One Dark Night

Chapter Twenty-One: The Storm Before the Calm

"You're nuts! Adorable, amazing, and many other words I could come up with, but you're also absolutely nuts!" Joey whispered in my ear as we headed for the elevator.

"Cut it out!" I hissed back. "Do you want someone to hear us?"

Joey sighed. He hated the fact that, once again, I was right. As much as he wanted to profess his love for me from the rooftops, he knew better, and when that knowledge began to wane in his memory, I was there to jolt him back to reality. "I know, I know. Let's go."

Joey and I rode up the elevator with Lance. "I'll make sure the coast is clear," Lance said before we reached their floor.

"Thanks, Lance," I said appreciatively. "I wish we didn't have to do this, but Johnny has made life a bit impossible."

"For everyone," Lance agreed. "Fortunately, if that's the worst we encounter tonight, I'd say we haven't done too badly. The only thing that could be worse is if we..." Lance was cut short by the opening of the elevator doors and then a piercing shriek. "...ran into fans," Lance finished.

"Oh, shit," Joey said, cowering back into the corner of the elevator.

Not about to let a horde of screaming girls further ruin my night, I hit the 'door close' button, followed by the lobby button, and said authoritatively, "Any of you even think about stepping foot onto this elevator, and so help me God you will wish you had never been born." My comment stunned them just long enough for the doors to close. The elevator started to move when I said, "I don't know what floor we're going to stop at, but whatever it is, I suggest running. If we encounter fans, use of elbows and knees is recommended but not required."

Lance and Joey stared at each other for a second and then at me. Finally, Lance said, "When did Jerrica possess your body, or are you just, like, channeling her or something?"

I put my hands on my hips and tried to stare Lance down, but he had me dead to rights. My reaction to the fans was much more Jerrica's style than mine. "Well, it was either that or serve you up on a silver platter."

"We'll take this way, thank you very much," Joey said.

The elevator stopped at my floor and I cringed as the doors open. To my surprise, the only people on the other side of the doors were Justin and Chris. "Go back to the room. NOW," I said quickly as I grabbed their elbows and dragged them behind me.

"What's going on?" Justin asked.

"Fans on our floor," Lance replied. "Don't know how they found out not only where we were, but what floor we were on. Someone in security is going to have hell to pay for that."

"In that case, we've got a dilemma," I said as I shooed them back into the room I'd had with Tom.

"What's going on?" Mandy asked as we raced in and shut the door quickly behind us. She had been helping Tom, Josh, Kimber, and Aja clean up the leftovers from our party.

"Fans on our floor," Lance said again, trying to catch his breath. "There's no way to get to our rooms without getting trampled."

"Then I guess you are just going to have to bunk down here," Kimber said. "We'll try and consolidate some rooms to try and make it less cramped." Turning to Mandy and Jerrica, she said, "We're bunking four to a room, ladies."

"What!" Jerrica cried out. "You mean Karri and M.F. are going to stay with us? Karri I can handle, but..."

"Don't worry, Miss Andrews. I don't kill in my sleep, I promise," M.F. said from behind Jerrica, causing her to jump. "Besides, what would you do? Hand these boys over to that bunch of hooligans?"

Jerrica smirked at Chris and said, "Well, I don't know..."

"Jerrica!" I yelled. "Knock it off!"

"Knock what off?" she asked innocently.

"You know what," I replied, "and don't play that stupid innocent routine. It was old five years ago and it's even older today."

"Excuse me?" Jerrica said loudly.

"STOP!!!!" Joey yelled, clasping both of his hands on my shoulders and pulling me back into him. "It is too late and I am too tired for you two to start in on each other tonight. Save it for morning, please."

"Okay," I muttered. I glanced over at Jerrica who was just as disappointed. We hadn't had a real argument in a while, and it was starting to back up internally. I began to wonder how I ever managed through life without Jerrica, but then maybe my life was less complicated without her. It was something to ponder, but not right then.

We all hustled to get the two rooms we had used for the party cleaned up, and then, after reassessing the room situation, realized it wasn't as dire as we had originally imagined, at least for the girls anyway. "Let's see. We have five rooms and fifteen people. We may not have to shift around as much as we thought."

"Well, why don't you go stay with M.F. and Karri, Kimber? Then Raya can stay with Aja and Shana, Lance, Chris, and Justin can take your room, and Josh and Joey can stay with Tom and me. That way Jerrica and Mandy can keep their room and not whine all night long."

"Who are you calling a whiner?" Mandy asked hotly. "Did I open my mouth about any of this?"

"I stand corrected," I retorted. "So Jerrica doesn't whine all night."

"Thank you," Mandy said sweetly.

I just groaned and turned to look at everyone. "So, does that work for everyone?"

"Why don't we just get more rooms down here?" Justin asked.

Aja shook her head. "No can do. We were rather lucky to get what we got. The hotel said that they had a run on bookings after someone leaked your presence here to a radio station. They said the phones downstairs have been jammed since eight-thirty."

I pondered this for a moment. Something didn't add up quite right, and I had a hunch Johnny Wright was the missing puzzle piece. "Lance?" I asked. "When did you suggest that meeting to Eric?"

"Not long after I talked to you. Eight-fifteenish? Why?"

"I'm going to make that man pay, I swear to God," I grumbled. Whether anyone else had made the connection or not, I didn't care. Johnny must have figured out that we were up to something when Lance suggested the meeting to Eric, and then spilled their location to the radio station. Granted, I could be thinking a little high of myself to force Johnny to do something like that. It could have been a publicity stunt that had nothing to do with me, for all I knew, but I also came to realize that Johnny, who had saddled himself with me from the beginning, was determined to make me as miserable as possible. I put absolutely nothing past that man. Nothing at all.

"How are we going to get the guys over to the other room?" Shana asked quietly. "If the hotel is teeming with fans, we may not even be able to get them across the hall without being noticed."

As if any of us needed a sign, at that moment, a loud ruckus could be heard in the hallway right outside our door. "I'm telling you, Jenny, they said the elevator stopped on this floor!!"

"Well, it's obvious they're not here," replied a female voice, undoubtedly the mysterious Jenny. "They probably ran down the hall and down the steps, Sally."

"Unless they're in one of these rooms," the voice belonging to the first girl, whom we assumed was Sally, said. "Think we should knock on doors?"

"Are you nuts?" Jenny said. "It's after midnight. Do you want to get us kicked out?"

Being able to take no more, I went to the door, opened it a little, stuck my head out the door, and said, "Do you mind? I'm trying to get some sleep here!"

"Whatever!" one of the girls said. I wasn't sure which one was which, now that the conversation had been interrupted. The two spun on their heels and stalked away. The hallway was crawling with girls though, trying to figure out where *Nsync had gone.

Coming back in, I said, "Well, that ought to throw them off the scent for the moment." Turning to Jerrica, I said, "Sorry. You and Mandy are going to have to move. We can't risk even sending them across the hall."

"Yeah, yeah. I know," Jerrica muttered. "Come on Mandy. Let's go pack."

The rest of the night passed fairly uneventfully. No one seemed very suspicious about the girls moving bags around between different rooms, so once Mandy and Jerrica were out of their original room, Lance, Justin, and Chris went in and closed the door behind them.

"Man, I'm beat," Josh said, yawning widely as he sat down on one of the two queen beds in the room.

"So, uh, how are we going to do this?" Tom asked, looking a little concerned.

Josh knew that I was trying to push him and Tom together, of course, but Tom didn't know. I knew that after Tom's last relationship he might be a little skittish about moving forward, so I had hoped that some alone time with Josh might bridge that. Now he had to contend with Joey and me as well, and that was making things a bit awkward for Tom.

Trying to avert a problem, I said, "Easy. Tom, you take that bed," I said, pointing to the one by the wall, "Josh and Joey will take the other bed, and I'll crash on the couch or the floor, whichever one I happen to find more comfortable at the time."

"SAY WHAT?" all three said in unison, staring at me like I was nuts.

"What?" I asked innocently.

"The couch?" Josh asked.

"The floor?" Tom said.

"Not with me?" Joey said with a pout.

"Well, I'm certainly not going to ask one of you to do it. How fair would that be?" I inquired.

"Will, it's okay," Tom said. "I can sleep on the couch, I suppose."

I shook my head. "Tom, you've been saying off and on all day that you weren't feeling great. The last thing you should be doing is sleeping on the couch."

"Come on now," Josh said. "The beds are large enough to share them. Why don't we just crawl in and pass out?"

Glad he said it, not me! I thought with some satisfaction. I admit it wasn't fair manipulating them like that, but I knew the only way to get either Josh or Tom to budge was to play to their 'moral code,' so to speak. I knew they would never permit Joey and me to be separated, and neither one wanted to sleep on the couch. It was hardly comfortable enough to sit on. Whoever had made that furnishing decision should be fired.

"Well, I guess," Tom said apprehensively.

My fatigue had started to kick in from the little sleep I was getting these days, and since I had been running nonstop since before dawn, I would have to be forgiven for barking out, "Look. Let's make this easy. You like him. He likes you. Sleep between the covers for all I care! Just let me go to sleep or else you're sleeping in the hall!" With that said I lay down on the bed and pulled the covers over my head.

"WILL!" Josh exclaimed in surprise.

"Someone's cranky," Tom said with a smile, but it faded shortly when it dawned on him what I had said. "Will! I can't believe you said that!" He waited for me to respond, and after a moment of silence, he said hesitantly, "Will?"

Joey peered over the bed, smiled, and said quietly, "Yep. He's dead to the world."

"That's not fair! I'm trying to be mad at him and he can't even stay awake long enough for that?" Tom said, but he was laughing so hard it was a bit difficult to understand him, especially with his thick, Irish brogue.

"Ah, go easy on him," Joey said. "He's had a hard day."

"But he said..." Tom began.

"...and I wanted to..." Josh continued.

"...and you two would have taken six years to do it!" Joey finished. "What are you waiting for?"

"I don't know, but I didn't want it to go exactly like that," Josh said, his cheeks reddening a little.

"It could be worse," Joey said. "Jerrica practically beat me up to tell Will how I felt, and then he had to practically fall into the river behind his house before I could work up the nerve to tell him."

"Fall in the river?" Tom asked. "How...?"

"Don't ask," Joey pleaded. "That was kind of my fault, and I'd rather not relive it at the moment. Now, shall we get some sleep?"

"Sounds good to me. I'm beat," Josh said as he crawled into one side of the bed.

"Me too," Tom said as he crawled in the other side.

They were rather funny to watch, actually. Even though the cat was out of the bag, so to speak, they tried their hardest to stay as far as physically possible from each other in the bed, as if their sheer presence in the same general area would cause the other to leap like a cat in heat. Joey snickered as he slid into bed and curled up next to me. He laid his head next to mine and stroked my hair. He was about to fall asleep when, out of the blue, I mumbled, "I'm good, aren't I?"

