I woke with a start, not a gentle coming to, the awareness of hot water ticking through the radiators or the sound of my self-timer coffee machine. It was a jarring thud, a hammering of the heart, and the realization that I was late.
I could hear the garbage truck moving down the street and I’d forgotten to put out the trash last night. It had been so cold that I’d decided to leave it to morning. Now I was regretting that decision: I was late for work, late for my breakfast meeting, and late for the damn garbage truck!
Tossing back the duvet, I shivered in the cooler air, lunging for my bunny-ear slippers and robe, then dashing to the kitchen to grab the black trash bags.
Muttering to myself, I slid back the deadbolt on the front door, unhooked the chain and ran into the snowy street, my slippers sliding in slush as my breath steamed. I skidded to the sidewalk while icy blasts of Arctic wind cut through my thin robe and silky pajamas. The winter weather was frigid and unforgiving.
The garbage truck had nearly reached my house, the team of three men were shouting and laughing at each other as they raced down the road: who could go the fastest, who could lift the most bags, who could clear their quadrant in the shortest space of time.
I tossed my trash bags onto the sidewalk pile, relieved I’d gotten here in time: another minute and I’d have missed them. My hands were already numb as I hurried back to the front door and … what? No!
I shoved on the door, rattling it uselessly, but it had shut firmly behind me as I’d run out with the garbage. I didn’t have my phone and most of my neighbors had already left for work. Annoyance turned to dread as my whole body shook with cold.
I heard the garbage men’s voices fading into the distance and I whirled around.
“Hey!” I yelled after the garbage truck. “Wait!”
I slipped on black ice, my feet flying up in the air as I slammed down onto a mound of snow.
I lay winded, numb and ice-cold.
“Woah, you okay?” called a voice.
One of the garbage men was hurrying back towards me, his breath billowing in small puffs of vapor as he ran. A knit cap was pulled low over his ears and a thick scarf wrapped around his mouth, so all I could see were a pair of bright blue eyes, clouded with concern.
I blinked twice then struggled to sit up, my bare hands sinking into snow.
“Just gotten the w-wind knocked out of m-me,” I admitted breathlessly.
“You want me to call 911?” he asked, his voice muffled by the scarf.
“No, I’m f-f-fine,” I grimaced. “Just f-f-feeling like a f-f-fool.”
He reached down to help me up and my robe fell open. I shuddered as the icy wind whipped it around my knees, aware that my pajamas and slippers were wet through.
“Not the best clothes for January in New York,” he said, shaking his head.
“N-no? I m-must have gotten it confused with June.”
He gave a soft huff of amusement then unzipped his heavy coat and hung it around my shoulders.
“You d-don’t need to do that,” I said, giving the lie to my words as I snuggled into its wonderful warmth. “I’m really s-sorry, do you have a cell phone? I’m locked out so I need to call a locksmith.”
His eyes crinkled as if he were smiling although it was hard to tell with the scarf covering half his face.
“I’ll see if I can get your door open,” he said. “Aren’t you usually at work by now?”
My eyebrows shot up. “How do you know that?”
He shrugged his broad shoulders. “Most Thursdays, I seen you leaving for work. Office job, right?”
I felt bad that I’d never bothered to notice the men who collected my garbage every week.
He turned and yelled to his friends. “I’ll catch up with you. I’m helping a damsel in distress!”
There were several rude shouts that were mostly lost in the sound of the truck moving further down the street.
“I’m sorry that I’m holding you up.”
He shrugged. “Garbage ain’t going nowhere.”
He looked at my door, rattled it a few times then lifted his long, muscular leg and aimed a hard kick just above the lock.
Twice more he slammed his boot into the wood until the frame splintered and the door flew open.
“How did you know that would work?” I asked, surprised but pleased.
“Misspent youth,” came the reply, and I felt sure that he was laughing at me. “You need to get a better security system for your door.”
“I see that!” I said, glancing at the shards of wood scattered on my porch, “but then I’d still be locked out.”
“If that hadn’t worked, I’d a broken a window,” he said with a smile in his voice.
“I’m … impressed!” I laughed, my teeth chattering. “Should I be worried?”
“Not about me, but you definitely need a better lock.”
I stepped into the warmth of my house and rather reluctantly handed him back his coat.
“Well, thank you. For everything. I really appreciate it. I’ll call you next time I want to break into my own home.”
He slipped his coat back on and lifted his fingers to his cap, saluting me in a wonderfully old-fashioned gesture.
Then he jogged off down the road to catch up with the garbage truck.
I watched through the window as my knight in work boots disappeared from view.
By the following week, the snow had cleared and the temperature was a balmy 40oF. This time, I was ready for the garbage truck. I’d decided to tip the man who’d helped me … but I didn’t even know his name.
