It had been several hours now since Nick and Kristin returned to the ranch and as suspected, pretty much everyone in town had come over to see if they could help. It was a nice gesture and good to know that Kevin was so loved, but all the shaking hands, the hugs, and the casseroles were getting to be too much for Nick. He snuck away as soon as he had the chance and locked himself in the den where he could have a few minutes to breath. He fell against the doors with a heavy sigh until his eye caught an old scrapbook sitting on the bookcase. He curiously picked it up and began turning the pages.
Nick smiled as he flipped through the pictures of Kevin’s childhood. There wasn’t a picture in the book that didn’t bring back some kind of memory and the more Nick looked, the harder it became. Finally he got to a picture of the entire gang at Kevin’s 16th birthday party. They’d taken Kevin’s horses out and it was the first time Leighanne had ever been on one. She was scared to ride alone so Nick and AJ spent the entire day in competition over who got to have her ride with them and in the end it was Brian who shared a horse with the beautiful city girl.
Nick smiled at the memory but tears filled his eyes. This time he wasn’t just upset about Kevin, he was upset about it all. Those six people meant more to him than anyone else in the world and it was painful to think about the way they fell apart so fast. Nick thought back to that last time they all went to Mercy Springs together and he got his first glimpse of the future. First Brian left and then AJ. Nick tried so hard to keep the rest of the group together and for a short while He, Howie, and Leighanne remained pretty close at school, but then Leighanne just up and left town without reason and Howie got too busy and eventually moved away. He still kept in touch every now and then but it wasn’t the same.
Nick knew things would never be the same again but he still wished he could see them all and wished they were here with him now, sticking together through the rough times the way they used to. Nick flipped through his cell phone and dialed Howie’s number. It was no surprise that he got his voice mail. Howie had found success in real-estate and was now a very successful, very rich, mogul in the business. He was still a nice guy and always excited to talk to Nick when he got the chance, but his work kept him on his toes and he traveled a lot. “Hey Howie, It’s Nick.” Nick began when the phone beeped.
Suddenly he couldn’t find his voice and had no idea how he was going to give him the news. His emotions caught up to him and he started to cry so he hung up the phone and got control of himself. He took a deep breath and wiped away his tears and then dialed Howie’s number again. When he got his voicemail a second time, he decided that he wasn’t going to say it over the phone, but when he heard the beep he figured that if he waited for him to call back, he might miss the funeral. “Hey Howie.” He began again, “Sorry about that, I’m just… um… it’s Kevin man. He was killed last night.”
Nick’s voice began to shake again but he continued to talk. “I thought you should know. The funeral is Tuesday morning. I’d love to see you and I know Kristin could really use the support. Well that’s it. I hope you can make it.”
Nick hung up the phone feeling exhausted but felt better that at least Howie would know. He looked back down at the picture of the old gang, sorry that AJ and Leighanne would never be the wiser and in a way he envied them. He felt guilty though and thought he should at least try to find them. He had no idea how to find Leighanne, but there might be a way to get a hold of AJ.
Nick had not talked to AJ since he left Mercy that summer after graduation, but about six years ago one of his books made the best sellers list. Until that point none of them ever knew that AJ had succeeded in becoming a writer. Nick wasn’t much of a reader, but Kristin said the book was wonderful. Nick put away the scrapbook and began browsing the other books on the shelf. He smirked when he came across a copy of, “Secrets And Lies” by Alexander McLean. AJ used to get so mad if any of them called him Alex, much less Alexander and now that was the name that everyone knew him by. He couldn’t help but wonder how much AJ had changed over the years.
Nick pulled the book from the shelf and flipped to the page with the publishing info. He called the publishing company but was given the run around a number of times. Finally he got to a person that was supposedly his editor and that was the closest he was going to get to him apparently. When he gave the woman the message she took pity on him and promised she would get the message to AJ. Nick wasn’t sure he believed her but he left his number anyway in hopes that AJ would call him back. He was surprised when not even five minutes later his phone rang to life with an unknown number. His eyes filled with tears when he heard AJ’s raspy voice on the other end of the line. “It’s so good to hear from you man! What’s it been, ten years?”
“Twelve.” Nick corrected.
“I hear you caused quite a stir at the publishing house.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry about that. I guess I have a bit of a short fuse right now.”
“I can imagine. How’s Kristin doing?”
“God, you should see her, it’s heartbreaking.”
Nick listened to a heavy sigh on the other end of the line and then AJ said, “I guess it’s time I make the trip back.”
“Really?” Nick said.
