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** HOWIE **

I didn’t know what to say when Kevin and AJ walked into the room. Kevin looked defeated and AJ looked, well, distraught. My stomach was already unsettled, and I could feel it churning once again at the sight of the two of them. Something was wrong; very wrong.

“Hi, Howie.” AJ paused at the foot of the bed, looking beyond uncomfortable. “How are you feeling?”


My throat was so raw that I could barely get the word out. The doctor had mentioned that I would experience some minor discomfort as a result of having my stomach pumped, but the pain was almost unbearable. If this was ‘minor’, then I definitely wouldn’t want to experience what the doctor would refer to as ‘severe’ pain.

“Can you talk?” Kevin issued me a small, half-smile and took a seat in one of the chairs positioned just to the left of the bed. He pulled it as close to the bed as possible and gave my arm a reassuring squeeze. “It’s okay if you’re not feeling up to it.”

“I can talk.” I nodded slowly. “A little bit.”

“Did the doctor tell you what happened?” Kevin asked the question carefully.

“They told me that I was – that somebody – that someone poisoned my tea.” I stuttered through my response, partially because of the pain in my throat and partially because it was hard to say the words. The notion that someone had done this to me on purpose was nearly impossible for me to digest. Why would someone want to hurt me? I had never done anything negative to anyone.

“Ahhh.” Kevin’s face fell even farther. “Do you have any idea who …”

I cut him off, shaking my head. “I already told the special agent – the pudgy guy – that I have no idea who could have done it.”

“We talked to him downstairs.” AJ rolled his eyes. “He seems useless.”

“He’s not useless.” Kevin pulled his hand away from my arm and leaned back in the chair. He gave AJ a withering look. “He’s just getting started. What do you expect? For him to know who the culprit is right away without asking any questions?”

“I’m sure that he has a theory.” AJ shot back. “After all, you already have your own theory. Don’t you, Kev? Why don’t you go ahead and tell Howie who you think is responsible for the fact that he’s lying in a fucking hospital bed!”

I swallowed hard despite the pain in my throat and looked back and forth between AJ and Kevin. Their little exchange was clearly a continuation to whatever discussion they had been having before they had entered the room. As much as I wanted to be brought up to speed, I was terrified to open my mouth.

“Where are Brian and Nick?” I croaked; hoping to change the topic. I had decided that I really didn’t want to hear Kevin’s theory. “Did they stay behind at the venue?”

“Ask Kevin where they are.” AJ challenged. “I’m sure you’ll be interested to hear his response.”

I flipped my eyes to Kevin. He looked slightly guilty and more than ready to rip AJ’s head off. “They’re still downstairs with Dave – Agent Adams.”

“Why?” I choked on the question and groped blindly for the cup of water that the nurse had placed on the small table next to my bed.

I must have looked pitiful because AJ quickly vacated his spot at the end of the bed and came to my rescue. He picked up the plastic cup and tilted the straw towards my mouth with such an overwhelming sense of compassion that I actually had to check to make sure that it was AJ and not Kevin who was holding the cup. Having a little girl had noticeably changed AJ for the better. I accepted the straw and greedily pulled the cool liquid into my mouth, only slightly embarrassed by the fact that I had been unable to perform the simple task by myself.

“Better?” AJ asked. He waited until I nodded in the affirmative before setting the cup back down on the table, making sure to place it as close to the edge of the bed as possible. “Dave wanted to ask Brian and Nick some more questions.” AJ paused and glared at Kevin. “Some people seem to be under the impression that they may have tampered with the tea that you’ve been drinking lately.”

“The police think that …” I pulled my eyes away from AJ’s rigid expression and widened my eyes at Kevin. “You think that …”

I couldn’t even bring myself to finish asking the question. Nick and Brian would never hurt me. They were my friends. They were my brothers. We had been a family for twenty-one years. My stomach heaved at the notion that it could have been them. The bile was rising up my already ravaged throat. It couldn’t have been Nick and Brian!

“Oh shit!”

AJ grabbed a bucket off of the table and thrust it under my face just as the remaining contents of my stomach reached the surface. I hunched over the container as I retched, the tears streaming down my face from the painful burning in my throat. I could feel AJ rubbing my back; trying to console me, but it wasn’t working. Why was this happening to me?

“Howie?” Nick’s voice was tentative, halting.

I swiped the back of my hand across my mouth and fell back against the pillows. AJ placed the bucket on the ground and kicked it across the room, as far away from the bed as possible, before pushing the cup of water into my now shaking hands. I accepted the drink and took a long swallow as I lifted my eyes towards the doorway. Nick and Brian were both standing just inside the room looking suitably uncomfortable.

“We didn’t do it.” Nick continued. He rubbed at his bloodshot eyes and scratched anxiously at his face. “The guy – Dave – said that he just needed to rule us out.”

