Bed of Roses
Chapter Forty-Five
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

I'd like to know your policy
When it comes to me
I'd like to know what's on your mind
It's not easy to see
I know now what I feel and what to do
I wanna be with you
And I'll be waiting until you face the truth
When the light is fading
You know what I wanna do
I wanna be with you
It's crazy but it's true
And everything I do (is for you baby)
I wanna be with you (oh, with you)

"I know. I have no hope that I shall ever call you mine, Estella. I am ignorant what may become of me very soon, how poor I may be, or where I may go. Still, I love you. I have loved you ever since I first saw you in this house."
Looking at me perfectly unmoved and with her fingers busy, she shook her head again.

"It would have been cruel in Miss Havisham, horribly cruel, to practise on the susceptibility of a poor boy, and to torture me through all these years with a vain hope and an idle pursuit, if she had reflected on the gravity of what she did. But I think she did not. I think that in the endurance of her own trial, she forgot mine, Estella."
I saw Miss Havisham put her hand to her heart and hold it there, as she sat looking by turns at Estella and at me.

"It seems," said Estella very calmly, "that there are sentiments, fancies--I don't know how to call them--which I am not able to comprehend. When you say you love me, I know what you mean as a form of words, but nothing more. You address nothing in my breast, you touch nothing there. I don't care for what you say at all. I have tried to warn you of this, now, have I not?"
I said, in a miserable manner, "Yes."
"Yes. But you would not be warned, for you thought I did not mean it. Now, did you not think so?"

"I thought and hoped you could not mean it. You, so you, untried, and beautiful, Estella! Surely it is not in nature."

 "It is in my nature," she returned. And then she added, with a stress upon the words, "It is in the nature formed within me. I make a great difference between you and all other people when I say so much. I can do no more" (363).

"We need to talk, chica."

Alli jumped in surprise at the voice behind her, dropping her copy of Great Expectations as she did so. She had spent the entire morning immersed in the book, and while the voice was a nice change, it was also completely unexpected. When she saw the figure behind her, however, she relaxed into the couch cushions and let out the breath she had been holding.

"Dammit, Manda, warn me next time, okay?"

Amanda chuckled and bounced onto the seat next to her friend. "It must be a pretty awesome book, chica. You were totally oblivious when I came in here."

Alli smiled softly at the paperback beside her feet. "Yeah, it is a good book. I read it a few years ago for school, but there's something refreshing about reading it at your own pace, you know? I like it a lot more now than I did then."

Amanda wrinkled her nose at the memory of classes. "Yeah, school does dampen that whole adventurous effect."

Alli nodded her agreement. "That it does. It's like taking the book and soaking it in brussel sprout juice before handing it to the kids--it loses all of the appeal because it smells funny."

Amanda arched her eyebrow skeptically, but refrained from commenting. "Ooookay..."

Alli grinned again. "So, what exactly do we need to talk about?"

Amanda frowned tentatively. "Well, I actually wanted to re-visit that conversation that we had at the mall yesterday."


"Yeah. It seems to me that you might've left a few things out when you were talking to us about all of your Nicky reservations."

Alli had to laugh at the seriousness of Amanda's expression. She had never known the older girl to beat around the bush, but Amanda's blunt nature always struck her as funny. "Straight to the point, I see. No small talk or anything?"

Amanda shook her head. "Nope, no small talk. Talk is cheap."

Alli glanced suggestively at the arena in front of the busses. "Not if you're talking to the Backstreet Boys. Their time seems to be rather expensive these days."

Amanda glanced pointedly at the redhead beside her. "I can think of one Backstreet Boy that certainly wouldn't mind making time for you."

"So can I," Alli muttered. "Although it's a wonder he still wants to talk to me."

"I think he's worried that you don't want to talk to him, actually," Amanda countered, and Alli leaned her head against the back of the sofa and closed her eyes in an attempt to escape the conversation.

"Maybe he's not too far off in his assumptions."

"Why isn't he?"

"Because I really don't want to talk to him!" Alli cried, turning her gray gaze to Amanda. "I've heard everything he has to say and sing, and he doesn't seem to be working on any new tunes lately, if you catch my drift."

"Oh, I catch it all right," Amanda agreed. "But don't you think that it stands for something that Nick still feels for you what he says he feels?"

"He feels it because there isn't any sign of reciprocation yet," Alli grumbled.

Amanda looked at her friend incredulously. "Oh, come on, Al. You don't really believe that."

"Yes I do!" Alli argued, throwing her hands up in the air. "He's like a little girl with a crush on a celebrity. Half the fun of having a crush is having a crush. In reality, he hasn't given a second thought to what might happen if that crush wasn't really just a crush. I mean, if the celebrity he had a crush on returned the crush, then all of the appeal of the 'forbidden fruit' is lost, and there's no excitement anymore."

"So he's in it for the chase," Amanda clarified, looking rather doubtful at the prospect.

"Exactly," Alli agreed. "He's in it for the chase. He used to go through so many women because the chase never lasted long. He's never had to work this hard before."

