldly as he walked into the room, his face a mask of stone.
"We're having a private chat right now. A little busy. Why don't you run along?" Howie replied.
"Seems to me that the lady isn't too eager to talk to you."
"She ain't too eager to talk to you either, or didn't you notice the suitcases downstairs?"
Nick hadn't, but that was hardly the issue right now. "That is none of your business. That's between me and her. But right now you're between the two of us and I can't say I am liking it much. Take your hands off her, Howie," Nick repeated.
Howie snorted and turned to look at his group mate, releasing her from his grasp. Kat tried to use his moment of distraction to slip away, but her movement must have caught his eye. An arm thrust out sharply across her chest, slamming her back against the wall with a loud thump.
"Kat! Watch it!" Nick stepped forward looking at her anxiously. "Are you okay?"
She winced at the throbbing in the back of her head and smiled tremulously. "Been better."
"I have to do this, Nicky. Talk to her privately, like I said. It's important. You'll understand later," Howie said placatingly, and then his eyes shot open. "What did you say?" He swung around to look at her. "Kat?" Howie looked at her intently, starting to see, for the first time, the similarities between Jeanne and the Kat he remembered. "Jesus Christ!" He thumped her against he wall again. "What the fuck is going on here?"
"It's simple, really," Nick replied, edging closer to him. "Kat and I had, like, a talk a while back. And we decided to get together."
Howie snorted. "That much is obvious, genius."
"Yeah, well, we figured that reintroducing her to the gang wouldn't be good, considering. So we pulled a little switch. No biggie." Nick shrugged, and then his voice dropped to a quiet, but dangerous, level. "The real big question is, are you going to try and fuck her the way you fuck all our girls?"
Howie glared at him wordlessly for a moment, then stepped forward, releasing Kat, allowing her to sink against the wall. But before she could move out from behind him he backhanded her across the face. Her cheek flared read and her lip split. A trickle of blood started to flow down her chin.
Nick growled in anger and surged forward but Howie turned to him and shout, "Back off!"
Still keeping an eye on Nick, Howie turned back to her. "You little bitch! You could have had what you wanted, but instead you run off and start spreading lies about me." He turned back to Nick. "You honestly believed this little whore when she started spouting that shit? You know me better than that, Nick. She's just playing you. You must know that. All that 'I love you, Nick' shit when all she's doing is trying to get to Kevin."
Nick shook his head. "It wasn't her. She told me that story and I laughed in her face. Only suddenly I started to hear it from other sources." He grimaced. "And she isn't into Kevin. Not anymore."
Howie snorted. "Got a little Nicky lovin' and now she's all over Mr. Body Beautiful? Give me a break. You ain't that good in bed, little boy."
Nick blanched, but he kept his voice steady "Not going to argue about that right now, D. I just want you to let her go."
Howie grabbed her upper arm and shook her, squeezing her arm tightly. Kat winced, knowing he was leaving bruises. Still… they couldn't be any worse than the one she knew he'd left on her face. Her cheek throbbed like it was on fire. And he was holding her so tight she couldn't even check on it.
"Let her go? Why? So the bitch can go on spreading her lies?"
"They're not lies!" Nick shouted. He stopped for a moment, taking a deep breath, trying to compose himself. "I think the way you snuck in here is proof enough of that. And I know you think I'm stupid, but when someone says stuff like that about one of my friends you don't think I check it out? She isn't lying and you know it."
"You calling Marissa a liar too? And Tina? And Helen?" Kat noticed that he left Leighanne's name off his list and she was glad. The last thing they needed to do right now was remind Howie of one of his other 'conquests.'
"Helen. Bri's old girlfriend."
Howie smiled cruelly and licked his lips. "Forgot about her."
At the lascivious way Howie said that Nick growled angrily and took a few steps forward. "Back off, Nick," Howie ordered, holding up a threatening finger. When he was sure Nick wasn't going to come any closer he turned back to Kat. "So you told him. Ratted me out. What did you do that for?"
"Because what you were doing what horrible! You were ruining lives."
He shrugged. "So a few sluts weren't going to sell their stories to the tabloids. Big deal."
"Way big deal," Nick growled. "What the fuck did you think you were doing? You could have destroyed us all!"
"'Destroyed' you?" Howie snorted. "You all were doing a good job of that on your own. None of you could keep it in your pants. And none of you were smart enough to get them to sign non-disclosure agreements. I stepped up to the plate and saved your asses."
"Saved them? More like tried to fuck us allover," Nick glared. "Having some chick I fucked a few times telling the world I'm bad in bed or some such shit," he shrugged, "would have pissed me off but I could have lived with it. Knowing my best friend is raping my exes… that disgusts me."
"Not raping them! They all came willingly. Probably thought they could trade up."
Two attacks on his manhood in less than a minute… Nick was young enough to find that more than he could bear. He stepped in front of Howie quickly and punched the smaller man. Howie's head jerked back, slamming Kat's face and making her lip start bleeding again.
Howie recovered quickly, growled loudly and charged Nick, pushing him back on the bed. Laundry flew all over as the two men pounded at each other. Wiping her chin, Kat stepped forward, trying to separate them, but only got hit by flailing limbs as her reward.
"Stop it!" she screamed. "Please! Just stop it!"
Her cries were met with grunts as Nick slammed a fist into Howie's shoulder. Howie responded with a slap to Nick's face. The two of them rolled over the bed, still punching, pummelling and striking at each other. Howie finally disengaged himself enough to get off the bed and stand up, though Nick surged after him. Unfortunately, that threw the shorter man off balance and they both slammed back against Kat, trapping her, once again, against the wall. She pushed against them frantically, closing her eyes and willing the fight to be over soon. Finally her patience was rewarded as the two men started to tire. Nick stepped back, out of Howie's reach, narrowly missing getting punched as Howie swung out wildly.
"Stop it! Just stop the fuck, now!" Nick thundered, panting heavily.
"Didn't rape 'em. Fucking keeping you all safe," Howie hissed.
"Don't need you to take care of us," Nick retorted, then gasped and went down as Howie suddenly threw a punch straight into his solar plexus, knocking the wind out of him.
"Nick!" Kat screamed, scrambling past Howie and falling to her knees to brace the blonde man as he wheezed for breathe. "Baby, are you okay?"
"Yeah. 'Baby.' That's all you are," Howie sneered, then grabbed Kat's hair, pulling her to her feet and twisting an arm behind her back. "Time for walkies."
"Nick!" Kat cried as Howie started pulling her towards the door. Nick tried to scramble to his feet, still panting for breath, but Howie sent out a quick kick, hitting him in the stomach, knocking him down again. Kat screamed again, trying to twist away from him, but Howie wrapped an arm around her throat, pulling her away. His grip was too strong.
The last thing she saw was Nick, on his knees, gasping breathlessly, one arm reaching out to her. Then the pressure around her neck was too much and the room went black.