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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.


"Yes?"


"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.


"Nothing."


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


"Oh no, it's. . ."


"Yes?"


"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."


"Okay."


"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.


"Please?"


"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!

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