While sitting in his car on the way home from one of his many meetings, Lance thought of the perfect gift for Hope.  He knew toys were the way to go with most kids, and clothes were what Paige would probably rather see, and he'd get those things as well, but he wanted to get her something special and unique as well.  As soon as he got home he called his mom to see what she could do to help him.

            "Hey mom, can you help me out?"  He asked as he opened the refrigerator to look for something to eat.

            "Of course, what's wrong?"  Diane asked with just a hint of concern.

            "I need to get a fanclub packet thing, do you still… I mean, can you get me one?"

            "A current one?"

            "Yeah."

            "Sure, it'll be $25."

            "Mom, it's my fanclub."  Lance frowned as he took the container of left over chicken out of the fridge to put it on a plate and heat it.

            "Yeah, and the membership fee's are $25."  She laughed and wrapped the phone cord around her finger.

            Lance sighed and tried not to laugh,  "Okay fine, bill me for it."

            "I will."  Diane laughed.  "I'll call on over tonight and have then ship it out to you.  How soon do you need it?"

            "Um, pretty soon. I want to have the guys sign it and stuff."

            "Who's it for?"  Diane asked after a moment's pause.  She didn't want to be nosey, but she couldn't help it.

            "The daughter of one of my friends.  It's her birthday."  Lance explained.  "Hope is uh… that’s the daughter, she's a big fan."

            "Oh that's nice, I'm sure she'll like it."

            "Yeah."  Lance sighed softly.  He wasn't quite ready to tell his mom about Paige yet.  He'd seen his mom in action in the past when he brought up girls and she always over reacted.  It had been more than a year since he'd had a serious girlfriend, or a date even really, so he knew that the first girl after this 'dry spell' would give his mom hours of entertainment.

            Without knowing exactly where this friendship with Paige was going or what would become of it, he didn't want to give his mom and false hopes.  "Okay, yeah… just have it sent to me and I'll send them a check or whatever."  He smiled.

            "Will do.  I'll talk to you later honey."

            "Bye mom."  Lance smiled and hung up, noticing a hangnail on his right thumb.  He hung up the phone then stuck his thumb in his mouth before opening the microwave to heat his dinner.  A beep from his watch reminded him that it was time to take his medicine as well, so he got his pill sorter and shook out the correct pills.  He lined them up on the table and sighed, the perfect garnish to his chicken Marsala and rice.

            The microwave beeped a minute later to let him know his dinner was ready, so he poured himself a big glass of tea, his latest obsession, then sat down for yet another dinner alone.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

            When the fanclub package arrived two days later, Lance opened it up and examined the contents.  He laughed at the mini-biographies it gave for each of then, then cringed at the photos.  He tossed the package in the backseat of his car and headed to the mall to buy the rest of the gifts for Hope.  It was one of his few truly free days he had that week and he only had a limited amount of time he could spend in the mall unsupervised.

            A Tuesday night, forty minutes before closing wasn't exactly the busiest time of the week for the mall, so Lance was able to enter the giant toy store without a scene.  He went straight back to the baby toys and stood there for a minute pondering which noisemaker he should buy.  After five minutes he picked up the keyboard that lit up as well, and headed for the front register.  Just before he got to the front he walked through the children's clothing area.  "Paige would want something practical."  Lance mumbled under his breath as he smiled and grabbed an empty and abandoned cart from one aisle over.  He set the toy in the cart and sorted through some of the little girl's clothes on the racks around him.  Knowing nothing about children's sizes, he went by the age chart smartly posted above each rack.

            "She's one… so that'd be twelve months.  But she seems kind of small."  He frowned and pulled out a little purple jumper in the twelve-month size.  "There's no way that'd fit her."

            "Can I help you sir?"  A kind looking older woman asked as she walked up.  Lance glanced up quickly and smiled.  She was dressed in light jeans and a bright yellow t-shirt with her nametag surrounded by blinking red lights.

            "Um… yeah.  Ellen?  Hi."

            "Hi."  She smiled.

            "I'm trying to buy a gift and I don't know what size I need."  He looked at the jumper in his hand.

            "How old is she?"

            "She's uh, it's for her first birthday."  Lance nodded and looked up at the size chart again.  "But this just looks too big, I mean, maybe she's smaller than normal kids or something."

            "They always look bigger on the hanger."  Ellen smiled and fluffed out the jumper.  "See?  If you put a little girl in there to fill it out, it doesn't look as big."

            "Well yeah, but maybe I should just get the smaller size?"

            "No, I wouldn't do that."  Ellen shook her head.  "Because the little ragamuffin is only going to get bigger.  If the twelve month size is too big now, it'll fit her eventually." She smiled and flipped through the rack at Lance's side.

            "Really?"

            "Mmm hmm."  Ellen smiled and picked out a little sundress.  "Is she walking yet?"

            "Yeah."  Lance nodded.  "Maybe.  I think so."

            "Well then you'll need some shoes too."  She dropped the brightly colored floral sundress into his cart and steered him toward the toddler shoes.

            "I really don't think - "

            "All girls love to accessorize."  Ellen giggled like a young girl and patted her silver curls into place.  "We've got a sale on the toddler shoes right now, buy one get one half off.  And they're already only eight dollars so you might as well."

            "I - "  Lance opened and closed his mouth a few time, eliciting no sound.  "Okay."  He shrugged and let Ellen pick out a little pair of bright yellow sandals and a pair or little white sneakers with purple embroidered flowers across the toes.

            "There you go, see?  Two perfect little outfits for your little girl."

            "Oh no, she's not mine.  It's for a friend."  Lance said quickly.

