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This Christmas
Chapter Seven


"Oh my God."


Gulp. Sigh. Make sure to mentally thank God for a friend like AJ. "Making places this beautiful and NOT allowing people to live on them every day of their lives should be a crime."

I could almost hear AJ scratching his chin behind me. Have I mentioned yet that he analyzes everything to death? Hell, he analyzes it past death. We're talking a full funeral here.

"Maybe so, but who would prosecute?"

"God." Duh.

"But if God's prosecuting, then who would the offender be?"

I stared out across the ocean for a few minutes and allowed myself to think of something other than how blue the water was.

Damn, this HAD to be the most beautiful place on earth.

"Atlas," I finally decided. "See, if everyone lived in the same place, it would throw the earth off balance, and then Atlas couldn't hold it up, so he would probably be the one who made everyone spread out."

"You know, if I hadn't just spent eight sleep-deprived hours on a plane, I'd be severely concerned about your sanity."

It was uncharacteristic of me to let something like that go without a smartass retort, but I couldn't help it. I was numb, dumb, and blinded by the sight of white sand and sunshine on a December morning. I had already decided that the Bahamas were Eden on earth. I was contemplating whether or not Heaven resembled them when AJ poked me in the back.

"I was kidding, you know."

"Yeah, I know. I'm just not feeling smart enough to make a comeback, so I thought I'd stare out at the water a little bit more."

He laughed. "You know, we do have to get to the bungalow sometime."

I let out a whine that would've made Nick green with envy. "Do we really?"

He sighed in mock sadness, but I secretly think he loved the sight as much as I did. I mean, hell, how could you not? Even if you've been around the world as many times as Wonder Boy McLean, you have to appreciate that kind of beauty. You can't help it. It's like your brain goes on sensory overload and the only thing that registers is that you're standing in the middle of a postcard.

"Yeah, we do."

"But...but why?"

"Because scrawny little AJ can only hold his luggage for so long before his bones start to bend, break, and crumble to dust."
I grimaced. Don't get me wrong--I know they play video games when they're on tour and everything. How else are they supposed to occupy their time? Those graphics, though--all that shit that they see happen when they're grinding the enemies to powder--my daily conversation could definitely do without the same imagery.



"You've been spending too much time with Nick."

"What makes you say that?"

"The fact that you're starting to talk like a superhero comic book character."

He chuckled. "You know, if you really want, I can do the sound effects for you."

I rubbed a hand over my face as AJ began squeaking, moaning, and groaning like a dying car engine. Times like these, I don't wonder why these men enjoy dancing around on stage for two hours in front of thousands of screaming girls. They're all hams.






His sudden scream slightly resembled the Wicked Witch of the West as she was melting, and that's when I smacked him like any sane person would.

"AJ, shut up, man! Not even Dorothy would be impressed by that."

Inevitably, the pop star pout appeared, and I was forced to stifle the urge to roll my eyes.

"Come on, man. Let's get you to that bungalow before you turn into a smoking pile of black cotton."

He grinned impishly. "What? You don't find the absence of limbs sexy?"

"Umm...not exactly. Sorry, but the whole Monty Python 'hey, you cut off me leg!' look isn't as enticing as it seems. I like you better intact."

"Intact, huh?" He nodded thoughtfully. "I think you just want me around so we can take a little tumble together later."

Okay, let's get one thing straight. AJ and sexual connotations together are BAD. "I didn't say that..."

He winked at me in true Howie style, and I had to laugh.

"Okay, fine, so you might be able to up the fun level a bit during this whole beach extravaganza. That doesn't mean I'm giving you any kind of credit yet, though. We're not in the water yet."

AJ shrugged. "Give it time, baby. I'll have you all suited and swimming like a fish in no time."

"I'm counting on it."

"We just have to figure out which bungalow is ours," he finished, surveying the string of tiki-style houses to our left. I did mention how much this place looked like a postcard, right? It was right out of MTV Spring Break, I swear. I was waiting for Carson Daly and his ridiculously annoying black nails to pop out and start jabbering about how "awesome" the beach was.

Thankfully, logic said that Carson was locked up in the New York studio, surrounded by snow and screaming teenyboppers. I was just about to share the pleasing image with AJ when he furrowed his brow in confusion and elbowed me.

"Tell me if you see number sixty-nine, okay?"

I narrowed my eyes at him immediately. "Tell me you're kidding, okay?"

He shook his head. "No way, babe. This is me we're talking about, remember? I had to have SOME fun with this little beach project..."

Great. Super. Leave it to me to make friends with the sex-crazed Backstreet Boy. Of all of them, I had to pick the one with a hormone overdrive.

"You are so sadly predictable."

He grinned. "What's even sadder, Tails, is the fact that it still surprises you."

"I can be raunchy too, you know," I countered, hoping to raise his eyebrows a bit. None of the comebacks had hit home yet, and I was slipping. I've got a reputation to maintain, dammit. I AM the witty bartender.

There was that damn Howie wink again. "I'm counting on it."

"So nice to know that you're taking advantage of my less-than-ladylike style, Howard."

He made a face. "I did that damn winking thing again, didn't I?"

I couldn't think of anything witty and creative to say (I'm blaming the lack of brain power on the salty air and the white sand), so I just nodded.


I snickered as we trekked across the beach, and he glared at me. "It's not my fault, you know. I've spent ten years of my life with those knuckleheads. They've had a lot of time to rub off on me." He did a little two-step and adopted a Lou Bega voice. "A little bit of Howie in my life, a little bit of Kevin giving strife,
a little bit of Nicky's dreadful whine..." *

Normally, I would've taken time out of my busy vacation schedule to appreciate AJ's ability to make a parody, but I was too excited to be at the beach with my best friend. There was water. There was sand. There was AJ. And, for the first time, there was a very noticeable absence of teenyboppers. So, instead of commenting on his sudden wit and wisdom, I followed his lead and starting dancing in the sand while my suitcase rolled behind me.

