People started coming by around noon. Lexie was up and greeting everyone and the group expanded to around 100 family and friends, many coming by to see how she was doing. Howie had decided to make Lexie's donation to Alex anonymous, so there was no public announcement on who had rose forward to give to AJ McLean's sick son a bone marrow transplant. Lexie had agreed with her parents on that. She doubted she'd be up to suddenly being thrown in the public spotlight. She still tired easily and was resting on the couch with some friends from school Howie had flown in when Nick showed up. She went to get the door and there he stood, amazingly not in a dark suit. In his arms was the most precious little blonde girl in a bright sunny dress.
"Nick! You must be CJ." She smiled, tickling her belly. CJ gave her a little giggle.
"C'mon in. Mom and Dad are in the back." She said, letting them pass.
Nick put CJ down and she ran up to Lexie with a big teddy bear. "This is for you!" she announced.
"Why thank you!" Lexie said, kneeling down taking the bear from her. "He's just beautiful."
"It's a girl. Her name is Michella! I picked her out myself." CJ announced.
"Okay, that's good to know." Lexie laughed.
"See, Daddy says it says that right there on that tag. I can't read yet, but I know my letters. I can sing the ABC song; do you want to hear it? Do you? I can count to 20, too, but Daddy has to help with his fingers, too. Do you wanna see?" she said in rapid fire. "Daddy! Come here!" CJ demanded.
Nick never saw Howie coming into the foyer, but Howie had heard CJ's little girl voice boom through the house. Nick shook his head and knelt down with them and she proceeded to show Lexie how well she could count. She did pretty well, her tiny hands slapping up against Nick's huge ones.
"Do you want to hear me sing? Daddy let's me sing in his studio all the time, I'm really good!" she declared. Howie couldn't restrain that laugh. All three of them turned to look at him, Lexie and Nick getting to their feet.
Howie's heart skipped a beat.
They made a beautiful couple.
"Hey, Nick, good to see you." Howie smiled putting out his arms to embrace him. Nick exchanged hugs with him, but CJ squeezed between them.
"Who are you?" CJ asked pointedly. Howie knelt down and smiled warmly to her.
"My name is Howie."
"Howie? I don't think I know you."
"Well, I saw you when you were really little."
"When I was a baby? That's why I don't know you, I can't remember that." She said. Howie cocked an eyebrow at her.
"Are you Lexie's Dad?"
"I can tell, you have the same hair, just like me and my dad." Howie just choked back a chortle. She didn't know her dad wasn't really a blond.
"CJ, that's enough." Nick said, scooping her up in her arms.
"Where's Lexie's cake? Can I have some cake?" CJ asked.
"Well, we haven't taken it out yet, but we will. Come on, I'll show it to you." Lexie said, taking CJ into her arms. "Then I'll introduce you to my little brothers, Tyler is six."
"EW!" CJ exclaimed as they headed toward the family room, "I don't like boys!"
"It's good to see you, man." Nick said, "I hope it's not a problem I'm here."
"No, I think everything will be fine." Howie smiled. "She's something else."
"That she is. I think it's because she travels with me so much and she sees so much." Nick said. "She's a good little girl."
"She's very beautiful." Howie said.
"Thanks. So, who is here?"
"No one from the Backstreet Boys, it's just you and me." Howie said.
"I hope we can change that some day." Nick said.
"Why? Why are you so interested in Lexie?" Howie asked, doing exactly what Leah had told him to do last night.
"I just think what we did 20 years ago today was wrong. We should've stuck together and helped AJ and Amanda work this out, but we didn't. What she did for AJ and Alex was amazing." Nick said. "I guess when I got to know her, I realized she deserved better than what we did."
"That's your only reason?" Howie asked, suspiciously.
"Yes, what else could there possibly. . . Holy Shit, Howie! My God! Do you really think I'd hit on her?!" Nick declared. "I'm pushing 40 here! I've got a daughter to take. . . goddamn it Howie. You've gone nuts!"
"Look, I had to ask." Non plussed by his reaction.
"No you didn't." Nick said angrily.
"When your daughter is older, you'll realize I did."
"I'd never accuse you of that?!" he said.
"Lower your voice!" Howie whispered harshly. Nick and Howie took a long moment to compose themselves. "She's my daughter, and I'll protect her any way I see fit." Howie said.
"Okay." Nick said, "I understand. I swear Howie, I'm only looking to. . ."
"What?" Howie demanded.
"To find a way to bring the Backstreet Boys back together."
"What? Now who's nuts?" Howie laughed bitterly. Oh, they all got along, as long as everyone stuck to the rules. "So, you think that fixing things with Lexie is going to make everything better?"
"No, but it'll make her life better. The rest of you can go screw yourselves." He whispered harshly at Howie. He stomped past Howie into the family room where the girls were.
Nick Carter has walked into plenty of rooms in his day. He was always prepared for the waves of recognition at so many levels. Him as THE Nick Carter, him as Nick Carter and to others as, "Nicky!" Howie's mom called out across the room at him.
