Bed of Roses
Chapter Thirty-Seven
Home
Prologue
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen
Chapter Fifteen
Chapter Sixteen
Chapter Seventeen
Chapter Eighteen
Chapter Nineteen
Chapter Twenty
Chapter Twenty-One
Chapter Twenty-Two
Chapter Twenty-Three
Chapter Twenty-Four
Chapter Twenty-Five
Chapter Twenty-Six
Chapter Twenty-Seven
Chapter Twenty-Eight
Chapter Twenty-Nine
Chapter Thirty
Chapter Thirty-One
Chapter Thirty-Two
Chapter Thirty-Three
Chapter Thirty-Four
Chapter Thirty-Five
Chapter Thirty-Six
Chapter Thirty-Seven
Chapter Thirty-Eight
Chapter Thirty-Nine
Chapter Forty
Interlude
Chapter Forty-One
Chapter Forty-Two
Chapter Forty-Three
Chapter Forty-Four
Chapter Forty-Five
Chapter Forty-Six
Chapter Forty-Seven
Epilogue
Thanks

There's something about the look in your eyes
Something I noticed when the light was just right
It reminded me twice that I was alive
And it reminded me that you're so worth the fight
My biggest fear will be the rescue of me
Strange how it turns out that way

**WARNING:  The following chapter contains very, very vivid sexual content.  Although the sexual content is interwoven with information that is pertinent to the plot of the story, all readers under seventeen are advised to avert their eyes, as the author does not wish to be responsible for any corruption of innocent youth.  However, if you do not find sexual content in graphic detail to be offensive, please proceed.  Unfortunately, it is more difficult to offer a clean version of this chapter, but you are welcome to email the author at rockandroses21@hotmail.com if you wish to protest the use of such imagery or beg for a cleaner version *sigh*.  Regardless of opinion or differences, you have been warned. That said, Happy Reading, kids! :) ** 

One kiss, a few drinks, a sense of adventure, and a sudden, looming fear. Suddenly, his lips were everywhere and his hands were in her hair. His agile tongue traced a line along her jawbone as her long, crimson nails raked against his chest. He bit lightly on her earlobe, and she moaned loudly in response. Her fingers undid his bowtie, and then trailed down his chest, leaving a mess of free buttons in their wake. His thumbs escaped her silky mane, abandoning the strands for the warm, elastic waistband of her ostentatious skirt. As his finger traced the waistband, her hands slid through his hair, and a low growl escaped his throat. He could feel her fingers pressing into his scalp as her lips roamed his neck. She smelled of roses and Chardonnay, and the scent tickled his senses. Somehow, amidst the drunken chaos, he managed to get the key card in the slot, and the door to the evening's hotel room opened immediately. He removed the card long enough for them to tumble through the door, and his eyes closed as her lips found his collarbone.

Oh, God.

He tugged at the hem of her shirt, praying, hoping, needing for the buttons to come undone. His large hands covered her breasts in a promise of what was to come before traveling directly down the center of her body, tugging the buttons loose with an urgency that he hated and loved all at once. Her shirt unfolded, and she shrugged the coarse linen off her shoulders before arching her back into his hands, making him smile deliciously with the feeling of surrender at his fingertips. He wanted to feel her beneath him, to know that he could make her scream his name. He needed the power of knowing that he could bring another woman to her knees. He needed the comfort of knowing that his ego hadn't completely shattered and that he wasn't the weak man he knew he was becoming. He needed to know that he was stronger than Hallmark cards and roses and wine glasses and tiny boxes of chocolate covered cherries. He needed to know that, even after everything that had ensued and the feelings that had overwhelmed him for the mere seconds he had allowed them to register, he could turn around and take another woman in his arms for the night.

Another woman that isn't Alli. Shit.

His hands trailed along her waist, her sides, and down her hips until he was cupping her backside in his hands. He squeezed lightly around the silky fabric of her skirt and she moaned again. As if to show her drunken appreciation, her tongue slid sloppily up his neck until she was kissing his cheek over and over and over. His head bent to the touch, loving the feel of someone else's mouth on his skin. She seemed to take the movement as an invitation to continue further, because she moved to kiss his lips. He was momentarily alarmed by the intrusion and the fear of foreign lips on his own, and he brought a finger to her mouth instead, surprised by the sudden need to keep her away from the area that had been so intensely occupied only hours earlier.

Not those, God, not the mouth. Every other part of me can be yours tonight, but that kiss...God, that kiss still belongs to Alli.

