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The time between Christmas and New Year's was spent doing what AJ did best, shopping! It wasn't just AJ and Lexie. It was AJ and Leah, AJ and Nick, AJ and Alex and the one trip with CJ, well, that accidentally turned into an overnighter in New York. Nick found himself up all night with a crying Alex, who was looking for his Daddy. Lexie had traveled down to Lexington to see Jake and the other Richardsons for those three days and Nick begged Leah to come help him. Nick ended up spending that night on the couch holding Alex.


Howie's concert was New Year's Eve and everyone was going. Howie had really wanted to bring everyone on stage, but Nick was still unable to perform yet. Lexie knew that was the worst part for him. Kevin had played the piano for hours the night before at AJ's and they had all sung together. It broke her heart, because he was his happiest when he was singing.


The Doroughs, Richardsons, Littrells, McLeans and Carters all took up the first two rows and enjoyed the show. CJ was in Nick's arms and Alex in Lexie's arms when CJ grabbed her sleeve and pulled her close to Nick during the New Year's kiss. She looked up at him as he bent down and kissed her cheek, then Alex's then CJ's. CJ leaned over, she and Alex shared a quick childish kiss, and the audience laughed because the cameras had been pointed right at them. Nick looked up at the big screen and saw what a beautiful picture the four of them made.


The audience screamed when they saw Nick, and Lexie could tell that he seemed surprised. He raised a hand and waved and the audience began to chant his name. He smiled wildly and began to blush. His eyes turned to the stage where Leah and Howie were and he turned away quickly from the cameras. He looked at her before looking away again. She saw the tears in his eyes.


His one first true love was there, up where Howie was. He missed the part of him that used to be up there, sharing the music. AJ, Brian and Kevin dragged Nick onstage, even if he couldn't sing. He still had CJ in his arms and AJ had switched Caroline for Alex. Someone with a mic was standing near Nick when everyone heard CJ ask him, "Why don't you go sing, Daddy?" and they all heard his quiet reply, "I can't." Someone from the audience screamed, "We love you, Nick!" and it earned him and all the boys, a standing ovation.


Lexie couldn't see the stage as the tears ran openly down her face. All of her love couldn't fix this. It just wasn't enough to give him back his passions, his very life. She understood for the first time why he has fought on as long as he has. He had no choice. He was fighting to snatch his soul from the jaws of death and he could see hell while it unfolded before him. She would help him fight. She would find a way to make him whole again, if it's the last thing she ever did.



Nick and Lexie were the adults who took the babies home to AJ's that night. Caroline was in a spare crib in Alex's room while Nick took CJ to the room she used while at AJ's. Lexie got Alex into his pajamas and set him in his crib last. Nick came into Alex's dark bedroom and found her caressing his forehead. He stood behind her and wrapped his arms around her, pressing into her back.


"He's just beautiful, isn't he?" she whispered.


"Just like his sister." Nick whispered in her ear.


"It's just a miracle he's alive. I'm so lucky to have this chance with him and AJ." She said, tears of happiness filling her eyes. Nick turned her to him and wiped her cheeks, "Don't cry, baby."


Lexie wrapped her arms around his body and buried her face in his chest. Nick stood and held her for a long time. She broke away and took his hand and led him out of Alex's room, closed the door and headed toward his bedroom. He stopped her half way.


"No, Lex, we can't. What if AJ shows up. . .?"


"He'll be gone for hours." She said, stopping, turning toward him and taking off her shoes in the hall.


"This is our time. We've waited so long. " She whispered, taking his other hand.


She held them both as she walked backwards to his room. She let go long enough to open the door and lead him in. She closed the door behind him and then turned her back to him.


"Could you help me with this?" she asked.


His trembling hands unzipped the formal dress to her waist and she shrugged out of it. She picked it off the floor and laid it across the chair in the corner.


"That thing weighs a ton." She smiled.


She popped his bow tie and began to unbutton his tux shirt. She stopped half way and looked up as she went to remove his jacket. His eyes were closed, his head tipped back. She peeled it off of him and laid it over her dress. She pulled the shirt from his pants and traveled down his arms to undo the cuffs. He didn't move, but his breathing became more rapid. She removed his shirt completely and then stood behind him, gently tipping his head forward. She undid the silver clip in his hair and dropped it on the dresser. She ran her fingers up his neck and through his hair, each silky strand setting her skin on fire. He looked down and kicked off his shoes, then his socks and he reached to remove his slacks. They dropped off so he stood there in his briefs. She was still behind him. He waited for her touch. His reward was the feel of her bare breasts against his back, her legs rubbing up against his. She had disrobed behind him. Her hands reached around and took his and he twisted to face her.


