Not Distance, Not Time by Lumien by old_archive

Originally found on: BSB Attorneys

Summary: Nick tries to negotiate peace between Howie and AJ over the love of a beautiful young woman, but will he be able to resist her?

Categories: Fanfiction > Backstreet Boys Characters: AJ, Group, Howie, Nick
Genres: Angst, Drama, Romance
Warnings: Sexual Content
Series: Archived Author: Lumien
Chapters: 37 Completed: Yes Word count: 104253 Read: 14002 Published: 09/24/09 Updated: 09/24/09

1. Chapter 1 by old_archive

2. Chapter 2 by old_archive

3. Chapter 3 by old_archive

4. Chapter 4 by old_archive

5. Chapter 5 by old_archive

6. Chapter 6 by old_archive

7. Chapter 7 by old_archive

8. Chapter 8 by old_archive

9. Chapter 9 by old_archive

10. Chapter 10 by old_archive

11. Chapter 11 by old_archive

12. Chapter 12 by old_archive

13. Chapter 13 by old_archive

14. Chapter 14 by old_archive

15. Chapter 15 by old_archive

16. Chapter 16 by old_archive

17. Chapter 17 by old_archive

18. Chapter 18 by old_archive

19. Chapter 19 by old_archive

20. Chapter 20 by old_archive

21. Chapter 21 by old_archive

22. Chapter 22 by old_archive

23. Chapter 23 by old_archive

24. Chapter 24 by old_archive

25. Chapter 25 by old_archive

26. Chapter 26 by old_archive

27. Chapter 27 by old_archive

28. Chapter 28 by old_archive

29. Chapter 29 by old_archive

30. Chapter 30 by old_archive

31. Chapter 31 by old_archive

32. Chapter 32 by old_archive

33. Chapter 33 by old_archive

34. Chapter 34 by old_archive

35. Chapter 35 by old_archive

36. Chapter 36 by old_archive

37. Chapter 37 by old_archive

Chapter 1 by old_archive

She stood in the hallway of Orlando's most exclusive hotel holding Howie Dorough's hand. He had been her world for the last 10 years. She knew this had to happen, but she was dreading it. The man on the other side of the door had called this meeting and Howie stood by her like he had all these years.

"Are you ready, honey?" he asked. "It's going to be all right. I'll be with you the entire time."

The door opened to four other people. A tall dark haired man opened the door. She knew instantly who he was.

"Hey, Howie."

"Hi, Kevin. Is he here?"

"Yeah, he is." Kevin nodded solemnly.

Howie walked in, with her following and clutching his hand. She knew the other men in the room, Brian Littrell and Nick Carter. She felt her knees starting to buckle. He wasn't in view, but when she finally saw him, he was sitting at the piano, plinking a few keys. His black suit looked slept in.

"AJ?" Howie asked.

He looked up, eyes hidden behind sunglasses.

"AJ? This is Lexie." Howie said. She could feel her senses starting to reel; her stomach began to churn. She was going to faint. She had prayed for this moment for so long, it was almost too real.

AJ removed his sunglasses and looked her up and down. She was taller than Howie, by just about two inches. Long legs, slim build with long dark hair that fell to the middle of her back and dark, dark brown eyes. Her complexion was light, much lighter than Howie's. Howie took a few steps closer, almost dragging Lexie with him.

"You aren't scared, are you?" AJ asked. She couldn't speak, she only nodded, 'no'.

"You look like your mother." AJ said. She still couldn't speak. "I can't tell you what it means to me that you're willing to do this." He said, his voice cracking. His face fell into his hand.

"Don't cry." She said. She began reaching for him, but withdrew her hand before he looked up.

"God, she even sounds like her." He said in the barest of whispers. "I still can't believe you agreed to come. The doctor is here to do the preliminary tests." AJ said.

"Of course." She nodded.

She looked up and found a man who seemed to acknowledge that comment about a doctor. She walked over to him and began to roll up her sleeves. AJ stood by Howie as they watched the blood being drawn.

"She's beautiful, Howie." AJ whispered.

"Yes, she is."

"You have every right to be proud of her. You did a great job."

"I did the best I could." Howie nodded.

"How old is she now?" Nick asked, coming up behind them.

"Nineteen. Just finished her first year of college. She's majoring in art history. She has plans to be a museum curator." Howie said. The others could hear the pride in his voice.

"I can't believe where the time has gone." Brian sighed heavily.

"I don't want to talk about it." AJ snapped, walking out to the deck overlooking the city. All four of the others followed him outside.

"You owe her." Howie demanded.

"I don't owe her anything. . ." he began.

"What? She's here being tested to donate bone marrow for your son, who you named Alexander after yourself, just like you did her. She hasn't heard from you in 14 years. . ."

"She had you, she didn't need me." AJ said.

"Let's not have this argument again." Howie sighed, knowing where this was going. "She's met you now, she may have questions later." Howie said.

Later? Howie thought to himself. She's had them all her life, why would today or tomorrow be any different? When Lexie was first born, it had been a PR nightmare for the Backstreet Boys.

AJ's child born out of wedlock.

AJ had tried to make it work with her mother, but left less than a year after she was born. He never tried to be close to her. She was 9 when her mother died; leaving her with no one who wanted her. Single, just turning 35, Howie took her in. He dedicated the last 10 years of his life to her. He couldn't resist her huge brown eyes; her tearful hello and little freckled nose. He remembered years of leaving her at home so he could go to BSB functions.

He hadn't wanted to put her through them. Everyone knew AJ was her father, she even knew it. How many times had she asked him to call her father, let her talk to him, but Howie couldn't. She finally quit asking. She got on with her life and they never discussed when Howie was with the group or when he was recording or when he went on tour. He adopted her a year later and she began to call him ‘dad'. None of the guys had ever tried to talk him out of adopting her, but there was a strain after Howie asked AJ to sign his parental rights away to him.

Alexandra Janelle McLean Dorough.

Lexie Dorough really seemed to fit her.

When the call came in about little Alex, that he had been diagnosed with leukemia, AJ told him they needed a donor who was preferably a sibling. Howie asked Lexie and she agreed without hesitation. So, ten years later and here they were. Standing out on a hotel deck, arguing about who should do what while an unknown doctor drew blood from her body to save the son of a man who refused to be her father.

"Dad?" Lexie asked, standing at the door to the deck. She was holding a cotton ball folded in her arm. "They're done with me."

Howie felt the feeling of the group change. Her voice, her presence made her suddenly more real and seem to snap them back to reality. He could feel the heat of anger rising to his cheeks, although he tempered his tone in front of her.

"I'll be right there, honey." Howie smiled.

"AJ?" she asked. He turned and looked at her.

"I'm sorry about your son." She said. "I hope I'm a good match."

"We all do, honey." Howie said.

"You did a great job, Howie." AJ said quietly, watching her turn away and walk back inside.

"I did my best." Howie said. "If she asks, will you spend time with her? Get to know her?"

"Maybe when all of this is over and Alex is better. . ."AJ began.

Howie had to ask, even if he already knew the answer. AJ had made his decision 10 years ago and now they were all going to live with it.

Chapter 2 by old_archive

Of the four people that Lexie first saw when she came in, only one was a woman. It was Denise McLean, her grandmother. She sat on the couch, not even looking at Lexie.

After nineteen years, would they ever get over the disgrace?

Howie had taught her to move on with her life and let the other pieces fall where they may. Her father didn't love her and although for the longest time it mattered, it didn't any more. Howie was her father in every sense of the word and the Doroughs her family. She would not waste her life chasing the rest of them. She was here because they needed her, not because she needed them.

As the doctor had drawn the blood, she watched the famous Backstreet Boys discuss her. Part of it made her angry, she knew her dad was arguing her with them. She wished he hadn't, but she knew he would. Hopeless romantic.

Lexie looked around the hotel suite AJ and his family called home while they were in Orlando. It seemed impersonal, cold and pristine. She didn't care for it. There was a picture of AJ, a baby and a young woman. She assumed it was his wife and son. She picked it up from the mantle and stared at it. The baby was rosy cheeked and smiling, so were AJ and his wife. His wife. She wasn't there and Lexie figured she was with the baby. She smiled herself. He was a beautiful baby and she could tell they loved him. She hoped a little that she would get a chance to love him too.

"That's Alex." AJ said as the boys came in from the deck. Lexie looked back over her shoulder at him without startling at his voice.

"He's beautiful." She smiled. "Is he here now?"

"No, he's in the hospital." AJ said quietly.

"Are you ready to go?" Howie asked.

"Sure, Dad." She said, setting the picture back. "When will we know the final results?"

"Tomorrow, hopefully." Brian smiled shyly.

"Good." She nodded.

Howie reached for Lexie's hand, she gladly slipped it into his, and they left without another word.

"Are you okay?" Howie asked her in the elevator. Crystalline tears formed in her eyes and began to pour down her cheeks as she nodded 'yes'. "Don't cry, honey." He soothed, handing her a tissue she had used earlier. She laughed as she tried to unmat it.

"Don't you have a clean one?" she joked and he laughed too.

They all stood staring at the door after it closed. Nothing seemed to break them from their awe until Kevin spoke.

"Are you alright?" Kevin asked AJ.

"I think so. I doubt I'll sleep until tomorrow." He sighed. He looked past Nick, to the picture Lexie had replaced on the mantel. Those three people no longer existed.

"I still can't believe she came." Denise said.

"She's Howie's daughter, would you expect any thing less from a Dorough?" AJ said with a little bitterness.

Lord knows he had thought of her often over the years, but Howie seem to effectively build a safe haven around her with his family. He kept her shielded from the media and from them. AJ remembered over hearing countless phone calls home; Howie talking to Lexie.

He had reveled in her success in her classes; schools plays and even her first prom. Howie left the reunion tour for three days to be there for that. When Howie married Leah, it made the picture complete. They had two kids of their own and he imagined Lexie having the perfect family with the Doroughs. She had just completed her first year at USC for art history. Only Howie's influence could've taken a scared, orphaned illegitimate child of a Backstreet Boy and made her a USC student.

AJ felt sick to his stomach. In his heart, he believed that Alex's illness was punishment from betraying Lexie. AJ pulled away from the others and headed for the bathroom for one of his usual vomiting fits.

Chapter 3 by old_archive

Lexie was nervous, Leah could tell. Lexie had been quiet since she got up this morning, which wasn't like her. She stared at the TV as it rattled on and on. She didn't seem to register that the boys were rough housing all around her. Eight year old John launched himself on to the couch right next to her and innocently crawled into her lap. She took him in her arms and kissed his cheek.

"Lexie? Are you okay?"

"Hmm? Oh, I'm fine, John-John." She smiled.

"You're too quiet."

"I'm just thinking about stuff." She smiled down at him.

Six year old Tyler crawled up on the arm of the couch. He pulled her braid out from behind her and began to pull it apart.

"Are you worried about that little boy?" John asked.

"Huh?" Lexie asked.

"That little boy, the one you're here to help. You worried about him?" John asked.

John and Tyler didn't know that AJ was Lexie's dad, they thought Howie was. They never questioned the age gap, or the fact that Lexie didn't look anything like their parents. They hadn't asked why Lexie never went to BSB functions either. The boys had met all the other group members, but Howie had also kept them pretty sheltered from the fame of the Backstreet Boys. That meant they didn't know the boys very well and were too young to make any connections.

"A little."

"Daddy says he's gonna be better soon." Tyler said quietly, trying to unknot her hair.

"We hope so." She nodded. "Come on you guys, let's go to the park." She said, trying to get from under John, but Tyler added himself to the pile.

Their laughter reached Howie as he came up from the basement studio into the kitchen where Leah was watching. Leah's arms were crossed and a damp dishtowel hung from one of her hands. The late afternoon sun filtered through her golden hair, causing it to splash haphazardly on the tiled kitchen floor.

"How she's doing?" He asked, seeing Lexie trying to struggle out from under the boys.

"All right, I guess." She shrugged. She never turned toward him. Howie headed toward the refrigerator.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"I don't know if this was a good idea. . .what if little Alex doesn't make it? How will she feel then?"

"I couldn't not ask her." He sighed. "He is her little brother and AJ. . ." He pulled a soda out of the refrigerator and closed the door, popping the can open. He took a drink as she continued.

"I know, I know. I'm just scared for her and AJ's family." Leah sighed. "We're so lucky Howie. All of OUR children are healthy and happy. . ."

"Yes, we are and we have to remember that." He said, hugging her from behind.

Lord knows she was right. They were lucky. Their children were healthy and happy. They had a wonderful life together and he had been able to give her everything she had ever needed. She in return gave him everything he had ever wanted.

Leah turned in his arms and caught his face in her hands. "I love you, Howie." She said with so much honesty, his emotions caught in his throat. She kissed him gently. "Thank you for everything." She whispered.

Lexie watched John and Tyler run, climb, and terrorize the park. She had re-braided her hair and replaced the clip on the walk over there. How was she going to make it through the rest of the afternoon, waiting for the call? AJ had said they would hear today.


Lexie just shook her head. She'd seen a thousands of pictures of him, seen hours of video tape and film footage, but she had never seen him like she did last night. She had felt good about their first meeting so far, but in the last couple hours, she began to doubt herself. What would happen if little Alex died anyway? Would he blame her or would it just be another reason for him to avoid her for the rest of her life?

As much has she wanted to believe it didn't matter, the realization that it did matter creeped up on her. God, after all of these years, she still wanted to know. Why? Why did he walk out on her? What had she done to make her own father hate her so much? And what if Alex lived? Would he thank her and be gone again? Would Lexie ever be able to. . .

STOP IT! She screamed in her head. It doesn't matter. . .it doesn't! He doesn't love you, he has never loved you and you have no right to betray Howie like this! You're stupid and selfish! She screamed to herself.

Lexie couldn't stand it another moment and it was getting dark. She rounded up the boys and headed home the three blocks to the house. She opened the door and John and Tyler ran in to get juice from the refrigerator. Leah and Howie had been sitting at the kitchen table talking when they came in. Tyler slopped his half-full glass to the table and climbed up on Leah's lap. John gave a flying leap into Lexie's arms, she carried him over, and they plopped into a chair next to Howie.

"Any word?" she asked. She watched her parents exchange glances.

"Yes, you're a perfect match." Howie said.

"Thank god." She sighed.

"What's going on? Is this about that little boy?" John asked, looking back at Lexie.

"Yes," Howie smiled, "They found some new medicine that might make him better."

"Mommy?" Tyler asked, looking up at his mom. "Can I get what the little boy has? Am I gonna die?"

"No, no, honey." She said, "You're gonna be just fine, you're very healthy."

Without warning, Lexie put John down and ran upstairs to her room. She could hear Howie calling after her, but she couldn't stop. She was sobbing on her bed when she heard him knock and then come in.

"Honey? Lexie? What's wrong?" he asked, sitting on her bed.

She couldn't answer, she just threw herself into his arms and cried like a child. When she calmed down, Howie knew there was something on her mind and she didn't want to talk about it. Ever since she was little, he had gotten used to her solitary moods. She'd brew for days on a problem, then come talk to him only as a last resort.

"I'm sorry, Dad." She said, wiping her eyes.

"It's all right. This is going to be a very emotional time for all of us." He said, not knowing if that's what she wanted to hear.

"So, what do we do now?" she said, wiping her eyes. She sat up, outside of his reach, absently tucking a stuffed animal in her now empty arms.

"Well, we have to go to the hospital tomorrow." Howie said.

"How come?"

"There is some pre-donor counseling you have to go through. . . they just want to talk to you."

"Okay." She nodded.

"You'll have to be admitted tomorrow too. I can have your mom pack some things."

"No, I'll do it. Can I bring my Discman?"

"Sure, I'm sure it'll be okay." He said, pulling her back into his arms and kissing the top of her head.

"How long will I be there?"

"I'm not really sure. They'll explain all of that when we arrive tomorrow at noon."

"Are Grandma and Grandpa going to be there? Should I call them?"

"I already did, of course they're going to be there." He smiled. "So is Polly and. . ."

"God, are they all going to show up?"

"Probably." He chuckled.

"I don't know if I want that." She said. After a pause she asked, "Is AJ going to be there?"

"I don't know. Do you want him to be there?" he asked. Her answer was a shrug. "Well, if you do I'll call him."

"You would?" she asked. She pulled away and looked up into his face. In the last 10 years, he had never offered to call AJ for her.

"Yes." He said seriously.

"Thanks, Dad." She nodded, cuddling back into his arms.

"Sure, honey. Anything for you." He said, resting his cheek on her hair. "I'm very proud of you, Lexie. You're doing the right thing and I know how scary this is."

Chapter 4 by old_archive

The next day, Howie and Leah explained to the boys that Lexie was going into the hospital and tried their best to explain that she going to help save little Alex. Tyler began to cry, afraid that Lexie was going to get sick too. She tried to reassure him, but he was beginning to make her cry. John came over and sat with the kids as Leah and Howie took Lexie to the hospital. She had decided this morning that she didn't want Howie to call AJ. She told them it didn't matter if he was there or not. AJ was there, in the counselor's office waiting. Nick had come to be with AJ and he was outside the office with Leah and Howie.

Inside the office, AJ and Lexie sat in chairs next to each other. They faced the counselor who sat across from them. AJ was in a stylish dark suit, looking subdued, but nonetheless the celebrity he was. Lexie's sunny summer dress off set his solemn look. Lightly tanned legs were crossed in front of her; one of her sandaled feet bouncing absently in the air. AJ noticed that she wasn't looking at him or the doctor, but her eyes roamed the office.

"I've heard your story." The counselor, Dr. Hemming, said.

"What story?" Lexie asked, refocusing on her. Her eyes never touched AJ.

"I know that you're AJ's daughter and you two haven't had a lot of contact in the last couple years."

"You mean the last 19?" Lexie said. It was out before she had a chance to stop it. She couldn't look at either one of them. "I'm sorry." She looked down at her hands that were twisting around each other. I've gotta make that stop, she thought to herself absently.

"No, it's all right." The counselor said.

"It was rude, I'm sorry." She apologized again without looking up.

AJ could feel his stomach rolling. When he had called Howie, he told him the test results and about the mandatory counseling. Howie had warned him that she wasn't really like the quiet, shy child she had been the day before.

"Are you ready for this?" Howie had asked him.

"Do I have a choice?" AJ snapped.

"Just be careful, all right?"

"I will."

"She's got a sharp tongue, like her mother. She's scared AJ, I haven't seen her like this in years."

Howie loved her like a father and AJ could see that. How would he feel if it was reversed?

It would never be reversed, Howie would never do what he had done.

Howie had built a wall around her, but AJ used that as an excuse for years to avoid her. Now, he didn't have one. He didn't know how he was going to deal with both meeting Lexie and having Alex so sick.

"Why are we here?" Lexie asked, sounding short and feeling vulnerable.

"The doctor thought it was important that we talk." AJ said, trying to contribute anything.

"Oh." She said, but she was staring off as one of her feet continued to bounce in the air.

"When was the last time you two saw each other?" she asked.

"Two days ago." Lexie answered.

"Before that."

Lexie just shrugged.

"I. . .I think she was about 5."AJ said, unable himself to look at her.

"Is that right, Lexie?"

"I guess." She shrugged.

"How do you feel about donating?"

"Okay, I guess."

"Just okay?"

"Yeah. I have to do it."

"You don't have to."

"Yes, I do. I'm the only donor, without the marrow, he'll die."

"The transplant still might not work."

"I have to."

"Do you have any other feelings? About your father?"

"No. . .look, why are we doing this? If you find me psychologically unstable, are you going to deny him the transplant?" Lexie snapped.

"I'm asking about your feelings. . ."

"What does it matter?!" She demanded, getting testy.

"You must have some feelings about your father. . ."

"Oh, god! Will you give it up?! He's not my father! He's AJ!" she yelled, getting to her feet. "He's AJ McLean of the Backstreet Boys! That's all he'll ever be!"

"Lexie. . ." AJ began, wanting to say something as he watched her get to her feet.

"I'm here, aren't I?! Isn't that enough?!" she yelled, still not looking at him. She was focusing all of her anger on the doctor. "Why do we have to do this?!"

"AJ, why don't you wait outside." The doctor said. AJ rose, wishing he knew what to say. He was afraid, afraid that if he said anything at all, she'd turn on him.

In the hall, they had heard the raised voices. Leah had gotten to her feet and started to pace, Howie trying to keep up with her. Nick just sat there with his eyes focused on the tile floor below his fine Italian shoes. Leah and Howie hadn't spoken a word to him since Lexie went into the office. They all froze and faced the door as it opened and AJ came out, closing the door behind him.

"What's going on?" Leah demanded as she ran up on AJ.

"She's upset." He said, standing there with his eyes downcast and one hand still on the doorknob.

"I can hear that!" Leah snapped.

"Leah, calm down." Howie said, "AJ, tell me what happened."

"The doctor asked about her feelings about me. . .she just went off."

"Lexie, tell me why you're so upset." The counselor kept asking, but Lexie had been reduced to tears.

She hadn't wanted to say that. She didn't want to hurt him. She didn't want to drive him farther away, but she had. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to say that. It just came out." She cried as she sat back down. "Can I just see my mom? Can I? Please?"

"Of course." The counselor went and opened the door.

"Mrs. Dorough, can you come in here?" she asked. Leah pushed herself past AJ and ran to Lexie's side. Leah drew a hysterical Lexie into her arms, tucking her dark head under her chin.

"Can you get my husband?" Leah asked of the counselor.

Leah saw a glimpse of AJ as the door opened to admit Howie. He never lifted his eyes as Howie walked by him or looked inside the office to see how Lexie was doing. Her eyes locked with Howie's as he pulled a chair up on the other side of Lexie and wrapped his arms around them both. Neither one of them had seen her like this in years, but they were old hats at it. Leah squeezed her own eyes shut against her tears, but opened them as she felt Howie's hand on her arm. She looked into his face and for the first time since this all began 10 years ago, she saw regret. She could only gently nod her head to him to reassure him that he hadn't made a mistake, even if she wasn't sure herself.

AJ watched Howie follow the doctor into the room with Lexie and they closed the door. Nick rose to stand by his side. AJ brushed him off, giving him a look of utter helplessness.

"I suppose you think I'm some kind of monster." AJ said quietly. He walked to a window and leaned against the jamb, staring at the Orlando sun.

"No, AJ. I don't." he said to AJ's back.

"You'd never leave your daughter, would you?" AJ threw back at him over his shoulder.

"This isn't about me versus you. I was a lot older when I had CJ." Nick said.

"Before was bad enough, how do I make it up to her doing all of this for me?" AJ said, turning to him. "How do I ask her to help my son, when I wouldn't even help her?"

"I don't know AJ, but she's here." Nick said, trying to be strong for his friend.

"Thanks once again to Howie." AJ said bitterly. AJ had walked past Nick and headed down the hall. No doubt to where his car and driver were waiting. Nick couldn't help but see the irony of him leaving her again.

Nick picked up his own pace, making the instant decision to be with AJ. He had heard her scream through the door. The pain was very visible in her voice. If Lexie Dorough did agree to go through with this, she would be one amazing young woman. She was being far kinder to them, than they had been to her.

"I'm sorry, Dad, Mom. I just opened my mouth and it just popped out. . ." she sobbed, wiping her nose with a tissue.

"What 'popped' out?" Leah asked, looking behind her to Howie.

"I yelled at him, I didn't want to." She sobbed, "God, I'm so stupid sometimes!"

"No you're not. You're just scared, that's all." Howie said, tearing his eyes from Leah to Lexie.

"It's just another reason for him to hate me." She cried.

"Hate you?! Lexie!" Howie said, grabbing both her arms. "Look at me, Lexie, AJ doesn't hate you?!"

"He does hate me, Dad!" she cried, throwing her arms around his neck, "And I don't blame him!"

Chapter 5 by old_archive

Lexie woke a few hours later in her hospital room not knowing how she got there. Her Uncle John was there in a chair in the corner.

"Hey, Tiger" he smiled, walking over to the bed.

"What happened?" she asked weakly.

"They gave you a sedative."

"Jesus, Uncle John." She sighed, rubbing her head. "They must think I'm nuts."

"No, no one thinks you're nuts." he smiled.

"God, I just flipped out about AJ." She sighed heavily. "I don't know why, it just happened."

"I'm betting you've got some real issues." John admitted to her.

"I don't give a rat's ass."

"I know, I know." He soothed her. "You want me to get your Mom and Dad?"

"What time is it? Are they still here?"

"They went to get a bite to eat. I said I'd sit with you. AJ isn't here, he's upstairs with his son."

"That's fine, I don't expect him to ever come around me again."

"Why not?"

"Because he probably thinks I'm nuts."

"Lex, no one thinks you're nuts." He laughed at her.

"I guess that makes me the only one." She sighed, flopping back into the bed. The nurses brought her dinner, which she forced John to try first. He sat on the end of her bed, made jokes about the food, and had her laughing in no time.

"There's a happy sound." Howie smiled as he came into the room.

"Dad." She nodded as she reached out for a hug.

"Where's mom?"

"She went home to relieve Polly with the boys."

"I'm sorry, Dad." She sighed.

"It's all right honey."

"Are they still going to do the transplant?"

"Yes. Lexie there is something I need to tell you."

"What? What's wrong?"

"It's little Alex, he's taking a turn for the worse."

"Oh no! We've got to hurry! Shit, and I was just downstairs flipping out."

"Lexie, it's not your fault!" Howie demanded. "They'll be prepping you early in the morning, it's gonna happen a little faster than planned."

"That's fine, I don't care. Can I see him?"

"Who? AJ?" John asked.

"No, Alex."

"I don't think so, they aren't letting anyone in except his parents." Howie said.

"Poor little guy." She sighed.

Howie and John were kicked out after visiting hours and left Lexie alone in her room awaiting tomorrow's transplant. She changed into her pajamas and slippers and went to bed under doctor's orders. She woke several times during the night and finally was unable to get back to sleep. She got up to use the bathroom around one a.m.

Her curiosity got the best of her and she padded out of her room and down the hall to the pediatric ward. It was nearly 2 a.m. when she rounded the corner and saw Nick Carter sitting in the hall. He head was down in his hands as she walked up in her PJ's and robe. She looked at the name on the room across from him, "McLean, A."

"Nick? Nick Carter?" she asked quietly.

He looked up in surprise.

"I'm Lexie, Lexie Dorough."

He jumped to his feet, sticking out his hand. She shook it, half-marveling how the light caught in his hair, as it lay down his back in a long ponytail. He seemed huge standing in front of her. His fine tailored dark blue suit was rumpled from a long day in and out of the hospital with AJ. He absently smoothed a hand over his head, although not a hair was out of place.

"Hi, yeah I know." Nick said.

"How is he?"

"Pretty sick."

"Are his parents here?"

"Just AJ. He won't leave the room."

"Do you think I could go in there?" she asked.

"You'll need a mask and gloves and everything." He said, indicating to the trays by the door.

"Thanks." She said, letting go of his hand.

She donned a gown and mask, stuck the gloves in her pocket, and went in. It was dark and all she could see was the light illuminating the baby and AJ with his head on the bed. She reached over and laid a hand on his shoulder. He woke slowly and then got to his feet when he realized who it was.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry." She said, whispering.

"No, no, it's all right." He said.

"I'm so sorry about today."

"It's all right."

"No, I'm really sorry."

"It's fine, really. I don't blame you." He said, looking at the ground.

"I didn't mean those things I said." she said, "Honest."

"It's all right." She just nodded in agreement. He shook his head at her with a sad little smile.

"What?" she asked.

"It's just you're a lot like Howie." He said.

"Yeah, I usually pass as a Dorough until I open my mouth and then this crap just flies out." She said, exasperated at herself. She heard him laugh quietly.

"You were better off with him." AJ said.

Lexie was stunned and didn't know what to say. AJ never gave her a chance to reply, he just turned and sat back down by the bed and looked at his son. Lexie just left the room, unable to decide what to say or do next to him. Nick was still there when she came out.

"How is he?" Nick asked as he walked over to her, towering over her.

"I don't know." She sighed, pulling off the mask and gown. "Are you going to be here all night?"

"Probably." He nodded.

"If you see my Dad, Howie, could you let him know I came by?" she said.

"Yeah, sure." He nodded.

"He said he was coming by before he saw me off to surgery."


"Thanks." She nodded, turning to walk away.

"When all of this is over? Are you still going to be around?" Nick asked to her back, but she never answered. Then again, she wasn't quite sure she heard what she thought she heard.

She had asked the doctors to play her special CD for her as she went under. It was a one of kind recording of three of her favorite all time songs. Her Dad sang and recorded all of them for her and sent them to her at school. The last thing she remembered was the distant strains of "Unchained Melody" and her father's voice lilting putting her to sleep.

"We should've brought the boys." Leah said, pacing in front of Brian and Kevin. "They should've seen her. Tyler is just so upset."

"No, I didn't want Lexie to get upset again. You know how Tyler can make her cry." Howie sighed.

"Was she all right?" Leah asked for the hundredth time.

"She was fine. They were playing her CD and she seemed very relaxed." Howie said.

Leah was starting to get upset herself. Howie knew she had her doubts about letting Lexie getting involved with AJ and the Backstreet Boys. Leah had been there in the early days when Lexie used to beg him to call AJ, to take her to the studio to meet him and take her to video shoots. She would cry these hysterical fits, like yesterday, until she would just cry herself to sleep. Howie had told himself a million times over the years that she would get over it and he tried to convince himself she had. Once the adoption was over, they were going to wait to get married, but when Leah became pregnant the wedding plans got pushed up. Lexie and Leah got along famously and Lexie was very involved in the wedding and pregnancy. Leah refused to have it any other way. She made special time for Lexie when she was pregnant, even at times standing him up to be with her. She's just a little girl, Leah told him, and someone had to be there for her. Leah loved her so much; it could be no one but her.

Leah was hell bent and determined to make Lexie happy and to see what she saw yesterday had made her crazed. She had wanted to kill AJ; convinced he had said something or done something to hurt her. In all the years, Leah had abided by Howie's wishes to keep Lexie from all things AJ and BSB.

"I can't stand this." Leah snapped and headed out of the waiting room door.

"Aren't you going after her?" Brian asked.

"I think I'll be safer in here." Howie smiled. "She's just anxious. She's just gonna go blow off some steam."

"She is really upset with AJ." Kevin said.

"Well, we don't know what really happened between them. Lexie was really sorry that she said anything." Howie said.

"That's what Nick said." Brian said.

"I know, I heard." Howie nodded.

"You seem really calm." Kevin said.

"I'm not." Howie half smiled. "I can barely stand this myself."

Lexie woke without really feeling any pain. Her eyes fluttered open in the recovery room and she found her Uncle John peering over at her.

"Hey, kiddo. We gotta quit meeting like this." He joked quietly. She only reached out for him.

"Am I okay?" she asked.

"You're just fine, sweetie. I promise." He said, smoothing her hair from her face.

"I'm sorry, Dad, I'm really sorry." She whispered as she fell back to sleep.

"It's all right, baby." John said, tears glistening in his eyes. "I'm here for you."

Chapter 6 by old_archive

Lexie stood staring out the window of her hospital room waiting for her Dad to pick her up after her release. It would be a little longer before they knew if the transplant took, so far, all of the signs had been positive. She heard a knock and turned to the door. It was Nick.

"Hi, can I come in?" he asked.

"Sure." She smiled.

He had been a semi-regular visitor since she had gotten out of surgery. He was the only Backstreet Boy to make the effort. She hadn't seen AJ since that night. He cut a fine figure in a suit, which is all she'd ever seen him in. Today's was a dark gray.

"I came to see you off." He smiled.

"I've still got probably two hours. Dad isn't even here yet."

"These your grandma's enchiladas?" He asked, seeing a plate on the bed tray.

"Want some?"

"God, I haven't had these in years." He said, peering under the foil.

Probably 10 years, since she had become a Dorough.

"Try them, they're good." Lexie laughed, walking over to hand him a plastic fork. He took a mouthful and enjoyed them noisily. "Good, huh?"

"Fabulous." He laughed. "Oh, hey, I brought you these." He said, handing her a plastic bag.

"What's this?" she asked, taking the bag from him.

"I'm sorry I didn't have time to wrap them, I just got them FedEx last night." He said, putting down the fork. "They are some old BSB stuff, books and things. I thought you might like them. I don't know what Howie's shown you."

"Oh, he's shown me some stuff. The house isn't a totally BSB free zone." She smiled, pulling the yellowed programs out of the bag. Just me, I'm the only thing not allowed near the Backstreet Boys, she thought.

"This was nice of you, Nick. Thanks." She said, stuffing them back in the bag before her Dad got there. "Let's not tell my Dad, okay?"

"Sure, no problem."

"Stick them in my bag, okay?" she smiled, gesturing toward a duffel bag on the bed.

"I hear Alex is still showing progress." Nick began, opening her duffel bag and stuffing the items inside.

"Really? That's great, I'm glad."

"You know, you never answered my question." He said, zipping the bag shut.

"Which one?"

"When this is over, now that it's almost over, are you still going to be around?" he asked.

"I've gotta go back to USC in the fall."

"I mean with us."

"I don't know, Nick." She shrugged. "Depends."

"On what? Your Dad? I think you're old enough. I think he'd let you come to things and. . ."

"No, Nick, not him."

"AJ?" he asked, but she couldn't answer. "I see."

Lexie wasn't sure if he did or not. Her involvement with AJ hinged on little Alex making it. If he died, she doubted he have much use for her. She couldn't tell Nick that.

"Here's my card." He said, handing her something. Lexie blindly took it and stared at it, unable to really see it. "I still live in L.A. most of the year, if you need anything while you're at school you can call me. That's my private number."

"Thanks, Nick."

"I'm sure your Dad has everything covered."

"He usually does." She smiled.

"I know I'm not AJ, but. . ." He began.

"I don't need anymore 'dads', Nick." She sighed.

"I don't want to be your dad, I want to be your friend." He said. "You'll call, right?"

It's time some Backstreet Boy let you in. It's time someone began to make it up to you, Lexie Dorough. It's all of our faults you went through what you went through. I want to be the first. He thought.

"Yeah, you bet." She said, giving the card a little wave in the air.

"Good luck to you." He smiled.

"You too, Nick." She said, half heartedly.

You'll change your mind, little girl, he thought as he left her room.

Nick arrived home that night in L.A. to the cheers of his little girl screaming, "Daddy, Daddy!"

He scooped her in his arms and twirled her around. He squeezed her close; suddenly realizing that AJ has never heard those words from any child of his.

"How did it go?" his mother asked.

"I think I made some head way with her." He smiled, putting his daughter down.

"I don't know why you're doing this." She sighed.

"You should've heard her scream those words, Mom. I heard every syllable through that door. She hates him, Mom. She hates all of us and I can't blame her." He sighed. "God, I'll never forget them and I don't think AJ ever will either."

In the days that followed, Lexie returned home and her friends made the rounds; coming to visit and taking her out. Howie was happy to see her come, go, and be happy at home. She still tired easily, but the doctors were starting to wean her off her medications. He laughed when after he told her she should stay home and rest, instead of going out with her friends one day, her reply was that it didn't take much effort to lie out at the beach.

This morning she woke feeling pretty rested. She asked for some money to get a couple new dresses, one especially for clubbing tonight. He told her if she was feeling good enough to go out with her friends, she could run some errands for him downtown. She moaned and groaned a bit, but arrived at the main recording studio on time to run some master tapes to a sub recording studio downtown.

He was sitting in his office after lunch when the receptionist buzzed in.

"Howie?" she asked.


"AJ is here to see you."

"Send him in." Howie said, getting to his feet to open the door. AJ made it in before he could get to the door. More out of habit, they met half way in an embrace.

"Sit down, AJ. Your mom called the house last night, said you could take Alex home next week. That's great news." Howie said, sitting down with AJ on a couch.

"It is great news! We'll still be in Orlando for at least another six months, but things are really looking good."

"How's Suzanne taking it?"

"She's much better. Her mom and mine have been taking good care of her." AJ said about his young wife.

"Is she ready for him to come home?"

"More than ready!" AJ smiled, "We all are."

"That's just great!"

"I owe it all to you. You and Lexie." AJ said seriously.

"Lexie insisted."

"I know." AJ nodded. "But you raised her. You and Leah made her the person she is today."

"She's very much a young woman of her own mind," then the phone rang, interrupting Howie.

He walked across the room to his desk and picked it up. "Go ahead and put it through."

Howie put his fingers to his lips and hit the speakerphone button.

"Hi, honey." He smiled.

"Dad? Is that you? Thank god!"

"Lexie, what's up?"

"This stupid car, Dad! I'm broke down again."

"Where are you?"

"I'm still in downtown."

"You should've been home hours ago!"

"I know, I've been trying to get it fixed. Can I just get a rental?"

"Where's the car?"

"Right on the side of the road where I left it."

"I'll call a tow truck."

"I don't need a tow truck! Dad! I need a new car.something decent!" she exclaimed. "I can't believe you still won't get me a new car. I'm gonna get broke down somewhere dangerous."

"Lexie, calm down."

"I'd get my own car if you'd let me get a job."

"Lexie, school is. . ."

". . .more important than work right now! I know, I know! C'mon Dad, give me a break! You didn't even give me this car, Uncle John did."

"Honey, just tell me where you are and I'll send a tow truck and a driver," he said, trying not to laugh.

"You know, my birthday is in just three weeks. You could ship it back to school with me and I wouldn't have to take the bus everywhere."

"Where are you, Lexie?" he insisted firmly.

She told him exactly where she was, where the car was and what she thought of the whole thing. AJ marveled at how he handled her, doubting he could've ever done better.

"Can I have a new car?" she asked one last time.

"We'll talk about it when you get home."

"Really?!?" she asked surprised.

"Yes." He laughed.


"I promise to talk about it, but that's all."

"That'll get far." She said dryly.

"You better mind your manners young lady or you'll be walking home." He laughed at her.

"I just might anyway!" she declared, hanging up on him.

"What I tell ya'?" Howie laughed, hanging up the phone.

"She sounds like a handful."

"She can be, most of the time she's very pleasant and reasonable."

"Except when she opens her mouth." AJ joked.

"How did you know about that?" Howie asked, stunned that AJ had that revelation.

"When she came to visit Alex in the hospital, she said she almost passes as a Dorough until she opens her mouth." AJ said.

"She said that? To you?" Howie asked.

"Yeah." AJ shrugged.

Howie and Leah talked about getting a car for Lexie. Lexie offered her best arguments, but was told they would talk it out themselves. Lexie was upstairs in her room when her private line rang and she answered it.




"Lexie, it's me, Nick."

"Oh, hi." It had been weeks and she hadn't called him, but she was still at home.

"I haven't heard from you in a while, so I thought I'd call you."

"Oh, well, I'm not going back to school until after Labor Day."

"You could call from Orlando."


"So, how are you feeling? Better?"


"I hear you're having car problems."

"How'd you hear that?" she asked.

"AJ. He was there when you called your Dad." Nick said, almost saying 'Howie'.

"He was?! Dad didn't say anything about that." Lexie said.

"Oh, maybe I shouldn't have said anything."

"Naw, it's all right. I'm used to Backstreet Boys keeping secrets behind my back." She said sarcastically.

"That's not fair."

"It's not? How the hell would you know?" she challenged him.

Nick felt himself recoil from the phone. The venom in that was strong! He could easily see all of her anger toward AJ being transferred to him. He was determined to be there for her. To be a good friend and maybe help her see things differently.

"Lexie, your Dad just wanted to share the moment with AJ. AJ has never had those kind of moments." Nick said. "I'm sure they didn't mean anything by it."

"Well, good. Maybe AJ will buy me a car." She said with a heavy sigh.

Chapter 7 by old_archive

Lexie ended up talking to Nick on and off over the next three weeks. He called her mostly. He persisted with her and found that Lexie began to open up more to him as he offered past history to her. It seemed that as she began to trust him, the more questions she asked about the past. She didn't ask about her mother or her father as much as she asked him about certain circumstances. He was totally taken back when she invited him to her birthday party and he accepted. He told her he'd have to bring his daughter, 4 year old CJ. She said that would be fine and that there would be other children there.

Nick sat on the commercial flight to Orlando, contemplating what was about to happen. He's never been to Howie's house. Howie probably has only seen CJ once or twice since she was born. He wondered what happened that Howie would allow Lexie to let him in the house.

The sky burned a bright orange as the sun set behind him and CJ was asleep in his arms. Where had the time gone? He wondered. Four of them, AJ, Brian, Howie and himself had all been able to maintain solo careers. AJ's had taken off the most, with his running a close second. Brian's career successes weren't anything to shake a stick at, but like with Howie, he devoted more time to his family than his career. Howie recorded the least out of all of them, but then again he owned his own record company, SD Records. He signed Brian about 9 years ago and AJ had left Jive to be with RCA records. Nick stayed on with Jive and their old management.

Until Alex got sick, Nick hadn't seen Kevin in years, except for rare television appearances. After his modeling career ended, he settled his family on to a ranch in Kentucky and began to write film scores. Seven Oscars later, he had held his own in Hollywood. Nick and Brian spoke at least once or twice a week, if not more. Their friendship had endured, in spite of all of the craziness around them. He only spoke with Howie when their paths crossed because of Brian. AJ was often unreachable. He created a new circle of friends with his new career and left the boys behind. It was Brian, AJ called first, when Alex was diagnosed. Brian told him to call Howie. Eventually, AJ came back to where he knew his real friends were. No one else was around now, except for his family, his wife's family and his Backstreet family.

Nick sensed in his heart they were on the cusp of something. A something he couldn't quite put his finger on. He only knew that Lexie Dorough was a part of that something and he was going to see that she was there for it.

"Uh, mom, dad?" Lexie asked the late night before her party, coming into the kitchen. Howie and Leah were sitting at the kitchen table, working out details for her party.

"Yes, honey?" Leah asked.

"I, umm, I invited someone to the party tomorrow. I thought I should tell you." She said quietly.

AJ. Howie thought as he felt his heart drop into this stomach.

"That's fine." He swallowed. "Who is it?"

"Nick, Nick Carter."

"Nick?!" Leah asked.

"He's visited me a couple time in the hospital and, well, we've kinda kept in touch." She said, not looking at either one of them. Howie had kept her away from them for so long, she was so scared of how he would react. Lexie didn't see Leah grab Howie's hand across the table.

"I'm sure that'll be fine."

"He's bringing his daughter, CJ."

"That's fine." Howie nodded. She still couldn't look at them. She wanted to apologized, call Nick and tell him to cancel, but it was too late. He'd be here and she had invited him without her father's permission.

"I'm sorry." She said quietly.

"Don't be, honey. It's your party and if you and Nick are friends, I think it's great he'll be here." Leah said. She clamped down on Howie's hand.

"Are you sure?" she asked, finally looking up.

"Yes, of course." Leah reassured him. "You look exhausted, why don't you go back to bed?"

"Okay. Thanks." She whispered, turned, and headed upstairs.

Leah and Howie didn't move until they were sure she was upstairs. Howie jumped to his feet and in a loud stage whisper he said, "Nick! She's been keeping in touch with Nick? How the hell did that happen?"

"Howie, calm down."

"Jesus, for a second there I though she had invited AJ!"

"I know, me too. She didn't, it'll just be Nick. You've only seen him a dozen times in the last five years, this will be good for both of you." Leah said, watching him pace the kitchen. "Nick didn't have anything to do with Lexie back then, it was just between you and AJ."

"Oh, everyone had an opinion, including Nick's mother."

"That was 10 years ago."

"No, Leah, it was back in January when Alex first got sick. You know she was against me adopting her." Howie said, his voice rising and lowering.

"It's just the old mentality."

"What? And Nick is suddenly different?"

"You said it was his mother, not Nick that said those things." Leah said. "Don't hold it against Nick."

"What's with the sudden interest in Lexie now?" Howie asked her.

"I don't know." Leah shrugged. "But he's going to be here tomorrow and you can ask him."

"He's going to the first Backstreet Boy in this house." Howie said, sitting back down in his chair.

"Well, make that the second." Leah smiled, leaning across the table and pressing her lips against his. "And the first isn't being much fun." She teased.

He wasn't in the mood. Not to play and certainly not to deal with Nick Carter.

Chapter 8 by old_archive

People started coming by around noon. Lexie was up and greeting everyone and the group expanded to around 100 family and friends, many coming by to see how she was doing. Howie had decided to make Lexie's donation to Alex anonymous, so there was no public announcement on who had rose forward to give to AJ McLean's sick son a bone marrow transplant. Lexie had agreed with her parents on that. She doubted she'd be up to suddenly being thrown in the public spotlight. She still tired easily and was resting on the couch with some friends from school Howie had flown in when Nick showed up. She went to get the door and there he stood, amazingly not in a dark suit. In his arms was the most precious little blonde girl in a bright sunny dress.

"Nick! You must be CJ." She smiled, tickling her belly. CJ gave her a little giggle.

"C'mon in. Mom and Dad are in the back." She said, letting them pass.

Nick put CJ down and she ran up to Lexie with a big teddy bear. "This is for you!" she announced.

"Why thank you!" Lexie said, kneeling down taking the bear from her. "He's just beautiful."

"It's a girl. Her name is Michella! I picked her out myself." CJ announced.

"Okay, that's good to know." Lexie laughed.

"See, Daddy says it says that right there on that tag. I can't read yet, but I know my letters. I can sing the ABC song; do you want to hear it? Do you? I can count to 20, too, but Daddy has to help with his fingers, too. Do you wanna see?" she said in rapid fire. "Daddy! Come here!" CJ demanded.

Nick never saw Howie coming into the foyer, but Howie had heard CJ's little girl voice boom through the house. Nick shook his head and knelt down with them and she proceeded to show Lexie how well she could count. She did pretty well, her tiny hands slapping up against Nick's huge ones.

"Do you want to hear me sing? Daddy let's me sing in his studio all the time, I'm really good!" she declared. Howie couldn't restrain that laugh. All three of them turned to look at him, Lexie and Nick getting to their feet.

Howie's heart skipped a beat.

They made a beautiful couple.

"Hey, Nick, good to see you." Howie smiled putting out his arms to embrace him. Nick exchanged hugs with him, but CJ squeezed between them.

"Who are you?" CJ asked pointedly. Howie knelt down and smiled warmly to her.

"My name is Howie."

"Howie? I don't think I know you."

"Well, I saw you when you were really little."

"When I was a baby? That's why I don't know you, I can't remember that." She said. Howie cocked an eyebrow at her.

"Are you Lexie's Dad?"


"I can tell, you have the same hair, just like me and my dad." Howie just choked back a chortle. She didn't know her dad wasn't really a blond.

"CJ, that's enough." Nick said, scooping her up in her arms.

"Where's Lexie's cake? Can I have some cake?" CJ asked.

"Well, we haven't taken it out yet, but we will. Come on, I'll show it to you." Lexie said, taking CJ into her arms. "Then I'll introduce you to my little brothers, Tyler is six."

"EW!" CJ exclaimed as they headed toward the family room, "I don't like boys!"

"It's good to see you, man." Nick said, "I hope it's not a problem I'm here."

"No, I think everything will be fine." Howie smiled. "She's something else."

"That she is. I think it's because she travels with me so much and she sees so much." Nick said. "She's a good little girl."

"She's very beautiful." Howie said.

"Thanks. So, who is here?"

"No one from the Backstreet Boys, it's just you and me." Howie said.

"I hope we can change that some day." Nick said.

"Why? Why are you so interested in Lexie?" Howie asked, doing exactly what Leah had told him to do last night.

"I just think what we did 20 years ago today was wrong. We should've stuck together and helped AJ and Amanda work this out, but we didn't. What she did for AJ and Alex was amazing." Nick said. "I guess when I got to know her, I realized she deserved better than what we did."

"That's your only reason?" Howie asked, suspiciously.

"Yes, what else could there possibly. . . Holy Shit, Howie! My God! Do you really think I'd hit on her?!" Nick declared. "I'm pushing 40 here! I've got a daughter to take. . . goddamn it Howie. You've gone nuts!"

"Look, I had to ask." Non plussed by his reaction.

"No you didn't." Nick said angrily.

"When your daughter is older, you'll realize I did."

"I'd never accuse you of that?!" he said.

"Lower your voice!" Howie whispered harshly. Nick and Howie took a long moment to compose themselves. "She's my daughter, and I'll protect her any way I see fit." Howie said.

"Okay." Nick said, "I understand. I swear Howie, I'm only looking to. . ."


"Never mind."

"What?" Howie demanded.

"To find a way to bring the Backstreet Boys back together."

"What? Now who's nuts?" Howie laughed bitterly. Oh, they all got along, as long as everyone stuck to the rules. "So, you think that fixing things with Lexie is going to make everything better?"

"No, but it'll make her life better. The rest of you can go screw yourselves." He whispered harshly at Howie. He stomped past Howie into the family room where the girls were.

Nick Carter has walked into plenty of rooms in his day. He was always prepared for the waves of recognition at so many levels. Him as THE Nick Carter, him as Nick Carter and to others as, "Nicky!" Howie's mom called out across the room at him.

"Hey, Mrs. D!" he said making his way toward her. He hadn't seen her in probably 5 years, and he stooped to hug her. Howie's dad was there, too, as well as all of his brother and sisters and their families. Leah was there and so were her parents. Nick leaned over and kissed her soft cheek.

"It's so good to see you Nick." She smiled.

"I'm glad I was invited." He smiled, patting Tyler on the back as he sleepily cuddled in his mother's arms. The boys were dark haired and dark eyed like their father, but had her delicate features. "Who is this and how old is he?"

"This is Tyler, he's 6, John is inside and he turned 8 this year."

"Eight and six? Jesus." He sighed.

"Where is CJ? How old is she now?"

"She's with Lexie. I think they went in the kitchen to see the cake. She's four." He said, proudly pointing her out with Lexie in the kitchen.

"She's just beautiful, Nick." Leah sighed, shifting Tyler on her hip. He was sleepily leaning his head on her shoulder. "Have you seen Howie yet?"

"Oh, yeah." Nick sighed.


"Oh, no. Just informative." Nick smiled, not wanting to tell Leah the truth. "There are a lot of old faces here."

Nick seemed like, Nick, to Leah. The polished performer, no one would believe the angry story that Howie told her of their meeting. Howie shifted his own persona as well, always to peacemaker. He wanted nothing to ruin Lexie's special day.

Nick sat mingled with the other guests as Lexie opened each of her presents and he seemed to blend right in. CJ sat on his lap, clapping her hands and genuinely happy for Lexie with each gift. Tyler, who came back to life, ripped packages for her and John kept all the cards in order. One suspicious package caught Tyler's eye and he didn't wait for her to give him the okay to open it. He unwrapped the small box, yanked open the top and pulled out a key on a fob.

"Dad?!" Tyler yelled out over the guests. "What's this?!" he kept on yelling. "Dad!"

"What's what?" Howie laughed, tying to squeeze between some folks. Lexie looked over at what Tyler was waving about and snatched it out of his hand as Howie got to the both of them.

"Oh my god! Dad!" she screamed, throwing herself into his arms. Leah saw the total look of surprise on Howie's face as she nearly choked the life out of him. She turned to her friends, "It's a car!" and they all squealed in delight. "Thank you, thank you, thank you!" she said, kissing his face. "Where is it?" she finally asked.

"Let me see that." He said, taking the key and the fob. The fob was from a local BMW dealership and the key was a blank. Uncut. "John?" he asked his brother, but John just shook his head. "Mom, Dad?" but they had no idea either. Howie looked over at Nick, who just threw up his hands. "I'm sorry, honey, I didn't buy you a car." He said.

"What? Then what's this?" she said, taking the key from him.

"Is there a card?" Howie asked. Tyler and John started digging around and John came up with a small one in a tan envelope. John opened it and began to read it.

"Dear Lexie, The dealership is open until 10:00 p.m., go pick out whatever you want. Happy Birthday, AJ."

Leah could see Howie pale under his dark skin. His eyes searched the room for hers. His locked with hers, as the deafening silence was broken.

Lexie spoke first, stunned, "It's from AJ?"

"Yeah, " little John shrugged, "Who's AJ?"

It took awhile for everyone to recover, but the children. They were excited and running around in no time. Everyone there knew the story, but it was the first time it had ever come up. No one had ever seen AJ do anything for Lexie all the years she has lived with Howie. Lexie seemed reserved for the rest of the night. She blew out her candles and got a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday" from everyone. CJ and Tyler stuffed their little faces and she found them fast asleep in her father's den. She sat in the matching chair across from them. She didn't even look up as Nick entered the room.

"I was wondering where you went to." He said quietly, swatting down next to the chair.

"I get tired still, sometimes." She said quietly.

"Are you okay with AJ's gift?" he asked.

"You didn't tell him what I said, did you?" she asked, not even looking up at him.

"No, no. Of course not, that was just between you and me, just like I promised." He said.

She pulled the blank key out of her pocket.

"It's a BMW." She said, cracking a little smile, finally looking at him.

"Well, it is AJ." He smiled back. "Do you think you'll accept it?"

"I don't know. I don't know what my dad's gonna do. He may tell me I can't keep it." Lexie said.

"Do you think he will?"

"I don't know, probably." She shrugged. "I waited until last night to tell them you were coming."

"What?! Lexie, you were suppose to tell them a week ago!" he admonished her.

"I know, I know, but I was afraid he'd say no." she said, tears starting to well up.

"Is he strict?"

"No, not really. He's a great dad, but. . ."


"When it comes to AJ and the rest of you, he's very strict. I don't think anyone else has been in this house but you." She said, "I'm just really glad I can talk to you. You tell me things he won't."

"He's trying to protect you. He loves you very much."

"I know, I know. I love him, too. It's just really complicated with him sometimes." She said.

"Lexie, I think from now on, I'm going to call the house number when I call."


"I don't want your dad to think I'm saying anything behind his back."

"What do you care what he thinks?" she asked dryly, her guards going up.

"I respect him too much to do that to him." Nick said, "He was, hell he still is, like a big brother to me. When we were all together, there was real love between each of us."

"Then I came along."

"No, Lexie, it wasn't you. It's not your fault." Nick said, "We were scared, we made some wrong choices, but Howie knew what had to be done and he did it. You know, Howie did this not just because you needed him, he did it because he loves AJ."

"What?" she asked completely puzzled.

"We were like brothers and said we would do anything for each other and Howie did just like he said he would." Nick said, wiping a silent tear that ran down her face.

"Then what happened Nick?" she asked.

"I think Howie's love for you became greater than his love for AJ." Nick said, seeing now how this precious creature had stole Howie's heart away from them. "He loves you so much, he was willing to give you back." He put his hand on her head and pulled her close, laying his lips on her temple.

Howie stood trembling outside the den, listening to Nick. It was all Howie could do to keep from losing control himself. He didn't want to let her go, but he was afraid he had no choice anymore. Nick was just the first step and now the car from AJ. Nick was getting his wish; he'd have them all back together again.

She was his daughter, not AJ's anymore and thoughts of rage and jealously threatened to consume him. He didn't want AJ to hurt her. He didn't want to hurt anymore either.

Lexie walked Nick, with CJ in his arms, out to the waiting limo after the party. Howie watched Nick tuck CJ into a seat, then get back out of the car, and hug Lexie. He pulled away, pulled a black velvet box out of his pocket, and handed it to her with a shrug. She opened it and even in the evening twilight, Howie could see the unmistakable twinkle of diamonds. She hugged him again and he got in the car. Howie moved away from the front window as she turned and walked back into the house.