His eyes snapped open when he felt the wet velvet of her tongue around his finger, and his blue eyes widened significantly as he watched his finger disappear into her mouth. His eyes closed involuntarily as her teeth scraped along his knuckles, and he could feel the fabric off his slacks pressing against his swelling erection. As her tongue continued to dance across his fingertip, her arms wrapped around his waist long enough for her hands to remove the confining cumberbund and toss it aside. His jacket soon fell to the same fate, and she slowly and coyly released his finger so that his Oxford shirt could join the pile of his clothes on the floor. Once his chest was exposed, her fingers trailed appreciatively across the sensitive skin, and he shuddered involuntarily. Her lips planted a line of kisses down the center of his body, directly between his pectorals, and he threw his head back as another erotic shudder swept over him. Before she could reach his waistline, his hands cupped her chin and brought her face up to his, where he allowed his lips to trail over her nose, her cheeks, and her forehead. He broke contact for a moment and reached around her, tracing her ribs with his fingers until he was deftly unclasping her bra, and her ample breasts fell loosely into his waiting hands. He began to knead them with his fingers, slowly massaging the tender skin, and she arched into his hands with a moan of appreciation. He teased her nipples until they hardened beneath his fingertips. He smiled as another moan greeted his ears, and his hands slid slowly down her body to press at the waistband of her skirt, directing the fabric over her hips until the silk pooled at her feet. With his warm hands on her waist, he guided her to the bed, laying her body out before his eyes so that he could watch her for a few fleeting moments.

This is what my life has become. In a week, I won't even remember what she looks like, even though I spent an entire evening fucking her senseless. What does that say about me?

The question barely registered before he was reaching for her lacy underwear with an animalistic urge that he hardly recognized. He needed to have her naked in front of him. He needed control. His teeth scraped her hipbone as he dragged the cotton from her body. Her eyes widened at the sexiness of the act before her, and she reached for him as soon as her lingerie found a place on the floor next to her skirt. His eyes quickly strayed to the material, and he found himself staring at the size. It barely registered in his inebriated brain that the girl in front of him wore the same size as Alli.

God, I even know what size she wears. What the hell is wrong with me? Why can't I even fucking have SEX without her creeping into my thoughts? I don't want to be attached, dammit! I didn't ask to know everything about her. But that's the problem, isn't it? I do know everything about her, down to her fucking clothing size. I know everything about her, and I still want to know more. He shook his head slowly. Oh, God, no. I did not just admit to that. I don't give a damn. I can't give a damn.

His eyes traveled back to the blonde in front of him, and he smiled seductively as he ducked down to lick a path up her inner thighs. When he finally reached her center, he felt her dripping, ready and waiting for him. Normally, he would've been happy to launch his tongue into her core, to delve into her physical depths until she was screaming for him and shaking with the ecstasy he had brought her. Normally, he would've been pleased to pleasure her, would've been pleased with the power that came with her orgasm. However, it felt so wrong to touch a woman in such a forbidden place with Alli's taste on his lips. At the last moment, he continued to lick his way towards her breasts and replaced his tongue with his index finger, which quickly slid into her. As her walls clenched around him, another finger quickly joined the first, and he stroked over her with his thumb as his fingers began to slide in and out of her. His tongue traced lazy circles around her bellybutton just before dipping into the crevice of her navel, and she moaned loudly. Her moans gradually grew to screams as his fingers moved more quickly, and he smiled with satisfaction when he felt her core begin to quiver around him.

God, I still can't believe I kissed her. No, she kissed me. I can't believe she kissed me. What the hell were we thinking? It took me long enough to be friends with her again. It took me long enough to regain her trust. I can't believe she had to go and kiss me. Didn't she know that kissing me would fuck everything up all over again? Or maybe it wasn't supposed to fuck everything up. Maybe I'm the only one that's fucked up. Maybe it's just me.

His eyes danced distractedly over the girl in front of him as he willed away the thoughts of his best friend. Watching the girl writhe with her orgasm stirred something deep and sensual in his groin, and he immediately felt the need to be inside her. He removed his fingers and scraped them along the waist of his pants before he began to undo his fly quickly. To his complete surprise, the girl slid off the bed until she was on her knees in front of him, smirking up at his surprised countenance. She reached up to clasp his hands and removed them with a coy, seductive smile.

"Let me."

Her slender, manicured fingers slowly gripped his zipper and slid it down, purposefully brushing against his erection in the process. He gasped at the contact, and a smirk graced the blonde's lips as the slacks slid off of his muscular legs, revealing a pair of cotton boxer-briefs. She grinned at the revelation and shook her head slightly, smirking the whole way.

"These gotta go, baby..."

He was numb to the slight slur of her words, completely memorized by the sarcasm and condescension that dripped from her voice. God, she's almost as much of a smartass as Alli is. That's saying something, isn't it? She must be aggressive...