He scooped her up in one single movement, laid her on the bed and pressed his body into hers. His kiss was wonderful and possessing and she became obsessed with having it. She helped him remove his briefs and her mouth found all his tender parts, including his heart.


Time had changed nothing for them; their love was still as strong. He laid on top of her, his breathing returning to normal when he said, "I'm telling AJ and Howie. I can't live like this without you another day."


"I'll be there with you." She whispered.


"No, I don't want them to take it out on you. I'll tell them." He said, lifting his head to look at her. "I love you so much."


"So much you'll take the risk of them hating you?" she asked.


"It can't be any worse than what I'm going through right now." He whispered back. "Get on the plane tomorrow with CJ and I'll stay here and tell them."


"Are you sure?" she asked.


"I am so sure." He said as he kissed her. He began to feel the blood rush all through his body and he was ready to make love to her again and forever.



AJ woke to Alex crying in the room next to his. He got up wearily and went to get him. He picked him up and stopped at Nick's door. He slowly opened it to find Nick out cold against the morning. He didn't hesitate to close the door until he saw Lexie's dress on the chair across the room.


What was her dress doing in here?


His thoughts twisted, as he finally understood what Howie had been hinting at all this time.


Lexie and Nick.


No, she just used his shower that's all! She wasn't with him now; she was in the other guestroom.


His body began to shake and in his gut, he knew it was true. He remembered back to all the times he had seen them together, and he realized they moved like lovers, like intimate lovers.


His hands were shaking as he quietly closed the door, hoping he hadn't woken Nick. CJ stumbled out of her room and down the hall toward AJ. He shushed her and headed downstairs to feed the kids breakfast. He set cereal in front of CJ and Alex and couldn't resist asking her some questions about Lexie and Nick.


"CJ? Do you like Lexie?" he asked cautiously.


"Oh, yeah. She's lots of fun. She doesn't come over to the house though because of the bad people." CJ said around a mouthful.


"Does your Daddy like her?" he asked.


"He loves her, she loves him, too, but Daddy says they're just friends." She said, picking some dropped cereal off the table and back into the bowl. "She made him promises."


"What kind of promises?" AJ asked.


"That she'd always love him. Uncle AJ?" she asked.


"Yes, honey?"


"Do you think my Daddy loves Lexie more than he thinks he does?" she asked.


"I don’t know." AJ said, sitting at the table with her.


"I think he does. I saw him kiss her on the mouth just like Uncle Howie and Aunt Leah do. Oh! I'm not supposed to say anything." She said suddenly.


"It's okay."


"You can't tell, Uncle AJ, I think my Daddy would be mad." She said.


"It's all right, I won't tell." He said, churning it all around in his head.


Detroit, that had to be it! Nick was the reason she ran out. What had he done to her? To think his best friend and his daughter were lovers. . .no, it couldn't be!


There is no way! Nick would never do anything like that!


"Do you know anything else about your Daddy and Lexie?" AJ ventured to ask.


"If you want to know about me and Lexie, I'd rather you ask me and not my six-year-old daughter." Nick said from behind AJ. AJ got to his feet.


"Is it true?" AJ asked.


"CJ, why don't you go upstairs and change, okay?" Nick said.


"Okay." She said quietly. She stopped in front of Nick, dwarfed by his size. "I'm sorry, Daddy, don't be mad."


"I'm not mad. Go on and get dressed." He said, resting his hand on her head. She scooted past him and they heard her run upstairs.


"I can't believe it." AJ said, stunned.


"Well, believe it." Nick sighed.


"Don't use that tone with me." AJ growled.


"You just asked my six-year-old daughter about my relationship with Lexie. I don't want you using her like that again." Nick snapped.


"Like you're using my daughter?" AJ asked sarcastically.


"It's not the same, we're both adults."


"She's half your age! Who are you kidding, yourself? You're forty two years old and you have no business with a twenty-two year old girl!" AJ snapped.