            "That's fine dear.  Now is there anything else I can help you find?"  She smiled up at him and rested her small hands on her narrow hips.

            "Nope, I think this is good."  He looked at his half full cart.  "Oh, wrapping paper.  And boxes."

            "Those will be up by the register.  You just go right up there and it'll be on the left, see right there by the wall of cards?  There's gift bags there too, if you want to see some of those."

            "Okay, thanks."  Lance smiled.  "Thanks a lot."  He made his way to the gift wrap section and chose party balloon paper and a big gift bag to put them all in.  After a quick inventory of his home he also picked up a thing of tape and a pair of scissors, just in case.

            Lance paid for his purchases then drove home and sat in the middle of his living room floor to wrap the little gifts.  They had a meeting the next morning at the compound so he'd get the guys to sign the fan club pictures to include in her gift.  Lance wrapped the two outfits in one box with the shoes on top, then he wrapped the bright toy keyboard.  Both boxes fit in the large gift bag with plenty of room to spare.

            "Ah ha."  Lance smiled and jumped up off the floor.  He went down the hall to his little office and dug around in his closet. Under stacks of wrapped CD's he finally found what he was looking for.  A brand new, unopened copy of their Christmas CD.  When he told Paige about that earlier she seemed amused, so that would be for her, not Hope.  "Perfect."  He whispered as he tossed it in the air and caught it expertly, then went back out to the living room to pick up his mess and decide what was for dinner.

 

            Early the next morning Lance met up with the others at the WEG compound for their meeting with Johnny.  They got a copy of their studio dates and times for them to start recording their new album.  There would be meetings with the band and music director to work out their recording sessions as well, but until then their main focus was going to be narrowing down their list of more than twenty songs, to a workable number.

            After five hours in Johnny's office the guys had managed to bring their tracks down to eighteen, leaving them room to cut or move songs once they were recorded.  Johnny released them just after three and reminded them of their meeting the next day to discuss cover art.

            "We need to be wizards or something.  You know, so we can just wave our wands and have this all be done."  Justin pulled on the end of the seatbelt thing he was using for a belt.

            "We wouldn't appreciate it if we didn't have to work for it."  Lance shook his finger at them as he did an imitation of Johnny.

            "I would.  I promise I would."  Chris complained.  "You know what they say, all work and no play - "

            "Makes jack a dull boy."  JC completed for him with his best Jack Nicholson impersonation.

            "Yeah, like we don't play enough."  Lance rolled his eyes.

            "Sheesh, when did Lance turn 'dad' on us?"  Justin asked Joey.

            "I dunno, nice thing."  Joey nodded at Justin's belt.  "You gank that from the Mercedes dealer?"

            "Not quite."  Justin laughed and raised his shirt to look at the unique belt.

            "Oh hey, while we're all here.  Can you guys sign these for me?"  Lance reached into his bag and pulled out the 8x10 press kit photos.

            "Oh how sweet, did you enjoy the show?  Who's your favorite?"  Chris laughed as he took the stack and passed them out.

            "They're for my friends daughter."  Lance explained as the others laughed.

            "Right on, what's her name?"  JC leaned over to Johnny's desk and grabbed one of the many sharpie markers then held the pen over his picture.

            "Hope."

            "And how old is Hope?"

            "She's one."  Lance laughed.  "It's for her birthday."

            "She's one?  As in… one year old?"  Chris asked.

            "Yeah."  Lance nodded with a smile.

            "So… who's her favorite?"  Justin asked with a raised eyebrow.

            "Me, of course."  Lance laughed and sat back as the others scribbled on the pictures.

            "That's only because we haven't got the chance to meet her yet."  Justin smirked.  "Then she'll be all about the buzz."  He ran his hand over his shaved head.

            "Speaking of which…"  JC looked up at Lance.  "Do we get to meet her?"

            "I don't know."  Lance shook his head.  "I haven't really asked, but I uh… I'll see what I can do.  I'd love to have her come out to a show next time around."

            "Yeah, and have her bring her mom."  Joey snickered.

            "Bring her out for your birthday thing."  Justin shrugged and handed his picture back to Lance.  He collected the other's pictures and slid them back into the envelope that he brought them in.

            "Yeah… yeah I could do that."  Lance nodded and dropped his eyes.

            "Unless you're embarrassed of us."

            "Yeah right, like that's ever stopped me."  Lance looked up and laughed.  "No I just… well I don't know if she'd want to do that.  I'll see about that though."  He nodded and tucked the envelope into his bag.  "Are we done here?"

            "Yeah.  I am anyway… I'm buggin' out and goin' home."  Justin placed his aviator glasses on his face and smiled like Tom Cruise.  "See ya next week."

            "Bye."  The guys chorused in response.

            "I'm outta here too."  Lance stood up and Joey followed him to the door.  He stopped just inside the door and stretched to crack his back,  "Thanks for singing those for me."

            "No problem."  JC laughed.  "I just hope there's no like… hidden contract in there saying you get all the money from our next tour or something."

            "Damn, you figured me out."  Lance laughed as Joey shoved him out the door and towards the exit.

            "So are you gonna send that to her?"  Joey nodded at Lance's bag.

            "No, I'm flying out for her party this weekend."  He smiled.  "Sunday."

            "We're in LA."

            "No.  You guys are in LA, I'm in Arizona."  Lance laughed.  "I was supposed to do the Country Music Awards, so it's not like I'm missing anything in LA anyway.  I thought we weren't meeting there till Tuesday?"

            "We're all flying in Sunday afternoon."  Joey shook his head.  "But we asked for that.  We wanted to get there early so we could have a full day to goof off."