All rational thought halted when he felt her hot breath against his throbbing tip. He closed his eyes at the feeling, begging to be relieved of the delicious pain that plagued his pelvic area, and was rewarded with the tip of her tongue flicking across his tip. Holy shit, she has no idea what she's doing, does she?

His thoughts were immediately proven wrong when she deep-throated him. She began to slowly release him, dragging her teeth along the tender skin, and he drew a shaky breath at the feeling. He could feel himself slipping out of control as her tongue began to pulse against him, massaging him expertly. She squeezed around him with her mouth, and his hips bucked involuntarily into her face. He wasn't prepared for the wave of disgust that greeted him, however. The erotic sensation was almost too much, but he was suddenly horrified by the act of some girl's mouth on his member, and he hated that his body was betraying him. He was incredibly turned on, yes, but he no longer wanted her lips, or her teeth, or her tongue on his skin. He almost fell backwards when he realized that he wanted Alli's lips on him instead. Fuck, that kiss is screwing with my head. Since when have I thought of Alli like that?

His eyes closed again as she began to drag her mouth up and down his length, and his breathing was labored as he drew closer and closer to his climax. She was gently squeezing him with her teeth every so often, and a delicious river of pain would course along his shaft to his very fingertips. He hated the feeling of her mouth on him and he loved it all at once. He needed her expertise, but his imagination spun with the thoughts of another woman on him in the same manner. It wasn't long before stars exploded across his obstructed vision, Alli's face in his head and her lips on his.

He opened his eyes just in time to see the girl swallow and rock back onto her feet, and the sight sent a fresh wave of disgust churning through his abdomen. Fueled by the sudden need to finish the evening and seal the arrangement, he lifted her roughly off the floor and pinned her against the sheets. He began to harden again when he caught the mixture of contentment and fear in her bright blue eyes, and he tugged on a lock of her blonde hair before he began to trace her figure, pushing and pulling at the soft skin beneath his hands. Tiny bumps of pleasure began to rise on her skin, and a moan escaped her crimson lips in time for him to smile. He was in control again, and the thought made him swell with excitement.

He needed to forget about Alli, the kiss, and the whole evening. He needed to forget the feeling of her hips against his as they danced, the sound of her low whisper in his ear, and the feeling of her head on his shoulder and her hair against his fingers. The entire evening had been one wave of pleasant confusion after another, and he no longer wanted to remember the realization he had come to whenever her lips had finally found his. He no longer wanted to ponder the reluctant admission that he'd enjoyed that particular dance of tongue and teasing more than any other sexual experience.
 
Somehow, the fact that it was Alli made it that much more dangerous and that much more safe, that much more forbidden and that much more right. He hadn't ever felt something so fulfilling as her lips on his, and he wanted to forget it, to banish it to the back of his memory, even if only for a few seconds of sin and seduction.

With that thought in mind, he reached over to grab his pants and pulled the ever-present condom from his pocket. He ripped the foil packet open with his teeth and sheathed himself quickly. The faster he could enter her, the faster he could forget about the moment he'd spent the entirety of his life waiting for. For the first time in his life, he'd participated in a kiss that felt like fireworks. For once, the woman whose lips were on his meant more than a night of pleasure and a hasty retreat the next morning. Behind the kiss were years of pent-up affection that he hadn't ever bothered to express. Hell, I didn't even know I wanted that kiss so badly until she went and planted one on me.

He shook his head and slammed into the girl in front of him, trying to erase the thoughts of Alli from his memory.

He was rougher than he'd ever been, moving quickly into her with a force he neither recognized nor knew he had. His hands pressed against both side of her ribcage, holding her in place as her walls began to clench around him. He closed his eyes and began to lean into his thrusts, eliciting a moan of painful pleasure from the nameless girl before him.

I was going to stop doing this for awhile. I was going to prove that I could be that man that she's so convinced I am. Fuck, I think I want to be that man. What the hell is wrong with me? Shit. I really don't want to be here.

His disgust became the driving force behind another angry thrust as he buried himself inside her. His movements were hard and fast and deliciously painful. But, then again, he wasn't in the mood to be gentle. As her walls began to tighten around his throbbing member, all rational thought dissolved in a wave of memory, and his body fell into the comfortable rhythm that would bring her to her climax. Within moments, he felt her body shudder with ecstasy. His own orgasm followed soon after, and his entire world exploded in front of him as the effects of his acts burst into the confining rubber tube. In the heat of the moment, he allowed memory to trick him, allowed a tiny bit of his own admission to affect his vision to the point that, when he opened his eyes to trace over the body in front of him, his eyes widened in shock.

