"Hey, thank you so much for coming out for this Lance, I really appreciate it."  Paige wadded up a section of bright wrapping paper as she stepped over one of Hope's new toys.  The party had ended a short while ago and all of the guests had left.  Hope was sound asleep in her crib with a handful of new stuffed animals surrounding her.

            "I had a great time."  Lance smiled and reached for her arm to help her balance on one foot.  "Thank you for inviting me."

            "How could I not?  You've somehow turned into her most favorite person in the whole world."  Paige laughed and set both feet on the floor.  "That's something special, she's incredibly picky when it comes to new people."

            "Well she's one of my most favorite people too."  Lance laughed.  "I really had fun today… its not often I can just hang out with friends and do normal things like that."

            "Anytime you want to come be normal, you can."  Paige laughed and blushed quickly.  "I uh…" She licked her lips and squeezed the wrapping paper ball in her hands.  "How long are you here for?"

            Lance checked his watch and frowned,  "My flight leaves at five thirty."  It was just after three so that only gave him another hour or so to visit.

            "Oh, okay."  Paige nodded and dropped her eyes.

            "Why?  What's up?"

            "Nothing really, I was just… I was just wondering."  She smiled up at him as she blushed even deeper.  "Dangit Paige, get your act together."  She mentally scolded herself.  It had been too long since she'd actually flirted with anyone she had no idea how to do it and be successful.  Of course, with Lance being one of the biggest pop stars in the world, that didn't make it much easier.

            "You're going to California, right?"

            "Yeah.  LA… or well, Malibu, but same thing."

            "Sounds like fun, I love LA."

            "Me too."  Lance nodded and noticed her uneasiness.  "Do you need some help cleaning up or anything?"  He looked around at the birthday mess and smiled, it was moments like this that he missed the most.

            "I think I've got it."  Paige smiled and turned to go back to the dining room with the trash in one hand.  She raised her foot to step back over the Lego table that Jim gave Hope and tried to balance herself with the narrow end table.

            "Be careful!"  Lance laughed as she leaned all of her weight on the table, then without warning the leg closest to her foot gave in and the whole table came crashing down.  Paige screeched as Lance tightened his grip and pulled her upright before she could fall on the pile of broken table pieces and magazines.

            She placed her hand against his chest as she regained her balance with his arm around her waist to support her,  "Wow, I almost went down."  She laughed and looked up into his eyes, "Thank you."

            "No problem."  Lance smiled as his eye twitched just the slightest.  This was the closest they'd been and the sparks were about ready to fly.  If had wanted to stop it he was sure he could have, but instead he let himself close the gap between their lips and kissed her.

            His eyes closed out of habit, but he didn't need to see anything to know exactly what was going on.  Fireworks were shooting off in his mind just like in the old cartoons when two people finally kissed, but they were soon extinguished when the kiss ended abruptly.

            "I'm sorry."  Paige said quickly as she brought her fingers up to brush her lips.

            "For what?"  Lance laughed softly.

            "I shouldn't have done that."  She stepped back and bent to pick up another ball of wrapping paper.

            "You didn't… I did."  He smiled.

            "We're friends."  She blushed and nervously ran her hand through her hair.

            "And…?"

            "And friends don't do that, Lance."  Paige shook her head and turned away from him.

            "Wait, hang on."  Lance's brow crinkled into an expression of worry.  "Wait, are you upset?"

            "No, no I'm not upset."  She turned back with a forced smile.  "I just… we're friends and I don't have many friends so I don't want to ruin that and I shouldn't have… I shouldn't have done that."  She backpedaled as fast as she could.  What she thought she wanted was immediately replaced with what she knew she could handle.

            "Paige, I kissed you - "

            "I shouldn't have let you."

            "Why not?"  He couldn't stop the small laugh from escaping.

            "Because that's not fair."

            "You've lost me."

            "It's not fair for you to kiss me and think there may be something more there because there's not."  She took a deep breath and let it out as her eyes closed.  For days she was thinking she could do it, but now that she was faced with Lance and the kiss, she knew she wasn't ready.  "I'm sorry if I was misleading you or anything, I wasn't trying too.  You were just one of the first people I could actually talk to and not have to worry about if they knew about Travis or if they were just pitying me."  She looked up at him then quickly looked away to hide the tears in her eyes.  "I really like you Lance, you're a good friend and I don't want any of that to change.  I'm not ready for anything else."

