"Everyone is expecting it. You missed Caroline's first birthday. Let's have yours in style."
"How can anyone be expecting it? I wasn't there at Caroline's. I haven't spoken to Dad in months."
"They know you haven't been well." She said, "Besides, you have been talking to your grandparents, cousins and well, Marta and Aria really want to see you."
"I know, but I didn't want to come to Orlando and stay at Grandma's or Uncle John's and not see you and Dad." She sighed.
"Your father isn't angry at you."
"I know, he's pissed at Nick. I heard what happened last time they were together." Lexie sighed. "I love them both, why can't they just get along?"
"How would Nick feel about you coming out here?"
"He wouldn't stop me, but he'd worry. I don't think he needs to any more. I’m stronger now."
The fog had begun to lift about a week ago and she remembered how good her life had felt. She found herself in Nick's arms every chance she could.
"You have been sounding better." Leah said.
"I think she's gone forever." Lexie nodded, speaking of the 'other woman' as Leah and Lexie had dubbed her.
"How do I tell Nick he can't come?"
"I'll work on that from this end." She said.
"Mom? What's been going on down there? What have you and Dad been talking about?"
"Let's just say I've been talking and he's been listening."
"What about AJ?"
"Brian and Kevin have that base covered last time I talked to them."
"You've been talking to Bri and Kev too?" Lexie laughed.
"Please let me have your birthday party here. Just like always?"
"Okay, I'll tell Nick."
"I understand your Dad doesn't want me there." Nick said quietly as they lay in bed in each other's arms that night.
"Mom seemed to think she could change that."
"Well, she's the only one who's ever been able to reason with him. What about CJ?"
"She's welcome. I don't know if she'll want to come if you're not there."
"I guess we'll ask her."
"I can't believe I agreed to do this. Nick, I haven't spoken to my father since I freaked out last." She sighed.
"I think he wants you there. If not, your mom wouldn't have suggested it. I'm sure Howie had a hand in this. He does love you."
"So does AJ."
"Whew, there's a challenge." She chuckled.
"I wonder what Bri and Kev are up to?" Nick asked. "If the Kentucky Cousins are ganging up on you, it can't be good."
"Worse than Frick and Frack?" she asked.
"Sometimes, a lot worse." He chuckled.
Three days before her birthday, Lexie was on a plane going to Orlando alone. CJ opted to stay with her Dad. Lexie could understand that. She kissed them both good bye and boarded her flight.
Uncle John and Aunt Polly were at the gate to pick her up and it was good to see them. They took her to her parents' house. Lexie stared at the brick house and marveled at how many times she'd came home to it and it always welcomed her. It was the only house her parents had ever owned and she had spent her entire life with Howie here.
She walked in to have the boys run and greet her. Her mother took her in her arms and she even slipped into her father's arms for a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Her mom put her up in her old room that hadn't changed at all. She joked they should remodel it and her mom only said they might turn it into a room for CJ someday. CJ and any other 'grandchildren' that came along, her mother hinted with a wink. They shared a knowing giggle when they were alone.
Nick called Lexie's cell phone the first night she was there. They were having dinner when she answered.
"Hey, baby." He breathed.
"Hi, yourself." She said, looking around quickly at the others.
"I've got some good news." He said.
"Jill got the last injunction lifted. I can go back to work."
"So soon? I thought we'd have to wait another five months. That's great, Nick. I can't believe it!" she gasped.
"What happened?" Leah asked.
"Jill got the injunctions lifted early. Nick's free to perform again." She smiled at her mother.
"That's great news." Leah agreed. Howie didn't say a word.
"Where are you?' Nick asked.
"Oh, I'm sorry. We're just having dinner. I'm at the house."
"Oh, well Howie's probably there. I'd better go."
"I love you and I miss you."
"Bye." She said, then she hung up the phone. "Sorry about that." She added.
"What are his plans now that he can record?" Howie asked.
"Uh, well. He's hoping to get another record deal. Jill didn't think he'd get any offers until he was free and clear." Lexie said. "He's still Nick Carter. The public support for him has been tremendous. There is no reason someone won't pick him up." Lexie said.
