We wandered into Johnny's office building around a quarter to noon. Joey waved at the guard as we quickly walked to the elevator. We waited for the doors to open and stepped inside. Once the doors shut, I turned to Joey and said, "Are you sure this is a good idea?"
"I'm sure it's a bad idea, but do we have a choice?"
"I guess not. Well, let's get this over with quickly."
We got off the elevator on the fourth floor and trudged down the hallway. Being a Sunday, there was no one around, so we passed by his secretary's desk and knocked lightly on his office door. "Come in!" barked Johnny's voice.
Walking into Johnny's office, I immediately assessed my surroundings, and was surprised how ugly his office was. The walls were mostly bare and painted an awful pale yellow; the bookshelf on the back wall was cluttered and disorganized; the carpet was green and boring. His desk was in the same shape as his bookshelf—completely buried by papers. Johnny was on the phone, so he waved us to the three chairs across from his desk. We sat down and stared at him as he began to mutter to whomever he was speaking to.
I looked over at the third chair and wondered if it was meant for someone or just happened to be there. I motioned to Joey and silently asked him about it. He just shrugged his shoulders and mouthed, "No idea."
I didn't need to wait long to have my question answered, because within a minute Eric waltzed through he door, shutting it behind him. His eyes met mine, and a small grin tugged at the corners of his mouth as he took the unoccupied chair, moved it a modest distance away from Joey, who was sitting in the middle, and plunked himself down.
"I'm sorry, but you have no ground to negotiate on. Now, I have a meeting waiting for me. Good day," Johnny said as he hung up the phone. Turning to Joey, Eric, and me, he said, "Good morning gentlemen. I'm glad you're here."
"Cut the phony act, Johnny, and get to it," Joey snarled.
Johnny shot Eric a look and laughed. "You two are definitely a pair, that's for sure. You're a lot alike."
"So, what do you and the thug over here want?" Joey continued, his demeanor never wavering.
"Who do you think you are, calling me a thug?" Eric thundered as his glare fixed itself into Joey's.
The two continued to stare each other down until I said, "Eric, be nice, or I'll call Jerrica." Eric's gaze shifted, and then he quickly looked over his shoulder at the door as if he were expecting to find her there.
"Ha ha," Eric mumbled, his face turning bright red.
"Now leave the poor boy alone," Johnny said reproachfully. Turning to us, he said, "Well, it seems an apology is due in this office, and I think this is the perfect time for it."
He looked over at me, and I just stared back at him, folding my arms across my chest. If this idiot thinks he's getting an apology out of me, he's got another thing coming! I thought smugly. Oooh, déjà vu. I know I've had this thought before.Smiling confidently at Johnny, I said loudly, "I agree."
"You do?" Joey asked suddenly, whipping his head around to look in my direction. I nodded back at him, and then jerked my head slightly in Johnny's direction, trying to convey what I meant. After a second, Joey understood where I was coming from and turned back to face his manager.
"Boys," Johnny began, but that word alone solicited a cough and a glower from me. "Gentlemen," Johnny corrected himself. Glancing in my direction and sensing my approval, he continued. "I want to apologize for my behavior last night. I didn't conduct myself in a very professional manner, and some of the things I said were uncalled for."
"And?" Joey prompted.
"And...I promise not to be so judgmental in the future."
"And what?" Johnny asked in an exasperated tone.
"And I apologize for butting into people's personal business and trying to dictate how they live their lives, especially when it's none of my business," Joey finished.
"Yes, yes. All right. I apologize for that too. Listen guys," Johnny said as warmly as he could manage, "we truly seem to have gotten off on a wrong foot here. Will, I can only imagine what kind of a monster you think I am."
"Hmph!" was all I uttered as I rolled my eyes.
"Okay, I guess I deserved that. Joey, you know I'm not such a bad guy. So I got a little ahead of myself. I didn't mean some of the things I said. You know as well as I do that the only things I am concerned about are your career and the public's perception of you."
"Whatever," Joey muttered.
"Hey!" Eric said, finally speaking up. "The guy is trying to apologize, and you at least owe it to him to listen." Joey looked like he was going to start to argue with Eric, but I placed a hand on his arm and squeezed until he calmed down.
"Now, I hope you will accept my apology. Moving on," he said as he shuffled some papers on his desk, "Will has reminded me of something I want—no, need—to discuss with you both. While we are on tour, I know there is no way I can keep the two of you apart and, while I wish you would because it would make keeping up appearances much simpler, I'm not going to try. However, you must keep stuff like that," he said as he pointed at my hand on Joey's arm, "under wraps. There are to be absolutely no public displays of affection of any sort whatsoever. What you do behind closed doors is, I suppose, no one's business but your own, but just keep in mind that while there may be times you think you are alone, you're not. Always be observant of your surroundings."
"No offense, Johnny," I said, "but you're not telling me anything that isn't already common sense. What sort of airhead do you take me for?"
"Tell me, Will, when you had the guys staying at your house, did you ever...uh...display affection outside of the house?"
"Well, we kissed..."
"Oh, don't go into detail, please!" Eric shouted as he put his hands to his face. "The mental images would give me nightmares for weeks."
I tightened my grip on Joey's arm as I felt the muscles in his arm start to tense up. "Fine. In the backyard, a couple of times."
Eric's face started to turn red. "You idiot! Don't you realize that your neighbors could have seen you?"
Turning to look at him, I said, "Eric, you've never been to my house. You have no idea what it looks like, which means you also don't know that it's in the middle of flipping nowhere! My closest neighbor is half a mile down the road through some dense woods. The house sits a quarter of a mile back from the road. The road I live on, as of yet, doesn't even appear on the map! Who's going to see? Look, I understand your concern, but like I said, I'm not an idiot, which I see is contrary to some people's opinion."
Eric turned a deeper shade of red and looked away from me. "Yeah, well..." he stammered, and then fell silent.
"That's all fine and dandy Will, but if you're out in the open, that means there is always someone who could see you. Just be very, very careful," Johnny said.
"Yeah, yeah. Faites attention. Je comprends," I muttered. Pay attention. I got it. Sheesh! I thought. It's not like they need to hit me over the head with it.
"All right then," Johnny said. "I know I can trust you guys, right?"
"Duh?" I replied, losing complete patience with this conversation. I glanced over at Joey, who had his eyes closed and was shaking his head.
"Good. Now on to other things. Will, do you..." Johnny began, but he was cut off by the ringing of my cell phone. Slightly embarrassed, I pulled the phone out of my pocket and looked at the Caller ID. I didn't recognize the phone number, but saw that it came from California. "Well, go ahead," Johnny said.
I flipped open my phone and said, "Hello?"
"Robért-James, it's about time I found you!" came Kimber's voice. "I tried calling you at home, but you weren't there. I talked to your friend Jerrica, and when I was finally able to pry your cell phone number out of her, I hung up and called you. Did you know she can ramble on forever?"
"Tell me something I don't know!" I said with a laugh.
"Anyway, I hope this is a good time. Are you able to talk?"
"Um, I'm in a meeting in Orlando," I replied, stressing the last word.
"I bet it's with that creep Johnny Wright," Kimber guessed.
"Yep," I said, trying to show as little emotion as possible.
"Listen," she continued, "we need to have our own little meeting as soon as possible. If you're truly serious about this, then we need to really talk about everything. I'll arrange a ticket for you to leave later tonight, all right?"
"No, no, that's okay," I said. "I'll figure out something and make it work. Listen, I need to go. I'll call you back as soon as I can." Hanging up, I caught Johnny's eye and, thinking fast, said, "My mother. My grandmother is in the hospital and isn't doing well. So, if we can move this along, I need to try and catch a flight tonight."
Johnny's expression softened considerably. "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. Yes, yes. Uh, have you had a chance to look over those contracts yet?"
I shook my head. "No, they're still being reviewed. I'll probably have them tomorrow."