"Shouldn't that discourage him from persisting?" Amanda asked with a frown. Somehow, the logic in Alli's theory wasn't registering with her.

"No, not at all! Quite the contrary, Manda, it increases the appeal of whatever he's chasing. When something's inaccessible, you want it that much more because you KNOW you can't have it. Once you get it, you see that it's not really what you wanted in the first place. It was just the idea of wanting what you knew you couldn't have. Wanting something that you can have isn't fun...there's no point to want it if you know it's within your grasp, right?"

Amanda continued to look at her friend doubtfully for a moment before speaking. "You know what scares me?"

Alli groaned. "What's that?"

"You've been spouting all of this bullshit for so long that I think you're actually starting to believe it."

Alli grimaced at the idea, but more at the fact that she had been found out. "No, I don't really believe it. I'm not that far gone yet."

"So what do you believe? Yesterday, you made the world's biggest deal about Nick being unfaithful...are you really scared that he's going to cheat on you?"

Alli's brow furrowed in thought, and her eyes found a spot on the ceiling to stare at as she tried to put her words in the right order. "Not necessarily. I mean, I am worried that he's going to cheat on me--hell, I'm worried about a lot of things--but that's not the root of it all, you know? That's not where the insecurity comes from."

"So there is an insecurity," Amanda confirmed, her brow knitted tightly as she waited for Alli's answer.

"Absolutely!" Alli exclaimed, sitting up straight. "Why on earth would you ask that?"

"Well, if there's an insecurity," Amanda began, "then it means that one of your arguments is invalid."

Alli rolled her eyes in exasperation. "And which one is that, pray tell?"

"The one where you claim that Nick's feelings are entirely one-sided. If you've already got insecurities about this, then you obviously feel something for the kid, because there's no way he could shake your confidence if he had no effect on the way you feel."

Alli winced as the words registered. "Dammit. That was one of my better arguments too."

Amanda rolled her eyes as well, but in a good-natured manner. "Oh, come off it, Al. No one bought that at all."

Alli shot a cheesy grin in Amanda's direction. "Not even at half price?"

The brunette smiled wryly. "Not even if you were giving it away, sweetheart. It's obvious that you've got some kind of feelings for Nick. The real question is whether or not you plan to act on them. He's not going to give up, you know."

Alli sighed heavily, and her eyes found the spot on the ceiling again. "I know, but I really wish he would."

Amanda's frown was one of complete confusion. "Why the hell would you want him to give up if you admittedly have some kind of feelings for him?"

"Because that would make it easy!" Alli snapped. "Think about it, Amanda. If he walks away, I never have to worry about things getting complicated between us."

"Al, get over it, okay? Things are already complicated between you two."

Alli groaned. "Yeah, well, that's HIS fucking fault, not mine. I didn't do anything this time."

"You're pushing him away."

"Because we're safer apart than together," Alli explained. "We inflict enough damage when we're apart. Hell, if someone stuck us together, we'd both be permanently enrolled in the local hospital."

"Doesn't matter," Amanda countered. "At this rate, you're both going to be permanently enrolled in the freaking insane asylum."

"So why doesn't he just drop it?" Alli inquired hopefully.

"Because he's fucking in love with you!" Amanda hollered. "I mean, fuck, I'm definitely beginning to wonder why, but the guy loves you more than life. It's sick how much he's willing to endure to make this work between you two, you know that?"

"No," Alli said, shaking her head. "No, I don't, because I can't."

If Amanda hadn't been thoroughly perplexed before, she certainly was then. "Because he'll cheat on you?"

"No. Yes. Fuck, I don't know."

Amanda's eyebrow rose sharply. "Yeah, you do. Don't bullshit me, Al. You suck at lying."

Alli sucked in a breath and leveled a solemn gaze on Amanda. "Because I'll start caring."

Amanda frowned. "But I don't get it. Why would that be a bad thing? Don't you already care?"

"Not like he wants me to. Not like he thinks I should."

"Not like you know you could if you'd give the shit a chance to prove himself to you," Amanda finished dryly, and Alli nodded her agreement.

"No, not like that."

Amanda's tone did nothing to hide her surprise. "So you really could love the guy if you'd just let yourself succumb to him?"

Alli nodded miserably. "Yeah, I could. I definitely could. Hell, Amanda, I think I have the potential to love the guy more than he seems to think he loves me."

Amanda's eyes widened in shock, and she could feel anger clawing at her clenched fists. "So why the hell don't you? Al, you've got to know how much your indifference is fucking KILLING the guy, right? He's absolutely fucking miserable without you around. It's pathetic, really, but knowing that you could do something about it and you won't is just bullshit. He deserves better than that."

Alli nodded again, but her eyes were already looking past Amanda. "Yeah, he really does, doesn't he? He needs someone who's going to nurture his feelings. I've been pretty hard on him, haven't I?"

