Captivating Anika, On Call, Book Nine

Anika Jones has her future carefully plotted out and is checking the boxes, one by one, despite the bumps thrown in her path. This last one is a challenge, but she manages to stay on track; her salon is thriving, and she just bought a house. Unfortunately, when one of her employees runs into trouble, she inevitably gets sucked in, throwing her carefully paced life off-balance. It doesn’t help a friend, who’s been ghosting her for a year, suddenly makes an appearance.

He was born to pig farming, but for Noah (Hog) Hodgekins fighting fires is his calling. He wasted too many years honoring a legacy he wants no part of. But now that he’s finally free from family obligations, there’s nothing holding him back from pursuing the life he’s been dreaming of. The first step is mending bridges with the one person who is central to that future, but she comes with her own challenges, family and otherwise.

Instead of treading carefully to gain her heart, he ends up throwing caution to the wind when her recent string of bad luck lands the FBI on her doorstep.

Chapter 1

Oh, that first hit of coffee. There’s nothing like it. 
I sit down behind my computer in the small office at the back of the Chop Shop, turn it on, and pull up my schedule for the day. 
Every day I wake up, drink my sixteen ounces of water, and head out on my morning walk before I get ready for work. It’s a routine which has worked for me since my diagnosis last year. I’m actually feeling the positive impact of my new regime, which includes yoga, healthier food choices, and dramatically reducing my alcohol intake. 
Before, I would start with a pot of coffee the moment I rolled out of bed, barely able to move. The mornings were long and painful. Now I make sure I’m well hydrated first, then the walk helps to gently loosen the stiffness in my joints, so by the time I’m out and in public I look fine.
The girls at work had noticed I wasn’t moving smoothly and started asking questions I wasn’t ready to answer. I wanted a chance to come to terms with my condition and get a handle on it before making it public knowledge. The last thing I wanted was pitying looks and well-intended advice. 
I had plans for my future and wasn’t about to let my diagnosis distract me from those. So I did my research, talked to my doctor and, through some trial and error, found a routine with a minimum of medical intervention which seems to work for me. 
So well, in fact, I haven’t even bothered informing my family. Everyone assumes I’m trying to lose weight and live a little healthier, and I don’t feel like disavowing them of that notion. 
Anyhow, I allow myself one fabulous cup of coffee in the morning, before the rest of the crew and the first of my day’s customers show up. 
I take a sip and softly moan at the creamy yet bold flavor. That espresso machine I invested in a few months ago was worth it. Not only do I enjoy my daily treat, but the customers do as well. We have the small fridge stocked with creamers, milks, and flavored syrups, so we can make their coffees to order. I think it’s done a lot to elevate the salon experience the Chop Shop offers, as is evident from the packed schedule I have this week.
I lean back in my chair so I can peek around the wall to the front of the salon, where Landon is dumping his backpack at his work station.
“Morning,” I return with a grin.
Today, Landon’s hair is a vibrant orange bisected with black streaks, matching the image of Tigger displayed on the front of his black T-shirt. Last week it was Kelly green and he was wearing black patent leather shoes with big shiny brass buckles. 
He’s a character, but a phenomenal color artist, and I’m so glad I took a chance on him two years ago. He’d been a bit of a shock to the system when he walked into the interview wearing a tiara and a feather boa, but I quickly warmed to his flamboyant but inherently kind character. His addition to the team was a substantial part of the growth my salon has seen in the last few years. 
“You like?” 
He flips his hair as he ducks into the coffee nook. 
“Very cool,” I comment. “How long did that take?”
“Three and a half hours. But I binge-watched a couple of episodes of Reacher so it was well worth it. Did you watch it yet?” he asks as he grinds beans for his morning coffee.
He’s been urging me to watch that show but I haven’t gotten around to it. I haven’t been watching a lot of TV lately, plus I’ve had my hands full with my house. Stripping wallpaper, ripping up carpet, and then painting. The downstairs was done before I moved in last year, with my brother, Bodhi, and a few guys on his crew at Fire Station 3 helping out, but I’d put off the upstairs bedrooms and bathrooms until I had a chance to replenish my savings. I just started working on my bedroom a few weeks ago. 
“Haven’t had a chance,” I tell him honestly. “My bedroom has priority right now.”
“I told you before, if you want help, all you gotta do is ask. As you know, I’m a master with a brush.”
“And I appreciate the offer, but I really want to do as much as I can myself. Kinda put my own stamp on the place.”
Landon pokes his head around the corner. “Are you implying you couldn’t do that with me around?”
It is in fact what I’m suggesting, since Landon has very strong opinions when it comes to anything to do with color or design. Or anything else, for that matter. 
I’m saved from answering when Monique walks in, followed closely by the youngest member of our team, Molly. 
Monique is my right-hand woman. She and I have worked together for about fifteen years or so and are good friends. The two of us started off around the same time at Durango Hair Design, which was located just a few blocks south of here on Main. The salon closed down seven years ago, which is when I took the leap and, with a little investment from my parents I’ve since paid back, was able to buy this building and open the Chop Shop. Monique joined me shortly after, and the rest is history. 
Up until I moved into my place last fall, I lived in the small apartment above the salon. It was a financially smart move, since it allowed me to save up enough for a decent down payment on a house, and I actually enjoyed living smack-dab downtown where the action is. 
That changed over time, and last year I was ready to find something with a little more space, with parking right outside the door, and in a quieter neighborhood. It just so happened my friend, Lindsey, put her house on the market at the same time I started looking, and I snatched it up. 
