I’ve always thought it a cruel joke that, at the time of day when your temper is most uncertain and you really, really need the boost only caffeine and sugar can provide, you have to stand in the kind of line that makes a glacier look like Usain Bolt. Shifting my weight from foot to foot and trying not to breathe the same air as the sneezer two people back, I looked around the café, wondering just where the hell Blake was. The fragrances of coffee, chocolate and pastries teased at my senses, enticing me even though I didn’t even like coffee, and made the wait seem even longer.

I had almost reached the counter when Blake burst in, full of apologies and charm. As he kissed my cheek, his freezing nose against my skin made me giggle and almost forget my annoyance with his tardiness.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said, unbuttoning his coat in the warmth of the shop and turning to the barista as we stepped up to the counter. “One large coffee, cream, sugar, foam, and one large hot chocolate with whipped cream and an almond shot for the lady.” He dug into his pocket and whipped out his wallet before I could open my purse. “It’s on me,” he said, smiling and handing her his credit card.

Knowing that smile all too well, I tensed, realizing he was about to ask me to do something I probably wouldn’t want to do. The barista shouted our order to the guy in the back, handed Blake a number to place on our table, and pointedly looked at the next customer in line. Turning, we spotted two people rising from a table in the back. Blake made a dash for it, narrowly beating two men already encumbered with mugs of coffee, and dropped into one of the chairs a bare second after its previous occupant stood up. Smiling in triumph, he beckoned me over as the men attempted to assassinate him with their eyes.

First rule of the coffee shop: Travel light. Second rule: Show no mercy.

Five minutes later, we were warming our hands on the hot mugs and bringing each other up to date on our lives. As usual, my old friend’s update was far funnier and more dramatic than my tale of dating drudgery, and I leaned back in my chair, sipping my drink and enjoying the entertainment.

“So I told him that despite what he might have heard, I was not a whore and he could just put his clothes right back on and get out of my house!” He ran his hands through his hair. “He wasn’t even nominally hot!”

“Where do you find these guys?” I asked, amused and curious.

“Everywhere,” he sighed. “I’m a jerk magnet.”

“You’re something, that’s for sure.”

“I really would like to meet a nice guy,” he mused. “Smart and funny, employed, not too tall, dark hair and eyes, knows when to be a gentleman, knows when not to be a gentleman.”

“The whole package, then.”

“A nice package would be good too,” he replied, a dreamy look in his eyes. “A nice, plump dick that he knows just what to do with…”

The two older women at the next table glared at us, and I realized the room had quietened enough that pretty much everyone could hear us. Leaning forward, I put a finger on Blake’s lips and grinned, rolling my eyes towards the women. Undeterred, he nipped at my finger and I yanked it away from his face.

“Let them listen,” he said at a slightly lower volume. “All I’m saying is the same thing they would say if they weren’t 187 years old.”

I laughed. “Quit being such a bitch. This is a respectable establishment!”

The women rose to leave, pulling their coats around them in a huffy sort of way. Blake ignored them.

“Enough about my pitiful excuse for a life,” he said. “There’s something I want to talk to you about.”

Here it comes, I thought.

He cleared his throat, suddenly nervous. “It’s like this. I have this friend, Sean Sullivan. He’s about 10 years older than us, and he has a nephew.”

I nodded. “And?”

“He needs a friend.”

I sat back in my seat. “Sean, or his nephew?”

“His nephew, of course. Sean has plenty of friends.”

“OK. What does that have to do with me?”

Blake sighed and started running a finger around the rim of the cup. “It’s not easy to explain. The nephew — his name is Declan, and he’s a real sweetheart — well, he’s had a difficult life.”

“Difficult, how?” I asked, feeling a hard-luck story coming on. I’m a sucker for those, and Blake knows it.

“His father’s kind of crazy — the conspiracy theory kind of nuts, not clinical psychosis or religious fanaticism, as far as I know — and he raised Dec basically by himself after his wife left him. He home-schooled Declan and taught him survival skills and all that…”

“How old is this kid?” I interrupted.

“He’s not a kid. He just turned 21.”

“Oh.” I sat back. “All righty, then.”

“I know this sounds like the plot of “Son of Unabomber” or something, but it’s real. Sean’s brother was a lot older and he got involved with this weird crowd back in the ’90s after Waco and Oklahoma City. They all decided to live off the grid, but it didn’t work out because they kept fighting, and — like that.”

