My job as “official kitty” at Weber Haus is the most important one. At least in my opinion. Helping to greet and keep tabs on all the guests who visit the Victorian inn near the mountain town of Braunfels can be taxing. My forever family—Emily and Lukas, and Lukas’s great aunt Miss Tilly—own and run the inn, as well as the new shops recently added. I love it here. So much to see and do. Plus, everyone wants to pet the “pretty white cat” and, other than the one specific exception of Daniel Aarons, I let them.
Now I finally get a free second to myself to stalk a bird, only to be interrupted by one of the many humans who stay at the inn calling my name. Downright rude. Can’t she see I’m clearly in the middle of a hunt? She might scare away my prey.
“Snowball. Get back here!” The female voice doing all the interrupting is new around here.
That’s what Miss Tilly called her when she introduced us. When we met, Sophie—I don’t know human ages, but in cat years I’d place her around three or four—had flashed even white teeth in a kind smile and given me a lovely pet, tickling that spot under my chin that tells me she’s a cat person. I guess I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt in this case that she’s not trying to ruin my day. She just doesn’t know better than to disturb a predator mid-pounce.
The good news is the idiotic bird hasn’t noticed. That’s right, rat with wings, stay right there. . . .
I ignore Sophie, in full stalking mode where I hide under one of the bushes that remains green even in winter. After a year of practice, I’m getting better. One of these days, I’m going to actually catch one of those pesky birds or squirrels who think they can come into my territory.
My fluffy white tail whips behind me, snagging a bit on the leaves of the bush, as I hunch low to the ground. The timing must be perfect. I give my butt a preparatory wiggle, the kitty version of revving my engine. This bird is going to be a pile of feathers.
One more wiggle, fully focused on my adversary. I’m downwind, so Tweetle-Dumb doesn’t know I’m this close.
All it’s going to take is—
“Snowball!” Poor Sophie sounds frantic. I’d help her, but this bird is going down.
With a symphony of finely honed feline instinct, I burst from my hiding place under the bush and sprint for the offender. The horror on her beaky face is everything I love to see before she flies away, not far, up into the branches of a tree. Without breaking stride, I follow, finding easy purchase, allowing me to scale the trunk quickly, my claws sinking deep with each shuffling jump. I get to the branch she’s on, but she smirks and hops higher. Is she toying with me? With a warning growl, I follow. The darn bird does it again. I follow again.
But then I make the huge mistake of looking down.
A frightened squeak escapes me before I can hold it in, and the bird gives a twittery little laugh, mocking me from her safety perched on the branches above. She doesn’t say anything. Birds don’t like to talk to cats, but she cocks her head. If she had human eyebrows, I’m sure she’d raise them at me in mocking question.
I don’t know which is worse—the need to wipe that fowl grin from her beak, or the fear freezing my muscles in place like that statue owl Miss Tilly sets out on the wraparound porch in the spring to scare away . . . ironically . . . the birds.
I try to move, but I’ve gone too high. Yes, I know I’m a cat—all of a year old and full grown now and super awesome in trees. But when I was little, I jumped from too high up and misjudged the landing. That scared me enough that I try to stay lower in trees these days.
“Meow,” I call out.
After all, that Sophie woman is nearby. She can help me down. I can feel beady bird eyes boring into the back of my head. This humiliation will not be forgotten. Better to live to fight another day, though. Ignoring her, I send out another few cries for help and, sure enough, I look down into a pair of eyes so gray they’re more silver. Pretty. I’ve always loved shiny things. Yesterday they twinkled at me like stars, but right now they’re narrowed, and her hands are on her hips.
Emily, one of my forever humans, does that sometimes. Usually when she informs me that I’ve done a bad thing.
What did I do now, though?
I was doing my humans a favor and running the vermin off this property. That’s what the old cat next door tells me is my special job.
Below me, Sophie bites her lip and glances around her. She won’t find much. This tree is located in the back of the house between it and the barn, which, along with the old carriage house, has recently been converted to shops.
