JUST ME Part Two

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[[FOUR]]
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From his seat on the couch Lance settled himself in for a bit of a break from his schedule of recording. He'd just finished his part and watched through the glass for a moment as JC began his singing. He could hear the playback and the voice coming from JC's microphone and was impressed with the newest track. He listened for a moment, gave JC a thumbs up through the glass then excused himself from the room. He had a phone call to make before their scheduling meeting began.

As he passed Chris, asleep on the couch he let a smile flow over his face. The guy had been completely hyperactive, like always, through his recording then had crashed out on the couch after making a few phone calls about FuManSkeeto. The latest news was that the clothing line was going to be released to Nordstrom's, which was a big surprise, which Lance thought had caused Chris to crash out like that. He had his hat pulled down over his face and had cuddled up with one of the throw pillows. Lance was jealous. He wanted to be able to catnap like that, but he had too many things on his mind to get comfortable.

It was the funny things that Lance noticed after being away only a day from his band mates, like the fact that Joey was playing Donkey Kong on Nintendo with Nick AGAIN at the far end of the hallway like room they were all in. Joey never seemed to get tired of the game, but the sad thing was that Nick kept beating him and he was having a muted fit over in the corner. They'd brought in the television after the first three hours of singing and were keeping the volume on it muted while they played Donkey Kong so they didn't piss off the production team or JC, who'd complained about the video games a few days before.

Everyone was in comfortable clothes, as if they'd all been pulled out of bed and shoved into the tiny studio. He'd gotten woken up that morning by a call from Nick around five telling him to make sure to eat breakfast before he came into the studio so that they could get through as much work as they could before breaking for the day and hopefully for the album.

Lance left the room and found a seat in the hallway outside the studio. He folded his arm across his chest and rested his other arm so that it was at the perfect height to keep the phone next to his ear. He wasn't normally this lazy, but he was tired. He'd settled into the couch after his recording session and was now trying to waste time while he waited for their tour itinerary meeting to start. He had woken up that morning alone and had been pissed at himself ever since. He knew that he'd screwed up again and he had just dialed his cell phone hoping to get a hold of EJ before the battery ran out. He'd plugged in the phone the night before, but it had been in the wrong outlet and when EJ had left and turned off the light, the battery hadn't recharged like he had needed it to.

"Pop's, what can I get'cha?" He recognized the bubbly girl's voice as not being EJ's, which made him frown.

He held in a breath of air and thought about hanging up. He knew that would be stupid so he let out his breath and asked. "Is EJ there?"

There was a long pause as if the person might be looking around. He didn’t know why he was calling the diner. He should have gotten her home number or her cell phone number or something; but then again, she didn't have his; not that he had planned it that way. Too late now.

"Nope. Can I take a message?" The squeaky voice was horrible and for a moment he wondered if the girl was lying to him or something since she seemed so fake in her speech.

"Can you tell her that Lance called?" He formed it as a question and hoped that the girl on the line wouldn't know that the person she was on the phone with was famous.

"Will do," the person on the other end of the line said, "Does she have your number?"

"No," he said. He hated the fact that he couldn't give out the number to the person so that she could call back, but God knows what would happen to his answering machine would do if the wrong person got a hold of the number. "Ah…just tell her I'll call her back."

"Ok," the girl said.

"Thanks," he said and clicked off his phone. He shoved it into his jeans pocket and stared at his pocket for a moment then looked up when he saw movement near him.

He found Justin standing over him. "Who'd you call?"

"Ghostbusters," Lance said sarcastically.

When Lance didn't elaborate on his answer Justin sighed.

"Stop sighing like an old man…what do you want?"

Justin started to say something then seemed to change his mind mid word. "Wha-? How was Nashville?"

"Good," Lance said and leaned back into the seat. "Sadly I didn't see Elvis…" He rolled his eyes. "…but it went ok. I hate meetings like that, but we got it all settled."

"Getting all that school stuff settled really sucks. Remember how it took me longer than it should have to graduate because someone lost one of my test scores."

Lance nodded.

There was an odd silence between them that bothered Lance. He'd been gone for less than twenty four hours from the guys, but he felt like he was on the outside again, like he had been when the group first formed.

"How's Stacey?" Justin asked.

"She's fine and Meredith is doing well. I heard some of her recordings while I was there. It's coming along pretty well considering all things."

"That's good," Justin said.

Justin seemed to be trying to force a conversation with him so he decided to stop it.

"What do you want?" Lance asked knowing that Justin was never this quiet.

"Well, Mel came to us with a special project and…"

"And you talked about it when I was in Nashville and now you need to know if I'm going to show up?" Lance said filling in the parts for Justin knowing that he might hesitate about telling him about it. The situation came up every so often when Lance would be gone doing things for FreeLance and he would come back to find out that decisions had been made half without him. It didn't bother him that much that he was being left out of these conversations, but one day he knew that his FreeLance schedule and his NSYNC schedule were going to be in conflict and he hated to think that he would let either side down.

"Don't go all crazy. It's a weekend thing in Hawaii," Justin said, "With Britney and Christina and the whole MMC crew."

"And the whole group is going?" Lance asked. He knew he'd end up going, but he figured that if it was just Justin and JC going he would be able to get out of it and get some work done at home.

Justin nodded. "Everyone figured since its Hawaii we'd all head out there for a few days. We were thinking about going for four or five days."

Lance looked down the hallway for a moment and saw a few people down the hall watching them. He knew they were probably interns or something so he waved to them. "Did Nick check my schedule?"

"It's on vacation days, but…"

Lance sighed.

Hawaii had lost its charm in the last few years. Every time they went there they tried to go on the beach and act like normal human beings, but fans always seemed to get a little too excited which ended up ruining the whole vacation feel that Lance looked for when he was there. At the moment he'd rather sit out back by the pool at home rather than deal with the fans on the beach. He also knew that if Britney and Justin were together there would be cameras all over the place, which somehow made him nervous. It was one thing to deal with fans that came up to him and said hello, but having someone "spy" on them and take pictures gave him the creeps. Besides, he didn't want to leave town now that he'd met EJ. He wanted to make it up to her for being so spacey with her. So he lied. "I have a ton of paper work to get through and I have to meet with my lawyer over buying those--"

Justin put a hand up to him to stop him then pushed himself out of his seat on the couch. "Nuff said. If you're too busy just say so, you don't have to come."

