Chapter One

MICHAEL HIT the snooze button for the third time, then rolled over onto his right side, sighing. He should get up, he really should, but after last night’s trip through the local gay bars, his mind was still a bit fuzzy around the edges. A smile curved his lips as he realized his hips seemed to be a bit sore. The dark-haired guy—what was his name again?—had clutched at his hips with desperation while he’d given him a damn fine blowjob.

The alarm went off again. Michael groaned and slapped the button. A crash resounded when the fucking bane of his existence fell to the floor. He heaved himself up on his elbow before he groped for the offending thing. After setting it back on his nightstand, he glared at the red numbers: 8:02 a.m.

Wait. What?

Michael hurled the comforter aside before he jumped out of bed. Oh fuck. He was already an hour late. Michael hurried into the first clothes he found in his closet, then, dressed, spent five minutes searching for his car keys, cursing up a storm.

When he finally found them on the counter in his kitchenette—or what was supposed to be a kitchenette, but wasn’t more than a stove and a fridge—he kissed them. “Thank God, there you are. Now let’s see if I still have a job.”

His mouth went dry and his stomach churned, reminding him he’d had a couple drinks too many last night. He couldn’t afford to lose this job. Not again. The rent was due in two days, and as small as his apartment was, he liked it. Also, his ego couldn’t stand to lose the fourth job in five months simply because he’d screwed up—again.

He managed to reach his work location, installing solar panels at Richmond Avenue School on Ventnor Avenue, without breaking any speed limits. After retrieving his toolbox and helmet, he locked the car, then wiped his clammy hands on his jeans.

The foreman, a huge guy named Hicks, stepped away from a group of construction workers as he beckoned Michael over. Michael grimaced, but did as he was bid.

“Campbell, how awfully nice of you to show up only an hour and a half too late,” Hicks said. A thick vein pulsed at his right temple.

Michael swallowed, and his shoulders sagged in defeat. This was it. The one job he’d held for over three weeks—a record in the last two years—and one he really liked would be gone now.

“I’m sorry, sir.”

“Yes, you’re always sorry, aren’t you?” Hicks shook his head. “What was it this time? Alarm clock not ring loud enough? Too much alcohol last night?”

Michael’s cheeks heated, no matter how hard he tried to suppress it. He wasn’t one to blush lightly, but Hicks had the uncomfortable talent of causing Michael to blush and stammer like a kid in front of his headmaster after getting caught at something inexplicably stupid.

“Both.”

Hick’s eyebrows shut up, and he cracked a laugh. “I should fire you on the spot. That’s the fourth time in three weeks you’ve shown up late, but… all right, one more chance. You’ll stay longer to make up for the hours, of course.”

“Thank you, sir.” Michael expelled a deep breath. “Thank you.”

“You better get a grip on your life, Campbell,” Hicks said brusquely. He pointed to the left side of the elementary school. “Henderson’s laying panels on the rack, and he’s pissed off. Those things are heavy. Today was not a good day to be late.”

Michael cringed. A pissed-off Henderson translated into total radio silence. Michael hated working without talking, a fact Henderson knew only too well. He straightened his shoulders, gave Hicks a curt nod, and strode over to Henderson.

“Hey, Phil, how’s it going?”

“Michael.”

Oh boy. One-word sentences. This would be a long day.

IT WAS indeed a very long day. Michael climbed up and down the ladder while the late August sun burned down on him. He’d have sported a wonderful sunburn if it hadn’t been for Henderson throwing a tube of sun lotion at him at lunchtime.

“I suppose you didn’t have time to bring lunch with you?” Henderson growled.

Michael shrugged as he applied more lotion on his neck and face. He handed Henderson the tube back with a quiet “Thank you, and no, I didn’t. I’ll get something later.”

Henderson rolled his eyes. “Come on, I’ll share. This is gonna be my good deed of the day.”