“Miss Tilly will fire me if I lose you,” she said, more to herself than me. “On my first official day, too. I left that door open for two seconds at most.”
She shakes her head.
Probably at herself, because everyone else in Weber Haus knows that keeping me inside is impossible. It took me nearly a year, but I’ve mapped that house from attic to ceiling, places big old humans can’t get, forgotten windows still unlocked, spaces between the walls in the old house, and a very handy pipe that runs underneath. Miss Tilly and Lukas and Emily—the people I love most in this world—have mostly given up keeping me indoors, trusting me to safely return on my own. I know the grounds now as well as I know the house, including all the people in the shops and many of the regular visitors. I’m famous around here.
Everyone loves me. Sophie just doesn’t know. Yet.
“Well, come down,” she prompts.
Silly. Obviously, I wouldn’t have called for help if I could do that. The bird, meanwhile, perches above me, watching the whole thing, no doubt laughing behind my back.
“Meow,” I respond. A clear cry for help in my most adorably pathetic voice that usually gets humans to do what I want.
She wrinkles her tip-tilted nose. She did that yesterday, too, when Miss Tilly was giving her a tour of the house. She said something about delayed construction and possibly having to reschedule guests soon, and Sophie’d made that face.
“I’m not coming up there,” Sophie calls at me. Then mutters vaguely about broken necks and not having time for that, or some such thing.
“Um, hello?” A male voice has both of us turning our heads. “What are you doing here?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I see how Sophie straightens, dropping her hands to her sides. Forget the future feather duster who got me into this situation. I’m too busy glaring at my most fiendish foe.
The man who tried to break up my Emily and Lukas. He wanted Emily for himself, and I’ve never forgiven him for almost ruining their happiness and my family.
Fear replaced by purpose, I manage to scoot to a slightly lower branch, getting ready to scare him off.
Why hadn’t anyone given Sophie a heads-up about the inn’s small family cat sneaking out? Mischief would be a better name than Snowball. Though her lovely, pure-white fur and big blue eyes made her own name more than appropriate. Just not enough of a warning to the unsuspecting.
Especially the brand-new manager for the inn on her first day of work.
For a woman who mapped out every path her life would take, Sophie was still trying to figure out where she’d taken a wrong turn.
Actually, she knew.
Malcom Sommerholder. Dating that genetically blessed, nepotism-wielding, job-stealing excuse for a boyfriend, even if he had perfect teeth, had been one of the worst mistakes of her life. With his aww-shucks attitude, big blue eyes, and floppy little-boy-lost hair, Malcom had flattered his way into her life, picked her brain for all her best ideas for the hotel chain she’d worked her way up through the last ten years, then kleptoed the position that she had earned right out from under her unsuspecting nose. Someday he’d marry a model and their perfect-teethed children would probably also inherit the job that was supposed to be Sophie’s.
Which was why she was here now. New location. New role. New start. New . . . everything.
And it will be great.
Already she had ideas. . . . That was, if she kept her job after this.
Coaxing her new boss’s precocious cat out of a tree was not exactly how Sophie had pictured her first day going. She stood with her hands on her hips, staring at Snowball, trying to decide how to handle getting her down.
This was definitely not on her list of things to do today.
Familiarize herself with the computer systems and get an idea of bookings coming up, go through inventory, meet with the staff—currently two maids, a cook, and a part-time high school kid for the front desk—and a hundred and three other items graced the neatly typed checklist she could pull up in her leatherbound tablet that she’d left on the kitchen table when she’d run outside after Snowball.
“Um, hello?” a male voice interrupted her battle of wills with the cat. “What are you doing here?”
Sophie’s first instinct was to cringe inwardly. Heat was already flaming up her cheeks at being caught out, reminding her oddly enough of the day her fourth-grade teacher found her sneaking her favorite-colored crayon out of Madeline Brecht’s box. Surely, she could figure out how to get Snowball down without help . . . or witnesses.
