Lance spent the next couple hours relaxing instead of getting his house ready for his friends.  He figured that if his friends knew him at all they would know that he's more or less a clean person, but he wouldn’t expect his house to be spotless.  By five thirty Lance was sitting on the counter in his kitchen playing with the ice left in his cup, trying to keep his mind, and fingers, off the cake taking up his entire dining room table.  The caterers had just left after setting up their tables and food in the backyard, leaving the heaters underneath to keep everything warm.  His mouth was watering as the scent of the bar-b-que wafted into the house when he heard a knock on the front door, followed by the door opening and JC's voice.  "Knock, knock.  We're here man, where are you?"  He and Chris stepped into the entry and started toward the back of the house making as much noise as they could.  "Man that smells good."

            "Hey birthday boy!"  Chris shouted.  "Come on, the party's here."

            Lance set the cup down and smiled,  "In here."  He shouted.  JC rounded the corner with his cell phone in his hand and Chris a step behind him.  "Okay, what's going on here?"  Lance looked at Chris.  "Why are you here early?"

            "Because you told me it started at like five."

            "I told you it started at five because I knew you'd show up at least an hour late, which would put you here right after it really started at six."  Lance laughed.  "And here it is five thirty and you're here?  I never thought I'd see the day."

            "Great, you're gonna ruin my reputation.  If people show up at six and I'm here they're gonna think I got here early on purpose."  Chris sulked as he leaned against the wall.

            "Poor you."

            "You're only sixteen you don't have a rep yet."  JC imitated Will Smith's "mom" voice.

            Lance laughed and slid off the counter,  "Everything is set up and ready to go.  The catering dudes were here like fifteen minutes ago so everything's set up out there under the patio thing.  Drinks are in the ice chests over by the wall and I think that's it."

            "You're saying that like you're going somewhere."  Chris frowned.

            "I am."

            "It's your party.  You're leaving?"

            "I've gotta go pick up my friend."  Lance looked at his watch as he grabbed his keys.  "I'll be back in like… forty minutes."

            "Dude, people are going to start showing up."  JC frowned.

            "I know, but I have to go get her."  Lance blushed quickly and headed for the door.

            "Ah, her.  The infamous her."  Chris wiggled his eyebrows at Lance and dissolved in a fit of laughter.

            Lance heard Chris' remark, but just smiled and stepped out while he still could.  He ran to his car as he pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and called information for the hotel's number.  They connected him, and then the hotel operator put him through to Paige's room.

            "Hello?"  She answered softly.

            "Hey you, I'm on my way."  Lance smiled at the sound of her voice.  He loved the way it affected him.  "Are you ready?"

            "Yep, it's going to be warm tonight, right?"

            "Oh yeah, it'll probably be in the 70's or 80's, it's been pretty warm this week."  Lance nodded as he started his car.

            "Okay, then I won't worry about bringing a jacket for her."

            "Oh no, you won't need it, I promise."  He propped the phone between his ear and shoulder as he headed out for the street.  "Anyway, I'm gonna pay attention to the road.  I'll be there in about fifteen minutes, okay?"

            "Okay."  Paige nodded.  "Do you want us to wait in the lobby?"

            "No, no, no, I'll come on up.  What room are you in?"

            "Um… 5980."  She said as she checked the room key holder on the desk.

            "Okay, I'll see you in a few."

            "Okay, bye."  Paige smiled as she hung up.  She looked down at Hope as she flipped through the room service menu like it was a book.  "Are you ready to go munchkin?  We're going to a birthday party."

            "Yaya."  Hope looked up at her and grinned widely.

            "That's right."  Paige scooted past her and got the little gift bag with Lance's card and gifts in it.  She stopped at the large mirror across from the closet and tucked her hair behind her ears.  "You could really use some make-up kid."  She whispered to herself.  She made a face and stepped into the bathroom to scrounge up some lip-gloss or mascara.

            Paige added the limited amount of make-up, then ran her brush through her hair and went back out into the main room.  "Okay Hope, let's make sure your bag is ready to go too."  She set Lance's gift on the table and reached for Hope's baby bag.  The fanclub pin was secured to the strap and she smiled as she looked inside to make sure there were enough diapers and wipes to last the night.

            "Yayaba owww?"  Hope looked up at her mom with a confused look.