            "Cool, well I'll be there late Sunday so I'll track you guys down then.  We're not working till Tuesday though, right?"

            "Yep.  Yay."  Joey rolled his eyes and disarmed his car nearby.  "Have a fun trip."

            "I will."

            "And invite her mom."

            Lance laughed,  "I'll think about it."  He waved and unlocked his car door as Joey got in and backed out of the lot.

 

            For the next five days Lance thought about what the guys had suggested, and figured it was worth a shot.  If things went well for this visit, maybe he could talk her into coming out for his birthday.  He spent the flight to Arizona thinking about things they could do if she came out, not bothering to wonder if she'd ever actually come.  He could hope, so that's what he did for the four hour flight.

 

            Lance arrived in Arizona alone.  He would be there less than a day and would be at Paige's home for most of the time he was there, so security had let him have the time free.  Checking in was still required so as soon as the plane landed Lance headed toward the exit and called Lonnie to touch base.  "Yeah, I'm here.  I'm gonna go get my luggage and my car and head over."  He juggled the large gift bag of gifts for Hope and his cell phone.

            "You'll be in LA tomorrow?"

            "Today, my flight leaves here at…"  He fumbled around for his ticket, then realized it was zipped into his backpack behind him.  "I don't know, I'm getting in tonight though.  Johnny has all that info."

            "All righty, I'll check with him and have one of the guys there to drive you."

            "Great, thanks."  Lance laughed.   He glanced over his shoulder and saw his flight number flash over the moving luggage racks.  "I've gotta go, my luggage is coming in."

            "See ya."

            "Bye."  Lance flipped his phone off and walked to the luggage claim area then waited patiently for his single bag to takes its turn around the carousel.  He grabbed his bag then sauntered over to the rental car counter by the exit with the brightly colored bag banging into his knees with every step.  The young man behind the counter tapped around on his computer before printing up a receipt for Lance and instructing him to wait outside at the orange Budget sign and someone would bring his car around.

            Within a few minutes a Jeep was parked in front of him.  An older man jumped out of the driver's seat, looked at Lance's receipt and smiled,  "Here ya go.  Do you need some help getting your luggage into the car?"  He looked down at Lance's full hands.

            "A Jeep?"

            The guy looked over his shoulder at the black Jeep.  "Yep."

            Lance paused and licked his lips,  "Okay."  He took a step forward and took the keys.  "I can get the luggage, thanks."  The man didn't wait for Lance to change his mind; he turned and trotted into the terminal to the Budget counter.  "Great."  Lance sighed and unlocked the passenger side door.  He set his backpack and the gifts on the front seat, then wedged the suitcase into the back.  When he climbed into the front seat he realized that he couldn't see around the gifts, so he set them in the back on top of his suitcase, and finally pulled away from the curb with a sigh.

            As soon as he hit the freeway he dug around in his backpack for the directions, and followed them to Paige's front door.  He turned the car off with a heavy sigh, then looked at himself in the visor mirror.  After licking his lips and running his fingers through his hair, he figured he looked presentable, so he jumped out and pulled his suitcase from the backseat.  The last thing he needed was someone taking the clothes that had to get him through the next week in LA.

            Lance headed for the front door and didn't feel nearly as nervous as he did the last time he was there.  His watched beeped softly, indicating the hour.  Unconsciously he looked at his wrist, it was ten in the morning and the sky was promising a gorgeous day.

            "Hi."  Paige smiled as she opened the door, bringing Lance's eyes down from the sky to her smile.  "I'm glad you could make it."  She blushed as Lance stepped into the house.  "Are you uh, planning on staying long?"  Paige glanced down at the suitcase in his hand.

            "Hi."  He smiled and dropped his backpack to give her a one-armed hug.  "No, I'm not staying.  I'm headed to LA after this though so I needed some clothes and stuff."  He laughed and heaved the suitcase into her entryway.  "Then I ended up getting a Jeep and I didn't want to leave this in the car all day, so can I stow it in here?"

            "Sure, go ahead and put it in Hope's room.  There may actually be room in there."

            "Okay, thanks."  He smiled and maneuvered the suitcase down the hall to the baby's room.  "Where is she?"

            "She's actually just waking up.  We had a rough night."  Paige frowned.

            "Is she okay?"

            "Yeah, she just… you really don't want the details.  Let's just say she ate a lot of grapes and oranges yesterday."  Paige made a face as she laughed lightly.

            "Ewww, okay, say no more."  Lance grimaced and gently pushed Hope's door open.  "Hey Hope!"  He kept his voice low in case she was still sleeping.

            Hope pulled herself up in her crib and smiled at him over the railing as she babbled in baby talk.  "Mamama!"  She reached her arms up as Lance slid his suitcase into the corner.

            "Hi sweetie, are you going to wake up now?  It's getting kinda late, huh?"  Paige lifted Hope out of her crib and bounced her on her hip.

            "Wow, look at how big she's gotten."  Lance's eyebrows shot up.  "It's amazing how fast they grow in just a couple months, huh?"

            "Yeah, no kidding."  Paige rolled her eyes and smiled as she flipped the overhead light on.  "She's put on about fifty pounds since the last time you were here."

            "Really?  Let's see."  Lance held his hands out for Hope and she happily dove into them.  "Oof!"  He laughed,  "Holy smokes you're getting big."  Hope's little body felt warm against his t-shirt as she wrapped her arms around his neck in a tight embrace.  The purple and white stripped sleeper had little feet on it and kept her nice and warm though it was cold outside.  "Happy birthday Hope!  It's your birthday today, how cool is that?  Are you going to have a huge party with all of your friends?"