Still mystified, I gestured for him to keep talking.

“Long story short, Sean’s brother died about year ago and that’s when Sean learned about Declan.”

“He didn’t know he had a nephew?”

“The brother cut all ties years ago, and his ex made a clean break when she left — no communication with anyone in the family. Dec was just a kid when she legged it. But, no, Sean didn’t know about any of this. No one knew.”

“Then how did Declan find the family? Or did they find him?”

Blake leaned forward, steepling his fingers as he spoke. “That’s the weird thing. It was pure luck.”

“How so?”

“After his father died, Declan decided to sell the house and land and try college. He’s very smart — probably genius level. He contacted a real estate agent and they got to talking about why he was selling, and the agent asked Declan what he knew about his family, which was basically next to nothing. Well, it turned out that the agent he listed the house with is a friend of Sean’s — and it also turns out there’s a distinct family resemblance. Besides the last name, I mean.”

“So the agent put two and two together?”

“Yeah. Anyway, long story short…”

“It’s no longer short, darling.”

He grimaced. “Bite me. Some stories take a while.”

“Especially yours.”

Blake shot me a look. “You’re only making it longer.”

“That’s right, blame the victim.” I shifted on my chair. The café’s hot chocolate tasted divine, but the devil himself must have designed the punitive wooden seats. “Go on.”

“So, long story longer, they had a family reunion. Sean liked the kid enough that he invited him to move in with them while he figured things out and went to community college. That’s when they found out about his social skills.”

“Social skills?” I asked, puzzled at this unexpected twist. “What social skills?”

“Exactly. He really didn’t have any, because dad apparently never saw any need to teach him any. So Sean and Patty, and me to an extent, have spent the last year teaching a 20-year-old man how to live in civilization. Everything: table manners, how to manage a bank account, how to live with other people and not get on their nerves, how to have an enjoyable conversation.”

“Very Jungle Book, or maybe Greystoke, the Legend of Tarzan.”

“Honestly, more like Young Frankenstein, some days.”

“I take it we’re getting to the part where I come in.”

Blake’s blue eyes glinted. “You’re very perceptive. And smart.”

“Quit buttering me up and get on with it.”

“Well, the other piece of the puzzle is that Dec’s father never saw fit to invite kids Dec’s age over, so he doesn’t seem to know how to relate to people his own age.”

“That’s terrible! Kids need friends.”

“Yeah, well, everyone but Declan’s father knows that. The long and short of it is, Dec doesn’t have any friends. He needs one. Sean and Patty tried inviting over families with kids near Dec’s age, but he always gravitated to the parents. So we were brainstorming, and your name came up, and I was wondering if you’d be willing to meet with him.”

“Why me?”

Blake smiled, but I saw no sign of the charming shark he could sometimes be.

“Why not? You’re extremely intelligent and you’re interesting. You’re old enough for him to be comfortable with, and hopefully not to immediately think of how to get you naked. But you’re young enough for him to maybe want to impress you.”

“Since when is thirty no longer fuckable?” It was kind of a sore spot with me since my last birthday.

“I didn’t say you weren’t fuckable.” He sighed, a trifle dramatically, and I gave him a look. “God knows I’d fuck you if you weren’t so female.” He nodded towards my ample chest, and I did a mini shimmy suitable for cafés and the judgmental old ladies who frequent them. He rolled his eyes. “But to an inexperienced twenty-one year old, you might as well be ninety-four, and a nun.”

“Speaking of social skills, you might consider acquiring some yourself.”

He grinned. “Don’t be silly. I’m that pearl beyond price for you: your one friend who will say exactly what’s on his mind and never bullshit you when it matters. You need me.”

Shrugging, I conceded the point. Everyone needs a friend who’s utterly honest, even if they exasperate the hell out of you most days.

“Does the kid know about me?”

“Declan,” and Blake stressed the name, “doesn’t know a thing about this conversation. I didn’t know how you’d react, and Sean didn’t want to get his hopes up.”

Reflecting on it all, I nodded. It sounded kind of crazy, but I know better than most that truth is stranger than fiction. If Declan needed a friend, I’d at least give it a try.

“I’m in.”

Blake nodded. “I’ll tell Sean.” He pulled out his phone and stabbed at it with two fingers, presumably sending a text.

