“What do you mean Dominic isn’t here?” Arik didn’t quite raise his voice, and yet everyone in the barbershop heard him and noted his displeasure. Heads ducked, hands busied themselves snipping and styling, and no one dared meet his gaze.
If they were lion shifters, he would have said it was because they recognized his alpha status—say hello to the king of the concrete jungle. But these were only regular humans, people easily cowed by a man in an expensive suit with a commanding attitude.
Except for one.
“Granddad is out west.”
The woman’s reply had him spinning, and he inhaled sharply, which drew in more than just the scent of the barbershop. It drew in her tempting aroma—and stirred a hunger that had nothing to do with food.
Smells delicious. For a human.
Standing at just over five and a half feet, the woman barely reached his chin. She didn’t let her shortness deter her. Her head tilted. The chin raised, almost defiantly, as she met his stare. Brown eyes framed in dark lashes didn’t turn from his amber-hued ones.
Someone’s got spirit. But he didn’t have time to explore how far her attitude and bravery went. There were more important matters clamoring for his attention. Such as his poor, shaggy mane.
“What do you mean he’s out west? I have an appointment.” People didn’t cancel his appointments. Nor did they make him wait. The perks of being top of the heap.
“My Aunt Cecily had her baby early. He took some time off to go meet his new grandson.”
A decent excuse, but still… “But what about my hair?” That might have emerged more plaintively than he’d like. However, who could blame him? They were talking about his precious luxurious mane that required a regular trim lest the ends grow ragged, or, worse, a split end dared to make an appearance.
Vanity, one of his faults, along with arrogance and an unwillingness to budge.
“No need to worry, big guy. I’m taking over Granddad’s appointments while he’s gone.”
“You?” A girl, cut his hair? He couldn’t help but laugh, the idea too ridiculous to contemplate.
“I’m sorry. I fail to see the entertainment.”
“You can’t seriously expect me to trust my mane to a woman?” Sexism, alive and well in Arik’s world, the fault of the females in his pride who’d raised him. No coddling for Arik. They didn’t believe in letting him play with dolls or caving to others. His mother and aunts, not to mention his numerous female cousins, had taught him to be tough. They didn’t allow softness in his world, not when they groomed him as the future leader of their pride.
He was all male, all the time, and dammit, a man used a barber, not a hairdresser. Even if she was cute.
“Suit yourself. I’ve got more than enough men to take care of—”
Was that his cat growling?
“—without adding a pompous one to the list.”
“Pompous?” Even if she’d pegged him right, it didn’t stop his indignant glare.
A glare she chose to ignore. She crossed her arms over her chest, plumping her cleavage—ooh, pretty, shadowy cleft. His curious nature drew his eyes to the mysterious and beckoning vee until she cleared her throat.
“My eyes are up here, big guy.”
Caught. Good thing he was a cat. His kind had no shame, nor did they apologize. He shot her his most engaging, boyish grin. “My name is Arik. Arik Castiglione.”
She didn’t react to his smile or titles, so he elaborated, “The CEO for Castiglione Enterprises.” He stretched his lips wide enough to engage his deadly dimple.
And still failed to impress.
She raised a brow. “Is that supposed to mean something?”
Surely she jested. Within his mind, his poor lion lay down in a traumatized heap and crossed its paws over its eyes.
“We are the largest importer of meat in the world.”
Her shoulders lifted in a shrug. “I don’t check the label to see who brings me my steak. I just eat it.”
“What about our chain of restaurants? A Lion’s Pride Steakhouses.”
“Those I’ve heard of. Decent, I hear, but overpriced. I can get a bigger plate of food at LongHorn. And according to my girlfriends, the male waiters are cuter too.”
For once, Arik found himself at a loss for words. His lion on the other hand? His mane was definitely ruffled—and itching.
Arik had already gone two weeks longer than usual for this haircut because of an overseas business trip. Time to get back to his highest priority. “How long until Dominic is back?”
“A week, maybe two. I told him to take his time. Granddad doesn’t often take time off, and he’s getting up there in years.”
A few weeks? He’d look like a wildebeest if he waited that long. “That’s no good. I need a cut. Are there any male barbers available?”
“Afraid to let a girl touch your precious hair?” She smirked. “I can peek at the schedule and see if we can squeeze you in this afternoon.”
“I don’t have time to come back. I need it done now.”
Usually when he used the word now, people jumped to do his bidding. She, on the other hand, shook her head.
“Not happening, unless you’ve changed your mind and are willing to let me cut it.”
“You’re a hairdresser.”
“I want a barber.”
Said the girl without a Y chromosome. “I think I’ll wait.”
Arik turned away from her, only to freeze as she muttered, “Pussy.”
If she only knew how right she was. But, of course, she didn’t mean the feline version.
