Bring Down the Stars (Beautiful Hearts Duet #1)(6)

I scowled. “Being poor is pretty damn simple. You need money for shit and you don’t have it. The end.”

“Yeah, that’s gotta suck,” he said, and somehow, I didn’t want to deck him one for sounding so blasé about what was a constant struggle in my universe.

Connor had a strange charisma; as if he were impossible to dislike. His superpower. I was the opposite; I made it really damn easy for people not to like me—I preferred it that way. And yet here I was, hanging with the most popular kid in my grade who’d told Norm the Security Guard that I was his friend. The disorientation grew stronger when Connor nodded his chin ahead.

“So, this is me.”

I stared, slack-jawed. A four-story Victorian row house in rustic beige with black window frames. The kind of house you’d see in Boston historical brochures. A staircase led from the brick sidewalk to black double doors with ornate stained glass at the top.

“This is your house?” I asked.

“One of them,” Connor said with a grin, again avoiding sounding like an arrogant douchebag.

I stared up at his house, drinking it in because my brain couldn’t comprehend that people could actually live in houses that belonged in brochures. Connor wasn’t just rich, he was billionaire-rich. I wondered if his parents were famous. He looked famous himself—like the guy they’d cast in a movie about a popular star baseball player, who takes the poor kid under his wing. The kind of guy who was too happy to be a bully or prick, and who coasted through life on a never-ending wave of his parents’ money.

Turned out, I was right about all of it, and the poor kid Connor Drake took under his wing was me.

The Drakes’ cleaning lady washed my uniform and gave me one of Connor’s old shirts. After school, we went back and played his Xbox that was hooked up to his state-of-the-art sound system while sitting in dual black leather beanbag chairs.

Connor asked me to stay for dinner, and I met his parents, Victoria and Alan Drake.

Mr. Drake owned a hundred different companies under the Drake name, and Mrs. Drake was a state senator. Boston royalty, or as close to it, as you could get.

The Drakes fed me the kind of elaborate dinner I’d only seen in movies about rich people. In their immense dining room, under a heavy crystal chandelier, I felt some of the pressure they put on Connor: to work hard and get better grades, to go to college, instead of opening a sports bar like he wanted. They wanted a friendship between their son and me—the scrappy street kid who’d show Connor how far hard work and smarts could get you. They wouldn’t shut up about my essay; how impressed they were, how I’d turned a bad situation into something positive.

I thought Connor would hate me after his parents talked me up so much, but for some crazy-ass reason, he liked me. Our friendship was instant, as if we’d known each other in a past life and were just picking up where we left off. And despite his parents’ pressure, he was happy. I’d never met anyone who was happy. The tight coil of tension that twisted my gut since my dad left, eased a little when I was around him. I wasn’t jumping for joy every minute, but sometimes I stopped worrying, and that was enough.

Connor saved me from a Sinclair-lifetime of dodging fights and being called Sock Boy. His buddies left me alone, and by the time we started at the Academy, they were my friends too, if only by the sheer power of his effortless charm.

The Drakes treated me like a son and even extended their generosity to my mother and sisters over the years. My family’s loud talk and Southie accents never sounded more pronounced than they did bouncing off the Drakes’ dining room walls, but the Drakes treated them with kindness and respect. To my mortified humiliation, they paid the bills Ma shamelessly admitted she couldn’t pay. They gave generous gifts at birthdays and holidays, never asking for a thing in return.

Still, I felt an unspoken pressure to take care of Connor, to make sure he ‘made something’ of his life aside from running a sports bar. I never tried to talk him out of his sports bar dream, but I kept him afloat at Sinclair by helping him with the essays and papers in Wrightman’s class.

By the end of the first year, I was writing them for him. Connor wasn’t dumb, but he didn’t like to think too hard or dig too deep. Contentment was his default mode. He lived to laugh and have fun and when I wrote his papers, I tried to channel his happiness over the rough, fraying wires of my own anger and pain.

I always remembered to misspell a word or two.

Throughout high school, I broke every Sinclair record for track and field. Running got me a two-year NCAA scholarship to Amherst University in western Massachusetts.

A liberal arts college wasn’t what the Drakes had in mind for Connor, but he hadn’t shown an interest in any college until I got into Amherst. Connor—who could have gone anywhere in the country thanks to his parents’ checkbook—wanted to stick with me, and that touched me more than I could ever say.

I promised his parents to help him out and make sure he did his work, knowing I’d be writing his college papers too.

The Drakes paid the rent on a sweet, off-campus apartment for us, which allowed me to stretch my scholarship over three years instead of two. They would’ve paid my entire tuition if I let them, but the free rent was hard enough on my stubborn pride. I was determined to make it on my own—to show my asshole dad I didn’t need his help. But every kindness the Drakes bestowed was a weight on my shoulders. A growing debt.

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