Never Look Back

 

Autor: anmodo

 

Author’s Note: I’m still depressed about the lack of Danny on WAT season 3. I don’t have much inspiration for a new case file. So I decided to do a Danny backstory fic. It starts out when he is 16. I don’t know if this fic will advance as far as his life in the FBI. We’ll see how it goes and how well the story is received.

 

Disclaimer: The Danny character from Without a Trace belongs to CBS and Bruckheimer.

 

Spoilers for: Risen, Clare De Lune, Legacy, Revelations

 

Danny was running…running as hard and fast as he could. He could feel the footsteps pounding the pavement behind him as he turned the corner into an alley. He slowed down and frantically tried to open doors and lift up windows, but they were all locked. He realized there was no escape as he reached the dead end. He turned to face what or rather who was coming. As he turned, he mentally prepared himself to show no fear even though his heart was pounding. The two young men chasing him slowed upon seeing Danny trapped at the end of the alley. One of them started to smile when he saw that Danny had no place to go.

As they approached, one of them called out, “Where’s our money, little brother?”

Danny shook his head. “Don’t have it. I need a little more time…”

“Time? Time? Little brother wants more time, Jackson. What do you think?” the one man said to the other.

“I don’t know, man. Raffi had a whole month to pay us before this kid promised he’d come up with the money. Where’s your brother, kid?” Jackson asked.

“I don’t know,” Danny replied.

“You don’t know? You told us last week that Raffi arranged for you to get the money to us, but that you just needed a week. So if he arranged it, then where the hell is he?”

“I lied. I don’t know where he is,” Danny answered stoically trying not to show how scared he felt.

“Well this is unacceptable. You know that, right? We provided your brother with Grade A, high quality smack…and we get what in return? Nada…zero…zilch. That doesn’t seem fair to me. Does it to you?” Jackson asked Danny

Danny shrugged. “You shouldn’t have sold to him in the first place. You knew he was a junky. You knew he couldn’t pay. Ripping off a liquor store or jacking a car isn’t going to put a dent in what he owes you.”

“You’re a smart kid…much smarter than your brother. I tell you what…what if you work off Raffi’s debt. You could work for me. We could definitely find something lucrative for a pretty boy like you. The rich johns from uptown love the little latinos down here.”

Jackson’s partner laughed as they exchanged glances.

“No…no way, man,” Danny answered without hesitation.

“Oh come on…I've heard it's not so bad, little brother. You actually might like making the extra money after a while.”

“Screw you. I’m not working for you,” Danny fired back vehemently.

“You don’t have a choice…if you want to live and if you want your brother to live, you'll do whatever I say.”

“I’m not working for you,” Danny stated again as he backed up to the wall and grabbed a pipe that was leaning against it.

Jackson laughed. “So what…you want to fight your way out of this?” Jackson asked as he started to walk toward Danny.

Danny’s eyes shifted from one man to the other as they both approached him. As soon as Jackson came within striking distance, he swung the pipe quickly and connected with Jackson’s jaw. Then he swung back the other way to make contact with the other man’s abdomen. As they tried to regain composure, Danny pushed through them to run away, but the other man grabbed a hold of his t-shirt and swung him against the wall. Danny hit the wall hard. He pushed off the wall to try to get in another swing with the pipe, but Jackson’s fist connected with his face in a hard, stinging blow. Danny immediately went down to the ground, but the other man pulled him back up and locked his arms behind his back.

“Was that the best you got, little brother?” Jackson said as he picked up the pipe that Danny dropped and started swing hard, crushing blows to his face and abdomen.

Danny didn’t say another word. He just took the beating and tried not to cry out in pain. When he fell to the ground, the other man kicked his rib cage over and over as Jackson continued to hit him with the pipe. Danny was barely conscious, but he heard Jackson say, “Finish the kid off. Let’s send that junky brother of his a message.”

And then Danny felt it…a pain like no other he had felt in his life. The cold metal turned hot as it pierced his stomach and gashed downward. Danny winced as the man twisted the knife inside of him, and he felt his blood start to spill out of him. The man grabbed him by the hair and pulled up whilesaying a final word. “We’ll track your brother down and let him know where to find your body. I bet you wished you never helped his sorry ass now…huh?” the man said as he violently smashed Danny's head to the ground andwalked away laughing.

Danny wanted to curl up into a ball. He was starting to feel cold as the blood drained from his body. He wanted to call out, but his lips wouldn’t open. The piercing pain started to subside. He knew he was dying. He knew this was the end. Before he lost consciousness, his final thought was about the irony of the situation. He was trying to make the right choices. He was trying to get his life on track, and yet he was the one who was dying. Danny knew he was dying his brother’s death.

When Danny opened his eyes, he thought he was in heaven. He didn’t feel anything, and he could only see blurriness. His second thought was that at least he might see his mother again. As he blinked the sleep out of his eyes, he realized he wasn’t dead. He was in a large hospital room with other patients. He was hooked up to machines. When he tried to move, pain started to shoot throughout his body. He tried to call out, but then realized that something was in his mouth. Finally, a nurse approached him. He looked up at her with scared, searching eyes.

“Morning, baby. You’re finally awake. You can’t speak,” she said as she saw the frustrated look in Danny’s eyes. “You’re on a ventilator. One of your lungs collapsed. I’ll get the doctor. We’ll see if we can’t take the tube out of your mouth now that you are awake. Just relax, sweetheart. You’re going to be OK.”

Danny appreciated the nurse’s soothing tone. He wondered how long he had been there. He thought for sure he was dead. He wondered if his brother knew that he was in the hospital and why.He knew that no one from the group home would miss him. His caseworker might be worried, but more than likely she hadn’t even realized he was gone yet. He was just one of many cases for her. Danny’s eyes shifted to look around him. He saw various people holding vigil over their loved ones. He never felt more alone than he did at that moment.

The nurse returned with a grandfatherly-looking doctor. “Good to see you awake, son. You took quite a beating. It was a good thing that deli owner took the trash out when he did. If he would have found you ten minutes later, you probably wouldn’t be here right now,” he said as he listened to Danny’s heart and lungs. “We’re going to take the vent out. Take a deep breath and then blow out slowly.”

The doctor carefully took out the vent tube, and Danny coughed until he could catch his breath. Then he asked weakly, “How long have I been out?”

“Three days,” the doctor answered. “You had surgery to repair internal bleeding and lung damage. You lost a lot of blood, but you’re going to be fine. You just need to take some time to heal.”

Danny nodded. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. I’ll come back to check on you a little later. The nurse will monitor your vitals and get you some water.”

As the doctor walked away, the nurse lifted a cup to Danny’s lips. It was the best thing he’d ever tasted. “Your caseworker told us to call her when you woke up. I’ll go do that now.”

“How did you know I have a caseworker?”

“We took your fingerprints when you came in unidentified. They are on file with DCFS. Of course, DCFS is so slow we didn’t find out your name until this morning. It’s nice to finally talk to you, Danny Alvarez,” the nurse said with a smile.

“You, too,” he replied weakly.

“After I call your caseworker, is there anyone else you would like me to call?”

Danny thought for a moment and then shook his head. “No, ma’am. There’s no one else.”

The nurse nodded as she gave him a sympathetic smile and then walked out of the room.

He was moved from intensive care to a large room with five other sick kids. They all had visitors stopping by. A few of them had parents who never seemed to leave. Danny could barely stand to watch them. He slept on and off for two days before his caseworker finally got around to seeing him.

“Hey. How are you feeling, Danny?” Sheila Simpson asked.

“I’ve been better,” he answered quietly.

“Your doctor seems to think you will get sprung by the end of this week. My mission is to find you some kind of foster home…”

“No…no foster homes…just send me back to the group home.”

“That won’t work, Danny. You’ll need extra care that you won’t be able to get in a group home. You start your junior year in another month. If you really want to focus on bringing up your grades to get into college, you would be much better off in a foster home.”

“Sheila…no foster parents are going to want me. I’m too old. I don’t want to go somewhere just to get kicked out or…”

“Look…I know you had a bad experience with foster parents in the past, but I’ll do a better job of screening. I promise. They have to be equipped to deal with your special needs…at least until you get back on your feet. Let me work on it. I’ll come back soon to let you know what I find out. Can I bring anything to you? Do you need anything?”

Danny shook his head sadly, and then Sheila turned to leave. “Sheila?”

“Yeah?”

“Um…do you know…do you know…?”

Sheila interrupted. “He knows, Danny. I had his parole officer track Rafael down. I spoke to him. He knows where you are and what happened to you. That reminds me…a detective will be by to question you shortly.”

“I don’t remember anything,” Danny lied knowing that giving up Jackson would mean Raffi going to prison.

“I figure that is what you would say. That's why the detective hasn't been here sooner. You probably don’t want my opinion, but I think you are better off if your brother stays far, far away from you. You’ve worked too hard to let him bring you down even further, Danny.”

Danny just turned away as Sheila left the room. He knew Sheila was right. While part of him wished that Raffi would be concerned about him enough to come to the hospital, the other part of him knew that Raffi was trouble. He had to find the strength to let Raffi go…even if that meant he was truly alone in the world.

Sheila returned the next day to speak with Danny. “You’re looking a little better today. I think I have some good news for you.”

“Did I win the lottery?” he asked sarcastically.

“No, not that good. But I do have a promising foster situation for you.”

“Sheila…”

“Wait… before you go all negative, let me explain. James and Sandy Taylor are a couple of retirees. They live in Brooklyn in a little house with a yard. They’ve been taking in older foster kids for the last ten years. This may sound bad, but they mostly do it to supplement their retirement income. That’s why they like older kids who can take care of themselves. I spoke to them, and they know about your situation. Mrs. Taylor says she is willing to help you get back on your feet. I explained how hard you are working to make good choices. I told them you are a good kid who just needs a nice, safe place to stay until you can go off to college.”

“What’s the catch?” Danny asked skeptically.

“Well, they want a kid who is willing to help around the house. So, you’ll need to bring a positive attitude. And the other catch is that this isn’t going to be your family, Danny. They don’t want a son. They’ve had a dozen kids go through their house in the last ten years. They don’t get attached. When you turn eighteen you are on your own.”

“That’s it. I just need to mow their lawn and then pack it up in two years?”

“Yep. If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you. They have a small, but comfortable room in their basement for you to stay in. I don’t think you’ll have any trouble with these folks, Danny. Mr. Taylor is 68 and Mrs. Taylor is 65.”

“OK…I’ll give it a try,” Danny agreed hesitantly.

“Great. Oh…and there is one more thing…actually two.”

“What is it?”

“I had to tell them about Rafael. You have to promise not to contact him, Danny. I won’t tell him where you are. The Taylor’s won’t want to deal with any issues that may involve your brother.”

“He doesn’t care where I am, Sheila. All he cares about is getting high. I won’t contact him. I’m done with him,” Danny replied quietly. “What’s the other thing? You said two?”

“Absolutely no drinking, Danny. The Taylor’s won’t put up with it. You can’t hide it like you did at the group home. Do you understand?”

“Yeah…I understand. I’ll stay clean. I promise,” Danny answered in an annoyed tone.

“OK…I’ll make the arrangements. I’ll have the group home send your things to the Taylor’s,” Sheila said as she walked out the door.

Danny laid his head back against the pillow and closed his eyes. After his first and only foster home experience, he told himself he’d never do it again. He thought he was better off in a group home. After his parents died, he and Rafael stayed with their grandmother in Florida. More accurately, Danny stayed with his grandmother. Rafael was only there when he needed money. He lived with her for two years before she died of lung disease. Even though Rafael was over 18, the state wouldn’t let Danny go with Rafael because of his stint in Juvenile Detention. Truly, Rafael just didn’t fight that hard to keep Danny, but Danny didn’t realize that at the time. He still looked up to his brother.

Two years earlier

Danny was sent to live with foster parents named Kim and Kyle Wellman. They couldn’t have children of their own, so they took in children who needed homes. Kim was a housewife and Kyle ran a construction crew. At first, Danny was overcome with how nice they were to him…Kim, especially. Kim bought him the nicest clothes and expensive shoes. Even his own mother was never able to do that for him. Kim always had a warm smile for him. While Kyle wasn’t as attentive as Kim, he was always good to Danny. Sometimes, he even played catch with Danny and the other kids in the back yard. For a while, Danny thought things couldn’t be better. He was in a good foster situation, and he was still going to the St. Benedict’s after school program. At first, he had to go the program because he was caught shoplifting from a liquor store. But now, he just went because he liked the structure, and Father Orlando helped him keep on the straight and narrow.

Danny did his best to be a good kid. He really did want to stay out of trouble, but every once in a while he would get depressed, usually because he missed his parents or his brother. And when he got depressed, he would drink. So he started to sneak beer out of Kyle’s refrigerator in the garage. One day when Danny was drinking behind the garage, Kim caught him. Danny panicked because he thought for sure she would kick him out. But she didn’t. Instead, she told him that it would be their secret. And then she let him continue to drink and would often join him. At first he thought Kim was the coolest mom in the world, but then she started to do things to make him feel uncomfortable while he was drunk. When he would tell her no, she would warn him that if he didn’t do what she said that she would tell Kyle about the alcohol. And then she reminded Danny about all the things she bought for him. She told Danny that he owed her. So Danny let her do what she wanted. He hated it because he felt like he didn’t have any control over himself, and he felt like he asked for it. He shouldn’t have accepted the nice things. He shouldn’t have kept drinking with her after she caught him. He wanted to run away, but he had nowhere to go. He tried to call Raffi, but Raffi never returned his calls.

And then the whole nightmare came to an end one night when Kyle caught Danny with Kim. Kim made it seem like Danny was taking advantage of her, even though he was only 14. So Kyle beat Danny up and threw him out of the house. Danny didn’t want to go to Father Orlando, the police or the hospital. He was ashamed and didn’t want to tell anyone what happened. So, he wandered around for days until he finally tracked Raffi down at an old girlfriend’s.

Danny had to beg Raffi to help him. He begged him to take him away from Florida because he was terrified of running into the Wellman’s and didn’t want to go to another foster home. He didn’t tell Raffi what actually happened with Kim. He just told him that Kyle lost his temper. Raffi finally agreed to go with Danny because he was in trouble with the police anyway. They scraped up enough money to buy bus tickets to New York City. Raffi always wanted to go to New York, and that was far enough away to outrun the law in Florida. They weren’t in New York a month when Raffi was arrested for possession. When they arrested Raffi, the police turned Danny over to DCFS and he was sent to a group home. Raffi was in prison almost two years before getting out. As soon as he got out, he started to get high again which led to Danny getting beaten and stabbed.

Danny opened his eyes as he tried to push he awful memories out of his head. All he could think about was how much he wanted a drink right at that moment. He just hoped that the Taylor’s were good people. Danny wasn’t sure he wanted to live anymore if he couldn’t find some peace and happiness in his life.

Danny moved in with the Taylor’s and found out very quickly that Sheila was right. They were a nice couple. Mrs. Taylor took care of Danny until he was up and walking around on his own. Within a month, Danny was almost 100percentand already helping out around the house. He did whatever they needed him to do. He was determined not to screw up a good thing. He loved having his own room…even if it was a drafty basement, and he loved feeling safe.

