Now That You're Here - The College Years
By the time the plane landed in Arizona, everyone was exhausted. The news of Zac’s injuries and arrest made it impossible for anyone to sleep, and from the look on Jason’s face when they met him in Pittsburgh, he was taking the news the hardest. As they walked across the tarmac, a man in an expensive three piece suit approached them.
“Wow, I don’t have to ask which one of you is David. You look just like Dylan. I’m Paul Rogers. Your brother asked me to meet you here regarding a possession with intent charge.”
“Hey, Paul,” David said as he reached out and shook Paul’s hand. “Thanks for doing this on such short notice.”
“No problem. Dylan and I go back to freshman year at Yale. He’s like the brother I never had. He needs a favor, he’s got it. Now, come with me. I’ve got a car waiting. You can tell me everything you know as we head to the hospital.”
The guys told Paul what they knew as well as how, up until winter break, Zac had nothing to do with Nicky or drugs. Paul made a bunch of notes on his iPad and absorbed everything he was being told. Once their story as over, he turned off his tablet and focused on them.
“Okay, so it’s not as bad as it seems. Your friend is definitely in some trouble, but since it’s his first offense and if I can prove that he just had a couple of rough weeks, but normally is a well-adjusted freshman in college, I might be able to get the DA to drop the intent charge. She has a soft spot for misguided youth. Then he’d just be looking at maybe six months?”
“Six months?!” Jason exclaimed. “He can’t go to jail for six months! Not even for six hours. Please Paul, there has to be more that you can do.”
“I’m sorry, Jason, but the bottom line is that Zac was caught in a drug deal that went bad and was caught with a lot of drugs when it went down. With the other guy dead, he’s going to end up taking the fall. Trust me, six months is nothing compared to the ten years he could face with the intent charge.”
“What about if there were extenuating circumstances? Something going on in his life that made him snap.”
“Look, Zac and I have been dating for…well, I don’t know. It was tricky in the beginning with me living in Pittsburgh, but I’d say at least a year. Then, a few months ago I was…”
When Jason paused, Justin took his hand. “Jas, you don’t have to do this. It might not even help.”
“I have to do it. I have to try. I’m okay,” Jason assured his friend before turning back to Paul. “I was raped on the ASU campus right before Thanksgiving. It’s been really hard on Zac. He was living on campus, walking past the scene of the attack almost every day while I was staying in Sierra Vista, afraid of my own shadow. I haven’t been handling it well and as sweet and supportive as Zac has been, I’ve been pushing him away; shutting him out. Then I broke up with him right before Christmas. I thought I was doing him a favor, letting him off the hook, you know? So he didn’t have to deal with the messed-up boyfriend. I never should have done that to him. Not the way I did. That’s when he started hanging out with that scumbag Nicky. It’s all my fault.”
“It’s not your fault,” David jumped in even though he didn’t know Jason that well. “Look, what happened to you was horrible beyond words, and I’m sure it affected Zac in ways that none of us can understand, but it’s not your fault. You have to deal with what happened to you in whatever way works best for you. Screw anyone else.”
“Hey, I’m not saying that what happened to Zac is entirely his fault. He’s had a rough go of it and made a few mistakes, but I think it’s understandable under the circumstances. He definitely deserves a second chance in my book. I’m just saying that your guilt is unnecessary and unwarranted. It’s not your fault,” David replied.
Jason’s tear-filled smile touched Paul’s heart. “David’s right. There’s always more than one victim of such a brutal attack. For what it’s worth, I’m really sorry. I heard about the campus attack. I hope they catch that asshole. Anyway, are you sure you want me to use the attack as a reason for Zac’s behavior? It will become part of his defense and could possibly go public. I know that some of the details surrounding your case never became public knowledge, although I don’t know how that happened.”
“We happen to know some important people,” Brian laughed as he thought about Ed Baker and what he went through to keep the rape out of the news.
“Listen, of course I don’t want my private struggles out there for the world to see, but I’ll do whatever it takes to save Zac from going to prison. He doesn’t deserve that,” Jason assured him. “Do you think telling the DA will help?”
“It just might, but I won’t do it unless I have to. Now I spoke to my contacts at the hospital. As I imagined, Zac isn’t allowed to have visitors other than his legal counsel, so why don’t you guys go on home? You’re all exhausted. I’m going to go get his side and then do what I can to arrange his bail before he even has to see the inside of a cell. I think he’ll heal much better at home.”
“But…” Jason began.
“Jas, there’s no point in sticking around if they’re not going to let us see him,” Justin pointed out. “Let’s just go back to the house and sleep for a little while. We all need it.”
Jason sighed in defeat. “Alright, but will you call us and let us know what’s going on? Please?”
“I promise,” Paul assured him.
“And tell him…could you tell him that I love him?” Jason said tearfully.
“Yeah, I’ll tell him,” Paul promised. “I’ll talk to you boys later.”
As soon as Paul was out of the car, Brian turned to David. “That was really nice of your brother to jump in and reach out to his friend like that. Nice of both of you.”
“It was no big deal,” David brushed off the praise. “Why don’t we get going? I still need to find a hotel to stay at.”
“I thought you’d stay with me,” Matt jumped in.
“Babe, I’d love to stay with you, but I don’t think it’s a good idea. Spending a little time with your family is one thing, but staying there 24/7? That’s too much of a risk. I won’t be the reason your parents find out that you’re gay.”
Jason gasped in shock. “You’re gay? I mean…you’re…out?”
“You know?” Justin asked incredulously.
Matt chuckled. “Jason asked me about it on Thanksgiving when we were all hanging out by the lake. He was watching us and picked up on subtle clues. He’s very good at reading people.”
“So I guess this means that you guys are officially together?”
