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Leah and Lexie were sitting in the living room talking when Howie arrived sans AJ and the children. Lexie had run excitedly to the door the best she could and opened it before Brian could. Lexie assumed Nick had sent Brian to avoid Howie and AJ.


"Hi, Dad." She smiled. He couldn't resist a little smile of his own. "Where's. . ." she began, but stopped herself.


"Alex isn't feeling well. He felt he had to stay with him while he slept." Howie said, still standing on the front stoop.


"Oh." She sighed. She looked up at him, "Do you want to come in?"


"Yes. I'd like that." He said. She stood aside and let him in.


"Mom's inside, in the living room." She said, following him up the stairs.


"You're walking better today." He said.


"Yeah, I'm a little better." She said quietly.


"Where is Nick?" Howie asked.


"Watching a movie with CJ and Brian." She said as they walked into the living room. Brian had seen her running to the door and had simply returned to the movie with a smile to Leah.


"He called us. . ."


"I know." She said. "I'm glad you came."


Howie looked over at Leah, sitting comfortably in an overstuffed chair in Nick's beautifully designed living room. Her eyes met his sternly, but she did not look away.


"Where's AJ?" Leah asked.


"Alex is sleeping off that cold. . ." He lied. Leah chose that moment not to say anything about AJ.


"Lexie and I have just been talking all this time. Nick has made all the arrangements for her to finish school." Leah smiled.


"I'm still going to graduate." Lexie said shyly.


"That's good news." Howie said as they sat at opposite ends of the couch across from her.


"It's important to me." She added. He only nodded.


Leah watched the tears well in Lexie's eyes and her bottom lip begin to tremble. No, Howie. Don't just sit there and hurt her. Leah thought. He turned to her and saw her trembling. He reached out and laid his hand on her knee.


"Don't cry, honey. . ." he began. Lexie couldn't help the sob that burst from her. She buried her face in her good hand. He instinctively moved closer to her and drew her into his arms.


Leah felt her own eyes burn with tears. Now, Howie. Now is the time to forgive her for hurting you. Please stop punishing her. . . Howie buried his face into her fragrant hair and rocked her in his arms.


"I'm sorry, Dad. . .it's all my fault. . ." she sobbed.


"Sh-h, baby, don't." he said.


"I'm so sorry. . ."


"There is nothing to be sorry for." He soothed. She pushed away from him and wiped her eyes.


"I'm sorry I've disappointed you so much. . ."


"What?! Lexie, I'm not disappointed in you." He said in disbelief.


"I know you can't forgive me for running away. . ."


"What?! Lexie, stop it!" he demanded. Lexie got to her feet.


"I know it's true, Dad. You've never forgiven me for running when I did. It was stupid, I know that now. I shouldn't have done it. . .I'm so sorry." She sobbed. "I can't help how I feel about Nick. I love him, Dad. It wasn't his fault I ran. I was going to go, regardless of what he said. Please don't hate him, Dad. It's not his fault. None of this is. . .It's all mine. I was so wrong. . ."


"Lexie. . ." Howie began, getting to his feet and moving toward him. She moved away from him blindly.


"He's one of your best friends. . .I should've never let this happen." She cried. "And AJ. . .I know he hates me now. . .me and Nick. . . god, they were such good friends. . .but we were going to tell him, I swear!"


She was stumbling backwards and absently crashed into another chair and stumbled. She recovered her footing as she continued to move away from Howie.


"I'm sorry, Daddy, I swear I am. I never wanted to hurt you! I didn't want to hurt anyone. . .I want AJ back!" she sobbed. "He promised he wouldn't ever leave me again, how could he do this to me?! God, now I'm never going to see him again!"


"Lexie, calm down. I'll talk to AJ for you. . ." Howie pleaded, following her.


"Lexie?" Brian asked, coming into the room with a large empty bowl.


She stopped her ramblings to look at him. She blinked her teary eyes a couple times.


"Bri?" she asked.