Amanda's chin dipped in disbelief. "You've been 'pretty hard' on him? Fuck, Al, you've been downright brutal! I mean, it's like you spent all night getting dressed for the prom, right? You primp, you pamper, you spend a gazillion dollars on the perfect dress and the perfect nails and the perfect hair and the perfect fucking shoes. So you're feeling totally spiffy about yourself because you've spent so much time making improvements. But then you get downstairs in the moment of truth and you finally present yourself to your date, and you know what he has the audacity to fucking SAY to you?"

Alli looked up with fallen features. "What?"

"He says that you look CUTE. Fucking CUTE. After twenty-four hours of intense self-improvement, you just look CUTE."

Alli wrinkled her nose in disgust. "Ugh. That sucks."

"Yeah, well, that's what you've done to Nick, Al. It's like taking his heart out and doing the fucking Mexican hat dance across it in stilettos. It's just not right...and it's especially not right if you have the potential to reciprocate."

"Maybe not," Alli agreed quietly. "But, Manda, what happens if I let myself reciprocate, really let myself care, and then he relapses?"

Amanda's eyebrows rose in bewilderment. "Relapses?"

Alli was already nodding. "Yeah. What if I really do let myself fall in love with the guy and he decides to cheat, or he decides to get really fucking plastered and sleeps with someone, or he just leaves me out to dry because I'm not the person he thought I was. What happens if he does something like he did last leg and really fucks it all up again? It hurt last leg when he pulled all of that shit, Amanda, but if I'd been in love with the guy, it would've hurt a thousand times worse, and I'm not sure I could take that."

"Of course you could!" Amanda cried. "You're strong, dammit! Not only that, but Nick would be back eventually. He came back during the last leg, and he'd come back again."

Alli offered a rueful smile. "Yeah, but he can't come back so well if his former girlfriend is just bits and pieces, can he?"

Amanda shook her head. "Al, you're not giving yourself enough credit, okay? You're more independent than that. You aren't that fucking ridiculous. You can handle Nick, and you've proven it time and time again."

"But I've always keep a certain amount of emotional distance," Alli pointed out. "What happens when those walls come down and I don't have a way of protecting myself anymore? The second he decided to fuck up, I'd be one big, gaping wound, and you know it."

Amanda groaned in frustration. She could see exactly where Alli was headed with the discussion, and she couldn't deny that her friend had a fairly valid point. She knew that, in order for Alli to consider anything she said, she'd have to raise a valid argument of her own. She just wasn't quite sure what she was going to say yet.

"Carter is fickle as anything, Amanda, but it didn't matter so much when we were just friends. When two people are in a relationship, little things that matter like that matter a whole hell of a lot more. Before, I never had to worry about being the cause of his bad moods. Now, if we were together? I'd constantly be paranoid about how comfortable he was, or how happy I made him, and that's just not healthy. I don't want to know what happens when the walls come down and I'm nothing more than vulnerability to the great Nick Carter."

And, suddenly, Amanda had her argument. "You're forgetting something here, Al."

Alli glanced doubtfully in her friend's direction. "Oh? What's that, Manda?"

Amanda smiled knowingly. "Al, Carter's already taken all his walls down. When he told you that he loved you that first time, he let the vulnerability show up, and he hasn't made any moves to change that since his original confession. He's been a pain in the ass lately, but he's also been fairly open about any and all feelings. You have the power to hurt him just as much as he has the power to hurt you, but he's already taken the plunge."

Alli frowned in distaste at what Amanda was implying. "You make it sound like I have no choice but to follow him in."

"No, you always have a choice," Amanda disagreed. "You don't have to let his vulnerability alter the way you think of the situation."

Alli gave her friend a pointed look. "Oh, please. That is such bullshit. You know that, since you brought it up, I'm going to think about it every time I think about him now."

"Well, one can always hope," Amanda returned with a wink. Her countenance grew serious immediately afterwards, though. "However, you mentioned being worried about Nick's ability to be faithful, and I think I have a way you can test him."

"Really?" Alli's brow furrowed in thought. "How?"

"Well," Amanda began with a small grin. "Lord knows you're never going to get any of the reassurance you're seeking if you keep avoiding him the way you are now. Why don't you come to the club with us tonight after the show? I'll make sure Nick promises to keep things casual so he doesn't weird you out, but you could see him in his usual bed of temptation after his confession and see if he's altered his actions to fit his claims." Her smile broadened at the thought. "Something tells me that you might be surprised at the way he reacts."

Alli looked incredibly unsure. "You do realize this would involve seeing him again, right?"

"Well, duh," Amanda muttered. "You're not going to figure anything out unless you see him again. We've all talked the subject to death--we need more material to analyze, dumbass."

Alli sighed heavily. "And you'd make sure he kept things relatively casual?"

Amanda laughed heartily. "Yeah, I would. Besides, it's not like he's going to put the moves on you or anything. He's not that stupid, Alli."

She frowned belligerently and folded her arms across her chest. "I know, but still..."

"So you'll go?" Amanda interrupted hopefully. Alli sighed again, but her features weren't nearly as downcast.

"I guess so..."

