Life is random….
19-year-old Jess Donovan knows better than most that life is random. Her mom is dead, and she’s on her own, patching together a living as a waitress when a car crashes through the restaurant where she works. In two seconds, she loses her job, watches her best friend hauled away in an ambulance…and meets Tyler Smith, one of the hottest, most fascinating—and mysterious guys she’s ever met.
Both for the good and the bad…
Within days, Jess is swept up into the mesmerizing force that is Tyler. Their every touch sizzles, every kiss dissolves them both, and the sex is…fierce. But there’s more to Tyler than his hypnotic eyes. He’s adrift, too, and his body—and his soul—are covered with scars. How can she find herself with a guy who is lost himself?
Until you take charge….
Jess is determined to find her way, and make a life that is better than the one she was given. But how?
Read an Excerpt
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Life is random. I know that better than most people, but on the first day of summer I find out again. The hard way.
It’s exactly the kind of morning you want summer to be. Blue skies, fluttering leaves, promise of a great, hot afternoon, which I plan to spend beside the local pool, sleeping in the sun.
This morning I’m waiting tables at Billy’s Restaurant, which is busy because we sit on the main drag out of a major industrial area where they do shift work. I’ve landed the regular Thursday morning table of UPS guys. There’s seven of them and I swing the coffee pot around, topping off cups. “Hey, Jess,” one asks me, “when are you going to marry me?”
“When you have a million dollars, baby,” I say, tossing my hip-length braid over my shoulder. I point at the metal pitcher of cream on the table. “Need more?”
“We’re fine, sweetheart.”
The bell rings over the door and a single guy comes in, tall and lean and young. His hair is so glossy it looks lacquered. Little feet of awareness run down my spine. I head toward the front to seat him, but Virginia beats me to it, winking over her shoulder at me as she settles him in her section. I grin. All’s fair when seating hot guys.
Another group comes in, ringing the bell, and this one is mine. As I head for them, music is playing on the speakers overhead, something tinny and country because that’s all the owners will play. The swell of customer voices is cheerful. It’s only Virginia and me on this morning, since Kary Ann called in sick—at five o’clock in the morning!—but we’re both good at what we do, and it’s going fine. We’re both happy, honestly. I can handle half the restaurant and so can she, and the extra tips will be sweet. My tiny savings were wiped out by a car repair last week, and I’m not going to be comfortable until I get a little more back in there. Not the easiest thing in the world when you’re working for tips, but, as we always say, it’s a lot better than minimum wage.
I grab some laminated menus from the stack on the counter. “Hey, folks, four this morning?”
“Got anything by the window?”
They’re going to regret this choice, but none of us know that right then. “Sure.” I lead them to a booth, wait until they settle—the woman takes a long time to slide in, but I see that she doesn’t move that well and try not to be impatient. I’m sure I have an order ready in back and some more tickets to drop off at tables, and there’s someone waiting at the front to pay.
But I know how to be patient. It’s one of the tricks of getting great tips versus good ones, a combination of patience and urgency. I can move fast, carry a lot of plates, and still stand here, smiling, while an old woman maneuvers her way into a too-tight turquoise booth. I catch Virginia’s eye as she heads up to the cash register to ring up a pair of customers waiting to pay. That’s done.
When the party is settled, I pass out the menus. “Coffee?”
“Please,” says the man.
I whirl through the doors to the back, grab four mugs in one hand and the pot in another, pour the coffee, peek in the cream pitcher and head back to the kitchen. Virginia is already starting a new pot of coffee. I put the empty down and she winks. “Good money morning,” she says.
“We’re a good team.”
Virginia is a single mom with two little girls. She is only twenty-four, but she was married at my age—nineteen—and divorced just a year ago. She keeps telling me to be careful about guys, but I just laugh. I have no intention of getting caught by anybody. Maybe ever.
What I will do instead is still up in the air, but for now this job fits the bill just fine.
“Jess! Order up, for God’s sake.”
That’s the Wicked Witch of the West, a woman so mean and ragged she looks like a dog who’s been left outside in the rain for a year. She’s the main cook, the boss’s wife, and she has a craggy, horrible smoker’s voice that screeches when she yells. Like now.