            "Yep, we're just about ready to go."  Paige closed her eyes and went through the inventory of the bag.  "You know what?  I'm going to bring a sweater just in case."  She crossed the room and opened the suitcase to find Hope's light green sweater.  Paige tossed it in the diaper bag, then zipped it shut and bent to pick Hope up.  Hope's little sundress bunched up around her chubby hips to expose the lacey white bloomers she had underneath.  "You've lost a shoe kiddo."

            Paige set Hope on the bed and got down on her hands and knees to look for the missing sandal.  When she found it she stayed on her knees and strapped it onto Hope's tiny foot.  "There you go."  She smiled and picked her up again as the little girl tried to bend in half to pull her shoe off again.  "Honey, you have to leave that on."  Paige tried to explain the necessity of shoes to the toddler when there was a knock on the door.  "Uh oh!"

            "Ah oh!"  Hope giggled and forgot about her sandal.

            "Let's go see who that is."  Paige carried Hope to the door and stood on tiptoe to look through the peephole.  She smiled as she saw Lance standing there looking from side to side with his hands in his pockets.  "Hey look who it is!" Paige exclaimed as she opened the door.  "It's Lance!"  She gave Hope a surprised look as the little girl giggled and bounced in her mom's arms.

            "Hey guys."  Lance smiled and stepped into the room.  He ran his hand over Hope's satiny hair and smiled at Paige.  "Are you ready?"

            "Yeah, we're all packed up.  Do we… I mean, is there anything I need to bring?"

            "Nope.  Just whatever you'll need for Hope.  Diapers, snacks or whatever.  Like I said, there will be food there but I don't know if Hope will eat it.  Um, there will also be a lot of people there so I don't know if you wanted to bring toys or something."

            "I've got stuff like that in the bag."  Paige nodded and picked the diaper bag up off the floor.  "She's had her nap so she should be in a good mood tonight."

            "Great."  Lance laughed and reached for the diaper bag, "Do you want me to carry that?"

            "Oh, no I've got it.  Thanks."  Paige smiled then picked up the little birthday bag.  "You can carry this though, since it's for you."

            "Aww, you didn't have to get me anything."  He smiled slowly and tried not to look embarrassed.

            "It's your birthday.  You're 23 and you know that only happens once in your life."  She laughed and handed it to him.  "It's nothing fancy or anything… it's just… well you'll see."

            "Thank you."  Lance said softly as he looked down at the bag in his hand.

            "Open it now." Paige said after a moment's pause.  "Come on."  She laughed and nudged his shoulder.

            "No, I can wait until later."

            "No, it's stupid.  You can open it now."  Paige said quickly.  She didn't think that this birthday party would be like the others she'd been too.  They probably wouldn’t sit around and have cake then watch as he opened his gifts, and if they did she knew that the little present she got Lance would look stupid next to the elaborate gifts his friends were sure to get him.  If she thought she could move quickly enough, she'd snatch the bag back and throw it away.

            "Okay."  Lance laughed and walked to the little table to sit it down.  "I'm never gonna turn down presents."  He opened the little card and smiled.  Paige had signed it and there was a bright orange scribble across the inside where Hope had added her own signature.  "Aww that's cute."

            "She attacked it before I could stop her."

            "She wanted to sign it too."  He laughed then reached inside for the first little package.  He tore the tissue paper off and looked down at the wooden picture frame with the word 'friends' written on it in a dozen different languages.  The picture on the inside was Hope standing on their little front lawn in the Nsync t-shirt that went to the floor, holding their CD in one hand and a teen magazine with him on the cover in the other.

            "Your biggest fan."  Paige laughed.

            "I love it!"  Lance laughed and looked closely at the picture.  "That's perfect, thank you."

            "You can take the picture out, I just thought it would be cute.  But you know, you can put whatever you want in there."  Paige shrugged with a shy smile.

            "No, it's perfect.  I'll put this in my office."  He set the frame on the table and reached in for the other little box.  Lance tore the paper off like a little kid, then carefully took the top off of the box.

            "Now let me explain."  Paige said quickly as Lance looked down at a promo picture of himself and the guys that was taken for the Challenge for the Children game a few weeks earlier.  "I thought for a long time about what to get for the guy who has everything… and nothing seemed right or anything so I thought 'well what is he in to?' and I didn't really know what you were in to.  But I remembered you talking about your basketball game and how it did so many great things to help with the kids and everything.  So I made a donation to the charity in your name for your birthday.  I hope you don't mind."

            "No… no of course not.  That's a great idea actually."

            "And a friend from work found me that picture on the internet."  Paige laughed nervously.