Amanda jumped off the sofa in excitement and began cheering. "Yes! Oh, chica, you are going to have SO much fun that you'll see exactly why you and Carter are meant to be together. He'll be on his best behavior, you'll get to test him, AND you'll get to dance the night away with the best friends a girl could ask for. What more could you want?"

Alli groaned immediately. "An aspirin. After that conversation, I think I feel a headache coming on."

"You'd better be fine by tonight!" Amanda hollered as she made her way to the kitchenette. "Or I'm hunting you down and feeding you to the teenyboppers!"

Alli grimaced at the mental image that the comment inspired. "Did I say a headache? Make that a migraine."

*      *      *      *      *

"So, let's go over this one more time, okay? You're not allowed to manhandle her..."

"He's not allowed to kiss her, he's not allowed to blow her, he's not allowed to finger her, he's not allowed to sing any Backstreet Boys songs, and he's not allowed to do anything that involves any kind of sexual innuendo save for dancing. I think we've got it, AJ," Brian muttered, already thoroughly exasperated. He wasn't sure what Amanda had told AJ prior to the show, but AJ had been insistent about keeping Nick under control all night. The aforementioned blonde, however, was surprisingly calm about the situation.

"I've got it, Age. If I decide to molest her, I'll take her to the very back of the VIP lounge, okay?"

AJ grimaced. "Don't even joke like that, man. Seriously. Amanda would have my balls on a silver platter."

"Not pickled and bronzed in a glass jar?" Nick retorted with a saccharine smile, and AJ jumped in pain before wagging a finger at the younger man.

"No more Eminem for you, young man. You're going to corrupt the four of us with that trash you listen to."

"Trash?!" Nick cried in indignation. "Now see here..."

"Boys, boys, boys," Kevin hollered, trying to calm down his younger brothers for the evening, "let's try to chill out, okay? Alli's presence at the club isn't going to be a big deal. She's partied with us before."

"She hasn't ever partied with horny Nicky though," AJ grinned. "This could get interesting."

"I thought he wasn't allowed to let it get interesting?" Howie interjected. "I mean, didn't we just go over the rules?"

The chorus was overwhelming. "Shut up, Howie."

Howie shook his head. "Damn, I get no love around here..."

"Just wait 'til we get to the club," Brian assured him, patting him on the knee. "Jessi will have you all taken care of, I'm sure."

"I'd rather not think about that, thanks," AJ interjected with a grimace. "Amanda, however, I could stand to fantasize about. She was telling me about some skirt that she bought with the girls yesterday that's supposed to be absolutely killer..."

For some reason unbeknownst to AJ, the other four burst out laughing. The tattooed one looked around at his brothers with a frown, almost afraid to ask what had caused the sudden fit of giggles. "What?"

Brian was the first to regain his breath enough to answer. "Oh, I heard about that skirt."

Nick nodded his agreement, still struggling with his laughter. "Yeah, no kidding. I think Leigh said something about Pepto Bismol?"

Kevin grinned. "Yeah, Kristin mentioned the Pink Panther once or twice..."

AJ's frown was still firmly in place. "So? I don't get it. What's so bad about a pink skirt?"

Howie just shook his head in amusement. "You know, AJ, you and Amanda really are perfectly suited."

AJ's expression quickly became one of untried exhaustion. "Why's that?"

And, unable to control himself any longer, Howie began to giggle again. "Only you two would understand each other's fashion choices."

AJ turned his nose up indignantly. "For your information, I bet she's going to be the hottest girl in that club tonight, pink skirt or not. You're just jealous because I got the cute girl."

"No," Howie disagreed, "I pity you."

"Yeah, AJ," Nick piped up. "Are you sure you aren't colorblind?"

AJ rolled his eyes in annoyance. "Shut up, Kaos."

"We're here!" Kevin called jovially, putting a temporary stop to the incessant bickering of the younger Boys. "Let's get out and find our ladies, men."

"Sounds like a plan to me," Brian concurred, boosting himself out of the limo and towards the entrance of the club. "Aren't they supposed to be waiting for us?"

"Supposed to be," Howie nodded in agreement. "However, knowing Alli and Amanda, they've already hit the dance floor and are planning on ignoring us all night."

"Nah," AJ shook his head. "They're just going to ignore Nicky. The rest of us are home free."

Nick shot AJ the middle finger none too discreetly before disappearing into the club.

*      *      *      *      *

"So, let's go over this one more time, okay? You're not allowed to strangle him..."

"She's not allowed to snap at him, she's not allowed to slap him, she's not allowed to sexually tempt him, she's not allowed to degrade him, and she's not allowed to do anything that in any way would completely demolish the excessive amount of confidence that Nick seems to have forgotten he ever had save for her normal teasing. I think we've got it, Amanda," Leighanne laughed, still slightly amused by Amanda's anxiety about the evening. She wasn't sure what Amanda had agreed to with AJ prior to the concert that night, but Amanda had been adamant about keeping Alli under careful control all night. The aforementioned redhead, however, was fairly calm about the situation.