"Lex? Are you okay?" he asked.


"No." she said quietly, shaking her head. Her good hand went to her head like she suddenly had a headache.


Brian looked around the room at the three of them. "I’m going to go get Nick."


"NO!" she said. "I don't want him to see me like this. . ." She began to wipe her face.


"Lexie, I'm going to go get Nick now. . ." Brian said, easing himself out of the room.


"Please don't. I'll be okay, just give me a minute." She gasped.


"I think he needs to be here. . ."


"No, my Dad doesn't want to see him. . ."


"No, it's all right." Howie said, waving Brian out.


"Don't say anything bad to him. . .remember you loved him once too." She whispered. Just then, Nick came running in with Brian right behind him.


"Lex? Jesus! Are you all right?!" he said, running to her side to take her in his arms. "Did you do this?!" he demanded of Howie.


"No, Nick. She just started getting upset, I promise." Leah said, getting to her feet, watching Lexie bury her face into his chest.


"I think you better go." Nick said sternly. Lexie's knees buckled and she collapsed in his arms. "Lexie!" He gently laid her limp form down on the floor.


Suddenly, Lexie was very pale and her breathing was shallow. "Brian, call 911!"



"Mr. Dorough?" the doctor asked as came into the family waiting room.


"Yes?" Howie said, getting to his feet.


"Lexie is doing well." He said.


"Thank god! What happened?" Leah asked.


"She had an aniexty attack." He sighed. "I told Nick to avoid this kind of stress if at all possible. . ."


"She was upset. . ." Howie began.


"I know, Nick told me." He said.


They all turned to the door as it opened abruptly. Nick came into the room behind the doctor. He looked angry.


"Did you tell them how she's doing?" he asked the doctor, trying to control his voice.


"Yes, I. . ."


"Good, you can go now." Nick said to Howie and Leah.


"I want to see. . ." Howie began.


"She doesn't want to see you. You'd better go." Nick said.


"No! She's still my daughter. . ." Howie demanded.


"It's not about you any more, Howie! Lexie doesn't want to see you and I'm here to make sure that you listen to her. . ."


"You bastard!" Howie snarled at him. "You did this!"


"No, Howie! You did this! She was begging for your forgiveness and you couldn't give it to her, could you? You can just keep on punishing her for what she did to you, but do it from Orlando. I don't want you anywhere near her, CJ, or my house! Do you hear me!?!" Nick yelled back.


The doctor jumped between them, "Gentlemen! None of this is going to help Lexie!"


Nick turned on his heel and left without another word.



Howie, Leah, AJ and the children returned to Orlando the following morning. They had missed their flights out. A week later, Howie was sitting at AJ's house with Kevin. They were still reliving what Nick had said last to Howie and Leah.


"He said what?!" AJ said as he paced his living room floor in front of Howie. "Who the hell does he think he is?!"


"The man who loves her." Kevin said quietly as he brought the coffee in from the kitchen.


"Don't take his side." AJ snarled.


"I'm not on anyone's side." He shrugged as he put the pot in front of them, "Except maybe Lexie's."


"So, you think what Nick is doing is right?" Howie asked.


"If he's doing what's best for Lexie, yes." Kevin said.


"What if she was your daughter. . .?" Howie began.


"I'm not having that conversation with you. I have four boys, thank god." He smiled to himself. "I don't know if Nick is right or wrong for pursuing a relationship with a girl half his age, but for better or worse, he loves her. If she wasn't your daughter, you'd be happy for him."


"Then it would be some other father's problem." Howie sighed.


"What is really the problem?" Kevin asked.


Kevin sat back and listened to the conversation he knew he would get from them. The problems ranged from the fact that she's AJ's daughter, she's half Nick's age, he already has a child, she won't graduate school, he can't support her, he can't protect her, they lied to them, and so on and so. He had just had this conversation with Brian the night before.


