Bed of Roses
Chapter Forty-Four
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
Chapter Forty-One
Chapter Forty-Two
Chapter Forty-Three
Chapter Forty-Four
Chapter Forty-Five
Chapter Forty-Six
Chapter Forty-Seven

If she knew what she wants
But he can't see through her
If she knew what she wants
He'd be giving it to her, giving it to her
But she wants everything
He can pretend to give her everything
Or there's nothing she wants
She don't want to sort it out
He's crazy for this girl
But she don't know what she's looking for
If she knew what she wants
He'd be giving it to her, giving it to her

"Hallelujah! It's the mall!"

"What an astute observation, Amanda. Is there anything else you'd like to add to that?"

"Shut up, Kris! I've been deprived of shopping bliss these past few weeks, you know. Ooh, I can just smell the sales pending..."

"Yeah, and I can smell burning credit cards and maxed-out accounts," Jessi retorted with a wry smile. "Hold your horses, Manda."

"But I want to shop NOW!"

Alli looked at her friend in disbelief before shaking her head. "I know AJ told you that you looked cute before we left this morning, but this little temper tantrum of yours is SO canceling out the cute factor..."

"Agreed," Leighanne chuckled. "Why don't we find a map so we know where we're going?"

"Because that takes time!" Amanda cried in exasperation. "Haven't you ladies ever heard of window shopping? We're women in a mall, for God's sake. How in the hell can we get lost?"

"Knowing you, you'll find a way," Kristin muttered, grabbing a map from the large display in the entrance. "Now, can we try to move slowly through this place?"

"What was that?" Amanda called back. "I'm sorry, I don't think this word 'slow' is in my shopping vocabulary."

Jessi turned to Alli in complete disbelief. "Where on earth did she come from?"

Allli smirked as the others jogged to catch up with their crazed companion. "Jessi, trust me when I say that you don't want to know."

Jessi rolled her eyes. "Yeah, probably not. She's worse than AJ, and that's a pretty impressive feat if you ask me."

"Look, girls, it's our first sale!" Amanda shrieked, diving into the store before any of the others could catch sight of the bright red designer boutique.

"She would find the expensive clothes first, wouldn't she?" Kristin chuckled, shaking her head in amusement. Alli tugged gently on Kristin's arm and batted her eyelashes for emphasis.

"Oh, but Kris, didn't you hear? They're having a sale!"

Kristin rolled her eyes knowingly. "Right. Now you only have to give half of your firstborn child for an evening gown."

Leighanne cracked a smile. "Either that or they've started selling the shawls for free."

The girls finally entered the racy place to find Amanda eagerly sifting through the red lines, already deep in her search for the perfect outfit. They continued to watch her in a mixture of awe and bewilderment for a moment until Alli spoke.

"You know what I just don't understand?"

Jessi looked at her expectantly. "What's that?"

"Why she spends so much time and energy on finding the perfect clothes when AJ spends so much time and energy taking them all off of her."

Not even the semi-prudent Jessi could keep from laughing at that comment, and the girls continued to giggle as they made their way apprehensively to the sales racks. When they finally reached Amanda, she was oogling a bright pink leather miniskirt, and it was all the girls could do to keep from laughing.

Alli smirked at the dreamy expression on Amanda's face. "Gee, I wonder how that wound up on the sale rack..."

Amanda didn't even look up. "Oh, shut up. Not even your sarcasm can tear me away from this beauty. I mean, can you believe that they make stuff like this?"

"No," Jessi deadpanned, "but I'd have an even harder time believing that someone would actually buy this."

"Oh, believe it," Leighanne chuckled, looking at Amanda in amusement. "She's got that gleam in her eye again."

After glancing quickly at the price tag to make sure the horrid thing was still in her budget, Amanda grinned up at her four friends. "Ladies, are you ready to make our first purchase of the day?"

They all groaned in response, but Amanda was too busy running to the cash register to notice. They wearily began to follow, occasionally glancing through the clothes as they made their way to the desk.

"You know," Kristin began with a laugh, "it's times like these when I don't wonder how Amanda and AJ ended up together."

"They're like two peas in a pod," Leighanne agreed, holding up a lacy black top for inspection.

"More like two perverts in a pod," Alli retarded, giving Leighanne's prospective blouse a quick once-over. "You should get that, you know. It'd look great with a pair of jeans."

