"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.