Lance watched him walk past him. "Lemme see what stuff I can get through and I'll try and make plans to go."

Justin didn't turn around to acknowledge that he'd heard him so Lance folded his arms across his chest. After letting a swear word out into the room from under his breath he watched Justin go and join Joey and Nick at the other end of the room. He watched the three of them joking around and tried to keep a level head. He was in a messed up mood and didn't want to get into a fight, but he wasn't sure that he could keep from getting on someone's nerves or having them get on his.

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"EJ!"

She looked up from where she was sitting in the corner of the room eating a piece of pie and saw that Marty, one of the newest waitresses had spilled some deserts onto the floor. She sighed and slid out of the booth.

"It's ok Marty, go make them new sundaes and I'll clean it up."

"Thanks," the young girl said as EJ leaned down to pick up the glass from the broken dishes.

The chime sounded and when she looked up Marty was standing next to her.

"Marty, get a move on it," she said.

A male laugh filled the room and she was shocked to see Lance leaning over the counter to look at her. "Again, with you and the deserts."

EJ pushed her hair out of her face and looked up at him as she picked up the last piece of glass from the Sunday container. "Never expected you to show up here."

Lance reached his hand out and grabbed a piece of glass out of her hand. "Hey, pay attention or you're gonna cut yourself."

"Like you'd care," she mumbled.

Lance stood watching her for a moment then followed her around the counter to where she was throwing away the glass. "Look, I know you're pissed and I'm sorry. Can I make it up to you?"

"You're on two strikes now Lance," she said pushing by him she grabbed the mop and cleaned up the rest of the ice cream mess on the floor.

"Let me make it up to you." He paused and smiled at her widely. "You won't regret it."

"I think I already regret it," she said.

"So you'll listen to me?" He tipped his head and winked at her. Did he know that his wink was the key to making everything ok with her? Somehow he seemed to have figured it out.

"Go ahead," she said with a sigh. She expected him to ask her to do something for him, which of course she would end up doing, but would regret it the whole time.

"I want you to come to Hawaii with me."

"What?" she asked. Her eyes went wide with disbelief and for a moment she stopped breathing. Hawaii: beaches, sun, Lance without a shirt on. A smile formed on her face with that last thought.

Half of her wanted to jump and hug him. His asking her gave her a glimmer of hope about their situation. She hated the fact that the two times that she'd seen him she'd been cleaning up after him, but now, with this proposal she imagined that there was something more than just that there for her with him.

The more rational side of her, of course saw through the whole thing and wanted to smack him for asking her to fly across the country with him, especially after the way he'd treated her.

"Hawaii? It's that little island on the other side of California?" he said with wide eyes.

She took a breath and finally blinked. "I know what and where Hawaii is," she said.

"So you'll go?"

Her heart sank. Even if she did want to go, it was ridiculous to think that she could even get away. "I can't drop everything and leave town." She mopped and tried to calm down from her initial reaction. "I can't afford the trip anyway."

"My treat?" he said.

"Maybe in your world someone like me would fall to their knees for an invitation like that, but really, a trip to Hawaii would run about a thousand dollars and that's too much money to owe you."

"You are the strangest girl I know," he said scratching his head.

"Strange?" she said, "Why? Because I don't drop everything and drool over you? That I have a life that doesn't revolve around you?"

Lance laughed. "Stop being so serious. Have a little fun EJ. Would it kill you?"

"I have fun," she said with a pout on her face.

"Well I've known you for almost…" He looked at his watch with a smirk on his face. "…for almost four days now and I think you need to lightened up a bit."

"Look. I'll think about it," she said.

"Well if you change your mind…" He went over to the counter and grabbed up a piece of paper. "I have to get to a meeting," he said. He grabbed a pen from the register and wrote down his number, "Call me later, ok? That is, if it doesn't mess up your schedule."

EJ watched him walk out and swore under her breath. She'd screwed up yet again. Why couldn't things just be ok? She had to make things difficult, didn't she?

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"So Joe, whatta ya know?" Lance asked sitting down at the table next to Joey's dad, Joe, Senior. He'd come over for dinner. He also came to tell Joey and Chris, who were both having dinner there that night that he was going to go to Hawaii. Instead of hanging out with the guys when they decided to play basketball out back he sat down with Joey's father for a minute.

"Well the singing thing is going well," Joe Senior said with a smile. He'd become part of this made up retired aged boy band that was sponsored by a local radio station and had been having a blast with the whole thing the last time he and Lance had talked. "What about you and this managing thing? I heard you were up in Nashville a few days ago."

Lance nodded and sipped his drink. "I had to go up there and do some business. Meetings all day long about my artist Meredith. She was having some conflicts with her school schedule, but we got it all settled."

"That's good," Joe Senior said, "I'm glad to hear that you are really involved with all that." Joe Senior got that look in his eyes that Lance knew. Joe Senior was trying to hint at the strange methods that Lou Pearlman had used with the boys when they'd had him as a manager.

"I let her do her thing, but if she gets into some trouble I'm in her corner a hundred percent," he said.

"How's other things?"

Lance nodded. "Good," Lance said, "I'm glad we're done recording and I really think I'm going to have fun in Hawaii, even if we are only going to be there for four days."

"I thought Joey said you weren't going to go."

"I wasn't, but I figure that I need the break. I'm sure Mel and Nick are going to have us perform and whatever, but that's only for a few minutes, I'm sure I can relax the other hundred something hours of the trip."

"Joe's mother and I should get out there one of these days," he said, "We've been busy though with everyone going every which way. It's kinda nice to stay home for a while. We were in New York for the HBO special then we went out to LA with you guys. We need to stay in O-town for a while."

Lance laughed at the term Joe Senior used to call Orlando. The guy was just as old as his parents were, but he seemed to be a big kid at heart. "Yeah I remember the whole NY trip. The Rosie show and you making faces."

"Hey! Joey started that," Joe Senior said. "I just played along and got caught on camera."

"Sure, sure," Lance said.

Lance's phone began to ring its funny little tune of Dixie and he paused and gave Joe a look. "Sorry…my public calls."

Joe Senior made a face as Lance picked up the line.

