Love And Other Things Excerpt

Book Four: A Crystal Lake Novel

Chapter one

            Beck Jacobs was not a cat guy.

In thirty-five years of living he couldn’t recall ever having any kind of moment with a cat. He’d always been team canine and if life wasn’t so busy he’d have one of his own. And not one of those small yappy things either. He’d take a shepherd like the one his pal Charlie owned, or a golden retriever like, Taser, from next door. That animal knew when his owner needed a beer and could open the fridge and get one on his own. As far as Beck was concerned, dogs were smarter than most humans he knew.

            He thought about that as he got down on his back and worked his way underneath his truck, because dogs didn’t do stupid things like hide inside the mechanics of an F150.

The ground beneath him was snow covered and it only took a few moments for the cold to seep through the red and black flannel shirt he’d pulled on over his jeans. His hair was still damp from the shower and icing up, and he’d ran out so fast he’d not bothered to button his shirt or grab a coat. With no socks in his hastily pulled on boots, it wouldn’t take long before his toes were stubs of ice.

Five minutes ago, his morning had been stellar. He’d been up early for a Sunday because he had plans to finish the trim work in the kitchen on his current remodel, a small bungalow on a ravine lot in town, and was expected at his brother’s place for dinner after a game of shinny with the guys. He downed two coffees and read the weekend paper (no online news for him) before the sun came up and then he’d gone for a run. After a quick shower, he’d pressed the remote start on his key fob to warm up the truck while he got dressed, because damn, it was cold outside. Weather in Crystal Lake in March was iffy, and the last few days it was a balmy thirty degrees.

 He’d taken exactly two steps away from the front door when he spied a small, fluffy orange tail dangling from under the front of his truck. And now here he was, staring up at engine parts and wheel wells, looking for the little bastard.

“Where are you?” he muttered, squinting upward in the direction of a faint meow. He couldn’t see shit and should have grabbed a flashlight, which was a good idea, and he rolled back out from underneath the truck and rummaged through the tool box in the back of it. When he had the flashlight in hand, he got into position again, and after a few moments spotted two small, green eyes staring down at him.

Beck spent the next five minutes trying to cajole the little guy from his perch but it was a no go. He angled his head for a look at his watch and swore. He was late.

“Come on you little shit,” he said under his breath as he reached his hand up, only to be rewarded by a sharp claw and a hiss.

“Excuse me. Is this a bad time?”

The voice came from nowhere and startled Beck. His body jerked, he slammed his head against metal and swore a blue streak, though he didn’t take his eyes off the kitten. He’d been so damn close.

“Are you Beck?”

He swore.

“Hello?”

“Hold on,” he all but growled, wincing as pain flared along his forehead.

“I don’t mean to bother you. I’m just—“

“Dammit, give me a minute. Does it look like I’m in the position to have a conversation?” Something dripped into his eye, most likely blood, and if looks could kill, the woman, whoever the heck she was, would be a puddle of goop in the middle of his driveway.

            “You don’t need to be rude.”

            “Lady, I don’t know who you are and I sure as hell can’t see you, but I’m going to assume you have two eyes in your head. I’ve got a bit of a situation here.”

            This damn cat would be the end of him.

            “By all means, take care of your situation first,” the voice replied, heavy with sarcasm. Beck scowled. He was cold, pissed off, still wet from the shower, and the damn cat was playing games.

            Beck glared up at the puffball, which had crawled further up between the wheel well and the engine block.  “Come on you little bastard,” he muttered, reaching up as far as he could, shaking his head when he was rewarded with a hiss and another swipe of a tiny paw.

            “Do you need help?” There was that damn voice again.

            “Not from you.” he barked.  Who the hell was this woman?

            He mentally willed the kitten to drop into his outstretched palm and when that didn’t happen, tried talking to it the way Charlie talked to his kid, which basically sounded like gibberish. It didn’t work and those green eyes did nothing but stare down at him, the kitten taunting him with the odd soft meow. And now his day, which had started out so promising, was shot to hell and he’d be lucky to get to any of the trim done at the remodel.

            He thought of calling his brother Nate and asking to borrow his truck since he couldn’t drive off with the kitten stuck inside of his. But then he thought of the cold and how small the little guy looked and he didn’t want it to freeze to death. Lord knows Nate’s lady, Molly, the local vet would hand him his ass if anything happened to the kitten.

            “Come on,” he said softly, wiggling his fingers a bit. The kitten leaned forward and sniffed around the edge of his fingernails, but when Beck leaned closer, it retreated. “You’re going to freeze to death, buddy.”

             “What’s up in there?”

            This woman wasn’t leaving anytime soon. Beck grimaced and pushed his way out from underneath the truck. He didn’t bother to hide his scowl. “A kitten.” He glanced up, but the sun was behind whoever stood a few inches from him and he got to his feet. Her features came into focus as he moved a bit and his eyes got used to the brightness.

            Creamy skin, high cheekbones and a full mouth. Long dark hair and darker eyes that looked him up and down without giving anything away. Beck had no idea who she was, but the woman was treading on thin ice. He didn’t have time for her bullshit.

 “Are you all right?” She pointed to his head, which throbbed.

“I’ll be fine once I know who you are and why you’re here.” He rubbed his hands together to keep them warm, then took the edge of his shirt and swiped at the blood that dripped from the gash on his forehead. What in the actual fu—

             “I’m Sid Bennett. I’m renting a place on the lake and was told to pick up the key from someone named Beck at this address.” Her chin jutted out defiantly. “Are you Beck?”