Joey's eyes popped open as he sat straight up and stared at me in surprise. I rolled my shoulders back, turned my head to look at him, and grinned. Joey continued to stare at me for a moment before shaking his head, clucking his tongue, and saying, "They never had a chance." With a wide smile, he leaned over to give me a kiss, then he lay back down and, within minutes, we were both fast asleep.

As if the alarm wasn't bad enough, I was roused out of my sleep at four in the morning by a pounding on my door. "Someone get the door," Josh said sleepily before turning over and snuggling up next to Tom's body.

Oh, if I only had a camera, I thought as I slowly extracted myself from Joey's body, hauled my fat ass out of bed, and stumbled to the door. In between yawns, I called out, "Whoever it is, this had better be good, or you're getting a beat down once I'm awake."

Instead of a voice, I was answered with another round of pounding on the door. "Will, just answer the door!" Tom called.

"Keep your britches on!" I yelled back. "Literally!" I walked up to the door and peered through the peephole. The ugly mug of Eric Pascarelli was in full view. "Ugh, the last thing I wanted to see at this time of the morning," I said as I opened the door as far as the chain would permit. As I peered out, I came almost face to face with Johnny Wright. "Correction. Make Eric the second to last thing I didn't want to see this morning."

"Tell them to come out. NOW," Johnny said fiercely.

"Tell who to come out? Tom?" I asked innocently. Behind me, I heard the other three stir. Due to the darkness of the room and the fact that my body blocked most of the small opening of the door, Johnny was unable to see behind me. I waived with one arm behind me at the adjoining door, hoping that someone had not only decided to drag their rear out of bed, but was catching my hint.

"Tom? Who's Tom?" Johnny asked. Then, thinking better of it, he said, "You know what? Don't care. I'm missing five boys upstairs and I know they're in here. Now let us in."

"First of all," I said, the anger evident in my voice, "I will do no such thing. If you can't keep track of your group's whereabouts, then that's obviously an internal problem in your organization which has nothing to do with me. Second, this is my room, and you have absolutely zero right to make demands regarding entry."

"I can do whatever I want, considering how much money we've paid to this hotel tonight. Now, if you don't let us in, we'll have maintenance come up and we'll force our way in," Johnny replied.

At that point, Tom came up behind me and whispered into the ear that was covered by the door. "They're over in the other room."

Never letting my face betray me with the information that I just received, I said finally, "All right, you know what? I have to get up in less than three hours to dance my heinie off. If I let you in, will you shut up and go away?"

"Absolutely," Johnny replied.

"Hang on." I closed the door and slid the chain from the door lock. I had barely reopened the door when Eric burst in, with Johnny in tow.

"All right you guys!" Johnny barked. "Let's go!"

The room went silent for a couple of seconds before Eric said, "They're not here."

"Told you so," I said smugly. "Now, if you don't mind, I would appreciate it if you would leave so I can get some sleep."

"I know they were in here," Johnny said, seething. "I just know it."

"Of course they were in here," Tom piped up. "Earlier when we had the party, remember?"

Thank God for Tom, I thought. It's enough for me to piss Johnny off; it's another thing for someone else to do it.

Johnny's eyes bored into Tom, but Tom refused to flinch even one iota. "Fine. "We're going." After a brief pause, he said, "Good night."

I sighed. While the man disgusted me, my mother raised me right, and even though I couldn't stand him, that didn't mean I had the right to ignore propriety. "Goodnight Johnny, Eric," I said as I escorted them to the door. It was at that moment that Eric remembered the adjoining doors.

"Here's why we couldn't find them!" Eric shouted. "They went in here!" He tried the doorknob, but the door was locked. "Stupid assholes locked it."

"I wouldn't do that if I was you," I said in a singsong voice.

"Oh shut up," Eric spat.

"No, really I wouldn't," I said in a more serious tone. "You think Jerrica's hell awake? You should see her when she first wakes up. Man! She's crankier than a housecat in a bathtub."

Eric hesitated for a moment, and then decided to throw caution to the wind and continue fussing with the door. Finally, he pounded on the door and yelled, "You guys had better come out of there or else!"

Suddenly, the door flew open and in the doorway stood Jerrica in a bathrobe. "You are going to die a quick, painful death," Jerrica growled menacingly at Eric, "and if you make so much as another peep tonight, then not only will you die a slow, painful death, but I will also call the police and have you arrested for harassment. Do I make myself abundantly clear?"

"Yeah, right," Johnny said. "Who would believe you over me?"

"Besides everyone?" Tom said. "First, they're female, which gives them an upper hand, and second, the tabloids would have fodder for weeks to come. Do you want that?"

"That's it," Johnny said, exasperated. "I'm over this. Let's go."

The two stormed out the door, letting it slam shut behind them. Inside, we all celebrated with jubilation. "I don't know how we pulled that off," I said, "but it's better than the alternative."

"Just wait until Johnny sees what's in store for him next!" Jerrica said with a laugh.

"What did you do?" I asked suspiciously.

"Just wait and see," she said with a smirk. "Just wait and see."

Johnny was fit to be tied. He had no idea where his group was and he had wanted to rip me a new one, but he had no proof I was involved. Like I need proof, Johnny mused. "That bastard has been a thorn in my side since the day we met," he growled.

"Excuse me?" Eric asked. "Say what?"

"Nothing," Johnny said with a sigh. "Just wondering what I did to deserve this type of aggravation."

Eric kept his mouth closed, for fear of saying the wrong thing. However, he couldn't help but laugh inside, considering how Johnny had brought this entire fiasco on himself. While Eric had numerous reasons to dislike me, he at least admired the fact that I never gave up and I didn't put up with most of Johnny's crap.

The two arrived at the suite and let themselves in. Eric plopped down in a chair while Johnny paced around the room. After a few moments of silence, Johnny slammed a fist down on a table and yelled, "Where the hell are they?!"

Not even thirty seconds later, Justin wandered out of the room he was sharing with Chris and said, "Hey guys. Could you keep it down? We're trying to sleep in here!"

Johnny whirled around in surprise and anger. "Where the hell have you been?" he thundered.

Justin looked puzzled. "In my room. Where else?"

"Don't feed me that shit!" Johnny barked. "You were not in there. You and I both know that you were downstairs with what's-his-face."

"Who?" Justin asked blankly.

"You know who," Eric said, "and don't even pretend you don't."

"Look, I'm too tired to play games," Justin said. "I'm going back to bed."

"Would you guys shut up out there?" Chris called from the bedroom. "I'm trying to get some sleep!"

"Is everyone here?" Johnny asked suspiciously.

"Duh. Where else would we be?" Justin asked as he turned and headed for his room.

"I bet you ten bucks Joey's not in there," Eric stated, "and when I'm right, I bet I know where we can find him."

"Headcount. Now," Johnny ordered as Eric headed for the bedrooms. Flipping on the lights in the room Justin and Chris were in, Eric noted both boys were there and then left.

Heading to the next room, which housed Joey, Josh, and Lance, Eric burst in, flipped on the lights, and yelled, "Everybody up!"

"What time is it?" Lance asked groggily as he sat up in bed.

"I don't know," came Josh's voice, "but it can't be time to get up yet. It's still dark."

"It's four-thirty," Joey said from under his covers, "which means I'm going back to sleep, thank you very much. Eric, get out!"

Eric was stunned. He was sure that Joey would be downstairs with me, and yet he couldn't figure out how they could all be gone one minute and there the next. They were tricked somehow, of that he was certain. He just didn't know how.

"...So when you hurried them into our old room," Jerrica was telling all of us the next morning at breakfast, "Chris called me and told me what was going on. Mandy and I were watching from our room and when we saw the coast was clear, we sent them packing as fast as they could upstairs and crawled into bed. We figured it wouldn't take them long to remember the adjoining doors, so I was actually standing right by the door when they started pounding on it."

"You were very convincing my dear," I said with a small smile. "You looked like you had just woken up. Of course, you always look like that, so..."

"I ought to beat your ass," Jerrica said with a frown.

"Knock it off you two," Kimber said reproachfully. "Save it for dance practice, which will commence as soon as everyone has finished breakfast and we've had time to have a little group meeting."

"I'm glad you mentioned that," I said. "I kind of had an idea last night, and I want to run it past everyone."

"What?" a number of people asked in unison.

"It can wait until we're ready for our meeting. Eat!" I said as I nibbled on my piece of toast, my half a banana, and my twenty-ounce bottle of Diet Coke. Breakfast of Champions, no?

I wasn't particularly trying to hide my small meal, but I didn't necessarily want to call people's attention to it either. Granted, I should know better in this group. Everybody, me included, has to be in everyone else's business, so it didn't take long before Karri mentioned my meal selection.

"Eating light today, are we?" she asked.

"I'm not very hungry," I answered. "I think something I ate last night disagreed with me."

"More like someone you saw," Mandy said.

Trying to divert the subject matter, I said to Kimber, "So, were you able to get the tickets from Johnny?"

Kimber shook her head. "No, I..."

"Aw, man!" Karri said in disappointment. "I was looking forward to going too."

"Karri, can I finish please?" Kimber asked.

"Oh, sorry," Karri replied, looking a little embarrassed.

"Well, after that stunt you all pulled on him last night, he was in no mood to even talk to me, so I obtained the tickets in a different way."

"How's that?" Tom asked.

"She called her sister," Aja broke in, speaking for the first time since we sat down to breakfast. "If there is anyone who can do anything in the music business, it's J.B. She called the record label and said that we had to have tickets so that we could, how did she put it? 'Better align our staging with theirs for a more seamless show.'"

I had to laugh. "Man, she's good."

"Anyway, we got the tickets, and they're pretty decent seats too; not very far back on the right center aisle, to be specific. It'll give us a great vantage point in which to watch the show and see how they run things," Kimber finished.

"I can't wait to see what type of wardrobe they have," Shana said excitedly. "I need to know so I can create something for you to wear, Robért-James, when you sing with them."

I sighed. I had been trying hard to get them to stop calling me Robért-James ever since they arrived, and yet they persisted. Granted, old habits are hard to break, but I was beginning to wonder if it was really habit or them just being really, really annoying.

We finished breakfast and headed out. We walked over to the arena where the concert was going to be held. "What are we doing here?" Tom asked.

"Along with those tickets came another favor," Kimber said. "We're going to be using some space in the arena, including the stage at periods of time, to start stage planning. We don't have a lot of time and need to get ourselves ready as quickly as possible. We need to see their entire operation, start to finish."

"And Johnny's going to go for this?" I asked.

"He doesn't have a choice," Aja said with a laugh. "The record company is the one pulling the purse strings, so what they say goes!"

We made our way to the stage entrance and, after a brief wait, were handed passes that would allow us access to all parts of the arena. We were also given our tickets for the show that night, including the ones that were prearranged by Joey some two weeks earlier. Heading downstairs to a large practice room, we followed Kimber in and closed the door.

"Make yourselves comfortable," she said. "We're going to be here for a while. Now grab some chairs because we're going to have a little meeting, and then I will leave you in M.F.'s capable hands."

