“One more rep. You’ve got it in you.” Cody Burrows spotted for his client Bri. He didn’t want her to overstress herself, but liked how she’d pushed to the next weight level on the machine. “You’ve got this.”
She did another squat on the machine, then placed the weight back in the rack. “Damn, you’re making me work hard today.”
“If you want to make the stage this year, you need to keep up the hard reps.” He handed her a towel. “You’re building great muscle, so you should be pleased with your results. You’ve got your spray tan scheduled, right?”
“I do.” She patted down her face and shoved the stray wisps of her hair out of her eyes. “Should be Monday so it’s set for the competition on Wednesday.”
“Good.” He loved working at Workout! and helping his clients get into shape. Some people around Norville considered him a gym rat and he didn’t care. He liked the way he looked, liked helping people realize their fitness dreams and keeping the town fit.
“I’m excited for the competition. I never thought I’d do a body builder anything.” She grinned and her green eyes glittered. “Paul is so proud of me.”
“He should be. You should be proud of yourself, though. You’ve put in the hours and it shows.” Cody took the towel from her and sighed as her boyfriend crossed the room.
Bri kissed Paul on the lips and seemed to forget Cody was standing there.
Cody tossed the towel in the bin, then left the lovers to their conversation. He tamped down his jealousy along the way. Some men would’ve wanted to be with Bri—she was pretty, smart and took care of herself. But he wasn’t interested in women.
He wasn’t interested in her boyfriend, either. Paul was nice, but too much of a jock. Cody liked the quiet types. The sensitive men who liked to read and could converse with him about music. Most people saw Cody as the muscle-bound guy at the gym or the former high school athlete who’d brought Norville High School awards in cross-country and track. According to some, he had it all, but not what he wanted the most.
Truth be told, he was jealous of Bri and Paul, but of what they had and how they shared their passion for each other. He hated being alone and missed having someone in his life. Someone to share conversations and his bed. Someone to hold when the nights were chilly or thunderstorms rolled through. He might be forty-one, but he still feared the rolls of thunder and streaks of lightning.
“They’re so full of each other.” Ty, one of the other trainers, joined Cody at the counter. “I’d say get a room, but they’d probably do it.”
“Probably.” He logged the time with Bri on the app, then checked the calendar. He didn’t have another client today, but he’d have to come back to the gym to work the counter at six. One of these days he’d have a full day off.
“Are you working with anyone else today?” Ty asked. “You’re always booked.”
“Not this afternoon. I’m heading to Dye Hard Style to get a haircut, then back here to run the desk.” He shrugged. “Dawson says he can’t get more trainers, but he might if he’d put out a call for help wanted.”
“That’d make sense.” Ty leaned on the counter and folded his arms. “I don’t know why you’re getting a cut already. It’s barely grown out.”
“I like to keep my hair short.” His style was part of his armor. If he looked like the jock, then no one would expect much from him. He could hide behind his façade and stay safe. He’d been hurt too many times by men who thought he wasn’t bright and hated when they found out the opposite.
“You should grow it out a little. Just on top.” Ty frowned, then crossed his ankles. “You might get a date that way.”
“Who says I need a date?” Besides me?
“Me, for one. I hate seeing you so sad. You act like you’re in a good mood, but I see the way you glare at the couples. You’re lonely.”
He hated when Ty was right. “So?”
“You want someone.”
He groaned. “But I never get out of here long enough to meet someone. The guys who come in here think I’m stupid. That I’ve got muscles for brains, not actual brains.” He squeezed his phone. “I tried to date a guy I met while working out and he got upset when I knew about Mozart but not the latest basketball scores.”
“You’re not into basketball. You like football and baseball,” Ty said. “That’s his fault for not knowing what you like.”
“Ah, but that’s the thing. He didn’t take the time to get to know me. All he saw was I had muscles and could get him a cut rate to work out here.” He shook his head. He knew going in that Chad would be a dead-end, but he’d still tried…and failed.
“Chad was a dick.”
He wouldn’t argue that one. “Good thing he’s history.”
