© 2005-2010 Julien Gregg
All Rights Reserved

Chapter 23

People lined both sides of the street, and just like he'd seen on television movies, there was actually a red carpet with ropes holding the fans back on either side. The limousine pulled up to the theater, and Skyler stepped out only to be greeted by screaming fans again. Madonna got more screams as she stepped out of the car, and she took Skyler's hand as they walked to the entrance to the theater. Cameras flashed, and reporters shouted questions, but they ignored them for the most part. They smiled for this photographer and that one, but mostly, they just kept walking.

Skyler was sure that the tabloids and respected magazines alike would all be running stories about him and Madonna. He smiled to himself as he thought about it. What would Guy think about that? It was all too funny to ponder. He gripped her hand a bit tighter and smiled at her when she glanced at him as they continued to walk. He tried not to think about why Kevin hadn't come to the premier. Things had been a bit strained between them for a few weeks, and Skyler was starting to worry.

"Excited?" Madonna asked as they walked into the theater. She was smiling from ear to ear, and Skyler couldn't help smiling back.

"And nervous," he replied, looking around at all of the other celebrities in the theater.

"We'd better find Laura and Sonny," she said, taking his hand and pulling him through the room.

They found Sonny talking with Jodie Foster in the middle of the room. She smiled when she saw Skyler, and Skyler smiled back. The two of them had been very close while filming the movie, and he was sorry that he hadn't kept in touch with her. She wrapped her arms around him and hugged him tight when they finally made it over to them.

"Hey you," she said. "I've called you several times, but you weren't in New York."

"I was in Denver," he replied. "Sorry for not keeping in touch. Life has been kind of hectic."

"Yes," she said, smiling at Madonna. "I saw your show on the internet. It was entertaining. Your brothers and sister were great with you."

"They'd love hearing that," chuckled Skyler. "Each of them talk of nothing else."

"Well, when are you planning to tour again?" she asked. "I heard something about Maverick still booking dates."

"We're still negotiating over the tour," he replied.

"Skyler's sticking it to us," chuckled Madonna. "It could be next year before he tours at this rate."

"There you are," said Laura, coming up behind Skyler and catching his attention. "They're seating everyone. We'd better get in there."

Without another word, the group filed into the auditorium and took their seats. Skyler waived to Kevin Spacey, and Jodie waived to Melissa Gilbert before they actually sat down. Skyler was almost as nervous as he had been before his first show on tour. He couldn't wait to see the finished version of the movie, but he also hoped that everyone liked what they saw. Sonny had assured him, several times, that the movie was perfect, but that didn't do anything to ease Skyler's nerves any of those times. He was sure that if the movie wasn't very good, he'd never get a chance to act in another.

As the lights went down, and everyone quieted down, Skyler's case of nerves got just a little worse. The movie began with Skyler walking down the streets of New York with a backpack over his shoulder. He didn't look strung out in the opening scene, because his character had only just moved to New York. He had yet to get hooked on drugs. Skyler held his breath as he watched scene after scene. He was nearly ready to hyperventilate before the final scene where Jodie and Kevin were standing in a cemetery where most of the other characters were buried, talking about the year that had lead up to the riot that had killed most of their friends.

When the film was over, everyone rose to their feet, and the applause was almost thunderous. Skyler beamed a smile at Jodie and Sonny as he listened to everyone applauding. The breath he'd been holding released as Madonna hugged him tight. The movie was amazing, and everyone seemed to love it. He was happier than he'd been in quite a while as he followed Madonna out of the theater. He answered questions for the reporters outside for a few minutes, and as the limo pulled up to retrieve them, Madonna took his hand and kissed him on the lips as the cameras flashed.

* * *

After three parties, Skyler let himself into his penthouse where Cassie was waiting to hear what was going on. Chad was in Florida, filming his first video, and Skyler had promised to call him when he got home. He was so excited that at first, all he could do was hug Cassie tightly and giggle. She glared at him when he released her.