            "I'm not asking you for anything else."  Lance said softly as he reached out and tilted her chin up with his fingertips.  "I just kissed you, it doesn't have to mean the world."  She wouldn't bring her eyes up to his but he continued anyway, "I… I like you a lot Paige, that's never been a secret.  You're one of my best friends and you're the only one who really understands that certain side of me that no one else can get.  I'm not going to do anything to change that… so if kissing you somehow changes that for you, then I won't."  He licked his lips and fought the urge to trail his fingers from her chin to her neck as his hormones raced for the first time in a long while.  "But for me… over here on this side - "  He looked down at his feet then back up at her.  "For me this doesn't change any of that.  It just makes what we have better."

            "No Lance."  Paige shook her head and took a step away so that Lance was no longer touching her.  "I haven't… Travis was my…" 

            "I know he was."  Lance bit his lip, thinking he knew what she was going to say.

            "You don't know."  Paige looked up at him finally, then wiped her eyes.  "Travis was my first everything.  I don't know anything about things like this and I've always thought that if something was good you shouldn't go messing with it."

            "Didn't you and Travis start out as friends?"

            "Please don't do that Lance.  Don't compare what he and I had to what we have."

            "I'm not trying to."

            "You are."

            "I'm just saying that being friends is a starting point."

            "And an ending point.  Lance, I can't be more than that right now.  Being more than friends opens everything up to all kinds of different bumps in the road and I can't deal with that right now."

            "We're friends Paige."

            "That's all."  She sniffed and wiped at her eyes.

            "You're a friend that I can't wait to see.  You're a friend that if I don't talk to you all day I feel like there's something missing and I can't sleep.  When I'm here with you all I want to do is hold your hand or hug you or just… just watch you.  That's the kind of friend you are to me."

            "That's how it is for me too."  Paige nodded.

            "But see that's how it is when I'm dating someone too.  The only thing different is the title we give it."

            "There's more than that."

            "Kissing, that's the only different thing."

            "You think that's the only thing?"   She asked as she blushed slightly.

            "Yes."  Lance said softly, knowing that she meant the sex thing was different too.

            "What about the emotional stuff?"

            "It's nothing more than what we have now."  Lance shook his head.  "I'm going to do whatever it is you want me to do, so there's no need to fight about it.  If you want to back up a step and go back to just phone calls then… then I can do that.  But I'm not doing anything until I know that you know that I… that you mean a lot to me Paige.  Whatever title you want to put on it won't change that.  I've waited almost 23 years to meet someone like you and I'm not going to let you get away that easily."

            "Lance, I - "  Paige started, but she was interrupted by Hope crying in her room down the hall.  "I have to get Hope."  She turned quickly and walked down the hall to the baby's room, leaving the conversation unfinished.

            Lance stood alone in the living room for a few seconds, then began to pick up the mess from the party.  He took down the streamers and balloons, and put all of the trash into the big black trash bags Paige had brought out.  When Paige came out a few minutes later with Hope in her arms she sighed,  "You didn't need to clean up."

            "It's okay.  It needed to be done."  He smiled and set the last bag of trash by the back door where he'd seen her place the other ones.

            "Yeah, but you're a guest."

            "I'm a friend."  He corrected her.  "I don't mind cleaning up, really.  I'm practically a neat freak."

            "Really?"  She blushed slightly.

            Lance shrugged and gave her a half smile.  "Kind of.  I'm not as bad as some people, but I like things to be clean.  And I don't mind cleaning, so… it all works out."

            "Well that's good then."  She nodded and pulled the fridge open to get Hope's little plastic cup of milk out.  "Here you go sweetie."  Hope took the cup then squirmed to get down.  As soon as her little bare feet hit the carpet she took off at a slow and deliberate waddle toward her new toys in the corner.

            "I… I have to get going."  Lance said as he bit his lip.  He wanted to finish what he'd started with Paige, but the moment was obviously lost and the conversation paused until they would have time to really talk again.  He hoped that was the case anyway, he didn't want to just leave it like it was.

            "How uh… how long will you be in LA?"

            "We've got almost two weeks in the studio."  He nodded and kept his eyes on his shoes.  "Then a few more little side things, but we pretty much have free time before we start anything major."

            "That's cool."  Paige put her hands in her pockets and nodded, keeping Hope in her peripheral vision as she played with her new keyboard.

            "Yeah."  Lance bit his lip and smiled.  "I hope you're not like… weirded out by this afternoon.  I mean, I was just acting on - "

            "No, it's okay."  She forced a smile.  "I was just being… you know."  She shrugged.

            "So we're okay?"

            "Yeah."

            "Okay."  Lance nodded.  "But I uh… I've really got to go now."

            "Okay, well thanks again for coming out.  It was really nice to see you again."

            "Yeah, you too."  He smiled.  "I hope you can come out in May.  I think you guys would have a really good time."

            "Yeah."  Paige nodded and examined the carpet to keep her eyes off of his.  "I'll have to see if we can work that."  She smiled quickly, then looked over at Hope.