I heard the garbage truck trundling down the road, and I recognized the man who’d saved me. He was wearing the same knit cap as before, but this time I could see his face as he waved and jogged towards me. Those bright blue eyes were matched by a wide smile and a very handsome face.
“No pajamas today?” he asked with a grin.
“Yes, but they’re under my suit,” I deadpanned.
“Saves a few minutes at bedtime,” he nodded sagely, making me laugh.
“I just wanted to thank you again for last week,” I said, more serious now.
“It was nothin’,” he said with an easy smile, and I thought I detected a slight southern accent.
“It was to me. So, I’d like you to have this,” and I handed him an envelope with five crisp twenty-dollar bills.
“What’s this?” he asked, without taking the envelope.
“To say thank you,” I said, still holding it in front of me.
“You already thanked me,” he said, his smile gone. “’Preciate it.”
He turned to leave.
“Wait … I didn’t mean … I thought … maybe you could treat your colleagues to coffee after your shift? Or … donate it to your favorite charity?”
His mouth was a flat line, but the tightness around his eyes lessened.
“Thank you, ma’am. I’ll do that,” he said, taking the envelope and stuffing it in his back pocket.
I felt completely confused. I thought he’d be grateful, happy to have an extra hundred bucks, but instead I’d offended him. And I was way too young to be called ‘ma’am’.
“I’m sorry. Can we start again? My name’s Alicia—my friends call me Lissa. And I’m very grateful that you saved me from becoming an ice sculpture last week.”
“Jake,” he said, giving a small smile. “Nice to meet you, Lissa.”
I smiled back. “Well, I’d better get to work. See you next week, Jake.”
“Me, too. That garbage ain’t gonna haul itself.”
And he grabbed my two black trash bags and jogged after the truck, laughing at something his friends shouted at him.
Again, I watched him until he was out of sight; my Sir Galahad-of-Garbage.
That evening after work, my department was out celebrating a big win. I worked as a lawyer for a record company, and we’d taken down a major pirate music site that had been stealing from artists for years. We were finally inching forward as the law struggled to keep up with cyber-criminals, and our team leader Donald, Senior VP, was taking us out to celebrate at a nearby pub.
“Alicia?” he prompted me as a server arrived to take the orders.
“Half a Guinness, please, and the Scallops.”
As soon as I placed my order, I headed for the ladies’ room, but heard someone calling my name.
I turned my head and found myself staring up at a grinning Jake, standing with a group of men his age.
“Jake, hi! Are you having dinner, too?”
“Nope, just standing here to keep out of the rain.”
“It’s not raining,” I said stupidly, then heard the laughter bubble out of him.
“Haha, very funny,” I smiled.
“You with the bunch of suits?” he asked, nodding at my colleagues sitting around a corner table.
“Yep, celebrating a big win at work today.”
“Thank you. But maybe you’ll let me buy you a drink now—I definitely owe you.”
I phrased my question carefully, remembering the last time I tried to thank him.
“Nah, I’m good, thanks,” he said, raising the glass of soda in his hand. “I’m just about to clock on and the boss don’t approve of the staff drinking at work.”
“You’re a barman, too? One job isn’t enough for you?”
He gave a lopsided smile. “The money’s good and it’s more like socializing than working.”
His friends were eyeing me curiously. “Hi, I’m Lissa,” I said, holding out my hand.
Looking surprised, Jake introduced me, then we stood awkwardly staring at each other.
“Well,” I said, “I’d better get back to my colleagues. Good to see you, Jake.”
“You too, Lissa.”
He said something to his friends then ducked behind the bar to serve a couple of women whom he seemed to know by name. I guessed he was that kind of guy—friendly with everyone and everyone’s friend. But when the brunette touched his arm lightly, a shot of irritation flared through me. Something that felt an awful lot like jealousy.
I watched him from the corner of my eye as he worked, his smile easy, his blue eyes sparkling, his biceps bulging as he pulled pints, his ass nicely filling a pair of jeans. A peaceful energy flowed from him as if he had no worries and he’d found his place in the world. It was a contentment that was absent from the cutthroat world of high-stakes law.
I’d just finished my meal when he came over.
“Hey, Lissa. Good scallops?”
“The best! Thank you.”
“Not wearing pajamas today?” he challenged.
My colleagues looked at me inquiringly.
“Thanks for mentioning that,” I laughed, then turned to explain. “I locked myself out of my house last week when we had that heavy snow, and all I was wearing was pajamas and a robe.”
“Don’t forget your slippers with the rabbit ears,” he grinned.
I rolled my eyes. “Yes, let’s not forget my sartorial slip. Jake was passing and helped me break into my house so I didn’t die of hypothermia.”
We chatted for another minute then he had to get back to work.
