I Still... by kebin
1. Prologue by kebin
2. One by kebin
3. Two by kebin
4. Three by kebin
5. Four by kebin
6. Five by kebin
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16. Fifteen by kebin
17. Sixteen by kebin
18. Seventeen by kebin
19. Eighteen by kebin
20. Nineteen by kebin
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22. Twenty-one by kebin
23. Twenty-two by kebin
24. Twenty-three by kebin
25. Twenty-four by kebin
26. Twenty-five by kebin
27. Twenty-six by kebin
28. Twenty-seven by kebin
29. Quick note by kebin
30. Twenty-eight by kebin
31. Twenty-nine by kebin
32. Thirty by kebin
33. Thrity-one by kebin
34. Thirty-two by kebin
35. Thirty-three by kebin
36. Thirty-four by kebin
You were born on a Tuesday. Screaming at the top of your tiny lungs, you introduced yourself to the world. Your momma cried tears of joy as the nurse passed you to her. You were more than she had dared to dream. You curled your tiny hand around her finger and nuzzled into her chest, searching for your first meal. Only when you felt the warm milk against the back of your throat did you fall quiet.
Your momma tried to call me the day you were born. She left a message on my machine and told me I had a son. I didn’t believe her. I played that message once before erasing it. For that, my beautiful boy, and for all which was to come, I ask your forgiveness.
Jolted awake by the shrill cry of the telephone beside his bed, Nick struggled against the blankets piled on top of him as he rolled away from his sleeping wife. The clock on the nightstand read 2:47am.
“Hello?” he croaked, his throat clogged by sleep.
“Nick? Did I wake you?”
“Mom? What’s going on? Is everything okay?” Wide awake and panicked by the unexpected sound of his mother’s voice, Nick pulled himself up and leaned against the wall.
“I’ve had a visitor today, Nick. Somebody you need to meet. I think you’re going to have to come home.”
Nick ran his hand through his hair as he glanced at the clock again.
“Mom, it’s the middle of the night and you’re not making any sense…”
“She has a baby, Nick. She says he’s your son.”
His mind beginning to work faster, Nick looked at Cassie still sleeping peacefully beside him.
“Can you hold the line for a second, Mom? I’m going to grab a glass of water and take this in the kitchen.”
His mother agreed and Nick pressed the ‘hold’ button before gently returning the receiver to its cradle. He shot another sidelong glance at Cassie before slowly easing himself out of bed.
“What’s going on?” Cassie asked, still half asleep as she rolled over. “Is your mom okay?”
“She’s fine. Just a bit lonely, you know how she gets,” Nick replied, pulling his jeans on with forced calm as his mind raced ahead. “Go back to sleep.”
In the kitchen Nick picked up the cordless phone and pressed the ‘talk’ button.
“Mom? I’m here,” he said, reaching for a glass and moving towards the sink. “Please, tell me what the heck is going on. Who is this girl and why would you believe anything she has to say?”
“She said her name was Hannah. I’ve never heard you mention an HJaneah, Nick.”
Nick’s heart sank. Hannah.
“Carry on, Mom.”
“She turned up on my doorstep - Lord only knows how she got the address - saying she’d met you in New York two years ago. She was a waitress. She said you told her you were a stockbroker, Nick. Why would you tell her that?”
Nick closed his eyes and pressed his hand against his forehead.
“Please, Mom, just tell me what she said about the baby.”
“She said he’s yours. She was adamant there was no way he could be anyone else’s,” Jane Carter paused but no response came from her son. “He’s a year old. His name is Jack.”
“I don’t want to know his name, Mom. I don’t want to know anything about some fantasy baby invented by someone I can only assume is a particularly crazed fan. It’s ridiculous. Ridiculous…”
Jane’s heart broke at her son’s denial.
“Nick, if you’ve got something to tell me - something to tell Cassie - I suggest you get it out in the open as soon as possible and you take responsibility for it.”
“Are you serious?” Nick demanded. “Mom, come on, this has happened to all the guys in one way or another and it’s never…”
“Nick, she has pictures of the baby,” Jane interrupted. “And I’m sorry… You better come home.”
Nick was silent as he tried to collect his thoughts.
“Okay, Mom,” he conceded. “Okay.”
Nick flew home to Florida alone. Cassie had stopped talking to him the instant Hannah had been brought up in conversation. Nick had tried everything to reopen the lines of communication — he spoke calmly and evenly; he raised his voice a notch; he shouted; he cried; he begged. Cassie remained stony faced until the front door swung shut behind her husband, thirty-six hours after the call from his mother. Sinking to her knees as the door clicked shut, Cassie cried.
Jane met her son with open arms. Nick dropped his overnight bag and enveloped her in a hug. Looking past him, Jane noted the small bag and arched an eyebrow as she pulled back to look at him.
“Did you check your luggage in?” she asked.
“No, I only brought the carry-on with me,” Nick replied, picking it up. “Don’t look at me like that, Mom. I can’t stay long. Things with Cassie are… terrible.”
Jane was silent. Nick fell into step beside her and together they crossed the arrival lounge and walked out into the weak winter sunshine. Nick raised his arm to hail a taxi but Jane shook her head and gently pulled his arm down.
“You drove?” Nick asked incredulously. “The traffic through town is terrible this time of day.”
“I didn't drive. Your brother did. He's waiting in the car.”
Nick sighed inwardly and said a silent prayer of thanks that it was Aaron he had to face first - the lectures from his father, who had long suspected Hannah played a bigger role in Nick's life than he would let on, could wait. Nick had told him time and again to let it go, that Hannah was just a star-struck girl with a crush. Now, as his mother led him through the maze of parked cars, Nick knew his lies had come back to bite him in the worst possible way.
“Is Hannah…” he began, but Jane cut him off.
“No, she’s not. She’s at the hotel with Jack.”
Nick sighed, a mixture of relief and exhaustion washing over him.
“I don’t think you should leave it too long before visiting with her,” Jane continued. “I’m sure she’d be happy to see you at the hotel…”
“I don’t know if ‘happy’ quite describes it, Mom,” Nick muttered.
“But if you’re not ready to meet Jack yet, I'd be happy to watch him while the two of you to talk,” his mother concluded, ignoring Nick’s mutterings. “Here’s the car. Put your bag in the trunk”
Without a word, Nick did as he was told. His mother's voice had taken on a tone he hadn't heard since the night of his eighteenth birthday when, after a few too many 'beverages', he had parked the truck he shared with his brother in Jane's vegetable garden and fallen asleep amongst the cabbages. His mother had told him calmly and evenly, leaving no opportunity for argument, that the garden was to be his responsibility for the next three months and his driving privileges were suspended indefinitely. Now, suggesting he visit Hannah, Jane had silently instructed Nick to do it as soon as possible and he knew better than to resist.
His bag thrown carelessly into the trunk, Nick walked around the car and opened the front passenger door.
"Hey, big bro," Aaron greeted him, leaning across to hug Nick awkwardly. "What have you got yourself into this time?"
"I don't even know what to say, Aaron" Nick replied with a sigh as he closed his door and fastened his seatbelt. "Where's Dad?"
"At home - he's working on a new dock for the boats. We hardly see him these days."
Nick relaxed in his seat. Maybe he could be in and out of the state without too much in the way of confrontation.
"We can stop by and see him on the way home if you like," Jane offered from the back seat. "Or you can wait until tonight.'
"Tonight? What happens tonight?" Nick asked. "I'm not really feeling up to much, Mom."
"I know you're not, but your dad thought you might like to talk before you visit Hannah..."
Nick sighed again and wondered if his breathing patterns would ever return to normal.
"He thought it might help if you got things straight in your own head before you talk to her. I think he might be right," Jane concluded.
Nick let his head rest against the back of his seat and closed his eyes as Aaron turned the car onto the highway.
"Let's just wait until tonight, Mom. I don't want to interrupt him."
Turning to look out the window, Nick knew tonight could not be over and done with soon enough.
“You need to get a DNA test organised.”
Nick looked up from the bottle of beer he had been swirling in silence and eyed his father levelly. Bob stared back at him.
“Are you serious?”
“Deadly,” Bob replied, setting his own glass down on the table beside the sofa. “If there’s any chance he’s your son – which he could be – you need to know for sure. Don't speculate any longer than you need to.”
Nick sank back in his chair and rubbed his eyes, his mind racing. Bob had arrived in time for dinner and, while the meal had passed with little mention of Nick's situation, the floodgates had opened now.
“How the hell do I organise a DNA test?” he sighed, letting his hands fall into his lap.
“I don’t know. I guess you call a private clinic somewhere and make some enquiries. I can do it for you if you like. Avoid the media attention…”
“If this gets in the papers… If Cassie sees it…”
"The truth is going to come out one way or another, Nick," Bob said gently. "The WHOLE truth. I know it's tough when she won't take your calls, but Cassie needs to hear it from you. And soon."
Nick downed the last of his whisky and stared intently into his empty glass.
"How do you want to do this?" Bob asked. "Do you want me to drive you to the hotel tomorrow?"
"I don't know if it's such a good idea for me to be seen heading into a hotel by myself. Wouldn't want anyone to think my marriage was in trouble," Nick replied dryly. "Would you mind going down there and bringing Hannah back here? Mom said she'll stay with the baby."
Bob nodded thoughtfully as Nick leaned back in his chair again.
"You don't want to see them both?"
The weight of the question pressed down on Nick's chest and a dozen new ones closed in on him. Would it make any difference if he saw the baby a day or so later? Not if the boy wasn't his. But what if he was? Did he really want to have denied him twice? He'd already ignored the phone call the day Jack was born... Did he want another snubbing on his conscience?
"I suppose I do," he answered carefully. "Can you bring them both?"
"Sure, I can," Bob replied as he stood and picked up their empty bottles. "There's a few more beers in the fridge. Do you want another?"
"You have NO idea how badly."
Propping himself up on one elbow, Nick squinted to make out the blurred digits on the clock beside the bed. 2:17am... 10:17pm in California. Falling back against the pillows, he lay staring up at the ceiling and wondered if Cassie might still be up, padding around the kitchen in her bathrobe. It would be about now that she began her hunt for the hot cocoa powder she never remembered to put back in the same place. He wondered for the millionth time if something was wrong with his mobile phone - had he dropped it recently or forgotten to change the volume setting after having it on 'silent'? Fumbling in the dark, he knocked the alarm clock to the floor before his hand closed around the sleek form of his mobile. No new messages. No missed calls. No second chances and really, could he blame her? He'd promised to love and cherish her for the rest of his life... foresaking all others... His vows hadn't lasted twelve months before Hannah blew into his life like a tornado and threw everything off kilter. He felt sick to his stomach as he lay recalling the lies he'd told Cassie, Brian, Bob... Even Hannah, caught in the middle of it all, hadn't known who he really was.
Accepting that sleep was not going to come while his mind raced at a mile a minute, Nick stumbled out of bed and switched the light on. He needed air - lots of it and quickly. Crossing the floor in his boxers and t-shirt, he was thankful Cassie had had the forethought to leave spare clothes in the closet when they visited Ann for Thanksgiving. He found a pair of sweatpants and running shoes at the bottom of the pile and pulled them on quickly, grateful to be off the exposed floorboards. Pulling a well worn Miami Dolphins sweater from the pile, Nick pulled it over his head as he made his way quietly out of the bedroom and towards the front door. Outside, the crisp night air pushed against his bare face and he breathed it in deeply. With the door closed behind him, Nick began to run.
“Mom? Why didn’t you wake me?” Nick asked as he took a seat at the table and reached for a box of cereal. “It’s after nine.”
“I heard you getting in last night,” his mother replied, taking a carton of milk from the refrigerator. “It was 2am – I thought you could probably use a lie in. Where on earth did you get to?”
Nick shrugged as he topped his cereal with milk and took up a spoon to push it around his plate disinterestedly.
“Couldn’t sleep so I went out and ran a couple of miles. It’s been a while since I last saw this neighbourhood.”
Jane sat down opposite her son and wrapped her hands around a steaming mug of coffee.
“Can you believe they knocked down the old bleachers at the park?” she asked. “But it was probably only a matter of time before someone fell through one of the seats. I guess they had to go.”
Nick nodded and began to eat. Since his arrival in Florida, he’d quickly decided that small talk was more painful than confronting the issue staring everyone in the face. If his mother wanted to avoid the topic, he would let her. But he wasn’t going to encourage her to act as if Bob wasn’t going to arrive in under an hour. As if Hannah wouldn’t be with him. As if the child who could be his son - and Jane’s own grandson - wouldn’t soon be before them all.
“Would you like me to stay… When your dad and Hannah arrive,” Jane began carefully, as though she had read his mind. “Would you like me to be here?”
Nick placed his spoon carefully on the table beside his bowl.
“You know, Mom, I’ve been thinking about it ever since you called and I still don’t even know how to begin dealing with this. But I think – and please don’t be offended by this, Mom – I think it’s probably best for everyone if Hannah and I talk alone.”
“Honey, of course I’m not offended,” Jane replied, reaching across the table to lay a comforting hand over Nick’s. “I’ll stay out of your way but you know I’ll be right here as soon as you need me.”
“I know, Mom. Thank you,” Nick said as he gripped her hand. “For everything.”
Jane smiled at him.
“You are my son.”
Nick looked up as the kitchen door opened and Bob’s head appeared around it. Five minutes earlier, Jane had said something about errands and had disappeared outside. Nick couldn’t be entirely sure where his mother had told him she was going – his mind racing as it was, he wasn’t sure he could accurately recall his own name.
“You okay?” Bob asked, taking in his brother’s frazzled appearance.
“I’m fine. Is Hannah with you?”
“Yeah, she’s getting the baby out of his car seat,” Bob replied. “Are you sure you’re okay? Do you need a glass of water?”
“I’m fine,” Nick repeated, forcing his mouth into what he hoped was something like a reassuring smile. Bob’s expression showed he had been less than convincing.
“Okay… Well… your mom said you didn’t want me to stay so… I’m going to head off. But I have my mobile on me and I’ll only be at the dock if you want to come down and talk later, all right?”
Nick nodded again, swallowing hard as the sound of footsteps on the deck reached him. Bob looked him over again and made his own weak attempt at a smile.
“Okay. Good luck, Nick. Give me a call later.”
Bob moved away from the door and Nick listened to his brother say a polite goodbye on the deck. Moments later he heard Bob’s car door close and the engine start. His head filled with images of Cassie, he crossed the kitchen and pulled the door open.
As much as he wanted to say something, the image of Hannah standing on his mother’s front deck with a baby in her arms left Nick speechless. She looked much older than he remembered - more serious and without the carefree sparkle in her eyes that had drawn him so powerfully to her in New York. Shifting Jack’s weight from her left hip to her right, Hannah waited while Nick collected himself.
“Hi, Nick,” she responded quietly. “How are you?”
Nick laughed awkwardly and ran a hand through his hair.
“I’ve been better, Hannah,” he replied, watching as Jack grabbed a handful of his mother’s blonde hair and pulled it into his mouth. “Do you… Want to come in?”
Nick moved away from the door and Hannah walked past him, untangling her hair from the trap of Jack’s fingers as she went. With a sigh, Nick followed her in and closed the door.
“Can I get you something to drink?” he offered, crossing the kitchen and opening the refrigerator. “Juice? A glass of milk? Something for the baby?”
“No, thank you,” Hannah replied as she surveyed her surroundings.
Nick closed the refrigerator and turned to face her.
“So… This is Jack?” he asked, folding his arms across his chest and leaning back against the wall.
“Would you like to hold him?”
Nick looked at the two of them in silence. Jack, enthusiastically sucking his thumb, stared back at him. “He won’t bite,” Hannah added gently. “Even if he does, he doesn’t have enough teeth to do any real damage.”
Nick stepped forward hesitantly and Hannah moved towards him. Jack shot Nick a frightened glance before he turned to his mother and buried his face in her neck.
“He doesn’t seem to want…” Nick began.
“He’ll be fine,” Hannah replied, gently extracting herself from Jack’s grip and brushing his blonde hair back as she spoke to him. “Do you want to say hello to Nick while mommy finds your truck?”
“Mommy tuck,” Jack copied, his eyes lighting up. “Mommy tuck!”
“Yeah, mommy’s going to find your truck,” Hannah said, offering Nick a reassuring smile. “You wait here with Nick while I get it for you.”
Nick took the boy awkwardly in his arms and watched as Hannah moved towards the door.
“Where are you going?” he asked nervously.
“I left his bag on the deck,” she replied, disappearing outside.
Nick looked down at Jack and the boy met his stare. Nick could see how Hannah’s photos must have triggered some loud warning bells for Jane. The blue eyes and blonde hair didn’t bode well at all and, as Jack frowned up at him, Nick’s heart leapt into his throat.
“He has your eyes, doesn’t he?” Hannah asked quietly from the doorway.
“Yeah, I guess he does,” Nick replied with a weak smile. “But listen, Hannah, we need to organise a DNA test.”
The hurt in Hannah’s eyes was obvious but her hesitation before taking Jack from him was minimal.
“Here, Jack. Mommy has your truck.”
“Tuck!” Jack announced, clutching the bright yellow dump truck in his tiny hands.
“I need to put him down or he’ll drive it over my face.”
“Sure. Of course,” Nick replied. “We can go in the living room.”
“We haven’t really been outside today… Could we sit on the lawn?” Hannah asked. “He likes to play on the grass.”
“You two go on out and I’ll find us a couple of lawn chairs,” he said, turning to leave the kitchen. “I’ll be right back.”
With the bedroom door closed behind him, Nick snatched his mobile phone from the nightstand and dialled Cassie’s number, his heart pounding as he stood listening to the dial tone.
“Hi, this is Cassie,” her voicemail message began. “Sorry, I can’t take your call right now but, if you leave me a message, I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”
“Cassie… It’s me,” Nick began carefully as he sat down on the edge of the bed. “Listen, I just… I just want to talk to you. Please. I don’t want us to go on like this. Please just… Call me when you get this, okay? I love you…”
Even as he spoke them, Nick knew his words sounded hollow and he disconnected the call with a sigh. Slipping his phone into his pocket, he left the bedroom and returned to the kitchen.
Standing on his mother’s front deck, Nick looked out across the yard and wondered about the life he could have had. Hannah and Jack sat together on the lawn, Jack pushing his yellow truck back and forth in front of his mother who sat staring off into the distance. Nick knew the chances of Jack being his son far outweighed the chances he was not. Cassie would be devastated, there was no way around it. He wondered fleetingly if it would have been better to cause her a lesser pain years ago if it meant she could have avoided the agony this was going to cause. Resigning himself to the fact that there was nothing he could do to change it now, Nick took a deep breath and stepped off the deck.
“I couldn’t find any chairs,” he said as he crossed the lawn. “Sorry, but the grass should be dry.”
Nick stood for a moment before he sat beside her on the grass. In silence, they watched Jack transport his load of twigs and stones along imaginary roads and highways before dumping it at Nick’s feet.
“Tuck!” he proclaimed proudly, placing the toy on Nick’s ankle and steering it towards his knee.
“He likes you,” Hannah said dryly and Nick looked sideways at her.
“You think?” he asked hesitantly.
Again, conversation escaped them and Jack, oblivious to the tension, busied himself investigating the tunneling opportunities beneath Nick’s bent knees.
“You don’t believe he’s yours?” Hannah asked eventually. “You think I’m lying?”
“Of course I don’t think you’re lying…”
“But you want a DNA test.”
“Hannah, come on. Can’t you see where I’m coming from? I mean, you turn up out of the blue with a baby you say is mine…”
Hannah silenced him with a scowl.
“I hardly think it was ‘out of the blue’, Nick. The only part of this that was out of the blue was the ‘business trip’ you never came back from.”
Nick looked down at Jack playing at his feet, unable to argue. He’d walked out of Hannah’s Brooklyn apartment one night in November and had never returned. The guilt had plagued him day and night in the weeks and months following but slowly his life had returned to something like normal and his thoughts of the pretty waitress in New York had become less frequent.
“I’m sorry about the way things ended, Hannah, really,” he said carefully. “But I didn’t know what else to do. I was married. I had responsibilities. I had a whole other life I’d all but turned my back on since I met you and then…”
“And then, what?”
Nick took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.
“And then Cassie found out. She was going to leave me if I didn’t stop seeing you. I couldn’t let that happen.”
“But you could leave me pregnant and alone in New York?”
“I didn’t know you were pregnant, Hannah,” Nick replied, reaching for the stick Jack was about to bite down on. “I had no idea.”