"I think I will," Leighanne mused, casually glancing at the price tag. "I mean, it's half price, and Brian does have a thing for lace..."

"Leighanne!" Alli cried in mock horror. "I would've never picked you as one to trail into the 'too much information' category."

Jessi laughed in agreement. "Yeah, leave that stuff to Amanda. It doesn't suit you, chica." That said, she cocked her head to the side and leveled a curious glance in Kristin's direction. "However, speaking of 'too much information'...Kris, how's the private time with Kev coming along?"

Kristin's distinct eye-roll did nothing to hide the deep crimson of her cheeks. "Very nice, thanks. He's a lot more relaxed when the other four aren't around to drive him bonkers."

"'Cause Lord knows he couldn't get there without their help, right?" Alli retorted with a wry smile. Kristin smirked in return.

"Well, we'll just say that Nick seems to be doing funny things to everyone's sanity lately."

Alli scowled at the comment, but failed to reply. "Why don't we see where Amanda wandered off to?"

Jessi gave her friend a disapproving glance. "You're going to have to talk about him eventually, Al. We may be nice enough to let you off the hook, but Amanda isn't."

Alli groaned. "Look, I'm shopping with Amanda in a Hollywood boutique on an empty stomach, okay? Let me handle one cause of insanity at a time."

Leighanne couldn't help but crack a smile at Alli's retarded plea. "Well, I guess we could leave you alone for now. However, once we hit the food court, your plea isn't going to hold much validity anymore."

Alli rolled her eyes before staring pointedly at her friend. "Are we at the food court right now?"

Leighanne sighed heavily. "No, but..."

"Then why don't we drop the subject before Amanda manhandles the poor cashier?"

As if on cue, Amanda's shrill protest sailed through the air. "What the fuck do you mean, 'we don't take credit cards'? Like hell you don't!"

Kristin stifled a giggle at the indignant expression on Amanda's face. "We probably should go rescue the poor guy, shouldn't we?"

"Who the hell carries this kind of cash on them? P. Diddy?"

Alli winced with the poor teenager behind the register. "Yeah, we should."

Jessi chuckled as Amanda continued her protest. "Do you think she realizes that she could just write a check?"

Leighanne giggled in return. "Man, not by the looks of it. I didn't know her face could get that red."

"I bet AJ did," Alli quipped, and the other three groaned at the mental image that the comment inspired.

"Alli..." Kristin warned, trying to hide her smile. Her scolding was interrupted, however, when Alli's smirk of triumph became a look of fear.

"Oh, shit. She's getting ready to crawl up on the counter. Let's go."

Armed with common sense and hopeful persuasive powers, the four ladies jogged to the cash register in hopes of saving Amanda's latest victim. However, even when they began tugging on the waistline of her skirt to get her down, Alli couldn't help but smile.

Never a dull moment. Damn, I needed this.

*      *      *      *      *

"I'm not a girl...not yet a woman..."

"Yeah, but what he's not telling us is that there is a sex change pending," Brian quipped with a cute smile, and AJ rolled his eyes.

"Dude, you're not allowed to break rules in the Backstreet Book of Tour Laws."

Howie rolled his eyes immediately at the mention. "Oh, God, not this again..."

Brian, still smirking in triumph, quirked an eyebrow in AJ's direction. "And which rule did I break this time, AJ?"

AJ smacked his forehead with his palm dramatically. "Duh! Rule number four thousand, three hundred and fifty-two."

"You know," Kevin mused, "I think I remember reading somewhere that the 'and' is grammatically incorrect when referring to numbers above a hundred."

Brian and Nick exchanged exasperated looks at Kevin's ponderings before Brian returned his gaze to AJ. "And what does this rule say, exactly?"

AJ cleared his throat pointedly and adopted a solemn expression. "Thou shall not hate on AJ for singing Britney Spears."

It was Nick's turn to role his eyes at AJ's antics. "Then can we hate on you for singing obnoxiously during our break from Fatima's boot camp?"

AJ shook his head with the solemn expression still firmly in place. "Nope. That's breaking rule number four thousand seven hundred AND eighteen--thou shall not hate on AJ for singing obnoxiously during break from Fatima's boot camp." He paused a moment before glaring in Nick's direction. "And you're not allowed to call my singing obnoxious either."

