Chapter One

 

MR. PICKLES will be so excited when I get home, Michael Fleishman thought.

Well, he wasn’t really sure whether the taciturn cat would care if he had ten of his Brock Hammer novels signed by the author, but Michael would be excited.

He parked his tan Camry in the last available angled parking space on Main Street, unable to believe his luck finding a spot. He ordinarily would’ve walked, living so close, but he didn’t want to risk getting any of his paperbacks or the two hardcovers wet in the rain.

Lacetown, Michigan, was crowded for the Great Lakes Literary Fest. Today was the first day of the three-day festival, and sadly the tail end of a late-spring storm front. The festival kicked off the busy tourist season for their lakeside village, and despite the rain, the streets were busy with fans and visitors hunched under umbrellas, hoping to meet their favorite author at the afternoon signing event. The lesser-known authors were trying to stay dry under tents in the town square, but most of the big-name authors had been moved indoors for their signings, the bars and restaurants serving as makeshift bookstores.

And in Michael’s mind, there weren’t many big names in fiction he wanted to meet more than Russell Withingham.

He’d checked the festival website before leaving the house and knew Mr. Withingham would be inside Kelsey’s Bar & Grill. There was a small line forming outside already, so Michael grabbed his bag of books and his umbrella, and then hurried to join them.

A woman he didn’t recognize in line in front of him smiled, and he nodded politely. There were always strange faces in their little town during the summer. Tourists mostly, and this weekend, literary fans.

The crashing sound of waves drew Michael’s attention behind him. Main Street ended at Lake Shore Drive, and on the other side, a boardwalk overlooked their unswimmable portion of Lake Michigan. Large waves crested, crashing in places over the spacious boardwalk stretching the length of town. He spied a few unfortunate tourists who didn’t have the presence of mind to see the obvious safety hazard of being out there when the lake was unhappy.

Hoping no one would be hurt, he adjusted his bag on his shoulder and tried to keep his umbrella from poking the lady’s in front of him. Fleishman Funeral Home only had gigantic golf umbrellas for services, and he was glad for it when the rain picked up and a gust blew mist onto his glasses. He shoved them into his front shirt pocket, knowing there would be no use keeping them clean until he was inside.

“Shit, I thought this rain was supposed to let up this afternoon,” a deep masculine voice from behind him said.

Michael turned and drew up short.

“Whoa there, pal. You could take an eye out with that thing.”

For a heartbeat Michael froze and stared.

The man had a long face and wheat-colored hair swept back from a low brow and into a ponytail. Eyes the color of cognac had just enough sparkle to make Michael smile and conjure thoughts of mischief and long summer romances.

And you’re staring at him like a ninny!

Michael hastily stepped back to avoid poking the gorgeous man in the eye with his umbrella. “Oh, I’m sorry.”

“Hey, watch it,” the lady in front of him snapped. “You’re soaking me!”

Michael jumped when he realized his big umbrella had slipped beneath hers and was funneling water right onto her.

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry,” he said at once, stepping back the other way.

“Whoa, whoa,” Ponytail Guy said again, reaching up to take hold of the eye-level pin on Michael’s umbrella. “How about I just join you?” And then he stepped under the huge umbrella with Michael.

“Oh, yeah, sure,” Michael managed, squirming a little. “There’s plenty of room.”

The man used both hands to brush a few wayward strands of blond hair off his face, his tanned skin glistening from the rain. He wore a ring on a long well-manicured index finger. Smiling, he held out a hand. “I’m Jazz Dilworth.”

What a strange name. Sounds like something in a mystery novel.

He quickly shook the proffered hand. “Michael Fleishman.”

Jazz flipped a thumb behind him. “I work across the street at Misty’s Makeover Palace.” He furrowed tidy brows. “Fleishman, like the funeral parlor?”

“Yes, the same.”

“Eew,” the lady in front of him said with a distinct Valley girl attitude.

Michael maintained his polite mortician smile. Sadly, he was used to the reaction.

Hence his lackluster love life.

Expecting Jazz to make some equally grossed-out remark and leave the shelter of the umbrella, Michael looked back at him.

But Jazz was smiling, his white teeth radiant and even. “That explains the planet-sized umbrella. Only ever see those at funerals and on golf courses.”

Michael’s facial muscles softened, and the smile he gave Jazz was more genuine, relaxed. “Yes, they come in handy.”

Jazz grinned. “I bet they do.”

