Free Read - Dancing in Circles - chapters 1-6 - BK 1 - Circles Trilogy


DANCING IN CIRCLES
 by  Victoria Adams

 

copyright © 2011 Victoria Adams 2012



Chapter One

 


"Have you seen the new guy? We're talking stud material." Tricia sighed as she texted and walked with her friends down the school hallway. "That body...that face...those eyes."

"We are aware of his anatomical structure." Francine sniffed. "I don't think he's all that great."

"You?" Tricia put her hand on her chest. "Francine Paulin, are rejecting the most perfect assemblage of male anatomy in this whole deprived – or is it depraved – school?"

"What aren't you telling us?" Jennifer popped the top on her lip-gloss-of-the-month and coated her lips with Swanky Pink. "Oh God. Ssh. Here he comes." The subject of their discussion headed in their direction.

Tricia leaned closer to Jennifer. "The gods did right by this one. He's got to be 6'2" or more, and his chest looks like it's going to burst right through his shirt."

Heather looked at her shoes and whispered, "Never seen eyes that dark before. She glanced out of the corner of her eye. "They're…so sexy."

Sexually intriguing. Julie stiffened at her thought. What the…?

Francine rolled her eyes. "Grotesque. Jeans and a T-shirt, in Westland Prep. I know we don't wear uniforms, but come on, show some level of civility. And his hair is much too long." She flicked her silky, long black hair over her shoulders. "Definitely not up to the standards of Westland Prep."

With everyone deep in their thoughts, silence fell on the five young women who defined this clique: Tricia, the bouncy brunette and co-captain of the cheerleading team.

Francine, the sophisticated member, known to be harshly judgmental and fiercely proud of her family's wealth.

Blue eyed and blonde, Jennifer, the school's gossip queen and social committee president.

Petite Heather's long brown hair covered her shoulders and the sides of her face like a protective coat. She was the quiet member.

And Julie, the dreamer, whose chestnut-brown hair sweeps against her shoulders but today was pulled back off her ivory-skinned face. Her long silken lashes framed her dark brown eyes.

They'd been friends since preschool. They dressed to the latest codes, and dated the right boys. To them, prep school was the period between high school and marriage. A time to hunt for the perfect date, shop and enjoy life. Prepping for college was the last thing on their minds.

Tricia broke the silence. "Jennifer, you know everything about everybody. Start talking."

Jennifer dropped her iPhone 4 into her purse. "Well, Addison said that Zoe said that Janai got it straight from...bell. Gotta go. Got Spanish. Must conjugate another verb. Adios."

Tricia grabbed Jennifer's arm. "DREAMS - 3:30. Julie's treat this time."

"Pardon?" Julie raised her eyebrows.

Tricia, Heather and Jennifer batted their eyelashes at her.

"All right." She shook her head. "How can I refuse those angelic faces?"

"Girls, am I mistaken, or didn't the bell just ring?" The principal, Mr. Morris, stood beside them with his hands on his hips.

"Going, sir." Francine waved.

"Going, sir." Heather scurried off to Drama.

"Gone." Tricia winked.

While she and Julie walked to Mrs. Wolmsley's English class, Tricia chatted about the new boy as dating material. "Wonder what it'll take to meet him? He's so hot. Wonder if he's got any secrets? And did you see those tats? I so want to know what's under that T-shirt."

"His chest." Julie grinned at Tricia.

"Yes, but I bet it's a chest to die for. And ripped abs. Ooh, I think my toes are tingling."

"Julie."

She turned at the sound of her boyfriend. "Hey, Chris." She signalled to Tricia to continue, as she tucked her arm into her latest boyfriend's.

Tricia glanced back and smiled then continued to English.

***

As Julie walked to her desk, she glanced at Tricia perched on the new student's desk. Julie admired Tricia's nerve. She couldn't charge over and talk to him. She'd be too nervous and would probably do something horribly embarrassing like burping in the middle of her sentence. Julie shuddered and slipped onto her desk chair.

With her grey hair pulled back in a bun, Mrs. Wolmsley entered the classroom.

Giggling all the way to her seat, Tricia sat behind Julie, who turned to speak to her but stopped.

"Class." The teacher stood at the front of the room. "Today I'm assigning independent projects. You may work solo, or with a partner."

She turned, picked up a piece of chalk and spoke while she wrote. "Due date is this Friday." She underlined this three times. "You have today's period to begin your research. Julie Anderson, which do you choose?"

"Solo, please."

The teacher called off names from her class list. Most students requested a partner. "Tricia Graham?"

"Partner. And I'd like it to be the new student, Robert."

He looked up then shrugged.

As Julie turned to congratulate her friend on her sexy catch, she was surprised to feel a small spot, deep inside burning with envy. She blinked, shook her head and switched her thoughts to Christopher – handsome, wealthy family, football team captain and all-star quarterback. With luck, they might be this year's Homecoming King and Queen.

When she'd finished organising the students, Mrs. Wolmsley handed out the assignments and dismissed the class. The crowd of students wandered in the direction of the library, their locker or an exit. Julie pushed open the library door, walked past Mr. Hartzfeld, the librarian, towards the tables at the back. When she passed Tricia and Robert, he'd spread out his books to work on the assignment while Tricia played with her pen and chatted. Julie smiled then settled down to work at an empty table one row over.

***

"Am I good? Or am I good?"

Julie glanced at Tricia.

"He asked me to the dance." She hitched a hip onto the table and leaned closer. "I love your earrings."

"You mean he spoke? He didn't just shrug his shoulders?"

Tricia nodded. "You know, he's got the most adorable pierced ear, killer eyes, and I haven't even begun to describe his body. I think I'm in lust." Sighing, she returned to work with Robert.

Julie rolled her eyes and continued with her research until the bell rang. She picked up her book and headed for biology.

"Does she always talk that much?" A deep voice behind her startled her.

She turned, and stared into Robert's dark eyes. "Uh, yes." Why did her knees feel weak? "I...I'm surprised you got a word in to ask her to the dance."

"Had to ask her, just to shut her up." There was a disgruntled edge to his voice. Robert held the door open for her.

Julie's legs ignored her command to walk. She regained her composure, entered the room, passed Francine's desk and went to her seat. She didn't greet her friend. Instead, she puzzled over what happened. What caused her hesitation? Had he noticed it? Had anyone else?

"Put your assignments on my desk." Mr. Parks, the biology teacher, pointed towards an inbox as he clicked off the student's names as they entered. Attendance completed, class seated, he looked up from his computer. "Did anyone not hand one in?"

Robert put up his hand.

"And why not?"

"'Cause I didn't get it done." He slouched low in his desk at the back of the room, isolated from the rest of the students. His long legs stretched out into the aisle.

"You were given a simple assignment. It should've taken no more than two hours to complete. This isn't high school. It's college prep. If you cannot keep up—"

"I didn't have time." Robert sat up, rested his arms on his desktop and glared at his teacher. "I arrived in this school three days ago, and got handed two weeks' worth of stuff to get caught up on. Trust me, I get this isn't high school."

"Two weeks' worth can't be that much. A few extra hours after school."

"I ain't Westland. Gotta work to feed myself and put a roof over my head. For the past two nights, I've been doin' my homework after I get home from work. Been stayin' up to three in the mornin'. Had about four fu ─ miserable hours of sleep in the past two nights."

He ran his fingers through his hair. "Got calc and English done. I'll probably end up stayin' up 'til three again gettin' bio done." He inhaled and released it. "Right now I'm tired and pis ─ and I certainly don't feel like puttin' up with gettin' yelled at for not doin' my work, 'cause that's all I've done!"

Julie looked out the window. He speaks.

"I'll speak with you after class. Open your books to chapter three. Plant Systematics." Mr. Parks snapped open his textbook and searched for the page.

Robert brooded until the end of day bell sounded. The class stood and shuffled out of the room. Except Robert.

Francine waited for Julie. "Imagine, letting him into Westland."

Julie half-nodded. She was used to her friend's attitude - unless you grew up in Westland, you were unworthy of attending Westland Prep. She glanced back into the classroom. Robert was leaning on a desk, arms crossed, glaring at the teacher. Turning in the direction of her locker, she wondered if there'd be one less student in biology tomorrow.

***

By 3:45, the five friends settled into a booth at the restaurant, DREAMS. "Okay, the waitress is over there. Start talking." Tricia propped her elbows on the table and rested her chin on her hands.

"What?" Jennifer batted her eyelids.

"Him. Who is he? What is he?" babbled Tricia. "Is he sleeping with somebody? Is somebody sleeping with him? Does he like brunettes named Tricia?"

"All right, all right. Well Addison said that Zoe─"

"We know that. Zoe said that Janai said what?" Tricia and Heather shouted.

"His name is Robert. Kristal said that she heard Maddi tell Ashley...."

The waitress coughed interrupting her monologue.

"Uh, Diet Cokes all around." Julie pointed at everyone.

"I've got a date with him Friday night." Tricia's smile spread across her face.

Francine flicked her hair over her shoulders. "He and Parks had a disagreement in bio today."

"Wait a sec." Jennifer held up her hand. "Tricia gets a date, and Francine watches him fight with a teacher?"

The conversation paused while the waitress served their order.

Jennifer checked her cell phone. "Details please. Tricia goes first then you." She pointed a pink polished fingernail at Francine.

Tricia signalled the end of her success story by popping her eyebrows up and down and smiling. Francine wrinkled her nose and sniffed. "I don't think Trish'll be going on her date."

Julie nodded while sipping her Diet Coke.

"Why not?" Gossip queen Jennifer's senses tingled.

Francine pulled herself up tall. "He's not one of us. He's Shore."

"Ooh, a bad boy." Tricia's cheeks flushed.

"Tricia, get your head back here on planet reality." Francine glared at her. "He's not worth it. He'll just get you into a car, do you, then dump you. Excuse my crudeness. Guys like him don't care. Their brains and hearts are in their pants."

Tricia's eyes glazed over. "Sounds hot. He seems dangerous. I don't mean in the physical sense. I mean dangerous in the back of a parked car." She giggled and sipped her drink.

"I have to go. I've got class." Julie swallowed the last of her drink.

"Still dancing?" Jennifer shook her head. "How can anybody do the same thing for twelve years?"

Julie laughed and waved goodbye.

***

Julie kept secrets.

She couldn't discuss her deepest secrets with friends, as they were too concerned with their own lives. But, she didn't let that stop her from dreaming.

She loved everything about dance, especially the discipline, both of the mind and the body. Many nights, she dreamed of performing on grand stages in romantic cities like Paris and New York. She understood the sweat-filled hours and sacrifices it took to be a professional dancer.

However, dreams never concern themselves with reality. They're the fluff that keeps a person's soul alive. Julie's dream was to dance. It was one of her secrets.

With school and dance class finished, Julie escaped to her sanctuary – her bedroom. Posters decorated her walls. Not of teenage heartthrobs, instead, pictures of ballerinas in tutus and scenes from ballets adorned her room. Centred between two large, bumped-out windows was a rose and white lace canopy bed, where in her dreams, she danced.

Eventually morning came and the realities of life returned. But for a while, she listened to the music of the orchestra, and felt the grip of her partner as he lifted her high above the stage. In her sleep, Julie smiled.

***

At school, the next day, the gossip lines hummed about what happened in Mr. Parks' class. The consensus of the student body was, since Robert was not from the wealth and privilege of Westland, he should be expelled.

Biology was first period. The only one late for class was Robert. Two minutes after the bell, he entered.

"Sleep in?" The teacher held out his hand.

"I wish." Robert handed him a bunch of papers.

"Get caught up?"

"On everythin' but sleep." Robert made his way to his seat, ignoring the threatening glances of his classmates. He wasn't worried. He'd put up with worse things than these Westlanders could throw at him.

Mr. Parks settled the class, and continued his lecture on Plant Systematics. Seventy-five minutes later, the class exited. Several male students bumped into Robert. He clenched his jaw, struggling to keep his temper under control.

"You." An index finger was pointed into his face.

Robert looked past it at the unknown student.

The classmate used his finger to punctuate each word. "You and me. Outside. Now."

"Ya got a problem?"

"Yea and it's you. I hear Shore guys are tough. Prove it. Meet me outside."

Robert heaved a disgusted sigh. "Lead on, Macduff."

"What?"

"It's a line from Shakespeare. You know, the dead guy we study in English."

The student's brow wrinkled, he shrugged, motioned to his friends and walked away.

More to himself than anyone, Robert said, "Guess he don't like Shakespeare." A whiff of Julie's perfume snagged his attention. He turned and tilted his head in the direction of his opponent. "What's his problem?"

"Tricia."

Robert rubbed his forehead. His assumption was right.

"You don't have to fight him, you know." Julie brushed a strand of hair from her face.

"Sooner or later I gotta. If I don't settle this now, it'll just get worse. Although, I'd rather get some sleep." With a resigned sigh, he followed the crowd out of the building.

Julie wandered along behind him, puzzled by her action. He was Shore. What did she care about his kind?

A group of Westland students collected in the student parking lot, semi circling the challenger. Many had their cell phones set to record the event. With luck, Stephan's trouncing of the North Shore punk would be on YouTube by lunchtime.

Robert stood before his opponent. "Common courtesy demands that we introduce ourselves." He extended his hand. "Robert Holiday. And you are?"

"Stephan." He cast his gaze up and down Robert and sneered.

Ok, so not only are ya an idiot for tryin' to take me on, you're a f'in' jerk too. "So what's your problem with me?" Robert lowered his unshaken hand.

"You asked Tricia to the dance."

"Yea, so?" Robert stood with his weight resting on one hip, and his thumbs hooked into his pockets.

"She was going with me." Stephan glared at his opponent.

Robert checked his distance. "So a guy from Shore jacked your girl. Ooh, that's gotta sting that Westland pride. But, as they say, may the best man win."

Fists swinging, Stephan dove at Robert, who ducked the punch. Again, Stephen went at him. Robert sidestepped this punch, but edged himself too close to Stephan's ring of supporters. Two football team members grabbed his arms, pinning them behind him.

Stephan grinned. "I'll show you who's the best man. North Shore garbage." He swung. His fist caught Robert on the jaw line. Stephan threw a couple of punches at Robert's face and stomach before Robert untangled himself from his captors.

The two fighters stood facing each other, daring the other to move. Stephan arrogantly confident. Robert wary the crowd was more opposed to him than curious. Stephan swung. Robert caught the fist and twisted it behind Stephan's back. Stephan dropped to his knees, letting out a moan as Robert applied pressure to his elbow joint.

"Any of your friends charge us, and I break your arm." Robert checked if anyone moved closer. "Now that you're all calmer, we can talk. I can't fight you here. You'll get your wrist slapped." He pointed at his chest. "I'll get expelled. Durin' school hours, on school property, I won't fight. After school, across the street in the park - you and me. If ya don't show...." Robert exerted more force to the elbow, released it, glanced over at Stephan's teammates then left.

Julie entered the school and walked in the direction of her calculus classroom. Robert leaned over a drinking fountain. He sipped some water, rinsed his mouth then spit it back into the bowl. The water was tinted red. She stopped next to him. "You're bleeding."

"Yea, he got in a good one. Split my lip on my tooth. Guess no kissin' for a bit." He started to grin, but winced instead.