"Okay. Um, Joey? We're still planning to proceed with your first concert bring next Sunday in Richmond. That is contingent on JC being cleared to perform by his doctor. If you would let Lance know that?"
"Sure. Whatever you say," Joey said distractedly.
"And I think that is that. Will, I'll see you on Tuesday. Good day gentlemen," Johnny said, standing up. He reached over to shake my hand, which I did quickly after much reluctance. He turned to shake Joey's hand, but Joey just rolled his eyes and went to walk out. I nodded to Eric, who completely ignored me, and followed Joey out the door.
Closing the door behind me, Johnny turned to Eric and said, "Why do I get the feeling that those two are going to give me nothing but headaches?"
Eric shrugged. "It's no big deal, boss. I've kept all five under control for a long time—what's one more? Besides, every time I've met him, he's been extremely quiet. Well, except for that one time, but I don't think he'll be that much of an issue."
"I hope not," Johnny said as he sat down, "but I have this nagging suspicion that we haven't heard the last word out of those two. Not by a long shot."
"So, who was really on the phone?" Joey inquired as we walked out into the warm Florida sunshine. "I know it wasn't your mother."
Intrigued, I looked over at him and said, "What makes you say that?"
Laughing, he replied, "You spoke English. Considering the fact that your mother wrote you a letter in French, I'm assuming that she would have spoken to you that way as well."
"Great deduction, Mr. Holmes," I said, referring to the great detective of literary fame. "You are, of course, correct. It was Kimber, and she wants to meet with me as soon as possible. She didn't tell me much, but I'm guessing it's about those contracts."
"And she wants you to come now?" Joey asked incredulously.
"Apparently so," I said as we approached Joey's car. "I guess I should find out when the next flight to Los Angeles is."
We climbed into Joey's car and shut the doors. "Dang. You've hardly been here twelve hours and you're running away again." He glanced over at me and noted the sad look in my eyes. "I know you have to go, Will. Don't feel bad. This is important. Besides, just wait until you join us on tour. Then we'll see each other all the time!"
"True," I said, "but I feel kind of bad bailing out on you like this."
"Well, I could always come with you," Joey suggested.
I was touched. "Oh, you don't have to do that," I said, "unless you really, really, really want to. I just don't want you to feel like you have to."
'Of course not," Joey said. "I want to. Well, if you're calling the airline, get me a ticket then."
I shook my head. "Absolutely not. That's what companion passes are for."
"Welcome to the joy of flying standby," I said with a grin as I pulled out my cell phone. I explained the procedure to Joey and then called Mandy as he drove us back to his house.
"Will, what's up man?" Mandy asked cheerfully. Mandy was always cheerful. It was one of the most charming, and sometimes most disgusting, traits of her personality. "Listen, I can't talk long. It's almost twelve-thirty, so I have to log in soon."
"You're not using your phone on the floor, are you?" I said in mock condescension. Using your cell phone while on the reservations floor was technically a big no-no, but you could usually get away with it as long as you weren't on company time.
"Uh, no?" Mandy said unconvincingly.
"No worries," I said with a laugh. "Besides, I need you to do me a favor. What's the next flight from Orlando to Los Angeles?"
"Hang on while I plug in my earphone," she said. After a brief moment, she came back on the line. "That's better. Now I can talk to you and type at the same time. Mickeyworld to Mickeyland? There's a two-nineteen nonstop, but it looks kind of full. There's also a connection through Kansas City at two forty-five and one through Detroit at one fifty-seven, if you think you can make it."
"I think it will be easier on my traveling partner if we take the nonstop," I said with a chuckle. "I don't know if he could handle the stress of a connection."
"Traveling partner?" Mandy queried. "Don't tell me Joey's going with you?"
In the background I heard someone squeal. "Is Karri standing behind you?" I asked.
"Yeah," Mandy said sheepishly. "She just walked up, heard what I was saying, and is now pestering me to talk to you. Hold on."
Within seconds Karri's voice burst into my ear. "Hi Will! Is Joey with you? Hi Joey!"
Pulling the phone away from my ear, I turned to Joey and said, "Karri screamed hello. I'm certain she would like you to scream back."
Grinning widely, he yelled, "Hi Karri!"
I put the phone to my ear just in time to hear Karri whisper to Mandy, "Good God Joey sounds so sexy. How did Will ever get so lucky?"
"I heard that!" I said as I pictured Karri's face turning bright red from embarrassment. "Now, do me two favors. First, would you two try and keep it down over there? You know you both have to keep this a secret."
"Oh, stop being such a worrywart," Karri said. "We're over here in our usual corner on a Sunday, for crying out loud. There's hardly anyone in here, and they're all on the other side of the room."
"Whatever. Just give the phone back to Mandy, okay?"
"Fine. Be that way. Now I can see why Jerrica calls you a brat."
I could hear Mandy wrestling the phone away from Karri. "Such a wonderful person, isn't she?" Mandy asked.
"Usually yes. However, remind me to keep her away from Jerrica. Apparently, Jerrica's been rubbing off on her, and heaven knows one of Jerrica is more than enough."
Mandy laughed. "Especially for you, right? So, you want me to list you and your friend over there for the nonstop flight then?"
"Yeah," I replied. "I didn't want to call the reservations number for obvious reasons. The minute I mention Joey's name, it'll raise way too many questions."
"Understand," she said as she started typing. Moments later, she stated, "Your listing is done. Your confirmation is 4G7XC5. I assumed you wanted first class, right?"
"Like he would fly anything but?" I said with a grin. Joey shot me an odd look, but then turned his attention back to the road.
"I guess not," she replied. "The back only has a couple of seats open, but first class looks great. There are a few standbys on the list, but I think you'll make it."
"I hope so," I said, "otherwise he's going to find out how to change planes, non-rev style."
"Talk about a crash course," Mandy said with a laugh. "Ooh, maybe I shouldn't say the word 'crash.' Listen, I have to jet, so call me later and tell me how it went."
"Will do. Bye Mandy," I said before hanging up.
"So what's the deal?" Joey asked.
"You have ten minutes to pack," I said as we pulled into his driveway. "Starting now."
"The flight leaves in just under two hours, so we need to hurry. You only need a couple of changes of clothes at the most. If you want, you can just toss them into my bag," I said as I hopped out of the car and sprinted up the walkway. "Thank goodness I didn't unpack anything!"
It had been, to anyone watching, a comical experience. Reflecting on the entire scene later, I realized how incredibly funny it must have looked, but at the time I was going nuts. All of my clothes were still in my bag, so I was ready to go in about fifteen seconds. Joey, on the other hand, was trying to select stylish outfits that matched each other. He was also trying to pick out clothes he could wear in the event we went out somewhere. He seemed to be having trouble making up his mind, so I finally told him that if he didn't pick quickly, I was going to select something for him, and I would make sure he looked like he had gotten dressed in the dark. This spurred him along and, after only a total of twelve minutes, we were out the door and on our way to the airport.
We arrived at the ticket counter with just over an hour before flight time—cutting it really close for an airport as busy as Orlando. I checked us in on one of the new kiosk things the airline had just started rolling out earlier that year. While I despised the things, knowing full well that, regardless of the rhetoric the company was spewing, they would eventually start replacing the employees behind the counter, I was thankful that the machines did not know, nor care, who Joey was.
We made our way to the gate and sat down in a far off corner away from the rest of the crowd. We watched as the flight began to board, and most of the passengers had boarded when the standbys were called. I was absolutely thrilled when the gate agent called, "Robertson, party of two." Thank God she didn't call out Joey's name in the terminal, I thought as I went to retrieve our boarding passes. Looking at them, I breathed yet another sigh of relief. The seats were together in First Class—something that can't always be guaranteed—which meant, in my mind, there was even less potential for problems. Heaven forbid Joey somehow find himself seated next to someone who recognized him, or worse—recognized him and was a fan! Note to self, I thought, flying standby with Joey may not be such a great idea after all.