"Hey." He smiled, greeting her at the door.

"Hi." She said softly.

"Did you have a good time?" he asked.

"It was great dad, thanks." She said, slipping her arms around his waist and clinging to him.

"What do you have there?" he asked. She pulled away and opened the small jewelry box. Inside was a small, very small, diamond heart shaped pendant.

"It's from Nick. He said he forgot he had it." She shrugged.

"Do you still have that key?" He asked.

"Yes." She pulled it out of her pocket and handed it him. He took it, turning it over in his hand. He put it in his own pocket.

"We'll go down tomorrow and pick something out." He smiled.

"Really?" she asked, completely surprised.

"Of course. Happy Birthday, baby." He said, taking her in his arms and kissing her cheek.

"Thanks, Dad." She said, slipping her arms around him and holding on tight. "I love you, Dad." She said. She felt his arms tighten on her.

"I love you, too." he whispered.

The phone rang late and Howie picked it up from his bed stand.

"So, how did the party go?" AJ asked.

"AJ, why didn't you tell me about the car?" Howie demanded, before AJ had the chance to say anything else.

"Well, you said you weren't going to get another one until she came home again next summer," he began.

"That's right, that's exactly what I said, but you went and did whatever you wanted." Howie snapped.

"Fine, then don't go down there."

"How can I not go? She opened the box in front of everyone!" he said, exasperated.

"Nick said you probably weren't going to let her keep it."

"Is that why Nick was here? As some kind of spy?"

"No! Lexie invited him and he just called me. Goddamn it Howie, I just wanted to give her something." AJ said and he hung up on Howie.

"Damn it." Howie snapped, slamming down the phone.


"Yes." He sighed, laying out on their bed and tucking himself against her. She smoothed the side of his face and kissed his forehead. "I already promised her the car."

"Did she seem excited?"


"Were you going to make her give it back?"

"Yes, but. . ."


"I heard Nick say something to her." He said, rolling on to his back. "He said I loved her so much I was willing to give her back."

"That's true." Leah nodded.

"But it's not. Things are changing, Leah. I don't want to give her back."

"Howie, Lexie loves you, not AJ. She isn't going to just walk out on us because he gave her a car. She's smarter than that. I also think she's more hurt than that. It isn't going to be that easy for him."

"Was I wrong all these years? Should I have forced AJ and Lexie together sooner? I kept her so isolated from everything Backstreet. I thought I was protecting her, maybe I was just hurting her more."

"I think you're right, I think things are changing, but I don't know if it's going to be for the better." Leah said, "I think that episode in the counselor's office was a good indicator of what the future holds. You heard what she said to him; we all heard it outside. Could you imagine her saying that to you right in the room? That's what AJ went through. I think we just need to be more careful. AJ and his family are in Orlando through the New Year and she's going back to school in a couple more weeks."

"But Nick is in L.A."

"I don't know that Nick is going to be the problem. I think he honestly wants what's best for her and all of you boys." Leah said.

"I hope you're right."

"Are you going with her tomorrow?"

"Yes, I at least want some control over what she picks out." He said.

Chapter 9 by old_archive

The drive to the dealership was incredibly quiet. Howie expected her to be more excited, but she didn't say a word the entire time. They got out and walked into the show room and a sales person came right up to them.

"May I help you?" he asked.

"Yes, AJ McLean sent my daughter this key for her birthday," Howie began, pulling the key from his own pocket.

"Oh Yes! Mr. Dorough, Lexie! Mr. McLean wasn't sure what you wanted so he said to just let you pick one out." He said eagerly.

Lexie seemed overwhelmed by the choices, but like any young person, she gravitated toward the sports cars. Howie was able to steer her toward a four seater, but she insisted on a two door. It was a Royal Blue, 2 door that seemed somewhat reasonable for her age. He insisted on a hardtop. Howie, himself, felt that a Ford or Chevy would have been more reasonable, but AJ had stopped at this dealership.

The salesperson hid all the prices from them and then asked, "When will you be returning to USC?"

"Why?" Howie asked.

"Mr. McLean mentioned the car would have to be shipped back there."

"Oh, uh, I'm leaving September 4th, right after Labor Day. I've got two weeks of pre-pledge work to do for the sorority." She said.

"Fine, whenever you're ready, you just contact me and I'll take care of all the arrangements. Will you need the car here for Christmas Break? Spring Break?"

"No, uh, I can leave it there."

"Fine, we can make storage arrangement, too."

"I think it'll be fine on campus." She said.

"Well, Mr. McLean said take care of all your needs. Ready to drive your new car home?" he smiled, handing her the car keys.

"I guess this is it." She sighed, looking over at Howie.

"C'mon, your mom is waiting with the camera." He said, hiding behind his best showbiz smile. He threw his arm around her shoulders and gave them a squeeze.

They took the usual pictures, everyone getting in on them. Some of her friends came over and she ended up going out on the town that evening.

"Long day?" Leah asked as Lexie drove off with her friends and Howie was downloading the pictures.

"Wasn't too bad. I just don't understand why she's not more excited."

"Maybe because it's from AJ and not you." She said, settling on the arm of his desk chair. She lazily draped an arm over his shoulders.

"You think?"

"Well, she probably knew you were going to make her take it back. I think she might be a little concerned about your feelings, too."

"Leah, I can afford to buy her a BMW. Hell, I could buy her a couple." Howie sighed, leaning back in his chair. "That older car was good when she was learning to drive. If she wrecked it, she wouldn't feel too bad about it. I want her to keep her feet grounded. I want all of our kids to stay grounded and normal. I don't want them to think that money is the answer to everything."

"I know, that's where you're the parent and she's the child." Leah said, "But, AJ made this grand gesture. The first one in fourteen years."

"I don't know. Bone marrow, BMW."

"Howie! Stop that! That's not fair to either one of them!" Leah admonished him.

"Well, it's over now. She'll have a fancy new car like all her other sorority sisters."

Leah just tsked, tsked him.

"Speaking of which, the sorority event schedule came up. Got some bad news." Leah said.


"The Daddy-Daughter Dance is the same weekend "Felix's" next album is premiering. You're gonna be in New York with MTV."

"Oh, damn, really? I'm sure I can get Brian or someone to cover."

"You're booked sweetie, I don't think you're gonna get out of it."

"Damn, maybe John can go or Dad."

"Maybe we better ask her."

"Maybe she'll take AJ." He said, wincing because it sounded bitterer than he intended. Leah seemed to understand.

"I doubt it." Leah said, patting his shoulder.

"Or Nick." He sighed heavily.

"We'll just ask her."

Howie broke the news to Lexie the next day at breakfast. She fussed a bit and wanted to know why he wouldn't make it.

"Why can't you cancel? You cancel things all the time for us kids." She demanded.

"I signed a contract on this one, I have to go. I'm committed to it." He said, always hating to say 'no' to any of the children.

"Dad! I'm on the committee, what about Uncle John? Do you think he'd go? I'd better go call him." She said, her kitchen chair scraping across the tile floor as she got up. Howie was going to scold her, but she was out of the kitchen and in his den before he had a chance.

He followed her and leaned against the door jam as she curled up in his desk chair to talk to his older brother, John. Luckily for both of them, John could go. John laughed at her when she asked. Lexie waved him out impatiently as she settled into her conversation with John. Howie went back to his coffee, Leah, and the other children.

"What's so funny?" she laughed back.

"I'm surprised you didn't ask your new friend, Nick Carter."

"Nick? Why would I ask him? I already made him promise not to be a 'dad'. I have my quota filled of Backstreet Boy Dads." She sighed. "It was hard enough showing up with Howie Dorough, I'm sure in hell not showing up with some other Backstreet Boy."

John was laughing so hard by now, he had her laughing right along.

"So, AJ's not an option?"

"AJ? No! Why would you think that?"

"Well, he made that grand gesture."

"I spent time in the hospital and I'm still not recovered. I win." She said sarcastically.

"Ouch, you're hard on him."

"Well," she began one thought and then stopped, "John, do think Dad wants me to ask AJ?"

"I. . . I wouldn't know. Why do you ask?"

"Well, he's got a record premiere for some group and he won't cancel. He always cancels stuff all the time."

"I know he's contracted to do that. They may have done that so he wouldn't cancel. He does have a reputation for doing that."

"I guess."

"You don't want to ask AJ?"

"No, I mean, I don't even know him. I sent a thank you note and picture for the car. Do you think I should call? Hell, I don't even know if Dad will let me."

"Why not?"

"Where have you been the last 10 years, John? Dad never let me do anything remotely Backstreet."

"Maybe he's changing his mind. You're older now."

"I don't know that it's going to make it any easier." She said. "I swear Uncle John, this has been the longest two months of my life."

Chapter 10 by old_archive

The rest of August passed without incident and Lexie spent her time preparing to go back school. She was fully packed the day of the Labor Day BBQ, because her flight was early the next morning. Howie flew in some more of her college friends so she'd be able to return with them. He had 4 other young girls sleeping over and their last day in Orlando was packed with lots of eating and shopping. Lexie's car had been ship the Friday before, so she was resigned to driving the family car that weekend. For their final day, John had lent them his car. Lexie didn't tire as much any more as long as she continued to take her medications properly. Her last doctor's visit assured them she'd be able to return to her regular life soon. She seemed to steadily returning to her old laughing and loud self. The family saw all 4 girls off at the airport and Howie got a good laugh when one of her friends asked,

"Is the entire family going? There must be 20 people here."

She laughed and said, "Yep, they're like that."

Lexie was surprised at how relieved she was to get to school. Her car was waiting at the local BMW dealership and she decided to call Nick to see if he'd drive her down to pick it up. He readily agreed, almost too eager to help.

When the day came for him to come get her, Nick seemed very unaffected by all the attention he generated as he stood on the stoop of her sorority house. All her friends marveled when she got home that she knew Nick Carter. Last year she had told them she wasn't close to any of the Backstreet Boys and here was Nick Carter in their sorority house. After signing some 30 autographs, he followed Lexie and CJ back to his car.

"Whew, I didn't think I'd ever get out of there." He laughed as he buckled CJ into her car seat.

Lexie sat in the front seat as he got in and started the car. "I don't think Dad has been bombarded like that." She laughed back at him, "And he gets bombarded!"

The two weeks before school just flew by and she was engrossed in her studies and activities in no time. Nick called a couple times and invited her to lunch, but she couldn't make any of the dates and times that were good for him. He even offered to come down to the campus and have lunch there, but she suggested that security wise that might not make a good choice. He seemed disappointed, but Lexie was kind of relieved.

It was just after finals and she was taking two days off before flying home for Christmas when she decided she'd better call him and offer to have lunch or something. They still talked on and off for the last couple months, even if they hadn't been able to get together.

"How are you doing? I haven't heard from you in about two weeks." He exclaimed.

Lexie felt her comfort level drop at his excitement.

"I'm pooped. I finished my last final yesterday, I just slept in today."

"Well, I'm glad you called. We haven't had a chance to get together since we picked up your car."

"I know, I know. I'm taking a much heavier class load this year. I'm hoping to let my junior year be lighter so I can get some internships around town." She said. She felt a touch of guilt. She put on a happy voice and asked. "So, I know this is short notice for a famous guy like you, but how about lunch today? I'm free tomorrow, too, my flight isn't until Thursday."

"Going home for Christmas?"

"Yeah, my friends are flying up to Aspen for Christmas break. I'm cutting out of Orlando early to make it up there by New Years."

"Your dad okay with that?"

"Sure, I did it last year, too. He's got a concert this year."

"You're not going to be there?"

"No. Nick, I've seen Dad sing hundreds of times. He doesn't insist we be at every show, besides he's usually too busy to spend any time with us. The boys are going to be watching it at home, too, if they don't fall asleep first." She said yawning.

"You tired?"

"I'm exhausted, but I'll be fine. I'll snitch me some coffee." She said, "So, how about lunch Mr. Carter?"

"I'm actually very free today. My mom is taking CJ shopping around 11:00 a.m. Do you want to come here? I can have Cook put something together."

"Sure, that's just fine, leave my name at the gate?"

"It's the only way you'll get in." he laughed.

"Figured." She laughed in return.

In the three months she'd been back to school, this was the first time she'd seen Nick house. The guard let her in and gave her directions to his house. It was just rolling mansions after rolling mansions. Lexie's house in Orlando was large, but it in no way looked like this. Dad had always tried to make all of the kids lives as normal as possible, considering how famous and busy he was. She knew that's why he made her drive that old car for so long. He also didn't see the point of keeping a brand new car in the garage while she was at school. He told her last year that she needed to concentrate on school, not taking care of a car. She had hoped her 4.00 grade point would have convinced him otherwise, but he's Dad. If it weren't for AJ, she'd probably be sitting at the house waiting for Nick's driver, if he even had one.

She pulled into the long circular driveway and was greeted by a ground's keeper who pointed out where she should park. She got out of her car, took the scarf from her hair, and threw her purse over her shoulder. She walked up to the door and rang the bell. She half expected another employee to open the door, but Nick answered it himself.

"Hey, girl." He smiled warmly, reaching out and taking her in his arms. "You look great!"

"Thanks!" she smiled up from his arms. She stepped back, pulled off her sunglasses, and walked in as he gestured with a sweeping motion.

"Let me take your purse." He said, taking it and hanging it in the coat closet. "Great suit, Dior?"

"No, Armani, please!" she laughed, "Dad bought it."

Nick laughed at her comment and guided her toward the veranda out back.

The tailored slacks and jacket in a lovely beige shade brought softness to the color of her skin. She was lighter skinned than what he imagined, considering AJ was Hispanic. Her hair was coal black and pulled into a strict ponytail that ran down her back. Her eyes were just like AJ's, but much darker.

"I thought we'd eat outside, it's really pretty today." He said, guiding her outside with his hand on her back.

She looked out into the vast grounds and pool with a pool house.

"Nick, this in incredible."

"Thanks, I bought it years ago and just can't part with it." He said, holding a chair out for her. "Real different from your house."

"Yeah, you can say that. Dad still keeps us in a gated community, but it's pretty modest compared to this." she said, focusing her attention on him.

"How is your help?"


"Around the house?"

"We don't have any. Well, there is a landscaper, but I had chores and Mom is a stay home mom. Dad does a lot, too."

"Howie doing housework." Nick laughed.

"Yep, I doubt his fans would believe it either." She nodded. "Normalcy is pretty important to my parents."

A server came and put lunch in front of them, pouring two glasses of wine. Nick realized that Lexie never touched hers and then realized too late that she wasn't 21. He asked for two ice teas and didn't mention the wine at all.

"I think about that for CJ, too. You can't see the playground from here, but she has a whole set up over behind the pool house. Since she was born, I've gotten to know my neighbors. I have the neighbor kids over, when I'm home." He said around a mouthful of food.

Lexie let out a laugh, and then Nick realized he was talking with his mouth full. He covered his mouth with his napkin, but she just waved him off.

"The other moms must love you. Do you car pool, too?"

"Sometimes, to the playgroup."

She continued to giggle to herself as she stabbed at the tuna salad.


"And you think it's strange my dad does housework? You're a regular soccer mom." She joked.

"Well, its not like I have a day job. When I'm not touring I'm home taking care of CJ and yes, other kids, too. I want CJ exposed to other kids and I want her to live a normal life, just like you had. I mean, most of the time I take her everywhere with me. I think it's the traveling that's made her so precocious. She can speak about 4 languages, but I don't think she realizes it."

"I learned Spanish, actually all of us kids speak." She said.


"Well, we learned in school, but Dad keeps it up, too. When we travel to South America and Spain it's very helpful. It's the only foreign language I know. I can catch a cab in German." She said.

"That can be handy."

"Tell me about it. A mob separated us once and I was just about 14 or so. I was shoved out of the way and way behind this crowd of fans, I mean, he's always stopping to sign autographs. Next thing I know, I'm hanging on to his jacket and poof, he's gone. It was like this crowd just swallowed him up. I can still remember standing in the back and watching this group just waif away into the distance and realizing I was all alone. We were in the shopping district of Berlin when all this happened. I couldn't decide between finishing shopping or getting to the hotel or just going straight to the venue. So, I hailed a cab and made it back to the hotel. It was a two-hour trip through rush hour traffic. I had a great time, it's a great way to see the city."

"What did your dad do?"

"He was so freaked out! I walked into the hotel and suddenly the staff just started running around everywhere, then I just got in the lift and headed up to the floor we were occupying. I stepped off the elevator just as he comes running down the hall. I thought he was going to squeeze the stuffing out of me! I was laughing, I had had a great time without him."

"I bet he was thrilled."

"Oh, he found the humor in it and we were laughing about it by dinner time."

"You know, I think I remember hearing something about that."

"You might of. I think it's one of the few times I've ever gotten press coverage."

"Your dad kept you pretty isolated."

"Yes, he did. He was trying to protect me. He thought 14 would be a good time to see Europe and by then John had been born and he was concerned I was feeling neglected."

"Has he taken the boys traveling?"

"Oh yeah, plenty of times. More times than me actually."

"That must have made you feel bad."

"No. Most of the time I didn't want to go. I was in high school after that trip and I wanted to stay in school. I didn't want to miss anything. By then I had been with Howie 5 years and was really used to this normal family life."

"I remember that small reunion tour we did. He left for three days, missing a show, to be there for one of your proms."

"Yep, that was my first one. I got asked out to my sophomore prom." she smiled. "He'll always walk away from work to be with us kids. Well, almost. He did ditch me for my sorority's Daddy-Daughter Dance, but I got Uncle John to come."

It would be normal to ask why she hadn't taken AJ. Nick let it go; knowing that AJ wasn't a topic they could touch yet.

"I know I've come real close to canceling a couple shows because of CJ." He said, "But mom or someone else was there to help out."

"Do you mind if I ask where her mom is?" Lexie asked. "I mean, I know you told me you weren't together any more."

"No, it's all right. She left when CJ was around 1 1/2. I'm not actually sure why, but she's with someone else in New York now."

"You don't know why?" she asked, probing him a little.

"She said things like needing space, not being able to handle being a mother and having me gone all the time." Nick shrugged, "I'm not even sure why we were together, so being apart doesn't make much sense either."

"Who is she?"

"Her name is Christine James, hence CJ's name, Christine Jane. I met her about 5 years ago at some concert backstage and she's a model."

"I've never heard of her."

"Well, she doesn't run in the same circles as your dad."

"I don't even run in the same circles as my dad." She laughed, "The boys have been to more functions than I have."

"Have they ever asked about why you never go to any recording functions?"

"No. I was usually studying or going to school or something. By the time I was 12-13 years old, I quit asking to go. I used to scream and have these fits, beg Dad to call AJ and talk to him, but after awhile I just, gave up. There was a time when all I wanted was to know the Backstreet Boys."

"Well, two down, three to go." He smiled.

"You know what's really strange about that?" Lexie began, falling into the conversation with him and not even realizing it.


"I don't want to meet them, now. I saw Kevin and Brian at the apartment when the blood was drawn for tests. You were there. If you hadn't made the effort, I would have never persued a relationship with you." She shrugged. "God, Nick. Last summer had to be the longest summer of my life. I was so glad to get back to school. You could cut the tension with a knife in the house."

"How come?"

"I think it was a whole lot of things. Meeting AJ, knowing that his baby might die even if I did donate, Dad throwing all these mixed signals at me, you calling and coming around, and then actually donating and being sick for so long." She sighed, wiping her mouth and putting the napkin on her lap. She put her elbows on the glass garden table and propped her head on her hands. "I'm glad for the break. I feel like I have more perspective now. Dad and I have been doing a lot of talking over the phone and I think things are better."

"Did you guys have some kind of fight?"

"Oh, no. It's hard to explain."


"I," and she stopped and thought for a moment. "I just got this feeling that although he was willing to give me up, as you once mentioned, it was only a temporary thing. He spent the rest of the summer trying to snatch me back, but I don't think he realized I wasn't going anywhere. I just got suffocated by him."

"Do you think you could ever have a relationship with AJ? And the rest of the guys?"

"I don't know."

"Do you want to?"

"Sorta, but not really. I think the one thing that was bugging me all summer was that I didn't want to hurt Dad. If I moved toward AJ, how would that make him feel? What about Mom and the boys? They don't know Howie isn't my Dad. They aren't old enough to make that connection. Dad in a way, made everything Backstreet this forbidden place for me to go and I'm scared of it." She said. "I'm not sure AJ is that interested in seeing me any ways."

"I don't know about that."

"Does he ask. . ." she started, but she couldn't stop herself soon enough.

"Does he ask about you? Yes, but that's not why I wanted us to be friends. I tell him you're doing well, that you're healthy now. You know, he hasn't talked to your dad since the party."

"How come?"


"Howie wasn't going to let you keep the car, but because you had opened the key in front of everyone. He felt he had to."

She nodded, "That's what I figured. Did he and Dad get into it?"

"Apparently. AJ's had it rough since the little Alex was born. Did you know that his wife, Suzanne, had a nervous breakdown after Alex got sick? She was at the apartment that day, but she could barely walk and talk. He's been dealing with this on his own." Nick said.

"I don't remember seeing her. I hadn't realized."

"I don't even think Howie knows how gone Suzanne is."


"She was readmitted last week."

"Where's Alex?"

"He's at home with AJ. He's looking really great."

"I know. Dad tells me. AJ's mom has been calling Dad, telling him how things are with Alex. Dad told her I really wanted to know."

"Do you?"

"Of course I do, he's just a baby. None of this is his fault. I'm just happy he made it."

"How often to you talk to your dad?" he asked.

"Probably three, four times a week." She said, "I talk to someone in the family everyday."

"Whew, your dad must be paying as much in long distance as he is in tuition."

"Oh, he's not paying. I got a full scholarship to USC as an art major. He sends me an allowance so I don't have to work and credit cards in case of emergencies. I got this far on my own."

"I had no idea."

"Oh yeah, I was a straight A student in school and I still am, I hope." She laughed.

"That's amazing, I had no idea."

"Let me tell you, being a Dorough is not a free ride anywhere!" she laughed, straightening in her chair. "I had chores, I babysat, I worked for my allowance, I do my own cooking and laundry. I had to clean out the garage as much as the next kid. Oh, you know that famous trip downtown I took and the car broke down? I was running errands for him and delivering some masters because I desperately wanted a new dress. It was all his fault I was down there in the first place!"

Nick shared the laugh with her. He could tell that she had let down her ever-present defenses and was really getting into the conversation.

"It doesn't sound like a bad life."

"It wasn't, I hope I never gave you that impression. Mom and Dad are the greatest! Getting involved with AJ just made everyone really uncomfortable." She said. "I owe them so much, all of the Doroughs. They didn't have to do what they did for me. I was headed straight to a state foster home while the state tried to work something out with AJ. I'm not sure what happened next, I remember seeing a lot of people talking and debating, I don't remember AJ being there. I was still upset about my mother dying; I wasn't caring what happened to me. Grandma took me out in the hall, washed my face with this rose scented hanky. She told me to be brave and that I had nothing to worry about. She told me she loved me and that no one was going to take me away from them."

"AJ wasn't there, just his lawyer and Howie. AJ didn't want you to go to a state home, so when Howie asked him to sign over his parental rights to him, he did."

Lexie wanted to ask. She had since she was nine. Why? Why did he do it? She didn't ask because she knew Nick had the answer. She wasn't ready to know.

"Well, it's worked out of the best." She smiled, pushing out her chair and standing up. She walked over to the edge of the veranda and stared out into his elaborate gardens. Before she knew it, Nick was standing closely behind her. His cologne wafted in front of her and for a brief moment she closed her eyes and breathed him in.

"Isn't there more you want to ask?" he asked quietly.

"No, Nick. There isn't anything more to ask." she whispered, afraid the crack in her voice would give her away.

"Are you going to be all right?" he asked gently.

"Yes. I'll be just fine." She said with more confidence in her voice. Someday.

Chapter 11 by old_archive

Two days later, Lexie flew home for Christmas. The flight home was uneventful. She thought often of her last visit with Nick. She had come so close to asking him, to finally finding out, but she pushed it out of her mind. She and her Dad were getting along so well; she didn't want anything to spoil their Christmas.

He was standing in the airport terminal, signing an autograph when she first saw him. He was the only one who came to pick her up, the boys and mom were busy getting the house ready. She waited until he was done, studying his face, his smile and the ever-present twinkle in his eyes. Thoughts of AJ and Nick came to mind and her heart twisted in guilt. Howie should be all the father she should ever need. He loves her so much, why does she need to know? Who is AJ McLean that the powerful love of this one father isn't enough? Perhaps she should stay away from Nick Carter and all things Backstreet. Maybe he has been right all these years and it would all just cause her too much pain. He looked up as that one fan walked away and he smiled just for her. Tears fell unbidden down her cheeks and he came to her, pulling her into his arms.

"I love you Dad. I sure have missed you." She smiled through her sad tears.

"I've missed you, too. Are you okay?" he asked, all concerned.

"I'm great, Dad! Just great! It's so good to be home!" She laughed, hiding behind a false holiday cheer.

Christmas was great and she was sorry that she had made plans with her friends for New Years. She told her dad she had changed her mind and wanted to go to the New Year's concert with him and Mom, but he insisted she be with her friends. She was only going to 20 once and she needed to go out and enjoy herself. He wasn't there to see her off, just Uncle John and Grandma. He was preparing for his shows when her plane took off.

Seven days of skiing, snowboarding and New Year's partying came to a screeching halt on New Year's Day when she got a frantic call from her mom. Howie had collapsed during the show and was in the hospital. He was in serious condition and they were sure it was his heart. Lexie couldn't understand it at first; he was in great shape and had never had a serious health problem. He was too young, only 46! She called all day, trying to get a flight out to Orlando, but had no luck. She was trapped in Aspen with no way out until she realized there were other resources.

She knew what she had to do and she would do it. Her hands were trembling. She called Nick. He had told her he would be home for New Year's, because the family party was at his house this year. She had gotten him out of bed, because he had been up all night. She quickly told him what had happened.

"No, I hadn't heard. What's wrong with him?" he asked. He could hear the emotions running through her voice.

"I don't know, Mom said it might be his heart. I can't imagine that, Nick. He's incredible healthy!"

"Is there anything I can do to help?" Nick asked, sitting up in bed.

"Nick, I have a huge favor to ask."

"Anything, name it!"

"Give me AJ's number." She asked, forcing her voice to be as strong as it could. She counted the seconds of stunned silence. She almost repeated her demand when he spoke again.

"What?" he asked, completely convinced he hadn't heard what he just heard.

"Give it to me, please. I can't even charter a plane out of here. He has a jet. Will you give me the number?" She pleaded.

"Do you want me to ask for you?" he asked, crawling out of bed and heading for his den.

"No, I can to do this. Can I have AJ's private number?"

"Of course." He said, unable to think of a reason not to. He gave it to her and she wrote it down.

"Look, I'll pack CJ up and we'll meet you there." He said, tucking his loose hair behind his ears as he sat in the desk chair.

"You don't have to do that."

"Howie is important to me too. I have to be there." He said.

He was worried too. For Howie and for Lexie. Howie had to be there for all of this, it was too early to lose him. He had to know how this played out.

"Fine. Thanks, Nick."

"Sure, honey, anything for you."

She hung up on him and hurried to call AJ's number. She didn't give herself time to think about it. She was afraid she would hesitate and then lose her chance forever. He had the call forwarding on and it was routed through to the hotel front desk where he was staying in Orlando.

"May I help you?"

"I need to speak with AJ McLean." She said.

"I'm sorry, but Mr. McLean gave instructions for him not to be disturbed."

"Look, I'm. . ." she began, "You tell Mr. McLean his daughter is on the phone." She demanded.

"Please hold."

The phone rang up in AJ's suite and he was barely conscious when he picked it up.

"Mr. McLean, I'm sorry to disturb you."

"This better be good." He groaned.

"I'm sorry, sir. There is a young woman on the phone, she sounds very urgent."

"I told you not to disturb me with calls from fans. . ."

"She says she's your daughter."

Lexie was on hold forever. What if he refused the call? What if he didn't want to talk to her? What if he held true to the last 20 years and rejected her again? Please, she begged, please pick up.


"AJ?" she gasped.

"Yes?" his voice soft from sleep.

"Thank god you're there. I need your help." She said, willing her shaking voice to calm.

"Uh, I. . . uh, sure. What do you need?" he asked.

He had gotten out of bed and was sitting at the dinning room table. It took him a few moments to pick up the phone. He had hesitated. It was New Year's Day and he was afraid of what she was going to say. What New Year's Day resolution had she made that made her call him?

"AJ, it's. . . Howie. He collapsed during his show last night." She said.

"What?!" he said, completely stunned.

He hadn't heard a thing all night when he had been out with record company friends. He had known that Howie had a show in Orlando. Brian had one in Houston. . . what had happened?

"I'm not sure what's wrong with him. AJ, I'm stuck in Aspen and I can't get a flight out. AJ? Can you send your plane? I have to get home." She said, sounding horribly desperate. "I'm sure my dad will compensate you. . ."

"Don't worry about it, of course. It'll take about an hour to get everything organized. Is he okay? Where is he?"

"I don't know, Mom didn't tell me. If you call the house, I'm sure someone is there."

"I will. Are you going to be okay?"

"Not until I get home." She said.

AJ called his pilot and organized the flight to Aspen to pick her up. He felt the same feelings of frustration he had when Alex had first gotten sick. He was desperate to do something to help her, to help Howie. No, to help her. He thought. The feelings of a father for his child rose in AJ's chest, but he pushed them down. She wasn't his daughter; she was Howie's. He had seen to that 11 years ago.

It was an agonizing wait to get home. AJ's plane arrived just like he said it would. Nick was waiting at the airport with CJ and a driver. In her hurry to get to the hospital, she left her bags on board as she ran to Nick and the waiting limo. She sat in the car as it wound its way through downtown Orlando, not even looking at him. CJ was asleep in his arms, but he reached out with one hand and touched her shoulder. Her icy hand took his and she held on it.

"He's going to be all right." Nick said. She only shook her head at him.

"You don't know that."

"We have to believe it."

"I" but she stopped the thought she started.

She had called from the plane a couple times, but her Aunt Polly had little information at the house. She had told Polly that she had called AJ and had gotten a flight home, but Polly hadn't responded to that. Only told her to hurry home.

"I'm not sorry I called AJ." She said suddenly.

"Why would you be?" he asked.

She finally looked back at him, letting go of his hand and placing both of own on her lap. Her look told him enough.

Nick was surprised to see AJ there with her family. Howie's brother, John, grabbed her and held her close.

"John, what's going on. Tell me!" she demanded.

"It's worse than they thought."

"Oh, no!" she said, feeling her knees buckle under her.

"Hold on, he's still with us. It wasn't his heart. He had a blood clot and it traveled to his brain. He had a mild stroke."

"No way, John! He's only 46 years old, this can't be."

"Blood clots are random things, no one can predict them."

"Where is he? Can I see him?"

"No. Your mom is with him and he's in ICU." John said. "They are only letting her in right now. He isn't even conscious right now."

Lexie was just trembling when Nick slipped an arm around her and pulled her close. She turned away from John directly into Nick's arms. CJ woke up and groggily started asking where she was. Tyler was clutching on to Lexie's legs, trying to get between her and Nick. She let go of Nick and picked Tyler up. She went and sat down with him. She rocked him quietly until he too fell asleep in her arms.

Most of the family had left about an hour after she arrived; it was nearly 2 in the morning. AJ had stayed, barely looking at her. She kept Tyler and John, knowing that they needed her, with their Mom and Dad both unable to take care of them. John fell asleep also, his head against her shoulder. When Nick took CJ down the hall to use the bathroom, AJ came and sat on the couch next to her.

"Are you going to be all right?" he asked quietly.

She slowing looked up at him and studied his face for the longest time. It was a hard face, the sunshine of his youth long worn out. She realized suddenly that she had his eyes, his mouth and his cheekbones.

"Nick's car is still here. We're going to go back to the house. When he gets back, could you carry John for me?"

"Of course."

"Thank you, AJ. Thanks for sending your jet. I would've never gotten back here soon enough."

"He's gonna be just fine." AJ smiled.

"God, I hope so." She whispered.

"I know he'll be fine. I'll wait here a little longer, I'll call you with any changes."

"Thank you." She nodded tiredly. "Thank you for everything."

"I'm glad I could do something." he said quietly.

Nick stopped in the hall on his way back. CJ was drifting off again and had her head tucked under his chin. He saw AJ sitting with Lexie and them talking. It was so wrong for them to be strangers. To him, they were two of the most amazing people he had ever known. They deserved to know one another. Just like he did.

AJ carried a sleeping John to the car and as Nick and Lexie settled into the car first and AJ was tucking John into a seat, CJ woke for a moment.

"I love you, daddy." She whispered as she drifted back to sleep. Unaware and uncaring of who was there, Nick drew her up to his face and kissed her nose.

"I love you, too, baby." He told her.

AJ closed the door and watched them pull away. His stomach began to violently roll. His own pain threatened to consume him when he heard CJ whisper those words to Nick.

Nick deserved all of that love.

He never did.

He never would.

Chapter 12 by old_archive

Nick and Lexie went back to the house and tucked the children into bed. Nick stayed up as Lexie opted to get a couple hours of sleep. Nick found himself alone in Howie's house. He studied the children's drawings on the refrigerator, the family photos in the living room and all the other pictures in the den of family outings. Howie and the boys with surfboards, Lexie and her new car, Leah and Lexie horseback riding and all of the school pictures of the kids ran down the hallway like a movie storyboard.

Nick realized there were no Backstreet Boys awards in Howie's den; only accomplishments from his solo career and of some other acts he had produced. No gold records, any Grammys, no MTV music awards. . .nothing. Nick had some of his stuff and it was still up and around the house. His parents and grandparents had a huge chunk of it and so did his record company, but he still displayed his BSB history on the walls. CJ knew all the names of all the faces in the pictures, but the way he told the stories he was sure they sounded like fairy tales. Sometimes they felt that way to him too.

Lexie woke at 7am when the phone rang. Nick had picked it up; it had been AJ calling to tell them that Howie was awake and doing really well. He had been lucky enough to get treatment early and it was looking like he would make a full recovery. They were going to keep him a couple weeks to treat his blood clots, but they were very optimistic about Howie's future.

"Thank god." Lexie said as Nick as he told her. "I can't wait to tell the boys. I'm gonna go take a shower and get dressed. Nick you better get some sleep, I'll watch the kids when they get up."

"I don't know if I can sleep, I'm too tired." He smiled, his long legs stretching out from the kitchen table.

"Go upstairs to the guest room and then just stretch out. You've been up all night."

"Just close my eyes, huh?" he joked, after his big yawn.

"I bet it works on CJ."

"I can guarantee it's gonna work on her dad right now." He laughed.

The kids were up about two hours later. CJ had been so cute when she went in to check on him. He was dead to the world, asleep on the covers with all his clothes on. One of his hands hung off the side of bed, she quietly counted every finger, and they twitched as she touched each one. As CJ stood for a moment and stared at her father's sleeping form, Lexie knew exactly what was going through her mind. She knew how her love for her gentle giant of a father was filling her heart, because she had had hundreds of moments like that.

Lexie stood leaned up against the doorway, watching CJ. Her life with Howie slipped past her mind's eye. Howie has always been a snorer and Lexie remembered sitting in the studio, watching him sleep at the board. She remembered the time right after John as born. He fell asleep on the bed fully clothed and she crawled in next to him. She gently laid her head on his shoulder and his gentle arms surrounded her, holding her close as he drifted back to sleep. She'd watched him hundreds of times from the stage wink just for her and blow her kisses. She remembered the powerful and loving feelings she had when he left the reunion tour to be with her. She remembered feeling as though she had won one over on the Backstreet Boys. He was with her and not them for those three days. She knew the feeling CJ was having right at that moment.

Lexie went to the hospital on her own the next day, the boys not being old enough to get into ICU. She stood outside his room and watched her mother lean over him in his bed; lovingly stroke errant curls from his forehead. Leah was speaking gently to her husband, accenting each word with a loving touch.

Lexie had seen her parents like this a hundred times; always open with their affections toward one another. Her folks took at least two vacations a year away from everything. Mom especially loved going to Paris in the spring. Lexie didn't think she ever really realized the depth of their love until that moment.

Every touch, every gentle word hung on Leah's love for Howie, just it did for her, John and Tyler. What amazing love to have and then to have the strength to share it with one lost scared motherless little girl. She could only hope that she had learned this one lesson well from them.

Her mom looked up, smiled, and said something to Howie. She saw him shift his weight in the bed and then she came to get Lexie. She came out of the room and told Lexie that he wasn't ready for visitors, but she'd see if she could get her in. Lexie said, no, that she'd wait. Lexie knew this time was for her mom to be with her husband and that she was more than willing to take the backseat.

Nick stayed on at the house, doing business from their kitchen table for the next two weeks. Leah came home to sleep, but spent most of her time at the hospital helping with Howie's recovery. Lexie and Nick kept track of the three kids and she kept them all when he had to go for meetings about his upcoming tour. Lexie was able to delay entry into her classes until the end of January and Nick rescheduled the first 6 dates of his tour to help.

It struck Nick several times, how easily they grew to get along so well. It was as if all of those conversations they had had before came together and made them work well together. Taking care of the kids, fielding calls, dealing with both recording studios, having Leah coming and going all times of the day and they seemed to hit a stride and kept it going.

They finally got the word that Howie would be home the following Wednesday, and Nick went about getting himself ready to leave. It was the Friday night before Howie was to come home when Lexie's Aunt Angie came to get all three kids and gave them a night off. They stood at the door and waved and when the door closed, it felt awkward for the first time.

"Well, it sure is quiet." Nick said, his back leaning against the closed door. She leaned against the wall right next to him.

"You can say that. Nick?" she asked.


"We've got to get that laundry done before Dad gets home." She sighed.

"I know, but we promised Angie we weren't going to do any work." He sighed too. "It'll take us hours."

"I wish we had more than one washer. . ." she began, casting a sideways glance at him.

"What are you thinking?"

"When was the last time you were at a public laundromat?"

"What? You're insane." He laughed.

"Nick, we've got some twenty loads to do and we'll never get it done before the kids get back tomorrow morning. A couple hours max. . ."

"I can not go to the laundromat." He laughed.

"Why? Because you're Nick Carter?" she teased him.

"Well. . .yes, damn it." He laughed harder.

"Think about it. We could do the whole thing in a couple hours and then maybe catch a movie or something. Please Nick. . .come on." She begged.

"No, I'm sorry. It is just not going to happen. How about I rent a movie and we stay here and do it all?"

Lexie agreed, but under formal protest. He noted that, went and rented a movie and then brought back her favorite ice cream, chocolate chip mint. They washed, folded, ironed and put away everything they could find.

Nick marveled at how easily she laughed, how quick and intelligent she was. She continued to share more about herself, sans her feelings of AJ, with him. He could see a lot of AJ in her, and a lot of her mother. The sharp wit was all Amanda's, but the laughter was all AJ. Howie and Leah's influence was heavily visible as well. Her sense of duty and family. Her strength, determination and her love. How easily she loved.

"I can't believe you cancelled the start of your tour." Lexie said, coming into the kitchen with an empty laundry basket.

"Well, you and your mom still need the help around here. . ."

"Apparently you aren't familiar with the Dorough clan anymore." She laughed.

"Oh! I am! John and everyone has asked me hundreds of times if I have to go."

"You're disappointing a lot of fans."

"Well, I'm just putting them off a couple months, that's all." He shrugged. "I rescheduled the dates."

"Why are you staying? I can handle this. Dad will be back home next week."

"Well. . ." he began.

"What?" she asked, stopping in front of him at the table.

"Okay, do you swear not to tell anyone?"

"Sure." She shrugged her curiosity piqued.

"CJ asked if she could stay, even after I left for tour. She's never asked to stay behind, she always wants to go with me." He sighed heavily, folding the last of CJ's clothes into a pile on the kitchen table.

"Are you having parental guilt?"

"Buckets of it. She loves being around the other kids in the neighborhood and the boys. I think she's enjoying you and your mom, being both women." He admitted. "When we're on tour it's just her and a whole bunch of grown ups. The kids she does get to play with, she'll probably never see again."

"You know, if Dad wasn't sick right now, they would probably let her stay."

"Oh, no, I don't want anyone else raising her. I guess having two weeks here with your family made me think that raising her on the road might not be the best thing for her."

"You don't have to tour. Nick, you don't have to work another day in your life."

"I don't, but the people who work for me do. See, this is my company and I have employees." He said, tapping his own chest. "I have a responsibility to them."

"Is that all it is to you, a responsibility?"

"No way! I love to sing, I love to tour. I've just been thinking that maybe its time I grew up and stayed home and raised CJ. My life isn't about me any more."

"I think CJ would have a great life on the road. I think she'd be happier knowing you were happy and I don't think staying home and just recording would make you happy."

"Really?" he said. It sounded like she had just given him a revelation. His blue eyes looked at her as if they were seeing her for the first time.

"The first day I went to the hospital I couldn't see my dad. I watched my mom and dad together. I think the one of the most important things I ever learned from my parents is that love comes from happiness and if someone you love isn't happy, then neither are you." Lexie said, "In spite of all my issues, my parents have taught me to be happy. I know that one of the things that made me so miserable during last summer was that Dad was so unhappy, even if he said he wasn't."

"That's really beautiful."

"Thank you." She smiled.

"Well, I’m definitely taking her with me this time." He sighed, resuming his folding. "Damn thing is 8 months long."

"Eight months? Where the hell are you going?" she laughed.

"Well, this is the American leg of the last tour. I still have 4 dates to make up from the end of the Canadian leg because I ended it short to be with AJ."

"You know, if you don't finish this, you're gonna be on tour when CJ is 18."

"Yeah, and it'll still be the same tour!" he laughed. "Any way, I figured we could all fly back home on the same day. Back to L.A., that is. I'll be gone two days later, though."

"That would be great. I'm gonna be slammed when I get back with studying, I'll have a lot to make up." She nodded.

"You won't even notice I'm gone."

"Of course I will, then maybe not, you usually call me everyday."

"I do not!"

"Do so! Besides, you can tell me how Alex is doing."

"Why don't you just call? You have the number now."

"I guess I could, I just don't want AJ calling here looking for me. I don't want Dad thinking about me and AJ right now."

"Did you ever thank AJ for sending his jet?"

"Yes, while you and CJ were in the bathroom." She said.

"Have you spoken to him since?"

"No, how about you?"

"Actually, no I haven't. He may be pumping Brian and Kevin for info right now."

"When was the last time you saw those two?"

"Brian? God, 2 months? Last time I saw Kevin was during the actual transplant." He said.

"Do you miss them? Do you miss the Backstreet Boys?"

"Sometimes, especially at times like these. I think about the old days when there were no barriers and we were so close."

"Maybe things will change." She said.

"Maybe, I don't know." He shrugged.

After an awkward silence, Lexie asked, "What was in the package your mom sent?"

"Just a few things."

"Any thing important. . . what Nick?" she asked at the sour look on his face.


"C'mon, is it serious?" She smiled, sensing she was on to something.

"Oh no, it's. . ."


"Next Tuesday is my 40th Birthday." He grimaced.

"Jesus, that's almost the last of the big ones." She smiled.

"Don't you go and do anything! "He said.

"I wouldn't do a thing!"

"'Cause your dad is coming home the next day and I don't want to steal anything from that."


"You're agreeing too easily." He said.

"Nick!?" she said, "I said I wouldn't do a thing."

Come Tuesday, she couldn't resist. He didn't want the milestone made public, which was his first concern and his second was Howie. She got John to sit the kids and she ordered a car to take them out to a casual dinner. Nick fussed about getting dressed up, fussed all the way to the car and all the way into the restaurant. She tried to reassure him that nothing was going to happen.

"See, it's just dinner." She said, settling into her chair across from him.

"Are you sure?"

"Nick, it's the least I could do. Mom and Dad insisted. I promise, no big deal. Just a few little ones."

"Oh, no! What?"

"Just these." She pulled a few small packages out of her purse. "They are from the kids. CJ keeps a pretty good secret." She slid them closer to him. "Go on, they won't bite. Here's a card from them and I got you something, too."

"Lexie, you shouldn't have."

"Yes, I did. Go on all ready before I tell the waiter." she joked. Each of the smaller packages was a little thing that the kids had made for him, including the card. He reached for hers last and gave it a little shake. "Just open it."

Inside was a sealed and signed copy of the very first signed European released BSB CD. She found a promotional copy at a record shop.

"This is great, where did you ever find this?"

"I did some poking around. You gave me all those BSB things, I wanted you to have something for CJ."

"I'll definitely hang on to it. Thank you, Lexie. I have no idea where my copies of these CD's are anymore." he smiled. "Look at everyone."

"I'm glad you like it." She smiled.

"I love it." He said and when he suddenly got to his feet and leaned across the table to publicly kiss her cheek. She was stunned. He was so fascinated by the CD; he never noticed the look on her face.

After the meal, Lexie excused herself to use the restroom and on the way, back she crossed paths with a waiter and a birthday cake with Nick's name on it.

"Where are you going with that?" she asked, stopping him in his tracks.

"To your table."

"Oh, no you're not. Who ordered that?"

"Those three ladies over there." He pointed out the three women headed straight for her.

"You guys can't do this." She whispered, stopping them in their tracks.

All three of the women were in their late thirties, gabbing at her all at once.

"We already know it's his birthday. . ." one began.

"You just can't. He'll kill me. I promised nothing was going to happen to him on this birthday. Please, I’m begging you!" she asked.

"We've all been fans for years. . ."

"I know, I know, but please?"

"You know you look familiar. . ." one asked. "What's your name?"

"I'm Lexie Dorough."

"Dorough? I didn't know Howie had any children who were this old..." one began.

"Aren't you AJ's. . .?"

"Yes, I am." Lexie nodded. "Please you guys? He'll just die if it becomes public he's actually 40."

"Oh, my god, is he really that old?" one laughed.


"Okay, could you take him just a piece?" one asked.

"All right, one piece. No singing." Lexie said. The waiter cut a piece for her and handed her the plate. The women giggled as she carried it over to him and put it him front of him.

He smiled, "You get a new job while you were gone?"

"No, this is from those three fans over there." She pointed out. He turned around and they all waved.

"Lexie, you promised."

"I kept my promise. There is a whole cake in the kitchen, but I was able to talk them into just one piece. No singing, I promise." She said. "Now, eat the damn thing so we can get out of here."

Nick signed autographs for the three women on the way out and thanked them for the cake and not singing. They fluttered about him for nearly 20 minutes before he joined her outside in the cool evening air. Nick diverted Lexie from the parking lot and steered her down the street.

"Nick? Where are we going?" she asked.

"Just for a walk." He said, looking ahead and not at her.

They walked for nearly two blocks before Lexie broke the silence.

"I hope that wasn't too bad for you." She said.

"No, it was fine." He nodded, smiling down at her.

"Are you okay? You seem awful quiet." She said. He pulled his hands out of his pockets, slipped one arm around her shoulders, and pulled her close.

"I'm fine." He said, kissing the top of her head.

Lexie was lost on what to say to him. Unable to fathom what he was thinking or feeling. She slipped her arm around his waist as he pulled her close and they walked that way for nearly 6 blocks. He took her into an ice cream shop, bought her some chocolate chip mint and took her back to the car the same way they came. He rode home in silence and just said good night as he headed up to bed.

She stood in the darkened living room pondering what had just happened between dinner and dessert. Boy, he sure did take his 40th hard!

Chapter 13 by old_archive

Howie came home the next day to the entire family and boxes upon boxes of fan mail. Everyone sat around reading it to him as he sat back in his 'poppa chair', as the kids liked to call it. Lexie's mom looked tired and when everyone was leaving, Lexie sent them both to bed and stayed up to clean the kitchen up. Nick set the rinsed dishes in the dishwasher as she swept the last of the food off the kitchen floor.

"Are you going to be ready to head back to school next Monday?" Nick asked.

"Yeah. I hope Mom's ready for it."

"Well, I think the rest of the Doroughs will pitch in. Your dad looks great."

"He does, it's amazing. The cane is the only real dead giveaway that there is anything wrong. He'll be done with it in a couple more weeks."

"What is he going to do with all of that mail?"

"He'll answer it while he's recovering. This is nothing; you should see what's at the record company and the fan club. Jesh, it's huge." She smiled, putting the broom in the closet.

"Fans are amazing." Nick said, shutting off the water, drying his hands and closing up the dishwasher.

"Have you told CJ when we're leaving?"

"No, I will tomorrow. I didn't want her all teary for tonight." He said, hanging up the towel.

"Do you think she's gonna take it that hard?"

"I'm afraid she might." he said, crossing his arms and leaning against the counter. "I haven't really committed to anything."

"Well, at least she'll know tomorrow." Lexie nodded, turning off the kitchen lights and watching the nightlights glance an eerie glow off of him. "Let's go to bed." She said, turning on her heel and heading upstairs.

CJ took the knowledge that she wasn't going to be staying well. She cried a little, but when Howie and Nick both promised she could visit during the tour, she settled down. Howie, Leah and Nick made loose agreements for her come out in July, when he was in Canada. Howie offered Lexie up to fly out there and pick her up, so she wouldn't have to fly alone or with someone else. Lexie remained non-committal, only because she would be applying for fall internships and wouldn't know when they started.

Sunday night came and it was a late night of good-byes for Nick and Lexie. Lexie sat most of the evening next to her dad on the couch, held in his arms. He would randomly kiss her cheek or smooth her long ebony hair back from her face as she read more fan mail to him.

"I'm going to miss you." He whispered, as the last of the well wishers headed for the door.

"I'll miss you, too." She said, snuggling in his arms.

"Thank you for all you've done." He said.

"Daddy, I love you. I wouldn't be anywhere else in the world." She admonished him. "Are you sure mom is going to be able to handle all this?"

"She'll be fine. I've hired someone to come in and take care of things."

"That'll be good." She said. He kissed her cheek again.

Nick came in, sat in a leather chair across from him, and CJ climbed up in his lap. She hugged her Daddy's neck and kissed his cheek.

"Thank you, Nick. Thank you for all you did for my family." Howie said.

"Hey, little bro, it's the very least I could do." Nick teased.

"Especially for flying this one in." he laughed, hugging her.

"Uh, he didn't fly me in. Where did you hear that?" Lexie asked, turning to face him.

"I just assumed. Your mother said something about a private plane. . ."

"I don't have a plane." Nick said.

"How did you get here?" Howie asked, watching them trade glances.

"I called AJ and asked him to send his. I couldn't even get a flight out. I tried a couple charters, then I asked Nick for AJ's number and I called AJ."

"You called AJ?"

"Don't be upset. I knew he had his own jet and. . ."

"I'm not upset. I just surprised, especially after all we talked about."

"I know, but I felt I had to." She said. "He was there at the hospital when Nick and I got there. He spent the whole night there waiting for word about your condition and then called everyone."

"He did? That guy. . ."Howie said, shaking his head. "He never came in the room. . ."

"D, I don't know how much you know about AJ and Suzanne right now." Nick said.

"Why? What's wrong?" Howie asked.

"Suzanne was readmitted into St. Augustine's hospital."

"Not again, but last I heard Alex was doing really well."

"She's so much younger than AJ and he's not well himself."

"He's not?" Lexie asked, stunned by this revelation.

"He's always had a problem keeping weight on. I know that he developed these vomiting fits that have made him even thinner." Nick sighed, looking down at a drowsy CJ. "He's got her to tend to as well as Alex. He isn't faring well."

"How sick is he this time?" Howie asked. Lexie realized they were suddenly discussing past history she knew nothing about.

"I'm not exactly sure. He looked like crap that night." Nick said, shifting CJ in his arms.

Howie looked at Lexie and she nodded in agreement.

"I wish there was something I could do." Howie sighed.

"I didn't want to worry you, either one of you." Nick said.

"I'll call him tomorrow, thank him for bringing Lexie home and helping out. Is he still in Orlando?"

"He should be. I know he was planning to have Christmas in New York, but with Suzanne in the hospital. . ."

"He's still here in Orlando." Howie nodded.

"I reached him at the hotel three weeks ago." Lexie said. "Maybe I'd better call him." Nick and Howie looked at her in surprise. "You need to rest and not get upset and Nick's got a lot to get settled before we fly out tomorrow night."

"No, honey, I'll call." Howie said.

"You can't protect me forever." She said quietly.

"That's what you think." He smiled back slyly to her. He squeezed her close and then traded glances with Nick. Nick needed to understand he would do whatever he had to; to protect his little girl.

When Lexie gave into Howie, she was quite relieved. She spent the next day keeping CJ busy as Nick finished up business on the phone before their flight home to L.A. that night. All three of the kids, Leah and Lexie were having lunch when Leah started shaking her head. Nick's voice on the phone in the living room could be heard.

"What?" Lexie laughed.

"It's a long time since I've heard that kind of talk in this house." She giggled, "Tour plans, security plans, song lists, band members, rehearsals. . ."

"Dad still performs."

"I know, but not that often last year and probably even less this year." She smiled, "He always takes care of these things at the office."

"Do you miss it? Being on the road?"

"Sometimes, but that was a lifetime ago." She smiled patting Lexie's arm.

A lifetime ago when she was just an unknown costumer on one of the largest tours in pop history. It took Howie forever to notice her, but when he did, he couldn't turn away. Howie. She smiled to herself. It has been an entire lifetime.

"Maybe when Tyler is a little older, you guys can head out again." Lexie joked.

"No, I have other plans." She smiled to herself.

Howie picked up the phone; a little disturbed he couldn't remember the number. He looked it up and dialed, but only got AJ's voice mail.

"Hey, AJ. It's Howie. Just wanted to call and let you know I'm home. Lexie and Nick are flying out tonight and I wanted to thank you for flying her in from Aspen. I owe ya' one, bro. Give me a call, I'd like to return the favor." Howie hung up the phone and stared at it for a while.

Lexie had called AJ for help. Jealousy began to form in his belly. She shouldn't have had to do that; he should've been there for her. She had offered to call again, but didn't really argue when he declined her offer. Howie has spent countless hours on the phone with her while she was at school last semester. It took a while for her to be honest with him, but she admitted she was afraid to take the car because it would upset him.

She told him that all of Nick's phone calls was feeling a lot like pressure from a long lost uncle trying to hone in on an inheritence. Howie had laughed at that. Howie could tell things were quite different between Nick and Lexie now. Leah acted as though she had no concerns about their relationship, but Howie did. Maybe he was just being over protective, but he couldn't forget the feeling he had when he saw them together for the first time with CJ. They did make a beautiful couple with her strong, classic looks and his boyish appearance. At 40, Nick barely looked a day over 30. He was still tall and trim, muscular from his youth. Howie hadn't decided if it was luck, or vanity, that kept him in such good shape.

Nick had ordered a car for the three of them and the family said good bye from the front porch on Monday evening. Leah, Howie, John and Tyler stood and waved as they drove off into the night. Leah closed the door behind him and then herded the boys upstairs to take a bath and go to bed. He was watching TV when she came downstairs.

"I wish I could help you with that." He said, looking up at her.

"You will soon enough." She smiled, climbing into his lap. She wrapped her arms around him and kissed him. "It's so good to have you home."

"It's good to be home." He smiled. "What are you thinking about?" he asked at her sudden far away look.