Pride made him pivot back. “You know what. On second thought, you may cut my hair.”
“How gracious of you, Your Majesty.” She sketched him a mock bow.
Not funny, even if accurate. He glared in reply.
“I see someone’s too uptight for a sense of humor.”
“I greatly enjoy comedy, when I hear it.”
“Sorry if my brand of sarcasm is too simple for you to understand, big guy. Now, if you’re done, sit down so we can get this over with and send you and your precious hair back to your office.”
A woman giving him orders? Not uncommon when a male lived surrounded by them. But actually obeying, that was new – and in this case, unavoidable.
Head held regally high, Arik took the proffered seat, putting his back to the female, but he could still watch her in the mirror and track her by scent. Coconut lotion, fabric softener, and musky woman. All woman.
My woman. Want to taste.
His lion grumbled in hunger. Odd because Arik had eaten a hearty breakfast, even wrestling his beta, Hayder, for the last two pieces of bacon.
The hairdresser swirled a fabric cape around his upper body, swathing him in protection against snipped tickly bits. So far the same as usual, except Dominic’s mere presence never had Arik’s body so aware. The light touch of her fingers at his nape as she fastened the Velcro closure caused all the hairs on his body to stiffen. And they weren’t the only thing standing at attention.
Before he could wonder at his reaction, she withdrew her hand and busied herself with her tray of instruments. Razor, scissors, brush, comb. But forget the manly black colors a barber would use. Her tools were pink and black, zebra striped.
The indignity of it. He almost said something but held his tongue, only because he could see her watching and waiting for it in the mirror. As if he’d give her the satisfaction. This cat held his own tongue—for now.
The hairdresser sifted her fingers through his long strands, lifting and studying the various layers Dominic usually cut into it. Unlike many businessmen, Arik preferred to keep his golden mane somewhat long. Funny how many of his lovers had told him it gave him a leonine appearance—if only they knew the truth.
“How much are we taking off?”
As little as possible, given he still didn’t trust her. “About a half inch or so. Just even up the ends.” That should tide him over until Dominic returned.
“Are you sure?” She frowned at his crown, as she held long strands up. “You look like you could use at least two inches off, if not more.”
How did she know? Arik usually kept his mane to a civilized length that just touched the top of his collar.
“You know, a man your age really should have a more mature cut. The shaggy surfer style is more suited to young guys.”
He dug his fingers into the armrest and fought not to growl. “I like my hair like this.”
“Suit yourself. I was just saying you’d look better with a shorter cut.”
Shave his precious mane? Never! “Do you always argue with your clients?”
Her eyes met his in the mirror, and he wasn’t surprised to see a smile lurking at the corners of her lips. “Only when they’re wrong.”
That surprised a bark of laughter from him. Despite his irritation with the situation, and her outspoken nature, he grudgingly liked Dominic’s granddaughter. “Very well. You may cut it a little shorter than a half inch. But not much shorter. I do not want to end up scalped.”
“For a man your age and in your position, you are way too obsessed with your hair,” she muttered as she bound sections of his mane with hairclips. Not exactly his most manly look.
Arik kept a close watch for anyone with a camera or cell phone. Dare to take a pic and he’d probably go furry.
Okay, he wouldn’t go furry in public, but he sure as hell would extract retribution. CEOs of billion-dollar corporations had an image to maintain, and pink hair clips holding his hair at crazy angles didn’t exactly fit it.
“How come I’ve never met you before?” Dominic had paraded a great number of his children and grandchildren through his barber shop over the years.
Attention focused on her hands, which wielded a set of scissors, she answered. “I don’t visit often. I live out in the Midwest with my mom and dad. I was actually working at a hair salon out there until it shut down, and Granddad offered me a job here.”
“You just packed up and moved?”
“Why not?” She released a layer of hair, and the scissors kept snipping. Golden bits flittered to the floor, and Arik tried to not tense. There was just as much hair strewn as when Dominic cut it. She seemed to know her business when it came to using scissors, but for some reason, he couldn’t shake his unease.
“Women should stay close to family.” His female family members certainly did, despite his best efforts to pawn them off onto other tribes and cities. Hell, he’d even tried to bribe some of his more rascally cousins with the promise of condos on other continents. However, the lionesses in his pride were content. A sign he was a good leader, but annoying as it meant they were constantly putting their whiskered noses in his business.
And they also loved to play matchmaker.
“When are you going to give us some cubs?” Not a day went by that he didn’t hear this.
“I’ve got a friend I want you to meet.” Fun for a night, until the next day when his cousin hammered him to make some kind of commitment.
The hairdresser reacted to his statement about a woman’s place with a snort. “Get with the times, big guy. We’re no longer strapped to a kitchen or forced into arranged marriages. We even get to vote. Girls nowadays often move away from home and have jobs. Or at least this one does.”