“We would never …” Brian shook his head and lowered his gaze to the floor. “We heard what AJ insinuated about what Kevin thinks, but it’s not true Howie.” Brian’s eyes finally settled on my face. “Like Nick said, the police have ruled us out.”

“How did – How did they manage to do that so fast?” Kevin voiced the question before I could even open my mouth.

I turned to the oldest member of our group in distaste. Why was he pushing the issue? Did he want to think that Brian and Nick were responsible?

“You guys bought the wrong type of tea.” I whispered, the relief washing over me as I made the connection.

Nick nodded. He looked even more relieved than I felt. “The police have already been to your hotel room. They found the package of tea that Brian and I bought for you, but it was unopened.”

“You bought me green tea with pear by mistake.” I whispered. “I hate pears.”

“There was another box of tea in your room though.” Brian jumped in. “Where did you get it?”

“I ordered it from room service.” My head was swimming as I answered the question. “I kept ordering cups of tea, so I eventually just told them to bring me a whole box.”

“Oh, God.” Nick sank down into the chair closest to the door and cupped his face in his hands. “This is actually happening. Someone actually tried to poison you, Howie.”

I watched helplessly as Nick broke down; silent sobs racking his body. Brian moved closer to Nick and snaked one of his arms across the blonde’s hunched shoulders, but his eyes never left my face.

“I’m glad that you’re okay.” Brian tightened his grip on Nick’s shoulders. “We both are. It’s just that – it’s just been a lot for us to take in. Everything came at us so fast.”

“We’re fucking overwhelmed.” AJ admitted. “We don’t know what to think at this point.”

“Neither do I.” I took another long, slow sip of water and looked around at the dejected faces of my brothers. “Neither do I.”

“The most important thing is that you’re okay.” Kevin stated. He leaned forward and gave my arm another reassuring squeeze before standing up. “We’ll worry about everything else later.”

“That’s easier said than done, Mr. Richardson.”

I resisted the urge to frown as Agent Adams appeared in the doorway. I knew that the man was just trying to do his job, but he could have at least knocked before coming into the room. Couldn’t he see that the five of us needed some time to regroup, to come to terms with what had just happened?

“I’m afraid that I can’t just let the five of you walk out of here.” Dave shook his head. He wiped at his sweaty forehead before he continued. “Mr. Dorough will obviously be staying overnight in the hospital for observation, but the rest of you cannot return to your current hotel. Other arrangements are being made for you as we speak. Then, with the cancellation of the tour, arrangements will have to be made for when each of you return home …”

“We’re cancelling the tour?” I projected my voice as much as possible in order to interrupt Dave’s ramblings. “When was that decided?”

“It wasn’t.” AJ narrowed his eyes at Dave. “At least not as far as I know.”

“It hasn’t been decided, but it makes sense.” Kevin interjected. “Someone just tried to kill Howie. I think that’s a pretty good reason to cancel. We don’t know who this person is or if they’re going to come after him again.”

“I don’t want to cancel the rest of the tour.” I deadpanned. “I need to keep going as if everything is normal.”

The idea that the tour might come to an end was almost more than I could handle. I needed the routine and the normalcy to continue because, without it, I would fall apart. I couldn’t go home to my family and feel like a prisoner in my own house. It was inevitable that I would be terrified to venture off of my property. Then, there was the fact that I would be putting Leigh and the boys in danger if I returned to Florida. No, the tour had to continue. There was no question about it.

“There’s a chance that Mr. Dorough isn’t the only target.” Dave was clearly becoming increasingly agitated. “All of you could be in danger. The most sensible thing for the five of you to do would be to go home and …”

“If Howie wants to continue with the tour then we’ll stay on the road.” Nick wiped away the remainder of his tears and issued me a small smile. “I’ll do whatever Howie wants to do.”

“Me too.” AJ nodded his head solemnly in agreement. “This one’s up to Howie.”

I watched as Brian and Kevin exchanged a look. Kevin’s expression was guarded, but Brian looked as though he was ready to cave. I bit my lip to hold back my smile as Kevin wiggled his eyebrows in a silent attempt to convince his cousin to take his side. I knew what was coming.

“I’m willing to stay on the road.” Brian admitted. “It’s probably better if we all stick together anyways.”

“Ugh!” Kevin let out a disgruntled snort and looked around at the four of us. “This is the wrong decision.”

Nick shook his head. “It’s not the wrong decision. It’s Howie’s decision, and I’m sticking with it.”

My heart swelled as I watched the exchange between Nick and Kevin. It was nice to know that someone had my back, to know that I wasn’t fighting this battle all by myself.

“I’ll contact the appropriate people so that the tour can continue.” Agent Adams hung his head in defeat. “Although, I have to agree with Mr. Richardson; you boys are making the wrong choice.”