For your advanced reading pleasure, here is a sneak peek at the first three chapters of Come What May, the first book in my new All Saints series, coming May 23!
Jonas is my closeted-snarly-frat-boy, and I just love how Tate is able to soothe his rough edges and help him live an honest life. Plus, this sneak peek has a few cameos from some Belonging friends.
The last time Jonas Ashcroft had taken money from someone and made change had been during a drunk game of Monopoly at the Delta Theta house sophomore year. Everyone was wasted enough that they didn’t care Jonas was probably giving the wrong bills back half the time, and they’d abandoned the game in favor of beer pong and more tequila shots.
Staring down the ancient cash register behind the main counter at All Saints Thrift Store was like facing off against an old enemy. Jonas and math did not get along. Never had.
The teenage girl with spiky hair who’d handed him a ten dollar bill to pay for three t-shirts glared at him over the top of her cell phone, waiting for him to make change. The register told him that three shirts at two-fifty each was seven dollars and fifty cents. It didn’t tell him what to give her back.
He knew this. He wasn’t a total idiot, no matter what his father seemed to think. Two quarters made it eight. Two dollars made ten. Right?
The girl took the change he offered without remark, then fled the store with her bag, the overhead bell announcing her departure.
Jonas slammed the register drawer shut with clammy hands. First transaction down. He could survive a few more, until Aunt Doris got back and took over running the till. She’d showed him how to use it yesterday, and while it seemed pretty simple, he flat-out sucked at math.Thank God his father hadn’t insisted Jonas go for a business degree, because he’d have flunked out the first semester.
Not that it mattered. Junior year was less than a month old and instead of living it up with his frat buddies in New England and getting the Communication Arts degree he desperately needed so he could get a real job and be independent of his father’s wealth, he was stuck working at his aunt and uncle’s thrift store on a rundown side of Wilmington, Delaware. A shitty fate that was exactly what he deserved.
“I can’t have your recklessness interfere with my chances at Congress,” his father had said last week. “You need to learn some responsibility for once in your life.” Angry words lobbed at him from behind his father’s walnut desk, moments before Jonas was stuffed in an car and stranded here for the nine months.
Jonas poked at the cash register. He had another hour Aunt Doris returned. She and Uncle Raymond had driven out to some person’s house to pick up a load of shit for the shop.
Or something. She might have mentioned books.
He had no idea how people made an actual living running a thrift store, much less one that donated some of its money to charity, but they’d been at it all of Jonas’s life. Probably why Jonas’s own parents had little to do with them.
Appearances and all that crap.
The store itself was clean and organized and smelled like some kind of floral incense, the merchandise sectioned off by departments. A pretty typical thrift store.
Like you know what a typical thrift store looks like. Yesterday was your first time in one, asshole.
His mother hadn’t come from money, but his father had, and Jonas had never worked a day in his life until today.
They’d opened twenty minutes ago and so far he’d had one customer. Good thing he had his iPhone.
He pulled his earbuds out of his pocket and was about to turn up some music when a shadow fell over the front door. It opened with the ding of a metal bell, and his second-ever customer stepped inside.
“Good morning—” The guy faltered, eyes going wide behind a pair of round, black-framed glasses. “Um, hi person I don’t know.”
Jonas grunted a greeting, then decided Aunt Doris would give him that sad puppy look if she found out he was being rude to her customers. “Hi.”
About Jonas’s age and a few inches shorter, the maybe-customer let the door fall shut and slid his hands into the pockets of very loose, very worn jeans that hung low on narrow hips. “Doris isn’t in this morning?”
Does it look like she’s here? “No, she’s out picking something up.”
“Oh, okay. Did she happen to mention a basket of sheets for Tate?”
Jonas had no idea what any of that meant. “No.”
“Okay, let’s try this again. Hi, I’m Tate Dawson.” He held out a hand.
“Jonas Ashcroft.” Jonas took the guy’s hand briefly. “I’m Doris’s nephew.”
“Oh hey, cool. I’ve never seen you around before.”
“That’s because I’ve never been here before.”
Tate opened and closed his mouth a few times, probably unsure how to proceed. Yeah, Jonas was kind of being a dick. He wanted the guy to do whatever he needed to do and leave so Jonas could turn on his music and hope this day ended as quickly as possible.
“Yeah, okay,” Tate said. “Listen, I help run the homeless shelter across the street, and Doris was supposed to bring in a basket of sheets for me today.”
Tate’s hands went from his pockets to his hips. A line creased his forehead, and his cheeks pinked up “Could you check the back room, maybe? Or should I look myself?”
“I’ll check. Jesus.”
“Tate, not Jesus, and thank you.”
Jonas resisted rolling his eyes. He took his time strolling to the back of the shop, and then ducked through a beaded curtain doorway. The back room was neatly organized with dated shelves for new stock, empty hangers for clothes, cleaning supplies, and a recycle bin for things they simply couldn’t sell. He found a plastic laundry basket of folded sheets on one of the shelves with a piece of paper taped to it that said “Tate” in Aunt Doris’s careful handwriting.
“Found it,” he announced upon his return to the main room.
“Hope you didn’t hurt yourself.” Tate’s words were soft, but they carried in the quiet store.
Jonas liked the snark. Made needling the guy more fun, and it gave him something more entertaining to do than stare at racks of used women’s clothing. He carried the sheets to the counter and set the basket down. “Do you need some kind of receipt for these?”
“Nah, Doris was just doing me a favor.”
“Why do you work at a homeless shelter?”
I need to get my brain-to-mouth filter checked.
Tate tilted his head, apparently not offended in the least. “Why not work at a homeless shelter? There are a lot of people these days with nowhere to go, especially teenagers.”
Jonas glanced out the front window at the brick building across the street. “You get a lot of teens there?”
“I would hope so.” Tate arched one eyebrow impressively high. “We’re a homeless shelter for LGBT teenagers.” Jonas’s confusion must have been all over his face, because Tate sighed. “Gay teens. Gay, lesbian, trans, whatever end of the spectrum they identify on.”