“I called you. I called you every single day for a month after I found out. Not to mention the weeks I spent trying to get hold of you when your ‘business trip’ never ended. But I guess that was your European tour,” she said bitterly, pulling Jack and his truck into her lap. “And I called you the day he was born. Are you going to tell me you never got the message?”
“I got the message.”
“But you didn’t think having a son was something you should look into?”
“I didn’t believe you,” Nick replied. “Things were just starting to sort themselves out with Cassie and I thought you were just… I don’t know… I thought you must’ve found out what I did for a living. I thought you were just having another go at getting my attention.”
“You thought I was after your money, is that what you’re saying?” Hannah asked carefully, stroking her son’s head as she spoke. Jack had curled up on his mother’s lap and was sucking his thumb contentedly, his eyelids drooping as sleep closed in on him.
“I don’t know what I thought, Hannah,” Nick replied quietly. “But isn’t it about money now?”
“No, it’s not about money now,” Hannah retorted sharply. “It’s about you acknowledging your son and taking some responsibility for him. I don’t want your money, we’re doing fine without it. But Jack needs a father. He needs his father.”
Nick plucked a blade of grass from the ground in front of him and sat rolling it between his fingers.
"If he's mine, Hannah - and I'm not saying he's not - what do we do then?" he asked. "What can I do for you if it's not money you want? How can I be a father to a child on the other side of the country?"
"I think we cross that bridge when we come to it," Hannah replied, looking down at her sleeping son. "If you're so adamant we need DNA testing, let's get that over with. But right now Jack needs somewhere more comfortable to sleep."
Nick nodded, watching as Hannah scooped Jack into her arms and got to her feet awkwardly.
"Mom has a portable crib in the garage," he began carefully. "She can't bring herself to part with it. If you don't want to go back to the hotel yet, I can put it in the living room. We still have a lot to talk about."
"If it's not too much trouble," Hannah replied as Jack nuzzled in under her chin. "Sorry, I didn't expect him to need another nap - be must still be on New York time."
"It's no trouble at all. Go on in and I'll be right there."
"Thank you," Hannah said, turning away and walking towards the house.
Nick stood on the lawn and watched her leave. Stooping to pick up Jack's truck, he once again found himself wondering.
Nick watched from the living room doorway as Hannah lay Jack in the hastily assembled crib and pulled the blankets over her son. Bending to kiss him on the forehead, she brushed Jack's hair back and whispered to him before turning away.
"Out like a light," she said quietly, meeting Nick at the door and pulling it almost closed behind them. "He must have been exhausted."
Leading the way into the kitchen, Nick motioned for Hannah to take a seat at the table and busied himself rummaging in the refrigerator.
"Are you hungry?" he asked, pulling out a plastic container and lifting the lid. "There's half an apple pie here."
"I'd love a piece," Hannah replied. "And a coffee would be great if you have some."
"Still addicted?" Nick asked, reaching for a knife to cut the pie.
"Re-addicted. I gave it up while I was pregnant with Jack and kept it down to a cup a week while I was breastfeeding - it was my Tuesday afternoon indulgence."
Nick placed a slice of pie on a plate and handed it to her. He couldn't recall a day he'd spent with Hannah that hadn't included a trip to the coffee house on the corner of her block. She'd known all the staff by name and could recite the coffee menu backwards.
"I can't imagine you going without caffeine. You must have been cranky as hell," he said, putting a plate of pie on the table for himself and turning to pour two cups of coffee. "We only have filter. Mom refuses to get a proper machine."
"Filter is fine," Hannah replied. "I had bigger things to worry about than when I could drink coffee again, Nick. I had to find you, for one."
Nick crossed the room and opened the refrigerator again, reaching for the milk.
"How did you find me, Hannah?"
Hannah's chuckle caught him by surprise and he arched an eyebrow as he added milk to their drinks.
"I Googled you in the end," she said, taking the cup he held out to her. "Well, at least I Googled who I thought you were. I only had to look through nine pages of guys called Nick Cartern before I found you... I wish I'd thought of it sooner. But it still didn't help me all that much. You probably would've been much easier to get hold of if you really were Nick Cartern, stockbroker."
Nick returned the milk to the refrigerator and sat down opposite Hannah at the table.
"Had you had Jack by then?"
Hannah shook her head and took a sip of her coffee.
"No, thank God," she replied. "I would've had the wrong name on his birth certificate."
"You named me on his birth certificate?"
"Of course I did. Why wouldn't I? He wasn't anybody else's son."
Hannah watched as Nick scooped up a spoonful of apple pie and chewed it thoughtfully. She knew he wanted to ask her again if she was sure Jack was his son. Nick swallowed and put down his spoon.
"So then... How did you find my mom?"
Hannah breathed an internal sigh of relief, unsure if she would've been able to keep her composure had he pushed the DNA test issue again.
"I called your record label and tried a few things. They didn't make it easy but eventually they gave me a post box number I could send a letter to your mother at," she explained. "I have a friend at the postal service who looked up the box holder details."
"Aren't there laws against that sort of thing?" Nick asked, nudging what remained of his pie with his spoon.
"I'm sure there are but what else could I do?" Hannah responded. "You needed to know."
Nick looked at her in silence, trying to absorb all the ways she had changed since he left her in New York. Somewhere along the road to being a mother, she'd picked up a strength he hadn't seen in her before. She'd never been a weak person, but now he felt she was truly a force to be reckoned with.
The sound of his mobile ringing cut through his wonderings and Nick sprung out of his seat to disconnect it from the charger on the counter. His heart began to pound at the sight of his home number flashing repeatedly on the screen.
"Cass, baby... Thank God you called. I..."
"Nick, it's me," Brian interrupted.
"Brian? Why are you calling from my house?" Nick asked, leaning back against the counter.
"It's Saturday afternoon. I thought we were going to play golf."
Nick cursed under his breath and Hannah, still seated at the table, feigned a sudden interest in the morning newspaper.
"I meant to call you," Nick continued. "Things have been so crazy... I just forgot."
"Yeah, it looks like things got crazy," his friend replied. "Do you want to talk about it? Where are you, anyway?"
"I'm at Mom's. It's a long story. What do you mean 'it looks like things got crazy'?"
Hannah picked up a pen and began to tackle the crossword as Nick moved towards the front door.
"I mean I'm standing in your living room and half your furniture is missing. It looks like you've been robbed."
Nick's heart began to pound again and he stepped out onto the deck, closing the door behind him.
"Where's Cassie?" he asked. "Is she there? Put her on."
"I don't think she's here," Brian replied. "I haven't looked in the garage, but her car wasn't in the driveway. And I called out when I let myself in. Nick, what the heck is going on?"
Nick slumped down onto the deck, his back against the wall of the house.
"Can you look for her?" he asked, running a hand through his hair.
"Well, sure, but..."
"Look for her, Brian," Nick repeated. "Go upstairs."
Letting his head fall back against the wall, Nick listened to Brian moving around the house.
"Cassie? Are you home?" Brian called but the question went unanswered. "Nick, she's not here."
"Did you look everywhere?"
"I looked everywhere," his friend confirmed. "She's not... Hang on..."
"Hang on what? Brian?"
"There's an envelope with your name on it on the bed. Do you want..."
"Read it," Nick instructed and waited impatiently, listening to the sounds of paper rustling. "Shit, Brian, hurry up."
"Nick... It says she's left you."
Nick slumped back in his first class seat and closed his eyes. 35,000 feet below him the Nevada desert sprawled lazily, its canyons and gullies reaching like fingers to scratch the back of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It had been seven hours since he called the airline and made his reservation; eight hours since he left Hannah and Jack in his mother's living room; ten hours since Brian had read him Cassie's letter... and still the words looped over and over in his mind. She was gone. Opening his eyes as the air hostess and her drinks trolley rattled past his seat, Nick sat up and bent his head to look out the window. The miniaturised landscape so far below him seemed almost stationary, though he knew it raced by at 500 miles an hour and would be drastically different the next time he cast a downward glance. Squinting into a valley, he felt his life doing the same. He felt trapped, standing barefoot in the kitchen while his mother told him of Hannah's arrival in Florida, but knew now that his kitchen - his entire life - would be completely different the next time he gave himself opportunity to look. With a sigh he turned away from the window and let his head fall against the back of his seat, wishing he had left Hannah under better circumstances.
Ending his phone call with Brian, Nick had paused on the deck for a moment collecting his thoughts and trying to calm the furious pounding of his heart. As he entered the kitchen, Hannah had looked up from the newspaper and eyed him questioningly. Nick had slipped wordlessly back into his seat at the table, acutely aware of Hannah's eyes on his shaking hands as he wrapped them around his coffee mug.
"Is everything okay?" she had asked.
Nick had focused all of his attention on the cup before him as he shook his head.
"No, everything is not okay," he had replied through gritted teeth. "Cassie's gone."
The words, hanging in the air above the table, had dripped with Nick's frustration.
"She's gone?" Hannah echoed carefully. "I'm so sorry, Nick."
"You're sorry?" Nick had almost spat the word, as though it left a bad taste in his mouth. "What the hell did you think was going to happen when you turned up here with a baby?"
Hannah had met and held his stare across the table.
"Don't you dare," she had begun. "Don't you dare try and make this my fault. He's your son."
"So you keep saying!" Nick had shot back, his voice raised and filled with anger. "Until there's proof of that, he's nothing to me and neither are you!"
Hannah had watched as Nick stood up and roughly pushed his chair in. His back turned to her, he had run his hands through his dark hair and tilted his head back, quietly struggling for breath.
"I'll call some clinics about paternity tests," Hannah had said evenly.
With a sigh, Nick had placed his hands carefully on the countertop and let his arms take most of his weight.
"I think you should just leave, Hannah," he had replied, his shoulders slumped and his head bent. "Dad will organise the test. I have to go back to LA."
Hannah had sat in silence, staring at his rounded shoulders and lowered head. He looked smaller somehow - defeated by the situation spiralling out of control around him.
"Well, what should I do? Do I wait for you here or go back to New York?"
Nick had sighed again, his back still turned to her.
"I don't... I could be a few days in LA - a week, maybe," he had replied eventually. "Just go back to New York. I'll have Dad organise for the test to be taken there in a few weeks."
Hannah had not replied and when Nick turned to face her, her seat at the table was empty. He had found her in the living room, stooped over the crib and gently stroking Jack's cheek.
"Don't bother, Nick," she had replied without lifting her head. "You've made your feelings perfectly clear. We'll be out of your hair in a few minutes."
His arms folded across his chest, Nick had watched as Hannah bent and gently lifted Jack from the crib. With little more than a grumble, the boy had snuggled in under his mother's chin and continued to sleep peacefully.
"Could you call us a cab, please?" Hannah had asked, still not looking at Nick as she picked up Jack's bag and slung it over her shoulder.
Nick had nodded wordlessly as he left the room.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We will shortly be beginning our descent into Los Angeles where the temperature is currently 84 degrees..."
Nick sat up in his seat and leaned forward, craning his neck to see out the window. As he had expected, the landscape had changed, the parched earth of the south-western states replaced by the liquid expanse of the Pacific Ocean as the plane banked and began to descend. He hoped, peering down at the coastline, that Cassie had not left California. The sooner he found Cassie, the better. Because only when he had fixed things with his wife could he begin to fix things with the mother of his child.
Pushing his front door open, Nick inhaled deeply and tried to imagine he was returning home after a concert tour. The house smelled faintly of apples and Cassie’s favourite perfume and Nick closed his eyes for a long moment, letting the gentle smell wash over him.
“Cassie?” he called, though he knew there would be no response. His words soaked into the walls and the house fell silent.
Nick left his overnight bag at the door and made his way into the living room where the reality of Cassie’s departure became infinitely more apparent. The sofa they had purchased together just weeks after their wedding remained but its two matching armchairs had vanished, leaving behind evenly spaced depressions in the carpet. Nick sank into the sofa with a sigh and surveyed his surroundings. Cassie had obviously thought carefully when deciding what to take - anything they had bought together had been left behind or divided as evenly as possible. He noticed, with a sinking heart, he had been left with each and every photograph. Cassie beamed down at him from the mantelpiece, conveying such happiness Nick found it difficult to comprehend. His own happiness, captured beside Cassie in the picture, paled in comparison to the expression of pure joy on his wife’s face. Their wedding - the day the photo had been taken - seemed a lifetime ago.
Hauling himself reluctantly to his feet, Nick crossed the living room, pulling his mobile phone from his pocket as he went. In the kitchen, he reached for the phonebook kept on the counter and flicked through the pages. Trying to organise his thoughts as he dialled, Nick lowered himself into a seat at the kitchen table. After a few short rings, the phone clicked as the call was collected at the other end of the line.
Nick’s heart leapt into his throat and lodged itself firmly there.
“Hello?” the voice repeated. “Who is this?”
“John… Mr Wilson… Sir…” Nick spluttered. “It’s Nick.”
His words met a wall of silence.
“I just… I want to talk to Cassie. Please. If she’s there,” Nick continued.
“She’s not here,” John Wilson replied evenly.
“Do you know where she is?” Nick asked. “Have you seen her?”
Silence was once again the only response.
“Please, John. I need to talk to her.”
“She doesn’t want to talk to you, Nick. She wants to be alone.”
Nick’s vision clouded as he felt himself beginning to lose control.
“Where is she, John?” he asked. “She’s my wife. I need to talk to her.”
For a brief moment, the sound of a muffled discussion carried down the phone and Nick strained to listen.
“Don’t call here again.”
The call ended with an abrupt click and Nick flipped his phone shut, pushing it angrily away from him. He sat motionless at the table for a moment, his head beginning to throb rhythmically. In one swift movement, he pushed his chair back, barely flinching as it toppled over behind him and reached across to snatch back his mobile. With an angry yell, he launched it across the room and into the wall beside the front door. The phone smashed, its pieces falling to the floor as Nick sank to his knees. Creaking slightly, the door opened slowly and Brian stepped in.
“Have I come at a bad time?” he asked quietly, his concern obvious as his eyes moved over his friend. "Nick? Are you okay?”
Nick lifted his head and his eyes met Brian’s.
“I’ve lost her, Brian. I’ve really lost her.”
Brian crossed the room and knelt beside Nick.
“You’ve only just arrived home. How can you say you’ve lost her when you’ve barely started looking?” he asked.
“She won’t talk to me…”
“I wouldn’t, either,” Brian interjected. “Not right away. She’s just found out you’ve got a son and she’s not his mother. She’s going to need some time to process that, don’t you think?”
Nick nodded silently, staring at the patch of floor in front of him.
“Give her some time then,” Brian finished gently. “She’ll come around, Nick - she loves you. It’s just going to take a while.”
Brian waited as Nick sat quietly, pulling at a thread hanging from the bottom of his jeans.
“You’d better put the coffee on,” Nick mumbled eventually. “I need to catch you up.”
Gravel crunched beneath the wheels of her car as Cassie slowed to a halt at the end of the driveway and lowered her window. Through the high wrought iron gates she and Nick had had installed the previous summer, she could see his car parked outside the garage. He was home.
Cassie took a deep breath as she leaned through the open window and punched a six digit code into the keypad mounted on the gatepost. Nick had wanted four numbers; she had insisted on six and Nick had found himself trapped on the wrong side of the gates more than once. He had never been much good with numbers.
The gates swung back smoothly and Cassie eased the car forward slowly, her heart-rate rising as she neared the house. She’d made the drive across town from her parent’s house in something of a daze, her mind a blur of imaginary conversations. Hot tears pricked her eyes as she parked behind Nick’s BMW and switched the engine off. She needed to pull herself together… and quickly.
Twisting the rearview mirror to face her, Cassie used her index finger to wipe a rogue tear from the top of her cheek and smoothed her eyeliner back into place. With a sigh, she brushed several loose strands of hair away from her face, tucking them as neatly as possible behind her ear.
“That will have to do,” she muttered to herself as she collected a small package from the passenger’s seat and slipped it into her purse.
Closing the car door behind her, Cassie crossed the yard and made her way quietly up the front steps. Nick’s Nike trainers lay haphazardly in front of the door and Cassie stepped tiredly over them. Nick would break his neck before he learned to leave his shoes tidily.
Her house key slid easily into the lock and Cassie turned it together with the door handle, pushing the door open quietly. Footsteps thundered through the rooms upstairs as she turned to close the door and set her purse down on the antique chair in the foyer.
“Cassie?” Nick’s voice carried down the stairs. “Cass, is that you?”
Cassie’s words snagged in her throat as she tried to reply and she felt the sting of tears flooding her eyes again.
Her husband appeared at the top of the stairs, his blonde hair matted to his head and dripping onto his bare shoulders, a towel fastened around his waist.
“Cass… Thank God,” he breathed.
Silence filled the space between them as Cassie stared at the floor near her feet.
“I’ll be right down; just let me throw some clothes on…” Nick began, turning away.
“I’m not staying,” Cassie replied quickly and Nick froze. “I just came to give you this.”
Nick watched as his wife reached into her purse and pulled out the brown paper package.
“What is it?” he asked slowly, making his way down the stairs.
Cassie turned the package over in her hands, staring intently at it before lifting her head to meet Nick’s inquiring eyes.
“It’s a paternity test,” she said evenly, holding the package out to Nick.
“God, Cass… Can’t we sit and talk for a second?” he asked, his emotions betrayed by the cracking in his voice.
“You can do your part right now and have the other half Fed-Exed to Hannah,” Cassie continued. “She can take a swab from the baby and send it to the lab. Results only take a few days.”
Nick looked at the package Cassie still held out to him.
Cassie pushed the parcel towards him and Nick took it reluctantly.
“All the instructions are inside,” Cassie said quietly, picking up her purse and turning towards the door.
Nick placed the package carefully on the kitchen counter and took hold of Cassie by the arm.
“Cass… Don’t go. Please. Not yet.”
Cassie’s eyes drifted to his hand on her bare arm and Nick relaxed his grip, letting his arm fall to his side.
“Let’s just talk, baby. We can work this out.”
Cassie turned to face him, tears now freely streaming down her cheeks.
“This is too big for us, Nick,” she whispered. “I don’t even know you.”
Nick’s throat felt as if it was about to swell shut as he looked at his wife standing broken before him.
“Of course you do,” he replied quietly, fighting the urge to reach out to her again. “Cassie, I’m so sorry for all of this. I’m so, so sorry. But I’m the same person you’ve always known.”
“But you could be this kid’s father…”
“I know I could be, baby,” Nick continued. “And, as much as I want to, I can’t change that.”
Cassie’s knees buckled and Nick lunged to catch her as she crumpled to the floor, sobbing. Wrapping his arms around her, Nick pulled her close and smoothed her blonde hair as Cassie let her head rest on his shoulder.
“Shhh… Cass… It’s going to be okay,” he whispered, planting a gentle kiss on her forehead. “It’s all going to be okay.”
Nick had lost all feeling in his legs. The foyer had darkened and the porch light had switched itself on, casting a dim yellow beam through the window beside the door. Cassie had stopped crying a long time ago and now she breathed deep and even, still crumpled awkwardly on the floor, her arms around Nick’s waist. Nick shivered.
“Cassie?” he whispered, pulling back slightly to look at her. “Cass, I’m freezing.”
Cassie lifted her head slowly and squinted in the dark.
“What happened?” she asked.
“You fell asleep,” Nick replied, wincing as he straightened his legs. “A while ago.”
Cassie looked at her watch and inhaled sharply.
“It’s after seven. I’ve got to go.”
Nick watched from the floor, still struggling to move his leaden legs, as Cassie straightened her clothes and picked up her purse with trembling hands.
“You could stay and let me make you some dinner,” he said quietly. “You must be starving.”
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”
“I don’t think you getting behind the wheel is such a good idea,” Nick countered. “You’re shaking.”
Cassie looked down at her hands. The trembling was undeniable.
“At least let me get you an orange juice or something,” Nick said, hauling himself to his feet. “You can’t drive like that. No heavy talk, I promise.”
Placing her purse on the chair once again, Cassie turned away from the door.
“Okay,” she conceded. “A juice would be good.”
“I’ll get dressed,” Nick replied, taking the stairs two at a time.
Cassie sighed as she walked into the living room and perched awkwardly on the edge of the sofa. She already felt as though the house was no longer hers – as though she was just a visitor in her own living room. It made her feel ill and she sank back against the sofa cushions, her hands resting on her stomach, silently willing it to stop churning. Closing her eyes tight, Cassie slowly leaned sideways until she was lying down, her hands still on her stomach. Sleep reclaimed her quickly.
“I’ve got…” Nick stopped in the living room doorway, orange juice in hand and looked at his sleeping wife. “Your juice…”
Setting the glass down carefully on the coffee table, he opened a drawer and pulled out a deep red throw. Laying it gently over her, he brushed Cassie’s hair away from her face and looked at her for a moment before he turned and left the room. She was home.