"I've got it, Amanda. If I decide to beat him into complete and total submission, I'll take him into the back stall of the ladies' restroom, okay?"

Amanda grimaced. "Don't even joke like that, chica. Seriously. AJ would have me hung by my hair from the roof of the Empire State Building."

Jessi chuckled at the expression on her friend's face while she stirred her Cosmopolitan with a cherry. "Don't you think you're taking this arrangement just a little bit too seriously, Manda? I mean, they're both adults. Contrary to popular belief, Al and Nick do know how to handle themselves."

Amanda dropped her head in her hands. "I hate to say it, Jess, but I'm not so sure. Al isn't too far off in saying that Nick doesn't have a great track record, and she's known for her temper."

Alli rolled her eyes in exasperation. "I'm going to be good, Amanda, okay? Chill out! We made a deal, and I'm good about keeping my end of bargains."

"She does have a point there," Kristin agreed with a small smile and a sip of her Midori sour. "Since when have you known Al to go back on her word?"

"Never," Amanda grudgingly admitted. "But there's a first time for everything."

"I thought that we were hoping tonight was going to be a first time," Jessi countered with a smile, and Leighanne blushed with embarrassment.

"Girls, can we not talk about that? At this rate, we'll be doing good to hope that Nick and Alli can get through the evening without any arguments."

Alli groaned. "Good God, Leigh, thanks for the vote of confidence! Jessi's right, you know--we are adults. We may have been acting like children, but tonight is purely for the purpose of research and reason. I'm not going to screw it up, and I'm not going to let Carter screw it up either, okay?"

When Alli finally looked up from the table of the booth, she was face to face with four dazzling smiles. Her weary expression said it all as she arched an eyebrow skeptically. "What?"

Kristin chuckled lightly. "You called him 'Carter' again. I think this idea is starting to grow on you, Al."

"And I think you all read way too damn much into things," Alli grumbled. She glanced hurriedly at her watch, however, so that the other girls wouldn't see the blush that was creeping across her freckled cheeks. "When were they planning on getting here, though? We've been waiting for them for half an hour."

"They probably took their time cleaning up," Leighanne hinted with a smile. "After all, Nicky has to impress you with his charm tonight, doesn't he?"

"Looks like he stands the chance of doing a damn good job," Amanda admitted, eyebrows raised in surprise. "Here they come."

Alli turned around immediately upon Amanda's announcement, and her jaw dropped as soon as she caught sight of the five men entering the club. They were flanked by security and a few women who were anxiously trying to get a glimpse, but her gray eyes remained locked on the tall figure in the middle of the pack. Oh my God, that cannot be Carter. He actually looks mature. And sexy. And adorable. And...oh, shit.

His blonde locks were still damp from his shower and hung nicely in a mess along his forehead. His blue eyes shone bright beneath the blue of his button-down shirt, which hung open to reveal a ribbed wife-beater. Alli allowed her eyes to trail downward and found him to be decked out in a pair of black slacks slung relatively low on his hips with a belt holding them up. He cocked his head to the side, no doubt in search of their party, and she swallowed forcefully to keep herself from running up to him for one of his infamous hugs. But you can't do that, now, can you? Way to fuck things up, Alli. You'd better hope that you can pretend nothing happened tonight. Damn, he looks good.

Apparently, he caught sight of them just in time for her to pick her jaw up, because he smiled in recognition and waved as his eyes locked hers. She waved weakly in return and somehow managed to summon a smile. As soon as he turned to say something to Brian, however, she whirled around to face Amanda.

"Dammit, what did he do to himself? Is he trying to torment me?!"

"No, but apparently it's working pretty well," Amanda retorted with a smirk. Unfortunately, the Boys had arrived at the table before Alli could comment further, and Amanda's attention was focused solely on AJ. "Baby! We were wondering when the hell you were going to get here..."

AJ grinned widely and pulled her into his arms for a hug. "Not soon enough for you ladies to stay sober, apparently. Damn, you smell good." He pulled away and spun her around for a quick inspection, taking in the pink leather skirt, the black top, and the fishnet sleeves. "Look good, too, woman. Is this that killer skirt of yours?"

"Killer is right," Alli muttered dryly. "It's a miracle that the lights in here are too dim for the full effect, or we might all be blind by the end of the evening."

Nick chuckled lightly at Alli's familiar sarcasm, surprised at how nervous he suddenly felt to be standing so close to her. Even though Amanda and AJ were between them, he could still see her full figure in plain view, and his eyes were definitely pleased with the image. Damn, she does clean up well. Is it possible that women are even more sexy when they aren't trying to impress you?

Her reddish curls were swept up into a half-ponytail with a clip that looked prepared to break at any second. There were a few wisps that remained stubbornly framing her face, though, giving her a softer look than usual. Tight blue jeans, high heels, and a black lacy top completed the ensemble, and he has to smile at the way the outfit hugged her curves and complimented her lack of height. God, she'd better save a dance for me tonight. I must have been a total ass not to notice this girl before New Year's.