One afternoon, a month before he was to start his junior year, Sheila stopped by the Taylor house. She made her way down to the basement to Danny’s room. “Hey. How are you feeling?”

“Good. I feel good,” Danny replied and then suddenly felt queasy because he feared Sheila was going to tell him he had to leave the Taylor’s. “What wrong?”

“Nothing…nothing. I promise. The Taylor’s seem really happy with the situation. I just talked to them. They say you’ve been more than helpful and very well behaved. That’s not why I’m here.”

“Then why are you here?” he asked skeptically.

“I have amazing news for you, Danny-just the best, most life-changing news ever.”

Danny gave her a confused look. He had no idea where she was going with this.

“Do you remember last spring…a couple months before you were hurt…you took that placement test?”

“Yeah…I remember. You said that if I did well, I could get a scholarship to St. Anne’s High School. Is that it? Did I get in?”

“You didn’t get into St. Anne’s. They filled their quota of scholarship candidates. But you did do really well on the test. You did better than well…you did fantastic. So I showed your scores to some other private schools in the area and you were accepted to BrentlandAcademy. They’re giving you a full scholarship.”

BrentlandAcademy? That’s on the Upper West side. Why does that rich school want me?”

“There you go again…being negative and skeptical. Why question it, Danny?”

“Because I’ve learned there are always strings attached…to everything. No one does anything nice without wanting something in return.”

Sheila’s heart sank at the sad statement. She knew that Danny had been let down so many times. It was hard for him to trust anyone or anything. “Well…if you must know…they’ve been criticized recently for being…well…racist. And some very high profile politicians’ kids attend Brentland, so they wanted to diversify to enhance the school’s profile. You’re one of five minority scholarship students. At the most, you’ll have to pose for some picture with the Brentland board members. It’s a pilot program. They might not even do it next year. But even one year at this school will look great on college applications. Don’t be stubborn about this, Danny. This is a great opportunity.”

Danny nodded. “I guess anything’s better than going back to a public school where the teachers are afraid to teach class.”

“Exactly. You have to think about your future, Danny. This is the best option.”

“OK…I’ll do it,” he responded apprehensively and then pondered the situation for a moment. He finally added, “But I want go into this with a clean slate. I’d like to change my name.”

“Change your name? Why would you want to do something like that?”

“I want a fresh start. I want forget about everything that happened to Danny Alvarez, and I don’t want share a name with my brother. Since things are going well here, I was thinking I’d see if the Taylor’s would let me take their name.”

“I don’t know, Danny. They think you’re a great kid, but as I said, they aren’t looking for a son. They’ve raised their family.”

“I know that. I just want their name…I don’t expect anything else from them.”

“Well, if it’s what you want, then there is no harm in asking.”

Danny asked the Taylor’s, and they agreed that he could take their name. They understood that Danny needed a fresh start and wanted to support that. Also, Sheila explained there was less of a chance of Rafael finding Danny if he had a different name. So Danny Taylor started BrentlandAcademy with a new name and a positive attitude.

The first thing he noticed at Brentland was that most of the kids did their best to avoid the scholarship kids like the plague. They seemed to resent that outsiders invaded their school. Danny was thankful they wore uniforms; otherwise he and the other scholarship kids would stick out like sore thumbs. Danny decided not to let the other kids bother him. He figured he was there to do the best he could academically so he could get a scholarship to college. So he ignored the rude comments. The only time he intervened was when someone was picking on one of the other scholarship kids. Then Danny would set whoever it was straight. For that, Danny got a reputation as someone not to be messed with at Brentland.

In the spring, Danny tried out for the baseball team. He played in little league as a child and in the after school program, but never played in high school. He made the team and quickly became one of their best players. When the baseball team started winning, Danny became more popular. He still wasn’t being invited to the posh Brentland parties, but at least he wasn’t eating lunch in the library anymore. And then one day after practice, he was leaving the locker room to head home when he heard his name called.

“Danny?”

Danny turned around to see who it was. He saw Payton Whitfield walking toward him still dressed in her school uniform, which was white button down and short plaid skirt. She was the most popular girl in girl and looked like a living, breathing Barbie doll. Her mother was one of the well-known politicians who wanted Brentland to diversify.

“Hey,” Danny responded casually even though Payton had never addressed him before in his life.

“Hi. I…um…I don’t think we’ve ever been formally introduced, but we are in Chemistry together. I’m Pay…”

“I know who you are,” Danny said in a slightly confused tone because everyone at Brentland knew Payton Whitfield.

“Right…well…um…I was wondering if maybe you wanted to join our Chemistry study group. I hear you did pretty well on the last test. We are all trying to cram for the final. To be honest, I still don’t get what we learned first quarter.”

“I don’t know…I…uh…I’m not that great at it either. I just have to do well to keep my scholarship, so I study really hard. I don’t know how much I could help.”

“You’d be surprised. I think you could help a lot,” Payton said with a smile. “Please come. We are meeting in Study Room 3 in a half hour.”

Danny hesitated because something didn’t feel right to him, but he replied, “Sure. I’ll see you in a half hour.”

Danny grabbed a sandwich from the deli down the road, and then returned to the school to meet the study group. When he entered the study room, no one was there. He waited for ten minutes and then gathered his things to leave, when Payton finally arrived.

“Sorry, I’m late. I…uh…I went to pick up my Dad’s car. And traffic was a bitch.”

Danny nodded. “No problem. Where’s everyone else?”

“Oh…um…well…they had to cancel. I thought we’d get together tomorrow during study period.”

“Okay…then I guess I’ll go home,” Danny said as he started to walk out.

“Wait…Danny…I…uh…I was thinking maybe we could do something tonight. I have my Dad’s car. We could go for a drive…if you wanted to.”

“No…thanks. I should get home. I have a lot of studying to do. And I don’t have a lot of time with baseball…so…”

Payton smiled in an almost embarrassed manner. “Look…you’re not making this easy. I mean I didn’t want to come out and ask you out, but if you aren’t going to take a hint…”

“You want to go out with me? Like on a date?” Danny responded with an amused expression.

“Yeah. A date…unless…are you dating someone? I didn’t know…”

“No…I’m not, but I thought you were dating Trevor,” Danny said. The last he heard Payton and Trevor had been dating for two years. Trevor was a real estate tycoon’s son. He played on the baseball team with Danny and was the only player who still didn’t think Danny should be at Brentland.

“Oh…right…Trevor and I…well…we sort of broke up. And really, we’ve never been that serious. I promise…there are no issues there. And besides, I’m not talking about a lifetime commitment. I’m thinking a drive through the park maybe?”

Danny still didn’t feel right about the situation, but he hadn’t been out with anyone since before the stabbing. And Payton was very pretty and seemed nice. “Sure. Let’s go,” he replied.

Payton let Danny drive her father’s Porsche. Danny had never been in nice car like that. Rafael used to steal some nice cars, but nothing like that. They ended up parked in the parking lot of a playground. It was already dark. Payton pulled out a fifth of vodka. Danny hadn’t had a drink since before the stabbing. The alcohol looked almost as good to him as the Payton did. And he knew if he would have a drink that he would feel more relaxed around her. So, he took the bottle from her and drank. Then she took a drink, and he laughed as she winced at the strength of the liquor going down.

“You keep a pretty low profile at Brentland, Danny Taylor. If it weren’t for the baseball…” she started after she took the drink and handed it back to Danny.

“The kids at Brentland didn’t exactly welcome the scholarship students with open arms, Payton. We don’t keep a low profile. We just don’t really have a choice,” he replied as he took another drink. He had to pace himself. He easily could have downed the bottle, but didn’t want to alarm her.

“I noticed you before you became Brentland’s favorite baseball player. I always wanted to talk to you but…”

“But what? We’ve been in the same class for a whole school year.”

“You never said anything to me either, Taylor.”

“Your former boyfriend isn’t a big fan of mine. I can’t afford to rock any boats.”

“Trevor doesn’t own me. I do what I what…when I want,” Payton replied seductively as she placed her hand on Danny’s thigh and leaned in to him.

And then Danny knew what she wanted. He could see it in her eyes. The study group…the date…it was all a ploy to get him alone. “Look…maybe…maybe this isn’t such a good idea,” he whispered.

“What’s not a good idea?”

“Us…out here…alone,” he replied softly as he felt her hand slide further up his thigh.

“You know…from the moment I first saw you…I knew I wanted to get to know you better. I like you, Danny. You seem like a really nice guy. You’re not like all the other guys at school. Are you, Danny?” she asked as she leaned in closer and brushed her lips against his.

She was pressed up against him in the tiny car. Danny thought about how good she smelled. He’d never been with a girl like Payton before. He’d dated before and had sex…but never with someone like Payton. And he was fairly certain that was what she wanted from him. The vodka was starting to affect him. He was feeling more and more relaxed, and she felt really good next to him. So he placed his arm around the small of her back and pulled her closer. They started to kiss deeply, almost frantically. Within seconds, the windows of the Porsche were steamed up. Payton maneuvered herself over the gearshift to settle herself on Danny’s lap. They made out like that for a long time. Their hands roamed all over each other. Their breathing was ragged and desperate. Danny thought they would have to stop soon, so he started to slow down and pull away. He wasn’t prepared to have sex, but then Payton reached into her bag and pulled out a condom. Danny knew then that she did actually plan all of this. He wasn’t sure what to think about that. But because he was half-drunk and incredibly aroused, he didn’t care. He took the condom and they had sex. After they finished, Danny finished off the bottle of vodka as Payton lay against him completely spent. As good as it felt to be close to some one, Danny couldn’t help but feel like something wasn’t right about the whole thing.

Danny continued to see Payton as frequently as possible. During school, Payton told him it would be best to not let on they were together because of Trevor. At first, Danny agreed because he didn’t want the whole baseball team to hate him for stealing Trevor’s girlfriend. They would usually hook up after their Chemistry study group or steal moments together in an empty classroom or in the school basement. Danny knew it felt wrong, but Payton always brought the best alcohol…so he didn’t question it. And he hadn’t realize how lonely he was until Payton approached him. His time with her was filling a void that he couldn’t ever seem to fill before. When the school year ended, Payton told him that she had to go to Europe for the summer. So he spent the summer alone. He used the time to send college applications, and he helped his foster father put a new roof on their house. Over the summer, Danny realized that he really had feelings for Payton because he really missed her. They had fun together, and to him, it felt like more that just sex.

When school started in the fall, he was disappointed because Payton was not there. He heard that she extended her Europe trip for one more month. So again, he just took the free time to focus on school, which turned out to be necessary because he was struggling with his Shakespeare class. He couldn’t understand a word of it. When he failed his first essay test, his teacher suggested that he get a tutor. He agreed because he had to do well the first semester of his senior year to ensure his scholarship to NYU.

During his study period, he went to the tutoring lab to meet with his Shakespeare tutor. When he walked in, he saw a pretty girl with dark blonde hair and glasses. “Hey…Katie Mason?”

“Hi,” she responded as she removed her glasses. “Danny, right?”

“That’s me. I hear you can help me make sense of this Shakespeare stuff,” he said as he took a seat across from her.

“I can try. It’s not that hard once you learn the basic themes of Shakespeare,” she replied with a slight smile.

“Well…I thought I was pretty good at figuring stuff out. I know this guy writes in English, but it might as well be a different language.”

They went over his failed essay quiz, and she tried to explain where he went wrong. They spent a half an hour going over the themes before Danny finally started to understand the complexities of King Lear. “You really know your stuff. I’m impressed,” he said as he smiled his most charming smile.

Katie blushed with embarrassment. “I’ve been reading it since I was twelve. My mom’s a big Shakespeare fan. I’ve even performed in a couple of plays. I think you’d like Shakespeare better if you saw performed on stage. That’s where his words really come to life.”

Danny looked at Katie in amazement. He’d never seen anyone get this excited about schoolwork. She seemed passionate about it. “How old are you?” he asked because she seemed too wise to be in high school.

Katie laughed. “I’ll be sixteen in a week.”

“Barely sixteen and already a Shakespearean scholar. That’s impressive. Why haven’t I ever seen you before? You’re a sophomore, right?”

“Yeah. Um…I guess you just weren’t looking. Last year, your locker was across from mine. It’s OK…most of the older kids don’t know that freshmen exist here at Brentland.”

“You’re not alone. For a while last year, no one knew I existed either.”

“I knew,” Katie said and then blushed again. “I just mean that I noticed you when you started here. I just never said anything to you.”

Danny smiled at her. “Well, it’s nice to finally meet you. And to top it off, you’ve really saved my ass with this Shakespeare stuff. I think I know enough to at least pass my next essay test.”

“It’s nice to meet you, too. And I’m here every Monday during study period. If you ever want me to read a paper or go over a play…just stop by.”

“I’ll do that. Thanks,” he said as he rose from the chair.

Katie just smiled and watched as Danny walked out of the room.

For the next couple of weeks, Danny frequently talked to Katie about his trouble with Shakespeare. She even helped him write a paper. They were slowly developing a sweet friendship. He enjoyed talking to her, and he loved how easy it was to make her laugh. But their budding friendship was put on hold when Danny found out that Payton was finally returning to school. He didn’t even know she was back until he saw her in the hallway. Their eyes met and he gave her a warm smile, but she quickly looked away to focus her attention back on talking to her group of friends. That didn’t surprise Danny. He knew that their relationship was still under wraps. But he intended to change that the first chance he got.

At the end of the day, he found Payton putting her books away in her locker. Since no one was in the hallway, he snuck up behind her and put his hands around her waist. “Hey…I missed you.”

She quickly turned around in his arms and pushed him away. “Danny…not here. Someone will see.”

Danny smiled at her and put his hand on the small of her back as he guided her into the broom closet next to her locker. “Is this better?”

She relaxed a little in his arms and looked up at him. “Yeah…better.” She started to tingle all over when she felt his hands make contact with her skin. And then before she could say another word, she was swept into a passionate kiss. Danny pressed her against the door as she tugged at him to get closer. As he trailed kisses down her neck, she said, “I almost forgot how good you were at this.”

“I’ve been waiting all summer to remind you. I was going out of mind,” he replied as he pressed his forehead to hers and caught his breath.

Payton started to unbutton his trousers as she started to kiss him again, but Danny stopped her. “Wait a second. I…uh…I was thinking we should talk before we start all this again.”

“Talk? You want to talk? I have a better idea. Let’s talk later,” Payton said as she tried to initiate again.

Payton…baby…I’ve been doing a lot of thinking this summer, and I think, you know, we should become an official couple. That way this wouldn’t feel so…”

“Feel so what, Danny? I think it feels pretty damn good just the way it is. You can’t tell me you don’t enjoy our time together.”

“I do…I really do, but I missed you this summer. I didn’t just miss this…I missed you.”

Payton stopped touching Danny and pushed him away. “Danny…think about what you are saying. I mean…you said yourself…Trevor would go ballistic.”

“You said you didn’t care what Trevor thought. You said that it was over between the two of you.”

