By the time Nick gets out of the house to walk Pig and Stinky, the sun’s beginning to set in the sky, the blue beginning to roll into pinks and purples. It’s almost summer, Nick can feel it coming, racing towards London like a steam train; warm breezes, sunshine, baking, cherry blossoms and insects calling in the evening.
Regent’s Park on a Sunday is slow and quiet; a few joggers, a couple other dog walkers, some couples. It’s Nick’s favourite time to walk.
He takes the path from Primrose Hill to Queen Mary’s Gardens, turning onto the Inner Circle, towards St. John’s Lodge.
It happens when he’s passing the Hylas and the Nymph statue, texting Harry about Thai and wine and a Reign marathon. One moment he’s right side up and the next, there’s a flash of white, black and brown, barking, and Nick’s legs are pulled out from under him and he’s upended into the pond the statue stands inside.
He’s left breathless and soaking wet, with algae all over his jumper, fight on the tip of his tongue as he struggles to stand and glares for the cause of the mess.
Pig and Stinky are on the path Nick had been on before he fell, but they’re not alone. There are two other dogs with them, a Dalmatian and a Cocker Spaniel, both puppies, no more than a few months old.
“Oh, shit, are you alright?”
Nick blinks up in the direction of the voice, shielding his eyes from the last remnants of the sun. There’s a man running towards him, small and curvy, with tan skin and caramel coloured hair. He stops at the edge of the pond, panting, and holds his hands out to Nick to help him out. Nick accepts the help and climbs out of the pond.
“I’m so, so sorry.” The man says, brushing algae from Nick’s clothes, picking a lily pad off of his jeans. “They saw your dogs and bolted. I lost my hold on their leads. I really am sorry.”
“You need to train your dogs better.” Nick snaps, wiping at his eyes, shivering. “Seriously.”
“I’m sorry.” The man says, frowning now, backing away from Nick a few steps. “They’re only puppies, they don’t know any better. They haven’t started puppy school yet.”
“Well, maybe you should keep a tighter hold on their leads.” Nick tells the man, picking up Pig and Stinky’s own leads.
“I said I was sorry.” The man replies, pouting out his bottom lip like a petulant child. “Look, I’ve got some towels in my car, and I can drive you home if you’d like?”
Nick runs his fingers through his hair and frowns thoughtfully, looking the stranger up and down before nodding. “Alright, unless you’re a kidnapper.”
“If I was a kidnapper, would I tell you I was a kidnapper?” The man says, grin devilish.
“Point.” Nick agrees. “I’m only agreeing because my flat’s a twenty minute walk away, I’m soaking wet and it’s freezing. I’m still annoyed.”
The man begins to laugh, bright and loud and sharp like bells, then says, “Of course. I’m Louis.”
“C’mon.” The man, Louis, begins, picking up his dog’s leads, jerking his head towards the park office. “My car’s on Chester Road.”
Nick follows Louis to the parking lot on Chester Road and waits by his Range Rover while Louis gets towels from the boot.
“I might have a jumper in here, too, if you want it.” Louis offers, pulling out a beige hoodie with a triumphant cry. “It’s Liam’s, so it should fit you.”
“Liam?” Nick asks, accepting the towels. He rubs one over his face and through his hair before handing it back to Louis.
“My best mate.”
Nick unzips his jumper, shivering again, and pulls off his shirt, too. He wonders if he’s imagining the appreciative look in Louis’s eyes as he watches Nick towel off his chest.
He swaps the towel for the jumper and pulls it on, smiling at Louis and thanking him. The jumper smells like Old Spice and cigarette smoke. It kind of reminds Nick of Henry.
“Right, let’s go, then, yeah? Where am I taking you?” Louis asks, opening the back door and ushering the four dogs in before tugging on the passenger door for Nick.
Nick waits until they’re both in the car before he says, “Just drive up to Primrose Hill, St. Edmund’s Terrace.”
Louis turns on the ignition, laughing. “What a coincidence.”
“Never mind.” Louis answers, leaning over Nick to pull open the glove box, pulling out a packet of cigarettes, shutting it again. “D’you mind if I smoke?”
“Nah, I don’t mind. Long as I get one.”
Louis laughs and pulls two from the packet, putting it back in the glove box. He hands one to Nick and puts the other in his mouth, wriggling about until he can reach into his back pocket to pull out a lighter. Once the cigarettes are lit and the windows are down to let the smoke out, Louis pulls out of the parking lot.
“Are you cold?” Louis asks, pulling off of Chester Road onto the Outer Circle. “I can put the heater on if you’d like?”
“S’all good,” Nick replies, taking a drag of his cigarette, breathing it into his lungs. “I’m not all that cold anymore.” He finishes, blowing out the smoke. “Your dogs, what are their names anyway?”
“Oh, Belle’s the Dalmatian and Hazel’s the Cocker Spaniel. They’re both fifteen weeks old.” Louis answers, smiling into the rear view mirror. “I got them a couple weeks ago.”
“They might have pushed me into the pond, but I have to admit they’re kind of cute.” Nick admits, grinning at Louis.
“Excuse you, they’re the cutest.”
“I believe that honour goes to my dogs, thank-you-very-much.”
“You wish!” Louis laughs, turning to grin at Nick at a red light. “My mates have dogs. There are literal puppy piles, Nick. Puppy piles.”
“Pictures or it didn’t happen!”
At the next red light, Louis pulls his phone from his jeans, unlocks it and then spends a few seconds scrolling and pressing his fingers to the screen before handing it over to Nick.
In the photo is a good half dozen dogs, all asleep in a big puppy pile on an unmade bed; Louis’s two puppies, a Pug, a Pomeranian, a Poodle mix and a massive Great Dane they’re all cuddled into.
“There’s a whole group of us, me and my mates, and we were having a movie night at my old place,” Louis begins, driving again when the light turns green. “And at one point we realised all the dogs were missing. We searched all over the house until we found them in my housemate’s room. He was so pissed, he had Watson and Ralph, our other housemate’s dogs, the Great Dane and the Poodle cross King Charles Cavalier, trained not to go in, but the others must’ve persuaded them or summat.”
“Alright, that is pretty cute.”
Louis turns onto St. Edmund’s Terrace and says, “Which one’s yours, then?”
“That one over there.”
Louis’s grinning cheekily as he pulls into the driveway next to Nick’s, and before Nick can argue, he’s turning to Nick and saying, “Would you believe me if I told you that this is my flat.”
“You were the one who moved in last week?” Nick asks as Louis turns off the ignition. “The only person I saw come out of there was a girl. Your girlfriend?”
“Don’t have one. Did she have blonde hair, was she black or was she curvy?”
“That was Leigh-Anne.” Louis answers, finishing his cigarette and opening the door to flick it out. “Definitely not my girlfriend. She’s engaged to a girl.”
They both hop out of the car and Nick stomps out his cigarette before collecting Pig and Stinky while Louis gets Belle and Hazel, meeting again at the boot so Nick can get his wet clothes.
“Thanks for the ride and the hoodie.”
Louis smiles. “Absolutely no problem at all. Sorry again about Belle and Hazel.”
Nick shrugs, smiling back at Louis. “They’re forgiven.”
“Don’t be a stranger, yeah?” Louis says, before they separate to their own houses.
Nick tries desperately to pretend the feeling in his gut isn’t there, the butterflies – he’s a grown man, not a teenage girl with a crush – but it’s hard. No. He won’t be a stranger.