            "Thank you, this is a really good idea.  I definitely don't need anything for my birthday so this is perfect."  He placed the gifts back in the box and pulled both Paige and Hope in for a hug.  "Thank you."

            "You're welcome."  Paige grinned and tried not to focus too much attention on his cologne.  "We should get going though, your friends will be waiting."

            "Yeah, probably."  Lance glanced at his watch and nodded.  It was almost six and he knew there would already be people showing up.  He picked up the little gift bag and Hope's car seat, then headed out.

            Paige double checked to make sure she had her room key, then followed Lance out to his car.  They loaded Hope and all of her gear into the car and drove the short distance to Lance's house.  When they pulled onto his street, they saw a dozen cars parked along the street,  "Wow, people are actually on time."  Lance laughed as he pulled into the driveway and parked in the garage.  He looked over at Paige and smiled,  "Are you ready?"

            "Is this something I have to prepare for?"

            "I don't know…"  Lance looked at the door leading into his house.  "There's gonna be a lot of people there, but they're all… I mean, they're my friends, they're cool."

            "I'm sure they are."  Paige nodded and licked her lips.  She'd forgotten how much she didn't like meeting a bunch of new people.  "Great time to remember."  A tiny voice inside her head said softly.

            "I'll introduce you around so you won't be totally lost."  He climbed out of the car and went to the back to get Hope's bag while Paige went to get Hope.

            "Okay."  She nodded and lifted Hope out of her seat.  "Hey Hope, we're here.  Look, we're at Lance's house."

            "Buh buh."  Hope nodded.

            "Yep, we went bye bye and now we're here."  Paige patted the toddler's warm back and checked to make sure both of her sandals were still secured on her feet.  They followed Lance into his house and almost all the way to the backyard when Lance was sideswiped and literally pushed outside in front of Paige by a mass of laughing and shouting young men.

            "Whoa."  Paige backed up against the wall and watched as Lance laughed and fought his way from the middle of the group.  He laughed with the group for a minute then quickly walked back inside with a huge smile on his face.

            "I'm sorry about that."  He laughed.  "I just haven't seen them in a while, those are friends from back home and stuff."

            "O-oh… okay."  Paige forced a smile as Hope giggled.

            "Here, come on outside and I'll introduce you around."  Lance placed his hand on Paige's back and led her out into the crowd of people.

            "Aaaya owww."  Hope reached for Lance and latched onto his shirt.

            "Hey there kiddo."  Lance took her from Paige and smiled,  "She's like a little monkey swinging from tree to tree."

            "No kidding."  She laughed and took a step closer to Lance as they stopped at the group of people that attacked him when they walked in the door.

            "Hey guys, come here for a second.  This is my friend Paige and her daughter Hope.  Say 'hi' Hope."  Lance leaned back to look at Hope.  "She's kind of shy."

            "Hi."  Paige smiled and shook their hands.  "It's nice to meet you."

            "This is Kevin, Jon, Troy, Jamie, Roland and Brian."

            "Hey."  They nodded in response and tried to inconspicuously look her over.

            "Do you know where Jennifer and Rachel are?  I want to introduce her to some of the girls."  Lance smiled.

            "Um, I think Rachel was over by the food actually."  Troy looked in that general direction.

            "Cool."  Lance placed his hand back on Hope's back and steered her toward the food.  "You doing okay?"

            "I uh… actually, where's the restroom?"  She asked softly.

            "Oh, um… inside."  Lance said.  "Obviously."  He laughed and rolled his eyes.  "If you go back in there past the kitchen where we walked in?  There's a hall on the left and it's the only door on the right."

            "Okay."  Paige nodded and looked at Hope.  "Can you keep an eye on her?"

            "Yeah, yeah of course."  Lance bounced Hope on his hip and smiled.  "We'll make the rounds and say hi to everyone, so just come find us when you're done."

            "Okay."  Paige smiled and nodded, then kissed Hope's cheek quickly.  "Be good sweetie."

            "Owww buh."  Hope giggled.

            "Thanks."  Paige said quickly as she turned and headed back into the house, side stepping the people in front of the doors.  She found the bathroom with no problem, and let herself in.  When she was through she stood in front of the mirror and leaned on the cool porcelain sink in front of her.  She took a few deep breaths and spoke softly to her reflection,  "This is just a birthday party, go out there and smile and have fun."  She forced a smile, then laughed softly at how fake it looked.  "Maybe after a drink or two I'll feel better."  Paige laughed again at that thought, she hadn't had a drink since high school and she wasn't about to start that night.  But a Diet Coke sure sounded good, and if she had some sugar and caffeine in her hand maybe she would feel more comfortable.

