Authors: Allie Boniface
Tags: #small town;bad boy;Christmas;winter;animal rescue
When a bad boy falls for an angel, the sparks could set the coldest season on fire.
, Book 2
Pine Point hasn’t changed much in the eight years Zane Andrews has been away. But Zane sure has. These days, this reformed bad boy has no problem resisting the bored housewives who flirt shamelessly with their gated community’s security guard.
The only thorn in his side is the stray dog that keeps overturning the neighborhood’s garbage cans, and the cute, crusading do-gooder who barks at him for trying to chase it off.
Becca Ericksen knows Zane is just doing his job, but his tactics are making her job—to rescue strays and bring them to Pine Point Paws—much harder. Clearly, they have nothing in common, yet when the legendary playboy asks her out, she finds herself saying yes.
With a sizzling kiss, something warm and unexpected begins to grow between them. Opposites can attract, but is attraction enough?
Warning: Contains a bad boy gone good, and a woman who’s one good deed away from disaster. Cold noses and warm kisses—and that’s just from the canines.
To all the animal rescuers I am honored to know, including Becky, Kerry and the entire staff at Pets Alive. Every life does make a difference.
“People have forgotten this truth,” the fox said. “But you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed.”
“The Little Prince”, Antoine de Saint-Exupery
“Zane Andrews? I’d do him.” Ella leaned over the window seat, nose pressed to the glass, and stared at the street below. “Yum. There he goes with Mike Springer. Damn.”
“You’d do anyone,” Becca told her sister.
Ella wiggled her bottom, clad in bright pink velour sweats with sparkles splashed across both cheeks. “Not true.” She glanced over her shoulder. “But Zane? Oh, yeah. In a heartbeat.”
“I can’t believe you haven’t already. Like back in high school.” Becca bent over the striped kitten in her lap and inspected the cut on its head. It mewed softly.
Ella turned around and sat in the window seat with a dramatic huff. “He was too—I don’t know—unpredictable back then.”
Becca would bet he still was. Zane Andrews had always reminded her of a wild animal, all rippled muscle, dark hair, dark eyes that held a teasing, impatient glint. Stunning to look at. Terrifying to approach.
Ella tossed her long blonde hair over her shoulder and inspected her manicure. “Anyway, Derek asked me to give him a second chance. I kind of promised I’d think about it.”
Becca blotted away the last of the blood from the kitten’s cut, applied some ointment and then kissed its front paw.
“Ew,” Ella said. “Really, Bec? That’s disgusting.”
“And you talking about
“I’m sorry. What term would you prefer? Humping? Sleeping with? Fu—”
“Some people actually say making love,” Becca said. She deposited the kitten in a cardboard box lined with towels and carried it over near the pellet stove in the corner.
“Oh, honey,” Ella said with a smirk. “That’s way too tame for what heating up the sheets with that man would involve.”
Becca turned. “You’ll never change, will you?” She loved her older sister, but the two Ericksens were as different as night and day.
“How long is that one staying here?” Ella said rather than answer. She waved a manicured finger at the box. Two other cats, long-term residents of the sisters’ apartment, lounged on blankets beside the stove. Laurel and Hardy had come with Becca, a package deal she’d made her sister agree to when they moved in together. Lop, the rabbit, had his own cage in Becca’s room, along with Tucker, the gerbil, but Ella had drawn the line at four furry residents, and Becca couldn’t blame her.
“Only until tomorrow morning, Scrooge.” Becca pulled off her bright green sweatshirt with
Pine Point Paws
on the front in white script. Underneath, a long-sleeved T-shirt stuck to her back and underarms. “It goes back to the shelter then.”
Ella craned her neck. “Is it—you know, like, okay?”
Becca smiled. “It will be. Just crawled up under the hood of Summer Thompson’s car this morning looking for some heat.”
Ella bounced up and inspected the thermostat. “Speaking of which…” She rubbed her hands together. “What’s up with this winter, anyway? Cold and ice and freezing rain but no snow. When’s the last time we had a Christmas in Pine Point with no snow?”
Becca couldn’t remember. This far north in the state of New York, nestled at the base of the Adirondack Mountains, their small town always got more than its share of the white stuff, certainly in time for the holidays, and usually long before. She checked on the kitten, which had already curled its nose into its tail and was purring contentedly.