"Hello?" he said with a laugh.

"What's so funny?" a female voice asked.

"EJ?"

A laugh went over the line. "Who's EJ? This is Meredith."

"Oh," his heart sank.

"Thanks Lance!" she said with a laugh. "So who's EJ?"

"No one," he said and watched Joe Senior get up and move from the dinner table into the living room where he plopped down in front of the television to watch the news. "What's up Mer?"

"I just wanted to call you and thank you for getting all that stuff fixed for me," she said.

"No trouble," Lance said.

"Well I thought I'd call and thank you since it took you away from recording and stuff."

"Meredith. It's my job." He suspected that she'd called not only to thank him, but also to see if he was hanging out with Justin. It had been a long running joke that she had a crush on him and she always seemed to ask about him even when she didn't need to. He took a breath, knowing what was coming next. "Justin's not here. He's at home I think if you want to call and talk to him."

She laughed. "I know he's planning to do some stuff for his foundation and I was thinking that maybe I could sing a song at one of the events or something."

"Sounds like a plan," Lance said, "I'll talk to him about it this weekend."

"You're going to Hawaii, aren't you?"

"Yeah."

"Britney is going to be there huh?" she said.

"It's a whole MMC reunion thingy," Lance said.

"Oh," she said sadly.

"Oh come on Meredith. You know that they are dating. You've known that forever."

"I know," she said sadly.

"Look, I'll talk to Justin about the whole singing thing. If not we'll try to work it so that you can sing the anthem at the Challenge Game next month…how does that sound?" He had to offer her something. He felt bad for her, but at the same time he understood where she was coming from. They both were in the same place. They had their crushes and kept messing up with them.

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EJ stared at the phone for the fifth time in the last half-hour. She had gone upstairs after the last few customers of the dinner rush left and had cleaned a little, but now was sitting on the couch with Lance's phone number in her hand staring at the phone debating whether to call or not.

"It's Hawaii you goober," she said softly to herself. "It's you and Lance on a beach on a tropical island, no work, no drunkenness. It'll be good. You need to get out and party with the guy."

She stared at the wall and let her eyes blur for a moment then took a breath and picked up the phone. If she didn't do this she knew that she would regret it forever. It was Hawaii and although it was going to be strange to be going on this trip with him, she knew that she would end up having fun when she finally got there. It was the time in between that might kill her.

"Speak to me," he said with a laugh.

"Hello?" she said a moment later. "Lance?"

She heard laughing and some sort of fight going on in the background then it was a little quieter.

"Hello?" he said.

"Lance, this is EJ," she said with a smile.

"Hey," he said. She could tell that he was smiling.

"When do we leave for Hawaii?" she asked.

"You're going?" He sounded more than a little surprised.

She held her breath. There was no backing out now. She would be in Hawaii with him for the weekend. "Yep."

She heard him say something, but it wasn't into the phone.

"Hello?"

"Sorry about that," he said then asked, "So what are you doing tonight?"

"I was going to go to sleep soon."

"You can't do that," he said, "Let's celebrate."

She laughed. Had he been drinking again? He seemed way too comfortable with her all of a sudden. "What did you have in mind?" she asked.

"I'll buy you desert," he said with a laugh.

"Sounds good."

"Cool, I'll come by and get you in about twenty minutes…sound good?" He paused. "You're at Pop's, right?"

"Yeah." She smiled then heard a crashing noise behind him. "Wait, where are you?"

"I'm over at Joey's house. He and Chris and Joey's Dad are playing WWF on Nintendo."

"It sounds like they're wrestling right there in the living room.

Lance laughed again. "You should see them. I can't tell who is more into the game. Joe Senior or Joe Junior."

She smiled trying to picture the guy she'd seen at the club playing video games, "Well I'll see you in a few then."

"OK. See ya in about twenty."

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Lance pulled into a parking spot in front of Pop's and looked in to see that the place was fairly well populated with customers. He didn't see EJ anywhere through the windows so he knew he was going to have to go in and find her. He wouldn't have stayed in the car if she had been in the window, but at least if he had seen her he could make a plan for himself. Go in. Say hello. Then ask her to leave as soon as possible. It just wasn't in the cards tonight.

He waited for a moment, staring at the place hoping that no one thought he was going to rob the place or something. He did look kind of suspicious sitting in the car with the engine turned off staring at the people inside.

After not seeing anyone that he thought might know him, he decided to go in without the protection of a hat or sunglasses. It was his stupid fault that he hadn't thrown a hat into the car and he was going to have to live with that mistake. Hopefully he'd be able to get in and out of there without being noticed.

"Two times in one day," she said with a smile coming out of the hallway behind the counter when he came into the door. "I feel special now."

Lance smiled, "You wanna hit the road?"

She stopped and stared at him for a moment then she seemed to understand why he wanted to leave when she caught him staring at the girl in the corner booth who was bouncing up and down in her chair with her hand covering her mouth. "Yeah, where to?" she asked.

"How about McDonald's for a sundae?"

She looked at him sideways.

"It's to go," he said with a smile. "We can go shopping again if you want to."

"If we go to your house you aren't going to fall asleep on me again are you?" she asked as she grabbed her keys then called to the waitresses that she was leaving.

"Night EJ!" They called in unison.

"See ya Lance!" one of the high school aged girls yelled the giggled as he waved at her while he held the door open for EJ. He gave a wink to the girl in the booth, who proceeded to chant over and over oh my god over and over again as he followed EJ to his Jeep Cherokee.

Lance opened the door for her and settled her into the front seat then ran around and jumped in the driver's seat. "So to the store or to McDonald's?"

"You sure know how to impress a girl," she said with a sarcastic tone.

"I'll make it up to you in Hawaii. I know the best place on the island to get shave ice."

"What's that?"

"You've never had shave ice?" he asked. He wondered for a moment if she'd ever been to Hawaii before.

"Nope," she said, "I've had a snow cone."

"Snow cones are good and all, but this place in Hawaii is great," he explained.

It amazed him that he'd forgotten about the shave ice place up on the North Shore. That was one of the best things about the whole island and he'd forgotten about it due to the mental scars about the fans bothering him on the beach. Going to Hawaii this time was going to be fun, especially since he'd get to take her on a little adventure, that was, if he could get away.