 

            After a few minutes Paige left the bathroom and went in search of a soda.  She found the ice filled ice chests by the side of the house and helped herself to a can of Diet Coke.  She popped the top, then stood back by the wall to observe the party and try to locate Lance and Hope.  The sun was just starting to set, creating odd shadows in the backyard under the pink and orange sky.

            "Hey."  Joey smiled flirtatiously as he appeared next to Paige.

            "Hi."  She said softly, scanning the crowd for Lance.

            "You look kinda lost, can I help?"

            "No, I'm fine.  Thank you."

            "How about a drink?"  Joey leaned on the wall and kept his eyes on her.

            "No thank you, I'm doing good."  She held up her can and smiled.

            "Ahh, I see."  Joey nodded and pretended to look away for a second.  "I don't think we've met, I'm Joey."  He extended his hand with a killer smile.

            "Hi Joey, I've uh, I've actually heard a lot about you.  I'm Paige."

            "Hi Paige."  He shook her hand then stopped suddenly.  "Ah ha, the illustrious Paige… mother of the perfect child, Hope."  Joey laughed.  "I've heard a lot about you too."

            "Well someone's been lying to you then."  She blushed as she smiled.  "Illustrious isn't a word that I've ever heard in reference to me, and perfect isn't exactly how I'd describe Hope."

            "She seems pretty good to me."

            "Hmm."  She smiled and looked around for Hope.  "I didn't realize there would be so many people here tonight."

            "Lance is a popular guy."  Joey shrugged and tried to keep up his flirtatious demeanor.

            "I see that."  Paige smiled.  "It's just, when I have a birthday party it's like, me and five or six other people.  This is nuts."

            "He likes to go all out."  Joey laughed.  "All Out Lance, that's what we call him."

            "Really?"

            "No."  He chuckled again and took a drink out of the bottle in his hand.  Paige laughed, not realizing that Joey was trying to be smooth and flirt with her.  "I can't tell you what we really call him, that'd be rude."

            "I'm not sure if I'd want to know."  Paige smiled and licked her lips.  "I'd hate to tarnish the image I have of him in my mind."

            "Believe me, I could."  Joey laughed.  "So have you met everyone yet?"

            "No, uh… not yet.  Lance started to introduce me, but then I went inside and he took off with my daughter."  She craned her neck to search the crowd.

            "He's got a thing for kids."  He shrugged and looked around for Lance himself.  "There they are."  He nodded toward the back wall.

            "Ah, thanks."  Paige gave him a pleasant smile and tucked her hair behind her ear.  "It was nice to meet you."  She touched his hand quickly, then walked across the broad backyard to where Lance was standing with Hope.  When he saw her approaching he smiled and bent to place Hope on the ground.

            "I'm sorry, people showed up so quickly I didn't get a chance to really show you around."  Lance said as he walked up with Hope hanging onto his fingers.

            "There are a lot of people here, it would take all night to introduce them all."  Paige smiled and picked Hope up, glad to have her in her arms again.

            "Yeah, but I want you to meet the guys at least."  Lance smiled and placed his hand on her arm to lead her toward the patio where he'd last seen three fifths of the group.

            "I met Joey already."

            "Uh oh, what'd he say?"  Lance looked at her cautiously.

            "Nothing really."  Paige laughed.  "He was very charming."

            "Yeah I bet he was."  Lance rolled his eyes and sighed,  "I feel like I should apologize for Joey."

            "No, don't worry about it. He was fine.  Not nearly as bad as you've made him sound."

            "Hmm."  Lance shook his head as they walked up to where JC, Justin and Chris were standing with drinks in their hands.  "Well here are the last three then.  Hey guys, this is my friend Paige."

            "Hi."  JC extended his hand, unable to stop the flirtatious smile that crossed his lips.  "JC."

            "Hi JC."  Paige smiled and nodded.

            "And this is Justin and Chris."  Lance nodded to the others.

            "Hi, it's nice to meet you."  She smiled at them and bounced Hope on her hip as the toddler fidgeted.

            "Then this must be Hope, I've seen her cruising around here with Lance all night."  Justin reached out and took her little hand.  "Hi Hope!"  He raised his voice a notch and made a silly face.  Hope giggled, then buried her face in Paige's shoulder.