            "Okay… well uh, just let me know."  Lance smiled and carefully touched her shoulder.  "Even if it's last minute or whatever."

            "I'll let you know."  Paige smiled.

            "Great."  Lance nodded and went down the hall to get the suitcase he'd stowed in Hope's room.  He wheeled it to the front door as Paige followed with her arms crossed over her chest.  She dropped them to her side for a second, then put her hands in her pockets.

            Lance put the suitcase on the front porch then stepped back inside to get a quick hug,  "I'll talk to you soon."

            "Yeah, give me a call when you get to LA."

            "I will."  Lance smiled, and gave a small sigh of relief.

            "Thanks again for coming."

            "Thank you for inviting me."  He carefully, and unobtrusively brushed his lips over her cheek then stepped back.  "Bye bye Hope, happy birthday."   He waved as the little girl looked up from her position on the floor.  He kept waving until she smiled and lifted her little chubby hand in a closed fisted wave.

            Paige laughed softly,  "Bye."

            "Bye."  Lance smiled, then pulled his suitcase behind him out to the curb where his Jeep was parked.  He loaded it in the back, then circled the car and climbed in.  Paige stood at the door, leaning on the doorjamb as Lance started the car and waved.  Hope toddled up and tugged on Paige's pants as Lance watched from the car.  He didn't want to stare, but he just couldn't take his eyes off of either of them.  After a minute he put the car into gear and drove off to the airport, he couldn't be late getting to LA or everyone there would go nuts.

 

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

 

            They spent two days at home in Florida after LA so that Lance could see his doctor for his regular check up, then they were loaded into one of their buses and driven up to Nashville to work in a studio there for a few days.  They completed a single track for their new album, then headed south to Georgia to check out yet another studio that was up for consideration.

            Lance rolled out of his bunk before eight in the morning and tried to keep the noise down as he went out to the front of the bus.  He stretched and waved 'hello' to the driver, then yawned and bent to touch his toes.  He hated getting up early when he didn't have to, but he had to take his medicine at the same time every day and eight o'clock was it.

            The ever-present pill sorter was tucked in his backpack on the couch, so he got it out and set it on the counter in the mini kitchen.  He got out his morning dosage and held it in his hand while he got out a plastic cup and the bottle of orange juice.  As he swallowed his pills he put his pill sorter back in his bag and pulled his cell phone out.  The only person he knew who would be up at this hour was Paige… and he was bored.

            He dialed her number then rested the phone between his shoulder and his ear as it rang.  "Hello?"  Paige asked in mid-giggle.

            "Hi Paige, its Lance."

            "Hi."  She laughed again for a different reason.  She felt like a teenager with a crush whenever he called and she was beginning to like that feeling again.  "Can you hang on for a second?"

            "Sure."  He smiled as he leaned against the short counter.  Hearing her laugh first thing in the morning was a great way to start the day he decided.

            "Okay, I'm back.  Sorry."

            "It's okay."  Lance laughed softly.

            "Hope was uh… well her new thing is being naked all the time so she's been trying to sneak out of her diapers.  She hasn't quite figured out the little velcro tab things so she just tries to shimmy them off and it just… well it looks funny."  Paige laughed and held the clean diaper in her hand.

            "Cute."

            "Yeah, real cute.  I've got a naked one year old running around.  A non-potty trained naked one year old, mind you."  She laughed and set the diaper on the table.  "So what's up with you?  You're up early."

            "Medicine time."  Lance mumbled.  "Eight o'clock, rain or shine."

            "Ahh, that's right.  What happens if you don't take them right at eight?  What if you want to sleep in?"

            "I don't know what would happen, but I'm not sure I want to find out either.  And if I want to sleep in I can, I just have to wake up at eight long enough to swallow some pills, then I can go right back to sleep."

            "Well that doesn't seem like much fun."

            "It's worth it."  Lance smiled.

            "Well… yeah."

            "So anyway…"  Lance sighed, leaving his grin in place.  "What are you guys up to today?"

            "Well Hope I think is going to hang out naked for a little while longer, then I might get her dressed and go shopping."  Paige smiled.

            "Oh yeah?  She just had a birthday and got tons of presents, what could you have to go shopping for?"  He took a brown bag of bagels out of the cabinet and opened it.  He sniffed to see what kind they were, then reached in and squeezed one to see if it was still fresh.

            "Well, there's someone's birthday coming up and I would hate to show up empty handed."  Paige smiled nervously.  She could hardly believe she was flirting with him, but since Hope's party she'd thought about him every day.

            "You're coming?"  Lance asked excitedly.  He closed the bagel bag in front of him and tucked it back in the cabinet, then balanced himself as carefully cut it in half.