"I hope he does well." Howie said.
"Thanks." Lexie said, surprised.
"What do you want this time, Brian?" AJ sighed into the phone.
"I’m sitting here in beautiful Lexington, Kentucky feeling sorry for your ugly ass." Brian laughed.
"I'm not talking to you today, Brian!"
"I’m just going to call back."
"Look, I'm not going to the party. . ."
"AJ, come on. How much longer can this go on? Kev's right. You're going to miss out on something big if you don't get back into her life. Like your first grandchild."
"Jesus! And Nick is going to be the father!" AJ declared. "You know, you wouldn't be too thrilled if I was having an affair with one of your daughters."
"The only one available is Fatima and she's only 16. Rachel and Kimmie both have boyfriends and Maleah? Hell, she'd have you for lunch." Brian laughed.
"I'm serious, Brian!" he yelled.
"AJ, I want my daughters to be happy! Let me give you a news flash, once children grow up they do whatever they want and you can't stop them. Good grief, Fatima is only 16 and I can't keep a grip on that child!" Brian said. "Have you even considered how much Nick and Lexie love each other?"
"So, I'll ask you this since I've already asked Kevin. What am I supposed to do? Huh? I've known Nick since he was, what? 12-13 years old? He was 20 when Lexie was born and now they are lovers. What am I supposed to feel? What about me? Huh? Am I really the only one who thinks this is just a little sick?"
"It's complicated, but listen to me, AJ. I was there the night you were sick and Lexie ran. All you could talk about was Amanda. I know how much you loved her. I don't think you'll ever love another woman like that. She was yours, AJ, and the only part of her that you still have is Lexie. Do you really want to throw all that away, because she happened to fall in love with Nick? Do you really want to? Someday, they might have a child together. Someone else who is a part of Amanda and Lexie. . .you're going to lose a lot more than your pride here, buddy. You are going to lose Amanda. Again. And again."
There was silence at the other end and Brian took advantage of it.
"What about Nick? I know you love him, in spite of all you think he's done to you. AJ, I've seen them together. Nick loves her in the way that I love Leighanne, Kevin loves Kristen, and Howie loves Leah. The way you love Amanda. Nick deserves that."
"Did it have to be Lexie?"
"I guess so."
"You can't believe how much I've missed her." AJ choked.
"I know, buddy, I know." Brian said.
"Won't you reconsider?" Leah gently asked Howie as they got ready for bed.
"Why should I?" he asked, lifting the covers to get in.
"She's your daughter and she should be happy on her birthday."
"No, Leah, I don't want Nick here. Not now." Howie sighed.
"What is your reason now?" she asked.
"Leah, please. I'm tired."
"I know and I’m sorry for all the extra stress. If you saw how much he really loves her, do you think you might reconsider how you feel about them?" Leah asked. "I think your main concern is that he won't care for her."
Howie leaned back and quietly listened.
"You know, Lexie and I have been talking all this time. They've been through so much and they are still together. Finding each other in Detroit, not seeing each other until months later and then they were only together three times that year. . .can you imagine, not being with someone you love for so long? It would drive most couples apart. Then the pregnancy and the baby dying. Lexie told me how she told Nick about it and how he right out wanted to keep it. He gave her the choice, but she followed her heart."
"I'm so worried about her."
"I am too, but if she's wrong, where is she going to go? She's close to Brian and Kevin now, but will they really help her if she needs them? Brian is Nick's best friend. AJ? Who knows what's going on with him. I want to be there, Howie. I don't ever want to feel what I felt when she lost that baby and I was sitting in that hotel. I’m her mother, in spite of what her birth certificate says. You're her father and if she can't come home, where will she go?"
Howie's dark eyes just blinked straight ahead. She cupped his cheek in her hand and kissed him lightly.
"I know you'll make the right decision." She said. She rolled to her side and turned off the light.
Howie found Lexie pouring over a book, sitting curled up on the couch in his den that evening when he returned from the studio. He walked in and dropped off some papers.
"Hi, Dad." She smiled, looking up.
