Chapter 1: Haley
Nothing in twenty years prepares me for that man on his knees.
Naked to the waist.
Sweat gleaming on his shoulders.
The spotlight caresses the ridges of a body cut from stone as though it wants to follow him around forever.
Maybe it does.
But he’s not stone. His skin would be warm, not cold.
Silhouetted hands reach for him over the edge of the stage, like something out of Dante’s Inferno. Souls in hell grasping for their last chance at heaven. That seems misguided because the way Jax Jamieson grips a mic is straight-up sinful.
Next to the poster is a photo of four men in tuxes, gold statues in their hands.
We’re attracted to gold for its sheen, its promise of something elite and revered and sacred.
My gaze drags back to the man in the poster. Elite. Revered. Sacred.
“I’ve read your resume. Now tell me why you’re really qualified.”
The dress pants that were a bad damn idea slip on the seat. The polyester scrapes along my skin, and I force eye contact with the woman interviewing me. “I reset at least two hundred undergrad passwords a week. And I make a lot of coffee. My roommate says I’m better than the baristas at her café.”
The printed job description sticks to my fingers. “‘Technical support and other duties as appropriate.’ That’s what you mean, right? Rebooting computers and making coffee?”
She holds up a hand. “Miss Telfer, Wicked Records is the only private label that has survived everything from Napster to streaming. There are two hundred applications for this internship. Our interns write and produce music. Run festivals.”
The woman looks as if she missed getting tickets to the Stones’ Voodoo Lounge tour and has been holding a grudge ever since.
Or maybe she was the next one into the record store behind me the day I found Dark Side of the Moon on vinyl in Topeka.
It’s probably not a fair assessment. Under that harsh exterior, she could be genuinely kind and passionate about music.
Maybe I’m in The Devil Wears Prada and this woman’s my Stanley Tucci.
“I run an open mic night on campus,” I try. “And I’m a developer. I write code practically every day, and lot of people fork my repos on GitHub, and…” My gaze sneaks back to the poster.
“Don’t get too excited,” she warns. “Whoever gets this job”—her tone says it’s not me—“won’t work with the talent. Especially that talent.”
Her final questions are nails in my coffin. Closed-ended things like if the address on my forms is right and if the transcripts I submitted are up to date.
She holds out a hand at the end, and I hold my breath.
Her skin’s cold, like her heart decided not to pump blood that far.
I drop her hand as fast as I can. Then I shoulder my backpack and slink out the door.
The idea that the biggest rock star of the last ten years just saw me bomb—even if it was only his poster—is depressing.
I’m on the second bus back across Philly to campus before the full weight of disappointment hits me.
Are college juniors supposed to have run music festivals in order to pour coffee? Because I missed that memo.
I drop my backpack at our two-bedroom apartment, change out of my weird interview pants and into torn skinny jeans and my mom’s brown leather jacket, then make two coffees and walk to campus, the UPenn and Hello Kitty travel mugs in tow.
“Excuse me.” A girl stops me on the way into the café, right beside the sign that says Live Music! “There’s a cover tonight.”
“I’m here every week.” My smile fades when I realize she really has no clue who I am. I point to my chest. “Haley. I get the bands.”
“Really?” She cocks her head. “I’ve never noticed you.”
The table at the back is de facto mine, and I set the travel mugs down before crossing to the stage.
The guy there frowns as he plays notes on his guitar with one hand, holding the headphones attached to the soundboard. When he notices me, a grin splits his face. “Haley. You like the new board?”
“I like it if it works.” I take the headphones and nod at his guitar.
The first chord he plays is like the snapping of a hypnotist’s fingers. My world reduces to the vibrations and waves from Dale’s guitar.
I adjust the levels on the board. “There. You should be good.”
Before I can lift my head, Dale’s tugging the headphones off my ears. I jerk back like I’ve been scalded, but he doesn’t notice my jumpiness.
His earnest brown eyes are level with mine. “Perfect, Haley. Thanks, Haley.” Did he say my name twice? “You should sing with us tonight.”
I glance toward the back of the café that’s starting to fill. “Ah, I don’t think so. I have to…” I make a motion with my fingers, and Dale raises a brow.
I frown. “No. Code.”
I retreat to my table. The second chair is occupied.
“He tried to touch me,” I say under my breath.
My roommate Serena tosses her honey-blond hair in a move that’s deceptively casual. “That asshole.” I roll my eyes. “You know some people communicate affection through touch. It’s even welcomed.”
“In hell,” I say darkly as I drop into my chair. “We have our own bodies for a reason. I don’t understand how some people think it’s okay to stand super close to someone. And don’t get me started on whispering.” I shiver, remembering the contact. “If I wanted some random person to breathe on my face or grope me? I’d ask for it. I’d stand there waving a sign saying, ‘Please God, run your unfamiliar hands all over my skin’.”