"How did it go?" she demanded. "You have to tell me!"

"It was amazing, Cass," he beamed. "They loved it!"

"I can't wait to see the movie," she replied. "I wish I could have gone with you."

"Madonna suggested that you shouldn't go," he explained again. They'd talked about it all day long before Skyler had left for the theater.

"I still don't understand why, though," she said.

"You'll have to ask her," he said patiently.

"Oh, Kevin called a while ago," she said. "He wants you to call him, and Chad keeps calling, too."

"I'll call Chad first," laughed Skyler as he sat down in his chair next to the phone.

Chad was excited to hear about the premier, but he talked more about what it was like for him in Florida. He literally begged Skyler to move down there, because he said he loved it so much. Shooting the video was turning out to be a lot of fun for Chad, and he said that he was already talking with Clay about the next video and single from his album.

They even talked about touring together, but Skyler was still nowhere near ready to finalize any plans for a tour. He had so many things coming his way that he wasn't sure he'd be able to tour before the end of the year, and he told Chad to go ahead and tour without him if it came to it. Chad didn't like that idea, but he didn't say anything to his brother about it.

When Skyler called Kevin, he had to leave a message with AJ. He was told that Kevin was out, and he'd call him back. Thus, phone tag was instigated. Skyler had been getting the feeling that things weren't going to work out between him and Kevin much longer from the way Kevin had been acting the last few times they'd been together. He'd thought about it almost every day, and he still couldn't figure out if breaking up with Kevin was something he wanted or not. He wasn't in love with Kevin. That much was true, but he did like spending time with him. He hoped that there was a way to keep his friendship with the man.

He thought about that for the next few days. Kevin didn't call for four days, so it wasn't hard to think about what he wanted to do about their relationship at all. He told Kevin that they needed to talk in person soon, and to his surprise, Kevin said he had something to talk to Skyler about in person, too. Skyler thought that perhaps Kevin was having the same feeling that he was. The relationship was over. There was no doubt in Skyler's mind. Kevin promised to be in New York for the twins' birthday party the sixteenth. Skyler didn't really want to have the discussion at the party, but he agreed.

After talking to Kevin, he felt better about what he'd decided to do. He spent his days planning the party that he hoped would somehow remain a surprise to his brother and sister. His father had already promised to be there with Tabitha and Jason, so the only thing he had to do was pick up Chad from the airport on Tuesday morning.

He and Cassie were both happy to see Chad when he came through the airport with Clay. Cassie ran to her twin and threw her arms around him while Clay and Skyler laughed. She asked him question after question in rapid fire as they made their way through the airport and out to Skyler's waiting rental car. She was clearly excited to see him, and Skyler loved to see them both so happy.

"Any decision on a tour?" asked Clay once they were securely in the car. Skyler had been putting off planning the tour, because he was really hoping to hear something from Renny Harlin. He'd read the script for The Eye of The World, and he really wanted a part. So far, he'd heard nothing.

"Not so far," he replied as they drove through the parking lot. "I've been thinking about recording my next album before the tour. That way I'd have even more choices for songs for the tour."

"That could be done easily," said Clay. "You don't really want to record right now, though."

"No, I don't," said Skyler. "I don't have enough material for the ballads album."

"You're still planning to sing at the show on the fifteenth, right?" asked Clay.

"Of course," replied Skyler. "That's all planned and everything. I'm singing Desert Rose and Toy Soldiers."

"Well, that's one way to make sure that you're still out there," Clay said with a nod.

"I'm not done with videos and singles, either," reminded Skyler. "And if I play my cards right, I'll have a new movie under my belt before long."

"I'd forgotten that you were looking into a part on the 'Wheel of Time' movie," said Clay. "Have you heard from the director?"

"Not yet," he admitted. "I haven't even heard from Laura in a week."

"Laura is still in California with Gabrielle, right?" asked Clay.

"I suppose so," replied Skyler. "I'm hoping that she'll call with news on the movie in the next couple of days. I leave for London the twenty-seventh, and I'd love to know what's going on before then."