Karri, Mandy, and I groaned audibly, which caused everyone to laugh. M.F. tried to give us a stern look, but she soon started to smile. We had all finally made peace with each other, so we were no longer frightened of M.F., but that didn't mean we particularly wanted to get on her bad side either. Still, it was fun to mess around with her. It would take some time, but I could see us becoming friends, in some sort of fashion.

We all grabbed some chairs and formed a circle in the middle of the room. Raya opened by saying, "I just want to let you all know how excited we are to be working with all of you. This feels right, you know? I think you all are wonderful, and I can't wait to see you all on stage."

Aja, Shana, Kimber, and M.F. murmured in agreement. "Now, let's get down to business. Will, I believe you had something you wanted to share?" Aja said.

"I did?" I said blankly. "Oh, right! I remember now. It has to do with the format of the show. Remember my original idea? Scrap it. After thinking it over in my head for a long time, I realized that it would take way too long to learn everything, including the staging. We need to keep it simple. Besides, I was worried that there were too many opportunities to run long, and even though he's a conniving, self-centered bastard, we still have to cooperate with Johnny Wright for the duration of the run. That means antagonizing him as little as possible. Granted, last night didn't help much, but he brought that on himself, and I make no apologies for that."

"So what do you suggest?" Shana asked.

"I first propose that we review the song selection and narrow down what we're going to do. Then, I suggest that we vary the lineup so as to make it interesting. For example, maybe we'll start out as we originally discussed, and then..." I laid out my ideas, explaining in great detail how I thought it could work. With input from everyone, we took my new idea, modified it some, and came up with a working plan. I figured the fewer songs that we had to work with, the easier it would be to manage. Granted, many of the songs in the original list were very short, but each song has to be staged, and that meant a lot of behind the scenes work.

Now that we were retooling the entire plan from scratch, this meant a lot of work would be invested in figuring out what we were going to sing. We had already made some selections from the "Will and Jerrica" catalog plus my own songs for when I sang solo, but that still left us five or six songs short.

"So how do we fill these spaces?" Karri asked.

I shrugged my shoulders. "Have any of you written anything that you want to contribute?"

"Well..." Karri and Mandy looked at each other.

"Well, what?" I asked.

"We have a song that we had written. I mean, we haven't written music for it or anything, but we have the words, but I don't know if..."

"Come on!" Tom pleaded. "Let us hear it!"

"The problem is, I don't know how we can make this fit. It wasn't exactly written for a coed group."

"You're wondering if we would feel uncomfortable singing it?" I asked. "Don't. If it's not designed to be sung by guys, then Tom and I will just sing backup. We don't have to have all five of us center stage all the time. As a matter of fact, that was the point I was trying to get across from the beginning. We can design the show any way we like, and I think we should emphasize on all of us individually as well as the group as a whole."

"Isn't that the biggest bunch of bullshit you ever heard?" Jerrica asked sweetly. "Rob, it's all about you and you know it. We're just along for the ride."

"Look, just because I got dragged into this and you came along without much screaming doesn't mean it's just about me anymore. It's about all of us, and that means we're going to do this together. Now, come on ladies. Let's see what you've got."

Karri and Mandy took a deep breath and begin to sing. I instantly fell in love with the song and could already start planning what to do with it in my head. Granted, I was no choreographer--I preferred to leave that to Karri and M.F.--but my head was spinning nonetheless. The girls were right on one part though. It was designed to be sung by a girl group, but that didn't mean we couldn't adapt. You'll see what I mean in a second. Here's what they came up with:

When I was just a little girl, my mama used to tuck me into bed and she read me a story.
It always was about a princess in distress and how a guy would save her and end up with the glory.
I'd lie in bed and think about the person that I wanted to be,
Then one day I realized the fairy tale life wasn't for me.

I don't wanna be like Cinderella, sitting in a dark, cold, dusty cellar,
Waiting for somebody to come and set me free
I don't wanna be like Snow White waiting
For a handsome prince to come and save me
On a horse of white, unless we're riding side by side
Don't wanna depend on no one else.
I'd rather rescue myself.

My mouth was starting to fall open. The song was cute, and I could see how to make it work with Tom and me as well, even though most of the attention would be focused on the girls.

Someday I'm gonna find someone who wants my soul, heart and mind
Who's not afraid to show that he loves me
Somebody who will understand I'm happy just the way I am
Don't need nobody taking care of me
(I will be there) I will be there for him just as strong as he will be there for me
When I give myself then it has got to be an equal thing

I don't wanna be like Cinderella, sitting in a dark, cold, dusty cellar,
Waiting for somebody to come and set me free (Oh, oh)
I don't wanna be like Snow White waiting
For a handsome prince to come and save me
On a horse of white, unless we're riding side by side
Don't wanna depend on no one else.
I'd rather rescue myself.

I can slay my own dragons. (My own dragons)
I can dream my own dreams. (My own dreams)
My knight in shining armor (shining armor) is me.
So I'm gonna set me free.

I don't wanna be like Cinderella, sitting in a dark, cold, dusty cellar,
Waiting for somebody to come and set me free.
I don't wanna be like Snow White waiting
For a handsome prince to come and save me
On a horse of white, unless we're riding side by side

I don't wanna be like Cinderella, sitting in a dark, cold, dusty cellar,
Waiting for somebody (oh -oh) to come and set me free.
I don't wanna be like Snow White waiting
For a handsome prince to come and save me
On a horse of white, unless we're riding side by side
Don't wanna depend on no one else.
I'd rather rescue myself.

I don't wanna be like Cinderella, sitting in a dark, cold, dusty cellar,
Waiting for somebody to come and set me free.
I don't wanna be like Snow White waiting
For a handsome prince to come and save me
On a horse of white, unless we're riding side by side
Don't wanna depend on no one else.
I'd rather rescue myself.

"Holy..." I said at last. I was rather speechless, not because I didn't think that they couldn't write something that good, but I had no real words to express what I was feeling. "That was incredible."

"Really?" Karri asked, glowing with pride.

"Duh!" I said. "I just thought of so many things to do with that song, but I'll leave the real choreography to the experts."

"Feel free to provide feedback, you know," Karri said. "We're a team, remember?"

"That's the spirit!" Raya said as she joined our group. "Don't worry about the music. We can easily have the music arranged."

"Arranged for what?" Mandy asked.

"'Arranged' means to have the music written so the band can play it," I offered.

"Oh, okay," Mandy said, feeling a little dumb, but there was little time left for her to dwell on that because the door burst open and Johnny walked in.

I immediately backed up about ten feet and put myself into defense mode. Jerrica, on the other hand, stayed rooted to her spot and appeared as if she were about to pounce at a moment's notice. The tension in the air became so thick one could cut it with a knife.

"Good morning everyone!" Johnny said cheerfully. "I hope you all had a nice evening." No one said a word, which surprised me. I expected at least Jerrica to make a comment. "I just came down to say hello and see how things were going. I don't want to take up too much of your time because I know you don't have long to get yourselves together, but I just wanted to let you know that if you need anything, to just ask."

Everyone was stunned. This was a side of Johnny Wright I didn't even know existed. "Uh, thanks Johnny," I said cautiously as I motioned him toward the door. "I'm sure you're busy, so we won't keep you."

"Yes, there are tons of things to do before the concert tonight. Please feel free to join us all upstairs at one for a lunch break," he said before exiting.

As soon as I had the door closed, the room instantly became a wall of sound. "People!" Aja cried. "Simmer down!"

"What the hell is he up to?" I asked aloud.

"You tell us," Jerrica said.

"Huh?" I asked, looking a bit perplexed.

"Was he being sincere?" she prompted, and it took a second before I caught the drift.

"Oh, that," I said with a roll of my eyes. "He seemed sincere, but I can't shake this feeling that something's going on, for no other reason than the fact that he hasn't made an effort to be nice to us before, so why is he starting now?"

"Your guess is as good as mine, but I'm not about to look a gift horse in the mouth," Kimber said. "If he's playing nicely, I'm going to take every advantage I can."

The rest of the day passed fairly quickly. After much debate, we had drafted the final concert schedule for our performance in Charlotte on the eighth of June. We still had three holes to fill, and after hearing two songs on the radio, asked Kimber if we might be able to do a cover of it. The eventual answer was yes, after she conferred with J.B. about the royalties that would have to be paid for doing so. The remaining hole, we decided, would be free space to adlib in the show as we saw fit.

"So what are we going to do?" Mandy asked. "Just make it up as we go along?"

"Why not?" I said. "It'll be something different. Besides, it'll be a great opportunity to show off someone's talent. I think it would be a good place to let someone do a solo or something."

"Like the big diva himself?" Jerrica said, pointing at me.

"I meant someone else," I said, gritting my teeth. Next thing I knew, the hole in the show became affectionately known as "Diva Time."

After the overly long logistical session of the morning, we began to buckle down on learning the song and dance routines we were going to have to showcase in about two weeks. Before we knew it, it was one o'clock and the whole group was famished. I was particularly starving, and I had hoped that no one could hear my stomach growl. It was going to be a while before I could eat a decent meal again. I had quite a lot of weight to lose and very little time to do it in.

We made our way upstairs to the staging area and found tons of people hard at work. We made our way backstage and found Johnny talking on his cell phone to someone. We were waiting for him to finish so he could direct us wherever it was we were supposed to go when I felt a pair of strong hands on my shoulders.

"Hey you!" came a familiar voice.

"Joe!" I exclaimed as I whirled around. Instinctively, I almost gave him a hug when I caught myself. "Uh, how's it going?" I asked as I wrapped my arms around myself, trying to cover my faux pas.

"Is everything okay? Did I do something wrong?" Joey asked.

"No, but we're in public," I said, lowering my voice to a near whisper. "You know that means no displays of affection beyond that which would be normal between two acquaintances."

"Will, if you gave me a friendly hug, people wouldn't think anything of it. They would just think we were close friends. They don't have to know or think anything more than that."

"Yeah, you bonehead," Jerrica said, detaching herself from Chris. The minute Chris had walked into view, she had practically knocked over three people and nearly tackled him. "Just be cool about it."

"Sorry for being overly cautious," I said. "I'm just trying to keep everyone happy."

I was about to ramble some other pathetic things when I was interrupted by Johnny's presence. "Thanks for being so prompt everyone. Now, *Nsync is going to do a sound check over the next half hour, and then you all can break for lunch until three. Then the guys will have to get themselves ready for the show and Charm will do, well, whatever it is you're going to do. So take a seat everyone, and *Nsync on stage please!"

"Gotta go," Joey whispered in my ear. "Let's meet in my dressing room after sound check, all right?"

"Fine by me," I said. "I'm looking forward to it."

Our group went out into the arena and found some seats in the fifth-row center, giving us a nice vantage point of the entire stage. During sound check, the guys sang the intro to a number of different songs, with Tim constantly stopping them to nitpick something. However, after half an hour, they finished and were given permission to break for lunch.

