The fluffy blanket in this cushy leather chair is definitely my favorite place in Peter Diemer’s house. After all, he put this here for me specially while I’m staying with him. Temporarily, of course. I like Peter, but he’s not my forever family. Peter claims to not be a cat person, but I secretly think he is. I could snuggle into this cushy goodness all of December, especially now that the weather has turned cold and blustery.
Not that I want to stay. I miss my own home.
My owners, Emily, Lukas, and Miss Tilly, left me here with Emily’s brother, Peter. I didn’t pay attention to why. At the time, I might have been miffed about being abandoned. Again. However, this time they were smiling when they left, so I’ve decided not to worry about the why and I’m sure they’ll be back.
They love me.
Besides which, this is the busiest season at Weber Haus—the Victorian inn they run, recently converted into a larger hotel and shops.
In the meantime, I’m taking advantage of this chair. Stretching all four paws out straight, I luxuriate. All I need is for Peter to come home and light the fire and feed me.
The slam of a car door has me perking my ears, but not lifting my head. Peter is late, as usual. The man seems to spend all his time at his job and leaves me here all alone. All day long. He doesn’t deserve to be greeted at the door when my belly is this growly and I’ve been lonely.
But a second car pulling to a stop, headlights flashing across the ceiling, is new. Did Peter bring someone home with him?
Do I care enough to go look?
With a sigh I drop to the ground and pad silently across the carpeted floor to leap to the windowsill facing the street. Peter lives in what he calls a townhome. As far as I can tell, this is just a bunch of homes all squished together with a tiny garden in the back. Hardly a patch. I can hear people on the other sides of the walls, but I can’t get into the other units. People are weird.
This is an interesting development, though. . . .
Someone is parked in front of the unit next door. Until a few days ago no one lived there that I’ve been able to tell. Until Christmas lights went up. I can see the side of Peter’s dark head turned slightly toward me as he’s looking over at what appears to be a woman buried up to her waist in the trunk of the car parked there.
What’s interesting isn’t her . . . it’s him. The fact that he’s bothering to look. Peter doesn’t bother with anyone these days.
My, my, my.
Visions of happy humans falling in love dance in my head.
After all, I have a gift for matchmaking. Those silly creatures just can’t see happiness staring them in the face until I show the way. And Peter, despite being a bit of a grump lately, is one of the good ones. He deserves happiness.
Since he’s moved back home, he seems sort of . . . I don’t know. Restless. What Peter needs is to fall in love and settle down. That would fix everything.
He takes a step off the porch and my ears prick and my whiskers twitch in anticipation.
Except, instead of going over to nicely introduce himself, he stomps in her direction. I frown. What is he doing?
“Hey!” He doesn’t shout it, but with his low voice, it’s close enough.
With a screech to wake the ghosts of Christmas past, the woman jerks up, banging her head into the top of the trunk with enough force that I can hear it through the window.
Hand to her chest, she scrambles away from Peter, her expression a picture of fright.
Good job, Peter. I give a little kitty huff. He’s going to mess everything up before I can even get them started.
All Peter wanted was to get his new neighbor to take down the blasted Christmas lights that she’d put up partly on his side of the roof, not scare the beejezus out of her.
“Sorry.” He held up both hands in a gesture meant to ease nerves.
Of course, he’d scared her—a woman alone, at night, in a strange neighborhood, and a man appears out of nowhere. Not his best moment. He scowled. He’d been having a lot of “not his best” moments since his accident last year. Apparently, comas, like the one he’d been in after the accident, could lead to a change in a person’s personality. It turns out he was one of those “lucky” few, and easily irritated was now one of his top traits.
“I didn’t mean to frighten you.” He tried to not sound angry. When she relaxed a tiny bit, he slowly lowered his hands. “I’m your neighbor next door.”
She looked that direction, then back at him, a slow smile blooming. “Nice to meet you I’m—”
He wasn’t here for chitchat. “I’m afraid that you put some of your Christmas lights up on my side of the roof.”