This man was gorgeous. He had to be younger than Michael. But more importantly, he had the potential for being gay since he was a hairdresser. Well aware of his stereotyping, Michael was nonetheless hopeful.

He wasn’t the best flirt, but sharing an umbrella with an attractive man in front of a bar acting as a makeshift bookstore felt like the opening of a rom-com, so he was ready to give it the ol’ college try.

“Are you a fan of the Brock Hammer novels too?” he asked, glad his glasses were in his pocket. Jazz stood so close, Michael didn’t even need them to clearly see his handsome face.

Jazz scoffed. “Used to be.”

“Oh.” Michael’s heart fell. So much for common interests. “Did you know this line is to meet the author?”

“I know, all right. The fucker’s been ducking my calls for weeks.”

Michael flinched at the man’s crass remark. “You know Russell Withingham?”

“Married to him,” Jazz said. “Separated.”

So he is gay…. Michael shook his head. “Wait, what?”

Those warm brown eyes met his, and Jazz smiled. “Separated,” he said again. “Permanently. He’s supposed to still be making my car payment, and I just got a call from the bank. He hasn’t made the last two payments.”

Michael didn’t know if he was more disappointed to find out his favorite author was a jerk, or excited to know the man under his umbrella was gay and single.

Well, possibly single.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Michael offered.

Jazz shrugged. “Nothing for you to be sorry for,” he quipped. “In fact, I should be thanking you for sharing your umbrella with me. Nothing worse than running into an ex with your hair all soaking wet, looking like a hot mess. I wanna be a vision when I tell him off. You know, make him regret losing me.”

Michael couldn’t help his involuntary head-to-toe sweep of Jazz’s body. He was a vision. Jazz carried some extra weight on him, but Michael liked men of a husky build. They seemed more solid and down-to-earth. Any man who would give up all the hunkiness Jazz had to offer had to be nuts.

Oh, the things Michael would do with him if he could. I’d drip hot candle wax on each of his nipples while I rode….

Awkward, Michael cleared his throat when he realized Jazz was staring right at him. Michael’s face heated. Thankfully the guy couldn’t read his thoughts. “I’m sure he’ll regret it. You look great.”

Jazz’s grin widened, and he tugged a little on the vest he wore over a white V-neck T-shirt. “Thanks.”

Still feeling warm in the face—among other places now—Michael smiled back. “You’re welcome.”

“I used to love Russell’s books. Was totally a fangirl.” Jazz leaned in and spoke softly. “The first dozen were great. Now they’re crap, if you don’t mind my saying.”

While Jazz was simply whispering closely so the other fans might not hear, Michael relished his nearness. “Yeah, that’s why I only brought the first ten to get signed.”

“Ten?” Jazz’s brows shot up.

He worried his upper lip. “Is that too many?”

Jazz laughed, a free, easy sound. “Oh, Russ will be thrilled. Trust me.”

Granted, Russell Withingham might be a bad husband, but Michael loved his books and didn’t want to annoy the man.

Looking for something to discuss besides Jazz’s ex, Michael said, “Your boss, Misty, does work for me sometimes. She took care of one of my clients for her funeral yesterday.”

“Yeah, I know. It was Beatrice Neibolt.”

“Misty doesn’t like working for me,” Michael confessed.

“I know,” Jazz agreed. “I heard all about it.”

“You did?” He had no idea Misty disliked styling his clients so much that she might be complaining about it.

“Yeah, creeps her out,” Jazz said. “I don’t know why. You stay in this business long enough, eventually you get a call to give a client their last do. I don’t know where they’re going in the next life, but I’ll be damned if any of my clients get to the other side with their hair a wreck.”

“You’ve cared for the deceased before?” Michael asked, pleasantly surprised. Most people were freaked out by what he did for a living. Running a successful funeral parlor and being appointed county coroner should have brought him prestige and respectability, and he supposed it did in some circles. But working with dead people left most folks unsettled, rather than endearing anyone to him.

“Sure,” Jazz said with a casual shrug. “I don’t see the big deal.”

Grinning wide, Michael fished in his pocket for the leather business card holder he never left the house without. He flipped it open and withdrew a card. “If you’d like some extra work, I’d love to have you.” He heard how that sounded and quickly added, “Um, have you do some styling for me. I mean, for my clients.”

Jazz smiled as he took the card. “I knew what you meant. And Misty will be thrilled.” Then he dug in his front pocket, the jeans just tight enough in all the right places that when his hand filled the denim, it accentuated his nice package. “Here’s my card. You can get my references from Misty, if you want.”

