Bluff Point brewery owner Zachary Caine wants nothing to do with commitment. His wild bachelor lifestyle suits him perfectly—until a foster kitten named Chaos makes him a reluctant hero. Now he’s BFFs with the kitten’s two little girls and finds himself falling for their gorgeous mother, who couldn’t think less of him.
Divorced mother Jessie Connelly wants nothing to do with men like Zach. He’s sexy and charismatic and bad news, just like her ex. But her girls adore him, and he’s doing a good job filling in for their deadbeat dad. Then a snowstorm brings out the best in both neighbors, who, it turns out, have more in common than their mutual attraction...
So when Jessie’s past threatens her and her girls, Zach is determined to do whatever it takes to protect them—and live happily ever after with this family he has made his own.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Ugh. Zachary Caine was pretty sure the seizure-inducing caterwauling that was harshing his mellow was annoying enough to reanimate the dead, of which he was one.
He was lying on his overstuffed blue leather recliner couch, affectionately known as Big Bertha, which he’d had since his college days, while watching Sunday playoff football on mute because the unexpected houseguests he had were still asleep upstairs in all three of his bedrooms.
In what had seemed like a singular act of good manners at the time, he had insisted his company take the beds in his house while he took the couch. Now, having spent a sleepless night on Big Bertha because she had a dip in her middle the size of the Grand Canyon, he was sure his spine had been reconfigured into a serpentine S curve of pain. Clearly, chivalry was overrated.
Generally a cheerful, happy-go-lucky sort, Zach was feeling a tad surly. He glared at his couch mate Rufus, the cinnamon standard poodle he was dog sitting for a friend, who looked at him from beneath the poof of curly hair on his head as if trying to determine whether Zach wanted him to bark or not. Zach met his gaze and watched as Rufus rolled over and fell back asleep.
“Really?” Zach asked the dog, who ignored him. “Isn’t it your job to investigate strange noises or at the very least bark at them?”
Rufus yawned and Zach watched as his eyes rolled back into his head.
Crap! What was making such a racket? Zach rolled onto his side, flinching through the back pain, and pulled a pillow over his head.
Argh! The wailing cut right through the fluffy pillow and now he could hear the sound of voices outside his front door, too. No, no, no! Go away! Seriously, if it was a door-to-door salesman, he might punch the guy in the throat on principle. His doorbell rang.
That did it! Zach threw the pillow across the room and pushed himself up to his feet. His back muscles protested by clenching into a hot ball of pain. He huffed out a breath and forced himself to shuffle to the door.
It was Sunday. Wasn’t it supposed to be a day of rest? Why were people forcing him to be upright? And moving? It was just so wrong!
He unlocked the door and yanked it wide. He opened his mouth to bark at the rude people on his porch, since Rufus clearly wasn’t going to do it, but the words never left his lips. Standing in front of him were two little cherubs with pink cheeks and tousled curls poking out from under their woolen hats, looking up at him with big blue imploring eyes. Uh-oh!
“Hey, mister,” the littler one said. “We need your help.”
Zach squinted at her. If this was a Girl Scout cookie dealer, he was all in. Those little round yummies of caramel coconut chewy goodness were his crack.
Zach clapped his hands over his ears. There it was, that hideous noise again, only louder.
“Oh, no, he’s getting upset!” The taller girl hurried off his porch and back down his walkway. She stopped a few feet away and stared up at his roof. “It’s okay, boy, it’s okay. We’re getting help.”
What the . . . ? Zach shoved his feet into the Timberland boots he’d discarded by his front door and strode across his porch, down the steps, and onto the walk. The icy cold air of January in Maine felt like a closed-fist punch in the face, making him wince, but at least it was a new pain and distracted him from the ache in his back.
He stood beside the girl in the purple coat and glanced up. Peering at him over the lip of the narrow porch roof was a tiny orange tabby not much bigger than his fist.