“Since Thanksgiving,” Matt acknowledged. “You were right. Life really sucks sometimes. We have to do what makes us happy when we have the opportunity.”
“I’m glad you decided to go after what you wanted,” Jason replied.
“Me too,” Matt said as he took David’s hand.
“So, if David can’t stay at your house, he might as well come stay at ours,” Brian said to Matt. “This way he’s close by and you spend most of your time at our house anyway. It’s the next best thing.”
“Guys, I don’t want to intrude. I can stay at a hotel. It’s really not a problem,” David insisted.
“You wouldn’t be intruding. We have plenty of room. Just because you can afford a hotel doesn’t mean you should stay in one. You’ll be more comfortable with friends. Unless you don’t want to stay with us. Is there something wrong with us?” Brian asked, hiding his smile.
“No, of course not,” David replied quickly. “I didn’t mean anything by…”
“Babe, he’s teasing you,” Matt interjected.
David looked between Matt and Brian and then laughed. “Ass.”
“Seriously, it’s not a big deal. Just come stay at the house.”
“Dude, you might as well give in,” Jason spoke up. “When it comes to the Morgan, Kinney, Taylor clan and their do-gooding, there’s no winning. It’s easier to just do what they say. Trust me.”
“Okay fine, thank you. I appreciate your offer,” David finally said.
By the time they got to the house, it was empty. Chris was at the paper, Zan was at the center and Sophia was at school. Brian directed Jason to his old room downstairs and sent Matt and David upstairs to the spare room before leading Justin down to the basement. He’d bet money on them all being sound asleep within minutes. After stripping down to his boxer briefs, he climbed into bed and took Justin in his arms.
“Do you think Paul will be able to get Zac off?” Justin asked sleepily.
“I hope so,” Brian replied. “Now let’s get some sleep. I’m exhausted.”
Justin didn’t reply. He was already sound asleep.
The first thing Paul noticed when he got to the doorway of the hospital room and found his client sleeping was that he looked like a young child. Lying in bed with his shoulder bandaged and sleep keeping his worries away, anyone would’ve guessed him to be no more than twelve or thirteen. Seeing someone so young and basically innocent made his determination to win the case skyrocket.
He walked into the room and put down his briefcase. He grabbed his iPad and started making a few more notes while his client continued to sleep. He’d been there about twenty minutes before Zac started showing signs of waking up. Paul put down his iPad and approached the bed.
“Hey, Zac, my name is Paul Barrett. I’m a friend of the Jackson family and I’ve been asked to take your case. Is that okay?”
Zac nodded sleepily. “I guess so. I…uh…I’m kind of in some trouble. They’re going to put me in jail. I never should have…it was so stupid…and now Nicky is…”
Paul watched as the young man fought to maintain his composure. He grabbed a box of tissues and offered them as he took a seat of the side of the bed. “Hey, try to relax. I’m going to do everything I can to fix this. There’s no doubt that you made a few mistakes, but I’m here to see that those mistakes don’t ruin your life.”
“I just screwed up so bad,” Zac cried as he reached for the tissues. “I can’t believe I screwed up so bad. Nobody’s gonna wanna talk to me ever again. He’s never going to talk to me again.”
Paul smiled. “By he, do you mean Jason?”
“Zac, I just sent your friends home to get some rest. They’re really worried about you. In fact, they were in New York and flew home early this morning to be by your side. I picked them up at the airport. As for Jason, he asked me to tell you that he loves you.”
Zac crumpled right before Paul’s eyes. Heart wrenching sobs filled the room as the young man finally let go and allowed himself to feel the pain and fear that had been plaguing him ever since the shooting and his arrest. Paul got up and left the room in search of fresh water, giving Zac a few moments to himself in the process. By the time he returned, Zac had pulled himself together and was drying his eyes.
“Sorry about that,” he said softly.
“No need to apologize. You’ve had a rough 24 hours. I wish I could let you get some more rest, but I really need to hear your side of things. I need to meet with the DA and arrange for a bail hearing. I’m hoping to be able to get everything resolved before your doctor releases you so you don’t have to see the inside of a jail cell,” Paul explained. “You’ll heal much faster at home. Have you spoken to your parents?”
“Not really. I think they were here last night after I got out of surgery, but it’s all kind of fuzzy. They said I’m not allowed to have visitors.”
“No, you’re not. Technically you’ve been placed under arrest. If you hadn’t been injured you’d be in jail right now. I’ll reach out to them when I’m finished here and let them know what’s going on(,) if that’s alright with you. Since you’re eighteen, I can’t give information to anyone without your consent.”
“Please, definitely let them know what’s going on. My mother is probably so upset right now. I had my phone last night when I got here, but they took my belongings before surgery and I don’t know where anything is. The only person I managed to reach was Brian.”
“Luckily for you, since he’s the one who got the ball rolling. Now, relax and tell me everything that happened since you started hanging out with Nicholas Shaffer. Don’t leave anything out, even if it seems insignificant.”
Zac spent the next hour telling Paul everything there was to know about Nicky, their friendship, and what they had been up to since his return from ASU. As he thought about the last month and relived his experiences, he couldn’t believe how stupid he was. He couldn’t believe he’d gotten so involved with someone like Nicky. Facing a prison sentence is getting off easy considering where Nicky ended up. He couldn’t help but wonder if there was anyone out there who was going to mourn for Nicholas Shaffer. He somehow doubted it.
Paul typed away on his iPad as he listened to Zac tell his story. There was no doubt in his mind that his client was an innocent victim in Nicholas Shaffer’s world. He just needed to convince the DA of that. “Zac, is there anything that you can tell me that would help us find Shaffer’s supplier? Who he got his drugs from?”