Nick snapped in false detriment. "Damn, where's a thesaurus when you need one?"

Howie stifled a snicker at hearing Nick use the term "thesaurus". "Shit, Nicky, I didn't even know you knew what a thesaurus is."

Nick rolled his eyes skyward as the others chuckled. "Thanks for the vote of confidence, Howard. You know, contrary to popular belief, I do have an IQ with more than one digit."

AJ grinned delightedly at the chance to make fun of the younger man. "Oh, we don't doubt that, Nicky. We just doubt that you have an IQ higher than your age."

Despite the elaborate front of exasperation that Nick was trying to pull, Kevin could see the tinge of hurt in the blonde's eyes, and it was enough to earn the other three a stern glare. "Guys, leave Nick alone, okay? He's not stupid. Not any more stupid than the rest of you, anyway."

"Which isn't saying much," Fatima finished with a glare. "I thought we were having a break so that you could relax, Boys? Somehow, I don't remember any agreement about biting each other's heads off in the process."

"It was in the fine print," AJ informed her seriously, eliciting a groan from the others. His only reply from Fatima, however, came in the force of a deep scowl.

"Just for that, Alex, you can cut your break short and join me in a little bit of extra practice." She smiled in satisfaction at the look of protest that formed immediately on AJ's dark features. "In fact, why don't Brian and Howie join you? They seemed quite content to join in the fun of 'Pick on Nick Day' as well."

Brian and Howie both groaned, but Fatima wasn't finished. While the three selected Backstreet Boys trudged to the middle of the stage to begin their practice, Fatima turned expectantly to Kevin and Nick.

"Now, while I'm teaching these three knuckleheads why manners are important, I want you two to find somewhere private and have a little heart-to-heart so you can finally pull that stick out of Nicky's ghetto ass. A good Backstreet Boy is a happy Backstreet Boy, and that frown that's been on his face for the past three days is starting to get old, okay? Solve the problem, and I'll whip these three into shape by the time you're through."

Kevin took the momentary silence as an opportunity to glance at the man he considered to be his younger brother. Nick's pale forehead was indeed creased in a frown, and his blue eyes were clouded with distaste. While Kevin understood that the predicament with Alli had been bothering Nick of late, he would be the first to admit that he hadn't had enough of a private conversation with Nick to understand exactly what was going on. Like all of the others (excepting Brian, of course) he knew only what he heard from Kristin, which wasn't much more than gossip anyway. News had a way of getting around in the Backstreet camp, but the honest truth was rarely found from anyone but the source himself and, while Kevin knew that Nick wouldn't exactly be thrilled at the prospect of another Alli-inspired conversation, he would be glad for the chance to straighten things out once and for all.

With a heavy sigh and an inner determination, Kevin turned to Nick and arched an eyebrow curiously. "You ready to talk?"

Nick shrugged belligerently. "Not like I've got a choice, right? Let's go."

The two men had just turned to begin their trek to the dressing room when Fatima's voice echoed through the arena again. "Oh, and Boys?"

Kevin drew a deep breath before glancing over his shoulder to respond. "Yeah?"

Fatima smiled cheerfully. "Be sure to be back in half an hour, okay? I don't want you wasting the remainder of my practice on Carter's lack of love life."

Kevin's tone was clipped. "Fine." He continued to jog down the stairs and through the hallways under the stage until he finally did find the dressing room, at which point he reclined into the couch and folded his hands behind his head. Nick came bursting through the door only moments later, mumbling about confusing corridors and the "pain in the ass" signs leading him in the wrong direction. He fell onto the opposite side of the couch and propped his feet up on the coffee table before glancing expectantly at Kevin.

"Well? Aren't you going to say something?"

Kevin shrugged. "What is there for me to say? Honestly, Nick, I don't know much about the situation, so I can't give you any real advice yet."

"That's not what you seemed to think yesterday," Nick muttered, but Kevin shook his head.

"Look, man, I can spout of words of the wise any day of the week, but something tells me that that's not what Fatima meant when she said that we needed to have a heart-to-heart, you know?"

Kevin took Nick's heavy sigh as a good sign. The fight seemed to seep out of the kid's shoulders. "Yeah, I know."

Kevin nodded slowly, then leaned forward until his elbows were leaning on his knees and his hands were supporting his stubbled chin. "You want to tell me what's going on with you and Al?"

