“My kids, watching the news and seeing me in handcuffs – it’s just the worst thing,” the multimillionaire music impresario reflects now. “And having to answer the questions for them – that’s been the hardest thing.”

Harder times may lie ahead. Combs, facing up to 15 years in prison, goes on trial January 17 in stateSupreme Court – a case that promises to draw media attention from The National Enquirer to “Entertainment Tonight.” The trial was to have started Monday (January 8), but was postponed at a hearing Friday (January 5).

As the trial nears, the 31-year-old Combs has grown anxious about his reputation, his family, his future.

So after months of silence, he sits in a 30th-floor office above Times Square to make public a message already delivered to Justin, 6, and Quincy, 8.

“I am an innocent man, and I want everyone to know,” Combs says, leaning forward on a couch alongside attorney Benjamin Brafman. “I’m not going to take this lying down.”

Combs heads an empire that includes his label, Bad Boy Records; a clothing line, Sean John; restaurants in New York and Atlanta; and a variety of production, publishing and management operations.

Over the course of 30 minutes, he remains polite, soft-spoken and friendly. Only one question mildly riles him: Did he ever consider cutting a deal with prosecutors?

“I would never take a plea,” he declares emphatically. “Never take a plea.”

In April 1999, Combs was arrested for beating a fellow music executive, allegedly leaving the victim with a broken arm and jaw. He pleaded guilty to harassment and was ordered to undergo counseling.

This time, a deal reportedly was offered: a guilty plea to a misdemeanor gun charge in return for a short stint in jail. But Combs preferred to have a jury decide what happened in the early morning of December 27, 1999.

He provided a blow-by-blow description of that night, when he and girlfriend Jennifer Lopez took a limousine to the Club New York, a popular hip-hop spot.

“I was thinking it was going to be a regular night out, Christmas holiday,” he recalls. Inside the club, there were no confrontations of any kind, he remembers. Then the shooting started; Combs feared the bullets were meant for him.

“I was definitely scared to death,” Combs remembers. “I was especially scared because I had Jennifer with me. … When your woman’s in danger, it’s a lot more scary.”

Combs and Lopez, with the rest of the crowd, spilled out of the club and into the night. Police cars were screaming to the scene. The club owner estimated that the riotous mass exodus caused $100,000 worth of damage.

Combs, with Lopez, was pushed inside a Lincoln Navigator owned by his record company. According to Combs, he did not set foot in the vehicle that night until after the shooting started. The Navigator sped away; reports that it ran 11 lights before stopping were untrue, Combs says.

About 20 seconds after he and Lopez climbed into the car, it was stopped by police, Combs says. Police immediately recognized the celebrity couple, then began searching the vehicle. Combs stood near the back bumper “in shock, making sure Jennifer was all right.” Suddenly, police officers were putting both of them in handcuffs.

“I was like, `What are you all doing?”‘ Combs recalled. “`What’s going on?’ They said, `We have a gun in the car.’ I said, `It’s not my gun. Why are you putting the handcuffs on me?”‘

Prosecutors presented a different version of events: A Combs protégé, rapper Jamal “Shyne” Barrow, pulled a gun and shot three people after coming to the club with Puffy. Barrow faces attempted murder charges.

As Combs fled the scene in the Navigator, a gun was thrown out of the window, prosecutors alleged. Another weapon was found in the car, and Combs was charged with gun possession. He also was charged with bribery for allegedly offering the car’s driver $50,000 and a diamond ring to take the gun rap for him.

Combs says he couldn’t have made any offer, since he was unaware of any gun in the car. Will Combs tell his story before a jury? That remains unclear.

“We don’t intend to discuss that publicly before the trial,” said Brafman, whose past clients include mobster Sammy “The Bull” Gravano and nightclub owner Peter Gatien.

Strategy aside, the rap star stresses that he is eager to get his case in front of a jury and out of the headlines.

“We’re not going to get involved in the hype,” Combs promises. “We’re just going to lay out the facts, and get my life back on the road.”