TODAY CANNOT get any worse.
As an afterthought, Jamie Stevens cast a mental eye heavenward. You wouldn’t do that to me, right?
Whatever plans God had in mind for Jamie, he wasn’t sharing.
“Jamie, you listening to me?”
He resisted the urge to resort to sarcasm. It always went over Dad’s head anyway. “Yeah, still here, still listening.” Not that he was going to hear anything new.
“I just said, sorry, kid, you’re gonna have to suck it up and get a job.”
“A job?” Jamie was close to yelling into his phone, and only the fact that he was in the library put a brake on his mouth. Do they ever listen to a word I tell them? Jamie clenched his fist, closed his eyes, and counted to five. Slowly. “Dad, I already work three jobs.”
Scrap that. I worked three. Jamie was still angry about the phone call he’d gotten that morning, informing him that his services would no longer be required. Looks like I need to find another one.
Dad snorted. “Then you should be rolling in dough. Why d’you need to ask for money if you have three jobs?”
Jamie told himself for the millionth time that it wasn’t Dad’s fault. Neither of his parents had been to college, and they seemed to have no clue how much it cost to get a decent education in modern-day America. But he knew that wasn’t it. Dad’s mind was on other things.
Divorcing Mom was pretty high up on the list.
As if to prove a point, his dad’s voice softened. “Look, Jamie, you know what’s going on. The lawyers are robbing me blind. If I’d known it was gonna cost this much to become a free man again, I might have reconsidered and stuck it out.”
Yeah, like that was going to happen. Jamie had lived through four years of his parents’ hell: arguing, name-calling, slamming doors, and bitter recriminations, with each of them laying the blame for the breakup solidly on the other’s doorstep. He was amazed it had taken that long for Dad to move out.
Jamie sighed heavily into the phone. “Yeah, I know.” This was going nowhere. “I’m sorry I disturbed you at work. I’ll let you get back to it.”
“Hey, wait a minute.”
Jamie paused, about to disconnect the call. “What?”
“If you were in trouble, you’d tell me, wouldn’t you?”
He caught the genuine note of concern in Dad’s voice, and just for a second, Jamie weakened. Tell him. Tell him you’re about to be kicked out of your dingy little studio apartment because you’re three months behind in the rent. Tell him you can’t afford to pay for next semester’s tuition. Tell him you’re in a mess.
Before he could respond, his dad gave a quiet laugh. “Yeah, of course you would. You’re a smart kid. Smarter than your old man, that’s for sure. You’re in college, for Christ’s sake.” Dad’s voice changed, and the note of pride that rang out was enough to make Jamie clam up. “I don’t tell you often enough how damn proud I am of you. Me and your mom. Our Jamie, a lawyer.”
“I’m not a lawyer yet, Dad,” Jamie reminded him. And right now it’s looking like I never will be. “Speaking of which, I’d better get back to my studies.” He had to get off the phone before he broke.
“Yeah, sure. I’ll talk to you this weekend. You gonna come by the house?”
“Sure,” Jamie replied despondently. He knew when the weekend came, he’d make some excuse. The last thing he wanted to do was sit on his dad’s couch and listen to his latest tirade about how the fucking divorce lawyer was shafting him, how Mom was making things difficult for him, et cetera, et cetera.
He said his good-byes and disconnected the call. He was about to pocket the phone when it warbled the arrival of a text. Jamie stared at the message in disbelief.
Time’s up. I’ve got a new tenant. You have until Sunday night to move out. Leave your keys on the coffee table. And you still owe me three months’ rent. I’ll be in touch to work out how you’re gonna pay that.
Jamie’s gut clenched and cold sweat popped out on his brow. This isn’t happening. He wanted to forget he was twenty years old, put his head in his hands, and bawl his eyes out. Right then he felt like some little kid learning to swim who’d been flung into the deep end and couldn’t keep his head above water.
Jamie was about to go under.
He leaned forward and put his head on his arms, his breath fogging the varnished surface of the table.
No wonder God had kept quiet. This latest bombshell was enough to break him.
Jamie closed his eyes and fought hard to hold back the tears, reminding himself that adults didn’t cry, and certainly not in the middle of the public library.
Except in that moment, he wasn’t an adult. He was a frightened little boy who needed a hug, a shoulder to cry on, a lifeline to cling to.