“I still think there’s someone out there for you,” Ty said. “Why not ask James at Dye Hard? He’s already cutting your hair and he’s got quite the track record for pairing guys. You could get lucky.”
“I could.” He’d considered asking James, but hesitated. What if James laughed or said no? What if he wasn’t interested in helping? Vince couldn’t handle the rejection.
“You should ask him.” Ty closed the date book on the computer. “Go. You’ll be late and James gets snippy when his clients are late.”
“I know.” He tucked his phone in his pocket, then his keys from the drawer. Since he’d be coming back, he saw no reason to take his gym bag. “I’ll be back by five.”
“Take your time. I’m on the clock until six.” Ty waved. “Go.”
“Thanks.” He hurried out of the gym, then down the two blocks to Dye Hard Style. Ty was right—he didn’t need the haircut, but he wanted to talk to someone who wasn’t connected to his work. He also rather liked the way he looked after a fresh cut. Besides, he enjoyed his conversations with James.
He hustled through the glass doors of Dye Hard Style and marveled at the new movie posters in the lit frames. He appreciated how James had left the theater looking mostly the way it had during its heyday—except now housing a hair salon. The popcorn counter featured rows of hair products and the main lobby had been turned into the guts of the salon. The bright lights added a certain feel to the room that other salons lacked.
A young man with dyed gray hair stood at the turnstile. “You’re on time.”
He should know this man’s name, but James ran through receptionists so fast it was hard to keep up. “I am.” This one knew who he was, so he should know this guy’s name. “Jack?”
“Kyson,” he snapped. “I’m working on breaking a record.”
“Oh?” Cody made his way through the turnstile. “What’s that?”
“Working here for more than a week. James is a taskmaster.” Kyson crinkled his nose. “At least he keeps my color in check. He’s waiting on you. Don’t trip on the dog.”
“I’ll be careful.” He stopped to pet James’ dog on the head. “Hi, Doob.”
James rounded the corner to greet him. “Hi.” He picked up a cape and shook it out. “He likes you. Come on over.”
The black dog swished his tail and allowed Cody to pet him a few more moments, then joined James by the chair. Doob had become a fixture at the salon and a mascot of sorts.
“He likes you, too.” Cody rested on the chair and folded his hands on his lap. “I like how you’ve trimmed him.”
“Oh that.” James draped the covering over him. “Honestly, it was to get the knots out of his fur, but it has made him extra handsome. He’s a well-behaved dog. I don’t know why no one wants to come for him.”
“Maybe they moved and couldn’t take him.” He blinked as James sprayed water on his hair. “Or he ran away and they gave up looking for him.”
“See, I don’t know how anyone would do that. He’s a good dog.” James combed Cody’s hair. “And another thing, why would you leave your dog behind? I get that maybe you can’t take him with you, but find him a home or take him to the shelter. Don’t just leave him.”
“Not everyone thinks the way you and I do.” Cody averted his gaze. He didn’t mind looking at his reflection, but not right now.
“So…we’re doing another buzz or are you willing to let me do something a little different?” James asked. “I’ve got some ideas and I know you’ll like them if you’re willing to change just a little.”
He wanted to protest and demand his usual cut, but what the hell? Why not try something new? “Go for it.”
“You’re serious?” James beamed. “Cody?”
“Why not? I’m tired of looking the same and if you’ve got an idea what to do, then do it. I mean, Jesus. I’m over forty, I’m single and I want people to take me seriously,” Cody said. “While you’re at it, will you help me?” His hands shook. Thank God the cape covered them. He hated being nervous, but this was a huge ask.
“What do you want me to do?” James narrowed his eyes, then rubbed his chin before turning Cody away from the mirror.
“Will you help me find a date?” There. He’d asked. He’d put himself out there.
“You need a date?” James massaged Cody’s scalp. “I don’t believe it.”
“Guys see my muscles and run the other way. They think I’m stupid.” He fought the urge to shake his head and held still for fear he’d mess up whatever James was doing with his hair. “If they remember me from school, they remember when I flubbed the name of the school during my signing day. They remember when I punched Dirk Goggins because he’d given his girlfriend a black eye and I refused to let him hurt her. If they’ve been to Workout! they think I’m foolish for spending so much time in the gym or expect me to spar with someone because I’m a hulk of a man. I can’t win.”