"So when do we leave on our little trip?" she asked.

"Thursday night we're all taking a flight out to San Francisco then onto Hawaii."

"Four days?"

"Yeah," he nodded.

"I guess I can do that," she said with a smile.

"Now was that so hard?" he asked.

"What?" she asked.

"Enjoying all of this?" he said.

Lance watched her smile and wanted to lean and kiss her. It wasn't quite the same look she'd had on her face at the airport when he'd scared her, but there was a sparkle in her eyes that made him think that things would be ok between them.

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[[FIVE]]
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"How you doin'?"

The deep voice that tickled her ear over the phone belonged to only one man. He'd spoken to her in that way the night before when they'd been out dancing and she'd almost kicked herself when she'd parted ways with him to go and sleep alone. He'd kissed her at the door more than a few times, not that they hadn't kissed that night or before then. These just weren't any kisses. They weren't the pecks on the cheek or the hey-this-is-fun-kind of kiss. They were I-want-you-now-I-can't-get-close-enough-to-you-kisses that left her breathless and panting on the far side of the door when she finally let herself into her apartment, shutting out him and whatever "trouble" they might get into that night.

It was actually a practical thing considering that she had the next day off and his morning was going to start earlier than she expected hers to start. Or at least that's what she'd told herself over and over again while she packed then lay in bed for over an hour not being able to sleep.

"Morning," she said back as she hugged the phone to her ear and snuggled into the covers a little more, rubbing the sleep from her eyes on the corner of the comforter. She had cottonmouth from drinking a few with Lance the night before and wondered if she should get up and get something to drink.

When she stretched her legs out in bed the cold air of the room hit her skin and caused her to recoil almost violently until her legs returned to their curled position so that she could stay warm.

"Did you get to sleep late last night?" he asked as if he was reading her mind.

She smiled at the thought of him thinking about her sleeping. She had to admit that when she'd crawled into bed that night she wondered if he'd been doing the same thing just across town. It was a dangerous thing for her to know what his bedroom looked like. It made it easier for her to see him there in her mind at all the wrong moments during the day. She'd tossed and turned the night before with thoughts of him lying in bed at his house. She'd almost called him, but knew that his cell phone would probably be turned off, since it had been turned off the three nights before when she'd tried to call him.

She hadn't been sure, when he'd kissed her four days earlier, if she was going to be comfortable hanging out with him since he'd been so strange the first two times after they'd met. Somehow though, his actions of the last few days changed that thought.

She'd found that the new and improved Lance was almost going out of his way to spend time with her, and almost being too apologetic when one of his meetings had run later than he'd thought, but she still wasn't completely convinced of his intentions. She wasn't a stupid woman though, she saw their second chance staring her in the face and she wasn't about to push him away again until he did something to clearly show that he wasn't interested in her. He deserved the chance for three strikes and he already had two.

She yawned into the phone. "Yeah, I came back and had to pack."

"Bikini and a towel…what's hard about that?" he said with a laugh.

"It's not that simple," she suddenly panicked. Maybe he would take her comment as saying that she was bringing her whole closet. She didn't know how that would go over with him. "I am packing light, I still had to figure out what to bring."

"Why didn't you just pack today?" he asked.

He sounded a bit distracted, like he was talking to her and wasn't really paying attention, which seemed strange considering that he called her, but she went along with the conversation without a word about it. She didn't dare ask what he was working on. She was extremely curious to know what he did all day, but she didn't want to seem like she was prying or being nosey. They'd had some run-in's with fans in the last few days and she felt liked he'd been hounded enough by them. She didn't want to seem like she was trying to interview him too.

"Shit!" she heard him say.

"What?" she asked.

"Paper cut," he said with a laugh and she thought she heard him sucking on his finger.

"Oh…poor baby."

She heard someone in the background laughing and wondered if he was still in the meetings that had taken up most of the last four days. He'd explained to her that they were doing a lot of planning for the promotion of the next album and for their next tour that would take place starting in a few months. He'd stopped by in the mornings as usual then had leave work at night to have dinner with her and to hang out.

"So do you always sleep in on your days off?"

"I thought that I'd sleep in," she said with a laugh, "But I guess I was wrong."

"Hey. It's already almost eleven. You have to get up sometime."

"Well you may be used to dancing the night away honey…but I'm not. I'm tired and sore." She had let the word honey out of her mouth. She hadn't meant to call him that, but she figured it would be stupid to call attention to it now.

"Oh…poor baby…" he said, "I'll see if we can get massages when we get to Maui."

"Don't tease me," she said.

"I'm not," he said drawing his voice into a lower tone again. His laugh rumbled in her ear.

She laughed at his tone. "Did you get your drink this morning?" she asked.

"Yes and Marty didn't even break anything," he said with a laugh. She heard him shuffling papers again.

"What are you doing right now?" she asked.

"Oh nothing," he said with a laugh. There was a pause. "I have some papers to sign then I'm done for the day."

"If you give me a while to get ready I'll meet you for lunch," she said.

"Sounds good," he said, "I have some papers I have to drop off over at the office if you want to come with me. Want me to come by in say and hour or so and get you?"

"Sounds good," she said, "I'll meet you downstairs."

"I'll see you in an hour then."

EJ blindly set the phone back into its cradle, only letting go of it when she heard it click into place. She curled her arm back into the covers and lay in bed for a moment staring at the ceiling before she pushed back the covers and went to shower. If she was going to go to the office with him she was going to have to make a good first impression, something that slightly worried her.

After all, she thought as she stared at herself in the mirror in the bathroom for a moment, she'd seen pictures of the women in the other guys' lives and found herself a little on the ugly side when she compared herself to them.

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"Hello there gorgeous," he said into the phone when he called EJ back about an hour later. He was on the interstate heading to pick her up, but he'd thought he'd call her.

"Where are you?" she asked. She sounded a little out of breath as if she'd been downstairs and had run to get the phone.

"On my way, patience EJ," he said with a laugh.

"Oh." She sounded a little embarrassed.

"I was thinking that I'd have you come with me for the rest of the day, that is if you're packed up and ready to leave for the weekend."

"Yeah, I can do that," she said, "What are we going to do for the rest of the afternoon?"