Luckily, common sense prevailed as he walked closer and it struck her that he looked the handy type. Tall, with broad shoulders, he wore his sandy-brown hair a bit on the shaggy side and had the growth of a beard that was neatly trimmed but managed to put her in mind of a rugged mountain man. Pretty accurate for these parts, not far from skiing. The jeans and plaid button-down under a thick black coat only added to her impression. Not to mention his heavy-duty, steel-toed boots.
She almost asked where he was hiding his ax, except she’d learned a while ago that many people often didn’t appreciate her brand of teasing. He was probably with the construction crew currently on-site adding a new wing of rooms to the property.
Tempting to ask him how that was coming—given the impact to guests already booked for after Christmas—but she’d talk to this man’s boss soon enough. A friend of Miss Tilly’s, it seemed. Maybe the owner of Weber Haus had gone too easy on him, which meant Sophie was going to have to be firmer to be sure the project was completed on time.
Cat. Fix the cat situation, she reminded herself. She sized up the man in front of her. Definitely handy. At this point she’d take any help she could get. “Hi.”
“The shops are around that way,” he said as he got closer, expression turning slightly pompous, as if he owned the place. Obviously under the mistaken impression that she was lost. “Or if you’re here for the inn, you should go back that way.” He pointed.
Sophie offered a smile, one that worked with most wayward guests, that she hoped put him at ease. “Thanks, but I’m not lost,” she said.
She opened her mouth to tell him she was the new manager for the inn and to point out the dilemma she had with Snowball. Only he beat her to it.
“This area is off-limits to guests and shoppers,” he said. “You might have missed the sign.”
The vertebrae in her spine stacked up neatly and stiffly in response to his words, and especially his tone. Not another all-knowing male. She’d had enough of those lately.
Malcom used to do that.
Still, she was a stranger around here, and maybe they’d had trouble with shoppers getting lost on the grounds? Mental note to ask Miss Tilly about that.
She took a breath to tell him who she was, but he beat her to it again. “So . . .” He drew the word out. “Let’s get you where you’re supposed to be.”
Sophie swallowed a growl of frustration. Maybe this man was in a hurry? Clearly, he wasn’t interested in the who or what or why of her being here. He just wanted her gone. Better to get straight to the point. “Actually, I could use a little assistance with her.” She pointed straight up.
He tipped a frowning gaze into the branches of the tree Sophie stood under, then sort of jerked back a half step before he pulled himself up short and huffed what she guessed was a laugh. “Well, look at that. You’ve found a partridge in a pear tree.”
Maybe he’d been hit in the head with a falling hammer a few too many times. “I’m pretty sure she’s a cat.”
“Definitely a city girl.” She caught the murmured comment and, having grown up on a dairy farm, almost laughed at the wrong assumption.
He pointed. “She was chasing that bird up the tree.”
Sophie stepped back and angled her head a bit. Sure enough, a gray and brown bird with striking black and white markings around its face and wings and a red beak peered down at her. Squatted there a little smugly, in fact.
“And . . .” Her impatient helper continued in a voice gone lazily amused. “That happens to be a pear tree, believe it or not.”
“What are the odds?” He had to be putting her on.
Her lumberjack simply shrugged, uncaring if she believed him or not.
Right. Maybe he was impatient because he was so busy. “Either way, I let her out of the house by accident, and I don’t want something to happen to her.”
He eyed the tree, and Sophie swore a flash of dread crossed his features. Hard to tell with the beard. “She’ll come down on her own when she’s ready,” he said.
He’d just walk away from that poor, pathetic mewling? What kind of heartless person did that? Sophie’s ability to give the benefit of the doubt stretched a little thinner.
“Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to wait. I have a lot to do today.” She glanced over her shoulder at the Victorian house with its white painted siding, wraparound porch, bay windows, dormers, and decorative wood and iron work.
Despite her colossal disappointment and the collapse of her childhood dream, she’d found herself surprisingly ready to start this new one. At the very least she’d landed herself in an idyllic location and a chance at a different kind of experience to put on her résumé.
But every minute under this tree was a minute less doing what she was supposed to be doing, and she hated the idea that this situation was starting her off on a very wrong foot.