I know. We're weird. Sue us.

No, wait, don't do that. I'm a poor college student and I don't have any money.

"The trumpet!" AJ hollered, and I made a sad attempt at playing an invisible instrument. Thankfully, we were tripping up the stairs to the bungalow before anyone important could see us and send us to a mental institution. See, I have a serious suspicion that AJ was a patient there in a past life, and I'm slightly worried that the staff would recognize him.

"Here we are," came AJ's triumphant tone. "Bungalow number sixty-nine, paradise drive."

I fought the urge to giggle at his antics. "You know you're retarded, right?"

He nodded seriously. "And I also know you wouldn't have it any other way."

I shook my head. "Not like I have a choice. I haven't been in college long enough to know anything about reversing brain damage."

AJ had predictably begun to rap to Eminem's song of the same title while I turned the key in the lock and pulled the door open. As soon as there was enough space, I flew into the room, dropped my bag, and spun in a slow circle.

Two words, boys and girls: sensory overload.

Why, you ask? Well, that would be a good question if you've never seen bungalow number sixty-nine. It was, by far, the nicest hotel room I've ever seen. From the elegant, polished wood floors to the hunter green bedspread (covered, I might add, in rose petals that spelled "Bienvenudos") to the tiled mini-kitchen and the flat-screen television, the entire place was gorgeous.

AJ gasped behind me, and I sighed with relief at the knowledge that this wasn't another one of his rock star privileges. For once, we were in the same awe-induced boat.

"This is..." I could hear him swallow behind me before he continued. "Damn. This is amazing."

I nodded my agreement. "No shit. I feel like I just stepped into an episode of MTV Cribs."

A slow grin spread across AJ's face. "Oh, this is DEFINITELY how you live like a rock star. Man, I owe Fred a HUGE thank-you for the suggestion. This place kicks ass!"

I could only stare longingly at the bed for a few seconds before my girly side gave in and allowed me to finger the rose petals. "It's like a fairy tale."

AJ wiggled his eyebrows at me. "You do realize that would make you my princess?"

Allow me to pause for a moment in my lovely awe to groan at AJ.

"No offense, dork, but you're hardly Prince Charming material."

He wagged a finger at me. "Watch it, young lady. Need I remind you who led you to this paradise in the first place?"

Okay, so maybe he is Prince Charming material. Maybe. Maybe he didn't even need to drag me to a lovely beachside hut to qualify.

Not that he needed to know that, of course.

"No. You do, however, need to remind me what we're doing standing around and gaping when we could be swimming."

"We're staring at this masterpiece of a hotel room," AJ grinned. He let out a low whistle and began turning circles, eyes wide with amazement.

And you think I'm weird...

"Is that some bizarre Backstreet dance move of yours that I haven't seen yet?"

He paused in his spinning to glare at me. Thankfully, the witty comebacks were no longer. AJ can only be smart for so long before his brain starts to overheat. It's the reason his hair is so wiry. Really.

Or not.

"Come on, admit it. Even Picasso would be impressed with this place."

"Maybe so, but I think Barry White would enjoy the rose petals more."

He rolled his eyes at me. "You're such a cynic."

Sue me. I work in a bar in the middle of downtown Manhattan, and I live with a girl who is convinced that men are the source of all evil. What do you expect?

"Am not."

He stuck his tongue out at me. Mature, right? "Are too. We're, like, on the stairway to Heaven, and you're still sarcastic."

"You're the songwriter, man. Don't expect me to wax poetic about the gorgeous white sand beach and the cerulean water. Don't expect me to be blown away by a place more tranquil than hammock on a summer afternoon. Don't expect me to be seduced by this whole 'red rose petals speaking Spanish on Egyptian cotton bed linens', okay?"

We both looked at each other and burst out laughing. Truth is, AJ may be a songwriter (and I use the term loosely...nah, just kidding), but I'm an art history major. I know flowery language better than Mr. Sixty-Nine knows the female anatomy, and trust me--that's saying something.

AJ dropped his bags (yes, plural bags...I swear, when it comes to clothes, AJ is worse than any girl) and the spinning act long enough to wrap an arm around my shoulders contentedly.

"Thanks for everything, Tay. I'm really glad you're here."

I grinned and wrapped an arm around his waist for one of my infamous hip-hugs. "Thanks for sharing it with me, man. You know there's no place else I'd rather be. This is...breathtaking, at the very least."

We stood there for a few moments, just staring at the area around us in complete and total awe. Outside, the waves crashed along the shore, emitting a soft rumble and the gentle scent of sea salt. Inside, the gentle hum of the heater allowed for a peaceful, homey feeling.

It didn't take a genius to figure out that we were in for a wonderful two weeks.

At long last, though, AJ's eyes narrowed in my direction and he wiggled his eyebrows mischievously.

"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

Normally, the thought of sharing a brainwave with AJ would scare the hell out of me because the boy is a freak. Today, though, it was nice to have someone who shared my love of childhood.

I grinned impishly. "Depends. What are you thinking?"

"Well..." he trailed off, scratching his goatee thoughtfully, "exactly how bouncy do you think that bed is?"

God help me, but I actually winked at him. "Only one way to find out!"

He raced to the bed, and I followed him. To hell with the hardass bar girl image. I was on vacation.

It was definitely going to be an awesome two weeks.

* song mentioned is Lou Bega's "Mambo #5"