“Danny…”

“Baby…listen…what’s the harm in just testing the waters. I was thinking we could go to Homecoming together. We wouldn’t have to tell anyone we are dating. We could just go to one dance together. If the world doesn’t end, then we’ll know we are OK.”

Payton looked at Danny in disbelief, and then she started to laugh. “You can’t be serious, Danny. We can’t go to a school dance together.”

“Why not?” Danny asked trying not to sound hurt.

“Because…because that’s not something I would do. This is my year to get Homecoming queen. I’d never get it if I went with you,” she said seriously. “I’m going to Homecoming with Trevor. I like you, Danny. I really like our time together, but no one would accept you and me as a couple. You have to understand that.”

Deep down, Danny knew. He knew all along that she was just using him. He knew that she would never want to be seen with him. But part of him was hoping that he was mistaken and that she really did care about him. “I understand. I…uh…I don’t know what I thinking.”

“If you want to go with someone, I could set you up with Sarah. She’s nice…then maybe you and I could hook up after…you know…after Trevor passes out.”

“Yeah…maybe…” Danny replied trying to mask his hurt and disappointment. And then Payton was kissing him again. He knew he should stop her. He knew he should tell her that he valued himself more than that. He wouldn’t let himself be used by her or anyone, but he didn’t…because deep down he didn’t feel like he deserved any better.

The weekend before Homecoming, Danny met Katie Mason in the lobby of her apartment building on the Upper West Side. They were going to a production of Romeo and Juliet. His teacher told him that if he went to the play and wrote a paper on the experience, that he would throw out Danny’s failed test score. Katie offered to go with Danny to help interpret the whole thing.

“Hey,” Danny said as he approached Katie in the lobby.

“Hi. Are you ready to have your horizons expanded?” Katie asked.

“I’m ready to get rid of the failing grade. Beyond that, I can’t make any promises,” he replied with a smile. Danny liked Katie. She was probably his best friend at Brentland. But walking into her opulent apartment building, he quickly realized that Katie was just as rich as all the other kids at Brentland. He skeptically wondered why she didn’t mind being seen with him.

As they started to walk out the door, Katie stopped in her tracks. “Oops. I forgot the tickets. I have to go back upstairs.”

“I can wait down here,” Danny said.

“No…come up. There’s something I’d like to give you anyway.”

“Okay,” he replied as he hesitantly followed her into the elevator.

When Danny walked into the penthouse apartment, he did his best not to look blown away. It was bigger than any house he’d ever seen, and the view was spectacular. Katie led him back to her bedroom to retrieve the tickets.

“Have you lived here your whole life?” he asked.

“Yep. Born and raised here. We spend summers in the Hampton’s, but mostly this is it.”

“It’s nice. I mean…I bet it’s nice to live in the same place forever,” he said as he took a seat on her bed while she searched for the tickets.

“I like it. It’s nice…I guess. I’ve never known anything else. You live in Brooklyn, right?”

“Right. I live with my foster parents. Honestly…it’s the best place I’ve ever lived…probably in my life. So I am pretty happy with it.”

“Do you like them? Your foster parents? Are they nice?” Katie asked as she put the tickets in her bag and then picked up a book off of her bookshelf.

“Yeah. They’re really nice. They let me do my own thing as long as I stay out of trouble and help them around the house. It’s been a good situation.”

“How long have you been with them?” Katie asked as she took a seat next to him on the bed.

“Not long….a little over a year.”

“And before that?” Katie asked curiously.

Danny looked in her eyes. He felt like he could trust her, but he still wasn’t sure. He wondered if he’d ever be able to trust anyone completely. But he found himself admitting, “Group homes, mostly. I was in one other foster home, but it was pretty bad. My parents died when I eleven…so I’ve been on my own since then.” He silently realized that he didn’t mention Raffi. It almost felt like Raffi didn’t exist to him anymore.

Katie could tell this was a tough subject for him, so she changed the subject. “I have something for you,” she said as she handed him a book. “It’s Dumas – The Count of Monte Cristo. I read it last year. I think you will really like it. It’s not as cryptic as Shakespeare, but there’s a lot a symbolism. Something about it reminds me of you.”

Danny looked at the book and then smiled at Katie appreciatively. “Thank you,” he said quietly. No one had given him anything in long time. They held each other’s gaze for a few moments. Danny leaned in to give her a light kiss on the cheek, but then there was a knock at the door.

The door opened quickly and Danny and Katie jumped. “Katie…good…you’re still here. On your way home from the play, can you stop by…” Katie’s mother started, but then stopped as soon as she saw Danny sitting on the bed next to Katie.

As soon as her eyes went to Danny, he immediately stood up. For some reason, the look on her face made Danny feel guilty, even though he’d done nothing wrong.

“Mom…this is Danny Taylor…a friend from school. We are going to the play together. I forgot the tickets and had to come up to get them.”

Danny held out his hand. “Nice to meet you, Mrs. Mason.”

“You go to Brentland?” Mrs. Mason asked as she limply shook Danny’s hand.

“Yes ma’am.”

“Well isn’t that nice. Would you mind giving Katie and me a moment?”

“No ma’am. I’ll wait outside,” Danny said as he walked out the door.

Danny stood out in the hallway as Mrs. Mason addressed Katie.

“Kathryn Elizabeth Mason…you know better than to bring a boy up here.”

“Mom…I told you I left the tickets. We were in here for two minutes before you came in.”

“Why were you on the bed, then?”

“God mother….get a grip. We weren’t doing anything. Danny’s just a friend.”

“He really goes to Brentland? He looks much older than you, sweetheart.”

“Of course he goes to Brentland. He’s 17…”

“What about his family? I haven’t heard of any Taylor’s at Brentland.”

“What difference does it make? He’s a kid just like me and we are going to watch a play for school. It’s no big deal.”

“Answer the question, Kathryn.”

Katie gave her mother an exasperated glare. “He’s on scholarship. I don’t know about his family. He lives with foster parents in Brooklyn.”

“Oh dear god, Kathryn. We know nothing about this boy. He could be trouble. He could try to take advantage of your sweet nature. I don’t think…”

“Mother…stop it. Don’t be such a snob. Danny’s a nice guy and we’re friends. I’ll be home by 10.”

Danny quickly walked down the hall so Katie wouldn’t know that he listened to every word. He wondered what he was doing at Brentland…in a world he apparently had no right to be in. Between hearing Mrs. Mason and the way Payton treated him, Danny was beginning to question whether trying to change was worth it. Maybe he would be better off if he just went downhill like his brother. Making the right choices wasn’t really getting Danny anywhere.

Katie approached him in the front foyer. “Hey. Don’t mind my mother. She’s…”

“Don’t worry about it,” Danny replied wearily. “Look I can go alone. You don’t have to come with me.”

“I want to come. Don’t you want me to come?”

“Whatever…let’s just go,” Danny said more than ready to leave the huge apartment.

They arrived at the theater and sat down in relative silence. Danny had barely spoken since they left the apartment, but when they sat down he smiled at her not wanting her to think he was mad at her. As they sat in the dark theater, Danny started to get caught up in the tragic story. He realized Katie was right. Shakespeare is much better on stage than on the page. During an especially emotional scene, Danny looked over at Katie. She was crying. She quickly wiped away the tears when she caught Danny watching her.

After the play, they stopped at a diner to get dinner.

“Tell me, honestly. What did you think?” Katie asked once they sat down.

“It was good. I mean…I think I really got it. You were right. It makes more sense when I see it performed. You actually feel all the emotion and pain. Clearly, you felt the emotion…”

“Ha ha. Don’t mock. I can’t help it. I cry every time. They had this perfect love, but there were just too many obstacles. It’s really sad to me.”

Danny thought for a moment about him and Payton. He wondered if he weren’t from the wrong side of the tracks if things would be different between them.

Out of the blue, Katie asked, “Are you thinking about Payton right now?”

“What? What are you talking about?” Danny asked, playing dumb.

“I know that you and she are...,” Katie started but was too embarrassed to finish.

“Are what?” Danny asked in an annoyed tone.

“Never mind. It’s none of my business. It’s just…you know that she and Trevor are still an item. Don’t you? I mean…”

“How do you know?” Danny asked.

“It’s…I…um…”

“How the hell do you know about me and Payton?” Danny asked again in an angry tone.

“Look Danny…I don’t know how you feel about her, but she’s…she’s only out for herself. She tries to come across as this perfect little debutante, but she’s not. I heard her talking about you with some of her friends.”

“What did she say?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“Yes…I do,” Danny responded still angry.

“She said that she had you wrapped around her finger, and that you do whatever she wants whenever she wants. I’ve seen you with her, Danny. I’ve seen you go into the basement with her. She’s using you…”

“How do you know I’m not using her?” Danny asked trying his best to sound callous.

“You wouldn’t...”

Danny laughed lightly. “Actually…I would. You don’t know me. You don’t know anything about me,” he said as he stood up from the table.

“Danny…don’t’ go. I didn’t mean to upset you. I just…Payton is going to hurt you.”

Danny knew she already had hurt him. “Payton can’t hurt me, Katie. I don’t care about her or about anyone else at that damn school. Payton’s easy…that’s why I’m with her. Don’t mistake me for some hero in one your books.”

He watched as his words stung Katie. Her eyes filled with tears…and Danny wished he could take it back, but all he could do was walk out. Truthfully, he was ashamed…ashamed that Katie knew about what he was doing with Payton. Ashamed that Payton was obviously telling her friends about their escapades. Danny felt like he was drowning.

Danny found himself at the Homecoming dance on Saturday night with Payton’s friend, Sarah. She was fairly nice, but talked a mile a minute about nothing important. Danny’s eyes were glazing over as they sat at a table in the loud hotel ballroom. The only thing getting him through the night was a flask of whiskey in his breast pocket. He watched as Payton and Trevor danced and talked to their circle of friends. And then Payton excused herself and walked toward Danny and Sarah.

“Hey Sarah. Did I not tell you that Danny was a charmer?” Payton said in a syrupy, fake tone.

Danny looked at her with contempt as Sarah responded, “Yeah. We’re having a nice time. It would be nice to dance for a song or two…but…”

“Oh come on, Danny. Be a sport. Sarah wants to dance.”

“You know what…I’m not feeling that great. So, I may cut out early. I’m sure someone in your contingent can entertain Sarah,” he said as he stood up.

“Looks like someone may need a little refill. Sarah, why don’t you dance with Trevor? Just tell Trevor that Danny is going to help me replenish the party refreshments. He’ll know what I’m talking about.”

“Okay,” Sarah replied as she left the table. “Sounds good.”

“Come with me,” ordered Payton.

Payton…I…”

“Trevor is watching us right now. He doesn’t suspect a thing, but if you cause a scene…I will make sure Trevor knows all about us. And believe me, I can make it sound like you’re the one taking advantage of me.”

Danny felt defeated. He had to get through this year at Brentland to get his college scholarship. He couldn’t afford to start trouble with Trevor, the most powerful student at Brentland. So he followed Payton out of the ballroom and onto an elevator. As soon as the doors closed, Payton got close to him, brushing up against him, and trying to kiss him. Danny hesitated at first before she put her hand on the back of his neck and pulled his head down and then fused their lips together. The combination of the alcohol and anger in him pushed him to kiss her back…but not in a tender way. He pushed her against elevator wall and invaded her mouth with his until the elevator doors opened.

Then Payton lead him down the hallway to a hotel room. She opened the door and pulled him inside. They had sex quickly, but passionately. Payton didn’t seem to mind that Danny was hurried and almost rough. After they finished, Payton took the flask out of Danny’s pocket and refilled it from the room’s stocked bar. Then she put several liquor bottles in a brown paper bag.

“There’s a limo right outside the lobby. Put this in the back seat of the limo. Trevor and I will be leaving right after the coronation with some friends. We are going to his parent’s weekend house in Montauk. You and Sarah are coming, too. After I get Trevor to bed, we can go down to the beach. I would put the bags in the limo myself, but I might look conspicuous carrying paper bags. No one will stop someone like you,” she said as she handed Danny the flask.

Danny took it and took a long drink. “You’re a bitch. You know that.”

Payton laughed. “Ah well…yes…I know. Funny how you don’t see to mind that when you’re inside of me.”

“I didn’t know I had a choice,” Danny said feeling defeated.

“You don’t. It’s important you remember that. Now, please give Sarah a couple of turns on the dance floor before you leave. It will make her night, and Trevor will be less suspicious,” she said before she walked out of the hotel room.

Danny drained the flask, and then refilled it. He was already fairly drunk. He took the paper bag full of liquor and made his way downstairs. After dropping the bag off in the limo, he walked back into the lobby. As soon as he walked in, he saw Katie standing there waiting for him. She looked different with her hair swept up. She was wearing a pink strapless dress that made her look demurely sexy.

“I’m surprised to see you here, Danny. I didn’t even know you even knew Sarah Winters,” Katie said in a concerned tone.

“I don’t know her. Payton set us up. I’m just here because…”

Payton wanted you here, right? I saw you go upstairs with her,” she responded not understanding why Danny would do such a thing, even though she could tell he was drunk.

“What are you stalking me or something? You know about Payton and me. You watch us at school…you watch us here. Do you get off on it or something? If you do, why don’t you just join us the next time we have sex? Payton would probably be in to that. Better yet…why don’t you try getting a life of your own? Or is the only life you have in your fantasy literature world?” Danny asked and then immediately regretted it when he saw the hurt look on her face.

“I just feel sorry for you, Danny. You think I live in a fantasy? You’re the one who is sleeping with someone who would never been seen in public with you. I’m not the one with the problem, Danny,” Katie almost shouted before she walked away crying.

Danny went back to the dance and found Sarah. He felt Payton’s eyes on him as he asked Sarah to dance. They danced a couple of songs, and then he excused himself to drink more. When he stumbled back to the table, Sarah asked if he wanted to go out to Montauk to meet up with Payton’s group. Danny thought for a moment. He knew Payton would be pissed if he didn’t show up, but he was so drunk he didn’t care. He told Sarah he was sorry, but he had to go home. So she left without him.

Danny made his way outside to head toward the subway. He was feeling extremely disoriented. When he turned the corner, he lost his balance and tried to brace himself against the wall. Before he fell down, he felt a hand grasp his arm. He turned around to find Katie looking at him with concern. He laughed lightly and shook his head. “You don’t give up, do you?”

“Danny, you’re going in the opposite direction that you should be. Let me help you get home.”

“Why are you so nice to me? I don’t understand,” he said as he slurred his words.

“I honestly don’t know anymore,” she said in exasperation.

Katie hailed a cab and got in with Danny. After she gave the cabbie Danny’s address, she looked at him sadly. He was emptying the remains of the flask. Danny caught her watching him. “Don’t…don’t look at me like that. You’d get drunk too if you spent the evening with Sarah the girl who doesn’t shut up.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Katie responded quietly.

“So who did you ditch to come home with me? Hot date?”

Katie shook her head. “No, I went with a group of girlfriends.”

“Good for you. Dating sucks…or rather getting involved with anicy bitch sucks,” Danny said as he leaned his head back and closed his eyes.