We boarded the plane and quickly took our seats in the last row of the First Class cabin. I had done my best to shield Joey's face from the passengers who were already onboard, and minus a couple of stares from the passengers in First Class, we had managed to fly under the radar from the general public. Joey seemed to be taking the entire ordeal in stride; I was a nervous wreck.
"That wasn't so bad," Joey said as we sat down—me on the window and him on the aisle.
"It's not a done deal until the door is closed," I whispered. If life were a movie, that would have been the cue for the door to close. It didn't, but I could tell from the flurry of activity in the forward galley that all passengers were onboard. Moments later, I heard the door shut, which caused me to relax in my seat. Joey glanced over at me, which prompted me to smile and say, "Door's closed. Time to go."
As we prepared for takeoff, I felt Joey grab my arm and grip it hard. It had barely been eighteen hours since yesterday's flight, and I had already forgotten how much Joey didn't like takeoffs. "How do you remain so calm?" Joey asked as the aircraft began to accelerate.
"Practice!" I said with a grin. "I probably experience fifty takeoffs a year at a minimum. You just get used to them."
"Well, I know one thing," Joey said as the aircraft began to leave the ground. "Life with you around will never be boring!"
The warm afternoon sun was shining brightly as we arrived into Los Angeles just before five o'clock. The flight had been uneventful—Joey slept most of the way and I read a book. I would have liked to have fallen asleep, but I was too preoccupied in making sure that Joey didn't fall asleep on my shoulder. What a lovely picture that would have been!
I had thrown Joey's clothes into my suitcase, and since it was carry-on size we went directly to the curb after deplaning and hailed a taxi to take us to our hotel where Kimber would meet us for dinner. Upon arrival at the hotel, Joey went into the lobby and waited while I checked in. I took my bag, went upstairs, and then called Joey on his cell phone to give him the room number. I hoped we would look less conspicuous if we went up to the room separately rather than together. I know that no one, as of yet, remotely suspected anything going on between myself and Joey, but Los Angeles is the Paparazzi Capital of America, and I didn't want to give anyone reason to be suspicious. Call me paranoid, but when I committed myself to this relationship with Joey, I vowed to myself that I would protect him and his career at all costs.
The room was quite nice. It was, in fact, a suite with two queen size beds, a kitchen area, and a desk for a makeshift office "This place looks great," Joey said when I let him in the room. "Ooh! A mini-bar!" He opened up the mini-bar and looked over the selection. "Do you want anything out of here?"
"No way," I said. "Do you have any idea how overpriced that stuff is?" I should have remembered who I was talking to, but that fact had momentarily escaped me. "Sorry Joe, but I refuse to pay $8.50 for a twelve ounce bottle of Evian."
Joey's eyes widened. "Is it really that expensive?"
"I take it you never had to pay the hotel bill, right?"
"Well, yeah, but I never really stopped to look and see how much things actually cost."
I couldn't help but laugh. "If you really want it Joe, take it. I'll just make sure I stop off somewhere on the way back and pick up some things we want." Joey looked a little crestfallen, so I said, "I didn't mean to burst your bubble. I like to treat myself as much as the next person, but I try to watch my expenses. It's just the way I was raised, I guess."
"I guess I am a little too extravagant sometimes," Joey said, recalling some of his impulse buys over the past couple of years that he ended up regretting.
"I can't say with any certainty that I wouldn't have done the same as you, Joe," I said quietly, "but since I've never been in your fiscal situation, I have no way of knowing for sure. Anyway, if you really want something out of there, please feel free to take it with no guilt. We don't have any time to get something anywhere else, and I definitely want to shower and change clothes before meeting Kimber, who will be here in...." I stopped to peer at my watch. "...less than fifteen minutes!"
I quickly grabbed a change of clothes out of my bag and hurried into the bathroom. Once I had closed the door, I chided myself for barking at Joey like that. Open mouth, insert foot, I thought as I turned on the water. While in many aspects we were remarkably similar, the differences that we shared continued to surprise me at times. Just one more issue to work through, I thought as I undressed and stepped into the shower. As the warm water cascaded over my body, all thoughts began to drift away as I succumbed to the relaxing effect the water had on me. I soon found myself humming as I washed my body. I suppose it was inevitable, because I eventually began to sing as I started to wash my hair.
Unbeknownst to me, Kimber had arrived early. We redheads are unpredictable like that. We're either five minutes early or twenty minutes late. I usually found myself in the latter category. Just my luck that Kimber was in the former that day.
The water had helped warm up my vocal cords, and the steam from the shower along with the small size of the bathroom seemed to give the space great acoustics. Had I realized that Kimber was also outside the door listening to me instead of just Joey, I would have kept my big yap shut.
Music is magic.
Music makes you fly.
Music is magic.
It finds you when you're low,
And lifts you to the sky!
The end note was right at the top end of my range—some days I could hit it better than others, and some days not at all. I was rather impressed by the fact that I had managed to nail it so well. I wasn't even flat that time, which was a common occurrence for the topmost notes. Jerrica often had this misperception that because I could hit the really high notes sometimes that I could do it all the time—on key. Like any good instrument, I had to practice a lot to sing them in tune, and I had been out of practice for a little while.
I shut off the water, grabbed a towel, and stepped out of the shower. I toweled myself dry and quickly got dressed. I had just finished running my hands through my hair to make it look semi-presentable—I had left my comb in my bag—when I threw the door open to find two grinning faces staring back at me. The look on my face must have been priceless, because the two burst out laughing. I tried hard to frown at them, but I found it increasingly difficult to do. Finally, I rolled my eyes, pushed past them, and went into the living room area to sit down.
Kimber, who I suppose had been slightly suspicious, went into the bathroom only to come out moments later. Cocking her head to one side, she said, "There's no radio in there."
"Was there supposed to be?" I asked. "You mean there's supposed to be a radio in the bathroom and it's missing? I guess I'll have to call and complain."
"Robért-James, don't be a smart aleck. If I didn't know any better, I would have sworn that was Jem singing, but that's not possible."
"Kimber, please!" I whined. "Call me Will. Call me Rob. Call me 'Hey you' if you have to, but please don't call me Robért-James anymore!"
"Someone's touchy," Joey said mockingly.
"If you had a name like mine, Joseph, you'd be touchy too!" I shot back. "Oh, good gracious. Where are my manners? Have you two been formally introduced yet?"
"Not really," said Joey, "but since you've already called her Kimber, and that's who she said she was when she came in, I would presume this is the illustrious Kimber Benton from Starlight Music?"
"I'm flattered," Kimber said with a smile. "And since I didn't crawl out from under a rock this morning, I would say you are Joey Fatone of *Nsync, correct?"
"In the flesh," Joey replied as he shook Kimber's hand.
"So Robért-James—I mean, what is it now? Will?" I nodded, happy that Kimber was finally starting to catch on. "Whatever. Anyway," she said, shaking her head, "I had what has to be one of the most unusual conversations I've ever had with another record company executive in my life, and I've had some pretty strange dealings with Eric Raymond over the years."
I knew she had to be talking about Johnny, but all of this was news to me. I wasn't even aware the two had spoken. "So what happened?"
"I called him to discuss some of the language in the contracts that you sent me that I had issues with. He started arguing with me about it, told me I had no ground to negotiate on, and then hung up! Ooh, just thinking about it now makes my blood boil," she said angrily.
There was something about what Kimber had just said that registered in my head, as if I had heard those words before. "Kimber, did you have this phone call a few minutes before you called my cell phone?" I asked.
"Yeah, I wanted to warn you about what kind of a jerk he is," Kimber said, "but apparently you were already there experiencing him firsthand. You, uh, didn't sign anything while you were there, did you?"
I shook my head. "No, he expects the contracts on Tuesday. I would never sign anything without consulting you first."
"Well, that's good," she sighed. Then she stared hard at me and said, "Okay, I know when we talked last time that I said I didn't want to know how you got yourself into this. Forget that! How in the world did you get yourself into this mess?"