“I know what LGBT stands for. I didn’t know there were enough of them that they needed their own homeless shelter.”
“Where the hell did you crawl out of, a rock in Siberia? Gay teens make up almost forty percent of the homeless population in this country. Their asshole parents kick them out and a lot of them have nowhere to go except the streets. We may not be a big operation but we help as much as we can.”
Jonas made a time-out gesture. “Okay, sorry, Christ. I just…” I don’t think about those issues because they don’t directly affect my life.
So did working in an LGBT shelter mean Tate was gay?
Tate crossed his arms and settled his weight on one foot, his gaze roving over Jonas like he was studying him for a quiz later. “Let me guess. Rich boy. Privileged life. Great future ahead of you until you….what? Crashed your BMW into a tree while driving drunk? Knocked up a sorority girl and you’re being punished?”
Jonas stared, both impressed by and annoyed with Tate for reading him so easily. “You have no right to my life story.”
“Ha, I got close. You don’t want to be here, do you? Not even a little bit.”
Nope. Well, maybe a little bit. Even though expulsion hadn’t been at the top on his list of ways to remove himself from the role he’d played at college—the horny frat boy who only pledged because his father demanded it, would eventually find a girl, get a great job, settle down, make babies, and maybe make his father proud of him.
Here, no one expected anything from him except that he do his job and respect his curfew. “It’s not so bad here.”
Tate’s brow furrowed. “Where are you from?”
“Lake Bluff, Illinois. It’s near Chicago.”
“Ah. City boy.”
“So? You some grass-fed country boy?”
“Hardly. I grew up in Wilmington. Been in or around it my entire life.”
“All eighteen years of it?”
Tate was older than him. Why the hell did that matter?
Ouch. “Ha ha. Twenty-one.”
“Out of college?”
Time to change the subject, like, now.
Except he answered, instead. “I have two years left. I’m, uh, taking a break.”
“You’re twenty-one and still a junior?”
“Yes.” No way was Jonas admitting he’d been kept back in fourth grade because he sucked so badly at math.
“Uh huh. You’re going to be around the rest of the year?”
“Probably until next summer, yes. Why?”
“Then as it seems we’ll be seeing more of each other, we should grab lunch or something one day. I can show you around the neighborhood. Maybe you’ll realize it’s not the slum you seem to think it is, that there are some great people here.” Tate flashed him a cocky smile that irritated him to no end. “Believe it or not, there’s a fantastic coffee shop two blocks from here.”
“I’m, uh, pretty busy here most days.” He also had no intention of letting Tate find out how close to the mark some of his comments were.
“Come on, man, even thrift store employees get days off.”
He had to give Tate something he would go away. “Maybe. We’ll see.”
“Maybe is not no.” He pulled out a clunky flip phone that was probably on a monthly minutes plan. “Give me your number.”
Jonas had no good reason to do that, but he did. And he put Tate’s number in his own phone, a little embarrassed by his top of the line model and unsure why.
“I’ve gotta get these back to the shelter,” Tate said as he picked up the basket of sheets. “It was nice meeting you, Jonas. I’ll see you around.”
“Yes, um, you too.” That didn’t make a whole lot of sense as a response, but something about Tate made him fumble around even though he usually had no problem talking his way through a social situation. That kind of pissed him off.
He tracked Tate’s easy stroll across the street. He had just enough sway to his hips to make Jonas wonder….
Didn’t matter. He and Tate were not now, nor were they ever going to be friends. If Tate actually called about coffee, he’d find a way to get out of it. Eventually Tate would get the message and back off.
Tate punched the lock code into the shelter’s back door harder than necessary, taking his confusion over the last ten minutes out on the keypad. with trembling fingers. Holy fucking hell, Jonas Ashcroft was gorgeous. Like, model gorgeous with a perfectly contoured face, high cheekbones, thick brown hair, the prettiest hazel eyes he’d ever seen on a human being. And the faint, ‘I forgot to shave today’ scruff?
Yeah, scruff always did it for Tate. Just enough to feel it when they kissed or to tickle between his—nope. Pointless fantasy. Tate was interested, but everything about Jonas—from his perfect posture to his pointed stares—screamed “straight.”
Except for the handful of times he’d caught Jonas holding eye contact longer than most straight guys would with a gay one. Not that Jonas had any reason to guess Tate was gay. Tate wasn’t obvious about it, and it wasn’t like he’d gone in with any serious flirting. And a lot of straight people were staunch allies. Hell, they’d actually exchanged phone numbers, even though Tate had figured the coffee shop thing to be a long shot. Especially after he kind of insulted Jonas while delivering the invitation.
Tate was too busy with the shelter and his sisters to bother dating, but if Jonas could smooth out some of his prickly edges, Tate wouldn’t mind being friends.
A friend you want to lick from top to bottom
“Tate? You back?” Marc’s shout echoed down the corridor from the direction of the kitchen, and he followed the sound.
When he and Marc had decided to go all-in on the shelter two years ago, it was through determination—and maybe a tiny bit of luck--that they’d landed this location. Not only because it helped tie them to the thrift store, but because the building had once been a restaurant and it came with a full kitchen. He found Marc in there with a clipboard in hand, going over the racks of metal shelves that stored their food donations. Their budget for purchasing food wasn’t what Tate wanted it to be, so they relied heavily on the generosity of a few frequent donors.
“Oh good, you got the sheets,” Marc said after a quick glance in his direction.
“How’s Doris? Gout any better?”
“Not sure. She wasn’t there.”
“Yeah? She left Raymond in the store alone?” Marc chuckled.
Raymond Burke was good people, but Tate had witnessed him fussing with the registers—and customers—enough to know why he stuck to the back room and donatin pickups. He’d been a construction foreman in his early life, until a back injury forced him to find new work. Doris had already been working for the owners of All Saints Thrift Store, and they’d wanted to sell and move to Florida. Doris possessed, according to herself, all of the business sense, so they’d taken a chance.
