“Looks like it’s you and me tonight, Doob.” James Mason petted the dog and settled on the floor with him. Dye Hard Style had closed for the evening and he’d locked the doors, but he wasn’t ready to head home—not yet. He’d rather give the dog attention and listen to the silence.
Christ, he was worn out. He spent most of his days packed with appointments for his styling services. Opening to closing, he had someone wanting his attention. He’d worked hard for his reputation for excellence in hair styling, but that didn’t help when he wanted a break.
Other than his job, he had little else to show for his work. He had no social life outside of the salon. No boyfriend and few actual friends. He didn’t even have the energy to try to pair himself with anyone, not like he did with the guys who came in wanting dates.
The one thing he did have was Doob, his black mutt with a heart of gold. From the moment Doob had shown up at the salon, he’d become James’ constant companion. He’d been more loyal than most everyone else in his life. His ex-boyfriends certainly weren’t loyal.
But he wanted a date. James supposed he could leave Doob at home and call a friend to go out, but he wasn’t in the mood for drama. He’d have plenty of drama tomorrow when he met with Jonathan Paul Henderson, the owner of the salon building and the Annex next door. He’d never actually seen Mr. Henderson. When Lester McCann had sold the building and the one next door, he hadn’t asked James his opinion—not that he’d had to—and never bothered to introduce James to the new owner.
But that was Lester. If he could get away with doing nothing, he’d do even less.
At least James didn’t have far to go in his commute home. Having his apartment in the Annex next door meant all he had to do was walk through the door joining the two buildings. Sometimes living next to the salon did have some perks.
He left the floor and checked he’d locked the front doors, then turned off the main lights. The security ones came on, bathing the space in dim yellow glow. Once satisfied, he patted his hip for Doob, then collected the cash from the register.
The dog had been a lumpy, furry godsend. Doob stuck by him when his depression hit and knew how to make him feel better. The dog was the sweetest thing, too. Whoever had been his family had been lucky to have him.
Part of James wondered why no one had ever claimed Doob. He’d put out what seemed like a thousand fliers, letting the public know he’d found the lost dog. Surely, Doob was missed. He had his name on a metal plate on his collar—wouldn’t a family or someone who cared about the dog do something like put his name on an engraved plate on the collar? If Doob had run away, then why hadn’t anyone come looking for him?
What if they hadn’t wanted Doob? The dog was a good boy and so loyal. How could someone not want him?
If they didn’t want him, James did. He checked that the rear doors to the former theater building were indeed locked and secured, then returned to the salon portion of the building.
He clicked the leash onto Doob’s collar. “It’s been almost a year. If you haven’t been claimed by now, then finders keepers. You’re officially my dog.” He’d already bought Doob’s tags and had him to the vet for his shots. Unfortunately there hadn’t been a microchip in Doob then, but there was now.
Doob circled around James’ legs, catching him up in the leash.
“You’ll trip and kill me, you know. If I’m dead, then you won’t get puppy food.” James slipped the memory card from the register into the cash bag, then zipped it shut. He tucked the bag under his arm and allowed Doob to lead him to the door out of the salon. He appreciated being able to go straight from the salon to his apartment building without having to go outside with a cash bag.
He carried the money to his third-floor apartment, then locked the bag in the safe in his bedroom. He’d worry about the numbers later. Right now, he needed to feed Doob. He unfastened the leash, then added kibble to Doob’s bowl. When the dog settled for his evening nap, that was when James would wrangle the numbers on the ledger.
Doob greedily munched on his dog food and James admired his gusto. Doob never seemed lonely. Just happy to be loved. James wanted to be loved by the dog, sure, but a boyfriend would be nice, too.
“We’ll find someone, Doob. Someone we both like and who will like us as a package deal. Think we can manage as a threesome?” Saying it like that sounded odd, but whatever. Doob was good as a companion, but James needed someone human to warm his bed.
Once Doob finished his dinner and got a drink, half of which he seemed to leave on the mat around his water bowl, James clicked the leash on him again. He and Doob left the apartment for their evening walk.
Doob seemed to love the four laps they usually took around Norville town square and James liked the exercise. Some days he and Doob ventured away from the center of town to the park by the school. Although James liked the excitement of the salon, right now, he wanted peace and quiet.
Doob walked proudly in front of him and sniffed at whatever he found. Once he and James encountered other dogs, Doob fell in line beside James, but seemed to pay no attention to the canines. James wondered if he should socialize the dog more. What if he and Doob were becoming too solitary for their own good?
James stopped to let Doob do his business. As he waited, he considered his life. He loved doing hair and making people beautiful. Helping someone find their inner glam made him happy. But he didn’t want to be single forever.
Maybe he could visit Club Jester. He’d helped enough other guys find true love there. Why not try for himself?
He cleaned up after Doob and tossed the baggie into the receptacle for dog waste, then sanitized his hands.
His thoughts turned back to clubbing. Who would he meet at Club Jester? The same old-same old most likely. Those guys were good, but they were either in a relationship or never going to settle down.
He spotted a jogger coming toward them and stepped off the path to give the athlete space. As soon as the man grew closer, James recognized him. Pauly. He’d chatted more than a few times with Pauly at the salon when the man stopped for haircuts or just to hang out. He liked Pauly, but never got the feeling Pauly wanted a boyfriend. He seemed like too much of a free spirit. He was a whiz with makeup and always managed to make himself handsomely beautiful. James wished he had the same skills with foundation and eyeshadow.