"Hi. What are you reading?"
"Methodology and Structure of Early American Folk Furniture." She smiled.
"Sounds interesting." He chuckled.
"It kind of is. I haven't really done a lot of research in American Folk Art. I've stayed with the classics." She said, closing the book.
"Oh, don't stop on my account." Howie said.
"It's fine. I've been at this a while. " She sighed, rubbing her eyes. "Dad, can I talk to you for a minute?"
"Sure." He said, coming closer to her and sitting in an overstuffed chair across from her.
"I just wanted to thank you for having my party this year. With all that's happened I know you probably don't feel up to it."
"No, that's not true. It's been complicated, but I still want you to have your birthday here with your family."
"It means a lot to me. I've really missed everyone." She said.
"How is CJ doing?"
"Pretty good actually. I started giving her piano lessons a little while ago. She's writing a new song for her Dad, hoping he'll put it on his next album."
Howie smiled at that. "Have you heard? Does he have a deal yet?"
"No, not of this morning when I called him. He's thinking Aaron's or BJ's labels might pick him up." She said. "It's early still. Word isn't out about the lifting of the injunctions yet."
"Jill really came through for him."
"Yeah, her and her partners."
"She's something else." Howie smiled, shaking his head. Lexie let the comment go, knowing what Jill had said to them when she was in the hospital in the spring.
"Well, I'm sorry CJ couldn't make it." He sighed, getting up.
"She didn't want to come without Nick." Lexie said quietly.
"Maybe we should invite them. I know it's kind of late notice. . ."
"Both of them? Nick and CJ?"
"I don't really hate him. I'm just concerned about you and this choice you've made." Howie said.
"It was my decision." Lexie agreed.
"I've never been disappointed in you, Lexie. I'm rather proud of you. You've become a remarkable young woman. Perhaps Nick had a hand in that." Howie said.
"I’m sorry I said all those things, Dad. I wasn't well."
"I know. I'm glad you're better now." Howie said, leaving the room. "Why don't you give him a call? Tell him not to be late. Mom is bringing her enchiladas."
Family came and filled the Dorough house like they did at every major family event. Lexie waited nervously for Nick. She actually had butterflies as she waited to see him.
Brian and Kevin had arrived early. They weren't able to tell her if AJ was coming or not. Brian was sure he had been able get through to him. Both were excited to see Nick and CJ again.
Leah opened the door to them when they arrived and CJ leaped right between Nick and Leah's hug. She hugged CJ and then sent her to go find her uncles Howie, Brian and Kevin. Lexie came in seeing Leah and Nick in an embrace.
"There's my girl." He smiled at her.
"Hey, Sweetie." She smiled, going into his arms for a quick kiss. "Hey? Aren't you a little overdressed?" she asked, spying his suit. It was one of his best linen ones.
"Sh-h, you'll see." He smiled into her hair.
To Lexie's surprise, Nick didn't let go of her all day. He sat next to her; he openly held her hand and touched her endearingly. He behaved like she dreamed they could one day, open and lovingly. He even gave her a quick kiss after she blew out her candles. She never saw what the other boys did; she only had eyes for him.
She opened her presents in the afternoon. She had been sitting on the couch the entire time, nestled with her back against Nick. His arm around her on the back of the couch. Brian and Kevin had bought her a new piano to be delivered next week. Her Dad commented that she hadn't played in years, but CJ corrected him and told him about her lessons. The doorbell rang while she opened her presents and she was tearing one more open when she realized the room had fallen silent. She looked up and there was AJ and Alex.
"I hope you're not done with the presents. I have one more." He said, handing her a box. He leaned in and kissed her cheek. "Happy Birthday."
"Uh, um, thank you, AJ." She said, carefully opening the present. She opened the jewelry case to reveal a strand of pearls. She tilted the box to read what was written in faded ink on the inside of the cover.
To both of my women,
Love always, AJ and Daddy
"I got them for your. . .Amanda, on your first birthday." He said quietly. "I thought you might want them.
"Oh my god." She whispered. "I remember these. I was told she had been buried with them. You have no idea, AJ. . ."