The smaller girl in a blue coat joined them. She glanced up and looked exasperated. Then she wagged her pointer finger at the feline and said, “You are a naughty kitty.”
“Can you get him down for us, sir, please?” the girl in purple asked. “He’s just a baby. He might freeze to death.”
For a little guy, he sure had decent lung capacity. For a wide variety of reasons, not the least of which was to end the cat’s howling, Zach knew there was no way he was getting out of this without getting the kitten down.
“What’s his name? Kitty?” he asked.
“No.” The younger one shook her head. She gave him an exasperated look. “We call him Chaos.”
Zach looked at her droll little face and laughed.
“Of course you do,” he said. “Good name.”
The frigid winter air started to seep into his underdressed hide and he shivered. Flannel pajama bottoms and a thermal shirt were no match for temperatures in the twenties.
“Wait here and keep an eye on him,” he said. “I’m going to get my ladder.”
The girls looked so relieved he almost felt heroic. Glancing up at the kitten, who continued yowling, he figured he’d better save the self-congratulations until after he got the little furball down.
As he strode back into the house, Rufus passed him, looking fierce. He barked, low and deep, and Zach shook his head at him.
“Too little too late, my friend,” he said.
Rufus ignored him and bounded toward the girls. The older one looked nervous and backed up, but the young girl opened her arms wide.
“You have a dog?” she cried, as if this were the greatest news ever.
“Sort of,” he said. “I’m temporarily dog sitting him. Don’t worry, he loves kids.”
As if to prove Zach right, Rufus dropped onto his back in the snow at the girls’ feet, offering his belly for rubs. Both girls laughed and Zach hurried inside, grabbed a thick chambray shirt off the back of a chair, and drew it on without bothering to button it. He then took the shortcut through the small house to the garage door.
He lifted the ladder off its wall brackets and opened the side door that let him back out into his front yard. He didn’t want to raise the garage door for fear he’d scare the kitten into doing something stupid. Although one could argue that climbing onto his roof was pretty dumb to begin with, especially on a day when the high temperature was twenty-seven degrees and the ground still had a few feet of snow on it from the icy dumping they’d gotten yesterday. How had the little scrapper gotten up there anyway?
He set the base of the ladder on the ground and propped the top against the porch roof. It took some adjusting, but when it felt steady he began to climb. Not a fan of heights, Zach wasn’t surprised when the world did one swift revolution, forcing him to grip the sides of the ladder. He closed his eyes for a second, allowing the vertigo to pass before he attempted to continue on.
“Hurry, mister, he’s stopped crying. I think his voice is frozen,” the little one ordered.
“Please hurry,” the older one added.
Zach opened his eyes and kept going. He was almost at the roof when a shriek sounded from next door. Dang, this had to be the loudest Sunday in the history of the neighborhood.
“Maddie! Gracie! Where are you?” a woman’s voice cried.
“Over here, Momma,” the younger one answered. She waved as if her mother needed the visual to notice the man on the ladder just twenty yards from where she stood, looking bug-eyed and frantic.
The woman looked as disheveled as Zach felt as she raced across the two yards to grab her girls close.
“What are you doing over here?” she cried. “Girls, you know the rules. You are never to leave the backyard without me. I went inside for a tissue and when I came out, you were both gone! You scared me to death!”
She kissed one head and then the other, as if to reassure herself that they were fine.
“Yeooooooow!” Clearly put out that he didn’t have everyone’s attention, Chaos let loose his loudest, most grating yowl yet.
Zach was pretty sure his ears had started to bleed. He gritted his teeth and climbed to the top, determined to get this cat and his people away from his Sunday sanctuary of playoff football, nachos, and naps.
“We found Chaos, Momma, he’s on this man’s roof,” the older one said.
“Oh, hi, Zach,” she said. She glanced up and when her gaze met his, her face turned bright red. “I’m sorry. You don’t have to do that. I can climb up there.”
