The evening sky was pink and orange as the sun set, but it was still hot out. Brian had called almost two hours ago, so Leighanne knew he was almost there. She was clutching the phone, sitting on the front steps of their steel-blue house, watching the driveway, praying silently for God to bring him to her a little faster.
Baylee was playing on the lawn, in shorts and a t-shirt, running through the sprinklers as they watered the grass. He'd flung off his sandals and his hands were in the air as he ran, shouting happily. Despite his yelling and running, it was Baylee who spotted them first. "Daddy!" he screamed, running across the grass.
Leighanne stood up as the red Hummer pulled into the circular driveway and stopped in the space Brian always stopped in. When the door opened and Brian climbed out of the Hummer, she dropped the phone, her grasp unable to hold it up any longer, her breath short.
Baylee collided with Brian's legs and scrambled up the height of him. His soaking wet clothes leaving dark water stains on Brian's own clothes. He wrapped his arms around his father's neck, smothering his cheeks with kisses and squealing over and over again with excitement. Brian laughed, hugging him tight, not even caring that he was soaked. His heart leaped for joy at the feeling of his little boy in his arms, warm and wiggling.
And then he spotted Leighanne.
"Hold on buddy," he said, lowering Baylee. Leighanne was still standing by the stairs, frozen. "I gotta hug your momma." He stood there, as motionless as she was for just a moment. A fraction of a second. And then they both, simultaneously, broke into a run for each other.
They met in the middle, at the end of the long walk way, at the edge of the lawn. Their arms wrapped around each other and their mouths met. Leighanne's hands tangled into Brian's hair, he clutched her, fingers digging into her back, as though if he let up she might disappear.
Nick watched from the passenger seat of the Hummer. Baylee looked at him, "Hiya Uncle Nick," he said.
"Hey Baylee," Nick answered, his voice raw and scratchy.
"Are you sick, Uncle Nick?" Baylee asked.
Nick shook his head, but then shrugged. "I dunno. I'm okay, though," he added at Baylee's look of concern. Being sick, he suddenly realized, had probably taken on a whole new meaning lately for Baylee. He wasn't sure how much Brian and Leighanne had explained to him.
"Okay," Baylee answered, content with Nick's assurance that he was okay. He rushed off after Brian, and quickly attached himself to his parent's legs.
Nick watched as Brian and Leighanne lifted Baylee up between them, and Brian kissed his son's cheek happily. Baylee let out a shriek of laughter and joy, his eyes squinting with the intensity of the happiness he felt now that his daddy was home. Leighanne looked so relieved, so glad for Brian's presence... The whole scene made Nick's heart ache.
I'll probably never have that, he thought, a little bitter at the happy family, Every time I fall in love, the girl turns out to be a psycho bitch.
Lowering Baylee, Brian turned to look at the Hummer, and beckoned to Nick to follow him as they started going inside. Nick climbed out of the car and slammed the door shut. He stopped to close Brian's door, too, since it had remained opened when he got out, and then headed toward the front door, which they'd left wide open for him behind them. He could hear them laughing happily in the next room, a sound that echoed through the large open foyer of the house. Nick rubbed his arms, feeling a little cold, and followed the sound of a happy family.
Amanda's plane had only been in the air for two hours. She was seated between a business man in a suit and tie, who seemed intent not to notice she was crying by staring at his laptop and blasting rap over his head phones, and an extremely obnoxious high school aged boy who kept turning around to talk to his friends in the row behind them. She'd already used the barf bag twice.
She couldn't get the angry words Nick had said out of her head. The look of revulsion and anger that had flashed in his eyes were like poison to her, but she couldn't stop drinking it. Like a record on repeat, her mind just kept torturing her with the images and sounds of the fight.
The sun was just coming up as they passed over the Rocky Mountains. When the plane was just about in Los Angeles, she pulled her cell phone out and hit the first speed dial - which connected her to her father's office. She'd made a promise to herself, and in her heart to Nick, that it would be the first thing she did when she got to California.
"Golde Publishing, Eric Golde's office," came the honey-sweet voice of the current twenty-year old her father had working as his secretary, "Annette speaking."
"Hello Annette, this is Amanda Golde, Eric's daughter. I'd like to make an appointment to see him in about two hours," she said.