“Um…there was this guy that used to come by the apartment regularly. His name was Stanley or Sterling or something like that. Nicky was always giving him money. At first I thought he was the landlord or something, you know? Collecting the rent or whatever…but no one pays that much rent. The last time he came by was like four days ago. Nicky paid him three grand. There’s no way that was for rent on his crappy apartment.”
“Did he ever give anything to Shaffer? Packages or something?”
“Not that I saw, but every few days Nicky would go out by himself. He never asked me to go with him which I thought was strange because normally he wanted me to go everywhere with him. He wouldn’t even go to McDonald’s alone. But of course, I’m an idiot so I never questioned him.”
“Can I ask you something personal?”
“Why did I stay with him?”
“Well, yeah. I mean, you have a great group of friends, you have loving parents, and you’ve got the chance at a good future ahead of you. Why stay with a guy that’s clearly no good for you?”
“I don’t know, but I’m sure there’s a psychologist out there ready to take all my money to figure it out,” Zac said, laughing for the first time in ages. “Ever since I hit my teen years and started dating, I’ve been kind of retarded when it comes to relationships. Whenever my relationships ended, I always found someone to attach myself to so that I didn’t feel so alone. Nicky was an easy one because we dated five years ago, back before he turned into such a loser. We only dated for a few months before realizing that we didn’t have anything in common. I had met Brian and his friends by then and they hated Nicky. We stayed friends, but rarely saw each other except for when I was mending a broken heart. Because of our history, he was easy to fall back on. Eventually Brian became my go to guy. A much better choice, of course. But now he’s involved with Justin and Justin is Jason’s best friend so not only could I not hop into Brian’s bed, but I didn’t even feel comfortable talking to him about it. Not when he’s so important to Jason’s recovery. Jason needs the support more than I do right now. I’m sorry…I’m really rambling, huh? Anyway, Nicky was there for me. He helped ease the pain of losing Jason. That’s all that mattered at the time.”
“Yeah, I definitely suggest you find someone to talk to about your issues. Life sucks sometimes. We just have to learn to deal with the bad times and enjoy the good times. Trust me, I’m dealing with my own drama right now.”
“Care to share? Off the record, of course.”
“Well, my wife of five years left me for my best friend and she took my three year old son with her. How’s that for drama?”
“Dude, that sucks. I’m so sorry,” Zac replied.
“Hey, it’s part of life. I’ll get visitation rights, see my son as often as I can, and move on. It’s all I can do, right?”
“Well, I wouldn’t recommend hooking up with a drug dealer, that’s for sure,” Zac teased.
“I’ll remember than,” Paul laughed. “Now back to you and your problems. Do you think you’re going to have a problem giving up drugs? I’m pretty sure a part of the plea deal I’m going to ask for will require a drug treatment program, but do you think you’re going to need it?”
“I doubt it. I was doing drugs to forget, but I haven’t had anything since yesterday morning and I’m fine,” Zac pointed out.
“True, but then again, you’ve been receiving pain killers at regular intervals because of your injury.”
“Hmm…I didn’t think about that. But I still think I’m okay. I enjoyed getting high, but I don’t think I had to do it, you know? Now, when you say drug treatment program, are you talking about putting me away somewhere?”
“Not necessarily. I’m going to shoot for outpatient first, but inpatient if they’re pushing for jail time. Trust me, rehab is better than prison any day.”
“I believe you. So, what do you think my chances of staying out of prison are?”
“Pretty good, I think. Especially given your cooperation. I’m going to pass along the information you gave me on Stanley or Sterling. Someone will probably contact you in the next day or two for a more detailed statement. If the DA thinks she can land a bigger fish, she’ll go easier on you. In the meantime, try and think if there’s anything else that might help to track down Shaffer’s supplier. I’m going to go work out your bail and I’ll touch base with your parents and let them know what’s going on.”
“How much do you think my bail will be? My parents aren’t rich. How does that work? What if they don’t have enough money? Will I be forced to wait in jail?”
“Your bail has already been taken care of.”
“It has? How? I thought you haven’t talked to my parents yet?”
“David Jackson informed me that he’d be putting up the money. I just need to let him know the amount as soon as I have it.”
“David? But…why? I met him once. Why would he do that?”
“I don’t really know. I’ve only met him once, too. This morning. He was very chummy with your friends so if he doesn’t really know you, I imagine he’s doing it for them. Just sit back and be thankful. It’s not like the Jackson’s are hurting for money. I went to Yale with David’s oldest brother and believe me, he helped anyone who was in need. They’re a great family who never takes their good fortune for granted. Consider yourself lucky. Now get some rest. I’ll talk to you in a bit.”
And with that, Paul was gone, leaving a very confused and scared Zac alone to wait for news of his impending future.
Dane pulled around to the back of the restaurant like he had been told and parked next to Eric’s dark blue SUV before taking a deep breath. He wasn’t sure why he was so nervous. It was only going to be the two of them. It wasn’t like Robert was going to be there, wondering why Eric would hire a no-experienced kid like him. They were supposed to start working together the week before, but a delay in the construction had left the kitchen a mess so they had to postpone their lessons. The wait had been killing Dane and just making him more nervous. After a really quick pep talk to himself, he got out of the car and went over and knocked on the back door. Eric answered immediately.
“I thought I heard a car. Come on in. I’m going to give you a quick tour of the place and then we’ll get to work. Just watch out for the work areas. The construction crew finished up the kitchen yesterday, but they’re still working on the dining area and the bar. They just left for lunch about ten minutes ago so we’d better enjoy the peace and quiet while we can.”