I had no idea where the dressing rooms were, actually, so I started to wander the arena, figuring I'd locate them eventually. After about ten minutes of frantic running around and searching, I ran into Mike, one of the bodyguards for the guys, who took me down there. I took an instant liking to Mike, and before I knocked on the door, he said quietly to me, "You know, you're the best thing that has happened to Joey in a long time."

"How did you...?" I asked.

"We bodyguards make it a point to know everything, Will. These guys are our lives, so we have to. I don't know what you did or how you did it, but they are like a whole new group coming back. They were kind of moody before the 'unscheduled break.'"

"Well, anything to help, I guess," I replied, not really knowing what to say. "Now, if you'll excuse me."

"Oh, right! Sorry," Mike said as he hurried off.

Figuring I shouldn't keep Joey waiting any longer, I knocked on the door. Joey opened it and ushered me in. Closing the door, he locked it behind him and then grabbed me, pulling me into what can only be described as an earth-shattering, passionate, seeing-fireworks kiss. Finally coming up for air, I said, "I'm guessing that you're happy to see me?"

"Ecstatic, since we won't be able to see each other really after the concert is over. We have some after-concert thing we have to do with some fans who won some contest, and then we get loaded on to the busses to head for, um, Charleston, West Virginia, I think."

"So what you're saying is make this time count, because we're not going to see each other for a while," I said.

"Yeah," Joey said as he pulled me to the couch. I placed my cell phone on the table beside the couch and sat down; Joey sat next to me, laying his head against mine.

"You seem tired. Why don't you lie down?" I offered.

"Okay," Joey said as he adjusted his body and laid his head in my lap. After a moment of silence, he said, "Well, I see someone is happy I'm here."

I flushed bright red. My body was reacting in a way I hadn't intended, so I had a bit of an uncomfortable situation going on in my pants. "Oh shut up. If it were the other way around, it would probably happen to you too." After another moment of silence, I began to stroke Joey's hair, and I could feel his stress and tension start to wane and a little bit of depression begin to set in. Hoping to avoid that, I brought up a subject that had been on my mind. "So what's the deal with Johnny?" I asked. "He's been, well, polite to us all morning."

"Well, that's kind of a long story," Joey began.

"Then cut out all the long parts and get straight to the point," I said excitedly. I could feel pride building inside of Joey, so I knew something big must have gone down.

"The others and I had a long talk this morning, and after a short deliberation, we told Johnny that unless things changed dramatically on this tour with the way we and you were treated, that we were going to terminate the association with him at the end of our contract. We also told him that, Eric's threats aside, Josh was not going to dance in his present condition, and if they tried to force him, we would refuse to go on. Apparently, our contract supports us in doing so. Thank God Eric mentioned something about our contracts, or we never would have thought to look."

"I'm proud of you guys for standing up for yourselves," I said with a smile. "After all, if you don't do it, who will?"

We sat there for a little while longer when I realized how warm it was in the room. I had momentarily forgotten that this was, in fact, Virginia at the end of May. I did a quick whiff check of myself and decided that, while I wasn't ripe yet, I needed to get cleaned up. We had been dancing from about ten-thirty to one, and I had sweated quite a bit.

"Hey Joe? Do you mind if I use your shower real quick? I'm feeling kind of icky at the moment."

"Depends. Do I get to join you?" he asked.

I contemplated that for a moment. I was trying hard to get past my demons and be fully comfortable with Joey, and while he and I had one interaction together--not by my choice, mind you--in the shower, I wasn't certain I was ready to jump into it willingly just yet. "We don't have a lot of time," I said. "It's probably better that I go by myself this time."

Joey shrugged his shoulders. "Okay. Go ahead."

I hadn't sensed any disappointment coming from him, which could only mean he understood I wasn't ready yet. Damn how I love him! I thought. He really, truly cares about me! Sigh! My heart felt light and fluttered as I nearly skipped into the bathroom.

As I shut the door, I missed hearing Joey say, "He's just too cute, that one, but he better believe that I will take him up on that invitation for next time!"

I had showered quickly and had just put on my boxers and pants when I heard my cell phone ring. I had set it down out in the other room when I sat on the couch because I was afraid of sitting on it. Assuming that it was probably either Jerrica wondering where I was or my mother, I opened the door and said, "Joe, can you get that?"

"Sure," Joey said as he reached over to grab the phone. Failing to read the number on the display, he flipped the phone open and, mimicking my French accent from listening to me answer the phone numerous times, said, "Allô?"

"James! Il faut que je te parle!"

"Huh?" Joey said. "Uh, Anne-Marie?"

"Who is this and what are you doing answering my grandson's phone?" came a clipped voice with a thick accent. "I said I need to talk with him!"

"Oh crud," Joey said softly, holding the phone away from his face. After a moment, he gathered his composure and said, "Ms. Williamson! How nice to hear your voice. I hope that means you're feeling better. This is Joey."

"Ah yes, the one who has turned my grandson into a homosexual. Thank you for destroying my life, young man. Now I shall never have great-grandchildren."

"Say what?" Joey said in shock. "You're blaming me for this? Don't get mad at me just because no one in your family can stand you!"

"You speak of things you know nothing about," Grandmère said. "All I know is that he wasn't gay before you came in the picture, and he is now. Why don't you do us both a favor and leave him alone?"

"I will do no such thing," Joey said angrily. "The fact that you are nasty to him is bad enough, but to fake a heart attack just because you were mad at him? Do you have any idea what sort of hell you put him through? Do you know that he practically threw himself in the lake because of how guilty he felt after the things he said to you? You are an evil, nasty woman, and you deserve everything you get!"

Grandmère muttered something in French that Joey didn't understand, and then she said, "Don't lie to me just to make me feel guilty. I know that I shouldn't have done that, and when I speak with my grandson I will apologize, but don't make this a bigger deal than it is."

"You know absolutely nothing about your family, do you? Everything is about you, isn't it? If I had any say in the matter, I would find a way to keep you from ever hurting Will again. Do you know what his nickname is for you? La chienne. I think it fits just right, because you're the biggest bitch I've ever met!"

At that moment I came out of the bathroom, still half-dressed, toweling my hair. "Joe, who is it?" I asked. I had heard Joey raise his voice a couple of times, but I didn't think much of it. I figured it was probably Jerrica being Jerrica and she had somehow riled him up.

Joey, however, paid no attention to me, focusing everything on the conversation he was having with the person on the other end of my phone line. After a brief moment, he said, "That's right! After what you did to him, I wouldn't be surprised if he kept that promise! You certainly deserve it."

I cocked my head to one side, wondering who on earth Joey could be talking to when suddenly it dawned on me. "Joe!" I hissed. Joey ignored me, still listening to the other person talk. "JOEY!" I hissed louder. Joey still ignored me. He was too engaged in his argument to pay attention to me. Finally, I walked up to him and stared him straight in the eye. Joey jumped back a couple feet, a bit startled by my sudden appearance.

"Hi Will!" Joey said, cupping his hand over the mouthpiece. "Feel better?"

"Is that Grandmère?" I asked with a sigh.

Joey nodded. "The bitch so far has claimed that world hunger is my fault, along with hurricanes, tornadoes, and you being gay. In short, all of your earth-shaking disasters."

I sighed as I sat down on the couch. "I really don't want to talk to her, but I probably don't have much of a choice."

"Then don't," Joey said as he cupped his hand over the mouthpiece. "You don't owe her anything."

"I know, but I'm going to have to do this sooner or later, so it might as well be now. Hand me the phone, please," I said.

"Are you sure?"

"Not really, but I'm going to do it anyway."

"Here you go," Joey said as he handed me the phone.

"Hello," I said after a last-second effort to maintain my composure.

Grandmère started to babble quickly at me in French, but I wasn't really paying attention. "Aussi, je..."

"STOP!" I yelled. "Also what? Haven't you done enough damage already? Look, I don't care what you think of me, or Joey, or anyone else in my life. I am finally getting to a point where I am happy with myself and my life, and I am not going to let you destroy it! Grandmère, you're just going to have to accept the fact that I'm gay!" The line went silent for a moment before Grandmère started in on me again. "No, no, no, no, no! I'm over it! You know what? Forget it. I was only angry the last time when I said it, but I mean it now! I don't want to speak to you again. Salut."

I closed the cell phone and threw it on the couch in disgust. Joey came over to me and wrapped an arm around my shoulder. "Are you going to be okay?"

"Huh? Me? Oh, fine. Fine," I said distractedly.

"You know better than to think I believe that," Joey said sternly.

I sighed. "I know. I just wasn't prepared to have that conversation yet. Actually, I don't think I would have ever been ready to have that conversation."

"I know what you mean," Joey said automatically without thinking.

I slowly turned to look at him with a curious expression on my face. "So, uh, speaking of telling family things..." I began.

Joey's face immediately went sour. "I don't want to talk about this right now Will."

"Joe, I know you don't want to talk it about it, but we will have to talk about it at some time. You don't plan on keeping me hidden away forever, do you?" I asked with a slight smile on my face, but my smile quickly faded when the expression on Joey's face didn't change. "You are planning on telling your family about me, right?"

Joey looked pained. "Well, I..."

I broke out of Joey's embrace and crossed my arms over my chest. I don't know why this was weighing on my mind so much, and even though I had told Joey that I was fine with him telling them when he was ready, there was a part of me that was wondering if it would ever happen. "Don't lie to me Joe. Please don't lie to me."

"I'm not!" Joey exclaimed. "I will tell them! I promise I'll tell them. I just haven't figured out how yet."

I closed my eyes for a second, suppressed all the feelings I was feeling at the moment as hard as I could, smiled broadly, and said, "I know you'll find a way, at the right time." Again, I had conceded back to the 'whenever you're ready' mantra. I didn't really want to force the issue, but at the same time, I also felt that if he could find a way to keep from telling them, he'd do it.

Joey sighed. "Thanks for trying to make me feel better, but I feel like I'm disappointing you, like maybe you think that you're not important to me."

"I don't think that Joe, and I'm sorry if I got a little bent out of shape. I know it's not an easy thing to tell people you care about, especially if you don't think they are going to react well. Just don't follow my example by screaming it in the middle of a fight!"

"Not the preferred method of doing that, is it?" Joey asked with a chuckle.

"No. Not in the slightest," I replied.

I walked back over to Joey and embraced him hard. He kissed me on the top of my head and said, "You know, sometimes I don't know what I'd do without you."

"Then I would suggest never having to find out," I said with a grin. I held him for another few moments or so when I jumped in surprise by the sound of my cell phone ringing. "Mon Dieu. That can't be her calling back."

"Just ignore it," Joey said.

Curiosity getting the better of me, I picked up my phone and looked at the number. "Oh, it's just my mother," I said with relief. Then my eyes popped wide open. "MY MOTHER! Zut alors!" Watching Joey's face crinkle as it did when I uttered something in French he didn't understand, I said, "That basically means 'DAMN!'"

"What? It's just your mother. She's cool, for a mom."