God, those eyes aren't Alli's. That's not her body, not her face and not her hair. Fuck. Why do I feel like it should be? Why in the hell do I want it to be?

He really, really hated the fact that, as he slid out of the girl before him, a wave of disappointment crept over him. For once, he crawled up onto the bed and fell clumsily onto the mattress beside the blonde. She slid up behind him and put her arms around him from behind, teasing his backside with the golden curls that hid her womanhood, and he shut his eyes against the feeling. He didn't want anything else to do with her. Not that night, and not ever.

"Thanks for a wonderful evening," she purred in his ear, her words only slightly slurred from the effects of passion and one too many glasses of AJ's punch.

He merely grunted. He couldn't think of any words at the moment, much less anything that she would actually want to hear. He was exhausted from the effort of hiding from himself, and he didn't want to make small talk with the girl he had used as a mask. With a heavy sigh, he shut his eyes tightly and tried to summon sleep without calling to mind the events of the evening.

Not ten minutes later, he was still trying desperately to enter a land of unconsciousness and dreams. Behind him, the girl of choice and attraction was snoring softly, lost in what he hoped to be nightmares. With another sigh of contempt for himself, he pushed himself out from between the sheets and padded over to the mini bar, where he grabbed a tiny bottle of vodka. In hopes that the alcohol would calm his nerves and distort the picture of Alli in his head, he reclined into the armchair in the corner and scanned the room with subdued anger. He felt helpless and alone, and he despised the feeling more than he cared to admit.

He shook his head and uncapped the bottle long enough to take a relatively large gulp of the burning liquid. His throat protested at the immediate rush of pain, but he continued to drink until the bottle was empty and his head was slightly addled.

And her face is still in my head. Fuck. Aren't I supposed to be numb by now?

He began pacing the room, searching for clothing. As he passed the mini bar, he grabbed another bottle of vodka and downed the majority of it quickly. He felt the immediate rush as the room blurred slightly, but he managed to locate his pants and a shirt, which he quickly tugged on. He knew that he was too inebriated to be walking around, but he was far too restless to sit in the hotel room for long. The image of the blonde in his bed and her clothes on the floor haunted him almost more so than the image of Alli's face in his head. Of course, the painful tugging at his heartstrings certainly wasn't helping matters.

Shit, I'm going to be so sick if I don't get out of here soon. Where's the damn key card?

Before he found the key card, he drained the second bottle of vodka and grabbed a third, determined to numb himself for the evening. As he stumbled through the door and into the hotel hallway, the scene began to swirl before him, and he had to lean against the wall a moment in order to clear his head. When the room had finally stopped spinning, he continued his trip down the hallway until he'd reached the elevators, at which point he got in and pressed the button for the top floor. He wasn't sure what he'd find, but he had the feeling that whatever he encountered would be better than the mess he was leaving behind.

Fuck. How the hell did this happen? What the hell is wrong with me? Why can't I just get a fucking grip?

He stepped out of the elevator and onto the top floor, stumbling down the hall with an indifferent expression on his features. He hated the world at that moment, for the confusion that it was bringing him and the pain that came with seeing Alli's smile in all the wrong places.

God, she is NOT supposed to mean this much.

Towards the end of the hallways, he noticed an open door. His curiosity heightened sufficiently, as the other doors were closed, so he quickened his pace and walked into the room with an inquisitive frown. Of course, the moment the location registered, he groaned aloud and rubbed a tired hand over his face at the sheer irony of his position.

Oh, fuck. Leave it to me to find the fucking ballroom at the height of my own romantic turmoil. God, this is like a bad episode of Dawson's Creek. And the fact that all I want to do is dance with her one more time says way more than I care to admit about how fucking pathetic I really am. I was strong before she came along, dammit. What the fuck happened?

He stumbled over to the piano and sat down, a soft, reminiscent smile on his face as his long fingers slid easily over the ivory. He wasn't much of an experienced pianist--like most people, he didn't know how to play much of anything but "Chopsticks" and "Heart And Soul"--but the sight of the piano called to mind a memory from one afternoon long ago when Alli had tried to teach him to play. Where he had taken voice lessons and dance classes, she had taken soccer and softball. However, for a few fleeting years, Alli's father had forced her to take piano lessons, and the one song she remembered was an old, simple version of a Bon Jovi classic. She'd teased him that afternoon about the fact that he was a musician with no piano knowledge and had forced him to sit down and learn to play "her song". He was positive that, in light of his drunken state and the amount of time that had passed since his lesson, he would've forgotten everything she'd taught him, but he was soon proven wrong as his fingers found the chords.