I looked at her, then I looked at Joey, and then I suddenly became very interested in a spot on the floor. "Will?" Joey said quietly. I looked up at Joey's very serious face. He looked me right in the eye and nodded. I understood what he was telling me, but that didn't make saying it any easier.
I stood up and walked over to the window. We were on the eighth floor, and the view of the passing traffic seemed much more intriguing at the moment than the conversation I was about to get into. "Kimber," I said at last, "you have to promise me something. You have to promise me that what I tell you does not go any further than this room. That means you absolutely can not tell my mother anything!"
"What did you do, kill someone?" Kimber asked with a half-laugh, but her face instantly went cold when she realized that neither of us was laughing. "Please tell me that's not it!"
"No, that's not it," I said. "You see, Johnny Wright is blackmailing me, in a roundabout sort of way."
"Whoa!" Kimber exclaimed. Then, looking over at Joey, she said, "No offense, Joey, but I think this is probably something he doesn't want you to hear."
"He already knows, Kimber," I said quickly. "Besides, it involves him."
"How?" Kimber asked with a very puzzled look on her face.
"You see," I began, "Joey and I...well...you see..." Just spit it out, roared the voice in my head. Just spit it out quickly and it will be over with! I looked over at Joey for help, but all he was doing was gesturing me to keep going. I don't know why this was so hard for me. Strike that. I do know why this was so hard for me. Kimber, for all intents and purposes, was a part of my family, and even though I knew she wouldn't care, there was something about telling my family that I had issues with. Wasn't it enough that I had finally accepted things for myself? I took a couple of deep breaths and finally plunged right in. "You see, Kimber, Joey is my boyfriend, and Johnny is hanging that fact over my head."
I took a step back and waited for the reaction. I have no idea what I was expecting, but my guess is that what happened was nothing like what my inventive mind could have dreamed up. Kimber sat silent for a moment, darting glances between Joey and I. She stood up, and Joey did the same. He had no clue how Kimber was going to react, but if it was negatively, he wanted to make sure he was able to protect me if things turned ugly. At last, Kimber turned toward me with a huge grin on her face as she shrieked, "Outrageous! Oh Robért-James, I'm so happy for you!" She ran over to me and swooped me up in a large hug. "Joey, come here and give me a hug!"
Joey joined in the group hug until I gasped, "Kimber! Can't breathe!" The woman might be petite, but she has a strong grip, and around my neck wasn't the best place for it to be at the time.
"Oh, sorry!" she said as she released her hold on me and Joey. "I guess I got a little excited. I'm just so happy for you. I was talking with Anne-Marie a couple of weeks ago, and she and I were starting to get a little concerned about you, especially after that whole episode with that one girl. What was her name again?"
"Allison," Joey growled, which caused me to cringe slightly.
"Right. Her. Anyway, we were worried you'd lost the ability to let someone get close to you again. I'm so glad to see that you've found someone to care about." She glanced from Joey to me and back again. "I admit that I'm a little surprised that it turned out to be a guy, and even more surprised that it turned out to be you Joey, but if Robért-James thinks you are good enough for him, then so do I." Kimber turned and glared at me after I let out a small groan. "And just what are you groaning about?"
"You're never going to stop calling me Robért-James, are you?"
Kimber's hand flew up to her mouth. "Oops. Sorry. I'll work on it, I promise."
The three of us fell silent, until I finally worked up enough nerve to ask what was on my mind. "So, you're okay with this?"
Kimber smiled warmly and gave me another hug. "Of course I am. What kind of hypocrite do you take me for? I learned to accept your mother's relationship years ago. Why should you be any different? I'm just wondering how long it's going to take you to tell her. You know I can't keep secrets for very long."
"Just promise me you'll try," I said.
"I promise, I promise!" Kimber said with a laugh. "How about we go get some dinner and talk some more about our other topic for this evening?"
"Dinner he can do," Joey interjected, "but he hates talking about himself. I hope you brought your pliers, because dragging things out of him isn't always easy."
The three of us laughed as we got ready to leave. As we walked down the hall to the elevator, Kimber whispered in my ear, "You know, he may know you better than you do." The scary thing was, she was probably right.
Dinner was at a small restaurant which was located deep in the middle of suburbia. My guess was that it was not the type of place you would normally find famous people dining, which made it a perfect place for the three of us to talk. We had sat down and barely placed our order when Kimber started in on me.
"I'm just astounded," she said. "If I hadn't heard it with my own two ears, I never would have believed it. Now I can see why that creep wants you so badly. You're fantastic."
"I guess so," I said nonchalantly.
"Will, stop trying to be modest. You sound great and you know it," Joey chastised.
"I wasn't kidding when I said you sounded almost exactly like Jem," Kimber said, referring to the lead singer of the group Kimber had once belonged to—Jem and the Holograms, "and since I know her better than almost anyone, that's saying something.
Kimber and I exchanged looks and laughed. When I was younger, I had inadvertently discovered Jem's alter ego, but that's a story for a different time. "I know Kimber," I said resolutely, "but I have a hard time taking compliments. Call it one of my fatal flaws. I have plenty. If you ever want to borrow one, feel free. I probably would never miss it."
"Will, why are you doing this to yourself?" Joey asked in annoyance. "Every time someone tries to pay you a compliment, you have to take it and turn it completely around into a negative."
"I've been doing it for so long now, I've forgotten how to stop," I said with a heavy sigh. "I'm trying to work on it, but it has become somewhat of a reflex these days. From now on, if I do that, just whack me."
"Ooh, can I do it?" Kimber asked playfully.
"She's starting to remind me of Jerrica," I said to Joey with a wink. When a look of confusion crossed Kimber's face, I clarified. "I meant my friend Jerrica, not your sister. Oy vey, that's going to be confusing."
"Most people call my sister J.B. these days," Kimber said. "Maybe that'll make it easier for you to keep track of who's who?"
"That'll work," I said.
"Good," said Kimber. "Now that we have once again gotten away from the subject at hand, let's cut to the chase, shall we?" She pulled out a briefcase, opened it, and started to take out stacks of paperwork. "You know, I usually let Jerrica—that is, J.B.—do all of this stuff, but she was busy tonight, so I told her I'd take a stab at it. It's not really my thing, but I think I can handle it. You see, Ro—, uh, Will, after I talked to you earlier today, my sister and I sat down and had a long talk. Now, she does want to hear you sing, but she thinks that you would make a great addition to our list of new artists."
"Which means what?" I asked.
Before Kimber could answer, a light came on in Joey's head and his face broke into a wide smile. "She wants to sign you, Will. Not just to be your manager, but to give you a record deal with Starlight Music. Am I right?"
"In a nutshell, yes," Kimber said, "but it does get a bit more complicated. See, we would love to have another solo artist, but most of our new releases this year are solos. We were kind of hoping for a group that we could promote—one that could potentially be as big as, well, *Nsync. You're perfect as the lead vocalist, but we need probably four more. Now, that part isn't so critical right now, but here's an advantage you do have. If you sign a deal with us, then the only way Johnny can work with you is if we contract you out, and I can assure you that won't happen unless some stringent issues are covered and in place." Kimber glanced over at me, waiting for some sort of response, but I was too intent on staring out the window.
"Looks like we've lost him again," Joey chuckled. Waving a hand in my face, he said, "Will? Earth to Will?"
"Huh?" I said, snapping out of my reverie.
"Where did you go?" Joey asked.
"Sorry. I was a bit lost in my thoughts. Kimber, that sounds wonderful, and I know I would be an idiot to refuse, but I don't know if I could see myself going solo. Just the idea of singing in front of people again makes my whole stomach turn in knots. How do you know they're going to like me? I know you both think I'm something special, but your opinion is a little different than the average person's. Besides, Allison always said I had no talent. I'm sure the rest of the world is more likely to think like her than you two," I said as I put my head down into my folded arms on the table.