"Yeah, but when she gets mad, life can be hell," I said. "I'm sure Grandmère called her as soon as I hung up on her."

"Aren't you going to answer that?" Joey asked.

"Oh yeah." I flipped the phone open and said, "Hi Mom."

"I just had a rather interesting call from your grandmother," Mom said, in English strangely enough. I could only surmise that Kate was with her and she wanted Kate to hear.

"I know. I'm sorry," I said. "It's just that she said some really nasty things to Joe and some worse things to me and..."

"Robért-James! Calm down."

"I know what you're going to say and..."

"ARRÊT!" Mom yelled. "STOP!"

"What?" I asked.

"Let me talk to Joey, please."

"Joey? Why?"

"Just let me talk to him."

"She wants to talk to you," I said as I handed Joey the phone.

"Me?" he said in surprise as he took the phone. "Uh, hi Anne-Marie."

"Joey! How wonderful to hear your voice!" Mom said. "How is my baby doing?"

"I'm fine," Joey said with a grin. "Oh, and Jamesy is just dandy as well."

Mom shrieked with laughter. "Oh Joey, you are very funny. Please tell my son to not worry about his grandmother. I will deal with her myself. Under the circumstances, I think he did about as well as can be expected."

"I will," Joey said.

"Oh, and Joey, thank you for being there with Robért-James while he is dealing with this. I know this is hard on him, and I'm glad you're there to help him through it. You were definitely raised right. One of these days I'll have to talk with your mother."

Joey whirled around and stared at me. "Uh, right. My mother. Well, I have to go Anne-Marie. Give my best to Kate. Bye!" He quickly hung up the phone and said, "I don't know how you and your mother do that, but it's starting to creep me out."

"Do what?" I asked as I headed back to the bathroom to get the rest of my clothes.

"Never mind," Joey said as he sat back down on the couch. Even though he was starting to become comfortable with my--shall we say--eccentricities, I still managed to surprise him every now and again.

While the moment of chaos was brewing inside the dressing room, someone outside had been listening to the entire thing. "So Will wants to meet Joey's family," Josh said with a grin as he turned away from the door and began walking back to the stage area. "I think that can be arranged. He's done so much for me already that I think it's time to pay back the favor." With his new task set in his mind, Josh dashed off to start putting plans into motion, forgetting about the reason he had come to find me. Kimber was looking for me, and it was big news she had to deliver.

At a quarter to three, I ran upstairs to find Jerrica and the others. I ran into Kimber first, and man did I get an earful! "Where the hell have you been?" she asked.

"Okay, you lost me," I said. "We were on lunch until three, right? Is my watch slow? Am I late?"

"No, you're not late," Kimber said, "at least not for that. I sent Josh looking for you over half an hour ago."

"Oh. Sorry. I didn't seem him. Maybe something else came up and he forgot," I said, not knowing how close to the truth I really was.

"Anyway," Kimber said, "I've got some news you'll want to hear!"

"Really? What?" I asked, getting excited.

"Well, I just got off the phone with Tony Sanderson..."

"Okay, Kimber, stop. First of all, 'news I want to hear' and 'Tony Sanderson' do not normally go into the same sentence," I said, rolling my eyes. "Besides, what did you and my publisher have to speak about?"

"Well, there are two things," Kimber said as she started to jump up and down. Whatever it was, it had gotten her excited, classic Kimber style. "First, Tony has agreed to help defray some of the tour costs if you agree to do book signings and other types of promotions while we're on the road."

"Now why does that not surprise me?" I said. "I'm surprised he also didn't tell you to beat my next copy out of me."

"Well, he did, actually, but I just ignored that," she said. "Anyway, the news that you'll want to hear..."

I waited for Kimber to finish, and when she didn't, I exclaimed, "Just spit it out already!"

"Well, you know how there are a couple of free days open after the concert in East Lansing?"

"Vaguely," I replied casually. In fact, that little break had not escaped my notice, and quite honestly, while there were times I had no problems with going home, with the way I had been receiving threats from Allison lately, I wanted to stay as far away from Michigan at the moment as I could.

"Anyway," Kimber continued in her excited tone, "Tony and I had a little talk about Dani's foundation, and he thought we ought to do a charity concert the night after your concert!"

I didn't know what to say. I was actually quite surprised, to be honest. Why? I wasn't surprised that someone had actually thought to do something so kind and generous, but that it was dreamed up by Tony Sanderson of all people! If you're lost at this point, then let me back up a little and explain.

Tony is a great guy, to be perfectly honest, and my last comments really don't give him enough credit. Tony was the only publisher who was really willing to give me a chance when I submitted my first copy out to numerous publishers, something I haven't let Random House forget about for years now! When The Cat and the Silver Chalice, my first novel, hit the New York Times bestseller list, I began the process of doing something I had thought about doing for years, but was never in the position to do: start a foundation in Dani's name to help prevent child abuse. Since my first book was selling well, and I was on my way to writing a second, I hoped fervently that I would be able to make it work. With contributions from fundraisers in the Lansing area and a nice donation from Sanderson House, the charity was established. In the very beginning, I tried my hardest to remain a full participant in how the charity was run, but it was also exhausting work. Not more than three months into the project, Tony called me and offered to help by providing an accountant. Granted, it was a nice tax write-off for him, but it made my life a hell of a lot easier. Soon, a board was established to oversee the day-to-day operations, and I slowly faded from the picture. I'm still kept up-to-date on things from time to time, but I'm mostly a figurehead, so to speak. Quite honestly, that's about all I can handle!

However, from that point on, whenever Tony has a gripe with me about something, he always rubs in the things he has done. Keep in mind that everything Tony does usually involve some sort of gain for Tony on the other side, but I usually ignore that most of the time. Whether it is a tax write-off or public relations hoopla, Tony always gets his investment back in the end. So, bringing my point to a close, for Tony to suggest something that has no direct return for him seemed out of character. Then again, I thought, my radar going up and spinning wildly, there might be something to this puzzle that I'm missing.

"That sounds interesting," I said nonchalantly.

"Interesting?" Kimber asked incredulously. "Is that all you have to say? Interesting?"

"Actually Kimber, I'm ecstatic. It's just that I'm not used to Tony doing selfless things," I said, covering my true feelings quickly. Recalling that there was that possibility of Allison being released, especially in the near future, I wanted to keep as much distance between her and me as I could.

"Oh, by the way," Kimber said as she headed off in another direction, "Tony wants to know how far you're coming along on the new book as soon as possible."

"Grrrrr," I growled in disgust. My current book was just about ready to be published, and all Tony could be concerned with was where my next one was? Like I don't deserve a break or something? I decided not to dwell on that too long because we had other business to attend to that night.

"I think I'm going to die," Jerrica gasped as she collapsed onto the floor in a lump.

"Stop being so dramatic and move over so I can collapse without falling on top of you," I said as I felt my knees buckle. I fell on top of Jerrica who groaned loudly. "Too late."

"Get off me!" Jerrica yelled as she started to push me, but she quickly gave up. "Too tired to push. Roll over."

I started to roll off of her until I made complete contact with the ground. I was quickly joined by three other seriously exhausted people. M.F. had us start right at three o'clock, and it was nearly seven now. We had been going nonstop the entire time, but on the bright side, we did now have two songs fairly well staged, even if we were tripping over ourselves doing it. To me, it felt like this was something we truly might be able to accomplish by the time the Charlotte concert rolled around.

"You can't be that out of it already!" M.F. exclaimed when she came over to investigate the pile of bodies on the floor.

I nodded. "Yes, we can!" Looking over at the others, I said, "Well, this is what I would call a rather, um, interesting bonding experience. I feel sorry for whoever is going to have to mop up all this sweat. On the bright side, I think three pounds of that is mine!"

"I hear you there," Mandy said. "Talk about a workout!"

Noting the time on my watch, once I was able to muster enough energy to raise my arm, I said, "Hey, we should get going. We still have to shower, change, and get back here in time for the concert!"

All five of us startle to scramble to our feet when Aja said, "Hold on!" We all skidded to a stop and turned to face her. "Go ahead, get ready, and enjoy yourselves tonight. However, we are leaving for Baltimore first thing in the morning, so be ready. Once we get back, we're going to get right to work."

We all grumbled as we collected our things and trudged out of the room. We passed the dressing rooms for *Nsync and I stopped briefly to knock. "Who is it?" I could hear Josh call.

"Delivery!" I called back, altering my voice a little.

"Delivery?" I heard Lance ask aloud. "Delivery of what?"

"Lance, just shut up and open the door already before Jerrica kicks it open!" I said in exasperation.

Within seconds, the door flew open and standing in the doorway was Joey. "Hey, guys! Man, you look whipped!"

"You have no idea," Karri said. "M.F. kicked us hard, but I think we're making progress. It's going to be a long couple of weeks though."

"Anyway," I interjected, getting right to the point since we had very little time, "we're headed back to the hotel to get cleaned up and changed for the concert tonight. Is there anything you want us to bring back?"

Joey smiled. "That's sweet, but we're pretty much booked solid until after the show. We have a meet and greet in half an hour and we're just starting wardrobe and makeup now." He looked over his shoulder at the others. "I have to go, but I'll see you later." I smiled slightly and turned to leave, but Joey grabbed my shirt and pulled me back. "Je t'aime, Jamesy."

I blushed hard. "Love you too, JoJo," I whispered in his ear before running off like a crazy person.

Behind me, I could hear Jerrica cackling up a storm. "OH JAMESY!" she called out.

"Shut up Jerrica, or I'll..."

"You'll what?" she yelled as she ran after me. The two of us began arguing, letting out some of the steam that had been building but no one before had let us release. We argued all the way back to the hotel rooms. To be honest, it felt kind of good. I know she and I have a demented relationship, but it works, so don't knock it until you've tried it!

"Would you get your ass in gear?" Jerrica called as she banged on my bathroom door. She and Mandy, putting stereotypes about girls to shame, had both showered and changed in less than fifteen minutes. I would have almost purported to suggest that they had showered together to save time, but I think both of them would kick the crap out of me if I had ever voiced that thought. Besides, I knew quite well where both of their intentions toward sex lay, and I wasn't about to insinuate anything different. I, however, was taking an eternity in the bathroom, trying to make myself look good, which was a task all in itself.

At last I came out of the bathroom, and the second I appeared in the doorway, Mandy and Jerrica both doubled over in laughter. " that...on your head?" Mandy asked between hysterical breaths.

"Uh, hair?" I said as I rolled my eyes. "So I put mousse in it! Sue me!"

"Looks more like you have a moose on it," Jerrica said.

"Lay off!" Tom chided as he came over. "I think Will looks cute."

"See!" I said defiantly. "Someone is able to appreciate... Say what?" Tom's words took a second to register in my head.

"I said you look cute. The outfit looks great, your hair looks nice, and you just overall look good." A momentary uncomfortable silence passed, just long enough for Tom to say, "Okay, I've rightfully bolloxed this up, so I'm going to go over here and shut my trap for a minute."