When a quiet cough pierced the silence, Jamie wanted to growl. No one had better fucking tell me I’m behaving inappropriately. He raised his chin, his mood defiant, ready to tear someone a new asshole.
Facing him in a chair across the table was an older guy, maybe in his late thirties. Brown hair, warm brown eyes, beard. A barrel chest, black shirt open at the neck, black leather jacket, unfastened. The guy was watching him, his expression neutral.
Jamie wasn’t about to sit there and be the focus of some stranger’s attention. He hoisted himself upright and grabbed his phone and backpack.
“Excuse me.” The stranger’s voice was deep, rich.
Jamie said nothing, but returned his stare.
Leather Jacket Guy studied him. “You look like you’re having a really bad day.”
It was on the tip of Jamie’s tongue: Ya think? Geez, mister, you have no fucking clue. Not that he’d have dared. His mom had brought him up better than that. “Something like that,” he muttered.
“Look, I know it’s none of my business, and you’d be quite within your rights to tell me to take a flying leap, but… I’m just about to go and grab a coffee. Maybe you’d like one? Or tea, juice, water, whatever.” The guy smiled. “It might help to talk about it to a complete stranger. Get it off your chest.”
Jamie stared at him. What the fuck?
There was that smile again. “I’m not even sure why I’m offering. Believe me, this is not something I do, go around inviting guys out for coffee. It just seems to me like you need to talk. I’m offering to listen. That’s all.”
Jamie was vacillating. A coffee sounded good right then, something with flavor and a rich aroma. But going with some strange guy who asked him out of the blue? He tried to figure out what his gut was telling him, but that was no use: his insides were still in turmoil after that last text.
Out of habit, Jamie went to his default. He went to the eyes.
He’d always told his classmates that the way to know if someone was a secret homicidal ax-wielding maniac was to look in their eyes. Windows to the soul, and all that. The way Jamie figured it, one couldn’t hide maniacal tendencies. Something like that was bound to reveal itself in the eyes. Of course, he knew it was all bullshit. Having never met a secret homicidal ax-wielding maniac—that he knew of, at any rate—he had no idea if his theory was valid.
So what if it was pure bullshit? It was Jamie’s bullshit.
Leather Jacket Guy’s eyes were warm. More than that, they appeared sincere. And there was something else, a flicker of recognition, as if the man knew what Jamie was going through.
It was enough.
Jamie nodded slowly. “Okay. Coffee sounds good right now.”
The guy beamed. “Excellent.” He got up from his chair and walked around to where Jamie stood, his hand extended. “The name’s Guy.”
Jamie shook it. “Jamie.”
Guy gestured toward the door. “Shall we go?”
Jamie nodded and followed Guy from the room, his thoughts a mess.
What the hell am I doing?
He didn’t have a clue, but in his present emotional state, it had to be better than sitting in the library feeling sorry for himself.
JAMIE STARED at the board, not really seeing the list of beverages. He was still thinking about that text. Now what? He was mentally going over a list of friends who might be able to give him their couch for a few days while he tried to sort out somewhere more permanent. He hated having to do it, but right then he had little choice.
“What would you like?” Guy asked, next to him.
“Huh?” Jamie yanked himself back into the present. “I’m sorry, I was miles away.” He peered at the board. “Could I have a mocha tesora, please?”
“Sure.” Guy smiled. “I’m thinking a large one.”
Jamie attempted a smile, but it wasn’t happening. When his belly grumbled loudly, he wanted the floor to open up and swallow him. To his relief, Guy made no comment. Instead he gestured to an empty table near the rear of the coffee shop.
“Why don’t you grab that table for us, and I’ll bring the drinks?”
“Sure.” Jamie walked over to the table, fighting the urge to shake his head. The whole situation had that surreal quality. A perfect stranger invites me for coffee and I say yes, just like that? Jamie put his reaction down to the stress of the afternoon. He’d gone to the library after his last class to do some work toward his LSAT and to look into ways of funding law school. The irony hadn’t missed him: lawyers were ruining his life.
He knew part of the reason for accepting Guy’s suggestion was Guy himself. Apart from the whole eyes thing, he seemed pretty normal.
Jamie resisted the urge to snort. What’s normal, anyway?