Lance turned off the highway and saw a car follow him. He'd thought he'd seen the car in his neighborhood and it made him a little paranoid. He'd been followed before and always had the same feeling of uncomfortableness when someone was on his trail.

"Lance? Lance are you still there?"

"I'll tell you what we'll do when I see you," he said, "Go and grab your bag. I'm going to be there in a second."

"Ok, see ya."

He could imagine her running her way to get her bag.

There were three more turns and two stoplights before Lance got to Pop's. He parked the car and watched through the windows for a moment, finding EJ sitting at the counter with Marty, before stepping out into the sun. She saw him from where she sat wearing jeans and a T-shirt and waved to him as he made his way around the car to the door. He knew that he'd only be there for a minute, but it had become a habit now to make sure that the coast was clear for him to enter.

While he was sure that Pop's wouldn't like the extra publicity, since the tabloids liked to follow the guys around, he wasn't sure that EJ herself would like to become part of the drama that surrounded his life. That was one of the reasons for hanging out with her mostly at home. He didn't want to throw her into something he wasn't sure she would be able to handle or even understand.

Since their recording was done now, the need to have pictures of the group to be in the mainstream media circulation was important. That was partly the reason for the trip to Hawaii, but he didn't like the idea of having his personal life thrown all over the black and whites of the newspapers before he tried to explain some things to EJ first. That's one of the reasons that he'd left home that day to have lunch with her. They needed to talk.

"Hey you," he said coming in the door. He slid off his sunglasses and ran a hand through his hair. For once he hadn't worn a hat, knowing that he'd be spending most of his weekend in one, due to the fact that they'd be in front of the fans most of the time.

She'd been smiling when she saw him through the door, but her grin got wider as she slid off her seat near the counter and came to hug him hello. His eyes went wide as he watched a girl in the corner staring at him. He stepped back from her hug, avoiding her outstretched arms, then asked, "You ready?"

Her hand hit his shoulder as her arms went limp, returning to her sides. She stared at him for an instant with wide eyes as if he'd done something horribly wrong, which technically he had. No one liked to be brushed off when they offer a hug. She seemed to shake it off and nodded. "Umm, yeah."

"You have your bags?" he asked looking around a little. He saw out of the corner of his eye that the car that had followed him off the freeway was now parked across the road next to the dry-cleaners. He could see the driver sitting in the driver's seat watching him.

"Yeah," she said and grabbed her rolling carry-on suitcase and backpack.

Lance took the suitcase from her and pushed open the door for her. She waved goodbye to Marty and went outside. He knew that she was going to be upset about him not hugging her, but he couldn't risk it. He knew that their picture was going to be in the papers by the morning and didn't want to feed any crazy stories that would turn up with the pictures.

He followed her to the passenger side door and helped her in then stood with his back towards the car across the street. "I'm sorry about not hugging you. Some reporter is following me. I'll tell you about it in a second."

EJ nodded and nervously looked around as she moved her backpack onto the floor near her feet.

"Hey, don't worry about it," he said and closed her into the car.

He opened the back hatch of the SUV and put her bag into the back before going to the driver's side and getting in.

"So who's following you?" she asked when he'd shut the door.

He turned on the engine and rolled down his window and let out a sigh. "I don't know. It's probably just one of the tabloids trying to get shots of me before we go to Hawaii. Don't worry about it. They aren't dangerous. I just won't be able to hug you or anything until we get out of the open, unless you want yourself all over the tabloids."

She laughed a little and settled back into the chair. "This sounds like a James Bond movie."

He smiled when he heard her reaction to the situation. "Yeah that’s me…" He flashed a cheesy smile. "Bass, James Bass. I'll have a dry martini, shaken not stirred."

"So does that make me Miss MoneyPenny?" she asked.

"No, you're a bond girl," he said. He patted her thigh then put his hand back to switch the car into reverse.

"I always knew I was destined for some big title," she said putting on her sunglasses. "I just never knew that it would be BOND GIRL." She laughed.

"Well you deserve the title," he said. He pulled out of the parking lot and headed towards the JIVE offices so he could get his work out of the way.

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The offices of JIVE Records were in a formal looking office building mixed in with the other businesses in the area. EJ would have never even noticed them being there considering that the sign on the front of the building wasn't made out of neon or flashing lights.

When Lance opened the door for her after he parked she wondered if they were a little underdressed for the occasion. Lance had on jeans, running shoes and a T-shirt to match her jeans and T-shirt. It wasn't quite what a person would consider as work attire; but then again she was beginning to learn that nothing was predictable when it came to things involving Lances life.

"Come on silly," he said fanning her with the manila folder he held in his arm. "Don't drool on the carpet when we're inside."

She stuck out her tongue at him. "Thanks, make me even more self-conscious."

"They're only people you know," he said.

"Yeah well you know them all, I don't."

"Come on. They'll love you, just the way I…" his words cut off and he watched her for a moment.

She shook her head, clearing the air of the tension that had just filled the two-foot gap between them. "I know what you mean," she said and walked with him to the door.

They entered the lobby and the downstairs receptionist waved to Lance as he and EJ slid out of their sunglasses and turned towards the elevators.

"Hey Kelly," he called to her.

As they stood and waited for the elevator to come Lance lowered his voice to speak, "Pray to God that there is no one in this elevator with us on the way up."

"Why should we do that?" she asked.

"You'll see," he said and wiggled his eyebrows at her.

They stepped into the elevator when it came and once the doors were closed Lance took her hand and pulled her into a hug. "Ever seen the movie Secret of My Success?"

"I'm not making out with you in an elevator," she said with a nervous laugh.

Lance hugged her to him.

"You're gonna wrinkle your papers," she said.

"I'd like to wrinkle your papers," he said and wiggled his eyebrows. He straightened up when she pushed at him.

"Come on," she said.

"Fine then, can't I get a kiss then?" His voice rumbled in his chest. She could feel it as his chest pressed against hers.

"Fine," she sighed with a smile. She leaned and kissed him.

After their kiss ended Lance let her go and straightened his shirt a little as the doors opened.

"Ladies first," he said and ushered her out onto the third floor where they breezed past the receptionist and went down a hallway.

"Shit, he's not here," Lance said with a sigh. He looked around for a moment. It was the first time she'd seen him look a little less than confident. He held out his hand, "Come on. We have to go find his mail box."