"No, I appreciate the compliment, Tom," I said at last, "and as for these two, they wouldn't know attractive if it whacked them upside the head. Granted, I'm not the most beautiful person in the world, but I like to think I'm not terribly ugly either."

Mandy smiled. "You're right Will. You do look nice. Sorry for picking on you."

"No worries," I said as I glanced at my watch. "We better go. We were invited to that meet and greet, and it's supposed to start in ten minutes."

"Well if you hadn't taken so long," Jerrica said as he dashed out the door, "we'd probably already be there by now."

"Oh knock it off you two!" Mandy exclaimed as we jumped on the elevator. We met the others in the lobby and made our way over to the arena. Kimber handed everyone their tickets and passes and we made our way inside.

Granted, we had all been in here not less than an hour ago, but it seemed like a completely different scene. There were throngs of people everywhere, and it was hard to navigate through the masses. I was about to head for the meet and greet when I was suddenly pulled back by someone. I whirled around to find myself face-to-chest with Mike. "Hi Mike!" I said with a smile. "What's up?"

"Shhh! Follow me!" he said as he grabbed my arm and pulled me into a nearby room.

"What's up?" I asked after he shut the door.

"I'd like you to meet Veronica," Mike said. "Veronica is our head makeup artist and all-around fashion guru. Veronica, this is Will."

"Will, it is so nice to meet you!" Veronica said as she sashayed over and gave me a kiss on the cheek. "Please, call me Vee. You know, those guys could not say enough nice things about you, especially one guy in particular."

"Gee, I wonder who that was," I said with a grin.

"I think it's sweet," Vee said. "Anyway, rumor has it that you have some revenge plotted for a certain someone, and I was hoping I could be of assistance."

"You mean Chris? I threatened it, but I wasn't really planning on doing it. I figured the threat would drive him crazy enough, but that didn't last very long. I doubt he even remembers it, and it was only Wednesday."

"Well, what I thought was we could do some quick hair, makeup, and wardrobe alterations, and then have you go into the meet and greet and embarrass him a little. Not devastate him, mind you, but just poke at him some," Vee said with an evil glint in her eye.

"And for this, I have to have a makeover?" I asked.

"It wouldn't be as much fun if he knows it's you," Vee said. "Besides, afterward, I'll make you look so hot that you'll have to bat all the girls and guys in this arena off of you." When I raised an eyebrow, Vee said, "Come on. The only guys who are here are either gay and out, gay and in the closet, gay and don't know it yet, or have been dragged here by their girlfriends. So that leaves what? Maybe 50 guys who won't want you?"

I laughed. "Vee, you're sweet, but I'm not exactly in the running for world's sexiest man here or anything."

"That's because you hadn't met me yet, honey," Vee said with a flourish. "Now let's get to work."

Vee was fast and fantastic. In no time at all, I was in a new set of clothes, had on a wig, had makeup applied, and when I went to look in the mirror, I was shocked at how cute I looked. "Man, if I ever decide I want to be a drag queen, I'll have to give you a call," I said. She had transformed me from Will to WHOA! I guess my features were delicate enough that with a little makeup and the right outfit, I could easily pass for female. I didn't even look like myself; she was that good. Were it not for my bright baby blue eyes, I almost wouldn't have recognized me.

"You're perfect! Now go!" Vee said with glee as she pushed me toward the door.

"Remind me again why I'm doing this?" I said hesitantly.

"Because you and I both owe Chris some payback, although from what I understand you more than me," Vee said.

I looked over at Mike, who was trying hard not to laugh. "This is going to go horribly, horribly wrong," I said to him, "and I just want you to know that when it does, I'm coming back for you."

Mike burst out laughing and said, "Man I owe you one for this. Chris once sent me all the way across the city once to get a pizza for him because the place wouldn't deliver it and they weren't allowed to leave. Do you know that by the time I came back, he told me he didn't want it any more, after I spent an hour in traffic each way just to get the damn thing for him?"

"I knew Chris was a bit of a troublemaker, but I thought that was just with me. I guess he gets everyone, huh?"

"Yep. Now go!" Vee said, pushing me out the door.

Trying to find my composure, which was a bit hard to do considering my current appearance, I tried to put on a 'straight face,' so to speak, and headed for the next room. The meet and greet session had already started, so I slipped in quietly and found a spot in the back corner. The questions the girls were asking were fairly standard and mundane, and the guys did their best to answer them without seeming bored. What I was oblivious to was the fact that all five of them were, while paying attention to the questions being asked, paying close attention to one person in particular in the room. Yeah, you guessed it. They were all looking at me.

Josh was the first person to notice me enter the room, and right away he was struck by how pretty I was. She's hot, Josh thought, and then shook those thoughts from his head. No, you doofus. Two things: One, she's a fan, and that's a bad mix. Number two, you really like Tom, but she is a real cutie. If I could have only heard his thoughts, I would have blushed profusely. Vee was a master at her craft. The clothes she had picked out were extremely flattering to my physique, thus practically obscuring my excess poundage.

Josh nudged Justin and whispered something in his ear, and Justin too moved his head to look at me. He too agreed that I was very attractive, and for a split second, he actually considered trying to find a way to ask me out to a party after the show.

Justin nudged Lance and indicated in my direction. By this point, I should have noticed something was up, but I was too focused on what I was going to say to pay much attention. Lance too thought I was beautiful, but there was something about me he thought seemed familiar. However, he chalked it up to having done so many of these that the girls started to look alike in every venue.

Someone had asked Justin a question, so Lance nudged Joey and whispered something in his ear. Joey turned his head to look at me, and he too felt that there was something very familiar about me, but he wasn't completely sure. He briefly considered a thought for a second, and then thought it was so improbable that he immediately dismissed it.

Joey leaned over and said something to Chris, who was immediately taken by my good looks. Wow, she's pretty, Chris thought with a smile. I'm just glad Jerrica can't hear my thoughts, or I'd be in trouble! He turned to look in Jerrica's direction and flashed her a big smile. Jerrica returned the smile and continued to listen as the guys were asked more questions.

At last, their curiosity getting the better of them, Justin said, "You! The one in the back corner with the long, brown hair. You've been quiet through this entire thing. Did you want to ask something?"

Showtime! I thought. Stepping forward a couple of steps, I started to speak in my best phony French accent. It's the one that native English speakers think that native French speakers sound like when speaking English. Of course, native English speakers have bad accents when speaking French, so turnabout is fair play, I suppose. The French make fun of the way the English pronounce French words all the time. What else is new?

Enough about that. As I was saying, I spoke slowly, as if I didn't have a firm grasp on the language, and said in my best phony French accent with a slightly higher pitched voice, "Oui. My name eez Dominique and I am from Paris. I visit your country for, uh, one week, and I very much like your musique. I sorry zat I not very good weef names. You are, uh, Justin, JC, Lance, Joey, and uh..." I pretended to falter for a moment while I came up with Chris' name. "I sorry. I not remember your name."

Chris flushed a little. "It's Chris."

"Eez it? I sorry I not remember. So, I wonder. I come from France, which eez known for amour. 'Ow you find time for zat while working?"

Joey stared at me the entire time I spoke. The coincidences were just too high, but they could still be coincidences nonetheless. Even still, he was almost sure... "Uh, I'm sorry, uh Dominique was it?" When I nodded, Joey continued. "We do the best we can in our personal lives, but we tend not to discuss them for privacy reasons. I hope you understand."

"Oh, I do," I said. "I 'ave one more question, s'il vous plait. Zis is for ze court one there," I said, mispronouncing the French word 'court,' meaning short, to sound more like the English word 'cute' by practically eliminating the 'r' sound and pronouncing the 't' at the end instead of leaving it silent. I had pointed between Joey and Chris, and hoped that Joey would take the bait and hear what I had wanted them to think they heard. He did.

"Go ahead," Joey said with a smile. "What's your question?" Turning to Lance, he said, "She thinks I'm the cute one. Told ya so!"

"Oh, I sorry again," I said. "My English eez not so good. I use ze French word instead of English by mistake, and zey sound very similar. I meant ze short one on ze end. I still forget heez name, but I do zink zat you are very cute!"

The audience burst into laughter and Chris cringed. I started to feel a little bad for the guy. His comments had only been made within the confines of our little group, but I did owe him some retribution for getting me into this entire mess to start with, so I shook some of the guilt off.

"What was your question?" Chris asked, gritting his teeth.

"Oh, je n'ai aucune idée. I 'ave forgotten eet now," I said. I was going to say something else, but I decided to let it go. I didn't want to add insult to injury. However, the moment I uttered my last statement in French, Joey's head turned quickly and he stared at me again. At this point I could see him start to stifle a laugh, and I knew he knew. I didn't anticipate being able to fool Joey, at least not for very long, but no one else seemed to have caught on.

"Okay people," Eric said, standing from his chair about five feet from Josh's left. "That concludes this session. Please feel free to come up and get autographs for the next ten minutes, and then you will have to go so they can get ready."

I took that as my cue to excuse myself from the room and head down to the room Vee was in. I let myself in and shut the door behind me. "So how did it go?" Vee asked.

"The boy turned as red as a tomato," I said with a smile. "I pretended to forget his name, on more than one occasion, and on the last time, I referred to him as the short one. He did not seem particularly pleased with me."

"Oh, I wish I had been there to see it," Vee said. "I would tell you about the pranks he has pulled on me, but that would take too long. Now, come here so I can un-feminize you."

Within a couple of minutes, she had stripped all of the makeup off, had me get changed back into my regular clothes, and then restyled my hair. I had to admit I liked what she had done more than what I had done to begin with. I had Mike check to make sure the guys weren't in the hallway, and then I made my exit. I walked down the hall in the opposite direction, and then ran back down the hall to the room where the meet and greet was held so as to appear completely out of breath. I slipped in just as most of the people were starting to exit.

"Sorry I'm late," I said to Jerrica. "Did I miss the whole thing?"

"Where did you go?" she asked, eyeing me suspiciously. "One minute you were behind me, and the next moment you were gone."

"I was detained for a little bit, and it's kind of a long story," I said. Changing the subject, I continued with, "So what did I miss?"

"Oh, it was great. There was this girl from Paris here, and she made Chris look like a monkey. She embarrassed the heck out of him. I don't think I've seen him turn that red in quite a while."

"Wow. She was being mean to him?"

"Not deliberately. She forgot his name; remembered everyone else, but forgot him. Then, when she went to ask another question, she still couldn't remember his name, so she referred to him as the short one. Although, come to think of it, her pronunciation was rather off, although I suppose it could be a dialectal thing. What baffles me is that she said the word for cute, being chouette (pronounced 'shoe-ette'), sounds a lot like the word for short, which is court (pronounced 'coor'), but the only thing similar about them is they both start with 'c.' I don't get it."

"Like you said, maybe it's a dialectal thing," I said, looking away.

Jerrica stared at me for a second and then said, "Wait a minute. If I didn't know any better, I would say that you..."

"Shhh!" I hissed at her. "Shut up!"