“You don’t have to—” Michael stopped talking when Henderson turned around slowly, large hands on his hips. Michael held up his hands in surrender. “Okay, okay, thank you.”

“You better be thankful. Betty put in two large pieces of apple pie.” Henderson waved a container, grinning.

Michael’s mouth watered. “And you’re really going to share your wife’s pie with me?”

“Only because I’m such a Good Samaritan.”

Michael laughed as he followed Henderson to a bench situated underneath a large tree. The shade felt wonderful on his overheated skin. Henderson opened several containers and handed Michael a bottle of water, which he drained in a couple of long gulps. They ate in companionable silence, then cleaned up and stretched out their legs. Birds chirped above them in the tree. Through the canopy of leaves, Michael caught glimpses of the blue sky dotted with the occasional fluffy cloud.

He closed his eyes to enjoy the soft breeze lifting strands of his hair, wishing he’d brought sunglasses with him. In the distance, he heard other workers talking, but he tuned them out. He concentrated on the wind and birds, or at least he tried. Frowning, he opened his eyes, gazing around for the odd sound that had disturbed him.

The noise sounded like shoes scuffing on the pathway, sometimes interrupted by a loud thump, as if someone trampled along to make sure everyone heard him. Michael’s gaze locked on a guy walking strangely, clothed in a long-sleeved navy blue shirt, his face shielded from the sun by a cap.

Michael’s eyes widened when the guy weaved from one side to the other. At one point, he even leaned his hands against a tree trunk to regain his balance before he staggered on.

“Wow, now that’s what I call drunk,” Michael said.

Henderson snapped his eyes open and followed Michael’s nod.

The guy’s left foot seemed to point in the wrong direction, and he tripped, landing in an awkward heap on the ground. Michael snorted. “Shouldn’t drink so much if he can’t take it.”

Henderson sent him a murderous glare, muttering something unintelligible while leaping from the bench and running over to the fallen guy. A backpack obviously hindered the man from getting up on his own. Henderson reached the guy and crouched next to him. After exchanging a few words, Henderson lifted the guy to his feet and steadied him. When the guy pointed at the cap lying on the ground, Henderson retrieved it for him with a smile.

Michael shook his head. Henderson really was in Good Samaritan mode. Henderson grasped the drunken guy’s arm and walked with him a few feet. He turned to face Michael, the smile slipping from his face and making way for a furious glare. He called out, “Take my stuff with you. I’ll be back in a minute.”

The guy standing next to Henderson gazed at Michael, a shock of light brown hair peeking out from under his cap. He didn’t look so much drunk as he seemed embarrassed. Henderson stepped into Michael’s line of sight, effectively cutting off his view.

Michael shrugged, picked up the containers and bottles, and carried everything back to their workspace. After stowing everything in Henderson’s large bag, he readied his tools and put on his hard hat. He leaned against the ladder, waiting for Henderson.

He grinned at him when he approached. “Done another good deed?”

Henderson bulldozed right into Michael’s personal space, surprising him with the action. “You stupid son of a bitch!”

“Hey! No calling my mother names, okay?” Michael tried to joke. He’d never seen Henderson this angry. Neither did he care to have all this anger directed at him. Sure, he could hold his own if necessary, but he was more a run-away-if-there’s-trouble kind of guy.

“Do you know who that was?”

“A drunk who shouldn’t set foot on school property?” Michael hazarded.

Henderson’s eyes narrowed to small slits when he replied, “His name is Joshua Stone, and he isn’t drunk. He’s a teaching assistant who works here.”

“He looked drunk to me.”

Henderson closed his eyes, obviously trying to rein in his temper, before he put a bit more distance between them. “Mr. Stone is disabled, hence the way he walks. It’s not always that obvious, but he was carrying books, a lot of books, which threw off his balance. He’s a very good teaching assistant. He doesn’t deserve to be laughed at by someone like you, who can’t even take care of himself.”

That stung.