"Hey, Mrs. D!" he said making his way toward her. He hadn't seen her in probably 5 years, and he stooped to hug her. Howie's dad was there, too, as well as all of his brother and sisters and their families. Leah was there and so were her parents. Nick leaned over and kissed her soft cheek.
"It's so good to see you Nick." She smiled.
"I'm glad I was invited." He smiled, patting Tyler on the back as he sleepily cuddled in his mother's arms. The boys were dark haired and dark eyed like their father, but had her delicate features. "Who is this and how old is he?"
"This is Tyler, he's 6, John is inside and he turned 8 this year."
"Eight and six? Jesus." He sighed.
"Where is CJ? How old is she now?"
"She's with Lexie. I think they went in the kitchen to see the cake. She's four." He said, proudly pointing her out with Lexie in the kitchen.
"She's just beautiful, Nick." Leah sighed, shifting Tyler on her hip. He was sleepily leaning his head on her shoulder. "Have you seen Howie yet?"
"Oh, yeah." Nick sighed.
"Oh, no. Just informative." Nick smiled, not wanting to tell Leah the truth. "There are a lot of old faces here."
Nick seemed like, Nick, to Leah. The polished performer, no one would believe the angry story that Howie told her of their meeting. Howie shifted his own persona as well, always to peacemaker. He wanted nothing to ruin Lexie's special day.
Nick sat mingled with the other guests as Lexie opened each of her presents and he seemed to blend right in. CJ sat on his lap, clapping her hands and genuinely happy for Lexie with each gift. Tyler, who came back to life, ripped packages for her and John kept all the cards in order. One suspicious package caught Tyler's eye and he didn't wait for her to give him the okay to open it. He unwrapped the small box, yanked open the top and pulled out a key on a fob.
"Dad?!" Tyler yelled out over the guests. "What's this?!" he kept on yelling. "Dad!"
"What's what?" Howie laughed, tying to squeeze between some folks. Lexie looked over at what Tyler was waving about and snatched it out of his hand as Howie got to the both of them.
"Oh my god! Dad!" she screamed, throwing herself into his arms. Leah saw the total look of surprise on Howie's face as she nearly choked the life out of him. She turned to her friends, "It's a car!" and they all squealed in delight. "Thank you, thank you, thank you!" she said, kissing his face. "Where is it?" she finally asked.
"Let me see that." He said, taking the key and the fob. The fob was from a local BMW dealership and the key was a blank. Uncut. "John?" he asked his brother, but John just shook his head. "Mom, Dad?" but they had no idea either. Howie looked over at Nick, who just threw up his hands. "I'm sorry, honey, I didn't buy you a car." He said.
"What? Then what's this?" she said, taking the key from him.
"Is there a card?" Howie asked. Tyler and John started digging around and John came up with a small one in a tan envelope. John opened it and began to read it.
"Dear Lexie, The dealership is open until 10:00 p.m., go pick out whatever you want. Happy Birthday, AJ."
Leah could see Howie pale under his dark skin. His eyes searched the room for hers. His locked with hers, as the deafening silence was broken.
Lexie spoke first, stunned, "It's from AJ?"
"Yeah, " little John shrugged, "Who's AJ?"
It took awhile for everyone to recover, but the children. They were excited and running around in no time. Everyone there knew the story, but it was the first time it had ever come up. No one had ever seen AJ do anything for Lexie all the years she has lived with Howie. Lexie seemed reserved for the rest of the night. She blew out her candles and got a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday" from everyone. CJ and Tyler stuffed their little faces and she found them fast asleep in her father's den. She sat in the matching chair across from them. She didn't even look up as Nick entered the room.
"I was wondering where you went to." He said quietly, swatting down next to the chair.
"I get tired still, sometimes." She said quietly.
"Are you okay with AJ's gift?" he asked.
"You didn't tell him what I said, did you?" she asked, not even looking up at him.
"No, no. Of course not, that was just between you and me, just like I promised." He said.
She pulled the blank key out of her pocket.
"It's a BMW." She said, cracking a little smile, finally looking at him.
"Well, it is AJ." He smiled back. "Do you think you'll accept it?"
"I don't know. I don't know what my dad's gonna do. He may tell me I can't keep it." Lexie said.
"Do you think he will?"
"I don't know, probably." She shrugged. "I waited until last night to tell them you were coming."
"What?! Lexie, you were suppose to tell them a week ago!" he admonished her.
"I know, I know, but I was afraid he'd say no." she said, tears starting to well up.
"Is he strict?"
"No, not really. He's a great dad, but. . ."
"When it comes to AJ and the rest of you, he's very strict. I don't think anyone else has been in this house but you." She said, "I'm just really glad I can talk to you. You tell me things he won't."
"He's trying to protect you. He loves you very much."
"I know, I know. I love him, too. It's just really complicated with him sometimes." She said.
