North to the Max
Justin stood in front of his singed painting staring at the canvas … but seeing Brian’s face. He could feel the pain and longing that emanated from that face. Brian’s phone call had hit him hard. He knew instinctively how much Brian needed him, and … how much he needed Brian. Their separation had gone on much too long, but what could he do about it? He had this canvas and at least one other to repair. There were a couple of others that had minor damage that someone else might be able to fix. All of this could take weeks more, and Justin knew that Brian needed him long before the paintings would be finished.
Immobile, Justin continued to stare blankly at the canvas.
“Justin,” a voice said. When there was no reply, the voice repeated more emphatically, “Justin!”
“What? Oh, hi Lindsay, how are you?”
“More importantly how are you? Where were you just now?” Lindsay asked.
Justin swallowed than decided to be honest. “I was in Pittsburgh … with Brian,” he said in little more than a whisper.
“Do you?” Justin asked.
“You miss him and your family and the life you built with Brian.”
“And he misses me. He called me, and … I’m worried. He sounded … not good.”
“He has John and Bobby and lots of other people to help him through this separation from you,” Lindsay offered.
“I know he does, but you know what Brian is like. He never asks for help. He feels he has to solve every problem or obstacle himself.”
“But … that was the old Brian,” Lindsay said uncertainly. “He’s not like that anymore.”
“Isn’t he? When was the last time you heard Brian ask for help?” Justin asked.
“Um … I don’t know. Maybe never?”
Justin nodded his head. “And that’s the problem.”
Lindsay frowned. “I guess I’ve forgotten how much we all depend on Brian. I have to admit that I never think of him as having problems. He always seems so self-assured, like nothing is too much.”
“Sometimes things are too much,” Justin said softly. “You may not see it, but I do. We … depend on each other, and he needs me.”
“Then why don’t you fly home for a few days?” Lindsay asked.
“If I go home, I don’t think I will come back,” Justin admitted. Lindsay gave him a questioning look. “I won’t come back without Brian and he won’t come over here until Bree is safely back from Canada.”
“That’s impossible,” Lindsay said shaking her head.
“Exactly! I don’t know what to do.”
“Why don’t you talk to Charles or Sidney, or both. Maybe they would have some ideas.”
“I don’t see how they can help. You just said it was an impossible situation, and it is,” Justin replied.
“Isn’t it worth a try?” Lindsay asked. “You don’t seem to be getting much done as it is.”
“I can’t stop worrying about Brian.”
“Go talk to them. There’s no point standing in front of this canvas and getting nothing accomplished.”
“Okay, if nothing else, it will give me a few minutes of distraction,” Justin grumbled. He turned away from the painting and headed toward the door.
“We’ll figure something out,” Lindsay said hopefully.
Justin just shrugged as he left the room.
He found Charles in the little area he used as an office. Taking a good long breath, he ventured forward. “Charles?”
“Justin, what can I do for you?” the man asked as he looked up from the papers he was perusing. When he saw Justin’s face, a frown creased his brow. Something was obviously wrong. “Have a seat, old man. You look like you need to talk,” he said with a small smile. He prayed it wasn’t anything too horrendous that had placed that look on Justin’s face.
“I had a call from Brian,” Justin began.
“And how is the fine gentleman doing?” Charles asked.
“Not so good.”
“Oh, what do you mean by not so good? Is he ill?”
“No, not exactly.”
“Then what is it?”
“It’s kind of hard to explain. I just know that Brian needs me. I need to go home.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” Charles said. “Brian seems like a perfectly self sufficient man. Why do you say he needs you if he’s not ill?”
“I said it’s hard to explain,” Justin said defensively.
“Okay,” Charles replied with a deep frown on his brow. “Why don’t you take a few days and fly home. The paintings can wait that long before they are repaired.”
Justin hoped his next words didn’t sound too selfish or … ridiculous. “If I go home, I don’t think I will be back until after the end of the summer.”
“End of summer, why? That long? Couldn’t you shorten that to a few days?”
Justin let out a soft sigh. “I realize this sounds kind of crazy, but there are some things going on at home that I need to be there for. I think the paintings are going to have to wait.”
“I … I don’t quite understand,” Charles admitted, giving Justin a forlorn look.
With a frown, Justin decided to explain as best he could how he felt and what he needed to do. As he had started to talk to Charles, he realized that he had already decided that he was going home come hell or high water. Brian was much more important than any old paintings, and he didn’t care if he was disappointing Lindsay and Charles and Sidney by leaving before he was finished with his job. Well, yes, he did care, but that wasn’t going to stop him. He needed to go home, and soon.
“Charles, I know I wanted to repair my own paintings, but I think going home has become more important. Maybe you can find someone else to work on them, someone that we both can agree on,” Justin said hopefully. “I know that I’m getting nothing done here. I just keep worrying about what’s happening back home, and that’s where I need to be.”
Charles looked thoughtful for a couple of moments. “How many paintings are left to be repaired?” he asked after a bit.
“Two that need quite a lot of work, and two that have minor damage,” Justin stated.