He shuddered as he realized exactly how well the song fit the moment and cursed fate. Dammit. Music is my downfall. I mean, hell, I can be the strongest of men until you find me a piano and a few bottles of vodka. Thank God Alli's not here, or I'd never hear the end of this.
The chords brought tears to his eyes as they echoed through the silent ballroom, and he hated the fact that he really wouldn't have minded having Alli there to hold him while he came undone. Lord knows that she'd seen enough sides of him to stick around.

Somehow, though, he didn't think she'd enjoy the feelings he was gradually allowing to surface.

With a sigh, he continued to let his hands roam over the keyboard as Jon Bon Jovi's voice played in his head.

Sitting here, wasted and wounded
At this old piano
Trying hard to capture this moment
This morning, I don't know

For the first time he could remember (which probably wasn't saying much, considering that he was on the verge of an unidentifiable breakdown), Nick wasn't trying to control his thoughts. He was simply letting himself feel, letting himself go. The music was enough to let him lose himself in the notes, but instead, he found himself lost in the plethora of images and feelings he had forced himself to ignore. In hopes of maintaining the masculine image he had worked so hard to create.

As he stared down at the keys, he could feel Alli next to him, laughing at him and with him as she showed him the notes and hummed along. She wasn't a talented musician by any means, but that afternoon, she had been one of the most wonderful people he knew.

God, how did I miss that? How did I miss something that big? Am I really that lost, that clueless, that...?

Oh, fuck. AJ's gonna have a fit when he realizes he was right. Here I am, brooding up a storm and drunk off my ass, and it's not because of fucking Brian. It's all because of Al. Because I needed to forget. But I can't fucking forget, can I? No matter how hard I try, she's still there, in the back of my head, holding me hostage with gray eyes and auburn curls. And, shit, now she's got me waxing poetic when I'm supposed to be trashed...

`Cause a bottle of vodka is still lodged in my head
And some blonde gave me nightmares
I think that she's still in my bed
As I dream about movies they won't make of me
When I'm dead

He almost laughed aloud as the significance of the words registered and he realized exactly how stereotypical his life had become. He'd been so caught up in the thought of being strong and growing up and trying to escape the thirteen-year-old mold that the other Boys were still trying to shove him in that he was almost ashamed. He'd slept with so many women, spent so many nights bouncing between the bar and the dance floor, dressed to impress and smirking with an arrogance that he knew wasn't justified. He had no right to be egotistical. Staring at the wreck he'd become while his fingers traveled across the keys, he couldn't help but wonder what he had left to be proud of anymore. He'd become the stereotypical rock star, shacking up with groupies while he tried to preserve his masculinity in a bottle of Jack Daniels.

Suddenly he understood why the Boys still couldn't see him as a man. He'd completely missed the mark of maturity, thinking that notches in a bedpost represented age better than a knowing smile and the ability to look away. Now, looking back, he wasn't sure what he'd been doing or why. Of course, he wasn't exactly sure how to let go of it all either.

What the hell got into me?

With an ironclad fist, I wake up and French kiss the morning
While some marching band keeps it's own beat in my head
While we're talking
About all of the things that I long to believe
About love and the truth and what you mean to me
And the truth is, baby, you're all that I need

Despite the tears welling in his eyes, he had to smile at the thought of Alli. Regardless of what he did or how ridiculous he became, she was always there. The month he'd been forced to spend without her had affected him more than he cared to admit, and he knew that a large portion of his slight improvement was due to her return. Somehow, she always knew exactly what to say to make him smile and what to do to make him feel safe. In the midst of the chaotic life he led, he knew that he could always turn to Alli for reassurance and sanity. Even when he didn't feel like he knew himself anymore, didn't care to find himself anymore, she managed to make him feel like someone worth knowing. Whenever he was lost and exhausted, her voice could still make him smile. He shook his head slowly as he remembered the relief he'd felt when she'd finally agreed to forgive him.

I'm such an idiot. How the hell did I miss all of this?

Nick shook his head again, thinking back on everything that had unfolded over the first leg of the tour. He had tried so hard to become someone that everyone else could respect. He'd taken the steps he thought necessary to gain a reputation, to form a facade that he was finally comfortable with. Of course, the moment he looked at Alli, the facade started to crumble.

A tiny tear slid down as he realized that Alli had always respected him. More importantly, she had always cared. Her presence overshadowed the lonely feeling that often crept into his consciousness when he wasn't trying to be numb.

His chest constricted as he recalled the way he'd treated her at the start of the tour. There were so many words that he wished he could've taken back, so many things he had done that he wished he could have done differently. Of course, being Alli, she had eventually understood. All of the wrongs had been forgiven without a second thought, and it went without saying that she still loved him for who he was and the friend that he was to her. He almost laughed, but he wasn't quite that intoxicated yet.