"Excuse me?" Joey said loudly as he pulled my head off the table. "I'm sorry, but before you can wander back into your own little world of misery, you need to answer one question for me. Who are you going to believe? Me or Allison? Come off it Will. You know better than this."
"I know, I know!" I replied. "I just hear her voice in the back of my head so much that it starts overriding my own. It seems like some days I just can't seem to tune it out."
"I know it can be hard," Kimber said lightly, "but we all have our little demons that we have to work around. This is just one, and I'm sure Joey will help you."
"I'm sure he will," I said, giving Joey a bright smile. "All right. Back to what you were saying Kimber, I think I have an idea. You want a group to promote, right?" Kimber nodded. "Well, then why don't we make a group?"
Kimber frowned a little. "And where do you suggest we get this group?"
Joey caught my eye and his eyebrows shot up. "Will, you're not thinking of..."
"That's exactly what I'm thinking of," I said decisively. "Counting me, we already have four people." I began to tick off the names on my fingers. "Myself, Jerrica, Karri, and Mandy."
"Do you think they'll go for it?" Joey asked.
"Those drama queens?" I said with a laugh. "Didn't you hear them in the car on Friday? They wished it was them instead of me."
"That was just Karri and Mandy. What about Jerrica?" Joey asked.
"Search me. Guess I won't know until I ask her."
"Can they sing?" Kimber asked.
I turned bright red in embarrassment. "I haven't the slightest idea," I said. "I know Jerrica can, when she finally decides she can, but as for the other two, I have no clue."
At that point the food arrived, so we stopped talking long enough for the server to place the food in front of us, ask us if we needed anything else, and then walk away.
"It sounds promising," Kimber said at last, "but we're going to have to hear them, and then hear all of you together. Furthermore, you only have yourself and three girls. Considering your vocal range, I don't know if it will be enough of a mix."
"So what you're saying is we need a guy with a deep voice to counter me and sort of pull me out of the rafters," I said.
"I don't know if I would have quite put it like that, but essentially yes," Kimber admitted.
"Sounds like you have the same problem we had," Joey said. "We needed a lower voice, besides me, to counter Justin, Josh, and Chris who are all tenors. Eventually we found Lance, and *Nsync is what it is today."
We fell silent as we began to eat until the solution to our problem came to me. "Kimber, I think I've got it."
"Got what?" she asked.
"The perfect person to fill that fifth slot. He's a guy in my Irish dance class."
Kimber nearly choked on her food. "Did you say Irish dance?" I nodded. "This is getting better and better. Do you know how popular Irish dancing and music are right now? We incorporate some of that into your group, and I think we have the makings of a seriously popular group on our hands here!"
"Now, all we have to do is get everyone to say yes and see if you all actually sound good together," Joey said in between bites.
"Right," Kimber agreed. "I think we can do this. We can promote the five of you as a group, and also promote you as a solo artist. I suppose it's a bit unconventional, but one thing Starlight Music is known for is taking risks."
"We don't have lots of time," Joey said, "so we better get started as soon as possible. The only problem I can see is that Johnny wants something on Tuesday, and I don't know if we have enough time to piece something else together before that."
"He's right," I said glumly. "We need to stall. The question is how?"
We finished dinner and headed over to Starlight Music where J.B.—Jerrica Benton, Kimber's sister—was waiting for us to arrive. "Welcome to Starlight Music," she said upon our arrival.
Joey took in his surroundings. "I'm impressed," he said finally. Behind him, Kimber glowed with pride.
"Just look at you," J.B. continued. "You're all grown up now. I remember when you were two years old and I ended up babysitting you for Anne-Marie because someone," she said, staring hard at Kimber, "decided she had plans at the last minute and bailed. I tried to change your diaper and you ended up running around the house buck naked for five minutes while Aja and I tried to catch you." I turned a brand new shade of red. This was beyond embarrassing. "And who is this?" she asked, glancing over at Joey.
"Hi, I'm Joey Fatone," he said politely as he shook her hand.
J.B. cocked her head to one side and said, "Jerrica Benton. Where have I heard that name before?"
"You'll have to excuse my sister," Kimber interjected. "Unlike myself, she does live under a rock." Turning to J.B., she said, "He's a member of *Nsync."
"Oh, yes," J.B. exclaimed. "Now I recognize you! Welcome. Might I ask why you're with us today?"
All eyes shifted to me for an explanation. Here we go again, I thought. Glancing around the foyer of the building and seeing that we were alone, I said, "Joey is my boyfriend and wanted to come out here with me."
"Good for you!" came a voice from my left. I whirled around in panic to find myself face to face with Aja Leith, Shana Elmsford, and Raya Alonso. Aja was beaming from ear to ear, and Raya and Shana both sported big smiles. "And it looks like you still have a cute behind," Aja continued.
"What? Did you get all of the Holograms to gang up on me tonight or what?" I asked Kimber with a slight smile.
"Well, when we heard you were coming," Shana said quietly, "we all wanted to come say hi. When Jerrica told us why you were coming, we knew we had to be here to see this."
"Okay everyone! What are we waiting for? Let's get this show on the road," J.B. exclaimed.
"Before we go, let me make quick introductions. Before I do, is there anyone else hiding in the woodwork I should know about?" I asked.
"No," Aja said. "It's only us here tonight. Sorry if we spooked you."
"All right then. Joey Fatone, this is Aja Leith, Shana Elmsford, and Raya Alonso, also known as the Holograms. Ladies, as you've already heard, this is my boyfriend, Joey Fatone, who is also a member of the group *Nsync."
"It's so wonderful to meet you," Raya said.
"Aren't you a cutie," Shana said with a smile. "And it's Shana Julian now. Anthony and I finally got married a couple of years ago."
"Come here and give me a big hug," Aja said as she swooped in on Joey, pulling him into a tight embrace.
"Like he gets a choice in the matter?" I asked rhetorically.
"Oh, be quiet you," Aja joked. "And like Shana, it's Aja Leith-Phillips. Craig and I were married five years ago."
"But isn't he..." I started to say, but Aja cut me off.
"Stormer's brother? Yes. Ever since The Misfits broke up, I've gotten to know her a lot better. She's really a wonderful person. She even works here at Starlight Music now."
"How about we take this upstairs while we continue to get acquainted?" J.B. suggested as she motioned us to the elevator.
As we began our ascent to the fifth floor, Aja started throwing questions at Joey in rapid succession. How did he and I meet? How did we get together? How long had we been with each other? Everyone thought it was cute how it was love at first sight, and they were most impressed with the way I acted when the accident occurred.
We entered the control room of a small recording studio with a lot of musical equipment. I wasn't quite sure what Kimber and the others had in mind, but I supposed I would find out soon enough.
While I was looking around the studio, Aja was having a little heart to heart with Joey. "Now Joey," she began, "Robért-James doesn't have any siblings, so I'm going to play the big sister and give you the standard 'Hurt him and I'll kill you' warning."
Joey laughed. "No worries Aja. Besides, Jerrica already did that back at Will's house in Maryland." When a look of confusion crossed her face, Joey clarified. "I meant Jerrica, his best friend, not J.B." Rolling his eyes, he said, "Will was right. This is going to get confusing."
"Okay, that I get, but who's Will?" she asked. Joey just pointed at me. "But that's..."
"Same person. Different name. Long story," Joey said. "I think it's better he explain that one."
Aja shrugged her shoulders and said, "Okay."
"All right ladies and gentlemen," J.B. said loudly. "I'd like to hear Robért-James sing now, if you don't mind." Looking over at me, she said, "If you would just step into the studio here we'll get started."
"Sure," I said. "And by the way, if you wouldn't mind calling me Will instead of Robért-James, I'd appreciate it." Changing the subject, I said, "So, do you want me to sing a cappella, or do I get musical accompaniment?"
