Chapter One

"And stay out!" My father shouted forcefully as he slammed the door to our hovel of an apartment behind me. Although I should have been used to the way the noise rang out into the otherwise quiet night, I still found myself wincing at it as I scurried down the stairs.

I stopped, sighing softly to myself as I reached the cement steps in front of the building, pulling my sweater more tightly to me as a chilling breeze brushed past. I could already feel myself starting to shiver, but I'd been in such a hurry to escape that I'd left my purse behind, just inside the door. The few dollars I had managed to tuck away inside could do little for me where they were.

The fallen leaves that paved every inch of the city this time of year crunched against my jeans as I took a seat on the second-to-last step, hoping against hope that I wouldn't have to wait outside very long before he wound down for the night or, inevitably, passed out on the couch.

There wasn't any hard evidence to support the fact, but I was convinced that the neighbors we shared a wall with dealt drugs of one sort or another. So, when I heard a vehicle pull up a few minutes later, even knowing that it was past eleven, I wasn't phased. I didn't even bother with raising my head. I assumed that it had to be one of their 'friends', the ones that came and went at all hours of the day and night.

I heard the engine die and the car's door open and close solidly. Still, I didn't look up from the square of sidewalk I'd been fixed on until a pair of hot pink converse stepped into my field of vision.

"Hey, are you okay?" He asked, his handsome, easy-going face set in concern as I met his blue-grey eyes.

I felt my heart speed up and my face flush as I took him in. Usually, there weren't many people I noticed that way, but there was something about him that made it impossible not to.

He seemed about average for a man in height, although he was a little on the leaner side. He could have been older than me, but not by much. It was hard to put a pin on how old he was. He had one of those faces that made him look sixteen and twenty-five at the same time.

He was wearing cargo shorts and a cotton tee in addition to his converse. They didn't look like they could hold up to the October cold, but he didn't seem bothered by it at all.

"Hey," His brow furrowed as he crouched down in front of me, the movement graceful and seemingly effortless. "Talk to me. It's okay."

"I'm fine." I managed, quietly, feeling my cheeks grow hotter when I realized I'd done little more than sit there, starting at him. I forced myself to avert my eyes, going against my every instinct in my body. Although I couldn't explain the feeling if I tried, something in me needed to be closer to this mystery man. "Sorry."

"Don't sweat it." He said gently, flashing me a look that filled me with warmth as he stood. I expected the attractive stranger to walk away then and go about his normal business–although the thought crushed a small part of me. But, instead, he took a seat on the stair beside me. Typically, I would have been bothered by the imposition on my personal space, but, aside from the respectful distance he kept between us, there was just something about him that set me at ease.

I kept my eyes forward, locked on the red sports car he'd arrived in, pulled up against the curb in front of us. The object made me uncomfortable. It was a sure sign that he had money, or that he came from it. It left me wondering what someone like him was doing in this part of town.

Absently, I rubbed my arms through the thick, knitted fabric I'd wrapped myself in. I glanced over at him, beside me, seemingly unperturbed by the falling temperature as we sat in silence. Could he have really come out here to buy drugs? I asked myself, unsurely. Or, worse, a prostitute? He just seemed so incapable of either of those things.

"Are you lost?" I asked, softly. "I can give you directions if you need them."

He shook his head almost immediately. "No, no, that's okay." Things were quiet for a minute before he spoke again. "Do you want to go for a ride with me?"

"I... I shouldn't." I decided, swallowing and shaking my head. I brought my knees up to my chest and wrapped my arms around them, hoping the position would keep me a little warmer. "It's not such a good idea. I don't even know you." I added, faintly.

The idea of sitting in front of a running heater even for a five minute spin around the block was beyond tempting, but the logical part of me was wary of the offer. He seemed kind enough and I wanted to trust him, but I knew better than most what people were like. They didn't do things for one another without expecting anything in return, whether it was right away or somewhere down the line.

"My name's Jack." He announced, grinning charmingly. "If that helps any."