Himself? He wasn't sure how he felt about it. It's true that if she were someone else's daughter, they'd be happy for him. As the youngest member, no one expected Nick to be the last one to fall in love like this. They all honestly had expected Nick to marry young, have a half a dozen kids and be a superstar. Well, he got the superstar part done. A part of Kevin had grown to believe that Nick just wasn't going to be one of the lucky ones when it came to love. In the early days, Nick had tried too hard. As he grew older, he tried less. It didn't matter. The end result was the same. Nick was alone until the birth of CJ. When CJ came along, Kevin had thanked the fates for showing Nick a little kindness in this life. Now with Lexie, as twisted as it was, at least two people were happy and one of them was Nick.


"Kevin? Are you even paying attention any more?" AJ snapped, frustrated by Kevin's usual silence.


Kevin quirked a bushy eyebrow at him and raised the coffee mug to his lips.


"No."



"We may have a buyer." Nick said quietly to Lexie. She only looked up sadly from her books. She looked around the den. She nodded without a word. "It will help speed up the settlements. . ." he began, but she only raised an eyebrow at him as she returned to her studies. "This will be good for us. We can get away from all of this. . ."


"Moving isn't going to change what happened." She said.


"Are you still thinking about what Jill said?" he asked.


"How can I not? The DA's office reviewed the video tapes. . .they know who pushed me through that rail. . .they'll probably press charges with or without our consent. . ." she sighed.


"It'll only be assault. . ."


"I know."


"The baby won't even be considered. . ."


"I heard her." She sighed.


Nick had taken Brian's advice and told her about settling the cases and selling the house. She had cried as she tried to talk him out of it, but his mind was made up.


A month later and she was still sad. It was killing him. There was nothing he could do, but help her take her medications and hope for the best. She would leave his bed and cry herself to sleep in other rooms to avoid him. She still wouldn't talk about Howie, AJ, or her mom. He couldn't help but blame himself for all that had happened, but he was convinced that moving away would be good for all of them.


"When will we know for sure?" she asked.


"A couple of days. They haven't made a bid yet." He said.


She ignored him and returned to her books. Nick left her, closing the door behind him. He wandered aimlessly through the halls of the house and tried to remember when he was happy here. He hadn't been until CJ. CJ and Lexie.


CJ.


Nick shook his head. She had grown into a quiet, nearly silent child. At seven, she was no longer the talkative, precocious child she was a few months ago. She used to talk about the baby, but had stopped when Lexie came home from the hospital the last time.


His mother was worried about her. She didn't come right out and accuse him of being a bad father by letting all of this happen, but she didn't have to. The look in her eyes when she came over did it to him every time.


Aaron and his sisters stood by him regardless. What little joy he had left came from his nieces and nephews and watching them play with CJ. A silent hug and squeeze of his hand was all he needed from them. Being Carter children had bonded them in a way he doubted few people understood.


These days, Brian was the only one who called him. He told Nick how Kevin and he played devil's advocate with the other two, but they weren't listening. Brian hadn't been back in the four weeks since they had lost the baby, but he spoke to either one of them daily.


For the life of him, Nick had no idea what he was going to do. How would he ever find a shred of happiness for any of them ever again?



By the end of June, Lexie had completed her studies and received her degree from USC. Nick had insisted they all attend the ceremony, but she refused. She waited for the degree to come in the mail.


The buyers hadn't offered what Nick needed for the house, so he couldn't sell it. It remained on the market. With summer upon them now, the agent was positive she could sell the house and all of its surrounding property.


It was June 30th when Kevin's son, Jake, was standing on his front stoop. Nick opened the door to the tall dark hared young man with a wicked grin. He had been completely unannounced.


"Jake?" Nick asked.


"Howdy, Nickers." He laughed.


"Uh, hi. How did you get up here?" Nick asked.


"I am still Kevin Richardson's son. . .it can be useful. Are you going to let me in or not?" he joked.


"Uh, yeah, sure. C'mon in." he said, stepping aside. "Lexie's not here. . ."


