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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?"


"What?"


"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.

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