He couldn’t help but wince as she gave a decisive snip to his mane. So far, everything looked good. Yet he could have sworn ominous music hummed at the edges of his mind, feeding a certain dread he’d never admit aloud.
Scared of this woman and her scissors? Never. And his lion reinforced this with a very masculine rawr.
Still though, she’d essentially accused him of being a chauvinist. He explained himself. “I did not mean to sound misogynistic. I merely stated that women often find comfort in having family around them.”
“I do have family here.”
“Touché.” Then he couldn’t have said what prompted him to ask, “What of your boyfriend? I’m sure he’s not pleased at your abrupt departure.”
She paused and stared at him in the mirror. “Is this your not-so-subtle way of asking if I’m single?”
“Was I being subtle? Let me rephrase then. Do you have a lover?” He’d challenge him to a duel if she did and—
Hold on a second. He wasn’t challenging anyone, especially not the human boyfriend of a hairdresser he’d just met.
Just met, and yet wanted.
The realization made him frown. Time to hit the dating circuit again if a plump and mouthy human girl was capable of making him irrational. It didn’t help that his lion urged him to rub against her and mark her with their scent—to keep other males away.
Not happening. Marking any kind of female was bound to create complications. Arik wasn’t about to settle down or commit himself. He was in his prime. Playing the field.
Flirting with a hairdresser who set his hairs on end—and brought his erotic senses alive.
The things I could do to her. Nibbles on her creamy skin… Nips at that luscious lower lip, which pulled taut as she frowned at him and said, “First off, I don’t think my love life is any of your business.” Snip. “Second. Even if I were single, I wouldn’t date you.” Snip. Snip.
“Why not?” He could have blinked in astonishment when the query emerged from his mouth. However, a curious kitty needed to know. Women just didn’t say no. It wasn’t arrogant of him to claim it, not when it was fact.
Rejection was not something he encountered. Until now.
“Are you seriously having to ask why I won’t date you?” She sounded so incredulous. “Would you like me to recite the list alphabetically?”
Actually, he did. “Let’s hear it.”
Not even a pause. “Asshat. Braggart. Cocky tied with chauvinist. Dumbass. Egotistical. Do I really need to go on?”
A chuckle rumbled forth from him—again. What was it about this woman that delighted him? She kept arguing and defying him at every turn, and yet he couldn’t help but find her amusing. She utterly intrigued him, especially as he tried to guess what she’d say next. How refreshing to come across a female that wasn’t related to him, or impressed by him, who dared to treat him as a man.
One she considered beneath her standards.
“I think your list needs tweaking.” He launched a defense of his character.
“Oh really? And just how do you see yourself? I’m sure this will be good.”
“Let me see. Attractive, bold, courageous, daring, elegant, ferocious, especially as a lover,” he admitted with a wink. “Gallant.”
With a derisive snort, she interrupted. “Ha. I highly doubt that.”
“And yet you don’t really know me. My lady friends would tell you that I am a gentleman.” When it came to opening doors and picking up the check. Other than that, there was nothing gentle about him. Just ask those who crossed him.
Kings didn’t let anyone question their authority.
“I wouldn’t know, though, about this supposed gallantry, because I’m not your lady friend.”
“You could be.” He gave her another chance. She truly did draw him in with the roundness of her figure, hugged by faded denim and topped with a baggy sweatshirt that drooped enticingly off a shoulder, baring a black strap.
Lace or cotton? A feline mind wanted to know.
But apparently he wouldn’t know today, as she, yet again, managed to resist him.
“Date you? Not likely.”
Again words emerged from him without volition. “Why not?”
“Oh please. I’ve seen enough to know you’re not my type.”
Such a liar. Apparently he wasn’t the only one aroused by their repartee. The musky scent of her arousal tickled his senses. It made him bolder. “I guarantee when I’m between your thighs and you’re clawing my back, you’ll be screaming a different tune.”
So he might have come on a tad strong with that last statement. That was still no excuse for what happened next.
“Pig.” However it wasn’t the animal insult that was her most grievous crime. It was the gigantic hunk of hair she snipped off!
An irreplaceable, thick chunk of his hair permanently removed. Accidental or intentional, it didn’t matter.
Ack! My mane. My beautiful, precious mane.
He couldn’t help a low rumbling growl. His eyes glinted in the mirror, the gold catching the light and reflecting it, along with his fury.
“You. Did. Not. Just. Do. That.” And yes, he might have growled the last bit.
“Oops? Did I do that? Sorry.” Said with no repentance at all. With a smirk and a blown kiss, she let her crime rain down over him in a golden, threaded shower.
And then, she ran.