Julie squeezed her books against her chest - academic protection. "You had no intentions of fighting, did you? You were going to talk your way out until his bullheaded friends joined in."

Robert didn't reply. He was too lost in the light glistening off her hair, and the soft scent of her perfume.

Julie hesitated. "I didn't expect you to do that."

He rubbed his chin. Do what? "Oh, ya expected me to fight, 'cause I'm Shore?"

"Yes. You people are always fighting and causing trouble. You're supposed to be tough, macho studs."

"The stud part's right." He grinned.

A shiver scurried up her spine. "You know, there are two sides of you."

"As far as I know, I'm an original."

To keep from giggling, Julie took a deep breath. "After calculus, can we go somewhere? Have lunch and talk."

"Why?" That wasn't what he wanted to say. In reality, he wanted to run down the hall shouting, "YES!", but he so knew that wouldn't look cool.

"Because I asked?" Because the words just came out of my mouth.

"Guess so. Where?"

He said yes. "Not here. I don't want to be—"

"Seen with me?"

"No, that's not it." She stepped back a pace, relieving the tension his presence caused in her. "I find you an enigma. I'd like to chat."

"Well, you're arousin' my curiosity. What do Westland girls, with a body like yours, eat for lunch? Ya don't look like the cheeseburger and fries type."

"Lunch Box isn't far. It has a great salad bar." She looked away, knowing her cheeks flushed bright pink.

"Ya ever been on a bike?"

Julie shook her head.

"There's only one in the parkin' lot. Meet ya after class."

Chapter Two

 


When the end of calculus bell rang, Julie and Robert exited without a glance in the other's direction. Julie wanted to keep their lunch date secret, and she hoped Robert understood. She chewed her lip as she looked around the parking lot. What was she doing riding off on a motorcycle with a guy from North Shore? What was it about this man that attracted her so? Was that it? She thought of him as a man, not another of the immature boys she went to school with?

He stepped beside her and handed her a black helmet. "Here, ya wear it. I only got one. You're gonna have to show me the way." He adjusted her chinstrap then steadied his bike as she climbed on.

She gave him directions to the restaurant then paused. Not ever having been on a motorcycle before Julie guessed she had two choices: keep steady by wrapping her arms around him, but that seemed too forward, or fall off which was stupid.

With a roar, the bike surged ahead. Julie decided being bold was better than dead. She squeezed his waist and buried her face into his back. Please don't let me die. I want to go back to school this afternoon.

Robert glanced at Julie's arms, gripping tightly around his waist. He chuckled. "Don't worry. I won't let anythin' happen to ya."

She peeked out twice. Once at a stoplight and the second time as the vibration of the engine ceased. The restaurant's sign was a welcome sight.

Lunch Box was an upscale restaurant with skylights and green plants scattered throughout. "Menus or salad bar?" A hostess escorted them to a booth.

"Where I eat, the menu's on the wall." He hunched his shoulders. "A cheeseburger and fries is fine." He slid into a seat on the opposite side from Julie.

She leaned across the table. "This is a vegetarian restaurant."

"I don't eat vegetables. I eat meat. Didn't fight my way to the top of the food chain to eat vegetables."

"Try a salad. It's good for you. A burger and fries are so full of fat." She rolled her eyes. "You can eat and eat until you're full." Sliding out of her seat, Julie led him to the salad bar and handed him a plate.

Robert examined the ingredients. "I ain't sure what half of this is."

"Experiment."

He placed a pile of lettuce, carrots and radishes on his plate.

Julie shook her head. "That's experimenting?" She dropped a couple of strange looking brown things beside his radishes.

When they returned to their booth, their waitress was waiting. "What can I get for drinks?"

"Lemonade, please." Julie settled into her seat.

Robert put his plate on the table and sat. Do places like this even have a liquor licence? "I'll have the same." He stared at his meal. "If I die eatin' this I'm comin' back to haunt ya."

Julie chuckled. "Get caught up on all your homework?"

"Gawd, I hope so. Between school, homework and work, I've got about six hours sleep this past week." He rubbed his face.

"Did you hear the rumours about you and Mr. Parks?"

Robert scrunched his brow as he eyed something hanging off the end of his fork. "What's this?"

"An oriental mushroom."

"Ain't that brave." He pushed the mushrooms aside. "Yea, I supposedly swore at Parks and threatened him."

She waved her drink at him. "And you pulled a knife on him."

"I must really be tired 'cause I don't remember none of that." Taking a bite of a carrot, Robert looked down at his meal. You've got the prettiest eyes, like chocolate ice cream. Stop talkin' about bio. I'd rather talk about you.

Julie scooped up a forkful of salad. Your eyes. They're so intense. They don't look at me. They look inside me. "What happened after school yesterday?"

"I said sorry for losin' my temper, and he apologised for judgin' me too quickly. When my assignment wasn't done, he figured I was bein' belligerent or somethin'." Robert finished his first plate of salad and went back for seconds. "It could take a person a long time to get full eatin' this stuff." He gulped the last of his drink. "I think ya called me a name. An enigma."

"You're pretending to be dumb, but I know you know what the word means." She dipped a slice of cucumber in dressing. "That's what fascinated me. You suddenly pop up in class, don't speak for days and then blow up at a teacher. You go out and play the tough guy on Stephan's challenge and try to negotiate a settlement. I presumed you'd...."

"Ya presumed wrong."

"But you're...?"

Robert tossed his fork onto his plate and slouched low in his seat. "I'm Shore. Therefore, I'm stupid, uneducated, a tough punk, into drugs and stuff."

Ashamed of herself, Julie stared down at her half-eaten meal.

"I knew I was in trouble when I had to register at Westland Prep. There are so many different kinds of racism." He ran his fingers through his hair. "We're the same colour and nationality. Religion isn't a factor here, so that leaves social or economic standin'. Ya live in rich Westland. I'm from North Shore. I expected you'se guys to hate me. I was hopin' maybe somebody'd get to know me before they found out what I am."

"Trish tried. She said you were staring at her in English."

"I wasn't lookin' at her. I was lookin' at you."

Julie felt a blush rush to her cheeks.

"Trish is usin' me. She wants to make Super Jock jealous and pay more attention to her."

"But you're doing what she wants by fighting Stephan." Julie rested against the back of the booth.

"I'm gonna scare Stephan." Robert met her gaze. "What's it to ya?"

"My curiosity's piqued. I thought I understood people. You've surprised me. There's something behind those eyes. Some sort of a secret."

"I've got a past. I ain't proud of it. Didn't wanna cause any trouble. Just wanted to get through this term and disappear."

Julie swallowed the last of her lemonade. "I'm really angry with myself. I'm having a difficult time letting you be you. I want you to fit the stereotype."

"Why?"

"Separate cheques?" The waitress broke into their conversation.

It was a brief debate, but Julie put her foot down. "I invited you to lunch. You drove. I pay. Got it." She looked at the cheque and handed the waitress some bills. "Keep the change."

"Are all Westland women so bossy?" He picked up his helmet and led her to the exit.

Julie paused as she passed him. A musky scent tickled her nose, making her sigh. It made her feel warm and safe.

He held the door.

"Sorry." She stepped through.

He followed her. "What? No snappy comeback to my question?"

Julie crinkled her brow. "What question?"

Robert chuckled. "Nothin'. Get on." With a kick, he started the engine and drove out of the parking lot.

***

On returning to school, Robert dropped Julie off at the front door and parked his bike. She hurried to English. It was several minutes before Robert entered. He handed Mrs. Wolmsley an admit slip and went to his desk.

"Thought you'd been kicked out." A student in the third row growled in a low voice.

"Huh?"

"You heard me."

"Sorry to disappoint."

"What's the chatter over there?" Mrs. Wolmsley's brow wrinkled as she glanced across the room.

"Whoever this is." Robert jerked his thumb towards the student. "Was worried I'd been expelled."

"We were hoping you'd been kicked out," Derek shouted across the room.

Mrs. Wolmsley glanced at her student. "Why do you want Robert expelled?"

"'Cause of what he did in biology yesterday."

The teacher waited for an explanation.

"I'll tell you what he did." Derek stood. "A friend of mine said Robert didn't hand in his assignment. When Mr. Parks questioned why, he blew a fuse. He was yelling and swearing that he didn't have to do some stupid assignment. When Mr. Parks tried to reason with him, he swore at the teacher."

Derek dug into his story. "Then Robert pulled a knife and threatened Mr. Parks with it. Right there in class. I heard Kristal had to leave. She couldn't deal."

"That'd be one version." Robert scratched his chin.

"You calling me a liar?" Derek lunged towards Robert.

With a bored expression on his face, Robert didn't move.

"Derek, get back in your seat." The Principal's voice boomed across the room. Two police officers stood near him.

Robert snorted in disgust. "I don't believe this."

"Would you come with me, please?" Although Mr. Morris made it sound like a question, Robert understood it was an order. He shook his head and crossed the room. An officer grabbed his arm and escorted him out.

"You know, Mrs. Wolmsley, Robert's right." Julie controlled her nerves. "Derek's mistaken. I'm in Mr. Parks' class, and unless I'm suffering from total lack of recall there were no four-letter words or any hint of a threat or a knife or anything. Robert's not one of us and no one will give him a chance. He's North Shore. That's all they need to know." Aware of her classmates' stares, Julie scooted from the room.

As Julie searched for Robert's locker, she turned a corner and stumbled to a stop. Robert was spread-eagled against the wall being frisked by one officer as the other inspected his belongings.

"Go back to class." Mr. Morris pointed down the hallway.

"No, sir." Having never disobeyed a Principal before, she forced her voice to stay calm. "I can't believe this. I was in bio, nothing happened."

"Julie's right." The teacher rounded the corner. He directed his statements to both the police officers and Mr. Morris. "Absolutely nothing happened. Sir, don't you think I would've called you if he had a knife, or if he'd threatened me?"

Robert still leaned on the wall. "Can I move?"

The officer grunted.

Assuming that was a yes, Robert turned to face Julie. "Don't worry about this. I've been frisked before. At least this time I wasn't slammed against the wall first."

"He agreed to a search. To prove there's no knife," said Mr. Morris.

Robert started to speak, but Julie interrupted him with a flick of her hand. "No I've got to say this. Do you know what he's gone through? Just because he lost his temper." Her cheeks flushed as she could feel the heat of her nerves and indignation rising. She clenched and unclenched her hands, trying to calm herself. "He's been humiliated twice. At least. One, he was hauled out of class by police officers and two, forced to agree to a search. All for nothing. There's no knife, is there?"

She glared at both officers. "He has rights, and I'd say every one of them's been violated. Does anyone care? No. And why not? Because he's North Shore. Well, who died and made us Westlanders God?"

Mr. Parks put a hand on Julie's arm. "She's right, you know."

Mr. Morris looked at Robert who shrugged. "I expected it. I didn't wanna come here. I got sent. This school has the worst reputation for friendliness. If ya ain't Westland, you're nothin'."

Released from the search, Robert and Julie walked back to class. With one hand on the door, he glanced at her and smiled. "Thanks." His eyes sparkled with gratitude.

A couplet from a poem shot through Julie's mind.

Thine eyes fill me with wanton lust.

Thine arms doth cause me to surrender.

He held the door open for her. There was a gasp of disbelief as he entered. "Ta da. The innocent has returned." He snapped his fingers and bounced to his personal beat.

Mrs. Wolmsley placed her book on the desk. "The bell's about to ring. I want to remind everyone to read the next two chapters for tomorrow."

Derek stood. "Don't forget the meeting in the park."

The class exited. As Robert walked down the hall, several students bumped into him, but he ignored their feeble attempts to start a fight.

Julie's friends waited by her locker. "Where were you at lunch?" Heather asked.

"Forget that. Francine tell her the news," Tricia urged.

"Daddy arranged a horseback riding party for me for my birthday. At the Murran Estate. Two o'clock Sunday. So no excuses, Julie, you don't dance on Sundays."

"Isn't it great?" Jennifer giggled. "Maybe we'll meet Mrs. Murran."

The owner of Murran Estate and Riding Stables, Mrs. Emily Murran, was a reclusive woman. She rarely attended social functions, but her generosity was legendary around the city. An invitation to the Estate would be a step up in their social climb.

Jennifer's fingers flew over the keys as she texted three friends.

Francine checked her manicure. "Are we going to watch Stephan trounce that punk?"

Julie shook her head. Heather and Jennifer grabbed her and pulled her along. They worked their way to the front of the crowd and stood close to where Stephan and a pack of football players had clustered.

"You know, Tricia," Julie turned to face her. "This is all your fault."

"I know. Isn't it great having two men fight over you?" She shimmied.

Stephan straightened his shoulders, trying to look menacing. Julie bit her lip as Robert walked towards the group. He'll get killed. He can't possibly fight the whole team.

Robert positioned himself in front of Stephan. Both men glared, visually challenging the other person. With a rustle of leaves, several black leather jacketed figures dropped from the surrounding trees and formed a group behind Robert. "Hey, guys, I was wonderin' when ya all was gonna drop in."

One of Robert's friends handed him a black leather jacket. On the back was a large insignia of a coiled cobra, fangs bared and dripping blood. "Now ya got your supporters and I got mine." An evil grin crossed Robert's face. "Suddenly got real even, didn't it? We can do this nice and fight fists, or...." Robert pulled a knife from his jacket pocket. He flicked it open, examined it, closed it and returned it to his pocket.

Stephan paled.

Robert stepped closer. "Ya get one shot. Make it good. 'Cause then I'm gonna break your fuckin' face."

Stephan swung. Robert caught the punch and turned his fist. His knuckles were close to Stephan's face. "Continue or concede?"

"Concede." Stephan's voice cracked. Robert released him.

"What're you doing?" Derek jumped forward. "Hit him!" A friend restrained him from charging at Robert.

"He's Shoresmen." Stephan's voice filled with contempt. "He's not worth it."

Derek knocked off his friend and charged towards Robert's retreating back. Robert spun and drilled his foot into Derek's stomach, stopping him in his tracks. Interlocking his hands behind Derek's head, Robert lifted his knee and smashed Derek's face onto his thigh.

"Ow! Fuck you." Derek wiped blood off his face. "You broke my nose."

"Anythin' else ya'd like me to break?"

Blood dripped onto the pavement. Derek moved, but someone clasped a hand on his shoulder, pulling him back. "Don't Derek. He's Shoresmen. They never lose a fight."

Robert faced the crowd. He stood tall and held eye contact with everyone who met his gaze. "I haven't taken my knife into your school, and until now, I ain't never worn my colours in your town. But, if I'm challenged, I will defend myself." He pointed at the onlookers. "Ya all live comfortable lives. Ya don't know how to fight. I do." He pressed his finger onto his chest. "And I will."

His gaze rested on Julie's friend. "This all started 'cause Trish wanted to make Stephan jealous. I didn't start nothin'. Ya ignore me and I'll ignore you, and at term's end, I'm outta here." He turned to his friends. "Beer's on me, guys." Not glancing back, Robert and his fellow gang members walked away.

Derek wiped the blood off his face and glared at Robert.