Payton’s an idiot,” Katie whispered, but Danny didn’t hear.

When the cab stopped, Katie asked the cabbie to wait for her. Then she helped Danny out of the cab. He leaned against her to keep from falling down. Then he directed her to the back door. Before they went in, he leaned in close to her and whispered in her ear. “If my foster parents catch me drunk, they’ll throw me out.”

Katie nodded and then quietly put his key in the door. Luckily, the door to the basement was right inside the door. She quickly helped him down the stairs. When she tried to guide him over to the bed, she stumbled and he fell on top of her on the bed. For a few moments, she was pinned beneath the weight of his body, but she didn’t rush to push him off. Danny looked at her beneath him. She looked up at him with wide eyes and had to catch her breath. Suddenly, they heard a noise from the kitchen upstairs. Danny quickly rolled off of her when he heard the door to the basement open.

“Here…put this over you,” Katie whispered as tossed the blanket to him. “Pretend to be sleeping.”

Danny did as she told him. And then Katie headed toward the stairs. “Mrs. Taylor?”

“Yes…who’s there?”

Katie met her halfway up the staircase to try and keep Danny out of sight. “My name is Katie Mason. I…um…I’m a friend of Danny’s. You won’t believe what happened. There was a batch of bad shrimp at the dance. Several kids, including Danny, got terribly ill. Thank goodness, I don’t eat shellfish,” Katie said quickly.

“Oh dear. Is Danny OK? Does he need anything?”

“No ma’am. He’s fine. He got sick at the hotel, so I think now he just needs sleep.”

“Is that your cab outside, dear?”

“Yes, ma’am. I’ll head home now.”

“Do you need money for the ride home?” Mrs. Taylor asked.

“No, thank you. I’m fine. I hope Danny is feeling better tomorrow.”

“So do I. Poor lamb. He’s lucky to have such a sweet friend.”

“I’m glad to help. Good night, Mrs. Taylor,” Katie said as she walked out the door.

“Good night, dear.”

Danny only heard part of the exchange before he passed out. But he was confident that Katie wouldn’t let him down.

Danny woke up the morning after Homecoming with a pounding headache. He couldn’t remember much except that he drank more than he had in a long time. He had to get into the shower and cleaned up before he encountered the Taylor’s, so he did his best to pull himself out of bed. As he stood in the shower, bits and pieces of the night before came back to him including his encounter with Payton in the hotel room. He remembered feeling humiliated by the way she treated him. He realized that part of his problem was the alcohol. If he could just get his drinking under control, he wouldn’t feel so weak. But the drinking had been a problem for Danny since he was twelve years old. He used to rationalize that at least he didn’t do smack like Raffi, but now his drinking was causing him major problems.

Danny finished his shower, dressed and went upstairs in search of coffee. He saw his foster mother in the kitchen. “Morning, Sandy,” he said softly.

“You’re up. I thought you would still be in bed. I’ll make you some tea and dry toast.”

Danny felt very confused. He wasn’t sure what to think. “Um…coffee’s fine…if that’s OK.”

Sandy Taylor shook her head. “You may think you are up for coffee, but I know how tough food poisoning is on a stomach. Tea and toast will keep your stomach settled. Your friend said it was from bad shrimp.”

Danny racked his brain for a moment. And then he remembered…Katie helped him get home. Sweet Katie, he thought. He shouldn’t have subjected her to all of that. She helped him even though he said mean things to her. She truly was his only friend. “Right…bad shrimp. I’ll never eat that again. Sorry I got home so late.”

“I wouldn’t have noticed if we didn’t hear the cab out front. Your friend seems like a nice girl. It’s nice that you went to the dance with her. You spend so much time studying…everyone needs to have fun once in a while.”

“Yes, ma’am…you’re right. And Katie is really nice,” Danny replied not wanting to explain that she actually wasn’t his date the night before.

While Danny and Sandy were still talking, they heard a knock at the door. Sandy excused herself to answer the door. Danny took the opportunity to down a glass of water and an aspirin to re-hydrate his brain.

“Danny, you have a guest at the door,” Sandy called out.

Danny’s first thought was that it was Katie checking on him after last night. He walked out to the front foyer and felt dread as he saw Payton talking to Sandy.

“Hey,” Danny said hesitantly.

“Morning, Danny. I was just telling Mrs. Taylor that I wanted to check on you after your rough night. She told me it was food poisoning. That’s funny. I thought…”

“It was food poisoning,” Danny interrupted quickly. “Lucky you didn’t eat the shrimp.”

“Yes, it sounds like you are very lucky,” Mrs. Taylor said. “I’ll let you two talk. Danny, remember you promised James you would help him clean the gutters today.”

“Yes, ma’am. I remember. I’ll do it right away,” Danny said as Sandy walked away. And then he addressed Payton, “What the hell are you doing here?”

“What am I doing here? Where the hell were you last night? Sarah said you ditched her. And you left me alone in Montauk,” Payton said in a loud voice. So Danny grabbed her arm and pulled her onto the front porch while closing the front door.

“I told you last night. I felt like shit, so I wanted to go.”

“And I told you that wasn’t an option.”

“Screw you, Payton. I’m not playing this game anymore,” Danny said tired of feeling backed into a corner.

“Tell me something, Danny. Does Mrs. Taylor know about your extracurricular activities? I bet foster parents don’t put up with a lot, do they? She seems very proper. I wonder what she would think of a foster son who takes advantage of a sweet, young girl like me? She might be able to forgive you if you were her real son…but you aren’t. Maybe I should talk to her…” Payton said as she reached for the front door.

Danny grabbed her again and pushed her against the door. “What do you want, Payton?”

“Invite me inside. I want to see your room,” she said smiling almost enjoying Danny’s show of force.

Danny shook his head and rubbed his eyes. He wanted to tell her to go to hell, but he had too much to lose. He didn’t respond. He just opened the front door and guided her down to his bedroom.

As he watched Payton look at his room with disdain, Danny regretted ever agreeing to go out with her. She played him from the first moment she spoke to him. He vowed at that moment never to be that vulnerable to someone again. He thought he learned his lesson with his first foster mother, Kim Wellman. He didn’t expect someone his own age to be so manipulative and evil.

“This is cozy, Danny. Are you sure these foster parents give a rat’s ass about you? You might as well be living in a hole.”

“If it doesn’t meet your standard, feel free to get the hell out.” Payton just smiled at him and then walked toward him. She started touching him and tried to kiss him, but he pulled away. “You’ve got to be kidding, right? Not here,” he said as he looked around the room.

“What? Are you afraid they’ll hear us? We’ve had to be quiet when we hook up during school. We can do it here, too,” she said as she started to run her hands under his t-shirt.

“She could come down at any time, Payton. She knows you’re still here.”

“Afraid of getting caught?” she asked as she nibbled at his ear.

“You know… you have a major problem. I don’t understand how someone who has everything that you have can be so screwed up. What? Does your Daddy not love you enough or something?”

Payton pushed away from him, and then slapped him hard. Danny could tell he obviously hit a nerve. “Shut up, Danny. At least I have parents. And they do love me. They give me anything I want. I always get what I want.”

“That’s it, isn’t it?” he asked as she rubbed the stinging on his cheek. “You don’t feel like you have any control at home…so you want to control me.”

“Don’t be an asshole, Danny. And don’t try to figure me out. You aren’t smart enough. You act like I forced you into this, but you made choices. And you knew the score, but you didn’t care…because you liked being with me…Brentland’s queen.”

“Maybe I did in the beginning, but not anymore. This is wrong, Payton. And I won’t let you use me anymore.”

“You’re making a mistake. I could make your life miserable here and at school.”

“Actually, knowing what I know now…I don’t think you will. You wouldn’t want to do anything to jeopardize how your father feels about you. And if he knew you were screwing someone like me…well…I bet it wouldn’t go over well. So you won’t tell Trevor, and you won’t tell my foster parents. You wouldn’t want to tarnish your reputation, princess,” he said finally feeling like he had Payton figured out.

“You’re a loser, Danny. You always will be. The only way you’ll get anywhere is if you screw your way there. It’s the only thing you are good at,” she said as she turned and ran up the stairs.

Danny didn’t say another word to her. He didn’t have to. Payton’s words hurt him. They made him feel small, but at least he was free. He had to start making the right choices…the rest of his life depended on it. And he would never let someone get to him like Payton did…ever again.

When Danny returned to school the following Monday, he decided to stop engaging with the students at Brentland. His philosophy was to lay low and focus on school until he graduated. He knew it would be lonely, but he couldn’t risk getting involved again in the sticky social order of the school. He saw Payton several times, but avoided making eye contact with her. He also avoided Katie because he was so ashamed of what he put her through after Homecoming. Even if she was nicer to him than anyone, she was still one of them.

Danny’s new anti-social policy worked well for him for a couple of months. While at school, he went to class and spent any free time in the library. He did a lot of reading. He was especially interested in trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life in college and after. He read about various careers and became especially interested in law enforcement. He liked the idea of being judged on physical as well as mental acumen. But he knew he didn’t want to be a policeman. He spent too many years running from cops as a kid. Then he came across an entry for the FBI in a book called Promising Careers. His interest was peaked. He liked the idea of law enforcement without the funny uniform, and it was the complete opposite of how his brother turned out. With that knowledge, Danny became fairly certain that he would major in Criminal Justice when he started at NYU.

In January of his senior year, Danny turned 18. Sandy made him a birthday dinner. He was so thankful for his time with the Taylor’s. However, during the birthday dinner, Danny noticed that both James and Sandy seemed preoccupied. They didn’t say anything, but he could tell something was wrong. He didn’t ask them what was going on because he didn’t think it was his business. Even though, he’d been with them for almost two years, they still had boundaries between them.

A week after his birthday, Danny came home from school to find the Taylor’s meeting with Sheila, his caseworker. When he walked in, they all looked up at him with sad expressions.

“Hey. Hi, Sheila. What’s going on?” Danny asked as he felt a knot form in the pit of his stomach.

“It’s good to see you, Danny. You’re looking well,” Sheila said hesitantly. “Come sit down. The Taylor’s and I have something we need to discuss with you.”

“Is it my brother? Did something happen to him?” Danny asked fearing the worst.

“No…no…it’s nothing like that. Raffi is fine…the last I heard,” Sheila replied.

Danny sat down as his eyes traveled from James and Sandy to Sheila. “What’s up?”

James started. “First, Danny, let me just say…the last year and a half has been like a dream for us. You’ve kept your end of the bargain and then some. You’ve grown into a fine, young man. And that’s a testament to your hard work.”

“It’s been easy to do the right thing…being here. You make it easy,” Danny said sincerely as he smiled uneasily.

Sandy looked down and seemed to wipe a tear from her eye.

James continued. “Our son, who lives in Arizona, has purchased a retirement home for us. The cold winter is harder and harder on my arthritis. We didn’t think we could afford to move out there so soon…or we never would have committed to taking you in.”

“You’re moving?” Danny asked.

“Yes. I’m sorry, Danny.”

“I…um…I understand. You want to be close to your kids and grandkids,” Danny said stoically even though his heart was breaking. “When do you leave?

Sheila chimed in. “This area of Brooklyn is a pretty hot property for homebuyers, Danny. The Taylor’s didn’t even have to list the house. They already have a buyer. They close in two weeks.”

“Two weeks?” he responded trying to control his emotions. “What…What…am I going to do? Where will I go?”

“Technically, you’ve aged out of the system. It would be impossible to find foster care or a group home for an 18 year old.”

“I’ve asked every friend I know if they have an extra room, but no one seems able to help,” Sandy said sadly.

“What does this mean?” Danny asked almost desperately.

“There’s a shelter you can go to temporarily. I would suggest finding a job as soon as possible. I have some leads for you. Maybe you can make enough to rent a room somewhere. I’ll help you find something, Danny. I’ve also made some inquiries to find you some government assistance, but I don’t know if that will work or not.”

“A shelter…” Danny couldn’t say anything else. Essentially, he would be homeless in two weeks.

“You can’t imagine how terrible we feel about this,” James said as he held his wife’s hand. “We just don’t have much of a choice…”

Danny looked up at them and felt sorry for them. “Don’t…don’t feel bad. You have your own family to think about. And you’ve been really good to me. I couldn’t have stuck it out at Brentland without you. I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me.”

“You and I should talk about your options,” Sheila said.

“Can we talk about it tomorrow? I…um…I have a really big test I have to study for,” Danny said as he stood up and started backing out of the room.

“Sure…tomorrow.”

“Thanks,” he said quietly as he turned to go to his room. Danny made it to the stairs of the basement. He closed the door and sat on the steps. He put his head in his hands as he felt the tears rolling down his face. He didn’t want them to see him cry. He didn’t want them to know how much this hurt. As many times as Sheila told him that the Taylor’s weren’t looking for another son, he felt like a part of their family. Once again, Danny was let down. He felt like no one really wanted him.

Two weeks later, Sheila escorted him to the Raven Street Shelter. As soon as Danny walked in, he knew he couldn’t stay there. Places like those were recruitment grounds for area gangs. But he didn’t tell Sheila this.

“You’re going to be fine, Danny. All you have to do is sleep here. You have school and then the job at the supermarket at night. It’s just a warm place to sleep until we can find you something else. And remember, you can move into the dorms at NYU in June. It’s all set up. This is just temporary.”

“I know. Don’t worry. I’ll be fine,” Danny replied trying to sound brave.

Sheila left him with the shelter supervisor who showed him his bed. He was in a room with nine other people. Sheila was wrong about it being a warm place too sleep. He froze all night. He slept with his back to the wall…praying no one would bother him. In the morning, he couldn’t even take a shower before going to school because the water was shut off. He arrived at school feeling cold and miserable.

Later that day, he was in the library pretending to study, but actually just trying to figure out where he could live instead of the shelter.

“Hi, Danny,” Katie Mason said as she approached his study carol.

“Hey,” he responded not in the mood to talk. He and Katie had barely spoken in the last three months. He missed talking to her, but felt it was better to keep his distance. He could tell it hurt her when he would ignore her.

“Um…I was wondering if you ever read that book…the one I gave you.”

“Nope. Didn’t read it. You need it back?” he replied coldly.

“No…no…I wanted you to have it. I just was hoping you got a chance to read it.”

“I’ve been busy.”

“I’m sure you have,” Katie responded in a small, timid voice. “Are you OK?”

Danny looked up at her and saw the genuine concern in her eyes, but didn’t want to tell her the truth. “I’m great…just great.”

“Maybe we could get some coffee after school…”

“No. Look…you really helped me with that Shakespeare stuff and after Homecoming. So thank you. But we aren’t friends. So you don’t owe me anything…”

“I’m just worried about you.”

“Well, don’t worry. I’m fine. I just want to be left alone.”

“Sorry to bother you,” Katie said quietly and then walked away.

That night, after work, Danny returned to the shelter. He checked the showers to see if they were fixed. They were fixed, but he saw some very dangerous looking men waiting outside the shower area. So he didn’t go in. Then before going to bed, he was approached by some gang members vowing protection if he would join them. Danny tried to act cool. He knew that rejecting them outright would mean a beating. So he told them he would catch up with them the next day.