"You're still shooting with Kevin Spade, right?"

"Absolutely," said Skyler. "We've spoken on the phone several times, and he has some really good ideas about what the video should entail."

After a light lunch, they dropped Clay off at his office and headed home to watch Chad's video. Skyler listened as Chad described almost each day he'd spent in Florida while Cassie changed clothes for the third time that day. He was very happy to have Chad home. Having him gone made him think of what it would be like when Chad went off to tour for his album. He only hoped that he would be ready and available to tour with him when the time came. He didn't think he'd like not seeing his little brother for so long.

Chad was telling him all about the video shoot itself when the telephone beeped. It only beeped when the doorman was ringing the penthouse to let Skyler know that someone was trying to access his floor. He wondered who would be down there as he picked up the phone and waved for Chad to be quiet for a second. He smiled at Chad's crushed expression.

"Hello, Lonny," he said into the phone once Chad sat back. "What's up?"

"Mr. Thomas, Justin Timberlake and JC Chazes are down here," said Lonny, the evening doorman.

"Send them up, please," replied Skyler, wondering how they even knew which building he was in. The press hadn't ran any stories about his moving, and as far as he thought, everyone was keeping quiet about it.

"Who's down there?" asked Chad as Skyler cradled the receiver. Cassie was just coming out of her room to join them.

"Justin and JC are down there," he said, eyeing Cassie.

"I'm fine," she said, smiling. "Fresh clothes and all."

"You change more than any girl I know," laughed Chad, poking her in the ribs.

"Gee, Chad, I'm so glad you're back," she laughed back.

"I love you, too," he giggled.

"If you two knuckleheads are done," said Skyler as the doorbell chimed.

He got up to answer the door as they both started to giggle again, and he turned to glare at them with mock rage. They laughed out right, and Chad stuck his tongue out at him. He shook his head, smiling to himself as he walked to the door. Those two were quite a pair when they were together. He thought again about what it would be like for him and Cassie if they didn't tour with Chad when the time came.

"Surprise!" cried Justin when Skyler opened the door. "We asked everyone how to get in touch with you, but no one would tell us!"

"We finally got the address from Madonna," JC put in. "Sorry to barge in like this."

"Come on in, guys," said Skyler, stepping out of the way. "I didn't even know you were in town."

"We're only here for a few days," said JC as he and Justin walked into the apartment.

"Nice!" breathed Justin as he looked around the living room.

"Thanks," replied Skyler. "Can I get you guys something to drink or anything?"

"No, thanks, I'm fine," replied JC as he looked around the living room as well.

"Nice platinums," Justin said and then whistled as he looked at the framed paltinum records on the wall behind the couch that Cassie and Chad were sitting on.

"Thanks," replied Skyler, still wondering why they were there.

"Hello, Cassie, Chad," said JC. "Chad, I hear you recorded an album."

"Hey," said Chad. "I just got back from filming my first video."

"Very cool," said Justin. "Two Thomas boys in the game now."

"Skyler, we just wanted to come by and say hello, really," said JC, clearly embarrassed by Justin's antics. "We didn't mean to intrude or anything."

"You're fine," said Skyler, coming back into the living room. "Have a seat."

"Thanks," replied JC as he sat in the chair across from Skyler's. Justin sat between the twins.

"So, where's the rest of the guys?" asked Cassie, cocking her head and looking Justin in the face.

"Its just me and Curly this time," said JC. "Chris and Joey are in LA."

"Lance is visiting his family," said Justin.

"So, what brings you two to New York?" asked Skyler.

"Pretty boy over there has a photo shoot," said Justin, nodding toward JC. "I have an interview in the morning."

"That reminds me, Sky," said Chad with that excited look back on his face. "Clay said that he's going to set up a few interviews and photo shoots for me, too."

"I'm sure Laura will set up a few when she gets back, too," he said, smiling back at him. "I remember what it was like when I first got here. You'll be sick of questions by the time all of the interviews are over. Then you have talk shows to look forward to."