"Lexie, I think from now on, I'm going to call the house number when I call."
"I don't want your dad to think I'm saying anything behind his back."
"What do you care what he thinks?" she asked dryly, her guards going up.
"I respect him too much to do that to him." Nick said, "He was, hell he still is, like a big brother to me. When we were all together, there was real love between each of us."
"Then I came along."
"No, Lexie, it wasn't you. It's not your fault." Nick said, "We were scared, we made some wrong choices, but Howie knew what had to be done and he did it. You know, Howie did this not just because you needed him, he did it because he loves AJ."
"What?" she asked completely puzzled.
"We were like brothers and said we would do anything for each other and Howie did just like he said he would." Nick said, wiping a silent tear that ran down her face.
"Then what happened Nick?" she asked.
"I think Howie's love for you became greater than his love for AJ." Nick said, seeing now how this precious creature had stole Howie's heart away from them. "He loves you so much, he was willing to give you back." He put his hand on her head and pulled her close, laying his lips on her temple.
Howie stood trembling outside the den, listening to Nick. It was all Howie could do to keep from losing control himself. He didn't want to let her go, but he was afraid he had no choice anymore. Nick was just the first step and now the car from AJ. Nick was getting his wish; he'd have them all back together again.
She was his daughter, not AJ's anymore and thoughts of rage and jealously threatened to consume him. He didn't want AJ to hurt her. He didn't want to hurt anymore either.
Lexie walked Nick, with CJ in his arms, out to the waiting limo after the party. Howie watched Nick tuck CJ into a seat, then get back out of the car, and hug Lexie. He pulled away, pulled a black velvet box out of his pocket, and handed it to her with a shrug. She opened it and even in the evening twilight, Howie could see the unmistakable twinkle of diamonds. She hugged him again and he got in the car. Howie moved away from the front window as she turned and walked back into the house.
"Hey." He smiled, greeting her at the door.
"Hi." She said softly.
"Did you have a good time?" he asked.
"It was great dad, thanks." She said, slipping her arms around his waist and clinging to him.
"What do you have there?" he asked. She pulled away and opened the small jewelry box. Inside was a small, very small, diamond heart shaped pendant.
"It's from Nick. He said he forgot he had it." She shrugged.
"Do you still have that key?" He asked.
"Yes." She pulled it out of her pocket and handed it him. He took it, turning it over in his hand. He put it in his own pocket.
"We'll go down tomorrow and pick something out." He smiled.
"Really?" she asked, completely surprised.
"Of course. Happy Birthday, baby." He said, taking her in his arms and kissing her cheek.
"Thanks, Dad." She said, slipping her arms around him and holding on tight. "I love you, Dad." She said. She felt his arms tighten on her.
"I love you, too." he whispered.
The phone rang late and Howie picked it up from his bed stand.
"So, how did the party go?" AJ asked.
"AJ, why didn't you tell me about the car?" Howie demanded, before AJ had the chance to say anything else.
"Well, you said you weren't going to get another one until she came home again next summer," he began.
"That's right, that's exactly what I said, but you went and did whatever you wanted." Howie snapped.
"Fine, then don't go down there."
"How can I not go? She opened the box in front of everyone!" he said, exasperated.
"Nick said you probably weren't going to let her keep it."
"Is that why Nick was here? As some kind of spy?"
"No! Lexie invited him and he just called me. Goddamn it Howie, I just wanted to give her something." AJ said and he hung up on Howie.
"Damn it." Howie snapped, slamming down the phone.
"Yes." He sighed, laying out on their bed and tucking himself against her. She smoothed the side of his face and kissed his forehead. "I already promised her the car."
"Did she seem excited?"
"Were you going to make her give it back?"
"Yes, but. . ."
"I heard Nick say something to her." He said, rolling on to his back. "He said I loved her so much I was willing to give her back."
"That's true." Leah nodded.
"But it's not. Things are changing, Leah. I don't want to give her back."
"Howie, Lexie loves you, not AJ. She isn't going to just walk out on us because he gave her a car. She's smarter than that. I also think she's more hurt than that. It isn't going to be that easy for him."
"Was I wrong all these years? Should I have forced AJ and Lexie together sooner? I kept her so isolated from everything Backstreet. I thought I was protecting her, maybe I was just hurting her more."
"I think you're right, I think things are changing, but I don't know if it's going to be for the better." Leah said, "I think that episode in the counselor's office was a good indicator of what the future holds. You heard what she said to him; we all heard it outside. Could you imagine her saying that to you right in the room? That's what AJ went through. I think we just need to be more careful. AJ and his family are in Orlando through the New Year and she's going back to school in a couple more weeks."
"But Nick is in L.A."
"I don't know that Nick is going to be the problem. I think he honestly wants what's best for her and all of you boys." Leah said.
"I hope you're right."
"Are you going with her tomorrow?"
"Yes, I at least want some control over what she picks out." He said.