"I happen to like this skirt, thank you very much!"

"Like I said in the limo," Howie muttered with a grin. "You and AJ are indeed a perfect match."

"I couldn't agree more," Jessi chuckled. "You should've seen what else she managed to find yesterday afternoon."

"I think I'll pass," Howie replied with a wink. "AJ, however, would probably love a fashion show."

"Then a fashion show he'll get," Amanda said with a sultry smile. "But he's going to escort me to the dance floor first." Her expression was playfully scolding as she dragged a finger across his jawline. "It's not nice to keep a lady waiting, Mr. McLean. You've been a very bad boy this evening."

"Go before he asks you to punish him!" Nick cried, pushing the couple out into the sea of dancers. "And don't come back until you've worked off all of that sexual tension, please."

"If we get lucky, they'll find a room," Brian chuckled, taking a sip off Leighanne's drink. His pursed lips and squinted eyes made for a comical expression, however, by the time he set the glass down. "Damn, baby, what the hell is that?"

"Mimosa," Leighanne answered with a grin. "Very much a girl's drink, baby."

"No joke," Brian agreed, shaking his head to get rid of the taste. "I'm off to grab a beer." He scanned the group slowly, looking at each of the remaining men in turn. "Anyone else want one?"

"I'll take a beer," Nick answered, and Kevin nodded his agreement.

"Yeah, grab me one too."

Brian hurried off to fill the orders, leaving the others to find seats at the booth. Alli drained her Cosmopolitan just in time to feel a tap on her shoulder. Should I be worried that I recognize his touch?

"You mind if I grab a seat next to you? They won't let me in on the other side," he explained, his features soft with an apology. Alli shook her head and moved to make room for him.

"Not at all. Come on up."

He grinned warmly. "Thanks." His leg brushed against hers as he made himself comfortable, and she grew pale at the unexpected contact. Dammit, Alli, control yourself. You made your decision, now stick to it. Of course, the scent of his cologne filtered through the air, and she leaned back slowly as it attacked her senses. He's really not going to make this easy.

"Great show," she began, anxious to get to small talk before the others could tease them. He glanced over in surprise, but his features quickly gave way to another smile.

"Oh, thanks. We had a few technical glitches, but it went off okay after the first few songs."

"I couldn't tell from the audience," she offered helpfully, and he nodded.

"That's always good. The techs are usually pretty expert when it comes to hiding the problems."

"Yeah, none of us suspected," Alli agreed, and he laughed nervously.


The conversation faded into an uncomfortable silence for a moment as the two groped for something to say. Alli continued to stare into her empty drink, wishing that it would refill itself and ease her nerves, while Nick began drawing circles on the table with his index finger, sneaking glances at the girl beside him when he knew she wasn't looking. When did it get so hard for us to talk to each other?

He glanced up at the others, wondering if the tension between himself and Alli had caught their attention, but they seemed immersed in some conversation about yesterday's mall adventures. He was about to join in, but then he realized that he didn't know enough to say anything intelligent. Usually Al would tell me all about the girl stuff, but that's not the case anymore, is it?

Suddenly, the hard hiphop beats of Eminem's latest single echoed through the club, and he had to laugh as the dialogue began. He didn't, however, expect the comment that came from his right.

"Oh my gosh, I am so in love with this song..."

Nick glanced to Alli in surprise. "Seriously? It doesn't seem much like your type..."

Alli gave him a doubtful look. "Oh, whatever. You know how much I like dirty rap music, and this song so fits the bill."

He listened to the lyrics for a moment before shaking his head in amusement. "Okay, so you're right. It's definitely a dirty rap song." He glanced down at his hands for a moment, toying with the impulse that had his entire body screaming in protest. Do I ask her or not? Finally, the urge to get away from the group outweighed his desire to sit and twiddle his thumbs, and he shot her a semi-hopeful smile. Oh, hell, what've I got to lose?

"Want to dance?"

Alli shrugged. What can it hurt, right? At least we won't have to talk to each other anymore...

"Sure, let's go."

The group was so enthralled with whatever they were discussing that Kevin was the only one to see the two young ones escape onto the dance floor. He smiled knowingly, watching their retreating backs for a fleeting moment before turning his attention back to the conversation at hand. Damn, I hope it works out for them. They sure would make one hell of a survivor story.

*      *      *      *      *

Meanwhile, Nick was staring in amusement at the object of his affection as she positioned him. Every time her fingers made contact with his skin, a shiver went down his spine, and he was quite beginning to enjoy the chill developing in the room.

"Okay, now when I grind, you meet me. This is a serious grinding song, and I need your full attention for this to work."

As soon as she had Nick positioned correctly, she turned around and glanced over her shoulder, judging the distance between them. Nick, however, was sporting a fairly perplexed expression.

"You aren't going to face me? I feel like I should be insulted..."

Before he could comment further, though, Alli's backside found his pelvis, and he could feel the denim of her jeans pressing into what was quickly becoming an erection. Damn.

"No, this is a butt song."