Guy joined him, bearing a tray containing two large cups, one topped with whipped cream and a dusting of chocolate powder. The other cup smelled of gingerbread and was poured over ice. Not only that: there were two plates with the most delicious-looking chocolate brownies Jamie had ever seen. He raised his head to stare at Guy, who merely shrugged.
“I was in need of a pick-me-up, which can only mean chocolate in my book, and there was no way I was going to sit here munching away while you weren’t.” Guy narrowed his eyes. “You wouldn’t want to make me look bad, right?”
Like Jamie was going to fall for that one. It did serve to prove his instincts correct, however.
Guy was a nice… guy.
“Thank you,” Jamie said sincerely. He looked closer at the brownie. “Are those bits of pecan in there?” He licked his lips.
Guy arched his eyebrows. “But of course. Only the best brownies have pecan bits in them.” He bit back a smile. “Dig in.”
Jamie did just that.
The mocha had exactly the right amount of chocolate for Jamie’s tastes, and he did his best to avoid the embarrassing cream mustache. The drink warmed his insides, and the brownie definitely filled a hole.
When the plate held nothing but crumbs, Jamie sagged against the back of the chair. “That was awesome.” He still had half the mocha to look forward to.
Guy was a slower eater. After taking a bite of his brownie, he regarded Jamie with a speculative glance. “Okay, suppose you tell me what’s gone wrong today?”
Jamie snorted. “If only it was just today.”
Guy forked off another piece of brownie. “From what I could make out—and I really didn’t intend to eavesdrop, I assure you. It was just that you sounded so low, and you looked even lower, that I couldn’t help myself. But I digress. You have three jobs?”
Jamie nodded, his hands wrapped around the warm cup, inhaling the rich aroma. Then he remembered. Shit. “Actually, I lost one this morning. Surplus to requirements, and all that. Guess I need to go find another to replace that one.”
“So either you love working,” Guy said with a smirk, “or your circumstances demand it. I think I’m going to go with the latter.”
“Care to start at the beginning? I’m a good listener.”
Jamie studied Guy for a moment, unsure of where to begin.
Guy obviously took his silence for nervousness. “I know you don’t know me from Adam, so here is Guy Bass in a nutshell. I’m thirty-eight, single, but I was married once. I’ve lived in San Francisco all my life. I have two kids who are probably your age, and that means I’ve done enough parenting to have tried helping them through the various trials and tribulations of growing up. You looked like you could use a friend, so I’m offering you a shoulder to cry on, someone to vent to, whatever.” He shrugged off his jacket and placed it over the back of his chair. Guy leaned forward, his elbows on the table. “Chances are you’ll never see me again, but maybe talking to a stranger will help. You never know. I might see solutions where right now all you see are problems.”
Jamie smiled. “You had me at ‘a good listener.’” He picked up his cup and took a long drink. When he finished, he expelled a couple of breaths. “I didn’t think getting an education would be this difficult.”
“Are we talking academically or financially?”
“Financially. My parents didn’t set up a college fund—they were always telling me they’d make sure I had everything I needed, and they’d saved up on their own for this. I qualified for a partial scholarship, and they were going to pay the rest. If I wanted money for anything other than tuition, books, clothing, or food, the deal was I’d get a job. I had no problem with that.” He scowled. “And, of course, everyone was so keen to give me a loan.”
To his surprise Guy scowled too. “It’s not the way to go about things, having someone graduate with a ton of debt hanging over their heads.” When Jamie stared at him, Guy shrugged. “Just saying. Time was when working your way through college was what everyone did, unless mommy and daddy could afford to pay for everything. A lot of people of my parents’ generation have no idea how much things have changed, and for the worse.”
Jamie hadn’t expected that. “Exactly. My parents have no idea.”
Guy gave him a nod of commiseration. “So. Your parents put money aside for your tuition. What went wrong with the plan?”
Jamie stared into his half-empty cup. “They did. A year ago they finally had enough of screaming at each other and decided to get a divorce. All of a sudden, the money they’d put aside for my education got diverted. Now they need it to pay the divorce lawyers.”
“Aw, crap.” Guy’s face fell. “That sucks. Not just that you’re in a bind financially, but that their marriage couldn’t be saved.” He shook his head. “Although sometimes it really is the best way.”