Wish I could drop off to dreamland that easily.
She yawned. She’d spent six hours at the shelter today—six unplanned hours—since her manager had called in a favor yet again. Not that Becca minded. She’d logged over a thousand hours volunteering at Pine Point Paws by the time she graduated from high school, and after getting a business degree from a small liberal arts college in Connecticut, she’d come back to Pine Point and happily taken on the position of financial manager of the shelter.
“I thought doing the books meant you wouldn’t be spending so much time on the rescuing side,” Ella had said to her a few months ago. “All those poor animals…I don’t know how you stand it.”
But the rescuing made everything else worthwhile.
Ella pulled open the fridge at the same time Becca’s cell phone rang.
“Do you think—” Ella began, but Becca only heard the shrieks on the other end of her line.
“Becca? Oh my God,
? Are you there?”
“Chrissy? What’s wrong?” She envisioned an entire litter of puppies buried alive, or a devastating fire in the cat wing, or something infinitely worse, the way her manager was breathing and shrieking into the phone.
“No, nothing,” Chrissy said, and Becca’s heart rate inched downward a fraction. “I mean, I just—are you sitting down?”
“Yes.” She shrugged at Ella, who was staring at her from in the kitchen.
“Billy proposed to me!”
“Oh. That’s…congratulations?” Chrissy and Billy had been in an on-again, off-again relationship for as long as Becca could remember. If they weren’t breaking up, they were talking about moving in together. But marriage had never been on the radar before now.
“Thanks. I didn’t want to tell you, but…” Chrissy trailed off. “I’m pregnant.”
Becca blinked. “Wow. I…”
Didn’t expect that. Think you’re crazy. Can’t believe I didn’t notice.
None of the responses seemed quite right. Instead, she took a moment to steady her voice.
I’m not jealous,
she thought. At twenty-four, she had no immediate plans for marriage and a baby and little time for a boyfriend. Still, every once in a while, especially with the holidays approaching and mistletoe hanging in every doorway around town, she couldn’t help but be a little envious of people like Chrissy.
“Becca? You still there?” Chrissy bubbled into the phone.
She stood and began collecting the clothes she’d strewn around the living room—work boots by the door, woolen hat and gloves beside her chair, sweatshirt on the floor. “I’m here. And congrats, Chrissy. Really. I think that’s great, all of it.”
“All of what?”
Becca shook her head.
“You’ll never guess
she mouthed back.
“Anyway, I know this is totally last minute,” the manager went on, “and you have every right to say no, but I’m really, really hoping you won’t.”
Becca froze. Baby shower? Bridal shower? Bridesmaid? She waited for the request. She wasn’t the type to handle any of those. “Um, what is it?”
“Billy got a transfer to the airport in Westchester. He’s supposed to start working maintenance there next week.”
“That’s a long haul from Pine Point.”
“I know. That’s why we’re moving.” Chrissy paused. “This weekend.”
“Well, we’re going to stay with his parents down there until we find a place. But, yes.”
“What about the shelter?” Sixty-five animals, give or take depending on the day, flashed into her mind’s eye. Jake and Snowflake had vet appointments tomorrow morning. Velvet was scheduled for his neutering. The entire back room of kittens had to be treated for ringworm, and their vet tech was out of town until the weekend.
“That’s what I wanted to ask you. I want you to be general manager.”
Becca dropped onto her unmade bed. “What?”
“You know that place better than anyone else. You’re perfect.”
“I do the
, Chrissy. That’s all. The money. The fundraising. The marketing.”
“You do more than that and you know it.”
Becca broke out in a sweat. “I can’t run
“You won’t have to. Not for very long. I already talked to the board of directors. They’re going to advertise for a full-time manager. But with the holidays and everything…”
And the pittance of a salary, and no benefits, and the fact that it was less than a month before Christmas, Becca guessed they wouldn’t be flooded with applicants. She twisted her navy-blue comforter in the fingers of her free hand.
“Listen, Julito and Kevin live next door. They take care of all the maintenance and they’re on call twenty-four seven. Shirley volunteers every day except Fridays, and Janet will be back from her training at Cornell in two days. You can do it, Becca. Please. I know you can.”
She couldn’t. She had no business even trying. Taking on the responsibility of all those animals, keeping them safe and healthy and trying to balance the shelter finances all at the same time…how could she?