Money wasn’t always free-flowing in the Burke house but they both seemed to enjoy the challenge. The store was open Wednesday through Sunday so she could supervise almost all business hours, unless their daughter Claire volunteered to help. But Claire was pretty busy lately surviving her senior year of high school, so Tate hadn’t seen her around much.
“Her nephew is staying here for the year.” The memory of Jonas’s beautiful face made Tate smile. “I can’t decide if he’s an asshole or not.”
“Uh oh.” Marc turned around to face him, lips twisted in a familiar smirk. “Don’t tell me you’re crushing on him already.”
“You would too if you saw him. He could give Matt Bomer a run for his money in the drop-dead-stunning department.”
“Oh yeah?” Marc straightened. “When you’re done, can I have him?”
“He’d be so lucky. Unless….”
Tate stared at Marc’s amused face until he finally gave in and asked, “Unless what?”
“Unless you think this one’s gonna be more than your usual habit of pump and dump. You thinking about getting serious for a change?”
“Asshole. No. He’s probably straight anyway.”
“Doesn’t mean you can’t admire the goods.”
“So true. Did Lilah strip the beds yet?”
Tate used his elbow to push open the door from the kitchen to the main area of the shelter. With planning help from Raymond and the design expertise of their third partner, Dave, they’d redesigned the open floor plan to make five smaller rooms with three sets of bunk beds each. Thirty beds that allowed them to create safe spaces for girls, boys, and everyone in between, depending on who showed up for the night. They also had two separate bathrooms with showers, and a large living area with donated couches and picnic tables for eating breakfast.
They didn’t have the resources yet to offer more than one meal, but they always had snacks available at night. The doors opened at eight and closed at nine, and everyone had to be out by eight the next morning, until the weather turned. Once the cold set in, they’d open the doors at six. In the two and a half months since they’d officially opened their doors, all thirty beds had been full every night after the first week.
All it had taken was word of mouth.
As much as Tate loved helping these kids, his heart also broke for each and every one of them. He knew what it was like to work the streets for meal money. He knew what it felt like to offer up your mouth for a twenty-dollar bill, and how dirty that money was in your pocket. So did Marc.
They both had their own reasons for doing this every day.
Lilah had stripped the beds, as promised, and they smelled faintly of lemon disinfectant. The mattresses were thin, college-dorm–style, and each one was encased in a rubber cover to protect against lice, scabies and anything else the kids might bring in with them. Cleanliness standards were huge, especially when it came to a non-profit like All Saints House. Even the smallest violation could get them shut down.
Tate remade the beds with the freshly laundered sheets. They couldn’t afford their own washer and dryer yet, so Doris had very generously offered to let them use her set at home. Sometimes Tate did them himself, sometimes another person in the Burke household helped out, but every single morning the shelter had clean sheets for the beds.
He bumped into Lilah in the main area, where she was wiping down the picnic tables with disinfectant. A retired school counselor with a husband who made good money working for the city, Lilah had plenty of free time to help with the shelter.
She’d also been friends with Doris forever.
“Did you know Doris and Raymond have a nephew?” he asked.
She paused in her work and looked up, her wire glasses halfway down her nose. “Yes, Raymond’s sister’s son. He’s about your age, I think.”
Jonas had seen genuinely affronted when Tate teased him about being thirty, and Tate kind of liked that he was older than Jonas. “I met him today at the shop.”
“I’d heard something about him staying with the Burkes for a while. Some kind of trouble at college.”
“Oh yeah?” Tate’s instincts had been spot-on, then. “He knock up some mayor’s daughter?”
Lilah laughed. “No, nothing like that. Doris isn’t one to gossip, especially about family. You’d have to ask her for the details. Or her nephew, I suppose.”
“I tried. Jonas didn’t seem keen on talking about it.”
“Oh, Jonas, that’s right. You two get along well?”
“He’s a little rude, but he agreed to let me show him around. Get to know the neighborhood.”
“That was generous of you.”
“Well, he’s easy on the eyes, so it’s not a hardship, trust me.”
“So you do have an ulterior motive.”
“Don’t I always?”
Tate went off to finish making the beds, the sound of Lilah’s laughter trailing behind him. Tate had always had a plan, ever since he was fourteen years old and had become the man of the household. It had helped him and his two sisters survive their father’s death, and two years later, their mother’s.
First step in Tate’s new plan: figure out just how straight Jonas Ashcroft really was.
Jonas had made it through his first day at work without any major disasters. He’d used the giant calculator near the register the two times someone had paid in cash. Thank God he didn’t have to worry about sales tax in Delaware. Most of the day, though, he’d worked in the back room with Uncle Raymond, sorting through the ten boxes of books donated by a local library that was cleaning up after a book sale.
His uncle had tried to engage him in conversation, but after a few half-assed answers from Jonas, he’d given up and turned on the radio. Country music had filled the back room, and they’d sorted in near silence.
They’d closed at five thirty, and left by six. Raymond had driven them six blocks north to their residential neighborhood. According to Doris, she didn’t mind the walk to work when the weather was nice, but her gout had been acting up lately.
He’d had to search that on his phone because he’d heard of gout but had no idea what it actually was, and then he instantly felt like an asshole, because ouch.
The Burke residence was a blocky two-story house with an attic and basement. Raymond’s father and Jonas’s grandfather, Paps, lived in the first-floor bedroom with four cats that followed his every move. His eyesight was going, and he’d moved in with the Burkes two years ago, according to Doris. Claire was their only child, and she occupied the second bedroom upstairs. The finished basement had been sectioned into a small laundry room, and a larger room that had once served as a second TV room. Jonas been installed there.
He slept on the foldout sofa and had a few sets of stackable plastic drawers for his stuff. The setup made him feel like he’d been wedged into their lives at an odd angle, and Claire had made it clear she wasn’t happy about no longer having a place other than the upstairs living room to hang with her friends.