Brian slipped an arm around AJ's shoulders and gave him a squeeze. Lexie's brothers and CJ hurried her through the rest of her gifts until there were none. CJ continued to scramble around.
"Daddy? Daddy?!" she called for him.
"What C?" he asked.
"Where's your present?" she asked.
"There is one more." He smiled, pulling one from his pocket. It was a small box with a bow on it. She pulled off the ribbon and opened it up. It was a ring box and inside was an engagement ring. Nick got off the couch, got on one knee, and looked only at her.
"Will you marry me?" he asked.
Lexie was stunned speechless. Nick had never been married and they had never discussed it. She looked at him and all she could see was him. The last years, the last months played in her head like a fast speed film.
"Not distance, not time?" she whispered.
"I promise." He choked, squeezing down on her hand.
"Me too." She nodded.
"Yes." She said in the barest of whispers.
He took the ring from her and slipped it on the best he could with his hands shaking.
Kevin had a firm grip on AJ's arm and gave him a less than subtle shake as he turned to go. He leaned over and growled lowly in AJ's ear, "If you go now, Howie will get to walk her down the aisle."
"I can't. . .I. . ."AJ stuttered.
"Would you like me to lend you some balls?" Kevin challenged quietly. "After this AJ, there are no more chances. . .don't walk out of here thinking another one is right around the corner. She's going to marry Nick and get on with her life. You better get on board now, or you'll never have another chance. She may just leave you behind."
AJ looked over his shoulder where Nick was getting to his feet and pulling Lexie into his arms. Everyone seemed stunned, but happy for them. Leah was thrilled, but Howie was a little more reserved.
"I think Leah knows something you don't." Brian said, coming up to him on the other side. "Howie may have raised her, but she's your daughter."
"Nick is. . ." AJ began, trying to find some kind of argument.
"Nick is a great guy. He's raised CJ on his own, he's withstood all those legal battles, he has stayed with her through everything." Brian said. "I've spent hours with Nick talking about Lexie. He can't live without her. He loves her, AJ, really loves her. Give him a chance. . ."
"I don't think I can. . ."
"What would Amanda say right now?" Brian asked. "What would she say about the last 20 years? She'd want you to be at your daughter's side. She wouldn't want you to abandon her twice."
AJ stared at Brian and Kevin. They were right. They were so right. He had asked Nick to take Alex because of how he felt about Nick. Nick was also younger than Howie and Leah and Alex was so young. AJ, Brian and Kevin watched Nick and Lexie move outside alone on the privacy of the deck, nestled in each other's arms. Nick looked up and saw them staring at them. AJ's feet propelled him toward them until he was standing there with them.
"Congratulations." He said quietly.
"Thanks, man." Nick smiled, unable to contain his happiness.
"AJ." Lexie said. She slipped out of Nick's arms, in one fluid movement snatched up his hand, and led him away from Nick without looking back.
"Uh. . .don't you want to be with Nick?" AJ asked as she pulled him out of earshot.
"I am with Nick." She said, continuing to pull him to the far side of the pool away from everyone.
"Lex? What are you doing?" he chuckled nervously. She stopped suddenly and turned to him, planting one finger firmly in the middle of his chest.
"You listen to me and you listen good, mister." She growled. "I love him and I'm not going to put up with you hurting him or me anymore! We all love you very much and CJ really wants to see Alex and her Uncle AJ a lot more than she had since Christmas. This is your head, AJ and this is your ass, it's time to pull it out."
She stood back and crossed her arms across her chest.
"Okay." He said meekly, lowering his eyes.
He looked up sheepishly and quirked a little smile at her. She narrowed her eyes at him and replanted her finger in his chest.
"I mean it, AJ."
"I know." He nodded quickly.
"No more running away, no more being a chickenshit."
"I won't, I promise."
"I love you, Dad, but I won't do this again, I swear." She said.
"I know, I know. I promise. I won't be an asshole again." He said. She just rolled her eyes at him, but he caught her hand and pointed her finger back at her.
"After Nick, you can't date anymore of my friends!" he said.