"I want to do Rosie," beamed Chad, and they all laughed.

"Rosie's a kick," said Justin. "Probably the most fun I've had doing a talk show."

"I like her better than any of them," admitted Skyler.

"Stay away from Carson Daly," laughed Justin.

"Curly . . ."

"What?" he asked, putting a confused look on his face. "He's so nosey."

"He's a reporter," admonished JC.

"For MTV," said Justin.

"Still . . ."

"What's TRL like?" asked Chad, breaking up the little side conversation about Carson Daly.

"Bunch of screaming people and more questions," said Justin. "And you have to pal up with Carson."

"Justin . . ."

"What, Josh?" he asked, looking annoyed.

"Never mind," sighed JC.

Skyler had to hold back a chuckle. It seemed like JC had his hands full with Justin. Remembering how fast and recklessly Justin drove, Skyler thought anyone would have their hands full if they were charged with looking after him. He suddenly wondered where there security was. He never went anywhere without Brent. He couldn't think of a reason why anyone in show business would step outside without their security.

"You guys came alone?" he asked JC.

"Bill is downstairs," he said, nodding as if he understood what Skyler was thinking. "We didn't think we'd need him up here."

"Nah, you guys aren't going to hold us hostage," laughed Justin.

"You said you'll be here for a few days, right?" asked Cassie, looking excited.

"Yeah," said Justin, smiling at her. "Two interviews and a photo shoot of my own along with Josh's two photo shoots. We'll be here until the nineteenth."

"Perfect!" she cried, making even Justin jump with surprise.

"What's perfect?" he asked quickly.

"You guys will be here for our birthday," she said. "I don't know what we're doing. Sky says we'll probably go out to eat a nice dinner. Can they come along, Sky?"

Skyler thought for a moment that his secret birthday party was found out. He looked at her hard for just the tiniest of seconds before answering. She couldn't know that he and Kristy were planning a party. She just couldn't know that. They'd been too careful to have been found out so quickly.

"Sure they can," he said, smiling. "If they want to."

"You're both officially invited to our birthday dinner," said Cassie, smiling from ear to ear.

"I'd like that," JC said, smiling at Cassie for a moment before looking at Skyler with a strange look in his eyes.

"That'd be so cool!" cried Justin. "We even have time to shop for presents."

"We don't need any presents," laughed Chad. "Skyler's probably got us a ton of presents already."

"You think?" laughed Skyler. "Maybe I don't."

"Maybe you do," laughed Cassie. "I know how much shopping you've been doing lately."

"Cass, we have an entire apartment to fill up," he teased her. "I told you both that I would only buy you each one present, and I bought those months ago."

"Whatever," laughed Chad. "But thank you for whatever you bought us."

* * *

"So you really have bought them all kinds of gifts already," laughed JC as he and Skyler were wrapping presents the next afternoon.

JC had called to see what Skyler was doing. He'd been bored out of his mind, waiting for Justin to return from an interview and photo shoot, and Skyler invited him over. For him, it was a good way to get to know Skyler better. He just hoped that he didn't make an ass out of himself. He didn't know why, but he felt a little awkward around Skyler Thomas.

"Oh, I've got them more than this," replied Skyler. "Justin wants me to go shopping with him tomorrow. He says that I know their sizes and tastes, and that way he won't buy something I've already bought."

"Justin will buy them clothes and shoes most likely," chuckled JC. "You should see his closet in Florida."

"I can imagine," laughed Skyler. "I'm so glad that none of us are clothes hogs around here. All three of our closets are basically empty."

"So where are the twins, anyway?" asked JC.

"Chad is with Clay for the day, and Cassie is somewhere with Kristy," he informed. "This way, I get everything wrapped, and I can make a few phone calls to make sure that the party is a go."

"You haven't told Justin about the party yet, have you?" JC asked, pausing with tape on his fingers.