Julie's gaze followed while the insignia of the coiled snake faded as Robert and his compatriots left the park. She reviewed what she'd witnessed. A group of people jumped out of the trees and handed Robert a black leather biker jacket. Suddenly he went from classmate Robert to Shoresmen Robert. A gang member fully equipped with an insignia-emblazoned jacket and a knife, but somehow Robert was different from the others. Soon the roar of a group of motorcycles signified Robert and his colleagues' departure from Westland.

"Are you still going on your date with him?" Heather's eyelids opened wide.

"You bet. There's no way I'd miss this." Tricia bit her bottom lip.

"What if your parents find out?"

Francine rolled her eyes. "I wouldn't be caught dead with him. This is a Shoresmen we're talking about." Speaking with the pompous authority fuelled only by gossip, Francine flicked her hair back. "They're the most violent gang around here. I heard that part of a gang initiation is to kill someone."

Tricia tilted her head. "Kill? To be in a gang?"

"Trish, love." Francine placed her hand on her friend's arm. "Gang members aren't like real people. They're all bad blood. Robert got off the hook because the police couldn't find his knife, but he just proved he has it and he'd use it. To them, killing someone is like...us buying a new blouse. It means nothing."

The musical chords of the overture to Swan Lake floated out of Julie's purse. She dug through it and grabbed her smart phone. "Hi, Chris. Sure. Five seconds." She tossed her cell back into her purse. "Gotta go girls. See you. Love you. Call me."

***

Julie's family lived in a large home situated on a tree-lined street in a newer neighbourhood of Westland. Julie loved the atmosphere in her home. It was peaceful and loving, although noisy at times with one younger brother and two younger sisters. She was excitedly waiting for this Christmas, not due to the joys of the season, but because her mother was expecting twins.

"It's got to be a boy she's dreaming about." Younger sister, Sheila, giggled.

"Uh? Pardon?" Julie looked around the dining room table at her two younger sisters, her parents and one obnoxious little brother.

"I asked you three times if you'd pass the salad." Her mother held out her hand, waiting for the bowl.

"Anything interesting happen at school today?" Her father reached for the bottle of dressing.

Julie looked up from her meal. "There's a new student at school. He's from North Shore."

"He's Shore? How did he manage to get into Westland Prep? He has to pay tuition and maintain his grade level." Her father tilted the bottle and Creamy Ranch drizzled onto the lettuce.

"I don't know, but he's there. We're both in bio. He had a disagreement with Mr. Parks, and the rumours went around that he swore and threatened him with a knife."

Sandra Anderson gasped.

"I said rumours, Mom. I was in class. Nothing happened. He asked Trish out to the dance tonight."

"But she's been dating Stephan for three months." Sheila was the gossip-loving sister.

"I know. Stephan called him out on it. Robert didn't want to fight. He tried talking his way out of it. He said he didn't want to get expelled." Julie realized she was using her fork to emphasize her sentence. She placed it by her plate. "Anyway, later that day the cops...I mean, police came and searched him and his locker, but they didn't find a knife. I've talked to him a bit and he seems nice."

"I don't want you going near him. If he's Shore then he's trouble," said her mother.

"His not being Westland leads into what I was going to say. He doesn't fit the Shore stereotype. He's intelligent, mature, soft-spoken...."

She scratched her head. "He's not the stupid, crass, North Shorer that I was led to believe he'd be. I'm amazed at how economically prejudiced we are. We, Westlanders, sit up here in our safe and secure neighbourhoods and pass judgement on others."

"Can I go?" Jason stood. His father nodded, and Jason hurried out of the dining room.

Unfazed by her brother's rude departure, Julie continued, "You were appointed judge, Daddy, because of your knowledge of the law. Who chose us to pass judgement on North Shore? Just because they live in a different part of town doesn't mean they're bad. But nobody'll give this guy a chance. He's condemned solely because of his address, and I think that's stupid." She heaved a sigh of relief at having vented what needed saying.

Her mother tilted her head. "What's gotten into you?"

"I don't want you having anything to do with this person." Her father used his deep commanding judge's voice. "I've had a lot of experience with North Shore people in my court. They aren't like us. I may call Mr. Morris to see why this Shorer's been allowed in to Westland Prep. I pay a hefty tuition to send you to that school. I want your focus on your subjects, not on…you shouldn't have to associate with the likes of a Shorer."

Julie wanted to say more. Instead, she finished eating then left the table, announcing she had to prepare for her date.

The doorbell rang at 8:15. Mr. Anderson answered it. "Christopher, how nice to see you. Come in. How are you?"

"Just fine, sir." Chris was wearing his team jersey, a crisply pressed pair of dress pants and lots of his father's expensive Italian aftershave.

"How's your Dad? I heard he injured his shoulder last week playing golf."

"His doctor said no golf for three weeks. Mom says he can't possibly last."

"No." Mr. Anderson laughed. "He'll be on his own psychiatrist's couch." Julie's mother entered the living room.

"Good evening, Mrs. Anderson. You're looking well."

"Thank you, Christopher. Julie'll be down—"

"I'm here. Let's go." Julie grabbed her purse and kissed her parents. She'd deliberated about what to wear and decided on her short, red-leather skirt and white silk blouse she'd bought when her family had gone to New York in August. She'd slipped on her favourite, black stilettos and checked her earrings and makeup in her mirror. After all, it was the first dance of the year, and she was now one of the elite preparatory students, not a high school student. Tonight was about seeing and being seen.

***

Chris and Julie separated moments after entering the school gym. Chris went to talk to his friends and Julie went with hers. Francine, Heather, Jennifer, Tricia and two girls from the cheerleading squad were standing together. They smiled as Julie approached. Everyone greeted her then the conversation changed to local school gossip. Heather and Francine grabbed their dates and dragged them to the dance floor. Julie glanced around, but couldn't see Chris.

Heather was talking about a new app for her cell phone when Robert entered the gym. Tricia gasped, grabbed Julie's arm, giggled, released it and raced over. She wrapped her arms around his neck and planted a kiss on his lips. Julie glanced in the other direction. When she looked back, Tricia and Robert had disappeared into the crowd.

An hour later, bored and annoyed at being ignored, Julie pulled Chris aside. His breath reeked of beer. "You've been drinking."

"Less dance." He reached for her but stumbled.

Derek and Heather stood beside Julie. "This is boring. Let's go get some pizza."

"Slure. I drive." Chris fumbled in his pocket.

Julie held out her hand. "Give me your keys."

"I'm not drunk. I drive. I godda go over ther…." He wandered into the crowd.

Chris wasn't at his car when Julie arrived in the parking lot. She pulled the handle but it was locked. Standing in the cool night air, she tapped her fingernails on the hood. Wonder where Tricia disappeared off to? Did she spend all that time with Robert? Did she let him get past kissing? Did they…no, not Tricia. She heaved a sigh of disgust. Where's Chris?

From between parked cars, he staggered over. He dropped his keys, twice, then stood, holding them like the Statue of Liberty's torch. "And you thought I was to drive to drunk." He smiled.

Give me those." Julie reached for his keys.

"I'd rather give you something else." Chris pulled her tight against his body.

Open mouthed, he leaned forward. She slapped her hands on his chest and pushed.

"Come on, what're you saving it for, your wedding night?" He reached under her skirt and groped for her butt.

Her heart raced as her breaths came in short gasps. "No, Chris, no. Stop it!"

He pinned her to his car with his leg as he wrestled with her blouse. A button popped off.

"Christopher. Stop it!" Cold fear filled her.

His lips slobbered against her mouth. The combination of aftershave, stale smoke and beer nauseated her. She bit him. Chris pulled back in surprise. "You little bitch." He touched his lip then raised his hand.

Julie shut her eyes and threw her arms up to block his hit.

"She asked you to stop."

Julie opened one eye.

Robert stood in front of Chris blocking his way. He glanced over his shoulder. "Ya ok?"

She nodded. Her throat was too dry to allow her to speak.

"Good. Move." He pointed to a spot by a tree.

Hands trembling and knees shaking, Julie had trouble obeying.

Chris clenched and held up his fists.

Robert glanced at them then snorted. "Ya actually gonna try and take me on." He grabbed Chris by the front of his shirt. "What do ya want me to do with him?"

"He's dru – drunk. He didn't mean...." She covered her mouth, fighting the urge to throw up.

Not believing what he heard, Robert glanced at Julie then shook his head. With a powerful backhand slap, he spun Chris around and left him sprawled on the trunk. He picked up the keys, swung his arm back and stopped. He walked to a garbage can, dropped them in and chuckled. "Friends shouldn't let friends drive drunk."

Julie tried fixing her blouse, but her fingers refused to cooperate.

"Are ya sure you're ok?" The smile left his face.

The reality of the moment descended upon Julie in a wave of repulsion. Robert took one step towards her, but she backed away. Confusion swirled in her head and caused a sickening knot in her stomach. He was Robert, a classmate. No, he was Shoresmen. A gang member. He rescued her from Chris. Trust him. He couldn't be trusted.

Could he?

"It's ok. You're alright. Relax." He inched towards her, wrapped her in his arms and held her.

Julie buried her head into his chest; calmed by his strength. There was no expensive Italian aftershave or stale beer to repulse her, just a deep musky smell, which triggered an emotion she couldn't catch, as it was instantly submerged under waves of repulsion. Her body shook as she fought to control her breathing. "How could he? How co…? Why?"

Robert didn't answer, instead letting the comfort of his arms soothe her. She snuggled closer, closed her eyes and listened to his heartbeat. With each pulse, the chilling effects of her shock faded. Julie didn't want to break the spell of the moment. Her breathing returned to normal and her pulse slowed. Everything was perfect.

"Let go of her. You son of a bitch." Stephan grabbed Robert and wrapped him into a headlock. Julie couldn't move as Derek threw punches at Robert while he struggled to free himself.

She blinked three times, trying to focus on what was happening. "No. Stop." She grabbed at Derek, but Stephan pushed her away. Julie looked for a teacher, a police officer – anyone who could help. The parking lot was dark and empty.

Stephan shoved his face to within an inch of Robert's. "Now we'll show you Shore trash how good we Westlanders are." He stepped back then spit on Robert's shirt.

Chris pulled himself up off the ground and stood next to Stephan. "Hit the bastard."

"Stop it, Steph! You've got it all wrong. He didn't do anything." Julie pulled at his arm. Tears streamed down her cheeks. "Stop."

Stephan placed his hand on Julie's face and shoved her away. "Back off. We'll deal with this bastard!"

With one arm free, Robert edged around and drove his elbow in Stephan's stomach, who yelped and released his grip. Robert spun. "What? Ya didn't learn your lesson the first time?"

The two men circled each other looking for that first opening. Derek picked up his beer bottle and before Julie shouted a warning, he swung. The glass crashed against Robert's head. He stumbled, shook his head then sank to the ground.

Derek chuckled. "Shoresmen always win their fights, yeah right." With a powerful swipe, he kicked the unconscious Robert.

Julie stepped forward and knelt beside him.

"Leave the garbage alone." Stephan pulled her away. "Come on, we'll take you home. Derek, get Chris."

Julie stared at a trickle of blood on Robert's forehead. "No, we have to help him." She tried to pull away, but Stephan dragged her to his car. Numb from the events, she sat in the back seat.

The sound of the engine snapped her from her dazed state. "Stephan, stop, we need to go back."

Stephan put the car into gear and pulled away. Through the passenger window, she saw Robert's prone figure lay with eyes shut while blood dripped onto the pavement.


Chapter Three

It was a dull rainy Saturday, when Julie crawled downstairs at ten minutes past noon. The pain in her head matched the blackness of her mood as she stared at the piece of toast. The edge was burnt, and the butter melted into a pool of grease. Her stomach threatened a nasty outcome if she ate it.

"How did the date go last night?" Her mother poured a cup of coffee, and sat next to her daughter.

Julie pushed the plate aside. "Terrible. Chris is a jerk." Her stomach gave another threatening rumble.

"What happened?"

"He was drunk. He…he got…aggressive and Robert─"

"Who's Robert?"

Julie took a swallow of orange juice. "The guy from North Shore I told you about. He came out of nowhere and got Chris off me. He tried to calm me down, then Steph and Derek arrived and Derek hit him with a beer bottle. I didn't know what to do. He was bleeding." Tears stung her eyes.

Her mother held her arms open. Julie leaned into her embrace. After a few minutes, she led her daughter back upstairs. Julie snuggled into bed and fell asleep. Three hours later, she woke, walked downstairs, and found her parents seated at the kitchen table, enjoying a cup of tea.

"Feeling better?" Her father offered her a cup.

Julie nodded as she poured the orange and spice tea. She inhaled its rich aroma. It took her to her happy place.

Mrs. Anderson responded to the doorbell. She entered the room with Christopher trailing behind her. The sight of him brought back Julie's waves of revulsion.

Swallowing her fear, Julie's eyes darkened. "What are you doing here?" Her fingers tightened on the teacup handle.

He stared at the teapot. "I thought I'd come by on my way home from the hospital."

"Not your Dad, again?" Julie's mothered offered him a cup. Chris shook his head to her offer. "No, Stephan. That Shore guy beat him up."

"What?" Julie's eyebrows popped up. Tea sloshed out of the cup and splashed on the table. She grabbed a napkin and sopped it up.

"We went back to get my car and, he jumped them. Put Steph in the hospital with a broken jaw."

"Yes!" She pumped her arm. After seeing her parents' horrified expressions, she lowered it. "Derek kicked Robert and laughed, saying it wasn't true that Shoresmen always win their fights. He may've been down, but he wasn't out. He came back and he got them." She snapped her head in Christopher's direction. "You!" The heat of anger rose in her.

He stumbled back a step.

Her eyes narrowed as she set her cup on the table. "You tried to rape me."

"No! I was—"

"Being drunk isn't an excuse." Julie rose out of her chair. "You weren't dating me because you liked me. You just wanted to get some. You disgust me. Get out." She pointed to the door.

Without making eye contact or saying a word, Chris' shoulders slumped, his head dropped and he exited the house.

"I thought we—"

Julie held up her hand to stop her father. "Robert rescued me from Chris' attack, and took an unjustified beating in the process." She inhaled a deep breath to steel her nerves. "I owe him a lot, and I'm going to pay him back with my friendship. You brought me up to make decisions for myself and if need be, pay the consequences of those decisions. Well I became friends with one of your most respected friends' son, and he almost raped me. So now I'll be friends with someone I want to be with." Oh my God, I just talked back to Dad.

"Julie." Her mother rested a handed on her daughter's arm. "One supposed act of heroism doesn't make him a decent fellow."

"These Shoresmen boys have often been in my court." Her father's brow was pulled low. "What makes them dangerous is they don't understand the difference between right and wrong. I talked to Mr. Morris about this. He said his hands are tied. The boy met all the admittance requirements, and until he does something wrong, he can't be expelled."

"Isn't that always the case? Someone has to get hurt before the authorities will act." Mrs. Anderson shook her head.

"Listen." Julie rubbed her forehead. "You're condemning Robert, and you don't even know him." Parents!

"We know his type." Her father sipped his tea.

With the conversation ending on such a flat note, Julie refilled her teacup and returned to her room. Were her parents right? He's a gang member, and everyone knows you can't trust someone who runs with a gang. Her parents were wise. She knew that. They'd been right numerous times in the past, but this time Julie's heart insisted they were wrong.

