What Was She Thinking?

01/08/2004 AT 10:00 AM EST

In the wee hours of Jan. 3, after watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in their $10,000-a-night suite at the Palms Casino Hotel, Britney Spears and her childhood pal Jason Allen Alexander were itching for a little excitement. They got it. Around 3:30 a.m., after a brief visit to the ghostbar, a swanky nightspot on the 55th floor, they asked the bar bouncers for a limousine. In the lobby, a bellman who doubles as a driver escorted the pair to the hotel's lime-green courtesy limo and asked them where they wanted to go. "Take us to a chapel," Spears answered.

As the limo, pop music filling its interior, cruised along Las Vegas's celebrated Strip, Spears and Alexander made out. The first two chapels they came upon were closed, but Spears told the driver to keep going. Finally they came upon A Little White Wedding Chapel, where lights were on and the door was open. Inside, says a witness to the proceedings, the pair were told they needed a license to marry. Hopping back in the green limo, the soon-to-be-weds continued kissing and hugging until the car pulled up to the Clark County Marriage License Bureau. As the two 22-year-olds waited to plunk down $55 in cash for a license, Spears "really didn't say anything," says Linda Wells, one of three people working the graveyard shift that night. "She was just kind of quiet."

If the magnitude – or stupidity – of what she was about to do was beginning to sink in, the pop world's most unpredictable princess didn't let that stop the fun. At 5 a.m. she and Alexander returned to the chapel, where they were ushered into the Michael Jordan room, a 20-by-50-ft. sanctuary with white benches, each dotted with a burgundy velvet cushion, and lined with white candles and flowers. (The basketball star wed there in 1989.) As Spears whipped out a credit card to pay for the $200 wedding, which included photos, a bouquet of pink roses and a video, the $100 million performer exclaimed about how expensive the package was.

"Too bad no one's here to give you away," the driver said. With a look of surprise, Spears said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah," then asked if he'd perform the task. The pastor hit a remote, and the strains of "The Wedding March" filled the room. Arm-in-arm with the driver, Spears glided down the aisle past 10 empty pews in a belly-baring black shirt, torn jeans and sneakers, her hair tucked carelessly beneath a baseball cap. In a nod to tradition, she sported a white garter, acquired at the chapel, that she'd pulled over her left pant leg.

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