The friend that I am to her? That's a fucking joke if I've ever heard one. God, she doesn't deserve me. She doesn't deserve the shit that I force on her. Of course, I don't know how to get through my shit without her. So much for strength and manhood.

He had hated seeing her so upset the night she broke down. He would've done anything to take away the tears and the pain, but, at the same time, he was eternally grateful for the feeling or worth that her call brought. The fact that she had thought of him, that she had trusted him enough to break in front of him, meant more than he could afford to put into words.

After all, through everything, he really did want to be as good to her as she had been to him.

I wanna lay you down on a bed of roses
For tonight I sleep on a bed of nails
Oh, I wanna be just as close as the Holy Ghost is
And lay you down in a bed of roses

He had a feeling that that particular thought wasn't supposed to hurt so much, but he was suddenly all too away of the meaning behind the term "heartache". God, is this what I put her through? I didn't want to do that. Shit, no one deserves to hurt like this. I don't even know what I did, but I really fucking wish I could make it stop.

His eyes were closed as he continued to play, and he tried to conjure up an image of himself and Alli on the couch in his living room, talking about stupid little things while one of their favorite movies played behind them. Somehow, he figured that if he could pretend she was actually sitting beside him, it might hurt less. Of course, the though of her smile only caused his heart to twist further into the newfound depression he was slowly starting to acknowledge.

This really, really sucks. I don't want to kiss her. I don't want to have sex with her. I don't even want to hold her. I just want to talk to her. She always knows what to say. I'm sick of playing Humpty Dumpty, dammit, and she's a big fucking expert at gluing my pieces back together.

He could remember on the first Backstreet Boys tour, feeling homesick in Germany. After bothering Kevin, Brian, Howie, and AJ (in that order), he'd decided to go for a walk. As though God had shared his particular mood that night, it had started to rain, and he'd been forced to take shelter in a payphone at the corner. When he couldn't tell the difference between his tears and the rain, he'd dropped a quarter in the slot and called Alli. He'd stayed in the phone booth that night for two hours, crying about the pain that came with accomplishing his dream, until his sobs died to sniffles and he had arranged to bring her out to see him the next weekend. Somehow, even in another country, Alli's hug had made him feel like he was coming home.

It wasn't until he let go of the memory that he realized he was looking around the ballroom in search of a payphone.

Well, I'm so far away
Each step that I take is on my way home
A king's ransom in dimes I'd give each night
To see through this payphone

He didn't want to admit exactly how much he'd give to make a phone call right then. There were suddenly too many things he had to tell her, none of which she'd care to hear, but all of which she'd listen to. That was Alli's way. Her sarcasm and smirk were his relief from taking himself so seriously, but her ability to listen and her carefully thought-out responses were the sanity he knew he needed. She was more reasonable than he felt he'd ever be, but more childish that he could ever allow himself to be. He smiled at the thought, and all of the pain faded away for a small second while he remembered the pranks that she'd played on him over the years.

It's just fucking scary how much I remember. We've played solace to each other for so damn long...why in the hell did I try to let go of that? Did I fuck it up tonight by asking for that kiss? Shit, I hope not. I need her. It's fucking scary to admit, but I really, really, really need her. I don't feel like me without Alli.

He almost rolled his eyes as his semi-recent conversation with AJ in the bar came to mind. He had been moments away from shoving AJ out the door and telling the younger man that he was full of Disney movies and sex deprivation, and now he was painfully coming to terms with the fact that AJ had been right all along.

Shit, love really is blind, isn't it? Or maybe I'm the blind one. God, it doesn't fucking matter...I really wish she could be here. I really wish AJ didn't have to be so fucking right all the time. And I REALLY wish that I didn't need her as much as I do, but I think it might be okay to need her. I just wish I could get to her tonight.

Still I run out of time or it's hard to get through
Till the bird on the wire flies me back to you
I'll just close my eyes and whisper
Baby, blind love is true

He suddenly felt like he'd been given the key to the Pandora's box of emotion that he had sealed shut at the start of the tour. Suddenly, he couldn't separate his feelings for Alli or about Alli from his own loneliness, and he hated the helpless feeling that was beginning to overwhelm him. He felt like rambling to his best friend about the things he was beginning to feel that he didn't understand, but he couldn't find the words. He wanted to run out of the hotel and grab a cab that could take him to Alli's apartment so that he could stand on her doorstep in tears and have her give him one of the hugs he needed so much, but he didn't have the strength to stand or the ability to walk. He wanted to scream with the frustration at seeing his carefully constructed psyche crumble before him, but he couldn't remember how to scream anymore. He wanted to laugh, but when he closed his eyes, he could only see Alli's smile, and her sparkling gray eyes made him feel more like crying that he cared to admit.