Hannah leaned back in her seat and folded her arms across her chest. Chewing nervously on her bottom lip, she stared at the paternity test kit on the table in front of her. She couldn’t believe it had all been reduced to this. The months in New York – a blur of coffee dates, stolen kisses, and whispered promises in the dark of her bedroom as they lay together, their hearts still racing and their breaths short and ragged… And Jack, her beautiful, joyful boy… It was all reduced to four cotton tipped swabs, a consent form and two plastic envelopes.
“Hannah? Honey, do you want to get started?”
Her mother’s voice cut through her thoughts and Hannah straightened in her seat. Across the table, Jack sat on Mary Parker’s knee and pushed his yellow dump truck back and forth along the table. Hannah looked at him and felt the warm pressure of tears beginning to build.
“Hannah,” her mother said gently, seeing the pain in her daughter’s expression. “I know it’s hard, honey, but the sooner this is over with, the better… for everybody. For you and Jack as much as for Nick and Cassie.”
Hannah nodded silently as Jack pushed his toy too far and it fell noisily to the floor.
“Uh-oh, Momma! Crash!” he announced, his blue eyes twinkling as he grinned at her across the table.
“Yeah, crash!” she confirmed, getting to her feet to retrieve the toy. “You’re not a very good driver, Jacko.”
Handing the truck back to her son, she took a pair of scissors from the kitchen counter and snipped the bottom off the packet of surgical swabs. Pulling one carefully from the sterile wrapping, she smiled weakly at her mother who nodded in response.
“Hey, Jack, shall we show Grandma how many nice new teeth you’ve got? She’d love to see them. Open wide…”
Jack tilted his head back obediently and Hannah leaned forward, distracting her son with talk of strong, white teeth as she placed the tip of the swab against the inside of his cheek and rotated it slowly.
“Such nice, clean teeth, don’t you think, Grandma?”
“I sure do. Those are the cleanest teeth I’ve ever seen! You must be taking very good care of them, Jack.”
Jack looked at his grandmother and nodded earnestly.
“Brushing, brushing, brushing!” he replied, the word growing louder with every repetition.
Hannah smiled as she slipped the used swab into an envelope marked with Jack’s name and turned back to face her mother.
“One down, three to go.”
Bribed with his favourite fruit juice and promises of trips to the pet store, Jack had eventually opened his mouth long enough for the three remaining cheek cell samples to be taken. Now, as Hannah sat at the table filling in the consent form, her son lay sleeping soundly on the sofa.
“Do you want me to put him to bed before I go?”
“Huh?” Hannah asked, looking up from the form to see her mother pulling on her coat. “Oh… No, thanks, Mom. I can do it.”
“Okay. Well, I’d better get home and get your dad some supper before he calls for pizza. His cholesterol is the last thing he worries about and the first thing I do…”
“Sure, sounds great, Mom…”
“Honey, try not to let it worry you too much, okay?” Mary asked quietly, crossing the small kitchen and enveloping her daughter in a hug. “You know who his father is already.”
Hannah forced herself to smile, feeling the familiar swelling in her throat as the lump she had fought so often in the last few months took up residency again.
“I know, Mom. I’m okay. Really.”
Less than convinced, her mother looked at her questioningly but let Hannah’s words stand.
“Okay. You call me if you need anything. Anything at all.”
“I will, Mom. Thanks.”
Hannah continued to print carefully on the thin paper in front of her. She didn’t hear her mother leave.
Barefoot in his kitchen, Nick stood with his back against the refrigerator, clutching an empty can of Coors Light. Across the room, a nondescript envelope lay unopened on the table. He had thought he would tear it open as soon as it arrived but now the envelope and its possible contents seemed too heavy a weight to lift.
Crushing the can with a sigh, Nick lobbed it into the trashcan and crossed the room to sit at the table. Reaching for the envelope, he turned it over in his hands before tearing the top off and taking out the folded sheet of paper.
With a deep, measured breath, Nick unfolded the paper and began to read.
“…The alleged father, Nickolas Gene Carter, cannot be excluded as being the father of the child, Jack Aaron Parker. Based on testing results obtained from analyses of 5 different DNA probes, the probability of paternity is 99.9999%... This DNA Parentage Test excluded greater than 99.99% of the male population from the possibility of being the biological father of the tested child…”
Nick slumped in his seat and refolded the letter, laying it carefully on the table in front of him. He needed to call Cassie.
Nick lay on his unmade bed and stared up at the ceiling. The cordless telephone lay on the sheet beside him but he was in no hurry to pick it up again. The call to Cassie had lasted all of twenty seconds, ending abruptly when she had slammed the receiver down. Hannah hadn’t been in a much better mood but at least she had let him say his piece.
Glancing at his watch, Nick rolled onto his side with a sigh. He would have to make the call to the airline soon if he wanted to get his booking in before the prices jumped at the end of the day. He and Hannah had agreed it would be best if he went to New York for a few days to spend some time with Jack and work out the best way of handling their new situation. What he really wanted to do was talk to Cassie about the best way of handling their new situation.
Sighing again, Nick flopped onto his back again and ran his hands through his hair before clasping them behind his head. A crack in the ceiling paint caught his eye and he frowned up at it. He didn’t remember it being there. Then again, with concert tours and promotions and Hannah, he had probably spent less than a month at home since buying the house. Hannah’s ceiling paint had a crack running wall to wall above the bed and her wardrobe door needed a kick in the bottom right hand corner to make it shut properly. Her kitchen faucet needed a new washer and her sofa cushions needed recovering. Her pajama pants were torn above the knee and she needed a coffee within five minutes of waking up or there was hell to pay. She liked chicken fettuccine, reruns of Friends, pink marshmallows and the Knicks. And Jack. She loved her baby boy – their baby boy. Their baby boy with his blue eyes and blond hair, just like his mom and dad’s.
Nick closed his eyes and tried to imagine the two of them together – Hannah in the kitchen in her torn pajama pants and a t-shirt and Alex… In his mind, Nick saw his son in the green shorts and green and white striped t-shirt he had worn in Florida. It didn’t fit with the image of Hannah dressed for bed.
Hauling himself up to sit on the bed, Nick picked up the telephone and reached for the directory beside the bed. Flicking through the pages, he found the number for American Airlines and dialed quickly.
“American Airlines Customer Service Department. You’re speaking with Julie, how can I help?”
“I need a ticket to New York,” Nick replied, closing the directory and dropping it onto his lap. “And I need to go tonight.”
Chapter 13, y'all! Hope you like it :)
Stirring her cold cup of cocoa absentmindedly, Hannah stared out the living room window into the dark. It was after 2am and Jack slept soundly in the next room, blissfully unaware of his mother’s restlessness. All day her mind had raced, the brief phone conversation with Nick playing over and over and she knew sleep would not come easily tonight. With a sigh, Hannah set her mug down on the coffee table and sank into the sofa cushions. Outside rain began to fall gently, gradually covering the window with tiny drops, clinging to the glass. Moments later it began to pour and the drops joined to become rivulets, streaming down into the planter box fastened to the outside wall. Wriggling further into the cushions, Hannah closed her eyes and let the soothing sound of the falling rain wash over her.
Loud rapping on the door of the apartment jolted her from the edge of sleep and Hannah snapped back to full alertness. Glancing at her watch, she hauled herself from the sanctuary of the sofa and got to her feet. Her pajama pants had twisted when she curled up on the sofa and she tugged them back into place as she made her way to the door.
“Who is it?” she asked, loud enough to be heard through the wooden door but quiet enough not to disturb Jack. In New York City you didn’t open your door for just anyone at 2am.
“Hannah? It’s me.”
Hannah’s heart leapt into her mouth and she stood staring at the closed door.
“It’s me… Nick.”
Reaching for the deadlock, Hannah noticed her hands were shaking and she cursed herself under her breath. She left the security chain in place as she turned the deadlock and twisted the handle, pulling the door open a few inches. Nick stood on the other side, dripping wet and with a small suitcase at his feet. Hannah stared at him in silence.
“I had to come,” Nick stated flatly. “Can I come in?”
Hannah nodded and pushed the door to, sliding the chain off and stepping back to let him pass.
“Let me get you a towel,” she muttered, heading for the linen cupboard.
Nick slipped out of his shoes and pushed them against the wall alongside Hannah’s. The tiniest pair of Chuck Taylor’s he had ever seen caught his eye and Nick swallowed hard – they were about as long as his DC shoes were wide. How could a human being have such impossibly small feet? The toes on those feet must be almost nonexistent.
“Here,” Hannah said, handing him a faded red towel.
Hannah watched as Nick shrugged out of his sodden jumper and slung it over the back of a dining chair. Rubbing at his hair with the towel, he cocked his head to look at her.
“I’m sorry it’s so late,” he said, slinging the towel over his shoulder. “I had to come.”
Hannah arched an eyebrow, silently asking for an explanation. Nick sighed.
“I don’t know what Jack’s pajamas look like,” he continued.
Hannah arched her other eyebrow and Nick sighed again.
“I just… I don’t know what his pajamas look like,” he repeated. “He’s my son – he’s over a year old and I don’t know what his pajamas look like, you know?”
Now it was Hannah’s turn to sigh.
“I’m going to make a hot drink,” she said as she moved past him. “Tea, coffee or hot cocoa?”
“Coffee, please,” Nick replied, pulling at his t-shirt. “Do you mind if I change? This is soaked.”
“Sure. You know where the bathroom is.”
Nick picked up his suitcase and disappeared into the tiny bathroom. Standing at the kitchen counter, Hannah closed her eyes and tilted her head back. Sleep was no longer even a blip on the radar.
Nick muttered a thank you as Hannah handed him a steaming mug of coffee and sat down beside him on the sofa.
“What were you doing out in the rain?” Hannah asked, prodding the marshmallow in her cocoa with her finger. “Why didn’t you get a cab to the door?”
“I did. But then I realized I had no idea what I was going to say to you,” Nick admitted. “So I walked a few blocks and got caught out.”
Hannah looked at him as he ran a hand through his still damp hair before lifting the mug to his lips.
“Where are you staying?” she asked.
Nick shrugged as he swallowed.
“I don’t know – I didn’t book anything other than the plane ticket. I’ll find something nearby.”
Hannah sipped her cocoa and leaned back on the sofa, savoring the sensation as the hot liquid trickled down her throat.
“How long are you staying?” she asked, resting her mug on her knee.
“I don’t know. As long as it takes us to figure out how we’re going to make this work.”
“Does Cassie know you’re here?”
Nick looked at her.
“Twenty questions, Hannah.”
“All of them valid,” she replied. “Does Cassie know you’re here?”
“I left a message on her mobile. She’s not returning my calls.”
Hannah sighed and rubbed her free hand over her eyes. Nick set his mug down and shifted on the sofa so he was facing her.
“Cassie doesn’t matter right now, Hannah…”
“Excuse me?! She’s your wife!”
Nick held his hands up, asking for calm.
“Wait a second. That came out wrong,” he began. “What I meant was… I can’t do anything about it if Cassie won’t return my calls, okay? I can’t make her talk to me. But I can be here, getting to know Jack.”
Hannah stared past him, out into the dark, wet night. Rain distorted the light thrown from the streetlamp across the road and the yellow splotches danced on the glass as new drops fell.
“I really… I just… I can’t even think straight right now, Nick. It’s almost 3am.”
Nick nodded as he picked up his mug and took another sip. Hannah sighed, blinking hard against the sting of fatigue.
“I have blankets,” she said as she stood and moved towards the kitchen. “You can sleep on the sofa.”
“But tomorrow you check into a hotel. You don’t stay over again.”
“Okay,” Nick agreed as he got to his feet and followed her.
Hannah took his mug from him and placed it along with hers in the sink. Nick stood behind her, watching as she rinsed their mugs with warm water. Placing them upside down to drain, she turned to face him again.
“I’ll get those blankets for you,” she said, stepping around him and opening the linen cupboard.
Pulling three blankets from a shelf, she handed them to him and closed the cupboard door.
“Do you need anything else?” she asked.
Nick looked down at the blankets and shook his head.
“No, I don’t think so. Thanks.”
“Okay,” Hannah replied, reaching through the door to her room to turn the light on. “Well, you know where everything is if you do need anything.”
“Okay,” Hannah repeated, lingering in the doorway. “Goodnight.”
“Goodnight,” Nick replied as the door closed softly.
Sorry it's been so long! Been super busy with school and exams. Hope you like this.
Nick shifted uncomfortably, tugging at the cushion behind his head as he turned onto his side and lay staring into the back of Hannah’s sofa. The apartment was silent apart from the irregular hums and clicks coming from the refrigerator. Daylight had begun to filter through the thin curtain behind the sofa and Nick closed his eyes against it, willing himself to go back to sleep.
For minutes he lay, his eyes closed tight, listening to the sounds coming from the kitchen. A new noise crept into his semi-consciousness and he pulled himself up to sit sideways on the sofa. The gentle tinkling continued and Nick turned his head, trying to work out where it was coming from. Pushing the blankets off, he got to his feet and crossed the room to stand outside Hannah’s door. Nick held his breath as he listened intently but no sound came from the room. Moving to the next door, he pressed his ear against the wood and listened. The metallic tinkling carried through the door and Nick moved his head away. The baby was awake. Chewing thoughtfully on his bottom lip, Nick reached for the doorhandle and turned it. Pushing the door open slowly, he peered into the semi-darkness of what had once been Hannah’s spare room. Pale blue paint had replaced the tatty wallpaper he remembered and a large dinosaur printed rug covered most of the bare floorboards. Under the window, where Hannah’s desk had once stood, a white painted crib and changing table sat side by side. Jack looked out at Nick from a corner of the crib, his blond hair ruffled by sleep and his thumb in his mouth. In his free hand he held a soft toy cow complete with a bell around its neck.
“Hey…” Nick began as he took a nervous step towards the crib. “What’s that you’ve got?”
Jack stared back at him, wide-eyed and curious as Nick moved closer.
“Is that a cow? Have you got a cow in there?” Nick asked.
Jack pulled his thumb from his mouth and clutched his toy with both hands.
“Moo cow,” he replied, clinging desperately to the animal.
Standing beside the crib, Nick smiled.
“It’s a moo cow? Can I see it?”
“Moo cow,” Jack repeated, hesitating before holding the toy out to Nick.
“Wow… It’s got a bell and everything,” Nick said as he tapped the bell gently with his index finger.
Jack grinned and wriggled closer across the mattress. Smiling, Nick handed the toy back and looked at his watch. 6:45am. Surely Hannah would be getting up soon.
“How about we get you up?“ he asked.
Jack stared blankly back at him and Nick ran a hand through his hair as he looked down at his him. He didn’t even know where to begin. Leaning forward, he clasped Jack under the arms and lifted him out of the crib. The smell hit him instantly.
“Wow… Wow…” he muttered, holding his son at arms length. “That is not a good start, Jack.”
Laying him down on the changing table, Nick stood back and looked at his son. Jack chewed contently on the hind leg of his cow as he stared back.
“Okay… If I were a clean diaper, where would I be?” Nick asked aloud, looking around the room.
“Under the changing table,” Hannah said from the doorway. “You’re not really going to change him, are you?”
Nick turned to face her and shrugged.
“I have to learn sometime.”
“Have you done it before?” Hannah asked as she joined him by the changing table and bent to kiss Jack’s forehead. “Good morning, sunshine.”
“No, but I’ve seen other people do it,” Nick replied, moving aside as Hannah reached under the table. “It can’t be too hard.”
Hannah smiled as she pulled Jack towards her by the ankles.
“How about if you watch me do this one and you have a go later? I think we should start you off on something… Less offensive.”
“Okay,” Nick agreed, leaning against the crib and folding his arms across his chest. “You know… That really is offensive. Is he sick or something?”
Hannah smiled again as she pulled the sticky tabs on Jack’s diaper back.
“This is normal. You just get used to it after a while, I guess. It’s not so bad.”
“It worries me that you don’t think this is bad,” Nick said, fighting the urge to cover his nose.
“Eight hours in labour, Nick. That’s bad. This is nothing.”
Nick watched the rest of the changing in silence, only half listening to Hannah’s instructions. Eight hours in labour. Eight whole hours she had spent in pain, bringing their son into the world without him. He remembered the day Jack was born only because Hannah had called and left a message on his mobile that night. He had been out all day, choosing new carpet with Cassie. Choosing new carpet while Hannah gave birth without him. He had missed her call because Alex and his lady of the moment had come for dinner and stayed well into the night. Pangs of guilt speared him in the stomach when he thought back over his day. He knew deep down he wouldn’t have taken her call anyway. In the months after he left her, he had stood staring his mobile while her number flashed on screen more times than he cared to think about.
“Nick? Are you even listening?”
Nick snapped back to the present at the sound of Hannah’s voice. Pushing Jack’s legs into a pair of shorts, she looked questioningly at him as she tugged the pants up.
“Sorry, I was miles away,” he replied, moving forward. “I can do that.”
“It’s okay, I’m almost done. Can you get some socks from the top drawer?”
Nick did as he was asked, returning to the changing table, striped socks in hand.
“Let me,” he said, ignoring Hannah’s extended hand. “I can manage a pair of socks, Hannah.”
Hannah stepped aside and watched as Nick did his best to wrangle Jack’s squirming feet into the socks.
“You’re not making this easy, kid,” he muttered, grabbing at an ankle as Jack’s foot shot dangerously close to his face. “Hold still for a second.”
Jack laughed and held his toy cow out towards Nick.
“Yeah, moo cow,” Nick repeated, standing back and smiling triumphantly at Hannah. “Told you I could manage a pair of socks.”
Hannah smiled as she moved past him and scooped Jack up from the table.
“Well done. How about you see if you can dress yourself now?”
Nick looked down at his boxer shorts and bare legs - it hadn’t even occurred to him to put trousers on. Like so many other things, his status in Hannah’s apartment had changed.
The last time he’d been in Hannah’s apartment, Nick had been completely naked for most of the day, only pulling on a shirt and jeans when he ventured out to get dinner. Hannah had met him at the door wrapped in a towel, her hair still dripping from the shower. The sight of her damp skin had been enough to push any thoughts of food from Nick’s mind. He had kissed her roughly as they stumbled backwards towards the bedroom, his clothes and her towel strewn in their wake. Their dinner cooled on the counter for an hour. When finally they had picked up the cardboard box and sat down on the sofa to eat, Nick had brushed a strand of hair from Hannah’s face and told her he loved her. She had smiled back at him, told him she loved him too and fed him a slice of pepperoni pizza. And then Cassie had called and Nick’s world shattered. Standing in the kitchen, a sheet wrapped loosely around his waist, he had tried his best to calm his wife down, all the while feigning a business emergency to Hannah. She had rolled her eyes at him and switched the TV on, flicking through the channels as she ate. Nick ended his call and shuffled back to the living room, stooping to kiss the top of Hannah’s head.
“I have to go, baby. I’m sorry.”
Hannah had looked up at him, wiping tomato sauce from her chin with the back of her hand.
“Is everything okay?” she had asked.
“Yeah, everything’s fine. It’s just the trip to Dallas I was telling you about… We’ve had to bring it forward… I have to go tonight.”
“Tonight? Really? Can’t you go in the morning? You might not even get on a flight tonight.”
“It’s all booked, baby. The flight leaves in an hour. I have to go to the airport right now.”
Hannah had set her takeout carton down on the coffee table and got to her feet.
“I guess you better get dressed then. I’ll call you a cab.”
“Thankyou,” Nick had replied, his mind racing as he moved past her and picked up his jeans. “I’m sorry, Hannah.”
Hannah had smiled at him as she reached for the telephone.
“It’s okay, Nick. If you have to go, you have to go.”
Nick had swallowed hard as he watched her dial the cab company. In that moment he had wanted to climb back into bed with her and forget the rest of the world. He had wanted to lie with her, breathe in the smell of her, feel the warmth of her skin beneath his fingers. Instead he had retreated to the bathroom, closing the door behind him and sitting down carefully on the edge of the tub. Cassie’s accusations had raced through his mind, the truth behind her words stabbing like a knife in his stomach. She knew. Exactly how she knew, he wasn’t sure. But she knew.
Running his hands through his hair, Nick had lowered his head and willed the room to stop spinning. He had to pull himself together. He had to go back into the living room and face Hannah, make his apologies once more and leave. He had to leave. The knife in his stomach had twisted.