"I'm well aware of how old everyone is." Nick said.


"Not to mention she's my daughter, she's Howie's daughter. . .You're sick, you know that?" AJ yelled. Just then Lexie bolted into the room and pushed Nick out of the doorway.


"CJ just came crying into my room, what's going on?" she demanded.


"He knows, Lex."


"Oh, well, I guess it was CJ and not Brian." Lexie sighed.


"Brian knows? Who else knows about this little perversion!" AJ demanded.


"AJ!" Lexie said.


"I told Brian a year ago, right before the recording. . ."


"That little bastard. . ."AJ mumbled. "Is this what happened in Detroit? Is this what Howie suspects?"


"I don't know what Howie suspects." Nick said.


"AJ, I left because I was going to. It had nothing to do with what happened between me and Nick." Lexie said.


"You two have been lying to everyone this entire time. You've been lying to me! Goddamn it, Nick! This entire time you're in my house and I've spent all that time in L.A. trying to help you and it turns out you're sleeping with my daughter?!" AJ demanded.


"We've barely seen each other. . ." Nick began.


"The phone call. . ."


"AJ, please! Nick and I wanted to tell you. We've discussed it a hundred times when you were in L.A., but there never seemed like a good time."


"You want me to believe there is a good time to tell your father you're sleeping with his best friend?" AJ growled.


"AJ, it's not like that. I love Nick and he loves me." Lexie began. Nick could hear the panic in her voice.


"You stupid, little. . ." AJ began, moving aggressively toward Lexie. Nick had heard that tone before from AJ. That tone he used to argue with Amanda. Nick reached for Lexie, but she shoved him away as she rose to meet AJ's challenge.


"What, AJ? What are you going to call me? Maybe I'm more like my father than even Howie suspects?" she snarled at him. Nick heard the sickening crack of AJ's hand connecting with her face. AJ's face revealed no remorse. Her face revealed her anger and disgust. "I'm not my mother. I'm not going to keep taking you back." She growled.


"Lexie, go pack and get CJ. I'll call a cab." Nick said, forcing his larger frame between them.


"I'm not my mother, Nick. I don't give a rat's ass what happens to him when I leave this house."


"I'm going to tell Howie!" AJ threatened.


"Go right ahead. He's my real father anyway! He actually means it when he says he loves me!" she screamed. "Who do you think he's going to chose this time? You?! Ha, AJ!"


"I'll tell Howie. . ." Nick said. "I was planning to anyway."


"You're actually going to tell him? He's going to kill you. . ."


"In time, he'll understand." Nick said, "I hope you do too."


"Damn it, Nick, this is all your fault!"


"I'm your brother, AJ. . ." Nick began to plead.


"Who is sleeping with my daughter!"


"I love her, AJ. I have from the moment I laid eyes on her."


"Forget it, Nick. He's a lost cause!" Lexie yelled, her finger flying around him to jab the air in front of AJ.


"Get out." AJ said in a low growl, "Get out of my house!"


Lexie flew out of the kitchen and left Nick standing there with AJ.


"Don't do this, AJ. Don't send her away twice!" Nick pleaded. "If you care anything for her. . ." but AJ could see nothing past his own feelings of betrayal.



Nick got them all a hotel room so he could shower and get to Howie's. Lexie was crazed with anger toward AJ. So much so that she seemed to barely register what Howie's reaction might be. Nick sat in the cab for the longest time, staring at the brick house that was Howie Dorough's home.


It was his fault. He would be destroying two lives of men he had loved his whole life. All over the love of a woman. It hadn't started this way. He only wanted AJ and Howie to get along, maybe give that scared little girl he met a little happiness. A little closure. Yes, he had fallen in love with her. He never dreamed she would return the feelings and he somehow thought he would spend his whole life loving her from afar.


Now, that wasn't true. AJ hated him. Howie would hate him too. At least hating him was something that AJ and Howie could do together.


Nick saw Howie open the door for him before he even got out of the cab. AJ must have called. Howie's house was empty, everyone was gone. He invited Nick into the den and closed the door.


"AJ called."


"He said he would. I love her, Howie." Nick said, willing his voice to be strong.


"I know." Howie said quietly.


Nick wasn't sure if Howie even saw the look of shock on his face when Howie admitted he knew.


"How?" Nick asked.