He glanced at the curtained windows of the apartment above the detached two-car garage. Doris rented it to “a nice young man” who was looking after his two sisters, but he’d yet to meet any of them in passing.
Paps was at the dining table, which Claire finished setting as they all arrived. The scents of basil and tomato hung in the air. Jonas’s stomach ached for real food, and pasta was one of his favorites. He’d have to jog around the block twenty times to work off the calories, but whatever
He’d been there for two days already, but Jonas still felt weird sharing a meal with this family. Probably because they were distant relatives he’d only met a handful of times in his life. Also because he knew his father was giving them money to cover his board, and it made Jonas feel like a pet that had been pawned off on an unwilling foster family. No matter how many times Doris or Raymond said he was welcome, he didn’t believe them.
He ate the plate of baked ziti that was put in front of him, drank his iced tea and didn’t ask for seconds. Claire kept up most of the conversation, going on and on about cheerleading practice and how some girl had fallen off the top of the pyramid and broken her arm, and now everyone had to move spots, or something.
Jonas spent the meal trying not to think about Tate. His threadbare clothing and thick glasses.
He really ought to text Tate and back out of the coffee shop thing. Jonas didn’t need or want any friends while he served this prison sentence. All he wanted was to be left alone until he could go back to school and get his damned degree. A good degree that would get him a good job, so he could live his own life, finally free of his father’s expectations.
He blinked hard, head whipping in the direction of Paps’s voice. “What?”
“Asked how you liked your first day as a working man.”
“It was fine. Mostly I sorted books.”
“We’re easing him into it,” Aunt Doris said.
“When I was your age,” Paps said, “I’d already been working for eight years solid. We started young back then. A man knew how to support a family. Taught my own boy that.”
Uncle Raymond smiled around a bite of pasta.
“What did you teach your daughter?” Jonas asked without thinking. His mother was a spoiled housewife, the exact opposite of Raymond and Doris.
Paps grunted and snapped a piece of garlic bread in half. “Your mother always was a strong-willed girl. Went off and did what she wanted as soon as she was able.” A thin layer of resentment coated those words. Jonas didn’t know much about his family’s history, or the circumstances that had led his mother to leave Wilmington and her family for his father and a political life.
Sounded like a story worth hearing, though.
Raymond changed the subject, something about another local business closing its doors because of the chain down the street. Small-town stuff Jonas generally found boring as hell. At the end of the meal, he excused himself to the back porch while the rest of the family retreated to the den to watch TV. The porch was screened-in, which helped with bugs, but no breeze moved the warm late September air. Still better than the basement, which had no windows.
He popped his earbuds in and settled down on one of the hard plastic chairs. Shadows moved behind the curtains of the apartment, and another car was parked by the garage. Old four-door something that had seen better days.
The sun got lower, casting shadows across the small backyard. At some point Aunt Doris crossed the yard to the strange car and removed a full laundry basket from the back seat. It made him think of Tate’s basket of sheets. Did she do laundry for her tenants?
Boredom set in around dusk. He was about to go inside and see what everyone was watching in the living room when a teenage girl entered his peripheral vision. She was heading toward the garage apartment. Her head swung around, and the instant she spotted him she changed direction.
Pretty, with wavy ash-blond hair, she had a backpack slung over one shoulder and wore clothes trying too hard to be hip. She invited herself onto the screened porch like she owned the place.
Jonas popped out his earbuds. She looked familiar but he was positive they’d never met.
“Hey, I’m Addyson,” she said.
Like that meant something to him. “Jonas.”
“I know. Doris mentioned you when I saw her yesterday.”
“I live upstairs with Marnie and Tate.”
Tate must be a pretty common name in Delaware, because no way was it the same Tate he’d met this morning. He would have mentioned he rented from Doris.
Except that basket of laundry being removed from a car...and the Tate from this morning picking up clean sheets at the thrift store. Nah, he was reading too much into it.“I’m staying here for a while,” Jonas said.
“Yeah, I know. I wanted to say hi since we’ll be seeing each other around. Doris invites us over for dinner every Monday, since the store’s closed. She likes to do up a big meal. And sometimes we eat here just because.”
“You’re totally cute. Got a girlfriend?”
He eyeballed the teenager. She probably wasn’t even legal. “You’re too young for me.”
She did that annoying girl-giggle-squeak thing. “I know that. Just wondering if anyone at home was mad you came to live here.”
Jonas stared, appalled by the incredibly invasive question from someone he’d just met, and who looked more and more like the Tate from this morning the longer he looked at her.
“Ease up, Addy.” The Tate in question strolled up the porch steps and opened the screened door. “My sister has no filter, if you hadn’t noticed.”
“I had,” Jonas replied.
Instead of the jeans and T-shirt look from that morning, Tate wore gym shorts that showed off tanned legs with a smattering of pale hair, and a sleeveless white tee that exposed work-muscled arms. And why the hell did he care what Tate’s arms looked like?
“I was just asking,” Addyson said with a pretend pout. “You never date anyone.”
“I’m too busy with the shelter and dealing with you to date,” Tate retorted. “Do you have homework?”
“Not much. I did most of it at the study group.”
“Okay, well go finish it if you want to watch your show.”
She heaved a put-upon sigh. “Nice to meet you, Jonas.”
Jonas nodded at her, still a little stunned by the entire conversation. Tate plunked down in the chair next to him and stretched his legs out. “Betcha didn’t expect this, huh?”
“Expect what?” Jonas asked.
“Me. Living here. I guess I should have mentioned it this morning.”
“I guess.” He totally should have. Jonas hated surprises.
“Doris has been really great to me and my sisters. Like a second mother.” A flash of grief darkened his eyes.
“She is pretty great.”
Tate angled to face him, head tilted. “Dude, do you ever have an original statement, or do you just repeat what everyone else says?”
“Sure I do.”
Tate pulled a disbelieving face.
“How long have you lived here?” Jonas asked. Ha! Take that, asshole.
“About six years.”
Jonas did the math in his head. Tate would have been sixteen or seventeen when he signed the lease. “What about your parents?”