Jessie Connelly. Zach had met her a few months ago when he’d brought his friend’s foul-mouthed parrot into the local veterinary office where Jessie worked. He’d made the mistake of calling her “sweetheart,” and she had let him have it. He was pretty sure he still had scars from the tongue lashing she’d given him.
At the time, he’d had no idea that they were neighbors. Jessie had been all too aware that he lived next door and she had a lot to say about how she assumed he lived his life. Being a live and let live sort, Zach had steered clear of her ever since.
He must have done a heck of a job avoiding her, because up until now he’d had no idea that she had two daughters. He wondered if she was feeling badly about their last meeting now that he was saving her daughters’ kitten.
Feeling mischievous, he almost called her “sweetheart” or “honey” or “baby girl” just to see if she’d rip into him again.
Luckily, the kitten was keeping him on task. He turned back to the cat, calling over his shoulder, “Don’t worry. I’ve got this.”
He trudged up the ladder. When he was nose to nose with the cat, he paused to figure out the best way to grab it. The orange tabby with pale green eyes looked cold and miserable and Zach realized if anyone was having a worse Sunday than he, it was this cat. He held out his hand, thinking the cat would be grateful to climb aboard. The cat took a swipe at him. Okay, then.
“Really?” he asked it. “I’m trying to help you out here.”
The cat hissed and his little back arched. The critter had spunk, Zach would give him that. He’d been out here a while now and it was bone-achingly cold. How the little guy hadn’t turned into a furry ice cube Zach couldn’t fathom.
He reached out again, trying to coax the feisty feline with reassuring words.
“It’s okay, little fella,” he said. “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m just going to get you off the roof so you can go home with your people.”
He held his hand still and Chaos cautiously sniffed his cold skin. Zach didn’t know how much longer he could stay out here without gloves and not lose his fingers. He silently willed the cat to trust him.
When Chaos put a cautious paw on his hand and Zach reached out with his other hand to grab the kitten, Rufus let out a bark of encouragement. A loud one. The cat jumped and hissed, causing Zach to jump and his ladder to wobble. Still, he managed to grab the cat by the scruff of the neck.
He hauled the little furball into his chest, clutching him close with both hands. When he tried to step down without the use of his hands, he felt the bottom of the ladder shift from all of the movement above. As if in slow motion, the ladder tipped away from the roof of the porch.
“Oh, no, mister, look out!” one of the girls cried.
It was too late. Zach couldn’t grab the roof without dropping the cat. He couldn’t risk the little guy like that, so he tucked him into his chest and just relaxed his body into the fall. The ladder slid, wobbled, slid again, and the next thing Zach knew he was free-falling toward the ground.
Having no idea what he was going to land on, Zach had to revise his earlier assessment. He was most definitely having a worse Sunday than the cat.
Thump! Zach felt his body drop into a soft cushion of freezing cold snow. The icy, wet chill engulfed his entire body and snow fell in on top of him, burying him in the large snowdrift. Chilly, but at least his head hadn’t split like a big cantaloupe on his paved driveway.
“Oh, my god! Are you all right?” Jessie cried as she hurried forward.
Zach popped his eyes open to find her staring down at him. Her big blue eyes were filled with alarm and she was uselessly flapping her bare hands at her sides as if she was trying to achieve liftoff. Her green puffy coat was unzipped and her woolen hat with the oversize pom-pom, earflaps, and braids was askew, allowing a chunk of two-tone bangs to drape over her forehead, almost covering her eyes.
Before he could answer her, she dropped to her knees beside him and began to brush him off, digging him out of the pile of snow.
“Chaos, see what happens when you wander off?” the younger girl chastised the cat as her older sister scooped him off Zach’s chest and held him close.
Rufus sniffed the kitten, who ignored him and burrowed into the girl’s coat.
“Thanks, mister.” The younger sister joined her mother in the snowbank and grabbed Zach’s hands with one of her icy cold mittens, not that Zach could feel anything as his fingers were pretty much numb. She tried to pull him up but he was still half buried.
