Beautiful big-city transplant Zoe Kozlowski came to Pinehurst to heal from a failed marriage and a frightening battle with breast cancer. So the passionate photographer instantly threw herself into an ambitious project: transforming her new home into a bed-and-breakfast. Luckily for her, the best architect—and most eligible bachelor—in town just happened ...
Beautiful big-city transplant Zoe Kozlowski came to Pinehurst to heal from a failed marriage and a frightening battle with breast cancer. So the passionate photographer instantly threw herself into an ambitious project: transforming her new home into a bed-and-breakfast. Luckily for her, the best architect—and most eligible bachelor—in town just happened to be her neighbor, Mason Sullivan.
Gorgeous Mason's interest in the renovation quickly turned more than professional. But as captivating as he found his new neighbor, she was also a reminder of his painful childhood. Mason had vowed long ago never to risk losing his heart again—but how could he have known such temptation would lurk just next door?
Zoe Kozlowski definitely wasn't in Manhattan anymore.
Years of living in the city had acclimated her to the sounds of traffic—the squeal of tires, the blare of horns, the scream of sirens. She would no doubt have slept through the pounding of a jackhammer six stories below her open bedroom window or the wail of a fire truck speeding past her apartment building, but the gentle trilling of sparrows shattered the cocoon of her slumber.
In time, she was certain she would get used to these sounds, too, but for now, they were new and enchanting enough that she didn't mind being awakened at such an early hour. As she carried her cup of decaf chai tea out onto the back porch, she could hear not just the birds but the gentle breeze rustling the leaves and, in the distance, the barking of a dog.
She stepped over a broken board and settled onto the top step to survey her surroundings in the morning light. The colors were so vivid and bright it almost hurt to look at them—the brilliantly polished sapphire of the sky broken only by the occasional fluffy white cloud. And the trees—there were so many kinds, so many shades of green around the perimeter of the yard. Evergreens whose sweeping branches ranged in hue from deep emerald to silvery sage. Oaks and maples and poplars with leaves of various shapes and sizes and colors of yellow-green and dark green and every tone in between.
She found herself wondering how it would look in the fall—what glorious shades of gold and orange and rust and red would appear. And then in the winter, when the leaves had fallen to the ground and the trees were bare, the long branches glistening with frost or dusted with snow. Andin the early spring, when the first buds began to unfurl and herald the arrival of the new season.
But now, edging toward the first days of summer, everything was green and fresh and beautiful. And while she appreciated the natural beauty of the present, she was already anticipating the changing of the seasons. Not wishing her life away, but looking to her future here and planning to enjoy every minute of it.
She knew the yard was in as serious need of work as the old house in which she'd spent the night, but as she took another look around, she was filled with a deep sense of peace and satisfaction that everything she saw was hers.
She'd get a porch swing, she decided suddenly, impulsively. Where she could sit to enjoy her first cup of tea every morning. She would put down roots here, just like those trees, dig deep into the soil and make this place her home.
It was strange that she'd lived in New York for almost ten years and never felt the same compelling need to put down roots there. Or maybe it just hadn't occurred to her to do so in a city made up of mostly concrete and steel. Not that she hadn't loved Manhattan. There was an aura about the city that still appealed to her, an excitement she'd never felt anywhere else. For a young photographer, it had been the place to be, and when Scott had suggested moving there after they were married, she'd jumped at the opportunity. They'd started out at a tiny little studio apartment in Brooklyn Heights, moved to a one-bedroom walk-up in Soho, then, finally, only four years ago, to a classic six on Park Avenue.
She'd never imagined leaving there, never imagined wanting to be anywhere else. Until a routine doctor's appointment had turned out to be not-so-routine after all.
In the eighteen months that had passed since then, her life had taken a lot of unexpected turns. The most recent of which had brought her here, to Pinehurst, New York, to visit her friend Claire and—
The breath rushed out of her lungs and her mug went flying from her fingers as she was knocked onto her back by a furry beast that settled on her chest.
She would have gasped if she'd had any air left to expel. Instead, she struggled to draw in enough oxygen to scream. As she opened her mouth, a big wet tongue swept over her face.
She wasn't sure if the hairy creature was licking her in a harmless show of affection or sampling her before it sank its teeth in. She sputtered and tried to push it away.
A shrill whistle sounded in the distance and the dog—at least, she thought it was a dog, although it didn't look like any kind she'd ever seen before—lifted its head in response to the sound. Then the tongue was back, slobbering over her again.
The animal withdrew, just far enough to plant its substantial behind on top of her thighs, trapping them beneath its impressive weight.
Zoe eyed it warily as she pushed herself up onto her elbows, bracing herself for another attack. A movement at the edge of the woods caught her attention, and she turned her head to see a tall, broad-shouldered figure moving with long-legged strides across the yard.
She shoved at the beast again, ineffectually, and blew out a frustrated breath. "Can you get this darn thing off me?" she asked through gritted teeth.
"Sorry." The man reached down to grab the animal by its collar. Zoe's irritation was forgotten as her gaze swept over her rescuer.
His hair was dark, almost black, and cut short around a face that seemed to be chiseled out of granite. His forehead was broad, his cheekbones sharp, and his nose had a slight bump on the bridge as if it had been broken once or twice before. His jaw was dark with stubble, and his eyes—she couldn't be sure of the color because his face was in shadow, but she could tell that they were dark—were narrowed on the beast. He wore an old Cornell University T-shirt over a pair of jeans that molded to the lean muscles of his long legs and a scuffed pair of sneakers.
"Are you alright?" he asked, his voice as warm and smooth as premium-aged whiskey.