Pauly jogged up to him and stopped. He mopped his brow with his shirtsleeve and grinned. How could one man, jogging no less, look so on-point all the time? Even now, he had makeup on, without smearing it much, and a slight beard. Unreal, but gorgeous.
“Hi, you.” Pauly took a swig from a small water bottle he had wrapped around his hand. “How are you?”
“Hi, yourself. You look fantastic.” He held on to Doob’s leash. “I haven’t seen you at Dye Hard Style in forever. Have you been working out to make yourself chiseled and handsome without telling me?”
“That’s partly true. I’ve always jogged, but I’ve been out of town.” Pauly smiled. “I missed seeing you.”
“Likewise.” A tingle ran the length of his spine and James wondered if the glint in Pauly’s dark eyes was because of him. He stared at the man’s lips and wondered what he tasted like…and when did he get such kissable lips?
“Are you planning on going to the Jester tonight?” Pauly asked. “I hear it’s singles night.”
Singles night could be good, but it could also be awful. “Oh?”
“They brought in a new DJ and are having games to get the singles to mingle.” Pauly rolled his eyes. “If you want to go, want to go together? Then we don’t have to play the singles games.”
He hadn’t wanted to go, but he also hadn’t considered going with Pauly until now. “I should take Doob home and change, but I wasn’t planning on going out.”
“No big deal. I need to finish my jog and would have to shower,” Pauly said. “If you want, I can pick you up. It was my idea, so I can drive. You’re in the Annex, aren’t you?”
James blanched. He didn’t tend to tell people where he lived and only a few people referred to the building as the Annex. “Yeah, I am. I didn’t think you knew that.”
“Oh, I’d heard it.” Pauly blushed. “Sorry.”
He wanted to go out tonight and with Pauly, but something about the situation made him want to hold back. “Why don’t we exchange numbers and I’ll text you when I’m free. We can plan a date for another day.”
“I’d like that.” Pauly offered up his phone. “Do you have yours?”
He patted his thigh. Shit. He’d left his phone at home. “I don’t, but I’ll give you my number.” When Pauly handed him the device, he inputted his work number, then offered the phone back to him. “See you around at the salon?”
“Sure.” Pauly slid the phone back into his armband holder. “I’m sorry if I came off too pushy.”
“Don’t take it personally. I get kind of funny when I go out. I don’t do it often. I’m not a clubbing kind of guy.” He wasn’t any longer. He had been when he was younger, but now that he’d been around…clubbing had lost its luster.
“I get it. You’re more of a stay-home-and-chill kind of guy.” Pauly nodded. “Can’t blame me for trying.”
“Nope.” And maybe one day he’d go out with Pauly. Just not today. “See you?”
“I’ll be around the salon here and there. Maybe next week we could try going for coffee.” Pauly tapped his phone and an album cover filled the screen. “See you.”
James waved and headed with Doob back to his apartment. Maybe he should’ve gone with his instincts and gone out. He’d just inwardly complained he spent too much time alone and the chance to be with someone arose, but he’d chickened out. Or maybe he needed to know Pauly a bit better.
Once in the apartment building, he checked that his car was still safe in the warehouse space, then went upstairs.
He herded Doob to their apartment and unleashed him. “I spent too much time with just you, but you’ve never cheated on me.”
Doob sneezed, then trotted off to his dog bed.
“You can ignore me like a champ, though.” Silly dog.
James removed his makeup and showered, then dressed in a pair of sleep shorts. He made himself a snack of yogurt and granola before turning on the radio. Almost everyone he knew listened to playlists. They curated the hell out of those lists, making the selections of music perfect.
Not him. He loved dance radio and the oldies channel. Why not let the spontaneity of the channel come through? He liked not knowing what would be playing next.
He sat on the window seat and watched the evening traffic below while eating and listening to music.
Tomorrow, he’d meet with JP Henderson finally. He’d explain why Doob needed to stay and probably accept his fate when reminded of the no dogs rule. The rule wasn’t subject to change, the landlord would probably say.
James didn’t like the idea of starting a new salon at another location, but he loved Doob. If he had to leave the old theater, then he’d do it for his dog. He loved the publicity Doob brought, too. People recognized the dog, the salon and his unique style.
Maybe the infamous JP Henderson would be willing to work with him. He had to give it a shot if he wanted to keep Doob.
He’d never met JP Henderson and finally learned his last name three weeks ago. Would the man be amiable? Curt? All business or friendly? Would he be an older gentleman or a sexy younger one? Maybe a sexy silver fox. What if he wasn’t gay, though? What if he was? What if he wasn’t interested in James? James’ imagination kicked into overdrive. What if JP Henderson secretly wanted to have a wild, torrid affair with him and was looking for the right moment to make a move?
Romances like that didn’t happen in Norville and they didn’t happen to him. He was a simple guy with simple tastes. Men of mystery didn’t fall for him.
He held on to his yogurt cup and let the Donna Summer song wash over him. Tonight, he had no cares. No worries, either.
Tomorrow was another matter, but first he’d enjoy tonight.