***

Sunday was a new beginning. Full of energy, Julie prepared breakfast. One by one, the Anderson family entered the kitchen, devoured her french toast creation and ambled off. Julie and her mother cleaned up. "You're a piece of sunshine this morning." Her mother gave her a little hip bump.

Julie placed the last of the dishes into the dishwasher. "I'm sorry I lost my temper, yesterday." She wrapped her arm around her mother's waist and rested her head on her shoulder.

"I thought about what you said, and I think you were well within your rights. I'm very disappointed with Christopher's behaviour, and I told his mother just that." Her mother dropped in the dish detergent cube then pressed start.

"Mom." Julie shook her head. "It was the most awful night of my life. The dance was a bore. Then Chris. Then the fight. I didn't know what to do." She shuddered. Her smartphone chimed. She picked it up off the counter. "Hello. Hi, Jennifer. No, I didn't forget. I'll be ready. Bye."

She leaned on the counter next to her mother. "Did I tell you Francine's dad arranged for us to go riding at the Murran stables? It's Francine's birthday present. I don't want to ride, but I've got to see the Estate."

"If you meet Emily Murran say hello for us. When your father was younger, he did some work for the Estate. You go get ready. I'll finish clearing up."

Standing before her open closet, Julie pondered what to wear. Should she dress formal? She was going to the Estate. Or casual? It's a horse ranch. She settled on a lace and denim outfit, which suited both situations – perfectly.

Julie put the final touches of lip-gloss on as Jennifer and Heather burst in. "Come on. You're such a slow poke."

"Coming. I'm coming. Bye Mom. Dad," she shouted as she left the house.

As Julie slid into the limousine, the other girls greeted her with a chorus of "hellos" and "good mornings." The friends settled back to enjoy the ride.

"I think it was the worst dance ever." Francine shifted to a more comfortable position.

"Don't blame me." Jennifer spoke while texting another friend. "Mrs. Brill suggested I let the junior committee members organize it. No fears though, I'm still in charge of Prom."

"I want to hear what happened between Trish and Robert." Heather kicked her friend's foot and winked.

"This is my party, and I don't want him discussed. End of conversation." Francine's eyes flashed anger.

"What's your problem with him?" Tricia asked.

"Julie, how was dance class?" Francine checked her watch then looked out the car window.

"Didn't go, didn't feel good." If only you guys cared. She watched the trees pass by.

Trying to ease the tension, Jennifer said, "Olivia almost died when I told her we're going riding today."

"Did you see what she was wearing Friday night?" Tricia rolled her eyes. "What? We're bringing back the sixties. Again?"

The chatter turned to gossiping about the fashions at the dance until they stopped at the entrance to the Murran Estate. Butterflies tap-danced in Julie's belly. Be a big, brave girl. Ride the horse. How hard can it be? If Heather can do it, so can you.

She glanced out the limousine window as the gates opened to reveal a maple tree lined drive. The car followed the path, and when it forked, the car continued along the right-hand road. Soon they exited the tree tunnel and entered a large parking area.

Dressed in a gardening outfit, knees stained with mud and a broad straw hat, Mrs. Murran slowly straightened and stood near an immaculate flower garden. As the car braked, the lady advanced towards them.

Removing her gardening gloves, Mrs. Murran extended her hand. "Good afternoon. I'm Emily Murran and I'm so pleased you've come for a ride."

One by one, the girls introduced themselves.

"I'm Julie Anderson, Bill and Sandra Anderson's daughter. My mother wishes that I say hello."

"You're little Julie Anderson? I remember you. You must've been four or five when I saw you last. My, you've become a beautiful, young lady. How are your parents?"

"They're fine."

"Since you're not here to talk to me, I suppose we should get you on your way. Who's the one who doesn't know how to ride?"

Julie waved.

"The rest of you may ride anywhere around the Estate or out on the neighbouring fields, but please not near the flower gardens. The horses love to eat my flowers. Julie, someone'll look after you. Don't worry. You'll have a good time." Her eyes twinkled. "Enjoy yourselves, and the final day of summer, then come back to the house and we'll have tea."

As she talked, she led them to where a tall, tanned man stood next to a team of horses hitched to a hay wagon. "This is Carl." She smiled at him. He nodded a greeting to the girls. "Have a pleasant ride." She waved and retreated to her garden.

They clambered onto the hay wagon like eight-year-olds rather than like the sophisticated teenagers they were. Francine pointed to a person riding a horse. The magnificent beast pounded its way around the track, raising a cloud of dust. The wagon stopped near a large white barn with the Murran crest posted high on its side. Carl halted the wagon then walked around to where the girls sat. "Who can't ride?"

Julie stepped forward.

"Have a seat on the wagon. I'll get these ladies on their way first."

The four girls followed Carl into the barn. Francine exited first. She led her horse to where Julie was standing. "Doesn't this one just remind you of old Mr. Tonkins?"

Julie burst out with a laugh. "Put glasses on him and he's the spitting image."

Francine cleared her throat. "Class, I would like to make one thing perfectly clear, first..." Still chuckling, she mounted her horse and wandered over to the nearby field.

Heather and Jennifer waved as they trotted by. Julie tilted her head to see if Tricia was exiting the barn. She waited. And waited.

At last, Tricia exited on a beautiful, chestnut brown horse. She smiled from ear to ear and paused next to Julie. "I just couldn't decide which horse to ride. But this one compliments my outfit."

Julie swallowed back a laugh, smiled and waved as Tricia rode on. She glanced back towards the barn. Somebody walked between two horses leading them in her direction. Oh great, my turn. Remember, big, brave girl. You can do it.

When the rest of the body emerged from between the horses, Julie broke into a wide grin. You're alive!

"How're ya?" Robert wrapped the reins over a rail. "Recovered from Friday night?"

"Me? You were the one who got beat up. How are you?" Why do I feel like giggling? That is so a thirteen-year-old thing.

"Ok." He rubbed his forehead. "Got a helluva headache though."

"I'm so sorry I couldn't stop Stephan. I had no idea what to do. I was so scared. I...." She bit her bottom lip.

"Ya were in shock. Chris scared ya worse than ya realized. I could see ya were losin' it." He stood near the saddle of the light grey horse. "Let's get ya up on this guy."

Julie looked at the horse and gulped. "I don't think I can do this. I've never ridden before. He's kind of big, and I'm a little scared." Lot scared was more like it.

"If I can do oriental mushrooms, ya can do horses."

"You didn't eat the mushrooms." He's so cute.

Robert patted the horse's neck. "This isn't actually a horse. He ain't big enough. He's a pony. His name's Whisky. He's an old school pony who's used to people who don't know how to ride. Like ya." He pointed at the stirrup. "Put your foot in here."

She looked around the ranch. "What kind of horses live here?"

He chuckled. "Gonna try stallin', huh? This is a breedin' ranch and a racin' stable. We got two world class stallions and several champion mares to breed with."

Julie wrinkled her nose.

"When a horse has a good bloodline his genes become valuable for breedin' purposes. For every good stallion, male horse, ya need a good mare, female horse. Think biology class."

"I thought that was about birds and bees."

"No, that was sex ed. This is genetics." He checked the girth straps were snug and held out his hand. "Now quit stallin' and come here."

Damn. Her eyelids opened wide.

"Do I gotta go through the mushroom bit again? I won't let anythin' happen to ya." He walked around behind her. "Put your left foot in the stirrup. Grab the horn."

She pointed to the grip on the front of the saddle.

"Yea, that thing. Now swing yourself up."

As she did, he pushed and Julie landed in the saddle. "This isn't so bad."

Robert adjusted the length and tightened her stirrups. "Here are your reins." He gave a brief version of Horse Riding 101. "And to get him to go, squeeze your calves against him."

Julie tightened her legs, and the horse stepped forward. "Hey." Where are the brakes for this thing?

"It's ok. Let him walk. Try turnin' and stoppin' him." Julie looked so nervous, Robert fought not to jump on her horse, wrap his arms around her and assure her everything was alright. Instead, he mounted his horse and rode alongside.

After a few moments, Julie relaxed. Look at me, on a horse. Doing the cowgirl thing. She giggled. "I feel like a kid who's discovered ice cream." She glanced over at Robert. Ice cream with hot chocolate sauce. Very hot sauce.

Robert led them to a path, which opened into a meadow. "How come if your friends learned to ride, you didn't?"

"I was usually at class."

He slowed his horse to match hers. "What kind of class?"

"Dance. Ballet. You know, ballerinas in tutus, dancing on their toes." Julie swayed with the rocking rhythm of the horse's movements.

"Ya any good?"

"I can hold my own in class."

He raised his eyebrows. "Never known a ballerina before."

"When I was little, mom and dad took me to The Nutcracker and there's this great pas de deux...."

Robert tilted his head as his brow crinkled.

She scratched her nose. "Oh, uh...pas de deux when two people dance. This one's between the Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy. I wanted to be the fairy. I thought she was the most wonderful thing I'd ever seen. She had on a purple tutu, stuck straight out at the sides, and she danced on her toes. I told mom that's what I wanted to do, and I've been taking class ever since."

"I hope ya get to dance her someday."

"Oh, I'm not good enough. It's just a dream." She held back a sad sigh.

"How do ya know? Maybe ya are good enough. Ya gotta believe in yourself and in your dreams. Dreams is what keeps us alive. People trapped in a hopeless situation survive by their dreams. Their dreams of freedom, of a better life, whatever."

What are your dreams? Can I ask you? Or is it too soon to get that personal? Julie picked at the leather-covered saddle horn.

"I gotta question." Robert shifted around in his saddle to face her. "Doesn't it hurt to stand on your toes? It hurts like hell when I stub mine. I can't imagine jumpin' up and down on'em."

Julie laughed. "When I first got my pointe shoes I thought my toes were going to break. Imagine trying to walk around with your foot stuck in a glass."

"Why do it if it hurts?"

"Good question." She released the hair tie, shook her head and let her long, brown hair drape around her shoulders. "Dancers are driven by a passion. An obsession. I've heard of ballerinas dancing with pulled muscles, sprained ankles, cracked bones in their feet. I'd love to spend nine or ten hours a day in a dance studio. I could deal with any of the physical discomforts if given a chance. Am I smiling all stupid like?" She looked at the saddle, the reins and the field to the left of her.

Robert, who was on her right, tapped her arm. "Ya have to look at me so I can see. And why the weird question?"

The heat rose in Julie's cheeks. "Mom says whenever I talk about dance I get this big grin on my face and I light up. Whatever that means."

"If ya love dancin' so much, go be a dancer? Go join a company or somethin'."

Julie paused as she looked at the trees starting to change to their fall colours. "It's not that easy. You have to audition. There are a million dancers for one job. Besides, my parents want me to go to college."

"It's not your parent's life. It's yours. Ya gotta do what's right for you. If ya don't try you'll never know if ya coulda been the fairy thing. If ya audition and don't get the job then you'll know ya ain't good enough, and ya can get on with your life."

She bit her lip. "That's the problem."

"What is?"

"What if I audition and fail?" Julie stared at her saddle.

"Ya go home and cry then swear at them, for being stupid. Your friends're way more concerned with their lives than yours. They'll forget about your failure long before ya do."

"You're so right. I've known them since we were babies and I swear, I've talked to you more about my dancing in ten minutes than I ever have with them." Ever.

The two rode on in silence. Julie watched Robert. He was relaxed, so different than at school. She urged her horse alongside his. "How long have you been working here?"

"Off and on for six years."

Wow, did he ever just brighten up. That grin is so sexy. "You like it there?"

"I love working with the horses. Carl swears I can communicate with them. This is where I wanna stay. Eventually I'd like Carl's job. I think I can run this place, but who knows." He shrugged. "Carl's taught me everythin' from this-is-a-horse to how to ride, train and breed. I'm in charge of deliveries. Messy job." He shook his head. "And they always deliver in the middle of the night."

"It's my turn for a question, but it's changing subjects."

"Fire away." Robert knew he had to let her ask almost anything to get her past his Shore reputation.

Enjoying herself, Julie suspected her instincts about Robert were right that there's a compassionate human under his gang member skin. "Wednesday, when Steph and you fought. He went white as a ghost. He instantly knew you're Shoresmen." She raised her eyebrows. "Major surprise to me. And how did your...friends know to show up?"

"I called 'em. I knew I needed backup. Figured Stephan would bring the whole friggin' football team."

"How did he know you're…Shoresmen?" She tried to say the word without any obvious disgust.

Robert looked at his saddle then held up his right hand with his knuckles facing Julie. A tattoo of a serpent coiled around a dagger started on his middle finger's last knuckle, circled around and its open mouth stopped at the base of his fingernail. "Shoresmen markin'. Can't lay down our colours. That means quit the gang."

"Why did you become a gang member?" Julie mentally crossed her fingers hoping she wasn't pushing Robert too far. She just wanted to get to know him.

"I…uh…needed a home, friends, family. The guys became all that." He held up his other hand and showed a black dagger tattoo. The hilt started at the base of his fingernail and ran along the length of his middle finger. The point was red with droplets trickling down the back of his hand. "The markin's of a leader."

"Francine said gang initiations are pretty violent."

"I don't wanna talk about it. Ya can't understand why I joined. It's got nothin' to do with drugs or an easy buck."

"That's not what I asked."

His eyes darkened as his brow tightened. "It's what ya implied."

Julie's horse tossed his head and stamped. She reached down and patted his neck then turned her attention back to Robert. "I didn’t imply anything. You're being a bit defensive. Which I can completely understand. Let me try again. A straight question, no hidden meaning, why did you join?"

Did she just tell me off? Robert let his thoughts tumble around for a moment, then urged his horse forward. "Total survival. You're involved in your gang of dancers because of some urge that's gotta be filled. I joined this gang to survive. Very basic here – life or death." He heaved a deep breath to calm his anger. "I won't condemn them, and I won't make excuses for runnin' with'em. This ain't no lady's tea party. We're a gang and we do gang stuff. Can we change subjects, please?" He pulled on the reins and turned his horse.

Not good. Just made him mad. She followed him back towards the stable. "One more question. No, two more."

Robert halted his horse. "Can I guess the first one? What the hell am I doin' at Westland?"

Julie nodded. "I know it sounds rude. I mean, you can go wherever you want, but why Westland?"

His horse snorted and stomped his hoofs. "Whoa. What's wrong?" He reined up his horse and patted its side while checking the ground and area for what startled it. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, he turned his attention back to Julie. "Short version. Either do time at Westland or do time. End of that conversation." His tone was sharp. "Next question."

She bit her lip, looked out at the pasture, took a big breath then blurted, "Did you and Tricia…you know."

"That's so not what I figured for your next question. What's it to ya?"

"Inquiring minds want to know." She shook her head. "Lame, I know. Tricia and I haven't talked and I'm curious."

"Bold too." And cute as hell. He ran his fingers through his hair. "Tricia and I hooked up. If some female throws herself at me, I'm gonna take advantage of it. 'Sides I figured I deserved a little. Trish is usin' me, so I used her. Still wanna talk to me?" He clicked his horse.

"Yes." Her heart pounded. "Because we're talking about things I don't talk about with anyone else." Sex. We're talking about s-e-x.

Calling over his shoulder he said, "Maybe you should get some new friends. Someone who's interested in you rather than themselves."