“We need to get you inside,” Jessie said. She began to brush the snow off his pajama bottoms. “You’re frozen.”
“No, no, I’m fine,” he protested. With Jessie’s hands brushing off all of his body, he was suddenly relieved that he was numb from the chest down. His teeth began chattering as he tried to roll to his feet without success. “J-j-just g-glad you have y-your cat back. You should p-probably t-take him home now.”
“We’ll help you inside first,” she insisted.
Jessie braced her feet against the icy part of the snowbank and used her body weight to haul him to his feet. She was stronger than she looked and he fell against her, slipping on the icy ground as he tried to get his balance. He flailed and one hand landed on her shoulder while the other latched onto the front of her coat. It took him a second to realize he was clutching her boob and he jumped back, dropping his hand and skidding on a patch of ice in his effort to get away from her.
“Sorry, sorry,” he said. He raised his hands in the air as if trying to prove he hadn’t been trying to cop a feel.
Jessie looked startled and then like she was trying not to laugh as his feet scrabbled on the slippery ground and his arms windmilled as he tried to get his balance. She pursed her lips and stepped forward, catching him about the waist and pulling one of his arms over her shoulder.
“Come on,” she said. “Before you damage something permanently.”
“No worries. My dignity has already been frozen off,” he said.
This time she did laugh.
“Maddie, go get the door for us, sweetie,” she said.
The younger girl in the blue coat scampered up the steps and pushed open his front door. Jessie half carried, half dragged him up the steps with Rufus and the other girl—whom she had called Gracie—bringing up the rear, still holding Chaos the kitten.
Zach did a quick scan to make sure his sparsely decorated bachelor pad didn’t have any stray underwear or socks kicking around or anything else that might damage a young girl’s psyche. Other than an empty pizza box on the counter and a newspaper on the coffee table, the place was clear. The game was still on and he glanced at the screen to catch the score. His Cowboys were up. Amen!
Living in Patriot country, he knew his love of the Texas team was blasphemy, so he tried to keep it on the down-low, but he had fallen hard for the team during his childhood in California, playing youth football during Dallas’s Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith reign, and he’d never given them up.
Jessie helped him over to the couch and he resumed his seat. She grabbed the thick black and gray afghan his mother had knitted him and tucked it around him.
“Do you want some coffee?” she asked. “Tea? Hot chocolate?”
“Hot chocolate!” Maddie cried.
“I wasn’t asking you,” Jessie said. “I was asking . . .”
“Mister,” Maddie said. “I call him mister.”
Zach smiled despite his shivers. “My name is Zachary Caine, but my friends call me Zach.”
“Am I your friend?” Maddie asked. She hit him with a steady blue gaze and he noticed that her sister stood motionless behind her, watching their interaction.
“We’re neighbors,” he said. “I think it’s mandatory that we become friends, don’t you?”
A blindingly bright smile lit Maddie’s face and she nodded. He glanced at Gracie and was pleased to see a small smile tip the corners of her lips.
“You’re right,” Jessie said. “I know the last time we met, I was not at my best. Please forgive me?”
Zach stared into her big blue eyes full of beguiling warmth and humor and felt her working the same magic on him that her daughters had when they’d pleaded for their cat’s rescue. He could no more refuse her than he could her girls. It occurred to him then that these women were dangerous to his peace and tranquility; still, he’d been raised hip deep in women and it was ingrained in him to look after them.
“Of course,” he said.
“Thank you,” she said. “Please call me Jessie, and these are my daughters, Maddie and Gracie.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Zach said. He gave the girls his most winning smile. Maddie smiled back while Gracie turned a faint shade of pink and buried her nose in her cat’s fur.
“So, do neighbors have hot chocolate together?” Maddie asked. Her look was sly and Zach almost laughed.
