Oh, sweetheart,
put the bottle down
You've got too much talent
I see you through those bloodshot eyes
There's a cure, you've found it
Slow motion, sparks
You've caught that chill
Now don't deny it
But boys will be boys
Oh, yes, they will
They don't wanna define it
Just give up the game and get into me
If you're looking for thrills then get cold feet

Kelly Clarkson, "I Do Not Hook Up"


How To Deal

Prologue

Seven Weeks earlier…

Conner turned down his street, feeling the familiar sense of dread as he approached his house. Dinner with his paranoid mother wasn't something he was looking forward to, but hopefully if Sandy was around, then his mother would know better than to start tossing out more crazy accusations. He pulled his Mustang into the driveway, and then glanced in his rear view mirror, doing a double take when he noticed his friends' cars parked farther down the road. There was Andy's vintage Caddy, Tia's Lexus, Maria's Green Taurus and Elizabeth's Jeep.

Conner let the engine idle for a second, contemplating what he should do next. His first instinct was to take off and he supposed he could always turn around and go see Taylor but maybe he should just go this over with and go inside to face the music. Whatever they were doing there, he needed them to get the message to leave him alone for good and there was no better time to do it than now. He reached into the backseat and pulled out an almost empty bottle of vodka out of his backpack, taking a couple of swigs that was just enough to relieve the strain of what he knew was about to come his way. They could think he was drunk if they wanted. It was even better.

He would just walk right in there, tell them off and then head on up to his bedroom and lock the door behind him. Or maybe he could go and spend some quality time with his girlfriend where he knew he wouldn't be judged. At least he had one person who still believed in him. One person he could count on in times of need, if his friends doubted their belief in him. He was just grateful that she too wasn't sucked into what his friends believed he was or wasn't. He didn't need Taylor believing every word his so called friends told her, especially when it wasn't true. None of it was even remotely close to being true. It might have been the half truth but it wasn't the whole truth.

He was glad to know she hadn't turned on him. At least, he had his girlfriend on his side, if she was the only one. So he liked to drink alcohol. He liked the smooth transition of it going doing his throat. But that didn't make him an alcoholic. It didn't mean he had a problem. His mother was the recovering alcoholic. Not him. She was the one who used her privileges as a member at the country club to indulge on enough alcoholic beverages to become tipsy and make a fool of herself in front of the people she knew, only to have a phone call in the middle of the night saying to come and take her home because she's not fit to drive home on her own.

He turned off the car and made sure to slam the car door extra loudly when he got out so everybody inside his house would know he was home. Then he sauntered up to his front door, almost looking forward to the chance to getting the annoying do-gooders inside his house off his back.

It's Showtime, he thought as he pulled open the door and walked through the short hall into the living room, finding a heavy built up of silence surrounding the room. When he stepped into the room, they were all there—his mom, Tia, Andy, Evan, Maria and…Megan and Taylor.

Fury coursed through him at the sight of his little sister and girlfriend sitting side by side each other on the couch, staring at him with wide, scared eyes.

How dare they bring them into this? He thought he'd at least be defended by the two people he cared for the most. But here was his sister and girlfriend, and they were pitted against him. Unbelievable!

The silence was interrupted by the sound of his name, coming out in the softest, quietest tones he had ever heard. But he could still recognise the voice and his eyes went straight to Taylor, who looked away, unable to see his reaction, before he turned to Tia.

She met his gaze, her green eyes filling rapidly with tears. "Conner," she repeated, louder this time.

His breath caught, and emotions he hadn't thought were possible soon flooded his body and he was unable to move. Instead, he just stood there on the spot in shock, not knowing what to say to these people. He tore his eyes away from hers and stared down the rest of his friends, trying to make his absolute loathing clear. If they wanted to stage a stupid little intervention for him then fine. So be it. But Megan was here. Taylor was here. And that was too much—way too much.

He balled his hands into fists, feeling his face grow hot under the collar, and then he spun around on his heel and started to head for the door. He didn't know where he was going to go but he knew that he had to get out of here. He couldn't take it any longer.