            "Yep, we've got Kim and Madison coming over and my friend Dora is going to try to make it with her son Gage, but she's not sure what time they'll be done with her nephew's baptism."  Paige explained as they walked out to the living room.

            "That sounds like fun."  Lance nodded and smiled as Hope clung to his shirt.  "I have her presents out in the car, I should go get them before I forget, huh?"

            "Lance…"  Paige sighed,  "You didn't need to buy gifts."  She shook her head but followed him to the front door.

            "Are you kidding?  A first birthday is a very important event.  You only get one of them you know."  Lance adjusted Hope on his hip and took his keys out of his pocket.  "Come on kiddo, lets go see what I brought."

            Hope giggled and batted her long, dark eyelashes at him, flirting with him the way only babies can.  "Dow?"  She questioned as he pulled the Jeep door open.

            "Oh you bet, these are all for you."  Lance nodded, making up her side of the conversation.  He pulled the big gift bag decorated with streamers and balloons of every color imaginable off the seat then grabbed the smaller box and went back inside the house.

            "Oh my goodness, Hope look at that."  Paige grinned as Lance set the gifts by the couch in the corner.  "You really didn't have to."  She said as she looked up at Lance.

            "I know I didn't have to."  Lance sat on the couch and moved Hope to his knees to bounce her up and down.  "I wanted to.  Shopping for kids is fun."  He laughed with her for a minute then looked up at Paige,  "I don't suppose she can open one now, can she?"

            "Sure."  Paige nodded and watched how Lance kept his arm around Hope's waist to keep her steady.  "But only one, she's going to have a busy enough day today already without being bombarded with toys."

            "You're no fun."  Lance laughed and reached into the large bag on the floor beside him.  "Hang on…"  He stopped bouncing for a second to look in the bag.  "Okay here, this one."  He placed the gift on the couch beside him, then carefully set Hope on the floor by his feet.

            "Look Hope!"  Paige sat the present in front of the baby and smiled.  "Open it up!  Pull the paper like this."  She tugged on the corner and tore the paper across the bottom.

            "She's not down for the unwrapping part, huh?"  Lance chuckled as Paige tore another little piece while Hope stared on in awe.

            "Well this is her first time, give her some time."  Paige laughed and scooted the present closer to Hope.  "There you go sweetie, pull the paper off."  She flicked the loose edge of paper for Hope to grab.

            For a second Hope just stared at the paper.  She'd done Christmas but in baby time that was ages ago.  Tentatively she pinched the paper and lifted it up creating another long tear.  "Oh oh!"  She smiled up at her mom and Lance.

            "Keep going."  Lance leaned forward on his knees and handed her the paper again.

            Hope grabbed it and flung it behind her, exposing half of the box in front of her.  "That looks like it makes noise."  Paige said softly.

            "It does."  Lance whispered back.

            "You're a dead man."  Paige laughed softly and watched as Hope examined the scraps of paper on the floor in front of her, completely ignoring the gift in front of her.

            "No… come on, its cool."  Lance laughed and pulled the rest of the paper off to show Hope the picture of the toddler sized keyboard with multi-colored keys that lit up when pressed.  "Check it out."

            "There had better be a power switch on there."  Paige smiled then shook her head as she pulled the box onto her lap to open it.

            "I don't know about a power switch, but hey… it comes with batteries so you don't even need to put them in."  Lance smiled.

            "Gee, that's great.  Thanks a million, Lance."  Paige said sarcastically.  She laughed as she opened the box and slid the little keyboard out.  "Hope!  Look at this, wow… you're going to drive me crazy with this!"   Her voice reflected a false enthusiasm.

            "You'll thank me for this when she grows into a world famous pianist."  Lance smiled.  Paige's finger slid and hit one of the keys sending it into a melodic version of "Mary had a little lamb" and Hope was entranced.  The keys lit up and blinked to the tune as it played the whole way through.

            Hope giggled and banged on the keys to try to make it play again, and the toy didn't let her down.  It jangled the tune of "Yankee doodle" much to her delight.

            "See, this was the plan the whole time."  Lance caught Paige's eye over Hopes head.  "Give her a toy now to keep her entertained so we can visit."

            "Ahhh I see."  Paige blushed slightly and leaned back against the couch.  "You're pretty sneaky.  Bribing a poor innocent child like that."

            "I didn't bribe her, I just brought her some entertainment."  Lance laughed and slid back onto the couch beside Paige.  "She'll be busy for a while."

            "Yeah she will."  Paige looked down at Hope as the toy began to play the same tune again.  "So what have you been up to?  How has it been since your tour ended?"

            "It's been good."  Lance nodded as he licked his lips.  "We've been hanging out, doing a few little appearances here and there."

            "Yeah?"

            "Yeah, it's nice not having a show to do every other night."

            "I don't know how you did that, I'd be exhausted."  Paige shook her head.  Even the thought of a schedule like that made her want to take a nap.

            "I was."  Lance's brow wrinkled into a frown.  "It was harder than I expected… I mean, even with the altered dance routines and stuff I was sinking every night."

            "Lance… you need to be careful."  The maternal side of her appeared without warning.

            "No, I know.  I talked with my doctor about it and I toned down the dancing on my own.  I'd go just a little bit slower than the rest and not so jerky, you know?  Anyway, I'm going to have to do something different for our next tour."

            "Did it make you sick?"

            "No, not sick."  Lance shook his head.  "But I don't like feeling winded for a half hour after the show or hearing my pulse in my ears for an hour.  That's not good."