            "She's going to play shy now."  Paige laughed and took a step closer to Lance.

            "She's flirting with you."  Chris raised his eyebrow at Justin.  "Talk about robbing the cradle, jeez Justin don't you think she's a little young?"

            "Nah, in seventeen years she'll be perfect."  Justin tickled her under her chin and laughed with her.  "I can't help it, I'm a chick magnet."  He smiled up at Paige then busted up laughing.  "I'm just kidding… I'm kidding."

            "No he's not."  Chris shook his head.  "Everyone likes Justin better."  He shoved Justin aside and leaned in to tickle Hope's sides.  "See?  Even little girls who don't know any better like him better, don't they?"  He talked in baby talk to Hope and she leaned out to reach for him.

            "Hey!"  Justin protested.

            "Whoa!"  Chris stood up straight and laughed,  "She doesn't like you better.  Sucker."  Chris stuck his hands in his pockets and looked down at Hope as she reached for him.

            "Chris, she wants you to hold her."  JC laughed.

            "I'm sorry, kids and I just don't mix."  Chris shook his head and looked up at Paige.

            "Don't be a wuss."  Lance took Hope and placed her in Chris' arms before he could step away.  "Sheesh, it's not like she's radioactive."

            "I know."  Chris frowned and held her awkwardly in front of him.  "Hey, how's it going?"

            "Eeebow."  Hope grinned.

            "Right on."  Chris nodded at her incoherent babbling as Hope carefully brought her finger to his goatee.

            "Owww."

            "Nah, that doesn't hurt."  Chris shook his head.

            "Owww."  Hope repeated.

            "What?  Am I hurting her?"  He looked to Paige.

            "No, that's just her word of the moment."  Paige laughed at Chris' uncomfortableness and reached for Hope,  "Here I'll take her."

            "Have you eaten yet?"  Lance asked when Hope was back in Paige's arms.

            "Um, no."  Paige blushed slightly and looked up at Lance.  "I've been kind of shell shocked here."

            "I'm sorry about that.  Come on, let's go get you something to eat."  Lance gently placed his hand on her back and steered her away from the guys.

            "It was nice meeting you."  She smiled over her shoulder as Lance ushered her away.

            "Okay… Lance is all about this chick."  JC said once they were out of earshot.

            "Yeah."  Chris nodded and watched them go.

            "Lance… the guy who hasn't even really had a girlfriend in almost three years."  JC frowned.

            "Two and a half."  Justin corrected him.

            "Close enough."  JC sighed and smiled.  "And he's saying they're just friends?"

            "That's his story and he's stickin' to it."  Chris nodded with a smile.

            "Yeah right, he's got it bad for her.  Too bad she's a package deal."  JC shrugged.

            "What's that mean?"  Justin asked.

            "She's got a kid?"

            "Yeah but what's that got to do with anything?"

            "More chance for him to get his little Lancey heart broken.  Chicks like that are either looking for a daddy for the kid, or don't want to get in a relationship so the kid doesn't get confused if it doesn't go well."  JC explained.

            "It's a good thing they're just friends then."  Chris laughed.

            "Yeah right."  JC rolled his eyes and took a sip of the drink in his hand.

            "Well what should he do?  I mean, he can't help that he's gone crazy for her.  She seems cool enough."  Justin shrugged, then spotted someone he knew across the yard.  "Hey, Tony's here.  I'll see you guys later."  He set his empty glass on the little table beside him and walked away, leaving JC and Chris to ponder Lance's next move.

 

            Lance took Paige and Hope to where all of the food was set up, then helped her dish up a plate, making one for himself as well.  Friends stopped at the table to say hi and get their dinner as well, so it took them a while to make it to the end of the table.  When they were finally through the line they went to sit on a small park bench against the far wall to eat with a few of Lance's co-workers from Freelance.  They talked about some projects they were working on and filled Paige in on the concept behind Freelance.

 

            Paige was interested in the company and asked lots of questions of Lance and the others.  Lance seemed impressed that she actually took the time to care about it, when most girls would have just smiled politely and changed the subject.  Hope sat on Lance's lap, picking chips and carrot slices off of her moms' plate to nibble on.

            When they were done eating the sun had almost completely set and Lance excused himself as the alarm on his watch beeped.  Paige watched as he ducked into the house and, and she knew he was going for his medication.  It never ceased to amaze her how dedicated and disciplined he was when it came to his own health and medication.