“Plus,” she tacked on, “I’d worry until I knew she was safe.” Then she tried batting her eyelashes at him, a move that felt as unnatural as it probably looked.
His expression didn’t change by so much as a blink, but she got the sudden, uncomfortable feeling that he was laughing at her behind that beard.
“Please?” she tried.
He heaved a heavy sigh. “Fine. If it means that much to you, I know a way to get her down.”
“Great.” One less worry, coming right up. To show her appreciation, she tossed her stranger a grateful smile.
But in return received a grimace. “Yeah.”
She expected him to turn away and leave her to go get a ladder or something. Instead, he watched the cat wearily and took another breath, as though preparing for horror. Then he started walking under the tree. One cautious step after another.
“What are you—”
Suddenly, the cat gave a cry a banshee would envy and sprinted down the trunk of the tree to attack his legs, clawing her way up his jeans.
Sophie couldn’t help it. The tiny white fluffball attack on this mountain of a man was too incongruous not to strike her as funny. Laughter bubbled up and spilled over. Only he had got the cat down, albeit in an unusual way, so she slapped her hand over her mouth when he tossed a glare her way.
“Could you get her off me, please?” the man asked through clamped lips.
“I’m not sure I should risk my city-girl hands,” she teased, though she moved closer as she spoke.
“She won’t do anything to you. Just me.” He squinted one eye as the cat held on with her front claws and proceeded to scratch at him with the back ones.
“That looks painful,” she offered. Either that or laugh again.
“It is.” His voice came out strained.
Sophie knelt down beside him and gingerly disconnected Snowball’s sharp claws from his clothes. Sure enough, the little cat didn’t turn her maniacal attentions on Sophie. Standing, she cuddled the small body close. Miss Tilly said Snowball, a rescue abandoned in the nearby woods, was a year old, but she’d obviously been the runt of the litter, because she was still tiny.
The cat nestled into her, thankfully, giving a rumble of a purr, which cut off when the mountain man spoke up.
“Better take her back to the house. If you put her down, she’ll come after me again.”
As if to emphasize his point, Snowball gave a little warning growl that reverberated against Sophie’s hands, almost like holding on to a toy car, blue eyes trained on him in full kitty menace.
“Just try it,” the man muttered back at her.
“What did you do to get on her wrong side?” Because as far as she could tell, Snowball was a people cat the way Sophie was a people person. She doubted his brand of communication, which was a little rough around the edges, would bother a cat. Then again, she’d been wrong about a lot of things lately.
“Nothing,” he screwed his face up, clearly offended that she’d implied he was to blame in the relationship.
She swallowed back yet another urge to chuckle. Maybe first-day jitters were getting to her. It had been a long time since she’d started a new job. “Well . . . I’d better get back to work. Thank you for all your . . . err . . . help.” Her mama raised her with manners.
“Work?” he asked as she started to turn away.
Sophie didn’t pause. “I started today.”
“Doing what?” His voice, farther away now, told her he hadn’t followed.
“Managing the inn.” She tossed a glance over her shoulder and lifted a hand in a wave, strangely eager to put a little distance between them.
Probably because being both grateful and annoyed with him was an uncomfortable place to be. Besides, after this, at most she’d probably see him only in passing until the construction was over.
“I’d really like to know what you have against him, though,” she murmured to the cat nestled in her arms. She truly was more fur than body, her petite frame more obvious when holding her by the belly, the ridges of her ribs delicate but obvious through her skin and fur.
Snowball gave Sophie’s finger a dainty lick, as though saying she’d never attack her that way.
“No more sneaking out. Deal?”
The cat blinked, the angelic picture of total innocence.
Sophie wasn’t buying it. “Promise me now?”
Snowball sneezed so delicately, if Sophie didn’t know better, she might have thought the cat had just snorted a laugh.
Sophie mentally rolled her eyes at herself. Running away from an impatient, brusque lumberjack and reduced to bargaining with a piece of fluff.
Not the most auspicious beginning to her fresh start.