"Not really."

Kevin leaned back gently until he was resting against the arm of the sofa again so as to give the younger man some space. "That's cool. We don't have to talk about it if you don't want to." And I give the kid exactly three seconds to begin protesting, he thought wryly.

Sure enough, Nick's reluctance seemed to fade into a slight uncertainty as his eyes found Kevin's apprehensively. "Well, maybe...hey, Kev, can I ask you a question?"

Kevin shrugged. "Sure, shoot."

"You and Kris were best friends, right?"

Kevin nodded affirmatively. "Yup."

"How did you do it?"

Kevin knew exactly where Nick was going with his line of questioning, having become accustomed to his friend's roundabout way of approaching a subject, but he frowned anyway. "How did I do what, exactly?"

"You know..." Nick's voice trailed off, and he began toying with his hands idly, watching his fingers weave together and then break apart. "How did you get from the best friends part to where you are now?"

Watching Nick in all his nervousness, Kevin had to hide the smile that surfaced. The shy, caring man before him was the same Nick that the Boys had begged for Alli to return during the last leg of the tour. When Nick's hopeful blue eyes found Kevin's green ones, though, he realized that all traces of the jerk Nick had become had disappeared, and he couldn't help but let the smile escape. Damn, Alli brought him back after all.

His eyes sparkled with humor as he formed a response. "You know, Nick, I'm probably not the best person to be asking. I mean, it took Kris and I eight years to get to this point."

Nick sighed. "Yeah, I know. Still..." He looked imploringly at Kevin, and his gaze held a sincerity that Kevin had missed. "She's still here, Kev. She's still around, and if she hasn't left, then that means that you guys must have done something right at the beginning to have gotten this far, right?"

Kevin nodded, his eyebrows raised at the amount of sense that Nick had just made. "Yeah, I guess so." He exhaled, and his chest dipped severely. "Man, that's a tough question." He took a deep breath to replace his last, and his eyebrows fell as memories began to dance across his eyes. "I think that, deep down, I always believed that Kris and I were meant to be together. Like any girl, she wasn't so willing to change things, so she was a little reluctant at first, but I kept trying to prove her wrong. When you know that you're meant to spend the rest of your life with someone, man, you don't screw around. I kept giving her reasons to believe my theory, and somewhere down the line, I guess she started to agree with me."

Nick nodded in turn, slowly processing the information. He could probably count on one hand the number of times he'd actually paid attention to every word that came out of Kevin's mouth during a conversation, but this would definitely be one of them. He had seen countless times the love that flowed between Kevin and Kristin, and while he didn't envy their chemistry, he did envy the ease with which they embraced it. "Do you know what made her initially change her mind?"

Kevin chuckled. "Actually, yes."

Nick smiled with Kevin, already anxious to hear the story behind the older man's laughter. "What?"

Kevin shook his head in amusement. "This is going to sound really silly, but it was actually an old home video."

Nick frowned in confusion. "A home video?"

Kevin nodded. "Yeah. You know, random footage shot with crappy camerawork and a lot of heart. Someone had taken Kristin's camcorder and recorded a bunch of us goofing off backstage. Anyway, she and I had been joking around with each other, and I gave her a hug on a whim. She said that she was watching the footage late one night, and the attraction between us was really obvious onscreen. Apparently, seeing the situation from a different angle changed her whole outlook." He took one look at the dazed expression on Nick's face and forced a laugh while he stepped away from memory lane. "I know, it's kind of corny, but..."

Nick interrupted him immediately, eyes wide and earnest. "No, man, it's not corny at all! Actually, that's kind of cool."

Kevin smiled warmly at the younger man's approval. "Glad you think so." He paused a moment, trying to force himself to be patient, but his brow eventually furrowed. "Hey, Nick, can I ask you a question?"

Nick shrugged, imitating Kevin's earlier actions. "Sure, shoot."

"What do Kris and I have to do with you and Alli?"

Nick looked up at Kevin with the half-smile that he was famous for. "Honestly, Kev? You guys were, at one point, exactly where we are now, and you got past it. I think I just needed to hear a survivor story."

Kevin smiled again. "Well, in that case, I'm glad to be of service. I'm good with survivor stories."

Nick nodded his agreement, but his nod soon became a fearful expression. "Hey, Kev?"