"Nope," chuckled Skyler. "The way he talks to them, I was afraid he'd tell them about it."

"He wouldn't do it on purpose."

"Oh, I didn't mean that," Skyler replied quickly. "I know how excited he is about the shopping expedition, and I just thought . . ."

"You were right," JC reassured."I just didn't want you to think that he would tell them on purpose to ruin the surprise or anything."

"I didn't think that," assured Skyler. "Justin just seems to be a hyper person who doesn't always think before he acts."

"You hit the nail on the head there," laughed JC. "You have no idea how much damage control our publicists have to go through where he's concerned."

"I can imagine," Skyler laughed back.

The two were quiet for a while as they wrapped the mountain of presents that Skyler had bought for the twins. Skyler supposed he had gone a bit overboard, but he couldn't help it. He had more money than he'd ever know what to do with, and he loved the twins so much that he wanted to do everything he could to show them how much. He knew that buying them things wouldn't do anything to show them how much he cared, but he was also trying to make up for all of the years of birthdays they'd had with no parties and next to no presents at all.

Skyler wasn't sure how it happened, but one moment they were simply sitting side by side, wrapping presents, and the next they were flicking tape at each other, playfully shoving each other and laughing like hyenas. They barely knew each other, but Skyler was having more fun with JC Chasez than he'd had in a long time. It was as if they were just two ordinary guys, picking at each other as they wrapped the gifts. For a little while, Skyler didn't think about touring, talk shows, interviews, photo shoots or new songs. All he thought about was how much fun it would be to actually shove JC over.

The playful shoving and laughing lasted until the very last present was wrapped, and Justin was calling Skyler to find out if he'd heard anything out of JC. Skyler laughed when he told him that JC was there with him. While JC talked to Justin, Skyler hid the presents away in the top of his closet. He couldn't wait for the party. He hoped the twins loved it as much as he thought they would.

All thoughts of Kevin and how to end their relationship were gone from Skyler's mind as he and the twins sat down to dinner with JC and Justin that night. Chad excitedly told them all about what Clay had planned for the promotion of his album. The album, "Ecstaticling!" was set to be released on the twins' birthday the seventeenth. It was almost all he talked about. Skyler couldn't fault him for it, though. Chad was excited, and he should have been. Releasing a CD was monumental, and Skyler thought about how he'd felt when "Dizzy" was about to come out. He'd been nervous and kind of scared. Excited wasn't even close to what he'd felt then. He was happy that Chad could be excited about his.

The next morning, after Chad had left to spend the day strategizing with Clay at the Maverick offices, Lonny called up to tell Skyler that Laura was downstairs. Skyler was happy to finally hear from her and told Lonny to send her up while he made coffee. He hoped that she had something to tell him about the movie. He'd been wanting to at least talk to the director for a long time.

"How's my most famous client this morning?" asked Laura when she came into the apartment.

"I'm good," he replied, handing her a fresh cup of coffee. "Everything is set for the event, and I've got things packed away here."

They'd all taken to calling the birthday party "the event" to make sure that Cassie and Chad didn't figure out what was going on. Laura had helped get things in order for the party, and Skyler had secured The Viper Room for the party on the seventeenth. Now all he had to do was tell everyone that it was a go. He hoped that Laura would help with that.

"That's good to hear," she said, sitting down with him at the kitchen table and sipping her coffee. "I'll start calling people this afternoon. You've got 'Saturday Night' to think about, too."

"All set," he assured her. "I go in tonight for rehearsals, and the band is already here. I talked to Adam last night."

"That's a relief," she sighed. "I was worried that James and Mitch would still be working in Florida."

"That all wrapped up two nights ago," he replied. "Adam said that everyone is present and accounted for. I wanted to ask you about striking a deal with those guys to make them my permanent band. I know all of them well enough now, and they're great musicians."

"That would be wonderful if you can get them all to agree to it," she said.

"Oh, I'd pay them very well," he said.

"Certainly," she agreed with a nod.