            "No, it's not."  Paige shook her head and took on a motherly tone.  "You need to take better care of yourself now.  You can't do all the things you used to do, you know."

            "I know, I know."

            "I'm serious."

            "Okay mom."  Lance laughed and sighed.  "I'm taking really good care of myself, I don't push myself too hard.  It's just, sometimes the show was more energetic.  But this next time will be better, we're toning the whole show down."

            "Good."  Paige nodded.  "So what else is new?"

            "Nothing."  Lance closed his eyes and leaned his head back.  "I'm glad for the break, you've got perfect timing."

            "Thanks."  Paige laughed.  "I didn't really have any control over the timing of this though, it was all up to her."  She reached down and ran her hand over Hope's satiny hair.

            "Well then Hope, you've got great timing."  He smiled down at the little girl.  She just giggled up at him and hit the keys on the mini-piano in front of her, making it jangle out a new tune.

            After a few minutes with the new toy, hope toddled over to her basket of toys and became interested in her stuffed bear that talked when you pressed his hands and feet.  With her new interest in the bear, Lance and Paige were able to visit for more than an hour while Hope entertained herself.

            "So do you need help setting up or anything?"  Lance asked as he looked around the little house.

            "No… there's really not that much to do.  The cake is in the fridge, and I've got a couple balloons and streamers."

            "Well do you want to do that now?"  He smiled.  "What time is everyone getting here?"

            "Um, they'll be here around one.  That way the kids will have had lunch already and we'll be done by the time most of them will go down for naps.  Hope will start to get cranky around two thirty or three so that'll work out perfect."

            "Okay."  Lance checked his watch.  It was barely eleven thirty so they still had a little while.

            "Oh, man you must be hungry."  Paige blushed and put her hand over her own stomach.  "Why don’t I make some lunch and we can decorate while Hope is eating?"

            "That's fine with me."  Lance nodded.  "Do you want me to go get something so you don't have to cook?"

            "No, you don't have to do that."  Paige shook her head.

            "Yeah but would that be easier for you?"

            "It'd be just as easy to make a pasta salad here and some garlic bread."

            "That actually sounds really good."  Lance smiled.

            "Great, then I'll make that."  She pulled her hair back into a quick ponytail and lifted Hope into her high chair by the table.  She opened and closed cabinets, getting the pasta and other ingredients from their places and setting them on the counter.  Paige paused for a moment to make Hope a peanut butter sandwich and set it on her tray,  "That should hold her over."

            "Can I help?"  Lance stood at the far end of the kitchen with his hands in his pockets.

            "Um, well this isn't anything too fancy really."  She looked at the minimal ingredients.  "I don't… is there anything you can't have?  I mean, for your… do you have to watch your diet?"

            "Oh…"  Lance blushed quickly.  "Not really, I just have to watch what I eat.  I mean… no, everything here will be fine."  He smiled.  "The doctors just said I may put on weight more easily because of the medication so I have to eat a low fat diet, but this stuff here is fine."  Lance rambled on, wishing he had a 'mute' button he could push.

            "Okay, good.  I wasn't sure, you know."

            "Thanks for asking though."  Lance smiled and picked up the can of olives.  Do you want me to cut these up or anything?"

            "Sure, that'd be great."  Paige gave him a relieved little smile and pointed to a drawer beside the sink.  "There's a can opener in there and the knives are in the block there by the stove."

            "Great."  Lance said softly.  He let her go about boiling the water for the pasta and mincing the garlic cloves while he drained and sliced the black olives and carried on their conversation.  "So what about the garlic bread?  Do you want me to get started on that?"  He popped a whole olive into his mouth and chewed slowly.

            "Actually, I'm cheating."  Paige set her knife down and opened the freezer to bring out a frozen loaf of garlic cheese bread.  "I'm heating the oven, so it'll only take fifteen minutes."

            Lance laughed softly as Hope began to fuss in her chair.  "That's perfect, I'll have to remember that.  I love garlic bread."

            "Eeeeeh!"  Hope screeched from her chair.

            "I think she's done with the sandwich."  Lance looked over and spotted half of her sandwich on the floor.

            "Yeah, she just wants more grapes.  I'm not sure if that's a good idea though."

            "I think a few in moderation might be okay."  Lance smiled.  "May I?"

            "Sure."  Paige pulled the fridge open then resumed her work cutting up the broccoli.  Lance pulled out the small bowl of grapes and set a few on Hope's tray.  She dove on them like candy and popped one in her mouth.  Juice dribbled down her chin as she tried to chew and laugh at the same time.

            Lance laughed at her and watched her carefully, afraid that she could choke at any minute.  Paige finished up cutting the vegetables then drained the pasta in a large colander and poured it into a big bowl with Italian dressing, and set it in the fridge to cool.  "Do you like everything?"  Paige asked as she slid the garlic bread into the oven to heat.

            "Yep."  Lance looked at the broccoli, garlic, olives and carrots.  "I'm easy."

            "Okay."  Paige laughed lightly and looked at Hope.  "She's a mess."

            "You'll have to change her before her guests arrive."

            "Yeah, big shocker.  I'm constantly changing her clothes."  Paige dried her hands on a dishtowel and sighed.  "Well we've got about fifteen minutes, do you want to decorate real quick?"

            "Sure."  Lance set another couple grapes on Hope's tray then put the bowl back in the fridge.  Paige opened the bag of party supplies and handed Lance one of the packages of streamers.  "Have fun."  She smiled.

            "You just want these all over?"

            "Wherever you want."  Paige nodded.

            "Do you have something to stand on?"