"That's okay. I'm here to see you. Today is your lucky day, Mr. Carter." Jake laughed as he swung into the house with his backpack over his shoulder.


"Well, it is always nice to see you, Jake." Nick said, finding himself smiling as he followed Jake as he made a beeline for the kitchen.


"Jake!" Cook laughed, giving the younger man a hug.


"Hey, how's my girlfriend doing!?" he joked, picking her up and twirling her around. Cook let out a girlish giggle and swatted him on the arm when he put her down. Jake headed for the refrigerator and pulled a soda out.


"What are you doing here?" Cook laughed, "Lexie is out with CJ and Aaron. . ."


"I know, I'm actually here to see Nick." He said, plopping his bag on the kitchen table and opening the can.


"What can I do for you?" he asked.


"Oh, no! It's not what you can do for me, it's what I can do for you." Jake smiled, putting down the can and opening his pack. He pulled about a dozen large manila envelopes stuffed with legal papers and dropped them on the table.


"What's that?" Nick asked.


"The nails to crucify the bastards. A good lawyer should be able to get you the right size hammer." He smiled wickedly.


"What are these?" Cook asked, picking them up.


"Proof. . .proof that Jive Records is involved in engineering all of these suits against Nick."


"What?! Jake, you can't say that. . ."Nick began.


"I don't have to say it. It's all right here! Nick, believe it or not, your own record company has been doing this to you!"


"That's insane. If I can't perform or record they can't make any money off of me."


"Oh yes they can! They have a huge multi-million dollar 'non-performance' rider on you, Nick. If you can't perform for 5 years, they get millions."


"Wait a sec, I don't know anything about a 'non-performance' rider."


"You don't? According to Dad they are pretty common. . ." Jake said.


"Your Dad knows about these papers?" Nick asked.


"Hell, no!" Jake said.


"How did you get them?" Nick asked.


"Lisa Andrews from Jive sent them to me at the radio station. She was afraid to send them to any of you guys. She thought they might trace the package or something."


"How do you know Lisa Andrews?"


"Dad let me spend my senior year of high school in Orlando so I could graduate with my childhood friends. I dated her daugther while I was there. We kept in touch." Jake shrugged. "She told me it was Missy's idea to send them to me. She figured since Lexie and I are friends, I could get them to you. Who would guess I'd be involved?"


That sounded familiar to Nick. Jake was the only son of Kevin's born in Orlando. The rest had been born in Kentucky. Jake grew up in Orlando those years Kevin and Kristen lived there.


"Why Lisa? Why did she do this?" Nick asked.


"I don't know. You'll have to ask her. I just know I was under instructions to get them to you." He smiled.


Nick's head was swimming. What if it was true? Had the company he had been with for his entire career be doing this to him? Did he really have a way to get out from under all of this? He silently let his hand fall on the envelopes. Was this really his chance to make everything right?



The little brunette's head snapped up from rubbing her eyes as the door to her office flew open. She cocked her head at the two tall men in the doorway. One light, one dark. Her secretary fluttered in after them, apologizing for the intrusion.


"Jill's not here!" she yelled over her secretary's noise.


"I know, I'll talk to you!" one insisted.


"Nick, I’m not working on your cases. . ." she began, dropping her head back into her hands and rubbing her eyes. Next thing she knew, he was looming over her desk.


"You've got to help me, Sabrina. You have to look at these for me, this can't wait." He insisted as they both dropped a dozen manila envelopes on top of all of her work.


She tiredly waved her secretary out of the office with orders to close the door. She leaned back in her chair, listening to the leather creak.


"What's this?"


"Proof. Proof that Jive is behind all of lawsuits against me and my tour. . ." Nick gasped.


"What?!" she asked.


"Please, just look at them. . ." Nick pleaded.


"Look, Jill had to go to court today and it's Friday. . ." she groaned.


"Sabrina, I swear. This is important. . ." he begged.