“Morning, girls!” Landon chirps in a singsong voice as he walks into the salon to join them.
When Molly wanders past my office, I wave her in.
“We’re supposed to get that Wella shipment this morning. If you have a chance, could you reorganize the supply shelves a little so there’s room?” 
“Sure. I can do it between customers.”
Molly does a little of everything. She mans the front desk, books appointments, helps us with hair washing, brews coffee for the customers, takes care of the laundry, and keeps track of stock levels. In addition, she’ll be helping out with prom season coming up, working on curling and updos. 
“Anika!” Landon calls out. “Mrs. Landry is here.”
Just as I get my first customer seated, Kim walks in mumbling, “Sorry I’m late,” as she keeps her head low and beelines it to her station. 
It’s that Mrs. Landry is already regaling me with stories about her grandchildren, or I would’ve invited Kim into my office for a quick chat.
I’d love to know how she got the shiner she wasn’t quite able to hide underneath the caked-on makeup.
* * *
“Heading home?”
Vic stops by the driver’s side door of her Jeep and turns to face me.
I run a hand through my hair, which is still wet from the shower I had at the station before we went out for breakfast. 
“Actually, I think I’m going to run some errands before I go home. Maybe stop in for a trim if I’m out and about anyway.”
It’s been a while and my hair is almost long enough to put it back in a damn ponytail. I may have been avoiding the Chop Shop, where either Monique or Landon usually cut it, but it’s not because of them I’ve been staying away. 
No, the reason for that would be my unhealthy attraction to the salon’s owner. Not only is the woman my friend and crew member’s sister, and far too beautiful and classy for the likes of me, but she’s a decade younger and definitely not interested in anything other than friendship. 
It was an innocent comment she made one night last year when some of the guys and I were putting a new kitchen in her house that smacked me upside the head with a harsh dose of reality. She was thanking us for helping out and said something about all of us being like brothers to her. 
I realized right then and there we’d never be more than friends, and I’d been an idiot for hanging on to that fantasy for more years than I care to confess to. 
I’m not proud to admit I’ve done my best to avoid her, which has gone mostly unnoticed. So, I’ve come to the conclusion I’m basically shooting myself in the foot, cutting her out when I could have her friendship. Hell, it’s better than not having her at all. The only one standing in the way of that is me.
“I was wondering if you were going for a new style,” Vic observes. “I didn’t say anything because I’m kinda digging the Anson Mount look you’ve got going on, but don’t tell Bill I said so.”
Vic is the only female firefighter on our crew, and Bill would be her new husband and a detective for the Durango PD, but I’ll be damned if I know who or what Anson Mount is. 
“Jesus, Hog, don’t tell me you’ve never seen Hell On Wheels. It’s the best TV series ever.”
I lift an eyebrow, because everyone on my crew knows I’ll watch an occasional football game, but I prefer a book to sitting in front of the TV. Growing up as a single child on a pig farm, there wasn’t a hell of a lot to do once the chores were done except read. By my father’s decree, the TV was only for the daily newscast and televised sports. Books have always been a welcome distraction and the weekly trips to the library in town with my mother were highlights in my otherwise rather lonely existence. 
“You are missing out, my friend,” Vic adds, shaking her head as she unlocks her door and slips behind the wheel. “See you tomorrow.”
I rap my knuckles on the roof of her Jeep and continue to my truck one row over. 
Street parking along Main Avenue thankfully isn’t too bad at this time of the morning, and I find a spot only half a block down from the salon. 
“Good morning. How can I help you?” the girl at the front desk asks, but my eyes have already found Anika. 
She’s at her station, working on a customer, and has her back to me. 
“I need a haircut,” I reply. 
“Did you have an appointment?”
Never occurred to me. I don’t think I’ve ever called beforehand. I just walk in and I don’t normally have to wait longer than ten or fifteen minutes at most. 
“That’s okay, Molly.” I look up to catch Monique removing the cape from the older woman in her chair, shaking it out. She shoots me a wink before fixing her eyes on the girl. “I can fit him in, if you wouldn’t mind ringing Ruby up?”
“Been a while,” Monique coos as she closes the Velcro strap around my neck and runs her fingers through my hair.
It does nothing for me. Not even when she leans her body against my arm. Now, if Anika was standing this close, fondling my hair, it would be an entirely different story. 
“Life’s been busy,” I lie. 
“The long hair suits you. What if I just trim the ends a bit?”
I shake my head. “It gets in the way when I’m working, I want it buzzed short.”
“Are you really going to make me shave it all off?” she complains.
“Nothing wrong with a good buzz,” Landon pipes up two stations over, as he runs a free hand over his own orange, short-cropped hair. “You can always liven it up with a bit of color.”
“Not for me, thanks. I don’t think tiger stripes are my thing, no offense intended,” I add.
“None taken,” he returns with a wide grin. “Not everyone can pull off this look.”
“What look?” 
I catch sight of Anika’s reflection as she stops behind me. 
“A little color on Hog,” Landon teases. 
“And ruin that gorgeous silver peeking through? That would be a waste.” She throws me a tiny smile. “Good to see you, Hog.”
Then she lightly brushes my shoulder with her fingertips before returning to her customer.
Like an idiot I say nothing. What am I going to tell her, that I missed her? I feel like I owe her some explanation though, but not here in front of everyone. 
Monique opens a drawer and pulls out the clippers.
“Sure?” she asks one more time.
The buzz of the clippers thankfully makes conversation impossible, and I let my eyes drift to the mirror where I can just catch a glimpse of Anika.
I can still feel her touch on my shoulder as the first strands of my hair start falling.

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