The five glanced at each other and seemed to be having some sort of silent conversation. At last Kimber said, "I suppose we could provide some music. What do you think ladies?" The other four just nodded. "Good. Joey, if you want to stay out here with J.B., the rest of us will go into the studio room."
As we entered the recording area of the studio, J.B. flipped a switch so we could hear her and Joey on the other side of the window. "So, what would you like to entertain us with?"
I didn't have the foggiest idea. The second she asked that, my mind when completely blank. "Uh, I don't know."
"Why don't you sing what you sang back at the hotel?" Kimber suggested.
I shook my head. "Knowing my luck, I wouldn't be able to hit the last note—at least not without warming up."
I glanced over at Joey who was beaming at me. I smiled back at him and suddenly felt this warm feeling inside me. Without realizing it I began to hum—at first softly, and then progressively louder until Raya exclaimed, "I know that song! It was one of the first songs I ever played with the Holograms!"
I snapped out of my thoughts and said, "It's...ummm....oh I remember! All's Right With the World."
"Do you want us to step it down for you?" Aja asked.
"Nah. Play it like you always have. I'll manage," I said. I hope I can, I thought as an aside. "If you'd like, you're more than welcome to provide backup vocals, like when I was younger."
"Sounds good to me," Kimber said as she took her position at the keyboard. Raya sat down at the drums while Shana and Aja both picked up a guitar.
"Everyone ready?" Raya asked. We all nodded as she began to beat her drumsticks together to count off the beat. "One, two, three..."
The music began to play as I began to sing. At the same time, J.B. hit the record button on her console.
J.B.'s mouth started to drop in surprise as she listened. Kimber was correct in her assessment that I sounded remarkably similar to Jem, or even to Britta Phillips. No longer was I the tone deaf child she remembered from years ago. Somewhere in the ten years it had been since I had last seen J.B. in particular, I had not only figured out how to sing in key, but figured out how to do it beautifully.
I know it was kind of goofy, but every time I sang the line 'Everything is in sync,' I would give Joey a little wink. Maybe it was looking at him earlier that caused my mind to correlate the name of his band with the line in the song. I thought it fit well at the time.
The music stopped and the room fell silent. I glanced around me, waiting for someone to say something. Finally I could stand it no longer and said, "Well?"
"I don't know what to say," Aja began, "other than I'm floored. That was fantastic!"
"Absolutely," chimed Shana and Raya.
"Outrageous!" cried Kimber.
"I'm impressed," came J.B.'s voice from the control room. "I really am. That was...well, wow!"
"And from her, that's a major compliment," Aja joked.
In the background, I heard Joey say, "See. I told you he was good." I blushed heavily, which caused everyone to burst out laughing.
"Why don't we adjourn to my office and discuss this more?" J.B. suggested.
All of us in the studio room filed out single file and followed J.B. and Joey into J.B.'s office. Kimber, who was at the end of the line, closed the door behind her and said, "I don't think I need to ask if anyone is unconvinced about how talented you are Will." She paused for a moment and then exclaimed, "Ooh! I got it right this time!"
"Okay, someone explain the new name thing to me," Aja exclaimed, "because I'm now thoroughly confused."
I quickly explained the story, leaving out a lot of the gritty details, and how I had eventually come to assume my new identity. "In the end, I don't know why I didn't think of something like that sooner," I said.
"Why do you dislike your name so much?" Shana asked. "It's not that bad."
I shrugged. "Too long?"
"I promise we'll try to remember," said Raya, "but cut us some slack, okay?"
"All right people," J.B. said, "we have some serious business to discuss. Now, I don't know if Kimber told you, but we have a lot of solo artists this year, and we were really hoping to promote a group."
"Kimber, Will, and I talked about it," Joey jumped in as he grabbed my hand, "and Will had a great idea. Go ahead and tell them."
"Well, I have some friends back home who I think could be promising as a new group," I said.
"And they do this Irish dance thing which is absolutely phenomenal," Joey interjected excitedly. "With Will's vocals, they'll be a hit!" Then glancing around, he said, "Just not too big of a hit, mind you. I still want my job."
The five women laughed. "Well said Joey," Aja said with a smile. "What do you think Jerrica?"
J.B. cocked her head to one side and said, "You know, we could promote him solo along with the group."
Kimber started to giggle. "Joey, didn't I say the exact same thing back at the restaurant? It's scary how often she and I think alike." Then, in a lower voice, she said, "And if you breathe one word of that outside of this room, I'll completely deny it."
"That's enough Kimber," J.B. said. She started to say something else, but then she caught the sight of Joey still holding my hand and a bemused look crossed her face. "The two of you are just too adorable, you know?"
I started to blush and looked down, which is when I realized that Joey was still holding my hand. I was about to try and wrestle my hand out of his grip when I suddenly decided I didn't care. No one in that room was going to judge me negatively about my relationship with Joey. In fact, they were all for it! I was amazed at how well people were accepting this. Well, everyone except Johnny, but I didn't give a damn what that man thought of me. "I know. We're so ready for the cover of People, aren't we?"
Joey dropped my hand and spun around, a look of surprise on his face. "Say what?"
Putting a hand on his chest, I said, "Kidding, mon cher. Just kidding."
Joey began to grin. "I'm sure if we called them now, they could get us into next week's issue."
"Very funny you two," Aja jumped in, "but I think the Benton sisters have other plans for you this week."
"Robért-James," J.B. started, but a cough from Kimber silenced her. "Oh, right! Uh, Will? Right. That's going to take some getting used to," she mumbled. "Anyway, when is your next dance class?"
"Wednesday," I replied. "We have class every Wednesday and Friday."
"Then how about this," J.B. continued. "Why don't you talk this over with everyone between now and then, and call us on Tuesday night to let us know what everyone says?"
"The only problem with that," I said, "is that I won't see Tom until Wednesday at class. I don't have his phone number, and to be honest, I only sort of know him. This isn't exactly one of those things you just call someone up about."
"Well, talk it over with the other three and we'll work with this other guy later," J.B. said. "All right then everyone! Unless someone else has anything to add, I think we're done here for today."
The room was momentarily silent, and then it exploded into a burst of sound with multiple conversations going at the same time.
"This is going to be so great," Aja was saying to Joey. "They're going to be wonderful."
"I can't wait to get started on some costume designs for everyone," Shana said enthusiastically. "I already have some ideas running in my head, but I don't want to put anything down until I meet the others to make sure the designs will work on them."
"If you need a drummer, just let me know," Raya said. "I'd be glad to do it."
The six of them continued to talk over and amongst each other while I slowly started to tune them out. Today had been a good day, or at least I think it had. I was being signed to a recording contract with one of the largest music companies in the country, my friends were soon going to be joining me as a group, we were going to go on tour, and probably even become famous. I knew I should be on top of the world, but I suddenly felt troubled by the whole prospect and couldn't figure out why. I am just too weird, I thought. Way too weird.
Joey and I dragged ourselves into the hotel room around eleven o'clock that night completely exhausted. Kimber had insisted that we stay and have a little party, and out of propriety I agreed. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, but I became rather reserved for the rest of the night and didn't say much; only answering questions that were directly asked of me. Joey had asked me a couple of times—well, to be honest a number of times—if I was all right, and I answered back that I was fine but a bit tired. He never seemed to really buy that answer, but nonetheless he accepted it and let the question drop.
I walked into the room about a minute before Joey. I didn't even bother to turn on the light as I came in; I just went directly to one of the beds and threw myself upon it. I heard Joey enter the room, turn on a small lamp on the desk, and walk over to me. I didn't stir when I felt his weight sink into the bed as he sat down next to me "Will?" he said quietly as he started to rub my back. "What's wrong? Don't tell me 'nothing,' because I'm not buying that."
"Same stuff, different day," I said lightly. "Everything's moving so fast, you know? A week ago, I was just some guy who took you guys in after a car accident. Do you realize it's only been one literal week since that happened? Now I'm your boyfriend, and I have this looming recording contract, and my life has become so complicated! How did it get so complicated so quickly?"