"Oh, Nick and CJ."

"It was something of him to stay here and help out. I hope we can take CJ on this summer." He said, avoiding what he wanted to say.

"Yes, it was. Are you okay with him and Lexie getting along so well?" she asked, sensing what was on his mind.

"Honestly, no. I can't shake the feeling it's going to head off in the wrong direction." He sighed, realizing she knew what he was thinking.

"Nick is 20 years older than she is. She really is just a kid. She's pretty sheltered."

"I know, I've been thinking that might be the problem."

"I don't think you give Nick enough credit. He's not into young girls. He's not had a serious relationship since CJ's mom left." Leah said. "He's concentrating on her and his career right now. You're the one that told me he's interested in bringing the boys back together."

"Yeah, but for what?"

"The old days, before Lexie."

"You can't blame her, it wasn't her fault she was born."

"I'm not blaming her, but her birth was the catalyst for all of this."

"No, I think Amanda's death was. Amanda would've gone on and raised Lexie alone without AJ. If she hadn't gotten in that car wreck, this wouldn't have happened." Howie said. "Lexie was 5 the last time AJ even made an attempt to see her. He wasn't even around when Amanda died, didn't go to the funeral, nothing."

"Howie, do you know why AJ did it?"


"Left Lexie to fend for herself. If you hadn't stepped it, I have no doubt he would've sent her to foster care. Do you know how he really feels about her?" Leah asked.

"I have my own assumptions, but no, I don't know what was going through his head. We haven't been close ever since the adoption became final. Our lives just took off when you got pregnant with John and we had to get married." Howie said. "A part of me doesn't want to know. I can't imagine leaving any of my children, or you, to fend for yourself like that. Maybe it's because his father wasn't around. I just don't know. Lord knows Lexie asked enough times."

"I wonder if she still wants to know."

"I don't know." Howie sighed. "I only hope that if she ever asks him, he's got an answer."

Leah reached around Howie and picked up one of CJ's sweaters off the back of the couch.

"Me, too. Nick must have forgotten this." She said, carefully folding the delicate pink sweater.

"Adorable, isn't she?" Howie said absently.

"Howie, I want to have another baby." She blurted out.

"What?!" he asked in shock.

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said it like that." She said, nervously refolding the sweater.

"Uh, no, I. . ."he began.

"It's just that I've always wanted a little girl. Lexie was 9 when I married you and, you know I love her dearly. . ."

"I know that. . ."

"And I was. . . I love you so much Howie. You've given me everything I've ever needed and I've never had to ask you for anything in the entire time we've been together." She began. "When I realized I almost lost you. . . I've always wanted a little girl."

"Are you sure?" he asked.

"Yes, I am. When we go to Paris this spring? Can we try?" she asked, barely able to look at him.

"Another baby?" he mumbled.

"It's too much, too soon. I'm sorry I said anything. . ."

Howie laced his dark fingers through her light hair and turned her face toward him. Her beautiful eyes raged with a torrent of emotions she couldn't hide from him. She had been thinking about this for a long time. He could tell.

"No, no. I think it's a great idea." He whispered against her lips, knowing he couldn't deny her anything.

"I love you." She said between kisses.

"I love you." He smiled in return.

Chapter 14 by old_archive

Nick's house was a flurry of activity as he and CJ stepped from the limo. He had dropped Lexie off at the campus after the flight and watched as she had headed up the stairs to her sorority house.

"Nick, I had no idea you were coming in so late." Cook said, picking up CJ as she ran to her.

"I know, I know, but it's the only way I can settle everything with the union tomorrow to get this show on the road." He said, kissing the older woman on the cheek like a dutiful son. "Mom here?"

"No, no. She left hours ago."

"Good, I've got to call Aaron and get this thing rolling." He said as they all stepped into the house.

Nick's tour started like it was supposed to and Lexie settled into to weeks of long days and nights to catch up. All of her professors where very supportive and gave her the extra time she needed to complete the quarter on time. When she dropped her pencil down on her last final before Spring Break, she thought she would cry. It was over, finally over. One more quarter and she was home for the summer.

It had been nearly two weeks since she had spoken to Nick last. She told him to hold off calling until her last final tonight. As she dredged across campus, she hoped he'd have enough sense to wait until morning. Well, luckily Nick did, but Tyler and John didn't.

They were having a party at the house for her and she got to join them via the phone. Her father downloaded pictures and sent them to her and she was able to see them as they ate her cake. She wouldn't be going home this Spring Break, just staying in and recovering. She had set up her schedule for next quarter and it wasn't much easier. One class acceptance depended on her grades this quarter and she was worried about that. It helped that Tyler thought she was utterly brilliant, but John thought she was still his dorky older sister. Her parents were leaving for Paris the following week and the boys were going to John's for the 9 days.

The phone rang early the next morning and Lexie was still in bed when she answered it.

"Hello?" she asked groggily.

"Lexie!" an excited little girl's voice yelled, "It's me, CJ! Oh, and Daddy!"

Lexie couldn't help but let out a croaking laugh.

"Hey, girlie, did we wake you?" Nick asked.

"Yes, but it's all right."

"Did we wake her, Daddy?" CJ asked.

"What? You've got two phones going?"

"Yeah! I'm in the living room and Daddy's in the bedroom. We're in cheeseland."


"Wisconsin." Nick helped her out.

"I thought I heard 'cheeseland'."

"You did." Nick laughed. Lexie laughed with him. "How was your last final?"

"Tough. Mom and Dad called last night. They had a finals party for me. Tyler and John got to eat all my cake." She said.

"Can I have some cake?" CJ asked.

"Yeah, have your daddy talk to my daddy and maybe they'll send us both some from Orlando." Lexie joked.

"Daddy? Will you call Uncle Howie and Aunt Leah?" CJ asked.

"No, honey, Lexie was joking."

"Oh." Was all they heard. Nick started laughing and then he asked, "So, how is your dad?"

"Great, he and mom are going to Paris next week."

"You going out there this week?"


"Why don't you come out here? I can meet you in Detroit; we'll be there Friday. You've never seen a show."

"No, I'm sorry guys, but I'm whipped. If I don't score high enough on last night's final I'll have to reorganize my class load for next quarter."

"Are you sure?" he asked, sounding disappointed.

"I'm sure." She laughed.

"Can't you come here?" CJ asked, both of them forgetting she was there.

"No, honey, Lexie's tired. She's working hard at school." Nick said.

"Can I go see Grandma now?" CJ asked, getting bored with them.

"Sure, hang up the. . ." Nick began, but the receiver went down with a crash. Lexie laughed at that.

"I guess she showed you. Is your mom on tour with you?"

"Just this weekend. She was missing CJ."

"I can understand that."

"I thought you weren't going to miss us."

"I said I'd hardly get the chance to miss you, I'll always miss her." Lexie laughed.

"I waited the allotted two weeks."

"And I thank you. Whenever I get on the phone with you it goes on for hours." she sighed.

"More like circles nowadays."

"I know, how much longer can we talk about the Backstreet Boys and how sad everything is?" She said.

"I didn't realized you felt that way."

"Oh, no Nick!" she said, sitting up. "I love talking to you. You have been the only person who has been honest with me when I ask you about back then. I was just thinking it might be time to make some kind of change."

"What kind?"

"Talking to AJ."

"Are you sure?"

"No, that's why I'm still talking to you." She sighed. "You know he never returned my dad's call. Have you heard from him?"

"No, no one has."

"Would it sound trite if I said I was worried?"

"No, not at all. I'm worried, too, but I've got Brian calling and every so often, I call. I know Howie has called a couple more times, but no response." He said, "There isn't anything I can do about it right now."

"One of my sorority sisters said that a tabloid was saying that his wife is dead. That she killed herself." Lexie said.

"You can't believe those rags." Nick said angrily.

"You've seen them, too? I've never paid them much mind. I mean, with my Dad being famous and all. Not to mention my history."

"I've heard the rumors, but I just can't tell you what is true or not. God, I hope not." He sighed. "I didn't mean to snap your head off."

"Naw, it's okay. I'll give AJ a call, maybe he'll respond to me."

"You don't have to."

"I know, but I want to. Maybe I can do something to help." She said.

Lexie hung up the phone and then got up and showered. She took a walk in the morning, got a cup of coffee and a muffin, and walked back to the house. She responded to a few emails and then stared at the phone. She dialed his number, got his voice mail and hung up without leaving a message. She tried several more times, not leaving a message. She tried for two more days and then she finally left a message. One she had rehearsed in her head the entire time.

"AJ, this is Lexie. I. . . (deep breath) I didn't know if I should call or not. AJ? Everyone is worried about you. You haven't returned anyone's calls. Nick and Dad are both waiting for your call. Nick told me Brian has been leaving messages, too. AJ? I hope everything is all right. Please call someone."

She hung up. She should've called dad 'Howie' instead of Dad. Well, Howie was her dad and AJ knew that. It was too late when Lexie realized she didn't leave a number for him to call her, but she hoped he'd call Dad, Brian or Nick. He'd call them before her anyway.

AJ played the message repeatedly. "AJ, this is Lexie. . ." and it was like a beacon in the long night. He didn't deserve her concern. He didn't deserve anything that resembled kindness from her after what he had done. Should he call her back? She hadn't left a number. She didn't want to talk to him, just for him to call the guys. He looked up at the coffee table and half-empty bottle of Jack Daniel's. He looked around the dark dingy hotel suite. That bottle wasn't making this any better.

The only piece of sunshine he had in his entire life was asleep across town at his mother's house in the care of a nanny. Now that Suzanne was gone, what was he going to do? He felt his stomach begin to churn.

Not again, he sighed.

The sounds in the bathroom of his own vomiting rang in his ears, the sights and smells overwhelmed him. What was he going to do? Where was he going to find help? He needed help and he realized that. He sat on the floor, barely having the strength to wipe himself off. The silence was deafening. He reached for the phone in the bathroom and dialed a familiar number. A warm and friendly voice answered from his past.

"Hello?" the man's voice laughed.

"Brian?" he croaked.

"AJ? Man, where the hell have you been? What the fuck is going on? Bro, talk to me."

"Help me, Brian. Please, please help me." He cried into the phone as he sat on the bathroom floor, unable to say much more.

Brian couldn't get to Orlando fast enough, so he called Howie. Howie was pounding on AJ's door within 20 minutes of AJ's call. The manager unlocked the door and AJ looked up from the bathroom floor. He was covered in his own vomit and blood. He looked up to see Howie standing in the doorway. It was like the present melted away and he was staring at a blurry vision.

"Howie? D? Is that you?" he asked.

"It's going to be all right AJ. It's all right. . ." He murmured to his friend.

Howie got a damp wash cloth and began to clean him up. He got AJ up, sitting on the edge the tub, and pulled AJ's sports coat and shirt off. AJ offered no resistance as Howie stood him up and stripped him down. Howie filled the tub and got a shivering AJ in it, scrubbed his hair and pulled all his earrings out. He handed AJ a loaded toothbrush and ordered him to brush. Howie wrapped him in a plush hotel robe and sat close by as AJ shaved his entire face clean, removing a years' old goatee. It took about 5 years off his face.

Howie sat AJ down in front of a full lunch that Leah had made in the suite's kitchen. He shoved the plate away, but Howie pushed it back.

"Eat it." Howie ordered.

"I can't, I can't eat. I'll just throw it up." AJ whined.

"Maybe if you took these more regularly, you'd be better off." Leah said, plopping some medication in front of him.

AJ took a swipe at them, accidentally backslapping her. Howie grabbed him by both arms and yanked him to his feet. "Don't you ever treat my wife like that!" Howie growled.

"I’m sorry, D. Leah, I'm sorry." He cried, crumbling to Howie's feet in tears.

Howie and Leah put AJ to bed after AJ's doctor gave him a sedative. Howie sent Leah home as he sat and waited for Brian. Brian arrived a few hours later from Kentucky, before AJ woke up.

"Howie, I'm so glad you could make it." Brian smiled as he carried his bags into the hotel suite.

"I'm glad you called me."

"How is he?"

"Sedated. He's in bad shape."

"I figured." Brian sighed, turning to face Howie.

"Did you call Nick? I got hold of Kev, he's on his way from London." Brian asked.

"No, I thought we should wait. He's in Wisconsin on tour. He'll be on the road for weeks, months still." Howie sighed.

"Its good to see you're doing so well." Brian nodded. "Leah and Nick kept us pretty up to date on your progress. Them and Kelly, your assistant at SDR."

"Yeah, thanks. I got treated early for the stroke. My left leg still gives me some trouble, but I'm fully recovered." He said, "Modern treatments are amazing these days. Years ago, something like this would've killed me. So, what did AJ say when he called you?" Howie asked.

"He just kept asking me to help him and crying."

"He had puked on himself. He was a mess." Howie said. "Do you know what's been going on? I know Suzanne had readmitted."

"No, the rumor is that she killed herself in the hospital. Where is Alex?" Brian asked.

"I have no idea. He's not here." Howie shrugged.

"How is Lexie? Is she fully recovered, too?"

"Yes. She's staying on campus for Spring Break. She had a huge catch up job since she got started late." Howie said.

"It's amazing what she did for little Alex." Brian said, getting to his feet, "Lord knows she doesn't owe us anything."

"Lexie is a better person than that."

"I know, that's what I mean. You did a great job, Howie."

"Leah and I did our best." Howie nodded.

Silence fell on them.

"What are we gonna do if his wife really is dead?" Brian asked.

"Get him through this. We're all brothers and its time we started acting like it." Howie said, surprising even himself with those words.

Maybe it was seeing AJ in this desperate state or seeing Brian here to be by his side that caused him to utter those words.

"My god, where has the time gone Howie?" Brian sighed heavily. "I've worked with you all this time and we couldn't be farther apart. . ." He paused and then looked Howie in the eye. "You're right. This has gone on long enough." Brian said. Howie slipped into Brian's outstretched arms and held on to him like he was a long lost brother. Tears filled both of their eyes. "I've missed you, D."

"I've missed you, too, B-rok." Howie laughed.

Howie was amazed as he listened to Brian begin to talk about his family how little he actually knew of the man Brian had become. Sure he knew about Brian's four girls, how two were shopping for a recording contract, one was too serious to even consider entertainment as a career decision and one was too silly to consider even working a day in her life. As Brian spoke of his youngest daughter, Fatima, and her wild ideas, Howie realized the wall he had built around Lexie had also been built around himself.

Brian began cleaning the suite, picking up Alex's baby clothes and folding them on the formal dinning room table. Howie laughed as he went into the kitchen to start some coffee and Brian told more stories of his little Fatima.

"Speaking of little girls, I hear Nick and Lexie are pretty good pals." Brian smiled as Howie brought him a cup of coffee.

"Yeah, they met outside Alex's room the night before the transplant. He kept visiting her. . . he has plans to bring us all back together." Howie said.

"Really?" Brian asked, surprised he hadn't heard that from Nick himself.

"I think it has a lot to do with him raising CJ on his own. I think he wants more family. We'll have her a couple weeks this summer." Howie said, adding one last baby sweater he had found in the kitchen to a pile on the formal dinning table.

"He said he spent nearly three weeks at your house."

"I know, I appreciated that, but my family was more than willing to help Lexie out with the boys. He told me CJ wanted to stay. She cried a bit when he told her they would be flying out to go back on tour. I had to promise to let her come visit this summer. I couldn't bear to hear her cry another second." Howie smiled.

Brian laughed, straightening papers on the coffee table.

"That little sprite has that power, let me tell you. I don't get to see her and Nick as often as I would like." He said.

He lifted the bottle of Jack and looked at some writing on paper beneath it. "Howie, look at this." He handed the papers to Howie. In AJ's handwriting was "Lexie" all over one piece of paper.

"What the hell is. . ." Howie began.

Brian and he stared at one another. Howie's gears were spinning in his head. He picked up AJ's cell phone, hit redial, and got his voice mail. He broke into it and listened to the last message:

"AJ, this is Lexie. I. . .(deep breath) I didn't know if I should call or not. AJ? Everyone is worried about you. You haven't returned anyone's calls. Nick and Dad are both waiting for your call. Nick told me Brian has been leaving messages, too. AJ? I hope everything is all right. Please call someone."

"Oh my god. . ."Howie gasped.

"What is it?"

"It was Lexie. She called him and left a message telling him to call one of us." Howie said, setting down the phone. He reached for his own phone and called her.

"Hi, this is Lexie. I ain't here; I'm off being brilliant. You know the drill, just leave your message after the beep."

"Lex, its Dad. Call me on my cell, okay? Thanks, honey." Howie hung up.

"How long do you think it will take for her to call you back?" Brian asked.

"I have no idea. . ." and his phone rang in his hand.

"Lex?" he answered.

"Hi, Dad. Quick huh? I just got back from the laundry. What's up?" she asked innocently.

"Hi, baby. Honey, I need to ask you something. Did you call AJ today?"

"Yes, I left a message earlier. I’m sorry, maybe I should've told you. Did he call you? Is he pissed off?" she asked.

"Why did you do that?" he asked.

"I. . . uh, Nick called this morning said no one has heard from him in months. I just thought I'd give it a try. . . he's pissed isn't he. God, I'm sorry Dad. I was just trying to help. I'm sorry."

"No, Hon, everything is just fine. He isn't pissed."

"Are you?"

"No." he laughed. "I'm at AJ's right now, with Brian. Honey, AJ is sick. His doctor was here with him and I think there are a lot of really bad things going on right now." He said seriously.

"Oh, no. I. . . Nick was so worried. Has anyone called him?"

"No, not yet. Let's not yet, he's cancelled enough of this tour. Let's see how AJ is doing before we worry him."

"He's already worried. So am I." She said, the words out before she could stop them.

"Do you think you want to come out here?" Howie asked, unable to stop himself as well.

"I. . . do you think I should?" she asked. He knew she was asking his permission.

"I'm. . ." not sure, he thought. "I think it would be all right. There are some serious things happening here. . ."

"I know, Nick and I talked about it this morning. I'll book a flight today." She said, "Dad, are you sure this is all right?"

"Yes." He lied.

"I love you, Dad. You know that, right?" she said.

"Yes, I know that. I love you, too." He said quietly.

"Dad, I'm scared."

"Don't be, I’m here." He said.

I'm scared, Dad. She thought. You're there, but I don't think you can protect me from what I'm afraid might happen.

Chapter 15 by old_archive

Lexie hung up the phone, and didn't hesitate to call Nick next. She told him everything her father had and that she was making plans to fly to Orlando.

"Are you going to be all right?" he asked, his voice filled with concern.

"I think so."

"You're scared, I can tell." He said.

He can? She thought. "A little, but Dad will be there. I'm sure everything will be fine. Has Brian called you?"

"No, this is the first I've heard anything. I'll call the hotel tomorrow before we head out."

"I'll probably be staying at my parent's. . ."

"I'm worried about you."

"I'll be okay."

"I'll call your parent's house to check in with you. Be careful, okay honey?" he said. There was a long pause and he spoke again. "Lex? Are you sure you're okay with this? Do I need to call your Dad?"

"What am I suppose to do when I get there? Nick, AJ's never asked for my help. He hardly asks about me at all. Maybe I shouldn't be there. . ."

"Lex, I can't tell you what to do."

"But you think I should go. I mean. . .he is my father." She said quietly.

"Yes, but you guys are strangers." Nick said, wishing he could be there for her. He'd have to trust that Brian and Howie knew what they were doing. "No one can blame you for being a little uncomfortable about this."

"Uncomfortable?" she laughed dryly. "God, I just want to vomit!" Lexie heard Nick laugh at that.

"I wish I could be there for you, like when your Dad was sick." He said.

"Me, too." She agreed.

"Call me, let me know how you're doing."

"I will."


"Promise." Lexie said.

Lexie barely slept when she got into Orlando at midnight. Her mom, her aunts and uncles tried to give her advice, but they didn't know what to say. Lord knows she didn't know what she was going to say or do, for that matter.

Howie and Brian had stayed at AJ's suite that night and Howie called her the next day. Leah had called him when she got in. Howie told her over the phone that he and Brian were able to find out that AJ's mom had Alex. AJ's mom had told them that Suzanne had died three weeks ago, after several suicide attempts in the hospital. She hadn't seen AJ much in those three weeks and had gotten completely out of touch with him in the last four days. Lexie and Howie made plans for her to go to the hotel later that day.

When Lexie arrived at the hotel, Kevin was there as well. He opened the door again for her like he had less than a year ago. She stood there, caught in his dark brooding stare.

"Uh, is my Dad here? Uh. . .Howie?" she asked.

"Yes, come in." he said, not uttering a smile. Howie came out of the bedroom and greeted her with a hug.

"Lexie? Do you remember Kevin Richardson and Brian Littrell?" he asked. She shook their hands and mumbled some kind of greeting.

"Daddy, where is he?" she asked him.

"He's still asleep."

"Can I see him?" she asked.

"Yes, let's go." He said, taking her hand.

They went into his dark bedroom and she could barely see his form under the black sheets. Her mind seemed to leave her body as she walked away from Howie and took a seat at the edge of AJ's bed. Lexie saw him stir and he seemed to turn toward her.

"Amanda?" She heard him say as he reached for her. "Baby, I've missed you. Where have you been?"

"AJ?" she whispered.

"Baby, you've got every right to leave me again. . .I love you, I've always loved you." He moaned.

Howie heard Lexie choke on her sob. She took his out stretched hand and with trembling fingers, smoothed back his forehead.

"Don't leave me, Mandy, not this time. I need you, I can't live without you."

"I won't AJ, I promise." She choked.

"Kiss me? Please? Mandy, I don't feel very good. Where am I?" he asked.

"Sh, sh. Just close your eyes, I'm here for you." She whispered. She leaned over his body and brought her lips to his cheek. She could smell the sweat and the vomit. "Go to sleep AJ."

"Don't go, stay here with me." He whispered has he drifted off.

"I'll be here when you wake, I promise." She said, sitting on the edge of bed.

That's more of a promise than he had ever made her. Howie thought. Howie couldn't describe the emotions whirling about inside him as he saw her sit with him, comfort him. Howie knew that unlike her father, she would keep all of her promises to him.

Her father.

No matter how much he pretended and forced others to pretend, AJ was her father and she was by his side. He felt himself shudder as she turned to him just like AJ had turned to her.

"Daddy?" she said, her voice cracking and giving away her emotions.

"Honey? I’m here." He left the doorway and knelt on the floor by the bed.

"What am I supposed to do?" she cried quietly.

"We'll wait here until he wakes up."

"He thinks I'm my mother."

"I heard."

"What is he gonna do when he wakes up?" she asked.

"I don't know." Howie said, unable to speak again.

He looked up and saw Brian and Kevin in the doorway watching them. He looked down at AJ's sleeping form and wondered himself what was going to happen. What was going to happen to all of them?

It was a little less than an hour later and Howie thought Lexie had fallen asleep in the chair across the room from AJ's bed. He realized she hadn't when AJ stirred and she jumped to her feet.

"Howie?" AJ groaned.

"AJ? You awake?" Howie asked. AJ reached up and rubbed his eyes.

"I think so. Howie? D? Is that you?"

"Yeah, AJ, it's me."

"God, what happened? D? Man, I had the strangest dream about Amanda. It was like she was here. . ." and AJ stopped in mid-sentence. Oh my god. . .he thought.It couldn't be. . .no, it's not! His brain just couldn’t fathom what he was seeing. In the darkened room, he thought he saw her again over Howie's shoulder.

Howie looked behind him, seeing Lexie.

"AJ, Lexie is here."

AJ just stared, trying to will his mind to work. She was the same height, the same size, the same dark hair and delicate silhouette. Amanda? His soul asked.


"Yes, AJ?" she asked in the same sweet voice AJ only heard in his dreams anymore.

"Why are you here? Howie? Why are you here? What happened?" he asked, still trying to understand through the fog.

"AJ, you were really sick. You still are. Don't you remember anything?" Howie asked. AJ laid back in the bed and was quiet as various events began to become clear.

"Oh my god, Suzanne!" he gasped.

He vomited again, suddenly on the bed. Howie and Lexie both scrambled to yank up his covers and contain the mess. Lexie hauled the bundle into the master bathroom tub and Howie got AJ out of bed. Lexie got on the phone and ordered clean sheets as Howie got AJ dressed into some sweat clothes.

Brian yanked a clean blanket off another bed in the guestroom and wrapped him in it. Howie kept him in the bathroom as housekeeping came and took the soiled linens away. It took both Howie and Brian to get AJ back in bed. Unable to watch anymore, Lexie escaped into the living room only to run into Kevin. They stood there in silence staring at one another and then the phone rang.

"Kevin! Lexie! Someone get that!" Howie hollered. Lexie turned on her heel, ran, and picked up the phone.

"Hello?" she gasped.

"Lex?" she heard.


"It's me, Nick."

"Oh my god, Nick." She cried, collapsing into an overstuffed chair.

"Baby, honey, stop crying. Lexie, what are doing at AJ's? Please, stop crying honey. Tell me what's wrong. Is AJ okay? Are you okay? Lex, is your dad there? Lexie, please stop crying." Nick pleaded, but she couldn't stop. She got up, stumbled blindly toward Kevin, and dropped the phone near his feet as she ran into the kitchen. Kevin picked up the phone and brought it to his ear.


"Kev? What the hell is going on over there?" Nick demanded. "Did AJ say something to her?"

"I don't know. Nick, listen to me, AJ is really bad this time."

"Is it his wife?"

"Yes, and he's physically sick. Howie and Brian are here with us. Lexie flew in yesterday. She's been sitting with him, but I don't know what he said."

"Put her back on the phone." Nick demanded.

"I don't know if she can talk yet. Look, I'll have her call you later."

"Please, Kev. Have Howie call me, too, okay?"

"Sure, Nick."

Howie came running out of the bedroom.

"Who was that?"


"Where's Lexie?"

"She ran into the kitchen."

What is happening?!? Lexie's mind screamed. Lexie felt doors and windows slamming down all around her heart. Her entire life flashed before her eyes. Her birth, the boys, her mother's death, her life with the Doroughs and now. . .nothing.

Howie came into the kitchen, expecting to find her curled in a ball and crying her eyes out. He didn't expect to find her standing at the kitchen sink, staring into it.


She looked up at him with the strangest look on her face. She looked at him like she didn't recognize him. Everything he would expect to see on her face was gone. It was like she was suddenly a stranger. It looked as though Lexie was gone.

"Honey, are you okay? Did Nick say something to upset you? Is it AJ? Lexie? Do you need to go? Should I call your mother?" he asked.

"NO! Goddamn it!" she screamed with anger. "What was all that shit about my mother?! What the fuck was he doing 20 years ago?! What the hell were all of you doing 20 years ago!?"

Howie felt himself recoil from her anger. She had moved toward him, her face inches from his. She froze there staring at him. Her strange eyes seemed to be searching his face for something, then she just pushed past him and headed toward the living room.

"Lexie? AJ wants to see you." Brian said, seeing her come out of the kitchen.

"Well, that's just too damn bad. I'm leaving." She said, snatching up her purse.

"Lexie, I know you're angry, but. . ." Howie began, following her toward the door. She whirled on him again.

"You know nothing about me or how I’m feeling! You never have! I’m not playing this game with you people anymore! Find someone else's life to screw up!." She raged.

"Lexie, stop this right now! Where are you going?!" Howie demanded as she opened the front door and headed out.

"I'm leaving. You should recognize it, it'll look very similar to what he did to me 20 years ago!" she snapped.

"Lexie, that's enough! Get back in here!" Howie demanded again.

"NO!" She screamed, slamming the door just has he got to it. He yanked it open and ran after her down the hall. She ran past the elevators and headed down the stairs. They were on the top floor of the hotel and she was 26 years younger than he was. He would never catch her.

"She's just upset. She'll be okay." Brian said as Howie returned to the suite.

Howie stood there looking from Kevin to Brian. He prayed Brian was right, but he knew in his heart that she wasn't all right. Something terrible had just happened, just like he knew it would.

Suddenly, they heard a crash in the bedroom behind Brian. All three of them raced in to find AJ on the floor, crawling toward the bathroom. He had knocked over the nightstand and everything on it. Howie reached him first. Howie fell to his knees, rolled AJ on to his back, and into his arms.

"I’m sorry, D. This is all my fault." AJ cried out.

Howie instinctively drew AJ up into his arms, bent his head over him, and held him as he cried. Brian and Kevin put the table back on its legs and set about straightening the mess. When they had finished, Brian kneeled on the other side of AJ and laid his hand on Howie's head. Howie looked up with fresh tears streaming down his own face silently. Brian felt his throat tighten as tears threatened to consume him as he read the anguish on Howie's face.

It was a father's anguish for his daughter and a man's anguish for his friend.

Chapter 16 by old_archive

CJ finally settled down for a nap in the room on the floor of the hotel Nick was occupying in Detroit. His last conversation with Brian was just running through his head. He looked one more time at his watch. It's been 3 days since anyone had heard anything from Lexie. She had left AJ's and just seemed to disappear. Howie and Leah were worried sick and so was he. It didn't help that Howie was calling nearly every hour on the hour, hoping that Lexie had turned to him for help. She hadn't. Nick could hear the pain in Howie and Leah's voices when they called each time. Brian had said they hadn't slept since she left.

Nick's cell phone rang in his hand and he realized it was about time for them to call. He picked it up in two rings.

"Hello?" he asked, steeling himself for Howie's sorrowful heavy voice.

"Nick?" he heard her ask with her teeth chattering.

"Lexie, is that you? Baby, where are you?"

"I'm in Detroit. What hotel are you at?" she shivered.

Nick offered to send a driver for her, but she refused. He finally told her where he was at and he contacted his own security to meet her in the lobby. Two hours later and he was glad he hadn't called Howie yet. He was nearly convinced she wasn't coming at all. When one of his people told him she was here, he ran to her as she stepped off the elevator. He took her in his arms and held her close. He felt her hands on his sides and she pushed him away.

"Can we talk?" she asked as they stood in the hall with about 20 other employees of his.

"Yes, sure, come on." Nick took her back to his suite at the end of the hall. She dropped her purse on a chair and walked to the sliding glass door that led onto the deck. "Your dad has been calling for days. Where have you been?"

"Out. Look, I'm out of money. Can you get me a flight back to L.A.?" she asked, turning to face him.

She looked like shit. He never imagined he would ever see her like this. In her eyes, there was no trace of the girl he knew. She had been replaced by something so completely guarded; she didn't look the same.

"I need to call your Dad." He began, pulling his phone from his pocket.

"NO!" she snapped, running to snatch it out of his hand. He easily pulled it out of her reach.

"Will you call him, then?" he asked, lowering his hand with the phone slowly.

"Nick, are you going to help me or not?" she demanded, settling her hands on her hips.

Nick had heard and seen a lot of things from Lexie, but nothing like this. She was nervous and twitchy like she was about to be caught doing something wrong. She was still wearing the clothes Howie had said he had last seen her in. They were fine for Orlando at this time of the year, but not Detroit.

"Your parents are worried sick. . ." He pleaded.

"I don't really care right now."

"AJ is asking about you. . ."

"I don't give a rat's ass." She said sarcastically.

"I'm not going to help you unless you call your parents." He demanded, crossing his arms across his massive chest.

"Fine." She walked toward her purse, slung it on her shoulder and headed past him to the door. He grabbed her arm, but she couldn't look up at him.

"They're worried sick. Let me call." He said softly.

"No, I don't want to talk to them."

"Lexie, what is wrong? You can tell me. You can tell me anything."

"I don't want to talk about it. Nick, are you going to help me or not?"

"Do you have any other way to get back?"

"No." she admitted quietly.

"When is the last time you ate?" He asked, but she didn't answer him. "Let me order you some food. . ."

"All I need is a flight home."


"No, L.A."

"Please tell me what's wrong."

"Nick. . ."

"All right! I'll book you a flight to L.A., but not until tomorrow night. I want you to stay here a little while. Amuse me, okay?" he sighed with frustration.

He ordered up a late lunch and she sat in silence as she waited for it. Room service wheeled the food in, but she skirted away from it like a wild animal being asked to eat from a human's hand. They left and Nick found himself standing opposite of her with the food between them.

"Eat something." He said.

She moved toward the food and lifted a cover from plate. He had ordered a couple of deli sandwiches and some soup.

"Sit down." He added, but she never did. "I have to go into the other room. . ."

"If you call them, I'll walk right out!" she said, slamming down the cover of one of the plates.

"Damn it, Lexie, they are worried about you!" he snapped, turning back to her.

"Fine, call them after I leave tomorrow. I'm not dealing with them right now." She snapped back.

"Tell me why?" he begged.

"No." she said.

His frustration with her had run its course. He grabbed her upper arm. Why wouldn't she call her parents? Why was she acting so strangely? What had gone so wrong that she was so unlike herself?

"Is this the real reason CJ's mother left you?" she spat at him.

Nick let go of her to reveal a nasty red mark. He hadn't realized how hard he had grabbed her. He knew that with enough force he could've just snapped her bone. Her words had stung him. She edged herself closer to a chair and sat down with a sandwich. Nick couldn't help but start pacing the floor in front of her. He ran his hand over his slicked back hair, pulling his ponytail over his shoulder then back again. Suddenly, he reached for the hotel phone and she made a running dive for her purse. He threw himself on top of her and pinned her to the couch. He called out to the hotel and ordered a buyer to get a dress and accessories for her, then hung up.

He got off her and she screamed at him at the top of her lungs, "You son of a bitch."

He slapped her face.

"Watch your mouth, CJ is asleep in the next room." He growled at her.

She stared at him like she was possessed.

"You'll get dressed when they get here and you're going to the show tonight." He ordered.

"Like hell I will."

"You want that ticket?" he snapped. He had her and he knew it. She had no money and he could tell she was plenty hungry when the food got here. "When CJ gets up, you better be on your best behavior or I'll have security remove you and I won't give a rat's ass how you get back to L.A." He threatened. Nick knew she believed him, because he would do it. The sooner he could find a way to call Howie, the sooner Howie could get there. He knew if he left her at the hotel, she'd leave. He'd have to take her with him to keep an eye on her. Nick hoped Howie could get to Detroit soon enough.

The hotel sent the dress and a hairdresser up for Lexie. They disappeared into his bedroom to get ready. As soon as the door closed, he yanked his cell phone out of his jacket pocket. He hit Howie's speed dial.

"Hello?" Howie answered.

"Howie? It's Nick. She's here."

"With you? Thank God!" Howie gasped.

"Look, I don't know what's going on with her, but you better hurry out here. She wants to leave and leave bad."

"Why? What did she say? Where has she been?" Howie asked.

"I don't have a lot of time. I'm taking her to the venue tonight so I can keep an eye on her. Howie you have got to get here. I said I'd book her a flight to L.A. tomorrow. Can you get here before then?" Nick said.

"Of course, no problem. I'll take AJ's plane. . ."

"Good, hurry Howie."

"Nick. Thanks, man."

"Sure, bro." Nick said.

The hairstylist came out of the room an hour later. She closed the door behind her and told him they were all done. Nick tipped her and when she left, he walked over and knocked on the door.

"Come on, they are bringing the car around." He said.

She opened the door and stood there. She was incredible. Her long slender legs revealed themselves under the short dress, shaped nicely by black silk hose and simple black pumps. Her long straight hair was curled and piled on her head. Her black eyes shone from her incredibly beautiful face. AJ's eyes.

"Are you done staring?" she asked sarcastically.

"You look beautiful." He said quietly, almost in awe.

"Well, I never thought of you the as type who liked to play dress-up."

"Be nice, Lex." He said sternly, realizing the nastiness in her voice.

She strode past him, the top of her head reaching just under his nose. She picked up the matching purse and dropped her own items into it. CJ came from her room and told Lexie how beautiful she looked. Lexie knelt down, kissed her cheek, and told her how beautiful she was. It was obvious to Nick; CJ had no idea what was going on.

CJ held Lexie's hand as they left the suite and went into the elevator. Nick picked CJ up and carried her as they were ushered to the limo by security, past a screaming mob and flashing cameras. Lexie never looked at him, never talked to him the entire trip to the venue. CJ chattered on and on, oblivious to the lack of interaction between himself and Lexie.

CJ stayed with Lexie all evening. He looked out into the audience and saw CJ singing along as she sat in Lexie's lap. Lexie said very little to anyone backstage after the show. No one really knew who she was and she skirted the issue all night. It was late when security came to him and told him it was time to leave. Apparently, a crowd of protesters was gathering around the car.

Nick was having labor problems with this tour and when he cancelled and rescheduled the first six dates, national unions had been angered by his decision. He decided to pay his regular crew, because it wasn't their fault he had delayed their jobs, but he hired non-union labor for the rest of the tour after the union people walked off the job.

Nick couldn't blame it on anyone but himself, they had asked his opinion and he told them to fire the union people to get the show back on the road. Every city he had been faced with the same protesters. Nick could hear them outside the backdoors. He picked up CJ and held her close, he kept Lexie directly behind him. One of his own security people came up to him.

"Man, Nick, we can barely keep a path to the limo clear. You guys are going to have to make a run for it."

"It's cool. Are you ready?" he asked Lexie.

"Yes." She nodded. He positioned himself by the door, behind two bodyguards, reaching blindly behind; he took Lexie's hand. She tightened her grip on his hand as the bodyguard put his hand on the door.

"Just run for it, don't wait for anything. I'll be right behind you." The guard said.

Nick and Lexie just nodded. The door opened on the angry mob and it roared like a multi-headed monster. Lexie ran forward with Nick, her face only inches from his back. The crowd moved in on them rapidly and someone caught Nick by the tail of his sports coat. He stumbled back into Lexie and it became clear quickly that they had a tight grip on him. Lexie let go of his hand and saw a bodyguard waving franticly toward her. A path opened up between her and him. She twisted around in front of Nick and grabbed hold of CJ.

"Let her go!" Lexie screamed. CJ was crying frantically and clutching on tight to Nick's lapels.

"NO, NO!" he yelled at her. "GO ON!"

"Give her to me!" Lexie screamed, slipping an arm around CJ's waist.

A bodyguard was able to get back to Lexie and he slipped an arm around her waist. Lexie yanked on CJ's arms and Nick finally started disengaging CJ from him, but she wasn't letting go. Someone grabbed Nick by his hair and his head whipped back and the force of him being snapped back forced her little 4 year old hands to let go. Lexie whipped her around and pushed her tiny body into the chest of the bodyguard and he took off with her. Another bodyguard got the grip broken on Nick's ponytail and when someone grabbed her arm; she swung out with a closed fist connecting with an unknown face. Nick had fallen to the ground and she grabbed his shirt and hauled him up. He got to his feet, grabbed her by the waist and pushed forward toward the car. She was pressed between the limo and his chest as the door closed in front of them. Nick pulled himself off of her and yanked her to one side, yanking on the door handle. A bottle smashed close to them at their feet. A second one hit her in the back, shattering into a million shards. Nick got the door open and pushed her inside. He crawled in behind her and slammed the door shut. He pounded on the driver's window.

"Where is CJ?!" he demanded. The driver handed him a phone. The person on the other end told him that she was safely on her way to the hotel. He ordered her to be taken directly to the airport and ordered a bodyguard to take her back to L.A. immediately.

The angry mob outside was still yelling and roaring. Lexie could hear bottles still hitting the limo as Nick ordered the driver to run them down if he had to. Suddenly, the rear window was smashed, and Nick threw himself on top of her, covering her with his own body. He reached down and tucked her legs beneath him. She had one loose hand that had reached above him, holding his head down and close to hers. He reached back and tucked it under him, too. He buried her face into his chest and kept his own head tucked down.

The back window never totally broke out, but the one door window directly above them did. The brick came down and glanced off Nick's shoulder, but by then the car was slowly moving out. They were nearly to the hotel before Nick even looked up. The phone in his pocket was ringing. He levered himself off her slightly, reached in his pocket, and pulled the phone out. He nodded, made a few acknowledgements and hung up. He looked down at her, almost studying her face and then slipped the phone back into his pocket. He brought that hand to the back of her head and pulled her back under him.

"They are going to take us to a new hotel." He said, his voice visibly shaken. Lexie said nothing. He never got off of her and never asked how she was.

When they got to the new hotel, the staff brought them in the back door and up to a top floor suite. When they were finally alone, the silence was deafening. Her back was to him as he closed the door and when he turned to face her, he could see her trembling. Her hair had fallen, her dress torn, blood running down her legs in small rivers. He closed the distance between them and took her in his arms. She pressed her face into his shoulder keeping her arms tucked between them. He brought his face close to her ear and whispered, "Are you going to be all right? Let's take a look at those cuts."

She turned out of his arms and he followed her into the bathroom. She bent slightly in front of him and without any hesitation, she reached under her skirt and rolled her left stocking down. It snagged a couple times on some dried blood and glass still embedded in her leg. She sat on the edge of the tub and slid her shoes off. She began inching the stocking off, slowing wincing and picking the glass from her flesh. He just stood there watching and she didn't seem to care if he did or not. As the silk pooled at her ankle, she pulled it the rest of the way off and tossed it onto the vanity. She stood and reached under her skirt again for the other. It too found the same obstacles as the first. She winced painfully as the stocking snagged on some dried blood at her knee. He moved toward her, kneeling on the floor beside her.

"Let me." He said softly, his gentle hands covering hers. She pulled her own hands away, recoiling from his touch. He turned his back to her and reached for a wash cloth. He ran it under some warm water and began to clean her leg as he rolled the silk toward her ankle.

He startled as he felt her fingertips trace a line from his forehead to his ear, tucking the hair that lay wildly in his face behind one ear. He heard a familiar snap of his clip and the rest of his hair fell about him, spilling out down his back and across his shoulders. He felt the goose bumps rise on his skin.


The silk pooled in his hand as he rolled the last of it past her ankle. She drew her legs up; her knees brushed his chest. He found himself frozen. Every rustle of her dress sounded as loud as cannons' fire. Her fingertips traced a slow line from his ear, down his ridged jaw to his lips.

"Lexie, don't." he whispered hoarsely.

"Nick." She murmured.


"Lexie, stop." He said, his voice barely a croak.

"I can't." She whispered.

Her finger traced his bottom lip as he looked up into her eyes. Was this the same girl he remembered or still the stranger who stumbled into his hotel earlier? He watched her eyes close as her face drew closer to him.


He shot to his feet and began to stumble backwards. He found his back pressed against the closed bathroom door, his head moving side to side as if saying 'no' to her. She stood before him, reached out, and cupped his cheek with her hand. Her fingers drew back into his hair and Nick's eyes fluttered closed and he couldn't remember the last time a woman had touched him.

This was wrong.

Nick's eyes flew open, but he found his feeble attempts to resist her melting away. His mouth fell to hers and she took him. As she groaned against his mouth, his fingers buried themselves into her hair, gripping hold and pushing the fallen pins from them. His arms held her feminine body pressed against him. She peeled his suit jacket from his shoulders and began to untuck his shirt from his slacks. He shrugged his shoulders back to let the jacket fall on the floor behind him. She pulled open his shirt and her touch on his chest drew a heavy groan from his throat. He removed his dress shirt to let it fall where the jacket lay.

He pulled her to him with his left arm and his right hand went to the hem of her dress. He lifted her to the vanity, pulling up the hem of her dress as her slender legs wrapped around his waist. She groaned a desperate sound in his ear and Nick could feel the blood rushing to his most private parts. He stopped and leaned back to look into her face. He saw his own passion mirrored in her eyes and he gripped the hem of her dress, removing it the rest of the way.

How you have dreamed. . .

He could no longer deny it. He had fantasized about this moment in his dreams and sometimes in his waking hours. He had carried those guilty pleasures with him for months and now there was nothing to stand between him and them. Did she know? Did she know about the fantasies he had of her? Did she know he dreamed of having her beneath him? Calling his name, begging for his attention?

He lifted her into his arms and carried her into the bedroom. He stood her beside the bed and cupped her face in his hands. His eyes closed as he kissed her one last time, before everything between his reality and his fantasies changed. As they made love, Nick knew that no other man had been where he had been. How could it be any more incredible? Any more perfect? Any more beautiful?

Her breath warmed his ear as he lay spent in her arms. "I love you." she whispered.

His head dropped down farther on her shoulder and he felt all that he was, well into his chest. He chased the unbidden tears away from his eyes as he lifted his head and looked into her eyes.

"I love you." He whispered to her.

He did.

He had since the moment he first saw her in the apartment nearly a year ago.

Chapter 17 by old_archive

Now was the time for regrets.

Nick woke hours later as the sun tried to peek out of the gray wet morning. He stood wearing a plush hotel robe, staring out the windows. Rain creased down the glass in front of him, but it didn't matter. His arms were folded across his chest and as he blinked back, he saw his own reflection.

He had promised Howie.


Howie and AJ.

What was he going to do? What were people going to say? He was 20 years older than she was; she herself was only 20. He should've known better! What a stupid fool he was for acting on his feelings! Even if they were ones he had denied until last night. What was he going to say to her this morning?

He was lost.

He was in love with her.

He realized that he had just taken AJ's daughter and whatever chance he had to bring them all closer, was gone now. He should've been stronger; he should've resisted her! Resisted himself. It had been heaven and never had he felt what he had felt last night. She had taken his very soul and held it in her hands.

"Nick?" she asked, standing behind him. She stood there, wrapped in his white dress shirt from the night before. The shirt did nothing to hide the curve of her body nor did his robe mask the reaction of his when he saw her. When he turned to face her, he saw that she was hesitating.

"I think we made a mistake last night, Lexie." He said. He started when he heard those words come from his own mouth. The look in her eyes said she expected him to say it.

She knew.

He turned back to the window, unable to look at the pain he saw in her face. He barely heard her bare feet pad out of the room, away from him. When Nick turned back to her, she was gone. He went into the bedroom, but she had already pulled her dress back on and was twisting her feet into her shoes.

"Where are you going?" he asked, seeing her already dressed.

She reached for his slacks, where he had left them the night before, reached, and pulled out his wallet. She opened it up and pulled out the cash that was there and one credit card.

"I'll get my own plane ticket. I think I earned it." She said, tossing his wallet on the bed.

She pushed past him, went back into the bathroom, pulled his cell phone out of his jacket pocket, and dropped the coat on the floor.

"God, don't say that." He groaned.

"Nick, call your driver out front." She said, stuffing everything in her purse.

"Lexie, listen to me." he began.

"What Nick? What are you going to tell me?" she said as she snapped her purse shut. Her ebony hair swayed as an accent on her every word. "Call your driver."

"No, we need to talk. . ." he began, pleading with her.

"Don't make a scene, Nick." She said dryly.

"I wasn't expecting this." He said, dumbfounded by her reaction.

"I'm not going to cry any more, Nick. I'm tired of crying over you guys." She said, coldly.

"I did. . .I don't want to hurt you. . ." he said.

"Well, you did. Don't worry about it, I'm getting used to being fucked by Backstreet Boys."

She gave the doorknob an angry twist and was away from him before he even had a chance to catch up with her. She was gone before his driver had a chance to come up front. The hotel said she had gotten a cab.

Lexie ordered her ticket from the cab. She walked through the airport, looking very much like a spent party girl, she tossed his phone into the nearest garbage can and bent his credit card into little pieces. They were dropped into garbage cans as she went. She took her seat on the plane and turned her back to the aisle as she looked out the window.

She was gone. Had been for nearly four months. Howie knew in his heart nothing was going to stop her trying to escape whatever she had experienced at AJ's side that night. It didn't hurt any less or lessen the worry. These last four months had been agony for Howie and AJ. He and AJ both hired private detectives, but still had no luck finding her. She had left school in the middle of the night, took nothing but some clothes. She had sold AJ's car and left a note for her sorority housemother to call her parents and have them come get the rest of her things.

When the school called, he had cried, screamed, and yelled until he was afraid to make another sound. Her words haunted him, "What the hell were you all doing 20 years ago!?" All that time, Brian and Kevin had been there for him. Howie no longer blamed AJ for her leaving, even if AJ continued to blame himself. Today was her 21st birthday and he wondered where she was and if she was happy.

The boys were together, minus Nick, at AJ's suite. AJ looked remarkable these days, his fits stopping, his health returning. He was taking care of Alex full-time now. Howie stood on the deck holding little Alex in his arms. He could hear Kevin plinking out the melody of an old song. He began to hear the strains of an old familiar tune. He couldn't deny what he felt as he heard AJ sing.

"As long as you love me, baby. . ."AJ sang quietly.

Howie walked back inside as Kevin hit several chords and the song lifted under this skilled fingers. Brian piped in and sang all of Nick's parts and the other three sang out their hearts.

The song ended and AJ said, "We have to find her."

He looked up at Howie who still hadn't looked back at them.

"She doesn't want to be found." Howie sighed.

"Maybe we should just call her." Kevin said with a shrug.

Howie turned to face him. Kevin hit the chords again and sang "...doesn't matter if you're on the run, as long as you love me..." and a sly smile fell on his lips. "Let's remix it and send it out to the clubs. If she's still in school, she's bound to hear it."

"How do we let her know it's for her?" Brian asked.

"We'll subtitle it 'Lexie's Theme' and mix in spoken word." AJ said. "We've got enough connections to get this played all over the country. All over the world. The whole world knows she's missing."

"Let's re-record it, get Nick back here, too." Brian said.

"He's got two months left on this tour. . ." Howie said sadly.

"He'll come back for this. . ." Brian said.

Nick still called Brian everyday since Lexie had left him in Detroit. Howie and Leah had canceled their vacation plans and the plans for another baby. He had hoped she would've gotten pregnant anyway, but he couldn't get close to her. She hurt and she blamed him and AJ for driving away her daughter.

Brian and Howie had made the pact. It had to end, all the bitterness and all the pain. They needed to stand together, because apart they were too weak. He held on to Leah, in spite of all her screaming and fighting and he held on to AJ and his other boys. They would make this work. Lexie would come back.

"He would, you're right." Howie agreed, shifting Alex in his arms.

AJ got up and took Alex from him. "You need to go home, D. you've got to keep the peace." He said.

"I'm lacking in that department."

"Let her blame me, it is my fault."

"No, Nick was right. It's all of our faults." Brian said.

Kevin, Brian and AJ watched Howie leave and promise to meet them at his studio with the masters to remix and re-record, "As Long As You Love Me". Brian went into the kitchen and poured himself a cola over ice. He could hear AJ and Kevin working on riffs of the song. He had been elected to call Nick and tell him their plans. He knew what Nick would say.

"I don't know, B. I'm not so sure this is a good idea."

"Well, we can just re-mix it and send out the spoken text with it." Brian said. "Nick? Are you okay?"

"God, Brian, I’m never going to be okay." He sighed heavily. "I just got off the phone with CJ and I miss her so much. It just pisses me off I can't have her with me. I missed her 5th birthday, god I hate that!"

"I know buddy, I've missed plenty of birthdays. . ."

"I didn't want it like this. Brian, I lost so much money on this tour, I might as well just cancel the rest of it right now." He said, miserably. "These damn unions have made it impossible for me to get the damn show up and running in every town. It's just not worth it."

"Maybe you should just go union again. . ."

"NO!" Nick said angrily, "You weren't there that night! They would've killed all of us if they had the chance! I won't give in to that kind of terrorism!"

"I understand." Brian nodded. "Have you heard anything?"

"No, not from Lexie." He sighed.

The silence was deafening between them.

"Nick? Is there something you want to tell me? Something you haven't in the last four months? Something about Lexie?" Brian asked gently. He had been sensing it for weeks now; it seemed like the right time to ask.

"I miss her so much. Brian, I. . ." Nick began.

"Tell me, Nick." Brian said.

Nick leaned forward in his chair and put his elbows on his knees. His hair spilled over his shoulders caressing his hand as it held the phone. He had swore he would never tell them, they would hate him. . .they wouldn't understand how much he loved her.

It was sick and it was wrong. . .


"Nothing Brian." Nick sighed, leaning back.

"Are you sure?" Brian asked, "You can tell me anything. I won't tell the others. Nick, do you know why Lexie left? Did you have something to do with it?"

"Yes." He said in the barest of whispers, betraying himself.

"Nick? Were you and Lexie lovers?" Brian asked.

Nick paused a long while and then confessed. "Yes." He said quietly.

Nick heard Brian gasp. He cringed, humiliated.

"Did you love her?" Brian asked.

"I still do."

"What happened, Nick? You need to tell me." Brian said.

"It was only one night, the night of the riot. She had come to Detroit looking for airfare back to L.A. I made her stay and go to the show. I was hoping to talk some sense into her and get her to call home. We ended up in a different hotel for the night. . .she. . .god, Brian, don't hate me." He begged, his voice breaking into a sob.

"What else, Nick?"

"I. . .we. . .it was only the one night. I love her so much, Brian. Howie and AJ would never understand. . ."

"No, I don't think they will." Brian sighed.

"You think I'm sick or something, don't you! God, I was so wrong Brian, I should never have done it, but I couldn't stop." Nick sobbed.

"Did she want to be there?"

"Yes." He croaked. "She told me she loved me."

"Why did she leave?" Brian asked.

"The next morning I told her that I thought we had made a mistake. She just walked out, no tears, no screaming, nothing. She left as angry as she was when she first arrived. She took some money, a credit card and my phone and left." Nick groaned.

When Nick had first called to say that she left before he got up, Brian knew something was wrong. Brian realized that Nick had been suffering with this for the last four months. He wished he was there now with his best friend.

"If she was here now, would you still feel the same?" Brian asked.

"I'll love her until the day I die, Brian. I've learned that over these last four months. If I only had more guts to stand up to Howie and AJ. . ." Nick berated himself. "I'd give anything to have her back."

Something in the desperation in Nick's voice convinced Brian that Nick would give them all up to have her. He would risk them hating him to have her back.

"Leave the tour, Nick. Cancel the rest of it and come home. We need to be together."

"I can't, there are 15 more shows. . ."

"Come home, Nick. It's time." Brian said.

Chapter 18 by old_archive


Why had AJ said the things he had? Why had he thought she was her mother? Why did she run away from AJ that night? Why had she screamed at her father?

Nick. How could she possibly fall in love with him? He had offered her nothing but his friendship, until that night. He loved her. More than a daughter, more than just a friend. How had that happened?

As Lexie stared out into the cooling July evening, she couldn't help but think about what had happened a year ago today.

Nick had come to her house with CJ for her birthday and she had been so afraid of what her father would do. AJ had stunned everyone with his gift of a car. She remembered how new her relationship with Nick had been. It had felt like a fantasy. A Backstreet Boy who talked to her. Someone she had held in her arms and touched as a man until he trembled in her arms, crying out her name.

Was it true what he said? Had it just been a mistake?

It didn't matter, none of her past life did. She was never going back. She would never face Nick or AJ again. She would never see her father again.

Her arms wrapped around her knees and she cried. At times, the pain was too much to stand. She could no longer remember the good times, no longer remember the love and the happiness. Her heart was hiding from all that had been good. It was a place of pain that was killing her.

She could no longer trust them. She could no longer trust herself.

Nick didn't cancel the last 15 shows, but they were miserable for him. He was constantly harassed by protesters and panned by critics.

Brian told him repeatedly he wasn't to blame for Lexie leaving, but Nick took enough of the blame on to himself. He began to avoid his daily calls with Brian as a way to defer the shame he felt over his feelings for Lexie. Brian reassured him every chance he had that he hadn't told the others about him and Lexie. Brian knew Nick was in enough pain and could only imagine what Howie's reaction would be. It would take a marked toll on Nick and Brian wasn't sure if Nick would survive it.