"I'm fine. Or I will be when you get this thing away from me."
"Rosie, off." He spoke to her attacker now, the words accompanied by a sharp tug on the collar. The four-legged beast immediately removed its weight from her legs and plopped down on its butt beside the man, tongue hanging out of its mouth as it gazed at him adoringly.
Zoe figured the beast was female. She also figured the man was used to that kind of reaction from the women he met. She might have been inclined to drool herself except that a half-dozen years as a fashion photographer had immunized her against the impact of beautiful faces. Well, mostly, anyway. Because she couldn't deny there was something about this man's rugged good looks she found appealing enough to almost wish she had her camera in hand.
The unexpectedness of that urge was something she would think about later, Zoe decided as she pulled herself to her feet, then rubbed a hand over her face to wipe away the dog drool. She tugged at the frayed hem of the cut-off shorts she'd pulled on when she'd rolled out of bed, conscious of the fact that they fell only a couple of inches below the curve of her butt.
"What the heck is that thing?" she asked, taking a deliberate step back from man and beast.
"He's a dog," the man responded in the same whiskey-smooth tone. "And although he's overly affectionate at times, he doesn't usually take to strangers."
"Obviously it's a dog." At least it had four paws and wagging tail. "But what kind? I've never seen anything so—" ugly was the description that immediately came to mind, but she didn't want to insult the man or his best friend, so she decided upon "—big."
His smile was wry. "He's of indeterminate pedigree—part deerhound, part Old English sheepdog, with a lot of other parts mixed in."
She glanced at the handsome stranger again, saw that he was giving her the same critical study she'd given his pet. She was suddenly aware that her hair needed to be combed, her teeth needed to be brushed and her T-shirt was covered in muddy paw prints. Then his gaze lifted to hers, and she forgot everything else in the realization that his eyes were as startlingly blue as the sapphire sky overhead.
"Did you ever consider putting your dog in obedience classes?" she asked. "Preferably before it—he— knocks somebody unconscious."
"As a matter of fact, Rosie graduated top of his class. He can heel, sit, lay down, roll over and speak." He shrugged and smiled again. "He just hasn't learned to curb his enthusiasm." "No kidding," she said dryly. Then she frowned.
"Did you call him 'Rosie'?"
"It's short for Rosencrantz."
"Rosencrantz," Zoe echoed, wondering what kind of person would inflict such torture on a helpless animal. Not that this one was helpless, but the name still seemed cruel.
"As in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern," he told her.
She was admittedly surprised—and more intrigued than she wanted to be by this sexy, blue-eyed, Shakespeare-reading stranger.
"Where is Guildenstern?" she asked apprehensively.
"With my brother," the man answered. "My business partner found the two puppies abandoned by the creek in his backyard. He and his wife wanted to keep them, but they already have a cat and a baby on the way, so I got one and my brother took the other."
She noticed that he spoke of his partner having a wife but didn't mention one of his own. Not that it really mattered, of course. She had a lot of reasons for moving to Pinehurst, but looking for romance was definitely not one of them—especially when the wounds of her failed marriage had barely begun to heal.
"Well, you need to keep that thing on a leash," she said, forcing her thoughts to refocus on the conversation.
The animal in question immediately dropped to its belly and whined plaintively.
Zoe frowned. "What's wrong with him?" "You said the L-word," he told her.
She looked at him blankly. "L-E-A-S-H."
"You've got to be kidding."
He shook his head. "Rosie hates being tied up."
"Well, he'll have to get used to it because I don't appreciate being attacked in my own yard by your mongrel pet."
"Your yard?" He seemed surprised by her statement.
"You bought this place?"
She nodded. "Are you rich and bored? Or just plain crazy?" She bristled at that. "You're not the first person to question my sanity," she admitted. "But you're the first who's had the nerve to do so while standing on my property."
"I'm just…surprised," he said. "The house has been on the market a long time, and I hadn't heard anything around town recently about a potential buyer."
"The final papers were signed yesterday. This is my house, my land, my space."
"If this is your house, your land, and your space, then that would mean—"
He paused to smile, and she cursed her traitorous heart for beating faster.
"—you're my neighbor."
Mason watched as her pale cheeks flushed with color, making him think she might be attractive if she cleaned herself up. Right now, however, she was a mess. Her long blond hair was tangled around her face, her brow—above incredibly gorgeous eyes the color of dark chocolate— was creased with a scowl, and her skimpy little T-shirt was covered in mud. But he couldn't help but notice that the shirt clung to curves that looked soft and round in all the right places, and he felt the stir of arousal.
He gave himself a mental shake, acknowledging that he'd definitely been too long without a woman if the sight of this disheveled little spitfire was turning him on.
His current hiatus from dating had been a matter of choice as much as necessity, since his break-up with Erica had coincided with a flurry of big jobs that had required all of his attention and focus. Recently, however, things at the office had started to slow down a little. Enough at least that he could catch a decent amount of sleep at night and maybe even consider getting out socially again. If he did, maybe he'd meet a woman who was more his usual type.
But it was this woman who had his attention now. Because she was, if not his type, at least his neighbor, which made him naturally curious about her.
"Tell me something," he said.
"What's that?" she asked warily.
"What possessed a city girl like you to buy an abandoned old house like this?"
"What makes you think I'm a city girl?"
He allowed his gaze to move over her again, lingering, appraising. "The designer clothes and fancy watch, for starters. But mostly it's the casual self-confidence layered over restless energy that says to hell with the rest of the world and somehow fits you as perfectly as those snug little denim shorts."
She tilted her chin. "That's quite an assumption to make after a five-minute conversation."