Laurel the calico padded into her bedroom and jumped onto Becca’s lap. She purred loudly and rubbed her head against Becca’s leg. Three years ago, she’d turned up with her brother in a drainpipe outside of town weighing all of six ounces. Becca had bottle-fed her for three weeks. Today, she weighed almost twelve pounds and serenaded Ella and Becca at odd times of the day and night. The cat thumped onto her side and looked adoringly at Becca, paws kneading the comforter.
Something in Becca’s heart turned over
. She’d be the crazy cat—and dog, rabbit, goat and occasional pig—lady of Pine Point. She stared into her closet, filled with sensible jeans and long-sleeved shirts and work boots. So much for a glamorous wardrobe like her sister’s or a night when she didn’t go to sleep with the scent of disinfectant on her hands.
“Okay,” she agreed. She bent over Laurel and let the cat’s soft fur tickle her nose. She’d always felt more at home around animals, anyway. They were much more loving and forgiving, and much less judgmental than most people she knew. “I’ll do it.”
“One more,” Mike Springer said from above the bench.
Zane grunted and shoved up the bar loaded with weights a last time. Sweat rolled down his face, and his shoulders burned. Still, benching two-fifty wasn’t bad, considering he’d only been lifting for a few weeks and had been away from it for almost a year.
“Shit, man,” his buddy said as he replaced the bar in the rack. “You’re lookin’ good.”
Zane sat up and mopped his face. “Thanks.” He grabbed his water bottle and scanned the small gym out of habit. Two soccer-mom types by the free weights. A guy he thought he recognized from high school doing legs by the mirror. A few teenagers talking trash to each other as they took turns on the pec machine. And three college-aged girls jogging on the treadmills to his left, ponytails and breasts jiggling nicely in rhythm. Not bad for four-thirty on a Thursday afternoon.
Zane swung himself up and draped a towel around his neck.
“Sauna?” Springer asked.
“Nah. I gotta head back out to the Glen. Couple of the residents keep complaining about a stray dog going through their garbage.”
“That’s the job of the security guard?”
“That’s the job of whoever they can get ahold of.” Which, in most cases, seemed to be him rather than one of two sixty-year-old maintenance men or the other guard, an overweight woman who spent her time sitting in the booth eating cold Ramen noodles and reading magazines. Zane followed his buddy to the front desk, where he grabbed a sports drink from the cooler. Perks of helping build the gym included free membership and access to whatever happened to be in the cooler or on the shelves in the tiny merchandise area.
A bright red banner hung over the desk.
Join Springer’s Fitness for its 1-Year Anniversary! Saturday, December 1, All Day. Free Access to Classes and Machines, Steam Room and Whirlpool. Party into the Night with a DJ!
“You ready for Saturday?” Zane asked. Springer sat on a stool behind the desk and typed something into the laptop. Hans, the gym’s nineteen-year-old clerk who was built like a Mack truck, sat on the other stool, going through paperwork and answering the phone when it rang.
“Shit, guess so. The Corner Lounge is donating a bunch of food, Cat is set up to DJ, and I’m just hoping for a decent turnout.”
“You’ll get one.” Springer had done a good job with this place. The guy was a few years older than Zane, but he’d had a rough time of it back in high school and after, same as Zane. When the two of them had turned up back in Pine Point after years away and gotten to talking at Jimmy’s Watering Hole, it had only been a matter of time before this idea turned into reality. “Glad for you,” Zane said, pounding him on the back.
The front door opened. Zane was in the process of pulling on his sweatshirt and gloves, so by the time he turned around, all he saw was curly dark hair and a fine ass in a sleek pair of black spandex walking toward the locker room. “Who the hell’s that?”
Springer laughed as Hans smiled. “Hands and eyes off, man. She’s new in town. Well, not new. She was away and now she’s back. Sienna Cruz? You remember her? Think she was a couple years behind you in school.”
“Huh.” If he hadn’t dated or messed around with her in high school, he probably didn’t remember. Those years, a blur of too much partying and too many nights kicked out of his house, had gelled into a faint mass of memory he didn’t access too often.
“She’s been comin’ in here the last two weeks. Does a lot of boxing and body combat.” Springer grinned. “Hell of a fighter.”