"So, any word about the movie?" he asked. The suspense was killing him. He hoped that she had good news for him.

"They're starting the casting phase next week," she said. "Renny says that he wants to meet with you and have you do a test screening as well. I have his contact information, and he'll be waiting to hear from you."

"That's great," he beamed. "So, he's at least willing to consider me for a role?"

"Not just a role, Skyler," she said, looking at him hard. "He wants you for the role."

"Rand?" he asked with wide eyes.

"That's right," she said. "You know that means that you'll film a lot more than you ever have in the past. Neil was nothing compared to Rand. Anger was nothing compared to this movie. Sky, this movie will be your biggest job ever. From what Renny has told me, this might just be more work than your tour."

"Holy shit," he sighed as Cassie walked into the kitchen.

"What's wrong, Sky?" she asks worriedly.

"Nothing is wrong," he laughed. "I think I just got a part in the movie."

* * *

"That's great news, Sky," JC said excitedly when Skyler told him about what Renny had said when he'd called him earlier. Skyler was not only being considered for the lead role of Rand al'Thor, he was the only actor that Renny Harlan, the director, had in mind, period.

They were sitting on the stage, waiting for the band to arrive for their rehearsal. Skyler was singing two songs for "Saturday Night Live" in two nights, and this was going to be their first rehearsal. He also wanted to talk to them about signing on with him permanently. He hoped that went as well as he wanted. Having them as his permanent band would take care of a lot of hassles whenever he got ready to tour.

"So how was the photo shoot?" he asked JC as Adam Stahl and Paul Krantz walked out onto the stage.

"Piece of cake," he said sarcastically, and they both laughed.

"Guys," Skyler said, nodding at the drummer and guitar player. "Where is everyone?"

"They're here," said Adam as he walked over and plugged his guitar in. "Denny and Chet are talking to some guy. James should be in here."

"I wanted to talk to all of you when we're done tonight," Skyler told him. "How about a late dinner?"

"Sounds fine with me," said Adam. "I've got nothing planned tonight."

"I'm in," said Paul. "Cathy is visiting her parents tonight, and I can't cook."

Adam Stahl was one of the guitar players that had played on "Mission Impossible" as well as the "Dizzy" tour and the "All-Star" show. He was just a little taller than Skyler with a nicely toned body, short spiked dark hair and brown eyes. He usually had a smile for everyone, and Skyler liked him a lot. He was the only unmarried member of the band.

Paul Krantz, the drummer, was also tall and muscular with short dark hair and brown eyes. He was the quietest of the band members. His wife, Cathy, had traveled across America with them for the "Dizzy" tour. She was a fan, and Skyler adored her. Paul was reserved, but he played his heart out. Skyler didn't really know all that much about him.

Chet Brinkman, one of the keyboard players, was just a bit shorter than Skyler, but far more muscular. He had a bald head with a dark mustache and goatee that always looked immaculately groomed. His grey eyes were what stood out the most of all his features. His wife never came to any of the rehearsals, and she didn't tour with them. Chet liked to keep to himself more than anything, but he would always join in any conversation that was going on around him.

Denny Hall, the other keyboard player, was the tallest member of the band with dark hair and eyes. His wife, Melissa, went everywhere with him. Skyler liked them both, and they seemed to like him, too. Melissa and Denny had helped organize his birthday party while they were on tour, and Melissa had knitted him a sweater.

James Rothland played bass, and everything about him was intense. He had extremely dark hair and eyes and very prominent features. His wife, Lisa, was quite a party girl. She'd gone out with Skyler and the guys several times on the tour, and she was usually the life of the party. Skyler liked them both very much. He hoped that they would at least tour with him next time if James didn't agree to be a permanent member of the band.

Mitch Simmons was the other guitar player, and he was unlike any of his band mates. Mitch was tall and muscular with dark hair and emerald green eyes. He was always in a good mood, and he could always make everyone laugh. His wife, Tanya, was just as upbeat as he was, and Skyler had spent many nights on tour, playing cards with the pair.