Howie turned his back to Nick and walked over to his desk. He leaned against the front of it and crossed his arms over his chest. His eyes never lifted. He never looked at Nick.


"When?" Howie asked quietly, then he demanded it, "When!"


"Detroit. . ."


"You're the reason she left? Did you know where she was all that time?"


"No! I swear Howie, I never knew." He said. "I would've told you."


"AJ is very angry."


"I know. He and Lexie really got in to it."


"Where is she?"


"At a hotel, with CJ. I couldn't leave CJ alone and I wanted to be the one to talk to you. . ."


"How much longer were you planning on lying to everyone?" Howie asked.


"I wasn't. I was going to talk to you today, as a matter of fact." Nick said, trying to keep his voice steady. "I couldn't go on like this another day."


"Lying to us? Or not being with Lexie?"


"Both." He admitted.


"Brian knows?"


"Lexie also told Jake. He figured it out when she was in Seattle."


"Kevin?"


"I don't know what Kevin knows. . ."


"What was your plan when you started all this? Did you deliberately plan to force me into choosing between AJ and Lexie again? How many more times are you planning to screw me?"


"I wasn't planning to do anything. . .I admit it, I've had feelings for her since we met. I never intended this to go this far. I never imagined she would return my feelings for her. Howie, I was perfectly content to live the rest of my life without her." Nick began.


"Then what happened in Detroit?" Howie asked.


"I'm not sure. . .she. . .I can't say."


"Can't or won't?"


"Both." Nick admitted quietly. Nick had kept his eyes on Howie the entire time, but Howie hadn't even looked at him. His eyes stared at the floor as he leaned against his desk. Nick could see how white Howie's knuckles were as he gripped the edge. Howie was still for a little while.


"Do you have any idea how much I love them both?" Howie said, his voice cracking. "I wanted it too, Nick. I wanted Lexie to know AJ. I wanted to know AJ again."


"I'm sorry, Howie. This is all my fault. . ." Nick pleaded. "I don't care if you hate, me, Howie. I didn't want anyone to get hurt by this. I love Lexie."


"Have Lexie call me when she gets to L.A." Howie said after a long silence.


"Of course." Nick nodded. Nick turned and headed out of the den. Howie followed him and for the first time made real eye contact with him. Nick could tell Howie had been crying long before he had shown up at the house.


"And Nick?" he said as Nick had his hand on Howie's front door, "If she ever wants to come home, please don't come. I'm not sure I can deal with you right now. She's always welcome. This is always going to be her home." I am her father and I will always love her.


"Thank you, Howie." Nick sighed.



Lexie paced the suite waiting for Nick. She was so angry with AJ that she could barely see straight. CJ had settled down coloring a book from the only bag that Lexie unpacked. She had spent the morning getting them a flight back to L.A., figuring AJ would pull his plane. Nick came in, CJ and Lexie looked up from their work, and CJ ran to hug him. He carried her over and sat across the table from Lexie.


"How'd it go?" she asked quietly.


"He's hurt. He's upset. He wants you to call when we're back in L.A." Nick sighed.


"Daddy? Why were Lexie and Uncle AJ fighting?" CJ asked.


Without any hesitation, Nick laid his hand across the table and reached for Lexie. She laid her hand in his.


"You're right, CJ. I love Lexie very much and Lexie loves me. Uncle AJ isn't happy about that." He said with stirring honesty.


"Why?"


"Lexie and AJ have a very special relationship and he's afraid she's not going to love him, if she loves me."


CJ thought about that for a little while.


"Is Uncle Howie mad?" she asked.


"A little too." He nodded softly.


"Is he mad for the same reason?"


"No. I think Uncle Howie is worried that Uncle AJ and Lexie won't be able to get along for a while."


"Why?"


"Because Howie loves both AJ and Lexie and he doesn't want them to be hurt."


"Lexie, why do you want to fight with Uncle AJ?" CJ asked.


"I don't want to. . ."


"Lexie's not sure what she wants right now. It'll take some time."


"Can I still see Uncle AJ and Uncle Howie?"


"Well, maybe not right away, but we'll try to fix this."


"Is Lexie going to live with us?" she asked.


Nick laughed gently. "No. She has to finish school and do other things."


"It's because of all those bad people, huh?"


"Those guys too."