Taking a deep breath, he had got to his feet and lurched awkwardly towards the faucet. With his palms on the hand basin, he stared silently into the mirror. Sounds from the TV carried into the bathroom and he smiled as Hannah laughed out loud but his smile faded as he eyed his reflection. There was a nervousness he wasn’t used to seeing in himself - a restlessness, a lack of direction. And behind it all, the guilt he had forced aside for so long, somehow convincing himself that if he loved them both, he should have them both. Now, after one brief phone call, he had to let Hannah go. Or did he?
Returning to his perch on the edge of the tub, Nick hung his head and gave in to the flood of thoughts competing fiercely for his attention. Did he really have to lose Hannah? Could he make things right with Cassie, let the dust settle and then… Could he fake a work transfer and put himself out of Hannah’s reach for a while? Just while Cassie calmed down? And then… If he had to lose one of them… did he want it to be Hannah?
A gentle knock on the door jolted him from his thoughts and Nick had looked up to see Hannah peering around the open door.
“Your cab will be here any second… Are you flying pantless tonight, Nickolas?.”
Nick had looked down at his bare legs in silence. His jeans lay in a crumpled heap on the floor.
“I guess I don’t want to go,” he said eventually. “If I get dressed it means I’m going.”
“You’ll be back before you know it,” Hannah had replied, sitting down beside him on the bathtub. “It’s only Dallas. It’s hardly the other side of the world.”
Nick smiled weakly. The other side of the world was exactly where he was going. He would have three days in Los Angeles with Cassie before boarding a plane for Europe and a month of touring.
“You’re right; it’s hardly the other side of the world,” he had said as he squeezed her hand and reached for his jeans. “I’ll be back before you know it.”
Hannah had smiled as she stood up and moved towards the door.
“You’d better get a move on. Your cab is probably here.”
“I’ll be right out.”
Nick had forced himself to get dressed, his mind foggy and his limbs heavy. It seemed the world ran in slow motion. As he wrapped his arms around Hannah one last time and kissed her deeply, he was grateful for the slow movement of time. He had only wished he could stop it forever.
“See you soon,” he had said as Hannah opened the door for him.
“Not if I see you first,” she replied with a smile. “Keep safe.”
Nick nodded silently, picking up his small suitcase and turning away. Swallowing hard as he moved down the hall, the door had clicked shut behind him.
Brian looked up from his book as a silver Mercedes stopped outside his gates and the driver reached for the intercom mounted on the gatepost. Dropping the book on the porch steps, Brian stood up and walked to the front door.
"Leigh?" he called, heading for the kitchen. "Honey? There's someone at the gate."
Crossing the tiles quickly, Brian reached the intercom as it began to beep incessantly.
“Hello?” he asked, shrugging as his wife entered and cast him a questioning look.
“Brian? It’s Cassie. Is Leighanne home?”
“Hey, Cassie. She’s right here,” Brian replied. “Come on up to the house.”
Pressing the gate release button, Brian turned to envelope Leighanne in a hug.
“How is she lately?” he asked.
“Not good,” his wife replied. “I’m worried about her, Brian. She said she hasn’t been sleeping and I know she’s not eating right. Last week at Kristin’s she almost passed out at the dinner table. The whole thing is awful - it’s painful to watch.”
Brian sighed as Leighanne let her head rest on his shoulder.
“All you can do is be there for her, Leigh,” he replied. “You know, she could stay in the guest house if she wanted to. I think it’d help if she had friends nearby.”
Lifting her head, Leighanne smiled at him.
“I think her mom is staying with her,” she said. “But you’re a sweet man, Brian Littrell. I think I’ll keep you.”
Brian smiled back as a car door closed and footsteps sounded on the porch.
“I’ll be out back with Baylee if you need me,” he replied, planting a kiss on his wife’s forehead.
Leighanne watched her husband leave the room, collecting a catcher's mitt from the table as he passed. He and Baylee would happily spend all day playing ball in the yard if nobody reminded them to eat. Baylee was still too small to throw and catch with any real accuracy but that didn't hold them back - boundless energy seemed to be in the Littrell genes.
Turning as Cassie entered the room, Leighanne was taken aback by her friend's appearance. Cassie's face was pale and tear-stained, her bloodshot eyes and smudged makeup contradicting the weak smile she cast Leighanne.
"Cassie... What's going on?"
Cassie looked nervously around the kitchen.
"Brian's out back," Leighanne assured her. "What's happened?"
Setting her purse down, Cassie steadied herself, palms down on the marble countertop and took a deep breath.
"I don't know what to do, Leigh," she said quietly, her voice wavering. "I don't know what to do."
"About Nick? Has he called you?"
Cassie shook her head, tears filling her eyes.
"I haven't heard from him for days," she replied. "It's like he's forgotten me now that he's got her and Jack to worry about."
"I'm sure that's not true..."
"And now... Oh, God, Leigh..."
Leighanne lay a hand on Cassie's arm, waiting. Cassie's breaths were short and ragged, and her hands began to tremble on the marble beneath them.
"Why don't you go in the living room and sit down?" Leighanne coaxed. "I'll make you a herbal tea."
Cassie's composure evaporated completely and she slumped to the floor, her body racked with sobs. Leighanne sank to her knees beside her friend, panic taking her over as Cassie leaned forward and sobbed uncontrollably.
"Cassie? Talk to me..."
Cassie's sobs continued and Leighanne enveloped her in a hug.
"Come on, Cass. It'll be okay. You and Nick... You'll work it out..."
Forcing herself to take a deep breath, Cassie lifted her head.
"It's not that," she whispered, wiping a tear from her cheek with the back of her hand. "It's... I'm sick, Leigh."
Leighanne eyed her friend warily.
"How sick? Paracetamol and orange juice sick?"
Cassie shook her head and took another measured breath.
"Cancer, Leigh. I've got cancer."
Brian leaned over his son's bed and kissed Baylee's forehead.
"Sleep well, little man," he whispered, ruffling the boy's blonde curls. "I love you."
"Sleep well, daddy," Baylee mumbled groggily, his eyelids beginning to droop. "I love you."
Brian grinned as he switched the nightlight on and moved away from the bed. Baylee's thumb found its way to his mouth and his eyes closed for good. Shutting the bedroom door behind him, Brian made his way quietly down the stairs. He paused by the living room door, listening for laughter or happy chatter but hearing only subdued murmurings. Leighanne and Cassie had been staked out in the living room for hours and their hushed conversation wasn't showing any signs of slowing down. Moving into the kitchen, Brian opened the refrigerator and pulled out a covered dish of the macaroni and cheese he and Baylee had shared for dinner. He wondered if Cassie and Leighanne had eaten, if he should offer them the leftovers. Peeling off the aluminium foil, Brian slid the dish into the microwave and set the timer before he sat down at the kitchen table and reached for the newspaper.
"Journalistic integrity," he muttered under his breath as he turned to the entertainment pages. "What an oxymoron."
A two-age spread of paparazzi photographs and pun-laden captions showed the sadder side of celebrity life in Los Angeles. Drunken movie stars, strung-out musicians, anorexic teenagers... all caught on film. Brian shook his head as his eyes moved over the images, resting finally on a boxed section at the bottom of the paper.
The photographer had caught Nick off guard as he climbed out of a taxi and Brian could only assume the blonde child in his arms was Jack.
"You cannot be serious..."
Brian leaned forward, ignoring the beeping behind him as the timer on the microwave reached zero. Beside the picture of Nick and Jack was a snapshot of a woman, head bent as she exited the same taxi, straight blonde hair partially hiding her face. Her luck had run out after the first picture and the second showed her obvious surprise as she reached to take the child from Nick.
"Ah... the mythical Hannah..."
Shaking his head sadly, Brian read the caption.
"Backstreet Boy Nick Carter in Manhattan with a mystery woman and child this week. Carter and his wife, actress Cassie Wilson, separated recently following months of speculation Nick has been playing the field in NYC."
Brian crumpled the paper in his hands and lobbed it towards the trash can.
"Journalistic integrity," he repeated as he got to his feet and pulled the pasta from the microwave. "What and oxymoron."
Pulling the blankets back slowly, Leighanne slipped into bed beside her husband, wriggling close enough to feel the warmth rising from his bare skin.
"What time is it?" Brian muttered, his eyes still closed.
"After one," Leighanne whispered back.
"Cassie's gone," his wife confirmed.
Brian sighed, snuggling further under the blankets as he reached for his wife. Finding her hand beneath the covers, he gave it a gentle squeeze.
"She's upset about Nick?"
Leighanne didn't reply and Brian opened his eyes. He couldn't see her face in the dark of their bedroom but her breath came in short gasps.
"Leigh? Are you crying?"
A single sob escaped and Brian rolled over, reaching for the light on the nightstand. Turning back to his wife, he brushed her hair away from her face and clasped her hands in his.
"Honey, what's wrong?"
"She has leukaemia, Brian. Cancer. She could die."
Brian pulled her closer as Leighanne's sobs came thick and fast.
"Shhh... Leigh, maybe they caught it early, you know? She might be okay."
Leighanne continued to cry but gradually the sobs became less frequent. When finally she fell almost silent, Brian propped himself up on one elbow and looked at his wife.
“She might be okay,” he repeated.
Leighanne reached for him, pulling him back down beside her.
“Pray with me?” she whispered, closing her eyes.
Reaching behind him, Brian flicked the light off and settled into the mattress facing Leighanne. In the stillness of the darkened bedroom, he held his tearful wife and prayed.
Standing with his back to the bridge railing, Nick watched as Hannah lifted Jack from his pushchair and into her arms. Moonlight had turned the East River into a ribbon of liquid silk, flowing almost soundlessly beneath them and Nick edged closer to her as Hannah moved towards the railing.
"I love it here at night," Hannah said, shifting Jack's weight to her hip. "I love the lights."
Nick leaned forward against the rail, scanning the Manhattan skyline. Beside him, Jack squirmed against Hannah, his forehead furrowing as he reached for his father.
"Here, I'll take him," Nick said. "Got ants in your pants, buddy?"
Jack laughed as Hannah handed him over and Nick tugged his woollen hat down over his ears. Her hands free, Hannah stepped onto the bottom rail and leaned forward.
"Hannah, I hate it when you climb," Nick said warily. "Don't go past the bottom one."
Turning to smile at him, Hannah stepped off the rail and adjusted Jack's scarf.
"I should probably get him home to bed," she said.
"Already?" Nick asked, glancing at his watch. "It's early. Let's stay a few more minutes."
Hannah sighed, turning back towards Manhattan. Nick watched her as she ran her hands back and forth along the rail before cramming them into her pockets. Six days ago he had arrived on her doorstep, soaked to the skin, not a clue what to say or do. She handed him a towel and offered him her sofa for the night but sent him packing the next morning. Nick had checked himself into a suite at The Marriot and slept most of the day, waking with an empty stomach and a compulsion to call Hannah. She met him in the hotel restaurant where they shared gourmet pizza, talking long into the night before Nick saw her safely into a cab and returned to his suite.
It hadn't taken long for the media to find out where he was staying and, on his third day in the city, Nick saw firsthand the effect of the paparazzi on the uninitiated. Hannah was photographed as they returned to the hotel after a visit to Central Park Zoo with Jack and her surprise was obvious. She instinctively reached for her son, doing her best to shield him from the camera flashes. Fighting his own instincts to beat the photographer over the head with his camera, Nick steered Hannah towards the relative calm of the hotel lobby. She had said she was fine, that she was only concerned about Jack, but Nick knew the attention was unwanted and made her uncomfortable. He hadn't been surprised when she began to reject his suggestions she visit the hotel, instead asking him to meet her in obscure coffeehouses and galleries. On the night the visited the Brooklyn Bridge, he had met her, as she asked, in a small bookstore six blocks from his hotel. They had taken Jack to see the Staten Island Ferries coming and going and made their way to the bridge as darkness fell.
Nick had wanted to take her hand as they stood watching the ferries. He had wanted to lay his hand over hers as she maneuvered Jack's pushchair towards the bridge. He wanted to reach out and touch her now as she stood with her back to him. It would be easy if not for Jack, now sleeping in his arms.
“Hannah?” he said, the obvious rasp in his voice surprising him.
Nick cleared his throat and shifted his weight from his left foot to his right, carefully lifting Jack higher on his hip.
“I’ve been thinking... Maybe we could take Jack out to Long Island Sound for a few days... You know... Get away from the city.”
Hannah turned to face him, an eyebrow arched.
“Long Island Sound?” she echoed. “The cottage, you mean?”
Nick hesitated. She didn’t look impressed. Maybe he should’ve thought this through a bit better.
“Only if you want to,” he replied. “I just thought it might be good to get away for a while. I’m sick of meeting you in back alley bookstores and dodging guys with cameras. I just want to be for a few days.”
Stony faced, Hannah remained silent, her mind racing. Weekends in Long Island Sound had been a semi-regular occurrence in the months before Nick left on his ‘business trip’. They had rented the same beachfront cottage for every trip and spent their nights together in front of the open fire. Nick had told her he loved her for the first time as they lay wrapped in a blanket on the sofa, exhausted and bleary eyed. Outside, the wind roared around the weather beaten cottage as Hannah whispered her reply.
Long Island Sound, the cottage with its fireplace and wrought iron bed, was special - almost sacred - and so much had happened since they last visited. The cottage had seemed enormous when she couldn’t get enough of Nick, couldn’t stand it when he left the room. Now, with Jack in tow and Cassie’s constant presence in the back of her mind, it would be overcrowded. But stolen moments in New York City, meeting in gloomy bookstores and grime coated coffeehouses, wasn’t as exciting as moviemakers would have people believe. It was exhausting and unfair on Jack. Truth be told, it was unfair on all of them.
“Okay, sure,” she heard herself say. “Let’s go.”
“Really?” Nick asked.
Hannah nodded as she reached for Jack.
“But you sleep on the sofa,” she finished.
Nick watched as she lay Jack in his pushchair and pulled a blanket over him before turning back to face him.
“The sofa?” he asked. “Hannah, that sofa is awful. It’s too short.”
“It was never a problem before,” she replied, moving towards the end of the bridge. “Take it or leave it, Nick.”
Nick fell into step beside her and pulled the hood of his sweater up, chewing his bottom lip thoughtfully.
“Ok,” he conceded. “I’ll take the sofa. I need a day or so to sort a few things out but I’ll organize the cottage for this weekend.”
Hannah nodded. They were nearing the end of the bridge and she reached for her mobile phone.
“Do you want to come back for a coffee?” she asked, searching her directory for the cab company. “I’m stopping at Joe’s.”
Nick glanced at his watch – 7:35. He needed to try calling Cassie.
“I have to…” he began, catching Hannah’s questioning stare. “No… Coffee sounds good.”
Reaching for his own phone, he held the power button down. The screen flickered and switched off.
I Still... Chapter Eighteen
Setting a tray of glasses and a pitcher of iced tea down carefully, Leighanne sank into a seat beside Brian and smiled across the table at Kevin and Kristin. Baylee lay on the grass beside the table, oblivious to the conversation going on over his head as he pushed a small plastic car back and forth.
"So... What happens next?" Kevin asked as he reached for the pitcher and began to pour. "Are there more tests or do they start treatment?"
Brian cast a sidelong glance at his wife and took her hand beneath the table. He knew it was hard for her to talk about Cassie's illness but the news was still fresh for Kevin and Kristin.
"She's having a chest x-ray and bone marrow biopsy this week," he said, giving Leighanne's hand a squeeze. "After that she'll be admitted for chemotherapy."
Kevin slid two glasses of tea across the table.
"She has to be admitted?" he asked.
"She needs an IV line," Brian replied. "Sometimes they give radiation therapy at the same time..."
He paused as Leighanne's grip on his fingers tightened. Pulling his hand free, he moved closer and wrapped his arm around her waist.
"She'll be in for a while, then?" Kristin asked.
"I guess so. I suppose it depends how she responds to the treatment," Brian replied.
"I should call or visit or something," Kristin said thoughtfully. "Although, I guess her mom is still there - maybe she doesn't want any other visitors. Have you been to see her, Leigh?"
Staring down at the tabletop, Leighanne was silent.
"Leigh?" Brian said quietly. "Honey? Kristin asked you a question..."
Leighanne looked up at Kristin, her eyes red and brimming with tears. Kristin set down her glass and stood up, moving around the table and extending her hand.
"Come on, let's leave the men to talk," she said gently. "I've got a new pair of shoes in the car but I'm not too sure about the color. Want to give me the honest truth?"
Leaning over to kiss his wife on the cheek, Brian whispered in her ear. Leighanne smiled weakly back at him before getting to her feet and taking Kristin’s hand.
Brian turned back to his cousin as their wives walked towards the house.
“It’s tough for her to talk about,” he explained. “I think she’s still in shock about the whole thing.”
“And Nick? Anyone heard from him yet?”
“I haven’t,” Brian replied. “Leigh would’ve told me if he’d been in touch with Cassie. Last I heard, his mobile was going straight to voicemail.”
Kevin leaned back in his seat and swirled the tea in his glass.
“And nobody has a number for Hannah?” he asked.
“Nobody even knows her last name,” Brian replied. “But they’ll be together. I guess if we find one, we find the other.”
“I can’t believe he’s not calling her...”
Brian put down his glass and eyed his cousin across the table.
“Are you kidding me? This is how he operates - leaves one behind and totally devotes himself to the other. He’s on and off like a light switch lately.”
“Yeah, but I thought things were going well for him and Cassie?”
“They were trying for a baby,” he replied. “Cassie saw the doctor because she thought she might be pregnant but the test was negative. They took a blood test to be sure and that’s when they found the leukaemia.”
Kevin leaned forward over the table.
“Do they know how long... I mean, is she going to get better?” he asked.
“I honestly don’t know. Leighanne said there are different types of leukaemia and it depends which kind you get... Cassie has the worst kind. AML... It's Acute something... I can’t remember the whole name. The doctor said they’ll know more after the x-ray and biopsy but only twenty percent of patients live five years after being diagnosed.”
Kevin sank back in his seat, defeated by Brian’s words. Five years. And only twenty percent made it that far. Sighing, he ran his hands over his face, letting them fall into his lap.
“We have to find Nick.”
Cassie cast a quick glance at the FedEx envelope on the passenger's seat and gripped the steering wheel tighter. Slowing for the corner, she made her way along the tree-lined street, stopping outside Brian and Leighanne's gates. Kevin and Kristin's SUV was parked in front of the garage and Cassie contemplated turning away before lowering her window and reaching for the intercom. Waiting for a response, she picked up the envelope beside her and turned it over in her hands.
Cassie dropped the envelope and leaned towards the intercom.
"Leigh? It's Cassie."
"Hey, Cass. Come on up," Leighanne replied.
Taking a deep breath as the gates swung open, Cassie eased her foot off the brake and drove towards the house.
Kristin met her on the porch, immediately enveloping her in a hug.
"I'm so sorry, Cassie... We only just heard. How are you?"
"I've been better," Cassie replied, smiling weakly. "I can't tell if I'm tired and sick because of the leukaemia or because I'm thinking about it so much."
Kristin pulled away and eyed her friend.
"Are you getting any sleep?"
"Not really and I'm exhausted all the time. But as soon as I lie down, my mind starts racing. I can't win."
"You seem... Really together," Kristin said, her hand on Cassie's back as they walked into the house.
"Shock, I suppose," she stated. "So much is happening, it's almost as if it can't possibly all be real, you know?"
Kristin nodded, silently wishing it wasn't all so incredibly real.
As her friends walked into the kitchen, Leighanne left the pot of coffee she had been making and greeted Cassie with a hug. Noticing the FedEx envelope clutched in her hand, she gestured towards it.
Cassie looked down at the envelope.
"It's from Nick," she replied, holding it out to Leighanne. "Just another surrealism to ad to the pile."
Kristin moved closer as Leighanne pulled a sheaf of papers from the envelope. Together they silently skimmed over the front page. Kristin's eyes met Cassie's, full of questions, as Leighanne turned the page.
"He can't be serious..."
"Who can't be serious?" Brian asked from the back door where he stood untying his shoes. "Hey, Cassie. How are you?"
"I'm okay, Brian, thanks," she replied.
Brian joined them in the kitchen, wrapping his arm around Leighanne's waist.
"What are we reading?"
"Do you mind if he reads it?" Leighanne asked.
"Not at all," Cassie replied. "Really, that's why I'm here."
Leighanne handed the pile of papers to her husband who placed them on the counter and began to read. Reaching the end of the first page, Brian looked from his wife to Kristin and across to Cassie.
"He can't be serious."
Hannah and Jack were waiting on the front steps when Nick's rented Ford Explorer slowed to a halt outside her building. Holding Jack with one arm, she picked up his bag and moved towards the car as Nick stepped out. Taking the bag from her, he ruffled Jack's blonde hair with his free hand.