After a quick tour of the place, Dane and Eric settled in the kitchen and got to work. Eric had purchased the more common vegetables from their new supplier at wholesale so that they had something to practice on. He figured it was money well spent if Dane was going to be working alongside of him. The kid needed to know what he was doing.
As it turned out, after just a few tips about the proper way to hold a knife, Dane learned quickly and was chopping and slicing like a pro in no time. They spent the next four hours talking about everything that Dane would need to know to work in a kitchen. The knowledge made him even more anxious for the restaurant to open so that he could start working. He shared his excitement with Eric, who laughed at his enthusiasm.
“Remember you said that when I’m barking orders and you’re plotting my demise. I can be a real asshole when I wanna be, and I don’t tolerate stupidity in my kitchen.”
“I’d expect nothing less. I’ll be running my own kitchen one day and believe me, I won’t tolerate stupidity, either. I promise I’ll work really hard for you. I appreciate the opportunity you’re giving me. I won’t let you down.”
“I know you won’t,” Eric told him. “That’s why I feel confident giving you the opportunity. Just do what needs to be done and everything will be fine.”
“You got it, boss.”
“Now what do you say we get out of here? Steve should be heading home about now and we were going to throw some burgers on the grill. You up for it?”
“I’d love to, but Sandy has plans tonight with some of her girlfriends so I have to get home for Julia,” Dane replied.
“So go get your daughter and then come by. We’re just chilling at the condo. It’s not like she’s going to get in the way.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. I didn’t get to spend much time with her when we met. I’d like to get to know her a little. I told you, I love kids,” Eric assured him.
“Okay, thanks. Give me about an hour and I’ll be over.”
“Cool. See you then.”
Dane drove home with a smile on his face. He had a great day learning some of what he needed to know for work. The distraction was also great for him. He knew he had been moping around ever since he and Michael split up. He still couldn’t believe that he had been stupid enough to believe all the lies Michael had told him. After feeling like such a fool for the first few days, he was ready to put the whole ugly mess behind him. Unfortunately, Michael had other ideas. He started calling several times a day right after Christmas, trying to get Dane to listen to his feeble excuses. Dane only answered twice, both times to tell Michael to stop calling. The calls started slowing down some, but he still received them at least once or twice a day. School was going to be starting in another week and a half, and the last thing Dane wanted to do was run into his ex. He really wished the guy would just leave him alone. Sandy was just finishing with her make-up when he walked through the door.
“Oh good, I was hoping you wouldn’t be too late. I’m so ready to get out of here.”
“Is everything okay? Where’s my baby girl?”
“Everything is fine. Julia is sleeping, but I’m sure she’ll be up soon. She has been pretty cranky today, though. Just a warning. I think it’s that tooth that’s coming in. Every time I put her down today, she started crying. By two o’clock, every time she cried, I cried. I was so happy when she fell asleep about thirty minutes ago, but trust me, she won’t sleep long.”
“I’m sorry you had such a bad day. Why didn’t you call me? I could’ve come home and helped out.”
“Don’t be silly. You were busy. I wasn’t going to bother you. Today was important. Trust me, if you were just hanging out with the boys, I would’ve dragged you home in a second,” Sandy laughed, knowing that Dane didn’t believe her for a second. She never demanded much from Dane. She liked it better when he went out of his way to be a great father. It meant more that way and helped ease the guilt she still felt over foolishly getting herself and Dane into their current situation. She loved her daughter with all her heart and wouldn’t trade her for anything, but she never should have gotten pregnant in the first place. Especially not by an eighteen year old gay guy. “Besides, she’s all yours now. Do you mind if I spend the night at your sister’s place? I’d like to have fun without having to worry about driving home.”
“Go ahead. I don’t like you on the roads late at night anyway. Julia and I will be just fine. As soon as she wakes up we’re going to go visit Eric and Steve for a while and then we’ll come back here, have a nice relaxing bath, and then spend a little daddy/daughter time. Have fun.”
“Thanks, Dane,” Sandy said as she hugged him goodbye. “Love you.”
“Love you, too.”
As soon as Sandy was gone, Dane dropped down on the couch to wait for his daughter to wake up. His parents were out of town for the week visiting some old friends so he had the place to himself. He just grabbed the remote to turn on the TV when his phone rang. He groaned when he saw Michael’s name on the screen. He’d had about enough.
“Christ, Michael, can’t you take a hint? Leave me the hell alone!”
“Dane…please don’t hang up. I need to talk to you,” Michael pleaded.
“There’s nothing to say, Michael. Whatever we had is over,” Dane insisted.
“I know…but please…look, I’m outside your house right now. Just give me five minutes. Please.”
“You’re here?” Dane asked incredulously. “Michael…”
“Please Baby, just let me talk to you. Please.”
Dane disconnected the call and tossed his phone down in frustration. The last thing he wanted was to see Michael, but he was afraid he’d start pounding on the door if he tried to ignore him and the last thing he needed was Julia being woken up before she was ready. He sighed heavily and walked to the door, steeling himself to face his ex before opening the door.
“What the fuck do you want?” he barked when they were face to face.
“Baby, I miss you so much. There’s got to be a way we can work this out.”
“Are you kidding me? There’s nothing to work out. We were together for months and you lied to me over and over again. You promised me that your marriage was over and that it had been over for months when you were still sleeping with her. There’s nothing you can say that will make it all okay. Don’t you get it? I loved you and you betrayed me. I can’t even stand the sight of you anymore.”
Michael didn’t verbally respond to that. Instead he grabbed Dane by the front of the shirt and pulled him into a brutal kiss.