"I thought I had found a friend." Julie spoke to Robert's back. Talking to it was easier than to his face.

He twisted around in his saddle. From his puzzled, but surprised expression, Julie knew her admission caught him off guard. "I'll never be able to explain you to my friends or to my father. Before you ask, I owe you something for rescuing me the other night, and the only thing I can pay you back with is my friendship. I figure you could use one ally at Westland. Friends?" She stuck out her hand.

"Friends." They shook. "Now let's get you back to the rest of the group."

***

Robert hopped off his horse then hurried over to help Julie off hers. When her feet hit the ground, her legs wobbled and her bottom tingled. "Ooh, I think I'm better on my feet than on my seat." She rubbed her backside.

He grinned. "I guess we're not good enough friends for me to massage that cute little behind."

If only I were brave enough to let you. "You said a man's got to have dreams – well, keep dreaming." She laughed, waved and walked across the yard to the waiting wagon.

Feeling strangely chipper, Robert watched as the wagon pulled away. He'd had a great afternoon, too bad she was Westland. He might stand a chance of becoming a friend but never a lover. He shrugged, turned and entered the barn.

The girls jumped off the wagon, shouted thank you to Carl then walked over to the patio where Mrs. Murran sat waiting, with a pot of tea and a plate of cookies. While everyone chatted about the day's adventure, Julie stared towards the stables. If Trish hadn't known Robert was there, Julie wasn't about to let out his secret. All too soon, the girls agreed it was time to go home. With sad thank yous, Julie and her friends left the Estate.

As she nestled down to sleep, Julie wondered how she should handle this friendship. She hoped her friends might understand. She wondered if her family would. Julie wished it was Monday, so she could see Robert, even if only across the classroom. Things should be calmer at school, after all, he'd survived two fights. What else could go wrong?

Chapter Four


Mornings, especially Mondays, were crazy hectic in the Anderson household. This week, it was Tricia's turn to carpool, and Julie was her first stop. As Julie grabbed her books and a wrapped parcel, she reminded herself that nobody knew about her conversation with Robert. As hard as it was, she had to pretend not to know what had happened at the dance.

She pulled open the door of the little, red Focus, slid in, and set the parcel at her feet. "Quick, before we get to Francine's. Is it true? Did I read your Facebook wall right? You and Robert did it? Oh yea, good morning. How are you?" Julie buckled her seatbelt.

Putting the car into reverse, Tricia peered over her shoulder to back up. "We found this little secluded spot and we kissed and he undid my blouse and I let him." She giggled. "Then we did it."

"Patricia-Ann! You didn't?"

"We did."

"How could you? You barely know him."

"You're just jealous." Tricia pulled into Heather's driveway and honked. Heather exited her house, and Jennifer ran over from across the street.

"So?" Jennifer slammed her door. Her gossip antennas were tingling. "Details. I so read between the lines on your tweet."

"What tweet? I didn't see a tweet?" Julie turned to look at Jennifer then over at Tricia.

Tricia turned left onto Francine's street and drove towards the largest house at the end of the road. "His kisses were like so hot! Way better kisser than…is that Francine standing on the curb?" Tricia slowed and stopped next to her.

Francine jerked the door open and pushed Heather into the centre of the back seat. "Had to get out of the house. Mom is in one of those moods. The maids were late. Cook burnt my breakfast. Good morning. I hope everybody else's day started better than mine."

"Happy Birthday." Julie picked up the parcel and handed it to Francine.

The others echoed her words and pulled boxes out of backpacks and purses.

"You girls are the greatest." With a lighter mood, Francine ripped the wrapping paper from her gifts. Julie had purchased a blouse and sweater set from Francine's favourite boutique. "This is it! This is the one I wanted. Oh, Julie love, thank-you. Hide me. I'm going to wear this today." The others held up their coats and amid peals of laughter Francine changed. "It fits. It's perfect."

After the mandatory trip to the girl's bathroom to fix their make-up and gossip about the weekend, Julie headed off to the first class.

"Calculus first thing Monday morning should be outlawed."

"Good morning to you too." She shivered at the sound of Robert's deep voice then turned. "My seat hurts."

"Hey, I volunteered to rub it." Such a cute butt.

"You look as if your head still hurts."

"It does."

"Have you seen a doctor?" Julie pulled open the door to the calculus room. Robert grimaced then walked to his desk, dropped his books and sat.

"Good morning, class. I hope you had a restful weekend because we're going to have a pop quiz." A clown smile spread across Mr. Ross' mouth.

A collective moan rose from the class.

"Today a quiz, then a review class. Tomorrow is your chapter test. Today's quiz will tell you what you need to study to prepare for it. Where's Stephan?"

"At home. Broken jaw," a classmate said.

"Dislocated jaw." Robert slouched low in his desk and stared out the window. He didn't turn his attention to the class. Jeez, get it right.

The teacher turned on the smart board, clicked a file on his laptop and a list of the questions appeared on the screen. "You have twenty minutes, begin."

A hush fell over the classroom, interrupted only with the occasional sigh of frustration. Julie laid her pen on her paper and glanced at Robert. Instead of working, he was rubbing his temples.

"Times up," said Mr. Ross. "Julie put question one on the board. Phil, two. Christine, three. Brian, four and Robert, number five." The teacher made a minor correction to Julie’s answer and moved on to the next student. When he got to Robert's answer, he paused and studied it. "Robert, where did you get this answer?"

"My head."

The class giggled.

"I didn't mean that to be funny, sir."

Mr. Ross turned. "This was a trick question, and you got it perfect."

"Lucky guess." Or sheer genius on my part.

The teacher rubbed his chin. "Since Robert got that question, I'm going to have to go home and think hard." The class moaned.

Robert threw his hands up. "Hey, I can screw up if ya want. Ya don't have to make the test hard 'cause of me."

"No, it's time to challenge some of these lazy brains." Mr. Ross sat at his desk.

Julie checked her paper. Other than getting the last answer wrong, she was happy with her results.

Robert crumpled his paper and threw it in the garbage. When the bell released them from class, Julie strolled next to Robert. "Meet you in the library?"

He nodded and continued out the door. Julie wandered through the library to the tables at the back, by the windows. She sat, looked up and smiled. Robert plopped his books on the table and sat across from her. "How's your head?" She fought the urge to run her fingers through his hair.

He rubbed his forehead. "Throbbing."

"Why haven't you seen a doctor?"

"Don't like 'em. It'll stop hurtin' in a day or two. Meantime, I can live on aspirins."

"That's stupid. What if you've got a cracked skull or something?" She pulled out some books and flipped them open to give the appearance of working.

"If my skull was cracked, my brains'd be leakin' out of my head. I did ok in calc, so my brains must still be in there." You are so incredibly beautiful.

"If your head still hurts tomorrow, I want you to go to a doctor." She shook her finger at him. "And what do you mean, you did okay? You got that trick question. I was so wrong in my answer. How'd you figure it out?"

Robert stopped listening to Julie. Instead, he watched the way her lips formed the words, and the way the sun shone on her hair. There was a stirring deep inside him. It was more intense than he had experienced with other girls. Why did she have to be Westland? If she were North Shore, he'd have a chance. But a Westland girl and a North Shore gang member? Ain't gonna happen.

"Hello? How did you figure it out?"

Robert blinked. Shit. Figure what out? He stalled by pulling out his cell phone and checking it for messages. Oh yea, she was talking about math class. "Calculus is easy." He fought to keep the grin off his face. "A first approximation would be M2(3), the slope of the secant to the curve at the points where t=2 and t=3. I don't know. I just understand it."

"You're more logical. I'm not. I mean, I can do calculus. I'm smart. But I do better in subjects, like English. When I analyze a book or a poem, I can always find a different angle, rather than just the conventional approach." Julie stared at the small gold hoop in Robert's earlobe.

"We should take my logical side and stick it with your creative side. Rule the world and all that."

She shifted in her seat, glanced around to check if anybody was watching them. "Got to put all that world-dominating mind power somewhere." She wiggled her eyebrows. "Whose body?"

Yours! Who else's? "We'll share." Robert pointed at her. "Your body on even days." Then aimed his thumb at his chest. "Mine on odd."

"Can I use your brain tonight to study for this test?"

He shook his head. "Sorry, it's an odd day, September twenty-first."

"I'll be creative." She smiled. "How about we study together, and you can show me question number five?" Did I just ask him for a date?

YES! Whoa. Be cool, dude. "I gotta work after school, but I can get to the library by 7:30." To Robert, the day just got a little bit sunnier.

Julie ran her fingers through her hair and twisted it into a bun. She snagged it in place with a pen. "How about your place?"

"Ya don't have to prove anything by coming out to Shore." He leaned around her to see how she had put her hair up. "Interesting use of a pen."

"I'm always losing hair ties. Look, it'd be dumb for you to go to the Estate then to Shore and then come back here. Just give me the directions." She dug through her backpack for another pen. What am I doing? I just volunteered to go to Shore. Why did it sound so logical in my head and yet, so stupid coming out of my mouth?

Robert stared at the offered paper and pen. "Come in to Shore on the eighty two. Take the Davis off-ramp. There's a big empty lot here." He scratched directions on the paper, then marked a small square. "An old factory used to be there. It got torched a couple of years ago. Across the street is a bar, PARTY HARD, then a couple of deserted buildings and a bakery. Park in front. If ya can't, honk."

He tapped the pen on the desk. "You're in a bad part of town. I don't want you walking around by yourself. The door's on the left of the bakery. I live above. Just walk up."

"Got it." She picked up the paper, folded it and slipped it into her purse. "I promise, I'll park or I'll honk."

"Are ya sure ya wanna do this? I don't live in the best part of town. I live down by the water where the rent's cheap. There are non-Westland things around." Things you'll never understand.

"I can do this. I'll be there about 7:30." Am I nuts or what?

The bell rang.

She picked up her books and purse. "Guess I should go. It's Francine's birthday. We're going out for lunch."

"Not to Lunch Box. You can't party on lettuce and mushrooms."

"At least she eats her mushrooms." Julie smiled and waved.

His gaze tracked the gentle swish of her hips until they were no longer in view. He rubbed his face. What the hell am I getting into?

***

The five friends went to DREAMS for lunch and gorged on double chocolate hot fudge sundaes and Diet Cokes. Julie and Tricia made it back to class just as the bell rang. They hurried and slid into their desks.

Mrs. Wolmsley stood near the board. "Class." She waited until all was quiet. "I don't want a lot of ruckus and drama, but I'm handing out two assignments today."

The class groaned.

"One is due Wednesday. The other in January. I'm assigning that now, in case any of you wish to do it before the night before it's due." She handed out the assignment papers. "It's all explained here, but simply stated, I want you to write an essay, or an analysis of the works of a writer, or write a story. Length is up to you. You can submit a one-page essay, but it will have to be the most amazing one page ever written." She walked back to the head of her classroom. "Any questions?"

Several students raised their hands. When those inquiries faded, she proceeded with the next assignment. "Next, by Wednesday, I want you to read and analyze the poem Situations by Anthony Edwards-Smythe."

As the teacher discussed the homework, Julie watched Robert shake his head and rub his temples. When the bell rang, he raced out the back door. Julie exited and walked towards biology. She met him near the vending machines.

Robert poured some change into the machine, pressed a button, and a can of Coke crashed to the bottom. He pulled a bottle of headache medicine out of his backpack and downed several tablets with a couple of chugs of the soda.

Julie shook her head. "You're only supposed to take two at a time."

"Not when your head feels like this." He gulped down the rest of the drink and tossed the can into the recycle bin. "Walk you to biology?"

***

Class dragged until the final bell rang. Julie exited and whispered, "7:30" as Robert walked past her.

When she arrived home, her mother was seated at the kitchen table, helping her youngest daughter with her homework. "Good day at school, love?"

"Yes, Mom." Julie put her books and purse on the table. "I'm going out tonight. We have a calc test tomorrow, and there's this guy in class, we're going to have a study session."

"Sure, just don't be too late. Uh, yes, Ashley, your homework's done. You can go play." Her sister scurried from the room.

Julie poured herself some orange juice.

"Who is this young man?" Mrs. Anderson was always curious and delighted when her daughter had a date. She suspected most boys were too afraid of Julie's intelligence.

"No one important, Mom, just a guy. I'm going to go get my other homework done. Call me if you need help with dinner." She picked up her things and rushed to her room.

***

By six forty-five, seven outfits lay scattered around her bedroom; some were on the floor, some on the bed, the chair and the dresser. The outfits ranged in style from special boy/special date to washing dad's car on Sunday afternoon.

Her mother knocked and walked in. Stepping around the mess, she perched on an open corner of the bed. "I thought this was just a study session?"

"It is, but I don't know what to wear." Julie heaved a sighed. "I don't want to appear like I'm not interested." She threw the latest outfit on the floor.

Mrs. Anderson bent over and picked it up. "So do tell, what's this boy like?"

"He's the guy I told you about, Robert. I'm not his type, we're just going to be friends. Only part of me wants to be way more than friends. I didn't want to tell you, because I didn't want a lot of grief over his being from North Shore. He's cool and awesome at math." Julie kicked at a sweater. "I'm probably getting my hopes up even dreaming he might like me.” She rummaged through the mess. “That's it then, jeans and a sweat shirt."

Her mother picked up a pair of slacks and a sweater. "Try this, unless the homeless look is in this season."

Julie dropped the jeans and put on the clothes her mother handed her. She grabbed her calculus books and reached for the doorknob.

"You be careful." Mrs. Anderson placed a hand on her daughter's shoulder. "I'm not pleased you're going there. He should be coming here. But I'll trust your judgment on this one."

"He suggested we meet at the library. I'm the one who decided to go to his place. I want to show him I'm willing to accept where he comes from." Again, it sounded like a good idea until she verbalized it.

Mrs. Anderson's eyelids rose. "Even if it gets you mugged or raped?"

“He’s already taken care of that." Julie turned and opened her door. "If I can't park in front of the bakery, I'm to honk until he comes out. He’s warned me what kind of neighbourhood he lives in. He's not sugar-coating anything. I want to do this. It won't be dark when I get there, and I'll have him walk me to my car when I leave."

She stepped into the hall, turned and gave her mother a reassuring grin. "I'll be okay. I trust Robert. I know from the way he protected me from Chris that he wouldn’t let anyone hurt me." Julie led her mother to the kitchen, picked the car keys off the counter, and strolled out the back door.

Not believing her luck, Julie pulled into a spot in front of the bakery. With a trembling hand, she locked her car. Why am I nervous? It's just a study session. He's not going to try and seduce me. All we're doing is calculus.

She rang the doorbell. No response. She knocked. No answer. She turned the handle and opened the door. The sound of loud voices boomed from behind a door at the top of the stairs. Taking a big breath and slowly releasing it, she ascended the staircase and knocked on the door.

"Hey, Bob, someone's at your door," a voice from the other side shouted.

"So answer it."

"Not my door," the first voice replied.

The door swung open, and Robert stood before her. He wore jeans, but was barefoot and shirtless, his hair wet and dripping. Her mouth dropped as she watched a small drip trickle down his ripped abs. He absentmindedly rubbed it off.

Julie knew his lips moved and words were coming out, but she was too mesmerized by his six pack and tattoos to focus on what he said. "Pardon?" She shook herself back to reality.