            "Yeah."  Paige sighed,  "But I feel really weird about you flying us out.  I don't usually - "

            "It's okay."  Lance interrupted her as the bus lurched to the side.  The knife slipped from his hand and clanked around in the sink.

            "Keep it down out there."  Chris grumbled from the bunks.

            "Sorry."  Lance said over his shoulder.  He put the knife back in the drawer and tore the bagel the rest of the way through.  He grabbed a butter knife and the cream cheese and headed toward the front of the bus.  "I want you guys to come out, it's like a birthday present for myself."  He explained into his phone as he sat on the couch.

            "I know you keep saying that."  Paige smiled.  "But I just wanted to let you know."

            "Well I'll keep that in mind."  He laughed lightly and spread cream cheese on a bite of his bagel.  "I think you'll have fun though."

            "Yeah… I uh, I think so too."

            "So what day are you coming out?"

            "I don't know, what day did you want us out?"

            "Today."  Lance answered silently in his mind.  "Um, well the party is Saturday, so if you guys flew out Saturday morning that'd be cool.  Or Friday night, whichever you want."

            "Saturday morning would be better, I'll probably have to work Friday."

            "Okay."  Lance nodded and took a bite of his breakfast.  "Then if you want you can leave Sunday, since I don't know when the party will be over on Saturday."

            "Okay."

            "And if you want we can go to Disney or Epcot or something."

            "I… we don't have to."

            "Paige…"  Lance sighed and chewed quietly.  "I know we don't have to, but I wouldn't offer if I didn't want to take you."

            "I know, but…"  Paige blushed.  "I'm just not used to this."

            "Well if you'd prefer we can just hang out at my house on Sunday or you can leave early in the morning, whatever you want."

            "No, we can do whatever you want, it's your birthday."  Paige smiled and tucked her feet under her on the couch.  "I'll tell you what, you just make the reservations and send me the information and Hope and I will be there."

            "Okay, I can do that."

            "Cool."   She let out the nervous breath she'd been holding and smiled.  "So what are you up to this week?"

            "Um, well right now we're on the bus from Atlanta on our way to Miami because we have this charity basketball thing tonight.  We were checking out this awesome new soundboard at a studio up there and for some reason the powers that be thought it'd be better for us to ride in our bus down to Miami since we haven't spent enough time together lately."  Lance laughed sarcastically.  In fact they had spent the last two weeks in Los Angeles working on their new album, then flying to Georgia to check out this studio.  The only thing really keeping him going was the promise of two weeks in Hawaii coming up in June.

            "Cool."  Paige smiled.  "What kind of charity are you playing basketball for?"

            "Um, it's for Challenge for the Children.  We've got all kinds of celebrities coming out to help raise money.  We have the game and then all the money is presented to the organizations."

            "That sounds like fun, is that your organization?"

            "It's all of ours… Nsync's."  Lance nodded.  "We take the money that's raised and distribute it to several schools who have had to cut music from the currciculum, and then also to some pediatric healthcare groups like pediatric AIDS and teen pregnancy and stuff like that."

            "That's really awesome, that must make you feel good."

            "It does." Lance took another bite of his bagel as the bus rambled on.  "I'm real glad you're coming out for my birthday."

            "Me too."  Paige nodded.  There was no backing out now, she'd said 'yes' and she actually wanted to go.

            Lance heard two of the guys climb out of their bunks and bump into each other, still half asleep.  "Punk."  Chris grumbled.

            "Fat ass."  Justin growled back.  There was a thud as one of them hit the wall, then the slap of a hand against bare skin.

            "Stop."  Chris said before another slap was heard.

            "The kids are up."  Lance laughed into his phone.  "I should go break this up before they wake up and really hurt each other."

            "Okay."  Paige smiled and sighed.

            "I'll talk to you soon though."

            "Okay, bye."

            "Bye."  Lance laughed as he hung up his phone and tossed it on the couch.  "Justin!  Leave Chris alone."  He shouted toward the back of the bus.

            "Shut up."  Joey said from behind his curtain.

            "What?"  Chris asked.

            "I told Justin to leave you alone."  Lance repeated.

            "No, what'd Joey say?"

            "I said shut up.  Jesus."  He groaned and turned over in his bed.

            "Jeez."  Chris frowned and walked out into the little kitchen area with a red mark on his bare chest.  Justin followed a few steps behind with a matching scowl and sat at the little table.

            "Tell Johnny I don't care how much it costs, we're getting two buses next time."  Justin propped his feet on the bench across from him and yawned.