Luckily, by the time the tour was over in late September, Brian was able to convince him to come to Orlando and work in the studio with the other guys on "Lexie's Theme". CJ met him in Orlando and at least part of him was ready to heal. He turned down both Howie and AJ's offers for him to stay with them, opting for a hotel suite for him and CJ. AJ had purchased a new home in Orlando and couldn't believe Nick preferred to stay at a hotel.

The boys found new hope in the song, the work, and the time spent in the studio was filled with new memories of hope and love. The time spent there began to feel like magic. AJ's health began to improve and as Howie began to discuss the project with Leah, she began to turn to him instead of away from him. Alex and CJ played under foot as they worked. One week into recording, Howie told the guys that they were sure Leah was pregnant and they were hoping for a girl. Kevin's latest score was nominated for numerous awards and Brian's latest album went platinum.

Nick's problems were just beginning. Lawsuit after lawsuit were being filed everyday against him. He sang his heart out during the recording sessions, but his happiness was false. Brian was so sad to see Nick lie so well to the people who loved him the most.

As Nick's legal problems began to mount, they all decided to sign a contract accepting no pay for the recording. All proceeds would go to charity. Howie sent promotional CDs out to college radio stations all over the country. It found its way onto the airwaves the last week of October.

In that last week of October, Lexie was heavily ensconced in the Art History program at University of Washington in Seattle. She had changed her name, changed her hair and erased all that was Lexie Dorough from her life. She continued her classes, lived in the dorms, and was using the money from the sale of AJ's car to live off of. She worked part time as a decorator at a local glass art studio, where she had met Matt Kennedy, a resident artist.

She had been drawn to Matt by the similarities. His beautiful blue eyes, his golden hair, his similar build, his easy manner, his warmth and his charm. Lexie couldn't count how many times she had been in his arms and heard her heart whisper ever so quietly, "He's not Nick."

When he questioned her why she wouldn't be with him, she couldn't answer. He accepted her quiet, mousy ways, unaware of how she used to be. He would never believe how quick she used to laugh, how loud she would protest. Lexie couldn't remember what it was like to be that open.

One cool November evening, Lexie was updating Matt's display with new pieces as the previous ones sold. She was hanging a particularly heavy one when she felt Matt press into her back, obviously happy to see her.

"Let me get that for you." He said huskily into her ear, easily reaching over her to hang the piece.

"Thank you." She smiled as she let him hang it. She slipped out from under his body's presence and turned away from him.

"Hold up. Kate, is there something wrong?" he asked. Her new name still sounded strange after all these months.

"No, of course not." She smiled up at him.

"Are you sure? There is no reason to move away so quickly." He whispered, taking her in his arms after he hung the piece. He was beautiful, in every sense of the word. Gracious, kind, artistic and sexy.

"Kate, I don't know what else I can do. Girl, I'm crazy about you..." he began. His fingers gently laced through her blonde, curly hair that she had cut off at her shoulders. She turned her face away from his questioning eyes.

"I know Matt, but. . ." She began, stopping at the same point every time.

"Are you ever going to finish that sentence? Are you afraid of hurting me?" he asked.

"Yes, Nick. . .uh. . .Matt. . .I'm sorry!" she exclaimed, her hands flying to her mouth.

"Ah, so that's his name." Matt smiled softly.

"Matt, I'm so sorry." She grimaced.

"No, no, it's all right. He's not around is he? This 'Nick'?"

"Uh, no. . ."

"Is he the reason you're here, always so mysterious about your family and past?"

"Sorta, Matt, I don't. . ."

". . .want to talk about it. I know. That future I've mentioned before? It's still here, waiting for you." He said, leaning into her for a kiss they had shared before.

"Hey, Kids!" a third young enthusiastic voice called out, coming closer. Matt moved away.

"Hi, Jake." Lexie smiled.

"Jake." Matt nodded. "Don't you have some errands or something to do?"

"Nope, I'm all done! Kate is going to take me to dinner tonight."

"Yeah, I'm sorry Jake. Am I late?" she asked, relieved Jake was there.

"Nah, I'm early. I'll wait over there. . ." he indicated to the main entrance. He walked over, pulled on a headset and started be-bopping to the sounds.

Jake was as tall as Matt, but thin as a rail, with dark hair and a very square jaw and the darkest green eyes she had ever seen. Jake was eighteen and started at the U and the gallery about the two months after Lexie had. They had been good buddies ever since. He didn't like Matt and he would spout things about blond guys being stupid and the what not. Lexie actually had no plans to take Jake to dinner, but jumped at the chance to not speak to Matt.

"Do you really have to take him to dinner?" Matt asked.

"Yes, I promised." She lied easily.

"All right. I don't know what you see in him." Matt smiled good naturedly.

Lexie just shrugged an innocent smile as Matt kissed her cheek and left out the main entrance past Jake. She watched Jake dead bolt the door behind him.

"I don't know how you stand that guy." Jake said, removing his headset.

"Matt is nice, Jake."

"He's not good enough for you." Jake said.

"Do you still want to go to dinner?" she smiled, knowing that he was lying.

"No, I just made that up. I just came from the radio station. There is a new Backstreet Boys re-make out. This time it's actually being done by the Backstreet Boys." He said dryly.

"Really? What song?" she asked, picking up the packaging from the piece that was just hung.

"As Long As You Love Me." He said. "Apparently, Howie's daughter is missing and. . .well, she's actually AJ's kid, any way. . ."

"What?" Lexie asked, stunned.

"A long time ago, AJ McLean had a daughter that he didn't have any contact with. When she was still young, her mother died in a car crash and AJ still didn't want her, so Howie adopted her. She's missing." Jake sighed.

"How do you know all of that?"

"It's on the promo jacket. There is a 1-800 number and everything. You want to hear it? They did a re-mix of As Long As You Love Me, put in some spoken text and. . .well, it's suppose to tell her they are looking for her. Her name was Lexie, they subtitled the song, "Lexie's Theme"."

"No, I don't need to hear it." She shrugged, lifting the box and heading to the storeroom.

"Me either." Jake muttered. "You'll hear plenty of it, it'll be all over the college stations." Jake hollered after her.

As November faded into early December, Nick was becoming more depressed as the lawsuits began to pile up all over the place. He opted to stay in Orlando through the New Year. He sued, he counter sued and he spent even more money than he could imagine trying to protect himself and his employees. The night before the taping of a Christmas Disney performance to benefit lost children, Brian sat with Nick in his hotel suite after Nick put CJ to bed.

"Are you ready for this? She may see you." Brian said as Nick made his way to the bar for a drink.

"I know, but what are my choices? Lisa Andrews at Jive wrangled all the legalities for my performance tomorrow night. It'll be my first after that disaster of a tour ended." He said bitterly, taking a drag off a stiff drink. "She pulled off some kind of miracle."

"She's been taking care of you for the last 25 years, since we were all kids at TransCon." Brian chuckled.

"Those were the days, huh? Who would have thought 20 years later I'd. . ." Nick began, then stopped.

"What, Nick?" Brian asked.

"Nothing." He said, taking another drink.

"Tell me, I'm your best friend." Brian encouraged.

"I'd be in love with AJ's daughter." He said quietly.

This was not the first time they had spoken about Lexie.

"You still love her?" Brian asked gently.

"Of course, nothing is going to change that." He said it so matter of fact that it surprised Brian. He had said it like Brian should've known better than to ask.

"What will you do if she comes back?" Brian asked.

"Do you seriously think she's going to? I'm here, AJ's here, Howie is here. She has three good reasons to stay away." Nick said.

"But if she does come back? What would you do?" Brian persisted.

"Pray she doesn't hate me." He said quietly.

Lexie could ignore the pounding on the door. She had done it plenty of times, almost every time Jake had come to visit her dorm since the song had come out.

She was locked in her room, the lights off, the drapes drawn against the gray rainy Seattle night. He was only a temporary interruption to her painful thoughts.

Why? Why had they released the song? Couldn't they just leave her alone? She didn't want them to look for her! They didn't want her! AJ hates her! Nick thinks they were a mistake! Dad must be so angry, she was sure he'd never talk to her again! NO! NO! NO! NO! She couldn't stand this another day!

There was no way to ignore the way the door just flew open and he tumbled in, landing at her feet.

"What the hell are you doing?" She demanded, throwing off her covers.

"I kicked the damn door in," he said, getting to his feet.

"You splintered the door jamb right off! How the hell am I suppose to explain that to campus maintenance!" she screamed.

"Kate? What is wrong with you?" Jake said, looking around the desperately dark room. Lexie's heart began to race. She had to get him out! His work at the campus radio station kept him up to date on her story. He was going to figure it out. He flicked on the light and her hand flew to cover her eyes. "How long have you been in here? It stinks!"

"Get out!" she demanded.

"No, Kate, what's wrong?" he asked, stunned by her surroundings. He grabbed her arms. "How much weight have you lost? When was the last time you ate? What are you? A hundred pounds?"

"NO! Get out! Get out!" she began to scream, trying to shove the larger man out.

"No! Kate, you haven't been to the studio in days. They are going to fire you! You better tell me what is going on. Is it because Matt left? I thought you weren't that interested in him. He's worried about you. . ."

"I don't give a rat's ass about Matt." She snapped, yanking herself out of his grip. She turned away from him and crawled back onto her bed.

Jake threw down his backpack and tried to close the door back into its splintered jam. "I’m not going any where until you tell me what's going on? Have you at least been to class?" he demanded, standing before her as she sulked at him from the bed. "You know, I can call campus counseling and get them up here. What is wrong with you? You've been acting strange ever since I took you to the studio that night and you heard. . .OH MY GOD!" Her black eyes met his green ones. It was too late. He knew. "You're Lexie Dorough!"

Lexie was stunned. All of the pictures that had been aired of her had been old. The most current one was of her and Nick leaving the hotel before the show that night in April. She had been half-shielded behind Nick and CJ and you could barely see her. She knew that was the last image she had left her parents.

"You are, aren't you?" he asked gently. "Tell me."

"Yes." She said in the smallest voice.

"What are you doing here?" he said, sitting on the bed next to her.

"Please, Jake, please don't call them." She began to sob.

Jake didn't know what to do. She obviously needed some kind of help and she wasn't going to get it sitting in this dark room. He knew he couldn't promise not to call.

"I can't promise that." He said, looking away from her.

"I'll just leave again, I can do that!" she threatened him.

"I guess I can't stop you from doing that, but you can't run away forever." He said, returning his gaze to her. "Just tell me what happened? What's wrong, Lexie?"

Lexie. It's been a long time since anyone has spoken your name. Nick was the last one when you left him in that hotel room. Her heart began to whisper in the same voice that used to remind her that Matt wasn't Nick.

Lexie looked up at Jake. She told him the truth when she said, "I can't."

"Can't or won't?" he asked.

"Can't." she whispered. She started when Jake reached and tucked some hair behind her ear.

"It's all right. I understand what you're going through." He said, with a mysterious half smile.

"How? How could you possibly know what I’m going through?!" she spat him.

"Think about it. Lexie? What is my name?"

"Jake Richard. . .oh, shit!" She gasped.

"Yes, I'm Jake Richardson, Kevin Richardson's son." He smiled. "I know a thing or two about being a Backstreet child."

"You're not going to tell him? Are you?" she asked, panicked.

"I can't promise I won't call them. . ." he began, holding up his hand to stop her protest. ". . .yet. You see, I haven't spoken to my dad since I got to Seattle in August to start school. We had this huge falling out. Lex, you're a mess. I won't, I can't, stand by and let this happen."

"Just don't call them. . ." she began to beg.

"No promises. You need to get up, shower and get back to work and your classes." He said.

"I might just leave."

"I guess you could. I can't stop you from doing that." He said, getting to his feet. "I'll tell your Profs that you've been sick. I'll try to work something out at the gallery, too. I'll be waiting outside of your European Art History class tomorrow at 9am. If you're not there, you better run because I'm going to call." He threw his backpack over his shoulder and opened the broken door. He put a few of the pieces back into place and closed it behind himself as he left.

The next day it was raining miserably hard. It was something Lexie had never gotten used to. She continued to huddle under an umbrella, although most natives never owned one. She stood outside the lecture hall looking for Jake. He said he would be here. Sure enough, she felt a tap on her shoulder and she turned to find him standing there. He smiled and dipped his head under her umbrella.

"Good answer." He smiled; he walked off on to his own classes, not bothering to look back.

In the weeks before Christmas, Lexie found Jake to be more than a friend. He was a cousin of sorts, almost a soul mate. He never accepted her silence, never tolerated her dark moods and she saw tears well in his eyes when she finally laughed at one of his stupid jokes. He encouraged her to tell him what had happened that night in Orlando, but she couldn't find the words. Or the feelings attached to them. Her life in Orlando felt like an old fiction novel she had read years ago and now could no longer remember the plot.

Jake spoke often of life with his dad. Jake knew almost as little as Lexie did about the Backstreet Boys before they were born. Jake was Kevin's second son; his brother was born just 8 months after Lexie. He had three younger brothers that lived with his parents on the ranch in Kentucky, when their dad wasn't shuttling them back and forth to London.

Over the summer, his dad had him slated to start school in Paris in the fall. He refused to accept his son's desire to work in the business and Jake left, wanting to get away from the fighting. He said his dad knew where he was and that he had allowed Jake to draw from his trust fund to pay for school, but they hadn't spoken since he left the ranch to fly to Seattle. He had spoken to his mom over the months, but his dad was in Orlando with Howie and AJ and they never got the chance to talk.

In an almost sick twist of fate, the campus radio station was having a little party when the Christmas Disney special aired the day before Christmas Eve. Jake was expected to attend and convinced Lexie to come, too. The song had taken off around the country, getting a lot of play in the college market. Everyone had become fascinated with Lexie Dorough's story of her two fathers.

Lexie wasn't too worried about watching the special. She could hear the boys sing and feel nothing these days. As she heard the song over the past weeks, Lexie Dorough seemed even more like a stranger to her. Jake's inquires began to feel less fearful and made her think of her life in Orlando as a distant memory and not as something that hadn't happened.

Everyone around her was staring at the TV in radio station's conference room. She was in this crowd, sitting by passively, waiting for it to be over. As they all came on stage together, waving to the massive crowd. She heard the voice inside that used to ask her all the questions and had begun to whisper quiet truths.


He never looked at the audience. He was slightly stooped and she knew he was afraid. Afraid of the audience and afraid of being on stage. AJ stunned her. He had color in his skin, his eyes shined with life, passion and fire. Brian and Kevin were all smiles. Howie joined them in their waves and smiles, but he looked tired. He looked pained.


They didn't sing the club version of the song; they sang the a cappella album version. They were good, really good. Lexie saw the people around her hang on every note. Tears ran openly down Howie's face and his voice threatened to crack several times. AJ kept one hand on his back and in the end as Howie and Brian held the final notes, she heard Nick say, "Come home, Lexie." Howie buried his face in one hand and AJ slipped an arm over his shoulder and said in the barest of whispers, "We love you, Lexie." The camera caught the tears threatening to stream down Nick's face as he finally looked up and into the audience. He was searching for her.


People around her wiped their tears, but Lexie never shed a tear. They began to show scenes from backstage. She saw her Uncle John, her brothers, CJ and little Alex, then she saw her mother, obviously pregnant.

"Oh, my god!" Lexie gasped.

Jake turned to her, but she ignored him.

"Kate, are you okay?" Jake asked, slipping an arm around her.

"See, life went on without you." the voice suddenly mocked her.

Her breath was stuck in her chest. Why? How? What? When? All the questions began to spill into her head. She was so scared be AJ's McLean's bastard daughter and so determined to escape the pain of when she was a Dorough that the realization that she a part of them regardless shook her to her core.

You can't escape them. You can't run, you can't hide. They will always love you. Always.

For the first time, she wondered what would happen if she went back. Suddenly, she remembered the times in the hospital after Howie had been sick and the love her parents shared for one another.

Howie Dorough has loved her unconditionally all her life with him.

Just like her mother had.


She sat thousands miles away and although she hadn't seen them in months, she knew their love. She knew.

"Kate? What's going on?" Jake asked again, pulling her close.

"I'm sorry, it was just so moving." She said, wiping her eyes. She looked up at Jake, who narrowed his eyes at her. Jake took her hand and led her from the room into an office across the hall.

"The 'Nick' you mentioned to Matt a couple months ago. Nick Carter?" he asked suddenly.

"Yes." She said with a nod.

"Whew." He sighed, realizing the gravity of what he now knew. "Was seeing him what caused you to start crying?"

"No, seeing my mom. She's pregnant, Jake."

"Yeah? So?" he shrugged.

"Oh my god, Jake!" she sighed, throwing her head back with a sad little laugh. "My mom and dad are having another child. One I know was conceived in the kind of love some people dream of. The kind of love I had with Nick."

"Do you really love him? Nick?"

"Yes. How did I ever think I could live without him?" she said.

"So, why did you run? Was it really so hard being Lexie Dorough?"

"You don't know the half of it. I still don't understand it all." She began as she paced the small office. "I doubt anyone else is going to understand." She sighed.

"The question." He said firmly.

"I ran because. . .I was scared." She shrugged, stopping long enough to look at him. "All these years Jake I've had all these questions. I was so close to finding out the answers from AJ, but when he started talking to me thinking I was my mother. . .he loved her Jake. I think he still does."

"Is that so surprising?"

"It just created more questions. Why, Jake? If he loved her so much? Why did he keep leaving her?"

"You mean, why did he keep leaving you?"

"Yes." She nodded.

"You won't find the answers here in Seattle."

"I know."

"Are you ready to go home?" he asked.

She lifted her eyes to him. She studied his face and saw Kevin Richardson's face flash before her eyes. She saw the hundreds of photos and album jackets she had studied over the years. Why hadn't she seen the resemblance sooner? It was quite startling now that she saw it.

She realized she had been blind. Blinded by the fear of the journey she had been on all her life to find the answers to the questions she had held inside. A journey that would take her face to face with her greatest fear. A face to face rejection by AJ. She never believed Howie could protect her. She never believed his love was strong enough, but it was. She knew that now.

"Did you hear me? Are you ready to go home?" he asked.


Christmas morning came as usual at the Dorough house. The boys were up early and they reverently put Lexie's presents aside for her. They all still had so much hope, even as Howie's faded. He doubted even a Christmas miracle could bring her back home.

After breakfast, he laughed as he opened his gift of a new Christmas robe. He got one every year. The boys played with their new toys, driving trucks noisily through the kitchen as the phone rang. Howie shrugged into his new robe and kissed Leah on the way from the table to answer it. Howie knew it was probably his mom, or one of his sisters, and the traditional Dorough Christmas phone tag tradition was about to begin.

"Hello?" he asked, but there was no response. Howie stuck his finger in his ear and listened for another voice. "Hello? Is someone there?" he asked, walking out of the noisy kitchen. His heart began to race.

"Dad?" he heard.


The house ground to a silent halt. Leah's eyes found his as she ran to his side, straining to hear what he heard.

"Yeah, Dad, it's me." She said.

"OH MY GOD! Lexie! Is it really you? Oh my god, how I prayed! Don't hang up, please don't hang up! Honey, tell me where you are!" he begged.

"I'm right outside."

The phone dropped to the floor and seconds later the front door flew open. He stood there in his pajamas and a new Christmas robe. He stared.

A tall, thin, blonde young woman began to walk toward him.

"Dad? It's me." She said.

Chapter 19 by old_archive

Howie's eyes searched the young woman in front of him. The voice had been right, but the look. She looked so different. Howie stumbled toward her, she caught him in her arms and he held her tightly. Soon the whole clan was outside. John and Tyler went and grabbed her bags and they turned and headed inside.

"Look at you!" her mother declared, touching her very blonde curls.

"Something, huh?" she said.

"Are you all right? Where have you been? Are you hungry?" Howie asked, taking her to the kitchen table that was a mess with Christmas breakfast.

"I'm starved, actually." She admitted. "I guess I've got some explaining to do."

"No, I'm sorry I asked. I promised. No questions asked." He said, sitting next to her at the table. Her mom loaded up a plate of pancakes for her and placed them in front of her.

"Thanks Dad." She said, stuffing food in her mouth.

"Just one, are you all right?" her mom asked.

"Yes, I am." She smiled.

"Are you sure she's all right?" John asked Howie as they cleared some of the Christmas dinner plates at their parent's house.

"She says she is." Howie said, pulling the garbage can out from under the sink and scraping the plates before handing them to John to rinse.

"She's so thin. She can't be a hundred pounds." John said.

"I know, I can't believe it myself. I'm just glad she's here." Howie said.

"What are you going to do now? Has she told you why she left?" John asked.

"No, and I promised I wouldn't ask any questions as long as she came home."

"It doesn't sound like she's going to be staying."

"I know."

"Have you told AJ?"

"Yes, I called him when we got here. He's ecstatic and can't wait to see her." Howie sighed.

"You don't want that, do you? You still blame him for her leaving."

"I think I might, I don't want to. He was so sick that night. He didn't know what he was saying. Besides, I don't even know if she wants to see him."

"I do." They heard her say from behind.

"I’m sorry, honey. I didn't mean to talk about you. . ." Howie began.

"It's all right, Dad. So, he knows I'm here?" she asked, handing him the plates she carried in.


"What about the others?" she asked.

"I'm sure he called them. He wants you to come by tonight. . ."

"I'm too tired, tell him tomorrow, okay?" she smiled, wiping her hands on a towel he had flung over his shoulder.

"Sure, Lex, anything." Howie nodded.

Lexie tucked the boys in bed and told them stories while her parents waited downstairs for her. She stopped off at her old room where she would be spending her vacation while she was here. It looked the same, even if she didn't feel the same in it.

She walked down the familiar stairs and stopped in the foyer and thought of the time when Nick had walked in here with CJ. She turned into her father's den, where Nick had told her so much about how her father loved her. He had told her how much he had loved AJ, too.

"I spoke with AJ." He said, standing in the doorway behind her. "He said we can come by any time. He bought a house here in Orlando and it's only about 15 minutes away."

"How's Nick?" she asked, trying to sound casual.

"I'm surprised you didn't keep in touch with him. You seemed so. . . close." He said.

"No, I didn't keep in touch with anyone."

"He's still here in Orlando. He's planning to go to L.A. for the New Year. He's got multiple lawsuits pending because of the labor problems with that tour." He said.

"I heard some things about it, is it really that bad?"

"Yes, he's liquidated everything he owns except the house in L.A. He'll be in court for years and it'll cost him millions." He said.

"I'm so sorry to hear that." She nodded.

Howie wanted to know.

What happened in Detroit? Had Nick done something they didn't know about? Was it really all about AJ as everyone thought?

He could no longer deny those questions.

"Did Nick say something in Detroit to make you leave?" he asked suddenly. Lexie seemed shocked when he asked.

"No, I was leaving any ways." She said. "I needed to get away from everything Backstreet."

"I never thought that would ever sound like a cuss word."

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that."

"Yes, you did. I made it that way, I should've never kept you and AJ apart all these years." He admitted. "I was wrong."

Lexie was stunned. She didn't know what to say.

"You? I thought he stayed away."

"I didn't make it easy for him."

"He did want to see me?" she asked, but the look on Howie's face told her he hadn't. "I didn't think so."

"If I had had more of an open door policy, maybe he would have made more of an effort. . ."

"Is this what you've been talking about all these months? What went wrong?" she asked.

"What else was there? Lexie, all we could think about was you and finding you." Howie said.

"You haven't told me about the baby." She said, changing the subject.

Howie's face lit up and she could see he was truly happy about it. "We made plans before you left. I'm so glad it worked out. We're hoping for a girl."

"When is she due?"

"June 14th." he smiled.

"In time for John's birthday." She smiled, but it was an empty one.

"I know this is going to take some getting used to. . ."Howie began, moving closer to her.

"No, I think it's great. I wish you all the happiness. . ."

"Lex? Are you going to leave again?"

"I have to get back to school after the first. I was hoping to stay a while."

"Of course." He said, his hand reaching to touch her face. "I hope you keep in touch when you're gone."

"I will, I promise." She smiled. She got up and went into his arms. "I'm sorry, Dad. I love you."

The drive over with Howie had been quiet. He wasn't asking any more questions, and Lexie felt some guilt about not giving any real explanations. That time would come, she silently promised him. One thing at a time. First AJ.

Brian and Kevin were already at AJ's when she and Howie arrived. Kevin was there again opening the door one more time for her. This time a smile warmed his dark face, lighting his eyes. He drew her into his arms as she walked into the house and she found herself buried in a massive bear hug.

AJ did look great. He was so healthy and happy. His smile just lit up the room when he saw her enter his den. Brian was the first one off the couch and giving her a hug. She found herself reaching her hand toward AJ and pulling him into her arms. "You look great." She whispered in his ear. He looked just beautiful to her and she wasn't sure why.

The strength and warmth in her embrace surprised AJ. Howie had told him she was changed, but to AJ, that didn't mean much. He never knew her well before. The other guys left the room and she was surprised when she turned around and they were gone.

"Gee, where'd everyone go?" she laughed.

"They thought they'd give us some time alone." AJ said.

"Are you sure that's what you want?" she asked.

"Howie said you had changed. . ."

"I still have the same issues, the same questions. I just feel differently about them now, that's all that's changed." She said. "I meant what I said, you look great."

"You're so thin. . ." he mumbled.

"Maybe it runs in the family." She shrugged gently.

"The hair is a nice touch." He smiled.

"Stupid, huh? It happened in one of my more un-Dorough like moments." She said, running her fingers through her curls.

"It looks more McLean." He said.

"I guess that would be true." She nodded. "You shaved."

"Yeah, I got tired of it." He nodded, rubbing his bare chin.

"I'm sorry about your wife, I heard what happened." She said.

"Thank you. Alex's illness took its toll on her." He nodded sadly.

"Where is he? Where's Alex?" she asked eagerly.

"He's upstairs asleep. He had a busy day at his grandparents' yesterday." He smiled.

"I'd like to see him later."

"Of course, I owe you for his life."

"No you don't. It was the right thing to do, you don't owe me anything." She said.

"Yes, I owe you a lot. A lot of answers, apologies, explanations. . . anything you want." He said softly.

She looked at him and stared for the longest time. Her heart raced and her fears began to overwhelm her. Twenty-one years she had waited and this was it. It was the moment she had fantasized and dreaded most in the whole world. She couldn't count the years she had spent praying he would tell her the answers to the one question she had carried in her heart all this time.

"Why?" she asked so quietly he barely heard her.


"Why did you leave?" she asked, choking on her words. She raised a hand up between them and composed herself. Her black eyes brimmed with unbidden tears. "Why did you abandon me when my mother died? You were my father. My mother never said an unkind word about you while she was alive. When she died, I just assumed I'd go live with you. I never dreamed you didn't want me." Lexie said, tears beginning to stream down her face. "Why AJ? Why when I came to you, you signed your rights over to Howie?"

He suddenly gripped with an unexplainable feeling of horror and dread of what he had done 11 years ago. He understood the crying and the screaming and the roller coaster of emotions she had been on all these years. He understood why she ran after that night in the suite.


Amanda had instilled her love for him in his child before she had died. All these years gone and Amanda was still there for him; still loving him. Hot tears began to roll down his face. He could see so much of Amanda in her, especially how she loved him.

"I did what I thought was best." He gasped. "Howie had Leah, they were planning to get married. You deserved a real family like what Howie could've given you with the Dorough's. Howie Dorough is a better man than I am, you were better off with him."

"But you were my father!" she screamed.

"Howie has been an excellent father to you!" he yelled back.

"I know that! It doesn't change the fact that no matter how much he loved me, he couldn't fill this huge hole in my heart! The one for my father, you, AJ!" she yelled back. "God, I've felt so guilty all these years because his love just wasn't enough! I can't believe I'm even saying it! I shouldn't feel this way! Howie scarified everything for me! All these years, I never truly believed he loved me. I never believed he could protect me from my greatest fear and that was you! But when I saw my mom, I knew I was wrong. I knew AJ, even after all this time, regardless of what I did that I could always come home and he would always love me. Always, AJ! It took me 11 years and thousand of miles, but I know that no one has ever loved me like he has. Look what I've done to him! Look what I've done to myself! Look at all I've been through just because you left me! Just like you left my mother!"

Her hand flew over her mouth. God, it sounded as awful as when she said it as when she just thought it! He would do it. He would leave again. He would finally hate her, just as she always feared.

"I thought I was doing what was best." He said quietly, not looking at her. "I had no idea it would come to this. It's all my fault. I don't know what else to say. I'm so sorry. I'm sorry I hurt you, I'm sorry I left you, I’m sorry you feel so terrible about yourself, I'm sorry I let Howie adopt you, I'm sorry I waited this long to tell you how much I love you."

Her eyes met his.

She had known him only through pictures and videos and his music just like all of his fans. Her heart skipped a beat when his eyes reflected the love in his heart and she could see it exactly how she fantasized it.

"Howie has been too, too good to me all these years. He loves us both so much; he's given me a chance to have you back with an understanding on how to love you. What can I do, Lexie? What do I have to do?" he began to beg.

"Don't leave me, Daddy." she whispered.

"No, Lexie. Never. I'll never leave you. I swear." He choked.

His eyes fell shut as tears streamed down his face. They suddenly flew open as she crashed into him, wrapping her arms around him as she began to sob. They crumpled to the floor holding each other and crying. Lexie cried like she did when her mother died. She was crying because she had been right to get on the plane and come home. She found the courage to face the end of her journey and demand her answers. In her heart, she could love Howie even more because he was still able to give her what she really did need and AJ had been right. Howie was the best choice and it had been a good decision, even if they didn't realize that until 21 years later.

AJ pushed back her hair and wiped her eyes, caressing her gaunt cheeks. She was merely a shadow of the girl he had met a year and half ago.

"I don't deserve to be called 'daddy'." He said quietly. "But I've always longed to hear it from you."

"I've waited so long to say it." She sniffled.

"I've waited so long to hear it." He choked. "I have some things for you. They belonged to your mother." He added with a smile.

"Really? You still have some of her things?" Lexie asked, pushing herself away from him and looking into his face.

"I couldn't let them go. Come on, I'll show you." He smiled, taking her hand and helping her up. He opened the den door and they found the others in the hall. Howie was sitting on the floor across from them, his head buried in his arms. Kevin and Brian were trying to console him.

"Dad?" she asked, going over to him. He was racked with tears and she threw herself into his arms. He held her and cried, some more. "Daddy, please don't cry." She pleaded. "Everything is going to be fine."

"I had no idea, Lex, you were suffering so much all these years. . .if I had known. . ."

"You would've done everything in your power to make it right. You did, Dad. You have been working on it for 11 years. No matter what, you'll always be my Daddy." She cried. She pulled a tissue out of her pocket and tried to give it to him and he laughed a little.

"Don't you have a clean one?" They shared a private joke.

"Come on, AJ is going to share some things of my mother's." She said, pulling him to his feet. AJ embraced Howie, but Lexie could see him hesitate. Nick had been right, Howie loved AJ, but he loved her more.

"Now, you have two dads." Howie said, almost bitterly.

"No, I only have one Dad. One dad and an AJ." She smiled, taking Howie's hand and touching AJ's cheek. She knew that AJ didn't want to hurt Howie and he would always be her dad, but AJ was going to be AJ and for now, that was enough.

"And I hope an Uncle Brian and an Uncle Kevin." Brian smiled.

"All we need now is Uncle Nick." Kevin smiled.

Brian saw her eyes drop to the floor, but Howie spoke up first. "No, he's just Nick. She made him promise not to be a 'dad'."

"He won't be a 'dad' he's an Uncle." AJ laughed.

Not even close, Brian thought, you guys aren't even close.

Chapter 20 by old_archive

AJ took everyone upstairs to one of the guestrooms in his new house. He pulled about a dozen shoeboxes out of the closet and they were placed on the bed. She wasn't sure what to do with them, but Brian opened the first box and pulled out some pictures. They began to all share with her, repeating some of the very stories Nick had already told her. Soon the contents of the boxes were spewed about, each of them taking their turn talking. Lexie was the most surprised with Kevin. He had found his place stretched out across the bed on his stomach, pictures all around him.

"I remember when this was taken. I took it. We were all in L.A. for a video shoot. I never imagined there would be a time when she wasn't around." He said. Lexie could've sworn she heard his voice crack. "I guess she really isn't gone."

He ever so gently tucked the picture in one of the several shoeboxes lying around him. His light eyes met hers and spoke volumes in words he never used. He was a man of few words, because he just didn't need them.

A couple hours later, Alex woke up from his nap and the guys got up to stretch their legs. AJ was joking with Brian that it was his turn to change the poopy diaper as they left her alone with her mother's things.

It was amazing. Most of the items were notes AJ had written; songs and poems. She had written back, too. Their words reflected a love they just couldn't hang on to. There were baby pictures, including portraits of the three of them. Some she remembered from her house where she lived with her mother. Howie said he still had a few of her old things, but when she was first adopted, she seemed to have no interest in them. After she heard the doorbell, it didn't take too long for a shadow to cast itself across her where she was sitting on the floor.

"Can you imagine he saved all these things?" She smiled to herself. She felt her heart racing as he came nearer. He didn't say a word as he entered the room and knelt beside her on the floor.

Several heartbeats passed and she looked beside her to only see the top of his head bowed before her. She leaned over and laid her lips on the top of his head. He looked up; his eyes dry and stunned. She spared him a small smile. She watched his eyes close and he took a deep breath. He moved closer to her and she toward him. Only a hair's breath separated them.

"Hey, you guys! Dinner's here and AJ. . .I'm sorry." Brian stuttered as he ran into the room. He back peddled out as quickly as he came in.

Nick and Lexie separated quickly and she began to straighten up her mother's things. She never looked at him as she began to gently put the letters and things back in their boxes. They got up, picked up the boxes, and stacked them on the dresser.

"We'd better go to dinner." She said quietly, her eyes downcast onto his fine Italian leather shoes. She squeezed past him and headed out of the bedroom. Nick found himself following her in silence.

AJ had dinner brought in for all six of them and it was a night that she would never forget. Her years of wishing came true as she sat with her Dad's beloved brothers in the Backstreet Boys and they shared with her their lives, their hopes, their dreams and their fears. Kevin played the piano, the others sang for her and for themselves. Nick's eyes never met her and rarely came near her, but she couldn't keep hers off of him. He looked terrible. Tired, stressed and scared.

"Hey, babygirl, how about some of that pie the caterer brought?" AJ laughed as Alex launched a ball at Nick, hitting him gently in the face with it.

"Don't you all get up, I'll get it." She laughed as she got up from her spot on the couch and headed into the kitchen. Brian followed Lexie into the kitchen where she was serving up dessert.

"Is it everything you hoped?" he asked. She stopped and stared at him.

"Excuse me?"

"Being with us. Are we living up to your expectations?" he asked.

"I haven't had expectations for years." She said, shaking her head.

"When are you going to tell them, Howie and AJ, where you've been and why you left?" he asked.

She narrowed her eyes at him. What did he want?

"I'm planning on tonight."

"Are you going to tell Nick?" he finally asked. Lexie raised an eyebrow at him.

"I will." She said.

"I know how much Nick loves you." He said, waiting to gauge her reaction.

"What?" she asked, stunned.

"Nick told me what happened. He only told me a while ago, he carried it with him all this time while you were gone." Brian said. After a long pause, Brian asked her, "Do you love him? Really love him?"

"Yes." She said after a little hesitation.

"He'll give us all up for you. If they turn on him, he won't care." He said.

"I won't ask that of him." She said.

"Your love can give him courage." Brian said, as though reading her mind.

"Your love already does." She said. She lifted two plates toward him, "Give me a hand?"

Lexie had thought of that. Howie and AJ might turn on him; she didn't know where Kevin would end up. At least she knew where Brian stood. Howie would always love her and eventually he would come to accept them, but her new found relationship with AJ was too frail to withstand this shock. There was no telling when it would be strong enough; she only hoped that if Nick decided to be with her, it would be the right time for her and AJ.

A future. You're thinking and planning for a future.

She carried in three pieces of pie herself. She handed one to her Dad and one to Nick and kept the third for herself. Nick took his pie he sat on the floor with Alex. Alex clamored up on him and opened his mouth for a bite.

"Nick? Where is CJ?" Howie asked.

"Angel came and got her this afternoon. I promised my folks she would spend part of the Christmas holiday with them. I have to head back myself." He said, picking pie out of AJ's carpet that Alex had dropped.

"When are you going back?" Brian asked.

"Pretty soon, probably before New Year's." He said, not looking up.

"Who is having the party this year?" Brian pestered.

"Leslie, it's her turn." He said, still not looking up from Alex eating pie out of his plate.

"What about you, Lexie? What are your New Year's plans?" Brian asked cheerfully.

"I. . .uh, don't really have any. I have to get back to school right afterwards."

"You stayed in school?"

"Yeah." She said.

"Where are you going?" Brian asked. Everyone froze. Howie had promised her they wanted her back, no questions asked. She finished the bite of pie she started and pulled the fork out of her mouth and then licked the back of it before she put it down.

"Funny you should ask." She smiled sweetly to Brian. "I enrolled at the University of Washington in Seattle. I'm still an art major and I have a job at the Longman's Gallery in Wallingford. That's a neighborhood just west of the campus."

"And how are your grades?"

"Perfect as always." She smiled back at him.

"Anything else happen while you were gone?" Brian asked.

"I got married and had two children." She said, continuing to smile at Brian.

"Married?" Nick asked.

"She's kidding, Nick." Kevin said.

"So, why did you leave in the first place?" Brian asked.

"Brian, that's enough." Howie said sternly.

"No, I want to know." Brian insisted.

"Brian! I said 'that's enough'!" Howie snapped.

"No, Dad. It's all right." She said, reaching to him where he sat beside her. "I guess I owe everyone an explanation."

"No, not everyone." AJ said.

"Thanks, AJ." She smiled half heartedly at him.

"I was scared and I panicked. All these years, I've always wanted to be close to AJ and I've always wanted to know why he had left. But when he started speaking to my mother that night. . .I lost it. I think in some way my desperation to be with AJ pushed my grief for my mother up to the surface. When he started talking to her, I suddenly felt very alone. Like both my mother and father were gone. I never understood why being a part of the Doroughs just didn't feel like enough for me. I think. . ." She said.

"What, babygirl?" AJ asked quietly.

"No, I don't think I can. . ." She began.

"It's all right." Brian said.

"No, it's not! Damn it!" She slammed the dessert plate on the wood coffee table and got to her feet. Kevin got her by both arms as she tried to run past him the piano. She looked up into his face, seeing Jake.

"You've got to stop running." He said so quietly, no one really heard what he said to her. Now she knew where Jake got it from.

"I can't, Kevin." She whispered.

"Yes, you can." He said sternly. He turned her to face the other four. She stood there with Kevin's hands on her shoulders.

"I think I ran, because I knew that night how much AJ loved my mother. I was afraid that if I loved him as much as she did, I would die, too." She said quietly, not looking at any of them. Nothing could've stopped AJ from getting to her soon enough. His arms swallowed her up.

"Nothing like that is going to happen to you." He said.

"You don't understand, AJ. . ." she began.

"I know enough to know that your mother taught you to love me, in spite of everything I've done. I had Howie to show me the way. We are so lucky to be loved by both of them." He said, holding her at arm's length and looking into her eyes.

Maybe. Maybe he did kind of understand. She thought, searching his face.

Lexie sat back down between Howie and Brian on the couch and told them how she first heard the song. She told them how it was really seeing her mother's pregnancy that made her come home. They told her about "The Lexie Dorough Fund" and all the good that it was doing. AJ mentioned they should have some kind of press announcement of her return, but she said that wasn't something she was ready for right now. She still had a life and a job in Seattle to tend to.

"Why don't you come back here and finish your degree." AJ asked.

"No, I'm think I'll go back to USC."

"Really?" Howie asked in surprise.

"I am applying for an internship down there." She said.

"You'll do great." Nick said.

"I hope so. It's a pretty junior position, but it might turn into something down the road." She smiled.

"What do you think your friends are going to say when you get back?" Kevin asked. She let out a laugh that sounded so much like the old Lexie it even startled her.

"Well, one already knows." She smiled.

"Really? Who?" Howie asked.

"That's the irony of the whole thing. He's family." She chuckled.


"Jake Richardson." She said, looking at Kevin.

"Jake?" Nick asked.

"My second oldest boy. I can't believe it." Kevin said, shaking his head with a smile.

"I. . .it took him a while to figure it out, but he did." She said.

"You started to say something else." Brian said, pushing her.

"I had a couple rough times. He's been a great friend. He's a intern at the university radio station and he's kind of a 'guy Friday' at the gallery."

"Are you and Jake close?" Howie asked. He couldn't not think of the prospect of Lexie with one of Kevin's sons.

"No, well yes. We're good friends. We joke about being cousins."

"Is there anyone else?" AJ asked.

"For a little while, but it was nothing." She said, not looking at any of them.

"What happened?" AJ asked.

Lexie thought about it a second and then thought, "Well, Dad, I'm actually in love with someone else you know." She smiled to herself.

"He was a resident artist at the gallery, but moved to California a while ago. New opportunity."

"Is that why you're going back to USC?" AJ asked.

"No. I won't be seeing Matt again." She sighed.

Brian looked over at Nick, watching the blood drain from his face. She didn't have to say all that. Couldn't she see how it was killing him? Nick got up with Alex and gathered up a couple plates and headed to the kitchen without a word. Brian watched her eyes follow his every move. He wondered what would've happened if he hadn't interrupted them earlier. A vision of bliss came to Brian. How he wished for Nick that he hadn't walked in on them.

Brian went back to Nick's hotel suite to spend the night. It was deadly quiet with CJ gone to L.A. Nick was moving about, getting ready for bed the second he walked in the door. Brian could tell he was avoiding him.

"Are you really going to leave the little monkey in L.A.?" Brian asked to Nick's back as he followed Nick into his room. Nick headed right into the bathroom.

"I'm not. I'm leaving for L.A. tomorrow."

"Why didn't you say anything sooner?" he asked, sitting on the edge of Nick's bed.

"I didn't want to ruin tonight. CJ is there, so is my family. I've got all of these legal battles to deal with."

"Will you be at Leslie's for New Year's?"

"No, I'll just stay home."

"Did you at least have Christmas morning with CJ this year?"

"Yeah. Angel came and got her today, I said." Nick snapped, coming out of the bathroom brushing out his hair.

"What happened with Lexie?" Brian finally asked.

"Nothing, I. . .couldn't say anything to her. I couldn't move. I couldn't speak. I did nothing." He sighed. The brush sat quietly in his hand as his arms dropped to his side.

"She say anything?"

"No." He sighed.

"I told her I knew." Brian said.

"YOU WHAT?!" Nick declared.

"Relax, she even seemed a little relieved."

"What did she say?" Nick asked eagerly. Brian could tell Nick was hanging on his every word, looking for something to hold on to.

"She said she loves you. I think she'll wait for you." Brian said.

"She said that?"

"I think she knows what you're up against. She's up against it, too. Her relationship with AJ is less than 24 hours old."

"What about Howie and Kevin?" He asked, coming to sit next to Brian.

"Kevin? Who knows?" Brian shrugged, "Howie will be pissed, but he'll get over it."

"I don't know about that. I think he'd take it harder than AJ."

"No, I think AJ will explode." Brian said honestly.

"He's not the only one." Nick sighed heavily.

Nick felt like shit for leaving the next day without a word to anyone except Brian. He kicked himself on the flight home for not talking to her, but he could only remember how he felt when he first saw her. He was speechless and it took so much energy to control his body that he couldn't actually speak. He remembered the sickening feelings he felt when she talked about her friend, Matt, back in school. Brian had said she loved him and he knew he loved her, but he also knew they could never really ever be together.

He was sure of that.

It was just another one of his sad doomed fantasies.

Chapter 21 by old_archive

Nick spent New Year's at home by himself. He took CJ over to his sister's early, then went home and went to bed. It's not like he slept. How could he? He watched the sun set and rise from his own bed. There was no point in getting up.

His lawyers began calling early on January 2nd and his heavy court schedule was set. Lexie made no attempts to contact him in the weeks that followed, but Howie had told Brian she had gone back to Seattle after the New Year. She would finish the semester out, before returning to USC to begin an internship she had been offered to start in March.

"So, did you and your dad talk again?" Lexie asked Jake as they climbed a public bus into downtown.

"Yeah. He's cool about stuff now. I guess he understands." Jake shrugged. "He's pretty impressed with you."

"Me? What the hell for?" she laughed as they planted themselves in seats.

"He just thought you were pretty amazing. How you gave marrow to AJ's son and then went through all that stuff with him."

"I know. I owe a lot of that to you." She said.

"No, you don't." Jake laughed. "You made your own choices to go home."

"Did I really? I felt more compelled." She sighed. "Like there was no other way to get on with my life, but to go back there and hash it out with AJ."

"How's your relationship with your parents?" Jake asked.

"Strained. Dad and Mom tiptoe around me. I'm sorry I left it the first place, I can see now it was a stupid mistake." She said.

"Well, maybe you just don't know the real reason why all of this happened yet." Jake said.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, Dad always says that things happen for a reason. All things. I think you just have to wait and see what this all means in the bigger scope of things."

"Well, aren't you deep today." She teased.

"I kinda am, aren't I?" he joked. "Have you spoken to Nick yet?"

"No." she said. "I want to see him face to face."

"You had your chance in Orlando."

"That's what I thought, but he left the next day. I thought of flying to L.A., but I couldn't ask my Dad for the money for the ticket. I just stayed with my family. He was probably with his any way."

"How much longer are you going to wait?" Jake asked.

"I don't know. I. . .just don't know." She sighed.

All of the guys called Nick on a regular basis, offering moral support for his trials. The court battles dragged on and on for him and his lawyers had to tell him each day which one it was, they were starting to blur together. He was in court five out of seven days, sometime six if he counted the weekend meetings.

AJ called him at least three times a week to talk about himself and Lexie. They were still talking; trading emails and phone calls. He asked every time he called if Nick had spoken to Lexie. Nick had to keep answering, no. He didn't tell AJ he didn't have her number or email. It wouldn't make a difference. It would never work out. He had been stupid in Detroit.

That didn't stop her from coming to him in his dreams. Her warm skin, her soft hair and the sensation of her curves under his hands.

She's moved on. You're a fool, Nick. A stupid old fool.

Lexie thought of Nick constantly. She knew she'd be in L.A. by the end of March and she'd try to contact him then. AJ had given her his private number, saying he sounded sad and that she could probably cheer him up. Lexie desperately wished at times that she could tell AJ the truth. They had started to share so much. She wanted to share this with someone who knew them both, someone who might understand.

Lexie went into her dorm room and flicked on the light, tossing off her raincoat across a chair. She stopped for a moment and watched the rain pour down the glass in the window. It wasn't raining in L.A.

Nick? Are you thinking of me, too?

Her phone rang at that moment and her heart skipped a beat. It couldn't be, but she had to just smile. If it were, it would be remarkable timing.

"Hello?" she answered with a laugh.

"Lexie? Lexie Dorough?" a man's voice asked.

"Yes?" she answered hesitantly.

"Lexie? It's me, Brian. Brian Littrell."

"Brian? Oh, hi Brian. What can I do for you?"

"Lexie, its Nick."

"What? What happened?" she said.

"He lost his first case today. I'm in the courtroom now. He needs you Lexie. Let me give you the number. . ."

"I have it." She said.

"Why haven't you called sooner? It doesn't matter. Lexie, I've never seen him like this. I know it's been two months. . ."

"Of course I'll call. Thank you, Brian."

"Please call, now." Brian begged.

"Yes, right now." She said as Brian hung up on her.

Lexie dialed the number without any hesitation. It rang twice before he answered.

"Hello?" he asked wearily.

"Nick? It's me Lexie."

"Oh, god, it's so good to hear your voice." He groaned.

"I heard what happened. Brian just called."


"Where are you? Are you okay?"

"I'm still in the courtroom, the crowd is breaking up. Your dad is here, so are AJ and Brian."

"I'm sorry I'm not there." She noticed the immediate silence after her statement.

"You are?" he asked quietly.

"Of course. I'm sorry, I really am." Lexie said. "Nick, I so desperately need to talk to you. I'll be back in L.A. by the end of next month. . ."

Nick turned his back to the rest of the room as he settled into a chair at the defense table. He never saw Howie coming up behind him, over hearing him on the phone.

"I. . .I want to talk to you, too." He whispered.

"We need to." She whispered back.

"There is so much I want to say, so much I have to say." He whispered. Tears rose in her eyes upon hearing his pain. "Please, give me a chance to explain. I can't wait any longer." He gasped, his face falling into his hands.

"Nick, please. Please don't cry." She begged.

"I can't take this any more." He continued to whisper.

"You can be strong, please Nick. Please be strong."

"I can't, I just can't." he groaned quietly.

"I love you, Nick." She said and Lexie never heard another word, just the phone cutting off.

Nick couldn't say another word, hear another word. The pain of it all was becoming unbearable. He never saw Howie when he asked, "Someone special?" Howie noted that Nick nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard Howie's voice. He stumbled over words, but Howie just put his hand on Nick's shoulder. "It's all right, I understand. I hope she can help."

Nick barely remembered getting home that night. A limo dropped him off and he found that Cook was still there, with a warm supper. She forced him to change into some comfortable clothing after a hot shower and to sit down and eat. He only ate enough to make her happy and then sent her home to tend to her own family. CJ was at his mother's, where she spent most of her time these days. After an attempt to watch some TV, he finally decided it was late enough to go to bed. As tired as he was, he couldn't sleep.

She wanted to see him, wanted to talk to him. Why is it as soon as she called, all of his despair disappeared? All of his doubts about his feelings for her vanished.

I love you, Nick.

CJ came home for the weekend. Sunday was a beautiful day, and they spent it outside with extra security keeping the media away. It was right after lunch when a guard from the front gate called and told him that there was a Howie Dorough, AJ McLean and a Kate Martin at the front gate to see him. Nick furrowed his brow, then gave permission for them to be brought up to the main house.

He and CJ went out the front door as they came up in a rented pick up truck. Howie was driving, with Lexie in the middle and AJ waving out the passenger window as they drove up. CJ started jumping up and down and screaming Howie's name.

Howie scooped up CJ into his arms as he got out of the truck and she crawled down and ran squealing to Uncle AJ, too. Nick thought CJ would have a fit when she finally recognized Lexie. Meanwhile, Howie was yanking a tarp off the back of the truck.

"What's in these things?" Nick laughed as Lexie and AJ began lifting boxes out of the back and started carrying them inside.

"You'll see!" AJ laughed wickedly as he pushed Lexie jokingly through the front door and up into the living room. Nick had grabbed a box, too and got in the house soon enough to see AJ dump the contents of one of the boxes on the floor.

"Fan mail!" AJ laughed, throwing the pile around.

"All of this?" Nick asked.

"These and 15 other boxes still in the truck." Lexie smiled. She stood there after she dumped her box's contents onto AJ's.

"Who do you people think you are?" Nick laughed.

"The Cavalry." Lexie said smugly.

"Where did you get all off this?" Nick said.

"Your fan club. We gave them a call and they gladly handed it over." AJ smiled. "There is still tons of it at the office, we just couldn't get anymore in the truck."

"This is amazing." He said, just staring at it. CJ jumped up and threw herself into Howie's arms. He spun her around and she gave him a big kiss. She squealed to get down so she could run over to AJ! She sat on AJ's hip and asked, "Uncle AJ? What's all this?"

"It's all fan mail, from the people in the audiences." He smiled.

"Are those the good people?"

"Yes, they are." Howie said, tickling her belly. "They are the best people in the whole world."

"Come on, CJ, let's go get some more!" Lexie said.

"NO! She can't go out front, it's not safe. I'll get some of the staff to bring it in. We have to get to work reading some of this!" Nick said, regretting his sharp tongue.

"I hate this, Daddy, I wanna go help!" CJ said with a stomp of her foot as AJ put her down.

"Well, you can't." he said, making fun of her. They play pouted back and forth and she finally settled into Lexie's lap and started ripping open the letters and packages. Soon, Cook and two other of Nick's private staff were also sitting around reading the mail out loud. Cook got them all dinner and twilight was coming when they finally all started looking up.

"This is just great you guys, thanks." Nick smiled. CJ climbed from Howie to Nick and patted his face.

"You smile pretty, Daddy." She said softly.

"Thanks, honey." He said quietly, giving her a quick kiss. She nestled herself down into his arms and continued to help him out. AJ gave Howie and Lexie winks, Lexie had let AJ believe it had been his idea. AJ then poked Howie.

"Uh, Nick, how about you and CJ coming back to Orlando for a visit?" he asked. "Lexie is coming home next month for Spring Break and we can use AJ's plane so you guys won't have to fly commercial."

"No, I think we'd better just stay home." He smiled down at her.

"I wanna go, Daddy." CJ moaned.

"No, it's safer here." He sighed. "Besides, grandma is here."

"Can't we go to Uncle Howie's can't we?" she begged.

"You guys can stay with me, I should have enough security." AJ said.

"Come on, Nick." Lexie encouraged.

"I don't know." He said, shaking his head.

Cook came by and swatted him on the head, "Yes, you do, you big fool. Go be with your friends." Everyone laughed at her.

"Oh, all right." He sighed.

"Yeah!" CJ squealed. She jumped up and threw herself into Howie's arms, "I get to go to Uncle Howie's and Uncle AJ's." She squealed some more.

She settled down into Howie's lap and eventually fell asleep. She woke up when he got up to put her to bed and as she began to fuss, he and AJ sang to her on the way upstairs.

"I can't believe you guys did all this." He smiled from his place on the floor.

"It'll was the only way we could think to get in. It's like Fort Knox." She smiled.

"I know. I hate it, but it's necessary to keep CJ safe." He sighed, looking away from her at the letter in his hand.

"AJ put me and Dad up in a hotel for the weekend. I don't think I'll get another chance to get out here." She whispered harshly. She got up and went to him where he sat. She knelt down in front of him. "I still love you." She whispered, hearing AJ and Howie's foot falls coming closer.

He hesitated. He could hear them coming, too. "Will we be able to get away in Orlando? I need to talk to you." He whispered.

"Yes." She whispered back.

"Let me fix this, Lex." He whispered.

"There is nothing to fix."

"With all this craziness, there may be a long wait. Lexie, my life isn't my own." He said, but by then, they could hear Howie and AJ right around the corner laughing quietly about CJ. Lexie fell back on her haunches, looking like she had just moved a little closer to help Nick put some letter back in the boxes.

Lexie tried to call Nick several times during the month of March, but he had disconnected his cell phone. AJ told her that the press had gotten the number and was harassing him, so he decided to do without it. She couldn't ask AJ for Nick's house number, but she did get Jake to call his Mom and get Brian's number.

"Isn't there any way I can get hold of him?" Lexie asked, after Brian told him that the record company had completely secured him off after some death threats. "Can you have him call me?"

"I'm sorry, hon, but I just don't think there is a way. I talked to his Mom and his brother a couple of times, but they can only deliver messages."

"What about our trip? Isn't he coming to Orlando next week?"

"I'm sorry, I just don't know." Brian sighed.

"Thanks, Brian." She sighed.