            She chatted for a while longer with the two other people sitting beside her as Hope played with the long blades of grass poking up into her sandals.  Lance returned a few minutes later and smiled,  "Are you guys ready for some cake?"

            "Ugh, I'm stuffed."  Paige held her hand over her stomach.

            "Aww, come on.  There's always room for cake."  He laughed and helped Paige to her feet.  "This little girl here is a mess though."

            "Yeah she is."  She handed her plate to Lance, then picked Hope up.  "I'll go get her cleaned up, I'm sure she'd love a piece of cake."  Paige laughed as Hope wiggled to be put down again.  "Thanks."  She took the plate back and headed for the house.  The paper plate went into one of the large trashcans by the door, then she took Hope into the bathroom to wash the dirt and grass off of her little fingers.

            When they walked outside a few minutes later, Paige looked around for someone she recognized, but didn't see anyone.  She frowned and stayed close to the house as she stood on tiptoe to get a better look while Hope pulled on her hair.  "No no baby, that hurts."  She carefully pried Hope's fingers from her hair then looked up at the sound of Lance's voice.

            "Okay everyone, can I have your attention please?"  He said loudly from his perch on top of one of the many patio chairs.  "I know you guys are just waiting to dive into that cake over there, I'm surprised there aren't any fingerprints in it yet… Tony…"  He cast a warning glance at his friend, and the people around him laughed.  "So I'll keep this kind of short."  Lance paused for a second and sighed.  "As all of you know, I got a new heart about a year ago… more than a year, but you know.  Anyway, last year at my birthday my parents asked for a moment of silence to remember and thank the donor, and I'd like to do that again tonight.  Every birthday I celebrate, every year older I get… is thanks to the donor and their family.  Without them I may not be here right now, so I'd like to include them in our thoughts tonight while we party."  Lance cleared his throat.  "So if you wouldn't mind… everyone shut up for a minute.  That means you Justin."  Lance smiled and everyone laughed lightly.  He lowered his head and took a deep breath.  Lance said a silent prayer for the family and the donor, thanking them for the chance to celebrate another birthday with all of his friends.

            Paige stood by the side of the house and held her breath.  She looked around during the silence as a chill passed through her body.  Everyone there loved Lance and all of them were truly grateful for the gift someone had given him.  It made her wonder if somewhere out there, there was another family that was celebrating because of the decision she made.  She smiled at the thought and for the first time she didn't feel that pang of guilt when she wondered if she made the right decision.  For that short, silent moment, she knew she had.

            "Thank you."  Lance said a minute later.  "Let's eat cake!"  He jumped off the chair and headed back into the house where the enormous cake was set out on the counter.  Everyone followed him inside and packed into the living room, dining room and kitchen to sing "Happy Birthday" pathetically off key while Chris and another friend held matches in front of Lance to substitute for candles.  When they were finally done singing Lance blew them out, just as the flames reached their fingers.

            "It's about damn time!"  Chris shouted as he cast a dirty look over his shoulder at the singers, then he broke out in a huge grin.  "I almost dropped the match on the cake, man."

            "It's a good thing you didn't.  This is the most heavenly chocolate cake you’ve ever tasted.  I swear."  Lance licked his lips and reached for a knife to start cutting it up.  JC and Justin took over the job of handing the cake pieces out to anyone standing close enough, then took pieces for themselves and headed outside.  Lance took a few bites of his piece of cake, then set it aside and grabbed a small plate for Paige.

            He walked over to where she stood by the door and handed her the little plate in exchange for Hope.  "Here, I'll take her so you can eat."

            "It's okay, I can do it."  She smiled.  "That's one thing I've gotten good at.  I can eat with one hand like a master."

            "But you don't have to."  Lance smiled and took Hope from her arms.  "I like hanging out with my number one fan."

            "Hey."  Chris said as he walked up and bumped Lance's shoulder.  "Hi."  He said as he noticed Paige standing there with her cake in front of her.  "Justin wants another shot."  Chris said to Lance.

            "Another shot at what?"  Lance gave him a look.

            "At the kidlet."  Chris nodded toward Hope.

            "What do you mean?"

            "I don't know.  This whole thing where she likes me better has got his undies in a twist or something.  Maybe he just likes kids, I don't know."  Chris shrugged.  "Can we borrow her for a minute?"  He looked over at Paige with a questioning look.

            "I uh…"  Paige cleared her throat.  The guy who had no idea how to hold a toddler wanted to 'borrow' her?