“Got it, Tina, thanks.” I grab biscuits out of the warmer, call out that we’re down to ten, drop the biscuits in a basket and line up the plates on my arm. Three plates on the left arm, biscuits settled in the crook of the elbow in a balance it took me a long time to figure out, and the final plate in my right hand. “Coming through!” I cry as I push through the right side of the swinging doors with my shoulder.
It’s hard work, this job, the hardest I’ve ever done, but I only work thirty hours a week, all first thing in the morning, and I’m totally a morning person, so I’m done by two o’clock and have the rest of the day to myself.
The one downside is the Wicked Witch, who hates me. And her fat sloppy husband, who sits in the back of the restaurant with his wet lips and stares at our asses. He’s mostly harmless, though he has been known to grab. Right now he’s in the kitchen making cinnamon rolls, and when I go into the back I have to squeeze by him, smelling sweat and something sour, to get to the walk-in.
“Jess!” bawls the bitch. “Come get this fucking order before the eggs turn to ice, for God’s sake.”
I squeeze back by Fatty, trying not to notice the way he pushes back, pressing me into the wall with his butt. Gross.
All part of the game. I moved out of my step-dad’s house when I was seventeen, and this job means I can stay in my tiny house. It’s only a mother-in-law house in a crappy neighborhood, but it’s all mine.
The rush is finally dying down a tiny bit when it happens. I’m busing the table from the UPS guys, cheerfully grabbing five dollar bills from several spots, ones from others and stacking them all together, when I hear a huge, crashing noise from behind me. It doesn’t quite compute—breaking glass and a roar—and I turn around to see a car barreling right through the front door.
You’d think you’d instinctively run when you saw something like that, but I’m frozen, money in my hand, trying to figure out what I’m seeing.
A car in the restaurant?
In slow motion, I see the glass and metal around the front door crack and crumple and shatter. The car keeps going, crushing the cash register counter and sending wood splaying out into the world, then keeps coming, smashing into two empty booths, into tables and chairs. I can see the horrified face of a very old person behind the wheel, and that’s when I realize the freaking car is coming right at me. I unfreeze and dive toward the kitchen yelling, “Car!”
I duck behind the freezer and cover my ears, waiting for the whole building to come down. There’s a lot of crashing, but not as much as you’d think, and nobody is screaming.
Finally there’s a sudden, thick silence. The car must have stopped. I look over the pass-out bar at the cooks, and they’re staring toward the front, mouths open. We all stand there for who knows how long—two seconds? five?—and then there’s a really loud, long crash and somebody screams.
We all rush to the front. I shove open the swinging doors and we peer out.
“Holy shit,” somebody says behind me.
The place is so demolished it’s hard to even tell what’s what. The car has pushed through the front door, taken out the counter by the cash register, a couple of booths along the window and several tables, and come to rest at the far wall with debris all over it.
But the worst thing is that the car took out a support beam or something, because half the roof has fallen down in front, leaving a great big hole. We can see blue sky through it.
I reach in my pocket with shaking hands, grab my phone and dial 911. “A car came through the building at Billy’s Restaurant on Platte and Circle,” I say, and my voice is wavery. “Hurry. I think people might be dead.”
And that’s when it hits me. I run into what used to be the restaurant and see people crawling out from under tables. “Virginia!” I cry, trying to think where I saw her last. Was she by the cash register? “Virginia!”
I hear a muffled cry near where the front door used to be and leap over some debris to get there. Shattered glass of all sizes litters the floor, glittering and shining. A sugar dispenser is on its side, and scattered yellow packets of Splenda are confetti on every surface. A pile of wood and metal hides the spot where the booth and cash register counter were.
Or maybe that is the counter. My heart squeezes so hard I’m afraid it will burst.
I kneel down urgently. “Virginia? Are you there?”
“Oh, my God.” I start pulling shattered pieces of wood away, looking to see where she is. Behind me there are other cries, and I think about the people who sat by the window. Are they alive?
But I have to get Virginia out before I do anything else. Frantically, I fling away everything I can, and then there’s a guy standing next to me, putting a hand on my arm. The hot one Virginia intercepted at the door.
“Whoa. Slow down,” he says, and there’s confidence in his tone. His hand falls on my shoulder. “You don’t want to crush her.”
