Leighanne was really upset when she got back to camp, but she managed to hold most of it in. When she walked up, Howie and Baylee were standing over the fire laughing hysterically as they attempted to pop some campfire popcorn. She watched the two for a moment with painful regret and then saw Brian out of the corner of her eye. The look he gave her was that of a beaten man who no longer had the will to fight. He met her gaze with a mindless expression then headed to his tent without so much as a nod of acknowledgement.
Leighanne didn’t know what to think. It was unfair of Brian to do what he was doing to her, but she supposed it wasn’t entirely his fault. There were so many questions she wanted to ask him, so many things she needed to say, but Brian had suffered enough in his life and she didn’t want to cause him any more pain. She watched him disappear into his tent, having flashes of the night she’d followed him.
That night had been perfect. They’d had one perfect night together and that was all they would ever have. And instead of remembering it for the beautiful moment that it was, she’d chosen to remember it as a nightmare and locked it away in the back of her mind where it couldn’t hurt her. Now, all these years later she finally had to deal with it, she finally had to confront her own shortcomings and it hurt.
Leighanne was startled by the sound of her own name and looked up to see Baylee calling her. When she saw his innocent little smile, she remembered AJ’s reproach and quickly dried any evidence of her pain. She joined him at the fire with a big hug and kiss and even managed to laugh at the sight of the expanding tin foil. She stepped back, watching her son have a good time, and smiled her first real smile of relief in days. Howie saw the look and put his arm around her, squeezing gently. “You’ve raised an amazing boy.” He said with admiration.
Leighanne blushed and playfully nudged Howie’s side. “Well he has a lot of his father in him.”
Baylee looked over his shoulder to see both of his parents smiling down at him and he couldn’t stop himself from throwing his arms around them. It was the first moment they’d had as a family, and while Baylee couldn’t have been happier, it scared the hell out of Howie and Leighanne. They both knew that their lives would be different from now on, there was no way Howie couldn’t be in Baylee’s life after this, but they also knew that the reality of the situation was a lot more complicated than that. They gave each other uneasy smiles, knowing that they needed to talk, but Baylee brought up the conversation sooner than they would have liked. “Mom,” He said as he pulled himself out of their embrace, “Did you know Howie has a house on an island? He said he can see dolphins from his back porch sometimes.”
Leighanne held back a smile as she gave Howie a questioning look. He shrugged, trying not to laugh himself, and said, “It’s not that cool. It’s actually kind of small, and the Keys are pretty crowded, but you’re welcome to it anytime.”
Baylee’s eyes grew big and he practically leapt from his skin. “Can we mom?” He gasped, “Can we go visit him sometime? Maybe before school starts?”
“Hold on their kiddo.” Leighanne laughed.
“Yeah,” Howie laughed, “That’s just a vacation home anyway, I’m hardly ever there.”
“Then where do you live?”
“Well,” Howie said thinking really hard, “My house, house is in Orlando but unfortunately I’m not there very much either. I travel a lot for my work so spend most of my time in hotels.”
“Do you ever come to New York?”
Howie laughed as Baylee’s eyes grew even wider and sparkled with excitement. “You have to come stay with us next time! We don’t have an extra room, but you can have my bed. I don’t mind sleeping on the couch.”
“Oh, well I don’t know about that, I think your mom-
“Please?” Baylee begged.
Howie and Leighanne glanced at one another and Leighanne smiled at her son before it could get really awkward. “We’ll see.” She said calmly, “I’m sure Howie is pretty busy when he comes to the city.”
“Well then he can come at a time when he’s not busy. Like Christmas! You don’t work on Christmas do you? You could come have Christmas with us and then we wont have to hear my grandma and grandpa talk about how my mom needs to find me a good dad anymore. They’re going to be really excited to meet you. We could be like a real family.”
Leighanne paled at the mention of her parents and Howie felt so nervous he could almost vomit. “Baylee.” Leighanne said softly, “Look, you’ll get to see your dad from now on, I promise, but it’s going to take us some time to figure out how it’s going to work.”
Baylee looked up at his parents and his heart sank when he saw the tension they were trying to hide. He looked up at Howie with big questioning eyes and shyly whispered, “I thought you said you loved my mom.”
Howie felt his body start to shake and quickly pushed back his nerves. “I do love your mom.”
“And I love him.” Leighanne added, “He’s one of my best friends, but we can’t just move in together and be a family, it doesn’t work like that.”