"Conner—wait," Tia blurted out. He turned not, quite looking at her. He'd let her say whatever she wanted to say and then he was getting the hell away from everybody, including Megan and Taylor.

"Conner," she said, "we're here because we love you."

What a bunch of crap? They loved him. If they all loved him so much, then you'd think they would leave him alone and let him be, let him live his own life the way he wanted to live it. But no, they had to interfere until they voiced their opinions about the way he should be living his life. They needed to have a say and it was enough to drive him completely insane. They couldn't just ignore what was happening.

They were all watching him as he stared around the room at his family and friends sitting in his living room, wondering who was going to speak next.

He wanted to walk straight out the door, leaving them all behind, but this time he had no place else to go. He couldn't go to his girlfriend's place seeking comfort. She was here and he couldn't go to Andy's or Evan's. They were both here. He really didn't have anywhere to go. Besides, he kind of wanted to stay and see who would be next to have the courage and tell him he had a drinking problem.

Conner stared back at Tia, barely able to believe the words that she had spoken. Well, actually she could believe them. She was Tia. She was known to be outspoken. But all he wanted to do was tell them to shove their little intervention like it was really helping—confronting him about the drinking problem he supposedly had.

"It's about your drinking problem," Tia backed up and his entire body went rigid as he moved his gaze to his supposed best friend. She kept her wide brown eyes focused on his face without flinching, but he knew well enough to recognise the slight tremble in her lips and voice that always came out when she was trying to hide her emotions.

He heard Megan let out a small, choked noise and the anger that he had been building inside him since he walked in the door reached boiling point.

And whatever had been holding him here released its grip and Conner whirled around, storming toward the front door. He shoved open the door, reaching into his pockets with his other hand for the keys to his Mustang, the keys jangling in his hand. A few more feet and he'd be behind the wheel of his Mustang.

Seconds later he was out the door as heard foot steps behind him. He didn't dare glance around to see who had bothered to chase after him. He didn't care who it was. He just knew that he was out of there. As he opened the car door and got in, closing the door, he looked back into his rear view mirror and saw Tia closing in behind him.

"Conner, wait!" She called out frantically to him, but he didn't stick around long enough to hear her out. Instead, he put the key into the ignition, turning the car on and pulled out of the drive way. He didn't know where he was driving to, and quite frankly, he didn't care. All that mattered was that his house and so called friends; family and girlfriend were out of view and he kept going until he couldn't see them anymore.


Monday morning Conner turned off his car as he sat out the front of Taylor's place, ready to face up to what he had done to her when he skipped town.

He knew he had hurt her because he saw Tia last night and she had said how Taylor wasn't sure what to make of their relationship anymore. It was when Conner knew he had to confront her after many weeks of making her wonder whether the two of them were even in a relationship or not. He couldn't bear to think he had made her wonder in the first place. He wouldn't let himself hurt her anymore than he already had. He wanted to spare her the pain of having her heart break all over again.

As Conner got out of his car, realising he had sat long enough and he needed to get it over and done with, he thought back as to how his conversation with Tia had gone down the night before. She had reacted as he had expected her to react. She had been concerned for him but she also understood that he needed to deal with everything he was putting himself and everyone else through in his own way. But she was just glad to know he was okay and that he was going to get the proper help he needed to overcome this addiction. He supposed he could have done both Tia and Taylor in one night considering they lived next door to each other but he knew that one conversation would be harder than the other and at the time, he wasn't sure what he was to say to Taylor so he thought it'd be best if he waited until this morning.

But even now, he still wasn't sure what he should say to Taylor other than sorry. He knew he owed her one heck of an apology and that it was all he hoped he was expected to do, though he also knew she deserved a better boyfriend than he had been to her. At least he had expected Tia's reaction considering he had known her since grade school but Taylor was a whole other story—one Conner wasn't sure what to expect from her. Should she be angry at him for skipping town without telling her where he was going? Would she be angry? Would she be happy to know he was back and in one piece?