As soon as Danny, Chet and James came in and got set up, JC sat and watched as they rehearsed Desert Rose and Toy Soldiers for Skyler's upcoming performance on "Saturday Night Live". He was blown away by Skyler's voice. The man could sing like no one JC had ever heard before. The band played extremely well, but it was Skyler that made it amazing. He wondered what it would be like to sing with Skyler.

In the few days that he'd been spending time with Skyler, JC had grown more and more attracted to him. He liked the way he smiled, the way he laughed, the look in his eyes when he was lost in thought and especially the impish glint in his eye when he thought he was being sneaky. He had it bad for Skyler, and he was finding it harder and harder to keep from telling him so.

He took a cab back to the hotel after they were done, so Skyler could talk to his band over dinner. He didn't want to intrude, but he hated to call it a night and leave Skyler. He found himself wanting to spend more and more time with him every time he saw him. He knew that it was getting bad, and he knew that Lance would have a fit about it.

Lance wasn't exactly a prude, but he was the most business like of the entire group. He often had to remind JC that he was getting a little too involved when he started to care about someone too much. Skyler was rapidly falling into that category. JC was developing feelings that he and Lance were very certain that Skyler could never return, and he was developing them at an alarmingly rapid rate.

"What's wrong, Josh?" asked Justin when JC arrived at the hotel and met him for dinner.

"Nothing's wrong," he replied with a sigh as he sat down across from Justin in their suite. "I just like him too much."

"I can tell that already," informed Justin with a smirk. "What does he think about you?"

"I think we're friends."

"That's a good thing, Josh," Justin remarked. "At least you can say he's your friend."

"He's your friend, too, Justin," JC said quickly.

"I'm not the one he calls," reminded Justin. "Every time he calls, you're the one he wants to talk to."

"He's going shopping with you tomorrow," said JC.

"Right, because I asked him to," he said. "He invited you to spend the day with him, remember?"

"You weren't here, Justy," said JC. "I was bored, so I called him."

They stopped talking when there was a knock at their door. Justin thought that it had to be Skyler, because they wouldn't let just anyone up on the floor. He got up to answer the door after smirking at JC again. However, he was surprised to see Lance and Joey on the other side of the door. He smiled wide when he saw them.

"Hey guys!" he cried.

"Surprise," chuckled Joey.

"We decided to come out here and see what you two knuckleheads are up to," said Lance as Justin let them into the room. "Hey, Josh."

"Yo," he replied with no excitement at all.

Lance looked at his friend for a few seconds before he said anything. He immediately noticed the slumped shoulders, downcast eyes and the fist under his chin. The food on the plate in front of him looked played with rather than eaten, and the sigh that escaped him after he'd uttered his slang greeting told Lance all he needed to know.

"What's eating him?" he asked Justin.

"Skyler Thomas," said Justin as he walked back to the table to finish his dinner.

* * *

"So they all agreed?" asked Laura the next morning when she sat down at Skyler's kitchen table for breakfast.

"They jumped at it," he said with a smile. "They all said that they like working for me better than anyone else, and the amount of money I offered was too good to pass up."

"You offered what I suggested?" she asked quickly.

"Of course," he assured her. "That, and they each agreed to the indefinite contracts with the confidentiality clause."

"Perfect," she said happily. "Now you just have to decide when you want to tour."

"I was thinking about that," he replied. "I want to sit down with you, Chad and Clay to talk about it after I do my test screening with Renny."

"What have you got up your sleeve now?" she asked, cocking her head and looking at him hard.

"Clay's still looking for someone that Chad can tour with, right?" he asked.

"Yes," she said. "We were thinking about Backstreet."

"Well, un-think it," he replied. "Chad can tour with me. I won't tour until after filming is done, but if he can wait that long, then I'll tour with him. It would be better if I did it, because he knows what to expect from my tour. He's already toured with me once."

"That was an American tour, Skyler," she said. "Chad wants to do a world tour."

