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The cars pulled away from the hospital with Aaron, Kevin and Jake sharing a limo with Nick, Lexie and CJ. It was silent as CJ snuggled between Nick and Lexie.


"Daddy?" CJ asked suddenly.


"Yes?" he smiled.


"I’m hungry. Can we stop at McDonald's?" she asked.


"I'm sure Cook will have something for everyone. . ."


"No, let's stop." Lexie said, smoothing CJ's bangs from her forehead.


"We really should get home."


"No, let's stop. Please?" she asked. Nick gave instructions for the driver to stop and get CJ her meal. He refused to let anyone else out of the car. Luckily this was L.A. and a limo parked at a McDonald's wasn't so strange.


"Lexie, are you going to stay with me and Daddy now?" CJ asked as they waited.


"Yes, I am." She said quietly.


"I'm glad. I love you." She whispered.


"I love you too." Lexie said softly to her. Lexie closed her eyes and leaned in more toward Nick, who held them both in his arms.


"Does Howie know?" Kevin asked.


"I don't know what Howie knows." Nick sighed. "I don't really care either."


Kevin watched Lexie blink her sad dark eyes. "Do you feel the same way, Lexie?" Kevin asked. She didn't respond. How sad, he thought. How very sad.



Nick and Kevin helped Lexie into the house. The others had arrived while they were waiting at McDonald's. They took her upstairs, directly to Nick's room. Nick stayed with her and helped her get ready for bed.


Howie noted how bad Nick looked when he came downstairs. He looked tired, worn and conquered. He looked up at Howie and then scanned the room.


"Jillie? Can I talk to you privately?" he asked.


"Uh. . .sure." She said, following him into the den. He held the door for her and then closed it behind them. "What is it, Nick?"


"I want you to settle the remaining cases." He said.


"What?!"


"I want you to settle them. I fired all of my other lawyers. Just pay them off, I don't care how much it costs."


"Nick, this could cost you millions."


"It already has. . .and much more." He sighed. "I don't have much left. I'm planning to sell this house. . ."


"No, Nick. You've been here almost 20 years. . ."


"I'm selling the house. It goes on the market on Monday. It should net me enough to pay the settlements." He said. "The university has made arrangements for Lexie to take her finals here at the house so she can graduate. I'm taking her and CJ away. . ."


"Where, Nick? Where are you going to go?" Jill asked.


"Somewhere safe. . ."


"Aren't you going to tell me?" she asked.


"I haven't decided. . ."


"What did Lexie say? Have you discussed this with her?" she asked.


"It's not her decision." He said flatly. "Will you do it?"


"Of course, it was a standing offer. . .are you sure about this Nick? Are you really sure this is what you want?"


"Yes." He muttered quietly.



The next morning the house was bustling with activity as CJ and Brian stirred up a mess of trouble for Cook. Lexie rolled over in bed gently as she heard them squeal down the hall.


"Nick?" she asked, realizing he was gone.


"I'm right here." He said, coming out of the master bath. He was still shaving and had only pajama bottoms on. She couldn't help but smile at him. He returned it warmly.


"Go finish." She said, sitting up.


"Let me help you."


"No, no. You'll drip shaving cream all over the place. Get in there!" she laughed, waving him away. She struggled to get out of bed and entered the bathroom behind him.


"How does a shower sound?" he asked as she passed him.


"It would probably feel pretty good. I'm going to need to protect the cast. . ."


"I can take care of that. . ." he said, stopping to stare at the bruises on her body as she removed her nightshirt. She looked in the mirror and saw them herself. She turned sideways and smoothed her hand over her flat stomach. Nick remembered her doing that as she was starting to show. She never complained about getting rounder. He watched her drop her hand quickly and turn away.


"You don't have to turn away from me." He said.


She ignored him and picked up his towels from the floor. She walked them to the laundry chute and went to use the bathroom. He rinsed the rest of the shaving cream from his face and found her hand in his as he groped for a towel. She handed him one and he wiped his face. He quickly reached for her and caught her good hand.


"Don't shut me out. We promised." He whispered.


"I'm sorry. . .I'm. . .I just feel so alone. . ."She sobbed quietly.


"You're not. I'm here. I'll always be here for you. . ." he said.


"I know, I know." She nodded.


Nick knew what she meant. She was missing Howie, AJ, and her family. The phone calls weren't enough. Nick knew that AJ and Howie were still in town until the end of the weekend. He'd call them; maybe they would listen to him. Maybe they wouldn't, but he had to try. For her sake.