"I know it's a lot, but you're doing fine. To be honest, you're doing much better than I would have been if I were in your place. Just take some time to breathe. Everything will be okay, I promise," Joey said soothingly.
"I know, Joe. I know it will. I guess there is some part of me that is already yearning for the simpler life, where I only felt like I was being pulled in two directions. Now I'm being pulled in twenty."
"Do you regret that you were there when the accident happened?" Joey asked cautiously.
"No!" I said immediately as I shot up to my knees. "Absolutely not! Joe, there are many things in life that we have no control over. I'm a firm believer in fate. Everything happens for a reason. I know the reason why I couldn't take my usual route home that night was because I was supposed to be there for your accident and find you. You know, I should find the name of that truck driver one of these days and send him a thank you note."
"You mean you being there on that road that night was just a fluke?" Joey asked. "I thought you said you were on your way home from work?"
"I was," I replied, "But I usually take the highway, not the back roads. That night, a tractor trailer flipped over on my exit, so I had to cut through Baltimore and take the back roads home. Of course, you know the rest of the story. I thought you already knew that?"
"Wow," Joey said. "I didn't realize that. It really was fate, wasn't it? You weren't even supposed to be there!"
"Right, and now you're stuck with me," I said with a grin.
"And I can't think of anyone I would rather be stuck with," Joey said as he leaned over to give me a kiss.
"I don't know about you," I said as I started to stretch, "but I'm exhausted. Do you realize it's after two o'clock in the morning back home?"
"Yeah. Let's get some sleep, shall we?" he suggested.
"Sounds good to me," I replied. I took off my jacket and threw it over a chair. I started to unbutton my shirt when I realized Joey was watching me out of the corner of his eye. I was still really shy about showing anyone, let alone Joey, my body, but I decided that this was one fear I needed to conquer now. Besides, he had already seen me with my shirt off once before. Granted, that was an accident, but still it had happened. I also had taken my shirt off in front of Justin willingly that one time, and all things considered, that was even more reason for me to get over myself.
I slowly shucked my shirt off, revealing the tee-shirt that I typically wore underneath my good clothes. I removed my shoes and socks and laid them next to the bed. Taking a deep breath—why, I'm not entirely sure—I quickly removed my pants and tee-shirt, leaving me only in my boxers. "Well, good night Joe," I said quickly as I gave him a kiss on the cheek and hopped into bed. I couldn't help but laugh at Joey, whose eyes suddenly became as large as saucers.
Joey slowly turned around and looked at me. Damn he's good-looking, Joey thought. I can't figure out why he's so hard on himself about his looks. He's not that overweight, and by the end of this tour, he'll probably lose most of it. Staring more intently at me, he thought, Wait. He actually took his clothes off in front of me! I think we're making progress! Taking his cue from me, he stripped down to his boxers and crawled into bed next to me. "Uh, good night Will," he said with a smile after he gave me a small kiss on the top of my head.
"Good night Joe," I said as I rolled onto my side. As I lay there, I started to chuckle a little at what had just transpired. Within moments, I could hear Joey's heavy breathing coming from his side of the bed, so I got up, put the 'Do Not Disturb' sign on the outside of the door, closed it, turned the deadbolt, pulled the chain across for extra security, turned out the lights, and hopped back into bed. Cuddling up against Joey, I sighed contentedly and soon fell fast asleep.
I wasn't entirely sure which really woke me up the next morning—my ringing cell phone, or Joey trying to shake me awake. Either way, I was now awake and didn't want to be. "What time is it?" I asked as my cell phone continued to ring.
"A little after three o'clock," Joey replied.
"It had better be afternoon, because if it's morning, I'm going back to sleep," I grumbled.
"Sorry," Joey said, "but it's morning, and your phone has been ringing like crazy for the last two minutes."
"They can leave a message."
"But what if it's important?"
"All right, all right," I said. I reached over to grab my phone, which had just begun to ring again, and looked at the number on the Caller ID. I was surprised to see it was my mother. I answered the call and said, "Allô, j'écoute."
My mother began to babble at me in warp-speed French, and, considering I had just been roused out of a nice, peaceful slumber quite rudely, it took me a moment to change gears in my head so I could understand what she was saying. Eventually, I began comprehending the words instead of hearing them. My grandmother had taken a turn for the worse, and the doctors weren't sure how much longer she was going to live. "Allez-ici maintenant!" she cried. "Get here now!"
"Je le ferai," I said. "Tout de suite. Salut, Maman!" I hung up the phone and stared at it. Sighing heavily, I looked at Joey sadly. "Time to run away again."
"What did your mom have to say?" Joey asked. "I'm guessing it's not good news."
"My grandmother's health has gotten worse, and the doctors don't know how long she has. It looks like I'm going to Montréal today." I sighed again, and then I started to laugh. I began laughing harder and harder until I finally burst into tears.
Joey sat down next to me on the bed and wrapped his arms around me. "Shhh. It'll be okay."
"Not even hardly," I sniffled. "I can't even stop for five seconds before something else happens. I'm going to be on a plane to somewhere four days in a row. My head is spinning so fast I can't even see straight. God! When did I start losing control over my life?"
"I know it's a lot, but you'll manage through this, just like you make do with everything else. That's what you do. I know that it seems overwhelming right now, but in a little while you'll have everything under control, just like always."
I sniffled again and tried to smile. "Thanks Joe. That helped a little." Standing up, I said, "Well, I guess we ought to see about getting you on a plane back to Orlando and me on a plane to Montréal."
"Huh?" I asked.
"I said 'no.' I'm not going back to Orlando."
"Oh. Sorry," I said with slight embarrassment. "I guess I just assumed you'd want to go back home. What, are you going to stay here, or go somewhere else?"
"I'm going with you."
My eyes widened. "Oh Joey, you don't have to do that."
"I know. I want to. You need someone to support you right now and I want to do that."
I stood silent for a moment, disastrous images flashing through my mind's eye. I knew full well that my mother and Kate wouldn't care. After all, how hypocritical would that be? My grandmother, on the other hand, was a different force to be reckoned with. I don't know if saying she accepted my mother's relationship with Kate would be using the right terminology—tolerated it might be a better choice of words. She seemed to like Kate well enough, but she made it known quietly that she would have liked Kate much better if she were either a) a man, or b) not involved with my mother. Trying to explain to her that her only grandson—whose now deceased husband was his namesake—was also a homosexual was beyond my ability to fathom. It was a recipe for disaster, but one that could hardly be avoided in the end.
"I'm grateful Joe, but you'll need proof of citizenship to get into Canada," I said, praying that this would be the perfect excuse to prevent Joey from going. As much as I would have preferred to have him come along for moral and emotional support, I could just see that one tiny slip of the tongue that would ignite World War III.
"Oh, no worries," Joey said. "I always carry my passport when I travel. You never know when you might need it."
"How convenient," I muttered under my breath. Then, faking a cheerful smile, I said, "Perfect. Then we just need to get on the standby list for the next flight out of here. I'm thinking there's one around seven through Kansas City, if memory serves."
"Sounds good," Joey said. "Well, since I'm up, I might as well take a shower. I'll be out in fifteen." He gave me a kiss on the cheek, grabbed some clothes out of my suitcase, and headed for the bathroom. "Oh, and Will?"
"Nice try." He shot me a smug look, ducked into the bathroom, and closed the door.
I lay back on the bed and stared at the ceiling, shaking my head. It was starting to creep me out a little how well Joey knew me. It seemed there was very little I could hide from him. Then again, maybe it wasn't such a bad thing after all.
"What the heck?" Justin shouted as he slowly sat up in bed. He checked his alarm clock and saw that it was quarter after six o'clock in the morning. He had been sound asleep in his bed at his house in Orlando and had been in the middle of a great dream when he was awoken by the sound of his phone ringing. "Oh, this better be good," he muttered as he picked up the phone. "Hello?" he said sleepily.