He wanted to do so much, but the feeling of helplessness rendered him incapable, and so he continued to finger the piano like his lifeline, beating the chords he knew better than himself and trying to ignore the lyrics that were ringing all too true in his foggy brain.

I wanna lay you down on a bed of roses
For tonight, I sleep on a bed of nails
Oh, I wanna be just as close as the Holy Ghost is
And lay you down on a bed of roses

Terrified by the tears that had suddenly started to flow of their own will--God, I'm never drinking again if this is just how fucking weak it makes me--he began to instead let his mind wander over his conquests and his evenings. He was ashamed when he realized just how little he could remember about the craziness of his lifestyle, but he felt like laughing at the ease of it all. There were too many willing women, too many glasses filled to the brim, and he was too eager for something to occupy his time. At one time, he could've provided a thousand reasons as to why he'd chosen to use women and alcohol as an escape, but he couldn't remember them anymore. He wasn't even sure if the reasons had been worth the price he'd had to pay. After all, he'd been trying to build strength at some point, and as he played, he could feel his strength tumbling into melodies and admissions of the loneliness he was supposed to avoid.

He wasn't sure to laugh or cry as the faces of a thousand flirtatious women accosted him. Be it money, fame, or old-fashioned good looks, he could certainly attract more than his share of ladies to warm the sheets. The carelessness with which they threw themselves at him and the ease with which they threw their own self-respect out the window was nearly comical. He was crumbling beneath a steel exterior, and all of the surrounding females could only see him for sex-appeal and alcohol consumption.

Suddenly, he felt more like crying than laughing.

This hotel hangover whiskey's gone dry
This barkeeper's wig is crooked and she's giving me the eye
I might have said, "yeah"
But I laughed so hard I think I died

He shook his head at the painful feeling that gripped his chest and closed his eyes as he played through what would usually be the guitar solo. He couldn't help but think that playing air-guitar with Alli alone in her apartment was worth a million lonely evenings with one of his many conquests.

Damn, you'd think that it'd be impossible to be lonely while sharing your bed with a woman, but you'd be so wrong. There's nothing worse than feeling lonely when you're not alone. Well, maybe feeling like you're breaking. Or this heartache thing that's really starting to make me wish I'd just kept kissing Alli instead of pulling away and acting like it was no big deal. Because it was. It was the biggest fucking deal in the world.

Of course, he had been all too happy to pretend that it hadn't meant anything. He'd spent the next hour and a half avoiding her and the rest of his little Backstreet family, politely greeting the guests that he didn't know and spending quality time with the ladies that he'd never seen. Occasionally, he had caught sight of Alli on the dance floor and his stomach had taken a dangerous dip, but he'd always had enough energy to plaster on the famous Carter grin and charm the woman next to him. By the time he'd gotten to the blonde that still lay in his bed, he'd had more than enough to drink and was officially tired of being charming. The alcohol hadn't made him forget, and he couldn't help comparing every woman to Alli. He had tried to subdue everything with sex, but that hadn't ever worked well anyway.

He reveled in the relief that came from finally being able to acknowledge the fact that the kiss had meant something, but he was also trembling at the thought of ever expressing such feelings to Alli. He'd ignored things for so long and treated her so badly that he wasn't exactly sure how she would react to such a confession. However, now that the feelings were running rampant, he felt free.

I don't exactly think I can go back to ignoring it either. Shit.

When you close your eyes
Know I'll be thinking about you
While my mistress, she calls me
To stand in her spotlight again

He could see himself walking out of the ballroom and back downstairs, where he knew the femme du soir was waiting for him, but he couldn't seem to move from the old piano. As long as he kept playing, he had a piece of Alli with him, and that was enough to keep him from breaking down completely. Something about the combination of soft music and alcohol had cause him to realize exactly how lonely he was, and he was horrified that, once he actually focused on the feeling, he'd give in to the pain that was already ripping him apart.

That, and he couldn't share a bed with one girl while the face of another still lingered in the folds of his memory.

Tonight I won't be alone
But you know that don't mean I'm not lonely
I've got nothing to prove
For it's you that I'd die to defend

As he continued to think, the intensity with which he was banging the keys began to lessen considerably. He closed his eyes instead and slowly began to replay the evening, trying to memorize each fold of Alli's dress, each curl of her hair, and the musicality of her laugh whenever he had summoned enough intelligence to entertain her. He knew he didn't deserve the attention, knew that the person he'd allowed himself to become was not someone that she approved of, but the evening had been a gentle reminder of the way things used to be between the two of them. Of course, looking back over the evening, he realized that he hadn't necessarily been the newer, stronger Nick all evening. Something about Alli's attitude had been enough to strip him of the facade for a few hours, and she had opened up to him in return.