“It just can’t.”
Tears began to fill Baylee’s eyes, but he tried to be strong and used his anger to keep them away. “You mean you don’t want it too.” He said, glaring at his mother bitterly, “You want him to stay away! You’ve never wanted him to be part of my life, you didn’t even tell him about me!”
“Baylee.” Howie said, looking down at him with sympathetic eyes. “Your mom’s right. She’s not trying to keep us apart, it’s just not that easy.”
Baylee was shocked and heartbroken to hear Howie taking his mom’s side and he slowly backed away form them. “Don’t you want to spend time with me?”
Howie looked at the confused little boy, knowing that this was going to be a very hard thing for him to understand no matter what he said, and his heart broke for him. “Of course I do, and we can be a family, just not the same kind you’re thinking of.”
Baylee finally let a few tears roll down his cheeks and then ran off to his tent. Leighanne released a long heavy sigh once he was gone and sat down feeling completely overwhelmed. Howie sat down next to her and hugged her. “You know, I could probably come for Christmas this year. It would be kind of nice to spend some time with you. Or you could come to Florida. I’ll bet Baylee would love to meet his cousins.”
Leighanne was touched by Howie’s offer. Part of her wanted to have Howie back in her life more than anything, and she knew how much it meant to her son, but neither Howie nor Baylee knew what that meant. It was true, she had kept Howie out of her life on purpose, and she’d done so for a reason. Surely enough time had passed, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t a really rocky road ahead of them and Leighanne knew it was going to be very difficult for them all. Just thinking about it was too much for her to handle when there was so much else going on around her and she began to cry, yet again.
Howie pulled her into his arms and held her tightly. “You’re exhausted.” He whispered. “You should try and get some rest. We’ll figure this all out and maybe even plan some kind of visit before we leave. Baylee will be ok. He seems like a tough kid.”
Leighanne sat up and wiped her tears. She nodded slowly and Howie helped her to her feet. “Thank you Howie.”
Howie hugged her again and placed a kiss on her forehead. “Everything’s going to be ok, you’ll see.”
After one last grateful smile Leighanne headed off to her tent leaving Howie alone with some peace and quiet.
Nick went through his pack and pulled out an extra sweatshirt, which he handed to Kristin since all of her stuff had been lost in the river. “Here. You’ll swim in it, but you won’t freeze.”
Nick turned his back in order to give Kristin some privacy as she pulled off the only shirt she had and covered herself in Nick’s sweatshirt. Kristin pulled the sweater over her head and held the cloth close to her face, taking in a deep breath to enjoy the scent he’d left behind. She smirked at the stiffness Nick displayed as he waited for her to be dressed again and then wrapped her arms around him, resting her head on his shoulder. “Thank you, Nick.”
Nick turned around and swallowed a lump in his throat. He was intoxicated by the look of her in his baggy old shirt and tried desperately to push away his sexual thoughts. “You can use my sleeping bag too.” He said, “I’ll be fine like this.”
“Don’t be silly.” Kristin said, waving him off.
Kristin unzipped the bag and covered the both of them with the blanket. Nick smiled shyly and then lied back tucking his hands behind his head. Kristin joined him and for a minute they both laid there listening to silence. “Nick?” Kristin asked propping herself up on her side so that she could see Nick’s face.
“Yeah?” He asked without opening his eyes.
“I’m really sorry that you never got to go pro, but I’m really glad that you came back to Mercy. I mean as crazy as this trip has been, I love having everyone back, but It’s like I don’t even know them anymore and you’re still the same old Nick Carter.”
As Nick adjusted himself on his side so that he could face Kristin, AJ came walking back into camp and heard the voices. “Twelve years is a long time,” Nick was saying, “People change. Hell, look how much Kevin changed.”
“Yeah, but Kevin had problems.”
AJ’s curiosity was so peaked by Kristin’s accusation of the man that could do no wrong in his eyes, that he stopped walking and listened to the conversation. “And the rest of us don’t?” Nick laughed, “Brian’s got more problems than any of us, AJ’s got problems, he’s just hiding them, and Leighanne’s straight up crazy. I’ve had my share of problems too, you know I have. We’ve changed as much as everyone else here, the only difference between us and them, is that we changed together.”
“Well I’m glad we did because I couldn’t have made it through these last couple years without you.”
