That’s why I was caught off guard when T.J. broke the silence with a question.
“Chloe said you used to cut hair. Will you cut mine for me?”
I blinked in surprise, but answered quickly, “Yeah, sure. When do you want to do it?”
“Can I come by tonight?” he asked, hesitantly.
“Of course! Just swing by after you drop the boat off at home. I’ll have my stuff ready for ya.”
We both looked back at the dip of the boat to see Ian step up off the ladder. I jumped up and reached for his towel, tossing it back to him.
He caught it with a wink. “Thanks, babe.”
He dried himself off and leaned in, pressing his lips to mine in a quick kiss before he moved past me to take a seat up front, just as Brandon and Chloe made their way into the boat.
“Let’s get some grub, man. I’m starving,” Brandon called, his voice muffled under his towel as he dried off his hair.
We all seconded that, so we headed back to the dock and helped T.J. load and tie down the boat while we discussed what we were going to do for dinner.
“We can hit up the little grocery store and go cookout by the water in the park, or check out one of the restaurants around here,” T.J. said. “I’m up for whatever.”
It didn’t take long to decide just to stop somewhere and eat before heading home. When we were finished, Brandon and Chloe took us home and T.J. stopped by his house to drop off the boat before he came over.
As soon as we got home, while we were waiting for T.J., Ian and I jumped in the shower to wash the lake water off of us. We’d just gotten out and I was getting dressed when the doorbell rang. Ian, who’d already donned a pair of basketball shorts and a t-shirt, went to answer while I pulled on a pair of cotton shorts and a tank top, grabbing my case with my stylist supplies.
In short order, Ian was sitting at the kitchen table, and I had T.J. sitting in a chair with a cape snapped around his neck to keep the hair off him, running my fingers through his hair as I asked what he wanted me to do with it.
“I don’t know. I think it’s just time for a change.”
His hair was a long mohawk that he usually spiked up, and it was dyed black, red, and yellow, so it looked almost like flames. His hair, paired with his whiskey colored eyes, only enhanced the striking look of him; seriously, there was no denying that the man was H.O.T.
“If I cut it shorter, you’ll have to dye it again, because I’ll end up cutting most of the lighter colors off. You’ll probably just have the red and black left,” I told him, pulling his hair up and measuring with my fingers.
“You know what? Just cut it all off,” T.J. said decisively.
“Are you sure? How about I just cut it short, that way you can still keep the ‘hawk, just shorter.”
He shrugged. “Yeah, that’s fine.”
He didn’t say anything else, so I took it that it was decided. I grabbed my clippers and buzzed the sides down, then took my scissors and cut the length off the rest until he was left with a three inch long mohawk on top. Most of the color was gone; in fact, his hair was black, with just the tips barely showing the red.
He and Ian had talked a little while I was cutting, mostly about the tattoo shop, Skin Deep, that T.J. was now part owner of with Brandon and Luke, but they’d lapsed into silence the last few minutes.
I was running my fingers through his hair, checking to make sure the length was even when he spoke again.
“Thanks for doing this,” he said quietly.
I brushed the hair off the back of his neck and unsnapped the cape. “You’re welcome. It’s no trouble, really. Next time you need it cut, just let me know.”
He stood and reached into his back pocket, pulling out his wallet. “How much do I owe you?
Ian laughed and shook his head. “Dude, don’t. You’re just gonna piss her off.”
Well, he wasn’t wrong. I stood with my hands on my hips, glaring at T.J. “I don’t want your money. You’re a friend, T.J., practically family. You asked for a favor, I helped you out. I did it because I like you. Get it?”
He put his hands up in front of him defensively. “All right, all right…down killer,” he soothed jokingly, his lips curled into a cute little half-smile.
I dropped my hands and smiled back. “You know, you should smile more often,” I told him, then cursed myself when his smile disappeared. “I don’t get you, T.J. Conley. You’re so serious all the time, but you let your guard down with us every now and then, just for a second before you slap that baby right back up.”
“Leah…” I heard Ian warn softly behind me.
“No,” T.J. interrupted him. “She’s right. But Chloe’s really the only one who calls me on it. She reminds me of my sister in a way, even though they’re totally different.”
I sighed. “See? I didn’t even know you had a sister.”
He gave me that ghost of a smile again. “Well, I do. But I don’t talk about family.”
I shook my head at him. “You don’t talk about anything.”
“I know. It’s better that way. Maybe one day…just not now. But, like I’ve told Brandon, Chloe, Luke, and even your sister, Emma, -who by the way, tried her hand at cracking me open, as well- you guys have opened your lives to me and given me back something that I didn’t think I’d ever have again. Friendship, caring…a home.” He glanced over at Ian. “And you’re good people, all of you. The way you guys take care of your women, your families…it warms my heart. And that’s also something that I thought would never happen again. Ever.”
Ian stepped up and clapped him on the back. “You’re good people, too, man. We all know it. And we’re all here for you, regardless of your past, even if you never talk about it.”
I watched T.J.’s shoulders relax just a bit, just beginning to realize that he’d tensed up when I’d started to pry. Wanting to lighten the mood again and, honestly, just wanting him to smile once more, I said lightly, “And you’re so damn pretty, too. It’s no hardship to have you adding to the view.”
I capped it off with a saucy wink that made Ian growl playfully before he reached out and pulled me into a hug, and we all ended up laughing, effectively breaking the tension.
Ian released me and I grabbed the broom to sweep up the mess on the floor, but didn’t get far with it because T.J. deftly moved in and took it from me. I shot Ian a did-you-see-that? look, but he just waved me away.
T.J. had the floor swept clean, the chair pushed back into the table, my case packed up (neatly, I might add), and the broom put away in the blink of an eye, leaving me gaping at him again.
“Damn, you’re quick,” I quipped as he leaned back against the counter, crossing his arms like he hadn’t moved.
“Only when I need to be,” he drawled, his lips twitching up in a sexy little smile as he winked exaggeratedly, being deliberately suggestive.
I flushed, unable to help it. “I…uh…okay. You guys want a beer?” I asked, stammering a little, making both Ian and T.J. laugh at me. Without waiting for an answer, I went to the fridge and grabbed two out, twisting the caps off automatically and handing one to each.