“You should ask him out. A quick fling with someone like him would blow your cobwebs away,” she smiled. “It’s not like you’d have to date him. I mean, he’s not your usual type.”
Two days later, I hurried home from work. It was late, as usual, and I was looking forward to a hot bath with a glass of wine and a good book.
I scooped up the mail on the doormat, tossing the bills and mailshots onto the kitchen table, when I noticed a handwritten note.
I don’t have your number so I’m doing this the old fashioned way. Can I buy you a cup of coffee sometime?
And he’d scrawled his phone number at the bottom.
I smiled to myself. The last few dates I’d been on had all been with other lawyers, and they’d ended up feeling more like networking opportunities than anything romantic. There hadn’t been any second dates.
I decided to take a chance.
Coffee sounds good! I’m working late all week, but Saturday or Sunday morning?
He texted back right away.
Saturday morning would be great. There’s a coffee shop three blocks from you. Bean Vault, you know it? 10.00?
I was still smiling as I replied.
He was sitting in a window seat waiting for me when I arrived. I was on time so he must have been early. It made a change from dates with men who were always running late as if their time was more important than mine.
He stood up when he saw me and pulled out a chair.
I could get used to this, I thought.
He ordered our coffees then sat back in his seat.
“Have you rescued any more damsels in distress lately?” I asked.
“Nope, only you. Did you get your door fixed?”
“I did. And I’ve had a security keypad installed instead, so I can’t lock myself out again.”
“Smart move,” he smiled.
“So, other than rescuing me, working with the sanitation department and being a barman, what do you do in your free time?”
He shrugged. “Fishing with my buddies when I can. In the summer I help a friend with a lawn care business…”
He nodded. “I like keeping busy.”
“What do you do to relax?”
“Same as most guys: drink beer, watch TV, X-box, and I like fixin’ stuff. Taking it apart and see how it works.”
“What sort of things?” I asked.
“Anything really: engines, clocks, and I do woodwork.”
“Did you go to school for that?”
He laughed. “Nope. School and me didn’t get along so well. We didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up, so I just started fixin’ things that broke.”
I was intrigued. I was part of a throwaway society: when my laptop failed, I bought a new one; when my cell phone didn’t work fast enough, I upgraded. I didn’t sew buttons on clothes or darn them, even though my grandma had taught me how.
“What do you do?” he asked. “I overheard some of your friends’ conversation in the bar so I’m guessing you’re a lawyer?”
“Yes, my specialty is legal strategy in the digital age—music and e-media: Cyber law. When you saw us the other night, we were celebrating a change in the law which had allowed us to take down a pirate site. Musicians get their work pirated all of the time and it’s so common, no one thinks much about it, but to a musician, that’s their livelihood.”
“You really care about your work.”
“I do,” I said simply.
He nodded. “I know most folks wouldn’t think hauling trash is much of a job, but it suits me. I help clean up the streets. No responsibility, no one gets hurt.”
My eyebrows shot up and he shrugged. “Army for seven years. I like an easy life now.”
He was easy to talk to, thoughtful and funny. And he was happy. He had no ambition, no wish for a bigger house or a better car, no need for foreign travel. He liked his life and spent one week every summer in a rented cabin in upstate New York and the other week of his annual vacation visiting family.
He spoke to his parents in North Carolina every week, and his married sister was a police officer with three kids in Raleigh. He admitted that he’d followed a woman to New York, but when it hadn’t worked out, he’d stayed.
“I like working outdoors,” he smiled. “And sometimes I get to rescue beautiful strangers.”
I liked him. I liked the way he talked, I liked his philosophy of life. So when he asked to see me again, I immediately said yes.
One coffee date turned to lunch, and then the next time we saw a movie and ate popcorn. We took cold walks in the park and warmed up with creamy hot chocolates. After we’d been seeing each other casually for three weeks, he invited me for Valentine’s Day dinner at his house.
I couldn’t wait.
“You look different,” said Amy on Monday morning. “Did you get your hair tinted?”
“New lip gloss?”
She crossed her arms. “Dating a new guy?”
She smiled in triumph. “Anyone I know?”
“The barman we met in Neary’s a couple of weeks ago.” Then I took a deep breath. “And days he works for a sanitation company.”
“Oh!” she said surprised. “Doing what?”
My smile froze on my face. “Hauling trash.”
“He’s a garbage man.”
“You’re kidding?” she laughed uncertainly.
“Nope. He likes working outdoors.”
“So, he’s between jobs? This is just a filler?”
“No, he’s been there four years now.”
“You’re just having fun with him, right?”
“Yes, we have fun. But I really like him, Amy.”
She seemed lost for words; never a good sign in a lawyer.
“Jake seems like a nice guy,” she said at last, speaking cautiously. “But…”
“I knew there’d be a but.”