My hands are shaking, along with my entire insides, which have turned to jelly. “Right, right. How do we get her out? Help me!”
He’s a tall guy. Rugged but lean, with glossy brownish-blondish hair that’s too long. He takes a second to look me in eye, straight and clear. The color of his irises is startling enough that I notice even under these crazy circumstances, blue with green mixed in, very bright.
And kind. “Don’t worry,” he says in a deep, warm voice. “We’ll get her out.”
He squats, looking at the mess as if he knows what he’s doing. I call out, “Virginia, are you okay?”
“My arm is stuck! I’m freaking out.”
“Hang on,” I tell her. “We’re going to get you out.”
The guy points at a big piece of wall. “Let’s get everything off that, and then we can probably see if anything else is on her.”
Sirens ring out, and a crowd is gathering. I hear somebody crying in another part of the room. Together the guy and I drag off broken pictures and pieces of wood and glass from the piece of wall, and I haul the shattered cash register out of the way. It gives me enough leeway to squat down to peer into the space below.
Right away, I see it’s bad. Virginia’s leg is twisted sideways, and her arm is stuck between the booth and the wall. There’s so much blood on her face that it looks like something from a horror movie. She looks white and scared. “Get me out of here!”
“I’m not sure we can move that by ourselves, V.” I nod toward the booth, then look up at the guy, trying to telegraph with my eyes that it’s bad. He gives me a sober nod. “The experts will be here in a second and they can help us, okay?”
“Don’t leave me!” she cries. “I’m so scared.”
“No,” I reach in to see if I can hold her hand. “I’m right here.”
The guy touches my back. “I might need you for one more thing,” he says. I look up, and he points at the table by the window, the one with the old woman. I can see a skirt. That’s it.
The guy kneels down next to me. “Hey, Virginia, you’re brave, I can see that, but there are a couple others stuck and we need to see what we can do to get them out, too. All right? Your friend will be right back.”
“Okay,” she says. She’s sobbing a little, and her grip is about to break my fingers. I don’t want to leave her, but then somebody screams under the other table. I grab the apron from around my waist and pass it to Virginia. “Put this on your face. I’ll be back in a sec, okay?”
“That old lady was right by the window.”
“I’m going to check her right now.” I stand up, trying to get my bearings. It’s hard. I think of pictures I’ve seen of tornadoes on TV, everything all shredded and out of place.
“Over here,” the guy says, touching my arm. “I think.”
We start the process again, moving small debris to see under the mess left by the wall. Everybody there is okay, though, just banged up a little, with cuts and bruises. It takes three of us to get the old woman out, but aside from some minor cuts and bruises she’s fine, too. They were all protected by a beam and, unlike Virginia, they didn’t take a direct hit from the car.
Around us, customers are standing around dazed. My boss has a massive bloody cut on his bald head, but he’s helping the driver out of the car. He’s old, bent over and thin, and he keeps repeating, “I thought it was the brake. I thought it was the brake.”
The guy next to me says, “Can you tell if this is everybody?”
I frown and look around, counting. The couple eating pie, check. The family group we hauled out. A lone man drinking coffee, check. In my imagination, I scan the restaurant in the seconds before the crash and can’t think of anyone else. “I think so. We got lucky that it wasn’t earlier. An hour ago, the place was packed.”
The guy nods. He’s frowning, as if he’s trying to piece the scene together, too. “I can’t think of anybody else, either.”
The fire trucks arrive, and I rush over to direct them to Virginia. It takes the firefighters and EMTs ten minutes to get her out, and she’s not looking great when they do. They’re yelling and shoving bystanders out of the way. I’m standing beside her as they load her onto the ambulance. “Who should I call?” I ask.
She just gives me a glazed look.
“I’ll come see you later.” They pull her away and tuck her into the ambulance, and I stand there with a hollow chest, wondering what her kids will do while she’s in the hospital. Maybe I can find her purse. Maybe—
“Hey,” says a warm voice beside me, and I look up to see the guy again, staring at me in concern. “You’re looking a little pale. Why don’t you come sit down?”
I realize I’m really close to passing out, dizzy and so shaky I can hardly stand up. I let him lead me to a lone chair standing in the wreckage and sink onto it.
“Put your head between your knees.”
“Does that work?” I ask on my way down.