I rifled through my purse for my own phone, needing to check my work messages. I’d been out of touch for at least an hour. Finding it, I typed in the security code and seven new emails popped up. Only one concerned a case of mine, though, and it could wait until I got back. I devoted Friday afternoons, usually slow, to catching up on paperwork and occasionally fantasizing about some of the cute cops and lawyers I saw during the week.

“Sean wants to know if you want to come by tonight for dinner and maybe some card or board games.” Noting my sudden smile, he snorted lightly. “I’ll tell him yes. Does six thirty work for you?”

“Sure.” As he typed, I watched his bent head, noting the new silver hairs sparkling among the brown. At this rate, he’d be totally gray by thirty-five, I thought.

“Why are you looking at me like you’re Dian Fossey and I’m a lesser primate?” he asked, not looking up.

“Oh, you’re definitely not a lesser primate,” I assured him. “You’re a full-on silverback gorilla!”

“Yeah, well, this gorilla needs a big ripe banana and he’s not finding one here,” Blake snapped, rising from his chair and reaching for his coat. “Let’s get going. I’ll send you Sean’s address.”

I arrived at six thirty-five, parking on the street and shivering in the unseasonably cold wind. Normally, it doesn’t snow in this part of the world until late December, but here it was, a full month till Christmas, and it felt like a blizzard could start any minute. Clutching the bottle of wine I’d picked up on the way, I trotted to the front door and rang the bell.

A short, round woman opened the door wide to let me in. “You must be Angela. Come in before we both freeze!”

Giggling, I darted in as she shut the door behind me and handed her the wine. “You’re my kind of guest, chica! Here, let me take your coat.”

She seemed to have about four arms, holding the wine, hanging up my coat, pointing out the bathroom and gesturing me towards the kitchen all at once. I liked her right away, feeling welcome and easy with her.

“Sean! Dec! Blake! Angela’s here!”

Footsteps thudded from the back of the house and two dark heads popped into view at the door to the kitchen. I could see why the real estate agent had recognized Declan as Sean’s kin. Not only did he share his uncle’s height and broad-shouldered frame, they had the same cheekbones and dimples when they smiled, which they both did quite a bit. Absently, I noted the Declan’s blue eyes were set farther apart than his uncle’s brown ones, and his mouth and jawline differed as well, but really, they could have been father and son.

I bit my lip. Both were exactly my type.

Blake ducked between them and waved.

“Come on in,” he said. “Let me introduce you.”

“Oh, Blake,” Patty laughed, “just like you to try to take over. Angela and I are already friends.”

“You know each other?”

Patty shrugged. “We do now. I learned everything I needed to know about her when she gave me a nice bottle of wine before she even unzipped her coat.” She looked over at me and winked. I winked back, relaxing and looking forward to the rest of the evening. “Anyway, Sean and Declan, this is Angela.”

The two men looked at each other, then back at Patty.

“We know, Tia Patty,” Declan said in a pleasant baritone voice. He stepped forward, hand outstretched for mine. “It’s nice to meet you, Angela.”

“It’s my pleasure.” He had a nice grip, friendly and firm without edging into bone-crusher territory, and I regretted having to let go of it. Mentally, I gave high marks to whoever had taught him so well, then leaned forward to shake Sean’s hand too. It felt as warm and friendly as Declan’s.

“Great to finally meetcha,” he said. “I’ve heard about you over the years, you know. Weird that we’ve never met till now, but better late than never, eh?”

“Absolutely. Thanks so much for inviting me.”

“Let’s get into the kitchen and open this bottle.” Patty shooed us all forward and we obeyed her like trained chickens, happily following the fragrances of peppers and garlic and fresh bread.

Settling in the large eating area so we could talk to Patty as she finished cooking dinner, I admired the playful room, painted in vibrant shades of orange, blue and white. The art prints on the walls provided even more color, while the black table and chairs anchored the whole thing. From somewhere, Spanish guitar music played, and I smiled.

“It’s loud, just like me,” Patty said with a laugh after I complimented her design.

“It’s warm and friendly, just like you,” I replied. Patty looked pleased. “Very cheerful. It makes me happy, this space.”

Patty’s eyes met mine. “It’s my Mexican heritage. Being in this room, creating good things to eat, sharing some chisme with my friends, it makes me feel connected with my mother and abuelas and tias.”

“That’s important. We all need connections. Life’s lonely without them.”

Patty’s gaze shifted for a moment to Declan, then returned to me. “Very true,” she said thoughtfully. “Sean, pour Angela a glass of wine, will you please?”