"How's everybody doing today?" he asked, pulling the rear door open and sliding Jack's bag in alongside his own. "All set for the weekend?"
"I think so," Hannah replied. "I'm sure I'm forgetting something, though."
"Don't worry about it. We can get anything you need on the way," Nick said as he reached past her to pick up her bag. "I rented a seat for Jack with the car... I hope it's okay - I didn't have a clue how much he weighed. The guy at the rental company said it should be about right for a one-year-old."
Hannah watched as Nick attempted to cram her bag into the back of the car. When she'd found out she was pregnant, her mind had gone into overdrive. She imagined Nick coming home from his trip and the look on his face when she told him he was going to be a dad - the excitement and the fear she knew would flash briefly in his eyes. She imagined the kiss on her forehead as the grainy image of their child materialised on the ultrasound screen. The birth, the christening, the first birthday... In all of her imaginings, Nick had been by her side. In the weeks after she realised he wasn't coming back, Hannah had moved through the world in a daze, not eating or sleeping properly and sending her mother into a panic. Admitted to hospital in her second trimester, Hannah was told the baby was smaller than he should have been at four months and she was kept in for observation. Obstetricians, psychologists and counsellors all made regular stops in her room, finally deciding she was ready to leave after a week. Hannah had returned home and spent an afternoon clearing the apartment of any reminders of Nick. She had thought she was doing the right thing as she dumped the plastic bag of mementos in the dumpster behind her building and returned to her bedroom. Reaching under the bed, she pulled out a black photo album and held it in her hands as she sat on the floor. She thought about throwing it out the window, pretty sure it would land in the dumpster, but instead opened it carefully. Taped to the inside cover was a strip of photo booth pictures taken three days before Nick left. It had been his idea to use the booth and Hannah had protested strongly as he pulled her by the hand. Once inside, Nick had pulled the curtain across and tugged Hannah into his lap, kissing her as the camera flashed. Sitting on the bare wooden floorboards of her bedroom, Hannah's eyes clouded as she closed the album and slid it as far as possible under the bed. Getting to her feet slowly, she lay a protective hand on her stomach and left the bedroom. Half an hour later she ventured outside and retrieved the black plastic bag from the dumpster, stuffing it under the bed alongside the photo album.
Nick's voice pulled her back to the reality of Jack, Cassie and the trip to Long Island Sound.
"Are you okay?"
He was staring at her. Standing outside her building, loading his rented car with her bags, Nick was staring at her.
"I'm fine," she replied. "I was just trying to figure out what I've forgotten."
Nick smiled as he took Jack from her and turned to put him in the car.
"I told you not to worry," he said, reaching for Jack's safety belt. "Come on, let's get out of here."
Hannah opened the front door and climbed into the passengers seat as Nick snapped Jack's buckles into place.
"Okay... That's us," he said and closed the door.
Climbing in next to Hannah, he smiled as he buckled his own belt before turning the key. Hannah swallowed hard as the car started and they pulled away from the kerb.
Drumming his thumbs against the steering wheel, Nick sang quietly to himself as he fought the hypnotising motion of the windscreen wipers. It had begun to rain as they left Brooklyn and had not let up at all in the time it took to reach the Sound. Hannah had fallen into a restless sleep as darkness fell, waking frequently and turning to check on Jack. Now, as the cottage came into sight, Nick breathed a quiet sigh of relief. He had half expected Hannah to panic and order him to take her home at some point during the trip. Stopping parallel to the front porch, he switched the engine off and reached across to tap her on the shoulder.
"Hannah, we're here," he said quietly.
Lifting her head from the window, Hannah flinched as a pain shot through her neck.
"You okay?" Nick asked.
"Yeah. Just a crick in my neck," she replied.
Behind them, Jack coughed and began to cry. Nick pulled the keys from the ignition and handed them to Hannah before opening his door.
"The key's on there," he said, stepping out. "You unlock and switch on some lights. I'll bring Jack."
Closing her door behind her, Hannah stood for a moment and listened to the sound of waves lapping on the sand. She glanced over her shoulder at Nick and Jack before walking up the familiar steps and pushing the front door key into the lock. Surprised by the warmth inside the house, she reached for the light switch beside the door. Holding Jack in his arms, Nick joined her in the doorway and surveyed the living room. The fire had been lit and had burned down to a pile of glowing embers, ready to be stoked. A portable crib stood in the centre of the room, blankets draped over the side and a small stuffed toy cow sitting on the pillow. Hannah turned to look at him.
"I didn't want him to miss his moo cow," he said sheepishly.
Hannah smiled as she reached for Jack.
"I packed his moo cow," she replied as Jack scrambled into her arms. "But thank you."
"You're welcome," Nick replied, running a hand through his hair and looking around the room. "I guess I'll go and get the bags."
Stepping back onto the porch, Nick closed the door behind him and breathed in deeply, beginning to wonder if his Long Island Sound weekend had been such a good idea. She was going to make him sleep on the sofa - she had told him so and he had agreed. But now, standing in the cold night air while she waited for him inside, the sofa was the last place he wanted to spend the night. Seeing her asleep in the car, standing in the living room, smiling at him... She was making him crazy and she didn't have a clue. Running a hand over his face, Nick tilted his head to look up at the night sky. The rain had stopped but the clouds remained, broken in places by patches of star-speckled blackness. Sinking down onto the top step, Nick looked out towards the water. She was making him crazy. Jack was making him crazy - he couldn't get enough of his blonde, blue-eyed boy. He'd seen the pain in Hannah's eyes when he told her he wanted the DNA test but he'd tried to ignore it. There had been Cassie to consider and, though it made him sick to the stomach to think about it now, he hadn't wanted to deal with the inconvenience of a son. He'd tried to justify it all to himself a million times but, when all was said and done, he'd been terrified of the very real possibility Jack could be his and how his life would be changed. When the results arrived by post and the possibility became a reality, he had run the gamut of negative feelings - paralysing fear, anger, sadness and panic... And then, as he lay staring up at his ceiling, something had changed. Even now, sitting on the steps of the cottage he had never expected to visit with Hannah again, he wondered if it had been guilt that washed over him that night. He didn't want it to have been guilt but, in the end, did it matter? Something had made him book the flight to New York, walk block after block in the rain and arrive, soaked to the skin, on her doorstep. Guilt or not, he was grateful for whatever it was.
The door behind him opened and light spilled out onto the porch, Hannah's shadow cast over the unpainted boards.
"I thought you were getting the bags?" she asked from the doorway.
"I am," Nick replied, getting to his feet. "I was just taking a break."
"From what, you lazy bum?" Hannah laughed, slapping him playfully.
Nick caught her hand, spinning her around and pinning it behind her back.
"You trying to start something, Parker?" he asked. "You better be sure you can finish it."
Hannah twisted and Nick tightened his grip on her wrist. He could smell her perfume, faint after a full day on her skin, as he bent his head towards her neck. God, he could almost feel her skin against his lips he was so close - any closer without touching her and he would go insane.
She wasn't moving. Sure, he was holding her pretty tight but she wasn't even trying.
Nick wasn't sure if her name had left his mouth or if he was beginning to confuse the endless repetitions in his head with the spoken word.
Relaxing his grip on her wrist as she turned towards him, Nick swallowed. Hannah looked at him silently for a moment before she stepped back.
"I should check on Jack..." she said quietly, moving towards the door.
Nick sighed as the door closed softly behind her. Stepping off the porch, he opened the rear door of the Explorer and began to unload the bags.
Brian looked at his watch and sighed as he sank back in his first class seat. Beside him, Howie was asleep, an open book on his chest and his dinner tray still folded down. Apart from the drone of the airplane's engines and the distant clatter of a drinks trolley moving through coach, the cabin was silent. Brian reached into his bag and pulled out a spiral bound notebook and a pen, determined to make the most of the unwanted trip to New York. Opening the book, he chewed thoughtfully on the end of his pen as he read over the words of his latest song. Within seconds his mind was elsewhere.
In less than an hour the plane would touch down at JFK where security would meet them at the gate. Hopefully, with the trip being unscheduled and the plane arriving late at night, they would make it out of the terminal without being recognized. Despite his placid nature and friendly reputation, Brian wasn't in the mood for small-talk with fans. He doubted Sleeping Beauty would want to stop and chat either. Kevin had wanted to make the trip to New York but Brian had politely refused, opting for Howie, the peacemaker, instead. Kevin had been fuming ever since Cassie broke the news of Nick's latest move and Brian knew from experience that fuming Kevin was a ticking time-bomb.
Howie coughed, wriggling down in his seat. The book slid down his chest and onto the dinner tray, knocking his empty Dr. Pepper can to the floor and jerking Brian from his daydream.
"What the..?" Howie began, pulling himself up in his seat. "Oh... Just a can..."
"Just a can, D," Brian replied, turning back to his notebook.
Howie pushed the call button on his armrest and leaned down to pick up the can.
"What are you working on?" he asked.
Brian put his pen down and flopped back in his seat, running his hands over his face.
"I'm trying to finish a song for Baylee's birthday. It shouldn't be so hard."
"Too much to say?" Howie asked, handing his can to the hostess. "Thank you."
"Far too much to say," his friend confirmed.
Howie turned in his seat.
"You think Nick has any idea what he's getting himself into? With the baby and all?"
"If he hasn't figured it out already, he's in for a short sharp shock," Brian replied. "It's not going to get any easier when he hears about Cassie, either."
"You think if he knew about Cassie he still would've..."
"I hope not, Howie. I really hope not. Because if her being sick wouldn't have stopped him, I don't even know who he is anymore."
Tiptoeing through the living room, Hannah moved between Jack's crib and the sofa where Nick lay snoring gently. Moonlight shone through the kitchen window, lighting her way as she padded across the floorboards and took a glass from the shelf above the sink. Turning on the faucet, she filled the glass and leaned against the counter as she began to drink. Glancing down as something moved over her hand, Hannah let out a cry and dropped her glass. Nick sat bolt upright on the sofa and Jack whimpered in his sleep as the glass shattered.
"Hannah? What happened?" Nick asked, throwing back his blanket and joining her in the kitchen.
"There was a spider," Hannah replied as she backed away from the counter. "It was on my hand."
Nick ran his eyes along the counter before turning back to face her.
"Well, I think you scared him away," he said gently.
Hannah lifted a shaking hand to brush her blonde hair away from her eyes and Nick noticed a crimson trickle running down her wrist.
"You're bleeding," he said, moving towards her. "Here, let me see."
Taking her hand, Nick pulled her towards the window, squinting in the moonlight.
"I think you might have some glass in there but I need to turn the light on."
"The light will wake Jack," Hannah replied, peering at her hand in the semi-darkness.
"If your screeching didn't wake him, nothing will," Nick said, flicking the light switch. "Let me see."
Hannah looked at him as he took her hand again, turning it over to inspect the cut. He had gone to bed while his hair was still wet from the shower and it had dried in messy clumps, sticking out all over the place. With sleep still crowding his blue eyes, he looked like Jack when woken from a mid-afternoon nap.
"Doesn't look like there's any glass in here after all," he said, reaching for the faucet. "Here, run the water on it. I'll get the first aid kit from the car."
Hannah did as she was told and Nick returned a few moments later with a small red bag. Sitting down on the sofa, he patted the cushion beside him. Hannah pulled a paper towel from the roll on the counter and dried her hand carefully as she crossed the room to sit beside him.
"Antiseptic," Nick announced, unscrewing the cap and squeezing a thin line of the white cream onto her hand. "Don't want you getting all germy on us..."
Hannah watched as he rummaged through the first aid kit, looking for a bandage.
"Nick... About earlier... On the porch..."
"Hannah, let’s not do this now."
Hannah chewed her bottom lip and Nick pulled a bandage from the bag, tearing the plastic wrapping with his teeth.
"You're married, Nick..."
Nick sighed again, beginning to wind the bandage around her hand.
"...And you're making this so much tougher than it needs to be..."
"It doesn't need to be tough, Hannah," Nick interrupted, continuing to wind.
Nick fastened the bandage with a small metal clip but didn't let go of her hand. Instead, he leaned towards her.
"Hannah... Listen... I was twenty-two when I met Cassie and twenty-three when I married her. I was still a kid - I didn't know what I wanted. How could I when I didn't even know who I was? I wish I'd met you first because when I found you... It was like I'd found the rest of myself..."
Hannah pulled away and Nick tightened his grip on her hand.
"No, Hannah, listen. I wish I'd met you first, okay? I wish I'd met you first so badly... Cassie and I are getting a divorce. I sent the papers to her lawyer three days ago. She’ll have them by now."
"I can't stay married to her, Hannah," Nick continued. "Not when I know I’m supposed to be with you."
Pulling her hand free, Hannah stood up to move away.
"I can't do this right now..."
Nick got to his feet and stood in front of her.
"You wanted to have this conversation now so let's have it."
Hannah tried to sidestep him and Nick caught her by the waist.
"No, let's finish this," he said evenly. "I'm divorcing Cassie whether you like it or not. Whether you love me or not. Because I wish I'd met you first and I can't stop thinking about you, I can't stop loving you and I cannot stop wanting you, Hannah."
Hannah looked at the floor and Nick swallowed.
"Tell me you don't love me and I'll leave you alone," he continued quietly. "But I'll wait for you to come around. If I have to spend the rest of my life waiting for you to come around, I will. This is it for me, Hannah. You and Jack, here tonight... This is as good as it is ever going to get for me. We’re a family – you can’t pretend we’re not."
When Hannah lifted her head, her eyes were brimming with tears.
“I can’t do this, Nick,” she whispered. “I can’t. Not now.”
Nick’s hand dropped from her waist as she moved away from him and towards the bedroom. As the door closed behind her, he sank onto the sofa and looked at his son. Jack had slept through it all.
Laying a photo album open on the coffee table, Mary Parker sat down on the sofa beside Howie and picked up her mug of cocoa. Watching as Brian and Howie leaned towards the album, she sipped her drink slowly, surveying their oddly familiar faces. Hannah had sent her out to buy the group's entire back catalogue the day she found out who Nick really was, too distraught to leave the house herself. During Hannah's pregnancy, Mary had flicked through the album inserts a hundred times - the names, the faces and the thank-you messages were seared into her brain. Though she had never met them, Brian and Howie felt like old friends.
"This is Jack?" Brian asked, pointing to a photo of a child asleep on a picnic blanket.
Mary leaned forward and Howie pulled the album towards her.
"That's Jack," she replied, setting her mug down carefully. "I took that at Central Park on his first birthday."
Turning the page carefully, Howie's eyes came to rest on another picture of Jack, this time in the arms of a blonde woman.
"And this is..."
"Hannah," Mary finished for him. "Right before they left to visit Nick in Florida."
Brian and Howie were silent, taking in the images. Hannah didn't look anything like Brian had expected her to - nothing like Nick's usual conquests. Sure, she was tall and blonde but the camera had captured a quiet togetherness, even as she prepared for the trip to Florida.
"Mrs Parker?" he asked, turning to look at her. "It's really important that we find Nick. If you have any idea where they might be..."
Mary stood and picked up her mug. She knew Hannah wanted Nick to spend as much time with Jack as possible - she wouldn't want visitors. She also knew people didn't fly across the country in the middle of the night if it wasn't important.
"They're staying in a cottage out in Long Island Sound," she said, reaching for Howie's mug. "They rented a car and drove out there this afternoon. I've got the address somewhere."
Brian looked at Howie as Mary left the room.
"You want to go tonight?" he asked.
Howie looked at his watch.
"It's almost midnight, Brian. I'm too tired to drive all the way out there," he replied, leaning back in his seat. "It's been a long day."
"You slept on the plane, D."
"I know. But what are we going to achieve by racing out there now? We'll go first thing tomorrow. He's not going to make things any worse before then."
Brian sighed as he closed the photo album and pushed it away.
"I hope you're right."
Nick pushed the bedroom door open slowly, cringing as the hinges let out a familiar squeak. Hannah lay on the unmade bed, her arm folded beneath her head and her hair spilling over the pillow. Moonlight shone through the open window and shadows danced on the walls as the curtains moved in the breeze.
"Hannah?" Nick asked, stepping into the room. "It's freezing in here. You're going to get sick."
When no reply came, Nick crossed the room and pulled the window closed.
"Mind if I sit down?" he asked.
Again, Hannah was silent and Nick sighed as he sat on the edge of the bed.
"Hannah... We need to talk about this. I can't sleep."
"You can't sleep? We need to talk about this because you can't sleep? What about me, Nick? What about what I need? What about Cassie? Your wife?"
Nick turned towards her.
"She's not going to be my wife anymore, Hannah..."
"And you think that makes it okay?" Hannah asked as she sat up. "Have you thought about what this means for anybody other than yourself?"
Confused, Nick frowned as he tucked his leg beneath him, sitting sideways on the bed.
"Of course I have," he replied carefully. "It means we can be a family, Hannah."
"It means we wrecked your marriage, Nick. Me and Jack... Cassie will be heartbroken right now because of me and Jack. Do you have any idea how that makes me feel?"
"Babe, none of this is your fault..."
"Don't call me that."
Nick sighed again.
"None of this is your fault, Hannah," he corrected.
"I think Cassie's going to disagree with you on that one," Hannah replied, reaching for a hair tie on the nightstand.
Nick watched as she pulled her hair into a loose ponytail and leaned back against the wall. Even in the middle of the night - her face pale and tearstained, her hair refusing to be tamed - she took his breath away. His stomach knotted and his palms beginning to sweat, he moved closer to her on the bed.
“I know I’ve made a mess of this,” he said quietly. “I know I’ve let a lot of people down and I’ve hurt everyone I love. I’ve never been more sorry, Hannah. But I want to make it right. I need you to give me a chance to fix this.”
Hannah looked down at her hands. Giving Nick a chance to fix his mistakes would mean making herself vulnerable again. And now she had Jack to worry about, too - if he got hurt because of a decision she made, she would never forgive herself.
Nick waited. The fact that she was thinking about it at all must count for something.
Pulling at a loose thread on her bandage, Hannah’s mind wandered. She remembered everything about falling in love with Nick - she remembered how the world around her had seemed blurred, as if everything moved in slow motion. How love songs had stopped being cheesy, becoming instead brilliant snippets of truth. How he had held her as they danced in the dark of her living room, oblivious to the snow falling outside and the world moving on without them. She remembered their first kiss, their first night together, the first time he told her he loved her. His promise to love her until the day he died. She remembered the smell of his skin, the feel of his hands, the soft warmth of his lips.
Nick was staring at her when she lifted her eyes to look at him and Hannah’s stomach turned. Reaching for her hand, Nick moved closer still.
“I know you loved me, Hannah. And I think you still do. Let me fix this - I can make it right,” he said quietly. “Let me fix it.”
Searching Nick's eyes for any sign of deception, Hannah found nothing. Against her better judgement, she leaned into him and the world fell away.
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Rolling onto his side, Nick tucked his arm under his head and looked at Hannah, sleeping peacefully beside him. Her hair had slipped free of its tie and fell over the pillow, framing her face. Nick smiled as he reached out to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. Hannah sighed in her sleep, the sheet slipping from her shoulder as she rolled onto her back. Nick's eyes moved over her bare skin, following the trail of his fingers as he moved his hand down her side. Pulling the sheet down further, he lay his hand on her bare stomach, smooth and flat with silvery stretchmarks reaching from her waist towards her navel. Nick traced the thin lines with his finger, their presence a reminder of the months he had missed. Jack had been a big baby, he knew - 9 pound 6 ounces. Hannah had regaled him with tales of her swollen belly, puffy ankles and aching back. With his hand flat on her empty stomach as she slept, Nick wished he had been there to see the first ultrasound image, to feel his son kick for the first time, hear his first hungry cry and his first muddled word.
Hannah sighed again as she rolled towards him and Nick propped himself up on his elbow, staring down at her. She was, if it were even possible, more beautiful now than she had been the day he met her and he wondered how he had ever been able to walk out of her apartment and out of her life. It had broken his heart to leave her and return to Los Angeles - to a life he wasn’t even sure he wanted to fight for. Cassie had made his life hell for weeks after he arrived home and, though he knew he deserved it all, he found himself feeling oddly apathetic. His wife had taken on a different personality with every new day - a woman possessed on Monday, a sobbing wreck on Tuesday, unnervingly happy by Wednesday. Trying to keep up with her emotions and manage his own at the same time left Nick exhausted and longing for some breathing space. Eventually he had packed his bags and checked into a hotel, hoping the new living arrangement would help them both find some perspective. As much as he wanted Cassie to calm down, he knew he needed to give her reason to - even if he knew he would never feel about her the way he had about Hannah, he needed to make her believe otherwise.