The woman, whose face was still mostly in shadow, blinked. That much he could see. “Sorry?” she asked.
Did her voice waver with humor?
“Your lights.” He pointed again. “I’m in the condo next to you on the left. Your lights are on part of my roof line.”
She looked over his shoulder and seemed to study the lights, which were glowing a bright rainbow of colors. “I don’t understand.”
What wasn’t to understand? “I don’t want them on my part of the roof.”
“It’s only one little area,” she countered in a reasonable tone that only set his teeth on edge. He got that tone from his mother and sister a lot lately.
He crossed his arms. Why was she arguing with him? His roof. His rules. “But it’s right under my bedroom window and it’s making it hard to sleep.”
“Oh.” She bit her lip. “Don’t you have curtains?”
Peter gritted his teeth. The man he’d been even a year ago would have probably laughed it off and not even brought it up. But him these days, and after two sleepless nights in a row . . . “I have blinds. It shows through.”
“Oh,” she said again. “But it’s Christmas.”
“The lights won’t be up more than a month, and it would really throw the whole look off if I took them down. Do you think you could maybe handle it for that long?”
The slump of disappointment was almost comical, then she suddenly straightened. “What if I get you a sleep mask?”
Then she suddenly grinned and huffed at the same time, hands landing on her hips. “Do you not like Christmas or something?”
Only she said it with such charm, that a tiny bit of his irritation trickled away. Not enough to give in, though. “I like it fine. Just not when it’s shining in my bedroom window.”
A flash of white teeth in the shadow and her husky chuckle reached out through the cold and the dark and maybe even warmed him up a tiny bit.
Who was this woman? Most people these days didn’t argue with him. They just agreed or left him alone. His sister, Emily, said he could be intimidating when he wanted. So why was his neighbor laughing?
“Fine, fine,” she said. “I’ll take down that strip.”
About time. “That’s all I ask.” He gave a brusque nod, then turned to head inside his own home.
“Hey,” she called after him. “Isn’t your name Peter?”
He pulled up sharply at that, swinging around to stare at her with a small pit of dread in his gut widening by the second. “How do you know that?”
The woman stepped out from behind the raised trunk of her car and the lights from her townhome illuminated her features. “We met a few years ago at Weber Haus. My name is Lara Wolfe.”
Recognition hit. Two years ago, he, and several other single men, had flirted with her for a single night. Then he’d left to return to duty and oddly she’d stuck in his head for months after. Hard to forget a face like that, though, or her soft gray eyes, or the air of fragility that had hung over her, tugging at every protective instinct he’d had.
Peter hid a wince. Because the man she met two Christmases ago was not the same guy standing in front of her now.
Lara moved closer and held out a hand, which he reluctantly took. Tiny in his. The woman was tall, at least five-seven, yet still petite. She should really be wearing gloves. It was cold out. But if he said that out loud, he’d sound just like the overly caring neighbor on his other side, Mrs. Steinz.
“So, you’ve moved to Braunfels?” he managed to find a relatively polite question to ask.
If he recalled correctly, when they met, Lara had just been passing through the area, alone at Christmas and staying at Weber Haus. However, if she was moving in next door, it had to be permanent. Peter had seen the “For Sale” sign on the unit next to his come down a month ago, but he’d assumed his new neighbor would probably be another elderly person like Mrs. Steinz on the other side—well-meaning, kindly, a tad nosy with not much else to do beyond pay attention to the neighbors, and at least fifty years too old for him.
But Lara didn’t look anything like Mrs. Steinz. She was, however, also out of his league.
She wasn’t in-your-face beautiful. He’d had experience with that type and had the scorch marks to prove it. Instead he thought of her more like the sugar plum fairy in The Nutcracker. Kind of ethereal. Lara was dressed uber-casual in jeans and a pullover, chin-length white-blond hair peeping out from under a white knit hat pulled down to cover her ears, framing a pixie face. Something about her just radiated something good and true.