His eyes widened as she began to grind into him from behind, pressing her butt into him just enough to elicit a reaction before pulling away again. His hips slowly found a rhythm with hers, and he let his hands rest loosely on her hips to pull her closer in. A butt song, huh? Shit, she wasn't kidding...

It wasn't long before he could feel her hands in his hair, and when he opened his eyes long enough to glance down, he saw that she was mouthing the words along with the song. She tossed her head back, rubbing her crown gently against his shoulder as her hips continued to grind into his, and he had to close his eyes to keep from losing control. The beat of the song was more than infectious, and Alli had an uncanny ability to rock in perfect time with the drums. Of course, the fact that the song was entirely sexual wasn't helping matters much, and he was soon straining against the confining cotton of his slacks, begging her to speed up.

Instead, she began to move her hips in a slow, circular motion, teasing him with the curves of her waist and the gentle tug of her fingers along his scalp. She was altogether too talented to be dancing with him to a song such as this one, and the effects were dizzying as he dropped his head. His lips quickly found her hair, and her coconut-scented curls barely permeated the erotic environment that they had suddenly created among the throngs of people on the dance floor. Fuck, this is way too close, isn't it? This is just punishment. Damn, she's good at this. And I'm just clumsy. If she doesn't stop soon, I'm really going to fuck this up, and I'm not even going to have any control over it. Shit, it sucks being a guy sometimes. Eminem seemed to agree with him as the song continued.

"I can't be your Superman..." *

Her hand was suddenly on his, guiding it along her backside and down to her thigh, which was taught with the movement of the dance. He could feel her leg muscles rippling beneath his fingers, and the sensation was enough to make him gasp with pleasure. Meanwhile, her hand found his butt and stroked gently for a moment before dragging away, pulling his hips with her fingers. She returned to her former rhythm, and he could hear her humming along with the song. Her vocal chords vibrated gently against his cheek, and he exhaled slowly, trying to maintain composure.

Just when he was sure that he couldn't control himself any longer, the song faded away, and Alli's waist slid slowly out of his grasp and her curls were just a memory. He opened his eyes in time to see the soft smirk on her face, and he slowly began to shake his head at her.

"You really are a tease, you know that?"

She shook her head in turn. "No, but I love that song, and you got your dance."

He grabbed her hand with a laugh. "You aren't just going to hump and run, are you? The music doesn't exactly stop, you know."

"Maybe not," Alli replied, "but there's a chick that's been eyeing you this whole time, and I figured I'd give you a turn with her before I take all your time up."

One part of him was astonished that she could've maintained enough awareness to notice some random chick that was staring at him during the song, but another part of him was positive that she was just bluffing him. I mean, shit, who cares if some chick was staring at me? They're always staring at me. "What if I want you to take up a bit more of my time?"

"I'd tell you to dance anyway," Alli said with a shrug. "I'm actually ready for another drink as it is."

"Well, tough luck," Nick retorted, grabbing her wrist. "Because I love this song, and you owe me after that little number, so you get to be my partner."

Alli arched her eyebrow skeptically. "You love Missy Elliot?"

Nick laughed heartily, realizing he'd been caught. "Okay, maybe not, but we all know how much I love to get my freak on, and there's no other girl I'd rather do it with."

Alli reluctantly let herself be dragged into Nick's arms with an ornery frown. "I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that."

"Fair enough," Nick chuckled. "But I seem to remember someone telling me that they didn't like to talk while they danced."

Alli rolled her eyes in annoyance, but quickly found the rhythm of the song, allowing herself to face him this time. "You're such a pain in the ass."

He grinned knowingly. "Yeah, well, I try. Now, shut up and dance with me."

Somehow, Alli couldn't help but smile as she obliged.

*      *      *      *      *

"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

Amanda smiled slyly at her boyfriend. "That depends. Are you looking at what I'm looking at?"

AJ's raspy laugh echoed in her ear. "Hell yeah. They're having fun, aren't they?"

"Fun seems like a bit of an understatement, AJ. Nick looks like he's about to orgasm right here and now."

AJ shook his head. "In that case, I'm thinking that this little get-together wasn't such a bad idea."

"You aren't kidding. In fact, I'd be seriously surprised if Alli isn't enjoying that erotic dance of theirs as well."

AJ frowned. "She'd better like him as much as you say she does, Manda, because if she doesn't, then she's seriously leading him on for no good reason."

Amanda smiled knowingly, wrapping her arms around AJ's waist so that she could grind with him again. "Oh, trust me, she does. I finally got her to admit to it this afternoon. It's part of the reason that she agreed to this little arrangement of ours."

AJ's features registered interest as his arms found her hips. "Oh, really? So this is actually a form of encouragement for Al?"

Amanda nodded affirmatively. "Yup. We're kind of like her support group."

AJ feigned horror at the thought. "Why, pray tell, does that scare me?"

Amanda shrugged in mock innocence. "Oh, I don't know--maybe because you actually found a mirror this morning and took a good look at yourself?"