"Hey Justin, it's Will," I said quickly. "I'm sorry to wake you, but I tried to call Josh and there was no answer."
Upon hearing my voice Justin brightened considerably. "Trying to wake up Josh is like trying to raise the dead," Justin said with a laugh. "What's up?"
"Listen, Joe and I are flying to Montréal today. My grandmother took a turn for the worse, so we're getting ready to leave for the airport to try and catch a six-thirty flight."
"Uh, Will? It's almost quarter after six. I don't think you're going to make it."
"Oh, we're in Los Angeles. Long story; don't ask. I'll explain later, I promise. I need you to do me a favor though. Will you let the other guys know what is going on? I'm hoping that Joey will be back to Orlando on Wednesday since I will definitely have to be back in Baltimore by then."
"Uh oh," Justin replied. "Johnny called us yesterday around three o'clock and said he wanted all of us in a meeting today. How am I going to explain Joey's absence?"
"He what?!" I yelled as Joey walked out of the bathroom, toweling his hair. "Hang on a second. Joey, did you...oy."
Turning to face Joey, I was a little stunned when I realized that he was only wearing a towel around his waist and that he appeared to be in a rather obvious state of arousal. My eyes shifted from Joey's groin to his face and back again. Joey blushed heavily, but made no attempt to move. In the background, I could hear Justin calling me. "Will, is everything all right?"
I snapped out of my momentary trance and said hesitantly, "Uh, yeah, yeah. Hang on one more second. Joey, did you get a message from Johnny about you attending a meeting today?" I was trying hard to maintain contact with Joey's face, but it was becoming a little difficult. I was still in my boxers, and the effect Joey was having on me was starting to become obvious.
"No," Joey replied distantly. His gaze had done like mine—following the path of most desire. His eyes caught mine briefly, causing Joey to blush again and bring his attention back to the subject matter at hand. "I've had no calls since before we left Orlando."
"Something is rotten in Florida," I said resolutely into the phone, "and I bet you twenty bucks I know where the smell is coming from."
"I know, I know," Justin agreed, "but what do I tell him?"
"Well, unless you come up with something better, just tell him that we had an emergency and that he can't be there."
"Do you want some extra company?" Justin asked. "I don't really want to go to the meeting either."
"That's a nice offer," I began, "but that's way too much for me to ask. Thank you for offering though. If you need me, you can try my cell phone, or you can try and reach me at the hospital. She's in the Centre Universitaire de Santé McGill in Montréal."
"McGill University Health Center," I translated.
"Oh. Why didn't you say so?" Justin asked.
"I did. You just weren't paying attention. Anyway, if you'd let the others know, I would appreciate it. I have to run, but thanks a bunch for everything Justin."
"No problem," Justin said sweetly. "Bye." He hung up the phone and stared at it. Then, he flew out of bed and dashed for his suitcase. Throwing some clothes and essentials into the bag, he grabbed his phone and called the Northern Skies Airlines reservations number. Within minutes, he had himself booked on a nonstop flight late that afternoon to Montréal. After hanging up, he went into the bathroom and stared at himself in the mirror. He fixed his hair, went downstairs, and made some breakfast. After waiting until a slightly more reasonable hour, he called Lance and filled him in on what was happening.
"Are you crazy?" Lance shouted. "What is Johnny going to say? What is Will going to say? I don't think this is such a hot idea."
"Well, I'm going, like it or not, so just tell Johnny I won't be there," Justin said as he slammed the phone down in anger. When Justin's mind was made up, there was no one who was going to tell him to do any differently. Fuming, he stormed up the stairs and threw himself onto his bed. "I don't care what Johnny thinks," Justin said out loud. "Just because he's my manager doesn't make him the boss of me, and Will is going to be thrilled to see me when I get to Montreal. If this doesn't prove to him that I really care about him, I don't know what will."
Lance wandered around his house, slowly sipping a cup of coffee as he weighed the problems on his mind. Joey was traveling with me to Montréal—that he could understand—to see my grandmother. Justin, for some odd reason, was going up there as well—something that didn't make sense to Lance at all, especially since Justin had indicated that I was not aware of his intentions at the time. "Why do I have such a bad feeling about this?" he asked himself out loud. He mused over it for a while, but nothing logical came to mind. "Justin and Will have gotten to be pretty close friends," Lance noted as he went to sit down on his couch, "and Justin is always talking about how great he is, which is true. At times, you'd almost think..."
Lance had just taken another sip of coffee when something dawned on him. "Wait a minute. No, it couldn't be possible, could it?" he pondered. "I know Justin really likes Will as a friend, but could it be possible it's coming to more than that?" The gears in Lance's head started to turn faster and faster, until he finally said, "This is not going to be good." Setting the coffee cup down on the table, he ran for the phone in the kitchen. He had some airline reservations to make, and quickly.
Chris also awoke to the sound of a ringing phone around eight o'clock. He glanced at the Caller ID and saw it was Josh. "Hey Jayce, what's up?" he asked groggily.
"Where have you been?" Josh asked. "I've been trying to call you for the last half hour."
"Sorry, I was asleep," Chris said. "I was up late last night talking to Jer...uh, a friend."
"Don't bother trying to pretend," Josh said. "We all know about you and Jerrica and are quite happy about it. Now maybe you won't be in such a dull mood on tour anymore."
"Whatever," Chris said as he rolled his eyes. "What do you want?"
"Remember that meeting Johnny called for today?"
"Yeah. What about it?"
"It looks like you and I are going to be the only ones there."
"Lance called me a while ago. Joey went with Will to Montreal because Will's grandmother isn't doing well," Josh began, "and for some reason, Justin went too. Lance seems to think that Justin is going to cause trouble, so he went as well."
"Justin went? Why?" Chris asked.
"Don't know, but Lance is all in a tizzy over it."
"Think we ought to go too?"
"I suppose we could, but what about the meeting?" Josh asked.
"Screw Johnny," Chris said. "The way he's been acting, I think this would be deserved, don't you?"
"I guess," Josh replied hesitantly. "Do you think Will is going to be okay with all of us there?"
"Well, he's already got Joey, Justin, and Lance," Chris said. "What difference is the two of us going to make?"
"You've got a point," Josh answered. "I'll see if I can get us tickets on the same flight Lance is on, and you call Jerrica and tell her what's going on if she doesn't already know."
"Okay then. See you later," Chris said before hanging up. He too began to wonder why Justin felt the need to go to Canada. Granted, they were all close friends of mine, and they knew that my grandmother had some health problems, but it wasn't really necessary for Justin to be there, especially since Joey was already there. The more he thought about it, the more it made his head hurt. Giving up, he started dialing my house number. He hoped that Jerrica would be awake and in a good mood, because he wasn't entirely sure how he was going to explain this.
To Be Continued...
So what did you think? The wheels are turning at Starlight Music, and maybe this will be the solution to Will's problem with Johnny, or will it just cause more problems that Will doesn't need? Poor Will is being run ragged this weekend—first to Orlando, then to Los Angeles, and now to Montréal. What is going to happen when Will sees his family, especially his grandmother, when he gets there? Is the tragedy that Will forsees only in his imagination, or is it a prediction of reality? Will Justin's arrival cause more problems for our duo, or will the rest of *Nsync arrive in time to save the day? It seems that Will is slowly coming to terms with his self-conciousness, and it looks like some minor sexual tension may be developing between him and Joey. As Will put it, can he ever 'get over himself' and finally cross that line into Joey's waiting arms? Please, drop me a line and let me know your thoughts.
My goal was to get this chapter out before Christmas, and it does appear that I have succeeded. Therefore, consider this my holiday gift to everyone. May everyone and your families have a wonderful holiday season and a Happy New Year.
Thanks to everyone who has written to me!! A special thanks goes out to my editors, Mandy and Dreamy, who keep me in line. Thanks also to my good friend Brogan, who keeps me inspired.