“Yes, I think they do,” he said. He started to get up but Jessie waved for him to sit.
“Sit. Warm up,” she said. “I’ll get it.”
The bottom floor of Zach’s house was an open floor plan, so while he visited with the girls, Jessie crossed the room into his kitchen area. She stood in the center as if trying to figure out where everything would be without having to open every cupboard.
“Mugs are in the cabinet over the coffee maker, hot chocolate is on the top shelf of the pantry to the right of the fridge, milk is in the fridge, and the microwave is on the counter,” he called.
“Got it.” Jessie gave him a thumbs-up and set to work.
“How’s Chaos doing?” Zach asked Gracie. He was a little worried that the cat might have gotten hurt in their fall. He had tried to cushion him as best as he could but the kitten was tiny and had smacked his chest hard when they landed.
Gracie unzipped her jacket and took the kitten out. He had curled up into a sleepy little ball and when she opened her coat, he mewled in protest.
Maddie reached up and gently stroked his head and the kitten stretched out under the attention, letting them see that he was just fine.
“Chaos is a tough kitty,” Maddie said. “We think he’s going to grow up to be a real live tiger.”
Zach raised his eyebrows. “Really?”
Maddie held up her hands and made claws out of her fingers. “Roar!”
“Impressive,” Zach said.
“I’ve been teaching him,” Maddie said with the assurance only a child still in the single digits in age could muster when speaking of the improbable.
“Is that you?” Gracie asked.
Zach turned his head to see her pointing to a series of photographs that hung on the wall in his dining alcove.
“Not just me,” he said. “Rufus, too.”
Gracie busted out a belly laugh. Zach felt his lips tip up in the corners. As the quieter of the two, he suspected Gracie didn’t share her emotions as easily as her younger sister. Making her laugh felt like an achievement.
“What’s so funny?” Maddie asked. She crossed the room to join her sister. She glanced from the framed portraits to Zach and Rufus, who was once again sprawled on his portion of the couch, and back to the pictures. Then she, too, started to laugh. It was a good sound.
“Girls, what’s the racket?” Jessie asked as she came into the living room with four mugs of cocoa, two handles in each hand.
“Mommy, Zach and Rufus . . .” Gracie couldn’t go on. She pressed a hand to her stomach and laughed some more.
Jessie quirked an eyebrow at Zach in question but he just shrugged. She put the mugs down on the newspaper on the coffee table and joined her girls. She pressed her fingers to her mouth, which only forced the laugh out of her nose in a snort.
Her eyes went wide with embarrassment, but the sound made the girls laugh harder, and she dropped her hand and joined them. She ushered the girls back into the living room and passed out the mugs of cocoa.
“Explain, please,” she said as she handed Zach his mug.
“Where to begin?” he mused.
“The matching outfits?” Jessie suggested. Her big blue eyes, the same ones her daughters had trained on him, twinkled.
“The Fourth of July,” Gracie said.
“No, Thanksgiving,” Maddie said.
Zach glanced at Rufus. As if he knew he was the topic of conversation, the dog sat up on the couch and struck a pose, sitting at attention like he was in on the conversation. Zach was only surprised he didn’t demand his own mug of cocoa.
“Rufus’s mom person used to work for me at the Bluff Point brewery,” he began.
“What’s a brewery?” Maddie asked.
“It’s where they make beer,” Gracie said.
“Just so.” Zach nodded at her. Then he narrowed his eyes. “How old are you?”
“Seven,” Gracie said. “She’s five. They don’t know as much.”
“Do, too,” Maddie huffed. She gave her older sister an outraged look and muttered, “I know more than you do.”
“Do not,” Gracie said.
Before they began the squabble they were winding up for, Jessie said, “Girls, do you want to know about Zach and Rufus and the matching outfits?” They both nodded, and Jessie said, “Then maybe we should let Zach speak.”
“Sorry,” Gracie said.