"Okay, it Nick dies prematurely, I won't date anymore of your friends."
"Promise?" he chuckled.
"I promise." She said after a heavy sigh.
"I've missed you, babygirl." He smiled warmly.
"I've missed you too, AJ." She smiled back.
Nick watched Lexie jump into AJ's arms and they were both laughing. He smiled and realized that asking her to marry him was the right decision. He had sat in this limbo with her, being old enough to be her father but actually being her lover. Now he would be her husband and no one would question his motives. He'd marry her and the whole world would know he loved her and had every intention of doing right by her.
It was very late when Lexie walked Nick and a sleeping CJ to the car after the party.
"Are you sure you want to stay?" he asked.
"I know you want me with you."
"I have you for the rest of my life." He smiled.
She smiled up at him.
"Not distance, not time." She said.
"I promise." He said as he leaned over and kissed her cheek, then her lips.
Howie watched Lexie wave good-bye and then head back to the house. He was waiting for her.
"Aren't you going to go with him?" he asked as she locked the door behind her.
"No, it doesn't make a difference." She shrugged.
"I. . ."
"Dad?" she said, stopping to turn back where he was.
"I can tell he loves you very much." He admitted.
"Maybe I've just lost my way." Howie said. "I have always loved you. You're my daughter. I really am very proud of you. I want you to know that I've forgiven you for leaving when you did. That was never an issue for me."
"Thank you. I can't tell you what that means to me." She choked.
"Not distance, not time?" he asked softly, cupping her cheek in his dark hand.
"I promise." She nodded, her tears disappearing from her eyes at his touch.
"You rat fink!" Brian screamed in the phone to Nick the next morning.
"Damn, B!" he laughed as he rolled onto his back in bed.
"When the fuck did you decide to propose? And in front of everyone? I'm your best friend, you dumb-ass! You're supposed to tell me first!"
"Shit, it just came to me. Oh Brian, I love her so much! It seemed like the perfect idea." Nick laughed.
"CJ knew, didn't she?!"
"No, no! I swear! She knew I had a special present for her, but she didn't know what was going to happen." He said. "I'm just glad Howie didn't throw me out right then and there."
"Shit, I was surprised to even see you."
"And AJ? How in the hell did you manage that?" Nick asked.
"Train and I just pounded on him. You know how he is. He's as stubborn as he is brilliant. He really loves her, Nick. She's his daughter, you know what that's like." Brian said. "He misses her. He's missing Amanda. He's hurting and he needed to be there. He had to reach out to for his own sanity."
"She misses him, too. This couldn't be better, Frick, and I owe it all to you." Nick said.
"No, you owe that amazing woman you have. She's the reason we've all fought so hard these last couple of years."
"Anything, anytime for you, Frack. I love you."
"I love you too, Brian."
Howie could not deny to AJ how happy Lexie was with Nick. AJ confessed that he, too, couldn't live without her either.
"I didn't know you were coming." Howie said to AJ over the phone.
"Hell, neither did I." AJ laughed.
"I got caught in a double-whammy by the Kentucky Cousins." AJ laughed.
"Oh, man. You were screwed." Howie laughed.
"You know, Kevin and Brian have been talking to me all this time. Brian was just able to make me understand how much I missed her. I know you're more the father to her than I am, but I do love her."
"She's your daughter too."
"You're only saying that so I'll pay for half the wedding." AJ joked.
"Damn straight!" Howie laughed. Howie's laughter died into a cold silence. "AJ?"
"I wish Amanda was here."
Howie felt the lump in his throat. "Me too."
"She wouldn't be very proud of me, right now."
"She'd probably cuss us out."
"I miss her, Howie." AJ choked. "I loved her so much."
"I know, AJ. I know." Howie said.
"Somedays I don't how I lived this long without her."
"You have Lexie and Alex, now. Someday, more love will come your way."
"No, D. I think I've had mine." AJ said sadly.
"Well, when the wedding comes. You and I will toast Amanda. Just you and me."
"I think I'd like that. Thanks, Howie."
"Sure, buddy. Anything, anytime."