Michael was still smiling as he took the card and carefully placed it into his card holder. “I’m sure that you’re more than qualified. You said you’ve been in the business a while.”

“Knocking on thirty years.”

Michael scoffed. “Did you start in preschool?”

“Hardly,” Jazz laughed. “A good hair colorist and access to the finest beauty products all culminate for the perfect illusion.” He leaned in. “I’m forty-one.”

“Me too,” Michael said. “But you don’t look a day over thirty-one.”

Jazz put his hand on his chest. “Oh, you flatter me.”

The line inched closer to the door.

“Jazz, is that a nickname?”

“Short for Jasper. I can be a little jazzy, and I love music, so there you go. But I can’t play or read music.”

“Me neither. No artistic talent whatsoever.”

Jazz frowned. “Your work has a bit of art to it.”

He shrugged. “Maybe. But I’m rubbish with the hair. That’s why I need Misty for my female clients.”

“Good thing you met me today.”

Now he was grinning like a fool, but he couldn’t help it. “Yes. Good thing.”

Far too soon for Michael’s liking, they reached the door, and he gestured Jazz ahead of him. He had to close and shake off his umbrella before he stepped inside, which sadly ended whatever private and possibly flirtatious moment he’d been sharing with the gorgeous Jazz.

Jazz scanned the bar, jaw set.

Helping him out, Michael pointed to the back corner, where a middle-aged man with thinning blond hair, a black velour blazer, and burgundy ascot sat behind a table with mounds of books. “He’s over there.”

“Thanks,” Jazz said, his shoulders relaxing. He gestured to Michael’s umbrella. “Mind if I hold that till I get up there?”

Michael realized Jazz wanted it to hide from his ex until he got closer. And while not wanting to get involved, Michael liked the idea of having a chance to spend more time conversing.

Jazz held the umbrella over one shoulder and turned so it blocked his profile from Russell’s view. Michael stood behind Jazz and watched as drops of rain ran down the side of his neck. He longed to let his tongue follow that rain beneath the neck of Jazz’s T-shirt. But that wasn’t something he did, and not only because he was a Lacetown business owner. He needed to work on relaxing and letting go of his inhibitions. At least that’s what all his exes had told him. One even went so far as to say Michael’s clients had more warmth than him.

Ouch.

“So you live here?”

Michael blinked. “What? Oh. Here in Lacetown?”

Jazz grinned. “No, here in the bar.”

A blush heated Michael’s cheeks. “Sorry. I was woolgathering.”

“I like that.”

“What?”

“Woolgathering. It’s not used that often anymore. I like it.”

“Oh. Well. Thank you. And, yes, I was born and raised here.” Michael cleared his throat and looked away, then back. The bag of books suddenly seemed very heavy, and he switched shoulders. Jazz held his gaze, warm brown eyes locked on to Michael’s.

“So what happened between you two?” The words were out before Michael could run them through his mental filter to see if they were appropriate.

Jazz’s forehead furrowed. “Me and Russell?”

Panic zinged through Michael. “I’m sorry. That was a very personal question, and we just met. Forget I asked.”

“No, it’s okay.” Jazz took a step closer and lowered his voice. “Russell likes his side dishes.”

“Side dishes?” Candied yams popped into Michael’s mind.

“You know….” Jazz glanced at the woman in front of them, who seemed to be leaning back and listening. He moved fast, putting a hand on her shoulder and easing her forward and away from them as he said, “Careful there. Looked like you were about to tip over. Wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself before you get to meet Russell Withingham.”

“Oh, no… I wasn’t… I wouldn’t….” The woman’s cheeks flushed, and she took a step forward.

“There you go.” Jazz turned back to Michael with a grin. “Where was I?”

“Side dishes,” Michael managed, even though his mouth was dry. There were six people between them and Russell. And then what? They’d exchanged business cards, but would Jazz even call? Could Michael bring himself to call?

“Right. Side dishes. Like, you know, a twink on one side, maybe a bear on the other. It happens, I know, and some couples get off on inviting other people to the party, but I’m a one-on-one kind of guy. Maybe if he’d asked me about it, like, before we said our ‘I dos.’” Jazz sighed and peeked around the umbrella. “Five more people. He’s really moving them along now.”

“Are you sure he won’t be mad I have ten books?” Michael asked, even more nervous now. He didn’t want to piss off his favorite author.

“Oh, honey, by the time I’m done talking to him, he won’t be able to count to ten.”