"All right. I'm a sucker for a pretty face. Go sit down." She sighed, reaching for her reading glasses. She looked up at Jake and squinted. "Who the hell are you?" He smiled sweetly at her and she knew. "You're one of Kevin Richardson's kids aren't you?"


"Yep."


"Great." She moaned, "Just what I needed at 4:30 on a Friday. A Backstreet reunion."


Sabrina Carlson, one of Jill Carter's law partners, wasn't paying attention to Nick squirreling around her office. She was completely absorbed by the papers in front of her. There it was in black and white. His own record company in lieu of a multi-million 'non-performance' rider was trashing him. They wouldn't need Nick Carter to ever record another record. He could be an utter failure and they would still make millions.


Nick Carter wasn't a failure. He was still a multi-platinum recording star, seconded only by his band mate, AJ McLean. They weren't doing this because Nick wasn't making money for them, he just wasn't making it fast enough. The financial records the Jive attorney sent made that perfectly clear. Someone started running the company into the ground years ago and Nick was going to be their sacrificial lamb led to slaughter.


She finally took her glasses off and set them on the desk.


"Well?" Jake asked.


"It's sure interesting reading." She smiled.


"Is Lisa right?" Nick asked.


"I think so. Corporate law isn't my specialty, but this is looking pretty cut and dry to me. I think Jill better see this tonight." She said, reaching for the phone. She watched Nick and Jake share congratulatory smiles and back slaps.


"Hi, Aaron? It's Sabrina, can I talk to Jill?" she asked. "Jill, sorry to call you at home, but you're going to want to come to the office. It seems that your star client, Nick Carter, has found a way out of his troubles. . . no, you've got to see this to believe it. . . yeah, he's here. . .bring her, I'm sure she'll be interested in this, too. . .girly, this is big. No, I mean it."



Lexie rode to the office with Jill and followed her into the darkened law offices. Nick looked so incredibly happy and she was surprised to see Jake. They all hovered around Jill's partner's desk as she pored over the papers.


"Where did you get these?" Jill asked.


"Lisa Andrews, she's an attorney for Jive." Jake said.


"Do they know we have these?"


"They shouldn't." Jake said.


"Can you contact her?" Sabrina asked.


"Sure, I can call the house. I used to date her daughter." Jake shrugged.


"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Jill asked.


"I don't how we can wait. Let's call Tina in here, but I think we have to call the judges on his cases, see if we can get them in chambers tomorrow. It'll take us weeks to set up the appeals for the former cases, but there is no way we can't get them overturned." Sabrina said.


"Who's Tina?" Lexie asked.


"Tina Ryans, she is our corporate law specialist. She can interpret some of this better than we can." Jill said.


"She's that redhead, huh?" Nick asked.


Jill chuckled at that, because Tina always bugged him to get AJ's autograph whenever she saw him.


"Look at it this way, Nicky. You'll have a blonde, a brunette and a redhead on your legal team." Jill smiled.


"God help them." Sabrina laughed.



Nick and Jake chattered happily as they drove back to the house. Lexie remained silent as Nick broke out the champagne and they celebrated. They put Jake up in one of the guestrooms before they went to bed.


"I can't believe it." Nick laughed as he began to strip his clothes off for bed. "It may actually be over soon."


Lexie continued to get undressed without a word. Suddenly, she felt his hands on her, pulling her into his arms. He kissed her passionately.


"This great news. . .isn't it?" he asked her, puzzled.


"Yes, of course. . ."


"Lex? What is it?" he asked, stepping back.


"I don't know." She shrugged, "Maybe I'll believe it when I see it."


"Sh-h, don't worry baby. This is it. It just has to be." He said, taking her face in his hands and kissing her.


Lexie found herself pulling away from his advances. They were the first one he had made since they had lost the baby. He dropped his hands to his side.


"I’m sorry, I shouldn't have." He said quietly, as she continued to pull away. He let her go and watched her walk to the other side of the bed and get in it. Lexie was trying so hard not to look repulsed.


He was trying so hard not to push her. He missed her, even though she shared the same house with him.

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