He should probably keep his distance. After all, he wasn’t in the best headspace lately. Clearly.
“Yes,” she said, then waved at boxes in her trunk. “I’m still getting settled.”
And yet had found time to put Christmas all over the front of her townhome and part of his.
“Well . . .” He tried to dredge up what old Peter would have said. “Getting around town all right?’
What a dumb thing to say.
“Yes.” The smile flashed again, shooting star bright.
Another flash of unwanted attraction kicked in. Because when she was serious, she was girl-next-door pretty, but when she smiled, she was next level. Something he decided not to notice.
“Everyone has been so nice,” she said.
“I bet,” he muttered. Especially the single men.
Surprisingly dark eyebrows, given her hair color, lifted slowly, amusement twinkling in her eyes. “Should I take that as a compliment?”
Peter huffed a laugh, the unused sound rusty, like his vocal cords needed shake off the dust and crank into gear. He hadn’t flirted with a woman in a while. Not even with the nurses in the hospital last year when he’d been recovering from the injuries that had changed the trajectory of his life. “Pretty girls don’t stay single for long around here.”
Slim hands landed on her hips, her lips tipping into a grin. “From re-acquaintance to proposal in less than five minutes. That might be a record.”
Unaccustomed heat flushed up his neck into his cheeks. “I didn’t mean—”
“I’m teasing,” she assured him.
Oh. “Well, what can I say . . .” He shrugged.
Then winced because what kind of comeback was that? A lame one, that was what. He used to be smoother. Probably better if he left now.
For a flash of a second Peter considered stepping up his game—not that he’d had any game so far—and asking her out before anyone else had the chance.
Better to leave it. Given how the last date he had gone on, he wasn’t fit company for anyone these days. Besides, he was busy with the family bookstore, and she’d just moved in.
“Is that your cat?” she asked suddenly. “I seem to remember her at Weber Haus when I was there.”
Peter jerked his over his shoulder to frantically search the area around them, looking for a puff of white fur among the bushes or down the street. Snowball was the Houdini of all cats. A true escape artist, but he hadn’t lost her yet. His sister got home from her trip soon, and he had zero intention of losing that darn cat before then.
“Where?” he demanded, the word coming out like a shot.
“Um . . .” Lara lifted her hand to point. “In the window.”
Oh. He should seriously walk away now. No doubt he’d just looked like a panicky mother hen, barking like that about a cat after yelling at her about Christmas lights, which he was already starting to regret.
This just kept getting worse and worse.
Snowball sat primly in the windowsill, watching them with apparent interest, ears pricked. The cat even lifted a paw, pressing it against the glass as though waving at them now that they’d appropriately acknowledge her presence.
He’d have to explain. What kind of self-respecting single man, over a certain age and living alone, owned a fluffy white cat? “Snowball is my sister’s. I’m watching her while Emily and her husband, Lukas, are out of town for the weekend for his photography stuff.”
“That’s nice of you.”
Was that a hidden chuckle in Lara’s voice? “Yeah, well, she’s probably hungry. I’d better go.” He glanced at her car. “Do you need any help?”
She shook her head. “I can handle it. Thanks.”
Right. “Well . . . It’s nice to see you again.” His mother’s voice in his head told him to add something polite. “Errrr . . . Welcome to Braunfels.”
“Thanks.” The way her eyes crinkled, he was pretty sure she caught that.
With a nod, he turned and left her there. When he walked in his door, Snowball was sitting in the foyer looking extremely unimpressed with that performance.
Peter took off the beanie he was wearing to keep his short-shorn head warm and ran a hand over the burr of his hair. “I know. You don’t have to say it.”
The tiny white cat—the runt of the litter abandoned by her mother a few years back in the woods near Weber Haus—appeared to shrug as though saying, As long as you know that wasn’t smooth, who am I to harp on it.
WANT TO READ MORE?!