He walked across the Morris' green front lawn, stepping onto the porch as he pressed in the door bell, waiting anxiously with his hands in the pockets of his baggy blue jeans.

Conner heard noises inside followed by the scuffing of feet on the floor before the side window curtain opened slightly as Taylor appeared, her face showing signs of contentment which lifted Conner's spirits, knowing she wasn't holding resentment toward him.

She disappeared then seconds later, he heard the door being unlocked then it opened as Taylor stepped out dressed in pale blue skinny jeans and a grey polar fleece hooded sweater, reading the letters SVH. Conner stepped away as she closed the door behind her and walked toward the swing chair on the porch.

"Hi," she said as she took a seat. She crossed her legs and pulled the sleeves of her sweater over her knuckles, clasping her hands in front of her body as if they could act as some sort of barrier between them.

Conner paced the porch, unable to stand in one spot, afraid of what would happen next if Taylor's father came outside. He figured he wasn't the most popular person to be seen around here because as it was, her father had been cautious of his daughter dating him to begin with.

Taylor looked up at him and instantly picked up on his uneasiness. She opened her mouth to talk, trying to calm down his nerves so that the two of them could have a proper conversation together.

"It's okay. You can sit down. My dad was the one who told me to talk to you." Taylor chuckled at Conner's widened and amazed eyes. "Yeah, I know. I was surprised too."

At her request, Conner sat down beside her, avoiding eye contact. Instead he set his eyes on one spot on the ground. He didn't dare want to see the hurt and confused look in her eyes. He had already seen her face hurting once before at the intervention his family and friends had tried to give him. He didn't need to see the emotion again.

"But your dad is right. We do need to talk," said Conner as he searched for the right words to say and at the same time, he found his voice hoarse with uncertainty. He wasn't sure what to make of their future anymore and if they even had one together. "Before I…I just thought we should talk."

Taylor gripped tighter onto the side rail of the chair, her knuckles turning the colour white. By being in his presence, she was a bundle of nerves, and she didn't know why. She had never been this nervous around him before; then again, a lot had happened since she and Conner started dating. She had never expected she'd be dating a guy who would later develop an addiction to alcohol. But she was and so she had to work out where she stood with him. For the sake of their relationship and her heart, she needed to know if she was even in a relationship with him, one both of them was committed to.

Conner used his hands to grip tighter onto the edge of the seat.

"So I'm going to rehab. My mom got me into the program she went to."

"That's great, Conner. I'm really happy for you."

Conner still wasn't sure what he should say, but at least she had been happy to know he was going to a rehab program. Sure, Taylor had appeared happy when she saw him but unlike Tia who had hugged him as soon as she saw him, Taylor continued to keep her distance from him. She was probably still cautious of whom he had become and Conner didn't blame her. He'd do the same thing.

Taylor watched Conner look down at the ground. Had she said the wrong thing? Did he want her to say something more? She really didn't know what she should say in response to him and truth be told, she just didn't know what she was supposed to say to Conner anymore. Too much had already happened between them and recent events had definitely made an impact toward their shattered relationship. As much as she would have liked to forget all that had happened and go back to the way they were, she knew they couldn't. None of it could be erased like it didn't happen. And both Taylor and Conner knew that, but life went on and you just had to learn to go on, knowing what you know.

"When are you going?" Taylor croaked out, just barely getting the words out.

"My mom managed to get me in today," he went on to say. "I would have come to tell you last night when I saw Tia…but I…couldn't really deal with confronting two people I hurt."

Taylor felt every bone inside of her loosen up slightly. She could see that he did want to change, that he knew he needed help and by helping himself, he was confessing to the people who he had hurt the most.

"I'm sorry," he mumbled. "I know was a jerk for the way I went off without telling anyone where I was going. I treated you badly and for that, I truly am sorry."

At least he had the decency to tell her how sorry he was. She guessed it was a start. He was trying to make amends for all the wrong he had done lately.