He motioned for her to enter. She stepped into the kitchen area of a tiny apartment. The furniture was old and worn, and the walls were faded and drab. People sat on the floor, or the sofa and kitchen chairs. Julie didn't recognize anybody. Several glared at her, but most ignored her.

Behind Robert, two doors led off to different areas. A girl exited the second door. She adjusted her blouse. When she saw Julie, she scowled, picked up a beer and joined the others.

Robert led her to a dimly lit bedroom. The bed was unmade and clothes lay in piles. Robert straightened the sheets and blanket then glanced around. "I had a shirt?"

He wandered into the kitchen and returned, pulling on a sweatshirt. He turned on the overhead light and closed the door. He motioned to her to sit on the bed, while he picked up his books from the floor. "Sorry. This is the only place we can get some privacy."

She fumbled through her books while desperately trying to think of something to say. She was alone in his bedroom - sitting on his bed. Her heart pounded. Was it because she was afraid he'd try something or that he wouldn't?

"Who was that?" She opened her math book and tried to find the right chapter.

He picked up a pad of paper and a pen. "Lauren."

"I'm sorry if I came at a bad time."

Robert's brow wrinkled.

"I'm sorry if I interrupted you two."

He shrugged. "You didn't interrupt nothin'. I was in the shower."

Julie picked up a pen, fumbled and dropped it. "Is she your girlfriend?"

"Naw, she's Mike's girl." He turned a couple of pages in Julie's textbook and pointed at a question. "What don't you understand?"

What don't I understand? I don't know why I'm here. I don't understand about Lauren. And I can't figure out what's going on inside of me when you sit so close. She could almost touch his leg with hers. But you probably mean, what don't I get in calculus. "Okay, when Mr. Ross said…."

Robert helped with her questions until they reached the end of the chapter. "Got it?"

She closed her textbook. "I think so."

"Good. Now maybe you can do me a favour?"

"Sure." She held her breath. What sort of favour would a boy from Shore want?

"Poetry. I can handle Shakespeare and his funny way of saying things, but poetry…. I'm lost after roses are red and violets are blue."

"Poetry is easy."

"Calculus is easy."

"Uh, I don't have copy. Do you?"

He put down his calculus text, picked up his notebook, and sat just a little bit nearer. He rustled some papers until he pulled out the English assignment.

She put her book and pen next to her feet. "What don't you understand?"

He held up the page. "Poetry. Don't like it. Don't get it. Why do we have to study it? Nobody speaks like this."

"Okay." She chuckled. "My turn to play teacher. Read me a line."

They worked their way to the end of the poem then Julie slipped the paper from his hand. "Think about everything we discussed. So what's the poem saying?"

"No hints?"

She shook her head.

Robert fell back on the bed and looked at the ceiling.

She glanced up. "I don't see the answer there."

"I'm lookin' for inspiration. Divine or otherwise."

She lay alongside him and stared up. "What do you think the odds are that the last tenant studied this exact poem and inscribed its meaning on the ceiling?"

"Not very good, actually." The mattress shook from his laughter. "This is my brother's apartment, and he's not the brightest person in the world." Robert rolled onto his side, then propped himself on his elbow.

Her pulse raced. He was inches away. If she lifted her head, she could kiss him. She shivered. Or he could kiss her.

With a small grin, he leaned a little closer. "So how about you give me the answer, and I'll write it on the ceiling for my not-too-intelligent brother?"

Julie didn't answer. She was still lost in imagining his mouth moving closer to hers as she stared into those splendid, dark eyes.

"Studying?" Lauren burst into the room. "Studying what? Her anatomy?"

Robert fell back on the bed. "Shut up and get lost."

"What's she tutoring you in? Beginner sex? She's probably never been kissed, definitely never been fu—"

"Lauren." Even Julie froze from the snarling wolf tone of Robert's voice.

Lauren snapped her lips closed and stood at the foot of the bed, not looking in Julie's direction.

Julie sat up to explain when Robert touched her arm. "Shut up and get out. Now!"

Lauren turned on her heel and stormed out of the room, mumbling under her breath. She didn't shut the door.

"I gotta do something about her." Turning his attention to Julie, he half-grinned. "Sorry 'bout that."

Julie grabbed her purse, dug out her cell and pretended to check messages as she composed herself. "So…the poem?"

"Crap, you remembered." He grinned. "I think Edwards-Smythe is sayin' that a person's gotta accept the situation they're in, but that it's up to each individual to change their circumstances to improve their future." Which is basically my life. And that sucks.

"You've got it. Now just write it out and you'll be done."

"It makes a lot more sense, but I'm not ready to go solo yet."

She picked up her books and stood. "I'll make you a deal. I'll help you with poetry, and you help me with…." She tapped her calculus textbook.

"Deal." He reached over, took her book, and led the way out of the room. "I'll walk you to your car."

The tension was thick when Julie walked past Lauren. She considered saying goodnight but decided against it; Lauren seemed fascinated with the label on her beer.

When they reached her car, Julie hesitated. She wished she could send him a telepathic message: Please kiss me, please. Please, please.

She clicked the car locks open, he held the door for her and handed her the books. "Thanks again. See you tomorrow." He walked around the car to the curb.

As she drove away, Julie glanced at the rear view mirror. Lauren came out the door and wrapped herself around Robert. Damn! She hit the steering wheel with her palm.

What is it with me? Do I want to get to know him as a friend or more than that? Am I ready for sex? Why is my brain even going there?

She understood how Tricia allowed herself to be seduced by Robert, but Julie wanted more than a one-night fling. She wanted a friend then a lover. The question is. She parked the car. How do I get him to go from a classmate to friend to a lover? How do you get a wild animal to trust you?

Chapter 5


Sunday afternoon, Julie relaxed in her bedroom window seat, overlooking the yard. The gorgeous colours of the summer were gone; just a few bright chrysanthemums flashed their brilliance. As her father and Jason raked the first of the fallen leaves, Ashley ran around, tossing handfuls into the air. Her mother sat in a lawn chair, enjoying the sunshine.

Julie contemplated how different her life was from Robert's. She lived in a big house with a warm, loving family while he lived in a squalid little apartment – alone. Was his emotional distance because of his embarrassment of his living standard? Why was he there and she here? What made them different? Was it the economic racism of which he accused her?

An idea formed. She mulled it around in her head. Sitting at her desk, she listed the pros and cons. As she scanned her heart-shaped pink paper, she clicked her fingernails on her desk. Jumping up, she raced downstairs, grabbed the car keys and shouted out the back door, "Taking the car. Back in an hour or so."

Her mother waved.

***

She turned off Davis and stopped at the light. Across the street, a group played football in the vacant lot. Even from a distance, she recognized which player was Robert. She liked the way he ran with smooth, controlled movements. He'd make a good dance partner. Watching him play, she witnessed a side of him not seen at school. He was relaxed and laughing with his friends. Waiting for the light to turn green, she compared his neighbourhood to hers.

North Shore once was industrial, but now most of the factories were abandoned. Westland was urban and rich. There was an old saying about the two cities: Westland smells of power and wealth. North Shore just smells.

Julie parked her car, climbed out, leaned on the door and waited for Robert to notice her. He hadn't yet, but other players had. "Who-a, look at that."

"Hey pretty baby, what'cha lookin' for?"

"I'm looking for a man." She grinned.

"Take me."

"No, me."

"All yours, little chica."

The chorus of catcalls made her cheeks flush as she wandered among the players until she found Robert. She stopped in front of him, grabbed his shirt and pulled his face close to hers. "I want this one." It was an impulsive kiss and over in an instant, but it made her toes tingle. A chorus of catcalls came from the crowd of players.

Robert grinned as he looked between Julie and his friends. "It's a tough job, but somebody's gotta be the stud."

Julie grabbed his hand and led him towards her car. "I have to ask you something."

"Great." He rolled his eyes. "Here I thought my animal magnetism had finally gotten to ya, and all ya wanna to do is talk."

What was I thinking? I kissed him. I want to do it again. And maybe again. She bit back a giggle. "Sorry about the kiss. It just sort of happened." She stopped by her car.

Robert's grin brightened his face. "Never apologize for kissin' someone. 'Sides, I liked it."

Julie's cheeks flushed. That little grin of yours makes my knees weak. "I have an idea for my English essay."

"Thought ya handed that in Wednesday."

"Yes. No. Not that one. I mean the one that's due in January." She leaned on the passenger door. "I know what I want to write about – you and me. You know, us. Well, not us in the sense of us as a couple, but us as how we're different." Did that make any sense? Try speaking English. "I want to do a social analysis of the differences between North Shore and Westland. What do you think?"

Robert blinked then shook his head. "I think your creative brain is in overdrive." He had trouble concentrating on what Julie said. She looked gut-wrenchingly sexy in her shorts and T-shirt. Her legs were long and tanned and her hair pulled back into a bouncy ponytail that swished like her hips when she walked. Her face glowed in the sunshine. It wasn't covered in layers of makeup, just a touch to add color. He didn't dare look at her T-shirt. The curves were too enticing. "Everybody knows the differences between us. I'm male. You're female. You're rich. I'm not. What else is there?"

"Let me worry about that. I want to do this, but I need your help. I need to understand you. To analyze you. I want to discover why you're who you are. Remember that enigma stuff at lunch?"

"The lunch with the wonderful mushrooms? Who could forget?"

Julie giggled and her laughter brightened Robert's day.

"I want to delve into that situation. What was it that made me assume you'd be a stupid, tough, crude punk, and why aren't you that stereotype?"

"What do ya want me to do?" Not that I could ever refuse ya anythin'.

"Talk to me." She placed a hand on his arm and felt his muscles tense. "I want to ask you stuff about your life. Get you to explain what it's like in North Shore, in a gang, so I can understand the differences between us. How did you become you? I know my story. How does it compare to yours?"

He didn't move. He didn't want to break the spell of her touch. "Can I decide what I don't wanna tell ya?"

"Sure." She released his arm and brushed a stray strand of hair off her face.

Julie's touch lingered on his arm. "No, I mean, I say I don't wanna talk 'bout something, and ya don't pester me on it." Parts of his life were so ugly that if she discovered the truth…. Robert shook his head. He didn't want to consider that moment.

"I'll try not to be a pain. But there's so much about you I want to know. Too many secrets I want to invade." She wondered how far she could press before he walked away.

He looked over to where the game had resumed. "If we're goin' to be hangin' around together, I'd better introduce ya to the guys." With one last lingering glance, he turned and walked back to his friends.

A voice from the crowd asked, "New wide receiver or tight end?"

Robert shook his head. "Ignore them. They can be crude. Guys, this is Julie. And these are the guys." He pointed. "Estes. Pete. Franklin. Paul and the rest."

His friends checked her out – some with smiles, others with leers. With shorts and a T-shirt suddenly too revealing, Julie wished she wore her long, bulky winter coat.

An unnamed player moved closer. "Listen chica, what'cha doing hangin' 'round with him?"

Julie stood back, eyed Robert up and down, turned and winked. "Enjoying the view."

Loud snorts and guffaws erupted from the group. A mixture of emotions swirled through Julie. Joy because she'd been instantly welcomed by Robert's friends. Sadness as she wondered if her friends would ever accept him.

"Movin' up to the big leagues, eh, Robert?" Estes punched his shoulder.

"You should see the women at Westland." He jerked his thumb towards Julie. "This one's the prettiest though."

"Does she play football?" Pete tossed the ball into the air.

"Hey, I'm the only one makin' passes at her."

"Ooh, I love it when men fight over me." She fluttered her eyelashes. "Sorry, I don't know a thing about football. I'd love to stay and watch, but I have to go."

Robert walked her back to the car.

"Can we start tonight?" Julie pulled her keys out of her purse.

"Sunday evenings is excitin' times. I spend'em at the Laundromat. Either that, or go naked all week."

She paused while a fantasy skipped through her mind. "I've never been to one."

"Then you haven't lived."

"Seven o'clock?" She opened her car and slid onto her seat.

"Sure, meet me at my place." He shut her car door.

Julie started the engine, shifted the car in to drive and pulled away.

Robert walked back to the game.

"You gettin' serious on this girl?" Paul slapped his best friend on the back.

Robert looked in the direction of the car. "Naw, she's Westland. We're just classmates." A hint of sadness tinged his voice.

Paul leaned closer to Pete. "He's got it bad. And he don't even know it yet."

***

At five after seven, she parked her car near the bakery and tapped her nails on the steering wheel. So what do I want to talk about? I definitely want a peek at the mystery behind him. Why was he sent to Westland? Who gets sent to a school? And why?

She exited the car and walked up the stairs. He said it was either Westland Prep or he does time. As in jail time? This is so going to be a challenge. She raised her hand and knocked on Robert's door.

When he opened it, the smell of pizza and beer greeted her as she stepped into the room. His friends were scattered about the apartment.

She shook her head to an offered beer. "The last time I was here, you had a party. How do you get any work done partying all the time?"

"That one wasn't my party." Robert snorted. "Or my friends." He dropped the beer back into the case and grabbed a slice of double pepperoni pizza.

"You had a party for strangers in your apartment?"

"Those were Lauren's friends." He swallowed the last of his beer and tilted his head to the door. "Ok guys, out. I said I was kickin' you out when Julie got here."

The door opened and Lauren peeked around the edge. She smiled when she saw Robert, but when she spotted Julie, an angry glare settled on her face.

Robert grabbed her arm and pulled her into the apartment. "What the hell are ya doin' here?"

Lauren stepped close to Robert and cooed. "Ooh, Bobby baby, you know I didn't mean all those nasty things I said. I had…well, you know, just a little too much to drink."

"Excuse us." Robert pushed her towards his bedroom.

With a triumphant pose, Lauren stared at Julie as the door closed. Robert's voice was muffled, but from the tone, Julie understood he was angry. The crack of a slap was clear. The door jerked open. Lauren stormed from the room and slammed the apartment door. Robert exited rubbing his cheek. "Girl doesn't handle rejection well."

"I think she likes you." Julie tried the diplomatic route. And really hates me.

Paul walked over to his friend. "Cheek's red, man. She got ya good." He turned to Julie. "Hi, I'm Paul. Lauren's just using him."

Robert shrugged. "She's using me for status. I'm using her for sex."

"I guess it's true what Francine said. She said...." Julie stopped.

"Said what?" Robert's brow crinkled. Julie opened her mouth to speak, but Robert interrupted her. "Hold it. Guys, out." He pointed at the door. "Paul, see ya 'round, man. Don't let the ol' lady get on your case." They man-hugged.

"I know. See ya. Let's go guys." Paul hustled everybody out.

As his friend left, Robert explained, "He's my best bud. We've been through a lot. We joined Shoresmen together. Right now, he's got domestic problems."

"He's married?"

"Yea. He got Kaley pregnant, married her, then she lost the baby, and now he wants his freedom back, but she don't wanna let go." Robert grabbed a bulging duffel bag and two helmets, handed one to Julie, then exited his apartment.

"Hey, you forgot to lock your door." Julie followed him downstairs.

He snorted. "Nothin' to steal and nobody'd be stupid enough to try." Unless they had a death wish.

As he strapped the bag to the back of the motorcycle, Julie struggled with her helmet. Robert corrected the problem and tightened her strap. He helped her onto the motorcycle, fastened his helmet and got on. "Ready?"