AJ could tell Nick was surprised and he was glad that Nick seemed relieved by the idea. AJ’s life turned so far from Mercy so fast when he moved that he never really kept in touch despite his promises to do so. He always figured they hated him for losing touch and even though he’d moved on, they all still had a special place in his heart. “Yeah,” he said, “It’s Kevin man, you know I gotta come. It’ll be good to see you again too. Is everyone else going to be there?”
Nick sighed. AJ had no idea what things were like now. He still remembered them being one big happy family. He didn’t want to be the one to break that news too so he gave as little details as possible. “Well Brian’s already here and I left a message for Howie, but Leighanne’s a mystery.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well she disappeared not long after you and no one’s heard from her since.”
“Wow, did Brian really mess her up that bad?”
Nick gave a bitter laugh and practically growled, “One of his hidden talents.”
“Nick? You ok man?”
Nick quickly bit back his anger and brushed off AJ’s question. “It’s nothing. But look man, I gotta go. Let me know when you get here.”
They said their goodbyes and Nick went back out to face the crowd. AJ on the other hand sat practically stunned as his brain processed what just happened. In grand Seattle fashion, he’d been standing in line at Starbucks when his editor called him. And when he heard the news he forgot about ordering coffee and found a table, suddenly feeling the need to sit down. He’d wanted to call those guys so many times over the years, but figured they long forgotten about him. Now suddenly they were back in his life. Well, not all of them. AJ couldn’t believe that Kevin was dead and he wasn’t sure how to feel about it. He did know one thing though, he had to go back home and he was going to have to face them again.
The longer he sat there thinking about it, the more upset he became. He was off into space but was pulled from his daze when a cute businesswoman placed a hand on his shoulder. “Everything alright?” she asked with a bit of a flirtatious smile.
AJ was startled and quickly looked up at her nodding his head. “I’m fine sweetheart.” He said flashing the woman a killer smile and then looked down at his shaking hands. “I just need a cup of coffee.”
The woman smiled again and offered to buy him a cup in hopes of getting to know him. AJ smiled kindly but rejected the offer. “Maybe next time.” He said politely.
After AJ ordered his latte he sat back down at the small table and pulled out his phone. He now had many calls to make.
All the way across the country and thirty stories up, Leighanne was pacing her large office looking out over the great city of New York. As head of the legal department for one of the country’s largest fashion magazines, she was busy yelling at someone on her cell phone when her secretary buzzed her. “Ms. Wallace, I have an author on the line who wants to speak with you?”
Leighanne looked a little frazzled and put her call on hold to answer the woman. “We don’t accept unsolicited work Mindy, you know that.”
“It sounds pretty urgent.”
“Writers will say anything to get a foot in the door, he’s probably just yanking your chain. Transfer him to publishing.”
“But he’s already a best seller, and he says he’s an old friend of yours. Alexander McLean?”
Leighanne gasped at the name. “I’ll call you back.” She whispered faintly to the person on the phone.
She then cleared her throat and pushed the button on her intercom once more. “Patch him through.”
The secretary transferred the call and Leighanne’s heart nearly stopped when she saw the red light begin flashing on her phone. She stared at the blinking light for a moment and then began thrashing through her desk drawer. When she couldn’t find what she was looking for she reached for her purse. With clumsy fingers, she pulled out a package of Niccorette and popped the gum into her mouth as if it were Asprin. She chewed fiercely for a moment and when the nicotine began to calm her nerves she picked up the receiver and pressed the flashing button. “AJ?”
“Wishing I hadn’t quit smoking, actually. God I need a cigarette.”
“I know the feeling.” AJ chuckled. “How are you?”
“I’m good… I’m… You know…” Leighanne answered completely flustered, “I’m a little surprised AJ. How did you find me?”
“Well,” AJ said, “About six or seven years ago I got a call from a certain magazine asking if they could see some of my poetry. I was a little surprised considering I was a nobody author and had never published any of my poems. It made sense when I found out that you were the one who requested them.”
“You knew all this time, and didn’t tell me?” Leighanne asked, beginning to relax a little.
She smiled remembering how scared she was to suggest the poems, but she’d always loved AJ’s writing so when the magazine said they were looking for some poetry for a story, she showed them some of his stuff. She was new to the company back then and nervous to recommend anything, but they loved his work. Leighanne hadn’t spoken to anyone from Mercy since she left Montana and made everyone at work promise to keep her involvement anonymous. “Well I wanted to call and say thank you,” AJ explained, “But the sweet little thing that told me it was you said she’d get fired if you knew she told me.”
“I should have known you could get it out of somebody. You always did have a way with the ladies. So what? You figured the statute of limitations had expired for the crime?”
“Not exactly. I got a phone call from Nick this morning.”
“Nick Carter?” Leighanne repeated astonished, “You still keep in touch with all those guys?”