“Oh?” A flutter of nerves went through Michael. What if Jazz went off on Russell before Michael was able to get his books signed? Would Russell be so upset he would storm off and leave those still waiting in line with their books in hand?

“Three more people,” Jazz whispered and winked.

“I’m sorry he cheated on you.”

“Oh, sweetie, it wasn’t just him cheating on me. That makes it sound like it was a one-time or one-person event. He was dipping his quill in every ink pot in town. Or, to put it in a way you might appreciate, he was embalming every warm body in reach.”

The woman ahead of them turned and gave Jazz a wide-eyed look.

“Oh, please,” Jazz said with an elaborate eye roll. “You’ve heard worse. You know you have. Do not start with me, you will not win.”

“Next!”

The voice was bright and sharp, and it got the woman in front of them moving. Michael peeked around Jazz and his umbrella shield to see the eavesdropping woman gush to Russell Withingham as she handed him a couple of books. Russell’s smile was cool, and he appeared tired but attentive as he spoke to her. Despite Jazz’s feelings about his not-quite-ex, Michael liked that Russell seemed to be genuinely listening to a fan.

“Remember, people, there’s a three-book limit.”

A tall, wiry man standing close behind Russell’s left shoulder had a blond swoop of hair that fell across his forehead while the rest of it was a glossy raven color. He had a pursed mouth and a sharp, pointed nose as he surveyed the crowd. His cool gaze landed on Michael’s bag of books, and it snapped up to latch on to his face.

“That’s Norbert, Russell’s mini-Hitler PR rep from the publisher,” Jazz said. “He’s a real treat to have around.”

“He looks mean. I don’t think he likes me. He just glared at me.”

“That’s his standard expression. Don’t worry about it. He’s more creepy than mean.”

“Are you…? Will you be yelling at Russell?”

“Not yelling. Maybe speaking sternly.” Jazz arched an eyebrow. “You afraid I’m gonna scare him off?”

“I wouldn’t say that….”

Jazz flashed him a dazzling smile. “You were in line first anyway, so I don’t know how I ended up in front. You go first. Get your ten books signed.”

“His assistant said we can only get three signed.”

“So what? Smile and flirt a little. Russell can’t resist a hot guy who flirts.”

Michael nearly collapsed. A hot guy? Had Jazz really just called him a hot guy? No one had ever come out and said that about him, let alone to his face.

“You’re up,” Jazz whispered before he stepped back, keeping the umbrella up on his shoulder to remain hidden from Russell’s view.

Totally befuddled after Jazz’s compliment—since when was Michael hot?—he stepped up to the table. “G-good afternoon.”

Russell looked up, his expression bored but polite. “Good afternoon.”

“Um,” Michael began, glancing at Norbert quickly, then back to Russell.

Jazz said to flirt!

Was Michael even any good at flirting anymore?

Forcing a deep breath, he found his composure and offered a genuine smile. “I didn’t realize there was a limit on books to sign. I mean, how can you only pick three Brock Hammer novels, am I right?” Laugh, Michael, laugh! He thought his chuckle sounded flirtatious as he added, “You wouldn’t be terribly upset if I had, say, ten books, would you, Mr. Withingham?” He added quickly, “I’ll buy the hardcover of the newest book in the series as well of course.”

“The limit is three,” Norbert snapped. After what Jazz had called him, Michael could imagine the man clicking his heels and raising his right arm in a Heil Hitler.

But Russell smiled. He raised his hands, not taking his eyes off Michael. “Oh, Norbie, rules are meant to be broken.” His volume increased a bit as he continued, “If Brock Hammer always followed the rules, he’d never solve a case, right?”

A murmur of agreement and chuckles wafted through the crowd, and Michael heard Jazz’s faint utterance of “Bitch, please.”

Russell gave Michael a wink, then held out his hand. “Let’s see which ones you brought, Mr.…?”

“Fleishman,” Michael said, feeling giddy as he fished out his books. Impulsively, he added, “But please, call me Michael.”

“All right, Michael.” Russell took the first book and glanced at the cover. “A Hard Day to Die, Brock’s first adventure. You have great taste, Michael.” Then, if Michael wasn’t mistaken, Russell gave him a lecherous grin.

Not to get ahead of himself, but did two men think he was a “hot guy”? This was turning out to be a fantastic afternoon!

When Michael spied copies of Russell’s upcoming release on the table, he picked one up excitedly. The Bitter Winds of Death was Russell’s first book without Brock Hammer, and it wasn’t even scheduled to be released until next month!