Justin waited. He knew Charles was mulling this over and trying to decide on the best path forward. He wondered what Charles might come up with, but whatever it was, Justin knew he was leaving.
“You’re sure you need to go?”
“And you won’t be back until the end of summer if you do go?”
“Then what about this?” Charles asked folding his fingers together as he leaned forward on his desk. “You leave for America as soon as you’re ready. I’ll pack up the remaining paintings and have them shipped to Lindsay’s gallery. You can deal with whatever is so pressing and is weighing so heavily on you. When you have dealt with that, the paintings will be at the gallery for you to work on in your own time.”
“Oh Charles, you’d do that for me?”
“Anything for you, old boy,” Charles said with a compassionate smile.
“You have no idea how much this means to me,” Justin said sincerely.
“You’re welcome. Now go! Get your affairs sorted out and head for home.”
“I can’t thank you enough.”
“Don’t bother, just go and get done what you need to do.”
Justin’s smile radiated sunlight into the carefully climate controlled gallery. He turned and started walking back to his work area. It was all he could do not to run. He needed to call the airlines, pack his belongings, make sure he had all his paperwork to get back into the U. S. But most of all he needed to call Brian.
As soon as he reached his work station, he grabbed his phone and hit Brian’s number.
“Hello? Justin, what’s wrong?” the familiar voice asked.
“Nothing’s wrong, something’s finally right. I have news…”
The moment the rain stopped, the August sun was brightly shining. The air was less humid and the vivid blue sky was dappled by white fluffy clouds. Picture perfect. Until Max Jacobs made contact again. This time, Bree’s “friend”, Andrea, was there to meet the talent scout Max. She gushed as he flattered her with his lines. Andrea looked suitably impressed as he spoke his nonsense in French and Italian. Then she gasped, fluttering her long black eyelashes at him when he handed her his business card. Bree looked slightly bored as she reminded Andrea about practice. Andrea berated Bree about being polite then graciously allowed Max to take a photo of her. He said he needed it at that moment because he knew a casting director who was looking for a certain type. Max swore on all that was holy that Andrea was just that type.
Bree just about had to drag Andrea away from Max and onto the playing field as they planned. When the girls were out of earshot, Max wasted no time and was on his phone to Hugo.
“Hugo, forget about the blond, they’re a dime a dozen. I just sent you a picture; tell me what you think. I thought so; she’s so eager and worth millions. I’ll make my move soon. I’m getting tired of this town. It’s time for Max Jacobs to retire!”
“I’m serious, Bree, you can still back out of this,” Gus said, almost pleading with is sister.
“No, I can’t. Besides, it’s too late. I’m meeting Andrea near the park; we’re walking in together. She’s expecting me, and she gave me all this stuff to wear. I can’t back out now,” Bree replied. She pointed to various hair clips and special jewelry, all of which contained tracking and listening devices.
“I don’t like this,” Gus grumbled. “And don’t say that nothing can go wrong. Anything can happen!”
“Gus, I don’t like this either but we’re committed to the operation. Our contact, Mr. Murdoch, will be here soon. He’ll have all that we’ll need so we can observe the sting,” Ray explained.
“The sting? What, is this the 70’s,” Gus asked, giving Ray a crossed-eye look. Ray shook his head.
“You know what I mean,” Ray replied with exasperation.
“Yeah, yeah. Then I guess we better get ready,” Gus said with resignation. “Bring it on in,” Gus commanded as he stretched out his arms. Ray, Bree, and Gus hugged long and hard then let go to prepare themselves.
“This is Command, countdown to operation bait and switch commencing now. The command unit is situated on the north east perimeter of the park. All units, check in by the numbers.”
“Alpha one, we have eyes and ears on the bait.”
“Alpha two, we have eyes on the snake, he’s preparing to leave the nest. Our driver is ready.”
“Alpha three, local Leos and their ‘rmps’ have checked in and are staying out of the designated zone. They’re prepared for pursuit if necessary. Local ‘uncles’ are in place.”
“Beta one, Interpol have eyes on the boss and are in position.”
“Beta two, all communications are monitored; back up units in place.”
“This is Command, we have a go; I repeat, we have a go!”
“Mr. Kinney, the plane has landed. They’ll be taxiing to the terminal soon,” an attendant informed Brian. He was sitting in the Liberty Air private lounge, nursing a cup of coffee while waiting for Justin.
After Justin’s wonderful news, he wound up having trouble booking a flight. It was either waiting two weeks or taking a chance at flying stand-by. Brian was hearing none of it. He immediately called Liberty Air and had a private jet standing by at Heathrow for Justin and the paintings that required attention.
“Thank you,” Brian politely replied. He was truly grateful to Liberty Air and their courteous, detail oriented employees. Brian stood then walked as close to the door as security would allow. Finally seeing the bright blond hair, Brian shouted out, “Justin!”
A few moments later Brian had his beautiful blond in his arms; both of them in tears, both finally able to breathe. They left for the hotel right after confirming the arrangements for the paintings.