They wound their way around the office again. It looked like any other set of offices, other than the framed pictures of JIVE artists on the walls, that was until they bumped into Britney Spears of all people on her way out to the elevator.

"Hey there Lance," she said with a sweet smile.

"Hey B," he said and smiled back.

"Who's your friend?" she asked.

EJ prayed that she could keep her mouth shut on this one. She wasn't the biggest Britney fan. She liked her music, but something about the girl just didn't seem normal. Probably it was the fact that she was extremely famous. EJ knew that she didn't want to cause trouble by letting her preconceieved notions of the girl ruin whatever was going on between her and Lance, so she waited to see if the Britney spears she saw on television was the same person that was standing in front of her.

"I'm EJ," she said with a smile and shook Britney's hand while eyeing the huge bodyguard who was standing in the hall with them.

"Oh, you're the one who’s coming with us to Hawaii." Her southern drawl was muted or at least didn't seem that heavy that day. EJ had heard interviews with her on television where her accent had been way more prominent.

"Uh," EJ said and looked at Lance. It wasn't at all crazy that he would have to tell people about her trip with him to Hawaii, but she didn't expect Britney to know about it. "Yeah."

"Well I'll let you guys go," Britney finally said. "I've gotta go and finish packing. I'll see you at the airport."

"Bye," Lance said and turned to EJ. He let out a breath as she walked away. "Sorry about that."

EJ laughed. "You're sorry?"

"I should have warned you about her," he said.

"Warned me about what? She actually seemed half normal," EJ laughed. "I thought she'd be stuck up or something, unlike someone I know."

Lance stopped and stared at her. "You think I'm stuck up?"

EJ stepped back and smiled at him. "You didn't speak to me the first oh, year that you came into Pop's."

"What?"

"You came in every morning and ordered the same thing, put the change in the tip cup and left. What was I supposed to think?" she asked.

The look on Lance's face was hard to take. For a moment he seemed angry then he looked upset about her admission.

"I…I…," he stuttered.

"Look, I'm not saying that I thought you were stuck up, but what is a person supposed to think when someone comes in every day for three months straight and doesn't say a word?" She paused for a moment and took his hand. "I wanted you to say something to me, but I didn't want to say something to you first. I didn't want to bother you and have you never come into Pop's again. I would have hated myself if you'd disappeared like that. Even if you weren't who you were I would have been upset if you'd never come in again."

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He took her words to heart and watched as she suddenly saddened. He'd been wondering where things were going to go with them, but knew, from her recent confession that they were definitely more than a fling. There was something about her, something that he couldn't quite put a finger on, that he liked about her.

"God, I totally sound like a cheese-ball," she said letting go of his hand she stepped into the elevator.

"No," he said and stepped in beside her. He slipped his hand into hers and squeezed her hand. "A stalker maybe, but definitely not a cheese-ball."

"Why do you always tease me about that?" she asked.

"Because I find it funny that people out there know more about me than I know about me," he admitted. He pulled her close and leaned his forehead against her cheek. "I don't mean to make you mad. It's just part of my life."

"You don't think that I'm psycho or something do you?"

"The first time I think that someone who generally likes me is psycho is the day…" He laughed. "EJ, you are definitely not on my stalker list or anything. I actually was going to talk to you today about what would happened if we started dating."

"If we started dating?" she asked and leaned back from him. "What are we doing now?"

"We're seeing each other," he said.

The elevator opened and they walked out. At the front sliding glass doors Lance let go of her hand and walked with her to the car without touching her again. He didn't want it to be that way, but for the moment, before they settled everything, he had to act as formal with her as possible. Hopefully by the time they got to Hawaii the next morning they'd have things settled. He hated this in-between stage that seemed to have them stuck in neutral for the moment.

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[[SIX]]
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"Hi," a female voice came from behind her. She didn't turn around right away. She wasn't sure if the person was talking to her and if they were talking to her she wasn't sure if she should answer. "You must be EJ."

EJ turned around from where she'd gone to put her bag with Lance's to see a woman watching her with a wide smile on her face. She wore sunglasses and a baseball hat and carried a backpack with a day-planner book hugged to her chest along with a cup of coffee that she was balancing in one hand. She wore jeans and a red T-shirt. It seemed to be the uniform of the day considering that most of the rest of the group were dressed in the same manner. She seemed to be more formal in her actions than the others.

"Hi. I'm Melinda." EJ stared at her. "I'm the groups' Special Projects Producer." She reached and shook EJ's hand with her free hand even though EJ wasn't offering it to her. "I'm the one in charge for the weekend and I need to give you a few instructions."

"Instructions?" EJ asked and looked over to where Lance was standing with some fans taking pictures with the others in the group. She shivered and reminded herself to grab out a jacket before they got on the plane. At the house, befoe they'd left, Lance had insisted that she bring one with her and since he seemed to be the more experienced traveler he had grabbed one of his hooded sweatshirts for her. She was glad that he had offered because she knew that she was going to need it. She'd forgotten about the air conditioning in the airport.

When they'd arrived at the airport with the others Lance had gone into a robotic sort of mood. He took EJ's hand and steered her through the crowd of people around along with the security. She'd expected a fairly large group to be traveling with them, but seemed as if the group was about twenty-strong when they gathered near the gate. Lance excused himself to go and talk to some fans and EJ told him she'd wait for him.

Melinda made a face to show that she had made some sort of mistake and leaned down to set her paper coffee cup on the little table next to the row of chairs they were standing next to. "Well they aren't really instructions," Melinda said and sighed. She reached into the zipper pocket of the nylon windbreaker she had tied around her waist. "I just need you to put these on your bags."

She handed her bright pink tags, enough for her bags and for Lance's bags then opened her schedule book up. She flipped through the pages of her book and handed her two tickets. "Here is your seat assignment and Lance's."

EJ took in this woman and wondered how someone so young could be in charge. She half expected some older, grandma or grandpa person to be in charge, not the young woman in front of her.

"You'll be rooming next door to Lance while we're in Hawaii. We've booked a villa so they'll be a connecting door so…" EJ picked up on a northeastern accent and wondered where Melinda was from. She knew everyone else was from places other than Orlando and wondered if Melinda was too.

