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."
"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.