Maybe, just maybe...maybe if I get my shit together and quit acting like a moron, quit sleeping around and try to chill with the drinking...maybe then I'll be good enough for her. Maybe then she'll open up to me for good. Maybe then that kiss can mean what it did, and that'll be okay with her like it's okay with me. 'Cause, fuck, I really don't think this is who I am anymore. That bottle, that chick...that's not me anymore.

I don't care about being strong enough for the fellas to look at me like a man. Dammit, I just want to be good enough for Al. I want to feel good enough for her. And right now, dammit, she deserves a hell of a lot more than I'm giving her. And she doesn't even care. She's there anyway. Fuck. I did something really, really good in a past life.

Maybe, if I can learn to let go of this shit, I can do something really, really good again.

He'd never wanted to let go so badly in his entire life.

I wanna lay you down on a bed of roses
For tonight, I sleep on a bed of nails
Oh, I wanna be just as close as the Holy Ghost is
And lay you down on a bed of roses *

The last chords of the old Bon Jovi song echoed throughout the ballroom as Nick finally let go of the piano and dried the tears that had escaped through the cracks in his masculine fašade. With what felt like a sense of resolve and a sharp pain in his chest, he padded out of the ballroom and ran a hand through his hair. The trek down to the elevators was a quiet one, full of thoughts and feelings he was finally willing to acknowledge. With a sigh, he pressed the button that would send him to the hotel room and cringed at the thought of spending another night with a woman he'd never remember. He cringed even more deeply when he realized that, only a few hours before, the thought would've comforted him. He shook his head slightly and stared at his reflection in the metal doors, fighting the urge to laugh out loud at how different he looked from the polished face that had once graced the Rolling Stone cover. God, how things change. A few months ago, I loved this shit, and now I just want out. How the hell did that happen?

He knew the answer even before the question registered.

Despite the sometimes self-righteous attitude of his older brother, he could remember a time when Kevin had lived a wild life similar to the one Nick had been living for the past few months. He could remember night where he would fall asleep with the sound of Journey in his ears so that he could drown out the moaning from the room next to his. He could remember nights when Kevin would return so drunk that the bodyguard would serve more as a stand for Kevin's weary form than a guard against the screaming girls at the hotel entrance. Of course, he could also pinpoint the exact night that Kevin's attitude had changed. When he fell in love with Kristin. Oh, shit.

His blue, blood-shot eyes widened with the realization of the very phrase that had been on the tip of his tongue all evening.

I'm in love with Alli. Oh, fuck. Fuck fuck fuck...

His nerves sufficiently rattled, he exited the elevator and tried to clear his head. Suddenly he knew exactly why he needed to be good enough for her and why the entire evening had been so terribly painful. And, suddenly he was a thousand times more frustrated than he'd been when he'd first left the hotel room.

I can't ignore this. I can't pretend this didn't happen. I can't pretend that everything's cool the way it is and that kiss didn't mean the world and her voice doesn't make me smile and she doesn't turn me into a Hallmark card instead of the hardass I tried to be. She's not ready for this shit, and neither am I. I don't even know how to deal with myself yet.

He was still staring blankly ahead when he stepped through the metal doors. He almost laughed, however, when the image of a payphone registered in his foggy brain. Strangely enough, that one image was enough to make him feel like everything would be okay again.

He glanced down at his watch and was surprised to see that it was already eight o'clock in the morning. With a small, painful smile of resolve, he began fishing for quarters in his pants pocket. Moments later, he was slipping coins in the slot.

The phone rang three times before he finally heard the voice he'd been needing to hear all night.

"Hello?"

"Al?"

He could tell that she'd just barely woken up. "Yeah?"

He laughed lightly, amazed that he even had the strength to laugh after such a traumatic evening. "Hey, Al, it's Carter. Listen, I was wondering if you wanted to meet me for coffee in an hour or so."

She yawned. "Carter, are you fucking insane? Do you know what time it is? I'm never getting back to sleep now..."

He grinned triumphantly. "All the more reason to come out with me, right?"

She groaned. "Okay, okay. Be glad I'm too tired to argue, or I'd kick your ass for waking me up. I'll see you in an hour."

His smile widened. "Cool. Thanks, Al."

Yeah, everything's going to be okay.

"Echo"
lyrics and music by Incubus
MORNING VIEW
 
* "Bed of Roses"
lyrics and music by Bon Jovi
CROSS ROAD