            Paige patted the back of the chair in front of him,  "You can just use these.  Oh, and here."  She handed him the tape as well.

            "Cool."  Lance opened the package of pink streamers and pulled the chair over to the corner.  He taped the streamers to each corner of the living room and had them all meet in the middle while Paige blew up a half dozen yellow balloons.  They worked together to hang some balloons from the streamers in the middle, then added a few more to the ceiling by the door.  When the buzzer on the over went off a short while later the house had been transformed into a party place, and Paige loved it.

            "Thank you, it looks perfect."  She smiled as she reached for an oven mitt.  She took the bread out and inhaled deeply.  "Man, there's nothing I like more than garlic bread."

            "Me too."  Lance's stomach growled.  "Do you want me to get the pasta out?"

            "Sure, just stir it up and add the rest of the stuff."  She nodded and set the loaf on the cutting board then cut it into thick slices.  The butter and garlic melted out of the middle, filling the house with a thick garlic scent.

            Lance did as he was told, then looked around the cupboards for bowls for them to use.  He found them, then set everything on the table.  "Does Hope get some?"

            "Yeah, just the pasta though."  Paige set the bread in the center of the table.

            "Okay."  Lance set some pasta on the tray in front of Hope and she just stared at it for a minute.

            "She'll be wolfing it down as soon as she sees us eating it."  Paige laughed.  They sat on either end of the table and dished up the pasta salad and garlic bread.

            "This is really good."  Lance said, surprised.  "I can't believe you threw all of this together so fast, I'm going to have to remember this recipe."

            "It's real easy, pasta, Italian dressing and whatever you want to put into it."

            "It's really good."  Lance said again as he continued to eat.  Hope joined in a minute later and they all ate in silence.  As Paige stood to clear the table, the doorbell rang.  "Here, I'll do that."  Lance said softly, taking the dishes from her.

            "Thanks."  She smiled, then bounced toward the door.  He heard her open it, then greet the person enthusiastically,  "Hey!  You're early!"

            "Yeah, I was going to see if you needed some help setting up but I see you've got it all done here."  Jim smiled.

            "Yeah uh…"  Paige looked into the kitchen to where Lance was standing with his back to them.  "My friend Lance came out for the party so he uh… we decorated."

            "Oh."  Jim smiled and looked past Paige.  "Well that's nice, it looks great."

            "Come on in Jim, have you had lunch?"

            "Yeah, I had some left over stew from Carrow's."

            "Well we have some pasta salad left, and some garlic bread if you'd like some?"  Paige offered as they walked to the dining room.

            "Oh no sweetie, I'm fine.  It's smells great though."  Jim smiled and licked his lips.

            "Lance?"  Paige asked softly.  Lance turned the water off and turned around as he dried his hands.  "Lance I'd like you to meet Jim.  Jim is uh, he's my father-in-law."

            "Hi, it's nice to meet you."  Lance extended his hand with a warm smile and immediately felt comfortable with this stranger.

            "It's a pleasure to meet you."  Jim nodded and tilted his head to the side.  "You look familiar."  He creased his forehead and looked closely at Lance.

            "Yeah, I told you he was in that group."  Paige said softly.

            "Hmm, maybe that's it then.  If you've been on TV I've probably seen ya."  Jim laughed.  "Never thought we'd have a real celebrity here for Hope's birthday."   Hope babbled her response as she kicked her feet and extended her arms up to Jim.

            "Here, let me get her cleaned up."  Paige sprung into action, the uncomfortable introduction she'd been anticipating over.  She swiped a damp cloth over Hope's face as the little girl made a face and tried to move away.  "Okay, okay kiddo, here you go."  She released Hope from the high chair and she immediately dove into Jim's arms.

            "Hey there pumpkin nose!"  Jim laughed and squeezed Hope tight.  "How's my big girl?"

            "Jim?  Would you mind changing her clothes real fast?  She's a mess and people will be getting here soon."  She checked her watch and cringed.  It was only five minutes till one and she still had to clean up the lunch mess and set the table for the party.

            "Sure, no problem.  Do you have something set out?"

            "Yeah, it's on my bed.  There are diapers in there too on the nightstand."

            "Okey dokey pokey."  Jim bounced Hope as they headed for the hallway.

            "Whew, I've gotta hurry."  Paige said as she slid past Lance and started cleaning up the kitchen.  "Can you please get the cake out and set it on the table?"

            "Sure."  Lance did as he was told, then wiped the table down while Paige did the kitchen duty.  While she was distracted, he snuck out to the other room and got one of the gifts out of Hope's birthday bag.  He carried it at his side as he returned to the kitchen and leaned against the counter to watch Paige clean the counter tops then wash her hands.

            "Hey…"  Lance said as she sighed and turned around.

            "Just a second."  Paige held up her finger and bolted down the hall.  "Hi sweetie!  Wow look at you all pretty in your birthday dress!"  He heard her make kissy sounds, then saw Hope and Jim settle down in the living room.  Hope was decked out in little leggings and a short dress over them, looking like the picture perfect child she was.

            Lance watched her and her grandfather interact for a few minutes until Paige came out of her room with her hair brushed and a clean blouse on.  "Much better."  She let out a deep breath and tried to relax.  "I stalled too long, now I feel rushed."  She explained with a smile.

            "You're doing fine, no one's here yet."  Lance smiled and held out the box to her.  "Here, I uh, I forgot about this one.  I think maybe you should open it."

            "Me?"  She looked from the box up to Lance's smiling eyes.

            "Yeah, I mean… it's not really for little kids."

            "She's one."

            "I know."