Zane pulled a woolen hat low over his forehead and shrugged into a leather jacket. He had jeans in the car. “You ask her out yet?”
“Nah. Biding my time.”
“Or trying to get the balls?”
Springer gave him a good-natured shove. “Get the hell out of here and go get rid of that stray dog.”
Zane didn’t answer as he trotted out into the cold. That was exactly his plan. He had no patience for strays. They got into things they shouldn’t and generally caused trouble around Pine Point’s only gated community. He’d gotten the security detail job out there as a major favor from a friend, and he had no intention of screwing it up. A dog would be easy to get rid of. He’d taken care of a rabid fox and a mangy-looking barn cat back in the fall.
He pulled himself into the cab of his black Ford pickup, cranked the heat and the heavy metal tunes, and swung a sharp U-turn in the middle of South Main Street. One dog to take care of and he’d be on his way home to a hot shower, a microwaved meal and a night in front of the TV in his one-bedroom trailer. Sounded pretty much like heaven.
Less than ten minutes later, Zane pulled into the long, curving drive that led up to Mountain Glen. Most of Pine Point, at least the Pine Point he remembered, was made up of one-story houses and modest lawns and the blue-collar workers who came home to them. Sure, he’d known the occasional rich kid in school who lived in one of the old colonials on the other end of Main Street, but most of the money in this part of New York clustered in Silver Valley, over the mountains to the west.
A few things had changed since high school, though. Red Barn Road was lined with homes built in the late eighteen or early nineteen hundreds. Most had fallen into disrepair, targets for teenage vandals or the occasional homeless person looking for a place to sleep. A few, like Summer Thompson’s, had been gloriously rebuilt. A mile or so past those structures spread wide open farmland, sold to a developer in Albany who’d thought Pine Point needed a gated community. Mountain Glen was born.
Zane shook his head as he pulled up to the gate and waved his ID in front of the sensor. A moment later, the gate lifted. Inside the booth, Sue nodded at him, fork in hand and a noodle slipping from her mouth. He’d never thought a place like this would survive, but forty homes nestled on this road that curved along the side of the mountain, and a good thirty of them had families living inside.
He pulled around to the small brown building behind the security booth and parked in one of two spots marked
. He jumped out and was about to make a mad dash for the warmth of the maintenance shed when a Mercedes drove by, slowed and beeped. He glanced over. Margery Holmes, mother of four, rolled down her window and wiggled her fingers.
“Hi, handsome.” Bright blonde hair puffed out from her head in all directions, and she smiled with the frozen look of someone with a tad too much Botox. He knew the look. Half the women in Mountain Glen had it.
“Nice legs,” she added, her gaze falling to his bare legs still clad in long gym shorts. “At the gym?”
He nodded, raised a hand in hello-goodbye and continued to the shed. She beeped again and then pulled away.
. Too many bored housewives lived here while their husbands commuted to jobs in cities over the mountains, leaving before the sun rose and pulling back inside the gates long after it had set.
Inside the small but neatly organized building, Zane dropped his shorts, pulled on his jeans and took a whizz before checking the clipboard hanging by the door. Tools and supplies of all kinds lined the shelves, and lawn and repair equipment filled the adjacent room. He flipped on the small TV sitting next to the coffee maker and tuned in the weather.
“Looks like no snow for at least another week,” the reporter was saying. “Temperatures will hover around twenty during the day and drop down into the single digits at night.”
He turned the TV off again. What he wouldn’t do for some good old-fashioned snow. He wouldn’t have guessed it, but living in Georgia for almost eight years had made him miss the seasons. He swapped his sneakers for work boots and pulled on a pair of leather gloves. He hadn’t seen the stray dog in a couple of days, but they’d gotten two calls that morning about it. He scowled and unlocked the gun safe hidden inside a closet next to the bathroom. Maybe it had taken off a while ago—part of why he’d taken his time at the gym. Dealing with scared or potentially rabid animals was so not in his area of expertise. He took his pistol just in case he came across anything dangerous. A guy one town over had been bitten by a rabid skunk just that fall.
Back outside, he followed the main road straight to the back of the complex. Streetlights above him cast down weak yellow light, and he shivered in the cold.
“Hi, Zane!” Gloria Hanson yanked open her front door as he passed. Looked like she was wearing some kind of flimsy red bathrobe and not much else.