Going through the motions of a man trying to save his marriage had been tough to begin with - thoughts of Hannah plagued him. Cassie booked them in for marriage counselling and Nick dragged himself reluctantly to every session, answering every question and trying not to tune out when Cassie spoke. In the back of his mind, Hannah lurked, refusing to be pushed from his memory.
Nights were the worst. Alone in his hotel suite, Nick would order room service and wash the pizza or pasta down with a few beers. The tv was invariably on, tuned to ESPN for football or basketball, its flickering blue light filling the room. Eventually, when the first twinges of a headache crept towards his temples, he would fill the bath and sink into the soapy water, a 'standby' beer waiting open on the tiles. Beer number five usually proved to be his undoing, pushing his fragile emotions over the edge. With the final swill, thoughts of Hannah would flood his mind and the tears would come, slowly at first then building until he lost all control, drawing his knees up and slumping forward. It always ended the same. Nick would sit in the bath and sob until the water chilled beyond comfortable or his tears dried up. Whichever came first was his cue to climb out and fall, exhausted, into his empty bed.
In the quiet stillness of the Long Island morning, Nick laced his fingers with Hannah's, stroking the back of her hand with his thumb. He held his own breath as he listened to the soft sound of her breathing and watched the gentle rise and fall of her chest. All he had wanted on those long LA nights was to lie beside her, listening to her breathe and watching her sleep.
Outside, the sun cast pinks and purples across the clouds, the threat of rain still lingering. Nick sank back against the pillows, the movement pulling Hannah to the edge of consciousness.
"Nick? What time is it?" she muttered.
Nick looked at his watch.
"Almost six thirty," he replied quietly. "Go back to sleep."
Hannah wriggled closer, resting her head on his chest. Nick smiled and kissed her forehead before closing his eyes.
In Manhattan, Howie slammed his hand down on the alarm clock, silencing the incessant beeping. Next door, Brian was already up and dressed, his room service breakfast half eaten. The rental car would arrive in twenty minutes and they would be out of the city before the morning gridlock set in. Popping a piece of bran muffin into his mouth, Brian glanced at his watch and reached for the coffee pot. The way he was feeling, caffeine was probably the last thing he needed and he knew it. Lying in the giant hotel bed, he had had imaginary conversations with Nick all night and none of them had ended well. For the first time in his life, Brian thought he might actually be able to hurt somebody. In fact, thoughts of inflicting a little physical pain on Nick were all that soothed his jangled nerves. He knew he should pray for guidance, pray that God would make his fists too heavy to swing. He knew he should. But he didn't.
Downing the lukewarm coffee in a three quick gulps, Brian snatched his wallet from the counter and headed for Howie's suite.
Standing in the gas station forecourt, Brian yawned as he watched the attendant twist the petrol cap back into place. It was a little after 8:45 and the caffeine was beginning to wear off. Looking at a map the night before, he had figured they would arrive at the address Hannah's mother had given them around 8am. He hadn't counted on Howie's navigational skills. Or lack of them.
"That'll be $13.53," the attendant said and Brian reached for his wallet.
"Keep the change," he said, handing over a twenty.
"Are you sure?"
Brian nodded as he moved towards the driver's door. He was itching to find Nick and a few measly dollars weren't worth the wasted minutes. Opening his door, he hesitated and turned back to the attendant. "Hey, we're heading out to Rocky Point," he called. "You know it?"
"Sure. Five miles down this road you'll see a turnoff on the right," came the reply. "It's signposted; you can't miss it. Turn there and follow the road right out to the point."
Brian called a 'thank you' over his shoulder as he sank into his seat and closed the door.
A piece of toast between his teeth, Nick pushed the front door open with his foot and carried two steaming mugs of coffee out onto the porch. Hannah looked up as the screen door slammed and reached for the mug Nick held out to her.
"Thank you," she said, setting the drink down on the step and pulling Jack into her lap. "Look at you... You're covered in dirt."
Jack squirmed against his mother and Nick watched Hannah try to brush the grime from his clothes.
"Just let him go, Hannah - you're fighting a losing battle," he said as he sat down beside her. "He's already filthy."
Hannah sighed and let go of her son. Jack grinned at Nick who smiled back as he popped the last of his toast into his mouth. Hannah looked from Nick to Jack and back again, an eyebrow arched suspiciously.
"Don't think I don't see what's happening here," she began, a finger pointed squarely at Nick.
"What are you talking about?" he asked, reaching for his mug.
"You're making me the bad cop."
Nick arched an eyebrow back at her.
"You know... Good cop, bad cop," Hannah continued. "Mom says 'no', Dad says 'yes'..."
Swallowing a mouthful of coffee, Nick looked at her.
"I like the sound of that," he said quietly.
"Good cop, bad cop? I wasn't talking about role playing, Nickolas."
Nick rolled his eyes as he put his mug down and turned towards her.
"I meant 'Dad'," he replied. "I like the sound of that."
"You want me to call you Daddy?" Hannah teased, resting her hand on his thigh.
"Give me a break, Parker," Nick sighed, not removing her hand. "I think you should stop calling me Nick when Jack's around. I'm his Dad... That's what he should be calling me."
Hannah pulled her hand away and picked up her coffee. Nick kept his eyes on her as she watched Jack play on the lawn.
"Hannah? What's wrong?" he asked eventually.
"I just... I mean... I think he should be calling you Dad, too," Hannah replied hesitantly.
"So why are you pulling your how-the-hell-am-I-going-to-get-out-of-this face?" Nick asked.
Hannah leaned back against the porch railing and sighed.
"I just don't want him getting too attached before we've sorted out how we're going to make this work," she said carefully. "I mean, you live on the other side of the country and you've got recording and tours and everything. You've got other commitments, Nick."
"Hannah, come on. Are you serious? None of that is as important as you and Jack..."
"No, Hannah," Nick said firmly. "There are no 'buts'. I've told you already, this is it for me. I'm not spending a single night away from the two of you. We're going to find a way to make this work. So are you going to let my son call me Dad or what?"
Brian signalled as the turnoff to Rocky Point came into view. In the passenger's seat, Howie gave up trying to refold the road map, cramming it into the glove compartment instead.
"Guess we won't be needing that anymore," he said, slamming the compartment shut.
"Face it, Howie, it wasn't much good to you, anyway," Brian replied, setting his jaw as he braked and turned to the right.
Howie cast a sidelong glance at his friend. Brian's usually open and friendly face was a picture of stony determination. Gripping the steering wheel, his knuckles were white. Sinking back in his seat, Howie said the silent prayer for restraint Brian hadn't.
Hannah chewed her bottom lip thoughtfully. Nick's question hung in the air alongside his declaration of commitment.
"Not a single night?" she asked.
"Not a single night," Nick repeated, shuffling closer to her on the step.
"And how are we going to manage that?"
Nick slung his arm around her shoulders and pulled her towards him.
"Easy," he replied. "Move out to LA with me."
Hannah laughed and Nick, taken aback, moved away slightly.
"What's funny about it?" he asked with a frown. "I'm serious, Hannah."
"I know you are. But I don't think you've thought it through very well," Hannah replied, giving his hand a squeeze. "Where would we live? And all of my family is out here - Jack's family is out here. What about my parents?"
"What about us, Hannah? We owe it to ourselves to give this a proper shot. We owe it to Jack," Nick said evenly. "If you're really not sure, keep the apartment in New York. I'll pay the rent. You can move home anytime you want. But we have to give it a shot."
Hannah sipped her coffee and looked at him. She might have been pulling her how-the-hell-am-I-going-to-get-out-of-this face but it was no match for his please-don't-kick-me-when-I'm-down-face. And Nick knew it - he'd used it on her the night before.
Jack crawled up the steps and clambered across the porch towards his mother. Nick watched as Hannah took him in her arms and got to her feet.
"Okay," she said to Nick. "We'll come to LA. But I'm keeping the Brooklyn apartment - for a while at least."
Grinning, Nick stood up and kissed her on the cheek.
"This is going to work out great, Hannah, I promise," he said, ruffling Jack's blonde hair. "You hear that, little man? You're coming to California."
"I'm going to shower," Hannah said with a smile. "Here, Jack, you wait with your Dad. I'll be right back."
Bundled into his father's arms, Jack watched as Hannah disappeared inside. Nick bounced his son on his hip and grinned.
"Make a note of that, Jack. I'm your Dad. Can you say 'Dad'? 'Dad'?"
Jack laughed and Nick smiled down at him. The sound of a car turning into the driveway pulled his attention away from his son and Nick looked up as a black Audi A4 parked behind his rented Explorer. Holding Jack close to his chest, he stepped off the porch and crossed the lawn slowly. The driver's door opened and Brian stepped out, totally expressionless as he slammed the door shut behind him.
Clutching a towel, Hannah sank onto the edge of the unmade bed and chewed her thumbnail thoughtfully. She had given in to him too quickly and she knew it. Nick seemed to be in denial about it, but Cassie was still going to be an issue. An issue. Hannah cringed, ashamed to have reduced Nick's wife, a woman who had done nothing but love the wrong man, to an issue.
Sighing as she stood up, Hannah moved towards the window. She was ashamed of herself a lot lately. She was ashamed of her naivety when she thought back to the heady days of falling in love. She still struggled to comprehend how Nick had hidden his wife, his job, his entire identity from her for so long. Long enough for her to fall in love with him and fall pregnant with Jack. She was ashamed for having forgiven him so quickly, for wanting - more than anything - for them to be a family. For thinking of Cassie as an issue.
Frowning as a sleek black car pulled into the driveway and slowed to a halt behind Nick’s rented Explorer, Hannah pushed to window open and leaned on the sill. About to call out to Nick, his name caught in her throat as two men stepped out of the car.
“Oh, God...” she breathed.
Standing beside the Audi, Howie watched and waited as Nick and Brian eyed each other. Nobody had said a word but the look on Brian’s face spoke volumes. Shifting his weight from one foot to the other, Howie cleared his throat and took a step forward.
Brian took a step towards Nick and Howie stopped speaking.
“Where’s Hannah?” Brian asked.
“Showering,” Nick replied shortly. “What are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same thing.”
Nick looked from Brian to Jack and back again.
“I’m getting to know my son,” he replied. “What’s your excuse?”
The flash of anger in Brian’s eyes was obvious from as far back as the car and Howie cleared his throat again.
“We came to talk to you about Cassie,” he said evenly. “We know you filed divorce papers, Nick.”
Staring at Brian, Nick swallowed and shifted Jack’s weight from one hip to the other.
“My marriage is none of your business,” he said through gritted teeth before he turned to sit Jack on the grass. “If you’ve come all the way up here to stage some sort of intervention... you’re wasting your time. I already signed the papers and I know Cassie’s not going to contest it.”
“You don’t know shit,” Brian snapped, clenching his fists and setting his jaw.
The small movements didn’t escape Nick.
“What... You want to hit me, Brian?" he asked, his eyes widening. "You think you might throw a punch?"
Brian took another step forward and Howie followed.
"Guys... Clam down," he said, his hand on Brian's shoulder. "Both of you."
Brian stepped away from him and eyed Nick.
"You mailed her divorce papers without so much as a phone call? Are you really that spineless?" he asked incredulously. "Are you really that selfish?"
Nick sighed and looked down as he ran his hand through his hair. Jack sat at his feet, oblivious to the angry tones as he pushed his dump truck through the grass.
"Look, Brian, I'm glad you care about me enough to come all this way to kick my ass," Nick replied. "That really says a lot. But I was planning on bringing my ass back to LA. You could've just waited."
Something inside Brian seemed to give out, his fists and jaw relaxing as Nick spoke.
"Yeah, well... Waiting would’ve been a waste of time. And time is a luxury we don't all have," he said, his shoulders slumping.
Nick arched an eyebrow.
"What's that supposed to mean?" he asked, turning to Howie when no reply came from Brian. "What the hell is he talking about, Howie?"
"Nick... Maybe you want to sit down or something..."
"I'm fine," Nick replied, his arms folded across his chest and his brow furrowed.
"Cassie has cancer, Nick. She has leukaemia...”
The weight of the words slammed Nick in the chest and he inhaled sharply. Howie continued talking but Nick would never know what he said in those moments on the lawn of the cottage at Rocky Point. The world around him grew blurred, his senses dulled as his mind raced.
Cancer? Cassie? Strong, fiercely independent, ‘Don’t give me that shit, Nickolas,’ Cassie?
Howie was still speaking and, through the haze, Brian was staring him down. Nick’s stomach churned. His mouth was dry and cottony and his temples pounded.
“When... When did she find out?” he stuttered.
“Two days before the divorce papers arrived,” Howie replied hesitantly, looking sideways at Brian.
Two days before... Oh, God. Two days before I dropped the divorce bomb on her.
“And what... I’m sorry, I need to sit down...”
Staggering back towards the porch steps, Nick sank onto the wooden slats and drew a hand over his face.
“What happens now?” he finished.
Crouched beside Jack, Howie picked up the yellow dump truck and spun the front wheels with the palm of his hand.
“She’s going to hospital for a chest x-ray and bone marrow biopsy tomorrow afternoon,” he replied. “Then she’ll be admitted for chemotherapy.”
Chemotherapy. They’re going to pump her full of chemicals.
“Why do they need to admit her? Can’t they just give her pills?”
“She needs an IV line,” Howie replied.
She hates needles. She’ll throw up if they stick a line in her arm.
Brian, still standing in the middle of the lawn, watched as Nick leaned back, his elbows on the porch.
“You need to come home, Nick,” he said quietly. “She needs you.”
She needs me? Of course she needs me. She’s sick. And terrified of needles. But I’m divorcing her. I don’t love her. And Hannah... I promised her, not one night apart.
“I’m divorcing her, Brian,” he replied. “I don’t... I can’t just pack up and leave Jack and Hannah.”
“You mean like you just packed up and left your wife?”
“That was different.”
“Oh, really?” Brian asked. “How was that different, Nick?”
“I love Hannah,” Nick retorted as he got to his feet. “I don’t love Cassie anymore. I’m sorry if that pisses you off, but I haven’t loved her for a long time. What do you want me to say, Brian?”
Jack began to grizzle and Howie handed back the truck and stood up, positioning himself as discreetly as possible between his friends.
“I don’t want you to say anything,” Brian replied flatly. “What I want is for you to get your useless ass on a plane home and be her friend if you’re so fucking sure you can’t be her husband.”
Taken aback by the language, Nick eyed his friend warily. Brian stared back at him for a long moment before turning towards the car.
“Let’s go, Howie. We’re done here.”
Howie bent to ruffle Jack’s hair and nodded to Nick before following Brian across the lawn. Opening his door, Brian hesitated. Crossing the lawn again, he stood in front of Nick and spoke quietly as he jabbed a finger in his friend’s chest.
“If I have to come back out here... I swear to God, Nick... I’ll kill you.”
Nick swallowed as Brian turned away and Howie started the car. Taking Jack in his arms, Nick watched as the car disappeared down the driveway.
Nick stood by the baggage carousel at LAX, his cap pulled down as far as possible and his shoulders hunched. It was after 2am and the terminal was packed. All around him, tired travellers jostled for position near the conveyor belt and it took every ounce of Nick's self-control not to respond when an elbow caught him in the spine. The last thing he wanted to do was cause a scene. Shifting forward slightly, he glanced at his watch and sighed. He had hoped to avoid the crowds by taking a late night flight from JFK but it seemed half the country had had the same idea.
The elbow was in his ribs now and Nick spun on his heel.
"Would you watch where you're..." he began, his voice trailing off.
"Would I watch where I'm what?" Alex asked, looking past him. "Isn't that your bag?"
Nick turned and lunged for his suitcase, dragging it onto the floor at his feet. Sighing, he wiped his hands on his trousers and looked at Alex.
"Whatever happened to 'hello'?" he asked. "Did you have to assault me?"
"I tried 'hello'. You were miles away," his friend shot back. "Come on, let's get out of here."
Nick didn't move and Alex looked at him questioningly.
"I'm not going to lecture you, Nick. I just drew the short straw to play taxi," he said. "Can we please get out of here before we're spotted?"
"I can't... I'm... Waiting for someone."
"You arranged a ride and you didn't bother to let me know?" Alex asked. "It's after 2, Nick. For fucks sake, you could've picked up the phone."
Nick was about to reply when Hannah pushed through the crowds, Jack in her arms.
"Can you believe how busy it is?" she asked, not noticing Alex. "Oh, there's my bag."
Alex watched in silence as Nick took his son and Hannah reached for a blue duffel bag passing on the carousel. Turning back to Nick, her smile faded as her eyes met Alex's.
"Alex, Hannah. Hannah, Alex," Nick sighed. "And this is Jack."
Smiling at Hannah as he took Nick by the arm, Alex pulled his friend away and spoke quietly.
"Correct me if I'm wrong, Nick, but it seems to me you're out of your fucking mind. What are you thinking, bringing her here?"
"Okay, first of all, could you not swear in front of the kid?" Nick asked. "And second, she's with me now. You guys are going to have to get used to it. I wasn't leaving her behind for anybody."
Alex lifted his cap off and ran his hand through his hair.
"Where are you going to stay?" he asked. "You can't move them into your house."
"I was kind of hoping we could stay with you for a few days..."
Alex raised his eyebrows and Nick continued.
"Just until we find somewhere else. Come on, man. You won't even know we're there."
Sighing, Alex bent the front of his cap and put it back on his head. He was too tired for decision making and people - girls - were beginning to shoot them sidelong glances. Nick, with the baby in his arms, was going to be big news on the internet.
"Okay, fine," he conceded, pulling his cap down firmly. "But only for a few days. Now, can we please get the hell out of here? That girl with the braids is freaking me out."
Nick turned in time to see the girl with the braids pull a digital camera from her backpack and remove the lens cap.
"Yeah, let's go," he replied, a protective hand on Jack's back. "I hope you parked close."
Sprawled in the king size bed in Alex's guestroom, Hannah watched as Nick stripped down to his boxers and pulled back the covers. Reaching for him as he climbed in beside her, she buried her face in his neck and breathed him in. Nick pulled her close and planted a kiss on the top of her head, his arms tight around her.
"You okay?" he asked quietly.
Hannah nodded in the dark.
"Just feeling a bit... Intrusive," she replied.
"I know. But you shouldn't. You belong here."
"It doesn't feel that way," Hannah murmured. "Alex isn't very subtle."
Nick sighed and rolled onto his back, running a hand through his hair. Hannah shifted on the mattress, laying her head on his chest.
"I'll talk to him in the morning," Nick said after a brief silence. "A lot of people are pretty pissed at me, Hannah. It might take a while for everyone to get used to the idea of you and Jack."
"I don't expect to be welcomed with open arms," she replied. "But I think we should find somewhere else to stay as soon as we can - give people some time to get used to the idea before we're right in their faces. I don't want to be in anybody's way."
"Trust me, we're not in his way," Nick replied. "Alex could use the company."
"I know. We'll find somewhere soon. I promise."
Hannah was silent, running her hand in lazy strokes over Nick's skin, a trail of goose bumps marking her path. With one hand behind his head and the other around Hannah's shoulders, Nick closed his eyes and listened to the hum of the air-conditioning. He was almost asleep when she spoke again.
"Do you feel bad? About how things have gone with Cassie?"
Nick's eyes opened.
"Of course I feel bad," he replied. "Who wouldn't? I wish Cassie hadn't been hurt - I feel bad about that. I should never have married her but I was young and I thought I knew what love was."
Hannah was silent again and Nick pulled his arm free, rolling towards her.
"Do you feel bad?" he asked.
"I feel selfish. I mean, I'm the other woman," she replied, the words dripping with sadness. "The last thing I ever wanted to do was break up a marriage and now, here I am, lying with somebody else's husband."
Nick pulled away slightly and looked at her, her features soft in the half-light.
"I know I hurt you, too, Hannah, and I'm sorry. I'm sorry if I made you feel like the other woman..."
"I don't just feel like the other woman. I am the other woman."
"But I never thought of you that way," Nick continued. "Not once. Everything felt so right when I was with you - like I could finally just be. With Cassie... I don't know... It always felt like I was playing a part, you know? Like we had to make our relationship more than it was because she was an actress and I was a singer. It was exhausting and I wasn't being honest with myself or with Cassie."
"Are you going to see her tomorrow?"
Nick nodded in the dark and pushed the light button on his watch. 3:47am. Tomorrow was already here.
"I thought I'd go to the hospital after her biopsy," he replied. "I don't think she's going to want me to stay very long. Maybe we can take Jack to the beach before dinner."
"Maybe," Hannah said, turning over.