The following morning, Danny went to Brentland extra early. The school wasn’t even open yet, but Danny picked the lock on the basement door. He knew how to get in from his previous basement interludes with Payton. He made his way to the locker room and took the longest, hottest shower on record.

At work that night, Danny asked another stock boy if he knew of any places he could squat for a few nights. The boy told him about an abandoned building a few blocks away. He said that the most trouble he would find there were some junkies. Danny figured he could handle junkies much easier than gang members. Danny bought a sleeping bag with the meager amount of money he saved and then found a corner of the abandoned building. The stock boy was right about the junkies, but Danny also found that some prostitutes did their business there as well. Danny found a small room with a lock on it. So every night he would lock himself in the freezing, cold room and sleep with one eye open.

And so Danny’s routine became sleeping in the abandoned building, showering in the Brentland locker room at the crack of down, going to school and then going to work. For the most part, it worked well. He carried a small switchblade with him to threaten any junkies or johns that got too close. He did this for two weeks, and then one day as he was leaving the locker room after his morning shower, he ran into Katie.

“What are you doing here so early?” Danny asked her trying to sound like he belonged there that early.

Play practice. It’s the only time to rehearse. The better question is: what are you doing here at 6:30 in the morning?”

Danny thought quickly. “Training. Baseball starts in a few weeks. I’m just trying to get in shape.”

“The coaches don’t open the gym until 7. How did you get in there?” she asked skeptically.

Danny couldn’t tell her about picking the locks. “They gave me a key. Uh…the coach wants me to be ready for the new season.”

Katie looked at him with a confused expression. “I’m surprised you are still going to play. I thought you were done with Brentland interaction.”

She was right. Danny didn’t plan on going out for baseball again, but he couldn’t blow his cover. “No. I like to play. It looks good on my transcripts.”

Katie nodded. “Well…good luck.”

“Yeah…you, too. I mean with the play,” he said as he quickly walked away.

A few days later, Katie was waiting for him again outside the locker room. When he saw her, he sighed heavily.

“What’s going on, Danny?”

“What do you mean?”

“You aren’t training for baseball. You don’t have a key. And I went by your house yesterday after school. The Taylor’s don’t live there anymore. Where are you living?”

“We moved-as if it’s any of your business. Why are you always on me? I told you to leave me alone, Katie.”

“I care about you. I care about what happens to you.”

“Oh, please. Don’t waste your time. I’m out of here in four months, and then you’ll never see me again. I doubt I’ll ever travel in your circles,” he responded angrily and then brushed passed her.

Mariel – I know Danny is acting quite cold. After the fiasco with Payton and the Taylor’s letting him down, he is afraid totrust on anyone…even someone as sweet as Katie. Don’t worry…that will change soon.

Susan – I wrote that Danny got a scholarship to NYU. I know it is very expensive. I was thinking since he does well at Brentland and he is a minority, that he would qualify for some kind of full-ride scholarship. If this isn’t realistic, then I guess I will just take dramatic license with this. Thank you clarifying. It keeps me on my toes.

Danny did his best to avoid Katie for the rest of the day. After work that night, he made it back to the abandon building. As he walked down the halls, he recognized that several people were doing business in the building. Danny was hoping to have enough money saved in another two weeks to move into one of those weekly rental motels. He entered the small room and was about to lock the door, when he realized someone was coming in the door. The room was very dark so he couldn’t see who was coming in. He pulled out his knife, grabbed the intruder’s arm and put the knife against their throat.

“Danny…Danny…it’s me. It’s Katie,” she cried out.

He quickly let her go and spun her around. “What the hell are you doing here? Did you follow me?”

“What happened to your foster parents, Danny? Why are you here?” she asked frantically.

“You shouldn’t be here. It’s dangerous,” he replied in a concerned tone.

“You shouldn’t be here either,” she responded shaking her head.

Danny sighed knowing he’d have to explain. “My foster parents left town. My caseworker could only place me in shelter. I couldn’t stay there.”

“There has to be somewhere else you can go…”

“There isn’t…not until I can make some money.”

“That’s why you have the job…”

“Right. Now will you please let me get you a cab and get you out of here.”

Katie stood there for a moment and took it all in. “You can’t stay here, Danny. This is no place for you to sleep or anything.”

“I don’t have a choice. Now…please…you need to leave.”

“Come home with me. My parents are in Paris for two weeks. Our housekeeper is staying with me, but it will be easy to get you past her. She barely knows I’m there.”

“No…Katie…that won’t work.”

“Yes, it will. What other choice do you have, Danny? You can’t stay here.”

Just then, a man pushed through the door. Danny took hold of Katie’s arm and pulled her behind him to shield her from the stranger.

“Stella…Stella…is Stella in here?” the man asked.

“No, man. No Stella here,” Danny responded.

“Shit. I paid that whore 50 bucks. She told me to meet her up here.”

“She’s not in here, man. Just keep looking down the hall.”

The man leered at Danny and Katie. “How about instead…your friend and I party. I’ll pay double for a sweet, young thing like her.”

Danny pulled out his knife as he felt Katie shake with fear behind him. “Get the hell out of here before I get very angry.”

The man put his hands up. “Relax…relax brother. I understand. She’s your territory. I have a better idea. I’ll pay double just to watch you two go at it. I bet you’re pretty hot together.”

Danny lunged forward and grabbed the man’s neck. “If you don’t leave now, I will slit your throat.”

The man finally realized that Danny was serious, so he backed away and left the room. Danny turned to Katie. “Don’t you see? This is no place for you.”

Katie had a scared, shocked look in her eyes. She had never experienced anything even close to that in her life, but she held her ground. “I’m not leaving here without you, Danny,” she responded in a scared, weak voice.

Danny shook his head. He decided the most important thing was to get her home. So he figured he would tell her what she wanted to hear. “Okay. Let’s go. I’ll go home with you.”

They gathered Danny’s things and then found a cab. When they arrived at Katie’s building, she directed him to the parking garage entrance on the side of the building. They entered through a side door and got on a private elevator. “I’ll have to let you in every night. There are cameras everywhere. If they see that you aren’t escorted, security will get suspicious.”

They got off the elevator and turned the corner to a back hallway. “This will take us into the kitchen. Camilla, our housekeeper, is in her bedroom by 8 p.m. every night, but the room is off the kitchen. So…be quiet.”

She unlocked the door to the kitchen and they quietly walked in. She directed Danny to a staircase in the kitchen. They quickly walked up the stairs and down the hall. He breathed a sigh of relief when they reached her room and locked the door.

“That wasn’t so hard,” Katie said with a shy smile.

Danny gave her a “yeah, right” look and then put down his sleeping bag and duffle. “I don’t know if this is going to work, Katie. If I get caught…”

“You won’t get caught. I’ll let you in every night after you get in from work. In the morning, I’ll let you out before Camilla wakes up. It will be okay. Trust me.”

Danny looked at her skeptically. He figured at the very least, he’d stay one night and figure something else out the next day.

“Are you hungry? I’m starving. I’ll go see what Camilla left for us. If you want to take a shower or get cleaned up, the bathroom is right there,” she said pointing to the door in the corner.

After she left the room, Danny grabbed his duffle and went into the bathroom, which was bigger than the basement room he lived in at the Taylor’s. He undressed and stepped into the marble shower. It felt so good that he could have stayed in there for hours. He couldn’t believe that people lived in this kind of luxury everyday. He finally stepped out and wrapped a towel low around his hips. When he looked in his duffle, he realized his clothes and school uniform hadn’t been washed in a few days. He walked out of the bathroom as Katie was setting up a makeshift picnic on the floor.

When Katie caught sight of Danny in the towel and wet hair, her heart jumped and she bit her lip. Danny, realizing she was bit uncomfortable by the blush in her cheeks, smiled apologetically. “Sorry…I…uh…I just realized that my clothes are kind of rank. I took them to the laundry mat a few days ago, but I was wondering if…”

“Of course,” Katie responded as she stood up nervously. “Um…I’ll put them in the wash right now. It won’t take long. In the meantime, I can get you something of my dad’s. He probably has sweats or something.”

“That’d be great,” Danny replied still smiling.

Katie took the clothes to the laundry, and then brought back a pair of sweat pants and t-shirt. As Danny changed, Katie couldn’t help but think about seeing Danny like that. She always knew he was good-looking…but at that moment, she thought he was the most beautiful man she had ever seen. She also became very aware that Danny was a man, not like the boys at Brentland. His body and face had the chisel and scars of a man twice his age.

He walked out of the bathroom in the sweat pants that were about three sizes two short for him. Katie laughed. “My father is a few inches shorter than you.”

“No kidding?” Danny said jokingly. “That’s OK. They are clean and warm. That’s all I care about.”

“Well…sit down. I have a little carpet picnic going on here,” Katie said as she sat on the floor and Danny joined her.

The meal was hot soup with fresh vegetables and chicken with hot, homemade bread and butter. Danny had eaten very little since he left the Taylor’s. And most of what he had came out of machines in the cafeteria and supermarket break room. He ate almost ravenously. When he finished, Katie said, “There’s more…if you want.”

“No…this was perfect. Thank you. You’re housekeeper is a wicked good cook.”

“Well…I’ll be sure to tell her that some day when you aren’t hiding in my bedroom.”

“That’s probably smart,” Danny replied with a smile and then he asked her what he wanted to ask her since she found him in that building. “Why are you doing this? Am I like a charity case to you or something.”

Katie shook her head. “We’re friends…even though you tried very hard to convince me that we aren’t. And this is what friends do for each other. They help each other. Even though things have been strained between us, I know if I needed you, you would help me.”

“Something tells me you wouldn’t ever be in this kind of situation. There’s probably not a lot I could help you with. I could never repay you for what you are doing, Katie.”

“You’d be surprised,” Katie replied as she got up. “I’m going to put your clothes in the dryer. I’ll be right back.”

Danny cleaned up the dishes and set them by the door. Then he rolled out his sleeping bag on the floor next to her bed. When Katie returned to the room, she went into the bathroom. She came out in an oversized t-shirt and flannel pajama bottoms. Danny thought she looked adorable with a clean-scrubbed face. She also looked very young. She was only sixteen. Danny knew it was dangerous staying with her. If anyone caught them, he’d be in a world of trouble.

Before falling asleep, they talked for a few minutes even though they were both exhausted. Danny thanked her again for helping him. Then she told him that she set the alarm for 5 am, so he could get out before 6.

Finally, right before they fell asleep, Danny called out. “Katie.”

“Uh-huh,” she replied sleepily.

“I lied when I told you I didn’t read that book.”

Katie opened her eyes. It had really hurt her when he told her he didn’t read it. “Really?”

“Yeah. I think it’s kind of amazing that you thought of me. You have no idea how much I relate to it. It’s all about second chances and fresh starts. God knows I’ve needed those in my life…more than once,” he said quietly.

“I’m glad you read it. And I’m glad that you are starting over…” she whispered not wanting to mention Payton’s name.

“I really messed up with Payton. I let myself get caught up in her because I was lonely and drinking way too much. I made mistake. And I am sorry that I said things to hurt you.”

“It’s okay. I’m just glad you are out of her clutches. She’s dangerous, Danny.”

“Tell me about it,” Danny smirked. “Good night, sweet Katie.”

Katie smiled. “Good night, Danny.”

Even though Danny vowed to find another place to stay, he ended up staying with Katie. They were able to secretly get him in and out of the building without any trouble. There were a few near misses with Camilla, but all in all, the arrangement was working very well. Danny and Katie became inseparable in and out of school. They ate lunch every day together. The only time they were apart was when he went to work. One afternoon, they were eating outside on an unseasonably mild February afternoon when Payton approached them.

“Well isn’t this cozy?” she exclaimed as she sat down with them at the picnic table.

“What do you want?” asked Danny as he looked at Katie uneasily.

“You know what I want, Danny. But apparently, you’re giving it to Katie now. So I was just wondering how our little Shakespeare sweetheart rates. Are you showing her the ropes?”

“Shut up, Payton,” Danny responded as he could see Katie get embarrassed.

“What’s the matter, Katie? Are you not quite living up to his expectations? He’s got quite an appetite, doesn’t he?”

“You’re really evil. You know that, Payton?” Katie replied not really able to think of a better comeback.

“Enjoy him now while you can. Eventually, he will tire of you.”

“That’s enough, Payton,” Danny said angrily as he stood up. “Let’s go, Katie.”

Katie stood up with Danny. Before they could leave, Payton said, “Danny…if you’re ever in the mood for mind-blowing sex like we used to have, I’ll meet you in the basement anytime.”

Danny looked at her and smirked. “You have a severely inflated view of what we used to have. It wasn’t that good, especially when you had to blackmail me to be with you. But compared to Trevor…I’m sure it was mind-blowing for you.” And then he guided Katie down the path back to the school. Danny knew his comment would ignite Payton, but he had no idea how much.

That same night, Danny and Katie were talking in her room about what he could do once her parents returned in four days. Danny thought he had enough money to rent one of those weekly motel rooms, but Katie questioned their safety.

“Katie, it’s certainly a stretch from here, but I’ve lived in worse places. I have to go somewhere.”

“Maybe I could talk to my parents. Maybe I could get them to let you stay here in one of the spare bedrooms.”

“Are you forgetting that I met your mother? She’s not going to let me live in her house. Trust me.”

“My father is more understanding. He really has respect for people that work hard and overcome obstacles and, don’t take this the wrong way, but he’s very charitable. He always encourages me to help less fortunate people.”

“Is that what I am? Less fortunate?” Danny teased. “I’m honored to be your charity case, Katie Mason, but I don’t think this is what your father had in mind. And I’m pretty sure if he ever found out I was sleeping in your room, I’d be dead man.”

Katie looked down and smiled. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Shoot.”

“We’ve been in this room together for a week and a half, and you haven’t once tried anything with me. You haven’t even kissed me. I wonder why?”

“Katie…I…”

“Am I not your type? I think you know how I feel about you. I’m not as good as you are at hiding how I feel. And being this close to you…spending all this time with you…it makes me want…I just…I think about you a lot, Danny.”

“I like you. I do. You’re the nicest person I’ve ever met. And I do know how you feel about me. I feel so lucky to have someone like you care about me, Katie. I’ve never had anyone in my life that has cared for me so unconditionally.”

“Is it because you think I won’t sleep with you?” she asked timidly.

“No…no…I just…I don’t want to screw this up. You’re too special to me.”

Katie nodded and then reached out to touch his face. Then she slowly leaned in just inches from his face.

For the first time in his life, Danny felt scared with a girl. He lightly brushed his lips against hers, and then he kissed her. He could tell it was her first kiss. He put his hand on the small of her back to pull her closer. And then she lay back on the bed pulling him on top of her. They made out on the bed for quite a while. Danny was careful not to go too far with her until he finally had to pull away. “We should stop,” he whispered above her.

She looked up at him. “Yeah…I guess we should…but I mean…if you want too….”

“Katie…,” Danny smiled slightly because he knew she really didn’t want to.

“How can you want to be with someone like Payton, but not want me?”