“If you did that on campus, there would be a pileup.” She winks before turning back to the stage, where Dale’s bandmates have joined him and are getting ready to start their set. “Do you think Dale knows you have a man in your life? Because he’s not getting so much as a ‘maybe, if I’m drunk’ unless his name is Carter.”
“Professor Carter,” I remind her. “He’s twenty-eight and has a PhD from MIT.”
“Whatever. He’s cute in glasses. But he lost my respect when he bailed on your research assistant gig.”
“He didn’t bail. His funding fell through. It would’ve been perfect since I’d have more time to work on my program, but at least he’s still supervising my senior project next year.”
“That’s his job.” She snorts. “But I think he likes you tripping over him.”
The look she shoots me has me shaking my head as I glance toward the stage.
Dale’s no Jax Jamieson, but his latest is pretty good. The band’s super acoustic, and they have a modern sound that plays well with a college crowd.
“Come on,” Serena presses. “He doesn’t love having college girls undressing him with their teenage eyes in Comp Sci 101? Yeah right. The man might be young enough to have danced to Britney Spears at prom, but thanks to Mr. ‘Oops, I Did it Again,’ you have two days to find a job so you don’t get kicked out of the co-op program.”
I flip open the lid of my computer. “It’s my fault, not his. I suck at interviews. I haven’t had to get a job before.” Serena’s smile slides, and I wince. “Okay, stop giving me the ‘sorry your mom’s dead’ look.”
“It’s not just ‘sorry your mom’s dead.’ There’s a side of ‘I can’t believe you have to pay your own college.’” Serena’s parents are loaded and generous.
“If it wasn’t for the requirement to be employed by an actual company, I could spend the summer working on my program and enter it in that competition.”
When my mom died last year, I took a semester off, lost my scholarships, and missed the financial aid deadline. Now I have to come up with tuition myself. I know I can figure it out because a lot of people do it, but if I win the coding competition in July, that’ll help big time.
“Where were you interviewing today?”
I blow out a breath. “Wicked.”
She shifts forward, her eyes brightening. “Shit. Did you see him?”
I don’t have to ask who she means. A low-grade hum buzzes through me that has nothing to do with the music in the background.
“Jax Jamieson doesn’t hang around the studio like a potted fern,” I point out. “He’s on tour.”
“I don’t care what kind of nerd god Carter is. Jax Jamieson is way better with his hands, and his mouth. Any girl would love having that mouth whisper dirty secrets in her ear. Even you.”
I shift back in my seat, propping my Converse sneakers on the opposite chair across and fingering the edge of my jacket.
“I don’t need to get laid. I’ve been there.” I take a sip of coffee, and my brain lights up even before I swallow. “The travel agent promised Hawaii. Instead it was Siberia.”
“Cold, numbing, and character building?”
Sex is awkward at best.
What I can deduce from my own meager experience, porn, and Serena’s war stories is that guys like to be teased, squeezed, popped until they burst all over you, at which point they’re basically deflated hot air balloons taking up the entire bed.
And don’t you tell them what you’re really fantasizing about is when it will be over and you can take a scalding-hot bath.
“My vibe has more empathy in its first two settings than the guys on campus,” I go on, and Serena cackles. “In fact,” I say, lifting my UPenn travel mug, “I may never have sex again.”
Her protest has me laughing. “Plato said there are two things you should never be angry at: what you can help and what you can’t.”
“Yeah, well. White men who got to wear bed sheets to dinner said a lot of crazy shit.” Serena’s green eyes slice through me. “Besides. I’m not angry. I’m planning.” I raise a brow. “To find you a guy with a tongue that’ll turn you inside out.”
I shudder. “That’s sweet. Truly. But I didn’t come to school to get laid, Serena.” Her fake shocked face has me rolling my eyes. “I want to do something that matters.”
When I started college, my mom told me I was lucky to have been born now, and her daughter, because I’m free to be whatever I want. By that, she meant a famous painter or a rocket scientist, or straight or gay, an advocate for children or the environment.
It’s not enough.
Serena’s right. I’m obsessed with Jax Jamieson, but it’s not because of his hard body or the way he moves or even his voice.
It’s because Jax Jamieson matters.
He matters by opening his mouth, by lifting his guitar, by drawing breath. He matters by taking people’s hopes, their fears, and spinning poetry with them.
Every time I sit down and listen to Abandon on vinyl on the floor of my bedroom, a coffee in my hands and my eyes falling closed, it’s like he matters a little bit more.
If I ever meet Jax Jamieson, I’m going to ask him how he does it.
Before Serena can answer, my phone rings.
“This is Wendy from Wicked Records. You got the internship.”
Disbelief echoes through me. I glance over my shoulder in case I’m on camera for some reality show. “But what about the other two hundred applicants?”
“Apparently their coffee making left something to be desired. Be here tomorrow at seven thirty.”