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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?"


"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.


"What?"


"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.


"Really?"


"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.


"What?"


"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."


"Try."


"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?"


v

"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."


"Still?"


"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.

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