“I never cared about Payton like I care about you. It doesn’t even compare.”

“I don’t understand…”

“Look…we have time. I’m not going anywhere. I mean…eventually…I will have to stop living in your bedroom, but I’ll still be around. We don’t have to be in a hurry.”

“I just…I want to be more than just your friend.”

“We are more than just friends. And we can be that without having sex. It’s not that I don’t want to, Katie, but now is not the right time,” Danny said knowing that he could get into trouble for being with her since she was only 16.

“Okay,” she replied sounding relieved. “But can I ask you for a favor?”

“Name it.”

“Will you sleep with me instead of on the floor?”

He gave her an uneasy glance.

Please? I promise I won’t try anything,” she teased as she smiled and pulled him toward her for one more kiss.

That night, they slept in each other’s arms. Danny never had a better night’s sleep in his life.

The day before Katie’s parents were due home, Danny was getting his stuff together in the locker room. Gym was his final class of the day. Most of the guys used the time for baseball practice, but Danny just ran a couple of miles around the track since he wasn’t playing baseball.

As he turned to leave the locker room to go to work, he encountered Trevor and his two best friends.

“Danny boy. I hear you aren’t going to grace us with your presence this season.”

“No…sorry, guys…I…uh…I had to get a job,” Danny answered uneasily. Trevor and his two friends were never particularly nice to Danny.

“That’s too bad. But I guess you must be tired.”

“Tired? I’m not tired. I just need the job.”

“That’s not what I mean, asshole. I mean it must be tiring trying to steal my girlfriend.”

Danny laughed. “Dude…you’re crazy. I don’t know what you are talking about.”

Payton told me everything. She told me how you came on to her. I knew something was strange at Homecoming. She felt sorry for you, and you took advantage.”

“You’re wrong, Trevor. Payton’s pathological.”

“Why would Payton lie about a lowlife like you? You shouldn’t even be here.”

“I agree. I shouldn’t be here, and I’ll be gone before you know it,” Danny responded as he tried to pass by the three boys. One of the boys grabbed his arm and the other pushed him into the locker.

“Not so fast, spic…” one of them said.

“Oh…great…very original. Pull out the racial slurs,” Danny joked and then Trevor punched him hard in the stomach as the other two held him.

Danny doubled over, but still responded, “Look…I have no interest in Payton. I swear…”

Trevor hit him again in the jaw, and then again in the stomach. While the punches hurt, Danny knew he wasn’t in too much trouble. These guys couldn’t hurt him like Raffi’s dealer hurt him. So he stopped talking and let Trevor finish. After about five minutes of punching, they threw him down. Trevor finished by saying, “Stay away from Payton. If I see you near her…it will be worse next time.”

“No worries, man,” Danny said from his hunched over position on the floor. “I’ll stay far, far away from her.”

After the boys left, Danny leaned back against the locker. He was fairly certain he didn’t have any broken or cracked ribs. He remembered what that felt like. His mouth was bleeding and his jaw and eye hurt like hell, but he was fairly certain he would be fine.

He tried to clean up in the supermarket bathroom, but his face looked pretty bad. His manager sent him home. Danny didn’t want Katie to see him, but he didn’t have anywhere else to go. And he had to get ice on his eye or it would swell shut. So he called Katie from across the street to let him up to the apartment. When she saw him, she cried out, “Oh my god…Danny…what happened?”

“Apparently, Payton is still pissed. She told Trevor about us. And he defended her honor…I guess,” Danny said with a wince-inducing laugh.

“We should go to a doctor. You need help.”

“I’m fine. Really. I’ve been through worse than this. I just need some ice.”

Katie led him up to the apartment and they snuck into her room. Then she brought as much ice and packs of frozen vegetables that she could find. Danny put an ice-pack over his eye. When he tried to lie back on the bed, he winced from the pain in his ribs. Katie unbuttoned his shirt and helped him pull off his undershirt.

She gasped when she saw the red bruises across his stomach. “This looks bad,” she said as she press some frozen peas against his stomach. As she checked out the bruises, she traced her finger across the long scar across his stomach. It was painful just to look at it.

“It’s really not. I promise. It looks worse than it is.”

“She really is evil bitch. How could she…after all this time…”

Danny smiled. He’d never heard Katie call anyone a name before. “Let’s not talk about Payton. She doesn’t even deserve a comment.”

Katie tended to Danny’s cut lip and eyes, and then cradled his head in her lap as she ran her fingers through his hair. “It’s going to be very hard to leave this kind of attention,” Danny said on the verge of falling asleep.

Katie smiled. “I could run away from home and live with you in the motel.”

“No way. I could never take you away from all of this. I couldn’t imagine you sleeping on one of those nasty motel beds with ugly comforters.”

“I’d sleep anywhere with you,” Katie said softly.

Danny smiled. “Sure you would. One morning of taking a cold shower in a plastic tub…and you’d be out the door. And I wouldn’t blame you…I’ve kind of gotten used to the marble and 300 thread count sheets, myself.”

Katie laughed. And then they were silent for several minutes. Katie finally asked, “Are you still awake?”

“Barely…,” he replied sleepily.

“How did you get the scars? The scars on your stomach and wrist? Did someone hurt you?”

Sometimes Danny forgot he had the scars. The one on his stomach was still fresh. As many times as he was in various states of undress with Payton, she never cared enough to ask him. “I’m not sure about the one on my wrist. My mother told me I got it when I put my hand through a window, but sometimes I have nightmares about it. I just…I don’t think she told me the truth. The one on my stomach was courtesy of my brother’s drug dealer…” Danny told her the whole story about his brother and parents. He even confided in her about Kim Wellman, his abusive foster mother. He had previously vowed to never talk about that with anyone. He wasn’t sure why he opened up so much to her, but it felt good. It felt good to trust someone again. It felt good to let himself be loved by her.

The next day Katie found out that her parents weren’t returning for three more days. That meant she and Danny could spend the whole weekend in her room. She was glad because she knew that Danny needed time to heal even though he said he was fine. They spent the whole weekend eating junk food, watching movies and making out, even though Katie was sure she was hurting Danny’s bruised lip. They both felt like they were growing closer by the minute. Katie had never been happier in her life.

On Sunday, the day before her parents were due home, Katie finally got out of bed at 3 in the afternoon to take a shower. Danny stayed in bed to finish reading one of Katie’s books. He looked up from his book as Katie walked out of the bathroom after her shower. She was only wearing a light tank top and panties. He smiled at her lack of modesty. They had come a long way in two weeks together. He watched as she applied lotion to her legs and hands. “Are you trying to drive me crazy?” he asked as he took in every inch of her.

She smiled with a little embarrassment. “It’s almost like I forget you’re here.”

He put down the book and sat on the edge of her bed as she walked to toward him. She stood directly in front of him as he ran his hands down the curves of her hips. Then he kissed her stomach while pulling her closer. “You’re beautiful. You know that?”

“I know that you make me feel beautiful,” she replied as she ran her hands through his bed head, and then he put his arms around her waist. She let out a yelp when he suddenly rolled her onto the bed and slid on top of her. This had practically become their hourly ritual. They couldn’t seem to keep their hands off of each other. Danny loved being close to her like that even though their make out sessions often led to cold showers for him afterward.

As he kissed her deeply, she helped him remove his t-shirt. She loved feeling the strength and definition of his tanned body as he moved above her. His hand slowly made its way under her tank top as they continued to kiss passionately. Their encounters became more and more intense and intimate each time. Their breathing became ragged as their kisses became more and more frantic. She dug her nails into his back to bring him closer, and then she let out a soft moan in response to his gentle touches. They were so focused on each other that they didn’t hear the knock at the door.

“Katie…” her mother cried out after she walked in the room and saw them on the bed.

Katie looked up and saw her mother’s horrified face, and Danny quickly rolled off of her. She then grabbed the sheet to cover herself.

“Mom…it’s not…”

“Shut up! Shut up! What are you thinking?” Mrs. Mason yelled. And then she turned to Danny. “And you….do you know how old she is? Do you? She’s sixteen.”

Danny didn’t know what to say as he put on his jeans and t-shirt. “Mrs. Mason…I…”

“Get out. Get out my house right now before I call the police.”

Danny grabbed his duffle bag and started to go for the door. He tried to look back at Katie to give her an apologetic glance, but Mrs. Mason screamed, “Get out!”

After Danny walked out, Katie tried to explain. “You don’t understand. I can explain…”

“I told you to shut up. I don’t want to hear it. Put some clothes on and then wait here. Thank god your father had to stop by the office before coming home. He would have been disgusted to just see what I just saw. We trusted you, Katie. He’ll be home in an hour. We’ll talk to you then.”

Katie sat in her room for what seemed like an eternity. She was more worried about where Danny would end up that night, than what her parents were discussing. Then there was a knock on her door.

“Come in,” Katie answered.

Camilla opened the door. Katie could tell she’d been crying. “Camilla? What’s wrong? They didn’t get mad at you, did they?”

“You were my responsibility. Of course they are mad. Mrs. Mason wanted to fire me.”

“Oh god, Cam…I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean for that to happen. I’ll talk…”

“Mr. Mason talked her out of it…at least for now. You should not have deceived me like that, Katie girl. And you should not let a man in your bedroom. It’s not proper.”

“I’m sorry, but you don’t understand. He needed my help…”

“Doesn’t matter now. The water is under the bridge. You’re parents want to see you in the study right now.”

Katie walked down the stairs and down the long hallway to her father’s study. She felt like she was marching to her death. When she walked in, she was surprised to see Mr. Williams, the chief of security for their apartment building. Her father owned the building, so Mr. Williams worked for him. She tried to look into her father’s eyes, but he wouldn’t look at her. That broke her heart because her father had never been disappointed in her before.

“Mom…Dad…I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…”

“Don’t…don’t even try to explain…” her mother said again.

“But…”

“Katie, what’s his name?” her father asked sternly still not looking in her eyes. “We see from security tapes that you’ve been sneaking him in for two weeks, but we don’t know who he is.”

“His name is Danny…Danny Taylor…he’s…”

Her father interrupted her. “How old is he? And how did you meet him?”

“He’s a kid…just like me. He goes to Brentland…”

“Don’t lie to us, Katie. He doesn’t look like a Brentland student,” her father responded.

“He is. Mom…you met him, remember? Danny Taylor…we went to see Romeo and Juliet last fall…”

“The boy who didn’t have a family to speak of? Katie…what are thinking getting involved with someone like that? And he looked like he’d been in a fight. Is he…is he in one of those gangs?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. He’s not in a gang. In fact, the bruises came from Brentland’s finest, Trevor Reynolds. And what does that mean? Someone like that? What does that mean, mother? I can only date boys who come from well-to-do families?”

“You weren’t “dating” him, Katie. He’s been living in your bedroom for the last two weeks,” her father interjected. “How old is he?”

“He’s a senior…he’s eighteen. But you don’t understand. He wasn’t staying here to be with me. He’s in trouble….and he needed help…”

“I’m sure he does,” her father said and then glanced over at his chief of security. “So, he’s eighteen.”

“If I you want me to, I call them,” Mr. Williams said as he returned Mr. Mason’s stare.

“Call who? What are you talking about?” Katie asked as she looked from Mr. Williams back to her father.

“He’s eighteen and you’re sixteen. He took advantage of you…of your sweet nature. He should pay for that,” her father said seriously.

Pay for it? Pay for what?” Katie asked completely confused.

Mr. Williams explained. “Rape…statutory rape, Katie. What he did was illegal.”

“No…no…you don’t understand. Daddy, nothing happened. I mean…when mom walked in…we were kissing, but nothing else happened.”

“Kathryn Elizabeth…when I walked in he was writhing on top of you. You were both barely dressed. I’m not stupid. You didn’t spend two weeks in your bedroom kissing.”

“Yes…we did. That’s all we did. I swear. And we didn’t even do that except for the last few days,” she replied and then turned to her father. “Danny’s foster parents moved away, and since he’s 18, his case worker couldn’t place him in a safe group home. So they put him in some awful shelter. And then he ended up in this horrible abandoned building. Daddy, he was homeless. He had nowhere to go. So he was just staying here until he could get the money together to rent one of those motel rooms. We didn’t do this to be together.”

“You were in bed with him, Katie,” her father stated.

Katie nodded. “I’m not going to lie to you. I care about him. I think…I think…I even love him, but I didn’t have sex with him. I swear.”

Her father and mother exchanged disbelieving glances. But then Mr. Williams interjected. “Look…to get the police involved, we’d have to get her examined by a doctor. So…that’s one way to settle this.”

“Fine…I’ll go to a doctor. I’ll do anything you want, just don’t call the police. He didn’t do anything wrong. And Daddy, he has so much to lose. He’s worked really hard at Brentland. He has a full ride scholarship to NYU. A police investigation could hurt his status at Brentland and his scholarship,” Katie said vehemently.

Two hours later, Katie and her mother were in the examination room of their family doctor, Dr. Marsha Thomson. Katie winced and a tear rolled down her cheek as the doctor performed the invasive exam. The doctor finally patted her knee and said, “OK, sweetheart, you can get dressed now.”

After Katie went into the bathroom to change, her mother asked, “Well?”

“Katie is still a virgin, Michelle. She hasn’t had sexual intercourse.”

“Thank god,” Michelle Mason responded as she sighed in relief. “I must call Robert and let him know.”

When Katie came out of the bathroom, she asked, “Did you tell her I was still as pure as the driven snow?”

“Yes, I did. I’m sorry to put you through that, Katie. I know it was a little humiliating.”

“Oh no…it was great. Nothing like having your parents think you are a slut.”

“They don’t think that. They were just confused. Do you really care about this boy?”

“Yes, I do.”

“You must to go out on such a limb for him. Did anything else happen between you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Did he make you do anything to make you feel uncomfortable? Did you…”

“Dr. Thomson, I wanted to have sex with Danny. But he said…he said it wasn’t the right time. He didn’t do anything to me. People keep trying to make him into some kind of predator…and he’s just a scared kid who doesn’t have anyone in this world. I just wanted to help him, but now…maybe I’ve made things worse for him.”

“I doubt that. Okay…kiddo. I think we’ve put you through enough,” she said as she stood up and walked Katie out to the waiting room.

Katie walked right past her mother without looking at her.

“She’ll be OK,” Dr. Thomson said to Mrs. Mason. “Just give her some room…”

“Did she say anything else to you?” Mrs. Mason asked.

“Nothing happened beyond what you walked in on. But I think that is the least of your worries. It’s quite apparent that Katie is in love with that young man.”

Danny checked into a motel after fleeing the Mason house. He hated leaving Katie there to deal with the consequences, but knew it would have been worse for both of them if he stayed. He knew how bad the situation looked to Mrs. Mason. She had every right to be angry, and Danny was sure her parents would never believe that he and Katie weren’t having sex. Even though Danny felt like he had just spent the best two weeks of his life, he regretted agreeing to stay with her. He hated thinking that her parents would think the worst of her for just being kind to him.