A late breakfast in the sun was what they all really needed, but it wasn't safe yet for them to be outside. Cook did pick the sunniest corner of the house to set up a light meal for everyone. CJ sat with Brian, who was staying at the house, and chattered on and on about whatever CJ and Brian would talk about.


Lexie wasn't listening.


Neither was Nick.


They both sat quietly, barely looking at Brian and CJ.


Brian could see the love though. He couldn't understand why AJ and Howie couldn't just accept it. Nick would brush her hand, pick at her plate for her, and silently encourage her to eat. She would rebuff him, but he would pursue her more until she relented. She had her own concerned looks at his plate. Nick's fingers would tuck a loose hair, caress her cheek. Her eyes would well with tears that would vanish at his touch.


Perhaps because he loved Nick as he did, it was easier for him to be happy for Nick. Perhaps he was as blind to their love as Nick was. It didn't matter. He knew in his heart they belonged together. The real joy for Brian was that they knew it too.



Nick left CJ, Brian and Lexie downstairs in the studio when he headed upstairs unannounced. Brian excused himself five minutes later and followed him. He found Nick sitting at his desk.


"How much longer are you going to punish yourself?" Brian asked.


"What? Don't be stupid, Brian." Nick sighed, after letting his head settle back down into his hands after the startled look he gave Brian.


"Have you told Lexie yet?"


"About what?" Nick asked.


"About you selling the house. . ."


"How did you find out? Did Jill tell you?"


"No, the real estate marketer called while you were in the shower this morning." Brian said. "Jill knows?"


"I asked her to represent me in settling the last cases." Nick said.


"You're settling? How much is that going to cost you? Do you have to sell the house?" Brian asked.


"Yes, I have to sell the house. I sold everything else years ago when this first started, at the advice of my lawyers. You might as well sell the Prowler, I'll never get you the money to buy it back."


"I don't give a fuck about the money, I'm worried about you." Brian said, sitting across from him.


"Let me buy the house. . ." Brian began.


"B, I don't think you could. . ." Nick smiled.


"How about Howie or AJ? Couldn't you borrow the money. . ."


"How Brian? Go to the bank and ask them for a couple mil? I haven't put out an album in what? Five years? I can't even record, perform, nothing right now. I have no other income but this house and a few investments." Nick said.


"Can't your family help?" Brian asked.


"I can't ask them for this kind of money. I can't ask anyone. I'll just sell the house, invest a little. . .it'll work out."


"What about CJ and Lexie? Don't they have say in this?"


"CJ is seven. No, she doesn't have a say in it. It's my house, Brian. I can sell it if I want to. This isn't Lexie's problem." Nick said.


"Nick, she's a part of your life now. She has the right to know." Brian said gently.


"She'll just talk me out of it." Nick sighed.


"Kinda like what I'm trying to do?" Brian smiled. "Besides, she's going to see the house being put up on the market. She does live here now."


"No, it'll be by appointment only and I've made all the arrangements. She won't know until I tell her." Nick said.


"So now after all she's been through, you're going to lie to her too?" Brian said.


"Damn it, Brian." Nick declared, getting to his feet.


"She needs to be able to trust you, Nick. Her whole world is upside down. Nick, listen to me. Take it from the guy who has been married over 20 years, be honest and up front with her. Howie and AJ never were. You have to be different." Brian said. Brian watched Nick think about what he had said. "Look. Ultimately, it's none of my business, but I'm still your best friend. Do you understand what I'm saying?"


"Yeah, I do." He sighed heavily.


"Who were you about to call?" Brian asked.


"Howie. He left his hotel number. . ."


"Why now?"


"Lexie needs him. . ."


"She has you. Nick, stop punishing yourself. . ."


"I'm not, Frick. I can only do so much for her. I love her, but she needs more right now. She needs her father and at this point I'll take either one of them." He sighed.


"Look. I'll leave you be for now."


"When are you planning on leaving?" Nick asked, looking up as Brian headed for the door.


"Sunday night. I've gotta get back for Fatima. . ."


"I know. Thanks, Brian."


"Sure, little bro, anytime."


Nick waited for Brian to leave before he picked up the phone. He dialed the number Leah had left. AJ was at the same hotel, a couple doors down.


"Howie Dorough, please." Nick said after the hotel answered.


"May I ask who's calling?"


"Nick Carter."


"Please hold, Mr. Carter." The polite voice said.