“They’re wrong,” James said. “You’re more than a few mistakes.”
“Why don’t men see that?” He hated sounding so whiny, but all he could think about was Chad giving him a pitiful look before he walked out. “If you’d only use your head instead of your muscles, you’d get somewhere. You’d be dangerous. But you’re not. You’re just walking testosterone.” Chad hadn’t known him at all.
“People see what they want and you know that, but you’ve got to change their perception,” James said.
“Well, you’ve done the first thing, which is asking me for help. Since you’ve asked and I want to accommodate you, what kind of man are you looking for?”
“For a date?”
“I’m already giving you the haircut, so yes, the date,” James said. He ran the comb over Cody’s head.
He had to think about this for a moment. “I’d like someone who is sweet, sensitive, likes to read and listen to music, is caring, handsome and not obsessed with his own ego.”
“So you want the impossible.”
James stepped around the chair to face Cody. He cocked his hip and folded his arms. “Are you available on Saturday? Like eight-ish?”
“Sure.” He wouldn’t even have to clear his schedule. “I’m not working then.”
“Good. Go to Club Jester at eight and look for a man in a Hawaiian shirt. You’ll wear a dark blue button-down—you’ve got one, right?” James asked.
“I have one, yes,” he replied. “But you’re kidding about the Hawaiian shirt, right?”
“Not a bit. Are you still interested?”
He didn’t have much choice. He wanted to meet someone. “Sure. With you?”
“Nah. I’m chained to this shop. I can’t leave, even if I want to,” James said. “But I do have a man in mind. He’s perfect for you—if you’ll trust me.”
James removed the cape, then turned him to face the mirror. “What do you think? I trimmed the sides quite close, but left the top a bit longer. It gives some length to your face and the dark of your hair sets off your eyes. It gives you more of an updated look, too. What do you think?”
He’d become so used to seeing himself in the buzz cut that he wasn’t ready for the slight change. He swept his gaze over his reflection and resisted the urge to demand his usual cut. James was right. The slight length made his eyes stand out and brought out the angularity of his face. “I like it.”
“Do you?” James rested his hands on Cody’s shoulders. “You don’t look convinced.”
“I’m getting used to it.” He tipped his head to admire himself from a few more angles. “It’s good. What do I owe you?”
“Nothing. This one’s on the house since you’ve been here every week for the last three months,” James said. “You won’t have to come back right away. Give yourself a week off.”
“You’d lose revenue.” He left the chair. “I don’t want to cheat you.”
“Honey, if you go on the date and it works out, then that’s plenty of payment. I want you to be happy.” James grinned and flicked his hand. “You’d better tell me how it goes, though. I want to know all the lurid details, doll. I don’t just pair up anyone, and I know this will be good for you if you’re willing to try.”
“I am.” He placed a ten-dollar bill on James’ counter, then shook hands with him. “Thank you.” He wouldn’t have asked for the haircut on his own, but the more he looked at himself, the more he liked the style.
“Bye, Doob.” He patted the dog on the head once more, then walked out of the salon. He had a date. Excitement slid through his veins, then switched to fear. A date. Holy fucking shit. What if the guy wasn’t his type? What if he was, but wasn’t interested? What if he made a fool of himself in front of the man? His stomach lurched and his nerves got the better of him for a moment. No, he’d asked for this help and would see the date through.
But the idea of wearing a button-down shirt irked him. He’d grown so accustomed to wearing his sports gear that he’d forgotten how to dress like a regular guy. Did he even know how to any longer? He wore shorts and sleeveless tees even in the winter. Would his sleeved shirts even fit? At least he had two days to sort out his wardrobe. Maybe Ty would have something he could borrow if nothing in his closet fit.
Or he could back out.
No. He didn’t want to let James down by not showing up.
He shook his head and walked back to Workout!
The date might not be what he wanted, but he had the feeling it would be just what he needed.