"I wish I could be more help, but even I can't get near him. They won't even let me in the courtroom."

"I know."

"Keep loving him, Lexie."

"How could I ever stop, Brian?" she said, her voice cracking.

Nick never made the scheduled visit to Orlando; he was committed to court dates all that week with no way to get out of them. Lexie did fly to L.A. and picked up CJ from Nick's younger brother, Aaron at LAX and took her to Orlando for the week. Nick called the plane to speak to CJ. They missed each other so much, it was painful to listen to CJ beg her Daddy to be brave.

CJ watched in horror four days later at AJ's house as Nick's collapse in the courtroom was broadcast repeatedly on every channel. Lexie took AJ's jet to Lexington to pick up Brian and they both took CJ back to L.A. to see him.

Brian was the only one able to get into his hospital room and left Lexie in the hall with CJ screaming at the top of her lungs to see Nick. Nick, unable to stand it another minute, pushed his way past Brian to stumble into the hall and reach for her. Lexie let her go to run into her father's arms. He went down on his knees in the hall, holding the important person in his life to his chest. Two orderlies came and helped Nick back into bed, as he called to CJ to be brave as Lexie was ordered by the doctor to take CJ out.

Brian stayed with him the rest of the night. Lexie took CJ back to Aaron's house where he graciously put them both up in his guestroom.

"How bad is it?" Howie asked her over the phone. Lexie stood on Aaron's veranda, watching CJ play with her cousins in the back yard the next morning.

"He's so upset, she's upset. This is just destroying him, Dad." She sighed.

"I know, honey." He agreed.

"Dad? What the hell is going on? How much longer can this go on?" she asked him in desperation.

"Lexie, this is how the business is some times. . ."

"I know, but it seems so cruel. The tour is over; it's been over for months. I was there that night they almost killed him and CJ. . .I just don't understand it." She said.

"Are you almost ready to head back to school?"

"Yes. AJ's plane is still here; I'll probably take it up on Sunday night. I've got to get CJ to Nick." She said.

"Have you heard anything this morning? Where's Brian?"

"Last I saw, Brian was staying at the hospital. Aaron and Leslie went this morning to see him, but this case being what it is, they didn't think it was safe for CJ to be there."

"Be careful, okay honey?"

"Of course, Dad." She smiled at his concern and love.

She went on to ask about the boys, her mother, and the baby. He told her the latest since yesterday and reminded her to call AJ right before he hung up. That made her laugh.

How things have changed!

Chapter 22 by old_archive

Aaron was able to get CJ in to visit with Nick, but the hospital wouldn't let Lexie in because she wasn't family. Brian seemed to be the only exception to that rule. CJ was upset Sunday morning when Lexie was getting ready to leave to pack up in Seattle. Lexie promised she'd only be gone one day, but CJ clung to her crying. The poor baby was so confused. She wanted to be with her Daddy, she wanted to be in her own home and she wanted to run away to Uncle Howie's.

Lexie suggested to Aaron privately that they ask Nick to let CJ come to Seattle with her, but Aaron said it was too much of a security risk. Considering Lexie was living under an assumed name with no visible connections to Nick Carter or the Backstreet Boys, she figured they would think it would be safe. She offered to let AJ hire a bodyguard or two, but Aaron refused to ask Nick.

Lexie kept her promise to CJ and was throwing her few meager belongings onto AJ's plane with Jake the same Sunday she flew in. She had given notice to the gallery weeks ago and had moved her records back to USC. She had a two-week difference between the two schools' spring schedules that she had planned to spend with Jake.

"You're sure in a hurry." He laughed at her eagerness.

"I've got to get back, I promised CJ I'd have a new cell phone number for her to call tomorrow." She smiled as he put down the last box and plopped down in one of the plane's plush seats.

"Are you going to be able to see her or Nick any time soon?" he asked.

"I have no idea. I think I might be able to get into Aaron's house to see them. I overheard Aaron and Brian talking about bringing Nick there after he was released."

"When are you guys going to have time to talk?"

"I just don't know. He knows how I feel. I can only hope he'll remember that as time slips past us." She sighed seriously. "I'm sorry I can't stay like I said I would."

"Naw, no problem. This is what I wanted for you. A chance to get out there and get on with your life."

"I just wish I knew how. I wish I knew what was going to happen when AJ and my dad find out about what happened in Detroit."

"Are you going to tell them?"

"If it works out between me and Nick, we'll have to tell them." She said, sitting across from him. "I've almost told AJ a couple dozen times. He's great, you know? He's funny, quick, and he sings all the time! Even when we're talking on the phone. He's working on some new songs and he wants to do another album."

"So full of hope." Jake muttered, getting to his feet.

"What?" she laughed.

He pulled her to her feet and into his arms. "That's what I'm going to tell my Dad, next time he asks how you're doing."

Lexie was able to keep her promise to CJ. Lexie called Brian who took her new number and gave it to CJ. CJ called within the hour and they chatted up a storm. AJ came to L.A. to visit on Wednesday, once she was settled down. He got her another car and offered to rent her an off-campus apartment once he saw the cramped dorm she lived in. She told him she preferred the campus life and that she was happy there. He did take her clothes shopping instead, and after he left she ended up returning more than half of what he had bought. He never said anything, if he even noticed the charge backs on his credit cards.

Nick was released on Friday, but Brian said he insisted on going to his own home with CJ. Nick was excused from court for another week, which he spent playing with CJ. He only lasted another 6 weeks before he collapsed again, this time at home. He blacked out on the tile stairs leading to the front entry and was there for two hours before anyone found him. CJ found him lying in a pool of his own blood when she came in from playing outside. There was no help around the house. She ran outside past the press and got a security guard down at the gate. Lexie saw it splashed across the evening news just as Brian was calling her.

"No, Brian, this can't be happening! I've got to see him!" she demanded.

"Honey, I'm sorry. I can't get you in. . ." he apologized.

"Talk to him for me, please. He still hasn't called me. Did you give him the new number?" she asked for the hundredth time.

"Yes, I know, Lex. He's a mess. . ."

"You don't understand, Brian! If something happens to him, we'll never get the chance to say what we want to say to one another. I know you understand. Brian, please, I love him so much. You have to do something!" she said, beginning to cry.

What could he possibly do? He had heard the same pleas from Nick for weeks now. Nick floundered back and forth about the possibilities, the impossibilities. His hopes, his dreams, his fears and his reality. Jive had screwed security down so tight on Nick, he couldn't sneeze without someone being there. Even Brian had to make prior arrangements to see Nick before he could actually see him. CJ had been permanently living with Aaron by mid-May. Nick only saw her on the weekends.

Brian had asked Nick hundreds, no thousands, of times to call Lexie. He never did. He tried to force an answer out of Nick, but Nick would only tiredly wave him off. Right before this final collapse, Nick could only speak in two or three word sentences.

"Lexie, please don't cry. I don't think I could take that." Brian sighed. "I've talked to him over and over. I don't know why he won't call. I know he still loves you, but he's just not himself anymore."

"Try again, please."

"Of course I will." He sighed, not believing it would make a difference.

Nick was unconscious for two days and when he was released a week later, they took him straight to Aaron's house without even asking him. AJ, Kevin and Howie flew out. It was Aaron and Kevin who helped Nick into the house and into bed, in the very guestroom Lexie had used.

Howie held CJ in his arms as she watched the drama unfold. He was worried about her being so deathly quiet, watching as Kevin, Brian and Aaron tucked Nick into bed.

"Uncle Howie?" she whispered.

"Yes, CJ?"

"Can I see my Daddy?" she whispered again.

"Of course." He said.

"Is he dead?" she asked.

Howie's heart tightened in his chest. AJ appeared from nowhere and took CJ from him when Howie froze. She was only six and there was no way she would be able to understand the gravity of what was happening.

"No, CJ. Your Daddy is just fine." AJ whispered back.

"Uncle AJ? I'm scared. If Daddy dies, can I come live with you and Uncle Howie?" she asked.

"No one is dying, honey." Aaron said, reaching for her. She didn't move from AJ's arms. She only looked him up and down. Aaron looked remarkably like Nick. The resemblance became much more marked the older Aaron had gotten. Now, they were similar in look and size. CJ's eyes went back to Nick.

"Do you want AJ to hold you?" Aaron asked her. She reached out, grabbed Howie's shirt, and pulled him close too. Howie wrapped his arms around the both of them. The entire time she never took her eyes off of Kevin as he lifted Nick's legs onto the bed and leaned him back into the pillows. Brian lifted the linens and tucked them around Nick.

"Uncle AJ? You and Uncle Howie won't leave me, will you?" she asked, turning her eyes to his.

"No, CJ. Me and Uncle Howie are going to be right here for you." He said. She laid her head down on his shoulder and wrapped her arms tightly around his neck.

"I love you, Uncle AJ." She whispered.

"I love you, too." He said, looking over at Howie with CJ between them.

Howie could see the fear in AJ's eyes. He was afraid he wouldn't be able to keep his promise not to leave. He was afraid he would fail her, just as he felt he had failed Lexie.

"We're going to be right here. AJ and I aren't going anywhere." Howie said, smoothing her errant curls down. His fingertips quickly wiped the tears that silently ran down AJ's face. "It's going to be all right." He said it for AJ, not CJ.

Nick woke to find AJ sprawled out in the bed next to him and with CJ dead to the world across his chest. He smiled for the first time in weeks.

AJ's designer clothes were wrinkled and in disarray. Tattoos peeked out from his sleeves as one arm flopped between them and another was wrapped around CJ to keep her from falling off. CJ had begun to drool on his expensive silk shirt.

Nick looked to his left and saw that Howie had collapsed in a chair, one leg on the floor, the other hanging over an arm. Howie's snoring had woken him up. He sat up and could see Kevin on the floor by the door, an old quilt thrown over him as he hugged a pillow. Brian was right next to him, his head resting on the small of Kevin's back.

Nick laid back and turned on his side to look at AJ and CJ. He reached up and touched her baby cheeks. How lucky he was to have her. His only true reason to live at all any more. That and the hope that one day he would get one last chance to see Lexie again.

AJ's head rolled toward him and AJ wiped his eyes as they adjusted to see Nick watching them. Nick lifted a finger to his lips. AJ didn't say a word; he just hugged CJ closer and lifted the arm between them, inviting Nick closer.

Nick felt 13 again.

How many times had he slept with AJ like this when they were touring? Nick would get homesick and AJ would let down that bravado of his and let Nick sleep with him when they sometimes shared a room. It hadn't been just AJ. It has been Brian, Howie, and Kevin. Here they were again, Nick thought as AJ's arm enveloped him and he rested his head on AJ's shoulder. We're together again.

Well, he did it. Howie thought as he woke and saw Nick nestled against AJ and CJ. It's not the best of circumstances, but we're here. All five of us.

AJ got out from under Nick when CJ woke up and said she had to go to the bathroom. Kevin, Brian and Howie followed him out of the room with her and left Nick alone to sleep. CJ scampered off to the bathroom and the guys headed downstairs for some coffee. Aaron, his wife and the other children got up a little while later. Aaron padded into the kitchen with them and poured himself a cup of their coffee.

"You guys should visit all the time. I like having coffee when I first get up." He laughed over his steaming cup.

"Well, Howie is the only domesticated one of us." Brian laughed.

"You make a good cup of coffee, D." he joked.

"I got skills." He laughed.

"What are your guys' plans for today?" Aaron asked.

"We'd like to stick around here, wait for Nick to wake up and see how he is." Kevin said. "Brian made us all reservations at his hotel for tonight."

"You guys can stay here." Aaron said. "I have plenty of room."

"I might be staying." AJ said suddenly. "I owe him. He was there for me when Alex was sick."

"I'm sure Nick will appreciate it." Aaron nodded.

"Like seeing your ugly faces every morning is good for me." Nick muttered as he came into the kitchen behind Aaron. He was still slightly taller than Aaron as he stood next to him.

"Well, you look fab yourself." Kevin laughed.

"Daddy?" a little voice asked behind Nick. He turned around and reached down to pick her up. His vision began to swim; he stumbled and almost fell. Aaron caught him before he fell on top of her. "Daddy!?!" she screamed as Aaron lowered Nick to the floor. Howie scooped CJ up and tried to calm her as she started to cry. Nick leaned against the kitchen cabinets, looked up and held out his arms for her. Howie put her down and she ran to him. Nick buried his face in her curls.

"Shhh, CJ. It'll be okay." He soothed her.

"Are you okay?" Aaron asked.

"Just a little woozy, that's all." He sighed. "Calm down, honey. I'm okay."

"She was really scared last night, Nick." AJ said, kneeling down beside them. "We all had to promise to sleep in your room last night. She wouldn't let us out of her sight."

Nick just closed his eyes and held her closer. As the color returned to Nick's face, Howie helped CJ up and Kevin and Aaron got Nick to the kitchen table. Aaron's wife, Jillian, and Howie cooked up breakfast and everyone helped eat it. CJ recovered during the meal and was laughing and playing with her cousins within the hour. Aaron and Jillian took all the kids upstairs for baths and clean clothes afterwards.

Nick's head rested in his hand as Brian cleared the breakfast dishes.

"Are you going to be okay this time?" Brian asked, pulling Nick's napkin out from under his elbow.

"I just thought I was stronger than this." Nick sighed sadly.

"Don't be ridiculous!" AJ admonished him. "Nick, you're just having some bad times, that's all. We've all had them and we're going to be here for you."

Nick never answered AJ, he just continued to stare at the glass table. AJ had no way of knowing that Nick felt he didn't deserve any concern from AJ, especially after what he had done to Lexie. If only AJ knew. . .

"You know, this may sound kinda stupid now, but I've very proud of the man you've become, Nickolas Carter. When Christine became pregnant with CJ, you were there for her. When Alex was sick, you were there for me. When Howie was in the hospital, you were there to take care of his family. You were the only one of us to reach out to Lexie. You helped heal the peace between Howie and me." AJ said. "Look around you, Nick. You've done it. You've brought the Backstreet Boys back together. We're right where we're supposed to be."

Nick's hollow eyes scanned the room and he saw AJ sitting next to him in his rumpled, slept-in designer suit. He saw Kevin across from him in a simple green cotton shirt and jeans. Howie was next to Kevin, looking nearly as wrinkled as AJ. Brian stood at the kitchen sink with a damp dishtowel thrown over his shoulder. They were here. Here with him. Right where he had wanted them for years. How he'd missed them. He bowed his head and slowly slumped sideways into AJ's arms.

"Thank you, AJ. You don't know what that means." He said quietly as AJ wrapped his arms around him. Without warning, Howie's cell phone began to ring.

"Hello?" Howie answered after he turned it on.

"Hi, Dad? Mom said you were at Aaron's." Lexie said.

"Hey, Lex." He smiled, looking across at AJ and Nick. "Yeah, we're still here. We just ate. You in town?"

"No, I'm still on campus. I've got a 10:00 class and then I've gotta go to work. Is Nick there? Can I talk to him?"

"You want to talk to Nick?" Howie asked, so Nick would know. Nick just waved him off.

"He can't come to the phone right now."

"How is he? Is he okay?" she asked.

"He looks better this morning. He ate and once he gets some clean clothes on he'll feel even better." Howie said.

"How's CJ? She must be worried sick."

"She had a rough night, but she's better."

"Oh! Before I forget, can I talk to Kevin?" she asked.

"Uh, sure." Howie said, handing the phone to Kevin. "She wants to talk to you."

"Me?" Kevin asked taking the phone. "Hello?"

"Kevin? Oh, hey, look. Jake called last night and his mom couldn't get through to Aaron's so she needs you to call home." She said.

"Well, thanks, I'll call her right away."

"Great. Hey, is AJ up yet?" she asked.

"Sure. Hang on." He smiled, handing the phone to AJ. "She wants to talk to you now."

"Yes, babygirl?" AJ laughed as he answered the phone.

"Howdy, AJ. How's my Dad? Is he okay? Mom's a little worried he isn't resting enough." She asked.

"He looks okay. Smells kinda bad, but we'll wash him up good enough to send home to her." AJ joked, helping Nick sit up and pointing at Howie.

"How are you? Where's Alex?"

"I'm doing great! Alex is at home with the nanny. I'm still working out the details of my trip here."

"Cool, can we have dinner or something before you go back? You can bring the other guys if you want."

"I'm not sure what plans the others have, but we can still get together." AJ said.

"Great. Can I talk to Brian, now?" she asked. She heard AJ laugh and call out.

"Hey, B-rok, she wants to talk to you too."

"Hey, Lexie." She heard Brian laugh.

"He's there, isn't he? He doesn't want to talk to me, right?" she asked.

"I think that's true." Brian said.

"Tell him I love him, Brian. I'm counting on you."

"I will. I promise." Brian smiled.

"Thanks, Brian. Can I talk to my Dad?" she asked. He handed the phone back to Howie and she could hear them all laughing in the background.

"Hi, honey." Howie laughed.

"Hey, Dad. Mom's worried about you. She said your last check up wasn't very good."

"Shush, I'm fine." He said, aware the others were looking at him suddenly.

"Dad." She scolded him.

"Lexie." He scolded back.

"OKAY! She made me say it." Lexie teased.

"I know all about the tricks you two play on me. You better get to class."

"I will. Tell everyone I love them." She laughed.

"I love you, too. Bye, Lexie."

"See ya, Dad."

Howie hung up the phone and put it on the table.

"Lexie sends her love to everyone." Howie smiled.

"You send it right back to her." Kevin smiled, getting to his feet.

"Is your health okay?" AJ asked Howie suddenly.

"Yeah, I'm fine. They just worry too much." Howie said.

"You'd tell us if anything was wrong, wouldn't you?" Nick asked.

"Of course. You guys, please! I already have one wife and one daughter fussing after me." Howie laughed. "I'm just glad it'll be a long time before the new one can talk!"

Chapter 23 by old_archive

The next day, Nick was sitting on Aaron's veranda having lunch with Brian and AJ. Howie and Kevin had gone to the campus to have dinner with Lexie. Nick had simply told them he wasn't ready for visitors yet and they believed him. They all did, except Brian. Brian knew he was lying.

"How come you didn't go with Howie and Kevin?" Brian asked AJ as they ate.

"I'll see her later. She's only got a two hour break between work and her one evening class tonight."

"You two getting along great?" Brian asked.

"Yes. It's amazing. We talk about everything and every time I talk to her, I learn new things about why she left. Things about how she was feeling."

"Did she ever tell you what she did the three days between the time she left the hotel and went to find Nick?"

"No. I haven't asked. She just said she went there looking for a plane ticket home, Nick made her go to the show and about the riot." He shrugged.

"Hmm." Brian hummed.

"What?" Nick asked.

"I'm just curious, that's all." He said.

"Do you think she's lying to us?" AJ asked.

"Oh, no! I don't think she's lying about anything. It sounds like she had a really dark time." Brian said.

"That's how she describes it. Have you seen her recently? When she came back to L.A. in March, she must've gained 20 pounds. She looked much better. I was able to convince her to get her roots done if she was going to stay a blonde." AJ joked.

"March was the last time I did see her. She came to Lexington to get me when Nick collapsed the first time." Brian said. "Nick?"

Nick wasn't listening to their conversation. He had turned his face away and was staring out into Aaron's backyard.

"I wish I could go home." He said suddenly.

"Buddy? You okay?" AJ asked.

"Yeah, I'm sorry. I was just daydreaming, that's all." Nick said, turning back to them. "What's the date today?"

"Uh, May 23rd, why?" AJ asked.

"I just keep losing track of time." Nick sighed.

"It's a Thursday." Brian joked, but Nick didn't respond.

"Have the lawyers called?"

"I don't think so. Aaron's taking all of your calls." Brian said. Nick didn't want to ask when he was due back into court.

"When was the last time you saw Lexie, Nick?" AJ asked.

"I don't know. " Nick said absently, "I don't remember."

AJ exchanged a concerned look with Brian. "Do you remember when we brought all that fan mail to your house?"

"No, I don't remember. I'm sorry." He sighed, picking up his fork.

"It's okay, Nick." Brian said.

"AJ? It's your nanny on the phone." Jillian said, walking out on to the veranda with the cordless phone.

"Oh, thanks." He smiled, standing and taking it from her. He walked off to the edge of the deck.

"Do you boys need anything else?" she asked before she turned to go.

"No, thanks, Jill." Brian smiled toward her. Brian watched her go and kept an eye on AJ's back as he reached out and touched Nick's hand. Nick looked up at him.

"Nick? Do you want to talk to Lexie?" Brian asked quietly.

"No. I can't. . ." he mumbled. "My head hurts."

"I know. She wants me to tell you how much she loves you. . . Nick?!" Brian said with concern as Nick's head fell into his hand. Nick only raised his hand to keep Brian away.

"I. . .it'll never work, Brian." He sobbed quietly.

"It can if you try." Brian said. Nick looked up and over at AJ's back.

"What if he finds out that I've slept with her already?" Nick whispered to Brian. "She has her whole life ahead of her. She doesn't need to be burdened down by some guy twenty years too old for her. . ."

"Nick, she loves you. How many times have you told me that she's the only one for you?" Brian asked. "When you first told me about you and her, you told me you'd love her until the day you died."

"I never said I didn't love her. I just said she could do better. . ." Nick said, looking at Brian. "Look at me, Brian. I'm a mess!"

"Well, who the hell's fault is that?!" Brian snapped.

The first week of June found Lexie finishing up the last day at the museum internship for the summer. She said good-bye to her friends until the fall and returned to the campus to finish preparing for finals.

AJ had decided he needed to buy a house in L.A. by then. He had Alex and his nanny moved out there and he spent every day with Nick when he returned to court. Brian returned to Lexington. Howie went home to Orlando because Leah was due any day. Kevin went to Seattle to visit Jake, before returning to London to finish a film score. Brian was never able to convince Nick to call Lexie, but she took it all in stride.

After her last final on that Friday, Lexie packed her car and headed over to AJ's to have dinner with him and Alex. She was going to spend the night with them before flying out to Orlando for the baby's birth.

"So, are they sure it's a girl?" AJ asked as they ate.

"Yeah, her name is going to be Caroline Amanda." Lexie smiled.

"That's beautiful."

"I thought you'd like it." She said.

"Jeez, you'd think we'd be getting too old to keep having babies." AJ joked.

"I don't think so." She shrugged.

"What about you?" he asked.

"Me? Uh, don't you want me to get married first?" she joked.

"Of course!" he laughed, "But you haven't seen anyone since that Matt guy in Seattle. What about Jake?"

"Jake?" she laughed, almost choking on her food. "I could never date Jake! Hell, we're practically cousins."

"Well, not really. . ."

"Forget it." She said, cutting him off with a smile. "I am not dating Jake Scott Richardson and that's final! Hey! Did I tell you he got a jock job at a radio station in Orlando for the summer? It's going to be the midnight shift, but he is stoked!"

"What did Kevin say?"

"What do you think? He wants Jake to come to Kentucky and spend the summer with the family." Lexie said. "Will you quit staring at me like that?!"

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Babygirl, you've just got to keep up on those roots, that's all." He declared.

"Fine, I will go see your stylist tomorrow, okay? Will you please quit nagging me about it all ready?!" she sighed dramatically.

"Daddy? Can I call Lexie?" CJ yelled from Aaron's den.

"Sure, honey, go right ahead. She's at Uncle AJ's new number, do you know that one yet?" he called back from the living room.

"Of course I do. I'm not dumb, Daddy!" she hollered back.

"My, my." Nick chuckled as he rolled his eyes at Aaron. "How much you want to bet she calls Orlando?"

"I'll bet you a 20, she calls the L.A. number." Aaron said as they both got up and snuck down the hall to listen in. They both hovered outside the den.

"Hi, this is CJ. Can I talk to Lexie?" she said, pretending to sound so grown up. "Hi, Lexie. It's me, CJ. . .I'm fine. . ."

Aaron slapped Nick on the back and almost busted out laughing as Nick began to pull out his wallet. Nick handed him the bill and Aaron snickered as he folded it and put it in his pocket as he walked away. Nick stayed by the door to listen to what CJ had to say to Lexie.

". . .I miss you, too. Is baby Caroline born yet?. . .Not yet?. . .Why are you going to Orlando?. . .oh. . .Are you going to see Uncle Howie and Aunt Leah? oh. . .Why are you staying at Uncle AJ's?. . . oh. . .No, I don't want to talk to him. I saw him yesterday. . .no, I don't want to talk to Alex either. Lexie? Can you come here?. . .how come?. . .I bet my Daddy misses you. . .no, I know he does. . .he talks about you when he's asleep. . ."

Nick felt his heart quicken and his mouth go dry.

". . .no, I get in his bed sometimes when he's not looking. . .Do you miss my Daddy?. . .then why won't you come over?. . .what about after you come back from Orlando. . .okay. . .can I see the baby when she's born?. . .I'll have to ask my Daddy. Maybe we can go in Uncle AJ's airplane again, I liked that. . .okay, bye-bye Lexie. I love you too."

Good Lord! Nick thought.

Nick had known that CJ and Lexie had been talking since Lexie moved back in March. He had no idea what they discussed. Nick had no fears of CJ's relationship with Lexie, trusting Lexie wouldn't say anything to hurt CJ or him.

Good Lord, they're close!

Closer than he imagined. It could only be expected. CJ didn't have a mother around. And Lexie was the only woman in Nick's life that wasn't some kind of an aunt, grandmother or cousin. CJ understood that Lexie was Howie's daughter, but they never told her about AJ. She was too young to understand that.

"Daddy? What are you doing out here?" CJ asked as she stood in the doorway.

"I was checking in on you. I wanted to make sure you had the right phone number." He said.

"I can read my numbers and Jane wrote it down for me." She said about her 8-year-old cousin.

"Okay, I was just making sure."

"I mean, I'm not a baby any more." She said dramatically as she marched off.

A soft smile played on Nick's lips. No, you aren't.

"You know, your life's not complete until you can have entire phone conversations with six year olds." Lexie laughed as she hung up the phone.

"She is a little powerhouse, isn't she?" AJ smiled from the couch. "Have you spoken to Nick at all since our trip to his house?"


"If I didn't know any better, I'd swear he was avoiding you." AJ said.

"I don't think so. We haven't been close since I left. . ."

"But you did go to him when you were in trouble. . ."

"I know." She sighed.

"You know, Howie thinks something happened between you two."

"What?!" she gasped.

"No, no, not that, girl!" he chuckled. "Like a fight or something in Detroit."

"Well, a little of that happened. I was pretty messed up then." She sighed. "I just think he has too much going on right now and he needs to take care of that first. CJ is always going to be his first priority."

"I know, but it's kind of a shame. I mean, when you donated to Alex, he was the only one who kept in touch with you. I wasn't planning on it. He's the reason we're here today, Lex. You two seemed so close. . ."

"Dad, things are bad for him. I'm sure he'll call when he gets the chance." She smiled, getting up and walking over to kiss his cheek. "I’m pooped. I'm gonna go to bed."

"Okay, babygirl." He smiled, realizing for the first time that she had called him 'dad'.

By the time Lexie landed in Orlando the following night, the entire Dorough Clan was in an uproar! Her house was packed with relatives as she walked in with her cousin, Marta. Leah had gone into labor early and they were all pacing and waiting. Pacing and cooking, too.

The house smelled so amazing as her grandmother cooked away. She hadn't been home like this in a long time. God, it felt so much like home! She and Marta took her bags upstairs and then joined the other cousins in the basement for some pool.

Caroline Amanda Dorough was born at 4 in the morning on June 9th, five days earlier than expected. She was perfectly healthy and had all of her fingers and toes. Lexie was glad she had made it home just in time.

John and Tyler were in bed by 4:30 a.m. and the house slowly emptied by 5:00 a.m. Lexie called Jake, who called his dad and Brian. Lexie called AJ and he told Nick and CJ. CJ called back some twenty minutes after Lexie got off the phone with AJ.

"Is the baby cute?" CJ asked.

"I don't know. Dad just called about an hour ago. I won't see her until this afternoon. I have to get some sleep first."

"How come?"

"Well, I've been up all night waiting." She laughed.

"Why did she wait so long?" CJ asked.

"Well, babies sometimes do that."

"Oh. Do you want to talk to Daddy? He's right here." CJ said suddenly. "Daddy, do you want to talk to Lexie? She's at Uncle Howie's in Orlando. The baby was born, it's a girl like me. I can't remember her name. Lexie? What's the baby's name?"

"Caroline Amanda."

"Is that like mine?"

"No, yours is Christine Jane."

"Oh." She said, bewildered. "Daddy? Do want to talk to Lexie? Here's Daddy."

Lexie waited as she heard the phone handed off.

"Lexie?" she heard him ask.

"Hi, Nick." She said gently.

"Uh, is Leah okay?"

"She's fine. Dad should be home in about an hour while she's resting." Lexie said. "How have you been, Nick?"

"You know. . ."

"I can only imagine." She said. "AJ keeps me pretty up to date. I haven't spoken to Brian in a while. How is he?"

"Fine. He called right before AJ did. He heard from Kevin's son, Jake."

"Yeah, I had him call Kevin and Brian. I told AJ myself. AJ said he was going to call."

"He did."

"I hope you don't mind CJ calling me."

"Oh, no. I'm not worried about it. She doesn't call too often, does she?"

"No." Lexie lied with a smile. CJ called either her or AJ twice a day. "I'd still like us to talk someday, Nick."

"I don't. . .know. Things are crazy now and I. . ."

"I know, I know. Just ask CJ when you're ready. She knows how to get hold of me. I'll wait." She said and then she just hung up on him.

She gripped the phone tightly before she let go of it. She couldn't hear another negative word from him.

Three thousand miles was not going to stop CJ from calling every day! She spoke to anyone, if Lexie wasn't there. She kept Lexie's cousin, Aria, on the phone for 20 minutes. Leah and Caroline came home two days later and family trailed in and out of the house for the next two weeks. It was the last week of June when they had John's birthday party and started planning for Lexie's at the end of July.

The summer rolled by in Orlando, just like Lexie remembered it used to. It was so different from last summer in Seattle. She was so happy, again. Yes, she wasn't with Nick, but she was all right with AJ now. She and Howie were as close as ever. She was seeing her family again and feeling more like her old self.

It was great having Jake in Orlando. Jake and Lexie got together during the evenings before he had to go to work. Sometimes she would spend all night with him at the station, talking to him about Nick. In mid July, Jake and Lexie took a four-day weekend and went to the Richardson's ranch in Kentucky. Lexie met two of Brian's daughters, Rachel and Kim, and Jake's three younger brothers; Brian, Madison and Dwaine.

The first night there, Lexie couldn't sleep. She wandered downstairs and found herself sitting at Kevin's work piano in the very downstairs family room.

"You play beautifully." Kevin said, surprising her.

"Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't think any one would hear." She said, lifting her foot off the pedals.

"I had no idea you played."

"Well, I haven't in years." She sighed. "You'd think I'd be able to sing, considering who my parents are, but I can't sing a note. Dad had me try to learn something musical, so I chose piano."

"You do play well."

"I'm okay, I guess." She shrugged.

"Have you ever considered working in the business?"

"No. Dad kept me from just about everything public. I don't think I'd want all the hassles of being famous. I kind of liked growing up normal." She said. He came and sat next to her and hit a few chords.

"How come Art History?" he asked.

"You know, no one has ever asked me that."

"Not even Howie?"

"No." she chuckled. "I just told them what I wanted and they agreed to it."

"Well, how come?"

"I'm a real history buff. My mom, Amanda, used to take me to Europe all the time. I always loved all the old buildings and the stories. . .I guess I just got hooked." She shrugged. Kevin hit a few more chords.

"I always wished I had gone to college. Howie is the only one of us who did."

"Well, not going wasn't an option." She joked. "Being a Dorough is no free ride anywhere."

She heard him chuckle. "I'm glad you guys came for a visit. I'm glad all of you kids can get together. I hated the idea that you all didn't know one another."


"There wasn't anything I could do. Oh, the boys know Brian's girls, but you were out there and Howie wasn't letting anyone from the Backstreet Boys near you."

"He was afraid I was going to get hurt. I had a tough time when my mother died and AJ didn't want me." She said. "I did a lot of screaming and crying."

"That's an awful lot for a little girl." He said, a song lifting under his fingers. "I'm glad you and Jake are such good friends."

"Yeah." She nodded.

"Well, you can stay and play all you want. If you close this door, the room is sound proof. I work down here a lot at nights." Kevin said, getting up.

"Thanks, Kevin."

"Hey. That's 'Uncle Kevin' to you, little girl." He smiled.

Chapter 24 by old_archive

Everyone was at Lexie's birthday party this year, except Nick. He had allowed CJ to fly out with AJ and Alex, under the condition she stayed with AJ. AJ hired extra security for the house while they were there.

Jake, Rachel, Kim and Lexie took CJ, Alex and Jake's youngest brother, Dwaine, to Disney World for three days. They all had so much fun, that they instantly took up Brian's offer of the Littrell beach house for a week in August. They all arrived on Monday, with AJ or John dropping in every day. Nick called that Friday when CJ hadn't called him in a week.

"Hey, AJ." He said when AJ answered his phone at home.

"Hi, Nick. How you been?"

"Pretty good. How's CJ? I haven't heard from her in a while. Where you hiding her?"

"Nowhere. The kids are all out at Brian's beach house for the last week. Before that they were at Disney. . ."

"They are WHAT?!" Nick demanded.

"They are at Brian's beach house. . ."

"WHAT? What kids? Who is she with? Damn it AJ? I trusted you!"

"Wait a second, Nick. She's with Jake and Lexie and Brian's two girls, Rachel and Kim. Alex and Kevin's youngest, Dwaine, are there, too. John Dorough or I have been there every day. Howie's nieces Marta and Aria are leaving today to join them. . ."

"Goddamn it, AJ! Do you have security down there? Don't you remember the death threats toward us?"

"No. Nick, no one knows CJ is here in Florida. Lexie is still using her assumed name. . ."

"What about all the other Richardsons, Littrells and Doroughs you've got running around there? Don't think someone is going to figure out which one is Lexie? Someone is bound to recognize CJ!" Nick screamed at him.

"Nick, calm down."

"Goddamn it, AJ. I thought I could trust you! You put CJ on a plane right now and get her back here! God help you if anything happens to her. . ." Nick demanded.

"Nick, I wouldn't let anything happen to her. . ."

"Just do it, AJ!" Nick said, slamming down the phone.

Nick called Howie next, then Brian and he didn't know why, but he called and yelled at Kevin, too. Brian did a conference call with AJ, Howie and Kevin and they made arrangements to go down and bring CJ back to L.A. Brian called the beach house and broke the news to Kim, who had to tell everyone else. All the big kids could still stay, but someone had to drive CJ back to Orlando. Brian got the shock of his life when the next call he got was a very angry Lexie.

"Brian, I am not sending CJ back to L.A. This is the only fun this poor child has had in nearly a year."

"Lexie, he's her father. You can't keep her there if he says to bring her back."

"Oh yeah? You tell him if he wants to ruin her fun, he's going to have to get his ass down here and do it himself. I'm not going to tell her!"

"Look, I'm not in the mood to get caught up in some fight with you two. He's CJ's father and we have to do what he says."

"Screw the prick!" She snapped and slammed down the phone on him.

Nick called the beach house all day when Brian told him that Lexie refused to drive CJ to Orlando for a flight to L.A. Howie said he was trying to get hold of John or AJ to go down there and pick CJ up, but he couldn't get hold of either one of them. Howie wasn't willing to go and leave Leah alone yet. Nick found he couldn't reach them either.

Aaron hadn't seen this much life out of Nick in months! He secretly suspected that AJ was avoiding Nick and that the others were encouraging his delinquent behavior. As Nick rampaged through Aaron's house, packing and cursing, Aaron sat back and watched it all happen. Jillian took up a post next to him, both of them leaning on the breakfast bar with their arms crossed as Nick went back and forth between his room and the laundry.

Aaron already knew CJ as safe. AJ hadn't hired security to tail CJ, but he had. For some reason, he never told Nick that. Aaron had gotten numerous reports of their trips to Disney and the beach. One report was of Jake chasing CJ across the beach with a crab. Aaron had found that one especially amusing.

As Nick called for a driver to take him to the airport and ordered Aaron to book him a flight to Orlando, Aaron had Jillian poised to open the door for him. He gave her a look to tell her not to hit Nick in the butt with the door as he left. She smiled a sinister little smile just for him. Nick left in quite a whirlwind. All of the car doors were slamming behind him and the taillights disappearing into the sunset as he left. Aaron wrapped his arms around Jillian's waist as they watched him go.

"It seems my big brother has flown the coop." He smiled.

"Do you think we should warn them?"

"Yeah, I already called Howie. He confessed that he talked AJ into taking advantage of Lexie's tirade with Brian to force Nick to come visit."

"How did they know Nick wasn't needed in court next week?" she asked.

"I told them." Aaron nodded, kissing her ear.

"Did Lexie actually say those things?"

"That's the best part. She actually did. I tell you, that's one little girl who sure isn't intimidated by Nick." He laughed.

"Nick's going to be upset that entire flight." Jillian said.

"Yeah, well. He'll get over it. Big dope can't keep a good grudge to save his life." Aaron joked.

Lexie was reeling when she got off the phone with Brian. In all the years, she had known her father, he had never done anything like this! When Brian called Howie and told him what she had said, he had agreed with her. It was his plan to have AJ and John avoid Nick's phone calls and for them not to answer the phone at the beach house. After Howie spoke with Aaron and Howie knew Nick was booking a flight out, he knew he had clinched it. Howie called Brian and told him to tell everyone at the beach house that everything would be fine and that they should go forward with their plans to visit a bonfire that night.

The second twist to the plan was all Brian's. He told Lexie when Nick would be arriving in Orlando and when she could expect him at the beach house. He suggested that she let the others go ahead and that she wait for him alone. Brian told her that Aaron had told Howie that he had security on CJ all this time, but Nick and AJ hadn't known that. AJ was hiding out at John's house and neither one of them was answering the phones.

Lexie had her doubts instantly. It was one thing to trick Nick, it was a totally different thing to let him believe that CJ was unprotected. She called Brian and asked him to call Aaron and have him call Nick and tell him the truth about the security. She never heard back from Brian by the time Nick was pounding on the door that night. She opened the door and he just charged in past her, swinging his bags after him.

"Gee, hello, Nick." She said dryly.

"Don't screw with me, Lexie! Where's CJ?!"

"She out with the others at a neighborhood bonfire. She should been pretty wired on s'mores right about now."

"Goddamn you! How dare you defy me! CJ is my daughter and I decide what's best for her!" he said, angrily getting in her face.

"I know that Aaron has security on CJ. He has since she left L.A." She said calmly.

"I don't know what sick little games you people are playing. . ." He growled at her.

"Well, as far as Backstreet delinquency goes, this one is pretty good." She said. "When I called Brian and told him I wasn't going to bring CJ back to L.A., Dad sorta took the ball and ran with it."

"AJ, that son of a. . ."

"No, Howie."

"Howie did this?"

"Well, mostly Howie with a little Brian, AJ and Aaron thrown in. I think Kevin may be the only one without a clue." She explained.

"Just tell me where CJ is so I can. . ."

"Why, Nick?"

"Why, what?!"

"Why do you want to still take her home? You know Aaron's got security on us, Brian had him call you on the plane." She said softly. "You should see her, Nick. She's really happy. For the first three days, all she did was cry about not being around to take care of you, but now she's six years old again. She has a beautiful tan from playing outside. She sleeps without bad dreams. Her and Alex couldn't be closer. . ."

Nick didn't say a word.

"They probably won't be back until after midnight. Brian told Kim that you changed your mind and that CJ could stay. I'm the only one who knew you were coming." She said. "Brian told me to wait for you."

He looked at her.

"I'm sorry we lied to you. That was wrong. I know how much you love CJ. That part was cruel, but once the ball got running and Dad figured you'd leave L.A. any way. . .Aaron told him you aren't needed in court all week."

He just shook his head.

"They wanted me to tell you they were sorry." She said.

"Prick, huh?" he said. "Did you really call me a 'prick'?"

"I was mad."

"I bet." He nodded.

"Come on. You can put your bags in Jake's room. He can sleep on the couch tonight." She said, hiding a smile.

Nick followed her up the stairs and down to the end of the hall. She opened the door and stepped out of his way and he walked in behind her. He dropped his bags by the bed. He looked around the dark room and then turned back to the door where he could see her silhouette. Without a moments' hesitation he walked over to her, took her in his arms and kissed her.

His kiss was not kind. It was not gentle. He could feel her fingernails dig into his shoulders as she fought to keep her bearings. He pulled her into the dark room and kicked the door shut. He heard her gasp as he pressed up against the closed door. Her breathing was rapid and broken when he pulled away.

"I love you, Lexie. I have never stopped loving you. I never will." He groaned.

"Nick? My god, Nick!" she said, throwing herself against him. "I wasn't sure. I thought your feelings had changed. I thought you believed we had made a mistake. I thought you just wanted to talk so you could end it."

"The only mistake I've made is not being with you sooner." He said. "Loving you that night was the only right thing I've done in years."

She broke away from him and leaned back against the door. She placed her hand on her chest, willing it to slow down. She closed her eyes as she reached for light switch. She saw him cover his eyes against the sudden light.

"All this time I thought you wanted to talk so you could end things. I have every argument I could think of to convince you we hadn't made a mistake that night. I wasn't expecting this. Not after all this time. . ." She gasped.

"Nothing is ever going to change how I feel. Not distance, not time. Nothing." He said, lowering his hand to look at her. "This isn't going to be easy, Lex. We have to face Howie, AJ and everyone else. I still have all these lawsuits going on. . ."

"I know. That's all right. I'm used to hard. I don't think I know how to do anything the easy way." She smiled.

"Don't ever call me a 'prick' again, okay? Not even to Brian."

"I was pissed." She said, defending herself.

Nick followed her back downstairs, holding her hand the entire time. She poured him some coffee and they sat down on the couch facing each other. He looked at his watch.

"We have a couple hours." She said.

"I know. Whew, I’m tired." He said, wiping a few loose hairs from his face.

"You expelled a lot of energy to get here."

"Oh yeah." He smiled, bringing his cup to his lips. "You should've seen me."

"Brian told me Aaron's version." She smiled.

"I'm sure it was attractive."

"You were upset about CJ. You didn't know. . ."

"No, I didn't. Lexie, about CJ. . ."

"I know. I had no right. . ."

"That's right, you don't. She's my daughter, Lexie. I don't expect you to understand this. Besides you, she's my whole world. I'm her father. . ."

"You have to trust my judgment sometime. Wait until you see her. You'll know I was right." Lexie insisted.

"And you have to trust mine." He said.

"I won't question what you say about CJ's care." She said.

"Well, gee, when you put it that way. . ." he joked.

"But, that's what you mean. You don't think I can care properly for her. Nick, I've got two younger brothers and now a younger sister. I've had Alex for almost two weeks. I've had CJ for the same two weeks. Kevin let Dwaine come done here with us and he's ten." Lexie said. "I love her, Nick. I'd die before I'd let anything happen to her. So would any of the others, she's one of us."

"One of you?"

"She's a Backstreet child." Lexie said with a rise of her eyebrow. "I'm the first, so far Caroline is the last. First the Backstreet Boys, now their children. We're family."

Nick hadn't realized what a sub-culture had been created with their children. With the exception of Howie's nieces, every one of these kids was a Backstreet child. He could only imagine what they talked about these last two weeks. He knew Kim and Rachel had plans to go into the business and so did Jake from the business end. Lexie had no plans, that he knew of. That left Alex, CJ and Kevin's youngest.

"I'm sorry. I guess I hadn't realized how much you all had in common."

"Yeah. We've all been through the same things. It's amazing. Even CJ knows what we're talking about sometimes." Lexie smiled, running her fingers through her hair. When that hand landed on the back of the couch, Nick took it in his own.

"What are we going to do next?" he asked softly.

"I don't know."

"Should we tell the others?"

"Jake already knows."

"He does?"

"I told him in Seattle. He kind of figured it out after I called that guy, Matt, Nick once."

"You did?"

"Don't sound so surprised." She said. "Both Dad and AJ have asked me if something happened between me and you in Detroit that made me run away."


"They think we had some kind of fight. Which we did." She said. "Nick? You know I was going to leave any way, don't you? I don't think you could've said anything to make me stay."

"I think I suspected. . ."

"When I heard AJ call me 'Amanda' and he started talking to her. . . it was like the final rejection. Like he couldn't see me for me, which is all I ever wanted. He was so in love with her, he couldn't even see me." She said. "When you said we had made a mistake, I knew you were looking at me and seeing AJ. Not me."

"I had just gotten done thinking about Howie and AJ and what their reactions might be."

"I don't know what they'll say. I don't know what they'll do." She sighed, pulling her hand away from his. "They may reject us both."

"I'll be there for you."

"I'll be there for you, too." She said.

"Is CJ that happy here?" he asked.

"Yes. She misses you, but she's playing with the other kids and running around. She falls asleep exhausted at night from all the exercise."

"She's been having bad dreams?"

"Yes, in the beginning. Not now."

"Maybe she is better off away from me." He sighed.

"God, Nick! Don't ever say that! AJ thought the same thing about me!" She snapped.

"No, I didn't mean it like that! I'm her father, she belongs with me... but I can't provide her with everything she needs right now." He said.

"What are the lawyers saying about your cases?"

"So much, I can't even follow it any more." He sighed. "I've lost about half of them, some have been minor wins. It doesn't look like it's going to be over before the end of the year."

"Have you ever thought of settling the rest and just getting on with your life?" she asked.

"Yes, but then I remember what happened in Detroit. The monster that fuels this almost killed all of us that night. I want to fight it. I don't want other artists held hostage by that kind of terrorism again. . .It's just wrong, Lex."

"I understand."

"Well, you're the only one. Aaron tells me all the time to settle these last 6 cases, but I just can't. I'm so freakin' broke it isn't even funny. . ." he said with a bitter chuckle.

"Broke? Nick, how can you be broke? You've had a 30-year career. . ."

"This shit is expensive. Oh, I'm not headed for the poorhouse or anything, but it's getting mighty thin. . ."

"Well, you can get back on with your career when this is all over."

"I hope so. I hope I still have a label when this is over, not to mention management."

"Well, you can come sign with SD Records. Dad would love to have you. You and Brian can be on the same label." She chuckled.

"Great. If we can get AJ and Kevin to come back we could make a comeback album." He joked.

"Did you just make a joke, Nick?" she smiled.

"Yeah. We can call it The Backstreet Geriatrics! We'll all be in wheelchairs on the album cover." He laughed.

"Hey, as long as the girls can still see Kevin's chest and AJ can still wear a hat, you know it'll be a hit." She laughed with him.

"Ew, do you really think anyone wants to still see Kevin's chest?" he said, squishing up his face.

"Well, I got a little peek at it one night. . .he's in good shape for an old guy!" she teased.

"Is that what you think of me?" he asked.

"No, you are timeless to me." She whispered.

The back of her knuckles reached up and stroked his stubbled cheek. He took her hand and pressed his lips against the palm of her hand. She shivered under the feel of his lips.

"I love you so much." He groaned, closing his eyes.

"I love you, Nick. I promise." She whispered.

"Would you be willing to make love with me again? Tonight before anyone gets back?" he asked suddenly. He felt her hands begin to tremble. "I can't think of anything else I want to say. Let me show you."

Her answer was getting herself off the couch and pulling him up to his feet. She took his hand and started to lead him upstairs, but the back door to the cabin opened and they froze in their tracks. She shook her head sadly at him and let go of his hand. It was Jake who saw them standing at the foot of the stairs, posed to go up. He had little Alex fast asleep in his arms.

"Daddy!" CJ screamed as she ran down the hall and launched herself into Nick's arms.

"What?" Rachel said, coming in behind Jake.

"Hi, baby." He smiled, picking her up and giving her a kiss.

"I didn't know you were coming!" she smiled.

"Neither did we." Rachel said to Lexie. Lexie just gave her a smile and a shrug.

"Hey, aren't you going to say 'hi' to your favorite Uncle Nick?" he said to Rachel and Kim. They came up and each gave him a hug.

"You must be Jake Richardson." Nick smiled, reaching out to shake his hand, but Jake's hands were full with Alex.

"Yeah, yeah." He chuckled. "This is my brother, Dwaine."

"Hey, D. What's up?" Nick smiled. Dwaine shuffled behind Jake some more.

"He's kind of shy." Jake smiled. "Come on, little man. Let's get this kid to bed before my arms fall off!"

Nick spied two darker teen girls hovering by the back door. He cocked his head at them and waved them in. "You're Marta and Aria? Howie's nieces?" he smiled. They only nodded at him. "I’m not as terrible as Lexie says I am." He received a smile from both of them with that.

Kim, Rachel, Lexie, Marta, Aria, CJ and Nick all went back into the living room and sat down around the room. CJ sat in Nick's lap and they all told him stories of their adventures. Jake joined them and sat down beside Lexie. Dwaine went to bed himself while he was upstairs.

"You guys sound like you've been having a great time." Nick smiled.

"It's been cool. Thanks for letting us have CJ. She's been a big help teaching Alex is ABC's." Jake said.

"He's almost four and he can count." CJ said. Lexie just gave Nick a little smile, knowing that Alex wasn't really counting yet.

"Well, he's not as smart as you are. You could count when you were two." Nick teased her.

"I could? Wow, I was just a baby then." She gasped. Everyone in the room burst out laughing. Nick wasn't sure if CJ realized he was joking with her. "Oh, Daddy!" she exclaimed, throwing her arms around his neck with a laugh. She got serious for a moment. "I missed you, Daddy."

"I've missed you too, sweetie." He said.

"Are you going to stay?"

"Well, my bags are upstairs. . ."

"I can sleep on the couch, that's no problem." Jake said.

"Can I sleep with you, tonight?" CJ asked.

"Of course!" Nick smiled.

"Good. Lexie snores." She said, squishing up her face.

"I DO NOT SNORE!" Lexie squealed.

"You sound just like Uncle Howie!" CJ teased her as she made these loud snorting noises.

"You stop that right now, you little booger!" Lexie demanded.

Everyone was laughing hard at CJ and Lexie's antics. CJ had told Lexie several times that she snored, but she refused to believe it. Jake tried to confirm it once, but got a swat on the back of his head for his efforts.

"Look at the time. I'm gonna go wash up and then hit the sack." Jake said. The girls agreed with him and they headed upstairs to use the bathrooms.

"I'm glad you're here, Daddy." CJ said, nestling herself into his lap.

"Me too."

"I think Lexie missed you." She said, looking over at Lexie. Lexie gave her a smile and rose her eyebrows at her. "She talks about you in her sleep too."

Lexie's eyes flashed at Nick, but he only returned a warm smile to her with sleepy eyes. He had dreamed of her so much this last year that it didn't surprise him that she shared those dreams with him. He had been right all along. He was a fool. A fool for not being with her sooner. A fool for denying them all the happiness they could have together forever. A fool for thinking a love like this could ever go unnoticed by either one of them. A fool for believing that he could fight the tides of fate.

Chapter 25 by old_archive

The next morning was Sunday and Jake was packing himself and Dwaine up to head back to Kentucky to be with their folks for a couple days. He'd come back in three days, finish out his internship in Orlando, then fly back to Seattle to head back to school.

Kim and Rachel were staying on for another week with Marta and Aria. Lexie had planned to take Alex back and then return, but with Nick in town, she told them that she might have to stay in Orlando to help AJ out. Jake only slipped her a silly grin. Nick took CJ, Lexie and Alex back in his rental car.

After the kids fell asleep, Nick confessed to Lexie as he drove.

"You were right." He said.


"CJ looks great. She's really gotten some sun."

"You could stand a little yourself." She smiled, reaching over and taking his hand.

"I just might. AJ has a pool, maybe I'll just park myself poolside for the next week." He smiled at her.

"That would be good for you." She agreed.

"Are you staying at Howie's?"

"Sometimes. I flip back and forth between there and AJ's. I take the boys over there when Mom needs a break. I've even gotten to take Caroline out, so she and Dad can have some private time."

"I bet they appreciate it."

"Well, we usually end up at either John's, Angie's or AJ's. AJ's kind of getting a kick out of having a little girl around." She smiled.

"Is he thinking he wants more children?"

"I have no idea what he wants. I think he's still concerned about his skills just to raise Alex on his own. There isn't a woman in sight right now for him any way."

Nick chuckled, "That won't last long."

"I hope not. He seems kind of lonely." Lexie sighed.

"That won't last long either." Nick laughed. Lexie laughed with him. "Are you two really getting along as well as he says?"

"Yes. He's not exactly a father figure. Howie is still the one who nags me about everything, but he's a good friend now." Lexie said.

"How do you think he'll react?"

"I don't know. He's asked me several times if I'm seeing anyone. I think he might be okay with it."

"What about Howie and Leah?"

"Lord. Mom, I think she'll be the first one to be okay with it. I hope that she'll be able to bring Dad along. I don't think he's going to be very happy at all. When are we going to tell them?"

"I don't know. What do you think? Should we wait?" he asked.

"Yes. Let's get through your cases first; see where we want to take this. Try to get a few things settled." She nodded.

"I guess you're right. How are we going to make this work? I'm still living with Aaron."


"I guess I just moved in and stayed."

"You have the same amount of press there as you do at your house. CJ wants to go home to her own bed. She has told me that."

"Yeah, I know. She's told me that, too. I just couldn't get the energy up to make any decisions. It was just easier to let Aaron and Jill do that."

"Well, according to Brian, you were hot footing it out of there the night before." She smiled.

"That's when I though CJ was in danger."

"She still is. She's in danger of being unhappy." Lexie said.

"I'll think about it next week."

"When you're sunning yourself poolside at AJ's?" she smiled warmly.

"Damn straight, girlie." He laughed at her teasing.

Lexie called AJ from the car and told him the plan worked and that Nick was staying the week at his house. He was excited about that. She also told him that she was going to spend her first night back with her parents and that Alex would be with Nick when they arrived. He wanted Lexie to come to his house to spend the night and stay up talking with him and Nick. Lexie reassured him that she and Nick had already talked and they were friends again. Besides, Lexie didn't have any clean clothes at his house and she was missing her brothers and new little sister. AJ made her promise to come over and help get some spatulas to flip Nick over when he got done baking poolside. She laughed and said she'd help peel him off the deck furniture.

AJ was in the driveway with a bodyguard when Nick pulled up. Nick didn't know if AJ knew Aaron had security on them, but he did feel better knowing someone was watching the house that he could actually see.

AJ hugged Nick before he opened the car door and pulled Alex out of his car seat. Alex got so excited to see AJ that he let out this remarkable noise that sounding like a cat crying.

"Good god!" Nick laughed, holding the car door for CJ. AJ was laughing as he headed up the driveway to the door.

"He does that all the time." AJ laughed back to him.

"Jesus. That was just horrible." Nick laughed as he grabbed his and CJ's bags. CJ pushed the door closed.

"I know. It's sounds awful." CJ said, running up in front of him and into the house.

"There's a guest room upstairs and all the way at the end of the hall to the right. The one on the left is Lexie's room." AJ said, pointing the way. "The room directly next to her's is the one CJ has stayed in. Go throw your stuff in there. Wanna drink or something?"

"Yeah, that would be great."

"Get some trunks on and take a swim. CJ! Get your suit on, okay?" AJ yelled as CJ ran up the stairs in front of Nick.

