Thom Baron has been struggling with social anxiety his entire life. He's taken the medications, gone to the therapists, followed the programs, and concluded his best life is a solitary one. When he comes across a dog in obvious need at his local market, it rekindles the desire to have some company around. It may come with a dishevelled coat, a notched ear, and a refusal to respond to anything but its given name "Ugly," but it could still be a friend.
However, Thom's new fur buddy has no such need to keep to itself and immediately befriends the man Thom has secretly coveted since he moved in -- Justin, Thom's gorgeous, bright-eyed neighbour. No matter how Thom tries to evade the man, the dog keeps drawing them back into each other's lives, and it doesn't take Thom long to recognize it's simply pursuing the demands of Thom's own heart. With the dog giving him the courage to try, Thom reaches out to return the love being offered.
Until a stranger shows up insisting the dog is his and demanding its immediate return ... a loss Thom knows will take all of his efforts and newfound confidence with it.
"Dude!" Justin stood on the sidewalk in front of Thom's house, mouth half open in an exaggerated expression of pleased surprise. "Is that a dog? It is a dog! Oh, my good gracious, when did you get a dog?" His gaze dropped from Thom to Dog. "Hello, precious boy! How are you? Are you new? Are you a good boy?" He stuck his hand out, already walking towards them, firing questions. "Is he friendly? Can I pat him? Do you have a name, little guy?"
Dog let him get all the way to the porch without reacting, but Thom saw Dog's tail still when Justin reached the first step. With his heartbeat pounding in his ears and a sense of dread gathering around him in a weird, creepy way, Thom did his best to either swallow his tongue in distraction or make it start working so he could voice a warning. Justin never made it to the top step.
It was as if Justin's rise up the stairs and Dog's rise from seated to standing were timed one to the other. By the time Justin lifted his foot to make the final step, hand still out, smile still wide, questions and exclamations still flying, Dog was springing. It seemed to be a happy leap, but Thom didn't know the animal enough to be sure he wasn't trying to take Justin's throat out.
Justin's expression morphed from glee into startled. Dog's tongue fell out, all four paws sprawled out in a Superman stretch. Thom managed a gurgle as the leash yanked him forward. Justin was pushed backwards, Dog followed through, and Thom lurched after the both of them. They all went down hard, Justin onto the walkway, Dog on Justin, Thom on Dog.
With eyes as wide as saucers Thom stared down at Justin. "Oh! Oh ... oh, God. Justin ... oh my, God, I'm sorry. I didn't ... I don't ... he's not ... "
Justin burst out laughing even before Dog began to cover his face with exuberant doggy kisses. He continued laughing as Thom rolled away.
Mortified, regardless of Justin's apparent glee, Thom tugged Dog fruitlessly. "Damn it, Dog! Justin, this is the worst. I'm so, so, so sorry. I had no idea he would do that."
"No, don't be. That was all on me." Justin rested both hands on his stomach, still chuckling and looking up at the sun. "Don't approach strange dogs, Justin," he said, voice high and head shaking. "You're too busy. Dogs like calm. Let them approach you if they want to." He turned to look at Dog who, once pulled into place, had taken a seat quite happily at Thom's side. "My mother used to always tell me that. Today is not the first day I've been knocked off my feet by a new fur pal." He squinted at Thom. "But I have to say, if I meet my demise under the paws of an overzealous doggo, there are certainly worse ways to go."
He rolled to his side and his smile hardened into a grimace. "Ow."
All the blood that had rushed into Thom's face from effort and humiliation tried to make a sudden exit via his feet as Justin stilled in place. Laughing or not, that was a man in pain. Now what was he supposed to do?
Thom reached, "Oh. Oh, no. Are you ...?" He pulled his hand back before it could connect and gripped it into a fist. "... is there ... what should I do?"
"I just landed weird. Tweaked my back a bit," Justin said. He took a breath and then pushed himself up, first to his knees, then a crouch, before trying to straighten up. "Ow. Ow. Yep, that's tender." He put both hands on his lower back. "You think I can maybe just sit here? On your step for a minute?"
No! was Thom's first thought, though at that point Thom could hardly deny him. "Yes, of course. Yes, sure. Um ..." He reached behind his neck and began to tug at his shoulder muscles. Forget worst shopping trip ever, this was the worst day ever.
Justin tilted his head to give Thom a look. "Don't worry, I won't make you touch me or anything."
"I ... " Thom frowned. "Sorry?"
"It's okay, I know. You don't really like me too much. I promise I appear more overbearing than I actually am. For me, meeting people tends to work out like the run in I just had with your pupster. I'm in such a rush to say hi and make a new friend that I freak people out."
"Wait," Thom shook his head. He put out his hand, traffic-cop style, as if that might somehow stop Justin from continuing. "No. It's not ... I mean, it's not you. No."
Justin stepped. He winced. "Your porch suddenly seems to be eight miles away." Rather than turn towards Thom, Justin side-eyed him. "So, you don't run away from me because I'm freaking you out?"
Thom blew a breath that was half air, half sound. "No." He paused. He looked down at Dog. Dog blew out his own air-cough. "Yes? Kind of?"
"I thought so --"
"But that's because of me, not you," Thom hurried to add.