Dane didn’t know what was happening at first. It happened so fast. One minute he was yelling at Michael, the next minute they were kissing. It had been weeks since Dane had felt Michael’s lips, since he had been surrounded by the unique scent that turned him on, since he followed his heart instead of his head. Without thinking about what he was doing, Dane grabbed Michael and kissed him back with a passion that he’d hoped was long gone. They somehow maneuvered themselves into the house, slamming the door behind them. Michael had never been in the Sommers home before, so Dane was the one who led them through the living room and up the stairs. They quickly ended up in Dane’s bedroom, his king-sized bed sitting in the center of the room just waiting for them.
Dane tried to pull back for a moment and catch his breath, but Michael wouldn’t let him. He deepened their kiss as he reached for the button on Dane’s jeans, desperate to get inside. He swallowed the moan that escaped Dane’s lips as he gripped the younger man’s cock and began stroking him gracelessly. He needed to get Dane so turned on that he wouldn’t come to his senses and end their pairing before he reached his target. He needed to be inside his lover again. He needed to show him how good they were together so that Dane would take him back.
“Oh God,” Dane groaned as he landed on his bed with Michael’s weight firmly on top of him. He knew he needed to put an end to what was happening between them, but he couldn’t seem to make himself do it. Not when the man was kissing him and nibbling on his neck. Not when he was stroking him just like Dane enjoyed. He wasn’t that strong. “Please Michael…”
“Please what, Baby? Please what? Tell me you missed me. Tell me that you forgive me for being such an ass. Tell me that you want me back here with you, where I belong.” Michael begged. “I love you so much, Baby. I need you so much.”
“Michael…please…” Dane whispered as the enormity of what was happening began breaking through his haze. “Please don’t do this.”
“Don’t do what, Baby? You always liked the way I played with your cock,” Michael murmured as he continued to stroke Dane.
“Please don’t make me do this,” Dane said softly. “Yes, I like what you do to me, but it’s not going to change anything. Don’t you see? You might be able to get me to agree to a quick fuck, but I’m not taking you back, Michael. I can’t. Any love I had for you died the moment you told me Maddie was pregnant.”
“But what about the connection we have? Look at us, Baby? We’re still hot for each other? Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”
“No, Michael, it doesn’t. This is just sex. I’m nineteen years old. It doesn’t take much to get me off,” Dane replied as he slowly regained his strength. “Hell, last year I got a girl pregnant. It doesn’t mean I’m not gay. If you keep this up, I will probably give in and have sex with you, but it won’t change a thing between us. We’re over. There’s nothing you can say or do to change that. So maybe it’s time to go, don’t you think?”
Michael looked at Dane in shock as he withdrew his hand and got up off the bed. “Wow, when did you get to be so cold?”
Dane chuckled humorlessly. “I don’t know. Probably when the man I loved broke my heart. Please stop calling me, Michael. I don’t want to have to change my number.”
Michael stared at Dane for another moment before disappearing. Dane waited until he heard the front door slam and a car pull away from the house before he gave into the tears that threatened to fall. He wasn’t sure where he’d gotten the strength to send Michael away. He wished he had been telling the truth when he said that the love he’d had for the older man died when he learned of Maddie’s pregnancy, but it had been a lie. He still loved Michael with all his heart, but as the days passed, it was getting easier and easier to put the whole sordid mess behind him. He knew that one day the love would die. It was just taking longer than he had hoped. He pulled out his phone to send Eric a text, cancelling dinner, but stopped himself before he could hit send. He had Julia to think about. He didn’t have time to wallow. He didn’t even want to. Michael wasted enough of his life. He wasn’t going to give him the power to waste anymore.
Steve was just finishing up with a customer when she walked through the door. He didn’t know anything about her other than she made his heart rate step up a notch and his palms sweat. She was beautiful, with long brown hair and deep brown eyes. Her body wouldn’t land her on a runway, but the extra few pounds she carried left her with curves that Steve longed to caress. She’d been coming into the store at least three times a week for the last four weeks, letting Steve know that she was fairly new to the area. He had decided the night before as he laid in bed and thought about her, that today would be the day he made his move. He wanted to talk to her about more than what books were 20% off.
“Well, if it isn’t my favorite new customer.”
“Hi,” she replied with a hint of shyness. “I bet you say that to all the girls.”
Steve laughed. “Actually, I’ve never used that cheesy line before in my life.”
“I wouldn’t recommend using it again,” she teased.
“Duly noted. So, after throwing out that awful line, are you going to put me out of my misery and at least going to tell me your name?”
She blushed. “My name is Charlie.”
“Charlie, huh? I like it. What’s it short for?”
“Charles actually,” she laughed. “My father really wanted a boy and I have four older sisters. I was his last chance.”
“Well, I’m not sorry you aren’t a boy,” Steve mumbled. He could tell by Charlie’s blush that she heard him. “I’m Steve. So, where are you from? I hear a bit of an accent in your voice.”
“I’m from North Carolina. I just moved out here to spend some time with my grandma.”
“North Carolina, huh? Are you planning on sticking around for a while or is this just an extended vacation?”
“I’m planning on sticking around for a while. My grandpa passed away last year and poor grandma has been out here all alone. I didn’t have anything keeping me on the east coast, so here I am,” she explained.
“Score one for Arizona,” Steve said brazenly. “I hope I’m not being too forward, but is there any chance you’d like to have dinner with me tonight?”
The surprise in Charlie’s face was obvious. “Um…wow. I…uh…I don’t think I can. Things are crazy for me right now.”
Steve tried to hide his disappointment. “Oh…alright. Maybe some other time.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“You don’t have to apologize. If you don’t want to go out with me, that’s fine.”
“It’s not that I don’t want to,” Charlie insisted.
“Things are just crazy for you right now. I get it. It’s not a big deal. I just thought…” he trailed off.
“You thought what?” she prodded.