            "It's only for today.  We'll be in Miami in a few hours."  Lance stood up with his half-eaten bagel in his hand.  "Get something to eat and keep it down. If you wake JC up you're going to have to deal with him."  He walked past Chris and Justin and went back to his bunk.  Lance pulled out his walkman and a book and ate his bagel in private, leaving Chris and Justin to fend for themselves.

 

            The boys arrived in Miami ahead of schedule so they had a few spare minutes to relax in their hotel rooms before they were shuttled back downstairs for a press conference in the main ballroom.  All of the celebrity and pro basketball players would be there, and the conference alone would last at least four hours to announce who was going to be on which team.  When they were done speaking Lance and the others spread out to circulate through the other guests there to pose for pictures and just mingle before the game.

            Before long they were all shuttled out to their cars and buses to head to the American Airlines Arena where the fans were already waiting outside to watch the arrival of their favorite stars.  The guys rode together in one bus, and waved to the fans as they pulled into the gated off back area of the arena.  Everyone changed into their uniforms, then goofed around backstage and danced around to one of the bands that was playing before the game started.

            The game started on time and everyone had a blast while they played.  It was a no holds barred game.  De-pantsing other players was allowed, giving wedgies was expected, and childish remarks were encouraged.  When the game was finally over the guys gave their little 'thank you' speeches and told everyone about the different organizations that would be benefiting from the money raised that evening.

            By the time they finished having their fun with the fans and other guests, it was getting late and Lance was ready to go back to the hotel to sleep.  Justin and JC decided to go out with some of the ball players they'd played with and Chris met up with some of his friends to go out as well.  Joey wanted to go back to the hotel to sleep since he'd managed to come down with a bad cold and just wanted a shower.

            Lance followed Joey out to the bus and climbed up into the familiar mini-living room.  "I don't know about you man, but I played my ass off."  Joey grunted as he crawled into his bunk at hip level.

            "Yeah you did."  Lance yawned.

            "So how's it going?"  Joey asked as Lance collapsed onto the bunk across from his.  It was a short ride to their hotel, but they were beat.

            "Are we home yet?"  Lance dropped his arm over his eyes.  Their bus was about fifth in line to leave the arena so they wouldn't be back at the hotel for another half hour, at least.

            "Not quite."  Joey laughed and propped himself up on his elbow.  "Seriously though, you doing okay?"

            "Hmm?  Yeah, I'm fine.  You?"

            "I'm fine."

            "Okay."  Lace gave Joey a confused look, then closed his eyes again.

            "You just seem kind of tired."

            "We just spent like three hours on the basketball court."

            "I mean in general."

            "Joey, what are you talking about?"

            "I just… with your heart and everything.  You seem kinda tired and I was… I just wanted to make sure you were feeling okay."

            Lance smiled as it came clear, Joey was honestly concerned.  "No Joe, I'm fine.  I'm just the normal kind of tired right now, just like everyone else."

            "Okay."  Joey nodded quickly.

            "Okay."  Lance closed his eyes again and rolled onto his back.

            Joey was quiet for another couple minutes, then he cleared his throat.  "Hey Lance?"

            "Yeah?"

            "How does… I mean, what does it feel like?  Does it feel different?"

            "What?  My heart?"

            "Yeah.  Having someone else's I mean."

            "No, it feels the same.  Physically I mean.  It doesn't beat any different or anything weird like that.  It just takes a little longer to get warmed up when we start dancing or running… and when we stop."  Lance shrugged.  He was surprised that none of the guys had asked earlier.  Here it was, more than a year later, and Joey was the first to really bring it up.

            "What about mentally?"

            Lance sighed,  "Mentally it's kind of weird.  But I try not to think about it that much.  It's hard though because I have to take a million pills a day, which reminds me.  And I have to take breathers more than I used to, and that reminds me.  Then I have a scar and that reminds me.  But you just… it's like you have to separate yourself from that.  If I walked around all day everyday thinking 'I have someone else's heart in my chest' I'd go nuts.  That'd be like if you walked around all day going 'I have a pancreas'.  It's nothing you can change or really do anything about, so why think about it?"

            "Yeah."  Joey said, but he continued to frown.

            "What's up Joe?  You look like you've got more to say."

            "I don't know."  He half shrugged.  "It's nothing."

            Lance looked at him for a minute then shrugged, he wasn't going to force Joey to talk if he didn't want to.  "Okay."  He leaned on his elbows and pulled his walkman out from under his pillow.  "Hey, remember that girl I was telling you about?"

            "The one from the heart thing?"

            "From the donor conference.  Paige."  Lance nodded.

            "Yeah, what about her?"

            "I invited her to come out for my birthday thing."

            "Yeah?"  Joey's smile grew.