            Shit. That was today? Beck bought the stone cottage last year with the notion of flipping it, but once the project was done he’d decided to keep the place and use it as a rental property.  It was his greatest flaw, his inability to get rid of things. In the last five years, he’d flipped six or seven homes and managed to make a very good living doing it. But when a man puts his heart and soul and sweat into a project, he leaves a piece of himself behind when he walks away from it.

            Beck had a hard time walking away.

            He focused on the woman, Sid, and his eyebrow shot up. “I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow.” That last conversation with Nate was coming back to him.

            “I was able to get away earlier than I expected to, and Nate said it wouldn’t be a problem.”

            “Did he now.” A head’s up would have been nice.

            “Is it a problem?”

            “No,” he replied sharply, more irritated then he should be. A sharp wail, like the little kitten’s lungs were being squeezed out of him, ripped through the quiet. It damn near made the hair on the back of Beck’s neck stand on end. Dammit to hell but he didn’t have time for this. He swore under his breath.

“Do you want me to try?”

He looked her over real good. The woman was dressed in a white wool coat that fell to just above the knee. Her leather boots were a pale tan color, and the emerald scarf around her neck was silk. Beck might not know much, but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to know the coat alone cost more than all the clothes hanging in his closet. She looked like a city girl and sounded like the west coast, and he searched his mind for more information. But either Nate hadn’t elaborated when he first approached Beck about the rental, or more likely, Beck hadn’t paid attention.

There wasn’t much that interested him lately, aside from work.

 “Knock yourself out.” He stepped aside and gave her some room.

She walked back to the expensive SUV parked a few feet away from his truck and rummaged around a bit, then returned clutching a pink and black bag in her hand. She opened it and popped a candy in her mouth and smiled at him. The smile wasn’t the kind that invited one in return so he didn’t bother. It was made of ice and about as frosty as the look in her eyes.

“I know what you’re thinking,” she said.

He was thinking that she looked good bent over the front seat of her vehicle, which should have surprised him considering she wasn’t his type. But then, since Cate, he hadn’t looked at anyone in a way that mattered.

“I doubt that.”

 “You’re thinking, no way can I get that little kitten to come to me, when you’ve been trying for the last hour.”

“Fifteen minutes.”

“What?”

“I’d be a popsicle if I’d been out here for an hour.”

Her eyes dropped to his bare chest, and for a ghost of a moment he noticed the pink in her cheeks deepened.

“You’re a little underdressed for the weather.”

“I’m just out of the shower. Damn cat is lucky I noticed it when I started the truck.”

“Can I?” She moved past him and leaned toward the truck and shook the bag, all the while speaking softly to the kitten. Within seconds, literal seconds, the small fur ball appeared, meowing loudly, as it jumped up toward the bag, those sharp little claws extended like daggers. She scooped up the kitten and turned to Beck, her hands outstretched. The fur ball looked smaller than any kitten Beck had ever seen before. When he didn’t immediately take the little guy off of her, she frowned.

“This belongs to you.”

“I don’t like cats.”

“Well it was in your truck.”

“I don’t like cats,” he repeated.

Her eyes narrowed. “You don’t have a choice.”

She moved closer and held up the kitten and Beck had no choice but to grab hold of it. Oil and dirt left marks on its orange face and back, but other than that the animal seemed okay, though it was shivering something fierce. Beck held the kitten against his chest and pulled one half of his flannel shirt over it for warmth. It immediately began to purr, an odd sensation, but not exactly unpleasant.

“Can I have the key now?”

He looked at the woman and nodded toward his house. The sooner she got the key the sooner she’d be out of his hair and he could deal with the cat. “I’ll grab it for you.” She followed him inside and he held the kitten gingerly, while rooting through the pile of paperwork on the kitchen table that at the moment doubled as his work station. He found the envelope marked, stone cottage, and handed it over.

“You out here on your own?” he asked.

“How is that any of your business? A woman can’t rent a home on her own?” Her tone was sharp which got his attention. Another time and place he might have wondered about it, but as it was, he had his own personal shit to deal with and had no desire to get involved with anyone else’s. Especially some prickly woman from the west coast with a chip on her shoulder.

“I don’t give a rat’s ass about your situation,” he replied. “I just wondered if you needed an extra key. I only have the one but can get a spare made up for you.”

Her eyes slid from his. “I’m fine with the one.”

“Good. The cottage is just up the road,” he said as she took the key off of him. “Technically, the next property over, but my place here is about ten acres so it’s a bit of a hike.”

“Thanks.” She backed away.

“The heat and hot water aren’t on. I didn’t get a chance to get up there because—“

“I’m early. Trust me, I got that.”

“There’s a file on the kitchen island with all the instructions you need.”

She pointed to his chest. “I’m not sure who to feel sorry for.” She paused. “You or the cat.”

She closed the door and Beck watched through the window as she slid into her shiny SUV and moments later, drove away. He’d been a dick, no doubt about that, but then he’d probably never see her again so what did it matter?

He groped for his cell phone and Nate picked up on the first ring. “Two things,” he said before his brother could say hello.

“What’s that?”

“Your friend is early.”

“Sid?”

“That’s the one.”

“Good to know. What’s the other one?”

Beck looked down at the kitten tucked into his flannel, now fast asleep and purring like a machine. He should drop it at Molly’s animal shelter and let them deal with it because he didn’t have time for a cat. Hell, he didn’t even like them.

Not really.

Just then the kitten stretched and slowly opened its green eyes. For a moment, it felt like the little fur ball could see right into his soul. The kitten angled its head and snuggled closer, before resuming purring and kneaded the edge of his shirt with its paws.

“Beck?”

Don’t do it.

Beck leaned against the counter in his kitchen and sighed. “What do you feed a kitten?”

 


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