“Both deceased. Dad when I was fourteen, Mom when I was sixteen. Me and the girls were put into foster care, but I got a really great lawyer who helped me emancipate myself so I could get my sisters back. She helped me find this place, get a job and my GED. It was easy to prove to a judge that they were safer with me, so I got custody. We worked with a fantastic social worker, and she still keeps track of how my sisters are doing in school and stuff.”
“Damn.” Jonas couldn’t imagine what Tate had gone through to keep his family together, and from such a young age. At sixteen, he had been getting drunk at parties and illegally drag racing his sports car in the parking lot behind the local mall.
“I’d do anything for them.”
“That’s… Damn.” Yeah, he had nothing else.
Tate watched him. “Haven’t you ever wanted something so badly you’d sacrifice anything to get it?”
Jonas tried to think of something. Anything. Begging his father for a sports car for his birthday didn’t count. He’d sound like a spoiled prick. Fighting for his college of choice when his father wanted him to apply to Notre Dame, his alma mater, despite Jonas’s shitty grades? But it didn’t sound like Tate had gone to college, and he didn’t want to rub it in.
And why the hell does his opinion of me matter?
“No, I guess not,” Jonas finally admitted.
Tate shrugged it off. “You’re still young.”
He snorted at the patronizing tone. “Like you’re old?”
“I feel old some days.” Tate sank a little deeper into his chair, a general weariness settling over him that surprised Jonas. Guys didn’t usually show weakness in front of strangers.
In his frat, any show of weakness meant open season on that brother. Pranks, hassling, name calling. “Stop being a pussy,” and “man up, you sound like a chick,” had both been particular favorites. The words had passed Jonas’s own lips more than once.
The porch door slid open behind them. “Evening, Tate,” Aunt Doris said. “You boys want something to drink while you’re visiting?”
“Hey, Doris. I can’t stay long. I have to get to the shelter soon, but thank you.”
“Of course. Jonas?”
He was a little thirsty but he didn’t want to trouble her. “No, thank you.”
“All right. Tate, I’ll have those linens ready for you when you get home.”
Jonas surprised himself by putting two and two together and not getting eight. “Doris does the laundry for your shelter?”
“Yeah.” Tate glanced at the closed door. “We can’t afford our own washer and dryer, and no one’s donated a set yet. I told Doris I could do it myself, just use her machines, but she says she loves to help.”
“That’s why you picked sheets up at the shop?”
“Usually I get them here, but last night was my overnight at the shelter, so she brings them to the store for me to pick up.”
Jonas had no idea how shelters worked. “You don’t have to stay over every night with the, uh, guests?”
“I can’t because of my sisters. Even though Addyson turned eighteen last month, I don’t like being away from Marnie too much, so I stay Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights. Marc’s there most nights because he has no social life, and when he can’t be, our other partner, Dave, stays. We have a few other volunteers who rotate around, too. There’s always at least two staff members there every night.”
“Sounds scary, being stuck in a building overnight with a bunch of homeless kids.”
Tate shrugged. “We’ve had a few incidents, but nothing serious. Drugs and weapons are banned, and if we catch anyone with something, they can’t come back. Fighting means the same thing. We want these kids to feel safe, not like they have to sleep with one eye open.”
Tate’s dedication made Jonas feel like a directionless loser. “So is Marc your boyfriend?”
Perfect dude insult. Maybe he’ll go away now.
Tate grinned instead. “Nope. Best friend. We met two years ago at a bar and ended up having an actual conversation that pretty much led to this. Marc’s folks kicked him out when he was sixteen and came out to them. He worked the streets for a few years before landing a real job and climbing back up from the bottom.”
Jonas had seen enough movies to know what “worked the streets” meant, and it wasn’t just panhandling for pennies. He wasn’t that fucking naive.
“The shelter was a dream we came up with together,” Tate continued. “It took some doing, but we finally opened back in July.”
“You always picture yourself running a homeless shelter when you were a kid?”
“Hell no.” Tate laughed. “I wanted to be Justin Timberlake.”
“You wanted to be in a boy band?”
“Not specifically. I wanted to have that kind of raw talent and energy. To be really good at something and have people recognize me for it. I grew up poor, so I was never the popular kid, or the funny kid, or even the nerd everyone asks to cheat off of. I wasn’t special.”
Raising his sisters alone and opening a homeless shelter seemed pretty special. But no way was Jonas going to say so. He didn’t want to encourage this…whatever it was. Association.
“How about you?” Tate asked. “What did you want to be when you grew up?”
“Anything but my father.” Now why had that escaped his filter? Tate didn’t want to hear him whining about his old man.
“You two don’t get along?”
“Not for a while. I think he’d hoped good breeding and a lot of money could make me into the ideal son of a state senator, but it didn’t. I sucked at school, so I never made any honors programs. The only sport I liked was track but that wasn’t a manly sport so I couldn’t join the team at school. Probably the only thing I’ve done that he’s approved of is joining his old fraternity. Bonus points for all the hot sorority girls I could handle.” And Jonas had handled them, as frequently as possible. “I don’t know. Sometimes I think my father was relieved when I left for college. I wasn’t around to embarrass him anymore.”
Like I embarrassed him two weeks ago.
“That really sucks, dude,” Tate said.
“Yeah, well, we can’t choose our family, right?”
“Not our blood family, no.”
Jonas wasn’t in the mood for a philosophical discussion on the true nature of family so he didn’t touch that one.
Tate checked his phone. “Damn, I have to go. Doors open in thirty minutes. Even if I’m not staying overnight, I’m always there for the influx. I like getting to know the kids.”
Of course he did. “You probably foster orphaned kittens in your spare time, too.”
Instead of rolling his eyes or getting annoyed, Tate winked. “Only once,” he said, and then strolled off the porch.
The man didn’t walk. He just…strolled.
Jonas dropped his forehead into his palm. For all of his work to convince himself he didn’t need a friend, Jonas had a very real problem.