Nick propped himself up on his elbow and looked at her.
"Babe, don't roll away," he said quietly. "Come back here."
His hand was on her waist, pulling her back towards him.
"I need to go to sleep, Nick. It's late."
"I know it is and you can," he replied as she rolled back to face him. "Just don't do it so far away."
Hannah tucked her arm under her head and Nick let his hand rest in the curve above her hip.
"I love you," he whispered into the dark.
"I know," came the reply. "I love you, too."
Hope everyone had a great Christmas and New Years.
This chapter has some strong language - just letting y'all know :)
Cassie was scared. Flat on her back, she stared up at the ceiling of her hospital room and tried to breathe evenly. The deep ache in her hip was a constant reminder of the bone marrow biopsy she had endured two hours earlier and the pain stopped her from rolling over. Her stomach turned when her mind wandered back to the doctor and his needle. She had wanted to throw up at the sight of it and swallowed hard against the urge to retch as she turned slightly and her hip throbbed. Her eyes closed tight against the nausea, hot tears trickled down her cheeks.
Clutching a bunch of flowers, Nick was unsure where to look. Cassie wiped her eyes and smoothed the crisply starched sheet with her hands. She couldn't look at him, standing in the doorway.
"I came as soon as I heard," Nick continued, taking a hesitant step into the room. "I... got you some flowers. Do you have a vase?"
Cassie was silent and Nick looked down at his bunch of daisies, suddenly so trivial. Laying them on the nightstand, he sat down on the edge of the bed, his hands in his lap.
"How are you feeling?"
Cassie turned her head on the pillow, fixing her eyes on him.
"I have cancer and my marriage is over," she replied. "How do you think I'm feeling? And as for coming as soon as you heard - don't play noble, Nick. It doesn't suit you. I know Brian and Howie had to drag you home. Why can't you be honest for once in your life?"
Nick swallowed and looked at the floor. Cassie stared out the window, their silence thick and heavy on her chest.
"She's here, isn't she?" she asked bitterly.
Nick's heart pounded, pushing blood past his temples in a throbbing torrent.
"You brought her with you, didn't you? Her and Jack," Cassie persisted. "Are they in our house?" "Cass..."
"Are they in our house?"
Nick shook his head and went back to staring at the floor.
"We stayed last night with Alex," he said quietly. "We're staying there while we..."
He trailed off, unsure how to finish the sentence, and Cassie turned her head on the pillow.
"While you what? Find somewhere more permanent?" she asked, her cold eyes staring at him. "Why don't you just move them into our house? Move her into our bed. You've probably fucked her there already."
Startled, Nick stared back at her.
"What are you talking about? Hannah's never even been to California before."
Cassie looked out the window.
"You're a lying asshole," she said evenly.
"No, I'm not, Cassie," Nick replied. "Not about this. Hannah has never been out here, I swear. She didn't even know about you until after... Until after you found out about her. If she'd known I was married, she would've run a mile. She had no idea who I was."
Cassie fixed him in her gaze again.
"That makes two of us."
Not knowing what else to do, Nick sighed. As soon as the air left his body, he knew it had been the wrong move.
"Well, I'm sorry my company is so draining," Cassie spat. "Why don't you just leave? I'm sure you've got plenty of other things to do."
Nick was silent. He did have plenty of other things to do. He needed to find somewhere to live, for one. He'd hated leaving Hannah and Jack at the house with Alex - Jack had been grizzly and Hannah was far from comfortable being alone with Alex. Nick could hardly blame her for that. Her opinions of his friends were based on internet coverage of his career and Alex had hardly received a glowing report from the press. The really scary part of it was that most of it had been true. Funny how the press lost interest once a man cleaned himself up and got his life back in track, though. Hannah had no way of knowing how different the real Alex was from the "AJ" she thought she knew. Just like Cassie had no way of knowing how different the real Hannah was to the home-wrecker she must've conjured up.
"Are you leaving or what?"
Cassie's voice, dripping with contempt, sliced into his thoughts and Nick looked at her.
"We need to talk."
"I've got nothing to say to you," she retaliated. "We needed to talk months ago and you were off starting a fucking family."
"That's what we need to talk about," Nick pressed. "You and Hannah... I think you'd like her, Cass."
Cassie stared at him.
"You're out of your mind. You think I give a shit about the woman you're shagging?"
"She's a good person. You've got every right to be mad as hell at me but Hannah didn't do anything wrong."
"I don't give a shit, Nick. I don't even want to know."
The small room was silent apart from the hum of the air-conditioning. Nick looked down at his hands and wondered why the hell he'd even bothered visiting.
Because you married her, dumbass. You loved her. There was a time before all of this when you loved her. You wanted to spend the rest of your life with her, remember? You wanted to be the father of her children, not someone else's. You had feelings, real feelings, for her. You can't just switch that shit off and you know it.
Chewing on his bottom lip, Nick realised his hands were sweating and wiped them on his trousers. The voice in his head was getting louder and he wished he could switch that shit off.
Look at her, you fucking coward. Look at the woman you married. She's lying there - she might be dying - and you want to talk about the girl you left her for? You want to do that because it's easier than talking about what you see right in front of you - your wife, lying there? She's right, you know. You're an asshole.
Nick frowned, shaking his head as he stood up.
Yeah, go on... Leave. That's your answer to everything, isn't it? Just leave - out of sight, out of mind. You know that's not really how it works. You know she's going to be on your mind all night. Why don't you tell her the truth? That you can't make up your pathetic fucking mind? That you want to climb onto the bed and lie beside her? That you're terrified of her being gone? You can't even admit it to yourself, can you?
Nick cleared his throat and wiped his hands on his trousers again. Cassie was staring out the window again and he wondered if she was getting sick of the view. She'd obviously rather look at the building next door than at his face. She'd hardly looked at him since he arrived.
"I have to go. I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I'll try and come back tomorrow."
"Whatever," Cassie replied, not looking at him. "I won't hold my breath."
Nick hesitated only slightly before he turned and left the room.
You're an asshole.
Hey :) I know it's been a while since I updated - Classes started again this week and I'm playing catch-up with course work from last semester. Hopefully get the next chapter up by the end of the week.
Nick was parked outside a 7/11 when his mobile rang. It had been almost two hours since he left the hospital and he had only managed to put a mile and half between himself and Cassie. He sat in the car for forty-five minutes, a fierce battle of conscience raging, before he went into the store for a packet of Marlboro Lights. Hannah would freak if she smelled smoke when he got home but, as he had taken a heavy drag on the first cigarette, he knew the soothing nicotine was worth it. Now, with his window down and four cigarette butts on the road beside the car, he stared down at the name flashing onscreen - Alex Home. He knew he had two or three rings left before the call would divert to his voicemail and, if not for the thought that something might be wrong with Jack, he would have been quite happy for that to happen.
“Nick, it‘s me.”
“What’s up? Is Jack okay?”
“He’s fine,” she replied. “Where are you?”
Something in her voice wasn’t right. She was speaking too quietly, too quickly.
“I’m on my way back,” he said, pulling another cigarette from the packet and twirling it between his fingers. “I’ll be about fifteen minutes.”
“What’s up, Hannah?” Nick asked, the cigarette between his lips as he reached for his lighter.
“Brian and Leighanne are here. I don’t know what to say to them.”
Nick froze and Hannah waited.
“Don’t say anything,” he replied, flinging the lighter onto the passenger’s seat and turning the key in the ignition. “I’ll be right there.”
“Yeah, but... Do I make them coffee or something? I can’t just leave them in the living room.”
“That’s exactly what you do, Hannah,” Nick replied, slamming the car into reverse. “They shouldn’t even be there. Tell Alex to entertain them until I get home.”
“Okay,” Nick confirmed. “I’ll see you soon.”
Closing his phone with a click, he flung it alongside the lighter, turning the wheel with one hand as he pulled out of his parking space.
“You asshole, Brian.”
Nick drove out of the 7/11 parking lot and turned left. His mind was racing and he turned the stereo on, hoping to distract himself from his thoughts. He hadn't expected it to be easy, seeing Cassie for the first time since he filed for divorce. But he hadn't expected to find himself questioning his decision to file the papers in the first place, either. He hadn't expected to feel so many things - and feel them so strongly - as she lay in the bed before him. And now he had Hannah calling him - needing him - when all he wanted to do was turn around and go back to the hospital.
Cursing as he thumped his left hand against the steering wheel, he reached for the volume control with his right. The music faded and he muttered under his breath as he looked sideways at the stereo, moving his finger up to increase the volume. He never saw the semi coming.
Nick opened his eyes and sucked in a breath. The air caught in his throat and he coughed, his ribs straining. Lifting his head from the back of the seat, he fumbled with the door handle.
"Sir? Sir, please don't move," a voice to his left instructed.
Confused, Nick tried to sit up straight. The steering wheel was pushed against his chest, pinning him to the seat. Looking across the crumpled hood of the car, he saw broken glass and the grill of a large truck. His pulse raced, the blood thumping in his ears, as he continued to tug at the door handle.
"Please don't move, sir" the voice repeated. "We're going to get you out of there as soon as we can but I need you to sit tight, ok?"
"I can't... I can't feel my legs," Nick spluttered, panic edging into his voice. "Why can't I feel my legs?"
Turning his head as a hand reached through the window and rested on his shoulder, Nick saw the voice belonged to a male paramedic.
"I can't feel my legs," he repeated, the words clipped short by lack of breath.
"What's your name, sir?" the paramedic asked.
"Nick. Nick Carter."
"Ok, Nick. I'm Matt. You've been in an accident and it's possible you have a neck or spinal injury..."
Nick swallowed hard and closed his eyes.
"I need you to keep your eyes open, Nick. Can you do that for me?"
Nick's eyes stayed shut.
"Nick? Open your eyes, Nick," Matt repeated, turning to call over his shoulder. "I need help here!"
Pulling a penlight from his triage kit, Matt reached back into the car and lifted Nick's eyelid. He was shining the light into Nick's left eye when a female paramedic joined him, crouching beside the crumpled door.
"What've you got?" she asked.
"Nick Carter. White male, late twenties, blunt force chest trauma, possible head, neck and spinal injuries,” Matt recited, pulling a neck brace from his kit. “Initially responsive - said he couldn’t feel his legs - then lost consciousness. Pupils are dilated."
"That’s what he told me,” Matt replied, reaching through the window to fasten the brace around Nick’s neck. "We need to get him out of here, Sam."
"Get him on oxygen and monitor his vitals," Sam replied, peering over his shoulder into the car. "I’ll be right back."
Matt nodded and Sam moved to the front of the semi where a middle-aged police officer stood speaking to the driver.
"Chief? He’s in a bad way. We need to get him out of there now."
"Rescue team’s on its way, Sam," the chief replied. "Do what you can for him until they get here."
Sam nodded, pulling her mobile from her pocket and beginning to dial as she made her way back to Matt and Nick.
"Still unresponsive?" she asked, lifting her phone to her ear.
Matt nodded, checking the gauge on the oxygen canister.
Sam ran a hand through her dark hair and turned away from the car, listening to the phone ring.
Thirty minutes after speaking to Nick, Hannah began to worry. She knew he didn’t want her to be tag-teamed by Brian and Leighanne and his not being there to stop it was out of character. Sliding a plate of pureed vegetables into the microwave and pushing the door shut, she checked her watch and leaned back against the counter. Jack was asleep in the guestroom but would be awake soon, hungry, impatient and grizzly.
Leighanne walked into the kitchen, wine glass in hand, as the microwave beeped shrilly. Smiling at Hannah, she rinsed her glass and pulled the dishwasher open.
“Smells good,” she said. “What is it?”
“Jack’s dinner,” Hannah replied, pulling the plate out and setting it on the bench. “Potatoes, spinach, carrots...”
She trailed off, not sure if listing vegetables was too casual or too curt. Either way, she didn’t want to continue the conversation.
“I used to do the same for Baylee,” Leighanne replied, wiping her hands on a checked cloth. “But he liked cheese in his. He gets that from his dad... The addiction to cheese...”
Hannah opened Alex’s cutlery draw and pulled out a fork, beginning to slowly stir Jack’s vegetables.
“So... When is Nick due back?” Leighanne asked.
Hannah continued to stir.
“I don’t know. I thought he’d be back by now,” she replied.
Leighanne leaned back against the refrigerator and folded her arms across her chest. Hannah glanced sideways at her, the defensive posture duly noted.
"No, Hannah, wait," Leighanne interrupted. "I want... I just want you to know that Brian and I don't blame you for any of this."
Hannah lay the fork flat on the plate and turned to face her.
"You don't blame me?" she repeated.
"No. Well... Blame might not be the right word," she spluttered. "Brian and I just want what's best for Nick and Cassie."
"Give me a break," Hannah muttered. "Did either of you stop to think that maybe what's best for Nick and Cassie is for there to be no Nick and Cassie? I know Brian's angry that Nick's throwing his marriage away or whatever it is Brian thinks is happening. But you know what, Leighanne? Neither of you is in that marriage. Neither of you knows what was really going on."
"Nobody but Nick knew what was going on in that marriage," Leighanne replied. "He kept so much from Cassie and nobody thinks it's going to be easy for them to fix it. But it God's eyes..."
Hannah held up her hands.
"I don't mean to offend you, Leighanne. I really don't. But please, please don't preach to me about a marriage you know nothing about," she said, carrying Jack's plate to the table.
Leighanne sighed and unfolded her arms. In her bag on the table, her mobile began to ring and she excused herself as she reached for it.
Hannah turned away, opening the refrigerator and pulling out a bottle of apple juice. Behind her, Leighanne spoke in a strangely quiet, anxious tone.
"Where?" she asked, pausing for the reply. "How?"
Hannah unscrewed the cap of Jack's sipper cup and began to fill it with juice.
"Okay. Okay, we'll meet you there," Leighanne continued. "Thanks, Sam."
Their eyes meeting as Leighanne flipped her mobile shut, Hannah arched an eyebrow.
"It's Nick," Leighanne said quietly and Hannah's stomach knotted. "There's been an accident."
"You cannot be serious," Brian muttered, scanning the parking lot at Bayview Memorial Hospital. "Three hundred spaces and not one of them free."
In the seat beside him, Alex turned to look at Hannah. She had been silent the entire way across town, sitting straight in her seat, her eyes glazed as she chewed her bottom lip. Turning back to Brian, he spoke quietly.
"Let us out at the door. We'll meet you inside."
Brian nodded and pulled the wheel to the left.
"Keep your head down in there," he replied. "We don't need this on the net."
"Rok, it's a hospital. Nobody's expecting us."
Brian signalled and pulled into an ambulance bay, keeping the engine running. Without a word, Hannah unbuckled her seatbelt and pushed the door open.
"Keep your head down and stick close to her," Brian said quietly. "I might have to park on the street."
"Rok," Alex repeated, opening his door. "Stop stressing. Just go park the car, okay?"
Closing the door behind him, he lay a hand on Hannah's back.
"It's this way," he said, gently guiding her towards the entrance.
Brian watched them disappear around the corner before putting the car in reverse and heading for the exit.
Hannah looked around the crowded ER and tried to breathe evenly. Everywhere she looked she saw the sick and injured but Nick was nowhere to be found.
"I'll see if I can find out what's going on," Alex said, moving towards the reception desk where a nurse sat looking over paperwork. In a daze, Hannah followed a few steps behind him.
"Excuse me, I'm looking for a buddy of mine," Alex began. "He was in some sort of accident. We don't really know what's going on."
"What's your friend's name?" the nurse asked.
"Nick. Nick Carter."
Hannah set her purse down on the counter, clutching the strap tightly and Alex looked sideways at her. Her bottom lip was bloodied and she passed her tongue over it absentmindedly.
"You want a tissue?" Alex asked.
Hannah shook her head, staring at the nurse as she entered Nick's name into the computer.
"Ok, a Nickolas Carter was brought in twenty minutes ago," the nurse replied. "If you take a seat, I'll see if I can find a doctor to talk to you."
"Can't you tell us what's going on?" Hannah asked but the nurse shook her head.
"I only know he's here," she replied. "I'm sorry."
"Come on, let's sit down," Alex said, leading Hannah towards the only empty seat. "The doctor won't be long."
Hannah sank into the chair and Alex leaned back against the wall, fixing his gaze on the clock across the room. With each passing minute he was more aware of Hannah's restless movements.
"Hannah? Can I get you anything?"
Hannah shook her head.
"You don't want a coffee? Water?"
Alex arched an eyebrow.
"I'm sorry," Hannah said as she got to her feet. "I just really want to know what the hell is going on. Why can't somebody tell us something?"
Alex watched her move towards the front desk, wordlessly passing Brian on her way.
"We're waiting for a doctor," Alex explained to his friend. "She's starting to get ticked off."
"Can you blame her?" Brian asked. "Hey, have you called Howie or Kev?"
"No, but..." Alex began, catching sight of a tall man in surgical scrubs approaching the desk. "Hold up... This could be us."
Together they crossed the room and joined Hannah who was staring intently at the doctor.
"What's going on?" Alex asked.
"I'm sorry, who are you?" the doctor asked.
"We're friends of Nick's," Brian replied. "Where is he? Can we see him?"
The doctor looked from Hannah to Brian and Alex and back again.
"Nobody's told you anything?" he asked. Met with blank stares, he shot a sidelong glance at the nurse behind the desk. "Your friend was involved in a motor vehicle accident on Keystone Drive. Mr Carter's car collided head-on with a semi-trailer."
"Oh, God..." Hannah breathed.
"A semi?" Alex asked incredulously. "Is he okay?"
The doctor shifted his weight and looked around the room.
"I understand Mr Carter has quite a high public profile," he replied. "If you'd like, we can go somewhere private..."
"Could you please just tell me what's going on?" Hannah asked.
Alex put his hand on her shoulder.
"Sure... Okay..." the doctor replied. "The force of the collision pushed the steering column back into the car and your friend was pinned to his seat. He had some internal bleeding which we were able to stop and we're sending him for MRI and CT scans. It looks as though he has some neck and spinal injuries."
"Oh, God..." Hannah repeated.
"The good news is he's conscious," the doctor continued. "He doesn't have much to say but it doesn't look like he has any head injuries."
Brian looked sideways at Alex, pale faced, his hand still on Hannah's shoulder.
"So, we can see him?"
The doctor looked them over.
“Are any of you family?”
Brian and Alex shook their heads.
“I’m his... his...” Hannah began.
“His partner,” Alex finished for her, giving her shoulder a squeeze. “Hannah is his partner.”
The doctor looked at Hannah and nodded.
“Okay. You can have a minute with him now but only a minute,” he replied. “If you’d like someone to go with you...”
Hannah looked from Alex to Brian.
“It’s okay,” Brian conceded. “I need to call some people. You guys go.”
Alex and Hannah followed the doctor through a set of swinging doors and Brian pulled his mobile from his pocket. Walking towards the exit, he dialled his cousin’s number.
“Kev? It’s me...”
Pushing the exam room door open, the doctor turned to look at Hannah and Alex.
"A nurse will be here in a minute to take him for his scans so you'll have to keep it brief," he reiterated.
Alex nodded and Hannah swallowed hard. The last time she had been in a hospital had been when Jack was born. On that day, she had wanted more than anything for Nick to be there. On this day, she wished he was anywhere else.
The doctor moved aside and Hannah stepped past him into the room. Nick lay on a bed against the back wall, a blue cotton sheet pulled up to his chest. His neck was covered by a rigid plastic brace and an oxygen tube snaked across his cheeks and under his nose. Running out from under the sheet, thin plastic-coated wires connected to a heart monitor beeping regularly beside the bed. His eyes were closed and he made no movement as Hannah and Alex moved to his bedside. Hannah licked her lips and tried to swallow, her mouth like cotton wool. Taking one of his hands, she brushed his blonde hair away from his face with her free hand and bent to kiss his forehead.
"Nick? Baby?" she whispered.
Nick's eyelids flickered and opened, finding Alex first before locking on Hannah.
"Baby..." he rasped. "Where's Jack?"
"He's with Leighanne," she replied. "Don't worry about him."
Nick closed his eyes again, licking his dry lips.
"I was coming home... There was a truck..."
"It doesn't matter what happened," Hannah interrupted. "What matters is that you're okay."
Nick opened his eyes and fixed them on her.
"I'm okay," he confirmed. "But, Hannah... What have the doctors told you?"
Unsure what the doctors had and hadn't told Nick, Hannah cast a sidelong glance at Alex before she replied.
"Only that they need to run some scans to check your neck and spine. They said your head is okay."
Nick smiled and squeezed her hand.