            "You got a one year old something that's not really for little kids?"  Paige smiled.

            "Just open it."  Lance placed the shirt sized box in her hands.  "You'll see what I mean."

            "In here?"  She asked as she looked out to where Hope was playing.  Lance nodded so Paige carefully tore the paper off and pulled the blank box out.  "What is it?"

            "You're no fun, just open it." Lance laughed and leaned on the counter.

            "Okay, okay."  Paige laughed and took the top off.  Inside was an Nsync Fanclub newsletter welcoming Hope to the club as a lifetime member, a signed 8x10 photo of each guy, a small Nsync shirt that wouldn't fit Hope for another couple years and a little pin.  "Oh you're kidding."  Paige giggled like a teenager as she really realized that Lance was that kind of famous.

            "Do you think she'll like it?"  Lance laughed.

            "She'll love it."  Paige laughed and held the shirt up.  "She'll swim in this, but she'll love it.  Thank you!"  She threw her arms around Lance's neck in a warm and friendly hug.  "A lifetime member huh?"

            "Well hey, if she's this devoted at one year old we've gotta give her something.  I had all the guys sign the pictures for her too."

            "Cool, they may be worth something one day huh?"

            "They'd catch about $30 each on e-bay right now I think."

            "You're such a computer geek."  Paige smiled.  "Thank you so much for this, she really will appreciate this when she gets older.  And I'll be sure to put the pin on her diaper bag to show off her membership."

            "Cool."  Lance blushed.  "I got you the Christmas CD too.  I know it's April and everything, but I happened to have one laying around."  He looked around innocently.  "It's in there too."  Lance indicated the box with the fan club stuff in it.

            "Yay!  It's like it's my birthday too.  If I had known I'd get gifts too I'd have a party for Hope every month."  Paige laughed.

            "Speaking of parties…"  Lance licked his lips.  "What are your plans for the weekend of May 4th and 5th?"

            "I… I don't know.  I don't know what I'm doing next week, nevermind next month."  She smiled.  "Why?  What's up?"

            "That's my birthday and I'm having a party that weekend."

            "All weekend?"

            "Saturday."  Lance nodded.

            "Cool."

            "I'd love it if you guys could come."  He bit his lip nervously.

            "To… to Florida?"

            "Yeah."

            Paige's brow creased as she mentally pictured her bank account.  "I don't know if I can.  I mean, we just took that vacation to LA and everything.  I wasn't planning on going anywhere really."

            "Oh."

            "I mean, if there was a way for me to afford it I would be there, we'd both be there.  But I just can't do that right now."

            "Oh, is that all?"  Lance sounded relieved.  "I can do that, no I was going to fly you guys out.  I just wanted to see if you could come… if you would like to."

            "Lance you don't have to fly us out, that's - "

            "It's my birthday I can do what I want."  He smiled and resisted the temptation to grab her hand.  "I'd really like it if you guys could come out for the weekend.  We can do the birthday thing on Saturday then if you can stay we can do Disneyworld or something on Sunday, I can show you Florida."

            "Thank you Lance, but I just… I wouldn't feel right taking money from you."

            "I won't give you a penny."  He shook his head.  "I'll just have tickets sent to you."

            "Lance…"

            "That would be the best birthday present ever."  He tried to coerce her.

            "I'll think about it."  She conceded.

            "Hope would have a great time."  He tried going that route.

            "I'll think about it."  Paige laughed and placed the lid back on the box in her hands.  "Oops!  Someone's here."  She said as the doorbell rang through the hall.  She set the box on top of the refrigerator and smiled at Lance before stepping into the small family room.

            He stayed behind for a minute,  watching her greet the couple that walked in with a little boy of their own.  "Hi guys!  I'm glad you could make it."  Paige smiled and hugged both of them then ran her hand over the little boy's hair.  "Hi Gage."

            "We came straight from the church, so I'm sure he needs some running around to burn off some of his energy."  The woman said as she set the little boy on the floor and watched him take off toward the basket of toys next to where Hope was sitting.

            "Great, maybe he can tire Hope out while he's at it."  Paige smiled then looked back into the kitchen where Lance was standing against the counter.  She waved him out then introduced him to the new arrivals.  "Dora and Jason, this is my friend Lance."

            "Hi, it's nice to meet you."  Lance shook their hands and smiled courteously.

            "Hi Lance."  Dora smiled and looked from Lance to Paige with a questioning glance.

            "He and I met at one of the conferences I went to."  Paige said softly.  "He's from Florida."  She explained as Dora's eyes danced.

            "Oh really?  What part?  I have family in Jacksonville."

            "Orlando."  Lance nodded.  "I've lived there for a few years now, but I'm originally from Mississippi."

            "Ah, I should have known from your accent."  Dora laughed.  "Just kidding."  She glanced to her right and gasped,  "Gage no!  Don't pull on that!"  She took two steps toward her son before turning around to excuse herself.

            "What does he have?"  Paige followed her over to the corner and busied herself with detangling Gage and Hope from the jump rope they had managed to find.

            "Hey Jason, how's life treatin' ya?"  Jim asked as he walked up and handed Jason a bottle of beer.

            "Pretty good, how about you?"

            "I can't complain."  Jim smiled and offered the other bottle in his hand to Lance.

            "Oh, no thank you."  Lance held up his hand and shook his head.  "I can't."  He tapped his chest and cleared his throat.

            "Ahh, that's right."  Jim nodded.  "That's okay, this isn't good for you anyway."  He smiled and tilted the bottle back slowly.  Lance laughed and tried to make himself relax.  He met new people every day, this shouldn't be a problem for him, but for some reason he felt completely out of place there.