She squeezed his waist.

"Hang on tight," he yelled over the engine noise.

***

The Laundromat was empty. Along both walls were banks of large orange driers, down the centre aisle, placed back to back, were the washing machines. Some machines were missing lids and even more driers were missing doors. The air smelled of stale cigarette smoke and fabric softener, and the walls were faded from years of neglect. Graffiti advertised lover's initials and For a good time call. Julie pointed at Robert's name and cell phone number. He smiled and unloaded his duffel bag into a couple of machines.

He poured in soap, fed the machines quarters then sat next to Julie. "How was dance class?"

Julie perked up. "Tiring. We're doing exams in a few weeks."

"Ya got exams?"

"Yes. Dance school is just like real school."

He scratched his head. "What grade are ya in?"

"Advanced and I'm going to try the pre-professional exam. I wasn't going to, but I thought about what you said about going after my dream. So I'm going to try."

Robert grinned. He wanted to kiss her, but he didn't want to scare her away. Her kiss had been a timid surprise. His would be a passionate statement, but his gut told him she wasn't ready for that, yet.

They sat in an uncomfortable silence for a few minutes until Julie took a big courage building breath. "Is Lauren your girlfriend?"

"No, she's Mike's girl."

"Then why…?" You big chicken. Just ask him.

"Why am I sleepin' with her?" He shifted in his seat to face her. "'Cause. I don't got an answer. Earlier ya started to say, Francine said…." He waved his hand, prompting her to continue.

Julie looked at the floor. "This is embarrassing, but it's the first time you've met the Shore stereotype. Francine said you have no morals. She said that your brains and heart are in your pants."

She peeked sideways at him. "All you care about is having a good time. If a girl doesn't give in and sleep with you, then you'll drop her and start dating someone else."

Unable to stop the words from pouring out, she continued, "But if a girl does sleep with you then you've got what you want from her and you drop her and start dating someone else." Her insides quivered. How angry would he get?

"She's partly right." Robert leaned back against the wall. "We got morals, but not lots of 'em. I think we like to party 'cause it makes us forget about what life is like here. I spend all day in Westland. It's quiet and I feel safe. Then I come back here. Good old North Shore, where my neighboor beats up his wife and kids, or some junkie ODs in my doorway."

He sighed. "If ya don't got enough money for food, then ya don't eat 'til payday. Lots of these people don't even got a payday. Factories are almost all closed. A lot of people eat in soup kitchens and sleep on park benches."

Crossing his arms, he faced her. "But the morals ain't so great in Westland either. Christopher might have raped ya if I hadn't shown up. I've done a lot of bad stuff, but I ain't never raped no one. There's this guy." He paused. "He likes to abuse his twelve-year-old daughter. Sure, we drink and do drugs, but it's to forget about people like him."

"But you slept with Trish, and she said you two haven't talked all week. You've been sleeping with Lauren. I'm not sure who you're cheating on – Trish or Lauren. If I were checking you out as a potential boyfriend and seeing the way you've treated those two girls, I'd say, forget him, he can't be trusted. He's Shore trash."

"Whose morals ya tryin' to ram down my throat?" His brow darkened. "Trish got what she wanted. I'm like a notch on her bedpost. She threw herself at me."

He stood and turned to face her. "We look at ya sweet smelling, hot Westland babes and fantasize about what sex would be like with ya. Ya know what? It ain't no different than with a Shore hooker. That's what Lauren is."

Julie held back her gasp.

Robert paced the floor. "She approaches some guy, does him, comes back here, buys some drugs and forgets about her life for a while. She hates herself. She and Mike were sort of a thing. He's…gone. Being his baby brother makes me a target. I'm as close to Mike as she can get right now. She's using sex for companionship. Morally my treatment of her is more righteous than the guys who do her in cars and cockroach infested motels."

Julie blinked. Second time I've made him angry. Got to watch that temper. "I'm sorry. I've no right to judge you. I don't understand what life is like here. But I can see Trish making you a notch on her bedpost. She didn't want you. You're…."

"Not good enough." His voice was low.

The washing machines stopped. The silence held their attention. Robert moved his clothes to the driers and slid quarters into the slots. By the time he returned to his seat, he'd calmed himself. Julie's eyes were wide with worry. He broke the silence. "What do ya want from life?"

Her racing pulse slowed. He wasn't angry. "I don't know what I want to be yet."

"I wanna work at the stables. It ain't gonna make me rich, but I like it. I love workin' with the animals." He tossed the last of his change into the pop machine. "Buy you a drink?"

"Diet whatever."

He handed her the can then popped his open. "What's your family like?"

"My father's a judge."

She waited until Robert stopped coughing. "Sorry." He cleared his throat. "Drink went down the wrong spot." Shit. No way. Judge Anderson?

"I have a brother, Jason. He's thirteen. He's into boy things like bikes, cars and stuff. I have two sisters, Sheila and Ashley. Sheila's eight and a real pain, but I guess that's what a kid sister is supposed to be. When we're grown up, we'll probably be great friends. Ashley's the youngest. She's five."

Julie popped open her can and swallowed a mouthful of pop. "Mom's expecting a baby in December. She's great. She remembers what it was like being a teenager. Dad is pretty great too, but he sees lots of kids who have gotten into trouble, so he's kind of protective of us."

What fuckin' odds? Judge Anderson's daughter. He chugged his drink. "Sounds like you've got a great family."

"I guess so. What about yours?" As soon as she asked, Julie regretted it. She sensed Robert tense.

"No known parents. Brother's a jerk. Doin' fine on my own. Thank ya very much."

"You don't like your brother, Mike, do you?"

"No. We ain't never been brothers. Mom was a hooker, so I ain't got any idea who my old man is. One day, she went to the store and forgot to come home." He crumpled his pop can as his fingers formed a fist. "We got moved in with an aunt. When I was eight, Mike moved out, and my aunt sent me to live with him. He didn't want me and I didn't wanna be there, but it was that or go into the system. I learned how to look after myself pretty quick."

Julie waited for him to continue, but he didn't. "I have the feeling there's more you aren't willing to tell me yet."

Robert smiled at the word yet. Was she telling him he hadn't scared her off – yet? The buzz of the driers interrupted their conversation. He grabbed his duffel bag and stuffed in his clothes.

When they arrived at his apartment, Julie handed Robert her helmet. "I'm tired. I guess I'll go home. I've got class tomorrow after school, but I'll be home by six. How about continuing this at my place?"

"You mean like home with Mom and Dad?"

Julie nodded.

"I've gotta work, but I guess I can go straight from there."

"Do you work every day?"

"Yea. I've gotta pay rent, buy food and feed quarters into washin' machines. I can be at your place 'bout seven?"

Julie unlocked her car and got in. She pulled Robert's map from her purse, turned it over and drew a map on the back. She handed it out the window. "See you tomorrow."

"Calculus, first period." Robert walked to the curb as she drove away.

"It's about time Miss Goody-Two Shoes left. Now you can have some fun with a real woman." Lauren's voice came from the shadow of his doorway.

"Lauren, how many times do I gotta say this? I don't like you. I'm tired of having sex with you. Go away." He heaved a tired and disgusted sigh.

"If ya think little Miss Sophisticated is gonna let ya sleep with her, you're crazy. She's still a virgin." Lauren said the word like it was some horrible disease. "Once she finds out what you've done, she'll be gone in a flash. Even if she doesn't leave, her parents aren't gonna let ya date her. You're dirt and they aren't gonna want their little girl getting dirty."

"She's not gonna find out 'less someone tells her. If that someone is ya...." He fixed his gaze on her.

"How about one last tumble for old times' sake? I've got some really good stuff. We can get a little high. Have a little fun." She placed her hands under his shirt and rubbed his chest.

Robert pulled her hands out, stepped through his doorway then slammed and locked the door.

"I'll get even with you, you bastard! You're nothing but a…." Lauren continued shouting, but Robert stopped listening. He guessed most of what she'd say were randomly placed and verbally emphasized obscenities. Robert went up the stairs, shut and locked the second door.

After tossing his duffel bag in the corner, he grabbed a beer and lay back on his bed. What was he going to do about Julie? He was falling for her. A girl like that would want someone to love her. Someone who could give a commitment. He didn't think he was capable of either. Having never been loved, he didn't know how to love back. Robert fell asleep pondering his problem. The beer slipped out of his hand and spilled on the floor.


Chapter Six


It took all of her patience, but Julie worked through Midtown and Westland's congested traffic and arrived home. With a big sigh, she shut the engine off.

Today's pointe class was the longest of her entire life. Dance school rule number three – students aren't allowed to wear watches. Whenever she could, Julie peeked at the little clock on the piano. It had frozen at 5:48. After class was released, Madame asked Julie to stay behind then scolded her for not paying attention. Julie apologised and raced from the studio. But at last, she was home. She opened the car door and jumped out.

"Has anyone been here?" Julie burst through the kitchen door. The aroma of spaghetti sauce teased her nose. A young puppy leapt up to greet her. "Jangles, I love you dearly, but you're not who I'm looking for." She scratched her ears. Her brother, Jason, entered the kitchen. "Has anyone called for me?"

"No." He barged past her and hurried out the door.

Her mother and younger sister entered. "Expecting someone, dear?"

"He's coming over."

"Who is?" Her mother opened the refrigerator and pulled out a bowl of Caesar salad.

"Robert."

"Study session Robert?"

"Yes. I'm going to have a two-minute shower, so I don't smell. If he comes, stall him."

"Julie's got a date?" Sheila taunted.

"No, it isn't a date." She worked her way around her gossip-seeking sister and ran upstairs. In record time, she showered, dressed and skidded back into the kitchen. "Did...?"

"No." Her mother pointed to the kitchen table. "Now have some supper."

Julie gobbled her spaghetti and meatballs and Caesar salad, gulped her glass of milk then put her dishes in the dishwasher.

Seven chimes signalled the time for Robert's arrival. Julie waited. No doorbell. The clock moved to 7:01. Julie waited. No doorbell. The clock moved to 7:02. "He's not coming." Her heart sank. She trudged out of the kitchen.

Halfway up the stairs, she heard the roar of a motorcycle engine. She turned and hurried back to the kitchen. Her mother opened the door. Standing on the porch was a tall, good-looking young man dressed in blue jeans and a sweatshirt. "Robert?"

Remember, speak Westland, not Shore. And don't fuc…don't swear. "Yes, ma'am."

"Come on in. I'm Mrs. Anderson."

"Nice to meet you." He smiled, hoping he'd covered all of the proper etiquette bases.

Mrs. Anderson turned and bumped into her daughter.

"Hi." Julie fought not to giggle.

"Hi." He stepped into the warm kitchen. The scents of dinner lingered in the air. It made his empty stomach grumble.

He followed Julie downstairs to the family room, then heaved a sigh of relief.

She turned to face him. Her brow crinkled.

He shrugged. "It was easier to say I'd come last night, than it was to do it today."

"Why? It's just my place?"

"It may be your place, but it's still Westland. I ain't never been in a house here before. This is a big place." He glanced around the family room. "Hell, this is bigger than my whole apartment."

To his left was a ceiling to floor home entertainment system with the biggest plasma screen TV he'd ever seen. A tall wooden bar stretched in front of a mirrored corner filled with glasses and a mini fridge. To his right was a pool table he'd have killed to play one game on.

Julie pointed to some chairs and a couch then glanced up to see her mother step off the last stair. "Would you like a drink?"

Robert glanced at Julie. Beer. I'd like a beer. No, change that. I need a beer.

"You two stay and chat," Julie said. "I'll get you a beer."

Robert's eyebrows rose as Julie left him alone with her mother.

"You didn't start the term at Westland Prep? Are you adjusting to the new school?" Mrs. Anderson kept her distance to help calm him.

"No, ma'am. I started at North Shore. With Westland on this weird system where ya intensely study three or four subjects, I was really behind. But I think I'm caught up. Hope I am." Shut up, sit down, you’re starting to ramble.

Julie handed him a beer. She held a Diet Coke in her other hand.

"Thanks." He held onto it like a security blanket. He needed to drink it, but not in front of Julie's mother.

"I'll leave you two to get on with your work." She turned and exited.

Robert waited until Julie's mother shut the door at the top of the stairs. He popped the lid off his beer and chugged half the bottle's contents.

"Nervous?" Julie plopped onto the couch.

Friggin' understatement. "This is Westland. I know, rather obvious to ya, but a whole new thing for me. I'm sure your parents aren't too thrilled about ya talkin' to me." He stared at the beer. "Although, your mom seems cool."

Julie laughed and pointed to the couch.

Robert debated. Couch? Chair? Is there an app for etiquette? "Ya look like your mom."

"Me? No way, she's beautiful."

"So are you." Compromising, he sat next to Julie, but not too close. He played with the label on his beer bottle. "I'd like to apologize for yesterday. I kinda lost my temper. Ya said somethin', and I took it the wrong way."

"What?"

"Not important."

"Come on. Friends have to talk to each other. You can't say I said something wrong, then clam up." Julie paused. "It's probably because you don't trust me yet. That's okay though. I think if I were you, I wouldn't trust me, either."

She sipped her pop. "To put it bluntly, you – cute, North Shore guy – can't understand why this rich, sophisticated Westland babe – as you called us – wants to be friends."

Ya forgot cute and sexy. He chugged his remaining beer in two swallows. The faster he drank it, the quicker he'd relax.

"I don't think I have the nerve to tell you." She raised the pop can to her mouth and took another sip. Quit looking at me with those eyes. Could you be any cuter? Strike that – sexier.

"Now ya got me intrigued." He lifted his beer then remembered it was empty. "Ya tell me why ya want to be friends, and I'll tell ya why I got mad."

"How about you go first?"

He chuckled. "Goin' to play rough are ya? Person with the highest score on calculus goes last."

Oh good, he's starting to relax. "Highest score on English."

"Shrewd negotiator." He rubbed his chin. "The highest average of the two tests goes last."

"Deal. I'll get a paper and a pencil." She stood but was stopped by his hand on her arm.

"Don't need it. I can do it in my head. What was English?"

"Ninety-two. Math, eighty-eight."

"That's ninety – dead on. I got ninety-seven on the math test and eighty-four in English. That's ninety point five." He pointed both index fingers at himself. "Who da man?"

"You're kidding. Ninety-seven in math? This is me impressed." Her eyebrows raised as her eyelids opened wide.

He shrugged.

Julie gulped a mouthful of Diet Coke. "Guess I go first. The first time you walked into biology. This is so embarrassing." She lowered her head and placed her hand on her forehead. You can do this. Looking up, she said, "I thought you were like so hot."

Don't turn red. Robert examined his beer.

You got yourself into this. Keep talking. "You've got a great smile, and those eyes are killers. I wanted to dump Chris on the spot." She rolled her eyes at the mention of his name. "I wished every other girl suddenly got warts all over her face. I daydreamed you'd glance over at me and…you know, the whole romance thing."

She hung her head. "But when I found out you were Shore – I'm ashamed to admit – it affected my opinion of you. Then the mess over biology, and the fight changed my mind again. I decided you're being condemned because of where you live and that's unfair."

Glancing up, Julie met his gaze. "I could be a mass murderer, but I'm still superior because of my address. I decided I wanted to get to know you."