His natural charisma only made it harder to keep saying no, so, instead, I turned away and pressed my head to my knees, exhaling heavily in frustration, although the noise was suppressed. What was it about him? I knew that if it had been anyone else, I would have walked away, but, he made me feel ridiculously safe in a way I had never felt before. Not even in my own home.

He continued, undeterred by reaction. "How about a cup of coffee, then? You don't even have to get in my car. Look, there's a diner, right across the street. I'll buy. Come on."

I lifted my head, opening my mouth to protest in some way or other before abruptly closing it. I was so cold. And tired. I turned my head to the diner he'd gestured to. Peggy's. It was open until two in the morning, which was considerably late, even for the area. I'd spent more than one night there trying to stretch the change in my pocket until I could come home, sometimes doing homework, sometimes reading a book I had stashed in my purse. Though, most of the time I would just sit in the corner booth doing nothing at all.

I chewed my lower lip in hesitation, the urge to simply give in to his offer growing with each passing second. A cup of coffee sounded like absolute heaven. How much could I really owe him for one cup of coffee, really? It was only five dollars, and that was if you included tax and a tip.

"Okay." I said, as firmly as I could manage, as I stood up, my arms firmly wrapped around myself as I came to full height.

"That's great!" Jack all but exclaimed, popping up from his own seat. When he held out his hand to me I blinked, but took it, allowing him to lead us across the unfrequented street. I reached for the door, but he beat me to it, holding it open before guiding us to a table in the far corner.

Jack barely had the chance to slide into his side of the booth before a waitress appeared. It struck me as odd, initially, but considering the way even I'd reacted to him, I guess it shouldn't have. He probably got excellent service wherever he went.

I kept to myself he chatted with the waitress, not bothering to pick up the menu I'd long memorized as he asked her for some water for himself and some coffee for me. "Doesn't your sister want anything else, honey?" She queried, cloyingly.

"She's not my sister." He stated evenly, before turning to me. "Is there anything else you want?" He asked, as the middle-aged woman openly ogled him. I could feel an ache in the bottom of my stomach starting to form, since my father's drunken arrival this evening had begun with him knocking the dinner I'd spent hours on to the kitchen floor, but I just shook my head, not wanting to test the limits of his generosity.

"I'm fine with coffee." I insisted, as I pushed the menu to the outer edge of the table so it wouldn't be in the way when our drinks arrived.

"Let me know if you change your mind. The money isn't a problem." He said, casually, as the waitress stalked off, clearly unhappy that he was so focused on me.

I'm sure the look on my face was nothing less than incredulous at the words. I shook my head a little to myself as I fought to reign in my expression. We came from two different worlds, that much was painfully obvious.

"Sorry." He said, sheepishly, after a moment. Even as he apologized, he was so lively and animated, especially around the eyes. There was a youthful spirit to him that a part of me envied. "I didn't mean to upset you."

"It's just—"

"—Here you are!" The waitress interrupted, simpering as she cut me off. She'd returned more quickly than I'd anticipated, setting Jack's water in front of him and my coffee in front of me. As my eyes swept over her name tag, I realized she'd served me before. My regular waitress, Megan, had been out sick. Judy. I remembered it vividly now. Christmas eve. She'd all but threw me out that night because I couldn't afford to order more than a few cups of coffee. Even before that, she had never seemed like a pleasant person. It didn't shock me that her advances towards Jack–if one would call them that–were at my expense.

I wrapped my hands around the mug and quietly thanked her, despite the rude way she'd clipped into our conversation. Although she usually hustled and bustled with her work, she lingered at the table, blatantly staring Jack down. He didn't seem bothered at all by the way she was was leering at him, dismissing her easily with his own words of thanks.

He centered his beverage in front of him, although he didn't otherwise seem interested in it, leaving it untouched as he sprung back into conversation. "So, have I earned the right to your name yet? Because, I'd really like to know it."

I cleared my throat softly and looked down at the cup nestled between my warming hands as I answered, embarrassed that I hadn't thought to give it to him when he'd introduced himself. "It's Emma."