He raised his chin in hello and kept walking.
At the next corner, he turned. Kelly Turner and Liv Yedziniak had both called in sightings of the dog. In front of the Turner house, he stopped and looked around. A few pieces of garbage lay on the driveway, but the can itself had been righted and pulled near the door. He walked over and knocked.
Kelly opened it a fraction of an inch, eyes big in her head. She looked about eighteen.
“Hi there,” Zane said. “Heard you saw that stray again?”
She rolled her eyes and opened the door all the way. “Yes. Twice this morning.” She wore a tight-fitting T-shirt and baggy jeans. “I yelled at it, but it didn’t even move. It just growled at me.” She touched his arm. “I have a newborn,” she went on. “I can’t have, you know, a dog like that outside. It might attack Carter or something.”
Zane doubted that, considering she carried the child everywhere she went, but he kept his mouth shut. She hadn’t let go of his arm. “Dennis has his phone turned off when he’s in meetings, so I couldn’t call him.” But the way she was looking up at Zane, he wondered if she would have bothered contacting her husband.
“All right,” he said, backing away. “I’ll look around.”
“Thank you.” Her gaze dropped to his groin, then back to his face. “I appreciate it.”
“Uh huh.” Back outside, he followed a few paw prints in the dusting of snow along the curb, but they soon faded. He strode through the Yedziniak’s lawn, which backed up to a pine grove. No more houses on this end of the complex, though more development was scheduled for the spring, and all these trees would eventually come down. Zane walked over to the tree line and peered inside. At five o’clock, darkness had already descended, and the streetlights didn’t permeate the tightly packed pines.
Probably lives back in there.
Then he saw movement, a quick flash of brown beneath the green. His hand tightened on his pistol.
A moment later, a long, dirty snout emerged, followed by a painfully thin body and bright yellow eyes.
“Well, there you are, you scavenger.”
The dog vanished into the trees. Zane whipped around.
A figure dressed in a red ski coat and jeans marched toward him. “What do you think you’re doing?” Her arms pumped, and her breath came out in long white ribbons. As she neared him, he could see a long blonde ponytail under a red wool cap and mismatched mittens on her hands—one blue and one black.
“I’m taking care of my property,” he retorted, royally pissed. He’d almost squeezed off a shot, she’d startled him so. “Who the hell are you?”
She walked straight to him, and only when she looked up and met his gaze did the iron in her stance falter. “Zane?”
He stared. She looked a little familiar, and under other circumstances she might be cute, but— “Sorry. Do I know you?”
“Becca Ericksen. As of last night, I’m the manager of Pine Point Paws.”
“The animal shelter?”
“Yes.” She glanced at the trees. “Someone called me about a homeless dog out here.”
He waved in the general direction he’d seen it disappear. “You didn’t need to come out. I can take care of it.”
She looked at his face, then the trees, then the gun in his hand. “
of it? You know shooting a domestic animal is—”
“Whoa.” He held up his palm. “Stop right there, sweetheart.”
Her face turned two shades of pink.
“I wasn’t going to shoot it.”
“You’re holding a gun.”
“It’s a pistol I carry for the security job. It’s registered to me and fully legal.”
“You know the law says you can’t discharge a firearm within five hundred yards of a residence.” She turned and pointed, as if he was a child. “Looks to me like that’s a residence.” She pointed in the opposite direction. “And that. And that over there too.”
“I don’t need you to tell me what the gun laws are.”
She dropped her arm. “Fine.” She walked closer to the trees. “Could you tell if it was hurt?” she asked over her shoulder.
Just what he needed. A bleeding-heart animal lover. He huffed out a breath and walked over to join her. “No. It didn’t look hurt. Just skinny.”
She nodded and rubbed her arms as if to warm herself. “I’ll bring one of the guys from the shelter out here tomorrow, see if we can catch it.”
Her nose had turned pink, but bright blue eyes blinked up at him. He had no idea what her figure looked like under all those clothes, but the parts he could make out looked pretty damn cute. “Will you need any help?” he asked before he could stop himself.
Walk away. Last thing you need is a hard-on for the local crazy do-gooder
“No,” she answered, taking care of his wishy-washy thoughts. “In fact, it might be better if you weren’t here at all.” And with that, Becca Ericksen turned on her heel and left, taking her perky ass and attitude with her.