EJ watched Melinda flip through her book again. "We're going to have you all have time to go shopping on Friday and Saturday there are going to be some press events for the guys, but you and the other girls and I can get out and have a little fun." She pulled out a sheet of paper. "Here's the itinerary for the weekend. Don't lose this."

When the paper was into EJ's hand she looked at it for a moment. "You said other girls?"

"The other girlfriends," Melinda said and closed her book and looked around for a moment. "The redhead over there is Bobbee. She's here with JC. The blond girl she's with is Danielle, you can call her Dani, everyone does. She's works with Chris."

EJ watched the two model looking women with some apprehension. They both looked like they were dressed and ready to walk down the runway, not step onto a plane for six hours. She definitely was going to be the ugly duckling in this group.

"Joey's brother Steve is over there with Kellie," Melinda said. "Kellie is Joey's good friend."

"Oh," EJ said.

"I'm sure you'll meet everyone sooner or later," Melinda said. "Relax. All of this seems complicated and I'm sure it probably is, but really it's simple. Stick with Lance and you'll be fine. If you get away from the group or whatever and security won't let you over to us just tell any of the guards that you're from McDowells. It's a long story, but they'll know what you're talking about and they'll get you to wherever you need to go."

Melinda seemed to notice something away from them and turned to leave. "If you need anything else just come and find me."

"Thanks," EJ said as she walked away.

EJ took a seat next to the bags and pulled out the novel she'd gotten to read on the flights out west. Lance had explained to her that there would be some part of the weekend that they wouldn't be able to hang out, due to his commitments with the group, and she'd planned ahead by getting a thick novel instead of grabbing up one of her favorite paperbacks.

"Hey you," a voice said.

EJ looked up from her book to find Nick standing there.

"Hey Nick," she said with a smile. It was nice to finally see a friendly face that she knew. He stood in front of her with his hands stuck deep in his jeans pockets. He too had a backpack on and seemed to be looking around a little as if he was in the middle of working, but had just stopped by to say hello.

"I see Lance talked you into coming with us," he said with a smile.

"Yeah well going to Hawaii isn't like torture or something," she said.

Nick laughed and rocked back on his feet. "I gotta run, but maybe sometime this weekend we can hang out," Nick suggested, "You know, grab some coffee or a pineapple or something."

EJ watched him for a moment. She wondered why he was the only one being nice to her. She had a very strong feeling that she was going to be on the outside of their group of friends for a long time, but somehow Nick seemed to really want to be friends with her.

Normally that wouldn't have been an issue or problem, but it seemed strange after sitting in silence in the van with the others on the way over to the airport that now he wanted to be friends. Everyone else, except for Melinda's short introduction, had been distant and had practically ignored that she was even there.

"That sounds great."

"Maybe Sunday while the guys are at soundcheck."

"I'll keep the date open," EJ said and watched him give her a wave and leave.

Her eye caught Bobbee and Dani on the far side of the waiting area talking. She hoped that they weren't talking about her, but she thought that they might be considering how they kept looking over at her. She didn't want to hate these girls, she didn't know them at all, but being stared at that way wasn't making her feel welcome at all.
 
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"Where's EJ?" Nick asked.

Lance hadn't really been paying attention to EJ. He'd seen her go over and sit down with their bags and he'd thought nothing of it, but when he glanced up from what he was signing for a fan he saw this hurt look in her eyes, almost the same exact look she'd had in her eyes when she'd met Britney earlier in the day.

"Excuse me guys," Lance said to the group of girls in front of him. "I need to go get something out of my bag. I'll be back if the flight doesn't board."

The girls nodded and kept snapping pictures as he made his way over to where EJ was sitting. He wondered why anyone would want a picture of his back, but he figured they just wanted ANY picture of him at this point.

"You ok?" Lance asked and sat down next to EJ. He grabbed his bag and slid in between his feet then unzipped it and pretended to look for something.

"Yeah," she said coming out of the daze he'd seen her in a moment before. She watched him for a moment. "What are you looking for?"

He looked down at his hands. "Nothing."

"Then what are you doing going through your bag?" she asked.

"I wanted to check on you and instead of telling all the fans over there what I was doing I said I had to go find something in my bag."

"So that's how it is with you…lying to the fans?" Her attitude couldn't be hidden. He wondered if he'd made her mad by leaving her alone. He thought that he'd explained it to her in the car about having to sign autographs, but maybe she hadn't understood.

"It's a little white lie and it's a lot easier to explain that I'm looking for something than to say I have to talk to you which leads to the question: Is that your girlfriend? Which leads to an all out war of questions about you," he said. He stuck his hand way into the bag and pulled out his palm pilot. He looked at it for a second and continued, "I'd rather not have my girlfriend be hounded so I thought I'd save you the trouble."

"So now I'm your girlfriend?" she asked. She sounded surprised to have the title.

Lance stared at her for a moment. He'd thought that their conversation earlier in the day had covered all this, but he guessed that it hadn't from her reaction. He would have jumped right into a conversation with her about it, but it didn't seem to be the right place or the right time to do so.

"We'll talk more about this on the plane," he said. He looked at his palm pilot again then shoved it back into his bag. "This isn't really…"

EJ cut him off before he could explain. "I'm just messing with you Lance."

"But you're ok aren't you?" he asked.

"Yeah, why wouldn't I be?" she asked.

Lance stared at her for a moment. "I just thought that…I saw your face a minute ago and thought you might need some company."

"I'm fine. Go and talk to your fans," she said, "You'll have eleven hours of plane time to talk to me."

It was strange to hear a woman, someone he was dating, tell him to talk to the fans. With all his other girlfriends he'd had to go out of his way to talk to them instead of the fans.

"What are you staring at?" she asked.

Blinking away his daze Lance stood up. "Nothing."

"Well go sign a few more autographs so those girls don't eat you alive the next time they see you," she said.

"Ah, yeah," Lance said and kept his eye on her for a moment as he backed away from her and returned to the group of people that he'd been talking to before.

"What was that all about?" Justin asked as Lance returned to the group.

"Who's next?" Lance asked and held out his hands only to be bombarded with papers and pens for autograph signing. He chose one and smiled as he signed. "It's nothing Justin."

Justin gave him a strange look over the heads of the fans, but didn't speak another word about it as they continued the autograph signing session.

