Jenn McKinlay

New York Times Bestselling Author


Chapter One

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, that 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 Timberline 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 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 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 temperatures of Maine in January 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 was 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 short cut through the small house to the garage door.
He lifted the ladder off its wall brackets and opened the side door which 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 to 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 the pale green eyes looked cold and miserable and Zach realized if anyone was having a worse Sunday than him, 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.