When Paris Hilton stopped by the L.A. home of her friend, skateboarder Chad Muska, on July 29, something wasn’t right. “I looked for a second and I was like, ‘What’s on your arm?’…And I noticed her lip was pretty big too, and I’m like, ‘What happened?'” says Muska, who had joined Hilton for a shopping spree just three days earlier. “She was like, ‘I just bumped into something.’ ”
The cause of Hilton’s bruises, which she openly displayed for photographers at Los Angeles International Airport on July 29, is the latest and most dramatic controversy in the wake of the exceptionally messy breakup between Hilton, 23, and her ex-boyfriend, Backstreet Boy Nick Carter, 24. Although the Simple Life star and her family have been mum about exactly what happened, Carter has been put on the defensive, vigorously denying the notion that he is responsible for her injuries. “I’ll tell you one thing: I didn’t touch her,” the singer told PEOPLE on Aug. 2. “I’m not that kind of guy. I would never do that.”
So far, Hilton has declined to press any charges related to her injuries. “I’m doing okay,” she said Aug. 1. “I’m just so happy to be single right now.” During a long weekend of partying and family events in the Hamptons July 30 to Aug. 1, Hilton seemed in high spirits—and, in typical Paris fashion, even danced on the banquettes at Hamptons nightspot Jet East. “Does that sound like a girl who is crying over her breakup?” asks R. Couri Hay, a close friend of the Hilton family’s. “Paris is indomitable.” She can also be “a handful,” says Joe Francis, the producer of the Girls Gone Wild video series, who briefly dated Hilton last year. “You can’t date Paris seriously without drama.”
Certainly drama seemed to follow the paparazzi-basking Hilton and Carter, whose rocky seven-month relationship ended on July 22, with Carter telling PEOPLE that their romance “totally was based on distrust.” Four nights later Hilton—along with her sister Nicky, 20, actress pal Bijou Phillips, 24, and Carter’s brother Aaron, 16—hit the dance floor at the L.A. hot spot Fenix at the Argyle hotel. Next up: a stop at Joseph’s Cafe, where Hilton’s group ran into Nick. “It was an accidental meeting,” says a Hilton friend. Carter’s lawyer Marty Singer notes that Hilton went home with Carter. Says a friend of Hilton’s: “She spent the night but left there bruised.” Singer also says that Carter drove her to a meeting the next morning; Hilton’s injuries didn’t publicly appear until paparazzi shots taken July 28.
The next day Singer says Carter received an angry call from Hilton, who was upset by the pop star’s comments to PEOPLE, and that the pair “got into a big argument.” Hilton’s camp questions whether the call took place but acknowledges she was likely hurt by the story.
Whatever the truth about the bruises, Hilton and Carter have each had their loose-cannon moments: An explicit sex tape Hilton made with ex-boyfriend Rick Salomon surfaced last year; she also had a public spat with actress Shannen Doherty in ’03. And Hilton’s friends have had their doubts about Carter, who was arrested in Tampa for resisting an officer without violence in 2002. “I certainly didn’t like him,” says Casey Johnson, heiress to the Johnson & Johnson fortune and a longtime Hilton pal. Johnson says Hilton’s focus is now on her career (she has two upcoming flicks, House of Wax and National Lampoon’s Pledge This!, along with her debut album). “I think that having Nick was bringing her down,” says Johnson. “She didn’t have time for both. He needed a lot of attention.” Still, even she notes, “we’ve hung out, and he’s always been very nice to me. He’s never been rude to [Paris] in front of me.”
But clearly the relationship was not always smooth sailing. “When they were really good, they were great, and when they were bad, they were awful,” says a Hilton friend.
Aaron Carter, meanwhile, has stated, “I stand by my brother 100 percent,” while Nick says that he is bewildered by the recent turn of events. “I’m just sad,” says the singer, whose new Backstreet Boys album is due later this year. “I really loved that girl.” As for Hilton, who has been in San Diego to shoot a guest spot on the new UPN series Veronica Mars, “she’s just trying to work and build a career and find the right guy along the way,” says Muska. “Obviously I don’t think this was the one.”
Michelle Tauber. Mary Green, Julie Jordan, Kimberly Lansing, Marisa Laudadio and Kwala Mandel in Los Angeles, Rebecca Paley in New York City and Kathy Ehrich in Southampton