“Let’s blow this popsicle stand, Sunshine,” Brian quipped as they left the terminal with Justin safely tucked under his arm.
It was about another forty-eight hours before the boys saw the light of day. Brian and Justin were ravenous for sleep, ravenous for each other, and for a home cooked meal. After spending time reconnecting, exploring missed territory, and just clinging to each other for hours, the need for food won out. They hated the thought of another hotel meal no matter how fancy or gourmet. And it was ludicrous to go home just to cook breakfast. So, what’s the next best thing?
After a shower and shave, Brian and Justin took a leisurely walk hand in hand through the land of Liberty to their home away from home, the Liberty diner, where Lacy kept the eggs, bacon, sausage, home fries, coffee, tea, and buttered toast coming. It was their first meal in weeks that truly satisfied the boys.
As word spread that Brian and Justin were together at the diner, members of the gang began to drift in and out. No one raised an eyebrow at the amount of food being consumed. One look at the boys, said it all.
“When do you go back?” asked Michael as he sat next to Justin. Brian acknowledged his best friend with a nod while chowing down on the toast.
“Just as soon as Bree comes home,” Justin confirmed.
“I heard about your paintings. Are they okay now?” Michael asked with genuine concern.
“Most of them are. I brought a couple of them back with me. I’ll work on them at the gallery while we’re waiting for Bree to come,” Justin explained.
“I can’t believe you let her go to Canada to work,” said Michael.
“Why? She’s the same age as JR when she took over the store when you were sick. There’s no difference. No, I take that back. JR did it mostly on her own. Bree has Gus and Ray to guide her,” Justin pointed out.
“Yeah, I suppose,” Michael conceded with a proud smile.
“How’s JR and Jacq doing?” Justin ventured.
“They’re doing great as far as I can see. They finished decorating the house. They asked John to install a small gazebo in the backyard. I’m not sure if it really needed a gazebo.”
“Maybe for their wedding,” Justin suggested.
“Hmm, maybe,” Michael replied. Before Michael could go on a rant about the wedding, Emmett showed up. He shoved Brian’s ass over so he could get comfortable.
“Asshole,” Brian mumbled around a breakfast sausage.
“Sweetie!” Emmett gushed at Justin. “We must do something about those dark circles under your eyes.” Emmett then reached over the table to give Justin a strong hug. Justin loudly belched in response. Emmett and Michael laughed as Justin turned beet red.
“Oh honey, never you mind. You just keep right on enjoying your breakfast. You look as though you need it,” Emmett commented noting a slightly thinner Justin than the Justin who left to go to London weeks prior. Emmett patted Brian’s leg as they shared a glance. Emmett knew how difficult their separation has been on both men. He was pleased to see Brian freely eating.
A long pause ensued while the men ate. “Um, this may be a stupid question considering all that’s been going on, but are there any plans for the traditional Labor Day weekend barbecue?” Emmett hazarded the question.
“Fuck,” Brian and Justin swore.
“I’m sorry, Emm, I’m going with Justin when he returns to London,” Brian said then filled in the details for Emmett. “But you’re welcome to take over our yard and kitchen,” Brian began.
“Our kitchen, little bro,” John stated as he clomped into the diner in his heavy construction boots. He grabbed a small chair, turning the back toward the end of the table, he sat down. “Emmett, you are welcome to host the Labor Day bash in our yard and have full reign over our kitchen as you see fit.” John smiled brightly as he reached out his hands to the boys.
“It’s good to see you guys,” John said to Brian and Justin. They both smiled as they kept right on eating. John laughed, very pleased at the sight.
Not in any rush, the boys held court as their friends and family took the time to visit. Some stayed and others left for work. Empty plates were replaced by plates of pancakes and Belgian waffles with lots of butter and syrup.
A few hours later, when their bellies were very full and with several ‘to go’ bags, the boys were ready to leave. Justin wanted to go to the gallery to check on his paintings. Having spent some time away from them, he hoped he could examine them with a new perspective. Brian decided he was not letting Justin out of his sight. Of course, Justin didn’t mind the company and welcomed Brian’s opinions regarding his work.
They were just about to leave when John came back into the diner, this time with Bobby. Something in John’s eyes made Brian suspicious.
“Sunshine, I have a feeling I’m not going to like this,” Brian growled. Justin took Brian’s hand.
John noted Brian’s expression, raised his hands in surrender then reassured the lion who was about to protect his pride.
“Lacy, do you mind if we take over the larger table?” John asked Lacy as he indicated the large circular booth that could easily sit ten. Lacy smiled as she nodded. “And we’ll need coffee, lots of coffee,” John added.
“What’s going on?” Justin asked as they got situated.
“No one’s been hurt or in trouble,” John assured the boys. “I want you to promise to listen quietly and not fly off the handle.” Now Brian and Justin were really worried. “Everyone you love is safe and sound,” John stated. John nodded to Bobby who had his phone in his hand. Bobby texted out one word then put his phone down.
Moments later, the bell over the diner door jingled as Bree, Gus, and Ray entered accompanied by several men in black.
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