“Sorry, mist . . . er . . . Zach,” Maddie said. She picked up her mug, imitating her mother’s dainty hold on her cup, and gave him her full attention.
Zach had always liked kids; his friends speculated that it was because he was so in touch with his inner child, but he found their honesty and zest for life refreshing. He suppressed a grin and took a sip.
He looked at Jessie in surprise. This was not the cocoa from the box of premeasured pouches in his cupboard. She had clearly done some magical voodoo mojo in his kitchen when he wasn’t looking. The cocoa, which when he made it usually had a thick coating of powder floating on top, was rich and creamy and had a tiny kick of heat to it.
“Secret recipe,” Jessie said. She winked at him and Zach blinked. Had Jessie Connelly always been this adorable?
She pushed her hat off of her head and he noticed that since he’d last run into her, she’d cut her long blonde hair and now it was a much darker shade, but with a couple of inches of the lighter blonde still on the tips. It was styled in a messy shoulder-length hairdo that framed her heart-shaped face becomingly, making her look as if she were barely out of high school.
“Story, Mister Zach,” Maddie said. Her voice was so demanding he was surprised she didn’t snap her fingers in his face.
“Maddie,” Jessie’s voice held a note of censure.
Maddie sighed and said, “Story, please, Mister Zach.”
She looked as if she would expire on the spot if he didn’t tell the story right now. Zach nodded. He got that.
“Here, let me show you,” he said. “Rufus, come here, boy.”
Rufus bounded across the couch to sit beside Zach. He looped his arm around the dog and put his head next to Rufus’s. Despite the difference in their hair color, they had a marked similarity of expression which had started the whole dressing-as-twins-and-having-pictures-taken thing.
“Look at our faces,” Zach said. “We could be twins, am I right?”
All three women stared at them, glancing back and forth as they assessed their features. Gracie nodded and spoke first, saying, “You have the same nose and eyebrows.”
“And fuzzy faces,” Maddie said. She patted Zach’s unshaven chin and then Rufus’s.
“It’s uncanny,” Jessie said. She quickly took a sip of her cocoa so Zach couldn’t tell if she was hiding her smile in her mug or not.
“Rufus’s person, Amanda Willoughby, was the brewery accountant, and she always brought Rufus to work with her. Since everyone said Rufus and I look alike, I decided to take a picture of the two of us dressed in matching outfits for her birthday. Her birthday is March fifteenth, so I went with togas and laurel wreaths,” Zach said.
“The Ides of March.” Jessie nodded. “Togas were the natural choice.”
“Right?” Zach asked. He grinned. Cute and smart and a helluva cocoa maker, there was clearly more to Jessie Connelly than he had figured. He took a sip of his hot chocolate. He liked the spice. “Anyway, Amanda thought it was hilarious so she sent it to our social media team to use and they blasted it out there and the next thing I knew, Rufus and I had our own following, so now we dress up for laughs and use it to promote the brewery.”
“Does Amanda live here?” Gracie asked.
“No,” Zach said. “She’s in England. Her husband got transferred and she went with him. They couldn’t take Rufus so I offered to keep him until they decide if they are staying in England or not.”
“You’re fostering Rufus like we’re fostering Chaos,” Maddie said. “Except I don’t want to foster him; I want to keep him.”
“We’ve talked about this, Maddie,” Jessie said. Her voice was mild but firm. “Pets are a lot of responsibility and Chaos, well, he gets into things.”
Judging by the kitten’s ability to get onto Zach’s roof, he had to figure this was the understatement of the century. He met Jessie’s gaze and they shared a look of complete understanding.
“Hey, Zach, sorry to be a pest but do you have an extra toothbrush?”
Zach whipped his head in the direction of the doorway. Standing there, wearing nothing butof his oversizedsweatshirts and a pair of leggings, was Savannah Kelly, one of his field marketers.
Excerpted from "Every Dog Has His Day"
Copyright © 2018 Jenn McKinlay.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.