"And so do I," he said quickly. "I only did what Barry suggested last time, because I was afraid to tour. I'm not afraid of it anymore. I want to go all out this time around."

"Well, Chad will be happy to hear it," she said. "Where is he today?"

"He and Cassie are both with Clay today," he informed. "They're working out his promotional stuff for the album."

"Well, what do you have planned for the day?"

"I have to meet Justin in an hour or so. He said he'd call. We're going shopping for the twins today, and I'm meeting Renny at the studio later, and after that, I've agreed to have dinner with almost all of Nsync," he replied.

"Almost all?" she asked, cocking an eyebrow at him.

"It seems that last night, Lance Bass and Joey Fatone arrived in New York," he said. "I have no clue where Chris Kirkpatrick is. Justin didn't say."

"I see," she said. "What exactly is going on with you and Nsync?"

"Nothing," he replied with a shrug. "I've been hanging out with JC and Justin a little. I guess the other guys want to get to know me, too. I'd kind of like to get to know them, too."

"Making a few friends?" she asked, smiling.

"Exactly," he said.

He wasn't about to tell her that he was really starting to like JC Chasez. He didn't know why, but he thought she'd be completely against that. But then he didn't even know if JC was gay. He suspected that he was, but that didn't mean it was true. He could have just been reading what he wanted into things that JC said and did. He didn't want to look foolish, so he wasn't saying a word to anyone about it.

"Well, it sounds like you've got a full day ahead of you," she said. "What time are Cassie and Chad due back?"

"Around three, Clay said," he replied. "I'll call home to make sure they get in all right."

"Oh," she said as she stood up, "Brian, Kristy and Gabrielle will be at the party. Zack says he'll try to make it. Madonna will bring Lourdes with her, and I'm still trying to get everyone from L. A. taken care of."

"Thanks," he said with a smile. "The twins still don't know, so its all good."

Two hours later, he was standing in Bloomingdale's with Justin. They'd been through each floor almost, and Justin hadn't found anything he wanted to buy for Cassie that Skyler would allow. JC had warned him, and he was right. In fact, Skyler thought that he had underestimated Justin's shopping enthusiasm. Skyler was ready to leave the store twenty minutes after they'd arrived, but Justin wouldn't budge until he'd bought a gift.

He was worried that by the time they got around to looking for Chad's gift, he'd be late for his test screening. He kept telling Justin that he had to be at the studio by two, but Justin wasn't worried. He said they had plenty of time. Skyler wasn't so sure, and he was hungry. He wondered if Justin would eventually just fall over from lack of nourishment if they kept going. He was sure that he would if they didn't eat soon.

When Justin finally decided on a dress, Skyler was sure that they'd have to have it altered. He didn't say anything to Justin about it, though. He decided that if the dress didn't fit exactly right, they could always come back after the party and have it altered. He wanted to eat before they hit another store to look for Chad's gift. His hopes were dashed when Justin went straight to the jewelry department to buy Cassie a locket.

By the time they sat down to eat at The Crystal Room, Justin had paid for the dress, the locket and two bracelets for Cassie. He was still talking about finding another gift, but Skyler forbade him to buy her anything more. He couldn't believe how much Justin was spending. He had no idea what *Nsync's financial situation was, but he was sure that Justin had already spent a heap of their record sales.

"All right, then," Justin said after they'd ordered. "What about Chad? What does he like?"

"Chad is actually easy to shop for," replied Skyler. "Anything that has to do with football will make him happy. That and watches. I swear he has fifty of them already, but he wants every one he sees."

"I could get him a really nice watch," Justin theorized. "Actually, I could get him two."

"One will do," laughed Skyler.

"Video games?"

"That would be good," Skyler admitted. "I got him a game system, so you could buy a few games."

"A few?" he asked with a smirk. "If I only buy a few games, then I'd better get him something to wear with the watch."

Skyler sighed through a smile and shook his head. Justin Timberlake was a maniac. There was no doubt about it.

The next chapter will be posted soon.