"She'll be safe in the house with us."


"I know, but for now this is better."


"I knew you loved her, Daddy."


"I know, you're a very smart little girl."


"Did you say you didn't, because you didn't want to fight with Uncle AJ?"


"Yes." He smiled.


"I'm going to miss him. . ."


"This isn't going to last forever. The one good thing about people being angry is they often get over it."


"Lexie, are you going to get over being mad at AJ?" CJ asked.


"I. . ."


"Well, we'll work on that." Nick said for her and he gave her a squeeze of her hand.


"Now you can kiss each other all you want." CJ smiled at them.



Nick, CJ and Lexie boarded a flight out of Orlando late that night. CJ was asleep in no time in a seat between them. Lexie sat by the window, watching the city fade away. She began to feel the distance, like she had when she first ran to Nick in Detroit. She couldn't help the tears that began to flow. She felt Nick's hand on her arm.


"What's wrong, honey?" he asked softly.


"I can't help but think about the night I ran. . .this just feels the same." She sobbed quietly.


"It's not the same."


"I've hurt them both again. . ."


"Lexie, this isn't anyone's fault. We knew they would probably take it hard." He said.


"How many times, Nick? How many more times am I going to hurt him?" She sobbed.


Nick knew she was talking about Howie. She had told him several times since she came back that she wasn't sure if he had ever forgiven her for leaving.


"I'm sorry." She said, wiping her eyes.


"It's all right. I understand." He smiled softly.


"You handled CJ beautifully." She said.


"Well, I've got practice with her." He chuckled. "I always hate it when she's right."


Lexie chuckled with him. He touched her cheek and wiped her tears. "It's going to be all right. What else could possibly happen now?"



The press was waiting for them at LAX and they easily made the evening news. So quickly that Nick didn't have time to tell his family. It didn't matter to Aaron or his sisters, they were puzzled, but happy for him. Jill was just beside herself. His parents, especially his mother, took the news a little harder.


"In another development in the legal battles between entertainer Nick Carter, formerly of the Backstreet Boys, and the National Unions of Trades; Mr. Carter was seen holding hands with a young woman, identified as Lexie Dorough. Ms. Dorough was reported missing nearly two years ago when the Backstreet Boys reunited to remix a song to aid in the search for her. A press release given last summer reported that Ms. Dorough had in deed returned over the holidays, but the families involved wanted to retain their privacy. Lexie Dorough, the adopted daughter of former Backstreet Boy, Howie Dorough is also the biological daughter of another former Backstreet Boy and Grammy Award winning AJ McLean. Mr. Carter, Ms. Dorough, Mr. Dorough or Mr. McLean were not available for comment."

Nick clicked off the TV in his den. How stupid! Who cared who he was holding hands with? The tape footage had been pretty revealing about their relationship and there was no way to avoid it now. Lexie and CJ were ensconced upstairs unpacking when he reached for the phone and made a call to an old friend.



"You called who?" Lexie asked, completely puzzled, almost convinced he had lost his mind.


"I called Glenn. He's going to come here and do your hair." He laughed.


"Why? Nick, this is hardly the time to start worrying about my roots. . ."


"I know, so that makes it the perfect time. I never liked you as a blonde anyway." He chuckled. "Besides, I need a little work myself." He added with a whisper.


"Let me see if I got this right. We just told all of my parents, your entire family knows via CNN, I've still got to get out of your house and onto campus and actually graduate in six months and you want us to get our hair done?!" she laughed.


"Timing is everything." He laughed, shooing her toward the front door as the bell rang.



By the time Lexie was back to her natural color and Nick wasn't, she felt ready to finally call Howie. She caught a glimpse of herself in a hall mirror as she walked to the den with Nick. She look so different. She looked more like her old self and less like she did. . .on the videotape. That's why he had done it! She only smiled as he came up behind her and guided her to the phone in his den.


Lexie sat down at his desk and dialed her parent's home. He stood by her until someone picked up on the other end.


"Hello?"


"Dad?"


"Lexie?"


"It's me, Dad."


"I. . .I won't say I'm happy. . ."


"I know."


"AJ is very angry."


"I know that too."


"Be careful, honey."


"I will."


"If you ever want to come home, you can."


"I know, thanks, Dad."


The phone clicked in her hand. There wasn't anything else they could say to one another.

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