"Do you think that Alli and I could make a good survivor story someday?"

Kevin grinned. "Honestly, Nicky? I'm sure of it."

*      *      *      *      *

"I never, ever thought I'd be saying this, but...thank God for McDonald's."

"Amen to that," Jessi agreed, unwrapping her burger with a grin. "I was positively starving."

"I think we all were," Kristin said wryly with a pointed glance in Amanda's direction. The brunette grinned broadly, polishing off another nugget.

"All of us except me. You girls just don't have the kind of shopping endurance that I do."

Alli groaned. "Yeah, and I think I'll jot it down right under AJ's name in the list of your things that I don't want to acquire."

Amanda's chin dipped indignantly. "Ouch! Man, someone's channeling negativity today..."

Alli winced. "I think it's just whiplash from the four dressing room doors that managed to smack me in the butt."

Amanda's responsive smile was saccharine. "Not my fault that you can't watch your back."

Leighanne, who had been content to watch the others play verbal assault while she nibbled her Big Mac, finally spoke up incredulously. "Manda, is there anything about shopping that you don't like?"

Amanda's nose wrinkled immediately. "God, yes."

Leighanne wasn't the only girlfriend that looked relieved at the reply. "What's that?"

Amanda's grimace deepened. "Long lines. I absolutely, positively fucking HATE to wait."

"Funny," Alli mused sarcastically, "so do I."

Amanda frowned in false confusion. "Why do I get the feeling that that was directed at me?"

"Maybe because it was," Jessi giggled. "I don't think Alli was so thrilled at having to watch the door to the dressing room while you went searching for the right size top to go with your pink leather skirt."

Kristin winced at the memory of the horrible article of clothing. "I'm still wondering how many of the Pink Panther's relatives were murdered to make that thing."

Amanda's eyes widened in surprise as she tossed a fry at her friend. "Kristin Willits, that's positively morbid!" She shook her head in disbelief. "Man, you girls can be so dramatic..."

Alli leveled AJ's girlfriend with a deadpan look. "We're dramatic? Amanda, I saw you try the skirt on once, and it's still giving me a headache."

Leighanne sighed in mock sentimentality and pretended to wipe away a tear. "Pepto Bismol would be proud..."

Amanda had abandoned her tactic of throwing fries to fold her arms petulantly across her chest. "Evil. You're all evil."

"Oh, good," Jessi grinned. "Now Mike Myers and I have something in common!"

Amanda's glare panned to each of the four girls, but lingered last on Alli. "You see what you've done, chica? Now I feel like I'm talking to four of you!"

Alli smiled sweetly. "I'm such a good influence."

Amanda's snort of disbelief said more than any reply could have.

"So," Jessi began pointedly, ignoring the two girls-turned-toddlers, "does anyone have any good stories to tell?"

Kristin frowned curiously. "Yeah, are there any stories? As nice as this private bus thing has been, it's kind of screwing with my gossip sources."

Amanda grinned mischievously at the chance to get Alli back for her previous barbs. "I'm sure Al has a story or two for us, seeing as Nick has been in mope-mode for the past few days."

"No kidding!" Leighanne exclaimed. "He's even gotten to the point where he's snapping at Brian, and those two always manage to have civil conversation."

Amanda nodded triumphantly before turning her expectant gaze to the sinking redhead beside her. "So, Al, what's the scoop on you and Nicky?"

Alli slumped further into her seat and rubbed a tired hand over her face, wincing as her fingers fell. "Can we please not talk about this?"

Jessi shook her head in mock sadness. "No can do, sweetheart. Unfortunately, the rumors are probably worse than the truth."

That was enough to get Alli's attention, and the redhead immediately sat up in her chair. "What have you heard in regards to rumors, exactly?"

Jessi and Kristin shared uncertain glances before Jessi replied. "You know...that you and Nick had a huge blowout because you still won't give in to his powers of persuasion. That he's pouting and brokenhearted because the one woman he loves won't love him back. That he's..."

Jessi's chatter was interrupted by Alli's exasperated groan. "Good God, I get no support around here!"

Leighanne leveled a sympathetic gaze in Alli's direction. "Well, Al, with all due respect, most of what Jessi's saying is pretty true."

Alli rolled her eyes in annoyance and turned her glare on Leighanne. "I'm sure it is true, dammit, but there are always two sides to one story, and I really fucking hate it when Nick makes it sound like his side is the only one."