“I just thought that…I guess it was stupid, but you come in here at least three times a week and you hardly ever buy anything. I guess I just thought you were coming in here for more than just the books,” Steve admitted.
“I was…I mean…look, to be completely honest with you, I have been coming in for more than just the books. It’s just that…”
“Things are crazy. I know. You said that.”
“Okay, I’ll agree to meet you tonight, but I can’t do dinner…and it’s only to explain to you why my life is so crazy right now, alright? Once you hear my story, I’m sure you’ll be relieved I turned you down.”
“I doubt that, but okay. Just tell me when and where and I’ll be there.”
“How about if we meet at the ice cream shop down the street at 8:30? Is that okay?”
“Perfect. I’ll see you there.”
Steve waited until Charlie was gone to do his happy dance. The few customers that had heard the tail end of their conversation laughed at his antics. He couldn’t wait until 8:30. He had no intention of letting Charlie get away. Not when she was the first girl to draw his attention in a very long time.
Because of the distraction of Charlie and their upcoming date, Steve was a little late getting out of the store. He didn’t reach the condo until 5:30 and was a little surprised to find Dane and Julia there. “Hey guys, what’s going on?”
“My student earned a burger today,” Eric laughed as he stood up. “And it’s about time you got here. We’re starving.”
“You could have started without me.”
“Na, I wouldn’t do that. I promised you one of my famous burgers tonight and that’s what you’re going to get. Have a seat and talk to Dane while I light the grill.”
“It’s good to see you,” Steve said as he reached down and picked up Julia, who had been lying on a blanket playing with her feet. “And how are you, beautiful girl? God, I can’t believe how big you’re getting.”
“I know. I can’t believe she’s ten months old already. The time flew by,” Dane replied. “She’s so amazing, though. I didn’t even think it was possible to love someone so much.”
“I hate that I haven’t seen much of her lately. You’ll have to start bringing her around more. I’m being a horrible honorary uncle.”
“No you’re not,” Dane laughed. “Life just gets crazy sometimes.”
“So I’ve heard,” Steve mumbled.
Dane looked at his friend, but didn’t push. “So how are things down at the store now that Zander isn’t there much?”
“It’s good. Really good. I love being in charge, you know? Making the decisions of what displays to build and what books to order. And they started construction on the space next door a few days ago. They’re going to do as much as they can over there before breaking down the wall so that we can stay open as long as possible. I’m so excited to see how it’s all going to look. I’ve been spreading the word about the addition. Our regulars are anxious to have a place to hang out at night. I really hope this works out for Zan.”
“Me too. How’s he liking the therapy gig?”
“He loves it,” Steve said. “You know Zan, I think he was born to help people. He was only supposed to be doing twenty to twenty five hours a week, but he’s there all the time. It’s nice to see him so excited about what he’s doing.”
“I really need to get over there and see everybody. I feel out of the loop.”
“I know you’ve been dealing with your own stuff lately. How are you?”
Dane sighed. “Stronger than I thought, apparently. I just had a run in with Michael a little while ago. I handled it much better than I thought I would.”
Steve listened in horror as Dane relayed the story of Michael’s sudden appearance at his house. “What an asshole.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Who’s an asshole?” Eric asked as he reentered the living room.
“Dane’s ex. He just showed up at his house earlier, begging Dane to take him back.”
“Is that why you were upset when you got here? Why didn’t you say something? I knew that something was bothering you.”
“It’s not a big deal,” Dane said as he tried to brush the incident off. “I’m okay.”
“Bullshit. It is a big deal. He almost raped you!” Steve exclaimed.
“What?!” Eric barked.
“No he didn’t,” Dane insisted. “It wasn’t like that. I let him into the house. Hell, I dragged him in. It was a moment of weakness, but I encouraged him. As soon as I asked him to stop, he did. He didn’t really do anything wrong.”
“Yes he did. He showed up at your house after you made it clear to him that you don’t want to see him anymore. Maybe you should get a restraining order against him. Make sure he stays away from you,” Steve suggested.
“Better yet, let me go talk to him. Give me five minutes alone with him and I guarantee he won’t bother you again,” Eric growled.
“Guys, relax. It’s okay. I think he finally got the hint this time. If not, I’ll consider the restraining order, okay?” Dane offered. “And Eric, I appreciate your concern, but I’m not letting you talk to him. He’s not worth it.”
After a few more minutes of assuring his friends that he was okay, the subject was changed too much happier subjects. Julia’s crankiness from earlier seemed to have disappeared during her nap and she spent the next couple hours charming both Steve and Eric with her easy manner and heartwarming giggles. By 7:30, the situation with Michael was far from Dane’s mind. He enjoyed spending the evening with his daughter and his friends and loved the way his friends doted on his little girl. They accepted her without reservation and played honorary uncles well. He hated that the evening had to end, but he needed to get Julia home and into bed.
“I guess we should get going. My baby girl needs a bath and bed.”
“Yeah, I’ve got to jump in the shower, too. I’m meeting someone in a little while,” Steve said.
“Really? Who?” Eric asked as he turned his focus from Julia to Steve.
“Nobody…well, nobody yet,” Steve replied.
“You have a date?”
“No, not a date. At least not yet. I’ll let you know if that changes,” Steve promised.
Dane smiled at his friend. “I’m sure you’ll win her over. You’re a great guy and you’re sexy as hell.”
Steve looked skeptical. “Really?”
“Hell yeah. If you were gay, I’d be all over you,” Dane laughed.
“I bet you say that to all the straight guys,” Steve said, thinking back to his conversation with Charlie.
“Yeah, I do. But with you I mean it. Trust me, all you have to do is flash that killer smile and she’ll be eating out of your hands. Call me and let me know how it goes.”