Robert peeled the label off his beer. "I still don't understand why ya want to do this essay thing?"

"I want to discover the differences between us. Why did it matter to me that you're Shore?"

"I can help on that. We're sitting here, alone. If ya were Lauren, or any other girl I've dated, what do ya think I'd be doing about now?"

Julie blushed.

"When ya figure why I'm not doing it, or even attempting it, then you'll understand."

"Do you?" She tilted her head. "Understand?"

He closed his eyes. "Painfully so."

She rested her hand on his arm. "Help me. Tell me what I did the other day."

"Ya were talking about me, Lauren and Trish. Ya said if ya were checking me out, you'd say, forget him. He's trash."

Julie nodded.

Robert's forehead creased. "Ya don't get what's wrong with that?"

She shook her head.

Damn! "Then we've got a bigger problem than I thought." Taking the stairs two at a time, Robert exited.

Julie remained seated. Her brow wrinkled as she scratched her nose. "Oh, geez." She raced up the stairs.

Her mother was waiting in the kitchen. "What happened? He flew by me."

"I've got to talk to him." She pulled her coat out of the closet.

Her mother put her hand on her daughter's shoulder. "Tomorrow. I don't want you driving into Shore at this time of the night. Right now, the only place you can go is to your room and do your homework."

"But Mom!"

A pointed index finger and a stern look were Mrs. Anderson's reply.

Grumbling under her breath, Julie marched up stairs.

***

October blew in with the kind of day that stirs the blood and blows all the cobwebs out of your head. With a rare joyful mood, Robert strolled along the school hall and grinned. Julie waited near his locker. He stood beside her. "Good morning."

"I want to talk."

The impatient anger in her voice jolted him from his good mood. He reached past her to get to his lock. "Can I get my stuff? Meet ya in the library. I know ya hate being seen with me."

"No, we're going to discuss this here and now." She rested her hands on her hips. "I held up my end of the bargain then you walked out. Not fair. Why did you go?"

He dug through the stuff in his locker. "You're supposed to be creative, figure it out."

"I did." She grabbed his shoulder and turned him to face her. "You think I called you trash. Well, I didn't. It was a poor choice of words on my part and for that I apologize. What I said was hypothetical not personal." She poked him in the chest. "You didn't have to overreact."

"Overreact?" His eyes darkened. "Have ya ever been called trash?"

She raised one eyebrow and shot him a scornful stare.

"I have and it hurts." His voice lowered as his body drooped. "I'm so tired of being put down. I don't deserve half the labels I'm stuck with."

"I'm sorry, Robert." She raised a hand to her mouth. "I never thought—"

"Just put it on your list of differences." His sarcastic tone matched the snarl on his face.

"If we're going to be friends, we have to learn to communicate. Both of us have to overcome some basic mistrusts about each other." She placed her hand on his shoulder. "Next time, don't run, talk to me." Her eyes were wide as she gazed at him.

He glanced about the hallway, checked his watch then nodded. "I'll try."

"I'll walk to class with you."

"No. We'll both be late. I've still got to get my books and stuff."

"See you in class." Julie winked, smiled and walked towards English.

"Stay away from her."

Robert spun around.

Francine stood, with her arms crossed and an ice-cold glare glued on her face. "She may not want to call you trash, but I will. I know who and what you are." She poked him in the chest with her pen. "And you are trash."

"What do ya know?" His lip curled.

"You're Shore."

He snorted. "News flash. Everybody knows that."

"You're Shoresmen."

"Still not worried."

"You're the leader of the Shoresmen."

A frigid shiver shot through Robert.

She stepped closer. "You've got a criminal record."

He stood frozen to the floor.

"And she knows something you don't. I'm Miss Francine Paulin. I believe you knew my older brother, Jeffery."

He flinched as if a fist had been driven into his stomach.

Francine smiled at her victorious demoralization of him. "Do you think she's going to stay friends with you after I tell her about you and Jeffery?"

"Ya wouldn't." Robert forced the threatening tone out of his voice.

"Oh. Yes. I. Would." She turned and walked away, high heels clicking in the silent hallway.

He slammed his locker door, opened it, then slammed it again, picked up his helmet and stormed out of the building.

*** 

Ok, so yesterday was a bummer. And I really shouldn'ta drunk so much. He pulled on the school entrance door. It squeaked. Shit. Would someone fix this damn door?

He trudged down the hall. How the fuck do I spend the rest of the year avoiding Julie? Shit. I liked being with her. Standing in front of his locker, he spun the dial on his lock. Why are schools so damn noisy? Shit, my head hurts. He closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead.

A finger tapped his shoulder. He turned. A rush of pleasure was squashed by a pang of regret as he glanced at Julie. She frowned. "You look awful?" She reached out to touch him, but pulled her hand away. "Does your head still hurt?"

"Yea."

"Go see a doctor. You could have a concussion or something. Steph hit you pretty hard with that beer bottle."

"I don't have a concussion. I have a hangover."

"What?" Her voice rose two octaves.

"Ssh! Geez." He closed his eyes and waited for the pain to lessen.

"Why didn't you come to class yesterday?"

"Felt like gettin' drunk so I partied." It sounded like a good idea yesterday, but today not so good.

Julie's brow wrinkled. "At nine in the morning?"

He turned and tried his locker combination for the second time. "What's it to ya?"

"What's the matter?" She pulled his arm "Have I missed something? Why are you being so—?"

He jerked his arm free. "Can I get in my locker?"

"What's the matter with you?"

"Nothin', my head hurts." And this stupid conversation is so not helping.

"If you hadn't—"

He spun around. His eyes darkened. "Don't preach to me, Julie. I do what I want when I want, and I answer to no one."

Julie blinked, turned on her heel and left.

Robert slammed his locker door. The sound reverberated through his head. As he cringed, the first bell of the day rang. Robert put his hands over his ears, waiting for the cacophony to go away.

***

He entered the biology classroom. Passing Julie's desk, he glanced at her, but she looked away. He passed Francine's empty desk, and sat at his in the further most corner of the room.

After biology, Julie headed to math class without a glance in his direction. Robert didn't bother trying to catch up to her. Calculus was torturously long. His headache had lessened, but he couldn't concentrate. His mind wandered to thoughts of Julie, and his gaze kept drifting from the black board to where she sat.

Guilt filled his heart for snarling at her. He decided he could deal with Francine. He had to. He wanted to be with Julie. When class ended, he hurried next to Julie and tapped her shoulder. "Sorry I was grouchy. I didn't mean it. I'm a jerk. I know." He hung his head. "Take your pen, stab me through the heart and put me out of my misery."

She glared at him. He tried to make her smile by lifting the corners of her mouth. She snapped them back down.

He knelt on one knee. "It's a gorgeous day outside. Can I buy ya lunch in the park?"

She pulled him up by his shirt. "All right. If you're going to beg."

In the same park where Robert squared off with Stephan, a hot dog vendor had parked his truck.

"Let me treat ya to a real meal." Robert bought four hot dogs, a large order of french fries and two cold Diet Cokes. "What do ya want on your dog?"

"Ketchup."

"And?"

"Just ketchup."

"Somebody's got to teach ya how to eat junk food." He loaded his three hotdogs with every condiment available, poured salt, malt vinegar and ketchup on his fries then sat next to Julie under a tree.

She grimaced. "How can you eat that?"

"Like this." He opened his mouth and bit a large chunk off his first hot dog. When he downed the last of his meal, he leaned back on the tree trunk and yawned.

"Late night?" Julie wiped ketchup off her fingers.

"Without gettin' grief for it, yea. Stayed up late. Partied hard. Need sleep."

She patted her lap. Robert didn't need coaxing. He rested his head on her thigh, closed his eyes and in a few moments fell asleep.

Julie ran her finger across his lips, stroked his hair and whispered, "What is it about yourself you won't tell me? What are you so ashamed of?"

"Oh my, look at him." Tricia sighed as she and Heather sat. "I said it before and I'll say it again, the Gods did right by this one."

"Should I ask? What's going on?" Jennifer plopped on the grass next to her.

Julie blushed. "We're only friends."

"Then why is he asleep on your lap, and why are you two hiding?" Jennifer rummaged through her purse then pulled out her iPhone. It was time to text.

"We're not hiding. Just decided to eat here." She glanced at each friend. "Besides, I wasn't sure you'd accept him."

"We may not be the brightest, but we are the best friends you've got. If you like him, we will too." Jennifer hit send for text one then keyed text two. "Except for Francine, that is. But she'll come around. If she survives her dentist appointment."

Julie met Tricia's gaze. "What about you? He said there was nothing between you two."

"It was a fling. He's all yours. If only he was Westland." She sighed.

"I don't think he'd be as intriguing. None of the guys I've dated makes me feel the way he does."

Heather tipped her head sideways, waiting for an explanation.

Julie opened her mouth to speak then shrugged and sighed.

"It must be love." Heather giggled.

"Have you slept with him yet?" Jennifer's fingers were ready to text the latest gossip.

"No. Like I said, we're friends." She brushed a strand of his hair away from his face. "I feel like I'm taming a wild animal. He has to learn to trust me before we can move on in our relationship."

"It'll probably be the most romantic day of your life." Tricia's voice had a hint of regret.

Jennifer dropped her cell phone into her purse. It chimed. She pulled it out, checked the message and keyed a response.

Tricia checked her watch. "Fifteen more minutes of freedom."

"Guess I should wake him up. Robert." She shook his shoulder.

He grunted, but settled back into sleep.

"Kiss him." Heather giggled.

As Julie bent over, Robert unfolded his arms, wrapped them around her and pulled her close. The touch of his lips on hers aroused a fire deep within her. She wanted to embrace him, but her position was too awkward.

She broke the kiss off with a gasp then straightened up. Hearing her friends' giggles, Julie suspected she was as red as a Valentine's Day heart.

Robert yawned and sat up.

"Lunch is just about over." Julie picked at a piece of grass.

Robert stood then offered his hand to help Julie stand. He held her back as the others crossed the park towards the school. He placed a finger under her chin and lifted it. "I liked it."

Julie lowered her gaze. She wished she could tell him she liked the kiss, but she lacked the courage. "We'd better go or we'll be late."

Those were the last words she'd say to him for six days.

***

After school, Julie caught a glimpse of Francine and Robert. From their physical closeness and body language, she guessed they were arguing. Before she could cross the parking lot, Francine strode to her car and drove away. Robert jumped on his bike and roared off in the opposite direction.

She made a mental note to ask Robert about the conversation as she headed to the car.  On the way into the dance studio, Julie reminded herself of her promise to Madame. She dressed and was in class before the teacher arrived. For the entire ninety minutes, Julie sensed the teacher was watching her. She endeavoured to perform to perfection. With every move, she pulled her fifth position tighter or raised her extension higher. Sweat dribbled down her face, chest and back.

"Class, you may leave. Julie, would you please stay behind?"

The other dancers looked at Julie, who shrugged. They curtsied and exited, gossiping with each other.

Madame stood before Julie and interlaced her fingers. "What do you want to do when you leave school?"

"Go to college, I guess."

"The Civic Dance Company, in Highgate, is holding auditions in November. I think you should attend."

Julie's jaw dropped. "You. Want me? To audition? For the company?"

"Yes. The Civic is a small company. A good place to start."

Julie spun around and hugged Madame. "You think I'm good enough?"

"You are a beautiful dancer, but before you can audition, you will need more practise. How about Saturday evenings?"

Eyelids open wide, Julie nodded.

"Go now, tell your friends and family, but be here at seven p.m. tomorrow, ready to work."

Julie ran straight for the door, skidded to a stop, hurried back, curtsied, then floated out of the studio.

She didn't know who to tell first. As she changed, she called home. The answering machine picked up. Who next? Tricia? Jennifer? They wouldn't get excited. They never understood her love of dancing. Robert. She'd call him. No, she couldn't. She remembered seeing his cell phone written on the wall in the Laundromat, but she couldn't recall the numbers. But, she knew where he lived.

If she hadn't been consumed with exhilaration, she' have listened to the little voice inside her head that said, "Don't go to Shore."

Julie charged up the stairs and knocked, but as usual there was no answer at Robert's door. She tried the latch. It was unlocked. She pushed it open. "Hello? It's Julie."

She peeked around the door. On the couch, a couple were intertwined in a passionate embrace. The female lifted her head. When Lauren's gaze met Julie's, she emitted an obnoxious cackle. The male peered over the top of the couch. Julie closed her eyes. She opened one eye and watched as the man untangled himself from Lauren and crossed the room.

He stroked Julie's long hair. "I like this."

She pushed his hand away, nauseated by his touch.

"Care to join us?" He lewdly motioned to the couch.

"I'm looking for Robert." She tried to sound unafraid and keep her knees from collapsing.

Both Lauren and the Robert-look-a-like erupted with raucous laughs. "I threw his sorry ass out." His vile tone added to his repulsiveness. "If he ever shows his miserable mug around here, I'll cut him good." He picked up his switchblade and with a well-practised flip of the wrist flicked it open.

Every nerve sensor in her body flashed Danger! Danger! She turned to exit the apartment, but Mike grabbed her arm. "Not so fast, little lady."

She reached into her pocket and pulled out her cell phone. "Let go or I hit 911 and scream rape."

It was a brief flinch of Mike's grip, but Julie shook her hand free and fled down the stairs. Her hand shook so hard, she couldn't put the key in the ignition. Using her left hand to steady her right, she managed to insert the key, start the car and drive away. When the car crossed the invisible line, which separated Midtown from Shore, she allowed herself to breathe.

That must be Mike, Robert's brother. Wow, do they ever look alike. Sorta. He's evil creepy though. Way older, too. I wonder where Robert is?

As she neared home the elation of the news returned. "Mom." She slammed the back door. "You'll never guess what!"

"Actually, it's me." Her father placed his briefcase and car keys on the counter.

Julie hugged him. "Oh, Dad. Guess what? You'll never believe it. I don't believe it. It's so great."

Her father waited.

"Madame wants me to audition for the Civic Dance Company." Julie spun around.

"That's great." He hugged his daughter and twirled her around.

Jangles raced in adding her jumps and barks to the excitement.

Mrs. Anderson and her two youngest daughters entered from the living room. "What's all the commotion?"

Julie danced her mother around the kitchen. "You won't guess. Dad didn't. Nobody could." She explained her news.

Her sister, Sheila, made a "so what" noise and left the kitchen. Ashley upon hearing that it didn't involve her, raided the cookie jar.

"Oh, honey, that's wonderful. Do you want to join?" Mrs. Anderson caught Ashley's arm and pointed to the jar.

"Yes. But I didn't think I was good enough." Julie bounced from foot to foot.

"My little girl is growing up." Her father squeezed her shoulders. "I'm so proud of you. This calls for a celebration."

"Pizza Place. Pizza Place." If Ashley was going to be denied a meal consisting solely of chocolate chip cookies, she'd insist on pizza.

***

After a fun evening of pizza and a family Whack-A-Mole tournament, Mr. Anderson suggested it was time to go home. Tired but happy, Julie settled into her bed, secure and warm within the love of her family. Tomorrow would be the dawn of the realization of her childhood fantasy. Can't wait to tell Robert. Wonder where he is?

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