She forced herself to meet his gaze, finally feeling a twinge of real emotion as she stared into his hazel eyes. It was like a conversation between two people who barely knew each other, not a couple who just weeks ago had been so close. Scenes began to roll through her mind as she sat there, her body tight with nerves. Conner kissing Tia. Conner drunk. Conner wild and out of control. Conner yelling at her and trying to throw her out of his house. He hadn't been the same guy she fell for. She hoped that guy was still there, he was just buried deep down inside and maybe the guy she fell in love with would end up coming back to the surface really soon.

She wanted to desperately reach out and help him but a part of her was reminding her of all the pain he had caused her when all she had wanted to do was help him. He hadn't wanted her help then so why would he want her help now?

Conner cleared his throat. "So I was thinking that it wouldn't be fair to make you wait for me while I'm away.

Was he breaking up with her? Oh, crap! He was. Even after everything he had put her through in recent weeks; she wasn't expecting him to break up with her. Okay, so she guessed he thought it was best for them right now and she was thankful to know that he was thinking of her but to call it quits. Did she really want to go there? She wasn't so sure.

She didn't need him to say any thing else. She knew what he was trying to get at. He had only come to see her because he wanted to break up with her. She had never been dumped before, so she didn't know what it was supposed to feel like. She had always been the one who did the dumping. She was the dumper not the dumpee. What was she supposed to feel?

Was she supposed to be angry? Check. Confused? Check. Sad? Check. If there was a word for all three then she'd be it.

Conner ran a hand through his hair. "What I'm trying to say is that maybe it'd be best if we took a break, at least until after I've returned from rehab."

What was she supposed to say back to him? Okay, yeah, that's a great idea. Let's break up. It wasn't how she imagined a break up should be. Break ups were never an easy thing to do, no matter how much people claim you'd be in the long run. It wasn't what you anticipated it to be in your head.

"Uh…okay," Taylor stammered, fumbling with her hands.

His gaze flicked over her face but neither Conner nor Taylor said anything else. As of this moment, Taylor wasn't sure if she wanted him here anymore. She wanted him gone but not out of her life if that made any sense at all.

Conner stood up, rubbing his hands along the front of his jeans. He looked down at Taylor, his eyes intent as he watched her closely, obviously looking for some form of reaction from her. But all he got was a glum smile. Was she glad he had decided to enter the cool down phase of their relationship? Why couldn't he read how she really felt? He had used to be able to look into her eyes and instantly know what she was thinking.

There was something in his voice that made her look up at him and for a second, she remembered everything she used to feel when she was near him. How his shirt smelled when he held her against him. The way her body reacted every time he kissed or touched her, but they were old memories and obviously not enough to make everything that had happened to just go away on its own. It was too late.

Still, she ached for one last hug from him. And as she rose to a standing position, she stepped forward into him as he embraced her affectionately, looping her arms around his neck and burying her face into his chest.

"I miss you," she let the words she had been dreading to say come out in a soft, low way.

Conner squeezed her back, letting her know that it was okay, that everything would work itself out. "I miss you too." He kissed the top of her head, taking in the familiar smell of her strawberry shampoo.

Conner could have stood on the porch with Taylor forever but he couldn't because the longer he stood there, the harder it was going to be to tear himself away from her. He didn't want to leave her but he knew that in order to help himself through this recovery, he needed to part ways with everything that meant a lot to him. He hated to see her on the verge of tears and just wanted to hold her tight and tell her that everything would be okay but he couldn't because he didn't know if everything would be okay.

Using all the strength that he could muster together, Conner pushed himself away from Taylor, placing his hands on either side of Taylor. "You should get going to school before I make you late," he said. He searched her eyes with his own. "I'll try to call you soon."

"You promise?"

There was a word he liked to avoid whenever possible but for Taylor, he was determined to keep his promise. He wasn't going to shatter her heart again.

"I promise."

And as Taylor watched Conner walk back to his car and drive away, she sank back down onto the swing chair, unable to collect the courage to drag herself off to school. She had just had her heart broken and there were no words to describe what she had just gone through than utter lack of sensation.