Tate had a very real problem.
A problem in the shape of a crush on a guy who was, by all available evidence, totally straight. He spent the entire five-minute drive back to the shelter fighting off a woody, and that was just from ten minutes of conversation. Plus Jonas’s cologne. Dear God, his cologne smelled good. Warm and spicy.
The urge to lean closer and inhale deeply had seized him several times, so he’d ignored it by talking. A lot more than he usually did with someone he barely knew, especially about his family. Jonas had listened intently, even if his reverse conversation skills were pretty lacking. His snark bordered on rudeness sometimes, as though he was unsure if he wanted Tate to hang or was trying to drive him off. Jonas outwardly embodied the cliché of “airhead GQ model” but even if Jonas wasn’t book-smart like he claimed, he seemed people-smart.
And hot. Couldn’t forget smoking hot.
Maybe the lost thing was what attracted Tate the most. Jonas didn’t get along with his dad, he was taking a break from college, and he’d been shunted to his aunt and uncle’s thrift store hundreds of miles from home. He was floundering, and Tate wanted to help him find his footing.
He went in through the back door of the shelter. Marc and Dave were there filling up the two giant orange thermoses with ice water. Tate grabbed a box of apples out of the cooler and started putting them into a basket. They used the former pick-up window of the old restaurant as a serve-yourself station where the kids could get water and snacks.
At eight, he unlocked the front door.
Four familiar, dirty faces were waiting. All girls. He signed them in on his clipboard, searched their meager belongings for contraband, then sent them to find a room for the night. Every kid went through the same process, and they began to fill up quickly. Their problem child, a fifteen year-old who called himself Ice, showed up to claim the second-to-last bed. Ice liked to toe the line with the other kids, making crude jokes and picking on the girls. Marc kept a close eye on him at night, but so far he hadn’t broken any of the rules.
He had thirty kids signed in by eight thirty, so he locked the doors. No one left through them until morning, and no one else came inside. The rules helped with drugs and theft, because no one signed out in the morning if someone claimed an item had been stolen.
Mostly they were good kids who needed off the streets for a shower and a meal.
Tate wandered the main room, chatting with the kids who’d sat down to munch on apples or drink clean water, probably for the first time all day. He was getting to know some of them by name, and occasionally he got a story out of someone. Sometimes, after a good night’s sleep, they would want to talk to Lilah over breakfast.
He hated knowing that someday, a familiar face might not return. That Sasha, or Jai, or Chris might end up dead in an alley from an overdose or a john who went too far.
By nine thirty most of the kids had wandered into one of the rooms and into a bed. Dimmers were switched on in all areas, in case someone had to get up to use the bathroom. Marc turned the main lights off at ten.
Tate hung out with Marc and Dave for a while, played a few hands of Uno until eleven.
Marc followed him to the back door. “You make a move on that Jonas guy, or something?”
“It’s just you’ve had this, I don’t know, haze going on since you got back tonight. Or did you finally go out and get laid?”
“Neither.” Tate fought off a goofy grin. “We talked for a while, that’s all.”
“Whatever. I’m the one spending time with the eye candy.”
“I know, and I hate you for it.”
“You love me too much to hate me.”
“So true.” Marc pecked his cheek. “Drive safe.”
Tate rolled his eyes. “It’s six blocks at twenty miles an hour.”
“Go mother hen someone else.”
“Hon, you’ve been my favorite chick since we met.”
He laughed as he pushed his way through the industrial door that auto-locked when it shut.
Too bad the heavy steel couldn’t shut out thoughts of Jonas that haunted him the entire way home, all the way to his bedroom. He was tempted to hop in the shower so he could rub one out without worrying his sisters would hear through the paper-thin walls.
Okay, he was definitely a lust object. One Tate could admire from a distance for however long Jonas stayed in town. Because even if the universe decided to love him for once and it turned out Jonas was actually gay, Tate had daily obligations to the shelter and to his sister. He didn’t have time for a relationship.
Jonas only saw Tate in passing a few times for the next couple of days. And that was fine. They were maybe-friends who lived and worked close to each other. No big deal.
He was getting better at interacting with customers in the thrift store, and Aunt Doris took every opportunity to introduce him to her friends and regular clientele. He’d lost count of how many times someone had remarked on a daughter, granddaughter, or niece who needed to find a nice young man.
By Sunday morning he’d totally rearranged the book section—partly to add another half-shelf for their expanded inventory, and partly because he didn’t like the other way. Aunt Doris had given him permission, and it was something to do when the shop was slow.
Nothing in particular made him look up when the bell dinged. He did, and his stomach gave an inappropriate wobble when Tate met his eyes from the doorway and smiled.
“You look awfully rested, coming off an overnight,” Aunt Doris said.
“Dave brews coffee that’s strong enough to walk out of the pot on its own. I’m awake. And I was hoping to steal Jonas, if you can spare him.”
“Young man, I’ve helmed this ship plenty of times alone on a Sunday. I can spare him for an hour if he wants to go.”
“Okay.” No one had to ask Jonas twice if he wanted out of the shop for an hour. He cleaned up his minor mess, then headed for the front door.
The afternoon was cooler than the last couple of days, and Jonas almost wished he had a sweatshirt to put over his tee. “So where are we going?”
“One of my favorite places,” Tate replied. “Two blocks from here is this amazing coffee shop that bakes their own muffins, and there’s a used bookstore attached. I can get lost for hours in that bookstore.”
“Cool.” Or at least the muffins sounded good. The used bookstore maybe not so much, considering what he’d just been doing at the thrift shop.
“Best part about the place?”
“It’s owned and operated by two gay guys. So it’s totally friendly and an easy place to hang out.”
Jonas stopped walking. Tate turned, eyebrows up.
“I’m not gay,” Jonas said.
“Okay. I mean, I am, just so we’re clear, and I think it’s really cool that two gay dudes own it. And they aren’t even boyfriends.”
“Don’t people always warn you not to go into business with your significant other?”