"So you aren't really pushing him away again and again?" Kristin asked uncertainly, brow furrowed in concentration. Alli threw her arms up in frustration.

"No, I am, but I've got reasons, dammit! It's not like I do this because I like to watch him pout or I like to see him come begging to my doorstep. I don't have any sick and twisted motives, I've just got some concerns of my own, and he hasn't given me any real reasons as to why my concerns aren't valid anymore."

Jessi nodded slowly, taking a sip of her Coke in the process. "I guess I can see what you mean."

"Yeah, Nick isn't always the best when it comes to convincing," Kristin agreed with a smile, and Alli sighed.

"It's not that, it's just...guys, I grew up with the kid. I know how he is, and I've seen the way he treats his girlfriends. I don't want to be subjected to that."

"He hasn't always been that way, though," Leighanne pointed out with a frown. "I mean, all of the problems he had during the last leg of the tour were new problems."

Alli nodded her agreement, but her countenance said everything but. "True, but what's to say that it won't happen again?"

Amanda sighed heavily, and all traces of her earlier mischief seemed to dissipate as her shoulders sagged. "Al, something tells me that your situation with Nick is extremely different from all of his previous relationships."

"No joke," Jessi muttered. "First of all, he's still seeking you out a week after his declaration of love."

"Not only that," Leighanne began quietly, "but according to Nick, you're the only girl to incite the L-word from him in the past two years. He may have screwed around quite frequently, but he seems to love sparingly, you know?"

Alli nodded slowly, features dark with defeat. "Yeah, I know."

Kristin frowned. "So shouldn't that earn him brownie points?"

Alli laughed hollowly. "Not enough to clear his track record. I mean, two months ago, he wasn't even speaking to me. This could just be a phase he's going through. Hell, it could be alcohol withdrawl for all we know--give up the bottle, take home the girl."

"Nah, he went through that one already," Amanda muttered with a disturbed frown. "It involved mass amounts of sex and a hell of a lot of girls with curly red hair and freckles, remember?"

Kristin's eyes widened as the realization sunk in. "You know, she's right! A lot of the girls that he brought back from the clubs looked exactly like you, Al."

Jessi chuckled. "A lot? More like the majority. I always used to wonder why he was going for the cheap imitations when he had the real thing right there."

Alli rolled her eyes. "He didn't do it then for the same reason that I won't do it now--it's not worth the risk. Hell, it's not worth the friendship."

Amanda arched an eyebrow skeptically. "Al, correct me if I'm wrong, but we've been over this before. I think it's already taken the friendship."

Alli closed her eyes in denial and dropped her head into her hands. "Shit. You know, I didn't want this to happen."

Leighanne frowned sympathetically and patted her friend on the back. "Al, I hate to say it, but this didn't really have to happen."

"She's right," Jessi agreed. "I mean, I know you've got your reservations, Al, but don't you think it's worth a shot?"

Alli glanced up sullenly. "I think we'd both be better off if Nick would just accept that nothing is ever going to happen between us so we can go back to the way things were."

Kristin sighed regretfully before leveling a solemn gaze in Alli's direction. "Al, I don't think you two can go back to the way things were. Maybe you're feeling nonchalant about it, but Nick's already in too deep."

Alli's eyes widened in protest, and the other four jumped when her palms hit the surface of the table in frustration. "Maybe he is now, Kris, but for how long? Fuck, he couldn't even keep it in his pants for two straight days during the last leg of the tour! Add that to the fact that he claims he's never really been in love, and you'll have some idea of where I'm at. How the hell can he be so sure that we're meant-to-be if he has no fucking idea what meant-to-be entails?"

Amanda tossed her head back in exasperation. "Well, he sure as hell knows what it doesn't entail..."

"And that's a good thing?" Alli cried incredulously. "Dammit, Manda, I was around for the last girlfriend, okay? He used the L-word for that one too, but he still managed to rationalize fooling around when the bed got cold and she wouldn't pick up the phone. He doesn't seem to think the regular rules of a relationship apply to him, and I'm not going to stand for that, okay? I didn't put up with his shit before, and I'm sure as FUCK not going to put up with it now."

Kristin sucked in a breath. "Al, hon, with all due respect, he hasn't pulled his shit in awhile."