"Okay, Uncle AJ!" she yelled back.

Nick just smiled and shook his head. So, this is where she learned to yell through the house!

Nick made it to his guestroom and dropped his bags off. He took CJ's back downstairs because most of it was dirty. Nick almost fell over when AJ took him to the laundry room and started doing CJ's laundry himself.

AJ McLean at a clothes washer! Will the wonders ever cease?!

"What?" AJ laughed as he dumped detergent in the washer and closed the lid.

"You do laundry?"

"Sure. It's not like I forgot how or something. CJ's been here and I do wash her clothes. She's not being neglected." AJ laughed.

"I would've thought you'd hire someone. . ."

"There's no point. Oh, I have a service come in twice a week, but I do everything else myself. It's not like I’m on tour or something. I haven't recorded in a couple years, now. . ." He sighed. "I have Alex to take care of. I was smart. I invested when we were younger. I'm fine."

"Good for you, AJ." Nick smiled.

"Go get some trunks on. It's still plenty hot outside!" AJ joked as they left the laundry room.

"Uncle AJ! I can't get into the pool!" CJ yelled from the deck.

"It's still locked. What did I tell you about waiting for an adult, CJ?"

"I know. I'm sorry." She mumbled.

"Okay. Go help your Dad pick out some trunks and get his big butt down so I can give him the key." AJ laughed. CJ wasted no time racing through the house and yelling for Nick to hurry up!

Nick couldn't remember when he had been more relaxed. He had no doubt that Mrs. Dorough's leftover enchiladas and the half a dozen drinks AJ put in him helped a bit. Nick felt safe for the first time as he watched CJ and Alex play and AJ tended to them. He hadn't even realized he had fallen asleep until AJ woke him and it was dark.

"Where's CJ?" Nick asked startled.

"She's already in bed. Come on, its time for her Dad to hit the sack as well." AJ smiled.

"Thanks, AJ. Thanks for everything."

"Sure, Nick. Any time, bro." He smiled back.

Nick spent the next week in bliss. He and Lexie got to see each other everyday, although they had no private time together. A stolen kiss here and there, seconds spent in each other's arms. It didn't bother either one of them. They both knew the truth and nothing would change that for them. AJ seem genuinely happy that they were on speaking terms. He told Nick several times he felt Nick was responsible for giving Lexie back to him. Nick notice that a couple times when the kids weren't around, Lexie had called AJ 'dad'. He thought it was sweet and when he mentioned it to her, she denied she had said it. She told him he was hearing things.

By Friday, Nick had decided to have Aaron send his things back to his house where he and CJ were going to head back to. CJ would stay behind with Lexie for one more week and then she would fly CJ back in AJ's plane. AJ gave Nick the use of the plane to take him back to L.A. so he could avoid a commercial flight. CJ stayed with Howie and Leah when Lexie drove Nick to the airport.

She helped carry one of his bags across the tarmac and into AJ's plane where all the window shades had been kept down. He came up behind her and took her in his arms and she turned to him. His lips gently pressed against hers and she opened to him.

"I'm going to miss seeing you everyday." He smiled, touching his forehead to hers.

"I'll miss you, too. I'll be back in a week." She smiled.

"I'll have security send a van for you guys. I don't want you driving yourself to my house." He said.

"It's going to be tricky getting in and out of your house." She sighed.

"I know. It probably won't happen much." He agreed.

"What about your place in Malibu?" she asked.

"I sold it."

"What?! Nick, that's one of your favorite places."

"Yeah, well, not anymore." He sighed, straightening himself.

"What else is gone?" she asked.

"The house in Kentucky, the condo is Maui and both boats." He sighed.

"What? Jesus, Nick!"

"Well, it couldn't be avoided." He shrugged.

"The Prowler?"

"Well, Brian bought that from me. I can get it back any time." He said with a half smile. "The only property I have is the house in L.A."

"What about the private lake house. . ."

"Oh, I sold my part of that to Aaron and BJ years ago. My folks still live there." He shrugged.

"I'm so sorry." She said quietly.

"Don't worry about it. It's only stuff. I can always get more stuff." He smiled. "Besides, if we actually get accepted by your fathers, I'll probably have to buy a place here in Orlando."

"That would be great. Wouldn't it?" she smiled softly for him.

"I love you, okay? No matter how long it takes to get this all worked out. You'll remember that, right?" he said.

"Not distance, not time." She smiled back at him. He leaned in and kissed her gently. "I promise, Nick."

The next week just flew by for Lexie. Nick called CJ everyday and could catch up with Lexie if CJ could remember where she was. She went back and forth between AJ's and Howie's, but finally settled down at AJ's for her last night there.

"Is it okay with Howie that you're here?" AJ asked her, setting a dinner plate in front of her.

"Yeah. He's driving me and CJ to the airport tomorrow."

"Have you seen enough of him this summer?"

"Of course! AJ, don't worry about it."

"I just don't want Howie to get upset. . ."

"AJ, Howie knows you're my father. He's accepted that we have a relationship. He knows I love him. He's my Dad." She shrugged.

"I'm glad. I don't want to cause any problems."

"AJ, stop that!" she scolded him. He sat next to her on the same deck chair Nick had camped out on the week before.

"Well, I just wanted to say that." He said, filling his fork as they watched the kids play in the yard.

"I love you too." She said sideways at him.

"I know that." He sighed.

"I'll miss you too, AJ." She chuckled, knowing what he was thinking. He looked over at her and laughed.

"I'm just glad you and Nick are still friends." He smiled, shoveling food into his mouth.

"Oh yeah. He's just going through some stuff. He'll be fine, though." She said, starting to eat herself.

"He seemed the happiest I've seen him in a year. That must have been some fight you guys had in Detroit." AJ said.

"Well, I was messed up. It's behind us now." She said.

"Lexie? What did you do for the three days before you contacted Nick?" he asked.


"When you left, no one heard from you for three days before you contacted Nick. Where were you?"


"What?" he asked, stunned.

"I was in the airport for three days. I couldn't decide where to go. Detroit or L.A.?" she said, "I only had enough money for one ticket and I needed to see him, so I went to Detroit and demanded a flight to L.A."

"That's nuts." He said.

"Well, so was I." She chuckled.

"What did you guys fight about?" he asked.

"Me going to L.A., me leaving Orlando, me not wanting to talk to Dad." She sighed.

"That's it?"

"Why all the questions?" Lexie asked.

"You guys just seemed so close before you left. When you were gone, I actually thought Nick knew where you were but he wouldn't tell us."

"What?! Nick would've never done anything like that for all those months! AJ!" she said stunned.

"I know, I know. I know better now, I'm sorry."

"Is that what you and Dad have been saying? That Nick's been lying to you all this time?"

"No, no! I never mentioned it to anyone before now. Howie's hinted around that something else might have happened between you guys, and I figured that's what he meant."

"Well, that's stupid AJ. Nick would've been the first person to track me down if he knew where I was." She said, putting her plate down.

"Lexie, I'm sorry. I was just trying to figure out what Howie meant. . ." he said as he watched her get up.

"Do you understand how much Howie didn't want me anywhere near you guys? Nick was the first Backstreet Boy in my father's house, not including himself. AJ, Howie was scared he would lose me to you. And Nick. And Kevin and Brian and all that was the Backstreet Boys." She sighed. "Do you have any idea how hard it's been to convince him I still love him like a father and that I wasn't going to leave to be with you? I've spent all these months trying to keep you two balanced and now you think Nick was lying the entire time?"

"I'm sorry, honey. I didn't mean it like that. I'm just trying to explain how I was feeling at the time."

"No, AJ. Nick didn't know where I was until Brian called him after he got off the phone with you." She said, gathering up her plate and glass. AJ got up and followed her back into the house.

"Lexie, you aren't being fair. We were so worried about you. . ." He began.

"I'm sorry AJ. I'm not mad at you." She sighed, putting her full dish in the sink. She turned to him. "I just wouldn't want you thinking about Nick like that."

"I don't, I swear." He said.

"Good. He didn't do anything wrong in Detroit. He just tried to be my friend." She said. "I'll tell you the same thing I told Nick when he asked me if he was the reason I left Detroit. Nothing would've stopped me. Dad, I was scared, I was hurt, and all the pain blinded me. Nothing Nick could've done would've made me stay. I was leaving, regardless of anything Nick Carter would've said to me."

"I'm sorry. I was wrong." AJ sighed.

"I'm sorry too. Don't be upset with me." She said.

"I’m not. I shouldn't have said anything. It was stupid."

"No, not really. At least it's out in the open now." She sighed.


Howie picked up CJ and Lexie at AJ's in the morning and drove them to the airport. CJ was excited to be going home to her own house and Lexie was looking forward to seeing Nick. CJ ran ahead of them on the tarmac and Lexie stopped Howie from starting up the stairs into the plane.

"Dad? Can I ask you something?" she asked.

"Sure." He shrugged.

"Did you think that Nick knew where I was all that time and wasn't telling you?"

"What?! Of course not! Nick would never do anything like that. That's insane, Lexie!" he said, stunned.

"I'm sorry I asked."

"Lexie, what would make you think I would think something like that about Nick?"

"Something AJ and I talked about last night."

"Did AJ say that about Nick?"

"Don't go and get upset. . ."

"Lexie, tell me."

"Yes, but he said it was just a feeling he had. He said you kept hinting that maybe something else had happened in Detroit that Nick hadn't told you about." She said.

Oh no. Howie thought. He had thought that. He'd had a feeling about the two of them for two years, although he had known they weren't speaking until recently. Did AJ have the same thoughts? Had AJ gotten the same feeling Howie had gotten when he first saw them together?

"I don't think I mentioned anything to AJ." Howie shrugged. Lexie just shrugged.

"I just wanted to tell you that nothing Nick did made me leave. I was leaving before I ever got to Detroit. Nick just got me a ticket back to L.A." She said. "There was nothing he could've said that would've made me stay."

"I know, honey." Howie nodded.

"Thanks Dad." She said, throwing her arms around his neck. "I love you. Take care of everyone for me!"

"I will, baby. I promise." He smiled, kissing her cheek as CJ hollered for her from the plane.

Nick's van rolled up to AJ's plane as it landed and the security employees help get Lexie and CJ into the van. CJ ran straight out of the van and into the house yelling for Nick. Lexie followed her a little more quietly. The guard left Lexie's bags in the van for her ride back to the campus.

Nick had been in his den, waiting for their arrival. Nick was carrying CJ down the hall toward the door into the garage when Lexie walked in. He smiled warmly and kissed her cheek.

"You guys have a good flight?" he asked them.

"It was just fine." Lexie said.

"I like Uncle AJ's plane. It's fun." CJ laughed. Nick put her down and patted her behind.

"Why don't you go check out your room?" he suggested. She ran down the hall and up the back staircase.

"Did you leave a surprise?" Lexie smiled.

"Yes. I got her some new toys. She deserves them." He smiled. He took her hand, led her back to the den, and closed the door behind them. He took her in his arms and kissed her. Lexie realized that all the shades were drawn in this room. "Stay with me tonight." He breathed in her ear.

"I don't think I can." She said, her words muffled as his mouth found hers again. "Nick, there was press piled up outside your gates."

"The van has tinted windows. No one saw you. . ." he murmured.

"My Dad is expecting me to call him tonight. . ."

"You can call from here. . ."he insisted.

"What about CJ?" she asked.

"She's six. What is she going to figure out?" he asked her with a raised eyebrow.

"This is CJ we're talking about. Your exceptionally bright and talkative daughter." Lexie reminded him.

"Let's have dinner, put CJ to bed and then we can talk about it. Okay?" he asked jokingly.

"Okay, after CJ goes to bed." She smiled as he kissed her one more time.

Cook prepared a pleasant dinner for them and they were able to share it together in the dinning room, although the shades were all drawn against prying eyes and cameras. It was so natural, so right, Nick couldn't believe he thought he could deny himself this. CJ sat across from him and Lexie to his right and it was all he could do not to reach out and hold her hand for the entire meal. Her and CJ had such a rapport, it was amazing. She belonged with them and in this house and now Nick knew that. If he could only convince her to stay tonight.

Nick drew CJ's bath and cleaned her up while Lexie called her Dads and talked to both of them. When she was done, she sat on the vanity while Nick finished up with CJ and they all chatted away. CJ insisted that both of them read her a bedtime story, since Lexie has been doing it for the last couple weeks. So with CJ tucked in her own bed and sandwiched between them, Nick held the book as Lexie read it.

It didn't take long for CJ to fall asleep, she had had a really long and tiring day. Lexie and Nick got off her bed, each kissing her cheeks and left silently into the hall. Nick closed the door as Lexie stepped away from him, placing the book on a hall table because she forgot to leave it in the room. He closed the distance between them and slipped one finger under one of the thin straps of her sundress and the other unknotted the bow in the back. His lips found her warm, sun-kissed skin and she moaned under his attention. She turned to him, he took her hand, and she followed him down the hall.

Nick's room was at the very end of the hall, nearly at the opposite end of the house. The door was already ajar, he simply pushed it open and led her in. She stopped in her tracks as she looked around.

It was as large as some hotel suites, decorated in creams and muted blues. It was decidedly masculine, but incredibly sensuous. He took this moment to kiss her gently, cupping her face in his hands.

"What about CJ?" she whispered.

"She's sound asleep, she won't hear a thing." He murmured.

"Are you sure?" she asked.

"Yes, Lex, I'm sure." He giggled.

He kissed her amused face again and she returned it this time. He thought that maybe he should stop. It's been a year, he should ask first. He shouldn't just assume she wants to spend the night with him. She's probably scared. His doubts disappeared as her hands began to pull his silk shirt from his slacks. When her hands stopped, he stood back from her and pulled it the rest of the way over his head. He stood there, holding the shirt in his hand and she didn't move back toward him. He saw her hands rise toward him, then hesitate.

"Touch me." He whispered. "Please. I can't tell you how long I've waited. . ." his sentence ended in a groan as her hands slipped over his ribs and up his chest.

She pulled his ponytail over his bare shoulder and unclipped the rest of his hair. He couldn't escape the sensation of her hands on his skin. Until now, all he had were the memories of their first night together. When her lips found the center of his chest, he dropped the shirt and ran his fingers through her hair. He lifted her face to him and kissed her. "I love you so much. Let me show you." He whispered. She simply took his hand and led him to the bed.

With her back to him, he reached and untied the bow in the back of her dress. The zipper glided down her tanned back to reveal a simple pair of white cotton panties that hugged her hips. His lips began at her warm shoulders and continued down her back as the dress fell to her feet.

Lexie closed her eyes.

She breathed.

She barely believed.

He was here and he loved her.

She loved him so much, she felt the tears well silently behind her eyes. His name escaped her lips and she found herself in his arms, being folded back onto the bed. He had removed his shoes and slacks and they remained where her dress was. As she breathed again, she knew that it was the last breath she would ever have to take alone.

Nick used all his soul to love her, to somehow communicate what he had felt all this time. When she lay spent in his arms, her sleepy black eyes told him that she was his. Body and soul.

"Not distance, not time." He whispered. "I swear I will always love you."

"I know. I know that now." She whispered back.

Chapter 26 by old_archive

Lexie felt Nick stir early the next morning. She couldn't tell if the sun was up because all of the drapes were drawn. She turned slightly to look behind her to find him with his back to her, sitting on the edge of the bed. He got up and headed quietly to the bathroom and she waited for his return. When he came back, he got back under the covers, came to her side, and snuggled up to her from behind.

"Nick?" she asked.

"Hmmm?" he mumbled.

"Are you okay?" she asked.

"Of course I am."

"What time is it?"

"It's almost 4."

"In the morning?"

"Yes." He chuckled.

"Why are you up so early?"

"Nothing." He mumbled. She turned to him and propped herself up on her elbow.

"Nothing?" she quizzed, rubbing her eyes. He kissed her lightly on the lips. "Bad dreams?" she asked.

"No. . ."

"If they are anything like CJ's, I know they are pretty bad." She said. "Tell me."

"What kinds of dreams did she have?"

"Of you dying."

"What?! My poor baby. . ."

"Did the guys ever tell you that the last time you came home from the hospital, she asked my Dad if you were dead?"

"No! I had no idea. . ."

"That's why they were all sleeping in your room. She felt if they all stayed with you, you wouldn't want to leave."

Nick rolled onto his back and ran his hand over his face. "I had no idea she was so scared, so. . ."

"That's why I wouldn't bring her back." Lexie sighed, resting a hand on his chest. "So, what was your dream about?"

"Everything. I just had a dream about Howie and AJ, that's all." He sighed. He took her hand and brought it to his lips. "I meant it, Lexie. I won't change how I feel because of them or anything else. I have every intention of keeping you in my life."

"I have every intention of staying." She smiled, knowing that Nick's dream of her fathers had not been positive.

"You were meant to be here, in this house, with us."

"I felt that, too."

"It may take some time. I've got to get all of this shit wrapped up and get these people off my back. I don't want you in the middle of all this. . ." He began.

"I understand."

"I swear, I'm not putting you off." He said earnestly.

"I know, I understand, Nick." She smiled.

"I don't know how we're going to make it. After tonight, I doubt I'll be able to get you in and out of the house. It really isn't safe around me with all the threats. . ."

"How serious are they?"

"Very." He sighed. "Kevin has agreed to take CJ to London if anything gets too hairy. I don't want Aaron's family in danger, even if Aaron and Jill insist. Kevin has more resources and is more out of the limelight than us Carters."

"I can't believe this. What makes them think that once the lawsuits are over the threats will end?"


"That's no way to grow up. She's supposed to start school next month."

"She's enrolled in the same private school as Aaron's kids."

"I can't imagine what it's been like, all these months." She sighed.

"It'll be better. It won't be like this forever." He smiled sadly.

Lexie reached up, touched his face, and he leaned in to kiss her. She pressed her body against him as invitation to make love to her again. He took her offer and gladly shared the rest of the very early morning with her.

Lexie had breakfast with the two of them and Nick took her to the van and saw her off in the garage. The guards kept her on the floor of the van and they took her back to the campus.

AJ came back to L.A. by the time Lexie was back at school and her internship. He stood by and supported Nick and she could see them becoming much closer. Brian also flew out a couple times for weekend stays, but Howie stayed home with Leah and the children. Kevin had returned to London, but kept in contact.

Lexie and Nick saw very little of each other during the next couple months. They spoke on the phone and shared as much as they could about their lives. Nick's biggest concern was that AJ would be angry with them for lying to him and they discussed telling him first, but there never seemed to be a good time.

Jillian and Aaron had AJ, Alex, Nick, CJ and Lexie over for Thanksgiving. AJ gave both Nick and CJ no choice in coming home and spending Christmas with him in Orlando. Nick tried to protest, since most of his family was in L.A., but AJ refused to take 'no' as an answer. Aaron encouraged Nick and CJ to go and he finally relented to the both of them. AJ made plans for them to meet up with Lexie to fly out on Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve would be spent here in L.A. AJ called Howie first and told them. Howie would be having his first New Year's Eve concert since the year he collapsed and made plans to keep Nick and CJ around in Orlando until then.

It was December 21, when the judge in one of his cases announced there would be court dates for him to attend after Christmas and before New Year's, and Nick spoke out of turn for the first time since this all began. He got to his feet with a large scrape and his chair almost toppled over. The entire room turned toward him.

"I'm sorry, Your Honor, but I won't be in L.A. during that time." He said.

"Nick, sit down." His lawyer hushed him.

"I’m sorry, Mr. Carter, but I'll have to fine you if you don't attend. . ." the judge began.

Nick reached behind him and pulled his checkbook out of his back pocket. He slapped it on the table in front of him and reached inside his jacket. The next thing the courtroom heard was the click of his pen. "Just tell how much the fine is and I'll pay it."

"Mr. Carter, do you know how serious this is. . ."

"Your Honor, do you understand how serious it is if I break my promise to my daughter?" Nick smiled.

"I'm sure you can stay here. . ."

"No, I'm sorry, Your Honor." He said. "I need to be with my daughter. It's going to be Christmas. I spent last New Year's alone, I don't want to do that again."

"I see."

"Your Honor, with the exceptions of when I was sick, I've been to every court proceeding, just as this same court has ordered me. Just tell me how much the fine is and I'll pay it. I'll return to court on January 3rd."

"Mr. Carter, you argue a good case." The judge said softly. "Court will be adjourned between December 23rd to January 3rd. No fine to Mr. Carter."

"Thank you, Your Honor."

"You're quite welcome, Mr. Carter." She smiled.

Lexie closed up her dorm room and drove over the Aaron's house for Christmas Eve. It was nearly midnight when Aaron had them all driven to the airport to board AJ's plane. They buckled CJ and themselves in for the flight back East. CJ fell asleep with her head in Nick's lap. He was nursing a small glass of whiskey, just to ease his nerves. She always thought it was strange how he hated to fly. He sighed heavily several times, taking sips and glancing back over his shoulder out the small window. He was so far away, that Lexie found herself staring at him over the book in her lap.

He looked so tired and run down. So different from the bright and happy man who had walked into her life at its darkest moments. His hand absently smoothed CJ's blonde curls down, as he continued to nurse his drink. His tan from the summer had long faded and the dark circles under his eyes had returned. His hair was dull, his eyes weary. He stood taller these days than he had previously, but there was still a slump in his stance.

"Not much to look at these days." He smiled half heartedly. When she had walked in to Aaron's that morning, it was the first time she had seen him in three weeks. It was all she could do not to run and take him in her arms. Hold him.

"Oh, I wouldn't say that." She smiled back.

"You look great." He smiled. "It's gonna kill me not being able to hold you for the next week and a half."

"Well, we'll find a way around that. How about this?" She got up, walked over kissed him passionately.

"Goddamn, woman." He groaned, taking her mouth again, careful not to wake CJ. His one hand had gone down her side onto her rear and he tightened his grip. He came up for air and moaned a sad sound, "God, I wish things were different."

"Do you still love me, Nick?" She asked softly.

"Of course." He answered, sounding puzzled.

"Nothing will change that, right?"

"Nothing, I swear." He said, more strongly.

"Not time, not distance."

"Nothing, I swear." He smiled.

"Okay, just making sure." She smiled. He gripped her rear and his fingers slipped down her thigh.

"Do you still love me?" He smiled.

"Yes." She nodded.

"Do you promise to always love me?" He laughed quietly.

"I promise." She winked.

"Are you sure?" He teased.

"I promise to always love you, Nick." She grinned in return.

"Good, just checking." He smiled. He gave her rump a playful slap. They looked down and CJ was looking right at them.

"I love you, too, Daddy." She whispered. "I promise, too."

Nick and Lexie's hearts caught in their throats, what had she seen and heard? What if she told?

Nick hailed them a cab and got them safely to Howie and Leah's for Christmas breakfast and presents. The children were all playing in the family room, while Leah and Lexie cleared the breakfast table.

"You look tired." Her mom said.

"I've been up all night. It was a long flight." Lexie sighed.

"Didn't you get any sleep?" she asked.

"Not really." Lexie said, snapping the dishwasher shut.

"It's good of you to keep an eye on Nick." Leah said.

"What?" Lexie asked puzzled.

"AJ was concerned about him and CJ traveling, that's all."

"AJ stocks enough liquor on that plane to keep Nick sedated." She chuckled.

"Does he still hate to fly?"

"Yes, I think when he's flying is the only time I've seen him drink." Lexie said.

"How are his cases going? AJ isn't very good with details." Leah asked, wiping down the counters.

"He's down to five. He lost that one appeal last month." Lexie said, cleaning up the stove.

"What do they hope to gain by doing this to him?" Leah sighed.

"I don't know, but he's pretty committed to fight to the bitter end." Lexie sighed, rinsing the sponge under water.

"Well." Leah began, throwing her sponge in the sink. "He's always been like this, even in the early days. He's got to do what he thinks is right. The funny thing is, he's usually the one who is right."

Howie drove CJ and Nick over to AJ's to get some sleep and Lexie retired to her old room to get some sleep herself. That only lasted until about noon, then the boys had her up and they were going to Grandma Dorough's for Christmas dinner.

They returned home late and Lexie settled down with Caroline and gave her last bottle for the night. Her parents tucked the boys in and Caroline was asleep in her arms when they came downstairs.

"She's just beautiful, Dad." She said, touching her soft little hair.

"Just like my other daughter." He smiled. Then he gave her a little frown.

"What?" she asked, watching him sit on the couch next to her.

"Are you going to do something about your hair?" he asked. "I can tell AJ hasn't seen it in a while."

"What?" she laughed. It had grown out quite a bit and the roots were really showing. The curl had gone flat ages ago and it was down past her shoulders again. "Well, I wasn't planning on staying a blonde forever. Who do I look like, Nick Carter?" she laughed. Howie laughed at that too.

"So, tell me, speaking of Nick, do you know who this woman is he's seeing?"

"Excuse me? What woman?" she asked.

"It's just a couple months ago, I heard him talking to this woman on the phone. It sounded pretty serious." He sighed, rubbing his eyes tiredly.

"I don't know, Dad."

"I just thought since you guys were still friends. . ."

"I only talk to him, but he hasn't mentioned anything to me." She said.

"Are you sure he hasn't. . ."

"Dad?! No!" she said, trying not to sound too nervous. Howie just gave her a shrug, getting up to take Caroline.

"I’m gonna put her to bed. We're all going over the AJ's in the morning." He said over his shoulder.

"Okay." She said to his back.

Oh, shit.

"Howie, I can't believe you asked Lexie about Nick's love life." Leah said, crawling into bed with him and shutting off the light. "He's hardly going to talk to her about it."

"Oh, I'm not trying to gossip, it's just to hear his side of the conversation. . .he was very passionate about this woman."

"Are you sure it was a woman?" she asked in the dark.

"Leah, now who's asking strange questions." He chuckled. He felt her shrug in his arms.

"I'm just trying to say it's none of your business. Besides, no one has seen any woman around Nick in years; 6 if I'm counting right. He hasn't loved anyone since CJ's mother and I think it will always be like that for him." Leah sighed.

Nick woke to CJ hauling Alex into his bedroom and Alex screaming with delight at the top of his lungs. AJ caught them both and told CJ that her Daddy needed his sleep. Nick said it was okay and the kids climbed in with him. AJ leaned up against the door jamb.


"Hmmm?" he responded as both CJ and Alex settled down in his arms.

"If anything happens to me, will you take Alex?"

"Huh? Why would you ask that?" Nick said.

"I. . .you're doing a great job with CJ and I'd like him to be with you, if I can't be there for him." AJ said.

"Shouldn't you ask Howie and Leah?"

"No, I'm asking you."

"You know they'd do it."

"I know, but I'm asking you." AJ insisted.

"Uh, sure. I'd love to take care of him. . .are you expecting something?" Nick asked.

"No, I just got to thinking." AJ sighed, leaving them to go get breakfast.

"Daddy, is Alex going to come live with us?"

"No, he's going to stay here with his Daddy."

"Good, I wouldn't want a little brother."

"Well, good, because you probably won't get one." He laughed.

"I'd like a little sister. Daddy, are you and Lexie going to have a baby?" she asked.

"What?! Where did you get an idea like that?" he asked, trying not to react.

"Well, you love Lexie and Lexie loves you and when two people love one another they have babies together." She said plainly. "That's what we learned in school."

"Well, I love Lexie because she's our friend and we. . .uh. . .hm. . . uh. . .well. . .Lexie and I won't be having any babies together." He said.

"So, you love Lexie like a friend."

"Yes." He said cautiously.

"You kissed her like Uncle Howie and Aunt Leah kiss, right on the mouth." She said. Great, he thought, that's what I get for letting her stay at their house during the summer, a healthy look at a healthy relationship. "Daddy?"

"CJ, it's different with me and Lexie. . ."

"Don't you love her?"

"Well, yes, but. . ."

"And you kissed her on the mouth. . ."

"I know, but. . ."

"I think you love her more than you say you do." CJ said. "I love Lexie, too. I wish you would have another baby."


"Well, Lexie and I aren't going to be having any babies together. I don't want you talking about this to anyone either, you understand? It's private."

"Like a secret?"

"No, it's private. Sometimes things happen and it's not right to talk about it. Do you understand?" he asked.

"I guess. Can I tell Lexie?"

"No, Lord, don't do that." He sighed.

CJ's awareness shook him to his core and he was utterly terrified CJ would say something to AJ. The Doroughs all came over to AJ's that morning. He went up to Lexie in the kitchen and hissed in her ear, "We've got to talk." They met upstairs in her bedroom. Nick told her everything CJ had said. She stood there with a little smirk on her face, her arms crossed across her chest.

"It's not funny." He said.

"No, it's hysterical." She chuckled.

"What if she tells someone?"

"Then we'll just deal with it, besides she's not the only one with suspicions." She said.

"Who? Who else?"


"What? What does he know?"

"He asked me last night about some woman you were talking on the phone with."

"That was you!"

"I know that, but I wasn't about to tell him." She giggled.

"I wish you'd take this more serious." He whispered harshly.

"I'm sorry, Nick. We can't hide this forever. I love you and you love me and regardless of what other people think of our age difference or your relationship with either one of my fathers, we are going to be together." She said. "It's not going to be pretty, no matter how it happens. They will find out. I'll slip up, you'll slip up, Brian will slip up. . .CJ."

"I'm not ready." He pleaded.

"I know, I know. Don't be so scared, I'll be with you when it happens." She said, sitting on the bed next to him.

He went into her arms and laid his head on her shoulder. "Sh, it'll be just fine. I promise."

"I'll remind you of that one." He said quietly.

"You remind me of all my other ones." She joked.

Chapter 27 by old_archive

The time between Christmas and New Year's was spent doing what AJ did best, shopping! It wasn't just AJ and Lexie. It was AJ and Leah, AJ and Nick, AJ and Alex and the one trip with CJ, well, that accidentally turned into an overnighter in New York. Nick found himself up all night with a crying Alex, who was looking for his Daddy. Lexie had traveled down to Lexington to see Jake and the other Richardsons for those three days and Nick begged Leah to come help him. Nick ended up spending that night on the couch holding Alex.

Howie's concert was New Year's Eve and everyone was going. Howie had really wanted to bring everyone on stage, but Nick was still unable to perform yet. Lexie knew that was the worst part for him. Kevin had played the piano for hours the night before at AJ's and they had all sung together. It broke her heart, because he was his happiest when he was singing.

The Doroughs, Richardsons, Littrells, McLeans and Carters all took up the first two rows and enjoyed the show. CJ was in Nick's arms and Alex in Lexie's arms when CJ grabbed her sleeve and pulled her close to Nick during the New Year's kiss. She looked up at him as he bent down and kissed her cheek, then Alex's then CJ's. CJ leaned over, she and Alex shared a quick childish kiss, and the audience laughed because the cameras had been pointed right at them. Nick looked up at the big screen and saw what a beautiful picture the four of them made.

The audience screamed when they saw Nick, and Lexie could tell that he seemed surprised. He raised a hand and waved and the audience began to chant his name. He smiled wildly and began to blush. His eyes turned to the stage where Leah and Howie were and he turned away quickly from the cameras. He looked at her before looking away again. She saw the tears in his eyes.

His one first true love was there, up where Howie was. He missed the part of him that used to be up there, sharing the music. AJ, Brian and Kevin dragged Nick onstage, even if he couldn't sing. He still had CJ in his arms and AJ had switched Caroline for Alex. Someone with a mic was standing near Nick when everyone heard CJ ask him, "Why don't you go sing, Daddy?" and they all heard his quiet reply, "I can't." Someone from the audience screamed, "We love you, Nick!" and it earned him and all the boys, a standing ovation.

Lexie couldn't see the stage as the tears ran openly down her face. All of her love couldn't fix this. It just wasn't enough to give him back his passions, his very life. She understood for the first time why he has fought on as long as he has. He had no choice. He was fighting to snatch his soul from the jaws of death and he could see hell while it unfolded before him. She would help him fight. She would find a way to make him whole again, if it's the last thing she ever did.

Nick and Lexie were the adults who took the babies home to AJ's that night. Caroline was in a spare crib in Alex's room while Nick took CJ to the room she used while at AJ's. Lexie got Alex into his pajamas and set him in his crib last. Nick came into Alex's dark bedroom and found her caressing his forehead. He stood behind her and wrapped his arms around her, pressing into her back.

"He's just beautiful, isn't he?" she whispered.

"Just like his sister." Nick whispered in her ear.

"It's just a miracle he's alive. I'm so lucky to have this chance with him and AJ." She said, tears of happiness filling her eyes. Nick turned her to him and wiped her cheeks, "Don't cry, baby."

Lexie wrapped her arms around his body and buried her face in his chest. Nick stood and held her for a long time. She broke away and took his hand and led him out of Alex's room, closed the door and headed toward his bedroom. He stopped her half way.

"No, Lex, we can't. What if AJ shows up. . .?"

"He'll be gone for hours." She said, stopping, turning toward him and taking off her shoes in the hall.

"This is our time. We've waited so long. " She whispered, taking his other hand.

She held them both as she walked backwards to his room. She let go long enough to open the door and lead him in. She closed the door behind him and then turned her back to him.

"Could you help me with this?" she asked.

His trembling hands unzipped the formal dress to her waist and she shrugged out of it. She picked it off the floor and laid it across the chair in the corner.

"That thing weighs a ton." She smiled.

She popped his bow tie and began to unbutton his tux shirt. She stopped half way and looked up as she went to remove his jacket. His eyes were closed, his head tipped back. She peeled it off of him and laid it over her dress. She pulled the shirt from his pants and traveled down his arms to undo the cuffs. He didn't move, but his breathing became more rapid. She removed his shirt completely and then stood behind him, gently tipping his head forward. She undid the silver clip in his hair and dropped it on the dresser. She ran her fingers up his neck and through his hair, each silky strand setting her skin on fire. He looked down and kicked off his shoes, then his socks and he reached to remove his slacks. They dropped off so he stood there in his briefs. She was still behind him. He waited for her touch. His reward was the feel of her bare breasts against his back, her legs rubbing up against his. She had disrobed behind him. Her hands reached around and took his and he twisted to face her.

He scooped her up in one single movement, laid her on the bed and pressed his body into hers. His kiss was wonderful and possessing and she became obsessed with having it. She helped him remove his briefs and her mouth found all his tender parts, including his heart.

Time had changed nothing for them; their love was still as strong. He laid on top of her, his breathing returning to normal when he said, "I'm telling AJ and Howie. I can't live like this without you another day."

"I'll be there with you." She whispered.

"No, I don't want them to take it out on you. I'll tell them." He said, lifting his head to look at her. "I love you so much."

"So much you'll take the risk of them hating you?" she asked.

"It can't be any worse than what I'm going through right now." He whispered back. "Get on the plane tomorrow with CJ and I'll stay here and tell them."

"Are you sure?" she asked.

"I am so sure." He said as he kissed her. He began to feel the blood rush all through his body and he was ready to make love to her again and forever.

AJ woke to Alex crying in the room next to his. He got up wearily and went to get him. He picked him up and stopped at Nick's door. He slowly opened it to find Nick out cold against the morning. He didn't hesitate to close the door until he saw Lexie's dress on the chair across the room.

What was her dress doing in here?

His thoughts twisted, as he finally understood what Howie had been hinting at all this time.

Lexie and Nick.

No, she just used his shower that's all! She wasn't with him now; she was in the other guestroom.

His body began to shake and in his gut, he knew it was true. He remembered back to all the times he had seen them together, and he realized they moved like lovers, like intimate lovers.

His hands were shaking as he quietly closed the door, hoping he hadn't woken Nick. CJ stumbled out of her room and down the hall toward AJ. He shushed her and headed downstairs to feed the kids breakfast. He set cereal in front of CJ and Alex and couldn't resist asking her some questions about Lexie and Nick.

"CJ? Do you like Lexie?" he asked cautiously.

"Oh, yeah. She's lots of fun. She doesn't come over to the house though because of the bad people." CJ said around a mouthful.

"Does your Daddy like her?" he asked.

"He loves her, she loves him, too, but Daddy says they're just friends." She said, picking some dropped cereal off the table and back into the bowl. "She made him promises."

"What kind of promises?" AJ asked.

"That she'd always love him. Uncle AJ?" she asked.

"Yes, honey?"

"Do you think my Daddy loves Lexie more than he thinks he does?" she asked.

"I don’t know." AJ said, sitting at the table with her.

"I think he does. I saw him kiss her on the mouth just like Uncle Howie and Aunt Leah do. Oh! I'm not supposed to say anything." She said suddenly.

"It's okay."

"You can't tell, Uncle AJ, I think my Daddy would be mad." She said.

"It's all right, I won't tell." He said, churning it all around in his head.

Detroit, that had to be it! Nick was the reason she ran out. What had he done to her? To think his best friend and his daughter were lovers. . .no, it couldn't be!

There is no way! Nick would never do anything like that!

"Do you know anything else about your Daddy and Lexie?" AJ ventured to ask.

"If you want to know about me and Lexie, I'd rather you ask me and not my six-year-old daughter." Nick said from behind AJ. AJ got to his feet.

"Is it true?" AJ asked.

"CJ, why don't you go upstairs and change, okay?" Nick said.

"Okay." She said quietly. She stopped in front of Nick, dwarfed by his size. "I'm sorry, Daddy, don't be mad."

"I'm not mad. Go on and get dressed." He said, resting his hand on her head. She scooted past him and they heard her run upstairs.

"I can't believe it." AJ said, stunned.

"Well, believe it." Nick sighed.

"Don't use that tone with me." AJ growled.

"You just asked my six-year-old daughter about my relationship with Lexie. I don't want you using her like that again." Nick snapped.

"Like you're using my daughter?" AJ asked sarcastically.

"It's not the same, we're both adults."

"She's half your age! Who are you kidding, yourself? You're forty two years old and you have no business with a twenty-two year old girl!" AJ snapped.

"I'm well aware of how old everyone is." Nick said.

"Not to mention she's my daughter, she's Howie's daughter. . .You're sick, you know that?" AJ yelled. Just then Lexie bolted into the room and pushed Nick out of the doorway.

"CJ just came crying into my room, what's going on?" she demanded.

"He knows, Lex."

"Oh, well, I guess it was CJ and not Brian." Lexie sighed.

"Brian knows? Who else knows about this little perversion!" AJ demanded.

"AJ!" Lexie said.

"I told Brian a year ago, right before the recording. . ."

"That little bastard. . ."AJ mumbled. "Is this what happened in Detroit? Is this what Howie suspects?"

"I don't know what Howie suspects." Nick said.

"AJ, I left because I was going to. It had nothing to do with what happened between me and Nick." Lexie said.

"You two have been lying to everyone this entire time. You've been lying to me! Goddamn it, Nick! This entire time you're in my house and I've spent all that time in L.A. trying to help you and it turns out you're sleeping with my daughter?!" AJ demanded.

"We've barely seen each other. . ." Nick began.

"The phone call. . ."

"AJ, please! Nick and I wanted to tell you. We've discussed it a hundred times when you were in L.A., but there never seemed like a good time."

"You want me to believe there is a good time to tell your father you're sleeping with his best friend?" AJ growled.

"AJ, it's not like that. I love Nick and he loves me." Lexie began. Nick could hear the panic in her voice.

"You stupid, little. . ." AJ began, moving aggressively toward Lexie. Nick had heard that tone before from AJ. That tone he used to argue with Amanda. Nick reached for Lexie, but she shoved him away as she rose to meet AJ's challenge.

"What, AJ? What are you going to call me? Maybe I'm more like my father than even Howie suspects?" she snarled at him. Nick heard the sickening crack of AJ's hand connecting with her face. AJ's face revealed no remorse. Her face revealed her anger and disgust. "I'm not my mother. I'm not going to keep taking you back." She growled.

"Lexie, go pack and get CJ. I'll call a cab." Nick said, forcing his larger frame between them.

"I'm not my mother, Nick. I don't give a rat's ass what happens to him when I leave this house."

"I'm going to tell Howie!" AJ threatened.

"Go right ahead. He's my real father anyway! He actually means it when he says he loves me!" she screamed. "Who do you think he's going to chose this time? You?! Ha, AJ!"

"I'll tell Howie. . ." Nick said. "I was planning to anyway."

"You're actually going to tell him? He's going to kill you. . ."

"In time, he'll understand." Nick said, "I hope you do too."

"Damn it, Nick, this is all your fault!"

"I'm your brother, AJ. . ." Nick began to plead.

"Who is sleeping with my daughter!"

"I love her, AJ. I have from the moment I laid eyes on her."

"Forget it, Nick. He's a lost cause!" Lexie yelled, her finger flying around him to jab the air in front of AJ.

"Get out." AJ said in a low growl, "Get out of my house!"

Lexie flew out of the kitchen and left Nick standing there with AJ.

"Don't do this, AJ. Don't send her away twice!" Nick pleaded. "If you care anything for her. . ." but AJ could see nothing past his own feelings of betrayal.

Nick got them all a hotel room so he could shower and get to Howie's. Lexie was crazed with anger toward AJ. So much so that she seemed to barely register what Howie's reaction might be. Nick sat in the cab for the longest time, staring at the brick house that was Howie Dorough's home.

It was his fault. He would be destroying two lives of men he had loved his whole life. All over the love of a woman. It hadn't started this way. He only wanted AJ and Howie to get along, maybe give that scared little girl he met a little happiness. A little closure. Yes, he had fallen in love with her. He never dreamed she would return the feelings and he somehow thought he would spend his whole life loving her from afar.

Now, that wasn't true. AJ hated him. Howie would hate him too. At least hating him was something that AJ and Howie could do together.

Nick saw Howie open the door for him before he even got out of the cab. AJ must have called. Howie's house was empty, everyone was gone. He invited Nick into the den and closed the door.

"AJ called."

"He said he would. I love her, Howie." Nick said, willing his voice to be strong.

"I know." Howie said quietly.

Nick wasn't sure if Howie even saw the look of shock on his face when Howie admitted he knew.

"How?" Nick asked.

Howie turned his back to Nick and walked over to his desk. He leaned against the front of it and crossed his arms over his chest. His eyes never lifted. He never looked at Nick.

"When?" Howie asked quietly, then he demanded it, "When!"

"Detroit. . ."

"You're the reason she left? Did you know where she was all that time?"

"No! I swear Howie, I never knew." He said. "I would've told you."

"AJ is very angry."

"I know. He and Lexie really got in to it."

"Where is she?"

"At a hotel, with CJ. I couldn't leave CJ alone and I wanted to be the one to talk to you. . ."

"How much longer were you planning on lying to everyone?" Howie asked.

"I wasn't. I was going to talk to you today, as a matter of fact." Nick said, trying to keep his voice steady. "I couldn't go on like this another day."

"Lying to us? Or not being with Lexie?"

"Both." He admitted.

"Brian knows?"

"Lexie also told Jake. He figured it out when she was in Seattle."


"I don't know what Kevin knows. . ."

"What was your plan when you started all this? Did you deliberately plan to force me into choosing between AJ and Lexie again? How many more times are you planning to screw me?"

"I wasn't planning to do anything. . .I admit it, I've had feelings for her since we met. I never intended this to go this far. I never imagined she would return my feelings for her. Howie, I was perfectly content to live the rest of my life without her." Nick began.

"Then what happened in Detroit?" Howie asked.

"I'm not sure. . .she. . .I can't say."

"Can't or won't?"

"Both." Nick admitted quietly. Nick had kept his eyes on Howie the entire time, but Howie hadn't even looked at him. His eyes stared at the floor as he leaned against his desk. Nick could see how white Howie's knuckles were as he gripped the edge. Howie was still for a little while.

"Do you have any idea how much I love them both?" Howie said, his voice cracking. "I wanted it too, Nick. I wanted Lexie to know AJ. I wanted to know AJ again."

"I'm sorry, Howie. This is all my fault. . ." Nick pleaded. "I don't care if you hate, me, Howie. I didn't want anyone to get hurt by this. I love Lexie."

"Have Lexie call me when she gets to L.A." Howie said after a long silence.

"Of course." Nick nodded. Nick turned and headed out of the den. Howie followed him and for the first time made real eye contact with him. Nick could tell Howie had been crying long before he had shown up at the house.

"And Nick?" he said as Nick had his hand on Howie's front door, "If she ever wants to come home, please don't come. I'm not sure I can deal with you right now. She's always welcome. This is always going to be her home." I am her father and I will always love her.

"Thank you, Howie." Nick sighed.

Lexie paced the suite waiting for Nick. She was so angry with AJ that she could barely see straight. CJ had settled down coloring a book from the only bag that Lexie unpacked. She had spent the morning getting them a flight back to L.A., figuring AJ would pull his plane. Nick came in, CJ and Lexie looked up from their work, and CJ ran to hug him. He carried her over and sat across the table from Lexie.

"How'd it go?" she asked quietly.

"He's hurt. He's upset. He wants you to call when we're back in L.A." Nick sighed.

"Daddy? Why were Lexie and Uncle AJ fighting?" CJ asked.

Without any hesitation, Nick laid his hand across the table and reached for Lexie. She laid her hand in his.

"You're right, CJ. I love Lexie very much and Lexie loves me. Uncle AJ isn't happy about that." He said with stirring honesty.


"Lexie and AJ have a very special relationship and he's afraid she's not going to love him, if she loves me."

CJ thought about that for a little while.

"Is Uncle Howie mad?" she asked.

"A little too." He nodded softly.

"Is he mad for the same reason?"

"No. I think Uncle Howie is worried that Uncle AJ and Lexie won't be able to get along for a while."


"Because Howie loves both AJ and Lexie and he doesn't want them to be hurt."

"Lexie, why do you want to fight with Uncle AJ?" CJ asked.

"I don't want to. . ."

"Lexie's not sure what she wants right now. It'll take some time."

"Can I still see Uncle AJ and Uncle Howie?"

"Well, maybe not right away, but we'll try to fix this."

"Is Lexie going to live with us?" she asked.

Nick laughed gently. "No. She has to finish school and do other things."

"It's because of all those bad people, huh?"

"Those guys too."

"She'll be safe in the house with us."

"I know, but for now this is better."

"I knew you loved her, Daddy."

"I know, you're a very smart little girl."

"Did you say you didn't, because you didn't want to fight with Uncle AJ?"

"Yes." He smiled.

"I'm going to miss him. . ."

"This isn't going to last forever. The one good thing about people being angry is they often get over it."

"Lexie, are you going to get over being mad at AJ?" CJ asked.

"I. . ."

"Well, we'll work on that." Nick said for her and he gave her a squeeze of her hand.

"Now you can kiss each other all you want." CJ smiled at them.

Nick, CJ and Lexie boarded a flight out of Orlando late that night. CJ was asleep in no time in a seat between them. Lexie sat by the window, watching the city fade away. She began to feel the distance, like she had when she first ran to Nick in Detroit. She couldn't help the tears that began to flow. She felt Nick's hand on her arm.

"What's wrong, honey?" he asked softly.

"I can't help but think about the night I ran. . .this just feels the same." She sobbed quietly.

"It's not the same."

"I've hurt them both again. . ."

"Lexie, this isn't anyone's fault. We knew they would probably take it hard." He said.

"How many times, Nick? How many more times am I going to hurt him?" She sobbed.

Nick knew she was talking about Howie. She had told him several times since she came back that she wasn't sure if he had ever forgiven her for leaving.

"I'm sorry." She said, wiping her eyes.

"It's all right. I understand." He smiled softly.

"You handled CJ beautifully." She said.

"Well, I've got practice with her." He chuckled. "I always hate it when she's right."

Lexie chuckled with him. He touched her cheek and wiped her tears. "It's going to be all right. What else could possibly happen now?"

The press was waiting for them at LAX and they easily made the evening news. So quickly that Nick didn't have time to tell his family. It didn't matter to Aaron or his sisters, they were puzzled, but happy for him. Jill was just beside herself. His parents, especially his mother, took the news a little harder.

"In another development in the legal battles between entertainer Nick Carter, formerly of the Backstreet Boys, and the National Unions of Trades; Mr. Carter was seen holding hands with a young woman, identified as Lexie Dorough. Ms. Dorough was reported missing nearly two years ago when the Backstreet Boys reunited to remix a song to aid in the search for her. A press release given last summer reported that Ms. Dorough had in deed returned over the holidays, but the families involved wanted to retain their privacy. Lexie Dorough, the adopted daughter of former Backstreet Boy, Howie Dorough is also the biological daughter of another former Backstreet Boy and Grammy Award winning AJ McLean. Mr. Carter, Ms. Dorough, Mr. Dorough or Mr. McLean were not available for comment."

Nick clicked off the TV in his den. How stupid! Who cared who he was holding hands with? The tape footage had been pretty revealing about their relationship and there was no way to avoid it now. Lexie and CJ were ensconced upstairs unpacking when he reached for the phone and made a call to an old friend.

"You called who?" Lexie asked, completely puzzled, almost convinced he had lost his mind.

"I called Glenn. He's going to come here and do your hair." He laughed.

"Why? Nick, this is hardly the time to start worrying about my roots. . ."

"I know, so that makes it the perfect time. I never liked you as a blonde anyway." He chuckled. "Besides, I need a little work myself." He added with a whisper.

"Let me see if I got this right. We just told all of my parents, your entire family knows via CNN, I've still got to get out of your house and onto campus and actually graduate in six months and you want us to get our hair done?!" she laughed.

"Timing is everything." He laughed, shooing her toward the front door as the bell rang.

By the time Lexie was back to her natural color and Nick wasn't, she felt ready to finally call Howie. She caught a glimpse of herself in a hall mirror as she walked to the den with Nick. She look so different. She looked more like her old self and less like she did. . .on the videotape. That's why he had done it! She only smiled as he came up behind her and guided her to the phone in his den.

Lexie sat down at his desk and dialed her parent's home. He stood by her until someone picked up on the other end.




"It's me, Dad."

"I. . .I won't say I'm happy. . ."

"I know."

"AJ is very angry."

"I know that too."

"Be careful, honey."

"I will."

"If you ever want to come home, you can."

"I know, thanks, Dad."

The phone clicked in her hand. There wasn't anything else they could say to one another.

Chapter 28 by old_archive

"How did it go?" Leah asked Howie. He looked up from his desk.

"Why are you still up?"

"I heard the phone ring. I know the time difference."

"She called from his house." He said, looking at the caller ID.

Leah walked over to him, sat on the arm of the chair and slipped her arms around his shoulders. She gently laid her lips on his temple.

"I know this is hard." She said quietly.

"How can you be so calm?" he asked, puzzled.

"Why are you so upset?" she asked.

"She's involved with Nick." He said sharply.

"I know and the age difference does concern me. . ."

"Leah, he has no means of support. He's in danger with the threats. Who knows when this legal battle is going to be over? Yes, he is way too old for her. . .she's just a child." Howie sighed.

"What were you doing when you were 22?"

"This is different."

"I know." She relented. "I don't know what to tell you, How. I've always liked Nick. He was 19 when I first met him, but he's always been a good man. Perhaps a little young and foolish back then, but he still has that heart of gold he's always had."

"He's literally twice her age. He already has a child." Howie said.

"I can't argue the facts with you." She sighed.

"Doesn't this bother you at all?"

"Yes. It isn't what I want for Lexie. Her life has always been so hard; I'd like love to come easier for her." Leah said. "She and Nick are both adults. We can't force them to do what we want."

"AJ is having her car taken from her."

"AJ is hurt."

"He'll probably sell the place in L.A."

"He probably will. What are you going to do? What are you going to do if Lexie says if Nick's not welcome here, she won't come?"

"I don't know. I can't deal with him right now."

"I know. Let's go to bed." She said, taking his hand and getting to her feet.

"How did it go?" Nick asked, walking in and seeing Lexie staring at the phone. She only shrugged. "CJ is in bed. Do you want to stay here or go back to the campus?" he asked. He came to her and sat on the edge of the desk. He smoothed her hair away from her face.

"Here." She said quietly.

"Okay. How about a hot bath or shower? You'll feel better." He smiled.

"Fine." She sighed, getting to her feet. Nick stopped her from walking past him.

"It'll be all right." He said, trying to sound cheerful. She slipped her arms around him and pressed her face into his chest.

"When do you return to court?" she asked.

"Two days from now. The third." He said. "When do classes start?"

"Classes start then too." She said. "I should probably head back to campus tomorrow after dinner."

"That would be fine. CJ isn't back in school until the following Monday." He said.

"When are we going to see each other again?" she asked.

"I don't know." He said. He felt her arms tighten around his body.

"It doesn't really matter. The whole world knows about us by now."

"True." He nodded. She straightened herself up and took his hands. She gave him a quirky little smile, which he returned.

"How about lunch on Thursday? I only have one class at 9:00 and my internship is only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays this quarter." She said.

"Where?" he chuckled.

"Right on the L.A. County Superior Court front stairs. I'll bring you something." She smiled.

"That would be pretty forward." He joked.

"Only if we're naked." She smiled.

Nick talked her out of her plans for a very public lunch, but they were able to get arrangements made to meet at a local restaurant's private suite. It was only two hours, but for the next three weeks, lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays became a ritual. Unfortunately, after nursing her roommate through the flu, she got it next and on the fourth week, she had to miss both dates.

Lexie's classes continued well, even if she was dragging herself to them while she was sick. AJ's car was gone the day after she first returned to class. She had to resort to public busses, which she got away with until the first week of February and the press found her. She called Nick one more time to cancel.

"I haven't seen you in almost two weeks." He said.

"I know, I know. I'm still sick. After Gina got it, I got it, Keelie got it, Jaz got it and now the twins; Emily and Emeila have got it." She sighed.

"You've had it twice now?"

"Yep. Gina's barfing again right now too." She sighed.

"She got it again too? Is that the entire floor yet?"

"Yeah, that's everyone." She sighed.

"I'm sorry you're so sick."

"Me too. Thanks for sending Cook with some food. Keelie and Jaz ate most of it. There were the only two who could keep anything down." She sighed. "They thank you, by the way."

"Tell them they are welcome." He chuckled.

"How's CJ? How are the cases going?" she asked.

Nick gave her an update on how things had been going so far. She told him that she and her Dad had spoken a little more, but they weren't really saying anything. He called when he got the doctor bill from her flu trip to the clinic and she told him she was sick. Howie did tell her AJ put his L.A. house up for sale and that Howie offered her another car. She accepted only because it was easier to avoid the press with one. He felt for her own safety that she needed one. It was a little blander than the one AJ had given her so she was hoping she'd be able to get around easier. She told him Jake and Kevin called her a couple times to check in, and he'd been talking to Brian. Nick told her that Brian was very supportive. She told him that Kevin seemed to be, but they didn't really discuss it.

After being sick on and off for four weeks, the campus health department came into their dorms trying to find a reason. Keelie, Jaz and the twins seemed to get better, but Lexie and Gina weren't doing well. It would come and go, but both seemed to get better in the last week. Nonetheless, both Gina and Lexie were dragged down to the clinic for a battery of more tests.

"I can't believe this." Gina said, staring at the consent form. "A pregnancy test?"

"What?" Lexie asked, flipping through her paperwork.

There it was. It asked for her last menstrual cycle.


"Lex, you okay?" the perky little blonde asked. Lexie pointed to the question. "What about it?. . .oh."

"It was back in December." She whispered.

"You didn't have one in January or February? When were you with Nick last?"

"New Year's. . .no, right when we got back. It was just two days later. . .G, I can't be pregnant!" she gasped. Her heart began to race.