            "Yeah, she and her daughter are coming out for the weekend so I uh… well it'll be cool that you guys get to meet her.  Them."

            "That's the kid we signed the fanclub stuff for, right?"

            "Yeah, that's Hope.  She's only one though, so you guys will have to behave."

            "Us?  You don't have to worry about us Lance old boy… you need to worry about you Mr. I-get-no-action-Jackson."  Joey laughed good-naturedly as he kidded Lance.  He rolled back over and tried to get comfortable for what was left of their short drive back to the hotel.

 

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

 

            That weekend came sooner than Lance expected, and on the day of the party he was still running around trying to get everything ready for the guests.  He drove over to Joey's house on the way home from the caterer's where he gave them a few last minute details.

            "So what are you doing today, birthday boy?"  Justin asked as he messed Lance's hair.

            "Well actually in about…"  He checked his watch,  "An hour, I'm going to the airport to pick up Paige and Hope and take them to their hotel.  Then after that I'm going home to clean up a bit and let the caterers in.  Why?  What're you doing?"

            "Nothing."  Justin sighed.  "I just came by here to drop off Black Jack."  He laughed as he watched the miniature pinscher run across the back yard.

            "Why'd you have him?"

"They re-seeded my lawn or put fertilizer on it or something and I couldn't let him run on it and there's no way I'm keepin' him inside all night."  Joey explained.

            "So I took him home with me yesterday and let him shit all over my lawn."  Justin grumbled with a smile.  "I don't know how so much shit can come out of such a small dog, what do you feed him?"

            "Lots of cheese."  Joey laughed.

            "Gross."  Lance laughed and shook his head.  "Well it's cool you’re here, you can help us get these ice chests out to my truck."

            "Dammit, I knew I shoulda gone to the studio before I came here."  Justin complained.

            "They're empty."  Joey shook his head and picked two of them up.  "Don't be a wuss, just grab one."

            "Why are you hauling empty ice chests?"  Justin asked as he picked the last one up by both handles and carried it toward Lance's truck.

            "Because I'm going to fill them with ice and drinks and if I had Joey bring them when he came, no one would have drinks for the first hour."  Lance laughed and pulled the back of the truck open.  "Damn, I hope they fit."

            "They'll fit."  Joey grunted as he shoved all three into the back.  "See?  No problem.  I get them in my Navigator all the time."

            "Cool, thanks man."

            "No problem."  Joey shook his head.

            "So we get to meet this Paige person tonight huh?"  Justin asked with his hands on his hips.

            "Yep."  Lance squinted and held his hand up to block the sun.

            "And her kid?"

            "Hope."  Lance nodded and smiled.

            "You sure you want to get involved with a chick with a kid?"  Justin asked.

            "We're just friends."  Lance said, knowing his face would always give him away.

            "Uh huh, you're friends."  Justin rolled his eyes.  "Do you buy that?"  He asked Joey.

            "Hey, if they're just friends that means she's up for grabs."  Joey shrugged and laughed as he and Justin headed back to the house.  "I can't wait to meet her."

            "Joey…"  Lance sighed and shut the back of his truck.  He shook his head and laughed,  "I'll see you guys tonight."

            "Later."  Justin gave a half wave and followed Joey through the front door.

 

            Lance took the ice chests back to his house and dropped them in the backyard to be filled later that evening with drinks for his party.  He made himself some lunch and ate it outside to enjoy the warm spring weather they'd been having.  When he was done he brushed the crumbs to the grass and went back inside to get ready to go get Paige.  Lonnie would be there any minute to pick him up and drive him to the airport, and he knew Lonnie didn't like to be kept waiting.

            Fifteen minutes later Lance was standing in front of the mirror in his bathroom when the doorbell rang, followed by an incessant knocking.  "Coming."  Lance shouted toward the hall.  He sighed at his reflection, then hopped down the stairs with his keys jangling in his pockets.

            The knocking didn't stop until he pulled the front door open,  "You ready to go kid?"  Lonnie smiled widely as he crossed his arms over his wide chest.

            "Yeah, just about."  Lance held the door open as the guard stepped in.

            "You know, you guys are supposed to stay indoors when you're on break.  You're not supposed to be going to airports or on vacation or to the mall or anything."  Lonnie laughed. 

            "I know, but I never follow the rules."  Lance grinned at the guard as he slid his sunglasses onto his nose and ran his hand through his hair.  "How do I look?"

            "Man… stop it."  Lonnie made a face and turned to leave.

            "Seriously, come on.  Do I have a stain on my shirt or hair that’s going all sideways?"  Lance set the house alarm then locked the door and trotted after him.

            Lonnie turned around and looked Lance over,  "You know what Lance?  Orange really is your color.  It accentuates your eyes and brings out the luster in your skin."  He nodded.