"He's actually been good," Leighanne agreed quietly. "I mean, in all the time he's been moping, he hasn't once gotten so plastered that he couldn't stand or so sex-driven that he dragged the closest female over eighteen into bed with him. He's been talking to the guys, and, yes, he's been pouting, but he hasn't gone back to the way he was. Doesn't that stand for something?"

Alli sighed in turn. "Of course it does, Leigh. At this rate, any progress stands for something, and it's enough to strengthen a friendship for sure. I just don't know if it's enough to build a relationship."

Jessi frowned tentatively and looked imploringly at her friend. "Al, if you don't mind me asking, why are you so insistent on having concrete proof that Nick isn't going to screw things up?"

Alli's answer was immediate. "Because, Jess, I'm not the kind of person who can go into something like this knowing that there's a chance that it'll all go to shit. I'm not always big on reasons, but I'm definitely not big on change, and if I'm going to take this kind of leap, then I need some substantial form of reassurance, you know?"

Amanda groaned. "I hate to say it, Al, but I have to hand it to you--that actually made sense. Dammit."

Leighanne's frown of curiosity matched Jessi's exactly. "So if you had some substantial form of reassurance, you might consider taking Nick up on his offer?"

Alli shrugged. "If it still stood by then? I guess..."

Kristin's brow furrowed in thought as her hand found her chin. "I just don't understand why his words aren't enough reassurance. I mean, shit, Al, you've known the guy for how many years? You should know when he's bullshitting you."

Alli chuckled. "Of course I know when he's bullshitting me, Kris. I know exactly when he's bullshitting me, and I can handle him when he does it. However, I know for a fact that, not only is Nick good at talking his way into something, but he's also really good at convincing himself. He may not be the most eloquent person alive, but he can hold his own fairly well, especially in his own head. If he's convinced himself that he really does love me, then he doesn't think he's bullshitting me."

Amanda began nodding her understanding immediately, but the other three were frowning by the end of Alli's explanation. Jessi, however, was the first to speak.


Alli cracked a small smile at that. "When he's outright lying to me, I can tell. When he's lying to himself, though, he doesn't think that he's lying to me, and so I can't tell the difference. It wouldn't surprise me at all if Nick went and convinced himself that he's in love with me, but I'd hate for all his wishes to come true only for him to realize that he didn't really love me at all."

Kristin nodded. "Ugh, I follow. Sticky situation indeed." Her expression changed , though, and her blue eyes found Alli's gray ones fairly quickly. "I really don't think that's the case, though, Al. Too many instances say everything to the contrary."

"I agree," Leighanne chimed in. "From what he's said to Brian and what Brian's reported to me, this is the real deal."

Alli groaned. "But that's my point! Does Nick even know what the 'real deal' is? Hell, the Boy cares more about his dogs than he did about his last girlfriend!"

Amanda shot Alli a breadbox look. "Bad example, chica. Do I need to remind you who his last girlfriend was?"

The comment inspired a few giggles from the others, which helped to ease the tension at the little table. Alli, however, was still distraught. "Still, I'm not so sure about this, girls. His track record is kind of like his driving doesn't look good. He's lucky they haven't taken his license away yet."

"One more reason to catch him while you can, right?" Amanda shot with a grin, and Alli groaned again.

"Or one more reason to run as fast as I can. Walking into this as-is is like driving down a highway void of street signs and full of cars going in the opposite direction. Shouldn't I be learning from everyone else's mistake?"

"Well, you know what they say," Jessi replied wryly. "One man's trash is another man's treasure."

Alli's eyebrow rose in disbelief. "In that case, do you have any idea how many trash cans Nick has occupied in the past year?"

"Too many," Kristin finished before Alli could continue to rant. "Still, Al, you know all about his track record, right? You know what he did, but you also know where he's going. If you don't ever give him a chance, he won't get to fix the track record, will he?"

Alli feigned a semi-serious glare. "I didn't sign up to be a repairman, Kris."

Kristin sighed wearily, already more than tired of the discussion. "Look, Alli, it's like this. You helped him up onto his feet when he was down, right? Are you really going to let go of his hand now that he's finally figured out how to stand up?"

"No," Alli admitted. "But if I don't let go, I'm not sure how long he's going to want to hold on."

"If She Knew What She Wants"
lyrics and music by The Bangles