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"United Flight 95 will now be boarding. We invite our first class and business class passengers to please board now."

EJ stood up at the sound of the PA system's announcement to collect her things. Lance was still over with the fans, but came back over just in time to help her. She'd just packed up her bag and had gotten the hooded sweatshirt on when he grabbed up his backpack and threw it on. He held up EJ's for her to slide into then he, amazingly enough, grabbed their two suitcases and headed with her to get in line with the other passengers, most of which were in their group.

As the line slowed up EJ fanned her face with the tickets and watched Lance's face. He'd set down the bags and was now pushing them along with his feet as they inched forward. He seemed tense and she wasn't sure if it was because of her or of the whole situation.

She hoped that it wasn't her.

Although most of EJ's attention was on Lance, she caught parts of conversations around her. How couldn't she? There were so many people in their group that it was hard not to get caught up in it all. Justin, JC and Bobbee were talking about some awards show thing that happened a few weeks before with Britney.

"So Nick has the tape?" Britney asked. "Justin you have to get it back from him.

"I will, I will," Justin assured her and hit into her a little with a laugh.

EJ hadn't seen her arrive, but was almost glad to see Britney give her a wave as they were in line.

EJ waved back then overheard Joey was telling some joke to Chris.

"So there are these four potatoes standing on the corner…"

"What are potatoes doing on the corner?" Chris asked.

Joey let out groan. "It's a joke, just listen to me."

"Fine," Chris said.

"So there are these potatoes on the corner…How do you know which one is the prostitute?"

"I don't know Joe," Chris said.

"The one with the sticker that says I-DA-HO."

"You kiss your mother with that mouth Joseph Fatone?" a female voice said.

EJ turned her head to see Dani staring at him with a furious look on her face.

The bodyguards still seemed to be on alert, but they were chatting over how crazy the fans were. They were making comments about how funny it was to see the girls cry.

"Don't stare too hard," Lance said with a laugh next to her.

"How can I not stare?" she said, "This is just way too…"

"Please don't say surreal," he said. "That word is way overused."

"I actually was going to say weird."

"Why weird?" he asked.

"It’s like this whole Twilight Zone episode. I'm just waiting for you to all turn into aliens or something."

"Aliens?" Chris said from next to her.

EJ nodded.

"He already is an alien. I mean who can be that geeky and still get all the girls." Chris burst into a fit of laughter and got hit by Dani who was trying to quiet him down.

"Shut it Christian," Lance said and pouted a little.

"Oh…poor baby got made fun of," EJ said joking around a little. "Like that happens every day."

"Actually with these guys it does," Dani said. She watched EJ for a moment. "I'm Dani, by the way. Since my boyfriend here seems not to want to introduce everyone."

"I'm EJ," she said.

"I know," Dani said.

They arrived at the checkin spot and everyone got out their tickets. There was a panic for a moment when Chris couldn't find his.

"Damn it Chris," Melinda said pushing her way over to him she handed her schedule book and cup of coffee to Joey who took them but looked insulted to be holding them. It only took her a minute, but she was soon checking Chris's pockets. "Where did you put it?"

"A little to the left," Chris said with a laugh as she patted down his pants pockets like she was a police officer or something. He held his hands up and looked at EJ with a smirk on his face.

"Gross Chris." Melinda made a face at him.

"You know you love it," Chris said with a laugh.

Justin grabbed Melinda when she playfully lunged at Chris.

EJ watched the others trying not to laugh. She finally realized that the whole thing was a joke to make a fool of Melinda.

"Dirty old man," Melinda muttered.

Dani seemed to diffuse the situation when she held up his ticket with a laugh. "I'm sorry Melinda. I would have told you sooner that I had his ticket, but you seemed to be having so much fun feeling him up."

Everyone in the group laughed, including EJ, although she was more embarrassed than anything else.

"Whatever," Melinda said and walked back to where her bag was waiting for her.

"Thanks honey," Chris said, "I'd lose my head if it weren't for you."Chris leaned and kissed her cheek and smiled.

EJ was envious of their relationship. They both seemed comfortable with each other and the fact that a group of about twenty people were staring at them and taking pictures. They didn't seem to notice anything around them.

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Lance shuffled along with the others as they made their way to the plane. The flight attendants helped everyone settle in. They were flying first clas with the whole group taking up the entire section of seating so once the curtains were pulled across the section everyone seemed to relax a little.

"So how do you guys usually spend your flights?" EJ asked looking around as everyone seemed to be getting out walkman's and reading material. Bobbee and JC were sitting across from them already looking like they were going to go to sleep while Nick and Melinda seemed to be opening up a portable office behind them.

"It depends." Lance slid out of his shoes and leaned back in his seat. "If it's a long flight everyone usually sleeps or watches movies. Joey and Justin both have portable DVD players that they got in Japan."

"Japan?" she said, "What was Japan like?

Lance could tell her a million stories, but decided not to. It wasn't worth the trouble of trying to explain how fifteen thousand people show up at your hotel and stalk you for the entire time you're in the country. "It was cool. The fans over there are crazy."

"Did you get to travel around at all?" she asked.

"A little. We usually plan trips around the places we go. Sometimes we have to cancel them, but mostly we get to go and see specific things, like a zoo or a museum or something."

"And the clubs!" Joey said leaning over the chair. "This guy Lance may be the good boy of the group, but he's definitely got his name in at every VIP room in the world."

EJ laughed and watched Lance blush. "Just don't tell my mom that."

"I think your secret is safe with me since I don't know her."

"You didn't tell her?" Joey asked.

Lance glared at Joey.

"What?" EJ asked.

"My mom, dad, sister and brother in law are going to be in Hawaii."

"What?" EJ said, "So I not only get to meet everyone in the group but your parents too?"

"I've met your dad," he said calmly.

"Yeah well that’s because I happen to live above his restaurant!"

"Don't freak out," Joey said, "Diane and Jim are the best. Besides, they haven't been to Hawaii in a long time which means they are going to be out and about. They probably won't even see you guys."

EJ had been fairly tense most of the afternoon, but now seemed to be a basketcase of nerves. She gripped the arm holds of the seat and stared at him with wide eyes as if she'd just heard the worst news in the world. He hoped that she'd relax a little. He liked the relaxed version of her a lot and didn't want to see her uncomfortable.

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