            "Shut up."  Lance shook his head and hopped into the passenger seat of Lonnie's big black SUV.  He looked down at his outfit and wondered is he was looking too much like a scrub.  His dark jeans were a little baggy and held up with a brown rope looking belt thing.  It was a good thing his shirt actually covered the belt so he didn't look completely homeless.

            Of course as he critiqued his outfit he noticed more abnormalities that seemed to stand out as they got closer to the airport.  His shirt clung a little in the front, there was a hole in his right knee that begged to be picked at, the Boston pub logo on the front of his shirt was faded and beginning to peel, and his shoes were his old worn in and dirty sneakers that he couldn't bring himself to get rid of.

            Lance ran his hands through his hair again as they parked as close as they could to the terminal entrance.  He and Lonnie walked into the airport and scanned the arrival screens, locating the gate they would have to try to find.

            They made their way to the gate and stood against the wall as they waited for the plane to land and the passengers to leave.  When they began to file off Lance stood up straight and craned his neck to spot her as soon as she came into view.  After half of the passengers had left the plane he saw Paige struggling to make it up the walkway with Hope in one arm and all of her gear in the other.

            "Hope, Hope, Hope!"  Lance laughed as he walked over to them.  "Hi!"  He smiled and pulled both Paige and Hope into one big hug.  "How was your flight?"

            "Interesting.  Hope's never been on a plane before so for her first time I think she did all right."  Paige smiled and bounced Hope on her hip as the little girl tried to grab at her ponytail.  "The extra seat really helped, thank you so much for that."

            "No problem."  Lance smiled and stepped back.  "Do you want me to take the car seat?"  He asked as he kicked the contraption sitting on the ground by her feet.

            "Actually, if you could take the wiggle monster here I'd be forever grateful."  Paige lifted Hope off of her hip and she immediately reached for Lance.

            "Oh man do I have to?"  Lance pretended to whine as he took Hope and held her out in front of him for a second.  "Jeez are you feeding her Miracle Grow or what?"  He held her close and looked around quickly to scan the crowd.  Lonnie stood a few feet away and so far it didn't look like Paige had even noticed.

            "I didn't expect to see you here, how'd you swing that?"  Paige picked up the car seat and adjusted her backpack on her shoulder.

            Lance smiled then nodded at Lonnie before they headed for the baggage claim area.  "I've got my crew with me so it's all good."

            "He's…?"

            "Yeah, that's Lonnie.  I'll introduce you guys when we get outside."  Lance smiled and winced as Hope grabbed onto a handful of his hair.

            "By the way, she has a thing for hair."  Paige laughed as Lance tried to pry the tiny fingers loose.

            "That's okay, there's not much she can do to mess it up."  Lance laughed as Lonnie took a step closer.

            "We've got lookers."  Lonnie said softly.

            "Oh, hey."  Lance blushed quickly and looked at Paige.   The last thing he wanted was her or Hope in any kind of pictures or tabloid, but he wasn't sure how to deal with the situation on only a moment's notice.  He turned around so that Hope's face as turned away from the spectators, then tapped Paige,  "Does she have a hat or a blanket or something?"

            "Yeah, in my bag here.  I'll get it when we go out."  Paige said as she scanned the luggage moving in front of them.

            "Which section is it in?" Lance kneeled by the bag as Lonnie took another step closer to block anyone's view of Hope.

            "Lance?"

            "There are some people over there and they probably have cameras and I don't want Hope to be in the pictures."  He explained softly.

            Paige blushed quickly and for a second felt almost angry,  "You don't want to be seen with us?"

            "No… no, that's not what I meant."  Lance shook his head.  "I just… if someone gets a picture of her it could potentially be in the tabloids or on the net and I don't think you'd want that.  I don't want that for her."  He unzipped the large part of her carry on and looked around for a hat.

            "Oh."

            "I don't mind being seen with you guys."  Lance smiled and held up a multicolored floppy hat.  "But this will make me feel better." He dropped it on Hope's head and it practically covered her eyes.

            Hope giggled and pulled it down all the way over her eyes and giggled,  "Buh buh mamama."  She babbled.

            "Thanks."  Paige said softly, spotting her bag coming around.  She took it off the carousel and rolled it to her side.

            "I'll get that, you can take the car seat and stuff."

            "I'd rather take Hope.  That way you can do what you need to."  Paige explained as she set the car seat by the suitcase.  She put the backpack on both shoulders then took Hope from Lance and picked up the car seat.

            "I can carry that."  Lance said.

            "No that’s okay, this is how I got on the plane."  She smiled.  "Don’t worry about it."

            "I'm sorry about this."