"That's good," he said. "That's what they told me, too. Listen, can I have a minute to speak with Alex? Men's stuff."
"Sure. I'll be right outside."
"Okay," Nick replied, smiling again as Hannah bent to kiss him. "I'll see you in a bit."
"I love you," Hannah whispered.
"I love you too, baby."
Hannah smoothed his hair one last time before turning away. The door swung shut behind her and Alex raised an eyebrow was he moved closer to the bed.
"Men's stuff?" he asked. "Dude..."
"I couldn't think of anything else," Nick replied. "Is that all the doctors told you? What she said about the scans?"
Alex hesitated and Nick stared up at him from the bed.
"They said it looks like you have neck and spinal injuries," he began. Nick's eyes closed and Alex was quick to continue. "But they won't know until you have the scans."
"They know already."
"What are you talking about? How can they know?"
Nick opened his eyes.
"You can't tell Hannah, Alex. You swear?"
"They know because I can't feel my legs," Nick said matter-of-factly. "I can't feel my fucking legs."
"Are you serious?"
"Is that something I'd joke about?"
"No, I guess not."
The room was quiet as Nick lay staring up at the ceiling and Alex shifted his weight, not sure what to say or do. The uncomfortable silence was broken when the door opened and a nurse walked in.
"I'm sorry but it's time for Nick's scans," she said.
"Yeah, sure," Alex replied, stepping aside. "Hey, I'll see you when you're done, okay?"
Nick reached out, grabbing onto the bottom of his friend's shirt.
"Not a word to Hannah," he hissed. "I mean it, Alex."
"Okay, Nick. I get it. Not a word."
Nick let go of the shirt and Alex left the room, closing the door softly behind him. In the corridor, Hannah was leaning against the wall, her arms folded across her chest.
"What was that about?" she asked, falling into step beside Alex as he walked away from Nick's room.
"Nothing," he lied. "Men's stuff."
Leaning forward in his chair, Brian looked around the private waiting room. Kevin sat beside him, flicking through a well-thumbed copy of Sports Illustrated and glancing at his watch every few minutes. A pack of cards had been found and Hannah and Alex sat together at a small table playing a subdued game of snap. Brian noticed Hannah was paying little attention to the game, her eyes moving distractedly around the room and resting on Kevin whenever he looked at his watch. He was about to speak when the door opened and an orderly pushed a blonde woman in a wheelchair into the room. Brian straightened in his chair and Kevin looked up from his magazine.
"Cassie..." Brian began carefully. "Hi."
Laying his cards on the table, Alex looked at Hannah as the orderly wheeled Cassie towards the table. The last traces of colour had drained from her face and she fixed her eyes on the tabletop.
"They told me Nick's friends were here," Cassie replied flatly. "They didn't tell me his whore was here."
Nobody spoke. The orderly cleared his throat and bent towards Cassie.
"Would you like me to take you back to your room?" he asked.
"It's okay," Hannah said quickly. "She doesn't have to leave. I'll go."
Alex stood as Hannah pushed her chair back and picked up her purse.
"I'll go with you."
"No, it's okay," Hannah replied. "I'll be right outside."
The room was silent as she turned and followed the orderly out of the room. The door clicked shut behind her and she leaned back against the wall, sinking to the floor as the reality of Cassie's presence washed over her. Pulling her knees up to her chin, she wrapped her arms around her legs and bent her head.
"Ma'am? Are you okay?"
The orderly was looking at her, his hands on his hips and concern etched on his face. Hannah nodded.
"I'm fine. I just need a minute."
"Okay, if you're sure..."
"I'm sure," Hannah replied. "Thank you."
Inside the waiting room, Cassie looked at Nick's friends, her eyes finally resting on Alex.
"How long has she been here?" she asked.
"Here in the hospital? A couple of hours. Maybe three," he replied. "We've been waiting a long time."
"And you've seen Nick?"
Alex shifted uncomfortably and Brian stood up.
"Alex and Hannah had a couple of minutes with him before he went for the scans," he said as he crossed the room and took Hannah's place at the table. "Cassie, she doesn't mean any harm. She's just worried about Nick. We all are."
Cassie's eyes widened.
"You're defending her?" she demanded. "I don't believe this..."
"Nobody's defending her," Brian replied.
"It sure sounds like you're defending her," Cassie retorted. "I'm his wife. His wife. Who is she?"
"She's the mother of his child," Alex pointed out. "No matter what else was or is going on with them, she's the mother of his child. She has every right to be worried about him."
Cassie narrowed her eyes at him across the table.
"How come you've got so much to say about it? What is she to you?"
"Are you serious?" Alex asked, leaning towards her.
"Alex..." Kevin cautioned, dropping his magazine on the seat next to him.
"She's nothing to me. But she's out here with her kid in a strange city and the only other person she knows is flat on his back in hospital. She has nobody else. When did you become so heartless?"
"Alex," Kevin repeated. "Ease up."
"Heartless?" Cassie echoed. "You think I'm being heartless? You know what, Alex? I think I'm allowed to indulge in some self-pity right now, don't you?"
"Self-pity is one thing. But how about you have a little pity for Hannah, huh?"
Three pairs of eyes fixed on him.
"What are you talking about?" Cassie asked. "Why would I pity her?"
Alex sighed, leaning back in his chair and holding up his hands.
"You know what? If you can't figure that out for yourself, you really are heartless."
Cassie stared at him and Brian looked across the table at Kevin. His cousin was bent forward in his seat, his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped. Brian arched an eyebrow at him and Kevin cleared his throat.
"None of us know Hannah any better than you do, Cassie. And you know where our loyalties lie," he said carefully. "What Nick did to you was low. But what he did to Hannah was just as bad. He might not have been married to her, but you're not the only one who's been hurt in all this. Hannah and Jack had no control over anything Nick did."
Cassie looked down at her hands. Picking at the plastic ID bracelet around her wrist, she spoke quietly.
"I'd like to go back to my room."
Brian reached towards her, laying his hand over hers.
"Cass, the doctor could be here any second with some news. Don't you want to stay for that?"
"I'd like to go back to my room," Cassie repeated.
Brian got to his feet silently and pulled her wheelchair away from the table. Kevin and Alex watched without speaking as Brian pulled the door open and they disappeared into the hallway.
Hannah looked up as the waiting room door opened and Brian pushed Cassie's chair out into the corridor. Getting to her feet, she wiped her hands on her jeans and looked at Cassie. Several uncomfortable seconds passed before Brian spoke.
"I'm taking Cassie back to her room."
Hannah nodded and Brian pushed the wheelchair past her.
"Wait," Cassie said, her hands gripping the wheels. "I want to say something."
Brian stopped and stood silently while Cassie and Hannah eyed each other, half expecting a fight to break out.
"You and Nick... You're together?" Cassie asked.
"You love him?"
Hannah nodded again.
"And I bet he says he loves you, too."
Hannah cast a nervous glance at Brian and Cassie continued.
"I bet he says he doesn't want to spend a single night away from you. I bet he tells you this is it for him - you're all that matters."
She stopped speaking and smiled sadly.
"Don't believe everything he tells you. Look where I've ended up."
Hannah swallowed hard and Brian looked at his shoes.
"You take care of yourself and that little boy of yours because nobody else will," Cassie went on. "When it all turns to shit with Nick - and it will turn to shit - the two of you will only have each other."
Reaching up, she patted Brian's hand.
Nick was moved to the spinal unit at Bayview Memorial five hours after the accident. Staring up at the ceiling in his private room, he listened to the hum of the air-conditioning and waited for the doctor to return with the results of his scan. His neck was still encased in the rigid plastic brace, the top edge digging into the bottom of his chin. Frustrated, he lifted his hand and slipped his fingers between his chin and the brace, pushing it down gently.
"I'm pretty sure you're not supposed to be moving," Brian said from the doorway.
Startled, Nick pulled his hand away and let it fall onto the mattress beside him.
"Do you think it's a good idea to be making me jump then?" he retorted, registering who the voice belonged to.
Kevin, Alex and Hannah filed into the room behind Brian and gathered around the bed as Nick reached for the brace again.
"This thing is driving me nuts. It's too small or something."
"How are you doing?" Brian asked. "Other than that, I mean. Have you heard anything yet?"
"No, nothing," Nick replied, his eyes moving over his friends. "Where's Howie?"
"He's out of town for a few days," Kevin replied. "We've been trying his cell all afternoon."
"And my parents?" Nick asked.
"Leighanne and Kristin are calling everyone who needs to know," Hannah replied, taking his hand. "I'm sure they'll be here as soon as they can."
"Johnny's doing damage control with the press," Brian added. "You're all over the news."
Nick rolled his eyes and Hannah squeezed his hand.
"What about Cassie?" Nick asked.
His friends hesitated and exchanged worried glances.
"What?" Nick asked. "What's going on?"
"She knows you're here," Hannah replied. "We saw her about an hour ago."
"You saw her?"
"How was she?"
Hannah looked at Brian.
"She was good," he replied. "As good as can be expected, anyway."
"But she didn't want to see me?" Nick asked.
"She went back to her room to rest," Kevin replied. "You both need to be taking it easy."
Nick was about to reply when there was a knock on the door and a dark haired man in scrubs walked in.
"Sorry to interrupt," he began. "I'm Dr Barnett. I wonder if I could have a moment alone with Nick."
Kevin, Brian and Alex moved towards the door and Nick squeezed Hannah's hand.
"See you soon," he said quietly.
Hannah nodded and followed the others out the door. Dr Barnett closed the door behind them and returned to the bedside. Staring up at the ceiling, Nick felt his heart begin to race as the doctor picked up the clipboard hanging from the end of the bed and flipped through the pages.
"Everything here looks good," he said. "Your vitals are fine and your brain activity is normal."
"Plenty of people might disagree with you there," Nick replied.
Dr Barnett smiled, replacing the clipboard.
"I've taken a look at the results of your scans..."
Nick's heart pounded against the inside of his ribcage.
"The bad news is..."
"Wait a second," Nick interrupted. "Aren't you going to ask me if I want the good news or the bad news first?"
Dr Barnett hesitated.
"Sure. Would you like the good news or the bad news first?"
Nick blinked up at the ceiling, wondering what the bad news could be. Right now, he knew his legs were useless. Was he going to end up in a wheelchair? He tried to imagine his life without the use of his legs and what he saw terrified him.
"The bad news," he replied, steeling himself for the worst.
“Okay,” Dr Barnett replied. “The bad news is your spinal cord was damaged in the accident. There is some bruising and swelling around the lumbar section of your spine which is putting more pressure on the spinal cord and causing paralysis below the injury site.”
Nick swallowed hard. Paralysis. His legs were paralysed.
“And the good news?” he asked.
“The good news is the damage to your spinal cord itself could have been much worse and the swelling is a normal reaction to this type of injury. It will subside eventually and we have anti-inflammatory drugs which can speed the process up and help stop any further damage to your spinal cord.”
“What about my legs?”
The doctor pulled a pen from the chest pocket of his scrubs and moved to the end of the bed.
“You tell me,” he said, lifting a corner of the sheet and pressing the tip of the pen against the sole of Nick’s foot.
A smile tugged at the corners of Nick’s mouth.
“I feel that,” he said, the smile spreading. “I can feel that.”
Dr Barnett let the sheet drop and slipped the pen back into his pocket.
“You have what’s called paresis or partial paralysis,” he replied. “We won’t be able to tell for sure until the swelling around your spinal cord goes down, but I’m hopeful it will only be temporary. In many cases like this, the patient makes a full recovery. You were lucky not to be more seriously injured.”
Nick took a moment to process the doctor’s words.
“You’re hopeful it will only be temporary?” he repeated. “So it could still be permanent? I mean, I had no feeling at all in my feet when they brought me in here. It must mean something that I have feeling now, right?”
Dr Barnett nodded thoughtfully.
“It’s very promising, yes,” he agreed. “But, it doesn’t mean you will regain full use of your legs. Spinal injuries are complicated, Nick. No two cases are the same.”
Nick blinked at him and Dr Barnett lay a hand on his shoulder.
“We’ll know more when the swelling goes down,” he repeated. “Try not to get ahead of yourself. It’s one day at a time with injuries like this.”
Nick was silent and the doctor reached for his chart again.
“I’m going to organise for a physical therapist to come and speak to you about treatment options tomorrow morning,” he said, scribbling his signature at the bottom of the page. “Try and get some rest tonight.”
Unable to turn his head, Nick listened to the sound of the clipboard slipping back into place at the end of his bed.
“Could you ask Hannah to come in when you leave?” he asked quietly. “Just Hannah.”
“Sure,” Dr Barnett replied, his shoes squeaking on the linoleum as he moved towards the door. “I’ll be back in to see you tomorrow.”
Nick didn’t reply. Blinking up at the ceiling, he heard the door open and a muffled conversation in the corridor. Within a minute, Hannah was at his side, running her hand through his hair.
“What did he say?” she asked.
Nick looked up at her and swallowed hard before speaking.
“Close the door, baby. We need to talk.”
In the back seat of Brian's car, Hannah stared out into the night. It was after 11pm, six hours after Nick's accident, and the day's events played like a movie in her mind.
Closing the door behind Dr Barnett, she pulled herself up to sit on the edge of Nick's bed, leaning towards him as she took his hand.
"What did he say?" she asked, her thumb moving back and forth across the back of his hand.
"I don't want you to freak out, okay?"
Hannah looked at him and her thumb stopped moving.
"If you have to warn me about it, I'm probably going to freak out," she replied. "What's going on?"
Nick squeezed her hand.
"I don't want you to freak out because it might not be permanent," he went on. "But I can't feel my legs. The doctor says they're paralysed."
"You can't feel your legs?" Hannah repeated. "Since when?"
"Since right after the accident," Nick replied. Seeing the look on her face, he hurried on. "But the doctor says it's only partial and it might be temporary."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"I didn't want to worry you."
"But you're telling me now. You don't think I'm going to worry now?"
"Hannah, baby..." Nick said, squeezing her hand. "You're freaking out."
Hannah looked at him.
"I am not freaking out. This is not freaking out. I am nowhere near freaking out."
"So how come you're doing that weird Grey's Anatomy thing you do when you're freaking out? Saying the same thing a bunch of different ways?"
"Ok, so maybe I'm freaking out a little," Hannah said with a sigh. "How are you not? Aren't you scared?"
"Sure, I'm scared," Nick replied, pulling at his neck brace. "I'm terrified. But, Hannah, when they brought me in here this afternoon I had no feeling anywhere below my waist..."
"And you didn't tell me?" Hannah asked incredulously.
"Let me finish," Nick replied. "When they brought me in I couldn't feel anything. When the doctor was in here just now I could feel him pressing on the bottom of my feet."
Hannah was silent, biting her bottom lip as tears clouded her eyes.
"That's good news," Nick said quietly, squeezing her hand again. "Come on, baby, don't cry. Come here."
With his free hand on her back, he pulled her towards him. Puckering his lips, he closed his eyes and waited.
“Kish me, Hannah.”
Smiling through her tears, Hannah bent her head to kiss him and Nick wrapped his arms around her, pulling her in.
“I need you to be strong, okay?” he said quietly when the kiss ended. “Because I don’t think I can be strong without you.”
“I’m not strong, Nick.”
“Yes, you are. You’re the strongest person I know,” Nick replied. Hannah rolled her eyes and tried to pull away from him. “No, come on. You are. Maybe you don’t see it but I do. I see it all the time and I need you to share it with me because I'm scared, okay? I need you to be strong."
Hannah nodded, tears brimming in her eyes again as Nick pulled her back towards him.
"Hannah? Hannah, do you want something?"
Jolted from her thoughts, Hannah stared blankly back at Brian. Through the window behind him, a McDonalds menu board glowed in the darkness.
"We're grabbing some burgers. Do you want something?" Brian repeated.
Hannah shook her head and sank back in her seat as Brian and Alex exchanged glances. Turning in his seat, Alex looked back at her.
"You haven't eaten all night," he said. "How about some fries?"
"No, thanks. I really just want to get home and check on Jack."
Alex turned back to Brian and shrugged.
"I'll have a number eight, Rok."
Nick's arms were still tight around Hannah when the door opened and a nurse stepped into the room. Pulling away from him, Hannah wiped her eyes and looked at the nurse.
"Mr and Mrs Carter? I'm Leah, Nick's primary care nurse while he's with us at Bayview."
Hannah opened her mouth to speak but Nick silenced her with a squeeze of her hand.
"Primary care? What does that mean?" he asked.
Taking the clipboard from the end of the bed, Leah flipped through the pages as she spoke.
"Primary care means I'll be around to help you out with your personal cares - washing, going to the bathroom, using a catheter - all those sorts of things," she explained.
Nick blinked at her.
"A catheter?" he repeated.
Leah slipped the clipboard back into it's holder and looked from Nick to Hannah and back again.
"I'm sorry... Dr Barnett should have discussed this with you," she said.
"Yeah, well he didn't," Nick replied, his voice creeping up an octave. "What do I need a catheter for?"
"Spinal injuries in the lumbar region - like yours - can cause bowel and bladder dysfunction. You could need a catheter if you find you're having trouble urinating. When did you last go to the bathroom?"
"I don't know. This afternoon before I left the house. About four o'clock."
"And have you had any accidents since then?"
"Only the one with the semi," Nick deadpanned and Hannah slapped him lightly on the arm.
"Don't joke about this, Nick," she said quietly.
"Do you feel like you might need to go now?" Leah asked, glancing at her watch. "It's almost eleven."
"I don't know. I guess I could go."
"I'll go and get a bedpan and we'll see how you go, okay?" she replied with a smile. "I'll be right back."
Hannah watched her leave before turning back to Nick.
"A catheter? A fucking catheter, Hannah. Do you know how those things work?" he asked, pausing as he drew his hand over his face. "I don't even want to think about it."
"She didn't say it was definite," Hannah said gently. "You might be okay."
Nick was silent, staring up at the ceiling while Hannah stood beside the bed.
"You should go home," he said after a moment. "Jack will be missing you."
"You don't want me to stay?"
"I don't really think I want an audience for this, Hannah," Nick replied. "Besides, you need to sleep."
"Are you sure you don't want me to stay?"
"No, baby, I'll be fine. I'll see you tomorrow, okay? Maybe you can bring Jack."
Hannah nodded, squeezing his hand as she bent to kiss him on the forehead.
"Do you want me to bring anything in for you tomorrow?"
"Just my boy," Nick replied. "And my i-pod. It's in my backpack."
"Okay. I'll see you in the morning. Try to get some sleep."
Nick tried to nod but the movement was restricted by his brace.
"Yeah, you too. I love you."
"I love you, too," Hannah said, moving away from the bed.
She had got as far as the door before Nick called after her. Stopping with her hand on the door knob, she turned back towards him.
"I'm sorry, Hannah. I promised you and Jack not one night apart and you're already going home alone."
"Don't worry about it. You just get better fast so we can go home together, okay?"
"Okay," Nick replied, a lump building in his throat. "See you in the morning."
Hannah left the room and the door clicked shut.
Pulling up outside Alex's house, Brian switched the engine off and opened his door. The porch light was on, lighting the steps leading up to the front door which opened as Alex and Hannah approached. Leighanne stood in the doorway, Jack in her arms.
"He's just woken up," she said quietly. "He's been a bit upset and asking for you."
Hannah took Jack in her arms, smoothing his blonde hair and kissing the top of his head.
"Thank you for watching him," she said sincerely.
"Anytime," Leighanne replied, moving aside to let Hannah and Alex past. "How's Nick doing?"
Brian kissed his wife on the cheek and took her hand.
"We're not really sure yet," he said quietly. "We haven't been told much other than that his spine was damaged in the accident."
"He's a tough kid," Alex added. "He'll be okay."
Staring up into the dark space above his bed, Nick swallowed hard. The door to his room had been left ajar and he heard the soft squeak of trainers on the linoleum as hospital staff passed by, their shadows dancing on the wall beside his bed. Somewhere along the corridor people were laughing and the noises carried to him in the stillness. Across town he knew Hannah would be climbing into bed, her blonde hair free of its tie and falling over her shoulders. Jack would be asleep, thumb in mouth, his breath like a whisper in the darkness. Staring up into the dark space above his bed, Nick let himself cry.
Hannah folded her arm beneath her head and looked at Jack, sleeping peacefully in the portable crib beside her bed. His blonde hair was a mess of tufts and clumps and his thumb was positioned firmly between his lips. She could hear Alex moving around in the next room, drawers opening and closing and a muffled curse before his door closed and silence settled over the house. Reaching for the lamp on the nightstand, she flicked the switch and the room was plunged into darkness. Rolling onto her back, Hannah let herself cry.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.