Annette sounded like she should be popping gum bubbles and watching the Care Bears. "I'm sorry," she said, her voice carrying a giggle, "Mr. Golde is busy all day."
"I'm sure he is," Amanda said, rolling her eyes, "But this is urgent. Tell him it's about the big story he's got me working on. Tell him I'm done with it." She figured the wording would get his attention.
Annette covered the mouthpiece of the receiver with her hand and Amanda could hear muffled talking in the background. Annette returned to the phone a moment later, "He says he can make room for you. I'll pencil you down for nine-thirty, m'kay?" she asked.
"M'kay," Amanda answered, repeating Annette's obnoxious tone. She hung up and leaned back against the chair, closing her eyes. She did not feel like facing her father today, after the horribleness of the fight with Nick, but she'd promised.
Two hours later, Amanda was sitting nervously outside her father's office. Annette was sitting behind her desk, a little blonde pixie of a thing with too much cleavage showing, staring at Amanda from behind her iMac. At nine-thirty, on the dot, Annette stood up. "Mr. Golde will see you now," she said.
Amanda walked into her father's office, feeling overwhelmed and tiny as she always had. His office looked more like a rich man's library, with heavy volumes of books and magazines lining the walls all around him on dark mahogany shelves. He had one of those green shaded lamps with the little gold pull switch and pens engraved with his name.
Eric Golde was a little guy, short but heavy. He wore a cream colored button up shirt with brown slacks and suspenders. A manuscript sat in front of him, and he was highlighting words in it, scratching out sentences and paragraphs and grumbling to himself, "Bullshit, complete bullshit." Tearing apart another person's life work was what he did everyday.
He didn't even look up as she crossed the room, limping slightly, the cut on her back aching more and more, still carrying her duffle bag, wearing pajamas, her eyes blood shot, and her hair sticking out in odd angles. "Hello Daddy," she said.
"I'm here about the story," she said.
This got his attention. He looked up at her, dropping the highlighter he'd been using onto the desk. "Yes?"
"I'm done with it," she announced boldly.
Eric held out his hand, "Let me see, we'll get it edited and sent down to print."
"I haven't written it," she said.
"You just said you were done with it," he snapped. "Which is it?"
Amanda took a deep breath. "I am done with it, Daddy," she said. "I'm not writing the story for you."
Eric stared at her, his eye twitching. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" he demanded.
"It means I'm not writing the story," she said again, her voice growing in confidence. "Brian Littrell and Nick Carter are real people, daddy, and I refuse to disrespect them like that."
"They aren't people," Eric snapped, "They're celebrities."
Amanda laughed bitterly. "I knew you'd say that."
"That's what they get for getting into show business, honey. The press."
Amanda shook her head, "That's just their job. They have a right to have private, personal lives that the world doesn't know about. They have the right to keep secrets."
Eric glared at her. "Amanda Jane Golde, I expect that story on my desk today by five o'clock. Or else."
"Or else what, daddy?" she asked, "You'll fire me? I'm sorry, but you can't fire me, daddy, because I quit."
"Quit?" Eric was legitimately surprised by this. He stood up, "What do you mean you quit? I'm your father. You can't quit."
"I just did," she answered, also standing, matching his height.
"Look at you," he said, looking her over finally, "You look like shit. You're throwing your life away for some stupid man that's going to trample you and throw you away. You've seen the stories we've written on him, about the women he's walked all over and dumped. Look what he did to that Hilton girl."
"He didn't do that," Amanda said, recalling Nick's vehemence when they'd talked about it. "Nick Carter is nothing like you think he is."
Eric rolled his eyes, "And you think you know him? That he loves you? When should I expect the wedding?" he scoffed.
Amanda shook her head, her stomach plummeting to the ground. "He doesn't love me," she answered, voice shaking ever so slightly, "But I do love him. More than that, I respect him. I just wish I'd realized how pathetic you are before I let you make me hurt him like I have. But I won't let it happen again. I quit your filthy rag magazine."
"Get out," Eric snapped, "And don't come crawling back here when you can't pay your rent, either."
Amanda stood up, "I won't. I promise. I know you wouldn't give a damn anyway." She walked out of the office, not even once looking back.