Jonas couldn’t make his feet move.
Tate planted his hands on his hips. “Dude, it’s a coffee shop, not a gay bar. Plenty of straights go there, too. You won’t be alone in homo land.”
Jonas laughed. “Homo land?”
“I know, sounds like a rejected theme park idea, right?”
“Sounds hilarious, especially if it’s anything like The Birdcage.”
“That’s your reference for gay culture?” Tate gave him an impressive eye roll. “You really have lived a sheltered life.”
Jonas grunted at the sort-of insult. “Let’s go check out the coffee shop.”
Half-Dozen was a pretty neat place. It made good use of the small space, and Jonas kind of loved the book-themed tables. Most of the tables were full, as were several stools at a long counter. They joined a line of four people. A skinny boy with shaggy black hair hustled around with a gray basin, busing tables and cleaning up.
Jonas studied the board and its assortment of muffins and coffees. He wasn’t much of a coffee snob, so he randomly picked the free trade Ecuadorian blend. Their turn to order came, and a tall, bleach-blond guy with a stud in his eyebrow grinned at them. “Hey, Tate, good to see you.”
“Hey, Ezra. This is Jonas. He’s new to the neighborhood.”
“Welcome, sugar,” Ezra said to Jonas. “What can I get you?”
Jonas ordered his coffee and a lemon poppyseed muffin. Tate got the same, and then insisted on paying. He didn’t like the curious look Ezra threw their way, but he moved down the counter to wait while another boy filled their cups and plated their muffins.
“Hey, Alè, thanks,” Tate said when they got their food.
“No problem,” the server replied. “Who’s the new guy?”
“Jonas, Alessandro. Alè, Jonas. He and Ezra own the shop together.”
“Nice to meet you,” Jonas said. He hadn’t expected to be introduced to everyone in the damned neighborhood but he did have manners, and his mother would expect him to use them.
“Brandy’s got the day off?” Tate asked.
“Off early. Some kind of family emergency with her boyfriend.”
“Yikes. Tell her I said hi.”
Jonas was starting to feel like a guest star on a TV show who’d been shoved on stage without a script and told to go with the flow. He didn’t know any of the players, while Tate maneuvered through the shop, conversing with people like it was his own version of “Gay Cheers.” Jonas kind of hated him for having a place where he fit in so well. He’d never fit in anywhere—he’d just gotten really good at faking it.
They sat at a small table decorated in the theme of Alice in Wonderland.
“Do you, like, know the entire neighborhood or something?” Jonas asked. The question sounded more snarly than he’d intended.
Tate paused in the middle of ripping his muffin in half. “No, but like many of my species, I’m a social creature and if I find a place I like, I tend to go back. Often I go back frequently enough to, you know, remember names? Establish relationships? Did no one do this in Chicago?”
“Not really. Not where I grew up.”
Jonas grunted. “We never actually locked the gate.”
“I was kidding, but damn. Did you go to public school, or was it all private tutors?”
“Private school.” Probably why his father resented having such a stupid son. Jonas was a waste of money, and his father’s resentment was of that part of the reason why Jonas was desperate to get his degree and prove he wasn’t a total waste of time and space. Prove he could manage his own life.
“Can I ask you something?”
“You just did.”
Tate’s hand jerked, as if he’d been about to flip Jonas off. “Are you an only child?”
“Just asking. Trying to figure out how you grew up to be an uptight rich kid who thinks you can catch gay by being around too much of it.”
Jonas fought the totally childish urge to throw his muffin at Tate’s head. “You don’t know shit about me.”
Tate shrugged. “I know you’re scared of something, I just don’t know what.”
I’m scared of you, and what you represent, and everything I can’t be.
“Let it go,” Jonas snapped.
“Yeah, I’m scared of that song now, too. It’s been way overplayed and over-parodied.”
Jonas blinked. “What?”
“Frozen? ‘Let It Go’. Idina Menzel? Even that pop culture craze had to have hit the Chicago suburbs.”
“I know the song. I just…didn’t get the joke. Sorry.”
“My attempts at humor don’t always translate well once they’re outside my head.”
Jonas had no good comeback for that, so he ate his muffin and sipped his black coffee. Tate did the same, occasionally greeting someone who walked in the door. When the bus boy stopped by for their plates, Tate introduced them. Romy had apparently been with the place since it opened two years ago, and he told Tate about the online literature class he was taking. Getting his feet wet with school.
“What about Brendan?” Tate asked. To Jonas, he added, “Boyfriend.”
“He started his first semester of classes this month.” Romy beamed with an intense kind of pride, and it woke the kid right up. “I am so happy he decided to finish his degree.”
“His degree in what?” Jonas asked, unable to censor his curiosity.
“Physical therapy. He had to drop out of college before he could finish, and it’s been a while but he finally decided to go back. Do something he loves.” Romy glanced around the room. “Gotta go. Nice to meet you, Jonas.”
After Romy scampered off clean up another table, Jonas pitched his voice low. “Is it me, or does he move like he’s waiting for someone to jump out and shake him?”
Tate turned in his seat and watched Romy work for a few moments before spinning back around. “You’re right, he kind of does. Reminds me of some of my runaways at the shelter.”
Jonas picked at the plastic lid on his cup. “Everyone has a story.”
He picked up his cup and took a sip of hot coffee.
Tate, the ass, chose that moment to say, “So Addyson has convinced herself you’re my future hottie husband.”
Jonas choked on the coffee, managing to snort some of it out his nose. Tate fled for the counter and returned with a wad of paper napkins. The entire shop seemed to be watching by the time Jonas got himself under control. A glass of water appeared on the table, and he gulped it down.
“Dude,” Romy said from his left. “That was like the best live spit-take ever.”
Jonas would have told the guy to fuck off if he wasn’t afraid he’d take it personally.
Why do you care? You wouldn’t have given shit if you’d hurt his feelings a month ago.
He wasn’t the same person he’d been a month ago. Not even close.
