GREGORY MACPHERSON II didn’t have the time or the patience to make a personal trip to a bookstore, but here he was. Alone.
No patrons roamed the narrow aisles formed by overstuffed bookshelves. No clerk waited at the vintage cash register sitting on top of a linoleum-covered counter barely capable of holding its weight. No one rushed to greet him from behind the tawdry multicolored curtain hanging at the back of the store.
From where he stood only a few feet inside the doorway, leery of allowing anything in the dusty hodgepodge to brush against his suit, he could see straight down the center aisle all the way to the back of the store. It was a thirty-foot-by-sixty-foot shoebox, longer than it was wide, one of four retail spaces on the ground floor of the six-story brick building and the only one still open. Which was why Gregory MacPherson II, commonly referred to as Mac, had personally dragged himself down here.
How the place could stay in business without any workers, never mind customers, was a mystery he didn’t intend to solve. He was there to shut the place down, not rescue it, though in the few short minutes he’d been exposed to Hailey’s Comic, he could already list a half-dozen ways to improve its profitability.
That sign out front, for instance. It was a purple whirlwind of planets, well done if you were going for an acid-trip vibe, but the name implied there’d be comics, and the sign implied there’d be comets. Or drugs. And from what he could see, there were neither. If an establishment wanted to bring in customers, it needed to make clear the services it provided and establish confidence that it would provide them well.
Then there was the matter of actually waiting on the customers you did bring in. A bell had tinkled as he’d entered, but apparently only for its own enjoyment.
“Hello?” He raised his voice to a level that couldn’t be ignored and had a brief moment to wonder if he really was completely alone before a head and a hand appeared around the edge of the curtain.
“Mercy, you scared me,” the head said. It belonged to a young man and had a mop of brown hair piled on top of it, a few shades lighter than Mac’s own reddish brown. “Sorry, I didn’t hear the bell. Give me a minute. I’m sort of in flagrante delicto.” The head disappeared.
“In flagrante delicto doesn’t mean naked, you know,” Mac told the air where the head had been. “It means you were caught doing something you shouldn’t have been. Something sexual.”
“Now, now. It’s never wrong to masturbate. There.” The head reappeared, this time attached to a body that gave Mac a startlingly clear vision of how it would look masturbating. The man was stringy, taller than Mac’s six-foot frame, but lean and underdeveloped—the body of a person who spent a lot of time reading. Or jerking off.
“What can I help you with?” He was in his midtwenties, so perhaps ten years younger than Mac, dressed in jeans laddered with intentional rips, each the same two inches wide, running down his thighs like claw marks. His face was clean-shaven, fresh with his youth, and Mac wondered how his skin would react to having Mac’s tightly trimmed beard rubbed all over it.
“You’re free to browse around, even if I’m not out here.”
Mac added lax security to the mental list he was pointlessly compiling. “I need to speak to the owner.”
Hailey Green, owner of Hailey’s Comic, was the only thing standing in the way of his plans to revitalize this misbegotten section of Ballhaven, which plan started with this very brick building and would ultimately lead to Ball’s End—as everyone called it; he’d have to do something about the branding—becoming the newest hot spot for millennials to eat, drink, shop, and live. Urban revitalization was Mac’s business, and Hailey Green was Mac’s problem.
“Still me,” the man said, tilting his head to the side as if to take in Mac’s appearance more carefully.
Mac hadn’t changed clothes before driving down to Ball’s End, though he could’ve guessed the place would be dirty. He’d been reading a report on the effort to clear 502 Main Street of its tenants and had made an abrupt decision to come down and take care of ridding the building of its final holdout himself.
He’d been expecting a woman. Then again, he’d been expecting a comic store. “Hailey is a girl’s name.”
“Not in this case.” Hailey waved a hand down his long body, which had a lithe, graceful appeal just on the feminine edge of masculine. “I’m all man.”
There was a rip in his faded pink T-shirt. Unlike the ones in his jeans, it appeared unintentional. Mac caught himself following it as Hailey moved, waiting to see if a nipple would pop out. The guy had three rings in one ear, two in the other, and a stud through his nose. A nipple ring wasn’t out of the question.
Mac wanted to strip off the trendy jeans and paint-splattered T-shirt and put Hailey’s cock back in his hand. Or take it in his own hand and make a very thorough appraisal of it.
“Were you wanting a tour?”
For a moment Mac thought Hailey had been reading his mind. Then he realized he was offering a tour of the store, not his cock, and pinched his mouth firmly shut.
Hailey smiled as if he really had been reading Mac’s mind. “I should probably ask who you are, though, since you know who I am and also what I’ve so recently been up to.” He came forward with his hand extended. “I promise I washed it.”
Mac took it, a little sorry it’d been washed. Hailey had brown eyes that twinkled as if he were as jolly as old Saint Nick. Or maybe he was high on something. His hair shone glossily where it lay coiled on top of his head.
“Gregory MacPherson. The second.”
“Ooh, the second. Do I say all that?”
“People usually call me Mac. Or Gregory is fine. Greg.”
“Greg,” Hailey repeated, as if he knew no one called him that. Mac didn’t know why he’d offered it as an option. “So what brings you down to Hailey’s Comic? I don’t get a lot of handsome men in suits. Handsome men sometimes, but not in suits.”
Mac opened his mouth and then closed it. Their hands were still linked, so he dropped his. He must have given himself away for Hailey to flirt with him so brazenly, but even if Hailey were his type, which he wasn’t—when it came to men, Mac preferred them classically handsome, not hippie… hipster… bohemian… whatever that thing Hailey had going on was—but even if Hailey were his type, Mac was at Hailey’s Comic on a mission. Which wasn’t to get laid.
“A tour would be fine,” he agreed belatedly.