            "It's okay."  Paige smiled and pulled Hope's hat back into place and tried to hold her as close as possible.  Lance took the handle of the suitcase and rolled it toward the exit with Lonnie.

            "Lance!  Happy birthday!"  One of the girls said loudly as they walked up.

            "Thank you." Lance smiled and nodded.  "Where are you guys headed?"

            "We're going to Scranton to visit our dad."  One girl said with a scowl, obviously not pleased to be leaving the gorgeous Florida weather.

            "And we're picking up some friends from Jersey."  Another girl said.

            "That's cool."  Lance gave them his 1,000-watt smile.

            "Can we get a picture?"

            "And an autograph?"

            "Uh, yeah real quick."  Lance looked over at Lonnie as he reached for the pen and signed the bags and notebooks they handed over.  They snapped several pictures and Lance hoped that Paige was standing out of the shot with Hope.

            "There you go, thanks guys."

            "Whose baby is that?"

            "My friends."  Lance nodded.  "They came in for my birthday."  He picked up the suitcase again and waved,  "I've really gotta run guys."

            "Thanks Lance!"  They giggled and huddled together as Lance, Lonnie, Paige and Hope left the airport.

            "Sorry about that."  Lance said softly as he took the car seat from her.

            "It's uh, it's okay."  Paige smiled and tried to absorb the last ten minutes of her day.  "So, where uh… where are we headed?"

            "Um, well I was going to take you to your hotel so you could get settled in a bit before the party.  I didn't know if Hope was going to need a nap or whatever."  Lance explained as they made their way across the parking lot. 

            "Yeah, she will actually."  Paige nodded.

            "Oh, sorry.  Paige this is Lonnie, he's one of our security guards.  I'm his favorite."  Lance smiled sweetly.  "And Lonnie this is Paige and her daughter Hope.  They're friends of mine from Arizona."

            "It's nice to meet you."  Paige smiled and squinted into the sun.

            "You too.  She's a quiet one, isn't she?"  Lonnie smiled at Hope.

            "Ha, for now maybe."  She laughed and readjusted Hope on her hip.

            "She can be a real chatterbox when you get her started."  Lance agreed and headed for Lonnie's car while looking over his shoulder.  There didn't appear to be anyone following them out to the car so he relaxed a bit.

            They got everything loaded into the car, then Lonnie drove them to the hotel close to Lance's house.  Lance took them inside and got them checked in,  "You've got my number and everything, right?  Lance asked as he leaned against the marble counter top.

            "Yeah, yeah of course."  Paige nodded.

            "Okay, cool.  Well I uh, I've gotta go home and clean up a bit and stuff like that, but I'll come and get you around like, six or so.  There will be stuff to eat there, so don't worry about dinner or anything."

            "Okay."  Paige nodded and removed Hope's little hat before the little girl took it off herself.  "Um, what time is everyone getting to your house?"

            "Around six too.  I think JC will be there early though, so I'll take off and come and get you and when we get back people should be there."

            "We can take a cab Lance, you don't have to leave your party to come get us."

            "Nah, don't worry about it.  You're close enough, it'll only take a minute."  He smiled and looked around the hotel.  "Besides, half my friends will be late."

            "Yeah, but still…"

            "It's cool, really."  Lance smiled again and leaned in to kiss her cheek quickly.  "Go ahead and get settled in here, take a nap or whatever… I'll give you a call before I leave."

            "Thanks Lance, really."

            "It was my pleasure, I'm just glad you decided to come."  He ran his hand down her back then kissed Hope's cheek.  "You too Hope."  He laughed as she reached for his hair.

            The bellhop loaded her suitcase and the car seat onto the cart and headed for the elevator.  "I'll see you in a couple hours."  Lance smiled and waved as he watched them go with their luggage.  He waited until the elevator doors shut before he turned around to go back out to the car where Lonnie was waiting.

            "She's cute."

            "Yeah."  Lance nodded with a slow smile.

            "And her mom's not bad either."  Lonnie laughed and pulled away from the curb.

            "Yeah."  Lance smiled broadly and looked out the window.  "Thanks for driving us."

            "Anytime kid.  Do I get to come to the party now though?"

            "Of course.  All you guys were invited."  Lance nodded.  "I've got a huge cake thing, for real… you've gotta have some."

            "Consider it done man."  Lonnie laughed and navigated through the street traffic and drove to Lance's house.  "I'll catch you later Lance."

            "Okay."  Lance smiled and nodded as he stepped from the car.  Lonnie beeped the horn as he drove off, and Lance walked back into his house… he had a lot of work to do and he needed to keep his mind on that, not Paige.

 

 

 

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Copyright 2002, Amy Lynn