Dane quickly packed up Julia’s things and headed towards the door. Steve was already in the shower, so Eric carried Julia to the car while Dane stowed the diaper bag and baby chair. Once he was done, he turned to Eric and took his daughter, strapping her into the car seat with care.
“Thanks for dinner, Eric. Julia and I are flying solo tonight. I would’ve probably ended up eating a bowl of ramen if not for you.”
“Woah…that word is not something that should ever come out of the mouth of an aspiring chef, man.”
Dane laughed. “Sorry…I guess I still have a lot to learn despite your amazing lessons. Seriously though, thanks. I’ve been spending a lot of time wallowing lately. I think it’s time I put the whole Michael mess behind me and move on. He doesn’t deserve my time and energy.”
“No, he doesn’t. I’m sorry you’re having such a rough time right now, but don’t worry. One day you’ll find a guy that’s right for you and it’ll be amazing. You have plenty of time.”
Dane thought about that for a moment. “You know, people would probably think I’m crazy feeling the way I do, but I don’t want to wait, you know? I may only be nineteen, but I’m a dad. That ages a person mentally. I don’t want to be dating different guys every week. What would that say to my daughter? Besides, I wanna find someone who will be there for her, too. Someone who will love us both. I don’t know, maybe I am crazy.”
Eric laughed. “I don’t think you’re crazy. Not much, anyway. And there’s nothing wrong with knowing what you want at nineteen. It doesn’t happen often, but it can happen. Look at Brian and Justin. I somehow doubt they consider their relationship temporary. They might actually fall into the category of a lucky few who find what they’re looking for at an early age and it sticks. Everyone is different. Every relationship is different. You just have to be patient and not settle for some asshole just because you want to settle down.”
“Okay, point taken. Thanks Eric. You’ve been a really good friend to me. I appreciate it.”
“Hey, no problem. That’s what I’m here for. Now go get that precious little girl home before she turns into a pumpkin,” Eric said as he waved dramatically to the little girl in the car. Her squeals of laughter had both men smiling.
“You miss her, don’t you?” Dane asked softly.
“Yeah, I do. I spoke to my ex the other day. I’m going to drive up to Flagstaff next week and see her. It sucks with her being so far away. I’m going to crash on a friend’s couch for the night. Otherwise I’ll spend most of the day in the car and barely get any time with her. I shouldn’t complain, though. I’m just thrilled that I’m still allowed to see her. That’s not always the case in situations like this. I’m very lucky.”
Dane smiled. “I think she’s very lucky, too.”
“Alright, enough of that. Get the hell out of here. I’ll see you tomorrow and we’ll go over some other things you’ll need to know. You can also help me put away my delivery. I’ve got a shipment of canned goods and non-perishables coming in. I don’t know how I’m going to set up the pantry yet so we can figure it out together.”
“You got it, boss. See ya tomorrow.”
By the time Paul touched base with David, it was almost eight o’clock. Everyone was sitting around the living room while Brian explained everything that had happened up until that point to Chris and Zan. They waited until Sophia was in bed so that she didn’t hear what had happened. When David’s phone rang, everyone in the room jumped at the sound.
“It’s Paul,” David told them before answering the call.
Everyone in the room sat in silence while trying to make sense of the one sided conversation. The call seemed to last forever amid David’s intermittent uh huhs and okays. As soon as David ended the call, Brian was on his feet.
“Paul was able to get Zac released on bail. As soon as he’s discharged tomorrow, he’ll be going home.”
“Oh thank God,” Jason sighed with relief.
“What about the charges against him?” Chris asked.
“Paul still hasn’t worked out the plea bargain, but apparently the DA is feeling a little bit sympathetic. Between that and Zac’s willingness to help find Nicky’s supplier, Paul’s confident that he’ll be charged with simple possession. He’ll probably have to enter some kind of treatment program and do some community service, but he’ll most likely be able to avoid prison.”
“Did he…I mean…I guess Paul didn’t say anything else, huh?” Jason said in obvious despair.
“He’s going to text me the number to Zac’s room. He has a phone now. He wants to talk to you,” David smiled at Jason.
Jason just nodded as tears pooled in his eyes. He jumped when David’s phone beeped.
“Here, just take my phone and go call him. I’m sure you’re both dying to hear each other’s voice.”
Once Jason was gone, Brian turned to David and hugged him tight. “Thank you so much. I don’t know what we would’ve done without you.”
“It’s no big deal,” David replied sheepishly.
“It is a big deal,” Zan offered. “Seriously David, what you did was really great. In case you haven’t noticed yet, we take care of each other around here. We’re all very grateful for everything.”
“I appreciate that. I’m just glad I could help. And thank you for letting me crash here. I won’t be under your feet too long. I’ll just head back to El Paso tomorrow. No sense in flying back to New York.”
“There’s no rush. You’re welcome here as long as you’d like. I mean, Sierra Vista is no Big Apple, but we do have Matt here,” Chris teased.
“Yeah, I’m not heading back to school for another week and a half. Why don’t you stick around for a while?” Matt said. “I’m going to tell Mark tomorrow. We made plans to go hiking. I’d kind of like to have you around in case things don’t go too well.”
“Well, I hope you don’t need me, but I won’t turn down an opportunity to spend more time with you,” David smiled as he walked over and dropped down on the couch next to Matt. “I’ll stay as long as I’m welcome.”
“So, you’re going to talk to your brother tomorrow?” Zan asked with concern.
“Yeah, I don’t want to keep lying to him. I’m just hoping he’ll be cool with it. My biggest fear is that he’ll not only hate me, but he’ll go running to my parents. I’m totally screwed if that happens.”
“I don’t think it will, but you know where to go if you need to,” Zan reminded him.