"Let's relax. You've been under a lot of stress. . ." Gina began.

"Gina, I've never missed. Ever! Oh, shit. This can't be happening!" she whispered harshly.

"Calm down. I know I’m not pregnant. I've got my cycle right now. It's got to be something else." Gina sighed.

It wasn't though. Not for Lexie.

She couldn't believe her ears when the doctor told her she was nearly two months pregnant. She sat stunned in his office.

What was she going to tell her parents? What about her classes and her degree? What if the press found out? What was she going to tell Nick? God! This is the last thing he needed right now! A baby? How was she ever going to have a baby right now? Seven months from now? What would AJ say?

Her hands were shaking when she dialed Nick's number that night. It was Monday and she made plans with him to have dinner Tuesday night. He promised to have CJ sent to Aaron's for the night. She hoped he hadn't noticed she was nervous.

He didn't notice on the phone, but he certainly noticed when she got there. She ate in virtual silence and didn't move from the table until after Cook announced she was leaving for the night. Nick slipped a hand onto hers as it set on the table. He laughed when she nearly jumped out of her skin.

"Sweetie, relax. I know it's been awhile. . ." he smiled.

She got to her feet and stepped away from the dinning room table.

"Nick, there's something I need to tell you. Could you come over here?" she asked, walking over the living room area.

"Uh. . .sure." He chuckled, wiping his mouth and leaving the napkin on the table. He went to the couch and sat down as she stood by the fireplace. "What's going on?" he said with a smirk. She turned to face him and he could tell she was about to tell him something serious. "Baby, what is it?" he asked, leaning forward.

"I. . .there is something I need to tell you, Nick. It's pretty important." She began. "You know I've been sick with the flu all this time?"


"It wasn't the flu. Campus Health came over to the dorm and we all had to go in for a battery of tests."

"What is it? Are you okay? Was it food poisoning or something. . ."

"Nick, I'm pregnant." She said, straight out. She tried to read his face. Gauge his reaction.

"Oh my god." He said stunned, falling back into the overstuffed couch.

"I'm sorry. There's no easy way to tell you." She said.

"Have you decided what you're going to do?" he asked.

"How could I? I haven't spoken to you yet." She said, her voice beginning to shake. In the last 24 hours, what could she decide? She didn't know what to do. She knew she had to tell him. She had to be honest with him and allow him to decide what he wanted, regardless of what else was going on in his life. "I thought we should talk about it first."

"I wasn't planning on having any more children." He began to mutter. "The future is so uncertain right now." Nick got to his feet and began to pace.

"It's still early. We can terminate. . ."

"No! Lexie, don't do that." He said suddenly. He ran up to her and took her by the arms. "Let's have it. You and me. We can do this. I didn't realize you'd be in my life, that's why I wasn't planning to have any more children."

"Nick, this is just bad for both of us. I'm only four months away from graduating. . ." she began, trying to be fair to him.

"You can quit until. . ."

"What? I'm not quitting!" she snapped, her head flying up to look at him.

"You can always go back. Let's face it, Lexie, you won't have to work with me. . ." Nick continued, not registering her reaction to his statement.

"Are you nuts?!" she snapped, stepping away from his grip. "This is my dream! I've worked my whole life for this! I studied hard in high school, I've maintained the honor roll through all of this crap with AJ, with you! I'm not giving it up!"

"Lexie, that's not what I'm saying. . ."

"I still have my post graduate studies. . ." she began, rambling.

"Maybe we should reconsider then." He said.

"I'm sorry, Nick. I don't know what I want." She said quietly. "I'm scared."

"Lex, don't be scared. I'll be here for you, regardless of what you decide." He said quietly.

"Do you want to have this baby? Is that what you really want?" she asked him honestly.

"I love you. I'd love to have children with you, but it would be wrong if we didn't consider your life and what you want. My situation isn't very stable right now." He said.

"It is a bad time."

"Yes, the timing isn't that good. I'm sorry, I should have been more careful." He said, his eyes casting down to the plush carpet below his feet.

Lexie considered this. All of it. She walked over and laid her hands on both of his upper arms. She felt his muscles flex under her touch. Suddenly, Nick felt real and more like a man than he ever had. She could feel his heart pounding in her chest. She ran her hands down his arms slowly and then pulled his hands out of his slacks' pockets. They stood infront of the dormant fireplace holding hands.

"Now, later, I guess it doesn't really matter." She said quietly with a shrug. He looked up into her eyes. "I love you."

"I love you." He whispered back. She leaned forward, rested her forehead on his chest and he kissed the top of her head. "Are you sure?"

Yes. Her heart sang. She chuckled lightly when she heard the once-still voice. She spoke its bidding, "Yes. I'm sure."

Nick and Lexie decided to wait on telling anyone until after the first trimester was over. They weighed what they thought everyone's reaction was going to be. Lexie regretted the fight with AJ and wish ed she had been able to see things from his perspective sooner. She worried that her relationship with him and Howie wouldn't recover soon enough for them to accept the pregnancy and this turn her relationship with Nick had taken. She still didn't believe that Howie had ever forgiven her for leaving the first time. She didn't have the heart to tell Nick that she didn't think her dad would ever forgive her for lying about her involvement with him.

Nick was concerned about Lexie's safety and his own inability to be more involved with the pregnancy. He was also worried about what CJ's reaction might be. She would be seven at the end of the month. He had to consider what this might do to their relationship, especially since Lexie wouldn't be moving in until after graduation. He wondered if CJ's feelings for Lexie would change too.

The evening turned to topics that were more fun. They cuddled up on the couch and began to play the name game.

"What do you think?" he asked.

"I've always liked Stephanie."

"Hmmm, Stephanie Carter." He mused. "What if it's a boy?"

"I don't know. Do you think we should come up with some good initials?" she suddenly laughed in his arms.

"AJ? BJ? CJ? DJ?!" he laughed with her.

"Sure, how about Delilah Jane." Lexie smiled.

"Delilah? No, Devon."

"Ooh, Devon Carter. That's good, we could go either way with that one. Jane for the middle?"

"I didn't realize you liked my mother that much." He teased.

"Well, we aren't exactly best friends." She sighed, "But this might go a ways toward winning her over."

"Don't you worry about my mother." He laughed, kissing the top of her head. "How about Janelle?"

"God, I've always hated that name." She said. "So did my mother, that's why she started calling me Lexie."

"Your mom did that?"

"Yeah. Did you think Howie did?"

"Yes. I mean, AJ always referred to you as 'Alexis'." Nick said.

"He did? That's weird." She shrugged. "My name is Alexandra. . .weird."

"I know, we didn't get it either." Nick said.

"No 'Janelle'."

"How about 'Jillian'?" Nick asked.

"Jill would love that."

"Yeah, that's reason alone not to do it."

"Nick! That's mean!" Lexie declared.

"Oh, I love Jillie, she's just teases me all the time."

"Oh, poor baby. Did Jillie hurt your feelings?" Lexie teased.

"Hey, just wait. She'll turn on you some day, then you'll know what I mean." Nick warned her, laughing.

"She'd never do that. I've got the sisterhood on my side." She laughed. "So, after I move in, what do you think of building the next nursery closer to the bedroom?"

"Sure." He said.

"Why is CJ's room so far from yours anyway? I mean, I can understand the need for privacy, but she's at the other end of the house."

"That's how Christine wanted it. She didn't want to hear CJ cry. I used the monitor and would sleep down there myself when I got up with her in the night."

"She didn't get up at night? How did she nurse her?"

"She didn't. CJ was bottle fed from the moment she came home. Christine would never do it."

"Why did she really leave, Nick?" Lexie asked.

He was quiet for a moment before he answered. His mind flew back to the last conversation he had with her as he began to tell Lexie the story.

"Chris, where the hell are you? Where's CJ?" he demanded over the phone. He had come home to find Cook crying frantically, not knowing where she and the baby were.

"The baby is with Jill." Christine said.

"Jill's not at home." He said, looking at his watch.

"I took it over to her office."

"It? Chris?! What have you done? Where are you?" he demanded.

"I'm leaving, Nick." She said plainly.

"What about CJ? Chris, you can't just walk out like this! I'll move out, you can stay at the house. . ." he began.

"No, Nick. I don't want to see you or the baby." She said.

"Why? Chris, look. I know you're angry with me about this new tour, but you and CJ can come with me. I really want you to be there. . ."

"I don't want to see you or the baby again!" she snapped.

"Chris? What am I supposed to do by myself?"

"You'll be fine. You're a great father. . ."

"Chris, CJ needs a mother. We can make some kind of arrangements. . ."

"Nick, I never wanted to have the baby."

"What!?" he said stunned.

"I had it for you. You can keep it. I've got to go." She said. Nick could hear airport noise in the background.

"Chris, what are you talking about? Chris?! Chris?!" he yelled as she hung up the phone.

Cook was as stunned as he was. He knew Christine wasn't very happy here, but life wasn't unpleasant. They never exchanged 'I love you' and Nick just figured he would never, ever be in love. He had grown to accept that this would be his fate, especially after Christine became pregnant.

When Jill told him what Christine had done at her office, it was she who was able to convince him that Christine had never been happy. In the months that followed, Jill ultimately pushed him to carry on without Christine and to build his own life with his daughter.

"What?!" Lexie said, stunned.

"Even while she lived here, me and Cook took all the responsibility for CJ. My mom, Jill or one of my sisters would help out." Nick said.

"She's never kept in touch? Never asks about CJ?"

"Never. She left and hasn't ever contacted me. I heard she was with someone else in New York, but that was nearly two years ago. Brian ran into her at some event out there. I don't even know where she is now."

"What are you going to tell CJ?"

"CJ has never asked." He shrugged. "I don't know what I'll tell her. She knows other children have mothers. Maybe just thinks she and I are just the way it is for her. I don't know. She's seen pictures of Chris, but doesn't seem to care."

"Maybe she already senses it."

"I guess."

"Are you afraid Christine is going to come back and ask for CJ?"

"No. I was for a while, but it's been almost 5 years. I doubt she'll come back. I don't even know if she's still alive." He said. "I do wonder about her parents though. I wonder if they know they have a grandchild."

"You never met them?"

"No. It was a strange relationship, but I don't question it much. I got CJ out of it and she's the best thing I could've ever hoped for." He said.

"I can't imagine doing that, Nick. I know I don't have a world of experience here, but even when I was bouncing back and forth on what would be best for us, I couldn't imagine hurting you, or CJ, or the baby with this pregnancy." She sighed.

"You've been thinking about her a lot?" he asked.

"About Christine? Yes. I was wondering why she wasn't here for CJ through all of this. I guess I can understand her wanting to avoid you during all of this, but CJ? How could she leave her child to these wolves?"

"I'm glad CJ had you."

"I'm glad I could be here for her. I love her too, Nick." Lexie said.

"You're going to be a fabulous mother." He smiled, kissing her temple.

"Thanks. We already know what a great Dad you are." She smiled.

Lexie spent the night sleeping in Nick's arms, beginning to feel for the first time like there was a chance at a real future. They would be like a real family.

She returned to her campus life, with only Nick and her roommate Gina knowing for sure that she was pregnant. Her morning sickness carried on for another two weeks, but Gina helped her cover that up. She and Nick resumed their twice a week lunches and shared more evenings at his home. As it became more habit, it was reported less on the news.

Nick noticed a change in Lexie. She didn't hide from the press. She dealt with them straightforwardly and with her head up and with an amazing amount of self-pride. She seemed much calmer and more focused than she'd ever been. She studied, she worked, and she lived like she owned the world. Lord knows she owned his heart.

As April rolled in from March, they knew it was time to tell the families the truth. Things with AJ and Howie hadn't really improved during this time. Howie seemed less and less willing to talk. Sometimes he was just fine, sometimes he was very distant. Lexie knew better than to try to enlist her mother's help. Leah would never push Howie into anything, but standby and let him find his own way. Lexie did talk to her mother a couple times a week, twice as much as she talked to Howie. Nick and Lexie wrestled with ways to tell them. They decided to tell CJ first, then the rest of Nick's family. Nick and Lexie sat the now seven-year-old CJ down one evening.

"What is it, Dad?" she asked, looking at their serious faces. Nick started a little as she looked at him. For so long it'd been just him and her; he had almost forgotten how well she could read him.

"Well, you know Lexie has been spending more time here." He began.

"Yes." She nodded.

"And you know that Lexie and Daddy love each other and you very much."

"Yes." She nodded again.

"CJ, Lexie and I are going to be having a baby. It should be born around October 1st." he said.

CJ was silent for the longest time. She cocked her little light-haired head at him.

"Is Lexie going to stay after the baby is born?" she asked.

Nick felt the bile churn in his stomach. She knew! She knew her mother left her!

"Yes." Lexie answered for him. "I love you, CJ, and your Dad. I'm not leaving after the baby is born."

"I'm glad. I love you, too, Lexie. I don't want you to leave me and Daddy." She said quietly.

"Well, I'm not leaving."

"Promise?" she said.

"I promise." Lexie smiled squeezing Nick's hand.

Chapter 29 by old_archive

"Jesus." Lexie sighed, throwing her purse on the bed.

"Are you all right?" Nick asked.

"I'm just tired, that's all." She sighed, climbing onto the huge bed and curling up in the middle of it.

"I'm sorry." He smiled softly.

"Oh no, it's not your fault. Okay, it is your fault." She teased. "It was just a long day, that's all."

"I know, but at least my family all know." He said.

"True. Now if mine will only listen."

"I was thinking about that." He said, climbing onto the bed with her. She snuggled up to him and laid her head on his shoulder. "Let's tell Brian and then maybe Kevin. Maybe we can get them to talk to Howie and AJ."

"You know what Brian said last time. AJ isn't returning anyone's calls. Not even Dad's." she sighed.

"I know, but we've got to tell them. You're already showing."

"I know. I know." She said. "I think I should just fly to Orlando and tell them."

"I won't let you go alone."

"Nick, Dad doesn't want to see you."

"He'll have to. This is my child and I'm going to be involved." He said.

"Please? Let me handle them."

"I don't like this."

"I know, I know. Think about it okay? We have to tell them soon."

"I know. Let's just call your folks and let them tell AJ."

"If AJ will listen."

"Do we agree we should tell Brian and Kevin?"


"Okay. We'll do that first thing in the morning?"

"Sure, that would be fine." She said, getting up.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing. I just wish. . ."

"What?" he asked, sitting up.

"I wish I could just talk to them."

"I know. I'm sorry things have gone so badly."

"Me too. When's Aaron bringing CJ back?"

"Sunday night. Are you staying tonight?"

"Yes." She yawned. She turned and headed for the bathroom.

"How about a hot bath?" he called after her.

"As long as you promise to rub my feet again." She laughed.

"I will, I promise!" he laughed back at her.

Nick helped Lexie with her bath and tucked her into bed with tea. He waited until she had fallen asleep before he got out of bed again and headed downstairs. He stopped in the hall and began looking at all the old BSB photos on the walls. The gold records and the awards. He began to marvel at where he had been; what he had done. Then he remembered the last two years and the hell they had been living under. It had begun to become routine. They had gotten used to seeing Lexie over the last four months and had actually begun to respect her. The threats had slowed down, too. Maybe because she was around, but then he remembered that having CJ around hadn't stopped them from coming.

He was worried. How was he ever going to protect all of them? He was beginning to wonder if his financial situation would withstand all of this. He only had four more cases left. It had to be over soon, but would that honestly be soon enough?

"Hey, Frick!" Nick laughed into the phone after Brian picked up.

"Good god, I haven't heard that in years!" Brian cracked up.

"I know. I was up last night looking at some old things and it came to me." Nick laughed.

"So, what's my 'little' brother calling about this fine spring morning!" Brian asked.

"B, dude, I'm in need of your help." Nick said.

"Really? What's wrong?"

"Well, I have some news we have to break to AJ and Howie, but they don't want to talk to me."

"AJ isn't talking to anyone, so don't feel too bad. I leave cheerful messages at least once a week just to piss him off!" Brian laughed. "So, what's the news?"

"Brian, Lexie is pregnant."

"Holy Frack! That's great, Nick! God, it couldn't happen to two better people. Nick, you deserve a little happiness these days. You are hoping for another girl! Man, I don't care what Kevin says, girls are the way to go!" Brian laughed.

"Brian, man, I am so glad to hear you say that" he said, overwhelmed by Brian's response.

"Why? Oh." Brian said. "What can I do to help?"

"Lexie wants to go to Orlando and see Howie and AJ, but I'm not really welcome there. I don't want her to go alone. . ."

"I see."

"I was going to ask Kevin next. Hell, I just might go myself any way." Nick sighed.

"Kevin? Frack, don't send him. He's ready to pummel both AJ and Howie." Brian said.


"I talked to him, what? Two days ago? He's pissed."


"He really likes Lexie. He's okay with you two together; well, he had to adjust to the idea. I helped him." Brian said.

"He sounded like he was okay with it." Nick said.

"Oh, he is. He must talk to her once a week and he's always telling me how sad she sounds." Brian said, "He's also tired of AJ's temper tantrums that last for decades."

"Hell, we all are." Nick chuckled. "She is sad. She's upset about this situation with Howie. I think the baby is making her want to be close to AJ again."

"I can understand it. She doesn't really have anyone out there except you. Look, I've got to go to Orlando in two weeks anyway. Howie is barking about finishing this one song. . ."

"I don't think we can wait that long. Brian, she's almost four months."

"Is she showing?"

"Yeah. She didn't gain back all that weight she lost. She's into the baggy clothes now. I swear, two or three of my shirts disappear every weekend." He laughed.

"That'll tip them off."

"I know." Nick said.

"Nick, I just can't see how I could come out there any sooner. Leigh's got me totally booked up with the girls."

"Of course, I understand. What do you think I should do?"

"Just go, Nick. When they see her, they'll know why you're there."

"I do have this Friday off. It should only take a weekend."

"Look, go. Call me if there are any problems."

"Okay, I will. Thanks, Frick."

"Anything for you, Frack."

Lexie and Nick made plans to fly to Orlando on Friday. It had to be this way and Nick knew it. What else could they do? Someone was going to figure it out soon enough and he didn't want anymore setbacks with Howie and AJ. She looked worried when he told her what Brian said, but she remained supportive.

Nick and Lexie wore their best hats and sunglasses to get on the plane at LAX. They even sneaked out of the house to get there. The flight attendants and passengers recognized Nick, but kept their distance.

"Baby? What's wrong?" Nick asked Lexie as the plane lifted off.

"I'm going to be sick." She said, reaching for a bag. Lexie never minded flying before. She was usually the one soothing him. Nick helped her with the bag and an attendant was there immediately to assist them. She handed Nick a cool rag and took care of everything.

"Is there anything I can get you, dear?" she asked when she came back.

"Club soda, please?" she moaned. "I've never gotten sick before."

"I know, dear." She said. "It happened to me a lot when I was in your condition."

"Excuse me?" Nick snapped at her.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Carter." She stuttered.

"It's alright." Lexie said, patting Nick's arm.

"I'll go get that soda for you." She said as she was leaving.

"I hope we didn't wait too long, Nick." Lexie said, worried.

Lexie called the house from the cab and told them they were on their way. Howie tried to protest, but she just hung up on him. She asked Nick if she should try AJ, but he said to wait until they talked to Howie.

They arrived in the car Nick had ordered. Howie watched from the den's window. Nick went around the car and opened the door himself. His hand reached inside and she took it gracefully and gratefully. There was only a quick kiss on the lips before they both headed up the walk to the front door.

"How? They are here." Leah said from the doorway.

"I know. I saw them." He sighed.

The doorbell rang.

"I'll get it." Leah said, walking back into the foyer.

Howie's heart was racing. He and Leah had quickly discussed why they were both here. They were either getting married or having a baby. Or both. It would be like Lexie to come and talk to him. He doubted Nick gave a rat's ass.

He heard the door open and listened to them all exchange pleasantries. Leah came into the den first and came to be by his side where he stood by the fireplace.

"Dad." He heard her say. He turned to her and for the first time in a long time saw her dark hair. She looked just like she did before she left. It was all he could do to stop himself from racing over to her and taking her in his arms.

"Howie." Nick said.

"What is it you wanted to say?" he asked.

"Please, come sit down first." Leah said.

Lexie took a seat in the leather chair, but Nick remained standing at her side.

"Howie, Lexie and I wanted to come tell you that we're going to be having a baby." Nick said.

Howie barely heard Leah gasp. He turned away as the tears burned behind his eyes.

"Mom, don't be upset." Lexie said, getting up. "Dad, please hear Nick out."

"We didn't plan this, but it has happened. I have every intention of seeing Lexie through this. . ."

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions." Howie snapped at him. "Yours certainly is."

"Howie, Leah. We came here because we wanted to tell you the news ourselves." Nick said. "We're happy about this."

"How do you expect to raise this baby?!" Howie snapped, turning on them. "In that fortress you call a home? How are you going to support them? Nick, you haven't cut an album in years and your injunctions make it impossible for you to work! Can you honestly say you can protect them, Nick? Damn it! You haven't changed in twenty years, you know that? You're still this spoiled child who does whatever he wants regardless of anyone else!"

Nick had been stunned into silence by Howie's outburst. Leah was the first person to speak.

"Honey, your father is worried about you." She said. "I'm worried about you. He hears about Nick's situation daily. I think it's a lot more dangerous than you think."

"I wouldn't put Lexie or the baby, or CJ for that matter, in any danger." Nick said.

"You're blinded by this stupid crusade you're on to see what's right in front of your own nose, Nick." Howie said. "I can't listen to another word of this." Howie stormed out of the den and down the hall, away from them.

Lexie got to her feet and took Nick's hand. "We told him, let's go." She sighed. "I'm sorry, mom. Give the kids my love, okay?"

"Please, let me talk to him." Leah said.

"Mom, he's made up his mind. We can't change it for him. Do you know we had asked Brian to come down here with me, but he couldn't make it. Here's our hotel for the weekend. We have a flight out Sunday afternoon. Please don't let him call AJ. I'm going over there next."

"AJ isn't in Orlando. He flew to L.A. to close the sale of his house out there. He and Howie haven't spoken in months." She said, close to tears.

"How do you know where AJ is then?" Lexie asked.

"His mother called. She's worried about him."

"Is he sick again?"

"I don't know. She didn't say." Leah said, her voice breaking. "Lexie, please don't go yet."

"I don't want to, Mom." Lexie said, wrapping her arms around Leah. "He's not going to listen."

"He's really just upset with Nick. . ."

"No. He's never forgiven me for running when I did. He's using my relationship with Nick as an excuse not to." Lexie said. "I love you, Mom."

"I love you, too, honey. Please don't be too hard on him." Leah said about Howie.

"I can't. I miss him too much. I wish he'd listen, but he's not going to. I'm sorry, I know I just keep disappointing him."

"No, Lexie, that's not it. He loves you, he's not disappointed in you." Leah said.

"We've got to go." Lexie said, pulling herself away from her mother. "I'll keep you up to date."

"When are you due?"

"October 1st." Lexie said.

"Yes, please call." She said, looking up at Nick.

"I'll make sure she does." He said.

Lexie cried all the way to the hotel and decided she wanted to leave right away. Nick was able to get an earlier flight on Saturday morning, but Lexie spent the rest of the day in misery. She didn't sleep and was sick again on the plane for the flight home. He hired a car to drive them home where he tucked her into bed after a hot shower.

"How is she?" Cook asked quietly as he came into the kitchen.

"What are you doing here on a Saturday?" he asked suddenly. She shrugged innocently. "What are you up to?"

"I just wanted to get ahead on a few things, that's all. Don't fuss at me." She said, waving him off. "Tell me how she's doing."

"Well, we told her folks. Her Dad ripped me a new one; her Mom is really upset. AJ is actually here in L.A. this weekend, go figure. She's been miserable since we left the house. I got us on the first flight I could and she got sick on the plane and well, here we are." He sighed, sitting at the table. "How's CJ?"

"She's at my daughter's. She and my granddaughter Helena are going camping this weekend. They called this morning and CJ asked if I had heard anything about her 'uncles'."

"Poor thing. Howie's right, this is a shitty way to raise kids."

"Don't be so hard on yourself." She said.

"Why not? Everything Howie said was true. I don't have any means of support; I can't actually work as a performer anyway. I can't guarantee her or CJ's safety when they aren't in this house. She's going back to the campus Sunday night." Nick sighed heavily. "I should've been more careful."

"Probably, but it's not your forte." She smiled.

"My life is fucked up and I've just sucked her into this AND she's going to have a baby. When am I going to learn?" he asked her. "Damn it, Cook. You've been here almost 15 years. What am I doing wrong? Howie's right. I haven't changed. I've always had to do things how I want to do them and that's it. That's what got me into this mess in the first place. I told Aaron to fire those union crews. I can't blame anyone but myself."

"It's not my job to tell you what is right or what is wrong. You're a big boy now and that's your job." She said. "I will tell you this, Nickolas, and I know you've heard me say this before. You've got a baby up there that needs you. You're its father and you better start acting like one."

"Thanks." He smiled warmly.

Lexie returned to the campus Sunday afternoon to a swarm of press and protesters. As April faded into May, it was no longer possible for her to hide her pregnancy. It splashed across the news like a nasty stain that Nick couldn't remove. They hadn't been able to reach AJ, but Kevin told them that he had told Denise himself and she told him. He didn't comment on AJ's reaction. Howie hadn't called either, but Nick did find himself on the phone with Leah often. Brian would call either one of them everyday and sometimes would settle on just talking to CJ. She'd bend his ear for hours with tales of Nick and Lexie and the Baby. She wanted the baby to be a girl, so she was calling her 'Jennifer'. It made Nick and Lexie seriously consider 'Devon Jennifer' as a possible name.

Of all of the surprises that could happen to them, they never expected Lexie to be called as a witness in any of the trials. It finally did happen though on Friday, May 9th. She was to appear to testify on Nick's behalf in regards to the night of the riot. Nick fought it with his lawyers, but they insisted. When the prosecution got hold of the idea, they called her as a hostile witness. On Monday, she squeezed into the only suit she could and headed to court with Nick, hand in hand.

Lexie did what she could to not look uncomfortable. It was nearly impossible. Her clothes were too tight, her feet were swollen, the chairs were hard as rocks and she had been sitting in this one for four hours. When the judge called recess, she had to grab the chair in front of her to get up. Nick pushed his way two rows back to help her up. Her smile at his touch warmed his soul. Absently, she reached up and smoothed his cheek. He returned her smile.

"Come on." He whispered, ushering her out of the crowded courtroom and to the hall.

Lexie could tell he was using his body to shield her as she walked in front of him. She would feel him bump up against her as they pushed him from behind. The courthouse guards herded them out the farthest door to her left. There had been heavy construction going on at the front of the courthouse when they had come in that morning. Scaffoldings and equipment were taking up most of the center of the massive marble stairs out in front of the building. Two paths had been built. The right side was the entrance; the left side was the exit.

The guard opened the doors for them, but a swarm of protestors came up at them. Lexie recoiled back into Nick, suddenly reminded of the night in Detroit. The door closed on them as she turned to him.

"What are we going to do?" she asked.

"There is no other way out of the building." The guard insisted.

"Look, Nick. We'll handle this." One of his bodyguards said.

"I don't want anyone getting hurt." Nick said.

"We'll just clear the path." He said.

Two of the massive bodyguards posed themselves in front of Lexie and Nick slipped one arm around her waist.

"Just keep moving, okay? The guys here will take care of you." He whispered in her ear.

"What about you?" she asked, looking back at him.

"I'll be right behind you." He winked at her.

One of the bodyguards took her arm and she reached for Nick as the door opened behind her. He reached for her, too as the camera flashes went off. Her hand slipped into his as their arms outstretched.

Lexie and Nick were ushered to the very far left of the front courthouse stairs, away from the construction. The whole area was gray with concrete dust because they had removed a lot of the ornate railings up the sides to replace them. Nick had moved closer to Lexie, trying to keep the press behind them from pushing her down. He stumbled once over a garden hose and she heard the grunt behind her. She stopped as his hand slipped from hers.

"Keep going." He said, getting to his feet.

"Nick, come on!" she yelled, reaching for him. He got up and reached for her hand, but it slipped away as the protestors broke through the security line and headed right for him.

No one heard the sickening crack of the temporary wood railings as it gave under Lexie's weight. She had been pulled down and away from Nick by three steps. As people pushed their way past her to get to Nick, they threw her full weight into it. The only thing anyone heard was the collective gasp from the reporters on the steps above Nick. Everyone looked back at them, but realized where their gaze was taking them.

One by one, everyone began to look over the temporary rail and down at her. Nick found his way there, only to see her legs from under two massive steel wheelbarrows that had flipped on her as she fell on them. Their silence was broken only by Nick's cries for Lexie.

Nick turned down the stairs and began to shove his way past everyone. He would never remember half of what he saw on the videotape of that day. He only remembered the feel of the concrete dust under his dress shoes as he ran over the plywood to get to her. He and other construction workers lifted the wheelbarrows off her as medics from the courthouse were sent for.

He knelt at her head, not knowing what to do. He bent his head over hers and broke down into sobs.

Chapter 30 by old_archive

Aaron lost track of how many reporters and photographers he shoved as he raced through the hospital lobby. Jill had a tough time keeping up in her heels as he dragged her behind him. At the entrance of the ER, she finally grabbed his arm.

"Honey, Aaron, please, slow down." She gasped as cameras went off around them.

"No, I know he needs me. C'mon!" he encouraged as he plowed through the doors and into triage.

"Excuse me, sir?" a nurse said, coming up to him.

"I'm Aaron Carter, I'm Nick Carter's brother. Is he here? Where is he? Can you tell me how Lexie Dorough is?" he said to her.

"I'm sorry. . ." She stuttered, as Aaron continued to press his point.

"Nick Carter, where is he? Is he still here? Where's Lexie?" he demanded.

"Aaron, please!" Jill insisted, clutching his arm. "Please help us. My husband's brother was brought here with Lexie Dorough, please can you just tell us where he is?"

"I don't know. . ."

"Screw this!" he snapped, leaving Jill standing where she was as he headed down the hall. A guard and some hospital administrator stopped him from getting too far. "I'm Aaron Carter, tell me where my brother is!" he demanded.

"Mr. Carter is in the waiting room at the end of the hall. . ." The administrator pointed.

"C'mon Jill." Aaron said to her, holding out his hand. She went to his side, took his hand and followed him down the hall. Aaron threw open the door of the first room marked "Families", but turned on his heel quickly when he didn't see anyone. Jill whirled in past him.

"Aaron, wait. He's here." She said. Aaron turned back and looked where she was pointing.

All Aaron could see was the tip of Nick's shoes. He was sitting on the floor between the chairs so he couldn't be seen. His arms were wrapped around his knees as they were drawn up to his chest.

"Nick?" Aaron asked, walking to him.

Jill touched the top of his head, but he gave no reaction. He just kept his head down.

"Nick? Are you okay? Nick? Where's Lexie? Is she okay? What about the baby?" Aaron asked. Jill shushed him.

"Nick?" Jill asked.

"I don't know." He whispered.

"Why not?" Aaron asked.

"They won't tell me anything. We're not married and I'm not next of kin. . ."

"That's ridiculous, you're the baby's father. . ." Aaron began.

"Nick? Did you call anyone? Howie? AJ?"

"No. No one." He said.

"I'd better call Leah and Howie." Jill said, standing up.

"They probably already know." Aaron said, figuring they found out the same way he and Jill had. On TV.

Jill took the phone from her purse and dialed anyway. She reached the house, but got John Dorough. Yes, Howie and Leah knew. Howie drove over to AJ's house and told him. AJ was flying himself, Alex, Howie, Leah and little Caroline out. They left about two hours ago. John told Jill that he had called Kevin and Brian himself. Kevin was in the States and was going to meet Brian in Houston so they could fly to L.A. together. A doctor came in just as Jill was hanging up.

"Doctor?" Jill asked.

"Yes, I’m Doctor James Reynolds." The tall African-American man said.

"Why won't you tell us how she is? He's the baby's father!" Aaron demanded.

"Aaron, stop it!" Jill snapped. The doctor put up his hands.

"I'm sorry about that, it's hospital policy. Hear me out. I spoke with Lexie's father on the phone a few minutes ago and he told me to tell Nick how she was doing." He said. Nick looked up for the first time. "Lexie is in serious, but stable condition. She has a broken wrist, a couple of cracked ribs and torn ligaments in her right shoulder. We stabilized her neck injuries, she should recover from those just fine."

"What about the baby?" Nick asked from where he sat on the floor.

"We are going to have to wait and see. Unfortunately, Lexie's stomach and ribs took the brunt of the fall. She fell on those wheelbarrows with her abdomen first, although she landed on her back. They apparently came back down on her after they flipped. I'm afraid the fetus has taken a lot of trauma. . ."

"Is she okay? Will the baby live? Can I see her?" Nick asked.

"Lexie is stable and for now, so is the baby. You can't see her quite yet, she's still unconscious." He said, stuffing his hands in his lab coat. "I can't promise you anything, Nick. We're just going to have to wait and see. . ."

"Can't I see her, please?" he begged.

"I'm sorry, not yet. Her father said that you could be the first visitor if she wakes soon."

"That's big of him." Aaron muttered.

"Medically, I can't advise she have any visitors right now." He said softly.

"We understand." Aaron said. "Thank you. Could you let us know if anything changes?"

"Of course." He said, patting Aaron's arm. "See if you can get him to eat something."

Eat? Jill and Aaron couldn't get him up, much less eat anything. They sat with him for the next few hours, with Jill calling home to the nanny to see how the children were. In spite of everything, Nick did fall asleep, sitting right where he was on the floor. It was nearly 1 a.m. when Dr. Reynolds led Leah, Howie, AJ and the children into the waiting room.

Howie walked in first, seeing Nick asleep with his head in Jill's lap. Aaron was in the farthest chair from the door, his elbows resting on his knees as he stared at the floor.

"Nick? Nick, wake up." Jill whispered, gently shaking him. Aaron got up and kneeled beside him, touching his shoulder.

"Nick? Howie is here." Aaron said as Nick woke up and looked at him, confused. Nick looked up at Howie and the others and then scrambled to get to his feet.

"Please, everyone, sit down." Dr. Reynolds said, gesturing toward the row of chairs along the wall. Nick took Jill's old seat and Jill sat between him and Aaron. Aaron and Nick each held her hands.

"I'm glad you're all here." Dr. Reynolds began as he sat next to AJ. "Lexie has had a very serious accident. She's in serious condition, but is still stable."

"What's wrong with her? How's the baby?" Leah asked.

"She has a lot of soft tissue injuries, a broken wrist and a couple cracked ribs." He said. "As I told Nick earlier, unfortunately Lexie's abdomen took the brunt of the fall, including additional trauma when the wheelbarrows fell back on her stomach and chest."

"The baby?" Nick asked.

"The baby is starting show signs of distress. . ." he began. He put his hand on Nick's knee as Nick gasped. "We're doing everything we can. Labor has started a couple times, but we've been able to stop it."

"Can we see her?" Howie asked.

"She's still unconscious and because of the pregnancy she's still in ICU." He said gently. "I promise, the moment she comes to, I'll send someone for you."

"Thank you, Doctor." Howie said. Dr. Reynolds got up and left them all together.

Howie watched as Aaron put his arms around Jill and pulled her into his arms. He lovingly kissed her temple as she hung on to Nick's hand. Leah had Caroline still cradled in her arms asleep and AJ had Alex.

"I'm sorry, Howie. This is all my fault." Nick said quietly.

"Nick, no." Jill said.

"It is. He was right. . ." Nick began.

"No one blames you, Nick." Leah said. "It was an accident."

"An avoidable one." Nick groaned. He dropped his head into his hands. Howie wasn't going to disagree. "It's all my fault."

"This isn't going to help Lexie or the baby." AJ said. Howie got to his feet, walked over to the window, and stared out at the small press crowd still outside below.

"AJ's right." Jill said. "Nick, you can't start this now."

Nick just got to his feet and left the waiting room. Aaron stopped Jill from following him and went after him himself.

"Howie, you could've said something." Leah said.

"What, Leah?" Howie said, turning back to her. "What could I possibly say to him?"

"Howie, it's his child. . ."Jill began.

"She's my daughter." Howie snapped. "I know you’re his sister-in-law, but I do think it's his fault. What was she doing at the courthouse anyway? They could've videotaped her testimony, this didn't have to happen!"

"Nick's cases are very complex. . ." Jill began.

"You're a lawyer, why aren't you helping him!" Howie snapped.

"Howie, that's enough!" Leah snapped. "Don't yell at Jill, she's been here trying to help!"

Jill lowered her steely gaze on the older man and did her best to choose her words wisely. "I offered to help when this all began, but Nick chose to go with his management's and Jive's attorneys." She said. "I had three partners all lined up to take his cases, but he had made his decision and I respected that. Which is more than I can say for the rest of you."

"Don't you start on me!" Howie challenged her.

"I'll do whatever I damn feel like!" she snapped back. "Are you blind? Can't you see how much Nick loves her? She's the center of his entire universe and now she might lose their child. How can you stand there and blame him. . ."

"Lexie wouldn't be pregnant, wouldn't be here if he had stayed out of her life. . ." Howie yelled back.

"Excuse me! I forgot how difficult things could be for you when people fail at your expectations! God forbid someone not do what Howie Dorough thinks is best for them!"

"That's enough, both of you!" AJ said, getting to his feet.

"And you! Don't even get me started on what I think of you right now!" she yelled.

"Wait a second. . ."

"For what AJ? For you to get your shit straightened out? Hell, we've been waiting for that for years! I, personally, can't wait any longer! And neither can Lexie, Nick or that baby! You two make me sick!"

Jill was gone before Howie or AJ had a chance to retort. She found Aaron and Nick in the hospital's atrium staring at the night sky. She pulled Aaron aside and said she would be going home to see the children and take care of things there. He kissed her good night. She walked over and kissed Nick's forehead and he said goodnight to her as well. Aaron watched her walked away and he smiled gently. She was pissed at something, he just knew it. He shook the smile away and sat back down with Nick.

"I guess we should go back." Nick sighed.

"I guess."

"Oh, god. I never called CJ." Nick gasped.

"It's all right. BJ got the girls from school and she told them. They only know it was an accident, they don't know about when or how. . ." Aaron said.

"What am I going to tell her if the baby dies?" Nick asked. "She's already named her."

"You know it's a girl?"

"No, we asked not to know. . ." Nick said quietly. "I've got to see her, Aaron. Just once."

"I know, but it's not good for her to have visitors right now." Aaron said. "Let's go back, see if there is any news."

When Nick and Aaron returned to the waiting room, the others just looked at them. Nick was oblivious of their looks, but Aaron had a feeling that their silence had something to do with Jill. He could only hope she didn't have one of her tirades.

"What time is it here?" AJ asked, looking at his watch.

"It's 4:30." Aaron said, looking at his watch. "Have you heard anything?"

"No, not yet." Leah said. Just then Dr. Reynolds came in and asked them to sit down again.

"What is it?" Howie asked.

"Lexie is fine, she's resting comfortably." He said.

"What? What happened?" Nick asked.

"I’m sorry, Nick. We couldn't save the baby. It died in utero about 20 minutes ago. There was too much trauma. . ." he began.

"No." Nick whispered. His heart stopped and then choked on his next breath as he forced it in and out. Tears rose in his eyes and fell hurried down his cheeks. "No, why is this happening?"

"I'm sorry, Nick. She's gone into labor and should give birth in about an hour." He said.

"Is she awake?" Aaron asked, the only one who could speak.

"No, she hasn't regained consciousness. We have her under anesthesia right now to ease the birth." He said. "Lexie is going to be fine, she's going to come out of this all right."

Nick had begun to weep uncontrollably. He jerked himself away from Aaron's comfort and walked to the end of the room into a corner. With his face to the corner, he slid down the wall onto the floor and continued to sob. Leah handed Caroline to Howie, but Aaron stopped her from going to Nick. Nothing was going to console him now and Aaron knew that.

Lexie saw a crack of light. She tried to open her eyes fully, but she couldn't. She felt a touch on her hand, but she couldn't make them move. She tried to speak his name, but her lips moved and no sound came out.

Another time came and she could finally open her eyes, but she couldn't see or move her hands. Her lips moved again and the sound was a croak.

Yet another time came and she could see a distant dark shape and she spoke, "Nick?" Once a hand took hers, she knew by the feel of his bearded cheek on hers who it was. "Daddy?" She heard some other voices, but they didn't make sense, so she closed her eyes and surrendered to sleep.

Lexie woke from a pleasant dream. Her eyes opened and she saw her hospital room. Where was she? What happened? When her father walked in and smiled, she knew everything must be just fine.

"Lex?" he smiled at her.

"Daddy? Dad? Where am I?" she asked.

"You're at UCLA Medical Center." He said.

"What happened?" she asked.

"Don't you remember? There was an accident. . ." he began. She tried to envision a car accident, something to help give her a clue. She gave up.

"Where's Nick?" she asked.

"He's down the hall. . ."

"Can I see him? He must be worried about the baby and me. Go get him, okay?"

"Honey. . ."

"Why do my arms hurt so much? Damn my shoulder is sore. . .my wrist is broken?" she asked, looking at the cast. "God, I hurt." Her hand instantly went to her stomach, which was now barren and flat. She rubbed it in disbelief. "What's going on? Where's the baby?"

Leah and AJ watched through the glass as Nick rocked in the nursery with his little girl. They had wrapped the tiny little thing in a little blanket and let him sit with it. The doctor told them it was necessary to let him mourn his loss and he had asked to see her.

AJ slipped his arms around Leah and held her as they heard Nick start to sing through the glass. She cried into his shoulder as Nick's quiet voice carried to them. Aaron stood in the nursery with him, trying to stay out of the nurses' way. Soon Nick's voice and the lullaby faded, and Leah wiped her eyes. Nick had fallen asleep, his head bowed over the little baby. Aaron went to him and as he lifted the little bundle from him, he woke. He let Aaron take the baby and place her back into her bassinet. Aaron pulled the card from the cradle and handed it to Nick.

AJ turned Leah away and they returned to Lexie's room. AJ didn't need to stay and read the card. He had seen it earlier and knew what it said.

Devon Jennifer Carter.

The doctor came in just as Lexie started asking about the baby. He explained what had happened and how the baby had passed away. She was in shock and sat staring straight ahead, shaking her head 'no'. AJ came to the door in time to see Lexie stare at him, and furrowed her brow like she wasn't expecting to see him.

"What are you doing here?" she asked.

"I came to be with you." AJ said as he stood in the doorway.

"Where's Nick?" she asked him sternly.

"He's down the hall. . ." AJ said, startled.

"Where is he? Why isn't he here?!" she demanded, suddenly getting very agitated.

"Relax, honey. . ." Howie started. She jerked way from his comforting touch.

"No, Dad! I don't care what you and AJ want! Get Nick!" She demanded. AJ stepped back out into the hall and Lexie screamed at the top of her lungs, "Nick!"

Nick stared at the card, then slipped it into his jacket pocket. Another baby cried out in that tone that only newborns have. He relived all the fantasies he had had about his future with his new daughter and the past with his first daughter.

"You ready to go?" Aaron asked.

"Yes." He said after a heavy sigh. "I just wish I knew what I was going to tell her."

"The truth. How you feel. . ."

"What if she blames me too?"

"Nick, the only one who blames you is you."

"And Howie. . ."

"I don't think even Howie believes it's your fault." Aaron said. "Let's go. It sounds like she's starting to come around."

Nick let his brother lead him out of the nursery to the hallway. The doctor had visited him a little earlier and told them that she was having episodes of consciousness.

As they rounded the corner and headed toward her room, the hair on the back of Nick's neck rose up when he heard her scream his name. It sounded wounded and fearful. It was pure panic.

Lexie threw off her covers and started to get out of bed on the opposite side of the doctor and Howie. The sudden pain of her injuries threw her to the ground and Howie raced around to pick her up with the doctor. She fought them when they tried to get her back in the bed. Her open hand connected solidly with Howie's face several times. She was able to wrestle herself out of their grip, continuing to scream for Nick.

She stumbled forward with her IV's ripping from her arms. She flailed around to rid of herself of the hindrance. She continued to scream Nick's name until she got to the hall. AJ caught her as she fell into his arms, but she began to curse at him and swing her fists.

Howie made it to the hall in time to see Nick run down the hall toward her and go down on his knees before her and AJ. Nick turned her toward him, scooped her up in his arms, and got to his feet.

"Thank god! Oh, Nick!" she sobbed into his neck as she wrapped her arms around him.

Blood began to stain his rumpled suit from where her arms were torn from the IV's. He stood tall and defiant to AJ and Howie, using his massive size to intimidate them. He carried her back into the hospital room and sat on the bed with her.

"It's not true is it?" she asked him.

"Yes, it is. I'm so sorry, honey." He told her.

"Our baby is dead?" He could only nod in response.

She buried herself in his arms and pressed her face into his chest. She curled up her fists and pounded on his back in rage as he held her. She screamed, cried and cursed them all. All of them, but Nick. The nurses came and were able to get her back in bed and get her IV's reestablished.

"I'm so sorry. It was all my fault, Lexie. . ." he cried, pulling the card from his pocket. She took it from him and looked at the name.

"No, Nick. It's not your fault. I love you, please don't say that. . ." she said, shaking her head 'no'. She lifted the card between them and read it out loud. "Devon Jennifer Carter. It did have a nice ring to it." She smiled gently.

"I'm so sorry. . ." he sobbed, dropping his head on her shoulder. "I should've never had you there. . ."

She held him the best she could and looked past his shoulder to see Howie and AJ at the doorway. She laid her head on his shoulder, looking away. His arms drew her closer.

"I love you, Nick. Nothing is going to change that. I promise." She whispered. He lifted his head, but still couldn't look at her. She touched his cheek and turned his face to her. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry this happened. . .it's not your fault. Please don't blame yourself. I couldn’t bear it."

That early evening, Howie returned to the ward Lexie was in. He heard Nick's voice coming down the hall from her room. He was singing. He wasn't signing very loud; the entire ward was just very quiet. Listening to him as he sang softly to Lexie. He wasn't even singing the words, but some were songs Howie recognized as Backstreet songs. The nurses looked up from their desk as he stopped in front of it.

"He has a beautiful voice." The old charge nurse said quietly.

"Yes, he does." Howie nodded.

Lexie woke the next morning to see Nick in the chair asleep. She just lay there and stared at him. She remembered how he had held her, cried with her and sang for her. He had never sung for her before.

"Nick?" she called out. He woke up instantly with a start. He came quickly to her bedside and sat on the edge. She realized the clothes he was wearing were the same ones he had worn to court two days ago. He was rumpled and stained. He looked so tired and pained. "Sh, baby." She whispered as she took him in her arms.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

"Are you?"

"I'll be fine. . ."

"When was the last time you ate?" she asked, but he didn't respond. "Did you make arrangements for DJ?"

"Yes. She'll be buried next to grandpa. . ."

"Thank you, thank you for doing that."

"I would've waited, but you said you didn't want to see her."

"I don't. I have all these memories." She said, rubbing her stomach. "Have you heard? When do I get to go home?"

"I don't know. The doctor is coming by after lunch to see you."

"I'll ask then." She said. "Nick?"


"Can I come and stay with you?"

"Of course, I want you there. You belong in that house with us."

"How's CJ? Have you seen her? Have you told her?" Lexie asked.

"I haven't seen her, but Mom and Dad told all the kids. Aaron and Jill told CJ." He said, not looking at her.

"You should go home. . ."

"No!" he protested.

"Nick, you look like hell. . . Besides, you're starting to smell bad too." She smiled.

He looked down at his destroyed suit. "Maybe I can get Aaron to bring me some new clothes. . ."

"Nick, I'll be all right. You need to go home."

"I can't." he said, his voice cracking.

"Sh-h." she said, taking him back into her arms.

"I can't go back without you." He sobbed. She began to cry too.

Three days later, Lexie was ready to go home. Nick only went home once in those three days. Brian, Kevin and Jake also came into town to see her and Nick. Brian was the one who brought CJ for a visit everyday.

CJ had cried when she first saw Lexie and Nick. They told her that they still loved her and her little sister. Nick promised to take her to visit the grave and surprised her by telling her they had named the baby just how she had wanted, with Jennifer as a middle name. That made CJ awfully proud. CJ was even more excited to know that Lexie was moving in when she came home from the hospital.

Howie, AJ and Leah also came for visits, but the conversations were polite at best. None of the closeness of family existed for any of them. She told them she would be moving in with Nick and they never offered an opinion. She gave no indication that she wanted one.

Howie was visited by Nick's voice again as he walked toward Lexie's room to help her out. Everyone else was downstairs waiting. He stood silently in the door as he watched them.

Lexie was dressed in jeans and a tee shirt in a chair at the window. Nick was standing behind her, slowly brushing out her hair into a straight ponytail. Her hair shone with each stroke of the brush.

"Nick?" she asked, interrupting Nick's musings with song.


"Did you bring any sunglasses? My head hurts." She said.

"Sure." He said, putting the elastic ponytail holder in her hair. He put the brush in the bag and pulled out some sunglasses. He handed them to her and she put them on against the morning sun. "Better?"

"Hmmm." She nodded.

He held out his hand and she slipped hers in it. Nick gently got her to her feet and into the wheelchair.

"Do I have to use this thing?" she asked.

"I hear those are the rules." He chuckled. She simply stuck her tongue out at him and he gave her a little laugh. Howie saw her smile. "C'mon. Everyone is waiting." Nick said, turning her chair toward the door. They both saw Howie.

"Dad." She said.

"Hi, honey." Howie smiled.

"Could you get my bag?" she asked.

"Sure." He nodded as he walked into the room and took it off the bed. He followed them out of the room and down the hall and they took the elevator down just three floors.

Everyone was waiting. Leah, Caroline, AJ, Alex, Kevin, Jake, Aaron, Jill and Brian. There was also a hospital administrator.

"Mr. Carter, we've made arrangements for you to leave out the back. . ." he said.

"No." Lexie said.

"What?" Howie asked.

"I’m not leaving like some kind of coward. Have them bring the cars out front, Nick." She said.

"Lexie. . ." Howie began.

"Please, Nick." She said, her voice cracking.

"Have them brought out front. Make sure the my daughter stays in the car." He said. Everyone followed them down to the front entrance where there was plenty of press.

"Stop, Nick." She said and he stopped the chair.

Lexie didn't look at anyone around her as she held out her left hand for Nick. She found AJ taking her hand, but Kevin came in behind him and took her elbow from him.

"I'll take her, AJ." Kevin said, using just his superior size to convince AJ that he was better suited to protect her. Kevin gently helped her to her feet and waited as she straightened herself up. Her injuries made walking slow and difficult, but she would improve with time. His strength seemed to just seep into her as she looked up at him. A silent tear ran out from under her glasses. He wiped it away quickly. "That's enough of that, little girl. Let's get a move on." She nodded at him and turned back to Nick at her right. Jake and Aaron took positions up in front of her at the door where the reporters were waiting.

"Everyone ready?" Kevin asked. "Good. Just like the old days guys. Heads down and straight to the car."

Chapter 31 by old_archive

The cars pulled away from the hospital with Aaron, Kevin and Jake sharing a limo with Nick, Lexie and CJ. It was silent as CJ snuggled between Nick and Lexie.

"Daddy?" CJ asked suddenly.

"Yes?" he smiled.

"I’m hungry. Can we stop at McDonald's?" she asked.

"I'm sure Cook will have something for everyone. . ."

"No, let's stop." Lexie said, smoothing CJ's bangs from her forehead.

"We really should get home."

"No, let's stop. Please?" she asked. Nick gave instructions for the driver to stop and get CJ her meal. He refused to let anyone else out of the car. Luckily this was L.A. and a limo parked at a McDonald's wasn't so strange.

"Lexie, are you going to stay with me and Daddy now?" CJ asked as they waited.

"Yes, I am." She said quietly.

"I'm glad. I love you." She whispered.

"I love you too." Lexie said softly to her. Lexie closed her eyes and leaned in more toward Nick, who held them both in his arms.

"Does Howie know?" Kevin asked.

"I don't know what Howie knows." Nick sighed. "I don't really care either."

Kevin watched Lexie blink her sad dark eyes. "Do you feel the same way, Lexie?" Kevin asked. She didn't respond. How sad, he thought. How very sad.

Nick and Kevin helped Lexie into the house. The others had arrived while they were waiting at McDonald's. They took her upstairs, directly to Nick's room. Nick stayed with her and helped her get ready for bed.

Howie noted how bad Nick looked when he came downstairs. He looked tired, worn and conquered. He looked up at Howie and then scanned the room.

"Jillie? Can I talk to you privately?" he asked.

"Uh. . .sure." She said, following him into the den. He held the door for her and then closed it behind them. "What is it, Nick?"

"I want you to settle the remaining cases." He said.


"I want you to settle them. I fired all of my other lawyers. Just pay them off, I don't care how much it costs."

"Nick, this could cost you millions."

"It already has. . .and much more." He sighed. "I don't have much left. I'm planning to sell this house. . ."

"No, Nick. You've been here almost 20 years. . ."

"I'm selling the house. It goes on the market on Monday. It should net me enough to pay the settlements." He said. "The university has made arrangements for Lexie to take her finals here at the house so she can graduate. I'm taking her and CJ away. . ."

"Where, Nick? Where are you going to go?" Jill asked.

"Somewhere safe. . ."

"Aren't you going to tell me?" she asked.

"I haven't decided. . ."

"What did Lexie say? Have you discussed this with her?" she asked.

"It's not her decision." He said flatly. "Will you do it?"

"Of course, it was a standing offer. . .are you sure about this Nick? Are you really sure this is what you want?"

"Yes." He muttered quietly.

The next morning the house was bustling with activity as CJ and Brian stirred up a mess of trouble for Cook. Lexie rolled over in bed gently as she heard them squeal down the hall.

"Nick?" she asked, realizing he was gone.

"I'm right here." He said, coming out of the master bath. He was still shaving and had only pajama bottoms on. She couldn't help but smile at him. He returned it warmly.

"Go finish." She said, sitting up.

"Let me help you."

"No, no. You'll drip shaving cream all over the place. Get in there!" she laughed, waving him away. She struggled to get out of bed and entered the bathroom behind him.

"How does a shower sound?" he asked as she passed him.

"It would probably feel pretty good. I'm going to need to protect the cast. . ."

"I can take care of that. . ." he said, stopping to stare at the bruises on her body as she removed her nightshirt. She looked in the mirror and saw them herself. She turned sideways and smoothed her hand over her flat stomach. Nick remembered her doing that as she was starting to show. She never complained about getting rounder. He watched her drop her hand quickly and turn away.

"You don't have to turn away from me." He said.

She ignored him and picked up his towels from the floor. She walked them to the laundry chute and went to use the bathroom. He rinsed the rest of the shaving cream from his face and found her hand in his as he groped for a towel. She handed him one and he wiped his face. He quickly reached for her and caught her good hand.

"Don't shut me out. We promised." He whispered.

"I'm sorry. . .I'm. . .I just feel so alone. . ."She sobbed quietly.

"You're not. I'm here. I'll always be here for you. . ." he said.

"I know, I know." She nodded.

Nick knew what she meant. She was missing Howie, AJ, and her family. The phone calls weren't enough. Nick knew that AJ and Howie were still in town until the end of the weekend. He'd call them; maybe they would listen to him. Maybe they wouldn't, but he had to try. For her sake.

