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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.


"Lexie?"


"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.

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