AJ's jaw dropped at the insult. "Amanda! I thought you loved me!"

Her grin was positively wicked. "Oh, Age...I do! Why the hell do you think I've stuck around after this many mornings?"

He chuckled. "I guess I really am that charming, aren't I?"

Amanda shook her head. "Not exactly, Age. I've just got really impressive endurance."

He stuck his tongue out at her as he spun her around. "You suck, you know that?"

She pretended to ponder the thought. "Of course. I'm amazed you even have to ask, AJ. You should know that even better than I do."

Whereas anyone else in their little family would've groaned in disgust, AJ grinned with pride. "Oh, I've taught you so well."

"No," Amanda disagreed. "You just managed to find someone as scary as yourself."

"Either way, I deserve some kind of congratulations," he pointed out. "I done good."

"That you did," she answered with a laugh. "Now let's see if Nick can follow in your footsteps."

*      *      *      *      *

Approximately two hours later, Alli was wedged between overwhelming frustration and eternal bliss as a result of Nick's actions.

"Are you sure you don't want to dance with that blonde over there? She's been undressing you all night, man. The least you can do is entertain her with a song or two."

Nick didn't even glance in the direction of the girl to which Alli was referring. "Nope. I'm actually enjoying just being here with you right now."

"But you've been with me all night! Aren't you tired of me yet?"

Nick laughed. "Al, if you really want to get technical, I've been with you practically all my life. If I haven't gotten tired of you yet, I'm not going to get tired of you anytime soon."

Alli was persistent, though. "What about that redhead in the corner, though? She looks kind of like Julia Roberts."

There had to be something wrong with the fact that he didn't even flinch. "Not a chance. I've already got the prettiest redhead in the room."

She rolled her eyes in annoyance. "Oh, what-the-fuck-ever. Now you're just being obnoxious. You mean to tell me that you have no desire to drag any of these chicks off to the back of the VIP lounge for some serious hip action?"

Nick shook his head sincerely. "Not at all, Al. I got all the hip action I need from you tonight, and now I just want to sway to a slow song, so I've got my fingers crossed that the DJ is telepathic."

"But there's this brunette by the bar, and she..."

Suddenly, Alli wasn't the only one getting exasperated. Dammit, what does she take me for? A whore? I've been fucking perfect ever since I told her I loved her! He put a finger to her lips and frowned.

"Al, stop, okay? I don't want to dance with anyone else tonight or tomorrow night, or any other night, okay? I've got you right now, and that's enough to keep me perfectly content." She looked absolutely shell-shocked at his words, but the chords to a familiar song began before she could form the right words to protest. Instead, he let his hands rest of the curves of her waist and pulled her close to him so they could sway in time to the music. "Quit arguing and humor me, okay? You know full well how much I love this song."

Alli couldn't find it in her heart to argue when she recognized the chords as the beginning of a familiar old Bryan Adams song. "Fine, let's dance. But make sure you tell me if you want to find another leading lady, okay?"

He smiled softly as her arms snaked around his neck. "It's not going to happen, Al."

"You never know..." she began, but he shook his head slowly.

"Just listen to the words, okay? I couldn't think of a better song for this moment."

Reluctantly, she obliged him and leaned her head on his shoulder so that she could focus on the lyrics instead of the depth of the blue in his eyes. Just before Bryan began singing, Nick's voice, whisper-soft, was in her ear.

"You know, this song has always reminded me of you."

Oh, I'm thinking about our younger years
It was only you and me
We were young and wild and free
Now, nothing can take you away from me
We've been down that road before
And that's over now
You keep me coming back for more **

Alli's eyes opened in surprise as the true weight of the words registered, and she couldn't help but acknowledge how true they rang when she considered her situation with Nick. She continued to pay close attention as the chorus began, and the pain and love in Bryan Adams's voice struck her to be beautiful as she considered the message he had to offer through the beauty of the music. She was mesmerized by the truth in the lyrics, and by the second verse, Nick was quietly singing in her ear, lulling her into a trance. Oh, God, this is too much. This, right here, is the kind of things dreams are made of. Why the hell am I so insistent about giving this up?

The question continued to plague her as she swayed back and forth, pressed tightly to Nick's chest. She reveled in the warmth of his embrace and the sound of the song and his voice blurred together until she was smiling. At some point during the song, he had begun to rub small circles on her lower back, and the feeling was enough to make her melt beneath his fingers. This is as good as it gets.

However, the song eventually came to an end, and she knew that they would have to pull away eventually. For what wasn't exactly the first time, though, she didn't want to walk away. It wasn't until she opened her eyes and felt Nick's gentle squeeze that she knew that her words to Amanda earlier that day had been a lie. She had started caring a long time ago.

She just wasn't sure she knew how to stop anymore. She wasn't even sure she wanted to. And that thought scared her enough to finally let go.

"I Wanna Be With You"
lyrics and music by Max Martin
performed by the Backstreet Boys
* "Superman"
lyrics and music by Eminem
** "Heaven"
lyrics and music by Bryan Adams