            "I'll take her."  Lance rolled his eyes.  "They're just being immature."  He laughed as he lightly brushed Paige's elbow with his fingertips.  "We'll be right back."

            "O-okay."  She nodded, then watched Lance cross the back yard with Hope and Justin.  She took a tiny bite of the cake and practically sighed in ecstasy.  Lance had been right, the chocolate cake was the best she'd ever tasted and the icing seemed to melt in her mouth.  "Wow."  She sighed under her breath as she licked the fork then went back for another bite.

            "So are you staying here?"  Joey asked sauntered up with his own piece of half eaten cake.  Paige looked up quickly as a comical smile crossed her lips.  Joey was acting just like Lance had warned her, but she found it funny rather than attractive.  The way he snuck up just when she'd be left alone would have intimidated her any other time, but that night she enjoyed it.  Knowing that Joey wasn't serious made it easier for her to get comfortable.

            "Here?  Oh, no.  We're uh, we're staying at a hotel in town."  Paige nodded and took a bite of her cake.  "With Hope it's just easier to do it that way, I don't know how she'll sleep in a strange place and I'd rather not keep everyone up all night."

            "Yeah, true.  Not that Lance would hear though, he sleeps like a zombie."

            "Oh yeah?"  Paige smiled.

            "He does, seriously.  I guess we all do.  I mean, we have to when we're on a bus like 200 days a year."  Joey sighed and smiled.

            "Yeah, I'll bet."  Paige smiled politely and looked over to where Lance was standing with Justin and a few of his other friends.  Hope was fading fast on Troy's shoulder and Paige knew it must have been getting late.  "Speaking of which, I'd better go get her and head out."

            "You're leaving?"

            "Yeah, it's getting late and she's about ready to crash."

            "You can lay her down here if you want, the party is just getting started."  Joey tried to coerce her into staying.

            "I'm feeling kind of beat myself actually, but thank you."  She smiled and extended her free hand.  "It was nice to meet you Joey."

            "Yeah, you too."  He shook her hand, then pulled her in for a friendly 'Joey' hug.

            Paige laughed lightly and blushed, then set her plate down and walked over to where Lance was.  "Hey…"

            "Hey there you are."  He smiled and took a step closer to her.  "This little energizer bunny is winding down."  Lance reached over and patted Hope's back.

            "Yeah, I think this was a little too much for her.  She's zonked."  Paige reached to take Hope from Troy.  "Thank you for holding her, I didn't realize it was so late."

            "It was my pleasure."  Troy smiled.  "I've got a little one of my own at home.  Hunter will be two next month."

            "They get to heavy to be holding all night though."  Paige laughed and adjusted Hope on her shoulder as the toddler sighed and shoved her face into Paige's neck.  "I think we should be going, but I uh, can we call a cab?"

            "I'll take you."  Lance shook his head.

            "No, this is your party.  Stay and have fun.  Like Joey said, it's just getting started."  Paige looked over her shoulder at the crowd outside.

            "You don't need to take a cab."  Lance smiled and placed his hand on her lower back.  "I'll run you over to the hotel then come back, no one will even miss me."

            "Really, it's fine.  You can just call a cab and I'll call you in the morning."

            "Paige?"

            "Hmm?"

            "Don't argue with me on my birthday.  It'll take me like, ten minutes to take you to the hotel."  Lance smiled at his friends,  "I'll be right back, don't let these guys get outta hand."  He gave Justin and Jamie a warning look as they both laughed mischievously.

            "I'll keep 'em in line."  Troy laughed as Rachel walked up and draped her arm around her husband's waist.

            "Thanks.  I'll be right back."  Lance smiled then turned to Paige,  "Come on."  He headed toward the house and Paige reluctantly followed him.  He helped her get Hope into the car and double checked to make sure she had everything she came with.

            "You really don't have to leave your party."  She said again, for good measure.

            "I know I don't have to."  Lance nodded with a smile.  "Hop in."

            She reluctantly got into the passenger seat and buckled up while Lance started the car and made his way down the driveway.  They were quiet on the ride back to the hotel and Hope was asleep before they even hit the main road.  Paige rested her elbow on the little window ledge, then set her chin in her hand and watched the lights of the neighborhood speed by.

            Lance pulled up at her hotel a short while later, and stopped in front of the valet booth.  "Let me see you up to the room.  You're going to have your hands full there."  Lance killed the engine and jumped out of the car to help her get Hope and her things out of the back.  He tossed his keys to the valet and said,  "I won't be long, you can just leave it up front."