“I know, thanks guys.”
“Okay, who’s up for a movie?” Brian asked as he walked over to the DVD holder.
“Not if you’re choosing,” Justin spoke up.
“I believe it’s my turn to choose,” Chris jumped in as he joined his brother.
“This is going to take a while…that’s if we even get to a movie,” Matt laughed.
“You know, you’re really lucky. No matter what happens with your brother tomorrow or your parents in the future, you’ve got a pretty amazing family right here,” David told him.
Matt looked around the room and smiled, knowing half the gang wasn’t even there with them. “Yeah, I really do.”
Jason’s hands shook as he dialed the number Paul had sent. It rang twice before a gravelly voice answered.
“Hey,” Zac whispered. “I’m glad you called. I wouldn’t have been surprised if you didn’t want to talk to me.”
“Of course I want to talk to you. I love you, you ass. My ending things never had anything to do with my feelings for you. I told you that,” Jason replied. “But let’s not talk about that right now. How are you? How are you feeling?”
“Like an idiot,” Zac chuckled humorlessly. “I’m so sorry for what I said on Christmas. I was so messed up but I had no right to lash out at you.”
“It’s okay,” Jason said.
“No, it’s not. I was such an asshole to everyone. I’m going to be apologizing until I’m fifty.”
“Yeah, you were pretty harsh, but no one’s going to hold it against you. Seriously Z, how are you feeling? How’s your shoulder?”
“It hurts like a bitch, but the doctor said it could’ve been so much worse. I was lucky. If the bullet hit me a little bit further to the right, it could have caused some serious damage.”
“Jeez, Z,” Jason whispered as he shuddered at the thought. “So Paul said things went well?”
“Well, better than they could have gone. I don’t think I’ll be heading back to school for the spring semester, but he doesn’t think I’ll be heading to a prison cell either. I don’t know. After wallowing for the last day and a half, I think I’m kind of glad to be skipping spring semester. My head’s not into it, you know?”
“Yeah, I understand completely,” Jason said.
“So you moved back to Pittsburgh, huh?”
“You did get my message.”
“Yeah, I got it. I’m not sure why you felt the need to move back there just because of me, but I guess that if it helps you, that’s what matters,” Zac told him.
“I just didn’t want to be in your way. On Christmas…you had a point. You’ve been part of the family for a long time. You have more of a right to be there than I do. I wanted you to have someone to turn to so you could…I don’t know. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“But you’re happy in Pittsburgh, right?”
“No, I’m not happy there. I’m miserable. My mother keeps trying to baby me, my father doesn’t understand why I don’t like going out in public, and I miss everyone so much,” Jason admitted. “Pittsburgh isn’t the same place I grew up in…not anymore.”
“So, when are you moving back?”
“I don’t know if I am.”
“Because I can’t keep disrupting everyone’s life. Zan and Chris finally got their house back. I don’t want to just barge in on them.”
“You wouldn’t be barging in on them. I’m sure they didn’t want you to leave in the first place. To them, your recovery is what’s important and if being here in Arizona is what’s going to help you, than that’s where you should be. I’ll stay away from the house if it’ll help.”
“Of course it’s not going to help. God, Z, how many times do I have to tell you, I love you. I did what I did because I thought it was the right thing to do. You were under so much pressure to be who you thought I needed, and I was under pressure trying to be the person I was for you when he’s clearly gone. We were miserable together.”
“And clearly being apart has done wonders for us,” Zac laughed humorlessly.
Jason chuckled, too, although he wasn’t sure why. “Yeah, well things weren’t supposed to turn out the way they did, that’s for sure.”
“It’s my fault. I never should’ve gotten involved with…” Zac trailed.
“Z, are you okay? I don’t know what exactly was going on with you and this Nicky, but you guys were obviously close. And now he’s gone. How are you really?”
“I’m…mad…and hurt…and kind of all mixed up. Nicky wasn’t a bad guy. Not really. He got mixed up in something that he never should’ve been mixed up in and it lead him down a bad road, but it wasn’t entirely his fault. Both his parents were drug addicts. He grew up having to take care of himself because his father was never around and his mother was usually passed out. He even told me that there were times when his mother…she let guys touch him so she could score drugs when she had no money. God J, can you imagine growing up like that? It’s no wonder he got involved in all that he did. He didn’t deserve to die. He was just trying to live the only life he ever really knew.”
“I’m sorry, Z. I’m sure you really cared about him and I’m sorry that he’s gone.”
“I did care about him…I’ve known him as long as I’ve known everybody else, and even though we weren’t close…I’m just sad that he’s gone, you know?”
“Yeah, I know.” Jason gave Zac a few moments to grieve before continuing. “So, you’re going to be released tomorrow?”
“Yeah, I can’t wait to get out of here,” Zac said, gratefully taking the change of subject. “Any chance you would want to come by and see me? I’m supposed to take it easy for another couple of days. No driving.”
“Yeah, I’d like to see you. Just give me a call when you get home. But I’m going to say goodnight now. You need your rest. You sound exhausted. Sleep well and I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
“I love you, Jason.”
“I love you, too.”
As soon as Jason hung up the phone, his tears started. Hearing Zac in so much pain tore at his heartstrings, especially knowing that he was the cause of a lot of it. He just wasn’t sure what to do about it. Getting back together didn’t feel like the right thing to do at that point, especially when he still hadn’t resolved his inappropriate feelings for Aiden. Although he hadn’t spoken to Aiden in days. The older man barely took his calls and answered text messages in five words or less. He really needed to figure things out, starting with whether he wanted to go back to Pittsburgh or ask Chris and Zan if he could stay in Arizona. The only place that really felt like home.
End of part 20
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