"What do you think he wants?" AJ asked from his chair across from Howie.


"You won't know until you answer it." Leah said to Howie. Howie was balancing Caroline on his knee. He reached behind him and picked up the phone off the table behind the couch he was on.


"Hello?"


"Howie?"


"Yes, Nick."


"Look, I don't know how to ask this. . ."


"What? Is Lexie okay?"


"Can you come over before you leave? I know you said your good-byes last night, but. . ."


"Why?"


"She needs you, Howie."


"Did she say that?"


"No, but I can tell. I'm not her whole family, I can't give her everything she needs right now. . ." Nick began. "Please? I'll leave the house while you visit if you don't want to see me. . ."


"Nick, we have our flights booked. . ."


"Howie don't punish her for falling in love with me." Nick said quietly.


"I'm not. . ."


"I swear, I'll leave. You won't have to see me. . ."


"No, don't go. We'll stop by around 4. Our flights are out at 7." Howie sighed.


"Thank you, Howie. I know this will mean a lot to her. . ." Nick began, but Howie just hung up on him.


AJ and Leah watched Howie hang up the phone.


"We're going over there?" Leah asked.


"He asked us to. He says Lexie needs us. . ."


"She does." Leah said. "I'm her mother, you're her father. You too, AJ."


"Leah, don't. . ." Howie said, rubbing his eyes.


"I'm not ashamed to say it in front of AJ." She dared him.


"What?" AJ asked.


"Jill was right."


"Damn it, Leah!" Howie snapped.


"Why are we doing this, Howie? Why are we across town at a hotel when our daughter is suffering the loss of her child alone? When did we come to this?" Leah demanded.


"They lied to us. . ." AJ began.


"Oh, hell, AJ! How much longer are you going to punish them? They fell in love, it's not a crime!"


"Leah, that's enough!" Howie snapped.


"No!" she snapped back.


AJ had to raise an eyebrow at that. It wasn't like Leah. All these years she had always done as Howie had asked her. In the time he had been getting reacquainted with them, he had learned her ways were gentle, but moving.


"Lexie's not the only one hurting here! I am! That's my little girl over there and you're just leaving her to those wolves. . ." she said, beginning to cry. "I've stood by every decision you've ever made regarding her, but not now! You're wrong Howie! Very wrong!"


Leah got to her feet and Howie followed her. As he touched her, she turned and shoved him away.


"I can't take this another minute. I’m going over there, now!" she declared. "You keep Caroline, I'll see you there at four!"



The doorbell rang about an hour after Nick had hung up. He wasn't expecting anyone, so he was surprised to open the door and find Leah standing there. He looked around, but only saw the cab.


"Uh. . .hi, Leah." He said.


"Can I see Lexie?" she asked quietly.


"Of course. She's in the home theatre with Brian and CJ. We were just watching a movie. Where's Howie and AJ?"


"They'll be coming later." She said.


Leah waited in the living room for Lexie to appear. She looked out onto Nick's gardens, his beautiful veranda and his huge pool.


"Mom?" Leah heard Lexie ask. Leah turned to see Nick standing behind her, his hands on her shoulders.


"Lex, I came to see if you're doing alright."


"I'm doing okay. Where's Dad?"


"They are coming later. I left them with the kids. Serves them right." She joked harshly.


"I'll leave you two alone. Leah, do you want anything? Cook is right in the kitchen. . ." Nick began.


"No, no. I'm fine." She nodded.


Lexie couldn't remember the last time she was alone with her mother. It was probably at Christmas, right before they found about Nick. That had changed everything. Nick left them to go back and watch the movie with 'the kids' as he and Lexie were calling them. She knew that as soon as he got back, the popcorn fight would begin. She smiled. Her mother gave her a quizzical look. She waved back in the direction Nick had left.


"I know the popcorn will start flying as soon as he gets back." Lexie smiled. "He's still a big kid."


"I know what you mean, especially with Brian around." Leah chuckled lightly. "I wanted to come here and see for myself how you're doing. We didn't get any time in the hospital."


"I know. I really needed Nick. I doubt Dad or AJ wanted to be around him."


"I can understand that. He was the baby's father."


"Yes." Lexie nodded.


"Lexie? Do you really love him?" Leah asked.


"I was born to love him." Lexie said quietly without looking up.


"I know what you mean."


Lexie lifted her eyes to see her mother smiling. Lexie remembered the time her father had been in the hosptial. She shared the smile with her mother.


Yes.


She knew exactly what Lexie meant.

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