"You!" Jerrica said, her eyes lighting up.

"Hush! I'm playing a prank on Chris and I'm not done yet, so just shut up already!"

"Oh this I have got to see," Jerrica said with relish.

"Just don't blow it, all right?" I said, rolling my eyes. "Come on." I walked up to the table and said to Josh in my most atrocious Valley Girl voice, "Oh, my God. I can't, like, believe that I'm standing right across the table from, you know, JC Chasez!"

Josh looked up and said, "I know. Being in the presence of someone so gorgeous is hard, isn't it?"

"I know. How you'll ever manage is beyond me," I retorted with a smile. I then leaned over and whispered something in Josh's ear.

"NO!" Josh exclaimed.

The others looked over at us, and I just shook my head, pointed at Josh, and laughed. "Such a drama queen he is. Tell him that his clothes went out of style three decades ago and he freaks out."

"What's wrong with my clothes?" Josh asked.

"Besides everything?" I commented. "Seriously, let's go have some fun." I wandered down the table, past Justin, Lance, and Joey, and stopped in front of Chris. Glancing over at Joey, I gave him a wink before turning back to Chris. "So, how did the meet and greet go?" I asked nonchalantly.

"Fine, I guess," Chris said ruefully. "I mean, there was this gorgeous girl in here earlier, but she couldn't even remember my name, and then she referred to me as the short one! I mean, come on! That's not fair, picking on my size like that."

"I'm sorry Chris," I said. "Did you get her phone number so you can stop pretending you're infatuated with this one?" I asked, motioning toward Jerrica, who immediately whacked me in the head.

"Very funny," Chris said.

"Don't worry Chris," I said soothingly. Then, adjusting my voice to sound like 'Dominique' and slipping into my fake French accent, I said, "I am certain zat you have nothing to worry about. You are not only court, mais you are also très chouette!" I waited for Chris' eyes to bug out, and when they did, I leaned over and said, "Chouettemeans cute, my dear sir, and remember that when I tell you I have accepted a challenge, like the one you so willingly offered on Wednesday at Mama Celia's, you ought to expect me to follow through. Now, I think that makes us just about even, does it not?"

"I can't believe you did that!" Chris spluttered. "How did you get all made up like that?"

"Oh, Vee says hello," I said with a grin, "and also that payback is a bitch. She said you'd understand."

Chris burst out laughing. "I suppose I had that coming from her," he said with a grin. "That was pretty good, my friend, although now you have me questioning something."

"What's that?" I asked.

"Since I just stated that I thought you were gorgeous, do I have to worry about Joey coming and beating me up to defend his territory?" Chris stated, beaming.

"Territory? Since when did I become a piece of property?" I inquired. I glanced over at Joey who just rolled his eyes and went back to talking to Lance and Justin, howling over the way I had fooled them all, especially Chris.

We were interrupted by Eric coming over to the table and, after maneuvering his way around Jerrica, said calmly, "It's time to go guys. We have to get you ready to go onstage. The opening act should be going on in just a moment."

Jerrica and I excused ourselves and headed toward the back of the room, collecting Mandy, Tom, Karri, Aja, Shana, and Raya as we went. We had barely gone more than thirty feet when Johnny Wright pushed his way into our group.

"Whoa!" I said. "Where's the fire?"

"We have a bit of an emergency," Johnny said.

"What type of emergency?" I asked. I could sense that Johnny was not only just anxious, which was obvious to everyone looking at him, but I could sense incredible uneasiness building. I surmised that there was something he needed to ask me and he wasn't certain how to go about it. Whatever it was had to be pretty big.

"Our opening act is stuck in traffic," Johnny said, "and the concert is supposed to start in ten minutes."

"Bummer," I said. "That'll suck to have to tell the crowd the show is delayed, but I'm sure they won't boo you...too much."

"No, that's where you come in," Johnny said.

"Me? Uh-uh. No chance. Isn't it bad enough you have me performing in two weeks in Charlotte? At least for that, I'll have had time to practice and get ready for the show. There is no way I am singing out there tonight."

"Come on Will! Please! I really need your help!" Johnny begged.

"Wow. Johnny begging. There's a sight I thought I would never see," I muttered. Louder, I said, "Johnny, I'm not prepared. I wouldn't know what to sing, and at the moment, I'm not sure I would even have the nerve to do it."

"I didn't want to bring this up, but keep in mind that you do have a contract with me to perform..." Johnny began.

"...which clearly states our first performance is on the eighth of June. Last time I checked, this was still the twenty-sixth of May," I finished, crossing my arms over my chest. Honestly, I liked him better when he was begging.

"You've, uh, read your contract?" Johnny asked in surprise.

"Duh! What dummy would sign a contract without reading it?" I asked in annoyance. Those words, little did I know, would come back and haunt me later, but that's a story for a later time.

"I see. Well, then I don't know what the hell to do," Johnny said at last. "You're absolutely sure you won't go? Whatever you want, I'll give you."

Now there was a tempting offer, but I still didn't feel right about going out on stage by myself in front of thousands of people. My stage fright was starting to kick itself into overdrive. I mean, if it were I and the others, I could probably handle it because then I wouldn't be alone, but to go out solo was something different. As I was contemplating my decision, as usual, my stomach had to interject an opinion on the matter as I suddenly sprinted for the restrooms.

I was followed not seconds later by Tom who watched me pray to the porcelain God as everything I ate that day suddenly came back for round two. After my stomach convulsions turned into dry heaves and then eventually calmed down, Tom said as he watched me flush the toilet, "Well, I guess that answers that. There is no way you are going out on that stage Will. I won't let you."

Even though I knew that there couldn't possibly be anything left in my stomach, I was still afraid to turn around lest something my stomach hadn't ejected was still floating around down there. "Thanks, Tom," I said weakly. "Every time I think about going out on stage, this happens. Even when I think I can do it, my body reacts violently. God help us in two weeks when we really do have to go out there. I just hope I can make it then."

"I'm sure you'll be fine," Tom said, "because the four of us are going to make sure you're ready."

I finally turned around and sat on the floor in front of the toilet. Smiling at Tom while holding my stomach, willing it to behave, I said simply, "Thanks."

Not a second later, Joey burst into the bathroom with the other four *Nsync members in tow. "Will, are you all right?" he asked from outside the stall, concerned. He couldn't see very well because Tom was standing in his way and wasn't in the mood to move.

"I'm good," I said as I started to stand, but my body had other thoughts as I suddenly got dizzy and sat back down. "Or not," I stated as I sat back down.

"Tom, move," Joey said, pushing Tom's shoulder, but Tom didn't budge.

"Give him a minute," Tom said sternly. "He's just a little bit lightheaded, but it'll pass in a moment."

"What happened?" Joey asked. Tom recanted the scene, giving Joey the short version.

"Which brings us to the queen of the porcelain," I said dryly. "Aren't you supposed to be getting ready to go onstage?" I asked.

"We heard something had happened to you and came down," Josh said from behind Joey.

I groaned. "Guys, I'm touched, but you can't come running every time I have a nervous breakdown. You'd never be able to leave my side," I said, making a small attempt at humor. "You all have seen me at me my worst, and this is hardly it." I decided to try getting to my feet again, and this time my knees cooperated.

At that point, Tom decided to move out of Joey's way at last. "Hey, don't chastise us just because we care about you," Joey said firmly. "We wanted to make sure you were okay."

I wondered how many more people were outside the stall besides Tom, Josh, and the others. "Where are Johnny and Eric?"

"Hovering around outside freaking out about any number of things," Joey replied.

"One of them being how to get me onstage," I muttered. Looking around me, I decided I had enough of the bathroom stall and nudged Joey to let me out. Once I walked out, I glanced at the other four, whose faces I had been unable to see, and the concerned look on their faces was hard to miss. "Well, I don't know what else to tell them. If they try to force me onstage somehow, Tom will kick their asses, then Mandy will do it again for good measure, and then Jerrica will do it just because she can."

"I HEARD THAT!" came Jerrica's voice from outside the door.

"YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO!" I called back before breaking into a coughing fit. "Ugh. Throat still burns. Going to have to find some water and/or milk to wash the stomach acid away. I'll worry about that in a minute. You five need to get going. I'm sure there are a ton of little things that you need to do before you go out."

Joey sighed. "You're right. We have to go." Joey looked me in the eye for a moment, wondering if he should give me a kiss on the cheek, when I smiled and shook my head.

"Go," I said. "Break a leg guys, except you Josh! I don't think I can handle you with a broken leg. The sprain was bad enough."

"Tell me about it!" Josh said with a grin before following the others out.

"Those guys are loons," I said. Then, in a lower voice so only Tom could hear, "Cute loons, but loons none the less."

Tom smiled. "Let's go, boyo. I don't want to miss the concert. We should go find our seats."

Tom and I walked out of the bathroom and nearly walked right into Karri, Mandy, and Jerrica. "Are you going to be okay?" Karri asked with concern.

I nodded. "Yeah, I'll be fine. We should go find our seats. The concert will start sooner or later."

"I would prefer sooner rather than later," Johnny said, coming up to us. "Will, are you absolutely certain there is nothing I can do to convince you to go out there?"

I sighed. I was hoping my bit of unplanned theatrics would have closed this conversation. "How far away are they?" I asked.

"Five minutes, give or take," Johnny said.

"Then you need me for what? Just make an announcement that there will be a very short delay," I said.

"Well, we need to get this show started," Johnny said. "The audience is getting restless."

"Well... I... Um..."

"NO," said Tom, coming in between Johnny and me. "He is not going out there, and that's the final answer."

"Right!" chimed in Karri and Jerrica.

"Fine! I give up with you," Johnny said.

"Why don't you go out there yourself and sing something?" Mandy asked.

"Me? Sing? Surely you jest," Johnny said.

"Not at all," Mandy said. "If someone has to go, it might as well be you. Or Eric."

"ME?" Eric screeched. "No way."

At that moment, there was a commotion as a throng of people headed in our direction. The opening act, Christina Aguilera, had arrived.

"Sorry we're late," Christina said with a bit of embarrassment. "Trying to get anywhere near this place is a bit of a trick." Noticing us standing there, she smiled and politely said, "Hello. Who are you?"

"Uh, I'm..." I paused for a second, not sure how to introduce myself. "I'm Robbie Williamson," I said at last, "and these are my friends Jerrica Andrews, Tom O'Callahan, Mandy Reinhardt, and Karri Wolfe. We're going to be taking over the opening act when you leave in a couple of weeks."

"That's awesome!" Christina said. "I feel bad about having to bail on them, but my record label wants me back in the studio as soon as possible. Well, gotta run! Bye!"

I thought she seemed very nice, and it didn't take them long to get themselves going. "Well, we should go find our seats," I said at last.

"Yeah, let's go," Karri said as she seemed to lead us away from the backstage area and Johnny Wright to the sanctity of the auditorium floor.

As we walked, Tom leaned over and whispered, "You would have eventually said yes, wouldn't you?"