Over our wine, my hosts genially interrogated me, asking about my job and family. I had expected as much, and answered casually that I worked as a court-appointed advocate for children, that I enjoyed my work even though serious abuse cases could drain me, and that yes, I had thought about law school but hadn’t taken the plunge because of the time and expense. All three asked about the finer points of my job and why I did it, and honestly, if Blake hadn’t told me Declan was practically feral a year before, I never would have guessed.

As we spoke, I watched Declan look at his uncle and aunt, then at me, mental wheels spinning at 150 miles an hour, almost visibly learning. His smiles when our eyes met seemed genuine, though, and I realized Blake hadn’t conveyed Declan’s charisma. I had come over expecting to find a charity case. Instead, I found a delightful young man, keen to talk to me and learn all about me.

“Dinner’s almost ready,” Patty announced. “Dishes are by the sink.” We all rose and trooped over, eager to try the spicy-smelling soup and fresh bread. Declan somehow wound up behind me and fetched me a bowl, presenting it with a flourish.

“For you, my lady.” He bowed, making me laugh. Behind us, Blake watched this performance, an unreadable expression on his face.

Gracias, kind sir.”

Tu hables español?” Declan and Patty asked together, and I laughed again.

Poquito. Only a little. Some of the kids I help have Spanish as their first language, and it’s easier for all of us if I can speak directly to them. I still have to use an interpreter for the technical stuff, though.”

Tambien hablo español,” Declan said. “My dad was big on languages. I learned Spanish and Chinese, and was starting Arabic when he died.” Tears filled his eyes and he suddenly looked very young. I put a hand on his arm. Startled, he looked down at it, then back into my eyes, and I took my hand away.

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

He gazed back at the floor. “Thank you.”

“It all smells delicious,” Blake announced, stepping around us. “Patty, you make the best soup. I can’t wait to dig in. Angela, you’re going to love it.”

“It does smell heavenly,” I agreed, appreciating his attempt to bridge the awkward moment.

A minute or two later, we all sat at the table and held hands as Patty said a quick grace. Declan had managed to sit next to me, and again, his hand felt warm and welcoming. He gave my hand a little squeeze before releasing it, and an unexpected flutter in my belly — and tingle lower down — made me cross my legs.

Angela, I told myself sternly, stop it. You can’t have him. You’re here to be his friend, not his lover.

Thanks to Declan, I never lacked for food, drinks or conversation throughout the simple meal.

“You’re an excellent host,” I told him as he delivered my second bowl of soup.

He beamed. “It’s easy to be nice to you.”

Patty’s eyes shone as she watched her nephew outdo himself, and I couldn’t blame her. Clearly the force behind Declan’s transformation, she had earned the right to feel proud of him. As we finished the meal, he gathered our bowls and plates and took them away.

“How was your Thanksgiving?” Patty asked me.

“Oh, pretty quiet. I’m an only child, so it was just me and my parents.”

“How’d your mother ruin it this year?” Blake asked, eyes twinkling.

“You’ll never let that go, will you?”

“Let what go?” Declan said.

“When we were in college, Angela invited me to join her family for Thanksgiving, and I accepted, figuring for some reason that her mom had to be a great cook.”

“And?” Sean prompted him.

“It was by far the worst meal I’d ever had in my life. The potatoes had hard little indigestible lumps in them, the turkey was practically raw inside, the rolls were stale, and I still don’t know how she managed to screw up green bean casserole, but she did.”

We all chuckled, and I felt my face get hot.

“At least it was traditional,” I said.

“Oh, yes — a traditional Thanksgiving dinner followed by a traditional visit to the urgent care facility for food poisoning! I lost five pounds that day.”

“Yuk,” Declan said, giggling and turning to me. “Was it really that bad?”

“My mother was a terrible cook, and I’m not a whole lot better,” I admitted. “That’s why a dinner like this one is such a treat for me — and why I always bring the wine.” I saluted Patty, who bowed her head graciously.

“My mom was a good cook,” Declan said in a small voice, and the table quieted instantly.

“Was she?” I asked pleasantly. “What were your favorite things she made?”

He stared at the ceiling. “She made really good meatloaf. We had that every Monday. But my absolute favorite was her spaghetti. Her grandmother was Italian and gave her the secret recipe. All dad’s friends would come over on spaghetti night. That was the best!”

Sean and Patty both regarded him kindly. “You never mentioned that before,” Sean said.