The next day, he went to school and searched the halls for Katie. She was nowhere to be found. He asked a couple of her friends if they heard from her and they said no. Finally he called her house, but there was no answer. By his second to last period, he was fairly worried and determined to go to her apartment after school to demand to see her. As he watched the clock willing it to go faster, a student came to the door and spoke quietly to the teacher. “Danny, you’re needed in the Head Master’s office,” his teacher stated.

He knew this couldn’t be good. He’d been there for two years and hadn’t seen the Head Master since the scholarship kids posed for a photo on the first day of school. He walked hesitantly into the office. Upon entering, he saw the Head Master, Mr. Rosen; his caseworker, Sheila Simmons; and two men who he didn’t know.

“Danny…have a seat,” Mr. Rosen started. “It seems we have some issues to clear up regarding an incident that occurred over the weekend. You know Sheila, and this is Mr. Mason, Katie’s father, and his associate, Mr. Williams.”

Danny looked up at Mr. Mason. “Is Katie okay?” he asked softly.

“My daughter is not your concern,” Mr. Mason said coldly. And then he turned to address the Head Master and Sheila. “What I want to know is why someone like him was left unsupervised. Who is responsible for him?”

Sheila was clearly intimidated by Mr. Mason’s tone. “Um…technically, sir…he’s on his own. When he turned 18, he aged out of the system. I tried to help him find a temporary place to live, but he disappeared from there three weeks ago.”

“You didn’t try very hard to find him, Ms. Simmons. He goes to school here everyday,” Mr. Rosen added.

“I’m sorry, but I have sixty active cases. I did what I could…”

“Unacceptable,” Mr. Mason interrupted.

“It’s not her fault, sir,” Danny interjected. “Don’t blame Sheila. I should have just stayed at the shelter…like she said. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.”

“You didn’t? You didn’t mean to ingratiate yourself into my daughter’s life? You didn’t mean to take advantage of her good nature?”

Danny shook his head. He didn’t want to tell them that it was Katie’s idea. “I shouldn’t have gone to her for help. It was stupid. But sir, nothing happened. I was planning on leaving that night. I…”

“Nothing happened? Nothing happened? My wife caught you in bed with my daughter. You lived with her for over two weeks. She’s sixteen…”

“We didn’t…” Danny started.

“Oh believe me…I know you didn’t. We already had that confirmed,” Mr. Mason replied as he paced across the office. “You’d be in jail right now if it had…make no mistake.”

Danny looked down and ran his hand over his face. He wondered what they put Katie through the night before. “I know what I did was wrong. I…um…I just…”

Sheila could see that Danny was struggling to explain his situation. She knew he didn’t want anyone to take pity on him. So she interrupted. “Danny doesn’t have anyone. His parents died when he was eleven. His brother is a junky….

“Sheila…don’t…” Danny said wanting her to stop.

But she continued, “…who has one foot back in Sing Sing. Danny’s worked his ass off to keep his life on track. He was nearly killed two years ago trying to get his brother out of trouble. And he still had the presence to get into Brentland and do well here.”

Mr. Rosen then responded. “I’ve told Mr. Mason that Danny is a very good student, and up until last weekend never caused any trouble.”

“Look…none of that matters, okay,” Danny said as he looked up at Mr. Mason. “I shouldn’t have taken advantage of her like that. You’re right. Katie is the sweetest, kindest person I’ve ever known. No one has ever been as good to me as she has. I’m sorry, Mr. Mason. I’m sorry to you and your wife and to Katie…for making such a mess of things.”

Robert Mason looked at Danny and wanted to hate him. He wanted to see a manipulative punk, but instead he started to see the person that Katie described to him the night before.

After Katie returned from the doctor’s office, she went directly to her room and slammed the door. She lay on her bed and took hold of the pillow that Danny slept on. She could still smell him. She imagined that he was next to her as tears rolled down her face onto the pillow. After a few moments of crying, she heard a knock at the door. “Can I come in?” her father asked as he opened the door.

I don’t think I have a choice,” Katie replied as she stared out the window refusing to look back at her father. She felt him sit next to her on the bed.

I’m sorry we didn’t believe you, Kate. I’m sorry we made you go through all of that, but you have to understand…what was your mother to think? After she saw what she saw, what else was she to believe?”

Katie turned around to look him in the eyes for the first time since they returned. “She and you could have believed me! I’ve never lied to you.”

Exactly…which is why I couldn’t believe it when I saw you sneak that boy into our apartment on those security tapes. So…if he could influence you to do that…then why wouldn’t we believe that this Danny would be capable of seducing you?”

He’s not capable of that, Daddy. Danny is…he tries to act tough and cool, but deep he’s sweet and so respectful. He’s better than all of those arrogant Brentland boys. He’s worked so hard to get here. But bad things keep happening to him. People have hurt him his whole life, but he keeps fighting. I found him living in this abandon building with druggies and prostitutes…it was awful…I couldn’t let him stay there, Daddy.”

He took you there?” her father asked angrily.

No…god…no…I followed him. I knew something was wrong because he wasn’t living at his foster parent’s house. He was so mad when he found out that I followed him. I told him that I wouldn’t leave unless he came with me. I didn’t give him a choice, Daddy. And I thought I was doing what you would do…” Katie said sincerely.

What I would do?” her father asked confused.

You’ve always said that I should see the bigger picture…that I shouldn’t be content with living in my tiny little world. Danny’s been hurt and abused his whole life, and I just wanted to help. I swear this didn’t start as some romantic thing. I genuinely just couldn’t let him stay somewhere where he could be hurt again.”

But it did become romantic, Katie.”

“It did. And I don’t regret that either. I really care about him. And I don’t want to abandon him, Daddy. I won’t do it.”

Robert Mason had never seen his daughter more confidant and grown-up as when they had that conversation. He was hoping to meet Danny and find out that he had pulled something over on Katie. He wanted to see someone callous and manipulative, but instead he saw the scared, hurt kid that Katie described. But that realization about Danny didn’t change what Mr. Mason had to do. He had to protect his daughter…above all else.

“I accept your apology, Danny.”

Both Sheila and Mr. Rosen exchanged relieved glances. Mr. Rosen didn’t want to lose the financial support of the Mason family over this incident.

“Thank you, sir,” Danny said as he rose to leave.

But Mr. Mason continued. “While I do believe that you regret what happened, and I know that this was more Katie’s idea than yours…despite what you said…I still need to protect my daughter.”

Danny looked back at him confused.

“I know that you are only two years a part, but in experience, you are a lifetime older than my daughter. And I don’t think she should be exposed to you. Katie has enormous potential. As you probably know, she is a very smart girl. She wants to study at Oxford after she graduates. I have a feeling all of that potential…all of those dreams would be left behind if I allowed her continue to know you.”

“I’m not sure where you are going with this, sir. We go to the same school. We can’t avoid each other completely.”

“I’ve already handled that. We are sending Katie to a boarding school until the end of the year. There a only a couple of months left. She’ll return in the fall…after you are gone.”

Danny nodded not sure how to respond.

“Knowing my daughter, she won’t want to accept this. She’ll want to see you. So I will need your help to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

“We can’t see each other at all?” Danny asked still unsure how Mr. Mason could enforce this.

“Right. And if you make an attempt to see her or if you encourage any attempts of hers to see you, then I will make sure you pay for your mistakes of the last two weeks.”

“How? How would I pay?” he asked still confused.

Mr. Rosen chimed in. “We can revoke your scholarship at any time, Danny. It was stipulated in the agreement. If I get a call from Mr. Mason in the next three months, I will expel you…and that will mean no scholarship to NYU.”

Danny was hit with the sudden realization that Mr. Mason would do anything to keep him away from Katie.

“I also have friends on the board at NYU. If you think you can wait a year, and then contact Katie, you shouldn’t. Your academic future rests in my hands. I’m going to use that as collateral for the future well being of my daughter. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir,” Danny replied not knowing what else to say.

“I was hoping you would,” Mr. Mason responded and then seemed to ponder something for a few moments. “Where are you living now, Danny?”

“Just…a motel a few blocks from here…why do you care?” he asked feeling backed into a corner.

“I don’t care, but it seems that the best way to keep you out of my daughter’s life would be to make sure you have a safe place to stay. If she found out you were in trouble again, she might try to do something stupid. Mr. Williams, my colleague, will take you to a building I own a few blocks from here. I think we have some available studios in that building,” he said as he glanced at Mr. Williams.

Danny shook his head. “No…no sir. I don’t need your help.”

Mr. Mason laughed. “That’s rich coming from someone who had no problem with living in my daughter’s room for over two weeks. You’ll stay in the studio until you start college. I’m not giving you a choice in this. I’m doing what is best for my daughter.”

Mr. Mason walked out after nodding to Mr. Rosen. Sheila gave Danny’s arm a gentle squeeze and then walked out as well. Mr. Williams then addressed Danny. “Come on, kid. We’ll pick up your things and then get you settled.”

“I really don’t have a choice, do I?” Danny asked.

“Not if you want to stay at this school, you don’t,” Mr. Williams responded and then walked out of the office.

Mr. Williams drove Danny to the motel to pick up his things, and then drove him to a mid-size walk-up building a few blocks from Brentland. Mr. Williams directed Danny to a sparsely furnished, small studio on the first floor.

“Mr. Mason must have liked you…” Mr. Williams said as they walked in the door.

“How do you figure?” Danny asked skeptically as he set his duffle bag down and took in the small room.

“Well, before we met with the Head Master, he fully intended to request that you be expelled. And now…not only are you still at Brentland, but you have a place to live. Believe me, if Mr. M wouldn’t have liked you…you’d be on the street.”

Danny nodded. “He’s a pretty powerful guy, huh?”

“You could say that. Consider yourself lucky…and a word of advice?”

Danny looked at him and nodded.

“Stay as far away from Katie Mason as possible. His daughter is his princess, but this isn’t some fairy tale where you can save her from the tower. You screw with Mr. Mason, and he will tear your world apart. From what we’ve learned about you, you can’t afford to start from scratch again.”

“No…I can’t,” Danny responded quietly.

“I’ll let the super in the building know that you’ll be here for a few months. Don’t worry about rent or utilities. If you need something, you can call me directly,” he said handing Danny his card. “Just remember what I said…and you’ll be fine.”

And then Mr. Williams left leaving Danny alone. Danny sat on the bed and thought about Katie. He tried to convince himself that this was for the best…for both of them.

Once again, Danny found himself following a very solitary routine. He went from the studio apartment to school to work and then back to the studio at night. He didn’t talk to anyone at school even though there were rumors swirling about what happened to Katie and how Danny was involved. Even though he knew it was for the best, he still missed Katie terribly. He missed waking up and watching her sleep. He missed her sweet smile. He missed touching her and kissing her. Most of all, he missed the potential of what they could have had together. He felt like she was his missing piece.

Danny turned back to drinking to numb the pain. He hadn’t had a drink since he got drunk at Homecoming. At first, it was just a couple of beers after work, but as it always did with Danny, it escalated to needing a drink just to face school each day. About a month after moving into the studio, Danny was at home drinking beer on a Friday night. He was on his fourth beer and feeling more relaxed by the second when he heard a knock at the door. No one had come to see him since he moved in, so he couldn’t imagine who it was. When he opened the door, he was surprised and very annoyed to see Payton.

“How the hell did you find me?”

“Silly, Danny. You know how determined I can be. I followed you home after school,” she said as she breezed past him into the apartment. “Now this is a step up, Danny boy. From rat hole to rat condo.”

“Oh please…come in,” he said sarcastically as he turned to her. She was already sitting on his bed. “What do you want?”

“Funny you should ask. Before I tell you, I thought maybe you would want some refreshments, but I see you started without me,” she said as she removed a bottle of tequila from a paper bag.

Danny looked at the tequila like it was gold. All he could think of was how fast he could get drunk if he drank that. Payton rose from the bed and searched for two glasses in the kitchen cupboard. She poured two shots of tequila and handed one to Danny. “What shall we drink to,” she said as she rose her glass to his. “I know…let’s drink to our little Shakespeare sweetheart.” And then she tipped the glass up and drained it. Danny looked at her in disgust, but still drained his shot. She refilled both glasses. “Have you heard the news about our Katie?”

Danny had heard several Katie rumors over the last month. The most popular was that he got her pregnant, but most people didn’t really believe that one because he was still alive. The other theory was that he dumped her and she tried to kill herself, and finally the one that was closest to the truth. Her parents found out about them and sent Katie away. “I doubt you really would know anything about her,” he said as he drained his glass again.

“You couldn’t be more wrong. Apparently, the Mason’s were so desperate to salvage poor Katie’s reputation that they made her enter this debutante class at their club. She was escorted last night by Brian Adair,” she said as she handed Danny the newspaper’s society page. “This is proof positive to all who matter in Manhattan that Katie is still a prim, proper princess.”

Danny looked at the picture of Katie in a billowy white formal gown. She looked beautiful. As much as it hurt him to see it, he responded, “That’s great. I’m happy for her.”

“Sure you are,” Payton replied sarcastically. “What I want to know is how far did things go between you two? And what did you do to deserve a studio in one of Mason’s buildings? How much is he paying you to stay away from her?”

“Shut up, Payton,” Danny said as he took another drink.

“Oh come on, Danny,” she said as she sat down on his bed. “I know you were sneaking into her apartment at night. If I didn’t know better, I would believe the pregnancy rumor, but I know you. I know how careful you are in that department. It was one of the many things I appreciated about our…encounters.”

“I think it’s time for you to go, Payton,” he said as he tried to take hold of her arm, but she shrugged him away and lay back on the bed.

“I bet they caught you together…maybe in the heat of the moment when you were making her moan…in that way only you can. I bet that was a sight for her parents…catching their sweet innocent Katie in the midst of an orgasm,” she said laughing. “But what doesn’t add up is how you got here? I mean why didn’t Mason throw your ass in jail.”

Danny was on his fourth shot. He took a seat on the chair across from the bed since he didn’t think Payton was going to leave anytime soon.

And then the truth clicked with Payton, and she continued. “Unless…unless…you didn’t sleep with her at all. That’s it, isn’t it? Oh how sweet, Danny.”

“Is there a reason why you are so interested in my life?” he asked annoyed. “Why aren’t you with Trevor? Didn’t it just make your day that he defended your honor?”

“Right…sorry about that. I was pissed and a little jealous, but now I know…I didn’t need to be jealous because nothing was happening with Katie. She wasn’t putting out for you. How classic. That must have been quite blow to your ego.”

“You couldn’t understand my relationship with Katie if you tried,” he spatted more than a little drunk now, and then he drank another shot.

Payton stood up from the bed and walked toward Danny. “Do you love her, Danny?”

“Shut up…”

“You’ll never have her. Her parents will never allow her to be with someone like you…you’re way below their standards. They will keep her in that virgin vault as long as it takes. And then one day, they’ll marry her off to some rich aristocrat like Brian Adair. And he’ll be her first…not you,” she said with a teasing smile. “It’s OK…she’ll never know what she missed with you.”

“Shut up…” he said angrily again as he drank another shot.

“You seem a little frustrated, Danny boy. I bet even though you weren’t getting any from Katie, you were still faithful,” she said as she kneeled in front of where he was sitting in the chair. “That means…it’s been a very long time since…” She put her hands on his thighs and leaned in to him.