“Are you divorced?” Jamie asked. Guy’s demeanor spoke of personal experience.
Guy nodded. “But that was a long time ago, when I was twenty.” When Jamie widened his eyes, Guy sighed. “Yeah, I wasn’t married for long.” He gave himself a shake. “Anyway, back to you. That’s why you have two jobs, to be able to continue your education?”
“Yup.” Jamie stared morosely at the brownie crumbs. “Just over a year left, and then it was supposed to be on to law school. I’m looking at scholarships and funding now.”
“Wise move. Law, eh? Do you know where you want to study?”
“Here, in San Francisco.”
Guy smiled. “Good choice. Our DA studied here, you know.”
Jamie nodded. He knew all about District Attorney Cole Daniels. He had always been one of Jamie’s idols, not that he’d ever admit it to a living soul.
“Is that everything?” Guy asked.
Jamie shook his head. “I thought that between the scholarship and the loans, I’d be able to manage, but man, it’s been tough. And then….” He forced himself to take a breath.
“Hey.” Guy’s voice was soft. “Drink what’s left of your mocha before it goes cold. It’s not like you have to be anywhere right now, is it?”
Jamie shook his head.
“Okay, then. We have plenty of time to talk. Take your time.” His brown eyes were kind.
Jamie picked up his cup, drained it, then licked his lips to remove the last trace of mocha. Guy watched him, his hands resting on his jeans-clad thighs, his legs crossed.
When he was calm again, Jamie met Guy’s gaze. “These last couple of months, it feels like life has been throwing obstacles into my path, and every one of them required money.”
“I was having problems with my wisdom teeth, so the dentist decided to remove them all.”
Guy winced. “Ouch. Don’t want to think what that cost.”
Jamie nodded gloomily. “My parents’ insurance paid for half of it, but there was no way they could pay the rest, so there went $800 from my college savings. Not to mention all the time off I had to take, both from my classes and my jobs.” Which was probably the reason they called to let him go. Shit.
“You have to maintain a good GPA for your scholarship, right?”
Jamie nodded again. “I couldn’t afford to fall behind. I spent a lot less time sleeping and worked my ass off to keep up with my classes. Of course, with no money coming in from the jobs, things were getting kinda tight. I thought one way of cutting down on expenses was to move out of the dorm and find myself somewhere cheaper to live, downtown.”
“That makes sense.”
“But then they changed my hours at the diner, and at the coffee shop too. Less money coming in, and more and more things eating up my finances. Like my laptop. It up and died on me, so I had to pay for a new one. And I had to find $355 to register for the LSAT.”
“LSAT? That’s the test you have to sit before you can go to law school, right?”
Jamie stared at him in surprise. “Yeah, it is.” He hadn’t expected that.
Obviously he was shit at hiding his reactions, because Guy smiled. “Let’s just say I know a few lawyers. When are you taking it?”
“In June. That’s the earliest I can take it, and the deadline to pay was April.” Jamie sighed heavily. “I had to struggle to pay this semester’s tuition. It took everything I’d saved. I figured it wouldn’t be so bad if I got a little behind on my rent.”
Guy winced again. “Why am I thinking it did get bad?”
“Because that text I got in the library was my landlord telling me I’m about to be evicted. I have until Sunday to find a place to stay.” Jamie pushed out a bitter laugh. “So to quote you, in a nutshell, I can’t afford to pay the rent so I’m gonna be homeless, plus I owe three months’ back rent, I’ve no more money to pay for tuition for my final year of prelaw, and at the rate they keep cutting my hours, I’m not going to be able to survive for what’s left of this semester.” He put his head in his hands. “I keep asking myself, what was the point of working so damned hard all the way through high school to leave with a GPA of 3.9 if I can’t get to do the one—the only thing—I’ve wanted my entire life?” He closed his eyes in an attempt to force back the tears that threatened to appear. I am not going to sit here and cry like a baby in front of Guy.
The sound of a throat clearing.
Jamie raised his head. Guy was looking at him, and for the second time in less than an hour, Jamie caught that flicker of emotion in his warm brown eyes.
Guy tilted his head to one side. “Suppose….” He broke off, picked up his cup, and drank what was left of his coffee. He dabbed his lips with the paper napkin and met Jamie’s gaze once more. “Suppose I was to say I might be in a position to help you?”