I sighed and nodded. The fact that Johnny was willing to give anything to get me on that stage tonight meant that I could have dealt myself a significant upper hand into matters of many affairs. However, I wasn't permitted to go there, but it did mean that I still, in general, had the upper hand. It would be even better if I could somehow convince Johnny that I wasn't afraid of being outed. That part wasn't going to be nearly as hard as him believing that Joey wasn't afraid. It was obvious that it was a large fear on Joey's part, not so much that certain people knew, but that everyone in the world would know, and I couldn't blame him for being afraid. As I've said before, for the public to find out something like this could be devastating...or not. Either way, it was still a dangerous card for Johnny to hold on to, and I wanted it out of his hand as soon as possible.

The concert was fantastic. I wasn't a very big Christina Aguilera fan, but I found myself cheering and singing along with songs I didn't even know she sang. Then, when the guys came on, you would have thought that the roof might collapse from the sound. They danced, they sang, and they were absolutely fantastic. I had only been to one concert before in my life, and if you can't guess whom the singer was, you haven't been following very closely, now have you? Okay, okay, okay. I'll tell you! I went to an Amy Grant concert in Grand Rapids with Jerrica while we were still in high school. As far as concerts go, these were like night and day. Amy's concert had no dancing and was fairly serene, considering the size of the auditorium. I was never worried about losing my hearing because of screaming fans, for one thing. This was a completely different world though. There were thousands of screaming girls who seemed to get louder with each passing second. However, I really didn't care. I was just thrilled to finally get to see Joey doing what he did best. I was never so proud of him in my life. It wasn't until the end of the show when it dawned on me that, in a couple of weeks, I would be up there too, in front of all of these people. My stomach started to feel a little queasy, and I must have appeared to be a rather unhealthy shade of green because the next thing I knew Tom had grabbed my hand and dragged me to the bathroom. This routine was getting rather old, to be honest, and I knew I was going to have to figure out how to get all of the butterflies out of my stomach. It just seemed to be easier said than done.

"Are you going to be okay, Will?" Tom asked.

"I think so," I said after a minute or two, waiting for my hyperventilating to stop.

"Will, are you sure this is such a good idea?" Tom asked seriously. "We only have two weeks before we have to go out there, and it's not going to work if you can't step foot on the stage without getting sick?"

"I know, Tom," I said. "I know. I don't know what else to say other than I have to get over it. Besides, it's not like I have a choice. We have to go out there and do this. I just need to conquer my demons and press on."

Tom smiled. "I'm proud of you Will," he said as he gave me a hug. "Not many people would tackle one of their worst fears just to keep others happy."

I sighed and tried to smile. "I know. Such the martyr I am. Well, since my stomach has stabilized, how about we go out and finish watching the concert, huh?"

We broke our hug and headed back out. As we went back inside the auditorium, I started thinking about what had just transpired. Tom was becoming a fast friend, and I was grateful to him for handling Johnny for me today, but he had embraced me in what almost felt to be more than a friendly way. Then again, I was probably reading way too much into it. After all, I didn't feel any sort of emotion that would indicate something more than friendship. I guess it just surprised me, that's all. Maybe I was just a little overly cautious because of what happened with Justin.

We retook our seats as the guys broke into their final song for the night, Bye Bye Bye. Tom and I weren't sitting for very long because we were soon on our feet dancing and singing like crazy. As the song ended, the guys took their bows, introduced the band members, who received loud cheers, and then did something that floored all of us.

Josh came forward and said, "Thank you, everyone, for being so great tonight. I apologize that I was unable to dance with the others. As you may or may not know, we had a little car trouble a couple weeks ago which ended with me having a sprained ankle. I'm on the road to recovery, but it will still take some time to fully mend." The crowd roared with cheers and applause, which caused Josh to blush a little.

"Anyway, the last couple of weeks found us with a bit of unscheduled downtime, and for our fans whose concerts were cancelled because of it, the concerts have been rescheduled. During that downtime, we had the pleasure of meeting a group of people who have become great friends of ours," Joey said, beaming.

"So we would like to dedicate this concert to them," Lance said. "To Jerrica, Karri, Mandy, Tom, and most importantly..." Lance trailed off for a second. I wondered if it was because he didn't know what to call me or because he suddenly had some weird attack of emotion that was causing him to get all choked up. Heh. Yeah right. Like thatcould ever happen. "And most importantly, to my good friend Robbie Williamson, who never asked questions when we needed help, and was always there in a time of crisis."

"For that, thank you doesn't seem like enough, but it's heartfelt," Chris said.

"Thank you so much for being our friend," Justin said with a grin, "and thank you, everyone, for being so wonderful tonight. Have a good rest of your night, and be safe!" Then, the stage went dark for about thirty seconds, and when the house lights came on, the group had vacated the stage.

"Can you believe those turkeys?" Mandy asked, rolling her eyes. "I hope they're not going to do that at every concert. Once was embarrassing enough!"

"I thought it was sweet!" Karri said with a smile. "And did you see how Lance froze up when he got to Will's name? I can only imagine what was going on in his head. No one seems to know what to call him anymore." She turned around and saw me glaring at her. "Uh, well, it's true, you know."

"You think you've got problems?" I asked. "Imagine how I feel. I feel like I hardly know who I am or who I'm supposed to be these days. That's why I've given up on trying to force people to refer to me by one specific name. It all depends on the group I'm with."

"It's okay Will," Tom said. "You know everyone is doing the best they can."

"Well, this particular mess is no one's fault but mine," I said. "Anyway, let's get going. There's some after-concert party for some people who won some contest, and I thought we might go crash it."

"Will! You're not serious are you?" Mandy asked.

"Of course I am," I said with a mischievous glint in my eye. "Why not?"

"Because we weren't invited, you dolt," Jerrica said.

"So then we invite ourselves," I said with a straight face. "Besides, I think I know just how to do it."

With a little help from Vee and Mike, we made our way into the after-concert party. It was a small gathering made up of twenty people--ten who had won this as a prize from a local radio station plus each one was allowed one guest--plus a couple of assorted others who were there for various reasons. There were a couple of people there who had notoriety of some sort; not particularly famous in a heightened sense but had received their fifteen seconds at one time or another. There were also people from the music label, some from assorted groups that wanted to do business with *Nsync, and, unfortunately, Johnny and Eric, who were not exactly thrilled to see us.

"You five aren't allowed here," Eric said brusquely when he spotted us.

"Really? Are you sure? I was positive we were on the guest list," I said sweetly.

"Since I wrote it, I'm sure you're not on it," Eric stated, glaring at me.

"Maybe you should check it again," Jerrica said, giving Eric the evil eye.

Eric mumbled something under his breath and wandered over to Johnny, who did not look pleased at all. After a moment, Johnny came over and said, "I'm afraid you're going to have to leave."

"This from the man who would have given anything to see you onstage tonight, Will," Tom said in annoyance. "I thought he would be a little nicer after putting you through all that tonight."

Johnny was about to say something else when Josh happened to notice us having what appeared to be an unpleasant conversation with Johnny. Josh came over and said, "Hey guys! Did you enjoy the concert?"

I smiled at Josh and said, "We did indeed. We were just coming to congratulate you all on a job well done." I glared at Johnny, thought better about what I wanted to say, and then said politely, "We didn't mean to interrupt your party, so we will catch up with you later. We apparently have overstayed our welcome as it is. Tom? Ladies? Shall we go?"

I had just turned when Josh said, "What are you talking about? You know you all are welcome here anytime! Right, Johnny?"

"Well, actually..." Johnny started to say, but Josh cut him off.

"If they're not welcome, then neither are we," Josh said defiantly.

"Josh, it's okay. Really. I'm sure Johnny has his reasons," I said, staring pointedly at the man. "Hopefully he won't mind if we say good-bye to the others, since you'll be leaving soon?"

Johnny sighed. I had him over a barrel and he knew it. "Whatever. Knock yourselves out." He then wandered off to the other side of the room.

I stared at Josh, dumbfounded by what he had just done. "Josh, I... I don't know what to say. I can't believe you said that!"

"It's true, you know. Whether we would have done it or not remains to be seen, but Johnny doesn't know that, and the way things have been these days, I don't think he wants to push it."

"Well, let's go say au revoir to the others before we head out," I said as we followed Josh across the room.

We caught up with the other four and said our good-byes. Friendly hugs were traded among the group until we decided to excuse ourselves for the night. The five of us trudged back to our hotel, exhausted from the day we'd had. Tomorrow was looming on the horizon, and it was going to be a grueling day of learning songs, of learning dance steps, and all around being beaten into a pulp by M.F.

We all sat up until about midnight when my cell phone rang. I was surprised to see it was Joey calling. I answered the phone quickly and was thrilled to hear his melodic baritone voice on the other end. We spoke briefly, and then the phone circled around as the others said hello to various people. The call was short because they were about to drive into the mountains as they headed for Charleston, West Virginia, but Joey requested cell phone numbers from everyone and he had asked that I give out theirs to Tom and the girls. At last, when the phone had made its way back to me, Joey whispered a couple of things that I would rather not repeat for I would be blushing for a week and then we said our good-byes. Everyone then dispersed to their rooms while Tom and I climbed into our respective beds. It was a strange notion, to be honest, as I hadn't been alone in my bed for quite some time now. It was a rather lonely feeling, actually. I had grown so accustomed to having another body there with me that the bed now felt empty. This was going to be a long separation, at least in my mind, even though the physical time was only two weeks. I just hoped I could get through it without going nuts. Such a sad case I am, I know, but many people get kind of weird when they fall in love; I just happen to be weirder than most.

So what did you think? Can Will cope without Joey by his side for two long, miserable weeks? Will the sparks between Josh and Tom ignite now that the truth is out, or will they sputter into nothing?. Is Johnny actually starting to come around, or is there something up his sleeve?  Can Will overcome his fear of the stage once and for all? Will the group be able to last two weeks of nonstop M.F., or more importantly, two weeks of Will and Jerrica? Please, drop me a line and let me know your thoughts.

Another chapter done! Isn't it great? I know it has taken me a long time to get this chapter out, and I have many excuses, none of which you might be interested in.  For those that may have wondered, I have not, nor will I ever give up on my stories.  I will see them to completion.  I want to say thank you to anyone and everyone who voted for One Dark Night in the story awards.  I sadly did not even find out about them until after the voting was over, but I was extremely flattered to be nominated. My hat goes off to James for his clean sweep, and hopefully next year I might see a win or two.

Also, for those that are interested, I have started a second story, called The Glamorous Life, which I am co-writing with a very talented author. 
Thanks to everyone who has written to me!! A special thanks goes out to my editors, Mandy and Dreamy, who keep me in line.

The characters Kimber Benton, Jerrica Benton, Aja Leith, Shana Elmsford, and Raya Alonso are creations of Hasbro. Song lyrics used in this chapter are protected under copyright by the original authors and their recording labels. No attempt to infringe on these copyrights should be assumed or implied.