Once the show was over, he settled for glaring across the table at Tate, who didn’t look the least bit sorry.
“To be fair,” he said, “I think Addyson has her own mega-crush on you, and she’s projecting that onto me.”
Jonas arched an eyebrow and crossed his arms. Was Tate implying he was some kind of loser? “So you’re saying what? I wouldn’t be a good enough husband for you?”
Tate’s hand jerked, sloshing coffee over the rim of his cup and onto the table. “Uh, I thought we’d established that you’re straight.”
“It’s the principle of the thing. You think I’d be a bad husband.”
“Well, you’re arrogant, kind of rude, and you have no life plan that you’ve told me about. What makes you think you’d be a good husband to anyone?” Tate asked with a teasing smile that took some of the sting out of his words.
He slumped into his chair, all of his fight gone. At the moment his life plan consisted of surviving his stay here, going back to school, and getting his damned degree so he could write his own ticket. “Nothing. I guess I wouldn’t. Hell, I’ve never even dated anyone longer than a few months.”
“What? You’ve got a relationship in your back pocket?”
“Hardly. The only thing I’ve got time for is the occasional online hookup. And even then I have to borrow Marc’s phone because mine’s too old to download the right apps.”
The idea of Tate soliciting sex from strangers through a smartphone app irritated Jonas for no good reason. “You do that a lot? Sleep with strangers?”
Tate rolled his eyes. “Like you’re going to tell me you’ve never slept with a girl you’ve known for, like, an hour’s worth of partying and booze?”
Jonas shrugged. “It’s not the same.”
“How is it not? All the app does is expedite the process. App or a party, it’s all about getting off.”
He hadn’t gotten off in way too long, not since before the frat house incident. And the thrift store wasn’t exactly a hot spot for rich girls looking to hook up. They needed to change the subject before Jonas’s jeans got too tight to walk around in.
Awkward silence lingered until Tate said, “You should probably get back.”
The awkwardness followed them all the way back to the shop, where they said a brief good-bye, and Jonas wasn’t sure what to do about it. He’d had a good time until the end when they’d started talking about Tate’s sex life. Sex was a conversational land mine, best avoided while hanging out with Tate. Avoiding Tate altogether was an even better idea.
Too bad all Jonas could think of as he went about completing his book reorganization was Tate. Tate laughing. Tate rolling his eyes. Tate having a smile for every person on the street.
He couldn’t get the little shit out of his head.
I am so screwed.
Tate was glad he’d walked the six blocks from the apartment to the thrift store. The trip home gave him a chance to sort through his thoughts on Jonas. Jonas Ashcroft, King of Mixed Signals. Outwardly, he spoke and walked like someone who’d been spat out of the Greek system. He snarled and snipped in all the right places, and gay seemed to repel him like a bad smell.
During the quiet moments, though, vulnerability sneaked in. And on the heels of that came the flirting.
Jonas probably wasn’t even aware that he was doing it. The soft laughter. The lingering glances. Full-body angle toward Tate.
And boy did he get all twisted up when they started talking about sex. His instant dislike of the fact that Tate used apps to find hookups had left Tate surprised and delighted. Surprised because why should Jonas care who and how Tate fucked around? Delighted because he cared and had seemed a bit jealous.
Part of Tate wanted to march back to the thrift store and just kiss the asshole already. He’d get an honest reaction out of Jonas, if nothing else. Maybe even get an answer to a question he wasn’t sure how to ask. The rest of him was enjoying their budding friendship too much to risk losing it this soon, if he was wrong. Even though he didn’t need a boyfriend, he sure wouldn’t mind another friend at his back.
He trotted up the wooden stairs to the apartment door. Marnie waved from the couch, engrossed in whatever paperback she’d borrowed from the thrift store this weekend. Doris let her use the store like her own personal library, because the actual library was on the other side of town, money was tight, and Doris wanted to encourage her to read.
“Down at the house, I think,” Marnie replied.
“I don’t know. Hanging with Claire, maybe.”
He liked that Addyson had someone her age close by. He just wished his intensely introverted baby sister Marnie socialized more. Marnie hated going to school events, and even at fourteen had no interest in boys, makeup, or trendy clothes. Mostly she kept to herself and read, so he did his best to be home and keep her company. She was too young to act so old, but every time he brought up therapy, she found her inner Dawson stubbornness and flat-out refused.
It was too early to cook dinner, so Tate booted up his laptop. The damn thing had a battery life of about five minutes without the power cord, so he set it up at the kitchen table. Waited for the Burkes’ wireless to connect. He opened a browser and typed “Jonas Ashcroft” and “college” into a search box.
After a little digging, he found a tiny article from a Boston paper with the headline “3 Students Expelled After Student Hazing Goes Wrong.”
Tate’s stomach soured. He opened the article, which was dated about three weeks ago. Skimmed the brief lines of information, which really told him nothing. Only that Jonas and two of his fraternity brothers—the names meant nothing to Tate—had been expelled for the rest of the year after a fraternity prank left a freshman pledge seriously hurt.
Jesus. So much for a nice guy hiding underneath all the swagger.
Except Tate did believe a nice guy was hiding inside of Jonas somewhere. Bits of it peeked out now and then. Jonas seemed intent on staying unnoticed here, which might explain why he was so antsy about Tate introducing him to people.
He couldn’t find any details on the injured student or what exactly happened, so he gave up and played Solitaire for a while. Around five he got his slightly numb ass up off the chair and started making dinner. Addyson texted that she and Claire were eating down the street at the Townsend home. He was fine with that. They went to school with the Townsends’ son Wyatt, and Tate had met the boy’s parents several times.
Then Addyson sent: How’s the future hubby?
Bite me, smart ass.
You’ve got it bad, I can tell. TTL.
He didn’t bother with a reply. Today he’d gotten a deeper peek beneath the frat boy exterior that Jonas desperately clung to, even hundreds of miles away from college. If he kept poking he might even find the real Jonas hiding underneath all that posturing.
Something told Tate that the effort would be worth it.