A late breakfast in the sun was what they all really needed, but it wasn't safe yet for them to be outside. Cook did pick the sunniest corner of the house to set up a light meal for everyone. CJ sat with Brian, who was staying at the house, and chattered on and on about whatever CJ and Brian would talk about.

Lexie wasn't listening.

Neither was Nick.

They both sat quietly, barely looking at Brian and CJ.

Brian could see the love though. He couldn't understand why AJ and Howie couldn't just accept it. Nick would brush her hand, pick at her plate for her, and silently encourage her to eat. She would rebuff him, but he would pursue her more until she relented. She had her own concerned looks at his plate. Nick's fingers would tuck a loose hair, caress her cheek. Her eyes would well with tears that would vanish at his touch.

Perhaps because he loved Nick as he did, it was easier for him to be happy for Nick. Perhaps he was as blind to their love as Nick was. It didn't matter. He knew in his heart they belonged together. The real joy for Brian was that they knew it too.

Nick left CJ, Brian and Lexie downstairs in the studio when he headed upstairs unannounced. Brian excused himself five minutes later and followed him. He found Nick sitting at his desk.

"How much longer are you going to punish yourself?" Brian asked.

"What? Don't be stupid, Brian." Nick sighed, after letting his head settle back down into his hands after the startled look he gave Brian.

"Have you told Lexie yet?"

"About what?" Nick asked.

"About you selling the house. . ."

"How did you find out? Did Jill tell you?"

"No, the real estate marketer called while you were in the shower this morning." Brian said. "Jill knows?"

"I asked her to represent me in settling the last cases." Nick said.

"You're settling? How much is that going to cost you? Do you have to sell the house?" Brian asked.

"Yes, I have to sell the house. I sold everything else years ago when this first started, at the advice of my lawyers. You might as well sell the Prowler, I'll never get you the money to buy it back."

"I don't give a fuck about the money, I'm worried about you." Brian said, sitting across from him.

"Let me buy the house. . ." Brian began.

"B, I don't think you could. . ." Nick smiled.

"How about Howie or AJ? Couldn't you borrow the money. . ."

"How Brian? Go to the bank and ask them for a couple mil? I haven't put out an album in what? Five years? I can't even record, perform, nothing right now. I have no other income but this house and a few investments." Nick said.

"Can't your family help?" Brian asked.

"I can't ask them for this kind of money. I can't ask anyone. I'll just sell the house, invest a little. . .it'll work out."

"What about CJ and Lexie? Don't they have say in this?"

"CJ is seven. No, she doesn't have a say in it. It's my house, Brian. I can sell it if I want to. This isn't Lexie's problem." Nick said.

"Nick, she's a part of your life now. She has the right to know." Brian said gently.

"She'll just talk me out of it." Nick sighed.

"Kinda like what I'm trying to do?" Brian smiled. "Besides, she's going to see the house being put up on the market. She does live here now."

"No, it'll be by appointment only and I've made all the arrangements. She won't know until I tell her." Nick said.

"So now after all she's been through, you're going to lie to her too?" Brian said.

"Damn it, Brian." Nick declared, getting to his feet.

"She needs to be able to trust you, Nick. Her whole world is upside down. Nick, listen to me. Take it from the guy who has been married over 20 years, be honest and up front with her. Howie and AJ never were. You have to be different." Brian said. Brian watched Nick think about what he had said. "Look. Ultimately, it's none of my business, but I'm still your best friend. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

"Yeah, I do." He sighed heavily.

"Who were you about to call?" Brian asked.

"Howie. He left his hotel number. . ."

"Why now?"

"Lexie needs him. . ."

"She has you. Nick, stop punishing yourself. . ."

"I'm not, Frick. I can only do so much for her. I love her, but she needs more right now. She needs her father and at this point I'll take either one of them." He sighed.

"Look. I'll leave you be for now."

"When are you planning on leaving?" Nick asked, looking up as Brian headed for the door.

"Sunday night. I've gotta get back for Fatima. . ."

"I know. Thanks, Brian."

"Sure, little bro, anytime."

Nick waited for Brian to leave before he picked up the phone. He dialed the number Leah had left. AJ was at the same hotel, a couple doors down.

"Howie Dorough, please." Nick said after the hotel answered.

"May I ask who's calling?"

"Nick Carter."

"Please hold, Mr. Carter." The polite voice said.

"What do you think he wants?" AJ asked from his chair across from Howie.

"You won't know until you answer it." Leah said to Howie. Howie was balancing Caroline on his knee. He reached behind him and picked up the phone off the table behind the couch he was on.



"Yes, Nick."

"Look, I don't know how to ask this. . ."

"What? Is Lexie okay?"

"Can you come over before you leave? I know you said your good-byes last night, but. . ."


"She needs you, Howie."

"Did she say that?"

"No, but I can tell. I'm not her whole family, I can't give her everything she needs right now. . ." Nick began. "Please? I'll leave the house while you visit if you don't want to see me. . ."

"Nick, we have our flights booked. . ."

"Howie don't punish her for falling in love with me." Nick said quietly.

"I'm not. . ."

"I swear, I'll leave. You won't have to see me. . ."

"No, don't go. We'll stop by around 4. Our flights are out at 7." Howie sighed.

"Thank you, Howie. I know this will mean a lot to her. . ." Nick began, but Howie just hung up on him.

AJ and Leah watched Howie hang up the phone.

"We're going over there?" Leah asked.

"He asked us to. He says Lexie needs us. . ."

"She does." Leah said. "I'm her mother, you're her father. You too, AJ."

"Leah, don't. . ." Howie said, rubbing his eyes.

"I'm not ashamed to say it in front of AJ." She dared him.

"What?" AJ asked.

"Jill was right."

"Damn it, Leah!" Howie snapped.

"Why are we doing this, Howie? Why are we across town at a hotel when our daughter is suffering the loss of her child alone? When did we come to this?" Leah demanded.

"They lied to us. . ." AJ began.

"Oh, hell, AJ! How much longer are you going to punish them? They fell in love, it's not a crime!"

"Leah, that's enough!" Howie snapped.

"No!" she snapped back.

AJ had to raise an eyebrow at that. It wasn't like Leah. All these years she had always done as Howie had asked her. In the time he had been getting reacquainted with them, he had learned her ways were gentle, but moving.

"Lexie's not the only one hurting here! I am! That's my little girl over there and you're just leaving her to those wolves. . ." she said, beginning to cry. "I've stood by every decision you've ever made regarding her, but not now! You're wrong Howie! Very wrong!"

Leah got to her feet and Howie followed her. As he touched her, she turned and shoved him away.

"I can't take this another minute. I’m going over there, now!" she declared. "You keep Caroline, I'll see you there at four!"

The doorbell rang about an hour after Nick had hung up. He wasn't expecting anyone, so he was surprised to open the door and find Leah standing there. He looked around, but only saw the cab.

"Uh. . .hi, Leah." He said.

"Can I see Lexie?" she asked quietly.

"Of course. She's in the home theatre with Brian and CJ. We were just watching a movie. Where's Howie and AJ?"

"They'll be coming later." She said.

Leah waited in the living room for Lexie to appear. She looked out onto Nick's gardens, his beautiful veranda and his huge pool.

"Mom?" Leah heard Lexie ask. Leah turned to see Nick standing behind her, his hands on her shoulders.

"Lex, I came to see if you're doing alright."

"I'm doing okay. Where's Dad?"

"They are coming later. I left them with the kids. Serves them right." She joked harshly.

"I'll leave you two alone. Leah, do you want anything? Cook is right in the kitchen. . ." Nick began.

"No, no. I'm fine." She nodded.

Lexie couldn't remember the last time she was alone with her mother. It was probably at Christmas, right before they found about Nick. That had changed everything. Nick left them to go back and watch the movie with 'the kids' as he and Lexie were calling them. She knew that as soon as he got back, the popcorn fight would begin. She smiled. Her mother gave her a quizzical look. She waved back in the direction Nick had left.

"I know the popcorn will start flying as soon as he gets back." Lexie smiled. "He's still a big kid."

"I know what you mean, especially with Brian around." Leah chuckled lightly. "I wanted to come here and see for myself how you're doing. We didn't get any time in the hospital."

"I know. I really needed Nick. I doubt Dad or AJ wanted to be around him."

"I can understand that. He was the baby's father."

"Yes." Lexie nodded.

"Lexie? Do you really love him?" Leah asked.

"I was born to love him." Lexie said quietly without looking up.

"I know what you mean."

Lexie lifted her eyes to see her mother smiling. Lexie remembered the time her father had been in the hosptial. She shared the smile with her mother.


She knew exactly what Lexie meant.

Chapter 32 by old_archive

Leah and Lexie were sitting in the living room talking when Howie arrived sans AJ and the children. Lexie had run excitedly to the door the best she could and opened it before Brian could. Lexie assumed Nick had sent Brian to avoid Howie and AJ.

"Hi, Dad." She smiled. He couldn't resist a little smile of his own. "Where's. . ." she began, but stopped herself.

"Alex isn't feeling well. He felt he had to stay with him while he slept." Howie said, still standing on the front stoop.

"Oh." She sighed. She looked up at him, "Do you want to come in?"

"Yes. I'd like that." He said. She stood aside and let him in.

"Mom's inside, in the living room." She said, following him up the stairs.

"You're walking better today." He said.

"Yeah, I'm a little better." She said quietly.

"Where is Nick?" Howie asked.

"Watching a movie with CJ and Brian." She said as they walked into the living room. Brian had seen her running to the door and had simply returned to the movie with a smile to Leah.

"He called us. . ."

"I know." She said. "I'm glad you came."

Howie looked over at Leah, sitting comfortably in an overstuffed chair in Nick's beautifully designed living room. Her eyes met his sternly, but she did not look away.

"Where's AJ?" Leah asked.

"Alex is sleeping off that cold. . ." He lied. Leah chose that moment not to say anything about AJ.

"Lexie and I have just been talking all this time. Nick has made all the arrangements for her to finish school." Leah smiled.

"I'm still going to graduate." Lexie said shyly.

"That's good news." Howie said as they sat at opposite ends of the couch across from her.

"It's important to me." She added. He only nodded.

Leah watched the tears well in Lexie's eyes and her bottom lip begin to tremble. No, Howie. Don't just sit there and hurt her. Leah thought. He turned to her and saw her trembling. He reached out and laid his hand on her knee.

"Don't cry, honey. . ." he began. Lexie couldn't help the sob that burst from her. She buried her face in her good hand. He instinctively moved closer to her and drew her into his arms.

Leah felt her own eyes burn with tears. Now, Howie. Now is the time to forgive her for hurting you. Please stop punishing her. . . Howie buried his face into her fragrant hair and rocked her in his arms.

"I'm sorry, Dad. . .it's all my fault. . ." she sobbed.

"Sh-h, baby, don't." he said.

"I'm so sorry. . ."

"There is nothing to be sorry for." He soothed. She pushed away from him and wiped her eyes.

"I'm sorry I've disappointed you so much. . ."

"What?! Lexie, I'm not disappointed in you." He said in disbelief.

"I know you can't forgive me for running away. . ."

"What?! Lexie, stop it!" he demanded. Lexie got to her feet.

"I know it's true, Dad. You've never forgiven me for running when I did. It was stupid, I know that now. I shouldn't have done it. . .I'm so sorry." She sobbed. "I can't help how I feel about Nick. I love him, Dad. It wasn't his fault I ran. I was going to go, regardless of what he said. Please don't hate him, Dad. It's not his fault. None of this is. . .It's all mine. I was so wrong. . ."

"Lexie. . ." Howie began, getting to his feet and moving toward him. She moved away from him blindly.

"He's one of your best friends. . .I should've never let this happen." She cried. "And AJ. . .I know he hates me now. . .me and Nick. . . god, they were such good friends. . .but we were going to tell him, I swear!"

She was stumbling backwards and absently crashed into another chair and stumbled. She recovered her footing as she continued to move away from Howie.

"I'm sorry, Daddy, I swear I am. I never wanted to hurt you! I didn't want to hurt anyone. . .I want AJ back!" she sobbed. "He promised he wouldn't ever leave me again, how could he do this to me?! God, now I'm never going to see him again!"

"Lexie, calm down. I'll talk to AJ for you. . ." Howie pleaded, following her.

"Lexie?" Brian asked, coming into the room with a large empty bowl.

She stopped her ramblings to look at him. She blinked her teary eyes a couple times.

"Bri?" she asked.

"Lex? Are you okay?" he asked.

"No." she said quietly, shaking her head. Her good hand went to her head like she suddenly had a headache.

Brian looked around the room at the three of them. "I’m going to go get Nick."

"NO!" she said. "I don't want him to see me like this. . ." She began to wipe her face.

"Lexie, I'm going to go get Nick now. . ." Brian said, easing himself out of the room.

"Please don't. I'll be okay, just give me a minute." She gasped.

"I think he needs to be here. . ."

"No, my Dad doesn't want to see him. . ."

"No, it's all right." Howie said, waving Brian out.

"Don't say anything bad to him. . .remember you loved him once too." She whispered. Just then, Nick came running in with Brian right behind him.

"Lex? Jesus! Are you all right?!" he said, running to her side to take her in his arms. "Did you do this?!" he demanded of Howie.

"No, Nick. She just started getting upset, I promise." Leah said, getting to her feet, watching Lexie bury her face into his chest.

"I think you better go." Nick said sternly. Lexie's knees buckled and she collapsed in his arms. "Lexie!" He gently laid her limp form down on the floor.

Suddenly, Lexie was very pale and her breathing was shallow. "Brian, call 911!"

"Mr. Dorough?" the doctor asked as came into the family waiting room.

"Yes?" Howie said, getting to his feet.

"Lexie is doing well." He said.

"Thank god! What happened?" Leah asked.

"She had an aniexty attack." He sighed. "I told Nick to avoid this kind of stress if at all possible. . ."

"She was upset. . ." Howie began.

"I know, Nick told me." He said.

They all turned to the door as it opened abruptly. Nick came into the room behind the doctor. He looked angry.

"Did you tell them how she's doing?" he asked the doctor, trying to control his voice.

"Yes, I. . ."

"Good, you can go now." Nick said to Howie and Leah.

"I want to see. . ." Howie began.

"She doesn't want to see you. You'd better go." Nick said.

"No! She's still my daughter. . ." Howie demanded.

"It's not about you any more, Howie! Lexie doesn't want to see you and I'm here to make sure that you listen to her. . ."

"You bastard!" Howie snarled at him. "You did this!"

"No, Howie! You did this! She was begging for your forgiveness and you couldn't give it to her, could you? You can just keep on punishing her for what she did to you, but do it from Orlando. I don't want you anywhere near her, CJ, or my house! Do you hear me!?!" Nick yelled back.

The doctor jumped between them, "Gentlemen! None of this is going to help Lexie!"

Nick turned on his heel and left without another word.

Howie, Leah, AJ and the children returned to Orlando the following morning. They had missed their flights out. A week later, Howie was sitting at AJ's house with Kevin. They were still reliving what Nick had said last to Howie and Leah.

"He said what?!" AJ said as he paced his living room floor in front of Howie. "Who the hell does he think he is?!"

"The man who loves her." Kevin said quietly as he brought the coffee in from the kitchen.

"Don't take his side." AJ snarled.

"I'm not on anyone's side." He shrugged as he put the pot in front of them, "Except maybe Lexie's."

"So, you think what Nick is doing is right?" Howie asked.

"If he's doing what's best for Lexie, yes." Kevin said.

"What if she was your daughter. . .?" Howie began.

"I'm not having that conversation with you. I have four boys, thank god." He smiled to himself. "I don't know if Nick is right or wrong for pursuing a relationship with a girl half his age, but for better or worse, he loves her. If she wasn't your daughter, you'd be happy for him."

"Then it would be some other father's problem." Howie sighed.

"What is really the problem?" Kevin asked.

Kevin sat back and listened to the conversation he knew he would get from them. The problems ranged from the fact that she's AJ's daughter, she's half Nick's age, he already has a child, she won't graduate school, he can't support her, he can't protect her, they lied to them, and so on and so. He had just had this conversation with Brian the night before.

Himself? He wasn't sure how he felt about it. It's true that if she were someone else's daughter, they'd be happy for him. As the youngest member, no one expected Nick to be the last one to fall in love like this. They all honestly had expected Nick to marry young, have a half a dozen kids and be a superstar. Well, he got the superstar part done. A part of Kevin had grown to believe that Nick just wasn't going to be one of the lucky ones when it came to love. In the early days, Nick had tried too hard. As he grew older, he tried less. It didn't matter. The end result was the same. Nick was alone until the birth of CJ. When CJ came along, Kevin had thanked the fates for showing Nick a little kindness in this life. Now with Lexie, as twisted as it was, at least two people were happy and one of them was Nick.

"Kevin? Are you even paying attention any more?" AJ snapped, frustrated by Kevin's usual silence.

Kevin quirked a bushy eyebrow at him and raised the coffee mug to his lips.


"We may have a buyer." Nick said quietly to Lexie. She only looked up sadly from her books. She looked around the den. She nodded without a word. "It will help speed up the settlements. . ." he began, but she only raised an eyebrow at him as she returned to her studies. "This will be good for us. We can get away from all of this. . ."

"Moving isn't going to change what happened." She said.

"Are you still thinking about what Jill said?" he asked.

"How can I not? The DA's office reviewed the video tapes. . .they know who pushed me through that rail. . .they'll probably press charges with or without our consent. . ." she sighed.

"It'll only be assault. . ."

"I know."

"The baby won't even be considered. . ."

"I heard her." She sighed.

Nick had taken Brian's advice and told her about settling the cases and selling the house. She had cried as she tried to talk him out of it, but his mind was made up.

A month later and she was still sad. It was killing him. There was nothing he could do, but help her take her medications and hope for the best. She would leave his bed and cry herself to sleep in other rooms to avoid him. She still wouldn't talk about Howie, AJ, or her mom. He couldn't help but blame himself for all that had happened, but he was convinced that moving away would be good for all of them.

"When will we know for sure?" she asked.

"A couple of days. They haven't made a bid yet." He said.

She ignored him and returned to her books. Nick left her, closing the door behind him. He wandered aimlessly through the halls of the house and tried to remember when he was happy here. He hadn't been until CJ. CJ and Lexie.


Nick shook his head. She had grown into a quiet, nearly silent child. At seven, she was no longer the talkative, precocious child she was a few months ago. She used to talk about the baby, but had stopped when Lexie came home from the hospital the last time.

His mother was worried about her. She didn't come right out and accuse him of being a bad father by letting all of this happen, but she didn't have to. The look in her eyes when she came over did it to him every time.

Aaron and his sisters stood by him regardless. What little joy he had left came from his nieces and nephews and watching them play with CJ. A silent hug and squeeze of his hand was all he needed from them. Being Carter children had bonded them in a way he doubted few people understood.

These days, Brian was the only one who called him. He told Nick how Kevin and he played devil's advocate with the other two, but they weren't listening. Brian hadn't been back in the four weeks since they had lost the baby, but he spoke to either one of them daily.

For the life of him, Nick had no idea what he was going to do. How would he ever find a shred of happiness for any of them ever again?

By the end of June, Lexie had completed her studies and received her degree from USC. Nick had insisted they all attend the ceremony, but she refused. She waited for the degree to come in the mail.

The buyers hadn't offered what Nick needed for the house, so he couldn't sell it. It remained on the market. With summer upon them now, the agent was positive she could sell the house and all of its surrounding property.

It was June 30th when Kevin's son, Jake, was standing on his front stoop. Nick opened the door to the tall dark hared young man with a wicked grin. He had been completely unannounced.

"Jake?" Nick asked.

"Howdy, Nickers." He laughed.

"Uh, hi. How did you get up here?" Nick asked.

"I am still Kevin Richardson's son. . .it can be useful. Are you going to let me in or not?" he joked.

"Uh, yeah, sure. C'mon in." he said, stepping aside. "Lexie's not here. . ."

"That's okay. I'm here to see you. Today is your lucky day, Mr. Carter." Jake laughed as he swung into the house with his backpack over his shoulder.

"Well, it is always nice to see you, Jake." Nick said, finding himself smiling as he followed Jake as he made a beeline for the kitchen.

"Jake!" Cook laughed, giving the younger man a hug.

"Hey, how's my girlfriend doing!?" he joked, picking her up and twirling her around. Cook let out a girlish giggle and swatted him on the arm when he put her down. Jake headed for the refrigerator and pulled a soda out.

"What are you doing here?" Cook laughed, "Lexie is out with CJ and Aaron. . ."

"I know, I'm actually here to see Nick." He said, plopping his bag on the kitchen table and opening the can.

"What can I do for you?" he asked.

"Oh, no! It's not what you can do for me, it's what I can do for you." Jake smiled, putting down the can and opening his pack. He pulled about a dozen large manila envelopes stuffed with legal papers and dropped them on the table.

"What's that?" Nick asked.

"The nails to crucify the bastards. A good lawyer should be able to get you the right size hammer." He smiled wickedly.

"What are these?" Cook asked, picking them up.

"Proof. . .proof that Jive Records is involved in engineering all of these suits against Nick."

"What?! Jake, you can't say that. . ."Nick began.

"I don't have to say it. It's all right here! Nick, believe it or not, your own record company has been doing this to you!"

"That's insane. If I can't perform or record they can't make any money off of me."

"Oh yes they can! They have a huge multi-million dollar 'non-performance' rider on you, Nick. If you can't perform for 5 years, they get millions."

"Wait a sec, I don't know anything about a 'non-performance' rider."

"You don't? According to Dad they are pretty common. . ." Jake said.

"Your Dad knows about these papers?" Nick asked.

"Hell, no!" Jake said.

"How did you get them?" Nick asked.

"Lisa Andrews from Jive sent them to me at the radio station. She was afraid to send them to any of you guys. She thought they might trace the package or something."

"How do you know Lisa Andrews?"

"Dad let me spend my senior year of high school in Orlando so I could graduate with my childhood friends. I dated her daugther while I was there. We kept in touch." Jake shrugged. "She told me it was Missy's idea to send them to me. She figured since Lexie and I are friends, I could get them to you. Who would guess I'd be involved?"

That sounded familiar to Nick. Jake was the only son of Kevin's born in Orlando. The rest had been born in Kentucky. Jake grew up in Orlando those years Kevin and Kristen lived there.

"Why Lisa? Why did she do this?" Nick asked.

"I don't know. You'll have to ask her. I just know I was under instructions to get them to you." He smiled.

Nick's head was swimming. What if it was true? Had the company he had been with for his entire career be doing this to him? Did he really have a way to get out from under all of this? He silently let his hand fall on the envelopes. Was this really his chance to make everything right?

The little brunette's head snapped up from rubbing her eyes as the door to her office flew open. She cocked her head at the two tall men in the doorway. One light, one dark. Her secretary fluttered in after them, apologizing for the intrusion.

"Jill's not here!" she yelled over her secretary's noise.

"I know, I'll talk to you!" one insisted.

"Nick, I’m not working on your cases. . ." she began, dropping her head back into her hands and rubbing her eyes. Next thing she knew, he was looming over her desk.

"You've got to help me, Sabrina. You have to look at these for me, this can't wait." He insisted as they both dropped a dozen manila envelopes on top of all of her work.

She tiredly waved her secretary out of the office with orders to close the door. She leaned back in her chair, listening to the leather creak.

"What's this?"

"Proof. Proof that Jive is behind all of lawsuits against me and my tour. . ." Nick gasped.

"What?!" she asked.

"Please, just look at them. . ." Nick pleaded.

"Look, Jill had to go to court today and it's Friday. . ." she groaned.

"Sabrina, I swear. This is important. . ." he begged.

"All right. I'm a sucker for a pretty face. Go sit down." She sighed, reaching for her reading glasses. She looked up at Jake and squinted. "Who the hell are you?" He smiled sweetly at her and she knew. "You're one of Kevin Richardson's kids aren't you?"


"Great." She moaned, "Just what I needed at 4:30 on a Friday. A Backstreet reunion."

Sabrina Carlson, one of Jill Carter's law partners, wasn't paying attention to Nick squirreling around her office. She was completely absorbed by the papers in front of her. There it was in black and white. His own record company in lieu of a multi-million 'non-performance' rider was trashing him. They wouldn't need Nick Carter to ever record another record. He could be an utter failure and they would still make millions.

Nick Carter wasn't a failure. He was still a multi-platinum recording star, seconded only by his band mate, AJ McLean. They weren't doing this because Nick wasn't making money for them, he just wasn't making it fast enough. The financial records the Jive attorney sent made that perfectly clear. Someone started running the company into the ground years ago and Nick was going to be their sacrificial lamb led to slaughter.

She finally took her glasses off and set them on the desk.

"Well?" Jake asked.

"It's sure interesting reading." She smiled.

"Is Lisa right?" Nick asked.

"I think so. Corporate law isn't my specialty, but this is looking pretty cut and dry to me. I think Jill better see this tonight." She said, reaching for the phone. She watched Nick and Jake share congratulatory smiles and back slaps.

"Hi, Aaron? It's Sabrina, can I talk to Jill?" she asked. "Jill, sorry to call you at home, but you're going to want to come to the office. It seems that your star client, Nick Carter, has found a way out of his troubles. . . no, you've got to see this to believe it. . . yeah, he's here. . .bring her, I'm sure she'll be interested in this, too. . .girly, this is big. No, I mean it."

Lexie rode to the office with Jill and followed her into the darkened law offices. Nick looked so incredibly happy and she was surprised to see Jake. They all hovered around Jill's partner's desk as she pored over the papers.

"Where did you get these?" Jill asked.

"Lisa Andrews, she's an attorney for Jive." Jake said.

"Do they know we have these?"

"They shouldn't." Jake said.

"Can you contact her?" Sabrina asked.

"Sure, I can call the house. I used to date her daughter." Jake shrugged.

"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Jill asked.

"I don't how we can wait. Let's call Tina in here, but I think we have to call the judges on his cases, see if we can get them in chambers tomorrow. It'll take us weeks to set up the appeals for the former cases, but there is no way we can't get them overturned." Sabrina said.

"Who's Tina?" Lexie asked.

"Tina Ryans, she is our corporate law specialist. She can interpret some of this better than we can." Jill said.

"She's that redhead, huh?" Nick asked.

Jill chuckled at that, because Tina always bugged him to get AJ's autograph whenever she saw him.

"Look at it this way, Nicky. You'll have a blonde, a brunette and a redhead on your legal team." Jill smiled.

"God help them." Sabrina laughed.

Nick and Jake chattered happily as they drove back to the house. Lexie remained silent as Nick broke out the champagne and they celebrated. They put Jake up in one of the guestrooms before they went to bed.

"I can't believe it." Nick laughed as he began to strip his clothes off for bed. "It may actually be over soon."

Lexie continued to get undressed without a word. Suddenly, she felt his hands on her, pulling her into his arms. He kissed her passionately.

"This great news. . .isn't it?" he asked her, puzzled.

"Yes, of course. . ."

"Lex? What is it?" he asked, stepping back.

"I don't know." She shrugged, "Maybe I'll believe it when I see it."

"Sh-h, don't worry baby. This is it. It just has to be." He said, taking her face in his hands and kissing her.

Lexie found herself pulling away from his advances. They were the first one he had made since they had lost the baby. He dropped his hands to his side.

"I’m sorry, I shouldn't have." He said quietly, as she continued to pull away. He let her go and watched her walk to the other side of the bed and get in it. Lexie was trying so hard not to look repulsed.

He was trying so hard not to push her. He missed her, even though she shared the same house with him.

Chapter 33 by old_archive

The next day, Saturday, Nick was in Judge's chambers all morning as Jill, Sabrina and Tina presented new evidence on each of his cases. Lexie waited at home with CJ and Jake. She had called Brian with the good news and Jake had spoken to his father and mother. Lisa Andrews was on a flight to L.A. from Orlando Friday night and in chambers with the Nick's legal team.

Her daughters Missy and Regina were with her for their own safety. They were watching movies with Jake when Lexie answered a phone call.

"Hello?" she asked.

"Lexie? It's mom." She heard.

"Mom?" she said, almost choking.

"How are you doing? I've missed you." Leah said.

"I've missed you too. Does Dad know you're calling?"

"Oh, yeah. He knows." She sighed. "He told me about Nick's news."

"You know? How did you find out?" Lexie asked.

"It's all over Orlando. Lisa Andrews has been a fixture at Jive from before the Backstreet Boys. . .she's taken care of them for years."

"Yeah, she's at the courthouse with Nick and his lawyers. She was worried about her daughters. They are both here with me and Jake."

"I think she has every reason to worry. Jive's excutives were all served papers this morning. I think it's safe to assume she doesn't have a job any more."

"I don't think she has to worry. I think Jill and Sabrina may snatch her up the way Nick was talking."

"Have you heard from him? How's he doing?"

"Nick? He called at the lunch break. He's pretty excited."

"How are you two? Are you okay?"

"I’m okay, I guess. . ."

"You don't sound very happy. . ."

"I am. I guess I'm still holding my breath."

"I'm glad we've kept talking these last couple months." Leah said.

"Me too. Mom?"


"Thanks for asking about Nick." Lexie sighed.

"If you love him. So do I." Leah smiled on her end.

Lexie met Jill, Sabrina, Tina, Lisa and Nick at their law offices by 7:30 pm that night. She could hear the peals of laughter coming from Jill's office with only one distinctive male voice among them. She pushed opened the door they left ajar.

"Lex?! Come on in!" Jill laughed, waving her in.

They were all comfortable. Nick was sitting on the couch with Jill, rubbing her feet. Tina and Sabrina were on another couch, leaning on each other laughing really hard. Lisa was the only one with some composure as she leaned up against Jill's desk.

Jill removed her feet from Nick's lap and Lexie realized she had almost forgotten that Jill was his sister-in-law as she felt jealously tug at her heart.

"What's wrong, hon?" Sabrina asked, looking back at Lexie.

"Uh, nothing. How'd it go?" Lexie asked.

"It was the bomb!" Sabrina laughed wickedly.

"We kicked their asses!" Jill squealed.

"Oh, god!" Tina giggled next, "It was so good, I almost got turned on."

"Only you'd get turned on in court." Sabrina teased her.

"What can I say?" the tall redhead shrugged, "I like screwing people. Why else would I be a lawyer?"

Lexie looked over at Lisa. She turned her beautiful face toward Lexie.

"Well, it was a little like court at the OK Corral. . ." she smiled.

"That's how we like it in the wild, wild west." Sabrina whooped.

"We left a bunch of dead, bloody, corporate carcasses." Jill laughed.

"Stop it!" Tina squealed, "I am getting turned on now!"

The group erupted in new laughter and Lexie had to chuckle with them.

"So, how are my girls?" Lisa asked.

"I left them watching a movie with Jake and CJ." Lexie nodded.

"You know, I was serious." Jill suddenly said to Lisa. "If you want the job, it's yours. Tina needs another genius in her division."

"Thanks for the offer, but I already have one back in Orlando." She smiled.

"Really, who the hell would be better than us?" Tina said.

"Howie Dorough. He's offered me a position at Sweet D Records." She said.

Tina let out a low whistle.

"Do you really want to work with a bunch of men?" Sabrina asked.

"Let's just say, I'd rather keep it in the family."

"Jill's married to Nick's brother. You'll be like a third cousin or something." Sabrina said.

"Lucky bitch." Tina muttered. Sabrina swatted her arm.

"Well, it's a standing offer. I don't know how friendly you're gonna find Orlando in the next coming days." Jill sighed.

"I appreciate the offer. I'll keep it in mind if things don't work out with SD Records." Lisa said.

"Well, now that you ladies are settling down to fight over your kill, I'm going to go home." Nick said, getting to his feet. He padded over to the desk where Lisa was and pulled his shoes back on. He picked up his suit jacket and tie. Lexie found something burn inside of her as she watched Nick with Lisa.

Lisa was elegant. There was no other way to describe her. She was nearly as tall as he was without her shoes on. She was his age too. He was only being a gentlemen when he put his hand on her back to let her pass him on their way to the door.

Lisa and her daughters left Monday morning and Jake went with them. Lexie suspected that Missy and Jake's relationship would pick up where they had left off.

News of Nick's victory hit the airwaves early that day. Many people came out in support of Nick, including Brian and Kevin. Howie had been interviewed as rumors of a mass exodus from Jive were beginning. He was asked if he'd take on any of Jive's artists, including Nick Carter. His only comment was he'd have to wait and see. No one was able to interview AJ and get his opinion.

Nick's legal future looked bright. Many of his past cases would be overturned and he would receive his funds back. Tina posed herself like a vulture trying to talk Nick into going after Jive directly. His main focus was with Jill and getting the injunctions lifted so he could get back to work.

There were still plenty of questions about getting him new management and a new recording company. He needed to get a record deal to get his next album out. There weren't any offers pouring in and Jill told him she doubted he would be approached until the injunctions were totally lifted.

Two weeks after the big event and Nick was still so busy in court that Lexie and CJ barely saw him. He was good about being home for dinner and he'd fill in them all in on his adventures for the day. He always had some funny story about Tina or Jill. Sabrina had retired from his cases and left it to the others.

Lexie would talk to her mother at least twice a week and it was usually right before he got home. Lexie wandered around the bedroom with the cordless phone picking up after Nick. She pulled some errant socks out from under the bed and went into the bathroom and dumped them down the chute.

"What's the matter?" her mom asked over the phone.

"I don't know, Mom. I'm just so sad all the time. . ."

"Are you taking your medications?"

"Yes. It's just not helping. It never really has. . ." she said, "And I'm having some other terrible feelings. . ."

"What? What kind of feelings?" Leah asked.

"Jealousy. I'm getting really jealous of Nick." Lexie whispered.

"Of his good turn of events?"

"No, of other women. . ."

"Lexie, Nick isn't like that. . ."

"I know, I know. I hope not. . ."

"What else?"

"I probably shouldn't tell you this. . ."

"You can tell me anything."

"Nick and I haven't been together since I. . .since the baby died." She said.

"Did the doctor say you shouldn't?"

"No. I'm fine, I just don't want him near me. . ."

"I hear that's common when women lose babies. . ."

"I just feel if I don't, I'll lose him to someone who will."

"Lex, that's not true. Nick loves you."

"I know. I can't explain it." She sighed heavily.

"Maybe you'd better talk to your doctor."

"Maybe I should." Lexie agreed.

Lexie looked at the phone after she pushed the off button. She was sitting on the closed toilet when she got up and went to the medicine chest and opened it up. She pulled her bottles of antidepressants out and stared at them. There was her name.

Why am I taking these? She asked herself. She looked in the mirror and saw her wrinkled forehead. Whoever that girl was, it wasn't her.

Lexie started, then leaned into the glass.

There she is! This is the same girl who ran away and hid in Seattle. That pained, lonely creature who had forgotten all the love that was once hers.

Sure, she had Nick and CJ. . .but that poor lost soul had resurfaced in a way that had been quiet and unassuming.

Lexie looked down at the bottle. It's time she went away forever.

"Hey, honey! I’m home!" Nick hollered, but no one answered. "Lexie? CJ? Cook? Anyone? C'mon you guys! This isn't funny!"

He went into the den, then into the movie theatre but there was no one. Great, he thought. Just what I get for getting home early. He shook his head and went up to the bedroom. He changed his clothes and headed into the bathroom and threw his clothes down the laundry chute. He stopped when he caught a glimpse of medicine bottles in the garbage can.

He picked them up and they were empty. They were Lexie's.

His heart began to race.

"LEXIE!" he screamed as he raced out of the bedroom.

He began to check every room and found himself panting in the living room minutes later. He checked the garage and then the pool house. The two guest houses. . .oh god!

Where was CJ, too? He checked his watch. No, something wasn't right. They should both be here.

He ran back to the main house and just stood there, fearing the worst. His mind ran through every place he had looked. He had forgotten one place! The recording studio!

He ran down the hall and threw open the door to the downstairs. He ran down the flight of stairs and threw open the door to the control room. He stumbled inside and looked into the recording booth.

Lexie was sitting at the piano with a headset on. CJ was sitting at an electric keyboard with her back to Lexie. They were both playing something he couldn't hear because the external speakers were off. Lexie stopped, turned and pointed something out to CJ who just nodded and went back to playing.

Nick just stood there and stared as his heart sat in his stomach. His brow furrowed. He never knew. He never knew she played piano.

Lexie looked up and then removed her headset. She tapped CJ's shoulder and CJ looked up and removed her headset. She scrambled off her seat and ran to the door. She opened it and ran into Nick's arms. He fell to his knees and held her close. Lexie stood in the doorway and from there she saw Nick shudder. She laid a hand on his head and he shot to his feet and hugged her.

"Nick? Are you okay?" she asked, bewildered by his reaction. When he pulled away, he wiped small tears from his eyes. He kissed her hard.

"I love you, you know that don't you?" he demanded, shaking her by her arms.

"Of course, Nick? What's going on?" she asked.

"I mean it, Lexie. I love you. I can't live without you. . ."

"Yes, I understand. Stop it, Nick, you're scaring me!" she said, pulling away from him. He grabbed her wrist and yanked her back.

"Where are your pills? What did you do with them?" he asked.

"I flushed them. . ." she stammered, trying to pull away from his powerful grip.

"Daddy! Stop it!" CJ cried. She pulled on his free arm.

"You what?!" he asked, bewildered.

"I flushed them. I don't want to take them any more. They aren't helping me." She said. He let go and she was able to get away. CJ ran to Lexie and latched on.

"I found the bottle empty and you were gone."

"I wasn't gone. I was down here. Cook knew that. . ."

"She isn't here. . ."

"She said she'd be back by 6:00." Lexie said. She looked up at the wall clock. Nick was early. It was only 5:25. He found the empty bottle?

"I looked everywhere for you. I went to both of the guest houses, the pool house. . ."

"Oh, my god Nick! Did you really think I had killed myself?" she asked in shock.

"I couldn't find either one of you. . ." he said, "You've been so sad since the baby. . ."

"No, no, Nick, I would never do that. . ." she said, running into his arms. "I'll never leave you! I love you, Nick. I promised, I swear it." This time she was kissing him as her feet dangled off the ground. She looked him in the eye. "Nothing is going to take me from you. Nothing. I promise."

Lexie settled Nick and CJ's nerves with a little iced tea, with Nick's being a little stronger. He sat on the corner of the living room couch, his arms draped along the back and arm.

"Daddy, why did you think Lexie was gonna hurt herself?" CJ asked suddenly.

"It's just. . .I've been really sad since the baby died. I was taking this medicine that was supposed to make it better, but it wasn't working." Lexie said, settling on the floor at Nick's feet with CJ.

"What happened to the medicine?"

"I threw it in the toilet and flushed them." Lexie said with a questioning face.

"How come?"

"I don't want to take them any more."

"Do you think you'll be happier now?"

"I don't know. I hope so. . ." Lexie sighed.

"I'd miss you if you were gone." CJ sighed quietly. "I guess Daddy knows about the piano lessons."

"I think he may have figured it out." She nodded.

CJ stood up and faced Nick. "I'm writing a song and Lexie is helping me. You can't hear it yet, I'm not done yet."

He smiled at her. "Okay."

"I mean it. It's for your next album."

"Oh, well, I'm sure it'll be great."

"Will you use it?"

"I don't know, I haven't heard it."

"You will, when I'm done with it."

"Are there words or just piano?"

"Both. I'm not telling you about it."

"Have you recorded any of it?"

"No, not yet. I said it's not done!" She said seriously.

"All right! I got the message." He laughed at her. He reached down and touched the top of Lexie's dark head. She looked up and the back of his knuckles smoothed her cheek.

Suddenly, she looked more familiar. He felt like he had been living with a stranger all this time.

"Aren't you going to tell me a little bit about it?" Nick teased as they got ready for bed.

"Nope, I'm sworn to secrecy!" she laughed.

"I didn't know you played piano." He said as she walked into the bathroom.

"I guess it never came up." She said. "I haven't played since I was at Kevin's. Geesh, CJ and I just started up about two weeks ago."

"Two weeks? You guys keep good secrets." He laughed as she shut off the light and joined him in bed.

"I learned that from my mother. She would never tell my Dad things I've told her." She said, as she got under the covers.

"I guess that's a good policy between mothers and daughters." He said in the dark.

"I'd tell you if it was really serious." She said.

"I know. I don't mind if you two have a relationship. It's bound to happen." He said.

A silence fell between them.

"Nick?" she asked him in the dark.


"Will you hold me?" she asked timidly.

She didn't need to ask. He ached to. He slid over and took her in his arms. She laid her cheek on his t-shirted chest.

"I feel like I'm living in a fog." She said.

"It'll get better." He said.

"I hope so. I want to get on with my life." She sighed. I want to get on with loving you!

Chapter 34 by old_archive
"I don't know, Mom." Lexie sighed on the phone with Leah.

"Everyone is expecting it. You missed Caroline's first birthday. Let's have yours in style."

"How can anyone be expecting it? I wasn't there at Caroline's. I haven't spoken to Dad in months."

"They know you haven't been well." She said, "Besides, you have been talking to your grandparents, cousins and well, Marta and Aria really want to see you."

"I know, but I didn't want to come to Orlando and stay at Grandma's or Uncle John's and not see you and Dad." She sighed.

"Your father isn't angry at you."

"I know, he's pissed at Nick. I heard what happened last time they were together." Lexie sighed. "I love them both, why can't they just get along?"

"How would Nick feel about you coming out here?"

"He wouldn't stop me, but he'd worry. I don't think he needs to any more. I’m stronger now."

The fog had begun to lift about a week ago and she remembered how good her life had felt. She found herself in Nick's arms every chance she could.

"You have been sounding better." Leah said.

"I think she's gone forever." Lexie nodded, speaking of the 'other woman' as Leah and Lexie had dubbed her.

"How do I tell Nick he can't come?"

"I'll work on that from this end." She said.

"Mom? What's been going on down there? What have you and Dad been talking about?"

"Let's just say I've been talking and he's been listening."

"What about AJ?"

"Brian and Kevin have that base covered last time I talked to them."

"You've been talking to Bri and Kev too?" Lexie laughed.

"Please let me have your birthday party here. Just like always?"

"Okay, I'll tell Nick."

"I understand your Dad doesn't want me there." Nick said quietly as they lay in bed in each other's arms that night.

"Mom seemed to think she could change that."

"Well, she's the only one who's ever been able to reason with him. What about CJ?"

"She's welcome. I don't know if she'll want to come if you're not there."

"I guess we'll ask her."

"I can't believe I agreed to do this. Nick, I haven't spoken to my father since I freaked out last." She sighed.

"I think he wants you there. If not, your mom wouldn't have suggested it. I'm sure Howie had a hand in this. He does love you."

"I know."

"So does AJ."

"Whew, there's a challenge." She chuckled.

"I wonder what Bri and Kev are up to?" Nick asked. "If the Kentucky Cousins are ganging up on you, it can't be good."

"Worse than Frick and Frack?" she asked.

"Sometimes, a lot worse." He chuckled.

Three days before her birthday, Lexie was on a plane going to Orlando alone. CJ opted to stay with her Dad. Lexie could understand that. She kissed them both good bye and boarded her flight.

Uncle John and Aunt Polly were at the gate to pick her up and it was good to see them. They took her to her parents' house. Lexie stared at the brick house and marveled at how many times she'd came home to it and it always welcomed her. It was the only house her parents had ever owned and she had spent her entire life with Howie here.

She walked in to have the boys run and greet her. Her mother took her in her arms and she even slipped into her father's arms for a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Her mom put her up in her old room that hadn't changed at all. She joked they should remodel it and her mom only said they might turn it into a room for CJ someday. CJ and any other 'grandchildren' that came along, her mother hinted with a wink. They shared a knowing giggle when they were alone.

Nick called Lexie's cell phone the first night she was there. They were having dinner when she answered.


"Hey, baby." He breathed.

"Hi, yourself." She said, looking around quickly at the others.

"I've got some good news." He said.


"Jill got the last injunction lifted. I can go back to work."

"So soon? I thought we'd have to wait another five months. That's great, Nick. I can't believe it!" she gasped.

"What happened?" Leah asked.

"Jill got the injunctions lifted early. Nick's free to perform again." She smiled at her mother.

"That's great news." Leah agreed. Howie didn't say a word.

"Where are you?' Nick asked.

"Oh, I'm sorry. We're just having dinner. I'm at the house."

"Oh, well Howie's probably there. I'd better go."


"I love you and I miss you."

"Me, too."


"Bye." She said, then she hung up the phone. "Sorry about that." She added.

"What are his plans now that he can record?" Howie asked.

"Uh, well. He's hoping to get another record deal. Jill didn't think he'd get any offers until he was free and clear." Lexie said. "He's still Nick Carter. The public support for him has been tremendous. There is no reason someone won't pick him up." Lexie said.

"I hope he does well." Howie said.

"Thanks." Lexie said, surprised.

"What do you want this time, Brian?" AJ sighed into the phone.

"I’m sitting here in beautiful Lexington, Kentucky feeling sorry for your ugly ass." Brian laughed.

"I'm not talking to you today, Brian!"

"I’m just going to call back."

"Look, I'm not going to the party. . ."

"AJ, come on. How much longer can this go on? Kev's right. You're going to miss out on something big if you don't get back into her life. Like your first grandchild."

"Jesus! And Nick is going to be the father!" AJ declared. "You know, you wouldn't be too thrilled if I was having an affair with one of your daughters."

"The only one available is Fatima and she's only 16. Rachel and Kimmie both have boyfriends and Maleah? Hell, she'd have you for lunch." Brian laughed.

"I'm serious, Brian!" he yelled.

"AJ, I want my daughters to be happy! Let me give you a news flash, once children grow up they do whatever they want and you can't stop them. Good grief, Fatima is only 16 and I can't keep a grip on that child!" Brian said. "Have you even considered how much Nick and Lexie love each other?"

"So, I'll ask you this since I've already asked Kevin. What am I supposed to do? Huh? I've known Nick since he was, what? 12-13 years old? He was 20 when Lexie was born and now they are lovers. What am I supposed to feel? What about me? Huh? Am I really the only one who thinks this is just a little sick?"

"It's complicated, but listen to me, AJ. I was there the night you were sick and Lexie ran. All you could talk about was Amanda. I know how much you loved her. I don't think you'll ever love another woman like that. She was yours, AJ, and the only part of her that you still have is Lexie. Do you really want to throw all that away, because she happened to fall in love with Nick? Do you really want to? Someday, they might have a child together. Someone else who is a part of Amanda and Lexie. . .you're going to lose a lot more than your pride here, buddy. You are going to lose Amanda. Again. And again."

There was silence at the other end and Brian took advantage of it.

"What about Nick? I know you love him, in spite of all you think he's done to you. AJ, I've seen them together. Nick loves her in the way that I love Leighanne, Kevin loves Kristen, and Howie loves Leah. The way you love Amanda. Nick deserves that."

"Did it have to be Lexie?"

"I guess so."

"You can't believe how much I've missed her." AJ choked.

"I know, buddy, I know." Brian said.

"Won't you reconsider?" Leah gently asked Howie as they got ready for bed.

"Why should I?" he asked, lifting the covers to get in.

"She's your daughter and she should be happy on her birthday."

"No, Leah, I don't want Nick here. Not now." Howie sighed.

"What is your reason now?" she asked.

"Leah, please. I'm tired."

"I know and I’m sorry for all the extra stress. If you saw how much he really loves her, do you think you might reconsider how you feel about them?" Leah asked. "I think your main concern is that he won't care for her."

Howie leaned back and quietly listened.

"You know, Lexie and I have been talking all this time. They've been through so much and they are still together. Finding each other in Detroit, not seeing each other until months later and then they were only together three times that year. . .can you imagine, not being with someone you love for so long? It would drive most couples apart. Then the pregnancy and the baby dying. Lexie told me how she told Nick about it and how he right out wanted to keep it. He gave her the choice, but she followed her heart."

"I'm so worried about her."

"I am too, but if she's wrong, where is she going to go? She's close to Brian and Kevin now, but will they really help her if she needs them? Brian is Nick's best friend. AJ? Who knows what's going on with him. I want to be there, Howie. I don't ever want to feel what I felt when she lost that baby and I was sitting in that hotel. I’m her mother, in spite of what her birth certificate says. You're her father and if she can't come home, where will she go?"

Howie's dark eyes just blinked straight ahead. She cupped his cheek in her hand and kissed him lightly.

"I know you'll make the right decision." She said. She rolled to her side and turned off the light.

Howie found Lexie pouring over a book, sitting curled up on the couch in his den that evening when he returned from the studio. He walked in and dropped off some papers.

"Hi, Dad." She smiled, looking up.

"Hi. What are you reading?"

"Methodology and Structure of Early American Folk Furniture." She smiled.

"Sounds interesting." He chuckled.

"It kind of is. I haven't really done a lot of research in American Folk Art. I've stayed with the classics." She said, closing the book.

"Oh, don't stop on my account." Howie said.

"It's fine. I've been at this a while. " She sighed, rubbing her eyes. "Dad, can I talk to you for a minute?"

"Sure." He said, coming closer to her and sitting in an overstuffed chair across from her.

"I just wanted to thank you for having my party this year. With all that's happened I know you probably don't feel up to it."

"No, that's not true. It's been complicated, but I still want you to have your birthday here with your family."

"It means a lot to me. I've really missed everyone." She said.

"How is CJ doing?"

"Pretty good actually. I started giving her piano lessons a little while ago. She's writing a new song for her Dad, hoping he'll put it on his next album."

Howie smiled at that. "Have you heard? Does he have a deal yet?"

"No, not of this morning when I called him. He's thinking Aaron's or BJ's labels might pick him up." She said. "It's early still. Word isn't out about the lifting of the injunctions yet."

"Jill really came through for him."

"Yeah, her and her partners."

"She's something else." Howie smiled, shaking his head. Lexie let the comment go, knowing what Jill had said to them when she was in the hospital in the spring.

"Well, I'm sorry CJ couldn't make it." He sighed, getting up.

"She didn't want to come without Nick." Lexie said quietly.

"Maybe we should invite them. I know it's kind of late notice. . ."

"Both of them? Nick and CJ?"

"I don't really hate him. I'm just concerned about you and this choice you've made." Howie said.

"It was my decision." Lexie agreed.

"I've never been disappointed in you, Lexie. I'm rather proud of you. You've become a remarkable young woman. Perhaps Nick had a hand in that." Howie said.

"I’m sorry I said all those things, Dad. I wasn't well."

"I know. I'm glad you're better now." Howie said, leaving the room. "Why don't you give him a call? Tell him not to be late. Mom is bringing her enchiladas."

Family came and filled the Dorough house like they did at every major family event. Lexie waited nervously for Nick. She actually had butterflies as she waited to see him.

Brian and Kevin had arrived early. They weren't able to tell her if AJ was coming or not. Brian was sure he had been able get through to him. Both were excited to see Nick and CJ again.

Leah opened the door to them when they arrived and CJ leaped right between Nick and Leah's hug. She hugged CJ and then sent her to go find her uncles Howie, Brian and Kevin. Lexie came in seeing Leah and Nick in an embrace.

"There's my girl." He smiled at her.

"Hey, Sweetie." She smiled, going into his arms for a quick kiss. "Hey? Aren't you a little overdressed?" she asked, spying his suit. It was one of his best linen ones.

"Sh-h, you'll see." He smiled into her hair.

To Lexie's surprise, Nick didn't let go of her all day. He sat next to her; he openly held her hand and touched her endearingly. He behaved like she dreamed they could one day, open and lovingly. He even gave her a quick kiss after she blew out her candles. She never saw what the other boys did; she only had eyes for him.

She opened her presents in the afternoon. She had been sitting on the couch the entire time, nestled with her back against Nick. His arm around her on the back of the couch. Brian and Kevin had bought her a new piano to be delivered next week. Her Dad commented that she hadn't played in years, but CJ corrected him and told him about her lessons. The doorbell rang while she opened her presents and she was tearing one more open when she realized the room had fallen silent. She looked up and there was AJ and Alex.

"I hope you're not done with the presents. I have one more." He said, handing her a box. He leaned in and kissed her cheek. "Happy Birthday."

"Uh, um, thank you, AJ." She said, carefully opening the present. She opened the jewelry case to reveal a strand of pearls. She tilted the box to read what was written in faded ink on the inside of the cover.

To both of my women,
Love always, AJ and Daddy

"I got them for your. . .Amanda, on your first birthday." He said quietly. "I thought you might want them.

"Oh my god." She whispered. "I remember these. I was told she had been buried with them. You have no idea, AJ. . ."

Brian slipped an arm around AJ's shoulders and gave him a squeeze. Lexie's brothers and CJ hurried her through the rest of her gifts until there were none. CJ continued to scramble around.

"Daddy? Daddy?!" she called for him.

"What C?" he asked.

"Where's your present?" she asked.

"There is one more." He smiled, pulling one from his pocket. It was a small box with a bow on it. She pulled off the ribbon and opened it up. It was a ring box and inside was an engagement ring. Nick got off the couch, got on one knee, and looked only at her.

"Will you marry me?" he asked.

Lexie was stunned speechless. Nick had never been married and they had never discussed it. She looked at him and all she could see was him. The last years, the last months played in her head like a fast speed film.

"Not distance, not time?" she whispered.

"I promise." He choked, squeezing down on her hand.

"Me too." She nodded.

"Yes." She said in the barest of whispers.

He took the ring from her and slipped it on the best he could with his hands shaking.

Kevin had a firm grip on AJ's arm and gave him a less than subtle shake as he turned to go. He leaned over and growled lowly in AJ's ear, "If you go now, Howie will get to walk her down the aisle."

"I can't. . .I. . ."AJ stuttered.

"Would you like me to lend you some balls?" Kevin challenged quietly. "After this AJ, there are no more chances. . .don't walk out of here thinking another one is right around the corner. She's going to marry Nick and get on with her life. You better get on board now, or you'll never have another chance. She may just leave you behind."

AJ looked over his shoulder where Nick was getting to his feet and pulling Lexie into his arms. Everyone seemed stunned, but happy for them. Leah was thrilled, but Howie was a little more reserved.

"I think Leah knows something you don't." Brian said, coming up to him on the other side. "Howie may have raised her, but she's your daughter."

"Nick is. . ." AJ began, trying to find some kind of argument.

"Nick is a great guy. He's raised CJ on his own, he's withstood all those legal battles, he has stayed with her through everything." Brian said. "I've spent hours with Nick talking about Lexie. He can't live without her. He loves her, AJ, really loves her. Give him a chance. . ."

"I don't think I can. . ."

"What would Amanda say right now?" Brian asked. "What would she say about the last 20 years? She'd want you to be at your daughter's side. She wouldn't want you to abandon her twice."

AJ stared at Brian and Kevin. They were right. They were so right. He had asked Nick to take Alex because of how he felt about Nick. Nick was also younger than Howie and Leah and Alex was so young. AJ, Brian and Kevin watched Nick and Lexie move outside alone on the privacy of the deck, nestled in each other's arms. Nick looked up and saw them staring at them. AJ's feet propelled him toward them until he was standing there with them.

"Congratulations." He said quietly.

"Thanks, man." Nick smiled, unable to contain his happiness.

"AJ." Lexie said. She slipped out of Nick's arms, in one fluid movement snatched up his hand,