“This one too, please.” Definitely a fantastic afternoon!

“Wonderful,” Russell said.

Norbert told him a price, and Michael handed over his credit card. After swiping it on his tablet, he held it out for Michael to sign, his face pinched into some version of a smile. The new book was added to the new Brock Hammer mystery as well as the ones Michael brought with him, and Norbert muttered under his breath, “That makes twelve.”

Since Russell didn’t seem to mind, Michael ignored the odd man.

While Russell extolled the virtues of Brock Hammer and his own literary prowess as he signed each book, Michael kept stealing covert glances at Jazz, still concealed by the large umbrella. After Jazz’s confrontation with Russell, Michael would have to get his umbrella back.

A perfect excuse to talk to him further.

Maybe Michael would ask Jazz if he had plans after this. They could go get ice cream or—no, how lame is that? Ask him for coffee or a drink, not ice cream!

Though that’s not what he really longed to do.

Michael nodded and smiled as Russell relived each of Brock Hammer’s adventures, all the while his mind conjured images of Jazz, that luscious hair unbound and spread across a pillow, those strong hands gripping the sheets as Michael sucked him hard….

“How’s the signing going, dear?” a syrupy voice crooned.

Michael studied the newcomer in surprise. A young man in his very early twenties sidled up behind Russell. His hair was brown with blond highlights, and he wore red skinny capris, chucks, and a navy-and-white tank top that showed a defined but narrow chest. He was twirling a sucker in his mouth in a childlike yet lewd fashion.

One of the “side dishes” of twink Jazz had mentioned?

“Wonderful.” Russell beamed up at the young man with that same lecherous smile he’d offered Michael. Turning that grin back on Michael, he held up the second hardcover Michael had purchased. “The Bitter Winds of Death is a mystery, but not a Brock Hammer story. You do realize that, right?”

“I do, yes. I’m excited to read it. Thank you so much,” Michael said, carefully placing it in his bag with the others. “Thank you, Mr. Withingham.”

“Please, call me Russell. My father is Mr. Withingham.”

The young man glared and possessively put his hand on Russell’s shoulder, pressing against the back of Russell’s chair and his arm, staking his claim like a puppy peeing on a fire hydrant.

What was that look all about?

“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Jazz planted Michael’s umbrella down like a gentleman’s cane and gestured irritably toward the young man. “You’re a married man but bringing your paramour,” he said with mocking flair, “to signings now? You really have gotten so gauche since I left you.”

“Jasper!” Russell cried, eyes wide. He stood up at once, shaking off the young man’s touch and looking over his shoulder like he’d been caught red-handed. “I didn’t expect to see you here, Jasper.”

“Which is why you brought Dylan.” Jazz scowled, stepping forward. “And I live here now. You would know that, if you were sending me the money you owe me.”

Every eye in the bar turned on them, an awkward silence falling over the customers. Even the bartender stopped mid-martini shake. Michael clutched the bag of books to his chest, unable to look away or step back.

“Mr. Dilworth,” Norbert hissed, eyes and mouth serpentine slits on his pale face. “You’re causing a scene.”

“That heinous haircut of yours is causing a scene,” Jazz threw back without even glancing at the fuming PR man.

Michael’s gaze darted back to Norbert, waiting for a response, but Russell spoke next. “Norbie, be a dear and see if we have any more copies of Sea of Discontent in the back. My stack is getting low.”

Norbert’s mouth gaped as wide as his eyes, the shift in expressions so dramatic it was almost comical. Then all of his features melted into a calm, placid look that actually sent a chill down Michael’s back. He bunched his hands into the small of his back and tipped his head. “Yes, I’ll check at once, Russell.”

Jazz was right. Norbert was one creepy character.

“I hate to agree with Norbie,” the young man named Dylan all but spat his name. “But I think he’s—”

Russell raised his hand, and Dylan looked just shy of murderous. But apparently, when Russell said jump, his minions didn’t ask how high—they just obeyed.

“You got my money?” Jazz demanded, not deterred by the interruptions.

Michael shuddered at the authority rolling off Jazz in hot, sensuous waves. Jazz was obviously no man’s minion.

“Now, Jasper, dear, let’s have this discussion, but privately.” He gestured off to the side, looking nervously at his fans.

All of Jazz’s cocky posturing was so damn sexy, Michael started to get an erection, which he quickly concealed with his bag.