            "So did you catch the game on Friday?"  Jason asked, launching into a sports discussion.  Lance closed his mouth and leaned back against the wall and just smiled and nodded a lot.  Another couple arrived with a little girl who looked to be older than Hope and Gage, and a single woman arrived with a small stack of delicately wrapped gifts.  Paige introduced Lance to everyone and tried to include him in their conversations.

            The grown ups sat around in the family room while the three children played with the small collection of toys Hope had in her basket.  There wasn't much to do and with such a small gathering of friends there wasn't much to talk about.  Donna, Paige's friend from the donor foundation, had a lot to talk to Lance about.  They chatted for a few minutes and she shared with him some success stories she'd seen about people getting reunited with the recipients.  As a family member herself, she had met one of the recipients of her sister's organs and they'd made a lifelong friendship.  Hearing that really opened Lance's eyes, he'd never really thought about meeting the donors family before, but it was now something he'd have to think about.

            When it came time to open the presents, Paige positioned herself on the floor with Hope in her lap and the presents to her side.  Lance sat in the far corner of the couch with his big red cup of soda in his hand and watched in silence as Hope and Paige tore open almost all of the gifts.  Hope seemed more interested in the bows and boxes, but as soon as Jim reached over and pulled a few of the toys out of their boxes she forgot all about the other toys that she still had to open.  "Well I guess that's it for the presents."  Paige laughed and pushed herself off the floor as Hope, Gage and Madison went to work on the new collection of gadgets.  "We'll let them play for a little bit while I get the cake ready."  She brushed her hands on her jeans and stepped over the empty boxes to get to the kitchen.

            "Do you need any help?"  Lance asked as he stood up halfway.

            "No, I've got it."  Paige smiled and shook her head as he sat back down.  He leaned forward on his elbows to press one of the buttons on Hope's new little keyboard and spent a few minutes entertaining the kids in the corner.

            Paige slid the cake to the center of the table, then stuck a thick candle in the shape of a "1" into the center of the rainbow cake.  She smiled quickly as she turned to go back into the kitchen for the little plates, napkins and utensils.  Once they were arranged around the cake, she scooted Hope's high chair up to the table and sighed.  With a quick glance toward the hall, Paige stepped back through the party and disappeared for a second.  When she returned she had a small frames picture in her hand that she set beside the cake.  Lance didn't need to see it to know that it was a picture of Travis.  He watched Paige carefully as she scooped Hope up off of the floor and forced a smile as she told everyone it was time to sing "Happy Birthday".

            Lance joined everyone around the small table as Paige strapped Hope into her seat and lit the candle in front of her.  They all sang slightly off key and clapped when Hope took three tries to blow the single candle out.  "Yay!"  Paige cheered as she kissed Hope's forehead, then looked at the picture in the frame.  "Okay, everyone can go sit down and play again, this dining room is too small."  She laughed and moved the cake away from Hope before she lifted her out of her seat, much to Hope's dismay.  "You'll have some in a minute when I get it all cut."  Paige smiled and handed Hope to Lance.  "Can you entertain her for a few minutes?"

            "Of course."  Lance laughed and bounced Hope gently in front of him.  "We'll go check out some of her new toys."  They walked back to the family room and sat down in the middle of the floor.  Soon the other two children were crowded around taking turns playing with all of the new toys on the floor.

            The other parents and guests grabbed seats either on the floor on couch to talk or play with Lance and the kids as well.  Jim sat in the corner of the couch watching Paige as she cut the cake at the dining room table.  Her hair fell across her cheek and he saw the worry line between her brows was fading. Where it used to stand out clearly, now he could just barely make it out.  If he looked closely he could also see that while her mouth was darting into a smile every so often, tears hovered at the corners of her eyes.

            He pushed himself up from his seat and walked over to the kitchen to nudge Paige's shoulder,  "Hey kid, you doing okay?"

            "Yeah."  She gave him the smile she'd been displaying for everyone.

            "Yeah?"

            "Yeah Jim, I'm okay."  She nodded, then quickly looked back down at the cake.  "It's a happy day."  She whispered as her hair fell like a curtain to hide her eyes from Jim.

            "Oh sweetie, it's okay." He draped his arm over her shoulders as she began to cry.  Paige removed the knife from the cake and set it on the counter, icing and all.

            "My baby is one year old."  Paige sniffed against his chest.

            Jim laughed, that wasn't what he was expecting to hear so he was both surprised and happy to know that she wasn't sad about Travis not being there.  Or at least she wasn't admitting to that.  "You think this is hard, wait till she starts kindergarten."  Jim smiled and patted her back.

            "I'm never letting her go to school, I'll teach her myself."  Paige cried as she started to laugh through her tears.  "I just can't believe she's one already.  She's not a baby anymore Jim, look at her."  She waved her arm towards where Hope was pulling Lance around by his index finger in the living room.

            Jim took in the sight and nodded slowly.  "She's getting to be a big girl now.  Pretty soon she's gonna be into all kinds of stuff and you'll wonder how she came to be five, and ten, and thirteen, and a high school graduate… it'll all fly so fast you won't know where the time went."  Jim smiled.

            Lance looked up from the toys Hope was showing him and spotted Paige in the kitchen with Jim's arms wrapped around her.  He frowned for a moment, then picked Hope up and bounced her on his hip as he gave Jim a questioning look.  Jim just shook his head and smiled at Lance, letting him know that she would be fine.  Lance smiled back and nodded in acknowledgement, wishing for a moment that he could be the one holding Paige.

 

 

 

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Copyright 2002, Amy Lynn