            "You got it."  The guy in the red jacket smiled.

            Lance took Hope's bag and Paige's purse out of the back seat, then reached across to unbuckle Hope's car seat.  "I'll grab the stuff, you grab the munchkin."

            "I can get it."  Paige insisted.

            Lance stopped and looked at her over the hood of the car,  "You can carry a sleeping toddler, a car seat and all your gear?"  He raised his eyebrow at her and smiled.  "I'll help you."

            "Thanks."  She mumbled as she gently took Hope out of the car seat and rested her against her shoulder.  Lance filled his arms and followed her in through the large lobby and over to the elevators.  They went up to her floor and he followed her down the hall to her room.  He waited patiently for her to open the door and step in, then he followed her in and set the things down at the foot of the king-sized bed.  There was a small portable crib set up against the far side of the bed, and Paige carefully laid Hope down in it fully clothed.  She reached in and pulled her little sneakers off, then covered Hope with her special pink blanket and stood up to run her fingers through her hair.  "Whew."

            "Everything settled?"  Lance asked softly.  The stillness of the room made it sound unrealistically quiet and he was sure she could hear his breaths.

            "Yeah, thanks."  She nodded and looked down at Hope.  "So do you want to call me when you get up tomorrow?  I know I'll be up early and I don't want to wake you."

            "Yeah, I'll give you a call around nine or ten and we can take it from there."  Lance smiled.  They only had one day together and he didn't want to sleep through half of it.

            "Okay, that sounds good.  I'll be sure to have us up and ready to go by then."  She smiled and nervously looked down at the ground.

            Lance sighed and stepped across the barely lit room to hug Paige,  "You didn't think you'd get away without a hug did you?"  Lance whispered as he held her close with his hand flat on her back.

            Paige's heart pounded in her chest as she tried to catch her breath.  "Happy birthday Lance."  She said softly, her lips only an inch from his shirt.

            "Thank you."  He smiled, then kissed her temple softly.  "I'm glad you guys could come out, that really made today special.  And I can't wait for tomorrow."

            "Me too, it'll be a lot of fun."  Paige leaned back a few inches, but he left his arms around her waist.

            "I don't want to freak you out again… so can I kiss you?"  He dropped his voice a notch and gave her a shy half smile.

            "Lance…"  She dropped her eyes and the frown line between her brows reappeared.

            "Just one?  A small one."  Lance tried to persuade her softly.  "I'll buy you a snowcone tomorrow."

            Paige smiled and laughed quietly,  "I don't want a snowcone."

            "I'll be your best friend."  He tried the elementary school tactic.

            "If I let you kiss me, you'll be my best friend?"  Paige looked up at him and laughed.  "I think we've discussed this whole friends and kissing thing."

            "What if I promise to never ask you again."  Lance leaned forward so that their foreheads were touching.

            "You'll never ask me if you can kiss me again if I let you kiss me now?"

            "Yeah."

            Paige seemed to think about that for a minute, casting a quick glance over her shoulder toward the crib that was partially covered in shadows.  If she said yes she'd be voluntarily kissing the only other man she'd kissed since she and Travis got married four years ago.  "Then it's about time."  She thought to herself.

            "Okay."  She said finally.  "One… a small one."  Paige smiled and tilted her chin up to look in his eyes.

            "Okay."  Lance whispered, then lowered his lips to hers.  His hand went to the back of her neck here his cold fingers sent shivers down her spine and mingled in her hair.  Paige relaxed and let herself enjoy this extra long and extended single kiss.  She could count it as one because his lips never left hers, and for a moment she didn't want them to.  Just as she was about to go completely weak in the knees, Hope let out a small cry in her crib.

            "Oh."  Paige said softly as she brought her fingers to her lips, hoping to hold the feeling of his lips there as long as she could.

            "I should go."  Lance took a step back and licked his lips, still tasting her unique flavor for a moment.

            "I…"  Paige's stomach did a cartwheel and she couldn't stop herself from smiling.

            "I'll see you tomorrow."  He gave her hand a quick squeeze as he smiled.  "Bye."

            "B-bye."  She stuttered as he made his way toward the door, and Hope stopped crying.  A small part of her wanted to make him come back and finish what he started, but as soon as she thought that, another bigger part wanted to kick her in the pants for letting even it happen.  Eventually one side was going to have to win, and she half hoped it was the smaller side.

 

 

 

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Copyright 2002, Amy Lynn