“Come on, Lissa! You can’t be serious about him. You’re a Harvard graduate, one of the top attorneys in cyber law—he hauls trash for a living.”
“I get that we’re coming from different places…”
“When you dated Rob, he dumped you when he found out how much more than him you earn.”
“Okay, I see what you’re saying.”
“Do you? Guys get weird about women who earn more than them. But that’s not the only thing: you’re ambitious and he’s … not.”
I sighed. “When we’re together, it’s good. It’s great, in fact. He may not be ambitious but he’s content. Do you have any idea how restful that is? To be with someone who’s happy with who they are?”
“Just … don’t get in too deep.”
But what if I already was?
“And,” she said, staring at me seriously, “you still want to make Junior VP, right?”
“Yes, of course.”
She gave me a pointed look but didn’t say anything more.
Then her phone rang and she was off, calling over her shoulder that we’d talk later. I stared after her, thinking about what she’d said. It made me angry and sat at the same time. But she had a point.
Later that day, Donald reminded me that our team was having an away-weekend at the end of February as a thank you for all our hard work, and that we’d be staying at a spa hotel overlooking Saranac Lake.
“Bring a date!” he said. “We could all use a little down time,” and he patted my shoulder.
I thought all week about whether or not to invite Jake. I hated myself for hesitating, but I had Amy’s words whirring through my mind. She was my friend and she meant well, but Jake was the man I was dating. There was no one else I wanted to ask.
On Valentine’s Day, Jake made me dinner at his house. It was a small, one-story house with a tiny back yard, and rather worn around the edges; but it was clean and tidy, and he’d decorated his kitchen with paper hearts. It was the most romantic thing anyone had ever done for me.
The meal was wonderful: spicy shrimp paella with a shop-bought chocolate torte—both my favorites.
“So, there’s something I wanted to ask you,” I said as we lay curled up on his shabby sofa after dinner.
“Uh-oh! Sounds serious,” he teased.
“I have a work thing next weekend, in the Adirondacks, and I’d like you to come with me.”
He studied my face. “You don’t sound too sure about that?”
I tried to laugh it off, but he was too smart not to hear the hesitation in my voice.
“You might find it boring,” I hedged. “A bunch of lawyers talking shop in between spa treatments. But there’s snowshoeing and snowmobiles, as well.”
I felt the tension in his body and sat up so I could see his face.
“We’ve had fun the last few weeks, yeah?”
I was suddenly hyper aware. “We have.”
“But meeting your work colleagues, that’s a big deal.”
“You’ve already met them,” I pointed out.
“It’s not the same thing. I’d be there as your date.”
“That’s why I’m asking you.”
He rubbed his forehead. “They’re going to wonder why you’re with a guy like me.”
“A guy like you?” I echoed.
Frustration filled his face. “A guy who earns $13.33 an hour. You earn more than that in a minute. You know who I am and what I am. Is that going to bother you?”
“Where is this coming from?”
“I’m never going to earn a ton of money. I can’t look after you that way. I’ve seen where you live, your new Beamer in the driveway.”
“Good grief, Jake! This is the twenty-first century. Have I asked you to do that?”
“I’d rather be with someone who likes me for who I am,” I said softly. “Because I like who you are.”
He met my gaze. “I’m okay with where I am in my life. But I can’t afford to give you fancy things. You deserve a guy who can do that.”
My expression stiffened. “I don’t know who you insult most with that comment, me or you. If I have to find a partner who earns more than me, frankly I wouldn’t have very many people in this city to choose from. I look after me, Jake. I don’t want or need your money. I like you for you. And that’s more important to me.”
He shook his head slowly. “You say that now, but these things become important.”
I breathed in deeply. “I didn’t realize that money mattered that much to you.”
“It doesn’t!” he shot back.
“Then you think that it matters to me? You assume I’m so shallow that I can’t like you for yourself?”
“I don’t think you’re shallow,” he said quietly. “But can you honestly say you’d be happy in five years or ten years with a guy who hauls trash for a living?”
I looked away, choosing my words with care.
“The first day I met you, I knew what you did for a living. The day we had our first coffee together, I knew. The day we first kissed, I knew. When I slept with you, made love with you, I knew.” I took a deep breath. “When I fell in love with you, I knew who you were. There are no guarantees in life, Jake. I didn’t care then and I don’t care now.”
He met my gaze, staring at me, reading my face, looking for any flaw in my words, any sign that I didn’t mean what I said.
“You make a good argument,” he said quietly, a small smile lifting his lips.
“I’m a good lawyer,” I answered.
“Do you still want me to come with you next weekend?”
“Then I’ll be there.”
“Thank you,” I said, relief filling me with warmth.
“And everything else…”
“We’ll figure it out.”
I smiled as I reached out, holding his work-roughened hand in mine.
“Happy Valentine’s Day.”
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