Good gracious, Jazz was flaring up Michael’s imagination and hitting all his hot buttons! He hadn’t met a guy who stirred him up like this in… well, ever.

Pursing his lips in thought, Jazz gave a curt nod. “After you, then. I don’t want you sneaking off when my back’s turned.”

Russell turned his grimace into a smile, and then he gave an elaborate bow to his fans. “If you’ll excuse me. Marital disputes, you know,” he said, his laughter sounding forced.

A few awkward chuckles answered him.

Michael watched them walk away, Jazz still holding his umbrella.

He knew where Jazz worked, so he could get it back another time. But his curious nature won out, and he watched the two men arguing in a semiprivate corner of the bar. The aggressive way Jazz pointed in Russell’s face and the author’s resulting cower weren’t helping Michael’s below-the-belt disturbances.

crunch crunch sound drew Michael’s attention away from the argument and to Dylan. His arms were pretzeled tight and he was crushing the sucker with his teeth, the white stick bobbing up and down between clenched lips as he glared at Jazz.

Jealous much?

When Michael looked back at the argument, Jazz was stuffing a wad of bills into his pocket. Dylan saw it too and threw up his hands in disgust. Jazz stormed back, right toward Michael, his face livid.

Michael took a step back in surprise, but nothing could have shocked him further than when Jazz said, “C’mon, Michael, let’s get out of here.”

Hesitating for the barest of seconds, Michael glanced at Dylan—Jazz’s comment had shocked him as much as Michael—then hurried after Jazz.

Jazz stepped out into the rain and popped open the big umbrella, then held it out so there was plenty of space for Michael to slip beneath too.

“That smarmy, sneaky son of a bitch,” Jazz cursed, glaring down the street.

“What did he say?” Michael made sure to keep his bag of books close to his stomach, being huddled under an umbrella with the very sexy Jazz Dilworth a potent aphrodisiac. Damn, his cologne smelled good—tangy and sweet at the same time. Michael’s mouth watered.

Jazz regarded him for a moment, and the tension left his shoulders. He offered an apologetic smile. “You must think I’m a real drama queen, huh?”

“Oh, no, not at all.”

“When we decided to split up, it was easier not to go through the courts. Russell is famous, ya know? All I could imagine was our life becoming an episode of Gay Celebrity Divorce Court.” He sniffed a laugh. “We spend decades fighting for the right to marry, and we fuck marriage up just like everybody else.”

Michael barely contained his laughter. Jazz had such a crass and colorful way of talking.

“Anyway, we always kept our investments and bills separate, except for the house. Russell didn’t want to sell it, and I didn’t want to make him. So we made an agreement. He’d pay my car off and send me a check once a month until I got back my half of the down payment. He actually made out better than I did, but I didn’t care. I just wanted out. But I’m not stupid. I wasn’t signing an annulment or divorcing his ass until I got all my money back. Legally everything is still half mine. I did that finger-fucker a favor, and he can’t even stick with it.”

“Probably spending his money on the twink,” Michael said.

Jazz shot him a look. Before Michael could apologize, Jazz laughed, slapping Michael on the shoulder good-naturedly. “Probably.”

Jazz didn’t stop smiling, and he didn’t drop his hand from Michael’s shoulder. Their gazes locked, and Michael’s pulse quickened. He licked his lips, wanting to kiss the man, ask him out, or simply say something clever, but his mind wouldn’t work!

That hand slid away. “It was nice meeting you, Michael. Don’t judge me too harshly for all my drama.”

“Oh, I won’t,” he insisted. “I mean, I didn’t.”

Nodding, Jazz offered him another grin, then held out the handle of the umbrella. “Thanks again.”

Michael fumbled with his bag and slipped the strap over his shoulder before taking the umbrella. “You’re welcome. Um… can I walk you back to your salon? It’s still raining.”

“Nah, I’m good, but thanks.”

“Oh, okay.” Michael couldn’t conceal his disappointment.

“You’ve got my number. Don’t be a stranger. Maybe we can grab an ice cream some afternoon?”

“Ice cream?”

“Sure, everybody loves ice cream.” Jazz let out a breathy chuckle and brushed Michael’s hair off his brow, pushing it back into place with his fingertips.

The gesture was so quick, probably just instinctive from a hairdresser, but Michael’s knees went watery and he had to stifle a whimper.

“I’ll catch you on the flipside, Michael.”

And with that, Jazz darted into the rain, looking both ways as he hurried across the street, leaving Michael standing there speechless.