Danny was drunk. He knew that being with Payton would be bad, but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember why. He watched as Payton poured another shot and drank it. Then she put her hand on the back of his neck and pulled him toward her. When she kissed him, the tequila drained into his mouth…so he kissed her back.

The next morning when Danny tried to open his eyes, a pain shot through his brain like he had never felt before. He looked on the bedside table and saw the empty bottle of tequila. Then he looked on his other side and saw Payton fast asleep with her head on his stomach and her arms wrapped around him. A feeling of dread filled Danny. He knew he was going to be sick…so he slowly moved her arms and head, and then slipped out of bed. He went to the bathroom and dry-heaved because he didn’t eat anything the night before. He sat on the bathroom floor for what seemed like an hour. He couldn’t move. He racked his brain trying to think about the previous night. He remembered kissing Payton. He remembered wanting to forget about Katie and everything else. But then he remembered pushing Payton away and asking her to leave because every time he opened his eyes he saw Katie’s face. He couldn’t be with Payton or anyone else while he was still in love with Katie. Clearly, Payton didn’t leave. She must have waited until he passed out and then got in bed next to him.

He finally found enough strength to turn the shower on. He stepped in to the hot stream of water and wished the night before away. The reality of what could have happened reared its head when Payton stepped into the shower with him.

“Morning, baby,” she said as she put her arms around him and pressed her cheek against his back. “Last night was…well…abstinence didn’t make you lose your touch.”

Danny turned around and shrugged her away. “Nothing happened, Payton. I was drunk…I wasn’t dead.”

“Well, it almost happened. You wanted to…,” she said as she tried to touch him again.

“No, I didn’t,” he said as he turned off the water and grabbed a towel.

Payton walked out of the bathroom behind him and put on his NY Mets t-shirt. “Look…what if I said I didn’t care anymore…that I didn’t care about appearances. That was so stupid, Danny. I was acting like a child. We could be a real couple…”

“Are you delusional? No way,” he said as he tried to find some aspirin.

“Think about how great we could be together. We could live together. When I come home from Wellesley on the weekends, we could spend all of our weekends and holidays in bed…making love,” she said as she came up and tried to put her hand inside his towel.

He took hold of her of her wrists to stop her. “Stop it, Payton. We don’t have, nor will we ever have a relationship. Last night was almost a mistake, but nothing happened,” he said sternly and then let go of her.

“Is this because you think you still have a shot with Katie? Because you don’t. It will never happen,” she said as she pulled on her jeans and gathered her things together.

“I know that it’s over with Katie. That’s not it. I just don’t want to be with you. Now, please…get out,” Danny said and then went into the bathroom and closed the door.

Danny couldn’t believe Payton’s nerve. He was sure she planned the whole thing, as usual. And he almost played right into her hand because he couldn’t stop drinking. He started to hate himself more and more. It was easy to hate himself when Katie wasn’t around to make him feel worthy.

Danny got through the last month at Brentland and finally graduated from high school. He didn’t go to graduation. He didn’t have any desire to walk across that stage and see all those families. Instead he took an extra shift at the supermarket, and then went home and drank a six-pack.

In June, he moved out of the studio apartment. He never heard a word from Mr. Mason. He just packed his things and left the key. He moved into a dorm. He was due to start summer classes in a week. With the exception of missing Katie like crazy, things were going fairly smoothly for Danny. His only other problem was that Payton wouldn’t leave him alone. She seemed determined to worm her way back into his bed, but he held his ground even though his constant drinking made him almost weak enough to succumb to Payton’s overtures. She even found his dorm and would drop by unexpectedly. He only let her in because she brought liquor. He knew that eventually she would go off to Wellesley, and he wouldn’t have to deal with her…so he didn’t make a big deal of her visits. He’d come to realize that Payton was a very lonely, messed-up girl.

One night, he was taking a break in the alley behind the supermarket. He took a quick drink out of the flask he carried. And then out of nowhere, heard someone say, “Danny…”

He turned around. Katie was standing right in front of him. He didn’t know what to say to her. He felt stupid holding the flask…so he put it down. He always told himself he’d never drink around her again.

Without a saying another word, Katie almost floated towards him. Before he knew what was happening, her arms were around his neck. On instinct, he encircled her waist and held her close. She smelled amazing to him. She let out a deep breath and said, “I’ve missed you so much.”

“Me, too,” he responded softly not wanting to let Katie go.

And then she pulled away. “I wanted to come sooner. You know that I did, but I was afraid…afraid that you would get into trouble. That and my parents have been watching me like a hawk when I am at home.”

Danny nodded. “Where do they think you are now?”

“My grandmother’s on Long Island. Don’t worry. She sleeps like a log. I can’t believe I’m here with you, finally. Have you moved into your dorm yet?”

“Last week…”

“Where is it?” she asked.

“What?”

“Where is it? I’ll go there now, and we can meet there after you finish work. I can’t wait to be alone with you again,” she said as she kissed him.

He kissed her back and was so tempted to get lost in the kiss and in her, but he pulled away. “Katie…I can’t…we can’t…”

“You’re done with Brentland, right. My parents can’t do anything to us now. I spent three months at that boarding school…just waiting for this day. I knew once you graduated…we could be together.”

“It’s not that simple…” Danny started to explain.

“Yes, it is. You’re in college now. I’ll be 17 in two months. They can’t stop us from being together, Danny. We can just lay low until I turn 17.”

Just as Danny was about to tell her about her father’s threats to pull his college scholarship, his boss interrupted him. “Taylor…get your ass back to work. The lines are stacking up.”

“Yes, sir. I’m coming in now,” he replied and then turned back to Katie. “This isn’t a good time.”

“Tell me where you live…”

“Katie…” he sighed because he knew it was dangerous.

“Please, Danny,” she pleaded.

And he couldn’t deny her. She had this hopeful, beautiful expression on her face, so he said, “It’s the Hillier House on 155th…room 4A. I’ll be there by 11.”

“Great. See you then,” she said as gave him a quick peck on the lips and then walked away.

As Danny walked home that night, he was filled with a sense of excitement and dread. He couldn’t wait to see her…just knowing she was waiting of him made him happy. But he knew it wouldn’t last. He would have to tell her that they couldn’t be together.

As he walked towards his door, he saw her. She was sitting Indian-style with her back against his door. She had her glasses on and she was reading a book. Danny smiled. She was completely oblivious when she was reading. “Some things never change,” he said as he approached her.

She looked up at him and gave him a big smile as she put away her book and removed her glasses. He held out his hand and she took it to help her to her feet. As soon as she stood up, they started to kiss. It was all Danny could do to get the key in the door and open it. As he closed the door, he backed her against it. There was no space between them. He was thankful that his roommate wasn’t arriving for another month. They kissed like that against the door for several minutes. She felt so good to him. They were almost afraid to break contact, but Danny finally pulled away. They both took a moment to catch their breath.

“We have to talk,” he said as he pressed their foreheads together.

Katie shook her head. “Later…” she replied. And then started to kiss him again. He guided her over to the twin bed as she removed his shirt. He didn’t want to stop. He wanted to keep going, and he was fairly certain that’s what she wanted to. He could tell by the look in her eyes.

It took all the strength he had to stop and pull away from her. “We can’t…”

“Yes, we can. I’m ready. I’m not scared,” she said as she looked up into his eyes.

“We need to talk. This isn’t a good idea,” he said as he moved away from her and sat on the edge of the bed.

“It’s all I’ve been able to think about for the last three months,” she said as she sat up and put her cheek against his bare back.

“Katie…we can’t be together,” he whispered glad that she wasn’t looking into his eyes.

“What do you mean? You want to wait until I turn 17? Is that it?” she asked as she sat on the edge of the bed next to him.

“No…that’s not what I mean. You are a really special person. You’re smart and you have all this potential. And…and…I don’t want to limit what you can do. I don’t want you to stick around here just because of me. Katie…we are from two completely different places, and…and…you can do a whole lot better than someone like me.”

“Did my father tell you to say that? Because it sounds just like him,” she replied sadly. “I believe…I believe in us. I don’t care how old we are or where we come from. We are meant to be together. I feel that in my heart. I…I…I love you.”

Danny knew he shouldn’t encourage her, but he had to say it. “I love you, too.”

“Then why are you fighting this? We can make this work. I know we can?” she said as she grasped his hand and leaned into him.

“How? Are you going to run away? What would we do? If you father catches us together, he’ll do everything he can to destroy me…that’s how strongly he feels about us not being together. He’s powerful. He has connections. I could lose my scholarship, and then where would we be?”

“He wouldn’t…”

“He would. He told me he would if I ever came near you again. He’s just trying to protect you, Katie.”

“I don’t care. We can make it, Danny. I have money saved…we can run away….”

Danny shook his head. “No…no…I’m not running anymore. This is my shot. This is the best opportunity I’ll ever have. And maybe your dad is right. I’m not good enough for you…at least not right now,” he said as he thought about his drinking. “You deserve better. You deserve to fulfill every dream you have whether that’s going to Oxford or whatever…”

“The only thing I dream about now is you,” she responded sadly as she started to cry.

Danny turned to her and wrapped his arms around her. She cried softly as she leaned into his bare chest. He leaned back on the bed and held her like that for a while. He didn’t want to let her go. And then at around midnight, there was a knock at the door. Katie had fallen asleep in his arms, so he laid her down and then answered the door.

He opened the door and found Payton standing there. “Hey…thought I’d see if you were up for a little nightcap,” she said as she held up a brown paper bag. She took a moment to look Danny up and down appreciating that fact that he didn’t have a shirt on. “Did I…did I interrupt something?”

He sighed and shook his head. “No, but this isn’t a good time,” he said as he started to shut the door, but Payton stopped him.

“Whoa…wait a minute. I was just going to come in for a few minutes. I have Cuervo…your fave.”

“I’m not interested…not tonight,” he whispered not wanting to wake Katie.

“You’re no fun. What’s going on? Is there someone in there?” she asked as she tried to get past him.

And then from behind him, Danny heard Katie ask, “Is everything okay?”

He turned to stop her before she got to the door, but it was too late. Katie and Payton came face to face.

“Oh my gosh. Katie Mason…as I live and breathe. I guess all the pregnancy rumors aren’t true, huh?”

Katie looked at Danny with a confused expression and then back to Payton. “What is she doing here?”

Before Danny could say anything, Payton replied. “Oh…Danny and I have gotten reacquainted in the last couple of months. I heard that you are stepping out with Brian Adair. He’s quite a catch.”

“That was…that was…my parent’s idea…I don’t understand, Danny. What is going on?”

“Nothing. Nothing is going on. Payton just…”

Payton pushed through the two of them to get into the small dorm room. “Payton just likes spending quality time with Danny,” she said as she took off her denim jacket and laid it on the bed before taking a seat. “You remember spending time with him? Don’t you, Katie? Oh no…that’s right…you two haven’t had sex.”

“She’s lying, Katie. Nothing is going on,” Danny pleaded as he looked into her eyes.

“How does she know about us…that we haven’t…? And why…why is she wearing your t-shirt?” Katie asked in a small voice.

Danny looked at Payton and noticed his old, faded Mets t-shirt. She never gave it back to him after passing out in the studio. Payton was lying back on the bed with a wide grin.

“It’s…it’s a long story, but nothing happened,” he replied defensively.

“Is she why you don’t want to be with me? Is that it?" Katie asked as tears rolled down her face. “How could you, Danny? After everything she did to you…. And what about…us?”

“Danny got tired of waiting. He couldn’t wait forever,” Payton interjected.

“Get out the hell out of here, Payton,” Danny said angrily. “She’s lying, Katie.”

Payton stood up to leave, but Katie stopped her. “No…you stay. I’ll go,” Katie said still crying. “Maybe you two deserve each other…”

And then she ran out the door. Danny started to go after her, but then stopped. He realized this was the only way…the only way to let her go so she could move on without him.

He heard Payton stifle a giggle behind him. He turned around and grabbed her arms, and then pushed her against the wall. “You’re a bitch. How could you hurt her like that?”

Payton kept smiling. “Because you would never be happy with her. You’d sleep with her a few times and then get hopelessly bored. Trust me.”

“I really wish that you would leave and never come back,” he said as he kept her pinned to the wall.

“You say that, but you don’t really want me to go. You want to forget about Katie…about everything... Let me help you forget,” she said. And then kissed him and he kissed her back. This time he still saw Katie’s face, but he knew that it had to be over with her. They could never be together. So he used Payton…just like she used him before. After they had sex, Danny got drunk on Tequila and passed out next to her.

The next morning Danny woke up to a loud pounding noise. At first, he just thought it was his head, but then he realized it was someone at the door. He took a minute to open his eyes. Payton wasn’t there. He was thankful for that. He got out of bed and pulled on a pair of boxers before opening the door. After he unlocked the door, Mr. Mason pushed through it angrily. He was flanked by his chief of security, Mr. Williams. “What the hell happened?”

Danny, extremely confused and hung-over, answered, “What are you talking about?”

“Katie…I know she was here last night. We saw her on the security tape entering the building. And then she came home practically hysterical last night.” Mr. Mason stated as he looked around the room.

Danny didn’t know how to respond.

And then Mr. Mason saw the state of the bed, the empty tequila bottle and an open condom wrapper on the floor lying next to a bra. After seeing this, he snapped. He lunged toward Danny and grabbed his throat. Then he pushed Danny onto the bed. “You son a bitch. What did you do to her?”

Danny could barely breathe. He tried to push Mr. Mason off of him, but couldn’t. Finally, the defense mechanism in Danny took over. He clinched his fist and swung at Mason connecting with his jaw. Mason stumbled back and then Danny lunged at him because he was angry about Katie and angry that Mason dare try to attack him. But Mr. Williams quickly grabbed Danny and pinned his arms behind him. Williams was at least 6’4 and 250 pounds. Danny couldn’t fight him, so he yelled, “Nothing happened with her, okay? She was here last night, but she took off. You don’t have to worry about me and Katie anymore, Mr. Mason. She never wants to see me again.”

Mr. Mason collected himself for a moment as he observed the pain and desperation in Danny’s eyes. “Let him go,” he said to Mr. Williams.

Danny shrugged out of his grasp and sat down on the bed feeling completely defeated. “You got what you wanted. After what she saw last night, she’ll never want to see me again.”

“So…it’s over?” Mr. Mason asked.

“Yeah…it’s over…” Danny replied quietly rubbing his eyes.

“You and Katie may not think it now, but it’s for the best. You could never make it in our world, and you wouldn’t want Katie in yours. Even if you do well here, you’ll never be able to give Katie what she deserves. She’s way out of your league, son. I want the best for my little girl…and that isn’t you. Even if you can change your life…deep down…you’ll still be street punk…my daughter deserves more. I’m going to make sure she gets it.” And then Mr. Mason and Mr. Williams walked out of the dorm room.

Danny laid back on his bed as a tear rolled down his cheek. He felt like he would never be able to escape his past. All the hard work, all the right choices…and nothing made a difference.