“I haven’t kept in touch with anybody.”
“So why’d he call you out of the blue twelve years later?”
“Leigh?” AJ said suddenly becoming very somber. “Kevin passed away last night.”
“What?” Leighanne gasped, tears instantly filling her eyes. “How?”
“I don’t know actually, Nick didn’t say. He just said that Kristin’s a mess and it might be nice to have everyone make it to the funeral.”
Leighanne became upset again at the thought of going back. AJ could tell something was really wrong when he listened to the silence on the other end of the line. “Leighanne?”
Leighanne glanced at a framed picture on her desk of her and her eleven-year-old son and her face went pale. When AJ called out her name again she shook it off and answered with a quick, “Are you going?”
“I will if you will.”
“Oh God AJ, I don’t know.”
AJ sighed heavily and said, “Leighanne I don’t know what happened, Nick said you just up and disappeared. I didn’t tell him I knew how to find you, but I know I would love to see you again and I’m sure the others would too. Whatever it was, I’m sure it will be fine. Kristin was your best friend.”
Leighanne picked up the picture on her desk and her mind drifted into thought. “Are you really going to go?”
“I already booked my flight.”
“I suppose I have to face them sometime.” Leighanne sighed.
“So I’ll see you there?”
“Don’t tell anyone, incase I chicken out, but yeah. I’ll try to be there as soon as I can.”
“I hope you come.” AJ said again, “I haven’t seen any of them in 12 years either, so if you want, you can call me when you get there and we can face them together.”
Leighanne hung up the phone and sank deep into her chair wishing desperately that she had a cigarette. Finally she grabbed her purse and locked her office. Her secretary smiled up at her confused when she approached her desk. “I’m going home.” Leighanne sighed.
“Ms. Wallace?” The woman replied sure she heard wrong.
“Cancel all my appointments for the week and book Baylee and I on the next flight to Montana.”
Leighanne suddenly looked about ten years older and the secretary offered her a sympathetic smile. “Right away.” She said and then added, “Are you ok Ms. Wallace?”
Leighanne smiled and nodded her head but when she answered the question, the word came out, “No.”
Leighanne didn’t actually break down until she got home. She walked in, threw her keys and the already half-empty pack of cigarettes on the counter and then pulled herself up the stairs to her room. She collapsed onto her bed and let all of her emotions hit her at once. She wept uncontrollably. She cried for the loss of a good friend, she cried for the pain she knew Kristin must be feeling, and she cried because she was overcome with guilt.
Leighanne had been running for her past for twelve years now and knew that going back would change everything. She had a secret that she knew she couldn’t keep hidden any longer. Having gone this long without telling him was bad enough, but to show up unexpectedly after all these years, and under these circumstances? He would know the minute he saw the boy that it was his, everyone would. Their similarities were unmistakable. Leighanne knew it was unfair to spring it on him like this, but now there was just no choice.
Her thoughts then turned to her poor son. What was this going to do to him? Baylee had been asking about his father ever since he was old enough to understand that he didn’t have one. Leighanne never told him who it was though. She was the only person who knew the true identity of the father and she counted on it always being that way, but now all that was about to change.
Leighanne stopped crying the instant she heard the front door slam. She wiped her eyes dry, though she couldn’t hide the redness in them and her heart raced as she heard the footsteps nearing her room. “Mom?” Baylee called, “Mom how come I had to come home early? Last night you said I could stay for dinner.”
Leighanne smiled as best she could as she turned to face her son. “I know I did sweetie, but instead we’re going to go on a little trip so I need you to pack a suitcase.”
All his life it had only been Baylee and his mom and no one knew her better. “Mom?” he asked staring at her puffy eyes, “What’s going on?”
“Someone I knew a long time ago passed away last night. I was hoping you would come with me to the funeral.”
Baylee frowned, “Do I have to? Can’t I stay at Jason’s house?”
“No.” Leighanne chuckled, “I really want you to come with me kiddo.”
“But funerals are just a bunch of old people crying and stuff. It’ll be so boring. Plus I really don’t want to see a dead guy.”
Leighanne sighed, part of her knew things would be so much easier if she let him stay home, but she couldn’t keep him a secret any longer. If she was going to go back, then she was going to tell them the truth. “Don’t you want to see the town your mommy grew up in? Aren’t you a little curious? I could show you my old high school. Plus, Kristin probably has a bunch of kids for you to play with.”
“Does she have a playstation?”
“I don’t know, but there’s a nice river on her property, you could learn how to fish and maybe even ride horses.”
“Fishing? Horses?” Baylee said wrinkling his nose.
“That’s it city boy.” Leighanne laughed as she shook her head. “We’re getting some fresh air.”