A slight chuckle slips out. “I have no idea. It’s what I’ve always heard.”
My body buzzes from the back of my neck down my spine, through my limbs. The edges of my vision go black.
His open palm falls hot between my shoulder blades, steadying me. “Take a deep breath and let it out slowly.”
Behind the prickling vision comes a wave of nausea. I take a breath in through my nose and blow it through my mouth, buzzing all over, fighting the need to throw up. It helps. I take another. And another.
After a minute I’m steady enough to try sitting up. “Thanks.”
He’s close. I notice about forty things all at once. His eyes, which really are an amazing color. His gorgeous cheekbones, which are high and tan, as if he spends a lot of time outside. His full lips, slightly tilted into a smile. He smells like sunshine and grass and something faintly spicy.
My body responds all over, all at once, every cell waking up and leaning toward him. I look at his mouth, and I notice he’s looking at me the same way. I look back up to his eyes.
“I’m Tyler,” he says.
Then it hits me. I turn around and look at the mess. “I just lost my job, didn’t I?”
“Uh, yeah. For a while, anyway.”
I reach into my apron pocket, pull out the neatly folded bills and count them. $42, which is what will have to carry me through until I get my check Monday. Today is Wednesday—and anyway, that check has to go to rent, though I really need gas in my car, especially if I have to look for work. “Crap, crap, crap.”
“You’re probably allowed to really swear under the circumstances.”
I look up. “It won’t help.” I rub my face, a hollow terror rolling around my belly. What will I do? Then I shake it off, stand up and stick the money in my pocket. “I have to get another job.”
“I work at the Musical Spoon. You won’t make as much money, but I could put in a good word for you if you want to come over there later this afternoon.”
The Spoon is a hipster cafe/pub near downtown. They serve organic soups and vegan burgers, and a hundred kinds of tea in heavy pots and microbrews from all over the state. Folk singers play on the weekends, and they have poets read on Tuesday nights.
But my favorite thing is the walls lined with old books. Odd books. You can go there and read them as long as you want, and nobody cares if you sit in an armchair for three hours with one pot of tea. It’s that kind of place.
Which is why the tips suck.
“I love that place,” I say. “You work there?” He doesn’t look like a cook or a restaurant person at all. There’s something high end about him, though I can’t really say what it is. I would have thought maybe a grad student or something, which sort of makes sense. “Are you at Colorado College?”
His face goes hard, like it’s turned into a porcelain mask. “I was.”
“What were you studying?”
I give him a half-smile, shooting him a sideways glance from under my eyelashes. Teasing. “Brains and beauty.”
The half-smile he gives back is small but real, his eyes connecting with mine. An electric rippling passes between us. His teeth are perfectly white and straight, the product of a childhood full of dental visits. I slide my tongue over a crooked eyetooth and then force myself to stop.
He says, “Give me your phone. I’ll put in my number. You can call me when you’re on the way to the Spoon.”
I pull out my phone, flip it open. Hand it over and dare him to say anything. He looks at it for a second. “Can you even text on this thing?”
“Of course.” I shrug. “I have to do the triple tap thing, but it works.”
“Yeah, you know, tap the 1 three times for a ‘c.’”
He holds the phone in his hands and gives me a slow, unbelievably sexy smile. It’s mostly on one side. Sunlines crinkle on the left side. “I had a phone like this in high school.”
“Yeah?” I raise my eyebrows. “That makes you old!”
Tapping in his name and number, he nods. Sunlight dances in his thick brown hair, too long and streaked with gold. I notice the tanned skin of his throat at the opening of his shirt, catch a glimpse of his collarbone. He hands me back the phone and pulls his out. An iPhone, of course, sleek and black and not wrapped up in some fancy case, just cloaked in black glass. He brings up the screen, taps an icon and gives it to me. “Put yours in.”
I do it, flushing like he’s going to call me for a date.
Don’t flatter yourself, I think. He’s from a whole different world, and must be at least twenty-four or twenty-five.
Not to mention the little fact that I already have a boyfriend.
I give him back the phone, and over his shoulder I see a news van and think of Henry, seeing this on TV and freaking out. “I’ve gotta call my step-dad.”
He gives me a nod. “Call me. I mean it, okay?”
“I’ll come in this afternoon.”