AJ was now dying to know what had been so wrong the last few years with Kevin, but after the week he was having, he figured some secrets were better left alone. He began to head toward the campfire until he heard Kristin’s sigh. “Nick can I ask you a personal question?”
The temptation was too great and AJ once again found himself eavesdropping. “Do you think there’s a chance for you and me?”
AJ’s jaw dropped so hard so fast that it nearly knocked the wind out of him. Nick wasn’t as shocked by the question, but he had no idea how to answer it. “Come on Nick,” Kristin said, “I know he was your best friend, but I haven’t been imagining it these last couple of years. There’s something between us and I think you’ve been fighting it as much as I have.”
Nick stared at Kristin morally torn. “Kris.”
Kristin waited anxiously for Nick to admit similar feelings but he just stared at her with tortured eyes. Finally he forced a smile and placed a small, sad kiss on her lips. “I think we should get some sleep.”
AJ stood there for a moment letting his thoughts organize themselves and the first feeling that rose to the surface was anger. Kevin was one of his closest friends and practically a hero he kept on a pedestal. How his wife and his best friend could betray him like that was simply unfathomable. He practically stumbled back into camp where Howie was sitting by the fire. AJ plopped down next to him and shook his head mindlessly as he let go a sigh. “You too huh?” Howie laughed.
“I am so glad there’s not a bar within a days walk of here,” AJ replied, “because I could really use a drink.”
“You’re not the only one.” Howie laughed and pulled a flask from his jacket.
AJ faced his temptation and then shook his head. “Thanks, but I’d better not. I’d hate to end an eight year streak.”
“Oh God, I’m sorry.” Howie said tucking the alcohol back in his jacket. “I had no idea.”
“It’s alright.” AJ smiled. “I guess we’ve all got our secrets.”
“Isn’t that the truth?” Howie agreed.
“So what’s yours?”
“Mine?” Howie asked, startled by the question.
“Yeah man, what’s your dirty little secret?”
“There’s not really anything that interesting.”
Howie forced a laugh, but Brian was intrigued by how nervous his friend seemed to be having this conversation. “Aww, you have to be hiding something. You don’t get to be as rich as you without a few secrets… Maybe a few illegal offshore accounts.”
Howie laughed at the comment and began to lighten up. “Hate to break it to ya, but I’m one hundred percent legit. I have a whole team of lawyers that make sure of it. But,” Howie hesitated as he tried to think. “I suppose I have taken over a few properties that put some people out of their homes or out of work. The cities always agreed that it was best for the community, but still, it’s kind of a grey area I guess. I always feel bad when it happens.”
“You vicious pit bull you.” AJ laughed.
Howie and AJ had a good chuckle and then AJ sighed, “Seriously Howie, that’s pretty weak. That can’t be your only skeleton.”
“You guys didn’t call me Sweet D for nothing. I don’t have many skeletons, I’m a nice guy.”
“Too nice. I think tonight was the first time I’ve ever seen you get angry.”
Howie’s smile faded. He felt absolutely awful about yelling at Kristin. “I don’t know what came over me.”
“I do! Leighanne dropped a friggin bomb on you this week. I can’t believe you held it together this long. Damn man, I don’t know what I’d do if someone dropped a kid on my doorstep.”
Howie instinctively took another sip from his flask. “It doesn’t really feel real I guess. It’s kind of cool though. I always knew I wanted one someday, and Baylee seems like a good kid. I just don’t understand why she never told me.”
“Maybe she didn’t know it was yours.”
Howie looked at AJ like what he was saying was impossible. “Leighanne?” He said with a laugh, “Are you kidding? She’s not the type to go sleeping around with just anybody.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure about that.” AJ muttered.
“What?” Howie asked unable to understand him.
“Nothing.” AJ replied quickly, “I don’t know man, all I know is if I were you I would be shitting worry bricks by now.”
“Shitting worry bricks? It’s no wonder you’re a bestseller. Did you learn that term in a creative writing class somewhere or was that one all you?”
Howie managed to keep a straight face until AJ laughed. “Shut up man.” He laughed.
“I’m just playing.”
“I know.” AJ said as he stretched his tired body, “It’s kind of nice actually. Everybody around here is so tense. I think you’re the only sane one left.”
“I haven’t noticed any AJ melt downs yet.”
“I’m hanging on by a thread man.” AJ laughed and then rose to his feet.
“Well try not to crack huh? I can’t be the only sane one.”
“Yeah.” AJ laughed, “I better get some sleep then. See you in the morning dude.”